The Darkest Betrayal
Disclaimer: Any characters which appear in the TV series "The Magnificent Seven" belong to Trilogy, CBS and associated parties. The transposition of the scenario into modern times with the guys working for the ATF was Mog’s brainchild. The character Lila belongs to The Immortal. The author of this story will make absolutely no monetary gain from the venture.
Acknowledgements: Sincere thanks go to Dina, Mitzi, Wnnepooh and The Immortal for all their encouragement, corrections, plot suggestions, technical advice, "tea and sympathy" and everything else they did to generally improve this story. And special thanks to The Immortal for the loan of Lila and to Kelly for the permission to refer to one of her stories.
Author's Notes & Warnings: This story is set approximately six or seven weeks after my ATF VS story "Innocent Blood". The inspiration for it sprung from various sources, including the story "Innocence Lost" by KellyA. Like that story it deals with the rather dark subject of child abuse (but any descriptions will not be overly graphic) and, with Kelly’s permission, there are references to events in Ezra’s past which were outlined in her story. There is also some swearing, including the F-word, hopefully within context.
Tom Lane went to open the front door for his mother and aunt as they brought their groceries in from the car.
"Thanks, Tom." Gloria Potter smiled at her 13-year-old nephew. "Where are the others? There are a couple more bags to bring in from the car."
"They’re playing with the Playstation. Don’t worry, I’ll get the bags." He immediately headed off towards the car.
Gloria was still smiling tolerantly, reflecting that it was nice to have someone like Tom around to babysit, but her sister, Charlotte, frowned and called after her son. "Playstation? I hope everyone’s homework is done!"
He turned back momentarily. "Yeah, everyone except Angie. She’s not home yet." Then he continued on towards the car.
Now Gloria frowned worriedly. "Not home yet? I thought she said that Lexi’s mother would drop her off here before six."
"Better give them a call," Charlotte advised.
But before Gloria reached the phone to dial, it rang. And when she answered it, she was greeted by a familiar Southern-accent.
"Greetings, Mrs Potter."
"I hope you and your family are well. I was just calling to say that the case we have been investigatin’ has been brought to a conclusion somewhat earlier than expected, allowin’ for an immediate return to Denver. In point of fact, I’m callin’ from Kansas City airport and the next flight to Denver appears to be in 45 minutes. Would it impose too much upon you, if I stopped by this evenin’?"
"Of course not. You’d be most welcome."
"Thank you. I wonder if I could speak briefly with Angie?"
"Well, actually, Ezra, she’s at a friend’s place at the moment."
"Oh. Well, would you mind lettin’ her know that I will see her this evenin’ then?"
"Of course. I’ll see you then."
"Indeed. Au revoir, til then."
Gloria hung up the phone and looked up to see her sister still frowning.
"What’s the matter?"
"I don’t know why you let that man just drop in at any time. Tonight wouldn’t be the most convenient."
"He’s been on assignment out of town for over a month and he hasn’t been able to speak to Angie during that time because they had him deep undercover. And now he wants to see his little girl. Give him a break."
"He’s not her father!"
"He might as well be."
Charlotte snorted but Gloria ignored her and picked up the phone again to dial Lexi’s number.
"Hello, Ruth. It’s Gloria Potter. I was wondering if you were still planning to drop Angie off or would you prefer that I come around to pick her up?"
The woman on the other end of the phone sounded completely bewildered. "Angie? Here?"
Gloria’s blood ran cold. "You mean she’s not there?"
"No, I waved to her when I picked up Lex from school but she never came back with me."
"Oh, my God! Ruth, she told me not to pick her up because you were going to take her back to your place for an hour or two. She said Lexi had invited her, and that you would drop her home."
"No, Gloria, I never said anything like that to either of them."
"I’m coming over, Ruth!"
"Of course. I’ll talk to Lex. See what she knows."
"Thanks. See you soon."
Gloria barely managed to hang up the phone. Her hands were visibly shaking.
It was more than two hours since school had ended for the day. Two hours! Where was Angie? What could have happened to her? Several horrible possibilities flashed through Gloria Potter’s mind and she turned to her sister, momentarily unable to speak.
"She’s not there?" Charlotte asked, seeing her concern.
"No. Oh, my God! Where could she have gone?" Gloria tried to gather her wits together. "Tom!"
Tom popped his head around the door from the kitchen where he had been depositing the groceries. "Yes?"
"Angie hasn’t called this afternoon, has she?"
"Oh, God!" Gloria ran out the door and Charlotte followed, calling to her son to look after his cousins for a little while longer.
"She’ll be alright, Gloria. We’ll find her." Charlotte tried to reassure her sister as they drove.
"I should have known that something like this would happen. Angie hasn’t been herself lately. Usually she’s such a chatterbox and in the last two weeks, you’d be lucky to get ten words out of her in a whole day."
"She’s been through a lot. You all have. You can’t expect to be able to deal with Dennis’ passing in less than two months."
"I don’t think it’s that. Angie wasn’t like this after her mother died. She’s even started wetting the bed this week. She’s never done that before. Poor kid. She was so embarrassed. I dunno, maybe it’s because Ezra hasn’t been able to spend much time with her this time. Oh, God! Ezra! What am I going to tell him?"
"That’s the least of your worries."
Gloria dragged her eyes from the road for a brief moment to look at her sister. "I know that you don’t like him but he and Angie are very important to each other."
Charlotte snorted. "If you ask me, the amount of interest that man takes in that girl is unhealthy."
"I mean really! It’s not normal."
"Alright, it’s not exactly ‘normal’ but they have a special bond. I’ll admit that it took me a while to recognise the strength of it but it’s a good thing for both of them."
"I don’t see why you think so. I wouldn’t trust that man as far as I could throw him."
"The fact that his accent probably reminds you of your ex-husband doesn’t have anything to do with it, does it?"
"It’s been more than ten years, Charlotte."
"Gloria, you’ve never been betrayed by a man. After a couple of times, you learn to spot the type."
Gloria snorted, in turn. "Not Ezra. You wait til you get to know him better, you’ll see."
Her sister had only spoken to Ezra a couple of times. He’d spent a few days convalescing with the Potter family after he’d been shot in the arm by the same man who’d murdered Gloria’s husband. And Charlotte and her son had arrived the day after, for what was originally intended to be a short visit from Chicago, to help Gloria and the kids through their initial grief.
But after a few days, Charlotte admitted that she’d been planning for some time to apply for a transfer to Denver from the company she worked for. She felt that she and Gloria needed to be closer together, and Gloria had heartily welcomed the idea. It was agreed that Charlotte and Tom would stay with the Potters until they sold their apartment in Chicago and found a suitable place for themselves in Denver.
Charlotte had always had a strong sense of family, which was good. But unfortunately, she also had an almost subconscious tendency to partially exclude those who were not her blood relatives. Even Dennis had felt it.
Initially, Angie hadn’t seemed to be affected by it because Ezra had more than compensated. He’d taken her out every day, to spend time with his friends or sometimes just with him. And for a week or so, Angie had felt like she was in paradise.
But then he and the rest of the team had been called to Kansas. Some target that Ezra had already made contact with had changed cities and the Powers That Be wanted him back in the field before some major transaction took place. They’d been absolutely determined and had even managed to work his still healing bullet wound into his cover story. And so, somewhat reluctantly, Ezra had told Angie that he had to go.
