Blood, Sweat and Tears

by Hombre

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Ezra walked out into his drive and opened the driver’s door of his Jag. However, the undercover agent stopped midway through the movement of climbing inside when he noticed that something was wrong with the vehicle. He got out and slammed the door shut as he realized that he had a flat front tire.


The dark-haired agent scowled as he squatted beside the vehicle and saw that it wasn’t just an ordinary puncture. It seemed that the tire had been slashed several times with a knife or other sharp object. He stood up and removed his jacket and spent the next half an hour changing the tire for the spare. Although the small agent was pretty muscular, he still had great difficulty loosening the nuts to remove the tire. He then, of course, began worrying that he hadn’t tightened them sufficiently again when he’d put the replacement tire on. Ezra tested them all just to make sure, but when he couldn’t budge them an inch he trusted his luck to God instead.

He stood up and stretched his back to get rid of the kinks that had just begun to make themselves known. He then flexed his fingers and rubbed his arms to ease the aches, but he wasn’t entirely successful. He looked down at himself during his exercises and sighed in exasperation when he saw that he was now covered in dirt. The dark-haired agent scowled as he looked at the cause of his trouble and kicked the tire hard for good measure. It didn’t make him feel any better.

He couldn’t understand why anyone would deliberately slash a tire, his tire at that. He shook his head in mystification and went into the house to wash up. He wandered upstairs and changed into a clean set of clothes and only then felt able to set off for work.

He strode into Team 7’s main office an hour late and nodded in greeting as three of his fellow agents, Vin, Nathan and JD, looked up from where they were working on their computers. Ezra didn’t get a chance to greet them verbally though because Chris, the team leader, had noticed Ezra’s delayed arrival and strode out of his own office to confront the ATF agent.

“Where have you been?” the black-clad man asked. “A phone call would have been courteous.”

Ezra moved to meet his boss and grimaced. “Some miscreant slashed my tire. I had to rectify matters before I could commute. I do apologize for not contacting you about the delay. I could have called if my cell phone had not been stolen this week, and, if you recall, my house phone is temporarily out of order. I was incommunicado, I’m afraid.”

Chris studied the harassed agent and nodded curtly. “Okay, apology accepted,” the blond said as he allowed Ezra to get on with some work. The blond was satisfied that it was an unavoidable delay, not just oversleeping like it sometimes was.

“Ez? What was that about your tire?” Nathan asked once the undercover agent had descended into the seat at his own desk.

The three agents in the outer office had surreptitiously listened to Ezra and Chris’s conversation and their curiosity had certainly been aroused by what they’d heard.

“Oh, Mr. Jackson, it’s truly not the sort of job I want to be faced with first thing in the morning,” Ezra said as he turned to face the medic. “I’ve obtained a myriad of cuts and bruises all over my hands and I broke four fingernails.” As he spoke, the small agent held out his hands and showed Nathan the extent of the damage.

“Jeez, you sound like a woman,” JD, the youngest agent, piped up with a laugh.

“Thank you for your concern, Mr Dunne,” Ezra snapped. “You always have to trivialize matters, don’t you?”

“Hey, Ez, cool it, bud,” Vin said quietly. “JD was only funning.” The sharpshooter looked across his desk at the man opposite him and studied him worriedly. “There’s no need to bite his head off, is there?”

“I apologize, but I’m really not in the mood for jokes. If the slashing of my tire was supposed to be funny, too, I’m not laughing,” Ezra grumbled as he studied his grazed knuckles distractedly.

“Sorry, Ez,” JD said. The young computer expert winced and offered the undercover agent some candy in the hope of placating him.

“Trying to sweeten me up, are you?” Ezra asked with an apologetic smile as he took one of the sweets and popped it in his mouth. He chewed it and slowly began to relax. “Thank you, Mr. Dunne. Sugar certainly improves one’s mood.” Ezra leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head before noticing that some of his colleagues were missing. “Where are Mr. Sanchez and Buck?”

“Court case,” Vin said simply. The profiler and ladies’ man had been called as witnesses in a big drug trial and were expected to be out of the office all day.

Ezra nodded as he sat up straight. “Oh, yes, I remember now. My mind, unfortunately, is filled with other matters.”

“Who do ya think slashed yer tire?” Vin asked, his mind also still considering his friend’s problem.

“I have no idea, Mr. Tanner. I really cannot decide what is going on. I had considered that it might be Marty but he’s in jail for the next two years, thankfully.” Ezra’s ex-lover had been jailed the previous year after nearly beating Ezra to death. The small agent had been involved in a relationship with the abusive man for nearly a year. It had only been with Buck’s help that he’d finally been able to break free of him.

The ATF agent shrugged as he thrust all thoughts of his past relationship to the back of his mind. “Anyway, there is no point in speculation, there are more important things that need my attention,” Ezra said as he eyed, with distaste, the large pile of paperwork that adorned his desk. “I also see Mr. Larabee glowering in our direction so I suggest we get to work. I’ve had all the trouble I can handle for one day without Chris’s wrath to contend with too.”

