Buck leaned across the table, unconsciously making the same calming gesture with his hands as Murray had done earlier. "Slow down a little Mai Lin take your time. Start from the beginning. Why did Mr Sinclair tell you to come here?"
They had already tried Ezra's cellphone, and Vin was on his way to the rented apartment, but Buck was certain that the phone would not be answered and the apartment would be empty. His gut told him that something bad had happened, and that this frightened girl may have the answers he needed.
Chris let Buck ask the questions, knowing that Wilmington would be able to put Mai Lin at her ease much more effectively than he would. He felt sorry for the distressed young woman - she was obviously desperate to tell them something, but was finding communicating in English very difficult. Chris had already tried to locate a translator, but it seemed the Denver ATF did not have a Mandarin speaker, the best the Resources office could offer was that they would contact the local FBI, who would be able to locate such a person, though it would take some time.
Mai Lin, her hands clenched tightly in her lap, tried again. "I go hospital," she said clearly, looking straight at Buck, "see you."
Buck frowned. "You saw me at the hospital?" He pointed to himself. "Me?"
She shook her head, looking around the room for something to help her. Finally she caught sight of the team photo on the wall over Chris's desk. "There!" she shouted, pointing at the picture, "I see you - hospital."
Chris smiled as the penny dropped. "She saw your photograph when she was at the hospital," he explained to Buck, who looked suitably askance at his shortcomings.
"Me and Mr Sinclair?" Buck asked, wondering if that was how Mai Lin had pieced together the relationship, and also wondering what the hell Denver Mercy General were doing with his photo on the wall.
She shook her head. "You, Mr Sinclair, car," she paused, wondering how to explain that it had been some time ago, "hospital, see you."
Buck was beginning to get on to Mai Lin's wavelength. "Got it!" He grinned triumphantly. "You saw me, in the car with Mr Sinclair, then you saw my picture when you were at the hospital?"
She nodded, a smile lighting up her features. Buck breathed a huge sigh of relief. "Okay Mai Lin - that's good. Very good. Now, where is Mr Sinclair?"
She looked suddenly afraid and shook her head. Buck's stomach did an uncomfortable flip-flop. "You don't know?"
"Mr Sinclair - paper," she pointed to herself. "Tang", she frowned, not knowing the word she needed. She moved her hands, miming as if she were snatching something from Buck's fingers.
"Take? Tang took something from you?"
She nodded again. "Paper - Mr Sinclair."
"Tang took some of Mr Sinclair's papers from you?" Buck asked, wondering how and why Ezra had given case papers to Mai Lin.
Chris could sense the rising agitation in Buck's voice. They both felt sorry for Mai Lin, but precious minutes were wasting whilst they tried to understand each other.
At that moment, a soft knock sounded on Chris's door and Josiah appeared, with a small, bespectacled man wearing patched overalls trotting at his heels.
"Chris, this is Mr Chong - he owns the Chinese grocery store next door to the Mission," the big profiler's huge grin lifted Chris's spirits considerably, "he speaks Mandarin and English."
"Josiah! You angel!"
Josiah winked. "Not for a while yet, I hope," he said.
It didn't take long to piece together Mai Lin's story.
Her brother, a promising young chemist back home in China, had fallen foul of the Blue Dragon 'family' by running up debts for a drug habit - trafficking and dealing being two more 'business ventures' the company seemed to be involved in. Tang had come up with a way for him to repay his debt, by working as a chemist for the fireworks arm of Blue Dragon in China, but the young man had proved troublesome, trying to run away on several occasions. To keep their latest 'employee' in line, as well as persuade him to help manufacture some more dangerous explosives than Chinese firecrackers, Tang had taken the simple precaution of kidnapping his sister and bringing her here to America, where she knew no-one and would be a helpless hostage.
Mai Lin had not been ill-treated, merely used as another company 'asset' - put to work in the offices, kept at Tang's house to clean and cook, Tang knowing that fear for her brother's welfare would be more than enough inducement to assure her co-operation. She had been kept under constant supervision, to make sure she had no opportunity to mix with 'outsiders' who might learn of her plight, and to prevent her learning English and thereby helping herself.
Through Mr Chong, she told Buck and Chris about seeing Ezra in Buck's car, then about the card Ezra had given to her. Knowing she would probably only have one opportunity, she had waited until she thought all of Tang's household would be asleep, and had climbed out of the window. Sam, however, was on watch outside and had caught her mid-flight. It was only her slight build and quick reflexes that had enabled her to escape from the lumbering hulk, but he had discovered the card she clutched in her had, and had taken it. He would have handed it straight to Tang, who may not have recognised the address on the back, but certainly knew where to find Ezra. Mai Lin had no doubt where the first place was Tang would have gone.
Buck, his frown deepening with every word Mr Chong translated, knew that she had to be right. He cursed himself. He should have followed his instincts last night and gone straight to Ezra's. If there had been two of them, they would have had a chance, but Ezra alone, probably asleep Buck didn't want to think too hard about it.
