Synopsis: Vin is kidnapped by the men Ezra is working undercover to arrest.
Note: Written for Carole with wishes for a wonderful birthday and many happy returns
Ezra stifled a sigh and surreptitiously checked his watch. For ten solid minutes now Emory Harding, weapons dealer and the undercover operative's current employer, had been spouting bile about the evils of law enforcement in general and the ATF in particular. Ezra repeatedly nodded as if in agreement with the tirade, all the while struggling not to yawn in the man's face.
Three months of steady work in the guise of bookkeeper/bodyguard James Dillon had allowed him to work his way into Harding's good graces and Ezra prayed that it would soon pay off. He found the man's career and character both to be loathsome, typical of the cretins he was required to get close to in his line of work, but this one also happened to also be a complete and total bore.
The sharp whine of Harding's voice had long since faded to background noise when Ezra's attention was sharply refocused by one word. "Larabee?" he repeated, doing his best to sound curious but not overtly interested. "Who's that?"
It was a risky question. Harding didn't like his underlings to be too smart or inquisitive, so Ezra had been very careful to play the role of a muscle headed tough-guy who just happened to be very good with numbers. Pretending not to know who Chris Larabee was might be pushing it, however. Much to his own occasional disgust, Chris had become quite well known in both law enforcement and criminal circles over the last several years.
Fortunately, Harding was too caught up in his monologue to notice anything strange in the question. "He's the leader of one of the best ATF teams in the country," he spat, giving Ezra a private feeling of satisfaction. "Bastard has ruined scores for me half a dozen times and I want to get rid of him before it happens again. I've got too much time and effort invested in this deal to let him and his men get in my way again."
Ezra blinked stupidly at him. "That mean we're gonna kill him?"
Harding smiled and patted him on the shoulder. "We're going to do something even better than that, Jimmy m'boy. We're going to crush him."
Trying not to sound too eager for information, Ezra pressed, "How we going to do that, boss?"
The man smiled even more widely. "You'll see. I've already sent Riggs and Marley to take care of phase one. If they do their job, we should see results very soon. Larabee's little band of do-gooders is going to be far too distracted to notice a buy going down at 4th and Grand this Friday morning."
He laughed and Ezra forced himself to join in even though he felt as if he were going to be sick, realizing that he had just been given the place and time he had been waiting on, but that it might not matter. Chris was in some sort of danger and whatever was going down, it was already too late to warn anyone.
"Why we goin' this way?" JD demanded petulantly, trailing a step behind Vin as the older boy hurried away from the classroom buildings and headed toward the side parking lot.
Grabbing his hand, Vin pulled his foster brother along as he picked up his pace. "Cause Chris called the school and said he'd pick us up in the visitor lot and to hurry 'cause he had to get back to the office."
"But Chris always picks us up out front when we don't ride the bus."
Vin slowed down for a moment, realizing that he was right. Then he shrugged and hurried on again. "I dunno, he must have a reason. I'm just telling you what the teacher told me. The Principal's office called down to our classroom and that's what they said."
"How come Mr. B didn't walk you down then?" JD argued. "He knows that Da and Chris don't like us to be out of sight without grownups."
He shrugged. "We had a substitute teacher today. Maybe nobody told her."
"You promise we're not gonna get in trouble if we do this?" the smaller boy demanded, dragging his heels even more.
"I promise," Vin replied, exasperated. "If Chris gets mad that nobody walked us down, I'll 'splain. You can just tell him and Buck that I made you go with me."
Satisfied with this, JD finally quit hanging back and instead burst into a sprint, which Vin happily matched.
Nathan and Josiah exchanged looks of concern as first Chris and then Buck's phones began ringing and both of them reacted with stunned expressions to whatever news was coming from the receivers.
"What's going on?" Nathan demanded. Assuming that Buck would not have received a call if the problem had to do with Ezra, who was presently undercover, his first thought was for his adoptive nephews. "Has something happened to JD and Vin?"
Ignoring the questions, each of the men continued their phone conversations in terse increasingly agitated tones. Buck momentarily sagged with what looked like relief but then he immediately tensed again, fixing on Chris with an expression of devastation. "We'll be there as soon as we can," he said tightly. "Thanks for calling, Reg."
Josiah's light eyebrows hitched. The only Reg he knew was Regina Dobbs, the front desk receptionist at Vin and JD's school. Buck had been dating her off and on for the last several months.
Chris hung up his call but said nothing, simply dropping his face into his hands as Buck also disconnected and stood to place a comforting squeeze on his shoulder. Anxiously, Josiah repeated Nathan's question. "What's going on?"
Grimly, Buck informed them, "Vin has been kidnapped." Nodding in understanding as they both gasped in horror, he added, "Right outside the school by two men in an SUV. JD saw it all."
"So does that mean they didn't get JD?" Nathan reiterated, suddenly understanding both Buck's relief and Chris' anguish.
"No," he said, swallowing hard against the roughly choked word. "I don't know the whole story yet, but we need to go over right away. Regina said they've got the school counselor with JD at the principal's office. The cops have been called and they're going to issue an Amber alert as soon as they've got all the details straight."
Swinging his coat around his shoulders, Josiah said, "Come on, I'll drive."
Nathan was already helping the stunned Larabee to his feet. "We'll get him back, Chris, don't you worry. It can't have been more than an hour since he was taken. That gives us an edge. He's going to be all right."
The eyes that raised to meet the kindly brown eyes of the medic were awash with pain and fear; completely lacking in the fire and determination that normally filled them. "I can't lose my son, Nate," he whispered. "Not again."
None of the other men were willing or able to form comforting platitudes in the face of those few anguished words.
"We got him, boss!"
Harding rubbed his hands together and chortled. "I knew I could count on you, boys. Let's have a look."
Ezra also stepped forward, needing to know but at the same time fearful of what he was about to see. What had these men done to Chris?
Riggs came forward struggling to hold onto a squirming bundle. Small blue jeans clad legs kicked and flailed to get free of the man's tight hold. It was obviously a child, though his or her identity was not readily apparent while the head and upper body were hidden from sight by a cloth sack.
As he craned his neck over Harding's shoulder to get a better look, it was all Ezra could do not to shout out Vin's name. There was no way he could fail to recognize the electric blue Converse sneakers with the black and silver shoelaces that covered the child's feet. He had bought those shoes as a gift for Vin just this past Christmas, special ordered in his favorite style and colors.
"How could you do something like this?" he whispered, turning shocked and angry eyes upon Harding; forgetting for a moment his role as this man's lackey, so caught up was he in the power of his outrage.
Clearly surprised by his reaction, Harding frowned. "I told you I was going to make Larabee pay for all he's cost me. When one of my contacts told me that bastard had recently adopted a son, I knew there would be no better way to hurt him than to take away the one thing that Larabee cares about most."
He sounded extremely proud of himself and it was all Ezra could do not to step forward and strangle the man with his bare hands.
