It was with an aching head and weary body that Ezra dragged himself into the office the following Monday. His weekend had been unexciting. His insomnia had remained persistent, and he had been unable to enjoy the escape that sleep brought to his restless mind. Instead, he had spent the weekend catching up on some mundane personal paperwork that he had been neglecting of late. The monotony had only been interrupted by a brief visit from Bradley, who had taken him to lunch on Sunday. The visit had cheered him somewhat, but Ezra now found any residual pleasure fading as he steeled himself to face his associates.
Carefully masking his churning emotions, Ezra walked briskly into the bullpen and took a seat at his desk, waving briefly in greeting to the rest of his team. Waiting on his desk was a folder containing the pertinent information for the Landers case. Pinching the bridge of his nose, Ezra stifled a grimace. Ordinarily, he didn't mind research work, but knowing that this was simply 'busy work' to keep him out of the way left him feeling less than enthusiastic about his new assignment.
"Hey, Ez," Vin said as he passed Ezra's desk on the way to the break room. "Want some coffee?"
Ezra looked up, surprised by the offer. "Yes, thank you, Mr. Tanner."
"You look like you need it," Vin commented as he disappeared into the room.
That was an understatement, Ezra thought with disgust, remembering the dismal sight that had greeted him when he looked in the mirror that morning. Dark circles had taken up residence under his bloodshot eyes, evidence that lack of sleep was beginning to take its toll.
Vin returned with the coffee, scrutinizing Ezra carefully as he handed him the cup. "You still not sleepin'?"
Closing his eyes as he sipped the fragrant brew, Ezra nodded in response.
"Anythin' I can do to help?"
Ezra's eyes flew open and he regarded the sharpshooter skeptically. There was nothing but sincerity on the man's face, however, so Ezra relaxed, leaning back in his chair. "I'm afraid not, Mr. Tanner," he said. "I have been afflicted with this before and there is nothing to do but wait until it passes in its own time."
"Ya know, I find that doin' a real hard workout can help make you tired, so you can't do nothin' much but sleep anyway," Vin offered.
Ezra tilted his head slightly, contemplating the suggestion. "Perhaps," he conceded. "If this continues to plague me, I may attempt such a remedy."
Vin nodded and gave him a smile before returning to his desk. Ezra watched him for a moment, wondering at his pleasant demeanor before finally shaking his head in confusion. A headache was beginning to brew behind his eyes and he was simply too tired to expend any further effort trying to understand his teammates.
* * * * * * * * * *
Buck watched quietly as Ezra left the bullpen, heading for the file room in the basement to start on his research assignment. The exhaustion on the younger man's face was obvious and he hated watching him pretend that nothing was wrong. His own part in this mess didn't make him feel any better. He was still unsure of how he felt about the accusations against the southerner. Was he a racist bastard or wasn't he? Buck didn't want to believe it, but he couldn't deny the evidence. He had been fooled before and he wasn't about to let it happen again. The indecision alone made him feel guilty, but no matter which side he favored, it still felt wrong. Still, here he was, waiting for the undercover agent to leave before he went to speak to Chris about a new lead on their case. Heaving a disgusted sigh, Buck got to his feet and walked to Chris's office.
"Hey, Chris," he waved to his friend as he opened the door.
"Buck," Chris nodded at him. "What's up?"
"I got some new info from Little Jimmy," he said, slumping into a chair in front of Chris's desk.
"Hold it," Chris said as he started to rise.
"It's all right, Chris," Buck said, waving him back to his seat. "He already left for the file room."
Chris lowered himself back into his chair. "I don't like this any better than you do," he said with a frown.
"Maybe this time the bust will go down as planned and this will finally be over and done with," Buck said hopefully. "Jimmy heard there's going to be a new meet on Friday night with Arbella."
"Down at the old car dealership. You know, the one on Water Street," Buck said. "Place has been abandoned for a couple of years now."
Buck shrugged. "Same as before. He said it was set for sometime that night."
Chris frowned. "Okay. I'll let Travis know. Don't tell the guys until we get things set up."
