by Heather

Tanner easily slid in and out of lanes as he negotiated the afternoon Denver traffic. His mind racing with a million an one thoughts. Gawd poor Ezra, he was going to be in a world of hurt. A broken collar bone had to be one of the most miserable bones a body could break. You couldn’t move your neck or head, had to sleep on your back couldn’t bend over can’t easily pull your self from a chair or bed. Throw broken ribs on top of that and life became a living miserable hell. Tanner slowly shook his head, Ezra could kiss his loner existence away for the next couple of weeks. He wouldn’t beable to dress himself without help. Tanner truly felt bad for the conman. Standish much like himself was fiercely independent. Vin had to concede, Ezra was even worse off because he kept himself a loner. He socialized with the others only on occasion, only when forced or if an excuse could not come readily to mind or if a case came to a conclusion. Now the gambler would find himself sudden center of attention, and Vin believed Standish would balk. So lost in his musings, Vin did not see the red light until almost too late. He slammed on the brakes, the anti-locks kicking in, stuttering the jeep to a halt. A thud and a moan came from the small back seat. Vin wrote the thud off as his saddle or other camping gear he managed to cram back behind the front seats. The moan? It sounded very familiar. Tanner undid his safety belt and peered behind his seat. He only saw his gear. Then it moved and another moan. "Ezra?" He lifted a wool horse blanket and some badly abused saddle bags. The light turned green. A horn bleared reminding Vin he held up traffic. Tanner guided the jeep forward while he threw glimpses in the back seat all the while trying to find a place to park. Then he uncovered the source of the sound, "Ezra! What the hell are you doing here?"

"No hospital Vin..Please." It came out a small plaintive voice, slurred from the effects of the narcotics. Tanner tried to watch the road and his friend. "Ezra you should be at the hospital."

"noo. Noo hospital." He mumbled.

"Hold on a second." Tanner said as he doubled parked. He threw the jeep into park kept the motor running turning to give his friend his whole attention. Vin moved more of the assorted debris from the undercover agent and realized Ezra wore scrubs and a doctors white lab coat, equipped with pockets stuffed with stethoscope, notes drug book and calculator. Vin knelt on his seat and leaned over Standish, who stared at him owl eyed, and read the clip on name tag, ‘John Doupe MD’ Tanner chuckled, Ezra succeed so easily where he had failed so miserably. "Guess that’s why you’re the undercover agent, pass yourself off as anybody, even stoned out of your mind."

Tanner reached into his coat pocket and removed his cell phone. He hit speed dial and suddenly Chris’s voice came across the phone. He sounded irate. "Larabee." Chris snapped off. Tanner pulled the phone away from his ear as if Chris could actually reach out and grab him.

"Chris it’s me Vin. I have him." Tanner stated simply.

"Have who?" Larabee asked slightly confused. Vin could picture Larabee slowing his brisk purposeful walking.

"Ezra." Tanner smiled as he watched Ezra stare mesmerized at his own hand flexing the fingers as if he had never seen them before.

"What? How?" The relief easily detected in his voice.

"I don’t know, he’s dressed like a doctor and stowed away in the back of my truck."

"Well get him back here." Chris practically shouted over the phone.

"No... No hossspitaaall.." Ezra’s glazed green eyes met Vin’s the pleading and desperation nearly tangible. "Please Vin, don’t.." Standish swallowed, "no hospitals.." Standish had never asked anything of the marksman before and now he pleaded, begged for a favor. Tanner felt himself torn, Chris ordered him to bring Ezra back but Ezra uncharacteristically asked for help. Not asked pleaded, fear, searching for trust and dependability, Standish had never sought anything such as that from the others.

"Sorry Chris I can’t." He heard Chris about to argue but cut him short. "Make sure a ‘John Doupe’ is ok. Ezra has his stuff."

"Vin he should be back here." Larabee stated. Vin could here Chris ask someone to check on the Doctor. Then Chris was back on the line. "Vin...vin you there?"