In Riggs' arms, Vin had stopped squirming, stilling completely at the realization that he was now completely surrounded by strange men he could not see, all of whom quite possibly intended to do him harm.
The lean henchman dumped his burden roughly onto the floor, eliciting a muffled cry of pain from the boy and Ezra shifted forward instinctively to help him. Just in time, he arrested the movement, trying to make it seem like a casual shift of his weight. After all, James Dillon had no reason to care on any personal level about a strange boy.
Reminding himself that if he continued to be ruled by his temper and gave his identity away the odds of getting himself and Vin safely out of this situation would plummet to nothing, Ezra dropped his gaze meekly to the floor. He shuffled a bit and scrubbed a hand through his dyed-red hair, pretending to be chastened by his outburst of a moment earlier. Hoping to appeal to a better nature he was not convinced Emory Harding actually possessed, he murmured, "Sorry, boss. When you said you were planning to get back at this ATF guy, I just never figured you meant this. I thought you'd just shoot him or something. I mean, kidnapping a little kid who ain't got any part in what his old man did just doesn't seem right. Right?"
Grinning as if he had just been let in on an unexpectedly good joke, Harding slapped Marley on the back. "Well what do you know about that? Seems our Jimmy has a soft spot for rug rats!"
Marley and Riggs both laughed uproariously as if this was the funniest thing they'd ever heard. Ezra's face flushed with anger, but fortunately the other men took it to be embarrassment.
"Don't worry about it, kid," Harding chuckled. "We're not going to hurt him, at least not too much."
Face scrunching in feigned puzzlement to cover his revulsion over what that statement might mean, Ezra earned himself another round of laughter.
Clearly enjoying himself, Harding continued, "I want Larabee to have a good long while to squirm, see. When he's simmered long enough, we'll send him something to know we mean business." He shrugged carelessly. "A finger, an ear, nothing vital. After the deal has gone down and we've got our money, then we won't need the kid any more. We'll send him on home."
Ezra could not help but notice that there was no mention of whether Vin would still be alive when he was returned. "What are we gonna do with him in the mean time?"
As he had hoped, the two henchmen each backed off a step, clearly not wanting to be volunteered. Harding smirked. "Well, Jimmy-boy, since you seem to care so much about what happens to the brat, I think we just found ourselves a babysitter."
Marley and Riggs grinned with relief.
Pretending to be upset by the order, Ezra whined, "But what am I supposed to do with him?"
"Take him in the back and lock him up," Harding ordered. "Give him something to eat or drink, whatever you figure needs to be done. Just get him out of my sight."
Sighing in his best put-upon manner, Ezra mumbled, "Okay," and hauled Vin to his feet as gently as he could get away with under the present circumstances. Vin immediately started to struggle again, forcing Ezra to hold tightly to the rope binding the sack around his torso. He turned the boy forward in front of him and put as much distance between their bodies as was feasible. For a seven-year-old, Vin Tanner could be very scrappy and Ezra had no wish to be either kicked or elbowed someplace vital while Vin had no idea of his identity.
Ezra had marched Vin forward a couple of steps, intent on getting him out of harm's way, but paused warily at his employer's hard tone and sudden switch to his adopted surname. "Yes, sir?"
"I'm putting my trust in you. Don't think for one minute about letting that kid go or trying to get word to someone on the outside. I want to believe I can count on you but I won't hesitate to kill you if I think that you've betrayed that trust."
Ezra gave a solemn nod, and then smiled guilelessly. "Don't have to worry about me. All I want is to do is keep the boss-man happy."
Seeing Harding's nod of satisfaction, Ezra finished the thought silently. 'And my boss is going to be very happy indeed when I bring his little boy safely home and serve up your head on a platter, you miserable son of a bitch! '
JD Dunne had electrified the school officials when he had come tearing into the front office, interrupting a conversation between the principal and two teachers as he shouted at the top of his voice that his brother had been taken by bad men. It had taken several minutes of careful questioning before the hysterical rapid-fire explanation had been fully understood, but as soon as it was, the police and both boys' parents had been notified.
Four anxious men burst into the office, having made record time thanks to light traffic and Josiah's aggressive driving techniques. Buck immediately fell to his knees and caught JD in a fierce hug as the little boy launched himself forward, crying, "Da, Da they got Vin! The bad men have got Vin! Get him back, Da!"
"What happened?" Chris demanded curtly, eyes burning with anxiety and anger. "Why was my son out in the visitor's lot all alone?"
"He wasn't alone," JD piped up, grabbing Chris' hand anxiously in the one he wasn't using to cling to Buck. "I was there too."
Pausing to run a trembling hand over JD's glossy dark hair, he corrected, "Why were no adults present? Buck and I have a standing order with this school not to allow our sons off of school grounds unsupervised, precisely for this reason!"
The principal looked pained. He was a good man who did his best with limited resources and a staff constantly being cut and reorganized by government spending changes, and this was the first time in his career as an educator that such a tragedy had occurred.
"I can't say strongly enough how sorry I am, Mr. Larabee," he began. "The regular teacher was out sick today with food poisoning and we had a substitute in Vin's class. She received a call ten minutes before school let out saying that you had called this office and asked to have the boys meet you out at the side lot. I don't know how this happened. Phone calls to classrooms are restricted to internal access and we made no such call."
A young woman with tear-reddened eyes stepped timidly forward. "I'm so sorry, Mr. Larabee. I had no idea the call wasn't legitimate."
Chris wanted desperately to shout at someone, to rage at the teacher, the secretary, the principal - someone. Seeing the honest sorrow and regret in their eyes, however, he found that he could not. This was not their fault; someone had clearly planned this and known to strike at a vulnerable moment. He frowned, wondering suddenly if the regular teacher's illness had been entirely accidental.
"We'll find him, Chris," Buck said softly, watching his friend's fists clench. Hugging JD a little tighter, he repeated for the boy's benefit, "We'll find him."
"Thank God at least one of the boys got away," Nathan said, then seeing Chris' look of outrage at his attempted consolation, added, "I'm as afraid for Vin as any of you, but it's the truth. We're lucky."
For a moment, Chris retained a belligerent stance. Then he sagged. "You're right. Of course we're lucky JD got away." Turning his attention to the unusually quiet little boy, he asked, "How did you get away?"
Anger filled the high voice as he piped up, "One of them pushed me right into the dirt! Then the ugly man put a bag over Vin's head and throwed him in the van. I tried to stop 'em but the other one pushed me down again and jumped in with Vin. Then they drove away fast."
Startled, all of the adults stared at him as they digested this new information. It was Vin specifically whom the kidnappers had wanted, not either boy. What was even more important, JD had gotten a good look at the abductors. "JD," Buck said gently. "Son, if you saw a picture of these two men, could you identify them?"
"Sure," he said confidently, the comfort of Buck's presence easing away the last of the hysteria he had shown when the incident was new. "The one who grabbed Vin was really big, like Uncle Josiah, but really really ugly. He had pits in his face."
"Pits?" Josiah said, kneeling down to be eye to eye with the boy.
