It was completely dark when Ezra awoke again. Confused, he attempted to sit up, gasping at the sharp pain that rocketed through him. "Aw hell," he croaked when he had finally caught his breath. Carefully, he eased himself to a sitting position, leaning gently on the wall against which the narrow bed was situated.
There were no voices, no sounds whatsoever, coming from the other side of the door, so Ezra assumed his captors were either asleep or not present. He hoped for the latter, since he wasn't thrilled with the idea of a repeat performance of the earlier interrogation session. Quietly, he pushed himself to his feet, stifling the groan that wanted to escape his throat when he began to move.
His head swam and he was unsteady on his feet, but Ezra was able to make his way to the door without mishap. Pressing his ear to the wooden surface, he listened for several minutes before he was certain that there was no one on the other side. His hands were still bound behind him, so Ezra turned his back to the door, fumbling awkwardly for the doorknob. He twisted it sharply in both directions to no avail. It was securely locked.
Resignedly, Ezra made his way back to the creaky bed, his mind whirling as he contemplated his predicament. The first thing he needed to do was free his hands, since there was little he could do to escape while they were restrained behind his back. He began a careful, awkward search of the room that yielded nothing that would help to free him of his bonds. With a sigh of frustration, Ezra returned to the bed and considered his options. He couldn't untie his hands, but he might be able to reposition them. Slowly, he lay down on his side and began to slide his hands down under his hips and toward his feet, grateful for the natural flexibility that allowed him to perform such a maneuver. Grimacing at the pain in his ribs, Ezra finally pulled his hands around his feet and lay back on the bed, breathing heavily from the exertion while he waited for the stars swirling before his eyes to fade.
Another bout of coughing sent more pain tearing through him and it was several minutes before Ezra was able to move again. Gingerly, he lifted himself off of the bed and returned to the door, examining it for any weaknesses. He had nothing with which to pick the lock and both the door and the frame appeared to be in good condition. Nevertheless, he had to try to escape and inform the others of the impending weapons deal, if wasn't already too late.
Ezra moved back, then let loose a stepping side kick into the old-fashioned panel door. The impact ricocheted through his body, reawakening the burning pain in his side, but he continued his efforts, ramming his bare foot into the panels over and over until, finally, fatigue and pain overwhelmed him and he was forced to rest. His feet throbbed from the repeated collisions with the door, but Ezra was too tired to notice as he slipped deeply into exhausted slumber.
* * * * * * * * * *
Vin hobbled into the office on his crutches. "Hi guys," he greeted his teammates.
"Hey, Vin," Buck said dully.
Vin looked up sharply, noticing for the first time the apprehension that hung in the air. "What's goin' on?"
"The FBI is claiming jurisdiction," Josiah explained. "They won't let us question Hanford's men. Chris tried all weekend to get in to see them."
"Shit, I bet he's pissed," Vin commented with a frown as he made his way to his desk.
"Pissed don't even begin to cover it," Buck said. "He's upstairs now meeting with Travis and Farrell."
"Hey!" Nathan said, catching sight of Vin as he returned from the break room with a cup of tea. "You're supposed to be home resting!"
"I spent all weekend resting," Vin said defensively. "I was so bored I was climbin' the walls."
"You ain't supposed to be working," Nathan said with a frown.
"I'm just sittin' here," Vin grumbled.
Nathan opened his mouth to comment further, but was interrupted by Chris's entrance. The blond leader stormed into the bullpen with a grim look on his face, ignoring his men as he retreated into his office and slammed the door behind him.
"Uh-oh," JD said. "Chris doesn't look too happy."
Buck snorted. "Ya think?"
Vin eyed the closed door with concern. He wasn't sure he wanted to know what put that look on his friend's face, but he decided he'd better find out. With a sigh, he pulled himself to his feet and limped toward Chris's office.
"Chris?" Vin poked his head inside the office, frowning at the sight of Chris sitting with his head in his hands. "What's the matter?"
Chris looked up at him, then shook his head sadly.
Vin felt a ripple of alarm stirring in the pit of his stomach. "What?"
Chris sighed. "Hanford's men fingered Ezra as their inside source."
"No way!" Vin argued. "That's impossible!"
