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Midnight and Solitude
Disclaimer: This story is a piece of fanfiction containing characters which are the property of MGM, Trilogy, and CBS. I do not make any claims to these characters.
Why couldn't he just give in for once? Ezra sat and stared out into the stars. The full moon was just clearing the treetops on its climb into the night sky. In the background he heard the laughter of Buck and JD, mixed with the hum of conversation from Josiah, Vin, Chris and Nathan.
Why couldn't he for once join them in their revels like one of the team? Then it hit him. He didn't feel like one of the team; he felt like a screw-up waiting to happen again, a disaster in the making, and he didn't want to drag these good people down with him.
He had been almost dead inside when Larabee made his offer; maybe he should have stayed that way. This feeling of inadequacy in the face of their goodness felt like a hot poker was being buried into his heart. Nathan had said it in the first week he had known them, after he had almost abandoned them to die. He was a load. Ezra hung his head; suddenly even the stars seemed to mock him.
Across the backyard his solitude didn't go unnoticed by the others. They had tried everything to draw the sly agent into their 'family,' but to no avail. Ezra seemed to be determined to remain apart.
"So do we leave him there?" Vin drawled, eyes uncharacteristically somber. Ezra had saved the life of Josiah in the last mission, almost taking a bullet for the larger man. He had refused to be thanked for it, saying it was 'nothing.' But Ezra had known what he was doing. This party had partly been in Ezra's honor. Too bad he couldn't see it.
"He still brooding?" Nathan's voice had an edge to it. It was no secret he and Ezra just didn't get along very well.
"Ease up on 'im, Nathan." Vin almost looked angry. "A man can't change overnight; give him some time to adjust to the fact we ain't gonna stab him in the back like everyone else has."
"What do you mean, Vin?" JD asked suddenly serious.
"Think about it, JD," Vin looked over at their newest agent by six months and sighed "What did the FBI do to stop the rumors about 'im?"
"Nothing." JD glanced down at the ground.
"So he's just waiting for the shoe to drop, for us to turn on him too?" Buck looked thoughtful. "So what do we do?"
"Let 'im be for now." Vin said noticing Ezra's head drop. "I'll talk to 'im in a bit."
Ezra didn't know how long he sat there, but the sounds from the party continued, so he knew he was safe. Suddenly a hand held out a glass to him.
"Got some of that rot you like so much." Vin said, sitting down next to the older agent.
"My, my, it seems the refinement of these soirees is definitely improving!" Ezra managed a grin at the long-haired ex-bounty hunter. He accepted the drink with a nod of thanks. He was surprised when Vin stayed.
"Took me two months to relax around the boys," Vin finally said, not looking at Ezra, but sipping his beer. "Hell, I ain't never had anyone to rely on before. Always been just me."
"I appreciate what you're trying to do, Mr. Tanner." Ezra sighed and looked up at the stars, "But it is not that I know I can't count on you, but rather the opposite."
Vin shot Ezra a truly puzzled look. Then he realized everyone had been wrong the whole time. Ezra wasn't snubbing them, he was afraid of getting too close to them only to have them reject him. He noticed Ezra's embarrassed expression and looked away, noticing Ezra wouldn't even look him in the eyes. But Vin saw the fear in them.
For his part, Ezra couldn't believe he had said what he did. The little voice in his head kept shouting 'don't let them in, don't get close, don't care about them, you will only get hurt' and usually Ezra listened to that voice. He didn't want the ever-perceptive Vin too see his fear.
Ezra had once again opened his heart to these men, but he was fighting it all the way. He should have stayed 'dead' inside; it would have been easier for him to bear when he would eventually be told to leave.
"We ain't gonna kick you out, Ezra." Vin sensed the direction of his thoughts and ignored Ezra's startled gasp. "You're a part of us; we finally got us a good team and we ain't about to break it up."
"I wish I could believe you, Vin," Ezra whispered, looking up at the stars. He wanted to believe the man, but that voice kept up its mantra in his head.
"It'll take a bit to let it all sink in." Vin once again surprised the undercover agent with his perceptions. "Give yourself time to accept it and you'll see I'm right."
"I didn't realize I was this easy to read." Ezra sounded a little bitter and he regretted his tone immediately, but Vin just smiled.
"I been there. I'm no fancy agent; I grew up on the streets, but I know the feeling all the same. I couldn't believe it when Chris offered me the job with him, and to this day I still don't know why I took it, but I'm glad I did." Vin turned his head back to the party. "You saved Josiah's life last night. You came back that first mission and helped us when you could have walked away. Whether you like it or not, you're with us now."
"Sounds like a cult. Blood, sacrifice..." Ezra couldn't help the slight chuckle that escaped him.
Vin grinned at him and took another drink from his beer. "Speaking of sacrifices, I best get back to the party... comin'?"
Ezra looked up into the sky once more and simply nodded and the two men go to their feet and approached the noise and laughter.
"Take it easy Ezra." Vin grinned knowing Ezra was steeling himself. "They don't bite."
Ezra relaxed a little.
Vin grinned as Ezra shot him an annoyed look.
"At first," Vin whispered gleefully as they approached the others.
Ezra swatted Vin on the arm playfully and Vin retaliated but they quit with a look from Chris.
"What are you two up to?" Chris tried to act stern, but the merriment in Vin's eyes was catching.
"Nothing," The two said together and the others just shook their heads.
The rest of the evening went fast and even Ezra surprised himself with how much fun it had been to be a part of the group. 'I really should remember to thank Vin,' Ezra thought as he drove home to his condo.
The next morning found a new case dumped in their laps.
"We have a firebug, boys." Chris dropped a batch of files onto the conference table. "Used C-4 to set off explosions around the doors, we think, hoping to trap the people inside. He's done it twice so far and shows no signs of letting up. Fortunately no one has died and injuries have been minor. We are to find this guy and his C-4 supplier and put them out of the bombing business."
While Chris had been talking, each agent had selected a file and was looking through it. Ezra was unlucky enough to get the second bombing report; it had some rather nasty photos of burn victims. He felt his stomach turn. He really hated fires.
Josiah noticed his grimace. "Everything all right, Ezra?"
""Wonderful." Ezra tossed him the file and Josiah tossed him his. Josiah opened the folder and he grimaced too. "I see your point."
"Were both fires in ghetto neighborhoods?" Vin asked, reading the psych profile included.
"Appears so," Nathan spoke up. "Mostly all African-American neighborhoods, the building torched was the community auditorium during a meeting of some kind.
"He wanted them to burn?" JD was confused, how could anyone want to hurt someone like that.
"Takes all kinds JD," Buck sighed. This was likely to be a bad one.
"What's the plan, fearless leader?" Vin asked, still reading another report. "Where do you want to start?"
"Ezra, you and Vin and I will head to the last fire site in Texas; Josiah and Nathan, you head to the first in Florida, gather anything you think the locals might have missed. JD, you and Buck pull up any record or file you can that might give us a heads-up on this guy. Use any source you have to. I want this guy ID'ed fast." Chris looked across the room. "Keep in touch and keep your eyes open."
The men moved with practiced ease, Ezra latched onto the psyche report and the general information on who the bomber might be, and headed for his desk. The others took other files and did the same. Chris stopped by Heather, the secretary's desk and told her to make the travel plans. The slim nimble fingered girl immediately started booking flights and making hotel reservations. Chris walked back to Vin's desk.
"Do you think we'll actually find anything at the scenes Chris?" Vin asked, looking over the rather comprehensive report on the second bombing. "Looks like these people did a thorough job."
"I don't think so, but maybe we'll get lucky. I got a real bad feeling about this one," Chris admitted, sitting on the corner of Vin's desk.
"Me too pard," Vin whispered.
"Your flights are booked along with hotel and car rentals." Heather walked up to Chris, handing him a computer printout. "You pick up your e-tickets at the ticket counter."
"E-tickets?" Ezra grinned, "Sounds like a ride at Disney, not an airport extravaganza."
"Huh?" JD said, confused. The older men rolled their eyes, kids. Buck explained to the younger man what an e-ticket was as Chris accepted the travel plans and Heather headed back to her desk.
"Damn she's good," Chris muttered. "Looks like we leave at about the same time so only one trip to the airport will be necessary. Tomorrow morning, 9 AM, meet here to carpool."
Nathan grinned at Ezra's resigned sigh. "Too early for ya, Ezra?"
Ezra shot the man a dark look, followed by the ghost of a smile. "I fail to see the importance everyone places on getting up at such an ungodly early hour."
"Don't want to waste the daylight." Vin grinned.
"Some of us can work in the dark, Mr. Tanner," Ezra bantered back.
"Some of us look better in the dark," Vin shot back at him, smiling.
Ezra threw his head back and laughed, startling the others who were sure he would get angry. "I will get you for that, Mr. Tanner."
"Try me." Vin grinned and winked at the others. Vin was famous for his practical jokes and so far no one had managed to pull one on him.
"Oh, you can count on the most heinous reprisal." Ezra grinned and reluctantly turned his attention to the profile.
"I think you're in for it, old buddy." Buck slapped Chris on the back who was shaking his head bemusedly.
"Why me?" Chris muttered as he stood to go back to his desk. Tomorrow was going to be an interesting day.
Bright and early Nathan drove his car into the parking garage where he was to meet the others. Surprisingly, Ezra's car was there, neatly parked in its spot with Cuervo sitting contentedly on the hood licking a paw. What the heck was Ezra doing here so early?
Another car followed by a second roared into the garage and parked. Chris and Vin had arrived.
"Aw, hell." Vin looked at his watch, "Ezra beat me?"
"Looks like, he was here before I even arrived." Nathan looked amused at Vin's expression.
"Next time, Vin, don't bet him he can't be here before you!" Chris chuckled.
Josiah came in next, bleary eyed and a little asleep still, clutching a cup of cappuccino from Starbucks in one hand. "Mornin' all."
"Josiah," Vin smiled. "One shot or two?"
"Four Brother Tanner," Josiah grinned. "I did NOT want to get up on my first Saturday not on a stakeout in three months!"
"You can sleep on the plane." Chris walked to the door and entered into the office where the tickets were.
They all stared in shock at Ezra leaning back in his chair, quietly dozing in black slacks, gray silk shirt and shades. On each of their desks was a cup of coffee and a bagel, each their admitted favorite.
"Damn Ezra," Vin said, impressed. "When did you have time to do this?"
"I found I could not sleep last night and decided to get an early start this morning." Ezra took off the shades and picked up the file folder in his lap. Everyone could see he hadn't slept well.
"You got no sleep?" Nathan frowned. "What did you do all night?"
Ezra sighed and rubbed his eyes. "I contacted some people I know in the armed forces. It seems the detonating device is of an extremely uncommon variation used only by the United States Military. If we can find who is selling this rather rare device, we might find our man."
The other four just looked at him in bemusement.
"Let's go. I'm driving." Chris headed for the car after picking up his bagel: sesame with regular crme cheese, his favorite. He knew the coffee would have milk instead of cream, Ezra would know those little details.
He noticed all the men detoured to their desks and picked up the offerings. It seemed Ezra's talk with Vin the other night had done a lot for him. And Chris for one was glad; he almost thought he had made a mistake in having Ezra on the team. His work was always excellent, but he agreed with the evaluations, his work relations sucked... until now.
"Shotgun," Ezra drawled, surprising Vin who shot him a look and resignedly headed for the back seat.
Chris rolled his eyes at the behavior; he was going on a trip in a plane with them! Josiah caught his look and grinned. At least he and Nathan would be spared the antics.
"Put your seat up Ezra." Vin shifted behind the undercover man, his legs too long to be comfortable. Obligingly, Ezra moved his seat up as far as it would go and settled back into the headrest and appeared to doze off.
"Well, we should be at the airport in ten minutes." Chris pulled out into the motorway. The rest of the trip went in silence.
Once at the airport, the two teams split up and headed to their respective gates. Each agent had to check in his firearm, and was then shown to his seat. Within minutes after becoming airborne both Ezra and Vin fell asleep; Chris read reports and when the stewardess came around offering drinks, quietly waved her away from waking the sleeping men. They would all need their sleep for this one.
Buck and JD entered the office later that afternoon to find their bagels and coffee, now cold, waiting for them. Along with JD's breakfast, Ezra had left a computer disk with a short note.
"These are the locations of the armed forces depots that hold the type of detonator we are looking for, see what their inventory holds. Check for discrepancies and let me know if you find anything right away--Ezra"
Shrugging and taking a bite of his cinnamon and raisin bagel with strawberry cream cheese, he sat at his desk and put the disc in. Immediately seven depots with the numbers of shipped detonators to each location popped up. What was missing was the inventories from each station to compare to the original shipping manifests.
"Guess Ezra didn't finish," JD muttered and began to query the bases in question.
"Finish what? Buck sat on the corner of the younger agent's desk and looked over his shoulder at the screen.
"Ezra found the type of detonator was rare, and he found where all the legal sources are, so I guess he figures someone stole from these places." JD looked over what Ezra had left him.
"Black market bombs," Buck growled.
"Yeah I guess," JD sighed. "Wonder if I'll have to hack into their systems again or they'll just let me have the inventory sheets."
"You e-mail 'em?" Buck looked at his desk. "Wonder who got the goodies for us."
"Ezra." JD waved the note at Buck, who looked surprised.
"Hope he does this often." Buck grinned and settled down to see if JD's labors would bear fruit.
Nathan and Josiah exited Tampa International Airport and groaned. Heat radiated off the blacktop sending waves of sweat off each man. And the air was humid enough both men were struggling to breath after their short trek to their rented Ford Taurus.
"Want to check into the hotel first?" Josiah suggested looking at the map of the area he had been given. The bomb site outlined in red with directions given, also marked was the location of the Holiday Inn they would stay at.
"What time are we supposed to meet the local police at the site?" Nathan pulled onto the highway, for now both destinations lay in the same direction.
"Five." Josiah checked his watch and then cursed, this time zone was two hours ahead, it was just now turning four-thirty. "We need to head there now, I forgot about the time change."
Nathan nodded and the two agents headed for the waterfront area. Fifteen minutes later, they were at their destination and noticed a car waiting.
As they pulled up and shut the car off, two figures exited the other car and headed for them.
"Agents Sanchez and Jackson?" One called out as they exited the car.
"Yeah." Nathan smiled at the two, shaking hands as they were introduced.
"Sergeant Robert Cray," the tall, gray-haired veteran offered.
"Detective Terry Peterson." The younger agent had black hair and an open face; his brown eyes hid a deceptive charm. Josiah got the feeling people underestimated him, much to their surprise.
Once introductions were made, the two Florida officers showed Nathan and Josiah the burned out hulk that used to be a community center. Not a brick was left sitting in its original place; it was all reduced to a pile of rubble.
"Had to be hot to do this." Josiah sighed. "Even the bricks are deformed."
"Fire Marshall said it was a flash fire, lots of heat all at once," Terry confirmed. "Any luck getting lead on this guy?"
"We just got this case yesterday." Nathan looked around the area. "Didn't touch any of the other buildings?"
"No, just this one, we were lucky." The Sergeant looked at the area.
"Seems a bit odd, don't you think?" Josiah looked at the two locals.
"When do we check in with Chris?" Nathan asked Josiah, he had some questions to ask after they saw their area.
"Tonight, ten o'clock." Josiah looked around some more. It was eerie, no one was hurt. Only one building had been burned. It was like someone was testing himself, trying to see how accurate he could be. Josiah couldn't shake the awful feeling he had deep in his soul. This was just the tip of the iceberg.
