Main Characters: Ezra, Chris
Acknowledgements: This was a birthday story for Trisha, begun – I think – two years ago, when she asked for Ezra hurtin’ and Chris comfort. She’s the forgiving sort, but I promised to finish it as a little “Thank you” for her thoughtfulness and friendship.
Ezra Standish stared out the windshield of the little rental car, watching the rain beyond. It was falling from the night sky in sheets, all but hiding the road most of the time. He felt the car slow down as the driver maneuvered the unfamiliar side road. He was unsuccessful at keeping the pain to himself as the car jerked unexpectedly. The driver spared him a concerned look, but he didn’t acknowledge it. Letting his head fall back against the seat, he released a long breath as his eyes closed.
He could still feel his companion’s attention on him. Barely making himself heard above the storm, he said, “I’m fine, Chris.”
“No, you’re not.” Larabee replied. The man had an annoying habit of ‘cutting to the chase’ as it were. “If we had a choice, you’d still be in a hospital bed. Unfortunately, that’s not an option, but don’t think you can lie to me, Ezra.”
Giving up the pretense of health, the undercover agent gripped the armrest that divided the seats. With a grimace, he shifted slightly. Quickly realizing that he wasn’t going to find a comfortable position any time soon, he gritted out, “how much longer?”
Glancing at first the dashboard clock and then the odometer, the senior agent said, “Another twenty minutes, maybe less if the rain lets up.”
“Why should it let up now? It hasn’t yet,” Standish replied. His tone was a mixture of pain and despair.
Chris glanced over once again, seeing something that concerned him. His team member, fellow agent… friend, was wracked with something that went beyond physical pain. The handsome face was lined with guilt.
He had been worried about the Southerner since the injured man had shown up at Denver General two days ago. Not just because of the physical damage, but for the emotional toll as well. Ezra had been closed mouthed about it all, however, uncharacteristically silent. The only thing they had gotten from him was that something had gone wrong and someone was dead. The undercover assignment, searching for a way to bring down Paolo Torelli’s drug running operation, was compromised.
As senior agent in charge, Chris had gotten the call from the Hospital. Ezra had been shot, the bullet lodged in his upper chest. Alerting the rest of his team, the six agents converged on Denver General. Arriving while their friend was in surgery, they waited in near silence for news of the agent’s health.
The doctors had been guardedly optimistic that Standish would make a full recovery, with no residual problems suffered from the wound. The bullet had missed anything vital, although he had suffered significant soft tissue damage. There would be a lot of physical therapy in the near future for the agent.
They didn’t know much of what had transpired. However, the other men had learned that, amazingly, Ezra had driven himself at least ten miles to get to the Hospital. One of the ER nurses had looked up to see him staggering in the door, covered in blood.
Not knowing what – or who – had compromised the assignment, protective measures had to be taken. They set up a schedule so that the hospitalized man was never alone. Although it wasn’t bureau policy, only the other six members of Team Seven were involved in guarding the man. One of the sparse bits of information Standish had shared was that he was certain that there was a leak somewhere within the agency. So, with AD Travis’ agreement, Ezra’s teammates divided up the watch.
Chris had been there, along with Vin Tanner, when a call came into the room. The caller, voice electronically distorted, evidently thought he was talking to Ezra rather than Larabee and addressed Standish by his undercover alias. Ominously saying only, “They know you’re there, Elliot. They’re coming for you at dawn,” before hanging up.
Listening to the dial tone that followed, Larabee shared the news with the other agents and, while Vin stood guard, made the necessary arrangements. Two hours later, they were helping Ezra into a car. Leaving Tanner behind to cover their tracks, the blond drove into the rain-soaked night.
Standish blinked open weighted lids, managing to focus on the face hovering above him. The tip of his tongue ran over dry lips and he rasped out, “Chris?”
With a faint smile, the blond said, “We’re here. Come on, let’s get you inside.”
Not at all certain where ‘here’ was, the smaller man allowed himself to be helped out of the car. He couldn’t stop the whimper of pain that escaped tightly pressed lips. Vaguely aware that he was standing upright, he leaned heavily on the bigger man. It was only Larabee’s strength that kept him on his feet. They moved as quickly as they could, given the rain and Ezra’s wound.
He tried to focus both his eyes and his mind, failing miserably in both instances. “Wh… where are we?”
“Safehouse,” Larabee answered shortly. “You and I will be staying here until things are clear.”
Standish stopped, straightened as much as he could, and pushed away from the other man. “No. I have no intention of sitting here, doing nothing.”
