Disclaimer: Litigation will only get you possession of an eye-watering Visa bill and a woman already possessed by these guys anyway.
Pairing: "Hello, my name is Firefox and I am a Buck/Ezra addict."
Author's Notes: I did it - my first ever H/C fic! Its taken me forever, but my muse appears to have come out of her coma at last! My thanks to all who have helped with this - Sue, Joan, Mags et al, all of whom speak my Mother-tongue better than what I do. I should also mention the astonishing courage of Jon Peters and John Nichol, whose true story, Tornado Down, inspired much of Ezras thought process whilst in captivity.
Slash ahead (eventually <g>) so if Buck n Ez aint your thing, the delete key can be found by your right hand.
All feedback and comments welcome very rusty writer in action!
The slatted window blinds were drawn against the bright sunlight outside, bathing the conference room in that strange, soupy afternoon twilight known mainly to adulterers and federal agents on a case. Team Seven sat around the large table, all eyes focused on Ezra Standish, or more precisely, on the row of figures in the large black and white picture projected on the wall. Ezra was explaining the lineup, using a slim pointer to indicate which person was which.
This is the man they all refer to as Uncle Ho, Ezra said, tapping the image of a diminutive, elderly oriental man, clad in a dark suit and wearing thin-rimmed spectacles. My instincts are that he is the probably the founding father of this little enterprise, although I fear it will be nigh on impossible to actually obtain any incriminating evidence that proves that fact. These people are far too clever to allow any kind of trail to be left behind them paper or otherwise.
He paused, consulting the pages of notes spread out on the table in front of him.
Buck Wilmington frowned. Ezra looked tired. Even in the poor light inside the room, Standishs face looked pale and drawn, his forehead creased with tension, the faint lines at the corner of his eyes deeper than usual. His voice sounded dry and throaty, and his normal quicksilver wit was absent. Buck tried to ignore the swift ache that clutched at him when he thought about just how tired Ezra must be for it to be obvious to anyone else. Normally the epitome of calm control, Standish always gave the impression of a suave and unruffled exterior, no matter what was going on beneath the designer suits. Buck pushed his worry to the back of his mind, at least for the moment. Ezra needed the whole team behind him, all of them firing on all cylinders, if they were ever going to solve this.
This case was proving to be a sonofabitch. Nearly three months and they were still heaven-only-knew how far away from cracking it. The frustration and tension were getting to everyone, but their undercover operative was the one bearing most of the weight.
Chris Larabee pinched the bridge of his nose between his forefinger and thumb, trying to delay the headache that he could feel building behind his eyes. This case was beginning to get to all of them. Too many late nights chasing leads that went nowhere, fruitless hours spent searching records, tracking paperwork and reading endless reports, and all for nothing. They were taking one step forward and two steps back, and the strain was starting to tell. He looked at Ezra, and his thoughts mirrored Bucks. Standish looked tired. If they didnt get a breakthrough with this soon he was going to ask for some help, although he knew only too well what Ezras reaction would be to that. Ezra was good undercover no, better than good, he was one of the very best, but he liked to work alone, using his chameleon-like qualities to blend into whatever environment was required. The man was a superb actor, with a repertoire of characters that he could carry off with almost effortless charm and ease, but he liked to be his own boss out in the field. Normally, Chris gave him what he wanted, allowing Ezra far more latitude than he would most agents, knowing that the Southerner needed to immerse himself totally in his role to perform at his very best. Unconventional, maybe, but this team didnt have the best clear-up record in the state for nothing, and Chris believed totally in playing to his agents strengths. They could all be difficult, dissenting, disrespectful and downright bloody-minded at times, but somehow this bunch of misfits had gelled into a team most ATF field offices could only dream about.
Which, he chided himself sharply, was what he was doing. With a small shake of his head, he re-focused on the glaring image on the wall.
Four unsmiling oriental faces stared back at him. Uncle Ho, two rather stereotypical heavies Ezra had named as Sam and Leo less oriental names Chris would have been hard-pressed to come up with, and a slim, handsome man with long, arrow straight black hair and a haughty expression whose name they had yet to hear.
