Too Late to Say I'm Sorry
by Carol Pahl
Monday Morning ATF Office Conference Room
"Buck, sit down, " team leader Chris Larabee ordered. "We're going to get started without him. You can chew his butt when I get through with him."
The mustached agent sat at the table but he glanced one last time at the conference room door. He wasn't worried when JD didn't come home the previous night or show up early in the morning before work, but Dunne was too principled an agent to be late for the weekly Monday morning team meeting.
Josiah passed out manila folders outlining their next assignment and follow-ups to last week's disaster. The men discussed possible actions and two hours later decided on a workable plan. Each collected his assigned papers and stood to leave the room to prepare for the afternoon meeting with Director Travis.
Nathan stopped by Buck's chair and rested his hand on the distraught agent's shoulder. "Gotta forgive him once for being late."
Buck shook his head, "Ain't that Nate. Just got this feeling. Had it since yesterday afternoon. Something's happened and I just ain't heard what it is yet."
"We'll all keep our ears open, brother." Josiah joined the two men. Though five of the seven agents joined the elite ATF team as strangers, an almost brotherly bond forged them together. They worked well in a professional entity but also enjoyed each other's company away from the office. When one was hurting, the rest shared his pain.
The agents returned to their desks and began the day's research, reports and reviews. Buck sat dejectedly at his computer and waited for the machine to boot. He logged onto the network and started reading his email, hoping to distract his mind from worry about his missing roommate.
All weekend, he berated himself for barging into JD's bedroom. He knew the younger man wasn't alone and he should have given the couple the privacy he would have wanted himself. How could he apologize without embarrassing JD and Casey any more? The ringing of his phone brought his mind back to the present. "Wilmington No nothing, Chris. Hell, he'd never be late unless something had happened Yeah, I'll let you know as soon as I hear anything."
Buck returned the receiver to the cradle before he noticed the small light on his phone blinking, signaling a voice mail message. Punching in the number and his password, he swore as he listened to the short message.
Grabbing his coat, he covered the short distance to his boss's office and without knocking stuck his head in the door. "Got trouble at the apartment. I'll be back as soon as I can." He didn't offer an excuse or wait for Chris' response before shutting the door.
"Heard something?" Josiah asked returning from the reference library.
"No, our apartment super called. Said there might be some trouble. Gotta run."
"Need some help?" the larger man offered.
"Don't really know. All he said was there was some trouble with all this rain and that I should come check our place."
Josiah scribbled a quick note and taped it to his computer monitor before grabbing his raincoat. "Let's roll."
-- M - 7 --
Buck stopped his pick-up at the bluff overlooking the apartment complex, unable to drive down into the parking lot because of police tape blocking the entrance. Rain continued to fall and both men noticed the flurry of activity near the west end of the parking lot. The normally foot wide Timber Creek overflowed the rocky bordered gully and spilled its muddy liquid onto the grassy banks.
Buck and Josiah ran down the slope heading for the men's apartment. Tom Trelor, the building manager, met them at the door.
"Wilmington, glad you got my call." He glanced at his watch and continued. "We got a bad one headed this way. Weather bureau says this creek's gonna flood the whole complex. That sandbag levee can't stop what's coming. They've had rain up in the mountains like you wouldn't believe."
"Are we going to lose everything, Tom?" Buck asked nervously.
"Don't know. These buildings ought to be able to withstand a normal flood, whatever the hell that is. Your loft should be safe but the lower level's gonna flood. Police had me evacuate everyone but I'll give you fifteen minutes to gather anything you can grab. JD ain't with you?"
"Saw his bike, figure he musta rode into work with you. You'd better plan to take it with you. We're hoping we won't have more than two feet at this level. Get going, Buck. But you gotta be out in fifteen minutes."
The two agents rushed into the men's apartment. Josiah started disconnecting the expensive entertainment center while Buck gathered important papers. After carrying the electronics up to Buck's bedroom, Josiah glanced out the window. The changed landscape startled him.
"Buck, that water's rising fast. We'd better move."
