Misgivings, Misapprehensions, and Missing Persons
by Beth Green
Seventeen hours missing
Jack, JD, Danny, and Viv all arrived at the FBI office before the ATF agents. They got a good look at the men as they entered. Danny's jaw dropped in amazement as he caught sight of one team member in particular. The other FBI agents were similarly affected, but they weren't quite so obvious about it. Danny's "Damn!" summed up their reactions quite nicely.
The ATF team leader Chris Larabee's eyes narrowed as he turned his steely glare upon Danny at that comment. He sarcastically commented, "And hello to you, too."
Danny waved his hands half in surrender, half in apology. "No, please, I'm sorry. It's just that you . . ." he pointed at one of the other ATF agents, ". . . look a hell of a lot like one of our people."
The man in question introduced himself. "Vin Tanner. No offense taken."
Danny asked, "You don't happen to be related to a guy named Martin Fitzgerald, do you?"
Vin shrugged. "Can't say as I ever heard the name before."
Chris glared at Danny. "If we're done playing twenty questions, can we get down to business?"
Jack was about to do just that when the remaining two members of his team entered the room. Martin proceeded to seat himself at the conference table. Sam stared at Vin Tanner, her reaction similar to Danny's. She asked Martin, "Are you two related?"
Martin looked up from his notes, puzzled. He followed the direction of her gaze as he introduced himself. "Martin Fitzgerald."
The other man extended his hand and they exchanged handshakes. "Vin Tanner."
Sam continued, "So, you two don't know each other?"
Vin replied, "We do now."
She shook her head, commenting, "O-o-kay."
Vin and Martin exchanged a silent look and half smiles, both of which said, "What's her problem?"
Chris ignored the byplay and introduced the remaining members of his team. "Josiah Sanchez. Nathan Jackson. Ezra Standish." Once everyone was seated, Chris slapped a hand against the table, gaining everyone's attention. His voice contained more demand than question as he asked, "What exactly have you people been doing to find my missing agent?"
Jack ignored the rude, accusatory note to the team leader's voice. He knew that more likely than not, if the circumstances were reversed and it was a member of his own team that was missing, he would have a similar response. The ATF team listened intently as Jack brought them up to date. He concluded, "Buck managed to make contact with a lot of people in the short time that he's been here. If necessary, we intend to talk to all of them." He continued, "JD has supplied us with lists of everyone who attended the party on Friday, the bachelor party, and the wedding and its reception. I've checked off the people who we've already spoken to. I've divided the rest to be covered by five two-man teams." When it looked as if JD was about to object, Jack raised a hand to silence his protest. "I strongly suggest that you stick to the two-man team plan. The last thing we need is for someone else to go missing."
Jack was thankful when Chris supported him. "I agree."
Jack continued, "We need someone here to coordinate everything. For the time being, that someone will be me." Jack continued, "I know you would have told me this already, but I have to ask it. Is there any case connected with Buck's work with the ATF that might have affected him here in New York?"
The ATF team leader shook his head. "No. I've been thinking about it ever since I got the news that Buck was missing. At the moment, I'm inclined to say that whatever happened to Buck is connected to this weekend and not to Denver. So, the sooner we get off our asses and get out on the street, the better." He looked pointedly at Jack, his next words reflecting his impatience. "Are we done?"
Jack gave a quick nod in response. "For now."
Chris proceeded to ignore the FBI agents as he divided up his team. "Okay, people, I want the following two-man teams: Nathan and Josiah; Vin and Ezra; and JD's with me."
With no further discussion needed, everyone proceeded to carry out their assigned tasks.
Twenty-one hours missing
JD and Chris worked well as a team, with a built-in good cop - bad cop dynamic supplied courtesy of their respective personalities. Nevertheless, it took four more hours of fruitless interviews before the two men finally got a lead. They were interviewing a friend of Joey's, a young lady by the name of Maria Antonetti.
"I saw Buck at the party on Friday. He was with Gina. She'd stopped by after dinner with her future in-laws. Anyway, the two of them didn't see me or they wouldn't have said what they did. I was bored, so I started exploring the house. I ended up in one of the bedrooms. I heard someone coming and I was afraid that they might misunderstand why I was there, so I hid."
JD had a less than favorable impression of Maria which the lady had just reinforced. He couldn't help the cynical thought that occurred with her comment. 'Misunderstand,' my ass. I bet she was waiting for someone to join her for a little one-on-one; either that or she was casing the place.
Maria continued, "There was a big walk-in closet, so I just kind of walked in."
Their oh-so-helpful eavesdropper proceeded to report the conversation that she'd overheard.
//Buck's voice was cheerfully pleasant as he declared, "Alone at last. So when do I get to meet the man who has finally stolen my best gal's heart?"
Gina sounded more than a little distracted. "He'll be by later. Listen, there's something I have to tell you. Joey and me . . . well, there's a reason we're getting married."
Buck came to the logical conclusion as he asked, "Don't tell me I'm going to be an Uncle?"
Gina's response was difficult to hear as she dropped her voice to a near-whisper. "Yes."
Buck grew serious in the face of her dejection. He questioned, "You do love the man, don't you?"
Gina sighed. "I thought that I did. The thing is, I wasn't planning on getting pregnant. It just sort of happened. When I told Joey, he suggested that I get an abortion."
