Judge Travis adjusted his grip on his briefcase and glanced at his watch as the elevator arrived at the top floor of the federal building with a ding. He patiently waited for the polished steel doors to open then strode purposely past the reception desk, nodding a greeting to the young woman behind it as she raised a hand in acknowledgement without breaking the telephone conversation she was involved in. The noise of the office as clerks and other personnel worked busily from within the cubicles scattered around the area was just a hum in the background to him as he crossed the expanse and turned down the long hall leading to his quarters. The noise faded in the distance and quiet enveloped him as he passed several offices before reaching the frosted glass door bearing the name Assistant Director at the end of the passageway.
"Good morning, sir. How was the Colorado Springs meeting yesterday?" Sherry White, his tough, no-nonsense secretary greeted him with a cup of coffee and a smile. She was a thirty-year veteran of the legal system and had been the best secretary he ever had during his years on the bench. When he had been offered his current position within the newly formed Special Forces Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, he had immediately asked her to join him. She had seen it all during her career, and very little fazed or intimidated her. She was organized, efficient, professional-and easily held her own against the toughest opponents, including Chris Larabee and the yahoos he called a team. She was one of the very few-actually, the only-person he had ever seen that could back down the awesome power that was team seven's leader on a continual basis, even if it was only for a step or two.
That ability alone made her worth all the gold in Fort Knox, as far as he was concerned.
"Typical." he grimaced at the memory of the business meeting that had tied up his entire day yesterday. He sipped at his coffee and headed for his office. "What is on the agenda for today?"
Sherry fell in step beside him. "You have a nine o'clock briefing with team two on their progress with the Newman case, a ten o'clock meeting concerning the operations budget for next quarter, a twelve-thirty lunch with Justice Harvey, and a two-o'clock conference call with the attorney general. Team eight's reports on their last case are waiting on your desk for your approval, on time as usual, unlike certain other teams," she frowned in disapproval and he took another sip of coffee to hide his amused smile, knowing exactly to which team she was referring. "Team one's requisition for assistance on their next case is waiting for you as well, along with team four's funds request for theirs," she continued as he pushed his office door open.
"Oh, and Mr. Randolph called asking-"she stopped in mid-sentence as they entered the room and froze to see the darkly-dressed man leaning casually on the edge of the marble-topped desk, his hands in the pockets of the black leather jacket he wore and his ankles crossed, the steel toe of the black boot on top glinting in the florescent light overhead. "Mr. Larabee!" she exclaimed. "How did you get in here?"
Chris straightened up and focused a piercing green gaze on the man before him with barely a glance at the secretary. "We have to talk, Sir," he said seriously.
"About?" the magistrate raised a brow in question.
"We have a new lead in our case. It's important."
"Important enough to justify breaking into my office and bypassing the usual channels?"
Chris didn't even flinch at the veiled reprimand. "Yes, Sir," he answered solemly.
Travis studied the man before him for a moment then motioned to one of the wing-backed chairs to the side as he stepped behind his desk and laid his briefcase on the surface. "Have a seat," he directed, but the man didn't move.
"Not here," Chris shook his head. "I need you to come with me."
The judge focused on the team leader's eyes for a moment with a narrowed gaze then nodded once in decision. "Sherry, clear my schedule," he ordered, handing her the coffee mug as he passed her, following the man out of the office and leaving her standing in the middle of the space, sputtering in exasperation.
"You found Standish, then?" he asked as they exited the elevator into the garage a few minutes later. He was a bit surprised to see Vin Tanner leaning against the side of a non-descript sedan parked close to the elevator, but didn't comment.
The tracker opened the passenger side door for the older man and nodded in answer to the unspoken question in Chris's eye, indicating that everything was clear before he climbed into the back seat. Chris slid behind the wheel and started the vehicle. "We found him," he answered as he backed out of the parking space.
"Is he alright?" the judge asked in concern.
"He's just fine, Sir," Vin met the older man's eyes in the rearview mirror, a slight smile stealing across his face in reassurance.
"Then he had better have one h**l of an explanation for his disappearance," the magistrate commented gruffly, a hint of anger flaring to life in his visage as he pulled his seatbelt across his lap.
"He does," Chris replied, pulling out into the busy morning traffic.
Chris glanced into his rearview mirror to make sure they weren't being followed before turning to his boss. "We'll explain everything when we get there."
Not satisfied with the answer, but realizing that he would learn nothing else from the two laconic agents, Travis dropped his line of questioning and settled back into his seat. He noticed their constant vigilance and frowned, wondering just what the trouble-prone team had gotten themselves into this time.
* * * * * * *
"I don't believe it!" he growled forty-five minutes later from his seat on Ezra's couch, looking up from the files and photographs in his hands and interrupting the explanation that Ezra had been reiterating to him. "I have known Paul Randolph for years. He's a model citizen. He routinely donates to several charities around the city and was a staunch supporter of the crack down on crime the mayor launched in this city last year. H**l, he was of the key voices that brought the very organization that you work for into existence here in Denver! There is no possible way that he could be involved in something like this!"
Ezra grimaced slightly at the anger in the older man's voice, and averted his eyes from the accusing glare directed at him.
He had known this was going to be laid directly at his feet.
"I'm sorry, sir, but I'm afraid the evidence speaks for itself. I personally witnessed his nefarious activities first hand. Paul Randolph is indeed the power behind one of the largest criminal organizations in this state," he stated firmly.
"And I'm supposed to take your word for that," the judge snapped back in irritation as he flipped through the photos in his hand once more, trying to come up with any explanation for his long-time friend's presence in them other than the obvious.
JD straightened from his slouch against the opposite wall in indignation, ready to come to his friend's defense, but a sharp, scornful voice from the doorway beat him to it. "No sir, you are supposed to set personal feelings aside and look at the facts in hand objectively and believe that evidence."
Judge Travis looked up and watched with the others as a young lady he had never seen before stepped into the room. Quiet blue eyes met his steel gray ones in a steady gaze with a hint of respect, a measure of self-confidence, and a healthy portion of ire at the perceived insult in his words. A long braid trailed over her shoulder and she flipped it behind her back as she came to stand beside the undercover agent across the coffee table from him. "The fact that you have two eye witnesses to back up what you have in your hands, especially when one of those witnesses is your own agent who risked his life getting this to you, should only be a side benefit. Or are you in the habit of foolishly tossing aside a case because it affects you personally?"
The judge frowned at the girl, bristling at the obvious rebuke. "And you are?"
Alex held out her hand in greeting, meeting his austere gaze unflinchingly. "Alexandria Sanders, Sir."
