"Hold up, Chris," Vin said breathlessly. "I gotta rest for a minute."
Chris nodded, trying to catch his own breath. Upon exiting the structure in which they had been held captive, he and Vin had discovered that they were perched high on the side of a mountain. The air was thin and frigid, and in the fading daylight, Vin had seen the gathering clouds that signified an approaching storm. They had decided to make as much progress as possible before the storm hit, picking their way slowly along the dirt road that was cut into the dense forest on the side of the mountain.
It had started to snow an hour after they left, slowing their progress substantially. Jarvis had taken their shoes and their coats, so they had little protection against the rough ground or the weather. Now, wet and shivering, they plodded their way along the edge of the forest in the dark, stumbling frequently and aggravating their already-painful injuries.
"How much longer do you think it'll take us to get to the bottom?" Chris asked hoarsely.
"Don't know," Vin answered. "Hard to tell at night."
"Damn, I can't wait to get out of this shit and into a nice warm bed," Chris complained.
"Me too," Vin agreed. "Just don't tell Ez. It'll ruin my image."
Chris chuckled. "Don't worry."
Vin sighed and pushed himself away from the tree upon which he had been leaning. "We'd better keep moving before we freeze our asses off."
"Lead on." The two tired men leaned against each other as they limped along the road, hoping this ordeal would end soon.
* * * * * * * * * *
It was 10:00 AM when Josiah entered the bullpen. The others were already there, hard at work their desks. "Good morning, brothers," Josiah greeted them. "You all look rested."
"Wish I could say the same for you," Nathan said, indicating the dark circles under his big friend's eyes.
Josiah sighed. "I'm afraid my thoughts would not allow me much sleep." He looked up at all of the others. "I spoke with Brother Ezra last night."
"What? Where is he?" JD asked.
"I don't know," Josiah replied. "I called his cell phone. Frankly, I'm surprised he answered."
"Is he going to get his ass back here?" Buck asked frostily.
"I don't think so... not yet, anyhow," Josiah answered. "He's not doing well with all of this."
"And we are?" Nathan asked sarcastically.
"No," Josiah said sadly. "But I think we're dealing with it much better than he is. I'm worried about him."
Buck snorted and shook his head. "I'm not."
"Did you tell him about the funeral?" asked JD.
"No, I didn't get the chance," Josiah replied softly. "He got upset and hung up on me."
"Well, I hope he comes back in time for it," JD said. "It would really suck if he didn't show up to pay his respects."
"I know, son," Josiah said reassuringly.
The ringing of Nathan's phone interrupted their discussion. Nathan answered and spoke a few words before hanging up. With a grim look on his face, he turned to the others, who were watching him with trepidation. "The results of the dental records check came back." He paused and took a breath. "It's Chris's tooth. The match was definite."
"They sure?" JD asked hesitantly.
Nathan sighed. "Yeah. Chris had a filling replaced in that tooth last year. That, along with a very distinctive chip on one side, gave them a positive match."
Though they knew in their hearts that their friends were dead, having the evidence confirm it made it seemed far more final. JD turned away, tears stinging his eyes as his gaze fell upon the closed door to Chris's office. Buck watched him, fighting his own tears. Josiah squeezed Nathan's shoulder in support, then squared his shoulders to face the day ahead.
"Well, brothers," Josiah began. "We still have plenty of work to do."
The others nodded and gradually collected themselves, settling down to work in earnest.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra awoke suddenly to the sound of his cell phone chirping merrily. Yawning, he pushed his head up from the table and checked the number, wincing at the renewed pain in his back. He answered, as it was an unfamiliar number. Bruce always called him from a pay phone so his own number could not be traced to Ezra in any way. "Standish."
"Ezra? It's Bruce."
"That was quick," Ezra commented, noticing that it was only 11:30 AM. "I didn't expect to hear anything for another day or two."
"Yes, well it appears that I got lucky," Bruce said with a chuckle.
"What have you got?"
"I contacted a friend of the family in the Denver area and he remembered an incident that occurred about two months ago. One of his associates was looking to purchase some explosives -- I didn't ask why, of course -- and his usual supplier made him wait several extra days because someone had bought out his entire stock. The associate was quite put out, and 'requested' the name of the purchaser, in case it was a competitor." Bruce paused. "He was a bit nervous since the man had purchased enough to take out an entire building."
