Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em . . .damnit.
Warnings: Some swearing
Summary: When Buck disappears, apparently out of choice, JD and Chris can't let it go, and the team goes AWOL
Dictionary definition - 'My Brother's Keeper' - Undying loyalty. A brother either by blood or by a bond stronger than friendship, who will always have his brother's back and vice versa.
CDC - SATURDAY 4:30 a.m.
"What . . .what are . . .you do . . .ing . . .?" Through a shadowy haze of undulating images Buck watched a needle being withdrawn from his arm. He tried to bat the perpetrator away, but a soothing voice stilled him.
"Settle down, Agent Wilmington, you'll be fully awake very soon."
"What?" Buck's breathy question filtered through to his brain as he registered the needle wasn't drugging him. He was actually becoming more lucid. Indistinguishable figures slowly became clearer until, in a dim flashlight-fueled glow, he realized two men were standing over him. He blinked and pushed himself up.
"Don't bother going for your Glock, Agent, I already have it in my possession."
Buck stared at the man speaking, feeling oddly unthreatened, considering the circumstances. "Who the hell are you?"
"All in good time. Get dressed, we need to go."
Strong, but gentle hands helped Buck to his feet. Just as his bare feet touched the cool hardwood floor his brain sparked into life.
"JD." His gaze changed from confusion to pure anger as fears for his housemate and closest friend consumed him.
"Relax. Agent Dunne is resting comfortably and is in no danger. He'll be asleep for some time yet."
Throwing on the clothes he was being passed, Buck frowned. "What did you do to him?" He spat.
"We have to leave. I need you to write a note to find later, informing Dunne of your whereabouts for an unspecified amount of time."
Poking his head through his sweater, Buck swallowed against a dry throat. "Are you saying we've been drugged?"
"Yes," the man nodded. "But there will be no after-effects, short of prolonged drowsiness for your partner; we know he is susceptible to strong drugs, but you have my assurance he will suffer no long-term effects. Please, we have to go. To protect Dunne, and your team, write the note now, Agent. I'll explain everything in the car."
It was impressed on Buck that his excuse for leaving be watertight to prevent his friends from becoming concerned, so the brunet paused for thought, then scribbled away. The second man raised a kit bag in the air to demonstrate Buck was packed, and so with a quick stamp into his boots, he was ushered down the stairs. Buck halted them as he reached JD's door.
"We don't have time . . ."
"I'm making time," Buck hissed. With that, he turned the knob of JD's door and stepped inside.
He smiled thinly to see JD fully clothed and face down on his bed asleep. Buck instinctively checked his pulse, and then laid a hand on the dark tresses. He allowed it to linger there before the backs of his fingers brushed the slack features. He leaned in.
"Forgive me, Little Brother. I promise I'll make this up to you."
Tears obscured his vision as Buck straightened, took one last look, and left.
The car and four occupants had been traveling for close to ten minutes when Buck's demanded for answers were finally met. The man next to him introduced himself as Agent Copeland, FBI, and handed him a folder. Buck's strangled cry broke through the odd silence while he read it.
"As I understand it, when you became a cop and contacted Las Vegas PD, Detective Garcia promised to inform you if they ever got a lead on your mother's killer." Copeland didn't wait for a reply.
"We have that lead, but the man you want is a high profile mobster and has been a target of ours for over twelve years. The last thing we needed was unexpected enquiries to alert this man in any way. We have an informant about to turn State's evidence on him, and can't afford our investigation to be compromised by any means, hence the cloak and dagger routine. If you've changed your mind about wanting information, we'll drop you off and leave you sufficient funds to get home."
As the first tinges of dawn broke through the gloom, Buck finally looked up from the folder. "My teammates . . .my friends . . .they can be trusted."
"We know, but as I explained this has been a lengthy, and costly investigation and it could all go down the crapper if we make even the simplest oversight, or delay any longer. I trust your note was convincing?"
Buck nodded. "Yeah. How long do you expect this to take?"
"Hopefully around a week. Our timing is specific. You're currently on vacation, yes?"
"Yeah, but the kid and me, uh, Agent Dunne, and me, we had plans."
"You can make it up to him when you get back."
Buck huffed out a soft laugh. "Oh yeah, and then some."
Agent Copeland chuckled, and it eased the tension somewhat as the car turned into a private airfield and toward a waiting jet. He turned to Buck. "For what we have on this guy, your mother's murder won't even register on his arrest sheet, but we figured the least we could do was allow you to see the man who took her life."
Buck swallowed as the harsh reality of that statement sank in. "How do you know it was this mobster that actually killed her?"
The agents climbed out of the car, picked up Buck's gear and walked to the plane. "While the informant was giving his statement, the information came up."
Buck fought back rising emotion. "Did he say why she was killed?"
They took their seats inside and Copeland nodded. "After their night together, and while your mother was getting dressed, our target had a visitor. There was an altercation and he shot his visitor dead. Our informant tells us your mother swore she saw nothing, but he killed her anyway."
Buck swiped at the falling tears. "She . . .her body was . . ."
Copeland nodded. "Our informant said he did a real job on her to make it look like she was randomly attacked, then he got our man to arrange to dump her body well away from his apartment." The FBI agent patted Buck's arm.
"I'm sorry. I know this isn't the kind of justice she deserved . . ."
Buck forced a smile. "No, but Ma'll finally get the closure she's owed."
CDC - 11:30a.m.
"Uuurrrggghhh . . ."
JD slid his legs out of bed and half sat, half slouched as he perched on its edge. Twenty minutes later he awoke again, groaning with the pounding headache and achiness he originally woke up with, as well as a crick in his neck from falling asleep sitting up.
"Oh man!" Realizing he had slept in his clothes, JD ran a hand over his face while trying to remember what the hell it was he and Buck had drunk last night.
Lifting his wrist, JD checked his watch. "Holy crap!"
It was almost midday. The housemates had about a half dozen things to do before heading out to Chris's place at 1:00 p.m. for a horse ride with the guys.
He jumped up and instantly regretted the action as his room swirled before his eyes. Grabbing onto the nightstand for support, JD breathed slow and deep until the funny little black dots clouding his vision subsided.
"That's it, I'm never drinking again."
He shuffled out into the corridor and called up the stairs to his partner's loft bedroom.
Shrugging at the lack of reply, JD continued on to the bathroom in an attempt to wake himself up properly and feel a little more human.
After a shower, and dressed in jeans and a fresh, blue, cotton shirt, JD realized he didn't feel any different. He was also wondering why Buck hadn't come downstairs yet. He dragged himself up the metal staircase, calling as he walked, just in case Buck had struck it lucky after JD figured he must have passed out last night. Then again, if Buck wasn't up either, maybe he was in need of a hair of the dog, too. JD shuddered from his head to his toes at the thought of actually consuming anything other than water right now.
With a knock on Buck's door, JD entered the room. Buck's bed was made, and his room was neat. Spotting a note on the bedside table, and several discarded papers inside his trash can, JD walked further in, picked up the notepaper and read it.
Please don't be mad at me, but I got a call last night from Millie, you know; the flight attendant I've been trying to date for over 6 months? Anyway, she called and made me an offer I found real hard to refuse.
I know we made plans for this week, and I promise I'll make this up to you, Little Buddy, but I really like this lady, and you were out of it last night, so I didn't like to disturb you.
I thought I'd take her up to the cabin we stayed at last Spring when we went fishing with the guys. I'm guessing cell reception there now is no better than it was back then, so I'll have to check in with you later.
Say sorry to Chris and the guys for me. Have a fun week, just like we planned, and I'll catch up with you soon.
Feeling more than a little shocked and disappointed, JD snatched up the discarded papers in the waste basket. Each one presented the opening of a note, but had been tossed and another one started. Clearly Buck struggled to find the right words.
JD licked his dry lips and walked around, opening drawers and closets as he did so. "Looks like he packed a bag," JD mumbled to himself.
His gut clenched and JD barely made it into Buck's bathroom before he threw up.
The youth rinsed his mouth and looked at himself in the mirror. 'Whoa, not good.' Deciding riding today was not such a great idea, JD leaned against the sink, pulled out his iPhone and sent a text to all his teammates, bar Buck.
"W-a-y hung-over. Gonna rest up. '@^@III JD"
After dragging himself back downstairs, JD poured himself a glass of water, took it and himself into the living room, snuggled on the sofa under his favorite comfort blanket, and channel-surfed until he dozed off.
