An Innocent Man

by Angie

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+ + + + + + +

The ride from Knoxville to Spencer was longer than JD could imagine. He squirmed in the back seat while Mickey and Agent Kinder made small talk in the front. Giving in to the pain, he took one of the pills they had given him at the hospital and tried to get comfortable. When he opened his eyes again, he saw the familiar contours of the Spencer jail. He was alone in the car! Easing his achy body out of the back seat, he entered the jail. Perry Davis smiled warmly when he saw the young, dark haired agent.

“Hey, JD! How are you?”

“Hey, Perry. I’m just a little sore. I got tossed into some furniture last night at a bust. They put 28 stitches in before they sent me home. Where are Mickey and Agent Kinder?”

“They rode out with Sheriff Wilhelm to talk to the Franklin kid. His aunt thinks he knows something about Wyn’s murder. The woman said not to bother you because you were drugged up. How is your friend doing?”

“He’s not doing well at all. They’ve been using electric shock on him and drugs. He hasn’t spoken in a week. The doctor is concerned about him. They were trying something new today and they asked for Vin to be with him.”

“I hope he’s all right. If the Franklin kid says that Johnny Lightner killed his own sister, your friend will have gone thru all of that for nothing.”

“I know. That’s what we’re afraid of, that he won’t be right even after his name is cleared. I think I’ll go outside and try to call and find out how the session went.”

+ + + + + + +

In his mind’s eye, Chris saw Sarah again. She was breathtakingly lovely as she reached out to him. He felt her arms enfold him and he sobbed quietly.

Vin tightened his grip on his friend as he wept. Chris was shaking so hard that he could barely breathe. The Texan kept up a steady stream of reassurances as he reached for the leather jacket that one of the doctors held up behind Larabee. Drawing the comforting garment around Chris, he rocked him slightly.

“Can you see her, Cowboy?” At the slight nod, he continued. “Ask her to help you with Adam. Ask her to take him with her for a little while. A little boy needs his mother. Tell him to go to her.”

His grip tightened on his friend as Sarah and Adam walked away. The wall of silence that he had been pounding on for so long exploded and rained down on him like teardrops. Soon, all he heard was the steady stream of assurances from the other half of his soul. He slid from the couch to his knees on the floor and clung to Vin Tanner.

+ + + + + + +

The phone rang in the hotel room and Nathan answered it. Josiah looked up from the chair where he was reading the paper. The ex-medic paled as he listened to the caller before slamming the phone down and grabbing his coat.

“Get Buck and let’s go, Ezra’s hurt!”

The three agents arrived at the hospital and were directed to the secure ward. They were relieved of their weapons before they were allowed to see Ezra. They moved quietly into the room and approached the bed. The southerner’s face was black and blue on one side. There were IV’s in both arms and he was handcuffed to the bed. Nathan took the chart from the foot of the bed and reviewed the notes. Buck looked over his shoulder as he read thru the unfamiliar words. One set of characters leapt off of the page and Jackson drew a deep, angry breath.

“What is it Nathan? That medical jargon is all Greek to me.”

Jackson shook his head, he wouldn’t tell them what that word meant, not now anyway. He put the chart back and approached the bed.

“His jaw is fractured and he has a concussion. His ribs are fractured and his liver and spleen are bruised. He’s passing blood in his urine so they’re watching his kidneys.”

Pain! Fear! It hurt to move and it hurt to breathe. Someone was touching him gently and it terrified him! His eyes opened and he tried to draw up his hands to defend himself. The handcuffs clanked against the rails and ratcheted up his anxiety. The gentle hand gripped his hand and stopped him from pulling against the restraining devise. The deep timbre of the voice was soothing and he finally opened his eyes.

“Hey, brother, it’s about time you woke up. Don’t try to move! Just relax for a minute. You’ll be all right. We’re here for you now, you’re safe.”

The nurse entered the room and eyed the three well-dressed men. She pulled the chart and moved to the side of the bed. Seeing that the gray haired man was not going to give up his place at the side of the bed, she moved behind him to take the readings from the machine in the corner. She checked the IV bag and adjusted the drip rate. Moving around the foot of the bed, she checked the bag that was attached to the catheter and made the notes on the chart. Taking the stethoscope from her pocket, she listened to the patient’s lungs for a moment before moving below the bandages on his ribs to listen for bowel sounds.

