Earlier. . .
Ezra breathed a silent 'Thank God' when his captors did not pay any further attention to Vin as they made their way out of the store. The ATF agent had no intention of going anywhere with his unwelcome companions. They led him up to the door of a nondescript van.
Ezra knew that if he were to have any chance at escaping, he would need to make his move while they were still out in the open. He slowed his pace and allowed his shoulders to slump and his head to bow down as he assumed the persona of Stanley Beamish, meek and mild-mannered accountant. He silently congratulated himself on his acting ability when he noticed a minute relaxation in the stance of the men who guarded him. Ezra tensed his muscles, preparing to take advantage of their mistake.
The gun-wielding mustached man looked away from Ezra in order to open the back door of the van. In that moment of distraction, Ezra struck. He shoved the mustached man off balance and into the van and kicked backward at what he hoped was the groin of the man behind him, pleased when he heard a pained gasp in response to his blind kick.
Ezra threw his body to the side, trying to make his way around the side of the van in order to give himself some protection from the men as fled. He only managed to take two steps away before he was tackled to the ground by the mustached man. The breath was forcibly expelled from his body as he landed with a pained-filled 'hmph!' His captor did his best to restrain Ezra, shoving him face-first onto the blacktopped pavement. So close to freedom, Ezra was not ready to give up. The ATF agent frantically punched, kicked, and cursed as he tried the liberate himself from the confining bodyweight of his attacker. The trapped man was making progress until the second man joined the first.
Ezra was aware of the second man's arrival when a foot impacted with his ribcage. "Goddamn son of a bitch!" The irate man unleashed a rib-breaking series of kicks as he continued to curse. While Ezra was being subjected to this new assault, the mustached man decided to pound his prisoner head-first into the pavement. After the second time he felt his head impact the ground, Ezra grew faint from the pain and the force of the assault as both sight and sound faded. Only half conscious, he was barely aware of the motion as his captors lifted him bodily from the ground and threw him face-first onto the floor of the van.
Ezra grunted in pain as his arms were roughly pulled behind his back by the clean-shaven man. The man seemed to be trying to dislocate his prisoner's shoulders while his partner began to wind duct tape around his limbs to restrain him. Ezra's vision began to clear as he blinked his eyes in the dark interior of the van. He gagged at the filthy, rusting floor that he was forced to observe up close and personally while his captors continued to bind his body with duct tape. The final indignity was the large strip of tape that they placed across his mouth.
After he applied the last piece of duct tape, the clean-shaven man ordered, "Let's get out of here, before I decide to kill this piece of garbage and tell Jenkins to take his money and go to hell."
The second man obediently left the back storage area and made his way to the driver's seat. The dominant partner sat next to Ezra, an evil gleam in his eye as he waved a large knife in Ezra's general direction. He leaned over his captive and held the knife to Ezra's throat so that the edge of the blade touched his skin. The man slowly and steadily began to increase the pressure of the knife until Ezra felt it pierce his skin. He ground his teeth together he exerted an effort of will to remain stoic and motionless. Ezra did not want to give the man the satisfaction of seeing his reaction to the pain. He felt a warm trickle of blood begin to wind its way down the side of his neck.
The van began to move. The man leaned in closer, his breath wafting a fetid stench of onion in Ezra's face as he spoke. "Hope my brother doesn't hit any potholes. It'd be a shame if I accidentally slit your throat." The man's tone of voice negated any sincerity that might have been suggested by his words.
He left the knife in place for a minute longer before he tired of his little game. Ezra felt no relief when the knife was finally removed. He knew that he'd gained at best a temporary reprieve.
The man put away his knife and began a thorough search of Ezra's person. The first item he came across was Ezra's cellphone. The man smashed it before tossing it out of a window of the van. Ezra felt a trickle of sweat upon his brow as the man resumed his search. He removed Ezra's badge wallet along with his billfold. Fortunately the man was more interested in the contents of the billfold - at first. He pocketed the cash that it contained, and then began to more thoroughly examine the contents. He pulled out a small stack of business cards. Curious, he began to read: "Ezra Standish, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms." The man paled noticeably.
"Shit. No way. No fuckin' way." His dismay eased when he noted the second business card immediately below the first. "Edward Smith, Attorney at Law." He flipped to the next card. "Ernest Smith, Inspector." He chuckled. "I knew it. ATF, my ass." He kicked at Ezra's prone form. "You had me worried there a bit, Stanley, or Ezra, or whoever the hell you are." He ignored the rest of the cards, turning his attention to the rest of the billfold's contents. Ezra's heart sank.
It didn't take long for the man to realize what he was looking at. He kicked at Ezra hard enough to take his prisoner's breath away, and began to yell a stream of obscenities. The man pounded a fisted hand against the back of the driver's seat and yelled, "Johnnie, turn this thing around right now!"
The man so addressed glanced over his shoulder to find out what the problem was.
His companion yelled, "It was his own goddamn kid! Turn this thing around, or so help me God, I'll kill you!"
The driver complied with the order so rapidly that both Ezra and his captor were thrown against the side of the van. Once the van was headed in the right direction, the man shoved Ezra away from him and swore. He stated, "You better hope your kid ain't already gone to the cops, or you're a dead man."
Ezra futilely tried to work the tape from his mouth, to shout, "The boy is not my son!" It was no use.
He closed his eyes and resorted to the only means of rescue currently available. He began to pray for divine intervention. "God, you know I've had my doubts about you. If you want to prove to me that you really do exist, get me out of this!" He sighed, then continued, "If you can't see fit to spare me, at least let no harm come to the boy. He's already been through too much in his short life. Don't let him suffer further because of me."
Ezra opened his eyes in despair when he felt no tug at his soul to indicate that his prayers had been heard. He damned himself for having been foolish enough to have ignored his mother's teachings. He'd allowed himself to become emotionally attached to two small boys, so much so that a picture of himself with both of the boys was proudly included within the contents of his billfold. His mistake may have just doomed Vin.
He could only hope that the child would escape the consequences of his uncle's actions.
+ + + + + + +
As they neared the strip mall, the driver stated, "I don't see any cops. Do you, Joey?"