"Yeah. You'd think he'd know me better. There's no way I could kill a life that was growing inside of me." The more she spoke, the more agitated she became. "If my father found out that Joey got me pregnant, he'd kill him, you know that he would. Joey knows, too. That's why he agreed to marry me."
"You didn't really answer my question. Do you love the guy?"
There was a long pause before Gina replied, "There's other reasons to get married besides love."
Buck stated, "So, you're getting married to keep Joey and your father out of trouble. That's great, just great." He began to pace in small, tight circles. "Okay. Tell you what. I'll marry you. That'll take care of both your problems." The more Buck spoke, the more enthusiastic he became. "You and me, we'd make a fine couple. Plus, you gotta admit that I'd make a great daddy. Here, let me do this right." He got down on one knee and asked, "Gina, will you marry me?"
Gina's voice choked with tears as she replied, "No, Buck, I'm sorry. I can't marry you. It's too late."//
Maria concluded, "If you want to know where your friend Buck is, you should ask Gina."
Chris immediately jumped on her statement. "Why? Do you have some reason to believe that Gina would be with Buck rather than her husband?"
Maria turned away from Chris' probing gaze. "Well, I might have bumped into Joey at the hotel this morning. He was all upset, saying something about Gina wanting to postpone their honeymoon on account of Buck being missing."
Chris snarled, "Let me guess. You thought it'd be a nice honeymoon present to stick it to Gina by repeating Buck and Gina's conversation."
Maria's disinterested shrug was the only answer that Chris needed. He and JD rose to take their leave. Chris couldn't resist a parting shot. "Lady, just remember, what goes around, comes around. Someday somebody will do you the same favor." He slammed the door forcefully on his way out.
JD had been content to let Chris conduct the interview. Once they were far enough away that they could not be overheard, JD stated, "I told you that Joey had something to do with Buck's disappearance. This just proves it. If this is Joey's fault, he won't have to worry about Uncle Louie. I'll kill him myself."
Chris agreed with the sentiment. He reminded JD, "We have to find him first."
+ + + + + + +
Chris called in to report to Jack regarding their latest interview results. "It's looking more and more like Joey Canelli has something to do with Buck's disappearance." Chris' voice was a scold as well as an accusation. "Haven't you made any progress yet in tracking the man down?"
Jack let his satisfaction show as he reported, "As a matter of fact, I was just about to call you. It seems that we finally got a response to our APB. The NYPD just picked up Joey Canelli coming out of a massage parlor. He's on his way here, being escorted by New York's finest."
Chris declared, "You don't talk to the man until I get there." He hung up the phone, forestalling any further discussion on the matter. Chris' foot stomped on the accelerator as he turned to JD. "They got Joey. Still no word on Buck."
Chris' driving provided a temporary diversion from JD's constant worry over Buck. Chris was out-driving New York's notorious cab drivers as he wove his way through traffic. JD was amazed time and time again when Chris managed to avoid what appeared to JD to be an imminent collision. After the third or fourth near-miss, JD could no longer remain silent. The last thing he wanted was to piss off Chris, but he decided that his fear of death was greater than his fear of his boss' wrath. "God, Chris, we won't do Buck any good if you get us killed. Ease up, will you?"
Chris ignored JD's comment and the young man subsequently noted no sign of improvement in his boss' driving. By some miracle, they managed to make it back to the offices of the FBI without totaling their rental car.
+ + + + + + +
Chris stalked into the office with JD following close behind. Chris approached Jack at a near-run, asking, "He here yet?"
Jack nodded. "Joey Canelli is in the interview room. I strongly suggest that you and your hotheaded young friend let me conduct the interview."
Chris defended himself and his teammate. "My hotheaded young friend and I managed to come up with a possible motive for Mr. Canelli from one of the witnesses with no problem. Maybe you'd better let us handle this."
Jack took Chris' suggestion for the implied insult that it was. "In the first place, I expect JD didn't tell you, but I already got to see him in action. Your friend managed to get a door slammed shut in our faces thanks to his conduct during an interview. In the second place, as the head of the Missing Persons Unit it's my neck that's on the line if this gets screwed up. Trust me, I'm not going to screw it up. You want to be in the room with me, fine." He added, "I tell you to get out, you go. Got me?"
JD stood back, watching the two alpha males struggle for dominance. As the tension grew with the silence, JD realized that this was the point where Buck would step in and get Chris to cool down. But Buck wasn't here.
Chris engaged Jack in a staring contest, not willing to give an inch. He really hated the FBI. After a long minute, he stated, "We gonna stand here all day, or are we going to talk to the man?"
Jack pointed a thumb over his shoulder, directing, "This way."
+ + + + + + +
Joey Canelli sat slouched in a chair. Before Jack could ask a question, Joey offered, "Whatever that bitch Gina says, it ain't true."
Jack asked, "What do you think she said?"
"I know she had to say something, or I wouldn't be sitting here. I want a lawyer."
Jack stated, "Mr. Canelli, you're not being accused of anything. We need your assistance in a Missing Persons investigation."
"I don't know nothin' about no missing person, and I ain't got nothin' to say to you."
Jack was not a man to give up easily. "All I want to know is when was the last time you saw or heard from Buck Wilmington?"
Joey stated, "Ask Gina. She seems to know a hell of a lot about the guy."
"We already talked to Gina. She said you were a bit upset."
