A horribly annoying beeping sound intruded upon his consciousness and Ezra swiped his arm out, searching for the non-existent alarm clock. It was Saturday, after all, and he wanted to sleep in. Something was tugging on his arm and he cracked an eye open to see what it was. What he saw in the dim light didn't make much sense at first, until he recognized the IV that was attached to his wrist and realized that he was in the hospital again.
"Aw hell," he mumbled to himself hoarsely, his throat dry and scratchy. He gazed blearily around the room, trying to remember why he was here. None of the others were here, which surprised him, since they had been quite obstinate about not leaving him alone the last time he had been hospitalized. Ezra looked down at his hand again, noticing the red, blistered patches on his skin. With a blinding flash of clarity, it all came back to him. He closed his eyes, reliving the explosion that killed Chris and Vin, and his friends' wrath afterward. "What have I done?" he asked himself in a pained whisper. Tears filled his eyes as Ezra let the anguish pour from him, quiet sobs wracking his body until he fell into an exhausted sleep.
* * * * * * * * * *
JD shuffled his feet nervously on the front porch of the small house. Only Josiah's comforting presence behind him kept him from bolting. The door finally opened, and Casey greeted him with a smile.
"Hi, JD," she said cheerily. "I wasn't expecting you today."
"Hi, Casey," he said, attempting a smile. "Can we come in?"
She glanced behind him at Josiah and nodded. "Sure. Is something wrong?" She noticed the unusually sober looks on their faces.
"Yeah," JD answered quietly. "Is Miz Nettie here?"
"Sure," Casey said, a worried look on her face. "I'll go get her."
"I hate this, Josiah," JD said despondently.
"I know, son." Josiah placed a comforting hand on the young agent's shoulder.
Casey returned, followed by Nettie, who eyed them curiously as she wiped her hands on her apron.
"What can I do for you boys?" Nettie asked.
"Um, I have something to tell you, ma'am," JD said uneasily.
Nettie looked from him to Josiah, a worried frown creasing her brow. "What happened?"
"It's Chris and Vin..." JD began. "They... they were killed last night in an explosion."
"No!" Casey exclaimed, covering her mouth with her hands, tears flooding her eyes.
"I'm afraid so," Josiah said soothingly.
"My boys..." Nettie murmured. "Oh my lord." She eased herself into a chair and looked at them sorrowfully. "How did it happen?"
"Someone put a bomb in Vin's car," JD explained. "We're trying to figure out who did it now."
"They didn't feel any pain," Josiah offered.
Casey sat down and began to cry. JD sat next to her and wrapped an arm around her shoulder.
"We wanted to tell you in person, before you heard about it on the news," Josiah said quietly.
"Thank you," Nettie said softly, wiping her eyes with the corner of her apron.
They sat in silence for a few minutes while Nettie and Casey absorbed the news, neither man having the words to comfort them.
"We need to get back," JD said finally. "We're gonna get the assholes who did this, don't you worry."
"I know you will, JD," Casey said confidently, smiling bravely through her tears.
It was a testimony to Nettie's grief that she didn't reprimand JD for his use of colorful language. "You do that, boys." She stood to usher them out the door. "You let me know if you need anything, you hear?"
"Yes, ma'am," JD said.
"Ma'am," Josiah nodded as she shut the door behind them.
As they walked to the car, Josiah said, "They'll be all right, JD. They're strong women."
"I know," JD said with a sigh. "I just wish they didn't have to be."
* * * * * * * * * *
At eight o'clock that evening, the four weary members of Team Seven filed slowly into the conference room carrying their armloads of research. The men unconsciously took their usual seats, painfully aware of the two empty seats near the head of the table and tossing disdainful glances at the empty chair at the other end.
Josiah rubbed his temples and took a deep breath. "So, what do we have?"
"I have a list of names of all of the people Chris has put behind bars since joining the ATF," JD began. "And, I also got a list of people that Vin brought in when he was a bounty hunter. I don't know how complete it is, since those bail bondsman guys don't keep the greatest records."
"Good job, JD," Nathan said approvingly. "We didn't even consider Vin's earlier history."
JD gave a faint smile, accepting the praise wordlessly.
"I got a list of most of the guys Chris put away when he worked for the PD," Buck offered. "Lt. Hawthorne is givin' me full access. Me and Chris were good friends with him when were on the force." Buck looked at the rest of the group. "He's already runnin' down the names for me, to see which ones might be out of prison."
"I'm doin' the same thing with my list," JD said.
