An Innocent Man

by Angie

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Page 5 | Page 6
Page 7 | Page 8 | Page 9 | Page 10 | Page 11 | Page 12

+ + + + + + +

Buck’s mood did not improve over breakfast in spite of Nathan and Josiah trying to convince him that everything would be all right. Mickey remained mostly silent as she sat in the corner of the booth at the restaurant. Agent Phillips had made some pretty nasty accusations against the team when he discovered that they had been holding Malcolm for a few hours before they turned him in. She could still hear the clipped, New England accent as he raged at Buck and berated the team in general.

The team headed for the FBI offices after breakfast to see if they had gotten anything from Malcolm after they picked him up. Agent Phillips sneered at them as they came into the lobby before gesturing them into a conference room.

“I told you that I would be in touch if and when we had any information for you. You don’t need to keep coming down here and taking up my time.”

Only the restraining hand of Josiah kept Buck in check.

“Look, Phillips, one of my men is out there as well as the mother of one of my men. I will be looking over your shoulder every step of the way. If you don’t like it, I suggest that you transfer the case.”

“No, you look, Agent Wilmington, you’re in my house now. You do things the way I tell you or I’ll have you locked up for interfering with a Federal Investigation. Maybe you and your ‘friend’ can get a room together. I understand things didn’t go so well with his last cellmate!”

The cocky FBI agent never saw the fist that slammed into his nose sending him backwards thru the plate glass panel in the door. It took both Nathan and Josiah to prevent Buck from going at him again when he struggled to his feet. The three ATF agents were escorted at gunpoint to a holding area and their weapons were confiscated.

While they were cooling their heels, Buck’s cell phone rang. He ripped the instrument from his pocket and flipped it open.

“Buck, it’s Chris. Where are you right now?”

“Right now, I’m in a holding cell at the FBI building. Why do you ask?”


“I lost my temper and punched the investigating officer in the mouth after he made a nasty remark about Ezra. We’ve been sitting here for a couple of hours. I guess they’re waiting to hear how badly I hurt the guy before they decide what to do with us.”

“Okay, I’ll call Judge Travis and see you in a little while.”

“See me? Where are you?”

“At your hotel.”

After both of the captives had made use of the toilet, JD began to carefully examine the bunker. He didn’t really expect to find a way out but it gave him something to do. Maude sat quietly in the corner, uncharacteristically quiet. After an hour or so, he gave up and sat down opposite the woman.

“You needn’t look apologetic, Mr. Dunne. I’m sure that if there were a way out of here you would have found it. We will just have to wait until my son’s friends affect our rescue.”

He had to smile, she’d said ‘my son’s friends’ not one of the usual derogatory terms she normally used in referring to the rest of Team 7.

“Would you mind terribly if I sat beside you? This situation is very unnerving to me.” Maude’s sapphire eyes showed the fear and uncertainty she was feeling. When JD nodded, she rose and moved to sit at his side. The young agent wrapped his arm around the woman and she rested her head on his shoulder.

+ + + + + + +

By lunchtime, Ezra was feeling decidedly worse. His blood sugar was dangerously low and the pain had reached the point where he was fighting not to cry out. The nurses tried to coax him into eating something. When they took the tray away later, the doctor came in to talk to him.

“Mr. Standish, I understand that you are unhappy here but if you continue to refuse to eat I shall be forced to tube feed you. As unlikely as it seems right now, you will adjust. I know you had a rough first day but you need to try to make the best of the situation.”

When the only response he received was a hard glare the doctor nodded and walked away. He returned a few minutes later with two guards and a syringe. The fight was mercifully brief before the needle bit into his hip and he slipped into unconsciousness. When he awakened later, he had an IV in one arm and both hands secured to the rails.

After supper, the nurse picked up an empty tray from the decidedly docile prisoner. Ezra had forced himself to eat the food on the tray. The doctor, after talking to the priest, ordered him moved to an isolation cell for the time being. He was grateful for the chance to be alone even though the nightmares kept him from being able to close his eyes for more than a moment or two.

+ + + + + + +

Judge Travis made several phone calls. He knew that Wilmington could be hot headed, he just hoped that having Chris and Vin there would calm him down. He had agreed not to press charges against Agent Phillips for the ‘sexual harassment’ of his man in exchange for Phillips not pressing charges against Buck.

When the team got back to their hotel, the judge bawled Wilmington out for his outburst. A very contrite Buck hung up the phone and massaged the side of his head. Chris clapped him on the shoulder.

