Ally Cat

by BM


Josiah un-cocked his gun and slipped it into the waistband of his pants before unlocking the door and holding it open to admit the tracker around eight o'clock the next morning. "Good morning, Vin. Are you here to take my post, or are you just delivering breakfast?" he asked pleasantly as he shut the door behind the other man.

Alex looked up from where she was curled up in one of the recliners reading a book and watched the sharpshooter step into the foyer with two bags and a drink carton holding four cups of coffee in hand. He nodded a good morning to her before answering Josiah's question. "Both. Chris wants you to go with Nathan to cover Randolph. Kelly and his boys are on the construction company and team three is at the warehouse."

He and Josiah headed down the hall toward the kitchen, trailing an absolutely wonderful aroma behind them. She sniffed the air and quickly set her book aside to follow the enticing smell. She stepped into the room just as Vin set the bags and coffee container down on the counter.

Josiah dug into a bag and pulled a warm, sticky cinnamon bun out from the depths before reaching for one of the coffees. He sipped at the hot brew and sighed with pleasure at the rich taste. "Ahh. Pure heaven," he declared contentedly, taking a huge bite out of the bun.

Vin grinned. "You know how Ezra is if he don't get his Starbucks of a morning."

Josiah nodded in agreement as he swallowed. "Yes, well I can understand his insistence on the stop every morning if this is the ambrosia he's after. Brother Ezra definitely knows his coffee."

Vin pulled his own cup free. "He still in bed?"

"Of course. You know Ezra's never out of bed before ten unless he has to." Josiah finished off his cinnamon bun.

Vin grinned and grabbed a bun from the bag. "He does enjoy his beauty sleep," he commented before taking a bite.

Alex stood quietly at the sink, watching the interplay and frowned slightly at the comment but decided to keep her thoughts to herself. It wasn't her business, after all.

Josiah took another sip from his cup then glanced at his watch. "Well, I'd better be getting out of here then. Is Nathan at the office or en route?"

"He said he'd meet you at the bookshop across from the financial building. I came in one of the pool cars," Vin answered, tossing Josiah the keys before finishing off his own pastry.

Josiah nodded and slipped into his jacket, adjusting the collar before zipping it up. He grabbed another confection from the bag. "See you later," he lifted his free hand in a backward wave as he left the room. A few seconds later, they heard the front door softly click shut.

Vin pulled the cinnamon bun container from the bag and folded the brown paper up before sticking it in the trash can. He leaned back against the counter and reached for another bun while sipping from his coffee container with the other hand. He motioned at the pastries. "These are for you, too, you know," he smiled softly at the girl.

Alex blushed a little, tentatively picked up the smallest bun, and nibbled at it. Vin pointed at the coffee. "This too."

She shook her head and licked at the icing on her lips before answering him. "Oh, no thank you. I'm not a coffee drinker."

Vin nodded and turned to empty the other sack. "Then I'm glad I stopped by and got this," he said as he handed her a quart of milk and a large bottle of Sunny Delight®. He laid a bag of freshly made bagels on the counter and put the requested cream cheese and fruit in the refrigerator. "There's plenty of them buns, so take as many as you want," he commented, not turning from his task but instinctively knowing what was going through the girl's mind.

She looked up from the glass she was filling with milk and he gave her a half smile. The sympathy and understanding she saw in his eyes unnerved her a little, and she averted her gaze, turning instead to put the milk carton and the juice into the refrigerator. "Oh, um, okay. Thanks," she stammered a little, her cheeks coloring slightly again.

Vin again leaned back against the counter and sipped at his coffee, making sure to give the somewhat nervous girl plenty of personal space, watching as she took a drink from her milk. "So, how did you say you wound up in that hangar?" he asked offhandedly, keeping an eye on her as he reached for another confection.

She met his gaze with a slightly raised eyebrow. "I don't recall saying," she responded.

"Actually, you didn't say much of anything last night beyond hello," he pointed out, smiling disarmingly, trying to show that he wasn't interrogating her.

Her lips quirked into a half-smirk. "Ezra was doing such an excellent job last night, I didn't feel that it was necessary for me to add anything."

He chuckled slightly. "When it comes to words, Ol' Ez always does an excellent job." He finished off his coffee and surreptitiously pushed the cinnamon bun container toward her while licking at the icing on his fingers. Silence temporarily filled the room before he broke it. "You know, I've been where you are," he casually stated, pulling a paper towel from the dispenser and wiping his hands.

"And where do you think that is?" she asked, focusing on him with a poignant look.

He returned her gaze with his own knowing look as he slid his hands into the pockets of his beat-up leather jacket. "It's kinda obvious you haven't had it real easy for a while now," he shrugged slightly, looking down at his boots. "Though maybe it's just easier for an ex-street kid to spot another." He smiled at her and she slowly returned it, shaking her head.

"Maybe it is at that," she chuckled. "Well, you seemed to've done well, despite your humble roots," she commented as she took note of his appearance, nodding in admiration.

"I've done alright," he agreed. "You don't look like you've done too bad by yourself, either." He had noticed the clear eyes and the pride that shown in them, something that was quite rare for a child of the streets. It was clear to him that she hadn't given up on herself yet.

Alex tilted her head a little in a dismissive gesture. "I try. Don't plan on staying there forever."

He nodded in approval. "It's a good thing to have plans," he said quietly. "Helps in the hard times, when ya got good memories and goals to fall back on."

She smiled softly as she reached for another bun. "Yes, it is, isn't it?"

They fell into a companionable silence, she finishing off her milk then rinsing the glass in the sink; he drinking another cup of coffee and eating another cinnamon bun. He watched her features soften as she leaned back against the sink with crossed arms when she finished and stared out the curtained window at the mountain scenery beyond. The wariness and tension that was barely detectible in her eyes seemed to melt as she gazed at the peaceful view. "Iffin you ever need it, there's a shelter bein' run in the old Murphy Theater in Purgatorio," he finally spoke up. "The people runnin' it are good folk, and they'll take ya in, no questions asked. They keep the place clean and don't let no troublemakers in there. You'd be safe there. And it's warmer than an airplane hangar," he smirked.

She turned her gaze from the scenery to look at him and laughed. "Yes, but that airplane hangar got plenty warm after a while-warmer than I was comfortable with, actually."

Vin shook his head with his own chuckle as he tossed his empty coffee cup and used paper towel in the trashcan. "Well, at least at this place, you don't have to be out-running bullets or escaping murders."

"Or saving ATF agents or jumping out windows to keep from being blown to kingdom come, either, I hope," she added dryly.

"That either," Vin grinned. He turned to leave the room, but stopped and looked back at her, his face turning serious. "Not speaking for the others, but whatever trouble you're in, I'll help ya, if ya want me to," he stated firmly.

She turned back to him, a little surprise lighting her blue eyes. "Trouble? What makes you think I'm in trouble?" she smirked with crossed her arms.

