I want to send a great big hug and thanks to Katy for the awesome job she did on the picture for this story! She tweaked it several times for me until it was perfect! Also, thanks to Antoinette for her speedy-quick beta job. Any remaining errors are all mine! This story is for Terri in return for mailing me the bear from Revelcon! I hope she likes it!
The sleek, black Jaguar purred to a stop behind the equally black Dodge Ram. It was a beautiful spring morning. Wildflowers were just beginning to bloom, perfuming the air with their heady bouquet. Ezra shut off the engine and opened the door. He was still a little sore from taking a tumble down an escalator during the Ferguson case. His left knee was still tender from the fall, but there was no permanent damage, thankfully. He stretched, keeping one hand on the car for balance.
"Uncle Ezra!" JD shouted as he burst from the ranch-style house and leapt from the porch. "We've been waiting for you forever!" the little brunet tornado announced.
"John Daniel! Get back in here and put your shoes on!" Buck called from where he stood in the front door.
JD looked down at his stocking-clad feet, his lips shaping into a perfect little 'O' of surprise. He lifted one foot and saw how the dew on the grass had soaked the bottom and grimaced.
"Get in here!" Buck demanded, holding the screen door open for the child.
"Sorry Da," JD mumbled as he turned around and trudged up the steps. Once at the top, he turned back to see the damp footprints he had left behind.
"Come on in and have a cup of coffee, the boys aren't quite ready," Buck added to Ezra.
As he closed the door behind him, Ezra saw Vin run from his room to the bathroom and back. An instant later, he reversed directions to step into the hall and call out a greeting. Before Ezra made it to the kitchen, he heard the tiny Texan exclaim, "We gotta hurry, Dad! Miss Terri promised to help me find a book for my report!"
Ezra smiled, he had noticed how quickly Vin had bonded with the young woman who ran the children's section of the library. Miss Terri, as she encouraged the kids to call her, was popular because of her enthusiasm for reading and her innate ability to find just the right book for any occasion. For a timid reader like Vin, she chose subjects that he was interested in that wouldn't discourage him with long, hard words.
"JD, where is your other sneaker?" Buck asked from his position on his hands and knees in front of the couch.
"Don't know, Da. It was right there when I took it off last night," JD answered.
Buck sat back on his heels, pulled the cushion off of the couch and plunged his hand down alongside of the arm, coming out with the missing shoe, an odd sock and a Toy Story figurine, along with several dried Fruit Loops.
"There it is!" JD exclaimed happily. "Hey, I was wondering where that went," he added, taking the Buzz Lightyear figure from his father's hand and picking the dried cereal off of it.
"Take it to your room and let's get your shoes on," Buck said, climbing to his feet after replacing the cushion.
Some ten minutes later, both of the boys were securely fastened in the back seat of the Jag, their small bookbags resting on the seat between them.
It had become part of their routine. Ezra took the boys to the library every Saturday morning for story time. In part, it was to give Chris and Buck a little time to themselves but the larger part was simply that Ezra enjoyed spending time with his adopted nephews. After story time, they would go to a park for an hour or, in the event of inclement weather, back to the southerner's apartment. Ezra had a collection of games and remote controlled cars that he and the boys loved to play with. He was hoping that the weather remained nice because he had a surprise in the trunk for the boys.
Pulling into a parking space at the library, Ezra glanced in the mirror to see that both of the boys were waiting for him to shut off the ignition so they could unbuckle their seatbelts. It was a game between them, Ezra seeing how long the boys could wait before one or both of them would protest. He put the transmission in park, turned off the radio, put his sunglasses in the case on the sun visor, opened the center console and rifled through the contents for a moment. His cheeks twitched with the need to hold back the smile he felt coming on as the boys' thumbs hovered over the buttons on the seatbelts.
JD chewed on the inside of his cheek as he watched Uncle Ezra poking around in the glove box between the seats. He watched as his uncle's hand went toward the key and exhaled in exasperation when it went past the key to brush some dust from the dash. He wiggled, bouncing in his seat while his thumb hovered just above the button that would release the seatbelt. He looked over at Vin, who was also watching Uncle Ezra, although his view was somewhat obscured because he was sitting directly behind the driver's seat.
Vin's thumb lightly rested on the release button as he listened for the smooth purr of the engine to stop. He leaned right and left, craning his head to see what else his uncle could find to delay them getting out of the car. Finally, he heard the key turn in the ignition and pressed the button, flinging the belt from across his hips. He turned around to see that the belt retracted properly and didn't get twisted or jammed. Both of the boys knew how highly their adopted uncle valued his car and they were careful whenever they rode in it.
Ezra crossed the parking lot, clutching the boys' hands in his as they skipped or bounced along beside him. JD was trying to skip and stumbled frequently, hitting one foot with the other. Vin tended to bounce. Ezra suspected it was because the little Texan was trying to match his stride, which was difficult because his legs were so much shorter.
As soon as they reached the inner set of doors, a change came over the boys. They became quiet and walked like little gentlemen over to the elevator that would take them up to the children's floor of the library. By longstanding agreement, JD got to 'run' the elevator going up and Vin would 'run' it on the way down. Ezra had lauded the older boy for being able to wait until the end of their visit to press the buttons.
The elevator doors opened and the boys pulled Ezra out of the car to eagerly move toward the check-in desk. On their turn, each of the boys carefully extracted their borrowed books from their bookbags and placed them on the counter. Miss Terri smiled at them as she scanned the barcodes on the books and moved them to the cart to be replaced on the shelves. She winked at Vin and the fair-haired child blushed, leaning into Ezra's leg. When they were finished returning their books, the boys silently padded over to the reading area.
A variety of beanbag chairs and large, lumpy pillows were arranged in a semicircle around the chair Miss Terri sat in to read to the children. Three girls and two other boys had gotten there ahead of them and took the coveted spots closest to the chair. JD and Vin happily plopped into a pair of beanbags, wiggling and squirming until they were situated comfortably.
