It was one o'clock in the morning according to the illuminated clock on the
nightstand. Vin looked at the fuzzy numbers as he listened to the annoying
ring of his phone next to the clock. He clumsily grabbed the hand set
and brought it to his ear, falling back into his pillow.
"Yeah," he growled, the Texas drawl lost somewhere in his raspy throat.
A smooth southern drawl caused him to sit up on his elbow.
"Ezra, what the hell you calling me at this hour for?"
"Mr. Tanner, I require your help and discretion in a very delicate matter."
Vin's brow furrowed and he stifled a yawn. The solitary man had to
be in real trouble if he was calling anyone for help. Vin ran his hand
down his gaunt face; sleep quickly deserting him as he listened to the southern
agent on the other end.
"I'll be right down," Vin replied and hung up the phone.
Vin and Ezra exited the Denver County Jail and walked across the street to
where Vin had parked his jeep in a no parking zone. The red blinking
traffic lights reflecting off the wet pavement. Vin cast a sideways
glance at the suave undercover agent noticing the muscles flex in his jaw,
like he was grinding his teeth.
"You want to tell me about it?" Vin asked, shoving his hands deep into his
pockets. His fingers wrapped around his keys but did not pull them
"Not especially," Ezra replied, keeping his voice even.
Vin stopped at his car and looked over the hood at Ezra, who was refusing
to meet his eyes. He did not intend to go anywhere until he got some
kind of explanation. "Well, the way I figure, since I dragged my butt
out here in the middle of the night to bail your ass out of jail, I deserve
an explanation!" Vin was not in the mood for Ezra's elusive behavior.
This was serious, the man was being charged with assault and battery, a
felony. He could lose his job, and end up doing time, or worse, Chris
would kill him.
Ezra regarded the slightly perturbed sharpshooter through suspicious eyes.
Vin was a friend; he did owe him an explanation. Vin was the only one
he thought he could trust enough to call, and not lecture him or try and
delve into his psyche. He stared down at the beat up red jeep, tracing
his finger along the large dent, which ran down the right side. He
smiled faintly, remembering the origin of the damage. The famous ATF
team was having a barbecue at Larabee's ranch when Buck decided to jump one
of Chris' horses over the jeep. It had been Ezra's first time up to
the ranch. It had taken him awhile to get comfortable, but after several
of JD's bad jokes, and some good food he found himself enjoying the company
of the other men. He shivered slightly as a damp breeze cut through
the light shirt he was wearing, which had a rip on one sleeve.
Vin saw the makings of a slight bruise on the southerner's cheek, but it
appeared that Ezra gave more than he took. Vin folded his arms across
his chest, informing the reticent jail bird he wasn't moving until he got
some kind of explanation.
A car went by, the hiss of tires on wet pavement breaking the silence between
the two men. Ezra exhaled and ran his fingers through his damp hair
creating long furrows through the dark strands. "My neighbor was beating
his son, and I intervened," he simply stated.
Vin cocked his head and cast a skeptical glance at his friend. Ezra
appeared pale under the glare of the street light and there was something
else, something he'd never seen before on the undercover agent's visage...fear.
"That's it." Vin prompted. He knew there was more. Nothing was
simple when it came to any member of Team 7. They all had the ability
of complicating the most simple of situations.
"Well, apparently the police thought I was a little excessive in my
intervention," Ezra quietly drawled out, a faint smile tickled his lips.
Vin shook his head and grinned. "Let's go." He climbed into the
driver's seat and waited for Ezra to get in.
Vin pulled up to Ezra's apartment; neither man had said a word during the
drive from the police station. Vin occasionally glanced over to see
Ezra staring out the passenger window, a dark scowl marring his handsome
face. He grabbed the southerner's arm before he could make a hasty
retreat. He knew it was still hard for Ezra to trust. He had
only recently joined the team and still felt the outsider.
"You know Ez, you got friends now who care," Vin reminded.