He snorted. "Most people don't live on the streets 'cause they want to. They're either at the end of their rope and caught in a bad situation, or beyond caring. And since you seem to have a bit of fire still in ya, I'd say you're there 'cause you didn't have any other choice."

She shrugged self-depreciatingly. "It seemed to be the only choice at the time, anyway," she answered softly, a slight melancholy seeming to enshroud her for a moment as she turned her gaze back out the window. "Though sometimes I wonder."

He followed her line of sight to the snow-capped peaks rising in the distance, feeling the pull they seemed to have over him strengthen for a moment. Maybe when this case was over, he could take a long weekend and spend some time up in the woods above Larabee's ranch. Maybe do a little hunting or fishing, or maybe track down that fourteen-point elk he had seen up there back in November. Peso could use the exercise, at any rate. He nodded to himself, liking the idea.

Yep, he could use the time away.

He pulled his gaze from the captivating scene and from his musings with some difficulty and again focused on the girl. "I mean it," he said softly. "You need the help, ya just ask for Vin Tanner."

She looked down at her hands then back up at him, searching his eyes for any kind of deceit but finding nothing but kindness and understanding in the blue depths. "Why?" she finally asked. "You have no idea who I am or what kind of person I am. You have no idea what I could have possibly gotten myself into."

"Because, my dear, like myself, Mr. Tanner has an uncommon perception of others and can see that you are more than what your circumstances dictate. And besides, there comes a time when one must rely on someone outside of himself to overcome their situation-at least, that is what a certain source has so informed me."

Vin and Alex both turned at the comment to find Ezra leaning against the doorway, his arms crossed and a smile gracing his face. He was freshly shaven and impeccably groomed, dressed in a pair of gray kakis, a black shirt, and a pair of loafers. His eyes were clear and twinkling in amusement, though evidence of several sleepless nights in a row was beginning to show in his features.

Alex grinned and shook her head at hearing her own words tossed back at her, wondering just how long he had been standing there and why she hadn't noticed him. She must have been more tired than she thought!

Ezra stood up and entered the room, patting her on the shoulder as he made a bee-line for the coffee on the counter. "Is that Mocha Valencia I smell?" he asked, reaching for the last cup. He practically purred with pleasure as he took a sip of the steaming brew.

Vin grinned at his teammate. "Yep. And those sticky buns are from the bakery over on Beckham. Thought Josiah would need something for breakfast. Didn't figure on you being up so early, though."

Ezra grimaced as he pulled a paper towel off the dispenser and reached for a cinnamon bun. "Yes, well, with all that racket down here, how can one possible find any rest? Now, if you will excuse me, I am going to see what Josiah did with my morning paper." He quickly left the room, coffee and pastry in hand.

Vin exchanged disbelieving looks with Alex before grabbing the last pastry and following the smaller man out the door. Alex laughed quietly. Though she couldn't hear Ezra's replies, she could hear Vin's comments quite clearly from down the hall. "Racket? What racket? A tomb couldn't have been any quieter!......Hey, where's the funnies page?…….Come on, Ez, quit hogging the whole paper. You can't read it all at one time!.......I'll be done with it long before you get there…….Ain't your momma ever taught you to share? Wait-don't answer that…….Just let me have the d**n paper…….Ezra!"

* * * * * * *

The evening found Ezra sitting in one of his dining room chairs, absent-mindedly flipping through the materials they had gathered for the case while half-listening to the noise of the boxing match on the television in the next room, Buck's shouts at the contenders and the referees, JD's music (which he could still hear, even though the boy was clear across the room sitting at his computer with headphones on), and Nathan and Josiah's argument from his kitchen over dinner. Chris sat across from him, silently going through the same papers, but a particularly obscene exclamation from Buck drew a snort and a mild head shake from the leader, proving that he was paying some attention to the atmosphere around him. Vin had disappeared outside some time ago, claiming to be keeping watch, but more than likely trying to escape the close confines of the townhouse. He hadn't seen Alex since the rest of the guys had arrived a few hours ago.

Another annoyed shout of "Josiah, get away from that pot!" had Ezra looking up in disbelief to see Josiah once again trying to spice up the spaghetti and meatballs Nathan was attempting to make from one of Rain's recipes. Nathan rapped the older man on the knuckles with a spoon and jerked the hot sauce bottle away from the preacher while muttering under his breath, and Ezra shook his head in amazement.

With eating habits like that, how could the man possibly have a stomach left?

He lay the pencil he had in his hand down on the tablet in front of him and sat back and rubbed his eyes tiredly. JD and Buck had arrived at one that afternoon to relieve Vin with a couple bags of groceries in hand as they pushed their way into the townhouse. JD had immediately taken over the computer and hadn't moved from the spot since. Ezra had periodically interrupted him with offers of drink and food, if nothing more than to get the young man to rest his eyes.

It amazed him that the boy wasn't half blind by now!

Buck had hovered in the background, moving from room to room every once in a while before settling back in the living room. He had turned the TV on low at first, while he was on watch, but when Chris and the others had arrived that evening and Vin took over, the television had gotten a little louder, and before Ezra knew it, Buck was on the phone to the cable company, ordering several pay-per-view items with promises to reimburse him next payday.

Ezra didn't even want to think about what the ladies man intended on watching after the boxing match.

Nathan had come with the supplies to make dinner, claiming that two weeks straight of takeout was just too much, and he had moved right in to the kitchen. Every once in a while he would ask Ezra where something was (which Ezra usually didn't have) and then would shake his head, not understanding how the man survived this long on his own and grumbling under his breath about his teammates' blood pressures, cholesterol levels, and over all physical health, wondering just why none of them had dropped dead of a heart attack yet, considering that the main part of their diet consisted of pizza, hamburgers, and Chinese food-or in Ezra's case-Thai food and fine French cuisine.

Despite Josiah's not-so-helpful suggestions, Nathan had almost succeeded in completing his meal, and an absolutely delicious smell was now wafting through the dining room, making Ezra's stomach growl. He reached for his glass as he scanned yet another page then frowned when he realized the glass was empty. He stood up from his chair and discretely stretched his back before making his way into the kitchen. Chris didn't even look up, barely registering his exit.

Ezra entered the kitchen just in time to see Josiah once again taste the sauce sitting off to the side of the stove. "It needs just a little more garlic powder, brother," he commented, reaching for the spice bottle sitting on the counter.

"It's fine, Josiah. Leave it alone!" Nathan growled in exasperation, knocking the older man's hand away from the pot. "Look, the bread will be done in a few minutes. Why don't you go pull JD off the computer and Buck from the television set and get them moving in here while I finish up. Okay?" He practically pushed his friend out the doorway.