Buck looked at him curiously.
"No sense spreading the news until we need to," he explained.
Nodding grimly, Buck left the office.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra shut off the microfiche reader and leaned back in the uncomfortable plastic chair. His eyes burned and his head ached from spending the afternoon staring at newspaper articles. Efforts were being made to computerize all of the older records and files, but progress was slow, forcing agents to scroll through microfiche data or search musty file cabinets for some of their information.
Gathering the copies and notes he had made, Ezra left the archive room and headed back to his office. This was his third day of research and he had barely completed a quarter of the required work. The powers that be would be pleased, he thought bitterly. There was enough work to keep him out of the way for quite some time. Reaching his desk, Ezra set the pile of papers on top of the stack of completed work, then opened his desk drawer to retrieve the bottle of aspirin he kept there. He shook three into his hand and headed to the break room for a bottle of water.
The office was quiet, his teammates having left earlier. Ezra had found it less stressful to leave work later, when there was less likelihood of running into the rest of his team. The strain of maintaining a pleasant demeanor in their presence was simply too exhausting, especially since his insomnia had continued its stubborn hold on his nights. As he swallowed the aspirin, he recalled Vin's suggestion of working out in order to tire himself enough to sleep. He had tried every remedy he knew, short of taking sleeping pills, and nothing had worked. There wasn't much to lose by giving Vin's idea a try, so he decided to head down to the gym before going home.
There were only a few other people in the gym, something for which Ezra was grateful, since he wasn't in the mood for small talk. He changed quickly and warmed up with some stretching and martial arts exercises on the mat, then moved on to the heavy bag. Donning his gloves, he worked out for nearly two hours. He did a circuit on the weight machines and then practiced his boxing, as well as some karate, until his body ached from the exertion. After he finished a slow set of cool-down exercises, Ezra wearily made his way to the showers.
As the warm water soothed his aching muscles, Ezra began to think that maybe Vin had hit on something, since he certainly felt tired enough to sleep. He would have to thank him for the suggestion if it worked. He finished his shower quickly and then headed back to his locker to change. As he was buttoning his shirt, Ezra suddenly heard the sound of his name being voiced. Curious, he edged quietly toward the end of the row of lockers, where he could hear the conversation from several rows down more clearly.
"You think they'll show for the bust Friday?" queried the voice of Rick Nagel, a member of Team Two.
"Yeah," replied his teammate, John Vargas. "As long as Standish doesn't find out about it and tip them off again. A lot can happen in two days."
"I can't imagine what Larabee was thinking when he hired that asshole," Nagel said with a derisive snort. "Everyone knows he's dirty."
"He must be a damn good con artist," Vargas pointed out. "He sure pulled the wool over Travis and Larabee's eyes. Hell, that whole damn team must be blind."
"I hear they're startin' to see the light, though," Nagel said. "They're makin' a point of keepin' him in the dark on this bust."
"'Bout time they saw him for what he really is," Vargas agreed.
"No joke," Nagel agreed. "Personally, I trust the son of a bitch about as far as I can throw him... and that ain't far."
Vargas and Nagel laughed, and Ezra decided he had heard enough. Silently, he crept back to his locker, hurriedly finished dressing, and left the gym, his mind reeling with what he had overheard. Reaching his car, he climbed inside and closed his eyes, resting his forehead on the steering wheel while he contemplated the accusations made by the men from Team Two.
Ezra felt the foundations of his world begin to crumble. Everything was clear now. Larabee and the others thought he was on the take, informing the weapons buyers of the scheduled raids against them. No matter how many different ways he looked at it, he couldn't understand why anyone would think such a thing. How could anyone believe he was connected with such criminals? Ezra beat his fist against the dashboard. That must have been part of the reason Farrell was in Denver the part that Chris couldn't discuss. Foolishly, he had believed that the photograph that Chris had shown him was the only thing drawing Farrell's interest. Instead, it looked like the FBI agent was out to ruin him for good. Lifting his head, Ezra started his car and drove home.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra slumped listlessly into his chair, dropping his head forward on his outstretched arms. It was barely six AM on Thursday morning and, unsurprisingly, he was the first to arrive in the office. Vin's insomnia remedy had worked. He had been completely exhausted when he finally returned to his apartment the previous night, but his turbulent thoughts had refused to leave him in peace. He had tossed and turned the whole night, never getting more than a few minutes of sleep at a time, until he finally gave up and came into the office.