Wilmington dashed into JD's bedroom and grabbed the plastic file box holding the younger man's financial records. He dumped them into the navy backpack adding a picture album and a photograph of Casey. Taking a last look around the room he grabbed the denim quilt thrown haphazardly on the bed. JD's mother made it for him when she was too weak to work. Buck knew it meant more to his friend than just a bedcover. Ready to leave the room he saw the gold locket hanging above JD's bed. He stuffed it into his shirt pocket, hoisted the backpack onto his back and draped the quilt over his arm.
Josiah carried JD's computer tower and wore the laptop case over his shoulder. CD's and zip disks bulged from Josiah's coat pockets. The two men left the apartment and stepped into the rising floodwaters, ankle deep in the parking lot, ignoring the steady drizzle adding to the disaster. The older man took the wet quilt and trudged up the hill to the pick-up truck while Buck pushed JD's motorcycle through the muddy water.
Glancing over his shoulder, the older man noticed the sandbagging activity suspended. He hurried to reach the dry safety of the vehicle when he heard an unnatural roar. A foaming wall of white water rushed down the narrow valley and exploded into the apartment complex. Water and debris broke lower level windows. The mighty power of nature exerted its force against the work of man and won.
Buck stood frozen halfway up the hill, watching the horror unfolding below. He ignored the water soaking through his clothing and felt a deep sense of loss, not for his possessions but for the other people who lived in the basement level. The volume of water filled the lowest floor of the building and exploded out the other end. The rain continued to inundate the area and the water level continued to rise. Could this day get any worse?
Depositing his precious load into the cab of the pickup, Josiah climbed into the truck where he stacked the two computers on the seat beside him. He carefully refolded the sodden quilt. Buck stood on the driveway, holding JD's bike while watching the raging floodwater coursing through the apartment complex.
The shrill ring of Buck's cell phone broke the older man's reverie.
"Josiah, you two better have a good excuse for missing the meeting." Chris's voice revealed an impending explosion.
"Damn," Josiah whispered, looking at his watch. 'Late, too late,' he thought. "Sorry, Chris. I came along to help Buck save what he could."
"What?" the team leader tried to piece the story together. One man missing, Josiah and Buck taking off without checking in with him and Vin leaving to visit an injured friend.
"All this rain weakened the dam higher up in the mountains. A flash flood inundated the apartments. Buck and JD's building took the worst of it. Right now water is running through the first floor. Only Buck's loft should be salvageable. The boy lost everything except for the little we could carry out before the water hit."
"Josiah, is Buck with you?"
"No, he's outside in the rain, watching the water."
Chris's voice lost its anger and seemed strained. "Vin got a phone call from Nettie Wells this morning, just after you two left."
"Ain't that JD's Casey's aunt?"
"Yep. The girl was involved in a robbery and arson at a convenience store up in Boulder yesterday. She's in serious condition at the hospital there. Vin went to be with her until Mrs. Wells arrives."
"What about JD? Were they together?" Josiah glanced out the window at his partner. The man was about to lift the motorcycle into the truck bed.
"We don't know. I've got a call into the Boulder police."
"Chris, I've got to go help Buck with the bike. We'll give you a call in a few minutes."
Josiah got out of the truck and asked, "Need some help, brother?"
Ignoring the rainwater running down his face, Buck joked, "The Kid's gonna be p.o.ed about losing all his stuff. Should we hide his bike at your place? Let him think he lost it too?"
The older man smiled, knowing the effort at levity was only an attempt that fell short. He could read his friend and knew the man was hurting, not for his own loss but for JD's loss of every possession of value. "Let's get out of this rain. I ain't a duck and this water isn't running off me. I'm soaked through to the skin."
Once settled in the dry and somewhat warm cab, the two men continued to stare at the still rising water. Without looking at the other man, Josiah asked, "What happened between you two?"
"We had a disagreement."
Sanchez glanced at his friend and snorted, "Disagreement? You two have been acting all week like it was a knock down, out drag fight."
Buck rubbed his hands across his face, "Worse than that. We both said some things that were better off not said, better off not even thought."
Taking a deep breath and exhaling with a sigh, Buck shared the tale. "I invited a sweet little filly over for a couple of drinks before we went out for supper."
"Didn't make your reservation, did you?"
