The wooden cabin, with smoke rising out of its chimney and picturesque woodland surrounding it, still looked as though it could feature in a Colorado holiday brochure. But two hundred yards out, in all directions, members of three separate law enforcement agencies were carefully positioned to ensure that the fugitive within the house did not escape this time.
Strictly speaking, the local sheriff's department probably had jurisdiction but they seemed reasonably willing to simply work together with all concerned and get on with the job. Vin supposed that he should be grateful for that. The last thing he needed was a third battlefront to fight. The Denver Homicide detectives were being difficult enough, and the real opposition was supposed to be Lucas James.
Fairly sure that no one was watching at the moment, Vin wiped a hand over his tired eyes and leaned back in his car seat with his head resting against the headrest. Although the blood loss from his leg wound was making him light-headed, he knew that he couldn't afford to relinquish control until Chris arrived.
At least the most difficult of the Denver cops had become more subdued now. The fact that Vin had probably saved his life might have had something to do with it.
They'd eventually tracked down Lucas when they'd investigated reports of gunfire in the area. Apparently, the fugitive had burst into the cabin where a family were settling down to lunch, taken the woman and kids hostage and taken a few shots at the father when he'd come to join his family. The man had been lucky enough to escape unhurt and gone to summon his neighbours only to run into one of the sheriff's deputies involved in the search.
As soon as they'd got there, Ted Burns had instinctively charged right in and Vin had followed hard on his heels, instinctively expecting trouble. He'd been right. Seeing a flash of gunmetal in the sunlight, he'd thrown his considerably lesser weight against the older man in an attempt to push him out of the way.
They hadn't moved all that far and one of the bullets Lucas fired at that moment had gouged across Vin's upper right thigh. No bullet to remove but the bleeding had been messy.
Burns had dragged him back behind some trees for cover and made an attempt to bind up the bleeding wound. It was then that Vin got his first glimpse of the human side of the hotheaded cop he'd been dealing with since mid-morning.
"Trying to take my place as a shooting target as well now?" Burns asked gruffly.
Vin looked up in surprise and replied honestly, "Not really interested in takin' your place at all. I just wanna make sure things get done right."
The Homicide cop snorted but without real anger. "That wasn't the way things looked this morning. You just waltzed in and took charge."
Vin felt slightly sheepish, despite himself. "Yeah well, you were puttin' Ezra's life in danger."
"Maybe we did," Burns admitted, then regarded him thoughtfully, "You're a very close knit bunch, aren't you?"
"We stand by each other, if that's what you mean." Vin's eyes narrowed and Ted Burns actually chuckled slightly at the defensive answer. Then he sobered slightly as he took another look at Vin's leg.
"Y'know, you're gonna have to take it a bit easier with that leg.
Vin just looked at him and Ted Burns suddenly sighed in a way Vin found strangely reminiscent of Buck Wilmington. "But, of course, you're not gonna do that, are you?"
At that moment, a couple of sheriff's deputies had come over to help take Vin back to the cars, maybe get him to the hospital. But Vin had been adamant that he was staying put until more of Team 7 arrived. He insisted that the wound looked worse than it was, that a little first aid went a long way and that, dammit, he wasn't going anywhere until he'd spoken face-to-face with Chris Larabee.
That was when Buck had shown up and Vin had been forced to go another round of explaining that he wasn't going anywhere until he'd spoken to Chris. Buck had merely reached into Vin's outer coat pocket and produced his mobile phone, telling him to ring the sheriff's office. Chris would be there.
Vin had rung and got onto Nathan who told him that Chris was dealing with Ezra and that Vin really didn't want to catch any of the fallout from that conversation by interrupting them. So he'd left it to Nathan to tell them that Lucas James had been found.
And now, finally, he had five minutes to himself where he could just rest his head for a moment and try and get some of his strength back. But the stereo system of the car, not twenty feet away, was far too loud. It was beginning to give him a headache. And when he took time to listen to the words of the song that was playing, the headache got even worse.
My sins are so unoriginal
I have all the self-loathing of a wolf in sheep's clothing
In this carnival of carnivores, heaven help me
Goodbye and good luck
To all the promises you've broken
Goodbye and good luck
To all the rubbish that you've spoken
Your life has lost its dignity, its beauty and its passion
You're an accident waiting to happen
These were not exactly the sort of things he wanted to hear at the moment. Lucas James was a minor disaster waiting to happen. And last he'd seen of Ez, he was heading in the same direction.
With an exasperated groan, Vin levered himself out of his seat and walked over to the other car.
"Could we have that off, please?"
The bespectacled dark-haired Homicide detective, whose name Vin couldn't quite remember, looked up. "You have some objection to music?"
"I object to that music." Vin's voice was rapidly developing almost Larabee-like terseness.
The detective's eyebrows raised slightly. "Too subversive?"
But before Vin could answer, another of the Denver detectives entered the conversation. "See, Mike? Told you no one likes that stuff." He turned to Vin. "I've got some other stuff, if you'd like?"
Mike groaned. "Oh God, Jim! If it's that Feeding Frenzy album or any other Buffett stuff, I'll shoot you! Swear to God, I will!"
Suddenly Buck joined in the conversation. "Hey! What've you got against Jimmy Buffett?"
Mike looked at him. "Don't tell me you're another Parrothead!"
"You bet your sweet petunias, I am!"
"God help me! I'm surrounded!"
"You still haven't told me what you've got against his stuff."
"Well, for a start the man doesn't seem to have made up his mind if he wants to go country or reggae."
"You haven't heard of a fusion of styles?"
"That's not a fusion! That's a brutal head-on collision. Blood and guts everywhere and very, very messy."
