Another turning point
A fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist
Directs you where to go
So make the best of this test
And don't ask why
It's not a question
But a lesson learned in time
It's something unpredictable
But in the end it's right
I hope you had the time of your life
Vin Tanner and Nathan Jackson let the song from the car radio provide a soft background soundtrack to their thoughts. Vin was currently surveying the lodge below and keeping watch over the occupants via binoculars. Nathan was delving into the food supplies they'd brought with them to sustain them through this long surveillance assignment. Neither of them was an overly enthusiastic conversationalist and while they had spent more than three hours together, dialogue between them had been brief and intermittent. Both were content to lose themselves in their own thoughts, while they soaked up the stunning scenery of Grand Lake.
There were still snowcaps on the not too distant peaks but, in the foreground, the thick grass was littered with patches of wildflowers. Glimpses of the mirror-like lake were just visible through the dense conifer forests. And the bright morning sunshine highlighted Nature's majesty to an almost intoxicating degree.
But Vin and Nathan hadn't forgotten their main targets of observation, of course. Ezra and his three charges had arrived at the James' lodge about thirty minutes ago. There had been minimal unpacking of the car, mostly done by Ezra himself, and both Vin and Nathan had been highly amused to see Mr I-don't-indulge-in-menial-labour doing this. And now all of the lodge's recently arrived occupants appeared to be settling in nicely.
Vin and Nathan had parked the Landrover behind a clump of trees, a suitable distance above the lodge. They had a good view of the whole property and could see through large glass panel windows, into the lodge's living room.
Nathan handed a sandwich to Vin who took it without diverting his gaze from the lodge below.
"Thanks, Nathan," Vin acknowledged the gift of food, then observed, "Ez doesn't look too happy."
"Not surprised. That lot seemed to have him waitin' on 'em hand and foot."
"Yeah, and it must be cuttin' 'im real bad to havta do it for scum like them."
Nathan snorted. "Don't think that makes any difference to him. Ezra ain't fussy about the company he keeps in that way. That's why he can do what he does. Hangin' around with murderers and crime bosses doesn't worry him. Especially if he gets to live the high life while doin' it."
Vin cast a sideways glance at him. "That's always bothered you, hasn't it?"
Nathan shrugged. He'd never been good at hiding his thoughts and feelings and he'd never seen much point in trying to hide them anyway. When you were trying to deal with people, it was much easier to just let them know where you stood, rather than always trying to second-guess them. It was kind of hard to explain his doubts exactly but he thought that he ought to try.
"Man's gotta stay true to himself and what he believes in. If he tries to live two or more lives at the same time, like Ezra does, he's gonna end up tying himself in knots."
"Wouldn't worry too much about Ez. He always gets out of those knots. We oughta start callin' him 'Houdini'."
"Yeah, but lie down with dogs an' you'll get fleas."
Vin smiled and raised one eyebrow. "You think Ez is bein' corrupted?"
Nathan chuckled and shook his head. "Reckon y'need some innocence to be corrupted and there ain't much innocence left in Ezra." He sobered for a second. "No, what worries me most is the way he seems to really get into it all. Last time I heard him report back on Stewart James, it almost seemed like he admired the man. I mean, the man deals in illegal weapons an' drugs. He's had countless people killed, includin' little kids an' old ladies. An' all Ezra can talk about is the fancy wine he's got in his cellar and how much the man seems to know about historical stuff, like the Old West."
"Well, you can be pretty sure that Ez don't admire Lucas much. Actually, with all that's happened, I reckon what worries me most is the exact opposite to you."
"You're worried that it never seems to get to him. I'm worried that it already has. To do his job, Ezra needs to be able cut himself off from his feelin's a bit. Not sure he can do it this time. He's already got a bit reckless. Could end up gettin' himself killed."
"You weren't there when he called this mornin'. Was obvious that he was really on edge. Hell, he even called from right inside the James place. Doesn't usually do things that risky. Could easily have been caught, and he knows they woulda killed him."
Vin's voice remained mild although his words became slightly more challenging. "Dunno why it surprises you so much. You didn't really think that he'd sell out Angie and the Potters for a taste of the high life, did you?"
Nathan shook his head. Once, a long time ago, he might have entertained that notion but now there was at least one thing about Ezra that he could be absolutely sure of. Ezra would never sell out Angie, not even if he was offered world domination in return for it.
Suddenly Vin tensed and swung his binoculars up along the road leading to the lodge. "What the hell...?"
Nathan followed his gaze to see six police cars (marked and unmarked) hurtling towards them. There were no sirens but the haste of the vehicles effectively announced their presence in the quiet mountain surroundings, anyway.
"Shit!" Vin muttered, "They can't possibly be after Lucas an' crew!"
He didn't want to break cover and give away their surveillance to the targets below. And it was always possible that the cops weren't actually headed to the lodge, although it sure looked that way.
But he couldn't take the chance and he reluctantly said to Nathan, "Best get down there." Even if the cops weren't after them, the targets were going to be spooked by this. And he wanted to get closer so that if trouble erupted, he and Nathan would be there to back up Ezra.