Vin called Chris a few minutes later, confirming what they already suspected. Ezra's apartment was empty, his car, cellphone, wallet and keys where he had left them, and there were signs of both a forced entry and a struggle.
Buck felt his blood run cold.
What time was it?
Ezra had no idea. He could have been here hours or days, there was no way of knowing. He didn't even know if it was day or night, the windowless room gave no clues. He was aware that there had been periods of what? Exhaustion induced dozing? Unconsciousness? Whatever they were, the missing periods of time were blissful respite, and each time his eyes opened, Ezra prayed for them to close again and shut out the pain and the endless waiting.
All he knew for certain was that he was alone again. For now.
He shuddered, trying to quell the fear in his head and stomach. In some ways, being alone, just waiting, was much worse than the physical torture. Every nerve, every fibre, strained to hear the sound of a footstep outside, the scrape of a key in the lock. Those small noises that would herald the return of Tang and Sam or Leo, or maybe both of them.
He ached - so much and in so many places it was impossible to separate one pain from another. He had no idea there could be so many different kinds of pain. The bruises that covered what felt like his whole body were like toothache - nagging and dull. The pain in his arm, particularly the wrist, was hot and sharp, setting off lightning strikes in his head. His knees were grazed and bloody from repeated encounters with the concrete floor, and they hurt with a grating sting. He couldn't see properly out of one eye, courtesy of a well-aimed fist, and the pain radiating from his eye-socket and cheekbone was a pounding throb that seemed to reverberate in expanding waves through his skull. He felt nauseous, there was the acrid taste of blood and bile at the back of his throat. It hurt to breathe, his ribs felt as if they were trying to burst through his skin.
He was still sitting, after a fashion, on the hard-backed chair, slumped at an awkward angle, his arms tied behind the chair back.
How long had he been here?
He didn't even know, for certain, why he was here. He hoped that Mai Lin had contacted the ATF, but he didn't know that for a fact. Perhaps she had been caught, with his card still on her. Perhaps she had taken the card straight to Tang, and he had put the pieces together.
All the questions had been about his true identity - who he worked for, what he was really doing at Blue Dragon. Training and sheer bloody-mindedness had taken over once the questions started. Ezra had made up his mind he was not going to tell them anything without a fight. He knew he would tell them eventually, of course - that was almost the first thing the federal basic interrogation course instructors said - 'everyone talks, sooner or later.'
He had simply made up his mind it would be later. Before then the rest of the team would arrive. They would come and get him. Buck would come and get him. Of course they would. They would. They would not leave him here. Buck would not leave him here.
He tried to think, to concentrate, in an effort to detract from the pain. He was more or less sure that Tang needed something from him, otherwise why was he still alive?
A noise suddenly made his head swivel round. Footsteps. He swallowed, his heart beginning to pound.
A soft grating noise as the key turned in the door lock.
Ezra's jaw clenched. Seemingly the wait was over.
Buck banged a fist down heavily on his desk, partly in frustration, partly in temper, partly in growing anxiety. The bullpen was deserted, only his desk lamp was still on, the top of the desk almost invisible under piles of papers, files and hastily scrawled notes.
The computer screen continued to flash its unhelpful message at him: 'No results matching your search criteria were located.'
He banged the desk again.
The door to Chris's office opened silently behind him, and the blond stood for a moment in the doorframe, watching his oldest friend.
"Buck?" he said eventually.
Buck didn't answer.
"Look, I know how you feel "
Buck turned on him, eyes blazing. "No you don't Chris."
Chris walked up to Buck and hitched a hip on the corner of the cluttered desk. "Yes I do. You think you're the only one worried about Ezra?"
"Of course not! It's just " Buck sighed. He was tired, so tired he could barely think straight, but anything was better than sitting at home, feeling utterly helpless, whilst his imagination ran riot with what might have happened to Ezra.
"Listen to me, Buck," Chris said sternly, his eyes meeting Wilmington's with a frank stare. "I know you care about Ezra, and I know you're scared, but you know that won't help him. What will help him is logical, rational process - the same way we've always done it, the same way it's always worked before. I know how badly you want to go charging off and just find him and get him back to us - hell, that's what we all want - but we need to do this rationally."
Buck knew what Chris was saying made sense - he'd said it himself on many occasions when one of the team was in danger.
"You need to think with your head, not your gut," Chris said quietly, "and sitting here, exhausted, in the middle of the night, chasing your own tail, is not going to help Ezra, you, or the rest of the team. Go home. Get some sleep."
"I can't Chris. Every damn time I close my eyes " Buck shuddered, running a distracted hand through his already disarranged hair, then looked up at his oldest friend. "I got a real bad feelin' about this one, Stud."
It was amazing, Ezra thought, how detached he felt. As if he were two completely separate people - the physical one, writhing in pain on a filthy, bloodstained, concrete floor, and the intellectual, psychological one, whose mind seemed to be focussing on an ever-narrowing beam, further and further inside himself.
A fresh wave of pain sent fire rocketing through his body, wrenching his stomach muscles into painful contraction, cutting off his gasp for air and totally overwhelming any thought at all.
