(One Day In Denver)
Disclaimer: I have no rights of ownership with regard to any characters based on those appearing in the TV series "The Magnificent Seven" (even if they now work for the ATF out of Denver - and that idea was Mog's). The character of Lila belongs to the Immortal. The lyrics quoted are, likewise, not mine. However, no profit is made from this undertaking and thus no litigation is really warranted or likely to be successful (for a start, they'd have to find me first!). Furthermore, I would like to express my sincere and fervent gratitude to everyone who has kindly assisted me with this little production and/or graciously allowed me to utilize their creations in it. Without all of your contributions, the offering would have been considerably less satisfying than its current form. Thank you, all!
Written and Directed by Derry
Script Editors and Story Consultants - Dina and Mitzi
Additional Editing - Kim
Technical Advisor - Mitzi
Travel Consultant - Joby
Additional Colorado Information - Gina
Musical Advisor - Greenwoman
Producers - Maggs and Cass
Series Creator and Executive Producer - Mog
References made to previous VS episodes, "Anniversaries" by Cat and "Denver Holiday" by Tidia, and to the non-VS stories, "Rope Enough" by Brandgwen, "Rough Beginnings" by Shawna and "On Second Thought" by The Immortal. Also, some similarities to the TV episode "One Day Out West" may be noted.
"Charlotte's Park" is to Grand County what "Four Corners" is to Denver, an utterly fictitious subdivision. It does, however, owe something to "Smiggins Rest" which appears in some of TrishA's fanfic.
- Stewart James (Brion James)
- Lucas James (Sam Hennings)
- Gloria Potter (Karen Hensel)
- Dennis Potter (Sonny Carl Davis)
- Detective Ted Burns (John Goodman)
- Detective Jim Carter (Josh Charles)
- Detective Viv Martin (Angela Bassett)
- Detective Mike Woodward (Jeremy Northam)
- Officer Polly Paget (Amanda Tapping)
- Phil (Tim Roth)
- Rhonda (Bridget Fonda)
- Chairperson of the Hearing Board (Laura Innes)
- TV reporter (Teri Hatcher)
- Man interviewed on TV (Hank Azaria)
No casting of specific actors for any of the children's roles.
The Impression That I Get
Written by Barrett/Gittleman
Performed by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
(EMI Music 1997)
Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)
Written by Billie Joe/Green Day
Performed by Green Day
(WB Music Corp./Green Daze Music 1997)
Written and performed by Paul Simon
(CBS Music 1973)
Accident Waiting to Happen
Written and performed by Billy Bragg
(BMG Music 1991)
The Wild Rover
Performed by Ezra Standish
Hold Onto Me
Written by Nick Smith/Joe Camelleri
Performed by The Black Sorrows
(CBS Music 1988)
Don't Dream It's Over
Written by Neil Finn
Performed by Crowded House
(Mushroom Music/C. Control 1986)
I've never had to knock on wood
But I know someone who has
Which makes me wonder if I could.
It makes me wonder if I ever had to knock on wood
And I'm glad I haven't yet
Because I'm sure it isn't good.
That's the impression that I get.
The driver could barely keeping himself from tapping his hands against the steering wheel, in time to the lively little tune. But he knew that this stemmed more from nervous tension rather than a true enthusiasm for the music.
He felt like he was driving a car that contained some sort of explosive device. Well, in some ways he was. One of his passengers was Lucas James who was certainly a potentially explosive character and one who frequently didn't deserve the rank of sentient being. And all off his passengers were now heavily under the influence of alcohol and other recreational drugs which even further increased their volatility.
It had been, to misuse a cliché, one hell of a party. For him, more Hell than party - watching Lucas and his cohorts, in steadily increasing degrees of inebriation, trying to gyrate in time to a dance beat and simultaneously engage in some of the most unsubtle mating rituals ever conducted within the animal kingdom. And he had to remain a conscientious and sober observer throughout it all.
That was why Stewart James had sent him along. He wanted someone he could trust to keep a level head, keeping an eye on his loose cannon nephew. The heir to the business. God help them all!
And, although he usually objected violently to babysitters, Lucas actually seemed to enjoy the company of the man he had christened "the Colonel". The driver almost sighed. Such were the rewards of an engaging personality. He would far rather be getting more involved with business end of things, instead of getting diverted to deal with the Lucas sideshow.
Still he had to keep in with Lucas if he wanted Stewart James to take him into his confidence. The man was cautious which was why he'd survived in this business for so long.
"Hey, Colonel! Pull over!"
The driver startled slightly at the sound of Lucas' voice.
"Cuz I feel like somethin' t'eat! That supermarket's open. Pull in there."
The driver felt ice run down his spine. Not that supermarket, not in the early hours of a Friday morning! Every fortnight, Dennis Potter did an all-nighter. At this time, there'd probably be just him and one of his young assistants there. And Lucas James was not the sort of customer you'd want to encounter under those circumstances.
"We're almost home. Be better to wait 'til then. You may not know it but I can create a gourmet French toast which would round off the evenin's festivities in suitable style."
"Ha! And here I was thinkin' all y'cooked was chicken! Nah, pull in. I don't wanna wait."
The driver momentarily considered just driving on by, despite his instructions. But the last thing he needed to do now was anger Lucas. And there was no reason for him to cause trouble in the supermarket. Perhaps he could even be prevented from going in.
"Alright, I'll get it for you. You lot can hardly stand at this stage."
"Whaddya mean 'hardly stand'. I can stand alright. And y'don't know what I want. I haven't decided yet. Just pull over and wait in the car. You wait too, Phil. Rhonda and I won't be long."
But even as he pulled over, the driver felt compelled to try and do something to curb Lucas.
"You two behave yourself for the cameras. These places have electronic surveillance and your uncle won't want you appearin' on any news bulletins."
Lucas did actually nod as he laughed and waved a temporary goodbye.
Five minutes seemed like an eternity. Phil wasn't much into conversation but as the driver glanced back at his remaining passenger, he found himself being watched like a hawk. He'd half-formulated a suggestion that he go out and check on them when two shots rang out, followed by the scream of a young woman. The scream stopped abruptly, although there was no more gunfire, and time seemed frozen as Lucas and Rhonda appeared, still giggling uncontrollably.
"What the hell happened?" He finally found his voice, as they climbed into the car.
"Had a little fun with the girl, then the manager came out and started makin' trouble so I shot him. Don't worry though. Got him straight through the heart. He won't be causing any trouble and Rhonda got the surveillance tape." Lucas brandished a dark rectangular object. "And we even got some eggs and bread so you can make some of your famous French toast while we sit back and watch how we came out on camera."
"And the girl?" The driver asked, still in shock at the reported demise of the patriarch of the Potter family.
"Reckon she's too scared to even think straight, let alone say anything. Why, Colonel? D'ya think I should go back and deal with her too?"
"No. You're probably right."
He started the engine again before Lucas could change his mind. Maybe he could salvage one life from this grotesque tragedy. For the briefest of moments, he'd hoped against all the odds that Lucas had misjudged his lethal accuracy. But he knew that it couldn't possibly be the case. A sadist like Lucas would have made sure that the victim was dead. The girl had been incredibly fortunate so far, but the driver knew that he had to get Lucas out of the vicinity to prevent a second murder being committed.
And as he drove, the shock-inspired numbness gradually wore off and the man currently calling himself Eric Sanders was able to contemplate all the repercussions of these events. Not only would he never again hear Dennis Potter's laugh as they sat down to dinner with his family, but also the security of that family unit, the one whose protection Angie relied on, had been ruptured.
This was the sort of violence that he'd thought she'd been rescued from. The gun-totting reprobates of this world were not supposed to be able to touch her anymore. But now one of those loathsome psychopaths (and one that he himself was supposed to be supervising) had shattered the lives of the family she lived with.
He felt an almost overwhelming urge to drop everything and go to them. But he also needed to be able to tell them that the murderer would be brought to justice. And with the way things stood, if someone was going to accomplish that, it would have to be him. No one else would even know where to start.
He was already well ensconced in the lions' den. All he needed to do was keep a cool head and make use of the position he had gained in these people's confidence. Perhaps that might be easier said than done. But he swore to himself, then and there and by everything he'd ever held in reverence, that he would achieve it or die in the attempt.
Buck Wilmington entered the office more than two hours ahead of schedule and immediately fell under the appraising gaze of his immediate superior. Such behaviour was uncommon for Buck, but Chris Larabee was his oldest friend as well as his boss, and he had anticipated it, given the circumstances.
"Hearing won't start for about three hours, Buck. And no, you're not tagging along."
"Oh c'mon, Chris! We gotta let the kid know we're standing behind him."
"We don't need to make him feel like we're hovering over him. He already feels like he's being studied under a microscope. Told me so, himself. And this is just a debriefing."
"It was just a simple mistake, Chris. Coulda happened to any of us."
"Well now, I hear that's not what you said when we first found out his gun was missing."
Buck flinched. He had initially lost his temper with JD. But JD hadn't told him the whole story and, typical of the kid, he'd put selected facts forward in the worst possible light. Well Buck may have reacted badly then, but now he needed to make sure that JD didn't tell the same garbled half-story to the hearing board.
"You're not coming, Buck. Josiah and me will be there. And we'll make sure he's okay."
"Was there some kinda all night party that I missed out on?" They both turned to see Vin Tanner slouching against the doorframe.
Chris looked annoyed. "Has everyone jumped time zones or something? We can handle this! We've handled worse. And the last thing JD needs is the whole team hanging around to hold his hand!"
Vin shrugged. "We all know it's hard on the kid. He thought he was tryin' to help and he felt bad enough to have let his car and gun get stolen. Then to find out they'd been used in a fatal shooting..."
"We know what happened, Vin!"
Two weeks ago, JD had been stopped in his car by a young lad, claiming that his friend had been knocked down by another car. Playing Good Samaritan, he'd gotten out of his car to help. And despite the fact that he locked it behind him, it was stolen while he responded to this decoy.
They found out later that it and his spare gun (locked in the glove compartment) had been used in a drive-by gangland shooting. And in this incident, an innocent bystander, an eleven-year-old boy, had been killed.
JD was understandably upset by the whole business. The kid still sometimes thought in terms of unattainable ideals. He thought he had to be the perfect federal agent and never make mistakes. If he thought that something as tragic as this could be attributed to fault on his part in any way, he'd crucify himself before he even got to the hearing board.
"I'm just sayin' that someone's gotta make him realize he ain't solely responsible for what happened."
"What do you think I'm gonna do? Hell, Vin! Anytime you wanna take over running this outfit, just let me know. I've got plenty of things planned for when I retire."
They were interrupted by a sudden ringing of the phone and Buck picked it up. In the early morning quiet, they could all hear both ends of the conversation quite clearly and all immediately identified the caller's Southern drawl.
"Hey, Ez!" Buck forced a hearty, although obviously surprised, greeting. "Whatcha doing up this early?"
"I'm working, Mr Wilmington. And yourself? I thought that our illustrious leader had volunteered to man the office this morning."
"Yeah, Chris is here too, Ez. I just thought I'd come in early."
"And do what you could to offer support to our young colleague before he faces the hearin' board?"
"Yeah, maybe. But why are you calling so early."
"Well, if you check the police reports from this morning, you'll find there was an incident in the early hours where the manager of an all hours supermarket was shot dead. Manager's name - Dennis I Potter. The surveillance video was stolen from the scene."
This unexpected news had Buck floored. "What? Ez, how do you know all this?"
"I have just attended a special celebratory re-screening of said video in the company of the perpetrator. One Lucas James." Ezra continued to report the morning's events in a calm emotionless voice, as if they held no particular significance to him whatsoever.
But the others knew him better than that. "God! Ez, are you okay?"
There was a pause, as Ezra considered his answer to that. "Physically fine, mentally completely functional and emotionally, well, let's say, still a long way from zero."
Buck felt useless but he had to try and offer some support. "Yeah, well you hang in there, Colonel."
Suddenly Ezra seemed annoyed. "You're not goin' to start usin' that moniker, are you?"
Buck tried to lighten the mood, just a little. "Well, if you're gonna tell people that you've had a military career."
But it didn't work. "I did not! A combination of my ill-considered current pseudonym and the fact that these would be humorists cannot distinguish my accent from a native of Kentucky has led them to insinuate that I might do a nice line in fried chicken."
Buck was really worried now. Ez generally saw through his 'gauche little witticisms' pretty much immediately and usually the undercover agent was quick to play along.
"Yeah, Ez, I know. Just a joke. You sure you're okay?"
Ezra took a deep breath, obviously realizing that he'd let his guard down and his tension show. Then he seemed to decide to let them know exactly where he stood. "I'll be fine but we're going to take these people down. No deals, no devious legal eagle getting them off on a technicality, no excuses of any kind."
"Yeah, Ez, I promise you." Buck understood Ezra's feelings on the matter but if they provoked the undercover agent into becoming reckless, he could end up getting himself killed. "Just keep your head. We'll need you to keep things going at your end."
"Of course." Ezra's voice did seem to relax slightly.
Chris walked over and held his hand out for the phone.
"Ez, are you at the James place now?"
"Right, I'm gonna send someone down to observation point two. If you have to leave that house, make sure you drive and take a route where they can tail you. Otherwise, sit tight and stay frosty."
"Why, Mr Larabee, I thought you knew! I wrote the book on equanimity."
Chris smiled slightly. That was more like the cocky undercover agent they all knew.
"Yeah, well, I want chapter and verse from you on this occasion. Call again only if you're sure it's safe. And someone will be at obs point two within the hour."
"As you command, my liege." Ezra's voice still held that familiar blend of confidence and insolence as he signed off.
Chris turned to the assembled members of his team, now having to formulate responses to two crises.
"Right! Vin, go get Nathan and the two of you head down to obs point two and keep a close eye on Ez. With all that's happened, he still might go Lone Ranger on us. Buck, I want you to go round to the Potters'. Make sure they're alright, tell them we're doing everything we can but don't tell them where Ez is at. There's security to consider and they don't need that kind of worry, anyway."
"And what about JD?" Even with this new crisis, Buck hadn't forgotten his original purpose in coming in to work early.
"Josiah and I will take care of JD. You go take care of that family who's just lost their father."
Buck nodded reluctantly. It wasn't that he would deny that someone should go and offer comfort to the bereaved family. He just wished that he could be in two places at once.
Vin picked up the phone to call Nathan and Buck headed for the door. Just as he reached it, Chris called out to him once more.
"Buck, don't let Angie talk you into giving away anything you shouldn't!"
Buck turned back briefly to give him a half-grin. "C'mon, Chris! You know there isn't a woman alive I can't handle."
Chris frowned at his retreating back. They weren't talking about a woman. They were talking about Angie Velasquez.
