The way JD saw it, he had three things to accomplish that afternoon. He needed to analyze the e-mail threat that had been sent to the clinic and locate its source. He needed to run a comparison report to see if a pattern was now emerging from the two bombing incidents that would allow his team to close in on a possible suspect or suspects. And he needed to start his entire life again and do everything differently and form no emotional attachments so that he would never be hurt again by people.
Then he remembered he also needed to get his Zyrtec prescription refilled. Four things.
He spent an hour inputting the intel that had already been sent back from the bomb site. Since there hadn't been an actual explosion, he didn't have high hopes for a quick response but he loaded it onto the EXIS system for a search, anyway. The EXIS tracing system had been set up mainly to find a connection between a manufacturer and a purchaser. But in this case, he couldn't list the name for the blasting agent or the color or length of wire. There was no date shift code on the lot of TNT used because there was no TNT used. No Primacord, Unigel, or C-4. Nor the growing database of home-brewed explosive materials. JD figured there wasn't a subheading for "Milton Bradley Games" in the database, but he listed it under the "markings" category anyway. He doubted that EXIS would be able to give back on a request for a connection between a bombing and a game Josiah probably played while he was intoxicated on a more entertaining type of home-brew.
Or more likely "home-grown."
But though Josiah may have been a flower-child in the Sixties, he certainly hadn't been a child in years. And what had he said about the other bomb, the real one? Filled with jacks. Another children's game.
Once again he imagined the cogs and wheels spinning around in his head, looking for the elusive answer. Spinning around. Like a top, he thought. Another game.
With no better course of action, he entered a few key words into the "Additional Information" space. Games. Toys. Child. Children.
Play with that, he ordered the software.
It had been much easier to get a lock on the e-mail. He'd captured all the information he could while at the site. Then IT had hooked up the doctor's computer at a spare terminal in the ATF offices after a forensics crew released the confiscated equipment and sent it to his office.
JD's expertise had allowed him to quickly recognize the e-mail as having been sent through a chain of cypherpunk remailer systems, which wasn't a new rock group, as Josiah was to quip.
Grabbing a chair and sitting next to his young teammate, the technological dinosaur listened patiently after JD called him over to give him a progress report.
"This is better than a simple remailer, though not by much," enthused the computer expert. "Not the highest level of security, but this guy definitely knew what he was doing."
"Wait." Josiah held up a hand before the young man to get too far. "Remailer? That's not like sending a package back, right?"
"Well, sorta." After a minute's thought, he realized that Josiah might have come up with a pretty good analogy to use for his explanation. "If you think of an e-mail message as a package, then, yeah. A basic pseudo-anonymous remailer works like this: a guy named Tom sends his package through the UPS guy but when it's delivered, the UPS guys has changed the return address and now it's from Jack. And maybe there's a roundtrip delivery, a reply," he pointed to the Reply button on his e-mail screen, "sent from a guy named Sam. When Tom gets it, he thinks it's from a guy named Joe. The problem is the UPS guy "
" knows it's really Tom and Sam sending the packages, uh, messages." Josiah answered.
"Right." JD became more animated as he continued. "If you want more security, you can set it up so the message goes through several 'delivery' systems, called a chain. Chains of remailers are better but still vulnerable. Even better, you put it through an encryption program that only the sender and receiver have."
"So no one else can decipher it too easily," the older agent added.
"'Too easily' is the key phrase. Literally. With PGP encryption software--that stands for Pretty Good Privacy--there's a 'public key' that's used to encrypt the text and a 'secret key' that decrypts it. But I've developed a program that acts like a skeleton key." JD stopped and put his hand on Josiah's arm. "Is this getting too confusing? I feel like I'm starting to sound too much like an algebra question. 'If one train leaves Chicago going fifty miles an hour and another leaves Arizona going thirty, when will they pass each other?'"
Josiah rubbed his eyes and smiled. "That's easy. They're right outside now, and I wish I were on one of them." He stifled a yawn. "Are we using trains instead of packages now?"
Once again, the tech nerd accepted the analogy. "Well, yeah. Trains. In the kind of remailer this guy used, we can go back and get when the message was sent and then we can find its destination. It would be like checking several train schedules and seeing that the five-fifteen that arrived in Arizona could only have started in Chicago and nowhere else, because no other timing would work." He winked. "Then we get the conductor's name, meaning the actual sender. I'm going to do this by retroactively going through the mail logs."
Josiah looked up at the ceiling. "Bottom line, please."