Instinctively, he curled into a ball, or as near as his abused limbs could manage considering his wrists were still bound behind his back.
"Who do you work for?"
The same question, the same voice. His body and mind both knew what would happen if he didn't answer, both prepared for the next wave of agony. He wanted to answer - desperately wanted to answer - but knew that he couldn't. If he answered, Tang would probably just kill him. The only thing keeping him alive at the moment was the fact that Tang didn't know who he was or what he knew.
He didn't know how much longer staying alive would be the preferable choice.
He had long ago lost track of time and space - everything reduced to surviving the next blow, the next kick, the next question.
Keep breathing for one more second, one more minute.
They would come for him. They would find him. Buck would come for him. If he could just survive for one more breath
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a bone-jarring explosion of force resounded throughout every bone in his body, turning his vision red before his eyes and eliciting a deep-throated grunt. Dimly, he registered a foot on the floor beside his head, and realised he must have been kicked. Then the pain hit.
Nausea bucketed up through his system in reaction, but couldn't make it as his brain began dragging him down into unconsciousness.
Everything wavered. He couldn't remember who he was or what he was doing here. Where are you, guys? Buck? Where are you? Greyness began to envelop him.
"Who do you work for?"
"Seven, ATF" Ezra said, quite clearly, before the blackness overtook him.
Buck woke as if someone had punched him, sitting bolt upright in bed, eyes flying open, heart pounding. For a terrifying few seconds he had no idea where he was or what was happening. He gulped in air as his senses frantically tried to catch up with his racing imagination.
A dream. It was a dream. "It was only a dream," he said out loud, as if hearing the words would help, somehow.
Fragments of the nightmare were still there, still running through his mind at breakneck speed, over and over.
Ezra's voice, calling out Buck's name, repeating it over and over again. Buck had been somewhere very dark, surrounded by pitch blackness, unable to get his bearings, unable to see or feel anything except an overpowering sense of fear and desperation. He had tried to call out to Ezra, to let him know he was there, but when he opened his mouth, no sound came. His throat strained, chest heaving as he tried to shout, to tell Ezra that he could hear him, he was there, he would help, but he couldn't utter a sound. Ezra's voice had become fainter and Buck had tried to run towards the fading sound, but his legs would not obey him, he couldn't move.
Buck shivered. He knew exactly what his dream meant. The last words he and Ezra had exchanged repeated themselves over and over, just as they had been all day.
You need me, you just holler.
You have my word, Buck, if I need you, rest assured I will have no hesitation in 'hollering'.
Buck bit his lip in an effort to stop his teeth chattering.
Ezra needed him.
Ezra was shouting for Buck to help him.
"Hang in there Ezra - I'm comin' for you," Buck said clearly to the empty room, then clambered out of bed and headed for the shower.
It was still dark as he drove through the deserted downtown streets towards the ATF building, his mind racing. Despite his desperation, he couldn't quell the wry smile when he saw the black Ram and the tattered Jeep parked in the two prime parking spots outside the main doors.
Larabee oughta start learning to take his own advice, Buck thought as he walked through the main doors and headed for the elevators.
The seventh floor was quiet, the only lights in Team Seven's offices were over Vin's deserted desk and a small sliver showing from beneath Chris's closed office door.
As he headed through the bullpen, he could hear a voice - not Chris's or Vin's - from behind the closed door. He frowned. Who the hell else was here?
He pushed open the door to Chris's office.
It took less than two seconds for Buck's brain to register several things all at once.
The brief look of surprise in Vin's blue eyes at his unexpected entrance, the fury on Chris's face as he looked at something on the tv mounted on the wall over the conference table, the unknown voice issuing from the same tv screen, over a grainy video of what the hell was that?
Vin slid a fresh mug of strong black coffee across the table. He had seen how badly Buck's hands were trembling and didn't want to make Buck feel worse by trying to hand his friend something he was incapable of taking without spilling it.
They were all there.
All except Ezra.
Six drawn, taut faces around the table, each tight expression suppressing wildly oscillating emotions.
The video was running - again. How many times had they all sat through it by now, Buck wondered? It didn't get any easier, or any less shocking, on the fourth, fifth or twenty fifth viewing. Buck knew every word the voice would say, knew every ghastly image the tape would show.
The voice, they had surmised, was probably Tang's.
The images were Ezra.
Ezra, beaten and bloody, slumped awkwardly to one side, his head at an impossible angle on one shoulder, the one eye still visible in a face that was a mass of bruised, swollen flesh, looking beyond the camera to whoever was standing behind it. There was life in that eye - a spark of brightness - but there was something else. Something Buck had never seen in all the times he had looked at Ezra.
Buck felt sick.
"You have something that belongs to me," the voice said clearly. "And I have something that belongs to you. If you want your agent back alive, you will follow my instructions exactly." The voice paused, and the camera pulled back slightly, showing that Ezra was tied to what appeared to be a chair, his clothes filthy and torn. "You will return my niece to me or I will kill your agent. Bring Mai Lin to Saint Sebastian's church, where she is to wait on the steps. Once she is returned to me, I will tell you where to find your agent. There will be no negotiation, no bargaining. Mai Lin must be at the church at 11am on Thursday. If you do not obey me, your agent will be dead by noon."
