The Diamond Jungle
(Welcome To The Jungle)
Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended, this story is strictly for fun, not profit.
Rating: NC-17 for violence, m/m, and a few naughty words
Feedback: Yes, please. :-)
Author's notes: Thank you to my wonderful betas, Sherri, Chris, Tehomet, and Antoinette.
Summary: Precious diamonds, hostile tribes, mercenaries. Just day in the life of the Seven.
Back to: Through The Heart Of The Jungle
Part I - The Theft
Somewhere over Shambala country, Africa
Elimu licked his lips nervously as he looked at the briefcase carrying the Alitash stones. He couldn't wait to get off this damn plane; flying always made him nauseous, especially on such small aircraft. And if he was honest with himself, he was sick and tired of having to watch over these bloody diamonds. It was one thing to share guard duty with the security personnel at the Egyptian museum, but having to bring the stones back home with only one other man as backup was asking for trouble.
He glanced at the other guard. Hondo had been quiet for most of the journey, something that Elimu found unsettling. Of course, this was his first job with the man; maybe that was just his way. Maybe having to watch over a fortune in diamonds didn't faze him in the slightest.
Elimu snorted inwardly; sure, and pigs fly.
He opened his mouth to share the joke, when he saw Hondo look out the small window to the jungle below. Then Hondo rose from his seat and headed over to where the parachutes were kept.
"What are you doing?" Elimu asked, surprised.
"Leaving," Hondo said without looking at him.
Elimu frowned. "Leaving?"
His hand went to the buckle of his seatbelt, his curiosity aroused, when Hondo abruptly turned, holding a gun with a silencer attached. Before Elimu could reach for his own weapon, a fierce pain stabbed at his chest and he realized he had been shot. He wanted to ask why - why him, why shoot him, why do this - but only a whimper escaped his bloodied lips. Helpless, he watched Hondo don a parachute and grab the Alitash suitcase.
The last thing he saw as his eyes closed was Hondo opening the emergency door and jumping out of the plane.
Chris exhaled softly as the small twin-engine plane began to make its descent to the landing strip. He really hated working for the Shambalan government, but was willing to compromise just this once. The Alitash stones belonged to the Shambalan people, were part of a heritage they were proud of, and Chris wasn't about to let the corruption ravaging the country - and its rulers - take it away.
But against all odds, it seemed that for once there had been no leaks from high above, no robbery attempts, nothing to bring further shame to an already tainted leadership. The exhibition in Egypt had been a success, and the diamonds, after having been seen by thousands, were finally home. All Chris needed now was to see to their safe return to the National Museum.
He exchanged glances with his men. "We're on. Let's go."
As soon as the plane came to a stop, they made their move. Approaching it swiftly, they surrounded the aircraft, Chris reaching for the door just as it flew open. A pale looking man, eyes wide and fearful, stumbled out, staring wildly at them.
"He's dead!" he stuttered. "He's dead, man!"
Chris cursed under his breath and stepped into the plane, spotting the guard slumped in his seat. Checking for a pulse, he found none. Joining the others outside, he glared at the frightened man.
"Who are you?"
"S-Sam Martin, the pilot," the man stammered.
"I don't know, man! I was in my seat the whole flight and kept the cabin door closed." He gulped thickly. "I lost control of the plane a while back - it started to shake and took a nose dive. Must've been pressure change from the door opening. But other than that, I didn't see or hear anything."
"More like you were too chickenshit to go and find out what was goin' on," Chris said wrathfully. "Do you have your position at the time?"
The man shook his head. "No, but it was about four hours ago. You can cross-reference with the flight plan."
"What do you think?" Buck asked Chris. "We were expectin' two guards. Think one of them got greedy? Killed his partner and jumped?"
Chris nodded. "Could be. How many parachutes were stored in the plane?" he asked Martin.
"JD." Chris gestured towards the craft.
JD disappeared inside, only to reappear seconds later. "One's missing. The guy definitely jumped."
"Dammit," Chris muttered softly. What had promised to be a walk in the park was rapidly turning into a serious pain in the ass. "All right. Josiah, contact the authorities. Nathan, JD, check out our usual sources; see if they have any information for us. And try to find out all you can on the guards." He turned to the pilot. "I need a copy of your flight plan and a map of the route you took."
"You sure you want to do this?" Vin asked, as they watched the pilot moving around in the cabin. "This guy could be anywhere. And if this was planned, he could've had someone on the ground waitin' for him."
"I know. But I still think it's worth a shot. We know for sure the diamonds were on the plane when it took off, so the little bastard has to be somewhere out there. As I see it, one of two things happened; either it was a spur of the moment thing on his part and he's alone, or this was planned and we have two or more players on the ground. Either way it would be madness to set foot in Shambala City right now, with half the country hot on his trail. I'd stay hidden in the jungle for a few days, maybe with a friendly tribe. Josiah and the others can keep an eye out here in town anyway, so we have all bases covered. But maybe if we backtrack their flight path, we'll get lucky."
"It's a big maybe," Buck said.
"True," Chris conceded. "But at this point we've got nothing to lose. I'm not about to let some weasel destroy our reputation with these people. I'll find those diamonds if I have to tear down every tree with my bare hands."
Ezra was going over the books of his establishment, the Four Corners Bar, when the phone rang. "Standish."
Ezra smiled at his lover's voice. "Chris," he murmured happily. "Finished the security detail already? That was quick."
"No. That's why I called. I won't be able to make it for lunch. Apparently one of the guards shot the other and parachuted out of the plane with the Alitash, right in the middle of the jungle."
"Need any help?" Ezra asked, not really surprised at the news. He had found out the hard way that with Chris and the others the simplest of matters could turn into a complicated imbroglio.
"Not at the moment. Josiah's staying here to deal with the authorities, and then he, Nathan and JD'll be around town, trying to find out if this guy had help and if he made it back to Shambala City. He might need someone to fence the stones, could be he asked around. There's always a loose end somewhere, all we need is to find it."
"What will you be doing?"
"Buck, Vin and I will try to backtrack the pilot's flight route. We're hoping to meet this guy halfway."
"Chris, he could be anywhere," Ezra said. "It's the proverbial needle in the haystack. And you said it yourself, if he had an accomplice or it was a staged robbery, he could be on his way back to town even as we speak. If he's not here already. You have no means of knowing his exact location at the time of the jump."
Chris sighed. "I know, Vin said the same thing. But I gotta try it anyway, Ezra. Besides, anyone smart enough to try something like this would know going back to town wouldn't be safe. I'm not sure how long it's going to take, might be one or two days before you hear anythin'. Just wanted to let you know."
"All right. Be careful."
"I promise. Love you."
Ezra felt a smile touch his lips. "Love you too. Let me know as soon as you get back."
"I will. Bye."
Ezra took a deep breath as he replaced the receiver. He knew Chris and the others could take care of themselves, but he still worried. He would give his partner two days to fulfill his quest, do things his way. If Chris wasn't back by that time, Ezra would take matters into his own hands. After all, there were more ways to skin a cat and he wasn't without connections in town himself.
Jabulani resisted the urge to growl as he glanced at his watch. Hondo was an hour late, which meant he wasn't coming at all. Perhaps something had gone wrong, but Jabulani doubted it. Most likely Hondo had decided to keep the diamonds for himself, thinking to sell them on the black market.
He knew he shouldn't have trusted the man, but his plan called for one of the guards to be bought. Elimu had been with the National Museum for far too long, and was fiercely proud of his position, so he was out. That had left Hondo, a newcomer to the security team, and a compulsive gambler at that. It had sounded perfect, but evidently Jabulani had underestimated the man's avarice.
"Mr. Beckett, it seems I will require your services for something other than that previously discussed," he told his companion as he finished his drink.
Beckett nodded curtly, his dark eyes never leaving the crowded tavern. "What can I do for you, Mr. Jabulani?"