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA
Buck settled into the safe house the FBI's informant was in. After taking a nice, hot shower, he grabbed a coffee and met with Copeland to go over what they were planning.
"On Thursday, Miles Gray will be hosting a charity event. All the local bigwigs will be there ready to hand over money; money that will go into his coffers to finance his latest racket."
"Which is?" Buck asked.
"You name it, he's done it. Over the years, he's put his own people into positions of power and manipulated construction contracts, elections, trash collections, and used exploitation, intimidation, bribery, and murder to maintain his operations." Copeland noted Buck's sneer.
"Some of his more covert undertakings include prostitution, human trafficking, and pushing guns and drugs into schools and colleges."
"He sounds like a peach."
"He's damned clever. We couldn't pin a thing on him - until now."
As he sipped on his coffee, Buck's brow creased. "How do you know this informant of yours isn't lying just to save his own ass?"
Copland nodded. "It crossed our minds, but he brought with him accounting books, documents and . . ." The FBI agent looked a little awkward. "Photographs."
"Trophies. Whenever a hit was made, our guy, Howard Bailey, took a photograph of the result. Gray thought he had the only ones existing, but Bailey kept copies."
"Okay, I'll buy it, but why now? Why's he doing all this now?"
"Rumor has it Gray has a new right-hand man, and he's slowly exposing Gray's long-serving associates by the little side interests they've acquired for themselves. Needless to say, when Gray found out he was being double-crossed, each named and shamed individual disappeared. For his own part, Bailey was skimming funds off drug deals."
"I'm assuming Gray knows this guy has turned on him," Buck asked.
"Yes, but when Bailey died in a car accident, Gray relaxed and has carried on business as usual."
Buck was confused. "Died?"
"Yeah. We set it up to look as though Bailey and an agent were killed en route to another safe house," Copeland explained.
"Dare I ask where you got actual bodies from?" Buck asked, worriedly.
"The bodies were ones donated to scientific research. We needed to get this guy off the streets and out of business, but we also needed to make him believe he's safe."
Buck pondered all he had heard. With a look of determination to Copeland, he set down his mug. "This Bailey fella, I'd like to speak to him."
"About your mother?"
Copeland stood. "Alright. Come with me."
Bailey wasn't anything like Buck had imagined which was as a weasely, greasy little man. He was in fact, quite tall, slim and in good shape for the forty-odd years he must be. Bailey watched Buck walk into the bedroom allocated to him, and take a seat on one of ttwo unoccupied chairs.
"Who's this?" Bailey asked Copeland, not even addressing Buck. He gasped in surprise when Buck grabbed the man's wrist and twisted. "Aahhh . . .take your hand off me . . ."
"Tell me what happened to my mother."
Bailey frowned. "Who's your mother?"
"Was," Buck hissed. "She was an ex-showgirl turned executive escort. She owned her own business, ran her own girls - and was murdered by your ex-boss."
Bailey's eyes grew wide. "Layla? Layla Wilmington?" He rubbed at the wrist Buck released.
Bailey glanced at Copeland, who nodded and took up the other seat.
"Was a long time ago . . ." He noted the darkening mood of his companion and continued. "Layla, yeah, real sweet lady. She was in good shape, slim, fit, and looked more like she was in her late twenties than thirties. Real classy."
"I already know all this," Buck said, impatiently. "Agent Copeland tells me you were there when she died."
Bailey shook his head. "No, but I was called in to dump . . .uh, to remove her from the apartment." He shifted awkwardly. "Gray loved your mother. Outside his prostitution rings, she was the only independent. She was allowed to operate because she was discrete and offered a different service to his. The fact they loved each other helped too, I guess."
Buck stood, ignoring the threatening tears. "What are you saying? My mother had no special man in her life . . ."
Copeland urged Buck to sit, and he did.
"Your mother was a high class hooker, man, and was damn good at it. She and Gray had a connection. They had fun together. The night she died, he introduced her to a client of his. After the client left, she and Gray were together until some guy showed up at Gray's apartment; some two-bit idiot trying to muscle in on Gray's turf.
"Now, you gotta understand, Gray hates being challenged, and after he and this guy exchanged opinions, Gray shot him dead. Layla was in the next room. All I know is, I was called, and when I arrived, she was dead, and Gray wanted two bodies disposed of."
Buck's breath hitched, his tears flowing freely. "I was only seventeen when I was called to ID her. I saw what he did to her. It's an image I'll never forget."
Bailey shrugged. "Like I said, when he's challenged, it's like a red mist descends. After that night, he never spoke of her again."
"You have a photo of her?" Buck asked.
Bailey winced. "Man, you don't wanna see that."
"But you do have one."
Bailey nodded. "Gray wanted proof that I'd done my job. He never knew I kept a copy of each one."
His face etched with hatred, Buck stood, leaned in and punched the man hard. "If it wasn't for what you're needed for, I'd kill you. My mother worked hard all her life to bring me up right and make sure I wanted for nothing. You may not have murdered her personally, but you left her, alone, at a dump site. She didn't deserve that."
"I already told you, I liked her, she was a real nice lady." Bailey leaned away from Buck as his face got right into his.
"She was a saint!"
Straightening, Buck turned and left. He didn't stop until he reached his own room. Stepping inside, he locked the door and sat on the bed. Taking out his wallet, he gazed at a picture of him and his Ma when he was around fifteen. Buck's spilling eyes gazed toward Heaven.
"We got him, Ma. It's not how I imagined it to be; with me gunning him down and spitting on his corpse, but maybe this is better. Now he gets to rot in jail for the rest of his miserable life."
Something about that statement bothered him, but he filed it for later as Buck finally allowed years of contained misery, pain, and anguish to be released. He cried for a while before, fully clothed and exhausted, he fell asleep on his bed.
"Mmmmm . . ."
JD tiredly batted away the hand on his brow, opening his eyes when the hand there gripped his tightly. His eyes widened. "Chris?"
"How long have you been sick?"
JD waved off the question and tried to settle back down on the couch. "Not sick - hung over."
Larabee glanced at Tanner, whose look told him there was no sign of consumed alcohol. "Okay, I'll buy it. Where's Buck? In bed?"
All the events of earlier came back with urgency and JD gratefully accepted the hand up from Chris. He sat for a few moments nursing his head, then took a breath as he looked up.
"Gone?" Both Chris and Vin answered together.
JD nodded. "Yeah. Some flight attendant called Millie. He took off for the cabin we rented last Spring." JD air quoted. "I guess he wanted to be 'incommunicado'."
Chris sat next to JD. This sort of behavior with Buck was not uncommon. "Come on, Kid. You know ole Buck, his brains drop below his belt when a pretty lady's in the picture."
The hurt in JD's heart finally showed in his face. "No, not anymore. We have a deal; neither of us goes off without the other knowing first. No sudden goodbyes . . ." JD looked into his hero's eyes. "We made a deal."
Nathan, Josiah, and Ezra suddenly appeared. Nathan offered JD a protein shake made from an old family recipe and promised it would help. Ezra handed JD a plate of sandwiches. The boy shuddered.
"Thanks, but I'm really not hungry."
"And when did you last eat?" Standish checked.
JD pondered the question, but quickly realized he couldn't recall. "What day is it?"
Josiah spoke before Chris could. "I've freshened up your bed. You must have dropped this into it."
"Thanks," JD said as he took the locket from Josiah. He closed his hand quickly, so as not to alert anyone of what he'd just noticed.
"He won't need his bed; JD's coming out to stay with me."
The young agent blinked at Larabee. "Chris, I'm fine, really. Thanks, but . . ."
"No buts. I could use the help." He gestured to Vin. "Tanner's going off to 'find himself', which is Texan for he's going stir crazy, so I'll be glad of the company."
JD doubted Chris really needed company, but he liked the idea of himself having some. "Sure, okay. Thanks." He rose to his feet and looked at Vin. "Where are you heading?"
"Figured I'd take off into the mountains for a couple of days." He winked. "You're welcome to come if you'd rather not be muckin' out stalls for the week."
"I too have plenty of chores for idle hands," Josiah offered.
"Y'know Rain'd love to have you stay a while," Nathan reminded.
"There are a few new restaurants I've been meaning to try out, company will make the dining all the better," Ezra stated.