Travis shook her hand, noting her polite introduction and firm handshake while taking in her clean but worn appearance, which stood as a stark contrast to the polished style of the man beside her. "And what is your role in all of this, Miss Sanders?" he asked, fixing her with a stern gaze.
"I was in the hangar on Thursday night and saw him," she pointed to the photo of Randolph lying on the coffee table where the judge had dropped it, "enter the building and give orders to the man who was overseeing the transfer. I also witnessed a murder that he directly ordered and watched, and almost witnessed the execution of Mr. Standish as well, that was also directly ordered by him." She stood tall and lifted her chin slightly in her anger. "Or are you going to doubt my word as well?"
"No, young lady, I am not," the judge replied sharply, focusing his dark and forbidding gaze directly on the girl, "nor am I disregarding the evidence that Agent Standish has gathered." And I do not appreciate having my authority and integrity questioned, his expression declared.
Neither do I, Alex's intense blue eyes flashed back defiantly, refusing to be intimidated or cowed.
He finally ended the staring contest after a moment, reached down to pick up the photograph of his old friend, and studied it, his expression growing just a bit wistful and melancholy as he slowly sat back against the cushions behind him. He pinched the bridge of his nose and laid the picture back on the pile before looking up at the others in the room. His features were composed, but he looked as though he had aged ten years in the last five minutes as he sighed. "Alright," he said, a hint of anger and hurt darkening his eyes to a stormy gray, "Explain to me again just what we have on our hands here and what we can do to bring him down."
Ezra and the others took turns outlining the events of the past weekend, including his escape from the hangar with Alex's help, the discovery of Banning's involvement as well as that of the construction company, and the discovery of the warehouse leading to the contact with Team Seven. Ezra ended the story by outlining Alex's involvement in his escape and her help in the investigation. "Her diversionary tactic was most advantageous for myself, Sir," he concluded. "If she had not seen fit to intervene, I most certainly would not be here tonight."
The judge looked at the girl again and raised an eyebrow, revising his earlier estimation of her, and she colored slightly at the praise. He turned his attention back to his agent with an amused glint in his eyes. "Was the explosion a result of this 'diversionary tactic'?" he asked dryly.
"Ah, no, sir," Ezra coughed slightly. "That unfortunate happenstance was due to a faulty gas line and the attempt of one of the miscreants to perforate myself with a few rounds from an assault rifle."
Travis shook his head. "You boys just can't do anything by halves, can you?"
They all shifted uncomfortably and averted their eyes from his censuring gaze.
The judge broke off his silent reprimand and sighed, rubbing a hand across his face before once again focusing on Ezra. "That still does not explain your lack of contact for three days, agent."
"I had no choice, Sir. Randolph recognized me immediately. With his close connections to yourself and the ATF, it was necessary that I cut all communication ties with the agency to ensure the safety of myself and that of Miss Sanders," Ezra explained. "It is imperative that Randolph believe us to be deceased, or that he remain without knowledge of our whereabouts at least. And I was able to utilize the time to continue my investigation of the organization."
"I don't like it either, but I have to admit he has a point," Chris spoke up from one of the recliners in defense of his agent, much to Ezra's surprise. "Randolph is intent on expanding his business, and as long as he thinks we have no idea where Ezra is, he'll feel safe enough to continue with his meeting with Hammings on Friday."
"But if he finds out Ez has gotten in touch with us, he'll split," Vin picked up the train of thought.
"With his ties to the foreign markets, he'll easily disappear and rebuild his empire somewhere else," Nathan added.
"And he would probably come after Ezra later in the future," Josiah pointed out. "The murder of Bannings suggests that he won't tolerate betrayal of any kind. And with the loss of his American holdings and reputation, it only follows that he'll want revenge on the agent responsible."
The judge tapped his chin and grunted. "So you believe that this meeting Friday is the only chance we'll have at bringing this organization down, then."
"Yes, sir," Chris answered.
The magistrate nodded at the leader. "Anything you need for this operation, you have, Chris," he said. His eyes narrowed in fierce anger and his voice took on a hard edge. "I want this organization brought down."
Chris rubbed a hand across his eyes and sighed. "It's not that easy, sir."
Travis raised an eyebrow, demanding an explanation.
"It turns out this Hammings guy is more than just a gun smuggler," JD filled in as he handed the judge a second set of folders that he held in his hand. "He's actually a well-established criminal mastermind wanted in several countries around the world."
"His real name is Sean Bartinol. He's started out as a thief back in the late seventies and worked himself up in the world," Nathan explained from his seat on the piano bench. "Besides his black market sales of stolen artifacts, he also deals in the mass manufacture and distribution of narcotics in Asia and South America, Poaching in Africa, as well as illegal weapons sales to third world countries and terrorists. From what the European authorities can tell, he has ties to the Japanese, Russian, and Chinese Mafias, as well as a host of other criminal families across the continent."
"The man is extremely careful," Josiah added from the other recliner. "Compare him to Sherlock Holmes's Professor Moriarty, if you will. Interpol, Scotland Yard-even the Russian Secret Police and German authorities have been after this guy for years and have never even come close. He hides his tracks extremely well, and has an extraordinary ability to play the system."
"But he will be at this meeting in person," Nathan continued. "He wants to expand further in the US and will be here, in Denver, on Friday. This one bust has the potential of bringing down not only Randolph and his organization, but Bartinol as well. It's a once in a lifetime chance."
It was the judge's turn to sigh as he took in the full implications of Nathan's statement. "In other words, this has just turned into a jurisdictional three ring circus," he grimaced.
"That would be about it, sir," Buck agreed, shifting his stance against the doorway beside the couch and crossing his arms.
The judge leaned back against the couch and rubbed his forehead wearily. "Wonderful," he sighed.
"It gets worse," Chris interjected grimly.
Travis looked up at the agent in disbelief. "Worse?"
"Alex here has run into Bartinol in the past," Buck answered helpfully with a nod at the girl.
The judge turned his attention to the girl still standing beside Standish and cocked his head inquiringly. "Explain."
Alex gave him a shortened account of the story she had shared with the others, a bit amazed to find herself doing so not once, but twice in less than twenty-four hours. The room lapsed into silence as she ended the narrative, the others waiting to see the judge's reaction.
Travis, for his part, sat back in disbelief, hardly able to believe the coincidence. He glanced up at the girl, but she slipped her hands into her jeans pockets and looked down at the photographs with a hooded expression on her face, avoiding his gaze. He felt a flash of sympathy for her before he turned his attention to the team leader. "What do you want to do?" he asked.
Chris leaned forward in his seat, a feral light coming to his eye. "We already have teams eight and three keeping an eye on the warehouse and the construction company. I want to continue with our plans for the bust on Friday."
