Time seemed to freeze in that instant.
The sounds of the wind through the trees, the gunshots in the distance, Vitalis's mighty yell, even his own harsh breathing-it all faded into the background for the agent as his world narrowed down to the glint off the shiny blade sweeping for his chest. In an act of pure desperation, Ezra threw himself bodily at Vitalis's legs as the man stepped in to deal the death blow, forcing Tony to jump up to avoid being knocked to the ground and giving Ezra one precious opening. He rolled underneath the thug and grasped for his salvation even as the other man whirled around, arm pivoted to throw the knife. Ezra stopped on his right side and flung his left arm up, firing the pistol on blind instinct.
He watched, as if in slow motion, the bullet slammed into Vitalis's chest, dead center into the man's heart. Tony stumbled backwards a little from the force, but stayed on his feet and looked down at his chest in shock. He dropped the knife to the ground, reaching instead to finger the steadily growing dark stain on his front, and looked up at Ezra, his mouth slightly ajar and his eyes wide with surprise. He took one step forward before his legs gave out, taking him to the ground where he landed with a bone-jarring thud and rolled onto his back, his slack features and lifeless eyes raised emptily towards the sky.
Ezra slumped back to the ground in relief and laid his arm over his eyes as he took deep breaths, trying to expel the adrenaline from his system and gain control over the tremors that came with the realization of how close he had just come to death. After a moment, he pushed himself up into a sitting position with a groan and pulled the damaged leg up for inspection.
It hurt like h**l, but after a few moments of applied pressure, he could see that it was slowly starting to clot. He ripped the bottom of his shirt off and secured it around the wound as a makeshift bandage before climbing stiff-leggedly to his feet and crossing over to the body. The other cuts he had sustained on his arms and upper body were shallow and thus inconsequential in his estimation. He reached down for the knife with a grimace and snapped it shut before slipping it into his pocket. He quickly re-supplied himself with ammunition from Vitalis's pockets then stood back up, reloading the pistol as he limped out of the grove. He paused at the entrance, looking back at the still form staring sightlessly at the canopy above, and closed his eyes for a moment as a feeling of regret washed over him.
Even though he had been in this business for what seemed to be a lifetime to him, and even though he was willing to and had used a weapon against another countless times during his career, he never enjoyed the taking of another human being's life, no matter how necessary the action was. In fact, he welcomed the regret each time it came, seeing it as proof to himself that he was still human, that he was still Ezra Standish on the inside.
As far as he was concerned, the day he lost that regret was the day he hung up his guns and walked away.
Shots from the direction of the ranch house pulled his attention away from the body and he began trotting in that direction as fast as he could, dread and determination filling him as he silently prayed that those left behind were alright.
* * * * * * *
Alex silently ghosted her way through the trees, trying to circle around back to the house to get help. If she had known the area better, she would have risked going cross-country to the nearest neighbor, but since she had no idea what direction to head in, she settled for the riskier option. She wanted a chance to call Larabee, check on Buck and Eddie, and get a weapon, all in that order. Back behind her, she could hear her pursuers searching for a sign of her, and she quickened her pace.
She came out onto the graveled driveway a few minutes later, about a half mile from the main house. As she stepped out onto the drive, muddy tire prints leading off the gravel onto a run-down dirt road that disappeared into the trees caught her attention and she followed them, being careful to stay out of sight. Just as she turned the bend in the road, three vehicles-two luxury cars and one beat-up old escort-came into view. She immediately realized who the cars belonged to and wasted no time in digging her pocket knife out and slashing the tires before she again slipped into the forest, a faint smile on her lips.
That put three escape routes for the bad guys out of play, and she figured that if she could disable the remaining three vehicles belonging to Buck and the federal agents who had been on guard, then Bartinol and Randolph would have no way to escape. Then all she and Ezra would have to do was survive long enough until the cavalry arrived.
Piece of cake, right?
* * * * * * *
Bartinol worked his way through the dense forest, his pistol in hand, looking for any sign of the girl. His man was somewhere up ahead while Randolph trailed behind, a disgusted look on his face as he picked through the mud gingerly, grimacing at the damage being done to his Italian loafers and more importantly, at the damage said loafers were doing to his feet.
He hated the outdoors.
Bartinol glanced back at the man and shook his head in annoyance before he stepped out onto the graveled driveway. Randolph came up behind him as the gunman jogged up from where the dirt pathway ended further down the road. "Well?" Randolph asked impatiently. "Any sign of her?"
"I think she's cutting back, sir," the man answered, glancing at the other crime lord before turning his attention back to Bartinol. "She found the cars. All the tires are slashed."
"D**n!" Randolph cursed. He turned to Bartinol with a slight sneer on his lips. "Now how do you propose we escape from here?"
Bartinol frowned at the crime lord, his disproval obvious. "We use the vehicles left by the agents, sir," he answered, his tone one of barely concealed irritation. "That is, if we can get to them before the girl does." He turned to his lackey. "Follow the dirt road back to the ranch-Mr. Randolph and I will proceed up the driveway. We'll catch her between us."
The gunman nodded and headed off into the woods while Bartinol set a quick pace up the driveway. Randolph growled under his breath in frustration before following the other man, vowing vengeance on the ones responsible for his misery.
* * * * * * *
Alex made her way to the three vehicles hidden at the edge of the paddock a few hundred yards behind the barn, trying to erase the images of the grisly scene she had just stumbled upon from her mind. She had wondered what had become of the four guards who were supposed to have been on watch outside, and had gotten her answer as she exited the woods that lined the small field behind the barn. The first body had been sprawled not far from the road in the grass, a nasty stab wound in its back, its throat slit from ear to ear and a horrid look of ghastly surprise on its face. She didn't scream, but she did turn her head quickly as she made her way around it, making a mental note of its exact location and wishing she had been able to at least give the poor man the respect of being covered from the elements.
The second body was lying beside the first car, the cold remains of a half-burned cigarette lying next to the nearly severed head. Bile rose into her throat at the sight of that one, but she swallowed it back down and turned her attention to the task at hand, hoping that she didn't find the other two. Though she had seen death in many gruesome forms during her tenure on the streets of some of America's largest cities, the sight of it still bothered her greatly. Many who ended up on the streets became hardened to death in all it forms, but street life, while forcing her to become resilient against life's harshest injustices, had not hardened her heart. Indeed, if anything, life to her had become something quite precious, and the blatant waste of it was still something that grieved her deeply.
She quickly pulled her knife back out and slashed the tires of the two government vehicles, but when she got to Buck's truck, she paused, realizing that she, Ezra, and the others might need transportation off the ranch. Instead, she took the time to pop the hood of the old truck and pull one of the distributor wires from the motor. Just as the wire came loose in her hand, a bullet pinged off the raised hood right beside her head. She turned to see the gunman running towards her across the field and immediately took off in the opposite direction, heading for the house. She vaulted over the low rail fence with cat-like grace and hit the ground on the opposite side running, but was forced to change direction again when a shout from the front alerted her to Bartinol and Randolph's approach.
"There she is!" Randolph yelled unnecessarily as he watched the girl duck out of sight behind the tool shed.
"She's gotten to the other vehicles!" Bartinol pointed out.
Randolph answered with a curse as they headed toward the small building, intent on catching their prey between themselves and the gunman. As they reached the building, Bartinol motioned for Randolph to head around the barn and approach her from that direction, thus cutting off that means of escape as well.
Alex ripped the door to the shed open, frantically searching for anything she could use as a weapon. Spying the snow shovel propped up against the wall just inside the door, she grabbed it up and ducked back outside, hunkering down between the side of the building and the large barrel filled with used motor oil just as the gunman rounded the corner. She watched as he approached the door cautiously, his gun cocked and ready to fire. As soon as he stepped over the threshold of the door to search the interior, she jumped up and with a mighty swing, brought the shovel down on the man's head.
The man dropped to the ground like a ton of bricks, his gun discharging harmlessly into the ceiling.
Barely taking the time to ensure that the man was indeed unconscious, Alex dropped the shovel and sprinted to the barn, ducking at the entrance as Bartinol rounded the corner of the shed and let off a shot in her direction.
Just as she made it into the murky interior, the sound of sirens in the distance reached her ears, and she nearly dropped to the floor in relief. She realized that someone-either Ezra or Buck or even Eddie-had been able to get a call out.
Help was on its way.
