Shades Of Grey
Disclaimer: The characters from Mag7 belong to MGM, Mirisch, and Trilogy.
Rating: R for some violence.
Author's Notes: This story is a shameless promotion on my part for the Azores archipelago, a true paradise on Earth. There really is an island called Corvo (Crow), and the legend of Antília and her shepherd is told from generation to generation. The one about the lighthouse and the foghorn I made up. Beta'ed by Sherri, Lumina and Lyn. Thanks to Bast for all her hard work. Published in 'The Third Kind' zine by Requiem Publications, May 2005.
Feedback: Crave it. :-)
Summary: An undercover case goes wrong and Chris and the others have to find Ezra before it's too late.
The house was eerily quiet, only the occasional creak of a floorboard or shift of ancient foundations cutting through the oppressive silence. Somewhere on the upstairs floor a grandfather clock struck one and Ezra cursed inwardly, both at the sudden sound and at the realization that he was going to be late for his meeting with JD.
Trying his best to blend in with the shadows, Ezra quietly climbed down the stairs, hoping his nocturnal meandering wouldn't be interrupted. Luck seemed to be on his side, and he made it undetected to the office, focusing immediately on the painting he knew hid the safe.
Two months undercover in Rayner Bolger's operation, taking notice of everything around him, ensured he knew the combination and soon he was skimming through the papers held within the steel haven. He cursed anew as his suspicions were confirmed. Either Bolger knew who Ezra was, or suspected, because, even living under the man's roof, Ezra was not aware of most of the transactions detailed in these sheets. Most of the information he had been able to pass on to his team was hardly worthy of mention, and only a few small fish had been caught, men who knew little or nothing about Bolger or his organization.
A soft grunt of satisfaction escaped him as he checked the remaining papers. A large arms deal was supposed to take place this very morning, in the warehouse district, and Bolger himself would be there to see that everything went smoothly.
Finally, the break they had been looking for, the chance to catch Bolger with his hands deep in the cookie jar. Now all Ezra had to accomplish was handing the information over to JD.
He tucked the papers safely inside his sweater and turned to leave, when disaster struck. The door opened and the overhead lights flashed on, blinding him momentarily. He instinctively reached for his waist holster, only to freeze in dismay as his eyes became used to the bright glare. Doug Baltzer, one of Bolger's trusted bodyguards, was standing by the doorway, a gun in his hand. Knowing he would be struck down should he try to go for his own gun, Ezra lowered his arms slowly, making certain his hands were visible to the other man.
The bruiser smiled tightly. "Evening, Evan. Couldn't sleep, huh?" Menacingly, he raised his gun higher.
Knowing it was pointless to come up with excuses when the safe was wide open and papers were scattered all over the desk, Ezra sighed in defeat. "Something like that. Now what?"
"Unholster your gun and drop it, slowly. Now, kick it away." When Ezra obeyed, Baltzer nodded. "We'll wait for Mr. Bolger here. He should be coming down soon."
Ezra sat on the tabletop, trying to assume a non-threatening pose. He kept his eyes on his opponent the whole time, hoping for an opportunity to overpower Doug and make good his escape. It came a minute later, when they both heard voices in the hall. Even though Baltzer had to know it was his boss, years of conditioning couldn't be stopped and he unconsciously moved closer to Ezra.
That was all it took. Ezra slammed into him, kicking him in the groin, and flew through the window in a cacophony of shattered glass, fiercely glad they were on the first floor. He landed safely on the ground and raced frantically into the night, knowing he had to evade capture or face death.
Bullets whistled past his head as his pursuers took chase, the lack of noise letting him know they were using silencers. He dodged around the corner of a building, hearing slugs thud into the brick, and ran faster.
It was useless. A bullet grazed his left arm, hard enough to send him falling helplessly. Before he could regain his footing and keep going, he was seized by two pairs of strong hands, Baltzer's and his partner's, Sean Weaver, and was dragged kicking and snarling back to Bolger's mansion. It seemed he was going to be missing his meeting with JD after all.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
JD anxiously paced the dark alley behind Inez' bar. Annoyed with himself, but unable to stop the impulse, he checked the time again. Almost three in the morning. It was obvious to him that Ezra wasn't coming, that something terribly wrong had happened. The undercover agent had never failed to show up for a scheduled meeting before, even if he never stayed for more than five minutes.
JD leaned against the wall for support, its wintry chill sharp against his body. Taking a deep breath to calm his hammering heart, he snatched the cellular from his coat. Punching a number, JD waited impatiently for the person on the other end to answer.
"Chris?" he whispered, helpless to keep the uneasiness from his voice. "Ezra never showed up."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
The first thing Ezra realized when he woke up was that his left arm throbbed in time to his pulse. The second was that he was lying on a very comfortable bed and - wonder of wonders - still breathing. Opening his eyes, he noted that he was in a bedroom he had never seen before. Somehow the décor had very little similarity to that of Bolger's mansion, where all the rooms resembled something out of a stuffy, old museum. But this one was light and spacious, which led him to believe they had moved locations.
Slowly rising from the bed and approaching the door, he wasn't surprised to find it locked. He tried the window next, but it seemed to be bolted down and looking out, Ezra realized they were on a third floor. Obviously Bolger learned from his mistakes, and wasn't about to allow him to - literally - fly out the window.
Scanning the room provided no other routes of escape. He spent the next minutes searching for something to use as a weapon, with little success. All drawers were empty or virtually so, and what he could find wouldn't be of much help.
Admitting defeat, if only for the moment, he finally took a moment to assess his injury. His wound had been tended to, and there was a pitcher of water and aspirin on the nightstand, so, after a slight shrug, Ezra sat down on the bed and took fair advantage of the painkillers.
He thought back to the night before. His last, painful memory was of Weaver knocking him unconscious. He was apparently putting up too much of a fight. He never really expected to wake up, figuring Bolger would just order his thugs to kill him, but apparently the gunrunner had other ideas in mind. Perhaps he wanted to finish the job himself.
Ezra shook his head and snorted ruefully. He should have known there was something wrong the moment he met the man. Everything had happened too fast, too easily. Men in Bolger's position were more guarded, more suspicious of strangers, but Ezra had been treated like the man's long-lost son practically from day one. That alone should have set all his warning bells off.
Bolger was a stone in the shoe of every law enforcement agency in Denver, a strange man who had dealt with firearms for over twenty years without ever having been caught. A man who sold them to the highest bidder without any concern as to where those weapons might end up, but who rarely killed for his own gain. There were exceptions, of course. Like the unfortunate cop that had stumbled right into the middle of a buy, only to be gunned down mercilessly, leaving a wife and two small children behind. Or the undercover agent that had successfully infiltrated Bolger's organization five years ago, only to be found floating in the ocean months later.
Bolger always seemed to evade the worst law enforcement threw at him, never leaving any leads or incriminating evidence behind. Offering rewards hadn't work, paying informants had brought nothing substantial. Bolger had the loyalty of his men, not by fear, but because they genuinely liked and respected him. Ezra had seen it personally; the way Bolger handled his henchmen. If one of them had the misfortune of getting arrested or killed, Bolger saw to that man's family, providing them with any help necessary, from money to having someone watch over them.
His assistant had been killed during a deal gone bad three months earlier and Ezra had managed to take the man's place, but after almost two months within the organization, he had little to show for it. Nothing major ever seemed to happen; it was almost as if Bolger had stopped doing business. But the papers Ezra had seen in the safe proved otherwise, which lead him to the conclusion the man had to know his identity. So why was he still alive? Why risk everything by allowing him to be that close? To remain for so long? What was Bolger up to?
As if summoned by Ezra's thoughts, the door opened and Bolger walked in, for once without Baltzer and Weaver at his heels. Rayner Bolger was a tall, slim man, in his forties, sharp and charming, someone Ezra might have liked himself, if not for the man's chosen profession. He was also quite handsome, with wide almond eyes, wavy black hair, and a contagious smile that was turned full-watt on Ezra at that moment.
"I'm glad to see you awake, Evan. I was beginning to worry. I wonder, though, is your name really Evan Sanders?" He paused, regarding Ezra mockingly. "Or perhaps... Ezra Standish?"
Ezra scowled, while attempting to hide his uneasiness. The confirmation of the fact that Bolger knew his identity didn't bode well for him. "Please, Mr. Bolger, let's cut the bullshit. Why am I alive?"
Bolger raised an eyebrow at his question, his amusement clear. "You mean you want me to have you killed? And it's Rayner, I've told you before."
"I have no wish to be murdered, no," Ezra said, ignoring the remark about the man's name. "But from what I found in your safe last night, it's obvious you've been keeping information from me, and the only reason I can think of is that you knew who I was all along, which is supported by your use of my given name. So why go to all this trouble? Why ask me to join your operation? Why take such a big risk?"
"Have you heard the expression that revenge is a dish best served cold? Well, you're my ticket to revenge."
Ezra frowned. "I don't follow."
Bolger reached for his wallet, taking out a photo and handing it to Ezra. "See that man with me?"