"If we're lucky, we can get a list of 'arrivals' and 'departures' in about thirty-six hours."
"Good work, son." The profiler smiled, then his expression sobered. "Are you doing all right otherwise?"
"I'm fine." JD shrugged.
"Buck's fine. We're fine. He's just juggling a lot of stuff."
Josiah let the young man's chary reply bounce off him. "I agree that Buck's a bit distracted, but he cares about you deeply, John. You know that."
"I know that."
"But I don't think you believe it right now." He looked up as their other team members began to filter back from a long day out in the field. "Belief is faith, John. Have faith."
A reluctant smile crept across young man's face. "Thanks, Preacher."
"How are we doing, JD?" Chris called out upon his entrance. Vin dogged his heels, with the rest of the team following behind them.
"I'm fine," he answered emphatically, then realized that his supervisor was referring to the status of his research, not his mental health. "Getting there, boss," he covered quickly. "We'll have some results soon."
"Good." Chris stopped at his computer expert's desk. "Travis is getting pretty beat up by the press, and I'd like to be able to report some good news as soon as possible. And the Feebs are going to show up any minute, so let's do everything we can to sort this through before the insane start running the asylum."
Raising two fingers to his forehead, JD gave a mock salute as his teammates spread out through the room. Buck made the short walk to his side of the partner's desk they shared, and began leafing through files folders, seemingly lost in thought.
JD's thoughts were just as scattered. The intensity of the week's bombings was almost easier to deal with than the roller coaster of emotions the young man had recently been riding. He'd been trying his best to act professional and polite, in spite of the confusing signals he was getting from his friend and mentor, but it was getting harder to handle his growing frustration.
Yet like a puppy returning to a careless master, he decided to try again.
"Hey, Buck, do you want to go to the Cricket for dinner? I've got a 2-for-1 coupon and they're showing the WNBA on three widescreen TVs." He reached across the desk and pulled on his roommate's sleeve when the answer wasn't forthcoming. "Buck. Dinner."
"Huh?" Buck shook his head. "No, I've already got dinner plans."
Vin snorted in amusement. "I bet it ain't at Vartan's again. Now that he's reined her in, it'll be the Stampede from now on."
Chris headed for his office, Vin accompanying him. "Oh, no. I'm betting on take-out, stud." he sneered.
The remaining agents dispersed to their desks, as Buck handed some files to JD for his review.
"You've eaten every single meal with her with them since they arrived."
"They're only in town for the week.
"You can't make up for a lifetime in one week," JD replied, a little too quickly.
Buck stopped what he was doing and looked his friend in the eye for the first time since he had entered the room. "Is that what ya think I'm doing?"
"No, I I just think that if a guy just met his dad for the first time, he'd want to take it slow."
Stretching himself to his full height, Buck glided around their desks and glared down at his partner. "Maybe Chris." he gestured behind him. "Maybe Nathan. But you're the last person I'd take parenting advice from."
"I didn't mean to--"
"Sure ya did." Buck bent in, leveling his face with JD's. His eyes flashed angrily, though his voice was low and tight. Each word was crisp and pointed. "Don't tell me what I should or should not be doing."
JD arced backwards, shrinking from the heated assault. His own eyes grew saucer-like, as if they could only take in what he was seeing and hearing by becoming bigger. This wasn't like the small explosion Buck had set off in the kitchen the night before.
He tried to remember the last time Buck had talked to him with such a seething fury, barely biting back civility behind gritted teeth. Only one other time that he didn't like to recall.
The green agent had just started with the team and had stupidly emptied his guns too quickly in a raid. One of his shots had gone wild and accidentally wounded a civilian. After the incident, he was never sure if he'd felt more anguish at the guilt of hurting an innocent or by Buck's wrath. The woman had suffered greatly, sobbing in pain while they waited for the ambulance. Buck had reamed him a new one, fuming at JD's ineptness and lack of attention.
Whichever was worse, he had gone back to their apartment, packed a suitcase, and was leaving to put his resignation on Chris's desk when Buck had shown up with a six-pack and an apology. He'd been sorry to rattle the kid, he explained, but JD had to learn how to keep an emotional distance in their job. He'd been baiting him, trying to get him to feel more detached at the occurrence, knowing that, however cautious they might be, it might happen again. JD needed to learn to walk away without having his heart torn into little shreds.
Sneaking a look at the backpack he'd quickly kicked under the desk when Buck showed up, JD thought he hadn't really had a problem with the walking away part.
