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The dark sedan rolled into a parking space and several men jumped out. Ezra had been told that the streetlights had been knocked out deliberately to cover their actions. The men gathered around the garage door and waited for the truck to arrive. The southerner lit a cigar and puffed on it in a leisurely fashion as he leaned against the cinderblock wall of the building. It was the signal that the deal was about to go down and Vins way of marking the location of his friend amidst the darkly dressed suspects.
The truck arrived a short time later and the men rushed to unload it. Two men were up in the truck tossing down the cardboard boxes to the men on the sidewalk. The boxes were stacked on a flatbed trolley and hidden inside the darkened warehouse area. The whole delivery took less than half an hour.
Using his night-vision binoculars, Chris watched the delivery. He keyed up his mike and told the team to get ready. Vin moved into position and gripped the sniper rifle lightly against his shoulder and stared thru the night-vision sight. It would be his responsibility to announce Ezras location to the others and protect him when the bust started.
Get ready to move, Chris announced. He wanted to wait until the truck moved off. The DPD would pick up the truck and driver a couple of blocks away.
The driver started the truck and pulled away. Vin scanned the moving figures for Ezra and located him. He keyed his mic and relayed the agents position.
ATF, freeze! Put your hands up and get on your knees! Chris yelled through the bullhorn before moving toward the group of men. Several of the men made a run for it and Vin fired a couple of shots to persuade them of the folly of that choice. They immediately dropped to their knees and surrendered. Buck, Nathan and Josiah were moving among the men, handcuffing them as they went. To preserve his cover, Ezra was also cuffed and put in the prisoner transport with the others.
At the police station, the prisoners were quickly separated for questioning. At that point, Ezra was released and sent home. He would give his report the next day. Chris drove him to the Traviss to pick up his daughter. It was nearly midnight by the time they arrived at the house but the first floor lights were still on in the house. Evie opened the door before they were even out of the car.
Mrs. Travis, I do hope you were not up waiting for us. Is something wrong? Ezra spoke softly as he entered the house.
Eve has been thrashing around in her sleep. I couldnt leave her alone so Ive been sitting in the rocker watching over her. Shell be so very glad to see you.
Ezra took the carpeted stairs two at a time as he hurried to get to his daughter. He stopped in the doorway and looked at her as she slept. Her face was angelic in the dim light of the room. He padded in and sat quietly on the edge of the mattress. Reaching out, he passed his hand lightly over her back. Immediately, her eyes sprang open and she bolted into his arms. He held her so tightly that she could scarcely breathe. She smelled of shampoo and the fabric softener that Mrs. Travis used on her pajamas.
Gathering Eve in his arms, he stooped down to take up her bag and descended the stairs. Chris and Mrs. Travis were talking quietly in the foyer. Evie looked up and smiled at the child dozing soundly on Ezras shoulder. He looked so natural in the way he carried her that it was difficult to believe that he had only had her for a couple of months. Chris dropped them off at the condo and headed for home.
Over the next several days, Ezra found himself thinking a lot about the little girl in Eves class. Mitzi had returned to school on Monday after her mothers funeral. The southerner watched the child on the playground and his heart ached for her. She appeared even more frail with each passing day. He called attention to her condition and the teacher replied that they had done all they could.
Vin was tuning up his jeep when Ezra arrived unannounced.
Mr. Tanner, I need a favor. I was wondering if I could avail myself of your surveillance skills. There is a child in my daughters class whom I fear is being abused. The teachers have been unable to get the child to admit that she is being harmed and so are unable to get her the help she needs.
This wouldnt be the girl whose mother was killed last week would it? Vin set down the crescent wrench and wiped his hands on the fender blanket.
Yes. Her name is Mitzi Standifer. I noticed her at a party Eve attended and I observed her mother at a Girl Scout meeting before she was killed. The child is being abused and I simply cannot bear to sit by and let it happen.
Did you run this by Chris?
No, our illustrious leader is uninformed and I wish for him to remain that way. I would do it myself except that I fear my reporting her abuse would be seen as biased in some way. I must find a way to protect that child.
Vin agreed to look around and see if he could come up with anything. He wrote down the address and agreed to let Ezra know if he saw anything. He watched the southerner get into his car and drive away and he shook his head. Having a child of his own was having a serious impact on the undercover agent.
