THE BIRD MAN by Phyllis Loafman

ATF "Little Britches" Universe

Chris glanced at his watch. It was only three-thirty in the afternoon. The day seemed to go on forever. He looked out the door of his office to Buck’s desk and saw that he was sitting hunched over his keyboard. Hopefully, he was finishing the report on the case they had just completed. Chris watched as Buck sat up and stretched. Larabee heard the printer load up as Buck stood and headed in the direction of the noise. A few minutes later, Chris’ attention was once again drawn to his old friend’s desk as he returned and took his seat. Chris turned his attention back to his own report.

"Mr. Larabee?"

Chris glanced up and motioned the team’s undercover agent into the room. "Ezra. Come on in."

Ezra Standish entered the office and took a chair in front of the team leader. He waited as Chris signed the paperwork and placed it in the outbox sitting on the corner of his desk. The blond man looked up.

"I have my account of the events preceding and immediately followed the encounter with Mr. Pena and his associates. I believe I have all the pertinent details outlined and recorded in their chronological order of occurrence. If you would please read and proof the document, I would be most appreciative." The well-dressed southerner handed his report to Larabee and sat back to wait, adjusting a cuff as he did.

Chris nodded and took the papers. He leaned back in his chair and began to read. Several minutes later, he frowned and glanced over at the agent. "Ezra, I thought you met with Pena and three others when the meet was arranged on Monday. Says here that there were six men at the meeting."

Ezra frowned as he recalled the meeting. "Yes, you are quite correct. When I joined up with the team in the van, I reported that I had met with four men. That much you would have ascertained from the conversation you listened in on. But after the meeting this morning, two of the men that we apprehended were also at the restaurant on Monday. It was not until we arrived that I recognized the two as they were unloading the arms from the truck."

Chris’ frown grew even deeper. "Ezra that could have been a disaster. Do you think they were following you on Monday?"

"I considered that and, yes, I do believe that they were there to follow me and discover if my intensions were reliable. I was extremely cautious upon my departure from the establishment for just that reason. Had I been the seller and not the procurer in this instance, I would have had surveillance on my intended buyer also. I try to think as they would to protect myself in these endeavors."

Ezra sat back and waited for Chris. The blond simply went back to reading. A few minutes later, he leaned forward and grabbed a pen. Signing off on the report, he tossed it in the out box along with his and Josiah Sanchez’s, which the profiler had turned in earlier.

"Perfect as always, Ezra. Thanks for another exceptional job." Ezra stood as he spoke and Chris rose with him. "You have plans for the weekend?"

"I still have a few errands to run and some Christmas shopping to finish. I find it to be a relief when that chore is complete and I have mailed the cards and gifts to their respective recipients. Speaking of shopping though, is there any thing in particular that you would prefer I not buy the young men that reside in your home?"

"Anything that makes loud noises." Buck said as he walked in.

Chris held out his hand for the report as he laughed. "Yeah, we learned real quick that they don’t need any help in that area."

Ezra frowned and with a straight face, replied, "Well, I assume that in that case, I will have to return the drum set I had purchased for young Mr. Dunne."

Buck’s mouth flew open. "DRUM SET? Are you crazy? What in the hell were you thinking, Standish? Drums? Only if you keep them at your place, cause they ain’t coming to ours. Hell, that boy don’t need drums, he makes do with pots and pans or the coffee table. Hell, he even used old horseshoes on the barn door once. We like to ‘a never settled that animal down. Damn near took Chris’ head off when he started jumping around in that stall."

Chris chuckled. He wasn’t sure if it was the story or the fact that Buck never could tell when Standish was joking with him. Ezra never cracked a smile. He simply stood and watched as Wilmington ranted.

Buck finally calmed down and looked at Ezra. He rolled his eyes. "Shoot, Ezra. I fell for it again, didn’t I?"

"Hook, line and sinker, my good friend. I really need to give you some lessons on recognizing subterfuge." He smiled at the tall man that he had teamed with on many assignments.