Now, if she could just survive the next five minutes .
The sirens reached Bartinol's ears as well and he paused at the side of the shed. A frown creased his face as he glanced from the driveway to the barn and back again. Realizing that his window of opportunity for escape was quickly closing, he made his decision and raced across the paddock, slipping across the fence to head for the trees beyond. He paused at the tree line and looked back toward the ranch house and barn, a slight smile on his features. "You are indeed worthy opponents, Miss Sanders, Agent Standish," he whispered to himself. "Until we meet again." He tipped the barrel of his pistol to his forehead in a salute before he disappeared into the forest.
As he reached the opposite side of the barn, the sound of the sirens reached Randolph as well and he cursed to himself bitterly, realizing that his arrest was imminent. His eyes narrowed and he entered the building, determination in his step. "If I am to go down, then I am taking at least one of you with me," he vowed to himself as he quietly worked his way toward the front entrance of the building, stalking one of the causes of his downfall.
* * * * * * *
Ezra burst through the backdoor of the house only to pull up short at the sight of the gun leveled in his direction. "Whoa, Mr. Wilmington! It's just me!" he protested, raising his hands in the air.
Buck slumped back against the wall with a sigh and lowered the weapon. "That's a fine way to get your fool head blown off, Hoss," he smirked, a relieved grin coming unbidden to his lips.
Ezra just shook his head as he knelt down beside his teammate and reached for his head. "It is indeed fortuitous that you are still among the living," he observed as he poked at the cut.
Buck hissed at the probing and pulled away but turned a huge, mischievous grin towards the other man.
"Does that mean you was worried about me?" he asked in good humor.
Ezra rolled his eyes and sat back on his heels. "Actually, I was thinking about the thirty dollars you owe me from last month's poker game," he quipped, a bemused expression on his face. His features turned serious. "Are you feeling alright?"
Buck nodded. "A bit dizzy and sick to my stomach, but I've felt worse after a tag-football game with JD," he reassured his friend. He gestured to the makeshift bandage on Ezra's leg and the cut on his face as he leaned over to check on Eddie. "What about you?"
Ezra fingered the swollen but non-bleeding gash on his face and shrugged off Buck's concern. "A mere scratch. How is agent Thomas?"
Buck glanced back up and shook his head, his mouth dropping into a grim line. "Not good. Chris and the other's better get here soon."
Ezra met his gaze, a hopeful glint in his eyes. "You contacted them, then?"
"Yep," Buck smiled. "They should be here any minute."
Ezra slumped back and let out a sigh of relief. "In the words of our notable Mr. Sanchez, 'Thank the Lord!'"
Buck nodded in agreement then frowned as he realized one of their number was missing. "Where's the girl?" he asked apprehensively.
"I'm not sure," Ezra answered with a worried frown of his own. "I'm afraid I lost track of her during my jaunt through the woods and subsequent showdown with Mr. Vitalis." He stood to his feet. "But I am assuming that wherever she is, Mr. Bartinol and Randolph are on her heels."
"Well, let's go out and look for her," Buck exclaimed as he climbed to his feet only to sway dangerously as the world tilted on him. "Whoa," he groaned, slumping back to the ground and closing his eyes, swallowing against the nausea that welled up from his stomach.
Ezra started forward to check on him, an admonishment on his lips, but an echoing shot from alarmingly nearby caused him to pause and glance toward the living room windows at the barn beyond before exchanging a worried look with the big man. "Stay here," he ordered when Buck made to climb to his feet. "Buck, I mean it!" He snapped with a warning glare before he slipped out the door and sprinted around the corner of the house, heading toward the barn with his pistol in hand.
Buck hit his fist against the floor in frustration at his weakness and looked out the window in worry. "Hurry, Chris," he whispered, even as he heard the sirens approaching.
* * * * * * *
Horses had been a passion that Chris and Sarah had both shared, and they had worked hard to build their business and reputations as horse breeders. Sarah had devoted herself full-time to the enterprise, putting her college degrees in business and equine studies to good use while Chris split his time between the ranch and the police force and Buck chipped in wholeheartedly wherever he was needed. It had been a life and an occupation that they had both loved, and the ranch had shown it. The horse barn was huge and well-built with a large area on the left lined with stalls for the animals, a well-equipped tack room, and a small, one room apartment that they had used during foaling time. They had added an indoor training arena to the right side of the building about a year after Adam's birth. The arena was separated from the main structure by the tack room and the apartment, but connected to it by another aisle running lengthwise through the middle of the building. A large hayloft extended the length of the original structure overhead.
After the deaths of his family, Chris's love for the ranch had also died-or at least, had been buried deep under the grief. He had sold off most of his stock and had let the place go while he plunged into the bottle, trying to drown the painful memories. Indeed, by the time he finally surfaced from his drunken haze a year later, the ranch would have been in sad disrepair if it hadn't been for Buck. Buck had worked tirelessly to keep the buildings in good shape, the fences mended, and the closer pastures clear, perhaps using the work as a way to deal with his own grief and guilt while he strove to pull his friend back from the edge. Once Chris had sobered up, Buck talked him into taking on a few boarders and hiring a couple of the neighbor kids to help care for them. Working with the horses seemed to be a sort of balm to Chris's spirit, a small, calm shelter in the midst of the dark, raging storm that filled him. Vin Tanner also held a great love for horses, and as his friendship deepened with the outdoorsman, Chris's passion for the beasts slowly rekindled and grew into a small flame, serving as a place of common ground between them as they worked together to train and care for the animals.
Chris had taken advantage of the warm spell and had turned the horses out into the pasture, leaving the barn empty. Alex made her way down the stall aisle of the barn, looking desperately around for some kind of weapon. She glanced briefly at the ladder leading to the hay loft, but dismissed it, realizing that to climb up there would only serve to entrap herself for the enemy. As she passed by the aisle leading to the arena, a shot suddenly sounded nearby and a bullet buried itself in the post beside her. She caught a glimpse of Randolph standing in the arena with his gun aimed right at her as she made a desperate dive for the shelter of the tack room, another bullet following close behind her. She slid down behind a saddle bench, her heart pounding in her chest while she searched frantically for a way to protect herself.
The sirens in the distance grew closer.
Randolph worked his way to the tack room doorway and paused outside the entrance. He glanced inside and, seeing that there was no other way out, grinned wickedly to himself. "Well, well, well," he said conversationally as he checked the loads in his gun, "it seems that our little game of chase is about to come to an end."
Alex leaned back against the bench and squeezed her eyes shut tight as she gulped hard to try to steady her breathing, fear pumping icy adrenaline through her veins. "Larabee and his men are going to be here any minute," she called out, sounding much braver than she was actually feeling. "It's over, Randolph. You've lost. Why don't you give yourself up?"
Randolph nodded. "Yes, it does indeed seem that I've been dealt a losing hand in this game, thanks to you and Agent Standish. All those years of hard work, lost in a single blow," he sighed loudly as he glanced back into the room, trying to get an idea of where she was hiding. "I realized that you were the one who must have taken those ledgers from the hangar, you know," he continued. "And I also realized that you must have witnessed the demise of Mr. Banning as well. That does indeed make you quite the liability."
"Well, it seemed to be a good idea at the time," she muttered as she pulled herself back against the wall in a tighter crouch and scanned the room one more time. Her gaze landed on an old dust-covered bridle lying on the bottom of the shelf behind her, and she grabbed it up.
It was better than nothing.
Randolph narrowed his eyes. "My business is destroyed, my life is destroyed, and my carefully constructed reputation will soon fall to the dust." He stepped slowly into the room. "And now, I'm about to face arrest and imprisonment, all due to the over-zealousness of a cocky, arrogant reject from the FBI and the interference of a street kid."
"Glad I could help," Alex quipped as she clutched the bridle tightly and glanced up at the ceiling for a moment, sending a desperate prayer skyward and readying herself for a desperate spring.
The sirens' incessant wail grew ever closer, the sounds of the whining engines of the vehicles now reaching their ears as the Ram and its entourage barreled up the long driveway to screech to a stop in front of the house.
Randolph zeroed in on the saddle bench and cocked his pistol. "I may be going down," he growled, "but at least I will have my revenge on you before I go. And as for Agent Standish, if Tony hasn't already dispensed of him-well, I should have plenty of time to plan a suitable demise for him in the future." He turned the corner of the bench and grinned evilly down on the girl crouched in the corner, her face pale and her eyes wide as she looked up at him. He leveled the gun at her face, his smile turning feral. "Goodbye, Miss Sanders."