Chris had enjoyed the peace of the flight as both his agents slept nearly the whole way. Vin had woken up a couple hours into the flight and the two had chatted quietly about the case or enjoyed the companionable silence.
Ezra slept like the dead the entire flight, waking up just minutes before landing. His timing uncanny.
"Nice nap Ezra?" Vin grinned.
"A most welcome slumber." Ezra agreed; to Chris and Vin he still looked tired.
He had spent the last five months undercover, the strain of maintaining his cover only manifesting itself after the bust. He had pushed Josiah aside, the bullet hitting the wall missing both by inches. Vin had taken the shooter out, and that had been the last shot fired. Ezra had just sat on the ground after it was all over, and let his weariness show for the first time. It was also the first time any of the others had seen him reveal his true feelings to them.
"You feelin' all right Ezra?" Vin asked as Ezra leaned back in his chair.
"Just fine Mr. Tanner." He shot them a grin. "But I would have rather been home sitting in my nice overstuffed armchair with a nice glass of Merlot, listening to Vivaldi about now."
"Hell," Vin said, shaking his head. "All I wanted was a quiet ride on my horse or a cold beer and a game."
"And that is why you will never ascend above the social strata of a Neanderthal." Ezra couldn't stifle a yawn.
"I think I was insulted," Vin looked puzzled, asking Chris for his help with a glance.
"You were," Chris deadpanned.
"As soon as I can figure out what you just said, I'll get you back." Vin grinned, noting the sly twinkle in the undercover agent's eyes.
"Take your time," Ezra offered.
Further comments were forestalled as the plane descended into the Dallas airport.
"Damn!" JD cursed as the last of the e-mails scrolled across the screen. "You'd think they would want to cooperate with an investigation for once."
"Rejected again?" Buck asked from his terminal.
"Yeah, and that was the last one I needed too," JD growled in frustration. "Now I got to hack into their inventory files. What a waste of time."
"Well, at least the others gave you what we needed." Buck was pouring over months of manifests dating back three years, looking for any hint of a mistake.
"Yeah, just wish it could have gone easily just this once." JD sighed and began to work on the codes.
"Hell, boy," Buck snorted in derision. "Nothing in life is ever easy."
"Yeah, I know," JD whispered, and buried himself in his work. Buck did the same. The sooner they found something, the better.
Vin Tanner stood and stared around him in fury. Whoever had set this second fire had been deliberate and calculated in his timing and placement of the charges. The whole building had collapsed inward as the fire had consumed it, destroying any usable evidence. If it hadn't been for a keen-eyed investigator, they wouldn't even have had the fragment of a detonator Ezra had traced for a clue. Whoever this was, he was getting more and more proficient at his game.
The first fire had allowed the inhabitants of the building about ten minutes to get out of the blaze; in this fire they had less than five. What would happen with the next one? No one had been killed yet but six people had been burned in this blaze.
Vin looked over as Chris and the Fire Marshall went over the possible blast sites. Curious onlookers watched from behind the yellow tapes as the three new agents in their ATF jackets went through the disaster. Chris had a look on his face of controlled fury and Vin knew if Chris ever got alone with this guy, he would regret every one of his actions. Three children had been burned, and in Chris's eyes, no one harmed a child and got away with it.
Ezra, too, had been highly disturbed by the destruction the pictures didn't do justice too. The building wasn't merely burned out; it was utterly destroyed. Vin looked around for the other man and finally spotted him sitting outside the tapes on a bench looking at the scene from a watcher's perspective. Vin wondered what he was looking at. Then he saw Ezra had his deck of cards out and was absently shuffling them in one hand as he concentrated. Several of the local children were watching him avidly, to which Ezra looked oblivious.
Vin walked over to where Chris was to listening to what the Fire Marshall had to say.
"So you think there were at least five different blasts?" Chris asked, standing up and looking at the placement of the structural supports.
"Yeah," the fireman said, following his gaze. "Only three were needed to take out the building supports, the other two were set at the entrances, according to eyewitnesses; they went off after the initial three."
"After?" Vin asked, frowning, "Why?"
"We don't know. Was it like this in the first one?" The man wearily ran his hand through his sparse blonde hair.
"I don't know yet, I haven't talked to my agents there," Chris tersely replied.
"Well, now you got the preliminary look, you want to meet her tomorrow and go over this in more detail?" He looked to Chris who nodded. "How about ten o'clock, I'm in meetings until then."
"Ezra will be pleased." Vin grinned and Chris shook his head.
"We'll meet you here Marshall." Chris reached out to shake the outstretched hand.
"Call me Bill." The man smiled.
"Vin." Vin gestured towards Ezra. "That's Ezra."
"Pleasure gentlemen, I'll see you tomorrow then." With that the short, balding Texan walked away towards his car.
"What do you make of this Vin?" Chris asked.
"This is only the beginning. Like he's trying something out." Vin couldn't quite explain why he felt that way, but he did. Chris just nodded.
"Where'd Ezra get off to?" Chris looked around.
"Over there." Vin pointed and then laughed. Ezra had the children all paying attention to his tricks. "How does he do that?"
"Hope they tell him something more useful than they told the local police." Chris commented. Ezra looked up and Chris motioned for him to join them as they were leaving.
Ezra arose to a chorus of disappointed cries. Ezra said something to them and they quieted down and nodded to him before running off to join their parents who were watching him suspiciously. Ezra easily sauntered over to the two other agents and raised an elegant eyebrow in a question.
"Back here tomorrow at ten," Chris said as the walked back to their car.
"They tell you anything?" Vin asked once they were safely away from prying eyes and ears.
"Yes, they did," Ezra sighed from the back seat. "Someone saw a white man lurking around the building for the three days before the bombing. No one got a look at his face, but he was someone new to the area."
"Height, weight?" Chris looked at Ezra through the rear view mirror.
"Approximately six feet tall, lumbering and slightly overweight, but they seemed to think he was quite muscular." Ezra sighed. "One of the boy's brothers is in the County Hospital's burn ward."
Chris just clenched his jaw tighter. Fire was not his element either, and the thought of someone left to burn to death filled him with an awesome rage. Vin looked nervously at him, wondering if he would be able to keep his cool throughout the case.
"What time do we compare notes without other comrades?" Ezra asked sleepily.
"Nine tonight. After we get something to eat." Chris looked none too fresh himself and wanted nothing more than a nap.
He should have insisted his men get some decent time off after a case like the last one, but for some reason the mere notion of fire set his blood boiling and he had to take the case. He'd make it up to his agents later.
"Where do you want to eat?" Chris asked as he drove down a row with restaurants and other amenities.
"Red Lobster?" Vin suggested.
Josiah lay sprawled on his bed and watched in amusement as Nathan tried to figure out the modem. Buck and JD had left a message to get online so they could download the latest information on the bomber's detonator. Josiah hated computers so that left Nathan. If Ezra had been there he would have done it. He was in the middle of asking Nathan if he needed help when the dial tone sounded, followed by the piercing tones of the modem.
"Well, I finally found out how to get the thing to dial a '9' before the number." Nathan sighed as the connection to the home computer system was established.
"Round one to Nathan," Josiah quipped, causing Nathan to throw him an annoyed frown.
"Next time it's your turn to pay attention to JD as he explains this thing to you." Nathan chuckled at Josiah's dismayed expression. JD's explanations could be worse than the actual task itself.
"What does he have to say?" Josiah asked, diverting Nathan from his teasing.
"Just a file, no message." Nathan downloaded the file and then signed off. As he opened the file the phone rang again.
"Hello," Josiah answered.
"Hey, it's Vin. Chris is just out of the shower and we're waiting for Ezra to download something from JD, how you guys doing?" Vin sounded way too cheerful for Josiah's taste.
"So far so good." Josiah looked up as Nathan began to read JD's file. "Not much to report from the site; they pretty much covered it in their report here."
"About the same here so far." Vin sighed. "Ezra talked to some of the kids and they gave us a partial description."
"Really?" Josiah laughed; trust the seemingly aloof man to reach into the toughest hearts. He had been amazed right from the beginning that Ezra and children got along. Much better than Ezra and adults it seemed.
Vin gave Josiah the description and then handed the phone over to Chris.
"Ezra just got us the manifests from JD search." Chris looked them over carefully while Nathan and Josiah did the same, all the while comparing notes about the bomb sites.
"Chris," Josiah remembered what Nathan had said about his hunches. "Nathan said he felt this was only a test. Like this was just for practice and there was more coming. The real target."
"Vin felt the same as well." Ezra was now on the phone. "As do I. There is something very... unfinished about the patterns."
"Like why people were let escape?" Josiah finished the thought Ezra was thinking.
"Precisely, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra sighed.
"So far no discrepancies are found in the records; JD is waiting on one last supply depot to report." Chris came on the line after reading all the information JD sent.
"We see it." Nathan switched places on the phone with Josiah. "How do we know these are accurate?"
"We don't," Chris said shortly. "It's a long shot, but it's our only real lead right now to catching this guy."
Josiah heard Ezra exclaim in the background, and Chris asked him what was wrong. A mumbled conversation ensued and then Chris came back on the line.
"Ezra just found that one of the Army supply reports is WAY out of date. Maybe we have something." Chris sounded pleased and Josiah nodded into the phone.
"Vin and I are going to the base in Atlanta. Josiah I want you and Nathan to meet Ezra here, see what you can find. I'll send word as soon as I get something." Chris said.
Josiah said that he was on it and signed off to make travel arrangements. Chris turned to see a very annoyed Ezra looking at him.
"What is it Ezra?" Chris wandered over to the dresser and began to pack.
"Is there some reason my professionalism is being called into question here?" Ezra was as close to anger as either Vin or Chris had seen him.
"It has nothing to do with you Ezra." Chris decided he didn't have time for this.
"Really?" Ezra's voice practically dripped with sarcasm. "I know the area, I know the base, why would I not be included in your little sojourn? Unless you had some reason to call my integrity into question."
"Cut the crap Ezra," Chris fired back. "I made the decision, live with it."
Vin could see the hurt veiled in Ezra's eyes at Chris's seemingly callous dismissal of him. Vin would have explained it differently, but he knew Chris wouldn't. Vin looked from one to the other wondering what was going to happen. Ezra broke first, simply nodded and without a single word, went to his own room. Vin shook his head, what he must be thinking.
He turned to see Chris looking at him, anger still in his features.
"What?" Chris snapped, wondering what Vin was shaking his head at.
"You rode him a little harsh, pard," Vin said softly, unflinchingly looking into his best friend's eyes. "You know he's gonna think you don't trust him. You could have tried to understand 'im."
"I give the orders Vin." Chris looked away. "My reasons are my own."
"Even if it destroys the team, Chris." Vin finally looked away, maybe he was overreacting.
"What does that mean?" Chris's voice suddenly got dangerous.
"Ezra ain't used to workin' on faith, Chris. He also ain't used to bein' trusted... or trusting others. He's makin' an effort. Wouldn't kill you to share your reasons with him." Vin's quiet tone sliced through the older agent's anger, and Chris swore, realizing how he must have sounded.
"Well, I don't have time to fix it now; we got to jump on this. I'll set this strait with him later." Chris did feel guilty, but he wasn't ready to face Ezra with it at the moment, and he was glad when Vin left it alone and began his own packing.
Ezra slammed the door to his room shut. It was all crashing down on him. He had finally decided to give in to the whispered pleas of his inner self and reach out to these people, and Chris just slammed the door in his face. He wasn't trusted. He would never be trusted. No matter what, his past would kill any hope he would ever have of finding a group to belong to.
He had seen the shock in Vin's face and knew he didn't share the feelings of the leader of the team, but Chris was in charge, and whatever Chris said was what was done. And Ezra was not trusted. Ezra sat heavily on his bed just staring at the walls. He felt like the last bit of his strength was gone.
He knew Josiah, Buck and JD would follow the leader so to speak, and Nathan patently hated his guts. It was only a matter of time before his fears came true and Chris asked him to leave... and he would be without a job. A job he really cared about. A job he put his whole body and soul into, only to have it crushed by his colleagues and thrown to the wolves. He should have stayed dead inside.
Ezra walked over to the honor bar and opened the cabinet. Pulling out the bottle of Crown Royal, he took a glass and some ice and poured himself a shot. He looked at it and felt disgusted. Here he was crawling back into the bottle again. When the rumors had gotten to be too much, Ezra had begun to drink heavily. He managed to stop himself before he got too far into it, but it had been a struggle. He hadn't had a drink of anything but wine since. Now here he was, wanting nothing more than to erase the feelings he was experiencing. Erase the pain from his mind.
He picked up the glass and downed the shot with one gulp. Then he poured himself another, all the while cursing his weakness, cursing his inability to do anything worthwhile right. He was a failure as an agent, eventually he would get someone killed; he was nothing. He took another shot and then immediately poured another. He didn't stop pouring until he passed out on his bed, the alcohol and exhaustion taking its toll before the pain left.
Vin knocked again on Ezra's door a little louder. It was six in the morning and he wanted to give Chris's last instructions to the agent before they left. That and he wanted to see how Ezra was doing. With no answer to his knocks, Vin took out his lock-picks and opened the door to the room. He stepped inside and stared in shock.
Ezra lay across the still-made bed fully clothed with several small bottles of alcohol lying empty on the floor. Vin sighed; apparently Ezra wasn't doing well at all. He laid the notes on the desk and cleaned up the room, then covered the sleeping man with a spare blanket and quietly left the room.
JD and Buck drove home in silence. Chris had been terse on the phone and there was no sign of Ezra being in the room when Chris had checked in, just Vin. Josiah and Nathan were on a plane to Dallas and Vin and Chris had a 7 am flight to Atlanta.
"You think Ezra's pissed?" JD finally broke the silence.
"Most likely, kid." Buck sighed. "Vin kinda hinted he and Chris had some kinda fight, so who knows."
JD wanted more of the action. He was getting tired of doing all the desk work, even though he knew it was just as important as what the others were doing. It looked like he was getting his wish though.
Just now he had found out that the manufacturer of the detonators, Wallach and Co, had gone bankrupt. Thousands of employees had to be laid off, and hundreds more let go to save the company. Chris now had the information and so did Josiah and Nathan. The company was in Georgia and Buck and JD would head there tomorrow.
Buck knew Chris didn't like splitting up the team very much, but with this one there was no choice. The mad bomber had to be stopped before anything else could happen. JD had agreed with the reports from the others, each bombing had shown a refinement of a pattern, Buck had wandered what the practice was for and JD had said he didn't want to know. Buck knew it was about to get ugly, and Buck hated ugly.
"So what you think is going on Buck?" JD looked over at his friend and roommate.
"I don't know JD." Buck sighed and looked right, changing lanes. "The facts aren't real clear."
"All we seem to have to go on is a detonator and the type of building he likes to blow up," JD groused, mentally packing for his trip already.
He was excited about joining Chris and Vin in Atlanta, but worried as to why the rest weren't going as well. Both of the other bombing sites had been thoroughly looked over already.
"Why ain't Chris letting Ezra into Atlanta?" JD finally asked as they pulled up to their apartment.
"Don't know kid." Buck's voice turned hard. "Probably didn't want Ezra to feel uncomfortable around his former 'associates'."
JD looked sharply at the taller man, as the tone had hardened around his use of the word 'associates'.
