A few minutes later Buck sensed rather than saw the hospital door open. Josiah walked over to his friend, "How did it go?"
"He don't remember us, not me, not Chris, not what he does. Like someone sent his mind through a shredder. He's hurtin'. The doc ain't sure about him loosing some toes or fingers from the cold yet." Buck looked up at the older man. "Who would take a sick boy and lock him up in the mountains ta freeze to death?"
Josiah rubbed Buck's shoulder. "Someone who wanted to hurt him, hurt us bad. Vin and Ezra are working on some leads, got some evidence."
"I ain't gonna leave him, not till he's better. No matter what Katten says." Buck's voice rose in anger causing JD to move restlessly.
Both men looked at the door as Dr. Owen and two nurses entered. "Hate to do this gentlemen, but I need you to step outside for a few moments. Buck, were you able to talk to him?"
"Yeah, we talked. His memory's all scrambled. Hurtin' bad, too." Buck walked out into the hall, ignoring the two uniformed guards.
Ten minutes later two orderlies entered the room and Dr. Owen exited. He saw Buck and Josiah leaning against the wall as he walked toward the agents. "Gentlemen, let's have a seat while I explain what is going to happen to JD."
Buck opened his mouth but Josiah grabbed his arm and pulled him into the small waiting area. "Go ahead, Doctor." The older man never released his restraint on Buck's upper arm.
"JD's luck held out. I don't think he'll loose his foot but it's going to be very tender for a long time. His fingers are getting feeling back, too. Right now he's on his way to therapy for his shoulder, before it freezes on him. I'm moving him to a private room." The doctor held up his hand to stop the protest about to erupt from Buck Wilmington. "Save it, Buck. It'll be easier on him and the staff not to have all you traipsing around down here. Since he's technically still under arrest, he's got to be moved to a more secure room.
"How long, Doc?"
"Just for a couple of days, Buck. I'm still worried about pneumonia. I also want him to get some help with his memory loss. I've got to go. Michele, the gal at the front desk, will tell you when he's settled in his room."
Buck led the parade of men into the private hospital room, each one anxious to personally see their missing comrade. Sitting up on his bed, JD watched the six men enter his room. Buck, the first to enter, pulled a chair up to the side of the bed and smiled. Josiah and Nathan were next. He remembered them from seeing them at Nellie's shelter. They came up to his left side and each took a turn shaking his hand and introducing themselves.
The next two men caused his face to scowl and he looked at Buck for help. "We're all part of the same team. These two are Ezra Standish and Vin Tanner." As they were introduced, each man stepped forward and greeted their fellow team member.
"Ezra, you win again and we're glad you did." Vin slapped the sharply dressed agent. "Never gave up hope on seeing you back with us, kid."
"Hi." Random thoughts assaulted JD's brain and he shut his eyes tight to stop the nightmare.
"And this is Chris Larabee, our team leader."
JD stared at the man standing in the doorway. Chris, Chris, Chris. The name screamed over and over in his mind. "You ok? Something happened and I, well I tried." Dunne reached up and massaged his aching forehead. 'Chris was alright.' "I tried to get to you, to save you. Guess I went the wrong way. Sorry." He looked at the IV stuck into his left hand before shutting his eyes tightly. The sudden scream of metal tearing before the plane crashed into the mountainside. Instantaneously, a fireball erupted from the down aircraft. Struggling to regain his equilibrium, he felt himself fall into the cold snow. Chris was on that plane and needed his help. As the pain shot through his side, he slipped and lost his balance again.
Tears ran down JD's face as he looked at his hero. "I'm sorry, Chris. I'm so sorry."
The blond haired man approached the bed and took JD's hand into his own. "It's the other way around, son. I'm sorry I doubted your integrity. We'll find out who attempted to frame you, who locked you up. We're back together again, boys!"
"Chris, can we ask you something? Just take a minute" Vin nodded at the door. Ezra followed the two men into the hallway.
