Main Character: Ezra
This story is for Terri, to make up for getting her stabbed in an earlier story! Thanks for the picture!!
The world swayed and the ground bucked beneath his feet as the disheveled man stumbled along the darkened street. There was something vaguely familiar about the quaint little bungalows that perched along the edges of his field of vision. A mailbox leapt out in front of him and he sagged against it for a moment to catch his breath. Squinting at the block letters that swam along its length, a name bubbled up from the scrambled remnants of his brain. Terri.
The young woman parked her car and grabbed her purse from the passenger-side seat. It was late and she wanted to start a load of laundry before going to bed. The convention had been fun, and it was always a little depressing to arrive back home. She popped the trunk and grabbed her suitcase.
Dropping her bag on the carpet just inside the door, she flipped on the lights. She automatically turned and picked up the mail from the basket that it dropped into. "Bill, bill, junk, junk, bill," she murmured as she sorted it, tossing the junk mail into the trashcan in the kitchen before opening the refrigerator and grabbing a bottle of tea from the top shelf.
Returning for the suitcase, she glanced at the couch and noticed that the quilt, which was usually draped over the back, was gone. The quilt was a gift from little Vin Tanner, who had been at the library the day she was stabbed by her ex-boyfriend. She didn't remember moving it but she had been running late when she rushed home to pack before the convention. Shrugging off the question for the moment, she grabbed her suitcase and carried it to the small laundry room just off the kitchen. She tossed several pairs of pants into the machine with a squirt of liquid detergent and started the washer. When she turned around, she screamed.
The mission started simply enough, with Ezra posing as Ethan Smalls, a down and out businessman running a small convenience store. He was barely getting by on what was left after payroll, rent, utilities and taxes. Word on the street was that he was looking to scale back on the taxes. It had taken him several weeks of dropping hints here and there for him to make contact with someone who said they could help him.
Ezra was closing up for the night when he noticed a man leaning against the building near where he had parked his car. His instincts told him that this was the contact he was waiting for.
"Mr. Smalls, I would like to speak with you about a business proposition," the man said, taking a cigarette pack from his pocket and turning it so that the lack of a tax stamp on the bottom was obvious. He shook out a cigarette and lit it, blowing the smoke out of his nostrils. "We should go somewhere and talk about it. Let's take your car."
Ezra pulled his keys from his pocket and pushed the button to unlock the doors, also sending a signal to the team that he had made contact. "Do I at least get to know your name?" he asked.
"Jack," the man replied, "That's all you need to know for now."
"Where would you suggest we go?" Ezra asked.
They ended up at a small, smoke-filled bar on the fringes of Purgatory. Jack escorted Ezra to a booth in the back, near the restrooms. The waitress did a bob and weave across the floor and Jack ordered Michelob for both of them. After the drinks arrived, Jack flipped his cigarette pack onto the tabletop. Ezra picked it up and turned it over, running his thumb across the place where the tax stamp should have been.
"They must have missed this one," he offered.
"No, they didn't," Jack replied. He took a long drink of his beer and elaborated, "I can get a truck load of them like that."
"It must be nice," Ezra said, sighing heavily, "You could make a tidy sum of money selling these." He slid the pack back across the table. "I have considered not selling cigarettes at my store because there just isn't any profit in it. But it brings people in so …" he let the thought trail off.
"Perhaps we could work something out," Jack offered, "Maybe split the difference?"
"Fifty-fifty?" Ezra asked, affecting a hopeful expression.
Jack lit another cigarette and laughed, "More like 75/25. That's still a few dollars on each carton."
Ezra and Jack arranged to meet again in a few days for Ezra to pick up his first shipment of fifty cartons of cigarettes and a small selection of cigars and cigarillos. Standish had no way of knowing that his cover was blown the moment he stepped into the bar.
Roy Woolridge tossed back the last of his drink and slammed the glass against the table. He couldn't believe that Jack was stupid enough to fall into an ATF sting operation! Pulling his cell phone, he sent a text message to two of his hired muscle, telling them to be at the bar, waiting outside, for his signal.
Ezra finished a second bottle of beer and prepared to leave. Jack smiled and held out his hand to shake on it. As Ezra made his way toward the door, Roy sent the signal to his henchmen.
The cool night air was refreshing after the thick smoke, alcohol and sweaty bodies inside the bar and Ezra paused for a moment to take a deep breath. Someone jostled him from behind and he turned to see who it was … it was the last thing he would see for a while.
When he awakened next, Ezra knew he was in serious trouble. His hands were bound behind his back with handcuffs and his feet were secured with what felt like duct tape. The back of his head throbbed in time with his heartbeat and he didn't want to think about the cloth from which the gag was made. He was in the trunk of his undercover vehicle; at least, he assumed it was the trunk of his vehicle. Gathering his nerve, he began to kick at the trunk lid, hoping to draw attention to his situation.
The car decelerated quickly and a feeling of dread washed over Ezra. If these thugs were confident enough to stop and open the trunk, he knew there was no one around to see or hear anything. Seconds later, the trunk lid opened and he found himself face to face with two of the biggest, ugliest people he had ever seen. They reached in and caught hold of him and dragged him closer. Ezra had visions of his dead body being found in a roadside ditch.
"You're lucky that the boss wants you alive," the one with the shaved head growled. "But that don't mean we can't hurt you a little."
Fists fell repeatedly on his stomach and chest for what felt like an eternity. When the rain of blows stopped, Ezra was released and allowed to curl up in a fetal position. The trunk slammed shut and, moments later, the car sped off.
Several turns and stops later, the car stopped again and Ezra braced himself for another beating. He heard the doors open and close but, as minutes passed, he realized that they weren't coming for him.
As he lay there, Ezra wondered what had happened. He hadn't recognized anyone at the bar but that didn't mean someone didn't recognize him. It was truly a conundrum.
Several minutes passed and Ezra decided to try to escape the trunk. He rubbed the gag against his shoulder until it slipped free. Uncurling his legs awakened sore muscles in his abdomen but there weren't any sharp pains that spoke of internal injuries so he counted his blessings. Rolling onto his stomach, he fumbled for the emergency trunk release. His right hand was fairly numb but he managed to snag the plastic handle with his left hand and give it a pull. The trunk latch released and the lid rose half an inch, letting in cool, fresh air. Ezra paused, straining to hear anything that might interfere with his escape. Several tense moments later, he pushed against the lid with his shoulders.
The area looked vaguely familiar as he sank back on his bound ankles and drew in several deep breaths.
Ezra spent the next few minutes working at the duct tape. The contortionist moves he had to make were sure to leave him sore if he got a chance lie down and relax but he finally parted the gray, sticky mess. He also discovered that they had taken his gun from his ankle holster.
With the duct tape still thoroughly stuck to the material of his pants, Ezra swung his leg out of the trunk and balanced like a flamingo for a moment before leaning against the edge and swinging his other leg over. His feet had no sooner touched the gravel-strewn asphalt than he heard a voice.
"Going somewhere Agent Standish?"
Ezra spun around and found himself looking down the barrel of a snub-nosed 38. Beyond the 38 stood someone Ezra recognized from the ATF-DPD baseball games he had been ordered to participate in during the summer.
"Detective Woolridge. Fancy meeting you here," Ezra said, forcing a smile onto his face. "Would you be so good as to remove these handcuffs?"
"I don't think so," Woolridge replied. He gestured with the gun for Ezra to move toward the shuttered building that used to be a little mom and pop grocery store. "I've got a good thing going here and I don't intend for you to ruin it for me," he explained.
Inside of the building, Ezra heard the unmistakable sounds of fists hitting flesh and his steps slowed. But Woolridge shoved him up the aisle of broken and empty shelves toward the back room. As soon as he crossed the threshold, Ezra leaned against the wall.
"Look who decided to join us," Woolridge announced.
The bald behemoth paused, his fist raised to deliver another blow, and turned. This allowed Ezra to get a look at the subject of their anger … the man Ezra knew only as Jack.
Woolridge tsk'd and moved closer to the beaten man. "Jack, Jack, Jack," he sighed. "You know how I told you, ‘if something seems too good to be true, it probably is?' You stumbled right into an ATF sting operation!"
The sound of a gunshot in the small, enclosed room was deafening and Ezra's stomach turned at the blood and gore oozing from the small hole in Jack's forehead.
"Take his car back to Purgatory and burn it," Woolridge ordered. "Then get rid of that," he flicked his hand toward Jack's corpse. "Agent Standish and I are going to have a little talk. Bring the Benz back with you and don't get anything on the upholstery!"
The bald thug nodded, a gesture that looked vaguely simian, and rushed from the room.
"Eddie, escort Agent Standish to the basement and wait for me there," Woolridge ordered. At his command, the other behemoth rose from where he had been sitting on an old filing cabinet and moved toward Ezra.
"My teammates know where I am," Ezra announced.
"Of course they do. Right now, your watch is on a cross-town bus, courtesy of the kindly drunk we gave it to and the GPS unit in your wallet is in the pocket of a young man who will, no doubt, be very surprised when your friends roust him from his college dorm room to question him. I took the liberty of removing the battery from your cell phone and I disabled the tracker on your car before it left the bar. So your teammates will be running themselves ragged while you and I have a nice chat. Eddie, take Agent Standish downstairs."
The wooden stairs were solidly built and the room was lit by a bare bulb, allowing for deep shadows in the distance. The smell of mold and something like compost made the air unpalatable. Eddie kept a heavy hand on Ezra's shoulder, not giving him any room to try to escape. When they reached the concrete floor, Eddie pushed Ezra toward a wooden packing crate.
"You wouldn't, by chance, be interested in a new line of work?" Ezra asked.