But after a few beers, Buck confessed that he was more terrified at JD being hurt himself than anything else, and that his anger was his own way of preparing for such a separation.
So now, was Buck baiting him again?
Was he about to walk away?
JD nodded dully. "Sorry." Suddenly he felt the need to run, fast and far away, which contradicted the leaden weight in his heart.
He could always go back to Boston. Or Texas, maybe, and join the Rangers. Was there still a Foreign Legion?
"Hey, JD!" Chris yelled out of his doorway. "Damn computer's froze again."
"Coming!" he shouted back, a little too loudly. "Have a good dinner, Buck," he mumbled, and ran into Chris's office.
At least getting that far away was a start.
Ezra P. Standish wouldn't appear to be a frugal man, especially since his exterior trappings screamed just the opposite. He drove a black Jaguar XJS Coupe, wore Italian silk suits, and lived in a townhouse in the Clements district filled with antiques.
Those who knew him better knew that the car had been a gift from his mother's fifth or sixth husband, which he unceasingly complained about regarding insurance and repair costs. The suits he charged back to the office as expenses necessary for his job, or returned to their respective tailors within a day or two of wearing, claiming poor workmanship or hues incompatible with his "winter-type" coloring. And the townhouse had been acquired while in foreclosure; the antiques that spartanly furnished the rooms were hard-bargained-for at estate sales or flea markets.
He considered himself economically judicious and a wise investor, with an acute business savvy.
His friends considered him cheap.
So it was no surprise to JD when Ezra approached him later that day, after the office had cleared out to only the pair, and questioned the employment of the Cricket dinner coupon.
"I wasn't going to since Buck but, yeah, if you want." JD pushed his seat away from his desk, and stroked his non-existent beard in thought. He was glad for the suggestion, since he really didn't want to be alone, but also didn't want to admit that to his friend. "Money has been a bit tight since I made the balloon payment on Mom's medical bills last month," he said. "I should take a break when it comes my way. Yeah, let's split a dinner."
Ezra tilted his head in confusion. "You did say it was a two-for-one coupon."
"That would suggest its utility was for one paid-for dinner and one free dinner."
"Yeah?" It was JD's turn to angle his head in query.
"Then," Ezra suggested, "bein' the coupon bearer, your dinner would require remittance, while your guest's dinner would not."
The younger agent straightened up the materials on his desk, nodding his head at the proposition. "It would seem that way," he said after a pause. The desk arranged, he typed a few commands into his computer. "I mean, that is the implication."
Ezra began to button up his jacket in preparation for departure.
JD took out the coupon and scrutinized it. "Of course, I believe that sort of arrangement ," he continued, holding the coupon up to his co-worker's face, " only seems to apply to people who live in an alternate universe!"
"But your invitation for a repast--"
Ezra smiled back. "If I recall, your solicitous words were 'If you want.'"
Sometimes it seemed the man wouldn't stop short of trying to sell a snow blower to a Saharan. He tried another tack. "Then at least let me drive the Jag over, Ez."
"In your dreams, Mr. Dunne." Ezra grabbed his attaché from beside his desk and headed for the door.
After a quiet dinner together, ending with a debate with the manager of the Cricket regarding proper societies that considered dessert as part of the meal and not a separate entity, they headed over to their team's usual watering hole.
Watson's was a cop bar nicknamed the "Saloon" since its atmosphere held suggestions of gunfights from a wild and woolly past. Batwing doors swung back and forth after a short corridor at the entrance. Wagon wheel chandeliers hung above a sawdust-strewn plank floor and there wasn't a singer on the jukebox who didn't coordinate his cowboy hat with their song's mood, the same way women coordinate their bags and shoes.
The pair headed for the team's usual table in a well-situated corner, but were intercepted by Inez Recillos, the comely spitfire who managed the bar.
"They're in the back room," the brunette told them. "Vin seems to think he's going to make his rent at the pool table tonight."
"And what do you say, Señora?" Ezra rubbed his thumb and forefingers together.
Inez smiled at the gesture.
"I think that now you're here, Josiah better find him a room at the shelter." She winked at the Southerner. "The usual, gentlemen? One single malt Glen Fidditch and one root beer, coming up."
"Uh, Inez?" JD stammered. "I'll have a beer. A regular beer."
Inez raised an eyebrow.
"What?" he defended. "I'm not driving the cycle tonight."
The barkeep looked pointedly at his teammate. "Club soda, Señor?"
"With a twist," Ezra consented.