Chagrin flickered over Ezra's face. He nodded and gently pulled out
of Vin's grasp. Vin watched as the enigmatic agent made his way to
Ezra released the breath he had been holding since leaving the police
station. He felt numb, moving perfunctory through the small two-bedroom
apartment. He poured himself a drink and fell heavily into the overstuffed
leather chair. He stared past the blank screen of the TV and out the
large front window into the early morning darkness. In a couple hours
the sky would begin to turn gray with the coming dawn. He took a long
drawl on his drink then stared at it, trying to remember when he had made
it. He hoped to relieve some of the nervous fear that now tied his
stomach in knots and seemed to be pulling him down into a morass of
despair. He was trying to keep his mind blank, but a door had been
unlocked, one that he thought had been shut for good eighteen years ago.
He released another quivering breath. He knew he should try and get
some sleep, but he also knew what demons were waiting in the dark recesses
of his mind to invade his dreams. He stretched out his legs; it had
been a long time since he'd watched a sunrise.
The seventh floor of the nine-story government building came alive with a
flurry of boisterous activity as Buck and JD entered, followed by the more
calming influence of Nathan and Josiah. The four agents headed for
the break area for their intake of fructose and caffeine. Josiah almost
gave himself whiplash as he passed by Ezra's cubicle. Nathan stopped
alongside the huge agent. The two men gaped at the form bent over his
desk, his head lying on his arms.
Josiah placed a huge hand on Ezra's shoulder and shook him gently.
Ezra shot up, the hand on his shoulder the only thing keeping him in his
seat. Josiah could tell that Ezra didn't know where he was for a moment,
and he saw something else in those wild green eyes, the same thing Vin saw
"Ezra, what are you doing here-" Nathan looked at his watch then finished,
Ezra wiped a hand down his face trying to remove any residual of sleep from
his face. "I...I couldn't sleep, so I thought I'd use the rare silence
to get some paper work done."
"A little insomnia? I can give you something," Nathan said with sudden
concern. He had noticed the blood-shot green eyes.
"Not necessary Mr. Jackson, I'm sure it's only a temporary condition."
Ezra stretched and pushed himself away from his desk. "I believe now
I need something to keep me awake," he lightly joked. Josiah and Nate
followed the undercover man toward the break area. The elevator bell
sounded to announce the arrival of the last two men of their illustrious
team. Vin caught a glimpse of Ezra as he stepped out of the
elevator; surprised to see he made it to work on time. Vin hadn't
told Chris what had occurred last night and hoped that Ezra would.
A couple hours into the workday, the sound of Larabee's voice rose above
the knot of cubicles.
"DAMNIT! EZRA, GET YOUR ASS IN HERE!"
Everyone tensed, feeling the infamous rage from their stalwart leader.
The open floor allowed the booming voice to broadcast without hindrance.
Ezra hung his head and slowly rose from his desk. He walked down the
aisle toward Chris's office, feeling like he was marching to his own
execution. Everyone stuck their heads out of their cubicles, wondering
what the smooth-talking undercover had done to elicit Larabee's wrath.
Vin had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, and slowly rose from
his own desk. Somehow, Chris had found out.
Ezra stepped into Chris's office and stopped in the middle of the room.
His hands behind his back, hiding his slight nervousness. Chris sat
back in his chair; his arms folded across his chest. His icy gaze trying
to burn a hole through the agent, who stood silently in the center of his
office. Ezra had secured a smug attitude for the occasion. Larabee
held his volatile emotions just below the surface; whereas, Ezra's were buried
a little deeper and required a little digging to bring them to the surface.
"What the hell is this?" Chris asked, trying to hold his temper in check.
He held up a manila folder almost bending it in half in his grasp.
"I just received a report from Denver County Detention informing me that
one of my agents was arrested last night and is being charged with assault
"It is nothing I can't handle," Ezra calmly replied, knowing this response
would not appease the furious man sitting behind the desk.
Chris glared at the southerner, wondering if he could make the man squirm.
He softened as he looked at Ezra's appearance. The undercover agent
looked tired. Dark circles marred his handsome face, but this was the
only deviation from his normal impassive mask.
"Who bailed you out?"
"No one I..." Ezra began.
"I did," came the admitting drawl from the doorway. Chris looked over
to see his best friend leaning against the door frame. He wasn't sure
if he should be furious that Vin hadn't told him, or glad that the Ezra had
called someone. It showed that he was becoming more a part of their
family. Now he had to try and keep the obstinate agent part of the
Chris threw the folder down on his desk and rose from his chair. Three
long strides brought him standing in front of the smaller agent. He
stood for a moment allowing his height to intimidate, and then leaned back
to rest a cheek on the corner of his desk. His hands grasped the edge
of the wooden desk. He glared at Vin then turned his angry eyes back
on Ezra. He thought he detected a slight flinch.
