--Sometime early Saturday morning--
How much worse can this pain get? My side feels like it is on fire. I'm cold and the ache in my shoulder hurts my head. If I trip and fall, maybe I'll just stay down in the snow. I doubt if I would have the strength to get up again.
Why am I outside in the cold? Where is my coat? I know better than to go for a walk in the winter without a jacket. I don't remember cutting my head either. The blood tickles as it runs down my face. All I can feel is pain and the stinging, cold snow particles.
My feet stumble but I reach out with my good arm to catch myself before I fall. Is it night? The shadows spring out of the ground to become trees and branches. Maybe this is all a dream. When I wake up I'll remember my name and why I'm running around half-dressed in a snowstorm.
The darkness closes in around my thoughts. My lips crack and my nose runs. I try to take another step down but my foot slips. I can't stop myself from falling. Nothing stops my body as I slide but the rocks and sticks add new aches.
A cough erupts from deep in my chest. Gasping for air I get a mouth full of snow. The blackness is deeper now but I see a small speck of light coming towards me until it blinds my sore eyes. I try to move before the light engulfs me but my legs and arms won't respond.
The light continues to shine and I feel hands rolling me over in the snow. A voice yells but I don't understand. The pain is too fierce.
Warmth surrounds me and I give into the darkness. My body continues to shiver but I don't feel any pain. The gentle hum of the engine lulls my senses into a state of peace until the fire in my belly erupts with such force I try to run away only to be captured by the confines of windows and doors. The voice keeps telling me to calm down but I'm trapped. I've got to get away from the pain before it consumes me.
I can't breathe; my eyes don't open. I panic, gasping for sanity, a lifeline to hold me. Whistles and bells go off in my mind but I don't know which way to run. I feel hands grope my backside while others grab my shoulder, sending white pain slivers to my brain.
I start shaking as my chest experiences the warm air and more fingers push and probe my burning side. Stop it I want to cry but my lips only crack and bleed some more. I feel warmth touch my cold skin as a numbing liquid penetrates my vein. The darkness isn't quite so frightening as I slip into total oblivion.
As my senses return, I hear voices mixed with machines beeping and buzzing. My eyes open to the bright lights but I am warm, surrounded with pristine white blankets. Faces hover over mine and I see the lips move. Are they trying to tell me something? Why can't I understand the moans and groans I hear?
I shut my eyes again and the noises retreat as blissful silence calms my anxious heart. I know I am safe, protected from the cold and pain. Sleep, gentle sleep cocoons me and I sigh with relief.
"Welcome back to the real world." I look up into the pretty face of someone I never saw before. Looking around the room, I realized I'm not at home. Sterile walls and beeping machines reassure the lady that I am healing; though I feel like I'm floating away from the pain.
"I need to check your incision." When did I get cut in my belly? The fire is gone. Did she remove the cause? I try to move my arm but it is bound to my chest. More bandages surround my forehead.
Where is the snow? Am I in heaven? Something tickles my nose as the gentle, clean air travels up my nostrils. I look around again and start to focus on the walls, the machines and the people.
Another stranger looks into my face and shines a bright light in my eye. I close them tight but he pulls it open. I still see the brightness in my mind. "It's time to wake up, young man. Who are you? Can you tell me your name?"
My name? I don't remember. Will they believe me? I lay there breathing the warm air, wanting to return to the peaceful place but they continue to poke and prod their hands into my body. I feel the cuff tightening around my arm. Suddenly I feel cold moisture on my skin; my arm and legs tingle. Someone is washing them. Will they wash all of me? I open my eyes to watch, unable to stop the cleaning process. "Don't!" I yell but no one hears me. My lips move but no sound comes out of my mouth. A straw is placed between my lips. I know how to use it, feeling the cool water in my mouth. I try to swallow but can't as I feel the water leak from my lips and run down my chin. A soft cloth wipes my face. Why doesn't anything work? WHY can't I remember who I am? What happened to me?
Hands hold me still as I squirm and turn. The cool cloth wipes my forehead and I try to open my eyes again. The first pretty face looks at me, her eyes full of sadness and pity. Why is she sorry? I feel a prick in my good arm and turn my head slightly to see the man pull the needle out. My questions stop as my mind goes blank.
--The previous Friday noon--
"What time are Chris and JD supposed to get back?" Nathan asked the youngest's roommate.