JD glanced between his friends. When had he gotten so lucky as to find guys like these, who truly gave a damn about him and each other? He smiled and looked at Chris.
"Thanks all, but mucking out stalls just sounds too appealing to turn down." He moved toward his bedroom, his heart decidedly lighter than earlier. Turning once to offer his trademark megawatt grin, JD entered his room.
The five men watched him go. Chris folded his arms across his chest. "Nathan?"
"Typical symptoms for him. Overly tired, lack of appetite, slow-reacting pupils."
"Josiah?" Chris asked.
"His bed was unruffled, suggesting heavy slumber. I found a locket in his bed."
"Not his mother's?"
"No alcohol cans or bottles in the trash. Tickets to a Nuggets game for tonight pinned to the cork board. No food consumed all day," Ezra reported.
"Door lock and alarm's been compromised. Unidentified shoeprints everywhere, 'specially in Buck's and the Kid's room," Vin added.
Chris pursed his lips. "Okay, I've got JD. He thinks you're all doing your own thing. I want answers, and fast."
In his room, JD stared down at the locket in his hand. He curled his fingers around it and looked out of the window. "I get it, Buck. I'll follow the trail and figure this out, I promise."
Buck had asked to visit a few places while he was in town. Copeland agreed and sent him off with one of the agents from the safe house. The first place he visited was his mother's grave. Tenderly he touched the headstone. Squatting down, Buck ripped away the weeds and overgrown grass, and placed the flowers he'd purchased into the tilting pot.
This was a place he once promised to bring JD. He had been to visit JD's mom's grave, and Buck told JD he wanted to return the gesture, if JD was interested. Buck smiled as he recalled the boy's reply. They had been staying in the cabin mentioned in Buck's note when he asked, and JD had bubbled with a mix of emotion, and gratitude.
Buck's heart clenched when he recalled telling JD it was he who was grateful. The pair had grown closer than brothers, and it had changed Buck's life, and he was in no doubt, JD's too. Coupled with the fact they both had five other friends, brothers, to lean on, Buck finally eased up on the deep-seated anger losing his mother triggered. He would never give up the search for her killer, but the loss no longer consumed his days, and haunted his dreams.
Buck's welling eyes glanced around. Any day now he would put that particular demon well and truly to rest. Detective Garcia had kept his promise. Buck made a mental note to thank the man in person.
From the graveyard, Buck traveled to the site of his mother's former thriving bordello and escort business. The once proud, dynamic building was now fenced off and marked as condemned. His mother owned the building outright, and Buck sold it to pay for her funeral and to send himself, and the girls working for her, to college, as promised in her Will. He looked in disgust at the crumbling brickwork. To this day he never knew who bought the place, but whoever it was had caused this once grand place to become worthless rubble.
He was sorely tempted to go back to the hotel on the Strip where his mother once danced, but fought the urge and headed back to the safe house. He would keep the bulk of his reminiscing for when he and JD, and any of the other guys who wanted to, came back to Vegas with him.
When Buck arrived back, and on his way to his room, he noticed Copeland's door slightly open. He knocked, but received no answer, so pushed open the door. He was surprised how easy it was to locate the evidence from Bailey, and took no time in finding the copy of the photo of his mother's body dump.
Buck paused, his conscience battling with his heart due to the need to possess the photo but to have to tamper with evidence to get it. His heart won and he tucked it into his pocket. Should it be needed, he would give it up, but it was highly unlikely one out of literally hundreds of as yet, undocumented photos it would be missed. He heard someone coming. It was fruitless to try to leave, so he tipped out the envelope containing the accounting books and started examining them.
"You could have asked."
Buck turned to Copeland as he entered the room. "I knocked; and these weren't exactly hidden away."
"Is there something in particular you're interested in?"
"Well, something occurred to me, yesterday. If these are the original accounting ledgers, why aren't they, and the other items, locked away in evidence?"
Copeland nodded. "I heard you and your team are sharp. It's just down to the fact that we have Bailey here, and need him to go over some of this with an agent trained for just this sort of detail. Right now, that agent is collaborating on a case being heard in court, but he's due here Tuesday."
"Two days before you bust Gray? That's pretty tight."
"We still have a working knowledge of the evidence, plus Bailey's statement, so the arrest will be solid."
Buck closed the ledgers. "Will Detective Garcia be in on it?"
Copland made a face. "Ah, you haven't heard. Detective Garcia died in a road accident four months ago. We requested his documents on the case, and that's when your name came up. It was logged that you spoke to Garcia only a year ago pertaining to the case."
Buck nodded and headed for the door. "You bet your ass I did. The Statute of Limitations is continuous where murder is concerned except if a judge rules the case has gone cold. My aim was never to let that happen."
LARABEE RANCH, TUESDAY
Chris knew it was coming. Several days on and Buck had yet to call. His only communication was a text the previous night, which caused JD to restlessly pace around the barn and corral all morning. The young agent was clearly wrestling with something, and Chris was in no doubt who and what was on JD's mind. Seeing the youth resting his arms on the corral fencing and staring between the horses and his iPhone, Chris walked across the yard toward him.
"Penny for 'em?"
JD jolted out of his musing and smiled coyly at Chris. "Sorry, I was miles away. Did you want something?"
"Some company would be a start."
JD huffed out a soft laugh. "You needing company is as unheard of as Buck needing to give up women . . ." JD trailed off at the mention of his missing surrogate brother's name. Chris moved in closer.
"At least he got a message to you. He seemed in great spirits." Chris's eyebrow rose at the disgruntled look from JD. The youth popped his phone into a pocket.
"And you still can't recall much about the night Buck took off?" Chris asked.
JD rested his chin back on his folded arms. "Nope. We ordered pizza, broke open a couple of beers." He paused. "No - Doc Peppers, we were out of beer. Then we settled in to watch some basketball." JD sighed.
"Next thing I remember, I was on top of my bed covers, fully clothed, and hung over." The youth gnawed on his lower lip.
"I guess we must've found something to drink after all. I just can't recall what it was." He turned to Chris. "Bad, huh?" He took the blond's silence as confirmation, and hunkered lower on the corral fencing.
Larabee remained silent because he disliked lying and right now, agreeing to JD's certainty that he had been drinking would have been dishonest. Telling JD there was cause to believe something more ominous had happened that night would only be constructive if there was solid evidence. Hopefully, that would soon be rectified.
"You still think Buck just up and took off, don't you?"
Chris looked at JD and shrugged one shoulder. "You so sure he didn't?"
"Yeah, and one text isn't gonna convince me otherwise." JD straightened and thumbed toward the garage. "I'm gonna take a ride out on my bike, clear my head some."
"JD . . ."
As he watched him go, Chris shook his head. "Way to keep his spirits up, Larabee." A minute or so later, and to the sound of JD's bike roaring off into the distance, Chris dialed. "Tell me something I don't know, Vin."
He listened. "When will they get back to you? Okay, keep me informed." Closing down the call, Chris looked toward the route JD had taken. He momentarily closed his eyes as a thought struck him. "Aww hell, JD."
DOWNTOWN LAS VEGAS - SUPER 8 MOTEL
Buck lay on top of the covers of his motel bed. He moved out of the safe house when he realized how close he was getting to kicking the crap out of Bailey. Buck appreciated Bailey wasn't directly to blame for the hundreds of deaths, including Buck's own mother, which Gray had either ordered or carried out himself. However, the ex-sidekick turned informant was smug in the belief he would be immune to any sentencing or jail time, pertaining to his links to Gray.
That attitude was more than Buck could take, and so after a heated debate with Copeland, Buck found himself here, but with his very own FBI 'minder' in the next room as a compromise.
Despite him growing up in this city it was now alien to him, and temporarily without his Glock, or a cell phone, Buck felt lonely and vulnerable. He had barely slept; his mind in turmoil over the speed and nature of events. To be so close to something he had dreamed of for way too many years was almost too mind-boggling to comprehend. Thursday could not come fast enough.
But he was more than a little troubled. Given a choice, Buck would want his brothers of the heart with him, or at least to have known his whereabouts. He didn't like that he and JD were drugged, and especially didn't like not knowing if JD was okay because of it. At least Copeland had acquiesced to his perseverance on at least sending JD a text message. To cover for the disposable cell he used, while encouraging a lack of response, Buck made out he was using 'Millie's' phone.