"Yeah Chris. Listen I’m not sure why but Ezra is adamant about not going. He’s scared..something got him running scared, and I don’t think the hospital is all that safe."

"Ok ok, take him to the CDC. We’ll meet you there." Vin chuckled. The CDC, (Center for Disease Control) was Ezra’s nickname for Buck and JD’s apartment just on the outskirts of the city. "Hey Vin try and find out who’s behind this."

"Sure Chris." Tanner clicked off the phone, folded it back up and stuffed it in his coat pocket. He turned his attention back to Ezra. Standish gamely fought against falling back into a drug induced slumber. "Ezra. Ezra." Vin called.

"nooo hhosspit..pllleeeaa." He drawled out the desperation clearly evident in his muffled voice.

" It’s ok Ezra no hospital." Vin soothed laying a hand on his friends head. Tanner watched as Ezra despite his best efforts was losing his battle with sleep. "Ezra who shot you?"

"Shot? Awwwhelll." He breathed out.

"Ezra who did you see? Who shot you?"

The green eyes blinked open a moment of clarity, he stared at Vin with amazement, "Jack, it was Jack..." He no sooner got the words out when the sudden sound of squealing tires and then the sickening sound of metal grating metal filled the small area. The jeep lunged forward. Vin tried to grab for Standish’s sluggish form but he, himself was thrown against the steering wheel, he swore regaining his balance. The damage was done, Standish having been roughly jostled, passed back out. The saddle and other gear kept him securely on the seat and off the floor boards. Vin sighed and took a deep breath, steadying himself to face the frantic teenager who rear ended him.

Josiah and Chris stood outside the apartment building waiting while Vin pulled into the parking lot, parking in Buck’s reserved spot. Vin unlocked the passenger side door. "He’s in the back, He’s out." Tanner explained unnecessarily. He had phoned Chris and explained his delay. Now Chris and he crawled into the jeep and eased the unconscious undercover agent out of the jeep into Josiah’s waiting arms. "A doctor huh?" Sanchez remarked amused as he gently shifted the weight in his arms to a more manageable position. Chris unsuccessfully hid his smirk. Standish was a slippery sarcastic pain in the butt, but he was second to noone as an undercover agent and a close second when it came to friendship and loyalty. Funny thing about the conman, Chris mused as he followed Josiah and Vin into the elevator, Ezra did not easily give his loyalty, or offer friendship. Lately he had put a few tentative steps in the direction of friendship. They were cautious, hesitant small gestures, but they did not go unnoticed by the others. Ezra’s aloofness had frustrated the others but Buck inparticular, but even Wilmington had noticed the slowly metamorphoses that had begun to occur within Standish. Of course Buck being Buck never let up on Standish, he treated the loners, Ezra and Vin, the same way he treated everyone else, loud obnoxious and with an all knowing air.

Buck swept the apartment door open with a flourish. "Welcome to our humble abode." He stepped out of the way as Josiah strode in and immediately made his way to Buck’s room. They had all been to the notorious living quarters before, hence Ezra’s nickname for it. This afternoon, the old hardwood floors were actually visible. The couch did not double as a laundry basket nor did the few well worn overstuffed mismatched armchairs sport forgotten coats and other paraphernalia. The wall decorations still hung somewhat crookedly, it drove Nathan nuts.

The old torn boxer shorts still hung from a nail near the TV. No one knew why they hung there and everyone was afraid to ask. The sink really did have a drain, and the garbage no longer took up residence all over the onetime sticky linoleum floor. Vin always cringed when his boots stuck to the small kitchen floor. The counters had been wiped down, with a dirty rag or sponge but at least an attempt had been made to remove the collage of food and drink stains from the colored kitchen tops.

