Thank you to Gina, Nancy, Kim, Marnie, Winter and everyone else who was a sounding board for this story. Your comments, suggestions, ideas and patience helped make this story what it is. Enjoy!
Chris shuddered as the barrel of the gun pressed harder against his temple. It was getting harder to breathe as his desperate captor squeezed the chokehold tighter.
"Back away!" the man yelled again.
Then Tanner did something totally stupid. He stepped out into the open, empty hands raised in a non-threatening manner.
Buck cursed angrily. How could everything go so wrong, so quickly? "Vin, get back!" he ordered, but Vin took another step toward Chris and his captor.
"E.J.," he said, addressing the desperate man, "You don't want to do this. We're the good guys."
Chris coughed harshly, drawing both men's attention.
"E.J., he can't breathe," said Vin. "You gotta give him some air."
"Clear the building!" E.J. ordered.
"Okay, Okay," Vin soothed. "Buck, get everyone out."
"Not a chance!" Buck protested.
"Do it!" Chris ordered in a harsh whisper.
Buck cursed again but followed orders and began the process of getting all the agents and their prisoners out of the warehouse.
"E.J." Vin repeated, "You gotta ease that hold. Let him breathe."
"Put your hand on your head," ordered E.J., pressing the gun against Chris's temple for emphasis. "Slowly!"
Chris complied, slowly moving his right hand to the back of his head.
With a move as smooth as the one that put Chris in the chokehold, E.J. released him and grabbed the back of his bulletproof vest and shifting the gun from his temple to the back of his head. He stayed a full arm's length behind Chris, using him as a shield from the remaining agents. "Now the left," he ordered.
Chris did as commanded, feeling more uncertain with each minute that passed. He still wasn't sure how E. J. got the drop on him. The bust had gone down without shots being fired and the agents were in the process of detaining the sellers and the buyers. Chris made sure that he was the one to arrest one Ethan James Tucker. But when he'd tried to cuff him, E.J. twisted out of his grasp throwing an elbow into his eye. Instead of running, he had turned the tables and caught Chris in a chokehold while he was off balance.
"Take it easy," Vin soothed.
"Get. Them. Out," Ethan articulated one word at a time.
"Easy," said Vin. "Everyone's gone but the team, and they won't go as long as you've got Chris. We're his team. We won't leave him."
E.J. closed his eyes for a second, wishing he could get rid of the headache that had plagued him for the past few weeks. This was not going as planned, but not much had lately. Especially since he didn't have a clue what the plan was.
He sighed softly, and then steeled himself. He was in a world of dangerous people and now was not the time to let his guard down.
A FEW DAYS EARLIER
"Who do you work for, Mr. Taylor?"
Vin worked hard to suck in a breath before the next blow to his stomach. He wasn't prepared for the backhand to his face. His head snapped to the side, teeth cutting into the inside of his cheek. Fresh blood dripped from his nose.
"E.J, you want a piece of this?" asked Daniel Markum, a notorious gun dealer. His small stature and smooth accent lulled his enemies into a false sense of security. When the time was right, the Georgian struck like a rattlesnake - quick and deadly.
"It's all rather messy," said E.J. with distaste.
Vin managed to open a swollen eye and look at E.J. In the past two weeks undercover, he had made a connection with the likable man and hoped that he could use that casual friendship to get the leverage he needed to bring down Daniel Markum. But now it looked like E.J. would have to do Daniel's bidding to save his own neck.
"Come on," said Markum, "Hit him."
"Mr. Markum, these hands were made for keeping books, not this untidiness," said E.J.
"Nah," said Markum, "I've seen you. You've got good balance, and you're quick. I'd bet you box or maybe do martial arts." Markum paused and nodded authoritatively toward Vin. "Take a swing. Maybe you can make him talk."
E.J. looked extremely annoyed, but Vin had the feeling it was all for show. Maybe E.J. would help him out.
Or not. He grunted as a firm left knocked the air from his lungs.
"Mr. Taylor, you should have answered Mr. Markum," E.J. said before landing a second blow to Vin's stomach.
Only the two goons holding him up kept Vin from slumping to the floor.
Daniel's cell phone rang as E.J. landed a third blow. After a brief conversation he ordered E.J. to get rid of Taylor quickly and discreetly.
"Paul, Rollo, take the car and help him."
Vin wished he could have gotten word to the team, but it looked like he was going to meet his maker alone. No one would even know to come to his rescue.
He grunted as Paul and Rollo dragged him out of the house and toward the car.
"I don't care how you do it," said Markum. "Just make sure it doesn't lead back to us."
"Yes, sir," said E.J. quietly. He followed the goons to the car, making a plan as he went.
"Where to?" asked Rollo as E.J. joined him in the front seat of the sedan.
"Somewhere wooded, out of the way," said E.J. "I'm not very familiar with the terrain, yet, but somewhere north of town should work."
He glanced at Vin in the back seat as the car started down the drive. Through the haze of pain Vin thought he could see regret in E.J.'s eyes, but he knew that he was just as dangerous as Markum and the others. Regretful or not, E.J. would do whatever was necessary to survive. And that meant Vin was a dead man.
The drive to his future gravesite seemed to take forever, and yet it was far too short.
"Lovely," complained E.J. as the rain started to come down. Rollo flipped on the windshield wipers so he could see through the drizzle.
"Turn off there," said E.J. pointing to a gravel road leading off into the trees.
Vin took as deep of a breath as he could with his aching ribs. This was it. He had to take whatever chance he could to get away.
"This is far enough," E.J. said after they traveled five minutes along the forest service road. Rollo stopped the car and shut off the engine. "Get out of the car, Mr. Taylor," E.J. added as he pulled a gun out of his shoulder holster.
Paul opened the back door as E.J. exited the front. Vin made no effort to get out of the car. Paul grabbed the collar of his shirt along with a handful of hair and yanked Vin out of the car. Vin fell in the fresh mud causing Paul and Rollo both to laugh.
E.J. wasn't laughing. "Get up, Mr. Taylor and start walking."
Vin struggled to his feet. He looked E.J. in the eye and found some satisfaction when E.J. looked away first. E.J. clearly didn't have the stomach for this job, but Vin had no doubt he would follow Markum's orders.
"After you," E.J. said. "Wait here," he directed Paul and Rollo.
Vin trudged into the trees in the direction E.J. pointed.
Paul and Rollo watched the two men head into the trees until they were out of sight.
"Can you see, them?" asked Rollo.
"Nah. Let's wait in the car," said Paul. "It's wet out here."
Rollo agreed and both men climbed into the dry interior.
"Far enough," said E.J. Vin turned and could see him glancing back toward the car. The goons were no longer visible, but he could see the glow of the headlights through the dense trees and underbrush.
E.J. turned toward Vin with his gun raised. He stared blankly at Vin, and then cocked his head slightly to the left. Something wasn't right.
"E.J," said Vin.
"Don't. Not a word," said E.J. snapping out of his lapse.
"I thought we were friends."
E. J. flinched at the accusation.
"You okay out there, E.J.?" Rollo yelled from the car.
"Yeah, hurry up, will ya?" shouted Paul.
"I'll be there in a minute," E.J. yelled. He took a deep breath and aimed the gun at Vin. "Good bye, Vin Taylor," he said softly as he pulled the trigger.
Chris finally slipped free of the budget meeting. The meetings were a necessary evil and he dreaded them each month. At least this time they hadn't threatened to let any agents go. In fact, they had finally green-lighted adding three new agents to the Denver office. Orin Travis had promised him one of those positions to complete his handpicked team.
He walked into the bullpen. His team members were busily working.
They must have seen him coming.
"What did Vin have to say?" he asked as he passed Buck's desk.
"He hasn't checked in yet," Buck replied.
Chris paused, his hand on the doorknob to his office.
"The bad guys don't always keep our time schedule," said Josiah calmly. It wasn't unusual for an agent to be a few hours late for a check in. He had to wait until it was safe to make contact.
