An irritating, chattering squirrel brought one, befuddled mind, awake. Cold air stung his face but total darkness surrounded him. A lingering bitter taste hung in his mouth as he tried to remember what happened. Reaching up to his face, expecting to find a blindfold, he was surprised to find his hands and feet unencumbered with restraints. The smell of pine trees and new snow assaulted his nostrils.
Reining in the panic he felt in his chest, he took a deep breath and released it. The young man shivered. Why wasn't he wearing a coat? He reached out and felt the rough floor. Concrete. He reached out his unbound arm, searching for any item within his reach. His fingers touched a cold, curving structure. Further exploration revealed a plastic seat. He was in a restroom complete with a chemical toilet. Sharp slivers stuck his fingers as they explored the rough wall paneling. Where was the door?
Pulling himself up he tried to concentrate and ignore the cramping in his stomach. JD's mind reeled. His wounded body ached from the penetrating cold. When his finger's brushed over an icy doorknob, he felt euphoria before the locked door refused to budge. Pushing against the door with his uninjured shoulder, he spoke softly. "Open, damn it." He attacked the door repeatedly, refusing to surrender to the cold and darkness.
The young man needed water, food and warmth. He didn't bother taxing his mind about the rest of his problems. Survival was his mission!
Putting all his might into one final lunge he heard the doorframe crack as the lock released its hold and he tumbled out into the deserted parking lot. Nothing looked familiar. Part of the paved area peeked through the melting snow but large drifts buried most of the area. He looked around and saw the locked doors of the other restroom stalls. Another small building sat a few yards away. The sun barely lit the distant mountaintop.
Surrounded by snow, trees and silence JD's stamina waned and he collapsed against the brown wall. How long was this torture to last? He wanted to get home. Home. Seeing the blue sign of the telephone he stumbled toward it. Would it work? JD lifted the receiver and listened for the dial tone. Yes, no, wait. A payphone meant he needed money. He pushed his numb fingers into the pockets and felt two coins, two quarters, not enough to make a call to to who? He looked at the keypad and saw the large print 911. Hovering his index finger over the 9 he stopped. A fuzzy thought hung just out of reach in his mind. Scanning the directions again, he saw 1-800-CALL-ATT. A credit card number would work but could he remember the right numbers?
JD closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He opened his eyes and pushed the numbers. The voice instructed him to enter the phone number. He didn't know who he was calling but his unconscious memory knew the number. Startled, he almost dropped the receiver when the phone began ringing. Who would answer?
"Hello." The voice of a friend.
"Bu-uck?" JD's voice quivered.
"JD! Is that really you?" Buck yelled into his end, not believing what his ears were telling his brain.
"Hel-llp meee. Cold." The chattering young man's voice sent shivers up and down the older man's spine.
"Help me out here, JD. Got to tell me where ta find you." Buck's eyes frantically searched the apartment. Where was his cell phone?
"Dunno. See snow. Lots of trees." The voice seemed weaker.
"Don't hang up, buddy. I'll get you some help."
"NO! Just you. No cops!"
The JD's frantic plea sent new waves of panic to Buck's soul. "OK. Just don't hang up. I'll be there real soon."
No voice responded but the senior agent could hear background noises of the wind in trees and something chattering. Unwilling to set the cordless phone down, he grabbed the smaller communication device from his coat pocket and dialed the Denver police, specifically Officer Daisy Lou.
"Daisy, Buck Wilmington here."
"Buck," she drawled. "Been waiting to hear from you. I've missed you something terrible."
"Now darling I'd love to spend some time with you too but I'm in need of a special favor at the moment. A friend of mine needs some help. Let me take care of him and I'll be at your doorstep."
"Don't know if that would be such a good thing, sugar bear. My hubby watches the door real close. What do you need, Buck?" Though her voice still dripped honey she was ready to get to work.
"Can you put a trace on my home line? I've got to find where the call originated." Buck's normal smooth voice held a trace of panic.