Nathan nodded and started the engine, as Vin checked his guns once more, and they headed down.
The police cars had indeed come to a halt in front of the lodge. Someone had got out a megaphone and was calling for a surrender even before they had got into position to cover all the exits. Vin swore under his breath. What cowboy was running this operation?
"Vin!" Despite the urgency in his tone, Nathan didn't raise his voice.
"I know." Vin had seen it. Lucas was making an attempt to escape from the back of the house, an area the police hadn't managed to cover yet. Ezra and a tall blonde woman were hot on his heels. There was quite a steep climb up the hill behind the house, but a barn, visible at the top of the slope, might house a vehicle, which could be used for escape. And only a few yards beyond that was the edge of a dense forest where the fugitives could potentially elude pursuit.
Gunfire erupted from within the house and the police returned fire. Glass panels shattered and came cascading down. By the time Vin and Nathan had reached the police vehicles, the shooter in the house had fallen silent.
Knowing the high tension that was sure to be infusing the situation, Vin and Nathan had their ATF badges and credentials out and their hands raised, even as they got out of the Landrover. Some of the cops swung around, instinctively bringing their weapons to bear on the new arrivals. Others kept firing towards the house.
"We're ATF," Vin yelled, "Hold your fire!"
He hoped that every one of them complied with his request. The less stray bullets flying around, the better for everyone, especially Ezra. He then watched as the guns pointed at himself and Nathan began to be lowered and he thought he heard one of the cops swear under his breath.
Vin cast a cool blue gaze in his direction. "Name's Vin Tanner," he stated calmly but firmly, "I'm an agent with the ATF and I need to talk to whoever's in charge now!"
"Yeah, well, that'd be me," said a large middle-aged officer in plain clothes.
Suddenly one of the younger officers shouted, "Ted! They're up the back there!"
Gunfire erupted again as the police targeted the area behind the house. Only those using long-range rifles had any hope of accuracy or range but it didn't stop the others from joining in enthusiastically.
The woman amongst the targets turned back to stand her ground and return fire, even though all she apparently had was a small ineffectual handgun. Within seconds three crimson patches stained the front of her snow-white blouse and she lifelessly tumbled down the hill.
"Stop! Hold your fire! We've got a man in there!"
Nathan had started shouting as soon as the gunfire had recommenced. But he didn't manage to get anyone's attention until he physically managed to knock down the barrels of the rifles of two police shooters. He knew that it was quite a dangerous thing to do, but Ezra's life was at stake.
Vin and the cop in charge joined him in shouting, "Hold your fire!" and as the gunfire dwindled, the remaining two fugitives managed to reach the barn and the sound of an engine starting was heard.
When the trail bike emerged, all present were able to identify Lucas James riding it. But only Vin and Nathan recognized the smaller man who sat behind him, clinging to him as if for dear life and considerably hampering his ability to steer. Lucas obviously quickly lost patience with this hindrance and sharply dug an elbow into the other man's ribcage. As the passenger's grip loosened, Lucas slowed the bike slightly and pushed the other man off it.
"Ezra!" Nathan shouted, as he saw his colleague fall from the trail bike and tumble down the hill, gathering speed.
Lucas hadn't waited to see his passenger's fate, immediately speeding off amongst the trees instead.
Nathan raced towards Ezra. Initially the undercover agent had appeared to be trying to control his descent down the slope but the attempt had been futile and when he rolled to a halt at the bottom of the hill, Ezra's body was completely limp and motionless.
"Ezra!" Nathan still got no response when he reached Ezra's side but, to his immense relief, he quickly located a pulse. He could vaguely hear Vin arguing with one of the cops (who was almost shouting) as they approached.
"Well, it's nice that you got your man back but he just stuffed up our best chance to catch that murdering son of a bitch."
The object of his criticism moaned softly and began to stir.
"Easy, Ezra," Nathan soothed, "It's me, Nathan. You're gonna be alright."
Ezra managed to get his eyes open but seemed to be having trouble focussing them.
"Yeah. Hold still. I'm gonna check you over for injuries. Where's it hurt the most?"
"Head...right wrist...all over really." Ezra's eyes were fluttering closed but then they suddenly snapped open. "Lucas! What happened to...?"
"He got away!" The loud, irate and unfamiliar voice seemed to come from over Nathan's shoulder.
"Dear God," Ezra muttered feebly, as consciousness faded again, "What the hell do I have to do?"
"What?" There was confusion in the cop's voice and Nathan looked up, to see the police detective who had proclaimed himself in charge of this fiasco, standing beside Vin. Several others, an apparent mixture of plain-clothes detectives, with their Denver PD badges worn on chains around their necks, and local sheriff's department, were also coming up behind them.
Vin's first question was about Ezra. "How is he, Nate?"
Nathan looked down at his fallen comrade again. "Pretty badly concussed, think the wrist is just sprained and the rest seems to be just superficial cuts and bruises. But he's mighty lucky that he didn't break his neck!"
"Lucky if I don't break it for him." The gruff grumble made Nathan look up again and his angry gaze almost made all, except Vin, take a step back.