Buck followed Josiah, Chris and Vin into his room. Sanchez for all his height and incredible strength gently eased his burden down on the bed. Standish for his part did not stir. "They really knocked him out huh?" Buck said, twisting the statement into a question. Vin merely nodded. Together he and Chris wrestled the southerner out of the lab coat. He still dressed his hospital green bottoms and the loose inadequate hospital gown still covered him. Larabee quickly untied the one tie at the back of the neck and pulled it off. "Well at least they were able to get the brace on his shoulder and wrap his ribs." Chris said quietly. Sanchez chuckled and pulled the freshly cleaned quilt up over their friend. "Who would have thought he would be as ornery about hospitals as Vin." The expreacher chuckled quietly.

"Hey I’m not that bad." Tanner quipped. He was met with three sets of raised eyebrows. Well maybe he was a bit trying at times.

Vin, Chris, Nathan and Buck sat around the small oak kitchen table two hours later. Josiah decided to stay with Ezra in the other room, incase he woke and found himself in a strange place. It to had been cleaned. Nathan silently wondered if Buck had hired a cleaning service to gut out the apartment. That did not seem possible. He and JD only had an hours notice before the impending arrival of the others. "Where’s JD?" Chris asked.

"In his room going over the tapes." He had been doing that for the last few hours. Buck was not surprised, the kid took any orders Chris gave very seriously. As if on cue JD came into the kitchen, looking haggard but triumphant.

"Ezra recognized the shooter." He stated it as fact. No question, as sure as night followed day.

The other men stared at the young man. JD never sounded so confident and even under the scrutiny he did not flinch. Chris had to ask, "you sure?"

"No doubt. Come here listen to the tapes."

Over the next hour JD played the tapes for the other men. His fingers flying over the computer keys pointing out screen readouts, voice inflections and volume changes. His professionalism and confidence made everyone forget his age and greenhorn demeanor. "Listen here," he said again hitting a rewind button playing with the volume button. "Ezra’s already stopped on the steps, Finnegan is still walking. When you listen you’ll here a change in volume, that’s because Ezra raised his head looking upward, moving his head away from the mic. under his shirt. He sees something above him." JD plays the short piece and sure enough after a few run throws the others picked up the subtle changes. Dunne convinced the others were following continued, "Ok now you’ll here a change in his inflection, surprise really," JD paused and added, "I’ve never heard Ezra ever really sound surprised but listen to this." He played the next segment. Larabee and the others nodded their heads.

"He sounded shocked all right." Buck admitted.

"JD what’s on the rest of the tape." Nathan asked.

"Nothing much, just sound of Ezra screaming for Chris and the sound of the slugs, and Chris yelling and everyone else yelling.

"Ok let's go through it again." Larabee said again. Dunne once again had impressed them with his abilities. When he focused his boundless energies into his field of expertise he was the best. Focusing that energy had been Chris’s dragon.

Josiah sat stretched out on the bed beside Standish. The giant man leaned against the head board a pillow propped behind his back. He his large callused hands fumbled trying to shuffle a deck of cards he found in the room. The soft shallow rhythmic breathing ensured him that the younger man beside him rested in a heavy drug induced slumber. Sanchez watched the gambler, funny he mused, how they referred to him as a gambler or conman. Standish was fascinating to watch with a deck of cards, he could make the cards do whatever he wanted them to, manipulate their place in the deck and pull anyone from the deck they asked him to find. So they called him the gambler, but it went further. He took chances, everytime he went undercover he put his life on the line. Relying on his conning and ability to run a sophisticated scheme. Sure he had back up , but like today the cavalry was reactionary. Bullets normally flew first, they tried to avoid it, but it happened. Today the gambler evened the odds, he hid an ace up his sleeve. He wore his vest. Standish hated his vest, it was bulky, did an injustice to the suits he wore (or so he complained) and easily visible to the discerning eye. Today something tipped the conman’s hand, something gave him an inkling and he followed it. Maybe, Josiah figured, Ezra got tired of living on the sharp edge of life and decided to put a buffer between himself and its harsh reality, maybe the alien encroachment of friendship gave him something new to investigate. Strange, Josiah thought, Ezra had an easier time of walking into a room full of hostile violent men who would kill him on the spot if they suspected his subterfuge, than going out for a few drinks with true friends.

