Lessons Unlearned

by Beth Green

Characters: Ezra, Maude, Vin

WARNING: This ain't your warm and fuzzy Little Britches story. I'm serious. There are some very bad, bad men in this story. This story is unsuited for sensitive readers, with warnings regarding language and violence.

Author's Notes: This story was written in return for Carolyn's generous donation to the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. I thank her for the story ideas, as well as her beta work. Any remaining mistakes belong to me.

Ezra Standish was a cautious man. His wariness was not innate. Rather, he had been schooled in the subject from an early age, courtesy of his mother's faithful tutelage. His mother Maude had been an excellent teacher. To this day, he could recall her words verbatim.

"Ezra, self-preservation is the most important lesson you'll ever learn. The reason for that is simple: people are no damn good. They are all, each and every one of them, looking out for themselves. Some are just more obvious about it than others. You need to live by this rule, and remember it well: you are the most important person there is."

That rule was most often associated in his memories with another of Maude's life lessons: "Be aware of everything, and trust no one. If someone can use you to his own personal benefit, he will. That's why you need to use him first. You will go far in this life if you remember to do unto others before they can do unto you."

Ezra remembered well the first time his mother had ever instructed him in that particular lesson. Maude had managed to secure for both herself and her son an invitation to a wedding whose attendees included many members of society's upper class. Her objective was to obtain funds from a wealthy patron by establishing a personal relationship with her chosen prey.

His seven-year-old self had learned much in his few short years. Ezra was familiar enough with his mother's modus operandi that he was aware that Maude was also looking for someone to temporarily care for her son in order that she might more effectively pursue her goal. Being aware of something did not mean that one had to like it.

After making her point regarding mankind's basic selfishness, Maude had instructed him further. "Look around you."

The young boy's head obediently swiveled in response to the command. The motion stopped when a hand swatted at his head.

His mother corrected, "No, not like that! You want to look around without anyone knowing what you're doing. Like this." Maude proceeded to demonstrate. While tossing inane conversation in his direction, her eyes took in every detail of their surroundings. When she needed to turn to improve her view, the motion was natural and unremarkable.

She commented, "There is a man observin' me. I want you to find him and describe him to me, without letting him know that you know that he's watching."

Ezra copied his mother's motions. It took him far longer than the minute of time invested by his mother, but the boy eventually accomplished the task. After committing the man's description to memory, he turned back to face Maude. "He's over in the corner, by the buffet. He's about six feet tall, with brown hair that's gray on the sides, and is wearing a blue pinstriped suit."

Maude gave a fond pat to his shoulder. "Very good. You're learning."

She quizzed him further. "Is the suit high quality or off the rack?"

Ezra answered quickly and correctly, "Off the rack."

Maude responded with a delicate shudder. "You are so correct. I should hope that you would be able to recognize quality, or shall I say, a lack of quality, when you see it. That man is a perfect example of the importance of first impressions. The cut of his suit tells me that he is a person of no consequence. His appearance is living proof of the need for you to occasionally forego the price of a meal or two in order for me to provide you with clothing appropriate to our assumed lifestyle." She offered an additional bit of wisdom that had served Ezra well over the years: "Looks, my dear boy, are everything."

Maude's teachings were especially useful to her son in his current occupation as an undercover specialist.

Today was a case in point. Ezra had stopped in at the local Starbucks. He was waiting in line to purchase a caffé mocha when the hairs on the back of his neck prickled in silent warning. Ezra was familiar with the feeling: he was being observed. The ATF agent's subconscious mind had picked up on that fact. He proceeded to obtain further information for his conscious mind and surveyed his surroundings. In the pretense of searching his pockets for change, Ezra was able to locate his watcher. It was not a difficult task. A man of approximately his own height but older and stockier stood near the entryway. The man ignored the people jostling around him in order to hold his ground and stare directly at Ezra.

Inwardly, Ezra cringed. Outwardly, he remained calm and disinterested. The undercover specialist did not allow his gaze to lock with the watcher's, nor did he give any indication that he was well aware of the man's identity.

Damn! Of all the places in the world, why would Gerald Jenkins be in Colorado? Surely, the man's presence was no coincidence.

Mr. Jenkins' acquaintance with Ezra had resulted in considerable damage to the man's bank account. Fortunately, Ezra had been in disguise at the time, using the alias of Stanley Beamish. There was obviously enough lingering doubt as to Ezra Standish and Stanley Beamish being one and the same that Jenkins did not care to confront Ezra personally; at least, not at this time.

It was small consolation. Ezra's interaction with Mr. Jenkins was purely for the purpose of monetary gain. The undercover operation had not been sanctioned by any law enforcement agency. In a regrettable moment of weakness, Ezra had responded to a request from his mother.

Two Years Earlier

Ezra was impressed. His mother had deigned to make a personal appearance at his apartment. It was the first time that he'd seen her since he'd moved to Atlanta. He suspected that her visit was more than mere coincidence.

"Mother, tell me: does that fact that my employment with the FBI is about to be terminated have anything to do with your unexpected visit?"

Maude's body language illustrated nothing but surprise as she responded, "My dear boy, I had no idea! What happened?"

Ezra could not tell whether or not her ignorance was feigned or genuine. He shrugged mentally, deciding that it didn't matter either way as he provided her with additional details regarding his unfortunate employment.