Ezra smiled at the boys' antics as he moved to take a seat in one of the comfortable overstuffed chairs just outside of the children's reading area. He took up the local newspaper and scanned the headlines. He had just finished perusing the first article when Miss Terri left the check-in desk and made her way over to the reading area. A few more children had joined the others and the girls were whispering animatedly to each other. He returned the beaming smile she sent his way. She nervously tucked a section of her waist-length brown hair behind her ear, her cheeks glowing warmly as she blushed. Ezra had a feeling that she was flirting with him.
"Good morning boys and girls. For those of you who may not know, my name is Miss Terri. This morning, we're going to begin reading from one of my favorite stories," the young librarian explained.
Turning his attention back to the paper, Ezra quietly flipped to the financial section. Miss Terri's voice rose and fell expressively as she read to the children and he found himself getting caught up in the story.
Story time was over and the children were carefully stacking the beanbags and pillows back into a neat pile in the corner. Ezra folded up the paper and laid it aside, looking around the room as the other adults rose to collect their children. That was when he noticed the man.
While it wasn't uncommon to see a homeless person in the library, they often came in to get out of the cold for an hour or so, this particular young man looked . . . menacing. He got up from the table he had been sitting at and began to roam the nearest aisle. He had his hands jammed deeply into the pockets of the overlarge, grungy-looking hooded sweat shirt he was wearing. His jeans had obviously seen better days, with holes in the knee and fringes of string hanging from where he had walked off the hem at the bottom of each leg. He rounded the end of the row and started up the next aisle, angling toward where Miss Terri was talking to Vin, JD and a couple of little girls who were seeking her advise on a book.
Ezra came to his feet, slowly removing his cell phone from his belt and flipping it open. When he saw the 'no signal' message, he silently cursed. The library had installed a scrambler to prevent people from using their cells inside of the building because it had gotten to be a problem some time ago. Edging closer to the aisle the young man was in, he hoped that his presence would encourage the man to leave the library without causing an incident.
"Excuse me, but this is the children's section of the library. Perhaps you would find something more to your liking on the upper floor," Ezra suggested when he caught the young man's eye.
"I'm not doing anything," the man replied, his hand working something in the pocket of his sweat shirt.
While his attention was fixed on the younger man, Ezra heard JD's voice, calling urgently to Vin and Miss Terri. JD came around the end of the tall row of book shelves and stopped, staring up at the man.
Children seem to have some innate sense about people and children who had been on the street, as Vin and JD had, even more so. Vin came up behind JD and stopped to study the man standing in the aisle. Something about the man made his internal alarms go off. He grabbed hold of JD's arm and tried to pull him away.
"Come on, JD. I think it's in the next row," Vin urged.
"No, it's right here, I remember," JD argued.
Just then, Miss Terri came around the corner and stopped abruptly. She gasped, her eyes widening in recognition. She reached out, moving Vin so she could insinuate herself between the boys and the man she knew only too well.
"Wayne, what are you doing here?" she asked.
"It's a public library. I don't need your permission to be here," Wayne sneered.
"But you got the papers," Terri said hesitantly, "Didn't you?" She had gotten notice from her attorney that he had been served with the restraining order just a few days earlier.Wayne and Terri had met at the library, where he came to use the computers from time to time. He struck up a conversation with her and they ended up talking on the parking lot for over an hour. When he invited her to an art class he was taking, Terri had accepted without hesitation. They had a good time together and gradually their dating had turned serious.
It all changed the first time Wayne took Terri to a bar. She learned that he liked to drink and that he was a violent, angry drunk. Having seen one of her friends struggling to break away from an alcoholic boyfriend, Terri decided to stop seeing Wayne and he didn't like it. When he took to following her home from work and stalking her at the grocery store and other places, she took out the restraining order against him. Her attorney told her that he had been arrested before for assaulting another woman he was dating.
Ezra slowly moved his hand around to grip the gun tucked into the holster at the small of his back. He didn't want to but he would use it if he had to.
"Vin, why don't you and JD wait for Miss Terri at the check-in desk," Ezra suggested, hoping the older boy would take the hint.
Wayne's hand suddenly whipped out of his pocket and tangled itself in Terri's hair. He jerked her toward him, turning to keep her body between him and the man with the southern accent.
"So, is he your new boyfriend? Is that it, Terri?" Wayne snarled, giving her hair a vicious yank. "Is he what you traded me for? Gonna play house with him and his little brats?"
Terri whimpered, reaching up to try to remove his hand from her hair. Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes and her heart felt like it was going to burst from her chest. Through the blur of tears, she saw the horrified faces of the parents and kids she had been reading to just minutes earlier. Wayne gave her hair another hard tug and she clawed at his hand. An instant later, she heard another sound . . . a sound that made her blood run cold.
Ezra held his left hand out, palm up, as he spoke to the boys, "Vin, take JD and go wait by the desk. Okay? It's going to be alright. Just do as I tell you and go." Suddenly, he saw the glint of light on the blade of the knife Wayne brought from his pocket and his hand tightened on his gun. "Take it easy. There's no need for this to end with violence," he said calmly.
Vin shifted to stand in front of JD and began backing away from the man who had Miss Terri by the hair. His wide eyes didn't miss anything. He saw the guards pressed against the walls of the elevator lobby, motioning for the parents and their kids to go down the stairs. He saw Uncle Ezra, with one hand held behind his back. Vin knew that was where his dad and Buck carried their guns and he was pretty sure Uncle Ezra carried his there too.
He might have made it around the end of the book shelves but for Wayne twisting his hand in Miss Terri's hair, causing her to cry out. Anger welled up in Vin's chest and took a step closer to the man and yelled, "You let her go! You're hurting her!"
+ + + + + + +
When the newscaster broke into the cooking show she was watching, Rain tensed. She hated to hear that there was trouble anywhere, but especially in the children's section of the library. The reporter offered only vague information but when the camera panned the parking lot, showing crying children and worried parents, the young woman gasped.