JD pointed to Josiah's neck where he retained a few scars from a long ago case of teenage acne, and said, "Like those, but bigger and splotchier. All over his face."
"That's good, JD," he encouraged. "What else? Was he black, white; maybe Hispanic? What color hair did the man have?"
Small face scrunching up in distaste, he said, "He was white and he didn't have no hair. Just a big old eyebrow that looked like a mustache over both eyes."
"Well, that shouldn't be too hard to identify once we catch him," Nathan said wryly. "What about the other man, JD? The one who pushed you?"
He looked perplexed. "He looks kind of like Mrs. Chen, my friend Bobby's mom, 'cept he had a mustache."
"Asian," Buck concluded.
JD nodded. "He had lots and lots of long hair in a ponytail. And a lady look, like this." He batted his eyes to demonstrate long eyelashes. Then he scowled darkly. "He wasn't nice like Mrs. Chen, though. He was mean. He wouldn't let me go with Vin!"
Buck smiled, grateful beyond measure for this, then his look turned sad as he glanced again at his devastated best friend. Chris had not been so lucky.
"This gives us a great start, Chris," Josiah said, the certainty in his tone bolstering all who heard it. "We'll see if we can't get JD here to draw us some pictures and give us a better idea of what the vehicle looked like, then we'll alert every law enforcement agency in Colorado to be on the lookout. We will find Vin."
"If it takes every waking hour and every resource in our arsenal," Nathan added his promise.
"Nothing else is more important than finding Vin and bringing him home," Buck agreed.
"Thanks, guys." Chris sighed and ran a hand over his face, fighting to stay calm and think rationally. "We'll have to contact Ezra and let him know he's on his own for awhile."
Nathan volunteered, "I'll call him this evening. He's not due to check in for another couple of days, so I'll borrow a cell phone and he can claim I was a wrong number if anyone checks on the phone number."
"Should we tell him what's happened?" Buck wondered.
Chris hesitated, knowing that any emotional distractions could be dangerous to a man in Ezra's position, but then he nodded. "Maybe he can put the word out on the streets through some of his contacts. At any rate, he deserves to know what's going on."
Unbeknownst to his ATF colleagues, Ezra was more than aware of the situation. He had managed to steer Vin into a back bedroom of the small house Harding used as a base of operations without being stopped again. He had refrained from speaking to the boy, wanting to reassure him but knowing it was not smart to do so. He had adopted a flat New York tinged accent in place of his natural southern drawl for this role but if Vin were to recognize his voice, there was far too much danger of the boy calling out to "Uncle Ezra" within hearing of their enemies.
Locking the bedroom door behind him, Ezra knelt and took hold of Vin's thin shoulders through the sack, leaning close to say softly in his normal tone, "Vin, don't be frightened. It's Ezra and I'm going to get you out of this. I'll remove the covering now and I need you to remain quiet until I tell you otherwise. Can you do that?"
There was a long moment of hesitation, and then the top of the sack moved. Taking this to be a nod, Ezra quickly untied the rope holding the bag closed and pulled it off. Vin blinked and squinted into the sudden brightness for a moment, but as his eyes adjusted a look of intense relief washed over his face. Throwing his arms around Ezra, he somehow managed to keep his promise to stay quiet as he buried his face in the man's neck and started crying.
"Shh," Ezra soothed, holding him tightly and rubbing his back. "I've got you now, it's all right."
Vin clung to his savior for several minutes, then sniffled and pulled away to dash at his nose with the back of one hand. He glanced around the small room, taking in a twin bed, a small table and a dresser. There was no other furniture, no closet and no windows. Vin swallowed hard at the sight of it, realizing that in spite of Ezra's comforting words, things were not all right. "Who are those men, Uncle Ezra?" he whispered. "Did they grab you too?"
"No. They don't know who I am, Vin. The man who arranged your abduction is the person I've been working to arrest. All of those men believe me to be on their side."
The boy's blue eyes went wide. Reaching out a hand to touch the neatly trimmed, reddish brown beard Ezra had grown for this role, he suddenly smiled, sounding awed and a bit excited as he said, "You're under covers! So now I'm under covers too?"
Ezra felt a pang of sadness at those words. Vin and JD had both spent a great deal of time quizzing him on what he did for a living. They found it fascinating that their uncle got paid to play pretend and fool bad-guys into letting Buck and Chris arrest them. (JD's definition.) He had never expected either boy to get a chance to see what he did up close and personal.
"Something like that," he agreed. "What you have to do is just stay quiet and not draw attention to yourself until I can figure out a way to get you out of here."
"And you," he added insistently. "You gotta get away too."
Ezra smiled. "Of course, but in order for us to do that, you have to pretend not to know me. If you talk to me within earshot of anyone else, call me Jimmy and try not to react to the way I speak."
Curiously, he asked, "What do you mean?"
Adopting Jimmy's accent again, he smirked and said, "As far as those losers know, I ain't from around these parts. Got me?"
Vin grinned. It had been a scary day and he knew he was still in a lot of danger, but it was fun to be part of Uncle Ezra's job. "Gotcha."
Most of those who knew Chris Larabee would have said that he was a man of action; the type who was always in control, always knew what was happening and what to do next in any situation.
After assisting his team and the police to gather every scrap of information available on Vin's abduction, Chris had sent Buck home with JD. Nathan and Josiah had volunteered to spread word and pass out copies of the sketch a police artist had quickly done up with JD's help to every shelter, hospital, clinic and other volunteer organization they could think of. Chris himself had driven back to the office and spent the afternoon making phone calls to fellow law-enforcement officials. Finally, though, he had run out of people to call and ideas on what to do next. The in-control ATF team leader had finally been forced to give way to the frightened parent whose child had been stolen.
Sitting at his desk, holding a photo of Vin smiling widely at the camera, Chris studied the picture closely as if trying to memorize every minute detail. He did not even notice the increasing darkness outside until it became impossible to see the image. Jumping up, he switched on the light, suddenly desperate not to lose sight of that beloved face. Glancing out the window at the last vanishing rays of sunlight, his hands clenched around the picture frame. Vin was out there somewhere, lost in the darkness. Frightened and maybe hurt, calling out to him for help he could not provide.
"Oh, God," he moaned, clutching the picture to his chest as he sank down into a crouch, head bowed in grief. "Oh, son, where are you?"
The answering silence felt heavy enough to crush him.
One of the hardest things Ezra had ever had to do was leave a small frightened boy alone in a strange room while he went back to spend 'quality' time with Harding and his low-life thugs.
"You get the kid squared away?" Harding asked as Ezra walked into the main room and plopped down on the sofa as if he hadn't a care in the world.
"Yeah, he's good," Ezra replied. "Scared, I guess. Wouldn't touch the soda and sandwich I gave him, but I figure he'll eat when he's hungry."
Beside him, Riggs snorted. "Lucky we didn't grab the other one that was with him. I bet a kid with that much energy could eat everything we got and still be whining for more. Had to shove the brat to the ground twice before we got away with this one."