"Oh? And what was the garbage you were playing?"
"That was the Bard of Barking."
"Billy Bragg," Jim supplied, in response to Buck's blank expression, "While he was in college, Mike got a scholarship to study medieval history in England for a bit. And he likes to show off by going on about the music and stuff he heard there."
"I acquired certain musical tastes and I'm not ashamed of them," Mike protested with an attempt at quiet dignity. "Just because you wouldn't know culture if it came up and bit you."
"That's not culture!" Jim hit back, "It's just left-wing rantings. The man can't even hold a tune properly."
"The level of lyrical expression more than compensates for any technical deficiencies."
"Well, at least I listen to a variety of artists. With you it either Buffett or Garth Brooks, day in, day out." Then Mike turned on Buck, as well. "And I bet you're the same!"
Vin had heard enough. This was doing nothing for his headache. "Boys, can you take your musical differences somewhere else?"
Some pain must have shown in his voice because all three suddenly looked at him with concerned expressions.
Then his phone rang again. "Tanner," he answered, neutrally, he thought. But Chris, on the other end of the line, also asked if he was alright. Vin assured him he was and Chris accepted the statement with obvious reluctance. Then he outlined a plan that Ezra had put together and, sure enough, Vin's headache got even worse.
"What is it?" Buck demanded as soon as he got off the phone. So Vin told them.
The plan was to set off some explosives just out of sight to the north of cabin. Then have everyone fire in that direction so it seemed like their attention had been diverted. Ezra then planned to coax Lucas out of hiding towards a car he supposedly had waiting somewhere. Once Lucas was out in the open, Ezra planned to make a break for it. And once he was clear, it was hoped that they'd be able to subdue Lucas with tear gas or pepper spray, surround him and order him to surrender.
Ezra had requested that they didn't start the tear gas until he was well clear. Not really surprising. Ever since training, they'd known that Ezra was especially sensitive to tear gas and always had a particularly violent reaction to it. It was never pleasant for anyone but just about everyone else in the team would recover within a few hours. Ezra always felt the after effects for days.
But if it looked like his life was in danger, Vin would ignore his request and do whatever was necessary, without a moment's hesitation.
By the time Vin finished speaking, quite a crowd had gathered around him, listening to the plan.
"So, we're all agreed. Don't hesitate to shoot Lucas if there's even the slightest chance he might attack anyone."
"You got it!" Jim Carter exclaimed, way too enthusiastic at the prospect for Vin's liking.
Buck seemed to be thinking along the same lines. "Son, keep in mind that we'd appreciate it if you didn't shoot Ezra."
Vin was grateful for Buck's intervention. He really didn't feel like he had the energy for conversation anymore. Throughout the entire time he'd been talking, he'd felt himself becoming progressively more light headed. Now, as he heard another familiar voice call to him, he found he could barely stand.
He turned to see Josiah and JD approaching. Vin saw Josiah say something but couldn't hear the words. Probably, he too was asking if Vin was alright.
Vin tried to say that he was fine. But suddenly, the fuzzy greyness that had seemed to take over his brain became impenetrable blackness, and he fell forward into Josiah's grasp, the darkness enveloping him.
Ezra nervously fingered the lapel of his jacket where the small microphone had been concealed.
"Stop playing with it, Ez!" Buck's voice came through on the hand held radio, lying on the car seat beside him.
He didn't plan to be in full radio contact during his meeting with Lucas. He didn't want that kind of distraction. But Chris had insisted that he wear some sort of wire so that they could 'keep track of him somehow'. He didn't mind too much. Lucas would be for too preoccupied to worry about checking him for any surveillance devices and if it reassured Chris Larabee enough so that the highly mistrustful team leader would allow him to go through with this meeting, he'd readily comply.
Ezra knew he was a touch jittery himself. Always was just before the curtain went up on a crucial performance. And since there was no one who could see him as he sat in the car waiting, he afforded himself a few nervous mannerisms. He tapped his lapel again.
"Sorry, Buck, but we must ensure that all the equipment is functioning at a satisfactory level."
He took a small breath and treated his audience to a little impromptu serenade.
"I've been a wild rover this many a year,
And spent all my money on whiskey and beer,
But now I'm returning with gold in great store,
And I never shall play the wild rover no more."
Buck chuckled. "Loud and clear, Ez. Your singing ain't pretty but at least it's better than Billy Bragg."
Ezra's eyebrows lifted slightly. "Author of the famous lines 'In a perfect world we'd all sing in tune, But this is reality so give me some room'?" He was actually quite surprised that Buck had even heard of Billy Bragg, but the well-travelled undercover agent wasn't going to be outdone by a philistine like Buck in any musical awareness stakes.
Then he heard a laugh from someone in the background which he didn't recognize. "Who was that?"
Buck's voice contained a long-suffering note. "Detective Michael Woodward. Another know-it-all pain in the butt. You two would probably get on like a house on fire."
"Indeed? So you again find yourself in the company of an individual of reasonable taste and culture, and you are at a complete loss as to how to conduct yourself."
"Enough of your smart mouth!" Buck admonished with mock exasperation, "When are we going to get this show on the road?"
Ezra smiled. The brief verbal joust with his colleague had settled his nerves considerably and he momentarily wondered if that had been Buck's intended purpose. Conversations like this often led him to suspect that Buck might actually have a much greater aptitude for subtlety than the rest of them ever gave him credit for.
Now more mentally prepared for the challenge, Ezra turned his mind back to the task at hand. Of course, he wasn't going to advertise to his teammates that he had momentarily wavered. Better to try and convince them that everything was part of an intricately constructed plan.