"As you've undoubtedly heard, the Alitash diamonds, one of this country's national treasures, have been on display in Egypt for the past year. Having friends in high places, I had no trouble learning when they were supposed to be returned and how. I paid one of the guards traveling with the diamonds handsomely for the job of stealing those stones and handing them to me. We were to meet here, and your job would be to kill him once our transaction was complete."
"Obviously he had other plans," Beckett said sarcastically.
"Obviously," Jabulani said through gritted teeth. "I want him found and killed. And I want those stones as soon as possible. I have a buyer waiting, and I'm sure he will be most unhappy with this delay."
"How was he supposed to steal the stones?"
"I was given the flight path the pilot was to take. We agreed on a location where Hondo was supposed to parachute with the cargo, a small clearing in the Jiri region. One of my men, Mokabi, would be waiting for him there. He's also missing. My guess is that Hondo killed him."
"Couldn't they be working together?"
"Highly unlikely. Hondo didn't know any of my men, and I picked Mokabi randomly myself, only last night. And before you ask, yes, I trust him implicitly."
Beckett took a sip from his beer. "All right. I'll need more details, though. How many people were involved in guarding the diamonds?"
"This was a very hush-hush operation. Only two guards were to travel with the Alitash, Hondo and Elimu. Chris Larabee and his team were supposed to take over once the plane landed and see to it that the diamonds reached the museum safely."
Beckett hissed. "Larabee. Dangerous man, or so I've been told."
Jabulani nodded. "You have been told right. I have had some dealings with him in the past and always came up losing. I'm hoping this time will be the exception."
Beckett leaned back in his chair, a small smile curling his lips. "I'll do my best. I've always enjoyed a good challenge, anyway. Besides, I'm curious to know if everything I've heard about him and his men is true or just one more legend made up by the locals. Well, if someone's supposed to know what happened to this Hondo fellow and the stones, it's Larabee. I should start there. Where can I find him?"
"He and his men have an encampment in the Durak region. I'll give you directions. Usually at this hour you can find them at the Four Corners Bar here in town. The owner, Ezra Standish, is more than a friend to Larabee, if the rumors are true."
Beckett grinned widely. "Is that so? Well, it's time to pay Mr. Standish and the Four Corners Bar a visit."
Chris waited behind the wheel while Vin studied the ground for any signs of movement; tire marks, footprints, anything out of the ordinary. A few hours into the search and they had nothing - no sightings, no tracks, no diamonds. He knew both Vin and Ezra were right; the guard could be far away by now. He could have made it back to Shambala City by one of the less traveled dirt roads, or be hiding with one of the local tribes. The possibilities were literally endless.
But something told him to keep going, not to give up yet. And he always followed his instincts, no matter the cost.
Part II - Kidnapped
Ezra was in the basement checking the supplies when the back door suddenly burst open. A big man in camouflage charged in, Uzi aimed at Ezra's heart.
"Ah, I beg your pardon, sir, but this entrance is for employees only," Ezra drawled with a calm he didn't feel.
The gunman smirked. "Funny. I'm looking for Chris Larabee."
Ezra gestured around the small room. "Well, as you can see I am alone, so you wasted precious time when you could be searching somewhere else. I assume compensation for the damage done to my door will be provided?"
The intruder chuckled. "I like you; you're funny." His expression lost all amusement. "Now, Mr. Standish, I have already looked in the bar and he's not there. I know you two are... close. So, where is he?"
"What do you want with him?"
"I want to know where the Alitash stones are. You know anything about them?"
"No. Nor am I aware of Mr. Larabee's whereabouts, so you might as well leave."
"I don't think so, Standish. Either you tell me what you know, or I'll just step into your little bar there and start shooting. Now, what will it be?"
Staring into the gunman's eyes, seeing he was telling the truth and fearing for Inez and his customers, Ezra decided to be honest. "I don't know where Chris is at the moment. All I can tell you is that one of the guards parachuted with the diamonds into the jungle and that Chris is pursuing him."
"So Hondo is still in the jungle?" the man asked.
Ezra shook his head, confused. "Hondo?"
"Your guess is as good as mine. Some of Chris' men are in town seeking this Hondo or any leads as to where he might have gone. But I believe Chris was convinced the man you're looking for was somewhere in Shambalan country."
The man gave him a speculative look. "Hondo didn't show up for his meeting with my boss," he said out of the blue. "Maybe Larabee is right and he's still out there. It makes sense not to come back to town. It would be too dangerous with Larabee, the law, and my boss out for his blood. How was Larabee searching for Hondo?"
Ezra hesitated. He had no wish to lead this man to his partner. He thought briefly about trying to subdue the gunman, but an Uzi was an impressive weapon and he was unarmed at the moment. Not to mention the intruder was about Josiah's bulk and height, and obviously had military training. Gaining the upper hand would be difficult - if not impossible - even if the gunman wasn't keeping a respectable distance between them, making it much harder for Ezra to jump him. He would have to wait for the right moment.
The man seemed to read his thoughts. "I can still go out there and shoot some of your customers full of holes, Standish."
Ezra sighed in defeat. "He was to backtrack the flight path."
The stranger nodded, satisfied. "I have the map Jabulani gave me. I can catch up to them in no time."
Ezra's eyes narrowed. "Jabulani? You're working for Jabulani?"
Apparently Jabulani was a slow learner. After stealing a shipment of medicine meant for the local villages some months earlier, it seemed the Shambalan was back to his old tricks. It was also evident that Vin's 'conversation' with the man had gone unheeded.
"I see you've heard of him," the gunman remarked with a grin. "He's very interested in those stones, and in Hondo as well. Betrayal doesn't sit well with him."
"Ah." Ezra nodded his understanding. "Hondo was working for Jabulani and decided he would be better off working for himself. My heart aches for Jabulani. It truly does." He smiled. "Couldn't have happened to a better man."
"I wouldn't be so smug if I were you," the intruder retorted. "Because I'm going after Larabee... and you're coming with me. Hands behind your back. Now!" he snapped abruptly.
This was it. Pretending acquiescence, Ezra positioned his arms as ordered, waiting until the man was right beside him to strike. A knee to the groin and a stout punch to the face, and the gunman collapsed, the Uzi slipping from his hand. Ezra reached frantically for it, only to have his legs kicked right from under him. The impact unexpected, Ezra was unable to break his fall, his temple thumping into the floorboards painfully, leaving him stunned.
"You're a very bad boy, Standish," the gunman whispered in his ear as strong hands easily subdued him.
Ezra gritted his teeth as his wrists were firmly and expertly bound together. There was no one on the streets to witness as he was manhandled into a jeep, and thrown in the backseat, his kidnapper taking him swiftly out of town and into the wilderness.
The afternoon was slowly dying away, the shadows lengthening all around him. Chris listened for any sounds of movement, knowing their quarry couldn't be far. Risking life and limb, he rose from his crouch, quickly jerking his head back down as a bullet slammed into the tree trunk beside him.
They had been deep into the search for the diamonds and their thief, when they had stumbled into an impoverished village. A group of slavers had been herding a small number of natives at gunpoint into two trucks. Things had rapidly gotten out of control as Vin growled at the slavers to release the Shambalans, to which the mercenaries had responded with gunfire, the battle rapidly spreading into the jungle.
Now, long minutes after that brief - but heated - exchange, the Shambalans were safely cowering behind their jeep or within their meager houses, while Chris, Vin and Buck traded the occasional shot with the remaining slavers. It was obvious neither side was willing to back down.
"We could try to sneak around the back and catch 'em by surprise," Buck whispered to his right. "There're only four of them left."
"Too risky," Chris countered. "It's getting too dark to see and we don't know where they're hidin'."
"We could still..." Buck's words trailed off then, and he gaped. "Holy-"
Chris held his breath as Buck broke cover abruptly, rushing past him and stirring a sharp breeze. It took him a second to realize Buck was trying to reach one of the Shambalan kids. The teenager's face was a mask of anger as he crawled deep in the undergrowth, obviously foolish enough to believe he could take on the slavers with his bare hands.
