"Awe, s**t!" Buck exclaimed as he sat back against the couch cushions and ran a weary hand down his face.
"'S**t' is right," Josiah agreed. He turned back to Chris. "Is he headed for Bartinol?"
"I don't know," Chris sighed. "But we'll have to work under the assumption that he will. And he has a thirty minute head start on us. Johnson is assembling his men right now. Josiah, get on the phone to Kelly. Tell him what happened and that there's been a change in plans. Have him and his boys meet us at the mansion. Nathan, get a-hold of Pauley, send him and his team to the warehouse. JD, call Reed, have him get the nearest troopers headed for that warehouse now. Tell them that I want them at their respective places as of yesterday! If we're lucky, maybe we can salvage this bust before it all goes completely to h**l. Now let's get moving!" he barked.
He turned to the sharpshooter. "Vin, give a heads up to the guards outside. Let them know what's going on and have them act accordingly."
Vin nodded and disappeared out into the night. The others scrambled around, quickly getting dressed and assembling their weapons, and within minutes were heading out the door. Chris paused when he saw Ezra grabbing his jacket and revolver. "You're staying here, Ez," he stated firmly.
"The h**l I am!" the Ezra argued back, anger flashing in his eyes, turning them to deep forest green. "I am the one with the most invested in this case, and I will see it through to its conclusion!"
Chris stood rigidly and favored his agent with a glare that clearly left no room for question. "I realize that," he said in a tightly controlled tone of voice. "But I am not taking a chance on you getting your fool head blown off by some lucky shot. There's too big a risk that you'll get separated from us in the confusion. You're staying here and that's final." He turned to his long-time friend. "Buck, stay here with him. Make sure he stays put."
Buck tipped his head in agreement and stepped back into the room, holding the front door open for the others.
Ezra met his glare with an icy stare of his own for a moment before finally averting his eyes and nodding, indicating his compliance. He didn't like it, but he would abide by his leader's orders.
"That's going to be spreading your forces mighty thin, brother," Josiah pointed out, snapping a full clip into his gun and sliding it into his shoulder holster.
"It can't be helped," Chris shook his head as he pulled on his duster and headed for the door. "If Bartinol and Randolph manage to escape the net, they'll more than likely head for the nearest border, but I'm not going to gamble on it, and I'm not leaving the safety of one of my men in the hands of the feds outside alone, no matter how good they are," he declared with a hand on the door knob and a quick glance toward Ezra. He nodded at his long-time friend. "I want Buck here as the last line of defense in case the unlikely does happen. As for being short-handed, Kelly's boys will be there to back us up." A quick smirk crossed his lips. "They might not be as good as Buck and Ezra, but they'll do in a pinch."
Buck laughed and slapped him on the shoulder. "And you be sure to tell them that, Hoss."
Chris's only reply was a quick, devilish grin before he pushed out the door into the night and headed for the Ram.
* * * * * * *
Paul Randolph awoke quickly to a pounding on his bedroom door. He glanced at the clock on the nightstand and cursed under his breath. 5:15 a.m.-whoever this was, they had better have a good explanation. His wife mumbled something in her sleep and rolled over, but he paid her no mind as he slipped out of bed and headed for the door, the small pearl-handled revolver from the drawer of the nightstand clutched firmly in his hand. He pulled the door open and stepped out into the hall to come face-to-face with Tony Vitalis. "What is it?" he growled as he quietly closed the door.
Vitalis danced around a bit, knowing that his employer was not going to like what he was about to say. "The feds are onto us," he reluctantly explained.
"What!" Randolph roared, fury flooding his senses. A voice from behind him answered his question.
"I just received a call from an informant of mine warning that we are about to be visited by the local federal agents, led by a Mr. Christopher Larabee." Randolph turned to face the man who had stepped from the shadows. The distinguishing gray streaks in the man's dark hair flashed in the overhead light and his cold, obsidian eyes glittered with intelligence and authority, making it clear that he was not a man to trifle with. "It seems we have a common enemy, Mr. Randolph," he commented casually.
"Larabee?" Randolph spun around to face his right-hand man, his expression dark with his anger. He slowly advanced, his body tense but controlled, his voice menacingly cool and contained as he backed Vitalis against the wall. "If Larabee is on his way here, that means Standish must have made contact with him, something you assured me you would not allow to occur. You've obviously failed, Tony, and quite miserably." He firmly pressed the barrel of the small, lethal weapon against Vitalis's chest right above his heart and stared into the man's eyes with icy determination and barely controlled fury. "Care to explain how you allowed this to happen before I end your miserable existence?"
"I'm afraid an explanation will have to wait until later, if you would prefer to avoid a rather lengthy prison term," his house guest interrupted with a cough. "We must leave now. I have men working to neutralize the surveillance and to provide us a window of escape. I suggest we utilize the opportunity, gentlemen."
Randolph paused a moment, his hard gazed boring a hole into Vitalis's soul before he finally lifted the small gun and released the trigger. "You are quite right, Mr. Bartinol," he agreed without turning around. "We will finish this discussion later, Tony. Go prepare transportation, and quickly, man!" Randolph backed up and turned to enter the bedroom as Tony rushed down the hall, pulling a cell phone from his pocket as he went. He looked back at the crime lord. "I apologize, Mr. Bartinol. This is indeed unforeseen and unfortunate. I promise you however, that it will be dealt with efficiently and expediently, and I will personally see to it that none of this matter reflects onto you in anyway."
Bartinol focused a piercing stare on the other man, his slightly accented voice deceptively calm. "Yes, it is unfortunate, but it should not have been unforeseen. I would have expected a man of your stature to have prepared for this eventuality and am quite disappointed in you and your men. It seems I had been led to believe that you were much more efficient than I should have given you credit for. However, now is not the time or the place to discuss this. Once we are well away from harm's path, I will take the time to consider the implications of this incident." He turned to proceed down the hall but paused, his eyes growing positively chilling, his features hard and unforgiving as he pinned the other man in place with only a look. "And I can assure you that I will see to it that this does not reflect upon myself. What that bodes for you, however, remains to be seen."
A chill run down Randolph's spine and he nodded once before pushing through the door as the other man continued on his way back to the guest room.
Ten minutes later, both men were hastily descending the stairs side by side, briefcases in hand and coats slung over their arms as they strode purposely toward the side entrance where Vitalis and three other men, two of which were Bartinol's personal guard, waited patiently with the cars. Bartinol and Randolph slid into the back seat as one of Bartinol's men climbed into the front along with Randolph's driver. "What of your wife?" Bartinol asked casually, raising an eyebrow as he settled more comfortably in the plush leather interior.
"What of her?" Randolph replied coldly. "She was merely part of an illusion. As I have found myself exposed, I am no longer in need of her. She knew nothing of my true agenda and is of no consequence to me. Let Larabee and his dogs have her."
Vitalis and the remaining two men started the front car and lead the group through a small gate at the back of the estate, passing an unmarked car not far from the gate with two figures slumped ominously over inside. They drove down a small, dirt road through the forested lands behind the mansion for several minutes before passing through a fairly concealed entrance and pulling onto a small highway. Just as they turned the first curve in the road, spot lights flashed in the distance in the rearview mirrors as helicopters and other federal vehicles swarmed the mansion. Both vehicles sped away into the night, headed toward freedom, leaving the chaos behind them.
* * * * * * *
The two vehicles entered the parking lot of the abandoned store just as the dawn was cresting the eastern horizon. A small car waited for them across the cracked surface near the building, a figure pacing nervously in front. The man looked up as the two larger vehicles approached and the men exited the cars amid slamming doors, and he met them at the entrance to the structure. "I see you did manage to evade Johnson and Larabee, then?"
Bartinol smiled and put his arm around the man's shoulder. "Yes, Eddie, we did, thanks to you."
Vitalis quickly rounded them and broke the lock off the door then stepped back to allow them to enter. "You have done excellent work, my friend, and will be fitly compensated," Bartinol continued as they stepped inside the cold, barren room. "I have men on their way now as we speak to escort us to a private airstrip. Within the hour we will be well away from Mr. Larabee, Mr. Johnson, and the fear of prosecution." One of his guards dusted off a corner of the old desk that sat along the back wall and he settled there, crossing his arms and facing the smaller man. "I must say, though, that I was surprised to find you and Johnson in Denver. Mind telling me who tipped you off to my presence?"
"But first, will you explain just who you are and what ties you have to Larabee?" Randolph broke in. Bartinol frowned at the man, but nodded for Thomas to continue.
