Summary: After a trying case, Ezra heads off for a relaxing weekend indulging in one of his favorite hobbies. True to form, things don't go quite as expected.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to my betas, Axianna and Sevenstars. Thanks also to MOG for creating this wonderful universe for us to play in.
Notes: The towns of Danville and Hadley are figments of my imagination. Also, I am no expert on the hobby in question, so all mistakes are my own.
The day had dawned clear, warm, and sunny, perfect weather for his first free Saturday in more than two months. Ezra lowered his window, allowing the warm summer breeze to ruffle his hair as he drove toward his destination at the unusually early hour of seven AM. He smiled as the tension that had been his constant companion in the past weeks began to fade. His teammates had been concerned about him, trying everything possible to coerce him into spending time with them this weekend, but he was adamant about having some time to himself.
The eight weeks he had spent undercover had been more stressful than usual, since their target, an arms dealer named Charles Kendall, had insisted that he stay as a guest on his large estate. The man had a sadistic streak, and Ezra had had the misfortune of witnessing some of that brutality during his stay. One such incident occurred during his first night at the estate, when he had watched helplessly as Kendall beat one of his employees nearly to death over a minor transgression. The mercurial man also threw parties several times a week and, with liquor and drugs flowing freely, there were many similar altercations. It wasn't uncommon to see some of the guests leaving with bruises, bloody noses, or split lips.
It didn't take much to ignite the gunrunner's temper and Ezra found himself monitoring his own actions closely, so as not to antagonize the man. It had been a struggle to keep his emotions hidden in the face of the frequent violence, and the strain of being forced to maintain his cover continuously had taken a lot out of him. When they had finally gathered enough evidence to close the case, Ezra decided that he needed to spend some time alone to recapture his sense of self. His teammates meant well, but he needed some space and time to relax without their often-overwhelming concern. Though, if they knew what his idea of relaxation was, they would never have left him alone this weekend.
Ezra chuckled as he pictured his teammates' reactions to his hobby. Vin and JD would probably want to join in, but he suspected the others would want to have him committed. It wasn't something he wanted to share with anyone, though, even going so far as to use an alias in all of his dealings with it so that no one could connect the two. It wasn't so much that he didn't want his friends to know; he just needed to have at least one thing in his life that was his alone. If nobody knew about it, they couldn't take it away from him.
It was something he had learned early in his life. At one of the boarding schools he attended, he had been coerced by some of his classmates into trying out for the hockey team, ostensibly to provide them some amusement, since they fully expected him to fall flat on his face. Ezra would have turned them down, except the word 'bet' had been mentioned. He had wagered that he would not only survive the first round of tryouts, but would actually make the team. It was a bet he had won, much to his – and everyone else's – amazement.
He was a natural at hockey. Ezra chalked it up to the ballet lessons his mother made him endure. "It ensures good posture and grace," she had told him in response to his complaints. The classes had also given him excellent balance and flexibility, both of which aided him in this new endeavor. He hadn't minded the ballet classes so much, but he hated being forced to do anything, especially by his mother.
It had surprised Ezra to find that he actually enjoyed hockey immensely. Team sports were not something he had much experience with, but he found that it wasn't as bad as he had expected. His teammates were friendly and even seemed to like him, especially after he had proven his skill at the game. It was the most he had ever enjoyed school, but unfortunately, it didn't last. Maude found out about his new extracurricular activity and reacted in her usual fashion.
"Ezra Patrick Standish! What on earth were you thinking?" Maude stood before her twelve-year-old son with her hands on her hips and a scowl on her face.
"I was thinking that I like to play hockey," Ezra calmly replied.
"I will not have you participating in such an ungentlemanly activity!" she stated crossly. "It is a sport for hooligans, not people of breeding."
"What breeding?" he retorted sarcastically.
His mother's reply was a hard slap to his face – the first time she had ever struck him.
Ezra stared at her in disbelief, clutching a hand to his face.
Maude froze for a moment, apparently shocked herself at what she had done, but she recovered quickly. "Well, it doesn't matter anyway, since you'll be attending another school shortly." With that bombshell, she turned and walked away.
Ezra smiled bitterly at the memory. Maude had divorced her husband and remarried while he had been away at that particular school, and he was soon shuffled off to a different boarding school favored by her new spouse. He had later attempted to find ways to play the game he had come to enjoy, both for his own pleasure and to spite his mother, but Maude had made sure that he wouldn't be allowed to participate in any school-related team sports.
After several unsuccessful attempts to join the hockey team at his new school, Ezra realized he would have to employ subterfuge if he wished to attain his goal. His mother had covered her bases at the school and included all team sports offered there in her blanket disapproval. Instead, he had looked outside of school, to a local hockey program in the town where the school was located.
It was this experience that had taught him the value of a good alias. To make sure he wouldn't be found out, Ezra had created his first false identity and made sure his activities couldn't be traced. He had had a great time playing on that team and had enjoyed the freedom of being someone else. His team had even won the league championship and, for the first time, he had been completely free to enjoy the camaraderie and friendship that normally went along with participation in such a sport.
It had been his first triumph over his mother's authority, one she had never discovered. His victories in his lifelong tug-of-war with Maude were few and far between, but that one had given him his first taste of independence. Ezra smiled smugly to himself at the thought. That one experience had given him the confidence to do it again, whenever Maude objected to something he wanted to do. He had made great use of false identities when he started rock climbing in high school, and kayaking in college, both being activities that his mother would have forbidden, had she known. He did have to give his mother some credit, though. Without her constant attempts at controlling his life, he never would have had as much practice at deceit and would probably not be as good an undercover agent as he had become.
With a rueful shake of his head, Ezra pushed those thoughts from his mind. The day belonged to him and he was determined to enjoy it. A smile slowly grew on his face when he spotted the sign for the small airport. As he pulled into the parking lot, the smile turned into a full-blown grin in anticipation of his day. Locking the Jaguar, Ezra headed eagerly for the small building that housed Wheeler Air Adventures, a small air charter service. As he pushed through the door, he was greeted heartily by a tall, burly man with salt-and-pepper hair and laugh lines on his tanned face.
"Evan! Damn, it's good to see you!" The man grinned widely as he vigorously shook Ezra's hand and clapped him on the back.
"Brian," Ezra greeted him with a smile. Brian Wheeler was a forty-nine year old Air Force veteran who had started the small air service business with his brother after retiring from the military. The two owned seven planes, which they used for small charters, cargo runs, and what Ezra liked to call 'adventure flights'.
"What the hell happened to your face?" Brian grasped Ezra's shoulders, peering intently at the bruise that spread out from underneath his dark sunglasses.
"I caught an elbow in the face during a pick-up basketball game," Ezra lied smoothly, giving the other man a sheepish smile. He wasn't about to tell him that he got the black eye while trying to subdue the bodyguard of an illegal arms dealer. The people here knew nothing of his real job. To them, he was Evan Stewart, a successful investment banker. It wasn't a difficult cover to maintain, since he had substantial investment skills from years of managing his own portfolio. During college, he had worked several summers in an investment firm and had been mentored by several stockbrokers who had enjoyed teaching an eager young student about the intricacies of the investment world. The skills had come in handy over the years in building his substantial nest egg, as well as giving him the knowledge needed for undercover roles as a financial expert – something that was usually in demand among the criminal element, since they were always interested in finding new ways to manage their ill-gotten funds.
"You gotta learn to duck," Brian said with a laugh.
"No kidding," Ezra said, rolling his eyes. "Still, it won't hinder today's activities."
"Good, good," Brian said. "We've missed you around here, you know. Steve is looking forward to seeing you again. What's it been, two months?"
"Nearly," Ezra replied. "I'm afraid my business has kept me out of town quite a lot recently."
"Well, let's get you suited up and in the air," Brian said, giving Ezra a gentle shove into the next room.
* * * * * * *
The six men rode their horses along the shady path, enjoying the sunshine and the fresh mountain air. The past two months had been difficult for the rest of Team Seven, and they needed relaxation as much as their undercover agent. They had all worried about Ezra while working long hours to build the case against Kendall. He was the first undercover agent to get close enough to acquire the evidence needed to put him away. It hadn't been easy, since Kendall was smart and had managed to elude capture for a long time, but their hard work had paid off and the man was behind bars. The stress had been high on this case and the team was glad of the chance to unwind now that it was over.
Vin spurred his horse closer to Chris, who led them along the peaceful trail. "You still worryin' about Ez?" he asked quietly. He had noticed that his blond friend had been much more pensive than usual.
Chris shrugged. "He was looking kind of wiped out when he left yesterday."
"Wouldn't you be?" Vin said with a snort. "He was under for a long time. Hell, he only got out to see us twice, and that was only for a few minutes. Gotta be tough bein' someone else twenty-four-seven for that long."
"I wish he would have come out with us today," Chris said. "'Least that way we could keep an eye on him. Buck said he went by his place this morning before heading out here, and he wasn't home. It ain't like him to be out of bed so early on a Saturday."
"I don't blame him for wantin' to be alone for awhile," Vin said. "Easier to be yourself that way."
"What are you saying?"
"I believe he means that Ezra doesn't need to pretend when he's by himself," Josiah interjected. "If he were here with us, he would feel he had to act like everything is fine, so we wouldn't spend our day worrying about him instead of enjoying ourselves."
"You think something's wrong?" Chris asked, his voice tinged with concern.
"Not necessarily," Josiah said. "I think he just needs some time to decompress and be himself, without worrying about anybody else."