Suddenly spotting a sniper tracking the young man, Chris swore and started firing his weapon, wanting to give Buck as much cover and time as possible. He heard Vin shooting from his hiding place, their barrage of lead enough to pin down their opponents, even if only for a moment.
Chris stopped to reload his gun, relieved to see Buck dragging the Shambalan through the vegetation to rejoin the others. A spray of bullets started from the other side, and Chris aimed in that general direction, smirking as he heard a man cry out. A second pain-filled cry was audible a heartbeat later, this time a victim of Vin's shotgun.
Out of the corner of his eye Chris saw Buck creeping closer, finger on the trigger, never wavering as he returned bullet for bullet. Then, as precipitously as it had begun, the hostilities died down. Suspicious, but wanting to end the skirmish once and for all, Chris rose slowly, warily, coming to his full height when no further bullets came flying his way.
He gestured towards his companions and they spread out, searching for the slavers and finding only bodies. That taken care of, Chris prowled over to the jeep, grabbing the foolish Shambalan by his shoulders.
"What the hell were you thinkin'?" he snapped, shaking the kid lightly. "You could've been killed."
One of the women approached him slowly, nodding curtly in greeting. "I apologize for my brother. He has more heart than brains. I am Omphale, of the Idrissa tribe. We are in your debt."
"This is Chris Larabee, and Buck Wilmington. I'm Vin Tanner," Vin said. "What happened?"
"These men attacked our village, and chose those of us fit enough to endure forced labor. We were to be taken to the gold mines in the Jaja region."
"Do you need any help?" Chris asked, looking around at the villagers. "Is there anythin' we can do?"
Omphale smiled, but shook her head. "No need, Mr. Larabee. Thank you again for your assistance."
"What about them?" Vin gestured towards the mercenaries' bodies and the trucks.
"We will see to them," Omphale replied. "Tomorrow I will have some of the men drive the trucks to Shambala City with the bodies. I'm certain even these misguided souls have loved ones who would like to know what happened to them. Now, nightfall approaches and there is still much to be done." She turned to the others. "Come."
"Quite the lady," Buck commented as they watched the small group dispersing around the village, already moving purposefully to do Omphale's bidding. "Now what?"
Chris looked up at the darkening skies. "We have about an hour's light. Let's use it. The map shows a clearing not far from here. We can make camp there for the night." He grinned at his men. "As the lady said - come."
They jumped into the jeep and were on their way.
Nathan wandered down the filthy alley, knowing Josiah and JD were following close behind. He glanced around, catching sight of a shadow hovering in one of the doorways.
"Melech?" he called out softly.
A slim man drifted closer, the sight of him making Nathan feel uncomfortable as always. Melech looked much older than his forty-something years, his face wrinkled by too much sun and hard times, his body malnourished to the point of death.
"You have something for us?" Josiah asked.
Melech nodded. "I might, but it's going to cost you."
JD handed him a twenty-dollar bill. "There's more where that came from... if the information's worth it."
Their informant grinned. "Oh, it's worth it. The man you're looking for is called Hondo. He's the guard that stole the Alitash."
Nathan had been expecting the news. He, Josiah and JD had spent the afternoon doing background checks on the two security men. The curator at the National Museum had been more than helpful, especially regarding Hondo. There was obviously no love lost between them. Hondo was considered lazy, careless and rude; plus it was a known fact he was a compulsive gambler. Not exactly the person he would have had guarding a fortune in diamonds, but very little in Shambala still had the power to surprise him.
"We know all that, Melech. We need more. Is he working alone? If not, who does he work for? Where is he?" JD asked, impatiently.
"I can't tell you where he is, but I can tell you he was working for someone called Jabulani."
"Him again!" Nathan growled. He was still smarting from the fact that the man had dared steal a shipment of medication right from under their noses. If it hadn't been for Ezra, thousands of dollars in vaccines would have been sold on the black market, instead of going where they did the most good.
"Something went wrong, though," Melech said. "Hondo was supposed to meet Jabulani in town and never showed up. Mokabi, the man Jabulani chose to meet with Hondo, hasn't been heard from, either. I think Hondo decided to keep the diamonds for himself. Maybe cross the border and sell them abroad. Returning to Shambala City would be crazy, what with Jabulani out for his blood. Word is Jabulani put a contract out on Hondo."
"How do you know all this?" Josiah's voice was rich with suspicion.
Melech chuckled. "I have a friend that works for Jabulani; she keeps her ears open for me. So, was the information worth it?"
JD nodded. "More than," he confirmed, handing Melech a couple more bills.
Josiah's cell phone rang just as Nathan shook Melech's hand and waved him away. Nathan watched his friend's expression grow progressively darker as he spoke with the person on the other end, until it had turned into an angry scowl.
"What?" he asked when Josiah disconnected the call.
"That was Inez. Ezra's missing. Looks like someone broke into the bar through the back door."
JD frowned. "Does she know how long he's been missing?"
"No. Inez said the bar's been crowded and she's had her hands full. Ezra was supposed to check supplies and go out for more kegs after lunch, so she didn't begin to worry until she went to the basement and saw the broken door. She tried calling his cell phone and found it in his office, along with his coat. His wallet, ID and keys were also there. He wouldn't go anywhere without them."
Nathan exhaled slowly. "This just keeps getting better and better. First we learn we're dealing with that scumbag Jabulani again, and now Ezra's disappeared. Think the two things are connected?"
Josiah grimaced. "With Ezra involved? Definitely. Come on, I think it's time we paid Jabulani a little visit."
Part III - Captured
Ezra grunted as he was thrown against the side of the jeep yet again. His captor was a maniac behind the wheel, ignoring both the rough terrain and the falling night as he forged determinedly ahead. It was madness to keep driving in the dark. The dense jungle made it nearly impossible to glimpse more than a few feet ahead, even with the headlights at full beam.
As if reading his mind, the gunman brought the vehicle to a violent halt, propelling a startled Ezra forward. He collided with the front seat painfully, before falling down between the front and back seats. He remained still, panting, eyes closed against the hurt coursing through him.
He felt his kidnapper turn to look at him. "You okay down there?"
"Never better," Ezra gritted out.
The man chuckled. "Good. I'm afraid we can't go any further tonight, it's too dark. I'll go make us a fire. Don't go anywhere now, you hear?"
Refusing to give voice to the obscenities running through his mind, Ezra lay unmoving, listening with half an ear as the gunman set up camp. Finally opening his eyes, he sighed, resigned to the fact there would be no way out of his plight any time soon. He shifted his body in preparation to rise, when something under the front seat caught his eye.
Sliding his face as close as possible without risk of getting stuck, he studied the object, feeling a small grin emerging as he realized it was a shard of glass, from a beer bottle, judging by its color. And a very sharp piece of glass at that. Perhaps even enough to cut through his bonds.
Plan mapped in his mind, Ezra twisted slowly around, biting his lip to prevent any sounds from escaping. He was covered in bumps and bruises and being wedged between the seats wasn't exactly helping matters. After what felt like forever, he was at last able to squeeze his bound hands under the seat, eyes slitted at the strain in his shoulders. It took a few seconds of fumbling around before his fingers found what they so desperately sought.
He had merely enough time to close his hand around the glass, wincing slightly as it stabbed into his palm, before his nemesis returned to the jeep, grabbing him easily by the arm and pulling him upright and out of the vehicle.
"Come with me, and no more funny stuff," the gunman warned. "I would be very upset if I had to kill you after coming all this way."
He was dragged to the improvised camp and forced to sit on a rock close to the fire. His tormentor sat beside him, amusement shining in his eyes. It was obvious the man was enjoying every single moment of Ezra's predicament.
"Can I have some water?" Ezra asked, frustrated.
"What's the magic word?" the gunman countered with a huge grin.