A look of shame rolled across Ezra’s face as the nurse removed the stethoscope and began to gently press on his abdomen. Both hands gripped the rails as he drove his head back into the pillow to avoid crying out. Nathan wasn’t quite quick enough to stop Buck as he caught the nurse by the arm and drew her away from the bed.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals in my life and I have never seen a nurse with so little concern for her patient. You might at least speak to him before you go digging into his injuries. No matter what you think he did, he is still hurting and if you can’t treat him more gently than you just did, don’t bother coming back in here.”

The woman looked at the dark haired man with just a hint of fear in her eyes before she looked to the guard standing just outside of the door. The man was on his feet with his hand on his gun. Buck glared at the guard before delivering the nurse to him.

“Find his doctor and tell him that I want to see him, now!”

+ + + + + + +

Four adults sat around the frightened young man in the wheelchair. Jeff was most afraid of Sheriff Wilhelm. His aunt Libby had spoken to him earlier and told him that she knew Seth and Johnny had been making threats against him. The FBI and ATF agents didn’t really scare him especially since the one was a woman.

“Just tell them what you know, Jeff. It’s your Christian duty to tell the truth.”

“We were there that night. When Wyn was killed. Seth and Johnny dragged her from the car and Seth gave the ATF guy a shot of insulin he stole from his dad. She put up a hell of a fight and the next thing any of us knew, Johnny had strangled her. It was Seth’s idea to strip her and put her in the trunk of the car. We rode over to Pulliam’s house and called to report the car. Seth took the gun and the jacket and gave them to Taylor. They told us that if we didn’t keep our mouth’s shut that they would kill us too.”

In the pregnant silence that followed, the adults looked at each other and back to the kid in the wheelchair. Sheriff Wilhelm leaned forward and addressed the boy.

“Do you understand that you have just confessed to being involved in murder, son? You might want to talk to a lawyer before you say anything else. I know you won’t be running off in your condition, but I have to warn you not to leave town, okay?”

Jeff nodded and looked up at his aunt who was nodding encouragement at him while tears ran down her cheeks.

“Let’s go pick up Seth Fielder. I’ll call Judge Hornbeck and let him know that Mr. Larabee is innocent of murder.”

+ + + + + + +

An orderly lifted Chris and put him back on the couch. Vin moved to stay in contact with his friend as the doctors began to question him again. He answered all of their questions and recounted his memory of the night Wyn was killed. He also recounted the trial. When the doctors stopped the questions, Chris looked to Vin and asked in a soft voice.

“What happened to Ezra? The judge was here and he said he hadn’t talked to him in a while. Tell Buck to get him back. You need that stubborn southerner. The team isn’t balanced without him.”

“The team isn’t balanced without you, Cowboy. You let us worry about Ezra. You just work on getting better, okay?”

The entire procedure left the blond man exhausted and his eyes closed as his breathing deepened. Vin placed the hand he had been holding gently on Chris’s chest as he sank back on his heels. Dr. Fullerton gestured him into the hall.

“You did good! I think we’ll be able to work with him now. He’ll probably sleep for a couple of hours and then we’ll start working with him in depth.”

“I want to be here when he wakes up. If he sees me, he’s less likely to retreat again.”

The doctor nodded in agreement. Chris was returned to his room and Vin sat at his bedside watching over him. His cell phone vibrated softly in his pocket and he eased it out as he moved to the far side of the room.

“Vin, it’s Mickey. I’ve got good news! The Franklin kid admitted that Johnny Lightner killed his sister. The sheriff is talking to the judge to get the commitment reversed. You should be able to bring Chris home with you if you’re still at the hospital.”

His knees nearly folded, so great was his relief. Tears rolled down the Texan’s cheeks as he looked at Chris. His voice was a mere whisper as he thanked Mickey.

+ + + + + + +

The doctor entered the secure ward and approached the single patient. The three men came to their feet and approached him, glaring angrily.

“Is there a problem, gentlemen? One of my nurses said that one of you threatened her. I’ll have you know that I will not tolerate that kind of behavior. I will have you put out.”

Nathan maintained his grip on Buck as he spoke softly.

“My associate didn’t mean for it to come across the way it did. Your nurse was a little unfeeling in her treatment of our friend and he raised his objection to her. No matter what you may think that man did, he is still injured and deserves the same care and consideration you would give to any other patient, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Of course, I will speak to her about it. But you must realize that this is dangerous duty. We have had nurses injured while attending to prisoners and they must use caution that they would not usually have to with regular patients.”

