Main Characters: Ezra, JD, Buck
Multiple Universe: Reality Check / Skip Trace / ATF
Sequel to Reality Check
NOTE: The central characters are Ezra from the Reality Check AU and JD from the gen ATF AU with a lot of input from Skip Trace Buck. Vin and Chris have a bigger presence than Josiah or Nathan. This story has no adult content although it takes place largely in the gen margins of Charlotte Hill's C/B/V Skip Trace Universe. For those not familiar with Skip Trace, that AU's establishing story Fractured has no adult content:
SUMMARY: Ezra and JD wake up in a strange land. Because this has happened to him before, JD assures Ezra their journey has a purpose. JD's assumption that Buck is the one thing will never change in any world is put to the test.
What had he been thinking? There were perfectly suitable exercise machines in the casino’s hotel gym that could duplicate terrain of all kinds. With music, ESPN, Ellen and Dr. Oz, not to mention a snack bar where he would be comped an icy, whipped fruit drink needing only a healthy dollop of rum to speed his recovery from the most strenuous exercise. Real bicycles were for pleasant rides on tree-lined asphalt paths that began at a Starbucks and ended at a quaint, ethnic deli with a decent wine list. He should have realized nothing good could come of riding so precarious a contraption in an uncontrolled environment.
Nathan must have pumped him full of painkillers because his attempts to assess how many of his bones were broken hit a fuzzy wall. He remembered starting down a steep section of the mountain trail after JD, his front wheel sliding out from under him and making a rather spectacular landing in some unpleasantly thorny shrubbery at the bottom of a twenty-foot embankment. After that, only a jumble of loud urgent voices, soft soothing voices and finally sirens. Now he was here alone in this dark hospital with a throbbing head, a metallic aftertaste in his mouth and a queasy but empty stomach. He couldn’t feel the inevitable needle in his arm much less tell which of his limbs were encased in plaster or whatever they used these days when people did stupid things with bone-breaking consequences.
He risked ratcheting up his headache to open his eyes but it was just as dark as it had been behind closed lids. That didn’t seem right; hospitals were never dark. Even at night the best one could hope for was muted lighting. Either his eyes were covered in bandages or he’d been blinded. He tried to raise his hands to feel for bandages and was stopped short. His wrists were in restraints. He jerked at them lightly at first and then harder. Damn it to hell. What right did they have to put him in restraints? What could he have done to warrant that and why had Nathan and the others allowed it? He rested a moment, waiting for the pain to subside where the restraints had bitten into his wrists.
It took a moment for that to sink in. Hospital restraints were wide and soft. He jerked his wrists again. His arms weren’t spread eagled, not pulled tight at all, but his wrists definitely were attached to something that didn’t give when he pulled. Not handcuffs, maybe plastic ties. The action told him his arms were intact, no breaks or sprains though they felt bruised. He sank back in the… Hell, not a hospital bed; not a bed at all. He moved his head, trying to get a sense of what was definitely not a pillow. Concrete. Rough, poorly finished concrete.
His first inclination was to shout for help but who was within hearing – friend or foe? Perhaps better to wait until his head cleared. If his friends were nearby, they’d find him even if he stayed quiet. If his captors were the only ones within earshot, better he let them think he was still unconscious while he tried to figure things out.
There had been sirens so he must have been in an ambulance. But there was nothing in his head that told him how he’d ended up here or where here was. Had the ambulance been hijacked or had he been spirited out of the hospital? If he’d been hurt badly enough to need an ambulance and to have been unconscious, Nathan would have ridden with him to keep him stabilized during the long drive. Maybe he’d gotten to the hospital and, while still unconscious, drugged and smuggled out. But surely JD would have stayed with him. Even if he’d stepped out momentarily, JD would have sounded an alarm when he returned to find Ezra gone.
The accident wasn’t JD’s fault but JD would have felt responsible enough to stay by his side. After he’d beaten JD in that exercise bike competition -- handily, by more than a mile -- JD wouldn’t let it rest until he’d proved that his skills were superior in the "real world." But it wasn’t JD’s doing that Ezra had finally agreed. It was Buck and Vin who had started taking bets, or at least trying to. It had pricked Ezra’s pride that no one would bet against JD so it was up to him to protect the Standish family honor and in the course of it, make a little pocket change, the most he could hope for from those two. He had been quite confident he could duplicate his victory as the exercise bikes they originally raced had been set to duplicate elevations of the very twenty-mile mountain bike racing course JD proposed for his real world challenge. Rarely had pride goeth before a fall proved so literally prophetic.
When it proved impossible for his mind to pick up the threads of the post-fall events that had landed him here, he tried to think who would want him out of the way even for a short time or thought he had information they could force out of him or thought he was worth enough money to warrant a ransom. No one came to mind. Certainly there was a rivalry among the casinos for the big-name poker games like the one he was setting up but casinos weren’t run by gangsters any longer, at least not any who acted so blatantly over matters not involving many thousands in laundered money. He hadn’t been involved in any important cases recently. Could one of his old ATF perps have picked this opportunity to exact a little revenge? Certainly there were any number of arrestees and their family members who might have taken advantage of a chance meeting in the environs of the Phoenix ATF office to inflict a little damage but he couldn't think of any who would have taken the trouble to track him down to an Apache casino in the mountains of northern New Mexico.
His thoughts were running in blurry circles when he heard a groan. He froze. There it was again. Not right next to him but not far away. Finally he whispered, "Who’s there?"
"Buck, that you?"
"No, JD, it’s Ezra. Are you hurt?"
"Don’t know. Must be though ‘cause I fell hard and feel all numb. My head is fuzzy and my ribs hurt a little when I breathe. Is ‘Lagro okay? Is it night already? Are we still out on the trail?"
Why would JD be worried about his horse? Or had he named his mountain bike after his equine friend?
"What’s the last thing you remember, son?"
"I was riding ‘Lagro out on one of the trails behind Chris's ranch. We were both feeling pretty good so when I saw a downed tree in our path, I figured it was an easy jump. Didn’t figure on there being a snake on the other side. Wasn’t even a rattler but I guess a horse’s nature is to run first and never ask questions. He reared before he bolted. I landed pretty hard, felt like my shoulder blade was broke. Smashed my head pretty good. How’d you find me? I thought you were taking Monica or Kim to a symphony or piano concert or something."
JD’s talking was even more muddled than Ezra’s thinking so he didn’t try to make sense of it for the moment. He couldn’t remember JD ever having taken a serious fall on his horse, either in Pottersville or in Phoenix and he’d acquired Milagro after he transferred from ATF's cigarette detail in New York to work an arson dog in Phoenix. Ezra didn’t know any Monicas and the only Kim he knew was their male martial arts instructor back in Phoenix.
"JD, are you restrained in any way?"
"Why the hell would I … ? Shit. Who the hell tied my arms behind this tree trunk?"
"Tree trunk? Ezra had been sure they were inside, perhaps in a basement or storage shed. He hadn’t felt any breeze or heard any wildlife.
"Are you sure it’s a tree trunk?"
"Yeah. Well, no. It’s wood and round but no bark. It’s rough though. I can feel bumps where the branches were cut off. Maybe some kind of fence post.
"Or perhaps a post holding up the roof of some rustic outbuilding?"
Silence for a moment. "Maybe." Another silence, then in softer voice, "We’re not out on the trail are we?"
JD must have been injured trying to get to where Ezra had fallen. "I think we were drugged and smuggled out of the hospital. It appears we both suffered head trauma. Does your shoulder blade feel broken now?"
Ezra heard the sound of JD shifting to pull against his bindings.
"Guess not. But I was sure I’d busted myself up good. Maybe my head’s too fuzzy because I’m loaded up with painkillers and can’t feel the pain except for a little in my ribs."
"Do you remember the hospital? Do you remember anything after you fell?"
"Just Betsy licking my face. Did she go get you? Is that how you found me?"
JD's dog had been left behind at the trailhead with Vin, Buck and Buck's dog Blossom. He and JD had been on the return leg of their twenty-mile race when Ezra had taken his fall but they were at least three miles away from the finish. Perhaps when they hadn’t returned as expected, Vin and Buck had taken the dogs when they'd gone looking them. Betsy was trained exclusively for arson but any dog worth its salt could find its master.
"Let’s worry about how we got here after we’ve gotten out. Our cohorts will figure out who imprisoned us and see that they get their just deserts. But first we must be in a position to contact them. I don’t suppose our unknown captors left you with any sharp implements."
"Gee, Ezra, pretty hard to tell with my hands tied behind this post. How about you?"
"I find myself similarly incapacitated. However, I believe I’m bound with ordinary plastic ties, not police issue cuffs. In other words, we have been treated like trash bags tossed to the curb."
"So we’ve been insulted. We’ll spit in their faces later. How do we get out?"
"We can use abrasion to fray the plastic."
"Scrape the plastic tie against something rough – that post sounds roughhewn enough to give the plastic a battle. Be careful not to tighten it and cut off your circulation."
For what seemed like hours but was almost certainly less than ten minutes, Ezra worked on one of the ties then the other and listened to JD work on his. Ezra didn’t think he was making progress and the expletives coming from JD’s corner suggested he was likewise discouraged.
"Shit, Ezra, don’t you have toenail clippers hidden in your shoe or a pocket knife in your - well, in your pocket?"
"If I do, I can’t reach them." Ezra ceased his efforts momentarily. "Whoever put us here, went to a lot of trouble to get us away from the protection of our friends. Before I realized you were being held as well, I tried to imagine who might go to this much trouble for me. Now I have to revise that to ponder an even more complex question. Who would go to this much trouble for both of us? We never worked on the same cases in the ATF until the Guy Royal affair and our Pottersville cases have often been exhilarating but haven’t involved anyone pissed off enough to risk kidnapping charges. Our testimony against Guy Royal and his henchmen was completed a year ago. Their appeals will go one for years but that’s not our . . ."
There was a sharp intake of breath, "Ezra, what the hell are you talking about? We always work the same cases. We’ve been together on Team Seven for years. And we never testified against Guy Royal. All’s I did was kick start a big investigation with some information I’d got . . ." He stopped for a minute. "I put it together from what I heard in the van before that explosion."
Damn, that’s just what he needed now. A sidekick living in a Denver Team Seven fantasy. How had Buck described it? An ATF in which every team was an Easter basket with an egg of each color – an undercover agent, a medic, a sharpshooter, a computer whiz, a profiler, a leader and whatever it was Buck was supposed to be besides second in command and a seducer of women. This was going to make it a formidable task to put forth a united front if their captors came back to question them. Then again maybe it would come in handy if they thought JD was insane.
"JD, I thought you’d gotten beyond those Denver delusions. You haven’t mentioned them at all since we, mostly you and Betsy, saved Pottersville and the Mountain Apache medical clinic from those arsonists. You know there was no communications van, no explosion, no ATF Team Seven. I just heard you mention Betsy. Betsy’s your arson dog. You told Buck and me that in your Denver dream world you were a computer expert, not an arson dog handler." The drugs and a head injury, they’d scrambled JD’s real world memories with his Denver delusion.
"Ezra, stop it. Betsy's my firearm detection dog." JD was agitated and too damn loud. If the unfriendlies were nearby, his voice would leave no doubt that they were ready to be questioned or beaten or whatever their unseen guards had in mind.
"Calm down and lower your voice! We’re not ready to take on everyone within earshot."
"Then stop it." JD had lowered his voice but he was still agitated. "I didn’t tell anyone but Vin about my Phoenix/Pottersville dream. Can’t believe he told you. It’s not like Vin to break a promise."
"Vin didn’t tell me anything. You told Buck and me all about the Denver delusion brought on by your head injury suffered when the flooring collapsed during that arson investigation." Ezra wanted to be soothing but they didn’t have time for a therapy session. There was a faint light coming through a dirt-covered window behind JD. "We’ll straighten all that out later. We need to concentrate on getting out of here."
But JD wasn’t ready to let it go. "You said you had a head injury. You must be confusing our real life with whatever Vin told you about my Pottersville dream. You have some kind of memory loss so you’re confabulizing."
"Confabulating," Ezra corrected. "Look, we’ll find out fast enough who we work for when we get out of here. There’s no point in wasting time debating something we can’t check." Ezra started working on his left wrist again, grinding the plastic tie against a screw protruding from the backside of the post his arm was strapped to. He heard JD renew his efforts.
They worked in silence for long minutes. Finally, the strap holding his left wrist popped. He felt around for something to free his right wrist. He wasn’t surprised there was nothing in his pockets. He checked the unfamiliar boot on his left foot. Ah ha. Tucked in a little slit in the lining was a tiny penknife with two blades. No, a blade and a little gizmo he could have used to open a metal handcuff. He had a similar knife he kept hidden in his belt but neither this knife nor the boots were his and his belt was gone. Did the unfriendlies have someone undercover in their midst who was trying to help them or had they stolen the boots from some unfortunate soul who took precautions similar to his own?
As soon as he’d freed his right wrist, he rushed over to JD, or at least started to. The moment he was upright, dizziness overwhelmed him and he sprawled in an undignified heap at JD’s feet. By the time he’d recovered, JD had worked through the plastic tie that held his hands behind the post.
JD slowly stood up, using the post at his back for support. With one arm around the post, he extended the other one to Ezra, who took it gratefully as he struggled to stand. They stood there together breathing quietly, gathering their strength until they were both steady on their feet. Ezra took this opportunity to look JD over in the faint light coming in from three dirt-encrusted windows. He looked a little worse for wear, dirty and bruised, his hair hanging lankly in his face. He was wearing clothes Ezra had never seen -- filthy black jeans, black motorcycle boots and a dirty Pendleton shirt.
JD gave Ezra a more succinct assessment. "You look awful."
If his own frayed jeans, scuffed boots and filthy black t-shirt were any indication, he wouldn’t be happy if he looked in a mirror. None of the clothes were his and he wondered again who had put, or at least overlooked, the little knife in his boot. He rubbed his hand against his cheek. There was at least three days growth, maybe four. He’d make the same guess about JD’s facial hair. They must have been drugged pretty heavily to have no memory of any of that time – and for JD to forget how he was originally injured. His story about falling off his horse must have been an old, exaggerated memory.
Despite the dirt on the windows, Ezra could tell the terrain rose so steeply on one side that escaping in that direction would take more agility and strength than they’d be likely to muster. There was nothing to be seen on the opposite side but pine trees and dirt, no people or vehicles. The window next to the only door showed a large building of some kind. Finally he bit the bullet and opened the door a crack. It wasn’t even locked – didn’t even have a lock. They stood quietly and listened, hearing nothing other than a few morning birds. Ezra opened the door a little wider and saw the terrain immediately around the building looked like a well-worn shelf about the size of a football field. To the right the land seemed to drop off, to a creek he hoped. Their captors hadn’t left them with any water and his mouth was dry enough to suggest it had been many hours, maybe as many as twenty-four, since he’d had any.
"Where do you think the guards are?" JD peered around the door, checking in every direction. "They can’t think much of us if they didn’t even bother to lock the door."
"I expect we’ll find we were dumped at some base camp in the middle of nowhere. I hope your Boy Scout skills are shiny bright. I can endure an extensive period of discomfort but I’d prefer to avoid actual starvation and dehydration. I’ve seen you heading out with Vin and Chanu into the backcountry; I expect you know how to fashion archery equipment out of shoelaces and bendy branches and find water by following butterflies."
JD elbowed him with a grin. "Bendy branches, butterflies? I hope Vin’s taught me better than that." Then, as though having played back the earlier words. "Chanu?"
Back on dangerous ground. Apparently Chanu wasn’t part of Vin’s social circle in JD’s fantasy world. Ezra saw nothing to be gained by forcing JD to acknowledge he’d met Chanu in Pottersville so he changed the subject, "Let’s figure out if we’re alone and what direction we should take to find help. How’s your head?"
"Don’t ask me to hack into any CIA computers or make change for a Slurpee but we can’t stay here waiting for the bad guys to come back for us."
"Then perhaps the better question is, have your physical faculties returned?" Ezra flexed his own muscles and bounced a little on his toes. He wasn’t going to win any foot races or have any three-hundred-pound thugs begging for mercy in a fistfight, but he was up to a little skulking.
JD nodded. "Could be those guys keep your hours. We want to be out of here before they’ve finished brunch. I can keep up with you. Guess we should see if the bad guys are holed up in that building ahead."
They slipped out of what, looking back at it, was a long, nondescript one-story building constructed of rough boards. Ezra had intended to head for a tree line and circle around to the building ahead but found that although there were plenty of tall trees, the area must be part of a campground because everything under the trees was relatively bare. They still didn’t see any vehicles or guards so they headed straight ahead, moving at a wobbly approximation of a run until they were leaning against the back wall of the building.
Ezra listened for voices inside, but the freight train of his rapid breathing left him unable to trust his ears. He looked over at JD and was chagrined to see JD seemed to have his breathing under control. JD cupped his ear and shook his head indicating he heard nothing. He pointed at Ezra and then to the right as he moved off to the left. Ezra didn’t see this as a time to exert his seniority so he slid around the right side of the building. He neither saw nor heard anything threatening but when he got the front corner of the barn he looked across 40 or so yards of open space to a log house. Not a Little House in the Big Woods cabin but what looked like an early version of the big log houses that made semi-rich people feel at one with nature. If the unfriendlies were here, that was the most likely place although there were no vehicles or signs of activity. JD sidled up next to him but stared unwaveringly ahead.
Finally, Ezra reached out and grabbed JD’s shoulder, trying to shake him out of his fixation. Do you know where we are? Have you been here before?
JD’s only response was, "Shit. This ain’t Colorado."
"Ah, the dawn of reason."
"We won’t find any ATF here either." JD seemed mesmerized by the large but simple structure.
"Well, I’m sure there is an ATF field office somewhere in the general vicinity . . ."
"Not in the 1800’s."
He gave JD a sharp look. "What are you trying to say?" Lord, what would he do if JD was now fantasizing about time travel? At least his previous bout of delusion had kept him only slightly off kilter within the familiar world of federal law enforcement.
JD pointed toward the log house. "Don’t you recognize it? That’s the Ponderosa ranch house. We’ve gone backwards more than a hundred years. Don’t think we can count on help from Buck and the others here."
Ezra tried somewhat successfully to stifle a chuckle. Apparently JD's TV viewing extended to reruns of fifty-year-old TV shows. He put an arm around JD’s shoulder and said gently. "Bonanza was a TV series not a documentary. We can safely reject thoughts of having done a reverse Rip Van Winkle."
JD clenched his jaw and folded his arms across his chest. "I know what I see. Maybe the Cartwrights weren’t real in our world but could be they are in this one. I recognize the ranch house. My mother and I used to watch reruns together when I was little. So how would you explain it?"
"Some way more likely than time travel. Perhaps a wealthy TV fan chose to build a replica to live in. We’ll figure it out after the doctors have flushed all the drugs out of our systems. You’re just a victim of a vivid imagination, an illegal infusion of drugs and too much television."
"Just because you’re too much of a snob to watch TV doesn’t mean . . . "
"I’ll have you know I believe it’s important to keep abreast of cultural references. I’ve seen enough episodes of What’s with That House to know that some people like to build TV-inspired houses. There was a show about fan who transformed the inside of his house into the deck of the Enterprise. Further down the road, we might just find a Victorian cottage with a replica of a Stargate in the backyard next to the hot tub.
JD gave him a wan smile. "Guess you think I’m crazy. It’s just that waking up in the 1800’s didn’t seem any weirder than waking up in the body of a seven-year-old like Vin did."
Ezra tried not to react but he was still a little too woozy to keep a poker face and JD obviously caught his surprise.
"Oh, so Vin told you about my Phoenix dream but he kept quiet about his adventures in cowboy PJs."
There was no point in arguing with something that absurd so Ezra just gestured toward what looked like a chicken coop to the right. "If we can get behind that without being seen, we can approach the house from the side, out of the line of sight from most of the windows. Maybe they’ve left us some orange juice and bagels."
JD nodded and grinned. "Maybe Hop Sing will make us some flapjacks and bacon."
Ezra smiled back, glad to see that JD could joke about his befuddlement.
They made it to the house without any sign they’d been seen. However, before they could check the windows, they heard a motorized vehicle approaching. They ducked around the side of the house and watched as a golf cart drove by and headed away from the house the way they’d come. The cart carried a man in a khaki uniform.
JD lurched forward, a shout on his lips. Ezra grabbed him and put a hand over his mouth. "Let’s wait and see what he does. He looks like a security guard but that doesn’t mean he’s a friendly. Security guards aren’t exactly well paid. This one could be on the bad guys’ payroll."
"So let’s get close enough to listen in. If he’s checking on us, he’ll probably call for help on his radio when he sees we’re gone."
"I’ll go. You stay here. If I get caught, you can get help." Ezra wasn’t sure JD’s brain was back to normal. Mostly likely his own wasn’t either, but at least his first thought on seeing a building that looked like the Cartwright ranch house wasn’t to assume they’d gone back in time.
But JD’s youthful enthusiasm for adventure had kicked in. "I’ve got younger legs and eyes. If that guy came up here on a golf cart, we’re not out in the wilderness; no one will need my superior knowledge of bendy sticks and butterflies to go for help." JD flashed him a grin and took off running toward the chicken coop and then from tree to tree past the barn until Ezra lost sight of him.
There was nothing for Ezra to do but wait. By the time JD got back he was holding his arms over his ribs but smiling nonetheless. "He didn’t even check that building, just went on by. Probably doing his normal rounds. He stopped in back to call one of his buddies. Told him he’d pick him up early ‘cause he had Roy Coffee duty today. Doesn’t sound like he’s part of anything sinister."
"Roy Coffee? Must be some kind of local chain. I could use some about now." Reheated coffee, Kool-aid, tap water, Ezra would have welcomed anything wet.
"Geez, what was that you said about cultural references? Roy Coffee was the sheriff in Bonanza. I guess this place was built to look like the Cartwright ranch."
"You’re not still thinking that’s where we are?"
JD gave him what Ezra guessed was supposed to be a withering look, which Ezra took as a sign to get back to business.
"Did you see a gun?"