Chris sighed. "I suppose. But I still want to keep an eye on him."
"Don't worry, Chris," Josiah said with a chuckle. "Between the six of us, that shouldn't be a problem."
* * * * * * *
The hum of the engines was like music to his ears and Ezra couldn't help the grin that stretched across his face. He looked to his left and studied the other five passengers sharing his flight. They were seated on the two benches that ran the length of the passenger compartment of the small plane, and each of them, three men and two women, had looks on their faces ranging from excitement to fear. He could understand that. Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane had a tendency to inspire such emotions in a person.
Ezra sighed contentedly and adjusted the straps holding his parachute to his body. He had been skydiving since he was fifteen years old. One of his many stepfathers had been an avid pilot and skydiver and had been more than willing to introduce his teenaged stepson to his favorite hobbies. Though Maude had disapproved, she had acceded to her husband's wishes, much to Ezra's delight. He had immediately become enthralled with both activities and had earned his pilot's license by the time he was seventeen. Unfortunately, Maude had quickly tired of the man and they were divorced after less than three years. He was the one stepfather that Ezra had been sorry to lose.
"Hey, Evan!" Steve Wheeler, their pilot and also the co-owner of the air service, shouted from the cockpit. "Want to drive for a bit?"
"Next run," Ezra called back. "I'm just a passenger this time."
Steve laughed and waved at him.
"Do you do this a lot?" the woman seated to Ezra's left asked him.
Ezra turned to her and nodded, noting the apprehensive look in her eyes. "I've been participating in this sport for many years. It becomes easier after a time, but the thrill never goes away."
She smiled nervously. "I'm Helen Garvey." She offered her hand.
Ezra shook her hand and smiled. "Evan Stewart."
"This is only my second time," Helen said. "The first was a tandem jump, so this is my first time doing a solo."
Ezra looked over her shoulder to the man seated next to her, who grinned back at him. "Don't worry, Helen," Ezra said reassuringly. "Mark there is one of the best instructors around. I believe he was jumping out of airplanes before he was even out of diapers."
"Oh, and you weren't?" Mark said teasingly.
Helen smiled, amused by the good-natured banter.
"You're in capable hands," Ezra said, patting her hand.
"Thanks." She gave him a grateful look, before turning back to Mark, who started going over the procedures one last time.
Ezra closed his eyes and leaned back in his seat. In another half hour, they would be past the mountains and over the fields where they usually jumped and where trucks would be waiting to drive them back to the airport. Ezra hoped to complete at least three jumps – more if everything went especially well – before day's end. The familiar tingle of anticipation was building and Ezra was looking forward to those first moments after leaping from the plane. The sudden weightlessness, the sensation of air rushing past his body, and the feeling of ultimate freedom that came with soaring through the sky could not be matched by anything else he had ever experienced.
He had never considered himself a thrill seeker, but, considering what he did for a living, Ezra supposed the term suited him, after a fashion. Pulling what amounted to a con job on dangerous criminals was not for the faint of heart. He would never admit it to anyone, but he truly enjoyed weaving the intricate web of deception that resulted in a criminal being apprehended. There was always a rush of adrenaline when a case came to a head, but Ezra didn't consider that his primary motivation. The thing he enjoyed the most about his work was doing something worthwhile and making a difference in the world, however small that difference might be. The thrill of the chase was simply a nice bonus.
The stress of his work sometimes got to him, but that was what hobbies like this were for. Some might find it odd that he found skydiving to be relaxing, but it worked for him. The adrenaline rush was still there, but without the stressful overhead of searching for evidence or maintaining a complex cover persona. He considered Evan Stewart to be more of an alter ego than a cover. He was Ezra Standish without the baggage, a man who could let down his guard and do whatever he wanted without worrying about appearances. And today, Evan was going to have a hell of a good time.
A sudden jolt roused Ezra from his introspection and he looked sharply toward the cockpit. Steve appeared to be fighting the controls and Ezra immediately dropped his helmet, unclipped his seatbelt, and started toward the cockpit to assist him. He was nearly there when another jolt shook the plane, sending him crashing into the left side of the cabin. Over the cries of the other passengers, he could hear Steve frantically shouting a mayday into the radio.
Ezra pulled himself to his feet and headed for the cockpit once more. The plane shook again and rolled sharply to the right, knocking him off his feet. He slammed into the right side of the aircraft and felt his left arm snap at the impact. Reaching out blindly in a desperate attempt to right himself, he grasped the first handhold his fingers found and held it tightly, trying to pull himself off of the floor of the shuddering aircraft. He realized his mistake a moment too late. In his confusion, he had inadvertently used the handle of the jump door to pull himself up. The aircraft's violent pitching and rolling quickly threw the door open, and the suction of the air rushing past the opening pulled Ezra out of the airplane before he could do anything to prevent it. His head bounced off the edge of the doorway as he passed, knocking him unconscious as he tumbled into the air.
* * * * * * *
After finishing their ride, the six men gathered on the deck behind Chris's house for a barbecue lunch. Chris manned the grill, while Nathan and Josiah put together a salad in the kitchen, determined to include something healthy in their lunch.
"I put some chili on for dinner," Josiah said as he came out onto the deck.
"That'll go great with the ribs," Vin said, snagging his third hamburger off of the grill.
"Ez don't know what he's missing," Buck said.
"Wonder what he's doin' right now?" JD mused as he took a bite of his hamburger.
Nathan, carrying a bowl of salad through the door, shrugged. "He said he was planning to relax. I'll bet he went to one of those fancy resorts where they feed you champagne and caviar and give you massages and mud baths and stuff."
"Yeah, that sounds like Ez, all right," Buck agreed, wiping some ketchup off his mustache. "He don't like doing anything strenuous. He's probably taking it easy, sleeping late and hangin' out in a hot tub all day." He scratched his chin thoughtfully. "I wonder if they have lots of women in those places?"
Chris rolled his eyes and looked at Vin. "One-track mind."
Vin nodded his agreement. "Yep. But I reckon he's right about the women."
"We'll have to ask Ez when he comes in on Monday," Chris said with a grin. "Might be a nice kind of place to visit. I wouldn't mind a massage and a beautiful woman or two keeping me company in a hot tub."
Vin laughed. "I think I'll stick to camping. Wouldn't want to get too used to that kind of treatment."
"Well, wherever our brother is, I'm sure he's enjoying his time off," Josiah stated. "That boy does know how to pamper himself."
* * * * * * *
The wind was whipping through his hair. Ezra frowned. He didn't remember it being quite so breezy. He opened his eyes and stared down at the green carpet that was drawing ever closer. Green carpet? His eyes widened suddenly as he realized his predicament.
"Oh shit," Ezra whispered as he began moving his body into position. A sharp gasp escaped him at the bolt of pain that knifed through his left arm, but he ignored it, focused only on his immediate problem. Taking a deep breath, he pulled the ripcord. The sudden deceleration sent fresh waves of pain through his arm, but he breathed a sigh of relief when his chute deployed flawlessly. It was closer to the ground than he would normally choose to pull the cord, but he was thankful that he had regained consciousness in time to do it at all.
The danger had not completely passed, though. There was still the matter of the forest beneath him. Ezra searched for a clearing or break in the foliage, but there were none that he could see. This keeps getting better and better. He sighed. All he could do was aim for the most open spot he could find and pray that he didn't injure himself further in the trees. Of course, having only one working arm with which to steer his parachute was making that somewhat difficult.
A loud noise to his left startled him, and Ezra turned his head to investigate. His eyes widened in horror as a huge explosion erupted from the forest some distance away, sending plumes of smoke and flame skyward. He looked up hopefully, but saw nothing but empty blue sky. Tears sprang to his eyes as he realized what had caused the explosion and he felt suddenly guilty that he alone had been spared the fate of the others on the plane. Ezra searched the sky again, looking for any sign of survivors, but there were no other parachutes interrupting the clear blue expanse.
Ezra had often been told that he was lucky, but he had never believed it. Certainly, he had escaped from many a difficult situation, but he considered that to be more a result of his hard-won skills. Anyone could do the same, with the proper amount of effort. He had learned early on not to depend on anyone or anything else. He certainly would not trust his fate to something as fickle and unsubstantial as luck.
Pushing his distress aside, Ezra turned away from the conflagration and looked down at the ground that was still rushing towards him. There would be plenty of time for grief later... if he survived his landing. He awkwardly maneuvered his parachute, steering it toward a tiny gap in the forest. His feet were brushing the treetops when a sudden gust of wind negated all his efforts at steering, blowing him directly into a large tree.
Ezra's breath left him in one great rush when he slammed bodily into the thick pine tree and began to descend rapidly through the dense branches. He fought in vain to keep the branches of the tree from inflicting any more damage, covering his face with his good arm. Several cracked ribs, contusions, and lacerations later, he came to an abrupt halt as the parachute snagged in the branches. He swung forcefully into the tree again, this time hitting his head on the trunk. Aw hell, was his last thought as the blackness engulfed him.
Ezra's eyes snapped open and he looked around wildly, disconcerted by the odd falling sensation he was experiencing. He sucked in a breath when he finally remembered where he was. "Stuck in a tree," he muttered with a sigh. The sun was lower in the sky than he remembered and he was surprised to discover that it was nearly three in the afternoon. He had been unconscious for hours, dangling thirty feet from the ground. After cataloguing his numerous injuries and finding himself relatively functional, if somewhat battered, he set about extricating himself from his predicament.