Ezra's companion stood up, bracing himself by holding onto the back of the seat as he looked out of the window. "No, I don't. Just to be safe, go by the south entrance and circle around to the back of the lot."
Johnnie slowly circled around the parking lot, then declared, "The coast is clear. Let's see if we can find the brat." They parked near the Curio Shop.
Joey stated, "You keep Mr. Beamish here company. I'll go see if I can find the kid." Joey was only halfway out of the door when he declared, "I gotta buy myself a lottery ticket. This is my lucky day. I'll be right back."
+ + + + + + +
Vin had just completed his third and final search of the store, and was on his way to once again check to see if Ezra had returned to the Jaguar.
He had made it past the first row of cars when a man approached and asked, "You lookin' for someone?"
Vin began to back away from the stranger, but hesitated when he recognized the man's face. The man stated, "Yeah, you should remember me. Your Daddy is over in my van. He sent me to get you."
Vin doubted that his father was anywhere nearby. He took a step back as he prepared to flee. The boy had no intention of going anywhere with this stranger. Before he could make another move, his arm was locked in the iron grip of the man's left hand. The man's right hand held a large and wicked-looking knife. He warned, "You make one sound, and I'll cut out your tongue."
Vin felt faint with terror as he cast his eyes frantically around, looking for help as the man pulled on his arm and he was unwillingly dragged along. There was no help to be found. All too quickly, they arrived at their destination. The man lifted him up and tossed him into the back of a van, directly on top of his Uncle Ezra.
Ezra let out a pained "Mmph!" around the duct tape of his gag when Vin landed on top of his battered body. The despair he felt at the boy's presence slowly gave way to a hot, burning rage.
Vin hurriedly removed himself from the cushion of his Uncle's body. It was obvious that the man was injured. Vin feared that he himself had caused additional injuries when he landed on top of his uncle. He crawled over Ezra, using his uncle's body as a barrier between himself and their captor. He sniffed and wiped at his eyes as tears began to run down his face. The small boy hugged his arms protectively around his body, remembering the sting of his uncle's earlier cruel words. With the added hurt the boy believed he'd just caused, Vin was afraid that Ezra might now actually hate him. He whimpered at the thought, trying to stifle any further sounds of distress when his kidnapper order him to "Shut the hell up!"
Ezra cursed to himself at both Joey's cruelty and Vin's misery. He was glad that the boy had moved to put his uncle between himself and their captor. He ignored the pain of his injuries and levered himself onto his side, trying to further use his body to shield Vin from their captor. He was aware of the pitiful inadequacy of the action, but it was the only protection he could offer the boy. It was all they had.
The van sped off, each bump in the road resonating painfully through his injured body and reminding Ezra of the abuse that he had already suffered. He feared that there was more to come.
Joey smirked at the weeping child. "Well, boy, say hello to your Daddy."
Vin tried to back further away from the man, his eyes widening in fear. There was nowhere else for him to go. He didn't know what to say or do. Did Uncle Ezra lie to the man and say that he was Vin's father for some reason? Or, was Vin supposed to tell that man that he was wrong? Terrified by the thought of what might happen if he should say the wrong thing, he chose to say nothing.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra tried to guess at the passage of time as the van drove on. He estimated that they had been traveling for approximately one hour when they left the main road. Ezra could tell that they'd done so by the sudden increase in the roughness of their ride. Whereas previously his discomfort had been exacerbated by an occasional bump in the road, it now changed to a steady beat of pain as they bumped along an unpaved road. Fortunately they did not travel very far along the road before the van came to a stop.
The familiar voice of Gerald Jenkins greeted them upon their arrival. His voice low and threatening, he asked, "Where is he?"
Johnnie's voice was a combination of anger with a little bit of fear thrown is as he replied, "Get your gun out of my face and I'll tell you." After a brief pause, he continued, "He's in the back."
Approaching footsteps could be heard as Jenkins walked around to the back of the van. The passengers were soon exposed to the harsh sunlight and the unwelcoming visage of Gerald Jenkins.
Jenkins' only emotion appeared to be anger until his gaze skipped over Ezra to focus upon the small boy crouched down at his side. Jenkins' gaze reflected his surprise as he took a step back and exclaimed, "What the hell!"
Joey shrugged. "Consider the kid a bonus."
Jenkins waved his gun threateningly toward Joey as he exclaimed, "I'll do no such thing! I want no part in any kidnapping!"
Joey shouted back, "What the fuck did you think we were gonna do when you had us grab this guy Beamish? Newsflash: it's called kidnapping, Ace!" Joey's eyes narrowed and his smile was rather lizard-like as he continued, "Just our luck he had his kid with him."
Jenkins objected. "Luck? How the hell do you consider grabbing somebody's child as being lucky?"
Joey explained, "You haven't thought it through. What better way to make a guy do what you want than to slap his kid around a little?" He looked directly at Ezra, his gaze cold and calculating as he added, "Or maybe a lot."
Ezra wished the man dead a thousand times over. He swore that he would do everything humanly possible to get Vin out of this. Then, if he survived, he would take great pleasure in killing Joey, slowly and painfully.
Jenkins declared, "I want no part of it. I never told you to kidnap a child!"
Joey angrily asked, "So what, you want I should just let him go?"
Ezra looked hopefully toward Jenkins as the man seemed to be considering doing so. He damned the man to hell when he replied, "No. Just. . . Get them inside."
Joey waved his knife in front of Ezra's face before he bent to cut through the duct tape binding his legs together. Joey commented, "Just try to kick me again, Beamish, and I'll take great pleasure in cutting off your balls and shoving 'em down your throat." He smiled and added, "Then I'll do the same to your boy."
Joey reached for Vin but the boy avoided his grasping hand and scrambled into a corner of the van, getting as far away from the man as possible.
Joey laughed, taking pleasure in the boy's terror. "Here, little chick, chick, chicken."
Terrified, Vin refused to move.
Johnnie stepped over to Joey's side. "Don't worry about the boy. I'll take him, if you've got his Dad."
Joey grabbed a handful of Ezra's hair and tugged him toward the van's door. "Yeah, I got him."
Johnnie addressed himself to Vin as Ezra was forced out of the van and toward the house. "Okay kid, we can do this the hard way or the easy way. You gonna come out of there, or you want me to come in there and get you?"