Harding was not pleased. His nasally voice dropped to a more intense pitch than normal as he said, "You didn't say anything about another child. Are you telling me you left a witness behind who can identify you both?"
Realizing they had dug themselves into a hole, Marley rubbed agitatedly at his bald scalp and tried to defend their actions. "It wasn't like that, boss. There was another kid but he couldn't have been more than four or five and he was plenty scared. He won't be able to finger us."
Ezra willed himself not to smile. He was delighted to hear both that JD was fine, a fact that Vin had not been able to verify, and that he had gotten a good look at these men. In spite of what Marley seemed to believe, Ezra knew that JD had a very good memory for detail and would be able to tell Buck all that he had seen and experienced.
Seeing that Harding was not convinced, Ezra tried to forestall any attempt to go back and correct the mistake by saying, "He's right, boss. Kid that small won't remember anything useful. He's probably got the cops looking for some eight foot tall boogie man by now."
The two henchmen laughed weakly and finally their employer nodded. "I suppose you're right. All right, boys, it's time we started getting everything ready for the sale on Friday. Riggs, I want you to keep an eye on the ATF building. Don't do anything to draw attention to yourself, just keep tabs on Larabee. I want to make sure he's looking the other way when this goes down."
The half-Asian man nodded and leapt to his feet, unable to get out of the room fast enough in the wake of his verbal error.
"Marley, I want you to count the weapons and verify the count. We're not going to be accused of shorting the contract. Dillon, go with him. I need an estimate of how many weapons we can afford to lose if Montoya doesn't come through with the money. We have a deal, but I wouldn't put it past that son of a bitch to try and help himself to an extra profit margin. If that happens, I want to make sure we take the cash and the weapons, but we'll probably end up losing part of the shipment."
"Right, boss," they chorused.
Just as he and Marley reached the basement where the guns were temporarily being stored, Ezra's cell-phone rang. Startled, he pulled it from his pocket and checked the readout. It was not a number he recognized and no one from his team was due to make contact today. "Better not be one of them damned telemarketers," he quipped, earning himself a grin from Uni-brow, as he secretly thought of Marley. Flipping the phone open, he snapped, "What?"
On the other end, Nathan Jackson's voice was instantly recognizable as he said, "Hey man, can you talk? It's important."
Abruptly realizing that Nathan was probably calling to let him know of Vin's disappearance, Ezra improvised. "Hey, Jack, I wasn't expecting to hear from you. How's the family?"
"Not good," he replied tensely. "There's something I need to tell you."
"Uh, huh. Well, I'm kind of busy right now."
Ignoring Ezra's dissembling, Nathan told him, "I don't know how to tell you this except to just say it. Vin has been kidnapped from his school."
Keeping his tone casual, Ezra said, "Yeah, I know that."
There was a moment of startled silence, then, "You know?"
"Sure. Not like I go home and watch Reality TV every night. Got enough real life coming right at me."
"Jesus," Nathan breathed. "Are you trying to say that Vin has been kidnapped by Harding?"
Ezra laughed. "Always knew you were the smart one in the family, Jack." Seeing his companion giving him a dark look as his phone conversation continued, Ezra said, "I gotta go, man. Give CJ and the rest my regards. See ya soon."
As he ended the call, Ezra shook his head and gestured with the phone. "My brother. He and I don't talk much, but he never gives up trying to rope me into a visit. As if I want to spend my time surrounded by a bunch of in-laws." His back-story had included two brothers and a sister for Jimmy, a fact for which he was now grateful.
Marley laughed. "Sounds like my Ma. Family, huh?"
"Can't live with 'em, can't shoot 'em," Ezra agreed wryly. "All right, lets get these weapons counted before our uninvited guest starts making noise. Harding'll have my ass if I don't keep him locked in and quiet."
The other man grinned. "Better you than me, babysitter."
Ezra silently agreed with that sentiment whole-heartedly.
The office was dark when Josiah walked in just after 7pm, but he was not surprised in the least to see a sliver of light coming from Chris Larabee's partly open doorway.
"Chris?" he called softly, not wanting to startle him as he approached the office. "You in there?"
There was no reply. Josiah pushed the door open a bit further and looked inside. His boss was standing next to the window with his forehead pressed against the cool glass, just staring out into the darkness. His left arm was folded up, pressing a framed photograph to his chest. Recognizing the heavy silver frame that held Chris' favorite photo of Vin, which normally sat in a place of prominence on his desk, Josiah repeated his promise of earlier, "We're going to find him."
Chris' voice sounded hollow as he replied. "They were after him specifically, Josiah. Not just any child; not whoever was handy; they wanted my child. That can only mean one thing."
"Whoever took him wanted to hurt you," the older man agreed grimly.
Turning away from the window, he said, "And they're doing a damned good job of it. My God, do you have any idea how many lowlifes I've pissed off in my career? How many people there must be who want to make my life hell?" His eyes grew haunted. "Ever since Vin came to live with me, my greatest fear has been that someone would try and hurt him or . . . or kill him, to get to me."
"That's the fear of every family man or woman on the right side of the justice system, Chris," Josiah reminded him. "It's a sad fact that the work we do to keep our loved ones safe also puts them in danger. But this is not your fault. I know you must be thinking otherwise, but I've been in this business for a very long time now and I'm telling with 100% certainty that you're not. The kind of scum we deal with, people who put guns and drugs on the streets with no regard for who gets hurt by them as long as they make a profit, will hurt anyone at any time. They don't need a reason, Chris. All they need is an opportunity."
Chris sighed and ran a hand roughly through his short blond hair. "Somehow that doesn't make me feel better."
Coming closer, Josiah laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Vin's photo and the composite sketch of his abductors have been circulated all over Denver, Chris. Someone will call."
Taking one of the sketches from Josiah's other hand, Chris grimaced. The first drawing looked like a thin-faced, mustached Jackie Chan while the second bore an uncanny resemblance to Shrek. JD might have a good memory but that couldn't change the fact that he was only five years old.
Suddenly the outer door burst open and Nathan's voice shouted out, "Chris! Chris, I know who took Vin!"
Exchanging a disbelieving look, Chris and Josiah hurried out to the office bullpen.
"Where?" "Who?" "How do you know?" The questions tumbled over each other as they rushed to interrogate their friend.
Nathan Jackson was not usually an excitable man but right at this moment he looked absolutely giddy. "Emory Harding's men snatched him. He's fine for now, I think. Ezra couldn't really talk, I think somebody was listening when I called him, but he sounded pretty calm."
Chris was stunned. "You mean to tell me Ezra is undercover in the same place they're keeping Vin? They're together?"
"That's right," Nathan reaffirmed happily.
Josiah allowed a moment of celebration before injecting a note of reluctant reality into the room. "We don't know where Harding is. He disappeared from the last two surveillance locations the Bureau set up. That's part of the reason Ezra hasn't been able to maintain consistent contact."