"With the involvement of Bartinol, you do understand that we will have to contact Interpol and the FBI, at the very least," Travis pointed out.
"Yes sir, we realize that," Chris nodded, "and we're willing to work with them. But I want it made clear that this is our case and that we have a say in what happens. I do not want regulated to back up or kicked off the case entirely." His expression clearly indicated that he would not negotiate his terms.
The judge rubbed his chin thoughtfully before nodding in agreement. "I'll see what I can do." He pulled his cell phone out of his jacket pocket and turned it on. "Well, Boys, let's get this ball rolling," he commented as he quickly thumbed a number onto the keypad before turning to the girl. "Now. What did you say was the name of your father's supervisor for Interpol?"
* * * * * * *
Timothy Johnson sat at his desk in his plush office in Washington, D.C., hard at work on the latest cases to pass into his hands. The senior agent had seen more than his share of violence and victims in his twenty years of field service for the FBI followed by the last ten years in the US National Central Bureau of Interpol, and would have assumed that he had grown hard in all that time, but some crimes and atrocities still managed to get to him.
Such was the latest case that he had completed, involving an international prostitution ring. The women-no, the girls-were mostly from third world countries in South America and Eastern Europe. Many had been promised a new home and life in America only to arrive to find themselves trapped in a horror much worse than what they had been living in at home. Others had been kidnapped and some had even been sold into service. No matter the circumstances, all the women were treated like objects to be bought and sold, used and abused, with no regard to their well-being or rights to humanity. Indeed, they had been stripped of that humanity and regulated to the level of animals. The mere thought of the horrors that they had faced still sickened the agent, and even now that the ring was broken, the girls were finally getting the help that they needed, and the monsters who had exploited them getting their just reward, he still had trouble containing his anger. It was one time that he was thankful for the mountain of paperwork that only seemed to grow larger on his desk.
It would prove to be the perfect distraction.
He completed his report and sat back with a sigh, reaching for the lukewarm cup of coffee sitting at his elbow and swiveling his desk chair around so that he could take in the view of the snow-covered lawn outside his window. The crisp blue sky above and the warm rays of the late morning sun spilling in through the glass helped to calm his spirit some and he closed his eyes, enjoying the stolen moment of peace. Lately, he had been feeling every bit of his fifty-eight years, the aches and pains left from the various abuses and wounds he had subject his body to over the decades becoming more pronounced. Perhaps his wife was right-he needed to take some time off. His last vacation had been to Florida-or was it Southern California? In all honesty, he could barely remember. It had been three years ago, after all.
Maybe he could take one weekend and spend some time with his wife-it had been a while since they had really been able to just sit and talk. They could head for one of the ski resorts in the Appalachians, rent a cabin, spend a few days getting to know each other again. It would be nice to leave the bustle of the nation's capitol for a while and get away to someplace quieter, more peaceful, simpler.
The idea was definitely appealing, and he could think of the perfect place to hide away for a while, too. And it was no more than a five hour drive from home, nestled in the hills of Northern West Virginia. The thought of the state brought to mind a picture of his young partner during the final years of his tenure with the FBI, and his smile turned wistful. The brash young man had been a remarkable agent, with a cool head and great instincts for the job, despite his age. Though he himself had been in the role of supervisor and senior agent to the young man, they had gone beyond that and formed a fast friendship that had lasted long after their partnership ended with his taking his present position with the Interpol office and Allen going on to larger and greater things with a new partner. And then they found themselves once again working together, when Sanders and his new partner accepted an assignment from the FBI to the Interpol office.
His thoughts turned maudlin as they eventually led up to their last case together-the one in which he had failed the young man, his partner and friend. His smile faded into a frown and he turned from the window, the enjoyment of the day gone. Had it really been six years since that fateful day, the day that he had lost that friend? Where had the time gone?
He shook his head and reached for the next pile of papers sitting in his in-box after placing his mug back on the coaster beside the phone. Though lunch was in about thirty minutes, he needed something to turn his thoughts from the dark trail they had started down.
His phone suddenly rang, and he reached for the speaker phone button without evening looking up. "Yes?"
Mr. Johnson? There is a phone call for you on line two. It's from an Orrin Travis, in Denver, Colorado. The voice of his secretary sounded loud and clear over the microphone.
He stopped what he was doing and frowned at the phone. "Orrin Travis? I don't believe I've met the man. Who is he?"
"You haven't, sir. He is a retired federal judge and is now the Assistant Director for that new special forces division of the ATF that started up out there not too long ago. He says that he needs to speak with you regarding a case one of his teams is working on. He says it's urgent."
"Put him through, then, Carol." Johnson laid his pen down and sat back in his chair.
Mr. Johnson? A new voice came over the line a few moments later.
"I am he. And you are the Honorable Orrin Travis from Denver?" Johnson answered.
I can assume your secretary has told you who I am, then.
"Yes, she did. So what can I do for the ATF?" he asked as he reached for his coffee mug.
During the course of their investigation into an illegal weapons merchant here in Colorado, one of my teams recently uncovered evidence linking the said gun runner to a man named Sean Bartinol. I was told that you have had a past connection with the man?
"Bartinol!" Johnson exclaimed, nearly dropping the mug in shock.
Yes. It seems that he has decided to expand his enterprises into this area and has set up a meeting with our gun runner. He will be personally attending. We thought that you would like to be involved in the arrests.
"Bartinol? In the US?" his expression hardened and he balled his free hand into a fist. "When and where?" Thoughts of retribution and finally arresting the man responsible for the death of his friend filled his mind.
From what my team has found, he will be arriving here in Denver on Thursday night and will be escorted to the meeting Friday morning. Realizing that this has become an international matter with his involvement, we are asking for your organization's assistance. We have also been made aware of Bartinol's information network in various agencies, and thus ask that this be kept on a strict need-to-know basis. We do not want to jeopardize the mission or the lives of the witnesses involved.
"Of course. You will definitely have all the help you need from Interpol. And you're right-the man does have spies everywhere, something I found out the hard way, I'm afraid. We have done everything possible to find those leaks, but " he trailed off as he lifted the mug to his lips. A sudden thought occurred to him, and he paused. "I know that it is standard procedure to ask for our assistance in matters involving international crime of this nature, but how did you know of my personal interest in Bartinol?"
A new voice answered his question. We've been told that six years ago, an FBI agent assigned to you was working on a case involving Bartinol. Something went wrong, Bartinol found out, and the agent, an Allen Sanders, was killed along with his wife, while Bartinol escaped."
"And you are?" Johnson asked sharply, realizing that the judge must have had him on speaker as well.