"Nope. Something that was probably pepper spray and a big cup of coffee -- not Roy Coffee – not Starbucks either."
"Maybe we should take our chances and hope to get a ride out of here, wherever here is. Our other option would be to wait until he leaves and make our way to some place with a telephone."
JD looked torn but his run to check on the guard had obviously taken a lot out of him; fatigue and sore ribs won out. "Let’s hitch a ride if we can.
They sat down on the porch and waited for the security guard to return. When he did, he stopped the golf cart well back from the porch. To Ezra’s eyes he looked angry but not homicidal. He was smart enough to keep his distance as he assessed them. Ezra and JD kept their positions on the porch, not even wasting the energy to stand, looking harmless because they were.
"This is private property as you well know. It’s been closed to tourists for years now. I don’t know what it is with you Bonanza fans. That damn show was cancelled in 1972. It wasn’t even filmed around here."
"Do we look like Bonanza fans?"
The man shrugged. "There’s all kinds but mostly women. You look more like you're homeless but this place isn’t easy to get into just for a place to sleep. More likely you hoped to get some souvenirs to sell on ebay. I’m going to call the state patrol. If you cut the fence or did any other damage you’ll be arrested for vandalism and attempted burglary as well as trespassing."
"Thank you," Ezra responded. "We’ll wait right here."
"You will not. You’ll walk down to the gate and wait by the highway."
The man postured and ordered to no avail. He was standing next to his golf cart glowering at them when twenty minutes later a Nevada State Trooper pulled up in front of the ranch house steps.
Ezra leaned over to JD and said softly, "At least we’ve narrowed our location to Nevada."
"Everyone knows the Ponderosa is in Nevada." JD’s answer was matter of fact but Ezra was sure he detected a slight note of condescension.
Less than an hour later they were in separate examination rooms at an Incline Village doc-in-a-box run by some friends of the trooper. Under the circumstances, Ezra couldn’t say that a free visit to this picturesque Lake Tahoe resort town began to make up for the events that brought them here. But taking the glass half-full perspective, they could have awakened in a dumpster in a back alley in Bangor or a roadside ditch in Tulsa.
He’d wanted to stay with JD in the same examination room, mostly to stop him from saying something too far-fetched to be explained away. If they didn’t tell roughly the same story, they could still be classified as vagrants or vandals or, worse, sent for "observation" some place where it would be little comfort that the restraints were wide and soft. But JD hadn’t backed him up; neither had the trooper.
State Trooper Brukowsky had turned out to be a reasonable and relatively discerning lawman. He hadn’t gotten much past their names and Ezra’s explanation that they’d been kidnapped and dumped before he whisked them to his friend’s clinic. While they were guzzling water from the plastic bottles the trooper had in a cooler, he saw what Ezra in his muddled state had forgotten to mention. Head wounds. He saw dried blood on back of Ezra’s head. Underneath his hair was a wound that supported Ezra’s original supposition that he’d suffered head trauma falling during his bicycle race. The blood was more visible in Ezra’s lighter hair but a close examination showed that JD sported a similar wound. Ezra didn’t bother to correct JD when he claimed he’d fallen off his horse.
So here he was in a hospital gown, waiting his turn with the only doctor on duty this early. He’d emptied another bottle of water and gulped down two cups of the broth from some instant stuff they’d heated in a microwave. The assurances that it was organic and vegetarian were little comfort. He wasn’t allowed real food, even noodles, until after he’d been examined. And since he and JD were currently penniless, they would have to rely on the kindness of strangers to get something substantial.
A bubbly, young nurse had taken blood at both Ezra’s and Brukowsky’s request to send to the forensics lab in Reno. After that she’d washed the area around the wound and been persuaded not to shave away the hair. The wound appeared to be several days old, more bump than cut and wouldn’t likely need stitches. Of course, as she wasn’t a doctor, she wouldn’t come out and give a medical assessment, but even in his present condition, Ezra could read between the lines. The most useful service she had to offer wasn’t medical at all. The three doctors who worked out of this office, as well as their nurses and receptionist, were all runners, bikers or triathletes. The premises sported not only a small shower but a washer and dryer, apparently used mostly for running clothes and towels. Although use of the shower would have to wait for the doctor’s permission, she did offer to throw their clothes in the washer.
While the nurse was off running her errand of mercy, Officer Brukowsky took the opportunity to approach, notebook in hand. "Your friend tells me you’re both ATF agents out of Denver. He was injured on a trail ride. He doesn’t seem to know how you ended up in one of our local tourist attractions."
"People pay money to see that place?"
"Not any more. Developer bought it in 2002. Tore down most of the TV town buildings. We still get occasional Bonanza fans who’d like to get their photo taken at the old ranch house but it’s locked up pretty tight. Local district ran some sewer lines through there a few years ago – got to keep the waste out of the lake, you know. Took the construction company four months to get access over the protests of the developer that no one was going to set foot on his property. I can’t figure why anyone would drag you all the way from Denver. Lots of wilderness in Colorado. Seems if they wanted you out of the way there were lots of places that offered less chance of detection on the way."
Ezra hoped his muddled head had enough brain cells back on line to convince Brukowsky to accept his version of their situation without JD’s sanity being called into question. "My young friend apparently suffered greater incapacitation than I did from his injuries. It’s true we were both ATF agents not too long ago. However, we have since found more agreeable and less bureaucratic employment as peace officers in a rural jurisdiction in New Mexico." Ezra saw no point in muddying the waters by mentioning they’d been ATF agents in the main office in Phoenix not the branch office in Denver. We both seem to have suffered some memory loss."
"From the head injuries?"
"I’m going to leave that to a medical assessment. But I believe the main problem will be traced to whatever drugs they used to keep us unconscious for several days. Ezra rubbed his fingers against the stubble on his face. I shave every morning without fail. I woke up with at least three or four days' growth."
"Best thing I can do is to contact your agency. Maybe they know what happened on their end. I’ve already given your names to dispatch. There should be something in the system if you disappeared for several days under suspicious circumstances."
"If you have a phone I can use, I’ll call my friends now. One of them will catch the next flight out."
Brukowsky handed him a cell phone. "Mr. Dunne gave me a list of names and numbers just before Dr. Rangel came in to examine him but you might as well give it a try."
"Could I see that list? In his confusion, JD may have given you our old ATF numbers. I can give you the new ones. Of course, that will be moot if I can get a hold of someone now."
Ezra checked the list Brukowsky handed him. Sure enough, JD had listed all five of their comrades but after each name was an unfamiliar number with a Denver area code, not their old Phoenix ATF numbers or their current numbers. Ezra wrote in the current cell number for each man.
He decided to call Buck first. With JD missing, he’d keep his cell phone on and with him every minute even though under less pressing circumstances he often left it on his desk or in his vehicle.
The first time he got a number-not-available message, he assumed he had misdialed. He tried again, more slowly, but with the same result. He tried Chris next, then Nathan. Nothing. He fared no better with Josiah and Vin. He even tried calling Mary at the Clarion and Kojay at the reservation. More nothing. He felt himself sweating. Nothing had gone to voice mail, even the phone at the Clarion.
He looked up at Brukowsky whose face reflected a battle between suspicion and pity. Ezra guessed he’d already tried the numbers JD gave him and was now wondering if he and JD had made up their stories and simply written down random numbers or if they had lost the numbers in a brain scramble. Ezra tried to think of a feasible explanation but more for his own peace of mind than to satisfy the trooper.
"I’m afraid the situation is more serious than I’d imagined. It’s possible that our abduction was only a small part of an attack on my hometown. There are no landlines into Pottersville or the adjoining Mountain Apache reservation. We’re totally dependent on our communications tower. If whoever took us destroyed it, the area would be completely cut off. They won’t even get email."
"You’d think at least one of them would have driven out of the area."
"I’m sure someone did. But if the men attached to those numbers thought JD and I were taken somewhere up into the mountains, they could still be out searching. There’s one person outside of our home base you could call. I don’t have his number, but federal judge Orin Travis can be reached through the New Mexico federal district courts. His daughter runs our local newspaper so he’ll surely know what’s going on."
Brukowsky wrote the name in his notebook and took the paper with the names and two sets of numbers. "By the time you’re finished here I’m sure I’ll have gotten through to someone. And as I said, there’s bound to be a missing persons report in the system. I sent someone back to the building where you were held to check it out. Might be something to tell us what happened."
Ezra was glad to hear they were taking him seriously enough to check out their story though he doubted anyone not trained as a CSI would find anything useful. "Tell him to look out for the plastic ties we were bound with. Probably won’t tell you much but it will corroborate our story. And if he can find a place where the fence was cut, there might be drag marks. I certainly have no memory of walking in."
"I’ll radio Sylvia to collect them. She can dust the padlock on the main gate too." The trooper nodded and started to leave. He turned briefly and added. "I’ll be out here in reception if you think of anything else. I’ll give these names to our dispatcher."
In other words, the trooper wasn’t going to trust him and JD alone with civilians.
Dr. Rangel was solicitous but as far as Ezra was concerned the only useful thing he offered was permission to take a shower and a direction to the nurse to bring him some noodle soup with noodles extant. He was eating said cardboard cup of the incongruously named Vegetarian Chicken Noodle Soup when Dr. Rangel handed him a document fresh from his printer.
"Take this with you to the community hospital just in case the version I sent over gets misplaced in the system. I’ll call ahead so they’ll expect you. Neither of you need be hospitalized unless the tests detect something not apparent in my examination. These wounds are at least three days old so it’s likely serious effects would have manifested earlier but you can never be too careful with head injuries."
Ezra gave the appearance of assent, but he was sure JD would agree they should wait and let Nathan direct their recoveries. The thought of sitting around for hours in an emergency room was singularly unattractive.
His mood lightened when, despite being in line behind JD, there was enough hot water to rid himself of three or four days sweat and grim. But the comfort of a clean body was nothing to the discovery of filthy lucre. After dressing in his shabby but newly washed clothes, he examined the boots in which he’d awakened, hoping to find some clue as to the original owner. Whoever had donated the boots to his abduction had not only secreted the little knife in the right boot, he’d hidden five beautiful hundred dollar bills in the lining of the left one, just as he himself often did. He pushed aside the thought that the donor of his clothes might have been killed before he could retrieve his cash. That wasn’t his problem now. He and JD could get a few filling meals and seek out decent accommodations. They might even be able to find themselves a prepaid cell phone. Unfortunately returning by plane or rental car would be impossible without IDs. If the IDs couldn’t be located back in the hospital from which they’d been abducted, Buck or one of the others might have to fly to Reno and drive them home.
His mood held until he joined the others in the waiting room where JD was talking to Brukowsky and eating something out of a cardboard cup labeled Cha Cha Chili. An unfamiliar woman wearing a trooper’s uniform had joined them, carrying a manila folder. Ezra hoped he’d gotten there in time to stop JD from filling the troopers’ heads with tales of their fantasy adventures in Denver. As soon as he entered, JD gestured excitedly.
"They found us. I mean they found the missing persons reports. And there’s a $10,000 reward."
Now that was good news. "And since we extricated ourselves from our situation, that money should go to us."
"Ezra, we can’t collect a reward for finding ourselves."
"Why ever not? If nothing else, the agency’s workers comp carrier might pay to us to forgo a claim."
Brukowsky took the folder from the trooper he addressed as Sylvia. He read through a couple of papers in the folder and looked up at Ezra and JD quizzically.
"The report gives the names and numbers for Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington who are to be contacted by anyone trying to collect the reward."
"Well, sure, Chris is our team leader and Buck is second in command," JD explained. "They’ll be wanting to be notified first so that can send someone to get us and start figuring out who took us."
"Took you from Denver?"
Ezra interrupted before JD could dig himself a hole. "Mr. Larabee is the chief of the Pottersville-Mountain Apache joint police department."
"In New Mexico?"
As Ezra nodded, he put a hand on JD’s shoulder and squeezed, hoping to prevent him from contradicting the trooper.
Brukowsky looked down at the two pages he’d been reading. "Then perhaps you can explain why this reward is being offered by a bail enforcement agency in Atlanta."
Ezra held out his hand for the papers. When Brukowsky handed them over, he sat down, feeling shaky again. His first thought was that someone had tied him to a crime involving his mother and JD had gotten roped in. He hadn’t visited Atlanta for two years but his mother wouldn’t be above introducing someone else as her son if for some reason a son was needed for one of her schemes. If she needed two sons, she might have chosen JD – a background check would reveal them both to be peace officers. The imposters could have been arrested and then jumped bail.
JD crowded close as Ezra took a quick look at the two reports. The photos were of him and JD, not two imposters. Ezra handed JD the report with JD's photo on it. He didn’t even try to stop him when JD started to protest.
"This is crazy." JD jumped up and waved the paper around. "Nothing on here makes sense."
Brukowsky took back the report and walked outside, pulling out his cell phone as he pushed open the door. The female trooper followed him out. JD flopped back down next to Ezra and read over his shoulder as though somehow the report on Ezra would read differently.
Ezra gave up and simply sat back and closed his eyes. JD was so right. Nothing made sense.
The two troopers came back in a few minutes later. Brukowsky handed Ezra his phone. "Mr. Larabee for you."
Ezra was almost afraid to take it at first but grabbed it, realizing Chris would have some explanation. Perhaps they were diverting the attention of the bad guys away from Pottersville. Chris could have obtained a cell phone with an Atlanta phone number. JD crowded him again, trying to make an ear sandwich of the phone. Ezra spun away from him, tempted to go outside to get some privacy but knowing JD would only follow. However, JD was diverted when the female trooper handed him her phone.
JD sounded so relieved, Ezra could only hope that Buck would somehow make things right for their young friend. He walked outside to the sound of JD bombarding Buck with questions and his own name being shouted through the phone he was carrying.
"Mr. Larabee, how good to hear from you."
"Ezra, what the hell happened? How did you end up in some fake TV house in Lake Tahoe?"
"I can honestly say I have no idea. My condition upon awakening suggested I’d been clubbed in the head and drugged for several days. JD was in a similar state. I tried to call earlier but couldn’t get through to anyone. Did something happen to the talking tree? What’s going on in Pottersville that caused you to report us missing from Atlanta?"
There was a silence on Chris’s end. Finally he said, "Your trooper friend explained that you and JD were having memory problems. Get yourself to a real hospital. As soon as he gets off the phone with JD, Buck will grab the first available flight to Reno even if he has to wait on standby all day. We’ll book you on his return flight. You’ll have time to get an MRI or CAT scan or whatever before then. Hold tight; we’ll get things sorted when you get back."
"We don’t have any ID. I’m afraid you'll have to send someone to have to drive us."
"Buck’ll bring your IDs. Maddie Stokes had them in her room when Vin and Josiah caught her."
"Maddie Stokes?" He had to run the name through his head for a few seconds. "She’s out of prison?"
"You don’t remember tracking her down after she jumped bail? She lawyered up. Wouldn’t tell anyone why your wallets were in her room or what happened to you. We couldn’t get any names out of her."
"How is she involved in this?" None of them had anything to do with Maddie’s conviction in Phoenix. They hadn’t much liked her but they’d felt sorry for her sister Kate.
"She was the skip you and JD were after. She’s a small fish but Travis is sure she’s the link to a gang who’ve engineered a series of robberies and carjackings, including one in which a close friend of his was killed." Chris paused for a moment, "You don’t remember any of this?"
"I’m afraid I don’t. But you must remember that Maddie was involved with that no good Del Spivak. Surely he hasn’t gotten out of prison too?"
"Del Spivak? We’ll check that out. You remember anything else?"
"Perhaps Buck can get something out of Kate. They were always pretty good friends. If you can convince her things will go easier with Maddie if they catch the big fish, she might be willing to intercede."
"You say this Kate is a friend of Buck’s?"
"Kate Stokes. Chris you can’t have forgotten Maddie’s beautiful blonde sister. JD took her place on our shooting team after she moved to Yuma."
Another silence, then: "Travis can get a copy of Maddie’s visitor list and Nathan can track Kate down. I’ll get Buck on it as soon as he gets back from Reno."
"Why don’t you just overnight us two plane tickets, some expense money and our IDs? We don’t need babysitters. If you don’t trust us driving, Buck can pick us up at the Four Corners airport."
Another one of those damn silences. Finally Chris said, "You know Buck. He isn’t going to rest easy until he sees for himself that you and JD are okay."
Ezra shied away from the questions he really wanted to ask. There was no way Chris could have forgotten Kate Stokes. She’d ridden on their team for two years, giving Buck as much competition in the mounted shooting class as JD did now. Finally he took a deep breath and asked. "Chris, where exactly are you calling from?"
"From our office."
"Humor me. From what city? And spit it out. Don’t give me one of those silences while you figure out what will be the least disturbing to my fragile mental state."
Ezra steeled himself to stop his knees from buckling and forced himself to sound casual. "I see." Of course, he didn’t see at all. "I believe it would be best if we stayed put and let Buck come to us. JD is too disoriented to travel and we have no money to pay for transportation in any event. I’ll give the phone back to our friendly state trooper and he can give you the name of a local hotel with a good restaurant so you can call in a credit card number."
"Are there any hotels there without a casino attached?"
"There wouldn’t be any in Reno with a decent restaurant that lacked proximity to a casino, but I have no idea about Incline Village. You needn’t worry. It appears I don’t have my wits about me yet, at least not sufficiently to risk the poker tables."
"Well, just in case your wits return, I’ll give them the number of one of your credit cards. When the bill comes in, we’ll pay for legitimate expenses."
Ezra sighed. "Whatever you think best, Chris. Wait a minute and I’ll hand you off to one of the troopers who can fill you in on suitable accommodations."
He waited, hoping to not to hear more disconcerting news.
"If either of you isn’t up to walking around, I’ll consider room service a legitimate expense – as long as you lay off the caviar and remember that booze doesn’t go with a head injury. We’ll follow up on your information about Del Spivak and Kate Stokes; could be it’ll lead to a bonus from Travis."
Ezra wasn’t about to protest that Chris and Buck both had the same information. And it made his head hurt to wonder why they didn’t know that.
"One last thing. Do you have any memory of being held in an eighteen-wheeler or any kind of trailer or recreation vehicle?"
"I'm afraid my first memory is waking up in an outbuilding on the eratz Ponderosa. I assume you have some reason for asking."
"An eighteen-wheeler was stolen from behind Maddie's motel about the time you disappeared. The description of one of the thieves was close enough to one of the men Maddie came into the bar with that Vin and Josiah decided to track it down. Wasn't like we had anything else to go on. It was abandoned at a truck stop in Omaha. Traded more like – for some elderly couple's recreation vehicle they didn't notice missing until the next morning. The thieves changed the plates but our boys got enough information from the couple to identify it after it was abandoned in a WalMart parking lot in Salt Lake City. Didn't find anything belonging to either of you when they searched the vehicles but they found a few water bottles suspicious enough to send to a forensics lab. They called in a couple of hours to report having found the owners of a truck and Airstream trailer stolen from a motel around the corner from the WalMart. I'll send them to Incline and give your trooper friend the description of the stolen truck and trailer just in case."
"If Vin and Josiah are coming here anyway, it would be more logical for us to join up with them."
"Can't have them held up babysitting you two. If you don't remember anything, you'll just slow them down. If the men they're following are connected to Maddie, Travis will be interested. They could also be connected to that Spivak guy you mentioned. And there's the little matter of your kidnapping. I'll let them know where you'll be but we can't let happy reunions interfere with your recovery or their investigation.
Back inside, Ezra handed the phone to Brukowski. He was a little disconcerted when the man took the phone and headed outside as though he too wanted privacy. But perhaps he just needed to escape from JD’s high volume conversation with Buck. Listening to JD’s side, it sounded like a rapid-fire interrogation. Buck must have finished his inevitable questions about JD’s condition because JD had turned a safety check into a Q and A.
"You mean we’re not law enforcement? Not even state or local?"
"No, Buck, bounty hunters aren’t really law enforcement. And bond sureties are more like bankers or insurance agents with scumbag clients. What about Casey and Milagro and Betsy?"
Ezra heard a bit of a mixed reaction there.
"But the seven of us, we all work together? And I’m your computer guy? Did I choose the equipment?"
"Great. If you gave me a decent budget, I’m sure I got good stuff."
"Do I have a gun permit?"
"Of course not, where would I get a gun? The bad guys didn’t exactly leave me with cash to buy one. Just wanted to make sure I didn’t just sit in front of a computer all day. Were we in the field on a case when we disappeared?"
"Tell me about it."
Ezra didn’t want JD to get too much information until Buck arrived to handle the fallout -- the inevitable agitation. He leaned close and said into the phone. "Buck, I literally don’t remember the last time I ate anything but three micro-waved cups of broth made from tofu chickens. We don’t want to delay your departure; you can’t fly stand-by unless you’re actually standing by. Chris is going to get us a room and a tab at a restaurant suggested by the resident trooper so you can call us there if you have time. Otherwise we’ll wait there for you."
Ezra hadn’t volunteered to Chris that he had the cash to hire transport to Reno. It would have made sense, saving Buck the seventy-mile round trip to pick them up. But he wanted time to clear his head of the cobwebs; the cash was a safety line he wanted to hang on to. He just hoped Chris had sprung for a decent hotel.
But Brukowski didn’t take them to a hotel; they turned into the entrance to the Incline Village Community Hospital.
"I’m afraid you misunderstood. We don’t require hospitalization. We’re going to await the arrival of our friend at a high-class hotel."
Brukowsky grinned slightly. "Sorry, guys, Jim, Dr. Rangel, is my best friend. He wants you to get a few tests; won’t take long. You two are victim/witnesses so I have a little leeway to come back and get you when you’re finished. Then we go to your hotel."
He stopped the patrol car near the front entrance and handed Ezra his card.
Ezra made no move to take it. "I know you mean well but it’s our right to decline medical treatment. We’d be happy to sign waivers once we get to the hotel if you’re worried we’ll sue your friend."
Brukowsky turned in his seat. "That’s your right. But I should warn you, Mr. Larabee was firm that should you exercise that right I was to take you to a seedy motel next to a seedy coffee shop in Kings Beach where the hotel workers can afford to live. That’s where he’ll call in a credit card number.
"And if we get the tests?" JD asked.