The four figures represented the highest layer of Blue Dragon Imports that Ezra had yet accessed, and Chris found himself hoping that his mercurial undercover agent had, at long last, reached the top of this particular family tree.
Blue Dragon had been under investigation for some time, and it wasnt just the ATF who were interested in them. Whispers from the DEA and the FBI had been heard in federal circles, but Chris wasnt interested in treading on any other agencys toes. His team, or more precisely Ezra, had been working tirelessly for all these weeks trying to prove a connection between Blue Dragons importation of fireworks and the sudden glut of cheap explosives that seemed to be in the trunk of every car used by every two-bit safecracker, burglar, thief and low-life in Denver who knew how to strike a match or set a fuse. An innocent bystander and two suspected perpetrators had been killed by this deadly, unstable new explosive that the criminals seemed to be obtaining with no apparent effort, and all roads seemed to lead to Blue Dragon.
Chris knew that somehow the company were importing illegal explosives along with their legitimate Chinese fireworks. All he had to do was prove it. Which was easier said than done.
Another black and white image filled the wall the same young man with the long hair, this time accompanied by a small, pretty oriental woman. This is the man they call Tang, Ezra said, the young woman with him is Mai Lin, whom he refers to as his niece, although I find that difficult to believe.
Why? Chris asked.
Ezra shrugged. Their treatment of her is odd, to say the least. She works in the offices of the company, I suspect as a bookkeeper or clerk, but they do not treat her as a member of the family. I suspect that there is more to her than meets the eye.
She might be your way in, Ez, Buck said, if you could get close to her, maybe she might be willing to part with a few company secrets.
Ezra grinned ruefully. As I said, their treatment of her is odd. In all the visits I have made there, she has never been left alone in a room with me, even for a moment. I have attempted to make polite conversation, but she has never acknowledged me, other than with a nod. Not one word has passed between us, despite numerous attempts.
Buck shrugged. I guess you either got it or you dont, he grinned at Standish. Sounds like you could do with a little of the Wilmington animal magnetism.
Chris rolled his eyes at Buck. Did it ever occur to you that the girl may not even speak English?
Thats a possibility, Ezra said, she never seems to answer the phone or the door, and I have never seen her conversing with anyone apart from Tang and the others, when of course, she speaks Mandarin.
Pretty hard to charm a lady with sweet words when she cant understand em, Chris said pointedly to Buck, who just snorted.
Hell, sometimes you need ta use a lil imagination!
Ezra was handing out photocopied pages of import documentation, sales and purchase ledgers from the company books, and copies of the photographs they had all seen projected on the wall.
Well all take a break, Chris said as he took the papers from Ezras hand, get some coffee and fresh air in here, then well brainstorm and see if we can work out how to crack this Chinese puzzle.
Ezra looked relieved at his Team Leaders wry smile.
You okay Ezra? Chris asked, although he already knew the answer.
Yes, thank you. A little tired, and more than a little frustrated with the slow progress of my endeavours, but otherwise Im fine.
Chris knew this to be a lie. Standish was working hard at this, his cover as a potential mob explosives buyer was complicated and dangerous, and Chris knew the risks Ezra had to be taking, even to the extent of coming here today to update them all. He clasped a hand on Ezras shoulder. Be careful.
A dimpled smile flashed at him. I always am.
Ezra? Buck held out a steaming mug of coffee, sokay, I didnt let Josiah or Vin anywhere near it, he grinned.
Ezra took the mug gratefully, taking a long pull of the hot brew. His eyebrows shot up in surprise as his taste buds registered something that seemed dangerously like good whisky, and Buck gave him a large wink and an even larger smile.
Thank you, Ezra said quietly, returning the smile.