A final close-up of Ezra's face, and the video cut off.
"No clues," Chris said quietly. "Nothing in the video that tells us where, or even when , it was filmed. The tape is a standard brand, could be bought at any store. There are no prints, and it was left outside the main door in an envelope with '7 ATF' written on it. No prints on the envelope."
"How do we know Ezra ain't already dead?" Nathan asked in a hushed voice.
"He ain't dead," Buck said, just as quietly, but with absolute authority.
"But Buck," Nathan leaned across the table, "you don't know that. They could have taken that film and "
"He ain't dead!" Buck shouted, his white face contorting in rage as he stared at Nathan.
"Then let's decide how we get him back," Chris said calmly, diffusing the situation. Several voices began to speak at once.
Unheard over the others, Vin leaned across the table and grasped Buck's arm in a strong grip. Buck's eyes met Vin's and he shuddered at the icy hardness of Tanner's blue stare. The soft voice was in complete contrast to the eyes. "We'll get him back Bucklin, I promise ya. And I'll make sure that bastard pays for what he's done."
Not for the first time, Buck was glad Vin was on their side.
Chris appeared around the door to the bullpen, followed by someone that Buck thought, initially, was Mai Lin. When the young woman smiled at them all however, Buck realised that it wasn't.
"Guys," Chris announced, "this is Special Agent Li Pong, from the Denver FBI."
Several voices sounded in greeting, and the young agent returned the welcome with a smile and a nod. Buck looked at her. She was approximately the same size and build as Mai Lin, with the same long black hair, but this young woman carried herself with confidence, her body language and expression radiated assurance. Tang might be fooled from a distance, Buck thought, but not once he got a look up close.
"You sure this is gonna work, Chris?" he asked quietly. "There's a helluva lot ridin' on this."
"Don't worry agent," Li Pong said evenly, her dark eyes meeting Buck's, "I think I can play this part well enough to fool them for the time it will take to retrieve your team mate."
"Ma'am," Buck said politely, but without much conviction, "you might bear a passin' resemblance to Mai Lin, but Tang ain't a fool, and he's gonna make you in a second when he gets close to ya."
"By which time it will not be necessary to fool him any longer." Her voice was calm, her eyes steady. "Because by that time the trap will have been sprung." She turned to Chris, "where can I change?"
He nodded in the direction of the restrooms, and she disappeared down the corridor.
"Don't go playin' games with Ezra's life Chris," Buck breathed the words close to his Team Leader's ear.
Chris's green eyes flashed, but softened when he saw Buck's expression. "I want to give us the best possible chance of getting Ezra back," he said, "and I can do that more easily with a trained agent rather than a terrified girl who barely speaks the language. Trust me on this one, Buck. I want these bastards as badly as you do." He looked straight into Buck's worried eyes, "we'll get him back."
Vin walked up to Buck as Chris walked away from him. "Suppose this don't work Vin? Suppose they don't tell us where Ezra is?"
A thin, feral smile appeared under the blue eyes. "They mayn't tell her, they mayn't even tell Chris," he whispered, "but you got my word Bucklin, they'll tell me."
A few moments later, the door opened again and Buck felt a flash of guilt at his earlier misgivings. Dressed in Mai Lin's clothes, Li Pong's whole demeanour had changed. Head bowed, shoulders rounded, confident strides replaced by timid small steps, she had transformed into a replica of the young Chinese woman.
She raise her head and looked at Buck. "Shall we go?" she said.
Tang had chosen the site well. Saint Sebastian's was a huge church, right in the centre of the city. There were a maze of streets and buildings surrounding it, with myriad vantage points and hiding places. Tang and his men could be anywhere and Team Seven could not be everywhere.
Sooner or later though, someone would have to come and collect 'Mai Lin' and that, Chris had determined, was their one opportunity of finding out where they were holding Ezra. He had no intention of trusting Tang's word as to revealing where Ezra was being held - his method would be a good deal less subtle, but hopefully more effective.
Vin and Josiah were high up in opposite corners of the church tower, each scanning the streets around the building for a suspicious vehicle that might contain Tang, or whoever he was sending to pick up Mai Lin. There were other ATF agents in attendance, positioned at observation points throughout the area.
Agent Li Pong, accompanied by Chris, was walking towards the steps in front of the church, her head bowed, her stance and stride giving every indication that she was the timid, frightened young Chinese woman she was pretending to be.
Buck, positioned in the window table of a coffee shop across the street from the main entrance to the church, felt his heart thumping uncomfortably in his ribs. He looked at his watch. Two minutes to eleven.
Just hang on, Ezra, please. I'm comin' for ya, I swear, just hang in there.
From his vantage point on the tower, Vin caught sight of a large black car approaching the back of the church. His instincts told him the vehicle looked suspicious, and his eyes narrowed as he focused carefully through the lenses of the binoculars he held. The car pulled to a smooth halt in one of the narrower streets at the side of the church, and Vin saw Tang climb out from the passenger side, leaving whoever was driving to sit behind the wheel.