First, he found a sturdy branch within his reach that would support his weight and carefully maneuvered his feet toward it. Next, he attempted to release the parachute, but it remained stubbornly attached to his pack. With a sigh, he removed a small pocketknife from his jumpsuit and carefully cut the parachute away from the harness, releasing himself from the tangled mess. Gripping a branch with his good arm, he gingerly stood, praying that the limb would support his weight. It creaked and shook, but held firm. Ezra let out the breath he hadn't realized he was holding and slowly lowered himself to a seated position on the branch.
Leaning his head back against the tree, Ezra groaned as the aches and pains in his body began to make themselves known. He wanted nothing more than to close his eyes and sleep, but his situation was still far from secure. The winds had increased and the tree was swaying, making it imperative for him to reach the ground with all due haste. Ezra sighed, then slowly reached for another branch and methodically started making his way down. He was still fifteen feet from the ground when disaster struck.
As he reached for his next foothold, a sudden cramp stabbed through his right hand and he lost his grip on the branch that was providing his support. His arms flailing wildly, Ezra plummeted to the ground, bouncing off of branches all the way, until he hit the earth with a dull thud. He lay flat on his back, eyes wide, as he tried to breathe. Stars were beginning to circle his vision when he finally gasped, drawing a greedy breath into his oxygen-starved lungs.
Eventually, his breathing evened out and Ezra pushed himself to his feet, grunting at the additional pain inflicted by his fall. He inventoried his battered body and found no new broken bones, though he had added significantly to his collection of cuts and bruises. Thankfully, none of them were life threatening, even if they did hurt like hell.
Ezra leaned against the tree and studied his surroundings. He had a general idea of where he was and, based on what he saw during his descent through the air, he was miles away from anything resembling civilization. He wasn't completely inept in the wilderness, having taken survival-training classes during his time with the FBI, but he hadn't had much chance to practice those skills. It wasn't going to be easy getting out of this place, especially with a broken arm to hinder his travels. Frowning, he lifted his arm and grimaced at the pain the movement caused. The injured limb was going to have to be splinted so that it wouldn't be damaged further during his forthcoming trek through the forest.
Ezra delicately pushed his jumpsuit sleeve up to inspect his arm. The skin was unbroken, but the arm was swollen and bruised and would need to be set as soon as possible – a prospect he didn't welcome, but one that was necessary. He searched the ground for something to use as a splint, finding several straight sticks of a suitable size. Placing them on the ground, he prepared for the painful task.
"This ought to be fun," Ezra said resignedly as he wedged his arm firmly in the v-shaped crook of a nearby tree. He took a deep breath and carefully pulled his body backwards, crying out in pain as the bones finally snapped into place. Easing his arm away from the tree, Ezra took a shaky breath and slid to the ground, cradling his arm gently against his chest while he fought to stay conscious. He swallowed carefully, trying to calm the churning in his stomach, but the repeated blows to his head finally caught up with him and he rolled to his right, vomiting violently into the bushes.
After what seemed like an eternity, his nausea eased and Ezra rolled onto his back, spent from the effort. He wished desperately for a drink of water, but there was none to be had. Heaving a weary sigh, he sat up and reached for the splints he had found earlier, tying pieces of parachute cord around them to hold them in place. He used a length of the webbed straps from his parachute harness as a crude sling, resting his newly-splinted arm in it carefully.
The sun was sinking lower in the sky and would soon disappear below the horizon. Ezra was exhausted, but he stubbornly pushed himself to his feet, leaning heavily on a tree for support. He needed to find a good place to spend the night, preferably near a source of water, though he wasn't counting on that. He hadn't seen any signs of water from the air and doubted he would encounter any before night fell and he was forced to stop. It would be far too dangerous for him to be stumbling blindly around the woods once it was dark. He already had one broken bone and didn't relish the thought of adding to the tally.
Ezra started off toward the east – at least he hoped it was east – limping his way through the trees. The forest here was dense, the ground uneven, and he quickly learned to keep an eye out for protruding tree roots. Thick underbrush hampered his efforts, clawing at his legs as he fought his way through, but he struggled on nonetheless, looking for a place that would at least provide some minimal shelter for the night.
Dusk had fallen before Ezra found a decent place to rest. He broke through some bushes into a small clearing that was reasonably level, bordered on one side by a large boulder, and surrounded by thick shrubbery. It wasn't the same as his soft mattress, but the layer of leaves that carpeted the ground was likely the best bed he would be able to find out here in the wilderness. Using his parachute pack – which still contained his backup chute – as a pillow, Ezra settled himself on the ground next to the boulder and quickly succumbed to his exhaustion.
* * * * * * *
Brian Wheeler clenched his fists tightly as the Forest Service helicopter flew high above the flaming wreckage below. His worst nightmare had just been confirmed. His little brother was dead, along with his six passengers. The force of the impact had scattered the wreckage over a wide area, leaving behind only tiny bits of debris amidst the inferno. As he watched the hungry flames devour the forest below, Brian knew that there was no way any of the unfortunate souls on board the plane could have survived such a horrendous crash.
He had heard his brother's last panicked words over the radio and had known even then that there was no hope. But seeing it firsthand still seemed so unreal. He could still picture Steve joking with Mark and Evan as they had boarded the plane, eager to begin the day's adventures. How could they have known that the engines would fail, that they would hit a pocket of turbulence, that this would be their last adventure? Brian lowered his head and started to cry.
* * * * * * *
Ezra awoke with a moan. Though he knew what to expect, he was still surprised by how much worse he felt today. Everything seemed to ache and he could have sworn that he heard his joints creaking as he crawled up to sit on the boulder next to which he had slept. One thing he wasn't imagining was the growling coming from his stomach. But it wasn't to be helped – not yet anyway.
Stretching carefully, Ezra eased himself to his feet, grimacing as his aching body protested the movement. Satisfied that he wasn't going to topple over, he checked his watch, groaning when he realized how early it was. With a sigh, he prepared to resume his journey, hoping he encountered a stream or other source of water soon, as his thirst was beginning to become more urgent.
The cool breeze across his neck made him shiver. It might be the middle of the summer, but the mountains were always much cooler than the city and his jumpsuit didn't provide much in the way of warmth. Ezra was thankful that he had kept his clothes on underneath the suit, unlike many of his fellow skydivers. Brian always teased him about having 'thin blood', but he always laughed it off, comfort being more important to him than his pride.
Ezra turned toward the rising sun and took a step, then stopped suddenly when a faint but familiar scent reached his nose. Smoke. He scanned the area intently, looking for a possible source of the odor, but found nothing in the immediate vicinity. Relaxing fractionally, he started walking again, pondering this new information.
It had been a dry spring and summer, and the entire area had been on alert for increased fire potential. Camping had been restricted in many wooded areas, much to Vin's dismay. Ezra had not paid it much attention at the time, but now he was starting to wish he had. If the fire officials had been concerned about campfires, then the flames resulting from the plane crash had an even greater potential to ignite a forest fire. Ezra sighed. He was injured, stuck in the middle of the wilderness without any food or water, and now there was a potential forest fire bearing down on him. And people called him lucky?
* * * * * * *
"Wow, look at that!" JD said in a voice filled with awe.
"What?" asked Buck as he came out of the kitchen with a sandwich.
"That." JD pointed at the television.
Buck looked at the screen and frowned at the fiery images being broadcast. He dropped onto the couch next to JD and concentrated on what was happening on the small screen.
Vin joined them a few minutes later, carrying a bag of potato chips. "What's up?" he asked as he flopped into one of the two recliners in Chris's living room.
"There's a forest fire burning up north," JD answered, without looking away from the screen.
"Been a dry summer," Vin said. "Not surprising to see that happen."
"You think the ranch is in danger?" JD asked, suddenly worried.
"Probably not," Vin answered. "That's a good distance away from here."
"What is?" asked Josiah as he entered the room.
"The fire," Vin replied, pointing at the television.
"Looks bad," Josiah remarked, taking a seat next to Buck. "Do they know how it started?"
"Yeah," Buck said. "There was a plane crash. Some group of skydivers had engine trouble while they were on the way to their jump site and went down in the forest." He shook his head sadly. "All of 'em were killed."
"Damn, that sucks," Vin commented.
Josiah nodded wordlessly in agreement.
"I wonder why they didn't just jump out?" JD queried. "I mean, if they were going skydiving, wouldn't they have parachutes on?"
"It's not that simple, kid," Vin answered. "If the plane was in trouble, they might not have been able to get out the door."
"Or they might have gotten hung up on the plane," Josiah added. "Saw that happen once when I was in the army."
"I don't know why anybody would want to jump out of a plane for fun," Nathan said with a shudder.
"It ain't so bad, Nate," Vin said.
"It's kind of a rush," Buck agreed.
"You guys have done that?" JD asked, surprise evident on his face.
"Yep," Vin said. "Had to do it a lot in the army."
Buck grinned. "Same here, 'cept me and Chris jumped for the Navy, usually into the ocean."
"Ain't nothin' like it," Vin said with a grin.
"Damn right," Buck said, slapping the younger man on the back. "It's as close as you can get to flying."
"I'd like to try it someday," JD said longingly.
"Well, don't come runnin' to me when you break your neck," Nathan said, shaking his head at the thought of any of his friends risking their lives for pleasure.
JD rolled his eyes but didn't comment, knowing that he wouldn't be able to change Nathan's mind.
"So, everybody up for some more riding?" Buck inquired, sensing the need to change the subject.
"Sure!" JD said enthusiastically. They hadn't been out riding much in the last few months, and JD was determined to do as much as possible before they had to return to the city tomorrow.
