MAIN CHARACTERS: Vin, Ezra, Josiah
Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #18, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than 6 months, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Erica Michaels was the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 1-2-2015. Art by Shiloh
Josiah Sanchez walked slowly through the recently opened Savage Gallery, admiring the collection of modern South American Indian art displayed on pale green walls with darker green trim; the effect gave the setting a jungle-like atmosphere. Several small self-contained fountains were arranged to ensure the sound of running water in all corners of the gallery. Potted ferns and broad-leaf trees added to the atmosphere, as did the colorful parrots and other birds that sat perched in the foliage. A handful of art-beat reporters moved from painting to painting, looking, laughing, and taking notes.
Josiah didn't know any of the reporters, or any the other guests, and he wondered who had sent him the e-mail announcement about the opening. Probably Ezra, he decided.
He owed the man at a nice dinner and a bottle of wine as a thank you, too.
Ezra knew he liked South American Native art, so it made sense he would have sent the announcement.
Josiah had come to enjoy the exhibition, rich in color, texture, and exotic imagery. It was definitely a pleasant way to pass an evening. Four of his teammates were out of town – Buck and JD attending training seminars in Tucson, Nathan and Raine on a well-deserved weekend vacation in Vail, and Chris down in Santa Fe to deliver two mares to a breeder there. Just he, Vin, and Ezra remained in Denver, each of them looking for diversions to pass the time until they returned to work.
Leaving the other visitors who were also enjoying the opening in the main gallery, Josiah slipped into one of the smaller rooms and smiled. The paintings hanging on pale orange walls with the same dark green trim were all about love.
One piece hanging on the far wall captured his attention and Josiah walked over to stand in front of the four-foot by four-foot tangle of bright colors. He glanced around, making sure he was alone, then closed his eyes and reached out, running his fingers lightly over the forms of a young woman and a black jaguar entwined in an erotic embrace. His smile widened as he experienced the texture of the strokes – as sensual as the images themselves.
Someone clearing their throat behind him, and the profiler opened his eyes. He blushed and turned to see who had discovered his illicit activity.
A tall, stunning Indian woman grinned. "An interesting way to view a painting," she said.
"A friend, a painter, taught me," he confessed.
"I see," the woman replied, stepping closer.
Josiah's gaze took in her red-brown skin, black hair and eyes, high cheekbones, and warm smile. He drew a deep breath, savoring the spicy aroma of her perfume. The woman's loose cotton pants and shirt looked hand-woven, the colors as bright as those in the gallery paintings. Still, there was something about her that made him uneasy.
"This one of yours?" he asked.
"Oh no," she said, the obvious egotism diminishing his opinion of her further. "My work is in the main gallery."
"This is beautiful," he said. "Very… sensual."
The woman responded with a half-shrug. "It's rather… primitive."
"All in the eye of the beholder, I suppose," he countered.
She took a step closer to him. "Perhaps you would allow me to show you my work?" she asked.
"Why not," he replied. After all, she was gorgeous, and it would be interesting to see what kind of art she made.
She hooked her arm around his and they returned to the main gallery, which was even busier than before. He was just vain enough to enjoy the idea of the others seeing him with the stunning woman.
"I'm curious to see your work," he said.
"Good," she purred, leaning closer to him.
Josiah felt a slight prick and looked down at her hand, his gaze focusing on the gold ring she wore. A snarling gold jaguar ringed with glittering red rubies. He swayed, his knees buckling. Someone slung him over their shoulder, and he knew it wasn't the woman, but there was nothing he could do to stop it.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Consciousness returned with a blinding flash of white light. Josiah rolled his head to the side, trying to escape the glare, but he couldn't accomplish it. With a mumbled curse, he attempted to lift his hands to shield his eyes, but they stopped far short, trapped in shackles.
"What's going on?" he demanded, tugging futilely at the wrist restraints.
"Just a little fishing trip," came a masculine, accented reply.
Josiah rolled his head the other way, fighting against the light that sent waves of pain through his head. The taunting voice sounded familiar, but he couldn't place it, his thoughts too scattered and uncontrollable.
A sudden sting in his upper arm told Josiah they had given him more drugs. A moment later an explosion of colors behind his tightly closed eyelids forced him to suck in a sharp breath in order to fight the sudden nausea that clawed through his midsection.
"What do you want?" he hissed.
"I want you to tell me a secret, Josiah," the masculine voice explained, the cadence almost sing-song.
"A secret?" he asked, wishing he understood what the devil the idiot was talking about, and wishing the agony tearing through his head like scissors through tissue would stop.
"Yes, Josiah, I want you to tell me a secret about Ezra Standish."
His head continued to roll back and forth, trying to escape the painful light. "Ezra?"
"Yes, Ezra Standish. Tell me what Ezra Standish is afraid of, Josiah."
"What is Ezra Standish afraid of?" the voice demanded, the light tone replaced by one that was hard and cold.
Josiah groaned, the pain in his head exploding, and he answered in spite of himself. "Rats."
There was a soft chuckle. "Standish is afraid of rats?"
Humor clung to the reply, a soft laugh dancing across Josiah's shredding consciousness. "Yes." His fingers curled, nails digging into his palm as he tried to find something else to concentrate on besides the prying questions and the escalating pain.
"Nothin'," he moaned, using the pain in his hands to stop the answer that wanted to slip off his tongue. "Who the hell are you?"
"Now, now, Josiah. You must tell me. You have no choice. What else is Ezra Standish afraid of?"
"Corpses," he replied, hoping that would make the voice, the pain, the bright light go away.
"Dead bodies. He doesn't like dead bodies," he snapped. A roaring laugh filled Josiah's ears, sweeping him into the welcome blackness.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Ezra Standish lay sprawled comfortably in the queen-sized bed, watching as Amy Andelchute walked back into her bedroom, freshly showered. She paused and grinned at him, her bare hips circling seductively.
Ezra groaned and rolled onto his side, burying his face in the pillow.
Amy laughed. "Your turn, lover. I left you some hot water," she said, walking over to her dresser and pulling out underwear and a bra.
Ezra rolled onto his back and watched her dress. He grinned, amazed by how well they got along, given that he'd met her on a double date with Buck.
"Wherever are you going?" he asked.
"I have to go to the market. There's nothing in the cupboards. I won't be long," she promised, stepping into a pair of snug jeans and pulling on a light raspberry colored sweater.
The undercover agent grinned. "Promises, promises…"
"Don't forget to make the bed when you're done," she said, walking over and bending over to place a kiss on his cheek, then left.
He listened to the front door close, the car start, and the roar of her BMW as she pulled out of the drive. With a groan, he forced himself out of bed and headed for the shower, hoping the hot water lasted past the first ten minutes, given how long she'd been in the shower before him.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Clean, dressed, and a cup of coffee in hand, Ezra sat down at Amy's kitchen table and scanned the New York Times, looking for something interesting to read. The brassy ring of the phone interrupted his quest and he leaned back in his chair, then reached out and fumbled the receiver into his hand.
"Ezra, it's me," Amy said. "I managed to get halfway between the market and home and the car died. I can't seem to get it running again. Would you come get me?"
"I am on the way," Ezra said with a smile.