"Shut up," Eddie growled, pushing Ezra to sit on the crate. "Don't try nothing," he added, jabbing a meaty finger into Ezra's chest.
"Why do I always get the Neanderthals?" Ezra mused under his breath.
Eddie lumbered over to lean against the post at the foot of the steps. He dug into his pocket and pulled out a folding knife, which he then used to clean his fingernails.
Minutes passed and Ezra began to calculate the odds of being able to coax his ‘babysitter' close enough to take him out of commission. Considering that his hands were still cuffed and that they had taken his jacket, with the lock pick hidden in the cuff, he wasn't willing to take on those dismal odds. He would have to watch and wait for his chance … and be ready when it came.
Detective Woolridge sauntered down the steps and leveled an appraising stare at Ezra.
"Why couldn't your team leave things alone? I'm not hurting anyone. I'm not selling guns to gangs or endangering the public. What's a few less dollars in the state's coffers going to hurt? Can you explain that to me?"
"We were sworn to uphold the law," Ezra replied.
Woolridge barked out a harsh laugh, "That's rich coming from you."
Even coming from what was, apparently, a dirty cop, it still stung. Ezra licked his lips, chewing on the top one for a moment before replying, "I'm not the one breaking the law here."
Woolridge drew a breath to comment but was interrupted by the ringing of his cell phone. He glanced at the screen for a moment before he spoke, "Eddie, stay with him. I'll be back in a couple of hours."
Thursday night ended and Friday morning began with Ezra leaning his aching head against the crate he had been sitting on after Eddie decided that he would be more comfortable on the floor. The rope that Eddie tied around Ezra's body kept him from falling over, not that he would have lain on the filthy floor.
Some time after daylight, Eddie took Ezra to the bathroom and released one hand from the cuffs, securing the open cuff to a length of heavy chain. While the facilities were far, far from sanitary, they were better than the alternative. When Woolridge returned, he told Eddie to secure Ezra in the basement and handed off a plastic bag from a local grocery store. This time, with his hands cuffed in front of his body, Ezra was forced into one of the dark recesses of the basement, behind a pile of broken pallets. Eddie flipped a switch and another bare bulb lit the area so he could see the soil pipe that he secured Ezra to with the length of chain. Eddie placed the bag next to Ezra's leg and left without saying a word.
Although he wasn't hungry, Ezra was thirsty and he peered curiously into the bag. While he wouldn't put it past Woolridge to kill him, he didn't think it would be with poison. There was a bottle of water and some sandwiches in the bag. Ezra cracked open the bottle of water and gave it a sniff. It smelled alright, so he took a sip. When he suffered no ill effects, he took a larger drink. The sandwiches were premade and sealed in plastic, triangle-shaped containers. He opened the first one and took it out. While peanut butter and jelly would not have been his first choice, he knew better than to refuse it.
Once hunger and thirst were sated, Ezra set about trying to find something to pick the lock on the handcuffs and, hopefully, the padlock on the chain.
Hours later, Ezra was no closer to freeing himself and he was thoroughly irritated. All of the staples that he managed to pull out of the nearest pallet had broken when applied to the handcuffs and the nail was too wide to fit in the keyhole. He vowed that, in future ops, he would place more than one set of lock-picks in his clothing. He took another drink of water to fortify himself for the next attempt. Just as he was psyching himself up to try and force his left hand through the cuff, he heard a noise upstairs.
"Help! Down here! Help!" Ezra shouted, hoping that some homeless person or perhaps another LEO had come into the building. His hopes were dashed when the bald thug, Eddie, and Woolridge came around the stack of pallets.
"Agent Standish, I finally figured out a use for you," Woolridge announced. "You're going to help Tomas and Eddie unload the merchandise."
"Oh, joy abounds," Ezra replied sarcastically.
Tomas unlocked the chain and Eddie pulled it from around Ezra. Eddie had passed the chain around Ezra's chest, around the soil pipe and over his shoulders, removing any possibility of him slipping out of it by the expedient of passing it between his arms, which were cuffed at the wrists. When the chain was free, Tomas and Eddie each took hold of one of Ezra's arms and brought him to his feet.
"I wouldn't try anything if I were you," Woolridge warned. "I can just as easily put a bullet in you and the boys will just have to unload without your assistance."
Ezra was frog-marched into the alley to a non-descript brown van and shoved into the back. The door swung closed, plunging the compartment into darkness. Eddie and Tomas wasted no time in getting moving. As soon as the engine started, the vehicle was filled with obscenely loud music with bone-jarring bass.
They were going into the mountains, Ezra could tell from the incline of van's floor. As long as he was there, having slid up against the back doors, he figured he may as well see if there was a possibility of escape, but there were no handles on the inside of the doors, they were meant to be opened only from the outside.
Finally, the van left the smooth, concrete surface of the highway and turned onto gravel. Ezra yelped as he was bounced around. His aching head connected with the wall behind him, then with the door as they hit pothole after pothole. He could hear laughter from the front of the vehicle and guessed that they were deliberately taking the road at punishing speeds.
The sun was low on the horizon when the van finally stopped and Ezra was pulled from it. They were on an access road that ran along the railroad tracks. He was dragged over to a rail car garishly decorated with graffiti. While Eddie watched Ezra, Tomas pulled his bulk up the short ladder and opened the sliding door.
For the next few hours, Tomas and Eddie tossed down boxes and Ezra loaded them into the van. It was damnably hard work; especially with his hands cuffed together but Ezra worked hard, putting off his inevitable demise. Woolridge kept a close eye, and his police-issue weapon, on Ezra, so there was little or no chance of escape. After he filled the van they had arrived in, Eddie drove it a short distance up the road and came back with an old U-Haul truck.
It was nearly midnight before the last box of cigars was loaded into the truck. Eddie and Tomas walked Ezra back to Woolridge's car and forced him into the trunk. Tomas warned him not to make trouble for ‘The Boss' or there would be hell to pay before he slammed the lid and Ezra was, once again, plunged into darkness.
After a short, and surprisingly smooth, ride in the trunk, Ezra was dragged out and made to help unload the stolen merchandise into an abandoned barn. In the off chance that he made it out of this op alive, he made a note of the billboard that advertised for a McDonalds, three miles ahead at Exit 64.
When they finished unloading the truck, Eddie brought out a cooler and started handing out sandwiches. As he came to Ezra, Tomas called out not to waste good food on a condemned man and Eddie countered that even a condemned man gets a last meal. His brown eyes were apologetic as he placed the food and a can of beer next to Ezra.
As soon as the last of the beer was gone, Woolridge sighed and came to his feet, "Well, Agent Standish, my use for you is at an end. But don't worry, I will put the battery back in your phone and leave it with your body so that your friends can find you."
Tomas and Eddie grabbed Ezra and dragged him to the cream-colored Mercedes and shoved him into the back seat, which was covered in plastic sheeting to protect the upholstery. Tomas then slid into the front seat and pointed Ezra's own gun at him. Woolridge got in and started the engine.
The car sped along the blacktop, picking up speed as they headed back toward Denver. Ezra glanced at the door handle, debating whether or not he would survive if he bailed out. Woolridge caught the direction of his gaze and announced, "It won't open … child-safe locks, the doors back there can only be opened from the outside."
It happened in that split second, the moment that Woodridge caught Ezra's eyes in the rear-view mirror. The magnificent stag leapt onto the road in the oncoming traffic lane and bolted directly into the path of the Mercedes. Ezra tried to call out a warning but it was too late.
The loud hum of the cicadas was annoying, as was the anvil chorus in his head. Ezra's eyes opened only fractionally, then quickly closed as the bright sun sent javelins of red agony into his brain. Confusion reigned supreme as he lay there. His body ached all over but his head felt like someone had tried to cleave it with an axe. He knew that he needed to move but he couldn't summon the strength and surrendered to the red-tinged darkness that beckoned.
There were trees and birds and soothing shade the next time Ezra came around. He stumbled up against a rough trunk and paused, waiting for the vertigo to pass. The dappled sunlight glinted off of the handcuffs and sent a jolt of fear through him and he pushed away from the tree and continued on his way. He had to get away, to hide, he didn't know what he was hiding from but just the thought of it filled him with dread.
It hurt! Bright shards of pain flashed behind his eyes as his stomach clenched yet again. Ezra spat out the bitter bile and waited for the spasms to end. Finally, he shifted on his knees away from the mess and sagged against the side of the storm water sewer cap. The sun was going down and he knew he needed to be somewhere but, every time he tried to summon the image, his head throbbed and scattered his thoughts.
The world swayed and the ground bucked beneath his feet as Ezra stumbled along the darkened street. There was something vaguely familiar about the quaint little bungalows that perched along the edges of his field of vision. A mailbox leapt out in front of him and he sagged against it for a moment to catch his breath. Squinting at the block letters that swam along its length, a name bubbled up from the scrambled remnants of his brain. Terri.
A couple of hours sleep had done wonders for his vision and Ezra bit back a groan as he levered his body upright on the edge of the bed. Someone had entered the house and he hoped, he prayed, that it wasn't the guys who had beaten him up. When the laundry room light came on, it illuminated part of the bedroom and he knew that he had to move. He staggered a couple of steps before his legs correctly interpreted the signals he was sending them. Keeping one hand on the wall, he stepped from the bedroom and peered into the tiny laundry room. Even as he opened his mouth to announce his presence, the young woman spun around and screamed. "Terri, please," he said softly, holding out one trembling hand to forestall another ear-splitting shriek, "I need your assistance."
Recognition caught the next scream and she gasped softly as she moved to take hold of the outstretched hand. "Ezra! How – what happened to you?" she asked. It was easy to see that he was only remaining upright because of the wall behind him and she drew his arm around her waist and urged him back toward the bedroom. She settled him on the side of her bed. "You need to get to the ER," she said, steadying him when he swayed and nearly toppled onto the floor.
