Black Widow

by Deirdre

Part 24

Saturday night

The cool desert breeze lifted the agent's dark hair. He gazed out along the endless border stretching across the desert. He glanced back at the Border Patrol Unit where Josiah was monitoring the radio. The clusters of rocks and scattered brush were a dark contrast against the indigo twilight. He turned hearing a motor and watched a motorcyclist in the distance.

The image of the Texan's cranky face came to mind. One of his favorite pictures was when Vin was riled up at Chris and his face was screwed up. Nathan had christened that crusty scowl 'The Face'. That's the image that stayed with him, now, as the lone rider became a memory. His mustached face broke into a grin, almost hearing the salty drawl and 'winsome' expressions that the sharpshooter always thought up, especially if it involved a moody team leader. His rich voice broke the silent summer air.

"Conquistador your stallion stands in need of company And like some angel's haloed brow You reek of purity...."

"An apt description," Josiah agreed, recognizing the analogy of Vin, "looks like our missing lamb isn't the only poet in the family."

"Aw, hell, Josiah," Buck grinned, accepting the bottle of ice tea the ex-preacher offered, "If I had half of Keith Reid's talent..." Buck's voice trailed off, speaking of the prolific writer of many of Procul Harum's fine hits, "That man was a genius."

"One of the great rock-n-roll poets..." Josiah agreed, clinking bottles with Buck.

The graying senior member of the team saw more than lines of worry and fatigue on Buck's face. A trace of guilt glimmered in the tall agent's dark blue eyes.

"How you doing, Buck?" He asked quietly.

Buck sighed and stared at the stars starting to appear overhead. "I'd be doing a lot better if Vin was perched nearby, making some wise-ass comment on the comm-link."

"That boy does have a way with words," Josiah chuckled, thinking of how many times during the hours of stake-outs, Vin's dry humor and distinct twang split the tension. "I think he does it just to rile up Chris."

"I think you're right," Buck agreed grinning. But the grin faded and Buck sighed, running a hand through his hair. "I feel lousy Josiah, I feel like I let him down somehow..."

"YOU?" Josiah's voice dropped even deeper in shock, "Buck, you were his lifeline last week. I stopped to see him on my way to the airport. He was feelin' blue and his chin was draggin' Until he thought of you. Was worried you're arms were getting tired of pickin' him up."

"I'd carry him on my back across the stinkin' desert if I could." Buck spit out.

"He knows that, Buck. It wasn't so much what he said that night, but the catch in his voice." Josiah stood and placed a hand on the tired agent's shoulder. "You know when he's tired and his accent gets stronger. Well there it was, a distinct effort to swallow his heart, right when the word Bucklin broke out."

Buck rubbed his eyes and Josiah smiled. "Been havin' problems with that desert dust again?"

"Yeah," Buck admitted, "Damn stuff hit me right in the eye."

"Go on and get some sleep, Buck. You look beat. No sense two of us dying of boredom."

Buck finished his Ice Tea and capped the empty bottle. He nodded to the older, wise man and turned to return to the vehicle. "Thanks Josiah."

"Anytime, Brother."

Buck checked in with Nate and J.D. who were several miles east of their location. He grinned; wondering how long it would take before Nathan would shoot J.D. J.D. didn't take to sitting still for long periods of time and Nathan's nerves were frazzled. He pushed the seat back and was just dozing off when Chris radioed.

"What's up?" He sat suddenly alert.

"That bitch slipped out of Denver."

"How'd that happen?" Buck demanded, "I thought she was under surveillance?"

"She was. They're not sure how she pulled it off. Her place is cleaned out and they think she caught a charter to Mexico."

"Shit!" Buck swore as Chris signed off.

+ + + + + + +

Dinner was rather late Saturday night and Ezra wanted to get to sleep. He finished the sweet dessert wine and stood up.

"Etienne, I'd like you to see another branch of the family business," Roberto advised in a tone of voice that told Erza he'd have no choice.

"At this late hour?" Ezra stood then saw the lethal stare he got, "Of course I would be delighted."

"I thought you'd see it my way," Roberto said cockily as he approached. "Follow me, please."