He’d read to her until she fell asleep one more time and then slipped out during the night to disappear completely for a month. All they’d had in that time was one message via Buck to assure them that he was fine.
And Angie really did seem to feel his absence more keenly this time. Maybe Dennis’ death had rekindled fears that a similar fate might befall Ezra. Or maybe it was something to do with the fact that Charlotte really didn’t know how to treat her like one of the family. And so, in addition to dealing with her own grief and her children’s, Gloria felt like she was juggling her allegiances so that neither her sister nor her foster child felt ostracised. But whatever the reason, Angie did seem to be slowly folding in on herself. And now Ezra would soon be back and they couldn’t even tell her.
Gloria was drawn from her contemplations as they pulled up in Ruth’s driveway. The door to the house swung open and the woman came out to meet them.
"Any news?" Gloria asked as she stepped from the car.
"No. She says Angie didn’t say anything. But I don’t know, Gloria. I think she’s keeping back something - something that she’s frightened to tell."
Ruth led them inside to find Lexi, Angie’s classmate, sitting at the kitchen table and looking as though she was about to face the Spanish Inquisition.
Her mother sat down beside her. "Honey, you’ve got to tell us what Angie said. We’re all very worried. She’s missing. She might get hurt."
The child looked dubious. "She made me promise not to tell anyone."
"I know, Lex, but this is very important. Angie didn’t know how important it is. We’ve got to get her back home."
"She didn’t want to go home."
"What?" Gloria exclaimed.
Lexi shrank back against her mother and Gloria moderated her voice. "Lexi, you’ve got to tell me please. What did she say? Did she say where she was going?"
The girl shook her head. "She said that she would be alright but she couldn’t go home."
"She’s scared of him."
Lexi shrugged but Charlotte had a candidate. "Ezra Standish."
Gloria rounded on her sister. "Don’t be ridiculous, Charlotte! Angie is not afraid of Ezra! Why on earth would she be afraid of Ezra?"
Lexi didn’t know who it was that Angie was afraid of, but she did know why she was afraid of him. "She said that he tries to... to touch her..." The child’s voice trailed off. Angie had sworn her to secrecy, even after Lex had told her friend that her mom might be able to help.
Lexi glanced at her mother, who looked worried but still gave her daughter a small encouraging nod.
The child took a deep breath before continuing, keeping her gaze focussed on the top of the table in front of her. "He tries to touch her... in places she doesn’t want him to. Bad places. He said that he loved her and that’s what people do when they love each other but she didn’t believe him."
Then she risked another glance upwards and found that all three women were now staring at her with open-mouthed shock.
"No," Gloria breathed. "Not Ezra."
Lexi shrugged again. "She didn’t say his name."
But Charlotte believed her previous suspicions to be confirmed. "I told you there was something wrong about the way he hangs around that child."
"Shut up, Charlotte!" Gloria shouted, making Lexi flinch again, "You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about."
"You can’t just ignore it, Gloria!"
Ruth wasn’t going to get between them while they were arguing. She picked up her daughter and headed for her phone. "I’m calling the police!"
Gloria was startled. "We don’t know that he’s done anything, Ruth!"
Ruth tried to keep her voice calm and even. She could understand her friend’s distress, but first things first.
"No, but we know that Angie’s missing. We’ll need the police to help find her."
"We need to tell them everything, Gloria." Charlotte argued.
"We don’t know everything, Charlotte!" her sister shot back.
"Let’s just get them to look for Angie first," said Ruth, placatingly. "I’ll get them to go to your place, Gloria, and we’ll come with you."
Several hours later, Ezra Standish was surprised to see a police car in the driveway of the Potter household, as he parked his car by the curb. He hoped that nothing was amiss but only a few of the possible reasons for a visit from the police were completely innocuous.
Before he even lifted his hand to ring the bell, the door was opened by Gloria’s sister, Charlotte Lane.
"Mr Standish." The words were spoke cuttingly. It wasn’t the first time that Ezra had been accosted with barely contained hostility, but this time he really had not an inkling as to why.
He dipped his head in a combination of acknowledgment and cordial greeting. "Ms Lane."
Suddenly, Gloria Potter appeared. "Ezra! You’re here!" She drew him past Charlotte and into the house.
Ezra blinked in bewilderment. "Yes, I’m sorry to arrive somewhat late in the evenin’. What is goin’ on?"
"Ezra, Angie’s run away."
"What?!" Confusion gave way to sudden fear. "When? Have you called the police?" He’d momentarily forgotten the squad car he had seen upon his arrival.
He looked around to see the familiar face of Officer Polly Paget.
"Polly! Any news? Where have you started searching? Maybe I could assist?"
Suddenly a male uniformed police officer was in his face. "We’re a bit more concerned about why she ran away. You wouldn’t know anything about that would you?"
Ezra was astounded. "What? Surely we would be aiming to find her first. Then we can establish a cause. After all, she will probably be able to inform us herself."
"Yeah. But then you might not want us to find her. Because when we do she’ll probably tell us what you’ve been doing to her."
"What?!" Ezra really couldn’t believe this. He had to have entered the Twilight Zone.
Polly put her hand on the perplexed man’s shoulder. Personally, she couldn’t believe that he was capable of what was being alleged. When Gloria’s sister had blurted out her suspicions, the young policewoman had immediately told her point-blank, "Bullshit!" Of course, she had almost instantly amended that with, "I’m sorry, ma’am, but I don’t think you’re right about that."
The woman had hit back with an accusation that Polly was blinded by an obvious attraction to the man in question and Polly hadn’t helped her case at all by blushing furiously at the suggestion.
And her partner, Paul McDermott, had immediately signed up for the lynch mob. Admittedly, no crime was more likely to make any cop go off the deep end than the abuse of a child, but surely there should be some sort of evidence established before the first available suspect was strung up.
Yet Polly had found, much to her disbelief, that not only Paul and Gloria’s sister, but also virtually every other cop who had been informed about the case, had immediately started baying for the blood of Ezra Standish. No one, save Gloria and herself, seemed willing to even consider an alternative explanation.
Now, Ezra, having been virtually convicted in his absence, was arriving just in time to have sentence passed and carried out. No wonder the man looked as if the ground was being pulled from underneath him.
And Polly knew that what she had to tell him now was only going to further exacerbate his distress. There was no easy or comforting way in which to say it, but still she searched for a way to soften the blow somehow.
"Ezra... um, apparently... before she went missing... Angie told one her classmates that she had been... touched... um, inappropriately and... against her will."
Ezra was utterly mortified. "God! And you think I could possibly do a thing like that?" He barely got the words out. His mouth had become as dry as a desert. He tried to swallow and almost choked on it.
Polly tightened her grip on his shoulder, almost subconsciously. And she almost hit her partner, when Paul closed in to snarl in Ezra’s face again.
"Yeah, dirtbag! We’ve heard how you’re always taking her off alone places. Couldn’t wait to get your filthy little hands on such a pretty little girl."
Anger blazed through Ezra, as much at the fact that anyone could harm Angie in that way, let alone that they thought it was him. He gently but firmly disengaged himself from Polly’s comforting grasp and took a determined step in McDermott’s direction, forcing the cop to step backwards to maintain his balance.