Chris was never comfortable when he had a man undercover, but when Vin was inside he was edgier than normal. It wasn't that Vin was careless or reckless, but he was willing to push the limits and tended to go just beyond what Chris considered safe or acceptable. He got results, but Chris got heartburn and gray hairs.
"Call JD," Chris ordered.
Buck held his hand up in surrender. He wouldn't fight Chris on this, or try to convince him otherwise. He'd been down this road before. Chris wouldn't rest until Vin was safely back with the team. He dialed the phone and waited.
"Hey, Kid. Anything?" Buck asked hitting the speaker button on the phone so everyone could hear.
"Nothing," JD answered with a sigh. "We've gone to all the meeting places. No word."
"Have you seen him?" asked Buck.
"No. I saw the guy he's been friendly with come in for lunch, but not Vin."
Buck looked at Chris.
Chris frowned. "Check all the places again, JD. Then come on in." He hated not knowing where Vin was, but they couldn't just bust into the place because he'd missed a single check in. With a little luck Vin would check in tonight at the alternate time.
Vin groaned. He was wet. He was in pain, and he was at the bottom of a small ravine. He'd miss-stepped in the darkness and took a tumble down the steep slope. Gauging from the sky, that fall had been several hours ago. He slowly and carefully assessed his injuries.
He was in a bad situation, but at least he was mobile. The swollen knee would slow him up, but he figured Chris's ranch was about 10 miles cross-country. There were probably other places closer, but E.J.'s last words echoed in his mind.
E.J. had fired the gun wide of Vin's position, then hissed out a warning: "I'm giving you your life. If you ever show your face in Denver again, you'll sign both our death warrants."
E.J. had spared his life. Maybe it was best to avoid Denver until they could sort things out. Chris's ranch seemed like the safest option.
Using a nearby tree trunk, he leaned on it and pushed himself to his feet taking a few tentative steps in what he believed was the direction to Chris's ranch. He winced with the new pain in his knee and he cursed the rain as he slipped again, but caught himself.
It was going to be a long walk.
Vin had missed the alternate check in time last night, and Team Seven's office was empty. Five men were out searching for their missing teammate, while a secretary fielded their calls. She would forward anything important to Chris.
They'd divided up into two teams, Nathan and Josiah using their contacts, and Chris, Buck and JD. Chris had wanted three teams to cover more ground, but Buck refused to leave him on his own.
They searched most of the day finding dead end after dead end. Chris's cell phone rang, bringing their team to a halt. Watching Chris's facial expression, Buck knew it wasn't good news.
Chris flipped the phone closed angrily and was about to throw it, but Buck snatched it away.
"You don't want to do that," he said. "Vin might call."
Buck waited as Chris spewed profanities about Travis and him. JD stood slightly behind Buck, staying clear of the ranting.
"I take it that was Travis?" asked Buck.
"He wants me to come to some damn meeting." Chris punched the hood of the car. "Vin's missing and he ordered me to be there."
"Chris," said Buck, trying to calm his friend, "He knows Vin is late checking in. I'm sure he has a good reason for pulling you in. JD and I will keep looking."
Chris let off another tirade of cursing, kicking the side panel of the car. Good thing it was a department junker, used to blend in with the seamier neighborhoods.
"The quicker we get you to the office, the quicker we're back out here looking," said Buck.
Chris conceded and the trio climbed into the car, Buck snatching the keys from Chris. He didn't care at this moment whether he'd pissed off Chris more than he was. He just wanted to get back to the office in one piece.
Vin sat down on a rock. He had to rest. He had been walking as steadily as possible for at least a couple of hours. It was hard to tell what time it was. His watch had been broken in one of his falls, and the overcast and constant drizzle hid the sun. He shivered unconsciously. He was wet, cold, and hungry, let alone tired and sore. The terrain was more rugged than he had anticipated and the ten miles was going to take a lot longer than a jog on a paved road.
Sucking some water off a leaf, he wondered again about E.J. His mind flashed back to staring down the barrel of E.J.'s gun, knowing full well he was going to die, and the utter shock when E.J. had pulled the trigger and he was still alive.
E.J.'s warning had emphasized the paranoia he'd felt from him all along. The first few days of their acquaintance, E.J. had been very standoffish, but there was something about him that Vin identified with. E.J. was illusive when questioned about his past, but after a few days, Vin had begun to sense a lostness in E.J., a longing to fit in, to be a part of something more. It was clear that Markum's work was distasteful to E.J., but the money was apparently more important than his discomfort. And that made Vin sad. He sensed that E.J. had some good inside, but he was trying to find happiness in money.
And then there was the show he put on for Daniel Markum. Alone with Vin, E.J. seemed a little willing to trust, even expressing once, "I don't know who I am anymore." When Markum was around, E.J. was a different person without an ounce of vulnerability, presenting a money hungry "yes man", willing to do whatever Markum demanded.
But in the end, E.J. the friend had won out. He had let Vin go, despite Markum's orders.
He only hoped he could return the favor sometime down the road. Vin pushed to his feet. He had a long way to go.
"Why are you just coming to us now?" Chris demanded angrily.
Andrew Jarvis, an FBI team leader from Atlanta remained silent.
"You put Vin in jeopardy by not telling us you had an agent inside Markum's operation. And then you lose contact with him and you don't think that's important enough to tell us?" Chris got up and knocked over his chair. "MY agent is missing because of you," he snarled in Andrew's face.
"Agent Larabee," Travis ordered, "Sit down."
Chris glared at him.
"Chris," Travis warned.
Chris picked up his chair and sat down.
"Agent Jarvis is here at the risk of his career. He's here without the approval of his superiors because he wants to find his man."
"Four weeks!" Chris cursed. "You haven't had contact in four weeks and yet you show up now."
He was furious. Vin had missed two check-ins. He would never have been undercover with Markum at all if they had known about the missing agent.
"We weren't sure he was missing at first," said Jarvis wearily. "Ezra's been known to be out of touch for a week." He rubbed his eyes. "When we tried to find him, Markum's entire operation was gone. It took a couple of weeks to figure out where he'd landed." Jarvis leaned back in his chair. "Then I had to figure out who I could trust. When the higher ups started talking about liability and blame, I took a leave of absence."
"You think there's a leak?" asked Chris more calmly.
"I don't know," Andrew answered truthfully. "I have to operate as if there is. I can't broadcast Ezra's disappearance to everyone if he is alive, and they caught wind that he was an agent, he'd be dead."
"And now Vin might be dead, too."
"I'm truly sorry," said Andrew softly.
Chris took a good look at Andrew Jarvis. The man was a wreck. He was pale and it looked like he hadn't slept well in a long time. He was willing to risk his career to find his missing man. That fact changed his opinion of Andrew Jarvis. The least Chris could do was help him search.
"Tell me everything you know."
Chris tossed and turned in his bed. Travis had ordered the team to go home and get some rest. They would have refused, but he used the trump card reminding them in their weariness that they could miss a lead or make a mistake that could cost Vin his life. The team had reluctantly headed to their homes for some much needed sleep.
The problem was, sleep wasn't coming. Just because his body was tired, it didn't shut down the worry for Vin. He punched his pillow and sighed. He rolled over and looked at his clock. Three-seventeen. He had to be up in less than three hours.
He closed his eyes and focused on breathing deeply to relax. Just as he started to doze off he jolted awake hearing a noise near the front of the house.
Stopping long enough to pull on his jeans, he grabbed his gun and crept barefoot to the front room. Without moving the curtains, he peered around the edge seeing nothing but the gloomy night.
A heavy thud on the porch startled him. Chris controlled his breathing, but it was impossible to slow his racing heartbeat. He brushed along the wall, reaching up and carefully unlocked the deadbolt. It's soft click sounded abnormally loud in the silence.