Maude responded, "Ezra, I swear that I had no idea that you were not still wholly committed to playing the role of FBI agent." She paused, then admitted, "I can't deny that nothing would make me happier than if you were to leave your present employment." Maude raised a hand to stop his automatic protest. "There's no need to defend or denigrate your choice of career."

With an abrupt change of subject, she confessed, "Actually, I'm here to ask a favor."

Ezra sighed. Knowing Maude's devotion to self-interest, he should have expected something of the sort. He waved a hand, silently directing his mother to proceed.

Maude began her sales pitch. "I'm in the middle of something that will provide enough of an income for me to actually consider retirement. The denouement is to take place within the next week. I've been working on it for months." She added, "With a partner." Her distress evident, she continued, "Marvin was suddenly taken ill. He's an accountant and he's absolutely brilliant. It was Marvin who came up with the plan."

Maude proceeded to outline the details. "The mark's name is Gerald Jenkins, and he's a lowlife conman who is currently living off of funds that he stole from a group of investors. I've just about managed to convince the man to contribute his savings to Marvin's little investment scam. It's a variation of the Ponzi scheme, involving a chain of hotels in Florida." Maude continued to describe how she'd managed to thoroughly take in the conman with a con of her own.

Ezra had to admit, the plan was exceedingly well thought out. This 'Marvin' seemed to be another Charles Ponzi. Mr. Ponzi's scam had been so effective that despite the fact that the man had lived over half a century ago, people were still being taken in today by various incarnations of his original con.

His mother concluded, "Mr. Jenkins is ready to meet with my account. That was supposed to be Marvin." Maude leaned in close to Ezra, her eyes wide and pleading as she took both of her son's hands in her own. "Please, will you be my accountant?"

Ezra hesitated. It was true that his bank account was looking extremely anemic. However, if he were caught participating in a con, it would effectively put an end to any further employment in the field of law enforcement. On the other hand, it was quite likely that he would soon lose his job with the FBI, ending his employment regardless of whether or not he assisted his mother.

While Ezra pondered, Maude released his hands. She folded her own hands demurely in her lap. "As much as I am loathe to admit the fact," she sighed, "I'm not getting any younger. Even shared with a partner, Mr. Jenkins' supplementation of my income would be such that I would never have to work again."

Ezra took the time to really look at his mother. She did not flinch away from his scrutiny. Ezra could see the hint of wrinkles and sagging skin that cosmetics could not quite disguise. He frowned at the reminder that his mother's time upon this Earth was finite.

He thought, 'What kind of son would I be if I take away this chance at easy money, this opportunity to provide for my mother in her declining years? Besides, what kind of a fool would I be if I walk away from the chance to obtain a tidy nest egg for myself?'

Ezra decided to ignore the voice of his conscience reminding him that what Maude was suggesting he do was illegal. He stated, "I'll do it."

Maude went over the remainder of the plan with her son, although with some protest on Ezra's part. "Stanley Beamish? What kind of a name is Stanley Beamish?"

Maude explained, "Marvin chose it. After all, he originally cast himself in the role." Maude was preparing to leave when she added, "Oh, and there's one more thing that you should know."

Ezra waited. Maude's sidelong glance suggested that he was not going to like what she was going to say. The agent knew that he'd read his mother's body language correctly when she added, "As far as Mr. Jenkins is concerned, Stanley Beamish and I are lovers."

Ezra nearly backed out when he heard that part of the plan. "You and I? Mother, for God's sake, I'm sorry, no."

Maude scolded, "We don't have to make love in front of the man! Just a little hand-holding and an occasional peck on the cheek should be more than enough to satisfy the requirements of the job."

Ezra reluctantly agreed. "One visit from my mother and I'm agreeing to investment fraud and near-incest. Really, Mother, you ought to visit more often. Who knows what that inventive mind of yours will come up with next?"

Despite Ezra's misgivings, the conning of Mr. Jenkins went down as smoothly as a mint julep on a hot summer's day. So why the hell was the man in Colorado?

The ATF agent had to force himself not to turn and look at Jenkins. Holding to his pretense of a lack of concern, Ezra made his way to the front of the line and obtained his caffé mocha. After he paid for and received his purchase, he headed toward the exit and his waiting nemesis.

Jenkins moved to block the exit at Ezra's approach. The undercover specialist proceeded to give a performance worthy of an Academy Award as he pretended to indifference and a mild annoyance. Ezra raised a brow in polite inquiry as he confronted the human obstruction, waving a hand in a mute gesture of request for the man to move away from the doorway. The agent wanted to avoid speaking if at all possible, not wanting the timbre of his voice to lend credence to Jenkins' suspicions.

Unfortunately, Jenkins did not take the hint. Ezra was forced to speak. Pitching his voice an octave lower and adopting a slight Brooklyn accent, the agent asked, "Do y' mind?" Jenkins remained immobile as more people approached the exit.

Ezra was saved from further interaction when one of the other patrons pushed his way past Jenkins, gruffly ordering the man to, "Move it, Bud!"

Ezra followed in his unknown savior's wake.

+ + + + + + +

On the short drive back to the ATF building, Ezra contemplated the problematic existence of Mr. Jenkins. The last Ezra had heard, Jenkins had been sent away to Eglin Federal Prison in Florida

for five years after having been convicted of defrauding dozens of investors. The man had not gotten away as cleanly with his original crime as he'd thought.

Ezra's mood brightened with that particular recollection. Perhaps Jenkins had escaped from prison. If so, it would be a simple matter for the ATF agent to arrange for the man to be recaptured.