Vin could see that he had no choice. He reluctantly moved closer to the van's door and his captor. Johnnie grabbed him by the arm, the same one that Joey had bruised when he grabbed him in the parking lot. Vin winced, but did not utter a word of complaint.
The house was run down, the property ill-kept. There was very little furniture inside. A sturdy chair was one of the few pieces of furniture in the room that they were led into. Ezra was forced to sit in the chair while his duct tape bonds were replaced. His captors affixed his arms to the chair's arms, and his legs to each of the chair's front legs. Lastly, the duct tape was removed from his mouth. It was not replaced.
Vin was forced to sit on the floor approximately six feet away from where Ezra was bound, helpless. Joey positioned himself next to Vin and began to play with his knife. The boy had been staring at Ezra, but his eyes were drawn to the motion of the knife as the room's light reflected off of its blade.
Jenkins spoke to Ezra. "You know what I want."
Ezra replied, "I have some suspicion as to what it is, if you would care to elaborate."
Jenkins stepped up to Ezra and slapped him across his face, hard enough to make his jaw ache. "Thanks to you, I didn't have enough money to hire a decent lawyer when the Feds took me to court. You know where I've been the past year?" He did not give Ezra a chance to respond as he spat out the answer to his own question. "Prison!"
He shook a fisted hand in Ezra's face as he stated, "You decide! Do you want to give me back my money, or do you want to die?"
Although Joey and Johnnie were aware that Ezra was not the mild-mannered Stanley Beamish, Jenkins was not yet aware of his prisoner's potential for violence. Ezra saw no reason to reveal his true feelings. He let a quavering note of panic slip into his voice as he responded, "I don't want to die!"
Jenkins gave a quick nod of satisfaction. "Fine. Where's my money?"
Ezra stuttered, "I-I don't have it with me."
Jenkins stated, "But you have it, and I want it back."
Ezra continued, "You don't understand! The money is no longer in my possession."
Jenkins shook his head. "That really isn't what I want to hear." He turned away from Ezra to face Joey, stating, "Do what you need to do."
Ezra yelled, "NO!" as Joey moved to attack Vin, shoving the boy back against the wall with one arm while his other arm raised to bring his knife to within inches of Vin's face.
All the while Ezra was babbling, "You didn't let me finish, for God's sake leave the boy alone! I know where it is, I can get it for you, it's just going to take some time!"
Ignoring Ezra's words, Joey continued his assault on the terrified boy. He raised his knife to Vin's face, saying, "Right eye or left eye, boy? You choose."
Vin's mind froze in panic as reality faded around him when the tip of the knife's blade touched his cheek. He was not aware of the stain forming on his pants as he lost control of his bladder.
Joey laughed. "Heh-heh. The little chicken wet himself." He stepped away from Vin, releasing the boy who then slumped limply onto the floor.
Ezra's lips curled in anger as he strained against his bonds. He spat out a steady stream of curses, his words a pitifully inadequate means of fighting. "You bastard! You son of a bitch! Goddamn you to Hell! Goddamn you!"
Jenkins, too, seemed taken aback by Joey's cruelty. "Okay. That's enough. Leave the boy alone." However, he thoughtfully added, "For now."
Ezra's body trembled with the force of his anger. He spat out his words. "My associate is the only one who has access to your funds. If you allow me to contact her, I should be able to get what you need." Ezra privately added the thought, your just punishment.
Jenkins asked, "Madeline has my money? Is she here? Can you take me to her?"
Ezra did not intend to let this piece of human garbage get anywhere near his mother. He replied, "To my knowledge, Ms. Smithee is not currently in town." Maude, aka Madeline Smithee, had actually been in Denver for the past three months. Fortunately Jenkins had no way of knowing that. Ezra continued, "Regardless of where she may be, I have a phone number where she can be reached."
Jenkins removed his own cellphone from his pocket. He asked Ezra for the telephone number. Ezra quickly complied with the request. "It's 334-262-7342." Jenkins entered the number, then stated, "I'll be listening to every word you say. Don't screw up, or the boy will pay the price."
Ezra nodded, too angry to speak lest he further endanger his young charge. The phone was picked up on the first ring. A male voice answered.
Ezra asked, "Have I reached Madeline Smithee's answering service?"
The voice responded, "Yes."
Ezra continued, "I understand that she left town on the 21st. Is it true that she has not yet returned?"
The voice responded, "Yes."
"It is most imperative that I contact her as soon as possible. I need her to call me back at this number," Ezra glared at Jenkins, silently demanding that he supply the requested information, which he did. Ezra repeated, "303-757-6761."
+ + + + + + +
Josiah was at his desk when the phone rang. The line that lit up was a number reserved for undercover operations. Josiah suspected that it was a wrong number, as the team was not currently involved in anything that would require a cover story. Nevertheless, he answered with a cautious, "Hello."
He jotted down the conversation as he spoke with Ezra. There was obviously something going on. Although the conversation was automatically being recorded, Josiah made notes so that he would have the information close at hand.
He concluded the conversation by saying, "I'll have Ms. Smithee contact you as soon as possible."
As soon as Ezra hung up, Josiah entered the number for Chris' cellphone.
Chris picked up with his usual curt, "Larabee."
Josiah reported, "I just talked to Ezra. He was calling on the private line."
Chris replied with a startled, "What? He's supposed to be out shopping with Vin. What the hell is going on?"
Josiah repeated the coded conversation. Chris stated, "I'm going to try Ezra on his cell. I'll call you right back."
Less than a minute passed before Chris called back to report. "He didn't pick up. Buck and I are on our way in. Find out where Ezra was on the 21st. We'll figure out where we go from there."
Chris and Buck rushed into the office, planning strategy as they pushed their worries about Ezra and their son temporarily aside. Josiah had already called them with the news that the 21st of last month was the day that Ezra had gone out to dinner with his mother. Josiah didn't need Chris' demand to "Find her!" to know what to do next. It was not difficult for them to deduce that Ezra was trying to tell them that Madeline Smithee and Maude Standish were one and the same person.