"Listen, you mentally deficient testosterone-freak, maybe you can’t spend five minutes alone with a member of the opposite sex, no matter how much your junior, without experiencin’ or indeed actin’ upon carnal desires. But thankfully, you and I are somewhat different in that regard!"
"You bastard!" McDermott drew back a fist and Polly had to grab his arm with both hands, to stop him landing the blow.
Suddenly, Ezra’s mobile phone rang. He stepped back from the fuming cop to answer it.
"Ez, it’s me. Are you alone?" It was Lila’s voice.
"Five minutes," he told her curtly and cut off the call, before turning back to the group assembled. "Alright ladies and gentleman, and I use the latter term with the utmost laxity, am I under arrest?"
"No, Ezra," Polly replied, visibly worried about what he intended, "But we need to find Angie and work out what’s happened."
He raised an eyebrow. "Agreed, but as certain parties seem more interested in castigatin’ me than in actually locatin’ her, I deem it necessary to conduct my own search."
McDermott almost physically lashed out at him again but somehow managed to rein himself in. "We may not have enough to take you in now, you son of a bitch, but you lay another finger on that child and I will rip you to shreds. You hear me, there won’t be enough for the crows to find."
Ezra gave him one more arctic look. "And rest assured, sir, that if I find that the delay caused by your ridiculous posturin’ has allowed any harm to befall the child, I will not hesitate to inflict a similar punishment upon you." And with that he turned and walked out the front door.
He managed to get to his car before his phone rang again.
"Yeah. Listen, Ez, I found the squirt or rather she found me."
"Oh, thank God! Where are you both?"
"She’s scared shitless, Ez! Won’t tell me what it’s about but the kid’s well and truly freaked out."
"Yes, well, I just may have some inkling as to why. You need to bring her and meet me."
"I thought you were in Kansas."
"Not anymore. I caught a flight back this evenin’. Chez Potter is in an uproar and, needless to say, Gloria is absolutely frantic."
"You can’t tell them where we are, Ez! You’ve got to come alone."
"I intended to anyway but this is no time to get paranoid on me, Lila."
"Not my conditions, Ez. Angie won’t trust anyone but you. We’ll make it that spot where you introduced Angie and me. I’ll wait for you there."
"Alright, I’ll be as quick as I can."
He ended the call, then started the engine and drove off in the direction of the appointed rendezvous.
The parking lot was very patchily lit by the lights from the adjacent bowling alley. As he got out of the car, Ezra scanned the area for any sign of either of the girls.
He’d made it there in less than forty minutes, thanks to favourable traffic. And it was fortunate that he hadn’t had to concentrate too hard on navigating. Due to the shock of it all, he’d been driving almost on autopilot, seemingly encased in a fog of unreality.
What they’d told him had happened to Angie. That they thought he could do such a thing to her. His mind rebelled against such concepts at both conscious and subconscious levels. It simply couldn’t be true! None of it could be!
He forced himself to take a deep breath. Angie would be fine. She had to be!
And yet she had run away. What other reason could she have had for doing that? If not what they had suggested, then something equally appalling.
At least she had gone to Lila. That was some consolation, although slightly ironic in a way.
When they had first met, Angie and Lila had appeared to loathe the very sight of each other, but they had grown closer over time. And now when he saw them together, they acted almost like sisters.
Sisters? And whom would they both, in all probability, nominate as their mutual father figure?
If so, he’d done an absolutely shameful job in attempting to protect them. Lila was still a habitual runaway. And Angie? He still couldn’t believe what might have happened to Angie.
"Hey, Ez!" He whirled around. It was Lila and she had approached him from behind. Typical!
"I’ll take you to her. She’s too scared even to come out here."
"Oh, Christ!" It was half murmur, half moan.
"What’s going on, Ez? What do you know?"
"I’ll tell you when we see her. Come on."
Lila nodded and quickly led him down a couple of streets and alleys. This wasn’t one of the haunts that he knew, so he just followed her silently until she came to a halt at a staircase which was the back entrance to some building. Then she gestured to the space below it.
He peered into the darkened area to see a small form huddled in a blanket and tentatively put his hand out to touch it. There was a startled cry and Angie almost fell over, tangled in the blanket, in her terrified haste to turn and face the intruder.
An invisible hand clenched around Ezra’s heart. Oh, God, he knew that reaction and what it meant. He’d clung to a small forlorn hope that somehow they’d all been mistaken and she hadn’t been exposed to that horror. But now, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she had, and it had left its scars upon her soul.
"Angie, it’s me, Ezra."
For an instant she just sat there, paralysed by disbelief, but then she launched herself into his arms and he caught her in a fierce embrace.
"I’m sorry," she sobbed. "I’m so sorry, Ezra."
"It’s okay, Angel girl. Everythin’ will be alright."
But even at that instant, he heard Lila swear and multiple sets of running footsteps. Before he could react, he was grabbed from behind by at least two sets of hands and Angie was torn from his grasp with a startled scream.
The fear in her voice galvanised him into action. He managed to deliver a couple of effective blows to his captors and, for an instant, he was free. He launched himself in the direction in which Angie was being roughly dragged away. She was struggling for all she was worth and her captors’ efforts to subdue her were not overly gentle.
But Ezra only got two steps towards her before he was tackled again and the weight of at least three people crushed him to the ground. He heard both Lila and Angie scream his name and there seemed to be pain as well as fear in their voices. He tried to fight his way up again but then a sharp pain seemed to explode within his skull and his strength faded with the ensuing darkness.
Lila had seen a lot of police stations in her time. This one was no different. The cops treated her like dirt, nothing new there. But at least they hadn’t cuffed her as they bundled her into the car. They’d had a separate car for Angie. And a separate one again for Ez.
Christ, it should have been an ambulance! His eyes had been open by the time they got him into that car but he’d still been well and truly out of it. And she was sure that he’d lost consciousness when they beat him to the ground.
Some of the fight had gone out of her when she saw he was down. She didn’t want them taking their anger for anything she did out on him. So she remained silent for the entire journey to the station, ignoring their questions about who she was and what she doing there.
She’d demanded a phone call as soon as they arrived at the precinct. They’d told her that she wasn’t under arrest but allowed her to make one anyway. So she’d dialled Larabee.
He and Josiah had only just touched down in Denver. The rest of the team were still on their way. But of course, once she had told them what had gone down, they’d said they be there ASAP.
That task accomplished, she’d started hassling the cops about getting medical attention for Ez. They’d said that they’d already called a doctor but at her insistence they called again. If they didn’t get Ez looked after soon, she’d give them a new definition of ‘hell to pay’.
And where had they taken Angie? God, if they also hurt the kid, she’d kill the lot of them. Yep, there were going to be a lot of dead cops around, if her friends weren’t returned to her intact and fairly damn pronto!
She looked around and relief washed through her. "Hey, Larabee! About damn time!"
They’d decided to let him sweat in an interrogation room for a while. Just throw in some ‘Wrath of God’ staring from a suitably menacing officer, standing guard. Keep him in the dark about exactly what was going on. Keep him guessing.
But the problem was that he didn’t appear to be sweating at all.
They’d known that he was a federal agent and so he must have had a pretty good idea of the drill. But he hadn’t taken advantage of some of the obvious loopholes. For a start, he hadn’t played up his head injury for the doctor, instead insisting that he was perfectly lucid and prepared to be interviewed.