Chris Larabee, team leader in charge of this investigation.
"Agent Larabee. You are correct on all accounts, but that investigation was kept under tight security. Who told you about it?" he questioned, taking a sip of his coffee.
Johnson spewed his drink across his desk. "That's impossible!" he coughed. "She's dead!"
If that's the case, then I wished someone would have told me about it.
The voice that answered was older than he remembered, more mature, but definitely unmistakable. "Alex?" he gasped. "You're alive?"
At the moment, she responded dryly.
"How? Are you all right? What are you doing in Denver? And where the h**l have you been all this time!" he demanded, shock, relief, and anger flooding his voice.
Let's see. Bartinol missed, I'm fine, Denver seemed just as good as any place to be, and around. Does that answer all your questions? She replied cheekily, a touch of humor coloring her words.
"Smart a**," he growled, shaking his head ruefully, though a somewhat giddy grin slowly spread across his features.
She was definitely her father's daughter.
If you don't mind, can we finish the question and answer session later? Larabee brought their attention back to the matter at hand.
"Yes, yes, of course. I'll make arrangements for a flight to Denver as soon as I can get there. You're right-I do want to take care of this personally. Is there a number where I can reach you? I'll let you know my arrival time." He quickly wrote down the number Larabee gave him. "I will most definitely keep this as quiet as possible. I do not want Bartinol slipping through my fingers again," he declared firmly, a steel-edge entering his voice.
No, we don't. I'll have someone waiting for you when you get here, Chris answered.
"Alright. I'll see you then." He reached for the phone, but paused. "And Mr. Larabee?"
"Keep her safe." He quickly disconnected the call and hit the intercom button for his secretary. "Carol? I need a flight for two to Denver today, just as soon as you can possibly get it."
Yes sir. Came the reply. Anything else?
"Clear my schedule for the rest of the week and the beginning of next week. I'll take care of the rest. Oh and Carol? This is to be kept in strictest confidence. Make the flight arrangements on your personal cell phone, use one of my aliases, and don't keep any records at all. No one, absolutely no one, is to know of my whereabouts. Just tell anyone who asks that it was a personal emergency. Do you understand?"
Yes sir, I understand.
"Good. Thank you, Carol." He sat back for a second, the shock of the call still lingering. Alex was alive? And not only that, right in the middle of another case involving Bartinol! He rubbed his forehead and shook his head in disbelief before reaching for the handset to make one last call. "Eddie?" he said when the call connected. "I need you to clear whatever you have going right now. We're going on a trip. I'll explain when we're on our way, and I need you to keep it quiet. Tell no one where you're going. I'll clear it with the brass for you. Okay? .Thanks .I'll meet you on the mall in an hour."
He hung up the phone and rounded his desk, headed for the coat tree in the corner, all thoughts of lunch gone from his mind. As he reached for his coat, the framed photograph hanging on the wall caught his attention. He reached up and gently touched the glass protecting the picture of a much younger version of himself sitting in a little row boat, holding up a large bass, his arm around the shoulders of his teammate. Allen Sanders' brown hair was wind blown, his bright blue eyes twinkling with humor, as they both grinned up at the camera. In Sanders' lap sat a small girl, no older than six, who proudly help up her own catch of a small blue gill. Johnson closed his eyes for a moment, remembering the long ago camping trip before he turned away and pulled on his coat. He then strode for the door purposely, but paused in the doorway and glanced back.
"I won't fail you this time, Al, I promise you that," he whispered, then quietly flipped off the lights and closed the door, leaving the lone picture to reflect the glare from the winter sun into the empty room.
Johnson bundled his coat closer around him and hitched his carry on bag further up onto his shoulder as he and Edward Thomas, Sanders's old partner, followed the large man who had introduced himself as Josiah Sanchez through the crowded airport toward the parking lot outside. Their 8 p.m. flight into Denver had arrived promptly at twenty minutes after, and they had exited the plane to find Sanchez waiting for them in the terminal, explaining that he had been sent by Larabee to escort them to their temporary headquarters.
A cold wind whipped by them, causing them to shiver, and they were very happy to reach the warmth of the jeep Cherokee with Nathan Jackson inside waiting for them, having come out earlier when the flight arrival had been announced to warm up the vehicle. They quickly loaded their luggage and managed to get ahead of the rest of the crowd and out onto the highway before the main rush. Nathan navigated the congested streets easily, and soon they were on the less-crowded interstate westward bound. "Do you mind if I ask where we're going?" Johnson asked from where he sat in the back, watching the darkened scenery pass by as they climbed up into the mountains.
"No, not at all," Josiah answered pleasantly as he glanced over his shoulder at the man from the front passenger seat. "We're going to Chris Larabee's ranch. Chris and the judge decided to set up our base of operations there."
"Larabee's ranch? How secure can that be?" Thomas spoke up doubtfully from behind Nathan. "Shouldn't you have taken the witnesses to a safe house?"
"Chris's ranch is as secure as any safe house," Josiah reassured him. "It's at the head of a little valley up in the mountains, and secluded. It's in a pretty defensible position as well, and hard to find unless you know where you're going."
Thomas glanced over at his friend, who shrugged slightly, and turned his gaze back out his own window, not convinced.
"So what case are you working on and how, exactly, did you find Alex?" Johnson continued, turning his attention back to the preacher.
"Oh, we didn't find her. It was more of a case of her finding us," Nathan glanced in the rearview mirror at his passengers, amusement glinting in his chocolate eyes.
"Her finding you? What does that mean?" Thomas asked gruffly.
"Just what it says, brother," Josiah chuckled. "We'll let Chris and the judge explain it when we get there."
Forty-five minutes later, they pulled up the gravel drive and parked in front of the long, dimly lit ranch house. Josiah nodded in approval at the young agent who was standing sentry at the edge of the trees, his black clothing barely discernable against the dark backdrop of the forest. He quickened his step to follow the others inside.
Chris looked up from his place bent over the pool table where he and the judge had several papers spread out to see Nathan enter the front door followed by two men he didn't recognize. The older one had gray-streaked brown hair and inquisitive brown eyes that spoke of experience and authority as he looked around the room, taking in the men in attendance in a glance. The other man was shorter, younger, with pale blond hair and hazel eyes that roamed the room untrustingly. Chris stepped forward and held out his hand in greeting to the first man. "Timothy Johnson?" he said. "I'm Chris Larabee. This is Judge Orrin Travis, JD Dunne, Buck Wilmington, and Ezra Standish from my team, Ryan Kelly, leader for team eight, Mark Pauley, leader for team three, and Captain Jason Reed, from the State Police Department." He motioned to each man as he introduced them. "You've already met Josiah Sanchez and Nathan Jackson."