"You don't think we can trust him if he goes there?" JD was confused.
"No, kid." Buck sighed. "I don't think we can trust them to back him up if he needs it, and they are our back-up in that area."
"Oh." JD thought about it and frowned. "What does Ezra think?"
"Knowing Chris, he didn't explain himself, just told him he wasn't going." Buck shook his head. "Ezra probably didn't like that."
"No, he probably wouldn't." JD straitened his cap and sighed, he liked Ezra well enough, but the man was hard to get to know. Last week was the first time JD remembered Ezra ever joining them in their fun. He had been witty and engaging and taught them all a lot about poker and card tricks. And he had been the only one to ever beat Chris and Nathan every hand.
"Maybe Chris is saving him in case we need him to go undercover?" JD supplied hopefully, not wanting to believe trust in fellow peacekeepers was the reason for Ezra's banishment.
"Could very well be, kid." Buck entered their parking garage and turned off the engine. "Let's get packin' and be ready to leave early."
"Right, Buck." JD sighed, knowing packing was going to be an ordeal.
"And don't forget your toothbrush this time." Buck smiled at JD's exasperation.
The harangue continued long into the night.
Nathan and Josiah pulled themselves wearily out of the cab they had engaged and looked about the motel parking lot. Chris had left the car for Ezra and had told them he would tell Ezra to pick them up. The two agents had waited for two hours for Ezra to show and had finally given up and hailed a cab.
Josiah paid the man and Nathan spotted the black Lexus Chris had described to them. Ezra was still here. Nathan shot Josiah a poisonous look. Ezra was in for it big time. Josiah had feared Ezra had gotten in an accident or some other logical reason, Nathan had bet on him sleeping in. Looks like Nathan won this one.
"Well, you want to wake him up, or should I?" Nathan shot angrily at the gray-haired agent.
Josiah merely shook his head. "Wait until you hear him out before blasting him, Brother Nate. He might have a good reason."
"Yeah right Josiah." Nathan frowned and knocked on Ezra's door. "Good thing Chris gave us the info we needed or we'd be really stuck."
On the third round of knocking, a very disheveled Ezra opened the door. He blinked at them in surprise and then opened the door wider and motioned them to enter. Josiah couldn't hide his dismay at the appearance of the normally meticulously dressed Southerner. His face was flushed, eyes bloodshot and he was pale as death.
"You okay, Ezra?" Josiah broke the silence first.
"I am quite well, Mr. Sanchez." Ezra sat in one of the room's chairs. "I afraid I don't remember hearing your arrival time. Did you take a cab?"
"Of course we took a cab," Nathan snapped. "Since a certain oversleeping agent left us waiting at the airport."
Ezra just looked at Nathan impassively, but behind the mask he was confused. How was he supposed to know when they were coming. Then he noticed the note from Vin on the desk next to him. He read it and cursed. He had overslept and he was supposed to have picked them up. But why didn't he get the wake-up call?
He sighed; Larabee probably had engineered this to make him look bad with the others. His career with the ATF would soon be at an end. And shortly thereafter his career in Law Enforcement as a whole. He grimaced as his stomach gave another painful twinge and he bit back the nausea it caused. He had been sick for the last hour and was sure it was his penance for his night in sin. He wasn't used to the booze anymore.
"You sure you're all right, Ezra?" Josiah noticed the twinge and the even more pale countenance.
"As I have previously said, I am well, and I do not see the need for the constant badgering," Ezra said tightly.
Nathan snorted in contempt, wondering why a guy so talented could be such a pain. It was a waste, but Nathan had almost begun to hope he was turning the corner and accepting them as colleagues and equals. Now it looked like the familiar temper was back and Nathan was just too tired to deal with it.
"Is there a problem, Mr. Jackson?" Ezra put his guard up, his ill feeling in his body making him churlish. He saw Josiah wince and shake his head but could care less; he was too tired for this.
"Yeah there is." Nathan got up and stared down at Ezra like a recalcitrant child. "Seems we got ourselves an agent that doesn't take his duties very seriously. Chris told us you would be there and you weren't, end of story. How do you expect us to trust you when you blow us off like this?"
Nathan was livid at the calmness Ezra projected, damn but the man seemed not to care one bit he had let them down. True, it was a small thing, but miss the small details and the larger suffered. Maybe he needed to discuss this with Chris after this assignment was over.
Ezra was about to fire back a comment when the phone rang and Ezra suddenly felt very much worse and sat back down. Fortunately Josiah had been answering the phone and Nathan was looking at him, no one noticed his weakness. He wasn't about to show it in front of Nathan. 'Doc' though he was.
"Yeah, Chris," Josiah said into the phone. "We just got in; we're with Ezra now going over the case. Yeah, we'll keep in touch with you. Buck there yet? Alright, be careful and we'll see you later."
Ezra looked amazed when Josiah didn't mention of his lapse. Nathan looked annoyed but didn't say anything. Josiah's eyes brooked no argument.
"I think we can deal with this ourselves," Josiah said calmly. "No need to stir up trouble."
Ezra nodded thankfully and Nathan was then forced to agree.
"Now where do we stand?" Josiah sat on the mussed up bed and allowed Ezra to gather his thoughts. Soon Ezra had them listening to what had transpired the day before with rapt attention.
Vin sighed in relief as Chris hung up the phone. Ezra must have woken up and seen his note. For all Vin believed in dealing with things strait on, he didn't knock Ezra for his drunken state. Intuition told the sharpshooter that Ezra had been through more rough times in his life than most men and still had decided to help people. Vin respected that.
"They must have been late; Josiah said they just got there." Chris looked confused.
"Flight delayed?" Vin offered.
"I checked, it was supposed to be on time." Chris sighed and eased his new rental car into traffic. With Ezra gone, Chris had opted for a ford Explorer, and Vin had smiled when it came up a black one.
"Well, they were probably starving after the plane food." Vin grinned and caught Chris's soft laughter at the joke.
"No doubt." Chris checked the paperwork in his hand one more time. Their passes onto the base were in order. They should be there at the next light.
"You think we'll find anything?" Vin looked at the guarded gate and shifted in his seat.
"Probably not." Chris looked at his partner. "Something tells me we're looking in the wrong direction."
"What about the stuff JD found about that company?" Vin said just before Chris eased the car to a stop at the guard gate.
"Can I help you, sirs?" The guard was polite but firm.
"Agents Larabee and Tanner to see the Base Commander." Chris offered the documents he had been given. "We are expected."
They guard checked the documents thoroughly and then checked his list. "May I see some photo identification please."
Chris and Vin were amused, but didn't smile. The guard was serious about his duties. Both men handed over their official ATF ID cards to the man. Once checked, the guard handed them their passes and IDs and waved the man in the guardhouse to open the gate.
"Go up three airplane hangers to the second story building on the left. Receptionist will take it from there." The guard pointed towards the left fork of the road.
"Thank you." Chris nodded, meeting the man's eyes, which were surprisingly not as lacking in emotion as his demeanor. They smiled at the two agents and then the guard turned away and Chris drove on.
It took five minutes to reach the appropriate building and once they were parked, Chris clipped on his ID card and drew out his ATF jacket. Vin sighed and followed suit. He hated the jacket, not his style at all.
Chris had once joked about getting an ATF patch for his beloved leather jacket, Vin had murmured that would be just fine, and the joke ran from there. Now every bust during which Vin had to wear his jacket, a patch of something else covered the ATF logo. First was a Harley Davidson patch, then a Colorado Rockies one. Ezra had contributed the last one, a 'Playgirl Centerfold Of The Month' patch. Buck must have gotten it for him.
The two men entered the building and walked up to the reception desk. An Ensign stationed there, looked up from his papers and smiled tightly at them. "Agents Larabee and Tanner?"
"Yes," Vin drawled smoothly, eyes flickering around the lobby.
"If you will follow me please, the Commander is waiting for you." The lieutenant signaled to another man just emerging from the restroom, who moved to take his place. "This part of the building is pretty much a maze; I'll guide you to the Colonel's office."
"Thank you." Chris said shortly and fell into step behind the Ensign.
After a few turns and twists, Chris and Vin stood in from of a set of double doors. The lieutenant knocked and a voice called for them to enter. Vin's eyes met Chris'. The voice was female.
"Colonel 'Alex' Morgan?" Vin mouthed to Chris.
Chris shrugged and the look in his eyes suggested to the sharpshooter Buck was in for it this time.
"Ma'am." Vin nodded politely to the older, no nonsense looking woman who stood as they entered.
"Colonel Morgan," Chris greeted the woman and offered his hand, which she took and shook with more warmth than he would have expected.
"Agents." She nodded politely to Vin and Chris. "My aide tells me you have some questions for me about our ordinance records?"
"Yes, Ma'am." Vin replied unconsciously giving Chris time to get the paperwork out of his briefcase. "We're investigating a series of bombings, and need some information on a certain detonator only the armed forces use."
"Yes, I read the brief your agent sent me through e-mail." Colonel Morgan remained impassive. "I had my aide send him the appropriate information regarding the equipment.
"The information we received was out of date, ma'am." Chris spoke up and handed her the file. "It's dated over a year ago."
She looked over the file and clammy hit a switch on her phone. "Lt. Henderson? Please ask Capt. Granger to my office, please."
Vin smiled at the authority in the woman's voice. He would bet the Captain would be here very soon. She caught his look and gave a very small wink.
"Have you ever been in the military, Mr. Tanner?" She correctly identified Vin, much to Chris' surprise. But Vin wasn't fooled. He figured she knew who they were and what they were before they had ever stepped on her base. She was wily, this colonel, and Vin respected her.
"I'm sure you know that, ma'am." Vin shot back, eyes twinkling.
She merely nodded at him, and gave him a small smile. "I have seen your record."
"Ma'am?" A deep voice came from the doorway.
"Ahh, Captain. These gentlemen have a serious question for you. Please do me the curtsey of answering it promptly." By her tone, Vin knew she didn't like this man.
"Yes, Commander." The tall Captain gave his attention to Chris; he would barely look at Vin.
"I need to know where your up to date inventory list for this detonator is." Chris kept his tone cool and professional.
The captain looked over the past inventory sheet and frowned, then he nodded to himself and looked up at Chris.
"I canceled any orders for this detonator right after this was taken." The man looked. "The forms were on your desk then for a new supplier to be found; one was located for a similar and usable substitute and we've used them ever since."
"Why did you quit using this model?" Vin asked, leaning forward in his chair, interested now. Maybe here was as clue.
"In our regular testing and training uses we discovered three out of ten did not function adequately to warrant their continued use." The captain shrugged. "I didn't want to see more soldiers injured, so I switched."
"A good choice, captain." Colonel Morgan looked surprised.
"Thank you, ma'am." The captain looked uncomfortable at the praise and Vin suddenly knew this man was not Army material. But he was a good ordinance officer. "Am I needed further?"
"No, Captain, you may go." Colonel Morgan waited until he was out of the office and the door closed before she sighed.
Chris looked at her and frowned, puzzled.
"That man has been useless to this institution we call the Army until just that second. I think he's held the most positions of anyone in the history of the Armed Forces." She shook her head in exasperation.
"Looks like he's where he belongs now," Vin said quietly.
"I'm sorry we couldn't help you, Agents." Colonel Morgan stood. "If there is anything more we can do, please let me know. I don't fancy someone using our ordinance to destroy things."
"We'll certainly let you know." Chris shook the offered hand and exited the room, Vin right behind him.
Not a word was spoken between the two until they were off the base.
"There goes one dead end," Chris sighed, frustrated.
"But we got us a clue." Vin looked out the window. "Why were so many of the detonators bad? Especially if the company is doing poorly?"
"Good question." Chris grunted. "Looks like we wait for JD and Buck to get here and then we find out why."
Nathan had continued his silence towards Ezra all afternoon. Josiah had tried to get the two to talk, but both seemed hell-bent on being stubborn. Josiah looked around and spotted Ezra outside the taped lines of the second bomb site, talking to some children. Nathan came up to his side.
"Whets he doin' now?" he asked sourly.
"Nathan, ease off him." Josiah sighed, this was getting very old. "Chris said he got a partial description from children yesterday, so let's give him a break, OK?"
Nathan immediately sensed Josiah was at the end of his tolerance, so he nodded and walked off to consult with the fire marshall.
Josiah sighed and walked around the site again. It was the same as the first one. The building destroyed, and the ones around it untouched. He was getting a nasty feeling, and by the look on Ezra's face as he walked towards Josiah, Ezra felt the same.
"What do the children say this day, Brother Standish?" Josiah looked away at the retreating children.
"Not too much more than we know. I fear this is a dead end." Ezra sighed and rubbed his eyes, looking for a second like he was about to fall over.
"You all right?" Josiah asked, seeing Ezra slip his mask of control on again.
"Never better, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra responded, almost by rote.
"Uh huh, that's why you look like s**t." Josiah grinned at Ezra's shocked expression. "You can't fool me, Ezra. You're tired. Hell, I'm tired. We never should have taken this case after the last one. We all needed a break."
"Perhaps I am a bit overtired," Ezra admitted, much to Josiah's shock. "But I have a job to do and being tired is not an option."
"Everyone's entitled to be human, Ezra." Josiah frowned, noticing the slight smile on Ezra's features.
"When the case is solved, Mr. Sanchez." Ezra walked off to look at the building from another angle. "Then I can let myself be human."
Josiah wondered if Ezra ever let up. He doubted it. He would keep this up until he couldn't go any more. He hoped the end of the case would come before that happened. Nathan had finished with the Fire Marshall, and he joined Josiah in the wreckage.
"I think we got a clear picture now." Nathan shook his head. "Not that I'm any closer to understanding it."
Ezra sauntered over, listening to Nathan's summation.
"We have two very similar buildings; each one the people had just enough time to exit the building before it was completely destroyed. The building that was burned was the only one damaged, and nobody saw anything." Nathan ticked off the facts.
"Sounds like someone has a plan," Josiah murmured.
"I agree Mr. Sanchez," Ezra startled them by joining in. "I think this was just a rehearsal, the big one is still to come."
"Why do you think that?" Nathan asked.
"Each time, the margin for error has been lessened. Less time for the people to get out, but just enough. Less of the surrounding area destroyed, less rubble, more internal destruction. And the location would suggest this was just a convenient building no one would really make a fuss over if it was destroyed." Ezra looked around at the impoverished area.
"Someone was practicing for another bombing?" Nathan turned the concept over in his mind as Josiah nodded to Ezra. He had felt the same way.
"Just how close were the floor plans of the two buildings?"
Josiah looked up suddenly.
"I believe other than the square footage being larger, they were identical," Ezra said, not liking the way his thoughts were going.
"You don't think..." Nathan looked at the other two. Ezra nodded, and Josiah shrugged his shoulders.
"It's a good theory," Josiah said. "Not a very personal target."
"More like a planned and paid for target," Ezra muttered.
"Destruction for hire?" Nathan looked appalled.
"Might very well be." Josiah picked his phone out of his pocket. "Let's see how Chris made out and tell him or theory."
The three agents went back to their car as Josiah dialed up Chris's cell phone. A short conversation later, Josiah hung up and turned to the others.
"Chris wants us here at least until tomorrow when they meet up with Buck and JD at the Company." Josiah turned to look in the backseat where Ezra was looking out the window. "Chris says to get ready to go under in the company. An auditing firm is moving in because of the bankruptcy and he wants you on their team, to poke around."