"Nathan?" she called out, "Could you come here?" When her husband came out of the other room, she pointed to the screen. They were showing the library again and she hoped they would show the crowd and parking lot again. When they did, she heard Nathan's gasp. Although the black jaguar could belong to someone else, he had seen the license plate and recognized it. A moment later, he grabbed the cordless phone and dialed.
Josiah glanced up from where he was working in the flower beds as the radio announcer began to detail the hostage situation at the library. Knowing that Ezra took the boys there every Saturday, he got up, brushed the dirt from his knees and went into the house. The local television stations were all broadcasting from the scene and, like the Jacksons', he spotted the familiar car and his heart clenched.
Tossing the last bit of sawdust from the wheelbarrow into the stall, Buck heard the familiar sound of Chris' cell phone. The two had been working on getting the stalls cleaned out and fresh bedding down ever since Ezra had left with the boys. Pulling off his gloves, he used them to knock the clinging bits from his pants legs. He was listening to the radio playing in the tack room when he heard his friend call his name.
Chris was smiling when he pulled the cell phone from his pocket. He figured that Nathan was calling to discuss what they were having for supper the next day, so he could decide what kind of side dish to bring. But something in the tense tone of voice that returned his greeting set his nerves on edge.
"Have you heard from Ezra this morning?" Nathan asked.
"Not since he left with the boys. Why?" Chris countered.
"You haven't seen the news either, have you?" Nathan asked.
"No. Why?" Chris replied, his voice taking on a hard edge as the hair on the back of his neck rose and his heart climbed into his throat.
"There's a hostage situation at the library. If you haven't heard from Ezra . . ." Nathan's voice trailed off.
"Buck!" Chris shouted.
Wilmington came out of the barn and jogged over to where Chris was standing near the small pile of leftover sawdust. He veered off to follow when Larabee began to move toward the house. The dogs started barking, prompting Chris to cover his other ear as he strained to hear whoever he was talking to on the cell phone.
"They've been panning the crowd and we haven't seen Ezra or the boys. There isn't a lot of information but I'm sure that's Ezra's car on the parking lot," Nathan continued, his eyes still riveted to the television.
The house phone was ringing when they got inside and Buck moved to answer it as Chris grabbed the remote and turned on the TV. Josiah's rich bass voice was thick with worry as he asked if they had seen the news.
"Chris is just turning it on now," Buck replied, absently focusing on the ticker-tape information scrolling across the bottom of the screen. When the camera angle widened and he recognized the familiar building, Buck broke into a cold sweat.
"Police sources report that the suspect has taken a library employee, at least one other adult and two children hostage. There is no word as to whether he is armed but the police aren't taking any chances," the reporter explained. "Several anxious parents have reported that the young man, who was dressed in shabby clothing, was lingering around in the children's section of the library during story time."
Chris shut the television off and headed for his room; returning moments later, still working at securing his holster to his belt. He ended his conversation with Nathan, stating that he would be there as soon as possible. The direct gaze he fixed on Buck told the other man to wind up his call and get ready or risk being left behind.
"I'm on my way," Buck told Josiah.
"I'll see you there," Sanchez replied.
Two minutes later, the big Dodge roared down the driveway. Chris was white knuckled at the wheel as Buck searched the radio stations for more news on the situation. The flashing lights in the grill and on the roll bar caused the cars to give way, which was good because Larabee wasn't in the mood to be patient. They were pushing 80 when they reached the highway.
+ + + + + + +
Wayne's head whipped around and he glared down at the fair-haired boy staring up at him. He extended his hand, pointing the knife at the boy while maintaining his hold on his former girlfriend. When the boy shrank back from him, he smiled.
"Not so brave now, are you? Hell, Terri, this kid is way too old to ever call you mommy," Wayne growled. He pulled the knife back, pressing the flat side of the blade tightly against her throat. "If you wanted a rugrat, why didn't you just say so? I'd have helped you make one."
As he was talking to Terri, he noticed the police officers peeking out of the elevator lobby and he knew he needed to find a safer place. Pointing the knife at the man with the southern accent, he motioned for him to move back.
"Get back. Over in the corner. Move!" Wayne shouted when it seemed like the man wouldn't obey. "Or I'll slit her throat right here in front of the kiddies."
Not wanting to take any chances, Ezra released his grip on his gun and brought his right hand around in front of him, holding it out toward Vin and JD.
"Boys, come over here to me," Ezra said, putting as much urging in his voice as he could. He saw that Vin's protective instincts were torn between JD and Miss Terri. "Vin, come over here and let's do what the man says."
Standing behind Vin, JD was mesmerized by the knife. His arms hung lax at his sides while he stared up at the blade. When Vin took a hesitant step toward Uncle Ezra, JD didn't move, his feet seemed solidly anchored to the carpet.
Vin took a step toward Uncle Ezra, his eyes darting from the man with the knife to the outstretched hand that promised safety. His hand brushed over JD's and he clutched at the smaller hand, dragging the younger boy along with him. JD resisted at first, until Vin gave his arm a good tug, then he stumbled.
Moving loosened the knot of terror that had built in the dark-haired boy's chest and he wailed loudly as he tumbled against Ezra's leg.
"I wanna go home!" JD sobbed, holding his arms up and pleading to be lifted from the floor. "I'm scared!"
Ezra grabbed JD by the shoulder and tried to steer him around, desperate to put his body between the boy and the threat but JD was clinging to him like a limpet.
"I said move!" Wayne screamed, pressing the blade against Terri's neck and breaking the skin. A thin ribbon of blood escaped, quickly running toward her collarbone and soaking into the v-necked tee shirt she was wearing. "Now!" Wayne roared.
"Vin, take JD and go to the elevator," Ezra ordered, pushing the younger boy away from his legs. He risked a glance at the boys and saw that Vin was solidly riveted on the blood stain growing on Miss Terri's shirt. Finally, Vin dragged his eyes away and reached for JD's hand again.
"If he goes, I'll kill her," Wayne threatened.
"Wayne! They're just little kids! Let them go!" Terri begged, her fingers now tangled with his in her long hair. "Please? Let them go."