"My name is Edward Thomas, agent for the FBI and Interpol," Eddie started. "I just met Mr. Larabee the other day when he contacted Agent Johnson in regards to an operation to bring down your smuggling business. It seems one of Mr. Larabee's men, an Agent Standish, had infiltrated your organization and had obtained records exposing your company and Mr. Vitalis over there," he nodded to Tony. "Standish also knew of the meeting this morning with Mr. Bartinol. That's one of the reasons Agent Johnson and myself were brought in."
Randolph shot a poisonous look toward Tony before returning his attention to the nervous, rumpled man before him. "One of the reasons?" he asked mildly.
"Standish had help escaping from that hangar the other night-a street kid, right?" Eddie asked.
Randolph's eyes narrowed. "Yes."
Eddie looked toward Bartinol and swallowed hard. "That kid was Alexandria Sanders."
Bartinol took in a sharp breath. "The daughter of Allen Sanders?" he asked harshly.
Eddie closed his eyes and nodded. Bartinol cursed, and Randolph looked at him in confusion. "Who is she?" he asked.
Bartinol stood up and paced in front of the desk in agitation. "She is the daughter of an old nemesis of mine, one that I liquidated some years ago. She had disappeared and was presumed dead."
Randolph raised an eyebrow. "It seems that was exaggerated," he commented.
"Yes, it appears so." Bartinol stopped his movements and turned to Eddie. "Where is she?" he demanded coldly.
"In protective custody along with Standish at Larabee's ranch west of here, where he and Johnson have set up their base of operations," Eddie answered.
Randolph again glared at Vitalis. "And just how did you manage to miss that?" he hissed.
Tony swallowed hard. "I sent men out there early in the week, sir. There was no sign of Larabee there."
"And it did not occur to you to post a watch?" Randolph was positively livid.
Tony shook his head. "We were short-handed, sir, what with the disaster at the hangar and preparing for this meet. I assigned men to search the city for Standish and to watch the federal building and the homes of the agents in town, but simply did not have the man power to watch the ranch. And since Larabee and his men were remaining in the city, I assumed that Standish would also stay within the city,"
"You are an idiot, Tony," Randolph growled. "Standish was too much of a danger to make assumptions such as that! Do you realize what your mistake has cost me?"
Bartinol raised a hand to interrupt. "Deal with that later!" he commanded sharply. "We have more important matters to handle." He turned back to Eddie. "Did you speak to her? Does she still have the key?"
Eddie licked his lips and shook his head. "No sir, she doesn't have the key. She has the disks."
Bartinol's eyes widened in surprise. "She has the disks?!"
"Yes, sir. And she has turned them over to Johnson," Eddie answered then flinched away as the older man exploded into what he assumed was a litany of curses in some other language and ran a hand through his hair in distraction before viciously kicking a crate out of his way in fury and stalking a few paces away from the group.
Randolph paused in his own anger to watch in amusement as his house guest finally lost his calm, cool, and collected composure. The other man had been infuriatingly unruffled by the forced retreat into the night, and it irked him that he had to depend on that man for that escape, especially since it made him appear weak in the eyes of a potential business partner.
And if there was one thing that Paul Randolph was not, it was weak.
Of course, the entire blame for this debacle rested on Tony Vitalis's shoulders. He turned his icy blue eyes coolly toward the man in question. Tony had allowed Standish to infiltrate the organization, Tony had allowed him to escape with incriminating evidence, and Tony had failed to eliminate the agent before he placed said evidence in the hands of the proper authorities. Though Tony had performed admirably over the years, recent events had made it clear that the man had become slipshod and careless.
Perhaps it was time to find a new right hand man.
He looked at the double agent thoughtfully, crossing his arms over his chest. "You said that they made Larabee's ranch their headquarters?" he asked mildly, interrupting Bartinol in mid-rant.
"Y-yes, sir," Eddie quickly answered, glancing at Bartinol out of the corner of his eye. In all the years he had known the man, he had never once saw him lose his temper, and he was wondering what the fallout would be.
Randolph tapped his chin as he worked through the details of a hazy plan that was forming at the fringes of in mind. "Therefore, they kept all paperwork concerning this case there?"
Eddie nodded, not liking where this conversation was headed. He just wanted to get out of Denver and the US as fast as possible. "Yes, sir. It was against normal procedure not to file any evidence gathered with the appropriate departments, but because of the sensitivity of this case and the fact that they did not want to tip you or Mr. Bartinol off, the higher ups granted permission to keep everything at the ranch house. Larabee and Johnson showed just enough of what they had to the authorities to gain the proper back up and get the arrest warrants, but kept the rest to themselves. Johnson was trying to stop history from repeating itself."
Randolph raised a questioning eyebrow at the last comment.
"Eddie here was the partner of Agent Sanders and provided me with valuable information as to his activities," Bartinol explained. He frowned. "Agent Sanders was able to gather considerable evidence against me, but Eddie intercepted that evidence before it was able to cause any harm to myself. However, one copy remains in play."
"Ah, the disks," Randolph nodded in understanding. "And I can assume that evidence would be quite damaging to you if it should remain in the hands of the authorities?"
Bartinol settled back on the desk corner, his shrewd eyes narrowing as he began to see where Randolph was going with this. "It is six years out of date and would not harm my more recent ventures, but yes, it would still cause serious havoc to my enterprises."
Randolph smiled and spread his arms in a friendly gesture. "Then sir, I do believe that you and I are in the same boat, so to speak. You see, Mr. Standish has obtained certain documents concerning my own organization that can cause substantial damage to myself and has indeed led to our current circumstances. While retrieval of said documents would not be able to halt the investigation into myself, it would provide enough of a delay for me to make an escape to a healthier clime and somewhat contain the wreckage. May I presume that the same can be said of the disks in your case?"
Bartinol crossed his own arms and rubbed his chin. "Diverting to the ranch would be quite a risk," he mused.
"But it would also be the last action they would expect us to take. And should we succeed, the benefit would be enormous," Randolph pushed. "I don't see where we have any choice."
Bartinol considered the idea before finally nodding in agreement. "You are right. I must make sure that those disks and any copies created be completely destroyed." He turned to the nearest guard. "Call the plane, let them know of the change in plans," he commanded. The lackey immediately headed for the door, pulling a cell phone out as he went. Bartinol focused a piercing gaze on Eddie. "You know the location of the guards surrounding the ranch?"
Eddie nodded slowly and Bartinol smiled before looking back up at the gun smuggler. "Then I suggest that we plot a course of action."
Five minutes later they were headed back out to the cars with Eddie leading the way. As Tony held the door open for his employer, Randolph paused to give him a scathing glare. "This is your final opportunity to correct your mistakes, Tony," he growled. "I expect Standish to be eliminated as a possible threat to me in the future, or you will suffer in his place. Do I make myself clear?" His expression left no room for doubt that failure of any kind would not bode well for the younger man.
"Yes, sir," Tony answered quietly. "Standish won't leave that ranch unless it's in the back of a hearse."
Randolph didn't comment as he settled back into his seat. Tony closed the door and climbed into the front, instructing the driver to follow the small escort that Eddie had managed to appropriate when he escaped.
Bartinol leaned over as the car pulled back out onto the highway. "And I want you to understand, Mr. Randolph," he said, keeping his voice low so as not to alert the men in the front, "that the same can be said for you. I will hold you responsible should this not go according to plan." His eyes glittered with promise, causing a cold chill to race up Randolph's spine.
Randolph swallowed and nodded and the crime master sat back in his seat and turned his attention to the scenery that was beginning to take shape in the rapidly approaching dawn.
* * * * * * *
Chris Larabee slammed the front doors of the mansion open and strode purposely into the two-story foyer, the tails of his black duster billowing behind him, combining with the dark and foreboding expression on his face to give him the appearance of a wraith from the darkest corner of hell. He looked up to see his sharpshooter descend the curving staircase, his rifle held firmly in his hand. Vin caught his team leader's eye and shook his head negatively, and Chris uttered a sharp curse before lifting the radio to his lips. "Any sign of them?" he growled into the receiver.
There was a burst of static before Ryan Kelly's voice come across the airwaves. "None out back." Another voice mumbled something in the background accompanied with a brief pause before Kelly came back on air, his tone somber. "Chris? You'd better come see this."
Chaos was everywhere on the grounds of the mansion as Chris and Vin made their way to the wall at the back of the property, a sense of foreboding quickening their pace. Kelly met them there, his face grim as he led them through a small wrought iron gate and down the dirt road beyond a short ways until they reached a small clearing, still within sight of the house. He motioned toward a dark car sitting silently just to the side of the road where Douglas Stone and Josiah Sanchez were bent over something on the ground. "Stone and Sanchez found those two missing FBI agents who were on surveillance," he explained gravely.