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Slipping through the bushes around the house, Vin peered into the windows. He located what he thought was Mitzis bedroom window and took up a position where he could keep watch. For a long while, he couldnt see anything out of the ordinary. Finally, the bedroom light came on and a little blond girl was shoved into the room. It was apparent that the girl was crying. Vin watched, his blood boiling, as the man slapped the girl repeatedly. He was even more stunned to see the man tie the child to the bedposts of the brass bed frame. He crept away from the window and back to the jeep to call Ezra.
The Jag roared into the driveway of the Standifer home and Ezra burst out of the car seething with rage. Vin caught him by the arm and stopped him before he could get to the door. He pulled the southerner back and gripped him by the shoulders.
Get a hold of yourself. You cant go in there all head up and start making demands. I put in a call to the emergency number for family services and theyre sending someone over. We have to wait for her to arrive.
Before Ezra could launch his protest, the woman arrived. The police car pulled in behind her and two officers got out. They moved quickly around the house and looked in the bedroom window. The woman gasped when she saw the child tied to the bed. The officers also looked in before the entire group made their way to the front door. The police officer rang the doorbell.
Mr. Standifer, were to remove your daughter Mitzi from your home.
The man stood in the doorway and glared at the four men and one woman standing outside of his house. A look of anger furrowed his brow and he blocked the doorway with his considerable bulk. The larger of the two officers stepped forward and stared the man down. When Standifer blinked, Ezra pushed his way into the house and ran for the bedroom door. The woman from family services was right on his heels cautioning him not to touch the child until she got a picture of her in the restraints.
The childs eyes opened the moment the light came on. She looked terrified when she saw that it wasnt her father standing over her. As the camera flash popped several times in quick succession, Ezra spoke calmly to the child.
Its going to be okay, Mitzi. Well have you out of there in just a minute.
He looked at the woman and waited for her to nod to him that it was all right to touch her. Vin stood behind Ezra, holding him back until she gave him permission. As soon as the caseworker put the camera away, the southerner rushed to untie her. Mitzi wrapped her thin arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder as she cried. Vin grasped Ezra by the shoulders and squeezed firmly. The green eyes that turned up were swimming in tears.
Lets get her out of here. Ill come back for her things. The woman made notes on the papers she had brought with her. When they reached the living room, Standifer began to yell at the man holding his daughter.
Youll be sorry! Youll pay for doing this! Youve got one of your own!
Walking past the man, Ezra kept his head down to whisper comforting phrases into Mitzis ear as he carried her. Vin threw Standifer a threatening glare before following the southerner out of the house. Once outside, Ezra turned on the woman.
What happens to her now?
Ill get her into a shelter and well look for a foster home tomorrow.
I want her. I have the room and shes in my daughters class at school. At least until you can find a place for her, Ezra said urgently.
Mr. Standish, it isnt as easy as that. You cant just take her home with you.
I have a current home study. Im sure there wouldnt be a problem getting whatever other paperwork you need. I want to take her with me, please?
How do you happen to have a current home study? Are you trying to become a foster parent or something?
I recently took custody of my daughter after the death of her mother. I had to have the home study in order to bring her home. Please, just until you find a more permanent placement.
Looking at the child clinging to the well-dressed ATF agent, the woman shook her head. She signed the paper and handed it to him. She glanced up at the longhaired man with Standish. He was the one who called in the report. She offered her hand.
Thank you for making the call. Ill be in touch. The woman got into her car and left.
The police walked out to the two agents and escorted them to their cars. Ezra put Mitzi in the front seat and pulled off his jacket to cover her before securing the seatbelt over her. He got in and started the car. Vin leaned against the door and glanced at the child.
Be careful, Ezra. Im gonna go by my place and pick up a change of clothes and stay with you tonight, okay?
I look forward to your company, Mr. Tanner.
When he arrived at the condo, Mitzi was curled up and shaking in fear. Ezra opened her door and gathered her into his arms. He had left Eve with Mrs. Hernandez when he got the call from Vin. After he settled the child on the couch, he knelt in front of her.
Youre going to be all right now, Mitzi. Youre safe here, understand?
The child only nodded, her eyes were as large as saucers as she looked around the room. She squirmed around, wrapping her arms around her knees.
Do you need to go to the bathroom, sweetheart? When she nodded, he offered her his hand and led her through to the bathroom. He turned on the light and left her inside. The doorbell rang and he went to let Vin into the apartment. Will you go to Mrs. Hernandez and pick up Eve? I dont want to leave Mitzi just yet.
When the girl didnt come out of the bathroom, Ezra tapped lightly on the door. He heard what sounded like soft whimpering and he edged the door open.