"Shit, wouldn't you be? Your wife decides she don't want to go on no honeymoon because her old boyfriend didn't show up for a date?"
"It's my understanding that that's not all you were upset about. Evidently Maria Antonetti told you something about Buck and your wife?"
"Yeah. All the time, Gina's tryin' to tell me Buck is like her brother. Well, I don't know nobody's brother who wants to marry his sister. Hell, for all I know, that baby Gina's carryin' ain't even mine. The bitch suckered me into marryin' her. I'm just glad I found out before it was too late. I'm gonna talk to a lawyer and get the damn thing annulled. Then Gina can marry whoever she damn well pleases."
Jack stated, "If you don't have anything to do with Buck's going missing, then you should be able to account for your whereabouts for the past twenty-four hours."
"Of course I can." Joey proceeded to fill them in. To JD's patent disbelief, the man was able to account for every minute.
Joey added, "And for the record, I want to file a complaint. I was blackmailed into gettin' married. Gina's papa, Louie Spinoza, he's a mobster. Gina said if I didn't marry her, her papa would kill me."
Chris could no longer remain silent. "If anyone has a right to file a complaint, it's Gina, for assault and battery."
Joey leaned back and folded his arms across his chest. "I ain't sayin' another word until I get a lawyer."
Jack nodded in agreement. "All right." He rose to leave, gesturing for Chris and JD to precede him.
JD indignantly confronted Jack the minute they left the room. "That's it? You're just gonna let him sit there and lawyer up? The man's guilty!" He turned to step around Jack as he stated, "I'm going back in there!"
Chris stepped in front of JD, halting the young man's forward progress. He uttered one word: "No." He placed a hand on JD's shoulder. "The man's guilty of being a wife-beater and a greasy slimeball, but there's nothing to prove that he had anything to do with Buck's disappearance. Let's go back and talk to Gina and see if we can poke any holes in Joey's alibi."
Jack was glad that Chris escorted JD out of the office. He suspected that Chris was as aware as he was himself that they had nothing to hold Joey Canelli on. They would have to let the man go.
Twenty-two hours missing
While Jack had been temporarily stymied by Joey Canelli, Martin and Sam had been working their way through their share of the guest list. Their current person of interest, Liz Olivetti, was flirting shamelessly with Martin. Sam rolled her eyes as the woman leaned into Martin's personal space, giving him a nice view down the front of her low-cut blouse.
Martin would be the first to admit that he was no saint. He figured that it wouldn't hurt to look, and he took a minute to appreciate the view. He could feel Sam's disapproving eyes on him as he raised his eyes back to Ms. Olivetti's face. He began, "Ms. Olivetti . . ."
"Please, call me Liz."
"Liz, can you tell me when was the last time that you saw Buck Wilmington?"
Liz placed a hand on Martin's arm, leaving it there far longer than necessary to gain his attention. "Before this weekend, I hadn't seen Buck in about seven years. We had such a great time, then and now. There was a group of us, including Buck and Gina, who met in high school way back when and have been friends ever since. I last saw Buck around ten o'clock last night. We both left the reception at the same time."
Martin turned slightly to the side, effectively disengaging himself from Liz' grip without being rude about it. "Did you happen to notice if anyone was with Buck?"
Liz nodded. "Yes. It was so funny. Buck's the kind of guy who seems to attract women without really trying. Anyway, I noticed because Buck left the reception with a guy, Eric Anderson. Eric was one of our gang back in high school, so I guess it's not that strange, but still it's something that I remembered."
Martin prodded, "Is there anything else you noticed, like what kind of car they were driving?"
Liz brightened as she recalled the requested information. "Oh yeah. I don't know much about cars myself, but the guy I was with commented that the car was a really expensive BMW convertible."
Martin questioned, "Did Buck seem to be upset or acting strange or different in any way?"
Liz stated, "No, he and Eric were laughing and joking around. Buck was just being, well, Buck."
"Thank you. You've been very helpful." Martin handed over a business card. "If you think of anything else, please call me."
Liz assured Martin, "I will." She added, "And you can call me any time you want." She jotted down her phone number and tucked the slip of paper into the breast pocket of Martin's suit.
Martin and Sam departed with one last "Thank you."
Once they returned to the car, Sam did a breathy imitation of Liz as she cooed, "And you can call me any time you want."
Martin smiled ruefully as he put the car in gear. "You're not going to let this go any time soon, are you?"
Sam replied, "You earned a verbal slap in the face the minute you looked down the front of that woman's blouse."
Martin defended himself. "She stuck her chest practically in my face. What was I supposed to do?"
Sam shook her head, scolding, "Martin, Martin, Martin."
For his part, Martin wished Danny had been with him instead of Sam. It wasn't that he didn't appreciate Sam's company; it's just that Danny would have enjoyed the view instead of criticizing him for looking. He sighed.
Sam called Jack to report their progress. Jack called back a few minutes later with additional information.
"The BMW definitely belongs to Eric Anderson. I've got an address on him, 11421 Orchard Ridge. Vin and Ezra aren't too far away from there, so I've sent them to check it out."
Twenty-three hours missing
Vin and Ezra arrived at 11421 Orchard Ridge. There was no sign of the BMW, and no answer at either the front or back doors. Ezra stated, "Someone seems to have left the door open."