Chris sat down and began reading Buck’s report, knowing that it would have to be proofed and rewritten as always. Buck was an excellent agent, but his reports were another story. Larabee trusted the man with his life, the boys, and the job, everything, with the exception of reports. The man spun a good story and that was how his accounts of the assignments often read, like a piece of fiction. Chris shook his head as he began to read.

"But back to my query, what could I buy the young men? Something together or separate?"

Buck plopped down in a chair. "That is the question Chris and I have been wrestling with for weeks. I want to get one thing and he wants to get something else."

Chris’ ears took in the words even as his eyes took in the report. He looked up when Buck paused. "We are not buying those electric Jeeps, Buck."

"They ain’t that expensive, Chris. And just think about how much the boys would like them."

Chris put the papers down and leaned on the desk. "It has nothing to do with money, Buck and you know that. Those kids don’t need big, fancy toys. They didn’t have anything until they came to live with us. I don’t think we should start the relationship with them by trying to buy their love."

Buck’s eyes flared up the words and Chris saw that. He quickly tossed his hands up in defense. "No, I’m sorry, Buck. That didn't come out the way I meant it." He was relieved to see the man across from him calm somewhat, though the eyes still had fire in them.

Ezra stepped around and placed a hip on the corner of the desk. "Mr. Wilmington, you are aware of the lack of property that those children had before entering your home. I do not believe Mr. Larabee meant to imply you were trying to buy their love and affection. He merely meant to say that it is unnecessary to spend money on extravagant toys when what they really need and, I dare say want, is a good and stable home life and love from you two gentlemen. Anything extra that they receive is superfluous."

Chris nodded. "That is exactly what I mean. We should keep it simple. Buck, they’ve done without their whole lives. Christmas is about giving, but just because we have the money to spend, it doesn’t mean we should."

Buck understood and he agreed, but these were two babies and the world had shown them nothing but heartache and horror. He wanted to show them the good things that they could, and should, have. They were still such innocent and good-natured boys, even with all the bad they had seen and experienced. He averted his eyes as his fought the emotions those thoughts evoked. Chris and Ezra understood and waited.

Finally, the man looked back at the two friends and consultants, a grin pulling at his lips. "All I can say is, thank the Lord I have you two to keep me under control." He held up his hand when Chris opened his mouth. "No need to say it. I know. My intentions are good, just a little misplaced."

All three men chuckled. "Not unusual for you, Buck. You're known for jumping in with both feet." Larabee shook his head at the shrug Wilmington gave him

Chris sat back and looked at Ezra, saying, "Ezra, we don’t even know what to get them. Miz Potter was taking them and her two kids to the movies this afternoon and then she was going to drop them off here. We were planning on dinner and the mall to get some ideas for Christmas. Clothes are good. Something educational, books, you know, things like that. I trust your judgment in that area. If you can’t come up with something before

Christmas, I’ll try to point you in the right direction."

Standing, Ezra straightened his jacket and vest. "Thank you, gentlemen." He turned to the door, but then turned back. "Mr. Larabee, if I might offer a suggestion before your evening out with the young gentlemen?"

Chris looked at the man, expectantly. "I believe it would be prudent of you to relieve Mr. Wilmington of his checkbook and credit cards before you enter the mall or Christmas may come twice for those young men."

Buck laughed and reached into his pocket. Tossing his wallet onto Larabee’s desk, he shrugged his shoulders. "Man has a point, Chris. I find it real hard to tell them boys ‘no’, so you are in charge of the money tonight."

Chris took the wallet and placed it in his jacket. "Thanks, Ezra. I wondered how I was going to get that thing away from him."

They were still smiling at each other when the objects of their discussion burst into the room at full speed.


"Chris! Buck!" JD shouted as he rounded the corner, Vin hot on his heels. Both boys slid to a stop. "Hi, Mr. Ezra. Are you going to eat with us, too?"

Ezra looked down at the two young boys. They were both slim young men with open faces and there any resemblance ended. Vin was the taller and older of the two with blond hair that was neatly clipped in a long style that covered his ears and hung near his shoulders. His eyes were a crystal clear blue that revealed a soul older than his age. This was a serious child who had grown up early, but somehow managed to retain his innocent essence.