I told Mr. Larabee that the hotel closest to Jim’s office was the Hyatt Regency Resort and Casino on the lake, two hundred a night in the off season, four restaurants. He said to give you your choice."
"We’ll take the tests and the ritzy hotel," JD answered quickly.
Ezra sighed. "I believe Chris has us in a corner. I’ll take your card and hope you’re not delayed by a crime wave before you can return."
As they exited the car, Brukowsky favored them with another grin as he handed JD ten quarters, three bananas and two apples.
"For a pay phone and vending machine. You can thank Nadine for the fruit."
"The nurse," JD whispered in Ezra’s ear.
Three hours, their pathetic fruit assortment and four vending machine granola bars later, Ezra and JD were checking into the Hyatt Regency on Lake Tahoe. Their shabby appearance and lack of luggage didn’t appear to give anyone pause so Ezra could only assume that Chris had given them some kind of satisfactory explanation without actually telling them anything. Of course, they had to share a room with no view of the lake, but that was of no importance. Ezra wasn’t tempted to use any of his precious cash to upgrade their accommodations any more than he had been to short circuit Chris’s extortion. Even if the hotel had let him get by without a credit card, and most wouldn’t, the taxi, room and meals would have eaten up too much of his security. Creature comfort was high on Ezra’s list of priorities but maintaining sufficient cash reserves was just below making a big score.
As soon as they’d been handed their keys and assured they could bill their meals to the room, they headed directly to the hotel’s twenty-four-hour eatery. The Sierra Café was not exactly an ordinary hotel coffee shop. Its casual dress code did not really speak to their ratty clothes, but hunger rumbled much louder than pride of appearance at the moment.
Ezra watched JD eagerly checked the menu. He'd been surprised that JD’s conversation with Buck had left him calm, even cheerful; he'd expected anxiety and confusion. His own conversation with Chris, despite the care with which Chris had avoided saying much of anything, had left Ezra barely able to maintain his calm façade. He and JD had been whisked into separate cubicles at the community hospital so this was the first time they’d been alone since their initial escape. Ezra had expected to be the one most able to wall off the part of his mind that needed the world to make sense, but there was JD, happily deciding how to fill his stomach.
The waitress who appeared was every bit as perky and solicitous as Dr. Rangel’s nurse. Ezra didn’t want to risk losing whatever he ate so he stayed away from the spicier offerings and ordered a grilled chicken Caesar salad and a melon plate.
JD gave the waitress a smile worthy of Buck Wilmington as he handed her the menu. "I’ll have a Denver omelet with hash browns and a Rueben sandwich with fries and a big glass of milk.
The waitress had barely bounced off when JD turned that smile on him. "Remember that time in Pottersville I was pretending to be your secret boyfriend and the Denver omelet got me all homesick?"
Ezra was so taken aback by JD’s reference to their first trip to Pottersville, it took substantial effort not to pounce on it as proof that JD knew it was not a dream. But he immediately realized JD’s comment included a reference to his homesickness for his Denver world. After a slight hesitation, Ezra responded, "That was about the time Nathan came in with Rain looking exactly as you’d described her the night before. And just a day after you’d described Mary before you met her."
JD was still grinning. "Pretty spooky huh? So did Nathan marry her?"
"You should know. You were at the wedding and weren’t even disappointed when Nathan declined Buck’s suggestion that you be ring bearer and used Billy instead."
"Naw, that wasn’t me. Not this me anyway. After I tumbled out of that fire station tower with Bob Spikes, I woke up in Denver General. You brought me a ham and cheese croissant and a big fancy donut with mocha filling and sprinkles." JD stopped and met his eyes. "Of course, that wasn’t this you."
When Ezra didn’t answer, couldn’t answer, JD went on. "So what happened after we saved the town? If you moved from Phoenix to Pottersville, Travis and Kojay must have bought my idea of a joint police department."
"You know they did. You’ve been working with Buck and Chris full time since you used up all your ATF sick leave recovering from the consequences of your fall."
"Yeah, I feel bad about that. All that other JD started with was a fractured wrist and a few stitches in his head; that fall must have busted him up good."
That other JD? Damn, two head injuries in two years had given the poor lad enough delusions to keep him in a strait jacket for a good long while. Ezra looked him over closely. Maybe he was one of those people with separate personalities that took over, leaving the main personality with no memory of anything that occurred while one of the other personas was in charge. This was clearly the personality that had been in charge while JD was under his Denver delusion. But if that was the case, how many personalities were in charge of Chris Larabee and how could he get in touch with the one who knew about Pottersville?
JD went on, seemingly oblivious to Ezra’s consternation.
"So did that JD ever learn to use all that high-dollar computer equipment?"
Should he just pretend there was nothing strange about this conversation? But then again, what alternative had he come up with? Maybe he should just follow JD’s lead and see where it went.
"When you woke up after your fall, you had lost all that whiz kid ability. But you were stuck with all that equipment so you spent your recovery time learning how to use it. You pretty much run the whole police department from your computer center."
"Is everyone happy working together on one team? Is it exciting? Do you fight lots of crime?"
Despite the absurdity of the conversation, Ezra had to smile. JD sounded like someone who’d thrown a big party, gotten called away and returned wanting to know if everyone had a good time.
"How much crime do you think they have in a little place like Pottersville? Even with all the people coming in for the sporting events there isn’t any major crime – runners, bicyclists and equestrians tend to be a law-abiding lot in general. They keep Nathan busy at the clinic as a doctor, rarely in his guise as medical examiner. Even the casino hasn’t been a hotbed of crime and as a reserve deputy, I don't have to bother with much of it. But the seven of us do have quite a rep when it comes to mutual aid. You and Buck get called with your dogs to arson investigations in all the surrounding counties." He filled JD in on what everyone was doing and assured him everyone was much happier than they would have been had they let AD Marshall Bryce scatter them to the four winds on behalf of the ATF.
"You don’t remember any of that?"
"I told you, I woke up in Denver."
"And where do you think you are now?"
JD pointed out the window that framed a view of Lake Tahoe. "Dum diddy dum diddy dum diddy dum diddy dum dum."
The waitress’s appearance with their meal interrupted JD’s feeble rendition of the Bonanza theme song. Ezra dug in, glad to have a reason to avoid conversation. JD wolfed down two mouthfuls of omelet before the waitress had set down his sandwich and milk. He had barely swallowed before asking her, "Do you know if the hotel has a place where guests can use a computer?"
"All the rooms are wired but if you don’t have a laptop, there’s a computer room just off the lobby for guest use. I believe it’s free."
JD waved his fork airily. "Doesn’t matter. We’re on an expense account."
Ezra was sure she was looking at their shabby clothes and wondering whether they could afford an hourly fee for a computer much less a room at this hotel. Well, he would take care of that.
"Miss, perhaps you know of a place where we might obtain some decent clothes and some basic toiletries. The airline lost our luggage and we’re in rather desperate straits.
She smiled, perhaps thinking she might actually get a tip rather than having to report them to the management for sneaking out on the bill. "The hotel has a gift shop where you can get razors, toothbrushes and such. There’s a pro shop that sells some sports clothes."
Ezra went back to eating and JD became too busy rotating among his omelet, sandwich, hash browns and fries to expect conversation.
Two hours later, they’d purchased toiletries and a change of clothes, spent over an hour on the internet and finally made it to their room. By that time it was all Ezra could do to hold down his late lunch. He had no desire to do anything but lie down until Dean Koontz stopped writing his life story.
"Ezra, things will be okay, really. I know what’s happening."
Ezra groaned and put a pillow over his head. "Leave me alone." He thought for a moment that JD would honor his disinclination to talk. But no, the mattress sagged as JD sat down and patted his back in a way he must have mistakenly believed was comforting.
"Ezra, don’t worry. You’ll get home. There’s just some things we need to do here first."
"I’ll get home? Home? Where the hell is home? We spent an hour on the internet. There is no Pottersville in New Mexico. No one answers the phone including the voice mail robot. I’ve lived and worked there for over two years and now it doesn’t exist. You and I built the Pottersville website to attract visitors and it’s been replaced by an ode to Harry Potter."
"It hasn’t disappeared; it’s just hard to get to right now."
"Did a tornado pick it up and put it in New Jersey, New York or Florida or one of those other states that still has a Pottersville on its map? And me without my ruby slippers."
Ezra turned his head toward the wall and pulled the pillow more tightly over his ears. If he could get to sleep, maybe he’d wake up and find this had all been a bad dream. If only JD would stop trying to comfort him with wild explanations as to why his whole life had disappeared. But no.
"Just play it cool. You’re good at that. Pretend you’re under cover as Ezra Standish, bail recovery agent from Atlanta. Something you know from Phoenix or Pottersville will help solve a case here. And something you find out here will help you when you get home. Simple as that."
Ezra gave up trying to play possum. He dragged himself into a sitting position and started to rest his head against the headboard but flinched when the wood touched the still tender wound. He placed a pillow behind his head before trying to steer the conversation to something that would salvage his sanity. "JD, when I started talking about New Mexico during our period of incarceration, you panicked. After talking to Buck, suddenly you appear sure of your place in the world. Seems to me it got more complicated and a hell of a lot more frightening. Perhaps you could share the source of your new found confidence."
JD looked thoughtful and took a moment before answering. "When I thought I’d ended up back in Potterville, I was scared maybe my life in Denver was just a hallucination. Once I found out we were in a whole new place, I figured out we were here for a reason and I’d be waking up in Denver soon enough with information to solve an important case."
"What possible reason could there be for us to be plucked from our real lives to be plopped down in some world to fill the shoes of some low rent version of ourselves?"
"Don’t know yet. That’s the adventure of it. And it’s started. Buck said the two of us were after Maddie Stokes when we disappeared. I told him you might be able to help him on that ‘cause my memory was fuzzy. I remember back in Phoenix that you said that gal with the palomino . . ."
"Yeah, Maddie’s sister Kate left the team when Maddie got sent to prison. I figured you probably knew something about why and that might tie in to what we were after her for here."
Ezra recalled his conversation with Chris about Del Spivak but offered only, "Maybe." After all, the name Spivak had meant nothing to Chris. "So what chocolate bunny did you transport from your sojourn in my world to the Denver Easter basket?"
"First off, right from my hospital bed I kicked off a multi-agency hunt that caught Bob Spikes and Guy Royal and Royal’s whole outfit. Then Vin and I put together what you told me and what he got from a dream he had and we caught Ella Gaines before she even got her Chris in her clutches – you know before she could . . ."
"And you think we might have slid into this nightmare in order to ensnare yet another Ella Gaines or Guy Royal."
"Of course. Why else?"
Why else indeed.
The only way he could shut off JD’s enthusiastic attempts to mine the facts of every big case either of them had ever been involved in to find suspects they could apprehend in this new world was to make a pretence of sleep. And pretence it was. He was unable to slow the spinning of his mind as it reviewed every aspect of every detail of his day, trying to find the loose thread he could pull to uncover the elaborate joke, the gaslight plot, the Mission Impossible scheme that was toying with his grasp on reality. And viewing events logically, there was nothing impossible – from a dozen cancelled cell phone numbers to a tricked out hotel computer. But to find he’d been the victim of a hoax would mean that the only people he really trusted in this world had thought it amusing to bash him on the head, drug him and leave him trussed up hundreds of miles from home. Or at the very least, they had seen fit to top off his physical abuse at the hands of miscreants with a liberal dollop of head screwing. That prospect was as unreal as the disappearance of his hometown.
In the end he decided the most comforting approach, for the moment at least, would be to let himself be carried along by JD’s confidence, -- hell, his enthusiasm. Having no reasonable explanation of his own, what could be wrong about suspending his disbelief, acting as though JD was right? They had a purpose here and would return home once it was fulfilled. After all what little proof there was supported JD’s hypothesis. When JD had lost his memory two years ago in Phoenix, he’d become an overnight computer genus and almost bankrupted himself buying complex computer equipment he didn’t know how to use when his memory returned two weeks later. Slim evidence versus none for any other theory. Ezra decided to keep his mind open and his mouth shut. No point in risking incarceration in the guise of hospitalization while matters sorted themselves out.
With his course of action momentarily resolved, he fell asleep.
However, the next morning when he saw Buck’s familiar figure unfolding from a red Prius, he found himself wanting to spill everything in the faint hope Buck would have an answer he’d overlooked.
He looked around for JD. If he himself was ready to spill his guts to Buck, he could only imagine that JD would throw caution to the winds. Sure enough, JD rushed into the lobby awkwardly holding three coffees. When he spotted Buck through the glass doors, he yelled, "Buck!" like a kid whose Dad had just come home from a business trip. Ezra intercepted JD’s dash for the door, grabbed two of the coffees and managed to whisper in his ear
"Let’s take things slowly. Don’t strain Buck’s credulity with stories of quests for alternate universe villains. Remember you don’t know this Buck."
JD laughed and said almost joyously as he made his way through the door and down the walkway, "Buck is always gonna be Buck."
Ezra took advantage of the brotherly reunion to claim the shotgun seat in the Prius where he’d have a vantage point for shaping the explanation they’d be giving Buck.
As Buck climbed back into the driver’s seat he cautioned JD, "This is a nonsmoking rental so I don’t want to catch you sneaking a smoke, even with the window open."
JD didn’t try to keep the surprise out of his voice. "I smoke? That’s disgusting."
Buck responded by pounding a fist lightly on Ezra’s seatback. "Good for you, kid."
Before they drove off, Buck called Chris on his cell. "Got ‘em. All in one piece, eyes bright and tails bushy. Not saying their memories are back yet. JD forgot he’s a smoker, but that’s all for the good. Stop you from bumming cigarettes off him."
"Put him on speaker, Buck," Ezra interrupted. He didn’t want to wonder what was being said about them if Buck started giving cryptic replies on his end.
Buck handed him the phone as he started up the unnaturally quiet engine of the Prius. "Don’t have a speaker on this, but Chris wants to talk to you anyway."
Ezra took the phone, noting that there actually was a speaker feature; Buck probably hadn’t bothered to learn how to activate it. But now that he had the phone, he wasn’t about to share that fact.
"Chris, have you found anything new about our abduction?"
"As Travis thought, Maddie Stokes is likely a minor player in a string of robberies and carjackings that have plagued the entire Eastern seaboard. Your information about Del Spivak may pan out – he has a lengthy record that suggests he could easily be the mastermind here. Nathan and I picked him up on a parole violation but apparently none of the witnesses can tie him to the bigger stuff. They’ll need to turn one of his gang. Likely Travis will pressure the DA’s office to give Maddie a misdemeanor in exchange for her testimony. He’s real anxious to get the man responsible for killing his friend."
Something clicked in Ezra’s brain. He paused for a moment, deciding how best to offer a course of action without having to reveal the basis for his suggestion.
"Don’t let them rush to give Maddie immunity. At the very least, urge them to couch any deal with the proviso that it is invalid if she is found to have personally killed anyone."
"What have you heard?"
"Chris, I’m afraid I have lots of untethered facts floating around in my head that my memory loss prevents me from putting in context. But I would urge you to have Travis check Maddie’s property at the jail. See if there’s a wedding ring he or the wife of his friend can identify. Maddie may have been wearing it around her neck when she was arrested. I don’t remember my source, but it’s possible she’s the one who murdered his friend."
"If that’s true, her sister Kate could be persuaded to testify against Spivak in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table for her sister. But we’d have to find solid evidence against Maddie. Kate isn’t likely to testify against her and so far there’s nothing on Kate to bargain with. You got any more useful facts floating around in there? You or JD remember anything about your abduction? We know Maddie must be involved because your wallets were found in her motel room. You and JD were sent out to that bar because she has a habit of trolling for men in those places. Did she take you or JD back to her motel room? "
"Sorry, those facts haven’t surfaced yet. But if you can find a couple of weasels named Garber and Kirkland, one of them might have witnessed the murder of Travis’s friend. Don’t let them give them too sweet a deal though. I think they’re both killers too."
"Ezra, that selective memory of yours is starting to scare me."
As he ended the call, he glanced back at JD who favored him with a grin and a thumbs up.
After they boarded the plane, Ezra lay back, eyes closed but ears open. He wasn’t about to miss a word of JD’s nonstop questions and particularly Buck’s indulgent answers. He didn’t want their conversation inhibited by concern over how Ezra would interpret it. If JD started to sound too crazed, he could always pretend to wake up. So far, JD had followed Ezra’s advice to avoid straining Buck’s credulity. His questions suggested only that he was trying to restore his memory so he could hit the ground running when they got to Atlanta.
JD started with their current skips and gradually worked back to their bigger cases. The fact that three years earlier Vin had been their biggest score almost shocked Ezra into dropping his act and asking a few questions himself. But JD asked everything Ezra would have asked and more.
"But you knew right away he was innocent, right? You refused to bring him in and helped him prove it." JD paused for a moment as though realizing the hole in the plot. "But how'd you get the half million reward if you didn't bring him in?
Buck chuckled. "It was tricky. We had to keep a bunch of balls in the air at the same time. If you don't remember by the time we get home, you can read the file. Vin had to do a little jail time."
"You let them arrest him, even though you knew he wasn't guilty? For the money? But it was Vin." JD sounded both shocked and disappointed.
"Remember kid, he wasn't Vin then. I mean for us he wasn't the Vin we know and love now. He was a stranger. The case against him looked pretty solid at first. We almost got killed busting it up."
"But you didn't care." JD sounded confident. "I'll bet the first time you looked into his eyes, you knew you were gonna risk it all for him."
"Well, he does have a mighty fine pair of blue eyes. And a grin that says, 'Aw shucks. I wouldn't murder anyone.' The case against him never did make sense to me. Took a bit longer to convince old Chris. But you know Chris, once he'd committed to clearing Vin, he would have given up the money to do it. 'Course we were happy we didn't have to."
"And after they dropped the charges, you hired Vin and he became the last of the seven."
"That's pretty dramatic, JD. Like we were looking to make it to some magic number. I guess if there is one, it's eight, 'cause Casey was the eighth member of our merry band to be hired in. Besides, Vin started working for us even before they dropped the charges. Like I said, once Chris decided he could be trusted, Vin was one of the family. No turning back. Couldn't do without him now, especially me and Chris."
Listening as Buck continued to talk about Vin, Ezra had to agree with JD's initial assessment. Whether he was a bounty hunter in Atlanta, an arson dog handler in New Mexico or an ATF agent in Denver, Buck would always be Buck. He wasn't afraid to let his affection for his friends sound in his voice. Most men were too preoccupied with sounding macho to admit they cared deeply for another man. Unless they were gay, of course, and no one would ever believe Buck walked that side of the street.
The Vin detour delayed JD’s dropping of his piece de resistance until after they changed planes in St. Louis. Of course, the change of planes meant a change of flight attendants. That meant some delay while Buck got acquainted. Ezra would give odds that by the time they landed in Atlanta two additional phone numbers would join two he undoubtedly had collected before they arrived in St. Louis.
JD eventually managed to ward off the flight attendants so he could get to his big questions while he still had Buck to himself. If he were headed where Ezra expected him to go, JD wouldn’t want to risk Chris overhearing after they were picked up in Atlanta.
"Buck, you ever hear the name Ella Gaines?"
Buck didn’t answer for a long moment. "Ella Gaines? Where the hell did you hear that name? That was a woman Chris dated for awhile after he joined the Navy. He wasn't at all sorry when we were shipped out and he didn't see her again. What made you ask about her?"
Ezra cringed a bit, sure JD was going to make some spectacular claim that would end with both of them under medical observation. But he’d underestimated his young sidekick.
"Don’t know Buck. I must have heard the name someplace ‘cause it just popped into my head. Does Chris talk about her?"
"Not that I can remember. Maybe he dropped her name in some cautionary tale to you about avoiding women like her. He said being with her was like walking on the edge of a sharp knife."
"Yeah, sooner or later you’re bound to bleed."
Buck nodded. "Those are Chris’s words all right."
JD shrugged. "Guess he must have told me then."
Ezra waited for the other shoe to drop and sure enough . . . .
"Buck, I don’t want to say anything wrong in front of Chris. Did you ever find out who killed Chris’s wife?"
"We did. Just as well you asked me. It’s over and done. Not something we use for conversation."
"Was the man Fowler, Cletus Fowler?"
Ezra cracked an eyelid just enough to see Buck nod.
"Did you ever find out who hired Fowler?"
"What makes you think someone hired him?"
"Are you sure no one did?"
"If you remember his name, you must remember that we found all his records. We know why he killed Chris’s family."
"Sorry, Buck. My head’s the same as Ezra’s. There’s facts just floating around not connected to other facts."
After that JD’s questions got away from their cases and focused on their friends – Nathan’s baby, Josiah’s background as a prison guard, Casey’s job as office manager. JD was understandably interested in the status of his relationship with Casey. As Buck’s answers were liberally interspersed with advice on advancing JD’s love life, their conversation took them right up to the "trays in upright position" announcement.
Chris pulled up at the curb just as they exited the terminal building. Buck slipped in next to him Ezra grabbed the seat behind Chris, figuring there’d be a bit more leg room. When he saw Buck slide toward Chris as though to whisper in his ear, Ezra leaned forward a bit, trying to look as though he were checking for something in the plastic shopping bag that constituted the whole of his luggage. He wanted to know anything Buck thought he had to keep from his back seat passengers. Ezra sat back abruptly when, rather than whispering, Buck planted a kiss on the side of Chris’s neck.
"Miss me, stud?" he asked in a voice that would have done Jessica Rabbit proud.
Instead of responding to Buck’s comical greeting with a shove or some other expression of distaste, Chris briefly lifted his hand off the steering wheel and traced the side of Buck’s face lightly with his thumb. "Hell, you were only gone one night. Barely had a chance to get myself a decent night’s sleep without your heavy breathing keeping me awake."
"Hey, I don’t snore."
"Didn’t say you did, but heavy breathing . . .?"
Buck laughed. "Yeah, well that’s something I can’t control when I’m in the mood."
"You’re always in the mood. To tell the truth, I think a man my age needs a night alone once in awhile."
Buck responded by breathing heavily until Chris gave him a good-natured elbow in the chest and motioned with a slight head tilt toward the back seat.