"Did Cindy accompany you down here to the hospital?" Ezra asked, looking directly at his fellow agent.
"Sure, I was at her place when Buck called. Why? What's up that you're not telling me?" He scrutinized the two men, while attempting to read their faces. Vin looked at his shoes, unable to look Chris in the eye. "Spill it, you two. Why the secrecy? We should be in there helping that boy get back his memory, not skipping out just when that nightmare crash is the main attraction playing in his mind."
"Chris, we found two bugs in your office, an audio by your coat hook and an antenna woven into the pewter picture frame. Somebody knew about us finding JD at the shelter"
"What's that got to do with Cindy?"
"We saw Ms. Hemple leave in a black PT Cruiser. She was waiting at the door, the auto arrived in the approach and she joined the other occupants." Ezra waited for Larabee's tirade.
"She probably got a call from her office. Cindy was on the damn plane with us." He moved away from his agents.
Vin reached out and grabbed his arm. "She had access to the kid's suitcase."
Chris jerked his arm away and screamed, "Why, damnit? What she got to gain by crucifying JD?"
"Maybe we need to ask her these questions," Ezra interjected. "The crash was an unfortunate accident but whoever took that boy and stranded him in a locked cubicle, where his body would not be discovered until spring, faces attempted murder."
"You got proof to any of this?" He looked between the two men, waiting for an answer. "I didn't think so." He stepped back into JD's room, glaring at the rest of his team.
JD saw the glower and shuddered. Was the dark ire directed at him? Did Larabee hold him responsible for the crash?
Chris saw the pain and fear flash across the young man's face and instantly softened his frown. "Kattan still needs to talk to you, son. We all want to sort out this mess."
Buck opened his mouth to protest but the leader held up his hand. "We'll find out who set him up, Buck. I'm not suggesting he's responsible but we've got to work together with the investigation. The accusations and circumstantial evidence could convict him before anything goes to trial."
Chris Larabee sat behind his desk, staring at a yellow legal pad. One column listed the evidence compiled against JD Dunne. As he scanned each entry, he crossed off items having evidence to refute Tom Katten's claims. JD missed meetings in Phoenix. That one was simple; he was too sick to sit through the meetings. Guilt assaulted the team leader. He should have seen the boy's distress and taken him to a hospital.
Was he on the plane and why wasn't he among the survivors? At least the couple with the new baby remembered the young man boarding the plane. The crash results could explain his absence from the crash site.
Questions still unanswered demanded answers. How did the drug paraphernalia get in the boy's luggage? Where did the boy get the money boosting his savings account? Who leaked the incriminating information to the press? Most disturbing was the mysterious kidnapper. Any one of the team's enemies might be responsible for taking JD but Chris felt the perpetrator was somehow tied to the rest of JD's dilemma.
He rubbed his tired eyes. Glancing up he saw the ornate pewter frame from Cindy Hemple. Since the day JD telephoned Buck from Rocky Mountain National Park, she seemed too busy to spend time with the lead ATF agent. Yesterday she flew somewhere to do an interview for a future magazine article. Was she intentionally avoiding him or was it something more sinister? Cindy seemed genuinely elated when Buck called about the boy's discovery. What could she possibly gain by crucifying JD? They only met a couple of times before the Phoenix trip. Why would Vin and Ezra even suspect Cindy Hemple had anything to do with this case?
JD Dunne wandered around the apartment he shared with Buck Wilmington, touching ordinary items while mentally trying to remember something about each object. Out of the hospital for two weeks, the young man remained on medical leave. Informally cleared of the federal charges, he would not be allowed back on Chris Larabee's ATF team until the entire case was solved. Some unknown entity held the reins of JD's life and he was eager to regain control of his destiny.
The phone's ring broke his reverie.
"JD, it's Buck," the older man replied.
"Just wanted to let you know I'm gonna have to give you a rain check on that movie tonight."