"Is the other party still on the line?"
"Yep, except I'm sure he ain't conscious no more. I can still hear the wind or something. I've got to find him, got to get him some medical help fast."
He could hear computer keys clicking while he stared at the phone to give him the answer he needed. Either the digital clock or his heartbeat thundered in the lonely apartment.
"Buck, today's your lucky day. That call came from a payphone near Estes Park. Or maybe not so lucky. I'm sorry Buck. That phone is at the end of some road in Rocky National, and it isn't the main road either. Do you want me to call the park service?"
"Do it Daisy. I owe you one. Tell them I'm on my way. Also can you give them my cell phone number? Let me know as soon as they reach him? Tell them the boy's in bad shape. He was kidnapped a few days ago but he's been missing for over two weeks now."
Silence. "Daisy, you still there?"
"Buck, this is your partner isn't it. We all heard the APB on him. I've got to tell the rangers." Her voice held a note of apology and regret.
"We'll sort all that out later. Right now he needs help."
Buck Wilmington ran from his apartment and jumped into his truck. The boy's last words echoed in his mind, 'Just you. No cops!' Would they ever know the horror JD survived during the past couple of week? The young man was brave and intrepid but would he be strong enough to overcome the trials ahead?
The three park employees disembarked from the helicopter and scanned the deserted parking lot. Deep drifts blocked the mountain roads but the absence of winds offered a serene setting. The large parking area offered a wide landing area for the park's emergency helicopter.
Cliff Brower spent the last twenty years in the Rocky National Park. He knew every trail and campsite, even some few park visitors ever visited. Technically the park stayed open all twelve months of the year but Mother Nature dealt her own hand and often closed the main highway. The area around Bear Lake, one of the busiest places in the summer, hibernated most of the winter months. Brower held a degree in criminal investigation besides one in public relations administration. No one should be in this section of the park legally. Receiving the emergency call from the Denver PD kicked his mind into a crime-solving mode.
"We aren't the first chopper to land here. See this depression. Let's check out the phone and the buildings."
The three trudged through the deep snow, their eyes alert for anything not belonging in the winter landscape. Douglas Minnden, a Grand Lake native, reached the phone and lifted the dangling receiver. "Unless the squirrels are now ordering take-out, somebody's used this recently."
Faint shoeprints remained on the walkway though the soft winds gradually erased the small tread marks. Dana Weller, EMT first, park employee second, tried the doors of the men's toilets. None looked to be tampered with and no footprints disturbed the deep snow. She moved around the building and noticed the broken frame of one door. Slowly pushing the door open, she quickly retreated and yelled to her companions. "Got him. Need some heat." Knowing her fellow rangers would get the materials she needed, she entered the small enclosure to examine the comatose body curled up on the cold, concrete floor. Removing her thick glove she reached out and touched the man's exposed skin. Bruises decorated the pale skin visible under the shaggy, dark hair. Both hands were tucked under armpits but he only wore a flannel shirt, dirty blue jeans and a pair of Reeboks.
All three worked cooperatively, wrapping the cold body in warm blankets, before moving him to the waiting chopper. Getting him warm was the first treatment; vitals could be recorded in flight.
"Stop off in Estes or head directly to Denver?" the pilot asked.
Deferring to the medical member of the rescue team, the men waited for her response. She looked at the young man at her feet and decided. "Denver. I have a feeling we're dealing with more than a little frostbite."
"You worried about the APB report that came with the emergency call?" Brower asked.
She shook her head negatively. "No. I.. ah..he's got more trauma than some cold digits. Did either of you call that ATF fellow that reported him to the police?"
Minnden nodded. "I'll do it. If he's already headed for the park, be a shame to drive all the way here and have to turn around."
"Kid don't look old enough to be on the run from the police. But you can't judge a person by their looks." Dana Weller felt herself a good judge of character. The young man strapped down in front of her bore witness to some horrific experiences. What did the authorities believe he'd done?