Clamping down on his anger, the blond said, “They want you dead, Ezra, and you’re not in any shape to do much about it. Face it; you don’t have a choice in the matter right now.”
“I most certainly do,” The smaller man argued, even as his knees buckled and he started to collapse. Only the other man’s quick reflexes kept him from falling to the ground.
“No, you don’t.” Chris shook his head as he spoke the words softly.
With only the barest amount of help from the injured man, Larabee half carried him into the house. They managed to get through it, searching for the bedroom. The senior agent had some idea of how the house was set up; they were typically the same basic lay-out. Locating the bedroom at last, he settled the semi-conscious Standish on an overstuffed chair, dropping the soft-sided suitcase he was carrying, on the floor beside them. Finding his way to the linen closet, he grabbed up towels and returned to where the other man sat slumped in the seat.
Carefully, Chris got Ezra out of the wet clothes, drying him off and checking the bandages before helping him into dry sweats and a long sleeved tee-shirt. Not exactly the dapper man’s style, but the best he could do on short notice. Before moving his friend, he retrieved the medication the doctor had sent with them and got Standish to take them.
Guiding him to the bed, Chris got him under the covers, drawing them up to the man’s chin. Pain-glazed, emerald shaded eyes blinked open and he managed the barest of smiles. “Now you wake up.”
“I always was… a late… riser. You know that.”
Chuckling, the taller man said, “Well, go on back to sleep. I’ve got your back.”
With a somber nod, the auburn-haired man allowed his eyes to close.
It was the singing that drew his attention; soft and melodic, it sounded nearby. He was surprised to find that it was much easier to waken than it had been before. Even more unforeseen was the fact that nothing hurt. His chest and arm seemed – at least for the moment – pain free.
Turning his head toward the sound, he found a vision of purity and loveliness. He smiled as a pair of sky blue eyes met his refreshed green. Then he frowned in confusion. “How?”
The young woman brushed back long, blonde hair as she continued to watch him. “How, what, Elli?”
“How did you… where did you come… I don’t understand how you came to be here, Amy.”
She giggled; a sound like wind chimes in a spring breeze. Stretching her arms above her, lithe body arching with an unconscious sensuality, she sighed. Then, with a shrug, she said simply, “Well, where else would I be, my love?”
He blinked open weighted lids, focusing them with effort. Staring blearily into the gloom, he slowly took survey of his surroundings. Finally, his gaze settled on a familiar figure, etched in the moonlight. Tongue running over sandpaper lips, he croaked hoarsely, “Chris?”
The figure moved from the shadows and came to lean over the bed. “How’re you feeling?”
Managing to take a fairly deep breath, the Southerner grated out, “I’ve been… better.”
“Where… where did she… go?”
Frowning, Larabee asked, “Where did who go?”
With a puzzled expression, Standish said, “She was he… just here. I saw her… spoke to her. I… no, that’s not right. I… she can’t be…” Looking hard at the other man, he finished, “She couldn’t be here… could she? It’s quite… impossible.”
“You were dreaming, that’s all,” The blond reassured.
With a sigh, the supine man said, “Yes, I suppose that’s… what it was…” he allowed sleep to claim him once more, sliding back toward oblivion.
Chris watched as the man drifted off, puzzled by his words. He wondered if the ‘she’ Standish spoke of had anything to do with the botched assignment. Shaking his head, he returned to the chair he had just left and settled wearily into the cushions. Letting his head drop back to the headrest, Larabee resumed his watch. There hadn’t been a sign of anyone prowling around, or even passing by. It seemed that, for the moment, they were safe.
Chris stood at the stove, working on an omelet for breakfast. He stared out the rain-streaked window to the muddy landscape beyond. His mind wandered; wondering how things were going back at the office. He knew that the other five members of the team would be on top of things. He didn’t need to worry that they couldn’t take care of things… and themselves… just fine. But he did.
And wouldn’t they just love to know that? Hard-ass Larabee could fret and worry over his men like some neurotic little old granny.
A soft sound drew his attention from his musings. Turning, his mouth flew open at the sight of Ezra shuffling into the kitchen. “Damn it, Standish! What are you doing out of bed?”
Moving quickly across the room, he took hold of the smaller man’s elbow, guiding him toward the kitchen table and lowering him to the closest chair. Looking at the colorless features he asked, “Are you okay?”
“Just a bit… winded,” Ezra managed to grit out.
“Bull,” Chris replied gruffly. Then he gently squeezed the other man’s shoulder. “Think you can eat?”