The tear that trickled from the corner of his eye tickled his ear. Lying to any of the guys, but especially to JD was cutting deep and had prompted a reaction he never would have believed possible when having the opportunity to face his mother's murderer; a determination and deep-seated desire to get the hell away from Vegas the minute he succeeded in spitting in the bastard's face, or better yet, beating him to pulp.
Buck sat up and rubbed at his face when he realized his thoughts were drifting toward the idea of hoping the guy got cut down during the actual bust. However, as appealing as that idea sounded to him, the fact he would not be allowed to carry a firearm, or maybe not even be directly involved in the initial take-down, meant he would not have the pleasure of claiming that triumph personally. So he was back to beating the guy to pulp.
Buck figured it would have to do, and he'd damn-well make sure the guy knew who was beating on him, too.
BEAR CREEK - 25 MINUTES FROM DENVER
Having pulled up short of his objective, JD walked his bike the last quarter mile. After toeing down the kickstand, he touched the small of his back to ensure his gun was still there, and walked up to the cabin door.
He knocked twice, then took a step back. "Hello the house!" Glancing around and noting there was no vehicle around, JD squatted and poked around the small shrubbery next to the porch. He smiled on finding a spare key concealed inside a hollow rock. Standing, JD opened the door and walked inside.
It didn't take a detective to see the place wasn't currently in use. Removing his Colt from his belt holster, JD moved from room to room in search of any evidence Buck had been there, already convinced there would be nothing to find. In the master bedroom, JD perched on the edge of the bed and fished inside his shirt pocket.
Buck's mother's locket sat nestled in the palm of JD's right hand, its chain trailing through his fingers as he stared at the cherished jewelry. Closing his eyes he tried to recall their last trip here, pulling up conversations filed deep within his memories. Hearing the barest of sounds, JD's eyes flashed open and his head turned toward the lounge area. The Colt in his left hand, he stood and crept toward the bedroom door. Just as he reached it and began to peer out, a gun barrel touched his nose.
JOSIAH'S HOME, DENVER
Inside, four men were collating information and chasing down leads, but not getting very far. Ezra could find no trace of Buck's name on any commercial flights for the days he was missing and was now working his way through the bus and train schedules. The team, however, had a working theory that Buck had been taken out of State via a private airfield, or even by road.
Vin had called in favors from all over the country from bounty hunters and was waiting hopefully for word on a sighting. Via email, Nathan had put out a BOLO to every hospital in case Buck had been admitted, while Josiah, along with Vin was working through the evidence photographed and gathered at the CDC while waiting on the results of some that were already with CSI.
Inspection of footage from the apartment building's and parking lot's surveillance cameras had uncovered a lapse in recorded material between the hours of 4:00a.m. and 6:00a.m. on Saturday morning. The team was now petitioning for copies of tapes from traffic and street cameras in the hope of uncovering who left the apartment that morning, and if Buck was with them.
Their first break came earlier that day when CSI called to confirm the pizza boxes found discarded in the CDC's kitchen tested positive for traces of Nitrazepam. Speculation of events had suddenly become very real.
FISHING CABIN, BEAR CREEK
JD froze in place. The realization he was not alone, and with an armed adversary no less, sent his mind whirling. His tense shoulders dropped on hearing a voice.
"Jesus, Chris, you trying to give me a heart attack?"
Larabee holstered his H&K and offered a wry smile. "No more than you're trying to get yourself killed."
Entering the lounge area, JD shrugged. "I figured Buck wouldn't be here."
"And you didn't think to tell me you were coming out here?"
JD sat on the couch and rubbed at his aching eyes. "I wanted to be sure."
Chris joined him. "You have a theory?"
"And . . .?"
JD held out the locket. "At first I thought Buck feared he wouldn't be back, and wanted me to have this. But then I went over his note, and I believe the message was linked to the locket."
"How so?" Chris asked.
"I think mentioning this cabin was deliberate. The note he wrote - well, it took a few attempts."
Chris nodded his agreement, he'd seen, and had collected up the trashed papers.
"So I've been going over our time here, in this cabin. In our room one night, we talked about our moms. I knew he had his mom's locket, just as he knew I had my mom's. He talked a little about Vegas, and how the girls his mom worked with were like family to him. Then he went kinda quiet. When I pushed he told me he was in touch with a detective in the LVPD who had known his mom when she was a showgirl and was keeping her case open with a promise to Buck if ever there was a lead, or a break, he would let him know. Apparently they kept in touch about once a year."
Chris pursed his lips. "I see where you're going with this, but that's a hell of a stretch, don't you think?"
JD looked his hero in the eye. "I can't explain it, but I really want to go to Vegas and see if he's there. Somehow, Buck dropped me that locket, and noted a place, the only place, that we've ever talked about those three things, Vegas, the locket, and his mom. This cabin."
"Did he tell you the name of the detective he was in touch with?"
JD nodded. "But for the life of me I can't recall it." His pained gaze locked with his hero's. "Chris, I'm scared for him. None of this adds up unless I examine it 'outside the box', so to speak." He licked his lips.
"I can't be sure how but, I'm thinking maybe I wasn't drinking that night, but drugged. On the way over here I thought about how I'd been feeling, and it kinda reminded me of times I've been injured and when, at first, I'm on the really strong meds.
"Then, before Buck left he made a point of leaving me clues. What if he wanted me - us - to follow him? What if he knew he was in trouble and this is his way of telling us? I mean, come on, one lousy text message in four days? I'm not buying any of it." He gestured at the cabin.
"And now Buck's not here? Please, Chris, you know that Buck's changed. This just isn't like him now, and while we sit here, he could be . . ." Fear, confusion, and frustration finally caught up with him and JD bowed his head for a few moments.
Taking a deep breath, he looked up. "I'm going to Vegas. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong, but I have to know. I can't just sit here and not do something. If it were any of us, if it were you or me . . .Buck wouldn't wait. He'd be out there looking."
Larabee smiled, wryly. There were often times JD reminded him of a younger Buck, and there were times, like now, that JD reminded him of himself.
"Okay, this is what we know. We didn't take any blood or urine tests, but, like you, Nathan also believes you were drugged, and his word is good enough for me. The guys are working on trying to follow the clues, but we haven't had a break yet."
JD looked hurt. "Why didn't you tell me all this?"
"We planned to, but I wanted you fully recovered 'cause I knew exactly what you'd want to do if you knew more, and I wasn't about to let you shoot off in any condition other than fully fit." He tilted his head and raised an eyebrow, knowingly.
JD lowered his head, nodded, then looked up at Chris. "Good conclusion, and seeing as I am now fully fit I'm definitely going."
Chris stood and urged JD to do likewise. "Come on. Let's lock up and get back to the ranch. We'll see if any leads have cropped up. If not, we'll make some Vegas-focused enquiries and if anything pans out, you and me'll head there." He winked. "Can't have you going there alone and causing havoc, can I?"
"Really?" JD beamed. "Wait, not all of us?"
The pair stepped outside and loaded JD's bike onto the Ram parked up a short distance away. Chris shook his head.
"We can't go in there all gung ho. For one, it's out of our jurisdiction until something solid is turned up, and second, we have no idea what we'll be walking into. When we get there, best we make some subtle enquiries, while the guys keep at it from this end. Of course, that could all change, depending on what we find."
Chris curled a hand around the back of JD's neck. "You're right, Buck has changed. Not so long ago he'd never pass up an opportunity to be with a woman, no matter what plans he'd made, but lately, he's been more settled, and it doesn't take a genius to know why. None of this adds up, and you've made me realize it's way past time to go get him."
Considerably lighter of heart to be doing something more positive, JD jumped into the Ram. Chris took one last look at the cabin, got in behind the wheel and pulled away feeling a hell of a lot happier himself.
SUPER 8 MOTEL - EARLY HOURS OF WEDNESDAY MORNING
Buck jolted awake at the sound of muted pops from the room next door to his; the room his enforced companion was sleeping in. Before he could get his sleep-addled mind fully alert, his door burst open and in moments several men were pounding into him.
"What the hell . . .? Get the hell off me you sonsabitches!"
Buck fought back, even managing to catch one man in the groin, but something solid impacted against his temple and he plummeted into semi-consciousness. While one of his assailants snatched up Buck's possessions, two others bound his hands and feet. They then took him to a waiting van. Tossing the limp agent into the back and slamming the doors shut, the armed men jumped into the front and seconds later the vehicle was screeching out of the parking lot.