Taking a deep breath, he turned the doorknob, yanked open the door, aiming his gun at the porch. He quickly scanned the area, his eyes coming to rest on the man slumped on the porch, his back to Chris.
"What the hell?"
Slowly the man raised his head and looked at him.
Recognition came as soon as the man looked up. He was bruised, swollen, and worse for wear, but it was Vin. Chris quickly tucked his gun in his jeans at the small of his back, and then reached down to help his friend up.
"Let's get you inside. Are you hurt?"
"Inside," Vin mumbled as his head dropped back to the floor of the porch.
Chris cursed as he tried to help Vin up. The sharpshooter struggled against his efforts, trying to get to his feet on his own. Trembling and twitching muscles had been through enough and decided it was time to fail. Chris caught his weight as Vin fell, but he was already unbalanced from trying to help him off the porch. The sudden extra weight brought him down as well. Chris landed hard on his hip and smacked the side of his head on the doorpost.
It would have been funny if the circumstances were different, but Chris wasn't laughing. Vin was hurt and disoriented and now he had a whopper headache of his own.
"Vin!" Chris said sternly. "Vin, stop!"
Vin stopped the frantic but futile movements. His body would simply no longer follow his demands.
"That's it," said Chris. "This time let me do it."
Vin lay half draped over him, his vacant blue eyes staring at Chris. He blinked a few times. " 'm cold."
"I bet you are. And wet," Chris added. "Now on the count of three, we're going to get you up, because I'm not going to carry you no matter how scrawny you are."
"Ain't scrawny," said Vin. "Cold."
Chris half-smiled. Vin's mind wasn't firing on all cylinders, but it was working. He maneuvered Vin a little closer to the wall. "Put your hand right here," he said taking Vin's hand and placing it on the doorframe. "Use it for leverage when I get you up. Ready?"
Vin gave a single nod.
"On Three. One. Two. Three." He grunted as he managed to pull Vin to his feet. The sharpshooter swayed, but Chris pulled Vin's arm over his shoulder, and put his own arm around Vin's back to help guide him. He paused long enough to kick the door closed before guiding his unsteady friend to the bathroom. He flipped the lid down and settled Vin on the toilet. He grabbed the nearest bath towel and draped it over him. It wouldn't help much, but it was a start.
"Where are you hurt?" asked Chris.
"Hurt," mumbled Vin.
Chris tipped Vin's chin up hoping to get him to focus. His eye was swollen. His faced bruised and his lip was cut. He'd definitely been hit.
"Vin, what happened?"
Chris sucked in a sharp breath. "Where are you hit?" He searched his friend for sign of a gunshot wound.
Chris cursed. Vin was making no sense. His quick check didn't reveal any gunshot wound or obvious broken bones. He needed someone with more medical expertise to assess him and determine if he needed to be hospitalized or if simply warming him up and a good night's sleep would be best.
"Do you think you can sit there for a minute without falling off?
Vin leaned heavily against the cabinet.
Chris backed out of the room and trotted down the hall to his bedroom. He grabbed his cell phone and dialed Nathan.
"Hello?" Nathan slurred, half asleep.
"Nate, it's Chris."
"What's wrong?" Nathan asked, now fully alert.
"That knot head Peso finally made it home. Looks like he got tangled up in something and took a tumble. He's cold and wet. Could you come out and take a look?"
Nathan hesitated, not understand the need for code words, but he recognized that Chris was saying Vin was back and he was hurt.
"All right," he said with a sigh, playing it up for whomever Chris thought could be listening. "Get him inside and warmed up. I'll be there as soon as I can."
"Thanks, Nate. I really appreciate it," said Chris.
"No problem," said Nathan. "What's a few less hours of sleep for a stupid horse who can't come home when he's supposed to?"
Chris hung up the phone. Nathan had caught on easily enough. He hoped that the code wasn't necessary, but with Jarvis suspecting a leak, one couldn't be too cautious.
By the time Nathan arrived Chris had managed to get Vin dry and into a tee shirt and sweat pants. He bundled him up in blankets and tried to get him to drink a little Gatorade. Tanner still wasn't making much sense, but Chris was now certain he didn't have any bullet holes in him. Bruises and cuts, yes. Bullets, no.
Hearing Nathan come up the driveway, he met him at the door.
"What happened to Vin?" Nathan asked as he entered.
Chris shook his head. "I don't know. It looks like he got knocked around some, and he's been out in the weather a while. Wherever he came from, he walked. He's exhausted and disoriented."
Nathan had moved to check out the man huddled in blankets on the couch as Chris spoke.
Ninety minutes later they were in the ER waiting room in Boulder. Chris figured it was safer than taking Vin to one of the local hospitals in Denver. He explained to Nathan on the way to the hospital that the FBI had lost an agent inside Markum's organization and that they suspected a leak. That and the fear that whoever roughed up Vin would be looking for him to finish the job made them even more cautious than normal.
Nathan thought it best that Vin be checked out for hypothermia as well as injuries that couldn't be seen on the surface. Chris had readily agreed. Vin's disjointed ramblings were disturbing. He kept going on about E.J. shooting him, but there was no wound. Chris was worried that Vin had hit his head a little too hard on one of his falls.
Speaking of hitting his head, Chris winced as he touched the lump on the side of his head just inside the hairline.
"What'd you do?" asked Nathan.
While Chris marveled at the medic's observation skills, he didn't want to be poked and prodded. He had a headache and nothing more.
"Had an argument with the doorpost trying to get Vin in the house."
"Let me see," said Nathan, pulling Chris's hands away. He looked at the slight lump and then said, "We're already here. You might as well have it looked at to be safe."
"Damn it, Nathan. No!" Chris protested. "I'm fine."
But Nathan was already waving a nurse over. Unfortunately for Chris, it was a slow night in the Emergency Room. Within 15 minutes he was taken in to a room to be examined. A little over two hours later, he was back in the waiting room saying, "I told you so." He'd have a headache, but the ice pack they'd applied had taken down the little bit of swelling. No concussion.
"Any word on Vin?" he asked.
Nathan nodded. "He's got moderate hypothermia. They're warming him up and said they want to keep an eye on him for 24 hours. He's bumped and bruised, but other than his knee, nothing serious other than the hypothermia."
"Torn meniscus. They want him in a brace for a week or so while the swelling goes down. Then he'll have to have surgery," said Nathan. "It will likely be arthroscopic. He'll be in and out the same day, and if it's not too bad, he'll have a relatively short recovery time."
Chris leaned back with a sigh of relief. "What about the disorientation?"
"It's natural with moderate hypothermia. He should be fine once he's warmed up, fed, and gets some sleep." Nathan eyed his boss critically. He was exhausted. They all were. "You should get some sleep, too. Want me to call the others?"
"No," said Chris.
"Chris, you can't keep this from them," Nathan argued.
Chris held up a hand to silence the protest. "I'm not. Travis didn't want me to tell anyone at all, but I told him I was telling the team and if he thought any one of us was the leak, we'd all walk."
Nathan chuckled. "Bet he wasn't happy with you."
"Is he ever?" said Chris with a smirk. "Anyway, you go into the office and tell the guys Peso's sick and I can't come in today. Tell them we'll meet out at the ranch. When you get them out there, tell them what happened." Chris closed his eyes for a moment trying to ease his headache. "I'll call when someone needs to pick us up."
Nathan nodded. "I'll see if Vin's in a room yet. Maybe you can go sit with him and get some sleep."
Once they'd both had some sleep, Vin was lucid enough to tell Chris what had happened - that somehow his cover had been blown although Markum didn't seem to know he was an ATF agent. He told how E.J. had spared his life and sent him on his cross-country journey to Chris's ranch.
Vin had fallen asleep again in the middle of their conversation, so Chris didn't get all the details until later, and even then he knew Vin would never give him all the details.