“Of course. How is he?”

“He is lucky that the guards got there when they did. The last prisoner his attacker got hold of is still attached to a colostomy bag. Mr. Standish is bruised but the guards managed to separate them before any actual damage was done. His ribs will heal in four or five weeks and the jaw will heal without any permanent defect. We will keep him here for a few days before send him back to the correctional facility.”

“Thank you. And please extend our apologies to the nurse. We meant no harm. You can assure her that Ezra would not harm her. We are working diligently to clear him of the charges so that we can return home with him to Denver.”

After the doctor had gone, Buck turned on Nathan. His grip was strong and his hand shaking as he bore into Jackson’s dark eyes.

“His cellmate raped him? Is that what he just said?”

“He was trying to when the guards stopped him. Buck, you have to calm down! He’s hurt and ashamed enough without having to deal with your feelings too. Don’t let on like you know unless he tells you something, okay? If he asks, tell him we were complaining to the doctor about the nurse.”

+ + + + + + +

Sheriff Wilhelm stood in Judge Hornbeck’s office waiting for the paperwork to be signed. He did not intend to leave until he could deliver the papers that would set right the grievous wrong that they had done to the ATF agent. At his back stood one member of Larabee’s team and the woman who had replaced one of the others. When the paperwork was signed, they rushed to fax them to the Devonshire facility while the judge himself called to deliver the news to the administrator.

+ + + + + + +

The cell phone in Buck’s pocket rang before he returned to Ezra’s bedside.


“Buck! It’s JD! We did it! Chris is innocent! The judge just signed the papers to send to the hospital. They should release him to Vin this afternoon. Isn’t that great!”

The ladies man was overcome as his breath caught in his throat. His eyes burned with tears as he turned to look back at the last member of the team they had to emancipate before they would truly be whole again. He barely heard the rest of the conversation as he reached for the foot of Ezra’s bed to steady himself. When the kid finally stopped chattering, he hung up.

“That was JD. They found the guy who killed the Lightner girl. Chris is free!”

A slight smile lifted the corners of the southerner’s lips as he caught Buck’s eye.

“Then you shall be seven again. I only wish I could be there for the party that is certain to take over the saloon when you get back to Denver.”

Josiah’s voice was tender as he spoke. “We’ll straighten out this mess, son. You’ll be there, I promise.”

“I appreciate the vote of confidence, Mr. Sanchez. Perhaps you missed the part where I confessed to those heinous charges in order to effect the emancipation of my dear mother. I sincerely doubt that even the six of you together could pull the rabbit out of this hat. I only hope that, upon my return to incarceration, I will be assigned a more agreeable bunkmate.”

It was easy to read the pain and fear behind the attempt at humor. Nathan picked up the chart again. He studied the information for a couple of moments before he rang for the nurse. When the woman stepped inside the doorway he offered up the chart.

“He needs pain meds added to this. Go and find the doctor and tell him that I want a PCR down here immediately.” He maintained eye contact with the woman until she nodded.

“It is not necessary, Nathan. The pain is negligible. If I understood the guard correctly, they will not allow anything like that in the hospital ward at the prison.”

“Stop trying to be brave, Ezra. We can see you’re in pain. Why don’t you tell us how this whole mess started while we wait for the nurse to come back?” Buck suggested.

While they waited, Ezra explained his mother’s request. He outlined her assault at the hands of men he now assumed to be connected to his stepfather. He explained about the woman who had purported herself to be an FBI agent. He castigated himself for not having checked out the woman’s story. The nurse arrived and hooked up the PCR to deliver pain medication. A few minutes after the first dose, the green eyes began to struggle to focus and he soon dropped off to sleep.

“Brothers, you go and investigate the situation and I will stay with Ezra.” Josiah offered.

The first thing Buck did was to call JD and Mickey and tell them to fly to Atlantic City instead of returning to Denver. He wanted as much of the team together as possible to try to get the undercover agent out of the deep hole he had gotten himself into. He called the judge to find out where Maude was staying so that he could both protect her and get information from her.

+ + + + + + +

The hazel eyes opened and looked around hesitantly. Vin moved quickly to the bedside and smiled his biggest, best smile. Chris frowned at the bright expression.

“Are you ready to go home, Cowboy?”

“Home? The ranch? Really?”

“The papers came from the judge while you were sleeping. They got the guy that killed Wyn. The reason you don’t remember what happened is that they shot you up with insulin. You were in a slight coma when they dragged her out of the car. That’s why you were so confused when you woke up.”