"I said move!" Wayne repeated, pushing Terri forward and causing the southerner to take a step back. He edged around, keeping the man and the boys between himself and the cops he could see in the elevator lobby. He knew that they would have a clear shot at him the moment he stepped out of from behind the book shelves.
+ + + + + + +
Brandishing his badge case and ID, Chris moved through the knot of people crowded behind the police tape stretched across the entrance to the library parking lot. Buck was swept along in his wake, also flashing his badge at anyone Chris might have missed. Before long, they were standing next to the patrol car where the officer in charge of the situation was standing, looking at a set of blueprints laid out on the trunk lid.
Recognizing the older officer, Chris called out to him, "Mack, what can you tell me?"
Mack Crosby was a 20-year veteran of the DPD and recognized the sandy-haired man angling to get closer to him. "Chris Larabee, what brings you down here? I didn't know they had called in the ATF," he said.
"They didn't. I think that the hostages may be my son, Buck's son and one of my men. They were here for story time and I haven't heard from them," Chris explained, keeping his voice pitched low so that the crush of reporters couldn't hear.
"Can you tell me how you know?" Crosby asked, also lowering his voice.
"The black jaguar parked on the far side of the lot belongs to Ezra Standish. He's my undercover agent. He brought the boys here for story time this morning," Chris replied.
"Is he armed?" Mack asked.
"Yes, but he won't take a shot unless he absolutely has to. Can you give me anything?" Chris asked, looking up at the large glass windows that made up one side of the building.
"The hostage-taker was in between the shelves with your man and the librarian until a few minutes ago. Then he maneuvered them into a more secluded area, here," he indicated on the blueprint, "That was when we first saw the boys."
"Are they alright?" Buck asked.
"They appeared to be frightened but unharmed. The smaller boy was crying but it seemed that he was more afraid than hurt. The taller boy was pulling him away from the man," Crosby replied.
"He's armed?" Chris asked.
"With a knife. At least that's all we could see."
"Has anyone tried to talk to him yet?" Buck asked.
"We're waiting on our negotiator."
+ + + + + + +
In the periodicals alcove, Wayne forced the southerner to kneel. He couldn't take a chance on the man jumping him. It wasn't going at all like he'd planned. He was going to grab Terri and force her to leave with him. He knew that if he could just talk to her, explain things to her, that she would cancel the restraining order against him and go out with him again. All he wanted was for her to go out with him again, to give him another chance. But if she was dating the handsome man with two boys, he didn't know if he could compete. And now the cops were involved and he knew he didn't want to go to jail again.
Ezra struggled to keep from showing the pain he was in. The moment his knee touched the carpeted floor it had started to hurt. JD was pressed against his side, wailing loudly for his father to come and get him. Vin was hunkered down on the other side of Ezra, watching the man holding a knife on Miss Terri. Ezra wished he could persuade Wayne to release the boys but he doubted the man would give up his most valuable hostages.
JD rubbed his face against Uncle Ezra's jacket. He didn't like the bad man who was hurting Miss Terri and he was scared. He didn't care about getting more books to read, he just wanted to go home. Uncle Ezra was rubbing his back but JD really, really wanted to be held and his uncle couldn't do that because of the bad man with the knife.
"Wayne, please, just let them go. I'll do whatever you want," Terri pleaded.
"Shut up! Shut up!" Wayne growled. "Make him be quiet or I'll shut him up permanently!" he shouted, gesturing toward JD with the knife.
The threat was enough to make Vin move. He crawled behind Uncle Ezra and grabbed JD, pulling him off and trying to get him to stop crying. JD's cries escalated for a moment, then he latched onto Vin, burying his face in the crook of the older boy's neck and tucking his thumb into his mouth.
+ + + + + + +
The SWAT team silently approached the secluded alcove, hugging the walls to avoid being seen by the hostage-taker. The calm voice of their commander informed them that the adult male hostage was an ATF agent and that he was armed. Using small mirrors mounted on telescoping poles, they were able to peer around the corner and see where everyone was situated. One man used a specially designed mini computer screen to mark the locations on a scale map of the room so that the men in the control room could see.
In the SWAT van on the parking lot, Chris and Buck managed to peek over the shoulders of the men watching the small screen. It looked as if JD and Vin were huddled together in a corner behind Ezra. Chris was a little concerned that the southerner was on his knees, knowing that he was still recovering from a prior injury. Mack Crosby was discussing their options with the leader of the SWAT team, each man trying to figure out a way to end the stand-off without further bloodshed.
+ + + + + + +
Wayne loosened his grip on Terri's hair when his fingers started to cramp and he let his hand slip down to rest on her shoulder, then farther down to her waist. When he tried to slide his fingers under the waistband of her slacks, she grabbed his wrist. Heedless of the knife, she tossed her head back, striking her former boyfriend in the face. She pushed his hand away, launching her body away from his.
Seeing his chance, Ezra leapt to his feet. Unfortunately, his knee seized up and he stumbled forward, coming into contact with Terri and taking both of them to the floor. He heard the terrified cry of his adopted nephews but was unable to move because of the body of the librarian lying against his chest. He heard her labored breathing and carefully reached around her, running his hands lightly up her back. To his horror, he felt the handle of the knife sticking out of her back, just below her shoulder blade.
The sting of the blade entering her body wasn't too bad and Terry thought, at first, that he had only winged her. The hot ball of pain that came next took her breath away, literally as her left lung started to fill with blood. She heard the boys screaming and tried to push herself away from the handsome man but he wrapped his arms around her and held her still.
Staring in horror at the blood seeping from around the knife, Wayne knew that he had made a very serious mistake. When he noticed the darkly-clothed men moving just outside of the alcove, he charged across the room, intending to grab one of the children to use as a shield. He grabbed the first arm he came to and dragged the boy into his arms, turning to face the sudden arrival of men with guns.
+ + + + + + +
Chris couldn't hear what was happening but he knew that something had happened because the SWAT commander was demanding a report. Several long, anxious seconds passed before he began issuing orders for his men to withdraw.