At first they’d thought that this was a sign that he was actually anxious to start the process and that they might be able to use this to their advantage. After all, he was a real mouthy customer and those types often were unnerved by the silent treatment. But it wasn’t working.
Paul McDermott had watched him through the one-way glass, along with Detective Enrica Fidler. She had more experience in dealing with child abuse than any other detective in the precinct, but she’d never encountered a suspect like Standish.
He’d just sat there carefully inspecting his fingernails, occasionally frowning over the discovery of yet another broken one, and picking bits of dirt and lint off his jacket.
When he finally looked up and directly at his viewing audience, flashing them a serene smile, McDermott lost his patience and stormed in.
"Okay, you bastard, let’s have some answers outa you. You haven’t seen a lawyer yet, so any bruises I wanna make on your ugly mug, we can always put down to you falling on the way to the station."
Fidler followed him in and pushed her colleague back. "You will do nothing of the sort. While I’m here, all the suspect’s rights will be observed to the letter. Do I make myself clear?"
Standish appeared thoroughly unimpressed by the whole performance. "Dear Lord!" he said with a mixture of amusement and disdain. "You’re not actually goin’ to run the ‘good cop-bad cop’ routine, are you?"
Fidler turned back towards him. "I’m not running any routine. I’ll tell you now, Mr Standish, I’ve worked cases like this on and off for a long, long time and they still make me sick to my back teeth. You’ve got no sympathy with me at all, but you do have your rights."
"Includin’ innocent until proven guilty?"
"Yep, that too. So how about we all sit down and have a little chat?"
"How civilised." He smiled again, this time completely without mirth, and gestured to the two seats positioned opposite him at the table. "Please, won’t you both be my guests?"
"So, Mr Standish, how would you describe your relationship with Angie Velasquez?" Fidler commenced the questioning, as she sat down.
Ezra arched an eyebrow. "Relationship? A word of many contexts. I’m sure that you are aware that we share no ties of blood. If I was goin’ to assign a label to my relationship with Angie, I would describe her as a friend."
"A friend? A close friend?"
"A very close friend. One of my closest, in fact."
"So would you say that you loved her?"
"Yes, I would. With the utmost devotion that I am capable of."
McDermott didn’t seem to like the sound of that, for some reason. "And what the hell do you mean by that?"
Ezra remained unruffled. "By that I mean that there is no one on this Earth whose well being I place at a higher priority. Some equal, perhaps, but none higher."
McDermott sneered. "Well being?"
"Yes, well being."
Fidler held up her hand to silence her colleague. "Her well being in what way?" she queried.
"Physical, emotional, spiritual, cultural, financial, pastoral, comical, historical. How do you wish to define it?"
Enrica Fidler feigned a tolerant smile, aware that this line of interrogation was going nowhere, and decided to try a different tactic.
"Have you ever been alone with Angie Velasquez?"
"Hmmn... that might take a moment or two to calculate. Would you like the answer expressed in terms of incidences over a given time period or percentage of time spent since our initial meeting?"
McDermott snarled, "These word games aren’t gonna get you off, you son of a bitch. And your federal badge ain’t gonna help you either."
Fidler put a hand on his shoulder, almost as frustrated with her colleague as she was with the suspect. It was blatantly obvious that the man wasn’t going to be intimidated. McDermott’s macho coercion tactics were going to be utterly useless.
"Okay, never mind that. Perhaps, instead, you could tell me what the two of you do when you’re alone together?"
Again, Standish appeared almost cheerfully accommodating. "Well, the activities do vary somewhat. Would you like me to list them alphabetically or chronologically? I believe that the first time that we were alone together for any significant length of time was when her mother locked us in a storage room together to hide us from an arms dealer seeking vengeance upon us."
"What?" Fidler was startled by this unexpected information.
"Oh, yes," Ezra reported, as if he were chatting pleasantly over dinner. "You can check the case report in the ATF records. I’m sure my superiors will authorise it, if you explain the situation to them. I’m afraid that my own personal account is slightly unreliable. I had been shot and was losing significant amounts of blood, so I spent large periods of the time in a state of unconsciousness. I do remember the sounds of gunfire and a verbal confrontation between the criminals and Angie’s mother which proved to be her last. Angie appears to remember essentially all of it."
"God..." Enrica Fidler breathed, shocked out of any further questions.
"Yes, not an entirely pleasant memory. So, if your next question was to be along the lines of ‘was she ever frightened or uncomfortable at any time when you were alone together’, you’ll understand if I say that the answer is ‘yes’."
Paul McDermott got to his feet and leaned over Standish across the table. "God, you’re a cold-blooded bastard!"
Ezra merely leaned back and eyed him dismissively. "So I have been told on more than one occasion."
McDermott couldn’t believe it. "Don’t you even care what’s happened to that little girl?"
Suddenly, and for the first time since his arrest, a semblance of emotion flickered across Standish’s features.
"As a matter of fact, I do. I am very deeply concerned about what has happened to her and about what is happening to her now."
Then just as quickly, the bland mask of indifference was back in place.
"However, as I am currently being detained here and you have taken her elsewhere, my only option is to hope that you also have her best interests at heart and that she is being treated in a manner designed to minimise the emotional trauma that she is undergoing. Although I must confess that the somewhat brutal way she was initially handled at the time of my arrest has considerably fuelled my doubts over the matter."
"Bastard!" McDermott lifted his hands and looked as if he was going to go for the suspect’s throat, when the door opened behind him and a voice he didn’t recognise spoke.
"Making friends with your usual style, Ezra?"
Standish gave the newcomer a shrug and a faint smile. "You know me, Mr Larabee. Always the epitome of congeniality."
Chris Larabee turned to the two police officers. "I suggest you tell me right now what you’ve got on him and if it doesn’t stand up, we’re outa here!"
McDermott aimed a hostile glare at him and found it returned in full measure, and then some.
"Are you his lawyer?" the cop demanded.
"Nope. I’m his boss. And I happen to know that the very idea that he could be some kind of child molester is utter crap. Therefore, any evidence you’ve got is also crap. So you just tell me what it is and then he can start organising to sue your asses off for false arrest."
"Uh, actually, Chris..." Ezra put his hand up tentatively, like he was a student asking a question. "The charges for which they have arrested me are assaultin’ an officer and resistin’ arrest. The discussion about potential acts of paedophilia appears to be merely an interestin’ sideline conversation."
"That true?" Chris aimed a gaze that could bore through titanium at Enrica Fidler, but she met his eyes without flinching.
"Yes, those are the charges, but Mr Standish is kindly answering some questions we have about another matter."
"And I suppose it hasn’t occurred to you geniuses that he’s been in Kansas for the past month, for Christ’s sake! I dunno how you think he could have done anything to her when he wasn’t even here. Hell, you’ve gotta suspect! Let’s not let a little thing like logic get in the way."
Fidler flinched slightly for the first time but decided to stand her ground. "We have no way of knowing when it all started. It could have been months ago. And are you sure he was there the whole time?"
"Well, he was pretty deep undercover. We couldn’t keep tabs on his whereabouts 24 hours a day," Chris admitted. "But I sure as hell know that he didn’t come back here to visit the Potters!"
"How can you be sure? And quite a coincidence that she runs off on the day he’s due back."
Chris snorted. "He wasn’t due back today. We wrapped up the case early. Which kinda blows your little theory outa the water, doesn’t it?"