“As long as it isn’t that,” The undercover agent quipped, nodding toward the stove.
“Shit!” Larabee cursed as he grabbed the burning pan off the stove, bare-handed, yelping when it burned his fingers. Tossing the pan into one side of the sink, he slapped the faucet to life and ran his fingers under the cold water.
Watching the spectacle from his chair, Ezra asked, “Are you all right?”
Patting the water gingerly from his reddened flesh, Chris nodded. With a sigh, he said, “Yeah… not one of my finer moments.”
“Can I help – “
“You sit still; I don’t want you falling on your face.” Larabee began rummaging through the room, looking for the Fist Aid kit he knew would be available. Finally locating it, he carried it to the table and sat down at the kitchen table, across from Standish. Opening the white box he searched for the burn cream.
Frowning, Chris questioned, “What for?”
Fumbling for the right words, Standish finally said, “Everything. I can’t help but think that… if I had handled things… differently, that perhaps…” He sighed, ducking his head.
“Ezra,” the blond coaxed, “I want you to listen to me. You don’t have a damned thing to be sorry for. You did your job, and I think I know you well enough to say that whatever happened wasn’t your fault.”
“Chris, you don’t… you don’t know…” The undercover agent stammered in a guilty tone.
“I don’t know the particulars, no. But I know you.”
Ezra moved restlessly on the bed, the pain from his injury rousing him only partially. With a groan, he opened his eyes to slits, trying to remember where he was.
“You’re going to sleep your life away,” that sweet, familiar voice teased him.
Slowly, eyes roaming around the room, he finally located the speaker. “Where did you go… before?”
She shrugged, smiling at him, but not answering the question. Instead she said, “I’m worried, dear Elli. Worried about you. You’re so sad, and you’re not taking care of yourself.”
Allowing his eyes to close, Standish murmured, “I must still be asleep… dreaming.”
That beautiful laughter sounded out once more then the blonde apparition said, “So, you’re dreaming. Does that make me your dream come true?” She giggled coyly.
The corner of Ezra’s mouth twitched and then turned up slightly. “You are most certainly a… dream. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that this is…. true.”
“Oh, my sweet, sweet Elli…”
When she grew silent, he lifted his lids once more, finding himself alone in the room.
Chris was just getting ready to check on the undercover agent when he heard a muffled sob. He hesitated, wondering what was happening. If Ezra had fallen or otherwise injured himself, he should check on him. If it was for another reason…
He should check, anyway. Something was wrong with Standish, something that went beyond his physical injury. Knocking softly as he entered the room, Chris called out, “Ezra?”
The younger man turned his head, but not before the blond saw the tears that continued to roll down his face. “I’m… I’m fine.” He stammered.
Walking across the room, Larabee dropped to the chair near the bed. “Bull shit.”
“Look, I know I’m not exactly… well, I’m no Josiah. But I’m here, and it’s easy to see that there’s something going on besides you being shot. And, whatever it is, it’s eating at you. So, despite the fact that I’m not known for my compassionate side, I’ll listen and try to help you out with whatever it is.”
Uncharacteristically Ezra swiped the edge of the sheet over his tear-streaked features, but kept his face averted. “I appreciate the offer, Mr. Larabee, however –“
“Forget the “Mister”, Standish,” Chris barely kept himself from growling. “It’s you and me, here. You can’t hide behind that “Southern Gentleman” façade of yours.”
“Damn it! Let me alone!”
Taking a deep breath before he continued his headlong dive into the middle of the other man’s privacy, Larabee leaned forward and spoke in a soft voice. “No, Ezra, I’m not going to let you alone. Whatever this is, you need to talk about it. So, my friend, unless you want me to make it an order… spill it.”
Silence reigned for several moments, but Chris could be patient when he wanted to be. He simply sat there, waiting the other man out. He didn’t know exactly what he expected but, when Ezra spoke, he couldn’t believe what he heard.
“I killed her. I killed Amy.”
Silence again filled the room for several moments. Larabee frowned, trying to remember someone named Amy who had any connection to the case that had almost cost Team Seven their undercover agent.
Finally, he voiced his confusion with a simple, “Who?”
Taking as deep a breath as possible, the undercover agent continued to stare at the wall, his back to the other man. “Amy. Her name was Amy. Amelia, actually, but that didn’t suit her. Amy did.”
“Amelia?” Chris questioned, then light dawned in his eyes and he said, “Amelia Torelli?”
“Paolo Torelli’s wife?”
