As Ezra Standish stepped off the plane at the Denver Airport, he was amazed at how good it felt to be home. He smiled to himself, home. For the first time in thirty-two years, he felt as if he had come home.
As he waited for his luggage to arrive, he thought back to the last month in France with his mother. It was suppose to be a two week interval, but his first week he had been so sick he could barely recall any of it. Just a bed and being dragged to the hospital. The second week had been recuperation and his mother asked if he could stay longer. He had been so shocked at her request for him to spend more time with her, he hadn’t said no right away. She took that as a yes and volunteered to call Chris Larabee, his ATF boss and secure the additional time. She’d told him, where Mr. Larabee wasn’t happy, he did have the time coming. So he stayed two more weeks with Maude. They had spent more time in restaurants and couturiers, but it was time with his mother. Something he could actually count in weeks spent.
Handing his luggage claim ticket to the airport personal, he found himself looking forward to seeing his friends again. This last year had been a giant leap in their relationships. The terrible fears of last-years undercover had been laid to rest, and he was able to see the rest of his team members as the friends they were. Not in the same way as Lenny Hoskins was, but friends non-the-less.
He finally hailed a cab and when the driver asked where, instead of his condo he said, "ATF Headquarters, downtown.” Ezra smiled as the taxi left the curb.
Nathan stood at the window looking out at the busy city, but not really seeing anything. He was lost in his thoughts. He’d spent most of the morning in that very spot, not really motivated to continue with the paper work,…… busy work. Down below a face in the crowd caught his eye. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand and he looked out again. Nothing. He turned toward Josiah, "I thought I saw him down there….” Nathan couldn’t finish.
Josiah looked up with a heavy heart, "Nathan, it takes a while, we see the face we want in others a lot. I’m sorry my friend.”
Nathan walked slowly back to the desk Josiah was at and sat across from him. Vitality was missing from his steps. They both could hear the elevator chime, but weren’t real interested.
“Well, gentlemen, is there a current case that has this office empty at such an early hour?” Ezra asked as he viewed the near empty office.
Both men looked over to the voice that had been missing. The distinctive Southern accent and fancy grammar. Nathan stood as though in shock. Josiah attempted to stand, but got caught up in the roller chair, and tipped over completely backward.
The crash brought Nathan back to life and he quickly ran around the desk to help Josiah. Josiah had clunked his head on the floor, and looked hesitantly up at Nathan, "Nate, I thought I saw Ezra.”
“You were not mistaken, Mr. Sanchez.” Ezra smiled down at the man. But the pain in the older man’s eyes had him ask, "Are you okay Josiah?”
Josiah shook his head and nodded his head all at the same time. Ezra was completely bewildered, he didn’t know what was causing the looks on his friends faces.
His puzzlement penetrated into Nathan’s consciousness and he gathered himself, “Ezra, we thought you were dead.” Nathan made it sound like a news bulletin.
As Ezra was helping Josiah up to a different chair, he’d planned on making a smart-ass remark, until he noted that both men continued to wear serious expressions. Instead he crinkled his face and said, "Huh?”
Josiah kept staring at Ezra, when he finally believed that he wasn’t hallucinating, he reached out and hugged Ezra.
Ezra was pulled into such a tight embrace he feared he wouldn’t be able to continue breathing. But as he felt the tension drain from Josiah’s body, he endured the entire procedure.
Nathan reiterated, "Ezra, we all really thought you were dead.”
“Why?…… How?” Ezra asked. “And where are the others?”
Josiah walked over to the file cabinet, opened the second drawer and pulled out a video tape, indicating that they should go to the conference room to see it. As they walked down the corridor, Nathan filled Ezra in on the where-abouts of the others. “JD took the news real hard. Buck got worried that we’d lose him too, so he put his self destructive tendencies to work at Chris’ place. Chopping wood, says he cries a lot.”
Ezra was amazed and sad at the same time at JD’s reaction. Josiah had the tape in the VCR, but Nathan wanted to finish before they watched the tape. “Vin’s out tracking and we’ve been trying to do what we can from here.”
Ezra misunderstood, "The person you thought killed me?”
Josiah answered, "No, Chris.”