Chris stepped closer to the two men and grimaced when he saw the two bodies they were kneeling over. Josiah looked up at his leader and shook his head. "Dead. Throats slit," he replied to the questioning gaze.
Vin moved further down the road and squatted to get a closer look at something at his feet. "Two cars came through here recently," he announced. The others turned their attention to him as he motioned toward the tire tracks left in the mud as he stood up and wiped his hands on his jeans. "I'd say no more than thirty minutes ago, tops."
Chris cursed bitterly and spun around to stomp back toward the car, his hands balled into fists. "Thomas must have warned them," he stated angrily. "Kelly? Have one of your men let the feds know what happened and get a clean up crew down here."
The leader of team eight nodded and jogged back up to the gate as he changed the frequency on his radio and spoke commands into it. Chris looked down at Stone. "Find out where this road goes to. It'll give us a place to start." He turned to Josiah. "Contact Reed and have his men start setting up road blocks on every route out of the city. Have Johnson alert train stations, bus stations, and every dirt strip that calls itself an airfield within fifty miles of the city. If we're lucky, we'll be able to cut them off before they can get very far."
The two men quickly headed off to perform their assigned tasks as Vin stepped up beside the team leader. "You really think they're headed out of town?" he asked mildly, worry showing from the blue depths of his eyes.
Chris ran a hand through his hair. "It would be expected."
Vin snorted. "Since when do the criminals we deal with ever do what we expect them to?"
Chris gave him a side-long glance. "You're right. Call Buck and give him a heads up, just in case."
* * * * * * *
The sun was peaking over the trees as Ally stepped into the living room carrying two steaming coffee mugs and quietly set one down on the end table where Buck was pacing, the telephone receiver glued to his ear. He mouthed a thank-you without taking his attention from the conversation. "Okay, Junior. Things have been pretty quiet here, but we'll be on the lookout .Yeah. You guys watch your backs." Buck hung up the phone and turned to face Ezra and Alex. He ran a hand down his face. "That was Vin," he explained, reaching for the mug.
"I can assume that Randolph and Bartinol have evaded capture, then," Ezra commented from the couch. He looked up and nodded his thanks as Ally handed him the other mug before moving to perch on the arm of the recliner.
Buck grimaced. "Yeah. Guess Thomas got to them." He took a sip from his mug then raised his eyebrows as he took another larger one. This was definitely not the regular brew Chris kept. Must have been that imported stuff Ezra insisted on getting. Whatever it was, it was dang good!
He had to hand it to Ez-the man sure knew his coffee!
"So what are they doing now?" Alex asked. Though her expression was carefully guarded, her eyes betrayed her worry.
"Vin says he don't think they had more than an hour's head start," Buck answered her, "and the first three miles of that was down an old dirt track behind the mansion before they finally came out on a small two-lane in the middle of nowhere. They couldn't have gotten far in that time. And Chris and the feds are sewing this city up tighter than a drum. Don't you worry-they'll get them," he assured her.
The girl just shook her head, not convinced. She knew Bartinol too well.
Buck set a hip on the back of the couch and crossed his arms while finishing his coffee. "The good news is that the troopers and team three have the warehouse locked down, and Johnson's men have found a truck load of stuff at the company. They also arrested the other board members involved. If nothing else, Randolph's gun smuggling and drug running operations are over."
"But that is simply capturing the minnows while the larger fish get away," Ezra shook his head. "We may have dealt a serious blow to Mr. Randolph's enterprises, but he will just rebuild his network from another locale. We must capture the head man himself if we want to put a permanent end to all this. The same can be said for Bartinol."
"Hey, have a little faith, Pard," Buck protested. "We've got 'em on run now. It'll only be a matter of time-we'll catch 'em."
"I hope so, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra muttered, glancing over at Ally, who sat gazing at her hands, her mind a million miles and several years away.
She felt his gaze and, looking up to meet his eyes, gave a weak smile and a shrug that seemed to say she'd be all right. Ezra returned the gesture with a smile of his own as he sipped at the cup in his hand. Alex looked over at Buck. "Do you think there's a chance Randolph and Bartinol will head our way?" she asked.
"Nah, not really," Buck shook his head. "Shoot, they're probably headed for the nearest-" the sound of a barking dog outside cut him off and he glanced toward the window.
The sound was abruptly silenced, and he exchanged an uneasy glance with Ezra before rising to his feet and pulling his gun out of his shoulder holster. He inched toward the front door, gun raised high as he motioned for Ezra and Ally to move back. Ezra stood up and made to move around the coffee table, reaching for his gun and intent on getting to Ally-
The front door flew open with a crash. Buck let out a yell and turn to face the threat when a shot sounded from the kitchen doorway. A cry of pain occurred behind him, and Ezra whirled around just in time to see Buck's head jerk back toward his shoulder, a spray of crimson splattering his shirt as he crash back against the wall and slid slowly to the floor.
"Buck!" Ezra yelled, his heart jumping into his throat as he spun around, lifting his firearm toward the newest threat-and froze as he recognized the smiling features of Tony Vitalis.
The man aimed his gun right between the agent's eyes. "Drop it, Standish," he commanded coldly.
He looked toward the hallway entrance to see another gunman with a firm grasp on Ally's arm, the barrel of his weapon pressed firmly to the side of her head. Ally's eyes were wide with fear, not for herself, but for the man before her. "Ezra, please-drop the gun," she requested quietly.
"I would suggest you do as she says."
Ezra looked beyond Ally and the gunman to watch a tall, distinguished figure that until now he had only seen in photos enter the room through the hallway with Eddie Thomas trailing sedately behind him. Sean Bartinol came to a stop beside Ally and her captor. "I would so hate to have to order my man to kill her." His glittering black eyes left no doubt that he would not hesitate to do so.
Ezra licked his lips and glanced back to Buck's still body lying along the wall and the gunman standing over it before meeting Alex's eyes once more. Finally, he nodded and tossed the gun toward Vitalis before raising his hands into the air.
Alex closed her eyes in relief.
Two other gunmen entered through the front door and stopped beside the first, their guns all aimed at him and Ally. Vitalis gave him a triumphant grin as he bent over and picked the gun up, sliding it into the waist band of his pants and moving further into the room. Paul Randolph stepped through the kitchen doorway behind him, his long gray coat flapping at his legs and his hands in his pockets. He cocked his head at Ezra and smiled wickedly, his blue eyes shining with malice. "Agent Standish. Our last conversation was so rudely interrupted. Perhaps we can now have a chance to conclude it?"
"Laslo," Bartinol motioned toward his gunman standing at the front door as he stepped further into the room, "go back out front and stand watch. Make sure that we do not have any unwanted intruders."
The henchmen nodded and headed back out the door, stepping over Buck's body without a second glance. Vitalis jerked his head at one of his own guards toward the back door as he trained his gun on Ezra. "Get out back and do the same thing."
The second gunman pushed past his boss and jogged through the kitchen out the back, leaving two other gunmen in addition to Vitalis and the crime lords in the room-and still out-numbering the good guys by two to one. Bartinol turned to Alex and motioned for his guard to release her arm. She stepped back toward Ezra, her face devoid of all emotion except for contempt and her eyes hooded as she faced the man who had destroyed her life. Bartinol allowed a faint smile to come to his lips as he recognized the expression that the girl wore-it was the same one that her father had worn when he faced him all those years ago.
The girl certainly was her father's daughter.
"Miss Sanders," he said pleasantly, "it has been a long time. It is so good to see you alive and healthy. I had begun to believe like the others that you had met an unfortunate demise."
Alex shrugged as she looked up into his eyes, the hint of promise and determination shining in her own. "Much to your disappointment, I'm sure," she answered.
"On the contrary, my dear," he disagreed as he pulled his gloves off. "I have nothing against you personally and do not wish to see any harm come to you."
"Funny, that wasn't the impression I got six years ago in Vancouver," she observed wryly.
"Yes, well, at that point it was in my own interest, but the following events made it no longer necessary. I do not just murder at will, contrary to what you may think. I find that it brings so many more problems than it solves in the long run. Therefore, I use it only as a last resort and purely for business reasons only. Murder to satisfy some petty need for revenge or other some such foolish reason is uncouth at best and simply unprofessional," Bartinol explained casually as he sat down on the arm of the recliner.
"So it's a 'nothing personal; this is just business' sort of thing?" Ezra asked derisively. "And I can assume the deaths of the young lady's parents fell into that category as well?"