As Buck turned, Ezra leaned back and closed his eyes as though napping. He opened them again when he felt JD shift in his seat. JD was staring at Buck, eyes wide, mouth open as though he wanted to say something but couldn’t find the words.
Buck reached out and snapped JD’s jaw shut with one long finger as he chuckled. "Don’t tell me this is one of those things you forgot."
"You and …. That’s crazy." JD lowered his voice to a bare whisper. "He was married and you … hell, you’re Buck Wilmington, Mr. Animal Magnetism. You can’t be …."
"Can’t be what? You forgot my magnetism works on men too?" Buck patted Ezra’s knee. "Ain’t that right, Ezra?"
"Sorry, Mr. Wilmington, I’m afraid if you and Mr. Larabee are any example, JD and I remember the appearances and personalities of our coworkers and friends but a few details about you have disappeared along with our recall of where we live and work."
Chris smacked the heel of his hand against the steering wheel. "Damn it, Buck. You didn’t tell me they were still this bad off. We’re not going home until they’ve been checked out. The FBI can wait for their interviews."
Ezra wasn’t sure which would be more unpleasant, being once again prodded and poked by doctors or having their muddled minds exposed by the FBI.
"Mr. Larabee, might I point out that we have already been fully examined and tested by two sets of doctors. Until we find out what we were drugged with, there’s nothing anyone can do. And there’s little we can tell the FBI at this time. I’d like to spend the time revisiting places that might jog my memory – our office, my home. If the FBI needs to hear us say we remember nothing, they can just as well come by the office to hear it. I dare say if you take us by the office, JD can show you that he’s retained his computer skills. I don’t know exactly what it is I do but I’m sure I’m fully capable of doing it."
"Hell, you said you didn’t even remember what city the office was in. Not likely you can do your job."
"I assume my job requires me to use my sharp intellect, persuasive tongue and physical prowess to make sure that wayward defendants don’t force bondholders to forfeit their bonds."
Buck rolled his eyes and shrugged. "Chris, he’s got a point about the hospital and the FBI. Maybe going back to the office will jog their memories."
JD had been quiet since his initial reaction to the revelation about Chris and Buck. He caught Ezra’s eye before saying, "Maybe we can look over some old cases. Bet that will bring something back."
Ezra wondered if JD could sell his memory refresher excuse long enough for him to make his way through every file in the office. No doubt he expected to find proof Ella Gaines had paid to have Sarah and Adam killed - and uncover an unrelated lead that would make him a hero in Denver.
Ezra moved closer to the car window, wondering if this Atlanta could be as different as the Chris and Buck he remembered. "Where exactly is our office?"
"Little west of North Druid Hills, right off the 85. Got our own parking, good air conditioning, great security system. Lots of room." Buck was starting to sound like a real estate agent. "Nothing like the old place."
"At the moment I fail to remember the old place so if you hope to impress me with relative virtues I'm afraid you're wasting your time. This office will have to stand on its own merits." Something niggled at Ezra's mind regarding that part of Atlanta. Ah, yes. "I do see one welcome feature to be gleaned from the location alone."
"Do tell Ezra," Chris broke in. "Buck will be crushed if you don't like his find."
"Well, Buck says we're bondsmen as well as bond enforcers. Most bond issuers have unfortunate locations clustered around jails, the better to attract walk-in business. Unless my memory of Atlanta has been compromised, the office you describe is at least six to ten miles from the nearest jail. That should make for a much more pleasant working environment. I for one can do without late night drop ins by weepy women whose boyfriends have been arrested for beating on them or anxious grannies ready to risk their miserable pensioner's hovels to get ungrateful, drug-using grandchildren out on bail. I assume that we're on the approved lists for both Fulton and Swinnett County and can do some initial screening over the phone of those who have closed their eyes and poked the finger of chance at our name."
Chris and Buck looked at each other and laughed.
"What?" Ezra asked. He'd expected recriminations for his hard heart, not amusement.
"Guess who got us into a fair number of our granny cases?" Chris asked.
"It surely wasn't me," Ezra protested. "Nathan is tender-hearted in an impractical sort of way. It must have been him." Ezra looked over at JD. "Probably aided and abetted by JD's idealism and misguided chivalry."
"Oh, you didn't accept those bonds to spread the milk of human kindness. You were so sure no low life bail jumper could get away from us, you saw no downside to letting weepy women mortgage their dreams. "When it comes to persuading weak-willed women you'd be doing their loved ones a favor by getting them safely behind bars, I bow to your expertise," Buck said with what sounded like genuine admiration. "And," he added, "there's nobody better at scaring old ladies and young mothers with a vivid picture of life on the mean streets."
"But you finally saw the error of your ways," Chris broke in.
"Let me guess. We did indeed corral all those bail jumping miscreants but if the weeping grannies and masochistic girlfriends didn't know the location of the bond jumper and couldn't lure him in, the resources expended made even a successful effort a money-losing endeavor."
"Bingo," Buck answered. "And now you make it your personal goal to block Nathan from taking those bonds. But you haven't managed to dissuade him from taking on granny cases bonded by our friends at Quick Release. He gets so wrapped up in saving some old lady's last assets he puts in hours netting no better than minimum wage."
As Buck turned the radio to an oldies rock station, Ezra redirected his attention out the window trying to pick out landmarks of the Atlanta he'd known since some of those oldies were Top 40.
He was concentrating so hard on the scenery he jumped when JD sidled over and poked him.
"Looking for the Azure Gate Bridge?" he asked in a voice low enough not to be heard in the front seat over the sounds of Fleetwood Mac singing "Go Your Own Way."
There was no logical answer to that question so Ezra continued taking inventory out the window.
"You know, like in Sliders."
Ezra turned toward JD and said before turning back to the window, "The little burgers?"
"No, the science fiction series. They invented a gadget that let them slide from one parallel Earth to another but they couldn't find their way home. One time they were sure they were home until one of them saw a newspaper that had a story about San Francisco's Azure Gate Bridge."
JD was just babbling about stupid TV shows but that didn't stop the reference from sending chills down his spine. He'd been coasting on JD's certainty that they were simply temporary visitors, here to do a good deed before being whisked back to a place where he was sane. The last thing he wanted was to play chutes and ladders along the way.
Casey was the only one in the office when they arrived but her enthusiasm for the return of the prodigals was more than sufficient to make up for the absence of both the rest of the team and a fatted calf. She capped her rambling expressions of concern and relief with a warm hug for Ezra before she dragged JD toward a sliding door near the back. Ezra couldn't tell if JD was excited or frightened at the way Casey took charge.
"Where we goin'? I need to check my email."
"Don't be stupid, JD. I know you couldn't smoke on the plane and Chris wouldn't let you smoke in his car. I need to catch you up on everything and I don't want to be interrupted 'cause you need a cigarette. So we might as well start out on the patio."
"But Casey," JD protested. "I don't smoke any more."
"Yeah, right," Casey responded sarcastically. "Like I haven't heard that a hundred times."
After the kids disappeared out the sliding door, Ezra took the time to look around. Reception area, conference room, a bunch of desks out in the open area and what looked like two glass walled offices. Buck's smile suggested he was waiting for a compliment on his acquisition of the space while Chris . . . well Chris didn't. "So gentlemen, if you'll let me know which of the offices is mine, I'll do some catching up of my own."
The disappearance of Buck's smile indicated he no longer expected accolades, but Chris, he was grinning.
Ezra was relieved that no one else showed up that evening to ask him questions he couldn't answer. It had been disconcerting enough to find that in this world he'd been relegated to a pathetic desk sitting out in the open as if he was part of a secretarial pool. In his real life he had a spacious glass-fronted office overlooking the casino floor. But even so he wasted energy and good will trying to manipulate Kojay into giving him a corner office when apparently he should have been grateful to have walls and windows around him at all.
Things looked up a bit when he found his car keys in the desk drawer. How bad could things be if he drove a Cadillac? They looked even brighter when Chris and Buck agreed he could spend the night in his own home as long as he didn't drive there alone. Of course, he wouldn't exactly feel at home in a strange place. It surely wouldn't be as comfortable as his suite in the casino hotel, but it would beat Chris and Buck's guestroom for privacy if nothing else. His inclination was to invite JD to spend the night in his own guestroom but he wasn't sure he had one. So he settled for the two cell phones Josiah and Vin had recovered from Maddie's motel room.
He walked back to the patio and handed JD his phone. "Chris and Buck are going to escort me home. If you don't mind, I'd like to hear from you later tonight. You know, just to make sure you're okay."
"I don't think you should be alone Ezra." JD looked sideways at Casey. "Maybe I should go home with you."
Casey was having none of that. "That's really dumb. What would be the point of two people with head injuries watching each other? I'm going to keep an eye on you." She looked up at Ezra and pointed through the door. "You should go home with Chris and Buck."
"Yes, Ma'am," Ezra said with a tip of an imaginary hat. He doubted there was any world in which arguing with Casey was fruitful.
Ezra wasn't about to let Buck drive the Caddy. Even if it wasn't really his, he felt protective of his counterpart's worldly possessions. At the very least, Buck would mess up all the seat and mirror settings. He kept possession of his keys and while Buck was distracted talking with Chris, he slipped into the driver's seat. And found all the settings had been changed to accommodate a taller driver.
He rolled down the window as Buck approached. "Mr. Wilmington, it appears you've been driving my car during absence."
"Not me," Buck said as he slid into the passenger seat. "I've been wanting to drive this stealth gray bad boy ever since you got it with your Vin money, but you never learned to share your toys."
"It was me," Chris said, leaning against the doorframe. While we were out beating the bushes for you and JD, I decided to check out your homes just in case someone had taken you there looking for valuables or you had taken refuge there. Low percentage but we were running out of options. JD's place was easy to find because we'd all been there at one time or another. You were a different story. Buck was the only one who'd been to that Rehoboth condo you won so he gave me directions. But surprise, you didn't live there any more. After I scared the shit out of the guy who did live there, he told me with no little bitterness that he bought at the top of the market and now he's underwater in his mortgage. Of course, you never mentioned moving. As the only address you ever gave us was a post office box, we never knew the difference until now."
"Apparently, I'm not prone to discussing my financial affairs. But what does that have to do with you driving my car?" It didn't take but a moment for Ezra to answer his own question. "You used the navigation system."
Chris nodded with a grin.
"And then you broke into my current residence."
"Would have. I could see the alarm though the window. While I was checking with the alarm company, Vin called to say they'd found Maddie, along with your wallets and phones. I figured if you'd been taken there by force, you would have let the silent alarm go off rather than put in the correct code." Chris slapped the top of the Caddy. "I'm going to stop for some take-out. Mexican okay? I'll meet you there."
Ezra set his navigation system for home while Chris trotted off to his Camaro.
"What we want to know is, how the hell'd you do that?" Buck pointed to the map that popped up on the screen. "How much profit did you make on that Rehoboth condo that you could buy into the Virginia-Highlands? The only thing you can get with less than half a mil is a fixer upper and somehow I don't see you sanding floors and tacking down shingles. Chris says I'll be surprised when I see it but I'm not looking for that kind of surprise. Who the hell were you playing poker with?"
Ezra was a bit stunned himself. Virginia-Highlands was populated mostly by up and coming young professionals. The area had a sophisticated nightlife and great restaurants. Ezra appreciated the area on his infrequent visits to Atlanta but it had never occurred to him that he could afford to live there. "Chris said I sold that condo at the top of the market. Perhaps I made a huge profit I invested wisely."
"Or maybe you waited 'til the bottom dropped out of the market so you could take advantage of someone else's misery and bought a foreclosure or on a short sale."
"Timing is everything." Timing must have been damn near perfect if he could even afford a two-bedroom bungalow in that area. The address was on the east side near the border with Druid Hills, as close to the new office as the old condo.
They hadn't gone a mile before Buck's cell phone started playing a familiar song covered by an unfamiliar girl group. A Mel McDaniels classic, altered to suit the gender of the singers, "Baby's Got His Blue Jeans On." Buck flipped the phone open.
"Hey, Vin. You two okay? Yeah, we made it home. Chris went for take out while I escort Ezra home. He's here." Buck handed Ezra the phone.
Ezra put the phone on speaker and handed it back to Buck. "Mr. Tanner, it's good to hear from you. Have you captured the miscreants?"
"Caught two of 'em; third got away. They ditched the Airstream for an SUV. Guess they didn't need the extra space after they dumped you and JD. Caught up to 'em in Truckee, but you know how California is – no reciprocity on gun permits. Had to get creative so we only got one each. Wanted to check with you before we call the locals. If you recognize 'em, be easier to locate outstanding warrants."
"Sorry, Vin. I haven't gotten my memory back yet."
"Chris said you came up with the names Kirkland and Garber. Think you might recognize 'em? Josiah says he can send a picture to your phone."
Ezra fished out his own phone, which was distinctly more sophisticated than Buck's. He said as he handed it over, "Josiah must be in my address book." Once contact was established with Josiah's phone, Josiah sent a couple of pictures. Ezra pulled over so he could examine them closely. Both were of Vin with his hand on the shoulder of a handcuffed man. Ezra recognized them both from the Arizona trial of Spivak and his gang. He could only hope that in this world they had warrants.
"The one on Vin's right is Kirkland. The other one is Garber." I'm afraid I can't help you with why I recognize them except that they work with Del Spivak. I don't know their first names or where they might have warrants. I'm sure Chris or Travis have already checked for warrants in Georgia."
Buck took Ezra's phone and checked out the photos himself. "I'll have Chris get hold of Travis. They'll put your information together – see if there's enough to extradite them for kidnapping if there's no outstanding warrants. The vehicle theft charges should hold them for a while. You two get back here soon as you can. Place is lonely without you." Buck put his phone back in his pocket and set Ezra's in its holder on the dash.
"Mr. Tanner was looking quite fit," Ezra said, thinking that Vin did indeed look as strong and healthy as his counterpart who shared ranger duties with Chanu on the Mountain Apache Reservation.
"That boy always looks good," Buck responded with a lascivious chuckle.
Ezra couldn't help but smile. The Buck he knew often spoke of pretty women with that mixture of admiration and lust in his voice. This Buck apparently had the sexual versatility to speak of the comely of both sexes that way. Most likely the men who worked with him were used to it and responded with the same humorous rejection Inez did back home.
Inez. Now there was someone worth asking about. "Chris said he was going to pick up Mexican food. For some reason a name popped into my head when he said that. Do we know someone named Inez Recillos?" Ezra kept his voice casual and his eyes on the road.
"Well, Chris and I do but I didn't think any of the rest of you did. She managed a place downtown called the Saloon. 'Course that was before I fell in love with Chris so I was free to court her a bit whenever we went in there. She loved playing hard to get but I'm thinking she might have fallen in love with me if I'd stuck with it. Last we heard she'd opened a place in Austelle. Maybe you met her there. We should all check it out sometime; couldn't be more than twenty miles away."
Ezra shrugged. "We should." Not. There was no way he was going to hurt his counterpart's chances with Inez by arranging a social event that put Vin in contact with her. Maybe he should leave himself an encouraging note with directions to Inez's place.
"So you knew Inez back before you and Chris were living together."
"Oh, we were living together, first at my place and then at the farm. Sold my place."
"I guess municipal police officers aren't the highest paid individuals so it made sense for you to share expenses."
"Sharing expenses became sort of necessary after we quit the force."
"Both of you? I seem to have some faint recollection that it took quite a while for Chris to pull himself together, but you . . . ?"
Buck shifted a bit in his seat. "Look Ezra, no offense but Chris doesn't like his life used for conversation."
"Sorry. I wasn't trying to pry into anything I wouldn't have known if I remembered what I knew." Of course, once they got beyond the bits and pieces Ezra had heard or overheard in his real life about Chris's temporary but deep downslide after he lost his family, he knew nothing except that Buck had tried to help Chris pull himself together. But in his world, the help had fallen far short of the form it had taken in this one. If Buck really believed he hadn't fallen in love with Chris until after he'd abandoned his law enforcement career, sold his home and moved in with Chris to watch over him, he'd been deluding himself. Maybe he hadn't wanted to admit he'd fallen in love with a man, even after he'd given of himself in ways well beyond anything conceivable for even a best friend or blood brother.
When the navigation device advised Ezra he'd arrived at home, Buck enthusiastically bounded out of the car while Ezra sat staring. Not that the place was a mansion or what could be called an estate. It was simply a beautiful two-story Craftsman with a wide front porch and upper dormers suggesting a usable attic room above the second story. The first story was brick and the front yard had enough rise to require a lengthy span concrete steps to the front door and terraced landscaping that was mercifully free of lawn.
Ezra got out slowly and went to stand by Buck who was leaning against the Caddy as he looked the house over. "Have you and Chris ever suspected me of embezzlement?"
Buck grinned. "All the time. But there's no way that you ever got away with enough to account for this." He gestured with his arm across the terraced yard. "What does something like this go for?"
"Guess that depends on whether the original woodwork and built-ins are intact. And whether I bought it at the top or bottom of the market. Five or six hundred thousand at the very least. How much do you think I could have made on that condo you saw?"
"Not that much. You didn't tell me how big your mortgage was but even free and clear there's no way it could have gone for more than a quarter mil, even in an up market. I reckon you must have papers in a lockbox or something. So are we going to stand around admiring the place or go on in? You brought the keys didn't you?"
"The keys, not the security code but maybe it will come to me. I believe most alarms give you at least three free tries. Anyway, if the alarm goes off, what can they do? I have my ID." He unlocked the front door and found himself in a little foyer lit by a round mission-style ceiling fixture. The alarm panel was set in the wall next to the wood-framed stained glass door into the main house. To his left was a coat closet. To the right was a small wooden church pew beneath a round beveled mirror. He didn't bother trying the code he currently used back home. If this world's Ezra hadn't yet met Inez, he could hardly be using her birthday as his security code. Nevertheless, he got it on his third try. Apparently even in this life he had happy childhood memories of a Cairn terrier named Whiskers.
While Ezra was punching buttons, Buck went into the house - and burst out again just as Ezra finished. "Damn Ezra, someone's stolen all your furniture."
The large front room confirmed Buck's observation. It was completely empty, as was the dining room he could see on the other side of a half wall at the far end of the front room. "Perhaps I don't have enough for these rooms. What did I have at the condo?"
"The usual stuff but maybe you won it furnished and sold it the same way."
"Well, even if I eat out and don't entertain, I must have a bed upstairs."
He turned toward the stairs while Buck headed for the room to the right of the empty dining room. Ezra was halfway up when he heard Buck say, "Uh, oh, you have more trouble than missing furniture."
As Ezra joined his friend he had to agree. The kitchen was completely gutted – no appliances, no cabinets, no sink, no counters, no tile. "Regardless of what my vehicle seems to believe, it's apparent this is not home."
After poking his head into a similarly stripped bathroom and an empty back bedroom, Ezra led the way upstairs only to find the same state of affairs. Three empty bedrooms and a bathroom stripped of all the fixtures.
"I'm thinking you could afford this place after all." Buck said as he opened closet doors and peered inside.
"And I'm thinking I might have to take you up on the offer of your guest room."
As they descended the stairs, Chris came in carrying a couple of bags that smelled of hot food. He looked around as though wondering where to set them down. "Look a little short on seating, Ezra."
"It appears the rumors that I live here were somewhat exaggerated."
Chris hooked a thumb toward the back left corner of the house. " There's a brick building behind the carport. Not a garage. Too big for a shed."
And much to his chagrin it was a one bedroom, one bath, efficiency kitchen, sitting room in a pretty brick box. This gate house, mother-in-law apartment, guest house, servant's quarters – he couldn't come up with anything that made it sound acceptable for someone who wasn't a college student, housekeeper or elderly relative - was where he found his clothes, or at least stylish clothes in his size. Chris and Buck were more likely to recognize them than he was.
Buck recognized more than the clothes as he walked around the tiny bedroom and undersized living room, his height and broad shoulders making them look even smaller than they were. "Looks like you filled this place with furniture from your condo bedroom – master suite you called it. Leastways it looks like the same weird stuff you had there but it's taking up a lot more space here seems like."
"Weird stuff?" Ezra looked around the two rooms crowded with pieces clearly intended for a much larger residence. "All this 'weird stuff' is 1930's French Art Deco. If it's authentic, I can probably sell it for enough to finish off the main house – assuming I own that house, of course."
Chris knelt to check out the liquor supply in a glass-fronted rosewood and mahogany cocktail cabinet. "Unless you conned some ancient lady who had it because she actually lived in the 1930's. Maybe you can't sell it because her family is looking for it back."
"Are you suggesting I engage in the sale of stolen antiques?"
"You're too smart to steal anymore," Buck responded emphatically. "Maybe the old lady didn't know what the stuff was worth and you offered to take it off her hands."
Chris stood up and wandered over to one of the two massive armoires that dominated the living room. "And now her grieving second cousin or grandnephew is looking for whatever occupied all those clean spaces on granny's oriental rugs." He opened the mirrored middle door of the armoire and whistled. "Maybe you sold one of those antiques to buy this fancy sound system."
"Now Chris, none of this French artsy fartsy stuff will be an antique 'til sometime in the 2030's," Buck interjected with a grin. "Ezra told me last year when someone wanted to use some jewelry for collateral that anything under a hundred years old is just a collectible."
Curious, Ezra opened the three doors on the other armoire. Behind him Buck chortled.
"Geez, Ezra. You've got so many clothes, you have to keep 'em in your living room."
"Did you see that pathetic closet in the bedroom? Ezra responded. Hell, did you see the pathetic bedroom? Nothing but a queen-sized bed, a dresser and a nightstand and I still can't walk around without bumping into something."
"Don't forget the flat screen TV on that fancy dresser and the elliptical trainer covered with dust there in the corner by the window." Buck stretched out in the only chair in the living room, a bulky art deco club chair upholstered in red leather with rounded arms trimmed with polished chrome. He put his feet up on the matching leather and chrome ottoman. "Now this is a comfortable chair. Just right for listening to that fancy sound system. This place may be small, but you're living pretty large, I'd say. These here French collectibles are like a bank account. Need a flat screen TV, sell a nightstand." He patted the twin to the bedroom nightstand that stood by the chair. What's this little baby worth?"
