AU - AFT (Past)
Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note: Betaed and edited by LT, including extensive and invaluable help with football plays.
Buck's life was like a military operation, with precise timings and relentless repetition. He got up at three fifteen, pulled on his overalls, drank half a carton of orange juice and headed to work, the journey took only three minutes, though he had to take a flashlight with him to negotiate the narrow and unstable plank bridge. Work finished at half past five when he'd head home for a half-hour nap. Once he was awake again, he'd pull on the clothes he'd worn home from school the night before, pack clean clothes in his back pack and make himself some breakfast - three or four bowls of cereal and the rest of the orange juice carton. Next he made himself lunch, peanut and jelly sandwiches, a couple of bananas, a can of soda and a candy bar. Then it was off to school, a twenty minute walk. He'd arrive at school as the custodian was opening the doors, and head to the locker rooms, were he'd take a long hot shower before putting on his clean clothes.
His school day was just like any other boy his age. After classes were over, he had fitness training. Then he had to head straight back home to get ready for work, some days he could walk, but if training ran late he'd have to jog or even run. Taking a few moments to pull on his overalls and grab another sandwich (he always made extra and left them in the fridge) he'd head to the garage for his afternoon shift. Once that was over, he had to change again and head back to school for football practice which ran from six to seven Monday to Thursday - games were on Friday, beginning at seven thirty. On practice days, if he was lucky, he'd be home by half past seven. His evening meals were simple, with little variety - mac and cheese, canned spaghetti, chilli and crackers, hot dogs and chips, grilled cheese sandwiches with chips. He supplemented this with bananas, toast and cereal. Once he'd eaten, he'd do any school assignments that couldn't wait until the weekend and then go to bed, until the alarm went off again at three fifteen.
On Fridays he'd eat a snack and take a nap between work and returning to school at seven. After the game, he'd stop at a small pizza place close to the trailer park and pick up an extra large margarita. It was an expensive extravagance, but he just didn't have the energy to cook by that time. Saturdays, once he returned from work, he'd go back to bed until about noon, before he had a large brunch of toast and cereal, then do some schoolwork before his afternoon shift at the garage. After work, he took time to cook a real meal, meat, potatoes and green vegetables followed by some kind of sweet treat - what this was depended on what was on special offer at the supermarket. Then he'd go to bed until three fifteen in the morning. Sunday he worked at the Laundromat from ten until six, so once he'd had breakfast at about six, he would head for the 24/7 supermarket, a good half hour's walk away, to do his weekly shopping. Buck had quickly become an expert bargain hunter, no half price or two for one deal got past him and he knew how to work out what was a real bargain and what just looked like a bargain. Sundays were slow enough in the Laundromat that he could take his books in and do some work when things were quiet and at least there was no night shift at the garage, so he did get one full night of uninterrupted sleep a week.
It was a hard routine, but he made it work. He had to! Even working everyday, he was living beyond his means. It wasn't that he was being extravagant, the phone had been cut off, he only used electricity to cook, run the fridge and for light - and he was careful to only have one light on at any one time. He was getting by with out any air conditioning and with out a fan, but he knew he'd need to use the fan when summer returned. The only thing he could cut down on, was food, but he had to eat well if he was going to play well, and right now football was important. Each week he used up more of the money he'd earned in the summer, it wasn't much, but little by little the pot was dwindling away. He'd calculated that he'd have enough to last until Christmas, by then the football season would be over and he could cut back on the food.
Football used to be the most important thing in his life, he loved it, he enjoyed everything about it. He'd have played just for the fun of it, that he was so good at it, was a bonus. That he was good enough to get a collage scholarship, maybe even play professional football, well that was a dream he'd hardly dared to dream until he'd started high school. Football was no longer the focus of his life, he did it because that was what his mother would have wanted, because the rest of the team was depending on him, because there was no other way to get to collage, but his passion for the game had gone. There was no time in his life for passion now. All he had time for now was surviving. That loss of passion, combined with fatigue, was affecting his play and that wasn't part of the plan.
Worse, Chris was suspicious. He wanted to tell his best friend what had happened. The need to share his burden, his grief, was almost a physical thing. It burned in him every time they were alone, but he dare not. As much as he trusted Chris, he didn't - couldn't - trust his parents. They represented the establishment - a military officer and a nurse - they would, in all probability, tell the authorities. There was a chance they might offer him a home, but they might not, for all he knew the Air Force might not let them. It was a risk he just couldn't take. In less than two years he'd be eighteen and then he'd be free. All he had to do now was learn to be a better actor and remember every time he played a game, who for and why, he was doing it.
Weeks turned into a month, and he did get better. With each game he played, he improved, with more imagination and confidence. In a perverse way, his loss of form had forced the others to play better. They couldn't rely on Buck to win the games for them, forcing each of them to raise his game. With the others all playing better than they ever had and Buck fighting hard to retain his form, the team played better with every game. They won; game after game, and each victory was more convincing than the last.
While the school basked in the reflected glory from their senior football team and the members of that team were heroes, it didn't make them above the law. To be on any school team, you had to maintain a C average and Buck's grades were slipping.
Chris glanced over Buck's shoulder as he read his report card. Where once there had been mostly B's and a few A's and the odd C, now there were mostly C's, the only A was for phys ed and the only B for math. He had a D for Spanish, and - surprisingly - for history, Buck was good at history.
"It suddenly gets much harder, huh?" he commented as he sat down.
Buck hastily put the report card in his pocket. "What's that?"
"The work, once you become a junior. I found it a bit of a shock." Chris' grades had been consistent every year, and that hadn't changed.
"I can handle it."
"Why do you do that?"
Buck tilted his head to look at Chris. "Do what?"
"Lie to me! You know I saw your grades, you know I know you were doing better than that this time last year, so why lie about it? I'm you're friend, I hope you know that!"
"Course I know that, what are you getting so steamed up about?"
"Because I want to help my friend, who's clearly having problems and he won't let me help him! Friends help each other, that's what they do, that's what being friends is all about."
Buck didn't say anything; he just sat there looking at Chris as if he'd just seen him for the first time. Chris, for his part, was taking deep breaths and running his hand though his hair, trying to get his breathing back under control.
"I don't have time to do the research."
"Pardon?" Chris turned back to look at his friend.
"History, I don't have time to do the research, for the essay assignments, and my book report, I didn't even get half way through the book."
"Oh, okay - you working weekends?"
"Well, the books don't change much, history assignments are the same and ..." Chris suddenly had a gleam in his eye. "Miss Woodrow left, you got the new teacher - Mr Lopez, right?"
"So, I can give you my old essays and you can copy them, and he'll never know."
"Your old essays?"
"Hey! I got a good few A's for history, and I never got less than a B. I'll find the book reports too, if you're doing the same books, you can rewrite them."
"I'm not gonna learn much, just copying you," Buck pointed out, mostly because he felt he had too.
"Hell you're gonna cruise to a football scholarship, all they care about is you can walk up straight and don't drag you're knuckles on the floor!"
"Excuse me, you're on that football team too - you know!"
"Okay, okay, but we both know a C average is all you need."
"And what do I do next year, while you're learning to be a good little sailor?"
"Let's worry about that after we win the play offs. So is it a deal?"
Buck grinned. "Yeah, thanks Chris."
"No sweat, that's what friends are for, right?"
With Chris' help, Buck's grade slide was halted and even better, Mr Smith announced that there would be no night shift at the garage on Halloween, so Buck was able to say yes to Chris when he invited him to a party. The first year he'd gone as James Bond, borrowing a tux from Mr Chung, a bouncer who lived in a neighbouring trailer. This year, he went as a cowboy, he had all the gear after all, he even had chaps. When he'd been at the ranch in the summer they lent him a pair and when he tried to give them back they told him to keep them.
The good mood the party had put him in didn't fade, because right after Halloween, the play-offs started. The final was going to be played in Las Vegas, but the quarterfinals were to be played in Reno. That was going to be a problem, because to get to a game in Reno, they had to leave mid-afternoon. He'd got his job on a promise that he was reliable, now, after only a few weeks, he as going to have to ask for time off.
His job was very simple. He had to keep the work shop clean and tidy, inside and out. He had to make coffee for the men, keep them supplied with sodas and snacks and he cleaned and polished the cars once the paint shop was done with them. That didn't mean he didn't keep his eyes open. He'd always liked cars and engines. Through necessity, his mother had taught herself the basics of car maintenance and she had taught him. Now, he was learning how to turn one car into another. The biggest problem the men had to overcome was the VIN number stamped into the framework. The manufacturer intentionally stamped in the number so it couldn't just be ground or burned off. So a man called Caleb, carefully filled the indentations with solder. Then it was ground smooth, resprayed and a new number punched in. What happened to the cars when they were finished, he didn't know. Goatee man ran the night operation most of the time. His name was Frank and he seemed to be related to Mr Smith in someway, Buck thought he was possibly Mr Smith's brother in law. The only time he saw Mr Smith at night was on nights when a shipment went out. Once they had four cars ready, a man would drive up in a 4x4, he'd have four other men with him. He and Mr Smith would have a short conversation, before an envelope would be handed over, then the four passengers would get in the cars and drive them away.