Nothing could have been further from the truth, but Vin knew what Ezra was saying. "So, I'm guessin' we ain't waitin' for a warrant?"
Vin had been keeping watch while Ezra crouched down to manipulate his lock picks at the closed front door. Ezra turned the handle in response to Vin's question. The door swung inward as Ezra replied, "I don't think that there's any cause for further delay when the door is clearly open in invitation."
The two men donned latex exam gloves and began to search Eric Anderson's home. Vin was going through the man's bedroom when he called out, "Ezra, you better come see this."
Ezra entered the room to find Vin going through a photo album. Ezra raised his eyebrows at the photos. They were of naked men, many of them with dark hair and blue eyes and some of them bearing more than a passing resemblance to Buck. Vin pointed out one set of pictures in particular. The face in the picture belonged to Buck. For reasons which he didn't need to go into, Ezra knew that the body was not Buck's. Evidently this Eric had doctored sexually explicit photos of naked men to make it appear that Buck was in them. Ezra stated, "That is not Buck."
Vin nodded. "I kind 'a figured. The thing of it is, I found this underneath the mattress. If you look at the stains on the cover of this thing, the guy's been using it to help him get off."
Ezra commented, "That's more than a little disturbing." Both men stared, worried over the implications. Ezra added, "And this is allegedly the last person that Buck was seen with." Ezra, usually unfailingly polite, let loose with a string of profanity that summed up Vin's feelings quite nicely. "God damn it all to Hell!" He proceeded to call Jack and updated him on their findings.
Jack put out an APB on Eric Anderson, while Ezra and Vin searched every inch of Anderson's home. They were joined in their efforts by Martin and Sam, who politely did not inquire as to how the two men had gained entry. Despite their efficient teamwork, no further clues emerged.
Martin confided to Sam, "It's probably just as well. Anything we found would most likely have been inadmissible in court due to the illegal search and seizure."
Sam inclined her head toward Ezra and Vin. "You want to talk to them about that?"
Martin shook his head. "No. Do you?"
Sam knew how she would react if one of her teammates was missing. She responded, "No."
Twenty-five hours missing
Once they realized that nothing would be gained by remaining at the house, Martin suggested, "How about we check the road between here and the Hilton? There's some remote areas where a car might have pulled off the road." Martin did not add, 'Where a body might have been dumped,' although he couldn't help the impression he had that this case was going to end badly. He tried to dismiss the feeling, ascribing it to the overall depression that had been stalking him for the past month. However, the agent was also being realistic. If this case went the way of their past few, it would not result in a successful outcome for the victim. The possibility of homicide had to be considered. The agents headed to their respective vehicles to resume the search.
Ezra seated himself behind the wheel of his rental vehicle, removing several all-too-familiar photograph album pages from beneath the folds of his suit jacket.
Vin's first reaction was to remember his ATF training. "Ezra, what are you doing? That's evidence!"
Ezra removed the photos and placed them into a deep pocket hidden within the lining of his suit jacket. He forcefully shoved the empty pages beneath his seat before he replied. "That the photographs are evidence of something, I have no doubt. However, no matter how our investigation proceeds, I do not intend to leave Buck's perverted image anywhere where there is a possibility that the FBI may come across it." Ezra turned to face the road and put the car into drive, effectively ending the conversation.
They proceeded in silence. Vin took advantage of the quiet to reflect upon Ezra's words. If the pictures were of Vin himself, he knew that the thought of the feebs pawing through them would turn his stomach. He nodded, finally deciding that Ezra had done the right thing in removing possible evidence from a suspect's home. He hoped that this particular lead was a false one. However, if it was, the question remained: where the hell was Buck?
Buck Wilmington was a happy man. He had a slew of new phone numbers for his little black book, and had spent a pleasant evening socializing with ladyfriends both old and new. The night looked to hold even more promise. Buck had spent a pleasant interlude with Ms. Amelia White, and had her room key to prove it. He looked around for a means of passing the time until his date and spotted his old high school buddy, Eric Anderson. They'd had a brief chat about a half hour ago. Buck greeted the man with a hearty pat on the back and teased, "Hey, Eric long time, no see."
Eric skipped the manly pat, opting for a brotherly hug as he replied, "Likewise."
Buck pushed Eric back to arms' length and looked him over from the shoulders of his Armani suit jacket to the tips of his pricey Italian leather shoes. He declared, "Hey old son, you're looking good. I heard you finally made partner at the firm."
Eric felt the need to clarify Buck's remarks. "First, I'm not old; second, I'm not your son; third, you're looking even better; and fourth, yes, I made partner last month. I've been keeping up with you, too. So, do you think you're going to stay with the ATF?"
Buck stated, "I gotta tell you, I think it's the best job I've ever had; maybe not so much the work as the people that I work with. You couldn't ask for a nicer bunch of guys. They maintain such a high level of quality that you can't help but rise to their level even on your 'down' days. It's like bein' part of a family. I love it."
Eric's eyes widened. "Wow. I wasn't expecting that. The way you've been cruising the reception, I thought maybe you were looking for a reason to come back to New York."
Buck grinned. "Hell, you know me. I've just been making the rounds."
Eric did indeed know Buck. The man was an outrageous flirt. Eric had tried earlier in the day to speak with Buck but they kept getting interrupted, mostly by those of the female persuasion. The two men had been good friends during the short time that Buck had lived in New York. Even back then, Buck always seemed to attract the women without really having to try.