Ezra gave the photo his undivided attention. In it, a much younger Bolger was embracing another man tightly, both men smiling widely at the camera, looking happy and carefree. "What about him?" he asked softly.
"His name was Patrick. We met in high school, became friends, then lovers. We started this organization, made it into what it is today. He was shot by the Denver PD some years ago during a bust."
Ezra shook his head in puzzlement. "I still don't understand."
"The cop who shot Pat was Chris Larabee," Bolger said grimly, and Ezra was unable to suppress a shudder. Now things were beginning to make sense. "I never wanted someone dead so fiercely in my life," Bolger continued, "but I decided it would be too obvious if I did it so soon after Patrick was dead. So I waited. Then Larabee's family got killed in that car bomb, and I couldn't help thinking it was poetic justice. He killed my lover and his job killed his family. I almost felt... a kinship to him. I was content for a while to watch him self-destruct, to drink himself into oblivion. But that blasted Wilmington kept him from sinking too deep, and then the ATF team was formed and I saw Larabee rise up from the ashes and become a new man. And, after a while, I realized there was something going on between you and him, something I couldn't understand at first. It didn't take me long to find out that you were lovers." He broke off, cocking his head at Ezra. "I see you aren't denying it."
Ezra shrugged. "Why bother? I'm certain your surveillance was more than thorough. So, I was correct. You did know who I was when I approached you."
"Yes. Over the last months I have seen how possessive Larabee is of you, how frantic he gets while you're under. So I thought this was the perfect opportunity for my revenge. I'd keep you away from him for as long as I could and then..."
"Then?" Ezra prompted.
"I would kill you. Fortunately for you, these last months have been a revelation for me. I can see why Larabee loves you. You are bright, intelligent, witty... and handsome." Bolger sighed. "I found myself liking you more and more, and I discovered I couldn't bear the thought of killing you. So you get to live."
"You're going to let me go?" Ezra asked incredulously.
Bolger gave him a wide smile. "Eventually. But for the next months Larabee will have no idea where you are, or even if you're alive. When I think sufficient time has passed, I will allow you to go."
Ezra regarded him dubiously. "And that will be enough for you?"
"Losing his family almost killed Larabee, Ezra. Having to go through it a second time, especially without actually knowing what happened to you, will drive him crazy. With any luck, he will end it all himself."
Ezra looked around, his heart breaking at the thought of his lover having to go through all that pain and sorrow on his account. "Where are we?" he asked, trying to chase the unpleasant notion away. "This doesn't look like your Denver home."
Perhaps knowing where they were currently lodging would help him come up with a plan for his elopement. There was no reason for him to believe Bolger was telling the truth. The man might still see to his demise, if no other reason because he was an agent, and one who knew too much already. In any case, he wasn't about to let the man engineer his demented plan to torture Chris. Not if he could help it.
"It isn't. We're in New York, in a house I own here. When Doug and Sean showed up with you, I knew I had to revise my plans quickly. So, while you were unconscious, I took the opportunity to rent a charter, under an alias, to leave Denver. It wasn't that difficult, as it was too soon for anyone to start looking for you, and we didn't have to worry about running into one of your colleagues. Of course, I had the doctor who saw to your injury give you a shot to keep you sleeping. The pilot was simply told you were my weak, ill lover, which explained the wheelchair and the reason why you slept the whole flight."
"Lover?" Ezra echoed slowly.
Bolger chuckled. "But of course. Imagine Larabee's face when he finds out about it. As I have no doubt he will... eventually."
Ezra felt his gut tightening at the thought of being so far away from home and Chris. Rescue definitely wouldn't come in the nick of time for once. "I see," he simply said, half glad he couldn't remember the trip to New York. It would have made the ache within his heart stronger.
Bolger seemed to see through his apathy, if the frown on his face was something to go by, but didn't comment on it. Instead he said, "I'm afraid we're not done yet. For now, we are going on a little journey."
Ezra raised an eyebrow in query. "Oh?"
Bolger smiled. "I don't trust you not to try to escape, so we're going away. To another country. There's this special place that I want to show you. Patrick absolutely loved it, so I'm sure you will too. You are very much like him." Ezra's startled expression at those words had him chuckling. "No, don't worry. I haven't fallen in love with you. But I confess I have come to enjoy your company very much these past months. And there is something of Patrick in you, but I'm not that far gone that I don't see the differences as well."
"And where are we going?" Ezra asked, his dread increasing.
"I will let you know when we get there. I need you to drink this." Bolger handed him a glass filled with what resembled whiskey.
Ezra took the glass, eyeing it suspiciously, and sniffed at its contents. "What is it?"
"Whiskey," Bolger replied, his tone amused again. "With a little something in it. You're going to play the part of my ill lover again. Can't have you causing any trouble, can I? Drink it."
Ezra placed the glass on the nightstand. "No. I won't willingly play any part in this lunacy you're plotting."
Bolger shrugged. "Very well. Sean, Doug!" he called out.
The two bruisers walked into the room and advanced on Ezra. He tried to fight them off, even scoring a lucky punch or two, but was soon subdued as Doug squeezed his wounded arm painfully. Thrown on the bed, he struggled weakly against the hands securing his arms and legs.
Ezra ignored the tears burning in his eyes as the liquid was forced down his throat ruthlessly. As he began to get drowsy, his thoughts turned once again to his lover. He hoped having the others around would be enough to help Chris keep it together until Ezra managed to extract himself from Bolger's clutches. Because one way or another, he would escape.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Chris jumped up from his chair as soon as his men stumbled into his office. "Well?" he asked, anxiously.
Buck shook his head sadly. "Nothin'. Bolger's men have gone underground; we didn't find anyone who could tell us anythin'. It's like everyone disappeared off the face of the Earth."
"Did you search the man's house?" Chris insisted, knowing it was an unnecessary question. His men would have been thorough. He needed to know what had happened to Ezra before he went insane with worry. His lover just had to be alive and unhurt. He had to.
"Yeah," Josiah replied softly. "It was deserted. Bolger and his two lieutenants were nowhere in sight and their clothes were gone. And…" He seemed to hesitate, sharing a worried look with the others.
"And what?" Chris prompted, his concern mounting.
"We found Ezra's room," JD barely whispered. "His clothes were gone too. But we found this."
It was a black sweater Chris recognized as being Ezra's. He could easily see the bullet hole in one of the sleeves.
Heart in his throat, he ordered hoarsely, "Send it to the lab, just to be sure. We need to be certain the blood type matches Ezra's. Did you find anything else?" Five negative head shakes were his reply and he clenched his jaw in suppressed anger and frustration. "All right. Get back on the streets. I want Bolger and Ezra found - yesterday. Leave no stone unturned. Question snitches, Bolger's enemies, known connections, anyone else you can think of. Alert all the other agencies that we have a man missing, post lookouts at airports, bus stations, the usual. Circulate photos of Bolger and Ezra around Denver; make sure everyone knows they're just wanted for questioning," he emphasised, "so we don't blow Ezra's cover. We can't risk a trigger happy rookie shooting first and asking questions later. Also, offer a reward for any information on them. And keep me informed on any news, no matter how irrelevant you think it might be."
"We'll find him, Cowboy," Vin said quietly, before leaving the office with the others.
Chris slumped back into his chair, tiredly covering his face with his hands. "I hope so," he exhaled in a breath. "I can't go through all this again, not with him."
He knew everyone thought he'd dragged himself up and gotten on with his life after his family's death due to sheer stubbornness and Buck's relentless help. And while that wasn't a lie, it wasn't the whole truth either. Because Chris hadn't really started living again until he had met Ezra. Losing Sarah and Adam had been unbearable. But losing Ezra... He wasn't sure if he would be able to make it, or even if he would care to. Because a life without Ezra in it, was unthinkable.
He refused to give voice to the thought that it might already be too late. That just like the undercover agent five years ago, Ezra might have been found out and killed.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Ezra woke up slowly, feeling woozy, his body letting him know he had slept for a long time. He realized that he was in the backseat of a car, sitting by Bolger's side. He had slept through another flight, probably while they went through Customs, and getting put in the car.
Quite the concoction Bolger had in his power. A smile nearly broke free when he thought how Nathan could use a large supply of the drug, but thinking of his friends made his heart skip a beat and he turned his mind away from them for the moment. He needed to concentrate on his current situation if he was to come up with a plan to return to the States, particularly to Denver and all he had waiting for him there.
Looking out the window, he saw they were driving down a deserted dirt road, surrounded on both sides by the lushest green country he had ever seen in his life. There were forests afar, small streams bubbling everywhere; there were herds of cattle grazing, and large flocks of birds soaring in the bright blue skies.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Bolger asked, obviously having noticed he was awake. "You haven't seen anything yet. Wait until we get to my home. It's heaven on Earth." When Ezra chose to remain quiet, the other man continued talking. "I can tell you where we are now. We're in Azores, an archipelago belonging to Portugal. In other words, we're in Europe. I came here after Pat's death, on a friend's advice, and fell in love. I purchased a large amount of land on one of the smaller islands, Corvo. The whole place is out of this world."