“I can really go home?” The question was childlike. He was afraid it was some kind of trick.

“I already packed your bag. You just need to pick up your meds and get the hell out of here. Let’s go find the doctor.”

“Meds? What for?”

“Let the doctor explain it. Come on, Cowboy.”

Dr. Fullerton explained that he couldn’t go off of the meds cold turkey. He was given a schedule to gradually reduce his dosage over a couple of weeks so that he would not go thru withdrawal symptoms.

+ + + + + + +

Malcolm watched as the two ATF agents escorted Maude from her home. She and Ezra were the only loose ends he had to take care of. Jeannie had gotten them new passports and tickets to Bermuda. He followed the three of them to a hotel and paid a bellhop to find out what suite they were staying in. All he had to do was lay in wait. Maude couldn’t stand to be confined and would soon escape.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah reached out to calm Ezra as he whimpered and thrashed in his nightmare. He had persuaded the doctor to allow him to stay past visiting hours. He soothed the frightened young man with his voice without touching him until he was fully awake. The doctor had tried to examine Ezra while he was sleeping and had brought on a hysterical fit. The southerner was shaking in abject terror even after he was fully awake. Sanchez waited for him to calm down before he spoke to him.

“Do you want to talk about it, son?”

“What can I tell you, Josiah? They put me in with a masochistic son of a bitch. He choked me until I passed out. When I came around and fought him, he slammed me against the bars, giving me a concussion. I think it was just his fist that he used on my jaw, although it could have happened when he threw me against the bunk.”

“That isn’t all of it, though.” The older man pried gently. He saw the shame that colored the southerner’s face and the shattered look in his eyes before he turned away. Ezra’s hand searched for the PCR control only to encounter another hand covering the device. “That kind of pain isn’t relieved by drugs, son. You need to get it out in the open.”

“You already know what happened or you wouldn’t ask, Mr. Sanchez. Kindly remove your hand from the control or I shall ask the guard to escort you out.”

“Do you really want me to leave, son? ‘Cause it really looks like you would rather me stay. You don’t have to tell me, I know what happened. What I really wanted to know is how do you feel about it? I can tell that it’s eating you up inside, Ezra.”

The hand covering Josiah’s was shaking. He could see the tension in the smaller man’s shoulders and hear the hiccupping breaths. Ezra’s other hand moved several times toward his face only to be stopped by the handcuff. Josiah took out his handkerchief and touched Ezra’s cheek gently.

“Look at me, son. Come on.” He tapped insistently on the southerner’s cheek until he finally turned his face. Josiah wiped the tears away and held the handkerchief as if Ezra were a small child. “Blow.”

+ + + + + + +

The cab dropped JD and Mickey at the hotel. Buck opened the door and quickly drew them inside. He and Nathan had worked up a plan to draw Malcolm into the open. After updating them on the situation with Ezra, he explained what he had in mind.

+ + + + + + +

Vin pulled into the drive heading up to the ranch and he heard the rapidly drawn breaths of his friend. He avoided looking over because he knew that he would lose control of the tears he felt burning behind his eyelids since turning off of the blacktop. He shut off the engine of the jeep and unbuckled his seatbelt. Watching out of the corner of his eye, he saw Chris set his feet gingerly on the ground as if afraid it was a dream that he would waken from too soon.

The friends made their way to the house. Chris walked thru the rooms, stroking the walls and furniture as if greeting a long-lost friend. He stepped out onto the back deck and inhaled deeply of the scent of home. Vin’s hand grasped his shoulder and squeezed it firmly.

“Welcome home, Cowboy. Let’s walk down to the barn. I know of a certain four-footed critter that has missed you something fierce.”

The soul brothers walked to the barn and spent an hour brushing and tending to the horses before returning to the house to scare up supper. Chris dozed off on the couch while the steaks were grilling and Vin used the opportunity to call Buck. He updated Wilmington on Chris and got an update on Ezra before waking his friend to eat.

Like a newborn, Chris ate and immediately went back to sleep. Vin tugged off Larabee’s boots and covered him with a quilt before collapsing into the recliner to keep watch.

“I got your back, my friend.” He whispered before closing his eyes to sleep.