While Josiah worked on tracking the elusive Maude, Nathan put out a trace on the call-back number. It took longer than any of them may have wished. The department was able to track the cellphone signal to the tower that it originated from. Once they had that information, they were able to locate property that Jenkins owned near that location, just northeast of the city.
Buck, Chris, and Nathan piled into Chris' SUV, using both lights and sirens to speed through traffic as they headed toward the location of the cellphone signal.
Josiah reluctantly offered to stay behind to continue the search for Maude.
+ + + + + + +
Joey decided to amuse himself while they waited for Madeline's call. He squatted down near Vin, who cringed away in terror. He began to stab the knife into the floor point-first, alternating right, left, right, left on either side of the boy, moving in closer to the small body with each thrust.
All the while, Ezra cursed. "Leave the boy alone, you psychotic son of a bitch! I guess it takes a big, tough man like you to threaten a small child. Does it make you feel like more of a man, you dickless wonder?
"You're a useless waste of space! I would've gotten away from you if your brother hadn't been there today to save your ass! I was surprised when I kicked you in the balls, because I didn't think you had any!"
Joey's eyes narrowed in anger as Ezra continued to spew obscenities. Ezra's words finally produced the desired effect as Joey left Vin behind to approach Ezra. Joey stated, "I'm going to enjoy cutting you up, piece by piece. Maybe I'll let you watch while I take a piece of the boy first. What do you say?"
"I say that you are a sick, perverted, misbegotten son of a whore!"
Joey stated, "We'll start with his leg, like this," and proceeded to stab the blade point-first into Ezra's thigh.
The injured man strained against his bonds as his body spasmed in painful response to the assault. He bit his lip as he tried not to give the man the satisfaction of hearing him cry out.
Not satisfied with Ezra's reaction, Joey dug the blade in further. Ezra helplessly cried out his agony as the knife tore through his flesh.
Vin's scream echoed his own. "NO!" The boy sobbed as he curled himself into a tight ball, wrapping his arms around his head to block out the horror of what he'd seen, knowing from Joey's words that he would soon feel the same pain himself. He began to whisper a nonstop mantra, 'Makeitstopmakeitstopmakeitstop,' trying to block out his awareness of the horrific scene.
The boy was partially successful. He was not aware when Joey finally ceased his torture upon Jenkins' order to do so.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah called the members of his team while they were still on the road. He reported, "I just got off the phone with Maude. She says that she used the name of Madeline Smithee when she and Ezra made the acquaintance of a fellow by the name of Gerald Jenkins. She says that he recently got out of prison, and has a grudge against Ezra. She wasted no time in calling the number that I gave her. Maude believes that Ezra's life is in danger." Josiah did not need to add that if Vin was with him, they were both in trouble.
He continued, "She also mentioned that there is a considerable sum of money involved. Jenkins believes that it was stolen from him, but Maude says that Jenkins went to jail for stealing money himself."
Buck tried to listen in on the conversation as Chris spoke to Josiah, but he could only hear Chris' noncommittal responses. As soon as Chris disconnected the call, Buck asked, "What'd he say?"
"Josiah got in touch with Maude, who called the number Ezra left."
Buck anxiously inquired, "And?"
Chris frowned. "And Ezra, Maude, and something about some missing money does not make for a good combination." Chris proceeded to fill in Buck and Nathan regarding the information provided by Josiah.
When he finished, Chris stated, "The sooner we find him, the better." He did not need to add that the pronoun 'him' included both Ezra and Vin.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra was not aware of the moment when Joey removed his knife from his lacerated thigh. By that time, the injured man had lapsed into unconsciousness. His loss of awareness was relatively brief. He awoke to find himself still bound to a chair. Unfortunately, he had perfect recall of the events leading to his current position. Leaving his eyes closed for a moment, he offered a fervent prayer that the events of the day would be revealed to be nothing more than the product a hellish nightmare when he opened his eyes. The injured man raised his head and slowly opened his eyes.
He was nauseous at the sight that greeted him. His captors had temporarily removed themselves from the immediate vicinity, giving him a clear view of Vin. Jenkins was the only one still in the room. The man was studiously ignoring his prisoners.
Ezra wanted to call out to Vin, to comfort him, but he did not think that it would be to Vin's benefit to remind Jenkins that the boy's pain could be used to further torture Ezra. The injured agent watched helplessly as Vin protected himself the only way that he could. The young boy had positioned himself face-downward in a corner of the room and had curled himself into a tight ball with his arms wrapped protectively around his head, offering the least surface area to his tormentors.
Ezra damned them all to hell, himself included. He vowed that they would pay for what they had done to the boy.
+ + + + + + +
Chris cut both lights and siren when they neared their destination. There was no point in announcing their presence before they knew what the situation was. The phone signal originated from a house located at the end of a dirt road. Chris pulled the SUV off the highway and into the shelter of a stand of trees. He, Buck and Nathan armed themselves and set off toward the house. They carefully made their way through the dense foliage beside the dirt track rather than the road itself, to hide their approach from any unseen observers.
A quick examination of a van parked beside the house revealed traces of blood in the back storage area. Chris cursed at the sight. "If that blood doesn't belong to Jenkins, he's a dead man." He did not need to say more. Each of his friends would kill anyone who harmed Vin or Ezra, if the circumstances warranted.
A quick reconnaissance revealed that both front and back doors of the house were locked. Fortunately, Buck found a window that yielded to a little persuasion. It opened onto an empty room. "Perfect!"
A plan was quickly decided upon. Buck and Chris would enter through the window, while Nathan kept watch outside. Nathan had originally suggested that Chris be the outside man because of his casted right arm, but the worried father disagreed.
"I can shoot just as good left-handed as right." His eyes narrowed in a glare that left no doubt regarding the deadliness of his claim as he added, "I've been practicing."
Once they'd entered the home, Buck and Chris did not utter a word. The two men had known each other long enough that they were able to communicate using body language and hand signals. They could hear voices coming from one of the rooms as they made their way down the hall. The voices grew louder as they neared the last room on the left.
"That's enough! My only chance of seeing a dime of my money returned is to hope that Madeline still cares enough about her boy-toy to pay for his safe return. Go wait in the other room, both of you."