Eric spoke up so that he could be heard over the music from the bandstand. "There's something I really need to talk to you about." He looked nervous as he eyed the crowd around them, adding, "In private." Eric had done well over the years, with a successful law practice to his name. He offered, "I've got a new car and she's a real beauty: a 2004 baby-blue BMW convertible. She's got a 4.4 liter V-8 engine with a 6 speed manual transmission. She handles like a dream, kind of like riding around town on a sofa that goes fast. Could you spare a few minutes for a test drive and a chance to share a few words?"
Buck nodded. "Sure, I've got at least an hour before I'm expected anywhere." Buck looked around to tell JD he was leaving, but couldn't find the kid in the crowd. Oh, well. He was a big boy. Besides which, he had Buck's cell phone number and could call him if he needed anything. Buck clapped a friendly hand on Eric's back. "Let's go."
True to Eric's word, the car was a pleasure to ride in. It seemed like very little time passed before they left the hustle and bustle of the city behind them. Eric stated, "I'm going to pull off the main highway and go somewhere where we'll be less likely to get ticketed for driving over the speed limit." This was Eric's town, and he knew where to go. They pulled off of the highway and onto a two lane road with very little traffic.
After a friendly discussion regarding the merits of various automobiles, Eric grew serious. "Buck, I need to talk to you about something." He paused a minute, then continued. "Hang on, this'll be easier to say if I'm not trying to concentrate on driving and talking at the same time." As Eric was speaking, he pulled up onto the shoulder of the road.
Eric was silent at first, nervously tapping his hands on the steering while. Finally, he turned toward Buck. "The thing of it is, I'm gay."
Buck shrugged. "To tell you the truth, I've always suspected something like that. It's not the kind of thing you come right out and ask a fella."
Eric nodded. "Yes, I know. It's the sort of secret that can get a man killed if he's not careful. And I'm very careful." Eric tentatively reached out a hand toward Buck's face.
Buck's own hand came up to block the move. He warned, "Eric, if this conversation is going where I think it's headed, I gotta tell you right now that the answer is 'No.'"
Eric jumped as if he'd been physically struck. He twisted his hands together in his lap as he spoke quickly. "Yes, well, that's what I thought. But then I met your friend JD. I mean, usually when a guy brings a guest to a wedding, it's a girl. So when your guest turned out to be another guy, and a cute one at that, I couldn't help but think . . . Well, obviously I thought wrong." He stared at Buck, his eyes desperate and pleading. "Please tell me that I havent just totally trashed our friendship."
Buck took a deep breath before he replied. "I gotta be honest. This does change things. You've got to give me some time to adjust. At the moment, I'll admit that I'm a little nervous about anything you might say or do while we're alone in this car. I mean, we used to get naked in front of each other in the high school gym locker room. The thought that you might have been checking me out is more than a little bit weird, okay? And, for the record, I'm not gay. JD is a friend; my best friend, and my roommate."
Eric gave a nervous bark of laughter. "So, I guess you don't want to continue on our little drive."
Buck turned his head away to look out of the window. He did not want to see the pained look on Eric's face. "No. I don't think that would be a very good idea."
Eric restarted the car and pulled back onto the highway. "Just let me find a good spot to make a U-turn . . ." His eyes grew wide as he looked into the rearview mirror. An SUV was approaching, weaving erratically all over the road. The other vehicle was being driven much too fast, especially in comparison to their own car which had not yet had the chance to reach the speed limit. Eric frantically pushed down on the gas pedal, shifting rapidly through the gears as he tried to steer out of the way. However, there was no way to predict which side of the road the errant fast-approaching car would choose to drive on. He had time enough to utter the word "Shit!" before their car was hit on the driver's side of the vehicle.
Buck noticed the lights growing far too rapidly near in the rearview mirror. He had barely formed the words, "He's going to . . .!" before the other, larger vehicle impacted with their own. The world tilted wildly around him as his seatbelt was tested to its limits. Eric's car was forced off of the road, past the shoulder and on down the steep embankment beyond. The car careened wildly down the slope before finally coming to a jarring halt right-side up. Neither man in the car noticed when it came to its final rest. Both were unconscious.
The SUV that had caused the accident idled until the drunken driver managed to get his car into 'drive.' The man was operating his motor vehicle without a license due to the fact that he'd been caught driving under the influence one too many times. He had no intention of waiting for the cops to show up and throw his ass in jail. He left the scene, far more worried about himself than anyone he may have injured.
+ + + + + + +
Buck had no idea how much time had passed; it could have been minutes; it could have been hours. He awoke to darkness and an acute awareness of every ache in his body. The worst of the pain centered on his right leg. He tried to move it, immediately gaining a tenfold increase in the level of pain for his efforts. He looked around, trying to figure out where he was and how he'd come to be there. "Well, I'm in a car; a wrecked car. I'm in the passenger seat, so I wasn't driving." Buck turned toward the driver. "Oh God, Eric." The events of the car crash came back to him in a rush of memory. He reached out a hand to his companion, giving the nearest shoulder a shake. "Eric!" Buck jarred Eric enough so that the man's head turned in Buck's direction. In the dim moonlight, Buck was able to see more than enough. He gasped at the sightless eyes that gazed at nothing. Eric was dead.