With nothing in the back to stop him, and with no means of preventing it, Buck was tossed mercilessly around. One particularly sharp bend caused his head to impact hard with the sturdy paneling. The smack added to the first blow and Buck lost his valiant fight to stay conscious.
The force of cold water hitting his face brought Buck awake. Noting he was in a sumptuous hotel room and tied to a chair, he tried to focus on the figures standing around him. "What the hell is this?"
Gray stepped closer. "I was about to ask you a similar question, Agent Wilmington. Why are you here, in Vegas, and with an FBI agent who has been bugging me for longer than I care to remember?"
Buck looked at the man, assessing him to be in his late forties, early fifties. "You have me tied to a chair and you know my name, so how about you fill me in on what the hell it's got to do with you?" His head snapped sideways from a vicious blow.
"Answer my question."
Shaking off the punch, Buck stared at his unknown assailant. "Screw you." The next blow he received was even harder, and drew blood at the corner of his left eye.
"Answer my question."
Buck glared at the man. "Wilmington, B. Special Agent, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; badge number DV seven, seven, seven, zero three." Buck was unable to stifle groans when two goons landed numerous blows to his face and gut. Battered, bloody and bruised, he took several shuddering breaths and again looked defiantly at Gray.
"Wilmington, B. Special Agent, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; badge number DV seven, seven, seven, zero three."
Gray looked to his men. "I think Agent Wilmington needs some guidance in manners." He turned away and to the sounds of pained grunts at flesh being pounded mercilessly, the racketeer left the room.
JOSIAH'S HOME, DENVER - WEDNESDAY P.M.
After a call from one of Vin's contacts, the four teammates had been furiously following up lines of enquiry. Hands went to guns at the sound of a door opening, but relaxed when Chris's voice called out and he and JD entered the temporary base of operations in Josiah's study.
"You got something for me?" Chris more demanded than asked.
Vin noted JD's quiet demeanor, then nodded. "Looks like the Vegas hunch was on the money. A local bounty hunter there called to say one of his informants saw a guy matching Buck's description being manhandled in through the back entrance of the Riviera Hotel."
"Manhandled?" JD asked, quietly.
Vin looked at the others and saw the small nods of agreement. He glanced between Chris and JD. "Carried to be exact. The guy looked to be unconscious." The four had each reacted when they heard that, and now saw Chris and JD's fists tighten at the news.
"We gotta go," JD hissed.
Chris momentarily stayed the request with a raised hand. "And . . .?"
Vin couldn't help the smile prompted by Larabee's anticipation of more.
"The hotel in question went bankrupt two years ago. There's construction work around it and speculation is that the ban on foot traffic around there because of it contributed to the situation. A man named Miles Gray sank a lot of money into the place after it went bust and now it's pickin' up again."
Ezra took up the narrative. "The name rang a bell with me, so I contacted the one remaining associate in Atlanta I can trust and he informed me that Denver Agent Darien Copeland has been chasing down this racketeer for a good many years. Outside of the FBI, Copeland's only regular LVPD contact appeared to be Detective Raul Garcia."
"Garcia!" JD suddenly yelled. "That's him, that's the guy Buck was in touch with." His pleading gaze was not lost on the team leader. "Buck must've gone with Garcia to Vegas . . ."
"No," Josiah interrupted. "Garcia was killed in a car accident four months ago. I contacted LVPD and discovered the vehicle that hit him was never found. I asked if he had any open cases and . . ." Sanchez took a breath; he knew what emotions his next words would evoke.
"There were three, ranging from around five to sixteen years, and the one that got our attention was the murder and body dump of an ex-showgirl-turned owner of an executive escort agency . . ."
"Oh, God . . ."
All eyes turned to JD, who was now struggling to compose himself. Buck needed them; he needed to be with Buck. He moved to leave. "Screw this, I'm leaving."
Chris grabbed JD's arm and held firm. " We're going," he reminded. "Okay, guys, put this together and present it to Travis ASAP. I'll call you when we've landed."
"We're comin' too," Vin stated.
"No. I plan to liaise with Copeland. You stay put . . .that's an order, Tanner."
The room crackled with tension as glares were exchanged and JD vibrated with the need to get the hell out of there. Vin raised a hand and he and Chris clasped forearms.
"Take care of yourselves."
Chris nodded and offered a tight smile. "You bet."
With handshakes to Chris and embraces for JD from the others, the already packed pair was soon in the Ram and heading for the airport.
After landing at McCarran airport, Chris and JD took up a twin room at a Best Western. Despite the lateness of the hour, they barely checked their bags before heading to the Las Vegas Police Department to meet with Agent Copeland. He welcomed them and immediately set to work, suitably impressed that they had gathered so much information in so little time.
"You should have come to me."
Copeland wasn't an easy person to unnerve, but the glare accompanying Chris's words was unsettling. "My brief was to keep it to Wilmington. It had nothing to do with the ATF."
Chris leaned in. "Screw the ATF, anything to do with any of my men goes through me, or AD Travis." He relaxed. "But this is water under the bridge. Where do we stand? Does anyone here have a theory as to who took Buck, or to where?"
Copeland shook his head. "Like yourselves, I can speculate as to who; I might even be able to guess where."
"Would he dare to take Buck to his own hotel?"
Copeland shrugged. "Gray's holding a large meeting there tomorrow. Rumor has it he's rounding up the troops to give them a slap on the wrist Mob style. He has no idea Bailey's told us this. We're going in just after they settle down."
"Bailey?" Chris asked.
"He's a valuable informant who is turning State's evidence. We hope to finally put that murdering bastard Gray behind bars."
"Do you have people actively looking for him - for Buck?"
Surprised at the gentle question, Copeland turned to the youth accompanying Chris who hadn't spoken since the pair arrived. "Are you related to him, son?"
"You could say that," JD replied.
Chris introduced JD. "This is Agent Dunne. He's my team tech, and is very close to Buck. All our team is close." It was clear Copeland was surprised by the introduction, but there was no time to dwell on it. He answered JD's question.
"We have the Riviera staked out, but so far - nothing." Copeland gestured toward the door. "Look, you guys might as well go rest up. We're meeting here tomorrow at oh-nine-thirty hours for a briefing. The meeting at the Riviera is due to start at lunchtime."
Both visitors realized how tired they were. Chris nodded, and guided JD out of the building. The blond was about to hail a cab, when JD looked at him.
"We could go there, to the Riviera."
Chris smiled, knowingly. "Don't think the thought hadn't crossed my mind, Kid; but - if this was our bust, and cops from another jurisdiction compromised it, how would you feel about that?"
JD swallowed. "I know what you're saying, but Buck . . ."
"...May not even be there," Chris reasoned. "Tomorrow, we're gonna get this guy, and where Gray is, Buck is. We'll get him back, JD, we'll get Buck back, and home." Chris wasn't making false promises, he had never been more sincere in his life.
As they climbed into the cab, both knew they wouldn't sleep well that night, but they would hold on to the belief that Buck would be with them tomorrow. They'd find him, or were prepared to die trying.
RIVIERA RESORT, 4:30 A.M.
Sleeping in a sitting position while tied to a chair did nothing for Buck's neck, not to mention all the grazes and bruises currently making themselves known. He didn't need to look around to know he was being guarded, so wasted no time in trying to escape.
"Any chance of some water?" He rasped.
There was shuffling and the sound of a door opening just before a bottle was placed to his lips and tilted. Buck took long, needy gulps, enjoying the soothing trickles that escaped the corners of his lips to run down his neck. All too soon, the water was gone.
"We're not barbarians." Sitting in a plush armchair, Miles Gray snapped on a lamp to illuminate himself. "But your life is at risk the longer you refuse to explain your presence in Vegas."
"What is your problem?" Buck asked. "You know who I am, who I work for, why is it such an issue that Federal Agents from different States occasionally work together?"
Gray shrugged. "Call it gut instinct. I've been in this city all my life. Took over my father's business when he died. He, and many others in his line of work founded this city, so maybe it's a gift, maybe it's karma, but we natives know when something's off, and you, are definitely throwing out signals."
Buck smirked. "Nah, that's just my animal magnetism . . .aaarrrggghhh!" He arched at the kidney punch.