The helicopter made the trip in short order and landed on the medipad of Denver General, the hospital emergency room staff ready to take over for the rescue squad. A stranger, dressed in a dark suit, raced out with the men and women dressed in green scrubs. He shouted to the ER nurse but she ignored him. Bureaucracy could wait; the patient didn't have that luxury.
After receiving the call from Ranger Minnden, Buck turned his truck around and raced back to Denver. He punched numbers in the phone's keypad and waited for Chris Larabee to answer. Soon the team would be reunited and recover. Buck Wilmington knew the other members of Team 7 believed in JD's innocence. Convincing the powers that controlled their destiny would be harder, though he knew that to be a minor inconvenience. He'd missed the young man. Could it really be over three weeks since JD left with Chris to go to Phoenix?
"Chris do you remember that couple, the Rouricks? He's the one who busted his leg in the. Ahh..." Cindy didn't finish the sentence seeing the dark look cross Larabee's face. They drove towards the hospital following Buck's phone call. "The wife, Stella, had her baby yesterday. Few weeks early but everyone's doing fine. A little boy." She looked at the driver as she double-checked her seatbelt. Maybe she'd go visit the new family while Chris found Buck at the hospital.
Buck barreled into the familiar emergency room, looking for a face he recognized, stopping suddenly when the only person standing in the hallway was Tom Katten, the federal officer investigating JD.
"Hey, Tom! Surprised to see you here."
The man in the dark suit stood his ground. "Wilmington. Go home. You aren't getting in to see him."
"What? You here about JD? He's waiting on me." Buck suddenly realized the investigator's purpose.
"Agent John Dunne is under arrest. Until bail is set no one except the medical personnel get in that room. Sorry."
"Sorry? That's all you're going to say? Sorry? Now see here Tom, JD's like my little brother. We're more than partners. I promised him I'd get to him and that's what I intend to do." Buck made a threatening move towards the officer.
"Don't do it," Katten warned. "I'll have security remove you. If you're so close, better spend some time getting him a lawyer. That memory loss business isn't going very far when Dunne gets to court."
Two uniformed security officers walked toward the two men and one asked, "Is there a problem Detective Katten?"
"No. This gentleman was lost and needed directions. Good day." He turned and stepped into the examining room. Buck took one step toward the door but the two uniformed men blocked access to the door.
"This area is closed to the general public. You'll have to find another way to where ever you're headed, mister." The man's face boasted a smug grin. His partner rested his right hand on his sidearm.
"Oh JD," Buck whispered. "What have I done?"
JD stared at the speckled ceiling. White tile, white like snow. He refused to talk to anyone, the doctors or nurses, that obnoxious social worker. Where was Buck? Was the phone call just a dream? The cold and snow felt real enough but the warm blankets now covering him cuddled his abused body. IV tubing snaked down from the infusion pump to the sharp needles invading his arm.
What happened to him? How did he end up miles from Denver? Last thing he remembered was waiting for Chris to pick him up following something in Phoenix. Where had the last few weeks gone?
Chris Larabee strode into the hospital emergency room, expecting to see five, concerned colleagues, not the image that greeted him. Buck Wilmington sat in an anchored steel chair, his wrists locked in cuffs.
"Get these off!" Buck growled.
Chris felt his long time friend's anger and frustration, to be so close to JD and yet unable to see the young man. Glaring at the other two waiting room occupants who stared at Buck, he walked over to his friend.
"Tom Katten, that no account excuse for a detective. Says the boy's under arrest. Hell, he ain't even admitted to the ER but that jackass has him in cuffs. His goons locked me up, all cause I wanted to be with JD. Chris, you've gotta find out how he is. Nobody's told me nothing!"
Laying his hand on Buck's shoulder, Chris squeezed and said, "I'll find him. Haven't the others showed up?"
The manacled man shook his head as he stared at the institutional carpeting. "I called the authorities after JD called me and I'd got his call traced. Never figured they wouldn't let me see him. Boy's last words were 'Don't call the cops.'" Buck raised his head, sorrow weeping from his eyes. "What have I done? It's like I convicted him myself. Katten's got him guilty without a trial.