“You deserved that! Now, we have to try to figure out where the woman would have taken them. The FBI has her picture at the airports and Feingold gave up the name she’ll be trying to use so if she tries to leave the country, we’ll get her. Also, JD is resourceful. If he can, he will be working to free himself and get in contact with you. Judge Travis is pushing the prosecutor to offer Malcolm a deal if he will clear Ezra of the murder charges. Since the casino isn’t out any money, that should be enough to spring him.”

Mickey looked up from the laptop computer. “We may have a problem.”

All six agents turned on her. She shrank slightly under the concentrated stare.

“Jeannie Sheppard is the cover for a CIA agent, Louisa Reynolds. She’s been in deep cover with a Boston crime family for over a year. There is some indication that she may have switched sides. If it is Reynolds, she has contacts and access that we don’t and probably can’t get. There are pictures of her if any of you would care to look.”

Only Buck and Nathan had seen the hotel security tapes and both nodded immediately. Chris picked up the phone and called the judge.

+ + + + + + +

With nothing else to do in the bunker, JD began to talk to Maude about her son.

“You should have seen his face! Chris struggled to keep a straight face but Vin fell out of his chair laughing. It took him a couple of days, but Ezra got even with them.” He was regaling her with some of the pranks that had been played on the southerner when he had first joined the team.

“And when I got shot the second time, he never left my side. It didn’t matter how sick I was or what I said to him, he stayed. He kept trying to pass it off like he wasn’t really concerned but I could see it in his eyes. It’s getting easier to read him the longer we work together.”

As she listened to the young man extol the finer qualities of her son, Maude felt a lump building in her throat. She kept seeing him as a child. He was her pride and joy in spite of the fact that she didn’t really know how to mother him. Such a precocious child, he always loved her, no matter how often she dumped him on other people to have time to herself.

Hearing the sniffles, JD immediately regretted running his mouth. He offered his handkerchief to Maude.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Standish. I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

“It’s quite all right, Mr. Dunne. I am gratified to have an opportunity to see my son thru someone else’s eyes. It appears that I have been most mistaken in my assumption that his association with all of you was bad for him. You have given him something that I never could, a family of people who care about him.”

“He is a very special person, Ma’am. We’ve all learned from him and he’s learned from us. That’s what makes us such a great team. I also wanted to thank you for getting Chris into that hospital in Colorado. I can’t imagine what might have happened to him if he had gone to a regular prison.”

At his words, Maude again began to sob. JD mentally kicked himself as he tried to comfort her.

+ + + + + + +

A knock at the door caused all of them to jump. Buck and Josiah drew their weapons and moved to either side of the doorway while Chris opened the door. A pair of men stood in the hall, a cool, appraising expression on their faces.

“Agent Larabee?”

“Yes, what can I do for you?”

“May we come in?” He flashed an official looking ID card with a practiced motion.

The men moved into the suite, not looking the least bit bothered by the amount of hardware pointed in their direction. They took a seat on the couch and waited. When the rest of the occupants of the room sat they began to speak.

“We have been told that you are looking for one of our agents. We have been assigned to help you find your missing friends.”

“What makes you think they are still alive?”

“Agent Sheppard may have switched sides, but I cannot believe that she would kill an innocent person and especially not another government agent. Most likely, she had them hidden some place until whatever plan she is running is finished.”

“How do you explain the four dead bodies connected to her?”

“We have proof that at least one of the murders was committed by Feingold. We were following up on a tip that Jeannie was in the area and got the murder of the casino pit boss on tape. We have already released the information to the FBI so that they can remove that charge from your friend’s case.”

“One murder or three, the penalty won’t be very different. We need to clear Ezra of all the charges. Do you have any other tips on her whereabouts?”

“We are following up on a few. As soon as we know anything we will be in touch.”

As the men came to their feet so did Buck. All four of his male teammates turned to take hold of him as he started toward the CIA agents.

“Wait just a damned minute! You can’t expect us to just sit here and wait for you to call us. There has to be something we can do! We want to help!”

“The best thing you can do is to stay out of the way. Take in a show, go to the museum, check out the casinos, take a swim on the beach, we’ll be in touch.”

The two men quickly left the room and stood in the hall as they listened to Buck’s tirade.

“Are they kidding? Take in a show? Do they think we are here for our health? The kid is out there somewhere with a woman who may or may not have switched sides and they want us to sit here on our asses and wait?”

“Calm down, Buck. Remember what the judge said, one more temper tantrum and you go on a plane back to Denver. I need you here.”

The deadly sincere voice cut thru the red haze in Buck’s mind and he forced himself to realize just how fragile they were all feeling. Chris had been over a month in a mental hospital. Josiah had spent two nights in the hospital secure ward with Ezra after he was attacked at the correctional facility. They were all feeling guilty about losing JD and Maude. He finally dragged his fingers thru his hair and sat back down.