"Maybe she found out."
Chris threw questioning look at Ezra who shrugged. "I called Gloria from the airport in Kansas but I didn’t get to speak to Angie. Gloria said that she was at a friend’s place. So Angie could’ve been told. I don’t know."
Enrica Fidler allowed herself a small smirk and Chris Larabee exploded. "Screw all this pussyfooting around! There’s a simple and direct way to find out what’s been going on."
Fidler arched an eyebrow. "Oh, yes? And what would that be?"
Chris made a show of rolling his eyes at having to state the obvious. "You’ve also got Angie in custody. Right?"
"In protective custody, yes."
"So what’s she said?"
"That is not the point."
"Oh, isn’t it?" Chris Larabee snorted again. "I’ve spoken with her and I happen to know that she’s refused to say anything until she’s seen Ezra."
Fidler glared at him as she saw Standish lift his eyebrows in response to this new information. She’d known all that, of course, but it was something she certainly didn’t want the suspect to know. He probably now knew for sure that he’d be able to manoeuvre his way out of this. He’d already shown what a slippery customer he was. Damn!
"She may well change her mind."
"Not likely. That kid is as stubborn as they come. She won’t talk until she sees him. And if the lot of you had half a brain between you, you’d just get it over and done with."
"What?! Leave him alone with her? Have you lost your mind?"
"Alone?" Ezra had picked up on that from her outburst and his querying expression became more pronounced.
"Yeah," Chris told him. "Angie says that she won’t say anything to anyone except you, and only if the two of you are alone. Won’t even talk to me or Josiah or Lila. These idiots seem to think that if they just sit staring at her for long enough, she’ll suddenly break down and tell them everything."
"Well, it seems to be their standard operating procedure. I received a moderate dose of the same to begin with."
"Jesus Christ!" Chris turned on Fidler again. "They told me you had experience with these cases. And that’s how you treat the kids? Lock ‘em in a room and separate them from everyone they trust?" He turned back to Ezra. "Y’know that they wouldn’t let Lila see her either?"
"They probably have their reasons."
"Like what? Making her feel as frightened and insecure as possible? Oh, by the way, she seems to be under the impression that they’ve taken you off somewhere to beat the crap outa you. Josiah tried to tell her otherwise but I don’t think that bruise forming over your eye is gonna reassure her much."
"Chris, I’m sure that you realise that I’m more than willing, eager even, to see her. But these fine upholders of the law and protectors of the citizenry seem to think that if I’m even allowed in the same room with her, I will somehow manage to intimidate her into withholding the evidence which they feel sure she will give them, if they are allowed to continue their subtle and humane tactics to their logical conclusion..."
Suddenly Fidler exploded. "Okay! That’s enough! Okay, Standish, you’ve got thirty minutes with her max! And it’s gonna be in a room with so many cameras and microphones that you won’t be able to breathe without us knowing. You try anything and you’ll get more than the crap beaten out of you. I’ll string you up by your balls to the top of the tallest tree I can find! So this is your one shot! Thirty minutes and after that I’ll get a restraining order stopping you from being in the same state as that child!"
Ezra merely nodded at her. "Thirty minutes? That sounds reasonable. Would I be able to see her immediately?"
Fidler nodded and got up to escort him. Ezra also stood and gestured for Chris to precede him out of the door. Chris strode out of the room with his usual purposeful gait but Ezra lingered a moment to deliver one final smirk.
"Good cop-bad cop," he said pointedly, then turned and walked out without another backward glance.
Angie flinched and looked up fearfully as Ezra entered the interview room. But as soon as she recognised him, her relief was almost palpable. She instantly ran to him and he unhesitatingly took her into his arms, lifting her up off the ground and reinstituting the fierce embrace they had been ripped from at the time of his arrest.
"I’m sorry, Ezra. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry." She sobbed the words over and over into his shoulder.
"It’s alright, Angel. Everything will be alright. You have nothin’ to apologise for. Shhh. Everything is goin’ to be alright." The sobbing showed no sign of abating. And he gently stroked her hair as he continued to hold her and murmur reassurances.
Finally, she quietened enough to actually hear him and looked up into his face. "Sorry, Ezra," she whispered one more time.
"What could you possibly think you have to apologise for?"
"I got you into trouble."
He smiled sadly. "Oh, Angie. That wasn’t your fault and it’s nothin’ that I can’t handle. But you appear to be experiencing some difficulties of your own."
She looked down again but said nothing.
"Maybe if you explained to me what the problem was, I would be able to help you."
She shook her head silently but emphatically and continued to avert her gaze.
"Could you at least tell me why you ran away? I thought that you were fairly comfortable to continue residing with the Potter family."
That made her look up and the fear had returned to her eyes. "I can’t go back there! I can’t, Ezra!"
"I just can’t! Lila always said that if I wanted to, she’d teach me how to live on the street with her."
"Did she?" Interesting that neither of the girls had ever mentioned it to him before.
"Yeah, and I could do that! And it would be okay because she knows how to find you, so we’d still be able to see each other."
As if he didn’t have enough to worry about with Lila insisting upon braving the hazards of street life. He certainly didn’t need Angie threatening to join her. And he made a mental note to himself that a frank discussion with Lila about the issue was required. But he couldn’t afford to let the conversation get sidetracked at this point.
"But you were content to stay with Gloria and her family before. What has changed? Is it because of what happened to Dennis?"
She shook her head again.
"Has Gloria done somethin’ to upset you?"
Another shake of the head.
"Fightin’ with her children again?"
And again she shook her head.
"Somethin’ to do with her visitors?"
No response. Absolute silence and stillness.
Ezra felt a burning fury tear through him and he had to take a moment to concentrate on keeping it contained. They had arrived at the crux of it all and Ezra now knew without a shadow of a doubt what had occurred. But that was not enough.
Angie had to be induced to talk about it slowly and carefully. For their unseen audience and all their damnable recording devices, there had to be no ambiguities.
Guilt cut through him. True, he hadn’t actually told her that no one else was listening to their conversation, but he’d let her assume it. He felt as though he was lying to her and, in doing so, betraying her himself.
He tried to shake off those thoughts by telling himself that he needed to encourage her conversation with the utmost care for another reason. As he talked her through these disturbing events, he had to somehow find some way to prove to her that none of this was her fault.
"Is the problem somethin’ to do with Ms Lane? Her son?"
She shook her head slightly once more, her gaze fixed on some point over his shoulder. "I can’t go back." It was barely more than a whisper now. "I can’t. He wants to..."
"What?" He spoke very quietly and soothingly.
She looked directly into his eyes and he had never seen an expression of such fear and doubt on her face before. She had never been afraid to tell him anything. Never. And now the tears were threatening to spill from her eyes again.
He lifted his hand to brush the first of them from her cheek and kept his voice gentle and encouraging.
"You can tell me, Angel girl."
God, he felt like a Judas! He wasn’t sure if he could keep the deception going. He was taking advantage of her vulnerability as much as any of them. And for what purpose? To prove to those watching that it had not been him who had done this unspeakable thing to her?
No, it wasn’t that. This was to end her ordeal. This was to stop some perverted bastard from causing further damage to her.
"You know that I’d never let anythin’ hurt you if it was within my power to prevent it, Angie, don’t you?"
"He said that it wouldn’t hurt. None of what he does really hurts. It just feels bad."