It was the end of his shift; he'd finished sweeping. Nervously, he knocked on the office door.
"Come," Mr Smith called, with out looking up from his computer.
"Um, Sir?" Buck began.
"Yes." Smith still didn't look up.
"I was wondering Sir, on Friday, I have a problem with the afternoon shift."
Smith looked up, regarding Buck over his half moon glasses. "You told me I could rely on you," he reminded.
"Yes, I know but, you see, it's the play-offs and, well, we have to go to Reno," he explained hastily.
All the men were careful to use only first names and not talk about their private lives, so Buck had followed that example. As a result, the men knew nothing of his football career.
"You're team made the All State play-offs?"
"I didn't think Johnson High had that good a team."
"I don't go to Johnson."
Mr Smith sat back. "Bicentennial?"
"And you've been doing that all this time, plus school and working here?"
"Well okay, good for you, kid. Play your game. Your job will still be here. I'm not paying you mind."
They won in Reno, they won all their games and, before he'd even had time to stop and think about the ramifications, they were in the final game. The game was to be played on a Saturday, at another high school in Las Vegas. Even though he could have made his afternoon shift and played the game, Mr Smith insisted he didn't. The men he worked with had celebrated his every win and were almost as excited as he was about the final.
"You win and you can take the night off too - paid, don't want you missing the party." Mr Smith told him with a rare smile. "Its about time someone showed those Reno guys how to play! You come back on Monday and we'll celebrate."
"Yes Sir, thank you." He turned to go, then looked back. "Ill see you on Monday."
"Is that a promise?"
Rick Dawson was a man in a tight spot and running out of options. He'd been in a car with a friend, a friend he met in prison - that alone was a violation of his conditions of parole - when they had stopped at a gas station. His friend - Al - went in to buy some supplies. When he came out, Al drove of at some speed. Rick, whose prison nickname was Worm, hadn't been particularly worried, Al always drove fast. He hadn't even worried when he heard sirens behind them; there were always sirens somewhere in Vegas. Then Al swore and made a hand brake U turn and he started to worry. The chase came to an end when they were side rammed, by a totally innocent car, as they ran a red light. Al was killed, as was the driver of the other car. Rick walked way with no more than a few bruises. It turned out that Al had not only stolen the car they were in but he had stabbed the gas station attendant and taken all the cash from the register before they fled the scene and then the police. The list of charges now facing him included homicide, attempted homicide, armed robbery and grand theft auto. At this stage, violation of his parole was the least of his worries.
"It's a problem isn't it, Worm?" Detective Sargent Snow asked him as he sat back. "I mean, a simple violation of you parole, will just put you back behind bars for what? Three years? But all this?" He indicated the paper work detailing the various charges. "This is life, and since it's your third strike... Not good Worm, not good at all. Of course, I could choose to believe that you were an innocent passenger, that you had no idea the car was stolen, or what your friend had planned."
"I didn't. I swear, I had no idea!" Rick pleaded.
"So you keep telling me, but why should I believe you?"
"I've got information."
Rick hated to do this, if 'Mr Smith' ever found out, even in prison, he wouldn't live longer than a spider in his sister's bathtub, but he couldn't face life in prison.
"There's a body shop, they give stolen cars, fancy imported ones, new identities, then ship them out. It's a big operation. I can tell you were it is."
Sargent Snow, whose first name as Jon, looked at the address Rick 'the worm' Dawson had supplied and smiled. Rick was on his way back to prison for violating the conditions of his parole and in return for this; Jon Snow was going to make the biggest bust of his career - so far.
He had to admit the garage had chosen well, behind the building was open ground. To the left was a flood ditch and beyond that a trailer park, with no view of the front of the building. To the right was another workshop, this one made custom stands for conferences and conventions. It was really not much more than a big warehouse with no windows on the sides. Across the road there was another auto workshop, this one specialised in motorbikes, especially Harley Davidsons - and neither they, nor their clientele, were well disposed to co-operate with the police. There should have been a great view from the unit beside the motorbike workshop, if there had been a building to give them some cover. Unfortunately, all there was, was a concrete pad and a few pipes sticking out of the ground. That left the road behind the motorbike workshop. There was just one point on it, where you could park and have line of sight to most of the front of the garage. It wasn't ideal, but it was better than nothing.
The first night of the stake out, a Saturday - they struck gold. The buyer arrived with his drivers to pick up a fresh batch of cars. Snow was an experienced officer, he knew there was a bigger picture then one crooked auto shop. With great presence of mind, he sent two officers in unmarked cars to tail the buyer when he left. If he could find out who was reselling the cars he might bring down the whole organisation.
As expected, Buck didn't make 'all state', that honour went to John Barry, the quarter back from Reno who had always been just one step ahead of Buck. Then again, he was one year older than Buck, so he told himself he wasn't that bothered, next year would be his year.
As they stood ready to run out on to the field, Buck didn't think he'd ever been so nervous. The stadium at this school had stands all the way around, making the sound of the crowd even louder. All he could think about were gladiators heading out into the arena to fight for their lives. Logically, he knew it wasn't a matter if life and death, but it sure felt like it. Ahead of him, Chris, the captain of the team, was jumping up and down. He called it keeping supple, but really it was a nervous habit. Finally, it was time to go.
The game didn't start well. Reno's running back received a peach of a pass from Barry, for a touchdown, after which their kicker, Percy, duly kicked for the extra point. It all seemed to be happening too fast, before they knew it, the first quarter was over and they were seven points down. The second quarter started much better. It took nine plays to make just under sixty yards, but Chris took the ball into the end zone. Their coach took a chance and decided to go for two points but they were stopped short of the goal line and came away with just six points. Reno went on to score two more touchdowns. They kicked for the PATs after each, however, the second kick hit the upright and bounced back, making the score twenty to six in Reno's favour. In the dying minutes of the quarter, Bicentennial's kicker, Peter Wilkinson slotted over a welcome field goal, closing the gap by three points.
They sat down in the locker room as the half time show got underway and wondered what they were going to do.
"I'll tell you what you're gonna do, you're gonna play your game, the game we've been playing for the last two seasons," Coach Woodward told them firmly. "You can take these guys, I guarantee it, the only difference is, they've been there before. Forget about the stands, forget about the cameras, forget about impressing your collage scout. This is a game of football, and you guys know how to play football - remember that."
Chris stood beside his coach. "I'm as guilty as the rest of you, I let the excitement and the size of it, get to me. We need to focus. These guys are just like us, they're not pros, they're not supermen, they're the same as us and we can take them!"
Leading by example, Chris scored another touchdown just minutes into the third quarter. Since they were still behind, they tried running the two-point conversion again. They used a tried and trusted play, but at the last minute Bruno Delalio fumbled, and the ball was lost. Reno kicked a field goal. Bicentennial was slowly moving down the field when the third quarter ended. They switched ends, trailing Reno fifteen to twenty three with only twelve minutes left in the game.
The final quarter started well; Delalio redeemed himself by powering over for another touchdown. This time they went for the kick, the ever reliable Peter put the ball safely through the uprights. They were closing the gap. Reno kicked another field goal, but Bicentennial came right back at them. Buck faked a hand off to Delalio, moved to his right and threw a long bomb to Chris, who was wide open in the end zone. It was one of the easiest touchdowns he had ever made! Peter kicked the point after and they were finally ahead! Then disaster struck! With time running out, Reno took the kick off and ran it all the way back for a quick touchdown of their own. Luckily, their kicker missed the PAT and the scores were tied. And then it got worse, three minutes from the end of the game, Reno managed to put over a long field goal, they were ahead.
Chris shouted at his team, they were not going to give up now. Fired with what amounted to a blood lust, the team drove forward, but time was against them, and with hardly any time left on the clock, they were still twenty five yards out.
With only seconds to go, their coach sent Peter out to try for a field goal. Clearly he hoped for a tie game and that his boys could then win in overtime. Buck had another idea. There wasn't time to set it up properly. All could do was grab Chris, give him the briefest instructions, no more then a few words, and hope to God he had understood. It was a hell of a risk, but with so little time left, it was worth it, they had nothing to loose. The ball was snapped to Buck, he set it down, Peter took a step as if to kick, when suddenly Buck exploded off the ground! Grabbing the ball, he ran to the right. It took Reno a second or two to react, then a big defensive end came thundering toward him, not that Buck saw him. All he could see was Chris racing for the end zone. He stopped, pulled his arm back, and keeping his eye on where he guessed Chris would be, he launched the ball. A split second later, he was flattened by the defensive end. Flat on his back, all but smothered by the huge guy on top of him, Buck could hear the crowd roar, but had no idea who's fans were shouting.