"Is it your practice when you're a guest in someone's home to ask them the value of their furnishings?"
"Only you," Buck answered easily. "Because I can tell wherever you are, you're calculating what things are worth. Comes in handy when assessing collateral so I figure maybe you should impart some of your wisdom to me, starting with this stuff."
Ezra didn't really care. After all it wasn't his furniture and he was just guessing anyway. "The nightstands as a pair, mahogany with inlaid rosewood would probably fetch $5000, maybe $6000. Even if they're reproductions, they're excellent copies probably worth over $1500 for the pair."
"If you two are finished playing The Price is Right, maybe we could eat before the food gets stone cold." Chris pointed to a little table that was partially blocking the wide entryway between the kitchen and living room. "Is that all you've got to eat on?"
"Your guess is as good as mine but I believe that's a swivel top table. Doubles in size. Plenty of room for three." And so there was. And the miracle of Styrofoam had kept the chiles rellenos and tamales reasonably hot though they couldn't hold a candle to those Inez served at her place in Pottersville. Chris had declined to raid Ezra's liquor cabinet as either he or Buck would have to abstain but Ezra found two bottles of excellent imported beer in the small refrigerator. He got out three glasses in order to divide it up but Chris announced it was too soon for Ezra to drink any, so Ezra drank cola.
The minute they left, Ezra called JD for no tangible reason other than the comfort of talking to someone who understood why Ezra was a stranger in his own home. However, the conversation was less than open due to Casey's hovering. Ezra finally gave up and went to bed, afraid to switch on the TV lest he see some equivalent of the Azure Gate Bridge.
It was fortunate Ezra had the natural gifts needed to talk in the ordinary skips who paid the everyday bills at W & L - DubL because when he came into the office the next morning, it appeared he'd be the only one doing it. Josiah was waiting in Truckee for the warrants to come through allowing him to bring Kirkland and Farber back to Atlanta. Vin had taken off after the third man. Nathan voiced his relief that Ezra and JD were safe, expressed his concern with their injuries, offered any help they might need and then disappeared for the day. Although Nathan's only mission was to track down anyone with a warrant who had a connection to Del Spivak's gang, Ezra heard Chris mutter something about a granny case. Vin called once to see if Ezra's memory had dropped another name in the Spivak slot but no luck. Chris and Buck were dividing their time following up Nathan's leads on Spivak's gang and doing whatever office paperwork they didn't delegate to Casey.
Ezra was just as happy not to deal with too many familiar strangers. In another life they were his closest friends but he wasn't sure how close they were here. He sensed a small but discernable distance that might well be the fault of the Ezra who had never strayed far from his Atlanta roots and the influence of his mother. That was a rock he wasn't going to turn over in this world so he hadn't tried to contact Maude. His reasons were probably similar to those that made JD urge Casey to continue with her long-planned trip to New York with her girlfriends. If, as JD had assured him, he would be "leaving" soon, it didn't seem right to chance altering the equilibrium of a complex relationship out of mere curiosity.
JD was nominally using the internet to develop leads in the Spivak case, but Ezra suspected he was spending the bulk of his time information gathering for his own otherworldly purposes. Once JD saw Casey off in the morning, he didn't seem to care whether he was a comfortable fit with the JD of Atlanta. Ezra, on the other hand, was trying to be the Ezra they all knew, albeit suffering the natural consequences of his recent trauma.
By the time he was well into his second day with DubL, Ezra was coasting. The job wasn't particularly challenging, lacking both the exhilaration of arranging high stakes poker tournaments for the Mountain Apache Casino and the adrenaline rush that often accompanied a mutual aid call-out with his six friends. He felt obligated to balance helping JD and doing the everyday business of DubL so he reviewed an old case file after every three or four phone calls.
The expensive, little writing cabinet wedged next to the cocktail cabinet in his crowded living room had contained sufficient paperwork to assure him that he did indeed own the Virginia Highland's house. But his counterpart clearly needed to do well in this job to keep it. The papers and lists of figures he'd found in the desk suggested he'd been so flush with the profit he'd made on the condo that he'd bought the Craftsman intending to flip it and make an even bigger profit. And although he didn't think the recession had put him underwater with the mortgage, there wasn't enough equity to finance the remodeling, much less sell it for even the most modest profit. His one solace was that had he invested his profit in the stock market, his money could be in the wind.
Ezra was engrossed in an interesting old case when Buck came over to his desk, cell phone to his ear. Ezra slipped the file back into his desk drawer as Buck snapped the phone shut.
"JD convince you reading old cases is the key to recovering your memory?"
Ezra shrugged. "'Convince' might be too strong a word but I decided it couldn't hurt to review a few of the more memorable cases."
"And what made that case memorable?" Buck pointed at the drawer.
"Memorable for its irony. A police chief in a tiny municipality called Jericho who jumped bail on a charge involving embezzlement of bail funds."
Buck laughed and slapped the desktop. "Hell, I remember that one. He ran a speed trap and his mother owned the only bail bond agency in town. The county prosecutor figured she was the brains behind the whole thing but the damn mama's boy took off rather than roll over on her. You got his deputy drunk enough to spill the chief's location. As I recall after we caught him, you lectured him on the inadvisability of becoming entangled in his mother's criminal enterprises."
Ezra could certainly see himself doing just that. "Mr. Wilmington, I assume you did not come over here to discuss old cases, amusing as they might be."
"Nope, I'm more interested in new cases. Thought you might want to get some fresh air?"
"By getting fresh air, you mean leaving this air conditioned building to risk sweating away the integrity of my ensemble in 90% humidity?"
"Hell, Ezra. Thought you didn’t sweat."
"No, I’m just too intelligent to defy the climate unless it will garner me more than it will cost to refurbish my clothing."
"This just might qualify. Leave the jacket here and come help me pick up a couple of easy skips. Sisters into kiting checks, stealing cars and borrowing credit cards."
"As I recall, the last time I dealt with a couple of sisters I woke up on the Ponderosa with a rather sizable lump on my head."
"These two agreed to come in on the condition that our two sexiest agents picked them up and escorted them in." Buck grinned. "Don’t tell the others but that’s clearly us."
"How kind of you to share your hubris with me," Ezra said as he grabbed his jacket off its hanger and joined Buck at the door."
"You didn’t even ask me how much was in it for you." Buck shook his head. "That ain’t like you."
"In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not like me yet. I just assumed a man of your integrity wouldn’t take advantage of a friend recovering from head trauma."
Buck grinned and gestured for Ezra to precede him. "We'll take your Caddy."
"We will not. I haven't totally recovered but I haven't taken leave of my senses either. No skips in my vehicle unless they're fleeing charges of insider trading."
Once in Buck's Mustang, Ezra went through the papers Buck had brought with him and discovered the two women were actually mother and daughter, though they had chosen to present themselves as sisters and their photos showed they did look closer in age than seemed biologically possible.
When they approached the house, Ezra put on his jacket to hide the fact that he had a .38 tucked in the waistband at the small of his back. However, the pick up was without incident. The tightness of the women’s pants and the brevity of their tops made it clear they were not packing anything more deadly than an emery board. Buck refused to cuff them, obviously assuming he could charm the little birds into their cage. Ezra did his part by acting the gentleman just short of actual flirting. Buck of course, crossed that line without hesitation.
Ezra waited at the front desk while Buck got their body receipts and flirted with a moon-faced brunette who seemed a tiny bit flattered but aware that Buck didn’t mean anything by it. Next to him a couple of fellow retrieval agents brought in a burly man who was distinctly less cooperative than their quarry had been. Once the man had been led off by officers, he heard the older of the two agents say to the other in a voice carefully modulated so Buck wouldn’t hear, "Look at that DubL queer trying to look like he can get it up for women."
Ezra turned to get a good look at the two, with no intent to challenge but simply so he would know what they looked like should he encounter them in the future in a situation in which they would mask their contempt. Both were taller than he, hovering around six feet and both were beefier. But they looked like the kind who relied on their ability to give and take a solid punch. No finesse or agility. Though he wouldn’t have wanted to take them both on alone, he wouldn’t hesitate to bet on himself if backed up by any one of his six co-workers.
Buck finished his schmoozing and came by to collect Ezra with a friendly hand on his shoulder as he waved the receipt with a little flourish. "Time for lunch; I’ll put it on the expense account."
As they walked out, Ezra a step or two behind Buck, he heard the same beefy man say to his partner, "That must be DubL’s third faggot. Heard they have some kind of pink affirmative action over there."
The other one answered, "Hell, I could have figured out that guy was light in the loafers just by looking at him. No wonder they wouldn’t hire you. You don’t dress purty enough."
Both men laughed unpleasantly as Ezra lengthened his stride to catch up to Buck. Now he had something new to set his head spinning - as if it had ever stopped. Was he gay? Was sexual preference something that became unclear with amnesia? He had memories of a decidedly straight life, but those memories included a completely straight Buck Wilmington and look how that memory balloon had burst. And when a disbelieving JD had made his protest about Buck's animal magnetism on the drive from the airport, it was Ezra's knee Buck had patted when he explained it worked on men too.
Horrors, could he be Buck's piece on the side? Would Buck have been so obvious right behind Chris's back?
Ezra barely noticed his momentary blindness as he followed Buck from the bright sunlight into a dark eatery smelling of roasting pork, beer and barbeque sauce. He paid little attention to his surroundings as he ran through everything he’d uncovered during his initial search of his unfamiliar residence. Hell, how would he know if there was anything that suggested a male lover? None of the clothes in his closet would be familiar to his addled brain and if he had a lover, surely he would share Ezra’s impeccable taste in attire. The absence of any male clothes noticeably too large or too small to be his didn’t rule out a man of Ezra’s own size. Or a man Buck's size too discrete to leave any sartorial evidence behind. There certainly hadn’t been anything that indicated a feminine presence. He was running his mind through the contents of his medicine cabinet when Buck poked him with a menu.
"Where’d you go, slick? Jenny Sue is headed our way and I’m starving. You’d better decide fast ‘cause I’m not going to tell her to give us more time."
Ezra exited his mental inventory to find himself seated on a picnic bench pulled up to a green speckled Formica table containing nothing but a large paper napkin dispenser, a small tray of condiments and the one-page menu Buck impatiently thrust into his hand. Feeling too distracted to make gastronomic decisions, he pushed it away. "Just order me what I usually have when I’m in my right mind."
Buck gave a short laugh and leaned over to whisper as the waitress reached their table. "When you’re in your right mind, you’re too much of a snob to get within a mile of Elmer's. I’m taking this opportunity to broaden your horizons."
"Then order me something I can eat with a fork."
Buck gave Jenny Sue a big smile as he ordered a full rack of ribs with sides of fries and coleslaw. He hooked a thumb in Ezra’s direction. "My friend here will have a pulled pork sandwich with a side of slaw. Regular tea for me; plain for him."
Ezra shrugged and then added as the waitress turned back toward the kitchen. "Sauce on the side please and lemon for the tea."
As soon as Jenny Sue was out of earshot, Buck leaned close and asked softly, "Something troubling you? Maybe something I can help with?"
Ezra considered for a moment but just couldn’t bring himself to let Buck in on his inability to recall something so basic as his taste in sexual partners. "Just trying to get some of my memories straight. I think I’ve been confabulating."
"Come on Erza. I’m as literate as the next guy but . . . ."
Ezra looked over at two heavily tattooed and pierced young men seated at the table closest to Buck. "Sorry, I didn't realize who the next guy was."
Buck turned briefly to follow Ezra’s gaze. "Okay, maybe I’m more literate than the next guy. Now don’t hide behind your psychobabble words. Just spill it."
"Well, I’ve still got lots of blank spaces my brain is filling in with false memories. I’m having trouble sorting out which ones are real."
"Give me a fer instance."
Ezra tried to think of something inconsequential but failing in that he edged around his most troubling memory. "I’m haunted by false memories of a job in a place called Pottersville."
"In a casino or night club?"
Ezra’s breath caught for a moment. How could Buck have guessed? But of course he hadn’t. "JD told you?"
"Hell, no. Everyone’s seen It’s a Wonderful Life. Ma and I watched it every Christmas and always laughed about how we’d have chosen the excitement of Pottersville with its nightclubs and revelers over stodgy, old Bedford Falls. I bet you and your mother had the same thought."
Ezra did vaguely remember James Stewart wandering into what his town would have been if he hadn’t been born. Ezra might even have thought at the time it was a much livelier place to live. But he’d had no memory of the name of either town. He and Maude had never spent Christmas watching sentimental movies. Still, no point in having Buck dig deeper so he smiled and tried to paste a relieved look on his face. "You know, that’s probably exactly why the name Pottersville popped into my head. Next time I get a crazy memory, I’ll consult a movie guide."
As Jenny Sue set their food before them, Ezra was momentarily distracted. "Buck, you really didn't need to order me the family man meal." The sandwich was on a foot-long French roll with at least three inches of pulled pork separating the two halves.
Buck had a barbeque-slathered wedge of fried potato poised for entry, but he stopped long enough to say, "You mean hungry man."
"No. I mean a family man could eat half this sandwich and take the rest home to feed his wife and two kids."
Buck downed two more potato wedges and picked up a rib before slowing down to answer. "If you're not man enough, we've got a kid back at the office who's having trouble tearing himself away from his self-imposed memory-refresher course to eat a decent meal."
"Excellent idea." It never hurt to have a bribe available should one be needed. Ezra cut his sandwich in half and carefully wrapped one part for transport. He pulled about an inch of the pork out of the other half, replaced it with coleslaw and wrapped a napkin around the bottom to catch drips." He looked up to see Buck watching. "What?"
"You forget what city you work in, but you remember the way locals eat a pulled pork sandwich?"
Ezra shrugged and took the biggest bite he could manage. As he savored the contrasting flavors and textures, he wondered how long it had been. In his mind it had been years - a visit to attend one of Mother's command performances had never included any place resembling Elmer's. After swallowing, he grinned at Buck. "My memory may have some gaps, but every son of the south knows the best way to eat a pulled pork sandwich. And damn if this isn't the best coleslaw I've ever tasted – or at least that I remember ever tasting."
The distraction of the food cleared Ezra's mind enough to make room for a drop-in idea -- a round about way to get to his question about his social life answered. But he put the thought on hold until he'd savored a few more bites. There had to be some way to get this recipe for Inez. Would the owner be willing to sell if Ezra promised it would be used only in a different reality? Ezra paused after his fifth bite, waiting for Buck to slow down. It didn't take long to realize that wasn't going to happen any time soon unless Ezra interrupted.
"Buck, I can’t remember any significant other in my life. Do you know anything about my last few social engagements?"
Buck finished stripping another healthy mouthful of pork off a rib and wiped some errant sauce out of his mustache before answering. "Hell, you never let us know squat about your social life. I figured you think we’re too lowbrow. Did you check your little black book?"
"I’m afraid my address book contains nothing but addresses and phone numbers. Unlike you, I never saw fit to annotate my little black book with stars and stats."
Buck gave him a sharp look. "What do you know about the scoring system in my little black book? I tossed it when Chris and I got together, long before we met you."
Ezra shrugged. No point in telling him the Buck Wilmington he remembered was still keeping score.
Ezra jumped back a bit as Buck banged a rib bone on the edge of Ezra’s plate. "You must have gone through our room when you were staying out at our place during that Stuart James thing."
Ezra shook his head. "What good would that have done if you tossed it before we met?"
Buck picked up a new rib and took a bite, washing the meat down with some tea. With a grin he finally replied. "I meant I tossed it in a drawer. Even a committed man is entitled to reminisce. Still, wasn’t polite of you to look."
"Can’t say that I did. Maybe someone came across it accidentally while searching for something he needed – like ammunition or condoms. Maybe that person shared his findings with me. Or could be you bragged about it to someone."
Buck’s sheepish grin suggested Ezra had hit on something. Perhaps Buck’s current relationship didn’t leave room for new exploits but that wouldn’t stop him from bragging about the old ones or coaching JD on the best way to mark up his own pleasure diary.
When they got back to the office, Ezra sought out JD on the shaded patio where he was sitting with his laptop and a glass of tea. He handed JD the half sandwich he’d saved and sat down beside him as he unwrapped it.
"I need you to do . . ."
"There’s no sauce on this, you can’t eat a pulled pork sandwich without . . ."
Ezra pulled the little plastic tub of barbeque sauce out of the bag. "I want you to ask Buck . . ."
"Hey, this is Elmer's. Buck took me there. Where's the coleslaw? I know they gave you a huge side of slaw; it's their specialty."
"Sorry, son. I got carried away eating my own lunch. You're lucky to get the sandwich. That coleslaw was gold too precious to squander.
JD interrupted again, this time thrusting a sheaf of print-outs at him, now marked with a spicy red thumbprint. "Here, look what I’ve found so far."
"JD, I . . ."
"Just read it," he ordered with some impatience.
Ezra stood up, arms crossed. "I’ll read it if you’ll take care of a little problem for me. Just listen while you eat. Five minutes and I’ll give your papers all my attention. If you don’t, I’ll be too distracted to give your research the attention I’m sure it deserves."
JD stared at him for a moment but Ezra just locked eyes and waited.
"Okay, what’s got you in such a dither?"
"Dither? What are you, seventy?"
"Just get on with it." JD flapped the papers at him.
I overheard something that made me wonder . . . ." Now that he had the floor, Ezra wasn’t quite sure how to phrase his request. Finally he blurted, "I want you to ask Buck if I’m gay."
JD’s initial surprise turned quickly to amusement. "But Ezra, you’d know if you were gay."
"Like you knew you were addicted to cigarettes? This afternoon a loutish bond enforcer pointed me out to his comrade as 'DubL’s third faggot'. Until then, even Chris and Buck's transformation never gave me cause to question my own sexual identity in this misbegotten world."
JD shrugged. "It's not like people thinking you're gay is a bad thing. No one here is gonna to set you up with a guy or anything."
"And if a dashing young flight attendant shows up on my doorstep, perhaps with his own key and a suitcase? I'd like to be mentally prepared for such an event."
JD considered for a moment. Although he still looked a little doubtful, he agreed. "Okay. I guess Buck won’t think it’s a strange question. You look and act a lot gayer than Chris and Buck anyway."
"I’ll take that as a compliment to my wardrobe, physique and good manners," Ezra responded, taking the stack of papers from JD’s still outstretched hand. He started out skimming but by the second page, he slowed down to read more carefully. The subject was Ella Gaines, aka Ella Petrie. He’d expected that to be JD's priority. JD had managed to put together quite a history, not all of it legally obtained he was sure. Petrie was her fourth husband."
"She murdered four husbands here? How'd she get away with that?"
"Keep reading. She divorced the first three; they're still alive. Bios on the next page. All the same type. Petrie's dead though and he left her a bundle. Not a national newsworthy bundle but still . . . . "
Ezra flipped the page. Bios, descriptions, financials with photos. He almost expected to see three variations of Chris Larabee. There was some superficial similarity in that they were all within one or two inches of six feet with the kind of slim athletic build that suggested triathlons, rock climbing and tennis rather than power lifting or football. But only one was blond, Scandinavian white blond with blue eyes. The other two had dark hair and eyes. Of course, the photos showed how they looked when they married Ella – they might all have beer bellies and receding gray hair by now.
"What do you mean they're all the same type? Except for a slight resemblance in build, I don't see it."
"Adrenalin junkies. Looks like the first one was just mustering out of the SEALs when she met him. I'll bet she was hanging around waiting for Chris back then. Next one was a fire jumper. Third one was a cop, moved over to DEA while they were still married. Petrie doesn't fit the pattern – skinny little CPA who made some good investments even before he inherited some valuable family property. Died within a year of that inheritance. Wasn't like she was desperate for money though. In between husband three and Petrie she built up a pretty successful liquor import business."
"But more is always better." Ezra skimmed the pages containing the information JD had just recited until he got to an illustrated description of Petrie's inheritance and saw an almost familiar sight. The description said it was a horse farm in Alabama. Although the difference in terrain was significant, the main house and the layout resembled the horse ranch in New Mexico where Ella had tried to have them killed. When he looked up, JD was watching him intently.
"She’s here, Ezra. That must be why we’re here now, because she is."
"A horse farm four or five hours away in Alabama isn’t exactly here."
"No Ezra, I mean she’s here. In Atlanta. In a luxury suite at the Four Seasons."
"What do you propose we do? And really what threat is she to Chris? She’s not going to have any luck seducing him. We don’t have anything to investigate unless you find evidence to prove the heart attack Petrie had last year was the result of foul play. According to Chris's notes in our files, Fowler was obsessive about keeping records but there was nothing to link him to Ella. Both Chris and Buck would have recognized her name if it had come up and they had enough connections with the investigators to have heard if it did."
JD drummed his fingers on his chair. "Well, we know she’s a bad person. She’s got to be up to something."
"We don’t know anything of the sort. Lurking in our scrambled brains are questionable memories of an Ella Gaines I met in Phoenix and you apparently met in Denver. Ella hired Cletus Fowler to murder Chris’s family and she later seduced Chris. Neither of those things is applicable here. Could be this Ella isn't going to do anything worse than make herself a nuisance with fruitless efforts to seduce Chris. Hell, could be she'll see him again and find he's no longer her type."
Ezra stood and handed JD back his documents. "Now I’m going to get back to work and you’re going to have a private conversation with Buck."
By 4:30, Ezra figured he’d talked in enough skips to have earned his daily bread so he grabbed a few case files from the stack JD had put in his desk drawer. He didn’t actually expect to find anything to use in some alternate universe. The most rational scenario was that he’d wake out of a coma with one of his friends reading aloud from Playboy, Field and Stream, Wired, Scientific American, a spy novel or Josiah reading anything from the Bible to Dawkin's The God Delusion. But no point in tormenting himself with pleasant thoughts of comas. He’d cast his lot with JD for now and nothing more likely had presented itself to explain his circumstances. Mostly it was just better to keep busy.
He had thumbed through the sad stories of half a dozen lowlifes when Buck parked his butt on the corner of his desk with a genial smile on his face but a look in his eyes that, in the Buck Ezra remembered, hinted at irritation. A split second later Chris loomed over him, arms braced on the desk with a tight-lipped, narrow-eyed expression that left no doubt he had a bone to pick.