"Let's go," Vin said as he stood and stretched languidly.
The five men slowly filed from the room and headed for the barn, grabbing Chris as he exited the kitchen.
"Come on, pard," Buck said. "Let's ride."
* * * * * * *
The smoke was getting thicker, stinging his eyes and burning his throat with every breath he took. The forest was eerily quiet, and Ezra assumed all the wildlife had fled in the face of the oncoming fire. He trudged on, pushing his way through the thick foliage and searching vainly for water or food. He had been fortunate enough to find some wild blackberries earlier in the day, but hadn't found anything else he recognized as edible since then, despite closely scrutinizing most of the bushes and plants he encountered. As he walked along, he forced himself to ignore the increasing smoke and the various aches and pains that plagued him. The last thing he needed was to think about how close the fire might be or how unlikely it was that he was going to get out of this situation.
Wiping his arm across his face, Ezra plodded along, squinting against the smoke. He forced his way through a particularly tangled patch of brush only to find his foot meeting nothing but air. Startled, he drew back, gripping a nearby sapling for balance. Cautiously inching forward, he detected the welcome sound of moving water. A grin spread across his face as he negotiated the steep bank and headed for the small stream.
Sinking slowly to his knees, Ezra plunged his head into the icy water and slowly drank his fill. He sighed with pleasure as the cool water soothed his parched throat. With a soft grunt of pain, he eased himself to his feet and scanned the area. The stream was small, only five or six feet wide, and little more than a foot deep. It wasn't much, but it was the best thing he had seen since his untimely entry into this wilderness.
As he watched the water flow past, a flicker of movement caught his attention. Ezra peered intently toward the water, then smiled at the sight of the fish swimming by, sunlight glinting off of its silvery scales. He thought longingly of the fine dinner the fish would make and sighed in resignation. Vin had once shown him how to catch fish barehanded by scooping them quickly out of the water and throwing them onto the bank. It was surprisingly effective, but Ezra knew there was no way he would be able to catch a fish that way with only one good arm when even Vin had used both hands to perform the feat.
"My kingdom for a fishing pole," he sighed, rubbing his empty stomach as he climbed to his feet and studied his current location. The stream meandered its way through the woods in the same general direction he was heading, so Ezra decided to follow it. It would be good to have some water close at hand, at least for a little while.
* * * * * * *
Chris flipped through the folder in his hand as he made his way down the hall to his office. Travis had a new assignment for them, but it appeared to be an easy one – well, easy by their standards, anyway – which was a good thing, since he figured his team needed a break after the strain of their last case. His eyes still focused on the folder, Chris entered the main part of the office and called out, "Vin, Ez... my office."
"Ez ain't here yet, Chris," Vin said.
"What?" Chris looked up from his folder and over to Ezra's empty desk, then checked his watch. It was ten-thirty. He frowned. "It's late, even for him."
Buck looked over at him. "Maybe he decided to take an extra day off."
"He would have called," Chris said, his forehead creasing in concern.
Vin picked up his phone. "I'll give him a call."
"Transfer him to my office once you get him on the line," Chris said, turning toward his office.
Vin appeared in the doorway several minutes later. "He ain't home."
"You try his cell?" Chris asked.
"Yep. No answer."
"Damn." Chris leaned back in his chair. "Where the hell could he be?"
"Might just be sleepin' in," Vin postulated. "Want me to run by his place?"
Chris sighed. "Yeah. Tell him to get his lazy ass in here."
"You got it," Vin said with a grin.
* * * * * * *
It had rained briefly overnight and Ezra noticed that the scent of smoke had substantially diminished. He had spent another uncomfortable night lying in the dirt next to a tree and was still suffering from the resulting sore muscles and stiff neck as he traipsed wearily through the woods once again. The clinging dampness of his clothing didn't improve the situation any, either.
It was early afternoon before he realized that the stream he had been following had slowly curved and was now headed away from the easterly direction he was trying to maintain. He had been walking for hours, finding only a few berries and some wild leeks – one of the few edible wild plants he recognized – to sustain himself, and was now faced with losing his source of water as well.
Ezra halted at the edge of the water and crouched slowly, wrapping his good arm around his aching ribs to support them as he lowered his face into the water for a last drink. There was no way of knowing if he was going to encounter any more so he took advantage of this opportunity and drank as much water as he could, knowing that it would probably have to last him for a while. Wincing, he stood and took a last look at the stream, glistening in the sunlight as it threaded its way through the trees. With a sigh, Ezra turned and resumed his journey.
* * * * * * *
Chris frowned as he looked out into the bullpen. Ezra's desk was still vacant. It wasn't unusual for the undercover agent to be late, since he tended to keep odd hours, but there was a strange sense of foreboding gnawing at Larabee that he couldn't explain. It was as though he knew something was wrong but couldn't quite figure out what it was. The phone rang, ending his disquieting thoughts.
"Hey, cowboy," Vin said.
"Well?" Chris asked impatiently.
Vin sighed. "He ain't here."
"Damn." Chris frowned and ran a hand through his hair. "Any idea where he might have gone?"
"Nope," Vin replied. "His luggage is all here, I think, and there's a steak waitin' in the fridge. It doesn't look like he was planning to go too far. I'm gettin' a bad feelin' about this."
"Me too," Chris said somberly. "I think we better start looking for him."
"I'll ask around here," Vin offered. "Maybe his neighbors know something."
"We'll get started here," Chris said.
"I'll call if I get anything," Vin said as he hung up.
Chris replaced the receiver of the phone slowly. The feeling that something was wrong intensified, sitting like a leaden ball in his stomach. Shaking his head, he stood and headed for the outer office.
"Guys," he called to his team. "Conference room."
Dutifully, the four men filed into the room, taking their customary seats.
"Junior's not back yet?" Buck inquired, noting the absence of the sharpshooter.
"Ez wasn't at home," Chris replied, "and it looks like he wasn't planning an extended vacation. Vin's looking into it. Did he say anything to any of you guys?"
A chorus of "no's" was his answer.
"You think something's wrong?" Buck asked, recognizing the concern in his old friend's face.
Chris nodded. "Ez would have called if he was going to be late."
"I can check his credit card records," JD suggested hesitantly. "Maybe find out where he went this weekend." He knew Chris usually frowned upon illegal hacking, but JD thought he might make an exception in this case, since it would be faster than going through channels to get official permission to do so.
"Do it," Chris agreed.
"Don't you think we're jumping the gun a bit?" Nathan said. "I mean, it's not the first time Ezra's been late without calling. It's only noon. He's come in later than that before."
"It's possible, but something feels... wrong." Chris shrugged helplessly, unable to explain why he felt that way. "He wasn't exactly in the best frame of mind after we closed the case last week."
"He was kind of quiet," Buck admitted. "And he looked awfully tired."
"Perhaps he just needed some additional time to himself," Josiah suggested. "This last case was rough on him."
"He would have called, though," JD said insistently.
"Maybe not," Josiah said. "He might have been afraid we wouldn't leave him alone if he called in."
"Good point," Buck remarked. "Ez gets real touchy when he thinks we're buttin' in on his business."
"I'm sure he'll turn up, brother," Josiah said, patting Chris on the shoulder. "Ezra can take care of himself."
Chris sighed. "Yeah, maybe. But it wouldn't hurt to check things out." His lips quirked into a humorless smile. "Ez also has a knack for getting himself into trouble."
* * * * * * *
After stumbling for the fourth time in the growing darkness, Ezra finally decided to call it a night. He found a suitable spot and lowered himself to the ground, shifting to avoid a tree root that was digging into his back. Settling himself carefully, he lay his head on his pack and looked up at the sky. Stars twinkled faintly among the canopy of branches overhead, looking so much like diamonds on velvet in a jeweler's display. Ezra marveled, as always, at how the heavenly bodies seemed to multiply away from the lights of the urban areas he usually favored. He had always found his peace in the neon and noise of the city, but he could understand how people could find their tranquility out in the wilderness, with the sky open and sparkling above them.
The greedy side of him wished that the stars truly were diamonds that he could pluck from the sky at will. Ezra laughed aloud at the thought. Diamonds certainly wouldn't be of much use in his current position. A cell phone, on the other hand, would be much more valuable to him right now than any precious gems.
Ezra chuckled again at the thought of his teammates' reactions to his current predicament if he had a cell phone with which to call them. Chris would favor him with his patented glare and threaten to lock him up and throw away the key. Nathan would hound him about his injuries while Josiah subjected him to a lecture on the error of his ways. Vin would laugh at his lack of wilderness expertise, egged on, no doubt, by Buck and JD. Ezra smiled and pushed away his wandering thoughts. If only there was some chance of that happening.
Ezra wondered what his associates were thinking about his absence. He had been with the team for nearly a year, but he was not certain that they had completely accepted him. His relationship with them had become less fractious, but he was still unsure of where he stood. Would they attribute his disappearance to some selfish action on his part? It wasn't going to be easy for them to prove otherwise, since he had participated in this activity under an alias. Ezra snorted. If they did think ill of him, he supposed he couldn't blame them. He had, after all, rebuffed their weekend invitation. In retrospect, he supposed that was somewhat selfish of him, but he had honestly needed to be alone and had been afraid that they wouldn't understand if he tried to explain his reasons.
"Now look where you've ended up," Ezra chided himself. It definitely wasn't how he envisioned spending his weekend.