Another nod, but no other response.
“You… I don’t understand.”
“What is there to understand? I killed Amy Torelli.” Ezra’s voice was hollow, as if simply saying it out loud was exhausting.
“How?” Chris felt as if he was drowning, without a life preserver in sight.
“By befriending her.”
“But – “
“I’m sorry, but I’m very tired. I’m going to sleep.” With that the injured man moved carefully, turning away from his supervisor.
Larabee sat there for a few more minutes, hoping for more, but the other man didn’t budge. Finally giving up, he rose and moved quietly from the room.
In some fashion he knew he was dreaming, or maybe just remembering. It had all happened before; he was only reliving it.
He was sitting in the small room that served as his office in the Torelli estate. He had worked hard and fast to infiltrate the man’s business and gather evidence to take him down. He was using his cover as Elliott Stanwick, who was known as a master at hiding illegal monies behind such an intricate maze, that it would take a dozen men a dozen years to locate even a dime.
The door opening and closing caught his attention and he looked up to find a vision entering the room. She was lovely; young, blonde and stylishly but casually dressed. Then she smiled, and he felt his heart melt.
“Hello. May I help you?”
“No. Just wanted to come in and say hi… hi!” She smiled and giggled as she said the last word.
He couldn’t help but smile in return. Nodding, he replied, “Hi.”
“You’re Elliot, right?”
“I most certainly am.”
With a sigh, the young woman said, “You have the most wonderful accent. You’re from the South?”
“Indeed. Georgia. Atlanta, actually.” He deepened his drawl just enough to make her smile grow even wider.
“I’ve never been there. Sometime you’ll have to tell me all about it.”
“Alas, it’s been so long since I left that I’m not certain I can be of much assistance, miss…?”
“Amelia.” She rolled her eyes as she said the name.
With a compassionate laugh, Ezra said, “I’m sorry… I’m afraid that just doesn’t suit you.”
“Thank you! I keep telling Paolo that it doesn’t, but he insists on using my proper name.” Her eyes rolled once more.
“Ah, so you’re well acquainted with Mr. Torelli, then?”
Her expression changed, darkening as he finished the question. Suddenly it was as if the sun had gone behind a cloud. Even her eyes lost their twinkle as she said, “I’m sorry, we haven’t been properly introduced. I’m Amelia Torelli. Paolo is my husband.”
Hiding his shock and disgust, Ezra said, “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Torelli.”
Suddenly tears filled the young woman’s eyes and she bit her lower lip. In a near whisper she said, “Please… don’t call me that.”
His poker face firmly in place, the undercover agent said, “Well then, my dear, I shall call you Amy… would that be more to your liking?”
Her smile returning, nudging away the darkness, the young blond said, “Yes, it would.” She paused, once again worrying at her lip. “But, only when we’re alone.”
He nodded. “It shall be our little secret.”
She was smiling once more. “I’d like that.”
Just then there was an electronic ‘chirping’ sound, and she pulled a small pager from the pocket of her jeans. A frown pulled down her stylish brow as she stared at the little read-out. Shoving the device back into her pocket, she said hurriedly as she started from the room, “I’ve got to go.”
“Of course,” he said, finding himself speaking to empty space.
Over the next several days, he enjoyed her company for a few stolen moments here and there, and he found himself quickly waiting for her arrival. He never knew for certain when she would appear. One minute he would be alone in his little office, and the next she would be standing there, smiling down at him.
They would talk about nothing important, simply making small talk. He came to quickly recognize that she had very little experience in the world. Her side of the conversation focused mainly on being here, in this house. She was hungry for his descriptions of the world at large. Finally he could stand it no longer.
“Amy, may I ask you something?”
“Anything you’d like, dear Elli.”
“Just how long have you been… married to Mr. Torelli?”
She dropped her gaze, staring at the richly carpeted floor. Finally, she whispered, “Far too long.”
“Amy – “
She heaved a sigh and raised her gaze. “I’ve been married to Paolo for five years. I was engaged to him… unofficially… for eight before that.”
“Thirteen years? But you hardly seem old enough.”
“Really? Because I feel very… very old.”
“Amy – “
They were cut off once more by the sound of that accursed pager. She didn’t even bother to look at it, she simply pulled herself from the chair she’d been sitting on, and walked resignedly from the room. He was almost certain he had seen tears in her eyes.
She didn’t come to visit him for a few days, and he had begun to think that perhaps he had asked too many questions.