Ezra couldn't get the image out of his head. Dennis Potter, the man who had always welcomed him into his home, racing out from his office as Lucas attempted to molest the young woman at the checkout. Dennis had obviously been scared out of his wits but he wasn't going to stand by and let a hooligan like Lucas assault that girl.
Lucas had just drawn his gun and shot him. Ezra tried to blink away the image of Dennis collapsing to the floor, clutching his stomach, and Lucas giggling, as he strode over to his victim and put another bullet through his heart. Thank God, the tape had only recorded the visual images. Ezra didn't think he could have sat quietly through the soundtrack. It had been hard enough to choke down a few mouthfuls of breakfast while the murderer provided a running commentary.
And here he still was, just standing around ineffectually while that murderer continued to celebrate his vile deed. Not doing anything while Gloria and her children were being devastated by the loss of a gentle but valorous husband and father. Doing absolutely nothing while Angie had her world violently torn asunder once more.
Ezra already felt somewhat responsible for Angie's orphaned status. Her mother, Teresa, had been mistress to an arms dealer who had been targeted by Team 7 approximately eighteen months ago. Ezra had befriended both mother and daughter while he was undercover in the organization and, when his cover had been blown, Teresa had sacrificed her own life to save his. And she had made him promise that he would do everything possible to ensure her daughter's security and happiness.
Now, without a father figure in the picture, would the remaining Potter family members be able to keep fostering Angie?
Ezra allowed himself a small rueful smile. It had been quite a battle to get Angie to agree to stay with any foster family, in the first place. When her mother had been killed, she had wanted to remain with Ezra. He had been the only part of the child's world that had not been ripped to shreds.
But he had known that she needed the security of a family. There was no way he would have been able to properly care for her with an occupation such as his. His job meant that he had to disappear for long periods when working undercover. And he knew that was no way to look after a child. And now, his job was preventing him from going to her when she needed him. There were times he seriously considered saying to hell with the job.
He almost jumped when someone called out, "Sanders!"
Such was Ezra's preoccupation, that for a brief moment, he failed to recognize his alias. But then the instincts, that had earned him the reputation as the best undercover agent this side of the Mississippi, kicked in and he turned towards whoever was approaching.
It was Stewart James who strode purposefully towards him, and Ezra mentally prepared himself. Being cordial to people such as Stewart and Lucas James and insinuating himself into their confidence, that was also part of his job. And he couldn't just walk out on the job now. Not until he'd seen Dennis Potter's murderer brought to account for what he'd done. He had every intention of using the position he'd attained within the James organization to its full advantage.
Stewart James stopped two feet away from him and placed his hands on his hips. "Let him off the leash this morning, didn't you?"
Ezra blinked. Even the James family was laying the responsibility for this at his door. Very well, he'd make damn sure he'd remedy the situation.
"No, son. I'm sure you did everything you could. But we've got a hell of a mess on our hands now. He thinks that he's in the clear because they took that tape. It was probably the only thing they did right and Rhonda tells me it was your idea. But the last thing we all need now is him running around town like a loose cannon. So I want you to take them all out of town. Take them up to the lodge at Grand Lake. Now that the ski season is finishing, there'll be less people around up there, and you should be able to keep a low profile."
Ezra nodded. This was an opportunity to take full advantage of.
"You can rely on me, Mr James."
Stewart James regarded him thoughtfully.
"I'm sure I can, son. You seem to be the only one with half a brain in the entire outfit. When you get back, you and I need to have a little chat. Ridiculous waste of talent to leave a young man of your abilities on babysitting duty."
Ezra raised his eyebrows slightly and shared a conspiratorial smile with his supposed employer. Ironic really, exactly what he had been slowly working towards for weeks, suddenly dropped in his lap. It was a bribe of course, an incentive to take good care of the barbarous bloodthirsty nephew.
Inwardly, Ezra's smile grew broader. There was absolutely nothing Stewart James could offer him to make that worth his while. Lucas was going down. Even if Ezra was taken down with him.
Again, the elder James interrupted his thoughts. "All this because some little shopkeeper decided to play hero. Stupid fool! Such things aren't worth dying for."
For some reason, Ezra couldn't resist. "Perhaps, but sometimes I think that if you've never found anythin' that you were prepared to die for, then you've never really found anythin' worth living for either."
The other man's eyes narrowed. "You just keep an eye on Lucas. Keep him safe and you'll find my gratitude most rewarding. But if anything happens to him, I will make sure you understand exactly what it means to have a life not worth living."
"Of course, sir."
James seemed satisfied. "I expect the lot of you to be gone within the hour. Most of what you need will be up at the lodge already and I'll make sure you have enough cash for any expenses. Don't stop at your place or anywhere else. Just get going."
Ezra nodded again to his retreating back and then issued himself a quick mental caution.
He knew that he was walking a tightrope. It wouldn't do to fall before he obtained his objective.
Buck Wilmington arrived at the familiar two-storey house in suburban Four Corners. There was a police car already parked outside. So they had already been invaded by the forces of law enforcement. Would they welcome another representative of it or would they resent the intrusion?
He knocked at the door and was pleased to see that the officer who opened it was an attractive young blonde, even if her expression was icy.
"Can I help you, sir?"
He opted for a suitably subdued smile, in view of the circumstances, and nodded, as he pulled out his ID and handed it to her.
"Name's Buck Wilmington. I'm an agent with the ATF and a family friend."
The female officer turned and called inside. "Gloria, would you be willing to see a Mr Buck Wilmington?"
Within seconds, the grieving widow appeared at the door and gently relieved the officer from her protective guard duty. "It's alright, Polly. Mr Wilmington is a friend. Come in, Buck."
Buck followed her in. Her eyes were red and swollen but she was obviously keeping it together, probably for the sake of the children.
"I take it that Ezra is undercover at the moment?"
Buck was unsure how to respond. He had promised Chris that he wouldn't say anything about Ezra's whereabouts. "What makes you say that?"
She looked back at him with a sad little smile. "If he wasn't, he'd be here with you." Then suddenly fear took a hold of her features. "We're not going to be finding his obituary in the paper again, are we?"
Buck shook his head. He certainly hoped they wouldn't be doing that. But he needed to get the topic of conversation away from Ezra and his current activities.
Gloria Potter seemed to read his mind and she reached over to pat his arm as she assured him, "Don't worry, I won't push you any further than that." Then as an afterthought, she added, "Can't guarantee Angie's behaviour though."
Buck glanced at each of the children as he and Gloria entered the living room. The boy sat on the larger sofa with his sister, her head on his shoulder and his arm around her. Both of them still had tears in their eyes as they looked up to see who the newcomer was.
Buck nodded to them, in greeting. He was impressed by the lad's maturity. Many boys of his age would have shied away from physical displays of emotions like hugging their sister, but this one wasn't ashamed to give her the comfort she needed. Well done, son, already doing a fine job of being the man of the house.
Then Buck looked for the third child, the foster child, the adorable but notorious Angie. She sat on a separate smaller sofa and stared back at him. There were no tears but there was also no movement. She was usually quite a bundle of energy and the stillness, not to mention the silence, seemed unnatural.
He knelt in front of her. "Hi, Angie."
"Hi. Where's Ezra?"
Buck wasn't surprised. It was always the first question.
"He's alright but he couldn't come right now."
Like Gloria, Angie correctly deduced the reason. "He's undercover."
"Well... maybe." Buck decided that he needed to change the subject. "How are you?"
She sighed. "I don't know." Then she looked over at the two Potter children.
They didn't seem to resent Buck focussing his attention on Angie. To them, it was just an accepted fact that the men from the ATF always came to see Angie. And, in their grief, they had instinctively first turned to each other and their mother. Even after more than a year, it seemed that Angie was still something of an outsider.
Angie looked back at Buck. "I don't feel as sad as I should. I should be crying but I'm not." She seemed to find her own reaction more troubling than anything else.
Buck put a hand on her shoulder. "It's alright. Sometimes it's all so much that you can't cry."
Angie shook her head. "It's like it's not really true. It's not like when Mama died and there was all that blood everywhere. I just can't believe that he won't be coming back."
Then she looked up over his shoulder and added, "You should go talk to Gloria. She looks like she's going to cry again."
Buck glanced back. There were indeed new tears forming in Gloria Potter's eyes but she shook her head as he made a move to get up and go to her.
"No, I'm alright. I'd just forgotten the world that she came from."
Buck nodded and turned back to Angie. Sitting with her in this quiet family home, he too could almost forget that the child had spent the majority of her life in a world of crime and violence. It was almost a year and a half since Teresa had been murdered and, while Buck and his colleagues had made sure that Angie was spared the sight of her mother's mutilated body, they hadn't been able to prevent her seeing the blood-covered room that had been left as a signature of Teresa's last stand.
It wasn't hard to see the child's point of view. Although violent criminals had again taken the life of someone close to her, there had been no tangible evidence of it presented to her this time. She understood what they were telling her, but it was hard for her to believe it. She would feel the loss eventually, but it would take time for the reality of it to sink in.
The uniformed officer called Polly looked into the room.
"I was gonna make some coffee. Maybe some hot chocolate for the kids?"
Gloria nodded. "Thanks."
Polly retreated, with what Buck thought was a thoroughly charming smile, and Gloria went to sit between her two children and take them both in her arms.
Buck turned back to Angie and gently lifted her up so that he could sit in the chair with her on his lap.
She looked up at him seriously. "They're gonna get the people who shot Dennis, aren't they? Officer Paget goes quiet every time I ask."
"If Ezra has any say in the matter, they will."
All eyes in the room were suddenly on him. Gloria looked at him disbelievingly.
"They said they didn't know who did it. That the surveillance tape was stolen. And that Nicki Matthews was so terrified that she probably wouldn't remember much. Even when she woke up from all those heavy sedatives they had to give her."
"But Ezra knows who did it," Angie stated with absolute certainty, "He's undercover with those people so he can catch them."
Buck closed his eyes and shook his head. Chris had warned him. Now it was a matter of damage control.
"It needs to be kept a secret, Angie. These are really bad people."
"They always are. Ezra never seems to go undercover with nice people."
"I don't know. After all, he met you when he was undercover."
"But there were really bad people around too." Suddenly, she looked very worried. "He's gonna be alright, isn't he?"
"Yeah, he'll be fine. Just needs to keep his head."
She shook her head. "But if he knows they killed Dennis, it'll make him really angry. And if he does anything stupid, he'll be dead."
Buck futilely searched for something to say to reassure her. It was exactly the same fear that Chris and he shared about the undercover agent's state of mind.
But there was nothing to say but reasonless platitudes. "It'll be alright. He won't do anything stupid."
And, in his own mind, Buck silently pleaded with Ezra not to make a liar of him.
There were times when the rest of his squad found it difficult to believe that Detective Jim Carter was nearly thirty years old.
It wasn't his rather boyish features or the way that his sandy blond hair occasionally flopped into his eyes. After all, his partner, Mike Woodward, was only a few years older and looked almost as young.
And although a rookie, Jim had already proved himself tough enough to deal with even the most violent and vicious crimes. He certainly wasn't a chink in the squad's armor in that regard. He handled the street and any crime scene without the slightest flinch, and he was a very taxing interviewer.
But sometimes, when he'd found an unexpected lead, Jim Carter would bounce into the squad room, boyishly eager to share the find with his friends and colleagues.
This was one of those times.
"Hey, guys! Is it way too early or way too late for Christmas! 'Cuz some kind soul has sent us one hell of a present!"
He was brandishing a video tape in his hand.
"More porn, Jim?" Viv Martin, looked up from the report she was writing, her ebony eyes dancing under raised eyebrows.
"No Vivienne," Jim said, responding to the patronizing tone of the calm, confident black woman with one of his own. "Plenty of violence but no sex. Y'know that store manager that was shot this morning and the surveillance tape stolen?"
He waved the tape in his hand at them.
"That's not it, is it?" Mike asked incredulously.
"Yeah, it virtually came gift wrapped. Shows the whole thing, the guy guns him done in cold blood and there was a note with it."
He handed the paper to his partner. And Mike adjusted his glasses slightly before he read it out, as if he didn't quite believe what he was reading.
"Lucas Barnaby James. Heading for Hermione Lodge, Grand Lake, Colorado. Black Cadillac Coup de Ville, Colorado licence plates, FLJ694."
"What the hell!" Ted Burns, Viv's partner, lifted himself out of his chair to read the note himself, with all the speed that his large frame would allow.
"What did I tell you?" Jim grinned, "We musta been good! Santa's come real early this year."
Ted looked over at him. "Have you shown the boss yet?"
"Just about to."
"Yeah, well, get cracking kid! The murder was committed in our jurisdiction but Santa seems to be saying that he's headed out of the Four Corners area."
"Ted, what's got into you?" Viv looked at her partner in astonishment. There was obviously more to this than bringing down one scumbag murderer.
"This Lucas is the nephew of Stewart James. If the Feds get a whiff of his uncle's involvement they'll muscle in and try to take it away from us. Don't know about you, but I wanna make sure the son of a bitch goes down. He probably thinks the law can't touch him, even on murder, just like his uncle. I don't want the Feds to prove him right by offering him some cushy deal of amnesty to turn snitch."
Viv inwardly sighed. She should have made the connection. Stewart James was a spectre that had haunted Ted since the file on the Rosie Freeman Murder Case closed over five years ago.
Mike grinned. "We've got a crime, a suspect, a description and a destination. The boss'll rubber stamp it. Then I say we saddle up and ride out."
It took everything Jim Carter had not to respond with a "yee-hah".
Josiah Sanchez again looked over at the young man sitting in his passenger seat. Quiet, subdued and his face completely devoid of expression. It was unnatural and it was unnerving.
JD made a face and cast his gaze in Josiah's direction.
"Just wanted to see if you were still here in the car with me or traversing some astral plane."
"Your mind seemed elsewhere."
Josiah sighed. It was a start but it would be nice to get the kid's conversation beyond one syllable at time. Well, he knew what was on JD's mind. Might as well discuss it openly.
"It wasn't your fault, son."
"Oh, yeah? Then whose was it?"
"Well, let's start with whoever pulled the trigger."
"And I gave them that trigger to pull."
"JD, you didn't walk over to them and place a gun in their hand."
"They wanted a gun. They went looking for someone stupid enough to leave one where they could get their hands on it. And they found one. Me."
"It wasn't that way, son, and you know it."
"Josiah, don't try and tell me the way it was. I was there and you weren't." The words were resigned, rather than angry.
Josiah sighed again. He would have much preferred anger.
"It wasn't like you told them you kept a gun in your car, JD"
"Yeah, like that makes a difference."
They had reached the ATF offices and Josiah turned into the parking garage, still unable to think of something to say that would penetrate JD's emotional lassitude. As he pulled into his usual parking spot, he saw Chris Larabee waiting by the door that led upstairs. The man's face looked even more unyielding than usual, his 'going to war' face.