Vin turned to the detective, who'd given his name as Ted Burns. "You still haven't explained why all of you are out here. This ain't Denver PD's jurisdiction."
Burns bristled. "Not sure I have to explain anything to you but, for your information, we're out here to arrest a murderer and, thanks to your friend, we might've missed our chance."
"We'll find him, Ted." One of the younger detectives spoke up and Vin was reminded of JD, in his most idealistic frame of mind. God, he hoped that they'd get to see JD that idealistic again. They still hadn't heard from him, Chris or Josiah.
"After all," the young detective continued, "he can't weasel out of it. We've got it all on surveillance tape."
Despite a warning glare from Ted Burns, the young detective felt compelled to answer.
"Yeah, Lucas Barnaby James shot and killed the manager of a supermarket this morning. We have it on tape."
"Tape was stolen from the scene," Vin stated quietly and Ted Burns looked up at him through narrowed eyes. But the young detective ploughed straight on into it.
"Well, it was sent to us this morning. Express post. Along with the guy's name and the address of this place."
"Jim...!" said Ted Burns in a warning tone.
But Nathan had heard enough. "And you all wanna blame Ezra for not gettin' him. Shit! How the hell do you think you got that tape in the first place?"
The two cops looked at each other. They'd been joking all day about the tape being a gift from Santa Claus and it was almost as if they'd come to half-believe it. They certainly hadn't bother to think of an alternative, more rational explanation.
Jim turned a wide-eyed gaze towards Ezra. "You mean that's Santa?"
It was almost comical. He looked and sounded just like a kid who'd caught his father placing presents under the Christmas tree.
"Santa?" asked Nathan, a little incredulously.
Vin rolled his eyes. It was lucky that he wasn't the type to scream out in frustration. What a mess! They now had an unstable, armed, homicidal thug on the loose in a quiet resort town. God alone knew what Lucas James might get up to but he sure wasn't going to come quietly. There was also an unconscious, injured colleague and friend to consider (whose rationality also seemed a bit borderline recently). A bunch of gung-ho Denver cops (not to mention half the local sheriff's department) who seemed determined to barge all over the area with guns blazing. Vin didn't have the time or the stomach for interdepartmental bickering with a bunch of ridiculous glory-hunters. And to top it all off, he still didn't know what was happening with JD.
Well, one thing at a time. He looked up and caught the eye of a woman in a sheriff deputy's uniform. "Okay, we need to make a proper search plan to cover the whole area grid by grid, if we're gonna find Lucas James before he causes any more trouble. You guys got a map of the area?" The deputy nodded and went to fetch it.
Ted Burns glared at Vin. "You taking charge?"
Vin gazed back steadily and without even a flicker of visible emotion. "Guess I am."
The cop broke eye contact first and Vin redirected his attention to Nathan.
"Y'better get Ezra checked out by a doctor and I'll call Chris. Let him know what's happened."
Finally Vin Tanner allowed himself a heartfelt sigh. "This'll really make his day."
JD had waived his right to counsel during the hearing, in lieu of having his two teammates present with him, and Josiah had sat through the entire process, with his appearance very much that of a calm detached observer. In actual fact, his nerves had been on a knife's edge throughout the proceedings, as he watched constantly for any career-jeopardizing self-flagellation from JD or explosive protective fervour from Chris.
Both had assured him that neither would occur, but it was only now, as the hearing was drawing to a close, that Josiah felt that he could begin to relax.
The chairperson of the hearing board was summing up the proceedings. "And thus, the board has found no evidence of misconduct or negligence on the part of Agent Dunne. Due to the tragic outcome and highly emotive nature of the entire incident, there will be ongoing inquiries into these events. However, Agent Dunne has been fully exonerated of any wrongdoing and it is the recommendation of the board that he be returned to active duty, effective immediately."
JD had sat through this announcement so calmly and motionlessly that Josiah had wondered if he'd managed to comprehend what the woman had said. But as soon as she finished speaking, JD looked around to catch Chris' gaze and broke into a huge grin.
It was infectious and instantaneously Josiah also found himself grinning from ear to ear. He turned to his leader, seated beside him, to assess his reaction.
Chris had managed to restrict himself to a small half-smile, but even that managed to speak volumes about the enormity of his relief.
Victory for Team 7 again. All for one and one for all. There would be rowdy celebrations at Inez's little 'saloon' tonight.
Then suddenly, Chris' mobile phone squawked for his attention. Josiah smiled, probably Buck or one of the others demanding to know the result.
"Larabee." Chris answered the phone briefly, but without his usual curtness.
His half-smile broadened. "Fine, Vin. They even suggested he get straight back to work."
Then Chris Larabee frowned and Josiah suddenly saw storm clouds brewing overhead again, as his boss tersely demanded of the unseen Tanner, "Whadd'ya mean, 'a few little problems'?"
Nathan looked back into the rather well-equipped breakroom of the sheriff's office to find his colleague stretched out on a couch and staring at the radio as if his gaze alone could bore a hole through it. It was emitting a rather mournful little Paul Simon ballad which Ezra's expression conveyed a distinct lack of appreciation for.