He looked so happy. Brian Wheeler ran his thumb across the glass that covered the image of his brother standing in front of an airplane. Steve was never happier when he was in the air. Whether he was drifting along the air currents in a glider, floating from the sky on a parachute, or doing loops and rolls in the old biplane he had restored, Steve had found his joy in the skies.
A tear slid down his face and Brian didn't bother to brush it away; he wasn't ashamed to cry over the loss of his brother. They had always been close, especially during the last few years when they had shared their love of flight by running the business together. Brian sniffed. He was going to miss him terribly.
A soft cough intruded upon the silence of the morning. Brian looked away from the photograph. Two men stood at the door to his office.
"Mr. Wheeler?" the short, dark-haired man inquired.
"Yes?" Brian acknowledged.
"Detective Mitchell from Denver PD, and this is Detective Rourke." The two men each reached over and shook Brian's hand. "I'm sorry to bother you, but I need to ask you a few questions."
"Of course," Brian said. "Please have a seat."
The man and his taller companion seated themselves in the two guest chairs that stood before the desk.
"What did you need?"
"We received a list of the passengers from the... er, skydiving flight from the FAA, in order to contact the next-of-kin," Mitchell stated. "Unfortunately, we were unable to contact anyone with regards to Mr. Stewart. The phone number listed was disconnected, and we've been unable to find information on anyone by that name in Denver."
"We were hoping you could help us find him," Rourke added. "What can you tell us about him?"
"Evan?" Brian scratched his chin. "He started coming out here last summer. Said he had just moved into the area from the east coast."
"Do you know where?" Mitchell asked.
Brian shrugged. "He didn't say, but he did mention being in Atlanta once or twice. He had a southern accent, so I assumed he was from that area."
"Did he ever say where he worked?" Rourke asked.
"Not by name," Brian answered. "All I know is that he worked for some investment firm in Denver. I figure he must have been doing pretty well for himself to be able to afford that fancy car."
"Car?" Mitchell inquired sharply.
"Yeah," Brian said. "That black Jag out there in the parking lot."
Mitchell and Rourke looked at one another as if to say, "Why didn't we think of that?"
"Hey, can't you just look up his license plate or something?" Brian said, coming to the same conclusion as the two detectives.
Rourke nodded at his partner and jogged out the door, returning a few minutes later with his cell phone pressed to his ear. His eyebrows lifted in surprise and he turned to his partner, nodding. "Right, I got it." Using his shoulder to hold the phone to his ear, he scribbled something into his notebook. "Thanks." He clicked off the phone.
"What?" Mitchell asked, curious at the odd expression on his partner's face.
"Well, his name's not Evan Stewart," Rourke replied.
"Oh, really?" Mitchell said. "What is it?"
"Standish, Ezra P.," Rourke answered. "They're running it as we speak."
Brian furrowed his brow in confusion. "Why would he lie about his name?" He felt oddly hurt that his friend – and he had considered Evan to be a friend – would have lied to him about something as basic as his name.
"That's what we're going to find out," Mitchell said.
"It's possible our friend might have had something to hide," Rourke suggested.
"Was there anything strange about him?" Mitchell asked.
"No," Brian said, shaking his head vigorously. "He was a nice guy. Got along great with everyone." He ran a hand through his short hair. "Hell, he even helped me out once by flying a charter one weekend when Steve was sick."
"He was a pilot?" Rourke asked.
"Yep," Brian said. "A damn good one, too."
"Interesting," Rourke remarked.
His cell phone rang then and he answered without delay. "Yeah?" He listened for a minute, a look of surprise crossing his face again. "Thanks, Rob." He shut the phone off.
"Well?" Mitchell asked impatiently.
"Ezra Standish was an agent with the ATF," he stated simply. "One of Larabee's men."
"Oh shit," Mitchell said with a groan.
"He was a Fed?" Brian said disbelievingly. "I never would have guessed."
"You want to call Larabee?" Rourke asked hopefully.
Mitchell cringed. "No, but I guess I'd better."
"Who's Larabee?" Brian was curious about what had caused the pained expression on the detective's face.
"Larabee is the head of the best ATF team this side of the Mississippi," Mitchell said with a sigh. "He's a tough bastard and a hell of a good cop."
"Yeah," Rourke agreed. "He's the kind of guy you don't want on your bad side."
"And you get to break the bad news to him," Brian said soberly, understanding the man's reluctance.
Mitchell sighed. "Well, we'd better get going." He shook Brian's hand again. "Thank you for your assistance, Mr. Wheeler."
"No problem," Brian said. "Everyone needs someone to mourn their passing. I'm just glad I was able to help."
"I'm sorry for your loss," Rourke said as he bid farewell.
Brian watched them go, shaking his head sadly. He didn't envy the two men their task.
* * * * * * *
His pencil was tapping out a staccato beat against the notepad in front of him, but Chris didn't notice. Instead, his attention was focused on the empty desk in the outer office. For the second day in a row, there was no sign of his undercover agent, and the dread he was feeling had turned into an ache deep in his gut that he couldn't shake. He was watching the rest of his team as well, taking note of the surreptitious glances being sent in the direction of the missing agent's desk. Despite the arguments of the previous day, he could tell they were beginning to worry. He sighed, wishing for the sound of the annoying southerner's large vocabulary. His wish was granted by the ringing of the telephone instead.
"Larabee," he answered gruffly. His lips tightened into a thin, white line. "Are you sure?" The pencil in his hand snapped in two. "Thank you," he said hoarsely, hanging up the phone with deliberate care. Slowly, he rose from his seat and walked to the door. He stood, staring at Ezra's desk, a blank look on his face.
* * * * * * *
Buck was the first to notice him. "Chris?"
At his voice, the others turned their heads toward their leader.
"What's up, pard?" Buck continued, his voice heavy with concern as he stood and walked toward his friend.
Chris didn't answer, didn't move. He just stared at the empty desk.
After exchanging glances with the others, Vin stood, joining Buck beside his friend. "Chris?" He put his hand on Chris's shoulder. "What's wrong, cowboy?"
Chris turned his head, meeting their questioning eyes with his own anguished gaze. "Ezra's dead," he said simply.
"What?!" The uproar was instantaneous as the rest of the team gathered around him, clamoring for an explanation.
Chris lifted his hand to silence them. "I got a call from Denver PD. He was killed in a plane crash on Saturday." He looked at his stricken men. "He was one of those skydivers in the plane that started the forest fire."
The men of Team Seven stared at him silently as they digested the news.
"No," JD whispered quietly. "It couldn't have been him. Ez would never go skydiving." He turned pleading eyes to the rest of the group. "He wouldn't, would he?"
Buck moved to comfort his young roommate. "It's hard to tell anything about Ezra, kid. He was real good at keeping secrets."
"How come we're just hearing about it now?" Josiah asked, swiping angrily at his suddenly tear-filled eyes.
Chris shook his head. "He didn't use his own name. They ended up tracing him through the Jag."
"Damn," Vin said quietly, moving back to his desk and dropping his head onto his folded arms to hide the raging emotions on his face. "Damn."
"Someone should call Maude," Nathan said quietly, a stunned look on his face.
"I'll take care of it," Chris said in a voice that was rough with emotion.
Their eyes all turned to the desk that would not be occupied by the unique man that was Ezra Standish ever again, and they realized the magnitude of their loss.
* * * * * * *
Ezra coughed, wrapping his hands around his ribs. The smoke had thickened again overnight, despite the brief rain of the day before, and it was making his throat hurt and his eyes water as he limped through the forest. The arduous trek was beginning to take its toll. His muscles ached and his feet were blistered from the long hours of hiking in sneakers that were not designed for that kind of activity. Earlier that day, his legs had become entangled in some brush and he had stumbled, twisting his ankle and smashing his knee on a fallen log. It wasn't one of his better days.
In addition, he was feeling weak from lack of food and his head was pounding in rhythm with his hobbling steps. Ezra kept moving, though, knowing that it was the only chance he had of actually making out of this godforsaken wilderness. He longed for a hot bath, a good meal, and the comfort of his soft mattress – not necessarily in that order – and the only way to accomplish that was to keep going.
By now, Ezra figured his associates would either be furious with him, or worried as hell. Or maybe both. They were good people, after all, and it was in their natures to be concerned about their teammates. He almost dreaded facing them... provided he ever got out of this miserable place.
"Damn," Ezra whispered hoarsely. It was another good incentive for him to get his aching body back to civilization. His teammates did hold some affection for him and he knew they would probably be upset over his disappearance. He hated the idea of causing them any distress and resolved to do everything in his power to get back home in one piece.
* * * * * * *
The silence in the office was broken only by the sporadic sound of typing as the men of Team Seven attempted to do their work. Orrin Travis entered the office and frowned at the unusual tranquility. His men were behaving in a decidedly odd manner. JD had his head in his arms on his desk, Josiah was staring off into space with a sad expression on his face, and Vin was focusing intently on the paper he was tearing into tiny bits. Nathan and Buck seemed to be the only ones working, but he noticed that both of them seemed to be having trouble concentrating and that Buck's eyes were suspiciously bright, as though he was about to cry.
Something was definitely wrong, since his best team was not known for working so quietly. He gave the oblivious men one last glance before he continued toward Larabee's door, not sure he wanted to discover what was causing such aberrant behavior. After knocking firmly on the closed door, he entered the office, stopping short at the sight of the unflappable team leader staring vacantly out the window.
Chris turned to face his superior. "Sir."
"You paged me?"
"Yes," Chris said, dropping his eyes to his desk, where he picked up a pencil and began rolling between his thumb and forefinger.
