"Josiah!" Ezra shouted when he saw one of the armed thugs take aim at the big man. But Josiah was too far away and didn't hear the warning. Glancing to his left, Ezra saw that Buck was busy firing at a man who was shooting at JD. Nathan was covering Chris, while Vin was firing at the men who were attempting to escape out the back door. Gritting his teeth, he moved away from his position behind some packing crates and darted into the open, firing at the man targeting Josiah. The man went down and Ezra quickly rolled back toward his former position and took up where he had left off. The gunfire lasted only a few more minutes, slowly petering out as the rest of the armed criminals were subdued.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Ezra stepped forward to help round up the bad guys. After two months undercover, he was glad to see this case finally finished. The ATF had been after Harold Archer for more than two years without success, unable to penetrate his arms dealing organization, until a tip from one of Ezra's snitches had given them the break they needed. Posing as Roger Steadman, owner of a successful import/export business, Ezra had attended a party where Archer was a guest and gradually worked his way into the gunrunner's confidence, convincing him that he was a major player in the arms market. Today's bust was the culmination of his efforts and he felt the warm sense of satisfaction that always accompanied the successful conclusion of a case.
A smile playing across his features, Ezra handed off the last of the cuffed gunrunners to some members of Team Two, who were assisting with the raid, and sauntered toward the rest of his team. Chris Larabee saw his approach and moved to intercept him.
"What the hell were you thinking?!" he snarled.
Bewildered, Ezra stopped and gazed at him in confusion. "Excuse me?"
"You were supposed to be covering JD, not jumping out into the crossfire and playing Lone Ranger!"
"The man had Mr. Sanchez in his sights," Ezra retorted angrily. "Nobody else was close enough to take appropriate action."
"Nathan and Vin had him covered," Chris growled, pushing himself to within inches of Ezra's face. "You could have gotten JD killed." He pointed to the bullet-riddled crate behind which JD had taken cover.
"Mr. Wilmington was covering him," Ezra stated icily, "and I was only away for a few moments." He looked to the rest of his team for support, but found none. JD had returned to the van, Nathan and Buck were nodding their heads in agreement with Chris, Josiah looked thoughtful, and Vin was smirking with obvious amusement. Ezra noted with some discomfort that most of the members of Team Two were watching the exchange as well.
"I told you to cover JD," Chris said, his tone as hard as the glare he was giving Ezra. "When I give an order, I expect it to be followed."
"I'll take it under advisement," Ezra said tightly, not wanting to escalate the argument in front of an audience.
The vein on Chris's temple began to throb harder as he clenched his fists tightly at his sides. For a moment, Ezra thought his boss was going to hit him -- it wouldn't be the first time -- but Chris instead favored him with a scathing glare before turning abruptly and stalking away.
Ezra sighed as he watched Larabee's retreating figure. The rest of the team turned to follow their leader while Team Two dispersed to continue cataloguing the confiscated weapons, seemingly disappointed that there had been no violence. With an unreadable expression on his face, Ezra slowly left the building.
As he drove back to the office, Ezra pondered the scene at the raid once again. Larabee had been on his case for the past two weeks, constantly criticizing him and giving him a hard time about nearly everything. He expected a certain amount of grief from his boss, their relationship being somewhat less than tranquil at the best of times, but lately it seemed that nothing he did satisfied the man. Berating him in front of others, especially those outside of his team, was not something that he would normally do, and Ezra found himself wondering what he had done to deserve such abuse. That question had been plaguing him since Chris's foul mood had begun, and he was still no closer to finding an answer.
The five months he had been with the team had been difficult for Ezra. After the fiasco of his first assignment as a member of Team Seven, neither Chris nor the others trusted him, always expecting him to shirk his duty again. He didn't blame them; how could he? He hardly dared place his own trust in them, especially since the near-ruination of his career and his self-confidence by the FBI, so it was ridiculous to expect them to reciprocate what he himself was unable give. All of his life he had been taught not to trust others, and on the few occasions he had taken a chance and done so, he had had that lesson painfully driven home.