"Get off me man!" he managed to gasp out, pushing at the other guy, who finally rolled way.
As he stood, Buck turned to the end zone to see Chris, ball in hand, jumping up and down. They'd done it; they'd won the state championship!
Buck didn't believe it, despite the deafening din around him, he just stood there and stared, until Chris came running up and all but leapt on to him.
"It worked! You did it!" he yelled. "Woohoo!"
Suddenly, reality cut back in and he was caught up in the wild, wonderful, madness of it all. There was a presentation, all the time reporters from the newspapers, the radio, even a film crew from the local news crowded around them. They all wanted to talk to Buck, but he refused, keeping out of sight at the back of the throng of jubilant players. Even now, even at his moment of triumph, he had to keep a low profile.
Chris found him, all but hiding from a news crew. "What's up?" he asked.
"I don't want no fuss. They're all going on like I won it on my own, but that ain't fair to you guys, ain't even true."
Chris shrugged. "They like heroes."
"See, I'm not a hero."
Something made Chris realise this was something Buck felt strongly about. "Yeah you are, but then, I guess tonight, we all are. Feels great, don't it?"
Buck grinned. "Sure does."
"Bet they wish they'd named you 'all state' now," Chris commented. "Should have been you all along."
"No, he deserved it, over the season, he was the best," Buck admitted magnanimously.
Chris looked over at him, then nodded his agreement. By now, families were making their way to the huddle of players. Chris spotted his parents and jumped to get their attention. "Can you see your mother?" he asked when his parents waved and began to push through the crowed towards him.
"She isn't here."
A simple, three word statement, that brought Chris to a stand still. "She didn't come to see the final?" he asked incredulously.
Buck shrugged. "She had to work, couldn't get out of it," he lied smoothly. In the last few months he had learned to lie so well, sometimes it frightened him. "She said she'd listen in - on the radio."
Chris nodded. He'd only met Buck's mother on a handful of occasions the previous year, but she had always seemed to be very nice. He didn't think she would have missed the game if she could have avoided it. "I bet she's goin' mad right now."
"Yeah, I bet she is."
The Larabee's had arrived and were congratulating their son. Buck glanced up at the night sky. **Don't get too rowdy up there Ma, or St Peter might chuck you out.**
"Hey Buck!" Chris' call brought his attention back down to earth. "Owen's dad laid on a party for everyone, at his casino!"
Their full back, Owen Lewsey, was the son of the general manager of one of the biggest casinos on the strip. Owen was by far the richest guy on the team, not that he flaunted it, in truth he was rather modest.
"How did he do it so fast?" Buck asked as he joined Chris.
"He told me he had confidence you'd win," Major Larabee told them. "And if you lost, it would cheer everyone up. Must be nice to be rich."
"I'd rather have love," Chris' commented, remembering that Owen's parents were divorced and could hardly hold a civil conversation. Until he was sixteen, he'd only been able to see his father once a month.
"That is very profound," Rob Larabee told his son.
"And very true," his mother added. "What about you, Buck? Love or money, which do you want?"
"An honest man, I like that," Larabee senior draped an arm over the shoulders of both boys. "Come on, party time!"
The party was amazing, Mr Lewsey provided all the adults with a stack of chips, which they could spend or gamble. The team, their siblings, friends and girl friends were given one night only free passes to the casino's side show style attractions, not to mention the 'all you can eat buffet' and any non alcoholic drink they wanted. In the end, the team and their entourage gravitated to the new video game arcade, which they pretty much took over for most of the night. News of their victory had spread and, resplendent in their team shirts, they were easily identifiable. Locals, staff and even guests were forever patting them on the back, giving them high five salutes and shouting congratulations.
By two a.m. the adrenaline had worn off and fatigue had struck with a vengeance, all those knocks and bruises that had been masked by the high of winning began to sneak back. Chris and Buck finally located Chris' parents in one of the quieter bars. Maggie Larabee was sitting with another mother, who had fallen asleep, sipping coffee.
"Hi," Chris greeted. "I guess you're driving?"
"Most definitely," she affirmed.
"Over there." She gestured toward the bar, where Rob Larabee was standing with a group of other fathers, beer in hand. "Let's get your father, before he starts to believe he's the one that scored those touchdowns and threw the passes." She stood up. "Time to get my boys home, all three of them."
Buck tried not to show it, which was easy, because he was so tired he was past showing any emotion, but Mrs Larabee's statement shocked him. She thought of him as one of her boys? Why?
Before he could ponder this any further, a rather merry Major Larabee was joining them.
"Time to go home, is it?" he asked just a little too loudly.
Lt Snow was a worried man. He'd hastily sent two unmarked cars, with two men in each, to follow the stolen cars as they left the garage. After almost seven hours, he still hadn't heard from either of them. Finally, the phone rang.
"Boss? It's Kelly."
"Where the hell have you been!" Snow snapped at his most trusted detective.
"L.A." Came the response.
"Yeah, the cars split up. We stuck with the buyer."
"Good, where are you."
"Who the hell knows, man! This city is mad, but it's the classy end of town. The buyer and the BMW pulled into a sports car salesroom. What do you want us to do?"
"Stay where you are, keep watch and ring me back in an hour."
Buck got to bed, just when he would normally be getting up, which was probably why, despite his body screaming for rest, he couldn't get to sleep. He lay there, replaying the games in his head and wishing he could share it with his mother. He was still awake an hour later, at which point he considered going over to the garage, to see his work friends and share his triumph with them. However, as much as his mind wanted to, his body had taken root on the bed and wasn't going anywhere for a while. Eventually, body won over mind and he drifted off to sleep, alone, on what should have been the happiest day of his life.
He awoke to find it was almost noon. For a second he thought he'd over slept and missed going to work, then he remembered he didn't need to go to work. He made himself a stack of toast and a huge bowl of cereal, grabbed a carton of orange juice and collapsed onto the sofa. There was another party that night, a pool party for the offensive players at Miguel Catt's house. Chris had offered to pick him up at seven, but he'd assured him it wasn't necessary. Miguel, whose father, a lawyer, was almost as rich as Owen's, lived on the far side of the school, in a huge, sprawling house with a big yard and a pool. He could walk it in less than an hour.
If anything, the pool party was even better. Partly because of all of them, Buck had the least opportunity to swim other then in a school swimming lesson. In truth, the last time he'd swam just for fun was in a creek, while out on the trail in the summer. As much fun as it had been to fool about in the pool, his time with Cleo Leonard was even better. Cleo's brother was a line backer, she and Buck had been seeing each other at school on and off, for most of the semester. This was their first chance to see each other away from school or a football game. Chris had tried to tell him dating a linebacker's sister was a dangerous game, but he wasn't worried. He'd never give Cleo any reason to complain to her - admittedly huge - brother about him. At the party, they had managed to sneak off and enjoyed a very good time together.
Sunday dawned way too early. Since he didn't have time off from his job at the Laundromat, he had to go to work. There weren't many customers, though many of those that did come in recognised him and offered their congratulations. That night he was surprised to find he couldn't get to sleep. As he lay there, he willed it to be time to get up and go to work. He wanted to share his triumph with the men he worked with. He was just the boy who cleaned cars, swept up and took out the trash, he was a nothing to them and he wanted to gain their admiration, he wanted to impress them. Despite his excitement, he did drop of to sleep eventually.
Lt Snow's little operation to take down a car theft ring had grown into an interstate operation involving the FBI, the LAPD and the LVPD, which had moved with amazing speed. It turned out the Los Angeles police had known for some time that the car salesroom was dealing in stolen vehicles, but had been unable to prove it or work out where they were coming from. It was decided to move quickly. Snow had wanted to continue the stake out and catch the ones who actually lifted the cars, but the LA police had been trying to close their end of the operation for over two years and didn't want to wait. Once they moved, the Las Vegas end of the operation would be tipped off and no doubt disappear.
A tightness of excitement filled Buck as he slipped under the fence and headed for his plank bridge. He could see that there were a number of cars outside the garage and assumed it was a delivery night. With his flashlight in hand, he began to thread his way across the narrow plank.
"POLICE! FREEZE!" someone shouted.
Startled, he momentarily lost his balance and instinctively lifted his arms to steady himself. Something hit him and he began to fall.
Lt Snow, as reluctant as he was to prejudice his own case by moving to early, was forced to raid the garage not when he wanted to, but when the FBI told him to. He'd done his research; the building only had two doors, the big doors at the front and a small side door on the right hand side of the building. He'd had a detective pose as a potential client, asking for a quote to fix a small ding in his car. While his car was examined, he'd got a good look around the inside.
Given how little time they had had to prepare for this raid, he was as confident as he could be. They arrived as silently as they could, lights off, taking advantage of the slight downward slope on the road to coast, engines off the last few yards. His men spilled out of their unmarked cars, and, with guns drawn, they approached both doors. It was cold, their breath condensing in front of them as they waited for the signal.