"What's wrong?" Travis felt a stirring of alarm. Larabee was not usually one to fidget or hesitate.
"Ezra's dead," he said flatly, meeting the older man's startled gaze.
"What?! How?" Travis was flabbergasted. He had been out of the office all morning, meeting with some state officials, and was unaware of this development.
Chris filled him in, his voice not betraying the emotions that stormed within him. Travis could see it in his eyes, though. The younger man was barely hanging on to his composure.
"Jesus," Travis said softly after Chris had finished. He now understood the subdued atmosphere in the outer office. It told him just how far Standish had progressed.
He had been skeptical when Chris had brought Standish into the team. The man was arrogant, annoying, and unpredictable, and Travis had doubted that he would work well with the rest of the men. Over the past year, though, he had been proven wrong. It hadn't been a smooth road, but Standish had become an integral part of one of the most successful and unusual teams in the ATF. His death was apparently quite a blow to this close-knit group of men. He himself was feeling a surprising sense of loss, and he realized he would truly miss the smart-mouthed agent and the verbal sparring matches in which they often engaged.
"Chris, why don't you and the boys take the rest of the day off," Travis said sympathetically. "The reports can wait. You're not going to be any good to me like this."
Chris opened his mouth to protest, but then nodded his head in reluctant capitulation. He knew his boss was right. They had only been going through the motions since they had received the news of Ezra's death.
"How did his mother take the news?"
"We weren't able to find her," Chris said with a frown. "The number in his files was bogus."
Travis lifted his eyebrows in surprise. "Really? I wonder why he would do that?"
"You've never met her, have you?" Chris replied with a faint smirk.
Travis shook his head.
"They didn't exactly get along," Chris explained. "She didn't think much of his job."
Travis sighed. "Well, I know Evie's going to be upset. She had a real soft spot for that young man."
Chris nodded. "I wasn't able to reach Mary. She was off at a press conference or something." He shook his head. "She liked Ez, too. He had a real way with the ladies... except for his mother."
"I think it was that southern charm," Travis said, smiling fondly at the memory of the elegant young southerner and his polished manners.
"Hell," Chris said roughly. "I'm gonna miss that son of a bitch."
"Me too," Travis agreed sadly. "Me too."
* * * * * * *
Inez shot a worried glance toward the group of men at the corner table while she wiped down the bar. It had surprised her when the agents had walked through the door in the middle of the afternoon. At first, she thought they might be celebrating something, but one look at their somber faces told her otherwise. Tears stung her eyes as she remembered the reason they had spent the day drinking heavily.
They had lost one of their own and had come to the Saloon to drown their sorrows. Throughout the evening, other agents had come and gone, sharing drinks with the six grieving men and toasting their missing member. Inez sniffed and brushed a tear from her cheek. She would miss the handsome southerner and the way his beautiful green eyes sparkled with humor when he had befuddled one of his teammates with his erudite speech. The world would seem less bright without the boyish grin that had been all too infrequent during his early days with the team, or the charming way he had always kissed her hand, as if she were some sort of princess. Inez bit her lip and attacked the bar furiously with her dishrag.
It was disheartening to see these strong men attempting to chase their grief away with alcohol, but she could hardly blame them. In Ezra's honor, they had nearly cleaned out her limited stock of Balvenie Scotch, his favorite 'libation'. She had even joined them in a toast or two in an attempt to soothe her own loss. It was closing time now, and they had drunk themselves into oblivion, lying in various states of inebriation around the table. Inez breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the men from Team Eight make their way to the table to assist their friends. She smiled her thanks to them as they hauled their fellow agents out the door. The smile faded as she thought sadly of the man who completed their number... and the empty chair that had taken his place this night.
* * * * * * *
God, he was tired. Ezra's head drooped as he trudged wearily through the trees. He was starving and dehydrated, and was steadily growing weaker. He didn't know how long he would be able to keep going, but he was determined to keep moving until he dropped. Everyone always told him he was stubborn, and he figured the least he could do was live up to his reputation.
It was nearing sunset when his body decided it had had enough. Ezra's leg suddenly gave out and he sprawled in the dirt, sucking in a smoke-laden breath at the pain that rocketed through him. He lay there, breathing heavily for a few minutes, before gamely pushing himself to his feet. There was still enough light to see where he was going and he was determined to make the most of it, even if he had to crawl.
Pushing onward, he stared down at his feet, watching for anything that might trip him up as he limped along. Because his attention was focused on the ground, it took him a minute to realize that the terrain had changed. Lifting his head, Ezra blinked at the sight of the flat expanse of grass that stretched before him. A grin split his dirty, stubbled face and he let out a whoop when he caught a glimpse of a truck moving in the distance. With renewed vigor, Ezra hobbled across the field as fast as he was able. The presence of a vehicle meant there was a road ahead, and that meant he was almost home.
It was dark by the time he reached the road, and if it hadn't been such a painful maneuver, he would have gotten on his hands and knees and kissed the pavement. Instead, he turned and kept walking along the side of the thoroughfare, hoping a good samaritan might stop and give him a ride. As he stood by the road with his thumb out, he chuckled at what his mother would say if she saw him now.
"Gentleman don't hitchhike," he said aloud, mimicking the disapproving tone Maude would doubtless employ in such a situation. Well, he hardly looked like a gentleman in his present condition, and he could care less what his mother might think.
A battered pickup truck badly in need of a paint job passed him, then slowed and pulled over. Ezra smiled and limped toward the vehicle. If it would get him closer to home, he didn't care if it was the biggest piece of junk that ever rolled down the road.
"You look like you need a lift, son," the elderly man in the truck said when Ezra looked in the open window.
"You could say that," Ezra said with a tired smile.
"Well, hop on in," the man offered.
"Thank you, sir," Ezra replied. "You have no idea how much I appreciate this."
The man chuckled. "From the looks of you, I think I can hazard a pretty good guess."
Ezra grinned at him, then offered his hand. "Ezra Standish."
"Charlie Taylor." He took the offered hand then pulled the truck back onto the road. "Where you headed?"
"Danville, ideally," Ezra said, "but I'd settle for someplace where I can get a shower, a hot meal, and a soft bed."
"Looks to me like a hospital wouldn't be out of line either," Charlie said. "What happened?"
"I met with a bit of misfortune and ended up in the wilderness," Ezra replied, stifling a yawn.
"You a firefighter?" Charlie asked, eyeing Ezra's tattered jumpsuit.
Ezra chuckled. "Not hardly. I was a passenger on the unfortunate aircraft that initiated the conflagration."
Charlie gave him a confused look. "Huh?"
"I was supposed to go skydiving, but the plane had difficulty and crashed."
"I heard about that," Charlie said, nodding his head. "Thought everyone was killed?"
"The others were," Ezra said unhappily. "I was attempting to assist the pilot when I... fell out." Ezra shrugged, then regretted it when pain stabbed through his arm.
Charlie whistled appreciatively. "Damn lucky for you."
"Did a bit of parachuting myself when I was in the army," Charlie said. "Never liked it much."
"It's an acquired taste," Ezra agreed, coughing hoarsely.
Charlie reached into the bag on the seat next to him. "Here." He handed Ezra a bottle of water.
"Thank you," Ezra said as he eagerly grasped the bottle.
"I'm only goin' as far as Hadley, but there's a clinic there that can take care of ya. Fix that arm right up," Charlie said.
Ezra nodded. "That would be wonderful."
Half an hour later, they arrived in the small town of Hadley and, as promised, Charlie delivered him to the small clinic. Ezra reached into his pocket and retrieved his wallet, removing a twenty. "Please, let me compensate you for your trouble."
Charlie lifted his hands, shaking his head. "No, you keep that. Consider this my good deed for the day."
Ezra nodded, then offered his hand to the kindly man. "Thank you for your assistance, sir."
"You take care of yourself, now." Charlie waved as he drove away.
Ezra watched him for a moment, then headed into the clinic.
* * * * * * *
Ezra awoke with a start, confused by the unfamiliar surroundings, until he remembered what had happened. He was still in the small clinic in Hadley, with a brand new cast on his left arm and assorted bandages on other parts of his body. When he had first entered the clinic, he had considered calling his teammates, but decided he was far too weary and sore to deal with the barrage of questions and admonishments he would have to endure as a result. Instead, he reluctantly submitted to the care of the medical personnel, putting off the inevitable confrontation until he was strong enough to handle it.
He had to admit that he felt immeasurably better, especially after being allowed a hot shower and a shave. Yawning, Ezra stretched carefully and levered himself off of the bed where he had rested. Checking his watch, he was shocked to discover that it was nearly six o'clock in the morning. He didn't remember falling asleep, but suspected that the shot that he had been given before they set his arm had pushed him over the edge of his exhaustion. His body ached in places he didn't know he had, but he didn't care. He had someplace else to be.
While he was being tended, Ezra had explained his situation to Dr. Wilson, the attending physician, who had been sympathetic to his plight. Though she would have preferred that he spend a few days in the clinic, she understood his need to return home and had offered him a ride to Danville in the morning, since she passed near it on her way home. She had also offered the use of the telephone to call his 'loved ones' to let them know what had happened, but he decided against it. Better to face them in person, where he would be more able to judge their potential hostility. They would be less likely to make unwarranted assumptions about his absence if they saw him in person, and Ezra reluctantly admitted to himself that he was afraid to find out what those assumptions might be. He respected these men, more than any others with whom he had worked, and it was painful to consider that they might think ill of him. What was even more painful was that he even cared about their opinion.