"What does he do that makes you feel bad?"
"He tries to touch me under my clothes. Places I don’t want him to touch. And he shows me things that I don’t want to see. Like his thing, y’know. He opened up his pants and showed me it. I told him that I didn’t want to see it."
Ezra bit back bile.
"And this was?"
And suddenly his ‘God-given talent’ totally failed him and he couldn’t really explain how it happened. He was an undercover specialist, for Christ’s sake! He made his living through lies and deception, by achieving people’s confidence and then utterly betraying it, as Mr Jackson would not hesitate to point out.
But this wasn’t some hardened member of the criminal fraternity. This was Angie. Angie who deserved better than to be deceived in such a way. Angie who could sometimes see through him as though he were made of glass.
And she did so now. Somehow she read it from his face or manner and her eyes narrowed. "There’s somebody listening."
A bare-faced lie was something he just couldn’t inflict on her. "Yes."
The tears that sprang forth now were tears of anger. "Why?"
"Because they need to know so that they can stop him."
She turned sharply and looked around the room for evidence of their unseen audience but couldn’t find any. Frustrated, she shouted to the room at large.
"It was Tom! Tom Lane! He did those things to me! And he said he did them because he loved me. And I told him that I didn’t want him to love me and I’d tell Gloria. But he said that it had to stay secret and even if I told Gloria, she wouldn’t believe me because he was family and I wasn’t. And he’d only do it when Gloria was out so she wouldn’t know. And yesterday he took me into a room and he didn’t just want to touch me... He wanted to..." And her voice dissolved into tears, as the anger that had fuelled her outburst suddenly gave way to a resurgence of fear and shame.
Ezra caught her up in his arms again and hugged her close. He couldn’t speak. So he clasped her to his chest, burying her in the embrace, as if he could shield her from all the horrors of the world with his own body.
But it wasn’t finished yet. As much as he hated to push her, and even though he didn’t think he could bear to hear the details spoken aloud, they had to keep going. She had to tell them all of it.
He swallowed hard and managed to choke out some more of the perfidious words. "It’s alright, Angie. Everything will be alright, but you need to tell me. What else did he do?"
She clasped him tightly and began to stutter between sobs. "He tried... to put his fingers... inside me.... I ran... locked myself... in the... bathroom... till they... got home.... He said... today he’d... put his... thing in.... I said... wouldn’t fit.... He said... it would... be fun... but I couldn’t!... had to... run away."
Ezra could barely hold back his own tears. "Oh, Angel."
She was crying so hard now that hiccups started to punctuate the sobs. "I’m sorry... didn’t know... you were back... took ages... to find Lila."
"Shhh. It’s alright. But you could have told Lila, you know. She would have believed you."
"Couldn’t... she’d think... I should’ve stopped him... couldn’t... didn’t know how... should’ve... Lila would’ve... stupid... not good enough."
"No!" He pulled back from the embrace so that he could look directly into her eyes. "You did the right thing. Everything you did was right. None of this is your fault!" He couldn’t prevent a tremor of anger creeping into his voice. She should never have been made to think like that. No child should.
"You have nothing to be sorry for. You did nothing wrong."
"But you’re angry."
"Not at you, Angel girl, not at you." He pulled her back into an embrace and began to gently rock her in his arms. "I’m proud of you. I’m angry at him and other people but not at you."
"Nothing to be sorry for. You did the right thing. I’m proud of you and I love you."
She continued to sob but he could feel her relax slightly in his arms. All he could do for now was hold her, to reassure her that he truly was there for her.
But turning his head slightly, he realised that they were positioned almost immediately adjacent to one of the hidden microphones. His anger resurfaced and he demanded into it, "Have you bastards heard enough yet?"
Several hours later, Josiah Sanchez walked back to the lounge where he’d left Ezra and the others, feeling even more world weary than usual.
He, Chris and that blonde policewoman whom Ezra had befriended after Dennis Potter’s death had been among the unseen spectators of Ezra’s interview with Angie. Poor, young Polly had been close to tears, especially when Angie had figured out that they were listening, but she just managed to hold them off.
Josiah couldn’t blame her. Learning what Angie had been through had left him feeling like a lead weight had been inserted into his heart. And he could only imagine the turmoil that Ezra was going through.
The other police officers had immediately made plans to bring in their new suspect. But Polly had had enough. She took it upon herself to escort Ezra and Angie to more comfortable and private surroundings. Josiah went to fetch Lila and bring her to join them. Chris had gone with the cops to the Potter home. Even in light of this new information, he wasn’t going to let them just trample through that household again. Gloria and her kids, in particular, had been through enough.
As soon as Lila had been reunited with Ezra and Angie and had checked that they were at least physically intact, she demanded to know what had happened. Angie had begged Ezra not to tell her. She didn’t want any more people to know. To Josiah’s surprise, Lila had instantly let it drop, her face clouding with a strange expression which encompassed both pity and anger.
Ezra had taken a seat on the couch with Angie in his arms and begun to sing softly to her, trying to lull her into sleep. Lila had sat down beside him and leaned her head against his shoulder. Then Angie had snaked out one hand from his embrace and extended it towards Lila, who clasped it tightly. Ezra had glanced at their entwined hands and smiled slightly. Things were far from alright but at least the three of them were together.
Polly and Josiah had exchanged glances. While the older ATF agent remained concerned about Ezra and the girls, he needed to get in contact with the other members of the team, bring them up to speed on things. He had to catch up with Chris and find out how the investigation was going, because now he found that he really needed to know how this horrible situation had come to pass.
Polly had nodded slightly, seemingly able to decipher his thoughts, and offered to stay with Ezra and the girls.
And so Josiah had gone. He’d got a hold of Buck who’d assured him that all of the four remaining team-members would arrive at the precinct within the hour. He’d met Chris as he’d re-entered the station as part of the entourage that had escorted Tom Lane and his mother in for questioning. He noted that Gloria had come too, and "distraught" was in no way an adequate description of her appearance. The woman looked as though she had been to hell and back, and still knew that her journey was nowhere near over.
Then Josiah had sat in on the first gut-turning interview with young Thomas Lane. Tragedy and perversion, heaped one upon the other. The things that boy had experienced for almost two years, at the hands of one of his mother’s lovers, were deplorable enough, but the way that it had warped his view of the world was even more disturbing.
The boy’s mother was in shock and denial. The poor woman couldn’t cope. Gloria was being pulled in at least two directions at once and cracking under the strain. Oh, Lord, what devastation! How many lives had been ripped to pieces?
Now Josiah was heading back to Ezra and the little girl who’d been caught in the centre of it all. He didn’t know what he’d be able to tell them, but felt duty bound to report something. Opening the door, he found that the room’s occupants remained the same but their positions in the room had changed.
Lila and Angie were both curled up asleep on the couch, Lila’s arm wrapped protectively around the younger girl and Ezra’s jacket draped over them both. Polly sat silently in a chair by the door, stationary but watchful, as if she were prepared to stop Ezra if he made a dash for it. And such an apprehension wasn’t hard to understand. Ezra was pacing the length of the room like a caged tiger. But he looked up as Josiah entered.
"Well?" Never let it be said that Ezra couldn’t be laconic if he wanted to be.
"He’s confessed. Went into a lot of detail. Maybe with a bit of luck, Angie won’t be put through the full rigors of a trial."