But Ezra had recently begun to feel that he was at least accepted within the group, even if he wasn't trusted or liked by their leader. He had even begun taking them up on the occasional invitation for drinks at their favorite bar after work. Yet, none of the others had backed him when Larabee had begun using him as target practice for his wrath, leaving him to defend himself. Though it was something he was used to, Ezra felt oddly disappointed at the lack of support from the rest of his team. At the same time, he chastised himself for feeling that way, hating the fact that he actually cared what these men thought of him.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Little hard on 'im, weren't ya?" Vin commented as he sidled up to Chris in the parking garage of the federal building. He had initially found Chris and Ezra's confrontation amusing, but the humor had slipped away when he noticed the other ATF team watching in the background.
The blond leader turned his glare on the younger man beside him. "Not your concern."
"Hell, Chris, he didn't do anythin' different than the rest of us woulda done in his shoes."
Chris sent him another frosty glance before turning away and striding determinedly into the stairwell.
The sharpshooter frowned in consternation as he watched his friend leave, debating whether or not he should follow him and continue the conversation. He turned sharply as a hand grasped his shoulder.
"Leave him be, Vin," Buck said. "He ain't in no mood for talkin'."
"It weren't right, him chewin' Ez out in front of everybody like that," Vin said intently. "It ain't like he done anythin' wrong anyway."
Buck was about to disagree, when he remembered that Team Two had also been present during the altercation. "Yeah, he should have saved it for the office."
"What the hell's with him lately?" Vin asked as they stepped into the elevator. "He's been on Ez like a bad habit for the last coupla weeks. An' he ain't been none too pleasant to the rest of us, neither."
Thoughtfully, Buck smoothed his hand over his mustache. "It ain't a good time for him right now," the big man said quietly. "Today's his anniversary."
"Shit," Vin muttered.
"Yeah," Buck agreed. "It's always tough on him."
"Why's he takin' it out on Ezra?" asked Vin. "He ain't done nothin' worse than usual."
Buck shrugged. "Don't know. Convenient target, maybe."
"Don't make it right."
"No, it don't," Buck agreed.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra had taken his time driving back to the ATF headquarters, reluctant to face any more of Larabee's anger, and so arrived at the office nearly fifteen minutes behind the others. As he walked down the hall toward the Team Seven offices, he wondered if his boss was going to pick up where they left off at the warehouse. He quietly entered the bullpen and made his way to his desk, noting with some relief that Larabee's door was closed and the others were engrossed in their own activities. Rubbing a hand tiredly over his face, Ezra switched on his computer and began working on his report.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra's looked up with a start at the sound of JD's voice. "Yes, Mr. Dunne?"
The young agent bounded across the bullpen with an energy that Ezra wished he could summon at the end of a long day. "It's five o'clock, Ez. Time to go to the Saloon."
"Yeah, come on, Ez," Vin said persuasively, parking himself on a corner of Ezra's desk. "We have a lot to celebrate tonight."
Ezra cast a furtive glance in the direction of Larabee's office, then slowly shook his head. "Ah, I don't think I'll be joining you this evening. I'm rather tired."
Vin had caught the look and understood the undercover agent's hesitancy. "Don't worry 'bout Chris none," he said encouragingly. "He's just in a pissy mood."
"Yeah," JD agreed, nodding his head vigorously. "Heck, you're the one who did the most work on this case, Ezra. I'll even buy you a beer."
"So will I," Josiah intoned as he joined the other two in front of Ezra's desk. "I owe you one, brother."
"Please?" JD added.
Ezra looked into JD's pleading eyes and sighed in resignation. "I suppose I could do with a drink," he said finally.
"Good," Josiah said cheerfully. "Let's go."
"I'll join you in a bit," Ezra replied. "I would like to finish my report first so as not to incur any more of Mr. Larabee's infamous wrath."
"You promise?" JD asked doubtfully.
"Yes, Mr. Dunne," Ezra said with a smile. "I will be there."
Vin nodded at him and slid off of his desk to follow the others. Buck and Nathan joined the other three and the group left as one, their cheerful banter echoing down the hallway. Ezra hadn't missed the fact that Larabee had not yet left the office and turned back to his report, trying to ignore the uneasy feeling this gave him.
Ten minutes later, Chris emerged from his office, locking the door behind him. He stopped short upon seeing Ezra still diligently working at his desk. He had heard the others leave and had thought that Ezra had gone with them to celebrate the successful bust.