Lifting his head, Ezra gazed around the empty office, wondering how he could have ever felt that he belonged. It worried him that he was so bothered by the conversation he had inadvertently overheard. When had he started to care what other people thought of him?
With a sigh of frustration, Ezra pushed himself to his feet and shuffled toward the break room. He wasn't going to make it through the day without a hefty dose of coffee, though he didn't think even Vin's potent brew could banish the exhaustion that weighed upon him.
* * * * * * * * * *
A sudden crash woke him and Ezra looked around dazedly, blinking at the sudden flood of light.
"Sorry, Ez," Vin said apologetically as he picked up the can of coffee that had fallen off of the counter. "I didn't mean to wake ya."
Ezra yawned and ran a hand through his hair. "Quite all right, Mr. Tanner. I didn't intend to fall asleep."
Vin gave him a crooked smile. "Guess that's why you made the coffee."
"Indeed," Ezra replied as he stood and reached for the full coffeepot. "I'm afraid I'll need quite a bit of this to remain alert today."
"Still not sleepin'?" Vin asked, a note of concern in his voice.
"No," Ezra replied.
"Did you try working out?"
"Yes, I did," Ezra answered. "Last evening, in fact."
"Oh," Vin said, sounding disappointed.
"It did exhaust me thoroughly, but I'm afraid that my thoughts simply would not allow me to escape into slumber."
"Well... if you need to talk to someone, I'm a good listener," Vin offered.
Ezra gave him a wan smile. "It's not something I'm comfortable discussing right now."
Vin shrugged. "I'll be around if you change your mind."
"I'll remember," Ezra said as he poured a cup of coffee.
"You do that," Vin called to him as he headed back to his desk.
* * * * * * * * * *
It was barely three o'clock when Ezra decided to call it quits. After catching himself reading the same document for the fourth time, it was obvious he wasn't going to get anything more accomplished that day. His teammates were probably still in the office, but he was too tired to care as he trudged into the bullpen. Dropping wearily into his chair, Ezra didn't even bother to acknowledge their presence, though he sensed their curiosity at his unexpected arrival.
"Damn, pard," commented Vin. "You look like shit."
"Thank you, Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied curtly.
"Are you all right, brother?" Josiah asked.
"Fine," Ezra replied, attempting to file his papers quickly so he could escape the questioning.
"Yeah, you're fine all right," Nathan retorted sarcastically.
Ezra favored him with a frosty glare. "When I want your opinion, Mr. Jackson, I'll ask for it."
Nathan's own gaze turned hard. "What's the matter? Are you too good to take advice from someone like me?"
Ezra rolled his eyes. "Please spare me the melodrama."
Nathan stood, fists clenched at his sides. "What are you trying to say?"
Ezra gave a long-suffering sigh and waved his hand dismissively as he turned away. "If the shoe fits...."
"You son of a..." Nathan advanced on him, but was stopped by Chris's voice.
"Standish!" Chris interrupted. "Get in here." Chris turned and stalked back to his office.
Ezra gave the group a humorless smile as he rose and followed Chris into his office, slamming the door behind him.
"What the hell was that all about?!" JD asked.
Vin shook his head in resignation. He had a feeling that something was going to blow before long. Nathan had been spoiling for a fight ever since seeing the KKK picture, and Ezra was growing edgier each day. It had only been a matter of time before the situation came to a head. He just wished that there was something more he could do about it.
"Stupid bastard is really askin' for it," Nathan spat heatedly.
"Calm down, brother," Josiah said soothingly. "You know he only acts like that because he knows it irritates you."
Nathan glared at him then stomped off toward the break room.
The four remaining men shared a look as they heard the muffled argument coming from Chris's office.
