Night was descending as he stood with his forehead pressed against the glass of the French doors, gazing blankly toward the horizon. Not even the spectacular display provided by the setting sun could lift his spirits from the dark pit into which they had fallen. Ezra clenched his fists in anger anger toward himself for being fool enough to think that things would be different this time, and anger toward the FBI for once again screwing with his life. He felt no animosity toward his teammates; he knew that they never really trusted him. They would probably be glad to be rid of him.
Ezra moved away from the French doors, stopping by his liquor cabinet to get a half-full bottle of Scotch before settling himself on the sofa. He didn't bother with a glass, drinking straight from the bottle and welcoming the fire that burned its way down his throat as he pondered his situation. It was likely that he would be out of a job soon, a thought that truly distressed him, for despite his associates' mistrust, he had honestly enjoyed working with them. He had been happy in his job for the first time in years. Perhaps that was why he had harbored the small hope that they might stand behind him when the chips were down.
Ezra snorted in disgust. What a pipe dream that was. It appeared that his mother had been right. Mother. "Shit," Ezra muttered as he took another swig from his bottle. Maude would, without question, jump at the chance to tell him, 'I told you so', and rub his nose in yet another of his failures. She seemed to thrive on making her 'darlin' boy' feel like a worthless disappointment, and that was the unkindest cut of all. Ezra lifted his legs onto the sofa, leaning his head back against the armrest. He was going to have to disappear before his mother got word of this debacle. His wounded ego was simply not up to dealing with her.
* * * * * * * * * *
He awoke with a start to the sound of banging. Confused, Ezra squinted into the darkness and reached automatically for the gun in his shoulder holster. He rolled off of the couch and onto the floor, landing on the empty Scotch bottle. "Ouch, damn it!" he cursed, rubbing his side where he had hit the bottle. Someone was at the door, he realized with chagrin. Stumbling clumsily in the dark, he made his way to the door, flipping the light on as he peered through the spy-hole. It took a moment, but the blurry image on the other side of the door finally resolved itself into the figure of Vin Tanner. With an annoyed sigh, Ezra opened the door.
"Something I can do for you, Mr. Tanner?" he croaked.
Vin's eyes narrowed as he eyed his teammate appraisingly. "You been drinkin' again?"
Ezra scowled at him. "Not that it's any of your business, but yes, I have."
"You smell like the back room of the Saloon," Vin said, wrinkling his nose at the strong odor of alcohol emanating from the southerner.
"Did you come here to insult me, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra drawled sarcastically. "Because I am most definitely not in the mood. I have listened to enough disparaging comments for one day."
"Aw hell, Ez," Vin said, looking away. "I just wanted to make sure you were all right."
"As you can see, I'm quite..." Ezra stopped as a wave of nausea suddenly assaulted him. "Excuse me," he mumbled, taking off at a run.
Vin shook his head and followed him into the apartment, wincing at the muffled sound of retching coming from the bathroom. This was the second time in less than a week that Ezra had tried to drink his troubles away, and Vin was concerned for his health as well as his state of mind. The past couple of weeks had not been easy on the man and he hated to see him doing this to himself.
Easing out of his leather jacket, Vin ambled toward the couch and sat down, frowning when his foot encountered the empty liquor bottle. Setting it down on the table, he leaned back with a sigh. JD had offered to stop to look in on Ezra after work, but Vin insisted that he was the best choice. Ezra had been fairly receptive to him when he had come by the day after his drinking binge, so he figured the reticent agent might at least talk to him.
The sound of running water heralded Ezra's return, and Vin smiled in sympathy at his pale friend. "Feelin' better?"
"Not really," Ezra said, smothering a cough.
"You don't sound too good there, pard."
"I seem to have developed a slight cold," Ezra said with a shrug as he flopped heavily into his overstuffed chair. "What time is it?"
"Nine-thirty," Vin replied.
Ezra nodded and closed his eyes. "Why are you here?"
"I told ya, I just wanted to make sure you were okay."
"It could taint your reputation to be seen associating with me," Ezra challenged.
"I don't give a shit what anyone thinks," Vin countered. "Ain't nobody gonna tell me who I can have for a friend."