"What happened?" Buck called out. "What in the hell is going on up there?"
"One of the hostages was stabbed and he's holding one of the children as a shield," the man announced.
Buck sagged back against the side of the van, staring up at the building and gauging his odds if he tried to get past the cops guarding the entrances. He heard Chris demanding information and the SWAT commander assuring him that the boys were safe for the moment but it was all coming through a thick fog. A large, comforting hand settled on his shoulder and realized that Josiah and Nathan had gotten past the barricades.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra took hold of Terri and eased her off of his chest. He laid a calming hand on her upper back and told her not to move. He looked out of the alcove in time to see the SWAT team retreating out of sight.
"What are you going to do now?" Ezra asked. "If you don't give yourself up, she'll die. Is that what you want?" He felt Terri tense under his hand and leaned down to try to reassure her, "Just lie still. You're going to be alright." Her only reply was a soft moan of pain. Her fingers scrabbled against the carpet as she struggled to breathe. Ezra covered her hand and gave it a squeeze.
+ + + + + + +
When Vin was jerked roughly away from him, JD bolted. He darted past the table and chairs and headed for the cubicles where the computers were housed. He hadn't made it more than a handful of steps when a strong arm came around his tummy and he was lifted from the floor. Before he could draw a breath to scream, a hand covered his mouth. He clawed at the arm but it was completely covered. He also kicked his feet, desperately trying to escape. When he opened his eyes, he saw that he was being carried toward the elevator lobby. Only after the doors closed did the man speak to him.
"It's alright, son, I'm taking you to your dad. Settle down and I'll take my hand away," Eric Tuney explained. He hated that he'd frightened the boy so badly but he knew he had to get hold of him and get him out of there as soon as possible. He felt some of the tension slip from the boy's body and he gently lifted his hand, moving it to brush the sweaty bang from his forehead. He carefully turned the boy around in his arms, settling him on his hip just as the doors opened.
"We've got one coming out!" the SWAT commander announced.
Chris looked toward the door in time to see a phalanx of SWAT officers close ranks around someone exiting the building. He waited, watching the group as they approached. Not knowing whether to be relieved or more worried, he reached out to his friend and said, "Buck, it's JD."
Buck pulled away from the arms that sought to hold him back and ran across the parking lot. The SWAT officers parted, allowing him into the nucleus of their huddle so Tuney could hand him his son.
"JD, oh God, you're alright!" Buck murmured as he buried his face in the small boy's shoulder. His arms automatically went around JD's body, supporting and cradling him even as the boy clung to him.
"Da! I was scared!" JD exclaimed, even as he burrowed into his father's embrace.
The tight knot of officers steered their 'package' toward the waiting ambulance to be checked out. They did their best to shield the father and son from the media.
+ + + + + + +
Vin didn't struggle against the man, instead, he did the one thing that he knew would bring an adult to their knees . . . he kicked him in the groin. The arm around his waist fell away and Vin dropped to the floor. He scrambled on his hands and knees to get behind Uncle Ezra.
Seeing his opportunity, Ezra drew his weapon and leveled it at Wayne, even as the man sank to his knees, both hands clasped to his aching crotch. Seconds later, the SWAT team was there. Wayne was forced to his belly and his hands were swiftly cuffed behind his back.
Even as she was losing consciousness, Terri felt the feather-light touch on her cheek and she saw Vin looking down at her. She tried to reach out to him as she tumbled into the welcoming oblivion.
+ + + + + + +
Buck allowed them to sit him down. He couldn't see for the tears pouring from his eyes. Someone was keeping a hand on his shoulder but the touch was unfamiliar. He was just glad to have his son in his arms again. It would have been fine but for the hands that tried to insinuate their way in between him and JD. The moment that his son wailed in protest at being separated from him, Buck raised his head and glared . . . right at the prettiest paramedic he had ever laid eyes on.
"I just want to check him out, make sure he's okay," she explained gently.
+ + + + + + +
The second ambulance crew stepped out of the elevator and hurried across the room to their patient. They dropped all of their equipment and went to work, checking her vitals and starting her on oxygen. When they went to start an IV to replace the blood she was losing, they had to ask the small, fair-haired boy to move out of the way.
Vin reluctantly released Miss Terri's hand. He scrubbed at the tears on his cheeks and spoke softly to the paramedic.
"Will she be alright?" he asked.
"We'll do everything we can for her," the man replied.
Ezra stood, keeping the majority of his weight on his good leg. The other paramedic noticed and asked the SWAT officer to bring over a chair.
"I really should take my nephew and report to my boss," Ezra protested.
"Just sit down for a minute and let me take a look at that leg," the paramedic said.
"I'd rather you directed your attention to Miss Terri," Ezra urged.
"My partner is taking care of her."
Ezra would have continued arguing but Vin stepped up beside him and leaned against the chair. He sighed as he wrapped his arm around the child and drew him in close. Vin slowly wrapped one trembling arm around Ezra's shoulders and laid his head down so he could still see what they were doing to Miss Terri.
"Would you like me to have one of these officers take you to your father? I'm certain he is anxiously awaiting your return," Ezra offered. He felt Vin shake his head. "Would you like to sit on my lap?" Again, Vin refused. "That was an extraordinarily smart thing you did, you know. Not many young men your age would have had the presence of mind to remain calm enough to perform such a perfect attack."
+ + + + + + +
While the second crew was stabilizing their patient, Chris was pacing on the parking lot, waiting for someone to bring Vin out to him. The SWAT commander was adamant that he not enter the building, regardless of his credentials. He had stood over the paramedics who examined JD and pronounced him well enough to be released to his father and now Chris just wanted to hear those same words about his own son. A large, imposing shadow appeared beside him and he turned his head to see Josiah had joined him.
"The paramedics said that the librarian was injured and Ezra may have re-injured his knee but Vin is unharmed. He is unwilling to leave Ezra and they don't want to further traumatize him by dragging him away," Josiah explained.
"It's a library, Josiah. Ezra was with them. How can something like this happen at a library?" Chris asked.