Pain filled green eyes looked to Josiah for explanation. Nathan answered as Josiah’s eyes filled with tears. “Chris took the news harder than JD, but he wouldn’t let any of us help him. He started drinking and when Buck went over to help him, he took Buck’s truck. He crashed it and ended up in the hospital. Buck said he was just like this after Sarah and Adam’s murder. Day after he got out of the hospital he disappeared. Between dropping him off, picking up his meds and switching vehicles, Chris left. We have no idea where he went, no clue and that was two weeks ago.” Nathan’s eyes teared, “I am so glad you’re alive and that you’re here.” Nathan squeezed Ezra’s shoulder as he told him that. The joy in his eyes was easy for Ezra to read.
Josiah hit the play button and the tape began.
Ezra watched as two men with stocking ski hoods dragged his body across a room and plopped him into a chair. He watched as his own arm came up as if to cover his eyes when a man with a gun stepped into the frame. At point blank range, the man shot his gun into Ezra’s chest four times. He watch as his body moved as each bullet entered, blood poured from the holes and he watched as his body slumped more and he gave a life ending twitch. The camera panned the room and rested on the couch where the words, PROBLEM SOLVED, cut out from news print lay there and the tape ended.
Ezra was shocked, the two men flanking him reached and touched him, like they were making sure he was really there. Ezra welcomed the physical contact, it proved to him that he was indeed alive. It was exceptionally eerie to watch yourself die. He could understand how his friends believed it, he would too if he wasn’t sitting here right now. Ezra rubbed the back of his head, then touched his chest where he saw the bullets enter. Then he froze in his spot, "Josiah, run the tape back ….to the beginning…” Josiah complied and Ezra said, "Freeze it! There, that room, that was the room I was in with my mother, in France.”
Three pairs of shocked eyes looked at one another.
A different kind of pain crossed Ezra’s face, he spoke aloud, "My mother…..party to this?”
Emotions whirled about inside Josiah, but he pushed them aside as he calmly asked of Ezra, "Start at the beginning of your stay in France….”
An unshaven, dark-clad man stood atop a mountain peak looking out to the vast, open expanse before him as tears ran unchecked down his face. He sat himself down hard and then let the sobs take control of his body.
Vin Tanner stopped his Jeep in front of the town library, which also served as the Post Office. He pulled out his cellphone and turned it on. He figured he was gonna catch hell form JD, but he just couldn’t keep it on all the time, he would take to hoping. That was too dangerous. He punched out the number and waited.
“Yeah,” was how JD answered the ring.
“JD,……get anything?” The weariness in Vin’s voice made its way across the phone lines.
“No, last account activity was in Wyoming, nothing since. Still running down the info on the delivery.” JD stopped as Vin’s in-drawn breath. A reminder. “You find anything?” JD hoped to redirect Vin’s thoughts.
“Wyoming hasn’t been that bad, he’s stopped in more backwater bars than I can count, gets drunk, gets into a fight and leaves for the next stop.” Vin closed his eyes as he leaned his head against the window, but quickly opened them as unwanted visions swarmed in. “I’m about two days behind him still. I’m goin’ in the library and I’ll fax or email the list. Find out if Buck has any ideas.” He scratched his stubble, he was gonna have to shave here in a bit. ‘Damn, I’ll have to stop and buy a razor first.’ He thought to himself.
JD was talking to him, “……K? Vin…..Vin?”
“Huh? Sorry Kid, I was distracted.”
“I said, keep your cellphone on…..in case…” JD’s voice stayed real meek the whole time. “Vin, you okay?” JD had to ask.
“No, JD, I’m not. Just don’t have time to sort stuff. We gotta find Chris, I gotta find Chris. Call ya later.” He closed the cellphone and forced himself to get out of the jeep and send the list to the kid.
+ + + + + + +
Vin entered the diner, planned on getting some soup. Figured he had to force himself to eat, leastwise until he found Chris. Then he could refigure what all to do.
He gave his order to the waitress and she brought over the basket of crackers. Vin opened a pack, more to keep himself busy over actually wanting to eat them. He finished all the soup, enjoying the warmth more than the taste. He had his thermos refilled with coffee while he waited for his check. As the cashier was giving him his change, he asked, "You ever see this man, probably a couple days ago?”
The cashier shrugged, but the girl that waited on him saw the picture and said, "Yeah, I remember him. Here the day before yesterday.”
“Remember anything else, did he say anything?” Vin knew he was reaching.