Ezra opened his eyes and stared at Vin as if he had just grown another head. Friend?
Vin saw the look on the other man's face and shook his head. "Like it or not, Ez, you're stuck with me."
Ezra looked away, realizing that, in his current state, he was far too transparent to the sharp-eyed Texan. He couldn't afford to let his guard down and trust anyone, no matter how sincere they appeared.
"That may not be the case for much longer," Ezra said, wincing at the note of self-pity that had crept into his voice, despite his best efforts to quell his emotions.
"You don't get it, do you?" Vin said earnestly. "I'm your friend and I'm gonna fight this thing with you." He waited until Ezra turned to face him. "I ain't gonna leave you high and dry, no matter what you think right now."
Ezra snorted in disbelief. "Don't try to con a con man, Mr. Tanner. I heard many of those very words from a former associate just before my previous career fell apart. He protested the injustice of the accusations against me and proclaimed his never-ending support and friendship." He laughed bitterly. "As it turns out, he was simply an IA puppet, getting close to me in an attempt to dig up as much dirt as possible. So you'll forgive me if I am unconvinced."
The pain that shone plainly in the southerner's eyes told Vin just how badly that incident had hurt him. It was hardly a surprise that he was so reluctant to trust them, after an incident such as that.
"Hell, Ez, I'd probably feel the same way if somethin' like that ever happened to me," Vin said sympathetically. "All's I can tell you is that I ain't like that. Nobody messes with one of my friends without takin' me on too."
Ezra looked at him, wanting to believe, but still too jaded to allow for the possibility that Vin was right. He did believe that Vin himself was sincere, since lying was not something the Texan did well. Ezra could tell that he truly believed what he was saying, but he couldn't accept that the rest of the team felt the same way. It was obvious that Nathan certainly didn't and he had seen the doubt in the eyes of the others. He sighed.
"Mr. Tanner, I appreciate your efforts, but I'm afraid that past experience has proven that I can expect assistance from no one." There was no sign of bitterness in his voice, only sad acceptance.
"Well, I'm hopin' to prove you wrong," Vin said determinedly.
"You're welcome to try," Ezra said flatly. "But I'm not fool enough to take that bet."
Vin frowned at him and muttered, "Christ, and I thought Chris was stubborn."
"I've been called worse," Ezra said with a careless shrug. "Especially in recent days."
"You ain't been makin' it easy," Vin pointed out.
"And why should I?" Ezra retorted. "I am the one who is being wronged in this situation."
"You could've talked to us and explained about your cousin."
"My personal life is my own business," Ezra said heatedly. "I know nothing about Bradley's alleged racist activities, so there was nothing to tell."
"Do you think the FBI is wrong about him?"
Ezra looked away, then said with a hint of sadness. "Probably not."
Ezra sighed. "You've seen the picture. Bradley's father was a high-ranking member of the KKK who had no qualms about foisting his beliefs upon others. I had thought that Bradley felt as I do about such... hateful organizations. That's what he always claimed, anyway." He shook his head resignedly. "Apparently, I was incorrect."
"You like him," Vin observed.
"Yes," Ezra answered simply.
"You think you'll see him again?"
"Perhaps," Ezra said thoughtfully. "He said he would be in town for a few weeks."
"Might be better if you weren't seen with him," Vin warned. "The FBI has him under constant surveillance."
"They're watching me as well," Ezra said with a half-smile. "I spotted them tailing me home from the office. They are likely still parked across the street in one of their nondescript blue sedans."
Vin grinned. "They ain't known for originality."
Ezra chuckled, then coughed.
"You gonna be all right?" Vin asked. "I can stay if you want."
"I'm fine, Mr. Tanner." Ezra waved his hand dismissively. "It's nothing that won't be cured with some rest."
"All right," Vin said. "I'll stop by in a couple of days, okay?"
"You do not need to check up on me," Ezra said defensively.
"I don't mind," Vin said as he rose from the sofa and grabbed his jacket. "It'll keep me from worryin' about ya."
"If you insist," Ezra relented, secretly pleased at the sharpshooter's concern despite the reluctance in his voice. It eased slightly the sense of isolation and loneliness that was threatening to overwhelm him.