Ezra frowned. "What?"
"Say 'please', Ezra," the man sing-songed.
Ezra's eyebrows rose to his hairline. "You must be kidding!"
The gunman shrugged and poured fresh water from a canteen into a mug, drinking some himself. "Suit yourself."
Grinding his teeth so hard he was afraid the enamel might crack, Ezra thought of the thousand and one ways he knew to kill a man and how much he would like to implement every one on his kidnapper.
"Please," he finally grumbled, and drank greedily from the mug as it was placed to his lips. "I suppose I should also thank you?" he said sarcastically when he was finished.
The man gave him a sunny smile. "Wouldn't hurt."
"What do you call yourself?" Ezra challenged with a glare. "I want to know what name to put on your gravestone."
"James Beckett, at your service. Now, I'm going to make us some dinner and you're going to eat it like a good boy. Then we'll see to our sleeping arrangements."
"I don't suppose you would consider untying me during our meal, at least? My arms are numb."
Beckett shook his head. "You're too unpredictable, can't risk it. But don't worry, I'll be sure to feed you properly."
"This is madness, you know?" Ezra said suddenly. "There's no guarantee that Chris will ever find Hondo and the Alitash - this jungle is too vast, even if following the map. The chances of you finding Chris are also slim. So why bother? And why take me along?"
Beckett shrugged. "I've always enjoyed a good hunt. I also believe Larabee's stubborn - and lucky - enough to stumble into Hondo and the stones, no matter what. As for you, I might need a hostage. I'm sure he'll be more... manageable if I have you with me."
"It's still three against one. Chris is not alone."
"True. But I plan on playing dirty and they aren't expecting me. Besides, as you've said, we may not even find them and all this discussion is just academic. Just consider this a sojourn from your duties at the bar."
Ezra aimed another glare at Beckett, but he either didn't notice or chose to ignore it. Resigned to his fortune for the moment, Ezra accepted the nourishment Beckett prepared, resisting the urge to bite the man's fingers off along with the fruit he was offered. Only the comforting weight of the glass in his hand prevented him from doing something foolish; sooner or later he would see to his emancipation. And then James Beckett would rue the day they had met.
Chris brought their vehicle to a halt at the clearing, frowning as he spotted the abandoned jeep amongst some trees. He squinted around at the darkness that surrounded them, trying to locate its driver, but there was no sign.
"Strange," Vin said from the back seat. "Think it could be related to the theft? It's not every day you find a brand-new jeep deserted in the jungle. And this place's right on the route the plane took."
Chris leapt out of their jeep. "Buck, set up camp. Vin, come with me; let's search it. Keep your eyes open, we may not be the only ones in the area."
The search revealed a backpack filled with food and two bottles of water, as well as a map of Shambala, its main roads penned in red. Sitting by a fire the three men studied the contents of the pack carefully, trying to determine what had happened to their prey.
"This suggests he wasn't working alone," Buck ventured. "There's enough supplies in here for two people. But if he had a partner waitin' for him here, where are they? The guy disappeared about twelve hours ago, so why is the jeep still here? They could've been miles away by now."
"Somethin' must've gone wrong," Chris agreed. "He had to have jumped around here, probably had a map or some other way of knowing when to make the jump. So, somethin' happened to prevent them from leavin'."
"Any unfriendly tribes around here?" Buck asked Vin.
Vin nodded. "A couple. Might be they got themselves caught by one of them. These tribes don't take kindly to strangers, especially white folks. Let me check around, see if I can find any tracks."
Chris watched as Vin carefully examined the soil around the apparently abandoned jeep, going this way and that, paying close attention to some of the vegetation, before he returned to them.
"Well?" Chris prompted.
"It's too dark to get a good look, but there are definite signs of a struggle, marks of both bare feet and shoes on the earth and broken branches. I'd say these guys were taken, all right."
Chris exhaled softly. "Damn. I guess we should check it out, take advantage of the full moon. Get ready to go. Pack light, check your ammo and weapons. And keep alert; I don't fancy getting caught with my pants down by an overzealous warrior."
Buck chuckled. "Yeah, not to mention Ezra would be very upset if someone were to mess with your jewels."
Chris snorted, amused in spite of himself. "Shut up, Buck."
Vin gave him a grim look. "You do realize, if these guys were caught by one of these tribes, they're both probably dead by now?"
"And the diamonds?" Chris asked.
Vin shrugged. "Possession's nine-tenths of the law 'round here too, Cowboy. Reckon we may go home empty-handed on this one."
Ezra fought the impulse to sigh at his bad luck. Why did these things always happen to him? It really wasn't fair of Lady Luck to mess with him so. To provide him with a means of escape - the shard of glass - only to make his liberation virtually impossible was cruel and unusual punishment.
Their 'sleeping arrangements' - as Beckett had referred to them - consisted of a very constricting sleeping bag, especially since it was harboring two people, as it did at present. But that wasn't the worst of it. No, the worst was their current position. Beckett spooned against Ezra's back, one arm wrapped around his waist, and Ezra's bound hands caught between them. He had no doubt Beckett was a light sleeper; should he attempt to cut through the rope binding him, Beckett was sure to rouse. And that was the last thing he wanted.
So he would just have to turn around - pretending to be deep asleep, of course - and hope Beckett would think nothing of it. It would also mean being chest to chest with the mercenary, although it couldn't be much worse than feeling the man's thankfully dormant crotch against his bottom.
Putting forth his plan, he wriggled carefully until he was practically lying on his back, allowing a small 'sleepy' murmur to escape him as Beckett's arm tightened warningly around him. He waited countless moments for the other man to settle down again, then moved a little more, and a little, and a little more. After what felt like forever, he finally accomplished his task. Fearing Beckett might grow suspicious, he elected to postpone his attempted escape for a while longer. As the saying went, better safe than sorry.
Josiah sighed as they exited yet another bar. There wasn't a sign of Jabulani anywhere. They had tried his home, his office - the sly bastard was a lawyer - all his favorite haunts, and nothing. He might as well have disappeared into thin air. And this time, not even their informants seemed to know anything.
"Think he was the one to kidnap Ezra?" JD asked as they made their way to their truck.
"Nah. Not directly, anyway," Nathan answered. "He's not the type to get his hands dirty. I wouldn't put it past him to have had it done, though. The question is why. I can only think of one reason and I don't like it one bit."
Josiah nodded, having come up with the same idea. "The diamonds. Jabulani evidently knew we were the ones responsible for returning the Alitash to the museum. It wouldn't be that difficult to realize that Chris and the others are after Hondo. And he knows Ezra is a close friend of ours."
"But why kidnap Ezra?" JD countered with a frown. "There's no way of knowing where Chris is at any given time, as he'll constantly be on the move. We have no way of contacting them, as no radio or cell phone can reach that far into the jungle. So what would Jabulani gain by doing it? Ezra won't be able to give out any information, and Chris won't know about the kidnapping until..." he trailed off, understanding dawning.
"Until he returns," Josiah said. "Ezra could be used as a hostage. Him in exchange for the stones."
"You think?" Nathan asked dubiously.
Josiah shrugged. "Who knows? We're flying blind here. There's a high probability Chris won't even find the guard, let alone the stones. And for all we know Ezra might've decided to go after Chris himself, wanting to make sure he's okay. We all know our wayward friend has a very devious mind."
"But you don't think so," JD said softly.
"No, I don't," Josiah said. "Ezra would've given us some warning, or would've told Inez if he was heading off, at least. This has the hand of Jabulani all over it."
"Then God help him," JD said, gnawing at his lower lip. "Chris'll kill him when he gets back and finds out Ezra's missing."
Nathan shook his head. "I can't believe I'm goin' to say this, but that might not be a bad thing. Jabulani has caused more trouble than he's worth."
Vin stopped abruptly and held up a hand in warning.
"What?" Chris whispered.