Ezra's heart was pounding as they grew close to the door he'd almost entered earlier that day. The portal to the bowels of the original structure, where he'd heard the agonizing pleas.

May I ask where this journey is leading?" He ducked as the staircase got narrow.

"We're doing a training film and would like you to observe and participate."

"Training film?" Ezra puzzled.

He followed Roberto through the wine cellar and storage area to a narrow stone walled corridor. He squinted in the darkness and was glad for the lack of illumination. The pitiful creature suspended from the low ceiling was the owner of the horrid screams he'd heard. Roberto pulled on Ezra's shoulder as a warning not to go any further. It took all of his reserve not to show the loathing and digust he felt toward the drug dealers. His stomach turned as the man's body buckled as an electrical cattle prod was applied to his torso. Undoubtedly the coarse croak he heard was all the prisoner had left to scream.

"What on earth would possess you to lower yourself to such means?" Ezra replaced his disgust with a curious tone.

"He has information that we seek," Roberto replied, "And the film is a very successful weapon showing what happens when the Carlino's are crossed." He nodded to Tony.

Tony and Marty flanked Vin. Marty bent down and pulled Vin's head up slightly and turned it towards the adjacent room where Ezra stood. A rag had been stuffed in his mouth to prevent him from crying out.

Your friend Standish will be a dead piggy, unless you tell us what we need to know." Marty hissed.

Vin blinked and used all of his reserve to concentrate on the two figures across the dimly .lit room. He heart sank and he moaned behind his gag. Roberto Carlino had a gun with a silencer trained to the back of Ezra's head. Ezra's face was a mask of agony. Vin hung his head in pain and shame, glad that the filth and dirt covered his nakedness.

Tony stayed beside Vin, while Marty knelt on his other side. Tony would direct a question loudly and in Spanish, for Ezra's benefit. Marty would then ask Vin a question in English. The ATF agent's voice was weak and hoarse, and well beyond Standish hearing.

"Dónde está su socio?"

Vin shook his head furrowed his brow. The voices were getting harder to hear and that wasn't English. Spanish? Marty's fingers drew the gag from his mouth and Vin coughed, cringing at the pain in his lower back. Marty turned his head again so Vin could see the gun aimed at Ezra's head clearly.

"Where are the Border coordinates?"

"Five...five..." Vin gasped, straining desperately for air, "sectors...Nogales...thirty" Vin ended, dropping his head in defeat.

"Very good Pig," Marty mocked praise.

"Qué usted ha hecho con el dinero?"

Vin turned again, his exhausted mind puddled in confusion. Spanish and English all mixed up. Money? He panicked, he didn't know about hidden money. Marty's voice then cut in, at his ear.

Who is involved in the operation?"

Vin flicked his eye and saw the blurry gun still behind Ezra's ear. He watched Ezra grimace and tried to catch his eye. Marty pulled his hair hard, demanding an answer. He fumbled, trying to remember the question. Tony's wrist flashed and the rubber hose smacked against his ribcage. His throat heaved a silent cry and his breath hissed through his teeth and cracked lips.

"Ple..e.ease..." He begged, watching Roberto lift the gun and smile. "don't kill..." Marty nodded and bent his ear lower as Vin relayed the information painfully. With every word uttered, Vin's shame grew. He'd sold them out, he knew his fate was sealed. He only hoped Ezra would survive this and not blame himself.

"Do they know the location of the warehouse?" Marty demanded, while Tony flashed the small whip.

"No..." Vin rasped, barely audible.

Ezra felt the dinner he consumed rising again. He swallowed down the bile and felt his insides boiling and churning. Whoever this poor desperado was, the inhuman treatment he'd undergone was heartwrenching. From the questioning, the conman gathered the unfortunate wretch and a partner had stolen money from them.

"So Mr. Auberge, I am told you are a gambling man. Care to partake in a game of chance?"

"What did you have in mind?" Ezra drolled, hiding his disgust.

Roberto nodded to Marty, who unclamped Vin's wrists. The body dropped in a heap, curling up protectively. Ezra closed his eyes, not wanting to see anymore. He wanted to escape this horrific chamber of horrors and try to get the vision from behind his eyes. He watched as the man's wrists were bound and secured just above the crown of his head.