"No! Can't! They'll be looking for me there," he said. A shudder wracked him, scattering his thoughts. He reached up to try and ease the throbbing of his head and flinched when his fingers brushed over the knot on his forehead. "I need … to borrow your car."
"You can't go out like this! You can't even stand up on your own!" Terri reached out and turned on the bedside lamp. "Lay back down. Here, cover up, you're shaking," she said as she eased him back against the pillow and covered him with the quilt from the couch.
The sudden change from upright to reclining stole the last of his energy and his eyes drifted closed. There was something important that he needed to tell her but he couldn't push the words into his mouth.
Terri sat on the edge of the bed, debating what she should do. Ezra was hurt, that was for certain, and he needed help, but something about the fear in his voice kept her from picking up the phone and dialing 9-1-1. She knew that he worked for the ATF; he had told her when they went out, months ago, after the incident with her ex. But it was the middle of the night and she doubted she would be able to reach anyone there.
Realizing that she needed to know how badly he was hurt before she made a decision, she gently pulled the quilt back. Working carefully, she unbuttoned his shirt, blanching at the deep purple bruising that covered his chest and stomach. From the size and shape of the bruises, she guessed they were from fists. His face was covered in a couple of days growth of beard and he had bits of grass and dried leaves in his hair.
She found his wallet and opened it, surprised to find a license that said he was Ethan Smalls. There were credit cards and an insurance card, all with the same name on them and she realized that he must be undercover. He had alluded to that part of his job, without giving her much detail. Suddenly, her safe little home was full of menacing shadows, all waiting to leap out at her.
"Get ahold of yourself," she scolded aloud, "You're letting your imagination run away with you."
Meanwhile, in downtown Denver, the offices of ATF Team Seven were brightly lit. Four weary men sat in the conference room, staring at the search area map, which was covered with several push-pins, post-it notes and highlighted, irregularly-shaped blobs.
"It's like the ground just swallowed him up," Buck protested before a huge yawn interrupted both his words and his train of thought.
"None of his CI's have seen or heard from him," Nathan added, flicking a small note pad out of his restless hands.
"Teams two and six will pick up the door to door search in the morning," Josiah said.
Looking at his watch, Chris realized that it was almost two in the morning. Ezra hadn't turned up at any of the hospitals or the morgue, and there wasn't anything they could do when most of the city was asleep. Mrs. Potter had taken the boys home with her for the weekend and she would get them off to school Monday morning. Tiny said he would take care of the animals, so there was no reason for him to drive all the way home and he was damned tired.
Ezra had gone undercover to try to get the name of the man who was importing untaxed cigars and cigarettes and selling them under the table all over around Denver. It was supposed to be a low-risk assignment; after all, it was only untaxed tobacco products. But Ezra missed his Thursday night check-in, after signaling that he had made contact, and had dropped off the radar. The team had been sleeping in bits and snatches between searching. Ezra's undercover car was found on Saturday afternoon, stripped and torched, in Purgatory, but the forensic techs said they couldn't find any blood in it. That was where the search had begun.
"We need to get some rest," Chris finally announced. "Buck, why don't you go home with Josiah?"
"What about you? You need to sleep, too," Nathan interjected.
"I'm going to make a few more calls, then I'll stretch out on the couch in my office."
Terri didn't find anything that looked serious, even the bruises looked a few days old. As she tucked the quilt around him again, she noticed something shiny under the edge of the pillow. It took her a moment to realize that it was a pair of handcuffs. She pulled them out and a bobby pin fell on the carpet, landing next to her foot. She laid the cuffs on the nightstand, suddenly realizing that she had no desire to sleep.
It was one of those things that happen when your mind and body are fighting each other over the need to sleep and Ezra startled himself awake, gasping and looking around anxiously.
"It's alright, you're safe," Terri soothed.
"Don't tell anyone. I shouldn't be here. It's dangerous," he murmured.
Remembering her first aid training, Terri asked, "Do you know what day it is?"
"Sunday. It's still Sunday, isn't it?"
"Do you know where you are?" Terri pressed.
This time, Ezra's eyes struggled to focus as he dug his elbow into the mattress and tried to sit up, "I was in an accident. I have to get out of here!" He flung the quilt aside and tried to urge Terri out of the way.
"No. No, it's alright. You're hurt. Lay back down."
"Is there someone else here?" Ezra asked as he caught her hand. "I didn't mean to impose-"
"You aren't imposing," she insisted gently. "I was just trying to see if you have a concussion. You've got a couple of knots on your head."
"I was in an accident," he repeated. "They were taking me … somewhere. The deer … out of nowhere …" his voice trailed off and his eyes closed, only to struggle open an instant later.
"Alright, it's okay. Just relax. I'll need to wake you up in a couple of hours."
"The deer," he mumbled again before unconsciousness overtook him.
The oppressive silence in the office lulled Chris into the fringes of sleep. His muscles twitched as his brain tried to shut down for a much-needed rest. He had a few hours, he kept assuring himself, until daylight when he could start searching again. Just as he found a comfortable position on the couch and his exhausted brain began to drift, his cell phone rang. Instantly wide awake, he toppled onto the floor and stretched out his arm to the corner of his desk where he had emptied his pockets earlier.
Looking at the caller ID, he forced himself to take a calming breath before he answered, "Checker Cab, how can I help you?" There was a pause and he spoke again, "This is Chris at Checker Cab, can I help you?" Finally, he was rewarded with a response, "I'm sorry. This is Dr. Lambert at Denver General. This phone was found at the scene of an accident and this was the last number called. Thank you."
Before the call could disconnect, Chris called out, "Wait! You said an accident? Where is the man the phone belongs to?"
"I'm sorry. I can't give you that information. I'm sure someone from the police will be in touch," the doctor replied before ending the call.
"Damn!" Chris shouted, barely restraining the urge to throw the phone at the wall.
Chris charged into the ER at Denver General and strode up to the nurse's desk. "I need to speak to Dr. Lambert," he growled, flashing his credentials at the woman smiling up at him.
"I'll have him come up here as soon as he's available," she replied.
"I need to know about a car accident victim who was brought in earlier."
The woman's expression twitched and she came to her feet. "Let me take you to another waiting area," she said, gesturing him toward the doors that led back into the treatment area.
He was shown to a small, tastefully appointed room with a couch and two comfortable-looking armchairs. The uneasy sensation he was having escalated into full-blown alert. "What happened to the guy in the accident?" he asked angrily.
"Have a seat, Agent Larabee, Dr. Lambert will be with you momentarily," she answered hurriedly before bolting from the room. An instant later, he heard her paging Dr. Lambert to the ER ‘stat'.
Before Chris could work himself into a lather, the door opened and a tall, gray-haired man entered the room. "Agent Larabee? I'm Dr. Lambert. I understand you're inquiring about the accident victims?"
Showing his credentials to the Doctor, Chris explained, "The phone that you found, it belonged to one of my men. He missed his scheduled contact and we are very concerned about his welfare."
Dr. Lambert's expression remained sober and he drew a deep breath before he replied, "Agent Larabee, there were no survivors of the accident. I found the phone and battery on one of the bodies. I should have turned it over to the police but I thought I might reach his family."
A cold hand gripped his heart and squeezed and Chris fought to keep his voice calm as he said, "I need to see the bodies."
Thirty minutes later, Chris sagged against the wall outside of the morgue and dragged his fingers through his hair. Neither of the bodies had been Ezra and, while that gave him some relief, it also meant that he now had more questions without answers.
Concern about her houseguest brought Terri to the bedroom door several times before her watch beeped for the two hour alarm. He hadn't moved since the last time she checked on him and his breathing was the deep, steady rhythm of sleep.
"Ezra?" Terri said as she sat on the edge of the bed. "Can you wake up for me?" She had started two more loads of laundry and refolded all of the towels in her bathroom while waiting for time to pass so she could check him again. "Ezra?"
"Too early … five more minutes," he mumbled.
"I need you to wake up for me. I have to ask you something. Do you know where you are?"
"Lying on a medieval torture device while men with jackhammers are excavating a new home in my head," he groused. "What time is it?" he asked, squinting at her.
"Almost five in the morning."
"Oh hell, they'll be looking for me!" Ezra said, flinging back the blanket and trying to sit up.
"Who'll be looking for you?" Terri asked anxiously.
"I need to go," Ezra replied. "He told me not to run out on him again …"
Terri's apprehension ratcheted up as Ezra sank back into the bedding mumbling about ‘never trust me again' and ‘Atlanta,' which left her even more concerned.
Even though the others had only gotten a few hours of sleep, they all returned to the office when Chris told them about the bodies at the hospital.
"The accident was right here," Buck said, stabbing at the spot on the map. "If he was in the car, he could be anywhere in this area," he outlined the surrounding neighborhoods.
"If he was hurt, he wouldn't have gone far," Nathan added. "I think we should start searching the area closest to the accident."
"And he could be hiding. There are some pretty thick woods right through here," Josiah said, pointing to an area between the two main roads that were closest to the accident site.
"Alright, so we take one side of the road and let team two take the other side," Chris announced.
They moved as a group, men with a purpose, to the elevators and piled into Larabee's truck.
Ezra shuffled into the living room and looked around. Miss Russell was asleep on the couch and he backed out, not wanting to disturb her rest. He vaguely remembered breaking in, but things after that were muzzy. He followed his nose to the coffee maker and poured himself a cup, sighing as the hot liquid warmed his stomach. A few seconds later, his tummy growled, reminding him that he'd had nothing to eat in the last several hours.
He was trying to piece together what had happened when a soft beeping noise sounded in the other room. Terri flung off the blanket and grabbed her glasses. Just as she came to her feet, she saw him and hurried into the kitchen.