"I'll wait for you in the car."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Ezra spotted the BMW parked alongside the two-lane road and pulled up, stopping behind it. Climbing out of his Jag, he glanced around, not seeing Amy. With a worried frown he walked up to the car, intending to check under the hood, but stopped short when he caught sight of the young woman lying in the backseat.
"Amy?" he called anxiously, stepping quickly to the door and yanking it open.
Leaning into the car, he reached out to caress the woman's face. "Amy, are you—?"
Ezra heard the impending attack a moment before the needle sank into the back of his thigh. Scrambling backwards, he turned to fight off whoever was there, but his legs buckled, pitching him forward onto the pavement and into straight into unconsciousness.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Standish groaned and forced his eyes open, then rubbed them with the balls of his palms, trying to force away the misty blur that obscured his vision. He blinked, but the milky distortion refused to fade. He closed his eyes again, hoping that would help.
He sniffed. An odd, almost metallic odor tainted the air and he swallowed hard as bile rose up the back of his throat. With a sigh he struggled to sit up, then forced his eyes open and glanced around the best he could. In the near distance he saw what he thought must be walls, but it was the dirt-grit biting into the palm of the hand he rested his weight on that focused his attention.
He looked at his more immediate surroundings – rocks, trees, brush… He shook his head, trying to decide if he was inside or out, and concluded that it didn't really matter. He had to escape; he had find Amy before it was too late.
Struggling to his feet, Ezra bent over and swallowed several times to keep his stomach from turning over. A chill shook him and he took a step forward to keep his balance.
Looking down to see where his foot was, he noticed the blood for the first time, his gaze automatically following the red trail to a mangled body that was lying close by. He sucked in a breath, cursing softly, and took several unsteady steps away from the corpse.
Knowing he had to see who the victim was, he drew in a deep breath and held it. Willing his stomach to stop roiling, he stepped closer to the body, trying to see what had happened.
The torn flesh provided no answers, the destruction making it impossible for him to tell if the victim was male or female. Ezra glanced to the right and saw another body.
Sweat broke out on the ex-FBI agent's face and he trembled, looking more closely around the space with rapidly clearing vision. There were bodies everywhere.
"It's a bloody battlefield," he managed in a choked whisper.
Stumbling forward, he tried not to stare at the carnage he passed, but his gaze refused to obey, seeking out the dead as he tried to comprehend his situation.
"How in heaven's name did I end up in a war zone?" he wheezed, almost gagging as he passed a man whose chest and mid-section had been blown wide open.
He pressed the back of his hand to his lips, trying to block out the fetid smell and quiet his stomach, but it was impossible. Wiping the sweat off his upper lip, he tried to swallow again, but found his throat too tight. He gagged and coughed.
Ezra stopped, resting his shoulder against a rough boulder as he heaved, spilling bile onto the dusty ground. Trembling harder, he shoved away from the rock, stumbling forward, forcing himself past the butchery. A single body he could handle, but this…
Nearing what was clearly a wall, he stopped, gaze locked on a blonde body. "Amy?" he gasped, dropping to his knees next to the apparently dead woman. A soft hissing sound went unnoticed as he reached out, gently touching the woman's hair.
Standish slumped forward, passing out in the dirt alongside the woman's bloody body.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Alone in a small room, Josiah watched Ezra stumbling through the constructed battlefield. He swallowed hard when Standish heaved, wondering if the bodies he could see were real.
He ran the back of a shaking hand over his lips, trying to remember where he was and how he had gotten here. The last thing he remembered clearly was arriving at the art gallery opening and, after that, everything dissolved into an incomprehensible bricolage of light, pain, and a voice he couldn't quite remember.
He knew he was somehow responsible for what was happening to Ezra, though. But the harder he tried to remember how, or why, the further away the memories retreated.
He reached out, pressing his palm against the cold glass as Ezra knelt over the body of a woman who looked like his current girlfriend. Maybe it was Amy. Maybe he'd gotten all those people out there killed.
Anger erupted in the pit of his stomach, red-hot heat spreading out along his limbs and narrowing his vision. Whoever the voice belonged to, he was not going to use him again.
He watched Ezra collapse, then stepped away from the one-way glass and started hunting for a way out.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin Tanner concentrated on the lithe blonde filling his television screen. Well-endowed did not even begin to describe her buxom figure, and he grinned as she extorted him to: "Pump it! Pump it! Harder! Make it burn, mister!"
He grinned, hefting the heavy dumb-bells from thigh to shoulder and back down again, over and over, in the same fluid motion. "Gotta do better 'n that, sweetheart," he told the pouting woman.
The phone rang and he glanced at it with a sour frown. His attention quickly returned to the screen – the answering machine would get it.
"Vin?" echoed through the room, the tone of Josiah's voice cutting through the man's concentration. He dropped the weights and hit the button, turning the television off.
"Vin, are you there? Answer the phone!"
Josiah was really upset he realized, crossing the room in three long strides and grabbing the receiver. "J'siah?"
"We're in trouble," he said. "Ezra and I."
"Where are ya?" Tanner demanded.
"I'm not sure," the profiler admitted, giving Tanner all he had, which was the number off the phone he was calling from. "Hurry, Vin."
"I'm on m' way."
"Thanks," Josiah said, and Vin could hear the hope and trust in the older man's voice.
Tanner listened to the line go dead, silently vowing that he would fine his teammates.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Josiah placed the receiver back in its cradle as quietly as he could, then cat-footed it to the closed office door. He took a deep breath, hoping he could find a way out of the old warehouse before anyone found him, but the drugs still had him confused.
Reaching for the doorknob, he gripped the smooth metal handle and froze. He felt the knob rotate under his hand and took a step back, looking frantically for a weapon as the door swung open. His blue eyes rounded as he stared at the man blocking the doorway.
"Thomas Winthrop," Sanchez said, the same hot anger he had felt earlier replacing the surge of fear. They had busted Winthrop's son last year for selling bathtub booze to middle- and high-school students. He'd heard the kid had been cut up pretty badly in prison…
"Very good, Sanchez," the tall, scarecrow-thin man replied. "And now that you've arranged for Tanner to join us, it's time for you to get ready for the next act."
The blood drained out of Josiah's face, leaving him gray as he realized his mistake. Winthrop had used him – again.
The older man grinned. "You didn't honestly think you'd managed to escape, now did you?" He tsked at the agent and shook his head.
Josiah's expression shifted from shock to rage.
"Well, I guess you did," the dark-haired man replied, then chuckled softly to himself. "Ah, well, life is just full of little disappointments, isn't it?"
Winthrop gestured and two men entered the room. Josiah knew he probably didn't stand a chance, but he put up the best fight he could. However, the two men were younger, and they weren't half-drugged.
The profiler went down, hard, and stayed there, knowing he wouldn't be any help to Ezra, or Vin, if he was unconscious.
The two men dragged him up onto his feet and half-carried him from the room.
"You won't get away with this," he snapped as they moved past Winthrop.
"I beg to differ, Agent Sanchez. I already have!"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin reached for the phone again, then paused. If he called Travis, and this was a set-up, the boss could end up in a bad spot. Better to run it to ground first, then call for backup. He opened the top drawer of the small desk where the phone sat, pulling out a well-used green address book. He opened it, and ran a finger down the list of names and numbers inside the first page until he found "Sandy Patterson."
Snatching up the receiver, he dialed. Listening to the phone ring he made the mental calculation, figuring the time shift from Denver to Washington DC.