Sobering instantly, Chris agreed, "You're right. We're going to have to trust Ezra to find a way to let us know what's happening. If he's being watched like you think, then we can't risk calling back. That might put both of their lives in danger."
"I think Ezra would have found a way to tell me if either of them was hurt," Nathan decided. "He told me to give his regards to CJ, and I figure that has to be a way to let you know that everything is okay for now."
Chris nodded. His sisters always called him CJ, short for Christopher James, and his men all knew that nobody used that name except for his family. It was as clear a message as the undercover agent had been able to manage, given the circumstances.
Josiah rubbed absently at his chin. "Vin's gotta be pretty scared right now. Do you think he can keep it together enough not give Ezra's identity away?"
"I sure as hell hope so," Chris sighed, his jubilation at knowing Vin was safe and in the company of someone he could trust warring with worry over Vin and Ezra's combined fate. "Because right now, secrecy may their only weapon."
By the time Ezra had finished counting the weapons, jotting the serial numbers down in a journal as evidence in his investigation while offering Marley the excuse that Harding would want to keep tabs on the stock if anything happened, nearly two hours had passed.
As he was getting ready to crate the guns back up, his partner surprised him by saying, "I can finish this alone. You better go feed that kid before he starts making a fuss."
Dying to do just that, Ezra kept up his role and hesitated instead. "You sure you don't want me to stay and help?"
Interpreting the delay tactic exactly the way Ezra had hoped he would, the ugly man laughed. "Forget it, Jimbo. If you didn't want this detail you should've kept your mouth shut when we brought him in." Giving him a little push, he added mockingly, "Don't forget to take him a stuffed animal and read him a bedtime story, Mother Goose."
"Funny. You oughtta be on cable TV with that act. Preferably one of the channels that's blacked out."
They traded a few more insults, then Ezra finally made his getaway, muttering darkly about his new responsibilities for the benefit of anyone who might be listening. In truth, Ezra wished fervently that he really could do as Marley had suggested and bring Vin the tangible comfort of a stuffed toy. When the boy was in emotional distress he habitually turned to his stuffed Cat for solace.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ezra spotted Harding. The man was standing in the darkness of the hallway watching, probably believing himself to be unseen as he observed his hireling's actions. It was enough to stop Ezra from just entering Vin's jail/bedroom as he had originally started to do. Instead he unlocked the door part of him wondering just who would build a house with bedrooms that locked from the outside then pounded loudly on the wood, calling out, "Get back from the door, kid. You even think about trying to run past me and I'll give you a licking you'll never forget."
Turning his head as if to listen at the door and insure compliance, Ezra watched Harding smile and nod to himself in satisfaction before melting back into the shadows. Tension leeched out of Ezra's shoulders and he opened the door, slipping inside quickly.
Vin was sitting on the bed with his knees drawn up, and he too relaxed at seeing Ezra come through the door. A conspiratorial grin dimpled his cheeks as he whispered, "You're a really good actor. I wasn't sure you were really you."
Ezra sat down next to him and draped an arm around his shoulders to give him a comforting squeeze. "I'm sorry I couldn't come back more quickly. I tried but those men have to be made to maintain their belief in my loyalty to them."
"I know you have to work," Vin said easily. "That's okay. It's boring here but I'd rather be in here by myself than out there with them."
"A very sensible outlook," he praised. Turning serious, he said, "Vin, we need to get out of here as soon as possible. I don't know how long we can reasonably maintain the façade of being strangers before someone gets suspicious or Harding decides to assign one of the others as your guard. We're all right for tonight, I think, but getting you away from here has become my first priority, even above the mission I was sent here to accomplish."
The boy cuddled a bit closer to him. A worried note entering his voice, he asked, "Does that mean you won't be able to arrest those men? Or if you do arrest 'em, will they get let go right away because you didn't have enough time to get evidence?"
Surprised by the seven-year-old's grasp of the legal system, Ezra told him, "I believe we'll have enough to hold them over for trial. I have all of the weapons catalogued as well as a copy of the finances. Even if the weapons trafficking gets thrown out of court, being an eye-witness to the kidnapping of a minor means that I should still be able to ensure that your abductors will be put away for a long while."
"JD can be a witness too," Vin said confidently. "He saw Shrek steal me away from school and I'll bet he'd have fun being a witness in court."
"Shrek?" Ezra asked, laughing. "I've been calling him Uni-brow."
Vin giggled. "That's good too." Abruptly switching subjects, he asked hopefully, "Can you stay with me tonight?"
"I don't know," Ezra told him truthfully. "I strongly suspect that the best that will allowed is for me to sit outside your door and guard it against escape. And by the same token, I'm sure someone will be watching me to make certain that I don't assist you in doing so."
Vin digested this. "How come they don't trust you?"
Ezra shrugged and smiled ruefully. "Because I reacted somewhat more strongly to your presence in this place than was initially prudent. They believe I have a soft spot for children in need."
Hugging him tightly, Vin whispered, "I'm glad you do."
Ezra hugged him back. "Me too. Now, are you hungry?"
"Kind of," he admitted, "but mostly I gotta go."
"Of course. Just a moment."
Disengaging himself from the clinging arms, Ezra went to the door and called out, "Hey, anybody out there? Boss? Marley?"
Harding appeared in the same place he had been before but this time did not bother trying to conceal his presence. "What is it?"
Coming halfway out of the room, he jerked a thumb back over his shoulder. "Kid's gotta pee. Is it okay if I take him to the can?"
Looking displeased but clearly recognizing that a child's bladder capacity was limited and probably already at the breaking point after several hours, he nodded. "Go ahead, but make sure you lock the door until he's finished, then lock him back in that room when you're through."
Not entirely feigning his irritation with these orders, Ezra threw his hands up in a frustrated gesture. "What am I, stupid?"
"Just do it," the man ordered dryly.
Ezra started to go back to Vin, then stopped and called back, "Boss?"
"Is it okay with you if I order a pizza? All we got to eat around here is that gourmet food you like and that canned slop the other boys live off of. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure kids don't eat that stuff."
Harding raised an eyebrow at the request. "In other words, you're tired of eating it and you're using the boy as an excuse."
In actual fact, Ezra had only been looking for an excuse to make a phone call to his colleagues. Buck had set up a collection of fake phone numbers to fast-food restaurants that Ezra could use to call them when it wasn't safe to use the regular lines. However, he was more than happy to use the alibi his employer was so kindly providing. Adopting a sheepish expression, he put his hands in his pockets and shrugged.
The older man smiled, the expression somehow conveying more menace than mirth. "All right, but I'll be listening so don't try anything funny."
Ezra adopted a hurt look. "I won't. You can trust me, boss."
"I hope so, Jimmy. I truly hope so."
The moment Buck's cell phone rang, JD, who had been in his room supposedly taking a nap before dinner, came charging into the living room at top speed. Flinging himself onto the sofa next to Buck he said impatiently, "Do you think it's Chris? Did they find Vin yet? They need to bring him home soon, Da, it's really, really, really dark outside and Vin don't like the dark. Can I talk to him?"