Ezra remained silent, refusing to give Bolger any attention, his eyes taking in the wondrous scenery while his brain insisted on taking him back to times spent with Chris and the others. To the way his life had changed after he and Chris had gotten together, to how happy he had been since then. His mother was wrong; loving someone and allowing others to love you back didn't always bring misery. In his case, it had given him a family and a man he cherished beyond anything in this world. Even now, miles apart, he felt comforted thinking about Chris. And that would see him through the near future, until he was able to return to his rightful place.
He blinked as the car suddenly came to a halt, and he realized they were in a small port, the wonderful sea air breezing around him in the wind as he exited the vehicle.
"Now behave, Ezra," Bolger admonished quietly. "I would hate to have to order Doug and Sean to harm anyone, but if you try anything, I'll do it."
Ezra nodded, half tempted to try anyway, but both bodyguards were practically glued to his back. So he kept still, closing his eyes for a moment and breathing in the salt tinged air deeply, savoring the untainted freshness so alien to someone born and raised in large cities. He watched as Bolger spent a few minutes talking to a man in what he recognized to be Portuguese, then they were heading for a small boat, their bags with them, the man waving them goodbye.
Weaver started the engine while Baltzer released the ropes tying the boat, and they were off, cutting swiftly through the ocean, causing a shower of cool water to splash around them. They passed several islands, and Ezra was unable to help gaping at the sight before him. Bolger was right; it was paradise on Earth.
The archipelago was the obvious result of volcanic activity, its large, irregular shapes rising out from under the water, with most of the land sloping upward towards high peaks. The seacoast of the closest islands had cliffs that seemed several hundred feet high, while the lower shorelines had coves that served as harbors.
As they grew nearer to one of the closer isles, Ezra inhaled sharply. The shore was high and precipitous, and dangerous headlands projected outward in all directions, while reefs of hoary rocks, foam-covered and washed by angry waves, formed a protective cordon about the land. Over the edges of dark sea cliffs, little rivulets, like silver threads upon the cloth of a frieze, trickled down into the ocean. Groups of whitewashed buildings, with a steepled church in the midst, could be seen glistening in the sun.
"Amazing," he whispered.
"Yes," Bolger replied. "You know, it is said these islands could be the last vestiges of a large continent such as Atlantis? I can definitely see it. I'll make sure to show you all the best and most beautiful sights this archipelago has to offer."
Ezra attempted to cover his elation at those words. So Bolger didn't intend to keep him locked up in some windowless abode for who knew how long. That might be to his advantage. Somewhere, somehow, he would be able to slip away from his captors. It would obviously be a difficult task, as the wrathful sea and rough terrain seemed to surround most of the island. But maybe in the village... Bolger was certain to take him there and Ezra might convince someone to assist him.
Something Bolger had said earlier finally registered in Ezra's mind. "You said the island's name is Corvo?"
The other man gave him a curious look. "Yes, that's right. Why?"
"I spent a summer in Portugal as a child, in Algarve. Learned some Portuguese. Corvo means crow, doesn't it?" Ezra asked, wondering if it meant anything in the grand scheme of things that he was supposed to live on an island with the name of the bird that, for Josiah, signified death.
Bolger gave him a happy smile. "It does. I can see you're going to do well here. The people are extremely friendly and giving. You will enjoy your stay."
"I doubt it. You were right about this place. Under other circumstances I probably would have loved it as much as Patrick did, but not forced to come here against my will. This is not where I belong, Rayner. I won't purposely do anything that will make you turn on innocent people, but I will attempt to escape every chance I get."
Bolger's smile grew wider. "I wouldn't expect anything less of you, but you don't have to worry. I love these people as my own; I won't harm them. However, Doug and Sean will keep on your heels the whole stay. I will allow you to wander anywhere you wish to go, as long as at least one of them is with you. And please remember they are armed."
Ezra shook his head, confused. "You certainly are going to a lot of trouble for the sake of revenge."
Bolger shrugged awkwardly. "I know. I never claimed to be a good and just man, Ezra. I've tried, but I can't let go of Pat, can't let go of my anger towards Larabee. You know that the Portuguese have a word 'saudade,' which is unique in the world? No other language has a literal translation or equivalent to it. It can mean to miss someone desperately, to long for something until it kills you. It can be nostalgia, a yearning deep within one's soul for the past..." His voice broke on the last word and he swallowed thickly. "That's what I feel when I think of Pat. I miss him terribly. I long to be with him." There were tears in the man's eyes. "He was my life, Ezra, and I'm lost without him." He took a deep breath, trying to control his emotions. "I will keep my promise not to hurt you, and I will let you go. But, as petty as I know it is, the thought of Larabee frantic over your loss gladdens my heart."
Ezra sighed, knowing there was no point in arguing, at least for the moment. He wasn't about to allow the other man to see how affected he had been by his words, how touched he was by the man's obvious pain.
He wondered briefly how he would feel if someone killed Chris. Would he hate Chris's killer for the rest of his life? Would be become a bitter, lonely man like Bolger, or eventually move on? It wasn't particularly surprising for him to realize that he understood Bolger or his reasons for acting the way he did. Chris himself hadn't stopped searching for his family's murderer, and even though Ezra knew the other man loved him, he wasn't certain Chris wouldn't take matters into his own hands if one day he did come face to face with the person responsible for his wife's and son's deaths.
What surprised Ezra, however, was that Bolger had chosen such a mild vengeance. Someone else would have just shot Ezra and left the body for Chris to find. Although something had to be said for not knowing if one's lover was dead or alive, about not having a clue as to his whereabouts and having to cling to desperate hope.
They reached the shore, and while the others jumped out to the sand, Weaver pulled the boat safely away from the incoming tide. Ezra followed Bolger into a modest village where everyone seemed to know and obviously like the man, if the smiles, the pats on the back, and the effusive handshakes were any indication. Against his will, he felt himself warming up to the small group coming to greet them, especially as they turned their welcome on him, making him feel like a relative who hadn't come for a visit in a long time.
He didn't get the chance to break free. The two bodyguards were always by his side, monitoring his brief conversations with the locals and keeping him from straying. The one time Ezra attempted to move away from the gathering, Weaver wrapped a strong arm around his shoulders, squeezing tightly in warning while smiling for the benefit of the onlookers.
It seemed like hours before they were finally left alone, and Bolger led him to a car parked in one of the closer streets. They got in, Weaver once again behind the wheel, and soon the village was behind them.
"So, what do you think of Corvo so far?" Bolger asked.
"You weren't exaggerating; the population is friendly. Are they always like this?" Ezra asked, curious in spite of the situation.
"Well, they can be a bit suspicious of strangers, but are always good-natured. Once they get to know someone though, they never fail to make you feel like you're one of the family. You were with me, so you've become one of them. If you ever need anything, they will stop at nothing to help you."
And that suited him just fine, Ezra thought with secret glee. For it seemed the village was to be his only route to liberation. It would be infinitely easier if he could count on the villagers' aid. Maybe if he managed to leave Bolger and his hounddogs behind, he could procure transportation to one of the other islands, or maybe borrow a boat and go by himself. He wouldn't want to endanger any lives.
"The village was beautiful," Ezra said, remembering the one-story houses covered with white porcelain tiles with designs in blue, brown, green, or yellow for decoration. It was a strange contrast with the red tiled roofs, with no chimneys.
"Yes, quite a sight, isn't it? I learned that the buildings are usually made of black lava rock cemented by limestone, a mineral found only on the island of Santa Maria. The black rock is plastered over and then whitewashed. How they keep that brightness for so long I have no idea, but if you get lost in the countryside, some of these villages are better than lighthouses. You can see them for miles. There, you can already see my house from here."
Looking to where Bolger was gesturing, Ezra saw what looked like a small mansion, seeming very out of place against the simplicity he had seen earlier. It was a two-story building apparently also made of the black lava rock, or at least whitewashed, as it almost hurt the eyes to look at it. As they drove closer, he could see that the house was nestled among large trees, and had a porch swing and a rocker. It fit his image of Bolger; big, well-thought out, but comfortable and accessible.
For him, on the other hand, it was another hurdle to overcome. The house may be accessible, but it was secluded and far from the village. He wouldn't be able to flee on foot, not without making certain Bolger and his men wouldn't be in any shape to pursue. It was highly unlikely he would be left alone long enough to wrestle and restrain his three captors and the chances of him fighting - and winning - against both Baltzer and Weaver were slim to none, especially with his injury.
That left the car as his only means of reaching the village. But he was still left with the problem of getting past his kidnappers. He would have to come up with a plan, and the sooner, the better.
It took but a few minutes to reach the house, and they walked inside. As he had expected, the place was large, but not overly showy. There was no rich china, no plush tapestries, no oriental rugs, no paintings by famous artists on the walls. Bolger might have money but he wasn't one to flash it.
"Come on, I'll show you to your room," Bolger said, startling Ezra out of his appraisal of the house. "I'm sure you're dying for a shower and a change of clothes."