"But of course," Bartinol shrugged. "Personally, I had great admiration for the man. He was quite an excellent agent, and I wholly enjoyed our little game of wits. However, he insisted on repeatedly interfering with my affairs, something that I could not allow to continue. And I did offer other options and warnings, but he chose the noble route," he shook his head. "He should have understood that chivalry was antiquated, nobility passé, and both severely over-rated. Had he heeded my numerous warnings and left well enough alone, he would still be alive and well today. But he insisted on pursuing the matter, and I'm afraid, suffered the consequences."
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "I suppose since you risked coming here instead of absconding from the city as quickly as possible, you have decided that the demise of the young lady is a crucial necessity?"
Bartinol rested his hands on his crossed knee and shook his head. "Actually, Mr. Standish, that is not true. I am here only for the disks that her father compiled. In fact, had she simply given me the disks six years ago, this whole situation could have been avoided entirely. I do not enjoy killing women and children and have no wish to eradicate such a young and promising life. Having that said, however," he went on, a dangerous light coming to his eyes as he focused on the girl, "Understand that I will not hesitate to use such practices should they become necessitated."
Alex returned his gaze unflinchingly, her features cold and composed. "Oh, I understand completely."
"While this entire conversation is fascinating, can we get on to the topic at hand? We are running on a tight schedule, if you remember." Randolph glanced at his watch impatiently and grimaced. "I would prefer to be well on my way out of the state before Larabee calls to check in here and realizes what has happened." He turned to his men. "Search the house. Find the ledgers."
The gunmen nodded and quickly began ransacking the house. Tony held Ezra in place by training his gun on the man while Alex dropped to her knees beside Buck. Ezra watched in apprehension as she carefully laid the man completely down onto the floor and checked his pulse and breathing rate. She looked up with a swift nod and a small smile and Ezra sighed in relief at her assurance that for now, Buck was doing alright. Alex placed a throw pillow from the couch under his head and used the linen doily from under the telephone to gently but firmly press against the gash on the man's forehead in an effort to stop the bleeding. A few minutes later, the searchers returned with empty hands and shakes of their heads indicating they had found nothing. Randolph sighed and turned to Ezra. "Where are they?"
Ezra leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms. "I'm sorry, but the objects in question are in the hands of the proper authorities," he stated mildly.
Randolph shook his head. "And I don't believe you. Agent Thomas says they are here in this house." He narrowed his eyes. "I want them now."
Ezra shrugged. "You have been misinformed, sir. They are not here."
Randolph gave him a piercing stare before stepping back with a shrug and nodding at Tony. "If it must be done this way," he sighed long-sufferingly while raising his eyes to the ceiling with a shake of his head.
Vitalis walked up to Ezra and promptly buried his iron-like fist in the middle of the agent's stomach. Ezra's breath whooshed from his lungs and he fell to his hands and knees, one arm clutching his midriff while he gasped for air. Tony reached down and grabbed a fistful of hair, pulling his head up to face the crime lord. "Really, Agent Standish," Randolph shook his head, "this is the hard way. Simply give me what I want, and this can all end here."
Ezra bent his head back as far as he could, trying to relieve the pain of having his hair tore from his head by the roots and still trying to get air into his sluggish lungs, but he managed to give the man a proxy of his trademark smile. "I'm afraid I cannot do that."
Randolph frowned and glanced at Tony, who took his cue and viciously backhanded the barrel of his pistol across the southerner's face. Ezra saw it coming out of the corner of his eye and twisted to avoid serious damage, but still received a wicked cut along his left cheek and he fell across the slumped form of Buck on the floor beside him. Dazed, Ezra pushed himself up on his hands, straddling the body of his friend as he tried to regain his wits. He fingered the cut gingerly and looked at his fingers, frowning at the blood staining their tips and dripping onto the t-shirt of the man below him. He stared at the growing bloodstain below him, trying to remember what happened. Randolph and Bartinol escaped .were here wanted to know where the evidence was .Buck, hurt-his eyes widened at the last thought and he quickly turned his head to see the bloodied features of his unconscious friend. It took a moment before he registered the slight rise and fall of the t-shirted chest below him, but when he did, he closed his eyes in relief.
Vitalis, however, gave him no room for more thought before grabbing his hair once again and jerking him to his feet while twisting his left arm behind him in an agonizing lock. Ezra's eyes widened at the pain, recognizing that the man held his bad arm in his grip even as he felt the tendons slip in his shoulder. He grimaced and shifted, trying to ease the pressure on the appendage before the shoulder popped out of socket. Vitalis pressed the barrel of his gun against his right ear and leaned in close. "The man asked you a simple question. Answer him," he ordered quietly into his ear, his hot breath blowing across Ezra's face, causing the cut to sting.
Ezra forced himself not to flinch and gritted his teeth, refusing to back down. "Go to h**l," he hissed.
Tony growled in anger and pulled the agent around, violently propelling him into the wall then reaching up to slam his head face first against the wood paneling twice more before kneeing him in the kidneys. Ezra sank to the floor with a groan.
Randolph tsked as he squatted down beside the man. "This is but a mere glimpse of what Tony is capable of, Mr. Standish, and I can assure you, he can prolong your agony for hours, but as fascinating as that prospect is, I'm afraid I'm running short on time. I must insist on knowing where those documents are located."
Ezra pushed himself up into a sitting position and gently tested his sore nose, deciding that it wasn't broken. He then looked up at the man, a brazen smile on his bloody lips, and shrugged. "I'm sorry, but I cannot recollect the whereabouts of said documents."
Randolph's eyes narrowed as he stood to his feet. "Then you need something to jog your memory. What do you suggest, Tony?" he asked mildly.
Tony grinned wickedly and cocked his pistol. "How about a bullet to the knees?" he offered, aiming his gun at Ezra's legs.
"An excellent idea." All humor left Randolph's face. "Tell me where the disks are, Agent Standish."
The fear of being crippled flashed through Ezra, but he pushed it deep down, refusing to allow his enemy to see it. He glanced over at Alex and saw her pale slightly, dread written clearly in her features. His gaze roamed back to the penitent features of Thomas, but the man refused to meet his eyes, choosing instead to study the carving hanging above the fireplace mantel as he tried to ignore the beating going on in front of him. Finally, he looked over at the still form of his comrade in arms and made his decision. He knew that if he were to turn the evidence over to them, Randolph would not hesitate to kill them all immediately. He also knew that the others would soon realize something was wrong and would be on their way.
For all their sakes, he had to stall for more time, no matter what the cost to himself.
Ezra licked his lips before meeting his enemy's piercing gaze with an indifferent one of his own. "Do what you must, then. I'm afraid I simply cannot oblige you, sir."
Randolph stood back and slipped his hands into his pockets as he intently studied the defiant features of the agent for a moment before looking back up to meet the questioning look in his henchman's eyes. "So be it," he said and nodded to Tony.
Tony grinned and squeezed the trigger.
Ezra looked straight into the gunman's eyes and braced himself for the impact and pain-but neither came. Instead, He watched in horror as the man turned and aimed at Alex and Buck just as he pulled the trigger. "No!" Ezra yelled even as the bullet exploded from the chamber.
Alex's eyes widened as she watched the gun barrel swing from Ezra to her a second before the shot sounded. She gasped and ducked over Buck's head, cringing as she felt splinters rain down on her back from the hole in the paneling a scant two inches above where her head had been. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and let out a shuddering breath before glancing up into Ezra's fearful gaze and smiling weakly in reassurance. He slumped back against the wall in relief.
"Tell me where the evidence is, or the next bullet will be significantly lower," Randolph demanded harshly.
Ezra glanced back at Alex and Buck and sighed in defeat. "The closet floor in the bathroom has a panel that comes up," he said in a quiet monotone, waving in the general direction of the hallway. "Mr. Larabee keeps a strongbox in the space underneath. He put the ledgers and the disks in there."
Bartinol jerked his head back toward the hallway and his lackey immediately backtracked toward the appointed room. He returned a few minutes later with the strongbox in hand, which he set onto the coffee table. Tony shot the lock off the box and pushed the lid open to glance inside. "They're here, Boss," he grinned, reaching in for the top book, which he quickly handed to Randolph.
Randolph quickly flipped through the ledgers before closing them with a snap. He handed them back to his gunman to be slipped into a messenger bag and turned to Ezra with a smile. "Thank you for your cooperation, Agent."
Ezra met his snide smirk with a contemptuous look of his own. "I assure you, it was no pleasure at all."
Bartinol stood up from his seat as he flipped through the disks, nodding as he recognized the handwriting on the floppy versions and taking note of the compact disk versions. He tapped them back into order and looked at Randolph. "I want to check these."