"Don't be flippant, Wilmington." Gray stood and approached. "So you won't talk. No matter, my plans for you will put an end to anything you and Copeland have cooked up between you." He patted Buck's battered face, amused as the brunet stiffened his body and pulled away from him.
"Rest well; you have a big day today." Gray checked his watch. "In about eight hours to be exact."
Once he heard the door close, Buck gave in to the pain and slumped in his chair. Wearily, he glanced out at the lightening sky and the surrounding skyline. All at once, his eyes widened and his heart thumped rapidly in his throat. He knew where he was, he was . . .he was in the hotel where his mother once danced. He was in the Riviera.
BRIEFING ROOM - LVPD, 10:15 A.M.
Toward the end of the briefing an argument had erupted between Larabee and Copeland. The latter was adamant no out-of-State agents were going on the bust. Chris was insistent they were. Eventually a compromise was made and Chris was allowed to join the Vegas unit.
JD protested vehemently, but Chris, in a way only he could, took JD outside the meeting room and got him calmed down and realizing the compromise was better than neither of them going. After finding the words to order JD back to their hotel without making the youth feel rejected, Chris watched JD nod, and went back into the briefing room.
Outside the precinct, JD decided on a new plan of action. He approached a group of cops about to go out on patrol and flashed his ID. "Anyone driving close to Vegas Boulevard, the South end?"
One patrolman nodded. "It's on my route. Hop in."
"Thanks." JD grinned, and got into the squad car.
Within half an hour, JD was standing outside the Riviera. He wanted to say 'wow', but was too focused on being ready for when the bust went down. The resort was huge, and so he headed for reception. There, he found a board noting the conference rooms that were in use that day, and at what time. He smiled inwardly at the listing of 'Gray Family - Private Event' that was booked into the Frank Sinatra Suite from 12:45 p.m.
The actual venue was across the quad away from the rooms, casino, and main lobby. JD picked his spot in the bar looking back at the elevator bank. He ordered coffee, put his phone on silent, and waited.
The combined FBI and LVPD unit arrived at the Vegas Conference Center, situated to the rear of the Riviera. From there, they would be able to note the arrivals for the meeting. The last to go in would determine their timing.
Chris was worried. Firstly for Buck's safety, concern rising that all his, JD's, and the team's efforts would be in vain. He pushed that thought away. Buck was alive, Chris could sense it. Secondly, JD was on his mind. The young agent had given in to the compromise far too easily, and when he'd tried, Chris couldn't raise JD on his cell.
Noise outside the surveillance van gave Chris his third cause for concern when he stepped out.
"What part of 'stay put' did you guys not understand?"
Josiah, Ezra, and Nathan failed to reply, so Vin did. "Look, we'll fight about this later. Travis talked to the FBI here and got us permission to join the party." He glanced around. "Where's the kid?"
Chris was torn between relief and his recent fresh concerns. "I ordered him back to our hotel room. It was a compromise for me to join the raid."
"Would you like me to place a call to our youngest to request his company?" Ezra asked.
"You can try," Chris replied. "But I've failed to raise him for the last half hour or so."
Just like Chris, that comment caused the others to feel a jitter of uneasiness.
"We go in twenty," Copeland called out over the headsets.
Larabee finally smiled at his team. "That's the countdown signal, welcome to Vegas."
Fresh bruises marked Buck's handsome face, but despite the regular beatings he still maintained his business in Vegas was nothing to do with Gray. Miles Gray himself grabbed Buck's hair and forced his head back for one final attempt at extracting a confession but was interrupted by someone entering the room and approaching.
"Sir . . ."
"What!?" Gray snapped.
"Sorry Mr. Gray, but your meeting is in twenty minutes."
As Buck felt his hair being released, his world narrowed. Hearing Gray's name, the name of the man who took his mother's life hurt worse than any punches received. He stared at the man with such hatred that it appeared to unnerve the racketeer.
Despite wanting to break free to rip the man's limbs off one by one and beat him to death with them, Buck fought his desire to announce who he was just yet. That would be a moment to be savored, and also, he hoped that when he made it known, it would offer him an advantage.
Gray composed himself and nodded. He turned to Buck and smiled. "I have associates to meet with. They need a reminder of my standing in this city. You, sir, will be the perfect way to demonstrate that point." He looked at his men.
"We're leaving. Untie him and bring him along."
While JD waited, he figured he might as well put his time to good use. Pulling out his wallet, he flipped it open and showed an item from it to the barman.
"Hi, have you seen this guy around here?"
The man took Buck's photo and studied it. He shook his head. "Nah, sorry."
JD offered a tight smile. "Thanks." It had been worth a shot.
The barman smiled. "Coming up."
As JD went back to focusing on the elevators, the barman poured him a drink before making a phone call.
Just before the group left the hotel room, the phone on the nightstand rang. One of Gray's goons answered it, mumbled something and replaced the receiver. He approached Gray and whispered in the man's ear.
Gray looked at Buck, then nodded to his man.
Buck was standing, but still tied and he wondered why the delay. A flash of hope lit his aching heart that Copeland may have found him. The next event would not only dash his anticipation, but plunge him into the depths of despair.
A knock at the door had one thug answer. Buck barely suppressed a cry when JD came hurtling through the door to land on his knees before Gray. 'No'.
Gray leaned over the youth. "You've been asking questions."
His nose bloodied, JD looked at the man. "No law against it." He paid for his retort with a smack to the face.
Gray was handed JD's wallet. "ATF?" He glanced at Buck. "You've been holding out on me, Wilmington."
Buck huffed. "He's just a punk kid whose computer smarts got him working as a tech for us. He follows me around like a damned puppy." Buck looked at JD. "What the hell do you want from me? I told you, I'm not your Goddamned minder, so quit bugging me, runt."
"Screw you," JD snapped back. "Pardon me for being worried about you."
"I don't need you worrying about me," Buck hissed out. "In fact, I don't need you, period."
Gray watched the interaction. "Interesting." He looked at his men and one instantly stepped forward. Gray gestured toward the bedroom. "I have no need for two agents. Take Dunne in there and kill him."
The man nodded and hauled a struggling JD to his feet. Buck instantly reacted, and had to be restrained by two more goons.
"No! He's just some dumb-ass kid. Don't do this!" Buck half choked, half pleaded.
Gray looked at him coldly. "You don't get a say in this."
Buck struggled furiously, but the men just held him tighter. "I'll talk, you free the kid and I'll tell you what you want to know."
Gray shook his head. "You had your chance. Too late for you, now."
Terror gripped his heart and tears welled in his eyes as Grant nodded to his man and JD was shoved into the bedroom. 'Fight, Li'l Brother, fight'.
Inside the bedroom, the armed man spun JD to face away from him. "On your knees and hands behind your back."
JD turned to look at him. "Go to hell!"
The man viciously punched JD's face. "Don't look at me. On your knees."
JD's head swam, but he remained standing, ready to lash out in any way he could. An unexpected punch to his kidneys took away all options and he dropped on his knees to the floor. Fear and agony fought for dominance as he felt a gun at the back of his neck. JD again began turning his head, but received another slap.
"Don't look at me." The man's voice went low. "I won't make this hurt too much."
Outside the bedroom Buck strained to hear for signs of some kind of struggle. Instead, two swift, muffled pops came from the room and he went limp. The goons released him and Buck dropped to his knees and howled.
Bereft, Buck hung his head and wept.
The man exited the bedroom and while wiping his bloody hands in a handkerchief, he unscrewed the silencer on his gun. "I'll call a cleanup crew," he said, simply.
Gray nodded and gestured to his men. They hauled Buck to his feet. "Keep him tied, I think we shouldn't underestimate Agent Wilmington."
Eyes red, Buck looked at the man who had killed first his beloved mother, and now the boy he had considered closer than blood. His voice was husky and deadly low as he spoke through gritted teeth.
"You'd better kill me, because if I get free, I'm going to tear you apart with my bare hands." He looked at the man with the gun who had shot JD. "And then I'm coming for you."
Once again Gray was unnerved by the venom in Buck's tone and demeanor. He waved off the comment. "We're running late, let's go."
Buck's legs were like lead and he was half walked, half dragged out of the suite. His own considerable aches and pains were disregarded as he took one last look at the bedroom. He couldn't care less if he died now, for alive, he would be forever haunted by the fact that, despite being said in the hope of saving his brother's life, his last words to JD were ones of revulsion.
