Authors Note: This is my very first try at LB (And it turned into a bit of a rambler!) so my apologies in advance for any errors that may exist. Ive tried to follow the established AU canon as much as possible but a few details will probably not match up. Hope thats okay. Vin, JD and Ezra are the main focus of this story, with the other four appearing only briefly.
Moved to Blackraptor November 2009
"How do you feel about Trick or Treating, Mr. Larabee?"
Chris looked up with a confused expression from the suitcase he was packing. "Trick or Treating?"
"Yes. Are you in favor of the practice, or is it something you would prefer to have your son avoid?" Ezra Standish asked the question patiently, knowing that his boss had a lot on his mind. Chris and his housemate, Buck, were due to leave in two hours for the city of Los Angeles, where they would be testifying in a trial that would hopefully put away one of the largest independent weapons traffickers in the state of California.
Just over nine months earlier, ATF Team Seven had captured Guillermo Posada at a raid in Denver. The man had not been held over in Colorado for more than a few days, as his preexisting warrants out for murder, extortion, smuggling and a host of other crimes in California came to light. The mans trial was now well underway and as the arresting officers, the Prosecution had subpoenaed Chris and Buck to testify against Posada and though both men were happy to do their part, the timing was terrible. Today was the 30th of October, and they would be forced to miss out on Halloween with their two adopted sons, Vin Tanner and JD Dunne.
Instead of answering Ezras question, Chris moved to the doorway and bellowed, "Buck! Come in here a minute!"
A moment later, an apparition that bore little resemblance to the tall handsome man they knew as Buck Wilmington appeared. Black hair standing straight up, one eye pasted shut with bloody scar makeup, mouth sagging open on one side to let a line of drool escape, a shuffling hunchbacked creature slouched into the room. The fingers of his right hand were nearly dragging the carpet as an elbow held in the hand of a five-year-old boy led him along. Craning his neck up to see Chris from his hunched position, the creature said in a slurred voice, "You called, Master?"
Chris and Ezra both grinned. Addressing the little boy, Chris said, "JD, dont you know youre supposed to ask before you bring home a new pet?"
With a giggle, JD replied, "I founded him in the basement. Can I keep him?"
"Well, I dont know. Hes pretty big. Ill bet he eats almost as much as Buck. What do you think?"
JD pondered the seriously asked question. "I think he probly does too. But hes a good watch-monster. He can pertect us!"
"Protect you from what, JD?" Chris asked this somewhat worriedly, knowing that both JD and Vin still had nightmares sometimes about bad people, whom they called Trolls. "What is it you want him to do?"
Brightly, the boy told him, "He can stay here and keep me and Vin and Uncle Ezra compny while you goes to Calfornia!"
Startled out of his play persona by the statement, Buck stood up, scooping his small son into his arms as he did so. "JD, you know I have to go with Chris. We talked about that. I thought you understood."
A fat lower lip instantly popped out as the child started playing with the collar of Bucks shirt. "I dont want you to go away, Da. I dont want you to go ever, but specially now. Its Halloween!"
Buck sighed deeply. "I know it is, and you know that Id give anything to be able to stay here and spend it with you. Chris would too, hes gonna miss you and Vin just as much as I am, but if we dont do this a bad man is going to go free. Hell be out on the street where he can hurt people again. You want us to go and stop him, dont you?"
Tears were filling the big hazel eyes. "Yes," he murmured, not sounding too convinced.
"May I?" Ezra asked, holding out his arms. Buck hugged the boy, then surrendered him to Ezra, who sat down upon Chris bed with the child in his lap and said, "You know, JD, most people only pretend to be heroes and monsters at this time of year, just for fun. What your father and Chris are doing is real. Theyre being super-heroes this Halloween. Shedding their secret identities and flying to California to do battle with a real-life monster, so that little girls and boys such as yourself can be free to go about their lives unharmed."
A spark of interest had lit JDs small face at the explanation. "Do they get to wear capes?"
Chris and Buck both grinned with relief at the question, and laughed when Ezra replied in a heavily accented voice, "Of course not, silly boy. You know somesing bad alvays happens when you wear ze cape!"
"Edna Mode!" JD crowed, recognizing one of his favorite characters from the film The Incredibles in Ezras droll imitation. Happier with the idea of his father and Chris going off to save the day, he asked interestedly, "Are you a super-hero too, Uncle Ezra?"
Swooping down and capturing the little boy in his own arms, Chris spun JD around in circles, causing him to scream with delighted laughter. "Of course he is!" he stated as they came to a stop. "Dont you think being able to transform yourself into other people so that bad guys dont know theyre about to be captured by good guys is a super-power?"
"Yeah!" he shouted.
"So do I," Chris told him firmly. "And knowing hes here to protect you and Vin from harm while were gone makes me and Buck feel safe about going away, even though we dont really want to."
JD nodded enthusiastically. "Me too." A sad look came into his eyes. "Well miss you."
Chris hugged him tightly. "Ditto, kid." With a firm but painless swat on the rear, he set the boy down. "Why dont you go find Vin and play for awhile. I need your Da and Ezra to help me finish packing."
"Okay," he agreed. Pausing long enough to distribute more hugs to Ezra and Buck, he scampered out of the room.
"Nicely done, Ezra," Buck approved when his son was out of earshot. "Though, I have a feeling that all of us are going to find that little imp looking through our closets and drawers for awhile, hoping to find where we stash our costumes."
Ezra gave a small snort of laughter. "That possibility had not entered my mind. I apologize in advance for any awkwardness my explanation may cause you, but I felt it would be beneficial to JD if he had some sort of concrete proof, at least from his point of view, of your continued well being. No matter what difficulties they may encounter, in the world of comic books the hero eventually always beats the villain and comes back safely to the arms of his loved ones." Needing to change the subject as he felt the mood growing rather sentimental, he asked Buck, "What on earth possessed you to get yourself bedecked in such a manner?"
Carefully peeling off the wound surrounding his eye, Buck blinked to clear his vision, then fished a small sofa pillow out from under his shirt, removing his hump-backed look. "Just playing," he said with a shrug. "I felt bad about not being able to keep my promise to take JD trick or treating this year, so I offered to play monster with him for awhile to make up for it. I had time. Unlike ol slow-poke here, Im all packed."
"Oh, sure. Never mind the fact that I packed up the boys stuff, called Ezra to come and pick them up and did all the chores while I was waiting for you to get your slow ass out of bed this morning," Chris sniped with a grin.
"Only because I was up half the night making sure we had everything well need for the trial tomorrow," Buck shot back, using both hands to rake his wildly disarranged hair back into order.
"Now, now, children," Ezra scolded with a smile. "Dont fight. Im sure everything is in perfect order for the trial and everything else is running on schedule. So, Mr. Larabee, Ive already received Bucks opinion on trick or treating, but Im still waiting for your own."
Chris rubbed the back of his neck, considering. "Its okay by me, I guess, but where were you planning on taking them? One of the malls?"
"Actually, no." The look on Ezras face instantly raised the curiosity of both his friends. His light green eyes were sparkling with enthusiasm but he was biting on his lower lip, a sign of nervousness that only showed when Ezra was relaxed enough to be himself with no persona to hide behind. "I thought I might take them over to the west side of town, where the Potter and Wells families live. Theyve arranged a sort of block party there, covering nearly a mile radius, where children can be escorted to any home bearing a designated logo on the porch for a safe stint of old fashioned door-to-door trick or treating."
"Sounds like fun," Chris agreed. "Though how you knew about this and I didnt is beyond me. Gloria comes out here to clean the house and watch the boys several times a week and she never said a word."
Buck cleared his throat. "Actually, she did. She asked us almost a month ago if wed be interested in bringing the boys out but you were wrapped up in reading the files on the Henley bust and just said youd think about it. I told her a couple of weeks ago that wed probably bring the kids out for awhile."
A chagrined look flashed over the blond mans face. "Shit. I remember now. I figured there was plenty of time to think about Halloween when she asked us, but things just kept getting busier and busier, and then this trip came up and I forgot all about it."
"Well, no need to worry," Ezra said calmly. "I ran into Mrs. Wells last week and heard all about the event. Her little niece Casey wanted to know what JD would be dressing as, and had evidently demanded reassurance that he and Vin would be attending."
"And knowing that youd be watching the kids over the holiday, you told Nettie that youd all be there," Buck filled in. At Ezras uncertain smile, he laughed. "Dont look so nervous! Im glad you did it. Youll all have a great time."
Chris eyes narrowed suspiciously as he noted Ezras lack of relaxation at the readily granted permission. "Theres more, isnt there?"
The flash of guilt in Ezras eyes was answer enough. "I also more or less promised to pay a visit to Josiahs Haunted House. He told me Friday afternoon at work that the volunteers are setting up a special area with fun and very mild frights for the younger children, in addition to the main attraction for the older visitors. You know that Vin has been very keen to observe the goings-on of the restless dead ever since the two of you watched that program about paranormal phenomena on cable."
With a slightly annoyed sigh, Chris nodded. "If Id realized he was there, I would have changed the station. He woke up in the night and came looking for me. I didnt know he was there until the program was halfway over and I turned around and saw him standing behind my chair, staring bug-eyed at the TV."
Buck chuckled. "And instead of being scared of the idea of haunted places he was fascinated. Starting harassing us about ghosts and asking if wed ever seen one." Slapping Chris on the arm, he added, "Let him go see the place, Chris. Hell love it. JD will too. You know how much he loves Scooby Doo and all the ghost-hunting stuff they do on that show."
"Im certain that Josiah will have taken measures to ensure that there is nothing that will leave a negative lasting impression upon young minds." Ezras tone was smooth and wheedlesome. "And I promise you that I will take care to reassure both of my young charges that there is nothing to be frightened of before I put them to bed tomorrow night."
After studying his face a moment, Chris huffed a laugh. "Youre not fooling me a bit. You want to go trick or treating and Haunted House investigating as much as the boys do!"
Ezra looked a bit embarrassed. "I suppose it is rather absurd, given my age and what I do for a living, but the trappings and treats of Halloween are something I was rarely permitted as a child." He shrugged carelessly, refusing to look either of his friends in the eye.
A bit startled by the confession, Chris and Buck exchanged a questioning look and then a nod of agreement. Reaching out a hand, Chris gave Ezra a pat on the head, earning himself a glare. He grinned at the look and said, "All right, you three little boys go and have fun. Try not to eat too many sweets and be sure to call us when you get home."
Ezra maintained his indignant expression a moment longer, but then he began to laugh. "I promise your sons will be well looked after."
"We never worry about that when theyre with you," Buck said truthfully, his firm trust earning him a grateful smile from the soon-to-be babysitter. "Just dont be surprised if the little guys are brave through the whole thing but then decide to get scared in the middle of the night. Something tells me youll find your bed getting a little crowded around 3 in the morning."
