Angie flinched and looked up fearfully as Ezra entered the interview room. But as soon as she recognised him, her relief was almost palpable. She instantly ran to him and he unhesitatingly took her into his arms, lifting her up off the ground and reinstituting the fierce embrace they had been ripped from at the time of his arrest.
"Im sorry, Ezra. Im sorry, Im sorry, Im sorry." She sobbed the words over and over into his shoulder.
"Its alright, Angel. Everything will be alright. You have nothin to apologise for. Shhh. Everything is goin to be alright." The sobbing showed no sign of abating. And he gently stroked her hair as he continued to hold her and murmur reassurances.
Finally, she quietened enough to actually hear him and looked up into his face. "Sorry, Ezra," she whispered one more time.
"What could you possibly think you have to apologise for?"
"I got you into trouble."
He smiled sadly. "Oh, Angie. That wasnt your fault and its nothin that I cant handle. But you appear to be experiencing some difficulties of your own."
She looked down again but said nothing.
"Maybe if you explained to me what the problem was, I would be able to help you."
She shook her head silently but emphatically and continued to avert her gaze.
"Could you at least tell me why you ran away? I thought that you were fairly comfortable to continue residing with the Potter family."
That made her look up and the fear had returned to her eyes. "I cant go back there! I cant, Ezra!"
"I just cant! Lila always said that if I wanted to, shed teach me how to live on the street with her."
"Did she?" Interesting that neither of the girls had ever mentioned it to him before.
"Yeah, and I could do that! And it would be okay because she knows how to find you, so wed still be able to see each other."
As if he didnt have enough to worry about with Lila insisting upon braving the hazards of street life. He certainly didnt need Angie threatening to join her. And he made a mental note to himself that a frank discussion with Lila about the issue was required. But he couldnt afford to let the conversation get sidetracked at this point.
"But you were content to stay with Gloria and her family before. What has changed? Is it because of what happened to Dennis?"
She shook her head again.
"Has Gloria done somethin to upset you?"
Another shake of the head.
"Fightin with her children again?"
And again she shook her head.
"Somethin to do with her visitors?"
No response. Absolute silence and stillness.
Ezra felt a burning fury tear through him and he had to take a moment to concentrate on keeping it contained. They had arrived at the crux of it all and Ezra now knew without a shadow of a doubt what had occurred. But that was not enough.
Angie had to be induced to talk about it slowly and carefully. For their unseen audience and all their damnable recording devices, there had to be no ambiguities.
Guilt cut through him. True, he hadnt actually told her that no one else was listening to their conversation, but hed let her assume it. He felt as though he was lying to her and, in doing so, betraying her himself.
He tried to shake off those thoughts by telling himself that he needed to encourage her conversation with the utmost care for another reason. As he talked her through these disturbing events, he had to somehow find some way to prove to her that none of this was her fault.
"Is the problem somethin to do with Ms Lane? Her son?"
She shook her head slightly once more, her gaze fixed on some point over his shoulder. "I cant go back." It was barely more than a whisper now. "I cant. He wants to..."
"What?" He spoke very quietly and soothingly.
She looked directly into his eyes and he had never seen an expression of such fear and doubt on her face before. She had never been afraid to tell him anything. Never. And now the tears were threatening to spill from her eyes again.
He lifted his hand to brush the first of them from her cheek and kept his voice gentle and encouraging.
"You can tell me, Angel girl."
God, he felt like a Judas! He wasnt sure if he could keep the deception going. He was taking advantage of her vulnerability as much as any of them. And for what purpose? To prove to those watching that it had not been him who had done this unspeakable thing to her?
No, it wasnt that. This was to end her ordeal. This was to stop some perverted bastard from causing further damage to her.
"You know that Id never let anythin hurt you if it was within my power to prevent it, Angie, dont you?"
"He said that it wouldnt hurt. None of what he does really hurts. It just feels bad."
"What does he do that makes you feel bad?"
"He tries to touch me under my clothes. Places I dont want him to touch. And he shows me things that I dont want to see. Like his thing, yknow. He opened up his pants and showed me it. I told him that I didnt want to see it."
Ezra bit back bile.
"And this was?"