Yep, the whole team was ready to go into battle on JD's behalf. Problem was that the kid himself didn't seem to have any intention of fighting to defend himself.
Chris managed to catch Josiah's gaze as he and JD got out of the car. In that glance, the team leader inquired about JD's state of mind and got a barely perceptible shrug in return.
Right! They'd tried the soft reasonable approach. The kid needed to be brought to his senses before he self-destructed in front of the OPR committee.
Chris fixed the youngest member of his team with one of his most penetrating glares. JD's reaction was not as noticeable as it usually would have been, but at least it was still visibly there.
"JD! Coffee, now!"
It was obviously an order, not an invitation, but JD still made half an effort to decline.
"Coffee. Now." Chris reiterated the words in menacingly clipped tones and gestured for JD to precede him into the building. The kid looked a little startled. He must have gotten used to them all walking on eggshells around him. Well, that wasn't Chris Larabee's way. And JD had better pull himself together or he wouldn't survive the next five minutes, let alone get to the review board.
"Josiah, go find Travis and tell him that me and JD will meet with him and the review board at 10.00am sharp. Tell them that we stopped along the way to get breakfast or something."
Josiah nodded and, as soon as the elevator doors opened, Chris propelled JD inside. And when the doors had closed behind them, he curtly demanded, "So what are you gonna tell them?"
JD's response was oddly defiant in its apathy. He knew that they all wanted him to say that it wasn't all his fault really. But he was damned if he would lie about any of it. A little kid was dead because of him and he wasn't going to try and get out of that responsibility.
"I'm just gonna answer their questions."
"Right, and one of the first will be 'Agent Dunne, please tell us exactly what happened that day.'"
"Well, I let someone lure me out of my car, steal it and my gun, and use them to kill some one."
"Lure you out of your car? So it was some hooker offering you a special rate because you're so young and pretty?"
"No!" JD stared at him. Chris had to know the details. JD hadn't really been that specific in his original report but Buck had weaseled the information out of him. And he must have then told Chris everything.
"Okay, so tell me what happened? Some one come up and tell you their friend had been knocked down by a car and needed help?"
JD blinked. So, Chris did know. This was his way of getting round JD's guilt. He must think JD was stupid enough to fall for simple reverse psychology. Well, if that was how little they thought of him, they could all go to Hell!
"Yes," he admitted, as he glared back at Chris.
Chris was encouraged by the anger he saw, beginning to take hold in JD. "And were you stupid enough to leave the car unlocked or the gun in obvious view?"
"No! But that doesn't change the fact that the gun that was my responsibility was used to kill that little boy."
Chris raised an eyebrow. "That's true. It was your gun that was used but the question is 'Were you negligent?'"
"I'm s'posed to be an ATF agent. The 'F' stands for firearms. What kind of ATF agent can't even look after his own firearm?"
"JD, you were set up. A couple of very slick street hustlers played on your kindness to rob you. Then they used your stuff to commit a crime. You might wanna punish yourself for being human, but I can't afford to let you do that."
Chris felt the hypocrisy of the words even before he uttered them. He daily berated himself for his human failings because those imperfections had cost the lives of his nearest and dearest. So who was he to chastise JD over indulging in a useless guilt trip?
But JD had the sense not to call Chris on his hypocrisy, even though he hadn't quite given up the fight.
"You can't afford it? Since when was this all about you? If I wanna quit, that's my business!"
Oh, a touch of self-pity showing. Chris was more than willing to twist the knife, if he got through to JD in the end.
"Ready to run as soon as the going gets tough? For three years, you've yapped at the heels of me and the other guys like some little puppy. Demanding that we treat you like a man and don't baby you. Now when you have to face some of the harsh realities of this world, you wanna run and hide. We all thought you had more guts than that, JD."
"Easy for you to say!" JD turned to face his boss full on (even if the disparity in height still had him at a disadvantage), his hands clenching into fists by his sides.
"Easy, is it? You think you're the only one who's ever made a mistake? The only one who's had to live with the consequences of not being able to know everything that was gonna happen? You oughta be thanking your lucky stars, JD, not wailing about the injustice of it all!"
"I'm not wailing…" JD's voice trailed off. Did Chris really see what he was doing as running away in self-pity? That wasn't what it was about! "I just wanna take full responsibility for what I did."
Chris stared at him intensely. There was no anger left in his gaze but it still bored into JD's brain.
"Then take full responsibility for what you both did and did not do. You did leave your car but for what seemed like a good reason. You didn't leave the car unlocked or the gun where it could easily be seen. If you make this all seem worse than it actually is, the review board will believe you. And then, I'm gonna lose a member of my team for nothing and that will be your fault."
JD's jaw dropped open just as the elevator reached its destination and the doors opened behind him. He was just trying to do the right thing, same as always, but it seemed that all he was achieving was one screw-up after another.
Chris laid a firm reassuring hand on his shoulder, turning him around to guide him out the door.
"Come on, JD. Time for coffee. You're gonna tell the truth and nothing but the truth. But let's go through it, one step at a time."
Another turning point
A fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist
Directs you where to go
So make the best of this test
And don't ask why
It's not a question
But a lesson learned in time
It's something unpredictable
But in the end it's right
I hope you had the time of your life
Vin Tanner and Nathan Jackson let the song from the car radio provide a soft background soundtrack to their thoughts. Vin was currently surveying the lodge below and keeping watch over the occupants via binoculars. Nathan was delving into the food supplies they'd brought with them to sustain them through this long surveillance assignment. Neither of them was an overly enthusiastic conversationalist and while they had spent more than three hours together, dialogue between them had been brief and intermittent. Both were content to lose themselves in their own thoughts, while they soaked up the stunning scenery of Grand Lake.
There were still snowcaps on the not too distant peaks but, in the foreground, the thick grass was littered with patches of wildflowers. Glimpses of the mirror-like lake were just visible through the dense conifer forests. And the bright morning sunshine highlighted Nature's majesty to an almost intoxicating degree.
But Vin and Nathan hadn't forgotten their main targets of observation, of course. Ezra and his three charges had arrived at the James' lodge about thirty minutes ago. There had been minimal unpacking of the car, mostly done by Ezra himself, and both Vin and Nathan had been highly amused to see Mr I-don't-indulge-in-menial-labour doing this. And now all of the lodge's recently arrived occupants appeared to be settling in nicely.
Vin and Nathan had parked the Landrover behind a clump of trees, a suitable distance above the lodge. They had a good view of the whole property and could see through large glass panel windows, into the lodge's living room.
Nathan handed a sandwich to Vin who took it without diverting his gaze from the lodge below.
"Thanks, Nathan," Vin acknowledged the gift of food, then observed, "Ez doesn't look too happy."
"Not surprised. That lot seemed to have him waitin' on 'em hand and foot."
"Yeah, and it must be cuttin' 'im real bad to havta do it for scum like them."
Nathan snorted. "Don't think that makes any difference to him. Ezra ain't fussy about the company he keeps in that way. That's why he can do what he does. Hangin' around with murderers and crime bosses doesn't worry him. Especially if he gets to live the high life while doin' it."
Vin cast a sideways glance at him. "That's always bothered you, hasn't it?"
Nathan shrugged. He'd never been good at hiding his thoughts and feelings and he'd never seen much point in trying to hide them anyway. When you were trying to deal with people, it was much easier to just let them know where you stood, rather than always trying to second-guess them. It was kind of hard to explain his doubts exactly but he thought that he ought to try.
"Man's gotta stay true to himself and what he believes in. If he tries to live two or more lives at the same time, like Ezra does, he's gonna end up tying himself in knots."
"Wouldn't worry too much about Ez. He always gets out of those knots. We oughta start callin' him 'Houdini'."
"Yeah, but lie down with dogs an' you'll get fleas."
Vin smiled and raised one eyebrow. "You think Ez is bein' corrupted?"
Nathan chuckled and shook his head. "Reckon y'need some innocence to be corrupted and there ain't much innocence left in Ezra." He sobered for a second. "No, what worries me most is the way he seems to really get into it all. Last time I heard him report back on Stewart James, it almost seemed like he admired the man. I mean, the man deals in illegal weapons an' drugs. He's had countless people killed, includin' little kids an' old ladies. An' all Ezra can talk about is the fancy wine he's got in his cellar and how much the man seems to know about historical stuff, like the Old West."
"Well, you can be pretty sure that Ez don't admire Lucas much. Actually, with all that's happened, I reckon what worries me most is the exact opposite to you."
"You're worried that it never seems to get to him. I'm worried that it already has. To do his job, Ezra needs to be able cut himself off from his feelin's a bit. Not sure he can do it this time. He's already got a bit reckless. Could end up gettin' himself killed."
"You weren't there when he called this mornin'. Was obvious that he was really on edge. Hell, he even called from right inside the James place. Doesn't usually do things that risky. Could easily have been caught, and he knows they woulda killed him."
Vin's voice remained mild although his words became slightly more challenging. "Dunno why it surprises you so much. You didn't really think that he'd sell out Angie and the Potters for a taste of the high life, did you?"
Nathan shook his head. Once, a long time ago, he might have entertained that notion but now there was at least one thing about Ezra that he could be absolutely sure of. Ezra would never sell out Angie, not even if he was offered world domination in return for it.
Suddenly Vin tensed and swung his binoculars up along the road leading to the lodge. "What the hell...?"
Nathan followed his gaze to see six police cars (marked and unmarked) hurtling towards them. There were no sirens but the haste of the vehicles effectively announced their presence in the quiet mountain surroundings, anyway.
"Shit!" Vin muttered, "They can't possibly be after Lucas an' crew!"
He didn't want to break cover and give away their surveillance to the targets below. And it was always possible that the cops weren't actually headed to the lodge, although it sure looked that way.
But he couldn't take the chance and he reluctantly said to Nathan, "Best get down there." Even if the cops weren't after them, the targets were going to be spooked by this. And he wanted to get closer so that if trouble erupted, he and Nathan would be there to back up Ezra.
Nathan nodded and started the engine, as Vin checked his guns once more, and they headed down.
The police cars had indeed come to a halt in front of the lodge. Someone had got out a megaphone and was calling for a surrender even before they had got into position to cover all the exits. Vin swore under his breath. What cowboy was running this operation?
"Vin!" Despite the urgency in his tone, Nathan didn't raise his voice.
"I know." Vin had seen it. Lucas was making an attempt to escape from the back of the house, an area the police hadn't managed to cover yet. Ezra and a tall blonde woman were hot on his heels. There was quite a steep climb up the hill behind the house, but a barn, visible at the top of the slope, might house a vehicle, which could be used for escape. And only a few yards beyond that was the edge of a dense forest where the fugitives could potentially elude pursuit.
Gunfire erupted from within the house and the police returned fire. Glass panels shattered and came cascading down. By the time Vin and Nathan had reached the police vehicles, the shooter in the house had fallen silent.
Knowing the high tension that was sure to be infusing the situation, Vin and Nathan had their ATF badges and credentials out and their hands raised, even as they got out of the Landrover. Some of the cops swung around, instinctively bringing their weapons to bear on the new arrivals. Others kept firing towards the house.
"We're ATF," Vin yelled, "Hold your fire!"
He hoped that every one of them complied with his request. The less stray bullets flying around, the better for everyone, especially Ezra. He then watched as the guns pointed at himself and Nathan began to be lowered and he thought he heard one of the cops swear under his breath.
Vin cast a cool blue gaze in his direction. "Name's Vin Tanner," he stated calmly but firmly, "I'm an agent with the ATF and I need to talk to whoever's in charge now!"
"Yeah, well, that'd be me," said a large middle-aged officer in plain clothes.
Suddenly one of the younger officers shouted, "Ted! They're up the back there!"
Gunfire erupted again as the police targeted the area behind the house. Only those using long-range rifles had any hope of accuracy or range but it didn't stop the others from joining in enthusiastically.
The woman amongst the targets turned back to stand her ground and return fire, even though all she apparently had was a small ineffectual handgun. Within seconds three crimson patches stained the front of her snow-white blouse and she lifelessly tumbled down the hill.
"Stop! Hold your fire! We've got a man in there!"
Nathan had started shouting as soon as the gunfire had recommenced. But he didn't manage to get anyone's attention until he physically managed to knock down the barrels of the rifles of two police shooters. He knew that it was quite a dangerous thing to do, but Ezra's life was at stake.
Vin and the cop in charge joined him in shouting, "Hold your fire!" and as the gunfire dwindled, the remaining two fugitives managed to reach the barn and the sound of an engine starting was heard.
When the trail bike emerged, all present were able to identify Lucas James riding it. But only Vin and Nathan recognized the smaller man who sat behind him, clinging to him as if for dear life and considerably hampering his ability to steer. Lucas obviously quickly lost patience with this hindrance and sharply dug an elbow into the other man's ribcage. As the passenger's grip loosened, Lucas slowed the bike slightly and pushed the other man off it.
"Ezra!" Nathan shouted, as he saw his colleague fall from the trail bike and tumble down the hill, gathering speed.
Lucas hadn't waited to see his passenger's fate, immediately speeding off amongst the trees instead.
Nathan raced towards Ezra. Initially the undercover agent had appeared to be trying to control his descent down the slope but the attempt had been futile and when he rolled to a halt at the bottom of the hill, Ezra's body was completely limp and motionless.
"Ezra!" Nathan still got no response when he reached Ezra's side but, to his immense relief, he quickly located a pulse. He could vaguely hear Vin arguing with one of the cops (who was almost shouting) as they approached.
"Well, it's nice that you got your man back but he just stuffed up our best chance to catch that murdering son of a bitch."
The object of his criticism moaned softly and began to stir.
"Easy, Ezra," Nathan soothed, "It's me, Nathan. You're gonna be alright."
Ezra managed to get his eyes open but seemed to be having trouble focussing them.
"Yeah. Hold still. I'm gonna check you over for injuries. Where's it hurt the most?"
"Head... right wrist... all over really." Ezra's eyes were fluttering closed but then they suddenly snapped open. "Lucas! What happened to...?"
"He got away!" The loud, irate and unfamiliar voice seemed to come from over Nathan's shoulder.
"Dear God," Ezra muttered feebly, as consciousness faded again, "What the hell do I have to do?"
"What?" There was confusion in the cop's voice and Nathan looked up, to see the police detective who had proclaimed himself in charge of this fiasco, standing beside Vin. Several others, an apparent mixture of plain-clothes detectives, with their Denver PD badges worn on chains around their necks, and local sheriff's department, were also coming up behind them.
Vin's first question was about Ezra. "How is he, Nate?"
Nathan looked down at his fallen comrade again. "Pretty badly concussed, think the wrist is just sprained and the rest seems to be just superficial cuts and bruises. But he's mighty lucky that he didn't break his neck!"
"Lucky if I don't break it for him." The gruff grumble made Nathan look up again and his angry gaze almost made all, except Vin, take a step back.