Josiah was saved from having to answer by the commotion at the entrance to the building. The paramedics came out, pushing a stretcher quickly toward the waiting ambulance. Tense moments later, Ezra limped out, wearing a brace on his leg and leaning heavily on the shoulder of one of the SWAT team. Vin appeared right behind them, walking next to another of the SWAT officers, but his eyes were following the stretcher as it was loaded into the ambulance. Only after the doors closed and the vehicle began to pull away did he look around and spot Chris.
"Dad!" Vin shouted, releasing the man's hand and racing across the parking lot.
Chris went to his knees and caught his son as he crashed into him. He buried his face in Vin's shoulder for a moment before raising his tear-streaked face to look at the southerner who stood over them. Chris' smile was filled with relief and gratitude.
Ezra paused to observe Chris and Vin's reunion. He was a little worried that this would somehow reflect badly on his ability to keep the boys safe. All his doubts were pushed aside when Chris smiled at him. He felt a hand taking hold of his arm as the SWAT officer passed him off to Josiah, who wrapped an arm around him to steady him on his feet.
Nathan glanced up from where he was watching Buck and JD charm the pretty female paramedic to see Ezra come out of the library with a splint on his leg. He patted Buck on the shoulder and motioned toward the happy reunion before walking away. He watched Josiah trading places with the SWAT officer and geared up to fight with the southerner. He knew that Ezra hated hospitals but he needed to have that knee checked to make sure he hadn't done anything to permanently damage it. He squared his shoulders and prepared to argue.
"Ezra, you're going to need to have that knee checked out. Now don't argue with me, I know what I'm talking about-" Nathan began.
"I agree. Would you be willing to drive me over there? I would rather not have to ride in the ambulance," Ezra replied.
Buck carried JD over to where the others were gathered, just in time to see Nathan fall into a stunned silence. He looked at Chris, who was also watching their teammate as he stood there, his mouth opening and closing as the look of confusion on his face deepened. Josiah's eyes moved from Ezra to Nathan a couple of times before the profiler tipped his head back and began to laugh.
Josiah offered to drive Nathan's vehicle over to the hospital, saying that he would come back later to retrieve his suburban. While Josiah helped Ezra into the passenger seat, Nathan adjusted the driver's seat to accommodate his longer legs. Chris and Buck put the boys in the Dodge and followed the other two vehicles to the hospital.
While they were at the hospital waiting for Ezra's doctor to review the newest set of X-rays, Chris tried to coax Vin into talking about what had happened. JD had recounted the tale several times already, losing some of his fear with each telling but Vin had yet to speak about it. The little Texan sat in his father's lap and stared anxiously at the doors to the treatment rooms. Every time they opened, he sat up straighter, straining to hear what name was called. And every time, he would slowly fold back against his father when some other group of family members got up to go through the secured doors.
"Vin, do you want to go to the cafeteria and get something to eat?" Chris offered. He had heard the boy's stomach rumbling and knew it was past their usual lunch time.
"Not hungry," Vin whispered. He let his head rest back against Chris and his eyes drifted closed. But just a few seconds later, he remembered the knife and the blood and the way Miss Terri's eyes drifted closed. Just like his . . .
Vin jerked awake again, his heart racing as he looked around the waiting room. Josiah was standing over him, spreading out the quilt Nathan kept in his car for emergencies. His dad turned him so that he was cradled in his arms and Vin fought back the urge to cling to him and cry.
Sitting on the small couch that was kitty-corner to the chair Chris was sitting in, Buck rocked JD. He had no doubt that there would be nightmares but they would deal with them as they came. For now, he was just relieved that the boys hadn't been physically hurt by the deranged young man. He would have to get in touch with some of his old friends at the PD and find out about him.
Almost an hour and a half later, Ezra stepped through the doors on a new pair of crutches. His leg was, once again, encased in a sturdy Velcro brace. Nathan immediately jumped up to talk with the doctor, not trusting Standish to give him the straight scoop on his condition.
"I just want him in the brace for a few more days. Being on his knees strained the ligaments and tendons and they are inflamed again. I've given him a mild course of steroids for the swelling and he can take OTC pain relievers. I'll need to see him in two weeks for another evaluation," the doctor readily explained. He handed off the written instructions and turned to ask a nurse about his next patient when Ezra interrupted him.
"Excuse me, Dr. Morgan, but could you find out how the young woman with the knife wound is doing?"
The doctor surveyed the board, translating the various abbreviations and deciphering the scribbled information for a moment.
"She was taken to surgery for repair to her lung. Dr. Sheffield is her attending. He's good. She's in excellent hands," Dr. Morgan said before quickly excusing himself.
Knowing that they wouldn't be allowed to see the young woman for several hours or possibly even a couple of days, the men prepared to leave the hospital. Nathan drove Ezra home and got him settled while Chris dropped Josiah off to pick up his vehicle before going on to the ranch. Before they parted on the hospital parking lot, Chris made sure that everyone was still planning on coming out for the barbeque the next afternoon.
After they dropped Josiah off and waited until his aged suburban started coughing and popping its way down the street, Chris headed for the highway. JD had slept just long enough to recharge his batteries and was bouncing in his seat while listening to tunes on the small CD player they kept back there for him. Every so often, he would begin singing the lyrics in his soft, off-key voice, mumbling over the parts he couldn't understand or singing the words he thought were right.
Buck's mustache twitched as JD launched into yet another incorrect rendition of one of his favorite songs. In spite of the stresses of the morning, his adopted son seemed to be handling it well. Vin, on the other hand, was quiet. Each of them had tried to get him to talk about it but the little Texan repeatedly shut down, keeping his attention fixed on the doors to the emergency exam rooms. After the doctor informed them that Miss Terri had been taken into surgery, Vin had laid his head on Chris' shoulder and asked to go home.