"Something called experience?" Ezra asked with an amused raise of one eyebrow.
Buck grinned and nodded. "Just be grateful that Elvis and Ringo are staying here, or theyd be in with you too."
Ezra gave a dramatic shiver over the notion of a canine invasion of his bed, making his friends laugh. Remembering something else, he said, "I have a question for you both. Vin was waiting for me outside when I arrived this morning and I had hardly managed to exit the car before he demanded to know what sort of costume I planned to wear for tomorrow nights festivities. Am I incorrect in thinking that such affectations are not required of the adult escort?"
"Well, before we knew we wouldnt be here, Buck and I offered to dress up just to humor them," Chris confessed, resuming his efforts to fill up his suitcase. "Buck was going to break out his old Army fatigues and smear on some camouflage makeup and I planned to put on my cowboy hat and that fake Sheriff badge you gave JD. You dont have to dress up just because we planned to, but the boys would probably love it if you did."
"Nathan and Josiah are going to be in costume for their part in the Haunted House, and so will a lot of other adults," Buck reminded him, smiling at the thoughtful look on Ezras face. Somehow, Ezras determined attempts at maintaining his dignity at all times had flown out the window the day he had met JD and Vin. It was as though he had suddenly discovered some of the joy in childish things that he had been denied as a boy. "Its a lot of fun."
Ezra stood. "Ill give it some thought. Perhaps Vin and JD will have some ideas that can be brought to fruition in just over 24 hours."
Buck stood looking after him for a moment after he left the room, then turned to Chris. "Who do you suppose is going to have a better time tomorrow night? Him or them?"
"By the looks of things, I expect itll be a tie," Chris replied with a laugh. "Im sorry were going to miss it."
Buck nodded. He was too. "Think Ill give Nettie a call. See if shed mind taking a few pictures."
There had been some debate initially as to whether Ezra should come out to stay at the ranch during the absence of Larabee and Wilmington, or take the boys to his townhouse for the duration. Finally, it had been decided that they would go to the townhouse, the sleepover visit being considered a special treat by Vin and JD. Everyone hoped that the mens testimony could be accomplished in just a day or two, but if it were to last longer, then Ezra would take the children home again where the normality of familiar surroundings and their beloved pets would hopefully ease the ache of prolonged loss.
"Did you member to tell Yosemite that Elvis only likes the dog food in the brown bag?" Vin asked worriedly as the threesome drove through the streets of Denver on their way to Ezras home. "And that Peso needs a new horseshoe fitted on his back left hoof?"
"He knows," Ezra assured, glancing back over his shoulder to where Vin sat in his child safety seat on the back passenger side. "Yosemite has been helping to look after the Larabee livestock since before you were even born, my young friend. Your beloved horses will be well cared for. As will the dogs," he added hastily, knowing instinctively that JD was about to launch an objection.
Peaceful silence reigned for almost a full minute, then, as they stopped at an intersection for a red light Vin shouted, "Wow, look!"
Ezra was a bit startled at the outburst, and quickly looked around trying to decide what had so captured the boys attention. "What?" he asked, noticing nothing unusual.
"Over there!" he said, pointing to the right. "Can we go in there, Uncle Ezra? Please?"
"Pleeease?" JD added plaintively, even though his line of sight was too low to allow him to see what they were talking about.
Ezra was tempted to pretend like he still did not see what Vin was pointing at, but he could not bring himself to do it as he checked his rearview mirror and caught two sets of big pleading eyes staring at him. "I suppose youre referring to the Halloween warehouse store?"
"Can we go?" Vin begged again. "I bet they got great costume stuff in there."
"Please, please, please, please," JD chanted, his pleas even more enthusiastic at realizing where they might be going.
Attempting a protest he already knew would be futile, Ezra tried, "I thought that both of you already had everything necessary for your transformations tomorrow evening."
"We do, but you dont," Vin told him matter-of-factly. "You said you didnt have a costume yet. You want to get one, right?"
Not even bothering to argue, particularly as he had begun to develop a surprising enthusiasm for the notion, Ezra switched on his signal and turned toward the warehouse parking lot as the light went green. An enthusiastic chorus of, "YAY!" greeted his decision.
The day before Halloween, a Sunday, found the store packed with customers. The formerly large costume, makeup and ghoulish decoration inventory was sadly depleted and disarranged, and everywhere in the store large garish signs proclaimed, "ALL SALES FINAL!" Cheap picked-over merchandise being overcharged to a horde of last minute buyers. Just the sight of it made Ezras skin crawl.
As they walked in, the two boys spent a moment looking around and whispering animatedly into each others ears. Then, JD shouted, "I know!" and grabbed firmly onto one of Ezras hands, Vin grasping the other as the two boys charged forward, towing their guardian through the maze of shoppers. Ezra gamely suppressed his reactions to the overcrowded store and pasted on a smile, readying himself to act pleased with whatever idea they had come up with.
"Lookit, Uncle Ezra!" JD squealed as they came to a stop in front of a display of adult-sized costumes. Pointing his hand at one particularly bright one, he triumphantly announced, "A super hero suit!"
Ezra paled at the sight of the gaudy costume, realizing that he had brought this moment on himself. JD was still smiling happily but Vin noted the less than thrilled reaction from his uncle and his blue eyes widened. "JD, he cant!" he said urgently.
A small fat lip popped out. "Why not?"
Lowering his voice a bit, to keep the other shoppers from overhearing, he said, "Cause if Uncle Ezra is really a super-hero, then this-" he paused, pointing to his bemused guardian, "is his secret identity! If he dresses up like a super-hero for Halloween, everybodys gonna know."
JDs hazel eyes went round as saucers. "Ooooh," he breathed. "I forgot!"
Ezra breathed a sigh of relief, particularly when Vin grinned at him over JDs head, proving that he did not take the notion of his family being Super quite as seriously as the younger boy had. "Have you any other ideas? That was a good one," he said, urging JD out of his disappointment as the little boy longingly fingered the bright yellow and blue costume hed first seen.
Brightening at the suggestion that he would still have some say in picking Ezras outfit, JD began to bounce in place as another thought occurred to him. "I know! You can be a Captain and Vin can be your slobber!"
"Slobber?" Ezra repeated, struggling not to laugh at the term.
Poking the younger boy in his ribs, Vin told him, "Not slobber, JD. Slobby!" Seeing that their uncle did not understand, he elaborated. "Yknow. To slob the deck?"
Ezra laughed, realizing that he should have expected this. Back at the ranch, the boys had shown him their costumes, and Vin had announced his intention to dress as a pirate this Halloween, proudly showing off a cheap plastic sword that Chris had bought him for the occasion. "I believe the expression is swab the deck, meaning to mop them and keep them clean. Were you to slobber on the deck, it would result in a somewhat different outcome."
JD frowned. "But, what if he dont wanna mop!"
"Yeah, do I have to?" Vin agreed, suddenly looking a bit worried as he studied the costume rack again.
Smiling, Ezra knelt so that he could be at eye level with them. "To be honest, I dont want to swab the deck either. Let us assume that the job has been done and our vessel is already ship-shape. You can be my first mate instead."
"What about me?" JD demanded, suddenly rethinking the outfit that he had chosen.
Ezra thought for a moment. "Your Aunt Rain made you a mouse costume, correct?"
"A rat!" he protested. "I want to be scary. Nothin is scarier than rats!"
Grimacing as he silently wondered just how often this little boy had encountered those vile filthy creatures during his time on the street before he and Vin had been taken in by his friends, Ezra agreed, "They certainly are frightening. However, this is even more perfect. No scurvy pirate vessel would be complete without a few rats in the hold."
"So, can I be a mate too, even if Im a rat?" he asked hopefully.
"I see no reason why not. If I am to be the captain, its my choice who serves on my ship and I would welcome you as my second mate, be you rat or human. Now, I suggest we hurry up and put this costume together so that we can go treat ourselves to some lunch. Aye, maties?"
Both boys grinned and gave him a hug, JD crowing, "Aye, aye, Captain!"
The pitch and volume of the shout directly in his left ear made Ezra wince, but he happily returned the embrace and stood. "Excellent. Now, we have only today and tomorrow to affect a proper ensemble, so if I am to be captain of the Pirate Ship---does the vessel have a name?"
"Revenge?" Vin suggested hopefully.
Ezra grinned. The last time the boys had stayed overnight at his home, he had turned the living room into a small movie theater. The three of them had snuggled up on the sofa in front of Ezras flat-panel television set, with the surround-sound audio system activated, the lights off and popcorn and cokes in hand. Thus supplied, they had watched an old-fashioned double feature, complete with a series of cartoons at the beginning. JD had fallen in love with "The Incredibles" while Vin had favored the second feature, "The Princess Bride".
"Well, if that is the case then I suppose my costume difficulties have just been narrowed considerably," Ezra said with a chuckle. "As I recall, the Dread Pirate Roberts ensemble was entirely black."
JD frowned. "But he didnt have no maties."
"Sure he did," Vin countered. "Fezzik and Inigo were maties, kinda."
"Not on the ship!" JD argued, volume rising.
Ezra laid a hand on the little boys head to get his attention before a full-scale argument could begin. "Im sure there was a full complement of crew-mates on the Revenge, JD. Just because we never saw them doesnt mean they didnt exist."
The logic of his argument seemed to satisfy both boys and they happily carded through the rack of costumes, searching for the perfect outfit. Soon, however, two sets of disappointed eyes tilted upward.
"They dont got nothin," Vin moaned, the slide in his grammar advertising his emotional upset clearly. The seven-year-old had been trying very hard over the last year, with regular tutoring from Ezra and Josiah, to improve his verbal skills.
Secretly thanking God for small favors, Ezra told him, "Im sure youre right, Vin. Nothing on these racks will suit our needs, but I believe I know of another place that will. Shall we continue our shopping excursion elsewhere?"
The boys agreed but just as they passed the cashiers station, JD blurted, "Can I get a tattoo?"
The enthusiastic non sequitur brought a confused frown to Ezras face. "Excuse me?"
The small boy pointed up to a small foil packet of temporary tattoos dangling from a display rack next to the cashier. A number of other small last-minute items also decorated the display and Ezra sighed as he noticed the pleading looks that both boys suddenly wore. He had nearly escaped.
"Very well," he agreed, turning around and joining the back of the line. "I suppose every proper pirate needs a tattoo, even rat pirates."
The tight hugs around his waist at the decision suddenly made the delay in leaving the store worthwhile.
The next two stops proved much more satisfactory. The first, to one of Ezras favorite clothing stores, yielded a black silk poets shirt and a pair of tight black trousers, both deemed perfect pirate clothing by Vin. The second stop, to the surprise and delight of both little boys, was to a motorcycle shop. Though not a hobby he indulged in regularly, Ezra was a proficient rider, and had shopped at this particular store a number of times. Their merchandise was varied and of fine quality, with reasonable prices. He had known that they would carry the black leather gloves and knee high boots he required to complete his ensemble.