"How are you feeling?" she asked softly.
"I'll live," he replied.
"How's your head? No more jackhammers?"
Almost as if summoned by her question, Ezra's head began to throb and he set the coffee cup on the counter. Dizziness and nausea washed over him in waves, causing him to break out in a cold sweat.
Terri had known a girl in high school who had debilitating migraines and when one of them struck, she looked very much the way Ezra did right then. Taking him by the arm, she coaxed him into a chair.
Fighting back the pain, and the urge to throw up, Ezra took slow, measured breaths. A few moments later, a cool, damp washcloth was placed in his hand. He spread it out and pressed it to his face. When he felt like he had regained control of his unruly stomach, he moved the cloth to the back of his neck and took a deeper breath.
"Better?" Terri asked.
Before he could answer, Ezra bolted from the table into the bathroom, swiping blindly at the door.
Terri chewed her lip. She was very concerned that Ezra might have a concussion. She blanched at the retching noises coming from the bathroom and wondered again if he shouldn't go to the hospital.
Once his stomach had settled, Ezra rinsed his mouth and washed his face. He felt hot and cold at the same time and his shirt stuck to his skin in places. From the poor quality of the material, he reasoned that he was undercover but he couldn't remember any of the details. A soft knock at the door jarred him from his misery and he reached to flush the commode.
Terri waited anxiously for several long moments after the retching had stopped. She heard the water running in the sink and sighed in relief that Ezra hadn't passed out in her tiny little bathroom. He finally opened the door at her knock and stepped into the hall. His skin was pale and he was unsteady on his feet. "Is there anyone I can call? What about your supervisor?" she asked.
His head throbbed and his vision blurred. Ezra reached blindly for Terri. When she caught hold of him, he clutched at her desperately, "We can't call from here! They'll trace the call! We need a burn phone!"
"What's a burn phone?" Terri asked as she all but carried him back to the bedroom.
"You know! One of those …" his thought drifted off for a moment, "those cheap things that they sell at … Wal-mart?"
"A cell phone? I have a cell phone, let me get it for you."
"No!" Ezra cried out, grabbing her arm and pulling her back, "It has to be untraceable! They can't know where I am!"
"Okay, okay," Terri soothed, prying his fingers from around her wrist. "I think they have them at the Mobile-Mart. I could run out and get one and bring it back," she suggested.
"Yeah, that should work … we could call the office … tell them about … the deer," Ezra murmured as he lay down and wrapped the pillow around his aching head.
Chris and Buck started on one side of the street and Nathan and Josiah took the other. It was early and most families were just getting out the door for school or work. They caught everyone they could, showing them Ezra's picture and explaining that he may have wandered away from the accident just up the road. So far, none of the people they had asked had seen Ezra, and more than a few of them wanted to talk about the accident.
Terri was worried about leaving Ezra alone but she was more afraid that the people who had beaten him would find him and hurt him again, or kill him, and her as well. She pulled on some jeans and one of her convention tee shirts, ran a brush over her hair, gathered her keys and purse and left the house, locking the deadbolt behind her.
There were a few people in the Mobile-Mart, even as early as it was, and Terri did her best to remain calm. She plucked the first cell phone she saw from the rack and flipped the package over to make sure it came with everything, since she didn't know if her charger cord would work. As she was making her way to the checker, two men entered the store and began asking questions of the young, heavy-set man at the counter. She was close enough to catch a peek at the image on the screen and gasped, it was Ezra! One of the men turned toward her and she laughed. "I totally forgot the milk," she explained, doing a quick about-face and heading for the coolers at the back of the store.
When she returned to the counter, the men were still there, showing the picture to another customer. She grabbed a couple of snack cakes from the display and added them to her purchases.
One of the men held out a cell phone with a picture of Ezra on the screen, "Excuse me, Ma'am, I'm sorry to disturb you but we wanted to know if you've seen this man in the neighborhood?"
Terri studied the image for several seconds before she answered, "No, I haven't seen him. But I have been at a convention in Houston. I just got back late last night and discovered that I lost my phone," she explained as she handed the man at the register two twenties and waited for him to count her change. Smiling politely at the men, she said, "Excuse me."
Her heart was in her throat as she slid behind the wheel of her car and her hands were shaking when she tried to put the key in the ignition. She noticed the men coming out of the store and nodded at them as she pulled away.
Terri hurried into the house, fumbling again with her keys. When she turned around, she gasped. Ezra stood less than an arm's length away, holding a gun.
"I thought I left you lying down," Terri hissed, her fear turning into anger. She waited until he lowered the gun, then grabbed his arm and pulled him over to the couch. "Here, I got the phone," she explained, handing it to him. "But there were two men at the Mobile-Mart asking if anyone had seen you."
"I have to get out of here!" Ezra announced, struggling to his feet and swaying.
"Where will you go?"
Gloria carefully opened the door and peeked into the bedroom. As expected, both of the boys were huddled together on one bed. Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington had been by to see them, briefly, on Friday evening, Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning but there was still no news of Mr. Standish. JD and Vin were taking it hard, as they remembered other times when ‘Uncle Ezra' had been badly hurt. Several times over the course of the weekend, one or the other of the boys crawled into her lap, seeking comfort and assurance that everything was going to be alright.
The smell of bacon roused Vin from sleep and he tried to turn over but JD's arm and leg were lying across him, preventing him from moving. He nudged the younger boy with his elbow. "Come on, JD, I gotta go!"
JD shifted slightly and sighed. Vin looked at Mrs. Potter's ‘vacation clock' on the bedside table and saw that it was nearly six in the morning. He carefully slipped from JD's side, crawled to the foot of the bed and slid off.
There had been something of a panic when the boys realized that there was no clock in the room they were using so Gloria had dug out the old wind-up clock that she took on her vacation. When she explained why she had the clock, which folded neatly into a compact metal case, the boys had taken to calling it the ‘vacation clock'.
The bedding cooled and JD shifted again, his body twitching in the throes of that last minute of sleep. Suddenly, his eyes popped open and he sat up, looking around. He also looked at the ‘vacation clock' and saw that it was time to get up and start getting ready for school.
Gloria sighed at the sound of Peter and Molly thundering through the house. She could never understand how two middle-school aged kids could manage to sound like a whole herd of horses.
"The boys are getting dressed," Molly announced.
A few minutes later, the boys padded in quietly. JD's hair was damp in places, proof that he had used his wet hands to tame the unruly spots. Vin's hair was neatly combed and damp in the front where it tended to curl around his temples. Both of the boys were due for a trim.
"Are you ready to eat?" Gloria asked, "We have eggs, bacon and toast or there's cereal." The boys had only picked at their supper so she knew they had to be hungry.
"Cereal," JD said, climbing into the chair next to Peter. "And can I have toast and jelly, too?"
"Of course you can," Gloria replied. "Vin?"
"Bacon and eggs, please," Vin said, taking the chair beside Molly.
"Will my Da be home today?" JD asked.
Gloria drew a deep, bracing breath before turning around, "I don't know, JD. I haven't heard anything."
"Can I call him?"
"Not right now. You need to eat so you can go to school, sweetie," Gloria said gently. Immediately, she saw the tears welling up in his eyes. "Oh, don't cry," she murmured.
Before Gloria could get to the younger boy, Vin slid off of his chair and went to wrap his arms around JD, pressing his face to JD's shoulder to wipe away the tears leaking from his own eyes.
The boys finished breakfast, after a fashion, eating only a few bites of what she put on the table. They were silent and withdrawn as they waited for the bus and Gloria hoped that their teachers would be able to handle them.
They ended up at a seedy little no-tell motel on the outskirts of Purgatory. Every room had a single-car garage. Terri had stopped at the ATM to withdraw cash at Ezra's request, to pay for the room. The way the guy behind the desk leered at her made her skin crawl. She was stupefied when he handed her a somewhat neatly folded stack of linens for the bed and piled some dingy towels on top.
The door from the garage to the room was warped and Terri had to throw herself against it to get it to open. After she dropped the linens on the cigarette-scarred dresser, she went back for Ezra, who had dozed off after the stop at the ATM.
Ezra looked around, bewildered, at the faded wallpaper while Terri made up the bed. His vision was blurry and his head was pounding. He couldn't remember why he was there, but he knew that he was in danger.
When she had finished making the bed, Terri took the new phone out of the packaging, and wasn't that a practice in frustration, and began reading the instructions.
"It says that it comes with ten minutes of out-going call time, to be used to purchase and install more minutes," Terri read aloud. Getting no response, she looked up from the miniscule print to see that Ezra was sprawled on the mattress and had wrapped the pillow around his aching head. "I still think I should have taken you to the hospital," she murmured softly.
Josiah and Nathan jogged across the street and started up the next block. So far, they had answered more questions than they had been able to ask. It was mid-morning and a lot of the homes were empty, their occupants having gone off to work and/or school. The few older folks they spoke to hadn't seen anything and the stay-at-home moms had their hands too full to have noticed a random stranger.
Terri let Ezra sleep for a couple of hours. She also plugged the phone in so it could charge the battery. There wasn't anything else she could do. The television was old and the color was so bad that it made her nauseous just trying to watch it. She checked her watch, anxious to waken Ezra so he could call his boss. She remembered a book she had gotten at the convention and wished that she had thought to bring it along.
Finally, two hours had passed and Terri sat on the edge of the bed with the newly charged cell phone in her hand. "Ezra? Can you wake up for me? Ezra?" she called softly while gently shaking his shoulder.
"Not yet, Aunt Millie, it's not time to wake up yet," Ezra mumbled.
"Ezra, I need you to wake up for me," she repeated urgently. "Just for a few minutes, okay?"