The bedroom he was taken to was a lot different from the rest of the house. To begin with, it was huge and more expensive looking than any of the divisions he had seen so far. It had a marble fireplace, a king-sized bed handcrafted in mahogany wood, and there was a small chair and table at the far end of the room. But what caught Ezra's eye was the wide balcony, which afforded a wondrous view of the side of the island and the endless, blue sea.
The bathroom had a Jacuzzi tub and a separate glassed shower, and Ezra felt his body begging for a long, wanton soak in the tub. Placing his bag on the bed, he turned to Bolger.
"Will the door be locked?"
Bolger chuckled. "No. But either Doug or Sean will be on the outside at all times. And I wouldn't try that trick of jumping out of the window again. In case you haven't noticed, this house is built at the cliff's edge. I don't fancy you'd survive such a high fall, not to mention there are sharp reefs just below. Well, I'm longing for a shower myself, so I'll leave you alone. If you need anything, my room is just across the hall. I'll come fetch you for dinner. And I will need to have a look at that arm of yours."
Ezra shrugged, unconcerned. "It's just a flesh wound."
"Nevertheless, I wouldn't want it to become infected from lack of care. See you later."
Ezra waited until Bolger was out the door before he sat dejectedly on the bed. He was miles away from home and with no immediate means of escape. Perhaps instead of trying to come up with a plan to leave Corvo, he could first find a way to let Chris and the others know that he was alive and well. Surely there was a phone somewhere in the house, or at least in the closest village. He would have to check later.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
He should have known it wouldn't be that easy. When Bolger knocked on his door hours later, Ezra allowed the man to examine his wound. Then, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, asked for a guided tour of the house. Room after room he searched, trying to be discreet about it, but he couldn't find a phone in sight.
He thought he was being successful in hiding his purpose when Bolger chuckled. "There isn't one, you know? I had this place built in order to be able to enjoy some peace and quiet. I never installed any phones. There's only one phone in this house, so to speak, and that's my cellular. And I keep it with me at all times. That is what you were looking for, wasn't it?"
Ezra sighed tiredly. "Yes. I didn't realize I was being that obvious."
"You weren't. But it's the logical step to take, especially after knowing there's very little chance of leaving here."
Looking down at his feet, Ezra decided for a little honesty. "You could release me," he pleaded, eyes boring into the other man's. "You... You aren't hurting simply Chris. What you said earlier about saudade... I miss him. I yearn for him too. Let me go, please."
He saw Bolger swallow thickly and for a moment thought he might have broken through, but eventually the other man shook his head, his expression sad. "I'm sorry, I can't. Come, dinner is waiting."
It was a depressing night from then on in. He did attempt to eat, but was feeling too disheartened to fully enjoy the exquisite meal and couldn't find it in himself to share in Bolger's conversation. All he could think about was how much Bolger's house resembled a gilded cage and how he longed for freedom. Saudade, indeed.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
"I think we may have somethin'," Nathan said, as he joined the others in the conference room. "Graham just called in. He and his team have been going to bars downtown, showing Ezra's and Bolger's photos to the customers, pretending to be hunting them down. There was this guy in one of the bars that recognized them."
Chris tried to ruthlessly stop hope from flooding his heart. It had been a week since Ezra had disappeared, and they were still in the dark. They weren't even certain if he was alive, and the not knowing was beginning to get to him. "He's sure it's them? One hundred percent sure?"
Nathan nodded. "Yes. Apparently the guy owns a small charter service. He remembers accepting a weird job last week. A man called him around two in the morning, saying he needed to fly to New York in a hurry, something to do with his lover's health and a doctor in the Big Apple who could help him. The guy met him at the airfield - said his name was Robert Blucas. He had with him, and, I quote, 'two strong, muscled dudes and his lover'. According to him, the lover was bound to a wheelchair and seemed unconscious. He said he wasn't too sure about taking the job at first, but when he saw the sick man, decided to help. The extra thousand he was paid didn't hurt either. He said that Blucas' companion moaned weakly, occasionally during the flight, but never awoke. My guess is that Bolger drugged Ezra so he wouldn't cause any trouble."
Chris clenched his jaw angrily at the thought of Bolger considering Ezra his lover. Nothing better be happening to his partner, or Bolger would regret it, dearly. "This guy told Graham where he left them?"
"Yep. On the outskirts of the city, on private land. He said there was a car waiting for them there."
Chris rose from his chair, new resolution washing over him. "All right. Go home and pack light. We're leaving for New York."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Ezra wandered in an aimless fashion along the deserted beach, trying to ignore his constant shadow. Over the last four weeks he had gotten so used to having either Sean or Doug - or both - always a step behind him that sometimes he forgot they were there.
True to his word, Bolger had been keeping him busy, if not entertained. But that wasn't the other man's fault, Ezra's heart just wasn't in it. He was too resentful of Bolger, for putting him in this situation, too angry and frustrated to make an effort towards appeasing his 'host'.
Of course, that didn't seem to deter Bolger in the slightest. They had begun by checking the sites in Corvo itself, but the sightseeing had taken them to the other islands as well, and the more Ezra saw, the more homesick he felt. If only he could have Chris by his side as he walked through those unique landscapes, with their luxuriant greenery and abundance of multicolored flowers...
He slowed to a halt, facing the restless sea, wondering if a storm was brewing. A cool breeze ruffled his hair as he gazed into the horizon, the sun slowly rising from beneath the ocean's surface. His eyes left the sea and turned to the brightening skies, watching as the seagulls flew in large flocks, their shrill cries echoing his own distressed state of mind.
Ezra shook his head sorrowfully; he was still here, alone, still away from everything and everyone he held dear. He had tried, tried oh so hard. Both Doug and Sean had suffered the blows from his attempts at emancipation in the dead of the night, but on all three times he had been caught before reaching the village or a phone. He had even tried to have someone give Chris a message, but that had also failed. He spoke too little Portuguese, definitely not enough to explain the situation, and none of the inhabitants he had managed to approach seemed to speak any good English.
He hadn't given up though. He would never give up. He couldn't. It wasn't in his nature to surrender until the war was either won or completely lost.
He exhaled softly, feeling impossibly alone, his troubled mind turning to his lover. How was Chris faring after a month with no news, without any idea if Ezra lived or was lying dead in some unknown corner of the planet? Was he allowing the others to be there for him? Was he holding on? Or was he retreating to the angry, taciturn man Ezra had met nearly three years earlier?
And Lord, today of all days... Ezra felt his eyes clouding with worry. The beautiful dawn he was witnessing marked another anniversary of Sarah and Adam's deaths. And with Ezra gone, Chris's pain and desperation could increase tenfold. Ezra was afraid that not even Buck and Vin could control his lover, or keep him from drowning his grief in a bottle.
Suddenly set on speaking with Bolger again, he rushed back to the house, marching in without caring if Doug was following. He found Bolger in the kitchen having breakfast.
"You have to let me speak to him," Ezra blurted out.
Bolger cocked an eyebrow in query. "What? No 'good morning,' or 'how did you sleep'?"
Ezra clenched his fists. "Rayner, stop it! I need to call Chris today. Please!"
The other man sighed, all pretence at joking gone. "I knew this was coming. Today is the anniversary of his family's death." He looked at Ezra. "I can't let you speak with him; it's not time yet. If he knew you were alive and well, if he knew where you were, it would defeat the purpose of my plan."
Ezra shook his head, disgusted. "You know, even before you brought me here, I thought there was something about you I could come to like. That if I forgot for a moment what you did for a living, you were actually a person I would enjoy getting to know better. I can understand your pain over Pat. I think I would go insane myself if someone killed Chris, so I never really hated you for keeping us apart, even though I should. And these weeks... You not only kept your promise even when I tried to escape, but you have played the perfect host. But I made a terrible mistake. I forgot that, underneath all the polish, you are just as ruthless as any other criminal, Bolger, and I sincerely hope you rot in hell for what you are doing."
That said, he turned and walked upstairs to his room, slamming the door behind him. There would be no sightseeing for him today. Maybe not ever again. It was time to stop playing Bolger's game and make some rules of his own.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
"Chris? Cowboy, wake up."
"Come on, ol' dog, we need ya to drink some of Vin's nasty coffee. Guaranteed to cure any hangover known to man."
A shudder ran through Chris's whole frame, the insistent and familiar voices penetrating into his private hell to torment him. What the hell did they want? Couldn't they see he was hurting? Dying? A month had gone by since Ezra had been taken away from him, leaving behind the shattered remains of his heart. He was losing all hope of ever seeing his lover alive and the uncertainty was slowly killing him. Was Ezra still imprisoned somewhere? Maybe Bolger was keeping him alive for his own sick pleasure, to torture him at will. Or maybe he was just kidding himself and Ezra was already dead, his body being desecrated in some morgue at that very moment, a John Doe tag attached to his toe.
A fierce stab of pain pierced him as he remembered vivid green eyes, his lover's wicked grin when he was up to something, the way he moaned and writhed as they made love. The memories deepened, fragmented images of their first time, of the case that had finally brought them together, of all the happiness they had shared afterwards, anything to stop him from recalling the last few weeks, with their cold days and long, empty nights.