"I saw the interrogation tapes," Chris said defeatedly. "They implicated him by name and picked his photo out of two dozen mug shots."
"Shit!" Vin said as he sagged against the door. "What now?"
"IA is getting a warrant for his arrest as we speak," Chris said flatly. "There's nothing we can do."
"It has to be a setup," Vin said. "Ez wouldn't give up info like that."
"IA doesn't see it that way," Chris countered. "They have evidence and eyewitness statements... It's more than enough to take him down."
"You don't believe that crap, do you?" Vin asked incredulously.
"What am I supposed to think?" Chris said hotly. "I don't want to believe it, but the evidence says otherwise."
"I don't give a shit what the evidence says!" Vin said angrily. "Ez is my friend and I trust him. You ain't never trusted him." He pushed himself away from the wall and turned to leave.
"Vin," Chris warned. "Don't do anything stupid."
Vin turned and glared at him. "Standin' up for a friend ain't stupid."
Chris stared at Vin's retreating back and couldn't help but agree with him on that point. He only wished he had as much faith in his undercover agent as Vin had.
* * * * * * * * * *
The four men watched silently as Vin limped angrily out of Chris's office. He paused at his desk only long enough to grab his crutches and jacket before leaving.
"Damn," Buck said somberly, running his hand over his mustache.
"Told ya," Nathan remarked. They had all heard enough of the argument coming from Chris's office to get an idea what was happening.
"Shut up, Nathan!" JD shouted, jumping up from his desk and following Vin out of the bullpen.
"JD!" Buck started to follow him.
"Leave him be, brother," Josiah suggested. "He just needs some time to process what's happening."
"I suppose," Buck said, doubt creeping into his voice.
"It's not easy for him, Buck," Josiah said. "He looks up to all of us. Even Ezra. It's hard for him to understand how this could happen."
"Vin ain't takin' it too well, either," Buck said.
"Those two are closer to Ezra than the rest of us," Josiah noted.
Chris walked out of his office and joined them. "I take it you heard?"
"Hard not to, pard," Buck said sympathetically.
"Vin take off?"
"Yeah," Buck said. "He stormed out of here in a huff a couple minutes ago."
"JD followed him," Josiah added.
Chris swore softly. "I hope they don't get themselves in trouble."
"You think they went to Ezra's place?" Buck inquired.
Chris nodded. "Probably."
"What for?" Nathan asked.
"IA's getting an arrest warrant," Chris said.
"They got evidence?" Buck asked.
"Yep," Chris replied.
"Damn," Josiah said sadly.
"What are we going to do?" Buck asked, his forehead creased with worry.
"Nothing," Chris said simply. "It's out of our hands."
"But..." Buck began.
Chris held up his hand to forestall Buck's argument. "IA has all the evidence they need, Buck. There's nothing we can do but keep Vin and JD out of their way. Otherwise, they might get dragged down along with Ezra."
"I was hoping they were wrong about Ezra's involvement," Josiah said with a sigh.
"Hanford's boys have nothing to gain by lying about it," Chris answered with a weary shrug.
"It was plenty obvious to me," Nathan said stubbornly, trying to dispel the strange sense of loss he was feeling.
Chris turned away and headed for his office to get his coat and keys. "I'm going over to Ez's place. That's probably where Vin and JD are headed."
"Want some company?" Buck offered.
"Nah," Chris said. "I'll handle this myself." He looked at his watch. "It's almost quitting time anyway. Why don't you guys call it a day?"
"See you at the Saloon later?" Buck asked.
"Yeah," Chris said. "I think I'm gonna need a drink after this."
Buck nodded as Chris walked briskly from the room, not envying his friend the confrontation that was sure to come.
* * * * * * * * * *
Chris walked slowly up the sidewalk toward the two men sitting on the steps, not liking the look on their faces.
"He ain't here," Vin said from his seat on the stairs in front of Ezra's condo.
Chris stopped in front of him. "What?"
"Just what I said," Vin said sharply. "He ain't here."
"His Jag's still in the garage," JD added helpfully, "but he's not in his apartment."
"Damn," Chris said softly, running a hand through his hair. "How'd you get in, if he isn't home?"