JD had black hair cut in a bowl style that allowed it to hang right above his big hazel eyes, creating a perfect frame for the milky skin of the youthful face that shone with innocence. Vin was quiet and reserved, while JD was in constant motion and talked to distraction. They were opposites that had been attracted to each other and were now almost as a single unit. Where there was one, the other was close by. They were brothers of the spirit.

"Mr. Dunne. Mr. Tanner. How are you gentlemen this fine afternoon?"

"Hi, Mr. Ezra. We’re fine. Miz Potter took us to a movie." Vin answered.

"Yeah, we went to see ‘Monserink’ with her kids." JD informed them as he clambered into Buck’s lap.

"Oomph. Watch where you’re putting those feet, little bit." Buck cried as the boy stood in his lap and placed both hands on the man’s shoulders. "And it’s called ‘Monster Inc’. That two words, not one."

The young eyes narrowed as they studied the man before him.

"Buck, I’m thirsty." The boy stated as if the man had not even spoken.

At that moment, Gloria Potter appeared at the door with her two children.

"Afternoon, gentlemen."

Chris and Buck stood up as she stopped in the doorway. Buck had tossed JD onto his shoulders and held him there.

Gloria looked at her watch, "I hope we’re not too early."

"No, Miz Potter, you’re fine. We were running a little late, what with reports and all. Boys give you any trouble?" Chris asked as he placed his hands on Vin’s shoulders. The boy craned his head back to look up at the man standing behind him. Chris looked down into the eyes and his heart skipped a beat at the devotion he saw reflected there. He smiled down at the boy, pride evident in the smile.

"No, they were both perfect little gentlemen. No yelling, or fighting, no arguments. I was beginning to think I had the wrong little boys," she teased them. "Fact of the matter was, they were so entranced by the movie that they forgot to act like the young boys that they were. We had a wonderful time."

"Thanks, Miz Potter, we really appreciate you bringing the kids in. Ya’ll have a nice weekend and we’ll see you on Monday."

The boys called out their goodbyes and the Potter family left the office and rang for the elevator.

"Buck, if you would like, I can take the boys down to the cafeteria and get them some refreshments, while you and Chris finish up on that report." Ezra offered.

Buck looked over at Chris. He was talking to Vin about their afternoon adventures.

"That would be great, Ezra. Are you sure you don’t mind?"

"I have no pressing engagements for this early in the evening. I would relish the opportunity to assist with the young gentlemen."

JD squealed and jumped out of Buck’s lap, running over the Standish and taking his hand. "Can I get orange juice?"

Buck cleared his throat as he glared at the boy.

JD glanced over and looked up again. "Please?" He looked back at Buck to verify that was the correction he was wanting. He smiled at the nod Wilmington gave him.

"You may order whatever drink you care to have, Mr. Dunne."

JD looked around and met eyes with Vin. "Mr. Ezra’s gonna take us downstairs, Vin. Come on." He held out his free hand to the other boy.

Vin looked from JD to Chris. "Can I stay here, Chris?" Receiving a nod, he looked at Ezra. In a quiet voice, he told him, "Thank you, Mr. Ezra, but I’m not thirsty. Would you mind if I didn’t go?" A blush rose on the boy’s cheeks.

"Why, of course not, Mr. Tanner. Mr. Dunne and I shall go together and we will return as soon as we have quenched our parched throats. Come, Mr. Dunne, let us proceed to the refreshments."

JD walked out the door, waving his free hand. "We’ll be back."

Vin walked across the room and climbed onto the couch that sat under the window. Sitting on his knees, he looked out the window and watched as the afternoon crowds of people passed several stories below.

Chris watched for a moment and then turned back to the report lying on his desk. Picking it up, he said, "Buck, you better go start some coffee."

Wilmington groaned, but stood and headed for the small conference room and the coffee maker. "So much for getting out early."

+ + + + + + +

JD and Ezra entered the cafeteria and went down the line to the beverages. The boy pointed to the orange juice dispenser at Standish’s inquiry of what he would like. After filling the glass for the boy, Ezra selected bottled water for himself. He paid for the beverages and they searched for a table to sit at.