Vin turned to the detective, who'd given his name as Ted Burns. "You still haven't explained why all of you are out here. This ain't Denver PD's jurisdiction."
Burns bristled. "Not sure I have to explain anything to you but, for your information, we're out here to arrest a murderer and, thanks to your friend, we might've missed our chance."
"We'll find him, Ted." One of the younger detectives spoke up and Vin was reminded of JD, in his most idealistic frame of mind. God, he hoped that they'd get to see JD that idealistic again. They still hadn't heard from him, Chris or Josiah.
"After all," the young detective continued, "he can't weasel out of it. We've got it all on surveillance tape."
Despite a warning glare from Ted Burns, the young detective felt compelled to answer.
"Yeah, Lucas Barnaby James shot and killed the manager of a supermarket this morning. We have it on tape."
"Tape was stolen from the scene," Vin stated quietly and Ted Burns looked up at him through narrowed eyes. But the young detective ploughed straight on into it.
"Well, it was sent to us this morning. Express post. Along with the guy's name and the address of this place."
"Jim...!" said Ted Burns in a warning tone.
But Nathan had heard enough. "And you all wanna blame Ezra for not gettin' him. Shit! How the hell do you think you got that tape in the first place?"
The two cops looked at each other. They'd been joking all day about the tape being a gift from Santa Claus and it was almost as if they'd come to half-believe it. They certainly hadn't bother to think of an alternative, more rational explanation.
Jim turned a wide-eyed gaze towards Ezra. "You mean that's Santa?"
It was almost comical. He looked and sounded just like a kid who'd caught his father placing presents under the Christmas tree.
"Santa?" asked Nathan, a little incredulously.
Vin rolled his eyes. It was lucky that he wasn't the type to scream out in frustration. What a mess! They now had an unstable, armed, homicidal thug on the loose in a quiet resort town. God alone knew what Lucas James might get up to but he sure wasn't going to come quietly. There was also an unconscious, injured colleague and friend to consider (whose rationality also seemed a bit borderline recently). A bunch of gung-ho Denver cops (not to mention half the local sheriff's department) who seemed determined to barge all over the area with guns blazing. Vin didn't have the time or the stomach for interdepartmental bickering with a bunch of ridiculous glory-hunters. And to top it all off, he still didn't know what was happening with JD.
Well, one thing at a time. He looked up and caught the eye of a woman in a sheriff deputy's uniform. "Okay, we need to make a proper search plan to cover the whole area grid by grid, if we're gonna find Lucas James before he causes any more trouble. You guys got a map of the area?" The deputy nodded and went to fetch it.
Ted Burns glared at Vin. "You taking charge?"
Vin gazed back steadily and without even a flicker of visible emotion. "Guess I am."
The cop broke eye contact first and Vin redirected his attention to Nathan.
"Y'better get Ezra checked out by a doctor and I'll call Chris. Let him know what's happened."
Finally Vin Tanner allowed himself a heartfelt sigh. "This'll really make his day."
JD had waived his right to counsel during the hearing, in lieu of having his two teammates present with him, and Josiah had sat through the entire process, with his appearance very much that of a calm detached observer. In actual fact, his nerves had been on a knife's edge throughout the proceedings, as he watched constantly for any career-jeopardizing self-flagellation from JD or explosive protective fervour from Chris.
Both had assured him that neither would occur, but it was only now, as the hearing was drawing to a close, that Josiah felt that he could begin to relax.
The chairperson of the hearing board was summing up the proceedings. "And thus, the board has found no evidence of misconduct or negligence on the part of Agent Dunne. Due to the tragic outcome and highly emotive nature of the entire incident, there will be ongoing inquiries into these events. However, Agent Dunne has been fully exonerated of any wrongdoing and it is the recommendation of the board that he be returned to active duty, effective immediately."
JD had sat through this announcement so calmly and motionlessly that Josiah had wondered if he'd managed to comprehend what the woman had said. But as soon as she finished speaking, JD looked around to catch Chris' gaze and broke into a huge grin.
It was infectious and instantaneously Josiah also found himself grinning from ear to ear. He turned to his leader, seated beside him, to assess his reaction.
Chris had managed to restrict himself to a small half-smile, but even that managed to speak volumes about the enormity of his relief.
Victory for Team 7 again. All for one and one for all. There would be rowdy celebrations at Inez's little 'saloon' tonight.
Then suddenly, Chris' mobile phone squawked for his attention. Josiah smiled, probably Buck or one of the others demanding to know the result.
"Larabee." Chris answered the phone briefly, but without his usual curtness.
His half-smile broadened. "Fine, Vin. They even suggested he get straight back to work."
Then Chris Larabee frowned and Josiah suddenly saw storm clouds brewing overhead again, as his boss tersely demanded of the unseen Tanner, "Whadd'ya mean, 'a few little problems'?"
Nathan looked back into the rather well-equipped breakroom of the sheriff's office to find his colleague stretched out on a couch and staring at the radio as if his gaze alone could bore a hole through it. It was emitting a rather mournful little Paul Simon ballad which Ezra's expression conveyed a distinct lack of appreciation for.
And I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
But it's alright, it's alright
For we've lived so well so long
Still when I think of the road we're travelling on
I wonder what's gone wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what's gone wrong
Nathan walked over and switched it off.
"I was listenin' to that."
Ezra's piercing gaze was now directed at Nathan, who just shrugged. Ezra was often petulant when he didn't get to do what he wanted. And right now, he wanted to be out with the others, looking for Lucas James.
The doctor at the local clinic had confirmed Nathan's diagnosis of a sprained wrist, concussion and numerous bruises and then added some possible cracked ribs to the injury list.
Ezra had argued that since none of the injuries were incapacitating, he was more than ready to get back to the task at hand. The doctor had vehemently argued otherwise and insisted that he rest under supervision. It was possible that Ezra would have just ignored the medico if Chris Larabee hadn't rang through and made it an order.
So they had reached a compromise and let Ezra wait at the local sheriff's office. He could keep informed about how the search was going and there were enough people around to make sure that he didn't go AWOL. Chris had insisted that Nathan be among those people. He'd said that he didn't want his undercover agent left alone with people unfamiliar with his disappearing techniques. Nathan privately thought that Chris just wanted to be able to harangue one of his own team if Ezra did manage to abscond.
Well, since they were stuck here together, they might as well fill each other in about the details of their sides of the case.
"We need t'talk."
Nathan knew that he sounded like he was about to launch into a lecture but he just couldn't help himself. Somehow, he just couldn't let go of his anger. Ever since they'd started this operation targeting Stewart James and his organization, Nathan had been so tightly wound up that he couldn't sleep at nights.
He'd wanted to see this man brought down for years, even before he'd moved to Denver. He owed that much to old Rosie Freeman. And now all this nonsense with Lucas had jeopardized the whole operation. It wasn't that he really thought it was Ezra's fault but he couldn't keep his frustration bottled up any longer.
But it seemed that Ezra was already expecting another 'sanctimonious Jackson barrage' and, when it came to verbal battles, he had always been a firm believer in attack being the best form of defence.
"About what? Me sendin' evidence to the local constabulary? Oh please, Nathan! I would've thought you'd be proud. You've always hated the way I 'pussyfoot around the bad guys' and 'schmooze up to them'. I would've thought you'd fully endorse me nailin' my colours to the mast and doin' all within my power to bring the bastard down."
Nathan flinched. He'd never made a secret of his distaste for the moral ambiguities which Ezra's job entailed. But he had always tried to keep to himself the fact that he considered Ezra's aptitude and enthusiasm for it to be something of a stain on the undercover agent's character. As he'd said to Vin earlier, it was beyond his understanding how anyone could actually enjoy that kind of work as much as Ezra seemed to.
"Ezra..." Nathan's voice tailed off. He didn't really know how to explain what he thought and felt. But he had to try.
"I ain't judgin' you, Ezra."
Ezra's gaze was one of frank disbelief and Nathan realized that he didn't really blame him for it.
"Not this time anyway," he amended with a rueful smile.
Ezra's expression didn't change and Nathan sighed heavily. They really needed to talk. In his current state of mind, Ezra was a like a ticking time bomb and someone had to defuse it somehow.
"How'd you get that tape to the local cops, anyway?"
Ezra still looked wary and spoke in a carefully measured voice. "Remember when I stopped for gas? My passengers were all asleep at the time. They'd had a rather exhaustin' evenin' and had finally succumbed to fatigue. Lucas had brought the relevant video with him. I think he'd envisaged a few re-screenings during our stay at the lodge. I retrieved it and hastily scribbled a note to the Police. Then I approached the attendant and asked him to mail them to the Denver Police, quickly slippin' him $100 to provide incentive. And I promised him the same sum again if it reached them by the end of the day." He let a small smile escape. "I suppose that I will have to now ensure that he receives it."
Nathan grinned. "That'll look interestin' on your expense account."
Ezra's eyes flashed suddenly. "I will pay it out of my own pocket, if necessary."
Nathan held his hands up placatingly. "Take it easy, Ezra! I'm on your side, really!" Vin had been right. This whole business really had Ezra on edge.
Ezra looked as though he was still uncertain as to whether or not to trust him. "You've been irritated with me since the undercover phase of this operation started."
Nathan sighed. "It's not you, Ezra. It's Stewart James and his whole damn organization."
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Well, I thought that the whole point of the operation was to curtail their exploits? And besides, we have taken on similar organizations in the past. Why is this one so particularly offensive to you?"
Nathan was still hesitant but, what the hell, he'd already virtually admitted to Ezra that he had something personal against Stewart James. And maybe if he trusted Ezra with this, the wayward undercover agent just might trust him in turn.
Ezra's eyes continued to track him warily, as Nathan pulled up a chair and straddled it, his arms folded on top of the backrest with his chin resting on them. He stared at the floor for another few seconds, before heaving a heavy sigh and lifting his gaze to meet Ezra's.
"Back when my mama died, there was this old lady that used to help my daddy look after us kids. Her name was Rosie Freeman and she became almost like a second mama to me. Bout five, six years ago one of her daughters moved to Denver and Rosie came up here to be with her. She'd always been a feisty one and when she got up here, she saw how Stewart James' people kept takin' young ones from her neighbourhood and got them to work for his organization. So bein' Rosie, she spoke out about it, tried to do something to stop it. It wasn't long after that, she was found murdered. Everyone knew Stewart James had ordered it. The man even had the gall to turn up at her funeral and practically brag about it. But he also made sure that all the evidence that could tie it back to him was destroyed. The police weren't able to prove a thing."
Ezra's suspicion seemed to lift slightly and he nodded thoughtfully. "Rather characteristic of the man. He's utterly ruthless in removin' any obstacle to his designs. Not really a very endearin' character. And I rather suspect that it might be hereditary." He paused as he noticed the change in Nathan's expression. "Why are you lookin' so surprised?"
"Well, to be honest, the way you've been buddyin' around with him for the past few weeks, I was beginnin' to think you might have a sneakin' admiration for old Stewart James."
Ezra looked vaguely offended. "It might surprise you to know that there are actually very few men capable of earnin' my respect to any significant degree. And frankly none of the James clan are among them."
Nathan suddenly grinned at him, shaking his head as if in resignation. "Reckon I shouldn't be all that surprised. After all, it's pretty well known that you don't have too much respect for power and authority."
Ezra also grinned broadly, seeming to accept the offered truce. "So, does anyone else know about your personal enmity towards Mr James, Senior?"
"Just Josiah. He's known for years but he won't say anything." Suddenly, worry shadowed Nathan's face. "But if Chris'd found out, he might've asked me to sit this one out or even got another team assigned to the case. And I couldn't let either of those happen. I have to be there to see Stewart James nailed, good and proper."
Ezra could understand his concern and nodded, offering a smile to his new and unlikely co-conspirator. "It seems that we are both rather more emotionally involved with this case than the powers that be would ideally prefer. However, since my overinvolvement is rather more established in their minds than your own..."
Nathan frowned, again suspicious of the undercover agent's motives. "Blackmail, Ezra?"
Ezra looked hurt. "Not at all! I was simply appealin' to a friend and colleague in a moral dilemma similar to my own and hopin' I could count on his support."
Then Nathan was all contrition again. He was beginning to feel like an emotional yo-yo and sighed. "I'm sorry, Ezra. I guess I'm just so wound up about all this... But, I've no right to take it out on you."
Ezra sighed too. "It's alright, Nathan. Your passionate nature is really one of your major defining characteristics." His expression became tinged with a self-deprecating sadness. "It's just that sometimes, I feel as if I have been cast as Iago to your Othello. And it's a role I'm not sure I want to play any more."
A soft contralto voice cut through their discussion. "It's a role of true cunning and deviousness and he's probably the most interesting character in the play."
Ezra looked up in surprise and, although he failed to recognize the speaker, he still responded to the comment. "Iago? An interesting character perhaps, but an utterly reprehensible one."
Viv Martin entered the room and cast her appraising gaze over the figure still reclining on the couch. "So you're the notorious Agent Standish? From what I hear, cunning and deviousness are among your major defining characteristics."
Ezra instinctively smiled at the self-assured black woman. "I'm afraid you have an advantage over me, dear lady."
She offered a subdued but still exceedingly attractive smile in return. "Yes, well, you were unconscious when we were introduced. I'm Vivienne Martin. I was one of the police detectives shooting at you this morning."
"Well then, I do indeed feel most fortunate to have survived the encounter."
Viv Martin raised an eyebrow at the flattery but said nothing.
"Any news about Lucas, Detective Martin?" Nathan asked, hoping that was why she had returned to the sheriff's office.
She shook her head. "The rest of my squad and your colleague are still out looking. They haven't found a trace yet. I just thought I'd come back and see if Mr Standish was fully awake yet."
Ezra was rather touched. "Well, it was most kind of you to concern yourself but..."
She cut him off. "Not concern, as such. It's just that they're all running around out there without any real clue where to look. And I thought that since you've spent so much time with him, you might have a better idea where to target."
Ezra grinned. Rather than taking offence, his admiration for this woman increased. Not only confident and attractive, but also with the intelligence and intuition to see beyond the straight lines her colleagues seemed bound by into more effective avenues of inquiry.
He glanced briefly at her hands and was slightly disappointed to see a wedding ring in place. Oh, well, it did seem too good to be true. Buck just might have made a play regardless of whatever attachments the lady may have already formed, but Ezra prided himself in being a gentleman in such matters (even if he was a rogue in many others).
And he was truly sorry that he didn't possess any special insight into pinpointing Lucas' whereabouts. (Married or not, it would have been nice to impress her.)
"I'm sorry, Detective, but Lucas is likely to be in a state of considerable panic. And at such times, he becomes almost completely unpredictable. Ideally, I would have liked them to evacuate vulnerable civilians from the immediate area, or at least set up some sort of co-ordinated police protection. Lucas' mind will be solely occupied with escaping and he won't hesitate to create whatever carnage and mayhem he deems necessary to achieve that end."