Johnson shook each of their hands before stepping further into the room and nodding to his companion. "This is Edward Thomas of the FBI and former partner of Allen Sanders." Thomas acknowledged the men with a tilt of his head.
"And I'm Special Agent Martin Lewis, also of the FBI. I can definitely say that it is nice to have other agents who know how to properly run an investigation present for this case," Lewis shoved his way to the front of the group, glaring at Larabee, knowing that the other man had purposely left his introduction out.
"Agent," Johnson took one look at the man and dismissed him, to Larabee's amusement and Lewis's annoyance. The Interpol agent instead scanned the room, searching for one face in particular. "Where's Alex?" he asked with furrowed brows.
"Right here, Mr. Johnson." He turned to see the girl in question step into the room from a darkened hallway leading to the back of the house.
The group backed away respectfully as Johnson rushed to the girl and enveloped her in a tight hug, relief shining on his face at finally seeing her alive and well for himself. "It really is you," he whispered as he hugged her again, his eyes glistening with unshed tears of happiness. He framed her face with his hands then rested them on her shoulders as he stepped back a bit to take a good look at her. "And look at you! You've grown up into a beautiful young woman. You look just like your father. Doesn't she, Eddie?"
The other agent came forward with a wide grin, his eyes brightening for the first time since entering the room. "Now, don't go insulting the girl, Tim," he chastised the older man as he reached out to ruffle her hair. "It's good to see you, kid. I can tell ya, I didn't believe Tim when he told me what was going on."
Alex sidestepped out of his reach and smiled back softly. "I think I'd've enjoyed the looks on your and Mr. Johnson's faces," she said teasingly.
Johnson stood back and fixed her with a mock glare. "Now what's this Mr. Johnson stuff? I was there the day you were born, girl. It's Uncle Tim, to you!" he said sternly.
"Uncle Tim," Alex repeated with a shy smile.
"That's better," he nodded in approval. "Now," he continued, crossing his arms and giving her his best authoritarian look, "Mind telling us just where the h**l you've been for the last six years and what possessed you to run off in the first place?"
She leaned back against the wall and shrugged lightly. "Here and there. Wasn't in any one particular place for very long," she answered. "As for why, well, it seemed to be the best choice at the time."
"The best choice," Johnson snorted and shook his head. "Do you realized you scared the h**l out of me? We believed you were dead! When you disappeared, I thought Bartinol had gotten to you! And the more time that passed, the more sure I was. Why didn't you trust us, trust me, to protect you?" he asked quietly.
Alex wrapped her arms around herself and focused on the floor for a moment before looking back up at him directly, her eyes begging for him to understand. "It wasn't that I didn't trust you, Uncle Tim," she said softly with a tilt of her head, "it's just that I realized that something a lot bigger than you was at work there. I was scared."
"Didn't you know that we would have died before we let that monster get his hands on you?" Thomas asked her, placing his hand on her shoulder.
Alex backed out from under his hand and looked up at him with a serious expression. "That's exactly what I was afraid would happen."
The judge stepped forward, coughing lightly to break the moment. "What happened six years ago doesn't really matter right now," he pointed out to them all. "What we need to be doing is working out a plan of action to capture Bartinol instead of rehashing the past."
Johnson turned to face him and nodded in agreement. "You're right. Why don't you show us what you've got and what you need."
They all congregated around the pool table as Chris motioned for Ezra to proceed with the explanation.
* * * * * * *
Chris watched the Interpol agent and his FBI friend discretely as Ezra recounted his experience in the hangar and told of the evidence they had regarding Randolph. He was pleased to see that they seemed to be giving him the benefit of the doubt. He didn't know if that meant they weren't aware of his past experience with their agency, which was highly unlikely, or that they were simply ignoring the rumors and innuendoes and making their own minds up about the man.
If that was the case, then he'd have to say that they were definitely better men then most of the other pricks from the Federal Bureau of Idiots that he was forced to routinely deal with.
He also watched his undercover agent. It was one of the few times that he had a chance to just observe the man, his actions, his responses to the different people in the room, to just listen to him, to the inflections in his voice and to watch his delivery without being on the receiving end, trying to decipher what he was and wasn't saying and trying to hold his own temper in check.
No one infuriated him faster than Standish.
He chuckled quietly to himself, watching the perplexed look pass across Lewis's face as the dimwit tried to follow the conversion, and mentally applauded his agent. He glanced across the room and caught the judge's eye from the recliner opposite his. They exchanged rueful glances and the judge just shook his head. He too had been on the receiving end of more than one of Standish's explanations, but tonight, the man was in rare form. Chris propped his elbow on his left hand and tapped his lips with the knuckle of his finger as he leaned back in his chair. Ezra had his features schooled firmly, but Chris was able to catch the slightest smile hinting at the man's lips, one that only someone who knew him would be able to detect. He chuckled to himself again. The man certainly was a master of the English language and had manipulation down to an art form.
That thought caused Chris to pause, and he took a closer look at the man in question, taking note of his posture, of the carefully selected facial expressions and words, of the very air in which the man held himself. It was a familiar stance and demeanor, one that he saw every time Standish had to report to him or every time he had to give the man a reprimand, but now that he was able to pay attention to the man instead of the words (or maybe now that he was actually taking the time to do so) he could pick up on the small, tell-tell signs of stress and tension. Again, it wasn't anything noticeable-a tightening of the lips, the ever so slight clenching of the jaw whenever Lewis made a snide remark, the hard light that entered his eyes-but for the first time, Chris noticed them, and they had him wondering.
Chris studied the smaller man, took a good look at him. They all teased JD about being the smallest of the group, but he realized that in actuality, Ezra could almost fit that bill. The difference was that what Ezra lacked in size he made up for in presence. The man's confident, brazen, and sometimes highly irritating personality could practically fill a room as fast as Buck's charming and raucous one. But at other times, he had seen the man be as quiet and unassuming as the tracker and, if Chris were to admit it, as opaque and protective of his past as he himself was.
No, Standish may not have Josiah's giant frame, Nathan's height, or his own intimidating presence, but the man had learned long ago other skills that were just as valuable and how to wield those skills with amazing accuracy and precision. Add in the fact that he accepted his size and used his stature to his own advantage, something that JD should take note of and learn (of course, with the way the kid used those puppy dog eyes of his, maybe he had already learned that lesson), and you came up with one excellent agent, something that most people overlooked until they learned otherwise the hard way. The man was full of contradictions, smoke and mirrors, talk and class, but those characteristics were what made Standish so good in his field.