JD immediately began to tell Ezra about the movie they had gone to see in great detail. Ezra nodded and smiled. He was impressed with the amount of details the five year old was able to remember and describe. Half way there the movie critique, a shadow fell across the table and Ezra glanced up.

"Good evening, Marshal Bergman. How are you this evening?" Ezra’s attention was focused on the man standing across from him and did not notice JD freeze as the man spoke.

The gravelly voice fit the face that emitted it. "I’m just fine, Standish. You?"

"Fine also, sir." Ezra waited, not inviting the marshal to join them.

The man ignored the rebuff and, placing a hand on the back of JD’s seat, leaned over the boy. "Who’s your young friend, Ezra?"

Standish visibly tensed at the use of his given name. He did not like the man and he refused to be friendly with the oaf. But neither could he be totally rude, thus he introduced the boy.

"This is Mr. Dunne. He is Mr. Wilmington’s ward." Ezra glanced at JD and noticed the wide eyes. "JD, this is Mr. Bergman. Mr. Bergman is a Federal Marshal and works on the third floor."

JD slowly looked up into the face he knew loomed over him. Terror gripped the child and it resulted in the glass of juice crashing to the table and rolling to the floor to shatter. Ezra jumped up and moved around the table. He checked the boy even as he asked, "JD, are you injured?"

The man did not notice the lack of response from the boy. He stood the small body up in the chair and, seeing no cuts, instructed him to stay put. "I will obtain some towels with which to clean up the juice. Do not get down, sir."

"I’ll keep an eye on him for you, Standish." Bergman volunteered. Ezra went to the counter and asked for a towel from the cashier.

Bergman leaned in toward the trembling child. "Well, hello, JD. Or should I say ‘mama’s little darlin’. Isn’t that what she called you? I never thought I’d see you again; yet here you are." He stared into the terrified hazel eyes. A sadist smile crept onto the man’s lips. "You haven’t forgotten what I told you, have you boy? One word and I’ll do to you what I did to your mama." The man’s voice dropped lower in both volume and timbre as he threatened the boy. Catching a glimpse of Ezra returning, he stood up straight. But unable to resist one final act, he placed his finger on the boy’s face and ran it down the quaking face to the tiny neck, resting the thick digit against the pulse point below the child’s jaw.

Ezra returned and wiped the juice that stained the front of the boy’s jacket and pants. Most had already been absorbed and he turned his attention to the table. Julius, the busboy, began to sweep up the glass and mop up the juice.

"Just leave that stuff on the table and I’ll clean it up," he told Ezra. The man patted JD on the shoulder saying, "That juice can get pretty sticky, can’t it?"

Ezra looked at the boy when he failed to comment. He saw the trembling chin and tear filled eyes. Ezra sighed. ‘Well, so much for the hard nosed agent image.’ Standish scooped the small body up and clutched it tightly.

"It’s okay, son. There no need to cry. It was just an accident." Rubbing the boy’s back, he nodded to Julius and headed to the elevator.

+ + + + + + +

Buck pulled the report sheets from the printer and headed back to Larabee’s office. He heard the elevator ding as he entered the office. Handing the papers to Chris, Buck smiled and said, "Incoming."

Larabee laughed. "JD must be back." Chris began to check the new version of Buck’s report.

Both men looked up as Ezra entered still carrying the boy. Buck frowned and stood up.

"What happened?"

"Only a minor spill." Ezra began. He paused as JD wiggled from his arms and, skirting around a kneeling Buck, climbed onto the couch next to Vin. The three men watched as the older boy wrapped his arm around the younger one, even as JD buried his face in Vin’s chest. The eight year old did not utter a word or question the other boy’s actions. He simply hugged JD as if he did it everyday.

Chris stood and came around the desk. Speaking softly, he asked, "How minor, Ezra? What the hell happened?"

The undercover agent inclined his head to the doorway. They walked over and stood just outside of the office.