+ + + + + + +

Malcolm rubbed the sleep from his burning eyes. He had been watching the elevator lobby for nearly 12 hours. The words on the newspaper were beginning to float around because he was so tired. He desperately wanted to go the bathroom. The sun was just high enough to shine brightly into the lobby and the smell of breakfast from the restaurant made his mouth water. He had heavily tipped the bellhop to let him know if they ordered room service.

Mickey and JD were on opposite ends of the hotel when they pulled the fire alarms. The sirens sounded immediately and pandemonium broke out in the corridors. The two agents then hurried back to their room for stage two of Buck’s plan. A powder blond wig and one of Maude’s dresses completed the outfit and the new undercover agent was protectively hustled out of the hotel between the two big ATF agents.

+ + + + + + +

The smell of maple cured sausage, pancakes and coffee caused the blond man’s nose to twitch and his stomach to purr with excitement when he opened his eyes. The sight of his own ceiling was a strangely beautiful thing as he lay enjoying the sensations that washed over him. Something jarred the couch and he looked up into the other half of his soul.

“Are you gonna lay there all day or come in here and help me eat some of this food? I figured after all that hospital garbage, your taste buds are probably screaming for some good cooking. Come on!”

They shared breakfast while watching the sunrise from the back deck. A deep shudder wracked Chris as he thought about how close he had been to losing all of this forever. He looked across the table and smiled. His hand swung out and was immediately clasped firmly. Sparkling blue Tanner eyes proclaimed the unspoken bond between them.

+ + + + + + +

The guard removed only the right handcuff so that Ezra could eat breakfast. The cranky southerner complained bitterly about the diet. The doctor appeared an hour later and announced that he had to examine his patient. Josiah offered to leave the room but Ezra pleaded with him to stay. The doctor suggested that he administer a dose of the pain medicine before he began the examination.

The older ATF agent kept a tight grip on the younger man as the doctor poked and prodded him. When the doctor turned him onto his side, Ezra’s resolve to be brave broke and he sobbed softly as the gloved hands examined him in a most intimate manner. Josiah wrapped his arm around Ezra and spoke soothingly to him until the doctor was finished. He continued to hold his friend until the pain medicine carried him off to sleep before he allowed the guard to replace the manacle.

+ + + + + + +

Buck made a point of allowing Malcolm to follow them as they hurried across the street to a restaurant. They made their way thru the crowd to a far corner. The two men carefully sheltered the woman between them as they watched for their tail. They saw the man coming toward them. Nathan looked the other way as if responding to the many calls for help before melting into the crowd.

In the hotel room, JD and Maude waited. An urgent knock on the door was followed by a call of ‘hotel security’ and Dunne looked thru the peephole. A man and a woman in hotel jackets stood outside of the door with worried looks on their faces. He opened the door to tell them that they were all right when it was suddenly kicked open. The young agent was knocked to the floor and found himself looking into the end of a silencer. The man moved thru the suite and dragged Maude back to the door.

“On your feet, kid. Don’t try anything foolish. I don’t want to have to kill a federal agent. You’ll be released in a few days when things cool off.”

The man took JD’s gun and pressed it into Maude’s ribs as he pulled her close. The woman put a hand on Dunne’s shoulder as she prepared to guide him into the hall. They moved quickly to the elevators and the woman used a passkey to activate the elevator. The four of them rode up to the penthouse level and got out. The two hostages were pushed up the hall toward the door that led to the roof.

+ + + + + + +

Chris tightened the cinch on Diablo’s saddle. He glanced over to where Vin was doing the same to his own saddle. The two men mounted and rode into the high pasture. Peso broke free and raced across the open field with the other horse hot on his heels. The animals ran until they were lathered and winded.

The men dismounted and sprawled out in the sun. The gentle breeze brought the scent of evergreens and mother earth across the field. The rangy odor of the horses mixed with the smell of the saddle leather was almost like perfume to the men. A couple of bottles of non-alcoholic beer were liberated from a saddlebag and shared along with special Vin Tanner sandwiches.

+ + + + + + +

‘Maude’ excused herself from the table and made her way to the ladies room. It was the moment Malcolm had been waiting for and he approached her. She went into the restroom and came out several minutes later. A hand grabbed her by the arm and something hard was shoved into her ribs.

“Come along quietly and no one else has to be hurt, Maude.”

The eyes that turned up to him were warm green-gold instead of sapphire blue and the voice was not at all the softly southern accented one he expected. Malcolm’s eyes went wide as something equally hard was shoved into his ribs. The woman smiled an evil smile.