The men got on with their work and the topic of slashed tires was not mentioned again for the rest of the day. That didn’t mean, though, that they weren’t thinking about it.

+ + + + + + +

When Ezra arrived home that night, he parked the car and ambled toward his front door. He stopped short when he saw the dead rat that adorned his doorstep. He couldn’t help the uneasy feeling that descended upon him as he stared at the bloody rodent, momentarily unable to move. Even though the creature was dead, it was still a kind of Mexican standoff situation and it seemed that the rodent was getting the upper hand.


The undercover agent turned round quickly to find the sharpshooter behind him. “Oh, Mr. Tanner. What brings you to my humble abode?” he asked as he kept his face from betraying his disquiet.

“Just passing,” Vin lied. He had, in fact, followed Ezra home because he wanted to find out a bit more about what was going on in his friend’s life at the moment. The unfortunate agent seemed to be having more than his fair share of bad luck. The long-haired sharpshooter frowned as he studied his friend quietly for a few seconds. “You okay? You look kinda pale,” he remarked in concern as he took a step forward.

“So would you if you’d just discovered this monstrosity.” Ezra indicated the rat with an outstretched finger.

Vin followed the direction of Ezra’s digit and frowned again. “Where’d that come from?”

The undercover agent snorted in exasperation. “Well, I don’t think he decided to commit suicide on my doorstep, do you?” He shook his head in bewilderment. “I have no notion as to why it’s there. It is all rather odd. My cell, my tires, and now this. I feel rather perturbed.”

“Could just be coincidence,” Vin pointed out uncertainly as he continued staring at the rodent.

Ezra shook his head. “The cell I can understand because it was worth stealing. The tires I could put down to thuggery, but this? Why?”

“I don’t know, Ez.” Vin transferred his gaze and studied the undercover agent minutely. “Do ya want me to stay over?”

“No, thank you. I’ll be fine. I don’t think Mr. Rat is going to come back to haunt me in the night,” Ezra replied with a smile.

Vin reached out and smiled in return as he patted Ezra’s back. “I wanna stay, Ez. I like a touch of luxury once in a while. You gonna condemn me to another night in my tiny apartment?”

Ezra looked at his friend and gave in. “Well, if you put it like that, I would be cruel to send you back to such a flea-infested pit.”

Vin looked indignant. “Hey, enough insults, Standish. Yer happy enough to stay over when ya need to, so what are ya complaining about?”

“Indeed I am, but it’s usually out of necessity rather than desire,” Ezra grinned.

The sharpshooter smiled back at him, knowing exactly what Ezra thought of his apartment. “Well, I’m staying over here, and it’s outta desire, okay?” Vin then pulled his cell off his belt and got right back to business. “I’ll just call Chris and tell him that I can’t meet him.”

The undercover agent couldn’t understand why Vin was willing to disrupt his previous arrangement with the blond, so he tried to put the man off from staying. “I don’t want to stop your social engagement. I told you that I’ll be fine. You go.”

Vin wasn’t going to change his mind, though. He was really worried about what was being done to Ezra. “It weren’t important. It was just a drink, and I can do that any time, bud.” Vin punched the blond’s number into his cell and walked away so that he could talk in private. “Chris? I can’t meet up with ya, cowboy. I’m gonna stay with Ez tonight. He’s just found a dead rat on his doorstep and I reckon he’s real spooked by it, although he’s trying real hard to hide his true feelings. I just think that everything that’s happened recently is connected. Can’t explain why, but I just got a weird feeling.”

There was a momentary pause as Chris took in the news. “Okay. Try and get him talking to see if he has any suspicions about who’s doing this. Maybe it’s someone that he’s convicted in the past who’s on the lookout for trouble. Take care, won’t you?”

“We will.” Vin put away his cell and moved back to put an arm round Ezra’s shoulders. “Come on, Ez. I’m all yours for the night.”

“Mr. Tanner! That sounds suspiciously like a proposition,” Ezra said as he grinned, knowing Vin was as straight as they came.

“In yer dreams, Ez,” Vin laughed as he herded the man through to the back yard and into the kitchen.

The sharpshooter then went back and cleared the dead rodent from the doorstep. While he was there he looked up and down the road to see if anyone unfamiliar was hanging around. He saw a green car pull away further down the street but its presence didn’t arouse his suspicions. He sighed and made his way back inside to watch over his friend during the night.