And just because the man was small in comparison to others on the team, definitely did not mean that he was puny. Seeing him dressed now in what Ezra deemed casual clothing without the designer suits, Chris could easily tell that his conman kept himself in top shape. Which brought up another question-when did the man take the time to work out, which he obviously had to do to be in that kind of shape? Did he jog? Did he lift weights? Chris shook his head, having a hard time picturing the man who claimed to never engage in menial labor ever doing anything of his own free will that would cause him to work up a sweat. But then again, he had seen the seemingly lazy man use martial arts to take down an opponent before, and that kind of skillful grace demanded a strict practice regimen.
It made him realize just how little about the man he really knew. Oh, he had seen his file, knew some of the basic details, little as there was, knew about the agent-but what did he know of the man? Not much, Chris was forced to acknowledge, and that bothered him more than he cared to admit. How many times had he allowed Ezra to manipulate him, fire his temper, and direct him away from whatever truth, whatever weakness that the man was trying to hide? How many times had he tore into the other man in a fit of rage and maybe even a little fear at some foolish stunt or perceived callous and selfish action without taking the time to cool down and listen to his reasons?
Maybe Vin was right-maybe he did need to quit letting Ezra get under his skin, quit listening to his words, and start listening to the man himself. He glanced over to the corner where the tracker was leaning against the wall after coming in from surveillance outside.
Of course, it would be a cold day in hell before he ever admitted that out loud.
He turned his attention from his introspection, which he filed away for later thought when things weren't quite so hectic, and back to the conversation at hand. Johnson flipped through the ledger and nodded in approval as Ezra finished speaking. "You've done a good job here, agent," he said, setting the book back down with the rest of the papers scattered across the pool table and giving the other man a brief smile. "Your whole team has. This is some of the most thorough and complete work I've seen in a long time."
"Then I don't know what kind of work you've been seeing coming out of Washington," Lewis declared snidely, tossing the stack of photographs down beside the ledger as he stepped into the center of the room. "Because personally, I can see all kinds of holes in this 'evidence'."
"Oh come on, Lewis," Buck spoke up angrily, "that's a bunch of bull s**t and you know it."
"On the contrary, Mr. Wilmington," Lewis went on, an oily smile on his face. "What do we really have here? A company with poor bookkeeping skills? A foreman who may be a wanted man in Phoenix or who may just happen to look like him? A banker with a gambling problem? And a tape supposedly of the mastermind behind this whole thing? Come now, Mr. Standish, you can't possibly expect us to believe that Paul Randolph had anything to do with this?" he scoffed.
Ezra gritted his teeth in the face of the obvious slight at his character, but kept his features neutral. "I do believe that the evidence speaks for itself, Agent Lewis," he said coolly.
"Ah, yes. The evidence that you compiled. You found the link between this Banning and this Vitalis, the supposed foreman for said company and gun smuggling operation, you dug up the dirt on the construction company and the link between it and Vitalis, you performed the initial surveillance work that produced this tape and those pictures. So what this all boils down to is that we have your word to take for all this. But we all know how much that is worth, don't we Standish?" Lewis sneered.
"What?" JD squeaked indignantly, understanding exactly what the other man was implying. "Ezra wouldn't do that!" he stood his feet angrily, pushing his hair out of his face, ready to defend his friend.
"What, did Mr. Randolph somehow find out about your dirty hands, so you concocted this elaborate mess to implicate him and get yourself off? Or maybe the banker discovered it, and you set him up to take your fall? Maybe you and this Vitalis planned the whole thing. You have spent the last month in his company."
Buck jumped up, fury clearly all over his face. "Now that's going too far!" he roared, heading for the senior agent with the intent of tearing his head from his shoulders. Josiah grabbed his arms and held him back.
"I had thought that even you had enough intelligence to know better than to be making allegations such as that without evidence to back up your claims," Chris said quietly, ripping a page from Ezra's own dictionary as he unfolded himself from the chair and stood to his full height to the FBI man. Though his words were calm, his stance screamed his anger and his glare, if possible, would have melted the polar ice cap. "I told you this once, and I will only say it once more, so get it through that thick slab of concrete that you call a head-Ezra Standish is one h**l of an agent, and I would take his word alone on this over the whole d**n FBI's any day of the week. And the next time I hear you accuse him of being dirty, I will personally rip out your tongue through your a** and shove it back down your throat! Do you understand me?"
Though the dark leader remained in one place and never even made a move for him, Lewis stumbled backwards as though he had been shot. Chris inwardly smirked in amusement at the open fear on Lewis's face and the absolute shock in Ezra's eyes. He didn't know if Ezra's surprise was because he had defended him, or because he couldn't believe that his boss had used more than three words to get his point across, let alone knew what half those words meant, but whatever the reasons, Chris was enjoying the fact that he had for once managed to catch his irritating undercover agent off-guard while making Lewis look like a complete idiot. He thought he could understand now why Ezra liked using his flowery speech so much.
Using words to make your opponent look like a total moron was just as fun as scaring the living s**t out of them!
"You-you heard him!" Lewis stammered to the others in the room. "He threatened me!"
Ryan Kelly raised an eyebrow in the direction of the state trooper leaning against the kitchen doorway beside him as they both stayed out of the way and enjoyed the show. "Did you hear Chris threatening anyone, Captain?" he asked mildly.
Jason Reed took another swig of his beer and shook his head. "Nope, I didn't hear a thing." He knew better than to cross Larabee.
Besides, Lewis was being a jerk.
"Agent Lewis, I suggest that you sit down and shut up before you find yourself slapped with a lawsuit, as Agent Standish would be well within his rights to sue you for slander," the judge said coolly from the recliner. "And considering the number of witnesses in this room at the moment, I can assure you from experience that he would easily win the case."
Johnson stepped forward and firmly grasped the protesting man's shoulder. "Agent Lewis, may I remind you that I am the ranking FBI agent as well as the representative for Interpol, and that you are here simply as a liaison between myself and the local branch? Therefore, if you persist in making a fool of yourself and the agency, I will set you out," he interrupted firmly.
"But come on, everyone knows that Standish can't be trusted! Surely you know about what happened in Atlanta!" Lewis whined.
"Yes, I have heard. The inter-agency grapevine extends to DC just was well as out here," Johnson looked at Ezra keenly. "And I also heard that they had no proof to their charges."
Lewis pulled his arm out of the senior agent's grasp and straightened his jacket. "That's just because he knows how to play the system," he sneered at the man in question, who simply crossed his arms and smiled his most infuriating smile back.