"I do," Vin said, laughing at the put out expression on the southerner's pale face. "Take it easy."
Ezra nodded as Vin let himself out of the apartment, then leaned back in his seat. "What just happened here?" he asked himself rhetorically. Vin had been making an effort to draw him out lately and seemed to actually care what happened to him. It puzzled him until he realized that Vin, too, was something of a loner and as such, had a better grasp than most of how Ezra felt. It was surprising, since he had never considered the man to be especially friendly in the past. Vin was quiet to a fault and seemed his complete opposite in every way. Ezra ran a hand through his hair pensively. Perhaps they had more in common than he thought.
* * * * * * * * * *
"It's too quiet in here without Ezra," JD said glumly, breaking the near-silence of the bullpen. "It's only been three days and I already miss him arguing with everyone."
Nathan snorted and shook his head, earning him glares from both JD and Vin.
Chris chose that moment to enter the room, lifting an eyebrow when he noticed the staring match. Clearing his throat, he said, "We have a new lead."
All eyes turned to the blond leader of their group, waiting for him to elaborate.
"Team Six busted Jerry Rodriguez last night," Chris continued. "It was a small-time deal just a few dozen handguns but it's enough to get him some substantial jail time, since he's already been arrested twice before on similar charges. He was very eager to trade some information in exchange for a lighter sentence."
"Rodriguez is small potatoes," Buck said skeptically. "What kind of information could he have to trade with?"
"He may be low on the food chain, but he has high ambitions," Chris said. "He heard about Arbella's possible deal with our buyer and thought he might be able to get a piece of the pie for himself." Chris smiled. "He bugged Arbella's limo when his chauffer took it to the gas station and heard about the next scheduled buy."
"Jesus, he's lucky he didn't get caught," Vin said. "Arbella would have stomped his ass big time."
Buck frowned. "Are we sure the info's good? I checked with Little Jimmy and he hasn't heard a word."
"Arbella's playing this one close to the vest, apparently," Chris explained. "He's not planning to tell his people the specifics until an hour or so before it's supposed to happen."
"When?" Vin asked.
"Friday night," Chris said, a feral smile on his face. "And we're going to be there to take them down."
Buck slapped his hand on his desk and grinned. "All right!"
The rest of the men echoed the sentiment, smiling for the first time in days.
"We only have two days and there's a lot of work to do if we're going to be ready for them, so let's get to it," Chris said, pointing toward the conference room. Without argument, they filed into the room, eager to conclude this case once and for all.
* * * * * * * * * *
Wretched. That was the only word to describe how he felt. Ezra leaned back in his seat and sipped his tea carefully, wishing he could breathe well enough to enjoy the aroma. His cold had grown steadily worse all week, preventing him from even attempting to do something enjoyable with his enforced time off. Instead, he had spent most of the past four days in bed or lying on the couch watching what passed for entertainment on the television.
All of this idle time left him nothing with which to distract himself from his troubles and he found himself becoming depressed at his uncertain future. No matter what the outcome, his reputation had been tarnished yet again, and Ezra didn't know if he could face another uphill battle to earn the trust of his peers. "One step forward, two steps back," he whispered hoarsely to himself. He was finally convinced that Vin was indeed on his side, but what of the others? He simply didn't know if he had the strength to fight for their respect.
A sharp rap on his door interrupted Ezra's gloomy thoughts. He frowned. Vin had not stopped by since Monday and Ezra wasn't sure he was ready for another intense discussion with the stubborn Texan. He sighed as he got up to open the door, preparing to welcome the other man politely, but was startled to find his cousin standing there instead.
"Bradley? I didn't realize you were still in town." Ezra smiled pleasantly, hiding his dismay at his cousin's presence. He definitely was not in the mood to see the man tonight.
Bradley's eyebrows lifted in surprise as his gaze swept over Ezra's baggy clothing and flushed features. "Hello, Ezra," he said with a smile. "Are you feeling all right?"
Ezra gave him a wan smile and gestured him inside. "I'm afraid I've picked up a bit of a cold."