Sanchez wondered, as he stared down at the young man, if Standish would recognize a good friendship. Apparently not but he was slowly coming around. He proved it again by hiding in Vin’s truck. Of all the vehicles he could have secluded himself in he picked Vin’s. Even in a narcotic haze he sought out a friend.

Ezra found himself blinking. That surprised him, he did not realize he had woken up. Someone called his name. That shocked him as well. It sounded muffled. Huh. He blinked again. The room did not appear familiar. Where was he? His muddled mind tried to decipher its surroundings nothing seemed to work. The synapses did not seem to quite line up. It felt like his head was packed with mud. Someone called his name again it sounded closer this time. Josiah? He heard his name again, asking him questions, talking to him, the words made no sense, mumbled together. It sounded like Josiah. He tried to follow the voice, it hurt his shoulder when he moved his head. Did he manage to move his head, everything felt so heavy, as if gravity had suddenly tripled, or maybe lead ran through his veins. Maybe he had been shot again, aww hell not again. He groaned.

"Come on Ezra." Josiah coaxed, watching the glazed green eyes blink open. Standish tried to move his head and he groaned. "Ezra can you hear me. Come on brother follow my voice."

"Josiah?" a soft mumbled southern drawl weakly rasped out.

"Hey welcome back. How ya feeling?" Sanchez rested a hand on his friend's forehead. He watched as Ezra focused on him. Recognition finally filtered into the fogged mind. The narcotics would not loosen their hold so easily and kept the gambler in a hazy surreal realm. "Josiah?" he asked again, articulating the name with only a little more clarity.

"Right here son." Sanchez smiled comfortingly. It was strange to see Ezra so out of it. He had a sharp mind, quick with figures, always both feet firmly planted. Now, however, he appeared lost, bewildered unable to rely on his mental dexterity. The bright green eyes were dazed and dull, blinking slowly, almost as if they were to heavy to keep open. "You with me?" He waited a moment before he heard an answer.

"Yeah." a pause, "what happened?" another short pause, "where am I?"

Josiah smiled huffing out a small laugh, "you my dear brother are at the CDC." He waited as the statement settled.

"Oh lord," he breathed his eyes closing momentarily, " I’m not fully vaccinated." The weak dismayed response. His green eyes fluttering open gamely trying to focus on the figure beside him. Josiah laughed heartily. Ezra might still be under the effects of drugs but he had sense of humor. The pieces finally fell into place. Josiah, Buck’s room, the dull deadened ache in his left shoulder and chest. Ezra’s eyes widened with fear and shock.

"Chris!" He hissed out trying to sit up. Sanchez easily restrained him. "He’s fine thanks to you." Josiah continued, "they’re trying to figure out who took the shots." Sanchez took the plunge, "do you remember who you saw this morning?" He watched the conman furrow his brow slightly as he fought the drug induced apathy. Then a worried, no scared expression crossed his pale features. He remembered.

Ezra took a furtive glance at Josiah trying gage the older man. Did trust really exist, would they believe him. Standish would rather face a room full of arm dealers than have to impart what he observed. Maybe it was the drugs or maybe he truly believed Sanchez would back him up. Whatever the reason Ezra Standish did something he had never done. He confided in someone.

"Cavanaugh, Jack Cavanaugh." He breathed out in dismay. Sanchez stared at the younger man with his mouth hanging open. Surely Standish was wrong, surely the narcotics were playing some kind of delirious trick on his baffled mind. The fear and betrayal were real enough. The southerner searched the preachers eyes looking for support, wary he would find denial. Instead, "Are you sure?"