The crushing weight of depression settled on his drooping shoulders, and he resisted the urge to cry as he clutched the whiskey bottle tighter in his hands. He had lost Ezra, just like he had lost Sarah and Adam, like he lost everyone in his life.
Perhaps if he kept his eyes closed, the voices would go away and leave him to die in peace.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Vin and Buck shared a concerned glanced at the sorry state of the man lying on the couch, an almost tangible air of desolation hunching his body. It had obviously been days since Chris had bathed, shaved or changed clothes. One of the team had stopped by the ranch every day during the last two weeks, but no matter how hard they knocked or called, Chris had refused them entry.
Vin had wanted to do more, sooner, knew the others were just as worried. But wanting to preserve Chris's fiercely guarded privacy, and thinking that perhaps some time alone to lick his wounds might do him good, they had let it slide.
Tonight, they had finally been forced to pick the lock, coming face to face with the evidence of their friend's sorrow and despair.
"Should've come sooner," Buck muttered, echoing Vin's thoughts. "We're his friends, dammit."
"He doesn't make it easy," Vin said, remembering the shouted threats spewing from the house when he'd tried to see Chris.
"No. But I knew this would happen; how he'd go back to drinkin'. He did the same when Sarah and Adam died. I should've pushed it like I did back then, should've done more."
Vin patted him on the back. "We all should have, Bucklin. Ya know what they say about hindsight. He wouldn't have let us help him, not until he reached rock bottom."
Buck sighed. "I know. Still hurts to see him like this."
After returning from New York without any piece of news to cling to, Chris had simply fallen apart. Nothing anyone said or did had worked, and the remaining members of the team had watched as Chris slowly drank himself sick, his moods turning mercurial and unpredictable. It had gotten to the point where Travis had been forced to suspend him after Chris got out of control during an interrogation and beaten a suspect unconscious.
But they both knew the coming day would be different and both had decided to spend the night at their friend's ranch, hoping to offer some support. Having to deal with Ezra's disappearance and the anniversary of his family's death had obviously driven Chris over the edge. There were several empty beer bottles lying on the floor, and Chris was holding an equally empty whiskey bottle as if his life depended on it.
Vin was pondering what to do to rouse his friend, when Chris's cell phone rang. He watched curiously as Buck picked it up from the table. "Yeah?" He blinked as Buck suddenly paled, his voice hoarse as he whispered, "Oh, my God!"
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Ezra heard the knocking on his door, but didn't bother to answer it. Damn the man and his vengeance plans. He wasn't about to ruffle his feathers and try to be nice. He sat up angrily as the door swung open, lips parting to snap at the intruder when he saw what Beltzer had in his hand: Bolger's cell phone.
"He says for you to make the call. You have to promise not to tell Larabee where you are," Doug told him, and Ezra thought he could see sympathy lurking in the man's dark eyes.
"I promise," he said huskily, heart beating out of control. Reaching for the phone almost reverently, he dialed the number, hearing it ring a couple of times before a gruff "yeah" was heard on the other end. He recognized the voice immediately. "Buck, it's Ezra."
"Oh, my God!" Buck exhaled in a hushed tone. "Hoss, are you okay? Where the hell are you? You managed to escape? Need any backup? We'll come chargin' in with all guns blazing, pard."
For the first time in weeks, Ezra felt like laughing for joy. He interrupted the feverish questions, "I'm fine, Buck. I... Can I speak with Chris? Is he all right?"
Buck's sigh came loud and clear through the line. "He's drunk as a skunk. Vin's tryin' to wake him up. Wait up, I'm goin' to pass the phone to the stupid bastard."
A long, excruciating moment later a new voice caressed his ear. "Ez, that you?" Chris sounded so vulnerable that Ezra felt his eyes filling.
"It's me, Chris. Listen, I need you to pay attention to me, okay? I need you to sober up. I'm all right, but I need to know that you are holding on as well."
"Where are you? Did you manage to give Bolger the slip?"
"No. And I can't tell you where I am." He saw Doug signaling that it was time to end the call. "You are going to have to find me on your own, Chris. Just know that I'm alive and unharmed... And that I love you."
"I love you too," Chris replied, sounding more like himself. "And I will find you, I promise."
"I know you will. I have to go now. Remember I love you when things get tough, all right? And Chris... I'm in Az -" Before he could finish his shout, Baltzer had the phone in hand, disconnecting the call.
"Not nice," the man admonished angrily.
Ezra shook his head calmly, inwardly accepting the punishment that was certain to come. "I don't care, Doug, I had to try." He regarded the other man cautiously. "Now what?"
"I should beat you black and blue, you little prick," Baltzer said, with no real heat behind the words. "But I have a feeling it wouldn't do much good, so I'm letting it go this time. Besides, I don't think Larabee will be able to make heads or tails of that. But one more stunt like that and you will regret it, kid."
Ezra nodded solemnly. "Thank you." He took a steadying breath, then smiled gratefully. "Tell him he's not so ruthless after all."
Doug chuckled quietly, shaking his head in exasperation and exited the room, closing the door softly behind him. Ezra lay back down on the bed, eyes on the ceiling, his heart feeling lighter. Apparently, while against his will, Bolger was growing on him; he was also having some influence on the once-gunrunner. He was taming the beast.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Josiah hung up his phone with a sad shake of his head. Another false tip. He knew, he just knew, that Ezra was alive and waiting somewhere. They just needed to discover the path that led to his whereabouts. He had been so hopeful when they reached New York and found out the private land where the charter pilot had left Bolger and Ezra belonged to Bolger himself. So hopeful when they had been informed by the local Feds that Bolger owned a house in the Big Apple.
But after finding the house, they had lost track of the man and, consequently, of Ezra. There had been no rumors as to where Bolger might have gone to, no anonymous information, no reports made to any of the agencies looking for Ezra and his kidnappers. They had been forced to return to Denver with their tails between their legs... and without their seventh among them.
It had been painful to watch Chris go downhill from that moment on, arriving late for work every morning, pale and haggard, bloodshot eyes signaling what he had been doing the night before. Or having to witness his mood swings, and even worse, taking the brunt of one of his furious attacks.
He and the others hadn't laid eyes on Chris for over two weeks, not since the day Travis had suspended him. They had all tried to visit or call, but Chris wasn't answering his phone and his door remained locked no matter how much they pleaded with him to let them in.
Instead, they spent most of their time at the office, barely taking the time to go home and change, or find some time to eat and rest, hoping the next call would be the one that broke the case.
He looked at his watch. Barely past midnight. Today was the anniversary of Sarah and Adam's deaths. He shuddered just to think how Chris might be doing. Vin and Buck had gone to the ranch, wanting to be there from the start, to make Chris come to his senses. There had been no news from either man yet, and Josiah was beginning to worry. What if Chris had gone insane and hurt one of them? Or both?
Josiah shook his head again, angry with himself. No, that was unfair. No matter how bad a shape Chris was in, he would never turn on them. He shouldn't even have thought such a thing.
The ding from the elevator brought him out of his reverie, and he gaped as he watched a very determined-looking Chris exiting with Vin and Buck close at his heels, matching grins lighting up their faces.
"What the hell happened?" Josiah asked, startled eyes following Chris's frame as he walked over to his office.
"Ezra managed to call Chris somehow," Vin said, his grin getting impossibly wider. "He's still with Bolger. Didn't get to say where he was, but he did say he was okay."
"Thank God," Josiah whispered, suddenly feeling years younger. "Now what?"
"We get JD and Nathan, go back to New York and try again," Buck informed him. "That's the last known place Ezra stayed in. We're going to give it another sweep. This time we will find Ezra and bring him home."
Josiah nodded, a smile of his own breaking through. "I like the sound of that, Buck. I like it very much."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
The next day Bolger took Ezra to what he said was his absolutely favorite spot on all the archipelago. As they were wont to do whenever sightseeing, they went by boat to one of the islands, this time, São Miguel. From the main town, Ponta Delgada, Bolger, Ezra and Sean took a bus to Sete Cidades, or Seven Cities. The road passed between orange-gardens, fields of Indian corn and other crops, surrounded by high walls made of lava and volcanic stones that seemed to serve as protection from the wind.
At some point in the journey, Ezra noted that the road began to ascend a mountain, becoming narrow and rough. On reaching the top, they exited the bus and Ezra found himself on the brink of a huge crater, nearly three miles in diameter, to one of the most beautiful views he had ever seen in his life: the "twin lakes." Some thousand feet below lay two large lakes, divided by a path of land by some strange device of Mother Nature.
On the borders of one of the lakes was a village of straggling white houses, which contrasted with the dense vegetation, the various shades of green flirting with the pink, white or blue from the flowers growing to a great height and covered with a perfect mass of blossoms.
"Now, that's weird," Ezra muttered softly, as he realized that the water in the northern lake was blue, and the one in the southern was green.