Ezra merely raised an eyebrow and nodded.
"Anyone hungry?" Nathan asked, stomach rumbling.
"I could do with a repast," Ezra drawled, stifling a yawn.
"Josiah?" Nathan asked.
"Sounds like a plan to me, since we are killing time until tomorrow afternoon." Josiah spotted a small Mexican restaurant off to the left. "Pull in there, Nate."
"Mexican?" Nathan looked through the rear view mirror at Ezra who nodded. He pulled the car into the lot and stopped the engine.
Ezra levered himself out of the car, hoping his roiling stomach and stuffy nose would allow him to eat. He had successfully hidden his impending illness from the two, but held no illusions they would fail to discover it if he stopped eating. Ezra didn't want them to think they couldn't count on him.
Buck and JD wearily walked off the plane to see Chris leaning up against the ticket counter. Vin was no where to be seen. As they approached, Chris got off his phone and turned towards them, sensing their approach.
"Good flight I take it?" He asked facetiously.
JD sighed as Buck launched into his tirade about airline schedules, maintenance procedures, and flight delays. Vin appeared out of the throng and smiled as he caught the tail-end of the rant.
"Howdy boys." He grinned and motioned to Chris. "What's the word on the inspection team?"
"It's doable. If we decide we need to send Ezra in, we got an easy way." Chris motioned for Buck to follow him and the already moving JD.
"I take it the Army Base was a wash?" Buck sighed, wondering if they were ever going to get a handle on this thing.
"Yeah, appears the last time they used the detonators too many didn't fire and they stopped ordering them, that's why the last manifest was so out of date," Chris echoed Buck's sentiment.
He also didn't let on the other conversation he had just had was with Nathan, who had some very pointed remarks about Ezra's behavior. What was he going to do with that man. According to Nathan he had been surly and uncooperative since they got there. Josiah hadn't said anything, so Chris was holding off his decisions until he talked to him. Besides, they had a mission to finish.
"Vin, anything on the meeting time?" Chris had set Vin to check with the local FBI, to set up a meet to discuss possible operations after their visit to the Company's headquarters in two hours.
"We can head over there now." Vin shrugged, "Someone named Johnson will meet us there and head up our locals."
Chris grimaced at that, he had hoped not to work with someone he knew distrusted Ezra. It would make him relying on them harder.
"You don't trust 'im?" Vin had caught Chris's grimace.
"It's not a matter of me trusting him; it's him backing us up." Chris spat, "He's one of the agents I met while recruiting Ezra."
"That good, huh Chris?" Buck grimaced. "So we can't trust 'em to watch Ezra's back while he's under?"
"I guess that means more surveillance for us, huh." JD sighed; he was not looking forward to spending more time in the back of a van. He'd had enough of that for a lifetime.
"I've put them on standby." Chris looked at the others. "If this goes the way I think it will, we'll bring them in for the stake out."
"So we wait and see?" Buck sighed; he hated waiting games.
"We wait for the other shoe to drop," Chris corrected his oldest friend.
Ezra awoke in the middle of the night to a dry coughing spell. His lungs felt like they were on fire with every hack. Since the less than amicable dinner, Ezra had steadily gotten worse, then finally it seemed to break and he slept, that was until now.
Nathan had been short with him all through dinner and Ezra wasn't much better. Ezra had managed a rather sincere apology to Josiah, however, and the gray-haired agent had accepted it. Ezra knew he owed Nathan one as well, and promised himself mentally he would do it first thing in the morning.
Actually, it was morning technically, but Ezra didn't want to acknowledge that fact yet. He was never very good at mornings--not his thing, as JD would say. It was futile for him to try to sleep, so Ezra took out his laptop and began to review the notes on the case, hoping to spot something he missed. And that was how Nathan and Josiah found him at eight.
"Damn, Ezra." Nathan handed the obviously tired agent a cup of coffee. "You been up all night again?"
"I could not sleep, and so decided to put my wakefulness to good use." Ezra barely looked up, but took the offered cup. The he looked at Nathan and his eyes lowered to the ground.
Nathan was puzzled, for a second there Ezra looked embarrassed.
"I'm sorry for my boorish manners last evening, Mr. Jackson." Ezra startled him further. "I'm afraid I'm a bit overtired and not sleeping well and it affected my attitude. Please accept my apologies."
Josiah grinned at the stunned look on Nathan's face. The longer Nathan was silent, the more Ezra felt his apology wasn't going to be accepted. Then Nathan simply shook his head, bewildered. This was not what he expected.
"Umm... Don't worry about it Ezra," Nathan finally was able to get out. "I think we both had a bad attitude and took it out on each other. Tell you what, you accept my apology for last night, and I'll accept yours."
"Done." Ezra's lips twitched into a grin and his eyes sparkled in gratitude.
"You have anything?" Josiah took a chair and sat next to Ezra.
"Looks like the army bases all came out clean as Chris said." Ezra smothered a cough, Nathan frowning at him. "I believe the next move is to infiltrate the company that manufactures the detonators. I expect we'll hear from Mr. Larabee by sundown and be on our way to Atlanta."
"That why you're making plane reservations?" Josiah laughed as Ezra merely grinned at them.
"Why wait until the last minute?" Ezra turned his attention back to the screen. "I want a flight at a civilized hour, not the ones Chris usually books."
"What makes you so sure we're leaving tonight or tomorrow?" Nathan wasn't ready to commit himself to this action yet. "I don't think it will be so soon."
"Care to make a bet about it gentlemen?" Ezra countered with a quick grin.
Josiah chuckled and Nathan shook his head, but was smiling.
"Ten bucks says we go tonight, as I predicted." Ezra smiled; he knew Larabee, and he knew something was not right at the company and putting the two together meant they were going, at all possible haste.
"I'll take the bet," Nathan countered, not wanting to be beat.
Josiah abstained so both parties handed him their money.
"Anyone up for breakfast?" Nathan squinted out the hotel window into the bright sunshine outside.
"I could do with a bit of a repast." Ezra nodded and rose to grab a jacket, smothering another small coughing fit.
"What's around Ezra?" Josiah asked, fishing out the car keys from his pocket.
"There is a quaint establishment just around the corner that might suffice." Ezra returned from the closet.
"They serve real food?" Nathan grinned.
"I believe some good old down home southern cooking will be acceptable, gentlemen?" Ezra smiled at Nathan, knowing the man liked pancakes.
"Oh yeah," Nathan agreed, practically running for the door.
Josiah grinned; this was a vast improvement over the previous day.
Buck sighed and for the millionth time wished he and JD hadn't taken the van assignment. Chris was in rare form, bullying the Company public relations man into letting them in to see the records of the plant. If Buck had been there he would have been doubled over in laughter by now, ruining Chris' rant.
"But sir," the ineffectual man wailed. "If I let you in there, it will cost me my job!"
Vin hid a snicker; Chris had him now!
"Think of it this way," Chris said coldly. "With the upcoming bankruptcy you'll be out of a job anyway so what do you have to lose?"
The man had no response and stood, mouth gaping at the blond-haired ATF agent. He was flabbergasted. These two had come in out of nowhere, flashing their badges, demanding to see someone in authority. He had been summoned and now here he was letting the two agents have their way.
Vin quietly pushed the man out of the room and he and Chris immediately set to work looking through the records. Chris looking at the productivity reports and Vin took personnel.
Both knew that they would soon be in enough trouble to have to leave. Hopefully they would find enough of something to warrant Ezra's attention and use. Chris just knew the answer to all the madness lay somewhere in this company, but where he had no clue.
Suddenly Vin cursed to himself as a face he knew flashed upon the screen in front of him. Quickly he printed out the file and hid it in his jacket.
"Found something," Vin whispered. "Let's go, Chris."
Chris and Vin exited the room, leaving the computers the way they had found them. Quickly the two agents left the building, leaving the confused company officials in their wake. They strode to the van and entered.
"We have our reason," Vin spoke first, then handed Chris the file he printed "I know this guy; he's probably one of the best demolition-for-hire people I know of. He was an Army Ranger at one time and was discharged for conduct."
"No chance he could be legit?" Buck looked over the doctored file. No mention of his service record was mentioned, and Buck trusted Vin to know what he was talking about.
"It's still against the law to let convicted felons handle explosives in any form," Vin sighed. "He was found guilty of blowing his captain's house up after the court martial, and sentenced to life in prison."
"How did he get out?" JD asked, puzzled.
"Don't know, parole probably. Guy isn't dumb." Vin sighed; they had to take this guy down as well.
"So we call in Ezra?" JD asked, already gathering a mental lost of things they would need for a prolonged stakeout.
"We call in Ezra." Chris almost hid a grimace, but Buck caught it and questioned it with a quirked up eyebrow. Chris shook his head in a 'not now' expression and flipped his cell phone open. He just hoped someone was alive on the other side to answer the phone.
"That will be my money you are holding, Mr. Sanchez." Ezra grinned at Nathan's snort of amusement.
"Here ya go, Ezra." Josiah smilingly handed over the money. "Dinner on you?"
"Only if our bet doesn't pan out," Ezra reminded the larger man with a raised eyebrow. "Was Chris surprised?"
"Yeah," Josiah grudgingly admitted. He had forgotten he had bet Ezra dinner that Chris wouldn't be surprised they had flight info so soon. Josiah had thought that Chris would expect them to be ready, not surprised they were one jump ahead.
"Who picks the place?" Nathan asked, hoping sushi was on the menu.
"Japanese sound all right?" Josiah asked, knowing already the direction the other two's thoughts were going in. "How long do we have before the flight?"
"It's three now; flight leaves at eight tonight, so we have to be at the terminal at seven. Plenty of time." Nathan had been pleasantly surprised Ezra was being so agreeable for the time being. He could charm when he wanted to, but he also could be one hell of a pain in the ass too. Nathan found himself liking the agreeable man much more than the surly one of the months before.
"Can we do teppan this time too?" Josiah loved the hot wok cooking as much as the other two liked their sushi.
"Agreeable to me..." Ezra looked to Nathan who nodded it was fine with him too.
The three agents were left with the afternoon off in preparation for the coming, and probably tense, situation. Ezra tried to forget he was going back to Atlanta, and would, no doubt, be seeing his former comrades in arms. He wasn't quite sure how he felt about all that, but he knew he couldn't let Larabee down, not this time. He stifled another cough.
Plus, if all went well he could shove it down their throats if the mission went off well. He had already studied up on the inspection team he would be joining; their bios had been sent yesterday. It was a nice way to get full run of the facility and not have to skulk to do it. He could be nosy and ask all the inane questions he wanted and no one would know he was looking for something other than hidden assets. He stifled another cough. It was getting harder to cover his coughing up, the spells were getting more forceful and there was less time between them now. He just hoped he could keep it hidden long enough to get the job done.
"You ok Ezra?" Josiah noticed Ezra had sunk into himself a bit. Josiah had to wonder what was going through Ezra's mind, knowing he was going to face the same people who had written him off as a bad seed, and very nearly ended a bright career. Many people would be dead or worse if Ezra had not joined Larabee's team; least of them were Josiah himself.
"Fine." Ezra attempted a smile. "Merely going over tomorrow's plans in my head."
"You worried about the meeting with your former teammates tomorrow?" Nathan asked, hoping he wasn't delving into one of Ezra's personal 'don't go there' zones. I which case he would clam up for the entire night. But Ezra surprised both men.
"A little," he admitted with a sigh. Then he smiled mischievously. "More worried they will piss of our illustrious leader and we'll have to bail him out of jail for assault."
Josiah and Nathan chuckled. Chris did not suffer fools in his presence, and it seemed these people might be prime examples.
"Maybe he'll go easy on them for your sake, Ezra." Josiah laughed.
"I hope he doesn't." Ezra's tone dipped into pure venom and the other two agents raised their eyebrows at the tone.
Eventually dinner conversation returned to safer subjects and the night passed pleasantly. The three had checked out of the hotel already and went strait from dinner to the airport, turned in their rental car and headed for their gate. It would be soon enough for Ezra to contemplate what welcome awaited him in Atlanta, so he was determined to enjoy what time he had for frivolity.
Chris deliberately set the meeting with the FBI at 12 in the afternoon. The last time he had been there to recruit Ezra, they had deliberately set an early meeting knowing Standish had worked graveyard the night before. Chris wanted to pay them back for that. This would take up their entire lunchtime. Ezra had grinned a bit maliciously at their planned lunch at 11, when he realized Chris' strategy.
Chris' other reason was that Ezra looked like hell. The last mission had been the hardest on his undercover agent, and this one looked to be no better. He didn't want to burn the man out.
Together the six entered the building, Ezra leading them to the sign in table where they presented their badges for inspection and clearance to the main FBI building.
"Hey Standish!" a voice called from the elevators, "Someone actually wanted your sorry hide for something? Didn't think I'd ever see you around here again!"
"Ahh, Pembroke," Ezra smiled. "Got that problem with your 'little friend' fixed yet?"
The man in question shot Ezra a dirty look and the rest of the seven hid their laughter, mostly.
"Glad you're so well liked, pard." Buck chuckled as they were granted access and let into the main lobby.
"I assure you, gentlemen," Ezra sighed, feeling like he was stepping into the lions den again. "Jason Pembroke is as poor excuse for any kind of agent you will find. His incompetence truly knows no bounds. He gets lost walking in a circle."
They all chuckled as the elevator doors closed, and they waited as the elevator ascended to the eighth floor and stepped out. Ezra couldn't quite contain a shudder as he remembered the many unhappy days he had worked here. Looking back on it, he wondered how he had ever survived without killing someone, or going insane. He hated this place. Nothing good ever happened to him, and he was beginning to feel like this was a bad idea. Maybe he should have let Chris stand him down.
"Take it easy," Vin whispered, noticing Ezra getting tense. "You're one of us now; these don't concern you anymore."
Ezra nodded and let his familiar control slip back into place. He knew Vin would never mention this lapse he had just experienced, unlike those in this office who would have exploited it for all it was worth, but he was slightly annoyed at himself for letting his feelings show so plainly.
To be fair, there were some good people here, but usually they were so cowed by the bullies, or so busy working, it was impossible to help others out. Ezra knew who his friends and his foes were here... and it looked like his foes were outnumbering his friends. But these foes had never run into the likes of Chris Larabee.
From the moment the meeting began, Chris took charge. His no nonsense approach and seemingly indifferent attitude caused many of the FBI agents to grumble in complaint, but a look from Larabee and they stilled.
"As soon as Ezra goes in, we should have a better picture of what we are looking at." Chris looked over at his undercover agent who was busy memorizing pertinent files and layouts. But at the look, Ezra gave his leader his complete attention.
"I believe the initial insertion of myself into the audit team will be simple enough, but the risk of getting found out triples if this is coming strait from the companies higher ups. They will be expecting something." Ezra gave a small cough and took a sip of his coffee.
"Can we do this?" Chris asked.
The FBI agents were dumbfounded, Larabee actually trusted Standish enough to allow him to call the shots? Was he crazy? Everyone knew Standish was a traitor and a coward, they just couldn't prove it. Now they had to work for him? Not likely, they thought.
Ezra looked over the last report and nodded his head. Chris nodded back and immediately set up schedules for surveillance and contingencies. He made sure Ezra was undeniably in charge of all undercover aspects, and his team dealt with the rest. The FBI grumbled at the fact that they had been relegated to the roll of backup.