Ezra understood the question. Jack Cavanaugh had been Chris Larabee’s mentor when the young Larabee had entered law enforcement. He had guided Chris as Chris climbed from the lowly ranks as patrol officer to now one of the most formidable and successful ATF agents in the region. Jack Cavanaugh had been the safety net, a guiding prominent force in Larabee’s younger days. Standish shut his eyes, he would not stand a chance against Larabee. Chris would refuse to believe it, some how the blame would fall on Ezra. It was the way it worked. But what Ezra had witnessed and now revealed was the truth and these men deserved the truth. "Yeah I’m sure." Wishing to Josiah’s God that he was not.

Sanchez noted the fear in the gambler’s eyes. Fear for who? Larabee? Probably, fear knowing Chris would doubt him? Most likely. Josiah laid a comforting hand on Ezra’s right shoulder. "Don’t worry brother I’ll stand by you. Chris will believe you." He eased off the bed carefully so not to jostle the injured man to much.

"Ahhuh." Standish did not believe it and Sanchez knew it. Ezra let his eyes close as Josiah made his way out of the darkened room. He wondered numbly if what ever drugs they had forced on him in the hospital, would protect him from Larabee’s scrutiny.

Josiah softly closed the bedroom door. Standish did not need to hear the outburst that was sure to follow.

Sanchez with a heavy step made his way to the kitchen. Vin, JD, Buck, Nathan and Chris huddled around the table discussing the tapes. Buck beamed with pride for the kid. JD did good, better than good, exceptional, the kid was a wizard with electronics. He proved his worth, again, today. Vin watched Josiah exit the room and close the door, the concern etched in the preachers expression did not bode well for somebody. Tanner waited until Josiah nearly reached the kitchen before he spoke, "How is he?" Sanchez did not answer until he leaned tiredly against the refrigerator. Nathan became worried, he started to rise from his chair. "No he’s ok, still pretty doped up." He paused and then added for effect, "but coherent enough to regret not keeping his vaccinations upto date." Sanchez smiled, the subtle reference to the well earned nickname for the apartment did not go undetected. Buck swore, Chris and Vin actually smiled. The light humor easily dissipated. Chris finally stated, "Ezra knew the shooter." He wanted everyone up to speed on all current information.

"I know." Josiah added. This caused everyone to turn and face him.

"How’d you...." JD’s question died mid sentence. The regret on Josiah’s face was unmistakable.

"Who?" Chris whispered. The leader of the seven had never seen the older man so shook. Of all the seven Josiah Sanchez remained the rock. Sure things bothered him and he reacted but never without a major global event having to occur first. Something earth shattering had occurred, judging from Sanchez’s expression it would rock the group.

Josiah took a deep breath and quietly but clearly said, "Jack Cavanaugh." The room remained quiet for all of three seconds and then the denials hit. Quiet at first but then as the denials became more vehement they became louder. Through this all Chris said nothing. He stared at Josiah. Finally his voice rang out softly but with authority.

"He sure?" Larabee asked again, silencing the others. Josiah merely nodded. The refusals started again. They all knew Jack Cavanaugh. He barbecued and boated with them on weekends, (Ezra never accepted such invitations) helped out with cases adding important insights, he was a valuable source of aid and information. Buck exploded voicing his doubts, pointing out the unreliability and character flaws of the witness. Noone tried to put an end to Wilmington’s tirade, he was just blowing off steam. His volume grew with his anger, Chris spoke, "Enough Buck. Ezra can’t change who he saw."

"comeon Chris he’s stoned out of his mind. He probably has no idea what day it is."

"He wasn’t drugged when he saw the shooter, or when he took those shots for Chris." Tanner pointed out quietly. Ezra never really fit in with the others, Vin knew, but it did not mean he should be kicked around for it.

