Ezra awoke the next morning to soft, multicolored light filtering in through the partially-open door to the chapel. He sat up and stretched, wincing at the pull of bruises and a stiff back, and rubbed at his arm that had grown sore from the night spent laying on it before taking a quick look at his surroundings as he tried to push the sleep from his lethargic brain.
The fire had been rebuilt and blazed cheerily in front of him with the full tea kettle sitting close enough to keep its contents warm. The mug he had used last night rested on top of a box right at hand with the white string of a tea bag hanging over the brim, waiting to be filled with the warm water. He looked across the fire to see that the blankets had already been picked up and replaced in the box, along with the dishes they used last night. The clothes line had been taken down, and the clothes that she had worn yesterday had disappeared, presumably packed away, while his lay neatly folded on the bench beside him. Ally was no where to be seen and this he found to be disconcerting as he realized that he had slept through her ministrations.
He frowned. In his line of work, such an action could prove to be lethal, and he never slept deeply while undercover, even when paired with a partner-in fact, he slept even less with someone familiar with him, as the weight of responsibility for their lives as well as his wore heavily on him. He had to have been much more exhausted than he had thought.
He shivered at the cold nip in the air and quickly pulled on his socks, t-shirt and pants, having left his wet boxers on last night.
After all, a gentleman had to have some modesty, especially in the presence of a lady-unless, of course, money was involved.
He found his watch and wallet lying on the bench underneath the clothing, and on impulse, he reached for the wallet. He hesitated a moment, then opened it anyway, checking its contents. Everything was there, including the two hundred dollars he had in cash. He felt a flash of guilt for suspecting the girl, but, as he reasoned with himself, she was an orphan living on the streets for who knows how long, and, though she seemed to be surprisingly honest and upright for someone in that position, he really didn't know much about her beyond their initial meeting. She could be involved in all kinds of things. However, his estimation of her rose a little higher at his find.
He flipped the leather billfold closed and slipped it into his pocket before sliding the watch onto his wrist. He slipped the shirt over his shoulders and began to button it up, but paused as he realized that the ones that had been torn off by Randolph's goon the night before had been replaced with new ones. 'When did she have time to do this?' he wondered and checked his watch. He was shocked to find that it was twenty minutes after two.
The day was half gone!
He quickly buttoned the shirt up and pulled on his shoes, relishing the warmth in them from the fire, before filling the mug with the waiting water and going in search of the girl. He found her sitting cross legged on the prayer bench in the main room, a book spread out in front of her. She was still wearing the clothes she had changed into the previous night, but now had her hair pulled back into a nice, tight French braid. She looked up as he entered the room, and put her finger in the book to mark her place. "Good morning," she smiled shyly.
He glanced back down at his watch and chuckled ruefully. "I do believe you mean good afternoon." He sat down on the front pew and looked up at her as he tentatively sipped at his tea. "You could have wakened me," he casually observed.
She shrugged as she slipped a marker into her book before closing it and turning around to face him. "I figured you needed the sleep."
He nodded with an appreciative smile. "And for that, you have my sincerest gratitude." He pulled at his shirt and looked up at her questioningly. "And it seems that I owe you some thanks for repairing my shirt and cleaning the rest of my haberdashery as well, but it does leave me wondering if you got any rest yourself last night at all."
She dismissed his concern with a wave of her hand and a small laugh. "I got some. More than usual, actually."
He raised an inquisitive eyebrow at the remark, wondering just how much she usually got, but didn't ask the question out loud. Instead, he sat back against the hard wooden surface behind him and rested his arm across the back while motioning toward the book she had in her hand. "What are you reading?" he asked as he took another sip from his mug.
A slightly guarded looked entered her eyes, but she smiled softly at him anyway as she lifted it to show him the cover. "Psalms," she answered.
He caught sight of the cracked and frayed black leather and realized that she held an old, worn Bible in her hand. "You are religious, then?" he asked, a bit surprised.
"No," she answered with a shake of her head. "I'm a Christian. There is a difference."
"Indeed," he commented and raised an eyebrow in amusement as he crossed his ankles and rested the mug on his knee.
She ran a gentle hand over the book resting in her lap before meeting his gaze square on. "Yes," she continued. "Many people claim to be religious, but few are actually sincere in what they say they believe. My faith is a lifestyle, not merely a set of rules and regulations I live by to make myself feel better, nor is it something that I pull out whenever it's convenient or I want to impress someone."
He raised a hand in surrender. "I'm not going to mock you, my dear," he said soothingly. "You have every right to your own faith. I know several people who hold belief in a higher power than themselves and have nothing but the utmost respect for them."
She eyed him for a moment then nodded her thanks and gave him a small smile in return. "Sorry. I don't mean to sound so contrary, but I've met a few people who think any kind of religion is just superstitious hogwash and are sure to let me know it, especially when I try to abide by the statutes outlined in here," she glanced back down at the cover, a slight blush filling her features. "I'm not a fanatic and I'm not trying to force my faith on anyone-you can't really make someone believe in something they don't want to anyway, and my God doesn't want it that way, as it is. I respect other people's rights to believe in what they want or in nothing at all, if they so choose; all I'm asking for in return is that people respect my right to my beliefs as well and not treat me like I'm an idiot for choosing to believe."
Ezra nodded and smiled at her disarmingly. "I promise you, I'm not going to look down on you. I agree that I have no use for the hypocrites of various faiths who try to force others into their molds, but I do have respect for those who are honest with their religious values, even though I may not hold such faith myself. In fact, I have an associate who holds your God, as well as many others, in high regard, and I greatly admire and respect this man, though I would kindly appreciate it if you didn't let him know that. I do have a reputation to maintain, after all." His eyes twinkled in merriment as he took another sip from the mug in his hand.
Alex returned his smile with an appreciative one of her own and ducked her head, a bit embarrassed at her defensive reaction. "Thank you," she said softly.
His stomach chose that moment to rumble loudly, and they looked up at each other and grinned. "Hungry?" she asked dryly and raised her eyebrow in amusement.
He sat up straight and patted his protesting stomach. "It would seem so," he answered ruefully. "I do believe I could go for a hot meal right now. My treat." He pulled out his wallet and retrieved a fifty dollar bill, holding it up for her to see. He watched her eyes widen in surprise and he smiled. She honestly had no idea what was in the wallet, indicating that she hadn't even opened it.
'Whatever else she is,' he mused, 'she is certainly no thief.'
He slipped the bill into his shirt pocket and finished off the contents of his mug. "Is there anything nearby?"
"Well," she said shyly as she slid from the bench, "there's one of those family places not too far from here."
He nodded and stood to his feet. "That will be satisfactory," he approved.
She smiled as she put the bible back into the bag at her feet before heading for the storeroom. "Let me clean up in the back, then we'll go."