"Mr. Dunne was regaling me with the movie they attended this afternoon. He was enjoying a glass of orange juice at the time. David Bergman approached and I was introducing them, when the young man dropped the glass of juice, which impacted on the table, before rolling to the floor and shattering. I inspected the boy and found no injury, so I got some towels and cleaned his clothing and the table. He seemed quite despondent over the incident and I thought that we should come back to the comfort of family."

Buck glanced in the room and found that neither boy had moved. He turned back to Ezra, frowning. "You didn’t yell at him, did you?" Ezra raised an eyebrow. Buck shook his head, as his hand waved back and forth. "I’m not accusing you, just trying to figure out why he would be so upset. He’s spilled things before and never acted like this."

"No. I did not raise my voice to him. I inquired as to any injuries. After ascertaining that he was not injured, I got some towels to clean up with. When I came back to the table, he was already in a highly agitated state. Seeing this, I decided it was imperative that we return to the comfort of family."

They stepped back into the room. Chris walked over and sat down by Vin. He placed a hand on JD’s dark hair. "JD?" He got no response from the boy. He tried again. "JD, are you ready to go eat? Vin says that ya’ll decided on pizza. You ready to go?"

The response was a shake of the head and a muffled, ‘not hungry’. Vin looked up at the man and his sad eyes told Chris that he had seen this behavior before.

"Chris, can we go home? We could get the pizza and take it home," he said hopefully.

Chris stroked the blond head and nodded. He looked up to see Buck approaching. The big man reached down and started to pull JD into his arms. He paled when his actions caused the child to cry out and clutch the other boy tighter.

Chris brought his eyes around to the meet Buck’s. Both men were startled wordless by the outcry. As they looked on the two boys seemed to meld together as they clung to each other. Chris could see the tremors in Buck’s hands as they hung limp at his side.

Vin raised his eyes to look at the men who had taken them into their home. His eyes were full of tears, tears he could not shed. He knew he had to be strong for JD. The old fear was back, the fear the younger boy had when they first met.

"I have to hold him." The words were spoken flatly, but with great commitment. Buck opened his mouth, but Chris’ hand on his arm had him closing it again. Chris nodded to Vin.

The boy whispered to the huddled form. Sliding off the couch, Vin turned and JD wrapped his legs around the slight frame of Tanner. Vin put both hands around the bottom of the younger boy and turned back to the men.

Chris frowned. "Vin, he’s too heavy for you. You're still bruised from the accident."

This time it was Buck’s hand on Chris’ arm. The blond man looked at his partner.

"You got ‘em, Vin?" When the boy nodded, Buck squatted and scooped both boys up. Softly, he spoke into Vin’s ear. "You got JD. I got you."

Buck turned to Chris. "Let’s take these boys home."

Chris looked at the man with disapproval. Buck was still recovering from the same accident that Vin had been injured in. "Buck, you sure?" to which the man nodded.

Ezra stepped out of the doorway to allow the five to exit. Chris pulled his door closed after locking it. Standish flipped the lights out and locked the main door into the office. The elevator was opening as he joined the family for the descent to the parking garage to begin the trip home. Once in the garage, the southerner parted ways, stating that he would call to inquire on JD the next day. He watched as the boys were loaded into the black truck and the four drove away.

Ezra’s mind replayed the event as he tried to figure out what had gone wrong with a simple excursion for refreshment. He shook his head when he could come up with nothing. His thoughts went back to the family that had just departed. He hoped that the men would be able to ferret out the problem and overcome it, as they had previous ones. He sent up a silent prayer for their success.

+ + + + + + +

Chris parked next to the house. The two got out and opened the back doors to the big truck. JD was sound asleep, exhausted from the days' events. Buck reached in and, unfastened the seat belt from the car seat, lifted the limp body out. Vin kept an eye on the younger boy, but when he saw JD snuggle up to Buck's chest, he breathed a sigh of relief. Only then, did he allow Chris to lift him out of the vehicle.

Normally, Chris would have sat the boy on his feet to walk into the house, but tonight the desire to hold the small form close was strong and he closed the truck door and headed up to the house with the youngster still in his arms. He smiled as the shy child took a deep breath and settled into the crook of his arm.