Suddenly, with a wild yell, the girl sprang to life. She swung the bridle with all her might right at his face and shoved him backwards across a stool, slamming his gun arm up and back. The gun discharged harmlessly into the ceiling as she pushed by him on a mad dash for the doorway, but Randolph managed to roll to one knee and get off another shot at her just as she reached the opening. The bullet punched through her right arm, spraying blood down the side of her t-shirt and throwing her step off. A pain-filled gasp escaped her lips as she stumbled to one knee, clutching at the wounded arm tightly, but she managed to get to her feet and stumble back down the aisle, the adrenaline rushing through her veins giving her the added strength.
Randolph came out of the tack room and fired another shot at her, forcing her to duck into one of the empty stalls. She fell to her good hand and knees, clutching the injured arm tightly to her body as she pulled herself towards the back wall through the hay and huddled in the corner. She turned toward the man who hunted her as his shadow fell across her face and looked up into his cold eyes with a courage born of the certain knowledge that she was about to die, her teeth gritted against her pain and her blue eyes flashing with anger. Randolph smiled down at her and brought his pistol to bear, aiming directly between her eyes. She watched, mesmerized, as the trigger was slowly depressed, the hammer sliding slowly back-
The shots resounded through the barn like a thunder clap, echoing across the fields and through the trees with an eerie finality, and Alex slammed back against the wall, her eyes squeezed tightly shut. It took a moment for it to register that she hadn't been further harmed. At that realization, she slowly opened one eye, then the other, looking down at her chest before glancing back up towards the opening. Randolph lay on the pavement, a red stain on his chest slowly growing in size as he moaned once before falling completely still.
As she tried to figure out what had just happened, another shadow crept down the aisle towards the body. She couldn't stop the peep from escaping her lips nor the flinch from shuddering through her body as a man suddenly stepped into view and kicked Randolph's gun well away from his bloody, bullet-pierced hand before turning to face her. She found herself looking up into the mud-smudged features of Ezra Standish and slumped against the wall in relief. He noticed the blood on her arm and slipped into the stall to kneel beside her, reaching for the wounded appendage. "Are you alright, my dear?" he asked as he poked at the hole. He grinned slightly at her sudden intake of breath.
"Never better," she muttered through clenched teeth. She glanced up into his face, a mischievous light entering her eyes. "What took you so long?"
Ezra paused a moment, then returned her smile with a large one of his own. "My little jaunt through the forest with Mr. Vitalis and his guard took a bit longer than I expected," he answered glibly as he turned her arm in search of the exit hole. He nodded to himself when he found it.
"Enjoy yourself?" she quipped even as another hiss escaped her lips.
TV never let on how much this hurt!
Ezra raised an eyebrow at her before reaching down to rip another section off the bottom of his shirt. "Hardly," he grumbled good-naturedly as he wadded the cloth up and pressing it tightly against her arm. "My hundred and twenty dollar oxfords are ruined, let alone this shirt and these pants, what with all these rips and tears in them. And all of this mud will never come out."
"Not to mention the blood stains," she observed dryly, taking notice of the bandage around his leg as she reached up to take the compress. She motioned toward the wound with her free hand. "Are you all right?"
He dismissed her concern with a wave of his hand as he settled back against the wall of the stall beside her. "It's nothing."
"Uh-huh," she snorted, but let it pass. Something in his hair caught her attention and she reached up with a chuckle, pulling down a clump of mud and a twig off of a pine tree. "You're beginning to look like a regular Daniel Boone," she giggled.
He took the twig from her with a frown and ran his hands through his hair, trying to dislodge the rest of the mud. "Heaven forbid," he groused. "I was meant for much better." He sat back with a sigh. "Nothing would make me happier right now than a long, hot soak in a Jacuzzi, clean clothes, and a nice long nap."
"Can't argue with you there," she agreed. She leaned back as well and closed her eyes. "What happened to the guard and Vitalis?"
"The guard is tied up somewhere down the trail. Vitalis is dead," he answered quietly.
Alex cracked one eye open to look at him in concern then turned her gaze away. "So much death," she sighed, shaking her head morosely, remembering the dead guards she had stumbled upon.
Ezra glanced over at her and patted her on the shoulder. "Yes, but our efforts here today will ensure that these villains no longer harm anyone else. And that," he said as he chucked her chin slightly and smiled at her, "you can take satisfaction in. It may not be much when one looks at the entire deplorable picture, but every little bit helps."
She returned his smile with one of her own, but before she could comment, the sound of footsteps running down the aisle caught their attention. Ezra was up on his knee in an instant, the gun aimed for the stall entrance, but he lowered his arm as the worried features of Vin Tanner came into view. "You guys alright in there?" the tracker asked with a huff, his breath coming in gasps after his mad dash toward the barn and the source of the gunshots that he had heard.
"Fine, fine," Ezra answered as he struggled to his feet and reached down to give Alex some help getting up, keeping his hand on her shoulder to steady her as they stepped out of the stall. "Mr. Tanner," he smiled at the sharpshooter brightly, "I must say your timing is impeccable."
Vin just shrugged with a grin as he knelt down to check on Randolph. "Shoot, Ez, you guys done had all the fun. All you left us was the clean up detail." He felt for the man's pulse then nodded as he climbed back to his feet. "He's still alive," he assured them. He motioned to the small hole that pierced Randolph's wrist as well as the one in the man's lower right chest, realizing that Ezra must have shot the gun out of the man's grasp a second before adjusting his aim to take the shot that put the man out of action. "Nice shooting, Pard," he commented as he led them back outside to the controlled chaos that was now Larabee's front yard.
Ezra shook his head. "Deplorable," he disagreed. "I was aiming for his heart, but he moved at the last second."
Vin shook his head with a laugh before calling for medical aid for the wounded man inside and jogging off to report to Larabee.
As they limped down to the ambulance, Alex glanced over at her companion with a slight smile hovering at the corners of her mouth. "I told you so," she commented casually, a twinkle gleaming in her eye as she carefully picked her way across the graveled expanse, her injured arm held tightly against her body and the bloody compress pressed firmly against the wound.
"Excuse me?" Ezra asked in confusion, side-stepping to avoid the agents headed for the barn, grimacing slightly as his wounded leg protested the movement.
"You saved my life back there. I told you that you would get your chance," she answered knowingly.
He guided her to the waiting hands of a paramedic and grinned in amusement. "That you did, my dear, that you did."
"So, does that mean we're friends?" she asked as she settled on the bumper of the ambulance to allow the medic room to work.
Ezra leaned back on the side of the vehicle and laughed. "Indubitably."
She looked back up at him and grinned. "Good."
Ezra sat sideways at his desk, staring out the window behind him and absentmindedly tapping his pen against his lips as he listened to the bickering between Buck and JD over what to have for dinner. Outside, fat snowflakes drifted lazily down from the sky, coating the building tops and the street below in a brilliant blanket of white that shimmered in the fading sunlight of the late afternoon. The warm spell of the week before had ended the night of the arrests, enveloping the region once again in frigid temperatures and the powdery white fluff that marked this time of year. He watched the rush-hour traffic snarled to a standstill and shook his head, knowing that in about twenty minutes, he would be in the midst of it. Across the aisle from him, Vin sat in front of his computer, typing slowly and diligently at some report. He seemed totally engrossed in his work, but the slight smirk on his lips and the quick glance up at some outrageous comment from Buck gave him away. He met Ezra's eyes and the smile grew larger as he turned back to his screen.
Nathan sat at his desk, flipping through a manual of some kind, and Josiah sat in front of his computer, staring intently at his monitor. However, when Ezra looked over at the screen, he wasn't so sure that whatever Josiah was doing was work-related; in fact, it looked suspiciously like some sort of online novel.
Buck sat on his desk, the phone glued to his ear and the cord twisted around his fingers, a big, goofy grin on his face as he waited for the connection, intent on cementing his plans for his evening date with one of the secretaries from downstairs. With the other hand, he was flicking little pieces of paper across the room at his surrogate brother, peppering JD's hair with the spit wads. JD, meanwhile, was busily navigating a Porsche roadster down a mountain highway at incredibly foolish speeds while trying to outrun several souped-up police cruisers on his computer screen. He periodically shook his head to dislodge the paper pieces and shoot quick scathing glares over at his roommate. Buck only grinned larger, especially when one particularly large piece managed to get stuck in the boy's ear. "D**n-it, Buck!" JD growled as he quickly swiped at his ear, trying to remove the paper without crashing his little two dimensional car.