Ezra reached into the refrigerator and re-filled his glass with the last of the pitcher's contents. It had been quite a while since he had tasted honest-to-goodness homemade southern iced tea, so when Alex tentatively asked if she could make some, he had readily agreed and found that the girl had a knack for making the brew. He himself had drunk a good third of the first pitcher himself, and he had noticed that Vin had consumed quite a few number of glasses, as well as JD and Buck, forcing the girl to make two more pitchers before the others had even arrived. He shook his head at the now empty cut-glass container.

If Alex planned to have the drink with her dinner, she was again going to have to brew up another pot.

"Hey, Ezra, can you go out and let Vin know that dinner's ready? He's somewhere out back," Nathan asked as he grabbed a towel and opened the oven door, checking his bread.

Ezra lifted a hand in acknowledgement and slipped out the sliding glass door into the cool night air. As the door slid shut, he was amazed to find that very little of the noise from inside could be heard from outside, and with all the curtains and drapes pulled, only a faint glow could be seen. He stopped for a moment, trying to decide which direction the sharpshooter would have gone, when a voice spoke to him from out of the darkness. "Over here, Ez."

He turned to see an indistinct dark shape materialize out of the shadow of the next building a few yards further down the hill and recognized the voice of his quarry. He crossed the grassy expanse between the two buildings and stepped up beside the lanky Texan, surprised to see Alex leaning against the building on the other side of the man. "Did you find yourself in need of some fresh air as well?" he asked the girl in amusement.

"Not really-I just wanted to be able to hear myself think," she answered mildly. "Though it was getting rather stuffy in there."

Ezra smiled in agreement before turning to his teammate and taking a sip from the glass in his hand. "Any sign of our pursuers?" He asked casually.

"No. It's been real quiet out here tonight," Vin reassured him. "Either they haven't been able to find out where you live, or they figure that even you ain't dumb enough to come back home," he smirked.

"Ha, ha, Mr. Tanner, you are quite the comedian. Personally, I consider it a stroke of pure genius on my part. The fact that it is so obvious is the very reason I chose to return to my domicile-who indeed would believe that I would risk hiding in plain sight?"

"Only someone who's thinkin' was as skewed as yours, Ezra," Vin chuckled, ignoring the smaller man's glare much the same way he ignored Chris's. He noticed his friend shiver in the cool evening air and raised an eyebrow. "So, they run you out, or did you just decide to take a moonlight stroll? 'Cause if ya decided to take a walk, I'd suggest you go back and get your coat. It's winter out, if ya hadn't noticed."

Alex giggled quietly at the statement and Ezra again tried to intimidate the man with a steely glare, but it had the same affect as the first one-nothing. "Actually, Mr. Tanner, I was sent out to inform you that dinner is ready; however, if you persist in harassing me, I may be inclined to ban you from the residence." He began retracing his steps back to his patio.

Vin and Alex quickly fell in step beside him. "Aw, now Ez, you wouldn't do that, would you? I'm a growing boy-I need my nourishment. Nettie says so herself."

Ezra couldn't help but snort at that comment. "Sir, you are in as much danger of starving to death as I am of dying of heat stroke tonight-especially if Mrs. Wells has any say. I dare say that between you, JD, and Josiah, the remainder of us will be fortunate to obtain half a plate of food before you three devour the rest of the meal."

"Well then come on, before they eat it all!" Vin picked up his pace, pulling ahead of the other two. "Hey, is there any more of that tea left?" he asked, reaching the door and pushing it open for them.

"I'm afraid this is the last of that pitcher," Ezra lifted his glass apologetically as he stepped into the warmth of the hallway.

Vin looked disappointed as he took his coat off and hung it on the knob of the door hiding the stairway to the basement garage. Alex took her own jacket off and smiled at him. "Don't worry-I'll make some more just as soon as I hang this up," she reassured him. "Though someone is going to have to invest in a couple of gallon jugs or something if you guys keep going through it that fast. This is the fourth pot tonight!"

"Thanks, Ally." Vin perked up immediately and returned her smile before heading into the kitchen. "Hey, Wilmington! Hands off! Those is my meatballs!" his voice floated back out into the hall.

Ezra rolled his eyes to the ceiling and sighed long-sufferingly as Alex giggled behind her hand. "I do believe I will not survive this rabble's onslaught," he muttered to himself resignedly.

Alex patted him consolingly on the shoulder. "Now, it's not that bad. Just think-there could be twelve of them instead of six." She couldn't help but laugh at the stricken look that passed across the southerner's face.

"Young lady, don't even contemplate that thought!" he ordered sharply.

She just chuckled as she headed down the hall to hang up her jacket.

* * * * * * *

An hour later, a large empty pot that had once been filled to the brim sat in the middle of the dining room table, surrounded by seven satiated but happy men. Alex quietly began gathering up the dirty utensils and used paper plates that Nathan had thoughtfully provided, but was stopped by Josiah. "We'll get that, young lady," he smiled at her as he took the pot from her hands. "Buck will be happy to do the dishes, won't ya, Brother?"

Buck looked up in alarm from his attempt at snatching JD's last piece of garlic bread. "Now you just wait one daggone minute there, Preacher," he protested. "You and Nathan were the ones who dirtied up all those pans."

Nathan stood up and stretched with a groan before reaching for his glass. "Well, Buck, as my grandmother used to say-I dirtied 'em-you can wash 'em." He downed the rest of the contents and set the glass down on the table right in front of the man with a wide grin.

"And please get started on them now. Tomato sauce does tend to stain if left too long on a surface, and I would much prefer my pots to remain in pristine condition, if you don't mind," Ezra spoke up with a smirk. "You'll find the rubber gloves in the top drawer to the right of the sink, with the dishcloths."

"Hey now, guys. I-" Buck started to complain, but was interrupted by Vin.

"I'd think you'd be right happy to volunteer to do dishes, Buck," Vin commented slyly as he stood and added his own dishes to the growing pile in front of the protesting man, his eyes glinting in mischief. "I hear it does a good job of softening up the hands, and you know how much the ladies like soft hands."

Buck shot a glare at the tracker. "You just stay out of this, Junior," he barked.

"Buck, shut up and do the dishes," Chris ordered mildly from his place at the head of the table, a faint smirk hovering on his lips as he sat back in his seat.

"But, Chris-"

JD's cell phone chose that moment to ring, and the boy cupped a hand over his ear to drown out the argument behind him. "Hey, Ash! Ya found something?" he spoke into the receiver.

The others quieted down and watched the boy grin widely as he sat back down in front of the computer and, balancing the small phone on his shoulder, began typing furiously. A few moments later, the printer hummed to life. "Thanks, man, I owe ya one….Yeah, you have a good night, too…well, a good morning then….okay. Thanks again!" JD said in goodbye before thumbing the phone off and tossing it back on the desk. He typed a few more commands on the keyboard then rolled the chair over to the printer and pulled the first stack off the machine. "That was a friend of mine, Ashley Woods, from Scotland Yard," he explained as he handed the papers to Chris.