"Gentlemen, what can I do for you?"
"You can stop filling the blank spaces in JD’s mind with your petty disdain for what goes on in our private lives."
"What Chris means," Buck said, "is that we've gotten used to your prudishness about male-on-male relationships. Mostly it's amusing 'cause it's sort of fun to push your buttons. And we know when the chips are down, you've got our backs. No pun intended. But we can't have you poisoning JD's mind while he's still recovering."
"Exactly what is it you think I've done?" Ezra didn't really care overly much what they were accusing him of. They'd inadvertently clarified the issue of his own sexual orientation.
Chris took up the inquisition. "We don't know exactly, but JD is suddenly concerned that Buck and I might not be the only men in the office with . . . ."
"Our inclinations," Buck inserted. "He's been nothing but supportive in the past, hell, even overly protective. You're the only one here who objects to anybody's inclinations and you were the last one we saw talking to JD before he came to me . . ."
"Maybe you didn't realize JD's memory loss made him susceptible to being poisoned by your attitude." Chris, offering him a place to insert an apology.
Well, they weren't going to get one. "I believe you two have misunderstood JD's inquiry. He's just trying to get his bearings. You've seen the way he's been feverishly tearing through our files, grilling everyone about your cases. I assure you, I've done nothing to suggest to JD I disapprove of your relationship. Why pray tell would I condemn a liaison that takes two somewhat attractive, if unstylish men out of competition for the attentions of the fairer sex? If we found a pirate’s treasure chest would I be concerned if you two spurned gold doubloons in favor of brass buttons and glass beads? Hell, with Nathan already satisfied with a perfect strand of black pearls, JD, Josiah, Vin and I would…He stopped as Chris glanced over at the absent Vin’s desk and Buck grinned at Chris.
"What?" Damn, how had he missed that? Vin must be the third "pink affirmative action hire" as Mr. Beefy number one had so eloquently put it. "Is Mr. Tanner also inexplicably fond of brass buttons?"
Buck leaned down to say with a grin. "Now Ezra, does Vin look like the brass button type?"
Chris lowered his voice as he added, "Vin’s obviously a connoisseur of shiny glass beads."
Buck shook his head. "Who would've thought kidnapping, head wounds and illegal drugs would fix JD's smoking and your - your . . . ."
"My shortsighted inability to see what was in it for me if the three of you took yourselves off the market."
The two men walked off with Chris's hand resting affectionately on Buck's shoulder. Buck turned and winked at Ezra as he snaked his arm around Chris's waist. They'd only gotten a few steps away when Buck abruptly turned back.
"We forgot to give Ezra the news."
As Buck returned, Ezra noted Buck had not characterized the news as good or bad. His first thought was that his mother had left a message announcing a visit. Although his memory was muddled in relation to certain particulars about the men he worked with, he didn't dare hope that Maude would appear at his home to bake him a peach pie or knit him a tennis sweater. To his relief, Buck had happier news to convey.
"Your information about Maddie Stokes and Del Spivak paid off. Travis's murdered friend's wedding ring was found in Maddie's property. Just like you suggested, they got Kirkland to turn on Maddie and then Kate turned on Spivak to get the death penalty off the table for her sister. That's all she got; no reduced sentence. Travis didn't put up a fight because he figured it would be hard to get a jury to impose death on a woman, especially one with the history of abuse Kate claimed she could testify to. Kirkland and Farber will have to hurry to jump on the state's evidence train because it's leaving the station. If Vin gets the third guy involved in your kidnapping, he's not gonna be worth anything but the money we collect for bringing him in. Chris already called Vin and told him to get his sexy butt back here unless he's got a hot trail."
Ezra assumed the description of Vin's ass was Buck's not Chris's. Vin being gay certainly made it less likely he'd have any problem with Buck's lascivious remarks. Or would it? He wondered if Vin had a significant other who might object to Buck's flirtations. But satisfying that curiosity would have to wait until Vin made an appearance. They had actual criminals to worry about. "So how do they explain what happened to us? Why go to so much trouble? Seems the more reasonable choice would have been between killing us and dumping us in an alley or tying us up and dumping us in said alley."
"Spivak told Maddie to get rid of you - permanently. Kate managed to pay off the three goons to have you shipped out instead. Figured to keep you out of the way long enough for her to get Maddie away from Atlanta. She said she did it to protect Maddie from Spivak. I think it was to keep Maddie from getting more blood on her hands. Either way she saved your ass."
"And what's going to happen to her?"
"She got immunity for testifying against Spivak, provided she wasn't personally involved in any killing."
"I'm sure you'll find she wasn't."
Buck cocked his head. "And you know that because?"
"Just another untethered fact." Ezra smiled and rubbed his hands together. "You started these revelations with the suggestion that my information had paid off. Would you care to share just how? I prefer a lump sum but I'll settle for structured payments."
Buck patted him on the shoulder as he walked off without offering any financial details.
As soon as Buck followed Chris out the front door, JD rushed over, carrying a half-eaten Snickers and a carton of milk. "So you're not gay, Vin is. And it's even better than that," he said, not quite cackling. "But right now can we get back to what we're here for?"
"How do we get to her? Maybe we should get a room on her floor at the hotel."
"And you have a thousand or two in spare change? Unless my memory fails me - and what's the chance of that? - my mother can afford nothing better than a single room even when she's trying to impress one of her wealthier marks. I believe the luxury suites are on the upper floors. Of course, perhaps in this version of my life the Four Seasons is a budget motel, in which case, lead on JD."
"We have to come up with some kind of plan. You have a better one?"
"Look, I've bought into your alternate universe stuff because the delusion peddler seems to be out of other merchandise. So let's use it to determine what she's likely to do. What I remember is Ella hosting a cowboy action shooting competition on her ranch, inviting all of us to stay in her guest house and then having her hired thugs try to burn us out while Chris was physically unharmed in the main house. Had them ready to shoot anyone who escaped. Lucky for us, Vin decided to sleep under the stars. Before the shooting started, Chris found some items related to Sarah, including a locket Chris had given her. What do you remember?"
"By the time Ella came to Denver, Vin and I had enough on her to convince Buck she might have hired Cletus Fowler. Chris acted like he didn't believe Buck when Buck warned him not to trust Ella but it must have made him curious. We were all invited out to her ranch to help set up a charity horse auction to benefit at-risk foster children. He found souvenirs of the murders in some kind of secret room so he never . . . ."
JD nodded. "And before she tried to kill the rest of us. But in Vin's alternate world . . . "
"Wait, wait. You never told me Vin had one of your out-of-body experiences."
"Well, I allu . . . alluded to it, but his experience was a little unbelievable."
Ezra couldn't hold back a snort of derision. "Pray tell."
"Ella paid big bucks to host a law enforcement Olympics and invited us all to stay in her guest house. Vin found a bomb in one of the closets and got us all out before it went off. Chris was in the main house at the time. The last thing Vin remembered was Chris saying to Buck, 'She had Sarah's locket.'"
"Obviously there's a pattern but as I reminded you, Chris had good reason to determine that in this world Cletus Fowler killed Sarah and Adam for his own purposes. And Chris had every motive to find out if there was anyone else behind it. Even if Ella traipses in here attempting to charm Chris into some kind of trip out to her horse farm in Alabama, he's not going to fall for it. Odd as it might seem to us, there does not appear to be room for a third party in Chris and Buck's relationship."
JD choked on the chunk of Snickers he had just bitten off. When he tried to wash it down with his milk, he sputtered but instead of a spit take, the milk ended up dribbling down his chin. As Ezra handed him a tissue, he tried to read JD's expression. "What?"
"Well, Buck said there wasn't any point in trying to explain what I already knew from two years of seeing things. He said if I didn't get my memory back in a week or so, he'd sit me down and tell me the facts of life. I don't know if it's a secret between me and Buck or something you and I would both know if we remembered what we're supposed to know."
"Buck is cheating on Chris?"
"Why'd you put it that way? As if it would be more likely for Buck to cheat?"
"Okay. Either way. I've seen the way they look at each other - especially on a couple of occasions just before they cut things short and rush off, presumably for home. I've seen married couples who take each other for granted, inertia carrying a relationship along until one of them meets an outsider who ignites a spark. Believe me JD, inertia has not taken them over yet. There's no dissatisfaction for Ella to take advantage of."
Ezra watched as JD refilled his mouth with Snickers. He looked smug, as though proud of himself for finding out something Ezra had overlooked.
"What is it you think you know JD? From what I've seen, even if one of them wanted to have a relationship on the side, and I've seen nothing to suggest it, the logistics would work against him. They live together, they work long hours together, they're both aware of office expenses. From what I've seen in the files, if they go on the road, they go together."
"Did you know that Vin lives with them?"
How did he not know that? Because Vin had been on the road and he hadn't had any interaction with him other than a couple of phone calls? Because no one else had mentioned it? Because it was a secret that JD had ferreted out before he had? Because it wasn't really true?
"Even if that's true, it probably doesn't mean anything. Could be he stays in a guest cottage and takes care of the horses when they're away from home. If they have horses. Maybe dogs, pigs, alpacas, whatever livestock they've taken it in their heads that this world needs more of."
JD shrugged. "Could be, but I sort of got the feeling when Buck told me Vin was gay and that he'd explain the facts of life to me if I didn't remember pretty soon . . . " Gloating, the boy was actually gloating.
"What you're suggesting is that Chris's good sense has overcome his natural tendency toward jealousy."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"Easy. I've seen the Vin of this world, even if it was just over the phone. He's just as attractive as the Vin who's giving me so much competition with Inez in my world. The Buck we both know can't settle down with one woman so why assume he can settle down with one man."
"So you are accusing Buck of cheating."
"No, perhaps Chris has found a way to satisfy Buck's craving for variety while keeping their relationship intact. It's not cheating if everyone knows the rules and follows them."
JD's brow wrinkled in confusion at first but he soon became indignant. "You're saying that Chris is letting Buck keep Vin on the side for a little variety. That's just stupid."
"I'd say it's damn practical. Chris is over forty and he's never been a player, at least not since he was married and widowed. He can't possibly be keeping up with Buck. Vin is relatively young. He's on the road enough that he can have a life away from his liaisons with Buck. Chris and Buck can live the life of a monogamous married couple most of the time."
JD was practically sputtering now. 'That's disgusting. Makes Chris sound pathetic, Buck disloyal and Vin . . . Vin. Hell, I don't know – used maybe."
"You're the one who's insisting their living arrangements suggested something sexual. I was the one who suggested he lived in a guesthouse. Just because he's a gay man living with two bisexual men doesn't mean they're all having sex together. Maybe Buck was just going to explain that Vin has male visitors, you know, that he lives a rich and full life."
JD looked doubtful but kept his mouth shut.
"If what your vivid imagination is conjuring turns out to be true, it's even less likely Ella can get her claws on Chris. Say she comes in here with some kind of song and dance about needing all of us to help with some worthy cause out at her ranch, she'd never lure Chris into sleeping in the main house with her. If she tried to blow it up or set fire to the guest house, she'd kill Chris too."
"We can't just sit here; we have to do something.' JD sounded impatient to get this wrapped up so he could be on his way back to Denver. While Ezra completely shared the impatience, he didn't think JD was following the right roadmap.
"I'll tell you what. When you think of something more affordable than checking into a Four Seasons luxury suite, let me know." Ezra was bothered by the coincidence of Ella both being in Atlanta and owning a horse farm within driving distance. But there was nothing to be done unless she made a move. If she invited them all out to her horse farm, he'd be armed to the teeth and would join Vin in sleeping under the stars. Unless of course JD was right about who Vin slept with.
Ezra logged out of his computer, gathered up his jacket and keys, and headed out, a protesting JD following in his wake. As he exited, Ezra tapped the lock on the office door. "Last one out locks up."
The next two days were uneventful, at least from Ezra's perspective. JD disappeared for a few hours each day. Given that he was dressed like some kind of junior executive, Ezra guessed he was hanging out at the Four Seasons, prospecting for information on Ella. In response to Buck's teasing about trying to look grown-up enough to pick up a woman while Casey was on vacation, JD claimed he was just trying to look more professional. As JD returned both days and slid behind his computer without comment, Ezra knew he hadn't discovered anything of note.
On the third day, JD left on another of his surveillance missions, this time looking like a minimum wage busboy. Josiah had been there doing paper work when Ezra arrived but he left to meet Nathan a half hour later to help him out with a granny case – although granny this time was the skip's overly trusting son and daughter-in-law. Fifteen minutes later, Chris came in carrying a suit in a dry cleaners bag. Buck trailed in shortly thereafter carrying two coffees and something that left grease spots on the bag he tossed casually on their desk.
As Buck closed the door to their office, Ezra heard him respond to something Chris said, "Too late, stud. Travis asked for you. I'm optional and choose to exercise my option not to sit in a stuffy conference room in a damn suit even if they're dangling some kind of hoity toity surf and turf over our heads. It's not like they offered to put us up in a suite after."
Ezra went back to persuading lowlifes they'd probably get off on a technicality if they made their court appearances. He looked up when Chris and Buck left shortly before noon, noting Chris wasn't wearing or toting his suit so clearly they'd be back. It wasn't his job to keep track of the pair, but JD was consumed with knowing where Chris was at all times. He'd be satisfied if Ezra reported he was with Buck. If Ella approached Chris, the rest of them would likely find out about it because Buck would tease him to show he wasn't jealous.
Sure enough, when JD rushed in a half hour later, he looked around and seeing only Ezra, pulled over a chair and demanded to know Chris's whereabouts. After being reassured, he told Ezra triumphantly, "She's going to use Travis to get to Chris. I heard her talking to Travis on the phone; they're going to have some kind of meeting tonight. I'll bet she's going to dupe him so he helps her get Chris and the rest of us out to her horse farm."
Ezra didn't ask JD how he'd overheard the phone conversation. He'd just trust that whatever mechanism he used couldn't be traced back to DubL. "It might be more direct than that. Chris is going to some kind of dinner meeting tonight with Travis. Most likely the same meeting."
JD pounded his fist on Ezra's desk, bouncing his coffee cup and slopping coffee over the expense report he'd been in the course of embellishing. "We have to be there. We can't let her get to him alone."
"He's not going to be alone. They're using a conference room and serving dinner. At the very least Travis will be there. Buck refused to go, complaining that they weren't going to comp them a suite, so likely the meeting as at the Four Seasons."
"Exactly. She's planning to invite him to her suite so she can seduce him."
"And you plan to prevent that? How? And why?"
"Why? That's why we're here!"
"Says you. So what if that is her plan? If his relationship with Buck isn't strong enough, it's really none of our business. Remember, she didn't have Sarah killed so the only shame factor is cheating on Buck, not sleeping with the enemy. If his loyalty to Buck is strong enough and he rejects her, again not our business. We haven't seen any evidence she's personally violent; she hires out her dirty work. I doubt she's going to set the mood for seduction but have an assassin in the wings should she fail on her first try. She's been patient enough to wait this long."
JD sat up abruptly, almost tipping over his chair. "Damn it Ezra, she's up to something."
"Then we'll wait until she invites us all out to Alabama. By that time Vin will be back. Seems like in every version of this, Vin is a key player."
"Well, I'm going to be at the Four Seasons tonight watching Chris's back." JD stood up and went back to his own desk, opened a locked drawer and put something in his pocket. "And I'm not going unarmed. You do what you want, but if we don't wrap this up, don't blame me if a month from now you're still sitting at this desk tracking down losers instead of arranging poker games for winners at that Mountain Apache Casino you told me about." JD retreated to the familiar territory of his keyboard and was still there when Chris and Buck returned a couple of hours later.
Every time Ezra turned around, JD's eyes were on Chris. It got so he could feel his stare even when his back was to JD's desk. He was relieved when Chris finally changed into his suit and made ready to leave. He expected JD to leap up and run out to his van so he'd be ready to follow, but instead he slid into the chair still sitting next to Ezra's desk.
"Chris is too sharp for me to follow. I'm going to wait until he's in the conference room; I got the room and floor from the hotel's computer. In the meantime, I'll just keep you company."
Ezra refrained from voicing his exclamation of delight. Instead, he watched as Buck walked Chris to the door, put his hands on his shoulders and gave him a peck on the cheek. It was a scene out of every 1950's TV series Ezra had ever seen in syndication, except Buck wasn't wearing an apron, he didn't have to stand on tiptoes, it wasn't morning and Chris hadn't been preceded out the door by two or three adorable children. The way Buck looked in his direction and grinned, suggested the scenario had been played out to test Ezra's newly found acceptance, or more accurately, newly lost intolerance. He tipped an imaginary hat at Buck in acknowledgement.
Chris shook his head, looking amused. "If you've finished showing off for the kids, why not change your mind and come along? You look respectable enough. I doubt Travis is having me meet captains of industry or anything. Even if he is, who cares?"
Buck reached out, straightened Chris's already straight tie and smoothed the already smooth jacket lapels. "Not a chance. I'll wait up and you can tell me all about it. Bring back a doggy bag and we'll have filet mignon on Kaiser rolls for lunch with lobster salad on the side."
"Or maybe steak and eggs for breakfast."
"Forget that. With you looking so tasty, we're not going to be up in time for breakfast."
Chris glanced Ezra's way, cupped his hand around the nape of Buck's neck and brought him down for a kiss more intimate than a peck on the cheek. After they broke apart, Ezra gave Chris a wink, letting him know Ezra knew he was being used as an excuse for lascivious conduct.
As Buck walked Chris to his car, Ezra said quietly to JD. "I have to wonder if Chris would have made it to Travis's meeting on time if we weren't here."
JD grinned. "Yeah, one minute Buck is acting like Chris's doting wife and the next his slutty new girlfriend."
As Buck came back into the office, something in JD's pleasantry niggled at Ezra's consciousness. Suddenly sufficient pieces of this otherworld puzzle fell into place to afford him a glimpse of the picture on the box. And that picture was of Buck.
Domesticated as the good-bye scene had made him appear, Buck apparently wasn't ready to go home and wait for Chris in a candlelit hot tub. "Let's head out to the Highlander for some stuffed jalapenos and jerk chili. I'll buy. With Casey in New York with her posse and Ezra not remembering if he's dating anyone, you two must be as much at loose ends as I am tonight. I've always wondered what the Highlander was like before midnight."
Ezra had no intention of letting Buck out of his sight but felt obliged to grumble a little. "Is this one of those places where I wouldn't be caught dead if I were in my right mind?"
"Hell, no. Something about Jamaican chili appeals to your pseudo-cosmopolitan pretense. If it doesn't sound good tonight, you can get in touch with your feminine side and have one of those sissy spinach salads with hummus dip on the side."
"I'm in then," Ezra said. "JD too."
When he sensed JD was going to protest, Ezra turned to him and whispered, "I'll explain. Go read your email. And put on a decent shirt. You're hereby relieved of your undercover duties."
"Buck, give me three minutes to finish up this report and log out. If you're buying, I'll drive." Ezra quickly typed out a message and sent it to JD. A minute later JD rummaged around his desk drawer. When he stood up, JD patted his pants pocket. Ezra figured he couldn't be carrying anything bigger than an airweight .38 with a two-inch barrel, maybe only a .22. They wouldn't be much use against assassins armed with rifles but he didn't anticipate anything resembling a firefight unless and until they ended up in Alabama. Even so, when Buck went into their office to grab his wallet, Ezra pulled out the 9 mil he'd discovered in his locked his desk drawer and slipped it into a holster at the small of his back.
The Highlander was an afterhours bar, open until 3 a.m; likely they'd be gone before the place really started to hum. Once inside, Ezra and JD found a table while Buck went to the bar for beer. The moment Buck was out of earshot, JD had a million questions for which Ezra had no real answers because strong as it was, he was running purely on a hunch.
"In three different worlds Ella's fixation on Chris drove her to hire out the murder of Chris's wife and child so the field would be open for her when she presented herself a few years later, too late for suspicion to fall on her. She married and murdered one moderately wealthy husband, possibly to acquire an estate she believed Chris would find tempting. She used a bogus scenario to lure all of us to an elegant horse breeding facility where she separated Chris from the herd and attempted to murder the rest of us. You have to admit, things are different here."
"The only thing that's different here is that she didn't have Sarah murdered because someone already did it," JD insisted. "That doesn't mean she wouldn't have. Doesn't mean she didn't kill Petrie or that she won't try to kill all of us."
"I'm not saying we should let our guard down. Just that perhaps we should be alert to the possibility of unanticipated variations in the pattern."
"Like what? Petrie's dead, she has the fancy horse farm and now she's here using Travis to set up something that will get us all out there. Maybe Chris isn't in danger like you say. We are, but we'll be ready when she orders her thugs kill us and she'll end up in prison."
"Or she could get away. Vin apparently didn't stay in his dream long enough to find out her fate. But that's neither here nor there. I believe we have a more immediate problem."
"You gonna make me guess?"
"Ella undoubtedly had someone investigating Chris so she'd know where to find him and how to tempt him. When she did that in our worlds, she found he was married and paid someone to remove that obstacle."
"But he's not married now."
JD looked over at Buck who was weaving his way through the tables carrying a pitcher and three mugs. "Damn."
"Yes, damn. That's why I wanted you here instead of with Chris. It's Buck who's in danger. Could be tonight because she'll have an airtight alibi. We need to figure out how she plans to have it done. Burning down the farmhouse would have the advantage of leaving Chris without a home as well as a partner, as it did in my world. A firebomb in Buck's car would have the advantage of forcing Chris to relive Sarah's murder, casting the light of suspicion of Cletus Fowler and perhaps in Ella's mind, putting him in greater need of her comfort."
"So we can't let him drive his car or go home."
"And that creates something of a predicament. Buck has a special ending planned for this evening. It would be rather difficult to dissuade him and it's not like we have any proof of anything. "
"We could . . ."
"And don't suggest we tell him about dream worlds or alternate universes."
JD shut his mouth momentarily. "Okay then, let's just buy some time and hope we can find some proof while keeping Buck safe. We'll get Buck drunk so he can't drive, find Chris's car at the Four Seasons and park next to it."