The very opposite of how he felt for the youngster who had changed his very existence for the better, and lost his own life to try and save him.
Inside and around the FBI surveillance van, agents and cops were listening to the conversations being picked up via a parabolic microphone. At last, the room being bugged went quiet and Gray's voice came over loud and clear.
"Welcome all. I hope you enjoyed the buffet. Now to the reason you are all here." Anxious mumbles sounded.
"What's going on, Miles? Why the guards and locked doors?"
There was a pause. "I have conclusive evidence that many of you here have been skimming off my profits."
"Denying it is a waste of time. I was thinking of gathering you here and maybe gunning you all down, but figured it too messy and besides, as traitorous as some of you have become, I need operations to continue."
There were sounds of shuffling.
"So instead, I have a demonstration for you. To add to my already growing tally of dead cops and agents, I thought an execution, right here, in front of you, would remind you that I fear no one, and will kill anyone who gets in my way."
Another pause was followed by sounds of disgruntlement.
"Ladies and gentlemen, meet Agent Wilmington, ATF."
The assembled law enforcement officers jumped to attention. Copeland spoke urgently into his mic. "Operation Downfall is go. Take up positions. Take up positions!" He looked at Chris and his team.
"Let's do this."
Larabee's face was grim. "You better pray we're in time."
Buck was standing on a stage in front of many of Vegas's seedy underworld players, but he was indifferent to the location. Battered, bruised, and broken-hearted, his fate was of no consequence to him. All he wanted now was revenge; revenge for two people he loved; his mother, and his brother. Both lost in acts of mindless violence, the former, before he could even say goodbye, and the latter being personally denounced by him before being executed.
Oh yes, he wanted revenge. He was not about to undergo a meaningless death. He would make it count. He owed his mom and JD that much.
"On your knees!"
Buck snapped out of his stupor to the sound of Gray's voice. "What?"
"Get on your knees."
Buck huffed and faced forward. "Go to Hell."
Something hard hit the back of one leg and the pain caused him to drop down. On his knees, and with his hands still bound from behind, Buck felt a gun at his neck. Gray looked at his stunned audience.
"I do this in memory of my father, your former Patron, Miles Buchanan Gray the first."
As he raised the gun to line up with the back of Buck's head, the doors burst in and the room was flooded with cops.
"FBI! No one move! Hands on heads and drop to your knees, now!"
As organized chaos ensued, Buck rolled onto his back and looped his hands down and over his feet to bring them forward. With a strength that should have left him after hours of being tortured, he slammed Gray to the ground, disarmed him, straddled the man, and began pounding his tied fists into every part of the prone felon.
Team Seven's focus was purely on Buck. Like heat-seeking missiles, they went through the mass of kneeling bodies being searched and Mirandized and straight for the stage. Chris and Vin leapt up onto it to pull Buck and his grazed and blood-spattered fists up off a battered, bleeding, and semi-conscious Gray. Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra were right there to help as the enraged brunet kept swinging out while shrieking in protest.
"Get away, get off! He killed them he killed them! I-want-him-dead!"
Copeland went to Gray, then glanced at Buck's injuries and instantly called for assistance. "Paramedics!"
Chris held Buck close. He glanced worriedly at the others. "Them, Buck? Who did Gray kill?"
The brunet suddenly dropped on his knees to the floor taking Chris down with him.
Buck shuddered out a breath. "JD . . .he . . .executed JD . . .right . . .right there next to me."
All five teammates' expressions turned to alarm.
"Say again?" Vin rasped.
"Gray . . .murdered . . .JD."
Events and pain finally overtook Buck and leaning into Chris he sobbed out his anguish; his whole body quaked as he cried noisily and hard.
While a stunned Chris embraced Buck, Josiah spoke for all of them. "Oh, dear God."
They'd lost JD? Would Buck now be lost to them, too?
Outside the conference room two armed LVPD officers challenged two approaching men. One flashed his ID badge at the officers.
"Agent Shaun Blaine, FBI."
With a nod, one officer opened the door to a much calmer scene inside, and let them in. Spotting Copeland with a group of unknown agents, Blaine and his companion made their way over.
While one paramedic dealt with Gray, another hovered, waiting for Buck to be helped down off the stage. Buck was spent, near catatonic as he was led from the stage and onto the main floor. All focus was on the shattered brunet, and so they missed the approach of the two recent arrivals until Blaine spoke.
"After my deception, the least I could do was return this young man to you."
Despite his disheveled appearance and a bloody nose and temple, JD had never looked more perfect in Team Seven's eyes. Five men's eyes grew misty as grins emerged. Buck just stared . . .and stared. With a mighty wail that caused them all to jolt, Buck suddenly launched himself at JD and pulled him in tight.
His own emotions raw, JD's arms came around the tall man and trembling fingers fisted Buck's shirt. Hot tears soaked the material as he buried his face into his partner's chest. While one of Buck's long arms held JD close, his free hand covered his face as he wept. There were no words, just exhaustion and release.
Both were oblivious to the fact that the team had surrounded them to protect their privacy, not that any law enforcement officer in the room would have ever judged them. They all knew what had gone down in the last two days, including the death of the agent who had been watching out for Buck in the Super 8 Motel.
As they stood there, each team member placed a supportive hand on the pair. After what seemed like hours, and Nathan hovering to take a look at Buck and JD but having no chance at all, Chris spoke up.
"You both need to go to the hospital."
Separating, but still clinging to each other, JD took Buck's weight and the two surrogate brothers, accompanied by Chris and the paramedic, went quietly to a waiting ambulance. Josiah spoke to the agent before them.
"Care to explain why Buck thought JD had been executed?"
Vin stepped closer to Blaine, his expression feral, and his emotions way closer to the surface than he would like. "This better be good."
Shaun glanced at Copeland, then replied. "I've been working undercover for three years. Just before Gray came down here, Agent Dunne was manhandled into the room. I knew Gray was pushed for time, and when, as I'd expected, he called for the execution, I made sure I was first to step up. I regretted having to hurt him at all, but Gray trusts no one anymore. He's been known to check up on us, though I was pretty sure his tight schedule dictated he wouldn't be too bothered right then; so after I put the kid out, I smeared his blood on my hands."
Shaun looked at Ezra. "What?"
"He's called JD," Ezra replied, tersely. They called JD 'Kid', but it was their right, no one else's.
Josiah stepped in to diffuse the building tension. He extended his hand. "Your actions saved JD's life. Thank you." After he spoke, he could sense Vin and Ezra settle down. Vin gave a sharp nod to Blaine and as Shaun shook Josiah's hand, the team profiler knew the rising anger was expended.
"If there's nothin' more, we'd kinda like to check in on Buck and JD," Vin said to Copeland.
The agent shook the four men's hands. "Thanks guys. Thank Agent Larabee, and Buck for me too, would you? And give my best to JD. I'll need to get their statements, but that can wait. With what we already have, not to mention Gray's confession to murdering officers and agents captured on tape, our case is solid."
While he watched the four ATF agents walk away, Copeland looked around. He took in a cleansing breath. It was over. There had been casualties; far too many for his liking, but Miles Gray was finally out of business. He marveled that, despite how little time they were involved, Team Seven had contributed to Gray's undoing. He was proud to have worked with them, and made a silent vow to say so before they left for Denver.
SPRING VALLEY HOSPITAL, 11:00 P.M.
Opting not to go back to their hotel, the team took turns to sit with Buck as he lay in a medicated sleep inside his private room. Since his treatment for a minor head wound, JD had sat in a chair next to Buck the whole time with one of his hands curled around the man's wrist.
Buck's many bruises, grazes and cuts, and his several cracked ribs would heal with time. What they all hoped was that his heart would, too. The past week had been a rollercoaster of memories and anguish for the kindhearted man and no one, not even the doctor could be sure of his mental state when he awoke.
When Chris returned to the dimly lit room, he found JD had finally succumbed to sleep, his grip on Buck still intact. Just about to take a seat, Chris noticed a glint of reflected lamplight from between Buck's eyelids.
"Hey yourself, Stud." Buck's head rolled to one side and he smiled at JD. "He finally gave in, huh?"
"Yeah," Chris said, softly. "Not planning on letting go of you, though."
Buck nodded. "That goes double."