The proprietor, a large bald man with an enormous gray handlebar mustache, greeted Ezra warmly, reaching across the counter to shake his hand. "Hey, man, its been a dogs age since you been around here. Thought maybe you moved out of town or something."
Hearing the question beneath the statement, Ezra smiled back and said, "No, just busy. Im afraid I havent had much opportunity for riding lately; or shopping for that matter." Gesturing to the two boys at his side, both of who were staring at the mans facial hair in utter fascination, he said, "These are my nephews, Vin and JD. Theyre going to be spending the next couple of days with me."
"And you thought youd take em for a spin?" the man guessed, scratching his head and grinning at the boys. "Reckon theyre a mite small to have their own Hogs yet."
Vin, usually very shy around strangers, shocked Ezra by grinning back at the man and telling him boldly, "Im gonna have a Harley when I get big enough."
The store owner beamed at the boy. "My kind of man!"
"We come to buy boots, sos Uncle Ezra can be a pirate for Halloween, like us," JD piped up, not wanting to be left out of the attention. "Hes gonna be the Dread Pirate Roberts, and Vins gonna be his matey. Im a rat!"
"An R.O.U.S.?" the man guessed, further delighting the boys with his recognition of what they were talking about.
"Hey!" Vin said, eyes lighting up. "I never thought of that. JD, youre gonna be a Rodent of Unusual Size!"
JD looked even happier at that. "Yeah!"
The big store owner roared with laughter. Reaching into a bin next to the counter, he rummaged around until he came up with a large all-black bandanna, which he threw into the sack with Ezras new leather gloves. "Cant be a dreaded pirate without a mask. Free of charge," he stated. At Ezras automatic protest, he thumped a huge meaty hand on his shoulder. "Dont sweat it, man. I know how it goes. Got four kids of my own, yknow."
"Bye, mister!" The boys called as their embarrassed guardian thanked the man again and ushered them toward the door.
"Have fun boys," he called back, giving them a little wave.
Ezra could hear him breaking into a fresh peal of laughter as the door jingled closed behind them and he had to smile. It was rather funny. Loading his newest supplies into the back of the car, he inquired of Vin, "Can you think of anything else I require for tomorrow night?"
Vin chewed thoughtfully on his thumbnail as he conducted a mental inventory of his uncles purchases. "A sword?" he asked tentatively.
Ezra blinked in surprise. "Why yes, I suppose youre right." With a nod, he helped the boys into the car and then buckled himself in and reached for his cell phone. When the call was picked up at the other end, he said, "Hello, Nathan. May I ask a favor of you for tomorrow night? No, Im still coming and Im bringing the boys. Of course I have. Our colleagues were a bit dubious at the onset, but I sent them on their journey with the reassurance that the boys would not be too frightened and that you and Josiah will have everything under control."
He paused for a while, listening to Nathan, then resumed, "Well, actually, I called because I hoped you would consent to loaning me one of your display swords. Preferably the epee with the rather intricately designed hilt and matching scabbard. Whats that? I hardly see that it matters, I simply wish to borrow one for dramatic effect!"
Another silence came; indicating that Nathan was going on at some length. The dim squawk of his voice through the phone had a distinct lecturing tone, and Ezra looked over his shoulder, rolling his eyes at the two small boys who both muffled giggles behind their hands. "Very well, then. I stand corrected. One has edges and points and the other has points only. Now that I have been educated in the finer points no pun intended of sword styles, may I have your permission to borrow your saber? Yes, I know they wont allow me to bring such an object through security. Ill make sure to enter the establishment while either you or Josiah is on duty, and that way you can make certain that nothing happens to the blade while it is away from my personal protection. Thank you. Well, actually I would prefer to wait until I see you tomorrow to answer that question, if you dont mind. Thats correct, its a secret, but I assure you the sword is a vital component in the holiday disguise Vin has helped me to select."
He paused again, mouthing the words hes laughing back over his shoulder to the two grinning boys. "All right, then. Well drop by this afternoon to pick it up. Thank you very much, Mr. Jackson."
"See you later, Uncle Nathan," JD yelled, seeing that Ezra was about to end his call. "I love you!"
"He returns your affections," Ezra said as he shut the phone off. "You can tell him in person in a couple of hours."
Happy with the prospect of a visit with another one of their beloved uncles, Vin settled back in his seat and announced, "Im hungry."
"Me too!" JD chimed in.
Ezra smiled, making both boys laugh again when he said, "Me three," and started the engine.
Lunch at the boys beloved Mickey Ds followed by a trip to the grocery store to buy the makings of a dinner for three, a quick stop at the townhouse to drop off the purchases and baggage, and another long drive out to Nathans and back had Ezra feeling a certain sympathy for professional chauffeurs and taxi drivers by the time he finally pulled into his driveway for the final time just after 4pm.
"Last stop," he announced jovially. "Please look around for any personal articles you may have misplaced during our journey and exit the vehicle in a safe and orderly manner."
"Youre silly, Uncle Ezra," Vin giggled, unbuckling himself and scrambling out of the car with JD right on his heels.
The boys followed Ezra through the front door and trailed him through the house as he set his keys down, hung up his lightweight leather jacket and kicked off his shoes. Knowing he would be spending the day with two children, Ezra had chosen comfort and economy of movement over style when getting dressed that morning. As he fished his wallet out of his jeans pocket and began rolling up the sleeves of his simple long sleeved Oxford shirt, he smiled at his two small shadows. "Well, gentlemen, what would you like to do now?"
"Can we go outside and play on your playground?" Vin asked hopefully.
Ezras back yard was fairly large for that of a city residence, but still offered only limited space to run and play compared with the sprawling ranch the boys called home. In an effort to make the space safer and more appealing, Ezra had called in a contractor and had a high sturdy fence built around the yard. Then in one corner he had sacrificed a large portion of his perfectly manicured lawn to soft mulch-covered dirt, atop which was installed a swing set, a slide and a set of monkey bars. Buck and Chris had teased their friend about trying to spoil their sons, but their approval had been obvious, especially when they had noted the sturdy cement foundations grounding each piece of equipment in place. JD and Vin had been absolutely charmed by the new addition, instantly christening the yard, "Uncle Ezras Playground." Much to Ezra chagrin, the name had stuck.
"Certainly," he agreed. "Be sure your coats are fastened up tightly and come inside if you begin to feel cold. Ill call you when dinner is ready."
JD paused in his dash for the back door, nearly causing Vin to bowl him over. "Whatre we having?"
Vin rolled his eyes. "Chicken, JD. You asked if we could have it just a couple hours ago, remember?"
"Oh, yeah! I forgot," he said, beaming a sunny smile at Ezra. "Can I help?"
Seeing Ezras dubious expression, Vin told him, "At home, Buck lets him squish the chicken pieces around in a bag of flour before they go in the pan."
"I see," Ezra said, trying not to flinch as he imagined the result if he were to allow the ever-energetic JD Dunne to squish flour in his kitchen. "And do you have a designated task as well, Vin?"
The curly brown head nodded enthusiastically. "I get to put the water in the potato flakes and mush em up so theyre creamy again."
Ezra could not quite disguise a grimace at the thought of ingesting such a thing. "Im afraid I dont care for the flavor of dried reconstituted vegetable matter. Thats why I purchased a small bag of fresh potatoes along with the chicken."
"Oh," Vin mumbled, disappointed. Then he brightened. "Can I still smash em up, though?"
Ezra laughed. "I dont see why not. Why dont you young gentlemen go out and play for a while, until I get everything prepared? I promise to call you in to help at any point where smashing or squishing is required."
Happily reassured, the two boys raced outside.
Ninety minutes later, dinner was ready. JD and Vin had popped in from the back yard at regular intervals to check on the meals progress and Ezra had, much to their delight, kept his word and allowed them to help in any capacity they liked, so long as he deemed it safe.
JD had happily coated every piece of skillet-bound meat in enough seasoned breadcrumbs to cover an entire chicken. Vin had mashed the freshly boiled potatoes with enough enthusiasm to ensure that not a single lump would remain nor seemingly a single inch of counter-space go unsplattered. Ezra had managed to get the green beans cooked without incident only to watch in dismay as JD plopped enough butter into the dish to set the vegetables swimming. This problem had been solved by Vin, who spooned the excess golden liquid out of the vegetable dish and poured it in a little river over the potatoes. "Even better n gravy!" he had declared.
After a cautious taste, Ezra had agreed, "Most flavorful."
"Mmm, I love fried chicken!" JD exclaimed, holding out his plate for his uncle to fill. "I want lots! Please," he added as an afterthought, beaming his best smile.
Ezra obligingly placed three wings on the little boys plate, then three drumsticks on Vins. He had bought one package of each, six pieces to a package, having enough experience with his guests to know their preferences. For himself, Ezra normally purchased only breast meat with the skin and bones removed, lightly roasting it for maximum nutritional value. Traditional southern-fried chicken, therefore, was a rare but welcome treat to him.
As the meal progressed, Ezra found himself watching in fascination as Vin demolished all three of his drumsticks before JD was even halfway through his second wing, then set about inhaling a large mound of the fluffy mashed potatoes, into which he had stirred his serving of green beans. Within a few minutes of being served, the boys plate was clean and he was leaning across the table in an effort to snag the two drumsticks remaining on the platter.
Helping him to the coveted prize, Ezra shook his head. "Master Tanner, I am seriously beginning to think that you should have chosen a piranha for your Halloween disguise. It is permissible to pause for breath between bites, you know."
Vins gaze lifted from his plate in surprise, his teeth already sunk deep into the latest victim. He gulped the food down hurriedly, blushing and giving a little shrug in response to the amusement shining in Ezras green eyes. "But its really good," he explained.
"And I appreciate your appreciation," Ezra told him with a laugh. "Just take care not to asphyxiate yourself, all right?"
The boy nodded, happy to realize that he was not being rebuked for his eagerness. "Whats a piranha?"
"A variety of fish located in South America," Ezra informed him readily. "Carnivorous, meaning that it eats meat, and extremely aggressive with sharp teeth that are capable of completely consuming the fishs prey in a matter of seconds."
"Like a shark?" he asked, intrigued.
Ezra shook his head. "No, though I suppose there are certain parallels. A piranha is only a few inches long; small but very tough, and always hungry." He winked at the now grinning boy. "Do you note the resemblance?"
"What kind of fish am I?" JD asked, not wanting to be left out.
"Youre a clown fish," Vin responded immediately. "Like Nemo and his dad."
JD beamed at the comparison, but then a suspicious look came into his eyes as he asked, "How come?"