And I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
But it's alright, it's alright
For we've lived so well so long
Still when I think of the road we're travelling on
I wonder what's gone wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what's gone wrong
Nathan walked over and switched it off.
"I was listenin' to that."
Ezra's piercing gaze was now directed at Nathan, who just shrugged. Ezra was often petulant when he didn't get to do what he wanted. And right now, he wanted to be out with the others, looking for Lucas James.
The doctor at the local clinic had confirmed Nathan's diagnosis of a sprained wrist, concussion and numerous bruises and then added some possible cracked ribs to the injury list.
Ezra had argued that since none of the injuries were incapacitating, he was more than ready to get back to the task at hand. The doctor had vehemently argued otherwise and insisted that he rest under supervision. It was possible that Ezra would have just ignored the medico if Chris Larabee hadn't rang through and made it an order.
So they had reached a compromise and let Ezra wait at the local sheriff's office. He could keep informed about how the search was going and there were enough people around to make sure that he didn't go AWOL. Chris had insisted that Nathan be among those people. He'd said that he didn't want his undercover agent left alone with people unfamiliar with his disappearing techniques. Nathan privately thought that Chris just wanted to be able to harangue one of his own team if Ezra did manage to abscond.
Well, since they were stuck here together, they might as well fill each other in about the details of their sides of the case.
"We need t'talk."
Nathan knew that he sounded like he was about to launch into a lecture but he just couldn't help himself. Somehow, he just couldn't let go of his anger. Ever since they'd started this operation targeting Stewart James and his organization, Nathan had been so tightly wound up that he couldn't sleep at nights.
He'd wanted to see this man brought down for years, even before he'd moved to Denver. He owed that much to old Rosie Freeman. And now all this nonsense with Lucas had jeopardized the whole operation. It wasn't that he really thought it was Ezra's fault but he couldn't keep his frustration bottled up any longer.
But it seemed that Ezra was already expecting another 'sanctimonious Jackson barrage' and, when it came to verbal battles, he had always been a firm believer in attack being the best form of defence.
"About what? Me sendin' evidence to the local constabulary? Oh please, Nathan! I would've thought you'd be proud. You've always hated the way I 'pussyfoot around the bad guys' and 'schmooze up to them'. I would've thought you'd fully endorse me nailin' my colours to the mast and doin' all within my power to bring the bastard down."
Nathan flinched. He'd never made a secret of his distaste for the moral ambiguities which Ezra's job entailed. But he had always tried to keep to himself the fact that he considered Ezra's aptitude and enthusiasm for it to be something of a stain on the undercover agent's character. As he'd said to Vin earlier, it was beyond his understanding how anyone could actually enjoy that kind of work as much as Ezra seemed to.
"Ezra..." Nathan's voice tailed off. He didn't really know how to explain what he thought and felt. But he had to try.
"I ain't judgin' you, Ezra."
Ezra's gaze was one of frank disbelief and Nathan realized that he didn't really blame him for it.
"Not this time anyway," he amended with a rueful smile.
Ezra's expression didn't change and Nathan sighed heavily. They really needed to talk. In his current state of mind, Ezra was a like a ticking time bomb and someone had to defuse it somehow.
"How'd you get that tape to the local cops, anyway?"
Ezra still looked wary and spoke in a carefully measured voice. "Remember when I stopped for gas? My passengers were all asleep at the time. They'd had a rather exhaustin' evenin' and had finally succumbed to fatigue. Lucas had brought the relevant video with him. I think he'd envisaged a few re-screenings during our stay at the lodge. I retrieved it and hastily scribbled a note to the Police. Then I approached the attendant and asked him to mail them to the Denver Police, quickly slippin' him $100 to provide incentive. And I promised him the same sum again if it reached them by the end of the day." He let a small smile escape. "I suppose that I will have to now ensure that he receives it."
Nathan grinned. "That'll look interestin' on your expense account."
Ezra's eyes flashed suddenly. "I will pay it out of my own pocket, if necessary."
Nathan held his hands up placatingly. "Take it easy, Ezra! I'm on your side, really!" Vin had been right. This whole business really had Ezra on edge.
Ezra looked as though he was still uncertain as to whether or not to trust him. "You've been irritated with me since the undercover phase of this operation started."
Nathan sighed. "It's not you, Ezra. It's Stewart James and his whole damn organization."
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Well, I thought that the whole point of the operation was to curtail their exploits? And besides, we have taken on similar organizations in the past. Why is this one so particularly offensive to you?"
Nathan was still hesitant but, what the hell, he'd already virtually admitted to Ezra that he had something personal against Stewart James. And maybe if he trusted Ezra with this, the wayward undercover agent just might trust him in turn.
Ezra's eyes continued to track him warily, as Nathan pulled up a chair and straddled it, his arms folded on top of the backrest with his chin resting on them. He stared at the floor for another few seconds, before heaving a heavy sigh and lifting his gaze to meet Ezra's.