"We don't have time!" Randolph started to protest, but quickly quieted under the decidedly cold look he received from the crime lord.
"We will make time," Bartinol said evenly. He turned to Ezra. "Where is Larabee's computer?"
"The dining room," Ezra answered as he gingerly dabbed at the slowly congealing cut on his cheek with his handkerchief.
Bartinol nodded and headed toward the room with a determined stride, and Randolph let out a quiet curse before jerking his head toward the room and following the other man. Tony waved the gun, indicating that Ezra and Alex were to get to their feet before herding them after the others. The last gunman paused beside the fallen ladies' man and nudged him with his boot. When Buck didn't respond, the man nodded and followed the others, leaving the agent on the floor.
* * * * * * *
Chris and Vin rode in silence as they cruised down the small highway in the gathering light of dawn. After Stone had reported where the dirt road led, he and Vin had quickly left the mansion operation under Kelly's expert hands and had taken off down the road, hoping to pick up a trail. Mud on the pavement at the end of the track indicated which direction the other vehicle had gone and they had quickly picked up the pursuit, keeping an eye out for any turn-offs while monitoring the investigation over the radio. They had been driving for twenty minutes before Vin noticed something up ahead. "Pull off here," he directed suddenly from his seat on the passenger side of the Ram.
Chris braked and whipped the large black truck off the small highway into the rutted parking lot of the small abandoned store, causing Vin to grab the door handle to keep from sliding across the seat onto his boss. "Smooth, Larabee," he muttered with a quick, annoyed glance at his leader as he pushed the door open and stepped out into the cool air before the truck had completely come to a rest, pulling his gun from his shoulder hostler as he went.
Chris's one-fingered gesture was his only reply as he slammed the pick-up into park and followed the lanky Texan out, ignoring the yellowish mud that covered the vehicle as he pulled his own gun to give his friend cover. A quick search proved the area to be empty. Vin walked up to the store front and nodded at the broken lock before squatting down and looking at something on the pavement. He reached down and fingered a dark stain, bringing the black substance up to his nose before wiping his hands off on his jeans. "Oil. Fresh," he commented quietly, looking up at the blond.
Chris nodded in acknowledgement as he slowly pushed the door open to the building, cautiously peering into the gloomy interior before making his way inside. He took note of the disturbance in the dust-covered floor that was evident in the wane light filtering in through the filthy plate-glass window. Vin followed him inside and together, they made a quick search of the small building. "They were here," he noted.
"Yep," Chris answered, taking another look around at the front room before they stepped back outside.
Vin holstered his gun before giving his leader a pointed look. "I'd say they have no more than a thirty minute lead on us."
Chris ran a hand down his face. "Yeah, but where did they go from here?" he wondered out loud.
Vin glanced back down at the oil stain, a shrewd glint entering his eye as he contemplated it. He crossed back and forth in the front of the building once, studying the ground intently as he went, before coming to a stop beside the blond and nodding once to himself. He met Chris's questioning stare, an uneasy look on his face. "I think they met someone."
"Thomas?" Chris asked.
Chris sighed and holstered his own gun as he glanced down the road, an edgy feeling settling in the pit of his stomach. "Wonder why they headed this way," he commented suddenly. "This road leads away from DIA and Jefferson County both, and it's headed out into the mountains. The interchange with I-70 was five miles back and the next is not for another ten miles. If they plan on getting out of the state in a hurry, they'd have to take the interstate."
Vin studied the west-bound road until it disappeared around a bend, his uneasiness quickly growing. "You said the next exit is ten miles ahead of us. Which one is that?" he asked suddenly.
"Chester Junction. It's two exits away from the one to the-S**t!" Chris exclaimed as he picked up on the tracker's line of thought. "You don't think-"
"It's a long shot, but then again," Vin shrugged, "I'd rest a lot easier if'n we were to head on out there, though."
Chris nodded. "I think you're right." They turned back to the truck as one and quickly climbed in. "Call Buck again," he ordered as they peeled out of the lot with a squeal of tires. "Let him know what could be headed his way."
He glanced over at his passenger to find him one step ahead, the phone already glued to his ear. Vin met his gaze with a tense one of his own a few seconds later as he slowly lowered the earpiece. "No answer."
"D**n-it!" Chris cursed, hitting the wheel with a resounding smack. He grabbed for the radio to alert the others. "JD!" he barked as he man-handled the vehicle down the small road one-handed. "We've picked up their trail and think they're headed for the ranch. Get everyone out there now!"
He slammed the gas pedal all the way the floorboard as the powerful truck roared out of another turn on two wheels. They sat in taut silence, listening to the agents at the mansion mobilizing via the airwaves as the scenery rushed by in a blur, both willing the vehicle to go faster, praying for a miracle even as dread of what awaited them filled their hearts.
* * * * * * *
They all gathered loosely around the table as Bartinol settled in at the desk in the corner and waited patiently for the computer to boot up before inserting the first disk. After he viewed each disk, including the two CD's, he physically destroyed it. Finally he finished and swiveled the chair around from the pile of plastic to face Ezra. "Is that all of it?" he asked shortly.
Ezra looked at him with a laconic stare and nodded. "Yes."
Bartinol studied the cool expression for a moment, searching for a sign of deceit before raising an eyebrow and smiling faintly back at the agent as he stood from the chair. "I suppose I must take your word for that," he mused as he pulled on his patent leather gloves and stepped away from the desk. He suddenly pulled a small silver pistol out of his pocket and emptied the clip into the CPU. The others flinched away as sparks flew across the room from the exploding monitor while the sizzling tower crashed to the floor with a clatter along with the mouse and keyboard. Smoke wafted on the air in the silence that followed the shots, and everyone stared at the mangled machine as it gave one last ZZZZZT before it finally died completely. Bartinol pocketed the gun and gave Standish a half smirk as he motioned toward the mess. "Do forgive that. I did need to make sure that a copy did not reside on the hard drive, after all."
Ezra glanced back over at the smoldering remains and the scorch marks blackening the desk top and the wall behind it and shook his head ruefully.
Chris was going to love that.
Bartinol turned his attention to Randolph as he buttoned his coat and adjusted his scarf. "I suggest we vacate these premises post haste," he said, all humor gone from his features.
"But what about Standish and the girl?" Vitalis asked.
Bartinol shrugged. "What you do with them is your concern. I have what I wanted and wash my hands of the whole affair."
Tony looked at his boss. "Mr. Randolph?"
Paul Randolph glanced at his watch with a frown before looking up to meet Ezra's piercing green eyes. His own blue gaze narrowed in maliciousness before he turned back to his henchman. "Kill them."
"W-wait a minute there!" Eddie protested, his eyes widening in sudden suprise. He pushed forward and grabbed Bartinol by the arm, but dropped his hold when the older man turned a decidedly cold stare on him. "You said that you would leave Alex alone if you got the disks!" he insisted.
Bartinol straightened the sleeve of the cashmere coat and glanced over at the girl in question before turning back to the man before him. "And I have. However, I have no control over the actions and decisions of Mr. Randolph. As I stated, I'm no longer involved." He stepped out of the room without a backward glance.
Eddie turned a pleading gaze on Randolph, but found no give in the older man. Randolph nodded at his men. "Do it, then set the place afire as you leave." He smiled at Ezra. "We want to leave Larabee a clear message as to what happens when he begins nosing in other people's business. Fitting, don't you think, Mr. Standish?"
"B*****d!" Ezra growled angrily at the other man, understanding the man's hidden meaning and realizing what such as scene would do to his commander.
Randolph only laughed as he pulled on his gloves and adjusted the collar of his coat. "May you burn in h**l, Agent Standish," he cheerily called over his shoulder as he left the room.
Tony grinned as he checked the load in his pistol, slammed it home with an exaggerated flourish, and nodded at his man before taking careful aim right between Ezra's eyes, his man doing likewise to the girl. "Say goodbye, Agent," he chuckled as he slowly squeezed the trigger.
Several things happened at once.
Eddie watched in horror as the gun was leveled at his old partner's daughter and as though something suddenly snapped inside of him, he realized that he couldn't just stand by passively and let her be killed. As the gunman pulled the trigger, he drew his own weapon and with a mighty yell, took a flying leap at the girl, pushing her out of harm's way even as he squeezed the trigger. The gunman's shot passed harmlessly over their heads, but Eddie's was true, the bullet drilling a neat hole in the center of the gunman's chest, knocking him back against the wall. The gunman slid slowly to the floor, the gun falling from nerveless fingers as he stared in shock at the growing red stain on the front of his shirt seconds before his eye's rolled up into his head and he slumped over.