Vin had improved enough by dinnertime that the doctors released him. Chris called the ranch and Buck drove out to pick them up. When they arrived back at the ranch there was a late welcome home celebration. Everyone was glad to have Vin back, but news of the lost agent was sobering. They all knew the same thing could have happened to Vin.
It never occurred to Chris that when he used the term "lost" instead of "missing" his team assumed he meant the agent was dead. Chris was being literal. In his eyes the FBI had literally lost their agent by their mistakes and red tape. He sincerely hoped the man was still alive, but with what had happened to Vin, he knew that wasn't likely.
When Vin fell asleep during the party, his teammates went home to get some rest. They had work to do tomorrow finding the leak that nearly cost Vin his life.
It was about midnight when Vin woke from his nap. He glanced around the room and chuckled when his eyes landed on Chris. He was at the other end of the couch serving as Vin's footrest. His head was tipped back and he was snoring.
Vin lifted his legs off of Chris, careful not to disturb him. He sat up slowly and rested for a moment before bending over to pick up the file folder he had knocked off Chris's lap.
He was putting the papers back in the folder when the photo caught his eye. "Chris!" he said as he looked at the picture.
"Huh?" Chris said groggily.
"This picture. Where'd you get it?" Vin asked
Chris blinked a couple of times clearing the cobwebs from his mind. Then he saw what Vin was holding.
"You're not supposed to be looking at that."
"I didn't mean to. I knocked it on the floor and was picking it up. Where'd you get this picture of E.J.?"
Chris took the picture and looked at it, even though he was sure who it was. "That's Ezra Standish. He's the missing FBI agent."
"It's E.J.," Vin insisted.
Chris cursed softly and took the folder from Vin. He hadn't had time yet to study it thoroughly, but he thought Standish's cover name was Ethan Tucker.
"Here it is. His cover name for this assignment was Ethan James Tucker."
"Ethan James," said Vin. "E.J."
"He's still alive," said Chris.
Vin nodded. "And we gotta get him out of there."
"Why hasn't he made contact?" Chris asked skeptically.
"I don't know," said Vin defensively. "All I know is he's my friend and he saved my life."
"Okay," said Chris holding up both hands in appeasement. "We can't do anything tonight. "Let's get some sleep and figure this out tomorrow."
Neither man knew that the opportunity would present itself the next day - before they'd even had time to let the rest of the team in on the new information.
It was even more of a shock than finding out that E.J. was FBI when the bust went down and he fought back.
Vin watched helplessly as E.J. elbowed Chris in the eye and put him in a chokehold. He scrambled down from his perch, slowed by his injured knee. He was confused by E.J.'s actions. Why would he fight? Standard protocol was for the undercover agent to be arrested with the suspects to protect his cover.
It had taken some fast-talking to get E.J. to release the chokehold and let Chris breathe, but he still had a gun aimed at Chris's head.
"Back off!" E.J. ordered as he caught Buck's movement from the corner of his eye.
"Buck," Chris warned softly, "Do it."
Buck growled in frustration. His best friend was at the mercy of some unknown criminal and they wanted him to back off.
"I got it, Buck," Vin said. "Step back."
"You better know what you're doing," Buck warned, but Vin ignored him focusing his attention on E.J.
"Ezra, it's safe now. The only people in the building are my teammates."
Chris remained quiet waiting for Vin to work his magic like he did with a spooked colt.
E.J. frowned and cocked his head slightly to the left, the same movement he had made in the forest just before he let Vin go.
Even though he was projecting calmness, Vin's mind was going a hundred miles per hour. An undercover agent taking the offensive in an arrest was odd enough on it's own. The past weeks raced through his mind as he subconsciously sought clues to why an undercover agent who spared his life would now hold Chris hostage, and to how he could talk him down.
Had he crossed to the other side? Was his sparring Vin's life a fluke? That didn't seem right. He had sensed lostness, a searching within E.J. He seemed conflicted about his work for Markum. And the headaches. It seemed E.J. always had a headache. He'd had some sort of accident before Vin had gone undercover. The bruises and the band-aid Vin observed the first few days told him that.
* I don't know who I am anymore. *
The words had been spoken in the context of questionable morals and ethics, but
Vin frowned. The cock of the head - a movement of questioning. No spark of recognition or objection when he had called him by his real name. E.J. had unknowingly told Vin the truth.
"You really don't know," Vin said under his breath. It was the only thing that could explain why Ezra / E.J. had stopped contacting his team. He'd had plenty of opportunities to call. Maybe he couldn't remember who he was or maybe he was just very confused, but in either case he was on the edge, willing to do whatever it took to protect himself.
"I know you're scared," Vin said.
"Get me a car."
"Can't do that. I don't need to do that. We're all good guys here."
Vin could see a slight tremor of the gun. Ezra was listening.
"Things probably don't make much sense right now, but think about it. You let me go. Why'd you do that?"
"It seemed prudent," he answered said softly.
"No," said Vin. "You knew it was the right thing to do. I know you don't trust anyone here, but you don't have any way out. Trust me, E.J., please. You gave me back my life..."
Ezra looked at Vin. He was in a bad spot and he knew it. Vin was right. He didn't have a way out. But he didn't want to go to jail - especially for something he couldn't even remember that he had done.
Grabbing the agent had been an instinctive act of self-preservation. He didn't have a plan; he just didn't want to go to jail. Damn, if he could just get a handle on just one thing. Just one.
"You gave me back my life," said Vin. "Let me give you back yours."
E.J. looked Vin in the eye. It was truly a no-win situation for him. There was no way the ATF agents could let him out of the building with a hostage. He didn't want to go to jail, but at least he'd be alive and have a chance to figure out who he was.
A bullet or a jail cell? There really wasn't a choice.
"It would appear I have no choice but to trust you," he said softly. "God help us both."
He raised both hands and stepped back from Chris.
Vin stepped forward slowly and took the gun from E.J. as he offered it.
"You did the right thing," Vin said. "We'll take you back to the ranch and sort things out."
E.J. held out his hands waiting to be cuffed.
"That won't be necessary," said Chris rubbing his sore eye.
"What the hell are you doing?" asked Buck, moving in closer with his gun aimed at E.J.
"Calm down," said Chris. "We'll explain it later."
Seeing Buck's disbelief at not cuffing a man who had just held a gun to his head, Chris added, "Trust me. Go outside and make sure all the other suspects have been taken away."
Buck frowned, gun still trained on the suspect.
"Buck " Chris warned.
"Fine," snapped Buck. He holstered his weapon and went outside.
"Chris?" asked Josiah. He and Nathan had been waiting quietly in the background as the scene played out.
"It's all right," Chris assured. "Get JD and head back to the office. Meet us at the ranch after work."
"Are you sure?"
The corner of Chris's lip turned up in a hint of a smile. His team could be annoyingly protective.
"I'm sure. We'll explain it at the ranch."
The ride to the ranch was quiet. Vin drove with Chris riding shotgun. Ezra was silent in the back seat. Attempts at conversation with him were rejected.
Until they pulled up to the ranch house.
"This isn't the jail," Ezra said.
Vin chuckled and shook his head. "I told you we were going to the ranch. You are one of the good guys."
Ezra chewed on his lip, deep in thought.
"But you don't know that do you?" Vin glanced at Chris as they parked. He unbuckled his seat belt and turned back to Ezra. "What's your name?"
"Ethan James Tucker," he answered with a false confidence.
"No, your real name," said Vin.
"Ethan Tucker," he responded with a hint of uncertainty.
"You really don't know."
Ezra felt a shiver of fear mixed with hope. He knew that his name wasn't Ethan Tucker. He'd sensed that from the first moment he could remember, but he didn't have a clue who he really was. He'd lived in an unknown world for nearly a month, with the only certainty being that he was involved with very dangerous people. He'd instinctively known that he had to protect himself and thus began a charade of pretending he was who they said he was. Now that charade was exposed.
He shook his head slightly.
Chris and Vin exchanged glances. Neither knew exactly what to do, but both knew the man in the back seat was lost and needed some help finding himself.