In the end, they didn't encounter much resistance. The men inside weren't armed, although they did find a gun, a legitimate, registered gun, in the office. Caught off guard, there was nowhere for them to run and common sense prevailed. Breathing a sigh of relief, Snow sent one of his younger detectives to check the outside of the building, just to be on the safe side. Any detailed examination of the premises would have to wait for daybreak.
Suddenly, there was a shout followed by a shot. Guns were instantly out and up as everyone not in charge of a prisoner started to run toward the sound of the shot. As they rounded the building, their flashlights illuminated Detective Campese, gun leveled, walking cautiously toward the flood drain.
"Ian?" Snow called, "What ya got?"
"Don't know for sure, man over there, I called a warning and he pulled a gun."
"You get him?"
"Not sure. He fell or jumped into the drain."
By now, Snow and his most experienced sergeant, O'Driscoll, were level with him. O'Driscoll, gun in one hand, flashlight in the other, moved toward the edge of the drain.
"Ah hell!" he swore. Holstering his gun, he suddenly dropped to the ground and lowered himself over the edge.
"What is it?" Snow asked, running up, shining his own flashlight into the drain. "Jesus!" he swore.
O'Driscoll was kneeling beside what looked horribly like a body lying in a rapidly forming pool of blood. He looked up. "He's just a kid."
"Is he dead?" Campese asked.
"No, no thanks to you, get an ambulance and a first aid kit!"
By now a uniformed patrolman had arrived. "I got it," he announced, pulling out his radio.
"But he had a gun!" Campese almost pleaded.
Snow shone his light around, finally picking up something lying against the drain's concrete wall. "What's that?" he asked.
O'Driscoll turned his own light on it. "A flashlight, looks fresh too."
Snow turned his light on the hapless Campese.
"I though it was a gun," the younger man stated again. "It looked like a gun. He pointed it at me."
Maggie Larabee rolled her shoulders as she walked out of maternity. It had been a long shift, a very long shift. She should have finished at midnight, but there had been two breach births, twins, a baby with the cord around it's neck and teenage mother, who decided half way though labour that she wasn't going to do it anymore and simply got up and tried to walk out - with Maggie, running after her, hands between her legs to catch the baby if it fell out - which it nearly did. All this, added to the other deliveries - the ones that went to plan - had meant that Maggie didn't get to leave work until almost four in the morning.
The fastest way to the staff parking was through the ER, strictly speaking employees weren't meant to do that, the hospital didn't want unnecessary 'traffic' in the ER, but she was too tired to care. ER was it's normal self for four in the morning. Knowing it would be cold outside, she'd pulled on her topcoat, which effectively hid her pink scrubs from the people waiting in chairs as she passed. Once through the swing doors, she walked past the treatment rooms, headed for the ambulance bay.
"What's his name?" she heard someone ask.
"According to the cops, it's Buck, that's all we've got."
Buck! She stopped to listen; after all it wasn't that common a name.
"Damn it, he's just a kid!"
Maggie turned towards the voices, which were coming from 'trauma one'. She told herself it wasn't him, it wasn't her Buck, but it was. As soon as she got to the door, she knew it was.
"Oh my God!" she cried as she ran in. "Buck!" There was blood everywhere, on him, on the floor, on the staff. "What happened?"
"Are you a relative, Ma'am?" someone asked.
"What? Oh no, he's..."
"Then you'll have to step out." It was one of the nurses speaking; she placed herself between Buck and Maggie, blocking her view.
"No, you don't understand." Maggie pulled off her coat. "I work here, upstairs and I know him."
The doctor, who was working on Buck, looked up. "We need any information you can give us and then you'll need to speak to the police."
"Police? Why, what happened to him?" she looked around the nurse who now stepped aside.
"He was shot," the doctor stated simply as he finished putting in a second IV and stood up straight. "His name?"
Maggie was still trying to process 'shot' and didn't respond.
"Ma'am? His name?" the nurse prompted.
"Oh, yes, Buck, Buck Wilmington. He told me Buck is his given name, it's not short for anything, he's sixteen, his birthday is in the summer, he goes to Bicentennial High and," she added sadly. "he's my son's best friend."
"Can you contact his family?"
Maggie was about to say of course she would, but then realised she had no idea how to. They had no phone number for Buck, no address, she didn't know where his mother worked or even what she did, other then it had something to do with 'hospitality'.
"I'll see what I can do. How badly is he hurt, I mean, is he going to be okay?" she asked.
The doctor looked her in the eye. "Too soon to say. He's going to x-ray any minute now and then straight to the OR, then we'll know more. Go and talk to the police, they'll want to know what you've just told me and then we'd appreciate it if you could contact his parents."
"Mother, he's only got a mother, it's just the two of them." Suddenly her heart sank, what would she say to Cindy even if she could find her? How would she feel if it was Chris and someone called from the hospital to say he'd been shot - it was too horrible to contemplate.
The police, in the form of two detectives, waited by the nurse's station for news. Maggie dutifully repeated what she had told the doctor. Then she asked them how Buck came to be shot, but they weren't prepared to say, claiming it was still being investigated. With other priorities in mind, she was about to turn and tell it for the third time, for the admitting record, when the younger of the two detectives put his arm out.
"Wait, you said Wilmington, Buck Wilmington?"
"Not the quarterback, the one who won the state championship for Bicentennial High, on Saturday?"
"Yes - why?"
He opened his mouth, then closed it. "Nothing, I just remember hearing the name on the news."
Chris and his father arrived at the hospital, having been woken by an urgent call from Maggie. Chris demanded to know what was going on.
"He's still in surgery," his mother told him, trying to sound calm and confident, like she always did for relatives. "We need to find his mother, do you have a phone number for his house?" Chris shook his head. "But you know were he lives?"
"Pretty much," Chris admitted.
"I found this in his personal possessions." She held out a key. "We need to find her."
Chris was still struggling to come to terms with Buck being hurt. "What's wrong with Buck, how bad is he hurt?"
Maggie didn't want to tell her son that his best friend had been shot, not until she had more information.
"I don't know. Now go with your father and find his mother, that's what he needs most right now."
Rob Larabee took the key and nodded his understanding to his wife. "Come on Son, we've got a job to do."
Chris might have known his friend lived in a trailer park, but he'd never actually been in one, let alone the rather small run down one he was now looking at.
"What number?" his father asked.
Chris shrugged and walked over to the row of mailboxes, illuminated by a rather weak overhead lamp. He found 'Wilmington' and beside it the number 29. Number 29 was the very last trailer at the far end of the narrow street. It was still dark, with no street lighting, so Rob left the car lights on. As Chris approached the door, his father took a look around, noting the thick layer of dust on the windshield of the old truck parked beside the trailer, indicating it hadn't moved in sometime.
Chris knocked on the door. With no result, he knocked harder, and then he pounded, nothing.
"Should we use the key?" he asked.
Major Larabee didn't like the idea of invading someone else's home, but he hoped that if - God forbid - the situations were reversed, a friend would do anything they could to find him.
"Hello?" he called as he opened the door. "It's Chris' father." There was no response; the place was totally dark. "Hello?" he tried again, a little louder.
Little by little, they put on lights and, calling all the time, explored the small trailer - which didn't take long. Chris had known for sometime were his friend lived, but he'd never really appreciated how small a trailer could be when one thought about living in it permanently, how flimsy and un-permanent it felt. It was also stuffy and claustrophobic. As he stood in the main room, his father looked at the pad by the phone.
"Anything," Chris asked.
"Nothing. Stay here."
With that, Larabee senior moved to the end of the trailer and looked in the master bedroom, if you could call the cramped space that. It was clearly a woman's room, but it was somehow sterile. There was a layer of dust on all the flat surfaces. There was nothing out of place, the drapes were drawn and the whole room smelled stale and closed. There was no air conditioning unit and no fan. Leaving this room, he looked in the second room, which was tiny. It was clearly Buck's room; there were clothes on the floor, books and school papers on the small desk and in piles on the floor. The window was open, but the drapes closed.
When he came out, he found Chris in the small kitchen. "There's not much in the fridge," he commented.
Rob took a look and had to agree, what was more, it looked like his fridge when he was in college. Little by little, this small, drab and frankly depressing trailer was telling him a story and he didn't like it.
"What do we do?" Chris asked.
"Leave a note and get back to the hospital," his father replied. He didn't want to voice his fears, but he just knew the note would never be read.
As they were leaving, he happened to lift, more out of curiosity than anything else, the living room drapes. What he saw piqued his curiosity.
As they locked the front door behind them, he turned to his son "Chris?"
"Wait for me in the car."
"What? Why?" Chris asked.
Rob turned to face him. "Just do it," he commanded, in a tone his son knew not to question.
With that, Major Robert Christopher Larabee USAF, walked around the trailer to the chain link fence behind it. Beyond the fence, there were a lot of lights, a lot more lights than there should be, considering it was only five in the morning and not yet light. As he got closer, he could see police tape and a uniformed policeman patrolling the fence.