"Since when do you have girlfriends in London?" Buck asked in disbelief.

JD rolled his eyes. "Ashley's a he, Buck, not a she."

The ladies' man smirked as he sat back with crossed arms. "I didn't know you swung that way, boy."

"Get your head out of your pants, Buck," JD complained as he turned back to the computer. "I met him a while back at an international communications conference on satellite imaging," he typed a few more commands then turned his attention back to the topic at hand and looked up at his teammates. "Since this Hammings guy is from Europe, I called Ash up for some help. It took some digging, but he finally got us a lead. That's what he found so far," he nodded to the pile of papers Chris was reading.

Chris scanned the top few pages then passed them down the table to the next man in line while he read the next set. Nathan let out a low whistle as he skimmed the pages he held. "Says here that this guy is involved in everything from gun smuggling to drugs to black market goods to stolen art and priceless artifacts." He passed a sheet to Josiah before accepting the next one in line.

"Hmm. Seems he's been linked to several high profile cases all over Europe, Asia, and Africa over the last twenty years. I bet our fellow law enforcers across the Atlantic would just love to get their hands on this guy," Josiah commented.

"He is quite the businessman, isn't he?" Ezra said when he received the papers, a hint of admiration in his voice. "He has managed to build quite the criminal empire during his career, and no one has been able to touch him."

"So he's tryin' to expand his business here in the states," Vin stated as he scanned the papers over Ezra's shoulder. "And he's using Randolph to do it."

"Sure looks that way," Nathan agreed.

"So who is he really?" Buck asked thoughtfully, the dishes forgotten as he focused on the case.

JD turned back to the computer, his hands flying across the keys as he sorted through the huge amount of information his friend had forwarded to him. "Well, let's see. Hammings is a front for another organization, which is a front for another, and another. Sheesh, he's really got himself spread out, don't he?"

"It's how he's managed to stay in the business so long, kid," Chris answered absently as he read another page more thoroughly.

After a few minutes of searching, JD finally sat back with an Ah-ha! "Seems our Mr. Hammings was first noticed about twenty years ago at a heist at one of those South Africa Diamond mines. A few months later, he appeared again at another high scale robbery in Germany. And he's just been getting bigger ever since." He handed Chris the grainy photo that he printed out as he continued his explanation. "He's got several aliases, from Hammings to Bartholomew, to Menandez, to Castille, to all kinds of others," he explained as the picture made the circuit.

"Yes, but who is he?" Buck asked again impatiently as he studied the photo before handing it to Vin. Though it appeared to be several years old and taken from a distance, he could clearly make out the features of a rather handsome man, apparently in his mid to late forties, with dark hair and piercing dark eyes. Taking a guess, he would say the man was from the Mediterranean area.

JD sorted through several web pages before finding the one he wanted. "From what the European authorities could piece together, he's originally from Corsica or Southern France, though they aren't for sure just which. Let's see-" he ran a finger down the screen. "Here it is. The earliest name they could come up for him is-"

"Sean Bartinol," a grim voice interrupted him. They all turned to see Alex, who had heretofore been staying quietly out of the way, fiercely grip the back of an empty chair as she stared in horror at the photograph that Ezra had laid to the side. Her face drained of all color and her blue eyes widened in shock as she tentatively picked the picture up with trembling fingers to confirm what she already knew for sure. "His name is Sean Bartinol." She clutched the photograph tightly and looked up at them, her eyes haunted with shock, grief, and disbelief.

JD looked up at her from the computer screen in surprise. "Yeah, Bartinol. That's right. But how did you know?"

"Ally?" Ezra asked softly as he stood and took the photograph out of her hands, laying it down on the table before reaching out to lightly rest his hand on her shoulder. "Ally, are you alright?"

Alex shrugged his touch off abruptly and walked to the window, wrapping her arms tightly around herself as though she were warding off a chill. She closed her eyes tightly for a moment then pushed the curtain back slightly to gaze out into the night, trying to get a grip on the emotional onslaught that the photograph had stirred up-emotions that she thought she had long ago gained control over. She licked her suddenly dry lips.

"Alex?" Chris asked a bit forcibly to get her attention as he too stood to his feet. "How did you know that this man is Sean Bartinol?"

She turned back to him suddenly, her blue eyes cool and piercing as she finally pushed her shock back down and focused on the men in the room. Chris was taken back by the fierce intensity and the heart-wrenching grief that shown in those azure depths-grief that was almost comparable to that which haunted his own dreams. She stood up straighter and lifted her chin in a challenge. "I know the man, Mr. Larabee, because his face haunts my worst nightmares." Her eyes narrowed as an old anger sparked to life in them. "I'll never forget the face of the man who murdered my parents in front of me."


WARNING: This chapter contains a lot of information about the background of the OFC. If you don't want to read about her and just want to read the parts that also contain the boys, then just skim the first italicized section.

A cool breeze swept over the balcony causing the girl to shiver a little. She knew she shouldn't be sitting out on the balcony in the middle of the night like this, knew that it was dangerous. Just because Randolph or Vitalis had not made an appearance at the townhouse yet did not mean that they weren't going to, but she had begun to feel very claustrophobic and, needing the fresh air and open space, had taken the risk and settled out on the balcony. Having spent the amount of time she had on the streets, she barely registered the crisp, cold air as she sat with her back pressed up against the warm brick of the wall, listening to the sounds around her and trying to sort out the emotions that had overwhelmed her that evening. She pulled the blanket tighter around herself, frowning at the slight tremble in her hand. She heard a dog bark in the distance and the answer by another further away. She glanced down at her worn old pocket watch in her hand and grimaced at the time. Two a.m. and she still hadn't managed to even begin to relax!

The bare branches of the trees that lined the path leading from the playground into the woods around the lake clattered and clacked as another breeze gently crossed the hillside, setting the swings in motion and lightly touching her cheek with a touch of frost, causing another shiver to course through her-or maybe it was the Pandora's Box of memories that had been unleashed tonight that chilled her to the bone.

She turned her gaze toward the rippling obsidian waters of the lake and the dark silhouette with the silver-blanketed peeks in the distance and focused on the sounds of the city, trying to empty her mind and bring peace to her heart, but the horrid picture refused to be banished from her mind's eye:

It had been the summer of her thirteenth year, and she had been looking forward to the carefree days of exploring the wilds of the Appalachian hills with her grandfather, horseback riding the old trails behind the homestead, and simply lazing the days away, helping her mother putter in her vegetable and flower gardens or settling in the hay loft with a good book. Her uncle and his family was in France for the summer, where he had been sent for business reasons by the clothing franchise that he worked for, and her grandfather was in Florida, visiting one of his sisters, so for the next week, it was just her and her mother.