“Forgive me, Sir, but my name is Michaela, not Maude. And you are under arrest.”

Nathan reached around and eased the weapon out of the man’s hand as Mickey clamped a handcuff on his wrist. Buck quickly made his way thru the crowd and grabbed the man by the front of his shirt. A growl of rage rumbled in his chest as he shook the man before turning him and pushing him thru the crush of people.

+ + + + + + +

When the foursome reached the roof, Maude turned away from the biting wind and was roughly jerked around by the man holding her arm. JD only raised his arm to shield his eyes from the grit blown on the wind. The woman shoved him hard, nearly causing him to fall. A helicopter landed on the roof and the captives were pushed toward it. Maude resisted, suddenly terrified. The man drew something from his pocket and tore it open before pressing it to her face. Her eyes showed her fear before they became unfocused and she went limp in his arms.

After the unconscious woman was placed in the back of the helicopter, JD was motioned inside at gunpoint. He climbed in and sat with his back against the wall pulling Maude’s head into his lap. The man and woman climbed inside and closed the door. His stomach lurched as the vehicle lifted off.

+ + + + + + +

Lunch arrived and the nurse also brought a tray for Josiah. As with breakfast, the Ezra complained about the selection of food but it was mostly for show. Although he was reluctant to say it, he was grateful for the older man’s company. It frightened him that he would be returned to the correctional facility as early as the next morning. Josiah had persuaded the guard to leave Ezra’s right hand free so that they could play cards together.

Josiah’s cell phone rang and he laid down his cards to answer it.

“Josiah, Buck. We got Malcolm.”

“Why do I sense a ‘but’ coming?”

“We lost JD and Maude. Someone got into the room and took them out at gunpoint.”

“Damn. Will he co-operate with you? Does he know where she’s going?”

“He won’t say. He said that the woman would kill Maude and JD if we don’t let him go. I hate to put you in the middle of this and I really don’t want to worry him but will you talk to Ezra and see if he has an idea. It is his mother and I feel badly that we lost her but …”

“I’ll get back to you.”

“What happened? Is it Maude? Josiah, you can tell me.”

“They caught Malcolm but the woman got away with Maude and JD. Buck wants to know if you have any ideas. He said to tell you that he feels badly about losing your mother.”

“Malcolm is a somewhat cowardly man. If Mr. Wilmington were to lean on him in a physical way he might be persuaded to impart any information he is withholding.”

“I’ll tell him to try that. Do you have any idea where they might take them?”

“None at all.”

After talking to Buck, Josiah’s phone rang again.

“Josiah, it’s Chris.”

“Praise the Lord! It is good to hear your voice, brother. I have spent many hours in prayer for you. I am gratified that my effort was not in vain.”

“Thank you, Josiah. Are you still with Ezra? I need to thank him.”

The phone was handed over and the older man moved to the far side of the room to allow the southerner a little privacy.

“Mr. Larabee, it is good to hear your voice.”

“Ezra, I owe you great thanks. You kept me safe until they could find the guilty party. I can’t even begin to repay you for what you were willing to give up for me. You must come back to the team. Judge Travis never put your resignation thru so you still have your job when you get things straightened out there.”

“You have no debt to me, Mr. Larabee. I was merely repaying you for rescuing me from the FBI and giving me a family for a brief time. It was worth everything I have experienced. I was glad to be able to repay you for the gift you gave me.”

For several moments, the only sound was the static on the line and the softly sobbing breaths of the two men. Finally, Vin eased the phone away and spoke to Ezra.

“Hey, Ez, you take care of yourself. The others will watch your back for you. We’ll hold things together here until you get home.”

When he heard the phone close, Josiah returned to the bedside and slipped the instrument back into his pocket. He noticed the slight tremor in the southerner’s hand as he picked up his cards. He ignored the puddles threatening to overflow from the green eyes.

+ + + + + + +

The helicopter landed and JD helped them get Maude out. They were hustled to a car and the young agent was shoved to the floorboard in the back seat. A gun was pressed to the back of his neck as they rode. It was growing dark when they pulled into a garage. The woman gestured JD out of the car and into the house. He was forced into the basement and handcuffed to a water pipe. A few minutes later, the man appeared carrying Maude and placed her on the floor. She was also handcuffed to the pipe and they were left alone and in the dark.