"This is not good," Buck finally said, echoing the thoughts of the others in the room. "Not good at all."
* * * * * * * * * *
"What the hell's the matter with you?!" Chris yelled once Ezra had shut the door.
Ezra sat down and eyed him coolly, raising an elegant eyebrow in question. "Nothing is the matter with me. I suggest you ask Mr. Jackson that question, as there appears to be something distressing him."
"Ezra," Chris ground out between clenched teeth. "You know that Nathan is bothered by that picture of you at the Klan party. Why do you have to antagonize him?"
"I did no such thing," Ezra said icily.
"Yes, you did," Chris countered. "Is it too much to ask that you respect his feelings and lay off the arguments for a while?"
His frustration finally boiled over and Ezra said incredulously, his voice rising in volume, "His feelings?! What about my feelings?! It's my good name that is being sullied!"
"Good name?" Chris said sarcastically, then immediately regretted it when he saw the shock and sadness that flickered in the green eyes.
Ezra opened his mouth as if to speak, then slowly closed it, shuttering his emotions behind an impassive façade. "I believe I've been insulted enough for one day," he said flatly. "Good day, Mr. Larabee." He stood and made for the door.
"Ezra!" Chris shouted. "Sit down!"
Ezra paused, his hand on the doorknob. Without turning around, he said, "Mr. Larabee, I am tired and I simply wish to go home to get some sleep."
"Sit," Chris commanded.
Ezra waited a moment, then slowly complied, favoring his superior with a placid expression.
Chris ran a hand through his hair. "Damn it, Ezra. Can't you just do as I ask for once?"
"I was attempting to do just that, but Mr. Jackson and the others insisted upon starting a conversation," Ezra said calmly.
"You didn't have to answer them," Chris pointed out.
"But that would be rude," Ezra said innocently.
Chris clenched his jaw in exasperation. "Don't start, Ezra. I'm not in the mood."
"Neither am I," Ezra replied tersely.
"I think it would be best if you stayed away from Nathan for the time being," Chris said. "Unless you'd care to explain some more about that picture?"
Ezra snorted. "My personal life is none of your concern."
"It is if you belong to a racist organization," Chris said bluntly.
Ezra stared at him intensely for a long moment before he answered. "I have learned that my words carry very little weight, so you'll excuse me if I keep my own counsel."
"Damn it, Ezra!" Chris said, slamming his hand on the desk to punctuate his frustration.
"On that note, I will take my leave," Ezra stated, rising to his feet once again. "I am far too weary to continue to converse in a rational manner."
"We're not finished here, Standish," Chris said loudly.
"Yes, we are," Ezra said as he stepped through the door and shut it quietly behind him.
Ezra flinched slightly as he heard Chris yell at him through the door. Ignoring his teammates, he made his way to his desk and quickly picked up his coat and briefcase. Without a backward glance, he strolled casually away from his teammates, stifling the urge to run.
* * * * * * * * * *
He usually didn't drink at such an early hour, but this day had been far from normal and, at the moment, all Ezra wanted to do was get himself pleasantly hammered. Ignoring Inez's look of concern, he purchased a bottle at the bar and moved to a table in the corner and poured himself the first of many drinks. Maybe if he drank enough, he could forget for a little while.
* * * * * * * * * *
Bradley Hanford scanned the crowd carefully, smiling broadly when he spotted his quarry in the far corner of the room. He was glad he remembered Ezra telling him about this place. Making his way through the smoky bar, he pulled up a chair and sat opposite a very inebriated Ezra Standish.
"Hello, cousin," Bradley said cheerfully.
Ezra lifted his head slowly, blinking blearily a few times before grinning crookedly at the other man. "H'lo, Brad-ley," he slurred, his accent thicker than usual. "What're you doin' here?"
"I should ask you the same question," Bradley said, chuckling at seeing his refined and fastidious cousin in such a disheveled state.
"I had a bad day," Ezra said with a soft hiccup.
"I can see that," Bradley said, shaking his head at the picture Ezra presented. "Why don't you let me take you home?"