It was a long, awkward evening. Chris had informed Mack Crosby that he wanted the boys to have a day or so before they had to give their statements, not that they would be needed, Ezra and Terri could tell it as easily as either of the children and the boys would likely not be called as witnesses if the case went to trial. While JD played outside with the dogs, Vin sequestered himself in their bedroom. When Chris looked in on him, Vin was in the process of making a 'get well' card for Miss Terri.
"Can we take this to the hospital tomorrow, Dad?" Vin asked when he realized he had an audience.
"I don't know if they'll let you in to see her, son. They usually don't allow kids in unless they're related to the patient," Chris explained.
"But can't we just take it down there and have someone give it to her? Maybe Dr. Jake will be there, he'd take it to her for me, wouldn't he?" Vin suggested.
"Well, we could take it to the nurse's station and ask them to take it to her," Chris offered as he sat down on the bed nearest Vin's chair. "Or we could go to the gift shop and buy some flowers and send the card with them."
Vin turned around in the chair, his eyes shining brightly with hope, "Could we do that?"
Reaching out to run his hand over the top of Vin's head, Chris nodded, "We can do that. Now, you finish your card and come outside for a while. Okay?"
"Okay, Dad," Vin agreed.
Buck made spaghetti and breadsticks for supper. The boys were acting like they usually did on a Saturday night, excited to get to stay up for an extra hour. They cleaned their plates, slurping the long, sauce-covered noodles and mopping up the extra sauce with the breadsticks. Afterwards, it was a quick bath, then both boys piled up on the couch to watch a video. Since JD had picked the week before, it was Vin's turn to pick and they were soon settling down to watch Cars.
Scooping the limp child up from the couch, Buck could only smile. If anyone had told him that his entire world would turn around the happiness and well-being of one small boy, he would have called them crazy. But now he couldn't imagine how he'd ever gotten along without JD in his life.
Once Buck was gone with JD, Vin yawned and scrubbed at his eyes, trying to stave off sleep for a few more minutes. Several times during the movie, he had drifted off, only to come awake with a start as he replayed the afternoon's events in his mind. Chris got up from his recliner and moved to sit beside him, running one hand up and down Vin's arm.
"Ready for bed, cowboy?" Chris asked. Vin didn't answer, but he did lean against his father's arm and sigh. "Wanna sleep in my room tonight?" Chris offered. Vin's answer was to twist on the couch until he could throw one arm over his father's shoulder and nuzzle into the warmth of his neck. "Okay, kiddo, let's get you into bed," Chris murmured as he lifted the child into his arms and stood.
It was an even longer night for Chris. Vin was restless, tossing and turning and talking in his sleep. Most of the words were indistinguishable but Chris caught 'Miss Terri' and 'knife' more than once and, as he ran his hand up and down the child's back, a half pleading 'mama' drifted from Vin's lips. Chris had never seen the young woman who read to the children at the library but he swore that he would make a point of meeting her as soon as she was recovered.
After breakfast the next morning, Chris and Buck took the boys to the hospital. In the gift shop, JD quickly chose the biggest, brightest Mylar balloon he could find to send to Miss Terri. Vin lingered over his choice, studying the different arrangements of fresh flowers in the cooler for a while before meandering up and down the aisle, looking at the other items they had for sale. Chris noticed that he returned to a hand-made quilt several times, staring at it for a long time before moving on to the other things on the shelf.
"Would you rather get her the quilt?" Chris finally asked.
Vin looked up in surprise and then back to the price tag on the quilt. He knew it was a lot of money and he didn't want his dad to think he was wasting his hard-earned money. He looked up again and tried to shake his head.
There was something more going on than just picking out a gift for someone Vin was fond of and Chris knew it. There was something special about the quilt and about the young woman Vin wanted to give it to. Chris reached out and picked up the quilt, ruffling Vin's hair with his other hand.
"She'll like it better than flowers. She can take it home and keep it," Chris explained.
At the register, Chris paid for the quilt and asked if it could be delivered to Miss Russell's room, along with the balloon and the hand-made get well cards from the boys. The kindly older woman at the register assured him that she would see that it got there before lunch and Chris slipped her a nice tip. After they finished at the hospital, they went by to check on Ezra at the boys' request.
Ezra had slept surprisingly well, except for the nightmare that woke him at four in the morning. His leg still hurt but it was a dull ache, which was a respite from the throbbing it had done after he had left the hospital. He had showered and shaved and was just finishing an English muffin and some juice when the doorbell rang. He cautiously approached the door, since he wasn't really expecting company. As soon as he saw Chris and Buck on the porch, he opened the door and greeted the boys. JD returned the greeting enthusiastically but Vin only mumbled his 'hello' before surging forward to bury his face in Ezra's stomach.
"If you would like to make yourselves at home, I think Vin and I need to have a talk," Ezra said, as he steered the child toward the small home office. Once there, he sank into the high-backed leather desk chair and pulled Vin to sit in his lap. He allowed a few minutes of silence to settle between them before he spoke again. "You know you can confide in me, don't you?" he asked. He felt Vin nod but no words were forthcoming. Ezra waited patiently, knowing instinctively that he couldn't rush whatever was going on inside of the young Texan's head. He heard JD asking Buck if he could turn on the television and someone, presumably Chris, in the kitchen pouring coffee.
Finally, Vin drew a deeper breath and began to talk, his voice barely louder than a whisper, "I was afraid she was gonna die."
"Me too," Ezra confessed. When Vin drew back to look at him with wide, surprised eyes, he nodded, "It's true. And I felt like I had let her down. Like I didn't do all I could to protect her from Wayne."
Vin blinked, uncertain what to say. Uncle Ezra had expressed exactly what Vin was feeling! His tummy had been churning all morning, every time he thought about what had happened in the library.
"But you tried to get him to let her go," Vin softly protested.
"But I'm an ATF agent. I should have been able to get the knife away from him and then Miss Terri wouldn't have been hurt," Ezra countered.
"But you tried to help her," Vin argued.
"So did you."
"Nuh-uh," Vin said, "I just stood there."
"I seem to remember you telling the miserable cur to let Miss Terri go," Ezra prompted.