He followed her inside and folded the sleeping bag while she doused the fire and emptied the washtub contents outside before placing everything back where it belonged. A few minutes later, they were ready to go, and she pulled the storeroom door shut tight and led him back down the aisle to the front entrance. "My dear, you are a bad influence on me," he commented as he paused while she tested the door to ensure that it was locked and that they had left no sign of their presence.
"Oh?" she asked as, satisfied with her work, she turned to lead the way down the path to the paved road that wound through the cemetery.
"First you have me eating generic food, then actually performing manual labor, and now you have me ready to brave the cuisine of a chain restaurant." He signed dramatically, but his smile indicated that he was teasing her. "My teammates would simply die of shock if they were to find out." His gold tooth glinted in the light, and his eyes twinkled in merriment.
"Just how many of these associates do you have?" she asked as they neared the front gates.
He laughed at the curious look she gave him. "Six. Six of the oddest, craziest, uncouth, barbarous individuals one would ever have the displeasure to meet. And six men that I consider it a great honor to have known."
They stepped through the front gates of the cemetery onto the sidewalk and he gallantly offered his arm to her. She hesitated for a moment and glanced up at his eyes in confusion before smiling shyly and tentatively taking it. "Let me tell you about them," Ezra smiled in assurance and they continued their way down the sunlit street. "First, there is Mr. Wilmington ."
* * * * * * *
Chris pulled his Ram up behind the row of official vehicles of various agencies and departments outside the remains of the hangar, shut the engine off, and sat for a moment, looking at what once was a rather large building. 'G**, it looks worse in the daylight than it did last night!' he thought grimly.
He and the others had arrived the night before to a scene of total chaos as the airport emergency personnel and various fire departments from around the city joined together to try and contain the blaze. They had been directed to the man in charge of the scene who tried to give them the run around until Chris turned his deadly glare onto him.
But it hadn't mattered, really, because it was simply too soon to learn anything. All they had to go on was the jag (thankfully parked far enough away to remain undamaged), what looked to be the remains of several high powered automatic rifles, and a large burning pile of ruins that used to be a hangar. The police impounded the jag as evidence, refusing to let the team take it back home even though there was little chance of them finding anything on it. They had finally gone home, discouraged, fearing the worst, and hoping for a miracle-a hope that all but died in the harsh light of day.
Buck's truck pulled up beside him to the left, followed moments later by Josiah's suburban to the right. Chris sighed, opened his door, and slid out to the wet ground, steeling himself to face the worst. A chorus of slamming doors echoed across the empty lot as his men joined him on the pavement, and he nodded a good morning to them before leading the way through the barricade, heading for the nearest official they could find. Buck strode beside him, JD trailing close behind, followed by Josiah and Nathan. "Where's Junior?" Buck asked as they neared the rubble.
"Went down to the DPD lab to see if they've found anything yet." Chris answered.
"H**l, Chris, it happened less than eight hours ago. They ain't gonna have nothin' yet!"
"I know. But I figure Vin can light a fire under their tails, get the ball rolling," Chris allowed a feral smile to shade his features for a moment before his face fell back into its dark, brooding expression as he scanned the crowd, looking for someone familiar.
Firefighters still lingered about, keeping an eye out for flare-ups and trying to cool the mess down. The team came across a young man sitting on the side lines, taking a breather, and surrounded him. Chris flashed his badge. "I'm looking for Wade Dawson," he growled shortly.
The young man glanced up when their large forms shaded him from the morning sun, and he gulped, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down noticeably. "The fire marshal? He's over there with the FBI guy who's in charge," he pointed across the lot where a group of federal agents and other law representatives were mingling about.
Chris didn't reply-he just turned his determined stride in the right direction. Buck offered the boy a quick smile and a "Thanks, kid," before following his long time friend.
"Buck? JD? Go talk to the guys who were here to put the blaze out last night, see what you can find. Josiah? Head to the flight tower. See if you can find out who was renting this hangar. Nathan? You're with me."
Nathan hung his head in unhappiness for a moment in a classic why me? pose while Buck grinned at him and clapped him on the shoulder. "Better you than me, Doc," he smirked before turning toward a temporary shelter across the lot with JD close behind. JD tossed him a sympathetic look over his shoulder while Josiah offered him an understanding pat on the back before he jogged back to his vehicle.
Nathan's stomach plummeted even further when they made it to the group and saw who was running the show. Wade Dawson, a tall, slightly portly man with dark hair now salt and pepper and gray eyes the color of hard steel, had been fire Marshal for the City of Denver for twelve years and had worked with Chris in the past. He had proven himself to be a hard but fair man and one who respected the same qualities in those around him. He and Chris had learned early on how to work with each other, and each held mutual respect for the other. Dawson knew what Larabee wanted and when, and Chris knew to stay out of Dawson's way and under no circumstances tell him how to do his job. Nathan wasn't worried about Dawson. The older man knew about the infamous Larabee temper, knew how to circumvent it, and how to face it down, when necessary.
The special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigations standing beside him, however, did not.
Chris and Martin Lewis also had history, none of which was good. Lewis, in Jackson's professional opinion, was a horse's a**, first rate. The man could teach the class at Quantico. He made Ezra look as meek and humble as a Sunday school teacher-which was no small feat. How the man managed to survive twenty years in the business without someone doing the world a favor by popping him, Nathan couldn't figure out. Lewis played politics like a well-strung violin, and had no problems whatsoever with stepping on the little people to get what he wanted. He was the epitome of bureaucratic ineptitude. He could completely screw up the easiest of cases, and he had stealing credit from those around him down to an art form. He was blatantly and loudly against team seven and was constantly on the look out for any excuse to cut them down.
And the addition of Ezra Standish to the team a few months early had been the biggest excuse and one that he expounded on frequently. He was firmly in the anti-Ezra club in Denver-shoot, he was president! As far as he was concerned, Ezra was a dirty cop. End of story. He didn't care that there had been no concrete evidence, he didn't care that Ezra had consistent alibis and explanations for every charge brought against him, he didn't care that Atlanta had been forced to drop the case on grounds of insufficient evidence. He, like many others both in Atlanta and Denver, played prosecutor, judge, and jury, and hung Ezra out to dry. If he had his way, the undercover agent would be drawn and quartered, tarred and feathered, and hung from the tallest tree in Colorado. And the rest of team seven would be right behind him, starting with Chris Larabee himself.
Chris had no use for departmental bureaucrats, especially the ones who sat in the safety of their offices and criticize and nit-picked every decision he made, every action taken, every case result. Chris despised the hot air bags who tried to tell him how to do his job; those who couldn't run a field team if their lives depended on it and who wouldn't last three seconds in a real bust. And Martin Lewis was one of the worst.
Chris and Lewis went together about as well as oil and water-no, that was being kind.
Chris and Ezra mixed like oil and water.
Chris and Lewis mixed like nitroglycerin and a good strong earthquake.
It was not a pretty picture.
Which was why Nathan was really wishing he were anywhere but there right at that moment, including visiting Rain's old aunt Melba. Just the thought of the old hag made him shudder. Well, maybe he wouldn't go that far. Maybe playing mediator between Lewis and Chris really was the better choice.