Larabee nodded in agreement with Vin. Chris surveyed the group, funny how they matched up. Buck and JD as close as brothers (and as maddening) Josiah and Nathan trusted each other right off, matching intellect, then Vin and himself, both loners hit it off, like a brothers, but stronger, there was a connection. Floating on the fringe of this tight nit group was Ezra Standish. He allowed the others to keep him out on the edge and he made only a few recent attempts to join the clan. "Lets go talk to him." Chris said pushing himself away from the table. He refused to believe Cavanaugh had anything to do with this until he heard it from Ezra himself.

"Chris." Josiah stopped Larabee and the others midmotion. "He’s scared, rightfully so," Sanchez stared pointedly at Buck, " that we wouldn’t believe him." Josiah paused and then added, "I think he’s afraid we’ll turn on him." Sanchez pushed himself from the refrigerator sighing, "just take it easy on him." Larabee nodded.

Chris opened the door to the room and slowly pushed it open, stepping quietly across the threshold. The others following him. Larabee stopped short and swore. The bed was empty. "Son of a...." He uttered. The others filed in behind him. "Where’d he go?" JD asked. The room appeared empty.

"The window." Tanner said quickly crossing the wood floor his boots muffled as he crossed the throw rug. He stared down the rod iron fire escape and smiled. "Buck who lives below you?" Tanner asked stepping threw the open window. Josiah peered out the window and swore. Damn southern cuss had no idea what was good for him. He would not trust anyone to follow through on a promise. If he was not hurt already Sanchez would throttle him.

Chris wiggle beside the preacher and watch Vin nimble descend the rusting sliding ladder to the rodiron landing below. "Ahh Carol does." Wilmington answered. Chris turned and faced one of his oldest friends. "Well go tell her to open her window and expect guests." JD had already started dialing the number.

Vin knelt beside Standish. The undercover agent laid curled in a loose ball. His breathing was shallow and labored though he struggled not to take deep breaths. "Hey Pard what you doing out here?" He watched the green eyes struggle to focus on him and then a crooked smile cut across his pale features. "Getting some air?"

"Ahuh. You hurt yourself? Hit your head at all?" Vin tried to gently manipulate the gambler’s head without irritating the injured shoulder but that seemed mute since he was lying on his side on an iron platform. "Noo, I don’t know?,Just got tired." The window behind Standish opened. Tanner noticed the sudden panic that crossed the southerner’s face. The green eyes widened, he bit his lip and tried to scramble to his feet. "Whoa, whoa hold on Ezra." Tanner laid a restraining hand on Standish’s head and caught Larabee’s and Wilmington’s eyes. The sharpshooter shook his head slightly indicating they should wait.

"Please Vin let me go. They aren’t gonna believe me. Cavanaugh’s gonna track me down. I gotta get out of here." Standish fought for breath. The narcotics were respiratory depressants as well as pain killers. He tired easily but searched furtively passed the tracker hoping for a way out. Vin shifted his gaze back to Larabee and Buck they had heard. Buck swore silently berating himself. Chris clenched his teeth. He knew Standish felt isolated from the others, but it was as much self imposed as forced. He had never realized that his undercover agent felt he stood alone when things went awry. Damn he did not trust them to back him up. He watched Vin for a brief second and then the tracker diverted his attention back to Standish. "Why don’t you give me and the others a chance to prove you wrong?"

"If I’m right I’m dead and past experiences would indicate I’m right." He breathed out with eyes closed.

"Well we weren’t apart of you past Ezra, so shut your trap and let us get you back up stairs." Tanner said smiling softening his words when Ezra opened his eyes again. Vin watched as the conman fought to keep his eyes open. It was a losing battle. "Vin?" It was a soft lazy voice.

"Yeah Ezra."

"Tell Buck it’s Tuesday." The green eyes fluttered closed and remained closed, his breathing settled and evened out. Wilmington climbed out the window and joined the tracker. Together they eased Ezra back through the window to Josiah. Carol held the door open for them as they all filed out. She never asked any questions, just accepted this strange occurrence. Those were the perks or draw backs for having Buck and JD as upstairs neighbors.


Comments to: flah7@dmi.net