Mitzi? Are you all right?
The child looked up at him with stark terror in her eyes. Her shoulders rose and fell with her breathing as she struggled to control her tears. Ezra knelt down and reached for her. She shrank from his touch and whispered softly, I had an accident.
It was then that he noticed the darkening of the legs of her pajamas. She was shaking as she sat on the floor against the side of the tub. He gently stroked the side of her head. Stay right here, sweetie. Ill be right back with clean pajamas.
He raced up the stairs and grabbed a pair of Eves pajamas and underclothes. His hands were shaking so badly that he could hardly hold on to the material. He looked around at his daughters room and remembered the dark, terrifying space that Mitzi had been sleeping in. He quickly raced back down to the bathroom.
Here, sweetie, lets run you a bath and you can put on fresh clothes and then well get you into bed. He reached out and started the bath water. He rolled up his sleeve and checked the temperature of the water. He poured in some of Eves bubble bath. He heard the girl moving behind him and glanced back at her. Stick your hand in and make sure it isnt too warm.
He moved out of her way and she looked up at him as if afraid he would hurt her. She inched around the wall and squatted by the tub to check the temperature.
Can you manage? Im going to check on Eve and then Ill be back to check on you. There are towels in that closet. Just leave your wet things on the floor and Ill have them washed for you. Okay?
Vin and Eve were arguing some fine point of cartoon etiquette when they arrived in the condo. Ezra embraced his daughter so tightly that she protested and squirmed away. He took her by the hand and led her to the couch.
I need to talk to you about something serious, sweetheart. You know your friend Mitzi? I brought her home with me tonight. She may be staying a couple of days.
What happened, Daddy? Did something happen to her daddy too?
He looked into his daughters eyes and then up at Vin. Help me his eyes pleaded.
Eve, you know that sometimes they have to take kids away from parents who do bad things to their children? Mitzis dad was hurting her and they let your daddy take her for a while to keep her safe.
Like they took me from my mom? Eves eyes searched her fathers intently. He nodded. Except she has no place else to go. What will happen to her?
They will try to find her a foster home or some other family member to take her. In the mean time, shell stay with us. Will that be okay? Ezra wanted to make sure that Eve was comfortable with the situation. The dark haired moppet nodded and pressed both hands to her fathers cheeks.
Youre going to rescue her the way you rescued me. Youre so brave! Eve kissed his cheek and rubbed her nose against his.
You go up and get your room ready. Ill check on Mitzi.
Tapping on the bathroom door, he peeked inside. Hows it coming, sweetie?
Mitzi looked up and crossed her arms across her chest.
Its okay, sweetie. When youve finished, dry off and get the clean pajamas on and come out to the living room. Eves getting her room ready for you to share.
Several minutes later, Mitzi came out of the bathroom. She peered around in the living room as she came toward the couch. Ezra held out the hairbrush and motioned her to sit on the floor in front of him. He gently drew the brush through her hair and braided it loosely.
Okay, let me show you up to Eves room and you two girls can chat for a while before you get to sleep. Ezra took her by the hand and led her up the stairs. Eve had arranged the bed so that there were pillows on both ends of the mattress. She had relocated several of her stuffed animals to the floor.
The girls were giggling and playing happily when he left the room after admonishing them that they only had a half hour before bedtime. Eve had already showered and so the two pajamas clad girls were ensconced on the bed playing with Barbies.
When he got back to the living room, Vin had turned on the television and was watching a hockey game. Ezra caught his eye and held up a bottle of beer and Vin nodded. Carrying the bottles back to the couch, Ezra sat down and exhaled slowly.
So, how long do you think it will take for them to find a home for her, Mr. Tanner?
I dont know. It depends on whats available. She may not be able to stay in the same school. Every time they moved me, I had to change schools. Thats part of the reason it took so long for anyone to figure out that I had a learning disability.
I hope she doesnt have to change schools. It will be hard on her after all shes lost. Do you think they would let me keep her until the end of the school year?
I dont know, Ezra. Remember, they didnt want you to have Eve because of your job. You would need to check with the Judge and Mrs. Travis to make sure they would be willing to keep her along with Eve.
Youre right. I hadnt thought about that. I just hope shell be all right. To lose her mother like that and then this is just too much.
Dont worry about her, Ezra, kids are flexible. Shell adjust to whatever happens.