Bleary green eyes scrunched up before slowly opening. Ezra looked around, his gaze never lingering on anything for more than a moment. When they finally settled on her, Terri held out the phone, "You were going to send a message to your boss. Remember?"
"Oh, of course. I'm sorry, I can't seem to stay awake," Ezra said, scooting up to lean against the headboard of the bed. "Is there anything to drink? I'm feeling parched."
Terri immediately got up and went into the bathroom. She unwrapped one of the waxed-paper coffee cups and filled it with water from the tap. She also grabbed one of the towels and brought it back with her.
Ezra hit ‘send' and placed the phone on the bedside table to take the cup from Terri. He squinted at it for a long moment before lowering the cup to rest against his thigh.
"You need to try to drink something," Terri prompted.
"Of course," Ezra replied, "You are quite right. What time is it, anyway?"
"A little after eleven."
"Good. My contact should arrive by four. We should be ready to go then." Ezra finished the few ounces of water and handed the cup back, "Do we have anything to eat?"
Terri dug through her purse and came up with a packet of Fig Newtons that she had gotten at the blood drive during the convention. She offered them to Ezra, but he was already asleep.
Two hours later, Terri wakened Ezra again and he seemed oriented. He knew her last name and the name of the motel, so she coaxed him to drink some more water and let him go back to sleep. The long night, after the long, busy weekend caught up with her and she pulled the overstuffed chair close to the bed, appropriated one of the pillows, set her watch alarm and went to sleep.
An unfamiliar ringing sound awoke Terri some time later. She looked around in drowsy confusion for a minute before waking enough to realize that the ‘burn phone' was ringing. By the time she got to it, the ringing had stopped. While she was navigating the unfamiliar menus in the phone, she found that there was a message, so she pressed the button to hear it.
"This is Kevin Lautner with Speedy Courier Service. Your text was received but the address is not in our delivery area. We can, for a fee, arrange another service to pick up your package. Please call back."
Terri stared down at the phone, frightened and confused in turns. She grabbed her cell phone and dialed a number from memory, "Holly, it's Terri. Listen, I need a favor. I need you to look up a number for me."
Chris had raised his hand to knock on yet another door when his phone rang. He popped it free of the holder on his belt and went about half way up the sidewalk. "Larabee," he announced.
Buck didn't wait for Chris to finish his call, he knocked on the door and promptly stepped back when a loud, large-sounding dog began to bark. Just as the door opened, he heard Larabee say, ‘Are you sure it was from Ezra?' He smiled at the woman in the doorway and held up one finger, "Excuse me for a minute, Ma'am."
Chris ended the call and looked at Buck, "That was Agent Lautner with the FBI. He says that they got a text message requesting emergency extraction from Ezra." He looked at his watch. "They got the call a couple of hours ago and it took them this long to decipher it."
"Are they sure it's Ez?" Buck asked.
"They aren't, but they didn't want to take a chance that he's in danger and can't reach out to us for some reason."
"Do they know where he is?"
Chris shook his head, "No. The number was from a prepaid cell phone and it was just a text. They tried calling it back and no one answered."
Buck thanked the lady standing at the door and hurried after Chris, who was talking to Josiah as his long legs devoured the distance to where he had left the truck.
Terri wrote down the number and thanked Holly. She stared at her phone, debating whether or not to make the call. Finally, she made up her mind and dialed the number. It rang only twice before a child's voice answered.
Mrs. Potter was busy making snacks when the phone rang, so JD grabbed the receiver before Vin could get to it, "LWTD Ranch, JD speaking."
It took a few seconds for Terri to slow what the person on the other end of the call had said before she could reply, "JD, this is Miss Russell, from the library. May I speak to your father?"
"He's not here right now, ‘cause he's out looking for Uncle Ezra, he's under covers again. Can I takes a message?"
Terri's eyes immediately went to the sleeping man and she smiled. It was obvious that Ezra was fond of the children from the way he had spoken of them when he took her out after the incident at the library. Just as she was formulating what to say to the little guy, a woman's voice sounded from the other end of the line.
Gloria wiped her hands on her apron and reached for the phone, only to have it stop ringing. She heard JD's magpie-bright voice and hurried in to the living room to take the phone from him. "JD, you know you aren't allowed to answer the phone when an adult is here," she scolded, putting the receiver to her ear, "Mrs. Potter speaking, how can I help you?"
"I am trying to reach Mr. Larabee or Mr. Wilmington," Terri replied.
"May I ask what it's in regards to?"
Terri hesitated. Ezra had been so frightened earlier but she knew that he was close to the fathers of the boys he brought to the library. "It's about Mr. Standish. Do you know when they will be home?"
Gloria's heart leapt into her throat, "Do you know where Mr. Standish is?" she asked.
"Yes, I'm with him right now. But I'm afraid he's in danger," Terri answered, feeling her throat tighten.
"Hold on for just a moment, I'm going to try to reach Mr. Larabee on the other line," Gloria said, "If I disconnect you, please call back."
"I will," Terri agreed, nodding her head even though the other woman couldn't see it. She heard a beep, then silence and prayed that the call wasn't disconnected.
Chris was explaining the call from the FBI to Josiah when his call waiting beeped. He shaded the phone with his hand to see that it was a call from home. He told Josiah to meet them at the truck and hung up to take the other call. "Hey Cowboy," he said, expecting it to be Vin calling. Instead, Mrs. Potter told him that she had a call on the other line from a woman who said she was with Mr. Standish. "Can you conference her in so I can speak to her?" Chris asked. He didn't know if the housekeeper knew how to connect the other caller.
Gloria looked down at two anxious little faces and asked, "Do you know how to make a conference call?"
Vin's face brightened and he said, "Yeah, I saw Dad do it once. You just press this button, then that button, then this one again and they can all talk together. Is it Uncle Ezra? Can I talk to him?"
"Me too! I wanna talk to Uncle Ezra!" JD clamored.
"It isn't Uncle Ezra on the phone. Now, please show me again," Gloria told Vin.
Chris tapped his foot anxiously as he waited for Mrs. Potter to connect him to the woman who was with Ezra. And he worried about why Ezra wasn't calling him directly and how badly he was hurt. There was a beep and a click and he heard Mrs. Potter asking if they could both hear her.
"I can hear you," Terri said, clutching her phone tighter as if it would help.
"This is Chris Larabee, who is this?" Chris barked, concern for Ezra making him sound angry.
"My name is Terri Russell, I work at the library where your son comes for reading group on Saturdays."
"I remember you, Miss Russell. Gloria said that you know where Ezra is."
"We're at the Sleep Tight motel," Terri said, "Ezra made me bring him here after some guys stopped me at the Mobile-Mart this morning. He says they're after him. Oh, Mr. Larabee, I think he should be in the hospital but he won't let me take him because he says that they will be looking for him there."
"Sleep Tight motel," Chris whispered to Buck as they jogged over to the truck. Josiah and Nathan were already there, waiting for them.
"I know where it is," Buck said, "I'll drive."
"We're on our way, Miss Russell. Please stay on the line with me," Chris said, climbing into the passenger-side front seat and fumbling with the seatbelt.
"Are they talking to Uncle Ezra?" JD asked, tugging on Gloria's apron.
"No, Sweetie, Chris is speaking to the lady with Uncle Ezra," she answered.
"Is he alright?" Vin asked.
"He will be," she assured the fair-haired child, stroking his head with her free hand. "Your dad and the others are on their way to get him."
"May I speak to her?" Nathan asked.
"Miss Russell, I'm going to give the phone to Nathan Jackson, he's our team medic," Chris explained.
Nathan asked several specific questions about Ezra and reassured Terri that she had done as much as she could, knowing that forcing the stubborn southerner to go to the hospital would only have resulted in him slipping away at the first opportunity.
Gloria wrung her hand in her apron as she listened to both sides of the call. She knew that she didn't dare lay the phone down or one of the boys would pick it up and possibly hear something they shouldn't.
At Mr. Jackson's request, Terri sat on the bed and took Ezra's pulse and counted his respiration. She vaguely remembered meeting the men that Ezra worked with when they visited her at the hospital but she couldn't remember what they looked like.
Buck pulled onto the parking lot and asked Nathan to find out what unit Ezra and Terri were in. When Nathan gave him the number, he pulled up right in front of their room and shut off the engine.
Terri listened as Mr. Jackson told Mrs. Potter that he would call her back as soon as he could and they disconnected the call. She heard the growl of the big diesel engine and the slam of the truck doors and rushed to open the door that let out on the sidewalk. A tall man with sandy-blond hair brushed past her, followed by a black man with a shaved head. They were followed by the man she recognized as being JD's father, from the few times he had brought the boys to her reading group. The last man into the room was tall, with graying hair. Terri backed up until she bumped into the wall and she watched as they roused Ezra.
"Ezra, I need you to wake up for me," Nathan said, lightly chaffing Ezra's face. He was rewarded with a wrinkling of Standish's nose and a half-hearted swipe at his hand. "Come on now, wake up for me," Nathan pressed. Ezra raised his arm to cover his eyes and murmured something unintelligible.
"Standish, get your ass up or your next expense report is going straight in the shredder!" Chris barked.
"There's no need to resort to threats and intimidation," Ezra drawled. "And would you mind lowering your voice? The men with the jackhammers are finally winding down."
A few minutes later, Ezra was being helped out of the room and into the back seat of the big, black truck. Terri gathered her things and waited for them to clear out. JD's dad hesitated in the doorway and turned back to ask if he could catch a ride to the hospital with her. Terry nodded, and followed him into the garage.
On the drive to the hospital, Ezra argued vociferously that he was ‘perfectly fine' and didn't need medical care, but Nathan assured him that he did and, since Chris was driving, they went to the hospital.