"When JD called last night, he hoped they'd be back before five this afternoon. Wonder if he and Chris are sick of each other yet? JD didn't sound real excited about the week." Buck laughed as he sat on the edge of the other man's desk.
Josiah shook his head. "I fear one will not wish to see the other for a few days. Hope the meeting was worth attending. Can't imagine the two of them spending five days and nights together."
"That's for sure. JD probably tried to drag Chris out to experience Phoenix's nightlife while Chris would want peace and quiet after a day of meetings."
"Yeah, but he'd know better than to turn JD loose by himself," Buck added. The phone ringing interrupted the conversation as Nathan grabbed the receiver.
4 o'clock afternoon
"I'm sorry sir but the plane was overbooked. We'll get you on the next available flight."
Chris took the paperwork from the desk clerk and walked back to the lovely blond woman standing next to his bag. "Where's JD?"
She nodded towards the restrooms before asking, "Miss your flight?"
"No, they overbooked and it's already full." He smiled at her as he continued, "Course I don't mind being stranded here with you, but I think the kid was hoping to get home tonight."
"Why don't you join me in the Lear? There's plenty of room for two more."
"I doubt the government will pay for a private jet."
"Can't I give you a free ride? Sides that way we can spend some more time together." She snuggled up close and nibbled his ear.
The smile on his face gave her the answer. "Lead the way," the ATF team leader gestured with his hand.
"Ah, shouldn't we wait for JD?"
Still smiling he replied, "Do we have to?" As he joked the younger agent walked up to the couple.
"JD, there has been a change in plans. The flight was overbooked so I invited Chris and you to fly back to Denver with me in Father's private jet, unless you want to stay in Phoenix another night."
"Fine, whatever," came a short reply. He reached down gingerly, grabbed the straps of his luggage and followed the pair in front as they walked away hand in hand.
6 PM Denver
"Hi there. I'm AFT Agent Buck Wilmington. I need to know what time the flight from Phoenix will arrive this evening." He showed his badge to the airline counter attendant.
"I'm sorry sir. All flights from Phoenix were diverted due to heavy snowfall and high winds. The next flight is scheduled for tomorrow morning."
"Did any flights from there land here this afternoon? I'm to pick up two other officers but I didn't see them."
"Give me their names and I'll check the manifest." She typed the names into her terminal and watched the screen, a scowl coming to her face. Scrolling down through the list she sighed before replying. A fake smile replaced her frown before she looked up at Buck and said, "They were put on standby and then they didn't register for another flight. I'm sorry. I can't tell you when to expect them."
A multitude of possibilities ran through Buck's mind as he pulled out his cell phone and punched in the office number.
The only agent still in the office answered. "Hey Josiah. Did Chris or JD call? They got bumped from their flight and now everything from Phoenix is delayed."
"Haven't heard from either of them, brother. Didn't realize the weather was that bad."
"It ain't so bad around here but in the mountains south of here and Arizona are getting socked. Guess I'll head home. Maybe JD left a message there. See you Monday." Buck closed his phone and looked back at the flight board.
The kid was in good hands with Chris. There was nothing to worry about. Buck tried to convince himself everything was fine but a nagging thought of trouble dogged him as he drove through the weekend traffic. Fine snowflakes mixed with mist struck his windshield but he arrived home before the roads became slippery. No new messages waited for him. Maybe he was worrying over nothing and the weekend would be a quiet one after all.
"Get back here. You can't go. The fire's too hot."
"Gotta rescue the rest."
"Chris, no one else survived. They all died when the plane hit the ground." Cindy pulled him away from the conflagration and joined the other three survivors of the crash. He sunk to his knees as reality soaked through the pain. The pain in his side didn't hurt as bad as the one in his heart.
The passengers were unprepared for the sudden disaster. They could see snow swirling around the windows but the pilot of the small jet assured them the plane would have no trouble getting through the storm. Twelve passengers and three crew members left Phoenix just as the sun set while a bank of dark clouds hung on the northern horizon. Chris and Cindy settled into the comfortable seats and the older agent appreciated JD giving them some privacy. The young man sat alone somewhere near the rear of the plane.
In flight for fifteen minutes the flight attendant began passing out drinks and checking on the passengers. Six Denver businessmen, returning from a weeklong convention noisily bragged about conquests and acquisitions. A young couple expecting their first child sat in the seats behind Chris and his friend. A somber older man shared the back of the plane near JD.