Buck and Chris had just enough warning to duck out of sight. Joey and Johnnie passed by their hiding place. Buck and Chris followed, guns drawn. Chris hissed at Johnnie, "Give me a reason to kill you."
Buck simultaneously confronted Joey, whispering, "Just keep walking, nice and quiet-like."
They led the two men into the room they'd entered by, calling to their friend, "Nathan!" The third member of their rescue party entered via the same window they'd used earlier. He joined his friends as they interrogated their prisoners.
"Is there a man and a young boy in that room?"
"Who else is in there?"
"Is there anyone else here? How many, and where are they?"
Joey refused to say a word. Johnnie followed his brother's example.
Disgusted, Chris stated, "We don't have time for this!"
Buck came up with a solution. He grabbed Joey and stated, "You, come with me." He pointed toward Johnnie. "Nathan, keep an eye on this asshole." Nathan nodded affirmatively.
Buck marched Joey back to the end room, with Chris following closely behind. Buck whispered instructions to his prisoner. "Tell them you've got something to say. Tell them it's important."
Buck knocked once on the door, giving Joey a shove toward it to prompt him to say his lines.
Joey obediently yelled, "I got something I need to tell you." He paused, and Chris encouraged him to continue by waving a gun in his face. Joey added, "It's important."
Jenkins opened the door partway, grumbling, "What the hell is your problem?" His eyes widened when he saw that Joey was not alone.
Buck had a moment to assess the panic and desperation in the man's face before Jenkins tried to close the door. Fearful of what that desperation might drive the man to, Buck proceeded to
push his way into the room by using Joey's body as a battering ram.
Jenkins did not hesitate. He shot through the wood of the door. Fortunately Joey's body protected both Buck and Chris from the hail of bullets. Buck tried to shove Joey into Jenkins as they entered the room, but Joey was dead weight - literally.
Jenkins avoided Joey's falling body, instead focusing all of his attention on Ezra. His gun was up and aimed directly at the injured agent's chest. Jenkins never got off another shot as both Buck and Chris riddled the man's body with bullets.
Nathan was momentarily distracted when the shooting started. In the seconds that he took his attention away from Johnnie, the prisoner moved. Johnnie attacked, trying to wrest the gun out of Nathan's hand. They struggled for a long minute. The gun discharged, and Johnnie ceased struggling. His eyes widened before they closed completely. He dropped to the floor, dead.
Nathan checked for a pulse. Once he'd satisfied himself that the man was no longer a threat, he ran to the aid of his teammates.
He hurried to the room at the end of the hall, relieved when saw that Vin and Ezra were both alive. The boy was clinging tearfully to Chris, while Buck was cutting away the duct tape in order to free Ezra.
Vin appeared to be uninjured. Ezra, however, was a mess. Nathan did a quick head to toe assessment as he dialed 911 for assistance. Numerous bruises were visible. The man's right eye was swollen nearly closed. The most serious injury appeared to be a wound to his right thigh. Nathan removed his own shirt and folded it to use as a makeshift bandage. He held it against the heavily bleeding wound, stating, "You're going to be all right."
Ezra did not believe the words. Things would never be 'all right' again.
The injured man attempted to push Nathan's helping hands away from himself, pleading for him to help Vin.
Nathan shook his head. "Chris is takin' good care of Vin. You let him worry about his boy, while I'll see if I can do somethin' about this hole in your leg."
Ezra grimaced as Nathan applied pressure to his lacerated thigh.
Needing to verify for himself that Vin was all right, Ezra repositioned himself so that he could see around the medic's imposing form. From what little he could see of Vin, the child was physically unharmed. Between the tight grip that Vin had upon Chris and the latter's encircling arms, there was actually very little of the boy visible to Ezra's probing gaze. Chris' words of reassurance were murmured too softly to be overheard, but his body language revealed the love and comfort that he unreservedly offered.
Ezra feared that his actions had permanently excluded himself from their company. His love for Vin was not enough to atone for all that the boy had suffered this day while his uncle had been forced into the role of helpless observer. He watched with a heavy heart until consciousness fled, his last thought one of envy for the love that he could see but could no longer be a part of.
The injury to Ezra's thigh was repaired under a local anesthetic. Due to the severity of the beating he had suffered during his van ride, the doctors elected to keep him confined overnight in the hospital, lest he develop some life-threatening complication. It was a measure of his depression that he did not voice a word of protest at the decision.
He was groggy but lucid when he received his first post-op visitors. It was Buck, and more importantly, Chris and Vin. The young boy clung tightly to his father's hand, his eyes wide and troubled.
Buck cheerfully stated, "How're you doing? You look like hell."
Ezra responded, "That is fortunate, since it is an accurate a description of my current disposition."
Buck's smile grew uncertain. Unsure of how to respond, he simply replied, "Well, alright then."
Ezra's eyelids began to droop, and Chris got to the point of their visit. "Before we could head for home, Vin needed to see for himself that you were okay."
Ezra's eyes widened at that statement.. He did not think that Vin would ever want to see him again. He tried not to be too hopeful regarding the reason for the boy's visit. Could it be that Vin was actually prepared to forgive him? Even if he did, Ezra could never forgive himself. If it were not for Ezra, Vin would not have been kidnapped and threatened with torture and even death. It would be best for all concerned if Ezra were to sever all connections with the boy. His heart ached at the thought. He was not strong enough to do so now. Perhaps, when he recovered a reasonable measure of his health, he would be able to do what must be done. In the meantime, he needed to face Vin.
Despite the gloominess of his thoughts, Ezra did his best to project a confident appearance. He feared that his best was not very good.
Vin hesitantly approached his bedside. The boy appeared to be fearful and uncertain.
Ezra attempted to reassure him. "I know that I'm not at my best. For that, I apologize. And I must also apologize for my conduct which indirectly led to your kidnapping. I apologize for the awful words I spoke to you back at the Curio Shop. I am sorry that I was unable to protect you. I am sorry that I proved to be utterly useless. There are not enough 'sorrys' in the world to tell you how sorry I am. All I can do is to beg for your forgiveness."
Vin stared at Ezra as his speech concluded. Wide-eyed, he asked, "You want me to forgive you?"
Ezra nodded, too choked up to say another word.