Ezra sighed and finished tying his shoes – an awkward task with only one properly functioning arm. Dr. Wilson finished her shift at seven, which gave him an hour to get some breakfast before it was time to leave. His stomach rumbled insistently in agreement and Ezra hurriedly finished dressing, looking forward to a hot meal. The vending machine sandwich he had eaten last night hadn't even made a dent in the gnawing hunger that had been his constant companion in recent days. Smiling in anticipation, Ezra headed for the door.
The sight of his beloved Jaguar gleaming in the sun brought a smile to his face as Ezra stepped out of the doctor's car. It was truly a sight for sore eyes.
Thank you, Doctor, he said to the helpful woman. It was kind of you to make this detour on my behalf.
It's no problem, Mr. Standish, Dr. Wilson said with a warm smile. Just remember what I said and make sure you get plenty of rest.
I will, Ezra said. He felt a slight twinge of guilt as he watched her drive away, since he hadn't told her that he intended to drive back to Denver himself, only that he would be acquiring a ride here at the airport. He hated to obfuscate, but he simply needed to get back home without any further delays. Turning away, he headed for the small office of Wheeler Air Adventures.
There was no one at the desk when he opened the door, so he called out, Hello? Anybody here? Ezra shut the door behind him as he stepped inside.
I'll be with you in a minute, Brian's voice called out from the back room. A moment later, Brian entered the room. Can I help.... He trailed off, staring at Ezra in shock.
Hello, Brian, Ezra said with a smile.
What the hell? How did you get here? Brian rushed forward, gripping his shoulders as if to make sure he wasn't an apparition. I thought you were dead!
I very nearly was, Ezra said seriously. It was only pure chance that I survived.
What happened? Brian repeated, eyeing Ezra critically. You look like shit.
Ezra said ruefully. I'm fortunate to even be standing here. I almost didn't escape.
Brian gestured toward a pair of padded chairs next to the reception desk. Tell me what happened.
There isn't much to tell, Ezra said, taking the offered seat. The plane encountered some difficulty. Steve was struggling with the controls. He shook his head as the scene vividly replayed itself. I attempted to assist him, but there was some turbulence and I was knocked down before I could reach him. He met Brian's earnest gaze. The jump door was thrown open and I was tossed out of the plane before I could do anything else.
Brian reached over and squeezed Ezra's shoulder. It wasn't your fault. I'm sure you did everything humanly possible, Evan... or should I call you Ezra?
Ezra's eyes widened in shock.
Brian gave him a sad smile. The police weren't able to track down Evan Stewart in order to notify his next of kin about the crash.
I see, Ezra said. I suppose they traced my car?
Ezra sighed. That meant that his teammates were now aware of his supposed demise.
So, where have you been all this time? Brian asked.
I've been traipsing through the countryside, attempting to return to civilization, Ezra replied. I only emerged from the wilderness last night.
You look rough, Brian said in a worried voice.
I've had worse, Ezra said with a shrug.
I believe it, after what I heard about your real occupation.
About that, Ezra said hesitantly. I apologize for my deception. Old habits die hard.
I understand, Ezra, Brian said sincerely. We all need our secret escapes.
Ezra chuckled. Yes, I suppose we do.
You want some coffee?
That sounds wonderful, Ezra said.
Brian stood and went into the back, returning with two steaming cups of coffee.
Thank you, Ezra said, sipping the hot liquid carefully. I'm truly sorry about Steve.
If there's anything I can do...
Brian patted his knee. Your being here is enough.
Ezra finished his coffee and stood, wincing at the pains that shot through his abused body. I'd love to stay and talk with you some more, but there are some people in Denver who must be informed of my miraculous resurrection.
You need a ride?
I believe I can manage.
You sure? Brian looked at him doubtfully. You look like you're hurtin'.
I'll be fine, really, Ezra assured the man.
All right, but I expect to see you back here as soon as you're well enough to jump, Brian said, enfolding the smaller man in a careful hug.
Count on it, Ezra said.
* * * * * * *
Shutting the door behind him, Ezra greeted his apartment with a sigh of relief. After days of slogging through the woods, it felt good to be back at home where he belonged instead of struggling to survive in the forest. As his gaze swept over the familiar furnishings, he noted that something was vaguely off about the place. Studying the room more closely, he realized that someone had been in his apartment while he was away. It was evident in the slightly off-center placement of his telephone directory, the tiny misalignment of some books on his bookshelf, and the haphazard manner in which his magazines were placed on the coffee table.
Ezra didn't consider himself a neat freak, despite Buck's assertion to the contrary; it was simply that he didn't have many things cluttering his apartment and that his near-photographic memory made even the smallest changes blatantly obvious. He frowned, considering who might have invaded his residence. Nothing appeared to be missing and there was no sign of forced entry. Things were simply disturbed, as though someone were searching for something. It hit him suddenly, and Ezra smiled upon realizing that his teammates were the likely culprits of this disturbance. He felt oddly comforted by the fact that, for whatever reason, they had come here looking for him. It meant that they had at least noticed his absence.
Ezra sank wearily into the soft couch and closed his eyes, thinking back to another time when that had not been the case. During his time with the FBI, it had not been uncommon for him to go days without speaking to any of his co-workers. He had not been well-liked and, for the most part, was ignored by his fellow agents. It was not something he usually minded, preferring the cold-shoulder treatment to more overt demonstrations of dislike. It did, however, have its drawbacks.
Two days after completing one particularly demanding assignment, he had been awakened in the middle of the night by three large and well-muscled former employees of the crime lord he had just arrested. They had tied him up and expressed their considerable displeasure with him for hours, leaving him bound, gagged, and bleeding on the kitchen floor the next morning. They had destroyed all of the telephones in his apartment and left him unable to summon help. For three days, Ezra had done everything possible to draw attention to his plight, banging on the floor and yelling through his gag, but no one answered his unheard pleas for assistance. Even if his co-workers had noticed his absence, none of them had cared enough to find out why he wasn't in the office. Finally, he managed to work the gag out of his mouth and inch his way across the room to the hall closet, where the cell phone in his coat pocket was waiting.
That incident had shown him just how much his fellow agents disliked him. And it had hurt. Ezra had thought he was making a place for himself, earning the respect of his peers by doing the best job possible. He had hoped that by being a good agent, he would at least be accepted as a colleague, but it seemed he had only been deluding himself. He had earned nothing from them but enmity and indifference, and it was then that he had resolved to protect himself from such pipe dreams and false hopes in the future. He had fortified the walls that surrounded his fragile heart and mirrored the callous disregard that had been shown to him, determined never again to suffer due to the apathy of others.
Ezra sighed. It was working, too... at least it had worked, until he joined Team Seven. That stubborn bunch of men did not seem to know how to ignore him. They argued, cajoled, and harassed him constantly, determined to make him part of their odd group. They were more than a team, and he wasn't sure what to call it, never having experienced anything quite like it. Whatever it was, though, it confused the hell out of him. He wasn't sure what they were really after, what they really wanted from him. It was the reason he was facing the coming reunion with such apprehension. Ezra didn't know how they would react to his reappearance. They had chipped away some of his armor and, for the first time in years, he had allowed himself to hope that things might just be different. He was just afraid he might find out that he was wrong.
Forcing aside his misgivings, Ezra pushed himself off of the couch and headed for his bedroom. He needed to make himself presentable for the day's upcoming activities. It wouldn't do to make his grand entrance in clothing that he had been wearing for five straight days.
* * * * * * *
It was with some trepidation that Ezra stepped into the elevator in the Federal building. He pushed the button for the eleventh floor and leaned against the back wall as the doors closed. Fiddling with his sling, he attempted to quell the butterflies that had taken up residence in his stomach by thinking pleasant thoughts.
Go to your happy place, he muttered aloud, then snorted, remembering how JD had spouted that phrase for weeks after seeing that silly movie about the hockey player turned golfer.
The elevator jerked to a less than smooth stop and the doors slid open with a mechanical chime. Squaring his shoulders, Ezra strode through the doors and toward his office. Bob Grayson from Team Three nodded absently as he passed, then stopped short and whirled around, gaping at him.
he called out quietly.
Ezra turned to face the stunned agent.
I thought you were... He paused, looking confused and embarrassed at the same time.
Ezra supplied with a grin. Not quite yet.
Grayson said, still confused.
If you'll excuse me, Ezra said. I'm running a bit late.
Grayson said dazedly.
Ezra shook his head and grinned as he walked away. Returning from the dead might prove to be a rather amusing experience, if Grayson's reaction was typical of what he could expect. Steeling himself, Ezra walked casually into the bullpen, slowing his pace when he found there was no one there. He scanned the office hopefully, but there was no sign of them. Continuing toward his own desk, Ezra heard muffled voices coming from the conference room and abruptly changed direction. As he neared the door, he paused, listening to the muted conversation.
Shouldn't we have a memorial service or something? came JD's voice.
That's something the family usually does, Chris said. In this case, that means Maude.
Yeah, but who knows when we'll ever reach her? Buck grumbled in obvious frustration.
I still say the hell with her, Vin said adamantly. We're his family, too. And besides, it ain't like she really gives a damn. You all saw the way she treated im when she was here in January.
JD echoed. At least we care... cared about Ez. He paused for a moment, then continued quietly. I can't tell you how many of the other guys have asked me when the service is gonna be, and it makes me feel like I wasn't much of a friend to Ez when I have to tell them that I don't know. His voice seemed to have a catch and Ezra heard something that sounded suspiciously like sniffles.