"Officer," he called.
"Yes sir," the young man responded, coming over to him.
"What's going on here?"
"Nothing to worry about Sir," the officer assured with a smile.
"Is this something to do with the boy that was taken to hospital?" Larabee asked.
The policeman turned to face him. "What do you know about him?"
Rob decided it was time to make his job work for him. He pulled out his military ID and showed it to the young officer. "I'm not at liberty to say more, just tell me what you know."
When he returned to the car, Chris could almost see the anger radiating from his father.
Chris glanced at his father as they sped back to the hospital. The last and only time he'd seen him as angry as he was now, two pilots had disregarded his instructions and done victory passes over the tower. One of them had almost collided with an incoming transport and been forced to eject, before his multimillion dollar jet crashed into the ground.
When they did make it back to the hospital, it took them a while to locate Maggie, who was in the OR waiting area.
"Did you find her?" she asked, coming to her feet as soon as they walked in.
Rob shook his head. "Not yet. How's Buck?"
Maggie glanced at Chris, she still hadn't told them the exact nature of Buck's injury. "They say the surgery went as well as could be expected and he'll be in recovery very soon now."
"So he's going to be okay - right?" Chris asked, seeking reassurance.
"His life's not in any danger," Maggie told him. "Give me and your dad a moment?" she asked Chris; who reluctantly stepped back.
He could see his parents but not hear their hushed conversation. His mother was anxious and concerned, his father still angry, and then as he spoke to his wife, her demeanor became shocked then angry. That was it as far as Chris was concerned. He strode back to put himself into the conversation.
"Someone one tell me what the hell is going on!" he demanded.
"Christopher!" his mother admonished, in a shocked voice. "You mind your manners."
"No, not this time, I will not be kept out! He's my friend, not yours, mine, and I'm not a kid. I want to know what is going on! Is this because he's been living on his own?" he asked his father.
"What? How did you...?"
"Oh come on, I'm not blind! There had be an inch of dust on that truck and almost as much in the trailer. There was no real food in the kitchen and Mom freaks if either of us drinks juice from the carton, let alone leave the empty one on the living room floor with a pile of dirty plates!"
"He's right," Rob Larabee admitted to his wife. "The main bedroom was the same, closed, stuffy, dusty. I don't reckon his mother's been there for weeks, maybe even months."
"But that isn't what's making you mad, you knew that when we in there," Chris pointed out to his father. "You only got mad after you made me sit in the truck. So, will someone please tell me, what is going on!"
Maggie took a deep breath. "Buck was shot."
Chris stood there; he opened his mouth, then closed it and swallowed. "Shot?" he asked, his voice no longer filled with anger and indignation. "Who? Who would do that? Why?"
"We don't know," Maggie told him.
"Yes we do," Rob interjected.
The policeman he'd spoken to had turned out to be not only ex-military but also ex-Air Force. He knew a good deal of highly classified stuff went on at Nellis and so he didn't question that an out of uniform Air Force officer wanted to know what had happened. No lover of the detective division, he saw no reason to cover for their mistake and so told him exactly who had shot the boy and how.
"They asked the guys they busted about him," the cop had explained. "But all they could say was that his name was Buck and he lives someplace around here." He pointed over Rob's shoulder toward the trailers. "They said he was just a nice kid who liked cars."
Just as Rob was relating this, one of the nurses came in.
"Here," Maggie called as all three of them turned to face him.
"He's in recovery now, no complications. He should be moved to his own room in a few hours. If you ask at the reception desk, they can tell you which room he's been assigned."
"Can we see him now?" Chris asked.
"No dear," his mother replied, "Buck's too old to have relatives in the recovery room.
"But you could go, you're a nurse," Chris pointed out.
"I don't know," Maggie hesitated.
"Please Mom, he knows you, he's got no one else."
Maggie looked from her son to her husband, who nodded his agreement. "Okay. You two find out which room he'll be in and then go and get some breakfast."
Chris sat across from his father in the diner opposite the hospital, his scrambled eggs and bacon untouched in front of him.
"This is all my fault," he stated miserably.
"How can you possibly say that?" his father asked.
"I knew there was something wrong, I've known for months, but I didn't try and find out what. I told my self it was his life and he didn't want me interfering, then it was the end of the school year and I was thinking about baseball and Annapolis and then it was the summer and he went away. I told myself if it wasn't better this year, I'd do something."
"Chris you haven't..."
"Done anything, I know."
"I was going to say, done anything wrong."
"Yes I did, I didn't do anything. He was happy after he got back from Arizona, but it didn't last, he was playing badly - you know that."
His father nodded.
"His grades were slipping, I knew he was working weekends, so I helped him."
"You helped him with his school work?"
"Well, sort of."
"I gave him all my old assignments from last year."
Chris expected his father to make some comment about that, but he just smiled and nodded his head.
"See, I knew there was something wrong, really wrong. I should have done something about it. I tried to ask him, but he avoided the subject."
"Buck's smart, you know. I mean, if you look at his grades he's like average, mostly B's, a few C's and A's, but he's smarter than that, he's just not good at book learning. He turned the conversation around and made it about me and I let him." He thumped the table, spilling his father's coffee. "Sorry."
"That's okay. This is not your fault."
"I should have done more."
"I don't know, followed him, made him talk to me, made him tell me. Why wouldn't he tell me?" Chris looked up, almost pleading with his father to give him a nice, simple, obvious answer that would absolve him of guilt.
"I don't know. Until we know what really happened to his mother, where she is, why she left, we shouldn't speculate. But I think you should remember that Buck has pride, he's not the kind to go looking for sympathy and handouts, and I think that maybe, just maybe, he was worried if he told you she'd left him alone, that you'd think he was asking for something."
"But I'm his friend."
"Yes and a very good one, which is why you're here now, when he really needs you. Now eat, Buck doesn't want you to starve."
Buck tried to make sense of the voices around him, but it was hard; there were lots of them, some near, some far, but they were disjointed. His head pounded and he ached all over.
Someone was calling his name; the voice was close and sort of familiar. However, as familiar as it was, it wasn't his mother's. All he really wanted to hear was that rich, familiar, southern accent, but, even in his confusion and pain, he knew she wasn't there, could never be there and, some how that didn't make waking up worth the effort.
"No, don't go back to sleep. Come on, open you're eyes!"
The woman, who still sounded familiar, was keeping him awake; he wished she'd be quiet.
"Buck, come on, we need you, Chris needs you."
Chris? What did Chris want?
"Open your eyes!"
Damn, she really did seem sure he should open his eyes.
"Hello," she greeted softly, as he tried to focus on her.
"Miz Larabee?" he finally asked, still not exactly sure who she was.
"Yes dear." He looked around, trying to work out where he was. "What? Where am...?"
"You're in the hospital, you had an ...accident. Do you remember what happened?"
He frowned and then winced, because frowning seemed to hurt his head. "No, I was at home, and I went out and..." He tried to remember what happened then, but he couldn't, it was just blank, until he heard the voices.
"It's okay, don't worry, you fell into a flood ditch and hit your head, that's why you don't remember anything."
Instinctively Buck tried to move his right hand to feel for the head injury, but it wouldn't move.
"Don't do that," Maggie warned gently. "You also hurt your arm, the doctors have strapped it down, so it can heal." Buck yawned, which hurt his head. "Relax, sleep. By the time you wake up you'll be in your own room," she told him. "And I'll be there," she added with a reassuring smile.
By the time Buck woke, it was dark again, and Chris was sitting beside him, reading what looked suspiciously like a school textbook. Buck lay there and watched his friend reading; every now and again Chris would use the pencil he had between his fingers, to make notes in the margin. For some reason he was at a loss to explain, and that might have had something to do with the fuzzy, unfocused sensation in his head, it felt good to see Chris there beside him. It felt safe and he hadn't felt safe for a long time.
Eventually Chris looked up and glanced at him. When he realised Buck was awake; his face broke into a huge smile.
"Hi," he greeted, dropping the book and pencil to the floor instantly.
"Hi," Buck responded. "How long have you been there?" he asked, there was no particular reason to ask that question, it just sort of came out on it's own.
"Not that long, Mom made me go to school, since it's only a three day week, she didn't want me to miss any of it."
"Three days? I thought it was still Monday?"
"It is, Thanksgiving on Thursday."
Buck had completely forgotten about Thanksgiving, this year it meant nothing to him. "Oh yeah."
He wasn't sure what he did, possibly he licked his lips, but suddenly Chris was up and pouring some water into a glass with a straw in it.
"Here," he held the glass toward him. "Have some water."
As if on cue, Buck realised how thirsty he was and accepted the offered drink gratefully.
"Careful, just a little at a time," Maggie Larabee counselled as she came in, carrying two coffees. "Buck, lovely to see you awake again."
Buck gave her a slight smile. "So," he began nervously. "Can you tell me what happened?"