"Picked the lock," Vin said with a shrug. "Don't think he took off, though," he added after a long silence. "His stuff's still there."
"Did you check for his luggage?" Chris asked.
Vin glared at him. "It's all there."
Chris sighed, trying to think of something to say. He didn't like this situation, but there was no way Vin was going to understand his position. The man was stubborn and once he had made up his mind, there was no changing it. Normally, he was proud of his friend's tenacity, but in this case, Chris believed that it would only cause him pain.
The despondent silence was broken by the screeching of tires as two sedans, one blue, and one black, pulled up in front of the building. The three men groaned simultaneously when they saw Agent Farrell and Howard Kendrick from Internal Affairs step out of the blue vehicle.
"What are you doing here, Larabee?" Farrell snarled. "Standish is no longer your concern."
"He's still one of my men," Chris said icily. "It's my job to inform him of the charges."
"Not anymore," Kendrick said, pushing his way past Chris.
"You're wastin' your time," Vin called after the men who were making their way to Ezra's door. "He ain't there."
"Where is he?!" Farrell demanded.
"Damned if I know," Vin drawled, shrugging casually.
Farrell's face began to turn red. "You're covering for him, aren't you?! You won't get away with this!"
Vin rolled his eyes and JD hid a smile at the agent's agitation.
Chris gazed at him coolly. "I warned you once about making accusations without evidence."
Farrell paled significantly under the piercing stare. "Travis will hear about this," he sputtered.
Vin and JD snickered.
"There's no sign of him," Kendrick said as he exited the apartment building, sending a dark glare at the three other ATF agents. "Do you gentlemen know where he is?"
"Nope," Vin answered.
JD shook his head. "We just got here ourselves."
Chris only glared at him. He and the IA agent had butted heads more than once over issues with his team. The man simply didn't understand that the rulebook didn't always work in the field, and that sometimes the rules had to be bent a little in order to get results. Team Seven's unorthodox methods had run afoul of those rules on more than one occasion, much to IA's displeasure.
"You will let us know if you see him?" Kendrick said, making it more of a command than a question.
Chris tilted his head and gave him a humorless smile.
Kendrick took in the look on Chris's face and decided he didn't want to argue with the man. He scowled at them and hurried back into Ezra's condo.
"Damn, Chris," Vin said appreciatively. "You almost made him piss his pants with that glare of yours."
JD snorted. "Yeah, and did you see the look on Farrell's face?"
The two men laughed, but Chris frowned at them. "Anything you boys want to tell me?"
The laughter ceased abruptly and Chris was faced with a pair of matching glares.
"We haven't seen him," JD said angrily.
"Okay, okay," Chris said, raising his hands apologetically. "That was out of line."
"We ain't that stupid, cowboy," Vin said, still a little miffed. "We just wanted to show Ez that we're on his side."
"I know," Chris agreed. "This thing's just got me a little on edge."
Vin eyed him for a moment then nodded. "Yeah."
"Come on," Chris said with a faint smile. "I'll buy you a drink."
The two younger men nodded and followed their blond leader down the walk, ignoring the agents who rushed past them on their way to search Ezra's apartment.
* * * * * * * * * *
He didn't know how much time had passed, but Ezra figured it had been at least a few days, judging by the level of thirst he felt. Bradley had left a small bottle of water in the room the last time he had been there, but Ezra had had nothing since he finished it some time ago. If he hadn't been sick, he was sure he would be feeling hungry by now as well. He was thankful that his cold had kept him from eating or drinking much prior to his abduction, since he also hadn't visited a bathroom since before his captors had departed.
There was no light in the room and none had filtered from beneath the door since Bradley's men had left, so Ezra had no idea if it was night or day. He had slept when he was tired, which seemed to be often, and spent his waking hours working the ropes that still tied his hands and beating against the door in an attempt to escape his prison. But thus far, his efforts had proved fruitless.
Ezra dropped heavily onto the bed as another fit of coughing took hold of him. The bouts seemed to be occurring with greater frequency and he was beginning to feel the telltale heaviness in his chest that indicated pneumonia. He knew he had to escape soon, before he became incapacitated by his illness. As the coughing subsided, Ezra forced himself to stand, limping determinedly back to the door to renew his efforts. With a strength borne of frustration, he attacked the door again, slamming his foot violently against the panels until one of them ultimately gave way.