He'd have to think about that one.
"Larabee," Dawson acknowledged the men gruffly as they reached him, holding out his hand in greeting.
"Dawson," Chris returned, shaking the hand. "So what do you have here?" He completely ignored the other man who was standing to his right, sputtering in indignation.
"It's only been eight hours, Chris. The place is still too hot to begin investigating anything."
Chris nodded in agreement. "Yeah, but you're the best, Wade. And knowing you like I do, you've got a theory."
The old man eyed him up and down for a minute then nodded. "I've got some ideas. But what do you know about it, first?"
Chris sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "I think it's tied in with our current case. My agent was undercover in one of the local crime rings. He called yesterday around noon saying an exchange had been set up for today at a warehouse downtown, then called back around seven and said the time had been moved up to last night and the place changed, but he didn't know where. That was the last I heard from him."
"He the owner of the jag we found near here?" Dawson asked.
"He give you any idea as to what was being exchanged?"
"Not entirely, but he did know that they were bringing in a shipment of assault rifles and some grenades among other things."
Dawson rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Well, that would fit in with my theory." He started walking around the remains of the building, explaining as he went, the others following close behind. "My initial thoughts are that the fire started here," he pointed to what had been the western side of the building. "From what I found in the building blueprints, a gas line runs above ground along this wall. The evidence I found so far is consistent with a gas explosion. The guys in the repair shop say that they heard two explosions-the first one around midnight last night, the second about ten minutes later. This building wasn't used anymore. Matters of fact, it was schedule to be demolished this summer. The pipes were old and brittle. I think either something punctured a pipe or one was leaking, something else caused a spark, and boom!"
"Something like a bullet?" Chris asked grimly.
"Possibly. Probably. The second explosion was much more intense. It's the one that left the crater in the pavement. The ignition source for that was something much more volatile, more explosive and more powerful. A couple crates of grenades and gunpowder would definitely fall in the realm of possibility."
"So the exchange happened here, proved by the presence of the jag, and something happened, either a double cross or a falling out of some sort. They got into a fire fight and in all the shooting, accidentally set off a gas explosion. The resulting fire then ignited the grenades to cause the second explosion."
Dawson nodded again. "Like I said, I won't have anything concrete for you until tomorrow evening at the earliest, but that theory holds about as well as anything else I can think of right now."
Chris looked out over the vast expanse of the lot, watching the fire crews douse a small hot spot. "Anyone come across any bodies yet?" He hated to ask the question, dreading the answer, but needing to know.
"No one's come across anything yet. We'll know for sure once we get it cooled down enough to start cleaning up. I'll let you know what I find."
"Thanks, Wade. I appreciate it."
"Now wait a d**n minute, here! I'm in charge of this investigation, Larabee!" Nathan winced as Lewis finally made his presence known. "This is not your case! Any reports that are filed come to me!"
Chris turned to the man with a glare that could punch through solid steel. "Listen here, Lewis," he said icily, "this fire involved one of my men. That makes it my case. Me and the boys are not sitting this one out until Standish is found. You here me?" he challenged, pointing his finger in the older man's face.
"You don't know that Standish was here for sure. All you have is circumstantial evidence at best. So what if his car was here? Knowing your man, he caught a private jet with your crime lord and is living it up in Tahiti right now on all that dirty money he's got stashed somewhere. Standish isn't worth the effort it would take to bury him. Everyone knows he's a worthless turncoat. He's a detriment to the agency. And even if he was here and in that," Lewis, the idiot that he was, sneered in the blond agent's face, "then he just got what was coming to him anyhow."
"You son of a b***h!" Chris growled deeply in his throat, grabbed Lewis by the lapels of his designer jacket, and shook him hard. "You listen to me, Lewis. Standish is not dirty. You got that? He is a d**n fine agent, and has more talent in his little finger than you could ever hope to have in a lifetime!"
Lewis's eyes widened in fright as he tried to pull out of the other man's grip. "Someone get him off me! He's gone crazy!" he yelped frantically.
Dawson and Jackson grabbed Chris's arms and pulled him away, while Lewis shrank back behind his aide and straightened his jacket nervously.
"Come on Chris, calm down now, ya hear?" Nathan commanded as he stepped in front of the angry agent and pushed him backwards. "This isn't doing Ezra any good right now. You getting yourself locked up for hitting the jack a** is not going to help things."
Lewis popped up from behind his aide's shoulder and shook his finger toward the furious blond. "I'm still the agent in charge of this investigation, Larabee!" he yelled from his safe distance. "And if I catch you so much as thinking about interfering, I'll have you're a** in a sling so fast your head will spin. You got that?"
Chris growled again and struggled to get free, his face red with fury and a murderous intent.
"Get out of here, Lewis!" Dawson barked with a glare at the other man as he struggled with Nathan to hold Chris back. "You may be the agent in charge of the investigation, but this is my crime scene until the reports have been filed, and I want you off of it. Now!"
Lewis's jaw opened and closed a few times as he sputtered his indignation. "Now!" Dawson roared, and the smaller man reluctantly stepped away.
After he was out of sight, Chris jerked his arms out of Nathan's grasp. "That b*****d could care less if we find Ezra or not. All he wants is another d**n feather in his cap!" he snarled. "And he's perfectly willing to sacrifice Ezra to get it!"
"We won't let that happen," Nathan assured his boss with a pat on his shoulder. "We'll get Ezra back safe and sound and solve Lewis's case for him."
"I'll make sure you get copies of all the reports, and if I find anything, you'll be the first to know," Dawson promised.
Chris sighed as he took one more look around the fire site, his anger draining from him to be replaced with a growing despair. 'How could anyone survive this?' he wondered to himself. He shoved the thought back to the far corner of his mind and glanced back at the older man with a nod. "Thanks, Wade."
"Anytime, boys. Anytime." He clamped the younger man on the shoulder. "Now. This is a crime scene, and you are in my way, so get out of here and let me do my job."
Chris smiled at him ruefully and nodded to Nathan, indicating that it was time to leave. They both threw up their hands in a wave goodbye and headed back, swinging a wide berth around Lewis and the flock of newspaper and television reporters gathered beyond the police tape.
They met the others back at the truck. "Well?" Chris growled, crossing his arms as he impatiently waited for their reports.
"The guys who were here last night say they didn't see anything. They did say that the fire was pretty intense, a real b***h to get under control. If someone was in there-" Buck didn't finish his sentence, but they all knew what the implications were.
"Ez wasn't in there. I don't know where he is now, but I know he wasn't in that," JD stated firmly.
Buck grinned and put an arm around the kid's shoulders. "We know that, kid. Ol' Ez is like an annoying itch that you can't get rid of. H**l, he's probably at the office now, waiting for us to get to work."
"And if he is, I'm going to wring his ****ing neck!" Chris growled. He turned to Josiah. "What did you find out?"