The ladies man shook his head. "I'd told the kid to stay out until eight. Figured we'd be gone by seven. Well, one thing led to another and the Kid walked in on us. Was kinda busy to notice him come home."
"You weren't up in the bedroom?" Josiah asked in surprise.
"Never made it that far. Got to give him credit. He was a gentleman. Tried to get by us and go to his room without disturbing our dance. She saw him and screamed, called us both a few choice names while getting her clothes. I screamed at the Kid. 'You shouldn't do that to a man.' Let loose with both barrels. Stood there buck naked, raking the boy over the coals, like it was his fault."
"He just take it?" Josiah scowled.
"No way." Buck's hands flew around the confined space in the cab. "I kinda over stepped the term of sharing, was the third night in a row I entertained while asking JD to be scarce. He was out cruising the streets on his bike. I thought he'd appreciate the extra time, the excuse to be with his girl. Didn't know last week was mid-terms. Then the case went all to hell." Buck rambled on not really talking to the older friend sharing the truck cab.
"Friday, he accused me of all sorts of things. Fatherless children in homeless shelters, battered women to men who'd get a woman drunk and take advantage of her. Never heard him like that, all that piss and vinegar shooting out of his mouth. Mad at me, yet seemed like he was mad at the whole world or something2."
"Sounds like he'd been pondering on this for some time. Could tell, seeing you two at work, that the feud still brewed and wasn't settled."
Dejected, Buck hung his head as he continued his tale, "Didn't help me walking in on them Friday night. I knew they were there, knew it the minute I walked in the door and saw their wet coats hanging on the backs of the chairs. Heard them in JD's bedroom. I had no business walking in there." His voice hitched. "I messed up big time, Josiah. It was nothing that JD did. I owe both of them an apology, gotta tell them how really sorry I am."
Josiah rested his hand on the distraught man's shoulder. The two men sat in silence, the rain beating a rat-a-tat on the roof, each man lost in his own thoughts. One contemplated a story he'd just relived during its telling and the other, mulling the best way to share another chapter to the horror of this day.
Chris Larabee hung up his phone; his face masked the latest development in the case of his missing agent. He rose from his desk and walked out of his office when he heard the outer door open. "Buck, how bad?"
Buck glanced at his companion, a look of wonder crossing his face. Josiah shrugged his shoulders and said quietly, "Chris called while you were bringing up the bike. We missed the monthly meeting with the Judge."
"Shoot! Chris, I totally forgot. I got a call about the flood and..."
Chris held up his hand, interrupting his long-time friend. "Josiah explained. Is the building still standing?"
Wilmington nodded. "Whole place is full of water right now. If this rain lets up, they figure we can start cleaning tomorrow or the next day." He lowered himself into his chair and sighed, "Kid lost everything but what we pulled out. Got his computer, the quilt his ma made and a picture of his girl."
A look passed between the older man and the leader. "I didn't have the heart to tell him after what just happened, Chris." Josiah walked away from the group of men and stared out the window. The lack of sunshine set a somber mood throughout the room.
"What?" Buck looked between the men situated around the office. "JD. You heard something about JD? What happened?" Panic gripped the man's voice.
Ezra and Nathan entered the room and gazed around the office. "Did Mr. Tanner reveal any new particulars?" The undercover man stepped back from the infamous Larabee glare. "I take the information was not joyful tidings for our missing colleague?"
Buck stood up and got in Chris Larabee's face. "You know something and you tell me now. What are you trying to hide from me?"
"Vin got a call from Nettie Wells. Casey was injured in a robbery yesterday, at a gas station up in Boulder. She's in serious condition."
"JD?" Buck barely choked out the letters.
Chris looked at each of the men, knowing he had their full attention, but wanting to delay forwarding the information from the sharpshooter. "I just got off the phone with Vin. Casey was only able to give the Boulder police a few details. JD was he was shot in the back and then they beat him. When they found his badge, the robbers decided to dump his body in the mountains. The highway patrol is looking for Casey's car right now. None of the witnesses were able to give much information. Don't even know which way they went. The girls were tied up and then the ba**ads set the building on fire. Left them to burn. Damn, even locked the building so they couldn't escape." He paused as he reflected on the scenario, innocent victims facing death by fire.