"Let's go inside, Ezra," said Chris. "We'll help you figure things out."
"Is that my name?"
Chris nodded. "Your name is Ezra Standish."
"How do you know that?"
"Your boss told me," Chris replied.
"Why would Daniel Markum talk to you?"
"Not Markum, your real boss, Andrew Jarvis," said Chris. "You're an agent for the FBI out of Atlanta."
Ezra closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. "I don't know him," he said softly.
"Maybe seeing him will help," said Vin. "We'll call him."
"FBI?" asked Ezra again.
"That's right," said Chris.
"I think I need my head examined," said Ezra
"That," Chris said with a grin, "can be arranged."
Vin laughed. "Nathan Jackson, a teammate, is an EMT. We'll get him to take a look at you."
"I was joking," said Ezra
"I'm not," said Chris.
Ezra looked at him with a bit of defiance, but it melted away when he realized he really did want someone to evaluate him and tell him this was a normal stage of amnesia and that everything would be fine.
Seeing his nod of agreement, Chris opened his door. "Let's go inside. I don't know about you, but I could use a hot shower and some ice." He gingerly touched his swollen cheek.
Ezra glanced away guiltily.
"Don't worry about it, Ezra," said Vin as he climbed out of the vehicle. "He's just a bit miffed because he knows Nathan's gonna want to examine his head too."
Chris rested in the recliner, an ice pack over his eye. Nathan would be here soon and would go into full mother hen mode.
Ezra sat on the couch reading through his own file. It looked legit, but if these guys really were ATF, they could make it look real. FBI. Could he really be an FBI agent? If he made his living pretending to be other people, how would he know which one he really was? He closed the file and massaged his aching forehead with one hand.
"Well?" said Vin.
"Nothing," said Ezra. "Nothing in that file means anything to me."
"Give it some time," Vin said hoping to erase a bit of the despair he heard in Ezra's voice.
"They're here," Chris said with a moan.
Vin chuckled. "Time to face the music, Cowboy. They won't be too happy they were kept in the dark."
Chris nodded and stood.
Ezra quietly watched the interplay between the two men. Obviously close friends with a deep respect for each other. The door opened and the four men from the warehouse entered. Ezra shrank back slightly against the couch as Buck spoke.
"Now, what the hell is going on, and why the hell is he here?"
"He's FBI," Chris said evenly.
Buck stopped mid stride. "FBI?" he asked. "FBI..."
Before anyone could stop him he had Ezra by the upper arms and pulled him off the couch. "What the hell were you thinking?" he roared shaking the man for emphasis. "You held a gun to Chris's head! You could have killed him!"
Ezra reacted instinctively to the threat. He struggled to break the hold Buck had on his arms, and when that failed he head butted him and kneed him in the groin. Buck saw the head butt coming and turned quickly enough to avoid a smashed nose, but the smaller man caught him hard enough on the cheek and jaw to break his hold. Buck took a step back at the same moment Ezra brought his knee up which fortunately for Buck meant that he caught a glancing blow more to his thigh than his groin. It was still enough to bring him down.
"Stand down, Standish!" Chris ordered as Ezra moved in on Buck.
Ezra paused and frowned looking at Chris with a slight tilt of the head, a sense of recognition halting his movements.
Buck, however, didn't stop his own defense. He seized Ezra's momentary distraction and swept his legs sending Ezra crashing to the floor.
"Knock it off!" Chris ordered again as he and Vin maneuvered in between the two men.
Vin helped Ezra up off the floor and moved him back to the couch, watching closely as Ezra tested out his extremities for damage. Ezra took a deep breath and grimaced, closing his eyes in discomfort. His hands instinctively went to the sides of his forehead trying to ease the pain.
"Kind of a dumb move to head butt someone when you've already got headaches," Vin said softly.
Ezra nodded and let out a grunt at the renewed pain the movement brought.
"You break anything?" Chris asked helping Buck to his knees. He'd have to wait until the pain eased before Buck could stand upright.
"No, but I'm gonna," Buck growled. "He could have killed you." Turning his attention to Ezra he said again, "What the hell were you thinking? Even a junior agent knows not to hold a gun to someone's head."
"It seemed the only option," Ezra said quietly.
"Stop," said Chris. "Before anyone goes any further, I want everyone to sit down and listen to me." He watched as Josiah and JD sat down, and Nathan looked at Ezra with concern.
"Ezra Standish is an FBI agent. He went missing about four weeks ago and it wasn't until yesterday that I knew anything about it. His boss and Travis ordered me to keep it quiet because they suspect a leak. I refused and told them I was telling the team, but then Vin showed up and everything happened pretty quickly from there."
"He was undercover in Markum's operation?" asked Josiah.
Chris nodded and looked at Ezra. The agent still had his eyes closed and was massaging his forehead at the hairline with his fingertips.
"Before we all get angry about the danger Vin was in because we didn't know, let's just remember that wasn't Ezra's choice. It was the FBI's."
"Wait a minute," said JD. "You said he went missing? Didn't you have a chance to call? You must have had lots of chances to call. Vin did."
Ezra looked at Vin subconsciously seeking some form of reassurance. He had no reason to trust any of these men. He had no idea what kind of threat they were if they knew he didn't know who he was. But he was tired. Tired of not knowing who was on his side and who was an enemy, tired of not knowing something as simple as his favorite color or favorite food. Tired of the blasted headaches and the continuous uncertainty. Just for a moment - just one moment he wanted to feel safe. But it seemed it was all beyond his reach.
Vin gave him a nod of encouragement as he sat down on the couch next to Ezra.
"There were plenty of chances to call," Ezra said softly. "I simply didn't know that I was supposed to call anyone." He looked up, his gaze connecting with Chris's and finding more encouragement there.
"What?" asked JD in confusion. "How could you not know that?"
Feeling Ezra tense next to him, Vin spoke up. "He doesn't remember anything."
"You mean amnesia?" asked Buck incredulously.
"I remember nothing," Ezra confirmed.
Buck scrutinized the southerner. Either the man was an incredible actor, or he was telling the truth.
"Nate, when I first went under," said Vin, "E.J. - I mean Ezra had a couple band-aids on his forehead and some healing cuts and bruises. He doesn't remember what happened but Markum said he'd been in a car wreck."
"Did you hit your head?" Nathan asked as he approached Ezra.
"I assume I did," Ezra said. "I don't remember anything before the hospital."
Nathan crouched in front of him and tipped up Ezra's chin so he could look in his eyes. "What did they tell you at the hospital? Concussion?"
Ezra nodded and winced.
"Are you having a lot of headaches?"
"Yes," Ezra hissed.
"What did they say about the amnesia?"
"What do you mean, nothing?" asked Chris.
"I didn't tell them," Ezra said bluntly.
"You expect us to believe that you didn't know who you were and you didn't bother to tell them anything?" said Buck.
"I don't expect you to believe anything," Ezra snapped wearily. "I'm simply stating the facts. I woke up in a hospital room without any idea of who I was or where I was. I sensed that I was in danger and needed to protect myself. I got my name from my ID bracelet and the date and place from the newspaper. I don't know how or why I knew I was in danger, but I didn't think it was prudent to say, oh, by the way, who am I?"
Vin smiled. He hoped the E.J. he'd grown to know over the past couple of weeks was the same personality as the real Ezra. He had an interesting sense of humor.
"I'm glad you find this amusing," said Ezra.
"The situation, no," said Vin, "but picturing you bluffing your way out of the hospital without a clue who you were is downright amazing. You must be a hell of an undercover agent."
"More like an undercover agent in hell," said Ezra.
"Well, we'll see what we can do about that," said Nathan. "Chris, I think we should get him to a hospital. He shouldn't still be having headaches."
"Now?" asked Chris.
Nathan nodded. "Head injuries are nothing to mess with."