"I believe all the parking there is done by valet; we wouldn't be allowed to self park."
JD gave a scornful chortle. "I'll bet Chris hates letting a valet touch his car in Atlanta as much as he does in Denver."
"And Phoenix. No valet parking in Pottersville, but I have noticed he won't turn his horse over to any of the teens who hang around the stables and will put up a horse for a small gratuity. You're right, likely he'll have parked in one of the independent lots adjacent to the hotel." Ezra thought for a moment. "Okay, if Buck goes home with Chris, Buck is safe for tonight. Ella isn't going to let anyone burn the house down while Chris is in it. But what if we can't get Buck drunk? After all, when it comes to vices, lust trumps inebriation for Buck every time."
"It's not like we have to get him falling down drunk, just enough to convince him he shouldn't drive," JD countered. He gets too drunk to drive way before he's too drunk for sex. At least the Buck I know does."
"All right. We'll try it your way. If that doesn't work, we'll have to trot out some of our untethered facts. After all, Buck knows my information helped get Del Spivak and his gang. We can reveal things we shouldn't know about Ella, starting with the fact that we know she's in that meeting with Chris and Travis."
"That's not an untethered fact," JD protested. "It's a fact tethered by my hard work."
Ezra looked over at Buck who'd made it about half way to their table before stopping to flirt with . . . Ezra wasn't quite sure actually. In his world he'd have assumed Buck was flirting with the buxom blonde in the purple tank top and tight jeans. But in this world he might just as easily be flirting with the brunet in the muscle shirt with arms like the Terminator. Of course, that wasn't the only difference. Here, Buck wouldn't be collecting phone numbers unless perhaps one of them was a dental hygienist or a gunsmith.
"If Buck thinks we just pulled everything out of our muddled brains, we don't have to explain anything. And there's the advantage of Chris being able to confirm Ella was at the meeting. Even if we can't fully convince Buck of the validity of our theories, we can convince him to be cautious. He needs to stick with Chris because as long as they're together, Ella won't dare try to have Buck killed. And it won't hurt if we imply we're not entirely sure that it isn't Chris who's in danger."
JD looked up as Buck set the pitcher on the table and added softly, "Let's hope she doesn't know a sharpshooter as good as Vin. It won't matter if they're together."
Buck sat down and started pouring beer. "Angie's on her way with a platter of appetizers. So if you don't want the chili, that'll be the time to speak up."
JD pushed the first filled mug back in Buck's direction. "Me and Ezra gotta go easy.
Remember what Chris said about alcohol and head injuries." He grabbed the pitcher from Buck and poured half a glass each for him and Ezra.
Bucks expression turned to one of concern. "Seems like you're both doing pretty good. I thought maybe you were almost back to normal."
Ezra saw his chance. "Well, that's something we need to talk about."
By the time they'd gone through the appetizers and the jerk chili, which Ezra found pleasingly complex, Buck, though not convinced, was willing to humor them.
"Okay, you two really believe I'm in danger from Chris's old girlfriend. I think she's ancient history. But I respect your good intentions. If you insist on playing paranoid bodyguards, I'll go along with it until we meet up with Chris. If she's up to something, Chris will have picked up on it.
On the walk through the mall parking lot to his car, Ezra was acutely aware that even with Buck between them, the five and seven inch height differences meant they were piss poor shields should Ella have actually hired a sniper. By the time they were close enough to his Caddy to beep the locks open, Ezra had all he could do to quell his reflex to jump at every shadow. When one of those shadows came from around the back of his car and jumped at JD, Ezra had his gun in his hand and ready to fire the moment he was sure he could hit foe instead of friend.
And by that time he was able to discern the difference, he could see that their would-be attacker was a dog. A formidable dog to be sure but a formidable dog with a wagging tail, wielding tongue, not teeth. JD was on one knee, arms around the dog's neck as it licked him vigorously. Given the events of the past week, Ezra wouldn't have been the least bit surprised if the dog had been a black Labrador that had somehow leaked into this world from another. But it wasn't.
"Friend of yours, JD?" Buck stepped up to what looked for all the world to Ezra like a book jacket picture of a boy and his dog. "You gonna introduce us?"
Ezra stepped close and could see the JD wasn't sure how to answer, how to explain their new ally. So he took it upon himself to give JD the start of a plausible story in case this was more than just a friendly loose dog. "I believe that's a Dutch shepherd, one of the newer fashions in law enforcement K-9s. It looks rather like a black malinois, the breed that replaced the Rottweiler and the Doberman a decade or two ago. But see the stripes beneath the black, brindling it's called. I've heard they make excellent protectors." He was babbling now; time for JD to take up the story. And bless the lad, he finally got his wits about him.
"I know this dog. Betsy belongs to a friend of Casey's who just moved back to Atlanta after her husband was killed in the line of duty on the Kansas City police force. He bought Betsy himself so he could get into the K-9 unit; she doesn't belong to the city. Angela couldn't bring herself to donate him to another handler right away. She asked me if I might be interested. I was thinking it over but then all this amnesia stuff happened so . . . "
"So we'd better find this Angela and return her dog," Buck filled in. "We have time for a good deed before we take me over to babysit Chris – or have him babysit me."
"We can't," JD protested, looking over to Ezra for help.
For gods' sake, why did his friends always expect him to take point when it came to telling believable lies? "He's right Buck. Unless Casey has more than one friend named Angela, Betsy's owner is one of the ladies who accompanied Casey to New York."
"Right," JD agreed with just a little too much relief in his voice. He really needed some coaching in prevarication. But then, Ezra supposed that would be true in any universe. At least he hoped so.
Ezra continued. "So perhaps JD can call Casey and have her tell Angela whoever she left the dog with was unreliable and he'll take over until she gets back. If he can't reach her, he can just leave a message on her voice mail." He hoped JD would get the hint and not actually try to dramatize a fake conversation with Casey. "Angela can inform her incompetent dog watcher. While JD's taking care of that, I'll get something out of my trunk to protect my leather seats. No good deed goes unpunished. I should never have offered to drive."
JD moved to the front of the car to make his call, as though wanting some privacy with . . . with whatever Casey was to him in this world. They'd only had a day together before JD insisted she go ahead with her New York plans. Ezra suspected JD didn't know exactly what Casey was to him. Or maybe he just didn't want to take advantage.
Ezra took a blanket and a small tarp out of the trunk and arranged them on the back seat. Even if the Cadillac was only under his temporary guardianship, there was no point in risking such fine leather to an animal with unretractable claws. Within minutes they were on their way, JD and Betsy tucked away in the well-protected back seat.
"So what's the plan, boys? I don't suppose you could just drop me off at Chris's car. I have a key. I can just stretch out in the back and take a little nap."
"As if you could stretch out in a Camaro." Ezra shook his head. "You can't really think it's that easy. Tonight's her best chance to have something happen to you while she's sitting in the same room with Chris. That kind of alibi has emotional resonance."
"Come on guys," Buck protested. "Car bombs, residential arson, long distance assassins. That kind of thing says hired hands. She couldn't expect to fool Chris just because she was sitting in a room batting her eyelashes at him. He linked up Cletus Fowler with Sarah's murder just based on one photo of them in casual conversation. Chris doesn't believe in coincidences."
"And we'll all be so gratified when he sees right through the coincidence and blames your murder on Ella."
That shut Buck up for the moment. It was only a five-minute drive to the Four Seasons. Ezra couldn't detect anyone following but they were in downtown Atlanta on heavily traveled streets, making detection difficult. They slowed down to do a visual check of the well-lit parking lots adjacent to the hotel and spotted what looked to be Chris's Camaro in a back corner of the second one.
As they made their way to the back of the lot, Ezra cautioned the others to watch for suspicious vehicles.
"You got anything particular in mind?" Buck asked with just a trace of sarcasm.
JD jumped in quickly. "Hummers, black SUVs, white vans with fake logos, Plymouth Furys . . . "
"Plymouth Furys?" Buck and Ezra asked simultaneously.
"Didn't you guys see Christine? You know, Stephen King's killer car."
"Perhaps I should have been more clear. Watch out for vehicles in which the occupants are acting suspiciously."
Buck immediately pointed to the car that had entered the lot after them. "What could be more suspicious than driving a Toyota Corolla?"
Ezra gave up. There was only one car moving around the lot other than Ezra's Cadillac and the Corolla. As he watched, the car, an Accura, slipped into a space. A well-dressed couple exited and headed toward the hotel. Ezra located a space near the Camaro and started to turn in. Suddenly a Prius that had been parked a row over wedged itself between the Caddy and the car next to the empty space, smashing the driver's side headlight in the process and blocking Ezra's door. Almost immediately, the Corolla came at them from the passenger side, smashing the passenger door and setting off the airbags.
"What the hell?" Buck shouted as he tried futilely to push open his crushed door. "A fucking Prius and a Corolla. This is too damn humiliating."
Ezra pulled out the 9 mil as three men exited from each of the cars. They were carrying aluminum bats; any guns they had were still concealed. JD's driver's side door wasn't blocked but Ezra saw no reason for him to exit. Betsy was barking furiously and throwing herself alternately at both windows. JD pulled his airweight .38 revolver out of his pocket and leaned over the seat. Grabbing Buck's left wrist, he slapped the gun into his hand.
"Thanks kid," Buck managed just before both passenger side windows shattered under the blows of multiple bats.
Their attackers erred in breaking both windows because while Buck fired a couple of shots to ward off the hands trying to pull him out of the car, Betsy launched herself out the back window and took down one of the men. Before any of the other men could think to go after her with a bat, JD burst out of the driver's side door and ran around the back of the car. Not the smartest thing to do as he was unarmed. Ezra's firearm was of little value in his own hands, as once the attackers saw his face, they left to join their cohorts on Buck's side of the car. He couldn't fire in their direction without risking hitting Buck or JD.
He leaned over and shouted, "Buck, take my 9 mil! I don't have a decent line of fire." He thrust the gun into Buck's outstretched hand and took the .38 in exchange. It was only a five-shot revolver but the three remaining bullets were better than none. He climbed into the back seat by dint of crawling over the center console and exited through the door JD had used. By the time he'd gotten to the far side of the car, he'd heard Buck take four shots scattering five of the men. The sixth was still on the ground with JD standing over him, holding the bat the man had dropped when the dog latched on to his arm. Betsy was at JD's side obeying his command to stand down but whining as though eager to get in a few more bites.
Buck pulled himself through the broken out window. "What kinds of assassins were they? No guns?"
JD turned over the man Betsy had taken down after patting him down for weapons. "Shit. He's just a kid. No more than sixteen, maybe younger. Who the hell would send unarmed teens to kill someone who could be armed?"
Buck bent over to look, then hauled the kid to his feet, shaking him a little. "Who hired you, boy?"
The kid looked nervously down at Betsy, apparently fearing her more than the firearm in Buck's hand. Betsy growled at him as though to suggest there would be consequences for failing to answer. He opened his mouth but they'd never know if he had any useful information to impart.
Gunfire came from somewhere a few cars down and a row over. The kid crumpled to the ground, a bullet in his back. The three of them threw themselves to the ground as bullets thudded into the Cadillac. Whoever was firing had no shortage of ammunition. They managed to crawl or roll to the protection of the Corolla as the barrage of bullets continued and then suddenly stopped. A scream from the direction of the gunfire brought JD to his feet. Buck and Ezra both made a futile grab for him but he was yards away before either of them was in a position to follow.
By the time they caught up with him, JD was standing in the open bed of a Dodge Ram pickup holding an assault rifle and a .45 auto. Looking into the bed, Ezra saw a man down with Betsy standing over him. Blood was oozing from bites in his arm and thigh. "Looks like the boy thugs were just an expendable diversion."
When the man turned his head so the light of nearest street lamp illuminated his face, Ezra and JD said simultaneously, "Handsome Jack Averal."
Buck took a close look. "Never saw him before. How do you two know him?"
JD looked down at Ezra as they spoke once again simultaneously, "Untethered fact."
Buck vaulted into the truck bed and gave Ezra a hand up. He took possession of the two firearms, leaving JD free to control the dog. "Well, let's tether a few facts," Buck said. "Do you think he'll tell us who hired him before or after JD sics Betsy on him again?"
Ezra smiled broadly as he looked into Jack's eyes. "I guess that depends on whether he wants to continue to use the moniker 'Handsome'." He turned to JD. "Can you point Betsy at his face or does she just grab whatever's handy?"
"She's not a gun, Ezra." JD pulled a pair of handcuffs from his back pocket. "But if we put him on his knees and cuff his hands behind his back, she might go for his face." He shrugged and added in mock apology. "But she might go for the belly."
"That makes sense," Buck said. "I've heard wolves go for the guts first. More vitamins or something." He shook his head sadly. "I really would prefer the face though." He handed the firearms off to Ezra, grabbed the cuffs out of JD's hand and flipped Jack over, quickly locking Jack's wrists behind his back. Buck hauled Jack to his feet, pulled him to a corner of the truck bed and forced him to his knees.
Betsy growled softly as she watched the proceedings and started barking as Buck placed Jack in the corner. JD grabbed her collar, which seemed to be a signal for her to start lunging. So far Jack hadn't said a word and when they heard sirens headed their way, he smiled nervously.
Buck pulled Jack's hair to tilt his face up and pointed toward the lunging, snarling dog. Police will be here in a minute or two. JD's going to let the dog go now. When you're ready to tell us who hired you, just yell and we'll try to pull her off. Can't guarantee you won't lose whatever she has in her mouth at the time."
Instead of letting Betsy go immediately, JD inched toward Jack, the snarling dog straining her neck in her attempt to reach the handcuffed man as JD softly urged her on. Jack's eyes shifted from the dog to the direction of the sirens as though gauging if rescue would arrive before he was disfigured or disemboweled. When one of Betsy's canine teeth made contact with a shirt button over his belly, he caved completely.
Jack gave up Ella's name immediately under Buck's questioning. He admitted that if the carjacking scenario hadn't worked, there were alternative plans for getting rid of Buck, including a bomb in his car or at the farm or office. Ella had been very specific that there was no margin of error. If anything crashed, exploded or burned it could only be done while Chris was being watched somewhere else. If one of Chris's other friends became collateral damage, no problem but he wasn't paid to kill anyone except Buck.
Buck looked so relieved after being told he was Jack's only target that in Ezra's opinion he dropped the ball. The sirens were sounding from less than a block away now and Ezra C. Standish – C for collateral damage, had a few matters he wanted clarified. Setting the rifle and .45 auto down on the truck bed, he grabbed Jack's shirt next to his throat. With his other hand resting on Betsy's head, only inches from Jack's face he asked, "Did you or Ella hire anyone other than those teenagers?"
Jack shook his head, never taking his eyes off the dog. "She had someone doing investigating but I don't know who. Don't know if she hired any other muscle. Never said. I hired those kids."
"Did she pay you to do anything else?"
"Just get rid of him," he said, looking at Buck. He glanced down at Buck's wrist. "And grab that fancy watch if he was wearing it."
Buck broke in with another question. "Why'd she want me dead?"
"Something about freeing Larabee from your unnatural influence."
The sirens had reached the entrance to the parking lot spurring Buck into action. "The cops aren't going to know who's dangerous here so let's not do anything to spook 'em,"
Buck ordered as he vaulted out of the truck bed with Handsome Jack's two weapons in hand. He placed JD's revolver and Ezra's 9 mil on the hood of the truck with the rifle and the .45 auto. He stood waiting, far enough away from the firearms so as not to appear to be a threat. Sure, Ezra thought, just a tall muscular guy standing in the midst of three crumpled cars, a dead teen, a handcuffed killer, a snarling Dutch shepherd, three recently fired handguns and an assault rifle that had sprayed bullets and casings all over the parking lot. Harmless.
Ezra realized they'd probably be tied up with questions from tag teaming officers and detectives for quite some time. He found Chris's number on his phone list and pressed it. He hoped he and Chris didn't normally exchange social phone calls in this world so when he saw Ezra's ID pop up, he'd answer even in the middle of a meeting.
After two rings, Chris snarled into the phone "What is it?" His irritation covered something else – apprehension maybe. Of course. He probably knew Buck would be with Ezra and JD and had to be concerned that someone other than Buck had called.
"Chris, take the phone out earshot of everyone at the meeting. Go to a men's room or some place private. If you can catch Travis's eye, get him to follow you. I promise you Buck doesn't have a scratch on him but you need to look distraught as though I'm informing you he was just murdered."
Ezra decided he needed to keep talking, even if Chris couldn't answer at the moment. "A man named Jack Averal just tried to shoot Buck. He missed completely but shot one of his own underlings before the kid could talk. When we got a chance to scare the piss out of him, he admitted he was hired by Ella Gaines Petrie to get rid of Buck, to free you from his unnatural influence. I don't have time to talk because the cops will have us all in separate patrol cars in a minute while they sort things out. I can't tell you how I know but I believe Ella is obsessed with you and unbalanced enough that she might confess if you pretend you're a bit relieved because you realize you should be with a woman. Have Travis get rid of everyone else at the meeting so you can be alone with Ella. She'll almost certainly invite you back to her suite. We won't tell the cops where she is until after you call to say you've got a confession or there's no chance you'll get one."
Ezra heard running water and assumed Chris had made it to a bathroom. "Chris, do you understand what I said?"
"Got it, Ezra. Let me talk to Buck."
"Sorry Chris, the police have stopped the first patrol car right next to him. They'll be interrogating me in a second. I have no idea whether Buck has his cell phone on him."
"Ezra, if you're lying to me and Buck is hurt, I'll …"
"Yes, yes, I know infliction of pain and all that, but I don't have time to be threatened."
"Then just tell Buck I'll warn Vin but he should call him when he can."
Ezra abruptly flipped the phone shut as a second patrol car stopped next to the first one. Mindful of how many people had been shot because a cell phone was mistaken for a firearm, Ezra set the phone down at his feet. He sidled up as close to Buck as he could, open hands in full sight of the officers. He whispered urgently, "I told Chris you're unhurt. Don't tell the officers where Ella is. Give Chris time to work on her."
As Buck turned toward the officers exiting the patrol cars, his own empty hands on display, Ezra moved back to the truck bed and gave the same instructions to JD.
Ezra didn't blame the officers for keeping everyone at gunpoint until backup arrived to sort things out. Buck and Ezra were separated after submitting to a pat down. Using his belt as a makeshift leash, JD stayed in the truck with Betsy until two of the officers lowered the tailgate and directed him to take the now docile dog to sit in one of the patrol cars. Ezra was gratified to see that after Buck calmly pointed out the location of the guns and the body and gave a brief explanation of what had gone on, the officers placed Handsome Jack in the back of the second patrol car taking off the handcuffs only long enough to switch JD's cuffs for their own.
When he answered the officer's questions, Ezra didn't volunteer anything extra, knowing whatever he said would just have be repeated a half dozen times, each time for a higher ranking cog in the law enforcement machine. He only hoped JD wouldn't offer anything he couldn't explain. Buck could set out the facts without unnecessary, or worse, implausible embellishments. Which was just as well because by the time the matter came to trial Ezra expected Buck would be the only one of the three of them who had any memory of this.
In light of the range of the rifle and the flight of the boys who had arrived in the Prius and the Corolla, the entire parking lot was a designated crime scene. There were a dozen uniformed officers and almost as many in plain clothes – detectives, CSIs, medical examiner. When Chris never arrived to argue with whoever was guarding the sanctity of the yellow crime scene tape, Ezra supposed he was satisfied Buck was unhurt and was now consumed with making sure Ella would never be able to try again.
Jack was taken away after the second wave of officers arrived. It took three rounds of questioning but the officers finally concluded Ezra, JD and Buck were victims. Of course, that only meant they wouldn't be arrested and forced to sit around in a dank examination room waiting to be questioned yet again. It didn't mean they were free to leave. They could insist on being arrested or allowed to go but Chris's Mustang was inside the crime tape and they'd have to call someone to pick them up. Besides, Buck wasn't going anywhere until they heard from Chris.
Once they were assured the three of them were unarmed and relatively confident they weren't guilty of anything, the remaining officers ignored them. Anyone not collecting evidence, moving lights or taking photos was busy handling folks who had parked to go to the hotel bar or restaurant and now had vehicles inside the yellow tape. Although the officers had been doing their best to shrink the area of the crime scene, there were still at least two dozen cars that weren't going anywhere for a while. A TV news team was also kept outside the tape. Buck sidled over to Ezra, JD in tow, being careful to keep out of sight of the TV cameras in case Ella had a TV on. He said in a low voice, "Are you sure Chris isn't in any danger from Ella?"
"Ella is no bigger than Casey and not much younger than Chris. She has no motive to hurt him. In any event, he's aware she tried to murder you so he'll be on guard."
"He's right," JD chimed in. "Chris won't have any problem playing her."
Buck shook his head. "I'd be a lot more confident if either of you knew where you the hell you'd gotten your information. But like you say, Chris knows the score so he can take care of himself. Now give me a cell phone so I can call Vin. I'll bet my Mustang Chris has already warned him but I need to make sure."
"What's this obsession with warning Vin?" Ezra really wanted to know. "Don't Nathan, Josiah and Casey deserve a heads up? First thing Chris said was he was going to warn Vin. Said you should call him too. But as you don't even know exactly where he is how could one of Ella's flunkies find him even if she bothered to send one and there's no reason she would have. Why would she want to kill Vin?"
For the same reason she wanted me dead of course." Buck looked at Ezra as though he'd taken leave of his senses and then apparently remembered that wasn't far from the truth. "Oh, that's one of the things you forgot. Take my word for it. If Ella's investigators found out how important this watch is to me, they must have found out how important Vin is to both of us. And besides, he'll be worried about me if Chris called him. I'll bet my voice mail is full up."
Ezra glanced over at JD who was grinning like a damn Cheshire cat. A Cheshire cat that had eaten both the canary and the cream. Ezra handed Buck his phone. Buck didn't bother to step away or turn his back when he made his call, so Ezra felt no need to pretend he wasn't listening.
"No, it's me; I just borrowed his phone."
"Well, if I'd known one of Chris's old girlfriends was going to send an assassin after me, I wouldn't have left my phone back at the office."