"You know there are people here that are itching for a reason to kick your
insubordinate ass off this team, and what do you do-give them one on a silver
platter!" Chris was trying to keep his voice calm and under control,
without much success. When it came to Ezra, it took everything he had
to keep from throwing the headstrong agent out the window.
Chris's initial anger started to abate. He needed to think.
He was not going to allow anyone on his team to be fired, unless he did the
Vin stepped forward. "Isn't there anything we can do?" he asked, ignoring
Ezra's look of disbelief.
Chris caught the surprise in Ezra's face. The man still had trouble
believing he was a part of the team and they were willing to help.
"Let me talk with the Judge and see where we stand on this." Chris went back
around his desk and sat down. A quirky half-smile came to his rugged
face. "Was it necessary to beat the guy into intensive care?"
"That wasn't the plan, things just seemed to get out of hand," Ezra replied,
the smug grin faltering slightly. He wasn't about to tell Chris or
anyone else that if the police hadn't arrived when they did he probably would
have killed the man. He hardly remembered what happened. When
he heard the screams of the boy next door, a surreal rage took over; nothing
was real until he felt the hands of two officers dragging him away.
"You're dismissed agent," Chris said, noticing the bemused stare in Ezra's
Ezra nodded and walked out. He smiled as he walked past Vin; grateful
the man hadn't taken it upon himself to inform Chris. He was not use
to someone standing up for him; usually someone was stabbing him in the back.
"Sorry I didn't tell ya cowboy, didn't think it was my place," Vin sheepishly
explained. He stepped up and sat on the corner of the desk. He
picked up a paperweight, which held a rose forever in bloom within its plastic
glass. He suspected the paperweight was something his wife had owned,
Chris didn't seem the floral type.
Chris looked up, the anger having left his blue eyes. "I'm just glad he called
somebody," he admitted. Ezra had a tendency to keep to himself and
not trust others, something the other members of his team were trying to
change. They were a special team of unique individuals. Unlike most,
they were almost as close as family, each of them willing to give their life
for the others. It took Ezra awhile to realize and understand this.
Josiah Sanchez was fond of constantly reminding them that they were seven
men brought together to share one destiny.
"Is he in a lot of trouble?" Vin asked, running his hand over the smooth
Chris took a deep breath and released it. "I don't know." He
noticed the troubled look on the sharpshooter's face. It was easy to
spot on the normally emotionless visage. Vin and Ezra both shared a
similar capability of hiding their true selves behind a mask of nonchalance,
but Chris could read Vin. The two men had known each other only a little
over six months, but they had a sixth sense for each other, almost as if
they were separated at birth. A silent communication existed between
the subtly different men.
Chris didn't think the charges against Ezra were what was bothering the
sharpshooter. They had all had their share of run-ins with the law
in the past and would probably have them in the future as well.
"Something else troubling you?" he ventured to asked his discerning friend
Vin rubbed the back of his neck and set the paperweight back down on the
desk. "I don't know, it's just a feeling I got. The way Ezra
looked when I picked him up at the jail." Vin glanced out the window
seeming to search the gray sky for the words to make concrete his
thoughts. "He had this look about him that I'd never seen before."
Chris leaned back in his chair and templed his fingers in front of his face
and sighed. He had learned to trust Vin's instincts. The man
had an uncanny ability to see things that others missed.
"What'cha think?" Chris prompted, trying to get his friend to elaborate.
"That's just it I have no idea. I just don't know Ezra well enough
to even make a guess," Vin explained. He had a hard time reading the
suave undercover. Ezra was practiced at hiding his feelings; it was
part of his job and a big part of his life. He had been taught to hide
his feelings almost since birth. You never knew what was going on behind
Ezra's carefree guise, one he reserved for family as well as friends.