Chris saw the look. "Let it go, Buck. It's been a tough week, you need . . .we all need some healing time."
"Yeah, I know. Have the guys left?"
"Nah, they're just outside." Chris shook his head. "You know, I specifically told them not to come out here. A direct order, no less."
Buck actually chuckled. "Well, you tell these guys to do something, they will. Tell 'em not to do something, they just do it faster."
Now Chris was chuckling. "You got that right." He glanced back at the door. "And thank God you all do." Chris stood. "Coffee?"
"Yeah, please. Get the kid some milk, huh?"
Buck watched Chris go. Lifting his hand from under JD's brought the youth awake. He snorted.
"S . . .sorry, did I wake you?"
Buck full on grinned. "Yeah . . ."
"Aah, let's not do this," JD warned as he rubbed at his eyes. "I don't freaking snore."
Buck stared at JD. Right now, JD could scream in his ear for hours on end and he'd just grin back, such was Buck's happiness at seeing him alive. "We need to talk, Kid."
JD nodded. "I know, and we will, but let's just sit here tonight and thank all that's Holy we can still do so, huh, Bro?"
"Yeah," Buck said softly as his hand curled around JD's.
With his free hand, JD fished into his jeans pocket and brought out a small, clear, sealed bag. Opening it, he leaned over and tipped the item into Buck's hand. "I figured you'd want this back as soon as possible." He noted Buck's eyes fill, and the man struggle to swallow as he looked at his mother's locket.
"I got it, Buck. I figured out what you were trying to tell me." JD grinned. "See, I do listen . . .sometimes."
A half-laugh, half sob, burst from Buck. "Yeah, sometimes." He looked at JD with sincere affection. "Always said you were smart."
"Got good role models," JD choked out around a thick throat.
Buck's voice shuddered. "JD, about what I said in that room; God, Kid, you must know I didn't mean any of it, I was just trying to . . ."
As a large tear dropped from his lower lashes, JD squeezed Buck's hand. "Hey, Buck, I know - I, I knew; it's okay Bro, it's history."
He watched as Buck's exhaustion and meds slowly overtook him. Standing at the door, Chris had heard their conversation, and now fully appreciated not only the physical pain, but the anguish Buck must have gone through. He stepped inside and offered JD the milk.
The youth self-consciously swiped at his eyes before thanking Chris. He checked Buck was asleep as he watched the blond sit. "Chris . . ."
"Buck's gonna be okay, isn't he?"
Chris nodded. "Yeah, I reckon so. He's got us this time around, right?"
JD's eyes glistened in the soft light. He smiled. "Right." He settled back and sipped his milk.
Chris gave a satisfied smirk when his next words caused JD to splutter. "And - Agent Dunne - don't think I've forgotten we need to talk when we get back."
JD's eyes went wide. "Uh, yessir."
SATURDAY, 9:15 A.M. - BEST WESTERN HOTEL
On returning to their hotel, Chris had switched rooms to bunk with Vin so Buck could share with JD. Ezra insisted he take his own room, so Josiah and Nathan shared a room. As he and JD finished packing a knock on their door had Buck smile and shake his head. He opened the door.
"Alright, Tanner, we'll go eat, now . . ." Buck stared. "Agent Copeland?"
"May I come in?"
Buck stepped back. "Sure." He couldn't miss the large envelope in his hand. "Problem?"
Copeland looked at JD, who thumbed toward the door. "Uh, I'll go see how the others are doing..."
Buck grabbed his arm and looked at Copeland. "Whatever you need to say can be said in front of JD, too."
Copeland nodded and gestured for them to sit, as did he. He was inwardly amused to see JD plop down right next to Buck in a protective manner. "Gray's been talking." He held up the envelope. "This is a copy of part of his statement."
"Which part?" Buck already had an idea.
Copeland cleared his throat. "Apparently, the night your mother was murdered wasn't quite how Bailey heard it. Gray said he introduced Ms. Wilmington to an associate of his, and allowed them to use one of his private suites. When he went back to collect his acquaintance for a business supper, the man was gone, and . . .and your mother was dead. Gray traced the man's traveling companion almost instantly, and brought him back to the suite for questioning. When he couldn't say where his partner was, Gray killed him, then called Bailey for the cleanup. To save face, Gray told Bailey both deaths were down to him."
Buck felt JD squeeze his wrist. His expression sober, Buck looked Copeland in the eye. "You believe him."
The agent nodded. "So far, your mother's is the only death he's singled out and denied." He handed over the envelope. "It's all in there; details of their friendship, and how his father watched out for her from when she was first dancing. They'd known each other a long time. Yes, I believe he's telling the truth."
Buck took the envelope, inwardly cursing as his eyes once again filled.
"Uh," JD began. "That means your mom's killer is still out there."
Buck stood. "Yeah." Momentarily resting his hand on JD's head, Buck walked away and into the bathroom.
Copeland stood and offered JD his hand. "Best of luck."
JD nodded and shook hands. "Thanks. Uh, so will the case stay open?"
Copeland offered a tight smile. "I'll make sure it does."
Perched on the edge of the tub in the bathroom, Buck read the copied statement.
>> . . .I may be many things, but I loved that woman. When Pop died, Layla comforted me, and we became good friends. She was a true friend, which is rare in my line of business. My father had watched out for her since he saw her dancing at the Riviera. Later, he learned she was turning tricks to support a baby, so he made sure she worked for him - and later gave her money to start up her own business. I could never have hurt her, and I blame myself for introducing her to her killer. And to answer an earlier question; no, I never did find the bastard, and God knows, I tried . . . <<
Buck swiped at his eyes. He recalled his mother saying she'd named him after her Guardian Angel. He now realized that man was Gray's father. After some pondering he stood, composed himself, and left the room. He'd been alone enough lately - time for family.
10:30 A.M. - DAVIS CEMETERY, VEGAS
Six men stood back and watched the seventh place flowers on his mother's grave. Buck stood for a few moments, and then looked back at JD. He gestured for the boy to join him.
"Ma, I'm sure you've been watching, but I wanted to formally introduce you to my teammate, roommate, and adopted kid brother." Buck looked at JD and grinned. "This is JD; he drives me crazy, but I wouldn't have him any other way."
JD went to speak, but faltered. He coughed. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am. Uh, I need to know, did you realize your son would one day grow up to be . . .one giant pain in the ass?" JD cackled as Buck grabbed him.
"See what I mean, Ma?" Buck gestured to the others to join them.
"These guys are my teammates, too, but are so much more, Ma. They're like family. They keep me sane, make me laugh, and watch my back. God bless you for leading me to them, just like JD believes his mom guided him to us, too."
One by one they visited, each man laying flowers at Layla Wilmington's headstone. JD leaned in and whispered.
"I just wanted to say thanks. Buck's everything I could ask for in a big brother, and I reckon most of that is down to you, ma'am."
Re-grouping, they took one more look at the flower adorned grave, then all seven walked away. At breakfast that morning, Buck filled them in on his mother's story, right up to the present day. He vowed he would never rest until her murderer was caught, but promised it would no longer consume him. Coming back to Vegas had taught him something precious - to appreciate what he had, and make sure those he loved knew it.
He had made a promise to himself to have no more secrets from men who would at most give their lives, or just simply drop everything for him; so later, when they were back in Denver, he would share the news that with the statement from Copeland was a deed which made him the now proud owner of the once glorious 'Madame Layla's Exclusive Executive Escort Agency and Bordello'.
Buck had come full circle.
Denver's and Las Vegas' Law Enforcement had stood proudly together to bring down one of the country's biggest syndicate bosses. A small victory in the overall scheme of things, but each battle won brought them closer to winning the war on justice.
The seven had no dress clothes and, except for Ezra, not even suits with them, but they were now headed to a funeral to pay their respects to FBI Agent Peter Radcliff, the man who lost his life the night Gray's goons took Buck.
Though a tragedy, Peter hadn't died in vain. Even though Howard Bailey would shortly be on his way to a new safe house and eventually a new life, Miles Gray and many of his cohorts would in due course be heading for hard time.
After the funeral, Team Seven were leaving Vegas and going home; they had one long, lost week to catch up on, and a lot of sleep. While the group walked out of the cemetery and to waiting cars, Buck looked at his brothers of the heart and smiled.
Maybe once they'd rested up some, they could check if a certain cabin was free, and go fishing.
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