And suddenly his God-given talent totally failed him and he couldnt really explain how it happened. He was an undercover specialist, for Christs sake! He made his living through lies and deception, by achieving peoples confidence and then utterly betraying it, as Mr Jackson would not hesitate to point out.
But this wasnt some hardened member of the criminal fraternity. This was Angie. Angie who deserved better than to be deceived in such a way. Angie who could sometimes see through him as though he were made of glass.
And she did so now. Somehow she read it from his face or manner and her eyes narrowed. "Theres somebody listening."
A bare-faced lie was something he just couldnt inflict on her. "Yes."
The tears that sprang forth now were tears of anger. "Why?"
"Because they need to know so that they can stop him."
She turned sharply and looked around the room for evidence of their unseen audience but couldnt find any. Frustrated, she shouted to the room at large.
"It was Tom! Tom Lane! He did those things to me! And he said he did them because he loved me. And I told him that I didnt want him to love me and Id tell Gloria. But he said that it had to stay secret and even if I told Gloria, she wouldnt believe me because he was family and I wasnt. And hed only do it when Gloria was out so she wouldnt know. And yesterday he took me into a room and he didnt just want to touch me...He wanted to..." And her voice dissolved into tears, as the anger that had fuelled her outburst suddenly gave way to a resurgence of fear and shame.
Ezra caught her up in his arms again and hugged her close. He couldnt speak. So he clasped her to his chest, burying her in the embrace, as if he could shield her from all the horrors of the world with his own body.
But it wasnt finished yet. As much as he hated to push her, and even though he didnt think he could bear to hear the details spoken aloud, they had to keep going. She had to tell them all of it.
He swallowed hard and managed to choke out some more of the perfidious words. "Its alright, Angie. Everything will be alright, but you need to tell me. What else did he do?"
She clasped him tightly and began to stutter between sobs. "He tried...to put his fingers...inside me....I ran...locked myself... in the...bathroom...till they...got home....He said...today hed...put his...thing in....I said...wouldnt fit....He said...it would...be fun...but I couldnt!...had to...run away."
Ezra could barely hold back his own tears. "Oh, Angel."
She was crying so hard now that hiccups started to punctuate the sobs. "Im sorry...didnt know...you were back...took ages...to find Lila."
"Shhh. Its alright. But you could have told Lila, you know. She would have believed you."
"Couldnt...shed think...I shouldve stopped him...couldnt..didnt know how...shouldve...Lila wouldve...stupid not good enough."
"No!" He pulled back from the embrace so that he could look directly into her eyes. "You did the right thing. Everything you did was right. None of this is your fault!" He couldnt prevent a tremor of anger creeping into his voice. She should never have been made to think like that. No child should.
"You have nothing to be sorry for. You did nothing wrong."
"But youre angry."
"Not at you, Angel girl, not at you." He pulled her back into an embrace and began to gently rock her in his arms. "Im proud of you. Im angry at him and other people but not at you."
"Nothing to be sorry for. You did the right thing. Im proud of you and I love you."
She continued to sob but he could feel her relax slightly in his arms. All he could do for now was hold her, to reassure her that he truly was there for her.
But turning his head slightly, he realised that they were positioned almost immediately adjacent to one of the hidden microphones. His anger resurfaced and he demanded into it, "Have you bastards heard enough yet?"
* * * * * * *
Several hours later, Josiah Sanchez walked back to the lounge where hed left Ezra and the others, feeling even more world weary than usual.
He, Chris and that blonde policewoman whom Ezra had befriended after Dennis Potters death had been among the unseen spectators of Ezras interview with Angie. Poor, young Polly had been close to tears, especially when Angie had figured out that they were listening, but she just managed to hold them off.
Josiah couldnt blame her. Learning what Angie had been through had left him feeling like a lead weight had been inserted into his heart. And he could only imagine the turmoil that Ezra was going through.
The other police officers had immediately made plans to bring in their new suspect. But Polly had had enough. She took it upon herself to escort Ezra and Angie to more comfortable and private surroundings. Josiah went to fetch Lila and bring her to join them. Chris had gone with the cops to the Potter home. Even in light of this new information, he wasnt going to let them just trample through that household again. Gloria and her kids, in particular, had been through enough.