"Wonderful!" muttered Nathan, "And with the local cops just as gung-ho, looks like we might have one helluva bloodbath on our hands by the end of the day."
Viv took some exception to this evaluation of her colleagues. "Ted and the others will be perfectly professional about the whole thing."
Nathan's eyebrows went up. "Like this mornin'? Your friend, Ted, was in charge of that little fiasco, wasn't he?"
Viv's eyes flashed as she dug in to defend her partner. "Ted is an outstanding police officer. He just..."
"What? He just occasionally goes off like a loose cannon?"
Viv's expression tightened and her words became cold and hard. These people probably had no idea what it was like to bust your gut over a case and still see scum like Stewart James get away with murder. But, just like Ted had predicted, they were trying to take over the whole operation, as if they had some divine right to do so.
And she'd defend Ted to the death, anyway. He'd been the one who'd stopped her from going over the edge when her husband had died. And he and his wife still went out of their way to help her look after her son and to just keep her going from day to day. She owed both of them so much, in so many ways.
"No, Ted just has a bit of a blind spot where Stewart James and his family are concerned."
She was surprised to see Jackson and Standish exchange a look before the latter ventured, "Maybe we should consider holdin' a convention of some sort?"
"What are you talking about?" she asked, as Jackson's gaze towards his colleague became reproving.
"Just that personal animosity towards the James family is becoming highly fashionable amongst the various agencies of law enforcement in this town."
Jackson translated. "He means that if you an' your friend, Ted, have a special reason for wanting to see the James family go down, me an' Ez have got some that are even better."
"Really?" She looked at Standish. "That why you decided to play Santa Claus?"
A new (and thoroughly unamused) voice entered the conversation. "And a 'ho, ho, ho' to you too."
The man standing in the doorway wore an outfit the colour of midnight and a facial expression twice as dark.
Ezra made an attempt to lighten the atmosphere, which was obviously futile before it even began. "Greetings, Mr Larabee. Exceptionally fine weather for the time of year, is it not?"
Chris Larabee was definitely not in the mood for pleasantries. He scowled at his undercover operative and got straight to the point.
"I thought that the plan was going to be to keep an eye on Lucas and stay out of trouble, not start a major gun battle with the local cops and then lose your target."
Ezra winced. "Best laid plans of mice and men...," he offered hopefully.
Chris didn’t look impressed. "You wanna tell me exactly what was going through that scheming little mind of yours?"
"Well, a murder had been committed and I was able to procure crucial evidence. It seemed perfectly reasonable to make an effort to ensure that it reached the relevant branch of law enforcement."
Viv Martin didn’t bother to hide her smile. She’d heard quite a lot about the formidable Chris Larabee and, meeting him now, the man did live up to his reputation as a force to be reckoned with.
But it obviously took almost saint-like patience to deal with Ezra Standish and Viv could see Larabee struggling to keep his cool. Then he swung a narrowed-eyed gaze in her direction and obviously decided that he really didn’t need an audience for this.
"Nate, would you and the detective mind checking on how the search is going?"
Viv’s expression hardened. She didn’t appreciate being patronized or dismissed, as if she were superfluous to the situation. She was as much a part of this case as he was, and if he thought she was going to run menial errands for him, he had another thing coming.
Larabee saw her bristle at the comment and an element of apology immediately entered his voice. "Sorry, ma’am, but I don’t think anyone outside Team 7 should see me spilling Ezra’s blood on the carpet." He threw a chilling glance at his undercover operative. "It would be unprofessional."
Viv nodded, slightly mollified. She could understand the need to conduct discipline in house but, just to irritate the ATF team leader, she threw Standish a supportive grin and a muttered "Good luck!". Then she coolly led the way out with Nathan following, somewhat apprehensively.
"Well, Mr Larabee, I don’t suppose you’ve come to liberate me from my current incarceration?" Ezra gestured vaguely around at his surroundings.
"You should count yourself damn lucky if I don’t have you thrown into a jail cell. In fact, you should already be realizing how lucky you are not to be heading back to Denver in an ambulance, or even a body bag. What is it with you? Do you think I get some sort of kick out of hauling your ass out of the fire each time you pull a lame-brained stunt like this? Have you ever stopped to consider that I might be getting a bit sick of it?"
Ezra’s own eyes narrowed, as he stared back at his team leader. "Well, maybe you will soon be relieved of that onerous duty."
Chris blinked. "What?"
"If I resign from the ATF, my conduct and its consequences will no longer be your responsibility."
Chris stared at him, astonishment momentarily supplanting his anger. "Resign?" This was really too much and he certainly wasn’t going to tolerate it. "Ezra, you are not going to resign!"
Ezra’s voice and eyes went cold and flat. "When I started workin’ for you, I didn’t realize that it was a case of indentured servitude for life."
Chris seriously couldn’t believe this! Here he was being forced to talk a member of his team out of quitting for the second time in the course of one day.
And, of course, first up it had been JD, who seemed to think he had to be some sort of irreproachable paladin of justice. Any small flaw and JD started thinking that he wasn’t worthy of his position.
It had taken all of Chris’ limited counseling resources to get the kid back on track. And now it seemed that he had to do the same for Ezra, the most willful (and verbally skillful) recalcitrant in the entire team.
Who was writing the script for this? They ought to be shot!
Chris mentally took a deep breath. He had to remain calm. The tactics, which he’d used on JD, wouldn’t work in this case. Talking Ezra out of something was a different kettle of fish entirely. And as he continued the staring contest with his mutinous undercover agent, Chris was forced to wonder where the idea of resigning had even come from. What the hell had gotten into him? Ezra practically lived and breathed his job. What could have possibly got him thinking about resigning?
The answer came back almost immediately. Angie. She’d been placed under threat again. The morning’s events had hurt her along with her guardians and Ezra had been forced to almost stand by and watch because he had been undercover at the time. So he was blaming the job.
And suddenly, Chris knew exactly how to play it. Now that he actually knew what battleground he was fighting on, he could see the tactics he needed to employ.
"So, whadd’ya going to do? Stand over her 24 hours a day and threaten to shoot anyone who even looks at her the wrong way?"
Now it was Ezra’s turn to be shocked into monosyllabic responses. "What?"
"Angie. That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? Your little emotional haven has been threatened. And now you think that if you resign, you might be able to do something to protect it."
"You don’t understand..." This perspicacious verbal assault had Ezra definitely on the back foot, already resorting to such floundering responses.
Chris moved in for the kill. "What don’t I understand? What it’s like to have one part of your life that you can turn to, to escape all the harsh realities of this job? And you think I can’t imagine the complete desolation you’d feel if that was savagely ripped away from you?"
And for at least one time in his life, Ezra Standish was at a complete loss for words. He finally broke eye contact with his boss and dropped his gaze to the hands folded in his lap, as he tried to regroup his thoughts.
While he mourned the passing of his friend, Dennis Potter, he knew that he’d never experienced anything as devastating as Chris Larabee’s loss of his wife and child. That level of emotional pain, which had almost destroyed the seemingly indestructible man in front of him, that he found difficult to even comprehend.
But this was as much about potential loss as actual loss. If anything ever took Angie away from him, he didn’t know what he’d do. He couldn’t imagine getting through each day anymore, without knowing that she was alive and safe, somewhere in the world. He would do almost anything for her, protect her at all costs.
Somehow he knew that, for him, losing Angie would be equivalent to what Chris had gone through when his family had been killed. He wasn’t sure if he could find the same strength that Chris had, to overcome such a soul-destroying loss. He didn’t know if he had it in him. And, frankly, he didn’t want to find out.
It wasn’t as though he really wanted to resign from Team 7 and the ATF. The past three years had been the most enjoyable and fulfilling of his entire life. He knew that he seldom showed it (he had never been an overly demonstrative person) but he intensely valued the camaraderie of his teammates. Chris Larabee was the only supervisor, in fact virtually the only authority figure, that he had ever had a significant degree of respect for. And he knew that within this team, he too had the respect of his colleagues. Hell, he knew that each and every one of them would unhesitatingly back him as the best undercover agent around.
But what were professional pride, job satisfaction or even the unique esprit de corps he shared with his teammates, compared to the welfare of that one little girl?
Again Chris disconcertingly tapped into his thoughts.
"Ez, the best way to protect her is to keep doing your job. The whole point of what we do is to make sure there is some sort of control over the weapons that come into this country and this city."
"Yet we couldn’t stop a blood-thirsty Neanderthal like Lucas James acquirin’ one."
"No, we couldn’t. This is an ongoing war, Ez. We’re not going to win every battle. Doesn’t mean that we can afford to stop fighting."
Ezra abandoned all pretence of equanimity. He wanted answers now and, as both God and Fate were currently unavailable for comment, he was perfectly prepared to demand them of Chris Larabee.
"Why? What’s the point of it all? People shoot and kill each other every damn day in this country. And not just criminals. Hell, kids aren’t even safe goin’ to high school! Look at what happened at Littleton! What makes a teenager, with their whole damn life ahead of them, commit such an unspeakable act? And what sort of system puts an automatic firearm in their hands?"
Chris kept his voice even. "I dunno, Ez. Lord knows, the world ain’t perfect but at least it seems to be getting a bit better as the years go by. Hell, just a few generations back, half the towns around here were probably completely lawless. People could just get attacked and murdered and there was virtually no hope of any justice at all. We’ve come a long way, even if there is still a lot further to go. It’d be nice if the killing would just stop on its own but that ain’t gonna happen in our lifetime. We have to keep fighting. If you quit now, it’ll just mean one less of the good guys out there."
Ezra was again gazing at his hands and Chris took encouragement from that. It was a sign that the undercover agent was giving full consideration to his words, and Chris was loathe to tamper with that process. Ez was a clever guy but he was also an obstinate pain in the butt. He’d work it all out for himself and any more pushing would probably just propel him into a rash decision.
But after another minute and a half of silence, Chris risked another comment. "Besides, if you quit, you’d be bored senseless. I mean, where would you find another job as interesting as this one?"
Ezra had to smile. Now, that was a valid consideration. It was indeed highly unlikely that he would ever find another occupation that would allow him to partake of such varied experiences, from flirting with royalty (may she rest in peace) to being detained by the FBI on suspicion of being a serial killer.
He didn’t really want to resign. He wanted to make Lucas James pay for what he’d done. And he wanted to keep working to ensure that others like Lucas didn’t go unchecked.
"‘Interesting’ almost invariably correlates with ‘difficult’. I don’t suppose I could negotiate a pay rise?"
Chris suppressed his own smile. "I wasn’t kidding about throwing you into that jail cell, Ezra."
Suddenly, Nathan reappeared in the doorway, slightly breathless. "They found him."
Ezra was instantly on his feet, "Where?"
"Turned up at some cabin in Charlotte’s Park, halfway between Grand Lake an’ Granby. Vin says they got him pinned down but..."
"But what?" Chris demanded. Ezra already feared the worst.
"Seems he’s taken a woman and her three kids hostage."
Ezra briefly closed his eyes. "Oh, God," he whispered, almost to himself.
"Anyone been hurt?" Chris wanted to know and Ezra mentally kicked himself for not having considered that possibility. Especially, when he heard the reply.
"Seems Vin took what he calls ‘a little graze’ to the right leg. He said not to worry about it but y’know he always says that. And I could hear Buck, somewhere in the background."
Ezra blinked. "When did Buck arrive?"
Chris shrugged. "He was a bit ahead of us, heading out of Denver. He can’t have been there long and Josiah and JD probably haven’t even got there yet."
"So the gang’s all here?"
"Oh, yeah. Why? Did you think this was your own private party? You just rest here and get your breath back. The rest of us will handle it."
"Don’t be stupid, Chris! You have to take me with you."
Chris was implacable. "I don’t think so. You’ve already been a bad boy today. You can either cool your heels here for a while longer or I’ll find someone to drive you back to Denver."
"But you’ll need me! I know his ways and that makes me the most qualified at predictin’ what he’s going to do."
"No way, Ezra. I think the rest of us have a pretty good idea of what he’s planning anyway."
"Chris, he knows me, even likes me. You try goin’ in there and people are goin’ to get killed. If you let me go in, I can get that family out of there, I swear to you."
"Not ‘on the grave of your sainted mother’ again! I’ve met her, remember?." Then the ATF leader allowed himself a small sigh, trying for patience. "Ez, he dumped you to escape from the cops. What makes you think he’ll trust you now?"
Ezra channeled every effort into producing his most earnest expression. "Chris, I can sell this! Just lend me your phone."
Chris wavered. They did need something, a sort of ace in the hole, if they were going to take Lucas down without sacrificing more innocent lives. But he just couldn’t trust Ezra to remain professionally composed, at the moment. Still, he had to listen to what the undercover agent had planned. It might be their only way of resolving this without further bloodshed.
"No, we’ll use the sheriff’s undercover phone line, in case they’ve got caller ID. It’s also got a speaker and I wanna make sure I’m able to listen in." Larabee’s eyes hardened. "And I swear, Ezra, if you try anything stupid, I’ll shoot you myself."
Ezra allowed a faint smile of victory to touch his lips. "Understood."
Chris nodded dourly and gestured for Ezra to lead the way out. And he continued to scrutinize the undercover agent for any signs of suicidal recklessness.
Ezra’s slight smile became a fully-fledged brazen grin, as he dialed Lucas’ mobile phone from the sheriff’s undercover line. Obviously he was getting cocky again, but Chris still wasn’t entirely sure if that was a good or bad sign.
A gruff, angry voice projected from the speaker. "Yeah? Who’s there?"
Ezra’s reply was pure cool civility. "Lucas, my dear friend, you so discourteously left me behind."
Lucas James was obviously shocked. "Colonel! How the hell did ya get out of there?"
"Well, let’s just say that I exaggerated the injuries inflicted upon me. They tend to be much less vigilant with prisoners which they believe to be incapacitated."
Lucas laughed, his relief at being contacted by a supposed ally was obvious. "Always said ya were a cunning fox. Listen, I’m trapped in a cabin..."
"At Charlotte’s Park. Yes, I managed to briefly get access to a police radio and I think I may have found a way to resolve your current predicament."
"I can’t discuss it now. This phoneline might not be secure and furthermore, the proposed method of decampment may take a short while to set up. You’d best sit tight. I’ll be able to have you out of there in the next hour or two but, in the meantime, you must ensure that you don’t do anythin’ to inspire any jitters in those cops outside. I’ll call again when it’s all in place."
"Okay, but remember, if ya screw this up, my uncle will have your head." And with that the line went dead.
Ezra suddenly looked pensive again and finally Chris smiled. If Ezra was worried, then the plan probably wasn’t suicidal. Close to it perhaps, but not full on kamikaze.
"Don’t worry too much about it, Ez. If you screw it up, you’ll answer to me first and I won’t leave any pieces big enough for Stewart James to even get his hands on."