Vin elbowed Ezra. "Hah," he said trying to lighten the mood. "Now you really are going to have your head examined."
"Don't laugh, Vin," said Nathan. "You're going, too. I want that knee checked out."
"Aw, Nathan!" Vin grumbled.
Buck and Chris laughed until Nathan turned on them. "Let me see that eye," he said to Chris.
"Is he always like this?" asked Ezra.
Josiah chuckled as he walked over to the couch. "Yes. And worse. I'm Josiah Sanchez and that's JD Dunne over there."
"You met Nathan and butted heads with Buck."
"Don't remind me," said Ezra rubbing his aching head.
"Nathan," asked Josiah, "Can we give him something for his headache?"
"No," Nathan answered as he took a look at Buck's bruised jaw. "The doctors will do that when they check him out. You're gonna be sore for a few days, but it's not broken," he told Buck. "JD, you want to drive him home and make sure he ices both injuries?"
"No way," said JD with a laugh. "I'll drive, but he's going to take care of himself." He pulled his set of keys to Buck's truck out of his pocket. "I'm sure Buck can call Amanda or Wendy or Jana to help with his other injury."
"Shut up, Kid," said Buck.
"Take that show on the road," said Chris, giving Buck a friendly shove. "Meet at the office at eight. We have paper work to do."
Chris looked over at Ezra. The man was making no attempts to hide his headache. He leaned against the back of the couch with his head resting on the back, eyes closed tightly. Vin didn't look much better, the scrapes and bruises of his trek through the woods as well as the stress of being undercover wearing him down.
"We'll handle these two," said Nathan nodding toward Vin and Ezra.
"No," said Chris. "I'm staying with Standish."
"Chris, you can't drive," protested Nathan. "I bet you can barely see out of that eye."
"I'll take him," said Vin.
"You aren't driving either with that leg!"
"Nate, I don't need my left leg to drive."
"I'll drive," said Josiah. "Let's go."
"Come on, Ezra," said Vin. "Our chariot awaits."
Vin stood in the doorway of the hospital room, leaning on his crutches watching Standish. The undercover agent was lying on his side, facing away from Vin, staring out the window.
"Get any sleep?" Vin asked.
Ezra flinched in surprise.
"Sorry," said Vin seeing his reaction.
"No problem, Mr. Taylor eh, Tanner," said Ezra, rolling carefully onto his back.
Vin hobbled into the room. "Save a man's life, you ought'a be able to call him by his first name."
Ezra smiled briefly, but it faded as the guilt of hurting Vin overwhelmed him.
"Don't go there," said Vin easing himself into the chair by the bed.
"Go where?" asked Ezra.
"It wasn't your fault," Vin said softly.
"It most certainly was," Ezra argued. "I'm the one who pummeled you with my fists."
"And the one who let me go."
Ezra turned away momentarily, then looked at Vin again. "I'm the one responsible for your current predicament," he said waving a hand toward Vin's knee.
"Nah. That was a slippery hillside in the dark," Vin countered.
Ezra looked away, refusing to meet Vin's eyes.
"E.J. did what he had to do to stay alive," Vin added.
"I am E.J."
Vin shook his head. "No. You were playing E.J. until you could figure out the truth."
Ezra turned to look at Vin. "I'm sorry," he said softly.
"I'm not," said Vin. "You saved my life. If you hadn't been there if you hadn't been willing to take a chance on that little voice in your head that said it was the right thing to do I'd be dead."
"You would have found "
"Stop it," Vin interrupted. "There was no other way out and you know it. Why'd you let me go? Why'd you take me to the woods north of the city? Why'd you pull your punches?"
Ezra opened his mouth to protest.
"Don't even say it. You pulled your punches."
"Why?" asked Vin.
"I don't know," Ezra said softly.
"You did all those things because Ezra was inside you telling you the right thing to do. Ezra pulled the punches. Ezra remembered me talking about my friend's ranch north of town. Ezra let me go."
"But I don't know Ezra."
"Maybe not the details," said Vin, "but you know the man inside is a good man."
"What if I never remember?"
Vin almost winced at the lost look on Ezra's face. What could he say? 'It will be all right?' He couldn't tell Ezra he would remember because he might not.
"Then you start fresh with a clean slate. No regrets tugging at you. No mistakes coming back to bite you. But no matter what happens, you've got a friend."
"Time for breakfast, Mr. Standish," said the nurse as she entered the room.
Ezra gave Vin a nod of appreciation, but turned his attention to the nurse as she gave him his options. After she gave him his tray she left the room.
"Would you like to share, Mr. Tanner?"
"Vin. And I can't," said Vin. "I'm having surgery on my knee as soon as they can get me in today."
He saw the flash of guilt on Ezra's face and tried to reassure him. "It'll be arthroscopic. Take maybe an hour or so, and I'll be on my feet in a couple of days and back to normal in a couple of weeks." He paused and smiled. "And it will give me a couple weeks of paid vacation."
Ezra returned the smile. He didn't know who he was, but he did know one thing. He liked Vin Tanner and he was glad Vin was on his side.
Vin pushed up from the chair and tucked his crutches under his arms. "I'm going to take a short walk - give you some time to eat your breakfast without me staring at you." He hobbled toward the door.
"I'll be back," he said in a playful imitation of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Ezra looked at him blankly.
"I'll tell you about it later," Vin said as he exited.
"Amnesia?" asked Andrew Jarvis.
Chris nodded as he drove. He was taking Jarvis to the hospital to see Ezra. He hoped that seeing his boss would spur some memories for the undercover agent.
"The doctors were skeptical last night, but I believe him," said Chris.
"Ezra is the best liar I have ever met. He could convince you the sky is purple," said Andrew. "Maybe he's maintaining this as a cover until he's sure he's safe."
"Maybe," said Chris. He could tell Andrew was searching for an answer. Searching for anything other than his best undercover agent not remembering anything. It was clear that Jarvis cared about Standish and didn't want the diagnosis to be true. But Chris considered himself a good judge of character, and his gut instinct was that Ezra wasn't lying.
"Maybe. But I don't think so." He pulled into a parking spot and shut off the engine. "I guess we'll find out soon enough."
Andrew nodded and opened the door. He prayed it was all a con, that Ezra was simply protecting himself until he saw a familiar face.
Vin didn't venture far from Ezra's room. The surgery center knew to find him there when it was time for his surgery. He used the closest restroom, and a few feet down the hall he caught himself before getting a drink from the water fountain. No food or drink for 12 hours before the surgery. Just the thought of that made him hungry.
He hadn't said anything to anyone, but he was nervous about the surgery. Everyone had tried to convince him it was no big deal, but Vin's mind seemed to linger on the possible problems. Maybe they wouldn't be able to fix the damage. What would he do then? Would he be able to pass the ATF physical? Not likely. What if he had a bad reaction to the anesthetic again?
"Geez, Tanner!" Vin said out loud. "Get a grip."
Vin stumbled with his crutches, but Chris grabbed his arm and steadied him.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
Vin grinned sheepishly. "Yeah. I'm just not used to these things, yet." He nodded a greeting to the stranger standing next to Chris.
"Vin, this is Agent Andrew Jarvis, Ezra's superior," said Chris. "Agent Jarvis, this is Agent Vin Tanner."
"Agent Tanner, my apologies that you were put in harm's way," said Jarvis.
Vin eyed him for a moment, balanced himself on his crutches and offered his hand.
Jarvis returned the handshake.
"You come to talk to Ezra?" Vin asked. It was a dumb question, but he felt the need to fill the awkward silence.
"Yes," said Andrew. "And hopefully get him well enough to go home."
Vin frowned as Jarvis followed Chris into Ezra's room. It made sense that Ezra would want to go home, but he hoped he could stick around a while. He liked Ezra and wanted to make sure that he had all the support he needed. He hobbled into the room hoping that Jarvis would spur Ezra's memory.
"Good Morning, Ezra," said Chris.