When she did reappear, he found himself relieved. Until he got a close look at her. Reaching out before he thought, he brushed over her cheek. She winced, pulling away from his touch. Frowning at the discoloration she had tried to conceal with make-up, he asked, “Amy, what happened?”
“It’s nothing, Elli, really. I’m fine.”
“No, it’s certainly not ‘nothing’, and you most assuredly are not fine.” He struggled to keep the anger from his voice, not wanting to frighten her.
“Please, Elliot… please. Don’t… please drop it.”
He saw the tears, then, as they rolled down her face. He saw the fear in those tear-soaked eyes. “He hit you.” It wasn’t a question.
“He gets angry… I make him angry…” She tried to make excuses, but found it impossible before this man who had shown her more compassion in a moment than she had known from her husband in all the time she’d known him.
“Don’t make excuses for him!” Ezra’s voice was soft, but the anger was quite clearly present. She startled, backed up a step, leaving him feeling guilty for putting that frightened look on her face.
“I’ll take you out of here. I swear it, Amy. I’ll get you away from – “
“No! No, you can’t Elli. It’s too dangerous. He’ll find me… find us… wherever we go.”
“I have friends… associates. They’ll help. You’ll be safe.”
“It’s not just me,” her tone was hollow with defeat. “If I leave him, Paolo will kill my family. That’s… that’s why I’m here.”
“I don’t understand.”
Dropping into the chair near his desk, she stared off into the distance. Ezra settled a hip on his desk, waiting for her to talk. He began to think she wasn’t going to say more, when she began to speak. She continued to stare off into space, and he wasn’t even certain she knew he was there anymore.
“When I was six or seven, my father got into trouble with Paolo. The sort of trouble that meant a death sentence. But Paolo had other ideas.
“I had an older sister, Elizabeth. She was fourteen. Paolo told Father that he could live… if he was allowed to take my sister as his wife.”
“Dear lord,” the undercover agent murmured.
“Lizzy was terrified. She wasn’t even allowed to date yet, and suddenly she was going to be married. I can remember her on her knees, begging Father not to send her away. But it was no good.
“After the… wedding… we didn’t see her for months. She didn’t even call us. Mama was beside herself, she cried every day… when she wasn’t drinking. She would beg Father to bring Lizzy home, to let her see her little girl. Father refused, though, and kept saying that Lizzy was fine. After a few weeks, it was easier to pretend that he wasn’t lying.
“Then, one night, she showed up at our door. It hadn’t even been two years, but she had aged decades. There were scars that she wouldn’t explain, and she was holding a baby. Her baby… his baby.
“That was how she’d gotten away; she had slipped away from the hospital with her baby girl, while he was off celebrating his new baby. His new trophy.
“She begged Father to help her; to get her away from Paolo. She was afraid of what he’d do to her baby girl… afraid he’d do the things to the baby that he had done to her.
“Mama begged him, too. Begged him to let her take Lizzy, me, and the baby and run away. She would take us away, and protect us from anything more Paolo might do to us. But Father wasn’t listening. The only thing on his mind was that Paolo would punish him for Lizzy running away.
“Father called Paolo and told him where Lizzy and the baby were.
“Lizzy heard him… we all did. She began screaming at him; calling him all sorts of names. Started hitting him. Father slapped her once, hard, and knocked her to the floor. She had been holding the baby, and dropped her as she fell.
“Both of them were so quiet… so still…”
She stopped, trembling as she relived that horrible time. Ezra handed her tissues, and knelt beside her. He didn’t have any words to offer her. There were no words to respond to the horror she described.
After a few minutes, Amy began to speak once more. Her voice was soft, she sounded tired. “Paolo showed up a short time later, with his men. He picked Lizzy up, one of the men picked up the baby, and they just walked out. Not a word, not even in response to Mama’s hysterical screams.
“Life returned to what passed for normal in our family for a few months. Then, one of Paolo’s men showed up at our front door. He handed Mother the necklace Lizzy always wore and announced that Lizzy and the baby were both dead. It was as if he were discussing the weather. Lizzy had found it impossible to live with Paolo another day, and wouldn’t leave her baby with him. So, she took both their lives.
“She didn’t know any other way out.
“Paolo’s man also informed Father that there was only one way he could continue to protect his family. Paolo now considered himself engaged to me, and would come to claim me in a few years. In the meantime, we would all be kept under surveillance.
“The day I turned fifteen, he came to our house and announced that it was our wedding day. A group of people entered the house and prepared me to become Mrs. Paolo Torelli. My family and I were brought here by limo, and I was married. I spent that night with a man I hated and despised. For the last five years, I’ve never been allowed to leave the estate, or have any sort of contact with my family.”