A quick computer search quashed that hope. Jenkins had testified against another white collar criminal and managed to earn himself an early parole. He had been out of prison for nearly three weeks. In that time, he had made his way from Florida to Colorado. Ezra could think of only one reason for Jenkins' presence: Stanley Beamish, also known as Ezra Standish.

Ezra closed the file upon his research with a sigh. At least he would not be surprised the next time Jenkins made an appearance. The ATF agent drummed the fingers of one hand along the top of his desk, contemplating his next step while he mused upon the subject of his accomplice. It would be interesting to see if his partner in crime had also been discovered by the annoying Mr. Jenkins.

The motion of Ezra's hand abruptly stopped with the realization that if that were true, then she might be under observation and not be aware of the fact. Surely that was not possible. And yet -

He picked up the phone and dialed.

A familiar voice answered, "Hello."

Ezra politely replied, "Hello, Mother. I was wondering if you would like to have dinner with me this evening?"

Maude responded, "As long as you're paying."

Ezra answered as was expected. "I was thinking more along the lines of Dutch treat."

He smiled when he detected the approving tone of voice as Maude replied, "When a gentleman issues an invitation to a lady, it's expected that he's the one who'll be covering her expenses."

Ezra reiterated, "When a 'gentleman' invites a 'lady,' yes." His tone of voice suggested that he was not a gentleman, nor was Maude a lady.

He subtly informed her of the purpose of his call by continuing, "I'd like to discuss a certain property in Florida with you." Nothing further needed to be said at present. Ezra had provided enough information to put Maude on alert by reminding her of the last joint venture between mother and son.

She suggested, "Eight o'clock at the Palace Arms?"

"Certainly. I'll book us a table." Ezra was typing on his keyboard as he spoke. An expert at multitasking, he had used the restaurant's online booking service to reserve a table for two before the phone call was completed.

+ + + + + + +

Both Ezra and Maude enjoyed the ambiance of the Palace Arms. It was one of the few area restaurants that still maintained a dress code. Furthermore, one had to look hard to find any menu item that could be described as being low in calories. Ezra dined on the Beef Wellington, while Maude opted for the pricier but equally delicious lobster medallions and shrimp braised in sweet butter.

They delayed discussing business so as not to interfere with their enjoyment of the fine cuisine. They finished the last of their dessert, shaved strawberries covered in chocolate and topped with Chantilly cream. Their discussion was carried out over the Palace Arms' rich Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.

Maude began, "I was surprised to hear you mention the Florida property. I thought that that particular situation was past history."

Ezra grimaced as he replied, "So did I. Unfortunately, I experienced a close encounter of the most annoying kind with Mr. Gerald Jenkins earlier today." Ezra paused a moment to sip at his coffee, just to annoy Maude who was anxiously awaiting his next words.

His mother did not disappoint him as she prodded, "And?"

Ezra allowed a small smile to cross his face. "And he was not certain of my identity. I was visiting the local Starbucks and he confined his behavior to an intense perusal of my person. When I attempted to leave, he stationed himself as a human roadblock to my exit. Fortunately one of the other patrons forcibly removed Mr. Jenkins. I barely spoke two words to the man, and he did not address one word to me personally."

Maude leaned back in her chair and visibly relaxed. She waved off Ezra's concern. "So the man might have thought that you reminded him of the former Stanley Beamish. He'll never be able to prove it."

Ezra frowned. "I don't happen to possess your certainty. The mere fact that Mr. Jenkins is in Colorado rather than in Florida where he belongs gives me cause for concern."

Maude tapped a finger contemplatively against her lips. She agreed, "I'll give you that much."

She reached a hand across the table to cover one of Ezra's fisted hands. "Nevertheless, even if that disgusting toad of a man somehow discovers that you and Stanley Beamish are one and the same, he can't do anything about it. Between the two of us, we have enough on Mr. Jenkins to arrange for him to spend considerably more than the next five years behind bars. It is to his advantage to assure himself that neither you nor I have any reason to share what we know with the police."

Ezra shook his head and retrieved his hand from his mother's possession. His smile was tinged with irony. "Even now, when I know that I have every reason to be concerned, just sitting here and listening to you is nearly enough to convince me that your words are nothing but the God's honest truth."

Maude's smile at the implied compliment dimmed as Ezra continued. "Note the word 'nearly.'"

Ezra's tone of voice reflected a note of bitter anger. It was difficult to decide if he was more angry at Maude or at himself as he continued, "I should never have let you talk me into taking on Mr. Jenkins in the first place. I let myself forget the fact that Maude Standish is first and foremost your primary concern. From my earliest years, you endeavored to teach by your own example that one should relate to others in respect to how they can best be used to further one's own personal goals."

Maude waved a finger in Ezra's face as she responded. "At the time of my offer to cut you in on the deal with Mr. Jenkins, you were rootless and one step away from the unemployment line. You'd just been betrayed by the very agency that you worked for."

She continued, "I still find it difficult to believe that after the disastrous experience of your employment with the FBI, you actually signed on to work for yet another government agency. I'm afraid you'll find that it's only a matter of time before history repeats itself. With that thought in mind, you should be grateful that I provided a comfortable retirement income for you to fall back on."

Ezra crossed his arms across his chest in an unconsciously defensive posture. Although he tried to inure himself against his mother, she knew all too well the words that would cause the most damage to his self-confidence. He declared, "My current position with the ATF is so far removed from my service with the FBI that it is difficult to believe that they are both government law enforcement agencies. That I foolishly engaged in a scam that could effectively end my career should my participation be discovered by my current employer is a fact that I must live with. For your information, unless circumstances compel me, I have no intention of leaving the ATF." He paused a moment to make eye contact with his mother, to impress upon her the seriousness of his commitment as he concluded, "Ever."