The first jolt rocked the plane and drinks spilt onto laps and the floor. All conversations stopped as they looked anxiously towards each other and the attendant for answers. As she tried to upright her cart the plane shuddered again and began to roll. Before anyone could react, the sound of metal ripping filled the air as the small jet slammed into the trees before striking the ground. The passenger compartment void of wings or tail rolled down the mountain slope, rotating the few people still strapped into their seats, before coming to an abrupt halt. The rest of the plane slammed into them sending billowing, black smoke throughout the cabin.
Resting on its side, Cindy quickly unfastened her seatbelt and scramble to help the other passengers. The pregnant woman behind her couldn't find the latch but with the other woman's help was soon released. Together they ran from the plane. Chris half carried, half dragged the woman's husband out of the wreckage.
The older man joined the two couples and pushed them down behind a boulder as the remaining fuel exploded sending shrapnel of sheet metal through the air. The fireball brightened the night sky as the metal framework glistened from the heat.
Chris looked at the burning skeleton of twisted sheet metal and framing members but his eyes saw only the remains of his wife's destroyed vehicle. His heart choked his throat as he attempted to draw a breath. Not again, not again. His eyes filled as he tried stopping the screaming in his mind. JD. The young man with infinitesimal energy for life suddenly snuffed out seemed incomprehensible.
"Let me look at your side. You're bleeding, Chris."
As he looked toward her face, her breath caught at the distraught anguish in his eyes. She thought the older agent only tolerated the younger one but now she saw his true feelings. Part of him died when he realized the kid remained trapped. Numb to her ministrations, he continued to stare at the burning wreckage.
Cindy grabbed his face and looked directly at him, forcing him to look into her eyes. "You have to believe he's in a better place, Chris. I doubt if he suffered."
Buck sat on the couch, alone, staring at the phone, willing it to ring. They should have called by now kept resounding through his mind. He flipped through the channels surfing for something to occupy the time when he realized the late evening news was on.
"And now for the report of the downed plane lost near Durango. Earlier this evening, radar in Denver lost the signal from a privately owned Lear jet flying from Phoenix to Denver. The plane, owned by the Hemple Corporation, was chartered to fly several business associates of George Hemple, who were returning from a weeklong convention. The plane was scheduled to arrive in Denver around six this evening. Residents near Durango report hearing a large explosion just before seeing a fireball light the sky behind Lookup Mountain. The heavy snowfall and poor visibility hamper rescue personnel from reaching the site.
We'll bring you more updates as we receive them."
The shrill ring of the phone startled Buck and he grabbed the receiver on the second ring. "Hello, JD!"
"Buck, this is Josiah." Sensing fear in his co-workers voice the older man queried, "Were you watching the local news?"
"Yeah, I just saw the report about Durango. What about it?"
"Isn't Chris's new girlfriend, Cindy Hemple, George Hemple's daughter?"
"Have you heard from either of them yet?"
"I'll make a few calls, see what I can dig up. If I learn anything I'll give you a buzz. Be best if you stayed by your phone in case they do get a chance to call."
Buck hung up the receiver and flipped the channel to another station reporting the weather for the state. His nagging fear erupted into an inferno of fright. Would his two friends accept a free ride on a private plane to get back home tonight?
On the mountain
Cindy, a reporter for a national magazine, snuggled closer to the injured ATF agent. An unknown object stabbed his side when the plane broke up and breathing was painful. The bleeding stopped but his energy level fell. The small group of survivors huddled together, trying to keep warm.
Edward and Stella Rourck, the expectant parents, sat closest to the large rock. She was uninjured but Chris suspected the man's left leg to be broken. The third man, Stuart James, a former state penitentiary warden, attempted to start a fire but the wet wood and strong wind hampered his efforts.
"Will they be looking for us?" Stella wrapped her arms around her middle, cradling the life within.
"I'm sure they will ma'am. They probably started when the plane went off the radar. Maybe the pilots radioed a SOS before we crashed." The older gentleman felt it was his duty to protect the innocent victims.
"Time wise we should have been near Durango, but I couldn't see the lights," Cindy offered. She often caught rides around the country on her father's corporate jets.