"Come on, come on," Vin muttered.
"Sandy? It's Vin."
"Vin Tanner?" the woman replied. "My God, Vin, it's been a long time. How are you?"
"Yeah, too long," the ex-Army sniper replied, a slight smile on his lips. "Look, I need a favor ASAP."
"I've got a phone number, and I need a location – yesterday."
"Give me the number," Patterson said. "Where can I reach you?"
Vin gave the woman his cell number. "How fast?"
"Ten minutes, tops," Patterson promised.
"Thanks, Sandy. I owe ya."
"We'll talk about it the next time you're in Washington."
"Sure," Vin said, hanging up. He grabbed his ID, gun, and jacket, then hurried to his bedroom and opened the closet door, pulling out a duffel bag that he slung over his shoulder. He headed for the door to his apartment.
He didn't even try the elevator, bypassing the seldom-working device and heading down the stairs as fast as he could. He pushed the door open and stepped out into the parking lot where his Jeep sat.
Glancing around, he didn't see anyone or anything out of the ordinary, so he jogged over to the Jeep and tossed the duffle inside before climbing behind the wheel.
"C'mon, Sandy…" he mumbled as he waited for his cell phone to ring.
Two minutes later the phone rang.
"Tanner," he said.
"It's Sandy," was the reply. "I have the information."
"Shoot," Vin said, grabbing a pen and his tiny notebook from his jacket pocket.
"That number's listed as belonging to Kartwell Storage, in Derby, Colorado."
"Got a' address?"
Patterson gave him the street address, then asked, "You want to fill me in?"
"It's personal," Vin replied.
"Be careful, Vin."
"I'm always careful."
"I've heard that one before," Sandy said, then hung up.
Vin grinned slightly as he started up the Jeep and headed for the freeway.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin waited until he reached Derby before he contacted Travis.
"Mr. Tanner, would you please tell me why you're interrupting my trip with Billy to the Children's Museum? You're all on vacation," the older man stated.
"Got a call from Josiah," Tanner explained. "Said he an' Ezra were in some kind of trouble. I'm gonna check it out."
"Where are you?" the AD asked, the anger gone now, replaced with concern.
"Derby?" Travis echoed. "What the hell is in Derby?"
"Not much," Tanner replied, glancing around. "Josiah called an' gave me a phone number. Belongs t' Kartwell Storage, in Derby."
"Kartwell," Travis said, frowning, "Kevin Kartwell is a good man. He wouldn't have anything to do with a kidnapping. That's where you're going?"
"Yep," Vin replied. "I'll let ya know what I find."
"You do that!" Travis snapped. "And the next time you'll tell me sooner!"
Vin tried not to grin. "Yes, sir. And just in case this is bogus, can ya run a check on the in-coming calls to my apartment? The one right before an exchange between here 'n' DC is the one ya want."
"I'll do that," Travis agreed. "Should I contact DPD and have them send backup?"
"Not yet. I want t' get a look. If I don't call y' back in a couple 'a hours, send the cavalry."
"All right, but be careful. And good luck."
"Let's hope I don't need it," Vin said.
"As you say, Mr. Tanner."
"Thanks," Vin said, then closed his cell and slid out of the Jeep, grabbing the duffle as he went.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Dressed with a tool belt and carrying a clipboard, Vin walked confidently into the single-story building and headed straight to the reception desk. A petite young woman in a nice skirt and blouse smiled at him, asking, "Can I help you?"
"Yeah," Vin replied in the half-bored tone of a repairman. "Got a call that this number's having trouble, but the dispatcher didn't give me an office number. Can you tell me where it is?"
The young woman accepted what looked like an official Comcast work order with the phone number in question listed at the top. She reached up, tucking a stray strand of her reddish-brown hair behind her ear, then checked a directory.
"Ah, that's the public line in the west wing. You'll find it at the far end of the hall," she said, handing back the clipboard.
"Thanks," Vin replied.
"I'll turn on the lights for you," she added with a friendly smile.
"Appreciate that," Vin said, returning the smile.
"Their motion sensitive so they'll come on as you walk down the hallway."
"Good to know," he replied, heading off.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Standing at the end of the hallway, Vin studied the closest doors to the hall entrance; each were portals into a variety of storage spaces. He could only see the first six doors with the two lights that had come on.
He took a couple of steps forward and two more lights came on, revealing more of the same kinds of doors. He moved slowly but steadily until the last of the lights came on. There was the phone hanging on the wall, but it had no receiver.
Tanner frowned. He noted the door marked "exit" almost directly across from the phone and scowled slightly. It was too damned perfect for an ambush.
He scowled as the lights that had come on in the hallway started to turn off, two at a time, starting at the far end.
He walked up to the phone and checked it, but it was clear that it hadn't been used in quite some time.
Warning bells silently clanged in his head as Vin bent over slightly to check the number on the phone; it matched the number Josiah had given him.
A sound like a sharp, cold breeze whiffled through the space and Vin stiffened, then, sucking in a single breath, he bolted for the exit door, collapsing a single step short of freedom.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Travis checked his watch for the tenth time in less than a minute. Shaking his head, he pulled his cell phone out and pressed a quick dial number and waited for a reply.
"Tanner, is that you?" Larabee snapped.
"No, Chris, it's me," Travis replied.
"Orin? What's wrong?"
"I received a call from Vin. He said Josiah had called him, said he and Ezra were in trouble. Vin was checking out the location of the call. It’s been an hour and I haven't heard back from him. I can't reach Josiah or Ezra, either. Vin said if he didn't make it back in two I should call the cavalry, but—"
"Yeah, an hour's long enough," Chris agreed. "Look, I know a guy here with a plane. I'll be back in Denver in ninety minutes. I'll call you when I'm in the air and you can fill me in."
"In the meantime I'll contact DPD, have them start looking for our agents," Travis said.
"I'm on my way," Chris replied. "See if you can contact Amy Andelchute. Ezra was planning to spend the weekend with her."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Ezra woke and sat up slowly, his limbs cold and clumsy from contact with the icy, damp floor. The room was dark, making it impossible to see. The air smelled of antiseptic and other chemicals. His stomach pinched, and he swallowed, knowing it was empty.
Climbing to his feet, Standish moved carefully along the walls, finally bumping into a metal cart on wheels. He reached out, lightly touching the surface of the cart and finding a cloth draped over some kind of shallow tray. He lifted the material and felt into the tray, cursing softly when something pricked his finger.
He tried again, more carefully. A scalpel.
He dropped the cloth and took a step away.
An overhead light flashed on, and Ezra raised one hand to shield his eyes from the fluorescent glare. When his eyes adjusted, he glanced around the small room. A gurney rested in the center of the cement floor, a white sheet draped over the body of a woman. He swallowed again, noting the large bloodstain over the woman's mid-section.
He took a hesitant step forward, not wanting to look, but needing to know who was under the sheet. Reaching the side of the gurney, he lifted the edge of the material far enough to see the woman's hand. A ring watch. Amy?
Ezra sucked in a deep breath as his stomach threatened to rebel. Letting the sheet drop, he reached for the corner at the corpse's head and lifted it just far enough to peek at the woman's face.
"Oh God," he breathed, releasing the sheet and turning away as the first of the dry heaves struck. Amy.