Ezra reached into his pocket and removed his wallet. He counted out a number of twenties from his billfold and placed them upon the table. He stood. "I believe that that is more than sufficient to cover my portion of the bill. I wanted to meet with you to warn you to have a care regarding Mr. Jenkins, and I have done so."

He tossed his head in a brief nod of a bow and took his leave. "Good evening, Mother."

+ + + + + + +

Sleep was a long time in coming that night.

Ezra could not help but dwell upon his complicated relationship with his mother. She had raised him to believe that money was everything, and that one should do anything within one's power to obtain as much of it as possible. As a point of fact, no matter how much wealth she accrued, Maude never seemed to be rich enough to give up her ceaseless quest for more money.

As a child, Ezra had wished that his mother would pay more attention to him and less to her endless quest for wealth. Her frequent absences gave him the distance and perspective to realize that there was no reason for his mother's goal to become his own.

By the time he entered adulthood, Ezra had gained enough knowledge and experience that he chose to step away from his mother's career path. He entered college to pursue a degree in Criminal Justice.

His mother had been appalled when he'd first given her the news.

"Ezra, you cannot be serious."

Ezra straightened his shoulders despite his already correct posture. He never found it easy to argue with his mother, invariably giving in to her powers of persuasion. He had no intention of backing down on this matter. The future government agent's mind was made up, and he intended for it to stay that way. "I have never been more serious in my life."

Maude frowned at her defiant offspring. She sat quietly a moment as she contemplated her son's words. The frown gave way to a small, hopeful smile when Maude finally responded. "Of course. I understand. You want to know the enemy. The more you learn about the Criminal Justice system, the easier it will be to get around it."

Ezra hastened to correct his mother's mistaken impression. "I'm sorry, but you're wrong. I want nothing more and nothing less than a career in law enforcement."

Maude sputtered, "A career? I thought I taught you better than this." She stood up and began to pace in agitation. "You deserve better. Your job in life should not be to serve others. Others should be serving *you*."

Maude stopped suddenly as a thought occurred to her. She turned to confront her son. "Oh my God. I know what this is. It's some childish act of rebellion. You want to become a policeman so that you can arrest me for being a bad mother." Maude's voice raised in indignation. She placed a hand against her son's chest and pushed none too gently.

He stood his ground as she continued, "For your information, I'm not as bad a mother as you seem to think. Although I'm sure I don't say it often enough to meet your exacting standards, I do love you. I raised you the best way I knew how. If that wasn't good enough for you, that's TOO DAMN BAD!" Maude's chest heaved as she shouted her last words.

Ezra felt his blood pressure rise as his mother scolded him. He was preparing to vociferously defend himself when a more effective strategy occurred to him. He had no need to defend himself if he merely spoke the truth. He calmly stated, "Despite what you may think, this has nothing at all to do with you, and everything to do with me. For once in your life, do you think it might be possible to believe that something might not involve yourself as the center of the universe?"

In retrospect, Ezra supposed that he had let his comments become a bit too personal. Nevertheless, they served their purpose.

Maude glared angrily at her son. "I know when someone's turning their back on me and all that I stand for. If you're foolish enough to pursue this ridiculous course of action, don't expect me to cheer you on from the sidelines, or to be present at your graduation."

Ezra shrugged. "I know better than to expect anything from you. Goodbye, Mother."

More than a year passed before Ezra's mother contacted him again. Despite her earlier words, she did surprise him by attending his college graduation ceremony.

Slowly over the following years, they repaired their damaged relationship, accepting each other along with their perceived flaws.

Lately, Ezra had reason to remember his childhood envy of other children's parents. Ezra's friends and coworkers, Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington, had adopted two small boys. Ezra had frequent occasion to observe the two men interact with their sons. He was constantly amazed at how well these two men cared for their young charges. The two boys, Vin and JD, had no doubt of their fathers' deep and abiding love for them. Ezra found himself spending more and more time with the unconventional family. He enjoyed being in the presence of the reflected glow of their love.

In Ezra's humble opinion, the two men and their actions put Maude's haphazard parenting skills to shame. He was wise enough not to breathe a word of his thoughts or feelings to his mother. He supposed that she'd raised him, as she'd said, the best she knew. Ezra could not help but wish that she'd known better.

+ + + + + + +

After his Starbucks encounter with Gerald Jenkins, Ezra remained wary and alert, awaiting the man's next move. Days went by, with no further contact from Jenkins. The days turned into weeks, and Ezra relaxed his hyper-alert status. In retrospect, that was not a wise move on his part. In his defense, the ATF agent had no way of knowing that Jenkins' time in prison had sharpened the man to a brittle edge.

Ezra was able to devote all of his attention to his duties at the ATF, and Mr. Jenkins' existence was tucked back into a corner of his memory, for future recall if needed.

Tuesday morning started as usual. Ezra timed his arrival so that he walked through the door at precisely nine a.m.

Nathan looked up at his entrance. "Huh. I thought you would've been Chris or Buck."

Ezra stood looking down at his coworker, a puzzled look upon his face. "How anyone could mistake me for either of those gentlemen is beyond my comprehension. The sartorial style alone should be enough to clue in even the most unobservant inspector before the eyes reach the level of the face. Why-"

Nathan cut Ezra off in mid-rant. "What I meant was, no time in recent memory have you ever not been the last man to show up for work. I had no idea it was so late. I wonder what's keepin' 'em?"