The waitress told him earnestly, "His eyes were haunted as though he had demons nipping at his heels.”
Vin looked at her wise eyes and replied, "Ma’am that he does,” and with a tight nod, he was gone.
She looked after his retreating back and whispered aloud, "Seems those same demons are chasing you too.” With a shake of her head she went back to work.
Ezra slammed down the phone, "My mother is nowhere to be found. Odd, now isn’t it.” His voice dripped in disdain and disgust. He sat on the edge of the desk and looked to Josiah. He wanted to ask a difficult question, "How did the tape arrive?”
Josiah took a deep breath, shuddering slightly at the remembrance. “Each one of us received an individual copy of the tape at our homes. At least Buck and JD were home together.”
Nathan added, "At Vin’s and Chris’ we found the TV’s busted. Both looked kicked in.”
Josiah was all done packing up the files he was taking, he looked at Ezra, “Judge thinks you're dead, but he doesn’t know about Chris, or Vin taking off after him. Nathan and I have been covering. Mostly Nathan. Tried to contact Lenny, whoa, whoa…..no we never told him, he’s out on assignment and we didn’t leave a message. Nathan tried to get Maude but she was nowhere to be found.”
Ezra sighed, he was glad Lenny wasn’t put through this, and Maude…..after they found Chris he was going to get the truth from her. Aloud he asked, “are we telling the Judge?”
“No, it buys us more time.”
“On to the Cesspit, that’ll be headquarters.” Nathan smiled at Ezra’s expression, “I’m in complete agreement with on that place, but JD’s computer is the best one next to Chris’. Anyways, we gotta tell em about you in person. So they can see for themselves right away.”
They walked down the stairs, didn’t want to take the chance on seeing Travis at this point. Ezra leaned down and fed Cuervo, who seemed to rub a few extra times. They got into Nathan’s SUV. It had 4-wheel drive and they didn’t know what they would be needing.
+ + + + + + +
As the tall man stood in the ATF parking level, he looked it completely over. His cold-blooded stare and air about him kept Cuervo hidden. As the man walked to the elevator, he said to himself, ‘damn, how do I enjoy the pain if no one is here?’
+ + + + + + +
Nathan let them in to the Cesspit, as he still had the key. They wanted to keep stuff as low key for the neighbors as possible. What they don’t know, can’t hurt the team. Nathan had Ezra stand off to the side then called out to the guys, “Buck, JD, I need you two out here now.”
Buck came out of the kitchen as JD got up from the computer and gravitated toward Josiah. Josiah took a step closer as Nathan started talking.
“I’ve got a shock for you, a good one…..,” he pointed to Ezra as he said, “Ezra’s alive.”
Tears sprang into Buck’s eyes at the sight of Ezra. JD fainted dead away, right into Josiah’s arms. Josiah laid him on the couch. “Knew the excitement would get to him.”
Buck looked Ezra over and then grabbed him by the shoulders. Not feeling Ezra pull away, Buck pulled him closer in an embrace. His voice catching, “Lordy bee, Ezra, you’re alive. You’re alive.” Buck murmured almost to himself. He stepped back and smiled at Ezra, then turned to check on JD and to regain control of himself.
Ezra backed up and sat down, he needed to think to himself for a few minutes.
Nathan came out of the kitchen with a cold cloth for JD’s head. Buck then looked up at all of them, "So what the hell is going on?”
Josiah looked over at Ezra and took it upon himself to fill in Buck with all he knew. Ezra was lost in his own thoughts.
And Ezra was overwhelmed. The depth of emotion that these men were showing was daunting. He never dreamed in all his years that he would have friends that feel like this. Lenny, yes. But they had a decade plus of history. These men……he honestly didn’t know that they cared like these. Buck, Nathan Josiah…all had tears in their eyes, for him. This stemmed far past their working relationship. ‘Why didn’t I ever see this?’ Ezra asked himself. Heavens, he knew that they had come far, that trust was building…..but this depth…… staggering. Ezra looked over at JD, and went over to sit by him. He had to interrupt his thoughts, he couldn’t let dwell on Chris….he felt a squeeze in his chest, he couldn’t go there yet. So he placed his hand on JD’s fore head and spoke down to the boy. “JD, I need to talk to you…come on.” He leaned down close to his ear and whispered, "I need a hug from you.”