Vin grinned at him. "Cause theyre little, hard to catch and cant tell a joke!"
"I can too tell jokes!" he protested. "Have you heard the one about-"
"Whos interested in dessert?" Ezra interrupted; intent on nipping the challenge in the bud before his younger nephew could get on a roll that would last all evening.
Priorities instantly refocused, JD raised his hand and waved it in the air, yelling, "Me! Me!"
Vin hurriedly swallowed the last bite of his fifth drumstick. "Me too!"
"Then perhaps you might be willing to assist me in creating a special holiday-themed confection I have in mind."
It took only seconds for Vin to process the offer and he broke into a wide grin. "You mean we get to make a Halloween dessert?"
"What are we gonna make?" JD asked eagerly.
Ezra walking into the kitchen and reached on top of his refrigerator, where he had placed a computer print-out of a recipe, having not wanted his young friends to see it and learn of the surprise prematurely. "I was searching for something online yesterday afternoon and happened across a page of Halloween desserts. I thought we might try one called Ghosts in the Graveyard, if that is agreeable."
Both boys nodded vigorously.
"Very well, then. You go and wash your hands and faces while I clear the table and set out the necessary supplies."
Minutes later everything was laid out in preparation. As the boys interestedly eyed the tub of Cool-Whip and the bags of Oreo cookies, butter sandwich cookies, pudding mix and candies, Vin realized, "Its kind of like dirt n worms!"
Ezra remembered well the dubious sounding but ultimately delicious tasting dessert that JD and Vin had made for himself and his fellow uncles after they had learned the recipe at school. "Very similar," he agreed. "Crushed cookie bits mixed with pudding, and a topping of more cookie crumbs will form our cemetery grounds. The butter cookies, candies and whip-cream ghosts will decorate it."
"Cool!" the boy exclaimed happily. "Can me and JD crunch up the cookies?"
"Of course," he agreed, handing them the package of Oreos, a plastic bag, a rolling pin and a table knife. "We need about 15 cookies, with the filling removed. Be sure you squeeze the air out of the bag before attempting to crush the contents or were liable to have an explosion."
Vin grinned thoughtfully as he imagined the result of an exploding bag of cookie crumbs, but one look at Ezras raised eyebrow as he read the expression convinced him that his uncles kitchen would not be the right place to try such an experiment.
For a few moments the boys, perched on their knees atop two kitchen chairs, dutifully separated Oreo halves while Ezra mixed up the chocolate pudding mix and milk in a large bowl. Then Ezras attention was captured by Vins cry of, "JD! Ewww!" and he looked up just in time to see the smaller boy lick the white filling out of one Oreo and place the remaining cookie in the plastic bag.
"John Daniel Dunne," he snapped. "What do you think you are doing?"
"You said to take out the filling," he protested meekly, blushing scarlet at the horrified expression on Ezras face. Holding up the other half, he tried, "See? Its all clean."
Sternly reminding himself that the young culprit was only five years old, Ezra drew a calming breath and let it out slowly through his nose. In a calm but stern voice, he said, "JD, one does not lick ones food and then expect someone else to eat it. That is both revolting and unhealthy. How would you have felt if I had insisted on licking your chicken wings before placing them on your plate tonight?"
"Yuck!" the child said, little face screwing up in disgust at the idea.
"Precisely," Ezra agreed. Taking the bag, which held about half a dozen cookies, he moved toward the kitchen trash. "Since I dont know which of these have been pre-tasted, I believe the best course would be to dispose of them all."
JD sniffled and his lower lip began to wobble as he sorrowfully watched the cookies go into the garbage. "Im sorry. Are we gonna have no dessert now cause of me?" The tears began to fall in earnest as he wailed, "I didnt mean to wreck it!"
Pausing in the act of pulling out another plastic bag, Ezra set it down and came around the table behind JD, wrapping his arms around the boy. Laying his cheek against JDs glossy black hair, he hugged him gently, his musical southern accent low and soft as he said, "Its all right, son. There are still plenty of supplies on hand. Dont cry."
JD sniffled, folding his arms over the larger ones circling his body. "Youre not mad at me?"
Ezra released his hold enough that the boy could look up into his face. "No, Im not mad, so long as I have your solemn promise that you wont ever do that again."
Blinking away his tears, JD smiled. "I promise."
"All right, then, well just forget this little incident and begin again," he said, dropping a kiss atop JDs head and releasing him. Noting the wistful look on Vins face, Ezra embraced him as well, a tight squeeze complete with growly sound effects precisely the way he knew that Chris often gave his son bear-hugs and was rewarded with delighted laughter. "Now, since there are two of you, what do you say you work as a team? JD you twist apart the Oreos, then pass them over to Vin for scraping clean with the knife."
"Can we eat the white stuff?" Vin asked hopefully.
Ezra debated the wisdom of allowing two young children to eat the sugary filling of fifteen Oreos plus however many had been in the bag hed thrown away. JD particularly tended to get very wired if he consumed too much sugar in too short a span of time, so reluctantly Ezra told them, "Im sorry, boys. Your fathers would probably put me on a permanent time-out if they were to discover I had allowed you to consume more than a dozen cookie-centers, plus a finished dessert shortly before bedtime. Particularly on a school night." Turning away from their disappointed faces, he rummaged in a cupboard for a moment before placing a small bowl in front of them. "Scrape the filling from the knife into this bowl and I will dispose of it later."
Pretending he did not hear JDs disgruntled whisper to Vin of, "No fair! Hes gonna eat it all hisself." Ezra went back to mixing the pudding. When the cookies were crushed and ready, he added half the bag and some of the Cool-Whip to the bowl and slowly stirred it together before spooning the mixture into a waiting dish.
At Ezras nod, Vin very carefully shook the remaining cookie crumbs over the top of the mixture. His small pink tongue stuck out from between his lips as he concentrated on shaking the crumbs out as evenly as possible.
"Very nicely done," Ezra praised him when the task was finished. Vin glowed with shy pleasure at the words. "Now we must put our graveyard in the refrigerator to set for an hour or so. In the meantime, we can decorate the tombstones that will fill it."
Observed by two sets of interested eyes, Ezra opened the package of pale golden butter cookies. Removing three, he deftly separated them and scraped out the filling, adding it to the bowl. Passing three cookie halves to each boy, he offered them small tubes of colored decorating gel.
"What do we put on em?" Vin wondered, casting a critical eye over the blank yellow surface.
"I suggest you draw a line around the border of each one, then fill in the center with something else."
Vin nodded. "Okay. Should we leave a little space at the bottom, so they can be pushed into the dirt without messing em up?"
"An excellent suggestion."
"Can we put our names on em?" JD asked. "If we had one more cookie, we could do one for everybody! Me and Vin and you and Da and Chris and Uncle Josiah and Uncle Nathan!"
Ezra grimaced. "A sweet sentiment, but rather a morbid one." At the boys puzzled faces, he explained, "To inhabit this setting together would require our collective demise."
Vin and JD frowned at each other, the attempt at delicacy only leaving them confused.
Reluctant to begin a discussion about death, something that had the potential to grow uncomfortable very quickly, Ezra tried again. "These are very small headstones. I really don't believe there would be enough room to spell out 'Josiah' or 'Nathan'. It would hardly be fair to separate them from the rest of us, would it?"
"No way!" Vin agreed. "But if we can't put our names, what do we write?"
"A heart, a cross, the letters R.I.P. for 'rest in peace'; any of these would be appropriate."
Ezra breathed a silent sigh of relief when Vin simply said, "Okay," and bent over his project. JD had already lost interest in the discussion and was concentrating on drawing a border around his tombstone in brown frosting.
"Ain't you gonna do any?" Vin asked suddenly, hesitantly nudging a cookie toward Ezra. He was obviously torn, not wanting to have fewer to decorate than JD but also not wanting his adopted uncle to be left out of the fun.
Understanding perfectly, Ezra extended a finger and pushed the cookie back where it had started. "I would rather watch if you don't mind."
Vin smiled. "Okay."
Slowly, Vin drew borders on all three of his cookies, then added an R I P to the first, taking great care not to make any of the letters backward. Holding it up triumphantly to show that he had not made any mistakes, the boy beamed when Ezra took the decoration from him and set it on a sheet of waxed paper with all the care and delicacy of a man handling a rare and valuable treasure.
JD likewise held out a cookie and Ezra laughed softly to see the slightly crooked white frosting daisy in the center. "This one belongs to a lady ghost," he explained bluntly, smiling as his marker was set down carefully next to Vins.
Not to be outdone, Vin next presented a picture of a small purple frosting heart. "I think this ones a soldier, like my born dad was."
"Im impressed," Ezra told him truthfully, adding this creation to the others.
JD next fashioned a bright yellow cross, and though it truthfully looked more liked a fat plus sign, Ezra accepted it without comment other than to praise the effort.
Both boys took their time over their final tombstones. JD soon presented another R I P sign, nearly running out of cookie due to the size of his letters, and Vin held out a marker with a rounded white blob in the center, decorated by two dots of dark frosting. There was what appeared to be a large white sideways X underneath. For the life of him, Ezra could not figure out what the image represented.
Vin saw his puzzled look and explained, "Its a skull and crossbones. This ones a pirate, like you and me."
"Ah, I see. And how did our briny compatriot end up in such a state?" Ezra asked, green eyes sparkling as they met Vins shining blues.
"He slobbered on the deck and you made him walk the plank!" Vin said, bursting into giggles.
Ezra and JD both joined in the laughter as Ezra set the final tombstone on the sheet of waxed paper. Checking his wristwatch, Ezra told them. "We need to let the graveyard refrigerate for a while longer. Would you like to watch television until its ready?"
To Ezras immense surprise, he received a negative head shake from Vin. "I want a story," he announced. "Buck says you tell ghost stories!"
"Oh, does he now?" For a moment, Ezras mind reeled. "And what drew him to such a conclusion? As far as I remember, Ive never done such a thing in either of your fathers hearing."
"We heard Chris and Da talkin about it once," JD supplied helpfully. "About how you was all campin, and Chris asked you to tell a story about somethin and you said you wouldnt tell until there was strong spear-chew-all motor-vation. Then Uncle Josiah said there was spirits around the camp and that you should all help him put some away. Da said you put away more than anybody else in camp, so you must tell good ghost stories cause thats what spirits is, right? Ghosts!"
Ezra could feel heat creeping up his face at the little boys innocent explanation. He remembered that camping trip; it had been shortly before the boys became part of their lives, but the evening in question was rather vague. He had recently come off an extremely stressful undercover assignment and had, in his habitual fashion, tried to bottle up all the painful feelings that role had engendered. The other men had been determined to make him talk things out, kidnapping him out to the woods behind the Larabee ranch for an impromptu campout. His resistance to talk had lasted about halfway into the second bottle of well-aged Scotch, and then everything had come pouring out of him words, feelings and even, he felt uncomfortably certain, a few tears. He had drunk himself into insensibility that night and had awakened early the following afternoon in Chris guest bedroom with an aching head, a strangely lightened heart and no clear memory of how he had arrived back at the house.