Ezra had heard of many, many strange and sordid lives in his travels, but this was by far one of the most disgusting tales he had ever come across.
And there was no way he could ever pretend this wasn’t real.
The only thing he could think to say was, “I swear to you, Amy. I will get you free.”
Chris was sitting in the modestly decorated living room, reading a novel while a local radio station provided background noise. He didn’t realize the other man was there until he started speaking.
“I couldn’t save her. I wanted to… tried to… but in the end, there was nothing I could do.”
Sitting up straighter, Larabee watched Ezra intently. The Southerner eased himself down onto the couch, the lines of pain standing out in stark relief on his pale face. Chris knew he should go get the man’s pain pills, but the expression Standish wore kept him glued to the spot.
“What happened?” It was the only thing he could think to say.
“Torelli was so vicious toward her. He treated her like a possession… a prize. He controlled her completely… or thought he did. She was so young, so innocent. I don’t think she understood the true depths of the prison he held her in. She had not been allowed to leave the estate since the day he married her. She spoke to no one that wasn’t on Torelli’s payroll; that was the only way she was allowed to speak to me. That bastard was arrogant enough to believe that no one would ever go against him. If you worked for him, he considered you another one of his possessions.
“As time passed, Amy came to visit me more and more often. We were seen by others from time to time, but they saw nothing out of line. We did nothing more than talk. I believe that Paolo tolerated it because he saw me as one of his more loyal employees. Talking to me kept Amy content, and allowed him to focus his attention elsewhere.”
Nodding, Standish said, “Other women… other conquests. Amy told me that his… tastes… were quite bizarre. When she couldn’t fulfill his fantasies, he looked elsewhere.”
“What a piece of work,” Chris spit out vehemently.
“So… what happened?” He knew he was risking shutting the man up with that question, but he had to know.
She was waiting for him when he entered his office. Closing the door and turning on the light, he found her, curled up in the chair she sat in so often.
“You’ve got to get out of here. Whoever you are, you’ve got to get out of here.”
“Whoever…? What are you talking about?”
“He knows. Paolo knows. He was talking to someone… I didn’t recognize him. He told Paolo that you’re a… an agent. He had proof… Paolo believed him. You’ve got to go, get out of here!”
“Come with me.”
She shook her head, fear paling her features. “No, I can’t!”
“Yes, you can, and you must. You can’t live like this, you don’t deserve to. Come with me, I’ll protect you.”
“My mother – “
“I’ll do what I can to protect her as well. Amy, please, I can’t leave you like this.”
Suddenly she looked unsure. “Are you… are you an agent?”
“Yes.” He couldn’t lie to her any more.
A flash of anger shot over her features. “Were you using me?”
She stared at him then, studying him. Finally she nodded. “All right.”
“Good, then let’s go. We need to get out of here before we’re found out.”
“Amy,” he held out his hand. “We must go now.”
Ezra stopped; blinking as he suddenly realized where he was. Looking over at the other man, he said, “We nearly made it, before…”
Chris slowly came back to the present as well, belatedly noticing how pale the Southerner looked. “Ezra, lay down. I’ll get your meds.” Not waiting for an answer, the blond pushed himself out of the chair and headed for the door. He came back in a moment later, pills in one hand and a glass of water in the other. He was glad to see that Standish had stretched out on the couch. He still looked far too washed out, though, the lines of pain far too prominent in the handsome face.
“Here.” He held the medication out to the dark-haired man. When Ezra took them, he handed him the glass, waiting until the supine man took the pills, he pulled the blanket off the back of the couch and spread it over the prone body. “Better?”
“Yes… thank you.” He handed over the now empty glass.
“Good. Maybe you’d be better off in bed.”
“No. No, Chris, I want to get this out. All right?”
Looking at the feverish features and too-bright eyes, Larabee knew he should say no. The last thing Standish needed was to deal with something obviously so stressful. The last thing he needed to do was to let him.
Ezra smiled his thanks. He sank back against the cushions, taking a deep breath before he took up the tale once more. “We nearly made it. Amy knew the house inside out, so she led me through the least used rooms. We just reached the door, preparing to go out, when she stopped.”
“Amy, what’s wrong? We need to go.”
“I… I can’t. I’ve got to go back. I forgot something.”
“Amy – “
”No, please. I’ve got to get it. Look, you go ahead… get the car. I’ll be back in five minutes.”