"Thought I heard somethin'," Vin said in the same tone.
The three men stood frozen, barely daring to breathe, eyes scanning the darkness covering them, but seeing nothing. It was madness wandering around in the wilderness. Without sufficient light, they incurred a serious risk of injury, but it was the only way of discovering what had happened to the thieves.
The leaves around them parted suddenly and natives broke out of the woods from all directions, their war cries piercing the silence. Chris fired his weapon over and over again, taking some pleasure in seeing a warrior fall under his lead, but before he could blink another would take his place. Soon he was out of bullets and engaging the fighters with his fists, trying to punch his way to freedom, feeling, more than seeing, Vin and Buck doing the same.
It was an unfair encounter from the start. Outnumbered and overpowered, they were quickly subdued. Their wrists were bound behind their backs and they were dragged through the jungle at a brisk pace, branches hitting and scratching at them painfully as they stumbled on the uneven ground.
When they finally stopped, Chris focused all his attention on catching his breath, and easing the ache in his sore legs. He still fought fiercely as he was taken to what appeared to be the middle of a village and the wooden pillars there. He was tied to one of them, Buck and Vin bound to the ones on his right. Tied to the pillar on his left was a black man, his slumped posture indicating he was unconscious.
"The guard?" Vin ventured softly.
"Or the accomplice," Chris countered.
He glanced around, seeing the fires burning bright throughout the village for the first time, the small wooden huts, the armed men guarding them warily. Very few women or children could be seen, but considering it was nighttime, they were most likely in the huts.
He swallowed as he noticed more tribesmen emerge out of the jungle, reverently carrying their dead and taking them into several of the small wooden houses; probably to be prepared for burial.
"Why haven't they killed us?" Buck muttered.
Chris glared at him. "I don't know, but don't go givin' them any ideas, Buck."
"They'll probably have a council in the mornin' to decide what to do with us," Vin said.
"How did they spot us?" Chris wondered. "We were a good ten minutes away from the village."
"Sentinels, probably," Vin said. "These warrior tribes plant them all around their villages, sometimes patrolin' for miles. They see better than us in the dark too; they're used to it. Reckon, they hear better too."
Chris sighed, leaning against the pillar to give his body some rest. "Well, I guess there's nothin' we can do now but wait."
"And pray," Buck mumbled beside him, closing his eyes tiredly.
Part IV - The Diamond Tree
Cutting through the rope with the glass shard took longer than Ezra had anticipated. The fibers were thick and strong, and the numbness he was experiencing in his hands didn't help matters. In the end, it was close to dawn when his hands were finally free. Biting his lip to keep from moaning at the painful sensation of limbs coming alive, he waited until blood had returned to his hands before he budged.
Reaching for the sleeping bag zipper, he carefully pulled it down, fiercely glad that after a restless night Beckett had started to ignore his constant shifting. His upper-body liberated from the clinging bag, he grasped for a rock lying close to their heads, taking it in hand.
"Nightie-night," he drawled sarcastically, hitting Beckett on the temple just as the man was beginning to wake.
After making sure the other man was merely unconscious, Ezra stood up, stretching gratefully, hands reaching for the slowly brightening skies. It felt wonderful to finally be able to move without restriction. It was unfortunate he didn't have time to fully enjoy it, as he still had work to do.
Snatching the rope he had spotted the night before amongst the mercenary's possessions, he dragged Beckett out of the sleeping bag, and proceeded to tie the man's wrists and ankles. That accomplished, he lugged Beckett into the jeep's passenger seat - not an easy task considering the man's bulk. Ezra was sweating profusely by the time he was done. Not satisfied with Beckett's imprisonment, he also bound the man's legs above his knees and his upper-body to the seat.
Convinced there was no chance of Beckett escaping, Ezra sat behind the wheel, trying to decide on the course to take. Should he go back to Shambala City, hand Beckett to the authorities and go after Jabulani? Or should he follow the flight plan and try to join Chris in recovering the diamonds? The way Beckett had driven the day before, Ezra had no doubt that his partner couldn't be far away, not if he was also sticking to the pilot's map. On the other hand, if Chris had ventured off course, he could be anywhere and Ezra would never find him.
"Decisions, decisions," he muttered to himself, looking at his prisoner.
The right thing would be to go back and make sure Jabulani and Beckett paid for their crimes. With a sudden grin, Ezra shrugged; he had never been one to do the right thing anyway. Deep into the jungle it was.
Ezra had been driving for about an hour on one of Shambalan's many dirt roads when he came upon a small village. Like so many others in the country it consisted of a smattering of badly-built shacks around a muddy clearing. The signs of poverty were not only the frail construction of the wooden structures, but also the worn clothing and unnatural thinness of its dwellers.
He brought the jeep to a halt, wanting to ask if perhaps one of the villagers had seen Chris and the others, when his eyes caught sight of two trucks stacked with bodies.
"That can't be good," Beckett commented softly by his side.
Refraining from replying, but nonetheless agreeing with the statement, Ezra hesitated in his resolution to ask for help. All the dead men were caucasian; maybe this was one of the hostile tribes Vin had warned him about. However, before he could determine a course of action, a woman approached them.
"Welcome to Idrissa, strangers," she said. "My name is Omphale."
Ezra was instantly suspicious of her affability and congenial smile. The warmth didn't seem to reach her eyes, and her whole body was tense, as if expecting an attack. The group of men he could see watching them warily, carrying guns and batons, didn't help matters either. Plus, she had obviously noticed that Beckett was tied up, and had said nothing or reacted in any way.
Deciding that if she could overlook a few insignificant matters in their meeting so could he, Ezra forced an equally fake smile to show on his face.
"Thank you. I am terribly sorry for bothering you, but I am searching for some friends. Perhaps you have seen them? Three white men. One of them blond, going by the name of Chris Larabee; one with long hair, Vin Tanner, and a mustached gentleman, Buck Wilmington. If they didn't stray from their path, they should have traveled through here some time last night or maybe even this morning."
Omphale narrowed her eyes at him. "Maybe I have seen them, maybe not. In any case, how can I know if you are truly their friend? If that one is your friend," she inclined her head in Beckett's direction, "I do not wish to know what you do to your enemies."
There was an undertone of amusement in her voice, and Ezra found himself chuckling, in spite of the situation. "He's not my friend, Omphale, quite the contrary. Nor is he any friend of Chris and the others. However, I am and I'm in dire need of finding them." He shrugged. "I have nothing to give you but my word on this matter, I'm afraid."
Her shrewd gaze bored into him and Ezra didn't look away, knowing she was trying to see the truth. Whatever she might have glimpsed seemed to reassure her, as after a long moment, she relaxed minutely.
Omphale nodded slowly. "Yes, I believe you are telling the truth, stranger. I saw your friends last night. We are in their debt, as they saved us from those slavers." She indicated the trucks.
That explained the trucks and the dead lying in them. It also set Ezra's mind at ease as it explained the villagers' wariness. After escaping a raid from mercenaries, they would undoubtedly be more cautious of foreigners in the future.
Ezra handed her the map. "Can you tell me which direction they took, please?"
She shook her head. "Those things mean nothing to me," she said, looking at the map. "The last I saw of your friends, they were heading north. Follow that road and perhaps you will find them."
That confirmed that Chris was still navigating by the map, which augmented their chances of meeting. Ezra briefly considered leaving Beckett with Omphale's tribe, freeing him to search for Chris and the others at will, but quickly rejected that idea. Beckett was his problem after all, and there was always the chance he might escape somehow. Not to mention, it seemed the village had had more than their share of trouble lately, and he wasn't about to add to it by leaving a hostile prisoner in their care.
Ezra looked at Omphale gratefully. "Thank you, Omphale. I can't begin to express how helpful you have been. If you ever require any assistance, have someone search for Ezra Standish in Shambala City. You will find me at the Four Corners Bar."
She tilted her head curiously. "You and your friends are a very unusual group of men," she said. "But thank you for the offer. I hope you find them."