After x-rays and a cat scan proved that he had only a minor concussion, the doctor, who was very familiar with the various members of the team, announced that he wanted to keep Ezra overnight. He felt that the confusion would pass in a day or so.
While they were waiting for Ezra to be evaluated, Chris sent Buck to drop Nathan and Josiah at the office, then to go home and stay with the boys. In his frazzled, exhausted state, he hadn't realized that Miss Russell was still with them.
"Do you need a ride home?" he asked.
"No, I drove my car. I just wanted to make sure he was alright."
Chris studied the young woman for several moments and finally asked, "How did you end up with Ezra at that roach motel?"
Before she could answer, a nurse motioned to Chris and told him that Ezra had been placed in room 823 and directed him to the elevator. Terri followed, almost daring Mr. Larabee to try to prevent her from seeing Ezra for herself. But he only smiled as she stepped into the elevator car and pushed the button for the eighth floor.
As they approached the room, Chris held out a hand to block the young woman, holding a finger to his lips. When she nodded, he slowly opened the door and peered into the room.
Ezra had feigned sleep when they transferred him from the ER to his room, hoping that they would think he was down for the count and leave him alone. When the door closed, he sat up and looked around. Whoever placed his IV had obviously intended for it to stay put, as it was taped in several places along his forearm with layers of tape around his wrist. Rather than peel off the tape, he disconnected the IV line at the Hep-lock and tucked the end of the tube under one of the pieces of tape.
Now free to move around, Ezra went to the closet, where he had heard the nurse put the bag of his belongings. He was bent over, fumbling with the drawstring on the bag when the door opened.
Terri gasped, covering her mouth with her hand at the sight that greeted them when they opened the door to Ezra's hospital room. While his hospital gown was secured at his shoulder and midway down his back, it gaped open below that point, showing off his pale backside.
"What in the hell do you think you're doing?" Chris barked, flipping on the lights and stepping fully into the room.
Ezra's heart leapt into his throat and he straightened up, spinning to face the doorway. It was bad enough that Mr. Larabee had seen his bare ass, but standing just behind him was Miss Russell. His hand slid around and caught the gaping edges of the gown, even as he felt his face and ears growing warm.
"Are you going to answer me?" Chris asked. He was trying to hold a stern expression but the surprised, embarrassed look on Ezra's face was making it difficult.
"I – I – I was just checking that they placed all of my belongings in this flimsy, insecure cabinet," Ezra replied. He closed the door and edged toward the bed, taking care to keep a firm grip on the back of the gown. Deciding that a change of subject was in order, Ezra spoke to Terri. "Miss Russell, I would like to thank you for staying with me. I'm sorry if I inconvenienced you."
Terri smiled as she stepped the rest of the way into the room. She could tell that her face was as red as Ezra's and tried to put him at ease. "I just wanted to make sure that you were alright. Mr. Larabee, there were men asking questions about him at the Mobile-Mart near my house. Do I need to be worried about them?"
Just then, a nurse entered the room. "Visiting hours are over. You can come back after ten tomorrow," she announced. "Which one of you disconnected this IV? That could be dangerous!" When she looked at them, both Chris and Terri pointed at Ezra, who meekly drew the sheet up to his chin.
"Why don't you start at the beginning," Chris said to Terri.
The nurse looked at him as though trying to decide if she could take him and shook her head.
Terri sat in one of the bed-side chairs and explained everything, starting when she arrived home from the convention. Chris asked a few clarifying questions without interrupting the flow of the story. When she got to the men showing Ezra's picture at the Mobile-Mart, he asked her to describe them. He assured her that they were most likely the agents from Team Two.
Ezra listened carefully. He still didn't remember much after meeting the man outside of the store. When Terri told Chris about the text message he had sent, he spoke up, "Do you still have the phone?"
"Oh, yes, it's right here," she pulled it from her purse and handed it to Chris, who handed it to Ezra.
Chris leaned against the bed as Ezra called up the message he had sent. It was a simple word-substitution code but not the one they used. Ezra looked up, confusion plain on his face.
"That went to an Agent Lautner in Atlanta. He called to tell me that you were in trouble but he didn't know where you were," Chris explained.
"Then how did you find me?" Ezra asked.
"I called the library and asked them look up Vin and JD's home number. You were so afraid of calling the office and I didn't know what else to do," Terri explained.
Ezra held out his hand, the one not bound up in medical tape, and Terri approached the bed. He took her hand to pull her closer and she sat on the side of the bed. "I can't begin to thank you enough for all that you did for me," he said, gazing intently into her eyes. His hand slid up her arm and he urged her closer. Terri wrapped her arms around Ezra and laid her cheek on his shoulder, hugging him gently.
Chris dragged his eyes away from the tender scene, looking at his watch, then at the television, which was off, then toward the window. A few minutes passed before the door opened and the nurse propped her hands on her hips, disapproval writ large across her face.
"I'm sorry, but visiting hours are long over and my patient needs to rest," she hissed.
Terri eased the sleeping man back against the pillows and smoothed the sheet and blanket across his chest. She waited a moment, to see if he would waken, then eased off of the bed.
"I should be going," she told Chris.
"What he said, about not being able to thank you enough, the same goes for me," Chris said, holding out his hand for her to shake. "Are you going to be alright getting home?"
"Oh, yeah, I slept for a couple of hours at the motel," Terri replied. She glanced fondly at Ezra once more, and then left the room.
The nurse looked expectantly at Chris.
"I'm staying. If he wakes up alone, he'll slither out of here faster than a greased snake. Besides, my partner took my truck, so I have no way to get home."
"He needs to rest," the nurse said emphatically.
"Yes, Ma'am. So do I," Chris replied wearily.
The truck rolled to a stop and the front door burst open. Vin and JD raced toward him, asking almost the same questions at the same time.
"Is Uncle Ezra in there? Is he alright?" JD asked.
"Is Uncle Ezra coming? Is he okay?" Vin asked.
Buck squatted down and gathered the boys up, one on each hip, and carried them back to the house, where Mrs. Potter stood on the porch, wiping her hands on her apron.
"Uncle Ezra bumped his head and the doctor is keeping him overnight for observation," Buck explained. Turning to Vin, he added, "And your dad stayed to keep an eye on him."
Vin scoured Buck's face for any sign of deception, knowing how grownups sometimes bent the truth. But he trusted Buck, so he sighed and looked away.
"The boys have eaten and there are plates for you and Chris in the microwave," Gloria announced. "And I'd better get along home and look in on my kids."
"Thanks for staying, and for keeping them, and for everything," Buck said, leaning out to kiss the housekeeper on the cheek. Instantly, both boys chimed in with identical cries of, "Ewww!"
Every time Ezra woke up, Chris was there, sitting in a rocking chair that he had to have swiped from the maternity floor, with his feet propped up on the foot of the hospital bed. His memory was still pretty much Swiss-cheese, but Ezra knew he was safe as long as one of the team was close by. When he closed his eyes, he kept seeing a bright, golden stag and he knew there was something important about it but before he could figure it out, sleep pulled him under.
In the morning, Chris sent the others a text message telling them that he was giving them the next two days off as compensation for working through the weekend. One of the nurses had taken pity on him and brought him a cup of the ‘good stuff' from the doctors' lounge. Ezra had slept soundly, in between being wakened by the nursing staff, and had complained vociferously about his breakfast, so Chris was fairly certain that he would be discharged after morning rounds.
Josiah arrived around ten with a bag of Ezra's clothes and toiletries. The nurse removed the IV and suggested that he have a shower. Both Chris and Josiah chuckled when Ezra saw himself for the first time.
"Good Lord!" Ezra cried out, spying himself in the mirror in the bathroom. He hadn't shaved in four days and his hair was an unruly mess. He heard Chris and Josiah laughing and called out to them, "This is not funny! A gentleman should never be seen in such a state!" Of course, that only made them laugh harder. "Courage, Ezra," he murmured softly as he dragged his eyes away from his reflection.
As soon as they heard the shower come on, Chris pulled out his phone and showed Josiah the pictures he had taken of Ezra as he slept. It was always good to have blackmail material.
The doctor discharged Ezra, strongly suggesting that he not be left alone for a couple of days. He gave Ezra a prescription for a few pain killers, then he could switch to over the counter meds.
Buck got the boys off to school, barely, and went down to the barn to tend to the horses. Tiny had done his usual wonderful job of caring for them, so it only took him a half hour to muck out the stalls. He had gotten the text from Chris and knew that Ezra would be coming to the ranch for a couple of days. Then Josiah sent a text saying that he would pick up clothing for Ezra and bring them out when he was released. Knowing his friends as well as he did, he went to the freezer and pulled out some steaks and brats and checked that they had enough gas for the grill.
Terri made it to work and spent the morning getting caught up. Holly cornered her in the stacks and asked her why she needed the home number of a patron. Terri didn't want the story being shared on the gossip vine, so she told Holly that it was personal and let her make of it what she wanted.
It was a busy morning, with two of the local grade schools bringing kids to check out books, and Terri didn't get to sit down until a few minutes before her lunch break. She was just getting ready to head for the break room when she was paged to the front desk on the main floor. Terri took the stairs and slowed midway down when she saw the gorgeous ceramic bowl filled with live plants sitting on the counter. The older lady at the desk raised her eyebrows in question and Terri hurried over to take a closer look. There was an envelope attached to a plastic holder and she took it out, opening it to pull out the card from the florist.
‘Thanks, from all of us,' was written on the card, along with the number seven.
"Who is it from," Charlotte asked.
"Friends of a friend of mine," she replied. "Can I leave it here until I finish my lunch break? I'll take it upstairs with me." When Charlotte nodded, Terri tucked the card into her pocket and went to the breakroom in the basement.