Nothing happened, much to Vin’s relief, but over the following days little things continued to be done to Ezra. He found his prized roses mutilated in the garden and his front door daubed with offensive anti-gay slogans. It was a constant stream of abuse. He kept a record of the events but could never find that any of his neighbours had seen anything out of the ordinary near his home. Ezra became consumed with capturing the culprits. His preoccupation was beginning to affect his work and Travis, the ATF head, was losing patience fast. The final straw came after a meeting between Ezra and an informant didn’t end as planned.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra sat at home looking out into the front yard to see if he could catch sight of his mysterious vandal. His cell phone rang sharply and he pulled it from his pocket and answered it distractedly.


“It’s Kenny,” the caller announced.

“Oh, Mr. Lewis, what can I do for you?” he said to Kenny, a good informant, while continuing his vigil. The green-eyed agent’s gaze followed a pedestrian strolling along the sidewalk outside his house. The stranger eventually disappeared from view and Ezra turned his attention back to his informant who had begun talking again.

“It’s more what I do for you, Mr. Standish. I’ve got information about Drago.”

Valentine Drago was a new drug dealer who had just moved into the Denver area. Ezra knew that Chris would be eager to catch the man before he got too settled in his new life. It seemed that they might be going to get a bit of help and Ezra never looked a gift horse in the mouth.

Ezra snapped to attention. “I’m certainly listening. What can you tell me?”

“I wanna meet ya face to face but on your own,” Kenny ordered.

Ezra sighed, hating the fact that he’d have to wait a bit longer before finding out what Kenny had to say. “You want to make sure you are suitably reimbursed, is that it?” The undercover agent couldn’t blame the man. If what he had to say was good enough, he deserved all the reward he could get. He was hardly likely to give his information over the phone first because it could mean that he would then have to wait days for the promised money to be delivered.

“That’s right,” the informant admitted. “I’ll see ya at seven then,” Kenny said before telling Ezra exactly where to meet him.

“Agreed,” Ezra said as he looked at his watch and saw that it was already five o’clock. I suppose I’d better inform Mr. Larabee of my plans as well, he thought to himself. He ended the call to Kenny and then punched in Chris’s number instead.


“Mr. Larabee, I have just arranged a meeting with one of my better informants.” Ezra explained what the man had said to him and his boss seemed pleased.

“Great, Ez. Drago would be a terrific catch. Let me know how ya get on.”

“Will do.”

He put his cell away and took up position at the window again, his mind back on his own personal problems. Time passed and Ezra looked at his watch every so often to keep a check on the time. It got to six forty-five and he made his way out to his car to go to his arranged meeting. He looked up and down the street and saw a group of youths wandering toward him. He climbed in the Jag and sat and watched their progress, unable to control his curiosity. In Ezra’s mind everyone had become a suspected vandal. The group stopped outside his house, talking and smoking while looking round in what the agent considered to be a suspicious manner. Ezra sat and waited as he flicked another quick look at his watch. Six fifty-five.

Five more minutes won’t hurt. I’ll just see what these youngsters are up to before leaving.

The group wandered a bit further down the street and stopped again under a streetlamp to chat. The agent could see the occasional red glow from their burning cigarettes when one of them stopped talking long enough to draw on the cancer sticks. Ezra finally started his car’s engine and pulled out of his driveway and drove by them slowly. He looked in his rear-view mirror and saw them walking back the way they’d come. He pulled onto the side of the road anxiously and turned round in his seat to watch their progress. They strolled past his house and disappeared into a residence further up the street. Been thrown out by the parents to smoke outside, I expect, he thought with a smile. Ezra sighed in relief but still stayed where he was for a while longer before resuming his journey.

Ezra finally arrived at the agreed meeting place and looked at his watch again. He saw that he was now half an hour late.

“Dammit,” he swore, before climbing out of the car and hurrying along the sidewalk to the alley. “I hope Mr. Lewis hasn’t given up hope of me arriving.”

Ezra took a peek into the mouth of the alley but couldn’t really see anything because it was almost dark in there. The only light nearby was from a streetlamp about fifty yards away on the opposite side of the street. The faint light from that sent eerie reflections down the alley but did nothing in the way of real illumination.

Ezra drew his gun and began to walk down the enclosed space, hoping that there weren’t hidden assailants awaiting his arrival. He passed by stinking bags of garbage and other debris and he curled his nose in distaste at the odors he encountered on the journey.

He’d almost reached the end of the alley when he tripped over an obstruction. He looked down and saw a pair of sneakers, obviously with feet still inside. Ezra bent down and pulled off the cardboard that was covering the body, and he was dismayed to discover Kenny underneath, as dead as a doornail.

“Oh, shit,” he cursed before he could stop the swearword escaping his lips.

Ezra dropped to his knees as he looked around quickly to see if he could find a murder weapon. His informant, it seemed, had been stabbed once in the chest, probably killing him instantly. Ezra reached out a quick finger to Kenny’s neck anyway but, as expected, there was no pulse. Ezra sat back on his heels and ran a hand over his face in despair.

“However do I explain my tardiness to Mr. Larabee? If I’d been on time Kenny may well still be alive and I’d have got some vital information about Drago.”