"Aren't you going to the Saloon with the others?" Chris asked.
Ezra jumped slightly, startled at hearing his superior's voice. "I intend to join them as soon as I finish writing my report," he replied.
Chris studied his undercover agent for a moment, noting the darkening circles under his eyes and the faint lines of strain on his face. It had been a difficult assignment, with meetings at odd hours and late-night parties that Ezra had been forced to attend in order to keep his cover intact. The man was tired, deservedly so, and Chris found himself feeling a hint of sympathy for the man.
"The report will still be there Monday," Chris said with a sigh.
"Yes, well..." Ezra shrugged. "I'd much prefer to complete this while it is still fresh in my mind, so that I can relax this weekend."
Chris felt his frustration rising again and fought to control it. "I'd better see you there," he warned. He had promised Buck that he would go to the saloon with the others, and if *he* was going to be forced to endure the drunken celebration, then so was Ezra.
"Not to worry, Mr. Larabee," Ezra assured him. "I will be finished shortly."
Chris nodded at his agent then left without another word.
* * * * * * * * * *
The noise and the smoke assaulted his senses the moment Ezra stepped through the door of the bar named, appropriately, 'The Saloon'. It was a comfortable place, decorated in an Old West theme and, due to its location several blocks from the federal building, was frequented primarily by federal agents and government employees. Ezra made his way through the crowd toward Team Seven's regular table. It had been a little more than an hour and a half since Chris had left the office, and Ezra quickly discovered that his teammates had spent that entire time 'celebrating'.
"Hey Ez!" JD shouted happily at his approach. "You made it!"
"Indeed, Mr. Dunne," Ezra said, grinning at the boy's exuberant welcome.
"Have a seat," Nathan said, pushing a chair out for him.
Ezra took the offered seat, draping his coat over the back of the chair. He gazed around the table, observing that most of his teammates were well on their way to being drunk. Josiah was loudly regaling Vin with tales of some of his travels in the Far East, while Chris focused solely on the amber liquid in his glass, trying vainly to ignore Buck's graphic description of yet another of his sexual escapades. JD sat in the middle, his head bobbing between the two vociferous conversations. Nathan caught Ezra's eye and nodded, an amused smile playing on his lips.
Ezra glanced at the coffee mug sitting in front of the dark man and lifted an eyebrow curiously. "You are not partaking of any libations this evening?"
Nathan snorted. "Somebody's got to drive these yahoos home later." Giving Ezra an appraising look, he asked tentatively, "Don't suppose you'd consider givin' me a hand?"
Ezra considered it for a moment. While a drink or two would have gone down nicely at that point, he was feeling somewhat tired and felt a headache brewing behind his eyes. Knowing that alcohol would only make him feel worse, he gave Nathan a nod. "I believe I could be persuaded," he said eventually.
"Good," Nathan said, visibly relieved. "I was afraid I was goin' to have to deal with the bunch of ya by myself."
* * * * * * * * * *
The evening gave way to early morning as Ezra sat, half-dozing, while his teammates gradually succumbed to their drinking. JD had passed out an hour ago, and Chris lay with his head on the table, his hand still wrapped around his whiskey glass. Vin sat across from Chris in virtually the same position, though his hand lay in the remnants of a plate of onion rings. Josiah and Buck were still conscious, laughing uproariously at something only they understood.
Nathan sighed and slowly got to his feet, nudging Ezra's shoulder to wake him. "Time to get these guys home, Ez."
Ezra sat up and yawned, stretching languidly until his back realigned itself with a satisfying pop. "Which of them do you wish to chauffeur, Nathan?"
"Well, Buck, JD, and Josiah all live on the way to my place," Nathan said with a shrug. "You think you can handle Vin and Chris?"
"I believe I can," Ezra agreed.
"Vin was planning to go out to Chris's place this weekend anyway, so you might as well take them both out there," Nathan suggested. "In fact, why don't you stop at your own apartment and pack a bag so you don't have to drive back tonight."
"I doubt Mr. Larabee would appreciate my presence in his home for any longer than necessary," Ezra said with a faint smile. "I shall return to my own residence after I have delivered them safely."