Buck picked up another piece, ready to launch it in the same direction as its forbearers, but dropped it quickly as the lady in question answered the phone. He sat up straighter and smiled one of his classic grins. "Sandy!" he crooned in his most charming voice. "It's your Old Buck. We still on for tonight?"
Ezra's smirk grew as he leaned back in his chair and once again turned his attention to the outside world.
It was just another typical team seven Friday afternoon at work.
"Hey, Ez," Vin asked quietly, keeping his attention on the screen in front of him as he tried to appear nonchalant. "You meeting us at the Saloon tonight, right?"
Ezra looked up at the sharpshooter and raised an eyebrow at the poorly concealed look of hope in the man's eyes. "I believe I could be persuaded," he answered casually.
Vin paused in his typing and glanced over at him, trying to judge his sincerity, then smiled slightly. "See ya at six, then."
Ezra just chuckled to himself as he reluctantly turned back to his own report on recent events.
It had been exactly one week since the attack at the ranch house and the subsequent arrest of Paul Randolph. The days following had been busy, to say the least. Buck had spent a night in the hospital under observation for the "little bump" on the head that he had received, and he now sported a large white bandage on his forehead. Of course, with Buck, that bandage became a pick-up line, earning him plenty of sympathy from the female species. Ezra had avoided a hospital stay himself, but the cut on his face had to be taped closed, and he had received ten stitches in his leg along with strict orders to stay off of it.
The days following the arrests had been filled with reports and meetings, keeping the entire team busy with the follow up on the case. Ezra was looking forward to the weekend and a few days of peace and quiet. He had yet to really get some down-time from the case. He was now trying to put the finishing touches on the latest report, but just could not seem to pay attention to what he was reading. His gaze kept straying to the window and the beautiful wintry scene backlit by the fading light with its purple shadows on the mountains in the distance. The view reminded him of an earlier sunset, and he found himself wondering about his former companion.
At the hospital, Alex had been whisked away to another area under the close guard of her uncle, and Ezra hadn't seen her since. He knew she had spent a night in the hospital herself, but that the wound had been deemed minor. After that, he didn't know where she had gone. "Probably under tight protection," he thought to himself and frowned slightly. The thought of the free-spirited girl being caged in by those in authority just didn't seem right to him. Valuing his freedom and independence as highly as he did, he could easily imagine what the loss of control over her own life would seem like to the girl and he felt a pang of sympathy for her.
His thoughts were interrupted by his boss as Chris abruptly opened his office door and stepped into the outer room, drawing the attention of his men. Buck quickly ended his call, Nathan closed his books, JD immediately ended his game, which Chris pretended not to see, and everyone else looked up from their own chores expectantly. "The judge wants us upstairs for a conference about the case," he announced gruffly and braced himself for the protests he knew was coming.
Buck didn't disappoint him. "Awe, come on, Chris," he whined pitifully, "it's almost quitting time. A conference now with the judge and the fibs would last forever! I've got a date all set up for tonight with Sandy, and I need to get home to get ready!"
Chris just stared at him, an amused glint coloring his eyes. "Sorry, Buck," he shrugged. "You're not getting out of it." He held up a hand to halt any further protests. "The judge wants us all. Now." He pointed toward the doorway, his tone brooking no argument.
Buck grumbled under his breath but followed JD, Nathan, and Josiah out the door, and Chris smirked to himself in triumph before turning toward his undercover agent. "That means this minute, Ezra" he said sternly, "Not next Christmas."
Ezra smiled pleasantly up at his boss. "Of course, Mr. Larabee. I shall arrive with all due haste, barring the technicalities of saving my work and the difficulties brought on by my wounded appendage." He motioned toward his leg.
Chris rolled his eyes with a snort and exchanged a rueful glance with the sharpshooter. "Get him upstairs as fast as you can," he sighed aloud before following the others out the door.
Ezra shook his head and stood up to clear off his desk, save his files, turn off the computer, and dump his papers into his briefcase. "Shall we, Mr. Tanner?" he asked as he shut the case with a click.
Vin smiled and held out the mahogany, gold-tipped cane that had been leaning against Ezra's trashcan to his partner without a word, and Ezra grimaced. Though he was able to get around fairly well without it, Nathan had insisted that he use it for at least a week. Ezra had been becoming increasingly creative in coming up with excuses for 'forgetting' it as that week wore on. He hated its inconvenience and more importantly, its visible reminder of weakness, however slight. "I don't suppose we could conveniently misplace that loathsome object, could we?" he asked hopefully.
Vin just shook his head with a smirk. "Ya don't want Nathan breathing down your neck, do ya?"
Ezra sighed then grudgingly reached for the stick with an expression of distaste. "No, we certainly do not. Mr. Jackson can be quite overbearing when it comes to our health, and I do not relish the thought of his 'death' glares boring into the side of my head from across the table all night. I do declare, but the man can be more tenacious than a pit bull with a fresh bone," he complained as they crossed the room and headed out the door. "Really. We are grown men, after all, and perfectly capable of taking care of our own needs. We have no need of a nurse-maid watching our every move."
Vin laughed and clapped him on the shoulder as they stopped to wait on the elevator. "You're just pissed because he camped out at your place this week to make sure you took your meds and kept off that leg," he teased.
Ezra grimaced. "I do not find the situation a laughing matter, Mr. Tanner."
"Sure it is, Ez," Vin grinned as the bell dinged to announce the arrival of the elevator.
The doors opened with a whoosh and Ezra stepped inside, punching the button for the upper floor before stepping back to allow the sharpshooter access. "Then I shall remind you of that fact the next time you find yourself among the injured," he shot back.
Vin opened his mouth to make another smart comment but paused as he remembered the last time he himself had been injured. He shook his head. "You're right. It ain't funny," he agreed, taking his place beside the man as the doors shut. He shot his companion a devilish grin. "But it sure is entertainin' when it's someone else he's hounding."
Ezra just shook his head with a smile as the carriage began to rise. A few seconds later, a small ping announced their arrival and they stepped off the machine just in time to see the doors of the other one open, bringing them face to face with the three occupants-District Attorney Michael Harrison, Timothy Johnson, and Alexandria Sanders. "Ah, Miss Sanders!" Ezra exclaimed with a bright smile, "I was just wondering how you were fairing."
Alex looked up with a shy smile as she stepped off the elevator and absently fingered the blue sling she wore. She was dressed in what were obviously new jeans, new tennis shoes, and a new light green pullover sweater, but Ezra noted that the old, faded blue jean jacket was still in place. "I'm doing much better, thank you," she answered quietly. "And yourself?"
"Fine, fine," he waved his hand in dismissal. "Nothing whatsoever to worry about." His smile faltered a bit as Vin snorted in disbelief beside him, and he sent a quick glare in the offender's direction.
Alex raised her eyebrows with a sage nod before motioning at the cane he held loosely. "So that's simply for ornamental purposes?" she asked blandly.
"More for the appeasement of certain, bothersome coworkers, nothing more," Ezra answered with another glare at Vin as he heard another snort from the sharpshooter's direction.
"Ah," the girl nodded again, only partially managing to conceal the smile that threatened her mouth and completely failing to keep the sparkle out of her eyes.
"Well, gentlemen, as Mr. Johnson and Miss Sanders have a plane to catch in a few hours, we really should continue this in the judges quarters," Harrison prodded impatiently as he glanced at his watch.
"Certainly, certainly," Ezra agreed, offering his free arm to the young lady as an escort as the others turned down the hall.
Alex took his arm shyly, but instead of following the others, she held her ground. "Would you mind showing me where the restroom is?" she asked him softly.
"Of course not, my dear," he answered and turned to lead her the opposite way. He paused in mid-step, though, as he noticed Johnson following them and raised a questioning eyebrow at the older man.
"I'll be alright, Uncle," Alex turned to meet the man with exaggerated patience. "We are, after all, in the federal building. I'm sure Mr. Standish is capable of taking care of me, even if he's winged himself." Her eyes twinkled with hidden mirth and she broke out into a genuine smile at Ezra's huff of protest. "I'm a big girl now. I can take care of myself. And I certainly don't want you to hold my hand!"