"But I didn't do anything!" Vin protested angrily.
"You did exactly what you were supposed to do. You stayed calm and you kept control of JD. That was very important."
"But I couldn't do anything to help her. I was scared that she was dyin' and I couldn't do anything!" Vin exclaimed before he threw himself into Ezra's arms and cried.
"Just like you couldn't do anything to help your mother?" Ezra asked gently. He felt Vin nod, even as the child tried to burrow deeper into his embrace. Looking up, Ezra saw Chris standing in the doorway but he made no move to speak or attempt to take Vin from Ezra's lap. Instead, Chris nodded, urging Ezra to continue. "But what happened to Miss Terri was different. Your mother was sick and there wasn't anything anybody could have done for her at the end. You understand that, don't you, Vin?"
"But I miss her so bad," Vin murmured.
"And Miss Terri reminds you of her, doesn't she?"
"My momma used to read to me . . . just the way Miss Terri does. If I closed my eyes . . ." Vin's voice trailed off as he succumbed to the tears that he couldn't contain.
Chris blinked back tears as he watched Vin finally breaking down and crying in Ezra's arms. He stepped away long enough to put his coffee cup on the kitchen counter before moving to gather his son up to comfort him. Ezra slid out of the chair and padded silently from the room, drawing the door closed behind him.
+ + + + + + +
Although the situation didn't go away all at once, it was better after Ezra took Vin and JD to see Miss Terri in the hospital on Tuesday after school. She thanked the blond-headed boy for the beautiful blanket and gave him a kiss on the cheek, a kiss that caused Vin to blush to the tips of his ears. She also thanked JD for the balloon, stating that it was the biggest one she had ever seen. They didn't stay long but Vin slept better after seeing for himself that she was getting better. He was pleased that she was going to return to work in several weeks. She extracted a promise from him that he would come back so she could continue to help him pick out books that interested him.
+ + + + + + +
It was two or three weeks before the team would be able to get together for another barbeque due to a case that required all of their attention on the weekends, doing surveillance mostly. When the case wrapped up, Chris planned a celebratory weekend bash, complete with a trail ride and a bonfire with the entire team staying overnight at the ranch. Ezra remembered the surprise he had planned for the boys after their ill-fated trip to the library. Miss Terri wasn't scheduled to return to work for a few more weeks and Ezra hadn't had an excuse or the time to take the boys out so he tucked it into his trunk to take along with him. His knee was still a little tender but the physical therapist said it would be as good as new by the start of summer.
It was an unseasonably warm day and Chris agreed to allow the boys to play with the Super Soakers that they had gotten the previous summer. The only stipulation being that they couldn't shoot anyone on the deck or play near the grill. Ezra arrived, dressed in khaki shorts and a striped polo, carrying his small overnight bag and the boys refrained from shooting at him until he'd had a chance to put the bag in the house. Later, it was a free for all on the back lawn, with Chris, Josiah, Nathan and Ezra all dodging the boys while Buck tended to the grill. Ezra had his own water gun, with a reserve tank that he wore on his back. Nathan worried that the southerner would slip on the wet grass and re-injure his knee but Ezra was oblivious, chasing after the boys and leaping out from around corners to squirt them before they squirted him.
Early in the evening, Ezra called the boys away from the game of keep-away-from-the-dogs to show them something in the trunk of his car. The boys eagerly abandoned the game, racing around the house to see what their adopted uncle had brought them.
Some twenty or thirty minutes later, Buck wondered where the boys were and what they were doing. Silent children are almost surely children who are doing something they shouldn't be doing, he thought. He got up and went around the house, padding silently on the thick grass. What he saw when he peered around the house had him hurrying back to get the others.
Four adults peeked out from behind the curtains as they watched Ezra and the boys with their new toy. Vin was the best, so far, but it was clear that JD was gaining on him quickly. Ezra was a little hampered by his still tender knee but he was giving it his all every time his turn came around. Buck bit down on his lower lip to hold back the roaring belly laugh that was climbing up his throat. Nathan had backed away from the window and was doubled up in the recliner, smothering his laughter with one of the small throw pillows from the couch. Chris just stood there and shook his head in disbelief. Josiah's shoulders shook with silent laughter as he watched.
"Okay, your turn again, Uncle Ezra," JD announced, picking the hula hoop up from the ground and handing it off. Ezra expertly flipped the hoop over his head and brought it down to his waist before giving it a mighty heave and gyrating madly to keep it moving. After several revolutions, it lost momentum and wiggled down over his hips and thighs to land on the grass at his feet.
"Seven times around, you're doing better," Vin announced happily.
"But I shall never be able to do it as many times as you," Ezra said as he bent over to pick up the bright yellow and orange hoop. Just then, the alarm on his watch chimed and he handed the hula hoop to Vin. "I wish I could stay but I have plans with a certain lady tonight. I will return after our date so that I don't miss Josiah's special waffles in the morning," he promised the boys.
One hour later, Ezra left his condo, freshly showered and shaved. He had already picked up a bouquet from his favorite floral shop and he laid them carefully in the passenger seat. When he arrived at his date's apartment, she was waiting for him.
"Am I late?" Ezra asked as he handed her the flowers.
"No, I just couldn't sit inside on such a beautiful evening," she replied. "Now, when are you going to tell me where we are going this evening?"
"I thought we would just find a coffee shop and get to know one another better," Ezra replied as he extended his arm for her to take.
Terri slid into the passenger seat of the sleek, black jaguar, barely able to contain her excitement. While she was recovering in the hospital, the handsome, charming ATF agent had been a regular visitor, stopping by every evening. She couldn't believe it when he asked her out. As he slid into the driver's seat, she wanted to pinch herself to make certain she wasn't dreaming.
At the end of their date, Ezra escorted Terri to her door and dropped a chaste kiss on her lips. Somehow, she imagined that the fact that she was taller would make it awkward, she was easily three inches taller than he was, but it didn't matter. His hand came up to caress her cheek and his thumb brushed against the pulse point in her throat as she returned the kiss . . . but that is another story.