He felt his knees buckle, unaware of the soft hiss of gas that filled the room. Blackness surrounded him, drawing a tighter and tighter circle until he fell, thankfully, into the dark oblivion.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin woke suddenly, but he remained perfectly still, his eyes closed as he assessed his situation. It was cold, the air unheated and slightly stale. Several male voices were engaged in quiet but intense conversation at the far side of the room.
He let his eyes crack open just far enough to peer out at his surroundings. Cinder-block walls, white paint long transformed by dirt into a cold gray that suggested a prison. Old, well-used wooden furniture sat scattered around the room, the original paint mostly cracked off adding nothing to the puzzle of his location. Three men stood near a door – metal door, not bars. Warehouse 'a some kind, he decided silently.
No signs or writing was present to tell him if he was still in Colorado. He closed his eyes, monitoring the conversation with a detached portion of his attention while he used the time to make a quick evaluation of his physical condition. He was unbound, lying on an old-style military issue cot – if the faded olive color was any clue. It smelled of dust and dampness so it hadn't been used in quite some time. So this was probably a makeshift operation, convenient, but not long term.
He carefully tensed and relaxed his muscles. Nothing sore or sluggish as a result of the tranquilizer they had used on him. A mild throb beat at the base of his skull, the only lingering effect of the drug he could find. However, the pounding threatened to escalate if he decided to move.
Silently drawing a deep breath, he pulled up random facts from his memory, deciding after several seconds that his mind was still clear and sharp; none of the tell-tale signs of a long sleep were present. Score one for the home team, he thought.
Cracking his eyes open a second time, he saw that the men were in the same location. He studied them, trying to remember if he'd seen any of them before. Two tall, smooth-looking Latinos were complete strangers. The third man was white, average height, stocky, and given his crooked nose, someone who enjoyed a good fistfight. The last man was a mystery, his back the only thing Vin could see, but he was tall and really thin.
With nothing else to do, the sniper sat up, placing his feet on the cement floor and his hands on his thighs. "Helluva of a party you boys got here."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Travis paced the length of his office, waiting for a return call from Chris. At his desk, his assistant hung up the phone and sighed. "I cannot locate Agents Tanner, Standish, or Sanchez," she said. "No one has seen them."
"Did you get a hold of Ms. Andelchute?" Travis asked.
"I tried, but there's no answer at her home, either."
"Damn!" the AD swore. "What the devil's going on?"
The phone rang and the assistant picked it up. She listened for a moment, then said, "It's Lieutenant Samson, DPD."
"AD Travis," Orin said as he took the phone.
"Director," the detective acknowledged. "We checked that address, and it's just a storage unit business. There was no signs of a struggle, or of Agent Tanner."
"If Vin was there, it was because—"
"We have no way of knowing what the reason was," the detective interrupted him. "The receptionist did say that she's seen him; she gave him directions to a public phone."
"Did she see him leave?" Travis asked.
"No, but she'd been in a meeting."
"What about fingerprints? Fibers? Security cameras?" the AD countered. "Someone had to see something. There has to be some kind of evidence."
"Director Travis, there's no crime scene at this point. I can't justify pulling my people off on-going cases to follow up on a possible—"
"A man has disappeared, Lieutenant!"
"How do you know?"
"Agent Tanner was supposed to check in, and he failed to do so. Agent Tanner is a professional; he doesn't forget to check in."
Orin heard the detective sigh heavily.
"Detective," he said, "something's very wrong. I have three agents I cannot reach."
"All right," the detective sighed, knowing that Travis would just go over his head if he didn't do something. "I'll have officers see if there are any security cameras, and I'll have the phone dusted for prints."
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Travis said.
"You're welcome, Director," Samson muttered, then cleared his throat and added, "I'll get back to you as soon as I know anything."
Travis hung up the phone and said, "Vin said Josiah called him; maybe you can trace that call back to its point of origin." He gaveher the preimeters Vin had given him earlier.
His assistant nodded. "I'll see what I can do."
"Let me know as soon as you find anything."
She nodded and rose, heading back to her desk to call the techs and get them working on the call.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The fourth man turned and smiled at Tanner.
"Winthrop," the sniper snarled, immediately recognizing the man.
The man spread his hands. "I see you remember me, Agent Tanner."
"What the hell are ya up to?" Tanner demanded. "Where's Josiah and Ezra?"
"Soon, Agent Tanenr, you'll be seeing them very soon." He motioned the other three men forward.
Tanner stood, a predatory half-smile on his lips. "He payin' y'all good for this?"
"Well enough," one of the Latinos replied, pulling a small gun from his pocket and shooting Vin.
The sniper jerked as a tiny dart sunk into his thigh. He reached down, yanking it out and tossing it aside, but even as he did he could feel his muscles begin to turn hard.
"That's not playin' fair, amigo," Vin said as he swayed.
"Life's not fair, Agent Tanner," Winston replied.
The three men descended on Tanner, their fists raining a series of hard blows on the helpless man.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin woke, a fire burning in his shoulders, and he groaned. Glancing down, he discerned the reason – his feet dangled about a foot above a dirty cement floor, a rope circling his chest holding him off the ground. The large noose had cinched up under his arms from his weight, setting the fire in his joints. His wrists were tied tightly behind his back, his hands already numb. It wasn't as sophisticated as the rope tricks he'd learned as a sniper with in special ops, but it was uncomfortable enough.
He glanced around the dimly lit room, trying to decide what it had been used for, but there were no obvious signs – no furniture, no nothing to tell him anything.
In the floor, a deep pit at least twenty feet across and ten feet deep filled the center of the large room. Vin frowned, then snorted when he glanced at the ceiling and found a sturdy, if rusted, crane system overhead. Old boat warehouse, he concluded silently.
He squinted, trying to make out the bottom of the pit; he was sure he'd seen something moving down there. He silently cursed the dim light and the headache that pounded more persistently at the base of his skull, making it difficult to think.
He struggled weakly, the movement drawing his attention to the wires attached to his bare chest, shoulders, and abdomen with small pads. "What the hell?"
A loud metallic cry echoed painfully through the room and Vin looked across the pit, spotting a door on the far side. Ezra stumbled into the warehouse, the door screeching shut behind him. The ex-FBI agent spun, trying to stop the door from closing, but it was a battle already lost.
Standish turned back, squinting in the murky darkness. "Vin?"
"Watch out, Ez. There's a pit in the floor. Stay put, let your eyes adjust."
Ezra waited several seconds, then shuffled forward slowly, his gaze sweeping the floor until his eyes completely adjusted and he could see the obstacle that separated him from Tanner.
He stopped at the edge of the pit, peering across at his teammate. "Vin?" he said, taking in the man's bruised and bloody face. His gaze dropped, realizing for the first time Tanner's real predicament.
"Think ya can get over here 'n' get me down?" Tanner asked hopefully.
"I believe so," Ezra said, sitting down on the edge of the pit, his feet dangling in. He looked down, preparing to drop, but scrambled back instead with a half-strangled cry.
"What?" Vin snapped.
"Rats!" Ezra replied in a gasp. He nervously wiped his suddenly wet palms off on his pants.
"Rats?" Before Vin could follow up, a blast of current raced through him, snapping his head back and causing his body to jerk uncontrollably.