"Well, I told Lucas three-thirty. A few minutes delay to put him on the back foot would be ideal but we don't want to make him genuinely nervous. Now would indeed be an opportune time."
He drew his gun (Lucas would expect him to be armed) and opened the car door.
"Good luck, Ez."
"Thank you, Buck. I'll see you soon."
And with that, Ezra switched of the radio unit and placed it in the glove compartment.
This was it. The lives of that woman and her three children were in his hands now. Not to mention his own. He tried not to dwell on it as he stepped out of the car and cautiously made his way to a position just out of the range of vision of anyone in the cabin.
And he reminded himself that he didn't even need to get close to his target this time. He just had to entice Lucas into making a break from the cabin out into open ground. He could do that from a distance. Then he could avoid any chance of being in the vicinity, when the tear gas hit. God, he really hated that stuff. They'd offered to use pepper spray as an alternative, but Ezra didn't think that sounded any better as an option and he'd tried extensively to talk Chris out of that entire section of the plan.
It hadn't worked, of course. Chris had insisted that the gas or spray might become necessary to help subdue Lucas.
Maybe, if Vin hadn't been incapacitated earlier, he might have entertained the notion. Chris knew Vin's uncanny accuracy with a long-range rifle. He knew that Vin could take out Lucas with a single shot, even if the target and Ezra were nose-to-nose. But, despite the local sheriff's claim to have a deputy with considerable marksman capabilities, Chris refused to risk anyone else attempting such a shot. Not when Ezra's life hung in the balance.
Ezra knew that he really had to stop thinking about all that. He couldn't afford any distraction while walking the tightrope. Lucas would be paranoid as all hell. And contrary to what Ezra had told his boss, Lucas wouldn't be trusting anyone at this stage, not even one of his own men who appeared to be trying to facilitate his escape.
Ezra would have to calm him down enough for Lucas to be willing to venture briefly out into the open. He had to make Lucas let go of his paranoia at least long enough for that and thus Ezra had to convince him that there was an achievable means of escape. The planned explosions should help in that regard. They would provide a plausible distraction for the forces of law which Lucas knew were surrounding the cabin. Ezra had already informed Lucas that they would use the diversion to make their way to a suitable vehicle for escape and now he just needed Lucas to believe in the plan long enough to lure him into the open.
Of, course, Lucas was a highly excitable character and the explosions would also probably either make him exceedingly jittery or exacerbate his gung-ho tendencies. Oh well, swings and roundabouts. Ezra knew that it was simply up to him to handle these aspects of the situation. And where were those explosions anyway?
Then, almost as if in response to his unvoiced complaint, the first explosion sounded, followed by three or four more and the sound of gunfire, as his compatriots commenced their contribution to the deception.
Ezra made his way towards a side window of the cabin, signaled in its direction and waited while it opened.
To his extreme consternation, the first person who exited via that window was not Lucas James. It was a small red-haired boy of a approximately the same age as Angie. As soon as the child had made it outside, he looked back at the window and, sure enough, Lucas was following him. Then the boy cast his terrified gaze towards Ezra, tears streaming down his freckled cheeks.
Ezra reacted immediately. All thoughts of staying back to lure Lucas out instantly vacated his mind. He had to get that child away, out of the line of fire. But although he expended his maximum effort in racing towards the boy, before he reached halfway, Lucas was outside and had a hold of the child's shoulder, using him as a shield.
"What the hell...have you got him for?" Ezra panted.
Lucas looked surprised. "Travel insurance."
"Leave him. We need to travel as quickly as possible. He'll slow us down."
"We're taking him."
"If we take a child with us, we'll never get away. They won't stop until they arrest or eradicate us. It would be as bad as killing a cop." Ezra didn't care if his desperation showed. "The car's just around the corner. You don't need him."
Suddenly, he was staring down the barrel of Lucas' gun and listening to the words. "I do need him. I don't need you."
And in that instant, Ezra prayed that a tear gas canister would explode directly at his feet. But instead he heard the gunfire and felt the pain, then he felt himself falling and darkness descended.
Five-year-old Danny O'Connor didn't know what was happening. One minute that nasty man with a gun had him by the shoulder and was arguing with another man who wanted to let him go. Then there were gun sounds everywhere and he saw them both fall down.
The other man fell down first. He spun around and crumpled in a heap.
Then Danny looked up at the man with the gun. The man was staring straight ahead and suddenly there was blood all over his chest. Danny had to scramble quickly out of the way as the man toppled almost on top of him. And then he just stood there staring at the man's body which lay unmoving on the ground.
The gun noises stopped and he could hear people shouting. He looked up to see more people racing towards him. At the front were three men: a black man, a blond man and a dark-haired man with a moustache. He wondered if he should run but before he could move, they reached him.
The blonde man knelt in front of him and put a hand on his shoulder but gently, not like the man with the gun had done. The moustached man went over to the man with the gun. He kicked his gun away out of reach, while watching him carefully, then kicked him in the side and looked at him again. Then Danny looked around to see that the black man had gone over to the other man who had fallen. He was treating him more gently. He seemed to be trying to see if he was alright.
"I said, 'Are you alright, son?'"
Danny looked around to see who had spoken. It was the blond man in front of him and Danny found that he had already started nodding, before he'd even realized that he was doing so.
"Good. We'd better get you back to your folks."
Then he heard his mother's voice.
He looked up and saw her coming around from the front of the cabin, outrunning all the people who came with her. He ran to meet her and then he was wrapped up in her arms and nothing else mattered.
Buck finally smiled slightly as he watched the little boy be enveloped in his mother's embrace. He turned to look at Chris and saw that he too wore a faint smile of satisfaction. The two of them exchanged a look and then turned as one towards where Nathan tended Ezra.
Their resident medical expert had already briefly signaled to them that their down undercover operative was alive and not in any further immediate danger. But they both wanted a full damage report.
"Well?" Chris asked, as they approached.
Nathan looked up. He had just finished binding Ezra's upper left arm with a field bandage.
"One bullet, must've been from Lucas, went straight through his upper arm. Think he's out due to shock mainly. Combination of this and what happened earlier today."
"So, he's gonna be okay?" Buck asked.
"Oh yeah. It'll knock the wind out've his sails for a bit but he'll probably be givin' us hell again by the end of the day."
"Well, this time he's going straight back to Denver," Chris decreed, frowning down at his team's chief troublemaker. "Four Corners Mercy were gonna send a chopper for Vin. They can take Ez as well. Nate and I will follow them by car. Buck, you can tie up the loose ends here. JD and Josiah can help you. But I want you all back in Four Corners by nine tonight. You can tell them we'll be back tomorrow, if there's anything unfinished."
Buck nodded. "You'll be at the hospital?"
Chris closed his eyes and shook his head in weary resignation.
"Yeah. Where else would we be on a Friday evening?"
Stewart James sat numbly in front of his television. He'd already seen the mid-afternoon bulletin, so the news wasn't exactly new but still he found it impossible to move while the report of his nephew's death again played out on the screen.
The reporter related the events again. The scene from somewhere in Grand County, with cops swarming over it, was interspersed with file footage of Lucas. Some of it was rather old. There was even a scene shot at the funeral of that meddling Freeman bitch, nearly five years ago. There were a few file pictures of Phil and Rhonda too. Nothing of Eric Sanders though. Even in death, the man managed to be low key and not draw too much attention to himself.
They'd conducted an interview with an eyewitness, some gormless buffoon lapping up his fifteen minutes of fame.
"Well, we all knew that someone was holding a family hostage. The cops kept us back but I saw what was going on round the back. There was the big guy with the gun and holding a little kid hostage. And this other guy looked like he was trying to talk to him, maybe trying to get him to let the kid go. Then the first guy goes to shoot the other one, and suddenly the cops open fire and they both go down and the kid's the only one left standing. Then the cops herded us out. Dunno why. All the shooting had stopped."
The 'other guy' must have been Sanders. Phil had been reported as dead much earlier in the afternoon. So Lucas had turned on the Colonel in the end. Strange, Stewart had been sure that Sanders would have been able to handle him.
The scene reporter, an efficient well-groomed brunette, again appeared in front of the camera.
"Police have refused to comment on rumours which have begun to circulate, that the second man involved in the shooting was one Eric Sanders, an employee of Lucas James' uncle who, appalled by the senseless carnage which Lucas James has been responsible for today, had agreed to assist police in bringing him to justice."
Stewart James jumped, as if he had received an electric jolt. Betrayal? From Sanders? It couldn't be true!
And yet there had been signs, early in the morning, that Sanders was not going to stand by and let Lucas get away with the murder of that shopkeeper. The comments he'd made had hinted at his distaste for the deed, even suggested a degree of admiration for the shopkeeper's courage. Sanders had even said something about having a cause that you were willing to die for.
Well, the man had proved his earnestness. It seemed that he'd decided make sure Lucas would pay for the murder. Lucas holding that family hostage must really have been the last straw.
But Stewart still couldn't believe the man had betrayed him. In a way, Sanders was lucky that he hadn't survived the shoot-out. If he had, Stewart would have had him hunted down for his treachery.
He'd been so sure of Sanders. What had blinded him?
Well, he had to admit that he'd actually grown fond of the capable young man. Sanders had possessed intelligence, imagination, courage and style.
If only Lucas had possessed half the amount of any one of those traits, he would've been an able successor rather than a cumbersome millstone around his uncle's neck.
He'd poured so much effort into Lucas over the years, getting him out of scrapes with the police and trying to instill in him some understanding of the responsibilities of running the organization. So much so that he hadn't spent any time at all grooming any other potential successor.
He was a bit old-fashioned that way. Lucas had been his only surviving family and he never trusted anyone else enough to train them in that way. Being in charge of the organization was for family only. That was the only way.
But if he'd had a man like Sanders as his heir, he would have had not only a competent successor but also a formidable ally. All his enemies who had been waiting for him to stumble and planning to take advantage of any weakness, they would have known that even if Stewart was taken out, there would have continued to be someone powerful in charge.
Until today they had taken solace in knowing that Lucas would never be able to wield power as effectively as Stewart himself did. Now they would be like sharks smelling blood in the water. This whole business had exposed the soft underbelly of the James organization. And now there is no heir at all.
There had to have been a way he could have managed to keep it all under control. Maybe if he had met Sanders ten years ago, the two of them could have molded Lucas into a force to be reckoned with. Or he could have trained Sanders to be a loyal advisor to Lucas, someone to guide him and almost be the brains behind the organization. Could he have made the man truly his own, when Sanders had been younger and more impressionable?
Suddenly, he found it difficult to breathe. It was as if someone had grabbed him by the throat. Then there was a crushing ache in his chest. He shouted for help but didn't know if anyone heard him. And as he lost consciousness, Stewart James knew for certain that he was utterly alone in the world.
The conversation had hit another lull and so Buck one-handedly slipped a cassette into his car stereo, still keeping his eyes on the road.
We were dead on arrival
Safe home at last
No cannonfire dockside
No flags half-mast
We were sold out for silver
And a string of black pearls
On the loneliest island
At the edge of the world
Like destiny's children
Souls lost at sea
No room on the lifeboat
You can hold onto me
In the front passenger seat, JD's brow furrowed at the sound of the unfamiliar song.
"Buck, where did you get this music?"
Buck snorted, "I've been getting grief recently about how I always play the same music over and over. Now I try to introduce you all to something a bit new and all you wanna do is complain?"
"Ain't complaining! Just asking cuz I hadn't heard it before."
Chris shrugged from the back. "Not bad. I haven't heard it before either. What about you, Ez?"
The other back seat occupant didn't answer immediately and Buck sniffed a minor victory.
"Finally found one that's got you beat, have I?"
That produced a response. There were some things that Ezra simply couldn't let go.
"The Black Sorrows. Australasian blues-folk-country-rock outfit. Achieved some international attention in the late 80's, where I believe this piece dates from. I haven't heard much about them for a while but I'm not certain if they have officially disbanded."
JD laughed and even Chris grinned broadly.
Buck couldn't believe it. "Dammit, Ez! Do you stay up all night, just to listen to obscure bits of music?"
"In some parts of the world, they're not considered obscure," Ezra replied coolly, "Believe it or not, Buck, mid-western America does not constitute the be all and end all of musical experience. The world outside also has something to offer and some of us take a vague interest in it."
"Hey! I have too! Whose tape is it anyway?"
JD grinned. "Yeah, Buck, whose tape is it? Someone must have given it to you."
Buck had the good grace to look slightly sheepish. "Her name was Kate. She was an Aussie girl who insisted that I listen to some of her favourite music. And, well, I was more than ready to get into some 'Down Under culture'. If you get my meaning!"
JD groaned. Chris shook his head, then looked across at Ezra, who had closed his eyes and was leaning his head back against his seat but he still wore a faint smile.
Chris shook his head again. Ezra should really be still in the hospital. X-rays had shown a small fracture of his left humerus where the bullet had passed through his arm, not to mention the concussion and other injuries he'd received earlier in the day. But the undercover agent had discharged himself against doctor's orders.
Chris had briefly considered holding him down and getting the doctor to sedate him. But, on the other hand, Chris knew exactly where Ezra was heading and the people there would also probably be desperate to see him. And once he got there, Gloria Potter would make damn sure that he took it easy and rested, which was what the doctor had wanted in the first place.
So Chris had offered Ezra a lift to the Potters' place, with Buck and JD tagging along. It was much better than leaving Ezra to get there by his own devices.
Vin had been as close to livid as Vin ever got. The sharpshooter had mutinously pointed out that he'd only lost consciousness once during the day and Ezra had done it twice. Chris had countered by pointing out that Ezra could currently walk out under his own power and thus they couldn't stop him. Vin couldn't do so and therein lay the difference. But he'd intentionally left Josiah and Nathan back in Vin's room at the hospital, just in case the sharpshooter decided to take him up on that challenge. And he still thought it would be a good idea for him, Buck and JD to get back there, as soon as they could after they'd dropped Ezra off.
"So, after all that careful planning we did. Lucas James gets what's coming to him via nine bullets to the head and chest. And Uncle Stewart goes and has a heart attack," Buck mused, shaking his head, "I know old Stewart is still hanging on by the skin of his teeth but I reckon the James organization will pretty much crumble within the next few days."
Chris nodded. "Reckon you're right, Buck."
Ezra spoke without opening his eyes. "It is now like a serpent without a head. It will thrash around for a short time. Then it will die and other predators will feed upon its carcass."
Buck pulled a face. "That's rather gruesome, Ez. Thought you were into more refined types of things." He shrugged briefly. "But then, I thought Nate didn't have a malicious bone in his body. And it almost seemed like he was gonna laugh when he heard about what happened to Stewart James."
Ezra opened one eye, then closed it again. "Well, Mr James is a very bad man and you know how our Mr Jackson feels about such men."
Chris and Buck exchanged a glance, via the rearview mirror. There was obviously something being left unsaid but they knew that they weren't going to get the information from Ezra while he was in this frame of mind.
Chris briefly wondered if it was worth questioning Nathan, who wasn't good at hiding things, even at the best of times.
Buck tossed a quick grin in JD's direction. "Well, today was definitely a victory for the good guys."
Chris grinned too. "Yeah, Ez, you should've seen little Danny running back to his ma. Would've made all the pain worthwhile."
Ezra opened his eyes to stare at his boss. "It was those same injuries that rendered me unable to be a spectator."
"Wasn't talking about that pain. I meant seeing Danny and his ma together. It'd help you not eat away at yourself about all the ones you couldn't save."
Buck again caught his old friend's eye via the rearview mirror, suddenly concerned. Chris seemed okay, but Buck knew that the ghosts of Sarah and Adam Larabee were never too far away.
JD nodded to himself. Maybe, if he'd known what was going to happen two weeks ago, he might have been able to prevent his car and gun being stolen. And there was no way of knowing whether that in itself could have saved that child's life. The perpetrators might have been able to get another vehicle and weapon from elsewhere.
It was something that he'd just have to live with for the rest of his life. But he couldn't give up and crawl away because of it. He needed to make sure it never happened again. And he needed to keep working to prevent other innocents from being harmed in similar ways.
Ezra turned and stared out the window. He'd never thought that he was trying to save the world. The very idea was laughable.
But there were very definitely some things he'd sacrifice his life to preserve. He was currently on his way to be reunited with one of them right now. He was going to try to make some small amends for his failure.
He'd failed Dennis Potter today. Dennis, just an ordinary citizen, had given his life trying to protect that girl and yet Ezra, a professional upholder of the law and protector of the populace, hadn't been able to save Dennis.
Well, now he had to protect Dennis' legacy, along with Teresa's legacy. He wouldn't fail either of them a second time.
Gloria Potter walked over and turned on her radio. She really needed some background noise to help distract her mind.
She and Polly had finally got the children to bed. But Gloria just couldn't even contemplate sleep at the moment and so Polly had just gone to make some coffee.
Gloria remembered that she used to relish these quiet times by herself, where she could find time for her own thoughts. But now, sitting on her own and thinking to herself were just about the last things she wanted to do.
The house just seemed so empty now. Dennis had always been a rather quiet person but still the silence accentuated his absence.
The doorbell rang. She'd been expecting it, even waiting for it, but before she could get up to answer it, she heard Polly already in the hallway.
Buck Wilmington had called from Four Corners Mercy Hospital more than half an hour ago. He, along with Chris Larabee and young JD, were bringing Ezra over. Apparently, Mr Standish had insisted upon leaving the hospital, despite medical advice. But his colleagues were only letting him get away with it on the proviso that he rest under supervision. Buck had (rather gallantly) asked Gloria if she would mind being the nominated supervisor.
She was glad that Ezra could make it, mainly for Angie's sake but also for her own. Despite her early suspicions, she'd become quite fond of the undercover agent and had been rather concerned at the information Buck had let slip, earlier in the day.
The distinctive contrasting tones of both Polly's and Ezra's voices could be heard, talking at the front door. Then they became louder, as the two of them joined her in the living room.
Polly ushered Ezra into the room ahead of her. He looked tired and rather pale and his left arm was in a sling. And Polly hovered behind him.
The young policewoman had been like a protective watchdog all day. She'd even been initially suspicious of Buck, although she'd eventually warmed to him. But she seemed to have taken an almost instant liking to Ezra. And that was probably Angie's doing.
Gloria produced a sad smile to greet him. "Hello, Ezra. It's good to see you."
She received an equally sad smile in return. "Hello, Gloria. I hope you will accept my heartfelt condolences."
Gloria nodded. "Thank you."
"Buck and two other friends dropped him off here, just now. Apparently, they needed to get back to the hospital right away," Polly reported, "And we've been instructed to keep an eye on him and to not stand for any nonsense. Nathan Jackson will stop by, in the morning, to check up on him."
Ezra sighed. "All this fussin' is so unnecessary."
"Well, if you ask me, you're damn lucky to be let out of the hospital at all! And doubly lucky to have friends who'll drive you across town and make sure there's some one who'll look after you when you get there!"
Ezra smiled at the way she so candidly offered her unsolicited opinion. There was no rancor, only an element of tolerant amusement, but it made Polly blush slightly and she quickly retreated to the kitchen, saying that she would go finish making the coffee and leave him and Gloria alone to catch up.
"She seems like a very pleasant young woman," Ezra observed, after Polly had left the room.
Gloria smiled. "She's been listening to Angie's stories all afternoon. So, she's probably a little taken with you, maybe thinks you're some sort of knight in shining armour."
Ezra smiled self-consciously "Well, in that case, perhaps someone should inform her that, contrary to what she has probably heard, I am not capable of walkin' on water."
Gloria chuckled softly and Ezra's smile widened slightly, as if he was gratified that his little self-deprecating remark had been so well received.
He moved ever so slightly closer and spoke very softly. "How are you farin'?"
"I'm coping. My sister is arriving from Chicago tomorrow morning."
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "There was no one that you could call on here?"
She shrugged. "I don't want to bother my friends here in Denver. The last thing I need is a house full of people awkwardly offering condolences and trying to help even if they have no idea how. It's alright. Polly's been great. She understands and she also gives me space. Buck was a great comfort, especially to the children, when he was here earlier. And well, now you're here."
"Yes, I'm sorry. It was selfish and insensitive to impose on you like this."
"What?" Gloria stared at him and found that he just returned her gaze silently and rather apologetically.
Then it dawned on her. "You're not going to pretend that you still think that I don't like you, are you?"
He answered cautiously. "Well, over the past year or so, I have detected some hostility on more than one occasion."
Gloria sighed. That was unfortunately true. If only she could go back to those early days and change things. So many misunderstandings, so much time and emotion wasted.
"That was a long time ago and I was just worried about Angie. She'd been through so much and she'd already lost her mother..."
Ezra nodded sadly. "And now, she's lost the father figure in her life."
Gloria again stared at him. "You really don't realize, do you? Dennis and Angie were very close but he was never the father figure in her life."
Ezra blinked at her and she continued. "Every report card she gets. No one else is allowed to read it until she has called you. Even if she has to just leave a message on your answering machine, she has to tell you first. You are the single most important person in her life, the only father figure she's ever known or wanted. And she's never let go of the hope that one day you'll get married and then she can go live with you, either fostered or adopted. So you should probably let the lucky lady know that you might come with certain strings attached,"
Ezra shook his head with a short wry laugh. "Don't worry. I'll certainly let any potential candidates know what they are letting themselves in for."
Gloria sighed. "Back when I first met the two of you, I was worried about Angie getting hurt again. She adores you and you do such dangerous work. I thought that something might happen to you and that I had to protect her from that." Suddenly, her eyes filled with tears. "How stupid was that?"
Ezra understood immediately. How often had he brushed with death in the past year alone? And yet here he was, still alive, while quiet stable Dennis Potter was now dead. It was unbelievably unfair and there was nothing he could really say. So he just took Gloria into his arms and rocked her gently.
Then he heard her utter a small snuffling chuckle through her tears.
"What?" he asked.
"She really is going to be very, very lucky."
"No, I meant whoever eventually catches you in the end."
Ezra chuckled slightly as well. She seemed intent on flattering him. Almost as if she was trying to make amends for her former hostility.
"You think so?"
"Yes, I do."
He hugged her closer and they both drew a little comfort from each other. Then the sound of Angie's voice almost made them jump.
"See? It would work!"
All three children were standing in the doorway to the living room. Ezra loosened his hold on Gloria, as he turned to face Angie and asked, "What would work?"
Angie wandered into the room. "If you and Gloria got married, then we could all live together."
Truly alarmed by this idea, Ezra let go of Gloria completely. Then he quickly threw her an apologetic glance, only to be greeted by a small 'I-told-you-so' smile.
With a sigh, he stooped to face Angie on her level and extended his apologetic look to the two Potter children. They both looked rather apprehensive.
Ezra placed his hand on Angie's shoulder and spoke seriously. "I don't think that's entirely appropriate at the moment."
"Why not? You two like each other now. You were just hugging each other. It works perfectly."
He could see that it probably did from her perspective. The gross impropriety, not to mention sheer callousness, of proposing to a grieving widow within 24 hours of her husband's death would certainly never have occurred to Angie.
"But Gloria still loves Dennis. To ask her to marry someone else right now would be most cruel."
"Oh." Angie didn't look entirely convinced but she seemed to accept that there might be some merit in this and dropped the argument for the time being. Probably storing it for some future discussion and debate, he realized with a degree of foreboding.
He placed his good arm around her and, with a little difficulty due to his fatigue, lifted her up onto his hip as she put her arms around his neck.
It felt so good to be able to hold her again and he grinned broadly. He appreciated her pragmatism, even if he was dubious about her specific recommendations.
"However, you're right to be thinking about what we need to do to make sure that you are all looked after."
Now Gloria looked at him with a little suspicion, "Oh? So, what have you been up to?"
He turned to face her again. "AD Travis stopped by to see me at the hospital this afternoon. He's got quite a few contacts in Social Services and I got him to promise to make sure that Angie was able to stay with you, as long as the financial situation is taken care of and you agree."
Gloria blinked. She'd barely got around to thinking that far. "Financial situation?"
"Well, I know that you've still got some of your mortgage to pay off. And then there's the cost of raising three children. I know that you receive some annuity for your work fostering Angie and also that Dennis had some life insurance. But I think that even with those, income would be tight. So I've organized for a portion of my salary to be put into your account, if you agree."
"Why not? I'll see if I can write it off against my taxes." He grinned and gave the girl in his arms a brief squeeze. "The 'Save Angie Velasquez and the Potter Family Fund'."
Gloria was still staggered. "It wouldn't work like that and you know it."
His gaze became serious. "Gloria, you don't know what it means to me to be able to come here and spend time with you all. I'll do anything in my power to preserve what's left of that."
Gloria took a moment to find her voice again.
"You should already know that you'll always have a place here," she finally managed to tearfully protest, as she placed one of her arms around his shoulder again and extended the other towards her children. Thus Ezra abruptly found himself surrounded by the grateful family and encased in an overwhelming group embrace. The sudden flood of emotion almost eroded his defences. He had to lean against them to try and keep himself from falling and he only just succeeded.
It was then that Gloria suddenly realized just how unsteady he was on his feet. And she changed her tone to one of matronly authority. "But right now you're going to sit down and rest."
And she gently dragged him, still carrying Angie, to the nearest couch and deposited him in it. "You two stay there. We'll go give Polly a hand."
Gloria squeezed his shoulder once more, in a gesture of both comfort and gratitude before she led her children into the kitchen.
Finally alone with him, Angie critically appraised Ezra's condition. "You look really tired."
He tried to focus his gaze on her and actually found it much harder than he expected it to be. But he still easily managed an affectionate smile.
"Well, it's been a long and eventful day, Angel girl," he said softly, "What about you? How are you?"
"Alright, I guess. Better than I should be really. The other kids think I'm really mean because I'm not really sad. I don't know...I'm trying!"
Ezra nodded his head, which was beginning to feel quite heavy. Buck had told him how Angie had been finding it hard to accept Dennis' passing on an emotional level.
"It's alright. They'll understand eventually."
"They said that I won't ever understand because he was their father and he wasn't mine. And I told them they were stupid. My mama died before their father did. And that shut them up."
"I'll bet it did!"
She suddenly looked dubious about holding the moral high ground. "Was that a wrong thing to say?"
"Well, certain factual aspects were correct but diplomatically it was a failure."
"You think I should have tried harder to be nice?"
"It might have been a good idea."
She sighed. "Dennis is always nice. He was going to take me to see Mama's resting-place on Sunday. It's always better when just him and me go. The other kids act bored. But Dennis always talks to me like he really knew her."
And suddenly the tears began to form in her eyes. She tried to hold them back, swallow them, wipe them away. It seemed silly to be crying now. She knew that Dennis had been gone all day. Why was she crying now?
Ezra pulled her head down to his shoulder and kissed the top of it. "It's alright. You'll miss him, like you miss your mother, but the rest of us are still here. We'll all look after you. How about I go with you on Sunday?"
Suddenly, she looked up again and fixed him with a penetrating gaze. "And who's gonna look after you?"
He blinked. "What?"
Her gaze flicked down to the sling on his arm and back to his face again. "You're always getting yourself hurt. What if what happened to Dennis, happens to you? I don't want to lose you, Ezra."
He hugged her tightly again and murmured vague reassurances into her hair. She desperately returned the embrace. It was as if she thought that if she held on tightly enough, she could ensure that he'd never leave her.