"Now, you're sounding like Chris. I'm fine. All the parts you should be concerned about are still in perfect working order. I'll show you when you get home. If anything, bullets whizzing by my head gave me an adrenalin high, an edge. If you get home by tomorrow I'll show you that too."
"I don't care if you haven't tracked down that last dreg of Spivak's gang. When a man's looked death in the face he deserves to have his loved ones around him for comfort and hot sex. If you can get a reservation before Chris or I call you from our own phones, just call Ezra and let him know when we can pick you up."
"No, the memory loss thing made him forget all that squeamish, snotty disapproval. Let’s enjoy it before he gets his memory back. He might come and pick you up himself; deliver you right to our waiting arms without complaint."
"I'd better go. If Ezra's phone runs out of juice, we don't have any way to recharge because his Caddy is all smashed up and surrounded by yellow tape."
"Shit. Yeah, I was in it but I was exaggerating. It's only a little smashed up but it is part of the crime scene so we can't get to the charger."
"Well, if you think I'm lying, all the more reason for you to get back here and give me some TLC. Call the airport right away. Love you." Buck flipped the phone shut and handed it back to Ezra.
Ezra put the phone back in his pocket without thinking. He deliberately avoided looking at JD. Buck's voice when he told Vin "Love you" had carried more conviction than any similar assurance he'd ever heard from his own mother, either directed at Ezra or any of the men she dallied with. It was the difference between a passionate open-mouth kiss and a Hollywood air kiss. Not that he wanted the former from his mother, but a little conviction on her part would have gone a long way toward liberating his childhood from the constant attempt to win her approval. If Inez ever favored him with such a brief but heartfelt declaration, he'd be a satisfied man.
They were still waiting for Chris's call two hours later. The police had finally allowed the owners of the unfortunately parked vehicles to retrieve them. The truck, the Prius and the Corolla had all been stolen and were about to be towed to impound. They were permitted to retrieve Ezra's belongings from the Caddy before it was readied to be towed as well. They gathered around Chris's Camaro trying to decide on their next move when Ezra's phone rang. As he took it out of his pocket, Buck grabbed it.
"Oh, Orin. Is Chris all right? Are you still in the hotel?"
"Yeah, that makes sense. So who is there?"
"Okay, Rich and Katie are good. Not that Chris is gonna have trouble with one old girlfriend. I'll give him another hour before I have Ezra call him. After all, convincing her he's relieved I'm dead is award winning acting and can't be rushed."
"Room service? Chris celebrated my murder with chocolate strawberries and champagne?"
"Oh, steak and lobster, that's different. If the sad news of my untimely demise interrupted his dinner, can't expect him to trick a confession out of her on an empty stomach. But there's no way I'm going to let him stay 'til breakfast. If he can't get a confession with all his clothes on, he's just gonna have shoot her. Or I will."
As Buck flipped the phone closed, he turned toward Ezra and JD, and bumped smack into
Chris who'd quietly slipped behind him. Ezra assumed Buck would take full advantage of this perfect set up for an emotional movie clinch. And for a moment it looked like he was going to try. But Chris put his hands on Buck's shoulders, stiffened his arms and kept him at arms length, looking him over. He grabbed Buck's right wrist and turned his arm to expose the bloody but superficial scrapes he'd gotten on his palm and inner arm diving away from bullets. Chris glared at Ezra, who just shrugged. It was hardly fair of Chris to have taken him literally. "Not a scratch on him" had clearly been poetic license.
"Damn, Larabee, you work fast," Buck said. "Should I be worried it was so easy to convince her you were happy to be rid of me?"
"Oh, I convinced her of that barely half an hour in. In her twisted little mind, she thought she'd done me a favor so it didn't take much to get her to brag about it. But you didn't want me to leave without my steak and lobster."
"Funny. It must have taken you longer to find out if she sent someone after Vin."
"It was a lot harder to pretend I'd be happy to be shut of Vin," Chris said with a grin. He lost the grin when he added, "She was coy about Vin. Kept saying she'd protect me from undesirable influences. Had to pretend I was hungry so I could keep working on her without having to touch the bitch. She finally admitted her investigator had been unable to find exactly where Vin was so she was going to make sure he didn't bother me after he returned to the office. That was as close as I could get to a confession about Vin, but at least I found out there wasn't some loose cannon out there trying to kill him. Actually, I spent the last half hour answering the detectives' questions."
"Will her confession will stand up?" Ezra asked. "Unless she disclosed something only the person who hired Jack would know it might be difficult to convict on your word alone in light of your relationship with her intended target." It took him only a split second to realize his slip. "I mean targets."
"Oh, better than that," Chris answered. "Good old Orin had a nifty little digital voice recorder on him. He usually records meetings – openly of course. But this time someone had a bigger machine already hooked up so he kept his recorder in his pocket and showed me how to use it. Much quieter than a Dictaphone."
"Can't wait to hear her bragging about my demise. Where is it?" Buck asked.
"Handed it off to the detective Orin's people brought up when I called them. I'm sure I can remember the good parts." Chris pulled his keys out of his jacket pocket. "I saw Ezra's car. Doesn't look like it's roadworthy at the moment so I guess I'm in charge of transportation. Pile in."
"Shotgun," Ezra called as he went around to the passenger side of the Camaro.
"Shotgun? What are you, twelve? Let Buck sit in front," Chris ordered.
Buck headed for the back seat. "It's fine, Chris. JD's dog saved my life so I'm happy to sit in the back with her."
"Dog?" For the first time Chris noticed Betsy who had been lying behind JD, near the back of the Camaro. "Since when does JD have a dog?"
"You gotta keep up, stud," Buck answered. Let's get on the road and I'll tell you how our newest employee saved my life."
NEXT MORNING: ATLANTA, GEORGIA
Ezra woke up to the sun streaming into his bedroom window. As the window faced south rather than east, he didn't have to turn toward his atomic clock to see he was going to be late for work. And as that was the case, he might as well go back to sleep and fully recharge his depleted batteries. He was on a fast slide back into sweet oblivion when his landline rang. It was one ring away from going to voice mail when he remembered that if it was someone following Chris's instructions, he would go next his cell phone and then rotate back to the landline until Ezra answered. He'd be fully awake by the time he shut them both off, so he might as well answer and persuade them not to call again.
"What?" he snarled into the phone.
"Just wanted to make sure you're okay." Buck, an entirely too cheerful Buck. "After Chris's dreams got crowded with visions of your squashed car and all those numbered markers where they found casings and blood, he was worried my paltry collection of scrapes and bruises were covering internal injuries or whiplash or something. So he made an appointment with our company doctor. I didn't know we had a company doctor but Chris assures me Dr. Jennifer is our special medical friend in our HMO. He showed me her webpage on the company website. That convinced me I needed a thorough going over. I figured I should share the wealth so you and JD might as well get checked out too. I'll be by in an hour. We'll go to Elmer's after, now that it's your favorite place."
Ezra didn't bother responding to that bit of sarcasm. He would never set foot in that splinter-infested shanty where the pigs were probably slaughtered out back. He hung up, his brain occupied trying to figure out what the hell Buck was talking about. And as he tried to work that out, he found he couldn't even remember how he'd ended up in his own bed. His last memory was of watching JD's back in one of the sleazy bars where their skip was known to troll for men. Obviously he had been ambushed, JD too. But Buck hadn't even been part of that retrieval.
He reached for the TV remote on his nightstand. The satellite grid would give him the date and perhaps it would be wise to catch up on the news of the day. However, as he grabbed the remote, he found a little spiral bound notepad he'd never seen before. At least he'd have sworn he'd never seen it before but on the red cover were two words written in his own distinctive printing: "READ ME".
Was that a directive plucked from one of the Alice books or had they been limited to "Eat Me" and "Drink Me"? The obvious next step was to check the contents but he hesitated, trying to remember what happened to Alice when she followed those unembellished commands.
Finally, he flipped the cover to find an explanation he'd written to himself: an explanation or the synopsis of a bad soap opera plot. Amnesia. Possible failure to remember everything once his original memory returned. If there'd been a beautiful women or two, it could have been the opening of a bad romance novel. And yet here he was, without memory for -- for how long. He quickly flipped pages of what appeared to be a journal of sorts with dated pages that indicated he had no memory of more than a week of his life and in fact even his journal-writing amnesiac self couldn't account for several days.
He read quickly, wondering if his memories would unify as a result. The final entry was made last night and gave context to Buck's call. Or it was the climax to an action story: car crashes, baseball bats, snipers, hero dogs, confessions, obsessed lovers from the past. Had he decided to write trashy novels to pay for refurbishing his house? When he flipped through some blank pages after that entry, he found an odd cross between a to-do list and a done-it list:
1. I didn't know how long this amnesia thing would last so I returned Momma Mia to Netflix. If you don't remember watching it, reorder. ABBA never gets old. I changed the queue so they're sending Jeeves and Wooster next. The third Alien movie is an insult to its predecessors; you won't want it.
2. Travis is grateful for the information you gave them about Del Spivak and his gang including Kate and Maddie Stokes. Remind them to compensate you accordingly. You won't remember any of it. Read the summary in this notebook and just play along
3. Apparently my memory loss extended to the whereabouts of the blue corn pancake mix and the Thai lemon ginger tea. Don't double order, I already sent for some.
4. Your skimpy musical selection hardly complements the magnificence of the sound system. Patsy Cline, Carly Simon, Janie Fricke, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and such make a nice contrast to Grover Washington and Mozart but you need a bit of updating. Went on Amazon for some KD Lang, Nickelback, Coldplay and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.
5. I dusted off the elliptical. Works great with ABBA and Voodoo Daddy. A machine used in the comfort of the home is wiser choice than exercising in the real world.
6. JD didn't smoke while his memory was afflicted so his body is free of nicotine. Nudge him into keeping it that way.
7. Urge JD to keep the dog – she came in quite handy. Insist in fact. Buck will back you up. If Casey discloses she's never heard of anyone named Angela, have him blame memory loss, his and yours. Tell him you understand Angela moved in with her sister in New Jersey and can't keep the dog.
8. Your memory loss will cover a host of sins. They'll buy the untethered facts reason for asserting something on a hunch without supporting facts for quite some time.
9. Stop turning your nose up when Buck wants to go to Elmer's. With some remodeling to triple the seating and some clever promotion, (starting with changing the name from something that's probably followed by Fudd in most people's minds) that place would be ready to franchise in six months. Don't buy it without the recipes and a year's contract on the cook. If you can't buy it, buy the recipes. The coleslaw alone could be sold at deli counters all over the country.
10. In Austell there's a place called La Cantina owned by Inez Recillos, a delightful woman. You won't be sorry if you drive the twenty miles to get to know her. Take Buck with you. He can introduce you and she'll find you subtle and delightful in contrast.
11. The Caddy's in police impound. Chris thinks it can be fixed but hold out for a new one. Buck lent you the Mustang and if you play it right, he'll end up giving it to you. He'll use his gratitude as an excuse because after all the work he put in to restoring it, he'll never admit he's too tall for it.
12. Other than accepting the Mustang, don't try to cash in directly on helping to save Buck's life. However, an occasional oblique reference is in order when you want to escape some particularly odious task.
13. You can trust the six men you work with more than anyone else you will ever meet in this life. It will be worth your while to avoid giving them reason to mistrust you. (But don't worry about the little perks like embellishing your expense account. They won't mind that because you're a high value employee.)
ONE WEEK LATER: DENVER, COLORADO
JD lay on the recliner on Chris's deck, a bowl of corn chips resting on his stomach and bottle of coke within easy reach beside the chair. The real stuff. Buck had brought him a whole case of Mexican coke – glass bottles, cane sugar, sharp pine tar aftertaste and the same enamel-etching fizz. His only role in today's barbeque was that of spectator and food taster. Though he'd been out of the hospital for almost a week, Buck had decreed he was still recovering and Nathan had backed him up.
So here he was, relegated to watching the festivities that were probably being kept low key for his benefit. The only action was on the front lawn where Buck and Casey were playing keep away with the two retrievers. Chris had tagged Ezra to supply the meat for this get together and hadn't blinked an eye when he'd arrived from Costco with a dozen Cornish game hens and the makings for an apricot/brandy glaze. He'd simply brought the big gas grill to the proper heat and left Ezra in charge with Rain and Nathan handling preparation of the rest of the food. Having delegated the meal preparation, Chris retired to the corner of the deck with a paperback and a beer, his feet propped up on the railing. Shortly thereafter, Josiah joined him, his own weightier hardback in hand.
Vin pulled up a chair next to JD's recliner and set a bowl of guacamole and a beer on a brightly tiled side table. "Hey, kid, those chips are lookin' awful naked. I think we'd better see what we can do to make them more respectable."
"Who made it?" JD asked with suspicion. There were some people who thought the making of guacamole was simply a matter of mashing avocadoes and adding some sour cream.
"Don't worry. Nathan made a big bland batch but I scooped out this bowlful and added a carton of hot salsa plus a few secret ingredients."
Vin grabbed a handful of chips, fanned them out and scooped up a glob of dip. JD followed suit and was not disappointed.
"Okay, kid. I've been waiting to get you alone. Doctor said there was no medical reason he could find that you took so long to wake up, so I figured you were having another one of those dreams. But you didn't start any cross-state investigations when you surfaced so I figured to wait. But after a week I'm busting with curiosity. At least you should let me know if there's some bad guys I need to look out for."
JD didn't bother to make any denials. Vin was the one person who would understand. "It was a lot stranger than the last one."
"Stranger than being trapped in a seven-year-old body? Did you wake up on the bridge of a Firefly ship or in a pack of shapeshifters? Or maybe we were a bunch of vampires – what do they call them – a pride, a coven? I know, we lived in a fancy bordello and offered sexual services to rich, beautiful women. Oh wait, that would be Buck's fantasy."
"Geez, Vin. I said strange, not totally weird. At least no weirder than being some other version of me. That JD had a decent computer set up and knew how to use it. As for bad guys, if you hear the names Del Spivak or Kate and Maddie Stokes let me know. Mostly this time we just stopped Ella Gaines before she got to Chris."
"So what was so strange?"
"For one, we worked for Chris and Buck in their bond enforcement agency in Atlanta."
"Atlanta? Did we all have a southern drawl like Ezra?"
"Not hardly." JD didn't want to open up Buck's story of saving Vin's butt though he planned to eventually. After all, maybe it was saving Vin from being set up by Eli Joe in this world that had been his mission. But those game hens were starting to give out the scent of roasted goodness and there wouldn't be time before the gang gathered to eat.
Vin grinned. "So not working for law enforcement was the strange part?"
"Well, it was different. But what was strange was Chris and . . . . " JD fumbled over how to put it. "Chris actually seemed happy most of the time."
"That's what you said about the Chris in Phoenix. That he smiled more and wasn't scary nearly as often and never toward any of us. So like that? Or was it that running a private agency with Buck meant he was never forced to take it on himself to put someone he cared about in danger because the mission required it?"
JD hadn't considered that. Of course, bond enforcers could get hurt but not only did Chris share the burden with Buck in Atlanta, but if a skip seemed too dangerous, they could turn a job down. Not that anything he'd reviewed, seen or asked questions about revealed anything they had turned down. But Chris and Buck also had a lot more freedom to decide how a job would be done when they weren't constrained by badges. Vin might have hit on something JD hadn't considered.
"Guess that could be part of it. But I think it was mostly that he was in love again."
Vin nodded. "New love. Nothing makes a man happier or stupider than the first months of a new love affair."
"Not so new. It was more like six years and two years."
"Six and two?" Vin puzzled over that for a moment. "Oh, you mean he fell in love with a woman six years ago and now they have a two-year-old child." Vin glanced over at Chris, still reading on the deck and said in a soft voice. "Think it might happen here? Be real nice if he could find that again."
JD followed Vin's glance. "Yeah, it would. But he found something different and just as great in Atlanta." JD turned his attention to the grill where Ezra was lifting the roasted game hens onto big platters as Buck bounded up the stairs to "help." Buck got his knuckles whacked with a basting brush loaded with sticky apricot sauce when he tried to pull a tiny wing off one of the birds. He was licking the sauce off his hand when Chris got up and joined them. Buck waved his hand under Chris's nose. "This is good stuff. How come we don't have classy stuff like this more often?"
Chris shook his head. "Because we have barbeques, not pre-ballet dinner parties."
"A man can eat just so much charred beef," Ezra retorted. "I'd be happy to fix Buck up with a woman who can teach him to prepare rack of lamb before our next get together."
"The hell with that," Buck protested. "I've got women lined up begging to make rack of lamb for me. I wouldn't want to spoil their fun by doing it better."
The boasting was cut short when Rain called for some help with the platters of vegetables she'd grilled on the old Weber that had been called into service because Ezra's flock of birds had taken up all the room on the shiny new stainless gas grill.
Vin grinned as he turned from listening to the men at the grill. "Buck will never change."
"Yeah, that's what I thought," JD answered.
"What does that mean? Chris was different because he was happier and more relaxed but Buck was what? Unhappy and uptight?"
"Nope. I think Buck was happier too."
"So what are you sayin'? A diet of peaches, peanuts and pecan pie is the key to happiness?"
JD grinned. "Don't forget pulled pork."
He was trying to think of another "p" food when the voice of George Strait singing You Look So Good in Love preceded Buck and Rain onto the deck. Buck waltzed her smoothly from one railing to another, managing to avoid grills, deck furniture and Nathan. As the song ended and the couple took a bow, JD said without thinking, "Wouldn't it be great if any two people could fall in love?"
"They pretty much can JD. Sure there are bigots everywhere and maybe in Atlanta an interracial couple has more people against 'em than here. But most places nobody causes any problems."
"I don't mean just different races. Just think of how great it would be if anyone could love whoever would make them happy. The tightest couples I know are best friends too."
"Like you and Casey?"
"Sure, sort of." JD gave up. There wouldn't be time to go into detail and it wouldn't be fair to give Vin a brief shocking summary before they all gathered to eat. Then again, if he gave him just enough facts to whet his curiosity, Vin would bring him some real high-end takeout to get the rest of the story.
"In Atlanta, Chris was in love with two men." That got Vin's full attention.
"Come on JD. That's crazy."
"But you were ready to believe he was a vampire or a paid sex toy for rich women?"
"Hell, kid. I wouldn't have believed that stuff either. And even if you convinced me Chris was bisexual and had fallen for a man, I'm not fool enough to believe he'd try to juggle two of 'em."
"Even if it was you and Buck?" JD got just the wide-eyed reaction he'd wanted. "I swear it's true. Seemed real odd to me at first but you know what?" JD looked over to the big picnic table where everyone was gathering. Buck was headed his way, probably to help him get to the food, so he gestured for Vin to come closer. Once his mouth was close enough to Vin's ear that Buck wouldn't hear, he continued. "Remember back two years ago when you said being in a kid's body was really creepy but that if we'd really been kids it would have been a good deal because Chris and Buck loved us so much?"
"Same thing here. It was crazy to think of you and Buck and Chris all in love but if you'd really been gay, it would have been a great deal 'cause they both sure loved you a lot."
"You two have a secret you want to share?" Buck said as he stepped up behind Vin.
Vin looked hard at JD and shook his head. JD looked up at Buck with all the innocence he could muster. "Nope. I was just telling Vin what kind of takeout he could bring me tomorrow. I was thinking a pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw."
"That's a pretty boring secret, kid."
ONE WEEK LATER: POTTERSVILLE, NEW MEXICO
Ezra relaxed into the padded faux leather booth Inez had reserved for him in the Tavern. He'd been eating her cooking for the past five days, but food reheated in a hospital microwave couldn't compare to his first meal of food hot from Inez's cozy restaurant kitchen. Lovely, cheesy chiles rellenos, a sampler platter of appetizers and a tall glass of ginger lemon ice tea. And Inez stopping by every few minutes to see that he was all right. It was good to be home.
He didn't even mind when Vin slid into the booth across from him and snatched a sope off his appetizer plate. Generally speaking, Vin was interesting company but not someone he wanted around when he had Inez's attention. But on his first day home from the hospital every familiar face was welcome.
"You're lookin' pretty good for a guy who dropped off a cliff and only a week ago was in a coma. You had everyone pretty worried when the doctors couldn't figure out why you didn't wake up."
"Perhaps I was having a dream I didn't wish to wake from." Even as he said it, Ezra realized he still hadn't decided if it was a dream. Not that deciding would make it so.
"Don't wonder you were having pleasant dreams." Inez got in trouble most every day for burning herbs in your room. She said it was a mixture of things for healing, protecting against nightmares and enhancing good dreams."
"Inez was there even before I revived?"
"I'm sure she would do the same if you were the victim of misfortune," Ezra said with as much warmth as he could muster.
Vin grinned. "It just killed you to admit that didn't it?"
"Yes, it did. I guess that's the reason my dream was too enjoyable to wake up from."
"Killed me off, huh? Buck too?"
"Didn't need to. In my dream you were both gay. Or at least you were. Buck was bisexual but in a committed relationship. Without having to concern herself with hurting your feelings, Inez was free to follow her natural inclination and focus all her affectionate attention on me."
"Only in your dreams, Ezra."
Yes, only in his dreams. It was little consolation that somewhere, some Ezra might actually have a clear path to a relationship with Inez.
Ezra looked up to see Vin feeding himself a chip loaded with guacamole with one hand and dipping a chicken flauta in salsa with the other. He would have taken action to save his dinner but realized resistance was futile when a babble of voices coming in their direction heralded the arrival of the rest of the pack. Soon his comfortable private booth became a padded sardine can with escape cut off by Chris and Nathan parked on chairs purloined from a nearby table. Soon enough Inez would come to replenish the appetizers, Buck would earn her mocking scorn for his unsubtle advances, Vin and Ezra would vie to earn her laugh for a clever put down of Buck's foolishness and Chris would sometimes actually find them amusing enough to . . . For the first time it occurred to Ezra that he and Vin also competed at times to make Chris grin. It made him wonder if there was a world in which Buck was as hardwired straight as he was here while Vin and Ezra vied for Chris's attention.
This is Dana, the Dutch shepherd Betsy is modeled after.