"Chris?" he said quietly into his throat mike, "we're on. Suspect approaching from north west side." Tanner was already moving, running down the steep staircase with incredible agility and speed, checking the position of the car from every small window he passed on the way down.
"Make it fast, Vin." Chris's soft words were clear in his earpiece, their Team Leader, as always, sounding calm and in control.
"You got it."
Hearing Vin, Buck rose from his chair and left the coffee shop, walking across the street in the direction of the street containing the suspect car, passing Chris and Li Pong as they approached the steps from the opposite direction. Not a flicker of recognition passed between them, though the two men made fleeting eye-contact as they passed each other.
Chris and Li Pong walked up the steps to approximately the half-way point, standing in the centre of the wide stone stairway, Chris making sure he positioned himself to mask as much of the view of the young woman as he could from Tang's approach.
Vin slipped silently from the back door of the tower onto the street. There were a few pedestrians, but the sidewalk wasn't crowded and he had a good view of the back of the vehicle. Whoever was in the driving seat was enormous, he realised as he approached, the dark silhouette of the figure filling one side of the car.
Buck had reached the end of the street where the car was parked, he could see Vin approaching, Tanner's casual stride masking the speed with which he moved. "Vin, make sure that bastard ain't holding a gun or a radio," he said through clenched teeth. Vin, still a long way from Buck, nodded his head, indicating that he had heard Buck's warning.
As he approached the car, Vin stopped and turned, walking out from behind it, looking to any casual observer as if he were about to cross the street. He could clearly see the driver's hands, one on the steering wheel, the other fiddling with the radio dial. He could also see a two-way radio on the dash and that the back doors of the car were unlocked.
So they were careless, stupid or arrogant.
Vin didn't care which it was, he was just grateful.
Buck was almost level with the car now, walking swiftly towards it. He could clearly see the driver, who appeared to be absorbed in something to do with the radio, and Buck's eyes met Vin's with a swift nod.
Buck, walking in front of the car, drew his gun and levelled it at the driver. "ATF! Freeze!" he shouted, distracting the driver for the two seconds it took Vin to open the back door and slide into the back seat.
Vin, holding a small knife, snaked one arm around the driver's neck, the other grasping a handful of jet hair and yanking his head backwards. "You move jus' a fraction of an inch, an' my hand'll slip," he whispered to the back of the dark head, "Comprende?"
The driver froze, his eyes shifting from the barrel of Buck's gun, levelled at him through the windshield, to the rear view mirror, where a pair of icy blue eyes met his with absolute composure. He gave the tiniest nod.
"Where is Sinclair?" Vin hissed, never taking his eyes off the reflection in the mirror.
"I don't know," the driver said in a strangled voice.
Vin pressed the knife a little harder into the sweat-sheened skin above the driver's collar. "Wrong answer," he said calmly, "wanna try again?"
At the front of the church, Tang was approaching the steps. Chris, half-shielding Li Pong, met his eyes in a frank challenge. "That's far enough," he said clearly. "Now tell me where my agent is."
Tang said something in rapid Mandarin, trying to see around Chris to the young woman behind him.
To Chris's astonishment, Li Pong replied in the same language, her voice a tremulous whisper, just loud enough for Tang to hear.
Li Pong emerged from behind Chris, her head still bowed, and approached Tang.
"Hold it," Chris said, still staring at Tang, "where is my agent?"
A small smile twisted Tang's mouth. "Give me back my niece, then we talk," he said politely.
"Now then," Vin said with cold smile, his hand maintaining the pressure on the knife, "you get one more chance at this question, afore I slit yer throat and let ya bleed out all over this fancy car "
Terrified eyes met Vin's in the mirror. Vin had guessed that this guy would probably be more afraid of Tang than he was of any American law enforcement agent, but right now all Vin cared about was getting Ezra back. "An' just in case yer thinkin' that I won't do it " The wrist flexed minutely and two tiny beads of red blood appeared at the tip of the knife.
Vin could clearly see the pounding pulse in the driver's neck. The man gasped, and Vin saw the terror in his eyes change to the certainty that if he didnt speak, this man would, indeed, kill him.
"Where?" Vin said again.
The driver gulped, and Vin could feel the swallow through the knife blade.
"Basement - Eastern Delight - next door to factory."
"CHRIS!! Go, go, go!!" Buck shouted, opening the car door and motioning the driver out onto the street, where he was cuffed and handed over to a smiling Josiah, who appeared like magic from a street doorway.
Buck's words echoed in Chris's earpiece, though not a flicker of emotion showed on his face. "About your niece," he said to Tang, hoping the relief he felt was not evident in his voice. Tang reached out to grab the girl and found himself face to face with someone who he had expected to be the timid, acquiescent Mai Lin, but who, he realised with a gasp, was not.
Chris's swift nod at her was answered with a broad smile, as she drew her weapon in one hand and produced her FBI id with the other. "You are under arrest," she said clearly, then said something in rapid Mandarin.