"Back when my mama died, there was this old lady that used to help my daddy look after us kids. Her name was Rosie Freeman and she became almost like a second mama to me. Bout five, six years ago one of her daughters moved to Denver and Rosie came up here to be with her. She'd always been a feisty one and when she got up here, she saw how Stewart James' people kept takin' young ones from her neighbourhood and got them to work for his organization. So bein' Rosie, she spoke out about it, tried to do something to stop it. It wasn't long after that, she was found murdered. Everyone knew Stewart James had ordered it. The man even had the gall to turn up at her funeral and practically brag about it. But he also made sure that all the evidence that could tie it back to him was destroyed. The police weren't able to prove a thing."
Ezra's suspicion seemed to lift slightly and he nodded thoughtfully. "Rather characteristic of the man. He's utterly ruthless in removin' any obstacle to his designs. Not really a very endearin' character. And I rather suspect that it might be hereditary." He paused as he noticed the change in Nathan's expression. "Why are you lookin' so surprised?"
"Well, to be honest, the way you've been buddyin' around with him for the past few weeks, I was beginnin' to think you might have a sneakin' admiration for old Stewart James."
Ezra looked vaguely offended. "It might surprise you to know that there are actually very few men capable of earnin' my respect to any significant degree. And frankly none of the James clan are among them."
Nathan suddenly grinned at him, shaking his head as if in resignation. "Reckon I shouldn't be all that surprised. After all, it's pretty well known that you don't have too much respect for power and authority."
Ezra also grinned broadly, seeming to accept the offered truce. "So, does anyone else know about your personal enmity towards Mr James, Senior?"
"Just Josiah. He's known for years but he won't say anything." Suddenly, worry shadowed Nathan's face. "But if Chris'd found out, he might've asked me to sit this one out or even got another team assigned to the case. And I couldn't let either of those happen. I have to be there to see Stewart James nailed, good and proper."
Ezra could understand his concern and nodded, offering a smile to his new and unlikely co-conspirator. "It seems that we are both rather more emotionally involved with this case than the powers that be would ideally prefer. However, since my overinvolvement is rather more established in their minds than your own..."
Nathan frowned, again suspicious of the undercover agent's motives. "Blackmail, Ezra?"
Ezra looked hurt. "Not at all! I was simply appealin' to a friend and colleague in a moral dilemma similar to my own and hopin' I could count on his support."
Then Nathan was all contrition again. He was beginning to feel like an emotional yo-yo and sighed. "I'm sorry, Ezra. I guess I'm just so wound up about all this... But, I've no right to take it out on you."
Ezra sighed too. "It's alright, Nathan. Your passionate nature is really one of your major defining characteristics." His expression became tinged with a self-deprecating sadness. "It's just that sometimes, I feel as if I have been cast as Iago to your Othello. And it's a role I'm not sure I want to play any more."
A soft contralto voice cut through their discussion. "It's a role of true cunning and deviousness and he's probably the most interesting character in the play."
Ezra looked up in surprise and, although he failed to recognize the speaker, he still responded to the comment. "Iago? An interesting character perhaps, but an utterly reprehensible one."
Viv Martin entered the room and cast her appraising gaze over the figure still reclining on the couch. "So you're the notorious Agent Standish? From what I hear, cunning and deviousness are among your major defining characteristics."
Ezra instinctively smiled at the self-assured black woman. "I'm afraid you have an advantage over me, dear lady."
She offered a subdued but still exceedingly attractive smile in return "Yes, well, you were unconscious when we were introduced. I'm Vivienne Martin. I was one of the police detectives shooting at you this morning."
"Well then, I do indeed feel most fortunate to have survived the encounter."
Viv Martin raised an eyebrow at the flattery but said nothing.
"Any news about Lucas, Detective Martin?" Nathan asked, hoping that was why she had returned to the sheriff's office.
She shook her head. "The rest of my squad and your colleague are still out looking. They haven't found a trace yet. I just thought I'd come back and see if Mr Standish was fully awake yet."
Ezra was rather touched. "Well, it was most kind of you to concern yourself but..."
She cut him off. "Not concern, as such. It's just that they're all running around out there without any real clue where to look. And I thought that since you've spent so much time with him, you might have a better idea where to target."
Ezra grinned. Rather than taking offence, his admiration for this woman increased. Not only confident and attractive, but also with the intelligence and intuition to see beyond the straight lines her colleagues seemed bound by into more effective avenues of inquiry.
He glanced briefly at her hands and was slightly disappointed to see a wedding ring in place. Oh, well, it did seem too good to be true. Buck just might have made a play regardless of whatever attachments the lady may have already formed, but Ezra prided himself in being a gentleman in such matters (even if he was a rogue in many others).
And he was truly sorry that he didn't possess any special insight into pinpointing Lucas' whereabouts. (Married or not, it would have been nice to impress her.)
"I'm sorry, Detective, but Lucas is likely to be in a state of considerable panic. And at such times, he becomes almost completely unpredictable. Ideally, I would have liked them to evacuate vulnerable civilians from the immediate area, or at least set up some sort of co-ordinated police protection. Lucas' mind will be solely occupied with escaping and he won't hesitate to create whatever carnage and mayhem he deems necessary to achieve that end."