He pushed away from the body as far as the crushed material of the car allowed. He chanted, "Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!" A long minute later, the injured man began to think again. If he didn't want to end up the same as Eric, he'd better call for help. Buck searched his pockets for his cell phone. His search was hampered by the fact that his body was making every aching inch known with each movement. Buck's right hand didn't quite seem to be working properly, so he made do with his left. He activated his cell phone then cursed some more when the message 'No Signal' appeared. He stared into the blackness outside of the shattered windshield. Buck automatically began to talk to himself in the third person, trying to remove himself a little from the emotions of the situation. "Buck, you are in some serious trouble."
Buck pondered his dilemma. The car had been shoved off of the road, far enough that there was a good chance that it wouldn't be seen from the road. "All right, nobody can see us down here. Maybe they can hear us?" Buck looked over at Eric's body. If he wanted someone to hear them, he'd have to honk the horn. That would involve crawling over Eric's body. The task would be considerably easier if Buck could move his right leg. He felt along the injured extremity. In addition to a fair amount of blood, he felt a mass of twisted metal holding his broken leg firmly in place. He sighed. "Okay, just means you get to do a bit more slithering than you might've liked." He swallowed down the nausea that appeared at the thought of getting up close and personal with Eric's body. There were already enough lovely smells in the car that he did not care to think about. He didn't need the scent of his own vomit adding to the stench. Once he was fairly sure that he was not going to throw up, he began to move. It was hellishly painful. Each move radiated pain along his broken leg. He swore that he could feel the bones grinding together. He gritted his teeth and inched his way over and onto Eric's lap. Once he was close enough, he grabbed the steering wheel to pull himself over far enough that he could reach the horn button. He breathed a sigh of relief when the horn sounded bright and clear in the night air. He began to tap out a series of three short blasts followed by three long blasts followed by three more short in a primitive SOS.
Somewhere during the long night, Buck dozed off. His body awoke in painful increments. Unlike his previous return to consciousness, this one was accompanied by full knowledge of his current circumstances. The long, dark night had given way to daylight. The wan rays of the sun barely penetrated the dense foliage surrounding the BMW and did nothing to warm the shivering man in the crushed vehicle. Buck supposed some of the shivering could be attributed to the knowledge that he was currently using the corpse of his friend as a pillow. He was far too exhausted to attempt a change in position. The all-encompassing pain of the night had given way to a tolerable numbness. Buck saw no point in moving and possibly starting the vicious pain cycle all over again. Besides which, he had to stay where he was in order to continue to signal for help.
"Maybe the phone fixed itself while you were asleep. Can't hurt to check." Buck fished out his cell phone, sighing in resignation when the 'No Signal' message again appeared. "Well, it was worth a shot. Back to work." Buck resumed his previous rhythmic tapping on the car horn button. His rhythm began to falter over time, but the horn continued to sound in the stillness. Buck had no idea how long he'd been at it before he noticed the tone change. "Aw, shit. Battery's dying. Heh." The injured man's attempt at laughter came out as a sob. He felt compelled to added, "So am I." He cursed. God, what a shitty way to die. Inch by inch, minute by minute, with the cold remains of a friend his only company. Buck fumed silently. He was in fucking New York State, home to more than nineteen million people. "So where the hell are they?" His attempt at a yell came out as a pathetic rasp from his dry throat. He called out, "I'm down here!" Buck choked back another sob, his voice wavering as he repeated, "I'm down here." The dying man pushed down on the horn button, listening as it let out a long bleat that kept lowering in volume and pitch until it faded out altogether.
Buck's ears rang in the sudden silence. He hated the silence. It was one of the things that Buck hated most in the world. By now, his mouth was too dry to make the effort to fill the oppressive quiet with the sound of his own voice. If anyone had ever asked Buck what, if anything, he feared about death, the answer would have been simple: "Dying alone. I can handle just about anything, as long as I don't have to do it by myself." Tears filled his eyes at the thought that his worst nightmare was about to come true. He mentally scolded himself. "Hell, Buck, you can't quit now. You just got to be a little patient. You know JD is out there looking for you." Buck felt himself beginning to drift mentally. His last thoughts were of his best friend and roommate. "JD, kid, I guess it's up to you. Come find me. Please." Buck's eyes closed. They did not open again.
Twenty-six hours missing
Ezra and Vin were driving slowly along the right shoulder of the two-lane road.
Vin's eyes strained to pierce the darkness, disturbed at the present line of investigation. This was the type of search usually conducted when you were looking for a body, but Buck wasn't dead. He couldn't be. Nevertheless, Vin looked for signs that a blue BMW had recently gone off-roading. Martin and Sam were similarly engaged on the left side of the road. Martin had helpfully supplied a bright halogen flashlight to help penetrate the darkness. Vin was holding the light, watching for anything that might aid their investigation, while Ezra drove. Vin's superior vision made him the logical choice for the assignment. Vin was wearing a headset supplied by Martin. Their FBI counterpart wore the same in order to allow the two vehicles to remain in constant contact. Unfortunately nothing happened to break the silent tension for another hour. To Ezra, they seemed to have been driving all night. He could not believe that it was only one a.m. The oppressive silence was broken by an abrupt command from Vin. "Stop! Back up to that guardrail!"