At the same time, Tony, hearing the shout, whirled around in time to see Eddie draw his gun and fired at the rogue FBI agent, hitting him as he sailed through the air. Eddie hit the floor with a groan, clutching a bloody hand to his right shoulder.
The other gunman started to fire his own weapon at the girl but was hindered as a body crashed into him, pushing his gun up and back as the weapon discharged, drilling a hole in the sliding glass door behind him. Ezra had instantly taken advantage of the distraction and leaped at the remaining thug, sending them both crashing through the weakened panel in a shower of glass. Ezra rolled off the man as soon as they hit the deck outside and vaulted over the railing, the fact that the man he had landed on was unconscious or worse barely registering in the back of his mind. He hit the ground running, sprinting for the tree line thirty yards from the house, intent only on drawing Tony and the other guards away from the house and his friends within.
Tony turned back in time to see the pair crash through the glass. He fired at the two, but missed, and, with a curse, veered around the table in pursuit. He paused in the doorway and seeing the agent running for the trees, let off another shot but missed. "After him!" he yelled to the guard who had been outside as he came running from the direction of the barn. The man changed direction and headed for the trees. Tony stepped through the door and jumped the steps to pick up the chase, ignoring the man lying on the deck in a puddle of blood.
Alex had crashed into the corner of the desk with a thud when Eddie pushed her, but managed to stay aright. She looked up in time to see Tony slip through the door and Eddie land at her feet. She started to stoop down to check on the man, but Randolph's shout of "What the h**l?" caused her to pause. She glanced up to see the two crime lords pushing through the front door and immediately ducked through the kitchen doorway, stooping down slightly as Bartinol let off a wild shot that hit the drywall above her head. She leaped up and slid across the kitchen table, knocking a chair to the floor as she landed on the other side and dove toward the laundry room without missing a beat. She stumbled down the short set of stairs just inside the room and hit the concrete floor painfully, but was up in an instant, slamming the door closed and jamming the board from the shelf above the washer under the handle before ducking out the door leading into the garage. She weaved through the clutter of car parts, tools, and other assorted machinery to the side entrance, slipping through to the outside and sprinting for the trees.
"D**n-it!" Randolph shouted as he made it to the kitchen doorway in time to see the laundry room door slam shut. He skirted the table and tried the handle, hitting the wood with his shoulder when the door refused to budge.
"Leave it!" Bartinol commanded when he saw that the barrier wasn't going to give. He jogged back into the living room. "This way!"
Randolph hit the door one last time in anger before turning to follow him back out the front, stepping over Buck's body on his way outside without a second glance at the fallen man.
* * * * * * *
Buck came to with a groan at the sound of the front door slamming closed, his head pounding and his stomach churning.
He started to roll over but an intense wave of pain pointed out the foolishness of that act and he stopped on his side, his head lying against the cool floor. His breath came in pants as he tried to figure out what was going on. He cracked one eye opened and peered blearily out across the wood floor.
Chris's ranch he realized. A case. Ezra and a girl-what was her name?-were in trouble. Chris and the others left for a bust, I stayed behind for protection. Heard something, went to see what it was-
A distant shot sounded outside and his eyes widened. He reached a shaky hand up to his head and winced as he touched the gash on the side of his head. "Oh h**l," he groaned, realizing what had happened and who had shot him.
He rolled onto his stomach and paused a moment, waiting for the world to stop gyrating before he pushed down on the floor with his hands and managed to lift his body onto his hands and knees. He noticed his gun lying just under the edge of the couch and reached down to pick it up before grabbing onto the back of the seat and pulling himself to his feet. He waited a few more seconds before lifting his head to scan the room.
That was when he noticed Eddie lying in the dining room doorway.
He stumbled over to the body and ungracefully dropped to his knees beside the man, reaching out to check for breathing. Realizing that the man was still alive, he looked around for something to use as a compress. Not finding anything within immediate reach, he pulled himself back up using the door facing as a support and headed for the kitchen. Though he was seeing double sets of stars, he was able to find the dish towel hanging on the handle of the stove and jerked it off as he turned to go back to the fallen man. Another distant shot caused him to pause and glance to the kitchen window in apprehension.
He was torn between wanting to go out and help Ezra and trying to save the life of the man in the dining room, but a low groan from the other room made the decision for him. With a curse, he turned from the window, towel in hand. He spied the cordless phone lying on the counter and grabbed it up as he pushed back into the dining room and dropped beside the fallen agent. The fog was slowly lifting from his brain, allowing him to gather his thoughts and form a plan of action. He quickly dialed the familiar number then balanced the phone on his shoulder as he reached down and pressed the towel against Eddie's shoulder firmly, eliciting another moan from the man.
Back in the Ram, Vin grabbed for the buzzing cell phone on the seat beside him and quickly punched the talk button. "Yeah?"
"Vin?" Buck asked, glancing up toward the broken door and the tree line beyond as another gunshot echoed across the valley.
"Buck?" Vin asked, glancing up to meet Chris's eye. He took note of the glint of relief that flashed through the older man's features before punching the speaker phone button.
"Are you all right?" Chris demanded.
"Yeah. Nothing more than a little knock to the head." Buck answered. He shifted his stance a little as the man underneath his hands groaned again and moved his leg, slowly coming to life. "It's all right," Buck soothed. "Stay calm. Everything's going to be alright."
"What's going on?" Vin's question brought his attention back to the phone.
"Randolph and Bartinol are here. Eddie's been shot, and I can see one man laying on the floor and another laying on the deck outside, but no one else is in the house," Buck peered through the glass to the body. "Eddie's still breathing and the one on the floor looks dead, but I can't tell from here if the other guy's alive or not. We could use a little help right about now, Pard," he commented through gritted teeth.
Chris gripped the steering wheel tightly as he pushed on the gas even harder, trying to squeeze more speed out of the huge vehicle. "We're on our way. We'll be there in five minutes." He looked over to where Vin was talking to JD on the radio. Vin held up his hand and flashed all five fingers twice. "The rest of the cavalry are about ten minutes behind us. Do you know if Ezra's alright?" he asked tersely.
"Don't know. I don't know what happened. I was out for a little while. I keep hearing shots in the distance. I'm assuming that means he's still moving, at least." I hope he thought silently, mentally crossing his fingers.
The exit for the interstate loomed ahead of them suddenly and Chris steered onto the ramp with a squeal of tires. He cut across to the fast lane in front of an eighteen wheeler, ignoring the blast of the air horn as he flicked his siren on while Vin reached into the glove box and set the light on the dash board. A wail in the distance caught Vin's attention and he glanced in the rearview mirror to see a state trooper careening up the highway a few hundred yards behind them. "Chris," he said to get the other man's attention.
Chris glanced over at his friend at the one word, and Vin jerked his head toward the back with a small smile. Chris looked in the rearview mirror and saw six patrol cars turning the curve behind them. "Hold on, Buck. Help's coming," he muttered as he turned his attention back to the road.
Buck adjusted the phone against his shoulder and tried to get more pressure on the wound beneath his hands. "I'll do what I can, Pard. Just get here." The phone started to slip and he reached up to grab it. "Listen, I've got my hands a little full right now. I'm going to have to get off the line."
"Okay. See ya soon." Vin punched the talk button and gripped the arm rest tighter as the next exit came into sight. Thirty seconds later, Chris was recklessly shooting down the ramp and onto the little highway that twisted up into the mountains where his ranch lay without even slowing down or looking into the mirrors to see if anyone was coming. All he cared about at the moment was getting to the ranch in time to keep from losing another person close to him. Please, he begged silently, let us get there in time.
The large black truck practically flew down the road in response, almost as if it could feel their urgency.
Buck let the phone clatter to the floor as he turned his attention to stopping anymore blood from escaping the man beneath him. Another couple of shots resounded and he looked up through the glass door in trepidation. He suddenly felt a weak grip on his arm and looked down into the pain-filled eyes of the rogue agent. "I-I c-couldn't let them k-kill her," the man gasped, writhing under the agony he was in.
"Shhh now," Buck soothed. "Just stay calm. You're gonna be alright."
Eddie's hand dropped back to the floor and he swallowed once before looking back up at the blurry features of the man leaning over him. "D-done enough to hurt her. H-had to end it h-here."
"I know, Pard, I know," Buck agreed, but the agent had passed out again.
One lone shot echoed across the valley, and Buck looked out the door toward the trees once again, fear clenching at his gut. The finality of the single discharge seemed to indicate that something had finished, but who was the victor?