The man could be dying of some incurable disease and no one would suspect
"We'll keep an eye on him for a few days," Chris replied, concern knitting
his brows together. He had the best team west of the Mississippi and
Ezra was partially responsible for that. His undercover work was second
to none, and Chris had to admit the fastidious southerner had a way of growing
on a person. Even though between the risks that Vin and Ezra took,
Chris thought he'd eventually have a heart attack or shoot one of them.
Ezra stayed at the office long after the others had left, again making the
excuse of paper work to catch up on. Only Nathan and Vin glanced at
him suspiciously as they left. Nathan, mostly due to his physical
deterioration, Ezra looked run-down. His normally sharp appearance
now appeared dull and lifeless.
Ezra did not want to go home, but he didn't want company either. He
had barely slept two hours last night, and knew he couldn't keep this up
for long. By ten o'clock, he had made his way home and was again sitting
in the overstuffed chair staring out at the night sky. Memories flew
through his head; memories he tried to keep in the realm of mist, that fuzzy
part of the brain that kept things just out of reach so they couldn't be
examined or felt.
The next morning Buck was the one to pass by Ezra's partitioned work area
to find the agent asleep at his desk. He liked the suave undercover,
but they were of different life styles and backgrounds. He hadn't trusted
the man at first, especially after he ran out on them during there first
mission together. Since then, the undercover had proved himself invaluable
on numerous occasions. Ezra went through life seemingly calculating
the odds and expecting some type of deception. 'Everything came with
a price' was probably the undercover agent's motto. Buck grabbed life
like he was riding a bronco and just hung on for the ride, not trying to
examine anything to closely.
He gently shook the sleeping undercover, who again jumped out of his
chair. For a moment, Ezra didn't know where he was. His eyes
darted wildly, and his heart raced. Buck's high brow furrowed, and
he stepped back when he looked into those haunted green eyes. The look
disappeared quickly, replaced with Ezra's usual cool exterior. Buck
frowned at how haggard the undercover agent appeared under the harsh florescent
"Mr. Wilmington, do you take pleasure in sneaking up on individuals?"
Ezra slowly sat back down at his desk, rubbing his eyes.
"No," Buck quietly answered still staring at the undercover agent.
Buck might not be as perceptive as Vin, but the look he saw in Ezra's eyes
disturbed him. He had seen that look before.
"Are you alright, Ez?"
There it was again, concern. Ezra still didn't know how to deal with
it. His mother never showed him love much less any regard in his well
"I'm fine." Was the pat reply as he struck a key on the computer, bringing
up an earlier report. Buck knew he was being dismissed, he nodded and
Ezra was barely able to make it through the day. He mostly stayed harbored
in his office, trying to lose himself in his work. He had a hard time
concentrating and ended up re-doing a report after having deleted it.
Everyone was made aware of his sudden volatile personality, with the sound
of shattered glass. Vin, Buck, JD and Josiah all rushed into the break
area, moving aside as Ezra rushed past. They looked on the floor where
the remains of an empty coffeepot lay shattered on the other side of the
room from where it should be.
"Damn, I just bought that," JD glibly remarked.
When Vin entered the office area the next morning and saw Ezra at his desk
again, he picked up the phone and dialed security. He spoke for a
minute. His brow creased as he listened, and then he slowly replaced
the handset. Vin stared worriedly at the undercover agent, who was
rubbing his temples, and looked like something you'd find balled up in the
corner of Buck and JD's apartment.
Chris appeared in Ezra's doorway. The normally astute agent was not
even aware of the ATF leader's presence. The blond leader took in his
agent's rumpled appearance. Faint dark circles underscored dull green
eyes, and emphasized the apprehension that filled every fiber of Ezra's
"Ezra," he quietly called as if trying not to startle a skittish horse.
Ezra still flinched slightly at the sound nonetheless. "Yes, Mr. Larabee."
"I need to see you in my office." Chris turned away before Ezra could
see the concern that marred the usually sober visage.
He pushed himself away from his computer, which was flashing random geometric
shapes across the screen. Ezra followed the esteemed leader into his
office. He nodded politely toward the dark-haired woman, who sat on
the long, leather sofa. She was probably no more than ten years older
than him, but the beauty she once held had been drained away, making her
appear older. Although her smile did a lot to erase the years from
Chris strode purposely behind his desk and sat down. "Ezra, this is
Mrs. Flemming," he introduced, gesturing toward the woman. "She is the mother
of the boy you saved from that beating," Chris continued.