Buck pushed the door open and went straight back to the boys room to get the five year old ready for bed. Chris headed to the kitchen still carrying the other boy. He set him down on a chair and went to the refrigerator. Opening the appliance, he glanced over his shoulder.

"Vin, what are you hungry for?" They had decided to not stop for pizza. They would go tomorrow if JD were all right by that time. He watched the boy shrug his shoulders.

"Yeah, I'm not too hungry either. Can we talk?"

"'Bout JD?"

The man nodded. Vin looked away. He seemed to be considering something, so Chris moved to the counter and got down the beans to make coffee. He would let the boy make his decision while he brewed the coffee. Buck needed to hear whatever Vin had to say.

He didn't have to wait long for Buck. The man walked in the room, sniffing the air.

"Hmm, coffee smells good, pard. We decide on what to eat?" Wilmington grabbed a cup and, after pouring the hot beverage, sat down at the table with Vin and Chris. Chris shook his head.

"Doesn't seem that anyone's hungry just yet."

Vin was worrying a glass of milk Chris had poured for him, not looking at either of the men. Chris finally reached over the placed a hand on the boy's arm, stilling the fingers. Vin pulled his hands back and put them in his lap. Drawing a deep breath, he looked up.

"When I first found JD, he was real scared. He cried all the time. He told me he was too scared to stay with his mama in the car and too afraid to leave her alone. I found him hiding near the car. He told me that he would try to wake her up and then he would hide and wait."

Vin stopped when Chris asked, "Did he say what he was hiding from?"

"Not really, just a 'bad man' was all he would say. He had been alone for two nights, if I understood him right. We snuck over to the car. I saw his ma…I told him about his mama dreaming of angels and took him home with me. He wouldn't sleep near the front of the crates; he'd always go all the way to the back. Wouldn't go out if I wasn't with 'em. He was always talking when he slept. I couldn't make out what he was saying, but it sometimes sounded like 'bird man'. I'm not sure."

Chris and Buck looked at each other and back to the boy.

"He stopped doing it after a while and he didn't have no more nightmares after that."

He watched the two men across from him. Vin had learned at an early age to watch people. He realized that you could learn a lot about a person if you just kept quiet and watched. The boy knew that his statement had upset the two men. What he needed to discover was if they were mad about what he had told them or mad about him telling.

Buck looked sick. Turning to Chris, he asked, "What do you suppose happened to bring back that kind of terror, Chris? They were only gone a few minutes. And, while I wouldn't trust Ezra with my money, I do trust him with everything else. Whatever happened, Ezra had no control over it."

Chris shook his head. He didn't have an answer, only more questions. He was not even aware that he had placed his hand over Vin's arm and that his thumb was lightly stroking the fine, blond hairs. "Tomorrow we call Ezra and we go over every moment they were gone."

"We could call now." Buck stated hopefully.

"No, he was going out. I think Maude is in town for the evening." Chris saw the disappointment in the blue eyes of his partner and friend. "If JD sleeps through the night, he might be fine tomorrow. If he wakes up or has a nightmare, we'll call Ezra's cell. I don't want to pull him away from Maude if I can help it. It takes a while for him to screw up the courage to deal with her when she shows. I don't want to break his concentration if I don't absolutely have to."

Buck nodded. "I can understand that." He took a deep breath. "Maybe, we'll luck out and JD will forget all about whatever started this."

As if it were an omen, the shrill ring of the phone followed Buck's statement. The man jumped to grab the instrument before the noise woke the boy sleeping down the hall.

"Four Corners Ranch."

Buck frowned and his eyes closed as he listened to the person on the other end of the line. Chris watched and noticed the man he had known for years go pale, his hand going to the wall as if to brace himself, turning his back to the others.

"Yes, ma'am. Can I ask why?"

Buck listened. "Yes, ma'am. Ten o'clock. We'll be there." He hung up the phone.

The fact that Buck did not immediately turn around scared Larabee more than he cared to admit.


Slowly, the man turned to the table, his eyes brimming with tears.

Chris stood up.

Buck cleared his throat and started to speak. He shook his head as his voice refused to respond. Nervously, he rubbed his face with both hands, wiping away the tears that motion caused to fall.