A low moan accompanied the macabre spectacle, reminding Standish of an epileptic puppet. The current stopped and Vin slumped forward against the rope, blood trickling over his lips from where he'd bitten himself.
"Any time, Ez," Tanner wheezed.
Standish stood three feet back from the edge of the pit, staring at his friend, but unable to move.
Not knowing what to do or say, Ezra mumbled, "Amy's dead."
"Damn," Vin hissed softly. "C'mon, Ez. Help me here."
"Winthrop," Ezra replied, realizing who must be behind what he'd seen.
"I know. I saw 'im, and I'm gonna kill that fucker," Vin growled.
"I don't think so, Agent Tanner."
"Winthrop," Vin snarled, watching the man walk out on his side of the pit. "You—"
"Ah ah ah!" the man interrupted. "I hold the switch." He held up a small black box with a short antenna and an appropriately red button.
"What do you want, Winthrop?" Ezra demanded. His voice was flat, despondent.
The older man paced to the edge of the pit and leaned over, watching the rats scurry back and forth, looking for a way out. "Nasty little creatures," he said, then looked up to meet Standish's frightened, angry gaze. "Don't you agree?"
"What do you want?" Ezra repeated.
Winthrop offered a half-shrug. "My son, Agent Standish. I want my son back."
"You're insane," Ezra hissed.
"Maybe I am, but…" He pressed the button.
Vin moaned, his body twitching and jerking in the spastic dance once more.
"Stop it!" Ezra bellowed. "Stop it, now!"
Winthrop lifted his finger off the button. "I'll stop, just as soon as you come over here and stop me."
Despite his best efforts Ezra's gaze dropped to the dark, moving shadows at the bottom of the pit. He swallowed hard, forcing himself to walk confidently to the edge, but as soon as he could see the outlines of the rats, he took a step back.
Winthrop laughed. "Scared, Agent? My son was scared when you killed him."
Standish looked, up, green eyes narrowed. "You bastard."
"Come on, Ez," Vin encouraged. "Kick this mother's ass an' let's get the hell out 'a Dodge before 'm well-done."
Winthrop glanced from Ezra to Vin, an amused grin on his face. "Guess your co-worker doesn't care if you fry." He pressed the button.
"Winthrop!" Ezra cried, striding along the lip of the pit like a caged lion. He sat down and started to drop into the darkness, but his muscles froze, locking him on the edge.
"Go on," Winthrop urged. "Do it. Drop down into that darkness. They're just rats after all."
Vin groaned, his eyes rolling back.
Ezra leaned forward slightly, trying to override the irrational fear that held his muscles in its vice.
"Do you want to watch him die?" Winthrop asked, lifting his finger.
Vin slumped again, his body still trembling and twitching.
"Stop this," Ezra pleaded, "for God's sake—"
"God?" Winthrop interrupted. "God has nothing to do with this, Agent Standish! This is about revenge, my revenge. You took my son, I'll take your pride, your friend, whatever the hell I can! Like they say, revenge is a dish best served… hot!" With a soft chuckle he pressed the trigger again.
Vin gurgled and convulsed.
"Damn you!" Ezra cried, leaning another inch farther over the edge of the pit, but still unable to force himself all the way in.
Winthrop stopped Vin's torture and the sniper grunted as he tried to catch his breath. "Y' c'n… do it, Ez," he panted.
Standish met his teammates' pain-filled gaze, his expression clearly stating that he did not have the same confidence in his abilities. He looked back at Winthrop. "You have me. Let Mr. Tanner go."
The rail-thin smiled and laughed. "Let Agent Tanner go? I don't think so. I know you, Agent. I did my research. I could kill you, and you'd walk willingly to your grave. Where's the revenge in that? But watching your friends die? Now there is a dish worthy of my boy."
"Friends?" Vin snapped. "Ya already kill Josiah?"
"And Amy!" Ezra yelled.
Winthrop shook his head. "Your little piece of tail is alive and well. And as for Agent Sanchez…" He raised his hand and snapped his fingers. A door opened on the far side of the pit and the two men dragged a struggling Josiah out.
"He's perfectly fine for the moment," Winthrop said to Ezra. "You didn't think I'd kill him and Tanner without you watching, did you?"
Standish looked from Josiah to Vin, the fear in both men's eyes doing nothing to encourage him.
The two men released the profiler and he strode straight to Vin. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"Been better," the sniper replied as lightly as he could.
Josiah turned on Winthrop. "You won't get away with this."
Winthrop tilted his head back and roared with laughter. When he finally caught his breath, he brushed a tear off his cheek and smiled at the profiler. "That was perfect." He chuckled softly, then sobered immediately. "But I will get away with it. There's nothing and no one to stop me. Agent Tanner is tied up, and Standish is too scared to help either of you. So all I have to do is kill you and I have gotten away with it."
Josiah took a step closer to the man.
Winthrop's gaze went hard. "Not a step closer," he said, and pressed the button.
Vin's limp body jerked alive.
Josiah spun and lunged for Vin, trying to grab the wires that fed the electricity into his writhing body. Accidentally touching the man's shoulders sent a jolt of the current flashing along his arms and down his legs. He was jolted backward, falling to the floor.
"Grand, isn't it?"
"It's torture," Josiah spat. "Nothing more!"
The man lifted his finger and Vin went limp again, unconscious at last.
Winthrop turned the small control device over and opened a panel on the back of the box, setting a dial. Then, he replaced the panel and tossed the device into the pit. "I've set a timer on the control unit. In exactly ten minutes it'll send a lethal current through Agent Tanner's body, and he'll be dead." He snapped his fingers and men grabbed Josiah and dragged him back to the rear wall, shackling him with wrist and ankle restraints attached to the wall. With that done, they attached wires to his temples and chest.
"Three minutes after Agent Tanner is electrocuted, you'll be next," Winthrop told him. "If you can talk Standish across the pit, he might be able to save you, but I wouldn't count on it."
Winthrop and the two men left.
"Ezra!" Josiah called. "Come on, you have to get over here!"
Perched on the edge of the pit, Standish glanced up at him. "I can't," he hissed through clenched teeth. "I just… can't."
"Ezra!" Josiah called, panic welling up in his chest.
"I can't!" he bellowed in reply.
Josiah took a deep breath and forced the fear back, letting the profiler take over. "Ezra, listen to me. I know you're afraid, but you have to find that device."
"I can't let go," Standish groaned.
"Ezra, I want you to listen to me. Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and imagine something else," Josiah instructed.
Knowing he had to do something, Ezra closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath, trying to imagine that he was far away from here, the rats and the danger, but the sound of the creatures' claws on the cement grew louder and louder in his ears, scratching through his concentration.
His eyes popped open. "I can't!"
"You have to," Josiah countered. "You can't let Vin die."
"Ez," Vin said weakly.
Standish's gaze shifted from Josiah to the sniper.
"Listen t' me," Vin said as clearly as he could. "Put yer knuckle in yer mouth 'n' when ya feel the panic start t' take over, bite down."
"Just do it," Vin said. "I don't want t' end up barbecued here."
Forcing the knuckle of his index finger into his mouth, Ezra leaned over the pit. A rush of panic raced along his nerves, and he bit down, the sudden pain in his finger pushing the fear back. Forcing his eyes closed, he dropped into the pit.