"Mr. Standish, I wanted to thank you personally for saving my boy," Mrs.
Flemming explained. "Not many people nowadays would do what you did."
"It was my pleasure, ma'am," Ezra replied with the slight hint of a smile.
It had been. He had thoroughly enjoyed beating the man even though
at the time he thought he was beating his uncle.
"I'm divorced and my husband and I had joint custody of Jordan. Judge
Travis helped me get sole custody."
Ezra turned to look at Chris knowing he had a part in it.
"The Judge was going to charge Mr. Flemming with child abuse," Chris added.
"Was?" Ezra's interest was piqued.
A sly smile came to Chris's stoic face. "He told Mr. Flemming he would
drop the charges if he gave sole custody to Mrs. Flemming and dropped the
charges against you."
Ezra's face shifted with understanding. He was surprised that the esteemed
DA would do that for him. Some of the weariness left his face as a
burdensome weight lifted from his shoulders. He never regretted what
he did, but he had no desire to spend time in jail or lose his job.
Mrs. Flemming stood and gently touched Ezra's arm. Chris frowned when
he saw him jerk away. Mrs. Flemming didn't seem to notice or ignored
it. "I'm taking Jordan to Nevada. We're going to stay with my
family for awhile. I just wanted to thank you, none of this would have
been possible if it hadn't been for you and Mr. Larabee." She flashed
a grateful smile at Chris.
"I'm glad everything worked out," Ezra graciously replied. Mrs. Flemming
nodded and walked out the door.
Ezra fell heavily into the sofa then glanced appreciatively up at Chris.
He was to bone-tired to play his normal beguiling games. "I suppose
I have you to thank for pulling my insubordinate ass out of the fire."
"Let's just say, you owe me one," Chris good-naturedly smirked. Ezra
laid his head back on the couch and closed his eyes. The smile left
Chris's face as he stared at his agent. Vin was right, there was something
more bothering the smooth-talking agent.
"Is there anything else I should know about?" Chris asked.
It was a moment before the undercover agent opened his eyes to meet Chris's
worried gaze. Ezra shifted uncomfortably.
Chris shook his head, knowing the designing agent wouldn't be forthcoming
with any information.
The rest of the day was relatively peaceful. There was talk of a new
mission coming down the pike soon, which caused their youngest member to
start bouncing off the walls with excitement. JD was always eager,
but when an operation was underway he was down right irritating with his
Josiah entered the break room, noticing Ezra getting his fourth cup of coffee
in little less than two hours. He was worried about the younger man;
being a close knit unit they all had noticed Ezra's abnormal behavior
The undercover agent didn't seem aware that he was even being scrutinized.
Vin and Nathan quietly entered, stopping when they saw what Josiah was about
to do. The large agent placed his hand on Ezra's shoulder unprepared
for the reaction that this initiated. Ezra abruptly turned and threw
himself away like he'd just been burned. The contents of his coffee
cup adding to the collection of stains already on the dingy linoleum
floor. Vin caught a glimpse of terror in those green eyes. Ezra
shook uncontrollably for a moment then sharply mumbled an excuse and walked
out, leaving three dumbfounded agents in his wake.
"What the hell was that all about?" Josiah exclaimed after the shock wore
off. Nathan grabbed a rag and began mopping up the spilled coffee as
Vin threw away pieces of the shattered cup. No one knew what to say
about what had just taken place. Josiah peered out the doorway watching
as Ezra walked stiffly back to his office.
Ezra woke; choking back the scream that came from the depth of a nightmare
he wished would fade away. His body was bathed in sweat as he sat up
in bed and glanced at the clock. The nightmare was vivid, taking him
back to a time he thought he had long buried. He placed his face into
his hands waiting for the residual fear to abate. He knew he wouldn't
be able to go to back to sleep.
The dream took him back to when he was a child. His mother left him
at an uncle's for six months while she traveled overseas with her newly acquired
husband. The dream always started the same, with his uncle's intimidating
mass hovering over him then a crack across the back. The older man
would laugh and grab him up by the arm, dragging him toward the back room.