As soon as Lila had been reunited with Ezra and Angie and had checked that they were at least physically intact, she demanded to know what had happened. Angie had begged Ezra not to tell her. She didnt want any more people to know. To Josiahs surprise, Lila had instantly let it drop, her face clouding with a strange expression which encompassed both pity and anger.
Ezra had taken a seat on the couch with Angie in his arms and begun to sing softly to her, trying to lull her into sleep. Lila had sat down beside him and leaned her head against his shoulder. Then Angie had snaked out one hand from his embrace and extended it towards Lila, who clasped it tightly. Ezra had glanced at their entwined hands and smiled slightly. Things were far from alright but at least the three of them were together.
Polly and Josiah had exchanged glances. While the older ATF agent remained concerned about Ezra and the girls, he needed to get in contact with the other members of the team, bring them up to speed on things. He had to catch up with Chris and find out how the investigation was going, because now he found that he really needed to know how this horrible situation had come to pass.
Polly had nodded slightly, seemingly able to decipher his thoughts, and offered to stay with Ezra and the girls.
And so Josiah had gone. Hed got a hold of Buck whod assured him that all of the four remaining team-members would arrive at the precinct within the hour. Hed met Chris as hed re-entered the station as part of the entourage that had escorted Tom Lane and his mother in for questioning. He noted that Gloria had come too, and "distraught" was in no way an adequate description of her appearance. The woman looked as though she had been to hell and back, and still knew that her journey was nowhere near over.
Then Josiah had sat in on the first gut-turning interview with young Thomas Lane. Tragedy and perversion, heaped one upon the other. The things that boy had experienced for almost two years, at the hands of one of his mothers lovers, were deplorable enough, but the way that it had warped his view of the world was even more disturbing.
The boys mother was in shock and denial. The poor woman couldnt cope. Gloria was being pulled in at least two directions at once and cracking under the strain. Oh, Lord, what devastation! How many lives had been ripped to pieces?
Now Josiah was heading back to Ezra and the little girl whod been caught in the centre of it all. He didnt know what hed be able to tell them, but felt duty bound to report something. Opening the door, he found that the rooms occupants remained the same but their positions in the room had changed.
Lila and Angie were both curled up asleep on the couch, Lilas arm wrapped protectively around the younger girl and Ezras jacket draped over them both. Polly sat silently in a chair by the door, stationary but watchful, as if she were prepared to stop Ezra if he made a dash for it. And such an apprehension wasnt hard to understand. Ezra was pacing the length of the room like a caged tiger. But he looked up as Josiah entered.
"Well?" Never let it be said that Ezra couldnt be laconic if he wanted to be.
"Hes confessed. Went into a lot of detail. Maybe with a bit of luck, Angie wont be put through the full rigors of a trial."
"I suppose thats something," Polly said softly, gazing sadly at the sleeping child.
Polly nodded. "I can imagine." Then another fear seized her. "God! What about the other kids?"
"No, theyre okay," Josiah assured her. "The police talked to them at the house. Both say he never touched them but also confirmed that he spent quite a bit of time alone with Angie while their moms were out. And Tom himself assured us that hed never do anything like that to a blood relative because that would be incest."
He heard Ezra snort derisively. "Good to know that he draws the line somewhere."
"Well, that was the reasoning given to him by the man who molested him when he wasnt much older than Angie is now. It was one his mothers boyfriends and apparently that was the reason he gave Tom why he didnt do the same thing to his own son. Apparently, that lasted for nearly two years."
"Oh, God," Polly whispered softly. "How much does Gloria know?"
"Pretty much everything I know. She thinks most of this is her fault."
Polly got to her feet. "Id better go find her and talk to her."
"Im sure shed appreciate it."
And Polly nodded once more before walking out the door.
Josiah turned his attention back to his obviously seething colleague. "Well, Ez, looks like the copsll drop the charges against you."
"Most generous of them."
"Yeah, well, theyve got their hands full at the moment. The fact that the perp is also a juvenile, well, they think that it might make things a bit more complicated." Josiah shrugged slightly. "Thats what they said anyway."
"Indeed? Well, I hope that Torquemada and his minions are just as thorough the second time around."
"Ezra..." Josiah began in a tone of mild reproach.
"No! I make that statement with the utmost sincerity. Abusing the trust of a child placed in your care has to be the darkest form of betrayal known to Mankind."