Both her eyebrows rose in resignation. "Ah, dios, the tips," she sighed.
"I'll take his whiskey, Inez." JD blurted out.
Once again, Inez looked to Ezra for her cue, which JD didn't fail to notice.
"I'm twenty-four," he snapped. "I don't need Daddy's approval." He fished a twenty dollar bill out of his jacket pocket and stuck it in under the elastic holding the puff of her short-sleeved shirt, then stalked towards the back room. "Start a tab," he yelled over his shoulder.
Ezra removed the bill and flattened it between his fingers. He handed it back to her gently.
"How much did he eat at dinner?" she asked with concern.
Ezra shrugged. "It might be prudent to keep the pretzel bowl filled, darlin'."
"Cuidelo bien." Take care of him.
"Siempre lo hago." I always do.
Thick blue smoke obscured the entrance to the back room, parting visibly as the two men entered, revealing eight pool tables separated by a small bar set-up in the middle of the room. The bar was unattended, the only persons in the room being Vin and Josiah finishing off a game in the farthest corner's table, and Nathan, who sat near an open window at the front side of the room. He carefully tapped the ash off the cigar he was smoking, savoring the smooth taste, then gestured for the latest arrivals to join him.
"Glad you could come." Nathan said with a weary smile. "I know this case is really important but we could all use a little distraction about now."
"Where's Chris?" JD asked.
"Working on his report."
"Well, we know where Buck is," Vin called over as he sank the eight-ball.
Nathan laughed. "He don't call that work!"
Josiah raised his eyes heavenward as Vin picked up several bills set on a burn-marked corner of the pool table. The Texan shoved the money into his pocket and picked up a beer that sat on the window ledge next to him. "Next victim!"
Ezra shrugged off his jacket and placed it delicately around a chairback, smoothing out the wrinkles. "And what are the stakes, Mr. Tanner?"
"Ten for each ball. I'm stripes."
The Southerner patted the billfold in his back pants pocket and smiled. "Shall we say twenty, instead?" He took the last ball from its pocket and deposited it into the rack on the table.
Vin checked his pockets, and counted out several bills. Walking over to Nathan, he set them on the table. "Hold on to this in case you need to get me outta jail."
After carefully folding up his shirtsleeves, Ezra casually checked the line of several cue sticks before choosing one he felt came somewhat close to being straight. "Worried, Mr. Tanner?"
"Anything you can do for me, Josiah?" the Texan asked.
"Brother, I've studied gods, prophets, and deities, Deus ad infinitum." He handed Vin a small sock filled with powder for drying his hands. "None of them can help you now."
Ezra chalked his cue stick and broke. Two solid-colored balls disappeared into opposite corners. "Nothin' beats a prep school education." He shot another ball into a side pocket and smiled, his gold tooth gleaming in the light.
Vin smiled back at him. "Hold that thought close to ya next time I'm watching yer back."
The white cue ball scratched into a middle pocket.
Josiah joined his team members at the round oak table, sitting down heavily in a chair and wiping his sweaty forehead with a well-used napkin. "We were just talking about your wayward roommate, JD."
A waitress entered and placed the new arrivals' drinks on the table, as well as a generous bowl of chips and pretzels. Nathan almost choked on his cigar as JD picked up the shot of whiskey, dropped it in the beer and downed them both quickly, at the same time motioning for the waitress to wait for him. He let out a long burst of air after he set the glass down.
"Another of the same, please, Anita," he gasped.
The waitress giggled. "You're kidding, right?"
JD looked up at her sharply. "I asked politely, didn't I?" He tapped his glass on the table. "I'd like another. Please."
The young girl set the empties onto her tray before pivoting away. "Yes, sir."
"Watch it there, JD," Josiah said. "You don't have to frost the glasses with your words. That's what they have a fridge for."
"Yeah." JD squirmed uncomfortably in the hard wooden chair. "I'm not a kid, you know."
"Manners have no age limit," the older man chided.
"You going to send me to my room?" JD needled him.
Josiah smiled sympathetically. "I'm going to ask you what's wrong."
Nathan found himself absorbed in checking the ash on his cigar at JD's stiff response but jerked up when their profiler kicked him lightly in the ankle.
"So, JD," Nathan volunteered, "you get anything off EXIS on the bomber?"
"I've got a database search going with the new info." He shrugged. "I plan on going back later to check on it."
The waitress returned with the makings for another Boilermaker, and JD lowered his eyes apologetically as she placed them on the table before him. He slipped a twenty onto her tray as she left beers for the other agents. "Thanks, Anita."