The unexpected passage of his foot through the wood knocked Ezra off balance and he crashed bodily into the intact portion of the door. Clutching his ribs as best he could with his bound hands, Ezra slowly extricated his bruised and bloody foot from the splintered hole. He lowered himself carefully to his knees and pushed his hands into the hole, gritting his teeth against the pain as he reached up toward the deadbolt that secured the door. His fingers brushed against the cool metal as he strained to reach the knob that would grant him his freedom. Finally, after much maneuvering and cursing, his probing fingers grasped the knob and twisted it open. The resulting click brought a relieved smile to Ezra's face. At that moment, it was the best sound he had ever heard.
Pulling himself stiffly to his feet, Ezra tried the doorknob, sagging with relief when the door swung open into the outer room. He stretched out his arms, groping blindly along the walls until he located a light switch and turned it on. The flood of light momentarily blinded him, but his eyes slowly adjusted and Ezra was able to examine his surroundings more closely.
The room was larger than the one in which he had been imprisoned and was sparsely furnished with a scarred wooden table and several rickety wooden chairs. The only window in the room had been boarded up, allowing no natural light to enter. The door on the opposite side of the room opened into a large, dark hall, filled with dusty chairs and small tables. It looked like it might have been a lounge or dance club at one time, judging by the wide expanse of dust-covered wood flooring that occupied center of the room.
Ezra turned back into the room with the table, sinking into a chair as another coughing fit shook him. The deep coughs felt as if they came all the way from the soles of his feet and he didn't think they would ever end, but after several long minutes, they finally subsided and he lifted his head wearily from his hands. A pair of small glass bottles on the table caught his attention and Ezra felt his anger begin to build. He pulled his sleeve over his hand to avoid ruining any fingerprints that might be on the bottle and lifted the rubber-topped vial carefully. Staring at the small amount of liquid that remained inside, his anger mixed with grief as he thought about how Bradley had so callously used him to further his 'cause'. Ezra fought the urge to fling the vial against the wall, dropping it awkwardly into his pocket instead. It might be the only thing that would prove his lack of complicity to his teammates. Somehow, it was important to him that they knew he wasn't a willing participant in Bradley's madness.
Turning his attention to the other vial, he reached out and picked it up, eyeing the contents uncertainly. This one appeared to contain a small amount of white powder. Ezra carefully unscrewed the cap and sniffed at it experimentally. It had no apparent odor not that his clogged nasal passages would have detected it anyway so he put the cap back on and dropped it into his pocket with the other bottle.
With a last look around the room, Ezra stood and began limping toward a door marked with an unlit exit sign. It seemed to take forever, but he finally reached the door and turned the knob hopefully. His smile grew when the door swung open with a loud squeal and he emerged into an empty parking lot. Ezra lifted his gaze heavenward, taking solace in the stars that winked at him from the night sky. He was free.
With a reluctant sigh, Ezra pulled his gaze down to the deserted street in front of him. He had escaped his prison, but he had yet to reach safety. Bradley and his men could return at any time and he had no intention of being anywhere nearby when that happened.
Judging by the paleness of the horizon, it was relatively early in the evening. The boarded-up nightclub was situated at the fringes of a large industrial area, and Ezra had a vague idea of where he might be and turned toward what he thought was the correct direction. Ignoring the pain that afflicted his body, he began limping along the silent street, unaware of the bloody footprints he was leaving on the pavement.
* * * * * * * * * *
The six men sat at their usual table, but without their usual joviality, as they tried not to think about Ezra's impending arrest. It was impossible, though, since the empty seat at the table was a constant reminder of his absence.
"Would you like another round?" Inez asked hesitantly. They had explained the situation to her in response to her inquiry about Ezra's whereabouts and, though she understood their reasons, she was concerned by how much liquor they had consumed. It was not typical of them to drink so much on a Monday night.
"Thanks darlin'," Buck said, slurring his words slightly, "but I think it's time we got our asses home. Right guys?"
The rest of them reluctantly agreed and began preparations to leave.
"Do you need some taxis?"