The undercover agent stood up slowly, knowing he couldn’t delay things any longer. He called the police first to report the murder before putting in the dreaded call to Chris.

“Mr. Larabee? I need to see you right away,” he said as soon as the blond answered.

“How did your meeting go?” the black-clad man asked eagerly.

“That is what I need to talk about. I’m afraid things didn’t go to plan,” Ezra admitted quietly as he ran his hand round the back of his neck worriedly.

“I’m still at the office so come and see me now.” Chris put down his phone and wondered what had happened. It was obvious that Ezra hadn’t got the information he’d hoped for. There was no pleasure in Ezra’s voice at all, so more than likely something had gone very wrong.

Ezra, meanwhile, waited until the police arrived before heading back to work. He wandered along to Chris’s office in trepidation, knowing that he would go ballistic at the news. There was nothing for it but to take the heat so he knocked on the blond’s door and went in when Chris beckoned him forward.

“What’s up?” the blond asked as he pointed to a seat for Ezra to sit down in.

The undercover agent met his boss’s gaze and said, “Kenny is dead.”


“I’m sorry but I don’t know. I’m afraid I was late for our rendezvous and he was already dead,” Ezra admitted quietly.

Chris looked less than pleased. The blond had been really counting on getting a tip-off about Drago. It would’ve been a major coup to have captured him. “Dammit to hell, Ezra. Why were you late?”

The undercover agent explained but could see that Chris was understandably unhappy at the reason he’d been given.

“How could you be so lax? Jesus, you defy belief sometimes, Ez,” Chris said as he shook his head in confusion. He’d never have thought that the agent could’ve let his personal life interfere with work in such a way. He knew that Ezra had been feeling under pressure lately but he hadn’t realized just how badly until now.

“I’m sorry,” Ezra said. “I will, of course, take full responsibility.”

“So you should, but stop apologizing. It doesn’t help.”

Chris’s phone rang, interrupting the conversation and giving Ezra a bit of breathing space. “Larabee,” the blond snapped.

“Is Agent Standish there?”

“He sure is,” Chris answered as he passed over the phone and continued watching Ezra in concern.


“It’s the M.E. Your informant had been dead an hour or so before you found him. I think he’d been killed elsewhere and then dumped in your alley later on.”

Ezra breathed out a sigh of relief. “Thank you for being so prompt. It is much appreciated.”

“Who was it?” Chris asked, his gaze still fixed on the agent, which made Ezra feel very uncomfortable.

“The medical examiner. He informs me that Kenny had been dead an hour or more before I found him. He must, therefore, have been killed soon after calling me to set up the meeting.” Ezra then proceeded to tell the blond what else had been said during the phone conversation.

The black-clad man narrowed his eyes, his displeasure abating. It seemed that Ezra being late hadn’t been so bad after all. “Whoever killed Kenny knew of your meeting then. Maybe if you’d turned up on time, you’d have met the same fate.”

“That doesn’t make me feel any better,” Ezra replied with a shrug.

“Well, it wasn’t meant to. The fact that Kenny was already dead doesn’t matter at all. What I can’t understand is why you were so late for something so important. That’s really unforgivable, Ezra.”

Although Ezra was relieved to know that he couldn’t have prevented Kenny’s death, he also knew that he’d done wrong. Chris had every reason to berate him for his actions.

The blond sighed as he studied his chastised agent. “I’m gonna have to put in a report to Travis about all this because I told him about your meet. He’ll want to know what happened and I don’t think he’ll be too pleased at the outcome, even though it’s turned out that you couldn’t have stopped the murder.”

“No, sir.”

Chris regretted his earlier harsh tone. He knew that his agent must be really concerned about the events currently going on in his private life. The blond, therefore, decided to try and get the man talking to see if he could offer any reassurance or help.

“Ez? Why are you letting things get to you so much? It ain’t like you, bud, and I admit I’m concerned about you.”

Ezra shook his head negatively. “I can’t explain why, Mr. Larabee. I just have a terrible feeling of dread and I can’t control it. I’m finding it increasingly impossible to get on with my life with these continual incidents hanging over my head. I know it’s not actual physical violence being done to me but it still affects me in the same way. It’s a cumulative process, I suppose. With each incident it’s piling more pressure on me. I thought I could cope because of the nature of my job, but I obviously haven’t done so adequately. As an undercover agent I should be able to take a little bit of vandalism in stride. That’s nothing compared to having to spend months sometimes in the company of the people I despise most in the world: drug dealers. That’s real pressure, but I suppose my recent problems are the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“I understand, Ez, but I wished you’d come to me before now. If you have any concerns at any time you should come to me. I was already aware that Vin has been worried about you, especially since that rat was left on your doorstep. I’m afraid I’ve been so wrapped up in the Larson case, though, that I haven’t been as attentive to what you’ve been going through as I should have been,” the blond apologized, feeling partly to blame.