"What was that?" Chris asked her, as he swung Tang around and reached for his handcuffs.
Li Pong shrugged, holding the weapon steadily aimed at Tang's head. "I just reminded him of an old Chinese proverb - women are like the willow, smaller and more fragile than other trees - but don't break in the storm," and she winked at Chris.
"Chris?" Josiah's voice boomed in Chris's earpiece, "Vin and Buck are on their way to get Ezra, and I have a large Chinese take-out here for you.."
This time Larabee did smile.
Vin was phoning for the paramedics, shouting the address into the cellphone clutched in one hand, while the other frantically tried to fasten his seat belt. Buck had no time for such niceties, and was weaving through the mercifully light traffic at breakneck speed, violating more traffic regs than Vin could count. The big car wallowed uncomfortably through the hair-raising turns Buck was throwing it around, and Vin wondered fleetingly if he should have called for two ambulances. He said nothing however, leaving Buck to concentrate on getting to their destination as fast as humanly possible.
The car screeched to a halt in the deserted lot outside the factory, and Vin and Buck ran from the vehicle, leaving both doors wide open and the engine still running.
Guns drawn, they ran up the steps to what had been the main entrance, the boarded door now covered with graffiti and held in place by a hasp and padlock. Buck tried an experimental kick, but the door, despite its appearance, was obviously stronger than it looked.
"Stand back," he shouted, then aimed his weapon at the wood next to the hasp. Three quick shots splintered the wood to oblivion and the next kick sent it flying inwards, crashing back against the wall inside.
It was dark inside the door, and despite their desperation to find Ezra, their training instantly and instinctively took over. They had no idea who might be hiding inside, so Vin covered Buck as he crouched, then almost flung himself through the doorway. Stepping in directly behind Buck, Vin saw a light switch on the wall next to the door and pressed it. To his amazement, the power was still on, and overhead strip lights buzzed themselves into action, revealing a small entrance foyer, dirty, littered with paper and boxes, and obviously deserted for some time. Two doors opened into equally deserted offices at either side of the foyer, with a closed door directly in front of them.
Buck flattened himself against the wall next to the closed door, waiting for Vin to get into position before he tried opening it. Vin gave a swift nod, and Buck carefully tried the handle. The door swung inwards - revealing a narrow corridor, poorly lit, that opened out into what had been the main factory. A few seconds later they emerged into the open area of the factory floor.
Both agents froze.
A large number of industrial pallets were arranged in rows on the floor, all stacked with crates stamped with Chinese symbols, and several pictorial signs that left no doubt that the contents of the crates was explosive and highly flammable.
Vin let out a low whistle. "Jackpot," he said quietly.
Buck nodded, but was frantically searching for a door that might lead to the basement. Finally, he located what he thought must be the right one, in the far corner of the factory floor. To his surprise, it wasn't locked, and swung inwards with a low creak when he pushed it, revealing a dark staircase that disappeared into the bowels of the building.
Buck pelted down the stairway into the near-darkness below. Hang on Ez, please - hang on - I'm here
The corridor at the bottom of the stairs was lit by a low-wattage bulb, revealing a single closed door. His heart thumping, Buck realised that Ezra had to be behind that door. He almost cried out in frustration when he tried it and found it locked, and aimed a huge kick at the wood alongside the lock, but the door refused to budge.
Vin placed a hand on his shoulder. "Together?" he said with brief smile. Buck nodded, and they shoulder-charged the door in unison. The wood gave way, bursting inwards with a splintering crash, and Vin and Buck all but fell into the room.
For what felt like hours, but in reality was only a second or two, they both froze. The dim light in the centre of the room shone down on a crumpled figure, still tied onto the hard-backed chair.
The figure was completely still, slumped at a curious and unnatural angle. With a shout, Buck rushed forwards, his lungs and stomach protesting at the stench of the foetid air. He fell on his knees beside the chair, trying to hold Ezra up, looking for some sign of life in the slumped figure.
Vin withdrew the knife from its sheath in his belt and sliced through the ropes holding Ezra in one clean movement. The figure slumped forwards into Buck's waiting arms.
Buck's frantic fingers searched for a pulse in the bruised skin of Ezra's neck. Vin, seeing Buck's hand move, then move again, froze.
Several times Buck searched for the elusive beat beneath his fingers then, suddenly, his whole body seemed to relax in relief, and Vin found himself able to breathe again.
Buck looked down at the too-still figure in his arms, the fear and rage coursing round his system making him shake with tension. "S'okay Ezra, I'm here. You're okay, I'm here. Everything's gonna be okay." Keeping hold of Ezra with one arm, Buck shrugged and twisted out of his jacket and wrapped it around the limp shoulders, then stood up, carrying the unconscious Ezra in his arms.
"Bucklin," Vin said softly, "the paramedics are on their way - it might be safer ta leave him here 'til they get a chance ta check him out."
Dark blue eyes met Tanner's. "Those bastards left him here to die, Vin, and he ain't stayin' in this fuckin' hole for one more second. You can either help me or get the hell outta the way." Instant understanding dawned in Tanner's eyes, and he reached out to help carry their unconscious team mate.