"All right," Chris wrapped up the briefing; it was now 3:30 in the afternoon. "This starts tomorrow, Ezra; get yourself geared up. Buck, you and Josiah help him; the rest of us get some sleep, it's going to be a long day tomorrow."
As the meeting broke up Chris motioned for Ezra to remain behind. When the last man was gone, Chris looked at Ezra searchingly.
"You ok with this?" Larabee asked, looking for any sign of discomfort in his agent. "I need to know you can rely on these people without hesitation. No unfounded risks."
"I believe I can, Mr. Larabee." Ezra looked out into the bullpen of the office area. "I know most of them and I know what they do and do not do. I will be fine."
"We're still here." Chris reminded him. "But if something goes awry and we're not the closest to you, you will have to use them instead."
"I appreciate your concern." Ezra coughed again, causing Chris to frown. "But I believe we need to move on this fast. The faster the better or we'll lose the trail."
"Vin said the same thing to me just before we came here," Chris admitted. Ezra looked like shit still, but he carried himself as if nothing were wrong, so Chris just made a mental note to keep his eyes on the man for any signs of faltering. Not that Chris could blame him; the last assignment must have taken a lot out of the southerner.
"Mr. Tanner's perceptions are usually correct," Ezra startled Chris by saying. "I will exercise the utmost caution on this one."
"Good," Chris sighed. "This is an order. I want you in bed asleep as soon as you have all you need for tomorrow. I mean it Ezra, you look like Hell."
Ezra gave his usual salute and walked out the door to join Josiah, who had waited for him.
The next morning all surveillance vans were in place. In fifteen minutes the inspection commission would arrive and invade the company, looking for anything that might be suspicious. Ezra would be with them. Josiah levered himself into the seat next to Chris and smiled.
"Ezra did just fine." Josiah chuckled. "Had them convinced in about three minutes he was not only with them, but their leader. Man sure is something!"
"Yeah, but what is that something?" JD grinned from the back, placing the headphones over his head. It was almost time.
"Be nice, JD." Vin said from next to him. "Or I'll tell him you wrecked that damned gray suit coat of his last week."
The others chuckled at the dismayed look on JD's face. Last week he had spilled chili on Ezra's favorite suit coat in the saloon; Ezra still didn't know who it was, but from the rather loud stream of curses Ezra had uttered, JD would be in for it if Ezra ever did find out it was him.
Chris, Josiah, Vin, and JD had taken one van; Buck, Nathan, and three FBI operatives had the other. Each covered the entrances and exits on the two sides of the building that had them. Several others loitered near the area, keeping a watch out for the man Vin had recognized.
A group of five cars pulled into the adjacent lot and several men got out of each one, Ezra among them and headed for the building.
"Heads up, they are goin' in," Chris said watching Ezra through the binoculars. He had gotten some rest, but still looked a little off. Chris hoped he had done the right thing in allowing him to go under so soon after the last time. But Ezra hadn't uttered one word of complaint, so Chris dismissed the thought from his mind. Ezra would say if he was too exhausted to go under.
Other people watched the procession with much less confidence.
"Here they are now," one said to the other in the room. "You sure there are no links from the bombings to us?"
"I know my job," came the second, surly, voice. "And at your word we can proceed with the next phase of the operation."
"So soon?" The man was startled "And with them lurking about?"
"Especially now," the surly one returned. "Now is the perfect time. They will never know it was us; the building fits the profile to a 't'; we are ready. Them being here will only help our case."
'If you say so," the other stuttered. "I just want this over with."
"Then I have your 'permission' to proceed?" the voice was now clearly sarcastic.
"Yes. Just do it."
Ezra was having fun, despite the fact he was now feeling very bad indeed. Maybe he shouldn't have gone in feeling like this, but it was too late now. This was the easiest cover he had ever done. He was in a crowd of people who looked, dressed, and talked alike, and he was able to ask all the annoying questions he wanted too.
He had conned a cute young secretary into letting him into the personnel files and found the one Vin had shown him, looking at the record with interest. Someone had doctored the file to make it look like the person was in R&D, but Ezra knew better. Something in the company was definitely fishy.
What would make a company exec or president want to hire a felon familiar with explosives? Then it hit Ezra full force. The company was going under. They needed money. Did they have a warehouse somewhere? Did it match the layout of the other bombings? And was that warehouse insured.
Walking briskly, Ezra went to the same secretary and wanted to know about the insurance policies the company held. She directed him to the Business Director. On his way up in the empty elevator he took the risk and called Chris on his cell phone.
"Yeah?" Larabee sounded distracted.
"I have something," Ezra said, but a ding from the elevator caused him to ignore Chris's questions and give his message. "I think this is it, I'll call you back when I have more."
The doors to the elevator opened and Ezra was forced to cut the call off. Of all the rotten luck! Ezra walked confidently into the office he had been directed to a short time later, and, coyly flattering the lady who was the Business Director, he gained access to the records he needed... and was given the rather beautiful lady's phone number. He was right. The buildings involved in the bombings belonged to the company under dummy corporations and other sources. There were two buildings left, the main warehouse and one in North Carolina. Now he just had to find how and when.
Unnoticed by the southerner, his conversation in the elevator had been monitored, and he was now being closely watched.
Chris Larabee cursed as Ezra reported his findings later that night. Two more buildings, one or two more bombs and the company would have enough money to be solvent again. But would they bomb their own warehouse? Or just the last one owed by the dummy corporations set up for this. Once the evidence was properly obtained and the sting put on the people responsible, whoever they were, long jail sentences were in order for them. Chris would see to that personally.
But it was the last part of Ezra's conversation that worried him. He was staying with the others from the inspection team in their hotel so as not to let suspicion grow. Ezra had asked Chris to take the team and go prevent the other site in North Carolina from going up. Chris said it had meant leaving the FBI in charge of his back-up. Ezra had said he trusted them, but he had a feeling and he asked Chris to do as he asked.
"God damned stubborn..." Chris cursed walking into the living room portion of the suite he and Vin shared, the others waited patiently.
"What did Ezra do now?" Josiah asked with a laugh.
"Solved the damned case for us." Chris ignored their looks and repeated what Ezra had told him over the phone.
"Why can't we let the FBI go to the other place?" JD asked. Beating the others to the question.
"Because Ezra would rather they blow it watching him, instead of trying to capture our only hope of legitimate arrest." Chris frowned and sat wearily in a chair. "He feels his cover is secure enough that we will be wasting our time here."
"Well, do we go?" Nathan asked, wondering why he had a niggling suspicion they should stay when it was very logical for them to go.
"We go." Chris decided.
Ezra coughed repeatedly into his handkerchief. He felt rather terrible at this second, but refused to let himself pull out of the operation. His cover was intact; Larabee and the others were about to capture the people in North Carolina, so soon he could rest. He hadn't done much but stay with the inspection teams going over the company's books. He learned simple money mismanagement cost them thousands of dollars, but where had the bulk of the money gone? Ezra suspected embezzlement.
"Scanlon?" Someone called.
Ezra turned, remembering just in time his cover name. Ezra Scanlon, accountant extraordinary.
"Yes?" He replied, also remembering to keep his accent hidden.
"The president wants to meet with you for a brief second." It was one of the security men.
"Me?" Ezra stalled, hoping one of the others would pipe up, but no one did.
"Please, if you'll follow me?" The man gestured and Ezra followed, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. Had he been found out? But how?
"May I ask where we are going?" Ezra coughed, the achy feeling he had experienced all week had sapped his strength and breathing and stamina were low.
"The president wants someone from the firm to take a look tat the other properties and assess their worth," The security man informed him. "We were told you were in charge of that aspect."
"And so I am." Ezra vaguely remembered the convincing he had done when he first met with the inspection team. He relaxed a little as a limo pulled up to the curb in front of them and the door was opened for him. Company President Alvaro gestured him in. Ezra hesitated; no one would be able to see he was leaving, should he pull out? Or was this the chance to find the missing warehouse?
"I wanted to do this personally, Mr. Scanlon." He smiled. "Besides gets me away from the office and out into the sun for at least a few moments!"
Ezra instantly had distrusted this man when they met, and now that unease strengthened. Good thing the FBI was watching him. He might just get himself into some trouble here. He felt better knowing someone was watching his back.
The three FBI men in the van were blissfully unaware that Standish had departed in the limo. No one followed the limo; no one knew which direction it went. No one cared.
Chris Larabee gritted his teeth and waited. The bombers were supposed to have been here an hour ago and Vin had been edgy all afternoon. Neither had been good signs. Josiah looked at him questioningly. Vin was occupied looking through binoculars for any sign of the trouble they awaited.
"Anything yet, Chris?" Bucks voice came from the walkie-talkie. "Nothing from here so far."
"No." Chris said shortly. Suddenly Chris had a very bad feeling about the whole thing. "Buck, have JD call in to the FBI and get a 10-20 on Ezra."
Tense minutes seemed like hours. Vin looked over at Chris and the blond man grimaced at the uncertainty in the blue eyes. Something was definitely wrong here. Josiah shifted suddenly in his seat and grabbed the binoculars.
"Someone's coming Chris!" Josiah whispered, alerting Vin as well.
"I see 'im." Bucks voice was also kept low.
"Keep your eyes open," Chris said, feeling a tightening in his gut. "I don't have a good feeling about this. Could be a trap."
"Don't worry pard, we got it covered." Buck paused. "FBI message was that all was fine. No mention of where Ezra is though."
"Damn, I don't have time to worry about him. Let's wrap this up fast and get back to Atlanta. No mistakes on this one. Legal and binding stuff here."
Various "right boss's" could be heard. The trap was about to be sprung, but who was the mouse?
Ezra looked at the warehouse as the limo pulled up to it and paled. The layout was the same, the building matched the MO; he knew this was going to be the next target. Chris and the others were chasing a dead lead. This would be the last bombing.
"Follow me if you please, I'll give you the grand tour of the facility," the president said, and Ezra followed, smothering a pain-filled cough as he looked around. A person caught his eye. It was the man Vin had fingered. Ezra knew he had to get out of there and fast.
He coughed again, almost doubling over and was immediately seized; his hands were twisted painfully behind his back. Ezra tried to struggle, but between the bouts of coughing and the weakness he felt, he was easily subdued.
"You think we wouldn't notice you?" the man Vin fingered asked, punching Ezra in the gut.
As Ezra slumped in his captor's grasp, struggling to regain his breath, which wasn't coming, he was dragged through a basement door and thrown down. He grimaced as his abused lungs struggled to gain back breath. A foot suddenly connected with his ribs and he felt an intense pain. He doubled up trying to protect himself from the blows that followed.
Vaguely he remembered voices talking around him as he lay gasping in pain.
"Did the vans follow us here?" one voice said.
"No, they have no idea he is with us and not still with the inspection team," came the second, which sounded familiar... the president.
"So no one will know he's here until too late?" the first voice sounded pleased.
"I guess." The president didn't seem so pleased.
"Tie him up and lock him in here. When the building goes up tomorrow, he'll be trapped in it. No one will think it odd he was here, and it will be an accident he died," the first voice said and footsteps told Ezra he was leaving.
Roughly, hands pulled his arms painfully behind him, causing the pain to flare almost unbearably, and blackness threatened to overcome him. They were soon tied together along with his legs and a gag was quickly shoved onto his mouth. Before Ezra could do anything the lights went out as a blindfold was wound around his head and securely tied. He was blind, and helpless, and everything in his chest hurt... and he was going to die.
The mocking laughter of his captors was the last sound Ezra heard for a long time. Were they the last things he would hear forever? Ezra suddenly decided he didn't really like solitude much anymore. He would gladly give anything to hear one of Buck and JD's arguments. But all that he heard was silence.
Chris was angry. No, that didn't quite cover it. Chris Larabee was extremely pissed off. Not only had his stake out been a bust, it now appeared that Ezra was missing. And to make matters worse, the damned FBI didn't even know he was gone!
As Chris strode angrily past the FBI building's security, ignoring them, Josiah followed smoothing the way for what he knew would be something ugly. As Buck reminded them again, he hated ugly, so he and JD stayed in one surveillance van, Vin and Nathan in the other, while Josiah had the unenviable task of restraining their leader. Not that anyone wanted him restrained, but a murder rap just wouldn't do. Ezra was in trouble and he would need them all to get him out of whatever situation he had gotten himself into.
"Larabee?" A voice hailed him in surprise. It was Dan Peters, the agent left in charge of Ezra's back-up.
Chris didn't waste any time. He grabbed the agent by the lapels of his jacket and shoved him forcefully into the wall of the bullpen, shocking the other FBI agents there into silence.
"Loose something, Peters?" Larabee hissed, blue eyes fairly crackling with energy.
"Larabee. What..." Peters stammered.
"Ezra never made it to the hotel last night," Chris spat at the man, ignoring the look of fear on the portly agents face. "And he hadn't been answering his phone since noon yesterday. What the hell kind of sloppy bastard loses an agent in plain sight!"
The bullpen was silent; Josiah's quiet presence prevented interference in the drama unfolding.
"What are you talking about?!" Peters stammered. "My men haven't said a word!"
"Your men are incompetent assholes who couldn't find my grandmother wearing bright pink in a room full of attorneys!" Chris was growing angrier by the second; this man was truly stupid. No wonder Ezra had no lost love for them.
"It's not like Standish was worth watching..." Peters made his mistake and suddenly the overweight agent found himself on the floor, his lip split and a bruise forming on his cheek.
Josiah finally stepped in and tore his leader off the FBI agent. With one last look of pure contempt, Chris shook his head and left the room, to go find his teammate and friend.
Josiah turned to the others. "You can rest assured if Ezra Standish dies, you will all be held accountable, and I assure you, I will not be restraining anyone anymore." With that the big man followed Chris out the door.
Vin and Nathan looked over and over at the neglected tapes in the van they had appropriated. Vin had taken great pleasure in forcibly removing the prior inhabitants before looking over the yet unwatched surveillance tapes. Chris finally received permission to look at building records; Nathan was going over those as, in the other van, they looked over the endless hours of video, frame by frame.
"Vin? I got an address, but it doesn't list what type of building it is." Nathan looked up, a hopeful expression in his somber face.
Vin made an immediate decision, something was gnawing at his senses, so he listened and followed what they told him to do. He picked up the radio.
"Chris?" Vin spoke into the mike. "Nathan found an address, it may be nothing but I think he and I should check it out."
"If it's the target," Chris sounded distracted, "call before you go in. I got a feeling about that too."
"Will do," Vin lied, hanging up the mike. "Let's go, Nate."
Nathan just shook his head, things were about to get interesting; he could feel it.
Ezra lay listening to the silence. He had never though just how much he had come to rely on the voices of his teammates to stave off the loneliness of this oppressive void. His life was pretty much a waste; he knew it. From birth to now, there was little he was truly proud of. Just these last few months, that's all.
He tried to smother the shivering the prolonged contact with the cold cement caused him. No longer able to deny that he was feeling terrible, he coughed incessantly, which left him weak and hurting. But there was nothing he could do, he was alone.
Ezra stopped fighting for one brief second and all the pain and misery almost overwhelmed his being. Stubbornly, he rallied and held it together. What he was waiting for, he didn't know. Time passed, he didn't know how much, only marked by bouts of agony caused by shivering or hacking up his lungs.