"Wonderful!" muttered Nathan, "And with the local cops just as gung-ho, looks like we might have one helluva bloodbath on our hands by the end of the day."
Viv took some exception to this evaluation of her colleagues. "Ted and the others will be perfectly professional about the whole thing."
Nathan's eyebrows went up. "Like this mornin'? Your friend, Ted, was in charge of that little fiasco, wasn't he?"
Viv's eyes flashed as she dug in to defend her partner. "Ted is an outstanding police officer. He just..."
"What? He just occasionally goes off like a loose cannon?"
Viv's expression tightened and her words became cold and hard. These people probably had no idea what it was like to bust your gut over a case and still see scum like Stewart James get away with murder. But, just like Ted had predicted, they were trying to take over the whole operation, as if they had some divine right to do so.
And she'd defend Ted to the death, anyway. He'd been the one who'd stopped her from going over the edge when her husband had died. And he and his wife still went out of their way to help her look after her son and to just keep her going from day to day. She owed both of them so much, in so many ways.
"No, Ted just has a bit of a blind spot where Stewart James and his family are concerned."
She was surprised to see Jackson and Standish exchange a look before the latter ventured, "Maybe we should consider holdin' a convention of some sort?"
"What are you talking about?" she asked, as Jackson's gaze towards his colleague became reproving.
"Just that personal animosity towards the James family is becoming highly fashionable amongst the various agencies of law enforcement in this town."
Jackson translated. "He means that if you an' your friend, Ted, have a special reason for wanting to see the James family go down, me an' Ez have got some that are even better."
"Really?" She looked at Standish. "That why you decided to play Santa Claus?"
A new (and thoroughly unamused) voice entered the conversation. "And a 'ho, ho, ho' to you too."
The man standing in the doorway wore an outfit the colour of midnight and a facial expression twice as dark.
Ezra made an attempt to lighten the atmosphere, which was obviously futile before it even began. "Greetings, Mr Larabee. Exceptionally fine weather for the time of year, is it not?"
Chris Larabee was definitely not in the mood for pleasantries. He scowled at his undercover operative and got straight to the point.
"I thought that the plan was going to be to keep an eye on Lucas and stay out of trouble, not start a major gun battle with the local cops and then lose your target."
Ezra winced. "Best laid plans of mice and men...," he offered hopefully.
Chris didnt look impressed. "You wanna tell me exactly what was going through that scheming little mind of yours?"
"Well, a murder had been committed and I was able to procure crucial evidence. It seemed perfectly reasonable to make an effort to ensure that it reached the relevant branch of law enforcement."
Viv Martin didnt bother to hide her smile. Shed heard quite a lot about the formidable Chris Larabee and, meeting him now, the man did live up to his reputation as a force to be reckoned with.
But it obviously took almost saint-like patience to deal with Ezra Standish and Viv could see Larabee struggling to keep his cool. Then he swung a narrowed-eyed gaze in her direction and obviously decided that he really didnt need an audience for this.
"Nate, would you and the detective mind checking on how the search is going?"
Vivs expression hardened. She didnt appreciate being patronized or dismissed, as if she were superfluous to the situation. She was as much a part of this case as he was, and if he thought she was going to run menial errands for him, he had another thing coming.
Larabee saw her bristle at the comment and an element of apology immediately entered his voice. "Sorry, maam, but I dont think anyone outside Team 7 should see me spilling Ezras blood on the carpet." He threw a chilling glance at his undercover operative. "It would be unprofessional."
Viv nodded, slightly mollified. She could understand the need to conduct discipline in house but, just to irritate the ATF team leader, she threw Standish a supportive grin and a muttered "Good luck!". Then she coolly led the way out with Nathan following, somewhat apprehensively.
"Well, Mr Larabee, I dont suppose youve come to liberate me from my current incarceration?" Ezra gestured vaguely around at his surroundings.
"You should count yourself damn lucky if I dont have you thrown into a jail cell. In fact, you should already be realizing how lucky you are not to be heading back to Denver in an ambulance, or even a body bag. What is it with you? Do you think I get some sort of kick out of hauling your ass out of the fire each time you pull a lame-brained stunt like this? Have you ever stopped to consider that I might be getting a bit sick of it?"
Ezras own eyes narrowed, as he stared back at his team leader. "Well, maybe you will soon be relieved of that onerous duty."
Chris blinked. "What?"
"If I resign from the ATF, my conduct and its consequences will no longer be your responsibility."
Chris stared at him, astonishment momentarily supplanting his anger. "Resign?" This was really too much and he certainly wasnt going to tolerate it. "Ezra, you are not going to resign!"
Ezras voice and eyes went cold and flat. "When I started workin for you, I didnt realize that it was a case of indentured servitude for life."
Chris seriously couldnt believe this! Here he was being forced to talk a member of his team out of quitting for the second time in the course of one day.
And, of course, first up it had been JD, who seemed to think he had to be some sort of irreproachable paladin of justice. Any small flaw and JD started thinking that he wasnt worthy of his position.