"We'll will take turns," Roberto said, showing Ezra his gun, "trying to shoot the clasp off of the traitor's wrists."

"This barbaric exercise is one I'll not be a party to." Ezra declined.

"Well, now that is a shame, Etienne." Roberto's voice grew hard and cold as he faced the conman, running the gun along Ezra's chest, "Your host is offended."

Ezra displaced the gun and felt his jade eyes glowing, "I'm a businessman, Mr. Carlino. The sick pleasure you derived out of torturing that poor soul turns my stomach. Good night." Ezra spat and turned angrily, only to have his hand grasped.

"Alright, Auberge, How about this for a gamble? I'll give you first shot. If you pop the clasp, I won't kill him. You can save worthless bastardo's pathetic life." Roberto shot back.

Ezra eyed the shivering creature curled up against the wall. Incoherent moans left his lips as he shifted, against the dampness. Ezra eyed the semi-darkness and weighed the odds.

"But they're right above his head..." Ezra scowled, "...I can barely see him in this light."

"Slim is better than none," Roberto cajoled, "However, if you're not interested..." He took aim at the man's head."

Wait..." Ezra hissed, holding out his hand.

"After you, Etienne," Roberto urged him closer. He felt the sweat running down his back, sliding off his silk shirt. The little saliva he had dried up in this mouth. The brutal guard pulled on the chain, insuring it was secure. The tugging caused a stonefall cutting Vin's face causing him to stir and flinch. He managed to raise his head enough to see the blurry figures across the room. He was so hot and his head was pounding. Every inch of his flesh burned and each breath left him in agony. He saw one figure take aim and blinked hard trying to see.

Ezra took the gun and swallowed hard. He shifted it to his left hand, to wipe the sweat of his shooting hand. He took several deep breaths and stared at the two-inch link above the crown of matted hair. It could be done, Ezra thought, but dim light it wouldn't be easy. He took aim, just as the poor soul raised his head. Hair hung over his face, which the Southerner was glad for. At least Ezra couldn't see his eyes. He mentally shut out all the others in the room and even the ragged prisoner. All he saw was the small link...he squeezed the trigger gently and closed his eyes.

"Bravo!" Tony clapped him on the back. "The bastardo's lucky, huh?" The bruised, battered body curled up and moaned, shivering as Tony bent over him.

"He's had it," He said to Roberto, "You're pretty good with a gun, you barely creased him. Usually it's a lot sloppier. You want to talk to him some more?"

Not yet." Roberto asked, "Take him back to his hole and secure him."

"If you gentlemen will excuse me," Ezra moved away, no able to contain his upset stomach any longer, "I have no desire to remain in this hell hole any longer." He paused, spotting the bottle of water nearby. "May I give him a drink?"

"Sure, I'm feelin' generous." Roberto laughed, winking at Tony behind Ezra's back

Ezra picked up the bottle and pulled the small top, opening the passage. He squatted down in the darkness, fumbling to find the man's head. At his touch, the man whimpered and flinched, expecting a blow. Ezra winced and bit his lip, wanting nothing more at this minute than to pull Roberto's Carlino's teeth out one by one. "Easy my friend, I have some water for you." He tipped the filthy head back and felt the heat scoring the man's fevered skin.

Vin peered out through foggy eyes into the near blackness. He shook his head where confusion reigned and tried to make sense of what was happening. He felt the fever blasting off his tender flesh and realized he must be hallucinating. He tried to speak, he felt sure he heard Ezra, but no voice would come out, only garbled croaks. He grasped at the hand, pulling and pleading. Then he felt the nozzle of the bottle and sucked greedily, forgetting everything else.

Ezra slid the bottle down by the man's side and wrapped the weak hand around it. He heard Roberto and Tony laughing and joking in Italian. Maybe they'd overlook the bottle. He heard the guttural sounds and felt the weak hands grasping for him, desperately. He managed to find the side of the man's face and rested his hand there.

"God give you strength, whoever you are, you'll need it."

He felt Tony pulling him away and heard the weak cry as his hand was wrenched free. The ragged head moved slightly and Ezra felt a chill as he sensed the man was looking right at him. He felt an unbearable weight in his chest and stumbled towards the stairs. He didn't speak again until they were in the kitchen.