Vin turned his next statement into a question. "I. . . I thought you was mad at me?"
Ezra found his voice. "Mad?" He reached out his hand to the boy. Vin accepted the offer, and Ezra used his grip to pull the boy gently closer as he continued to speak. "I am not now, nor have I ever been, mad at you. If you were mad at me, I would understand." Ezra's heartache eased a little when Vin shook his head.
Ezra's next words were reduced to a tired whisper, but he had to say them. "I love you." His eyes closed as pain and exhaustion overwhelmed him. The last words he heard were Vin's, "I love you, too."
+ + + + + + +
That evening, Josiah visited his hospital room. "Hey, Ezra."
The agent did not bother to return the greeting. He had no strength to spare to make the effort to engage in the exchange of social niceties.
Josiah went on, "I don't know if this will make any difference, but. . ." The older man hesitated, searching for words before he finally continued, "I know you. You're too good an agent not to know when someone's following you. So, I took the liberty of searching the Jag. I found this hidden in the undercarriage." Josiah displayed a small electronic device. "It's a. . ."
"Tracking device," Ezra concluded.
The realization brought no ease to his troubled conscience. He damned himself for not even questioning the ease with which he had been found by Jenkins' hired goons. To Ezra, the revelation was further proof of his personal inadequacy. The injured man politely thanked Josiah for the information before concluding, "If you don't mind, I'm a trifle fatigued." Ezra closed his eyes, letting Josiah know that their conversation was at an end.
He listened as the door closed softly behind his friend, then opened his eyes to resume staring at the wall.
+ + + + + + +
Maude paid him a visit the next morning. Ezra detected his mother's presence before he even opened his eyes. He recognized the scent of her Chanel No. 5 as her hand gently caressed his face. He opened his eyes, staring up into her worried countenance.
"Ezra, I'd ask how you're feeling, but I think I know the answer to that question. I am so, so sorry."
Ezra knew that the appropriate response would be to answer her concern with a lie. Ever the dutiful son, he replied, "It's all right. It's not as bad as it looks. The doctors assure me that I'm going to make a complete recovery."
"Well." Maude paused, a trace of lingering doubt evident in the look she gave Ezra.
After a moment of quiet consideration, his mother finally spoke. "Besides wanting to see for myself that those thugs hadn't done you any permanent injury, there is another reason that I wanted to visit you today. I've resigned myself to the fact that you're determined to continue your career in law enforcement. So, I thought that we could work on your cover story together."
Ezra gave a painful shrug in response. "I'm touched at your concern." In actuality, he was. This was the first time he could ever remember his mother giving even tacit approval to his decision to operate within the legal guidelines set out by society.
He informed her, "I've already thought about it, and my story is quite simple. I was the unfortunate victim in a case of mistaken identity. When my kidnappers demanded that I contact my female co-conspirator, the first female that came to mind was my mother. Thus, your involvement, however remotely, in this fiasco. Neither you nor I had heard the names Stanley Beamish or Madeline Smithee prior to Mr. Jenkins' release from prison."
Maude nodded her approval. "Good, very good." Maude offered a few more details to shore up
Ezra's story, before taking her leave.
+ + + + + + +
The tale that Maude and her son discussed was almost verbatim the same one which ended up in Ezra's official file. However, it was not the same story given to Ezra's teammates.
Buck was Ezra's next visitor that day. After an exchange of pleasantries, he got down to business. "Ezra, me and Chris and the guys have done some investigating, and here's what we found out." Buck proceeded to reveal many of the details regarding Ezra's past as Stanley Beamish.
Ezra helped Buck to fill in the missing pieces, then asked, "I suppose Mr. Larabee will be expecting my resignation?"
Buck hesitated, running a hand nervously through his hair. "Well, that's what he said at first, but after he calmed down some I asked him to think on it a bit before he decides anything."
Ezra sighed. "It was only to be expected."
Buck tried to reassure his friend. "Now, Ezra, don't go offering Chris your head on a platter just yet." Buck placed a supportive hand on his teammate's arm as he continued, "As far as I'm concerned, a man's past is his past. You've done nothing but good since you became a part of our team. You've saved more than one of our ornery hides, and helped us to put a shitload of criminals behind bars. I'm proud to have you as my backup, and I'm proud to have you as a friend."
Ezra was truly touched by Buck's words. It's unfortunate that he didn't consider he'd done anything to earn such effusive praise. He quietly thanked Buck for his words, all the while believing that his time as an ATF agent had come to an end.
Buck continued, "Chris already agreed that we can bend the truth a little when it comes to writing up the official report to the brass. I thought maybe between the two of us you can help me figure out something we can all agree on."
Ezra's first thought was that he should admit the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Buck persisted, stating that there was no need for him to stick his head in a noose. The ladies' man turned his considerable powers of persuasion upon his injured teammate.
Ezra soon found himself agreeing with the need to dissemble, stating, "As a matter of fact, my mother was here earlier and had a few suggestions." Thus it was that Maude's version of the facts became the official one.
Although he verbally agreed to Buck's plan, privately the injured man did not share in his friend's optimism. If he were Chris and Chris were him, Ezra would demand his resignation. Ezra should not remain a part of the team, if for no other reason than for the hurt done to Vin. For that offense, he did not deserve to be forgiven.
+ + + + + + +
Three days after the kidnapping and one day after he'd returned home from the hospital, Ezra received a visitor. It was Chris.
Ezra was on crutches, so it took him longer than usual to answer the door. The fact that Chris had rung the buzzer and announced his presence via the intercom system may have also slowed Ezra's progress.
The injured man finally opened the door to reveal the stern visage of his former friend and teammate. When Ezra did not immediately move out of the doorway, Chris snapped, "You gonna invite me in?"
Attempting to recover his lost aplomb, Ezra hopped back from the doorway. He used a crutch tip to gesture toward the interior of his apartment. "Mr. Larabee, so kind of you to stop by and visit me in my invalid state. Won't you come in?"
Chris nodded and carefully moved past Ezra, avoiding any contact which might unbalance the man.
Ezra used his crutch tip to close the door, and followed Chris into the living room. Ezra nodded toward a comfortable side chair. "Please be seated. Can I get you something to drink?"