"Anything promising?" Nathan continued.
He contemplated the drinks before him for a beat before answering. "Yeah. Maybe. I don't know."
"So the response is 'D', all of the above?"
Seemingly ignoring them, JD constructed the drink and stared at the glass as the liquids mingled. Nathan shot a look of concern across the young man's head towards his teammate, Josiah tipping his own head in agreement.
"JD? He asked you a question, son."
"Well, surprise, surprise! I don't have an answer!" He downed the second drink just as quickly as the first. He stood up, then leaned close in to Josiah's face., punctuating his next icy words with a stab of his finger on the older man's chest. "And I'm not your son."
He swaggered over awkwardly to the pool table where Vin was triumphantly sinking the eight ball, to Ezra's disgust.
JD set several bills on the rim of the table. "I'm next."
Vin picked up his winnings and drained his beer, at the same time measuring up the glassy look in the youth's eyes. "I dunno, JD. You been drinking a bit and I don't like to take advantage--"
"Take advantage!" JD barked. "You forget what they say about Catholic boys and pool halls." He dropped several of the balls into the rack with a thud. "Computers weren't the only way I got through college." His cue stick slid on the green felt surface as he tried to break.
Still carrying his pool cue, Ezra headed back to the table near the entrance, where Josiah and Nathan talked quietly. He struck a fencer's pose, whorling the stick before him in best Three Musketeers fashion. "It's a shame I had to concede the contest, Mr. Jackson. I would have enjoyed bestin' you on the field of green."
Nathan blew several clean smoke rings, through which Ezra poked the stick before settling it against the wall. He waved away the remaining smoke.
"And how can our most vociferous health proponent spend his good time proselytizin' on the effects of bran and then stick that toxic canker in his mouth?"
The black man considered the cigar between his fingers as it sent wisps up smoke toward the ceiling. "Sometimes," he wet his lips before parrying the comment, "it offers the same effect as the bran. And as my daddy said, 'A healthy colon makes a happy man.'" He tapped the ash again, and met his teammate's haughty gaze. "So I can tell you've never been a smoker."
Josiah toasted the comeback.
Ezra volleyed a grimace in response. "Not of that domestic variety, my friend. Any tobacco that passes my lips has been strictly from Castro's private stock."
"I don't believe that. You're the one that asked me if Macanudo wasn't a boy band from Puerto Rico."
"Oh, no. I asked you--"
The three men's heads turned as their debate was suddenly interrupted by a bang and a loud laugh from across the room, as JD sent a ball flying off the table onto the floor. He noticed their worried faces as he picked up the ball and rolled it back onto the table. "Safe!" he shouted.
Josiah put down his glass. "Did he eat anything at dinner?"
"He barely picked at it." Ezra sipped his club soda.
"I don't think I've ever seen him drink like that." Nathan said. "And I've never seen him act so defensive. What's bothering him?"
"The arrival of Buck's son, I should think." Ezra answered. "Forgive my presumptuousness for analyzin' the situation without a degree in psychology, but while we all feel a brotherly affection towards the youngest member of our assembly, Mr. Wilmington has unwittingly formed a paternal consanguinity with his charge."
Nathan agreed. "I think I always felt that." He smiled at Ezra. "Even if I would never say it that way."
Josiah steepled his fingers. "I think I saw it from the beginning. The way Buck took him under his wing, helping him hold his own with Chris. Being there, advising him. Helping him feel that he mattered, in spite of his inexperience."
"And not just with the team," Nathan said. "He's really grown as a man. In spite of Buck!" he added with a laugh.
"Buck and JD, they're like one of the all-time great father-son acts," Josiah submitted. He grabbed a handful of pretzels. "You can't break them apart. They're like Bud and Jim. Ozzie and Ricky."
"Who?" Ezra asked.
"The Andersons and the Nelsons." He shook his head at Ezra's confusion. "Ward and the Beaver?"
"The Beaver?" the Southerner queried again.
"Wrong generation, old man." Nathan turned to Ezra. "Think Mufasa and Simba."
Josiah laughed. "That may be asking a bit much." He crunched contemplatively and when the thought occurred to him the room almost brightened with the glow of an imaginary light bulb over his head. "Ach, it's too easy." He dug into the bowl for another handful. "The Skipper and Gilligan."
"I'll buy that one," Ezra agreed.
"Actually, I must say," Nathan admitted. "I'd think of them more like Baloo and Mowgli."