Nathan frowned but didn't argue. "Can you give me a hand with Josiah and Buck? They ain't exactly lightweights."
"Certainly." Ezra pushed his chair aside and moved to assist Nathan.
With much pushing and shoving, they had finally gotten the men loaded into Nathan's Explorer. As they leaned against the car catching their breath, Nathan asked, "Do you need any help with Chris and Vin?"
"No." Ezra shook his head. "I believe I can manage."
"All right, then," Nathan said with a weary sigh as he climbed into the vehicle. "You drive carefully, ya hear?"
Ezra nodded. "I shall endeavor to do so." He turned and headed back into the bar to retrieve his charges. Both Vin and Chris were still passed out at the table, their heads down on their arms. Ezra chuckled, knowing that they would be feeling the ill effects of this binge in the morning. Reaching for his coat, he remembered that it was a long drive to Larabee's ranch and that he had not visited the restroom all evening. Rifling through their coat pockets, Ezra retrieved both sets of car keys, in case they awakened before he returned.
"Do you need a taxi, Señor?" asked Inez, the dark-haired proprietress of The Saloon.
"No, my dear," Ezra replied with a smile. "I shall be driving my compatriots home as soon as I return from using the facilities."
Inez smiled, then began clearing the empty glasses and plates from the table. Ezra hurried to the restroom, eager to deliver his associates so that he might return home for some much-needed rest.
Five minutes later, Ezra returned to the table and found both of his teammates missing. Muttering a curse, he grabbed his coat from the back of his chair and raced out the door, emerging outside in time to see the taillights of Vin's jeep disappearing around the corner. He should have known that Vin could hotwire his own vehicle.
"Dammit!" he shouted, whirling quickly and running toward his own car. Ezra frantically unlocked the door and was about to jump inside when he noticed that his car was listing slightly to one side. He ran around to the other side and discovered that his right rear tire was flat. "Shit!" he cursed loudly. Chris's truck was parked next to his Jaguar, but it, too, had a flat tire. Muttering a string of epithets, he reached for the trunk of his car.
Ezra didn't think he had ever changed a tire so quickly in his life. Normally it would have taken him fifteen minutes to replace the tire, but he managed it in less than ten. After stowing the deflated tire and the jack in his trunk, he jumped into the car and tore out of the parking lot. There was no telling what kind of trouble his drunken friends might get into. He only hoped he could find them before anything happened. Since Vin's apartment was in the same direction as Chris's ranch, Ezra made the slight detour required to drive by the place, hoping that the men had had the common sense not to attempt such a long drive in their inebriated state.
Purgatorio was not the most attractive neighborhood during the daytime, but in the darkness, it appeared almost sinister. Ezra slowed his car as he drove past Vin's apartment building, scanning the streets hopefully. Unfortunately, the jeep was nowhere to be found, and he began to feel sense of dread building in the pit of his stomach.
He had only been there once, but Ezra remembered that the route to Chris's house was fairly straightforward. He drove as fast as he could while still searching for the elusive jeep. His hopes of finding them were gradually diminishing as he turned onto the lonely road that wound its way through the countryside toward Larabee's home. It was a narrow, two-lane road with no lights and very little traffic, sporting many ruts and cracks from the harsh weather it endured each winter. As his car bounced along the asphalt, Ezra peered out of his side windows into the thick forest on either side of road, praying that he wouldn't find a crumpled vehicle there. There were several stretches further ahead on this road where the sides dropped away steeply and he knew just how easy it would be for a car to slip over the side.
He was still several miles from the last turnoff that led to the ranch, when his headlights illuminated something on the side of the road ahead. As he drew closer, Ezra recognized the outline of the jeep and heaved a huge sigh of relief. "Thank God!" he whispered to himself.
The trees on the sides of the road left very little shoulder, and Ezra was loath to leave his car parked in the driving lane. Instead, he carefully turned the Jaguar around and drove a short distance back down the road to a small area he had seen earlier, where the shoulder widened enough to park his vehicle safely and out of the way of traffic. Climbing out of his car, Ezra jogged toward the jeep holding the flashlight he had retrieved from his glove box, hoping his friends were uninjured.