"Mr. Larabee," Ezra returned.
Within seconds it was obvious to everyone that Ezra didn't recognize Jarvis.
"How are you feeling, Ezra?" Andrew asked.
Ezra frowned at the familiarity from the stranger. "Do I know you?" he asked.
Jarvis sucked in a breath and tried to gather his composure. Ezra Standish had worked for him for two years and didn't have a clue who he was. The man was not faking.
"Ezra, this is Andrew Jarvis," said Chris. "He's your boss from Atlanta."
Ezra couldn't hide the disappointment on his face. He knew this visit would be coming eventually and he had hoped it would jar his memory and everything would come rushing back. But there was nothing. Not even a sense of familiarity.
"Give it time," said Vin, edging past Chris and Andrew and easing down into the chair.
Ezra looked at him, anger flaring in his eyes. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It wasn't Vin's fault that it had already been nearly a month and he didn't remember anything. How much time did he need? Taking a couple more deep breaths, his hands involuntarily went to his temples and began a gentle massage. He hoped the doctors would figure out how to rid him of his headaches. One more deep breath and he opened his eyes.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Jarvis," he said, "I don't seem to remember you. Please don't take it personally. I don't remember anything else either."
"They tell me you were in a car accident," said Jarvis.
"That's what I'm told," Ezra replied.
"I've got JD working on that," said Chris. "Sorry," he added, apologizing to Jarvis. "JD Dunne is my team's tech expert. He's looking up the accident reports and is going to get Ezra's medical records transferred here from the previous hospital."
"Good," said Andrew. "I can get them access to his records in Atlanta."
"Gentlemen," said a doctor as he entered the room. "It's a little early for visiting hours."
Chris flashed his badge and the doctor sighed internally. They were going to be a problem.
The doctor who had examined Ezra in the ER entered. "Doctor Benning," he said, "this is Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner is in the chair there. They are associates of Mr. Standish."
"And you are?" Benning asked Jarvis.
"I'm Ezra's supervisor."
"Well, gentlemen, I'm sure you all have an interest in Mr. Standish, but I need you to step out of the room," said Benning.
"Vin can stay," Ezra said a bit more quickly than he intended to.
Sensing his unease the doctor agreed. Chris and Andrew reluctantly left the room.
"Are you the head doctor?" Ezra asked with a bit of a smirk, breaking the ice.
Benning smiled. "That would be me. The neurologist has looked at your tests..."
"And?" asked Ezra.
"He sees some signs of swelling, but for the most part you seem to be recovering nicely," he answered.
"What about the headaches?" asked Ezra.
"They should ease as the swelling goes down. And the swelling will have a better chance of going down if you take it easy and get a lot of rest."
"What about the amnesia?" Vin asked from the chair next to the bed.
Ezra glanced at him and then at the doctor.
"Mr. Standish, there can be different causes for amnesia," said Benning. "Some physical, some psychological."
"Are you saying "
"Yours is probably a combination of both. You had a serious blow to the head in a traumatic circumstance."
Ezra mulled over the answer. He didn't want to think about the possibility that his amnesia could be caused by his mind and not his injury. He was stronger than that emotionally, wasn't he? He sighed.
"I'd like to ask you some questions," said Doctor Benning.
"All right," said Ezra.
"What is the first thing you remember?"
"Waking up in the hospital," Ezra replied.
"What do you remember about that situation?" Benning asked.
"I was frightened when I realized I didn't know who I was. I didn't know why, but I sensed an urgency to protect myself."
"And you didn't tell them about the amnesia?"
"No," said Ezra. "I don't know why I did that. I just sensed that I shouldn't. I picked up my name from the hospital ID bracelet, and the date and place from the newspaper a nurse gave me."
"I understand you're an undercover agent?"
"So I'm told."
"It seems that a lot of your cautious nature was still evident, even after the accident."
More like paranoid, Ezra thought.
"Do you remember anything at all from before the accident?" asked Benning.
Ezra looked at Vin, drawing some assurance from him.
"I hope not," Ezra said softly.
"What?" asked Vin in surprise.
"I've had some images in my head," Ezra explained, "But I was hoping they were nightmares."
"You didn't like what you saw?" asked the doctor.
Ezra shook his head.
"What did you see?"
Ezra grimaced and pressed his fingertips against his temples. His headache was worsening.
"I shot someone."
"Hazard of the occupation," Vin offered.
"I was with a man. He had children and he was doing unspeakable things " Ezra pressed the heels of his hands against his head and gasped at the pain.
"That's enough for now," said doctor Benning. "You need to rest and I'll get you something for the headache."
He quietly exited the room.
"It was a case, Ezra," said Vin. "It had to be."
Ezra kept his eyes closed, but Vin could see tears on his cheeks.
"I'm going to step out side for a second. I'll be right back."
Ezra gave no response, so Vin as quietly as he could with the crutches, hobbled out to the hall to find Chris and Andrew.
"Well?" asked Chris as soon as Vin stepped into the hall.
Vin turned his attention to Jarvis. "Did Ezra ever shoot anyone on the job?"
"Did he have a case with someone into kids?"
"Oh, god," said Andrew. "It was his last case before Markum. So he's remembering?"
Vin nodded. "Bits."
"Why'd it have to be the worst things that he remembers?" asked Jarvis.
"He needs you to go in there and tell him he didn't do things the way he remembers," said Vin. "He thinks he's one of the scum."
Andrew stepped quickly into the room anxious to assure Ezra that while his nightmares were indeed memories, he wasn't the evil man his dreams indicated.
Chris swore softly and leaned back against the wall. Standish had to be in hell not knowing what kind of man he was, let alone the details of his life.
"Doc says part of his problem is psychological," Vin informed.
"We'll make sure he gets the help he needs," said Chris.
"Mr. Tanner?" asked a young woman.
"That's me," said Vin.
"I'm from the day surgery center. It's time to check you in for your surgery."
"Okay," said Vin.
"You want me to come with?" asked Chris.
"Nah," said Vin. "Stick with Ezra. He needs a friend."
Chris watched Vin follow the clerk down the hall before stepping into Ezra's room. He didn't know what he could do to help, but he'd do his best.
"Do I have family?" Ezra asked. He was supposed to be resting, but he'd spent the last twenty minutes quizzing Andrew about the pieces of things he'd remembered.
"You're not married," said Andrew. "The only family that I know of is your mother."
"She travels a lot?"
Andrew nodded. "How did you know that?"
"Mr. Larabee told me she was out of the country when he tried to call her," said Ezra. "You said I'm not married. Do I have a girlfriend?"
"What?" asked Ezra, uneasy with the silence.
"I - I don't know that much about your personal life, Ezra," said Andrew. "I don't think you are attached to anyone, but I know very little about what you do in your spare time. You don't socialize much with the rest of the team."
Ezra was quiet for a moment. His head hurt and he really needed to rest, but there was still one big thing he needed to know.
"How did you lose me?"
Andrew sighed. "It was a combination of things. It's not unusual for you to miss a check-in time. Sometimes when you're in deep cover you'll go a week or ten days without contact."
"That stresses you," said Ezra observing Andrew's demeanor.
"Hell, yes," said Jarvis. "I have ulcers because of you. You don't report in on time. You push the envelope. You take unnecessary risks "
He stopped himself mid-tirade. He looked at Ezra hoping for that annoying smirk that his agent gave him whenever he lectured him. Nothing.
" And you're the best damn undercover agent I've ever seen." He sighed. He was beating around the bush. He didn't want to tell Ezra that they had screwed up, but the man deserved the truth.
"You'd been undercover about 5 weeks working your way into Markum's organization. You were late on a check-in and told us Markum was having you look at his books. You indicated that you might be late on the next check in - that something big was up. We waited ten days but you didn't call. Or at least I thought you didn't."
"What do you mean?" Ezra asked seriously.