"I'll check on JD and call the rest. Don't go giving up on us yet." With purpose, the dark clad agent walked toward the receptionist, a familiar face.
She steeled herself for the confrontation. Somehow her words needed to stop the unstoppable Chris Larabee.
"I need to talk to the boy's doctor, Michele." His voice was quiet and deadly.
Expecting a demand to see Dunne, the young woman sat momentarily speechless before recovering enough to say, "I'll check, Mr. Larabee."
Chris drew his cell phone and punched numbers. The others needed to rally together. Vin answered the office phone and relayed the news to Ezra and Nathan. Knowing they would contact Sanchez, Chris looked back at the receptionist and smiled, daring her to not give him the correct answer.
Michele matched his smile and said, "Dr. Owen will be out shortly to visit with you. He said no more than five minutes."
"Thanks. We appreciate your help." His voice purred.
True to his word, Dr. Owen dressed in emergency room scrubs walked over to the two men, his face scowling. "There is no way on this beautiful earth that JD Dunne could ever have done any of the business that man is accusing."
Chris stood to shake the man's hand while Buck held his head low and asked, "How's the kid?"
"Buck, if I held the keys to release you from that chair I'd have you in there by him right now. He's asked for you and that's all he's said." The doctor paused before continuing, a look of sadness overshadowed his face. "As for his physical condition, I don't know where to start. His face is covered with bruises and contusions."
"Gang fight," Buck quietly interjected.
"He's got a broken collarbone but its healing nicely."
"Airplane crash," Chris interrupted.
The doctor looked at the two men and continued. "Healing scar on his lower right flank."
"Appendectomy." The two men spoke in unison.
"Excuse me, is there some trend here I'm missing? You two seem to know an awful lot about JD's trauma."
Buck looked at the doctor, no mischievous smile sparkling on his face. "He's been missing over two weeks. After surviving a plane crash, appendix operation, gang beating, amnesia, he made his way back to Denver but was kidnapped and dragged off to some remote part of Rocky Mountain Park. That's all old news. I want to know how he is now."
"He's got a lot of recovery ahead of him. Can't say yet that he won't loose his fingers or toes; got awfully cold. He won't say when the last time he ate anything was. He's warmed up and getting fluids and antibiotics. Pneumonia is a concern; his airway is irritated from some chemical. Get Katten to release you, Buck, because the best medicine JD needs is you sitting with him, convincing him to heal."
Chris left with the doctor in search of Investigator Katten. Two large uniformed officers stood outside one of the doorways. "Katten in there?"
"Who are you?" the larger of the two men demanded.
"Agent Chris Larabee, ATF. I want to talk to Katten now." Chris stood his ground, not wanting to fault the man for doing his job but not willing to be deterred either.
The smaller detective stepped from the room and said, "Larabee, wondering how long it would be before you showed up. Dunne is mine, murder one!"
'Tom, how? He was on the damn plane."
"Got proof? He shows up and that makes him innocent?" The ruddy-faced detective smugly bragged. "All the evidence points to Dunne's guilt. The boy turned on you Chris."
"Tom, I always figured you to be fair, look at all the evidence before sending out a judgement. The kid was sick before we even left for Phoenix. That's why he missed half those meetings."
"Still don't explain why he wasn't with the plane when it crashed."
Chris held his anger in check and set aside his urge to use brutal force to get into see JD. "He was. FAA said the tail broke off first and that's where the restroom's located. Must have dumped the boy out before it rolled down into the rest of the jet."
"That's just supposition, Larabee. Can you prove it?" Tom Katten prided himself with being thorough. He felt a sinking feeling about his case against the young ATF agent. Was it all circumstantial and the boy innocent?
"He certainly didn't kidnap himself from Nathan's vehicle and lock himself up in the park waiting to freeze to death."