Patting his son on the knee with one hand while freeing the phone from his pocket with the other, Buck said, "Let me answer this and we'll both find out what's happening, okay?"
"Buck here," he said simply as he flipped the phone open. "Chris! What's going on? Did you find him?"
He paused a moment to listen then gave a reflexive whoop of jubilation which instantly prompted JD into a gleeful cheer as well.
"What's that?" Buck asked, then suddenly his good mood deflated as he said, "Oh, man. I can't decide if that's good or bad. Has anyone been able to contact Ezra? Yeah, yeah, I understand."
Distressed by the somber tone, JD burst into tears. "I want Vin to come home," he wailed.
"Hang on," Buck said quickly, then set the phone down and pulled the boy into his lap. "Hey, Little Bit, it's okay. Vin's not hurt and the boys have got a lead on where he's been taken. We'll get him back real soon."
JD had no reply to this attempted solace except to bury his face in Buck's chest and sniffle wetly, both small hands clinging tightly to his shirt. The stress and emotional upheaval of the day had been too much for him to handle this dashing of his expectation that Vin would be rescued right away.
Buck hugged him and went back to his phone call. "Sorry, Chris. JD's right here and he's a little upset. Is there anything I can do? Should the two of us come back down to the office?" He nodded, glancing down at JD's dark head. "Probably not. He's pretty wiped out. Call me back if anything changes."
As he disconnected the call, Buck wrapped both arms around his son, offering what scant comfort he could. They stayed this way for a long while until the small body grew heavy as JD finally cried himself to sleep.
"We'll bring him back safe, Little Bit," Buck whispered, lifting his eyes toward the ceiling in a wordless prayer that this might be so. He had not shared Chris' news about Vin and Ezra being together. He had not wanted JD to become hysterical over the fact that Vin was in the hands of "trolls" or that his beloved Uncle Ezra was now equally in danger. He also did not want to take the chance that JD, using five-year-old logic, would choose to become angry with Ezra for not immediately bringing Vin home. Sighing, Buck kissed the top of JD's head and began to rock him gently. "We'll bring 'em both back real soon. I promise you that."
Ezra had been careful to obey his orders to the letter as he freed Vin from his room to escort him to the bathroom, locking the door and trying his best not look anything but impatient with the chore.
"You wash your hands?" he called out a few minutes later as Vin knocked on the bathroom door as he had been instructed to do when finished. He smiled in genuine amusement as there came a pause followed by the sound of running water, then a second knock. Chris was constantly reminding both boys, and occasionally Buck, to wash their hands. He knew the reminder would have given Vin a comforting sense of the familiar, just as it had him.
"All clean," Vin offered, smiling as he held out both still-damp hands for inspection as Ezra opened the door.
Grasping the right hand lightly in his own, Ezra dared to give it a little squeeze as he walked Vin back to confinement. "The boss says I can order a pizza for you and me to share," he reminded. "What do you want on it?"
For a moment Vin looked confused, his mouth opening then abruptly snapping shut, blue eyes darting around nervously as he remembered that Ezra was supposed to be somebody else, someone who wouldn't know what foods he liked. "Um, I, um," he stammered.
Guessing quickly what had happened, Ezra helped him out. "I like sausage and onions, myself."
"And pepperoni," Vin said, recovering quickly as he was given a choice of two of his favorites.
Vin jumped and Ezra very nearly did as well when a third voice chimed in, "How 'bout Hawaiian? I love those little pineapple chunks."
"Hey," Ezra greeted Marley, shifting his hand from Vin's hand to his shoulder and tucking him in a bit closer as he reached to open the bedroom door. Pushing the child inside, he quickly locked the door behind him and said loudly, "I'll bring you some when it gets here, kid."
"The boss knows you're calling out for pizza?" Marley asked dubiously.
Ezra nodded. "Sure. I asked him."
The large man rubbed a palm vigorously over his shiny scalp, a habit of his that made Ezra wonder maliciously if he was trying to generate enough friction to spark an intelligent thought. Longingly, he asked, "Can I have some too?"
"Can if you cough up a few bucks to help me pay for it," Ezra replied flatly. "I ain't runnin' a soup kitchen here."
Eagerly, he dug in his pocket, pulling out a wrinkled wad of bills, which he shoved into Ezra's hand. "Here, get me a large."
"You really want Hawaiian, or were you just yapping?"
"Sure do. That's my favorite," he said dreamily, smiling as if already imagining the combination of cheese, tomato sauce, ham and pineapple caressing his taste buds.
Ezra chuckled. Despite being on opposite sides of the law, sometimes he rather liked the big dumb henchman. "You got it."
"Where you gonna order from?"
Immediately, Ezra was suspicious of the casual question. He would bet every sweaty dollar this man had just handed him that Harding had sent him in to monitor the call and report back the contents. Keeping his tone equally casual, he said, "You ever hear of Rocko's Pizza?" The other man shook his head. "They're the best. The store's downtown, kinda out of the way so it costs a little more for delivery, but they make the best New York style pizza in this whole stinkin' city."
"Sounds good to me," he agreed.
Pulling out his phone, Ezra carefully checked the list of programmed numbers. "I got 'em here someplace," he muttered. Then, as he pretended to find the number he already knew by heart, having long since memorized the phony restaurant list, he dialed.
The numbers all routed to a special mobile phone that the others rotated amongst themselves, so Ezra was not certain which of his colleagues would answer. He smiled when he heard Josiah's deep voice thank him for calling and ask for his order.
"I'd like to order two large for delivery," he said, the words telling Josiah that only two of the men were on premises. "Sausage, onions and pepperoni on one. The other's a Hawaiian. Mild sauce and thick crust, okay?" This told Josiah that things were tense but no blood had been spilled.
Ezra listened for a moment as Josiah confirmed his order, asking if he needed any soda or breadsticks, which meant was there any immediate danger and did they need to bring in the troops?
"No, I think we're good," he replied. Drawing a deep breath and hoping that he was not about to get himself killed, Ezra gave the delivery address. "It'll be cash. Make it snappy, huh?"
He cast a sidelong glance at Uni-brow, to see if the other man had reacted badly to his revealing the house address. Luckily, he was still locked in the pleasant daydream of gorging himself on pizza and had not even seemed to notice.
Josiah told him delivery would be made within the next 40 minutes and thanked him again for calling. They took no risk of breaking character for these calls, knowing how easily someone could hack in and listen for anything suspicious.
Ezra smiled as he hung up. "All we gotta do now is wait," he said smugly.
Unusually for him, Nathan did not offer a single word of protest as Chris slapped the removable decal and light panel declaring "Rocko's: World's Finest Pizza" on the door and roof of his Honda. Nathan was the only person on the team who owned a vehicle that could pass for a pizza delivery car, so whenever Ezra had to use this particular cover, his car was pressed into service.
"I don't see why I can't make the delivery," he complained, swiftly transferring the two pies he had just picked up from a legitimate restaurant into new cardboard containers stamped with labels to match the decal.