They all glanced over at the slight, black-haired youth and nodded in concurrence.
"Still," said Josiah, "You'd think he'd be happy that Buck has found someone else to practice his Mother Hen routine on."
"You'd think." Nathan set his cigar into the ashtray to die out.
"Oh!" Ezra suddenly exclaimed. "I've got it. Right thought, wrong fowl."
"I have also on occasion noted their similarity to a popular cartoon duo."
"Spill it, man!"
"Why, they're Foghorn Leghorn and that Egghead Junior chick in the flesh!"
As the men laughed at the description, they were joined by Vin. The lean man stood near the door to get the waitress's attention as he asked what the joke was.
"Nothin' boy, I say, we're not talkin' about nothin'," drawled Josiah. His impression sent his friends into paroxysms of laughter again.
"Not talkin' about nothin'?" Vin drawled back. "Well, that covers about as much as a flapper's skirt in a high wind." He winked at them and continued. "Boy, I say, boy, you gotta answer me when I ask you somethin'. I'm not talkin' to hear my head roar."
"Vin?" Ezra sought clarification. "I know what we're referrin' to, but you've never struck me as the poster boy for cultural literacy."
"You're talkin' to a Cartoon Network addict, Ez." He straddled a chair as he saw the waitress head over to him. "I know exactly what you're referrin' to." He looked over at JD, who continued to sloppily shoot the balls into the pool table's leather pockets. "As our fine feathered friend would say, 'That boy's like a tattoo gets under yer skin.'"
"We're just concerned," Ezra said soberly.
"And he's confused." Josiah added. "Lost out on one father and I'd bet now that he feels like he's losing another."
"Ain't we exaggerating a bit? I mean, he's not a little kid," the Texan said. "He had to know this might happen someday."
Josiah drained his glass. "Someday always comes a lot sooner than you think."
Vin started to respond, then stopped as the young woman arrived at the table.
"Another round, boys? Three beers and another club soda?"
Josiah shook his head. "Fizzy water for me, please."
"I'll have a water as well," Ezra asked. "No gas."
"I'll have another beer." JD joined them at the table.
Nathan cleared his throat. "That'd be your third. Haven't you had enough?"
He looked at Josiah for benefaction. The older man shrugged, and tapped the two empty glasses in front of him. "I go by the breast rule. One is not enough and three is too many."
"Well, I want another." He looked up at the waitress petulantly. "Please."
Ezra watched nervously as his passenger placed his forehead against the cool glass of the passenger window. He had the air conditioning cranked up and the radio off as he deftly tried to avoid any potholes or dips in the road, all in a desperate effort to dissuade the drunken youth from emptying the alcohol-soaked contents of his stomach onto the Jaguar's leather upholstery.
"How're you doin' there, Mr. Dunne?"
"Fine" came the answer, but Ezra could see it was accompanied by a deep swallow and a pain-racked closing of his teammate's eyes.
"We're almost there." He sent up a prayer to whatever gods might be listening, hoping he hadn't just jinxed himself.
He glanced over at his charge, less selfishly this time. "It will turn out all right."
"Yeah," JD squirmed in his seat. "Buck always keeps a lotta Alka Seltzer in the bathroom. Second shelf."
"Yes, of course." The Southerner bit his lip. He hadn't supposed the real intent of his statement would have been understood, but he felt the need to say it anyway.
He turned into their street slowly, parking the car in the only available place, fortunately just across from the building's entrance. Exiting quickly, he ran around to the passenger door, holding out a hand that was weakly pushed away.
"I said I'm fine." JD attempted to walk around the car, but mostly slid along the surface, his jeans dusting the metal exterior as he concentrated on placing one foot in front of the other.
As he followed from a distance, Ezra checked to make sure the car was not being scratched or marred in any way. Concern about his friend was one thing. Having to face a paint job to fix any damage was another.
A familiar white Chevy truck was double-parked near the walkway to the apartment complex, emergency lights blinking. JD stopped next to a thin ash tree set into the sidewalk, grabbing onto the slender trunk. He hid in the shadows, watching as Buck, or more accurately, two blurry images of Buck came out of the building, carrying a hanging travel bag for suits and a canvas bag tucked under his arm. JD knew the second bag on sight; Buck called it his "Saturday Night Special" and usually kept it in the truck, stocked with a change of shirt and underwear, toothbrush, and protection.
Buck opened the car door and hung the suitbag on the back seat's inside hook, then sat the canvas bag on the front seat, checking the contents.