"Or turn a jeep into metal filings." Knowing how persuasive members of Bruce's family could be, Ezra said wryly, "I assume he got his answer."
"Does the name Jarvis ring any bells?"
"Not yet," Ezra replied thoughtfully. "Is there a first name?"
"The man never gave one to the supplier," Bruce replied. "The other buyer didn't recognize it either, so he didn't pursue it and waited, impatiently, for his delivery." Bruce chuckled. "Family members don't like it when they don't get their way."
"I can imagine," Ezra chuckled.
"I hope this helps," Bruce said sincerely. "I'll let you know if I find anything else."
"Thank you, my friend," Ezra said earnestly. "I truly appreciate it."
"That's what friends are for," Bruce replied before he ended the call.
"I wouldn't know," Ezra said softly to himself as he listened to the rain pattering on the window. Though he could count Bruce as a friend, he was still someone with whom Ezra couldn't openly associate, due to his notorious genealogy. All the others he had ever entrusted with friendship had eventually turned on him at some point, despite their proclamations of loyalty. He had begun to think that things might just be different this time, that his teammates might actually *want* to associate with him. Before this tragedy, they had certainly behaved differently than to what he was accustomed.
When he had awakened in the hospital after having been shot during a bust three months earlier, he was stunned to find all of them in his hospital room, keeping vigil over him, even though they had only known him for two months. The only time that had ever happened in the past was when his fellow FBI agents were waiting for him to wake up so that they could get a statement, usually to determine how much of a reprimand to give him. The blame for any injuries or mishaps always seemed to land back in his own lap, no matter what had actually happened. Ezra had expected the same of his new teammates, but had been shocked into speechlessness when all they had shown him was concern. He kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it never did, leaving him with an unfamiliar, warm feeling inside. It also confused the hell out of him.
Until he joined Larabee's team, no one had ever shown up to visit him out of concern, not even his mother. Ezra snorted disgustedly. Maude never visited unless she wanted something from him. She was too ashamed of his 'pathetic little government job'. He could be on his deathbed and his mother would find some excuse to stay away. She might show up just to find out where he kept all of his money, but she would be disappointed in that, Ezra thought with a wicked grin. He had made sure that his will was ironclad. No money would make its way into her grasping fingers. Instead, he left her all of his commendations, just to show her that he had been a success at his chosen profession, despite her embarrassment at his career choices.
Ezra sighed and shook his head to chase away the gloomy thoughts. He knew where he stood now. What he had thought was friendship was, again, just a pretense. They were good, he had to admit. Almost as good as he was himself. Maybe even better. He had, after all, begun to fall for it. "Another lesson learned," he said quietly to himself as he reached for his painkillers.
* * * * * * * * * *
Something wet landed on his face, landing with a cold splat. Vin brushed the offending matter off of his nose and opened his eyes. It was daytime, but the clouds still hung heavy and gray in the sky, the snow falling more heavily than it had during the night. He and Chris had finally succumbed to their exhaustion and had taken shelter in the woods next to a large overhanging rock. They had covered themselves with branches and leaves, but their clothes were soaked through and the shelter had done little to warm them.
"Chris?" Vin called hoarsely, nudging his friend, who lay next to him.
"Mmph," Chris mumbled, snuggling closer to him as he searched for more warmth.
"Come on, pard," Vin said, shaking his shoulder.
"What?" Chris asked blearily.
"We gotta get going," Vin urged.
Chris rolled over, blinking at him sluggishly. "Oh, right," he muttered.
Vin frowned, noticing the glassy-eyed look Chris had given him. He placed his hand on his friend's forehead. "Damn," he cursed. Chris was burning up.
"What?" Chris asked, detecting the note of concern in Vin's face.
"You got a fever," Vin stated grimly.
"So do you," Chris said, pointing at Vin's flushed cheeks and brighter-than-usual gaze.
Vin was about to argue, but then realized that he was experiencing the same fuzzy, disconnected feeling that usually came with a fever. "All the more reason to get our asses back to civilization."