“It’s not your fault, Chris,” Ezra said quietly.

“We’re a team and we always help each other out, you know that, don’t you, bud?” Chris asked quietly. Hell, Ezra oughta know that by now anyway. “Look, we’ll talk a bit more tomorrow, okay? I wanna help you sort this all out, so we’ll come up with a plan.” A plan to prevent something really bad from happening to you, the blond thought to himself.

“Thank you, I appreciate that very much.”

“See ya later,” Chris said as Ezra stood up.

The undercover agent left the office and bumped into Vin outside the building on the sidewalk. The sharpshooter had just finished a surveillance operation with Josiah and had decided to do his report while it was still fresh in his mind.

“You okay, Ez?” the long-haired man asked quietly when he saw the preoccupied agent.

“No, not really,” Ezra replied before telling his friend everything.

“Well, Chris was right to be upset that Drago slipped through his fingers. I think he was also right to say that you may have been a target as well as Kenny.”

“Still doesn’t excuse my tardiness. If I’d been on time I might have been able to identify the murderers,” Ezra said, still unable to forgive himself.

“Yeah, and you may have died before you coulda passed the info on. Try not to lose sleep over it. Kenny made all the arrangements for the meet, so the fact that someone found out about them and murdered him ain’t your fault,” Vin pointed out.

“Maybe. I’ll see you tomorrow, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra replied dejectedly.

“Sure thing. Get some rest, bud,” Vin said as he patted Ezra’s back and watched him walk away.

The sharpshooter hurried up to see Chris. He leaned the top half of his body inside Chris’s office as he knocked quietly on the door to announce his arrival.

“Hey, cowboy. Just saw Ez and he seems real down.”

Chris looked up and beckoned his friend in. “He told you what happened, did he?” the blond asked wearily as he ran his fingers through his hair.

Vin perched on the corner of his boss’s desk. “Yeah, but he couldn’t have done anything to save Kenny.”

“I know, although I was really angry when I first heard what had happened. It just isn’t like Ezra to behave in such a careless way at work. I’m gonna talk with him again tomorrow ‘cause he can’t go on like he is any more. He’s either gonna get killed, or we are, as a result of him not concentrating,” Chris said as he held Vin’s gaze.

The sharpshooter nodded and stood up. “Let us know if there’s anything we can do for him.”

“Sure. Well, I’m gonna head home. Had just about all that I can handle today. I’ll write my report about today’s fiasco when I get home,” Chris said as he stood and left the office to begin the one hour journey back to his ranch.

“Drive safely,” Vin said as he went to his own desk and set to work on his own report.

+ + + + + + +

Travis received Chris’s report the following morning and the more he read, the angrier he became. The older man called Chris into his office, determined to get to the bottom of what was wrong with the undercover agent. This incident with Kenny was the last in a long string of mistakes. All the other ones had been minor infringements but they still set alarm bells ringing in Travis’s head.

“Chris? What’s going on with Ezra?” he said as soon as Chris set foot in the room. “What is it that’s making him act like this?”

The blond explained everything after first taking an uninvited seat in front of his boss’s desk. He watched Travis carefully, not quite sure of his mood.

Travis listened in silence to what was said. “Well, I can’t think that a criminal from Ezra’s past would waste his time cutting off rose heads, do you? If someone wanted Ezra dead, they’d have done it by now. It all sounds like childish pranks to me, or someone who doesn’t agree with Ezra’s sexual orientation. If he can’t pull himself together then send him home because he’s becoming a liability. In fact, send him home anyway. He’s not much use to us as he is, is he?”

Chris scowled at his boss’s attitude. The blond could understand why Ezra hadn’t been paying proper attention at work lately and he was willing to cut the man some slack. It seemed, though, that Travis wasn’t going to be so benevolent. Chris was rather annoyed that Travis seemed to be dictating what should be done to Ezra without asking for the blond’s thoughts. Chris would much rather deal with things himself, as he had planned to later that morning. He knew that Ezra needed some sort of reprimand but the black-clad man was going to defend his agent no matter what.

“Sir, I know the things that have been done to him may seem small fry to you, but I think he’s got a right to be worried,” the blond said reasonably.

The older man shook his head in disagreement. “It’s kids, Chris, mark my words, and I don’t want your men wasting time looking into it, either. You’ve got enough work here without going off looking for vandals. If you do help him, then do it on your own time, not mine.”

The blond tried to persuade the man otherwise but only managed one word, “But..”

Travis held up one hand with palm facing the blond, like a cop stopping traffic. “No buts, Chris. Do as you’re told or you can all look for a new job. You’ve got the Larson case coming to a conclusion and I know that you don’t need Ezra any more for that. However, I need you, so don’t cross me on this, Chris. I’m being pressured from above about things, and when I’m pressured, you’re pressured, okay?”