Because the insecure nature of the men's phone system, actual bureau business could never be discussed. The men worked out conversations that seemed normal but relayed the intended hidden message. Knowing an outstanding case might require him to leave Denver, he'd told JD the night before he might be gone for a few days. Ezra Standish offered the healing young man the opportunity to be his houseguest during Buck's absence but JD declined. He wanted to stay home, to get reoriented with what should be the safest, most familiar location.
"No problem, Buck."
"How are you feeling, son?"
"Tired and frustrated."
JD's short answers contrasted with his former talkative self. Buck hated leaving him home alone, but the team members needed to resume their duties.
"Got permission to get your PC back."
"Great! Maybe that'll give me some answers to fill in the holes."
"I'll bring it home with me. See ya."
"Take care, Buck." JD hung up the receiver and walked to his bedroom. 'The time until Buck returned would pass quicker if I'm taking a long, long nap,' he thought.
The persistent ringing of the doorbell jarred the injured agent from his rest. Shaking his head, trying to clear the cobwebs, JD padded barefoot toward the door. As he reached for the knob, a faint memory screamed, Check out who's there before you open the door, stupid.
He looked out the peephole and asked the stranger, "Who are you?" He didn't recognize the somber, older man dressed in a conservative dark suit, standing at his door.
"Mr. Dunne, surely you remember me. We were on the Hemple jet together."
JD rubbed his eyes. Should he know this man? Could he trust him?
"I heard you survived. I came by to give you something you left on the plane."
JD tried to remember the plane ride. He continued to relive the crash but the ride before remained a blank.
"JD, I really don't think you want all your neighbors to listen to us yell through your door. My name is Stuart, Stuart James. Buck'll be upset, when he gets home and finds me standing out here yelling at you. You don't want your neighbors thinking they live next to a crazy person, now do you?"
The face seemed familiar and so did the voice, so familiar that they seemed from the time after the accident not before the crash. JD unlocked the door and looked the older gentleman in the eye. He knew him but from where?
"Good boy, Dunne. Remember me yet? We go back along ways. Why you ATF boys have been sending presents my way on a regular basis."
JD stared at him, "Mister James?"
"Now, now, none of that formal crap. We're old pals. Just call me Stuart."
The older gentleman stood a head taller than the young ATF agent. He wrapped his arm around JD's shoulders and pulled him into a tight bear hug. The strong aftershave and cologne assaulted the boy's nostrils. The smell opened the flood-gates to JD's memory, the smell of the man who abducted him from Nathan's vehicle, the one who flew him to the park and locked him in the restroom. The agent reacted as he saw the same green handkerchief appear in the other man's hand, throwing his left elbow into his opponent's nose.
Temporarily stunned, Stuart James' grip loosened and JD broke away while thoughts and memories raced through his mind like a runaway train. He needed help and he needed a weapon but neither was available. Chris retained his gun and Buck wouldn't be home for several days.
"What do you want with me?"
"Well, well. I guess that means you remember our earlier visits together."
"I remember you locking me up to freeze to death, " the young man spat at the other man.
"You didn't follow the plan, boy, and now we've got to do it over again."
JD's eyes searched the room for something he could use to defend himself when he saw the gun appear in Stuart's hand.
"Can't be an accident if I've got a bullet wound." He backed toward his empty computer desk. "Make a mess in here."
Stuart James smiled evilly and said, "Oh, won't that haunt Agent Wilmington. Think he'll be able to entertain his ladies in here, knowing this is where you killed yourself?"
"At least tell me why you want me dead. I arrest some relative of yours or something?"
The smile morphed into a sneer and he shook his head. "I just retired as assistant warden of the federal penitentiary. I've seen enough hardened cases. You, Mr. Dunne, made friends with the wrong men. I heard all about the Magnificent Seven team and Chris Larabee. Just as I studied the criminals on the inside, I researched who sent them there. You fellows were good, too good. You took down a family member of someone with lots of money and power. Last couple of weeks a few cases got tossed out of court on account the mighty AFT Team 7 got distracted by a petty search for whoever hurt their boy. Small time hoodlum walked; maybe he learned his lesson, maybe not. At least this time he ain't headed for the pen."