+ + + + + + +

Malcolm flinched when the mustached agent approached. The big man had been ranting and raving at him for the past half hour. The black man kept pulling him back just as he was about to begin beating him. Finally, Buck set his knee on the captive man’s thigh and bore down with all of his weight. The prisoner hissed and groaned in pain as he tried to move the leg away from the pressure. A firm hand gripped his chin and turned his face to meet the intense blue-eyed gaze.

“You better begin telling me where my friend is or I’ll begin breaking bones. I think I’ll start with your fingers and work my way up. Shall I begin?”

“But I don’t know where she’d take them! I was supposed to meet her at the airport. She has a new passport for us. We were going to Bermuda.”

“When? What flight? How would you get in touch with her? Where were you supposed to meet her?”

“We were supposed to meet up after I disposed of Maude. It was a tavern near our condo. I don’t know where she’ll go now that she knows I screwed up.”

+ + + + + + +

The second night in the secure ward was much the same as the first. Josiah dosed until Ezra began struggling in his sleep again. He gently stroked the southerner’s forehead as he spoke soothingly to calm him. Afterward, he wiped the tears from Ezra’s cheeks. He remained at the bedside the rest of the night.

Following breakfast, the doctor returned for a final examination of the patient before he would be discharged in the afternoon. Ezra submitted to the examination until the doctor tried to turn him on his side again. At that point, he refused to co-operate. The doctor resorted to dumping a sedative into the IV and waiting until the patient was unconscious before completing the exam.

Lunch was a dismal affair. Ezra refused to eat, he was in a piqued state over the forced examination. He fought the restraints until he had bloodied his wrists and Josiah stopped him. The terror in the green eyes was plain as the guards arrived to transport him back to the correctional facility.

+ + + + + + +

Maude awoke and struggled to get into a sitting position. She was cold from lying on the cold basement floor. JD tried to keep her calm.

“M-Mr. Dunne, do you know where we are? What are they going to do to us?”

“I don’t know, Mrs. Standish. I’m sure that if it is at all possible, Buck will find us. You have to believe that and stay calm. Don’t give them any reason to want to hurt us.”

It was impossible to see the woman in the dark but JD could hear the soft sniffles. He shifted around and worked to put his arms around the woman. She was shaking from fear and cold and he tried to keep his voice light and encouraging as he spoke to her.

“This is all my fault. My darling baby boy is in that horrid place because of me. I couldn’t leave him alone when he was finally happy. I shall never forgive myself if anything happens to him because of me.”

“Mrs. Standish, we’re going to get out of this. We will get Ezra out of this. You have to believe that.”

+ + + + + + +

A second night of grilled steaks and non-alcohol beer between the two soul brothers led to a quiet evening watching the sun go down from the deck. Chris was agonizing over the fact that Ezra was back in the correctional facility and that JD was still missing. Somehow the ripples begun when Wyn Lightner stepped into his life were still spiraling out and touching all of his friends.

During the night, Vin heard Chris moaning and crying out in his sleep. He raced into the bedroom and stopped at the side of the bed. The blond man was thrashing in the blankets as he called for his missing friends. The Texan reached out and caught the flailing arm, instantly waking his friend.

“Vin, I’m sorry I woke you. I keep seeing JD lost and alone, scared and hurt. How are they going to find him? How are we going to get Ezra out of the mess he’s in? We have to go out there! Tomorrow, we have to fly out there and try to help.”

“Okay, if that’s what you want to do we’ll do it. Tomorrow we will fly out there. Now, how about you get some sleep? I’m going to crash out here on the couch in case you need me again. Get some sleep.”

+ + + + + + +

Halfway across the country, another member of Team 7 was also tossing and turning in his sleep. Buck moaned and kicked at the blankets that were wrapped around his feet. He clenched his fists and pummeled the pillow as he tossed in his fitful nightmare. Nathan moved to the side of the bed and turned on the lamp. He knew better than to touch the man while he was still in the grip of the dream.

“Buck! Wake up! Come on, Buck, it’s just a bad dream.”

It was the warehouse where the Fillman bust started. Bullets were whizzing by them and they were pinned down. Vin was on the catwalk trying to lay down cover fire. Just as Buck signaled the kid to make a break for it there was a sudden burst of automatic gunfire. In slow motion, he saw JD clutch at his side and slam into the concrete floor. Because they were still shooting, it was several minutes before he could get to the kid. He was forced to watch, helpless, as the blood spread on the floor around the fallen agent.