"Great," Josiah said appreciatively. "We need to get that narrowed down as soon as possible so we can have a place to start."
"Well, I've been checking into the explosives," Nathan said. "So far, the plastique can't be traced to any known suppliers."
"Home-grown?" asked Buck.
Nathan nodded. "Looks that way. People usually get it from military channels, but there's a few small players out there who brew up small batches of the stuff and sell it to any lowlife who can pay." Nathan's disgust was mirrored by the rest of the group.
"What about the rocket fuel?" asked JD.
"That one was easier. The forensics guys traced it to a company in Texas," Nathan explained. "Unfortunately, they have thousands of legitimate customers, since lots of manufacturers, universities, and fire departments use it for flammability and high-temperature testing." He sighed in frustration. "It could've been stolen from any one of those places, or ordered legally by someone masquerading as a legitimate customer."
"Damn!" Buck exclaimed, slamming his hand on the table. "Bastards covered their tracks pretty well, didn't they?"
"Yeah," Nathan admitted. He toyed with the manila folder in front of him for a moment before continuing. "I did get something else... the badge did belong to Vin, and... the blood type on the tooth matches Chris's. They're doing the dental records check now, but...."
The men all dropped their heads defeatedly. Finally, Josiah asked gently, "Anything else, Nate?"
"One other thing," he said quietly. "The explosives were apparently triggered by remote control. The cops found a few pieces of a remote circuit that were thrown clear of the fire -- enough to confirm it."
"Assholes probably wanted to get far enough away so they could watch without getting caught in the explosion," Buck growled.
"Probably," Josiah agreed. "Explosives are often used by those who don't like to get their hands dirty, but they often like to admire their own work."
"Cowards," Nathan stated with disgust.
"Precisely." Josiah nodded. "The violence of an explosion signifies great anger and hatred, possibly building gradually over time until it demands violent release."
"Sounds like someone who's been stewin' in prison for awhile, waiting for revenge," JD pondered aloud.
Josiah nodded again. "They've taken the time to plan this thoroughly, so we're dealing with someone intelligent and meticulous... and very dangerous. Which is why we need to pare down that list, in case they decide to target the rest of us."
The others looked up abruptly in stunned silence. They hadn't considered that they themselves might be in danger. "Damn," Nathan muttered, rubbing his brow in consternation.
Buck jumped up from the table. "Well, let's get to it. I want these fuckers."
* * * * * * * * * *
"Mr. Standish?" The voice sounded far away, barely penetrating the swirling fog in his brain. "Mr. Standish, can you hear me?" Ezra groaned and rolled his head toward the voice. He tried to pry his eyes open, but they felt as if they were made of lead. "That's it," the voice encouraged. "Open your eyes." After several more attempts, Ezra finally opened his eyes slowly, blinking against the brightness of the room.
The blurry form in front of him finally resolved itself into the attractive features of Dr. Beth Landry, who had attended him during his last visit to the hospital. "Wha'..." Ezra attempted to speak, but his throat felt like sandpaper.
"Here," the doctor said, bringing a straw to his lips.
Ezra sipped greedily at the cool water, enjoying the soothing feel of it on his throat.
She pulled the cup away and asked, "How are you feeling?"
"Like I have been trampled by a herd of cattle," Ezra replied hoarsely.
Dr. Landry chuckled. "Well, you have taken quite a beating. The explosion that caught you yesterday morning managed to break several of your ribs as well as give you some quite spectacular bruises."
"Lovely," Ezra muttered.
"You've also got some minor burns on your hands and face, and we removed several pieces of shrapnel from your chest and legs."
Ezra arched a brow in surprise. "Shrapnel?"
The doctor regarded him somberly. "Yes. Several pieces of the vehicle that exploded lodged themselves in your body."
"Those were the least of your problems, though," Dr. Landry continued. "Apparently, you had a rather violent impact with a tree -- presumably the one that broke your ribs -- and suffered a puncture wound to your lower back."
Ezra nodded knowingly, remembering the pain he had felt after hitting a pothole during his drive. "How bad?"
"Bad enough," she said with a wry smile. "It went deep enough to nick the renal artery." She gave him a stern look. "You almost bled to death in my waiting room. You're very lucky it was a small puncture or you wouldn't have made it here in time."
Ezra paled, realizing how close he had come to dying. "I didn't think it was that serious."
"Shock will do that, Agent Standish. Traumatic events can leave one numb to pain." Her gaze softened and she regarded him sympathetically. "The explosion made the papers today. I'm sorry about your friends."