"Yeah, you better get to sleep," Roberto advised, "We're leaving early."

"I thought we were meeting the Colombians at dusk?"

"Maybe..." Roberto smiled, "Maybe not..."

Ezra was so repelled by the man in front on him; he couldn't remain in his presence any longer. He nodded once and walked to the stairs. By the time he reached his room, his was trembling with rage. He felt his stomach churning and ran for the bathroom. He vomited until nothing was left but dry heaves. He washed his clammy face and took several drinks of cold water. Rummaging in the small refrigerator, he produced a can of ginger ale.

Desperately in need of air, he sought refuge on the porch outside. The breeze lifted his brown hair and he gulped it greedily. He shivered as if someone walked across his grave. He glanced around, wondering why the air of uneasiness hung so heavy. He'd been in tighter spots, why was he so unnerved? Why did the sight of the huddled mass below claw at his insides so severely? He rubbed his hands unconsciously against his shirt, still feeling the prisoner's desperate grip. He settled onto a chair and stared up at the heavens.

"Twenty-four more hours." He sighed; wishing this job was already over.

Part 25


Roberto slid into bed and wrapped his arms around his sleeping enchantress. He felt her stir and turn to face him, smiling sleepily and kissing him.

"All set?" She asked, nipping his neck with a practiced ease.

"Yes." He pushed her away, playfully pinching her backside; "I spoke with Carmen Veguilla in Bogota. They'll drop off at the warehouse next Sunday. Dom contacted the other four buyers, they'll be brought directly from the airport."

All at once," She frowned, "That's a big risk."

Nobody knows the location of the warehouse, and it's unlikely they'll ever find it. We'll leave for New York in a few hours. Dom is heading south to make the final arrangements with the Colombians. We'll take Tony and the boys with us. Marty will travel in the van with Standish."

Yes, that's wise. Marty has become expendable. His drinking is getting out of hand. The loose mouth of his has cost us too much already." She gasped as his lips traveled across her chest.

He raised his head and smiled, "What no grief for your paramour, Mr. Standish?"

"I'm sure the Federales will keep Mr. Standish entertained," She giggled, thinking of the plan they'd set up. The van would be stopped short of the border. Marty and Ezra would be taken to a detaining facility where the local law enforcement, paid handsomely by the Carlino's would 'entertain' him.

"At lease he'll have a good movie to watch on the way north," Roberto snickered.

"Enough idle chatter, Darling," Gia settled back and smiled as Roberto went to work.

+ + + + + + +

Chris bent over the body of his best friend. His fingers clenched into fists, refusing to touch the stilled face. He dropped to his knees and forced himself to reach out. His trembling hands turned the body over and the sightless blue eyes stared up at him. Hurt...that what was written in the death mask? Where were you? the eyes mocked in death. He raised his head and screamed, clasping his midsection, he rocked in pain.

"Vin!" He gasped, eyeing the unfamiliar place. "Shit..." He threw himself off the bunk and made his way to the bathroom. The clock on the wall of the barracks read four a.m. He splashed cold water on his face and tried to dispel the realistic dream from his mind. The army base they utilized was close to the red zone and stark in its efficiency. He took a hot shower and wandered back through the dark room, smacking the legs of his team. The moaning and grumbling bodies took shape and filed into the bathroom. Ten minutes later, they were on the road to the checkpoint.

+ + + + + + +

"Mimosa?" Roberto offered at the bar in the large living room of the villa. Marty would be there momentarily with the van. They'd be travelling north and meeting the Colombians at the sight of the warehouse. Although Roberto hadn't disclosed its location, Ezra had a rough idea where it was.

"No thank you," He declined, opting for black coffee instead. He winced at the darkness outside, "The only things a man should be doing at this ungodly hour are confided to the arena of his boudoir."

Roberto laughed and drained his mimosa. "Speaking of which, I think I'll say goodbye to the houseguest downstairs."

Ezra grimaced, still unable to shake the dread and unsettled feelings the thought of the creature left him with. He saw headlights appear through the reflection in the window and dumped his coffee out.