"Oh, that's too bad," Bradley said sincerely. "I was hoping you'd have dinner with me."
"I don't think I could tolerate food at the moment," Ezra replied with a grimace.
"Are you sure?" Bradley eyed him hopefully.
"Quite," Ezra said, sneezing violently into his handkerchief.
"Why don't you let me fix you a hot toddy?" Bradley offered. "That always helps me when I have a cold."
After a moment's consideration, Ezra nodded his acceptance. "That sounds delightful. The liquor cabinet is over there." He pointed toward the small cabinet as he shuffled back to the couch in his bare feet.
"You have excellent taste in liquor," Bradley said appreciatively as he looked over the contents of the cupboard.
"Only the best," Ezra said.
Bradley laughed. "Maude taught you well."
Ezra grunted in reply, wishing that Bradley's father had done the same for him. It hurt him to believe that his cousin could harbor such hatred against others. Bradley had, at least, attempted to spare his feelings by keeping those beliefs to himself. That counted for something, Ezra supposed.
After a few minutes, Bradley returned from the kitchen with a steaming mug. "Here you go, cousin," he said. "Guaranteed to make you feel better."
"Or at least forget about my suffering for a short while," Ezra agreed as he sipped the warm liquid.
Bradley sat next to him, watching him with a grin. "Feels pretty good, eh?"
"It does seem to have a pleasant effect," Ezra said as the warmth began to spread.
"Good," Bradley sat back, a satisfied expression on his face.
He wasn't sure when it happened, but Ezra found himself feeling lightheaded. 'Fuzzy' was how JD had once described the sensation, and Ezra had to agree. A not-unpleasant numbness had settled in his body and he began to drift off, watching Bradley's image blur in front of him. He wondered vaguely if he should be concerned about this, but his brain couldn't seem to hold on to any coherent thoughts long enough to form an opinion. Finally, his vision dimmed and everything went black.
* * * * * * * * * *
The low hum of murmuring voices threaded its way into his consciousness as the fog in his brain began to clear. Ezra opened his eyes and was surprised to find himself in unfamiliar surroundings. The room in which he lay was dim, but light streamed from beneath a door, providing enough illumination for him to determine that he was no longer in his own apartment. He attempted to sit, but discovered that his hands were tied behind his back, making the task somewhat difficult. A sense of panic began to well within him and Ezra took some deep breaths to calm himself. The voices on the other side of the door grew louder and Ezra recognized Bradley's among them.
"I don't know why it didn't work," his cousin shouted. "Maybe the stuff didn't mix well with whatever he's taking for his cold. He was just too out of it to say anything that made sense."
"Well try it again! It's been hours, maybe it'll work this time," another voice snarled.
"Maybe you should try a bigger dose?" a third voice questioned.
"There isn't much left," Bradley said.
"Won't matter if we get busted tonight, will it?" the angry voice retorted.
"All right, all right," Bradley said with a sigh. "I'll try again."
There was a shuffling sound and the door suddenly opened, flooding the small, dingy room with light. Ezra squinted against the brightness and gazed up at the dark outline of his cousin. "Bradley?"
"Hello, Ezra," Bradley said calmly.
"What are you doing?" Ezra asked, his stomach clenching in fear at the sight of the hypodermic in Bradley's hand.
"I'm sorry, cousin, but I need to know if the Feds have found out about our deal," Bradley said, regret evident in his voice.
"Don't do this, Bradley," Ezra pleaded.
"It's the only way I can be sure," Bradley said. "They found out about our last two scheduled meets, so I need to be sure they don't know about this one as well."
Ezra's mouth went dry at the implication in his cousin's voice. "You used me to get the information you needed, didn't you?"
"Yes," Bradley nodded. "I figured if anyone could tell me what the government authorities were up to, it was you."
"How could you do this to me?" Ezra asked sadly. "I thought we were friends."
Bradley sighed. "I don't like doing this Ezra, but I have no choice. The Cause is more important than friendship."
"That's your father talking," Ezra said disgustedly.
"My father was right, but he didn't support the Cause as completely as I do," Bradley said. "We need to mobilize an army to fight against the influence of the niggers and the Jews and all the other unfit races in this country. They are destroying our way of life and must be stopped at all costs."