Chris knew better than to argue any more but he wanted to put over one more point. He just hoped that Travis would let him. “Yes, sir, but I don’t have to like it. Ezra isn’t one for fanciful thoughts or trivial matters. I trust his instincts in circumstances like this ‘cause he’s usually right. If he’s concerned about what’s going on, then so am I.”

“I’ve got no more to say on the matter, Chris. It ain’t up for discussion. Send him home,” Travis snapped as he made a dismissive gesture with his hand.

The blond stood and left the room, unhappy at not receiving any support for his troubled agent. He knew he had to do as Travis said, though, or take the consequences. The man was in a rare foul mood, which signified just how much pressure he was currently under.

Chris strode into his team’s area and caught Ezra’s eye. He inclined his head in the direction of his own office and Ezra stood and followed him in.

“Take a seat, Ez,” Chris said as he planted himself in own his chair behind the desk.

“Is this the fallout from last night?” Ezra asked.

The blond studied Ezra closely and then sighed, hating to have to say what he was going to. “’Fraid so, Ez. I’ve just had to go and see Travis, and he isn’t happy with how you’ve been working lately. I’ve been advised to send you home so that you can try to sort out who’s doing these things to you. We’ll help when we can but Travis won’t allow us to do it in working hours because of the Larson case. Don’t think he’d have let us, period. He thinks your problems are all down to kids and so not worth bothering about.” Chris sighed again. “He’s got a burr up his ass for some reason and he’s being real belligerent.”

Ezra nodded as he kept his gaze on a picture on the wall behind Chris. It was the only way he could keep his emotions in check. “I’m sorry to have put you in this position, Mr. Larabee. I’ve obviously, though unintentionally, let you down by my actions recently.”

The blond jumped in quickly with a reply. “No, you haven’t, Ez. I’ve let you down by not standing up to Travis on your behalf. He just wasn’t prepared to listen and he threatened a few things to make me toe the line. I didn’t wanna push things.”

“I totally understand. He’s probably right in his thoughts of childish pranks and I just can’t explain why I feel that it’s something more sinister. Anyway, it’s my problem, not yours. I should have been more professional in not letting it take over my life,” Ezra said with a resigned shrug.

Chris didn’t quite know what else to say, but he wanted to reassure his friend. “I’ll get one of the guys to come and stay over each night, Ez. I don’t want you on your own all the time. Can’t help it during the day, but call us if you need us at any time and we’ll come no matter what. Damn Travis, is all I can say. As I said yesterday, I know Vin’s been real concerned about what’s been happening to you since the rat incident and I should have taken things more seriously.”

“It’s not your fault, Chris. I will see you at some point, I expect, and thank you for your concern.” Ezra stood and left the room hastily, needing to get out in the fresh air. He walked to his desk and collected his jacket and bag without a word to the rest of the group.

“Ez? What’s up?” Vin asked with a frown.

“I’ve been sent home. I’ll see you gentlemen later,” Ezra said as he turned and hurried out of the office.

The five men sat in stunned silence until they slowly came back to life.

“Chris?” Vin called as he hurried to his friend’s door. “Why’s Ezra going?”

“Travis ordered me to send him home after what happened last night.” The blond wandered out and told his men everything and he could see that they were as unhappy as he was. “Look, guys, I had no choice. Travis was threatening all our jobs and I just couldn’t do that to you all. I hate that we can’t be with Ez all the time but we’ll just have to do the best we can.”

“Damn right. He may have done wrong but Ez needs our help and I, for one, ain’t gonna let him down,” Buck promised.

“Right. Can you take first duty with him tonight, then?”

“Sure thing, pard. I’ll take good care of him,” the mustached agent said with a nod. “As for our jobs, Chris, I say that Travis can stuff them, if that’s his attitude. We stick together in times of trouble and if he don’t understand that by now then he’s been blind all these years that we’ve been working for him.” The ladies’ man frowned as a thought entered his head. “I’d much rather have Ez here all day so that we can keep an eye on him. Why didn’t you just restrict him to desk duty?”

Chris looked round his men and saw them all nodding in agreement. “I wasn’t given the choice, Buck. Travis said that Ez wasn’t in the right frame of mind to do any sort of work and he didn’t want him here. You can’t deny that Ezra’s messed up, can you?”

“No, we can’t, but that’s no reason to turn the other cheek, brother Chris,” Josiah pointed out quietly.

“I’m not saying that we should, am I? We can help him out when we’re not here. I know you might not like that but that’s all I can offer.” He shrugged and walked back into his office. He would wait a few days and then go back to ask Travis if Ezra could come back to work on desk duty. Right now, though, was not the time.

+ + + + + + +

Days passed and Ezra had become convinced that his misfortune had nothing to do with either vengeance because of his job, or childish antics. It seemed that the person knew him very well and was aware of what would unsettle him and hurt him the most, short of physical harm.