"So, having sat on the other side of the fence hasnt convinced you that such matters should be approached with caution."
Ezra looked Josiah straight in the eye for the first time since hed entered the room and, despite himself, the older man was taken aback by the burning intensity of his gaze.
"God help me, Josiah. I want to pulverise the bastard. I want to pummel him with my bare hands until nothin but his constituent protoplasm remains."
Ezra never once raised his voice, but his quiet vehemence was far more effective anyway.
Josiah knew that he had to attempt to restore some rationality before his friend did something dire.
"Hes thirteen, Ezra. Hes a child himself, younger even than Lila here."
This argument seemed to have absolutely no impact on Ezra, who simply glared at him, as if challenging him to come up with something better.
The older man fought down a sigh. Hed known that Ezra would be incensed by what had happened to Angie but he found the magnitude of his friends wrath rather disturbing. After all, Ezra had just been in the position of being accused of the act himself. But now he was ready to join the new lynch mob.
Been in the position himself
Josiah kept his voice calm and even as he prepared to chart new and turbulent waters. "And hes been abused in the past himself, Ezra. This was a behaviour he was taught."
If anything, Ezras gaze became even more fierce and penetrating. "Dont even try to use that argument with me, Josiah. Not everyone who has been sexually molested as a child, feels the need to perpetuate the obscenity by inflictin the same upon other children."
"No," Josiah said contemplatively. "Some just want to pulverise all offenders down to their constituent protoplasm."
Ezra didnt reply, turning away instead, to sit down next to Angie and Lila. The hand that reached out to brush the younger girls hair back, trembled ever so slightly.
"Im right, arent I?" Josiah made another gentle push.
Ezra looked up sharply. "I do not wish to discuss it, Josiah."
Josiah raised his eyebrows slightly at that. "Well, as I recall, neither did Angie but you werent prepared to let the matter rest."
"That was entirely different."
"Why? Because you were trying to get a statement to use as evidence?"
"No!" Ezra protested instinctively. Then, realising that hed let his guard slip, he fell silent again.
Josiah spoke mildly. "You dont have to say anything to me, Ezra, but it might help if you talked to Angie about it."
Ezra snorted. "Its not somethin you discuss with a child!"
"Why not? Because you dont want to burden them with the awful truth that these things occur? Bit late for you to take a stance like that with Angie, dont you think?"
Ezra stared at him incredulously but Josiah continued on. "Shes feeling shamed and unworthy. Might do her good to know that someone else has been there and survived it."
Ezra let out a short, derisive and bitter laugh. "God, Josiah! She beat the bastard! She actually managed to stop him from gettin what he wanted from her. She walked out the door before he could do it. And yet she still feels tainted. What do you think I could tell her? That I wasnt half as strong or clever or courageous as she was?"
"Afraid of falling from that pedestal that shes set you up on?" Josiah asked gently.
Anger flashed across Ezras features again, but then he sighed heavily.
"Not exactly. Shes such an extraordinary child, Josiah. Intelligent, charming, generous-hearted. Shes endured trials that no one should have to face at her age and yet, until now, shes retained her innocence and wonder. Now she flinches when someone unexpectedly puts a hand on her shoulder. Now the world has become a dark and unforgivin place. And I just dont think I could bear it if she ever looked upon me with that kind of suspicion."
"Ezra, you seem to keep forgetting that we could see and hear everything that went on in that room while the two of you were together. I saw fear in her eyes, Ezra. I saw doubt that she would be believed when she told her tale. But I never saw an ounce of that sort of suspicion while she was with you. You were the only person she could be induced to talk to."
"And I had to deceive her to achieve that."
"Perhaps, but I did notice how you never actually said to her that there was no one else watching or listening."
Ezra gave him a disparaging look. "And did you notice how heavily I implied it?"
"Nevertheless, even after she had figured it out, she still poured her heart out to you and sought comfort in your arms. You are her haven in this world that has become dark and unforgiving. And you are also the standard by which she judges what is good and worthwhile in the world. If you still feel tainted by what happened to you, how can you expect her to overcome what has happened to her?"
Ezra looked down at the sleeping child again and gently caressed her cheek. "I dont know," he whispered.