"I suppose that’s something," Polly said softly, gazing sadly at the sleeping child.
Polly nodded. "I can imagine." Then another fear seized her. "God! What about the other kids?"
"No, they’re okay," Josiah assured her. "The police talked to them at the house. Both say he never touched them but also confirmed that he spent quite a bit of time alone with Angie while their moms were out. And Tom himself assured us that he’d never do anything like that to a blood relative because that would be incest."
He heard Ezra snort derisively. "Good to know that he draws the line somewhere."
"Well, that was the reasoning given to him by the man who molested him when he wasn’t much older than Angie is now. It was one his mother’s boyfriends and apparently that was the reason he gave Tom why he didn’t do the same thing to his own son. Apparently, that lasted for nearly two years."
"Oh, God," Polly whispered softly. "How much does Gloria know?"
"Pretty much everything I know. She thinks most of this is her fault."
Polly got to her feet. "I’d better go find her and talk to her."
"I’m sure she’d appreciate it."
And Polly nodded once more before walking out the door.
Josiah turned his attention back to his obviously seething colleague. "Well, Ez, looks like the cops’ll drop the charges against you."
"Most generous of them."
"Yeah, well, they’ve got their hands full at the moment. The fact that the perp is also a juvenile, well, they think that it might make things a bit more complicated." Josiah shrugged slightly. "That’s what they said anyway."
"Indeed? Well, I hope that Torquemada and his minions are just as thorough the second time around."
"Ezra..." Josiah began in a tone of mild reproach.
"No! I make that statement with the utmost sincerity. Abusing the trust of a child placed in your care has to be the darkest form of betrayal known to Mankind."
"So, having sat on the other side of the fence hasn’t convinced you that such matters should be approached with caution."
Ezra looked Josiah straight in the eye for the first time since he’d entered the room and, despite himself, the older man was taken aback by the burning intensity of his gaze.
"God help me, Josiah. I want to pulverise the bastard. I want to pummel him with my bare hands until nothin’ but his constituent protoplasm remains."
Ezra never once raised his voice, but his quiet vehemence was far more effective anyway.
Josiah knew that he had to attempt to restore some rationality before his friend did something dire.
"He’s thirteen, Ezra. He’s a child himself, younger even than Lila here."
This argument seemed to have absolutely no impact on Ezra, who simply glared at him, as if challenging him to come up with something better.
The older man fought down a sigh. He’d known that Ezra would be incensed by what had happened to Angie but he found the magnitude of his friend’s wrath rather disturbing. After all, Ezra had just been in the position of being accused of the act himself. But now he was ready to join the new lynch mob.
Been in the position himself...
Josiah kept his voice calm and even as he prepared to chart new and turbulent waters. "And he’s been abused in the past himself, Ezra. This was a behaviour he was taught."
If anything, Ezra’s gaze became even more fierce and penetrating. "Don’t even try to use that argument with me, Josiah. Not everyone who has been sexually molested as a child, feels the need to perpetuate the obscenity by inflictin’ the same upon other children."
"No," Josiah said contemplatively. "Some just want to pulverise all offenders down to their constituent protoplasm."
Ezra didn’t reply, turning away instead, to sit down next to Angie and Lila. The hand that reached out to brush the younger girl’s hair back, trembled ever so slightly.
"I’m right, aren’t I?" Josiah made another gentle push.
Ezra looked up sharply. "I do not wish to discuss it, Josiah."
Josiah raised his eyebrows slightly at that. "Well, as I recall, neither did Angie but you weren’t prepared to let the matter rest."
"That was entirely different."
"Why? Because you were trying to get a statement to use as evidence?"
"No!" Ezra protested instinctively. Then, realising that he’d let his guard slip, he fell silent again.
Josiah spoke mildly. "You don’t have to say anything to me, Ezra, but it might help if you talked to Angie about it."
Ezra snorted. "It’s not somethin’ you discuss with a child!"
"Why not? Because you don’t want to burden them with the awful truth that these things occur? Bit late for you to take a stance like that with Angie, don’t you think?"
Ezra stared at him incredulously but Josiah continued on. "She’s feeling shamed and unworthy. Might do her good to know that someone else has been there and survived it."
Ezra let out a short, derisive and bitter laugh. "God, Josiah! She beat the bastard! She actually managed to stop him from gettin’ what he wanted from her. She walked out the door before he could do it. And yet she still feels tainted. What do you think I could tell her? That I wasn’t half as strong or clever or courageous as she was?"
"Afraid of falling from that pedestal that she’s set you up on?" Josiah asked gently.
Anger flashed across Ezra’s features again, but then he sighed heavily.
"Not exactly. She’s such an extraordinary child, Josiah. Intelligent, charming, generous-hearted. She’s endured trials that no one should have to face at her age and yet, until now, she’s retained her innocence and wonder. Now she flinches when someone unexpectedly puts a hand on her shoulder. Now the world has become a dark and unforgivin’ place. And I just don’t think I could bear it if she ever looked upon me with that kind of suspicion."
"Ezra, you seem to keep forgetting that we could see and hear everything that went on in that room while the two of you were together. I saw fear in her eyes, Ezra. I saw doubt that she would be believed when she told her tale. But I never saw an ounce of that sort of suspicion while she was with you. You were the only person she could be induced to talk to."
"And I had to deceive her to achieve that."
"Perhaps, but I did notice how you never actually said to her that there was no one else watching or listening."
Ezra gave him a disparaging look. "And did you notice how heavily I implied it?"
"Nevertheless, even after she had figured it out, she still poured her heart out to you and sought comfort in your arms. You are her haven in this world that has become dark and unforgiving. And you are also the standard by which she judges what is good and worthwhile in the world. If you still feel tainted by what happened to you, how can you expect her to overcome what has happened to her?"
Ezra looked down at the sleeping child again and gently caressed her cheek. "I don’t know," he whispered.
Josiah crossed the room to hunker down beside him. "Ez, did you have anyone to turn to when it happened to you."
The undercover agent shook his head, his eyes never leaving Angie’s face.
"Well, at least Angie’s got you," Josiah said softly. "I think it’s gonna be up to you to see her through this."
"I wasn’t there when she needed me most."
"This is the time she’s gonna need you most and you are here now."
Suddenly, Lila stirred and sat up, yawning and rubbing her eyes. "Hey, Ez... Josiah."
"Sleep well, Lila?" Josiah asked.
She shook her head. "Not really. So did you guys get whoever was really doing that stuff to Angie?"
Ezra seemed rather astonished. "Neither Angie nor myself have said anything to you about someone doin’ ‘stuff’ to her."
Lila gave him a pitying look. "Ez, I’m not stupid. I kinda worked it out for myself. A kid doesn’t change like that without something happening to them. It’s one of the Potter bunch, isn’t it? That’s why she’s shit-scared about being sent back."
Her temper was progressively rising as she spoke and suddenly Ezra found himself in the role of pacifier rather than the one being pacified.
"Lila, I think you..."
But Lila was on a roll. "I’ll bet it’s Cousin Tom, the dear, little, blue-eyed boy. It is, isn’t it? What’d he do? Bastard! I’ll kill him! Trying that stuff on a little kid like Angie! I’ll fix him! Let’s see how he deals with a real woman!" She was up and halfway to the door in search of her target, before Josiah managed to catch hold of her. The big man enveloped her in a bear hug, in an attempt to both restrain her and mollify her.