"So do I, Omphale," Ezra remarked as he revved the engine. "So do I."
Chris watched blankly as the village slowly came to life. Some of the men disappeared into the jungle, no doubt to search for food, while the women washed clothing in clay basins or cooked for the elders and the children. Most of the young ones were playing, though, chasing each other, or watching the bound men with unabashed curiosity.
He paid them no mind, closing his eyes and doing his best to ignore the now constant ache in his body, the burn in his wrists, the uneasiness in his heart. His thoughts turned to Ezra, wishing he could be with him. This early in the day Ezra was probably still sleeping; nude body sprawled invitingly across the king-size bed in his apartment above the bar.
Chris recalled the many nights spent in that apartment, in that bed, exploring satin skin, drowning in green eyes, losing his mind in shared pleasures. He wanted nothing more than to be there now, making love with Ezra, or just snuggling together as they were wont to do in the mornings.
Vin's voice, soft but strained, had him opening his eyes. The men and the tribal elders were now gathered together by one of the larger huts. One of them was talking excitedly, gesturing wildly, and pointing at the prisoners.
"Vin, can you hear what they're saying?" he asked.
"I'm not really familiar with this dialect, but they seem to be arguin' over what to do with us. The younger warriors want to kill us, but one of the elders is afraid more white men might come and burn down the village in retaliation."
"Who's winnin'?" Buck asked.
"The warriors," Vin replied grimly.
"Great," Chris muttered, banging his head against the pillar in frustration.
Beckett's sudden shout had Ezra veering sharply to the left, nearly running the jeep into a tree. He killed the engine, glaring at his prisoner.
"Are you crazy? We nearly had an accident because of you."
"I thought I saw something up in the trees," Beckett panted. "The reflection from a rifle scope or binoculars."
Ezra glanced around. "Where?"
Beckett gestured with his head. "There. About ten feet high."
It took a while, but Ezra saw it too; a bright light, the sun's reflection on a glass surface. "Not a sniper," he guessed, "or we would've been dead by now."
"I guess there's only one way to find out."
Leaving the track, he guided the jeep into the wilderness, driving slowly along the uneven ground and turning the wheel this way and that to avoid tree trunks and roots. As they changed position, the light disappeared and Ezra had to stop often so they could search the tree tops.
He was about to give up when he spotted something startlingly white in the midst of the green. He took them closer, a muttered curse escaping him as he realized what it was; a parachute. It was caught up in some branches, and Hondo, the guard, was hanging from it, a thick piece of wood protruding from his stomach. He was very obviously dead.
"I'll be..." Beckett murmured. "The guy didn't double-cross Jabulani. He had a damn accident!"
"Probably miscalculated the jump," Ezra said. "I guess we'll never know for sure. But what caused the reflection we saw?"
Following the direction of Beckett's gaze, Ezra felt his incredulity reach new heights. A briefcase was wedged between two branches a few feet away, the impact having caused it to fall open. And balancing precariously on some of the thicker branches, like ornaments on a Christmas tree, were the five Alitash diamonds, the sunlight making them shine brightly.
"Unbelievable," he whispered.
"How the hell did Larabee miss this?" Beckett questioned. "They had to have come this way."
"Last night," Ezra reminded him, snatching Beckett's bowie knife from the man's backpack. "We would have missed it too, if not for the light of the sun."
"What are you doing?" Beckett asked, as Ezra began to carefully climb the tree.
"Cutting down the body. I'm not leaving him here for the animals to feed on. It's amazing his body is still here at all, considering the blood in his shirt. The scent alone should have been enough to bring any number of predators to this area. And then, I'm going to collect those stones and find Chris. I've seen enough jungle to last me a lifetime."
Taking Hondo's body down from the tree and gathering the diamonds took some time, and as the precious minutes trickled by, a sense of urgency came over Ezra. Chris and the others had probably risen at dawn and were most likely already on the move, and this stop was creating a greater chasm between them. And Ezra wanted nothing more than to find his lover, so they could all return to Shambala City and get rid of the stones once and for all.
After wrapping Hondo's body in the remains of his parachute and tying the resulting grisly parcel to the back of the jeep, Ezra hid the Alitash at the bottom of Beckett's backpack. Then Ezra was off again, driving back to the track and then along it as fast as the rough surface allowed. Even so, it was much later before he came to a clearing, his heart skipping a beat as he spotted the two abandoned jeeps.
"Larabee?" Beckett asked as he also saw the vehicles.
"The Wrangler, yes. I'm not familiar with the other jeep."
Ezra leapt out of the driver's seat and examined the camp carefully. Wood had been gathered for a fire that had never been lit, his friends' belongings were stacked by some rocks, but their weapons seemed to be missing, and there was a backpack there he had never seen before.
The ground near the vehicles provided more information. Not that he was a tracker, but Vin had spent some time in past weeks teaching him about such things, and he knew enough to recognize the signs of a struggle; the deep marks of bare feet overlapping shod-ones, the uprooted vegetation, the broken branches. So, had his friends and the owner of the second jeep been captured by one of the local tribes?
Moving closer to the clearing's edge, he noticed the way three different sets of footprints seemed to run over the barefooted ones. Maybe the owner of the unknown jeep had been taken and Chris and the others had followed? Perhaps in a rescue attempt? Either way, it was obvious to him that there was something amiss. Even if Chris, Vin and Buck had been delayed here for some reason, they should still be at the camp, not gallivanting around in the jungle. Or if they had been forced to venture into the wilderness, most likely one of them would have stayed behind, standing guard. Unless all hands were needed, which again spelled trouble.
Swallowing thickly, he was faced with a devastating possibility. If Chris and the others had been attacked by a hostile tribe, they would have had little chance of surviving. Was Chris even still alive? Was he wounded or dying? No! Ezra wouldn't - couldn't - think of such things. All three men were alive and whole, they had to be. He would know somehow, he would have felt it, if Chris had died. They were still alive, and out there somewhere, and most likely in dire need of assistance. Chris Larabee had always been one to stare death in the eye and win. This would just be another instance; or so Ezra fervently hoped.
So Ezra would just have to follow the tracks and extricate his friends from the clutches of whoever had them. But for that he needed to be prepared for all eventualities. Approaching Chris' Wrangler and opening the storage compartment, he was relieved to see a small brown bag inside, something he had forced his lover to carry around with him. Just to make certain, he opened the bag, smiling grimly at the sticks of dynamite within.
Taking the dynamite with him to Beckett's jeep, he reached for the man's pack, emptying it of everything except the diamonds. He tucked the sticks inside carefully, along with any ammo he could find from Beckett's handgun, rifle and Uzi. Beckett certainly believed in being prepared.
"What are you doing?" Beckett asked him with a frown.
"Something happened to Chris and the others. I'm going after them."
Ezra glared at him. "You're going to remain here, preferably silent as a mouse. At least if you don't wish to attract any undue attention to your person. You never know who might be wandering around these parts." Patting himself down, he realized he was an item short. "You don't happen to have a lighter or some matches, do you?"
Beckett rolled his eyes. "Breast pocket," he muttered, gesturing towards his shirt.
Ezra snatched the lighter for himself, and made sure it worked. He tucked the gun and the bowie knife in his waistband, donned the pack and strapped the rifle to it, before taking the Uzi in hand. "I'm going now. Behave yourself, Mr. Beckett, and don't go anywhere."
And with that he ventured deep into the jungle, fighting anxiety and fear and his traitorous mind, refusing to listen to the little voice inside that told him he might already be too late.
Part V - The Escape
The council seemed to take forever to reach a decision, something Chris didn't know if he should be grateful for or not. But after what felt like an eternity, all arguments suddenly settled down and warriors and elders began to part ways, going back to their daily tasks.
All but one.