"I know the administration in Atlanta, and while I wholly agree that they couldn't find evidence against a criminal if he walked up and handed it to them on a silver platter," Ezra grinned at the other man's words, remembering his tenure in said city and agreeing completely with the man, "in this instance they found nothing because there was nothing to find." Thomas smiled at the dumbfounded look on the undercover operative's face at his words of support. "Not everyone in the agency believes those rumors, son," he said softly.
"And everyone in the ATF knows that too, even if he is one huge pain-in-the-a** on a whole team full of jack-a***s," Mark Pauley smirked from the couch.
"Who're you calling a jack-a**, Pauley?" Buck spoke up good-naturedly, having quickly calmed back down. "Shoot, that bunch of hyenas you call a team are so full of s**t that it takes us a case-load of air fresheners just to hold down the smell coming up from your offices!"
Chris exchanged an amused glance with the sharpshooter, listening to the good-humored argument that broke out, watching in satisfaction as Lewis slunk to the background, his face bright red with embarrassment. He allowed the argument to continue for a few minutes to give Ezra time to gain his composure back. The poor man looked as though he could have been knocked over with a feather at the moment, and Chris grimaced.
Hadn't anyone ever stood up for him before?
Probably not, he mused to himself, remembering the mess he had seen and read about concerning the charges in Atlanta.
"Alright, get back to the topic at hand," he ordered sternly, effectively ending the discussion. He walked back to the pool table and fixed the men present with a calculating stare. "We have three locations and three teams. The way I see it, we set up three simultaneous raids-at the warehouse, at the mansion, and at the company's offices. We wait until Bartinol and Randolph are both present and looking over the goods before opening the party. Once the bust gets going down at the warehouse, signals are sent to the other teams at the other locations." Johnson cleared his throat, and Chris focused a piercing glare up at him.
The man raised his hands in surrender. "I'm not challenging your plans," he pointed out. "As far as I'm concerned, you know the area, you know the criminals. This is your case. I'm just asking what kind of support are you thinking of having?"
Chris nodded once before turning back to the map laying on the table. He put his finger on the location of the warehouse. "The warehouse is going to be the largest operation. Team seven, along with back-up from the state police and team eight," he looked up at the state trooper and team leader, who nodded their agreement, "will handle that. A small force of FBI agents will launch the raid on the company offices, while team three and their back-up handle the mansion."
"What about the witnesses?" agent Thomas asked from the back in concern.
"We'll leave a small force here for protection," Chris affirmed.
Johnson rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and nodded in approval. "Looks good. I can have at least a good two dozen trustworthy agents available to you by that morning, and more if you need them."
"And I can have as many troopers as you need on standby," Reed agreed. "I'll give them the game plan that morning, to help with the security issue."
Chris looked up at the two team leaders. "H**l, Chris, you know you got our help," Mark Pauley declared. "Things've been entirely too quiet around here lately. My boys are just itching for a good bust."
Ryan Kelly tapped his right index finger to his head in a lazy salute, indicating that he could count on team eight's help as well.
Chris nodded once before turning back to the map. "Alright, boys, let's get the details hammered out. I want no ****ups on this one."
"I just have one request before we get started, Mr. Larabee," Johnson spoke up, and everyone turned their attention to him.
"That would be " Chris looked up at the man coolly, his whole demeanor indicating that he was in full alpha mode and would not be relinquishing command of this operation to anyone.
Johnson met his steely gaze with one of his own, his eyes hard as granite. "I want another man to lead the FBI at the offices, not myself."
"And where do you plan on being?" Chris asked with a raised brow.
The man's features became cold and almost feral, his eyes glittering with calculating intent. "I want to be there at the warehouse when Bartinol gets taken down. I want to personally put the cuffs on him, shove him into the nearest squad car, deliver him to the nearest prison, and throw away the key." He paused a moment, as though he needed to gather himself before making his next statement. "I owe it to Allen to finish this."
Chris glanced at the others in the room before coming back to the man's gaze. He understood all too well the need behind the request, the unspoken and barely acknowledged desire for justice and revenge.
It was something that he lived with everyday.
The faintest of smiles crossed his lips and he tilted his head slightly. "I think something can be arranged."
Johnson nodded once and turned back to the table with the others, intent on formulating the plans for the bust.
* * * * * * *
Ezra bent over the pool table, carefully lining up his next shot. "Six ball in the left side pocket," he muttered before expertly sending the cue ball across the table, banking it off the left side just shy of the corner pocket and off the back wall into the small huddle of brightly colored balls where it knocked the correct ball into the called pocket, a hair's breath behind the eight, which had been precariously balanced on the edge of said pocket. The eight ball moved out of jeopardy as the cue ball lined itself up perfectly to send the seven into the corner pocket at his elbow. He circled the table to take his next shot.
"Nice one, Pard."
He paused in mid-bend, looking up to see Vin standing in the kitchen doorway, holding three bottles. Vin took a swig of one and offered another to the conman, who accepted it with a nod of thanks. "Can I assume all is quiet on the western front?" Ezra asked before taking a drink himself.
"If you mean is there no sign of Randolph's men, then yeah, everything's fine." Vin stepped into the dimly lit room and sat a hip on the corner of the table, handing the third bottle to JD who stood off to the side as Ezra knocked the seven ball into the pocket.
"Who's on watch now?" JD asked, grimacing as Ezra sent two more balls to rest.
He had yet to have a turn in the game.
Vin shifted out of Ezra's way as he lined up another ball. "Buck," Vin answered, shaking his head.
You'd have thought the kid would have learned by now not to play Ezra.
Though the judge and Johnson had provided men for surveillance all around the ranch, Chris had still made sure that at least one of his own men was on guard at all times as well. When it came to the safety of his team, he trusted no one else to the job and had thus left the rotation that he had set up on Monday in place. Vin had relieved JD that afternoon and had been patrolling the property quietly, looking for any sign of intruders and taking note of the positions and rotations of the other four guards. He had returned to the main house right at dusk, entering through the kitchen and raiding the refrigerator before heading to the living room to find his other teammates.
"Is that female detective still out there?" JD asked, watching as the cue ball barreled into the two, knocking it toward a corner pocket. The two hit the edge of the pocket and careened off to the side, and he blinked for a moment in confusion. He had seen Ezra make many much more difficult shots than that one in the past. He eyed the conman suspiciously, wondering if he had missed the shot on purpose, but Ezra just looked back at him lazily, an expression of boredom on his face.
JD shrugged and leaned over the table to finally take his first shot of the game. Maybe he would be able to make Ezra regret that mistake. He grimaced. And maybe Buck would take a vow of chastity, Vin would take up karaoke, the cow would jump over the moon, and the sun would start orbiting the earth.