Buck and Vin carried Ezra outside into the sunshine and clean air of the parking lot, where his condition became more evident in the better light. He was mercifully unconscious, one side of his face swollen and misshapen, one eye completely invisible beneath the puffy flesh. His whole body seemed to be a mass of bruises and swelling, and his left arm rested at an unnatural angle at his side. He was filthy, his clothes in rags, and blood had dried in rivers from his nose, mouth and several gashes on his head and body.
"Dear God," Buck said, "Dear God, I shoulda been quicker. I shoulda known." He clutched Ezra to him, feeling utterly helpless and enraged beyond reason.
"It ain't yer fault Bucklin."
"I knew! I knew somethin' weren't right about this fucking case! I should've pushed. I should've pushed Chris and pushed Ez harder to get some help!"
Vin shook his head. "No, you shouldn't. Neither of 'em woulda listened anyways. You're here now, an' that's all that matters to Ezra."
"He don't have a clue either of us are here, Vin."
An ambulance screamed into the lot, masking Tanner's quiet reply.
It was almost midnight when the elevator doors pinged open and Chris emerged into the muted noises and soft lighting of the hospital corridor. Unconsciously lightening his footsteps, he made his way to the nurses station at the end of the tiled hallway, where a middle-aged nurse wearing gold-rimmed glasses was busily writing in the cone of light from the desk lamp. She raised her head as he approached, smiling warmly, and indicated a room on the left, opposite the station, with a nod of her head. He narrowed his eyes in question at her.
"How do you know who ?" The softly-spoken question elicited an almost silent chuckle and a shake of her head.
"Your reputation has preceded you, Agent Larabee," she whispered, "he's over there," she indicated the room again, "just don't be too long," she raised her eyebrows at him, "and it's the good of your health I'm saying that for, not his. It's late, and from what I hear, you've had a busy day."
Chris approached the closed door to the room, but stopped before his hand could close around the handle. Being under observation, the blinds on the large windows of Ezra's room had been left open, and Chris could see through the glass. Ezra seemed, mercifully, to be out of it, asleep or unconscious, the usual plethora of vitals monitors, drips and oxygen, with their accompanying tubes and wires, all hooked up to the still body on the bed. What made him stop was the sight of Buck, bent forward, arms resting on the edge of the bed, dark head pillowed nose-down into the crook of his right elbow, obviously asleep, his left hand closed firmly over Ezra's right where it lay on top of the sheets.
"How is he?" He turned to the nurse.
She shrugged. "Too early to tell. He's badly dehydrated, his left wrist is broken, and he's had more lumps knocked outta him than is good for a body, but the x-rays were encouraging - no fractured skull or broken vertebrae. Too early to know about his eye, though his cheekbone isn't broken. The main concern is organ damage, from the beating and from the dehydration - and his system is in deep shock. We'll just have to wait and see."
Chris nodded slowly. The usual story. Wait and see. He'd spent more time waiting and seeing in more hospitals than he cared to think about, and this time would be no different.
"How long has Buck been here?"
She grinned. "He hasn't left yet. We've tried to get him to go home and get some proper sleep, but he's having none of it. Keeps saying that he's not going to leave Agent Standish alone again." Her eyes clouded a little. "I think he's hurtin' nearly as much as Agent Standish - only his is a little harder to spot."
Chris nodded in agreement, looking through into the quiet room. "Look after him," he said to the two still figures behind the glass.
The nurse smiled. "Which one are you talking to?"
Chris shrugged. "Doesn't matter," he said.
Buck woke from dreamless oblivion, something triggering deep in his subconscious, telling him that something had changed. It took a few seconds for his senses to come back, registering who and where he was, and he blinked, raising his head up from the crook of his arm, which was now completely numb.
The machines were still there - their digital screens flashing, but there was no noise - no alarm bell sounding. His gaze settled on Ezra - he looked smaller, as if part of him were missing. Their bright, sharp, larger-than-life undercover agent looked pale as parchment, his skin a mass of swollen flesh and bruises, his normally vibrant chestnut hair dull and lifeless. But at least he was alive. Buck looked again at the technology surrounding him, the machines that would not let Ezra's systems fail. The machines would look after his body, but Buck would be there to look after the rest.
He tried to register what it was that had woken him, but nothing seemed different. Ezra still seemed to be asleep - his position unchanged. "What is it, Slick?" Buck whispered, holding Ezra's fingers a little tighter in his own. "I'm right here - whatever it is, I'm here."
To his amazement, Buck felt the smallest change of pressure from Ezra's hand. Buck's heart began to thump uncomfortably. "I gotcha," he said, looking intently at the long fingers held in his hand. "I gotcha."
The still body showed no signs of movement, but Buck knew that somehow Ezra was trying to tell him something.
"C'mon Slick, you can do it! Come back to us. Just keep tryin'." Buck's eyes were riveted on Ezra's fingers, looking for the slightest movement, but his voice kept up the encouragement, as if he could drag Ezra back from wherever he'd retreated to by force of will.