One of the warriors disappeared inside one of the shacks, only to return again, carrying Vin's rifle. Smirking as he approached the four bound men, he aimed the weapon at them, apparently playing a silent game of eenie, meenie, meinie, mo, as the barrel of the gun wavered from Vin, to Buck, to Chris, to the still unconscious man, before going back again. The movement was repeated several times, tauntingly, letting them know someone was about to die, but leaving them guessing as to who it would be.
Just as Chris was beginning to think the tribesman was bluffing, his aim abruptly locked and a single shot was fired, hitting its mark with perfect accuracy.
Ezra had been walking for a while when he spotted the bullet casings on the ground. A fierce firefight had taken place where he was standing, as evidenced by the devastation to his surroundings. Weapons had been discharged here, men had died. There was dried blood on the soil, signs of bodies being dragged away, but no way of knowing whose.
Fighting his growing dread he forged ahead, eyes focused on the very visible tracks all around him, when a native suddenly jumped out of the woods and into his path, his deadly intent painfully obvious. Instinct took over before Ezra's mind was even fully aware of the attack; he raised his arm, slamming the butt of the Uzi against the warrior's face brutally, and watched as the man crumbled unconscious to the ground.
Waiting with bated breath for further warriors to emerge from among the trees, Ezra forced himself to relax minutely as he remained alone. It appeared his assailant was alone; a watchman perhaps. That meant there had to be a settlement not far from his current location.
Feeling a small flicker of hope at that thought, he rushed forward, practically running now, anxious to find his lover and his friends, knowing he would only rest once he had found them, once he was able to wrap his arms tightly around Chris and never let go. Only then would his heartbeat resume its regular pace.
The shot, when it came, caught him by surprise. It echoed all around him, freezing the blood in his veins, paralyzing him with fear. It took him a timeless moment to realize the bullet wasn't meant for him, that it hadn't even been fired that close to him. And that meant...
"Chris!" he breathed in anguish.
He broke out into a run, careless of the branches that tore at him, only knowing he had to move, to reach the source of the gunshot, that the seconds were ticking by. He reached the edge of a clearing, barely having the presence of mind to crouch down to avoid being seen.
His breath caught at the sight before him. Chris, Vin and Buck were tied to pillars in the middle of a village, a black man tied to a fourth pillar, probably the victim of the shot he had heard, as he was bleeding from a wound to the heart. A native was holding a rifle in his hands, aiming it alternatively at the three bound men, his smirk enough to make Ezra want to stride over to him and beat him to a pulp.
Not wishing to waste any more time, Ezra went on the offensive. Unshouldering his pack and letting it slide to the ground, he reached for a stick of dynamite and lit it. With a gleeful smirk of his own, he threw it as far as possible, taking care that it didn't hit too close to any of the little abodes. He might want revenge on the warriors, but there might be women and children inside the huts.
The dynamite detonated with a loud clamor, disturbing the false peace in the jungle. The tribesfolk were in an uproar, running and screaming in terror, the warriors attempting to discover the menace while the elders gathered the women and the young ones and led them to the relative safety of the trees on the further side of the encampment.
Two more sticks of dynamite instilled complete confusion among the tribe and Ezra took full advantage of it. Donning the pack anew, and grabbing the Uzi, he sped to the pillars where the others were imprisoned.
"Ezra!" Chris exclaimed as he saw him. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Saving your ass, Larabee," Ezra said with a growl, letting the Uzi spew a round of fire aimed at some of the bravest - and stupidest - warriors, that had dared to try and approach them.
He pulled Beckett's bowie knife out of his belt and cut Vin's ropes. He gave Vin the Uzi so he could cover them as Ezra cut Buck's bonds next, and finally Chris'. Vin fired at the tribesmen whenever they tried to come closer, keeping them at a distance.
"How did you get here?" Chris insisted, helping himself to the gun at Ezra's waist as soon as his hands were free.
"I flew! What do you think?" Ezra countered angrily, as he handed Buck the rifle. They were in the middle of a firefight and Chris wanted to talk? Honestly. "When we reach the clearing, go for your jeep and drive away as rapidly as possible," he told Chris. "Now, I suggest we run for our lives."
He didn't waste time confirming that the other men were following; he merely turned around and raced out of the village, hearing the warriors' angry cries not far behind.
"What about the Alitash?" Chris hissed as he ran side by side with Ezra. "We haven't found them yet."
"Lord, but you have an one track mind," Ezra said in between pants. "I have them. They're safe."
He didn't add that he was carrying the diamonds in his backpack and that if they were caught by the tribe, the stones would most likely be lost forever. Now was not the moment to give Chris apoplexy.
"Ezra-" Chris began.
"Later, Chris," Ezra interrupted, nearly out of breath, seeing Chris holding the keys to his jeep.
They made it to the clearing and Ezra was relieved when Chris, Vin and Buck jumped into the Wrangler without further discussion and drove away. Ezra climbed into the driver's seat of Beckett's vehicle, barely acknowledging the man, turning the key in the ignition and following the other jeep as close as possible.
He watched through the sideview mirror as a group of warriors reached the clearing, their angry faces showing their ire at not being able to keep pursuing. Beckett gasped and tried to sink down in his seat as much as he could. Ezra crouched down defensively as several spears flew through the air, some hitting the earth all around them, some even slamming against the hood of the jeep, although thankfully none pierced it. Beckett gave another startled gasp and Ezra found he couldn't blame the man; it had been a narrow escape.
Both jeeps kept going for an endless moment, until they were certain they were no longer in range of the natives, then they parked on the side of the dirt road. Ezra turned to Beckett, only to see the spear puncturing the man's chest. It seemed to have perforated the seat from the back, piercing Beckett's body and killing him, probably almost instantly.
"Son of a..." he murmured, wrenching away from the seat. He saw Chris walk over to him with a relaxed smile and abruptly an all-consuming rage took over him, burning him inside in its intensity.
"You okay, hoss?" Buck asked, he and Vin having come closer too.
Ezra ignored Buck; instead he turned on Chris, shoving him away forcefully. "What the hell did you think you were doing?" he shouted, furious. He shoved again and again, feeling the beloved heartbeat beneath his palms, but unable to stop the anger from bursting forth. "Well? What the hell were you doing?"
Chris didn't take the bait, didn't fight back. Instead he eluded Ezra's hands, taking gentle hold of both his arms. "It's okay, Ezra. I'm fine. It's over," he soothed tenderly.
Ezra resisted weakly as he was pulled into a fierce embrace, but the feel of his lover's body against his own, the familiar scent and touch and warmth were too much. He burrowed into the arms surrounding him, closing his eyes as his breath left him in a shudder.
"Oh, God," he said hoarsely, heart lodged in his throat. "When I heard the shot..."
"Shh, I know. I'm sorry," Chris breathed against his ear. "I'm sorry, Ez."
Ezra backed away just enough to look into Chris' face. Before he knew it they were kissing passionately, relishing the fact they were both alive and in one piece.
When they finally parted Ezra felt balanced once again, and complete, the anger and fear gone from his heart. Muzzily he noticed that Buck and Vin had discreetly moved to the other side of the road, to give them some semblance of privacy. Ezra hadn't even noticed them go.
Chris' gentle fingers reached into his hair and moved him so their foreheads were pressed together, so close they could almost drown in each other's eyes.
"I'm sorry," Ezra said, chagrined by his loss of control. "I didn't mean..."
Chris touched a finger to his lips. "Don't, I understand." He grinned and gave Ezra a reassuring squeeze. "Now, care to explain what you're doin' here, how you found the Alitash, and who those guys are?"
Ezra gestured towards the body at the back of the jeep as Vin and Buck ambled back over. "That's Hondo, the guard. I would venture to say he miscalculated the jump and met with a fatal accident. I found him dangling from a tree, the diamonds close by. The other man was James Beckett, a mercenary hired by Jabulani."
Vin's eyes narrowed. "What's that weasel gotta do with this mess?"
"Everything," Ezra replied, relating all he knew to the three men.