As he neared the jeep, he could make out the back of Chris's blond head slumped over the steering wheel, and Vin's inert form leaning against the passenger side window, his long hair obscuring his face. Ezra's heart skipped a beat and he quickened his pace, concerned that his friends might be hurt. He couldn't see their faces yet, but when he was about twenty-five feet away, he saw something that nearly made his heart stop altogether. Lining the dashboard of the jeep were several rectangular objects with what appeared to be wires curling out of them.
"Good lord," Ezra breathed in dismay. If those were what he thought they were, his two friends were in grave danger. He started to run, but had only taken two steps when the jeep exploded, sending a massive fireball skyward. Ezra was lifted off his feet and thrown backwards across the road, his long coat billowing out around him like a sail while the heat from the blast singed his hair, skin, and clothing. His flight through the air ended abruptly when he slammed into a large tree. The impact knocked him out and he slid bonelessly to the ground, lying facedown in the dirt.
* * * * * * * * * *
The air crackled and hissed around him as Ezra slowly returned to consciousness. He opened his eyes and winced at the brightness that was sending sharp knives of pain into his head. Rolling himself into a seated position, Ezra stared numbly at the inferno that had once been Vin's jeep. White flames roared, devouring what was left of the vehicle and nearly blinding him with their intensity; blue fire danced around the edges of the blaze, giving it a strange, otherworldly glow.
"Oh God," Ezra cried hoarsely, remembering what had transpired. "Vin! Chris!" On his hands and knees, he crawled toward the flaming wreckage, but had to stop when the heat became too extreme He retreated across the road, pulling himself up onto a large boulder, his eyes never leaving the devastating scene.
They were dead. Ezra didn't want to believe it, but he knew there was no way anyone could have survived that blast or the resulting fire. Dazedly, he looked at his watch, surprised to note that he had only been unconscious for ten minutes. Shivering in the chill autumn air, he pulled his coat tighter around himself, fastening the buttons and wrapping his arms around his chest. It suddenly occurred to him that he should call someone, and without conscious thought, he pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and mechanically dialed 911. He relayed the details of what had happened in a flat, toneless voice, then hung up and dialed Nathan's home number.
The phone rang several times before Nathan answered in a sleepy voice, "Yeah?"
Ezra hesitated, suddenly unable to find any words.
"Who's there?" Nathan inquired, irritation creeping into his voice.
"It's Ezra," he finally replied.
"Ezra?" Nathan sounded confused. "What's wrong?"
"It's... it's Chris and Vin," he stuttered hoarsely. "They're dead."
"What?!" Nathan shouted, instantly wide-awake. "What happened? Where are you?"
"They blew up," Ezra stated quietly, suddenly feeling the urge to giggle. "Big ball of fire." This time he did laugh nervously.
"Ezra!" Nathan growled. "Where are you?"
"On... on the road to Chris's place," Ezra replied, attempting to stifle his hysteria.
"Did you call 911?"
"They're dead, Nathan," Ezra said in a small voice.
"We're on our way," Nathan said.
"Okay," he answered, but Nathan had already hung up.
Ezra wrapped his arms tighter around himself, rocking slowly as he sat on the boulder. He could hear sirens approaching and struggled to regain control of his emotions. It wouldn't do any good for him to lose it now.
* * * * * * * * * *
It took the rest of the team nearly an hour to arrive at the scene. Ezra sat on his rock, blankly watching the police and fire department activity. He had given his statement when they had arrived, explaining to them about the plastic explosives he thought he had seen inside the jeep. They had been doubtful at first, until he had shown them his badge and assured them that he knew what he was talking about.
The paramedics had arrived along with the other emergency vehicles, but nothing could be done for Chris and Vin. Hell, nothing was left of them, Ezra thought morosely. He himself had refused medical treatment, as he honestly felt no pain despite the burned patches on his face and hands. When he saw Nathan's Explorer arrive, Ezra was relieved. He didn't want to be here by himself, staring at the now-smoldering wreckage and wondering why it had happened.
The rest of his teammates piled out of the truck and raced toward the center of activity, slowing as they approached the foot-deep crater and the small pile of debris in its center of that didn't seem large enough to have once been Vin's jeep. Buck noticed Ezra first and changed direction mid-step, storming angrily toward him.