Chris grinned at him. "I should have taken a bet with Ezra. Never thought there would ever be a time that you'd be sick of the wilderness."
"Fuck you, Larabee," Vin grumbled. "Help me up."
The two men struggled to their feet, which were now numb with the cold, and staggered back to the edge of the road. They didn't dare walk in the middle for fear of leaving footprints that would alert Jarvis to their escape, so they instead trudged through the woods along the rough edge of the road, keeping the smooth pathway in sight. It wouldn't do to get lost in the trees in this weather.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra logged into the ATF computer system again, noticing immediately that his teammates were all online. Hoping that he wouldn't be detected right away, he began scanning the data they had compiled, looking for the name 'Jarvis'. He found it in one of the earliest files, one that contained a list of possible suspects that had been later whittled down. The others had apparently discounted this one for some reason. Ezra pondered on it for a moment before deciding that a direct route would be best in this case. Speed was more important than his pride. Or his fear. He still wasn't ready to speak with them, so instead, he quickly composed an email.
* * * * * * * * * *
"What the hell!" JD yelled, breaking the silence of the room. "Ezra's online!"
"What?!" Buck said incredulously. "What's he doing?"
"I'm not sure," JD answered as he typed frantically. "I just noticed that his account was active."
"Well, shut him off!" Buck demanded hotly.
"No, wait," Josiah interceded. "Maybe he's trying to help."
"Don't want *his* help," Buck growled.
"No, Buck," Nathan said slowly. "As much as I hate to admit it, we need all the help we can get."
"He *does* have a different way of looking at things," JD admitted. "I'd rather find out who killed Chris and Vin and worry about kicking his ass later."
"He's no slouch on the computer, either," Josiah added. "He has to know that we would notice his account being active eventually. If he's willing to risk pissing us off even further, his perspective on the situation might just be worth it."
Buck looked up at the others and finally nodded in defeat. "I ain't talkin' to him, though," he said stubbornly.
A beep sounded from JD's workstation, and he abruptly turned his attention back to his screen. "Hey, he sent me an email." JD opened the email and quickly scanned it as the others crowded around him.'Mr. Dunne,Can you illuminate me as to why the name "Jarvis" was eliminated from your list of suspects in the file PD.doc?Ezra P. Standish'
"Jarvis?" JD said, scratching his head curiously. "I don't remember that one."
"I think I do," Buck said as he returned to his desk and scanned through some of his faxes. "Here it is: Reginald Jarvis, died in prison."
"Wonder why he's askin' about him," JD said as he composed a reply. He sent the email off, then waited for a further response from Ezra. He didn't have to wait too long. Five minutes later, another email arrived.'Mr. Dunne,I have received information from a very reliable source indicating that a man by the name of Jarvis purchased a substantial quantity of plastic explosives approximately two months ago. Might this deceased miscreant have a vengeful relation?Ezra P. Standish'
"Angry relative?" Nathan asked.
"It's possible," Josiah agreed. "That was to be my next step once we eliminated all of the direct threats."
"I'll check it out," Buck said as he picked up the phone. After speaking for a few minutes, he hung up the phone with a sigh. "Hawthorne said he'd get back to me. Their computers are down, so it may take awhile."
"I'll let Ezra know," JD said.
"What do you think of this lead, Josiah?" Nathan asked.
"I don't know," the big man replied. "Ezra does have some unusual sources. He's come through for us in the past."
"I ain't gonna forgive him just 'cause he knows more lowlifes than the rest of us," Nathan grumbled.
"Neither am I," Josiah said. "But I am glad to see that he's doing his part. It's something, at least."
Nathan shrugged and went back to his desk. They still had other information to follow up, and he wasn't about to put all his money on a lead that came from Ezra Standish.
* * * * * * * * * *
Tapping his fingers nervously on the table, Ezra waited, hoping that JD had been able to get more information. Finally, a beep indicated a new message, and he quickly opened it up.Ezra,We don't know about any relatives yet. Lt. Hawthorne at the PD is checking, but it might take a while, since their computers are down. Thanks for the info.JDp.s. AD Travis wants to see you ASAP (he's really pissed), and he said to tell you that the funeral is on Saturday.