“Amy –“ He stopped when he realized that he was talking to empty space. Cursing under his breath, the agent slipped out the door, finding himself in the well-manicured side yard. He looked back once more, desperately wanting to go after the young woman. In the end, though, he did what he had to do. The information he had been able to gather was of the utmost importance if they were to bring Torelli down.
Clutching the briefcase he had hurriedly filled with information on the man’s operations, Standish crept along the side of the house, keen eyes searching in every direction for signs of ambush. Finding no sign, he continued on, sprinting when he came to the broad, open space between the house and his rented vehicle.
Getting to the car, he made a quick check for signs it had been tampered with. When he found nothing, he opened the trunk and secured the brief case beneath the spare tire. Closing the lid, he stared hard at the big house, as if he could will her to appear. Hesitating, he finally opened the driver’s side door, slipped behind the wheel, and started the car. Putting it into gear, he let it idle across the drive, until he was as close to the house as he could be.
“Come on, Amy,” he whispered under his breath, not even aware that he spoke aloud.
Suddenly a scream pierced the air, and Standish was out of the car like a shot. He ran toward the house, retrieving his sidearm as he moved. As he reached the bottom of the staircase leading up to the front entry, the door flew open. Paolo Torelli sauntered out, holding a struggling Amy as he smiled down at him.
Skidding to a stop, Ezra immediately held up his hands, the handgun dangling by its barrel from his left hand.
Grinning coldly, Torelli pressed the barrel of his gun against the young woman’s temple. “I trusted you… Elliott. Or should I say Ezra?”
“Agent Standish will do nicely,” the undercover expert replied evenly. There was no use denying his identity, it was clear that his cover had been blown.
“Where’s the information you took? What did you do with it?”
With the ease he was well known for, Ezra decided to try one last bluff. “I wasn’t able to bring it out with me. It’s still in my… in the office.”
“Bull shit! Tell me where it is, now!”
“He’s telling the truth, Paolo, I swear. We were trying to get away… to leave. We hid it… in his office. I… I can show you where it is. Just let him go, all right? It’s all up there, he doesn’t have anything… doesn’t have any evidence. Please, Paolo, I’ll show you.”
“Amy, no!” Ezra cried out.
“Do you both take me a fool? I’m not going to let either of you leave. Ever.” He motioned over his shoulder, two of his larger men shouldering their way out the door to join him.
“Paolo, please!” Amy knew what was happening. The two men he’d beckoned had ‘persuaded’ many, many people over the years. Persuaded by threats and violence, until they gave in, gave up, or died.
“Shut up!” Torelli hit her, hard, with the butt of his gun. She cried out, then slumped in his hold, only partially conscious.
“STOP!” Ezra screamed, red faced with rage.
Torelli’s cold, bitter laugh rang out once more. “And just what are you gonna do to stop me?”
“Anything I need to do,” Standish said in a low, dangerous voice.
“Oh, would you look at that?” He stroked the young woman’s hair. “You got a prince charming, all set to rescue you. Too bad he’s gonna die for his trouble.”
“No… no, Paolo, please,” Amy begged in a slurred voice, still struggling against his hold. “I’ll do anything you want, just please… don’t hurt him.”
“What? You mean like this?” Forcing his wife’s attention in that direction, he fired, hitting Ezra high in the chest.
Shocked, Standish grunted as he fell to his knees. Vaguely he heard Amy scream; heard her pleading for his life. He wanted her to stop; he knew she was risking her own life with every word. He couldn’t find the breath to say the words, however.
Suddenly he felt himself being pulled to his feet, between Torelli’s men. They were either over confident or too stupid to even worry about his gun, which still dangled from his hand. Moving automatically now, he turned the gun and fired with a single motion, the man on his right dropping. Before the other man could react, he turned the gun once more, firing it and dropping him as well.
Looking toward the house, he saw Torelli standing there, smiling. The heartless bastard gave his wife a shove and, before she could catch herself, he shot her in the back. Ezra could do nothing but watch the young woman tumble down the broad, marble staircase.
He moved to fire at Torelli, but found his gun suddenly jammed. Then, he made one of the hardest decisions of his life. Giving a final look at the crumpled body at the bottom of the stairs, he stumbled to his still idling car. Bullets pinged against the metal and shattered the side windows, but it didn’t stop him. His life’s blood soaked through his expensive clothes, his hands trembled and his vision blurred, but still he managed to drive away.
Leaving Amy behind.
“So, you see? I killed her. If I hadn’t gotten involved with her… hadn’t cared… she’d still be alive.”