Though she was enjoying the time alone with mother, Alex also found herself missing her father. She hadn't seen him since her birthday at the end of March, and it was now the middle of June. Even then, he had only flown in that morning and left that night. She was worried about him. During the brief time she had spent with him at the party, he had been distant, and she had noticed the exhaustion and tension in his eyes, the pale features, and the loss of weight. When he had left, he had hugged her fiercely and buried his face in her hair, whispering that no matter what happened, she should remember that he loved her. She had heard those words many times in her short life-every time he left for a case, in fact-but the intensity in his eyes during this time scared her. Something was wrong. She could feel it. Whatever the matter was, she hoped things ended quickly, before the worst thing possible happened and he came home dead.

She and her mother had settled in that evening, prepared to make homemade pizzas and watch a few movies when they heard a car pull up in the drive. She had run to the window and glanced out the curtain before rushing to the door and pulling it open. Her father stood in the doorway, looking disheveled and weary, as though he had been in a great hurry. He kissed her gently on the cheek then sent her to pack a bag. She had been confused, but one look from her mother had her scurrying quickly up the stairs. She could hear a murmur of voices from downstairs as evidently her father was explaining to her mother what was wrong then the sound of hurried footsteps on the stairs as her mother quickly rushed to her room to pack a bag herself while her father shut the house up, hastily preparing it for their absence. Within an hour, they were in the car, rushing to the nearest airport then in a small plane, headed for who knew where.

Hours later, they set down in what she recognized to be Seattle by the space needle in the distance, and they were hustled quickly to a hotel and settled in. She had been sent to bed, but had not been able to sleep. She quietly crept to the door and cracked it open to allow her a view into the living room area and had unashamedly eavesdropped on her parent's conversation, intent on finding out what was going on. She wanted to be prepared for whatever happened, and she couldn't do that if she didn't know what to expect.

Around 3 a.m. local time, two men, her father's partner and his supervisor, arrived and the small group settled in the suit to discuss their plans for the next day. From what she could understand, it seemed that her father was on the verge of bringing down a most capable criminal, a man who had been untouchable for many years as he built a vast illicit network across the globe. Allen Sanders had been slowly and methodically building his case against the man and was now finally in a position to end the investigation and topple the corrupt giant. But the criminal mastermind knew that things were coming to an end, and in a last ditch effort to preserve his freedom, had set out to destroy his nemesis once and for all. He and Sanders had spent the last two months playing a deadly game of cat and mouse, parrying each other and dancing closer and closer to a final conflict. In fact, this had been the first meeting Sanders had with his partner and boss in all that time, as he had learned of the spies his enemy had scattered all throughout the agency and had gone underground to protect himself. He had personally arranged for the protection of his family, using only guards that he knew and trusted explicitly before he had finally returned to the states and contacted his employer.

As expected, his supervisor and friend had not been happy at the absence, but had agreed that it had been necessary. Allen explained that once he was sure that his family was safe, he would meet his boss and the men gathered for the operation and set their plans in motion. Until then, no one was to see the evidence that he had spent the last few years of his life putting together-not even his partner and boss. Both men had reluctantly agreed that this absolute secrecy was indeed needed and had left to prepare for the mission and to await Sanders' instructions.

The sun crossed the horizon the next morning to find the Sanders family halfway across Puget Sound headed for Victoria, British Columbia, where they rented a car and headed up Provincial Highway Fourteen. Allen explained on the way that he had three friends, not related to the agency in any way, waiting on them in a secluded harbor on up the coast line with a small yacht prepared to take them out into the Pacific. They would set sail for the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, where mother and daughter would anchor and wait for word from him.

The harbor was empty save for the yacht when they drove up to the dock and climbed out of the car; the only sounds to greet them were those of the forest and the ocean. Storms further out to sea had made the swells higher and the water choppy, causing the boat to sway gently in the current and occasionally scrape along the cement dock. Alex had begun to feel uneasy and looked up to see her father slip his gun from his shoulder hostler and cautiously advance toward the boat, motioning for the women to stay with the vehicle. As he reached the vessel, a figure stepped out of the cabin and Alex got her first look at the man who would come to haunt her nightmares. Allen stumbled backwards a step, then turned to see a gunman exit the shed at the shoreline, while two more rose from their places of concealment at the tree line.

They were herded into the boathouse by the gunmen. Alex immediately felt sick when she saw the bodies of her father's friends laying on the floor just inside the door, and her father pulled her tighter to him, putting himself between her and the sight until they were into the dining room. The figure on the boat followed them into the house and introduced himself as Sean Bartinol. Allen quietly asked how the man had known they were going to be there, but the criminal had just smiled and refused to divulge that bit of information. He found the disks that her father had and after checking them on his laptop computer, he destroyed them before demanding to know what Sanders had done with the back-ups. Allen refused to tell him.

Bartinol finally got angry and grabbed Colleene, intent on forcing the information from the man, when a shot sounded from the doorway and one of the gunmen fell to the floor. They all whirled around to see one of her father's friends, who had been supposedly dead, leaning shakily in the doorway, bleeding heavily from gunshot wounds to his torso. One of the remaining gunmen instantly fired back, killing the man with a shot between the eyes, but the distraction had been enough. Colleene pushed Bartinol back against the wall and raked her nails down his face while her husband attacked the gunman nearest him, disarming him and pushing him into the other. Bartinol let go of the woman to protect his face, and she scrambled away. She grabbed her daughter's arm and pushed her toward the back bedroom, screaming for her to run-and Alex did. Her heart was in her throat and the blood was pounding in her ears as she half-stumbled down the hallway. Her father managed to get one of the guns and fired at their pursuers as he followed them down the narrow passage.

Then fate changed the deck in mid-play. Just as she reached the bedroom doorway, she heard a shot and a scream behind her and whirled around to watch her mother fall to the ground, a spray of blood erupting from her back. Alex looked up and time seemed to enter slow motion as heard her father's enraged yell and the sound of two gunshots. Alex turned to see her father slammed back against the wall by the force of a bullet to the arm and Bartinol duck back into the other room as a bullet tore a chunk from the doorway above his head. At that instant, time suddenly caught back up with itself, and Alex felt the sounds and shouts around her explode back upon her senses as her father scrambled up from the floor and grabbed his wife before pushing them into the room and slamming the door.

Alex knelt down beside her mother and grabbed the woman's hand, tears streaming down her cheeks. Her mother looked up and smiled weakly for a moment before a grimace stole across her pale and sweaty features as a blaze of pain coursed through her body. She groaned and squeezed her daughter's hand. Alex tentatively reached out to touch the woman's face, but was suddenly pushed up and away by her father. He ordered her through the window, practically throwing her to the ground himself when she hesitated. As she hit the hard earth with a painful thud, she heard him shout for her to head to the woods and circle around to the yacht, that there was a radio there with which they could call for help. She looked back up and asked about him, and he flashed a small, reassuring smile at her, telling her that if it was possible, that he would meet her there. He then ordered her to go.