Chris looked over at his mother, who gave the slightest of shakes of the head - a clear warning not to tell Buck the whole truth.
"You were crossing the flood drain on a plank. The cops were raiding the garage. The men there told the cops you sometimes come over and talk them about cars?" He phrased it like a question, but didn't wait for a response. "Turns out they were dealing in stolen cars. There was a cop checking the back of the building as you came across the bridge. He shouted something, you reacted, he thought you had a gun and he fired. That's when you fell into the ditch, hit your head and hurt your shoulder."
"He shot at me?" Buck asked. Chris nodded. "But I don't have a gun."
"We know dear," Maggie assured. "It was your flashlight he saw."
Buck looked down at his heavily bandaged and strapped down right shoulder. "Is that's what's wrong with it? I got shot?"
Chris once more looked at his mother, who again shook her head, but he ignored her. If he was going to get his friend to open up and tell him the truth about his mother and his life, he was going to have to show him he could trust him. How could he expect Buck to trust him, if he didn't tell him the truth? Right there and then, he resolved that from now on he'd always tell his friend the truth.
"Yes," he told him simply. "That's why you fell, he hit you in the shoulder."
Buck looked up at his friend's mother. "How bad?"
She took a deep breath, she had wanted to wait until the sixteen year old boy was a little stronger before giving him this news, but her son has spoiled that plan. All she could do now was take the bull by the horns and tell him the truth.
"The bullet hit your clavicle - your collarbone - it broke it and then passed over the acromion - that's the top of your shoulder blade and exited. Apart from your collarbone, no other bones were damage, but you have some soft tissue damage."
"Guess that's why it hurts so much," Buck admitted.
"Are you in a lot of pain," Maggie asked, coming closer. "You're on morphine, but I can ask them to up the does, if you need it?"
That explained the fuzzy feeling in his head. It wasn't a nice feeling; he defiantly didn't want it to get worse.
"No ma'am, it's not that bad."
"What about you're head?" Maggie asked.
"You hit your head pretty hard, hard enough to fracture you're skull. Now don't worry, it's a simple fracture and it'll heal on it's own, but I know you have one hell of a headache - right?"
Buck did. In fact his head was throbbing so much he had hardly noticed the pain in his shoulder until it was mentioned. None the less, he didn't want them to give him any more morphine.
"Broken collarbone?" he asked Maggie, seeking conformation.
"Yes dear, I'm so, so sorry."
Buck dropped his head back onto the pillow and closed his eyes. "Think I'll sleep now," he told them quietly.
"Of course, come on Chris, let's give Buck some peace and quiet."
Chris tried to protest, but his mother insisted he leave the room.
"I could have stayed," Chris protested, once they were outside.
"No son. Buck doesn't want you to see him cry."
"Cry? Buck doesn't cry. He told you he wasn't in that much pain."
"We all cry when we lose our dream." Clearly Chris didn't understand. "When you brake you're collarbone, unless you are very, very lucky, the bone is permanently shortened."
"When you do this." She mimicked throwing a football. "You have to be able to stretch your shoulder back all the way. If your collarbone isn't as long as it should be, you couldn't get your shoulder all the way back and you'll lose some of the power. Buck's never going to be able to throw a football as far as he did on Saturday again."
Chris stared at his mother. "But they can fix it, straightened it out, set it, put screws in it - something - right?" he all but pleaded.
"Theoretically, but to be honest, I've never heard of it being done. But in Buck's case, all that is immaterial. The bullet destroyed some of the bone, shattered it. There is just no way to make it as long as it once was." She looked sadly into her son's eyes. "And he knows that."
Chris' hand came up to cover his mouth as the enormity of what he'd just learned sank in. No football meant no collage scholarship, no chance of a pro carrier. Football was the only thing Buck was really good at.
"I have... I have to talk to him..." He turned toward the door.
"Not now, tomorrow," Maggie insisted, placing her hand on his shoulder. "He doesn't want you in there right now."
Chris took one last look at the closed door and nodded his compliance.
Once the door was closed and he was alone, Buck opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. He didn't want to cry, he was too old to cry, but it was all too much. His whole life had just come crashing down on him! Everything he had planned, everything he'd been working so hard for, all his mother's dreams for him were over. Tears fell unchecked. What was he meant to do now? More than at anytime since she was killed, Buck wanted his mother there. He needed her there to hold him and tell him it was going to be alright. He needed her to tell him what to do. He was suddenly so tired of being alone, he was tired of lying and tired of being tired, but he didn't know what else to do, because he was also tired of having to make all the decisions himself. He was only sixteen, he was just a kid, it wasn't fair!
A nurse came in and he was forced to back hand his tears away and try to smile. She asked if he was okay, he said yes. She asked if he was hungry, he said no. She tried to persuade him to eat something, but he said his stomach hurt - which it did, not because of the anaesthetic or the morphine, but because he was so totally alone and it hurt, it hurt so much. She left him alone and he closed his eyes and let the tears flow again.
Major Larabee opened the front door, somewhat curious. His wife's car was on the drive, but there were no lights on.
"Hello? Anyone here?" he called.
"Dad!" Chris exclaimed, jumping up from the couch.
"Chris, what are you doing sitting there in the dark?"
"Dad, we've got to do something for Buck!"
Chris had driven home in his mother's car to an empty house, since both his parents were now at work. As he drove, he'd been overcome by a terrible feeling of despair. He tried to think how he'd feel, if what had happened to Buck had happened to him, and it made him cry. Despite his father's assurance that it wasn't his fault, he still felt guilty. His friendship with Buck was like no other he'd ever had. Apart from school, where they were in different years, and sport, they hardly ever saw each other, and yet there was this thing between them, this something, that had drawn them together and kept them together. The trouble was, he'd be damned if he could work out what it was. What ever it was, he wasn't going to lose it, and he wasn't going to leave a friend in need.
"Have you eaten?" Chris' father asked.
"No," Chris responded dismissively.
"While I go and change, you put on some lights and get yourself something to eat."
"Dad, I have to talk to you," Chris insisted.
"I know, and we will talk, after I take off my uniform and you have had something to eat."
By the time Rob Larabee had hung up his uniform and pulled on jeans and a tee shirt, Chris had put on the lights and eaten half a cold Poptart.
"That's what you're eating?"
Chris didn't even bother to respond to that, putting the half eaten pastry down. "I think Buck should come and live here," he stated plainly.
"Yes. We know his mother's not around for some reason, he can't go back to that trailer on his own and..."
"There are authorities that deal with this kind of thing," his father pointed out.
"Dad! You can't be serious!"
"No, but I wanted to make sure you are. Don't worry, your mother called me, she had the same idea - but we have to find his mother. I think you should be the one to ask him."
"Me?" Chris asked worriedly.
"Yes, your mother and I had a long talk about this. I don't know were his mother is or why she left him on his own, but there are two likely explanations. She may have found a good job out of town somewhere and didn't want to make Buck change schools, at least not during the football season, or..." he paused.
"Or?" Chris prompted.
"She may be in prison."
"Prison? No way."
"Chris, you've seen where they live. You don't live in a place like that unless you have to. Buck and his mother have - I'm guessing - a week by week existence. You work, you make money, you pay the rent, but by the end of the week, you're probably counting the pennies until payday. Anything that you need extra, you have to find the money for it somewhere else, or save. People who have to live like that are always at risk of falling foul of the law."
Chris looked at his father and tried to assimilate this and equate it with what he knew of Buck. He didn't have much money; he worked - a lot, weekends and evenings. He wouldn't let Chris come to his home, and his mother wasn't living at home, as far as they could tell. If his mother were just working away from home, why would he be so secretive about it? And then he remembered something else.
He must have frowned or in someway betrayed his emotions, because his father asked him what he was thinking about. He told him about the time, way back in the spring, when Buck had missed some school. He'd come back to school saying he's been sick. Chris had always known that was a lie, but he had clearly been distracted for some time.
"That's when things changed. Hell Dad, that was way back before Easter!"
Maggie looked in on Buck a few times during her shift, which was mercifully much quieter than the night before. She visited again, before she went home, but he had been asleep every time she looked in. She would have liked to have stayed and been there when he woke up, but she'd only had a short nap in over thirty hours. If she keeled over from exhaustion, she'd be no use to anyone. Since Chris had taken her car, she took a cab home, which was just as well, as she was in no fit state to drive.
Maggie had wanted Chris to go to school the next day, but he refused, pointing out that even if he went, it would be a waste of time, he'd never remember anything. So, with his mother still sleeping, it was Chris and his father who arrived at the hospital to visit Buck. What they found when they arrived, just after noon, were the police standing with Buck's doctor just outside his door. The older of the two detectives Maggie had met the morning before was talking to the doctor.
"What's going on?" Rob asked, since he was going to work immediately after their visit, he was already in uniform, which tended to lend weight to his demand for information.
"Nothing the military need to worry about," the detective replied.