Even in the dream he could smell the whiskey on his uncle's breath and as
it seeped out his pores. He would feel his uncle's huge callous hands
pulling at his clothes. The hungry leer on his uncle's face caused
the bile to rise up his throat. Ezra would close his eyes and try to
force himself somewhere else, anywhere. Then he would feel the sweaty
weight on top of him and would choke back the scream. He could hear
his aunt and cousins in the other room; oblivious or indifferent to what
was going on right in there own house. It usually ended with his uncle
collapsing on top of him in a drunken stupor. He wasn't sure if his
uncle ever remembered the molestation. Ezra thought he did, since he
had caught him numerous times staring at him in a way that sent shivers up
Ezra threw his legs over the side of the bed and headed for the shower.
He stood under the scalding water, which hid the hot tears that streamed
down his face.
JD noticed that Buck seemed to be taking up espionage. He caught the
affable agent stealthily watching Ezra several times during the day.
During one of these clandestine operations JD came up behind his friend and
laid a hand on his shoulder causing the larger man to jump. "Lord,
JD, don't do that!"
"What are you doing?" JD asked, looking over to where Ezra was staring
at copies that were spitting out of the printer. He had hardly said
two words to anyone all day. JD had even tried to get him into a
conversation without success.
"Something's wrong with Ez," Buck simply stated to his curious roommate.
"He should be fine now that the charges against him were dropped," JD reminded
him. They had all been made aware of what had happened and were glad
things had worked out.
"It's not that, it's something else," Buck tried to explain to his young
friend. He took a deep breath then threw an arm across JD's
shoulders. "C'mon we'll be late for the meeting."
Everyone slowly made their way into the conference room picking up their
individual folders, which sat on the table. Chris sauntered in moments
later; his steely gaze passing over each of his six agents. His discerning
blue eyes lingered longer than usual on his undercover agent.
"Okay ladies, we have a mission coming up," he began. "I need you all to
read up on the case file and give me your input by close of business tomorrow."
He again looked at each of his agents. He noticed Vin and Nathan
glancing anxiously at Ezra. "It's a pretty routine mission, but I don't
want any surprises," he continued.
After the meeting Chris returned to his office with Nathan right on his heels.
"Chris, we need to talk," the ex-medic said as he entered Chris's office.
He looked over his shoulder, seeing Ezra head for the break room, probably
for another cup of coffee.
Chris frowned at the seriousness in the ex-medic's face. "What's wrong,
"Now, I know I'm only the unofficial medical officer here, but I feel it's
my duty to say this." Nathan paused a moment, trying to gather his
thoughts and hoped that he didn't sound out of line. "I don't think
Ezra is up for this mission," he finally blurted out.
Chris leaned back into his chair and stared at the steadfast agent. Everyone
owed their lives to Nathan at least once. He was not a man who made
arbitrary observations. "Maybe it's burnout or that altercation with
that neighbor or something else, either way he's not even close to being
up to par," Nathan continued, relieved to see the concern in Chris's eyes.
Chris trusted Nathan's instincts. He had also been worried about the
way Ezra had been acting the past few days.
"I'm with Nathan," Vin casually replied from the doorway as he stepped in,
followed closely by Buck, who quietly closed the door.
Chris stared at his three agents who stood before him. When had they
started watching out for the roguish seventh man?
"I don't think he's sleeping or eating much," Nathan added. "And he
seems distracted. Something that could get him killed while undercover."
"I talked to security," Vin stated. "You know Ezra's been coming in early,
saying he's got paper work to catch up on. The night guard says he's
been coming in here at three in the morning for the last three nights."
This caused everyone's mouth to drop. Chris audibly exhaled and leaned
back in his chair, not hiding the shock on his face. He had no idea
things were that bad.
"What do you think the problem is?" Chris asked, looking at each of
his three teammates and friends. He noticed that Buck hadn't said a
word, but appeared deep in thought.
"I don't know for sure, but it all started after that altercation with that
neighbor," Vin replied.
"Have you all seen the way he looks?" Buck absently queried, staring down
at the tan carpet. "And I just don't mean his physical appearance,
it's more than that." Buck raised his eyes, meeting the confused
expressions regarding him intently. Buck rolled his eyes, realizing
he would have to explain. "You know the look Chris; you use to see
it every day in the mirror ten years ago." He saw the knowing come
to his friend's blue eyes.