Johnson reddened a bit at being caught out and squared his shoulders irritably. "I'm sorry if I seem to be smothering you, Alexandria," he answered, the use of her full name and the sharpness of his tone revealing his frustration, "but I only want you to be safe, especially after all that has happened-"
"And I am safe," she interrupted him, placing a light hand on his arm. "Thanks to you, Mr. Standish, his coworkers, and a whole lot of other people." She gave him a gentle shove toward the judge's offices. "Now. You've got a meeting to get to. You know Mr. Harrison wasn't happy with the arrangements you finally agreed on this morning, and if you don't hurry up and get in there, he may just change everything. I'll only be gone a few minutes. I won't go disappearing on you again, I promise. Okay?"
Johnson sighed, his blush deepening a bit as he ran a hand through his hair. "Alright, alright. I'll take the hint and leave you to your peace. But if you're not back in five minutes, I'm sending a search party," he said gruffly, the twinkle in his eyes belying the sharpness of his words.
"You probably better make it ten minutes, sir," Ezra offered with a smile, judging that it was safe to enter the conversation. "She is a woman, after all."
Johnson laughed as Alex exclaimed "Hey!" and punched the agent lightly on the arm. Ezra stepped to the side and rubbed the appendage lightly, but the smile didn't leave his features. "You're right," Johnson agreed. "With one arm, it probably will take her twice as long as the average woman. I never have been able to figure out just what it is they do in there that takes so long."
Alex rolled her eyes with a huff and pushed him up the hall. "Get out of here," she growled in exasperation.
Johnson took a moment to look intently at Ezra, the joviality in his eyes giving way to sternness and a hint of warning, but Ezra met the gaze without flinching. The older man finally nodded and, breaking the stare, turned up the hall and disappeared around the corner. Ezra turned to the young lady beside him and motioned down the opposite way. "We best be on our way, then. The clock is ticking," he teased with a smile.
Alex sighed as they walked down the hall and Ezra glanced at her sympathetically. "Mr. Johnson seems to have become a bit over-protective of late," he observed.
Ally rolled her eyes. "You have no idea," she groaned. "Ever since the attack, he hasn't let me out of his sight. He's blaming himself. He's always felt he let dad down in a big way, and then with all this that happened with Eddy and Bartinol slipping under everyone's noses-it's all got him a bit spooked."
"I'm sure it stems from a genuine concern for your wellbeing, though," Ezra offered, directing her around a corner into a small sitting area across from a large, empty reception desk.
"I know," Alex answered softly. "It's just so confining. I've been taking care of myself for the last six years. It's hard to suddenly find myself being treated like I'm ten years old again."
Ezra gave her another half smile of sympathy as they crossed the room toward the doors bearing the restroom signs. "Yes, I believe it would be a bit overwhelming. But I'm sure it will wear off eventually. In a few years maybe?" he teased.
"It better be sooner than that, or I'll have to take matters in my own hands!" she threatened with a grumble as she pushed through the women's restroom door followed by Ezra's light laughter.
A few minutes later, she emerged with the jacket draped across her arm, struggling to readjust the sling. "Darn thing," she muttered darkly, "it's just in the way and is nothing but a nuisance!" After fighting with it for a few seconds more, she finally sighed in defeat and looked up at Ezra imploringly. "Would you mind helping me?" she asked shyly.
"Certainly," Ezra agreed as he stood up from the cushioned chair he had occupied to await her exit. Together, they got it aligned properly with minimal fuss. "There," he announced as he took a step back. "I completely concur in your opinion of that torture device, and I usually rid myself of them as soon as possible. However, in our present company, it would probably prove to be prudent if you continued to keep it on. There are those who would find it simply disastrous if you were to shed it, considering your injury." He tapped the cane against the chair in distaste. "I am speaking from personal experience that the discomfort of the sling is minute compared to that of the lecture you would receive if caught without it."
"Don't I know it!" Alex groused good-naturedly. "You should have heard Uncle Tim this morning. You'd thought I was a four year old playing with matches."
"I'm sure it was nothing compared to the lecture I received just yesterday from Mr. Jackson," Ezra shuddered theatrically as he sat down on the arm of the chair.
"I don't know," she disagreed. "You haven't seen Uncle Tim get angry. I'd forgotten just how much of a bear he could be!"
"Ah, but you have yet to witness Mr. Jackson in full 'mother hen' mode," Ezra smirked. "I can assure you, positively nothing is worse." He paused a second in contemplation then gave her a knowing look and a faint smile. "Except, of course, Mr. Larabee's temper."
Alex shook her head with a small laugh. "I think you've got me there."
Silence fell between them then as Alex moved to the window across the room to stare out at the last bit of daylight on the western horizon. The clouds above were tinted with a bit of gold and purple, hinting at the coming of a glorious sunset, and she wrapped her free arm around her stomach as she gazed at the scene through the transparent panel. Ezra moved up to the opposite side of the window and leaned with his hands crossed on top of his cane as he followed her line of sight to the peaks beyond. "Beautiful, is it not?" he observed, watching his companion's reaction out the corner of his eye.
Alex sighed deeply, a hint of melancholy coloring her eyes. "Absolutely," she breathed. She leaned against the window frame and rested her head on the pane, her breath condensing into a foggy mist on the glass. "I'd grown used to seeing the mountains," she admitted quietly, smiling wanly in the fading light. "I think I stayed too long in this city. I've become rather attached to it, I'm afraid." Her voice was barely above a whisper as the smile faded again, but Ezra was able to hear everything that she said and some of the things that she hadn't. "I don't think I've stayed as long anywhere else, except of course, for the last two years in Oceanside," she went on.
"Oceanside, California?" Ezra asked in surprise. "Might I ask what held you there for such a length of time?"
"School." She glanced over at his expression and couldn't help but smile again. "With all the new No Child Left Behind laws, I was able to enter school quite easily. There are some shelters out there that are willing to help out someone who's willing to help themselves, if that person can be stubborn enough to prove they want to. I kept searching around until I found the right people and made arrangements to finish high school. I had to work my tail off, but I did it. Got a diploma and everything." Her smile faltered a bit, turning slightly sardonic. "Of course, it doesn't hold my real name on it, so it probably doesn't mean much, but it was important to me."
"Why did you leave then?" Ezra furrowed his brows in question.
She shrugged. "Oceanside was never home. The coast is beautiful, to be sure, but, it just wasn't where I wanted to stay. Guess it's that mountain blood in me, pulling me back east. As soon as I got my diploma in June, I lit out, heading back this way."
He smiled a bit. "And you found yourself in Denver."
She nodded, lifting the corners of her mouth up slightly. "Kind of hard not to. Things just tend to gravitate here. I got here in August, expecting to pass on through in a few weeks, to head further south for the winter, but one thing led to another and I just never got around to leaving." She turned her gaze back out the window. "I don't know, I guess it-it kind of felt like home. Not the city itself, mind you, but the country around it." She looked down at her arms wistfully. "It had been a long time since I'd felt that. A long time," she murmured. She finally looked back up at him with a self-deprecating smile. "Ridiculous of me, wasn't it?"
"No, it wasn't," Ezra quickly disagreed, turning to look her firmly in the eye. "It's certainly not ridiculous for you, especially in your position, to want a home." He laid a hand on her shoulder. "Never think otherwise." The melancholy in her eyes briefly stirred his own secret dreams and deepest-held wishes of something similar for himself, but he quickly pushed them away, refusing to allow himself to dwell on what could never be.
She dropped her gaze to her fingers for a moment then moved woodenly out from under his hand and back into the room to pick up her jacket from the chair where she had laid it. "It doesn't matter anymore, anyway," she remarked hopelessly. "You heard Mr. Harrison. Uncle Tim and I are heading to the airport after this conference, and I'll be in DC in a few hours."
Ezra turned to face her and studied her closely, his eyes narrowing as he had a sudden insight. "And is this arrangement what you want?" he asked softly.