"Lila, it’s all in hand. Everything’s under control. You can’t go assaulting anyone. That’ll just get you into trouble."
"Assault him? I’m not gonna assault him, Josiah. I’m gonna vivisect him!"
The door opened to reveal Polly Paget and Gloria Potter, and Lila really went off the deep end.
"Bitch!" she screamed at Gloria. "This is all your fault!"
"Lila!" She heard Ezra call her name sharply. But by the time she’d managed to twist her head around to look at him, his attention had redirected back to Angie. The kid was stirring and seemed about to wake up, and Ez was leaning down over her, stroking her hair and murmuring to her softly, trying to lull her back to sleep.
Lila turned back to Gloria Potter, who remained transfixed in the doorway. This time her voice was low and vicious.
"You’ve got about ten seconds before I get away from Josiah here and scratch your fucking eyes out, you useless, sanctimonious bitch!"
"Lila, stop it," Josiah warned.
"Shut up, Josiah! What would you know about it? Mrs High-and-Mighty Potter has always looked down her nose at me. Always thought I was no good for Angie. And now she lets something like this happen to the kid. I would’ve never let anyone lay a finger on her and she lets him do that! She should’ve stopped him!" Tears of rage caught in her voice. "She should’ve fucking stopped him."
Suddenly, she was released from Josiah’s grasp. And before she could react, she was caught up in another one. Her head was pressed against a familiar shoulder and Ezra’s voice was murmuring in her ear.
"I know, Lila, I know. It’s a thousand times worse when it’s someone that you love rather than yourself. I know."
She lifted her face and saw in his eyes the understanding that only comes to someone who’s been there.
"I’m sorry, Ez."
He pulled her head back down to his shoulder. "Shhh. It’s alright."
Another tear-strained voice sounded from the doorway. "She’s right. I should’ve stopped it. I should’ve known."
Polly put her arm around Gloria’s shoulders and guided her to a chair. "You couldn’t have known, Gloria."
Gloria looked up at her, angry and frustrated. "Yes, I could have. I could have and I should have. I should have known what Tom was doing. I should have known what that man was doing to Tom, all those years ago. Christ, I even liked him. Told Charlotte she was a fool for not marrying him."
Ezra still had Lila clasped to his chest, but looked up and spoke over her head. "It’s not your fault, Gloria. No one could have foreseen this."
There was a tentative knock on the still open door. They all looked round to see the remaining members of Team 7 hesitating at the threshold. Lila stepped out of Ezra’s embrace to face them and Gloria turned and stood up as well.
"You guys okay?" Buck asked, his concern audible.
"Not really, Buck," Ezra replied. "But the addition of your presence helps."
The five of them entered the room and Buck immediately crossed to the couch where Angie lay. She was beginning to stir again.
"How’s the little ‘un?"
"Exhausted and traumatised."
"Shit! I’d love to castrate the bastard!"
Josiah shook his head briefly. "The police almost castrated Ezra over it. And yet he’d now be prepared to assist you in such a pointless act of mutilation."
Chris spoke in a low growl. "Most of us feel the same, Josiah."
Nathan sighed. "Well, I admit that I’d be willin’ to pass y’all the knife but Josiah’s right. It wouldn’t do nothin’ to help Angie."
"What’s gonna happen to her now?" JD asked softly.
Ezra looked over to meet Gloria’s gaze and, as much as he would have liked to have reassured all of them, he couldn’t.
"I honestly don’t know, JD."
Chris walked over to join Buck at Angie’s side and gazed down at her. "It’s gonna take a while to sort things out properly but she needs to get away from all the hurt and memories." Then he looked up again. "Ezra, as of now, you are officially on leave for the next month or however long it takes. I think you and Angie - and Lila too - need some fresh air and open spaces."
Ezra lifted an eyebrow. "Your ranch?"
"If the shoe fits..."
"And after that?"
Gloria Potter forced herself to speak up. "Ezra, I know I probably don’t deserve a second chance..."
"Damn right!" snarled Lila.
"Hey!" Ezra said gently and put a hand on the girl’s shoulder before turning to Angie’s soon to be former foster mother. "Gloria, you have one hell of a family crisis to sort out at the moment. I do believe that you have always endeavoured to do your best for Angie but I’m not sure that she could ever bring herself to feel a part of your family anymore. Maybe when some of the shock wears off. I really don’t know. But I’ll tell you now, there’s no way in hell that I’ll allow any contact between her and your nephew ever again."
He turned abruptly at the sound of Angie’s frightened voice and instantly went to collect her from the couch.
"It’s alright, Angel," he assured her as he gathered her up in his arms. "I’m here. I’m not goin’ to let anyone hurt you. Everythin’s goin’ to be alright."
She pulled back slightly and looked at all the people gathered in the room. Gloria Potter’s presence seemed to alarm her somewhat.
"I can’t go home!"
Gloria winced but felt that she had to speak up. "It’s okay, Angie. You don’t have to come home with me. You and Ezra and Lila are going to spend some time up at Mr Larabee’s ranch."
Angie looked to Ezra for confirmation. "Are we?"
He nodded. "The virtues of fresh air and open spaces have been extolled to me."
"How long for?"
"I’m not sure. Maybe a few weeks. What do you say?"
He knew that it was probably pushing Angie slightly, but he had to give Gloria some small hope of reconciliation with the child. "Maybe, in a week or so, Gloria might come and visit."
Angie’s eyes turned fearful again. "Not Tom!"
"No, not Tom. Just Gloria and maybe her children."
"Okay, but not Tom!"
"What about Buck and JD and Vin and Josiah and Nathan?"
"I’m sure they would be delighted to join us if you allow them."
"Do I get to say who can come and who can’t?"
He briefly flicked his gaze to Chris for confirmation which was immediately given.
"Yes, you do. For the next week or so, it’s goin’ to be your home too. It will be up to you who is permitted entrance and who is not."
"Okay, they can come."
"Right glad to hear it," said Buck, grinning broadly. "We’ve missed you, Shortcake."
Angie groaned unexpectedly (and very theatrically). "Why does everyone call me short? One day I’ll be taller than you and then you’ll be sorry!"
The whole room burst into laughter, a mirth born more of the dissipation of tension than anything else.
Lila walked over and tousled Angie’s hair. "Don’t think so, Squirt! I’d bet my life that Buck will always be taller than you."
"Well, I’ll be taller than you anyway. You just wait and see."
Lila laughed. "Well, you’ve got a better shot at that one but it’s gonna take a long, long time. I’m prepared to wait."
"And I’ll be taller than JD!"
Buck laughed at that. "No question. A pygmy grasshopper is taller than JD!"
"Go jump, Buck!" retorted JD.
Angie turned back to Ezra. "What about you, Ezra? Do you think I’ll be taller than you one day?"
Ezra smiled gently. "I think that you already stand head and shoulders above most people I know, Angel girl, myself included."
She looked at him quizzically and he pulled her close to whisper in her ear.
"You have the stature of a giant within you, Angie, don’t ever let them cut you down."
Maybe she still didn’t really understand what he meant, but she’d have the rest of her life to figure it out.
And he planned to be there, every step of the way.
This story is sequelled in Just One Punch, which is a Buck-centred story archived on a different site.
|On to: Just One Punch|
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