"I'll be the judge of that. Who are you?"
Chris loved it when his father went full on military. The Major might only be an air traffic controller, but when he gave orders, people obeyed. The detective pulled out his badge.
"Detective Sergeant Snow, LVPD. Now, who are you?"
Rob didn't bother with any ID. "Major Larabee, and for now, I'm the closest thing Buck Wilmington has to a guardian. So tell me, Lieutenant, what is going on?"
"I need to question the boy."
"His name is Buck and he is no condition to be questioned - right doctor?" The doctor, who looked not unlike a rabbit in the headlights, nodded. "Besides, he doesn't know anything, all he did was go there to talk about cars. How was he to know they were stolen?"
"Really? His fingerprints all over that workshop, on the trash cans, on the doors, on the coffee machine, the wash room, the broom handle. He did a lot more than talk. Besides, who talks cars at three in the morning?"
"And just were did you get his finger prints from?" Larabee demanded to know.
"We took them while we waited for the ambulance."
"You had no right, he's just a boy," Rob pointed out again.
"He's not that young. This is a big operation, and he's involved. I need to know what he knows."
"He doesn't know anything!" Chris told the cop angrily.
"Chris," his father warned.
"No Dad, he's trying to say Buck was involved! He wouldn't do that!"
Chris forced himself to step back. He didn't get called by his full name often, so he knew he was on dangerous ground.
"Now you listen to me, Lieutenant. Whatever his involvement, and if he did do more than talk cars, it sounds to me like it was sweeping up and making coffee - hardly a federal offence - lets remember you're man shot him! The LVPD shot an unarmed, sixteen year old boy, and not any boy, oh no, they go and shoot the star quarterback of the state champions in the right shoulder! Let's just think about that one shall we? Because believe me, if I have to, I will make sure every TV station, radio station and paper in this state gets the story!"
Snow visibly blanched, but he wasn't to be deterred. "This is a federal case, he either talks to me or the FBI. One way or another, he has to give a statement."
"And he will, when he's stronger, and when he does, I'll be there and so will an attorney."
Snow thought for a moment, then nodded. He then handed over a card. "Set up an interview as soon as you can - don't leave it too late. Where can I reach you?"
Rob scribbled down his contact information in Snow's notebook.
As Snow left, Rob turned back to the doctor. "So how is he?" he asked.
"Physically he's healing. Mentally?" He shook his head.
Chris let himself into his friend's hospital room. Buck was sitting up, propped up by what looked like a mound of pillows. There was a meal on the table in front of him, but it was mostly untouched. The TV above the bed was on, but the sound was off.
"Hi," Chris greeted.
"Hi," Buck responded, with the ghost of a smile.
"Mom explained about your shoulder. Jeez man, I don't know what to say."
Buck shrugged his good shoulder. "What's done is done. Coach was always worried I'd injure my shoulder, that's why he didn't want me to play baseball."
Chris nodded. "Still, it's tough luck."
"What was all the shouting out there?" Buck asked.
"That was Dad, fighting you're corner with the cops. They wanted to talk to you today. Dad wouldn't let them, and when they do, he's gonna be there and have a lawyer there."
"He doesn't need to that, I can take care of myself," Buck responded.
"He knows he doesn't have to do it, he wants to do it," Chris explained, trying to sound supportive and not exasperated by his friend's continual rejection of help in any form. "We all want to help, me and Mom and Dad, we want you to come home with us, when they let you out of here."
Buck stared at him, then frowned. "I, that is, um thanks, but I've got a home, I should..."
"We went to you're place, me and Dad," Chris cut in. "We were trying to find your mom. We went into the trailer."
"You had no right!"
"I know, believe me I know, but you were in a bad way and we knew she'd want to be here - at the hospital. She wasn't there." Chris looked him in the eye. "She hasn't been there for a long time, has she?"
Buck looked into his friend's eyes for no more than a second, then dropped them again.
"There was an inch of dirt on the truck, no real food in the fridge, the place was all dusty. Besides, you haven't been - you, for ages." Still Buck didn't respond "You know, you could have told me." Buck finally looked at him. "Trust me, please. It doesn't matter why she's not there. If she's working someplace else, you can stay with us until she gets back. If she's in jail, it doesn't matter why or how long. You're my best friend; you're my only real friend. I guess I'm like you, I find it hard to trust people - but we have to trust each other - right?"
When Chris said that his parents wanted Buck to come and live with them, his heart jumped for joy. Sure he could take care of himself, he'd proven that. True he'd just lost his best job, but he could find another way to make money, if he had to. But he didn't want to, he hated his life, he hated everything about it. All he'd wanted all along was to go and live with Chris. He didn't have to tell Chris about his Ma, but he so wanted to, it would be such a relief. The truth was like a weight that pressed him down, a little more each day. He let his head rest back on the pillows and closed his eyes.
"She's not coming back," he finally admitted.
"Never?" Chris asked softly, not sure where the conversation was going.
"No, not ever, she's dead."
For a long time there was silence, then Chris finally managed to react.
"I... I... ah hell man, I'm sorry. How? When?"
How his mother died was more information than Buck was ready to share. "It was a while ago, in the spring."
"Why didn't you say something?"
"I don't need charity, and I ain't going into any group home or foster care," Buck reacted with more anger than was needed. "Sorry, " he apologised.
"I can take care of myself."
"I know, but you don't have to, not anymore."
Buck looked up at him. "Are you sure your parents don't mind?"
"It was their idea. I mean it was my idea as well, but when I asked Dad, he said they'd already decided to do it anyway.
"Just until I'm back on my feet."
"For as long as you want," Chris assured.
Chris told his father what Buck has said about his mother. He'd looked as shocked and concerned as Chris had been when he heard the news.
"I hadn't even considered that possibility," Larabee admitted. "Presumably the school doesn't know."
"No. Don't ask me how he's managed to keep it a secret, but I don't think anyone knows, except him and us," Chris told his father. "Did you tell the school why he's not in?"
"Yes, when I called about you."
"What did you say?"
"That he'd had a fall, fractured his skull and his collar bone."
His father had spared Buck all the questions and speculation that would have resulted if he'd told them he'd been shot.
"He can still come home with us - right?" Chris asked, seeking reassurance.
"Yes, of course, we'll find some why to make it happen."
Once the news got out at school, the reaction was almost instantaneous. Flowers, toys, cards, candy and other gifts started to arrive at the hospital. The principal, the coach, school councillor and Buck's homeroom teacher all visited him. By that evening, the whole football team had been in, along with three girls all calling themselves 'Buck's girl friend'.
Maggie looked at these three, as they giggled and flirted with Buck, who, though tired, seemed to be enjoying the attention.
"How come they all think they're his girl friend and no one is clawing each other's eyes out?" she asked her son.
Chris shrugged. "No idea, girls like Buck."
"Girls like you - I've seen them," his mother told him with a playful nudge.
"I know Mom, but girls really **like** Buck. He says the key is to be honest - I'm honest, but they don't follow me around like that."
"Perhaps it's a gypsy curse?" his mother told him, before she ventured into the throng to send the girls home, so Buck could get some much needed sleep.
The following morning, Buck spoke with the police. Major Larabee and a court appointed attorney sat in on the interview. Did he go to the garage often? Yes. Did he work there? Well he did odd jobs, took out trash, made coffee. Did he get paid? He got some cash, now and again. Did he know they cars were mostly stolen? No. Did he see cars being delivered? It was a twenty four hour operation; cars came in all the time. Could he identify anyone who delivered cars? No, different people came all the time and he hardly ever noticed them. What about cars being picked up? Same answers.
Mindful of the threat to expose Buck's accidental shooting to the press, Snow didn't press him for more information. It was clear he knew more than he was telling, for one thing he must have seen the delivery drivers. But was it was becoming clear this was no amateur operation, the men had all used first names or nicknames at all times. Even if Buck had seen them, he wouldn't know their real names. He could question him further, have him look at pictures, but trying to pick a face out of mug book was very hard and notoriously unreliable. In all honesty, he didn't think the hassle was worth it, so he let it drop.
When Snow and the lawyer were gone, Chris' father sat down again beside the bed.
"You handled that like a pro," he commented.
"Part of all basic military training, is how to behave if you are captured. It may not have been name, rank and serial number, but you kept your answers short and to the point, you never diverted your story or volunteered any information. Perfect. Have you done this before?"
"Been shot? No."
"You know what I mean. Have you ever been questioned by the police?"
Buck looked him in the eye, trying to work out why he wanted to know. "No," he finally admitted.
"So where did you learn how to do that?"
"I just answered the questions, that was all," Buck protested.
"You lied, I'm not sure about what, but you were definitely lying. My guess is, you worked there on a regular basis and a smart boy like you would be well aware the cars were hot and you know who delivered and collected them, or at least you can identify them."
"I swept up, I made coffee," he insisted.