"How can you have so much hate in you?" Ezra asked, aghast at the his cousin's speech.
"I don't expect you to understand," he sneered. "I had always hoped you would join us, but after I saw you dating that nigger whore in college, I knew you would never see the truth." He grinned in a way that made Ezra shiver. "I took care of her, though. I couldn't let you be corrupted by such an unworthy creature."
Ezra felt a chill that spread to his very core. He remembered the woman of whom Bradley spoke all too well. He had met Monique during his junior year of college, while practicing piano in one of the music rooms. She was the product of an interracial marriage and he had been intrigued by her exotic looks and wonderful singing voice, and had boldly asked her out one day after a practice session. She had smiled at him and agreed, beginning a relationship that had lasted for most of the school year.
Ezra looked at his cousin in horror. "What did you do?"
"I merely sent her some letters and pictures and told her what would happen if she didn't leave you," Bradley said with a shrug. "She was a stubborn bitch, though. I finally had to take more drastic action."
"No," Ezra whispered.
"I had some of our Brothers beat you up a bit one night, then I sent her a picture of it," Bradley smiled, pleased with himself. "I think that finally convinced her."
Shocked, Ezra stared at Bradley in disbelief. He remembered the incident and had, at the time, considered it to be a simple mugging. Monique had broken up with him shortly afterward, without any explanation, and had not returned to school the following September. He had been devastated and it had taken a long time before he felt like dating again. He glared at Bradley. "You had no right!"
"I had every right, cousin," Bradley said indignantly. "I wasn't going to allow a relative of mine to be corrupted by one of them."
The way Bradley said the word 'them' made Ezra feel ashamed to be related to the man.
"Of course, after she left you, we had to make sure she wouldn't try to seduce another white man, so we took care of her permanently," Bradley said cheerfully.
Ezra gaped at his cousin. "You killed her?"
"Of course," Bradley said, giving Ezra a puzzled look. "This is war, after all."
"You're insane," Ezra whispered, staggered by the lengths to which his cousin would go in support of his 'cause'.
Bradley looked at him sadly. "I knew you wouldn't understand." Moving closer, he took advantage of Ezra's shock to quickly inject the contents of the syringe into his arm.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"That was the last of it, Hanford," the angry voice snarled. "You sure it worked?"
"Yes," Bradley said. "It worked perfectly before. There's no reason to believe it failed this time. The Feds don't know about the deal, so we're safe." He looked at the other man and frowned. John was a loyal member of the Brotherhood, but he wasn't know for his patience. "Relax, John. By this time Saturday, we'll be on our way home with a nice stockpile of weapons."
"I hope so," John said grudgingly. "What about him?" He pointed to the room where Ezra was being held.
"We'll have to leave him here until after the deal," Bradley said.
"You're letting him go?" John asked skeptically.
"He's my cousin," Bradley said simply as he put on his coat. "You and Sam stay here. I'll let you know when it's time to do business."
As soon as the door had shut behind Bradley, John turned to Sam and said, "I don't know about you, but I'm not sure I want to trust any info he might have gotten with that drug. If it didn't work the first time he tried it, how can we be sure it worked the second time? I think he's gone soft 'cause it's his cousin."
"So what can we do?" Sam asked with a shrug.
"There are other ways of getting information," John said with a smile, cracking his knuckles.
Sam grinned. "I like the way you think."
* * * * * * * * * *
He hadn't thought it was possible, but Ezra felt even more terrible than he had after Bradley had left. As soon as his cousin was out the door, his two associates had violently awakened Ezra and dragged him from the thin mattress, pummeling him with their fists while repeatedly asking him the same questions. Despite his efforts to convince them otherwise, they didn't immediately believe that he was telling the truth about being unaware of any planned raids. Finally, after what seemed like hours of pain, the two men dropped him in a bloody heap on the floor and left the room, reassured that their plans were safe from federal intervention.