He turned away, not wanting her to witness the grief that he was too weak to hide. "When am I allowed to depart?"
She frowned at him, but understood his desire to leave. "You need to stay for at least a week. We cleaned a lot of dirt, bark, and wood splinters out of your wound, and we need to make sure it stays clear of infection and that your kidney function isn't impaired."
Ezra turned to face her, prepared to argue, but the look on her face told him that it was futile. With a resigned sigh, he nodded his head slowly. "I suppose that would be best."
"Do you want me to call anyone for you?" She was concerned by his easy capitulation to her directives, since he hadn't been nearly so cooperative the last time he had been under her care.
"No!" he said determinedly. "It's too dangerous."
"Very well," Dr. Landry agreed reluctantly. "We have you registered as William Fredericks, so no one should be able to find you here."
"Thank you," Ezra said sincerely.
She smiled. "Try to get some rest... and don't give my nurses a hard time."
"I shall be on my best behavior," he replied with a halfhearted smile. The doctor left and Ezra closed his eyes, trying to ignore the horror movie that was playing in an endless loop inside his head.
* * * * * * * * * *
JD lifted his head and blinked owlishly, looking around the strangely quiet office. Josiah, Nathan, and Buck were all sprawled in various positions at their desks, sound asleep. They had been working virtually nonstop for three days, only returning home to shower and change clothes. After their immediate and vehement refusal to let another team handle the investigation, AD Travis had relented and redistributed their current cases among the other teams, who were more than happy to do their part. Other teams were still working on the case, but no one had found any solid leads yet. They had eliminated all of the criminals still in prison or dead, but were left with more than forty names to track down. The investigation was going nowhere fast and all four of them were feeling the frustration.
It didn't help that Ezra had seemingly disappeared; no one had seen him and he had not returned any phone calls. Travis was furious at his wayward agent's behavior and had put an APB out on him, threatening to have him arrested the moment he showed his face. JD found he had little sympathy for his fellow agent, despite the fact that he had always before given him the benefit of the doubt. Ezra's seemingly callous behavior in this case left little room for compassion.
JD stood slowly and stretched, making his way over to Vin's desk. Morosely, he stared at the various knickknacks that adorned the sharpshooter's workstation. Reaching out his hand, he picked up a tiny plastic dinosaur that stood watch over Vin's computer monitor. It was one of several that he had collected over the past weeks, once he had discovered that they were being given away with the kiddie meals at his favorite burger joint. JD smiled, remembering Vin's childlike excitement over the little toys. Tears suddenly clouded his vision, and he set the purple reptile back in its position on the desk as the deep ache of grief overwhelmed him. He heard sounds of one of the others stirring and quickly moved back to his own desk, swiping angrily at the tears that streaked his face.
Josiah opened his eyes in time to see JD's hasty retreat and he felt a pang in his chest at the expression on the young man's face. Losing Chris and Vin had been hard on all of them, but especially on JD, who practically worshiped the two men. He was surprised that the young agent had held up so well.
Stretching his weary bones, Josiah stood and approached JD. "How are you doing, JD?"
"Okay, I guess," JD said with a shrug. "I really miss them, ya know?"
"I know, son," Josiah said soothingly. "So do I."
"An' I'm really pissed at Ezra," JD sniffed angrily. "Why isn't he here? What's the matter with him, anyway? I mean, first he lets Chris and Vin drive drunk, then he acts like he doesn't give a damn."
"I don't know, son," Josiah said. "I think maybe he just can't handle the situation. Running is the only way he knows how to deal with something like this. He may even be afraid to face us after what happened at the scene."
"Well, I think it sucks," JD stated firmly. "He should be here with the rest of us, not off hiding somewhere."
Josiah sighed. "I agree with you, JD, but there isn't much we can do until he decides to come back."
"*If* he comes back," Nathan added darkly as he woke from his fitful slumber. "I doubt he has the guts to show his face around here again."
"We'll see," Josiah said quietly.
Buck awoke with a start, nearly falling out of his chair. "Huh?" he said dazedly.
"Nothing, Buck," JD assured him. "We're just talking."
"Oh." Buck ran a hand through his already-mussed hair. "Anything new?"
"No," JD said dejectedly. "Nothing but dead ends so far."
"We'll get them," Nathan said quietly. "No matter how many rocks we have to turn over."