* * * * * * *
Ezra ran flat out, weaving in and out of the trees as he tried desperately to gain ground over his pursuers. A bullet struck the tree beside him a split second after the sound of the shot, and he ducked to the side to avoid the shower of bark and splinters. Up ahead, he could hear the sound of the small creek that ran through Larabee's property, and he tried to form a picture in his mind of the layout of the land around him. Truth was, he could count on one hand the number of times he had been out to Larabee's ranch, and most of those had been in the house. The one time that he had ventured out into the wilds, as he had described it at the time, he had been in the company of Vin Tanner. They had spent a Saturday afternoon roaming the open fields, Vin on his big black and Ezra on the back of one of the horses that Chris boarded. While he had found the afternoon surprisingly enjoyable, they had covered a lot of ground, and he had left the navigation up to the tracker, being as he was no woodsman by any stretch of the imagination. As he raced down the muddy path, he found himself wishing he had paid closer attention to his surroundings during the ride.
The path turned a corner to run parallel to the water course. The creek bank lay five feet to his left and another six feet or so down, while the tree-studded slope rose steeply to his right. He glanced up the slope and noticed the stark-white shell of a lightening struck trunk rising above the other trees at the top of the rise-and a memory niggled at the back of his mind. He picked up his speed, scanning the hillside as he ran, searching for a particular object, and finally veering suddenly off the path when he found it. He quickly scrambled up the slippery slope, heedless of the mud that now caked his shoes and the lower half of his pants as he slid to his knees behind the large rock that hung over the path. He dug around in the soggy soil beside him with his hands, working to unearth one of the smaller stones before hunkering down in his hiding place, trying to catch his breath and get a glimpse of his pursuers. He strained to hear something, but the roar of the choked stream below drowned out all other sound.
Finally, the gunman came into view, his gun cocked and ready as he slowly picked his way down the path, searching for a sign of his prey. Ezra frowned when he saw that the man was alone-where had Vitalis gone? He had no time to wonder as he flattened himself alongside the rock and squeezed his natural weapon tightly, waiting for the gunman to come closer, to get into position-
With a rebel yell, Ezra launched himself off the rock and crashed into the gunman, knocking them both to the ground. The thug dropped the pistol as he hit the mud, sending it skittered off down the path. The man made it to his feet first, but Ezra swiveled his body around and swept the man's feet out from underneath him. They both came up together and squared off, Ezra with his rock, and the gunman with a large, knobby branch that he had found. The man raised the branch over his head and came at the agent with a yell, but Ezra ducked, allowing the weapon to pass over his head and crash into the tree behind him. He dove forward, wrapping his arms around the man's waist and again slamming him to the ground. They rolled down the path, getting dangerously close to the bank's edge before crashing into another rock jutting up out of the bank. The thug kicked free of his assailant and flung a handful of mud up into his face before scrambling to his feet to attack again.
Ezra was frantically clawing at his face, trying to clear his eyes, when the other man hit him, sending them both down with a painful thud. The thug whipped the branch around and gripped it on either side of Ezra's throat, intending to choke him to death with it. Ezra grasped one-handed at the branch, trying to shove his fingers between the wood and his throat, struggling against his assailant to break free, but the gunman just adjusted his stance to each move his victim made, strengthening his grip as he slowly suffocated the life out of the agent. As the precious air was squeezed from his lungs, Ezra let go of the branch in one final act of desperation and viciously jabbed his elbow backwards into the gunman's stomach. The gunman bent forward from the blow, but didn't let go, so Ezra followed that move by quickly hooking his foot behind the man's left heel and jerking forward. They both tumbled backwards with a crash, the gunman letting go of the branch on his way down. Ezra landed on top of the man and slammed his head back onto the thug's face, breaking the man's nose in the process before rolling off of him.
The gunman howled with pain, his hands automatically flying to his face. He came to his knees with a mighty roar, ready to beat the smaller man before him to a bloody pulp-but Ezra was quicker. He rolled to his knees one beat ahead of the other man, and swung his fist-the one encasing the rock-as hard as he could, slamming it into the side of the gunman's head. The man toppled to the ground with a small cry, landing beside the agent and laying still. Breathing hard, Ezra bent over the fallen man to check for life, holding the bloody rock tightly in case of a surprise attack, but the man was truly down for the count. The undercover agent let the rock drop to the ground as he sat back with closed eyes, rubbing at his throat, trying to ease his breathing and erase the feel of the branch pressing into his skin. He struggled to his feet a moment later and used the unconscious man's own belt to bind him securely before digging through his pockets for more ammunition. He frowned when he only found one clip, but shoved it into his pants pocket anyway as he bent over to pick up the pistol. He glanced around before climbing up the slope in search of Vitalis.
He jogged cross country, heading back in the general direction of the ranch, grimacing as he realized just how far he had gone from the house. All was silent from that direction, and he hoped Alex and Buck were alright.
A few minutes later, he found himself on the edge of a small open meadow. He paused beside a tree and searched the dense woodland across the open field intently, trying to catch of glimpse of any danger, when a shot sounded alarmingly nearby. He dropped to the ground a split second before a bullet clipped the tree trunk right where his head had just been. He glanced up to catch a glimpse of movement in the trees on the other side of the field before he rolled into a crouch and scuttled deeper into the cover of the forest. He cautiously worked his way through the trees, heading for the general area that he had last seen his enemy.
A flash of color to his left caught his attention and he snapped off a shot in that direction as he dove to the right behind the cover of a small bush. A shot was fired in return, proving that he had missed his target. He moved down the slope, trying to circle around his enemy, straining to hear anything that would reveal the man's location. Where is Mr. Tanner when you need him? he wondered grimly to himself.
Just as he stepped out from behind a large oak, a bullet struck the tree, and he jerked himself backwards with a grunt. He pressed his back up against the trunk and flinched as two more shots peppered the foliage around him. He counted to three then swung out from behind his cover, firing three shots in the opposite direction before flinging himself down behind a fallen log to his right. Vitalis answered by sending two shots into the decaying mass.
Ezra rolled across the hill a little ways, bullets thunking into the ground behind him, before he came back to his feet, firing at his enemy, and dove behind a rock. He wound his way around the huge stone and paused for a moment, scanning the hillside behind him while trying to catch his breath. He quickly ejected the empty clip onto the ground and slammed the full one into place before glancing back up the slope for signs of his opponent. He grimaced as he realized that by being at the bottom of the small gully, he was at a distinct disadvantage.
Knowing that he had to move, he scanned the gully floor, looking for the next piece of cover. He glanced back up the hillside, and then, with a long slow exhale, he pushed away from the rock and leaped toward the root base of the huge, toppled tree several yards away, firing up the slope as he ran. Bullets zinged around him, but miraculously, he made it to the tree unscathed. He peered over the tree to see movement up the hill and fired several shots at Vitalis as the man moved to a parallel location further up the slope.
Their deadly game of cat and mouse continued for several minutes, with each pacing the other down the length of the gully, moving from cover to cover while taking potshots at each other, but finally the inevitable happened. Ezra slid into place over a small knoll into a tightly knit grove of pine trees ahead of a hail of bullets. He checked the clip in his gun and cursed when he found that he had only one shot left. He glanced back up the hill, but knew that Tony was in too good of a position. There was no way to work his way up the hill without having firepower to pin the man down. Ezra glanced around his protection, hoping for something to reveal itself, when he noticed the small sapling growing just to the left of the entrance. The grove was a good place of concealment, with the only easy access point being across the small knoll that he had just dove over. A wild idea hatched in the back of his brain, and he glanced from the tree to the hillside location of Vitalis back to the tree before grinning to himself.
It was a crazy idea, but it might just work.
Besides, what did he have to lose?
* * * * * *
Vitalis hunkered down beside the maple tree, his eyes on the pine grove below him. He had Standish cornered, and he knew it. It was just a matter of time before he would be able to move in and finish him off. He grinned maliciously to himself.
Of course, no one said that Standish had to die quickly.
He had a personal score to settle with the agent who had made him look like a fool in the eyes of his employer, and Tony had every intention of making the man pay, and pay dearly.
He caught sight of movement at the edge of the small bank and frowned slightly to himself. What's he up to? he wondered.
The sound of his name echoed through the woods, and Tony couldn't help but flinch at the unexpected sound. He frowned in confusion. What did that slippery snake think he was doing?
"Hey, Vitalis! I'm talking to you!"
"What do you want!" Tony finally yelled back.
"I have a proposition for you!"
Tony shook his head. "Like the one you offered my boss back in the hangar? I know better than that, Standish! No deal!" he answered brusquely.