+ + + + + + +

Vin lifted his aching head and peered into the ebony sea. He wondered if it were day or night and how long he'd been sleeping. He was cold and his whole body ached. He shivered and moved his cramped legs, whimpering as the painful restoration of circulation tried to take hold. His leg nudged the bottle and he drained the last of the water. Voices appeared in the distance. His heart leaped, he gasped restlessly, hoping that the team somehow found him. But the sound of Italian dialogue caused his heart to sink once more. He rested his head against his chest and waited.

"Roberto?" Tony called out, running down the steps to catch his boss.

"Yeah?" Roberto turned around, standing over Vin Tanner.

Phone call, one of the buyer's needs directions."

"Carlino" He paused, his hand feeling the heat radiating off of Vin Tanner, "You can't miss it. Take the interstate east from Tucson, about and hour. You pass an old gas station, look for a dirt road turnoff about half-mile from there. Follow the turnoff for twelve miles until you come to a narrow canyon, it's looks like a dead end, but it's an optical illusion. Keep going and you'll find it. Sunday a week, eight a.m. problem."

Roberto hung up and handed the phone back. Squatting next to Vin, he heard the shallow breathing. Combined with the fever and the damp cellar, the ATF agent was a goner.

"He's finished" Roberto said, slapping Vin hard, "See you in hell, bastardo."

Vin heard the retreating footsteps and curled up, huddled against the stone wall. A series of coughing spasms wracked his body, adding to the fever that coursed through him. He gasped for breath, eyes tearing from the effort. He glanced into the inky netherworld, his jumbled thoughts causing his face for furrow. Images of his friend’s faces appeared, adding to his silent mantra of desperation.

Where are you?..." His fevered brain flashed images of this teammates, "I need you..."

A warmth enveloped him, putting a temporary halt to his spasmatic shivering. The damp chamber of horrors disappeared. He was whole and healthy again, sitting with the guys at Seanachie's, an Irish bar near Buck's. Rousing music played in the background and some of the packed house clapped along. Tall glasses of Guinness lined the table and he took in the affection in his friend’s actions. J.D was teasing Josiah about a woman making eyes at him across the room. Nathan and Ezra were bantering about a movie; Buck's deep voice was in full bloom, singing along with the band. He felt the laughter rumble from his throat and in the midst of the noise and confusion, his eyes met his best friends. Chris's green eyes crinkled and a rare Larabee grin met him. The blond raised his glass and saluted Vin.

As quickly as it appeared, his brothers left him. The darkness returned, sending Vin's heart into a constriction of agony. His eyes darted frantically, searching the blackness for a miracle. There was one face he sought; one set of green's eyes offering a hand and a ray of hope. He called out as the blackness enveloped him and he felt himself slipping away.

"No!" He rasped painfully, as the image of the face left "Chris don't go...Chris..."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra glanced out of the windows of the van and tried to ease the fears playing on his mind. Marty was behind the wheel, and the conman sensed he was uneasy as well. The burly guard kept looking behind them, his dark eyes darting like a trapped rat. The Southerner wasn't used to being up so early, and the sun had yet to rise. But he shouldn't be so groggy. He stifled a yawn and found himself forcing his eyes open.

"What's the matter my friend?" Roberto grinned lecherously, "You're not so perky this morning. You should have taken the Mimosa. Somebody slip a Mickey in your coffee?"

Ezra's eyes flicked across the aisle and his heart sank at the wolfish smile. The realization of the horror hit him, the masquerade was over. Why did they even bring him along? Why not kill him at the house? Roberto seemed to read his puzzled face.

"Marty, pull over." Roberto oozed, "Mr. Standish has a visitor."

Ezra's mind whirled and his face twisted. The passenger side front door opened and closed. Ezra's head turned as the door to his right opened. Spiked black heels and a slim calf took what little saliva he had left out of his mouth. He knew the shapely leg and the sexy body that followed. The drugs they'd used left him in a paralyzed state. His leaden limbs wouldn't move and every breath was an effort. But his eyes remained alert, trapped in a wooden shell. His voice was trapped as well, only soft grunts would emerge.

"Good Morning, Darling," Gia cooed, sliding her hand up Ezra's immobile thigh and kissing him, "I've missed you." She laughed at the shocked look on his face. "Don't look so chagrined, Ezra, I've fooled better men than you. I had every doctor at that hospital fooled. I had everyone fooled, except one wretched bastard. Would you like to meet him?" She slid over and sat on Roberto's lap. The Italian's hands slid under her skirt as they kissed.