Ezra managed a faint smile again. "Thank you, Mr Larabee. That’s most reassurin’. Now to coax our target out of his hidin’ place, we will have to make the possibility of escape seem plausible to him. I don’t suppose we could scrounge up some sort of incendiary devices?"
Chris rolled his eyes. He had a feeling that he was going to regret this.
The wooden cabin, with smoke rising out of its chimney and picturesque woodland surrounding it, still looked as though it could feature in a Colorado holiday brochure. But two hundred yards out, in all directions, members of three separate law enforcement agencies were carefully positioned to ensure that the fugitive within the house did not escape this time.
Strictly speaking, the local sheriff's department probably had jurisdiction but they seemed reasonably willing to simply work together with all concerned and get on with the job. Vin supposed that he should be grateful for that. The last thing he needed was a third battlefront to fight. The Denver Homicide detectives were being difficult enough, and the real opposition was supposed to be Lucas James.
Fairly sure that no one was watching at the moment, Vin wiped a hand over his tired eyes and leaned back in his car seat with his head resting against the headrest. Although the blood loss from his leg wound was making him light-headed, he knew that he couldn't afford to relinquish control until Chris arrived.
At least the most difficult of the Denver cops had become more subdued now. The fact that Vin had probably saved his life might have had something to do with it.
They'd eventually tracked down Lucas when they'd investigated reports of gunfire in the area. Apparently, the fugitive had burst into the cabin where a family were settling down to lunch, taken the woman and kids hostage and taken a few shots at the father when he'd come to join his family. The man had been lucky enough to escape unhurt and gone to summon his neighbours only to run into one of the sheriff's deputies involved in the search.
As soon as they'd got there, Ted Burns had instinctively charged right in and Vin had followed hard on his heels, instinctively expecting trouble. He'd been right. Seeing a flash of gunmetal in the sunlight, he'd thrown his considerably lesser weight against the older man in an attempt to push him out of the way.
They hadn't moved all that far and one of the bullets Lucas fired at that moment had gouged across Vin's upper right thigh. No bullet to remove but the bleeding had been messy.
Burns had dragged him back behind some trees for cover and made an attempt to bind up the bleeding wound. It was then that Vin got his first glimpse of the human side of the hotheaded cop he'd been dealing with since mid-morning.
"Trying to take my place as a shooting target as well now?" Burns asked gruffly.
Vin looked up in surprise and replied honestly, "Not really interested in takin' your place at all. I just wanna make sure things get done right."
The Homicide cop snorted but without real anger. "That wasn't the way things looked this morning. You just waltzed in and took charge."
Vin felt slightly sheepish, despite himself. "Yeah well, you were puttin' Ezra's life in danger."
"Maybe we did," Burns admitted, then regarded him thoughtfully, "You're a very close knit bunch, aren't you?"
"We stand by each other, if that's what you mean." Vin's eyes narrowed and Ted Burns actually chuckled slightly at the defensive answer. Then he sobered slightly as he took another look at Vin's leg.
"Y'know, you're gonna have to take it a bit easier with that leg.
Vin just looked at him and Ted Burns suddenly sighed in a way Vin found strangely reminiscent of Buck Wilmington. "But, of course, you're not gonna do that, are you?"
At that moment, a couple of sheriff's deputies had come over to help take Vin back to the cars, maybe get him to the hospital. But Vin had been adamant that he was staying put until more of Team 7 arrived. He insisted that the wound looked worse than it was, that a little first aid went a long way and that, dammit, he wasn't going anywhere until he'd spoken face-to-face with Chris Larabee.
That was when Buck had shown up and Vin had been forced to go another round of explaining that he wasn't going anywhere until he'd spoken to Chris. Buck had merely reached into Vin's outer coat pocket and produced his mobile phone, telling him to ring the sheriff's office. Chris would be there.
Vin had rung and got onto Nathan who told him that Chris was dealing with Ezra and that Vin really didn't want to catch any of the fallout from that conversation by interrupting them. So he'd left it to Nathan to tell them that Lucas James had been found.
And now, finally, he had five minutes to himself where he could just rest his head for a moment and try and get some of his strength back. But the stereo system of the car, not twenty feet away, was far too loud. It was beginning to give him a headache. And when he took time to listen to the words of the song that was playing, the headache got even worse.
My sins are so unoriginal
I have all the self-loathing of a wolf in sheep's clothing
In this carnival of carnivores, heaven help me.
Goodbye and good luck
To all the promises you've broken
Goodbye and good luck
To all the rubbish that you've spoken
Your life has lost its dignity, its beauty and its passion
You're an accident waiting to happen.
These were not exactly the sort of things he wanted to hear at the moment. Lucas James was a minor disaster waiting to happen. And last he'd seen of Ez, he was heading in the same direction.
With an exasperated groan, Vin levered himself out of his seat and walked over to the other car.
"Could we have that off, please?"
The bespectacled dark-haired Homicide detective, whose name Vin couldn't quite remember, looked up. "You have some objection to music?"
"I object to that music." Vin's voice was rapidly developing almost Larabee-like terseness.
The detective's eyebrows raised slightly. "Too subversive?"
But before Vin could answer, another of the Denver detectives entered the conversation. "See, Mike? Told you no one likes that stuff." He turned to Vin. "I've got some other stuff, if you'd like?"
Mike groaned. "Oh God, Jim! If it's that Feeding Frenzy album or any other Buffett stuff, I'll shoot you! Swear to God, I will!"
Suddenly Buck joined in the conversation. "Hey! What've you got against Jimmy Buffett?"
Mike looked at him. "Don't tell me you're another Parrothead!"
"You bet your sweet petunias, I am!"
"God help me! I'm surrounded!"
"You still haven't told me what you've got against his stuff."
"Well, for a start the man doesn't seem to have made up his mind if he wants to go country or reggae."
"You haven't heard of a fusion of styles?"
"That's not a fusion! That's a brutal head-on collision. Blood and guts everywhere and very, very messy."
"Oh? And what was the garbage you were playing?"
"That was the Bard of Barking."
"Billy Bragg," Jim supplied, in response to Buck's blank expression, "While he was in college, Mike got a scholarship to study medieval history in England for a bit. And he likes to show off by going on about the music and stuff he heard there."
"I acquired certain musical tastes and I'm not ashamed of them," Mike protested with an attempt at quiet dignity. "Just because you wouldn't know culture if it came up and bit you."
"That's not culture!" Jim hit back, "It's just left-wing rantings. The man can't even hold a tune properly."
"The level of lyrical expression more than compensates for any technical deficiencies."
"Well, at least I listen to a variety of artists. With you it either Buffett or Garth Brooks, day in, day out." Then Mike turned on Buck, as well. "And I bet you're the same!"
Vin had heard enough. This was doing nothing for his headache. "Boys, can you take your musical differences somewhere else?"
Some pain must have shown in his voice because all three suddenly looked at him with concerned expressions.
Then his phone rang again. "Tanner," he answered, neutrally, he thought. But Chris, on the other end of the line, also asked if he was alright. Vin assured him he was and Chris accepted the statement with obvious reluctance. Then he outlined a plan that Ezra had put together and, sure enough, Vin's headache got even worse.
"What is it?" Buck demanded as soon as he got off the phone. So Vin told them.
The plan was to set off some explosives just out of sight to the north of cabin. Then have everyone fire in that direction so it seemed like their attention had been diverted. Ezra then planned to coax Lucas out of hiding towards a car he supposedly had waiting somewhere. Once Lucas was out in the open, Ezra planned to make a break for it. And once he was clear, it was hoped that they'd be able to subdue Lucas with tear gas or pepper spray, surround him and order him to surrender.
Ezra had requested that they didn't start the tear gas until he was well clear. Not really surprising. Ever since training, they'd known that Ezra was especially sensitive to tear gas and always had a particularly violent reaction to it. It was never pleasant for anyone but just about everyone else in the team would recover within a few hours. Ezra always felt the after effects for days.
But if it looked like his life was in danger, Vin would ignore his request and do whatever was necessary, without a moment's hesitation.
By the time Vin finished speaking, quite a crowd had gathered around him, listening to the plan.
"So, we're all agreed. Don't hesitate to shoot Lucas if there's even the slightest chance he might attack anyone."
"You got it!" Jim Carter exclaimed, way too enthusiastic at the prospect for Vin's liking.
Buck seemed to be thinking along the same lines. "Son, keep in mind that we'd appreciate it if you didn't shoot Ezra."
Vin was grateful for Buck's intervention. He really didn't feel like he had the energy for conversation anymore. Throughout the entire time he'd been talking, he'd felt himself becoming progressively more light headed. Now, as he heard another familiar voice call to him, he found he could barely stand.
He turned to see Josiah and JD approaching. Vin saw Josiah say something but couldn't hear the words. Probably, he too was asking if Vin was alright.
Vin tried to say that he was fine. But suddenly, the fuzzy greyness that had seemed to take over his brain became impenetrable blackness, and he fell forward into Josiah's grasp, the darkness enveloping him.
Ezra nervously fingered the lapel of his jacket where the small microphone had been concealed.
"Stop playing with it, Ez!" Buck's voice came through on the hand held radio, lying on the car seat beside him.
He didn't plan to be in full radio contact during his meeting with Lucas. He didn't want that kind of distraction. But Chris had insisted that he wear some sort of wire so that they could 'keep track of him somehow'. He didn't mind too much. Lucas would be for too preoccupied to worry about checking him for any surveillance devices and if it reassured Chris Larabee enough so that the highly mistrustful team leader would allow him to go through with this meeting, he'd readily comply.
Ezra knew he was a touch jittery himself. Always was just before the curtain went up on a crucial performance. And since there was no one who could see him as he sat in the car waiting, he afforded himself a few nervous mannerisms. He tapped his lapel again.
"Sorry, Buck, but we must ensure that all the equipment is functioning at a satisfactory level."
He took a small breath and treated his audience to a little impromptu serenade.
"I've been a wild rover this many a year,
And spent all my money on whiskey and beer,
But now I'm returning with gold in great store,
And I never shall play the wild rover no more."
Buck chuckled. "Loud and clear, Ez. Your singing ain't pretty but at least it's better than Billy Bragg."
Ezra's eyebrows lifted slightly. "Author of the famous lines 'In a perfect world we'd all sing in tune, But this is reality so give me some room'?" He was actually quite surprised that Buck had even heard of Billy Bragg, but the well-travelled undercover agent wasn't going to be outdone by a philistine like Buck in any musical awareness stakes.
Then he heard a laugh from someone in the background which he didn't recognize. "Who was that?"
Buck's voice contained a long-suffering note. "Detective Michael Woodward. Another know-it-all pain in the butt. You two would probably get on like a house on fire."
"Indeed? So you again find yourself in the company of an individual of reasonable taste and culture, and you are at a complete loss as to how to conduct yourself."
"Enough of your smart mouth!" Buck admonished with mock exasperation, "When are we going to get this show on the road?"
Ezra smiled. The brief verbal joust with his colleague had settled his nerves considerably and he momentarily wondered if that had been Buck's intended purpose. Conversations like this often led him to suspect that Buck might actually have a much greater aptitude for subtlety than the rest of them ever gave him credit for.
Now more mentally prepared for the challenge, Ezra turned his mind back to the task at hand. Of course, he wasn't going to advertise to his teammates that he had momentarily wavered. Better to try and convince them that everything was part of an intricately constructed plan.
"Well, I told Lucas three-thirty. A few minutes delay to put him on the back foot would be ideal but we don't want to make him genuinely nervous. Now would indeed be an opportune time."
He drew his gun (Lucas would expect him to be armed) and opened the car door.
"Good luck, Ez."
"Thank you, Buck. I'll see you soon."
And with that, Ezra switched of the radio unit and placed it in the glove compartment.
This was it. The lives of that woman and her three children were in his hands now. Not to mention his own. He tried not to dwell on it as he stepped out of the car and cautiously made his way to a position just out of the range of vision of anyone in the cabin.
And he reminded himself that he didn't even need to get close to his target this time. He just had to entice Lucas into making a break from the cabin out into open ground. He could do that from a distance. Then he could avoid any chance of being in the vicinity, when the tear gas hit. God, he really hated that stuff. They'd offered to use pepper spray as an alternative, but Ezra didn't think that sounded any better as an option and he'd tried extensively to talk Chris out of that entire section of the plan.
It hadn't worked, of course. Chris had insisted that the gas or spray might become necessary to help subdue Lucas.
Maybe, if Vin hadn't been incapacitated earlier, he might have entertained the notion. Chris knew Vin's uncanny accuracy with a long-range rifle. He knew that Vin could take out Lucas with a single shot, even if the target and Ezra were nose-to-nose. But, despite the local sheriff's claim to have a deputy with considerable marksman capabilities, Chris refused to risk anyone else attempting such a shot. Not when Ezra's life hung in the balance.
Ezra knew that he really had to stop thinking about all that. He couldn't afford any distraction while walking the tightrope. Lucas would be paranoid as all hell. And contrary to what Ezra had told his boss, Lucas wouldn't be trusting anyone at this stage, not even one of his own men who appeared to be trying to facilitate his escape.
Ezra would have to calm him down enough for Lucas to be willing to venture briefly out into the open. He had to make Lucas let go of his paranoia at least long enough for that and thus Ezra had to convince him that there was an achievable means of escape. The planned explosions should help in that regard. They would provide a plausible distraction for the forces of law which Lucas knew were surrounding the cabin. Ezra had already informed Lucas that they would use the diversion to make their way to a suitable vehicle for escape and now he just needed Lucas to believe in the plan long enough to lure him into the open.
Of, course, Lucas was a highly excitable character and the explosions would also probably either make him exceedingly jittery or exacerbate his gung-ho tendencies. Oh well, swings and roundabouts. Ezra knew that it was simply up to him to handle these aspects of the situation. And where were those explosions anyway?
Then, almost as if in response to his unvoiced complaint, the first explosion sounded, followed by three or four more and the sound of gunfire, as his compatriots commenced their contribution to the deception.
Ezra made his way towards a side window of the cabin, signaled in its direction and waited while it opened.
To his extreme consternation, the first person who exited via that window was not Lucas James. It was a small red-haired boy of a approximately the same age as Angie. As soon as the child had made it outside, he looked back at the window and, sure enough, Lucas was following him. Then the boy cast his terrified gaze towards Ezra, tears streaming down his freckled cheeks.
Ezra reacted immediately. All thoughts of staying back to lure Lucas out instantly vacated his mind. He had to get that child away, out of the line of fire. But although he expended his maximum effort in racing towards the boy, before he reached halfway, Lucas was outside and had a hold of the child's shoulder, using him as a shield.
"What the hell... have you got him for?" Ezra panted.
Lucas looked surprised. "Travel insurance."
"Leave him. We need to travel as quickly as possible. He'll slow us down."