Buck was not enjoying this case in the least, and would not be able to relax until it was all over, the bad guys firmly behind bars. He didnt like Ezra being undercover alone like this at the best of times, but this particular case was giving him the jitters a sensation he was both unfamiliar and uncomfortable with. He missed the company of his sharp-witted friend, missed the easy banter and relaxed atmosphere that now surrounded them in their down-time hours at evenings and weekends.
There were other things about Ezra he missed as well - things he had only admitted to himself. The ready smile that could light up the leaf-green eyes in an instant, the way Ezra's hands moved when he talked, punctuating his quick words with expressive movements that gave Buck a sensation of warmth that kept him awake nights thinking about it. Wilmington wasn't burdened with any guilt about his feelings, but first and foremost he was Ezra's friend and team mate, and those things were paramount, at least until this case was solved.
This damned case. This case that was robbing him of opportunities to be with Ezra.
The teams usual table at the Saloon seemed oddly incomplete without Standish, and Buck had found himself leaving Chriss Sunday team-lunch at the Larabee ranch early for the last couple of weeks, unable to enjoy himself when he thought about how Ezra was being forced to spend his Sundays and equally unable to do anything to share the burden.
Bucks caring personality what the others always referred to as mother-henning always made him uneasy when one of the team was under stress, and this case seemed to be loading more than a fair share of that stress onto Ezra. Buck just wanted it finished, then maybe he could relax.
Watch your back now, Slick, yhear? he said gently, placing a large hand on Ezras arm.
Fear not, Mr Wilmington, when it comes to these people, I am developing 360 degree vision.
Buck pulled the car as near to the basement parking level door as he could, and Ezra slipped from the stairwell into the back seat. He was as sure as he could be that no-one had tailed him on his visit to the ATF building, but still took careful precautions to maintain his cover.
Buck drove carefully, making random right and left turns, checking all the time in his mirror for a tail vehicle. There was no sign of anything suspicious. Finally he turned onto a street in the area nicknamed 'the Butcher's Block', in reference to the many small alternative medical practitioners who had set up business there. The area was full of aromatherapists, herbalists, quick-fix beauticians and quacks, and Buck knew it would be quiet at this time of the evening, when nearly all of them were closed for business. He turned onto a quiet side street, from where Ezra could hail a cab back to the rented apartment he was using for the duration of the case.
You take it easy now, Ezra, and keep us up to speed, yhear? You need me, you just holler. Buck hoped his voice didnt betray too much of the concern he was experiencing. This damned case was making him jumpy.
Ezra smiled appreciatively. You have my word, Buck, if I need you, rest assured I will have no hesitation in 'hollering'. With a quick clasp of Bucks shoulder he was gone, slipping out of the car and onto the street.
As Buck pulled away, Ezra began walking in the other direction. The light was beginning to fail, the earlier sunlight now replaced with a thick layer of cloud that would make the darkness fall more swiftly, and a stiff breeze made Ezra shiver slightly. He buttoned up his trenchcoat, and began to look for a cab.
Neither of them saw the figure standing in the deepening shadows on the other side of the street.
The hospital seemed to be full of people. Nearly all the hard-backed chairs were occupied, and a constant trickle of medical staff and patients were coming and going from the consulting and treatment rooms that surrounded the open plan waiting area.
Mai Lin was nervous. She sat with her head bowed, occasionally glancing up from under her long fringe, looking at the cross section of humanity who surrounded her. Tang sat beside her, severe and straight in his dark suit, his eyes looking straight ahead, but seemingly not focused on anything. They had been waiting here for a long time, but Mai Lin didn't mind that in the least. She was enjoying seeing so many different people, hearing all the different voices, looking at some of the strange clothes these people seemed to wear. It was fascinating, but a little overwhelming. For her to be here at all was surprising enough. She knew she had diabetes, had known for several years, but this was the first time anyone had mentioned anything about having her eyes examined for it. Uncle Ho had told her about something called a 'retinal scan' which was supposed to tell them whether or not her eyes were getting worse from the diabetes. He had said it was necessary and that she would have to go to the clinic at the hospital for the examination, as their Chinese doctor did not have the machine for testing whatever it was they were looking for. He had said it rather grudgingly, but at least she was here.