“That’s better. Maybe if we split up and hit some of the places this Sheppard woman frequented we’ll find someone who’s seen her. Mickey, you and Vin hit the casino. Nathan and Josiah, check out her home and neighborhood. Buck and I are going to the FBI office to see if we can get any more information.”

“Are you sure you want me with you, Cowboy? They may shoot first when I show up down there. I think I saw a ‘wanted’ poster with my mug on it.”

“That’s why you’re going. They know you mean business.”

+ + + + + + +

There were exactly 168 holes in the tile with the water stain on it. Ezra had been counting the holes in the tile to pass the time. The doctor had come to see him and said that he would be returned to the general population the next day starting with breakfast. As much as he wanted to be out of the tiny isolation cell, he dreaded facing the other prisoners. He had no doubt that his former cellmate would have told them about what had happened. He knew that he was now ‘marked’ as an easy take down. He clenched his fists. They would have to kill him before he would let them try that again.

The priest visited with him briefly. He brought a couple of books. After trying several times to draw Ezra into a conversation, he left. One of the books was the newest Grishom novel and the other one was ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ in French. It seemed that the man had done a little homework and learned that the new prisoner was intelligent and multilingual.

+ + + + + + +

JD coaxed Maude into drinking water. Even though there was no food in the bunker, they could survive for several days as long as they had enough water. It also helped for the temporary feeling of fullness. After telling her all he could about Ezra, he had gone on to telling he about his own growing up. He spent hours recounting his childhood. When he realized that the woman was sleeping, he rested his own head and slept.

+ + + + + + +

The casino was gaily lit and sharply contrasting the mood of the Texan. He followed behind Mickey as she mingled with customers and dealers. A couple of women approached him and made suggestive gestures only to get a blue-eyed glare. Finally, he found himself on the receiving end of a good, hard shake.

“Will you wipe that look off of your face and try to look like you’re having a good time? A couple of the dealers remember Ezra and the woman who was always at his table. You might have better luck talking with some of them if you’d put on that charming Tanner grin.”

+ + + + + + +

The address they had for Sheppard or Reynolds was an empty apartment. Josiah and Nathan asked everyone they could get to talk to them if they had ever seen anyone coming and going from the apartment, no one could remember seeing anyone.

+ + + + + + +

The secretary at the FBI building looked up and shied away from the mustached agent standing beside the handsome blond man. Without saying a word, she picked up the phone and called Agent Phillips to the lobby. She looked hesitantly at the ATF agents before directing them into one of the two conference rooms.

Agent Phillips swept into the room. His face was still horribly bruised from his last meeting with the ATF agent. He took a seat as far from Buck as he could. Laying a folder on the table, he slid it toward Chris.

“This is all we have for the moment. They took your friends in a helicopter from the roof. We picked up the pilot and he said that the man flashed him an FBI ID card and demanded that he land on the roof. He left the roof and went into the building. A short time later he returned with your agent and a woman. The woman panicked and was drugged. He landed at the airport and they took off in a dark sedan. We have been following up on all the tips we have received on their whereabouts. The CIA has sent over some information on the woman and we are running it thru our database.”

+ + + + + + +

The dejected team gathered in the suite that evening as the sun was going down. They had bits and pieces and promises to call them if the woman surfaced. Josiah had contacted the priest at the prison and inquired after Ezra. He was assured that Standish was well and would be integrated with the general population the next day. Sanchez asked the man to pass along that they were still working to free him and that they were praying for him.

+ + + + + + +

The house was just as she left it and that was a good sign. Jeannie clicked the garage door opener and drove the car inside. She closed the door and got out of the car. Picking up the picnic basket, she entered the house. Using her flashlight, she made her way to the basement. She wanted to get back sooner, but Andre wouldn’t let her out of his sight. He had finally gone to the casino and she slipped out.

The light was on when she opened the bunker door and she pulled the gun from her belt. She was mildly surprised that they had been able to free themselves from the handcuffs. Both of the captives were sitting on the floor, asleep, when she looked inside. Suspecting that it was some kind of trap, she pushed the basket thru the opening and quickly shut the door. She would call and let the FBI know where they were in a couple of days after she and Andre were ready to leave the city.

+ + + + + + +

The guard escorted Ezra to the dining room the next morning. He made his way thru the line and took a seat at the end of a table, away from any of the other prisoners. For the most part they ignored the newcomer. He tried to eat as quickly as his stomach would allow although he had no idea where he was to go when he finished his meal. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed someone setting a tray next to his and he tensed. Suddenly, several men surrounded him and took seats across from him.