"You made contact three days after the previous call, but the agent you spoke with had a medical emergency right after you called. He assumed we had the tape and we assumed he would have said something if you called. It wasn't until day eleven that I talked to him and found out you had called."
"The tape?" asked Ezra.
"No one had a need to listen to it until you missed check in. We screwed up Ezra. You warned us that Markum was moving his operation but you didn't know where. By the time we knew you were gone, Markum had covered his tracks and it took us a while to find where you went."
"Three weeks?" Ezra said icily.
"I'm sorry," said Andrew. "There were some red tape issues that slowed things down. And then there was the matter of figuring out where you had gone. Some of the higher ups figured you had been killed and Markum moved to safer grounds."
Ezra nodded. He understood the ramifications. Some had assumed him dead and stopped looking. Larabee had told him Jarvis had taken a leave of absence and came looking for Ezra on his own money.
"We keyed in on Denver when the ATF crew here started running background checks on the same perps you'd been with. I found out who was running the checks and flew out here to talk to them."
"You couldn't call?"
Jarvis shook his head. "I was afraid there was a leak."
"I don't know."
Ezra closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. The pain meds didn't seem to make much of a dent in his headache.
"What happens now?" he asked.
"Well, you're on paid medical leave until you're cleared for work or "
"Declared permanently disabled?"
"That's not going to happen," said Andrew. "As soon as you're able, I'll make the arrangements for you to fly back to Atlanta."
"If you don't mind, I'll make those arrangements when I'm ready to return."
Andrew looked at him concerned about the underlying tone in Ezra's statement. It almost sounded like he was considering not returning. While he couldn't blame Ezra for feeling that way after what he'd been told, he knew trying to convince him otherwise right now would only make him more determined - whether it was what he really wanted or not.
"I'll let you get some rest," he said. "I'll check in later."
Andrew left the room before Ezra turned his back to him. The undercover agent was hurt and confused, and he needed to do a lot of thinking when his blasted headache would let him.
For now he'd sleep.
"Here you are, Mr. Tanner," said the nurse as she wheeled his chair to a stop.
Vin looked up at the slightly fuzzy blond in front of him.
Chris grinned. It was always interesting to see Vin under the influence of pain medications. This one was apparently affecting his vision considering the blinking and then opening his eyes very wide.
"Are you ready to go home?" Chris asked.
Vin nodded. "Yup. Doc said I'm good to go."
"I talked to him," said Chris. "Nathan made me get it straight from the doctor, rather than your imaginative version."
He watched Vin try to rub his eye with his finger. It was a valiant attempt, but he kept missing.
"Here are his instructions," the nurse said. "He can put light weight on his leg tonight, not his full weight. And he's to wean off the crutches in three days. You can take the bandage off in three days. Keep it dry until then. This sheet is his exercises, and this is his prescription and his follow up appointment."
"Ow!" said Vin.
Chris pulled Vin's hand away from his eye and then took the papers the nurse offered.
"Thank you," he said as he folded them and put them in his pocket.
"Are we going home now?" Vin asked.
Chris shook his head and the nurse smiled. Vin was actually one of the more amusing patients. She was grateful he wasn't the type that turned grumpy.
She walked them to the door, pushing Vin's wheelchair. Chris hurried ahead to get the car. Two minutes later he was in front of the door.
"That ain't your truck," Vin said.
"It's the pool car I brought Jarvis over in from the office," said Chris opening the door for Vin. "I figured it would be easier to get you in than jumping up in the truck."
"But I wanna ride in the truck," Vin said with almost a pout.
"How long until this stuff wears off?" Chris asked.
The nurse just smiled. "Take care, gentlemen.
Chris made sure Vin was buckled in before rounding the car and climbing in. He started the car and they were on their way.
"I wanna drive," said Vin.
"You're too doped up to drive," Chris countered as he pulled into traffic from the hospital parking lot.
"You let Buck drive," Vin said.
"And when was this?" Chris asked.
"I dunno. The other day."
Chris smiled at Vin's chattiness. It was something rarely seen with the Texas native.
"Hey, if you're driving, who's with Ezra?"
Chris tried not to laugh at the length of time it took Vin to piece together that he was no longer in the hospital room with Standish.
"I left Jarvis with him," he answered.
"Oh no no no," said Vin. "You shouldn't do that."
This ought to be good, Chris thought. "Okay, I'll bite. Why not?"
"Because because Jar - Jar - Jar"
"Yeah, him," Vin agreed. "He might get Ezra to go back."
"And the problem with that is?" Asked Chris, almost certain the answer would make no sense.
"I wanna keep him," said Vin.
Chris chuckled. If only the other guys were here to hear this, Vin would never live it down.
"He's not a stray dog, Vin. You can't keep him."
"You let Buck keep JD!" Vin argued.
"Don't laugh. I'm serious," Vin protested.
"I know. And I'll hear you out after you take a nap."
"Where we going?"
Chris shook his head.
"So, do you want to know?" asked JD. "I mean I don't know if I'm supposed to tell you. That might keep you from remembering something you know."
Despite the constant headache, Ezra smiled at the young agent. His youthfulness and naiveté was refreshing.
"Please tell me what you have learned," he answered.
JD had called Chris and given him the information on the traffic accident. Chris told him to head on over to the hospital and let Jarvis take the bureau car back to his hotel. JD had given Ezra's medical records to Doctor Benning before stopping to visit with Ezra.
"Well on the tenth, I guess you guys had only been here maybe two or three days, you and this other guy, uh Jeremy Paulson, were in this wreck. The report says you lost control of the car and slammed into a concrete barrier."
"I was driving?" asked Ezra.
"No, no, the other guy was. I saw the pictures. It was a miracle you survived. You should have seen how smashed up Oh, sorry Ezra."
"It's all right Mr. Dunne. Mr. Paulson died?"
JD nodded. "He never stood a chance."
He sat quietly beside the bed for a moment, bouncing his knee unconsciously.
"There's something else?" asked Ezra.
"Yeah," said JD. He stilled his leg and leaned forward. "The police don't have a clue to why he lost control. There's no sign of another vehicle, no skid marks. It was a clear day. There's no alcohol or drugs in his system. It wasn't dark so it doesn't even seem likely that he fell asleep."
"What? Are you okay?"
"Fine," Ezra lied. "I'm just a little tired."
"I bet you are," said JD. "I can't imagine what it would be like to not know who you are. My mind would never shut down, I'd be trying so hard to figure it out."
Ezra smiled. He'd bet the young man's mind never stopped anyway.
"Well, maybe I should let you sleep. Nathan said not to bug you too much." He paused and looked out the window. "Well, actually he said I'd probably drive you nuts, and then said it'd be worse if they sent Buck, too."
"Mr. Dunne, you are a pleasant distraction from the monotony of this hospital room, and I much prefer your company to Buck's."
"He's not a bad guy you know," said JD. "He was just worried about Chris. They've been friends forever and Buck's a bit overprotective."
"Just a little," said Ezra.
JD looked at him unsure of whether he was kidding or not.
Ezra smirked. He held no grudge against Buck. He didn't blame him in the least for reacting the way he did. He was trying to protect a friend from an unknown threat.
"Why don't you tell me about the team?" asked Ezra.
JD smiled. "Well, you probably know Vin the best so far. He's our sharpshooter "
Ezra sank into the pillow and let JD's words wash over him.
"He lives in a place called Purgatorio and believe me, the name fits "
JD had watched Ezra's eyes close and his breathing eventually even out as he talked. After a few minutes, when he was sure Ezra was asleep, he stopped. A bittersweet smile came to his face. The guys might think his chatter was annoying, but he knew better. He'd spent far too many hours at his mother's bedside trying to distract her from her pain. He talked her to sleep too many times.
JD blinked away the tears. "Love you, Mom," he said softly. He picked up the remote for the TV and turned it on. Muting the sound, he flipped channels until he found a basketball game. He leaned back in the chair hoping that Ezra would get some good rest.