Clearing his throat, he hedged, "Well, I am a bit out of practice, but I suppose I could come up with something."
Ezra rose and led the two happy boys out to the living room. Taking a seat on the sofa, he barely had time to settle before he found himself with a lap full of five-year-old, and an eager seven-year-old sitting close by his side, waiting. Making up his mind to just relax and enjoy the moment, Ezra hitched his body up a bit more comfortably on the sofa and draped his arms around the boys.
"Let me see Once upon a time, there was a terrible dark forest. One that none dared to enter. It seemed that a most frightful event had taken place in those woods many years before; a quarrel between two long-time friends that had resulted in a duel to the death. No one knew for certain what the disagreement had entailed, but both young men had perished in those woods and from that day on, it had become a haunted place."
"Cool," Vin whispered, snuggling closer.
Encouraged by the response, Ezra continued. "Any soul who dared to venture into those dark and forbidding trees became instantly terrorized. He would find shadows creeping over his shoulder where none should be, screams and mad laughter that seemed to come from all around, touches upon his person from nonexistent hands, and a terrible cold feeling of dread that would seep through his body until the urge to turn and run from the forest became overpowering. No light ever entered that forest, no bird ever sang, and even animals refused to enter."
Without quite realizing it, Ezra had pitched his voice in a low menacing near-whisper; the better to draw his audience into the story. A small whimper from JD alerted him that he was overdoing it, and he hugged the boy a bit more tightly, resuming a more normal tone. "A legend had grown up around the haunted forest. One that told of the curse laid upon it with the death of the two duellists. The story went that by severing the bonds they had once shared, the young men had doomed themselves to remain bound to the forest as ghosts, forever in dispute, and forever mourning for what they had once had. For though unrelated, the two had once been as close as brothers, and their bitter quarrel had shaken that bond."
"Wasnt there any way to help them?" Vin asked sadly. "To end the curse?"
Ezra stroked his soft hair. "Indeed there was, but the way was not easy. Many brave people had tried to get rid of the two spirits and all had failed. Then, one day, two young boys ventured into the wood."
"They mustve been really brave," JD whispered.
"Yes, indeed," Ezra said, looking into his wide hazel eyes. "Two very brave little boys walked into those woods and found their way to the very center. The sounds, shadows and the terrible cold came to frighten them away, but the boys held fast to each other and protected each other. Nothing the wood could throw at them was stronger than their faith and love for one another, and very soon the strange events stopped. A sense of heaviness filled the air as a fog that seemed to hang about the low branches of the trees came together, coalescing into the nearly transparent form of two young men."
Vins blue eyes were huge. "The ghosts," he breathed.
"Yes. The ghosts had come together at last, curious to see who had finally dared to brave their company. They studied the little boys, curious, and the boys stared back, their fright giving way to pity as they saw how sad and lonely the two ghosts looked. For you see, the men had recognized themselves in the two young boys. They saw the same bond that they had once shared, and in seeing that connection, longed to forget their quarrel and find forgiveness in each other."
"They should say theyre sorry," JD decided, "and promise to be nice to each other again. Like Da and Chris makes me and Vin do when we fight."
Ezra looked at Vin, who nodded his agreement. "That is a very good solution, and precisely what the two little boys suggested. At first, the ghosts hesitated, each reluctant to be the first to admit he had been in the wrong. Soon, however, with encouragement from the boys, they approached one another and found that there had been no need to worry. Each man reached out to shake his brothers hand, and say, Im sorry and all at once, the gloom and darkness lifted from the wood. The withered trees unfurled their closed-in branches and reached for the sky, allowing sunlight to penetrate the ground below. Birds ventured forth from their silent nests and sang for joy. The two spirits embraced one another and as they thanked the two little boys, their forms slowly turned into a rainbow of light that soon stretched out and out and out, until it filled every corner of those woods with color and life and a sense of overwhelming happiness."
"Yay!" JD exclaimed, clapping his hands. "What about the little boys?"
"The little boys were so happy for their new friends that they ran and laughed, danced and played in those woods for hours after," Ezra told him with a smile. "And slowly, the people of their village noticed the change and ventured into the woods to join them. All began to celebrate and from that day on, the woods were never dark, frightening or haunted ever again."
Vin bounced upright. "And they lived happily ever after! Right?"
Ezra nodded firmly. "Right."
"That was a good story, Uncle Ezra! Buck was right."
JD agreed. "It was scary at first, but really good."
Putting JD on the floor, Ezra stood and sketched a small bow to his audience, who gave him an enthusiastic round of applause. "Thank you," he said with a grin. "Now, shall we go back into the kitchen and check on our dessert?"
The graveyard was ready for inhabiting when Ezra checked it, and he spent the next few minutes placing the boys tombstones amid a sprinkling of candy pumpkins and candy corn. Then, in the empty spaces that were left he carefully daubed spoonfuls of Cool-Whip, stacking the dollops into little creamy snowman-like figures and arching the spoon away from the top to form a point at each head as he released. "There we are," he said triumphantly. "What do you think, boys?"
"Its great!" Vin said in awe, examining the scene from all angles. "It really looks like a little cemetery."
JDs view was more practical. "Can we eat it now, Uncle Ezra?"
"In a moment," he decided. "I think we should take a picture before all our hard work is demolished, so that your fathers can see what youve been up to this evening."
"Yeah!" they both agreed. When Ezra had fetched his digital camera, the boys proudly stood to either side of the dessert tray while he took a picture of them. Then he took a close-up shot of the graveyard that would allow his friends to see the designs their sons had made for the grave markers. After checking the display to ensure that the photos were satisfactory, he nodded. "Perfect. Now, lets see if this tastes as good as it looks."
With great care, he sliced around the tiny gravestones and spooned out a section onto each of three waiting plates, careful to give each of the boys a whip-cream ghost along with their section of cemetery. As they dug in, everyone agreed that the taste was worth the desecration of their artwork.
"Time for bed," Ezra announced, checking his watch as the boys finished watching the short DVD he had put in for them following their bath.
JD automatically launched a protest, even as he let go an enormous yawn at the mere suggestion of sleep. Vin bit his lip and glanced over at the phone. "Do you think they made it okay?"
"Im certain that they did. In fact, Chris promised that they would be calling right about " The phones shrill ring cut him off, and Ezra hitched his eyebrows at the startled child. "Now."
Picking up the cordless phone, Ezra winked at the boys, who had run up to join him on the sofa, and drawled, "Standish, Tanner and Dunne, ghost-hunters Incorporated. How may I direct your call?"
Vin and JD both giggled and Ezra said, "Hello, Buck. Yes, of course, everything is fine. Did you have an uneventful flight?" He paused a moment to listen. "Excellent. Weve had a fine day ourselves. Ill let JD tell you all about it. Hes right here waiting to say goodnight to you."
He passed off the phone and listened with a smile as JD rattled off a rapid-fire list of everything they had done that day, smiling to himself when the child paused in mid-word. Breathe, Little Bit, breathe, he mouthed silently, sharing a quiet laugh with Vin when JD said indignantly, "I am breathin!"
After another minute, JD said good-night and handed the phone off to Vin. Plopping himself down next to Ezra, he blurted, "Da says to tell you that you should turn in early tonight, cause youll need it. Are you very tired, Uncle Ezra?"
"No, not yet," he replied with a smile. "I think he simply meant that tomorrow night will be a very exciting time, and we should make sure to be well rested so we wont miss any of the fun."
"Yeah, Halloween!" the boy said, bouncing back against the couch cushions with anticipatory excitement shining in his eyes. "I cant wait!"
Ezra grinned. "Im looking forward to it as well."
"Gnight, Dad. I love you," Vin said, voice growing louder as he prepared to hand off the phone. "Bye."
After Ezra had spoken to Chris, he hung up and got the boys prepared for bed, tucking them in securely into the large guest-room bed along with their favorite stuffed toys, Scooby and Cat. Both of the children fell asleep before he was even half way through their bedtime story, so Ezra set the book aside and rose carefully from his chair, kissing each of them on the forehead before creeping quietly from the room.
Early the next morning, Ezra woke to the peculiar feeling of being watched. For a moment he held still, not opening his eyes or changing the pattern of his breathing, a well-honed self-preservation instinct urging him to wait and listen until he could determine if he was in any danger.
"Maybe if we poke him a little, hell wake up," a voice suggested in a loud sharp whisper.
Ezra relaxed at hearing that voice, coming awake more fully as he remembered his two young houseguests. Intrigued, he decided to hold his position and wait to see what happened.
A second, much softer voice replied, "No, dont do that. Chris wakes up grumpy if I poke at him."
"When Das sleepin hard, I just tug on his mustache and he wakes up right away."
"Uncle Ezra aint got no mustache, cept for the bristly stuff where he aint shaved yet. Would ticklin work, you think?"
The first voice rose in volume, enthusiastic over this idea. "Yeah! And if he wakes up laughing, he cant be grumpy at us!"
Ezra was not ticklish, he never really had been, but just the same he nearly laughed out loud when he felt his covers being slowly tugged down and the hem of the T-shirt he wore lifting away from his body. Ezra could not stop himself from gasping slightly at the feel of cold little fingers skirting along the warm skin of his stomach.
"Try again, JD!" Vins excited whisper, coming with a puff of breath on the skin of his cheek, alerted Ezra to the boys exact position. He was hunkered down close, probably keeping an eye out for any signs of wakefulness.
Waiting until he again felt the skitter of fingers against his ribcage, Ezra let go a groan and flopped forward, flinging his right arm out as he did so and pinning Vin to the mattress. The boy let go a squeak of surprise that turned into a giggle when his uncle tugged him close, like an oversized teddy bear, and began a round of theatrical snoring.
"JD, help!" Vin gasped around his giggles.
Ezra could not help joining in the laughter when he felt a heavy weight land on his back as JD pounced on him and announced, "I gotcha, Uncle Ezra! You cant get away!"
"Is that so?" he replied, giving up his pretense of slumber. Working one knee up for leverage, Ezra got his free arm underneath his body and did a one-armed pushup against the mattress, lifting the delighted JD into the air as he did so.
The boy wrapped both arms around his neck and looped both short legs around Ezras waist, shouting into his ear, "Wow, youre really strong! Betcha cant lift Vin up too."
"Oh, I think I can manage. Hang on tight, JD." The boys hold tightened into a near strangle-hold as Ezra firmed his grip around Vins skinny waist and rose to his knees, climbing off the bed and bringing his other arm up around Vins legs to balance his weight as he stood. "Ta da!" he sing-songed as both boys cheered.