He tried again. "That.. that was Nettie Wells. She wants to see JD and me in her office tomorrow morning at ten."

"Tomorrow's Saturday."

"Yeah, I know."

Vin jumped up and stood between the two men, looking from one to the other. "Why’s Miz Nettie want to see JD? He didn't do nothing. She's not going to take him away, is she? She can't do that. He lives with us. It's all 'fical. Ain't it, Chris? She can't take him away from us, can she? She can't. He's mine. She can't take him away." The words tumbled from the boy's mouth. Tears were running down his face as he turned back and forth. Finally, he ran to Chris and clutched the man's hands. "Please, Chris, don't let her take JD!"

Larabee squatted down and hugged the little boy weeping in front of him. "We won't let that happen, Vin. Will we, Buck?"

He found himself talking to empty air. The sound of the door slamming closed brought his head around. He caught a glimpse of Wilmington as he headed towards the barn. As much as he wanted to talk to the man and assure him that things would be all right, he had to contend with a frantic little boy at the moment.

An hour later, Chris tucked an exhausted Vin into bed. He had laid the boy on his own bed, but Vin had sleepily asked if he could be with JD. The ATF team leader, known for his uncompromising and stern demeanor, had to choke down a lump in his throat as he moved the young boy to the other bed and tucked him in. He watched as the boy curled around the form of his friend. Chris stayed for a few minutes, stroking the slender shoulder. Sure that both children were sleeping, the man left the room in search of Buck.

Chris found him sitting on the stoop, coatless and holding a beer

"Kind of cool out here isn't it?" Chris inquired.

Buck held the beer high. "Thought I'd numb the body and the mind at the same time. About the only way I figure to get any sleep tonight."

Chris noticed that the beer was almost full as he joined Buck on the steps. "You aren't making much progress on that beer."

Buck held the bottle up. Looking at the fluid, he said, "Tastes kind of flat."

"Can't go see Miz Wells with a hangover, Buck." The woman's name made the man cringe.

They sat in silence for a few minutes. Chris was just starting to rise, when Buck broke the stillness.

"I'm scared, Chris. What if she takes him away? What if they found his daddy? I don't know if I could go on without him." Buck's head dropped as he finished speaking.

Chris heard the man's voice break under the weight of his fear. He reached over and took the beer. "Whether you believe it or not, you could."

Buck turned to his old friend, knowing that Chris had survived such a loss, barely, but he did survive. Buck now understood just how deep the man 's pain must have been.

"But you aren't going to have to. Get up. We're calling the others and we're going to figure out what went wrong today and if it has anything to do with that meeting tomorrow."

Chris stood and gripped the man's arm and drew him up. Chris opened the door and ushered Buck in. As Larabee started across the room to the phone, Buck dropped a hand on his shoulder.

"Thanks, Chris"

Chris started, "I ain't doing it for you, pard. He's my kid, too. You would do no less if it was Vin."

Buck nodded to his longtime friend. "Let's go to work."

+ + + + + + +

By ten that evening, the five members of Team Seven were gathered in the front room of the ranch house. Ezra had expressed his gratitude of being extracted from his mother's clutches. Josiah had been about to leave on a weekend retreat. 'Nothing that I can not do next weekend, brother' he had told Chris over the phone. Nathan had just arrived home after a dinner with Rain and had no plans except to relax and watch a movie. 'Rain's fine with it, Chris. She's pushing me out the door as we speak. You know how she feels about them boys'. So, here they all sat, going over every scrap of information they could lay their hands on pertaining to the two boys and their lives before they had been found in the warehouse that day.

Three hours later, they were no further along in their quest than when they had started. Frustration was evident, as tempers grew short. Buck had read files and hacked away at the computer keyboard with little luck. He picked up the keyboard with the intention of slamming it down, but was prevented as Josiah came up behind him and took the instrument from his hands. The team profiler sidestepped as the chair shot backwards and banged into the wall.

Chris, Ezra, and Nathan looked up from their files. Buck threw his hands into the air as he walked away the desk. He stalked around the room like a caged animal.