“No! JD!” With a startled gasp, Buck jerked awake. His heart was racing and he was sweating profusely. A confused expression crossed his eyes briefly before he balled his fists against his eyes. “Damn, Nathan, it was bad. Sorry to wake you.”

The dark head shook and he grasped Buck’s shoulder. “Don’t apologize, my dreams were headed that way too. We were in front of that abandoned shack, remember? The time he broke his leg when he fell off of the roof.”

“I keep seeing him bleeding out on that warehouse floor.”

“We’ll find him. You have to believe that. Try to get some sleep.”

+ + + + + + +

It was quiet in the infirmary. Not that it mattered to the man in the farthest corner of the room. A silent cage was still a cage. The leering gazes of the other prisoners made his skin crawl and his stomach tighten. They had taken the PCR and a nurse came in every few hours to ask him if he wanted a shot for pain. He refused. Shaking from low blood sugar and sweating in pain, he clenched the bars on the bedside rails. He slept very little that night.

His breakfast tray was set on the table and rolled to where he could reach it. Ezra looked with disdain at the food. Oatmeal, half a grapefruit and toast along with a carton of milk rested on the tray. With his stomach feeling decidedly queasy, he pushed the table away and turned toward the wall. He had pleaded with the guard to handcuff him so that he could turn away from the room in spite of the fact that it restrained his dominant hand.

A hand touched his shoulder and Ezra bit his lip in an effort not to cry out. A soft voice was speaking to him but, in his terror, he couldn’t focus on the words. He heard the soft footfalls as the person moved around the bed. It was a priest.

“May I have a word with you, my son?”

“I’m not Catholic.”

“That’s all right. One of the nursing staff suggested that you might want someone to talk to. I understand you’re having a difficult time adjusting.”

A biting, sarcastic laugh burst forth before the southerner could stop it. “A difficult time adjusting? Is that what they call it when the g-guards allow your cellmate t-to beat a-and try t-to r-r-rape you on your first night here?”

The young priest averted his eyes. He had been told what had happened by the nurse.

“I am sorry that happened to you. Is there anything I can get you? I noticed that you haven’t eaten this morning.”

“Unless you can get me a private room in this little corner of Hell, there isn’t anything you can do for me. Now, if you don’t mind, I would like to be alone in my misery.”

+ + + + + + +

Without the benefit of Nathan to give him something to calm his nerves for the flight, Vin was a nervous wreck. He walked the length of the aisle until the stewardess asked him to stop. He tapped his feet and squirmed in his seat until Chris glared at him sharply. Finally, another passenger took pity on the Texan and introduced himself.

“My name is Dr. Jamison. My daughter also has flight anxiety and claustrophobia. I have a mild sedative I could give you to get you thru the flight.”

“No, thanks, Doc. I’ll stay in my seat. I didn’t mean to be a bother.”

“It’s no bother, son. I know what it’s like. Here try this.”

He placed a Rubix Cube in Vin’s hand and winked before returning to his seat. It worked like a charm! The Texan was so busy trying to straighten out the cube that he forgot all about being in the plane. When they landed, he handed the toy back to the man.

“I can usually figure those things out right quick but I couldn’t get that one.”

The doctor smiled. “That’s because I moved the stickers so that it is impossible to solve. It keeps my kids entertained for hours and hours.”

+ + + + + + +

The woman leaning against him moved and JD relaxed his grip on her. Maude stretched and squirmed uncomfortably as she realized that she needed to go to the bathroom. It was still pitch black in the room where they were confined and it left her feeling a little dizzy. She could hear the young man moving around beside her.

“Do you think they’re still up there?”

“I haven’t heard anything for a while. It could be that they left us here but I don’t know.”

“If only my baby boy was here, he could get us out of these handcuffs. It was one of the first things I taught him.”

A light went off in JD’s head and he worked his way to his feet. He struggled to stick his hand into his pocket and pulled out his keys. In a minute, they were free of the pipe.

“Be careful moving around! If they are up there, we don’t want them to hear us.”

Moving carefully inside of the darkened cage, JD discovered that the room was roughly square and had only the one door. It had a toilet and sink in one corner. His hand brushed across something and a single, naked bulb came to life in the ceiling. Both captives flinched at the dim light that assaulted their delicate eyes. As he looked around the room, it dawned on him where they might be.

“It’s a safe house! They build these rooms in safe houses! How would they have access to a safe house?”

“Can you get us out of here?”

JD’s enthusiasm failed as he looked at the steel, reinforced door. “Not from the inside.”

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