The phone rang in answer to Nathan's query. Josiah picked it up on the first ring. His booming voice was easily overheard by his coworkers. They shamelessly listened in on the one-sided conversation.

"Hello, Buck."

. . .

"You're where?"

. . .

"He did what?"

. . .


Josiah looked up at Nathan and Ezra as they crowded around his desk. A sly smile crossed his face as he continued to speak. "No, of course not. I won't tell anyone that you told me that Chris broke his hand tripping over his own boots."

Josiah's smile widened as he suggested, "I'll tell them he broke it doing something heroic, like fighting off a bear."

. . .

"I guess you're right, seeing as there aren't any bears wandering around Denver."

. . .

"Take as much time as you need. Me and Nathan and Ezra 'll hold down the fort until you get here."

. . .


Josiah hung up the phone and turned to his friends. "Well, technically I didn't break my word. I didn't personally tell you how Chris broke his hand." His eyes twinkled in hidden merriment. "There's more, but unfortunately I can't tell you." He chuckled, and turned his attention to his computer.

Ezra suggested, "Perhaps you might wish to write down the details while they're still fresh in your mind?"

Josiah nodded. "You might be right. I'll just open a file on my word processor. " After a brief pause, he continued, "Okay, now let me think."

Nathan and Ezra read over their teammate's shoulder as he typed.

Per BW, CL (a known stickler for punctuality) was running late due to a minor problem with his son Vin. In his hurry to make up for lost time, CL did not take the time to properly lace up and tie his work boots. As he ran out the door of his house, the loose boot ties proved to be his downfall - literally.

The three men shared amused glances. Josiah couldn't help himself. He laughed out loud. "For once in his life, it might have benefited our fearless leader if he had just accepted the fact that he was going to be late."

Ezra shook his head. "That's not possible. The man who has repeatedly lectured his subordinates regarding the virtues of punctuality and his belief that failure to arrive on time implies that one's own personal time is more valuable than another's, could not tolerate tardiness on the part of himself."

Nathan thought to ask, "Did he break his right hand or his left?"

Josiah was unable to answer the question.

Nathan's worst fear was confirmed when Chris and Buck finally arrived. Unfortunately for all concerned, it was the team leader's right arm, wrist, and thumb that were encased in plaster.

Nathan stuck to the plan previously agreed upon with his teammates, and did not reveal that he was aware of the cause of Chris' injury. He asked the expected question, "What the hell did you do to yourself?"

Chris snarled his reply, "I broke my goddamn hand, what does it look like?"

Buck helpfully clarified, "Actually, he broke his thumb and three bones in his wrist."

Ezra had to hide his amusement at the glare from Chris that greeted Buck's pronouncement. He was so busy trying to hide his smirk that he nearly forgot to ask his own question in his part of the plan to deflect any suspicion that the ATF team members were aware of the circumstances surrounding Chris' mishap. He belatedly turned away from the report he'd been working on as he remembered to utter his previously decided upon line: "Might I inquire as to the nature of the particular event which led to such a calamitous result?"

Chris declared, "No you may not!" and stomped off toward his office, stopping to turn and threaten his best friend and the room in general. "It's none of anyone's business, and don't ask Buck because he won't tell you unless he wants a broken hand of his own." After uttering his parting comment, Chris turned and entered his office, slamming the door behind him.

Buck sighed. "It's bad enough, Chris with his hand in a cast, without it bein' his right hand. Gettin' that man to accept the help I know he's gonna need is not something I'm lookin' forward to."

Ezra philosophically declared, "Better you than me."

Buck's voice was heavy with sarcasm as he replied, "Thanks so much."

Ezra grew serious. "Truly, if there is any way I can be of help, please let me know."

Nathan and Josiah echoed, "That goes for us, too."

Buck nodded. "Thanks guys, I appreciate it. But, you know Chris."

Three heads nodded in response. They were all well aware of the fact that Chris was the least likely of any of them to ask for or to accept help, no matter how badly it was needed. The proud man could not bear to admit to weakness of any kind.

The next few days were a trial for everyone as Chris' formerly surly nature reasserted itself.

That weekend, when Chris announced that he expected everyone over at the ranch for their usual Sunday afternoon football get-together, the ATF team members privately agreed to arrive several hours early. They planned to make themselves useful and attend to the many chores involved in maintaining the ranch.

Ezra considered it sacrifice enough that he roused himself from bed before noon on a Sunday. He did not deem it necessary that he himself engage in physical labor. It was his opinion that there were more than enough hands available to perform the many and varied tasks. Before he could be assigned one of them, he volunteered for a job of his own choosing.

"It has been quite some time since I have enjoyed the company of my young friends. If no one objects, I would like to spend some time with Vin and JD, keeping them occupied and out from under foot."

JD hopped excitedly at the suggestion. "Yay! Me an' Vin got some stuff we need to do on the computer, and Uncle Ezra's the best at helping."

Vin quietly nodded his own agreement.

In the face of their sons' enthusiasm, Chris and Buck could find no reason not to agree with Ezra's plan.

The boys and their favorite uncle quickly settled down around the computer. As the boys typed and Ezra gently corrected any errors, he noted that Vin was more withdrawn than usual. His attempts to draw the boy out were unsuccessful.