The southerner kept his eyes on his tray as he fought with his hand to still the nervous tremor that had taken up residence there. He finally gave up and took hold of his tray as he started to leave the table. A hand shot out and gripped his forearm and he froze.

“Don’t rush off, pretty boy. Finish your food.” The man’s eyes had a feral glow and he raked over Ezra as he tightened his grip.

“I’m quite finished, thank you. If you’ll let go of my arm, I will dispose of my tray and go about my business.” His heart was pounding so loudly in his ears that he was surprised that they couldn’t hear it too.

“I said sit down, pretty boy. You’ll be joining one of my boys in a cell tonight and I want to get to know you a little better.”

Reluctantly, Ezra sat back down and folded his hands together in his lap. He stared at the edge of the table as the raucous laughter ran around the table. The man sitting next to him dropped his hand below the tabletop and rested it on Ezra’s thigh. Drawing a deep breath, he tried to move away from the hand.

“Please remove your hand.”

The man slowly turned his head as he tightened his grip. His lips curled back from tobacco stained teeth and he tossed a challenging glare at the smaller man. A guard paused at the end of the table and leveled a meaningful look at the offending man and the hand was quickly withdrawn. Ezra grabbed up his tray and bolted from the table. The laughter that followed him made him feel sick.

+ + + + + + +

JD opened his eyes when he felt Maude shudder in her sleep. The first thing he noticed was the basket. He carefully slipped away from the wall and warily approached the basket. It didn’t appear to be wired in any way and he was too hungry to really care. He opened the top and quickly took inventory. There were several apples and pears along with a bucket of chicken and a block of cheese. His stomach called loudly as his mouth watered.

Dragging the basket over to where Maude sat, JD nudged her gently.

“Mrs. Standish? They brought us food. Wake up and try to eat something.”

They both ate a piece of fruit and some cheese before setting the basket aside. They decided to carefully ration the food since they didn’t know how long they would be there.

+ + + + + + +

Mickey and Vin returned to the casino. She took a seat at a slot machine and slowly fed it nickels while she watched the door. He took a seat at the end of the bar and nursed a drink. The FBI was not getting anywhere with Malcolm. The man was guilty of murder and not in the mood to be generous even to his stepson. He actually laughed when Phillips told him what had happened on Ezra’s first night in the big house.

One of the dealers made eye contact with Vin. She was the one who thought she remembered another man who came in with Jeannie. When the woman tossed him another direct gaze, he stood up and made his way across the room. At her table was a very elegantly dressed man who was playing double hands of Black Jack. Vin raised his eyebrows and looked pointedly at the man and the dealer nodded. He made his way around until he could get a good look at the man before he signaled Mickey.

Spilling her chips onto the table, Agent Evers giggled drunkenly as she looked at the other players. She missed the edge of the stool twice before she managed to get settled. The dealer looked at her and smiled. After two or three hands, Mickey ordered a Sloe Gin Fizz. She again giggled and let her unfocused gaze wander around the room when the drink arrived. On the next deal, she won and in her excitement, knocked her drink onto the man sitting next to her.

Andre sprang off of the stool and brushed the drink from his pants. The drunken woman nearly fell off of her stool trying to wipe his jacket with her napkin before he roughly brushed her hands away. The woman then got to her feet and stumbled into him as she sobbed and apologized for spilling her drink on his nice clothes. He finally shoved her away and stormed away from the table.

Winking at the dealer, Mickey tossed her a couple of chips and left the table, following the retreating man. Vin was already in front of her, keeping the man in his sight. Evers went to their rental car while Tanner followed the man to see what he was driving. When the man stopped to open a Mercedes, Vin turned and headed for the car that was rolling slowly down the next aisle.

+ + + + + + +

After breakfast, the prisoners were sent to their workstations. Ezra was guided toward the group that was going to the laundry room. Another prisoner introduced himself as Tiny and proceeded to explain what he would be doing. The guards kept a close watch on the prisoners and no one bothered the new man as he folded and stacked the articles he was given.

At lunch, Tiny invited Ezra to eat with him, seeing that the new prisoner was frightened of something in the dining hall. Several of the laundry crew gathered around the table and sheltered the southerner from the group that had surrounded him at breakfast.

+ + + + + + +

As Mickey carefully followed the Mercedes, Vin called the plate number to Chris and asked him to have it run. The car pulled into a hotel lot and the Texan quickly jumped out of the rental car to get inside so that he didn’t lose sight of the man. As he passed a housekeeping cart, he grabbed a stack of towels and headed for the elevator. The man came into the lobby and headed for the elevators. Vin stepped on with the man and waited for him to press a floor button. The man raised a puzzled glance at the towels.