Bolger chuckled. "The difference in color?" he guessed. "No one really knows what the reason is for that, but the locals have a legend about it. They say that a shepherd and a princess named Antília met a long time ago, and fell in love at first sight. They began to meet here every day, spending their afternoons laughing and talking merrily, both content just to be together."
"What happened?" Ezra asked, enjoying the tale.
"Well, one day the shepherd decided to ask the king for his daughter's hand in marriage. The king was enraged, of course, and even though the poor shepherd tried to reason with him, the king had him thrown from the castle. The king then sent for his daughter and forbade Antília from ever seeing the shepherd again. That very afternoon she went to meet her true love and told him they could never see each other again. They cried together for hours, embracing tightly, and their tears formed the lakes you see now. The southern lake is filled with the tears shed by Antília's green eyes, the northern with the tears shed by the shepherd's blue eyes."
"What a sad story," Ezra said.
"Quite. Nothing like the old folk to come up with stories like that. It's almost heartbreaking to realize it couldn't actually be true."
"Oh, I don't know," Ezra quipped, unable to help himself. "I'm feeling quite the Antília right now."
Bolger gave him a surprisingly regretful look, his hand reaching out to touch Ezra's shoulder gently. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize the similarity between the legend and what you're experiencing. While being the cause of your grief, I didn't purposely set out to hurt you with this tale. Now, come on, let's go down to the village."
The road to the village was cut out of the inner wall of the crater, and descended by a series of zigzags, making for an agreeable, but exhausting, walk down. Ezra had to acknowledge that he was enjoying the relaxing day, though. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he had finally spoken with Chris the day before, even if only for mere minutes, for the first time in weeks. Oh, who was he kidding? It had everything to do with it, he admitted ruefully to himself. It had given him new strength and resolve, and he honestly hoped Chris was also coping better with their forced separation.
The little village was a quiet place where old blended with new in an enchanting way. Most of the houses were ancient looking, some in dire need of repair, but here and there you could see modern buildings, their architecture brought over from other continents and peoples. There were groups of teenagers walking on the streets in jeans and T-shirts, and old women dressed in black, mourning those who had departed before them.
The three men had lunch there then had to climb all the way up the mountain in order to catch the bus back to Ponta Delgada. Once on the boat, on their way back to Corvo, Ezra wondered what Chris was doing at that moment, and how his lover was planning on conducting the search for him. He had no doubt that now that Chris knew he was alive and well, he would be moving heaven and earth to find him.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
"Looking back on your life, would you change anything if you had the chance?"
Ezra wasn't certain what made him ask that question. It was the day after their excursion to Sete Cidades, and he was still feeling the effect from having spoken with Chris. He and Rayner were strolling leisurely on the mansion's front lawn, enjoying the afternoon sun, Doug and Sean playing basketball a few feet away, when the words suddenly came out.
Bolger regarded him curiously for a moment then a slow, rueful smile graced his lips. "Perhaps. I might have chosen a different career for one."
"So why -"
"I'm not going to make excuses for myself," Bolger interrupted softly, before shaking his head. "I never knew my parents. My earlier recollections were of going from one orphanage to another, from foster home to foster home. None of them worth mentioning."
Ezra nodded, aware of the damage done to Vin when he had lost his mother and become an orphan himself. The sharpshooter's reluctance to give of himself until he fully trusted someone, his inability to express certain emotions could certainly be connected with his past.
"How did you end up dealing weapons?"
Bolger shrugged. "I wanted money, and I wanted it fast. And I had decided at an early age that I would stop at nothing until I got what I wanted. I would never go hungry, never lack for anything. I met the right people - or the wrong ones, depending on the point of view - while in college. I became involved in the business, learned all it took to start my own operation and joined forces with Pat. And for a while I did have it all: money; power; someone who loved me. It was quite the reality check to wake up one morning and realize that it didn't really mean as much as it once had."
"After Patrick died?" Ezra guessed, his tone hushed.
"Yes," Bolger replied, eyes lost on the ocean. "I still had the money, still had the power, but..." He sighed. "It was too late to stop by then, and I really didn't care either way. Not after he died."
Ezra's next words were cut off by one of the strangest sounds he had ever heard. He shuddered, the shrill noise making him think of a wounded animal crying out in anguish. It was lonely and vast and so very far away. It pierced the air, reaching out for miles, and only after his heartbeat returned to normal, did he finally recognize it for what it was: a foghorn.
But there wasn't a cloud in the sky; the day was beautiful, bright and sunny. There was no reason for the horn to be active. He turned to Rayner, confused, but the other man merely looked pale. Doug and Sean walked over to them, their game forgotten, looking equally perplexed. Before anyone had the opportunity to speak, Ezra was stunned to feel a vibration beginning beneath his feet. The low hum increased in volume to a deep, rumbling sound, and he knew with sudden clarity what was about to happen.
"It's an earthquake!" he shouted.
The vibrations swelled, growing until he was struggling to maintain his balance, the unfamiliar movement of the ground shifting below him making it an almost impossible task. The tremors got worse and Ezra lost his balance, falling to the ground, the other three men not far behind. He dug his fingers deep into the dirt, his whole body in tune with the violent tossing, eyes closed as he prayed for the earthquake to end quickly.
He turned his head at a crashing sound behind him, watching with horrified fascination as breaking chunks of the roof and walls of Bolger's mansion crumbled to the sea like a castle made of cards. The horrible screeching and groaning sound of twisting metal reached his ears, and he gasped as the house abruptly collapsed onto itself, before disappearing completely over the cliff, as if it had never been there.
Then, as swiftly as it had begun, the rolling of the ground subsided, leaving in its wake a deafening silence. It took a long moment for his breathing and his pulse to slow down, and he inhaled deeply before turning to his companions.
"You gentlemen all right?" he asked, voice hoarse.
"I think so," Bolger said, his tone also shaky. They all rose to their feet, their legs somewhat weak, like a sailor during his first time at sea. "God damn it, I loved that house!"
Ezra swallowed thickly, a dreadful thought coming to his mind. "Rayner, we need to check on the villagers. If your abode, sturdy as it was, didn't resist the earthquake, then their homes..." He had come to truly respect and admire these people, their warm smiles, their clumsy attempts at teaching him some Portuguese, their genuine friendliness... It pained him to know them in such dire straits.
The other man nodded. "You're right. There must be something we can do for them. Come on, let's go."
They ran over to the car, only to find that the ground had opened beneath it, burying the front half of the vehicle. It would take more than their combined strength to pull it out.
"Guess we'll have to walk," Sean said quietly.
A curt assent and they were on their way. "I still don't get why the horn sounded," Ezra muttered. "It doesn't make any sense. It's almost as if someone sensed the earthquake and activated the horn in order to warn people."
"That's exactly what happened... I think," Rayner said, sounding somewhat confused.
Ezra cocked his head at that. "What do you mean?"
"Another one of the legends that populate these islands, only this one seems to be more truth than myth. After what we just went through, I'd say this is one for the X-Files," Bolger remarked, with a strange smile. "This archipelago is one lively place to live, Ezra. In 1862, there was a violent earthquake here, so strong it affected most of the nine islands. It was during the night, so everyone was asleep. It is said that in one lighthouse in Faial, the sailor manning it, sensed the coming quake. Knowing he had to warn the population, he sounded the horn over and over again. Awakened by the sound, many people left their homes, thus being saved from ending up buried under the rubble. The lighthouse was destroyed, though, and the sailor died. But, of course, legend tells it that just before an earthquake, he still sounds the horn, the warning reaching all the islands."
"Surely that's impossible!" Ezra protested.
Rayner's smile grew. "This is the third earthquake I've experienced on these islands, Ezra, if by far the worst. In all of them I heard the horn just before the ground began to shake. The other two times the sky was also clear, no fog. Don't ask why, just accept it. Like people say, there are some things you just can't explain."
A cold shiver ran down his back, and Ezra refrained from asking for further explanations. Instead, his gut twisted painfully as he imagined the grim sight that was sure to greet them when they reached the village, for although the horn had sounded, the earthquake had started mere seconds after the warning. Not enough time for people to safely exit their houses.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
"We're missin' somethin'," Chris said, pacing the living room of Bolger's house in New York. "I understand Bolger bringin' Ezra here as fast as possible. He knew we'd start lookin' as soon as we noticed Ezra had disappeared. But where the hell are they? Not in this house, not even in New York as far as we could check. We found no trace of him in this city under his real name or known aliases. They don't seem to have passed through any airport in the country; at least no one has seen them."
"Yeah, and there's little point in traveling all the way from Denver to New York, only to leave again for another state," Nathan agreed.
"Bolger knew we'd be lookin' for him, so he'd need a good hidin' place, safe," Buck said. "On the other hand, he had Ezra with him, who, bein' an 'ornery bastard, would do anythin' in order to escape. So what did Bolger do?"
"Took him to a quiet place, isolated. Somewhere Bolger's familiar with, and where Ezra'd be at a disadvantage," Vin replied calmly.
"Ideas?" Chris prompted.
"Some place where he grew up, lived in, went on vacation?" JD suggested.