Ezra rolled onto his side, feeling sharp pain stab through his chest with the effort, possibly from some cracked ribs. Grunting at the pain his movement had produced, he carefully eased himself up until he was lying on the bed once again. Everything hurt, but the physical pain was nothing compared to the pain in his heart. In a matter of minutes, he had discovered that his beloved cousin was not only a racist, but a murderer as well. His heart ached as he thought of Monique and how she had been murdered because of him. She hadn't deserved that.
Tears slowly trickled down his face as Ezra contemplated just how much of a fool he truly was. He had never once suspected Bradley's true nature, and worse, he had provided his cousin with the information he needed to avoid being caught. His friendship with Bradley or what he had believed to be friendship had blinded him to the truth. It didn't speak well of his abilities as an agent that he had allowed this to happen. And what of the innocent people who would suffer because of his failure? Ezra cried out as a deep, wracking cough shook him, sending intense pain ripping through his side. Black spots crowded his vision, increasing in number until the blackness was complete.
* * * * * * * * * *
Bradley Hanford was a happy man. He was about to get the weapons he needed for his people to take the Cause to the next stage. Action was needed to draw attention to the plight of the white man in today's society, and he would finally have the tools he needed to do the job. His smile faded when he thought about his cousin. He liked Ezra a lot and he hated what he had been forced to do to get the information he needed. It was too bad he didn't believe in the Cause. With his connections and training, he would have made an excellent addition to the brotherhood. His cousin's enviable ability to make money in the stock market would have been especially welcome, since gathering funds to support their efforts was often difficult. Bradley sighed. Maybe he would try convincing him one more time, after this business was concluded.
* * * * * * * * * *
"We got action," Vin whispered into his microphone. From his perch atop the warehouse, he had spotted several vehicles approaching the rear loading docks. "Two vans and two cars coming your way."
"Gotcha," Chris replied as he caught sight of the players.
The two ATF teams tensed as Arbella and his prospective customers exited their vehicles and prepared to make their exchange.
"Wait for my signal," Chris whispered into his microphone as he watched Hanford and Arbella shake hands. There was too much at stake to chance screwing up this bust by moving in prematurely. So, they waited while Hanford and his two associates examined the weapons. Finally, the blond man announced his satisfaction with the merchandise and handed Arbella a black leather satchel.
"Now!" Chris shouted. The two ATF teams sprang into action, converging on the startled dealmakers, who, upon recognizing the threat, dove for cover and began firing on the intruders. The firefight was intense, but short-lived. Within minutes, it was over, leaving several of the criminals dead or wounded on the ground.
"Everyone okay?" Chris asked. One by one, each of the men checked in, until there was only one left. "Vin?"
"Here," Vin's voice called from behind him.
Chris turned to greet him, but then frowned at the sight of his sharpshooter clutching a bloody hand to his left thigh. "Shit. You okay?"
Vin grinned at him. "It's just a flesh wound."
Chris rolled his eyes and took Vin's arm, assisting him over to some crates where he sat down with a groan. "Nathan," he called to the team medic. "Smartass here needs some help."
"I'm fine," Vin said automatically.
Chris snorted and ignored the dirty look Vin sent his way as Nathan began checking his injury. "How'd you get hit in the leg? You were supposed to be up on the roof."
"I was," Vin said, grimacing as Nathan pressed a bandage into place on his leg. "But one of 'em was trying to sneak out the side door, so I climbed down the fire escape to get a better line on him."
"And got yourself a hole in the leg for your trouble," Nathan growled at him.
Vin shot him a glare, then looked at Chris. "We get 'em all?"
"Yeah," Chris replied. "Hanford's dead."
"Damn," Vin said.
"I guess he took offense at being arrested by a black man," Chris explained disgustedly. "He drew on Nelson even though he had no chance."
Vin looked toward the center of the warehouse, spotting Carl Nelson easily, since he was the only African-American member of Team Two. "Poetic justice," he said finally.
"Yeah, but I would have liked to talk to him," Chris sighed. "He's the only one who can say for sure what's goin' on with Ezra."
"'Cept for Ezra," Vin added.
"Maybe his lackeys know something," Buck said, joining the conversation. "We got two of 'em in custody."
"Good," Chris said, his expression turning dangerous. "I need some answers."