"'Kay," Ezra answered after a moment.
Bradley smiled and reached for Ezra's coat, pocketing his car keys before hauling him to his feet. "Let's go, Ezra."
Inez watched them go with a relieved smile as she cleared Ezra's table. It had concerned her greatly when the handsome agent had come into the bar looking as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders. At first, she was afraid something had happened to one of his teammates, since she knew how close they all were and how much they suffered when another of their number was injured. Ezra had reassured her that they were all safe, but his morose attitude worried her. It was unlike him to drink so much. She didn't know who the blond man was, but she was glad that someone was looking out for one of her favorite customers.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra peeled an eye open at the sound of his alarm, then slammed it shut as the early morning sunlight sent a bolt of pain shooting through his skull. Moaning, he reached out and silenced the alarm, wishing he could do the same for the pounding in his head. He rolled over onto his side and immediately realized his mistake as his stomach began to churn. Clapping his hand over his mouth, Ezra rushed into the bathroom, barely reaching the toilet before his stomach emptied itself.
After what seemed like hours of retching, his stomach gave him a reprieve and Ezra was able to pull himself to his feet without incident. He shook out some aspirin and swallowed them carefully, draining a few glasses of water to alleviate some of his dehydration. Running a shaky hand through his hair, he grimaced at the haggard face that looked back at him from the mirror. He had certainly overdone it last night. He should have known better that to drink most of a bottle of Wild Turkey by himself.
Frowning, Ezra realized he didn't remember getting home last night. "Good Lord," he muttered. What if Inez had called one of his teammates to drive him home? He thought about it for a minute and then shrugged it off. It didn't much matter, since they already thought little of his character.
Not even bothering to look at the clock, he shuffled out of the bathroom and shut off the ringer on the telephone. Mindful of his aching head, he walked slowly back to his bed and crawled under the blankets, sinking into the softness of his pillow with a sigh. He decided that nothing short of an explosion was going to dislodge him from his bed today. Ezra figured that he was already in the doghouse with his boss, so what was one more infraction on the list?
* * * * * * * * * *
"Buck, have you worked up those plans for the car dealership?" Chris asked as he stopped in front of the gregarious agent's desk.
"Yep," Buck replied. "Got 'em right here." He handed Chris the plans.
"Good," Chris said, nodding in satisfaction at the detailed layout. "We'll be meeting with Team Two at two o'clock to go over this."
"Our conference room or theirs?"
"Theirs," Chris said. "We can't take any chances."
"Yeah, I know," Buck sighed.
Chris looked over at Ezra's desk and frowned. There was no sign that the undercover man had been there yet. "Anyone seen Ezra today?"
"Nope," Vin answered.
"Not today," Josiah stated.
"Me neither," said JD through a mouthful of potato chips as he perched on the corner of Buck's desk.
Buck and Nathan shook their heads in the negative as well.
"Damn," muttered, his forehead wrinkling with concern.
"Somethin' wrong, cowboy?" asked Vin.
"I don't know. Maybe," Chris said with a shrug.
"You worried or do you just hate not knowin' where he is?" Buck asked.
"Both," Chris answered. Turning to his youngest agent, he said, "JD, can you check the file room? See if he's been there."
"Sure." JD hopped off the edge of the desk and hurried out of the room.
"He's not answering his phone," Josiah said as he replaced the handset of his telephone. "I tried both his home and his cell phone."
"Want me to run by his place?" Vin offered. "I was just about to go for lunch anyway."
Chris nodded slowly. "Yeah. I need to know where he's at, in case anyone asks."
Nathan said nothing as Vin grabbed his leather jacket and strode out of the bullpen. Chris looked at the dark-skinned man, wondering if there was any way this conflict could be resolved. He was in charge of a group of the most stubborn and opinionated men he had ever had the misfortune to meet. The fact that they were able to work together at all constantly amazed him and his superiors. Chris didn't want to lose anyone on this team of wildcards, but it was looking more and more likely every day. He gazed again at the empty desk, wondering if it was a sight to which he was going to have to become accustomed.