She blindly pushed her way into the dense forest, her heart beating wildly and terror-induced adrenaline coursing through her veins. She almost stumbled to a stop as she heard the sound of wood splintering and gunshots, but another shout from her father had her continuing on her course. She barely registered where she was as she ran, the only thought that could slip past the pounding in her ears was that she had to get away, had to circle around to the yacht. Finally, she tripped over a bank and fell to the ground three feet below her, rolling to a stop under a fallen tree. She curled up in the branches and tried to hold her breath, listening desperately for the sounds of pursuit. After what seemed like an eternity, she determined that no one was following her and slowly scrambled from the foliage. As her breathing returned to normal, she was able to think more clearly and rationalize a plan of action. Remembering all her grandfather's lessons about the forest, she stealthily made her way back around to the harbor.

Ten minutes later, she found herself standing on a rocky ledge jutting out into the water about twenty yards from the yacht and no more than forty from the house. It was then that she noticed that silence once again ruled the small cove. She looked toward the house but could see nothing and turned to try to find a way back down to the water, but stopped as she noticed a form move from the shadows of the wheel room of the boat. Relief flooded through her as she recognized her father. His arms and hands were bloody, and blood was streaked across his pale features, but he was standing tall and firm, scanning the water's edge, looking for her. She also noticed a small lump lying on the bench near him and realized that it was her mother. She waved her arms in the air, shouting to get his attention, and almost slumped to the ground in relief when he saw her. She saw him visibly relax and smile, saw him return her wave and motion her down to the boat-then she saw the yacht suddenly explode, the force of it knocking her to the ground.

She scrambled to her feet, screaming in disbelief and grief, unable to tear her eyes from the grisly scene. Panic tore threw her and she turned to rush to the water's edge but stopped upon seeing another witness to the devastation. Her wide blue eyes met the hard dark ones of Sean Bartinol and time seemed to freeze. His right arm was bloody and held tightly against him and a ragged gash cut around his forehead where a bullet from her father's gun had passed. He held a gun in his left hand and a tiny device in the other-a device that she realized had triggered the explosion. Their eyes held for what seemed like eternity before a pop and a spray of rock at her feet startled her back into reality. She stumbled backward, realizing that Bartinol had lifted the gun and was now firing at her. Instinct took over, and she turned back into the woods as another bullet landed with a thunk in the tree trunk beside her. She pushed her way back into the safety of the forest, tears streaming down her cheeks, fear and grief tearing at her like a living thing as the fire on the water intensely raged, the heat of it scorching her back and the roar of the flames filling her ears…

A hand touched her shoulder, pulling her from her memories, and she jerked away with a yelp, kicking out at the blurry image in front of her and scrambling back into the corner created by the railing and the wall.

"Ally! Calm down! It's alright!" Ezra twisted away from her kick, narrowly avoiding serious damage to his manhood and grimaced at the pain that was now radiating upwards from the new bruise on his hip left by her shoe as he fell backwards on the floor.

The girl had disappeared soon after her shocking proclamation, and Ezra had let her be, sensing that she needed a little time. The others had left not long afterwards, and he and Nathan, who was on guard duty, had piddled around downstairs for a bit, cleaning up before parting ways for the night. As he had reached the top of the stairs, Ezra had noticed the guest room door was open and decided to look in on the girl, to see if she was all right. A flash of dread seared through him when he found the room empty, and for an instant he thought she had taken off, but that fear was pushed aside when he noticed her bag sitting in the chair. He turned back into the hallway, wondering where she had gone, when the clouds parted outside, allowing a shaft of moonlight to appear on the floor through the French doors. Acting on a hunch, he headed for the balcony, where he found the object of his search huddled in the quilt from her bed, staring aimlessly out into the night. He called her name softly, but getting no response, he bent down and touched her gently.

He had not been prepared for the response he received.

Alex stopped moving as she recognized who was before her and colored slightly in embarrassment. "Ezra? I'm so sorry!" she sat up on her knees, letting the quilt fall to the floor, and reached out to touch the man who was sprawled out and leaning on his elbows beside her. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"

"Nothing but a bruise or two," Ezra commented as he sat up and winced, gingerly rubbing the new bruise on his leg.

Alex sat back on her heels and cocked her head to the side, studying him. "You sure?"

"Indubitably. Though I must say, you possess amazing reflexes, my dear," Ezra smiled at her to show that he held no hard feelings.

She blushed again and sat back against the wall, turning her gaze down as she picked at the quilt absently. "Sorry. I guess I was a little zoned out there for a minute." she apologized.

Ezra scooted around so that he was leaning against the wall beside her and looked out across the lake to the gently swaying trees beyond. "I could see that," he agreed. They sat in silence for a moment. He pulled his ever-present cards from his pants pocket and began shuffling them, occasionally stopping to flip a card, revealing whatever particular one he had been manipulating through the deck. "Do you wish to speak of it?" he asked casually.

Alex left the quilt alone and looked up at the stars that could be seen intermittently among the silvery edges of the clouds above them. "Not really," she shrugged. "I just needed to clear my head a bit."

Ezra raised an eyebrow at her. "And this required sitting out here in the middle of the night in this freezing weather?"

She finally looked at him and smiled with another shrug. "Well, yeah. It's rejuvenating, don't you think?" her smile turned mischievous.

He snorted in disbelief, the cards halting in mid-shuffle. "Frankly, my dear, I do not. Rejuvenating is relaxing in a nice warm Jacuzzi with a bottle of champagne and a beautiful woman by my side or a seat in a high-stakes poker tournament in Vegas, not sitting out on my balcony in the middle of winter, freezing my appendages off."

"You southern boys are just a bunch of pansies," she laughed. "The least little bit of a chill sends you guys into a panicked race for the nearest winter coat and space heater."

"And the least little bit of heat sends you Yankees into a frenzied rush for the comforts of your air conditioners," he retorted. "A true southern gentleman can endure the most extreme hardship when necessity demands it; however, he is intelligent enough to avoid such situations if at all possible. Life is too short, after all, to waste for mere principle. One should keep his own comfort and gain firmly to the forefront."

"And I suppose you consider yourself to be one of these so-called gentlemen?" Alex scoffed. "And just who are you calling a Yankee? The majority of my home state lies below the Mason Dixon line, thank you very much."

"Ah, but your home state also chose to side with the northern aggressors, thereby proving their break with the south," Ezra replied smugly.

"Yes, well we may not be Johnny Rebs, but we're not Yankees, either," she shot back. "Personally, I consider us to be neither north nor south-just the best of both worlds."

He shook his head. "That region is indeed a curious mix of both, though I don't know if I would go so far as to call it the best of either," he smirked as he began shuffling the cards once again.