"The hangar itself wasn't in use, and was going to be tore down later this year," Josiah began.
Nathan nodded. "Yeah, that's what Dawson said."
"Anyway, they had no idea someone was using it. As far as they knew, the place was empty," Josiah continued as he leaned back against the side of his suburban.
Buck snorted. "How do you miss guys with machine guns unloading crates in a hangar as out in the open as that?"
Josiah shrugged. "Don't ask me. However, the hangar closest to it was scheduled to have a shipment come in around eight last night, but called to let security know that it would be late."
Chris narrowed his eyes. "What time did they make delivery?"
"That could have put them in the general area around the time of the explosion," JD commented thoughtfully.
"Coincidence?" Nathan suggested.
"I don't believe in coincidences. Did you get a name?" Chris asked.
Josiah crossed his arms and nodded sagely. "Fieldman Contracting and Construction."
Chris's eyes hardened to flint and a cold smile spread across his features as he pulled the door of the Ram open roughly. "Well then, boys, let's go pay them a visit."
Ezra sat hunched over the computer terminal, his attention focused completely on the screen before him. He had been here for hours, diligently searching through mountains of information for what he needed, slowly working his way through the bureaucratic red tape and the various firewalls and other protective measures designed to keep people from doing the very thing he was doing at the moment.
While JD was the indisputable master when it came to all things computer, Ezra was no slouch himself and a fairly efficient hacker in his own right. The skills proved to be the veritable cyber lock pick he often needed to obtain the evidence he was seeking while undercover, and he worked to keep them sharpened and honed.
They also proved useful in other ways. In Atlanta, he could not depend on his co-workers to provide the crucial information he needed to protect himself while undercover, and as at times his very life depended on the knowledge he gained, he had learned to obtain what he needed himself. It was just another area in which he had to watch his own back, having no support and no one to fall back on when things went sour.
And it was another area in which he had been pleasantly surprised when he first came to team seven.
He had been shocked the first time he went undercover for Larabee. When he had received the assignment, he had automatically assumed he would be doing his own research, as he had always done in Atlanta. But the others had not forced that job on him. They had diligently and painstaking researched, checked, and double checked all their sources to make sure they provided him with accurate information. For the first time in a very long while, he had exactly what he needed, when he needed it, and had not been forced to improvise on the fly.
And this had been the norm for every case proceeding.
But even as he was bountifully grateful for their help, he still kept his own skills in practice, the tiny voice in the back of his head constantly reminding him that it wouldn't last forever, that eventually he would screw up, like always, and they too would feed him to the wolves like everyone always eventually did.
It wasn't so much that he expected them to fail him, an eventuality that he prepared for by keeping his distance and forming no attachments-no, it was that he firmly believed that he would fail them.
Because he always did, no matter how hard he pushed himself for perfection, no matter how hard he worked and strived to be the best at his job. It was an indisputable fact-He, Ezra P. Standish, was a screw up. And he would, he knew it; eventually, he would let them down and be left alone in the cold once again.
It was only a matter of time.
"But not this time," he vowed fiercely to himself. This time had too much counting on it, too many people's lives in the balance.
He was not going to fail this time.
After completing a bountiful brunch, he and Alex had headed to the University of Denver's Penrose Library, at her suggestion. Ezra had needed a public terminal with unlimited access to state documents, and a way to remain anonymous while he performed his research. She had informed him that the university library was a depository for federal documentation, and was also connected to the state network, including the federal building. He would have perfect access to what he needed, provided he could get around the various blocks on the system, which he assured her he could do easily.
Another plus was that during the semester, the campus library was open much later than the public library further downtown. And it had computer cubicles to provide the students privacy as they worked.
All in all, it was exactly what he needed.
They had reached the large building around four then split up, he entering the structure and she leaving to complete a few errands. It had been ridiculously easy to con his way into the computer lab and gain access to a computer, and he had set to work immediately. Ally had promised to return by eleven-it was now fifteen minutes till. Ezra rubbed his eyes tiredly and stretched while glancing around the room, noticing for the first time that he was completely alone. He looked down at the pile of documents beside him and straightened them into a neater stack. It had taken a lot of effort, but he now had plenty of evidence to work with and a place to start. He looked up as the door opened and Alex slipped through quietly. She had her jacket wrapped snuggly around her, and her cheeks were pink from wind exposure. She carried a large paper bag in one hand and the ever-present black back pack over her shoulder. She set the bags down in the floor beside him. "You about finished here?" she asked.
"Quite." Ezra sat back and tapped the small stack of papers. "Here it is-a listing of all properties held by Fieldman Contracting and Construction, as well as financial statements for the last year," he smiled at her smugly.
"Great," she said as she pulled over a chair from the nearest cubicle and sat down on it. "So what did you find out?"
He pointed to the screen. "On the surface, the company is very much on the up and up. Business is doing well. They made a modest profit last year and the year before that. They keep all their taxes up to date, follow all appropriate safety measures, have excellent employee benefits."
"But " she prodded.
"But there are some small inconsistencies. Such as this commission they completed last June." He rifled through the pages beside him before pulling out a few sheets to show her. "This statement," he handed her a paper, "shows a materials estimate and construction cost projection for an office complex in Aurora. The materials sheet shows that the project was estimated to cost a total of seven hundred and fifty thousand, not including engineering costs."
Alex whistled lowly as she glanced over the page in her hand. "That's a lot of money."
He handed her another sheet. "This is the final report given to the company that owned the new building. It states that final costs totaled six hundred and eighty seven thousand dollars, a full sixty-three thousand under budget."
She glanced up at him with a raised eyebrow. "I bet the company was very happy," she remarked dryly.
He nodded in agreement. "I'm sure. This statement," he handed her a third page, "is Fieldman's official report, showing that the final costs were seven hundred and seventeen thousand dollars, or thirty-three thousand under budget."
Alex's brows furrowed. "That's thirty thousand short. What did they spend the extra money on, and why did they absorb the cost themselves, especially if they were under budget to begin with?" she asked.
Ezra smiled his approval. "My question, exactly. Which led to a further study of the expense accounts during construction." He pointed to a column on the Fieldman report. "It shows here that the company hired exactly twenty-two men to complete the project. However," he pointed to a similar row on the other report, "this page says that twenty men were hired. That's two men unaccounted for. Now at approximately fifteen dollars a man per hour, ten hours per day, five days per week, and a total construction time of twenty weeks, the extra funds come to thirty thousand dollars."
"The amount of money the company was short." Alex studied the pages then looked up at him with a frown. "So why did they hire the extra men?"
"Ah, but look at this." He handed her another sheet labeled Employees.
She scanned the details then paused at the end before looking back up at him with wide eyes. "There's only twenty men listed here."
Ezra's smile widened and he sat back in his seat. "Exactly."
"A typo, maybe?"
"One would think that, and indeed, that is probably what the company's accountants assumed as well, seeing as the bank records are in accordance with the report shown to the hiring company." He crossed his arms, his gold tooth glinting in the fluorescent light from above.