It was after one by the time they left the hospital. Ezra knew better than to ask to stay by himself at his condo, Chris had assured the doctor that he would make sure Ezra wasn't left alone and that he followed the directions on the discharge summary. Instead, he asked if they could at least stop at his place so he could pack an overnight bag.
There was an unusual amount of traffic due to road construction and it took longer than expected to make it to the condo and then they got caught in the early rush-hour heading out to the ranch. The pain pill that the doctor had given Ezra was wearing off and his head was pounding. Chris suggested that he take the front seat in Josiah's suburban, so he could lean back and try to rest. Josiah found the classical music station on the radio and Chris made Ezra take another pain pill. Ezra drifted off to sleep before they made it to the exit that led to the ranch.
Buck and the boys were waiting on the porch when the suburban rolled to a stop in front of the house. Wilmington held JD and Vin back, not letting them swarm the vehicle as they wanted. Josiah shut off the engine and Chris reached over the seat to touch Ezra on the shoulder.
"We're here," Chris said when Ezra opened his eyes and looked around.
Ezra looked toward the porch and spotted the boys, bouncing and pulling against Buck's hands as he held them back. "It would seem that I have an excited welcoming committee."
"We'll try not to let them maul you too badly," Josiah said.
There was a cacophony of excited children's voices as soon as Ezra opened the door and set his feet on the driveway. Chris and Josiah steadied him as he climbed the steps. As soon as his feet touched the porch, the boys fell silent and reached out to take hold of his hands. A stern look of warning crossed Larabee's face and Vin nodded in understanding. Uncle Ezra was just out of the hospital and there would be no rough-housing or loud voices.
JD took a step, then looked up to make sure he wasn't dragging Uncle Ezra, he took another step and looked up again. No one could say that he wasn't being very careful.
Vin edged around the arm of the couch and made sure there was enough room between the couch and the coffee table. Uncle Ezra had that ‘sick headache' look and Vin wanted to make him comfortable.
Ezra's throat tightened at the care and concern that the boys were showing as they led him to the couch. He sat down and sighed heavily, looking at the pair of little hands that clung to each of his. He smiled and pulled on them, urging the boys to join him. JD immediately released his hand and climbed up onto the couch, leaving space between them. Vin also climbed up on the couch, turning to sit sideways with his legs folded up on the cushion and not touching.
"Does your head hurt bad?" Vin asked quietly.
"It isn't too bad. Thank you for asking," Ezra said with a smile.
"Uncle ‘ziah said you has to stay all night. We made up the guest room and I put Scooby on the bed and Vin plugged in his Sponge Bob night light," JD explained.
Ezra turned to smile at JD, "Then I am certain to feel better when I wake up. Thank you both for your concern."
Nathan arrived an hour or so later. Buck caught his eye and held a finger across his lips. When he entered the living room, Nathan saw the reason for the gesture. Ezra was lying on the couch, asleep. On the floor between the couch and the coffee table, Vin and JD sat, watching Animal Planet with the sound turned down so they could only just hear it. Chris was kicked back in his recliner, snoring softly. Josiah was out on the deck, manning the grill while Buck was putting together a salad and corn on the cob to go with supper.
Ezra awoke when the aroma of flame-grilled steak teased his sense of smell. His headache had eased back to a dull roar and he found that he was looking forward to a good, solid meal. As he lay with his eyes still closed, he knew that he was safe.
"Come on, boys, let's tie on the feedbag and let Uncle Ezra rest," Buck urged quietly. The boys slipped away from the couch and padded silently into the kitchen.
Chris awakened as Buck lightly nudged his shoulder. He looked over to see Ezra still sleeping on the couch. Nathan had reviewed the discharge papers and agreed that rest was the best medicine for the southerner. While he was watching, Ezra opened his eyes and looked around.
"Feel up to eating?" Chris asked.
"As long as it isn't that swill that they call food at the hospital," Ezra replied, groaning as he sat up and swung his feet to the floor. Chris held out a hand and pulled Standish to his feet, steading him until he got his bearings.
The boys were unusually quiet when Chris and Ezra settled into chairs on opposite sides of the table. Chris caught Buck's eye and tipped his head at JD, usually the talkative one at the table. Buck shrugged his shoulders.
"Boys? Is something bothering you?" Chris asked. Both heads shook ‘no' and they kept eating. "Are you sure? You know you can ask us anything," Chris pressed. JD choked down a mouthful of salad and drew a breath to speak but Vin huffed in irritation and JD shook his head again.
Buck reached out and cupped JD's chin, turning him so that he wasn't looking at Vin. "Are you worried about Ezra?" he asked. JD nodded ever so slightly and flinched when Vin huffed again. "You know that I told you that you two needed to be quiet because Ezra has a bump on his head and he wouldn't appreciate your normal volume, right?" He looked over and caught Vin's eyes and repeated, "Right?"
"Vin says my whispers is too loud," JD mumbled softly.
Buck smiled, "Well, Little Bit, your whispers are a mite loud at times but you just need to use your library voices, alright?" JD turned to Ezra for confirmation and smiled triumphantly when Ezra nodded.
With the matter of volume straightened out, the boys took turns relating the highlights of their day at school. JD had, as usual, aced his spelling words on the pre-test, meaning that he didn't have to take it again on Friday. Vin was optimistic, he had only missed four out of the 25 words and had only reversed three letters, not that they counted as wrong.
After supper, and the much needed clean-up of faces, the boys returned to the family room to sit on the floor near the couch. Nathan and Josiah spent a few minutes just sitting with Ezra before heading home. JD was reading from a book he had gotten from the library and Vin was looking at a book about horses. Chris smiled when he saw the book, Vin had checked it out three or four times already and Larabee was thinking of buying it for Vin's birthday.
Ezra's eyes darted quickly behind closed lids and he moaned softly. Both boys looked at their dads with worried expressions. Chris motioned for Vin to scoot back and he sank to his knees in front of the couch. Experience had taught them not to lean over Ezra when waking him unless they wanted to get kicked or punched in the groin. Chris gently laid a hand on Ezra's shoulder and called his name.
Ezra came awake with a gasp and he sat up and looked around the room.
"Are you with me?" Chris asked.
"There was a deer," Ezra mumbled.
"Yeah, the PD said it was the cause of the accident," Chris explained, waiting to see if Ezra remembered anything more about his missing day.
Ezra suddenly realized that he was sprawled out on the couch, leaving no place for the boys to sit. He smiled at JD and at Vin, "I must thank you for the excellent care you provided to me. I must apologize for falling asleep on you again, however."
"That's okay. I know you don't like to sleep at the hospital," Vin replied.
"Alright, Little Bit, it's already past your bedtime. Let's get those teeth brushed and get you ready for bed," Buck said.
"Do I gotta?" JD asked, putting on his best puppy-dog pleading face.
"Yes, you do," Buck replied, "Now scoot."
"You too, Cowboy," Chris said when Vin avoided meeting his eyes.
"Yes, sir," Vin said as he slid off of the couch. "G'night, Uncle Ezra."
"Good night, boys. Pleasant dreams," Ezra said, still smiling at them.
It was Chris' night to supervise baths, so Buck returned to the family room and sat on the couch next to Ezra. "Do you need to talk about it?" he asked.
Ezra chuffed softly and looked down at his hands. "I am missing most of two days of my life. Days when, apparently, I thought I was in mortal danger. Then, by happenstance, I brought an innocent woman into the situation. I keep getting these flashes, images that I don't understand. What did I do during the hours I don't remember?"
Buck glanced down at the southerner's hands and saw that he was worrying a hangnail, marring the neat perfection that he was so proud of. Buck decided to fill him in on what they knew. "You disappeared Thursday night after you signaled that you had made contact. We traced your car to a little hole-in-the-wall bar near Purgatory, then the signal died. Do you remember anything about that night?"
A man's face, blurred and concealed in shadows floated up, briefly, and Ezra reached up to scrub at his temples. Buck reached out and eased his hand away from his head.
"Don't try to force it. We found your watch, on an old homeless guy at the Branch Street shelter. He said a fat, bald guy gave it to him but he didn't remember where."
Another image slid across Ezra's memory but it was gone before he could catch hold of it. He looked up and saw the hopeful, expectant look on the mustached face and shook his head.
"You'll get a kick out of this, the tracking device in your wallet ended up on a college kid up at the University of Denver. Josiah and Nathan busted into his room while he was," Buck paused, searching for just the right words, "mid-coitus with one of his professors."
Ezra's eyebrows drew closer and a look of confusion crossed his features.
Buck began to chuckle, "That's not a position I would ever want to be caught in, having those two bust in on me with a lovely, mature lady …"
"Mid-coitus?" Ezra repeated, "That's not a phrase I would have expected from you."
"What?" Buck asked, all innocent-like, "I heard it on Big Bang Theory the other night."
Ezra shook his head, nothing was coming to mind.
"Somebody disabled the tracker on your car. We found it, stripped and torched in Purgatory."
A familiar face appeared, behind the barrel of a gun and Ezra said, "Detective Woolridge."
Chris, who was standing quietly just inside the family room, said, "He had your cell phone."
Ezra looked up, startled for a moment. "How do you know that?" he asked.
"I got a call from the hospital and went down to identify the bodies. That was the deer you keep seeing, Woolridge hit it and ran off the road. That's why we were searching the area around Terri's house," Chris explained.
"Terri! I need to call her! To apologize," Ezra said suddenly, looking around for the phone.
"Relax. She's fine. She's coming into the office tomorrow to give her statement," Chris said, crossing the room and putting a hand on Ezra's shoulder to prevent him from getting up too quickly.
"And I took the liberty of sending a plant to her at the library," Buck added.
Ezra sighed and sank back against the couch. A few moments later, Chris held out a pill and a glass of water. Rather than argue that he didn't need it, Ezra plucked the tablet from Chris' hand and washed it down with the water.