He heard the rats skitter to escape and he bit down again harder, forcing himself to walk along the bottom of the pit until he spotted the control box. Bending over he bit harder, tasting blood as the fingers of his free hand closed on the device.
The sudden rush of water pouring into the pit startled him and Ezra straightened with the device clutched in one hand, his finger still in his mouth.
"Ezra!" Josiah called. "What's going on?"
"Ez?" Vin echoed.
Standish swung left and right, his mind racing, desperate to find a way out. Around his ankles water lapped as the pit began to fill. He shoved the device into his pocket. The rats, once anxious to move away from the human intruder now swarmed back toward Ezra, looking for their own escape route.
"Ezra?" Josiah called again. "Hurry!"
As the first rat tried to climb up his pant leg, Ezra screamed and scrambled blindly for the far side of the pit.
Slapping his hands against the far wall, his fingers curled and uncurled, frantically seeking a hold of any sort, but the smooth surface was impossible to climb. He tried to jump, but the lip of the pit was just out of reach.
Tiny claws pricked through his pant legs, scratching his skin, tugging him closer to the edge of sanity. With a constant stream of strangled profanity he kicked and knocked the rats off his clothes as the water continued to rise. Something was dumped into his back and Standish spun.
A bone, still sheathed in blood-red flesh, bobbed in the water and he looked closer, spotting other body parts floating in the water with rats, which were crawling onto the body parts like they were rafts.
The spectacle of three rats fighting on top of a severed leg held his attention until the control device bobbed into sight not far away. It must have escaped his pocket.
He grabbed the box and shoved it down the front of his shirt, then grabbed the rat off his shoulder, slamming it against the cement wall of the pit with a scream, killing it.
"Ezra!" Josiah called.
"Ez?" Vin echoed.
Kicking as hard as he could, Standish used the buoyancy of the water to give him the additional lift he needed to reach the top of the pit, his hands sliding over the lip. He pulled himself up, trying to ignore the rats using his back as a bridge to safety as he dragged himself out.
Once free, he scrambled to his feet, frantically pulling and kicking the rodents off his clothes.
"Ezra, hurry!" Josiah urged.
The rats gone, Standish groped inside his shirt, finding the control device and fumbling to get the back open, his bloody, chewed finger making it more difficult.
"Hurry, Ez," Vin said, his internal clock telling him that time was quickly running out.
Standish opened the back of the device and pulled the wires out, then dropped it and stomped on it several times with a guttural snarl, breaking the box into tiny shards of plastic and computer chips. He looked up, eyes going round, as Vin screamed, his body jerking uncontrollably.
Lunging forward, Ezra grabbed at the wires, cursing as he was zapped as well, but he pulled them free, ending Vin's torment. With that done, he stumbled to Josiah and tore the wires off his chest and temples as well. He freed the restraints holding the man, and together the pair moved back to Tanner.
"There!" Josiah said, hurrying to the back wall where the rope suspending Vin was secured. He untied the hitch and Ezra caught the unconscious man, laying him on the floor.
Hands shaking so hard he couldn't handle the knots, Ezra was forced to watch Josiah untie them, freeing Vin.
"Vin?" he called, rolling him onto his back. "Vin, can you hear me?"
Tanner's eyes fluttered open. "J'siah?"
"Let's get the hell out of here," Ezra replied.
Together they helped Vin to his feet, and supporting him between them, they moved to the door Winthrop had used. It was unlocked.
"Easy," Vin mumbled as they moved into the hallway. "This is way too easy. Slow down."
"You think he's waiting for us?" Josiah asked the sniper.
"Y' c'n count on it," Vin wheezed, pulling up and stopping them. "I c'n make it on m' own," he said. "But we go slow; watch fer traps."
Josiah nodded, but Ezra simply stared at Tanner, his gaze slightly glassy.
Vin reached out, resting his hand on Standish's shoulder. "One step at a time, Ez."
The attack came halfway down the hallway. Two doors opened, and Winthrop's companions stepped out, two in front and one behind the threesome.
Vin turned to face the shorter Anglo as he charged them with all the grace of a drunken steer. Still, he managed to wrap his arms around Tanner's mid-section, slamming him back against the wall as Josiah and Ezra tangled with the two Latinos.
Vin used the edges of his palms to land a double knife-hand attack at the base of his attacker's neck. The man only grunted and pounded at Vin's gut.
While he was focused, Vin lifted the man's revolver free of its belt holster then shoved his knee up, catching the man solidly in the chest. The sniper followed up with another knee to the man's groin and a solid punch to the attacker's jaw. He dropped and Vin wasted no time delivering a killing stomp to the man's neck as he slipped the gun into the waistband of his jeans. He turned to help the others, but watched as Ezra kicked his man in the mid-section, taking him down. Josiah followed up with an elbow to his man's temple, dropping him.
"C'mon," Vin gasped, staggering forward two steps before he saw Winthrop. His muscles seized up and his knees buckled, pitching him forward into the wall. He slid down as Josiah and Ezra moved to help him up.
"Don't move," Winthrop said coldly.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Winthrop had watched Standish escape the pit, slamming his hand against the wall. "Damn him!" He spun on the three men who stood across the room, too afraid to come any closer. "They'll try to escape. I want them stopped. Standish will watch his teammates die!"
The three men escaped out of the room and Winthrop gathered up the few articles he wanted from the room, shoving them into a small gym bag before he followed after the men, his gun drawn and ready.
Then the agents had defeated his men, leaving them sprawled on the floor, one dead, the other two useless. It was more than Winthrop could take. He dropped his bag and stepped out into the hallway, his Browning leveled on the already down Tanner.
"Don't move," he said coldly.
"No!" Josiah said, starting to move forward to protect Vin, but Ezra grabbed his arm, stopping him short.
"You told him what to do," Winthrop said quietly to Vin and Josiah. "You'll die for that, I promise you."
The gun shifted from Vin to Josiah, and Winthrop saw Ezra's gaze flicker to the gun still tucked into the waistband of Almaraz's slacks.
"Really, Agent Standish?" Winthrop chuckled. "And what would you do with that gun, shoot me?" He took a step closer to Josiah, lifting the gun so it was level with his face. "Somehow I doubt it. I can kill him, right here, right now; before you could reach that gun."
"Let him go," Ezra said, his voice flat.
"Let him go? After all the trouble I went through to get you all here? Oh no, Agent Standish. I won't let him go. I want to see the expression on your face when I pull the trigger." He took another half-step closer to Josiah.
"No!" Ezra said, moving between Winthrop and Josiah. "Leave him alone."
Winthrop shifted the weapon to Vin, pressing it against the side of the man's head. "Would you prefer I kill Agent Tanner instead?"
Josiah's hands came up. "I don't want you to kill either of us," he said, watching Ezra from the corner of his eye. He looked like he was a moment away from passing out.
Winthrop took another step, then reached out, lightly slapping Ezra's cheek. "If you had to pick, which one would you give me?" he asked him.
Standish shook his head.
"Would you give me Agent Tanner?" The gun shifted back to Josiah's face. "Or Sanchez? Which one, Standish?"
"Stop it!" Ezra snapped. "If you honestly think I'm going to pick for you, you're madder than I think you are!" He glanced again at the gun on the fallen Latino.
"Go on, Standish, take it," Winthrop said, gesturing to the gun with his own.