A half hour later, he went up to make sure that the girls were in bed. Eve was curled up on one end of the bed and Mitzi on the other end. Both girls looked up at him when he opened the door. He smiled as he leaned over and kissed his daughter. Moving to the other child, he brushed back her bangs and pressed a light kiss on Mitzis forehead. She flinched slightly under the gentle touch until he moved away.
Goodnight girls, Ill wake you in the morning in time for school. Pleasant dreams.
As they lay in the dark, Mitzi rubbed the tears from her eyes. She felt safe here, safer than she had felt in a long time. Looking around the room, she was incredibly jealous of her friend. She nuzzled into the pillow and wiped off more tears.
Mitzi? Are you sad?
Because you had to leave your daddy?
No, because my mommy died. My daddy doesnt like me very much. He was mean to us. Whats going to happen to me?
I dont know. My daddy wont let anyone hurt you.
Hes really nice. He didnt even seem scared of my dad when he started yelling.
Just wait till you meet the rest of the team. My six uncles are the very best! Youll like them too. Were going out Saturday to look at a pony for me! You can help me pick it out! We should get some sleep. Daddy will be upset if we fall asleep in class tomorrow.
After the game, Vin stretched out on the couch to go to sleep. Ezra went up to his room and went to bed. He lay awake for a long time thinking about the other girl in his daughters room. Every time he closed his eyes, he could see her tied to her bed and flinching under his touch. He dropped off to sleep still trying to figure out how to protect Mitzi.
Both girls showed up in the kitchen just as Ezra was putting the last of the food on the table. Eve had loaned Mitzi some of her clothes. Taking up the hairbrush, Ezra began to put his daughters hair up for her. Mitzi watched curiously. When he finished with Eve, he offered to do the same for the other girl. Hesitantly, warily, she approached and let him draw the brush through her hair. He could feel the tension in the childs shoulders as he worked.
Vin came out of the bathroom after his shower. Eve called happily to her uncle but Mitzi shrank from him in fear. Eve reached across the space between the chairs and placed a hand on her friends shoulder.
Thats my uncle Vin. He makes the best desserts! He makes carvings out of wood and you should see his horse. Peso is the neatest horse!
Mitzi relaxed somewhat as she watched the two men eat breakfast. When they had all finished, Ezra announced that it was time to go to school. The doorbell rang and Eve ran to let Belle into the condo. The three girls chatted excitedly as they made their way down to the Jag for the ride to school. Ezra took them in and made his way to the office to inform them of the recent events. He took the paper that the caseworker had given him and the principal made a copy for the file.
Vin had already informed the others of the changes in the Standish household by the time Ezra arrived at the office. Chris caught the southerner and led him into the office and closed the door behind them.
Are you very sure that you are doing the best thing for that little girl? Have you figured out how youre going to manage with the both of them? Have you spoken to the Traviss about this?
Yes. Not yet. I was planning to do so first thing this morning.
Yes, I am sure I am doing what is best for Mitzi. They were going to put her into a shelter for the night. Have you ever been in one of those places? No, I havent figured out how Ill manage with the both of them but we will get through this one day at a time. And, I was planning to talk to the Judge and Evie first thing this morning. After I find out what the long-term plan is for Mitzi. You would have done the same thing if youd seen the way she was tied to that bed. I defy you to tell me any different.
Vin told me about it. I just dont want to run into a problem if we need you on a case.
Well work it out, Mr. Larabee.
The caseworker called around ten that morning. She informed him that it was going to take a few days to find a placement for Mitzi. He asked if he would be allowed to keep the child until a more permanent placement was found. She said she would have to pull his paperwork and get back to him. She called back before noon to tell him that in light of the shortage of placements for children that he could keep her until another placement was found.
Ezra called the judge and asked if they might have lunch together to discuss something important. Since the Traviss had agreed to be his support system for Eve, they were always available to him when he needed them. After laying the situation out for him, Orin agreed that they would be glad to keep Mitzi with Eve if the need arose.
After lunch, Chris laid out the next mission. They were being assigned with another ATF team to investigate the theft of chemicals and fertilizer from factories in the Midwest. There were reports that the stolen materials were being brought into the mountains by an isolationist group. The FBI had a man on the inside that said that they were planning to bomb some military targets in the area around Denver.
Ezra picked up the girls after school and returned to the condo to wait for Vin to arrive so they could go out to supper together. Mitzi was a little withdrawn and Eve was going out of her way to make her laugh. The caseworker arrived with a couple of bags of the childs clothes and a few of her toys. After the girls were sent off to Eves bedroom, the caseworker said that there would be a hearing on Monday morning in family court. The judge would decide if there was enough evidence to keep the child in custody or not.