After dedicating himself to the computer work for over an hour, JD's attention predictably began to wander.

Ezra decided to take advantage of the boy's distraction to try to spend some time one on one with Vin. He began, "JD, I just thought of something. We have all been so busy that the dogs are probably feeling left out. I think that Ringo and Elvis might appreciate your visit."

JD jumped out of his seat, ready to leave as he offered his approval of the idea. Expending his excess energy by hopping in place, he attempted to persuade his brother to join him. "Yeah, Vin, come on, let's go!"

Vin's face bore a look of resigned tolerance as he glanced toward Ezra while JD was tugging on his arm.

Ezra offered the reluctant boy an escape from his overly enthusiastic brother. "Actually, if you don't mind, I'd like to keep Vin with me for a few minutes. I think the dogs will be happy to see a friendly face, no matter who it belongs to."

When JD saw that Vin continued to sit unmoving, he let go of his brother. "Okay. I'll go check." He made sure that his brother did not object. "Okay, Vin?"

Vin slowly nodded, and JD took off with a skip and a hop.

Ezra gently quizzed the remaining boy. "Vin, you seem to be thinking very hard about something. Maybe it would help if you told me what's on your mind."

Vin held his hands in front of himself on the desk, the fingers idly twisting around each other. He seemed to be intensely interested in the digital activity and did not turn to face Ezra. After a minute, the boy's shoulders slumped and he let out a sigh. The aimless movement of his fingers ceased.

Vin continued to stare at his hands. His voice quiet, the boy asked, "Did Dad tell you how he got hurt?"

Ezra chose his words carefully as he replied, "I don't really know very much about your Dad's accident." He laid his arm gently across the bowed back, silently offering a shoulder to lean on if the boy wished. His voice hopefully encouraging, Ezra continued, "I would be very grateful if you would tell me about it."

Vin was quiet as he thought over the question. Finally, he leaned into the offered embrace. His voice muffled by the fabric of his uncle's shirt, Vin murmured, "It was all my fault."

Ezra immediately defended the boy from himself. "I have a feeling that you might be wrong about that. From what I understand, your Dad himself is responsible for his own fall." He tightened his grip around his surrogate nephew in a brief hug. "Why don't you tell me what happened?"

Ignoring the request for a moment, Vin replied, "Dad says it was his fault, but I know what I did."

Ezra responded, "I know that your father wouldn't lie to you. Maybe if you tell me why you think that you are in any way responsible for his unfortunate accident, I can help you to figure out whether or not that's true." Ezra remained silent while the boy considered his request.

Finally, Vin breathed out a sigh of resignation and began his confession. "I had a paper from school. I was supposed to show it to Dad and have him sign it, but I forgot. I didn't remember until I went to get my backpack the day it was due. Dad read it and signed it, but it made him late. He was hurryin' too much, and he got hurt. You know like when we get to visit at the ATF and Dad tells us not to run so we don't get hurt? Well, he was runnin' and he got hurt."

Vin wiped a hand at his eyes as they began to tear up. His voice trembled with barely held back sobs as the guilt-ridden boy continued, "I told him I was sorry and he said it was all right, it was his own fault, but he wouldn't 'a had to run if I'd remembered like I was s'posed to.

"I saw him fall, and I knew right away he was hurt bad." Vin's next words were spoken between gasps as the sobs he'd held back finally began to escape. "It's all. . .my. . .fault."

Ezra tightened his arms around the sobbing child, holding him close to his heart. Ezra slowly rocked in place, murmuring words of reassurance, heedless of the tears soaking into his shirt. "It's alright, your father was correct, it's not your fault, truly. Just because a man is grown up does not mean that he always does the right thing. It's not your fault."

Vin's sobs quieted as he seemed to be listening to his uncle's words. Ezra gently cupped his hands around the boy's head, forcing him to look up. His heart filled with sadness when he saw the sorrow displayed plainly upon the small face turned up toward him. He pushed the over-long bangs away from the boy's eyes, giving him an unobstructed view of Ezra's own face. He wanted the boy to have no doubt regarding the sincerity of his words as he repeated, slowly and carefully, "It's Not. Your. Fault."

Ezra felt his lips curve in a slight smile of relief when Vin nodded his acceptance of his uncle's statement.

The storm of tears ended, Vin sat upright in his uncle's lap and raised his arm toward his head, the gesture suggesting that he intended to use his sleeve in place of a tissue.

Ezra quickly halted the move. "Here, I've got a handkerchief. Let me help you clean up." He wiped gently but thoroughly at the tear-ravaged face, removing all traces of the cathartic grief. He finished up by offering his handkerchief to the boy, instructing him to "blow." Vin complied with the order, after which Ezra thankfully tucked the soggy handkerchief out of sight on a remote corner of the desk.

He wished that he could do the same with his soggy shirt. He pinched the front of his shirt and rapidly and repeatedly pulled it away from his body, speeding the evaporation of the boy's tears from the material.

As he contemplated Vin's unwarranted guilt, Ezra suspected that part of the boy's problem was due to his sensitivity to his father's mood. Chris was gloomier than usual, no doubt due to the realization that his current disability was his own fault. Ezra decided that it would do no harm to share that theory with his young friend. "I suppose you've noticed that your father has been going around lately like a lion with a thorn stuck in his paw?"