Chris shook his head, 'No,' in answer to both questions. He stated, "I'm not here to socialize. I've got something to say to you, and you're going to hear me out."
Ezra did not want to hear what Chris had to say. He attempted to forestall the words he feared would come next, 'You're fired,' by stating, "Mr. Larabee, please accept my sincere and heartfelt apology. I've never claimed to be a saint, but I know that what I did was so far over the line that you must demand my resignation."
Chris ordered, "Sit down and shut up!" He paused while Ezra complied with his demands. "Now, quit putting words in my mouth!
"You talk about going over the line, like there's always a clear-cut difference between right and wrong, between good and evil." He fixed Ezra with a stern stare, making sure that he had the man's complete and undivided attention. "We both know that's not always the case. Sometimes the line gets blurry or hard to see. Sometimes it disappears altogether. I haven't always followed the exact letter of the law, so I'm not going to fire your ass for something you did before you ever became a part of my team."
Chris stood over Ezra, the dominance of his position in and of itself a threat as he continued. "You messed up, and it came back to bite you in the ass." He held up a hand with his index finger pointing at Ezra's face as he declared, "Don't let it happen again."
It took a moment for Chris' words to sink in. Ezra slumped into his chair, not realizing until that moment how tense he'd been. "Mr. Larabee. . . Chris, I don't know what to say."
Chris relaxed from his formerly hostile stance. He gave a mild snort of amusement as he stated, "You've made my day right there. Ezra Standish, at a loss for words."
Ezra gave a half smile in return. "Perhaps not at a loss, so much as temporarily stymied; contemplative; meditative." Ezra abandoned his mild teasing, once again serious as he continued, "And more grateful than I can ever say that you have given me a second chance.
"Thank you, and I am truly sorry for the unforeseen consequences of my actions."
Equally serious, Chris responded, "Apology accepted."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra's recovery from his injuries did not occur as swiftly as he would have liked. His leg wound was deep and slow to heal. He was on crutches for three weeks, and in physical therapy for three weeks after that.
During his recovery, Ezra kept making excuses to avoid seeing Vin. He did not want either Vin or JD to suffer for the mere fact that Ezra had befriended them. He missed the boys terribly, but he was determined to keep his distance.
One day, Ezra returned from physical therapy to find Chris waiting at his door. They engaged in a polite exchange of 'hellos.'
Ezra waved Chris ahead of him as he entered his apartment. Ezra was concerned by Chris' behavior. He paced the apartment in short, abrupt strides. The ATF team leader appeared to be troubled.
Ezra inquired, "Would you like to sit down?"
Distracted, Chris asked, "What?" A quick mental review brought Ezra's words to the forefront of his mind and he continued, "Yeah, okay, of course."
Once both men were seated, Chris got to the point. "I need you to see Dr. Will." He clarified, "Vin's psychologist." He ran a hand through his hair as he continued, "Vin's had some rough days and nightmares since he was kidnapped. Dr. Will says that some of the things Vin's concerned about involve you."
Ezra imagined that there was some degree of accusation in the look that Chris gave him as he spoke. Ezra felt the weight of Vin's traumatic experience heavy upon his conscience as Chris continued, "Before Dr. Will meets with you and Vin together, he wants to meet with you separately."
Ezra quickly agreed. "Certainly. When would you like me to be there?"
In response, Chris called Dr. Will's office on his cellphone, and handed the phone over to Ezra to confirm the date and time of the appointment.
The appointed date and hour arrived all too quickly.
Ezra had done quite well in convincing the ATF psychologist that he was mentally sound after his kidnapping. Nevertheless, it had been a stressful experience. Ezra knew how the game was played, but that didn't mean that he liked playing it. In order to earn his return to work letter, it had been necessary for Ezra to give the department psychologist a glimpse of his true feelings. With that 'revelation,' Ezra was able to convince the man that he had helped him to work through his negative feelings, and more importantly, that no further counseling was required after their initial few sessions.
Ezra introduced himself. Despite Dr. Will's open and friendly manner, the ATF agent remained on alert.
Ezra asked, "So, how can I help Vin?"
Dr. Will stated, "I'd like you to tell me what happened the day that you and Vin were abducted."
Despite the fact that he had been expecting something of the sort, Ezra tensed at the request. He took a deep, calming breath and began to speak. Ezra tried to remain dispassionate and clinical as he related the events of that day. The more he spoke, the more real they became. Ezra found it harder and harder to suppress his turbulent emotions.
In the middle of the narrative, Dr. Will interjected a quiet question: "How did that make you feel?" The inquiry was unanticipated, and further loosened Ezra's failing control. When it appeared as if Ezra was going to ignore the question in hopes that it would go away, the Doctor repeated it: "How did that make you feel?"
Ezra's hands curled into fists and his jaw clenched in annoyance at the man's persistence. He asked a question of his own to buy himself a little more time before he had to answer. "What?"
The doctor clarified, "When Joey held Vin up against the wall and threatened to cut him, how did that make you feel?"
Ezra would never forget the sight. Vin was only a few feet away from him, a hair's-breadth away from permanent disfigurement, terrified out of his mind, and all his uncle could do was sit and watch as the boy was tortured.
Ezra felt the tight rein he'd held on his emotions loosen when Doctor Will repeated the question. It was one thing to bullshit his way around the question when he'd had to face the department's psychologist on his own behalf. It was altogether different when the question involved Vin.
His voice rose in pitch and volume as the distraught man responded, "How did I feel?"
Ezra's thoughts tripped over themselves as unwanted emotions began to escape his fraying control. He repeated the question again, this time shouting it, "How did I feel?"
He felt angry, enraged to the point where he needed some form of physical release lest he physically attack the doctor. Ezra launched himself out of his chair and reached the doctor's desk in two quick strides. His fury barely restrained, Ezra pounded his fisted hands upon the desk, looming over the doctor as he continued to shout. "How in the hell do you think I felt? Impotent, powerless, angry!" He pounded a fisted hand against his chest, over his broken heart, his voice quieting as he continued, "And guilty of failing to protect a boy who is as dear to me as a son!"