"It just depends on what your definition of value is. Yeah, West Virginia is behind the times, but what we lack in technology we make up for in strength of family. And I do believe that is something you southerners take great pride in," she replied smartly.

Ezra settled more comfortably against the wall and laughed, his gold tooth glinting in the moonlight. "You indeed have a southern woman's insistence on having the last word, don't you?"

She snorted. "We have to. It's the only way to keep you men's egos in check. Men are full of hot air and no common sense. Nothing would ever get done if you didn't have a decent woman to prod you along."

"You are quite right, my dear, and I concede the point to you," Ezra agreed with another laugh. "Though I must say, I pity the man who ends up marrying you. He will have to be quite tolerant and quick-witted to keep up with you."

"And who says I have to get married?" she challenged.

"Who indeed?" Ezra chuckled. They lapsed back into a comfortable silence then, content to focus on their own musings as they listened to the sounds of the night.

He continued to shuffle his cards, but studied his companion out of the corner of his eye. She sat with one leg stretched out in front of her while leaning cross-armed on the bent knee of the other one, gazing intently out into the darkness with an inscrutable expression on her face. But moonlight has a way of revealing things that would otherwise be concealed in the daylight, and for the first time, in the dark depths of her weary, world-wise eyes, he caught a glimpse of the frightened, lost, and lonely little girl she kept hidden deep within her heart. Here in the night, with no one else around to witness anything and no one to protect herself from, she seemed to let her walls of confidence and care down just a bit to reveal a piece of herself that he had not seen before. The highlights in her hair caught the gray-blue of the moonlight and created a bit of a melancholy aura about her, and he could almost feel the weariness and grief that seemed to surround her at that moment.

And somewhere deep in the hidden corners of his soul, a kinship, an understanding sparked to life and his heart went out to her.

His hands moved with amazing dexterity as the cards flashed through his fingers at lightening speed, the sound a soothing hum in the background of his musings. He understood her need to appear strong, to deal with the feelings in her own way. But he also knew all too well that sometimes holding the hurt inside only made things worse in the long run, and he was determined to do what he could to prevent the girl from sliding into that hell again.

That thought surprised him. When had this girl's emotional well-being become his concern? He shook his head at himself. After all, once they contacted her father's old employers, she would probably be immediately moved to another safe house well away from Denver and he would never see nor hear from her again, unless the judge could work his magic and actually win the ensuing power struggle to have her returned for the Randolph trial, which wasn't likely. So why should it matter to him that she have someone to unload some of her burden to?

Because you know what it's like to be alone, caught up in a situation of which you have no control, a small child-like voice spoke up from the back of his mind. Because you know what it's like to long for someone to care about you as a person, not because of what you can do for them. Because you know what it's like to wish for just one friend. He quickly pushed that thought back into its box and mentally slammed the lid shut, not wanting to deal with the feelings that came with it. Instead, he turned his meditations to the events of that evening:

They had all stared at her in mute silence for a moment, absorbing her words. "You want to run that by me again, darling?" Buck spoke up finally.

Alex crossed her arms and leaned back against the wall beside the window, the torrent of emotions that had seemed to fill her moments ago shuttered firmly behind her eyes. Her face was now calm, but the anger and a hint of grief still glinted in her eyes. "Six years ago, Sean Bartinol murdered my parents in front of me."

"Why?" JD asked.

She let out a breath slowly. "That report your friend got you says that he's been practically untouchable, right? That no one has ever come close to bringing him down?"

"Yeah. So…" JD motioned for her to continue.

"It's not completely true," she explained.

"Someone did get close?" Nathan sat back down at the dining room table and leaned back in the chair, drumming his fingers quietly against the surface.

She nodded and uncrossed her arms, slipping her hands in the pockets of her jeans instead. "Six years ago, an FBI agent working for Interpol completed an investigation against the man and planned the bust to arrest him. If the agent had succeeded, Bartinol's entire organization would have come crumbling down around him. The man himself would have at the very least spent the rest of his life in a maximum security prison with no chance at parole."

"But the agent didn't succeed," Josiah observed from where he sat at the opposite end of the table, tapping his steepled fingers against his lips thoughtfully.

Alex looked down at her feet and sighed. "No, he did not. And it got him killed, despite his precautions and his painstaking plans. You see, that agent had a weakness."

"A family," Chris filled in for her grimly, his own loss shadowing his expression.

She nodded. "A wife and a daughter. Not to mention a brother and his family and a father, to a lesser degree." She sighed. "Bartinol had no qualms against using that weakness, either, especially if his self-preservation was on the line. The agent knew this, and did everything in his power to prevent that, but," she shrugged, "It just wasn't enough."

"And Bartinol got to your Dad before he was ready to face him," Vin picked up the storyline from where he leaned against the tall filing cabinet in the corner opposite the computer desk.

Alex looked up at him in mild surprise then smirked a little, realizing she should have expected the perceptive tracker to be a few steps ahead of her. "Yes, my father was the agent. Dad had been working for a long time on that case. From what I found out later, he had gotten a lucky break inside at another operation he performed in France years before and had been building on that break ever since. Only his boss, his partner, and a few other higher ups knew what he was working on, partly because he was doing it mainly on his own, and partly because they didn't want to tip Bartinol off. And then, there at the end, Dad even stopped reporting to them."

"Why?" JD asked, turning to sit in the desk chair backwards.

"Because he feared betrayal. You see, the closer he got to Bartinol, the more he learned about just how much control the man had. The reason Bartinol had been so successful was because of the information network he had about the activities of his enemies," she answered.

"In other words, the man has spies and paid officials in all of the pertinent areas of law enforcement," Ezra pointed out from where he was seated across from Nathan.

She nodded. "Yes. And one of those spies found out what Dad was planning despite his best efforts to keep it concealed and tipped Bartinol off."

Chris sat down on the edge of the desk beside JD and leaned on his leg while focusing his intense gaze on the girl. "I think you'd better tell us exactly what happened," he stated.

And she did. They listened in quiet shock as she calmly told them the entire story, from her dad's entrance at the house to the explosion of the yacht, leaving out none of the details. Her face remained impassive, her voice carefully controlled and matter-of-fact, but the horror of the account was not lost on her audience, and when she was finished, they sat in silence, trying to control their outrage and fury at the man on her behalf.

"So what happened after the explosion?" Vin asked quietly.

"I escaped into the woods. Three days later, I stumbled upon a small town up the coast and found the local law, who got in touch with Interpol and dad's boss. That evening, I was on a plane bound for D.C.," She answered.

"And what happened to your father's evidence?" Ezra asked.

"Bartinal destroyed the first set. Dad's boss and partner knew he had a second, but they could never find them," Alex shrugged. "Interpol and FBI agents went over everything even remotely connected to my father but found nothing. They finally just assumed that Dad had them with him on the yacht or that Bartinol found them."

"But you don't agree," Vin observed.