JD realized he must have come back from his date for more "supplies." He stood there holding his breath, wondering why Buck hadn't noticed him. Usually, they had a radar about each other so attuned they could sense each other's presence in different rooms.
Now he was only ten feet away and Buck didn't know he was there. JD wallowed in his invisibility. It was another sign to him that he was being removed from the older man's interests. What was the expression? Out of sight, out of mind. Buck didn't even want to see him now.
The truck and its owner swam before his eyes.
"Mr. Wilmington!" Ezra hailed his teammate as he walked across the street.
JD cursed to himself. He hadn't wanted his martyrdom to be disturbed.
"What're you doing here--" Buck suddenly looked to his side and noticed his roommate hidden behind the tree's branches. "JD?"
He wobbled out from his hiding place, thumbs stuck firmly into his belt loops in a defiant stance. He purposely tried to stay several feet away from his friend, but Buck approached him too close for safety.
Taking in the tilted posture, rumpled demeanor, and unfocused gaze, Buck sniffed the air. "You been drinking?"
JD shrugged. "A little."
Buck raised his eyebrows in question.
"Ez drove me home." He gestured at the Jag.
"Where's your cycle?"
JD just stared at him. Who cared about the motorcycle? Hadn't he just told him that someone had taken him home? Someone who cared. Someone who wasn't going to leave him just because he wasn't a blood relative.
Buck waved his hand in front of his roommate's blank stare.
"It's at the office." Ezra cut in.
"Have to get back there," JD said suddenly. "I'm running a search on the computer." He giggled. "Guess I should get my sneakers if I'm going running."
"You're not going anywhere but inside." The older man's shoulders dropped in unhappy resignation. "And I wasn't planning to be here in the morning. How're you going to get to work now?"
"I said I'd wear my sneakers," he offered weakly.
Buck pursued his lips, confused at his friend's demeanor. "I'll call Melinda, tell her--"
JD slashed a hand violently across the night air. "Don't tell her anything!" He took two long, unsteady steps and stood close to his roommate. "I wouldn't want to come between you and your ladyfriends," he spit out. "Not that anyone could."
"That's not fair."
"Don't bullshit me, Buck! Who'd you rather be with? A drunk? Or Melinda and Jake?"
"Are you asking me to make a choice?" Buck strode back to the truck and zipped up the canvas bag angrily. "I don't want to have to make a choice," he muttered so quietly Ezra barely heard it.
JD snickered as he followed. "Did ya pack everything you need? Got enough toothpaste? Clean underwear? And tell me, are you covered?"
Ezra stepped quickly inbetween the pair to act as a buffer. "Now, gentlemen. "
"You're a lousy drunk, JD. Get to bed." Slamming the truck's door after he entered, Buck looked at Ezra and shook his head. "Take care of him."
"He won't remember this in the morning," Ezra sympathized.
Buck turned on the motor and put the truck into gear. "No, but I will," he said sadly.
Ezra grabbed JD by the arm and propelled him around towards the apartment as the Chevy sped off. "What just happened there?"
"I just wanted to make sure he had enough condoms. He already discovered a son he didn't know he had. Wouldn't want her to get pregnant again. " JD rattled on, then suddenly went quiet. Ezra easily interpreted the cue.
"You're not goin' to make it inside, are you."
JD's green-tinged face indicated otherwise. "No," was the thick reply. Dropping to his knees, he retched into a clump of bushes near the entrance.
Ezra watched dispassionately. He supposed Buck would have held back JD's hair, or stroked his back, all the while murmuring soothing words.
He vaguely remembered Buck saying to him, at the close of a night of unrestrained alcoholic indulgence on both their parts, that people didn't truly become best friends until they threw up in front of each other. If that was true, then that very night was his and Buck's anniversary of the event.
Ezra valued that friendship. He truly did. He valued all his friendships with the members of his team.
The Southerner checked his watch and smoothed down the clean nape of his jacket.
It was just that, at certain times, he valued his clothing more.
Ezra helped the young man into the elevator and held him upright as JD slumped against the wall. Pushing the button for their floor, he struggled to suppress a smile at his friend's discomfort. He felt very sympathetic, there was no doubt of that, but it was difficult to focus on concern when his loopy gaze and vain attempts to stand straight up were so amusing.
When the doors opened, Ezra pulled him up by his collar and headed for the duplex. "Keys, Mr. Dunne," he commanded loudly. JD's right hand headed for his pocket. And missed. Again. And missed. Again.