Josiah crossed the room to hunker down beside him. "Ez, did you have anyone to turn to when it happened to you."
The undercover agent shook his head, his eyes never leaving Angies face.
"Well, at least Angies got you," Josiah said softly. "I think its gonna be up to you to see her through this."
"I wasnt there when she needed me most."
"This is the time shes gonna need you most and you are here now."
Suddenly, Lila stirred and sat up, yawning and rubbing her eyes. "Hey, Ez Josiah."
"Sleep well, Lila?" Josiah asked.
She shook her head. "Not really. So did you guys get whoever was really doing that stuff to Angie?"
Ezra seemed rather astonished. "Neither Angie nor myself have said anything to you about someone doin stuff to her."
Lila gave him a pitying look. "Ez, Im not stupid. I kinda worked it out for myself. A kid doesnt change like that without something happening to them. Its one of the Potter bunch, isnt it? Thats why shes shit-scared about being sent back."
Her temper was progressively rising as she spoke and suddenly Ezra found himself in the role of pacifier rather than the one being pacified.
"Lila, I think you "
But Lila was on a roll. "Ill bet its Cousin Tom, the dear, little, blue-eyed boy. It is, isnt it? Whatd he do? Bastard! Ill kill him! Trying that stuff on a little kid like Angie! Ill fix him! Lets see how he deals with a real woman!" She was up and halfway to the door in search of her target, before Josiah managed to catch hold of her. The big man enveloped her in a bear hug, in an attempt to both restrain her and mollify her.
"Lila, its all in hand. Everythings under control. You cant go assaulting anyone. Thatll just get you into trouble."
"Assault him? Im not gonna assault him, Josiah. Im gonna vivisect him!"
The door opened to reveal Polly Paget and Gloria Potter, and Lila really went off the deep end.
"Bitch!" she screamed at Gloria. "This is all your fault!"
"Lila!" She heard Ezra call her name sharply. But by the time shed managed to twist her head around to look at him, his attention had redirected back to Angie. The kid was stirring and seemed about to wake up, and Ez was leaning down over her, stroking her hair and murmuring to her softly, trying to lull her back to sleep.
Lila turned back to Gloria Potter, who remained transfixed in the doorway. This time her voice was low and vicious.
"Youve got about ten seconds before I get away from Josiah here and scratch your fucking eyes out, you useless, sanctimonious bitch!"
"Lila, stop it," Josiah warned.
"Shut up, Josiah! What would you know about it? Mrs High-and-Mighty Potter has always looked down her nose at me. Always thought I was no good for Angie. And now she lets something like this happen to the kid. I wouldve never let anyone lay a finger on her and she lets him do that! She shouldve stopped him!" Tears of rage caught in her voice. "She shouldve fucking stopped him."
Suddenly, she was released from Josiahs grasp. And before she could react, she was caught up in another one. Her head was pressed against a familiar shoulder and Ezras voice was murmuring in her ear.
"I know, Lila, I know. Its a thousand times worse when its someone that you love rather than yourself. I know."
She lifted her face and saw in his eyes the understanding that only comes to someone whos been there.
"Im sorry, Ez."
He pulled her head back down to his shoulder. "Shhh. Its alright."
Another tear-strained voice sounded from the doorway. "Shes right. I shouldve stopped it. I shouldve known."
Polly put her arm around Glorias shoulders and guided her to a chair. "You couldnt have known, Gloria."
Gloria looked up at her, angry and frustrated. "Yes, I could have. I could have and I should have. I should have known what Tom was doing. I should have known what that man was doing to Tom, all those years ago. Christ, I even liked him. Told Charlotte she was a fool for not marrying him."
Ezra still had Lila clasped to his chest, but looked up and spoke over her head. "Its not your fault, Gloria. No one could have foreseen this."
There was a tentative knock on the still open door. They all looked round to see the remaining members of Team 7 hesitating at the threshold. Lila stepped out of Ezras embrace to face them and Gloria turned and stood up as well.
"You guys okay?" Buck asked, his concern audible.
"Not really, Buck," Ezra replied. "But the addition of your presence helps."
The five of them entered the room and Buck immediately crossed to the couch where Angie lay. She was beginning to stir again.
"Hows the little un?"