Two months earlier, she met Chris following up on a story. Three small businesses became victims of corporate sabotage the same day and the ATF investigated the perpetrators. All business during the interview, but afterwards she asked the sullen officer to join her for dinner and the two spent most evenings and weekends together since that night.
Circumstantial timing resulted in her needing to be at the publishing firm's offices in Phoenix the same week JD and Chris attended a mandatory seminar. The couple spent the evenings wining and dining away from snoopy fellow officers. JD, unusually quiet during the week, studied and prepared for the next day's session. He tried to not bother his supervisor and didn't share with anyone his infirmity. Chris, too preoccupied to notice the young man's distress, appreciated being out of the team's scrutiny.
"Eddie, are you all right?" the soon to be mother asked her husband.
"I'm fine. Or I will be when I get off this mountain. Mr. Larabee, any idea what caused the plane to crash?"
Silence met the man's request. Chris Larabee sat in a world full of misery and despair. Several members of his team, himself included, ended up in hospital emergency rooms following some of the team's operations. But to have a young life snuffed out so quickly left the man reeling.
JD didn't mean to get on the older men's nerves but he was a bundle of unspent energy. Some even referred to him as the Energizer Bunny; he just kept going and going. Bullet wounds, broken bones and other maladies might slow the youngest member of Chris Larabee's elite team but confounding doctors and supervisors was JD's trademark. Would daylight provide answers to his death? Could the tragedy have been prevented?
Chris reviewed over and over in his mind the conversation in the airport. Wanting to spend as much time as possible with Cindy clouded his decision-making ability. JD paid the ultimate price for his foolhardy choice.
After what seemed like hours the five survivors heard the approach of a military search helicopter, its lights scanning the treetops, before hovering over the burning wreckage. Unable to land on the heavily wooded mountainside, an emergency medical technician descended into the clearing.
"Folks, more rescue personnel are approaching as we speak. Who is the most seriously injured?"
Cindy pointed to Chris as Stella said, "My husband's leg is broke," adding quickly, "We think."
"Yes ma'am. How old is your husband? Sir, can I feel your leg? Sooner we get it into a splint, the more comfortable you will be." The man set his high-powered lantern in the snow and pointed the beam towards the dark-haired individual's extremities. He gently ran his trained fingers over the femur and tibia, nodding his head to confirm the wife's observation.
"I'm fine. Help him. He's bleeding." Eddie's face, etched in pain, revealed the truth but he felt the older man needed the attention first.
"I'll get to him just as soon as we get this leg immobilized." His skilled hands held the broken bone together as he placed the inflatable splint under the leg. The young husband sat back, exhausted, his leg packaged. Sweat glisten on his skin, oblivious to the cold mountain air. He leaned onto his wife's shoulder and passed out.
The EMT crawled over to the second man and asked, "Sir, I need to look at your wound." No response followed the request. Carefully hands approached the bloody shirt, ready to fend off a violent response.
As his hands touched the wet material a low voice growled, "Get your hands off me. I don't need your help!"
"Chris. Just let him put a bandage on it before you bleed to death."
The ATF agent's frustration exploded, "Put a Band-Aid on it and make it better. You gonna kiss it too? Nothin' gonna make it better unless that boy comes walkin' out of the darkness and shows me he's alive. Better I bleed to death and join him, than sittin' here getting' help."
Cindy cringed at the man's oratory. Was he truly that angry with her?
"Is he drunk or high or something I should know about?" The medical technician moved away from the tirade.
"Mr. Larabee is a senior Federal ATF officer. His partner perished in the accident," the older gentleman said quietly. "We were unable to assist the other passengers off the wreckage before the thing exploded."
Dawn's first light filled the clearing as rescue personnel began the arduous task of assisting survivors and removing the dead. The injured and uninjured were transported down to waiting emergency vehicles while FAA investigators started their chore of collecting evidence and documenting details.
--6:00 AM Saturday--
Buck grabbed the receiver before the first ring ended. "Yeah?" The weary federal agent rubbed his face, trying to wipe away the fear gnawing in his gut.
"Hi, Buck. This is Cindy."
"Yes. Cindy Hemple. Chris asked me to call you."
"It's about time. Where are those two? I figured they would have called last night after they got bumped off their flight."
"Buck, is there anyone with you?"
"Why should anybody else be here? I've been sittin' here waitin' for Chris or JD to call."
"Buck, shut up and listen, would you?"