“Housekeeping never leaves enough towels. I went down to the desk to get more.”

The man nodded at the explanation and they rode in silence to the eighth floor. The man stepped out and Vin followed him, pulling his wallet out as if looking for his room key. Noting the room number, Tanner turned the corner and waited a moment before returning to the elevators. Mickey was waiting for him when he reached the lobby.

“He’s in 815. Now, we just have to wait and see if the woman shows up.”

+ + + + + + +

Chris and the others arrived a few minutes later. Mickey slipped out with Buck to put a tag on the Mercedes while the others worked on a plan. Josiah asked for and got the room right next door to the one they were watching. It was decided that the team, except for Evers would take turns keeping watch in the lobby while the others kept watch from the room upstairs.

+ + + + + + +

After lunch, the prisoners were herded outside. Ezra tried to stay with the group from the laundry but in the crush of bodies in the hall, they got separated. Before he could get out of the pack, he was shoved from behind and hustled into a corner. When the curtain of prison uniforms parted, Joshua stood over the southerner with an evil smile on his face. His arms were held on either side by monstrous brutes that also leered at Ezra as they tightened their grips on his arms.

The first blow took his breath away as Joshua hit him in the chest. The second emptied his stomach as it connected lower. Thru the hazy wall of pain, Ezra decided to defend himself. Shifting his weight onto his left foot, he lashed out with his right, hitting his attacker in the groin. In the frenzy of fists and feet that followed, the southerner lost his battle to remain conscious. By the time the guards broke up the fight, he was just barely breathing.

+ + + + + + +

The food went a long way toward rejuvenating the pair in the bunker. Unfortunately, it also left them awake for greater periods of time as they contemplated what was going to happen to them. Maude had fallen silent as she stared at a spot on the far wall. JD paced for a while before taking one of his keys and scratching his name on the wall. He figured that if they died, at least whoever found them would know who he was.

+ + + + + + +

Jeannie flinched when she saw the Mercedes. She had expected to be back before Andre returned. She hurried to the room to see if she could make up to him. He ranted at her about the drunken woman who had spilled her drink all over him. He demanded to know where she had gone.

“I just took some food to our pets. I don’t want them to be too far gone when they’re rescued. Don’t worry, I wasn’t followed.”

“How are your little pets?”

“They’re fine. They got free of the pipe and found the light switch. We have to leave soon so that I can call and tell the authorities where they are.”

“What makes you think I’m going to let you do that? You wanted the woman killed last week! The other one is a federal agent! If he lives to identify us, we could get the death penalty. I think I need to take care of your little pets and get them out of your misery. Come on, let’s get it over with!”

“No! Andre, I can’t kill a federal agent! We’re going to disappear! We don’t have to kill them! Please? Just let me call and tell where they are and we can go wherever you want!”

Josiah listened thru the thin wall as Andre killed Jeannie. He heard the man gathering his belongings and leaving the room.

“Chris, he’s on his way to kill JD and Maude! Don’t lose him!”

Vin and Nathan raced down the hall and into the stairwell before Andre came out of his room. They reached the lobby and hurried into the parking garage. Josiah turned to look at Mickey and took a deep breath. He closed his eyes and began to pray.

+ + + + + + +

The guards made their way thru the crowd at the wall. In the cleared semi-circle by the wall lay the downed prisoner. The man had curled into a fetal position in an attempt to protect himself from the onslaught of kicks and punches. In the time it took to sound a ‘lock down’ and clear the yard, the doctor arrived. Following on his heels was the priest. They eased the injured man onto a backboard, uncurling him in spite of his pain filled protests.

With a guard and the priest at his side, Ezra was loaded into the ambulance and returned to the hospital where he had been only three days before. The guard remained with the prisoner while the priest dialed the number he had written down for the man who had called him the day before. It was a call he didn’t want to make.

“Mr. Sanchez? This is Father Ryan from the prison. I don’t know any other way to say this. Your friend was assaulted again in the yard. We’re at Mercy hospital and you might want to be here with him.”

Staring down at the dead body of the former CIA agent, Josiah felt his heart ache. He turned to the police officer that was supervising the crime scene.

“I have to leave right now. You have my card, call me if you need anything else. I’ll be at Mercy hospital. Can you have one of your officers drive us over there?”

Mickey looked up, startled. “Not JD?”

“No, Ezra. Let’s go.” They followed the officer out of the room and down to the street. The flashing lights and shouts of people asking questions were shut out as Josiah softly prayed.