She looked at the low table in front of her. An untidy pile of magazines and newspapers were scattered on the top, their glossy covers creased and bent from many people turning the pages. She reached out for one, then suddenly froze, looking up at Tang. He nodded his permission.
"Yes, read," he said stiffly, "it will help your English."
She didn't mention that she understood far more English than Tang and Uncle Ho realised. She could understand nearly all of the words the English customers said, especially if they didn't talk too fast.
She picked up the top magazine from the pile. It was a copy of the hospital newsletter, there was a photograph on the front page of the building they were sitting in, and an article about a new 'paediatric' wing opening. Mai Lin didn't know what 'paediatric' meant, but soon realised that it had something to do with children.
She studied the words and was surprised that she could understand much of what they said. A few words eluded her, but the meaning of the articles was clear. As she turned a page, there were many photographs of smiling people, all standing behind huge cheques, all of which had been given to the hospital for the new children's wing. Mai Lin looked at all the pictures, at the smiling faces, at the happy hospital staff.
Suddenly her blood ran cold. Under a heading saying 'Federal agencies raise money for scanner', was a photograph of several men, again holding an over-sized cheque. She stared hard at the man on the right of the photograph. Her blood began to pound in her ears. She was sure it was the man she had seen driving the car that had dropped off Mr Sinclair last week.
She looked again, wondering if she had made a mistake. She had only seen him behind the wheel of the car, but he had a lot of dark hair and a dark moustache, like the man in the photograph. He hadn't seen her, of course. Tang had taken her to the Chinese doctor Uncle Ho used, in a different part of town from the factory, and she had been waiting outside whilst he paid for the appointment. She had seen the car pull up across the street, and Mr Sinclair getting out. He had walked down the street, away from her. She hadn't thought anything of it at the time - simply one of their customers who she had recognised on the street, and Tang had appeared a few moments later and scolded her for not waiting for him inside. She had been going to tell him that she had seen Mr Sinclair, but his bad mood had made her think better of it, and she had remained silent.
The wording under the photograph said that the men in the picture were 'federal agency representatives' and mentioned the FBI, DEA and ATF. Mai Lin didn't really know what the difference was between the letters, the only ones she recognised were 'FBI', and she didn't really understand exactly what the FBI did, only that they were like policemen. Tang had told her that Mr Sinclair was interested in purchasing some 'unusual items' for 'business associates', and he had said it with that smile of his that turned her blood to ice. She had assumed that meant that Mr Sinclair was not the kind of man who would associate with 'federal agency representatives'.
Perhaps Mr Sinclair was in trouble with the policemen. Perhaps thats why he had been in that car with the man with the moustache. But the policeman had just let him go - no handcuffs, nothing to show that he was in trouble.
Suddenly her heart missed a beat. Another thought crossed her mind.
Perhaps Mr Sinclair was a policeman?
She closed the magazine as fast as she could without drawing Tang's attention, and replaced it on the table, making sure to cover it up as she made a show of selecting another one. This one was full of half-dressed, stick-thin women, grinning at the camera with saucer eyes and huge white smiles that made her wince. She wasn't really looking at the pictures though, and she certainly wasn't concentrating on the words.
She was wondering how she could get to speak to Mr Sinclair alone. If she was right about him
For the first time since she had arrived in this strange, confusing country, Mai Lin allowed herself to think that she might be able to be free. A tiny smile bowed her mouth.
And if she were wrong?
She pushed her lips together in a tight line, squashing the smile out of existence. If she were wrong, well, some things were worse than being dead.
Blue Dragon Imports was housed in an old, run-down industrial unit, in a part of town from where the more profitable and fashionable businesses had long since departed. A rambling, ramshackle building, with a large storage area that boasted more holes in the roof than a good Swiss cheese, a factory processing area - dim and dirty, ill-lit and draughty, and a smattering of offices, most of which were clustered at the front of the building, overlooking the pot-holed, scabrous asphalt that covered the parking lot it shared with the vacant unit on the right, and the always-deserted 'Eastern Delight Fashion' on the left.