"Could be he double crossed the wrong suppliers."
Chris bit the inside of his cheek and sighed. "Tell your goons to let Buck go. Doctor's orders. Those two need each other. Then you and I will sit down and put our heads together. Someone's the criminal but it ain't JD Dunne."
Buck caressed his sore wrist and fidgeted in the chair. His mind imagined horrible images of his 'little brother'. JD could handle his job as a federal agent with the best of them but even the strongest man could only experience so much before crumbling under the pressure.
"Excuse me. Do you know where I could find Chris Larabee? The lady over there thought you would know."
"Huh?" Buck looked up at the dark haired man standing beside him. "JD?"
The man sat in the chair beside the worried AFT man and reached out his hand. "No, I'm Eddie Rourick." He pointed to his leg cast. "I'd be dead if it weren't for Larabee. I want to thank him for getting me out of that plane wreck. My wife gave me a beautiful son earlier this morning. When Miss Hemple told me Larabee was down here, I just had to come and thank him again. The receptionist said you were one of his men."
Buck stared at the exuberant young man. Didn't he ever shut up? Give JD a few more years and a little more weight he'd look just like this fellow. "Chris is trying to get me out of this jewelry right now. One of the men from our team's been hurt. He ain't got time to visit right now."
"That's ok, sir. I understand. I remember after the crash how concerned he was about that young fellow, the one that didn't make it out of the plane. He really care about his friend."
"You were on the plane?" Buck finally started paying attention to the man's ramblings.
Rourick nodded his head.
"Did you see JD get on the plane with Chris and Cindy?" Buck let a glimmer of hope re-ignite in his heart. "Could you swear in court that JD Dunne boarded the Hemple jet in Phoenix with them?"
"Sure. He got on in front of me. Didn't look like he was too happy about the situation though. Almost looked sickly. Sat in the first seat he came to. I figured he didn't like flying much, the way he was sweating. Mr. Larabee and Miss Hemple boarded a few minutes later and sat in front of my wife and me. Sure I remember them all getting on the plane. Why? Someone say they didn't?"
Vin and Ezra sat in the Jag, watching the entrance of Denver General's Emergency Room. "How we gonna know, Ez?" The Texan squirmed in the clean leather seats.
Chris didn't know about the compromised office communications." The devices were removed and the office searched again but even that didn't guarantee more bugs weren't present. Whoever kidnapped JD Sunday could know he was receiving treatment at the hospital. Nathan and Josiah entered the medical facility in search of the rest of the team while the other two waited outside.
"I question we'll recognize the perpetrator during his entry; unfortunately we'll only be able to pursue them when Mr. Dunne is abducted."
Vin watched the kaleidoscope of vehicles come and go while his mind processed the clues. Who had access to their office? Who would profit by JD's disappearance but more, who wanted to discredit the young man?
JD, the youngest, didn't come with a lot of prior AFT baggage like the rest of the men. Though they called him, 'Kid' and 'son', he was man, a man with ideology and strong beliefs. He believed in right defeating wrong, almost to a fault.
"What if we're looking at this all wrong, Ezra? What if JD ain't the target, just the means to get to one of the rest of us?'"
The expert undercover man glanced at his friend. "Attack the innocent, while diverting our attention from the real circumstances. All this started the week JD and Chris went to Phoenix."
"We got any cases somebody would like to see be ignored a while longer while we're distracted?"
"I dare say, the entire criminal world would enjoy our lack of interest in their activities."
"There's got to be a connection somehow."
"The mistake was taking the boy and leaving him to succumb to hypothermia. The powers that be centered all attention on the boy himself until some unknown entity removed him from Nathan's vehicle. We locate the kidnapper we'll have the link to the mastermind."
"Can't forget the bug in Chris's office or that strange picture frame."
Both men sat deep in thought, replaying the clues. Ambulance sirens screamed, cars honked and people yelled across the parking lot. A black PT Cruiser pulled into the temporary parking area but both men jumped from the Jag when they recognized the woman getting into the late model car.