"What the fuck happened?!" Buck roared as he pulled Ezra up off of the rock by the lapels of his coat.
"Somebody blew them up," Ezra replied simply, turning his face away from the alcoholic fumes that Buck was blowing in his face. Just his luck that the man was still drunk. Buck was normally a boisterous and good-tempered man, but alcohol tended to amplify his emotions, both good and bad, leading to occasional violence that he would never contemplate in his sober state.
"You were supposed to be driving them home! Why the hell were they driving in the first place?" He shook Ezra hard for emphasis.
"They got away from me at the Saloon," Ezra replied hoarsely. "I was only in the restroom for a couple of minutes... I took their keys, but... the tire was flat..."
"You goddamned selfish son of a bitch!" Buck let go of Ezra's lapel with his right hand and used it to punch him in the face. Enraged, he punched him again in the face and then several times in the stomach, holding him up in the air like a rag doll as he vented his rage. None of the others moved to stop him.
"Hey! What's going on here?" One of the police officers had seen the altercation and came running toward them.
"Ask this asshole," Buck spat heatedly, throwing Ezra to the ground and kicking dirt in his face. "If the worthless bastard had driven our friends home like he was s'posed to, they'd still be alive and not that..." His voice broke. "...that pile of smoking ash over there."
The cop looked at Buck and then down at Ezra before nodding and turning away, a disgusted look on his face. "Just take it easy, okay," the officer warned as he walked away.
Ezra looked up at Buck and the others, finding no sympathy or understanding in any of their faces. Buck was furious, his teeth clenched and his face a bright shade of red. Nathan looked outraged and disdainful, glowering down at him as if he were nothing more than a piece of trash on the side of the road. Josiah's stony expression showed nothing but shock and disappointment and Ezra felt the big man's bloodshot eyes staring right through him, like he no longer existed. JD, looking crushed and betrayed and with tears streaming down his face, quickly turned away and refused to look at him. None of them took notice of the fact that Ezra was as stunned and distraught by the events as they were themselves.
Ezra lowered his head, wiping the blood from his face, and made his way slowly to his feet. He swayed slightly and unconsciously reached toward Nathan for support. The other man reacted as though he had been burned, shoving him away forcefully. Ezra toppled over into the dirt once again.
"You know," Nathan said icily. "I was actually starting to think that you might have the makings of a decent human being under them fancy suits." He glared at the prone man before him, his fists clenching and unclenching at his sides. "Looks like I was wrong." He and the others turned their backs on him and walked away.
Devastated, Ezra watched them go. They were right. He was a no good, self-centered, useless son of a bitch, just as he had been told by the endless parade of family friends and relatives with whom he had stayed as a child. They had all told him that he would never amount to anything, and he had spent his entire life trying to prove them wrong. But the truth was out. They had been right all along, and now two good men were dead because of him. Ezra climbed slowly to his feet, ignoring the pains that were beginning to make themselves known throughout his body, and trudged down the road to his car.
Ezra drove automatically, barely paying attention to the road in front of him, and was startled when he found himself close to home; he didn't even remember reaching the city limits. The car hit a particularly large pothole, sending a shooting pain through his lower back accompanied by a wave of dizziness. Reaching a hand behind him, he rubbed the spot carefully and was surprised at the wetness he found there. The sight of blood on his hand shocked him even more, and he realized that he had been feeling lightheaded for some time. Ezra thought briefly about ignoring it and going home -- after all, he deserved whatever injuries he got -- but then decided that he needed to take care of himself so that he could find out who was responsible for the explosion. He owed that much, at least, to Vin and Chris. At the next intersection, he turned his car in the direction of the hospital.
* * * * * * * * * *
The four men sat dejectedly on the ground next to one of the police cars, watching in silence as the forensic experts scoured the scene. JD cried unashamedly while the others fought to keep their own grief under control as the realization set in that their friends were truly gone.
One of the female detectives investigating the scene saw them sitting there and came over to speak to them. "You guys really should go home," she suggested. "It's going to take hours to finish here and there's nothing much you can do."
"Have you found anything..." Nathan paused, looking at her identification. "Detective Bennett?" asked Nathan.