Shortly after the woman left, Vin arrived home and they took the girls out for pizza. The girls blew a roll of quarters in the video games before they returned to the condo for baths before bed. Eve was excited at the prospect of shopping for her pony in the morning. Ezra and Vin watched the news before going to bed.
The girls were up at dawn, giggling and playing in the bedroom. Ezra finally gave up on sleeping around seven and went down to make breakfast. They arrived at the Larabee ranch around nine. Chris was bringing the horse trailer in case they should find a suitable mount on their first outing. Ezra had repeatedly cautioned Eve that they might not be able to find the right horse on the first day but the little girl was not daunted by the warning.
They didnt find anything at the first place they looked. The horses were too old and too large for the small girl. The next place had a couple of suitable mounts. Chris put the first pony on a long lead and worked him in the corral. The animal moved well and was suitably trained but he shied away from Eve when she approached him. The second animal moved well and was suitably trained. The telling moment came when Eve walked up to the pony and he reached out and he began to nibble at her hair until she giggled helplessly.
The sale was finalized and the pony, now called Cupcake was loaded into the horse trailer. Eve pouted when she was told that she couldnt ride in the trailer with the animal. On the ride back to the ranch, Chris looked in the rear-view mirror. He nudged Ezra gently and tossed his head toward the back seat. Vin was seated in the middle and both girls were asleep at his sides. The sharpshooter had an arm around each of them and a broad smile on his face.
After the girls had lunch, Cupcake was saddled and the girls were allowed to take turns riding him. All three men remained in the corral as the girls rode. By the end of the afternoon, the girls and the pony were exhausted. Vin showed them how to brush the pony after their ride. Chris invited them to stay the night. Ezra had expected it and had brought extra clothes for the girls.
As the girls sat in front of the glowing fire in the fireplace, Ezra carefully brushed the tangles from their hair and braided it for the night. He then sat in the floor with Eve in his lap and Mitzi at his side while they watched a movie before bedtime.
From the kitchen doorway, Vin smiled. Chris looked over his shoulder and couldnt help the smile that formed on his face. The two men moved back into the kitchen, laughing softly behind their hands.
Who would have figured Ezra for the paternal type? Only a little over 24 hours and hes treating that little girl like she was his own flesh and blood. He ought to settle down and have a whole troupe of kids, Vin said.
They see something in him that just makes them trust him. Kids have X-ray vision when it comes to seeing through adults defensive screens, Chris answered.
In the middle of the night they were wakened by a series of high-pitched screams. As the three men stumbled out of their bedrooms, they found Mitzi screaming hysterically on the top bunk. Ezra flipped on the light and pulled the little girl from the bed and rushed out of the room with her. Vin knelt down by the lower bunk and comforted Eve.
Hes coming after me! Hes going to kill me just like he killed my momma! Dont let him get me, please? Hes going to get me! Mitzis voice was strident in her terror as her hands clawed at Ezras nightshirt.
No one is going to get you, Mitzi. Calm down. I wont let anyone hurt you, sweetie. Ezra comforted the girl until she went limp in his arms. He looked up at Chris, questioning.
Night terrors. She wont even remember it in the morning. Adam had a couple, scared Sarah and me nearly to death. The pediatrician said he would grow out of them.
Ezra looked down at the fair-haired child in his arms. She was smaller than Eve and looked so fragile. She aroused a strong protective feeling in the southerner. He carried her back to bed and tucked her in. He then knelt down and cuddled his daughter for a few minutes before going back to bed.
On Sunday, the rest of the team showed up for a bar-b-que. Eve showed off her riding skills for all of them before letting Mitzi show off for them too. The whole team went out of their way to reach out to the new child in their midst. When Mitzi picked up a splinter from the corral gate, she drew away from Nathan and cried until Eve assured her that he was the best at removing splinters so that she wouldnt feel it at all.
After soaking the splinter in warm water, Nathan rubbed a topical numbing pad over the broken skin and eased the small sliver of wood out. Mitzis eyes widened in amazement as she stared at the tiny hole in her finger. A huge smile broke out on her face as she threw her arms around Nathans neck and hugged him. After getting a band-aid, she ran back out to show off her war wound.