Ezra pushed the hand away and gingerly stuck his own hand in. Passing what he hoped were old gum wrappers, he pulled out the keys and managed to get his charge through the entranceway. "Couch or bathroom?"
The green tinge on JD's face increased from lime to chartreuse.
"Bathroom," Ezra decided quickly.
While JD was sick, his teammate made himself busy in the kitchen, assembling ingredients that he hoped would lessen an almost completely guaranteed hangover in the morning. Then he gathered JD up from the bathroom floor, where he had found a comfortable shelter, and deposited him upon the rumpled covers of his bed.
"Thanks, Ez," he mumbled painfully. "I'm gonna owe you big."
Pulling up a chair to sit beside the bed, Ezra nodded agreement. "Indeed. I don't think even another free dinner is goin' to be enough to repay this debt." He handed over three aspirins, then pushed a tall glass of water into JD's hand and gently held the back of his head while the intoxicated youth drank. Then Ezra dug into his pocket and extracted several cloth napkin-wrapped rolls.
JD's eyes struggled to focus on the objects he was being offered.
"Vitamin B," came the reply. "It will help ease your pain."
"What, no coffee? I thought that was your cure-all for everything."
Ezra held up a finger for patience, then sniffed the air. "Yes, I do believe my final panacea is ready." He left for the kitchen, and caffeine.
When he returned, JD had finished the bread and was struggling to stay awake, his eyes shut in pain. Ezra smiled and set two coffee cups on the nightstand. Then he brushed some crumbs from the bed's comforter, waking him. He clucked sympathetically. "I don't like seein' you like this, Mr. Dunne. And your actions tonight illustrate an ineptness at findin' a solution to your woes."
"Maybe you don't know what the problem is."
Ezra folded his hands on his lap as JD leaned back against the headboard. "I'm here to listen if you'd like to enlighten me on your dark behavior." The Southerner smiled. "I'm told silk makes an excellent surface to lean a shoulder upon."
JD smiled back weakly. "If I knew it myself, I'd tell ya, Ez."
"Try. I promise you that what you say does not go beyond these four walls."
"Well I never knew my father," he started after a long pause. "Oh, I know you didn't know your father very well either, Ez."
"Mostly I knew the sight of his coattails flappin' as he walked away from us."
"But you saw him a couple of times throughout your life, right? You told me that once."
The older man nodded in agreement. That much was true.
"So at least there was always that possibility. That you could see him."
Ezra took a sip of his coffee. "See him, yes. Understand him, no."
"But you'd catch up together. What he was doing, what you were doing. " JD sipped from his own cup, and after he swallowed, shook his head to stay awake.
"Your point, Mr. Dunne."
"I never knew my father," he emphasized. "And he never knew me. And that's There was never a possibility of that."
Ezra shook his head. As a control freak, he abhorred having conversations with the alcoholically challenged. "Your point again, Mr. Dunne?" He waited as JD drained his cup.
"I never got a 'Hey, you did well on your math test, son' or a 'That was a great baseball game you played today, son.'" he explained. "That's important," he squeaked.
"You receive compliments from all your team members on your actions all the time." The Southerner knit his brows in confusion. "That should appease the loss."
"It ain't the same." He looked up with a conspiratorial gaze, motioning his teammate to come closer. Ezra complied, but blanched at the smell of alcohol on his breath.
"Last night, I was watching Buck with Jake. He laughed at his jokes. He he defended his behavior. Just like a father would." He set his cup on the nearby table and lay back on the bed, closing his eyes. "I drank tonight because I was so pissed that I would never have that."
Ezra watched as his friend succumbed to the effects of an overindulgence of alcohol and emotion. His breathing slowed and his face relaxed.
"I think it's time to call it a night. And I hope you have peaceful slumber." He picked up the two empty coffee cups. "But please note that it is unrealistic to expect me to tuck you in."
"I am sorry, you know," JD mumbled. "I know I'm behaving really badly. It's really just me being pissed about my not ever finding my father. I guess I'm just jealous that Jake found his."
"No. It's about much more than that." Ezra stood by the bed and waited for a response, but none was forthcoming. He gently brushed the tousled bangs off JD's forehead and pulled up the comforter, pressing it around his body.
"Shall I tell you what it's about, my very unassumin' young friend?"
The youth turned and stuck his face in the pillow.
"You're not just jealous that Jake found his father." He bent in close, and whispered in the sleeping man's ear. "You're jealous that Jake found his father and he is Buck Wilmington."