I think we should do something, Nathan agreed. Even if it's just for ourselves.
We would be doing Ezra a terrible disservice if we failed to honor him for the friend and brother he was to us, Josiah intoned in a heavy, sad voice.
You're right, Josiah, Chris said, so softly that Ezra had to strain to hear him. He was one of us, dammit, and he deserves at least that much. I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm not afraid to let people know we cared about him.
I ain't ashamed to admit I'm gonna miss that southern-fried son of a bitch, Buck said, his voice thick with emotion.
Ezra backed away from the door in shock as the sound of the others murmuring their agreement filled his thoughts. Good lord, he whispered to himself. Slowly, he made his way to his desk and sat down, staggered by the flood of emotions racing through him. It was so unexpected. He had known that he would be missed, since his teammates had genuinely seemed to care about him, but he had not expected to hear such sadness and loss in their voices. They honestly missed him. Him. Ezra Standish. Not just as their undercover agent, but as their friend. He was completely and utterly astounded.
Ezra heard the sound of chairs scraping on the floor and quickly composed himself, forcing his best poker face into place as he hurriedly shed his coat and logged on to his computer. He pretended to be absorbed in his work as the conference room door opened and his teammates filed out and made their way to their respective desks.
Vin was the first to notice him, stopping dead in his tracks at the sight of the undercover agent, neatly attired in one of his designer suits, working on his computer as if it were a perfectly normal day. he said softly, rubbing his eyes to make certain he wasn't seeing things.
Ezra looked up from his computer and smiled. Good afternoon, Mr. Tanner.
Holy shit! Buck spotted him next, and soon the rest of the team was there, surrounding his desk and gaping at him and talking all at once.
Ezra said, unable to resist flashing them a smug grin.
Ezra? What the hell is going on?! Chris bellowed, glaring at his undercover agent.
Mr. Larabee, Ezra greeted him.
You're supposed to be dead! Chris snarled.
Yeah, how the hell did you get here? Nathan demanded.
Ezra's smile faded and he felt a stab of pain. Perhaps he had misunderstood the overheard conversation? I'm sorry to disappoint you, he said flatly. Perhaps next time I will not expend so much effort in averting my demise.
JD glared at his insensitive teammates and pushed his way in front of them. I'm so glad you're not dead, Ezra, he said, his voice breaking slightly. It wouldn't have been the same without you. I really missed you a lot. Giving in to his emotions, JD threw himself at Ezra and hugged him tightly.
Taken aback, Ezra awkwardly patted the younger man on the back. I'm sorry to have caused you such distress, JD.
Glad you're here, Ez, Vin said quietly. Didn't like losin' one of my brothers.
Josiah said, a wide grin threatening to split his face.
Chris rubbed his hand over his face. He'd put his foot in it again. He hadn't meant to snap at the man, but he was so relieved to have him back, and so angry that he had been forced to feel such loss, that he couldn't contain his feelings. he said softly. I'm sorry. I'm just damned glad to see you and damned confused about this situation.
Me, too, Nathan said sheepishly.
With tears in his eyes and a huge grin on his face, Buck pulled JD away from Ezra and grabbed the undercover agent himself, lifting him out of his chair in a giant bear hug.
Mr. Wilmington! Ezra sputtered, grimacing as his ribs protested the movement. Buck! Put me down!
Buck said happily. Not til you promise not to scare the shit out of us like that again.
Yeah, Ez, JD said solemnly. It ain't any fun losin' part of your family.
I apologize, gentlemen, Ezra said, overwhelmed by the display of emotions. I did not intend to cause you any concern.
Buck set him down and herded him and the others back into the conference room. Nathan sat next to Ezra and proceeded to inspect his cast and any visible bruises or bandages. Chris stared at him expectantly.
What happened, Ez? Vin asked. Way we heard it, nobody got out of that plane crash alive.
Ezra sighed and nodded. That is, in fact, the truth.
So, you weren't on the plane? Buck said, his forehead furrowed in confusion.
Not at the point of impact, Ezra explained.
You jumped out, didn't you? JD said excitedly. See, guys, I told you it could happen!
Not exactly, Mr. Dunne, Ezra said. He explained the course of events that led to his grueling trip through the forest.
Damn, Ez, Vin said, shaking his head in disbelief. Only you could manage to get yourself tossed out a the damn plane.
I always said he was a lucky bastard, Buck agreed.
I am merely fortunate to have regained consciousness before I hit the ground, Ezra said dismissively.
You were knocked out? Nathan said worriedly.
For a few moments, Ezra said, leaving out the small detail of his later, longer period of unconsciousness. Nathan was already fussing over him too much and he didn't wish to give him any further incentive.
Hard to believe a city boy like you was able to survive so long out there, Vin said with a chuckle.
Ezra sniffed. I am not as incompetent as you might believe. I managed quite well, thank you.
Did you have food with you? Chris asked curiously. He, too, was surprised that the man was able to keep himself alive in such an unfamiliar environment.
No, but I was able to find some roots and berries to sustain me, Ezra answered with a shrug. It wasn't gourmet cuisine, but it was bearable. He paused. I must admit, though, that I could have done without the wild leeks. He made a face and shuddered.
Since when do you know what wild leeks look like? Vin asked doubtfully. As far as he or anyone else knew, Ezra was about as comfortable out in the wild as the sniper would be at a black tie event.
I took the wilderness survival training course at Quantico several years ago, Ezra explained.
And you remembered what wild leeks look like? Chris narrowed his eyes suspiciously. That didn't seem like the kind of thing that the urbane southerner would bother to memorize. He expected the man to be an expert on gourmet foods or fancy wines whose names nobody could pronounce. Wild plants were more in Vin's domain. Hell, any of them would know more about that than Ezra.
I have a good memory, Ezra answered carefully. He had learned long ago not to reveal all of his secrets.
Josiah guessed astutely.
Ezra smiled slightly.
Buck whistled. That must be useful in this business.
It has its advantages, Ezra replied, wincing as he shifted slightly in his seat.
You all right? Vin asked, recognizing the flicker of pain on his friend's face.
I'm a bit stiff, Ezra admitted.
You got any pain meds to go with that cast? Nathan asked.
Ezra answered resignedly, knowing that further fussing was imminent.
Well, maybe you better take some, Buck said, grinning widely at the younger man's discomfiture.
Ezra's stomach picked that moment to rumble loudly, and his face flushed with embarrassment as his teammates laughed.
Guess them twigs and berries ain't very satisfyin', Vin commented.
Why don't we move this party to someplace more comfortable, Buck suggested. Someplace like the Saloon.
The men around the table loudly agreed and Ezra found himself being herded unceremoniously out the door. Their progress was abruptly halted by the appearance of A.D. Travis.
He acknowledged the group, focusing his gaze intently on the undercover agent. It seems the rumor I just heard is true.
Geez, news sure travels fast around here, JD said. He's only been here for twenty minutes.
I don't suppose you'd care to explain this to me? Travis inquired, lifting an eyebrow inquiringly.
Well, we were just on our way to the Saloon to celebrate our brother's return, if you'd like to join us, sir, Josiah said.
Travis shook his head. I've got a meeting in an hour.
The short version is that Ezra got out of the plane before it hit the ground, Chris explained.
Is that so? Travis eyed the southerner dubiously.
Squirming under the scrutiny, Ezra shrugged and smiled faintly. More or less.
I'll expect a full explanation, Travis said sternly, giving his tacit approval to their celebration plans.
I'll write a report, Ezra called over his shoulder as his teammates enthusiastically shuffled him toward the hallway.
Travis watched his best team as they left, wondering if they realized that they had formed a protective phalanx around their seventh as they moved toward the elevators, almost as if they were daring anyone to try to breach the circle of defense. At one time, it would have surprised him, but not anymore. It had taken a lot of effort, but Standish had indeed become a valued part of this most unusual family. Travis chuckled wryly to himself as he walked toward the elevators. As if this team didn't give him plenty of gray hairs already.
* * * * * * *
– Two months later –
Tighten your harness a bit, Mr. Dunne, Ezra directed, showing his young associate how it was done.
Like this? JD inquired as he adjusted the strap.
That's fine, Ezra replied.
JD looked around the small plane, then asked nervously. You think I'm ready to do this by myself, Ez? He gazed imploringly at his friend. I mean, I only did those tandem jumps with you last week.
Don't worry, JD, Ezra said sincerely, squeezing his friend's shoulder. You'll do just fine.
Yeah, kid, Vin added. And besides, we'll be right there with you.
JD looked around again, seeing the nods of support from his friends. All of them were there, except for Nathan, who was riding with the ground crew because someone needed to be there to take care of their sorry asses when they hurt themselves during this fool stunt. Josiah had joined them after enduring teasing from Vin and Buck about his age. He was determined to show the that he still had a few tricks up his sleeve. Vin and Buck had needed no convincing. Chris had been surprised at the invitation, but knew it meant that Ezra was starting to accept that he was a part of their family, so he gladly came along.
We're almost there, Brian shouted from the cockpit.
Ezra gave him a thumbs-up and moved toward the jump door. he asked them. They nodded and, at Brian's signal, Ezra opened the door. After you, gentlemen, he said, motioning them toward the door. One by one, his friends leaped out the door, sandwiching JD between them. For his part, JD flashed a nervous grin at Ezra before he threw himself out into the air. Ezra paused for a moment, reflecting on everything that had happened to bring him to this point, and then grinned as he jumped out of the plane to join his family.
* Author is deceased.