She sighed. "No, I don't. First of all, if Bartinol had them, then why did the house get ransacked a few days later? Dad's office was turned upside down and the storage building he rented in town mysteriously caught fire around the same time, destroying everything he had in there," she shook her head. "No Bartinol knew they existed, but he didn't have them. Which brings me to the second point. Dad was a very cautious man. There's no way he would have endangered all those years of work by carrying the copies with him. He would have stashed them somewhere. Of course, since Dad knew about Bartinol's spies, he would have hid that set well. And he did-well enough that to my knowledge, no one has found them yet."

"What about your grandfather and uncle?" Ezra asked quietly.

Alex turned her gaze to the floor at her feet, her features composed, but he could still read the sadness in her eyes. "I got to talk to them once or twice, but we were never brought together," she said softly. "Agents in France worked to take care of my uncle's family, and they kept them in Europe. I think they moved Grandpa to Central America somewhere. I never did get to see any of them."

"That doesn't explain how you wound up on the streets in Denver six years later," Chris pointed out, pulling her back to the topic at hand.

Alex shrugged. "A few weeks later, the agents decided to move me to a safe house somewhere in North Carolina. Someone tipped Bartinol off, because an attack happened en route. Bartinol's men attacked us in the middle of nowhere. He must have sent a small army. Can you believe it? Twenty men to take one little girl," she laughed in disbelief. "Anyway, they had us cornered in some little gully." She shrugged one shoulder self-depreciatingly. "Like I said, I was just a kid, and I was scared out of my mind, especially when I saw a guy get his head blown off not ten feet from where I was being hid." She winced at that thought. "I don't remember much after that, just the need to get away, to hide. So when an opportunity showed itself, I ran. And I never looked back."

Nathan stared at her in disbelief. "You just took off into the woods on your own with no supplies or anything?"

Alex returned his look with another shrug. "Yeah, I did. I know, it wasn't the smartest decision I ever made in my life, and in actuality, it was probably pretty stupid, but you have to understand something. I was a kid who had just witnessed her parents' murder and was being hunted down by the man who did it. I was scared. Scared silly. What kid wouldn't be? My first instinct was to run, and being a kid, I didn't stop to think that through."

"But how did you wind up in Denver?" JD questioned in amazement.

Alex grinned at him on that one. "A person can get around in six years, even if they do walk most of the way."

"And you got here just in time to witness another murder," Buck whistled and shook his head in sympathy. "D**n, girl. You attract trouble like fleas to a blue tick hound!"

Chris stood up from where he was seated on the corner of the computer desk and rubbed his eyes tiredly. "This case just blew up into one h**l of a mess, guys," he sighed. "And there is no way we're going to be let alone to handle it ourselves. Every two-bit agency from here to Timbuktu is going to want a piece of this."

"So what are we going to do?" Nathan asked.

Chris rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Contact the judge and have him get the ball rolling on the interagency thing. Keep it as quiet as possible. If this Bartinol guy has those kinds of contacts, then we're going to have to be mighty careful who we let in on this." He glanced at his watch and grimaced at the time. "The Judge will back tomorrow. We'll keep Ezra and Alex here for the night then move them somewhere safer tomorrow." He raised a hand to stop Ezra's comment. "As soon as we contact Interpol, the potential is going to exist for Bartinol to find out where Alex is. This townhouse is in a residential area in the middle of the city. There is no way we're going to be able to protect her from here."

Ezra just crossed his arms and grinned at his boss. "My thoughts exactly, Mr. Larabee."

Chris raised an eyebrow in surprise. The man was agreeing with him without an argument?

Now that was a first.

"Why can't we just take these guys at the bust on Friday before we let on where Alex is?" JD spoke up.

"Believe me, kid, I'd love to, but we can't," Vin shook his head.

"There's rules and regulations we have to follow, JD," Nathan picked up. "In order to pin this guy down and make it stick, we're going to have to follow those rules to the letter, especially as high profile as this case has just gotten. And I don't think the judge will be able to cover for us if we were to bend those, not this time."

"Besides, with as big a fish as this guy is, I don't think we'd want to tackle this on our own." Josiah mused.

"Nope," Buck agreed. "We're good, but even we have to admit when we need help once in a while." They all fixed him with an incredulous look and he lifted his palms, face up in a who me? gesture. "What?"

"Like I said, I'll contact the judge in the morning, show him what we got, and we'll go from there," Chris said, shaking his head in amusement. He stood up and pulled on his jacket, indicating to the rest that it was time to leave. "Nathan, stay here for the night," he ordered.

The others stood up to follow him. "You know that just as soon as we contact Interpol, we'll be more than likely kicked off this case," Josiah commented as he pulled his own winter coat on and adjusted the collar.

Chris turned back to him, his eyes glittering with determination. "Not if I can help it."

Ezra pocketed his cards with a sigh and climbed to his feet before offering Alex a hand up. "I do believe we should be returning inside. Besides the fact that it is dangerous to be out here right now, Mr. Jackson will surely have a conniption if he were to find us outside in the middle of winter without the proper attire. And I can assure you, my dear, we do not want to become ill. While Mr. Jackson is an excellent medic, his bedside manners are equivalent to that of Attila the Hun," he shuddered dramatically.

Alex laughed softly as she took his hand then gathered her quilt up quickly before following him into the warm interior. She watched as he locked the doors and turned to her with a wide smile, his glinting gold tooth and sparkling green eyes making him look decidedly mischievous. "Well, that was certainly invigorating," he quipped as he rubbed his arms to warm them. "I believe that I could use a night cap before I retire. Would you like to join me?"

Alex hesitated at the offer and looked up into his eyes, suddenly realizing what he was trying to do. Her initial reaction was to politely tell him no and go to her bedroom, but another part of her wanted the company, the companionship that he was offering to her.

"I do make a fine cup of cocoa, if I do say so myself," he continued, seeing the uncertainty in her stance.

She bit her lower lip in indecision for a moment and glanced at the darkened doorway of the guestroom before deciding that she really didn't want to be alone right now with her thoughts. That made up her mind and she smiled softly back at him. "Cocoa does sound good right now," she admitted shyly.

He held his arm out and bowed slightly, indicating that she should precede him to the stairs. "Then shall we?"

She nodded with a quiet laugh and headed for the steps. "Oh, and Miss Sanders," his question stopped her at the landing and she turned back to face him. "If you should find it necessary to discuss the matters that you divulged tonight," he coughed a bit, "I can promise a sympathetic ear," he said softly, his steady green gaze echoing the pledge.

She ducked her head a bit then smiled back up at him, patting his arm. "I'll remember that," she said quietly. "And thank you." She motioned for the stairs and her smile grew wider. "Now, I hope you have some marshmallows down there somewhere. It's just not cocoa without them."

Ezra laughed. "I believe we can scrounge up something."


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