It wasn't going to happen.
Vin smirked, directing a raised eyebrow in the undercover agent's direction as he took another drink from the bottle in his hand. You going soft on us? his expression seemed to say.
Ezra met his smile with a feigned look of innocence. Hardly, Mr. Tanner.
"Yeah, she's still out there," Vin leaned back against the wall and finally answered JD's question. "And yeah, Buck was makin' a beeline for her the last I saw him."
JD cursed under his breath as he missed his next shot. "Buck just ain't gonna learn, is he? Agent Fox has done everything short of pointing her gun at him to make it plain she ain't interested," he said, shaking his head, partly because of the persistence of his roommate and partly because Ezra had just sunk the last three of his solid balls.
There goes that ten dollars.
Vin chuckled and crossed his arms, dangling his nearly empty bottle over his elbow as he watched Ezra round the table for his last shot. "H**l, kid, Ol' Buck would probably just see that as some kind of foreplay."
"Yes, well, I do believe that our Mr. Wilmington has taken to heart the old maxim energy and persistence conquer all things---1. Eight ball, right corner pocket," Ezra commented, pointing toward the ball with his cue stick.
JD groaned as the ball sunk home and Ezra straightened and set the bottom of his cue on the floor, holding the top loosely in hand with a smirk on face. "I do believe that is a game, Mr. Dunne."
Vin shook his head, a wide grin on his own face as he watched JD reluctantly dig into his back pocket for his wallet. "That's the last time I volunteer to play you a game," he grumbled. "Next time, you can just stay bored."
Ezra neatly folded the bill that the young man handed him and tucked it into his shirt pocket. "But Mr. Dunne, I am hardly to blame for your own lack of skill in regards to billiards."
JD just snorted as he put his cue stick back on the rack lining the wall. Ezra turned to the tracker. "Care for a game, Mr. Tanner?"
Vin shook his head no and finished off his beer. He glanced toward the sofa and the figure slouched there in the shadows, lit only by the glow of the television, and his eyes narrowed. "She been there all evening?" he asked quietly with a nod toward the couch.
Ezra put his own cue away and reached for his bottle as he followed the tracker's line of sight. "I'm afraid so," he answered, a frown on his lips. "She's been rather quiet all day, actually." A hint of concern colored his words.
When he thought about, he realized that Alex had become rather subdued the evening before, right after the arrival of Messieurs Johnson and Thomas. While the rest of the group had been pounding out their plans for the arrests on Friday, the girl had remained in the background, making no comments or suggestions and taking no part in the activity around her. She had become very reserved and guarded, tense. After a while, she had left the room altogether, mumbling something about being tired and wanting to catch up on her sleep, but when he had finally been able to retire himself several hours later, he had noticed a light on under the door and had heard movement within the room she was staying in. Something's wrong, he realized.
"Yeah," JD agreed, leaning against the table beside them. "And have you noticed how she's been avoiding Johnson and Thomas all day? I mean, I thought she would have been happy to see them, them being close friends of her family and all, and not having seen them in six years."
Ezra caught Vin's eye and realized he felt it too. Something wasn't right. Vin glanced back at the girl. "No one else is around," he said slowly. "Chris and the others are still in town."
"You think she'd talk to us?" JD asked, understanding where Vin was leading.
Ezra set his empty bottle down on the edge of the cue cabinet. "It wouldn't hurt to ask," he said, heading for the couch.
The room had darkened considerably as the evening shadows gave way to the dark of night, the only light available that coming from the light above the pool table and the television set. Alex sat curled up in the corner of the large couch, her knees pulled up and her arms wrapped around them as she stared at the screen. While she wasn't particularly interested in the movie playing, she had found nothing else to do.
She looked up warily as Ezra sat down on the coffee table in front of her, a hint of concern on his face as he reached for the remote and turned the television off. Vin glanced out the curtain window before settling against the fireplace mantel, while JD turned on a lamp and sat down on the opposite end of the couch. "You finish your game?" she asked cautiously.
"Yes, we have. Young Mr. Dunne here has become rather bored with billiards and had thought that we could find some other form of entertainment. Perhaps you would like to join us?" Ezra inquired as he crossed one knee over the other and rested his folded hands on them.
Ally smiled softly and shook her head. "No, thank you. I'm a little tired tonight and just feel like lounging around a while."
Ezra frowned. "Are you feeling ill, my dear?"
"Oh, no, I'm alright," she quickly assured him. "I just think the last couple late nights and early mornings are catching up with me."
"Yes, such hours can be quite taxing," Ezra agreed, shifting to make himself more comfortable. "So we can assume that the arrival of Agents Johnson and Thomas have had nothing to do with your present apathy?" he asked nonchalantly as he brushed at an imaginary spot of lint on the sleeve of his shirt.
"Oh, of course not! Whatever gave you that idea?" she laughed quietly, but Ezra caught the glimpse of fear and the slight widening of the eyes before she hid them behind a smile.
"I don't know, kid. Maybe it's the way you tense up whenever they're around, or maybe it's that look you got like a rabbit caught up in a brier bush with a hungry coyote nearby," Vin spoke up, his expression clearly saying he wasn't buying her claim.
"What's wrong, Ally?" JD asked.
"Nothing's wrong!" she stated firmly, climbing to her feet. "Really, I'm just tired."
She moved to round the couch, but Ezra caught her arm, stopping her in mid-stride, and looked her directly in the eye. "We only want to help," he said quietly.
She studied his concerned features intently for a moment then glanced up to see the ones mirrored on the faces of Vin and JD. "I told ya that if'n you ever needed help, I would be there for ya," Vin said softly. JD nodded in agreement.
Ezra reached up and gently turned her face toward him. "You once trusted me with your life," he said quietly. "Can you not trust me with this?"
She pulled out of his grasp and crossed the room to stand by the entertainment center with her back toward them, wrapping her arms around herself as though she were suddenly cold. Silence filled the room, broken only by the quiet tic-tock of the grandfather clock in the hallway. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you," she finally answered, keeping her attention on the photos lining the shelves in front of her instead of turning to face them.
The men looked at each other, confusion on their faces. "Sure we will," JD answered her encouragingly.
She snorted and shook her head. "No one else did," she said, a hint of bitterness coloring her words.
"Try us," Vin responded.
"What is it that we won't believe?" Ezra asked, standing to his feet.
Alex finally turned to face them, angering warring with despair in her stormy blue eyes. "That it's my father's partner, Edward Thomas's fault that my parents died."
"What?" JD exclaimed.
She nodded. "He betrayed us," she said. "He sold us out to Bartinol."
1 quoted by Benjamin Franklin