At Vin's confused "Huh?" Ezra was distracted from his original intention of criticizing Chris' behavior. In retrospect, that was probably for the best. Instead, he enthusiastically began to relate Aesop's fable of the lion and the slave who came to his rescue. A skilled storyteller, Ezra highly embellished the tale of the injured lion and the slave Androcles, and the vagaries of fate which allowed the lion to eventually rescue Androcles in return. Ezra spun out the story so long and colorfully that Vin's troubles were soon forgotten.

Ezra concluded, "Now, where was I? Oh, yes. Your father is upset with himself, and the fact that he did not follow his own advice. He and he alone is responsible for his own injury." He added one last comment to be sure that his message had been properly received. "What happened is in no way your fault. Okay?"

Vin gave a quick nod and responded, "Okay."

Ezra smiled at the boy's sincerity. He mentally patted himself on the back for a deed well done.

+ + + + + + +

The next day, Buck approached Ezra's desk at the ATF. "Hey, Ezra, Vin told me that you and him had a little talk yesterday."

Uncertain if Buck considered that to be a good or a bad thing, Ezra noncommittally replied, "Yes, we did."

Buck's smile eased Ezra's concern. "Well, whatever you said, I thank you for it. I didn't realize how much the kid had been mopin' around until he quit doing it."

Ezra's tendency to expect the worst was unnecessary in this case. His wariness was replaced with a smile.

Buck continued, "Anyway, I got a favor to ask you. Vin's got it into his head that he wants to get a little something for Chris as sort of a 'get well' present. I told him I'd take him to the Curio Shop today, but I forgot about that meeting with the DA me and Chris have this afternoon. I know it's short notice and all, but do you think you could take him?"

Ezra smiled and nodded. "I would be more than happy to do so."

Thus it was that Ezra found himself outside of the Curio Shop with young Mr. Tanner, right before everything went to hell.

+ + + + + + +

Eight-year-old Vin reminded Ezra a lot of himself when he was that age. The boy was very independent. He had selected the item he wished to purchase from an advertisement in the Sunday paper. He carefully counted out his savings and determined that he had just enough cash in his possession to purchase his father's gift.

On the ride to the Curio Shop, Vin explained the above and more to his Uncle Ezra.

"When I was in the hospit'l, Dad got me Cat, and it made me feel better. I just know when he gets this it'll make him feel better."

Ezra wanted to smile at the boy's sincerity, but suppressed the urge in his desire not to give offense. He replied with suitable gravity, "I think that you're absolutely right."

As Ezra made the turn into the parking lot of the strip mall where the store was located, Vin stated, "I would 'a drove myself here if I could 'a, 'cept I can't drive yet." Ezra pulled into a convenient parking spot as the boy continued, "If you want to wait in the car for me, that's okay."

Ezra nearly laughed at that comment. He smiled and replied, "I don't mind going along with you. I might find something that I'd like to buy for myself."

Vin glanced longingly around him at the festive shop displays as they headed toward the aisle containing Chris' future gift.

Ezra noticed the boy's distraction and slowed his pace accordingly. "I'm not in a hurry. Take your time. I'd like to look around and see what else they have."

Ezra's suggestion was met with Vin's pleased response, "Okay."

Once the two of them had browsed to their heart's content, they headed toward the checkout counter. In light of Vin's desire for independence, Ezra stated, "If you'd like to pay for your Dad's gift on your own, that's perfectly all right with me."

Vin looked encouragingly up at his uncle to confirm that he'd understood the offer. "Y' mean you don't mind if I get in line and buy this by myself?"

Ezra nodded. "That is exactly what I mean." To emphasize his point, he added, "While I'm waiting, I'd like to take another look at those music boxes over there." Ezra pointed to a nearby display, conveniently positioned to give him an unobstructed view of the checkout counter from its location.

Vin smiled and responded, "Okay!" and headed off with a skip in his step to join the queue at the checkout counter.

Ezra pretended to examine the music boxes, all the while keeping a close eye on his young charge. So focused was his concentration that he did not notice the two men approaching him until it was far too late to do anything about it.

Ezra turned his attention toward the approaching stranger who announced, "Mr. Beamish, a friend of ours says you have something of his. He asked us to bring you along to talk to him about it." The man revealed that he had a gun hidden in his jacket in order to persuade Ezra to comply with his demand.

A second man poked something sharp at Ezra's back and ordered, "Come along nice and quiet-like and I won't have to use this."

Ezra glanced over his shoulder at the second man, noting that the two men were alike enough in appearance that they might have been twins. The gun-wielding man had a mustache, making it easier to distinguish himself from his companion.

Ezra felt the cold shiver of fear run down his spine as the men confronted him. Any minute now, Vin would be rejoining him. Ezra frantically tried to think of a way to prevent that from happening. Deeming it unwise to hesitate, he took a step forward to comply with the stranger's request. His forward progress was halted by Vin's arrival.

The young boy's eyes were wide and pleading as he stated, "I don't have enough. Can I please, please have a dollar?" Thankfully, Vin did not address Ezra by name.

Ezra prayed that the boy would pick up on his body language and unspoken message as he sternly replied, "I have already given you more than enough."

However, Vin was only a small boy and not a trained agent; neither was he trained by Maude to detect the subtle nuances of human behavior. Ezra's thoughts tripped over one another, discarding one option after another as he quickly tried to find the words that would protect his young charge. In an attempt to discourage Vin from speaking again, Ezra chose his next words with a calculated intent to wound. "Didn't your father ever teach you that it's not polite to beg? Oh, that's right. You haven't any real father, you're an orphan. Go away and do not bother me again."