+ + + + + + +

Andre arrived at the safe house and parked on the street. He checked the gun in his pants before he got out and headed for the front of the house. He pulled his keys and opened the door. Without turning on any of the lights, he made his way toward the basement.

The rental car bounced over the curb and came to rest on the lawn as the three ATF agents leapt from the doors. Nathan gave the address to the police dispatcher as he ran. Vin and Chris kicked the door open and plastered themselves against the wall until they were sure that they weren’t going to get shot immediately. They cautiously entered the darkened house. Vin grabbed Chris and pulled him close.

“Don’t these places have bunkers in the basement? That’s the only place they could keep them in a house like this.”

The three made their way toward the basement. It was a blind stairwell. They would be walking right into the line of fire! If they didn’t get down there quickly, though, JD and Maude could be killed. The two soul brothers nodded before they raced down. Nathan hung back to give them some backup and to be available if the other two couldn’t take the man down.

As soon as he reached the floor, the shooting started. Chris shoved Vin away from him as they rolled away from the place where the bullets were chewing up the concrete. They returned fire, using the muzzle flash to locate the shooter.

JD heard the shots outside of the bunker and jumped up to shut off the light. He grabbed Maude and dragged her to the farthest corner of the room and shoved her down again. Covering her with his own diminutive frame, he prayed that they weren’t about to die.

+ + + + + + +

The hands that restrained him were firm and a voice was telling him to lie still. It hurt to breathe and he was going to be sick! Ezra tried to turn to his side until he felt the handcuffs holding him on his back. He lost the battle with his stomach and began to throw up the blood that he had swallowed. A voice demanded that the restraint be removed while several hands lifted him onto his side and turned his head. As soon as his airway was cleared, he began to gasp for air. He heard a voice say that his lung had collapsed before he was placed on his back again. Drifting on the edge of consciousness, he heard another commotion.

The two ATF agents raced thru the emergency room and into the examining room where their friend was being treated. The prison guard attempted to eject them and found himself staring down the barrels of their guns. While Mickey guided the guard to another corner of the room, Josiah holstered his gun and moved to Ezra’s side. While the hospital staff stood transfixed, he gently smoothed the hair from the southerner’s forehead and spoke softly into his ear.

“We’re here, Ezra, we’ve got your back.”

When the frightened man stopped fighting, the medical staff resumed treating him. They never questioned the big, gray-haired man who stood at the side of the gurney. He kept up a constant litany of comforting phrases as he stroked the face and neck of the injured man.

+ + + + + + +

A cry of pain announced that Vin’s shot had found its mark. The shooter threw down his gun and began to beg for his life. Chris called for Nathan to hit the lights and the men found themselves facing the man who was gripping a bleeding hole in his thigh. While the Texan kept his gun trained on the shooter, Larabee moved to open the door to the bunker.

“JD? Kid are you in here?” Chris called as his hand searched for the light switch.

“Chris! Thank Heaven!” JD moved back and drew Maude to her feet. She took a few steps toward the center of the floor before she found her voice.

“Mr. Larabee, I am so relieved to see you.” Her final steps were staggered as she fainted. Chris and JD caught her between them and eased her to the floor.

Within minutes, the police were swarming over the house and basement. An ambulance took the injured shooter away while a second unit tended to Maude. Nathan’s cell phone rang and he answered it.

“Nathan? Mickey. Did you find them? Good. Listen, we need all of you at Mercy hospital, post haste. It’s Ezra and it’s bad. Josiah’s with him right now. They put me and the prison guard out a few minutes ago.”

+ + + + + + +

While the doctor was trying to re-inflate the collapsed lung, Ezra had opened his eyes briefly. Seeing Mickey with her gun and the guard had set him off and he began to try to roll over. Josiah tried to calm him without success until the doctor ordered all the unnecessary people out of the room. The guard meekly protested before leaving the room. The nurse and Josiah managed to get him calmed down again after a couple of minutes.

When the doctor had completed his basic exam, Josiah asked the obvious question.

“How bad?”

“He has broken ribs on the right and left. He had a collapsed lung. There are multiple contusions on his abdomen and possible internal injuries. I won’t know for sure until we get the labs back. We should have the X-rays back in a minute and I’ll know more then.”

While they were waiting for the labs and X-rays, the rest of the team arrived. Like homing pigeons, they went directly to their injured friend. The doctor started to protest the presence of so many people until he saw the effect on his patient. Where Ezra’s blood pressure and heart rate had been dangerously erratic, they began to level off as soon as the others arrived.