"No thanks, Inez," Nathan answered. "I'll drive them." He had restricted himself to only one beer early in the evening, since he wasn't about to get drunk over the likes of Ezra Standish.
"Are you sure?"
Nathan eyed his semi-inebriated teammates. "Yeah," he said with a smile. "I can handle this bunch."
"All right," Inez said as she began to clear the table.
She watched sadly as Nathan hustled the somber group into his car and drove off to deliver them to their homes. It hurt to see her favorite customers in such a state and she whispered a quiet prayer that, somehow, everything would be right again.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra looked at the street sign and blinked, waiting for the blurry image to resolve itself. A smile graced his swollen lips when the letters resolved themselves into something familiar. He knew where he was now. It had taken him hours of walking but help was finally near. It had been an agonizing trip, limping along the cracked and broken sidewalks, avoiding any strangers he saw for fear of being delayed in his trek toward safety. He had lost count of the times he had been forced to stop while his body betrayed him with debilitating coughs that threatened to put a premature end to his journey. But now, the end was near and with weary determination in his step, Ezra continued down the street.
* * * * * * * * * *
Vin awoke with a start, squinting into the darkness warily for whatever had awakened him. After a few moments, he shook his head disgustedly and nestled back into his pillow. He had definitely had too much to drink if he was hearing things. His eyes drifted shut and he was nearly asleep when he heard a thumping sound coming from his hallway.
Instantly wide awake, Vin reached for his gun on the nightstand and made his way silently into the other room, pausing at his front door to listen. After an interminable minute, the thump was repeated, accompanied by an odd shuffling sound. Gripping his weapon tightly, Vin quietly disengaged the locks and yanked the door open, poking his head out the door for a quick look.
With a stream of curses, Vin stuck his gun in the waistband of his sweatpants and hobbled into the hallway. There, lying motionless on the floor, was Ezra Standish.
"Ez?" Vin reached down, mindful of his injured leg, and touched the prone man on the shoulder. Ezra groaned in response and rolled sideways, giving Vin a good look at his face in the light of the hallway. "Aw shit," Vin said when he saw his friend's battered countenance. "Hang on, pard. I got ya."
Grabbing Ezra under the arm, Vin dragged him into his apartment, muscling him onto the couch with great difficulty. He frowned when he caught sight of the ropes encircling Ezra's wrists. "What the hell?" he muttered to himself as he reached for the phone and dialed Chris's cell phone.
"What?" Chris's voice growled at the other end of the line.
"Chris, it's me," Vin said. "I need you to get over here right now."
"You know what time it is?" Chris said sharply.
"Chris... Ez's here," Vin said softly.
There was a muffled curse on the other end followed by a sigh. "I'm on my way."
Vin hung up the phone and moved back to the couch, spreading a blanket over his friend. He placed a hand on Ezra's forehead, pushing the sweat-dampened hair back and cursing at the heat he felt there. The southerner moaned and began coughing so fiercely that Vin winced in sympathy. "Damn, Ez," he said comfortingly. "You sound like shit."
"Mr... Tanner," Ezra gasped.
"Right here," Vin answered, moving into his line of sight.
"I made it," Ezra mumbled hoarsely.
"Bradley..." Ezra trailed off into another coughing fit.
Vin hurried into the kitchen to get a glass of water. Lifting Ezra's head, he helped him sip from the glass.
"Thank... you," Ezra said softly.
"Hanford do this to you?" Vin asked, setting the glass down on the coffee table.
Ezra nodded, the anguish on his face plain to see. "Used... me."
Vin cursed silently, wishing Hanford was alive so that he could suffer more for what he had done to Ezra.
"My fault..." Ezra muttered.
Vin watched in distress as tears began to slide down the southerner's face. Turning away, he hobbled into the bathroom, returning with a wet towel. Gently, he wiped Ezra's face, then draped it across his forehead. "Hang in there, pard."
The sharp rapping on the door announced Chris's arrival. Vin opened the door to admit him, gesturing toward the sofa. Chris stopped short at the sight of his agent lying huddled under a blanket. "What the hell is going on?"
Vin shrugged as he moved beside him. "Don't know. I found him in the hallway like this."
"He's a mess," Chris said grimly. "We'd better get him to the hospital."