Unfortunately Vin was too shocked to pick up on Ezra's subtext. Ezra pushed his way past the small obstruction blocking his path, commenting to his companions, "Street urchins. If you show them a kindness once, they expect you to continue to do so."

If he survived this encounter, Ezra knew that he would never forget the sight of Vin's face at that moment. A brief widening of his eyes and intake of breath as if he'd been gut-punched revealed the boy's shock at the betrayal and hurtful words from his beloved uncle. A moment later, all trace of expression vanished as if the boy had been turned to stone.

Ezra knew the reaction well. He'd worn it himself as a boy.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra's mother had moved herself and her son into the home of a fellow by the name of Simon Ward. When he was not paying court to Maude, Simon dutifully spent time with her son. To Ezra, it seemed that the man was the father he'd never had. He hoped that Maude would marry Simon and officially make him Ezra's father. Unfortunately, Maude did not pursue an extended relationship with Simon. Once his mother had gotten what she wanted from the man, she dismissed him as easily as she would an annoying insect.

Ezra had arrived home from school one day to find Simon packing his bags.

Although it was obvious that Simon was leaving, Ezra hoped that he'd read the situation wrong. His voice trembled as he asked, "Wh-what are you doing?"

Simon snarled his reply, "What does it look like I'm doing? I'm leaving!"

Ezra stuttered, "B-but, you and mother and I. . ." He was interrupted before he could finish.

"Kid, there ain't no you and I. Don't you know a con job when you see it? I was only being nice to you to get to your mother."

Ezra was devastated by Simon's words. A brief sob escaped before he could stifle it. He willed himself not to feel. Maude had taught him that a display of emotion was an unnecessary show of weakness that could conceivably be used against him. The young boy that he was proceeded to bury the pain deep within himself where it would not show.

That did not mean that it did not exist. To this day, Ezra could feel the cold, hard bite of it deep within his soul. He would never forgive himself for having caused that same feeling in Vin.

Earlier. . .

Vin waited patiently in line, clutching his father's gift in one hand, his money in the other. His turn with the salesclerk finally came. He placed the gift on the counter and began carefully counting out the money. He finished, "'Leven, and twelve dollars."

He looked up at the clerk with a triumphant smile that faltered when she responded, "I'm sorry, honey, but you still need another dollar." The lady looked at him sympathetically.

His breath caught in his throat. "But, but the ad said it was twelve dollars!"

The clerk explained, "The sale ended two days ago. I'm sorry. Maybe you can find something else?"

Vin shook his head. He raised his hands as he pleaded, "No, wait just a minute. I'll be right back!"

He ran toward the music box display where he'd left his uncle, relieved when he found the man with no difficulty. Vin noted and dismissed the two strangers who were standing uncomfortably close to his uncle, the urgency of his need for additional funds uppermost in the boy's thoughts. His body practically vibrating with tension, he began to explain, "I don't have enough! Can I please, please have a dollar?"

He could not believe Uncle Ezra's response. Vin's uncle looked down at him as if he were something the dogs had left behind for him to step in. His voice cold and harsh, Uncle Ezra stated, "I have already given you more than enough. Didn't your father ever teach you that it's not polite to beg? Oh, that's right. You haven't any real father, you're an orphan. Go away and do not bother me again."

Vin swayed with the force of the emotions that rushed through him at the cruel words. He froze in place, unable to believe that his uncle could say such a thing. He was rocked on his heels when Ezra pushed his way past him, muttering, "Street urchins. If you show them a kindness once, they expect you to continue to do so."

Vin stared at Ezra's retreating back, his mouth hanging open, his breath coming in short gasps. It was a relief when a crowd of teenagers blocked the boy's view. Questions swirled in his head. Was he supposed to follow? If he wasn't and he did so anyway, it'd just make his uncle madder. He decided to wait.

It wasn't until many long minutes later that it occurred to Vin that he had no idea what exactly it was that he was waiting for. His uncle to come back? A terrifying thought suggested itself. What if he never came back? What if he'd already left him here alone?

He suddenly remembered his money. If Uncle Ezra didn't come back, Vin was going to need it. He hurried back to the checkout counter and retrieved his money from the clerk.

The young boy slowly headed out to the parking lot, all the while fearing that Uncle Ezra's car would not be there. Vin walked toward the place where he'd last seen the Jaguar. A small measure of his anxiety eased when he saw that the car had not moved. He frowned when he got close enough to see that his uncle was not already inside of the car, impatiently waiting for Vin's arrival. He turned in a slow circle as he surveyed the parking lot, looking for any sign of his missing uncle. He saw nothing to indicate where Ezra could have possibly gone.

The young boy began to search the parking lot, walking up one lane and down the next. He made two complete circuits of the parking lot with no success. Back once again at his starting point, he pulled on the passenger side door handle of the car, then walked around to the driver's side and repeated the maneuver. As expected, both doors were locked.

He tried to control his emotions as worry and fear warred for supremacy within his small body. He took several deep breaths before he could calm himself enough to think. Maybe he couldn't find his uncle in the parking lot because they'd missed each other. Right now, Ezra was probably conducting as thorough a search as Vin himself had just completed, but inside of the Curio Shop. With that thought in mind, Vin headed back into the store.

Once again, the boy conducted a thorough search, not once, not twice, but three different times, unable to believe that he would not eventually find his uncle. After his search of the store proved to be futile, he headed out to repeat his previous search of the parking lot, not quite ready to admit that his uncle had simply disappeared.