"Buck," Chris called. When he had the man's attention, he continued. "You're tired. Sit down and try to relax."

"Relax? I only have.." He turned his arm over and looked at his watch. "..nine hours to figure out how to keep my so.." Buck stopped and placed his hands on his hips, his feet spread wide and his head hung down. He drew a deep breath. "I have nine hours to come up with a good reason for that woman to allow me to keep the boy. I can't relax."

Chris stood and walked over the man. "That's the problem; none of us can relax."

Turning, Chris addressed everyone. "Put what you're working on down. We need to step back and come back fresh. Come on"

Everyone stood and stretched. They followed Larabee into the kitchen. Opening the refrigerator, Chris pulled out the stew Mrs. Potter had made the day before. Josiah and Ezra brought out the dishes. Nathan and Buck poured the drinks. Within a few minutes, they were seated around the table, quietly eating.

Buck broke the silence. "Maybe it's just a coincidence that she wants to see us tomorrow. Maybe it's got nothing to do with what happened. I don't see how she would have found out about JD being so upset." His voice was hopeful.

"I have found that believing in coincidences in my line of work can get you killed. I believe we should assume that the call was initiated by the scene in the cafeteria and should act accordingly." Standish said as he looked around the table.

Chris nodded. "Ezra's right. They're tied together somehow. We're missing something, some clue."

Josiah agreed and asked Ezra to once again go over the time he had spent with the boy.

So once again, the undercover agent told in detail the occurrences of the trip. Ezra was to the point of the spill when Nathan suddenly slapped the table with his open palm.

"Damn, how many times have I listened to this accounting and not made the connection?" Jumping up from the table, he headed to the front room. Moments later he was back. He fell into his chair as he slapped a folder down on the table.

The five men watched as he flipped through the folder.

"Here it is. ‘Marshall Bergman stated the subject failed to show at appointed place and time. After waiting for two hours, he returned to office and reported failed contact to his supervisor.’ Nathan read. "Seems she witnessed a murder in the house she worked at as a housekeeper. JD’s mother was going into the witness protection program. She was going to testify, but disappeared right before the trial was suppose to begin. She was found three days later in her car. They determined that she had been dead three days. There was a car seat in the back, a kid’s shoe, but no child. That was about two months before we found the boys in the warehouse."

Chris stared down at the table. The idea of the two boys living that long by themselves in that warehouse made him angry and sick. He looked around the table and saw the same response on each of the men’s faces.

He shook his head to dispel the images his mind conjured up. "So, Bergman was the marshal assigned to her case? Ezra, do you think he recognized JD today?"

"That is quite possible, Mr. Larabee. He approached us, when I have seen him many times in different areas and have never been accosted by him on any prior encounter."

"So, you think Bergman wants to talk to the boy about the murder that his mother witnessed?" Nathan asked.

Buck shook his head. "That doesn’t make much sense. He’s a baby. He didn’t see what happened. What’s her statement say, Nathan?"

The medic read through the report. His head began to shake as he read. "No indication in her statement that he was there. She states that she was working and the boy was always at daycare when she was at work."

"Even if he had, he couldn’t testify. Not at his age. Could he?" Buck looked at Larabee for confirmation.

Chris shook his head. "I don’t think so. I can’t believe any DA would put a child on the stand without being absolutely positive about it."

"I find it hard to believe that the child would be a reliable witness at his age, though he does have a fine mind for detail. I learned that today." Ezra contributed.

"Well, we’ll just tell Miz Wells that he can’t help them." Buck decided.

Chris shook his head. It was always so simple for Buck. He saw it as black and white, right and wrong. He cut through the BS and dealt straight from the heart. Chris wished he could do that on more than one occasion.

"Buck, we’ll talk to her tomorrow. Should be able to work out something."

Wilmington’s face was full of hope that they were right about the reason for the meeting, but there was fear on his face also. Chris had seen it before and there was nothing he could do then or now. He just knew that Buck had attached his soul to this little boy. And it was his job, as Buck’s friend, to be there for him, to be there for support, no matter how what happened at the meeting. Looking around the table, he found three sets of eyes that would be there with him.


Comments to: