Mind Games

by freeformchick

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Page 5

Ezra struggled with the tape around his wrists until his skin was raw and bleeding. Samuels had been gone for the better half of the day – Ezra had kept track of the passing time, since Samuels hadn’t thought to take his watch – but try as he might, he couldn’t budge the tape wrapped around tightly his wrists. Even his teeth hadn’t been able to rip the tape, though he suspected his orthodontist would be rather angry with him at his next appointment.

When he stopped fighting the tape, he noticed JD watching him with tired eyes. “What’re you doing, Ezra?”

“I am attempting to facilitate our escape,” Ezra replied, letting his hands fall back down. His arms were sore, and his efforts had caused the rope around his neck to chafe his skin. He could feel a slow, warm trickle of blood down the side of his neck, and the abraded skin beneath the rope burned.

“How’d we get caught?” JD asked. The note of confusion in his voice alarmed Ezra. He glanced sharply at JD and was concerned to see the slight glaze of his eyes, the dilated pupils.

“Judging from the ache in my shoulder and the blood on my shirt, I seem to have been neutralised though the utilization of a tranquiliser dart. Do you recall how you were captured?” Ezra asked, keeping the concern from his voice. It wouldn’t do JD any good to know that Ezra was worried about him.

“I heard a noise behind me,” JD replied slowly. “I guess they must have hit me with something . . . my head kinda hurts.”

“What happened to your arm?”

JD turned his head far enough to see his arm, wincing at the scrape of the rough rope over his skin. He seemed surprised at the bandage.

“Not sure. I guess I got shot . . . can’t feel it, though. I think they might’ve given me something.”

“A local anaesthetic, actually, Mr. Dunne.”

Ezra and JD started at the unexpected voice, coming from behind them. Samuels strode into view, followed by the dealer – Ashley Caine – and one large man who was probably Samuels’s remaining bodyguard. Caine was a taller, stronger-looking person than Samuels, though she seemed somehow less dangerous. That is, until Ezra saw her eyes.

A shudder ran through the Southerner. Caine’s eyes were the eyes of a madwoman.

Samuels hooked the stool with his leg and smoothly sat down, gesturing for Caine to do the same. The dealer shook her head, pacing the width of the room, moving in and out of Ezra’s sight. It made Ezra nervous, not being able to keep his eyes on the mad-eyed woman.

Samuels smiled. “It’s nearly midnight, gentlemen. Soon I’ll be contacting your friends to make sure they’ve procured the information they’ve been spending the past six hours running around like chickens with their heads cut off to get for me. I’d hate for that to have been a show, as it means I’ll be forced to show them what happens when they disobey my orders. I’ll be giving them their new instructions, and if they’ve done as I asked, they’ll be allowed to speak to you. Before you get any ideas, Ashley is going to be here the entire time, and she does so love to use that gun of hers.”

Ezra felt the noose around his neck tighten and he tensed apprehensively. Miraculously, the rope loosened and went slack. Samuels added, “You and Mr. Dunne have been lying here on a cold concrete floor for the better part of ten hours. Thought we’d let you stretch your legs – and take care of some business. I’m sure you know what I mean. Mikhail here will take you to the bathroom one at a time.”

Hands on his shoulders hauled Ezra to his feet, and the noose tightened once again. He turned his head slightly and saw the end of the rope in the guard’s hands, reminding him uncomfortably of a dog’s leash. The muzzle of a gun pressed into the base of his neck, urging him forward. He glanced at JD, still lying flat on his back, and the younger man forced a smile. The guard nudged Ezra with the gun again, and the Southerner took a step towards the door that Samuels had indicated. The concrete was freezing against the soles of his feet – it explained why he couldn’t feel his feet earlier. The chill had sunk bone-deep, making his steps awkward.

The guard removed his gun from Ezra’s neck when they reached the door. He pushed Ezra forward and said, “You’ve got five minutes.”

Ezra seized what he hoped was an opportunity to get free, holding up his hands. “This is going to be awkward with my hands bound like this.”

The guard looked bored. “You’ll manage. Go. Now.”

Sighing, Ezra entered the small room and kicked the door closed behind him. They afforded him that much privacy, at least. The room was utilitarian; a shower in one corner, the toilet in another, a sink between them. He was grateful for the opportunity to make use of the bathroom, however; ten hours was a long time for any man to resist the call of nature.

Unzipping his pants was difficult with his hands bound, even though they were at least in front of him. Washing his hands was even more difficult, especially since the soap was extremely slippery and threatened to escape several times. He eventually managed to turn the taps back off and dry his hands on his thighs before knocking on the door. The guard pulled it open and took hold of the rope again, jerking Ezra back to the larger room.

The new perspective of the room didn’t give Ezra any inspiration as to how they could escape. Windowless, it could have been below the ground or ten floors up for all he knew. He didn’t have long to scrutinise his surroundings before the guard took him to one wall, where more metal rings were embedded in the plaster. He jerked the gun at Ezra and said, “Sit.”

Ezra obeyed, seeing no other option. The man tied the end of Ezra’s ‘leash’ to one of the rings, checking the knot carefully before moving to where JD was and untying the younger man. JD received the same treatment as Ezra – escorted to the bathroom at gunpoint and given five minutes’ privacy – before he, too, was brought to the wall and tied in a sitting position. It was infinitely better than being forced to lie prone, but neither man could move far without the noose around his neck jerking him up short.

Samuels hadn’t moved in the short time Ezra was out of the room, but Caine was still prowling the room. Now that he could see more of the room, Ezra could see a table with a new-looking phone sitting on it. Samuels looked at his watch and said, “Well, I’d say it’s time.”

He dialed a number and sat back to wait. The phone was answered on the first ring, and a familiar voice snapped, “Larabee.”

“Mr. Larabee. Good to see that you can follow instructions. I trust Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Jackson are still with us?”

“Cut the crap, Samuels. Where are my men?”

Samuels laughed. “All in good time, Mr. Larabee. Did you get my information?”

“Yes.” Ezra could hear Chris’s frustration and anger in that single word. “Now let me talk to my agents.”

“Very well.” Samuels looked at JD. “Say hello to your friends, Mr. Dunne.”

“JD? You okay?”

JD licked his lips and answered, “I’m okay, Chris. Got a headache, and my feet are kinda cold, but nothing bad.”

“They haven’t hurt you or Ez?” Chris pressed.

“We’re okay,” JD repeated. “You’re gonna give yourself a heart attack, Chris.”

Samuels turned his gaze to Ezra. “And now Mr. Standish.”

“Ezra. You all right?” Ezra could hear a thousand questions in that one query, not the least of which was ‘where are you and how can I get you out?’ Unfortunately, he had no idea how to answer the unspoken queries and instead answered the spoken one.

“I am as well as can be expected, Mr. Larabee, as is Mr. Dunne. Circumstances have conspired to make our situation somewhat less than comfortable, but I am confident that you and our other friends will presently be rectifying that situation.”

Vin muttered in the background, “Geez, Ezra, you couldn’t just say ‘I’m okay, get us out of here’?”

Ezra’s mind was only half on what he could hear through the telephone; he was also watching Caine, who was steadily coming closer during her pacing. She was tapping a knife against her thigh as she walked, and her eyes were fixed on the two captives.

Samuels had turned back to the phone, turning his back on the captives. “Now, Mr. Larabee, you have obtained the information I require. Your next exercise is as follows. There is a park downtown, with a fountain in the middle. Young men and women enjoy congregating there,” he said, sounding far older than his twenty-odd years. “Tomorrow at nine a.m., Mr. Tanner will take the information to this park, alone. If either you or Mr. Sanchez leaves the apartment, I will take it as a violation of my instructions and act in kind.”

Ezra eyed Caine nervously. The woman was barely ten steps away from them. Samuels continued, “Mr. Tanner will see a young man sitting by the fountain. Undoubtedly he will be the only person his age awake at the time, so Mr. Tanner should have no problems locating him. He will have blonde hair, and will be wearing jeans and a leather jacket. Mr. Tanner will give the information to him, receive an envelope in return and go back to the apartment. Within the envelope will be your next set of instructions.”

Caine knelt beside JD and raised the knife. She ran the blade down JD’s jaw. JD shuddered and pulled away from Caine, but the woman grabbed JD’s chin in her free hand and pressed the knife deeper. Droplets of blood formed around the sharp blade, eliciting a whimper from JD. Ezra hissed, “Leave him alone, Caine!”

The weapons dealer turned to Ezra, her eyes dangerously hard.

“Dogs shouldn’t bark at their owner,” she snapped, moving with lightning speed and striking the Southerner hard. Ezra couldn’t help the exclamation of pain that escaped his lips as he was sent sprawling and jerked up short by the rope around his neck. Through the ringing in his ears, he vaguely heard JD cry out in alarm, and Chris’s furious voice across the line.

“What the hell are you doing to them, Samuels?”

The rope, pulled tight by Ezra’s momentum, made it hard to breathe. He gasped for breath, shocked by the harshness of the choking sounds that escaped his throat, and clawed at the rope with his bound hands. Caine loomed over him, knife in hand, and aimed a kick at his chest, snapping, “Some beasts just have to be taught how to behave.”

Unable to do much to defend himself, Ezra raised his hands to protect his head and tried to avoid the worst blows, still struggling to breathe as the rope dug into his flesh, feeling as though it was ripping right through his throat.

+ + + + + + +

“What the hell are you doing to them, Samuels?” Chris demanded, hearing Ezra’s pained outcry and JD’s alarmed protest. Choking sounds came across the line, and the sound of something hard connecting with flesh. The three listening ATF agents could hear Ezra strangling, could hear JD yelling at Caine.

“Ashley! We need them alive, in case you hadn’t remembered,” Samuels said acidly, apparently talking to someone else in the room with him, Ezra and JD. The sounds of blows stopped, though they could still hear Ezra’s painful struggle to breathe. JD’s panicked voice came over the line.

“Samuels, you gotta let me help him!”

Apparently Samuels acceded, because the next thing they heard was JD saying, “C’mon, Ezra. You can breathe now. Samuels, let me take this fucking noose off him!”

Vin had frozen at the word ‘noose’. Chris snarled, “Samuels! Damn you, if one of my agents is hurt there will be retribution!”

“Calm down, Mr. Larabee. My associate got a little over-enthusiastic in remonstrating with Mr. Standish. Ashley feels that your friend’s words were . . . impolite. Mr. Standish will be all right.”

“He’d damn well better be.”

“Any damage will be superficial. Now, Mr. Larabee, I recall were discussing your next instructions.”

Vin spoke up, swallowing his horror at the thought of JD and Ezra with nooses around their necks. “I take the information to a guy waitin’ by the fountain in the park. Nine a.m. Chris an’ Josiah stay here. He gives me new instructions. I come back here. Is that about right?”

Samuels chuckled, and Chris felt a hot surge of anger. “You listen well, Mr. Tanner. Yes, that is right. Don’t be late. My young man won’t wait forever, and I’d hate to have to harm your friends because of your tardiness.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be on time,” Vin said, speaking more to JD and Ezra than to Samuels, hoping that his friends could hear him.

“I’m sure you will, Mr. Tanner. That is the extent of your instructions for tonight, gentlemen. I hope that when I contact you again I won’t have to let you hear the pain of your friends.”

“Wait! Let me talk to JD or Ezra . . . make sure they’re really okay,” Chris pleaded, hating the note of desperation in his voice. But he couldn’t get Ezra’s choked cry out of his head, or JD’s panicked voice. Samuels sighed.

“I suppose that is a reasonable request. Mr. Dunne, kindly assure your employer that you and Mr. Standish are both still with us.”

“We are, no thanks to you and your damned ‘associate’,” JD said. “If Ezra’s hurt bad, there won’t be anything left for Chris to deal with by the time I’m done.”

Vin moved forward. “JD? What happened there?”

“Caine . . . she came over and started running a knife down my face. Cut me a little. Ezra yelled at her to stop, and Caine went mental. Attacked Ezra. Samuels got her to stop, but Ezra’s hurt pretty bad. He’s unconscious.”

“Does he have any head injuries?” Vin asked. JD paused, obviously checking Ezra, then answered.

“Don’t think so. That’s something, at least. I sure wish Nathan was here, though.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. Then JD spoke again, his voice small.

“Vin? I heard Chris, and now you. Where are Josiah and Nathan? And Buck?”

“Josiah’s right here,” Vin told the younger man, glancing uneasily at Chris. “Buck an’ Nathan . . . Buck an’ Nathan were hurt durin’ the bust.”

“Jesus! Samuels, scratch what I said before, Chris ain’t getting any joy from beating up on you. I’m gonna claim that right for myself.”

JD’s voice, while steady and even, was full of hate and fear. Vin said hastily, “The doctors think they’re gonna be okay, though. Don’t worry.”

“They better be okay,” JD said threateningly, speaking more to Samuels than Vin. “If one of those men dies, there’s no place that’ll hide you.”

“That’s quite enough, Mr. Dunne,” Samuels snapped. “I gave orders for your associates to be hurt but not fatally, and anyone who disobeyed those orders will be punished. I do not take kindly to threats. Mr. Larabee, that will have to satisfy your concern. This call is over.”

The dial tone was loud in the silence. Chris broke the silence by throwing the receiver and bursting into a string of curses, storming to the other side of the room and hitting the wall. His hand went through the plaster, sending a small explosion of plaster flakes out from the wall.

Vin sighed and went to his friend, taking Chris’s hand and examining it for damage. The knuckles were bleeding sluggishly and the back of Chris’s hand was scraped, but the damage didn’t seem too bad. He glanced at Josiah. The other man was putting the information for Samuels in a large envelope, seemingly calm, but the tension of his large shoulders made it clear that he was just as angry as Chris was. Come to think of it, smashing a wall seemed like a good idea to Vin as well. But it wouldn’t help matters any.


Chris turned. “What’s that?”

“Hoops. We’re just jumpin’ through his goddamned hoops.”

+ + + + + + +

The sky was brightening in the east when Vin left the apartment. He carried the large envelope with him, containing the information they intended to give Samuels.

It was a tricky plan that they were hoping to pull off. Even after almost six hours of looking, utilising the most advanced technology they had available, they’d been unable to find anyone in the city going by the name of Jason Cummerford. So, in lieu of actual information, Chris had decided that they would fabricate the information. He’d contacted a friend, asking him to pose as Jason Cummerford in case Samuels did try to get in contact. They’d left out an actual address, but had created a false email account and lent the man Josiah’s cell phone, since Josiah rarely used it anyway. Vin had no idea if it was going to work, but he sure as hell hoped so. For JD and Ezra’s sake if not their own.

It was still a few hours until he had to meet the messenger at the fountain. He’d left a note for Chris and Josiah, not wanting them to worry, but he’d been going stir crazy in the apartment. He wasn’t used to staying indoors so much. So instead of hanging around his apartment and quietly going mad, he was outside, wandering around like some sort of wayward spirit. But at least he was moving, not stuck somewhere. Not like JD and Ezra.

Fuck. Everything was making him think about JD and Ezra. He felt guilty that they were the ones to be taken – even though Samuels had probably targeted them specifically – because he should have been in the warehouse providing backup. He felt guilty that Nathan had been hurt so badly; he should have been watching the older man’s back. He knew that these feelings of guilt were useless and that there hadn’t been a thing he could have done to change what happened. He knew that Chris and Josiah probably felt as guilty as he did. He also knew that knowing that didn’t make him feel any better. And knowing that his indecision might have cost him the chance to confess his true feelings . . . that just about made him feel worse than he’d ever felt before.

He, Chris and Josiah had talked about a plan of action the night before, after Samuels had hung up on them. Hearing Ezra strangling, JD’s panic, had made them determined to find their missing friends before the next night fell. Vin had gone to the ATF office – explaining his presence there to the security guard had been awkward – and picked up some of the surveillance equipment Ezra had had shipped in several weeks ago, from one of those many contacts of his. None of the other agents knew where the equipment had come from, but JD had been in raptures about how high-tech and ‘cool’ the stuff was. Ezra had given them a demonstration of one of the bugs, and they’d all been impressed with its range and ability to pick up even the smallest noises.

Vin had taken a few of the bugs and some other equipment before heading back to his apartment. He’d been tempted to use his stealth to avoid the security guard, but figured the man might get suspicious if he didn’t see Vin leaving. He’d gone out the same way he entered, grinning a goodnight to the guard on his way, and promptly returned to the apartment where he found Chris and Josiah practically biting their fingers off with nervousness. Apparently they’d thought Samuels might try to take Vin as well.

His cell phone rang ten minutes before he was due at the fountain. He answered and had to hold the phone away from his ear to avoid being deafened by Chris’s furious diatribe.

“Chris, calm down. I’m okay, I just had to get out. I was going crazy there,” Vin explained, knowing that it was useless. Chris in this sort of mood wasn’t the most reasonable man around.

“You put yourself in danger, and probably JD and Ezra as well!” Chris shouted. “We agreed that we wouldn’t take any unnecessary risks.”

“An’ I didn’t. Samuels isn’t interested in capturin’ me, Chris. He’s got the bait he needs, now he wants the rest of us to keep jumpin’ through his hoops. If he wanted to capture me, he could have done it at any time yesterday. I was alone – or as near to it as to make no difference – when Nathan was injured yesterday, an’ when Josiah an’ me were out lookin’ for Ezra an’ JD. He doesn’t want any more bait, Chris.”

“You can’t know that for sure. Do you have any idea how uninformative that note you left was? Josiah and I had no idea whether you’d just gone out for coffee or had been forced to write it at gunpoint!”

Vin sighed. “Chris, I’m gonna be late if you keep yellin’ at me. Why don’t we just say that I’m ashamed of myself an’ leave it at that? I’ll take a dressin’-down later, but right now we have other things to worry ‘bout.”

He hung up, knowing that Chris would have his head later. Glancing at his watch, he realised that he’d been telling Chris the truth; it was now five minutes before nine. Luckily his wanderings had taken him fairly close to the park, and the remaining distance was easily traveled in less than five minutes.

He arrived at the fountain and looked around. A youth with longish blonde hair sat on the edge of the fountain. He wore jeans and a battered leather jacket, and had both hands stuffed in his pockets. Vin watched him for a moment before approaching; something about the boy struck him as odd. Finally, he walked forward.

The young man looked up. “Are you Vin Tanner?” he asked. His accent was odd; he spoke slower than normal, and with different emphasis on vowel and consonant sounds. He was small, too, looking far younger than what Vin figured had to be eighteen or nineteen.

“Yeah, I’m Tanner. You the kid I’m supposed to give this information to?” he asked, his voice harsher than he’d intended. The young man snickered slightly, as though amused by Vin’s anger.

“Yeah. You got it here?”

Vin held up the envelope. “Tell me one thing. Why the hell did someone as young as you get involved with Samuels?”

The youth chuckled again. “Had a slight misunderstanding with the police back home. Jake was there, stopped them from beating the shit outta me because I was too mouthy for my own good. I figured I owed him.”

“So why do you stay with him?”

“That’s two things, Mr. Tanner. You only said to tell you one thing. Now give me the envelope and I’ll take it back to Jake. Then you’ll get your new instructions.”

Vin handed him the envelope, frustrated that he wasn’t going to be able to appeal to the kid’s better nature. The youth nodded and put the envelope in his bag. He got up and headed over to a motorcycle, calling over his shoulder, “Be seeing you, Mr. Tanner.”

+ + + + + + +

Ezra slept late, realising even in his unconscious state that waking held little joy that day. It reached the point, however, when his body refused to stay unconscious, and he reluctantly returned to consciousness.

His torso and shoulders ached from the assault by Caine the day before, and his throat felt as though he’d been stepped on by a football player. His hands were still taped, but oddly he couldn’t feel the harsh rope against his neck. His body was still lying on concrete, but his head rested on something softer and rather warm.

He opened his eyes to see JD looking down at him, absentmindedly kneading his sore shoulders gently, soothing the aching muscles. Ezra realised that his head was resting on JD’s legs, and that the noose which had been strangling him yesterday lay discarded, several metres away. The inside of the rope was coated with dried blood, and Ezra unconsciously moved his hands up to his throat, touching the raw skin. JD still wore the noose around his neck, though it was slightly looser than it had been yesterday. The younger man smiled tiredly.

“I was wondering when you were gonna wake up. How’re you feeling?”

“As though I attempted to best Josiah in a fight,” Ezra replied, his voice hoarse and painful. He began to sit up, but the abused muscles in his abdomen and back protested the movement so fiercely that he gasped in pain and fell back onto JD’s legs. JD moved his careful massaging to Ezra’s stomach, using just enough pressure to ease the pain a little.

“Easy there. I don’t think you’re in any shape to be moving around right now. You think you can handle some food, or is your throat too sore?”

“How did you contrive to find food, Mr. Dunne?” Ezra asked. After ending the call with Chris the night earlier, Samuels had proceeded to get very drunk with Caine, leaving the hulking guard to watch over the captives. That their captor would supply them with food or water was a surprise; usually people who were off their faces didn’t have that much foresight.

“I asked one of the guards to get something for us,” JD replied, looking uncomfortable. He shifted slightly, tugging his shirt down, and snagged a plastic bag that sat not far away, the movement clumsy with his hands still bound. Opening it, he took out paper bags from which exuded the familiar smell of fast food.

“Huh. He went to a McDonalds to pick us up breakfast,” JD muttered, opening one of the bags and taking out a paper-wrapped object. “I know it’s not what you normally eat, Ez, but you think you can manage this?”

Ezra took a small bite of the muffin-type thing that JD handed to him and swallowed, choking down a scream as the food scraped his tortured throat. He carefully rewrapped and replaced the item in the paper bag, shaking his head.

“I’m afraid my throat seems to be opposed to the idea of anything solid,” he said regretfully. It had been over twelve hours since he last ate, and the smell of the fast food, though certainly not something he would normally partake of, was torture.

JD frowned and looked in the plastic bag again. “The guard musta figured that you’d be too sore to eat much. He brought some orange juice.”

That was easier to swallow, though the very act of contracting the muscles in his throat made Ezra want to scream. JD wolfed down his portion of the food and leaned back against the wall to watch Ezra drink, concern still clear on his young face.

“Ez? The pain gets too bad, you tell me, yeah? I’ll ask the guard to bring something for it.”

Ezra frowned. “You seem to have a lot of faith in this guard’s kind-heartedness, Mr. Dunne.”

JD looked down. “He’ll get us what I ask for.”

Ezra puzzled over those words and came to an alarming conclusion. “You promised him something in return for assistance?”

JD sighed. “Yeah.”

“What did you promise him?”

“Nothing I wasn’t prepared to give,” JD insisted, shifting again, tugging his shirt down. Ezra caught the motion and swiftly pulled the garment up, baring JD’s stomach.

Three cuts scored the skin, obviously no more than two or three hours old. They weren’t large enough to be dangerous, but were clearly painful. JD pushed Ezra’s hands away and pulled his shirt down over the cuts, looking annoyed.

“Damn it, Ez, you weren’t supposed to see that.”

“You shouldn’t have done that, JD. It wasn’t worth it,” Ezra snapped, forgetting to use what Buck termed ‘five-dollar words’ in his concern for JD. “Promise you won’t let that guard touch you again.”

JD bit his lip. “I can’t, Ez. The guy says that if I ask for anything – even if it isn’t from him – he’ll take it as a request. That’s why he cut me three times this morning. Once for asking Samuels to let me help you, once for asking for your noose to be removed and once for asking him to bring some food for us.”

Ezra was going to reply, but his head really hurt. His throat hurt, too. He vaguely remembered JD insisting that Ezra tell him if the pain got this bad, but he also remembered that JD had made a deal with the guard, and that if JD asked for something the guard would cut him again. Besides, JD was talking to the boy. And Ezra didn’t really want to talk, because his throat hurt so much.

Ezra blinked. Why were there black areas in his vision? That wasn’t normal, was it? And why was his mind so fuzzy? He couldn’t focus on anything. He tried to bring his hands up to his face to rub the soreness from his temples, but for some reason his limbs wouldn’t obey his commands. He managed to choke out, “JD.”

The younger man turned to him immediately. “Ez? What’s wrong?”

“Not . . . feeling too . . . good.”

JD’s worried face filled his vision, but the younger man’s visage was marred with the growing black spots. JD waved his hand in front of Ezra’s eyes and frowned when he saw the little response that his action earned.

“Ez? Your head hurting you?”

Ezra managed a small nod, though the movement sent a shockwave of pain through his head. His entire body was aching. Perhaps if he slept, he would feel better in the morning. He let his eyes close.

“Shit! Ez, don’t go to sleep. Nate always says to make sure a patient with a head injury stays awake, in case of a concussion or brain injury,” JD rattled off, his voice rising with panic. “Samuels, you’ve got this place bugged, get a damn doctor in here! You have to know that if Ez . . . Chris and Vin’ll kill you if Ez is hurt bad. Please, get some help for him!”

The door opened an agonisingly long five minutes later and Samuels entered, followed by one of the guards and a tall, well-dressed man carrying a briefcase. Samuels looked down at Ezra with concern in his eyes and said to the man, “See to him, doctor. I need them alive.”

The doctor knelt beside Ezra and began examining him, running his hands over the bruises on his chest and stomach to check for internal bleeding. His touch was firmer than was comfortable on the tender areas and JD had to stop himself from lashing out at the man when Ezra let out soft moans of pain and pushed the doctor away with his bound hands. JD didn’t like this man who was working for Samuels, but he realised that the doctor was Ezra’s only chance for medical treatment and that he had to calm his friend so that the doctor could find out what was wrong with him.

He gently pulled Ezra onto his lap, cradling the wounded man’s shoulders and stroking gently, smoothing the pain from his muscles. He glanced at the doctor, who nodded his thanks and continued his examination, before turning his attention back to Ezra. He began to speak softly, remembering the way Buck always soothed him when he was panicked in the ER or injured on an assignment.

“It’s okay, Ez. The doctor needs to check whether you’re bleeding inside, and that’s gonna hurt a little bit, but he’ll fix you up once he’s done. Just relax.”

He let his words be accompanied by calm strokes of his hands, though the movement was difficult with his wrists still bound. He looked at Samuels; the man had said he needed his captives alive. There might be a chance that JD would get what he was about to ask for.

“Can you please take this off?” he asked, holding up his bound wrists. “The door to the room is locked, and I’m not gonna run and leave Ezra here when he’s injured. I’m still wearing the noose, and you can fix it so I can’t get it off, but I need my hands if I’m gonna be able to help Ez and keep him calm.”

Samuels tugged at his lower lip thoughtfully, his eye son JD and Ezra. The doctor continued working, and every now and then Ezra moaned again, too out of it to do more than weakly push at the man.

“Samuels, please. He’s gonna be disoriented, and if he wakes up and his wrists are still tied, he’s gonna panic and hurt himself. The same if he sees my wrists taped.”

Samuels nodded. “Very well. I’ll be taking steps, however.”

“Fine, just get this tape off of us.”

The weapon supplier knelt and pulled out a pocketknife. JD held Ezra’s arms steady as Samuels cut through the duct tape on the injured man’s wrists, then held still as Samuels gave him the same treatment. The tip of the knife nicked his wrist, but the injury was barely worth looking at.

JD shifted slightly, maneuvering Ezra into a more comfortable position. He used one hand to gently stroke Ezra’s hair while the other massaged feeling back into his hands, carefully skirting the torn skin from where Ezra had fought the tape the day before.

The doctor moved on to examining Ezra’s head, fingers moving deftly through the agent’s hair to search for hidden head wounds. He jerked suddenly and his hands came away smeared with blood.

JD inhaled sharply. Head wounds were often deceptively mild, or so Nathan had told him, hiding damage inside. He didn’t know how he’d missed the injury in his earlier examination of his fellow agent, but if it had been bleeding since the night before . . . he looked at the place where Ezra had been lying and bit his lip. There was blood; not a lot of it, but the wound had obviously reopened during the night.

The doctor took some instruments from his briefcase and looked at JD. “Keep him still. I’m going to clean the head injury; hopefully it won’t get infected. His brain is probably swollen, which would account for his dizziness and lack of lucidity. I’ll need to keep pressure on the injury to stop the bleeding, but it’s not large enough to require much care. The possibility of him bleeding into his brain is what worries me.”

“How can you prevent that?” Samuels demanded. The doctor spread his hands helplessly.

“I can’t. If it’s happened, there’s nothing I can do about it. I wouldn’t keep him in this room, though; a head injury requires rest and warmth, neither of which are to be found here.”

Samuels tugged at his lip again. “All right. I’ll have him moved. Mr. Dunne, I expect you’ll want to be with your injured comrade so I will allow that as well, after I’ve taken some precautions against your causing trouble. Stefan, please go fetch Mikhail and Gregor. You and Gregor can help the doctor take Mr. Standish to his new room. Mr. Dunne, you’ll be coming with Mikhail and I for a few moments. Then I’ll allow you to return to your friend.”

JD leaned down and spoke to Ezra. “The doc’s gonna take you to a more comfortable room now, Ez. I gotta go somewhere else, but I’ll be back soon, I promise.”

The other agent opened his eyes and sought out JD’s face. “Mr. Dunne . . . don’t do anything . . . foolish.”

JD chuckled, despite their situation. “Sure thing, Ez. I won’t do anything you wouldn’t do.”

“Then you are . . . not restricted . . . much.”

JD patted Ezra’s shoulder. “You still got a sense of humour, so you can’t be injured that bad. I’m gonna go now, but I’ll be back before you know it.”

He stood up and looked at Samuels. The supplier nodded to one of the guards who’d returned with Stefan and the man moved behind JD, a strip of cloth in his hands. JD knew what was coming, but it was still a shock to have the cloth wrapped around his head, over his eyes, and tied firmly. Samuels spoke.

“Come with me, Mr. Dunne. Mikhail will make sure you don’t bump into anything or trip on anything.”

He felt hands grip his shoulders, and a tug at his neck as Samuels evidently began to walk. Ezra cried out in alarm, and JD automatically turned. “It’s okay, Ez. I’ll be back soon.”

He was guided out of the room and along a corridor. Echoes gave him the impression that it was a very long, very empty corridor and the chill in the air hinted at plain walls and a tile floor. His bare feet hit what felt like tile floor; it was cold and smooth enough to be tile, anyway. He was uncomfortably reminded of movies where you see the doomed man being walked down a long, empty corridor, towards his execution.

Another door opened, and he was guided inside. The guard – Mikhail, Samuels had called him – had his shoulders in a grip that seemed unnecessarily hard. Mikhail was the guard he’d made his deal with, JD recalled. JD’s request for help for Ezra meant another cut on his stomach – two, if the man counted JD’s request to have their hands freed, which he undoubtedly did. That made five.

He was pushed into a chair, and after a few minutes the blindfold was removed. Samuels stood in front of a large stainless steel cabinet, searching for something in a deep drawer. Mikhail’s hands were still on JD’s shoulders, and the ATF agent could feel the guard’s breath on the back of his neck, making his hair move and tickle his ear. Mikhail whispered, “Five, Agent. You owe me two more now.”

JD nodded slightly, figuring that disagreeing with the man was probably a bad idea. Mikhail, unlike Samuels, only ever addressed the captives as ‘Agent’, and even those words were rare; he usually just glowered. JD got the impression that Mikhail had been doing this for a lot longer than Samuels’s age implied.

Samuels turned back around, a strange contraption in his hand. A leather collar with metal ribbing, and a lock set flush with the leather at the back. The man demonstrated how the lock worked; the collar tightened before coming apart. Two patches were set into the collar on the inside, so that they’d be touching skin when the collar was on, and a small metal box was attached to the front. In his other hands, Samuels held a small device that looked too much like a remote detonator for JD’s comfort.

“This is what you’re going to wear, to ensure your cooperation and that of Mr. Standish. His throat is obviously too sore to take a noose or collar, so I’m afraid you will have to be my insurance against his misbehaviour,” Samuels explained. He touched the patched. “These are attached to small tubes within the collar,” touching the metal ribbing which JD now saw was hollow, ”which are in turn fed into this,” touching the box. “Inside the box is a chemical I had made up several years ago. Its symptoms are much like those of appendicitis, as it effects the abdominal organs more than the heart or brain, until the last days. The death that results from a full dose is often quite lingering, and always painful.

“The box contains enough of the chemical to dose a small army. This device is the remote, through which I can release as much of the chemical as I see fit. A smaller dose will cause quite intense abdominal pain that will last for several hours. If you or Mr. Standish does something that I feel needs to stop, you will know. And I will expect you to rectify your behaviour.

“The collar also has a failsafe. Should someone attempt to pick the lock, the box will release a full dose of the chemical. In that eventuality, your death would take something in excess of five days. The final day will be the worst.”

JD swallowed, looking at the deceptively thin-looking collar in Samuels’s hands. It was the only way he’d be able to keep them untied, though, and quite possibly it would mean Samuels would accede to other requests. Besides, when Chris, Vin and Josiah came to rescue him and Ezra, they could take the key from Samuels and get the contraption off.

He held still as Samuels approached, hardening his resolve. He had to do this, for Ezra’s sake as well as his own. But as that collar came closer, all he could see was the small metal box that held enough deadly chemical to kill him a hundred times over. His will crumbled and he tried to pull away, the rope at his neck pulling tight as he moved his head.

Mikhail’s left hand tightened on JD’s shoulder as his right one lifted and came into view, armed with a knife. The knife dipped towards JD’s neck and he cried out involuntarily at the touch of cold steel to his skin, then relaxed as he realised Mikhail was only severing the rope, then returning the knife to wherever he kept it.

And all the while that collar kept getting closer. JD would swear Samuels was approaching as slowly as possible to draw out the torture.

Mikhail dug his fingers into JD’s wounded arm. As a wave of agony washed over him, he was helpless to do anything but gasp at the intensity of the pain. Blackness swamped his vision for a few moments, and he barely felt the touch of the leather and metal on his throat, so deep was the pain. He vaguely heard Samuels speak.

“That is enough, Mikhail. I need him to be able to tell me if it gets too tight for him to breathe properly.”

The cruel fingers were removed from his injured arm, and JD let himself slump back against the chair, gasping as the pain receded. His vision cleared, and Samuels was standing in front of him, his hands at JD’s throat – on the leather collar.

“Mr. Dunne, I am going to tighten the collar. I want you to tell me when it gets too tight for you to breathe easily.”

JD nodded, afraid that if he spoke his voice would give away his fear. Samuels moved behind him – That’s right, the lock is at the back, JD remembered – and the leather began tightening. Mikhail kept his hands firm on JD’s shoulders, as if expecting the agent to try and escape.

The metal was cold on his skin, the leather rough and slightly irritating. Samuels kept tightening the collar until JD gasped, “Stop, please. That’s enough.”

Samuels loosened it a tiny bit and JD could breathe normally again. He heard the click as Samuels locked it around his neck, and then the man moved around to stand in front of JD again. He took out his pocket knife and took JD’s chin in his hand, lifting the agent’s head so that he could see his throat better, and ran the knife along the edge of the leather. He held the flat of the blade against JD’s skin and pressed slightly, until beads of blood popped up around the blade and JD gasped in surprise. Then he put the knife away and smiled. “Good. A knife won’t fit below the leather without cutting into you, so there’s no chance that those dermal patches can be removed. Now, Mr. Dunne, I will return you to your friend. But remember, if you or he does anything out of line, you will know first-hand what that chemical can do.”