NO! It couldn't be but they both knew the answer. But why, why would she condemn JD? Before Ezra and Vin could get to the driveway the Cruiser pulled into the traffic. "Damnit Ez. Do ya think it was coincidence?"
"I believe if we find our fearless leader we will discover Ms. Hemple accompanied him to this medical facility. I wonder if he realizes she departed with person's unknown." Ezra watched the vehicle pull onto the highway. "Let's check with Mr. Larabee about our young protégé. With Mr. Wilmington guarding Mr. Dunne, I doubt we need to pother about the boy being absconded again."
Buck stood before the door, the metal structure separated him from his young friend. His best friend. Tom Katten's heart softened and he released Wilmington with Larabee's promise to aid the investigation. Dunne remained under arrest for the murder of the plane crash victims, but the detective decided to trust his gut and let the two men visit.
Why was opening the door so hard? Buck'd missed the boy for almost three weeks and now he just lay steps away. Taking a deep breath he pushed open the door and stopped. His young roommate lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling. IV tubing snaked from the bed to the pole while monitors hummed and hissed.
"JD? How are you doing, son?" Buck whispered, wanting to announce his presence without startling the patient.
Slowly the dark-haired head turned toward the voice calling out to him and Buck saw the damage; bruises colored the pale face while a shiny, recently stitched scar extended from his forehead to his sideburns. Slight tremors shook the smaller man's body as he took in the intruder.
"Buck?" The voice so soft, the older man almost missed the question, but it was enough to catapult him toward the bedside of his partner.
"JD." A small smile twitched under Buck's moustache and tiny sparkles sputtered in his eyes. "You look like hell. I was never so glad ta get a phone call than the one from you this morning."
The young man in the bed frowned and grimaced as another pain shot through his thawing tissue. "Who are you?"
Of any question he could ask of the older man, those three words sent Buck Wilmington into a tailspin. He reached out and touched the injured man's healthy arm and lightly caressed the bare skin all the while willing his heart to stop shattering.
"Kid, I'm Buck, your partner. You called me from the park to come get ya."
"I know your name, just don't know who you are. Didn't know who I was calling, surprised myself when the number went through." He looked at the larger fingers resting on his upper arm. "What do you mean by partner? You and me, we're partners?"
Suddenly realizing JD's train of thought, the ladies man stepped back from the hospital bed. "We're partners together on Chris Larabee's team. You don't remember, do you?"
JD shut his eyes and sighed. Like a shattered porcelain plate, his mind replayed fragmented images. "I remember waiting for a Chris ta get me from a meeting, but I don't have a clue who he is. I don't ever remember seeing you. Nobody here tells me anything. That other fellow asked all kinds of questions, too, but I.." He shook his head in despair. "I don't even know my real name. Lady at another hospital gave me the name Jon Done, cause I was done there and I wasn't a dead John Doe."
Buck smiled. "Pretty close there boy. You're JD, John Dunne, just spelled differently than how she typed it on your ID card."
JD looked at the large man standing beside his bed and tried to process the rest of the information. "Team, we on some kind of sports team?"
"You're brain was Swiss-cheesed. Do you feel comfortable talking with me? Would you rather have a counselor or something?"
"No, don't go. It seems like I know you but ta look at you, I can't, I just can't." Tears filled the hazel eyes.
Buck knew he shouldn't tire the boy out anymore. Detective Katten would soon return and start questioning him again. "Why don't you close them tired eyes and get some rest. I'll sit here and keep watch."
"You didn't answer. What kind of team are we?" Though his eyes were closed, JD's face frowned.
"We're ATF, son. Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. We're Federal government agents."
"I'm a fed?" His eyes popped open.
"One of the county's finest. They don't call us the Magnificent Seven for sitting around wearing out office chairs. Only lately we've been missing number seven. So you get some rest so we can get you back to work real soon, JD."
Half awake, half asleep the man in the bed mumbled, "'Kay, Buck."