She froze for a minute then shook her head slightly as she draped the jacket over her arm. "It doesn't matter," she repeated sadly, keeping her gaze on the floral pattern of the chair. Though she held her expression in complete indifference, the misery in her eyes touched a chord in Ezra's reportedly hard heart. She seemed so alone just then-something that he could completely identify with-that he found himself wishing he could help her out. He knew all to well what it was like to have no control over his own life-indeed, his childhood had been a thorough education in that topic, explaining why he was so obsessive with being in control of it now, having vowed to himself early on that no one was ever going to dominate him like that ever again.
He moved forward a few paces and gently lifted her chin so that he could look into her eyes. "Doesn't it?" he quietly pressed.
She held his gaze for a moment, her eyes clouded and a bit misty, before tilting her head slightly and looking back out the window over his shoulder. "No," she finally answered in a whisper as she dropped her eyes to the floor. She took a deep breath and stepped away from him with a tight smile. "Enough of that," she stated briskly, effectively cutting off whatever he had been about to say. "Our ten minutes is about up, and I have a favor to ask of you." She reached into the inside pocket of the jacket and pulled from it a long white envelope which she held it out to him.
Ezra sighed internally as the abrupt end to the conversation and reached out for the envelope. "Ask away," he answered, glancing at the front for a name in curiosity.
"Will you take that to Rosie for me?" she asked timidly. "I wanted to let her know what happened. She'll worry terribly when I don't show up and will probably call out the hounds to come on the hunt of me." She smiled softly. "She's been good to me, and I-I've become fond of her too. I don't want to leave here without some kind of explanation."
Ezra smiled reassuringly at her as he gently pocketed the envelope, treating it as a prized possession. "I would be happy to deliver your missive," he promised.
Alex smiled back in gratitude. "Thank you. I'd tell her myself, but I haven't had a moment's peace, what with my watchdog guarding my every move." She slung her jacket over her shoulder as they left the small room, heading back in the direction of the conference. "Would you tell her that I'll miss her? Tell her that I'm safe and happy now, and that I'll be sure to spread the word about her place to everyone I meet."
"I will," Ezra agreed. They lapsed into silence as they continued their journey, both deep in their own thoughts. When they reached the office door, he moved forward to open it for her, but was stopped as she impulsively reached up and gave him a light hug. He froze, not sure how to react.
She smiled at the deer-in-the-headlights look on his face as she stepped back with a slight blush on her own features. "I just wanted to thank you, too," she explained shyly.
"For?" he asked in confusion.
"For all the help you've given me," she answered softly. "You have no idea how much it's meant to me, and I'll never forget it. You're a prince, Mr. Standish, and a good man. Thank you." She quickly pulled the door open and entered the room, leaving him standing in the hallway, momentarily stunned.
He finally regained control, and with a slight shake of his head, followed her into the room. They crossed the outer office to the conference room and quietly entered, taking the seats left to them-him at the corner of the large mahogany table beside Vin, and her further up, between her Uncle and the district attorney. Judge Travis glanced up at their appearance before turning back to the Interpol agent. "So Bartinol has simply vanished into thin air, then?" he continued.
Johnson sighed in frustration. "For the moment, yes. We managed to track him to a small ranch down the mountain where he stole a truck and from there back into the city, but lost him in the weather. But agents around the world have been pulling down large portions of his empire this week, based on the intelligence provided to us by Allen Sanders. There are still areas, places that he can go, but they're quickly dwindling. The man is a criminal genius-he had contingency plans, safe houses set up, so it's not surprising that he's managed to elude us at the moment, and Sanders's intel is six years out of date. But his syndicate is ended. He's out of business and on the run. His capture is only a matter of time," he declared confidently.
"And what about Alex?" Chris asked from where he leaned back in the large chair across the table from the man. "Does she go into protection?"
Johnson glanced down at the girl beside him and sighed again. "Not into federal protection. With the evidence provided by her father and what our agents are collecting now, her testimony is no longer crucial in getting a conviction."
"And since her testimony isn't needed, the powers that be decided that she didn't need their protection," Vin finished for him, a touch of disgust coloring his words. Memories of his time with the Marshals come briefly to mind.
"Correct," Johnson agreed sadly.
"Well that's just a bunch of bulls**t!" Buck exclaimed angrily. He received several scathing glares in reprimand, the worst coming from Chris and the judge, and sat back in his chair, sullen but properly chastised.
"But isn't she still in danger?" JD asked worriedly.
"I don't believe so, not from Bartinol, anyway," Johnson disagreed with a shake of his head.
"How so?" Josiah asked coolly, glancing at the girl in question, trying to gauge her reaction to the whole scenario. Her face remained passive, almost bored, but the stiffness of her posture betrayed her uneasiness.
"Bartinol's on the run. He's too busy trying to save his own hide to start planning any elaborate revenge plots," Johnson answered. "Besides, he's said it himself-he's a businessman first and foremost and he has no personal grudge against Alex. His gripe was with her father. All he wanted from her was the disks. Now that they're out in the open, she's no longer a threat to him."
"So what happens now?" Nathan asked.
"We leave for DC in a couple of hours. When Bartinol is captured, she will of course have to testify at the trial, and she will have to testify at Eddie Thomas's trial, but they are both just formalities."
"Thomas is going to make it, then?" Chris spoke up.
Johnson nodded gravely. "Yes. It was touch and go for a while, but he's improving. He's still in ICU, and it will be a while before he's in any shape for a trial, but he will survive. As soon as he's able, he'll be extradited back to Virginia to face charges of conspiracy, among other things. He is cooperating with us. I'm sure that will be in his favor."
"Thomas won't go to trial for months, possibly years, then. The Randolph grand jury hearing will be held in a few months, depending on how long his lawyer can get it put off. Why take her back to DC when she's going to just have to come back here?" Nathan asked.
"My point exactly!" Harrison broke in irritably, slapping his hand against the table. "The Randolph trial will be the trial of the decade for Denver. With her testimony and that of Mr. Standish, we can try him for murder one. We need our star witnesses available, not halfway across the country!"
Johnson gritted his teeth. "She will be available. But there is no point to her staying here. And while Bartinol may not be the vindictive sort, Randolph has certainly proven to be. She would be in danger here! I want her where I can personally keep an eye on her."
"Not anymore than Ezra or any of us," Josiah pointed out. "And if Randolph wanted to get to her, he can do it in DC just as easily as he could here."
"Besides," Buck declared, "Randolph's got a lot more on his plate right now than planning his revenge. The man's finished."
"And the same thing applies here as does for Bartinol," Josiah reasoned. "Granted, she is important if you're going for a murder one wrap. But if something were to happen to her or Ezra, God forbid," he nodded toward his coworker, "there is still plenty enough evidence otherwise to ensure that he goes down for a long, long time. Randolph's a smart man. Going after the witnesses just isn't worth it."
Johnson shook his head stubbornly. "I want her in DC. End of discussion." he sat back in his seat with a resolute expression on his face.
"She needs to be here in Denver!" Harrison argued.
"She needs to be with her family," Johnson shot back.
"You've said yourself she doesn't have one!"
Ezra raised another eyebrow at that and looked to Alex for confirmation. Her eyes saddened as she nodded, and he tilted his head to the side in sympathy as he crossed his arms and tapped his lips with his pen, his mind turning over this new bit of information.
Chris's eyes narrowed at the statement. "Explain," he ordered quietly.
Johnson glanced down at Alex, but she had already turned her attention back to her hand in her lap, trying to ignore the pitying looks from the others in the room. He sighed. "Shortly after Alex disappeared and was presumed dead, her grandfather and uncle's family-his wife and four children-vanished."
"How do six people just disappear?" Nathan asked incredulously.
Johnson ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "An attempt had been made on them, as well," he continued. "Not for kidnapping, but the first safe houses they were kept in were ransacked. Practically demolished. We moved them to another, safer place, and had no more incidents."
"So what happened? Do you think Bartinol got to them?" JD asked in confusion.
"I don't know," Johnson shook his head. "Knowing what I do now, I don't think so. Thomas knew their locations, of course, but he also knew that they didn't have any knowledge of what was going on. There was really no reason for Bartinol to go after them. Of course, they didn't know that at the time."
"What was the official reasoning?" Vin asked grimly.
Johnson met the tracker's sharp gaze and shrugged. "Officially, they were presumed kidnapped by Bartinol and dead."
"But what do you think?" Vin pressed.
Johnson snorted. "Old Jackson Sanders was a man born after his time. That old dog served as an intelligence officer in Korea in the fifties, then got out of the army after that and took up a civilian life, but stayed on call for 'special assignments' with the government during the early sixties. He would occasionally help train recruits for the CIA and NSA up until the early eighties when he fully retired to take care of his ailing wife."