"Exhausted and traumatised."
"Shit! Id love to castrate the bastard!"
Josiah shook his head briefly. "The police almost castrated Ezra over it. And yet hed now be prepared to assist you in such a pointless act of mutilation."
Chris spoke in a low growl. "Most of us feel the same, Josiah."
Nathan sighed. "Well, I admit that Id be willin to pass yall the knife but Josiahs right. It wouldnt do nothin to help Angie."
"Whats gonna happen to her now?" JD asked softly.
Ezra looked over to meet Glorias gaze and, as much as he would have liked to have reassured all of them, he couldnt.
"I honestly dont know, JD."
Chris walked over to join Buck at Angies side and gazed down at her. "Its gonna take a while to sort things out properly but she needs to get away from all the hurt and memories." Then he looked up again. "Ezra, as of now, you are officially on leave for the next month or however long it takes. I think you and Angie - and Lila too - need some fresh air and open spaces."
Ezra lifted an eyebrow. "Your ranch?"
"If the shoe fits..."
"And after that?"
Gloria Potter forced herself to speak up. "Ezra, I know I probably dont deserve a second chance..."
"Damn right!" snarled Lila.
"Hey!" Ezra said gently and put a hand on the girls shoulder before turning to Angies soon to be former foster mother. "Gloria, you have one hell of a family crisis to sort out at the moment. I do believe that you have always endeavoured to do your best for Angie but Im not sure that she could ever bring herself to feel a part of your family anymore. Maybe when some of the shock wears off. I really dont know. But Ill tell you now, theres no way in hell that Ill allow any contact between her and your nephew ever again."
He turned abruptly at the sound of Angies frightened voice and instantly went to collect her from the couch.
"Its alright, Angel," he assured her as he gathered her up in his arms. "Im here. Im not goin to let anyone hurt you. Everythins goin to be alright."
She pulled back slightly and looked at all the people gathered in the room. Gloria Potters presence seemed to alarm her somewhat.
"I cant go home!"
Gloria winced but felt that she had to speak up. "Its okay, Angie. You dont have to come home with me. You and Ezra and Lila are going to spend some time up at Mr Larabees ranch."
Angie looked to Ezra for confirmation. "Are we?"
He nodded. "The virtues of fresh air and open spaces have been extolled to me."
"How long for?"
"Im not sure. Maybe a few weeks. What do you say?"
He knew that it was probably pushing Angie slightly, but he had to give Gloria some small hope of reconciliation with the child. "Maybe, in a week or so, Gloria might come and visit."
Angies eyes turned fearful again. "Not Tom!"
"No, not Tom. Just Gloria and maybe her children."
"Okay, but not Tom!"
"What about Buck and JD and Vin and Josiah and Nathan?"
"Im sure they would be delighted to join us if you allow them."
"Do I get to say who can come and who cant?"
He briefly flicked his gaze to Chris for confirmation which was immediately given.
"Yes, you do. For the next week or so, its goin to be your home too. It will be up to you who is permitted entrance and who is not."
"Okay, they can come."
"Right glad to hear it," said Buck, grinning broadly. "Weve missed you, Shortcake."
Angie groaned unexpectedly (and very theatrically). "Why does everyone call me short? One day Ill be taller than you and then youll be sorry!"
The whole room burst into laughter, a mirth born more of the dissipation of tension than anything else.
Lila walked over and tousled Angies hair. "Dont think so, Squirt! Id bet my life that Buck will always be taller than you."
"Well, Ill be taller than you anyway. You just wait and see."
Lila laughed. "Well, youve got a better shot at that one but its gonna take a long, long time. Im prepared to wait."
"And Ill be taller than JD!"
Buck laughed at that. "No question. A pygmy grasshopper is taller than JD!"
"Go jump, Buck!" retorted JD.
Angie turned back to Ezra. "What about you, Ezra? Do you think Ill be taller than you one day?"
Ezra smiled gently. "I think that you already stand head and shoulders above most people I know, Angel girl, myself included."
She looked at him quizzically and he pulled her close to whisper in her ear.
"You have the stature of a giant within you, Angie, dont ever let them cut you down."
Maybe she still didnt really understand what he meant, but shed have the rest of her life to figure it out.
And he planned to be there, every step of the way.