"Because someone in that house was good enough with electronics to tap into the school's phone lines this afternoon without being detected," Josiah explained patiently. "If anyone managed to tap into your call earlier, they might recognize the voice of Ezra's 'brother'. I'm the pizza man today."
Nathan scowled. "That doesn't even make sense. If they were listening in, then they heard me him that Vin had been kidnapped and if that were the case, then I doubt Ezra would be free to go ordering a pizza two hours later."
Smiling a little, Josiah gave his salt and pepper curls a thoughtful scratch as he turned to Chris. "He's got a point."
Chris shook his head. "I want you to be the one, Josiah. You and Ezra came up with that coded double-talk and you're the best at using it. Besides which, you're able to size up a situation in seconds and that could be vital."
"All right," Nathan agreed reluctantly, "but you're wearing this, pizza-man."
He held out a bullet-proof vest with a look in his eyes that warned against arguing. Chris eyed the protective gear stonily, hating to think that there might be gunplay with Vin still in that house, but knowing that the precaution was a good one. "Wish I had a way of smuggling in a couple more of these under the pizza boxes," he sighed.
Josiah did not reply other than to accept the vest and strap it on. It barely fit under the garish red and orange uniform shirt he buttoned over the top, but with a few adjustments, the vest was no longer visible. Donning his matching black and red cap, he accepted the pizza boxes and said, "Wish me luck."
"You know we do," Chris said solemnly. "Try to find a way to ask Ezra if he can get Vin and himself outside at midnight for a quick snatch and run rescue."
He nodded sharply. "Will do. You gonna call Buck?"
Chris agreed, "I promised him an update. He wants to be in on this but right now JD needs him more at home."
Quickly adjusting a wire tap fitted inside Josiah's collar, Nathan slapped him on the shoulder. "You're all set."
It took 35 minutes from the time of Ezra's phone call until the sound of heavy footfalls alerted him to the presence of someone on the front porch. It had taken real determination on his part not to fidget or check his watch as he sat on the sofa joking with Uni-brow and making torturous small-talk with Harding. Both men watched him intently as the doorbell rang and he leapt up to answer it.
Making a show of checking his wallet for the cash needed to pay for dinner, Ezra pretended not to notice the stares probing into his back. As he opened the door, he could not help grinning at the sight of Josiah. The older man looked as if he were about to burst right out of his deliveryman's uniform shirt, which had been cut to fit Buck. "You made good time," he greeted casually, his green eyes asking if a plan was in place.
Josiah nodded. There was. "It's my last trip. Driving out to a family reunion tonight. Hopefully everyone will be able to make it."
"Sounds like fun," Ezra told him, handing over two twenty-dollar bills. As he reached for the pizza boxes, he surreptitiously slipped Josiah a tightly folded list of the weapon serial numbers and a Flash-drive he had used to download Harding's ledgers and other incriminating data he had gained access to over the course of several weeks.
"Looks like you got twelve bucks change coming," Josiah commented as he slipped the money and information into a carry-pouch at his waist. Snapping his fingers as if he'd just remembered something, he rummaged in his food and beverage carrier and produced a two-liter bottle. "And here's a Coke, on the house. We're having a special tonight. Two large gets you a free one."
Ezra hesitated as he accepted the bottle, understanding by the number twelve and other commentary that he was to try and get Vin out of the house at midnight. "Keep the change," he said, waving off the money Josiah held back out. "Get your kid something to play with."
Josiah grinned. Ezra had agreed to try and get Vin back home tonight. "Every Little Bit helps," he acknowledged. "Later, man. Take it easy."
Shutting the door behind him, Ezra let his friend's parting words strengthen him. Josiah had been telling him to be careful and not risk trying to break free if the situation didn't look promising. He brought the hot boxes into the living room and set them and the soda down on a low coffee table. Steam rose invitingly from the pizzas as they were revealed. Ezra closed his eyes and took a deep sniff. "Now that is what heaven smells like," he quipped.
Harding chuckled, waving off his bodyguard's offer to share as 'Jimmy' began transferring pizza slices onto the stack of plates that had been placed at the ready. He had relaxed when nothing untoward had appeared to happen at the front door.
Marley showed no hesitation over the food, obscuring his plate entirely as he piled slices of Hawaiian on it, burning the tips of his fingers in his eagerness to pull more food within reach.
"I'm gonna take some of this to the kid," Ezra told them, placing two medium sized slices of the three-topping on a clean plate. Pointing a finger at the bald man, he warned, "There better still be plenty left when I come back or you'll be eatin' your pizza through a straw."
The other man waved him off good-naturedly. "You promise to tell Riggs, in detail, just what he missed out on and you got yourself a deal."
Surprised, Ezra laughed. "Deal."
As he moved toward Vin's room with the plate, Ezra shook his head. Whatever amusement Marley had provided, it was not enough to counter his earlier actions. The man had willingly and without a hint of remorse kidnapped an innocent child away from family and friends, simply because his employer had ordered it. Vin was in grave danger because of a greedy and vindictive man's vendetta and the work of two willing stooges. No, Ezra thought, these men would all deserve everything they had coming when Chris and the others got hold of them.
Vin was bored. At first he had been frightened, and he still was to some extent, but the fear had faded considerably after discovering that his uncle was with him and trying to get him back home. The fear had faded even more as time dragged on, slowly being replaced with anger and indignation. Uncle Ezra had told him that those men had taken him because they thought it would distract Chris from his job. He had had a lot of time to think, though, and he had realized the unspoken part of that explanation. They had wanted to hurt his dad by using him.
When he heard the lock rattle, Vin tensed. He hoped it was Ezra but if it wasn't then he needed to be ready to make a run for it. As the doorknob turned, a familiar voice called out, "Keep back, kid. I'm comin' in."
Vin relaxed. He had told himself to be ready for escape but now felt slightly ashamed of how relieved he was that the opportunity had not presented itself. "I wouldn't have gone without you," he blurted, bringing a confused look to Ezra's face as he entered and shut the door behind him. Jutting his chin toward the door, Vin added, "If I had to make a break for it."
"Make a break for it?" Ezra repeated, amusement coloring the words. "You sound like Mr. Wilmington."
The boy grinned but the expression quickly turned wistful. "I hope he's okay. Him and JD and Chris." He sighed. "Especially Chris. He must feel really mad about me getting took just 'cause somebody wants to get back at him."
Handing him his plate and a paper napkin, Ezra took a seat next to him. "He's very angry with Mr. Harding," he agreed, "but mostly he's just worried about your well-being. They all are."
Vin pondered this for a moment, then he nodded. "Yeah." Ignoring the food, he laid his head against Ezra's chest. He could feel the steady beat of Ezra's heart beneath the warm surface of his chest and took immense comfort in it. "I wish you didn't have to be nice to people like them for your job, Uncle Ezra, but I'm really glad you're here."
Laying his cheek down upon the soft sandy curls, Ezra hugged him tightly. "So am I, son." As he released him a few moments later, Ezra allowed a note of urgency to enter his voice. "Now, you'd better eat up and get what rest you can. We're going to try and escape this place tonight."