On Monday, after Ezra dropped the girls off at school, he went to the family court building. He met with the caseworker and had the basics explained to him. There was little doubt that the child would remain in custody. The hearing was brief. The judge took one look at the picture of the girl tied to the bed and ordered her kept in care.
Ezra made arrangements with Mrs. Hernandez to pick up Mitzi along with Eve after school. He asked that she not allow the girls to walk home as long as there was the possibility that Standifer might try to snatch the child.
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The new case consisted mostly of long drives to look at barrels of fertilizer. Paperwork and purchase receipts were checked and collated. At the end of each day, Ezra was saddle sore from all the riding in the department issued cars. He was so glad to get back to the office and slide into the comfortable leather seats of the Jag.
On Friday, after lunch, Ezras cell phone rang.
Mr. Standish, this is Ruth Jones from the school. Im sorry to have to tell you this but your ward and your daughter are missing. They didnt come in from the playground after lunch recess. Some of the children reported that they saw Mr. Standifer near the fence.
Merciful Heaven! Ill be right there. It will take me an hour or so to get there. Have you informed the authorities? Called the caseworker? Yes, please do that. Thank you.
Josiah had eased the car off of the highway as soon as he realized that Ezra was nearly shouting into the phone. He looked across the seat and waited for the explanation. The green eyes that looked into his were filled with horror.
Standifer has Eve and Mitzi. We have to get back to Denver. Please hurry, Josiah. Ill call the others and let them know.
School had been dismissed by the time they arrived. The parking lot was filled with police cars and news vans. As soon as Ezra stepped from the car, his friends surrounded him. One look at the red, swollen eyes of the sharpshooter and Ezras resolve failed. He clung to Vin, sobbing as they were sheltered and guided into the building.
An FBI agent introduced himself and asked questions about what the girls were wearing that morning. Both Vin and Ezra rattled off detailed descriptions of the girls clothes. Judge Travis appeared at their side and offered his support. The police had already been to Standifers house and found it deserted. After answering their questions, Ezra was driven home. The entire team gathered at the condo to wait and offer support.
The somber group sat in the living room while Ezra paced. When he reached a certain point, he began to sob and shake uncontrollably. Chris and Josiah tried to comfort him with little success. When he stopped crying, he returned to pacing. At one point, he bolted up the stairs and returned with Eves favorite bear in his arms. He sank next to Vin on the couch and rested his head on the Texans shoulder.
It was a long night at the condo with no one getting much sleep. The phone rang around six thirty the next morning. Ezra answered it before the first ring ended. Josiah opened his cell and called for the trace.
You thought you could keep her from me. Now I have them both. If youre lucky Ill call you in a few days and tell you where to pick up the body.
The line went dead and Ezra began to tremble. Several pairs of hands reached out for him as he announced in a whisper, He said hes going to kill her.
Josiah closed his phone and strode into the living room.
Hes at the Howard Johnsons in Golden. Lets go!
The men piled into Josiahs suburban and raced toward Golden. Chris called the FBI and the DPD to inform them of the call and the results of the trace. They arrived almost an hour later and raced in to the main desk to find out what room the man was in. They were stunned to find that he had used his own name to reserve the room.
Ezra raced toward the elevator, only to be restrained.
Youre not going up there! Chris announced.
Thats my daughter up there!
Thats why youre not going up there. Ezra, well get her out. You have to stay down here and hold yourself together. Buck, you stay with him. The rest of the team headed up to the room.
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Eve and Mitzi had been playing on the playground when he showed up. He pointed a gun at Mitzi and told her that he would start shooting if she didnt come with him. Eve had run to the defense of her little friend and had gotten caught. Standifer was thrilled to have the daughter of the man who had taken Mitzi from him. He forced the girls into the car and drove them to the hotel.
The little brunette was determined to get to the phone and call her daddy. Mr. Standifer watched her like a hawk. Eve shuddered under the penetrating gaze. The man looked just plain mean. Mitzi was terrified. The little blond was struck speechless by her fear.
The girls had eaten the cold, greasy hamburgers that he brought for them. He had left them handcuffed in the bathroom when he went out to get the food. Eve had kept Mitzi calm when she became hysterical. She reassured the little blond that her daddy would rescue them. Standifer had put the girls on one bed, passing the handcuffs around one of the spindles in the headboard before securing their wrists together. The girls had huddled together on the bed, Eve fighting sleep for a long time before succumbing to exhaustion.
Both girls were awake when Mitzis dad made the phone call. Eve let a few tears roll down her cheeks when she realized how scared her daddy must be. She kept whispering to Mitzi that they would be okay, that her daddy would find them.