The panic in the woman's voice stopped Wilmington's tirade and he listened carefully for the news he knew he didn't want to hear.
"Chris is in the hospital, Denver General. We were in an accident."
"How bad is he?"
"Bad enough, he lost a lot of blood. He doesn't do hospitals very well does he?"
"Nothing to do with hospitals or medicine fits into Chris Larabee's schedule." Buck paused waiting for her to continue but silence greeted the gap. "Cindy, where is JD? You two forget him in Phoenix?"
A forced laughter resonated across the line before she struggled to speak. "Can I tell you when you get here? Chris really needs you here now!" Before the mustached man could ask again, she hung up the phone.
Numb, Buck sat on the couch, staring at the receiver, unsure if to hang it up or to expect more sounds to emanate from it. Why wouldn't she tell him about JD? Where was the boy? His finger shaking, he hit the reset button before speed dialing his friend.
"Josiah, Cindy Hemple just called, something about an accident. She and Chris are at Denver General; he's waiting on me."
The former preacher could hear the tension in Buck's voice and knew he wasn't telling the entire story. "I'll call the rest and we'll meet you there."
"There's something she didn't tell me. She wouldn't say where the kid is."
"Buck, sit tight. I'll be by and pick you up in a few minutes."
Again Buck listened to the dead noise of the receiver. Silence invaded his thoughts. The apartment sat silent, only the steady hum of the refrigerator made any noise. He never noticed how loud the refrigerator had become because the apartment never lacked for cacophony. The kid played the stereo loud, the TV on, the two of them discussing some insignificant trivia adding to the general din around their home. Now only silence met his ears.
Later that morning
Josiah and Buck walked through the familiar doors of Denver General hospital. The team often kidded they needed to list the hospital as their home address after spending so much time here waiting on each other. The receptionist handed the older man the card with Chris's room number and they made their way to the elevator. Buck said little during the ride. A dark cloud surrounded the usually jovial agent. He suspected the worst and prayed that his thoughts would be proven wrong.
Chris's bruised face greeted his long time friend but his less than clear eyes spoke volumes. The two men stared at each other before the team leader broke the silence. "The plane crashed. He didn't have a chance." The quiet filled the room.
Buck sat wearily into a chair, reality removing his strength. So much talent, so much energy, so much love of life gone to waste. Needing to know the horrendous details to put the nightmares at rest he asked, his voice choking out the words, "Did he suffer?"
"I don't know. We had only seconds to get out. I tried to go back but before I could the thing exploded. Forensics and FAA are investigating. Tom Katten will call as soon as he learns anything."
"How long do you expect to be here, Chris?" Josiah asked.
"Already longer than I want to," he grumped. "Did you call the others?"
"Vin's not back from Salt Lake City yet. Nathan's trying to locate Ezra this morning. He'll call me when he finds him, in case you're released before then." Josiah smiled. This 'family' took care of business first; they'd do the grieving in private, away from strangers.
Cindy stuck her head into the room after leaving for a while to give the men some privacy. Chris beckoned her to sit by him and she took his hand. Buck glared at her intrusion. No one spoke, the hush overwhelming. The harsh ring of the bedside phone made the occupants jump.
Chris grabbed the receiver, "Larabee."
The other two men watched their leader for a sign, some signal of discovery but the scowl never left the man's face. "Damn, what do you want us to do on this end?" More silence filled the room as Buck and Josiah looked at each other questioningly. "That's impossible. Then we'll do our own investigation, Tom."
"Call me at the office. I'm checking out of here by noon!" Chris's voice raised in volume while his face darkened. He slammed the phone onto the hook and sighed.
"What! What did Tom tell you?" Buck looked ready to hit something.
Looking directly at his oldest friend's face he said, "They didn't find his body. The crew, the other passengers, they found them all except JD's body."
Josiah knew Chris held back more of the information but he waited for the other man to offer the details himself. "They found JD's luggage. IA's already checking the boy out, said he never went to half the seminar meetings."
"You didn't go together?" Buck yelled.
"I didn't have to go the same ones he did. We'd meet up back at our room at night. He claimed he had to study for the next day's sessions. Cindy and I would meet up so he'd have the room quiet."
"That's not all. Said they found illegal drugs in his suitcase," Chris added.
"That's impossible! They think he caused the crash and walked away?" Buck's anxious heart raced. What had his best friend gotten himself into?