"It won't make any difference, I'm not going to turn you in, or think less of you. Your mother died, you felt you had to make your own way, the best way you could. I admire your ingenuity, work ethic and determination. You're a remarkable young man Buck Wilmington and it has nothing to do with how far you can throw a football." Rob smiled at him. "Not that I am condoning auto theft, you understand."
"If you live under my roof, you live by my rules - fair?"
"There are only four. I expect the truth at all times, I don't permit disrespect, I do expect obedience, but that doesn't mean you can't question and argue - respectfully. And you don't break the law, ever, or get involved with those who do - understood?"
"Those seem to cover most situations. Think you can live by them?"
Buck smiled, almost in relief. "No problem, you and Ma have the same rules - mostly."
"That brings us to the more difficult topic." Larabee looked his son's best friend in the eye. "You have tell me what happened to your mother. Since she's dead, she can't give me custody of you, so I'll have to go to the family court and ask them for guardianship."
"Can't I just move in with you? No one knows she's dead," Buck asked, fearful that the court might not let him stay with the Larabees.
"I'm in the military, we have rules. Also, once you are officially my foster son, you'll be entitled to all the medical benefits Chris and Maggie get. You're going to need them."
The doctor had made it clear that, other then some post operative follow up, there was no more they could do for Buck without insurance, which he didn't have. If he was to make as good a recovery as he could, he was going to need a good deal of physical therapy to help his damaged muscles and tendons heal. Without therapy, he risked developing a frozen shoulder, losing much of the movement in the joint. In addition, he could well need further surgeries, to release muscle and tendons that may reattach in the wrong place, to improve the look of the huge scare he was going to have were the bullet exited and to remove bone chips that were still loose in the shoulder joint. If he were covered by the military medical benefits, he'd get the best of possible after care for a bullet wound.
"Buck, you need to tell me what happened. How did she die?"
Buck didn't want to tell Major Larabee the truth, the prospect of telling Chris had been hard enough to contemplate, telling his father, that was a whole different ball game, one he didn't understand how to play. Then again, he'd just agreed to always tell Major Larabee the truth.
"She didn't die," he finally admitted, looking down at the bed covers, so as to avoid any possibility of eye contact.
"But you told Chris, just what is..."
"She was killed... murdered."
It was said so softly, Rob wasn't sure he'd actually heard it. "Buck?" he asked, equally softly. "Did you say murdered?"
Buck nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
"Oh my God, oh son, I am so sorry. I don't know what else to say."
Buck looked at him briefly. "Nothing to say, is there?"
"No, no I guess not. I still need to know more details."
He knew he had to do it, he knew there would be consequences, but he knew there was no alternative.
"You have to know something first," he began. "My mother, Ma, she was the best mother in the world."
"Of course she was."
Buck finally looked him in the eye. "I'm not just saying that - she was. She had me when she was only sixteen, she was alone in the world, but she didn't give me up, I was all the family she had. I never went hungry, I was never dirty, I always had shoes and clothes and books and toys. I was always loved, always. She taught me right from wrong, she taught the importance of education and loyalty and family. She taught me how to take care of myself, she taught me... how to answer police questions. And she taught me that it doesn't matter how poor you are or what things you have or don't have. Most of all, it doesn't matter what other people think of you, it only matters what you think of yourself. If you can look at yourself in the mirror and like the person you see, that's all that really matters."
"She sounds like a very wise and strong woman. I only met her a few times, so I didn't get to know her as well as I would have wanted, but I liked your mother, I liked her a lot. I knew, when you and Chris became friends, that you were a good person, and that could only happen if you were raised up right."
"Promise me you'll remember that, when I tell you the rest."
Rob Larabee relayed what he'd learned to his wife and son. They were as shocked and surprised as he had been.
"No wonder he didn't want to tell anyone, the poor boy," Maggie lamented.
"Wow," Chris suddenly exclaimed. "I met a hooker."
"Christopher Larabee!" his mother responded. "That is not the attitude."
"Sorry, it's just, well, kinda weird."
Once the truth was out, things moved quickly. Since the next day was Thanksgiving, Maggie arranged with the doctors for Buck to come home with them for the day. He had regained his appetite, but his right arm was still strapped down - and would be for sometime and he wasn't able to walk very far. None the less, he shuffled into the house and was made comfortable in their big recliner in front of the TV. The Thanksgiving meal was served onto plates, Maggie, sliced all the meat so nothing would need cutting and they all ate together in the living room. It wasn't the most traditional meal any of them had ever had, but they were together and they had a good deal to be grateful for and in the end, that was what Thanksgiving was all about.
The football was on, as Maggie picked up the half eaten pumpkin pie from Buck's lap. He'd reclined the chair as far as it would go and was fast asleep. Rob and Chris - who would normally be shouting at the TV as if the players could hear them - were almost silent, not wanting to wake the newest member of the family. With the kitchen tidy and the dishwasher running, Maggie settled down on the sofa next to her husband. She glanced across at Chris, who was, to her surprise, asleep.
"It's been a long three days," Rob commented, when he saw what she was looking at.
"That it has. Have we really done the right thing?" she asked her husband.
"For Buck? How can you doubt it? For Chris, yes, he's always wanted a brother. For us? Who knows, only time will tell. But I'll tell you something, we'd never have been able to live with ourselves if we hadn't and our son might never have spoken to us again."
"I know. I just wish he'd told us what had happened sooner, the poor kid."
"He's here now, that's what counts."
Once it was established that Cynthia Gilroy and Cindy Wilmington were one and the same person, it was easy to have Buck named as her sole heir. The guardianship hearing was a formality; family services were only too willing not to have to worry about where to place a sixteen year old, wounded football hero. The Air Force medical team took over Buck's recovery and by the summer, after months of gruelling therapy and a second operation, he was swing a baseball bat with ease. Chris graduated and went away to the Navy Academy as planned. Buck worked hard at his studies, he wasn't dumb, and with no football to distract him and getting full nights sleep, his grades improved noticeably. Cindy had saved some money, which he now had access to. The first thing he'd done was pay for a headstone to be erected over his mother's grave, replacing the small numbered plot marker. Once it was in place, the four of them stood there, in silent tribute for a few moments, before the Larabees returned to their car, leaving Buck alone for a while.
There wasn't enough money to send him to collage, not if he wanted to go to a decent school, even if he worked. One possible source of funds was to sue the police department over the shooting. The trouble was, firstly it was what the police called 'a righteous shoot'. The officer had genuinely believed that Buck had a gun - the flashlight - and was pointing it at him. Young as he was, Buck wasn't a small boy; at a distance he looked like an adult, a big adult. The second problem was that part of the police department's defence would, in all likelihood, be that Buck was actively involved with the stolen car ring. They had a good deal of evidence he had worked there on a regular basis and they could make a case for him withholding information material to a federal case - if they wanted to. Worse still, as far as Buck was concerned, they would almost certainly bring his mother and her 'profession' into it. In the end, the attorney's advice was to let it drop, the county had picked up all Buck's medical bills prior to the Air Force taking over his case. That would have to be enough. As he pointed out, it wasn't as if anyone could fix his shoulder, no matter how much money he had.
He thought about going part time to a local school like UNLV and the Larabees offered to help make up the difference if he wanted to go away to collage but in the end, he made his own decision. There was one sure fired way to get a collage education, so, after graduation, he joined the navy! Despite his shortened right clavicle, he passed his physical A1 - you don't need to be able to throw a long way, to be able to shoot or sail a ship.
JD was bored, he was really, really bored. Everyone except him and Chris were away. A case they had been involved with had finally come to trial in Montana, so all five of them had been summoned to testify. There was just nothing to do, even Chris had given up trying to find things for him to do. So bored was he, that he had been reduced to putting random words into Google to see where it led him.
Suddenly he wasn't bored; he was sitting up and reading intensely.
"What's so interesting?" Chris asked, as he came out of his office in search of more coffee.
"This." JD pointed at the screen.
The web site was entitled 'The greatest football players who never were" and there on the screen was a picture of a teen age Buck throwing the football in the State Championship game.
"Well, you must have know Buck played football in high school," Chris commented.
"Sure I did, I just didn't know he was so good. It says here, he threw the winning pass to C Larabee, was that you?"
"We have known each other a long time," Chris reminded.
"You told us you met in the Navy, not at school."
"No, we just don't talk about that time."
"But what happened? It says here he was amazing. How come he didn't play at collage and turn pro?"
"You've seen the scars on his right shoulder?"
"Sure, it looks like a bullet wound."
"Did he tell you how he got them?"
"No, I asked once, but he said it was classified. I assumed it was when you guys were in the SEALs."
Chris smiled sadly. "No, it was a long time before that. That scar is why he didn't play collage football. And now you know, you won't talk about it or ask him about it - clear?"
"I mean it, if he wants to tell you, he will, but don't ask about it."
"It's okay Chris, I understand." He looked back at the picture, at the confident young man about to launch the ball down the field. "I bet he would have been a great player."
"You have no idea."
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