Just then, the doorbell rang. To the delight of the boys, Ezra did not release his hold, instead walking carefully out his open bedroom door and into the front room. Pivoting to give JD access, he said, "Check the peephole, would you, please?"
Thoroughly enjoying his new height, JD obeyed and happily crowed, "Its Uncle Josiah!"
"Ah, then perhaps we should open the door. Vin, would you do the honors?"
Vin was enjoying his uncles playful mood and obligingly used his free hand to release the door locks and turn the handle. Josiah Sanchez blinked in surprise and then grinned widely at the sight of his welcoming committee. "Well, well, a three-headed monster!" he boomed. "Today must be Halloween or something!"
Helpfully detaching the little boy leeched to his friends back and lifting him into his own strong arms, Josiah asked, "You doing anything fun at school today, JD?"
JD nodded energetically. "Were gonna make jack o lanterns!"
"Cool," he rumbled, giving the boy a hug before setting him on the floor next to Vin, whom Ezra had just released. Giving Vin a morning hug as well, he asked, "How about you, son?"
"Us, too," Vin told him, "and all the kids get to dress up at school today!"
"Ah, very nice. I think Im jealous."
"Dont they let you get dressed up for work, Uncle Josiah?" Vin asked, looking as though he felt this oversight on the part of the federal government was a great tragedy.
Smirking over at Ezra, standing there in T-shirt and pajama pants, his hair sticking up, his eyes bleary and his lower face decorated with an uneven patch of reddish brown whiskers, Josiah said, "Pity, isnt it? Ezra could come as he is; scare anybody who ventured into the office."
"Very funny," Ezra drawled over the boys muffled laughter. "So, what brings you to my humble abode at this time of morning, Mr. Sanchez? You afraid I wouldnt find my way to the office without assistance today?"
Josiah smiled. "No, just figured Id swing by and try to catch you all before youd had breakfast. See if anybody would be interested in going to IHOP with me. My treat."
Ezra was not a particular fan of the International House of Pancakes, but when Vin and JD both gasped in anticipation and instantly turned the Big Eyes on him, he sighed in resignation. "That sounds delightful. Perhaps you would be good enough to assist the boys in getting into their costumes and ready for school while I go take a shower."
"No problem." Watching his friend yawn and rub the grit of sleep from his eyes, Josiah chuckled. "I think Ill go and start some coffee brewing first. You dont look as if youre going to make it as far as the restaurant without some go-go juice."
"I would appreciate that," he said gratefully. "And while youre in the kitchen, the boys can show you the remains of the holiday confection we engineered last night."
Quickly deciphering the suggestion, JD began to tug at Josiahs wrist. "It was yummy! Come and see!"
The big man laughed at the eager invitation and willingly allowed himself to be led.
Happy to have someone trustworthy on hand to keep the boys occupied for awhile, Ezra went to take care of his morning ablutions in welcome privacy.
Time fairly flew by at the office that day. With Buck and Chris gone, all three of the remaining members of Team Seven felt free to goof off, each man more interested in the upcoming evening festivities than they were in paperwork.
Ezras costume idea had not remained a secret for long, the boys having filled Josiah in on the plan during breakfast. Josiah had told Nathan about it the moment he and Ezra had entered the bullpen, assuaging his curiosity over why he had been asked to loan a sword.
"We should make JD a little sign to wear around his neck," Nathan declared, drumming his fingers thoughtfully on the surface of his desk.
"What sort of sign?" Ezra asked him.
Josiah nodded, evidently having been thinking along the same lines. "He needs a little tag or sign saying R.O.U.S. in big capital letters. Otherwise most people are going to look at you three and think theyre seeing a pirate, a mouse and Zorro."
"Exactly," Nathan agreed. "All black clothes, sword, mask, those are all trademarks of Zorro. If JD has a sign, then anybody who knows that movie is gonna get the joke and realize you three are a set."
"And those that do not are still going to make the incorrect assumption," Ezra pointed out. Shrugging one shoulder, he decided, "It cant do any harm, and I suspect JD will be happy with anything that prevents his identity from being misinterpreted. He seemed quite indignant yesterday when I asked if the costume Rain made for him was supposed to be a mouse."
Nathan chuckled. "Well, actually it is. She found the pattern in a kids clothing catalogue, a gray fleece mouse costume. We just told JD it was a rat because thats what he wanted to be. Dont make any difference really, long as hes happy."
"And what about you, brother?" Josiah asked, grinning at Ezra. "Are you happy to be traversing the city streets dressed as a commander of the high seas?"
He snorted. "Well, I must admit that the prospect is a great deal more appealing than some of the identities Ive been forced to assume in the line of duty. You may recall the dockyard wino I was forced to personify during that Cuban cigar smuggling operation last month, and the cross-dressing lounge singer I became last year during that infiltration of illegal liquor into Denvers local gay bar scene. Compared to those, pretending to be Chris Larabee for a night will be a piece of cake."
"Chris?" Nathan repeated, confused.
"All black clothing, tough as nails exterior disguising a soft heart, an attitude of Good night, good job, Ill most likely kill you in the morning. Does that not sound a great deal like our Mr. Larabee to you?" he asked with a grin.
Both of his colleagues burst out laughing. "I suggest you dont share that little revelation with Chris if you intend to live a long and healthy life," Josiah said, wiping his eyes as tears of mirth welled up in them.
"Or with the boys either, if you dont want him to hear about it anyhow," Nathan agreed, still chuckling over the idea of Chris Larabee as a pirate.
Ezra smiled. "Agreed. So, may I ask what disguises you two are assuming for the Haunted House tonight, or is it a secret?"
"Rains fixed me up a really great costume out of leftover supplies she got from the hospital. The rest of the nursing staff apparently thought it was pretty funny that she was going to dress me up as a Mummy and they contributed a whole bunch of bandages and clips and stuff."
"Brother Nathans job is to fall out of an upright coffin every so often and grab at the ankles of passing visitors," Josiah revealed in a tone of great satisfaction. "We tested the effect out on one of the volunteers yesterday and she screamed like a banshee. It was beautiful."
An appreciative laugh bubbled over the southerners lips. "And yourself?"
Josiah grinned. "The Haunted House opens at 7pm and Im watching the security gate for the first hour or two. As soon as my relief shows up, Ill be heading inside to be a brain-sucking zombie for the rest of the evening."
"Most appropriate choice," Ezra quipped, eyes twinkling at Josiah as the man grinned and gave him the finger. "Ill be taking the boys out to Mrs. Wells place around 6:30. Her home is serving as headquarters, and is the beginning and end of the trick or treating route. I dont intend to keep the boys out too late, but well definitely drop by the Haunted House. Hopefully youll still be on duty at the time we arrive."
"If hes not, I will be," Nathan offered. "A mummy can only drop out of his coffin onto a hard floor so many times before he starts to fall apart. Im gonna be needing a break by the time Josiahs shift is over."
Ezra nodded. "Excellent. Well see you tonight then. And now," he paused to check the clock and then turned back to his computer, "I fear it is time to get to work, or Ill never have my case files organized for our meeting with Director Travis on Wednesday morning."
"Good thing Chris thought to request a Strategic Planning day for Tuesday," Josiah said, referencing the official sounding name for what was really just a paid day off for the entire team. Turning back to his own pile of work, he sighed, "After tonight, Ive got a feeling I really am going to be a zombie tomorrow."
Nettie Wells modest home was lit and ready for visitors when Vin, JD and Ezra drove past it in search of a parking space on the crowded suburban street. Orange and yellow twinkle lights surrounded the porch railing and a large jack o lantern with a crooked smile winked at visitors from the steps.
Spotting a place, Ezra eased his vehicle up to the curb between a small blue Honda and a large black Dodge truck. The boys scrambled from the car the moment the door was opened, each carrying a plastic trick or treat bag with a witchs face printed on one side and a black cat on the other. Ezra grabbed his flashlight and locked the car, slipping his keys in with the wallet secured inside a small pouch hidden from sight around his waist by the extra large black bandanna the man at the motorcycle shop had given him. He had not particularly wanted to spend the evening wearing a mask, and upon realizing that his Halloween costume contained no pockets, Ezra had found a better use for the bandanna by turning it into a sash. The unsightly ends of the cloth were tucked neatly into the edge of his borrowed scabbard and the weight of the blade inside kept everything securely in place.
"Stay with me, gentlemen," he called as the boys started to scamper ahead.
Remembering that they had wanted to make an entrance, Vin and JD stopped and waited for him to catch up. The night was chilly but not truly cold, so Ezra had allowed the boys to forgo wearing coats, which he had brought along in the car just in case.
"Do I look okay?" Vin asked, tugging anxiously at his shirt. The child dearly wanted to make a good impression on his beloved Miz Nettie and had been fussing with his costume all the way over.
Ezra cast a critical gaze over him. Vins puffy white shirt secretly worn with a warm flannel undershirt beneath was perfectly draped over his thin body. His artfully tattered brown pants, gaily striped knee-high stockings, red girdle sash, and plastic sword were also in order. His favorite much-scuffed black boots tonight wore an addition of shiny silver buckles, which had been carefully glued in place with a little help from Gloria Potter. A brightly spotted bandanna covered his curly light brown hair. "You look perfect," Ezra decided. "Every inch the proud first mate."
The little pirate puffed up at the praise and JD demanded, "What about me?"
"A more impressive rat I have never seen," Ezra told him, tweaking one of the round fluffy ears pointing from the hood of the boys fleece full-body costume. JDs nose had been painted black and small pointy whiskers lined out along his cheeks with black eyeliner. Ezra had followed his work-mates suggestion and fashioned a small sign reading "Rodent of Unusual Size", which he had pinned to the front of JDs small chest. As predicted, JD had been very happy with the idea that no one could mistake what he was.
The little party made its way up the steps and knocked. When the door opened, Nettie Wells took a look at them and placed both hands on her hips, laughing heartily. "Now if that isnt just the cutest thing I ever did see," she declared. "You boys come on in out of the night and let me get a better look at you."
Vin and JD happily turned a circle at Netties silent directive, giving her a good look at the detail of their costumes. "My, my," she said admiringly, bringing beaming smiles to both their faces. Ezra smiled as well, enjoying the moment, until Nettie raised an eyebrow in his direction. "What about you, Mr. Standish? Arent you going to show off your costume too?"
For a moment, Ezra froze, seeing that the question had grabbed the attention of several mothers who had arrived with their children. Until now, he had only vaguely noticed that he was the only man in the room but the sudden sharp and attentive focus of half a dozen women drove the fact home sharply.
Not understanding his hesitation, Vin tugged one of his billowing black sleeves. "Turn round, Uncle Ezra. They want to see everything."