Ezra did so with alacrity, and the two men quickly exited the vehicle. They were joined by Martin and Sam, who had made a quick U-turn as soon as they'd heard Vin's shouted orders. Vin pointed to a broken guardrail. Streaks of light blue paint could be seen in the flashlight's beam.
Martin reminded the others, "We're looking for a blue BMW, right?" He aimed his light into the foliage below while Vin did the same. Both men jumped at the sight of light blue metal that could be seen further down the slope. Martin stated, "I'll get a rope from my car and call it in." Before he finished speaking, Vin was already halfway down the slope. Ezra followed a step behind, not because he felt any less urgency, but because his dress shoes supplied far less purchase on the uneven ground than did Vin's boots.
Vin's breath caught in his throat as he shined his flashlight through the shattered front windshield. Eric Anderson was in the driver's seat, obviously dead. Buck lay across the man's legs, unmoving. Vin ran around to the passenger side door as he observed that it was more accessible than the crushed driver's side. Even with Ezra adding an extra pull of force, the men were unable to open the door. Vin stepped back, ordered Ezra to "Duck!" then used his flashlight to break out the remains of the broken side door window. He wriggled into the vehicle, trying to avoid landing on Buck, fearful that his additional weight would aggravate the man's injuries. There was no response to his anxious cry of "Buck!" His friend appeared to be as pale and lifeless as the corpse that he was resting upon. Vin placed his hand on Buck's neck, feeling beside the man's windpipe for any sign of a pulse. He fearfully held his breath when he couldn't feel so much as a flutter of a heartbeat. He began to breathe again when he noticed the shallow rise and fall of the man's chest. Vin's inability to find a pulse had simply been due to a combination of anxiety and inexperience. He reported, "Buck's alive, but he's in a bad way."
Martin was waiting up on the roadway for the emergency vehicles. He asked, "What about Anderson?"
Vin emotionlessly replied, "He's dead." Vin assessed Buck's injuries as best as he could in the narrow confines of the mangled front seat. "Damn, I wish Nathan was here." Nathan Jackson was the ATF team's medic. Vin was frantically trying to remember everything the man had taught him about first aid. "Okay, we start with the ABCs. We're doing good on the airway and breathing. As far as the circulation, he's breathing, so his heart must be beating. Guess the next thing is to try to figure out how bad he's hurt." The first thing that Vin noticed in his assessment was how cold Buck's skin felt to the touch. He quickly shucked off his jacket and tucked it around the injured man. Buck had numerous cuts and bruises. His right hand was swollen and discolored. His friend's right leg was obviously broken, disappearing into the twisted remains of the dashboard. Vin commented, "Looks like they're gonna need a can opener to get him outta here."
As it turned out, Vin wasn't far from wrong. When they finally arrived, the New York Fire Department rescuers had to use the 'Jaws of Life' to free Buck from the accordion-like remains of the vehicle. The paramedics worked as quickly as they could, but it took far too long to remove the injured man. The paramedics' concern was evident to the observing agents, especially when they called for a Life Flight helicopter. The senior paramedic explained, "The helicopter will get him to the nearest trauma center a lot sooner than an ambulance could." He didn't need to add what everyone present was already well aware of: if Buck did not reach the hospital soon, he could very well die.
To Ezra, that possibility was unacceptable. The fact that Buck had lain there, helplessly waiting an entire day for rescue, was not something that Ezra cared to contemplate. For Buck's sake, he hoped that the man had been unconscious and not aware of the passage of time.
Martin kindly arranged for a police escort with flashing lights and sirens to speed Ezra and Vin's trip to the trauma center. He reasoned that the two men were less likely to cause an accident or to get pulled over for speeding if their haste received official sanction.
+ + + + + + +
The members of the ATF team gathered at the trauma center. They waited through forty-eight stressful hours as Buck's condition went from critical to serious to stable. After two days, Buck had recovered enough that he was transferred out of Intensive Care. His teammates were all present in his new room. Buck had been aware of very little of the events that had transpired since his accident. Now that he was able to remain awake for more than five minutes at a time, Buck confirmed for his teammates what the forensic investigation had already revealed: he and Eric had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. In return, he asked the team medic what had been going on during the past few days. Nathan helpfully filled him in on the investigation of his Missing Persons case, as well as bringing him up to date on current events. "So, the bottom line is you got some broken ribs, a broken right hand, and a compound fracture of your right leg."
Buck agreed. "Yeah. Doc says he pieced my leg back together with enough pins and screws that I'll be setting off metal detectors for some time to come."
Nathan continued, "Your leg was so badly broken that it bled like a sonuvabitch. With the amount of blood that you lost, it was a miracle that you didn't bleed to death. Good thing Vin found you when he did."
JD felt the weight of his failure settle on his shoulders at Nathan's words. If Buck had to depend on JD to find him, he'd be dead right now.
Buck turned to Vin with a grateful, "Thanks. I guess you saved my life."
Vin shrugged. "'Tweren't nothin'."
JD indignantly replied, "You're wrong. It was everything; everything that I couldn't do. God, Buck, I'm so sorry."
Buck stared at JD in puzzlement. "Kid, you ain't got nothin' to apologize for. You're not the asshole who forced Eric's car off the road and then drove off." Buck winced, trying to find any position that lessened his pain. He was unsuccessful.