What was the point, they weren't coming, he thought. His damned former colleagues probably lost him trying to find their asses. Why had he tried so hard to convince Larabee he would be all right with all of the team leaving? What did he have to prove to them? Ezra then realized he didn't have to prove anything to Larabee; it was himself he had to prove it to. He had to prove he wasn't afraid--afraid of trusting people who didn't deserve to be trusted, but having to do it anyway.
Well, he proved it to himself, now he was going to die for it. Wonderful idea Standish, he cursed himself. A noise intruded on his musings. Did he just hear something?
Vin and Nathan raced to the building, feeling some strange need to hurry. When they got there, they knew why. It was a large warehouse, and it fit the mold of all the previous bombings.
"Ezra's inside." Vin looked around and saw no one. "We have to get him out."
"Chris told us to call him and not go in, Vin." Nathan tried to be the voice of reason.
"We can't wait." Vin was certain, now, of the direction of his 'feeling'. "Ezra's in there, and we're running out of time."
Sighing in resignation, Nathan pulled out his cell phone, calling their leader as he and Vin got out of the car and headed for the building. He informed Chris that they found the building, and Vin thought Ezra was inside and in real danger.
"Don't go in there alone. Nate!" Chris hissed, and Nathan could hear him and the others moving around securing equipment and the engine of the van start. "Don't let Vin go in either until we are there!"
Vin reached out and grabbed the phone and turned it off. He shot Nathan a look daring him to say anything, then turned and walked towards the entrance. Shaking his head, Nathan followed.
Chris cursed and the others tried to hide their grins. Each one knew Vin would do as he pleased unless there was some really good reason in his mind not too, but it always seemed to irritate their leader no end.
"Get there," Chris growled out, voice tight with anger "Now!"
"We're less than ten minutes away Chris." Buck pulled out from the curb and accelerated to as fast as he could get away with. They would get there sooner if he could help it. He hoped it would be soon enough.
Vin opened the locked door with an ease that caused Nathan to shake his head. The two cautiously entered the deserted warehouse, noting the disrepair and abandonment of the facility.
"Now if I were going to blow up a building and didn't want a body to be found," Vin spoke aloud softly, feeling a spark of fear the words touched off in himself. "Where would I put that body?"
Nathan looked at Vin thinking, then the two looked at each other, understanding in their eyes.
"Basement!" they said as one, and both men broke into a run for the stairs.
Nathan beat the tracker to the bottom and started looking for their wayward colleague. Nathan wondered why he couldn't just call Ezra his friend like the others, but he knew him and the slick Southerner still had some things to settle between them before Nathan could make that last leap.
Vin hit the bottom and loudly called out Ezra's name. Over and over the two checked the doors to rooms finding them empty and calling out, hoping to hear a response. Then a noise stopped Vin dead in his tracks and he put up a hand to stop Nathan from speaking.
Both men listened and heard the quiet sound of someone coughing repeatedly coming from the last door on the right. Vin sprinted to the door the sound came from and opened it as skillfully as the front door. What lay inside made both men stare in shock.
With a somewhat strangled curse, Nathan flew to Ezra's side and ripped off as gently as he could the blindfold and gag. Muttering soft reassurances to the struggling undercover agent, Nathan saw he had been beaten before being tied up and left here to die.
"Ez?" Vin looked into the bleary green eyes that took their presence for granted. "Ezra? You okay?"
"Never... better," Ezra rasped out. Vin took out a knife and cut the ropes holding him prisoner.
"Let's get you out of here." Nathan and Vin supported the very weak man and all three made for the stairs. No sooner had they gotten to the main floor, than a loud ripping sound and a wave of force pushed all three to the floor as the first of the bombs went off.
The second van pulled up to the first and Chris Larabee leaped out before it rolled to a complete stop. It was obvious Vin and Nathan had ignored him and went inside the building without then, and Chris just couldn't shake the sense of impending doom that overcame him.
Before he could get to the front doors, a loud explosion and the wall of force from it threw him and the others to the ground.
"Chris!" Buck yelled, racing to his side and helping his oldest friend to his feet.
"Vin, Nathan and Ezra are in there!" Chris gasped out, trying to regain his senses. It was all he could do not to rush into the building looking for his agents.
"I know, Pard," Buck said softly as the wall of flames grew higher. Behind the Josiah radioed for police, fire and an ambulance.
The first thing Ezra remembered was waking to heat, and a groaning voice next to his ear. Smoke choked his already congested lungs and Ezra couldn't seem to stop shaking. He groaned himself and looked for the source of the misery next to him. And then his heart stopped.
The agent, the healer, looked in dire need of healing himself. A piece of the roofing lay pinning him to the floor. It had missed Ezra by mere inches. Ezra looked frantically around for Vin, but saw nothing for a moment as his vision swam at the abrupt movement. For a minute he saw nothing but blackness which he fought with all his might to escape.
Finally with one last push of sheer will, he pushed it away and opened his eyes. What he saw when he could focus made him yearn for the blackness. Vin was down too, but not covered with any debris. He could get one man out by himself, but two were impossible. Ezra had to decide who to carry out and who to leave behind!
Chris couldn't stand it. Waiting was never his strong suit, and now here he was forced to watch a building become engulfed in flames with three of his men inside. He looked over at Buck and Josiah who wore worried frowns on their faces, but it was the utter shock on JD's that took Chris' breath short.
Buck picked up his radio and yelled into it again, the answering voice was calm, which only made the tall agent madder.
"I don't give a damn which engines are in this jurisdiction! Get them ALL HERE NOW!" Buck finished with a roar. Josiah and the residents of the area had long since hooked up what water they could and were trying too not let it to spread, but for the building in flames; it was far too late.
"They say five more minutes, Chris." Buck looked over at his oldest friend and grimaced. He wore the look that Buck had come to know meant trouble.
"Any leads on the limo and its driver the people saw pull up yesterday?" Chris said through grinding teeth.
"One kid got a partial plate," Josiah said hopefully.
Chris just nodded and let his rage boil. His men were in trouble and he was just standing here. One last look at JD's stricken face and Chris made up his mind: to hell with regulations.
Before anyone could stop him, Larabee ran into the burning building. JD screamed his name as Chris crossed the threshold; the sound was soon muffled by the fire
Chris looked about, using a sleeve of his jacket to cover his mouth and nose. He looked towards the stairwell ands noticed three distinct lumps at the foot of the descending stairs, and one of the lumps was moving.
Making his way carefully to the shapes he recognized three people on the floor. Relief washed over him briefly as he realized they had gotten away from the worst of the destruction. If they had been in the basement, they all would have been dead for sure. Chris noticed Ezra was the moving form, but he was pulling some wreckage off of Nathan and never noticed his leader coming to help.
"Ezra!" Chris shouted into the din. The green eyed agent turned and saw him, his face breaking out into a relieved grin.
"Mr. Tanner..." Ezra pointed to the third form and Chris nodded, and crawled over to the long-haired agent.
"Vin?" Chris gently prodded the man and was awarded by a weak groan. "Vin, c'mon, we got to get out of here."
"Uhhhh." Vin looked blearily up into Chris face, focusing on him slowly.
"Chris?" came the stronger reply.
"Yup, now let's get ourselves out of this oven." Chris helped Vin to stand, and then the three of them helped a groggy and slightly limping Nathan to his feet.
All were hacking as the smoke and heat made breathing difficult, but Ezra was feeling like he was never going to get enough air. Vin supported Nathan and gestured to Chris to help Ezra. The two pairs slowly and carefully made their way to the front door, Vin and Nathan reaching it first.
Then disaster struck. The second set of bombs went off by the doors and debris rained down in front of and on Chris and Ezra, trapping them in the building.
Buck was pacing. Chris had gone in over five minutes ago and still no sign of anyone. Sirens broke through the melee and fire trucks roared onto the scene. Josiah flagged them down and soon water was pouring over the building.
"LOOK!" JD shouted.
Everyone's eyes turned to the front door as Vin helped a groggy and leaning Nathan out.
"Yee haw!" Buck exclaimed, and ran to help. The others hot on their heels.
And then for the second time that day were thrown to the ground as the second set of explosions went off.
Vin recovered first and looked back at the entrance in shock.
"Chris and Ez are still inside!" he said, paramedics swarmed over them and Vin tried to wave them away, but to no avail. An oxygen mask was pressed to his face and he had to admit he felt better.
Firemen frantically tried to remove the flaming wreckage so they could enter the building, precious minutes were being lost.
"Buck?" JD sounded a little scared. "You think they are ok?"
"Sure, kid." Bucks words sounded fake, even to himself. "You know Chris; he's like a cat, always lands on his feet."
"Amen Brother," Josiah said from Nathan's side. "Let's hope he hasn't run out of lives."
Everyone turned to look at the firemen working, hoping against the odds both men would emerge alive from the building.
Chris groaned, the last explosion had thrown them both away from the worst of the destruction, but not entirely. Chris winced as a shaft of pain radiated from his left leg and grimaced. He tried to open his eyes but it felt like they were filled with rocks and he gave up, instead listening for the sounds of his other agent trapped with him.
"I do believe... *cough*... you have a small problem... *cough*... Mr. Larabee." Ezra's voice sounded like gravel, the harshness of the smoke turning it almost unrecognizable. "We have to get out of here... can you..."
"Help me up." Chris couldn't see; dust filled his eyes and he couldn't open or close the lids without excruciating pain. "I can't see."
Ezra guided Chris to his feet, almost lifting him bodily from the floor, then the two made their way back towards the entrance where debris blocked the way, but daylight could be seen. Someone was digging them out. For Ezra it wouldn't be soon enough. It was getting harder and harder to breathe and Larabee was no lightweight. If they didn't get to them soon, he was going to fall over.
Chris groaned as Ezra shifted him away from more falling debris. A piece of wood stuck out of his leg and Ezra winced in sympathy as every movement caused it to grate against bone and nerves.
"What's wrong?" Chris whispered, not having the energy to do more.
"Door's blocked." Ezra panted. "They almost... *cough*... have it."
"Good." Chris tried again to open his eyes and gave it up. Ezra sounded terrible but he couldn't imagine he sounded better.
A loud crash startled Ezra and Chris bit back a scream as the piece of wood shifted.
"What was that?" Chris tried to see but still couldn't clear his eyes even though they were streaming with tears due to the heat and smoke.
Instead of answering, Ezra hauled Chris towards the now open door. He ignored the tightness in his chest and mentally apologized for any pain he was causing his leader as he hurried them towards salvation.
Buck paced, mentally willing the firemen to work faster. Every second that Chris and Ezra spent in the hot inferno was one more second they didn't have. Vin had finally ditched the oxygen mask and stood near Buck. JD was right next to him. Josiah had stayed with Nathan who was still groggy and out of it.
With a yell, the final piece broke free and the opening was clear. Before anyone could rush in., two figures appeared at the doorway, one supporting the other.
"Chris!" JD yelled and ran for the two, Buck and Vin right beside him.
Ezra gratefully relinquished his burden to the firefighters who immediately took him to where the paramedics were waiting; Buck grabbed the undercover operative and tried to lead him there too.
Almost immediately Ezra started coughing and his legs buckled underneath him. He couldn't seem to draw any breath and panic overtook him. He didn't remember falling to the ground, nor did he remember the paramedics trying to examine him, or the fact that his struggles took three men to hold him down. Then he ran out of breath and the world went dark.
"Shit!" The tall paramedic spat, "He's stopped breathing! Get that tube down him now! We're losing him."
The two paramedics quickly intubated the now limp figure and began to artificially breathe for him; Ezra was packed into the waiting ambulance with Chris already sitting in it and they roared off into the street.
Nathan had already been taken, Josiah going with him. That left Buck, Vin and JD feeling very lost as they watched the building burn to the ground. All three heard nothing but the words 'We're losing him' over and over in their heads. Was it true? Would one of the seven die today?
"I want to catch these bastards," Buck hissed, not caring who heard him. In the back of his mind a little voice said 'and kill them for what they have done'.
"We will Buck." Vin's voice held a deadly note in it Buck had never heard before.
"What do we do now?" JD looked at the two older men, for some reason he couldn't think right now. He felt a little lost and despair threatened to choke him.
"We go see how our friends are." Vin decided "Then we make these people pay for what they did."
"I'm all for that." Buck grinned and the three remaining agents made their way to the surveillance van.
The scene in the hospital was utter chaos. Nathan had been looked at, treated, and released in the emergency room, suffering only a slight concussion and a few minor bruises to the abdomen and legs. By the time he had been treated, Chris and Ezra had been admitted; Chris taken to ER, Ezra upstairs to ICU.
Chris tried to refuse treatment until he heard about Ezra, but the doctor in charge finally got upset and gave him something and knocked him out. Buck and the others arrived to find only Nathan and Josiah waiting for them. The relief in finding Nathan okay was tempered with not knowing how bad the other two were doing.
The waiting room was tense, as always, each man lost in their thoughts. Every few minutes a despondent Vin would look at the clock on the wall. Two hours had passed and not one word on either Chris or Ezra.
Suddenly a familiar, cursing figure came towards them, on crutches, a nurse fussing over him every step of the way.
"The doctor told you to stay off you feet for a few days Mr. Larabee!" She wailed, causing the others to grin.
Chris ignored the woman and walked into the room where they all waited.
"Any word on Ezra?" Chris's eyes were red and slightly puffy and his jeans had been ripped up the left side, a white bandage wound around his thigh showing through the slit.
"Not a thing, Chris." Vin helped their leader into a chair as Josiah took the woman aside.
"Now ma'am, we'll look after him now. Give me his directions and medications and we'll take this grump off your hands." Josiah smiled at the distressed young nurse.
"Ma'am?" JD spoke of the first time since entering the hospital.
"Yes?" She replied, less flustered now.
"Can you please find out what happened to our other friend Agent Ezra Standish... he was brought in the same time as Chris." JD turned his puppy dog eyes on the nurse and she melted, moving off to see what she could do.
"Nice job, JD." Buck grinned.
"How you feel, Chris?" Nathan asked taking in his leader's appearance. Josiah had told him what had happened; he still couldn't believe four of them had almost died tonight.
"Like I just had a stick removed from my leg and my eyes washed out," Chris grumbled.
"Any permanent damage?" Vin asked, waiting for the nurse to come back.
"No, everything was pretty superficial," Chris grimaced as he shifted the leg in question. "I won't be running marathons anytime soon."
"Aren't eyewashes fun?" Nathan grinned at Chris sour face.
"How are you doing Nathan?" Chris finally asked, remembering when he had found them Ezra was pulling the man out from under the debris that had fallen on him.
"I'm all right Chris. It was funny one minute we're walking out just fine, the next the house fell down on us... you dig us out?" Nathan sat in a chair, holding his aching head in his hands.
"I didn't; Ezra did." Chris concealed a smile at the dark man's shock. Vin also looked startled. "By the time I got to you, he had you free."
"Huh," was all Nathan could say, then a movement at the door cough all their attention.
"Are you the men here for Agent Standish?" The doctor wore scrubs and looked tired.
"Yes, we are." Chris stood with a grimace and faced the man head on. "I'm his team leader; how is he doing?"
The doctor took in the appearance of the three battered men and the other three with tense and worried looks and knew they were the family of man he had treated.
"I'm Dr. Gloval." He introduced himself with a smile that seemed to reassure the people in the room somewhat. "Agent Standish is suffering from an acute case of smoke inhalation. But he is breathing on his own for now."
No one interrupted him, so the doctor continued.