Then he heard her muffled tearful voice, her face still buried against his shoulder. "Do you remember when the newspaper said you were dead?"
Ice lodged in his heart. All that anxiety that he had expended all day, his fear of the mere possibility that she might be killed someday and that he would lose her. But, thanks to that false obituary that had been printed earlier in the year, she had already experienced what it was like to truly believe that he was dead. He realized that it must have shattered her and suddenly he felt like the most selfish soul alive. Whose vulnerable emotions had really been at the forefront of his thoughts during the day, hers or his own?
"I'm so very sorry, Angel girl."
She seemed slightly puzzled. "You didn't write it."
"Nonetheless, I'm terribly sorry."
She gave him another squeeze, as if to reassure him. "That's okay, but after we found out you were alright after all, I decided to do something about it. I thought I'd go to a church and tell God that if he kept you safe, I'd never do anything bad ever again. I'd even become a nun when I grew up."
Despite himself, Ezra really had to work hard to suppress a smile. Somehow, even through his grief and remorse, the very notion of Sister Angelica struck him as exceedingly funny.
"But I told Gloria and she said that it didn't work like that. She said that there were no guarantees and all we could do was keep hoping and praying and trying our best."
"But sometimes doing our best isn't good enough. Otherwise, Dennis would still be here. I know Mama did some bad things but Dennis was always good."
Ezra drew her out to arm's length, so he could look into her eyes. He could let her pursue that train of thought. "Angie, your mother was a very courageous and noble young woman. No one is always good and no one is thoroughly evil."
She just looked at him and he struggled to find something both honest and reassuring to say.
"Angie, terrible things sometimes happen, like what happened to Dennis today. And they make us very sad for a time. But we have to keep striving to improve things. The effort itself is important, not just the outcome."
Still she seemed unconvinced. Still anxious about the prospect of possibly losing him, as he had been about losing her.
"I want you to know that I've done some good things and some bad things in my life. But if something had happened to me today and we never saw each other again, I would have been proud to have known you and I hope you would feel the same about me. Hold onto the good, Angel girl. Always remember the good things about those you loved. Your mother, Dennis and I hope, if it ever came to that, me."
She shook her head. "I don't want to have to think of you that way. I want to keep seeing you. You've got to promise to be careful!"
Ezra smiled. "Contrary to popular belief, I do usually try to be careful."
She seemed annoyed at this attempt at levity and actually hit him on his good arm, trying to instill some seriousness into him.
"Alright, I promise to try harder."
"You have to!" Now there was real pleading in her voice. "I love you so much, Ezra. I don't wanna lose you too."
"I know." He took hold of her chin and directed her gaze up, so she could she could see his earnestness. "And I love you just as much, Angel girl, maybe even more so."
"Yeah well, I love you even more than that."
He hadn't realized that it was a competition, but he was willing to yield to her in it.
"Alright, you win," he said with a soft chuckle.
She smiled back at him and he gathered her back into his arms and leaned his head back against the couch.
Without conversation, the background noise from the radio became more prominent. Ezra let his eyes close and listened to the DJ announce another classic from the 80's. As the familiar guitar chords reached his ears, he realized that it was a song he knew well. But surely it wasn't old enough to be considered a classic. Well, more than ten years old, more than twice Angie's lifetime, he supposed it could be.
Funny how the songs from your college days somehow seem timeless in your mind. Probably, a better marker of advancing age than the number of candles on your birthday cake. After all, his teenage friend, Lila had once thrown his penchant for 80's music at him, as if it were some kind of insult. But he really didn't care as he let the words of the nostalgic ballad wash over him.
There is freedom within
There is freedom without
Try to catch the deluge in a paper cup
There's a battle ahead
Many battles are lost
But you'll never see the end of the road while you're travelling with me
Hey now, hey now. Don't dream it's over.
Hey now, hey now. When the world comes in,
They come to build a wall between us.
We won't let them win.
Well, that was the secret to it all, wasn't it? Not to let them win. To hold on to what was important in your life, no matter how hard they tried to take it away from you. To keep fighting and keep believing and keep living.
Had to hold on. Almost subconsciously, he tried to clasp Angie tighter. He briefly wondered if she'd eventually become a typical rebellious teenager and constantly fight him for her freedom. Maybe then, she wouldn't be so keen on these tangible displays of affection.
Maybe, but not today. Here and now, she was his to just hold in his arms, as he felt himself sinking further and further into the couch.
Then, almost as if to refute his thoughts, he felt Angie shift in his grasp, as if she were trying to break free. And he found he didn't have the strength to restrain her.
"Ezra?" There was audible concern in her voice.
"Mmmn?" He tried, but he really couldn't manage a more articulate response.
She shifted again, this time moving closer, and he felt a light pressure on his forehead, as she kissed him. And the very last things he was aware of, before he drifted off into oblivious slumber, were the feel of her breath on his ear and the sound of her voice. The latter seemed to be fading in and out, or maybe it was just his state of awareness that was doing so.
"....'night, Ezra....love you."
For now, that was all he needed to know. He ceased fighting and allowed himself to fall into the void.
* * * * * * *
This episode of The Magnificent Seven: ATF Virtual Season is respectfully dedicated to the innocent victims of the shooting tragedies in Dunblane, Scotland (13 March 1996), Port Arthur, Tasmania (28 April 1996) and Littleton, Colorado (20 April 1999) and to the family, friends and other loved ones who survive them.
In the words of one of those courageous survivors, Walter Mikac, who lost his wife and two daughters in the shootings at Port Arthur: "Remember that the power of love and creation will always triumph over the power of destruction and revenge....Celebrate life and let it continue."