Ezra Standish dragged himself determinedly across the floor on his belly, ignoring the trail of crimson he left in his wake. Why did the damn room have to be so big? And why in God's name would Chris have put the cursed telephone on the other side of it? A reasonable man would have placed it on this side, so that Ezra could call for help before he and his young companion bled to death.
He did not look over at the slender figure which lay unmoving on the floor behind him. He had already seen the blood, pooling beneath JD's head, staining the soft gray carpet an ugly rust color as it soaked into the fibers. He did not wish to see the sight again. Ever.
A wave of dizziness hit him and he could feel the chill beginning to pervade his body as pain and shock vied for dominance. His head sank to the floor and he lay there, sides heaving, as he struggled to regain control. He just had to make it a few more feet. But it was no use. He couldn't force his body to obey. He lacked even the strength and the will to call out for help. Not that it would have done him much good. He and JD were the only two in the house. Except perhaps for the one who had done this to them.
Why had he done this? That was what Ezra Standish wanted to know before he died. Why? There had been no sounds of struggle, no angry shouts to warn him. Ezra had simply opened the door and stepped into Hell. Shock and disbelief had held him rooted in place for several moments. He simply had not believed his eyes. Vin striking JD with a heavy club? JD bleeding on the floor at his feet? It was simply not possible. And yet it had been made all too real to him as he felt the first burning pain of the knife wound in his gut. The attack had been quick, quiet and deadly - very much like the man himself. Had he seen a flash of regret in his friend's eyes just before he struck a second blow? He didn't know. And now he would never know.
The others would come back from their ride to find him and JD lying dead on the floor. They would never know the truth, either. They would bury him in the wrong suit and all Mother's acquaintances would come to his funeral and snicker behind their well manicured hands. Life really sucked sometimes, as JD might say. His vision began to waver and he knew it wouldn't be long before he too lost consciousness. His ears buzzed and his tongue felt thick and heavy. He was even beginning to hallucinate, hearing the voice of Buck out in the hall. If he were going to suffer hallucinations in his final moments, why on earth did it have to be that? Why not Elle McPhereson whispering sweet nothings into his ear?
And just to add insult to injury, Ezra could now hear other voices coming steadily closer out in the hall. Nathan, Josiah and Chris joined Buck's persistent voice. Dear Lord, even in death it seemed he was not to be free of them. He wondered where Vin had gone. He didn't hear Vin. Was that the universe's idea of compassion? That he not be subjected to the sound of his killer's voice during his final moments on earth? It was no more than Ezra had come to expect from life. But he still felt faintly cheated about the whole supermodel thing. Perhaps he would have a word with whomever was in charge. Yes. That's what he would do... He felt the tension leave his body as the blackness took over his vision, dragging him down into darkness, where he no longer heard any voices, no longer felt any pain and no longer cared why.
+ + + + + + +
"Why don't we go have a drink in the den and wait for Ezra and JD to get here?" Buck glanced at Chris Larabee who paced easily alongside him through the kitchen of his ranch house.
Chris glanced at his oldest friend and had to fight back the beginnings of a smile. Buck's artless tone didn't fool him a bit. Ezra and JD weren't at the mechanic's getting the Jag serviced. Unless Chris was very much mistaken, they were in the den putting the finishing touches on whatever crazy, godawful idea the boys had thought up this year. It had become a sort of unoffical contest - seeing who could put on the best show. Chris sincerely hoped it wasn't on the scale of last year's party, though. The one where a couple of Ezra's former acquaintances in Vice had come looking for him. And Chris had wound up having to replace four windows, his brand new sofa and the lamp his Aunt Lila had given him. He'd hated that lamp. So it hadn't been all bad. But still, it wasn't an experience he cared to repeat any time soon.
"Sure, Buck. Whatever you say. It's not going to be another surprise party, is it? Because if it is, then you just go on ahead without me."
"Can't you even pretend you don't know what's going on?" Buck complained. "You know what your problem is, Chris? You ain't got no sense of adventure anymore." "You don't watch it, you're gonna get old before your time."
"That's what happens when you turn forty. Of course, you and the others may have something to do with it, too." Chris remained unperturbed by his friend's teasing. Life was... better than it had been in a long time.
"Speaking of others, anyone know where Vin's got himself off to?" Nathan frowned slightly as he asked the question.
"Last I saw of Brother Tanner, he was turning back towards the barn. Said his horse appeared to be favoring her right foot and he wanted to have a look at it." Josiah volunteered this information as the four men crossed from the kitchen into the hallway leading to the den.
"She was favoring that leg. I was surprised he wasn't still out there with her, the way he loves that horse." Buck snorted in amusement and Chris smiled. Vin did tend to get attached to animals. A lot easier than he did people it seemed at times.
"Well, since he wasn't out in the barn, he's likely in with JD and Ez. Near the..."
"Cake." All four of them echoed the word, exchanging looks of perfect understanding. Vin's penchant for sweets was no secret.
"He better not be dipping his fingers into that frosting after I told him not to." Nathan pushed ahead of the others and opened the den door. He'd spent a good two hours making that cake and if the sharpshooter had...