"You hurt me and you just made your client an accessory to murder."
"All circumstantial because they ain't gonna know who done you in; who's been watching your every move for months."
JD glanced around the apartment. He'd been told about the office getting bugged. Was the CDC also under observation?
"Yep, gotta love those Taz boxers, son. You leave in your note to Wilmington that you want to be buried in them silky drawers."
The young man had enough of this man's bullying. Though still physically not up to par he mentally planned his attack, just like getting his shoes back from the gang at New Hope.
His smooth, refined voice faded. "Sit down and start writing what I tell you."
"You've got to be kidding, mister. No way Buck will believe I killed myself. You don't know us like you think you do." JD waited for Stuart's approach.
"Don't matter, boy. You'll still be dead; Wilmington'll be devastated and Team 7 will crumble."
JD swallowed the lump of terror in his throat. Patience, screamed Vin Tanner's voice in his mind. Memories flooded his brain but he shut them out to focus on taking down the former warden. He felt the chair poking into his back. Feeling with his left hand, he touched the stapler. His fingers wrapped around the black institutional strength tool while watching James approach. Closer. Closer. Now!
As the stapler spun towards the gun, JD kicked out with his tender ankle before following with a roundhouse kick. Surprised by the offensive move, the older man stumbled back and struck his head on the corner of the doorway, crumpling into a boneless heap. The young ATF agent climbed to his feet and limped toward his bedroom. He leaned against the hallway wall forcing himself to stay conscious. In his room he collected his handcuffs and the hemp lariat, a gift from Vin Tanner. The return to the living room took longer. Darkness lapped at the edge of his consciousness but he forced it back. JD knelt beside the downed man and locked James' hands behind his back. Using the lariat he tied the man's feet to Buck's chair. No longer able to stop the black curtain falling over his eyes, the young man collapsed, unconscious, onto the couch.
"Hey, JD! Open the door. My hands are full." Silence came from the bachelors' apartment. Near midnight, Buck didn't want to wake his neighbors but with his arms full of JD's computer he waited for his friend. "Come on boy. Get your lazy behind out of bed and open the damn door." His voice increased in volume but he heard no noise come from beyond the door. He set the stack of computer hardware onto the carpeted floor and searched his pockets for his keys. Warning bells sounded when the doorknob turned freely. Why wasn't the door locked? The door refused to budge. Wilmington pushed with his shoulder but he continued to meet with resistance. What was in the room?
Kicking out with his foot into the lock area, he felt the weight holding the door move. Buck pulled his service revolver and cautiously peered into the apartment.
"JD? Where you at boy?" Pushing harder he opened the door further. A comatose stranger lay on the floor, trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey. Cautiously the senior agent scanned the still room. Several feet from the body lay an unfamiliar gun. Where was his little buddy?
"JD," Buck whispered. Were more unknown assailants holding the boy? Buck sighed with relief when he saw a familiar body on the couch. Buck reached out and touched JD's arm searching his friend's body for a gunshot wound.
Still groggy, JD's eyes fluttered open to see a fuzzy Buck Wilmington. "Hey, Buck."
The older man shook his head in wonderment. "What happened here, kid? Who is that man tethered by the door?"
"Tried ta kill me. He's the one who locked me up. Planned to shoot me."
"You hurtin' anywhere?"
JD smiled as pain shimmered in his eyes. "I think I busted my foot." His eyes drifted shut and Buck smiled.
"Damm fool kid."
Vin, Nathan and Ezra sat at their respective desks, busily working on reports and research. Each stole glances at the main door. Where was their team leader? Larabee usually greeted each man's arrival. His absence this morning delayed their weekly briefing and the men mentally scrutinized his absence.
All heads looked up when the door opened. Josiah walked into the office, his attention buried in a pink piece of stationary.
Nathan couldn't resist the opportunity to rib his friend. "Must be a special lady to hold your attention like that, Josiah."