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra was restless as he stared out the window at the waning daylight. He had been lying in this hospital bed for nearly four days, alone with his thoughts, which was not a place he particularly wanted to be right now. Guilt and grief combined to overwhelm him, and Ezra knew he had to leave and go somewhere, anywhere, to get away from these feelings and think. He wouldn't be able to investigate the bombing very effectively if his mind was clouded with emotions.
His remaining teammates were likely even more furious than they had been before, and Ezra didn't relish the thought of facing them. It was something that he would have to do eventually, but right now, he didn't have the strength -- physically or mentally -- to withstand their fury. They were probably working tirelessly to apprehend the scum who had taken their friends from them, but Ezra didn't think his help would be accepted, even if he had the courage to offer it. He would have to undertake his own investigation, if only for his own peace of mind.
His mind made up, Ezra pushed the call button, determined to effect his release from the hospital. The nurse finally responded to his call, and he quietly requested that the doctor be summoned. Dr. Landry arrived an hour later and stopped just inside the door, frowning and placing her hands on her hips.
"What do you think you're doing?" she demanded when she saw that he had removed his IV and was sitting fully-dressed on the edge of the bed.
Ezra pasted his most charming smile on his face. "I'm feeling much better and I would like to be discharged."
Dr. Landry favored him with a hard glare and Ezra smirked slightly, thinking that it didn't even come close to being as threatening as the infamous 'Larabee Glare'. But thinking of his late boss wiped the smile from his face and threatened to shatter his fragile self-control.
"Not four days ago, you had a hole punched in your back and nearly bled to death," she said firmly. "You need rest and care."
"I need to get out of here," Ezra said quietly. "The murderous cretins who killed Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner are still at large, and I must do as much as I can to bring them to justice." He looked at her beseechingly. "I cannot do that here."
His plea touched her heart, and Dr. Landry knew that he would leave with or without her sanction. "All right," she relented. "Let me get you some prescriptions before you go. There's still a high risk of infection, so you'll need to continue the antibiotics." She started to leave then paused at the door. "You still have to take care of yourself and get plenty of rest. That means you eat properly, no strenuous activity, no drinking, and no driving."
"Driving will be too hard on your back," she interrupted. "You don't want to start bleeding again, do you?"
Ezra sighed reluctantly. "Very well, then. No driving."
"Good," Dr. Landry said with a smile. "I'll be back shortly with your prescriptions."
"Thank you," Ezra said, visibly relieved at his forthcoming emancipation.
* * * * * * * * * *
As he stared out the window of the taxi, Ezra's thoughts turned once again to his fallen comrades. The questions swirled through his mind. Who had killed them and for what reason? Was the rest of the team in danger, as he had implied to the medical staff at the hospital? Why had he been spared? Had the explosion occurred a few seconds later, he would have been killed along with Chris and Vin. Ezra shuddered at the thought, then turned his mind to the question that plagued him the most. What could he have done differently? If only... Ezra shook his head to drive those thoughts away. There would be plenty of time to wallow in guilt and self-doubt later. Now, however, he had miscreants to find.
Ezra directed the cab to drop him off at the rear of his apartment building. He didn't want to be seen entering the building, in case his associates were watching for his arrival in order to inflict more abuse upon him. Instead, he slipped inside via the service entrance and made his way up to his own apartment. Once inside, he sank gratefully onto his overstuffed sofa, surprised at how tiring the ride home had been. The familiar surroundings were soothing, but Ezra knew he couldn't stay. There was too great a chance that his teammates would find him here, and he wasn't ready to deal with them just yet. Reluctantly, he stood and made his way to the bedroom to pack a bag.
In the hall, Ezra noticed the light on his answering machine blinking furiously. Though he knew what the messages would say, he pressed the button anyway and listened as, one after the other, Nathan, Buck, Josiah, and even JD, left repeated, scathing messages for him. He hung his head in dismay. Even though he had expected them to have this attitude, he had still carried some small hope that they might have forgiven him. Ezra gazed at the stack of moving boxes that stood in the corner of his living room. Maybe it was a good thing that he hadn't unpacked them yet.
He was about to resume his progress to the bedroom, when the final message halted him in his tracks. It was AD Travis, reprimanding him for his absence and demanding his appearance at the office in no uncertain terms. Ezra sadly switched off the machine. He couldn't bear to face the rest of his team, let alone the Assistant Director. Hell, he probably didn't even have a job anymore. Morosely, Ezra plodded the rest of the way to his bedroom and quietly packed his things as he decided what he was going to do.