Ezra watched as Marty flipped a button on the console and a small monitor, in the ceiling of the luxury van, came to life. His mouth dropped open and his heart constricted so much he felt a rippling pain. He shook his head slowly as if to deny what his anguished eyes were absorbing. Two guards were brutalizing a naked young man, his arms suspended from the ceiling. They walked away, leaving their tools behind. The victim's head dropped on his chest, which was heaving terrifically. Painfully, the head came up, his bruised and battered face beseeched Ezra. His sweat-soaked hair curled up as it always did when wet, and the cries of pain lanced through Ezra like a knife. But it was the soft call for help that broke his heart.

"Chris..." The lone, unswollen eye pleaded, following the weak voice. Startlingly blue, it pierced right through Ezra.

"Vin..." He screamed in his mind, "Sweet Jesus, what have I done?"

+ + + + + + +

It was winter and the magical snow white wonderland lie in front on him. The sheer majestic glory of the Rockies took his breath away. He embraced the cold, inhaling the purity of the mountain air. A motor revving distracting him and he turned, grinning drunkenly at his best friend.

"Ready Cowboy?" the voice beckoned, from atop the Snowcat.

"Let's make a blizzard..." Vin declared, climbing on the recreational vehicle and holding onto Chris, as they sped off, in a cloud of snow and a volley of whooping.

Just as quickly, it was gone. The hands of fate slapped him hard in the face, sending a ripple of pain through him. His body jerked to life, reality slammed into him full force, shattering his mind and ripping through him. The levity of the situation caused a spasm of coughing, spewing phlegm and with it, all of his hope. The fading image of Chris high in the mountain on that glorious day last winter caused a hoarse cry to be torn from his raw throat.

He eyed the bleeding blackness and all thoughts of safety, warmth and home were cruelly stolen from him. As the thief stole away, all hope of seeing his brothers again disappeared like a fine mist. He'd never hear Josiah's booming laugh, J.D.'s enthusiastic screaming when they played hockey, Nathan's nasty voice when one of them was hiding an injury, Ezra...God was Ezra's body nearby...He felt tears slipping down his flushed face..."Mr. Tanner fucked up good, Ez...I'm sorry." He croaked. And what of Buck...whose warm smile, boisterous laugh and noble heart were like no other. Sierra...who'd captured his heart...he ached thinking of the loss of her. Then there was Chris..." his heart broke, at the thought of how the one person who truly knew him and shared his soul, would be shattered. He pushed the image away; it was too painful to linger on. As his wavered on the edge of consciousness, the painful realization that he was going to die in this damp, dark, cold dungeon, naked and alone, became too painful to bear. Without anyone he cared about near him, he sighed deeply and let himself go.

+ + + + + + +

Every nerve in his immobilized body screamed endlessly as Ezra was forced to watch Vin's horrific ordeal. The gambler's green eyes were raw as they encountered each burning frame. He tried to push the images away as questions circulated. What was Vin doing down here? How did

Carlino get his hands on Vin? Vin was suspended and should have been off duty. But he wouldn't have been, not him. That name of his meant too much. The lanky sharpshooter would have gone to any extent to clear his name. The endless images of Vin's silent screams caused a pain such as Ezra never felt. Despite his rule to keep his relationships professional and at arm’s length, this band of warriors, his teammates, had somehow crept inside. And leading that parade, was a quiet, blue-eyed Texan. By all logic, the two should have nothing in common. But Vin Tanner was the first person Ezra considered a close friend. It was Vin who understood him better than any other and had accepted him from the beginning. Even during some skirmishes where the rest had their doubts, Vin's loyalty never wavered. How had he been repaid?

Ezra sank back deeper into the plush leather seat. He wished he could see the Texan's face furrow up as Vin tried to disassemble some of the Southerner's rambling dialogue or see that childlike grin and mischievous twinkle in those blue eyes or even feel that iron assurance that his back was safe during every undercover assignment, knowing far above 'the Eagle' was perched and poised.