"We're taking him."
"If we take a child with us, we'll never get away. They won't stop until they arrest or eradicate us. It would be as bad as killing a cop." Ezra didn't care if his desperation showed. "The car's just around the corner. You don't need him."
Suddenly, he was staring down the barrel of Lucas' gun and listening to the words. "I do need him. I don't need you."
And in that instant, Ezra prayed that a tear gas canister would explode directly at his feet. But instead he heard the gunfire and felt the pain, then he felt himself falling and darkness descended.
Five-year-old Danny O'Connor didn't know what was happening. One minute that nasty man with a gun had him by the shoulder and was arguing with another man who wanted to let him go. Then there were gun sounds everywhere and he saw them both fall down.
The other man fell down first. He spun around and crumpled in a heap.
Then Danny looked up at the man with the gun. The man was staring straight ahead and suddenly there was blood all over his chest. Danny had to scramble quickly out of the way as the man toppled almost on top of him. And then he just stood there staring at the man's body which lay unmoving on the ground.
The gun noises stopped and he could hear people shouting. He looked up to see more people racing towards him. At the front were three men: a black man, a blond man and a dark-haired man with a moustache. He wondered if he should run but before he could move, they reached him.
The blonde man knelt in front of him and put a hand on his shoulder but gently, not like the man with the gun had done. The moustached man went over to the man with the gun. He kicked his gun away out of reach, while watching him carefully, then kicked him in the side and looked at him again. Then Danny looked around to see that the black man had gone over to the other man who had fallen. He was treating him more gently. He seemed to be trying to see if he was alright.
"I said, 'Are you alright, son?'"
Danny looked around to see who had spoken. It was the blond man in front of him and Danny found that he had already started nodding, before he'd even realized that he was doing so.
"Good. We'd better get you back to your folks."
Then he heard his mother's voice.
He looked up and saw her coming around from the front of the cabin, outrunning all the people who came with her. He ran to meet her and then he was wrapped up in her arms and nothing else mattered.
Buck finally smiled slightly as he watched the little boy be enveloped in his mother's embrace. He turned to look at Chris and saw that he too wore a faint smile of satisfaction. The two of them exchanged a look and then turned as one towards where Nathan tended Ezra.
Their resident medical expert had already briefly signaled to them that their down undercover operative was alive and not in any further immediate danger. But they both wanted a full damage report.
"Well?" Chris asked, as they approached.
Nathan looked up. He had just finished binding Ezra's upper left arm with a field bandage.
"One bullet, must've been from Lucas, went straight through his upper arm. Think he's out due to shock mainly. Combination of this and what happened earlier today."
"So, he's gonna be okay?" Buck asked.
"Oh yeah. It'll knock the wind out've his sails for a bit but he'll probably be givin' us hell again by the end of the day."
"Well, this time he's going straight back to Denver," Chris decreed, frowning down at his team's chief troublemaker. "Four Corners Mercy were gonna send a chopper for Vin. They can take Ez as well. Nate and I will follow them by car. Buck, you can tie up the loose ends here. JD and Josiah can help you. But I want you all back in Four Corners by nine tonight. You can tell them we'll be back tomorrow, if there's anything unfinished."
Buck nodded. "You'll be at the hospital?"
Chris closed his eyes and shook his head in weary resignation.
"Yeah. Where else would we be on a Friday evening?"
Stewart James sat numbly in front of his television. He'd already seen the mid-afternoon bulletin, so the news wasn't exactly new but still he found it impossible to move while the report of his nephew's death again played out on the screen.
The reporter related the events again. The scene from somewhere in Grand County, with cops swarming over it, was interspersed with file footage of Lucas. Some of it was rather old. There was even a scene shot at the funeral of that meddling Freeman bitch, nearly five years ago. There were a few file pictures of Phil and Rhonda too. Nothing of Eric Sanders though. Even in death, the man managed to be low key and not draw too much attention to himself.
They'd conducted an interview with an eyewitness, some gormless buffoon lapping up his fifteen minutes of fame.
"Well, we all knew that someone was holding a family hostage. The cops kept us back but I saw what was going on round the back. There was the big guy with the gun and holding a little kid hostage. And this other guy looked like he was trying to talk to him, maybe trying to get him to let the kid go. Then the first guy goes to shoot the other one, and suddenly the cops open fire and they both go down and the kid's the only one left standing. Then the cops herded us out. Dunno why. All the shooting had stopped."
The 'other guy' must have been Sanders. Phil had been reported as dead much earlier in the afternoon. So Lucas had turned on the Colonel in the end. Strange, Stewart had been sure that Sanders would have been able to handle him.
The scene reporter, an efficient well-groomed brunette, again appeared in front of the camera.
"Police have refused to comment on rumours which have begun to circulate, that the second man involved in the shooting was one Eric Sanders, an employee of Lucas James' uncle who, appalled by the senseless carnage which Lucas James has been responsible for today, had agreed to assist police in bringing him to justice."
Stewart James jumped, as if he had received an electric jolt. Betrayal? From Sanders? It couldn't be true!
And yet there had been signs, early in the morning, that Sanders was not going to stand by and let Lucas get away with the murder of that shopkeeper. The comments he'd made had hinted at his distaste for the deed, even suggested a degree of admiration for the shopkeeper's courage. Sanders had even said something about having a cause that you were willing to die for.
Well, the man had proved his earnestness. It seemed that he'd decided make sure Lucas would pay for the murder. Lucas holding that family hostage must really have been the last straw.
But Stewart still couldn't believe the man had betrayed him. In a way, Sanders was lucky that he hadn't survived the shoot-out. If he had, Stewart would have had him hunted down for his treachery.
He'd been so sure of Sanders. What had blinded him?
Well, he had to admit that he'd actually grown fond of the capable young man. Sanders had possessed intelligence, imagination, courage and style.
If only Lucas had possessed half the amount of any one of those traits, he would've been an able successor rather than a cumbersome millstone around his uncle's neck.
He'd poured so much effort into Lucas over the years, getting him out of scrapes with the police and trying to instill in him some understanding of the responsibilities of running the organization. So much so that he hadn't spent any time at all grooming any other potential successor.
He was a bit old-fashioned that way. Lucas had been his only surviving family and he never trusted anyone else enough to train them in that way. Being in charge of the organization was for family only. That was the only way.
But if he'd had a man like Sanders as his heir, he would have had not only a competent successor but also a formidable ally. All his enemies who had been waiting for him to stumble and planning to take advantage of any weakness, they would have known that even if Stewart was taken out, there would have continued to be someone powerful in charge.
Until today they had taken solace in knowing that Lucas would never be able to wield power as effectively as Stewart himself did. Now they would be like sharks smelling blood in the water. This whole business had exposed the soft underbelly of the James organization. And now there is no heir at all.
There had to have been a way he could have managed to keep it all under control. Maybe if he had met Sanders ten years ago, the two of them could have molded Lucas into a force to be reckoned with. Or he could have trained Sanders to be a loyal advisor to Lucas, someone to guide him and almost be the brains behind the organization. Could he have made the man truly his own, when Sanders had been younger and more impressionable?
Suddenly, he found it difficult to breathe. It was as if someone had grabbed him by the throat. Then there was a crushing ache in his chest. He shouted for help but didn't know if anyone heard him. And as he lost consciousness, Stewart James knew for certain that he was utterly alone in the world.
The conversation had hit another lull and so Buck one-handedly slipped a cassette into his car stereo, still keeping his eyes on the road.
We were dead on arrival
Safe home at last
No cannonfire dockside
No flags half-mast
We were sold out for silver
And a string of black pearls
On the loneliest island
At the edge of the world
Like destiny's children
Souls lost at sea
No room on the lifeboat
You can hold onto me.
In the front passenger seat, JD's brow furrowed at the sound of the unfamiliar song.
"Buck, where did you get this music?"
Buck snorted, "I've been getting grief recently about how I always play the same music over and over. Now I try to introduce you all to something a bit new and all you wanna do is complain?"
"Ain't complaining! Just asking cuz I hadn't heard it before."
Chris shrugged from the back. "Not bad. I haven't heard it before either. What about you, Ez?"
The other back seat occupant didn't answer immediately and Buck sniffed a minor victory.
"Finally found one that's got you beat, have I?"
That produced a response. There were some things that Ezra simply couldn't let go.
"The Black Sorrows. Australasian blues-folk-country-rock outfit. Achieved some international attention in the late 80's, where I believe this piece dates from. I haven't heard much about them for a while but I'm not certain if they have officially disbanded."
JD laughed and even Chris grinned broadly.
Buck couldn't believe it. "Dammit, Ez! Do you stay up all night, just to listen to obscure bits of music?"
"In some parts of the world, they're not considered obscure," Ezra replied coolly, "Believe it or not, Buck, mid-western America does not constitute the be all and end all of musical experience. The world outside also has something to offer and some of us take a vague interest in it."
"Hey! I have too! Whose tape is it anyway?"
JD grinned. "Yeah, Buck, whose tape is it? Someone must have given it to you."
Buck had the good grace to look slightly sheepish. "Her name was Kate. She was an Aussie girl who insisted that I listen to some of her favourite music. And, well, I was more than ready to get into some 'Down Under culture'. If you get my meaning!"
JD groaned. Chris shook his head, then looked across at Ezra, who had closed his eyes and was leaning his head back against his seat but he still wore a faint smile.
Chris shook his head again. Ezra should really be still in the hospital. X-rays had shown a small fracture of his left humerus where the bullet had passed through his arm, not to mention the concussion and other injuries he'd received earlier in the day. But the undercover agent had discharged himself against doctor's orders.
Chris had briefly considered holding him down and getting the doctor to sedate him. But, on the other hand, Chris knew exactly where Ezra was heading and the people there would also probably be desperate to see him. And once he got there, Gloria Potter would make damn sure that he took it easy and rested, which was what the doctor had wanted in the first place.
So Chris had offered Ezra a lift to the Potters' place, with Buck and JD tagging along. It was much better than leaving Ezra to get there by his own devices.
Vin had been as close to livid as Vin ever got. The sharpshooter had mutinously pointed out that he'd only lost consciousness once during the day and Ezra had done it twice. Chris had countered by pointing out that Ezra could currently walk out under his own power and thus they couldn't stop him. Vin couldn't do so and therein lay the difference. But he'd intentionally left Josiah and Nathan back in Vin's room at the hospital, just in case the sharpshooter decided to take him up on that challenge. And he still thought it would be a good idea for him, Buck and JD to get back there, as soon as they could after they'd dropped Ezra off.
"So, after all that careful planning we did. Lucas James gets what's coming to him via nine bullets to the head and chest. And Uncle Stewart goes and has a heart attack," Buck mused, shaking his head, "I know old Stewart is still hanging on by the skin of his teeth but I reckon the James organization will pretty much crumble within the next few days."
Chris nodded. "Reckon you're right, Buck."
Ezra spoke without opening his eyes. "It is now like a serpent without a head. It will thrash around for a short time. Then it will die and other predators will feed upon its carcass."
Buck pulled a face. "That's rather gruesome, Ez. Thought you were into more refined types of things." He shrugged briefly. "But then, I thought Nate didn't have a malicious bone in his body. And it almost seemed like he was gonna laugh when he heard about what happened to Stewart James."
Ezra opened one eye, then closed it again. "Well, Mr James is a very bad man and you know how our Mr Jackson feels about such men."
Chris and Buck exchanged a glance, via the rearview mirror. There was obviously something being left unsaid but they knew that they weren't going to get the information from Ezra while he was in this frame of mind.
Chris briefly wondered if it was worth questioning Nathan, who wasn't good at hiding things, even at the best of times.
Buck tossed a quick grin in JD's direction. "Well, today was definitely a victory for the good guys."
Chris grinned too. "Yeah, Ez, you should've seen little Danny running back to his ma. Would've made all the pain worthwhile."
Ezra opened his eyes to stare at his boss. "It was those same injuries that rendered me unable to be a spectator."
"Wasn't talking about that pain. I meant seeing Danny and his ma together. It'd help you not eat away at yourself about all the ones you couldn't save."
Buck again caught his old friend's eye via the rearview mirror, suddenly concerned. Chris seemed okay, but Buck knew that the ghosts of Sarah and Adam Larabee were never too far away.
JD nodded to himself. Maybe, if he'd known what was going to happen two weeks ago, he might have been able to prevent his car and gun being stolen. And there was no way of knowing whether that in itself could have saved that child's life. The perpetrators might have been able to get another vehicle and weapon from elsewhere.
It was something that he'd just have to live with for the rest of his life. But he couldn't give up and crawl away because of it. He needed to make sure it never happened again. And he needed to keep working to prevent other innocents from being harmed in similar ways.
Ezra turned and stared out the window. He'd never thought that he was trying to save the world. The very idea was laughable.
But there were very definitely some things he'd sacrifice his life to preserve. He was currently on his way to be reunited with one of them right now. He was going to try to make some small amends for his failure.
He'd failed Dennis Potter today. Dennis, just an ordinary citizen, had given his life trying to protect that girl and yet Ezra, a professional upholder of the law and protector of the populace, hadn't been able to save Dennis.
Well, now he had to protect Dennis' legacy, along with Teresa's legacy. He wouldn't fail either of them a second time.
Gloria Potter walked over and turned on her radio. She really needed some background noise to help distract her mind.
She and Polly had finally got the children to bed. But Gloria just couldn't even contemplate sleep at the moment and so Polly had just gone to make some coffee.
Gloria remembered that she used to relish these quiet times by herself, where she could find time for her own thoughts. But now, sitting on her own and thinking to herself were just about the last things she wanted to do.
The house just seemed so empty now. Dennis had always been a rather quiet person but still the silence accentuated his absence.
The doorbell rang. She'd been expecting it, even waiting for it, but before she could get up to answer it, she heard Polly already in the hallway.
Buck Wilmington had called from Four Corners Mercy Hospital more than half an hour ago. He, along with Chris Larabee and young JD, were bringing Ezra over. Apparently, Mr Standish had insisted upon leaving the hospital, despite medical advice. But his colleagues were only letting him get away with it on the proviso that he rest under supervision. Buck had (rather gallantly) asked Gloria if she would mind being the nominated supervisor.
She was glad that Ezra could make it, mainly for Angie's sake but also for her own. Despite her early suspicions, she'd become quite fond of the undercover agent and had been rather concerned at the information Buck had let slip, earlier in the day.
The distinctive contrasting tones of both Polly's and Ezra's voices could be heard, talking at the front door. Then they became louder, as the two of them joined her in the living room.
Polly ushered Ezra into the room ahead of her. He looked tired and rather pale and his left arm was in a sling. And Polly hovered behind him.
The young policewoman had been like a protective watchdog all day. She'd even been initially suspicious of Buck, although she'd eventually warmed to him. But she seemed to have taken an almost instant liking to Ezra. And that was probably Angie's doing.