"Oh God." Nathan stopped, one foot still poised to take the next step.
"Do I even want to know?" Chris' voice was wryly amused as he came up behind Nathan.
"No." Nathan shook his head slowly from side to side. Then he rushed forward as his training took over and knelt down beside the nearest body.
Chris too, came to a halt as he caught sight of what had held Nathan momentarily spellbound. "What the fuck happened here?" he asked softly. He walked towards the figure in the far corner of the room and crouched down. He ignored the blood he could hear squishing beneath his boots and the coppery, heavy scent of it that permeated the air. He hated that goddamn smell, yet he never seemed able to get away from it.
Carefully, Chris reached out a hand to feel for a pulse. JD's skin was cool and waxy feeling, but Chris thought he could feel the faint flutter of a pulse beneath his fingers.
"Is that JD? Buck's frantic voice came from beside him. In the background he could hear Josiah's urgent demand for an ambulance as he crouched beside Nathan with the phone.
"Yeah. See if you can stop the bleeding." Buck nodded grimly as Chris rose to his feet and began searching the rest of the room. Where the hell was Vin? Anger and fear gnawed at his gut, carving out great chunks of guilt. How could this have happened? Why?
"How is he?" Chris stopped beside Nathan, who had removed his shirt and was holding it pressed against Ezra's abdomen. Blood had already soaked through the flannel material.
"Alive. Barely." Nathan spoke grimly, his lips compressed into a flat angry line.
"I'm going to search the rest of the house."
"I'll come with you." Josiah was inspecting the window for signs of forced entry. There were none that he could see.
Both men readied their guns before exiting the room, leaving Nathan and Buck to deal with the carnage behind them.
+ + + + + + +
The two men found no trace of either Vin Tanner or an intruder. They returned to the den and found Buck still over in the corner with JD while Nathan was busy with Ezra. Buck had apparently taken the blanket from the back of the couch and covered JD with it. The dark colors made the unnatural pallor of the young man's face stand out in stark relief. The older man held one of JD's hands and was huddled over him, lips moving in a near continuous litany of sound. Chris turned away from the sight.
"You ain't seen Vin?" Chris knelt down beside Nathan, who had fetched a towel or something from the bathroom and was now holding that against the southerner's abdomen. It didn't look like it was any better at stopping the flow of blood than the shirt had been. Josiah went to watch outside for the ambulance and continue the search for Vin. There was nothing he could do inside except pray. And he could do that just as well out there.
Nathan shook his head, eyes darkening even further.
"Vin?" Ezra's faint voice got their full attention.
"What happened to Vin? Do you know?" Chris demanded, forgetting for a moment the condition of the other man.
"He... I..." Ezra began coughing and from across the room Buck raised his head.
"Did he say what happened? Who did this?" Buck's voice was nearly unrecognizeable in its harsh fury.
"Vin." Ezra wheezed, trying to hold back the cough.
"You know what happened to him?" Chris grasped Ezra's shoulder, unconsciously tightening his grip when the southerner failed to respond.
"Is he hurt?" Chris asked.
"Easy, Chris." Nathan cautioned, watching Ezra in concern.
"It was him." Ezra's words were the faintest of whispers.
"What was him? Who?"
"Vin. He did this." With these final words, Ezra's eyes closed and he lapsed back into an unconscious state.
Chris and Nathan stared at each other in horror. They ignored Buck, who was demanding to know what Ezra had said. It couldn't be true. But it would explain so much. Chris shook his head, denying the thought.
"He's delirious." Nathan didn't reply.
Josiah's voice, directing the paramedics into the room caused the two men to look up. Automatically they got to their feet and moved out of the way, giving them room to do their jobs. To save their two friends if they could.
The paramedics quickly loaded Ezra and JD into the ambulance. Time was of the essence and there was only so much they could do outside the hospital. Buck and Josiah rode in the ambulance while Chris and Nathan followed in the Ram.
"Did you see any signs of forced entry? Anything unusual?" Nathan stared straight ahead as he asked the question. He didn't want to see the tightness of Chris' face or the knuckles white with tension as they gripped the steering wheel. He didn't want to think that the man who'd saved his life could have done this monstrous thing. There had to be some explanation. But nothing came to mind. Except...
"He didn't do it, Nathan. He couldn't have." Chris spoke angrily, accusingly.
"All I know is we couldn't find him, Chris. And there were no signs of another struggle anywhere. And you heard what Ezra said." Nathan couldn't quite believe it, either. A part of him never would. But the bigger part kept demanding that he look at the facts.
"Yeah. I heard." Chris had heard, he just didn't want to believe. Not Vin.
"I'm sorry. It ain't exactly the kind of birthday..." Nathan fell silent.
"No." Chris felt the hot sting of tears in his eyes and blinked them back grimly. This didn't make sense. Nothing made sense. Ezra and JD hurt, maybe dying. Ezra accusing Vin of being the one who'd nearly killed them. And Vin nowhere to be found.
"Happy Fucking Birthday To Me." Chris felt much older than forty as he followed the ambulance carrying his friends through the night.