Nathan could see the strain on the injured man's face. He also knew that Buck would not ask for any additional pain medication right now, thinking quite rightly that it would only add to JD's guilt to know that his friend was hurting. Nathan turned to his teammates. "Fellas, I think that Buck could use a break. I don't know about you all, but I hear that bar outside our hotel calling my name." Nathan's teammates agreed, and they headed out to the parking lot.
Nathan stopped on the way out to consult privately with Buck's nurse. "As soon as we leave, please offer Buck his pain medication. I got a feeling he'll say 'Yes.'" Nathan left, comforted when the young woman agreed to his request.
Ezra slowed his pace to match JD's as they headed for their rental vehicle. Ezra frowned as he observed JD's dejected countenance. Normally it was Buck's place to set the young man straight when his thinking was so clearly in error. In Buck's absence, Ezra decided that he would assume the duty. He was about to do so when their team leader made a preemptive move.
Chris wrapped an arm around JD's shoulders as he ordered, "JD, ride with me." The young man complied, wisely accepting the fact that he had no choice in the matter.
Ezra breathed a sigh of relief. Next to Buck, Chris was the team member that young JD respected the most. It was fitting that Chris take on Buck's role in absentia.
Once they were safely belted into the front seat of the car, Chris wasted no time in coming to the point. "JD, what the hell was that nonsense you were spouting back in Buck's room?"
JD pretended ignorance. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Chris clarified, "I'm talking about you saying something crazy like you owed Buck an apology."
JD declared, "You know damn well I do. I had Joey Canelli all but tried and convicted while Buck was lying out there bleeding to death!"
Chris shook his head. "Unless you suddenly developed psychic powers, there's no way you could've known what happened to Buck. Much as it pains me to admit it, those FBI weasels handled the investigation by the book and exactly right. Mind you, Buck was lucky we had Vin and Ezra along to bend the rules a little so that we were on Eric Anderson's trail sooner rather than later. But, you were right to suspect Joey. Hell, I did, too. A man who'll use a woman as a punching bag is capable of damn near anything. Buck would be the first person to tell you that."
JD nodded. If Buck was in his position and it was JD that had gone missing, Buck would surely want to wreak some old fashioned justice on Joey for his abuse of Gina.
Chris leaned back, satisfied that he'd made his point. He declared, "All right," and the matter was settled.
+ + + + + + +
The ATF agents spent the evening getting sloshed at the local sports bar. Ezra announced, "Vin, as it has recently come to my attention that you may have a brother who is an agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, I regret to inform you that I shall have to remove your name from my Christmas card list."
Vin shrugged his shoulders in a show of indifference. "In the first place, so what? You never send out Christmas cards anyway. In the second place, he's not my damn brother. So far as I know, he's no kin 'a mine. We don't even really look alike."
Ezra was not ready to give up. "You do too. All you need is a haircut and a trip to a decent men's wear establishment and you could pass for brothers."
Vin declared, "That man's hair looks like somebody went after him with a weed whacker. And those clothes? Hell, all they prove is that the man's wallet's bigger than his sense of style. No matter how expensive the suit, a man just don't wear a Pepto-Bismol pink shirt with it. Not unless he wants folks to think he's some kind 'a Nancy-boy."
The ATF agents spent the rest of their evening engaged in their favorite sport: putting down the FBI.
+ + + + + + +
The FBI agents, for their part, were more than happy to file Buck Wilmington under 'Cases Successfully Closed.' That did not mean that they were above taking shots at the ATF agents, or each other. Danny, Martin, and Sam were going over reports when Danny commented, "You know, Fitz, there's another case we really ought to investigate."
Glad for an excuse to take a break from paperwork, Martin took the bait. "What case might that be?"
Danny helpfully supplied, "The case of whether or not you and Vin Tanner are related."
Sam agreed. "Yeah. You two guys look so much alike, you could be brothers."
Martin shrugged. "Who cares?"
Danny and Sam exchanged looks. Sam asked, "You're kidding, right?"
Martin reassured them. "No, I'm not. Unless I'm in need of a bone marrow donor, and I'm not, it really doesn't matter if we share any genes in common. If you want to waste your time checking him out, go right ahead. Personally, I don't care."
Danny waved a hand in Martin's general direction as he stated, "Your loss." He couldn't resist adding, "You know, I think that Vin gets his sense of fashion from you."
"No, I'm serious. The man's got a certain look, and he carries it off with style."
Martin scoffed. "Only you would think that someone who dresses like he should be standing on a street corner and begging for spare change would be considered stylish."
Danny shook his head. "Man, that's cold."
Sam rested her chin on an upturned palm. Martin realized that she was staring at him. He threw his pen onto his desk and leaned back with an irritated, "What?"
Sam gave a smile of dreamy contemplation, remembering Vin Tanner's nearly shoulder-length locks. She asked, "Have you ever thought about letting your hair grow?"
Before Martin could come up with a suitable reply, Jack entered the room and broke up the impromptu gab fest. "If you people need something to do, I'd be more than happy to help you out." Jack smiled in satisfaction as his agents quickly grabbed for papers and files and returned to work. He added, "By the way, in case I forgot to mention it, good work on the Buck Wilmington case."
Yes, Jack reflected, it was good work all around. He pulled Buck Wilmington's picture down off of the whiteboard and erased the timeline that was written there, readying the board for their next case.