Adrift on the ocean of pain and fear, Ezra had been clinging to the deep voice and gentle hands that held him. Suddenly, he heard the other voices. He felt the other hands. Nathan asked for the medical information. Buck and Vin each picked up a hand and squeezed firmly. One hand clasped his shoulder and demanded that he open his eyes. In spite of the pain, he looked up and smiled into the hazel-eyed blond.

“You’ll do anything to get out of work, won’t you, Ezra?” Chris teased softly. Seeing the green eyes trying to focus farther away, he supplied the answer. “JD’s right here. We’re all here. And we’re not leaving you. We got the guy who killed those others. You’re going home with us just as soon as the doctor springs you.”

The six men refused to leave Ezra’s side until he was unconscious again. Nathan stayed with him while they ran a few more tests while the others stared down the cowed prison guard. By the time that Ezra was moved to a regular room, the guard had been called away. The seven of them camped out in the hospital room after Josiah refused to allow Mickey to return to the hotel. He understood that she felt like an outsider. Maude was treated for shock and released. Instead of remaining at the hospital, she looked in on her ‘baby boy’ and then left him in the capable hands of his brothers.

The next couple of days were long ones for the team. They stayed with Ezra around the clock the first day until he was able to stay awake for more than a few minutes at a time. Chris had contacted the judge to let him know what happened. The team then split up and began to spend shifts with the southerner at the hospital. Only one person stayed at his side continuously, Chris would not leave. He was at Ezra’s side every moment, holding his hand or soothing his nightmares. It was the least he could do.

“There but for the grace of God.” The blond man whispered when it was just he and Josiah in the room. “All of this could have happened to me and he would never have been harmed.”

“He willingly made the sacrifice, Chris. It was his way of paying you back for giving him the chance to be part of the team.”

“I over heard the doctors talking earlier. This wasn’t the worst of it, was it?”

Chris moved closer to the head of the bed and brushed a wrinkle from the pillowcase. He had been physically ill when he overheard the doctors talking about his condition when he had been admitted the first time. The doctor said that it had taken four of them to hold Ezra down to get him sedated.

“No, this wasn’t the worst of it. He knows that Nathan and I know what happened but I don’t know if he realizes that any of the others know. We didn’t tell JD. I don’t know how the kid will deal with it.”

After two days, Ezra was growing frustrated with his confinement. He wanted nothing more than to get out of Atlantic City. He wanted to look out of his window and see mountains and he wanted to stop seeing the look of guilt on Chris Larabee’s face.

He was sitting up on the bed, playing cards with Vin and JD when the doctor came to see him. He submitted to the poking and prodding before he began his impassioned plea for freedom.

“There is nothing being done for me here that cannot be done at home. I can convalesce in my own abode. My broken bones will heal as well in Denver as here. I want to go home!”

The doctor consulted the chart. The patient was doing well on a minimal amount of pain medicine. He was eating and sleeping, although he was still disturbed by violent nightmares. The broken ribs would continue to heal as long as he was not jarred unduly. He had spent some time talking with the team medic and knew that the man would be well tended.

“As long as you continue to do well today, I see no reason not to discharge you in the morning. I will provide you with medication for pain that your friend can administer until you are under the care of your personal physician.”

The entire team arrived to pick him up from the hospital the next morning. The IV had been discontinued and Josiah had brought him some of his own clothes. Maude stopped by to see him before he left the hospital. They left her alone with him for several minutes.

“Ezra, dear, I know that you are not going to believe this but I know that you are going to be in good hands. These people, these friends of yours, care for you in a way that I am want to understand. They are your brothers in every sense of the word. I was wrong to try to wrest you away from them.”

“Thank you, Mother. It has been my fondest wish that you would come to see them the way I do. They have given me something I have never had, a home and a family, a sense of belonging. I am truly going home.”

The flight back to Denver was one of the longest Ezra could remember. Nathan administered a large dose of pain medicine before they boarded the plane. The broken ribs left him feeling especially wrung out in spite of the wheelchair they insisted he use. He took a seat by the window so that they would not be climbing over him during the flight. As soon they lifted off, he allowed himself to sleep.

Chris took the seat next to Ezra and watched him closely as he dozed. Nathan made sure that he was covered warmly and as comfortable as possible, all things considered. The rest of the team surrounded their injured friend, taking seats in front of and behind him. Vin and JD, in front of Ezra, kept peering over the top of their seats to watch him sleep.

A short time into the flight, the nightmare started. Chris leaned close and began to try to calm him without waking him. Josiah and Nathan leaned over the seat from behind and also tried to comfort Ezra as he fought his way thru the dream. Buck and Mickey watched from across the aisle. Larabee gave up on coaxing the southerner out of the dream without waking him and took hold of Ezra’s shoulder and shook him firmly.