"Alright. What am I missing, then?"
He pulled one of the ledgers from the briefcase and flipped through it until he came to the page he was looking for. "This is a record of a transaction of illegal armaments bought from a small arms supplier in Indonesia in June. Notice the total expenditure," he pointed to a red line at the bottom of the page.
She leaned over to see what he was alluding to and a slow grin spread across her face as she read the amount. "Thirty thousand dollars." She met his eyes. "The exact amount the company was short and the amount it cost to hire the two extra men-all in the same time frame. But how did they explain it away?" she questioned.
"Like you pointed out, it was probably assumed to be a typo on the Fieldman report, seeing as how the bank statement agreed with the second report," he explained as he flipped a few pages over. "However, according to this ledger, the purchased armaments were sold a month later to a small rebel force in South America. At the same time, the company completed a second project in Boulder, estimated to cost nine hundred thousand. The final expenditures of that project were nine hundred and fifty thousand, according to the report Fieldman gave the hiring company, giving them a total of fifty thousand over budget. The Fieldman report, however, claimed that final costs were only ten thousand over budget, thus over-charging the company forty thousand dollars."
"But when the bank statement showed up, it agreed with the Fieldman report," Alex interrupted.
Ezra nodded with a quick smile of approval. "You're catching on."
"So why didn't the other company put up a fuss?"
"The hiring company is a foreign corporation, headquartered in-"
"No, let me guess," she interrupted. "Headquartered in the same foreign country as the rebels who bought the armaments."
"You got it." He sat back and stretched his arms behind him, intertwining his fingers at the base of his skull, a smug grin hovering on his lips.
She sat back and let out a small breath. "So even though the reports didn't match, no one suspected anything because the bank statement always agreed, and the total amounts always came out. But if they were using the company to move their illegal money, why didn't the bank catch on?" she asked.
"Ah, but there's the clincher. If you'll take note of the appellation of the banking institution utilized by Fieldman, you'll see that they used Weston Banking and Trust to hold their funds." He caught the confused look starting to form on her face, and explained further. "Weston Banking is a small institution here in the Denver area. It used to be a large conglomerate, but over the years has suffered financial troubles and is now just a small chain of poor little banks in the less appealing areas of the city."
Alex furrowed her brows and leaned forward on her knees. "I can see that it looks odd that such a successful company would be using a rundown and dying bank to hold its money, but I don't see what you're driving at."
"Oh, that's right," he remembered with a snap of his fingers, "you had no idea whose demise you witnessed back in the hangar yesterday, did you?"
Alex shook her head. "All I know is that his name was Chester Banning."
Ezra raised his forefinger into the air, like a professor about to prove an important point. "Ah, but you see, Mr. Banning was employed as general manager of the Purgatorio branch of Weston Banking and Trust."
Alex's eyes widened. "So he was not only doing the accounts for the illegal activities, he was also doctoring the bank statements!"
Ezra sat back and grinned. "Exactly."
"But this is all circumstantial. There is nothing directly tying Fieldmans to the illegal activity."
"That's where you are wrong, my dear." He turned back to the computer and hit a few more keys. "You see, the foreman of Fieldman Contracting is a man named Hulio Martinez. After a little more digging, I found that Hulio Martinez actually did not exist before 1991."
"So the name's an alias. Who was he, then?"
Ezra smiled as the picture he was looking for came up, and he slid his chair over to give her a clear view of the mug shot on the computer screen. "Tony Vitalis!" she exclaimed in surprise. She leaned back in her seat and let out a breath slowly. "Wow. So now we have Fieldman Contracting linked to a known criminal and arms smuggler, the same one you've been investigating. But we still don't have the storage spot, and we still don't have a link to Randolph."
He sighed. "I realize that. However, I do now have a listing for several properties belonging to Fieldmans Contracting. I'm sure that if we find where they keep their supplies, we will find the records to take us to Randolph."
"So what do we do next?"
Ezra pinched the bridge of his nose. "While we have documentation showing that Vitalis is linked to Banning via the illegal accounts, we have nothing proving that Banning was doctoring the bank statements of Fieldmans."
"So if you were to go after Vitalis now, you would get him, and maybe a few others, but the company could potentially get off," she frowned.
"Yes," Ezra agreed as he leaned back in his chair and crossed his ankles while sliding his hands into his pockets. "And in order to shut the gun smuggling down, we need to fell the entire operation, meaning we must take down the entire company."
"So you need proof that the company accounts were indeed absorbing the illegal funds." Alex crossed her arms and rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "And how do you propose to do that? You can't get a legal warrant to search Banning's office without contacting your boss, and you can't contact your boss without risking tipping off Randolph."
"I need to find the proof first and move it to a safe place from which I can retrieve it later under legal means," he noted.
"So you plan to do a little snooping in Banning's office without official permission," Alex stated. She gave him a questioning glance and a frown. "That's fine and dandy but for one thing. Vitalis knows that Banning double crossed him," she pointed out. "How do you know he hasn't already taken that proof?"
"Ah, but he didn't find out about Banning's deceit until late last night, which did not give him time to get back to the office. And the bank is in operation until seven tonight, being Friday night. The employees won't finish their duties until closer to eight, possibly eight thirty. Vitalis simply hasn't had the opportunity to remove to evidence. Tonight will probably be my only chance to get to it before he does, however," he explained.
Alex's frown deepened. "And what if he gets the same idea tonight?"
Ezra shrugged. "It's a chance I must take if I am to pull down the entire house of cards."
She could see the determined glint in his eye and sighed. "And I don't suppose there is a chance I could talk you out of this?"
He shook his head and smiled, and she sighed again with a shrug. "Well, then. I guess we're making a trip to Purgatorio tonight."
It was now Ezra's turn to frown. "I would prefer that you sit this one out, my dear. It could prove to be very dangerous."
She cocked an eyebrow at him, readying herself for an argument. "We've been over this before, Ezra. I've been living on the streets for quite a while now. Facing thugs with knives and guns is nothing new to me. And I'm not letting you go in there alone," she stated with conviction.
He studied her expression for a moment then sighed in defeat. "I don't like it," he complained.
She smiled at him. "I don't care if you like it or not. I'm coming. End of story. Now let's get out of here before Vitalis beats us to it while we stand here arguing."
Ezra let out another exasperated sigh and began gathering his supplies. "You are simply incorrigible, my dear."
Her smile widened into a grin as she stood to her feet and put her chair back where she got it. "I know. But, as the old saying goes, it takes one to know one."
He snorted, but smiled anyway. "You are quite correct." He shut the computer off and turned to her, motioning toward the door. "Shall we go, then?"
She nodded and reached down to pick up her bags. "Oh, wait!" she paused, "I almost forgot. Here, this is for you." She handed him the paper bag.