"Barbara, please," she said with a smile. It was against procedure, but these men were federal agents and, if nothing else, Barbara thought she might be able to ease the desperation etched on all of their faces. "There isn't a whole lot to find," she began. "From what the fire department guys are telling me, that entire vehicle must have been packed with explosives, probably plastique. We also think that there was some type of accelerant used. Probably rocket fuel or the like, from the description of the fire your friend gave us." She was surprised at the frowns that crossed their faces at the mention of their friend, but decided to ignore it. "The fire burned so hot that it vaporized nearly everything. It even destroyed the pavement." The men's faces fell at that statement, and the youngest paled significantly.
"Is there any... evidence? Anything at all?" Buck asked.
Barbara sighed and reluctantly drew a plastic bag from her pocket. "We found this about fifty feet away. It looks like part of a badge."
JD jumped up and came toward her to take a closer look. "It's... Vin's," he said sadly. "I recognize the numbers on the bottom."
"I'm sorry," Barbara said sympathetically, unsure if she should continue. "Um, we also found a tooth that looks like it was thrown clear of the blast. It was a little charred, but we should be able to identify it."
"Jesus." Buck's shoulders slumped and he leaned his head on his hands.
"It's already been sent to the lab," she offered. "We'll contact you once we know anything definitive. You guys should really go home and get some rest."
"She's right," Josiah said stoically as he turned to face his companions. "We can't do anything more here. What we need is to get some sleep so that we can start fresh in the morning." The big man slowly rose from his position on the ground. "I don't know about you, brothers, but I want to get the bastards who did this."
The other three nodded their heads in agreement and climbed to their feet, striding determinedly to their vehicle without looking back.
"They're finally leaving?" Detective Paul Ruiz asked his partner as he joined her at the fringe of the crime scene.
"Yes," Barbara answered sadly. "They're wiped out and they know it." She turned around and started walking back toward the crime scene. "I'll tell you, though," she said with certainty. "I wouldn't want to be in the shoes of whoever did this when they get hold of him."
"No kidding," Paul agreed. "I've heard of those guys, and I sure wouldn't want to mess with them." 'The Magnificent Seven' were already a legend in the law enforcement community, despite the fact that the team had been in existence for less than a year.
"Well, I hope they find them," Barbara stated. "Nobody deserves to die like this."
Paul nodded silently as the two detectives returned to their sad task.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra limped through the doors of the emergency room, having left his car in the hospital parking garage. The waiting room was full, typical of an early Saturday morning after the bars had closed, as he made his way toward the registration desk. He waited patiently until the gray-haired nurse noticed him standing there.
"Agent Standish! I didn't see you," the nurse commented, familiar with all of the members of Team Seven, who seemed to grace their doors with great frequency. "Who are we treating tonight?" She took a closer look at his face, noticing the black eye, fat lip and burns, and frowned. "Besides you, that is."
"It's just myself this evening, Mrs. Baker," Ezra replied quietly. "I'm afraid I ventured a bit too close to an exploding vehicle."
Nurse Baker frowned at him with a shake of her head. "You boys sure do seem to have a knack for finding trouble."
"I have a special request," Ezra said seriously. "I need to be registered under another name, for safety reasons." In truth, he didn't want his teammates or anyone else to find him. He was in enough pain already and wasn't up to dodging any more punches. He was also afraid that they might just ignore him completely, leaving him here alone, and he didn't know which possibility saddened him the most.
She frowned. "That's not standard procedure, Agent Standish. I don't know if I can do that."
"It's important," Ezra said persuasively. "Two of my... associates were killed this evening in the explosion I mentioned, and there could be great danger to the rest of us. No one must know that I am here... for the hospital's safety as well as my own."
"What about the others?" she asked pensively. "Shouldn't they be here with you?"
"My other teammates are already hidden away in a safe house," Ezra lied. "It's much too dangerous to contact them at this point in time."
"I'm sure we can do what you ask." Nurse Baker placed a motherly hand on his arm in sympathy. "I'll take you into a room right away." She stepped around the desk to escort him to an examination room. Ezra took several steps, then was assaulted by a sudden wave of vertigo. The world began to spin violently, ultimately fading to black as consciousness fled him.
"Get a doctor!" Nurse Baker called to one of the other nurses as she struggled to lower the unconscious agent to the floor.