"How bad?" Nathan asked the question everyone else hesitated to ask.
"Smoke inhalation, second degree burns on her arms and back, and a broken heart. Police said she was the hero. Kept her head and got help. Rescued the others, even saved the dead clerk's corpse from burning."
Silence filled the room as each imagined the horror JD's girlfriend endured. Suddenly the lost of earthly possessions dimmed as the possibility of JD's premature demise seemed a reality. The phone in Chris' office broke the silence. The team leader hurried to the office. Buck dropped into his chair while Josiah returned to the window to offer a prayer. Nathan and Ezra looked at each other wanting to discuss the situation but respected the silence.
"Let's go sit in the conference room." Chris Larabee's normal strong voice barely carried across the office. The men moved to the room and sat in their respective seats, each stealing a glance at the empty chair next to Buck Wilmington.
"That was Travis. Tonight's raid is back on. Team three needs us as backup."
"You've got to be kidding, Chris. You tell the Judge about JD?"
The team leader nodded. "He knows. This gang, tonight, is dealing a large shipment of small handguns, the kind used by teenagers that rob gas stations."
"Does this mean we aren't free to search for JD?"
Chris shook his head. "We don't have a clue, Buck. No clue as to which way they went from the store. No clue to anything."
"I ain't just gonna sit here and do nothing." Buck's voice exuded despair. "Ya'll don't need me tonight!"
"Do the Kid more good staying here and doing our job, maybe getting lucky and collecting evidence against whoever took the boy." Nathan's simple advice was met with a deadly stare. The ladies man jump up from his chair, looking ready to throttle someone, anyone foolish enough to stop his mission.
Positioning themselves by the door to block their distraught friend's exit, Nathan and Josiah quietly compared research notes. Ezra's voice smoothly floated through the air as he called anonymous sources in search of missed clues. Buck sat down and laid his weary head on his desk, unable to hold it up any longer. The combination of the case fiasco, the flood, and the implied threat to the missing agent added to the crushing he felt in his heart. 'JD, I swear, we will find you, we will find you,' he silently promised while tears freely slid down his cheeks.
His mouth whispered a prayer. "Keep him safe, Lord. Please bring him home."
Several Amen's filtered through the room as each reflected on the task ahead. JD Dunne was a valued member of the elite ATF team but he was more than just a communications expert. He was special to each of the six older men, special as a friend but also special as a hope for the future.
"What does the judge want us to do, Chris?" Nathan's question broke the spell and the men turned toward the team leader.
-- M - 7 --
Tuesday Morning, ATF office
Josiah walked into the ATF office, his large size filled the space with a commanding presence. His slumped shoulders suggested a different message. No one witnessed his arrival; the office echoed in emptiness. A small sliver of light outlined the shaded window in the door leading to Larabee's office. Sanchez paused, his hand poised to knock on the wood frame.
The elevator chime announced the arrival of someone else to the office complex. Josiah turned, expecting to see one of his team members arriving for work, but was surprised to see a uniformed Colorado Highway Patrol officer.
"Larabee?" he asked.
Josiah nodded toward the inner office and he knocked on the door without hesitation.
"Come in, Josiah."
The older man smiled as he opened the door before stepping back to allow the officer access.
Chris stood and reached out his hand. "I'm Chris Larabee."
"I'm Sergeant Tim Dunbar. I I have the unpleasant chore of telling you we found Casey Wells' car, or what is left after it ran off the road north of Central City. Looks like it exploded on impact. With the flooding yesterday, the chassis washed down the valley."
The Larabee glare made the officer hesitate but he had been warned about the team and the men who were its members.
"We recovered two bodies so far, burned beyond recognition plus the flood." He hesitated, unsure about sharing the rest of their discovery.
"No!" Josiah collapsed into a nearby chair and covered his face.
Chris turned away and stared out the window. Spring was fickle in the mountains. One day deluges inundated Denver. The next day, winds howled down from the mountains, blanketing the soggy landscape with snow. Icy roads and poor visibility drove the sloppy city into a late hibernation.