Standish hesitated a moment, then slowly leaned over, expecting Winthrop to fire a warning shot as his hand drew too close to the weapon, but his fingers closed on the butt and he straightened, the gun ready and leveled on the older man.
"There, you see?" Winthrop gloated. "You can't kill me. You know you're responsible for my son's death."
"Shoot the sonuvabitch," Vin growled from where he huddled against the wall, his muscles quivering.
Winthrop shifted his weapon back to Josiah. "Drop the gun, Standish. Drop it now, or I'll take him with me."
"Don't do it, Ez," Vin panted, his face ashen under a fine film of sweat.
"Oh, you'd better, Standish, or I will kill Sanchez. You know I will. I won't go out alone."
Standish lowered the gun, but he didn't drop it.
"Drop it," Winthrop commanded softly. "Or I'll take you back to the pit."
Ezra let the gun fall from his fingers.
"You bastard," Josiah hissed at Winthrop.
The older man nodded. "Guess I am, but he's earned it."
The first distant wail of sirens echoed through the building and Winthrop's eyes rounded. He glanced nervously behind him at the closed door at the end of the hall. "Damn," he breathed softly.
"That's the police," Josiah snapped. "This is over."
Winthrop's gaze flicked from Ezra to Josiah to Vin and back to Ezra; out of time. "I kill you all, right now, and get caught, or…" He rotated the gun in his hand and handed it to Standish, butt first.
Standish's fingers closed on the weapon, and he lifted it to point at Winthrop's face.
"Pull the trigger," Vin hissed.
"I don't think so, Agent Tanner," Winthrop said. His gaze never left Ezra. "I'm no longer a threat to you, or your associates. You'll arrest me. I'll get off, or not. Either way, you'll have to keep reliving this until the trial's over."
Vin watched Ezra's hand, waiting for his trigger finger to twitch. Instead, Standish lowered the gun. "I won't kill you, Mr. Winthrop," he said softly.
Winthrop nodded. "You killed my son, and someday, I will kill you, Standish, slowly. And if I can take your team with you, I will."
"Not this lifetime," Vin growled, bringing up the gun he'd taken off the Anglo with both hands. He fired.
Winthrop's eyes widened and he crumpled to the floor.
Josiah glanced quickly at Ezra, but he rushed to Vin, catching him as he pitched forward, a slight smile on his lips. The gun clattered to the floor. "Vin?"
Standish looked from Winthrop to his teammates.
"Help me," Josiah said. "He needs a doctor; right now."
Ezra stood his ground, a whirlpool of emotions threatening to pull him into the same welcome blackness that had taken Vin.
"Ezra!" Josiah called again.
The door burst open and the profiler jumped, grabbing for the gun until he realized that several DPD officers were entering the hallway, their weapons at the ready.
Ezra felt his hands start to tremble as the officers reached them, one checking Winthrop while two others worked over Vin, Josiah demanding that they get him to a hospital immediately. He felt someone take his arm and followed meekly as he was led out of the building and into the bright morning sunlight. Blinking, he realized that it was Chris Larabee who had led him out.
Travis walked up to join them.
"Ezra?" Chris repeated. "What the hell happened?"
Standish watched two paramedics maneuver a gurney through the door, then turned to face Larabee and Travis. "Thomas Winthrop," was all he managed before swaying. Consciousness dropped out from under him and he felt Larabee and Travis grab him as the blackness closed in.
"Hey, over here!" Chris called and another paramedic rushed to take Ezra.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin listened to the steady beat of a heart monitor and followed the sound back to consciousness. He blinked, groaning as wakefulness brought with it all the aches and pains left over from his encounter with Winthrop. He lifted his head off the pillow, glancing around the room.
Sun filtered past half-closed curtains, a slice of blue sky visible beyond. He turned his attention to the bedside equipment. Heart monitor, standard for an electrocution victim; a nose cannula provided oxygen; two IVs dripped fluids and whatever medication he needed into his veins. No casts, no blood, no restraints, and no immobilization apparatus. He smiled. Not too bad, all things considered.
The door whisked open and he looked to see if he had a pretty nurse, too.
"Feeling better?" Josiah asked softly.
"Yeah, feelin' fine 'n' dandy," he admitted. "Must have me on a morphine drip."
The profiler walked to the bedside and stood, smiling down at him. "You look disappointed to see me."
"I was hopin' you'd be a pretty little red-headed nurse."
Josiah grinned, his eyes dancing with amusement. "Don't get your hopes up."
Josiah's expression turned serious, and Vin scooted up in the bed, then used the buttons hanging from the rails to raise the head of his bed.
"He's doing better," Sanchez said. "He's across the hall."
"Dead," he said. "Even half-unconscious you're a damn good shot, Vin Tanner."
"Even unconscious I'm a damn good shot," Vin replied. "Army did a good job."
"Indeed they did."
Silence filled the room.
Vin finally cleared his throat and said, "I had t' do it."
"I know," Josiah replied, walking over to pour Vin a glass of water from the mustard-colored plastic pitcher. "He would've tried again, probably succeeded in killing a few of us, and Ezra."
Vin nodded, accepting the glass and taking a long drink. "Ezra won't agree."
"No," Josiah admitted. "But I want you to know that I'm glad you did. The bastard wouldn't have stopped until Ezra, and as many of us as possible were dead."
Vin nodded. "'Preciate the support, J'siah… just hope Chris agrees, and doesn't get me canned."
"Canned?" Larabee asked as he walked into the room.
Vin looked sheepishly at the blond. "I c'n explain—"
"Josiah told us what happened," Chris said somberly. "And given the situation…" He paused, staring at his shoes for a moment before he added. "I'd like to think I would've done the same thing."
Vin nodded, slumping back with relief. "'Preciate that, Chris, but when it comes right down to it, if Ezra can't accept it, I won't be worth much t' this team."
Chris sighed. "He'll come around."
"I hope you're right," Josiah replied, reaching out to rest his hand on Vin's shoulder.
"Me, too," Chris said. "Because I won't lose you, Vin." He walked to the door and left.
Josiah glanced down at Vin, enjoying the surprised expression on the man's bruised face.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Three days later Vin paced in the hospital's atrium. Ezra had been released after twenty-four hours and had immediately left, heading for home to check on Amy, who, JD had told him, was fine, if a little worried.
For two days the others had kept him company. But Ezra hadn't come by, not once.
Two days, Vin thought as he paced back and forth along the narrow pathway edged with flowers and tall Ficus trees. Above him sunlight filtered through the skylights. He paused, dropping into a couple of deep knee bends, testing his still-sore muscles.
He was fine. Sore, sure, but who wouldn't be? The bruises were rapidly fading, and daily physical therapy was helping his shoulders recover. The PT would continue for a while. Travis had given him the week off. He didn't have to do anything more than watch TV, listen to some music, and go to his appointments.
He checked his watch. Where the hell's Chris? He was supposed t' be back by now with the haul.
Vin licked his lips, imagining the cheeseburger, fries, and chocolate shake. Where the hell was Larabee? He sighed and paced back down the path.
"I understand you were waiting for this?"
Vin spun, finding Ezra standing at the end of the path, holding out a white paper sack.