Once his bag was packed, the weariness seemed to hit him full-force, and Ezra folded himself onto his soft mattress. "Just a few minutes," he mumbled to himself as he pulled the comforter around him. He would rest for a few minutes, then he would leave. With a sigh, he sank into a dreamless sleep.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Freeze! ATF!" Buck shouted at the fleeing figure as he chased him down the hallway of the decrepit apartment building. Trash littered the stained linoleum floor and the entire corridor reeked of cigarette smoke, stale food and urine. Buck ignored his surroundings, focused only on the suspect he was chasing.
Harold Stiles was an intelligent, squirrelly man whom Chris had arrested for bank robbery and murder while working with the Denver Police ten years earlier. The man was an electronics expert who had bypassed complex security systems in order to break himself and two accomplices into a bank in the early morning hours before it opened. The thieves hadn't counted on the security guard showing up early and had killed him while trying to escape.
Chris had been on his way to the station for his morning shift when he heard the call and responded. He had arrived in time to intercept the three robbers and had been able to stall their escape until backup arrived. Stiles had managed to slip away during the confusion of the other officers' arrival at the scene. He would have gotten away, but for Chris, who had seen him, followed him into an alley, and shot him when the smaller man had turned his gun on him.
Stiles had been vocal in his threats against Chris and also fit the profile Josiah had compiled. The men of Team Seven had felt a growing excitement when they had discovered that the paroled felon had missed his last two meetings with his parole officer. Finally, they had a solid suspect.
They had tracked him to the home of a girlfriend, who claimed he wasn't even there, but Buck and the others hadn't believed her. Instead, they pretended to leave, waiting out of sight for the man to sneak out of the apartment. Stiles didn't disappoint them and nearly ran into Buck as he tried to slip out the back entrance to the building.
Buck had begun chasing him up and down the stairs and hallways of the building, while the others blocked the exits. Stiles showed no signs of tiring as he turned down another corridor. As Buck rounded the corner after him, he spotted the fugitive at the end of the hall, frantically pushing on a window. But the window had been painted shut and Buck caught up with him, tackling him to the floor with a crash. Stiles struggled under his weight, but Buck wasn't about to let him go. Venting some of his anger, Buck sent his fist crashing into the man's face.
"Buck!" JD called as he rushed toward his partner. "That's enough! He can't tell us anything if he's unconscious!"
Buck stopped and looked up at the younger man, noting the near-panic in his eyes, and released the semi-conscious man from his grasp. "Sorry kid. Guess I lost it for a minute."
"S'okay Buck," JD said, relief apparent on his face. "Come on, let's get 'im out of here."
* * * * * * * * * *
The federal building seemed deserted as Ezra quietly entered the lobby at 2:00 AM. The guards allowed him to pass through the security station without any difficulty. He took the elevator to the eighth floor, which housed many of the administrative offices, including that of AD Travis. Verifying that no one was about, he made his way quietly to the Assistant Director's office, making short work of the lock on the door with the lockpicks he had concealed in his wallet. He let his eyes adjust to the darkness before approaching the large oak desk that sat in front of the windows. Giving them one last defeated look, Ezra dropped his badge and his service weapon on the desk before leaving as quietly as he had entered.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra drove the rental car along the mountain road. After packing several days' worth of clothing, toiletries, and cash, he had taken another cab to a rental agency, where, knowing that the doctor would disapprove, he had rented a sport-utility vehicle. Winter weather was only a few weeks away, and Ezra had learned to be prepared, especially when driving anywhere near the mountains. He didn't really have a destination mind. All he knew was that he needed to get away from Denver and find someplace unfamiliar, where he could clear his head and not be reminded of his late companions at every turn.
It was nearing dawn, and though he hadn't been driving for too long, Ezra began to feel an ache in his back as he guided his vehicle along the quiet highway. He passed a sign indicating a town ten miles further up the road and decided that it was as good a place as any to spend the day. As he reached the outskirts of town, he saw a sign for one of the better chain hotels and turned into the parking lot gratefully.
It took some persuasion, but Ezra finally convinced the desk clerk to allow him to pay in cash for several days in advance. He had been forced to use a backup credit card in another name -- an alias he maintained in case of emergencies -- to rent the car, but he wanted to minimize how much computerized information was available about his activities. He knew how good JD was with a computer and didn't want to chance having his credit card traced to this location. He didn't even bother to unpack when he reached his room, instead crawling into one of the two queen-size beds and falling asleep instantly.
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