When he was done, Chris nodded. "Figures. Guess we'll have to have another 'talk' with him when we get back. I guess the man that warrior killed back at the village was the jeep's driver, then. Come on, we better eat somethin' before we start again; I'm starving. Let's make it quick, though. I want to be back in Shambala City by tonight."
Ezra cleared his throat playfully, his senses reeling with the giddiness of relief and excitement now that he had his partner safe by his side. "By the way, I don't suppose there is a reward for the benevolent soul that returns the Alitash to the museum?"
The mock-glare Chris sent his way, with loving exasperation and affection lurking in those stormy green eyes more than made up for the last trying days.
"Ezra!" Chris growled, without any heat. "Can't you think of anythin' else but money?"
Ezra gave him a wide-eyed, innocent look. "What? Of course I can." He leered. "And I will be more than happy to provide you with various hands-on examples when we return," he added, to the visible mirth of Buck and Vin.
This time he was blasted with a look filled with passion. "I can hardly wait, Ezra," Chris assured him, and Ezra was certain he was in for one hell of a night.
It was unfortunate they weren't alone; he might have convinced Chris to reenact some of the matters he often thought about right there in the middle of the jungle. He could recall one or two of his fondest fantasies that involved dense vegetation, lianas and a naked Chris. With a wistful sigh he pushed the thought aside; tonight would be soon enough.
In spite of Chris' words, they only reached Shambala City in the early hours of the next day. Realizing it was too late to contact the others, Chris simply left a message on Josiah's voice mail, letting him know that they were back, that the diamonds had been found, and promising the whole story in the morning.
He then called the National Museum's curator, asking him to meet them at the closest police station. Two hours later the police had taken possession of Beckett and Hondo's bodies, the museum had its diamonds back, Chris and the others had given full statements and an APB was out on Jabulani. And Ezra was smirking over a very generous check, courtesy of the overjoyed curator.
"What are you goin' to do with that reward money?" Buck asked curiously.
Ezra sighed, gazing almost mournfully at the check. "I suppose I will do the right thing and donate it to Nathan. He can use it to buy supplies for the local villages. Lord knows they need it desperately."
"You don't have to do that, Ezra," Chris said softly. "You did find the diamonds; the money's yours."
He knew Ezra's greedy nature sometimes got the better of him, and understood how Ezra had to constantly battle with his conscience on those occasions. This time, however, he felt Ezra did deserve the reward and wanted him to know that.
Ezra gave him a grateful smile. "I know, Chris. But I am coming to love this country as my own. With the exception of certain hostile tribes, deranged mercenaries and the occasional cannibal, I have felt nothing but welcome here," he quipped with an impish grin. "This is my way of reciprocating." He shrugged.
"No one would hold it against you if you kept the money, Ez," Vin said, patting Ezra gently on the shoulder.
Ezra nodded seriously. "I am aware of that, Vin. But it is the right thing to do. Besides which, I already have all that I want," he said, eyes focusing on Chris then glancing away rapidly, but not before Chris noticed the slight flush on his cheeks. "Gentlemen, considering the late hour, I invite you all to spend what's left of the night at my humble abode." He grinned at Vin and Buck. "Of course you two will have to share the guest room... and the bed."
Vin grimaced. "No fair, Bucklin snores like a dang donkey."
"I do not!" Buck exclaimed in outrage.
Chris exchanged an amused look with Ezra, both of them content to follow the two bickering men back to the bar and the promise of a much needed rest.
Once at Ezra's apartment, the four men shared a few hastily made sandwiches, washing them down with beer and quiet conversation. Afterwards, they said their goodbyes and adjourned to the twin rooms, Ezra locking the door and turning off the lights while Chris got ready for bed. He undressed, and laid down in the big bed, waiting as Ezra took his turn in the bathroom.
He was dozing off when, in a swift move, Ezra pinned him to the bed, covering him with his body and nuzzling him behind the ear.
"Ezra," he groaned, tipping his head back as Ezra nibbled on his neck, just above the collarbone, hard enough to leave a hickey. "Buck and Vin are sleepin' next door..."
Ezra chuckled wickedly. "I know."
Their lovemaking was fierce, passionate... and embarrassingly fast. Pinned down again by his lover's body, Chris yielded to Ezra, a whimper escaping him as gentle teeth grazed his nipples and a hard sweat-sheened thigh rubbed against his straining erection.
Chris moved against Ezra, sliding their cocks together in luscious friction, slowly at first. Ezra's hips rocked in time with his, meeting him thrust for thrust, their eyes locking and holding. Ezra leaned down to capture his lips, and Chris opened up willingly, allowing Ezra's tongue to probe his mouth gently, tasting him, taking what he wanted.
Soon they were both lost to mindless pleasure, moving harder and faster, moaning and groaning with each thrust, Chris's hands groping desperately for something to hold on to, finally wrapping both hands around the railing over his head, as if for dear life.
The wild pace couldn't last long; one more thrust and they were both coming, shouting their completion, even as Ezra collapsed on top of Chris. They were still panting, sated from their intense encounter, sleep beginning to tug at their senses, when a loud bang on the wall startled them awake.
"Settle down in there," Buck's muffled voice reached them from the other room. "Some people are tryin' to sleep!"
They laughed quietly at the words, exchanging amused looks. Ezra snuggled back down, resting his head on Chris' shoulder and Chris wrapped his arms around him lovingly.
"Sorry, Buck," he called back. "Go back to sleep, we're done."
"Good!" It was Vin who had yelled this time, obviously annoyed.
Things settled down after that and Chris sighed contentedly. He was back where he belonged, the Alitash were back where they belonged, and against all odds he, his men and his partner were safe and sound. Nothing like having everything fall into place.
Jabulani tried to free his wrists yet again, with little success. He was hungry, thirsty, and his body was sore from sitting in a chair for too long. Not that he knew exactly how long it had been since he had been taken from his home by those two thugs; he had lost all sense of time. Over twenty-four hours, for certain.
The sound of a key turning in the lock and the door opening brought him to attention. "Who's there?" he asked, twisting his head left and right, unable to see for the blindfold over his eyes. "What do you want? Why am I here?"
"I don't like it when things don't go according to plan, Mr. Jabulani," a soft, menacing, voice echoed in the room.
He knew that voice. Where had he heard... The buyer! Yes, it was the man he had contacted about selling the Alitash, the American.
"Mr. Smith, I promise-" he began desperately.
"You promise nothing!" 'Mr. Smith' interrupted sharply. "I paid you for those diamonds in advance, only to hear that they had disappeared somewhere in the jungle. Sloppy work, Mr. Jabulani. And what's worse, my sources tell me the stones have been found and returned to the museum."
Jabulani frowned. "What? How?"
"Chris Larabee and his men handed them over to the local police and the museum's curator during the night."
"Larabee!" Jabulani said, incensed. "That man has been a thorn in my side since he came to this country. I'll have him killed. I'll-"
"You'll do nothing of the kind." The man's tone became almost conciliatory. "You really shouldn't play with the big boys, Jabulani, not when you don't have what it takes."
Silence followed that statement, and Jabulani heard the door open and close again. Somehow he sensed that Smith had left. But he wasn't alone.
"Please..." he whispered, his breathing ragged. "Please, don't..."
His plea went unheeded. A fist slammed brutally into his stomach, while a hard blow to the temple left him dizzy. More punches and slaps and blows followed, all vicious in intensity, leaving him broken and bloodied. He realized he was going to die - slowly, painfully, inescapably. There would be no one to help him, no one to search for him, no one to wonder what had happened to him. He had lived alone and he was going to die alone... Just as he had lived for violence, so he would die by violence.
If you enjoyed this story, we're sure that VampyrAlex would love to hear from you.
HOME | VAMPYRALEX'S FIC | TITLES | AUTHORS | UNIVERSES
This website is maintained by Donna and Barb
with corrections and additions