"Normally he wouldn't be in such serious shape, but it seems he has a slight complication." He got no further.
"Complication?" Larabee's voice was deadly. "What... complication."
"Apparently he had pneumonia before ever getting himself into that building he was in that burned down. We intubated him in case the fire and smoke caused his throat to swell, it didn't but as a precaution we have him on a ventilator for the next 24 hours to be sure. " Dr. Gloval sighed. "We took an arterial blood gas to see why he collapsed; it was up a little under 40. We think that's what caused him to pass out on the scene, but it has dropped in levels, so we are going to do some hefty breathing treatments to help the body expel that CO2."
"Is he awake?" JD asked, confused and a little frightened.
"He's still unconscious, but is, as I said, breathing on his own. He's on high levels of oxygen and also high amounts of fluids to wash it out of his system so his kidneys aren't overloaded. We are giving him antibiotics and inhalation treatments. As we see the levels lower to acceptable tolerances the treatments will decrease and he can go home. But for now, he's going to be here awhile."
"Can we see him?" Nathan asked, wanting to SEE Ezra and reassure himself the man would live.
"Sure, follow me." And the strange procession made its way to ICU where it intended to stay, hospital rules be damned!
Ezra was taken off the ventilator, still under from a combination of exhaustion and drug induced sleep. For the next two days, none of the other six left the room very much--just to shower and change, eat at the cafeteria and come back.
The CO2 levels were dropping; the foley catheter showed the urine was clearing. Nathan winced in sympathy as Ezra woke up briefly when his IV was switched from a blown vein to a new one. It had to hurt. Good thing he was out for the blood gas. Arterial taps were painful.
Then Ezra began to wake up. True to form it was night, and everyone but Josiah was asleep, sprawled out in chairs or on the floor. Ezra had been moved to a private room that day in preparation for his return to consciousness.
Careful not to disturb Ezra, Josiah leaned across the bed and touched Nathan on the arm. Startled the man jumped awake at the touch, but was reassured when Josiah laid a finger across his lips and pointed to the restless form of the undercover officer.
Nathan grinned and looked over the room, it had been a tense couple of days and he decided only to wake the others if Ezra was coherent.
A groan from the bed turned his attention back to the sick agent. "Ezra?"
"Uhhh..." Ezra's eyes cracked open a little and there was confusion in the green depths.
"It's all right," Josiah said, coming into Ezra's view. "You're out of the building; we're all OK."
"Chris..." Ezra whispered; it was a question.
"Fine. Just fine Ezra," Nathan reassured him. "His leg will be good as new in no time."
"Good," Ezra coughed and winced as his sore chest complained. "What..."
"Well, you idiot," Josiah grinned at Ezra's indignant expression. "Because you had been sick and ignoring it, the pneumonia you developed, coupled with the smoke inhalation did a real number on you."
"Pneumonia?" Ezra croaked out through the nose cannula that supplied his oxygen treatments.
"You ever do something that stupid again." Chris arose from the cot in the room. "I'll kill you myself."
"How... very... reassuring..." Ezra gasped out, growing tired again. He fought the blackness; he didn't want it to take him again. He felt miserable, but for some reason, he didn't want to sleep.
"Sleep, Ezra," Chris said, a soft tone in his voice. "We'll be here."
The next time Ezra awoke it was to voices arguing loudly very close to him. He blinked back sleep and tried to focus on the words. One voice he knew instantly, Chris Larabee. The others seemed vaguely familiar.
"I said keep it down!" Nathan tried quieting the two warring parties. "Ezra's still asleep, now would you guys..."
"Not... anymore..." Ezra's soft voice cut through the room like a knife.
"Wonderful, now you woke him!" Nathan hissed, mad at both FBI representative Mackenzie and Chris Larabee.
"He isn't going to take Ezra to a safe house and leave us out in the cold, Nathan," Chris growled back, meaning what he said.
"Technically he's still one of our agents, the Judge signed a warrant releasing him to our protective custody, and that is what we are going to do!" The man said smugly. A tone which was not appreciated by the five men arguing with him.
"Did the fact that the FBI's lousy version of protection is the reason Ezra is here in the first place ever occur to you?" Buck bellowed loudly, cutting through Ezra's head, causing it to pound.
"Headache?" Nathan asked, and summoned a nurse as Ezra just nodded. "All right you guys, take this outside, Ez still isn't feeling well."
"What's wrong, Ezra?" JD asked, frowning in worry.
Ezra ignored them all. "I take it you haven't caught our wayward felons yet?"
"No," Larabee snapped. "FBI seems to think they need to lock you up for your protection though."
"Anyone think to look through the holdings of the dummy corporations for other locations? Seems to me they would hole up for a few days before trying to vacate the area." Ezra grimaced as a respiratory therapist with a very wicked-looking needle advanced. It was time for another blood gas.
The other six looked towards the FBI agent, waiting to see if he had any information on Ezra's idea. The man looked blankly at them.
"I think you have some work to do." Josiah put his large frame in the FBI agents way and gently but firmly ushered the man out.
"Incompetent ignoramus," Ezra muttered. He smothered a cough, his chest still aching from the fits of it he had gone through both before and during the fire.
The nurse arrived and took his vitals, noting the color of fluid coming from the catheter and breathing rate. She took his temperature and monitored the machines. After a few minutes, Ezra started to feel better and drifted off to sleep again.
"How long is the catheter going to be in?" Vin asked, grimacing at what Ezra would think of as a gross invasion of his 'personal space' as the woman checked it for patency.
"Not too much longer I think." She smiled, knowing that it had to be one of the most embarrassing things that could happen to a man in the hospital. "It's nearly clear now, another 24 hours tops if he keeps this rate up."
The others grinned in relief, and turned to the doorway as the doctor in charge of Ezra's case came in.
"I agree with my nurse." He grinned and looked over the chart the nurse presented him with. "He should lose the catheter soon and the CO2 levels are becoming more normal so we can decrease the oxygen levels more rapidly. He's out of the woods as of now, but still I have him listed as in 'guarded' condition."
"Thanks for everything Doc." Buck smiled as the doctor and the nurse left the room.
Chris sat down, his leg throbbing, the only good thing about still being in the hospital was the good drugs and the care he had been getting. In another couple of days the bandage would come off and a lighter wrap put over the stitches to allow more air to the wound, then he could begin to lightly exercise again, just in time to go through the debriefing at the FBI headquarters. And Chris wanted to be mobile for that in case he had to throw someone into a wall again.
And for that Chris would behave. For now.
The 'for now' lasted a whole three days in which Ezra continued to improve and was soon back to his irascible self. Harassing the doctors and nurses with equal bits of stubbornness and charm. They didn't know whether to like him or kill him, depending on his mood.
Finally the catheter was out and the breathing treatments down to almost nothing. The antibiotics to combat the bacterial pneumonia he had contracted were now in pill form, which the others made sure he took on his schedule. But most of all Ezra was free of painful coughing and congestion.
The day he was moved out of intensive care and into a regular private room, the FBI called the others in to a debriefing, which had been put off until Ezra was out of danger. Buck grumbled that it was the least they could do.
So the next morning bright and early, safe in the knowledge Ezra was all right and would likely sleep until noon, the rest of the seven headed in to the FBI headquarters building for the meeting.
The six men joined the meeting slightly late; Chris had that planned on purpose, so everyone could see the injuries Nathan, Vin, and himself had acquired. They were hard to ignore, especially since he was still on crutches. The director narrowed his eyes, knowing Chris was making a statement, and not liking that his agents were being taken to task by outsiders.
"How is Mr. Standish doing today?" Director Williams asked, barely polite.
Chris narrowed his eyes; he knew the man detested Ezra. "He's better."
"Good, good." Williams said dismissively. "Shall we get this over with?"
They sat together at one end of the table and went over the operation day by day. It went pretty routinely until they got to the day where Ezra went missing.
"So Agent Standish phoned you and told you about the buildings? Did he use a secure line?" Williams questioned, the meeting had been tense from the beginning and now it was getting downright ugly. Williams did not want the blame for Standish's fuck-up to rest on his men.
"He used his cell phone," Buck recalled, knowing full well no secure phone line existed when undercover.
"So he might have been monitored both in the elevator when he alerted you and in the hotel where he gave you the information, correct?" Williams grinned; he had his out now. "So he wasn't careful and blew his cover."
"Now wait a cotton-pickin' minute!" Buck stood up, voice low and dangerous. "You ain't layin' the blame for your men screwing up on Ezra..."
"Buck," Chris said the word quietly and Buck immediately backed down and sat.
The agents at the table shifted uncomfortably in their seats, Larabee looked positively icy.
"I don't think we need to remind everyone who it was that was backing him up and let an agent, the president of the whole company and a stretch limo slip right out the front door under the cover of... broad daylight, do we?" The slight smile Larabee aimed at the senior agent in charge of the team that lost Ezra paled him to almost grey.
No sound was made as Chris locked eyes with Williams and stared him down.
Williams broke first and looked away.
The gloating smile on Buck's face probably angered a few of the FBI's agents, but Team 7 didn't care.
"Shall we continue and 'get this over with'?" Chris's calm tone mocked the agent's earlier words and the rest of the meeting was subtly controlled by one Chris Larabee.
It was an exhausting three hours later the six men climbed out of the van that had brought them back to the hospital. Ezra was probably awake now and wondering where they all were. JD had told Ezra the day before about the meeting but the antibiotics caused him a little disorientation and they were not certain if Ezra would remember or not.
It was only noon and the agents were exhausted from the battle of wits and strength they had engaged in at the Federal building. But it was satisfying as well, Ezra was cleared of any wrongdoing and the team on surveillance that day was officially reprimanded and the leader suspended without pay.
It wouldn't take Ezra's pain away, nor erase Chris', Nathan's, and Vin's injuries, but at least they couldn't lay the blame on Ezra.
They walked the short distance from the elevator to Ezra's private room and opened the door, hoping Ezra wasn't in a bad mood. What greeted them was something they didn't expect.
The room was empty.
"What do you mean you don't know where he is?" Chris thundered at the nurse. He was losing his patience, fast. "Did he check out or didn't he?"
"Easy there, pard." Vin tried to calm his leader down, but it was hard when he was fighting his own worry.
"I'm sorry," The girl meekly said. "I just came on duty five minutes ago, honest."
"It's all right, darlin'," Buck smiled at her. "Is anyone on duty now that might know something? We're all just a bit worried about our friend."
"I'll check right away." The girl left hurriedly, making her escape.
"Damned Southerner," Nathan muttered. "No sense left in his head."
"I wonder how he got out." JD asked. "It's not like he has a car here. Cab?"
"He did live here for awhile," Josiah pointed out. "Would he have gone somewhere?"
"Hotel?" Nathan looked at Josiah.
"Maybe," The big man answered.
"Let's see what the nurse comes up with before we jump to conclusions." Chris said, finding a seat and resting his leg.
"You OK, Chris?" Nathan looked worriedly at his team leader and good friend.
"I'm fine," came the terse reply.
"You look it," Vin smirked at Larabee's undisguised look of annoyance.
"And you look any better?" JD got into it and Vin playfully tried to swat him.
The banter was interrupted by a familiar nurse in street clothes coming into the room.
"Hi guys?" She looked puzzled; she had been Ezra's ICU nurse. "What are you doing here still?"
"Do you know where Ezra is?" Josiah asked, before Chris could intimidate the woman. "He seems to have checked out."
"He didn't," She looked puzzled. "Your man signed him out to protective custody against doctor's wishes this morning."
"This morning? When?" Chris snapped, ignoring Buck's puzzled question.
"Not long after my mid-shift break. About nine." She looked worried. "You mean you didn't know?"
"No." Buck looked at her worried face. "Now look, honey, do you remember anything about the man or men who signed him out?"
"Sure, Buck." She shrugged, "it was the same guy Mr. Larabee was arguing with three days ago in ICU."
The rest of the men erupted in surprise. Chris finally quieted them down with a bellow.
"ENOUGH!" He turned to the nurse. "Thank you for the help, ma'am. Do you think anyone could tell us what the agent was driving?"
"Sure. Willa wheeled Ezra out to the car; she could tell you. I'll ask her and come back." With that she left the room leaving six worried and angry men in her wake.
What the hell was going on here?
'What's the hell is going on here?' was Ezra's first conscious thought as he bounced around in the back of the van. One minute he was sleeping in the hospital, the next he was being thrown around the back of an unwindowed van. And his hands were tied. When had that happened?
He was confused, was this real or some dream he was having due to the drugs? Reality clashed with fantasy and Ezra found himself staring at the ropes on his wrists like they were the most fascinating thing in the world. His mind felt more sluggish and Ezra faintly realized he had been drugged.
Suddenly the jouncing stopped and Ezra leaned back against the wall of the van, trying to gather his thoughts, but they eluded him like quicksilver, always out of reach, but right at the tips of his fingers. The door was opened and a figure reached in and roughly hauled him out of the van. He was hustled on trembling legs to a small trailer with the windows boarded up, and shoved inside. The door closed behind him, and Ezra heard the click of a padlock. He was locked in.
Ezra raised bleary eyes to look at his surroundings. All windows were boarded securely up, even if Ezra could get up, and the door obviously padlocked shot. His body was weak from his illness and his mind foggy due to the drugs, he was in no shape to rescue himself; the cavalry would have to come if he was to get away.
For the first time in his life, solitude was not Ezra Standish's friend.
For the second time that day, Chris Larabee stormed into the FBI headquarters, this time his intent was not merely to wreck justice, but vengeance. From prior experience the guards didn't stand in his way as he strode, without crutches, towards the elevators, the other agents in a deadly flock around their leader. It was time for answers.
Reaching the required floor, Chris made a beeline for the director's door. Williams was about to get a visit he would never forget...again.
"I'm sorry, sir." The young secretary tried to stop them "You can't go in there!"
One look from Chris and she meekly stood aside; she was no dummy. Chris opened the door and sent it into the wall with a loud crash.
"Wha... Larabee..." Williams sputtered, trying to gain composure. "Are you out of your mind?"
"Where is Ezra Standish?" Chris ignored his question and came to stand in front of his adversary.
"What are you talking about?" Williams huffed; the man was insane.
"Ezra is gone," Chris snarled. "Where did your man take him?"
"My man?" Williams looked puzzled.
"Your agent, Mackenzie, signed Ezra out of the hospital and used a bogus warrant from a nonexistent judge to do it. Now. Where... IS... HE!" Chris was out of patience and the man was being an idiot.
"I know nothing about this Larabee!" Williams said, for once going for stark truth.
Chris growled, sending Williams further back into the wall. "You had better find out then, hadn't you?"
Williams could only nod as Larabee exited the room.
"I'll be back in an hour," was the departing promise and threat.
Ezra shook his head again and looked around the tiny camper. There was enough room for a bed and a small table and nothing else. It was old and made of wood instead of fiberglass, and the windows were bolted shut and covered with thick plywood.
"My, my Ezra, how DO you get yourself into these things." He muttered to himself. He had long since stopped trying to get out of his bonds; his wrists were a mass of blood and torn flesh and hurt like hell. They were just too tight and he couldn't focus enough to untie the knots. His head still ached and the heavy sedative he had been given still dulled his senses.
There was no way out, and the sun was setting, the temperature dropping. Ezra shivered in his hospital scrubs, realizing he didn't have anything in the way of blankets or anything else to shelter him if it got any colder.