Sleep became secondary. The undercover agent had spent his time alternating his time between lying in wait in the house during the night and staking out his garden during the day, all to no avail. Today was no different and he was getting frustrated so he decided to take a break. Vin was due round to help him with his sleuthing after work so he thought he’d wait until his friend arrived.

Ezra chose to go for a walk in the park near to where he lived to try and clear his head. He wandered along the paths, not really concentrating on where he was going. He was still thinking about the long scratch that he’d found on his beloved car that morning. It had really upset him and he couldn’t understand what was going on. He’d seen nothing out of the ordinary and he was beginning to feel that he was wasting his time.

He walked for half an hour and ended up in the park’s parking lot before he remembered that he hadn’t brought his car. He sighed and turned round to head back the way he’d come, cursing himself for not concentrating. He suddenly felt a strong hand on his shoulder and he turned rapidly to find Marty smiling at him evilly.

“You?” Ezra gasped as it all fell into place.

“Yeah, miss me?”

“No,” the agent said as he tried to back away from the taller man who towered over him ominously. Why isn’t he still in jail?

“We’ve got some unfinished business, Ezra,” Marty said as he grabbed his ex-lover’s arm roughly.

Ezra fought to get free but Marty managed to hit him with a well-timed punch to his face, which set his nose bleeding badly. The undercover agent was stunned and dropped his guard briefly. Marty took advantage and quickly subdued the injured agent. The smaller man was finally knocked out and then bundled into the trunk of a nearby green car. Marty looked calmly around to make sure that no one had seen what he’d just done. He was unaware that someone had and that they were currently on the phone calling the police to report the abduction.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra woke in darkness and stayed still while trying to get his bearings. He heard strange sounds and made moves to sit up and investigate further. He didn’t get very far, though, before his head came into contact with a hard barrier.

“Damn,” he muttered as he rubbed the resulting painful spot.

He lay down again and tried to keep still as his body came to realize that he was in a moving vehicle.

“Oh, no,” Ezra groaned as he remembered Marty’s arrival.

The groan was also in response to the feeling of nausea that had set in. Motion sickness suddenly made its presence felt with a vengeance. He wiped his mouth and moved his head away from the pile of vomit as best he could in the dark. He began to feel claustrophobic and panicky and the air in the trunk was heavy and dusty, which contributed to his feelings of nausea.

The car took a sharp left, making him slide sideways, before the vehicle righted itself and continued onwards at speed. Ezra tried to concentrate on other things, but to no avail. Being in darkness seemed to make the nausea affect him twice as badly. He continued to throw up, particularly when the movement of the car was excessive. He knew that whichever direction he moved in, he would always encounter vomit and there was no way he could avoid rolling in it every time the vehicle moved. He could feel it in his hair and the stench made him feel even sicker.

He started moving his fingers around his prison as he tried to find a way to escape but he never remained in one position long enough to do anything purposeful. He tried bracing his legs to help keep himself still but it had no effect whatsoever. He didn’t know what he could do if he ever got the trunk open anyway. He could hardly leap out onto the road with the car traveling so fast.

The carpet under him was hard and rough and whenever he moved his face, he could feel it scratching his cheek painfully. He groaned, wondering how far the journey would be and what would happen when it finally ended. He knew that he was in no condition to defend himself if Marty felt like fighting or forcing his attentions on him. He felt truly awful. Despite Marty having been incarcerated in prison, Ezra had noticed that he was still well-toned and muscled. The undercover agent had never been able to defend himself against his ex-lover and he knew the same would be true now. Well, that fact had already been proved.

The journey, though, was going to end in a way that even Marty hadn’t planned. All of a sudden Ezra heard a squealing of tires. The car seemed to increase its speed and it spun round and round dizzily. Ezra grabbed for something to hold onto as he rolled around uncontrollably, knocking knees, elbows and head in the process.

“Oh, God,” Ezra groaned as his stomach heaved. He retched noisily, having nothing left to vomit.

The spinning eventually stopped but then Ezra felt the vehicle falling. It was the most bizarre sensation he’d ever experienced. The car turned over and over, hood to trunk, hood to trunk. He was thrown around, hitting unseen objects in the trunk again and he knew he’d be black and blue, if nothing else. The vehicle then hit something solid, rebounded and landed trunk first with a loud crash of crunching metal. As a result, Ezra’s head slammed against something hard and his world started to turn black. The trunk was squashed to half its size in seconds, holding the agent inside in a deadly embrace. The car then slowly fell back onto all four wheels again, bouncing once as the tires hit the ground.

Just before he lost consciousness, Ezra sent a silent plea up to heaven from inside his metal prison to ask that the car wouldn’t burst into flames.

+ + + + + + +

Within minutes of the accident, Chris drove by the spot on his way to work. He pulled over quickly in concern when he saw the dark skid marks on the road. He traveled the same route every day and he knew the marks hadn’t been there the day before, so he climbed out and followed them to the edge of the valley road. He looked over the precipice and saw the mangled remains of a green car.