JD opened his eyes and threw his arms around Ezra’s neck. “Ezra, Ezra, Ezra…..you aren’t dead. I kept secretly hoping you weren’t…thank you Ezra.”
“No, thank you JD, for caring so much.” JD seemed so young right now, Ezra was surprised how often they forgot that. Ezra sat back on that horrible couch, knowing that JD wanted to sit right by him for awhile.
The quick brain started working right away, "Why’s all this happening….my god we gotta tell Vin…Chris oh, we gotta let him know.” JD, motor mouth was on a roll.
“Whoa there, Pard…..first things first.” Buck just seem to know how to reign the Kid in.
JD smiled the first smile in two weeks, "Okay, I’m hungry, what’s to eat.”
In a dingy, rat infested room, Chris Larabee slipped today’s ration of money into his wallet. He knew that if he used his ATM card out here they would be able to track him. He wasn’t sure who they were anymore. He’d been working real hard to push them all away, hopefully he could.
He threw some water on his face, so he could comb back his hair. He didn’t care about shaving, didn’t care if he ever shaved again. He thought to himself, ‘I don’t want to face another dawn sober, I don’t want to think about having to survive through another day.’
For JD this Chinese take-out was best he ever had. He believed now that everything would be all right. Ezra was alive, so Chris was gonna be okay. “ So why can’t we just tell Vin, I know it’d make him happy.”
Josiah couldn’t hide the smile, JD’s attitude was infectious. “Not over the phone JD, It’d be too much. This is real hard on Vin. We just have to meet him someplace.” Josiah then concentrated on Buck. “Buck, you know Chris the best. Especially like this. We have to think, figure out…”
“Chris is hurtin real bad. He didn’t think he was gonna feel again. Pushed away any of us that cared. But life happens and he did. Just not what he expected. He was so determined to keep love away in the form of a female. He didn’t give that much thought to friends….we’ve all gone a whole lot further than that. That slipped in…..’member, he didn’t even know it was happening. He made some connection with Vin, and that opened the dam…..even let the old ones back in. I’m almost afraid that this is gonna be worse. He’s building a wall, to keep us all out.” His examination was interrupted by the phone.
“Okay, okay, okay..,” reacting to all the looks he got. JD smiled, “I’m not gonna tell now… okay, hush. Hello.”
“Vin, where are you, we got some real important info, but not over the phone….we gotta come to you.” JD sounded urgent.
“Okay JD, I’ll email now…remember to set up the spike. Bring a secure line.” Vin disconnected.
“What was all that?” Buck asked.
Ezra spoke, "To protect the email and not have it intercepted. JD said not over the phone so Vin’s assumed that the phone is bugged. Good job, JD.” Ezra squeezed his shoulder after he sat back down.
The young waitress at this diner told Vin, "It was so sad, his beautiful blue eyes were so vague. Vacant actually. But it was as he threw his head back for the last of his beer, that I saw the pain etched on his face. At that moment it was as though his eyes were silently screaming.”
She had remembered Chris too, so Vin explained, "He’s my friend and I’m trying to help him. I need to email this location to my other friend so he can come and help too. Do you know where I might get use of the Internet?”
She looked into these sad blue eyes and knew she had to help, "Come on back here, use ours. If someone asks back there, just tell them you’re my boyfriend.” She flashed him her smile.
“Okay, I’ve got our flight booked, we landing in Great Falls and it’s still a two hour drive to where Vin is in Shelby, so a Suburban will be waiting for us.” JD kept his eyes on Ezra, but spoke to them all. “I emailed this to Vin at the same addy he used. Hey, Buck, I gave him your new cellphone number, asked him to call ASAP.”
“Ah, JD? When does the flight leave?” Nathan asked him.
JD gave a lopsided smile, "An hour and a half.”
JD was saved from the groans at the short time cause Buck’s phone rang. “Wilmington.”
“Buck.” Vin’s voice was heavy. “I’ve got him heading to central Montana…”
“He’s been there before, I don’t know where though. It’s cold, like he wants to be right now. He wants a numb wall around him.” The weariness was at the surface of Buck’s voice.
“Buck, I’m not catchin' up. I don’t know if I can do this.” Vin was near desperation.
“Vin, you’re the only one who can. Look where there’s less people, he’ll get so’s he can’t stand em. ….Vin, right now, you’re the only hope.” Buck’ voice cracked. The connection ended.
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