Chris nodded. "Might be. Contact the Fibbies again. There's got to be something we missed the first time. They're the ones who've been after Bolger the longest. See what personal info they have on the man. We know he was an orphan, but -" His cell phone rang then, forestalling his next words. "Larabee."
"We're in Azores, Portugal," a voice stated. "Take the boat to Corvo. You'll find Ezra there."
Once the first moment of surprise wore off, Chris realized who he was speaking to. "You son of a bitch!" he growled into the phone. "Why? Why are you doing this?"
"Doing what?" Bolger asked. "Telling you where to find him? Or why did I take him in the first place?"
"Either. Both," Chris snapped, wishing he was face to face with the man so he could strangle him for weeks of misery. "Listen, you bastard -"
"Larabee," Bolger interjected calmy. "You killed my lover a few years ago when you were still a cop. I've been keeping tabs on you, waiting for the perfect moment to get even. I knew who Ezra was all along, planned on keeping you two apart for a while, then killing him. But he does grow on you, doesn't he?"
There was humor in the man's voice and, against his will, Chris found himself responding to it. "Yeah, he does," he replied in a shaky breath, some of his anger ebbing away.
"I couldn't do it, couldn't kill him. So I decided to simply keep you apart, knowing how much that would hurt you." Chris could hear him sighing softly. "Took me a while to see that this attempt at revenge was hurting me as well. I like him; he's a good man. You're a fortunate bastard, Larabee. Just get here as fast as you can; he's going to need you."
Chris frowned, a sliver of fear coursing through him. "Why?"
"There was an earthquake just a few minutes ago, a bad one. Ezra has grown quite attached to the local people; he's going to need you to be here for him. I'll also be here; it's time I faced up to what I've become."
The line went dead, and Chris stood staring at the wall for a moment, his whole being feeling lighter with the knowledge that he would be seeing Ezra soon. Shaking off thoughts of the future to come, he turned to JD.
"Get on the 'net. Find the next flight leavin' for Europe with a stopover in Azores and gets us tickets. And see if you can find out anythin' about an earthquake there."
"Who was that?" Josiah asked.
"Bolger. The game is over."
Twenty minutes later they were on their way to the airport, but the news wasn't good. Azores had been hit by a massive earthquake, reaching seven point seven on the Richter scale, and all islands had suffered heavy casualties with whole villages and small towns crumbling to dust.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Ezra watched with disbelief as Rayner pocketed his cell phone. He had listened while Bolger called the authorities, asking for any possible help dealing with the many injured they were certain to find once they reached the village. However, he hadn't been prepared for the man's second call. Never in a million years did he expect Bolger to contact Chris out of the blue and tell him where they were.
"Why?" he murmured softly.
"It was time. And I wasn't lying when I said this situation was upsetting me as well. I don't like to see you hurting. I think Pat's death began to change something inside of me, but I wasn't able to see it at the time. You finished the change." He gestured towards the end of the road. "There, we're reaching the village."
As they ran down the hill, Ezra could see the first signs of the destruction. Whole houses had collapsed, most of them no more than smoldering buildings now, leaking gas and water that ran in rivulets down the steeper streets, forming small puddles of mud in the flatter areas of the little burg. Vehicles were buried or crushed under the weight of rock and cement, and there were areas where the main road had caved in.
There were people walking aimlessly over piles of glass from shattered windows, some crying, others looking lost and confused, hysterical family members digging frantically in the rubble around them in the vain hope their loved ones were still alive. He could hear babies crying, and the overwhelming moans of the dying or wounded.
At the center of it all, with nothing but a few cracks to show for the whole ordeal, stood the church, tall and defiant, as if nothing could touch it.
"We need to start collecting the wounded, until help gets here," Ezra said. "While you and I take them to the church, Sean and Doug could search around for medical supplies."
"What about the aftershocks?" Doug countered. "We might be doing more harm than good if we get all these people under one roof and it comes down on them during an aftershock."
Ezra shook his head. "If after that earthquake, the church didn't turn to dust, it won't now. We need to do something."
Bolger nodded. "Ezra's right. You two go and find anything to patch these people up, even if only temporarily. You'll know where to find us."
As soon as the two men had gone, Ezra and Rayner exchanged a determined look and were soon digging through the debris, joining every able body in the arduous and painful task of saving as many lives as it was still possible to save. Minutes turned to hours as they took turns either searching through the ravaged houses for any survivors, or doing their best to bandage wounds and set broken bones.
For once Ezra was glad for all the times he had spent at the hospital, being looked over by doctors or by Nathan's expert hands. He wouldn't claim to possess one tenth of their knowledge, but he did manage to help. The Portuguese he had learned over the last weeks also came in handy to understand his 'patients' and keep them as calm as possible under the circumstances.
Day was turning to night before relief finally came with the flag of the Red Cross. The four dirty, exhausted men left the church, walking slowly over to the beach and sitting on the sand, side by side, looking out at the sea. Another aftershock rocked through the village - one of many, so far - and they all looked back at the church anxiously, but as Ezra had predicted, it was standing firm. Soon the earth settled down again and the relative quiet reigned once more.
"You know," Ezra began conversationally, voice hoarse from exertion, "there's no one watching over the Red Cross boats."
There was a deep silence then Bolger asked, "What are you getting at?"
"I'm tired. I believe I will just lie down here for a while, close my eyes, rest for a while. If by any chance one of those boats were to vanish... Well, I wouldn't be able to witness it with my eyes closed, would I?"
"Why would you do that?" Bolger asked. "I kidnapped you, kept you apart from Larabee. You should hate me."
Ezra nodded. "Should, but don't. I believe you were right when you said that Pat's death changed you. Everyone deserves a second chance at life. I don't think, should you get away, that you would go back to your old life. I like you, Ray. Hell, I even like you two!" He grinned at Doug and Sean. "Just promise me that you will go on the straight and narrow and I will close my eyes."
Bolger shook his head. "Can't do that. I deserve to pay for what I did. Besides, Larabee would kill you."
Ezra nodded his acknowledgement at that statement. "True. But I think Patrick's death and the pain you've held on to for all this time have been punishment enough." He grimaced, knowing Chris would never accept that line of reasoning. "It's time to let Patrick go and change your life, Ray. Just make sure you do it the right way. I would hate to regret this."
The other man shook his head again, his expression a stubborn one. "No."
Ezra shrugged, uncertain if he was saddened or relieved. Rayner seemed to bring out the best and worst in him without even trying. "Suit yourself."
He allowed himself to fall back on the soft sand, looking up at the darkening sky, watching as more and more stars became visible. Feeling his exhaustion taking over, he did close his eyes, dozing off for a while. When he opened them again, an hour later, and sat up, he was alone on the beach. And one of the boats was gone.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Chris resisted the urge to pace impatiently in the small boat, afraid it would end up capsizing, especially as crowded as it was. They were finally on their way to Corvo, after a delayed flight, a harassing time at Customs, and over an hour searching for someone willing - and able - to transport them to the island.
They were almost there now, and he was surprised to see a bright light shining ahead. Most of the islands they had passed through were covered in complete darkness, having no electricity. As they reached the shore, he saw that there was a tall building standing, a church, and that the light was coming from within, probably the result of dozens of oil lamps. It shed its rays over the impressive destruction caused by the earthquake, and the nearby beach, showing them the path to take.
"There's someone layin' on the sand," JD said, his voice almost fearful. "You think it's someone wounded... or dead?"
They jumped off the boat, walking cautiously over to the still form. Chris could see that it was a man, wearing snug blue jeans, a black and white checkered shirt with a dark Henley underneath it. He was smudged with dirt from head to toe, and from the rise and fall of his chest, he was at least alive.
Heart suddenly hammering in his chest, Chris felt a huge smile spreading over his face. "It's Ezra," he whispered, moving closer to his lover in what seemed like slow motion.
He knelt down by Ezra's side, taking in his presence, the face he loved above everything else, a sense of peace finally settling over him after weeks filled with anguish and despair. He was unaware of the others surrounding them as his hand reached over to card through Ezra's wavy hair, to brush feather-like over his face.
Ezra mumbled something, cheek rubbing gently against Chris's palm, accepting the caress even though he wasn't fully alert. His eyes fluttered open, and he gazed up at Chris, their eyes locking and holding for an endless moment. Chris felt himself leaning down, hands cupping his lover's face and tilting it up tenderly.
"Ezra," he breathed, closing his eyes as their lips met for the first time in too long, both needing the contact. In that instant nothing else existed but the two of them, nothing else mattered. Time stood still for a heartbeat...
...Then it was over as an aftershock made the ground vibrate again, hard enough for Chris to feel it with his whole being. Ezra pushed him aside frantically, kneeling on the sand, eyes glued to the church. It took a while for Chris to understand that Ezra was witnessing the silent struggle between the holy building and Mother Nature, both trying to get their way. A few seconds later the earth stopped tossing, with the church as the victorious one.
"You okay?" he asked softly.