It had taken all of Chris limited counseling resources to get the kid back on track. And now it seemed that he had to do the same for Ezra, the most willful (and verbally skillful) recalcitrant in the entire team.
Who was writing the script for this? They ought to be shot!
Chris mentally took a deep breath. He had to remain calm. The tactics, which hed used on JD, wouldnt work in this case. Talking Ezra out of something was a different kettle of fish entirely. And as he continued the staring contest with his mutinous undercover agent, Chris was forced to wonder where the idea of resigning had even come from. What the hell had gotten into him? Ezra practically lived and breathed his job. What could have possibly got him thinking about resigning?
The answer came back almost immediately. Angie. Shed been placed under threat again. The mornings events had hurt her along with her guardians and Ezra had been forced to almost stand by and watch because he had been undercover at the time. So he was blaming the job.
And suddenly, Chris knew exactly how to play it. Now that he actually knew what battleground he was fighting on, he could see the tactics he needed to employ.
"So, whaddya going to do? Stand over her 24 hours a day and threaten to shoot anyone who even looks at her the wrong way?"
Now it was Ezras turn to be shocked into monosyllabic responses. "What?"
"Angie. Thats what this is all about, isnt it? Your little emotional haven has been threatened. And now you think that if you resign, you might be able to do something to protect it."
"You dont understand..." This perspicacious verbal assault had Ezra definitely on the back foot, already resorting to such floundering responses.
Chris moved in for the kill. "What dont I understand? What its like to have one part of your life that you can turn to, to escape all the harsh realities of this job? And you think I cant imagine the complete desolation youd feel if that was savagely ripped away from you?"
And for at least one time in his life, Ezra Standish was at a complete loss for words. He finally broke eye contact with his boss and dropped his gaze to the hands folded in his lap, as he tried to regroup his thoughts.
While he mourned the passing of his friend, Dennis Potter, he knew that hed never experienced anything as devastating as Chris Larabees loss of his wife and child. That level of emotional pain, which had almost destroyed the seemingly indestructible man in front of him, that he found difficult to even comprehend.
But this was as much about potential loss as actual loss. If anything ever took Angie away from him, he didnt know what hed do. He couldnt imagine getting through each day anymore, without knowing that she was alive and safe, somewhere in the world. He would do almost anything for her, protect her at all costs.
Somehow he knew that, for him, losing Angie would be equivalent to what Chris had gone through when his family had been killed. He wasnt sure if he could find the same strength that Chris had, to overcome such a soul-destroying loss. He didnt know if he had it in him. And, frankly, he didnt want to find out.
It wasnt as though he really wanted to resign from Team 7 and the ATF. The past three years had been the most enjoyable and fulfilling of his entire life. He knew that he seldom showed it (he had never been an overly demonstrative person) but he intensely valued the camaraderie of his teammates. Chris Larabee was the only supervisor, in fact virtually the only authority figure, that he had ever had a significant degree of respect for. And he knew that within this team, he too had the respect of his colleagues. Hell, he knew that each and every one of them would unhesitatingly back him as the best undercover agent around.
But what were professional pride, job satisfaction or even the unique esprit de corps he shared with his teammates, compared to the welfare of that one little girl?
Again Chris disconcertingly tapped into his thoughts.
"Ez, the best way to protect her is to keep doing your job. The whole point of what we do is to make sure there is some sort of control over the weapons that come into this country and this city."
"Yet we couldnt stop a blood-thirsty Neanderthal like Lucas James acquirin one."
"No, we couldnt. This is an ongoing war, Ez. Were not going to win every battle. Doesnt mean that we can afford to stop fighting."
Ezra abandoned all pretence of equanimity. He wanted answers now and, as both God and Fate were currently unavailable for comment, he was perfectly prepared to demand them of Chris Larabee.
"Why? Whats the point of it all? People shoot and kill each other every damn day in this country. And not just criminals. Hell, kids arent even safe goin to high school! Look at what happened at Littleton! What makes a teenager, with their whole damn life ahead of them, commit such an unspeakable act? And what sort of system puts an automatic firearm in their hands?"
Chris kept his voice even. "I dunno, Ez. Lord knows, the world aint perfect but at least it seems to be getting a bit better as the years go by. Hell, just a few generations back, half the towns around here were probably completely lawless. People could just get attacked and murdered and there was virtually no hope of any justice at all. Weve come a long way, even if there is still a lot further to go. Itd be nice if the killing would just stop on its own but that aint gonna happen in our lifetime. We have to keep fighting. If you quit now, itll just mean one less of the good guys out there."
Ezra was again gazing at his hands and Chris took encouragement from that. It was a sign that the undercover agent was giving full consideration to his words, and Chris was loathe to tamper with that process. Ez was a clever guy but he was also an obstinate pain in the butt. Hed work it all out for himself and any more pushing would probably just propel him into a rash decision.
But after another minute and a half of silence, Chris risked another comment. "Besides, if you quit, youd be bored senseless. I mean, where would you find another job as interesting as this one?"