Ezra sighed. It couldn't be easy, could it. As for JD's postscript, Ezra already knew that Travis wanted to see him; he had made it plain enough in his phone message. But there was no way he was going to face the man until the murderers had been apprehended. Maybe not even then. He was trying not to think beyond the present, since his future was just too depressing to contemplate at the moment. Ezra figured he had enough on his plate already and didn't want to lose his focus. His future, if he indeed had any, would have to wait.
Since the police department was going to be delayed in providing information, Ezra decided to do some more searching on his own. He checked the time and discovered that it was past noon, and though he still wasn't hungry, he decided to go get a light lunch, since the painkillers tended to make him nauseous when he took them on an empty stomach. The work would still be waiting for him upon his return.
* * * * * * * * * *
"I c-can't f-f-feel my legs," Chris mumbled, teeth chattering violently.
"Me n-neither," Vin replied, his breath clouding the air in front of his face.
"'m tired," Chris said, slowing his pace.
"Gotta k-keep goin', c-cowboy." Vin urged his friend forward, though he, too, wanted nothing more than to lie down and go to sleep. He had lost track of the hours as they had tramped through the falling snow, which had since given way to sleet and icy rain as the altitude decreased. Now, instead of snow, they were slogging their way through mud and ice. Vin had seen small patches of frostbite beginning to form on their hands and faces, and fought to keep them warm.
It had grown dark a few hours earlier, and with no moon, they could hardly see where their feet were taking them. The footing became more slippery and treacherous until Chris stepped on a rock that moved under his foot.
"Shit!" Chris cried as his foot went out from under him and his knee buckled.
Vin reached for him, frantically trying to stop his fall, but he was only successful in losing his own purchase. With loud curses, he and Chris fell to the ground and began tumbling down the steep incline, bouncing off of rocks and trees along the way. Vin's descent ended abruptly when he collided with a tree, his left arm breaking with an audible snap, along with several of his ribs. His head met a similar fate, connecting with a small rock that rested at the base of the tree.
Chris's fall ended several yards beyond Vin's. He, too, suffered a painful collision with a tree, breaking several of his already-cracked ribs and bashing his knee against a fallen log. The impact knocked the wind out of him and it was a few moments before he could move.
"Vin?" he gasped as soon as he could get enough air to speak. "Where are you? Vin?" He grew more concerned when he received no answer. "Dammit, don't do this to me, cowboy," he ranted as he attempted to stand.
"Ah shit!" he cried out as the pain in his knee made itself known. Bad enough that he already had a bullet in that leg; now his knee was wrecked as well. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he used the cursed tree that had halted his journey so abruptly for support, slowly pulling himself upright.
His pace was agonizingly slow as Chris hobbled painfully up the hill. He knew Vin had hit something. He had heard the familiar sound of cracking bone shortly before his own fall had ended so abruptly. "God, don't let it be his neck," he prayed silently as he groped through the darkness in search of his friend.
He finally located Vin when he tripped over his outstretched legs and landed on top of him. "Vin? Christ Vin, answer me!" Chris searched anxiously for his neck or wrist so he could check for a pulse, nearly crying with relief when he found the steady beat under his fingers on Vin's neck. "Thank God!"
Chris ran his hands along Vin's motionless body, wincing in sympathy when he encountered the broken arm. The lump he found on the back of his friend's head accounted for his silence and Chris hoped that he didn't have more than a mild concussion. Even so, he knew Vin wouldn't wake for at least a few minutes, so he used the time to perform some first aid.
Nathan had trained all of the team members in some fairly advanced first-aid techniques, in case he was unable to help them. Ezra had teased Nathan, claiming that he merely wanted to be sure that the rest of them wouldn't inadvertently hurt him with their ham-fisted attempts to help in the event that he himself became injured. Chris was now grateful for the extra training as he expertly set Vin's arm. He didn't have much to work with for splints, so he fumbled around until he found a few relatively straight sticks and stuffed them into the sleeve of Vin's shirt. Tearing a couple of strips off of his own shirt, he tied them around the arm, then undid one of the buttons on Vin's shirt and placed his hand inside to give it some support.