Ezra dropped down on the sand with a tired sigh, Chris and the others sitting in a half-circle in front of him. "Okay?" he echoed slowly. "Okay." Chris watched him glance back at the destroyed village, eyes sad. "No, I don't think I'm all right, at all. Did you know this village had around four hundred inhabitants? We spent the whole afternoon searching for survivors. There are still Red Cross teams digging through the ruins. So far we have managed to account for one hundred and fourteen people, most of them injured."
"My God," Josiah said, shocked. "That bad?"
"I was told some of the other islands are in worse shape," Ezra replied with a slight shrug.
"Where's Bolger and his goons?" Buck asked, his tone soothing.
Ezra blinked. "Bolger? Ah... I, er... I allowed him... them to leave."
It was Chris's turn to blink. "Excuse me?" he growled.
Ezra turned to him. "I know you must hate him, and I will understand if you want my resignation when we return to Denver, but..."
"But?" Vin prompted.
"I can relate with his motives," Ezra said, eyes boring into Chris's. "And so should you. You killed his lover, someone he loved with a passion I have rarely seen before. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter if Patrick was a criminal or not. All that matters to Ray is that his lover died. What would you do if you discovered your family's murderer?"
"It's not the same!" Chris protested with a glare.
"Isn't it? Would you have loved Sarah any less if she were a criminal? Would her death mean less to you? I don't think so. He knew who I was from the moment I contacted him, Chris. Someone else would have just killed me and sent you the body, or tortured me for a few days and then sent you some body parts to get his point across. True, Bolger's original plan was to kill me, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. Instead he brought me here. Never once did he hurt me in any way in spite of the fact that I attempted to escape three times. His idea was to keep us apart, for you to believe I was dead, but he still allowed me to call you on the anniversary of Sarah and Adam's deaths, even knowing it would ruin his vengeance. And he certainly didn't have to call you today!" His tone softening, Ezra added, "Not everyone we meet in this business can be defined as good or bad, Chris. A lot of people fit in the thousands of shades of grey in between. Bolger is one of them. Maybe I shouldn't have done this, and probably there will come a time when I will regret it... but right now, I can't, I don't. I'm sorry."
Chris felt too tired and strung out to start an argument, especially on a beach in the middle of nowhere, in the dead of night. He simply shook his head. "This isn't over, Ezra, we'll talk about this when we get back. Thoroughly. I can't turn a blind eye on this one, nor even for you. Bolger is going to jail, one way or another." He rose to his feet. "We have hotel rooms reserved for us in Ponta Delgada, and I for one need a few hours sleep before I can deal with this mess. Come on, the boat is waitin' to take us back."
Ezra rose as well. "I need to say goodbye to a few people," he said, gesturing towards the church.
Chris nodded; he and the others following Ezra into the building. Just as he had thought, there were oil lamps lit all around the large chapel, helping the Red Cross volunteers do their job. The rows were filled with wounded people, most of them with one or more bandages wrapped around their bodies, all looking bruised and bloodied. Mothers were holding their crying children while shedding tears themselves; groups of friends or family members were huddled together, sharing their pain and loss.
But there were also some people who stood alone, apart from the rest, their expressions sorrowful and lost. Chris couldn't help wondering how many relatives they had lost that afternoon, how many they had witnessed dying right before their eyes, or even if they had someone else left at all in the world.
"I thought you said he left!" Nathan's startled voice brought everyone's heads around, to see Bolger and his two men caring for a few wounded children.
"Shit," Ezra whispered by Chris's side, walking over to Bolger. "What are you doing here?"
Bolger turned to him with a frown. "Patching people up, as we've been doing all day. What kind of question is that?"
"But... the boat..." Ezra mumbled, subdued.
Bolger's frown deepened. "The boat?" His expression cleared. "Oh! Two of the injured were getting worse, so they were taken to the hospital in Ponta Delgada. You were sleeping so soundly, you didn't even notice. The three of us decided to come back and keep working. Thought I had taken you up on your offer, huh?"
Ezra sighed. "Yes."
Bolger shook his head. "Told you I couldn't do that. I have sins to atone." His eyes turned to Chris for the first time. "I'm ready to come with you. We all are."
Chris's decision was made in a flash of a thought, almost before his conscious was aware of it. He opened his mouth and the words simply tumbled out, "I'm afraid I can't do that. There isn't enough room in the boat." Which wasn't exactly a lie. "You'll just have to remain here."
He felt Ezra touch his arm and looked at him. "Chris, you can't do this."
Chris shrugged. "Why not? You were."
"Yes, but I'm..." Ezra trailed off, as if searching for the right word.
"Our black sheep?" Josiah supplied, with a teasing smile.
Ezra chuckled softly. "What he said. I can't allow you to ruin your career for me," he added, eyes soulful and caring, and Chris fell in love all over again.
"It's my decision. Everythin' you said is true; someone else would've killed you, and that would've killed me in turn. God help me, but I would do anything for you." He glared at Bolger. "I haven't seen you. You managed to escape during the aftermath of the earthquake. Enjoy this opportunity, Bolger; I'm not usually this forgiving."
Bolger crossed his arms and firmed his stance. "I'm not going anywhere," he said. Then softening his expression, he added, "I did too much evil for too much time, Larabee. I can't get away this easily, it's not right. I need this... penance. Please."
Chris sighed, looking at Ezra, who reluctantly nodded his assent. "Very well; I'll contact the local law. Buck, Vin and I will stay here. The rest of you go back to the hotel. Ezra, time to say your goodbyes."
Chris watched Ezra move across the chapel, stopping here and there to speak with someone, hugging, or shaking hands, always received with weak, but genuine smiles. He curbed his jealousy as Ezra shook hands with Bolger's bruisers then hugged the older man tightly.
"Goodbye, Ray," Ezra's voice floated back to him. "It's been... an interesting experience."
Bolger chuckled. "Yes, it has. Thank you, Ezra. I won't forget what you were willing to do for me."
Ezra returned to Chris's side, a wide smile on his lips. "Thank you. For reuniting me with my shepherd."
Bolger grinned widely. "You're welcome. I should never have separated you in the first place."
"What did you mean by that shepherd remark?" Chris asked with a scowl. "Did it have somethin' to do with Josiah callin' you a black sheep?"
Ezra froze at that, looked up at him then began to laugh heartily. "I'll tell you all about it..." he finally managed to gasp out, his expression mischievous, "...tomorrow."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Epilogue - Some years later
'My dear friend,
It has been a while since we have last seen each other, and I am truly sorry it has taken me this long to get in touch with you. I have been following your advice, creating a new life for myself, with Doug's and Sean's help, of course. I hope this letter finds you and your friends in good health.
I'm certain you will be happy to know that I chose to return to Azores after being released from jail. I do not regret my decision to surrender; it was the right thing to do. I could not allow you to destroy your career for me, to carry the weight of such a terrible decision on your shoulders alone. In any case, your testimony and that of your friends were beneficial and evidently the reason for my light sentence.
Anyway, back to the present and matters at hand. As you probably know, I gave most of the money I made during my former profession to charity, keeping enough to found an organization that will help rebuild the communities on the more earthquake-ravaged islands. Even after all this time, there is still work to be done, work that will likely take years. We began with Corvo and the village is already beginning to bloom, a small, white phoenix rising from its ashes.
A few people have asked about you, and send their love. Mrs. Silva can't seem to stop talking about her "smart-ass" student and his charming friends, or how you brightened her life the three times you came back to the island on vacation.
That sweet old lady misses you and your Portuguese lessons together terribly. I don't think you have any idea of the good you did there. She had become a recluse after losing her son on a fishing accident. You gave her back the strength to live. I hope you and your friends visit the Azores again this year. Perhaps if Larabee doesn't resent me too much, we can spend some time together. I would like that very much.
It was a blessing to my heart to know that Sete Cidades didn't suffer from the quake. The twin lakes are still there, and surprisingly the village there didn't suffer much damage or casualties. Maybe Antília and her shepherd are watching over them.
Well, I have rambled long enough, I merely wished you to know that I did turn over a new leaf. Oh, and if you decide to write back, maybe I can be persuaded to speak in detail of this most interesting man I met in Ponta Delgada last month. We have been seeing each other whenever possible, and maybe this lonely heart of mine won't be so alone for much longer.
Ezra folded the letter back into the envelope with a contented sigh. He was pleased everything had turned out all right for Rayner in the end. Maybe he should feel guilty for caring about a man that had caused so much harm to others in the past. But as he had told Chris once, not everything was black or white. There were many shades of grey in the world.
If he had continued to follow his mother's teachings, if he hadn't managed to break free from her nefarious influence, it was more than likely that he would have also turned into a wanted criminal, working on the wrong side of the fence. Would that have made his inner core different? Would he have been a worse person? Colder? Emotionless? Would he have become bad in the true sense of the word, or would some goodness be retained in his heart?
He exhaled softly, shaking his head. It was too cold a night to try to figure out life and mankind in general. He placed the letter carefully on the nightstand, promising himself to reply to Rayner as soon as possible. He snuggled deeper into the warm bed, into the beloved body wrapped possessively around him, and closed his eyes.
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