"Let's get you into bed," Buck said, coming to his feet and reaching for Ezra's arm.
"Just what are your intentions?" Ezra asked, drawling his vowels.
"To get you comfortable before that pill kicks in, pard," Buck replied.
The soft click of the doorknob woke him in the morning and Ezra rolled onto his back. Chris stuck his head in and glanced at him as if to ask how he was feeling. "I will be along in a few minutes," Ezra replied.
Vin and JD were happily polishing off the pancakes Buck made for them when Ezra arrived in the kitchen. Even as JD drew a deep breath, Buck laid a finger across his lips, reminding JD to use his ‘library' voice.
"Did you sleep good?" JD asked as softly as he could.
"I most certainly did, thank you for asking," Ezra replied, taking a seat at the end of the table as Buck placed a cup of coffee in front of him. "The night light and Scooby really helped," he added, catching Vin's eye.
Chris came into the kitchen, fresh from the shower, and settled in his chair. Buck immediately put three plates with ham and cheese omelets on the table and took his seat across from the boys. Chris reached for the jar of salsa and spread a spoonful along the top of the omelet and began cutting it with his fork.
"So, what are you going to be doing at school today?" he asked.
"It's math and science day," Vin answered.
"That means we get to work on problems and make ‘spermints," JD added.
Mrs. Potter arrived as the boys were clearing their dishes from the table. Chris and Buck returned to their respective rooms to collect their weapons and Ezra met them at the door. Hugs and well wishes were exchanged before they got into the truck to head into the office.
Josiah was just sitting down with a cup of coffee when the others arrived.
"I thought I gave you the day off," Chris said as he looked at the older man.
"I figured it was as good a time as any to get caught up on my case files. And Orin wants me to profile a couple of cases for Team Four," Sanchez replied. "How are you doing, Ezra?" he asked.
"As well as can be expected," Ezra answered. He crossed to his desk and sat down.
"Don't push yourself too hard," Chris cautioned. "You're on light duty."
Ezra tipped an imaginary hat and powered up his computer.
At ten o'clock, Terri Russell arrived, escorted by one of the guards. Ezra came to his feet and rushed around his desk to greet her.
"Miss Russell, I cannot begin to thank you enough for attending to me when I so rudely broke into your home. I would like to pay for anything that I may have damaged."
Terri smiled, "You didn't damage anything. And I'm glad I was able to help."
Chris and Buck stepped up behind Ezra and introduced themselves again, then showed Terri into the conference room. Chris asked Ezra to step out, so that her statement didn't affect his memory of the events. Terri was a little nervous as she took a seat in the chair Buck pulled out for her.
"Now, Miss Russell, we are going to record this, if that's alright with you?" Chris asked.
"That's fine," she said folding her hands on the tabletop to hide their nervous trembling.
"We just want you to tell us what happened, in as much detail as you can remember, starting with when Agent Standish arrived at your home," Chris explained.
Terri related the events of her time with Ezra in simple, concise sentences. When she got to the part about the two men asking questions at the Mobile-Mart, Chris handed her a folder with headshots of the members of Team Two and asked her if the men she saw were there. She pointed to two of the pictures, relieved that they were ‘good guys', she said with a smile.
Ezra sat at his desk, trying to type up his statement, but he kept looking at the conference room door and losing his train of thought. When he sighed aloud, Josiah got up and came over to talk to him.
"Have you taken anything this morning?" Josiah asked. When Ezra shook his head, Josiah went to Nathan's desk and opened the top drawer. "Tylenol, Motrin or Advil?" he asked.
"Tylenol," Ezra answered.
Only a few minutes later, the conference room door opened and Terri stepped out, smiling. Ezra came to his feet as Buck and Chris came out behind her and Chris shook her hand, thanking her for coming in to give her statement.
"I'll escort her back downstairs," Ezra announced.
Buck hid his smile at the eager expression on the southerner's face. There was something endearing about the interaction between Ezra and Miss Russell. During her statement, she had blushed crimson as she explained about unbuttoning Ezra's shirt to check for injuries.
"You don't have to come back up here, we're leaving as soon as I drop off this recording to transcription," Chris said.
"I'll power down your computer," Buck added.
They were alone in the elevator and Ezra suddenly felt as shy as a boy on his first date. By the time he figured out what he wanted to say, the elevator doors opened on the lobby and he escorted Miss Russell toward the security check point.
Terri was nervous as she walked across the lobby. She really wanted to say something to Ezra, but she didn't quite know what. She wasn't usually forward with men but she really wanted to get to know Ezra better.
He was running out of time to say anything, they were mere steps from the check point.
"Would you like to-" "Do you think we could-" they began as the same time.
Ezra smiled as his cheeks warmed, "Please, you first."
"You go ahead," Terry countered.
Looking at the guards, who were watching the scene unfold with matching grins, Ezra took Terri by the arm and steered her over to the waiting area before he spoke.
"Would you like to have supper with me one evening?" Ezra asked.
"I think I would like that very much," Terri answered, smiling sweetly.
"I don't know what your schedule is like, so if you would tell me what night works best for you?"
"I only have a half day on Friday."
Ezra took Terri's hand and placed a kiss on the back of it, "Then may I pick you up at six?"
"I'd like that very much."
"Then it's a date."
Ezra's memory was much better by Wednesday. On Thursday, he led the team, along with teams two and six, to the abandoned barn where the stolen tobacco products had been stored. Only a handful of the cartons remained, the rest having been hauled away, but it gave Ezra a good deal of satisfaction to know that he had remembered the place. He had also positively identified the men in the morgue and picked Eddie out of a photo line-up.
On Friday afternoon, Buck invited Ezra to the ranch for supper, as the boys were still worried about him and he asked Wilmington to pass along his regrets and announced that he had plans for the evening. No amount of cajoling would get him to reveal his plans.
Terri left work on Friday with a smile on her face. A courier had arrived around mid-morning with a vase containing eleven long-stemmed roses and an invitation to the Denver Symphony. An hour or so later, another courier arrived with a chocolate sampler and an invitation to one of the glitziest Italian Restaurants in Downtown Denver. She had already made an appointment with her stylist to have her hair and nails done after getting a facial.
The doorbell rang and Terri's heart began to race. She smoothed her dress and checked her appearance in the mirror before opening the door. Her breath caught in her throat. Ezra stood there, holding a single long-stemmed rose out to her. His tuxedo emphasized his muscular build and his hair was slightly curly. His emerald green bow-tie was offset by the crisp, white shirt collar.
Remembering her manners, Terri's face warmed as she invited him into her home.
Ezra's eyes swept over Miss Russell and smiled in approval. Her royal blue dress clung to her in all the right places. Her hair was swept up and wispy curls perfectly framed her face. Tear-drop shaped, sapphire earrings sparkled in the light.
"Let me … put that vase with the others," Terri announced, turning toward the kitchen.
"No need," Ezra countered, showing her the test-tube shaped container affixed to the end of the stem, which was concealed by the tissue paper, "It will keep."
Terri shivered deliciously at the warmth of Ezra's hand on the small of her back as he steered her to the car. He handed her the rose after she was seated and he closed the door. The leather of the seat was sinfully soft as it cradled her.
Ezra made small talk on the drive to the restaurant, casually commenting on the music they would be hearing later.
The restaurant buzzed with conversation as they were led to a table near the window, overlooking a lavish fountain in the plaza. "I took the liberty of ordering for us," Ezra explained as a waiter brought salads and warm bread to the table. A bottle of wine followed. One by one, the courses arrived and dishes were cleared without interrupting the conversation. Ezra asked Terri how she decided to become a librarian and about where she went to college. He asked leading questions, keeping the conversation focused on learning more about her interests than his own.
There was a long line of cars as they approached the concert hall. Limos, Mercedes, Porches and an assortment of other expensive cars were whisked away by smartly dressed valets until it was their turn. Ezra murmured something too softly for Terri to hear but the young valet looked down at the bill pressed into his hand and smiled brightly. "Yes, Sir, count on it," he replied.
Once again, Ezra's hand was warm against her back as he moved through the mingling throng of people. Their seats were in one of the private balconies. Another rose lay on her chair and she couldn't help smiling as she picked it up. It was quite cool in the balcony and Ezra slipped out of his tuxedo jacket to drape it around her shoulders.
At intermission, Ezra slipped out and returned with two glasses of champagne and an assortment of chocolate covered strawberries. His eyes sparkled with mischief as he picked up one of the berries and held it out to her. Terri reached for it and he pulled it away, daring her to eat it from his fingers. She bit into the strawberry and he popped the rest into his mouth, smiling sinfully as he chewed. Terri picked up another berry and held it out to him, letting him bite into it first. When she started to lick the chocolate from her fingers, he caught hold of her hand and pulled it close, licking the chocolate from her fingertips, then wiping them gently with his linen handkerchief.
If anyone had asked, Terri couldn't tell them much about what the orchestra played after intermission. She was pleasantly buzzed by the wine and champagne and melted into Ezra when he put his arm around her. They slipped out before the final piece and arrived outside to see that the valet had Ezra's car already there and warmed up. It was a little cooler than when they had gone in so the warmth was appreciated.
The roses taunted with their delicate scent and Terri lifted them to her nose and inhaled deeply. The date had been fun, exciting and thrilling, but now it was over. Ezra walked around the hood of the car and opened the door for her, taking her elbow as she got out. Instead of his hand against her back, this time he put his arm around her as they walked to her door.
"I had a really nice time," Terri said. "I enjoyed-"
Ezra interrupted her with a kiss that left them both panting for air.
"Would you like to come in for a night cap?" Terri offered.
"I thought you'd never ask," he replied.
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