"He was a spy?" JD asked excitedly.
Johnson nodded. "One of the best. Law enforcement was in the Sanders' blood-Jackson's grandfather had been part of the secret service, and the family has a history of sheriffs, marshals, and even a Pinkerton detective or two. Allen preferred to stay out of the spy business himself, though, much to his daddy's relief."
"So Jackson figured there was a leak and pulled his remaining family into hiding," Chris observed flatly.
"That's what I think," Johnson agreed. "He might have been out of the business for twenty years, but he still had connections. Good connections. In all this time, I haven't been able to find a trace of him. But I figure that wherever he is, he's been keeping up with what's been happening. If he's still alive, he's going to hear about this, you can bet your bottom dollar."
"Will he come out of hiding now that Sanders' evidence has come out and Alex has been found?" Josiah asked.
"I don't know," the other man sighed. "Maybe, maybe not. He's the wild card in the equation. I don't know what he'll do, and without knowing what sources he's using, I have no way of predicting anything. He could show up on my doorstep tomorrow, or never. I don't even know if they're alive or dead, and may never know."
"Is there any other family?" Nathan asked.
"Jackson has a sister and niece living back in West Virginia and another sister in Florida. I'm sure they'll want to see Alex, but for the time being, I'd prefer that she stay in DC. There's nothing left in West Virginia for her to go back to."
"Which is why she should just stay here," Harrison griped.
"She's going back to DC," Johnson growled back, ready to restart their previous quarrel.
"Gentlemen," Orrin Travis raised a hand to halt the argument and wearily rubbed his eyes, "We've been over this before and have come to a decision. Let's not rehash it now." He looked up at the men assembled in the room. "I believe we've sufficiently brought everyone involved up to date on what is going on. Chris, I'll expect your men's final reports on Monday morning." He glanced at his watch and grimaced at the time. "Meanwhile, I have dinner plans and rink side tickets to the hockey game tonight with my grandson, and you have a plane to catch, so if no one else has anything to add to this discussion, I suggest we call it a night." He stood to his feet and looked at each man in the room before nodding in dismissal and closing the file in front of him.
Harrison grudgingly stood to gather his papers back into a neat pile to place in his briefcase while Johnson pulled his coat on, motioning for Alex to stand and offering to help her with her jacket. Buck and JD stood up and stretched, but Josiah sat back in his seat, watching the protagonists in the recent debate and the subject of that debate with a thoughtful expression on his face. He had the feeling this wasn't completely over.
Buck reached for the door handle but froze as Ezra, who had remained curiously silent throughout the proceedings, finally spoke from where he was still seated. "Gentlemen, if I may, I do have a suggestion."
Several groans filled the air, the others knowing of Ezra and his propensity to talk, and JD plopped back down into his chair with a huff of exasperation. The judge sighed but motion for Ezra to continue. "Keep it short, Standish," he growled tiredly.
"Both gentlemen have provided valid arguments for the future of Miss Sanders, but I do believe someone's opinion has been left out," Ezra continued.
The others looked at him curiously, but Josiah leaned forward with his elbows on the table top, his hands folded over his mouth to hide a grin as he figured out where Ezra was going with this. He looked across the table at Vin, who smiled back faintly with twinkling eyes, and raised an eyebrow at the sharpshooter as he realized the younger man was thinking the same thing he was.
"And that would be?" Travis asked, motioning for the agent to continue.
"Why, that of Miss Sanders herself," Ezra replied with a flourish. "Agent Johnson has pointed out that she will not be remanded in the protective custody of the federal government, and as she is of age and of sound mind, I do believe she is perfectly capable of deciding her own fate and indeed should have the final say in the matter."
"There's nothing here for her," Johnson broke in stiffly. "Look. She has no place to stay here. She has no money, no job, no transportation. And while there is an inheritance from her father's estate, it's going to take months to sort out all the legal and financial problems and make those funds available to her. If she comes back to DC, she can stay with me and my wife. She'll have a place to live, a place to start over. It's just easier that way. End of story."
Ezra looked at the man coolly for a second before turning a softer gaze to the young lady in question. "If it is obtaining a safe place for her to live until things can be sorted out that worries you, then I can easily provide a solution to that dilemma," he answered. He looked back across the table at the older man and smiled. "She can stay with me."
Josiah chuckled to himself as Nathan just about fell out of his seat in shock and Buck, who had just taken a drink from the paper cup he held, nearly choked. Chris stared at his undercover agent unflinchingly, trying to figure his angle, but Vin leaned back in his seat and smiled knowingly. Ezra rolled his eyes at the reactions he garnered and sighed in exasperation. "Of course it would only be temporary until other arrangements could be made, and I would expect a percentage of the rent and utilities to be paid to me upon the acquirement of her funds."
"Oh, of course," Nathan muttered darkly, but was shushed by a glare from Vin and an elbow from Josiah.
Ezra glared at his coworker but continued on. "And I'm sure that you can arrange emergency currency to be available to her until such financial legalities are settled," he pointed out to Johnson before turning to Alex and meeting her confused but hopeful gaze. "As I said, it would be a temporary solution, but until you could make other arrangements, I would be delighted to have your presence in my humble abode." He looked back at Johnson and fixed the man with a penetrating stare. "It is her life, and pardon my bluntness, but you have no right to dictate to her what she shall do with it. What matters is what she wants."
Johnson met his stare for a moment before finally throwing his hands up in the air in defeat. "Alright! Alright. You're right. It's her life and her decision."
Everyone in the room turned their attention on the girl in question, and she reddened under the scrutiny. "Well, Miss Sanders?" the judge asked kindly. "Do you prefer to stay in Denver, or do you want to return to Washington with Agent Johnson?"
Alex licked her lips nervously as she looked from one person to the other, struggling with what she knew she wanted to do and what she felt it was her duty to do. She looked from Ezra's confident gaze to her uncle's troubled one, and finally out at the darkening sky through the window behind the judge. She let out a sigh before turning back to the group and looked at her uncle apologetically. "I'm sorry, Uncle Tim," she said softly, her expression begging for forgiveness, "But as you said, there's nothing back there for me. I want a new start and a new life, and I want it here, in Denver."
Johnson closed his eyes a moment then put a fatherly hand on her shoulder and searched her expression earnestly before asking, "Are you sure?"
She nodded firmly. "I'm sure-if Mr. Standish doesn't mind?" She raised her eyebrows at him hopefully, giving him one last chance to back out, but he smiled in reassurance. "The offer still stands, my dear, if you like."
Johnson leaned back against the table and studied her once more before sighing loudly, realizing he had lost the battle. "If that's what you want, then."
She looked at him with growing confidence and smiled softly. "It is."
"Then I guess I'll be returning to DC alone," he said grudgingly, crossing his arms and slowly returning her smile.
The judged nodded his approval and reached down to pick up his folders. "Well, now that that's settled, Gentlemen, I believe this meeting is adjourned." He came around the table to shake the hands of Johnson and Alex then left the room, headed for his office to gather his things and go home.
Harrison stood to his feet and gave them a slight nod before he picked up his briefcase and left as well.
"Well, come on, guys! What are we waiting for? Let's get out of here!" Buck draped his arm across JD's shoulder and all but pushed him toward the door. "Tonight's my lucky night-I can feel it! Inez is going to agree to go out with me!"
"I thought you had a date lined up for tonight?" Nathan pointed out in good humor as he stood to his feet and pushed his chair back into its place.
"Sure I do, at nine o'clock," Buck explained. "But it's only five thirty now. I've got plenty of time to get changed, grab a couple of beers, and work on Inez!"
"Buck, you're full of crap," JD remarked with an exasperated shake of his head and gave the older man a playful shove.
"I'll show you who's full of crap!" Buck growled, grabbing the boy around the neck and giving him a sound noogie as he pulled the him out the door. JD's muffled protests could be clearly heard down the hallway and the others shook their heads in longsuffering amusement.
"I'm headed home to change," Nathan announced as he picked up his jacket in preparation to leave. "I'll meet you guys at the saloon a little later."
"Fine," Josiah answered as he finally stood up and stretched his own kinks out. He gathered his own things together and headed for the door. "I believe I'll head on over myself." He turned to Alex and smiled. "It'll be nice to have you around, sister," he said. "If you need anything, just holler."