He eyed it curiously then looked at her. She motioned him to open it, and he reached to pull out a black, worn corduroy jacket, a pair of gloves, a pair of worn jeans, and a green pullover sweater, all in his size. He raised his eyebrow at her, and she shrugged, her cheeks flushing with color. "Well, it's winter! You couldn't run around in nothing but that shirt. Your southern blood would freeze! And since you don't know how long before you can go home, you're going to need another change of clothing. You can't wear what you have on forever."
He stood in shock for a moment, trying to comprehend what she had done and to figure out her angle, but for the life of him, he couldn't see any benefit she gained from her generosity. He looked from the coat back to her, and she shifted uncomfortably under his questioning stare. "It's not much. I picked them up at Goodwill after I got your sizes last night. They're used, but they're clean. I know you probably wouldn't be caught dead in someone's hand-me-downs, but it was all I could afford."
Ezra laid the coat across the chair and lightly lifted her chin up to look in her eyes, a gentle smile creasing his features. "Whether or not you will believe me, there has been the occasion in my youth when circumstances dictated that I make use of a hand-me-down or two, and while it's true, I wouldn't normally shop at charity stores, I understand the necessity and want to express my deepest gratitude for your thoughtfulness. But you didn't have to do this. I could have bought my own coat."
She shrugged. "You've got a limited amount of money that you'll have to live on until you can go home. And you were busy tonight, and needed the coat now. It wasn't a big deal."
His smiled widened as he reached for his wallet. "It was a big deal. And I'm sure your funds are much more limited than my own. Here, let me reimburse you."
"Oh no you don't," she protested. "They're a gift. You don't repay gifts. And when you're done with them, you can return them to the store to be sold again, or you can take them down to one of the missions."
Ezra frowned, pausing with his hand at his back pocket. "But-"
"Now, no buts," she said firmly. "I won't take your money. You needed the jacket, and I got it. It didn't cost me that much. If you won't consider it a gift, then take it as payback for lunch today. I wanted to kick myself all day today after suggesting such an expensive place, anyway."
"It was not expensive, and I did not expect you to pay me back. As I told you, it was my treat." He crossed his arms and fixed her with a glittering green stare.
She shrugged. "So, if you can treat me to lunch, I can buy you a coat. That is how the gift thing works, isn't it?"
He tried another approach. "It's not the same thing-"
"Yes it is," she cut him off. "And it's not charity when a friend does it for you. So take it, be grateful for it, and stop arguing about it."
"I am grateful for it, but you shouldn't have put yourself out. You've only known me for one day. That's hardly long enough to qualify us as friends," Ezra argued back.
"It is when you risked your life to save mine," she pointed out.
"I do believe it was the other way around." Ezra reminded her with a smirk.
"Exactly," she nodded with her own smug grin. "So I get to choose whether or not we can be friends. And besides, I'm sure you'll get the chance to save my life sometime down the road," she crossed her arms self-satisfactorily.
"Oh, take the dang coat and shut up. We're wasting time standing here." She picked her bag up and started down the hall toward the stairway.
He shook his head. "Stubborn, cantankerous-"
"I heard that," she called back over her shoulder.
He smiled ruefully and fingered the coat. "She bought me a jacket," he finally relented with a shrug, and slipped it on. He welcomed the warmth and buttoned it up snuggly before placing the other articles back into the paper bag, stuffing the gloves in his pocket, and grabbing the briefcase. "Wait up!" he yelped and ran to catch up with her. "You're right. I'm being a complete cad. Thank you for the clothing," he offered.
She smiled. "You're welcome, friend."
He snorted and shook his head. "You don't know me well enough to call me a friend."
"And you don't know me, either. But I figure most friends start out that way. All it takes is for them both to be willing to learn."
He laughed aloud, and reached ahead to hold the door to the stairwell open for her. "Quite true, quite true."
They quickly walked down the stairs and out into the cold night. The sky was still overcast, but clearing, and there was a bitter wind blowing across the city. Ezra was suddenly very grateful for her thoughtfulness and quickly pulled on the gloves. He looked up to see her grinning at him, and he raised an eyebrow then looked down at the coat. "Okay. It's not quite so atrocious. Just please, don't-"
"Tell your associates. I know. You have a certain image to maintain," she smirked.
He smiled back. "Appearances are everything, my dear." His smile turned rueful as he again looked down at what he was wearing. "Though, if my mother could see me now, she would be simply appalled."
"Yeah, well sometimes practicality takes precedent over fashion," Alex pointed out as she hitched her bag further up on her shoulder.
He laughed. "Don't tell my mother that." He bowed slightly and motioned in a southerly direction. "Shall we depart?"
She shook her head and smiled at his antics. "We shall," she said as they struck out down the street. "Oh, and Ezra?"
"Yes?" he looked at her questioningly.
"Don't even think about trying to ditch me somewhere along the way."
He ducked his head for a moment, having difficulty understanding her firm conviction on the point, then smiled benignly. "I wouldn't dream of it, my dear. We are comrades to the end."
They disappeared into the darkness.
Orrin Travis stood outside the door to the bullpen, observing five members of his crack field team hard at work. It was a rare sight, indeed. JD was focused solely on his computer screen, every once in a while swiping absently at a stray lock of hair that insisted it be in his eyes. His fingers practically flew across the keyboard. Nathan and Buck were both on the phone, and for once, Buck's conversation was strictly professional. Nathan sat in Vin's desk chair, while Vin occupied Nathan's across from Josiah. A pile of folders were stacked haphazardly to one side of Josiah's desk as they poured over the contents of several reports, occasionally making notes or comparing a particular find to another sheet.
He didn't think he had ever seen Tanner so intent on paperwork before.
He smiled a little sadly. Usually, these men were a bunch of unruly, ill-mannered hyenas whose antics he was sure were going to drive him into retirement or a nursing home, one or the other. But give them a case, a target, a job to do, and they focused all that energy into a single beam of determination and tenacity. The pack of hyenas became wolves-smart, efficient, and deadly with purpose.
It was times like this that reminded him just why he put up with this bunch of misfits and made allowances for them.
There was no doubt whatsoever that they were the best-a well-fit machine that functioned with amazing accuracy and precision. It was truly a sight to behold. And they were working even harder than ever before on this case. One of their own was missing, and no one messed with one of their brothers, even if it was the contrary, pain-in-the-a** black sheep.
Larabee stepped from his office, an open file in his hand, and made his way to Josiah's desk. He looked up as Buck finished his conversation and hung up the phone. "Find anything?"
Buck settled on the corner of his desk and sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Yeah. Report just came in. Giuliano Carnelli was found about an hour ago in his shop, dead. Executed, mob style." He looked up bleakly, resting his arm on his knee. "The place was stripped clean-no account records, no merchandise, no prints. And no sign of Miles Walker."
"S**t." Vin's comment rang out across the space. He exchanged a fearful look with Josiah. "Just what the h**l is going on here?"
"I don't know, Vin, but whatever it is, our brother is definitely up to his neck in it," Josiah answered grimly.
The judge chose that moment to make his presence known and cleared his throat, getting their attention. "Boys," he greeted.