He put in a call to the emergency services and then made his way down carefully to the wrecked vehicle. He looked inside when he got near and saw a blood-covered body. He moved around to the driver’s side and gasped when he recognized Marty. He reached out his fingers and felt for a pulse, but the man was already dead.

“Dammit. When the hell did he get outta jail?”

Chris studied the vehicle as he thought back on Ezra’s experiences over the past month. An unpleasant thought crossed his mind. Was Marty to blame? He’d have to do some investigating later on to find out, but he’d bet his ranch that Ezra’s ex-lover was the culprit.

Chris’s cell rang at that moment and he moved away from the vehicle quickly before answering it. “Yeah?”

“Ezra’s missing,” Vin said worriedly.

Chris frowned as his heart skipped a beat and his eyes moved back to stare at Marty. Was it all connected as he thought?

“Chris, you there?”

The blond nodded and said quietly, “Yeah. Look, Vin, I just found Marty in a wrecked car. He’s dead.”

“What color car?” the sharpshooter asked sharply. He had a feeling that he already knew the answer to his question.

The blond paused for a second, totally thrown by the unexpected question. “What?”

What color?

“Green,” Chris replied in confusion.

Damn, Vin cursed to himself. “Check the trunk, Chris. Someone saw a man matching Ezra’s description being bundled into the trunk of a green car,” Vin explained, sounding panicked. “I also saw a green car near his house when I stayed over that first night too.”


Chris hurried around to the trunk but it was too badly crushed to open without brute force. He didn’t dare use bullets in case Ezra was indeed inside, so he resorted to rocks. He kept hammering for a frantic few minutes but he could see that he’d hardly made an impression on the lock. He threw the rocks aside angrily, looked inside the car quickly and saw the tire iron on the back seat. He grabbed it and put it under the rim quickly. After a struggle, the trunk popped and the blond pried it open as far as he could. He looked down and saw that his missing agent was inside as he’d feared. The small man had very bad head injuries and was covered in blood and vomit.

“Jesus, Ez. Vin? He’s here. The trunk’s real squashed so I think it musta hit the ground first. He’s badly hurt and it looks like he’s puked a lot,” Chris said into the retrieved cell, which he’d stowed in his pocket temporarily while opening the trunk.

“Probably his motion sickness,” Vin said worriedly, hating that his fears had come to fruition.

“I’ve already called the emergency services,” Chris said as he gently checked Ezra for injuries. “I’ll call you later, Vin, but can you find out why Marty was outta jail?”

“Sure thing.”

Sirens sounded just as Chris put the phone away. He waved his arms when he saw several heads appear up on the road and peer down at him. The medics made their way down and stopped dead when they saw Ezra’s position.

“What’s he doing in there?” one paramedic asked as he quickly checked the injured man over. He then put a neck brace on and immobilized Ezra on a backboard before extricating him gently.

“He was forced into it from what I’ve just heard. How is he?” Chris asked anxiously as he prowled around the car.

“What’s his name?” the second paramedic asked as he continued checking Ezra for injuries


The paramedic opened Ezra’s eyes and shone a light in them and sighed loudly at what he saw. He called out to Ezra and did several other tests to gauge his reactions, but Ezra did not stir. The man then attached him to an IV and oxygen as well before transfering him to a stretcher.

How is he?” Chris repeated.

“Not good. He’s got real serious head injuries. You coming with him?” the man asked distractedly.

“I’ll follow in my car,” Chris said as he hurried up to the road and watched Ezra being put in the emergency vehicle.

He pulled in behind the ambulance and kept pace as it rushed through the streets with sirens sounding urgently when they reached town. When Chris arrived at the hospital, all his friends were there to meet him, but, for once, the blond was not up to talking. Vin sat next to him in the waiting room while Nathan went to get news, which was sparse and unhelpful.

Hours passed and the men grew more and more anxious. Buck fidgeted endlessly while still managing to flirt with any nurses who passed the door. It was just a reflex action, the words spilling out of his mouth, needing no thought. It seemed to JD that his friend could chat up a woman in his sleep. It certainly appeared that way sometimes.

The youngster sat quietly as he watched his team-mates distractedly. The only sign of life from him was the occasionally muttered, “What’s taking them so long?”

Vin kept his thoughts to himself and stayed beside the blond, who remained silent and broody. Nathan, meanwhile, continued disappearing every ten minutes on a quest for news, which was always non-existent. Josiah went to each man in turn to give comfort as best he could in the circumstances. Without knowing what they were up against, though, was hard for him because he couldn’t even assure them that Ezra was still alive.

Coffee cups piled up on the tables in the waiting room as the men drank copious amounts of the caffeine brew. It certainly didn’t calm their nerves, but what the dirty cups did signify was just how long the men had been waiting for news of their injured friend.