Gloria produced a sad smile to greet him. "Hello, Ezra. It's good to see you."
She received an equally sad smile in return. "Hello, Gloria. I hope you will accept my heartfelt condolences."
Gloria nodded. "Thank you."
"Buck and two other friends dropped him off here, just now. Apparently, they needed to get back to the hospital right away," Polly reported, "And we've been instructed to keep an eye on him and to not stand for any nonsense. Nathan Jackson will stop by, in the morning, to check up on him."
Ezra sighed. "All this fussin' is so unnecessary."
"Well, if you ask me, you're damn lucky to be let out of the hospital at all! And doubly lucky to have friends who'll drive you across town and make sure there's some one who'll look after you when you get there!"
Ezra smiled at the way she so candidly offered her unsolicited opinion. There was no rancor, only an element of tolerant amusement, but it made Polly blush slightly and she quickly retreated to the kitchen, saying that she would go finish making the coffee and leave him and Gloria alone to catch up.
"She seems like a very pleasant young woman," Ezra observed, after Polly had left the room.
Gloria smiled. "She's been listening to Angie's stories all afternoon. So, she's probably a little taken with you, maybe thinks you're some sort of knight in shining armour."
Ezra smiled self-consciously "Well, in that case, perhaps someone should inform her that, contrary to what she has probably heard, I am not capable of walkin' on water."
Gloria chuckled softly and Ezra's smile widened slightly, as if he was gratified that his little self-deprecating remark had been so well received.
He moved ever so slightly closer and spoke very softly. "How are you farin'?"
"I'm coping. My sister is arriving from Chicago tomorrow morning."
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "There was no one that you could call on here?"
She shrugged. "I don't want to bother my friends here in Denver. The last thing I need is a house full of people awkwardly offering condolences and trying to help even if they have no idea how. It's alright. Polly's been great. She understands and she also gives me space. Buck was a great comfort, especially to the children, when he was here earlier. And well, now you're here."
"Yes, I'm sorry. It was selfish and insensitive to impose on you like this."
"What?" Gloria stared at him and found that he just returned her gaze silently and rather apologetically.
Then it dawned on her. "You're not going to pretend that you still think that I don't like you, are you?"
He answered cautiously. "Well, over the past year or so, I have detected some hostility on more than one occasion."
Gloria sighed. That was unfortunately true. If only she could go back to those early days and change things. So many misunderstandings, so much time and emotion wasted.
"That was a long time ago and I was just worried about Angie. She'd been through so much and she'd already lost her mother..."
Ezra nodded sadly. "And now, she's lost the father figure in her life."
Gloria again stared at him. "You really don't realize, do you? Dennis and Angie were very close but he was never the father figure in her life."
Ezra blinked at her and she continued. "Every report card she gets. No one else is allowed to read it until she has called you. Even if she has to just leave a message on your answering machine, she has to tell you first. You are the single most important person in her life, the only father figure she's ever known or wanted. And she's never let go of the hope that one day you'll get married and then she can go live with you, either fostered or adopted. So you should probably let the lucky lady know that you might come with certain strings attached,"
Ezra shook his head with a short wry laugh. "Don't worry. I'll certainly let any potential candidates know what they are letting themselves in for."
Gloria sighed. "Back when I first met the two of you, I was worried about Angie getting hurt again. She adores you and you do such dangerous work. I thought that something might happen to you and that I had to protect her from that." Suddenly, her eyes filled with tears. "How stupid was that?"
Ezra understood immediately. How often had he brushed with death in the past year alone? And yet here he was, still alive, while quiet stable Dennis Potter was now dead. It was unbelievably unfair and there was nothing he could really say. So he just took Gloria into his arms and rocked her gently.
Then he heard her utter a small snuffling chuckle through her tears.
"What?" he asked.
"She really is going to be very, very lucky."
"No, I meant whoever eventually catches you in the end."
Ezra chuckled slightly as well. She seemed intent on flattering him. Almost as if she was trying to make amends for her former hostility.
"You think so?"
"Yes, I do."
He hugged her closer and they both drew a little comfort from each other. Then the sound of Angie's voice almost made them jump.
"See? It would work!"
All three children were standing in the doorway to the living room. Ezra loosened his hold on Gloria, as he turned to face Angie and asked, "What would work?"
Angie wandered into the room. "If you and Gloria got married, then we could all live together."
Truly alarmed by this idea, Ezra let go of Gloria completely. Then he quickly threw her an apologetic glance, only to be greeted by a small 'I-told-you-so' smile.
With a sigh, he stooped to face Angie on her level and extended his apologetic look to the two Potter children. They both looked rather apprehensive.
Ezra placed his hand on Angie's shoulder and spoke seriously. "I don't think that's entirely appropriate at the moment."
"Why not? You two like each other now. You were just hugging each other. It works perfectly."
He could see that it probably did from her perspective. The gross impropriety, not to mention sheer callousness, of proposing to a grieving widow within 24 hours of her husband's death would certainly never have occurred to Angie.
"But Gloria still loves Dennis. To ask her to marry someone else right now would be most cruel."
"Oh." Angie didn't look entirely convinced but she seemed to accept that there might be some merit in this and dropped the argument for the time being. Probably storing it for some future discussion and debate, he realized with a degree of foreboding.
He placed his good arm around her and, with a little difficulty due to his fatigue, lifted her up onto his hip as she put her arms around his neck.
It felt so good to be able to hold her again and he grinned broadly. He appreciated her pragmatism, even if he was dubious about her specific recommendations.
"However, you're right to be thinking about what we need to do to make sure that you are all looked after."
Now Gloria looked at him with a little suspicion, "Oh? So, what have you been up to?"
He turned to face her again. "AD Travis stopped by to see me at the hospital this afternoon. He's got quite a few contacts in Social Services and I got him to promise to make sure that Angie was able to stay with you, as long as the financial situation is taken care of and you agree."
Gloria blinked. She'd barely got around to thinking that far. "Financial situation?"
"Well, I know that you've still got some of your mortgage to pay off. And then there's the cost of raising three children. I know that you receive some annuity for your work fostering Angie and also that Dennis had some life insurance. But I think that even with those, income would be tight. So I've organized for a portion of my salary to be put into your account, if you agree."
"Why not? I'll see if I can write it off against my taxes." He grinned and gave the girl in his arms a brief squeeze. "The 'Save Angie Velasquez and the Potter Family Fund'."
Gloria was still staggered. "It wouldn't work like that and you know it."
His gaze became serious. "Gloria, you don't know what it means to me to be able to come here and spend time with you all. I'll do anything in my power to preserve what's left of that."
Gloria took a moment to find her voice again.
"You should already know that you'll always have a place here," she finally managed to tearfully protest, as she placed one of her arms around his shoulder again and extended the other towards her children. Thus Ezra abruptly found himself surrounded by the grateful family and encased in an overwhelming group embrace. The sudden flood of emotion almost eroded his defences. He had to lean against them to try and keep himself from falling and he only just succeeded.
It was then that Gloria suddenly realized just how unsteady he was on his feet. And she changed her tone to one of matronly authority. "But right now you're going to sit down and rest."
And she gently dragged him, still carrying Angie, to the nearest couch and deposited him in it. "You two stay there. We'll go give Polly a hand."
Gloria squeezed his shoulder once more, in a gesture of both comfort and gratitude before she led her children into the kitchen.
Finally alone with him, Angie critically appraised Ezra's condition. "You look really tired."
He tried to focus his gaze on her and actually found it much harder than he expected it to be. But he still easily managed an affectionate smile.
"Well, it's been a long and eventful day, Angel girl," he said softly, "What about you? How are you?"
"Alright, I guess. Better than I should be really. The other kids think I'm really mean because I'm not really sad. I don't know... I'm trying!"
Ezra nodded his head, which was beginning to feel quite heavy. Buck had told him how Angie had been finding it hard to accept Dennis' passing on an emotional level.
"It's alright. They'll understand eventually."
"They said that I won't ever understand because he was their father and he wasn't mine. And I told them they were stupid. My mama died before their father did. And that shut them up."
"I'll bet it did!"
She suddenly looked dubious about holding the moral high ground. "Was that a wrong thing to say?"
"Well, certain factual aspects were correct but diplomatically it was a failure."
"You think I should have tried harder to be nice?"
"It might have been a good idea."
She sighed. "Dennis is always nice. He was going to take me to see Mama's resting-place on Sunday. It's always better when just him and me go. The other kids act bored. But Dennis always talks to me like he really knew her."
And suddenly the tears began to form in her eyes. She tried to hold them back, swallow them, wipe them away. It seemed silly to be crying now. She knew that Dennis had been gone all day. Why was she crying now?
Ezra pulled her head down to his shoulder and kissed the top of it. "It's alright. You'll miss him, like you miss your mother, but the rest of us are still here. We'll all look after you. How about I go with you on Sunday?"
Suddenly, she looked up again and fixed him with a penetrating gaze. "And who's gonna look after you?"
He blinked. "What?"
Her gaze flicked down to the sling on his arm and back to his face again. "You're always getting yourself hurt. What if what happened to Dennis, happens to you? I don't want to lose you, Ezra."
He hugged her tightly again and murmured vague reassurances into her hair. She desperately returned the embrace. It was as if she thought that if she held on tightly enough, she could ensure that he'd never leave her.
Then he heard her muffled tearful voice, her face still buried against his shoulder. "Do you remember when the newspaper said you were dead?"
Ice lodged in his heart. All that anxiety that he had expended all day, his fear of the mere possibility that she might be killed someday and that he would lose her. But, thanks to that false obituary that had been printed earlier in the year, she had already experienced what it was like to truly believe that he was dead. He realized that it must have shattered her and suddenly he felt like the most selfish soul alive. Whose vulnerable emotions had really been at the forefront of his thoughts during the day, hers or his own?
"I'm so very sorry, Angel girl."
She seemed slightly puzzled. "You didn't write it."
"Nonetheless, I'm terribly sorry."
She gave him another squeeze, as if to reassure him. "That's okay, but after we found out you were alright after all, I decided to do something about it. I thought I'd go to a church and tell God that if he kept you safe, I'd never do anything bad ever again. I'd even become a nun when I grew up."
Despite himself, Ezra really had to work hard to suppress a smile. Somehow, even through his grief and remorse, the very notion of Sister Angelica struck him as exceedingly funny.
"But I told Gloria and she said that it didn't work like that. She said that there were no guarantees and all we could do was keep hoping and praying and trying our best."
"But sometimes doing our best isn't good enough. Otherwise, Dennis would still be here. I know Mama did some bad things but Dennis was always good."
Ezra drew her out to arm's length, so he could look into her eyes. He could let her pursue that train of thought. "Angie, your mother was a very courageous and noble young woman. No one is always good and no one is thoroughly evil."
She just looked at him and he struggled to find something both honest and reassuring to say.
"Angie, terrible things sometimes happen, like what happened to Dennis today. And they make us very sad for a time. But we have to keep striving to improve things. The effort itself is important, not just the outcome."
Still she seemed unconvinced. Still anxious about the prospect of possibly losing him, as he had been about losing her.
"I want you to know that I've done some good things and some bad things in my life. But if something had happened to me today and we never saw each other again, I would have been proud to have known you and I hope you would feel the same about me. Hold onto the good, Angel girl. Always remember the good things about those you loved. Your mother, Dennis and I hope, if it ever came to that, me."
She shook her head. "I don't want to have to think of you that way. I want to keep seeing you. You've got to promise to be careful!"
Ezra smiled. "Contrary to popular belief, I do usually try to be careful."
She seemed annoyed at this attempt at levity and actually hit him on his good arm, trying to instill some seriousness into him.
"Alright, I promise to try harder."
"You have to!" Now there was real pleading in her voice. "I love you so much, Ezra. I don't wanna lose you too."
"I know." He took hold of her chin and directed her gaze up, so she could she could see his earnestness. "And I love you just as much, Angel girl, maybe even more so."
"Yeah well, I love you even more than that."
He hadn't realized that it was a competition, but he was willing to yield to her in it.
"Alright, you win," he said with a soft chuckle.
She smiled back at him and he gathered her back into his arms and leaned his head back against the couch.
Without conversation, the background noise from the radio became more prominent. Ezra let his eyes close and listened to the DJ announce another classic from the 80's. As the familiar guitar chords reached his ears, he realized that it was a song he knew well. But surely it wasn't old enough to be considered a classic. Well, more than ten years old, more than twice Angie's lifetime, he supposed it could be.
Funny how the songs from your college days somehow seem timeless in your mind. Probably, a better marker of advancing age than the number of candles on your birthday cake. After all, his teenage friend, Lila had once thrown his penchant for 80's music at him, as if it were some kind of insult. But he really didn't care as he let the words of the nostalgic ballad wash over him.
There is freedom within
There is freedom without
Try to catch the deluge in a paper cup
There's a battle ahead
Many battles are lost
But you'll never see the end of the road while you're travelling with me.
Hey now, hey now. Don't dream it's over.
Hey now, hey now. When the world comes in,
They come to build a wall between us.
We won't let them win.
Well, that was the secret to it all, wasn't it? Not to let them win. To hold on to what was important in your life, no matter how hard they tried to take it away from you. To keep fighting and keep believing and keep living.
Had to hold on. Almost subconsciously, he tried to clasp Angie tighter. He briefly wondered if she'd eventually become a typical rebellious teenager and constantly fight him for her freedom. Maybe then, she wouldn't be so keen on these tangible displays of affection.
Maybe, but not today. Here and now, she was his to just hold in his arms, as he felt himself sinking further and further into the couch.
Then, almost as if to refute his thoughts, he felt Angie shift in his grasp, as if she were trying to break free. And he found he didn't have the strength to restrain her.
"Ezra?" There was audible concern in her voice.
"Mmmn?" He tried, but he really couldn't manage a more articulate response.
She shifted again, this time moving closer, and he felt a light pressure on his forehead, as she kissed him. And the very last things he was aware of, before he drifted off into oblivious slumber, were the feel of her breath on his ear and the sound of her voice. The latter seemed to be fading in and out, or maybe it was just his state of awareness that was doing so.
"...'night, Ezra... love you."
For now, that was all he needed to know. He ceased fighting and allowed himself to fall into the void.
This episode of The Magnificent Seven: ATF Virtual Season is respectfully dedicated to the innocent victims of the shooting tragedies in Dunblane, Scotland (13 March 1996), Port Arthur, Tasmania (28 April 1996) and Littleton, Colorado (20 April 1999) and to the family, friends and other loved ones who survive them.
In the words of one of those courageous survivors, Walter Mikac, who lost his wife and two daughters in the shootings at Port Arthur: "Remember that the power of love and creation will always triumph over the power of destruction and revenge.... Celebrate life and let it continue."
If you enjoyed this story, we're sure that Derry would love to hear from you.
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