Vin had groaned when Chris straightened his arm, and had begun to show further signs of waking. While Chris waited for him to regain consciousness, he leaned against a tree and listened to the sounds of the rain tapping out its soft rhythm as it fell. The sound was soothing and Chris found himself drifting off until a sound that didn't belong suddenly intruded upon his senses. The echo of squealing brakes reverberated faintly in the relative quiet of the night, and Chris found himself grinning despite the gravity of the situation.
With some prodding, Vin finally returned to consciousness, groaning loudly as his awareness returned. "Chris?" he called out tentatively.
"Right here, Vin," Chris answered.
"Christ, what h-happened?" Vin said, shivering as he felt the new pains shooting through his body.
"You ran into an oncoming tree," Chris said. "So did I."
"No wonder I h-hurt s-so much," he muttered.
"Think you can walk?" Chris asked hopefully.
"Th-Think so," Vin mumbled. "Gotta g-get m-movin' s-s-so's I c-can warm up."
"Me too," Chris agreed, shuddering in the cold now that the panic-induced adrenaline had worn off. "The good news is, I think I heard some traffic."
"H-hope you're right," Vin said through clenched teeth. "I f-feel like sh-shit."
"Join the club," Chris said. "I'm gonna need your help too. I smashed my knee on s-somethin' and ain't walkin' too good."
Vin chuckled. "We're a c-coupla wrecks."
"Come on, let's git." Chris put his arm across his friend's shoulder, and with Vin's good arm wrapped around his waist, the two injured men struggled gamely to their feet and began a slow, lurching trek down the mountain.
It took them nearly two hours, but they finally reached the two-lane highway that had been the source of the sound Chris had heard. As they rested against a tree, Chris scanned the road for any signs of life. It was unlit, but Chris could see a faint glow in the distance that he hoped was an indication of civilization. Tightening his hold on Vin, he started in that direction, urging his half-aware companion to follow suit.
They were both on the verge of collapse when they reached the source of the light. Tucked away in the corner of a small rest area, was a single, lighted pay phone. Salvation in blue and white.
"Vin, look." Chris pointed to the phone as he slid to the ground next to it, his knee no longer able to support his weight.
"Cool," Vin said with a goofy grin. "We sh-should call B-Buck. H-he won't yell at us like N-Nathan."
Chris laughed through chattering teeth. "No, he'd p-probably belt us for s-scarin' the shit out of him."
Vin chuckled. "I think I g-got a quarter in my p-pocket. Want me to c-call 'im?"
Chris shook his head. "W-we better c-call Ezra," he said. "J-Jarvis s-said he didn't know wh-where he was. H-he m-might still be w-watchin' th-the others."
"'Kay," Vin said, grabbing the phone and holding it in the crook of his neck. He deposited his quarter, then dialed Ezra's cell phone number, cursing as the operator's voice told him he needed more money. "Wh-where the f-f-fuck are we, anyway? Says I n-need more m-money."
"Sh-shit," Chris cursed. "Use m-my calling c-card." He gave Vin the number and watched as the younger man redialed as quickly as his frozen fingers would allow.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra's head jerked up from the pillow abruptly when he heard his phone ringing again. His computer searches had revealed no new information on the mysterious Jarvis, and he had received no further emails from the others that day, so he had finally given in to his body's fatigue and crawled into bed. Stifling a yawn, he switched on the light and answered the phone before the fact that the unfamiliar number had a Colorado area code registered in his brain.
"Standish," he answered sleepily, hoping it was not one of his other teammates wanting to harass him at the ridiculous hour of 1:13 AM.
"E-Ezra? It's V-Vin," the voice said.
Ezra clenched the phone tightly and hissed, "This is not amusing, you cruel bastard, whoever you are."
"I-it's r-really me, Ez," the voice, sounding much like Vin's, pleaded. "We n-need your h-help."
"This is not funny, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra raged. "I know you are all angry with me, but this is contemptible, even for you!"
There was a shuffling noise and some mumbling, then a voice barked, "Ezra, g-get your f-fuckin' lazy ass out here and h-help us!"
Ezra paled and gripped the phone so tightly that his knuckles turned white. Only one person used that particular tone with him: Chris Larabee. "Good lord," he whispered. "Mr. Larabee?"
"Yeah, it-it's us, Ez," Larabee sighed. "Ya g-gotta c-come get us. We're f-f-freezin' our asses off out h-here."