Ezra had to smile. Now, that was a valid consideration. It was indeed highly unlikely that he would ever find another occupation that would allow him to partake of such varied experiences, from flirting with royalty (may she rest in peace) to being detained by the FBI on suspicion of being a serial killer.
He didnt really want to resign. He wanted to make Lucas James pay for what hed done. And he wanted to keep working to ensure that others like Lucas didnt go unchecked.
"Interesting almost invariably correlates with difficult. I dont suppose I could negotiate a pay rise?"
Chris suppressed his own smile. "I wasnt kidding about throwing you into that jail cell, Ezra."
Suddenly, Nathan reappeared in the doorway, slightly breathless. "They found him."
Ezra was instantly on his feet, "Where?"
"Turned up at some cabin in Charlottes Park, halfway between Grand Lake an Granby. Vin says they got him pinned down but..."
"But what?" Chris demanded. Ezra already feared the worst.
"Seems hes taken a woman and her three kids hostage."
Ezra briefly closed his eyes. "Oh, God," he whispered, almost to himself.
"Anyone been hurt?" Chris wanted to know and Ezra mentally kicked himself for not having considered that possibility. Especially, when he heard the reply.
"Seems Vin took what he calls a little graze to the right leg. He said not to worry about it but yknow he always says that. And I could hear Buck, somewhere in the background."
Ezra blinked. "When did Buck arrive?"
Chris shrugged. "He was a bit ahead of us, heading out of Denver. He cant have been there long and Josiah and JD probably havent even got there yet."
"So the gangs all here?"
"Oh, yeah. Why? Did you think this was your own private party? You just rest here and get your breath back. The rest of us will handle it."
"Dont be stupid, Chris! You have to take me with you."
Chris was implacable. "I dont think so. Youve already been a bad boy today. You can either cool your heels here for a while longer or Ill find someone to drive you back to Denver."
"But youll need me! I know his ways and that makes me the most qualified at predictin what hes going to do."
"No way, Ezra. I think the rest of us have a pretty good idea of what hes planning anyway."
"Chris, he knows me, even likes me. You try goin in there and people are goin to get killed. If you let me go in, I can get that family out of there, I swear to you."
"Not on the grave of your sainted mother again! Ive met her, remember?." Then the ATF leader allowed himself a small sigh, trying for patience. "Ez, he dumped you to escape from the cops. What makes you think hell trust you now?"
Ezra channeled every effort into producing his most earnest expression. "Chris, I can sell this! Just lend me your phone."
Chris wavered. They did need something, a sort of ace in the hole, if they were going to take Lucas down without sacrificing more innocent lives. But he just couldnt trust Ezra to remain professionally composed, at the moment. Still, he had to listen to what the undercover agent had planned. It might be their only way of resolving this without further bloodshed.
"No, well use the sheriffs undercover phone line, in case theyve got caller ID. Its also got a speaker and I wanna make sure Im able to listen in." Larabees eyes hardened. "And I swear, Ezra, if you try anything stupid, Ill shoot you myself."
Ezra allowed a faint smile of victory to touch his lips. "Understood."
Chris nodded dourly and gestured for Ezra to lead the way out. And he continued to scrutinize the undercover agent for any signs of suicidal recklessness.
Ezras slight smile became a fully-fledged brazen grin, as he dialed Lucas mobile phone from the sheriffs undercover line. Obviously he was getting cocky again, but Chris still wasnt entirely sure if that was a good or bad sign.
A gruff, angry voice projected from the speaker. "Yeah? Whos there?"
Ezras reply was pure cool civility. "Lucas, my dear friend, you so discourteously left me behind."
Lucas James was obviously shocked. "Colonel! How the hell did ya get out of there?"
"Well, lets just say that I exaggerated the injuries inflicted upon me. They tend to be much less vigilant with prisoners which they believe to be incapacitated."
Lucas laughed, his relief at being contacted by a supposed ally was obvious. "Always said ya were a cunning fox. Listen, Im trapped in a cabin..."
"At Charlottes Park. Yes, I managed to briefly get access to a police radio and I think I may have found a way to resolve your current predicament."
"I cant discuss it now. This phoneline might not be secure and furthermore, the proposed method of decampment may take a short while to set up. Youd best sit tight. Ill be able to have you out of there in the next hour or two but, in the meantime, you must ensure that you dont do anythin to inspire any jitters in those cops outside. Ill call again when its all in place."
"Okay, but remember, if ya screw this up, my uncle will have your head." And with that the line went dead.
Ezra suddenly looked pensive again and finally Chris smiled. If Ezra was worried, then the plan probably wasnt suicidal. Close to it perhaps, but not full on kamikaze.
"Dont worry too much about it, Ez. If you screw it up, youll answer to me first and I wont leave any pieces big enough for Stewart James to even get his hands on."
Ezra managed a faint smile again. "Thank you, Mr Larabee. Thats most reassurin. Now to coax our target out of his hidin place, we will have to make the possibility of escape seem plausible to him. I dont suppose we could scrounge up some sort of incendiary devices?"
Chris rolled his eyes. He had a feeling that he was going to regret this.