"I wish it was good news, brother. Is Chris back yet?" The expression on the older man's face spoke volumes.
"No, our fearless leader has yet to return to our suite of employment. Something we should know about?" Ezra walked toward the other two men.
"You and Vin were right about Cindy." Sanchez waved the pink paper in the air. "This is her letter of confession."
"She wrote it to you?" Vin joined the men gathered around Nathan's desk.
"Said she wrote one to Chris, too, but she wanted to bare her soul to someone else. I'm supposed to help him understand what she did and why she did it."
"Care to enlighten us?" Ezra curiosity was peeked.
"Or do we have to wait until Chris comes?" Vin added.
"Wait for me for what?" The four agents turned toward the office door and saw the man being discussed standing in the doorway. "Don't tell me you have nothing to do!"
"I received an unusual missive that I was sharing. We were starting to get concerned about you," Josiah offered.
"Spent the morning with Buck and JD at the hospital. The boy was attacked last night, by the creep that kidnapped him."
"Is he alright?"
"Hospital means someone got hurt?" Nathan asked.
"The kid took the guy down with a stapler and a couple well placed kicks. He wants to thank you for the lessons, Vin."
"That should have been a challenge considering the injury to his ankle." Nathan brow showed his worry.
A faint smile crossed the team leader's face. "That's why Buck took him took him to Mercy. The poor kid's now wearing fiberglass on his foot. Seems like that kick broke a couple bones. With his shoulder still healing, he can't use crutches. If you figured he was limited before you ought to see him now. Good thing about the whole night is he got most of his memory back."
"What happened to him?" Josiah put down the perfumed paper, eager to hear the leader's tale.
"The man came to the door, said he'd been on the plane, and he wanted to return something to JD. After he got in the door he pulled a cloth out of his pocket, soaked with some chemical. The guy's after-shave triggered something in the kid's head. Next thing JD knew, he was staring at a gun and ordered to write a suicide note."
"Have we obtained the miscreant's credentials?" Ezra's fingers sat posed over his keyboard.
"Name is Stuart James, a retired federal penitentiary warden."
"Doesn't ring a bell. Should we know him?" Vin face looked puzzled.
Chris shook his head. "He was hired to distract us. In fact he was coming to Denver on the Hemple Jet. He won't admit who hired him."
"Chris," Josiah handed the team leader a pink envelope. "You'd better read this first and then we'll continue this discussion."
Larabee looked at the handwriting and paled. The envelope showed no signs of tampering so how did his men know its contents. "Care to explain?"
"Read it first and then we'll talk." Josiah held his envelope up for Chris to see.
"So she only wanted to distract us, that's why she planted the drugs?" JD listened to his friends' explanations of Cindy Hemple's confession. "She had nothing to do with the rest?"
"Nope, kid. That was all that warden's doing." Vin sat beside JD as the team relaxed at the local bar.
Nathan added. "He wanted more than just distracting us from Cindy's step-brother's case. Hearing the inmates complain about our team made us a worthy challenge. It was just a game, a deadly game. Now he'll get to be on the same side of the bars as the men he presided over before he changed occupations."
"Cindy's really sorry, JD." Buck rested his hand on the younger man's shoulder. "She's ready to accept her punishment."
"She was just trying to help her family. Just wish I wasn't her victim of choice."
"Ready to get them certifications, son?" Chris sat at the head of the table and watched the youngest's face, the emotions running from elation to fear. "The doc said your arm will be healed in a couple of weeks. Don't need to meet any physical requirements this time, so your busted foot won't slow you down."
"Can't I do it here? Do I have to go back to Phoenix to get them?"
"They're holding a spot for you in Diamondback land. Meetings ought to be a breeze second time around." Chris Larabee smiled at his young friend.
Throwing his good arm in the air, JD relented. "OK, OK. I'll go on one condition. Don't make me take any free rides."
"You've got a deal, JD. You've got a deal."