"I will," she smiled shyly in return.
The remaining members of team seven followed their comrades to their own offices to finish preparing to go home before heading down to the parking garage. Johnson walked with them, intending to retrieve Alex's few possessions from his car before heading for Denver International to catch his flight home. The elevator trip to the subterranean garage was a silent one, with each person wrapped up in their own thoughts. When the carriage reached its destination, they all followed Johnson to his rented SUV, pausing to throw up a hand at Nathan as he hit the horn of his Cherokee in passing on his way to the exit followed immediately by Josiah's smoking suburban. Vin couldn't help but snicker as his friend's rusty vehicle backfired loudly, echoing across the expanse as he stopped momentarily at the guard house before pulling up the incline onto the street.
And they called his jeep a piece of junk!
Johnson used the key ring remote to unlock the vehicle as they approached it and reached inside to pull a duffle bag and Alex's backpack from the backseat. Alex took the backpack and slipped her good arm through the strap to free her hand for the duffle, but Vin reached around her and took it from the older man before she had a chance to, slinging it casually across his shoulder with a grin. He received a soft smile of gratitude from the girl in response.
The party stood in an awkward silence for a moment before Johnson finally cleared his throat and pulled the driver's side door open. "Well, I suppose I should be going," he said gruffly, but made no move to climb inside. "I've got a lot to do when I get back." He pulled the girl into a tight embrace and held it for a moment. "I wish you were going back with me," he whispered.
"I know," she said softly back, returning the hug before breaking away and looking up at him with a small smile. "But there's just nothing there for me."
The older man sighed as he let her go, but kept a hand on each shoulder, returning her smile with a gentle one of his own. "I understand. Just remember that my home is open to you anytime you want it. You're always welcome." He then lifted his gaze to the three men before him, his expression becoming stern. "Take care of her," he said.
Chris, Vin, and Ezra nodded, each understanding the unspoken plea in the man's words-take care of her where I can't. Johnson held their eyes for a moment longer then finally let Alex go and climbed into the driver's seat. "I'll be in touch as soon as I can things rolling," he promised as he slid the key into the ignition switch and turned it. The large machine rumbled to life. "I'll get you those emergency funds the first of next week. If you need anything else, just call. In the meantime, take care of yourself and keep out of trouble, you hear? I've got enough gray hair as it is, thanks to you Sanderses."
Alex couldn't help but roll her eyes a bit and smirk at the fatherly concern obvious in the order. "Me? I'm never any trouble," she teased lightly and laughed at his look of incredulity.
He snorted and shook his head. "That's exactly what your Dad used to say," he declared. His expression turned wistful as though memories stole him away for a moment and the look he gave her became tender and more than a little paternal. "Do be careful, girl. I don't want to lose you again," he said softly.
Alex leaned in and gave him a soft peck on the cheek. "I promise. And you do the same," she commanded quietly before lightly smacking his shoulder. "Now get on out of here before you miss your flight." She shut his door tightly and stepped back to join the others as he put the vehicle in gear then backed it out of the parking spot, paused a moment to send them one last wave, and drove down the lane to the guard house.
They watched the large vehicle until the tail lights disappear up the ramp into the darkness. "Well," Vin said, breaking the silence. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm starving. Let's get outta here."
He led the way back across the space to where his jeep, Chris's Ram, and Ezra's Jag were parked side by side in the now mostly empty garage. Ezra released the trunk with his own remote, and Vin dumped the bag inside before slamming the lid shut. He looked at his friend over the hood of the car as Ezra pulled the driver's door open. "You still meeting us tonight?" he asked.
Ezra noted his hopeful expression but looked across the hood to Alex before turning back to Vin with a penitent expression. "I'm sorry Vin, but I'm sure the young lady is tired and would like to settle in tonight. Perhaps another time," he apologized.
Vin shrugged in disappointment. "Sure," he agreed reluctantly.
Alex looked from one to the other and quickly made an appeal. "No, really, I don't mind. Truthfully, I'm a bit hungry myself."
Ezra raised an eyebrow in her direction in question. "Are you sure? The Saloon isn't the type of locale that you yourself would normally frequent, and being the normal leisurely meeting place for agents of this bureau as well as the local police precinct, it can get quite boisterous on Friday nights. If you'd prefer someplace quieter, I will be happy to escort you there."
Alex grinned in assurance as she slipped her free hand into her jacket pocket. "Sounds like I couldn't be safer anywhere else."
Chris snorted. "I wouldn't be so sure of that," he said wryly. "Liquor and this bunch tends to be an explosive match."
"You are including yourself, aren't ya, Cowboy?" Vin interjected with a grin. "'Cause its seems to me that most of the trouble we get into down there starts with you."
"Because I'm trying to pull your scrawny butt out of the fire, Cowboy," Chris shot back.
Ezra rolled his eyes at the girl. "See what I mean?" he sighed in mock exasperation.
Alex laughed softly. "Well, at least it shouldn't be boring," she commented. "It's fine with me, really. I'm sure I've been in worse places."
"Well then, gentlemen, it seems we have reached a verdict," Ezra said as he pulled his car door open. "I suggest we reconvene at said establishment in post haste, before Mr. Wilmington has a chance to order for us."
He shuddered dramatically and Vin couldn't help but smirk. "What's the matter, Ez? You didn't like what Buck picked out for you last time?"
"I hardly consider four bean burritos supreme smothered in nacho cheese sauce and a bottle of Budweiser to be appropriate for my palette," Ezra huffed.
"You just don't know real food when you taste it. I happen to like Inez's burritos," Vin teased.
"This coming from the man who views upscale dining to be the local Waffle House," Ezra shot back. "And I never claimed to dislike Inez's cooking. I just prefer something lighter on the stomach."
Chris raised his eyes to the ceiling long-sufferingly while Alex covered her mouth to hide a giggle. "Enough," he growled, though there was no real heat in his tone. "Let's just get down there, okay? I'm in serious need of a drink."
Vin shook his head at the girl, his eyes shining with mischief. "Just like a parent, ain't he? Taking the fun out of everything." He grinned at the garnered glare from the blond as he slid into his jeep and started it.
"Watch yourself, Junior," Chris snapped back, climbing up into the cab of his truck.
"Yeah, whatever, Cowboy," Vin flipped back, grinning at Ezra and Alex before he backed out of his parking spot and slammed the gas pedal to the floor, causing his tires to squeal as he peeled off down the lane.
Chris just shook his head and slammed his door, muttering under his breath about Texans as he followed his friend.
Ezra and Alex watched them leave before he turned to her with a grin. "I feel I should warn you about what you are getting yourself into by affiliating with this group," he warned. "They can be a bit overwhelming at times."
Alex returned the grin with a shrug as she pulled the passenger door open and climbed in, settling the backpack at her feet before pulling the seatbelt across her chest. "I don't know, I think it'll be fun. You guys are an entertaining bunch."
Ezra slid into the driver's seat himself, fastened his seatbelt, and inserted the key into the ignition. The car rumbled to life and he turned to her with a wicked grin. "Then prepared to be entertained." He backed the car out of its parking spot and slipped it into gear with a flourish before pressing the gas pedal to the floor, sending the sleek, black car racing toward the guard house and up the ramp.
Alex just laughed as they pulled out into the evening traffic.
She was going to like these guys.
I know, I know-after all that, I end up with a typical ending after all! But I did have ya wondering for a while, didn't I?
I can't believe it's finished! I've been at this story for over 10 months, and now that it's finally done, I'm at loose ends. I do hope to have Alex appear in a few future stories (if I ever get around to writing them), though she won't be showing up in everything I may write. However, her role should be dropping back to one of support, like Nettie and Casey, Inez, Mary, the Judge, etc. Like I said before, I have no intentions of making her one of the seven, or so on-the guys are perfectly fine by themselves, and don't need any help!
I do want to give all my reviewers one last, huge thank you! I would have never completed this without your wonderful words of support and encouragement and pleas for more. You've all been great, and I'm so glad you liked this! You've really made this a wonderful experience for me, and given me the courage to try to keep at it. You're the ones who've made this fun.
One final thing before I go: I don't mind if anyone else would like to use Ally, and will gladly answer any questions you might have about her background, but I do ask that you get my permission first.
Hope you enjoyed!