Buck kept talking. He didn't know what else to do - what else to try.
"It's all okay Ezra - we did real good, you did real good. We got 'em - that bastard Tang and the others, we got them and the explosives, and Mai Lin is safe. Chris has got word to her family and she'll be going home soon - so that's great, isn't it?"
There was no response.
"I know I let you down Ezra, and I'm sorry. I'm sorry it took me so long to find you. I jus' wasn't smart enough to put all the pieces together in time. Jesus Ez, I'm sorry. I'm sorry you had to go through all that, through all this. I'm sorry "
Buck stared at Ezra's fingers again, willing them to move. They didn't. Buck felt desperate, his rising frustration clearly evident in his voice. "Goddammit Ezra! Try! I don't wanna do this without you! Don't you dare give up on me! Don't you dare! Come back and kick my sorry ass if you want, but don't you dare give up!"
His eyes flitted between Ezra's swollen face and the too-still fingers. "Keep tryin' Slick. Please, just keep tryin'. Come back to me, please."
This time the movement in the fingers was almost visible and Buck heart jumped as if he'd been shocked. "That's it! That's it! Do it again Ezra! Come on "
Buck tried to keep completely still in order to see any movement Ezra might make, but his hands were shaking too much. Unwilling to let go of Ezra's hand and break their physical connection, he took a deep breath and tightened his grip slightly. He felt the slightest pressure from Ezra in response.
"I love you too, Slick," was all he could say as he felt his throat constricting and his eyes blurring with tears of total relief.
"You look much better," Chris's face broke into a wide smile.
"Please leave the deception to me, Mr Larabee, it's not your forte," Ezra croaked in response. He was propped up against a mountain of pillows, still attached to a drip and vitals monitor. His face was swollen and discoloured, with one eye covered by a white gauze pad, and a neat row of stitches were visible above his eyebrow. His left arm was heavily strapped, with plaster encasing it from palm to elbow, and a huge purplish-black bruise was visible above the neckline of the hospital gown.
Chris grinned. In truth, Ezra looked awful, but just to see him conscious and aware was a relief. For three days Chris and the other members of Team Seven had sat vigil over their undercover agent, taking it in turns, day and night. Chris had been more worried than he was prepared to admit, and his joy at seeing Ezra awake and lucid was completely genuine.
Chris looked around the room. "Where's Buck?"
Ezra tried to grin, but the pain such an action generated in his facial muscles made him wince instead. "Shower," came the rasping response, "his aroma was becoming unpleasant."
Chris grinned again. Perhaps now Ezra was awake Buck might finally consent to going home, eating something more nutritious than the junk food the team had brought in for him, and getting some much needed proper sleep, rather than the snatched odd hours he'd grabbed at Ezra's bedside.
For three and half days, Buck had not left the hospital - he had scarcely left the room, sitting beside Ezra's bed watching and waiting. They had all tried to persuade him to get some rest, a meal and bath, but he had simply refused. Chris had almost lost his temper during the second night, seeing Buck's strained features and obviously exhausted stance, but the look on Buck's face had told him that nothing was going to shift Wilmington from this room until Ezra woke up. Chris could see that this particular battle would be lost, so had opted for silence. Much better to fight the fights you had at least a chance of winning.
Right on cue, the door to Ezra's room opened and Buck appeared, damp hair curling over his collar, face still slightly flushed from the hot shower. He looked exhausted, his whole body seemed weighed down and heavy, even to the dark blue eyes that regarded Chris from the depths of the drawn, bone-tired features.
"Hiya Stud," he said with a small smile, "as you can see, our sorry-assed buddy decided to wake up at last." He winked at Ezra.
"So I notice," Chris said slowly, "which might suggest it's time that you got some proper rest, eh?"
Buck shrugged. "I'm fine, feel much better now I've had a shower - rarin' to go." It was a brave attempt, but even Ezra could see that Buck was just about as far from 'fine' as a body could be.
"How did you manage to get a shower in this place?" Chris asked.
"How do you think?" Ezra's grating whisper intruded, "by beguiling the nurses into letting him use their restroom facilities."
Buck took a bow at Chris's awe-struck expression. "Well, y'either got it or you ain't," he said simply.
Chris and Ezra exchanged a knowing look.
"Go home," Ezra rasped at Buck, "I don't have the energy to cope with you and your libido at the moment." Momentarily shocked, Buck glanced quickly at Ezra, and was rewarded by seeing the one good eye open and close in a definite wink, and the cracked lips lift in a brief smile.
"It's good advice," Chris said softly. "I swear someone will stay with him. Go home, eat, sleep, and come back when you're capable of handling a fully conscious Standish."
Ezra gave the smallest of nods in agreement, and Buck finally relented.
He didn't even have the energy to get fully undressed when he finally made it back to his own home. Kicking off his jeans, he decided that shirt buttons were beyond his capabilities just at that moment, and almost fell onto the bed, using the last ounce of his willpower to pull the comforter over himself before he fell into deep, dreamless oblivion.