"I believe you may be right," he muttered, flushing a bit as he obligingly held his arms out to the sides and turned a slow circle. The admiration in the womens eyes was gratifying, if a bit embarrassing. As they moved out of earshot of the assembled ladies, Ezras eyes narrowed and he accused Nettie, "You did that on purpose."
She grinned unrepentantly and said in a quiet tone. "Of course I did. Not often a gal can get one over on you, fancy man. Besides, if youre going to show off that cute little hind end of yours, you might as well get used to being noticed!" As Ezra gaped in shock, she winked at him, chuckling at his reaction. "Im old, Mr. Standish, but I aint dead."
Quickly moving on before he could recover, she turned to the children and raised her voice back to normal as she asked, "Do you boys understand how were doing things this evening?"
"We only go to the houses with special markers on the doors," Vin said promptly.
"And stay in sight of a parent or guardian at all times," JD added, parroting the talk every child had been given throughout the month at school.
Nettie smiled. "Thats about it. This is what will be on the doors." She held up a white construction paper ghost with a word balloon spelling BOO coming out of his mouth. The decoration was hand-made and therefore unlikely to have been copied by anyone not participating in the neighborhood project. "Just follow the rope markers weve set up along the way and have a good time. Come on back here when youre all done and Ill have a cup of hot cocoa or cider waiting for you."
"Thank you, Mrs. Wells," Ezra said cordially. "We should be back within the hour, as we have one other stop to make tonight."
"So Ive heard," she said, "and that reminds me; Buck called yesterday before heading out to the airport and asked me to take a picture of the three of you for him and Chris."
Ezra nodded. "I should have thought of that myself. Would you like to do it now, or wait until we return?"
"Might as well get it done now. I expect itll be a lot busier around here when you get back and I may not remember."
As Nettie went to retrieve her camera, a high-pitched voice called out, "Hey, JD!"
JD smiled. "Hi Casey."
The little girl was dressed as Minnie Mouse, suddenly giving Ezra an insight into JDs vehement protest that his was not a mouse costume. Six-year-old Casey had a crush on her little school-mate that JD was not quite sure how to handle.
"You want to trick or treat with me and Julie?" she asked, gesturing toward another little girl dressed in a princess costume. "Her mom is gonna walk with us, since Aunt Nettie has to stay here."
"I cant," he said hastily, backing up a step at the idea of walking the neighborhood in the company of two girls and a strange lady. "Me and Vin are going with Uncle Ezra. Were maties!"
The little brunettes brow creased in confusion, but all she said was, "Oh." Seemingly unable to resist a minor retaliation for JDs refusal, she added, "Betcha we get more candy than you do."
"Nuh, uh!" JD protested, his little brow furrowing. "Well get tons of candy! Dumb ol girl." He mumbled the last sentence too softly for anyone but Ezra and Vin to hear, and Ezra squeezed his shoulder in both a show of sympathy and a warning to mind his manners.
Casey smiled, satisfied to have gotten a rise out of her friend. "See you later, JD. Bye, Vin. Bye Mr. Standish."
"Have a good time, Miss Casey," Ezra told her with a smile, thinking that if at some point in the distant future Casey Wells got her wish to capture JDs young heart, Buck Wilmington was going to have his hands full.
Soon Nettie returned with the camera, snapping a couple of photos and sending them on their way.
Trick or treating proved to be a fun adventure for Ezra. He had not lied when he told Chris and Buck that he had little experience with the traditions of Halloween. Dressing up and going door to door for candy was something he had longed to try as a child but had never been permitted. His mother had claimed it was a waste of a perfectly good evening to go knocking on the doors of strangers begging for candy that would only rot his teeth away. She would buy him a candy bar or two to soften the blow, but it just wasnt the same for Ezra, knowing that every other child in his school (wherever he happened to be that month) was getting to do something special that he was denied.
Walking along as an escort and waiting for Vin and JD to ring the doorbells and show him what they had gotten at each particular house was nearly as good as going door to door himself. Seeing his costume and hearing, in many cases, that Ezra was the boys pirate captain seemed to charm most of the adults handing out candy and many of them offered him small chocolate bars for his trouble. It was a bit embarrassing but after a while, Ezra found himself accepting more often than he refused. It felt as though he was making up for all those disappointing holidays, though he put the candy itself into one or another of the boys treat bags after helping himself to a couple of miniature Snickers.
Halfway along the route, they came to Gloria Potters home and went inside for a few minutes to warm up and allow the boys a chance to use the bathroom. The widow insisted on taking pictures and giving each of them a cup of hot cocoa and a rice krispie treat before they left.
By the time the three travelers reached the end of their route and arrived back at Netties place, both of the boys trick or treat bags were filled to bursting and Ezra had spent the last 15 minutes carrying the increasingly heavy sacks between houses for them.
"Looks like you three managed to pillage and plunder to some advantage," Nettie commented, peeping into each bag with approving eyes. "I think you both managed to get even more than Casey did, and shes got enough sweets to put me in debt to the family dentist for a year."
"It was fun," Vin told her, eyes shining. "Thanks for inviting us to come tonight, Miz Nettie." JD echoed the thanks, his little face smug with satisfaction at the idea of having more candy than Casey did.
The old woman gave them each a hug. "Youre more than welcome, boys. I hope youll come back and do it again next year." Smiling at Ezra, she added, "That goes for you too, fancy-pants."
He grinned back. "I fully expect Misters Larabee and Wilmington to be doing the honors themselves next Halloween, but I appreciate the invitation."
Checking the clock in the hall, she said, "I expect Josiah and Nathan have got their Haunted House in full swing by now. You still planning to head over?"
Vin and JD both looked at him hopefully and he did not disappoint them. "Indeed, and I believe wed best hurry before the crowd grows too thick. I find myself most curious to see what sort of frightful special effects our friends have devised. Theyve both been dropping mysterious hints all week long."
"I hope well see a ghost," Vin declared, clearly relishing the idea, though JD looked a bit uncertain. "Something really scary!"
Ezra held out his hands, accepting both the treat bags and the two small hands that were laid in his palms. "Well then, let us go see what there is to see," he said cheerfully. Nodding to Nettie, he said, "Good night, Mrs. Wells. Thank you for your hospitality."
"Have fun boys." She smiled as they walked out the door, and Ezra had no doubts whatsoever that he had been included in her benediction.
Josiahs Haunted House was not truly a house at all, but a long narrow storage building owned by a neighborhood church group. The building had a parking lot on one side and a vacant lot on the other, making it ideal for a large crowd of visitors, and Josiah and the rest of the volunteers had put in a great deal of time and effort to make everything special. The main floor of the two-story building had been cleared out and separated by rows of black curtains, promising new and different frights as the Halloween visitors ventured past each layer. Cobwebs, black lights, rubber creepy-crawlies, and haunting music would fill each section to heighten the effect.
All of this Ezra knew already as he parked the car and got out, viewing the already well-populated area with sharp anticipation.
Above the entrance to the building, he could see a large banner reading, Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here! Off to the other side, just at the edge of the vacant lot, Ezra spotted a long trailer surrounded by portable footlights and another sign that read, Little Spooks Haunted Hall. He nodded, and clasped the hands of his two companions again, realizing that the trailer had been set up as the source of lesser frights for the children.
Joining the line of people at the entrance gate, Ezra reached into his sash and fished out the three tickets he had purchased for himself and the boys. All proceeds from this event would be going to a local homeless shelter, so he had waived Josiahs generous offer to let them in free of charge.
When they reached the security gate, all three of them grinned at the sight of Josiah, resplendent in ragged dirt-coated clothing, his face painted a peculiar shade of grayish green with dark shadows circling his deep-set eyes. Assorted crusty looking black wounds dotted his face, and his curly gray hair was slicked down with some sort of oil, dried brown leaves poking up from it in odd places. Hanging from his hair down to his left cheek was a tiny black plastic spider.
Josiah smiled at the sight of his friends, revealing a row of large decayed looking teeth; a couple of them blacked out to heighten the effect. "You made it!" he boomed. "How was the trick or treating; you guys make a good haul?"
"Sure did," Vin told him happily. "We got tons of good stuff. You look great, Uncle Josiah!"
"Thanks, son," he replied, adjusting his spider, which had swung forward into his face as he leaned forward to talk to the boy. "Im due to start my shift inside the building some time in the next fifteen minutes or so, so if Im gone when you come out of the kids exhibit, be sure to swing by and say hello to Nathan. He looks great tonight, too. Very scary."
"Well be sure to do so," Ezra promised. "Do I need to give you custody of this?" He touched the hilt of the sword at his side.
Josiah winked. "Nah, its just a prop. I think we can trust you with it."
Ezra grinned back, knowing that the much fussier Nathan would never have allowed such a thing. With a nod of thanks, he led the boys over to the childrens trailer, noticing that JD began to clutch his hand more tightly the closer they got. Glancing down, he noticed that the little boy was chewing fretfully on his lower lip. "Dont you want to go in, JD?" he asked gently.
The five-year-old had been enthusiastic about his visit to the Haunted House when he had first heard about it, seeming almost as excited as Vin. Now that they were here, however, his courage had fled. Tears welled up in his eyes and he shook his head, digging his heels in and refusing to go any further when they got within ten feet of the entrance.
"Aw, cmon, JD," Vin begged, casting a longing look at the trailer. "It wont be that bad. Its only pretend scary and Ill be right there with you."
"I dont wanna!" he said stubbornly, molding his little body against Ezras side.
Ezra sighed. He was not going to force either boy inside if they truly did not want to go. "What do you think, Vin?"
For a moment, Vin looked uncertain. Then another boy about his age came out of the trailer shouting, "That was so cool! Dad, they let me touch a dead witch! Can I go again?"
JD grafted even more firmly onto Ezra at those words, throwing his arms around the leg closest to him and hanging on tight, as though fearing that his uncle would force him to go if he did not. Vin, however, cast a longing glance at the trailer. He wanted to see the dead witch.
"Do you feel up to making the journey alone?" Ezra asked, reading the expression in the blue eyes. "JD and I can wait out here for you, if you do."
Vin perked up. "Really? Are you sure?"
"We dont mind," he told him, resting a comforting hand on JDs back. "Do we, JD?"
JD shook his head, relieved that he would not have to go inside, but still sounding a bit frightened as he asked, "Will you be okay?"
"Ill be fine," Vin told him boldly. "Promise."
Ezra pulled his young charge off to one side, hunkering down next to him with one arm securely around his body as they waited for Vin to emerge. JD played with the edge of his uncles collar, happy to stay close to him for the moment. "Do you think they really got dead witches in there?"
"No," Ezra told with a slight smile. "Theres probably a table filled with supposed body parts that are actually just normal everyday objects."