Ezra pulled up outside in the rented BMW he had been using. Not for the first time he thought that OSHA would shut this place down in a second, if they ever found out it was here. Ezra didn't want to think of the list of safety and fire regulations that this place was flouting.
The only new item in sight as he trotted up the three steps to the entrance, was the small, neatly painted sign beside the door saying; 'Blue Dragon Imports - please ring the bell', with an ornate and rather comically-faced blue dragon painted below the words.
He did as instructed, hearing the bell sound inside. A few moments later the door opened and the enormous figure of Sam filled the door frame. Ezra suppressed a shudder. Sam would have made two of Nathan and Josiah added together. A huge, moon-faced man, in a shiny tan suit that was so tight it threatened to give up the ghost at any second and simply rend itself in half, he walked with a waddle any ballerina would be proud of, his almost expressionless face constantly sheened in sweat. True to form, his face registered no expression when he looked at Ezra on the doorstep, but he gave a very slight bow of his head, and opened the door wider, standing to one side to allow Ezra to enter - a feat of no small significance, as Sam almost filled the lobby corridor.
Ezra smiled at him, then opened the door to the main 'reception', on the left of the corridor. The small room was painted white, with a worn grey linoleum floor and anti-burglary metal grilles at the windows, and contained two small upholstered seating units and a scuffed white melamine coffee table. The walls were decorated with the kind of oriental art Ezra associated with Chinese take-out establishments - gaudy calendars and lurid bamboo hangings with impossible-looking birds and weirdly twisted trees on them, but at least they were a splash of colour in the shabby surroundings.
Tang appeared a few moments later from his office on the far side of the reception room. He was smiling, and bowed politely to Ezra, who returned it, before extending his hand in the more recognised western greeting. They shook hands and Tang motioned Ezra to follow him into his private office.
"You would like coffee, Mr Sinclair?" he said politely, "or perhaps tea?"
"Tea would be very nice, thank you."
Ezra knew that Mai Lin would be responsible for the drinks, and her attempts to master coffee-making were still very much in their infancy. The only person he knew who made more indigestible coffee than Mai Lin was Mr Tanner, and Vin didn't have Mai Lin's excuse of not being familiar with the recipe.
Tang clapped his hands, and Mai Lin bustled into the room, bowing quickly when she caught sight of Ezra. Ezra was momentarily surprised as he thought he caught a blush rising on her face, but his surprise did not register on his features. He looked at the young woman, but as usual, she would not meet his eyes.
"Tea, please, for Mr Sinclair and myself," Tang said, oblivious, and Mai Lin nodded, backing out of the room as quickly as she had entered.
"You and your niece are well, I trust?" Ezra said conversationally, sitting down and opening his briefcase.
Tang nodded. "Very well, thank you."
Ezra produced a bottle of single malt whisky from the interior of the case, and handed it to Tang, who took it with a smile and a bow of his head. "I really should bring something for your niece on my next visit, what can you suggest that she might like?" he asked.
Tang's response was immediate, he shook his head and frowned. "My niece is well looked after by her family, Mr Sinclair. All her needs are met by us, her relatives. For a gentleman to bring her gifts would be inappropriate."
Ezra nodded. Buck was right, he was going to have to use a 'li'l imagnation'.
A few minutes later, whilst Ezra and Tang were discussing shipping operations, the door opened again and Mai Lin appeared, carrying a tray bearing two delicate china cups and saucers. To Ezra's amazement, she handed him the cup and looked straight into his face, something she had never done before. The glance was fleeting, but a definite connection. She placed Tang's cup on the desk in front of him, and with another swift look at Ezra, retreated from the room.