So either they never expected to keep him here... or they didn't care if he lived through the night. A grim thought. He looked around. No food, no water... nothing but a bare container with the bed and table.
Ezra had a bad feeling about all this.
"Don't you worry none about Ol' Ezra, Chris." Buck tried to keep cheerful; the mood in the room was thick enough to cut with a knife. "He's probably talked himself out of it and is complaining about having to wait for us to show up to give him a ride home."
Chris didn't answer the agent, just looked strait ahead as Williams talked on the phone to various people, tracking down Mackenzie.
"The man's an idiot," Vin whispered. "He hasn't got a clue."
"So what do we do?" JD asked, for once keeping his voice down.
"We find Ezra ourselves." Chris stood up, his leg twinging painfully, he had ignored it all day and now it was really hurting. "We do as Ezra suggested in the hospital, go through all the dummy corps for unfamiliar land owned. Can you do that JD, Buck?"
"No problem, Chris." JD smiled cockily, and the two left to get to the hotel, and their laptops.
"What are we going to do?" Nathan asked, worried that the southerner was dead already and anything they did was too little, too late. They should have been more careful. Ezra should never have been taken away.
"We find Mackenzie," Chris growled and headed for the car. "And then we make him tell us where Ezra is."
The sun was going down, they had wasted a whole day waiting for the ineffectual Williams to get them information, now it was up to just them, and Chris was going to make every minute count.
"What do you mean you brought him here?" The former president of Microtech Industries, Gabe Alvaro, hissed through his teeth in rage. He had just lost everything, but not his freedom, now this imbecile was threatening even that.
"You said you wanted him out of the way," Mackenzie retorted. "I thought you might want to get rid of him yourself."
"You are an idiot!" Gabe shouted. "Haven't you realized they will track him here? Our plane doesn't arrive for three more days!"
"Would you two pipe down?" A disgruntled voice from the couch interrupted.
"Well it seems our 'friend' here has brought us a little present. One which could end our bid for freedom and the good life." Gabe was mad as hell and thinking rapidly of a way out of this newest setback.
"Don't worry yourself into an aneurysm." The figure stood, "I'll wire the trailer up to a little device I made. If anyone shows up, they choose between his life and catching us. They'll choose him."
"And if they don't?" Gabe scoffed.
"Well, then we fry ourselves some Southern Agent." The accompanying grin was malicious and echoed by the other two.
Ezra was cold... no he was freezing. There was little warmth to be had in the trailer and several cracks in the walls and ceiling let the wind in. His cough had returned and he was wondering if he was ever destined to get rid of it. He couldn't wait to get himself into a nice warm bath, but the way things were going, he never would make it to one.
What was it about him that invited this retribution? The silence became oppressive and Ezra realized he would give anything to hear one of JD and Bucks arguments. He could hear himself listening to one of Josiah's research ideas, or hell, even one of Nathan's or Chris's tirades. Vin was never loud, but everything he did say usually meant something. Ezra had learned to enjoy the comfortable silence between them. But there was nothing of that in the silence surrounding him now. When had he become so dependent... and what would his mother say?
It had to be close to dawn, Ezra thought as another racking cough ran through him. Hopefully soon this would end, one way or another.
"We got something!" JD rushed into the room Chris was staying in and excitedly started to tell them what he had found. "I hacked into Mackenzie's bank records and found he's been depositing large amounts of cash from just before the day of the first bombing in Florida. One was a check written by none other than Microtech President Gabriel Alvaro!"
"So he's the one," Chris hissed. "We knew that... but how does that help us?"
"Because with the money he bought a parcel of land just outside Atlanta. FROM a Microtech dummy corporation we found on Ezra's list," JD said, hoping they would get the point he was trying to make.
"You mean he might have been stupid enough to take Ezra there?" Nathan asked, snorting.
"Well, he wasn't too smart about his bank records, was he?" Josiah mused over the information.
"He's there," Vin said quietly almost to himself. The others, used to his intuition, immediately got up to get ready.
"If nothing else it's worth a look," Chris agreed, levering himself somewhat painfully off of the couch. He had ripped several of the stitches in his leg open and wasn't about to miss this because of that little inconvenience. Once Ezra was back safe, then he would worry about it, but not before.
"How far away are we JD?" Buck asked throwing the younger agent his ATF jacket.
"That's the good part!" JD grinned, happy to have found out something useful for once. "Only about 20 minutes from here, up in the hills."
"Let's saddle up." Chris limped out the door, everyone following him quickly.
Everyone was hoping to find Ezra alive and well.
"You think they are really going to come here?" Mackenzie asked as Powers rigged the small trailer. "How would they even know of this place? I bought it under an assumed name!"
"You're an idiot, Mac." Powers laughed. "Of course they are coming..."
"Don't call me an idiot!" Mackenzie snarled. "I got that agent here without anyone stopping me, just so you can have some revenge before we leave."
"You led him out of the room to your car in broad daylight, everyone knowing you did it and you're congratulating yourself?" Powers shook his head. The guy really was about three cans short of a six pack in the brain department.
"We'll be long gone before they even figure it out. Hell, Standish is such a known fuck-up, they might not even care." Mac laughed and moved away, back towards the main house.
"... hell, Standish is such a known fuck-up...." The words echoed through Ezra's head and he tried to stop the deep melancholy that overcame him. Was that true? Would no one ever care enough to come for him... surely Chris and the others would. Wouldn't they?
The night's cold had turned into a scorching heat as the day climbed into high noon. Ezra had lived through the harsh night by the skin of his teeth. The initial heat had been much welcomed, but the continued oppressiveness of it was now just as bad as the cold had been. It was getting harder to breathe in the heat, and the thirst Ezra had ate away at him deeper with every passing second.
He was now too weak to even lift his head, and he knew if help didn't arrive he would be, as JD so quaintly put it once, "toast". Literally he thought. He had heard the conversation between the bomber Powers and the rogue agent Mackenzie and hoped for the others sake they did not find him. Living through one bomb blast was a miracle; living through a second would be impossible.
His fevered brain lapsed into unresponsiveness just as noise filtered in from outside, but Ezra paid it no mind, just sank deeper into the encroaching blackness.
Vin snuck around the house spotting the trailer and the man doing something next to it. He motioned to the others and Chris that he probably found Ezra. Chris nodded and sent the men in a circle perimeter around the trailer. From his vantage, looking through the sights of his rifle, he could see the man was rigging the little trailer to blow!
One shared look at Chris and he knew it as well. Time was running out.
"ATF!" Chris barked, showing himself, the others, all but Vin showing themselves too. "Drop it and move away from the trailer!"
"You had better do what he says mister!" Buck growled as he realized the trailer must be stifling inside with this heat and humidity. Anyone inside would be almost cooked.
"You had better let me go," the man calmly said grinning.
"You had better do as I said," Chris growled at him.
"I don't think so, Agent Larabee," Powers smiled.
"Why's that?" JD said, a bad feeling overcoming him.
"Because if you don't let me out of here," he looked at the trailer, "your friend inside blows up."
"Shit." Chris snarled. A hostage situation. Just what he needed.
Vin Tanner looked down the scope of his rifle at the standoff below. Ezra was inside; he had no doubt about that, but how were they going to get him out of there without killing him? Vin knew that either way, Powers would blow the trailer, sending Ezra to his death.
He kept one eye on the house and one on the action below. Alvaro and Mackenzie must be in the house if Powers was here alone. Fortunately, the trailer was far enough away from the house and down a hill out of eyesight for anyone to note what was going on.
It was a classic standoff and Vin could see Chris becoming angrier and angrier the more it went on. No sound had been yet heard from the trailer, but that didn't mean Ezra wasn't alive, Vin wished he could figure a way to the trailer unobserved.
Tall grass surrounded it on all four sides, but only one side was facing out of Powers' view. Being ex-military, he would know how to cover his back, and Vin wasn't going to chance Ezra's life on anything but a sure bet. He couldn't shoot the guy either; the trigger would go off if he let it go. Vin sighed and motioned for the watching Buck and JD to join him. Powers couldn't see him, so he was still safe. JD and Buck would just look like they were backing off like Powers just asked.
JD and Buck quickly and quietly slid up to Vin's side.
"What's up?" Buck whispered, staying out of sight.
"I'm goin' after Ezra. I need you two to cover Powers and the house behind us. Mackenzie and Alvaro must be in there." Vin handed his precious sharpshooter's rifle to JD, who was an excellent shot with it. Vin should know; he had spent hours teaching JD the subtleties of the weapon.
Without another word, Vin inched his way down the hill in the trees, and to the edge of them. From here on, he would have to crawl on his belly slowly and quietly to get to his friend.
Chris was frustrated and on the verge of losing control. He knew in his head that Powers would set off the explosion whether he would be let go or not, and for the life of him, Chris couldn't figure a way out of this with Ezra coming out alive.
Powers had demanded the others retreat and Chris watched them go after he nodded at them to do it. He saw Josiah and Nathan head out to the house, hopefully to take down Alvaro and Mackenzie. JD and Buck took off too. Now it was up to him and Vin to try to get Ezra out of this alive.
"So it's down to you and me Larabee." Powers fingered the trigger confidently. "I don't much care if Gabe and that looser Mac get caught, but I sure won't be hanging around to fry."
"Then put the trigger down safely and walk away." Chris was willing to let the man go if it meant Ezra got out alive. They could always find him later.
"And let you shoot me? Not hardly," Powers snorted. "I know your rep, Larabee."
"What if I give you my word?" Chris said through gritted teeth.
"Sorry, no deal. You back off and leave, when I think it's safe I'll disappear and you can come back in 24 hours to collect your man." Powers grinned; Standish would be dead in less than 12 hours, either from the bomb, or the heat and cold, or the lack of food, water and medication. He didn't have a chance in Hell of surviving.
Chris grimaced, knowing Ezra didn't have 24 hours. What the hell was he going to do now?
"You have five minutes to decide." Powers grinned maliciously, knowing either way Chris decided, Chris would loose and Ezra would die. Revenge was indeed sweet.
Nathan and Josiah crept up to the house quietly. Two of their three targets were still missing and the house was a logical choice. The two agents' frustration of not being able to free their trapped comrade fueled their desire to take these two down. As they crept up to the nearest window to try to get a look inside, arguing voices could be heard.
"You let them here you idiot! Why should I protect you? I should tie you up and leave you for them!" A deeper voice raged.
"For the last time I AM NOT AN IDIOT!" Josiah peered in and saw Mackenzie, who he recognized from the FBI photo he had seen, pull out a gun. "Stop calling me that!"
"You're a brainless, sniveling, worm, Mackenzie!" The other voice must be Alvaro, but Josiah couldn't see him.
"SHUT UP!" Mackenzie raised his gun to fire it.
Josiah and Nathan looked into the window with a feeling of horror and anger. Two shots sounded and the two men fell. They rushed into the living room through the glass doors and looked at the unbelievable scene.
The two men had shot and killed each other before Josiah and Nathan could even lay a hand on them. Josiah felt slightly cheated as Nathan checked them both and pronounced them dead.
Both were shaking their head when a violent explosion tore through the air. The two stood stunned then turned and ran for the trailer they had left behind. Fire reached up into the sky and they knew they would be too late.
Chris stared at the growing flames in horror. He had failed; Ezra was dead. All Chris could see was the fire. It had taken his wife and child from him and now it had taken one of his agents. Another person he had sworn to protect was dead. It was all his fault.
One minute Powers had just been standing there, toying with him, then two gunshots sounded from the house and all Hell broke loose. As Powers triggered the device, he aimed his gun and shot at Chris. JD had been quicker though and before the agent could shoot Chris, he was dead from a shot to the temple. Then the trigger released and Chris was flung backwards from the force of the blast.
Chris just sat there on the ground, staring at the growing wall of heat, unaware of anything else around him. Nathan and Josiah ran into the clearing, matching looks of horror on their faces, the small trailer was completely destroyed, no one could have survived.
Buck and JD soon joined them and Chris raised his eyes to them, noting that JD carried Vin's coveted rifle.
"Where's Vin?" Chris croaked out, voice not cooperating.
"He went down after Ezra," Buck said miserably. "I haven't seen him since."
"WHAT!" Chris shouted, suddenly on his feet lunging at Buck. "What the hell were you thinking letting his do that! Now he's dead too!"
"Well, if I am dead," A voice came from the tree line, "it sure hurts a lot."
Vin emerged carrying a form dressed in scrubs in a fireman's carry over his shoulders. Blood ran down the left side of his face and he was limping.
"Vin?" Chris breathed, he was alive... "Ezra..."
"Yeah." Vin nodded, reaching them in a few strides. "I crawled under the trailer and broke into it. Guess I wasn't counting on the big bang."
"Ezra?" Chris asked, still unable to move and trying to let this all sink in.
"He's alive, out of it though. I think he's burning up with a bit of fever again though." Vin smiled at the stunned expressions on his friends' faces.
"As entrancing as this is, I'm afraid my view is rather unspectacular... can you please manage to put me down?" A weak voice from Vin shoulders startled the others into action.
Soon hands were easing the slightly groggy undercover agent to the ground while Chris looked at Vin.
"I'm fine, cowboy." Vin swatted Chris's helping hands away. "Would you stop pawing at me!"
"I echo that sentiment." Ezra closed his eyes and tried to stop shivering long enough to enjoy the fact he was free. Nathan was prodding him and listening to his lungs, no doubt figuring a way for him to go back to the hospital. Ezra would rather just go home and go to bed.
"You feeling any better, Ez?" Vin asked, kneeling beside the man he rescued.
"Just dandy." Ezra didn't even open his eyes at the question, but the sarcasm was present, a good sign.
"We need to get you back to the hospital, get you checked out." Nathan said, concern in his voice.
Ezra opened his eyes and sighed. He still felt like death knocking on his door, but he was breathing a bit easier than before. Now only if he could stop shaking, everything would be great. He had been unconscious when Vin had pulled him out of the trailer, but once exposed to the fresh air, he had awakened. Just in time for him to be thrown a few feet by the blast.
He had felt unashamedly like weeping when he realized he wasn't going to die alone and slowly from either dehydration or exposure. They had come for him. The voices of the others faded away into a blur and Ezra let himself fall into the darkness, comfortable in the knowledge he was safe.
Two weeks later, home again and all together, Ezra sat alone on the lawn gazing at the full moon again. He had woken up in the hospital, exhaustion and exposure lapsing his condition back to serious. Chris and Vin also had been admitted. Vin for the concussion and wound to his leg, and Chris for ripping his stitches out and getting an infection in the wound.
One week later, Ezra had been discharged and the grateful team immediately headed home. Chris bullied the ATF into giving them all down time for the next two weeks, and they had taken advantage of the time to rest, relax and heal.
Ezra could have turned back time, the last party like this he had been to, was just before the disastrous trip to Atlanta. The same noise lay behind him; the same stars were above him. But something had changed, and Ezra couldn't quite figure it out.
The silence was the oppression, not the noise behind him. Roles had reversed. Ezra could almost laugh at the irony. Ever since he had been locked in the trailer, silence had become the enemy. Even to the point he couldn't sleep at night without the radio on. He had always been alone and enjoyed it, but no longer.
So why was he sitting out here alone again? Ezra answered his own question. To prove that he could, to prove the silence couldn't beat him and he would no longer be afraid. Suddenly he heard the footfalls of the others as they came up to him, but not a word was spoken. All six of the others sat with him and looked out into the starry night.
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