"Oh, I dont know. Cups of ketchup for blood, rubber gloves filled with Jello for hands, cold cooked noodles in place of intestines. That sort of thing."
JD frowned. "Whats intestines?"
"Guts," Ezra said simply, laughing at the disgusted expression on the childs face. "My sentiments exactly."
It only took a couple of minutes for Vin to traverse the length of the trailer and come out the door at the opposite end. He grinned as he ran up to them. "That was fun! They got real live snakes you can touch and a tarantula in a little cage. And there was a dead vampire skeleton!"
"You mean a bat?" Ezra clarified dubiously.
"Yeah, and theres all kinds of cool jack o lanterns everywhere, and slimy stuff, and spider webs, and the dead witch. Only its not really a witch, its just parts, and you have to put a blindfold on before you can touch em cause theyre really gross and scary."
Happy to see the normally shy little boy so excited, Ezra smiled and said, "It sounds like a most intriguing display."
"They use noodles for witch guts," JD suddenly blurted. "Uncle Ezra told me. Theyre not really real guts."
Vin stared at him. "I know, " he said with a shrug. "And I think her brains were just grounded up hamburger, but it was still pretty cool. Can we go see if Uncle Nathans around now?"
"Certainly." Swinging JD securely up into his arms, Ezra walked Vin back over to the entrance.
Josiah was still in attendance when they arrived, though he was no longer taking tickets, and he gladly listened to Vins description of the haunted trailer. He nodded. "Jose and his sister were in charge of putting that together. Maria owns a pet shop, so she loaned us the live critters. Glad you enjoyed it."
"I wish I could see whats in the big house," the boy sighed.
"Sorry," Josiah told him. "Nobody under 12 is allowed in there. Too much scary stuff for little guys like you and JD. If Ezra wants to go inside, though, you two can hang out with me for a while and he can tell you what you missed."
Ezras eyes widened in surprise at the suggestion, a sheepish smile stealing over his face at Josiahs knowing grin. He did want to go in, badly, and clearly he had not disguised that feeling as well as he had thought.
"Thats a good idea!" Vin approved. "Will you, Uncle Ezra? Please?"
"Well, if Josiah is quite certain that he isnt needed inside just yet," he hedged, already taking a step toward the exhibition.
Josiah flashed his decayed smile again. "Go on, it wont take you more than ten or fifteen minutes, even with the line. I can wait that long."
"All right," he agreed. Noticing that JD had not said a word and did not look particularly happy over the idea of losing him to the scary Haunted House, even for a few minutes, Ezra paused. "Do you mind if I go?"
Josiahs large hand reached out and tugged the little boy over to his side. "Itll be all right, JD. Grown-ups like to get scared sometimes, if its only a pretend scare. Ezra will be just fine. And dont forget, Nathans already inside and he wont let anything bad happen. If Buck were here, Ill bet hed have been in there about four times already."
JD smiled and nodded. "Da loves scary movies and stuff."
Taking that as permission to go, Ezra flashed his friend a grateful smile and hurried over to join the line of those waiting to get inside. His pulse was already speeding up with anticipation of the fun to come.
Inside the first section of the building it was quiet, with only the murmurs and shuffles of the entering population to break it. As he moved further in, Ezra became aware of a low thrumming sound, like a very slow heartbeat, and soon this noise was followed by soft moaning and the whispering creak of a slowly swinging door. As he approached the first curtain and put a hand out to move it, a high-pitched shriek sounded right next to his ear and Ezra gasped sharply. A number of other people likewise jumped and squealed at the noise, then laughed at having been caught off guard so quickly.
The next room of the Haunted House was filled with soft pulsing purplish light, amongst which the dry bones of skeletons hung suspended from the ceiling and chained to the floors, their whited out bones glowing eerily in the strange light. One of the bony figures abruptly burst into a spate of cackling laughter, its jaw snapping up and down with its mirth and one curled hand dropping down to touch the shoulder of a passing woman, who let go a satisfying shriek at the touch. Ezra grinned at the sound, realizing that the volunteers must have set up motion-detectors throughout the exhibit to catch the unwary.
Room number three was an homage to medieval torture chambers. Racks, iron maidens, a Chinese water-torture table, a bed of nails and other grisly creations filled every corner, each populated by some poor unfortunate soul dummies liberally decorated with blood and each lit by its own spotlight. Another visitor was coerced into a surprised scream when one of the figures suddenly moved, clawing the air and letting loose a horrible gurgling noise.
Warily, Ezra moved into the next section, feeling delightful icy ripples travel up and down his spine when he saw the collection of classic horror-movie fiends that awaited him. He would never tell anyone, but he had spent much of his childhood sneaking into movie theaters to see horror movies that he was supposedly too young to watch without parental supervision and he had always been far more impressed by the classics than the colorful modern blood-fests.
To his left, a vampire lurked in the shadows; drops of blood glittering on its gleaming fangs. To the right, a werewolf crouched, looking as though it would pounce at any moment. Ahead, Frankensteins monster reached his arms out to pull the unwary into a deadly embrace and beside him a Mummy rested in its coffin. Bodies of the victims of this unholy quartet littered the floor in a grotesque display. Ezra was so busy studying the Mummy, trying to decide if it was actually Nathan Jackson in disguise, that he failed to see the corpse nearest him move until it reached forward and clutched his leg.
"Shit!" he shouted, heart pounding double-time at the unexpected assault, his hand reflexively reaching for the gun he was not wearing. Recovering quickly, he laughed, feeling his face heat up and suddenly being very glad that the room was too dark for anyone to see him clearly.
Suddenly, as he passed its coffin, the Mummy did move but it did not fall forward as expected. Instead it swiped at his shoulder, bandaged fingers sliding off of his silk shirt harmlessly. To Ezras surprise, the creature then released a guttural moan and began to follow him, shuffling along in classic zombie fashion with arms extended and fingers clawing the air.
Other patrons gasped and squealed in delight as the Mummy burst out of its section in pursuit of a guest. Ezra was so distracted by the pursuit that he nearly missed what was happening in this newest section until a flash of light across his face drew his attention to the walls and ceiling. This room was decorated all in black and a profusion of ghostly figures darted across the surfaces, accompanied by wailing and moaning. It was really quite impressive and for a moment, he forgot the persistent Mummy in admiring the display. Then a hand on his shoulder reminded him and he grinned as a familiar voice whispered, "Gotcha."
The ghost lights were the last segment of the Haunted House and many people clapped and cheered as Ezra and his bandaged companion exited the building and headed back around towards the entrance gate.
Nathans deep chortle burst forth as he slapped Ezra lightly on the back. "Man, we really had you for a second! I thought you were gonna jump right out of your skin when James reached out and grabbed you by the leg."
"Nonsense, I wasnt frightened. It was merely-" he stopped, seeing the mirth dancing in Nathans bright brown eyes, barely visible past the layers of material over his face. Ezra shrugged, eyeing the ground as he gave in. "Oh, all right, I admit that I was somewhat caught up in the moment. You and the other volunteers have done a magnificent job putting on this display."
"It was fun, wasnt it?" Nathan pressed, a gleam of white teeth flashing through the breathing slot in his bandages. "Letting out the little kid inside of you."
Ezra grinned, unable to deny the observation. "Indeed it was, and that reminds me; I owe young Master Tanner a full description of the experience. He was very disappointed at the age restriction, so Josiah suggested I go in and see the sights for him."
"Yeah, I figured it was something like that when I saw you in there. There they are now," he said, pointing ahead to where Vin and JD waved wildly at them.
Neither boy looked at all disturbed to find Ezra walking side by side with a Mummy, its wrappings hanging in decayed grayish tatters in spots, so clearly Josiah had told them about Nathans costume. This was confirmed as they came closer and JD bellowed, "Hi, Uncle Nathan!" and flung himself forward to give the Mummy a hug. Equally ecstatic at Ezras safe return from the scary place, JD hugged him as well. "Hi, Uncle Ezra!"
"So, how was it?" Vin demanded, grabbing hold of Ezras left arm. "Was it really scary?"
Glancing at Nathan, who grinned expectantly at him, he said, "It certainly was. All sorts of ghastly creatures were waiting inside. Skeletons, ghosts, werewolves, creatures of the night. Why, one such miserable beast even attempted to make off with me!"
"Wow," Vin breathed, eyes huge. "What did you do?"
"Well, fortunately, Nathan saw my plight and followed me the rest of the way through. To protect me from any other such incidents, I am sure," he said, raising an eyebrow at the medic, who suddenly seemed to have developed a coughing fit.
Vin turned admiring eyes on Nathan. "Youre really brave, Uncle Nathan."
"Ezra was brave too, for the most part," he said generously, but then added, "If I told you what he said when that corpse grabbed him, though, I think wed both owe a little money to the swear jar."
JDs eyes widened. "Did you say a bad word, Uncle Ezra?"
"I was startled," he defended. "I think most anyone would have forgotten their manners had they suddenly found themselves in the clutches of the undead."
Josiah and Nathan both broke into laughter when the little boys looked at each other and nodded in solemn agreement.
"Well, folks, Id better say goodnight," Josiah told them. "My turn to scare a few visitors."
"Bye, Uncle Josiah," the boys chorused.
Ezra shook his hand. "Thank you for watching over them and allowing me a chance to see your creation. It was most impressive. Give the other volunteers my congratulations."
"Will do. Im glad you had a good time," he said, waving a hand to them all as he strode away to take his position in the house.
"Yall heading home after this?" Nathan asked, noting that Ezra had folded back the top of one black leather glove to check his wristwatch.
He nodded. "Its getting a bit late and they both have school tomorrow."
Instantly, two moans of protest sounded. "Aw, do we have to go?" whined JD, who had apparently forgotten all about being frightened now that it was over.
"Its not that late, is it?" Vin pleaded.
"Its after eight oclock," Ezra told them. "By the time we get home, sort out your candy and get cleaned up, it will be far past your bed time. And I promised to call your fathers so you can give them an update on our activities."
Both boys brightened at the reminder that they would soon be talking to Chris and Buck. "I wish they couldve been here," Vin said regretfully.
"So do I," he said truthfully. "And Im sure that theyre sorry to have missed out, but I thank you both for allowing me to substitute. Ive had a wonderful time."
"Me too," the boy agreed.
JD grinned. "Me three!"
Smiling, Ezra held out his hands to them, nodding his goodbye to Nathan as the tall black man observed their departure with a fond smile.
"Bye, guys," Nathan called.
Vin and JD turned and waved. "Bye, Uncle Nathan!"
Somewhere on the long drive home, the boundless energy of two small boys finally gave out. Ezra smiled as he glanced into the rearview mirror and saw them sleeping. There would be plenty of time to wake them up when they reached home. For now, he would just enjoy the silence and the chance to revel in memories of the best Halloween he had ever had.
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