Chris set the file down on the desk and stood up straight, nodding at the man before him. "Judge."
The AD stepped further into the room, a serious expression on his face. "Any word from Standish?"
Chris grimaced. "No, sir."
"There's something else I found out from DPD," Buck broke in. "There was nothing to show that Miles Walker had even existed. They talked to Carnelli's wife and family, his employees, and his friends, and no one's heard of him."
"But how's that possible? We know that Ezra's been working there for the last month!" JD pointed out.
"It means Ez's cover's been blown, kid," Vin answered grimly as he tossed his pencil on the desk and sat back in his chair.
Silence filled the room as the implications of Vin's words sunk in. "D**n," Buck muttered, sliding off his desk. He closed his eyes for a moment then suddenly whirled around and punched the wall to his left fiercely, leaving a hole in the plaster. "D**n it all to h**l!"
"Something happened at that hangar last night. I want to know what it was," Chris ordered. A cold rage filled him and he welcomed it, for it covered the hopelessness, the feelings of failure, and the surprisingly acute sense of loss and grief that threatened him.
When had that slimy snake of a southerner gotten under his skin?
His eyes narrowed in purpose. "We are going to find him, even if we have to turn over every rock in Colorado to do it!"
The judge slipped his hands into the pockets of his coat and nodded his approval. "Let me know if there's anything I can do. Standish may have been a first class pain in the a**, but he was a d**n fine agent. Bring him home, boys."
He turned to leave, but paused at the sound of the phone ringing in Chris's office. They all looked at each other in dread as Chris reached over Josiah, hit his extension, and picked up the phone. "Larabee."
Vin felt his stomach plummet as he watched Chris suddenly pale and ball his free hand into a tight fist. He closed his eyes tightly and gritted his teeth. 'No.' he thought frantically as he unconsciously gripped the armrest of his chair. 'Not this.'
"Do they need us to come down there?" Chris's hoarse words pulled his attention back to the leader. The blond's face had become like granite, cold and determined. "Let me know when they get the results then .No, you were right to call me now. We needed to know .Let me know what they confirm .Yes .Yes .Thanks, Wade." Chris hung up the phone and clung to the edge of the desk for a moment, his head down and his eyes closed. "They found a body in the hangar about thirty minutes ago," he said quietly, finally looking up at his men.
The only sound in the room for several moments was the snap of the pencil in Josiah's hand being broken in half.
"Is it-" Nathan started, but Chris cut him off. "They don't know for sure yet. The body was badly burned, unrecognizable. They've taken it down to the lab to ID it. They'll let us know what they find."
"It wasn't him," JD muttered, slamming his hand palm down on his desk. "It wasn't Ezra."
"Kid," Buck reached to lay his hand on JD's shoulder, but JD shook it off fiercely and stumbled up from his chair and away from the ladies' man, shaking his head in denial. "No, Buck! It wasn't him. It wasn't! I don't know where he's at right now, but it wasn't him!" JD kicked at the waste basket beside his desk then ran his hand through his hair while pacing in front of the desk. "It wasn't," he muttered.
"I'm with ya, JD," Vin spoke up in agreement, his eyes burning with conviction as he met the hopeful gaze of the youngest. The others turned to look at him in surprise. "Until they prove it otherwise, I'm assumin' he's alive. And I'm gonna find him."
JD gave him a small smile, while the others looked less hopeful. Chris finally looked up and met Vin's gaze. 'Don't be giving up on us now, cowboy. Ez needs us,' Vin's ice blue eyes stared unwaveringly into his. Chris finally nodded, then turned his attention to the rest of the room. "Let's nail these bastards!"
Buck grinned, but his eyes glittered with a promise of revenge. "Oh, yeah. We're gonna show 'em what happens when they mess with the best!"
The judge looked on in approval, glad to see the resolve, before slipping quietly from the room. He left the bullpen and took the elevator to the garage, his steps heavy. He dreaded going home, dreaded facing his wife. She had a soft spot in her heart for that infuriating con man, and this would surely break it. He finally reached his Lexus, unlocked the door, and slid into the cool leather seat. As he pulled out of the garage and onto the busy street, he glanced at the lit office windows several stories above. "Godspeed, boys," he murmured to himself.
He almost felt sorry for their prey, for they surely had the hounds of hell on their trail now, and God's own retribution couldn't be more swift or brutal.
* * * * * * *
Ezra softly pushed the office door open and slipped into the darkened room, pausing briefly to get his bearings. He slid the tiny file back into his shirt pocket before flicking the small flashlight on. "Now. If I were of the need to conceal certain incriminating documents, where would I place them?" he wondered to himself, sweeping his gaze steadily over the room.
The small, seedy bank had only the barest security, which he had no trouble at all bypassing. He had shaken his head in mock dismay as he had easily disabled the cameras and the locks. "Disgraceful. Simply disgraceful," he muttered to himself.
He quickly found the manager's office and made short work of the simple door lock; thus, he now stood in the small, wood paneled room. A large mahogany desk stood in the center, taking up most of the space. Low book shelves lined either side of the window directly behind it, and two wing-backed chairs stood in front of it. A few cheap prints graced the walls. Overall, the office was sparse, bland, and threadbare. He found a coat stand behind the door beside a tall, black filing cabinet. A quick search of the cabinet proved fruitless, as did the desk. He moved to the paintings, hoping to find a wall safe, but was not surprised that he didn't. 'Of course, this couldn't be easy,' he grimaced.
He sorted through the small collection of books on the shelves, but yielded no results that way, either. He checked the carpet, looking for loose corners and hiding places underneath, but again came up empty. He moved out into the small reception area and began sorting through the tellers' drawers. A quick glance at his watch had him picking up his pace. He had already been inside for five minutes.
This was taking too long.
He stopped in the middle of the room and turned slowly, studying the room until his gaze fell on the tall, solid door leading to the vault. 'Of course,' he groaned. It was the safest place in the entire bank!
He made his way to the door and stepped back, looking at it intently. Like most banks, it had an electronic lock that could only be opened at a certain time each day. 'That wouldn't work,' he thought. 'Banning would have to do the deed after hours and would need access to the vault.' He glanced back at the office door then rolled his eyes at himself. 'He was the manager, you imbecile. He had access to the combination!' He looked from the vault door to the office and back again.
Banning had struck him as a nervous little man and a worrier, the kind of person to torture themselves with what if scenarios and spend all their time creating contingency plans. Therefore, it wouldn't be beyond the realm of possibility that he would keep the combination in his office where he would have immediate and easy access to it.
Ezra went back to the office and again searched through the desk, this time looking for anything that resembled a pass code. The desk again proved fruitless. Headlights flashed in the window, and he quickly flattened himself against the wall until the car passed. He then turned his attention to the bookshelves.