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Vin dropped onto the balcony from the floor above. He peeked thru the gap in the curtain on the sliding door. He signaled that he couldnt see the girls. Josiah called down to the desk and asked them to ring the room. Vin saw him point at something in the corner before he picked up the phone.
Theyre in the south-west corner of the room and he doesnt appear to be armed, Vin announced quietly. Chris swiped the pass card and opened the door. The team burst in with guns drawn.
Standifer whirled around with the receiver in his hand. Chris leveled his gun on the mans chest and calmly demanded that he get on his knees. Eve hurdled out of the corner and into Josiahs arms as he holstered his gun and dropped to his knees. Mitzi stood frozen in terror in the corner as Chris handcuffed her father and pulled him to his feet. The little blond moved slowly toward the man and pointed her finger at him.
You killed my mommy! I saw you do it! You killed her! I hate you! I HATE YOU!
JD holstered his gun and gathered the child into his arms and pulled her face into his shoulder. She continued to cry out that he had killed her mother even as she was carried from the room.
The two agents hurried down the hall to the elevator with the girls. As soon as the doors opened, Eve struggled to be free of Josiahs grasp as she ran to her daddy. Ezra gathered Eve on one hip as he took Mitzi on the other and walked away. He buried his face between their shoulders and sobbed as he sank onto one of the lobby couches.
Chris opened the sliding glass door and let Vin into the room. The two men hustled the prisoner into an empty elevator and took him down. Only the Larabee glare kept the Texan from abusing the man in the elevator.
The rest of the team huddled around Ezra and the girls as Standifer was delivered into the hands of the waiting FBI agents. As soon as Vin was steered into the protected circle Eve transferred to his lap. The sharpshooter buried his face in the mass of dark curly hair and fought back the tears. After the men and the girls had calmed down, Chris steered them toward the suburban. Buck and Nathan agreed to catch a ride back with the FBI agents to make room for the girls.
It was lunchtime when they reached the ranch and Josiah and JD offered to cook for everyone. Both girls were reluctant to let Ezra out of their sight. As soon as he sat down, both girls piled into his lap.
Mitzi was overheard asking Eve, How come we came here instead of going back to your house? Are they afraid my daddy will try to get us again?
No, this is where they always come when something bad happens. Its the safe place where everyone gets to feel better, Eve announced with her childish certainty.
After lunch, both girls were curled up on the couch asleep. Their heads rested on Ezras legs. Chris covered them with light blankets and offered to help him ease them onto pillows.
No, let them be. I need to feel them there as much as they need me to be here.
By the time Vin came around to bring Ezra a cup on coffee, he was sound asleep. The Texan covered his friend and left him to his nap. Buck and Nathan arrived later in separate vehicles. The team medic insisted on checking on the girls as well as Ezra and Vin.
That evening, as the girls were piled up in Adams old room playing video games with JD, Chris caught Ezra and took him out to the deck.
Are you going to be okay?
Mr. Larabee, I have never been so frightened in my entire life. Not even when I thought I was dying after the Keller bust. The thought that something might happen to Eve terrified me to the very core of my soul. How does a parent do this everyday? Little babies are so helpless and fragile. I keep thinking about those terminally ill children at the hospital. How do their parents do it? Just letting her out of my sight is going to be hard for a while.
When Adam was little, he got to choking on something one day. His little face turned all red and his tears were pouring from his little eyes, and I felt so helpless. I was afraid to feed him after that. Sarah kept reassuring me that he was fine but my hands shook so bad that I spilled more food than I was able to get into his little mouth.
The first time I had to take him to the hospital when he fell and cut his forehead on the edge of the hearth, I was sick at heart. He was bleeding and crying and Sarah was upset and I just wanted to sit down and cry with him. It gets easier, Ezra. You gotta believe me, it gets easier, eventually.
Thank you, Mr. Larabee. I dont know how I would get through this without all of you to help me. You could write what I knew about being a parent on the back of a postage stamp. Its easy to entertain them with card tricks and stories but the day to day stuff is hard!
The girls insisted on sleeping with Ezra that night so Chris traded with him. Both Eve and Mitzi fretted in their sleep off and on all night. Mitzi was especially upset, she kept crying for her mother. She finally plastered herself to his side and cried herself to sleep.
The caseworker called the next day and asked to see Ezra. It took some fast-talking to get the girls to agree to let him leave them behind. Only the promises of Vin and JD to take them riding swayed the issue. Josiah drove Ezra to the meeting.