Ezra turned abruptly away from the assessing eyes of the doctor, trembling with the force of his emotions. He shook his head, anger and self-hatred seething within his troubled soul. A long minute later, he shook his head, mentally scolding himself for his display of temporary insanity.
Ezra remained facing away from the doctor, needing to avoid the added distraction provided by Doctor Will while he struggled to regain his self-control. He used relaxation techniques and was able to relieve some of the tension in his body by alternately tightening and releasing his muscles while he took deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth. It took longer than he would have liked, but Ezra finally succeeded in restoring a semblance of his usual calm.
Ezra returned to his seat and faced the doctor. "I apologize for my display of temper."
Dr. Will responded, "No apology's needed. I asked a question, and you answered it."
Ezra shook his head. "This is not about me. I'm here to help Vin."
The doctor leaned forward as he spoke. "I have to disagree with your first statement. What happened to you affected Vin, and visa versa."
"I'm not sure I understand."
"How do you think Vin felt when he saw you get stabbed?" When Ezra did not immediately answer, Doctor Will continued, "What were the words you used? Impotent? Powerless? Angry? Guilty?"
Dr. Will continued, "When was the last time you saw Vin?"
Ezra stated, "He came to see me when I was in the hospital."
The doctor clarified, "And that was, what, a month ago?"
Ezra nodded. "If precision is required, it was exactly forty-one days ago."
"Why haven't you seen him since then?"
Ezra's level of guilt rose with the question. "I've been busy with my recovery and rehabilitation."
Instead of asking another question, Dr. Will stated, "If you look at it from Vin's point of view, his favorite uncle is avoiding him."
Ezra acknowledged the truth of that statement. "It's for the best."
The doctor revealed, "Vin doesn't think so. He thinks that you're angry with him. He's fearful that you might even hate him."
Ezra vehemently denied the accusation. "I don't! I love that boy! I'm only trying to protect him."
"Vin doesn't see it that way."
Ezra closed his eyes in pain with that revelation. He damned himself for being a self-centered, inconsiderate fool. In trying to protect the boy, he'd once again been the source of Vin's pain, however unintentionally.
The doctor's words intruded upon his self-flagellation. "Have you spoken to anyone besides me about what happened to you?"
Ezra looked up at the doctor and answered, "The departmental psychologist."
"Are you still seeing him?"
Doctor Will continued, "I really think it would help if you talked to someone," he held up a hand to halt Ezra's protest, "I mean really talked to them about what happened. If you'd prefer not to see the departmental psychologist, I can recommend someone."
Ezra responded, "I'll take that under advisement." They both correctly translated the meaning behind that statement: No.
Dr. Will met with Ezra two additional times after their initial session before he felt that it was time for Ezra and Vin to meet together in his office.
Ezra's eyes feasted upon the sight of his adopted nephew. His heart told him that it had been far too long since he'd seen the boy.
Dr. Will began, "Vin, I understand that there are some questions you wanted to ask your Uncle Ezra."
Vin glanced at Ezra briefly then looked away as he answered, "Yeah."
It took a few minutes, but Vin finally continued. He looked at Ezra, his eyes wide with a combination of hope and fear. "Do you hate me?"
Ezra leapt from his chair and knelt before Vin's, ignoring the pain from his injured leg. He placed his hands on the boy's knees as he answered, "Oh, Vin, no, I could never hate you, never!"
Vin did not look at him. His voice held the hint of a sob when he asked, "Then why did you say that to me, about me bein' a orphan an' wantin' me to go away?"
Ezra cringed at the accuracy of the boy's mental recall. He explained, "I was trying to protect you from those men. If they thought that I cared about you, then I knew that they would kidnap you, too."
Vin finally raised his head to look at Ezra. He needed reassurance, and asked again, "You don't hate me?"
Ezra shook his head. "No, I don't hate you. In fact, I was afraid that you might hate me. You see, even though I tried to protect you, those men found a picture of you and me and JD in my wallet. Just from seeing us together in that picture, those men knew how much I loved you."
Pleased to have finally figured something else out, Vin exclaimed, "That's why he said you was my Daddy!"
Ezra nodded. "Yes, because I love you just about as much as your father does."
Vin placed his hands over Ezra's where they continued to rest on his knees. His voice grave and serious, he declared, "I love you, too."
Ezra had to work hard to refrain from shedding the tears that gathered with that pronouncement. He had thought that he could protect Vin by keeping his distance. To his great relief, he'd just been demonstrably shown to have been in error. Ezra had never been so grateful to have been proven wrong.
Ezra was about to make the effort to rise from his kneeling position when he felt Vin's warm hands upon his face, prompting him to look back up at the boy.
His eyes wide and intense with the sincerity of his words, Vin declared, "It's not your fault."
Ezra lost his remaining control at the comforting words. He could not stop the flow of tears that began to run down his face as he recalled the familiar words and gestures. He'd used them himself to comfort a distraught boy who'd been burdened with undeserved guilt. Like Androcles and the lion, the favor was now being returned.
Rather than be disturbed by the show of emotion, Vin continued to offer comfort. "It's all right. Dr. Will says it's safe in here to let someone know when you're feeling sad."
Ezra stood to gather his nephew in his arms. His next words were for him and Vin alone. "I was sad, but now I'm glad. I'm happy to be here to tell you that I love you, and to let you know that I know that you love me." He continued in a more normal tone of voice, "I think that we understand each other."
Vin nodded his agreement.
Ezra smiled with relief, drying the few tears that had escaped his control. As he examined his feelings, he realized that the overriding emotion continued to be guilt.
He'd undertaken his joint venture with Maude with the best of intentions. Their goal had been to relieve a thief of his ill-gotten gains. In the process, Ezra reasoned that he would not only benefit financially, but personally as well. His actions had gone a long way toward repairing his troubled relationship with his mother. In retrospect, the costs far outweighed the gains.
Perhaps that's why the story of Androcles and the Lion occurred to him. Aesop, who authored the tale, had a way of including morals at the end of every fable. Ezra could clearly see the moral to his own particular story. Mother had been wrong - about so many things. Ezra reflected that 'Trust No One' should be the first of his mother's lessons to be discarded. If a child with no hidden agenda such as Vin put his trust in him, it was only fair that Ezra return that trust.