Several volumes were devoted to banking, accounting, and finances, with a few economic books as well. One whole shelf was filled with black binders containing documents pertaining to the institution going back several years. One book in particular caught his attention. On the bottom of the shelf, sandwiched between two hefty tomes on financial law, was a small, worn paperback copy of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations.
He reached for the book quickly and set it on the desk. He focused the flashlight beam on its pages as he slowly flipped through it, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Finally, he found what he was seeking, written in the margin three quarters of the way through the book. A small key marked the spot. He picked up the key and shook his head in disproval. "Quite slipshod, Mr. Banning," he whispered out loud as he put the book back in its place on the shelf and strode back to the outer room. "Very unprofessional. It is indeed miraculous that you have not already been burglarized."
He found the safety deposit box keys locked in one of the teller's drawers and activated the computer above to complete a quick search of the files before he made his way back to the vault. He punched in the code he had quickly memorized and smiled when the door clicked and slid open a few inches. He began to whistle to himself softly as he pulled the door completely open.
He found himself standing inside a small room with a low ceiling. Safety deposit boxes lined both walls, while another large metal door took up the back, probably leading into the actual storage area for the money. He quickly found the box the small key from the office was listed for, and inserted it and one of the teller's keys into the twin locks. The drawer slipped from its place and he set it on the small table in the back before rifling through the contents. His smile grew wider as he scanned the pages in his hand then flipped through the small black book at the bottom.
A noise at the door startled him, and the gun he had taken from the hangar leaped into his hand. Alex, who had been standing watch outside, didn't bat an eye at the gun pointed at her heart. "Someone's coming!" she hissed breathlessly. "We've got to get out of here!"
He tossed the keys to her to put back while he stuffed the book into his pocket and the papers back into the box. He slammed it back into its spot on the wall before exiting the vault and shutting the large door as quietly as he could. He and Alex then moved as one toward the only door out, but froze as they heard a soft click indicating that the outer door was being opened. He looked around the room wildly, searching for a place to hide, then jerked his head toward a small doorway across from the vault and pulled her toward it.
They slipped into a closet-sized room just as the inner door opened. Soft moonlight filtered in through the drive-through window lining the entire outside wall. Ezra crouched down and flattened himself along the doorway, gun in hand, as he gazed out into the room. Alex crouched down on the opposite side of the opening from him, watching him fearfully, her heart hammering in her chest. She held her breath, afraid of making even the smallest of sounds.
Two men entered the room cautiously, guns glinting in the faint glow from the street light outside. They had instantly gone on guard when they found that the security camera had been de-activated. They split up and began to search the place, shining their powerful flashlight beams into every possible hiding place. One of the men aimed the light into the room Ezra and Alex were hiding in, and Ezra shrank back quickly, narrowly avoiding discovery. The gunman seemed satisfied that the room was empty and turned away to look beneath the tables in the tellers' cages. Ezra leaned back against the wall and let out a silent breath of relief.
That had been much too close for his comfort!
He turned back to the opening as the two gunmen met in the center of the room. "There's no one here, boss," one of them spoke.
"I still don't like it," the other growled.
Alex's eyes widened and she and Ezra looked at each other. 'Vitalis!' she mouthed at him, and he nodded.
"Maybe that camera just quit working. The doors are all locked, and I don't see any sign of anyone else being here," the first man continued. "It's just a coincidence."
"Coincidences don't exist in this business. Get you're a** back to that door and keep watch. The last thing we need to do is attract the local heat." Vitalis motioned his accomplice away as he entered the office and went directly to the small shelf. He opened the book to the correct page then paused. "The key's missing!" he hissed.
Ezra looked down at the small key he had not had time to replace.
The guard looked at his boss. "Did it fall out?"
Vitalis searched the area, pulling the other books off the shelf and sweeping his hand along the opening, but finding nothing. "S**t! I don't have time for this!" he cursed.
"The little weasel must have taken it with him," the other man decided.
Vitalis's eyes narrowed as he scanned the room once again. "Maybe," he muttered. He rummaged around in the tellers' drawer for the bank's set of keys and then punched the code into the vault door. It opened with a click, and he quickly entered the room and went directly to the correct box. He inserted the bank key into its appropriate place then used a lock pick to open the other side. The box was once again pulled from its resting place and the contents removed. He scanned the pages quickly before stuffing them into his pocket. Satisfied with what he found, he put the box back and left the vault, motioning to the other man to follow him. "It's all there. Now, let's get outta here." They put the keys back and quickly left the building.
Ezra and Alex waited several minutes before leaving their hiding place. They cautiously slipped out of the building, reactivating the camera on their way out, and scurried down the street. They walked a few blocks before turning into a small, dark alley. Alex leaned back against the brick wall and let her back pack slide to the ground at her feet as she ran a hand over her forehead and sighed in relief. "Let's not do that again, okay?" she pleaded. "I think I lost a good ten years from my life when that guy flashed his light at us!"
Ezra grinned back at her as he pulled the collar of his jacket up against the wind. "I completely agree with you. I do believe my heart ceased palpitating for a moment."
She stood up and straightened her jacket before grabbing her bag. "Well, we'd better be getting out of here if we want to be back into the city tonight. The last bus runs at one." She cautiously stepped out of the alley, casting furtive glances up and down the street before finally deciding that the coast truly was clear.
Ezra grimaced as he followed her down the street. "I so detest public transportation," he complained.
She glanced back at him and smiled with a twinkle in her eyes. "Yeah, well it sure beats walking back. Though if you prefer wandering down the streets of Purgatorio at this time of night, be my guest." She casually stepped off to the side out of his reach before she made her next comment. "Of course, with that new beard you got going and that smell, you could fit right in with the rest of the bums down here," she teased.
He glared at her in indignation. "I do not stink. Any unpleasant odor arising from the vicinity of my person would be coming from this coat that you purchased."
"No one said you had to wear it," she shot back as she side-stepped a pole supporting a non-working streetlight.
His step faltered to a stop and he looked at her incredulously. "Then what exactly was the subject of that debate back at the library?"
She shrugged as she turned around to face him and continued down the street backwards. "Oh, that was about you accepting the coat as a gift from a friend. We never said anything about you actually wearing it." She bumped into another pole and quickly faced the right direction, unable to suppress the mischievous smile that spread across her features.
He sighed and quickened his pace to catch up with her. "Your logic simply astounds me."
Alex laughed. "I'll take that as a compliment."
"That was not the intent," Ezra pointed out.
"It got lost in the interpretation. Now come on. It won't be that bad. You survived the trip down here." She pulled him to the bus stop. They could see the dreaded mode of transportation as it turned a corner and came closer. It stopped with a loud whoosh as the air brakes were engaged and the door was opened. She climbed up the steps and handed the driver the correct amount of change. Ezra stopped at the opening, and she turned back to him, motioning him to follow her. "Come on. It's nearly empty. You can handle a short right back into the city. You'll even get an entire seat to yourself," she smirked at him.
"Oh, joy," he sighed sarcastically, but followed her onto the bus. The door closed behind him and the bus pulled out into the night.