We just found out that Standifer isnt Mitzis father. Her mother was a runaway from a group home for young mothers. Mitzis grandparents, Paul and Roberta Lange, have expressed an interest in the child. We are investigating them right now. They want her to live with them in St. Paul.
How did Mitzi and her mother end up with Standifer?
Do you remember when we removed Mitzi? Remember when he said that you had one of your own? I thought he meant your daughter. As it turns out, Christina was a virtual slave. He beat her and molested her from the very beginning. It was just a matter of time before he started on Mitzi.
A hard shudder passed thru Ezra and Josiah reached out to steady him.
How much longer will she be here?
It will take a week or so to get everything in order. I want to arrange a couple of visits with them before she goes. I dont want to just drop her on them, they are complete strangers after all.
There is only a month of school left. Do you think they would be willing to let her stay until then? Id hate for her to miss the end of the year.
Theyre willing to come here and stay for a while to get to know her so its possible that shell be able to finish out the year. How is she taking what happened? The caseworker inquired.
She cried in her sleep last night. She tossed and turned all night. Poor little thing shook in her sleep. Shes hardly let Vin and me out of her sight since we got to the ranch, Ezra said as he dragged his fingers through his hair.
Mr. Larabees ranch. Its where we all go when something bad happens. Its our healing place. The rest of the team is with them. Shes perfectly safe, Josiah explained.
According to the FBI agent I spoke to yesterday, only you and your friends were able to comfort her at all. He said that she attached herself to you like shed known you all her life. You must have a way with kids Agent Standish.
After the meeting, Ezra went by the condo to pick up clean clothes for all of them and to bring back the Jag so that they could get home the next day. While the girls were napping, he filled everyone in on what the caseworker had said. They decided not to say anything to Mitzi until they knew for sure that her grandparents were approved.
The next few nights were hard for both girls. Mitzis frequent nightmares woke Eve and Eve worried about her friend. When the caseworker came to tell the child that her grandparents wanted her to come and live with them, she was scared. It took a lot of reassurances and a very long talk with Vin to convince the girl that she would be all right.
The grandparents flew up the next weekend to meet Mitzi. Ezra managed to convince the caseworker to have the meeting at the ranch. The girl had already come to accept it as her safe place and she would be more at ease there. The rest of the team came up with their female friends to provide distraction and support for the girls.
Mitzis grandparents were not as old as Ezra expected. They had always wanted Mitzi and her mother with them but their daughter was headstrong and wanted to be on her own. It was evident from the first moment they laid eyes on Mitzi that they would never let her go. After a few awkward moments, the child allowed them to gather her into their arms. They brought photo albums of her mother as a child.
Vin nudged Ezra to get his attention. They look happy.
That they do, Mr. Tanner. It is comforting to me that she will be loved. Eve is sad that she is moving so far away but I promised her that I would try to convince them to let Mitzi come back to visit. She has really gotten attached.
Eve has gotten attached? You look like someone whos losing their best friend.
Okay, so Im attached too. Its frightening the way they wrap themselves around your heart. Ive never had such strong feelings about children before Eve. Now I think I would like to have a whole house full.
A chuckle burst forth and Vin sipped at his beer. Somehow I can see that. You really ought to find yourself a good woman and settle down. Do it all from the beginning. There really is something about a tiny little baby, so completely dependant. Seeing them grow and change everyday. First steps, first words, its something youll cherish forever.
The Langes stayed in a hotel so that they could see Mitzi everyday. They agreed to stay until the end of the school year. After two weeks, the girl moved in with them at the hotel. The condo seemed almost empty after Vin returned to his place. They had supper together a couple of times with the Langes and Mitzi.
After the end of the year program at the school, Ezra, Eve and Vin escorted Mitzi to the airport. The two girls clung to each other at the security gate until Mitzis grandma pulled them apart. It had been tentatively arranged that Mitzi would return to Denver for a week in August before school started. With his daughter ensconced safely on his hip, Ezra watched the plane take off before heading for the parking garage.
See you at work on Monday, Vin? Ezra asked.
Not coming out to the ranch this weekend? Vin countered.
No, I want to spend some quality time with Eve. Ill see you on Monday. Please extend my regrets to Mr. Larabee and the others.
As the Jag entered the roadway, Ezra felt Eves hand touch his.
I love you, Daddy.
I love you too, Sweet heart.