Ezra looked at the cup of tea in his hand. As always, the china was good quality, a silver spoon in the saucer, and a small paper coaster positioned between the cup and saucer to catch any drips. He didn't allow the consternation he felt to show on his face. Changing hands, placing the saucer in his left and picking up the cup in his right, he caught sight of the letters hastily inked on the paper coaster under the cup. Two words, in tiny writing. "Help please."
He replaced the cup swiftly, and looked across at Tang, who was absorbed in the papers in front of him and had noticed nothing.
Ezra thought fast. There was no way he would be able to talk to Mai Lin alone, but he had to let her know he had received and understood her message. Keeping Tang occupied with the most inane and complicated question he could think of, he swiftly drained the tea from the cup, ensuring that he kept the saucer tilted towards himself.
Replacing the empty cup and saucer on the desk, he made a show of lifting his briefcase onto his lap, the open lid allowing him a little cover. He extracted one of the business cards he was using for the case, with his undercover name and cellphone number on and, under the pretext of writing a note of the costings Tang was giving him, wrote the address of the ATF building on the reverse of the card.
Before he could add anything else, Tang rose from his seat, and Ezra had to cover the card with some papers from his case. He kept Tang talking, almost unconsciously, the greater part of his concentration trying to work out how he could pass the card to Mai Lin without being seen.
Suddenly, Tang noticed the empty cup. "Did you enjoy your tea, Mr Sinclair?" he asked, and Ezra saw his opportunity.
He nodded. "Delicious, as always, and very refreshing. I just wish it came in larger cups!"
Tang smiled. "Would you care for some more?"
Ezra smiled back. "If it's no trouble, that would be most agreeable."
Tang called for Mai Lin, and Ezra, silently thanking whatever angels had decided he should practice card tricks for amusement, lifted the saucer, carefully concealing the small business card by holding it flat to the underside.
Mai Lin appeared, and Ezra stared straight into her eyes, willing her to understand and silently wishing he had some of Buck's seemingly unfailing ability when it came to communicating with the fairer sex.
Tang said something that Ezra took to be a request for more tea, in rapid Mandarin, and with a bob of her head, she reached out for Ezra's cup, which he placed carefully and solidly into her hand, trying to ensure that she could feel the card concealed under the saucer.
There was a momentary flash of something in her eyes, but it was gone in an instant, and she took the cup, saucer and the card, and carried it from the room.
Buck couldn't sleep.
For the second time that night he woke with a start, his heart pounding uncomfortably in his ribs, his breathing erratic, his limbs almost shaking, feeling as if he had been running.
It was the dream that had woken him.
One of those nebulous, fragmented dreams that disappear like smoke in the wind as soon as your eyes open. Someone had been offering him something, asking him to take it, but every time he tried he couldn't reach it. He had stretched out for it, trying to grasp it, but his reach was just too short. He was so close to it, but couldn't quite see what it was. A voice had been calling him, asking him something, but he couldn't make out the words, couldn't recognise the voice. Then the voice had turned into tinkling bells, like wind chimes, and strange music. Chinese music.
He shivered, though he felt drenched with sweat.
His stomach churned.
He reached for the glass of water on the nightstand, and was surprised at how much his hand was trembling. He made a fist, clenching it as tight as he could, then stretched out his fingers, trying to quell the quivering in his muscles.
It was this case. This damned case. It was getting inside his head and that was bad news. He sat up, scrubbing a hand across his face, annoyed with himself.
He took several deep breaths, sipping the water in between, forcing himself to calm down.
What was he afraid of? No, not afraid, it wasn't fear he felt, it was something else. He was used to fear, used to responding to it in a way that could turn it into a positive force, make it work for you instead of against you. This was something else. He felt as if he were losing control of something, letting it slip away from him, no matter what he did to try and stop it.
Why now? Why this case? What was so different about this case? Why had this one got under his skin and given him nightmares?
The answer to all those questions was the same.
The same as the answer to why he couldn't sleep.
A chilling sense of foreboding washed over Buck, making his skin crawl. He could not shake the sense that something was very wrong, but he had no focus, no definite target for his misgivings.