* * * * * * * * * *
The other four members of Team Seven were somber as they drove to the federal building Saturday morning. They had spent the night at Chris's house, since they were exhausted and none of them wanted to be alone. The ranch was closest to where the explosion had taken place, and simply being in their friend's home gave the men some comfort, however slight. It was noon when they finally arrived at the office and none of them were surprised to find Ezra's desk vacant.
JD slumped miserably into his chair and stared forlornly at the door to Chris's office. "I can't believe they're gone," he whispered, gazing up at Buck with red-rimmed eyes.
"I know, kid," Buck said, squeezing his shoulder supportively.
"We'd best get started," Josiah said, slipping into the leadership role automatically. "JD, why don't you start with all of our past cases, especially the ones where Chris or Vin played a large role. Buck, can you look into Chris's past cases with the PD? You'll have a better handle on that than the rest of us."
Buck nodded and headed for his desk and Josiah turned his attention to Nathan.
"Nate, I think you should look into the forensics. Once we have a better idea of the methods used, I can get started on a profile."
"I'll see what I can find out about the explosives and start tracing them from this end," Nathan offered. "I don't think the police department is going to give us any trouble about it this time."
Josiah nodded. "I'm going to look into Vin's record with the Marshals and start checking to see if there's any word on the streets. Somebody has to know something."
The men went about their tasks, working the phones, computers, and fax machines in melancholy silence. Their furious efforts were as much to keep the grief at bay as to find their friends' killers. That was how Assistant Director Travis found them two hours later. So intent on their work were they that they never even noticed his arrival.
Travis smiled sadly at their quiet resolve. He was proud of 'his boys'. They were a motley crew of misfits who had found a place together and created a formidable team, despite the odds against them. Now, though, that team had been torn apart and he didn't know if anything could ever pull them together again. He shared their grief and anger, as well as their desire for justice. The perpetrators of this vile act would get no quarter from any of them.
He cleared his throat and alerted them to his presence. "Boys," he greeted them, sadness evident in his voice. "I got the call a few hours ago. How are you holding up?"
"As well as we can," Josiah answered. "It's still so hard to believe."
"I know," Travis replied understandingly. "I called three other people just to verify what I was told before I could accept it. I still have to tell Mary...." He sighed and shook his head, knowing how badly she and Billy would react to the news.
"Lord, what about Miss Nettie?" Nathan gasped. "Someone should tell her before she sees it in the paper."
JD looked up at him guiltily. "Sorry, I should have remembered." The older woman worked as the office manager for the ATF's secretarial pool, and had developed a fondness for the men of Team Seven, especially Vin, who had known her since his high school days. JD had been spending time with Nettie's niece Casey, having met her at a barbecue her aunt had thrown for Vin after he had joined Team 7. He knew how hard it was going to be on the woman to hear that Vin and Chris had been killed.
"It's all right, JD," Travis consoled the distraught young man. "It's been a terrible time for all of us."
"I'll head over there right now," JD said disconsolately. "I want to tell her and Casey in person."
"I'll go with you, son," Josiah offered, knowing how difficult it was going to be for the younger man.
"Thanks, Josiah." JD's shoulders sagged with relief. He really didn't want to have to do this alone.
Travis watched the two men leave, not envying them their mission, since he would be facing the same situation shortly. "Do you have any idea who might be responsible for this?" Travis directed his question to Nathan.
"Not yet," Nathan replied.
"But we're on it, sir," Buck told him determinedly. "Nobody does this to our team and gets away with it." Nathan murmured in agreement, sharing the same purposeful look in his eyes.
"Where's Agent Standish?" Travis asked, nodding his head toward Ezra's empty desk.
"Don't know and don't care," Buck replied acidly.
Travis looked at him in surprise. "Why is that?"
"He was supposed to drive them home from the Saloon last night," Nathan said flatly. "If he had, they'd still be here."
"He doesn't even care enough to show up and help us find the bastards who did it," Buck added.
Travis frowned, looking again at Ezra's desk. He knew the undercover agent was standoffish at best, but he hadn't expected him to be such a coldhearted bastard in the face of such a tragedy. "We'll just see about that," he said finally, his stern tone of voice boding ill for the undercover agent.
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