"No, this is an offer of a different nature."
Tony considered the idea for a moment, then shrugged. The man would be dead soon. Why not hear him out? "I'm listening," he called out as he scanned the cove again, trying to see his prey.
"Have you ever read much of the history of the American western frontier?" came the answer.
"What?" Now Tony was really confused. What did history have to do with this situation?
"I must admit, I have found myself rather fascinated by the whole subject. Roaming cowboys, fast women, gentleman gamblers, infamous outlaws-the entire era has always been something of a romantic fancy of mine-a bit barbaric and crude, perhaps, but refreshing on the whole. I do believe I would have rather enjoyed the life of the wondering gambler-no strings, no attachments, no reason to rise at the crack of dawn. It would be a rather easy life, wouldn't it?"
"Get on with it!" Tony growled.
"Yes, well, I'm sure that even someone as illiterate as yourself would know the traditional manner of settling disputes in those days," Standish called back.
"What are you talking about?" Now Tony was really confused. What was this fool up to?
"Duels, my man! Up until modern times, the acceptable method of settling a disagreed was upon the field of honor! Of course, a southern gentlemen such as myself would prefer it to be performed in a much more refined manner with dueling pistols or swords, seconds, and the entire paraphernalia required for such an act, but seeing as how this is the wild west and not the grand old South, I suppose the deed should be completed in a much more appropriate style, no matter how uncouth it may be."
"What the h**l are you ranting about?" Tony yelled back in frustration and bewilderment.
"Shootouts! Surely you know what that is? Two men facing off in the dust of the street, high noon, the O.K. Corral?" Standish's answer had a decidedly annoyed tone to it. "It was the epitome of the wild west, dear sir, right along with the cowboys and Indians!"
"Y-you're wanting to have a shootout?" Tony couldn't help but chortle at the thought. "You're kidding, right?"
"I'm quite serious. Consider it a last request, of sorts. I'm enough of a realist to know that I cannot continue in our little game for much longer. I'm afraid I'm at a distinct disadvantage and have no hope of competing against you in this arena. And if I'm to die, I'd much prefer it to be in a blaze of glory."
Tony shook his head. Standish was truly insane. "You missed your chance at the blaze of glory thing. If you wanted that, you should have stayed in the hangar."
"Yes, well that was not the 'blaze' that I had in mind."
Tony snorted. "Why would I want to do that? It'd be easier to just wait you out up here."
"Ah, but surely you realize that Mr. Larabee is on his way. The longer this game continues the greater the chance of his arrival in time to come to my aid. I do believe that at that point, you yourself would be quite outnumbered. And at the very least, this method would prove to be entertaining."
Vitalis rubbed his chin thoughtfully. The man had a point. Larabee was probably on his way here now. The longer this went on, the greater the chances of getting captured. And he knew he could take the man. Besides, he had always dreamed as a boy of riding with Joaquin Murrieta or the James gang. It could prove to be fun-different at least.
And who said he had to play fair?
"Alright, Standish," he called out casually as he discarded the empty clip from his gun. "I'll give you your shootout."
In the grove of trees, Ezra leaned back against the bank and closed his eyes in relief. He wasn't sure if the man would go for it. "Thank you, Sir," he called out. "On the count of three, we both are to stand up and fire at one another. Agreed?"
Tony slammed the fresh clip home with a snap and grinned to himself.
If the fool wanted to make it this easy, he'd oblige him.
"Alright. On three. One!" he positioned himself more securely behind the tree, making sure that he was concealed from the pine grove.
"Two!" He took careful aim at the entrance to the thicket, where he knew Standish would rise.
Ezra closed his eyes and licked his lips. This is what he wanted. Vitalis had fallen for it. Now was the time to spring the trap. He tensed, ready to jump up, all the while praying that he had calculated this all right.
Tony watched as his prey suddenly showed himself with a wild yell, firing his weapon up the hill. The bullet struck the tree that Tony was concealed behind, and the gunman smiled evilly to himself as he took careful aim at the man below. He let out a string of shots and watched in satisfaction as the body jerked backwards and toppled out of sight.
He waited a few moments for any sign of movement, but seeing nothing, he slowly stood up and made his way down the bank. He paused at the entrance to the grove, peering into the dark interior, looking for any sign of a trap, but all he could see was the still form lying awkwardly on the bed of pine needles. He slowly stepped into the grove, keeping his eyes on the body.
Something wasn't right.
Wait a minute-where was the blood?
He straightened and pulled the gun up, aiming square at the man's chest-when suddenly, he was attacked by something to the left!
Ezra lay on the ground, his heart thumping wildly in his chest as he listened to the footsteps of his opponent drawing closer. He surreptitiously gripped the end of the shoe lace in his hand tighter, willing the other man to step into the right location. He looked up through slitted eyes as the light was blocked by a large form standing in the entrance.
Closer ..Closer ..There!
Ezra let the string go with a snap and watched as it whizzed around the trunk of the larger tree and released the little sapling that it was holding back against the ground. With a whoosh! the small tree snapped forward, coming at Vitalis from the side. Just as he had hoped, Tony whirled around to face this side attack, giving him a one-time shot which Ezra took full advantage of. He launched himself at the other man.
At the same time that Tony realized he was shooting at a tree, he felt the full weight of the agent slam into his back, and they hit the floor of the grove with a muffled grunt. Tony dropped the gun. He pushed the other man off of him, and they rolled to their feet with the gun caught between them. Tony dropped into a crouch and smiled in approval at his enemy. "Smart, Standish," he applauded. "Real smart. I guess you earned your reputation justly."
Ezra dropped into his own crouch and slowly began circling around the gun and his opponent. "I suppose," he shrugged.
"You know, you got me by surprise back there in the hangar, with that side kick," Tony continued conversationally. "But this time, I'm ready for you."
"Do tell," Ezra answered coolly.
"Those pretty-boy prep-school moves aren't going to help you now. I've got some moves of my own, and I didn't learn them in no fancy studio with no fancy sensei," Tony remarked. "I learned my skills the hard way-on the streets. It was kill or be killed, and I was determined I was going to be the winner."
"And here you are," Ezra smirked.
"Exactly," Tony smiled. "I'm going to tear you apart."
Ezra shrugged, offering the man the most smug, infuriating grin in his repertoire-the same grin that was guaranteed to send Larabee over the edge every time. "Then quit expounding on it and get on with the show," he taunted.
Tony's eyes narrowed, and with a low growl, he lunged at the smaller man. Ezra sprung at the same time and they met in the middle of the grove in a flurry of kicks and punches, the only sound that of fist and foot against skin and the grunts of the two combatants. They broke apart a minute later, breathing heavily and eyeing each other warily with more caution. Viatlis wiped at the blood trickling out of the corner of his mouth. "Good," he nodded decisively. "You're pretty good, city boy."
Ezra didn't answer, wiping at his bloody nose instead as he kept a steady gaze on the man before him.
Tony rubbed his fingers on his pants before tensing for another spring. "But I'm better!" he yelled, kicking out at the other man.
Ezra saw it coming and twisted out of the way, swinging his elbow around to slam it in the small of Tony's back. His only answer was a grunt as the man fell to the ground. As soon as Tony landed, though, he pivoted on his hands and swept his legs around, knocking Ezra off of his feet. Ezra quickly rolled to the side, narrowly avoiding a vicious kick to his ribs, letting it instead glance off his hip. They battled fiercely for several minutes, with Ezra holding his own despite the bruises he had sustained from the beating at the house and his battle at the creek, and Vitalis growing angrier by the minute. Both combatants were well versed in their art, and both were becoming thoroughly exhausted as the battle stretched out.
Suddenly, Vitalis decided to stack the deck-and pulled out his wicked-looking switchblade, coming at Ezra with a series of blazingly fast slices. It was all Ezra could do to avoid a serious injury, and he did incur a few superficial cuts on his arms and chest. He fought desperately to fend the other man off, searching for a chance to turn the tables back into his favor.
Then the inevitable happened, and Tony got in a lucky cut on Ezra's leg, causing it to buckle and sending Ezra crashing to the ground painfully. Tony stood back, watching in dark satisfaction as his opponent struggled to his knees, clutching at the copiously bleeding wound. "Well, Standish," he said with a grin, "this has been fun, but now it's time to end this." He flipped the knife around in his hand, blade down. "See you in h**l, agent," he sneered; then, with a mighty yell, he rushed at the smaller man, his arm raised, a hint of bloodlust glinting madly in his eyes.
Ezra looked up in time to see blade plunging directly toward his chest!