“Yes, and living in that hell of a marriage.” Chris reminded him. The blond moved over to sit on the coffee table, looking deeply into the somber, hazel green eyes. “Ezra, he was already responsible for the deaths of her sister and their child. He’s a heartless bastard who doesn’t deserve to live. Not freely, anyway. With the evidence you brought us, we’ll at least put him away for a very, very long time. Even longer if we can prove that it was his bullet that did this to you.”
“But, she’ll still be dead.”
Leaning forward, the blond said softly, “Ezra, we’ll do everything we can to make him pay for her death.” Silently he added, “And we’ll do everything we can to help you stop blaming yourself for it”.
Shaking his head, tears rolling down his face, Ezra said, “It can never be enough… nothing can ever make up for what he’s done.”
“No,” Larabee said softly. Reaching out, he squeezed the other man’s shoulder. “But, we’ll do our best to give Amy… and you… some sort of peace.”
After their talk, Ezra spoke very little over the next several days. And he said nothing about the young woman. Chris found that nothing he said or did brought his friend any measure of peace. Finally they settled into a routine of tense silences and small talk.
Standish grew stronger physically, but his mental state remained fragile. Larabee found himself wishing more and more that the case would be wrapped up soon. Then perhaps Josiah and Nathan would be able to help their wounded friend begin that long recovery from the guilt that was eating him alive.
A week after Ezra’s confession, the two men were startled by the sound of a knock at the front door. Handing Standish a gun and motioning for him to stay put, Chris padded toward the door, gun in hand. Looking out the security window, he couldn’t help the smile that spread over his handsome features.
Tucking the gun into his waistband, he unlocked the door, pulling it open with a, “Damn, it’s good to see you boys!”
The other five members of ATF’s Team Seven stood on the front stoop. Josiah answered their SAC with a heartfelt, “Good to see you, too, boss.”
“It’s over?” The question was delivered in a quiet voice. Chris moved aside so that the others could see Ezra.
“It’s over, Ace,” Buck said with a smile. “We took the bastard down.”
“Got the mole, too,” JD grinned.
“Who was it?” Chris growled.
“Bart Patterson,” Josiah supplied.
“Patterson…” Larabee frowned. Then it dawned on him. “Team Three’s undercover man?”
“One and the same. Seems living on the dark side as often as he did, he started to get confused on which side he was on.” Wilmington explained.
“Yeah, too bad he ain’t got Ezra’s moral fiber,” Vin grinned.
The corner of Standish’s mouth turned up briefly then he asked hesitantly. “Did you… were you able to… was there any sign of a young, blonde woman? She would have been injured…”
The five agents looked at one another, each shaking his head. Buck answered for them all. “No sign of anyone like that. Sorry. Was she someone important?”
Ezra blinked back tears, shaking his head. “Only… only to me. If you’ll excuse me…”
The others watched as he hurried away, back toward his room. Then five turned to the sixth, looks of puzzlement on their faces. Chris returned their looks with one of sadness. All he would say was, “It’s a long story, boys.”
They had left the safehouse almost four months ago. Chris Larabee had begun to despair of ever, truly, having his undercover agent back.
As soon as Ezra had been cleared by the doctor, he requested a leave of absence. Hesitant, wondering if the leave would be permanent, Chris finally agreed. The uncharacteristically quiet man slipped away physically, just as he already had psychologically.
Standish had returned more than a week ago, looking very tired. He seemed to have aged a decade; there were dark circles beneath his eyes and deep lines that seemed to have been carved into his features. He was unkempt; it didn’t look as if he had bathed or shaved in days.
“I couldn’t find her, Chris. Not a sign,” was all he would say.
It had taken a great deal of persuasion to bring the grieving man out to the ranch for a Sunday afternoon barbeque. He had kept to himself, politely declining visitors and excusing himself from all team gatherings. Larabee wasn’t for certain just what Vin had said to bring him out of his self-imposed isolation, but he did note that Tanner was wearing new jeans, a crisp polo shirt and had his boots polished.
Maybe not everything had changed about the Southerner.
They were gathered in the den, watching a game on Larabee’s big screen television as they ate ribs and potato salad, washing it all down with beers. Chris chuckled to see Vin wearing a hand towel like a bib. The blond was stretched out in his recliner, enjoying the feel of having his team together once more, even though worry continued to cloud the day. Then that cloud was pushed away with a single comment, delivered in a smooth, southern tone.
“All right, gentlemen, I’m giving five to one odds… “
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April 30, 2006