He glanced at the bedside clock. It was only 1.30am. Hell, Ezra wouldn't even be in bed yet. Buck would phone him, just make sure everything was okay, reassure himself that it was simply his 'mother-hen' instincts getting the better of him. He reached for the phone, but stopped himself half way.
This was absolutely ridiculous.
Ezra had been undercover before, for God's sake!
There was nothing about this case that made it any different from dozens upon dozens of others!
Ezra would not appreciate Buck checking up on him like some over-protective nanny, just because of some half-assed dream.
Ezra had enough to think about, without Buck making it worse.
Chiding himself for behaving like an idiot, Buck pummelled the pillow back into shape and lay down again, closing his eyes and willing himself to sleep.
In his rented apartment, Ezra looked for the thousandth time at his cellphone, although he knew the chances of it ringing were almost nil.
He wondered what Mai Lin was doing, and why she had taken the terrible risk of asking him for his help.
His mind had turned the visit to Blue Dragon over and over, reliving every minute detail.
As far as Mai Lin was concerned, Ezra was simply a buyer, so why would she ask him for help?
Why did she think that he was in a position to give her any kind of assistance?
It made no sense, there was no logic to it, and all Ezra's instincts told him that things which seemed illogical generally weren't, if you were in possession of all the facts. Which meant that he was missing something here.
The only possible explanation for her actions was that, somehow, she had found out he was a federal agent. But how?
Her reasons for not blowing his cover were obvious enough - she was in some sort of trouble and thought he could help her.
Ezra was as certain as he could be that Mai Lin would not be able to call him, but he intended to re-visit Blue Dragon as soon as possible. This new twist may have provided him with exactly the leverage he needed to crack this case.
Yawning, he finally decided to turn in for the night. Mulling over the events of the day would not change anything for the moment.
He shivered momentarily as he slid between the cold sheets, but he was asleep within minutes.
In his dream, Ezra could smell something. Smoke? No, something sharper, more acidic. It seemed to fill his nose, his mouth, his lungs, and he gasped for breath, choking and coughing. He tried to shout. To call out Buck's name. He felt himself sinking, falling down into something, a heavy weight pressing down on him, his head spinning. A moon-face appeared - huge and threatening, with empty eyes and a vacant expression.
His eyes flew open, the blood freezing in his veins as the face suddenly took shape, real, definite shape, close above him, a hand pressing a cloth over his nose and mouth, the acrid stench of chloroform searing his nose and throat.
But the eyes in this face weren't empty and the expression wasn't vacant.
These eyes sparked with something terrible, and the face was smiling strangely.
Buck was late.
He had finally dropped off to sleep sometime just before dawn and, inevitably, had then fallen into a deep sleep and missed the alarm clock.
He had clambered out of bed, cursing, dived into a tepid shower, then brushed his teeth and run his electric razor over his face with one hand, whilst trying to get dressed with the other.
It was a tetchy and fractious Wilmington that climbed into his old Chevy and begged her to start without a problem. Two turns of the key, and the ancient engine roared into life.
"Thank you darlin'!" He blew a kiss to the old car, then set off as fast as he could into the rush-hour traffic.
At least one angel seemed to be on his side however, as a car pulled out of a parking space right in front of the ATF building as he approached, saving him the time that searching for a space in the basement parking would inevitably have taken at this time of day.
He swung into the parking space and glanced at his watch. Half an hour late. Chris Larabee was not going to be a happy man.
Buck locked the car and jogged across to the entrance to the building. As he stepped into the foyer, he became aware of a commotion at the reception desk. He would have ignored it - let Murray deal with it, it was his job after all - except he suddenly heard a woman's voice over the hubbub. A voice that sounded upset and frightened, a combination that was almost guaranteed to stop Buck in his tracks. Hell, late was late, and a pissed-off Chris was a pissed-off Chris, whether it be 9.30 or 10a.m.
A young woman's voice could be clearly heard, though Buck couldn't actually locate her in the knot of people surrounding the reception desk. He could see Murray, his hands held out in front of him in what was clearly a 'calm-down' gesture, trying to make himself understood.