Vin nodded. "Yeah. Didn't think I could get 'im into the jeep by myself."
"Give me a hand," Chris said as he reached for Ezra's shoulder.
"Careful, his hands are tied," Vin warned. "They looked bad, so I figured I'd leave it to the docs to get rid of them ropes."
"Shit," Chris said as the blanket fell away, revealing the torn and bloody wrists.
Together, Vin and Chris managed to get Ezra into the back seat of Chris's Ram. Vin sat with him, cradling the unconscious man's head in his lap, as Chris drove to the hospital.
* * * * * * * * * *
"How is he?" JD asked anxiously as he hurried into the waiting room. Buck followed at a more sedate pace.
"Don't know yet," Vin said. "The doctor is still with him."
"What's wrong with him?" JD asked.
"Looks like someone worked him over pretty good," Vin said. "He was burnin' up and coughin' real bad, too."
JD dropped tiredly into a chair next to Vin. "I hope he's okay."
"Me too, kid," Vin said.
Buck made his way toward Chris, who stood near the window, looking out into the night. "You all right, pard?"
"Yeah," Chris replied. "The rest of the guys comin'?"
Buck nodded. "They're on their way."
"Him too," Buck said with a hint of a smile.
"I'm not calling Travis until morning," Chris said firmly. "He can deal with those IA bozos then."
"Doesn't sound like Ez's gonna be leavin' anytime soon," Buck said.
"Brothers," Josiah nodded in greeting as he strode into the room. "How is our lost sheep?"
"No word yet," Vin said. "He didn't look too good, though."
Josiah shook his head sadly. "Brother Ezra has quite a knack for finding trouble."
"I think this time it found him," Vin said.
Nathan made his entrance at the same time as the doctor and hurried to stand with his friends while the doctor addressed them.
"Mr. Larabee?" the tall, gray-haired man called.
"Right here," Chris said, moving to stand in front of him. "Doctor...?"
"Tyler," he supplied, shaking Chris's hand.
"How is he?" Vin asked anxiously.
The doctor swept his gaze over the group of concerned men. "Mr. Standish is a very sick man. He has pneumonia, which has been untreated for some time. We've started him on antibiotics and put him on a ventilator to assist his breathing and give his body a chance to rest."
"Damn, I knew he sounded bad," Vin muttered.
"He has also, if you'll excuse the expression, had the crap beaten out of him," Dr. Tyler said. "Several of his ribs were cracked and his kidneys are badly bruised. We pulled a lot of splinters out of his foot and arm, and stitched up several deep gashes on his leg." He looked up at them. "He's extremely dehydrated, which hasn't helped the pneumonia any. I'd say he was very lucky that you brought him in when you did."
"Will he be all right?" JD asked hesitantly.
"Given time and rest, he has a good chance," the doctor replied. "Pneumonia can be tricky, though. If he responds to the antibiotics, he should be fine."
"Can we see him?" asked Buck.
"I'll have the nurse let you know when he's settled into a room."
"Thank you, doctor," Josiah said.
Dr. Tyler nodded and began to walk away, then stopped and took two items from the nurse who stood in the doorway. He turned back to Chris. "Mr. Larabee. We found these in Agent Standish's pocket. I thought they might be important." He handed Chris a plastic bag containing two glass bottles along with a second bag containing Ezra's clothes. "We only handled them with gloves."
"Thank you," Chris said, studying the contents of the first bag as the doctor returned to his patients.
"What is it?" Vin asked.
"I don't know," Chris replied. He handed the bag to Nathan. "What do you think?"
Nathan examined the bottles through the clear plastic. "One of these is an injectable liquid of some kind. You can tell by the rubber top on the bottle." He pointed to the red circle of rubber in the center of the metal lid. "This other one looks like powder... could be a drug."
"Can you run it down to forensics?" Chris asked.
Nathan nodded. "I'll have them put a rush on it." Stuffing the bag in his pocket, Nathan briskly left the waiting room.
"I got a feelin' about them bottles, cowboy," Vin said, his eyes on Nathan's retreating back.
"Me, too," Chris said with a grimace. "I think things might have just gotten more complicated."
The five men settled into the uncomfortable plastic chairs to wait, silently contemplating the situation.