The sniper closed the space, grabbing the bag and carrying it back to one of the benches. Sitting down, he tore into the paper, splitting it open, exposing the burger and fries. He immediately shoved a French fry into his mouth, eyes closing as he chewed. "Ahh, that's good," he said, then looked at Ezra. "Where's m' shake?" he asked.
Standish's lips twitched slightly and he walked over and handed the younger man the cold drink.
"Thanks," Vin said, taking a bite of the burger, then a sip of the shake. He gestured to the other end of the bench. "Have a seat," he said, his mouth full.
Ezra sat, waiting in silence while Vin devoured the food in record time. "I do believe they feed you three times a day here, Mr. Tanner."
Vin snorted behind his last bite of fries. "This ain't Summit, an' you weren't here long enough t' experience what they're callin' food – be grateful for that."
Ezra nodded, a slight smile on his face.
"What's up?" Vin asked when silence settled between them a second time.
Leaning back, Standish stared up at the skylight and sighed heavily, then looked back at Vin as he said, "I can't say that I agree with what you did, killing Winthrop… however…"
"Yeah?" Vin questioned when it seemed Ezra wasn't going to finish.
"There's a part of me that is very glad you did."
Vin weighed the words and the sentiment behind them. It wasn't what he'd expected. "I did it for the right side."
"The right reasons?" Ezra asked.
"Yeah, I think so," Vin replied.
"Can you explain that to me?"
"Even if Winthrop went t' prison, he could've gotten out, or escaped. Sooner or later we'd be facin' something like that again. There was no way he was gonna let the death of his son be anybody's fault but yours – ours. We might not be so lucky the next time; no tellin' who might end up dead. Y' don't let your enemy walk away so he can take a shot at y' later."
Ezra sat, mulling over the words, the argument, and the heartfelt sentiment behind it. "I'm not like you, Mr. Tanner. I cannot execute an unarmed man."
"I know," Vin replied seriously. "Don't think any 'a the others could, either, except maybe Buck if he was pissed off enough."
"It's your training, isn't it?"
Vin nodded as he said, "I reckon. Sniper don't face his enemy down, he waits and takes the shot when he gets it. Bang, end 'a story."
Ezra met the sniper's gaze. "I'm not sure I belong on this team."
"What're y' talkin' about?" Vin demanded.
Standish stood and paced off several steps. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his coat and hunched his shoulders. "I lost it in that warehouse, Vin. You know it, and I know it. How can I—?"
"Whoa, hold it right there," Vin interrupted him. "Y' listen 'n' listen hard; we've all got things we're scared of. Hell, you know how I can get in small, dark spaces."
"But if my fear stops me from doing—"
"So y' don't like dead bodies, who the hell does? Has it ever stopped y' from doin' your job?"
"No," Standish admitted.
"And y' don't like rats."
"I loath the vile creatures."
"Did that ever stop y' from doin' what y' had to?"
"It did this time," Ezra said defiantly.
Vin leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "No, it didn't. It might 'a slowed y' down, but it didn't stop ya."
"I could've gotten you killed, and Josiah as well," Ezra argued. "That is not acceptable."
"Glad we agree," Vin replied lightly.
Ezra made a face. "You know what I mean."
"Look, we're all human. We've got our faults 'n' our fears… our weaknesses. That's why this is a team; we compensate for each other. No shame in that. Hell, if we were all supermen they wouldn't need units like us, or in the military, we'd just go out 'n' kick ass 'n' take names."
"Josiah talked to a friend of his in New York. He thinks this man might be able to help me with this phobia."
Vin nodded. "Sounds good. Nothin' wrong with spendin' some time on the couch."
Standish grinned slightly. "Oh, like you have?"
Tanner nodded somberly. "Couple 'a times… mostly group stuff, though."
"Your childhood?" Ezra asked, suddenly feeling very aware of the trust that comment represented. Vin's past was something the sniper never spoke about, except maybe to Larabee.
"Would you mind if I asked a personal question, Mr. Tanner?"
"The trick you suggested," Standish said, extending his hand, a white bandage still wrapped around his finger. "Where did you learn that?"
Vin's hands sought out the pockets of his hospital robe as a light chill passed over his shoulders and down his back. "In one of my foster homes… there was this kid… quiet type, kept t' himself… scared shitless 'a roaches. When they locked 'im in the closet, he'd go nuts."
"So you told him to do that?"
Vin shook his head. "Naw, he told me."
"I don't understand."
"He helped me deal with the darkness, so I could move, kill the damn things for 'im."
Ezra shivered. "I don't think I'll ever be able to control my fear like that when it comes to rats. Not when faced with several of the little beasts at once; I can hardly even talk about it."
Vin shrugged. "Y' never know. Long term exposure can make a difference, eventually, but I don't recommend it as therapy."
Standish shook his head. "No, neither would I." He met Vin's appraising gaze. "I appreciate it, though."
"That's what being a team is all about, Ez. I help you, you help me."
"I'm just feeling I didn't help enough."
"When it came down t' the wire, y' forgot about your fear an' y' did what y' had to; just like I did."
Vin drew his hands out of his pockets and held them up. Standish studied the tanned, callused hands, noticing the faint scars around the first two knuckles on both hands for the first time. He met Tanner's gaze, surprised.
"Still hate tight, dark places," Vin grumbled.
Ezra snorted softly, then chuckled, the soft amusement escalating to a full belly laugh. Vin joined him.
"We are a pair, aren't we?" Ezra finally managed.
"Yep, we are."
A few moments later the laughter faded away and Ezra stood. "I should let you get some rest."
"Rest? Hell, Ez, I wanna get the hell out 'a here."
Standish reached out, resting his hand lightly on the sniper's shoulder. "All in good time, Mr. Tanner."
The younger man looked up at Ezra, a hopeful, almost boyish expression on his face. "Maybe y' could talk t' the boss?"
Ezra shook his head. "Mr. Larabee is receiving daily progress reports from your doctor. When he says you can go, then you can go."
Vin rolled his head and groaned. "I'll starve t' death if I don't get outta here soon!"
"I'm sure you'll find a way to get through it. Whatever happened to all of that Army training?"
"Some help you are," Vin grumbled as he folded his arms over his chest and nearly pouted.
Ezra extended his hand and Tanner grudgingly took it, allowing the undercover agent to pull him to his feet. "Maybe y' can convince Buck an' JD t' smuggle in something fer dinner?"
Standish snorted and shook his head. "You know what that's going to cost you?"
"Cost me? Ez, I'm a friend."
"I think it's time I begin to face my fears… all of them."
"Y' sure about that?"
"If you want something smuggled in, that is my price, Mr. Tanner."
"Fine, I'll take y' skydivin'," Vin said. "But if y' freeze up in the doorway, I'll push y' out myself."
"Of course you will," Standish agreed. "And I'll take you with me – my hands wrapped tightly around your throat."
Vin laughed. "Yeah, y' probably will. Fear unhinges the will, and by unhinging the will it paralyses the reason… Whilst moral fear is largely overcome by courage based on reason, physical fear is overcome by courage based on physical means."
"Why, Mr. Tanner, that was… profound."
Tanner shot the man a hot look. "I can be just as profound as the next guy."
"I didn't mean to suggest otherwise."
"'Course that wasn't me, it was Major General J.F.C. Fuller."
"I knew that."
"Y' did not."
"Yes, I did."
"The hell y' say!"
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