"Like I keep saying Miss - you are in the wrong place. This isn't the police station!"
The young woman's voice was heard again. "I come here! He say here, this place! Please, please - you policemen!"
Murray tried again, pointing towards the front doors. "The police station is two blocks that way! You are in the wrong place."
Buck approached the desk. "What's the problem Murray? You harassing a lady? Shame on you! Come on now Miss, can I help ?"
Buck turned, seeing the distraught young Chinese woman and, recognising her instantly, froze in mid-question. Her eyes suddenly widened and her face paled.
"You!" she shouted at Buck.
Buck was momentarily mystified. He knew that she was the girl from the Blue Dragon photographs, but how the hell did she know who he was?
"You!" she said again, with a huge sigh of relief. "You know! Mr Sinclair! He say here - I come here!"
"I keep telling her," Murray said with a long-suffering sigh, "that this ain't the police station and we don't have nobody called Sinclair, but I don't think she understands me."
Buck held his hand out to Mai Lin. "It's okay Murray - take it from me, this young lady is exactly where she needs to be Mai Lin?"
Her eyes grew even wider at the sound of her name. "It's okay - you can come with me - it's quite safe."
Buck pointed to himself. "I'm Buck, and I know Mr Sinclair. Did Mr Sinclair send you to me?"
She nodded. "You police."
He grinned. "Near enough. You come with me, and we'll talk about Mr Sinclair, okay?"
She nodded again. "Please help."
Her words made Buck's breath catch in his throat. "Murray, " he said to the desk agent, "you sign her in under my name, but no-one is to know she is here - you got that?"
"If anyone comes looking for her, you did not see her and this conversation never happened."
Murray nodded again, wishing he had even one tenth of this goddamned thing Wilmington seemed to have that gave him such power over women.
"And phone Chris and tell him to drop whatever he's doing, I'm on my way upstairs!"
"Who are you?"
"What do you want?"
The questions seemed to come from a long way off, they sounded muffled and indistinct.
Ezra fought to open his eyes, trying to quell the nausea in his stomach and the sharp pain in his throat and chest, the after-effects of the chloroform. Finally, he managed to persuade his eyes to open, and almost instantly wished that he hadn't made the effort.
He was sitting in a chair. That much he established fairly quickly. A hard-backed, wooden chair. He was wearing the same t-shirt and sweatpants he had worn to bed, but he couldn't quite remember what had happened after that.
A dim light shone from somewhere above him, he could see his shadow projected onto the dirty concrete floor, but all around him, outside the circle of light, was darkness.
His head throbbed painfully.
"Who are you?"
He could not locate the questioner. He tried to take a deep breath, but the searing pain in his chest stopped him inhaling. Where was he? What was happening?
"Did you really think you could get away with it?"
He coughed, wincing at the pain in his dry throat. "What?" he croaked.
Suddenly, he was lifted bodily from behind the chair and flung across the room, landing awkwardly on his side. Another pair of arms lifted him from the dusty floor, holding him upright.
"Who are you?"
A foot suddenly kicked him hard behind the knees and he pitched forwards, face down in the dirt.
He was lifted again, seemingly with no effort, to a standing position.
"I am a patient man Mr Sinclair. I can wait. Be assured, you will tell me what I need to know."
A figure stepped out of the shadows, into the circle of dim light.
"Now, shall we start again?" Tang said with a chilling smile.
A fist suddenly buried itself in Ezra's solar plexus, totally knocking the breath from his body. Red dots floated before his eyes and his vision blurred. The arms holding him tensed, then threw him back across the room onto the floor, where he landed like a discarded rag doll, arms flung wide. A foot appeared, and stamped down hard into the joint of his left wrist.
Ezra gasped, trying not to cry out.
"Believe me Mr Sinclair, you will tell me what I want to know."
With a terrible feeling of dread in his stomach, Ezra thought that Tang was probably right.