"I have to give that bastardo credit," Roberto toasted Vin with a glass of champagne, He didn't crack, not until he saw you." The Italian enjoyed the sick look on Ezra's face.

"It was my idea..." Gia purred, head resting on Roberto's shoulder. His well-trained hand was caressing her, "His type only knows one kind of sacrifice, the stupid noble fool," She laughed. "He found out about my dirty little secrets," She frowned, "I still don't know how he pulled that off, he's quite clever, no matter, we had to find out what else he knew. But we couldn't break him, despite our best efforts." She paused watching the color run out of Ezra's face, save the eyes, which were icy green, "Temper, temper, Darling, mustn't upset yourself..." She warned, then smiled deliciously as his eyes filled with unbridled rage as Vin's face contorted in silent screams of agony. "It was then that I realized how to loosen those wonderful lips of his," She leaned forward and stroked Ezra's clammy face, "That's where you came in, you were the star player of the end of the video. Just think how your pathetic friend must have felt after all he'd endured, only to be defeated by a gun at your head."

Ezra'a jaw clenched in agony and rage as the picture that was laid out for Vin came into his head. The depths of the courage the younger man had shown were unknown to the Gambler. The quiet Texan had willingly traded his life, thinking Ezra would be spared. He considered himself to be able to read people. His international lifestyle had introduced him to woman in all walks of life. The pain of losing Cambria was replaced by the burning desire to silence the pretender's cruel mouth.

"I'm not worth it," Ezra thought eyeing Vin writhing on the screen, "You're the best of us, Vin, didn't you know that?"

As much as he wanted to close his eyes and tear himself away from the gruesome video, he didn't dare. He started putting together the pieces of Roberto's plan. He recalled the cars leaving the villa as he woke up. Undoubtedly, they were waiting nearby. Most likely, to whisk Roberto and the vipress to safety up north. The warehouse, he hadn't been able to ascertain where that was, but probably that is where the Colombians would be meeting them. By the bits and pieces of the conversation, he assumed it wasn't today.

The black sky turned indigo, as the sun started to shake off her slumber. Ezra felt a glimmer of hope as his fingers and toes began to tingle. His face remained a mask, but his brain recalled the amount of coffee dumped before departure. He wiggled his toes and felt the numbness leaving. The car slowed up and drew to a halt.

She leaned over and stroked his cheek; "It's been real, Darling. Don't worry, the Fedarales will be here in about a half-hour. They're very good friends of Dom and Roberto's. Ciao!"

"You'll like my friends from the local police force," Roberto leered, climbing out of the car. "They hate drug dealers and I've told them that you have killed several of their own. Have fun..."

Marty went to unlock his safety belt and discovered he was trapped. His eyes widened in shock just about the time the bullet pierced his skull. Ezra heard the car leaving and resumed his motions. It took a Herculean effort, but his fingers began to move. He unclasped his belt and began twitching and trembling. It was a painful process and his muscles screamed. It took ten minutes but he was able to move. He unlocked the door and fell out onto the desert carpet on all fours. He pulled himself painfully to his feet and wobbled, shaking out the tingling limbs.

"Pull yourself together, Son," He croaked, "We haven't got a minute to spare."

The cool desert air blew in from the rosy cheeks of dawn. As he eyed the unfamiliar terrain, he tried to come up with a plan. It might be one mile or twenty to the border. Every second he wasted was one Vin needed. The Federales would be here any minute; he couldn't dwell any longer. He threw Marty's body out of the car and rummaged under the seat. He found a loaded .44 and put it in his waistbelt. From the glove compartment, he withdrew a small tablet of paper and eyed the video player underneath. He pulled out the tape and scratched a hasty note. He slid behind the wheel.

Gazing at the horizon, he saw the brush, rocks and scrub of the Sonorran desert. He recalled Josiah stating the Border Patrol helicopters fly low over a ten-mile radius. He gazed at the body on the ground and stuck the video in Marty's pocket. He didn't have time to wait for a possible patrol. Vin could be dying and no one would stop him from retrieving his friend. He put the car in gear and raced back towards the villa.

"Hold on Mr. Tanner," Ezra cried out and then sent a heartfelt prayer on the wind, "Please God, don't let him die."


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