“Ezra? Wake up. You’re dreaming. It’s all right.”

He opened his eyes to the concerned gaze of three of his teammates. Tipping up his head, he saw two more pairs of eyes. Looking past Chris, he caught the other two. He let his head lay back against the seat and closed his eyes again.

“I’m sorry if I’ve alarmed you. The images are quite disturbing. I will try to rest quietly.”

“Would you like a drink? A soda or something?” Chris watched Ezra anxiously.

“No, thank you, Mr. Larabee. I don’t think my stomach could tolerate anything just now. I will just try to rest.”

A hand caressed his forehead and he sighed as Nathan satisfied his need to know that he didn’t have a fever. Two fingers pressed lightly against his neck and checked his pulse before his hand placed a reassuring pat on his shoulder.

Twice more on the flight home, Chris had to waken him from the nightmare. The second time it was harder to rouse him and Josiah leaned over the seat to add his presence to the struggle. Vin and JD reached back and took hold of Ezra’s hands as the stewardess stopped to observe the situation. Buck gently but firmly advised her to move along.

After waking up to all of their concerned faces for the third time, he gave up on sleeping and pulled the cards from his pocket. The familiar feel and the sound of the cards sliding thru his hands was soothing to both Ezra and the rest of the team.

Instead of going to his condo, Ezra was delivered to the local hospital to be checked. After one of the team’s regular doctors reviewed the charts the doctors at Mercy hospital had given Nathan, they discharged him with another prescription for pain medicine and a mild sedative that would allow him to rest without being interrupted by the nightmares.

Leaving the hospital, they headed for the ranch. Ezra knew it was coming, he had overheard them discussing it while he was dressing. He had to suppress a smile as he pretended to be frustrated at being forced to convalesce at the ranch. Deep down, he was relieved that he would not be alone when the nightmares came again. Somehow, he had known he wouldn’t be.

A week later, the team met at the office for the first time since returning to Denver. Ezra was still pale and moving gingerly but he was glad to be there. As the group filed in to the conference room, there was a moment of confusion when Ezra and Mickey both headed for the same chair. The woman immediately retreated to the far end of the table and took a seat. Chris moved to the head of the table and rested his hands on the tabletop. A broad grin split his face.

“This feels good! If I ever complain about the burden of leading this team, please remind me of just how close I came to losing it forever. I want to thank Buck for his capable leadership during my absence. I also want to thank Agent Evers for filling the vacancy on the team. She will be reassigned to Team 4 pending the return of one of their members from maternity leave.”

There were a few nervous glances passed around the table at the last announcement.

“To recap the past few weeks. Johnny Lightner killed his sister Wynsome after Seth Fielder injected me with insulin. He also killed Judge Cross according to the forensic evidence collected from the body. Jeff Franklin was given probation for his part in concealing the murder. Seth Fielder was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder as well as a list of minor charges, it will be a long while before he breathes as a free man.”

Casting a meaningful glance at his undercover agent, Chris continued.

“Ezra and Maude were both cleared of charges in the money laundering and murders in Atlantic City. Agent Jeannie Sheppard or Louisa Reynolds was killed by Andre Kline. Mr. Kline also admitted to the murders of the other three members of the little group. Malcolm Feingold was convicted of killing the pit boss from the casino. His marriage to Maude was annulled by a Federal Court judge.”

It was actually several weeks before the entire team was able to take on a case together. Chris had to be weaned off of the anti psychotic medicine from Dr. Fullerton and them re-qualify with his firearm. Ezra had to be medically cleared to return to duty and also had to re-qualify at the range with his firearm. He spent a couple of hours every day at the gym to build up his stamina and strength. Vin worked with him in the evenings on his self-defense skills.

When the entire team was finally cleared for duty, they had an all-day bash at the ranch with all of their friends and family. A stiff breeze could have knocked Ezra over when his mother stepped out of Josiah’s suburban. She sailed into the crowd and placed a kiss on her son’s cheek before turning to mingle with the other guests.

“I would not have believed it if I didn’t see it for myself. My mother is socializing with my friends and not one of them looks piqued. Mr. Jackson, pinch me, I think I must be dreaming.”

Watching as Maude Standish moved to tousle JD’s hair and place a motherly kiss on his cheek, Nathan laughed. “I don’t think you’re dreaming, Ezra, I think Maude was just welcomed into the family.”


Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Page 5 | Page 6
Page 7 | Page 8 | Page 9 | Page 10 | Page 11 | Page 12