"Where are you?" Ezra asked, hardly believing he was really talking to Larabee.
"D-don't know," Chris said. "P-pay phone in a r-r-rest area. T-trace the ph-phone number."
"I'll be there as soon as possible," Ezra said as he scribbled the number on some hotel stationery.
"H-hurry, Ez." Ezra could hear Chris's teeth chattering over the phone. "W-we ain't d-doin' so g-good."
"Just hold on," Ezra said encouragingly. "I'll call the others on the way."
"N-no!" Chris said vehemently. "Th-they're bein' w-w-watched."
"I understand." Ezra forced himself to remain calm, despite the fact that his heart was racing. "I'll get there."
"Th-thanks," Chris stuttered as he hung up the phone.
Ezra clicked off his phone and stared at it for a moment before he threw off the blankets and jumped out of bed, hurrying to his computer. Rummaging quickly through his computer case, he retrieved the CD containing the reverse telephone directory and quickly loaded it into the computer. He liked to have that information on separate media in the event that he couldn't get an online connection anywhere.
The address came up, indicating a location near mile marker 347 on Route 119, a small, two-lane road in the northern part of the state. With that address in hand, Ezra pulled out his mapping software and plotted the location, noting that it was approximately one hundred and ten miles from his present location. The software claimed it would take him two hours to get there, but Ezra intended to complete the journey in far less time. Pulling the spare blankets out of the closet, he put his coat on and raced out of his room.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra drove as fast as he could in the wet weather, reaching the rest area in an hour and fifteen minutes. He slowed as he approached the pay phone, his headlights showing him nothing but trees. Keeping the engine running, he drew his gun out of the glove box and slowly exited the vehicle. "Chris? Vin?" he called out as he approached the telephone.
"H-here," a weak voice answered him.
He moved toward the voice, then saw the pale, mud-covered hand waving from behind a bush. With trepidation, Ezra stepped behind the bush, lowering his gun when he saw the two crumpled forms lying behind it. "Jesus," he said, pocketing his weapon as he rushed to their side. "Chris?"
The blond turned to him, attempting to smile. "Knew I-I c-could c-count on ya, Ez."
"Mr. Larabee, you look like hell," Ezra answered with a jubilant grin, sending a silent 'thank you' to whatever deities had seen fit to restore his friends to him.
"N-no sh-shit," Chris gasped.
"Hold on, I'll get the blankets." Ezra turned and hurried back to his car, retrieving the blankets from the passenger seat.
"Here," he said as he wrapped one of the blankets around Chris's shoulders.
"G-get V-Vin f-first," Chris said, pointing to the unconscious man next to him.
"Okay," Ezra nodded, wrapping the other man in a blanket. "I'll get him to the car. Can you walk?"
"N-not t-too well," Chris replied.
"Sit tight, and I'll be back to help you," Ezra said as he gently hauled Vin to his feet. Ignoring the pain in his back and ribs, he dragged Vin to the truck, laying him carefully across the back seat before returning to help Chris.
Chris was struggling to his feet when Ezra arrived at his side. Settling Chris's arm over his shoulder, he half-carried the other man to the car, easing him into the passenger seat. After buckling the seat belt, he hurried to the driver's side and was soon back on the road with his charges.
"You'd better have a good explanation for this, Mr. Larabee," Ezra warned teasingly as he turned the heat on full blast to warm the two shivering men.
"L-long s-story," Chris said wearily, slumping against the door.
"You'll have plenty of time to tell me after you are safely ensconced in the hospital," Ezra replied.
"No hospital!" Chris said, panic in his voice. "T-too p-public. He'll f-find us again."
"Mr. Larabee, you are in need of medical attention," Ezra argued.
"No hospital," Chris repeated. "You'll j-just have t-to do the b-best you can."
Ezra opened his mouth to protest, then closed it when he realized that Chris had a much better handle on the situation than he did at the moment, and if he said it was dangerous, it probably was.
"As you wish," Ezra capitulated. "We'll go to my hotel."
Chris looked at him, wondering why he was in a hotel, but was too exhausted to pursue it just then. He leaned against the door and promptly fell asleep.
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