"According to an eye-witness, three perpetrators were involved in the abduction of your officer. The car is a charred, twisted hunk of medal. CHP searched the area, found two bodies, neither of them identifiable. So far, they could only tell one was a girl."
"A girl? A girl was in this gang?" Josiah queried.
"According to Casey, she was the one that shot JD. Liked to play with fire." Larabee sighed.
"The Gilpin County coroner will try to identify them." The officer turned to leave but turned and said sadly, "We'll let you know if we find anything else."
"Where is Buck?" Chris asked, not looking at the other man, as they heard the elevator closed behind the patrolman. He stared at the snow swirling through the air before returning to his chair and raking his hands through his short hair.
Josiah answered. "He was gone when I got up this morning. The way Buck was talking, I figure he headed up to Boulder to see Casey before searching for JD. He needed to tell her something and I doubt if he wanted to wait until she got out of the hospital."
"Tell her about JD?" The younger man looked at his team member.
Josiah shook his head. "You'll have to ask him. Buck and me did some talking, sitting in the truck, and watching the creek wash away their earthly possessions. Kind of like a confessional. I don't feel right sharing it."
"Yeah, I understand. Poor kid. Figured the two of them were headed to some future together, once she finished college." Suddenly he pounded his fist onto his desk, looking up at his team member. "Burned. Can only hope he was dead from the bullet or crash before the fire. Hell of a way to die."
Sanchez saw the anguish on his friend's face. Chris Larabee felt sorrow for the loss of the young agent but Josiah knew something more crushed the man's heart, the crushing loss of his wife and child by fire. The hurt must be soul consuming!
Josiah quietly left the inner office and returned to his desk. The others should be arriving soon and would want to know the heart-wrenching news about their youngest team member.
-- M - 7 --
"Hey, little Darlin'"
"Hi, Buck." Casey's voice rasped from a pale, gray tinged face.
The older man didn't see the normal sparkle dancing in her eyes. He walked to her side and grabbed her hand. All the words he planned to say evaporated, leaving the hospital room in silence. Both turned their eyes toward the clasped hands.
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Buck whispered, "I'm so sorry, Casey. I I feel so awful about what happened the other night." Turning his head, his eyes met Casey's and a small smile graced her face.
"Work or something was bothering JD; I just didn't know what it was."
"We'll find him, sweetheart. We'll find him."
Tears freely ran down her face as she implored him, "But is he still alive, Buck? Is he alive?" She sighed and released her grasp. The smile faded and a grimace of pain showed on her red face.
Buck noticed for the first time her burned skin. Several places on her arms were wrapped in bandages. Her long, beautiful hair looked like someone randomly chopped pieces out of the locks, leaving snarled ends.
He heard someone at the door and turned, expecting to see a nurse enter but Nettie Wells, carrying a paper shopping bag, walked into the room.
"Ma'am." Buck nodded politely, still caressing Casey's hand with his thumb.
"Any word?" Stalwart in looks and action, Mrs. Wells voiced her question, not shirking from the difficult answer.
The morose agent shook his head. "Nope, nothing yet."
The sound of Buck Wilmington's voice seemed almost guilty, like it was his fault the younger man was missing.
"Then there is always room for hope. Don't forget that, you two. The boy's been in plenty of scrapes before and he's smart enough to escape from his present trouble. You both need to keep your faith in him. You a praying man, Mr. Wilmington?"
"On occasion." He watched the stoic woman walk to the other side of Casey's bed and grasp her free hand. The wrinkled left hand reached out for his larger one.
"Heavenly Father, watch our for our missing boy and keep him in your safe arms until the time we can all be reunited. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen."
Seeing the despair still visible on their faces, Nettie squeezed both hands and continued. "I think we both got some work that needs tending. You," she looked at the mustached man, "You need to search for him. And you, girl, the doctor signed the release papers. I'm taking you home to recover."
"But I don't want to go home. I, we, got to find JD!"
Nettie picked up a shopping bag and set it on the foot of Casey's bed. "Really sorry to chase you away, Mr. Wilmington, but Casey needs to get dressed." Seeing Casey's mouth preparing to protest, the older woman cut her off. "Mr. Wilmington knows where to find you. We've both got a job to do."
I'd love to know what you think. Carol