"You getting anything yet?" Chris asked impatiently as he watched Nathan fidget with knobs and tuners attempting to capture the signal from a listening device Josiah had passed off to Ezra. From the audio-video control room in the ATF building's center, they would be able to monitor any activity from within the house, making sure nothing went awry before the rescue attempt could take place.
Nathan frowned. He was very good with electronics, but having someone literally breathe down his neck while he worked made him fidgety. "Just some static so far. I'm not happy with the quality of this reception but we are getting a feed."
"Put it on speaker," Chris ordered.
Nathan threw another switch and the room became filled with badly muffled voices. A loud hiss and clatter made both of them jump and exchange a questioning look.
"Somebody opened the bottle and tossed the cap," Chris guessed, as the voices became suddenly clearer but also more distant. Nathan increased the gain, which unfortunately also increased the static. "Wish we could have hidden that bug somewhere better than the lining of that bottle cap."
"I wish we could have at least told Ezra it was there," Nathan sighed. "We didn't have much choice, though. It would've been found too easily in the pizza boxes and Ezra's taking enough risks without him trying to plant a listening device on one of the other men."
They heard Ezra announce his intention to take some food to Vin and then nothing for awhile except occasional rattles and clinks, and the noises of someone eating ravenously.
Suddenly Chris' cell phone rang. Nathan slipped on a pair of headphones and turned off the external speaker to continue monitoring without disturbing him.
"Hey," Chris greeted as he heard Buck's voice. "Good news. Josiah made the delivery and Nathan's got the surveillance equipment hooked up. Ezra's going to try and get Vin out at midnight."
His paused for a few seconds to listen, and then a surprised expression flickered over his tense features. "He did? That's great. Tell him I said he's been a big help."
As he disconnected, Nathan asked, "What's up?"
"Buck says JD woke up again, insisting on helping Vin. Buck let him look through the profiles we collected on Harding and any known associates before Ezra went undercover."
Nathan grinned, anticipating the news. "He recognized the kidnappers, didn't he?"
"Sure did," Chris confirmed. "David Riggs and Brett Marley."
Frowning, Nathan pulled out his own copy of the case file, which he had been studying off and on ever since they had first learned where Vin was being held. Nathan was a meticulous person and every name in his file was organized alphabetically according to those most recently associated with Harding. It took him mere seconds to find the two names and the photographs that went with them. "Is JD sure?" he asked. "Look at this."
The photo he held up was a mug shot of Marley taken just a year before. A mop of greasy looking dark curls fell into his face in the photo, nearly obscuring his eyes. The pockmarks were clearly visible but the overhanging eyebrow JD had mentioned was not.
"Must've shaved his head," Chris grunted. "What about the other one?"
Nathan nodded as he fished out a photo of Riggs from the back of the file. The picture did not particularly resemble the artist rendering he and Josiah had been distributing throughout town, but the man was a thin-faced, heavily-muscled Asian American with longish hair and heavy lashes, much like JD had described his assailant. "This guy hasn't been affiliated with Harding in any police files for about five years. He isn't even listed here as having ever resided in Denver. Probably why nobody thought of him."
Chris also read the description. "He's been arrested three times for illegal surveillance and tampering with security equipment," he commented. "No wonder Harding hired him."
Suddenly, a horrified look filled Nathan's eyes and he moved both earphones back into place, having removed one to talk to Chris. "Call Josiah. We've got to move!"
Pressing the speaker to his head more closely, he snapped. "Harding just got a phone call. I think he may be on to us."
"He make Ezra?" Chris asked tensely, eyes burning with a combination of worry for his son and friend and pure malice toward those who threatened them.
"I don't know," Nathan replied, "but it sounds like Riggs has been watching our office building. He must have seen Josiah leave in our pretend pizza-delivery car because Harding just ordered him to head back home and told the other one to bring Ezra and Vin out to him."
Chris was already on the phone to Josiah, ordering him back to the house. Grabbing his jacket, he snapped, "Let's go."
Ezra's phone rang just as he was about to leave Vin's room. He pulled it out and flipped it open quickly, not wanting the men outside to hear. "Yes?" His face tensed, causing Vin to leap up and run to him, half-eaten dinner completely forgotten. A heavy knock sounded at the door and Ezra instinctively pulled Vin closer to his side. "I have to go. I'll do what I can, but you'd better hurry."
"What's happening?" Vin whispered, blue eyes huge in his narrow face as Ezra shoved the phone back into his pocket and moved them both to one side of the door.
"That was Nathan. He thinks my cover might be blown, but he isn't sure."
Pressing even closer, Vin asked, "What are we gonna do?"
"All right, I'm comin'! Keep your shirt on!" Ezra shouted at the door as the knocking continued.
"Bring the kid out with you," Marley's voice replied.
Kneeling down, Ezra looked intently into Vin's frightened eyes. "We need to try and stall, possibly bluff our way out of this. I know this will be hard, Vin, but you need to remember that you don't know me."
Gulping hard, he nodded.
"We're coming out," Ezra called. As he caught sight of the glowering man on the other side, he affected an irritated look. "What's going on?"
It was all he could do not to flinch as Marley clamped a strong hand around his upper arm and jerked him forward. "Boss wants you. Now."
Ezra attempted unsuccessfully to yank his arm free, which only caused the other's grip to tighten. Keeping Vin tucked protectively against his other side, Ezra walked. The moment he saw Harding, he demanded indignantly, "What's this all about, boss?"
"Who was that delivery man?" he replied, small dark eyes narrowing into beady slits.
Pretending confusion, Ezra clarified, "You mean the pizza guy? How the hell should I know?"
Harding's thin features tightened and the overhead light caused his eyes to glitter, reminding Ezra of nothing so much as a snake. "You're lying. Riggs has been keeping a watch on Larabee's office building since late this afternoon. He saw a car with your restaurant's logo leave there just before our delivery."
Ezra shrugged. "Maybe somebody at the ATF likes the same pizza place. I can't be their only customer, y'know." He knew it was a flimsy excuse but it was the only one that had come to mind. "Just a weird coincidence."
"I don't believe in coincidence," Harding replied coldly. His arm suddenly struck out, snatching Vin free of Ezra's grasp. The child gave a squeak of surprise and stumbled, falling to his knees on the dingy brown carpet. Harding jerked him to his feet again by his left arm but kept his eyes trained on Ezra. "Don't play games with me. You somehow sent word to Larabee that we had his boy, didn't you?"
Harding cut him off. "I warned you not to allow your sense of misplaced compassion to betray me, Dillon. Lack of trust always ends up getting somebody hurt." He gave a vicious twist to the thin forearm in his grasp and Vin screamed out in pain as he felt a bone snap.
Ezra cried out wordlessly and attempted to lunge forward. Marley flinched and made a disgusted sound in his throat. "Jesus, boss, you didn't have to do that."
"Let him go, you miserable lunatic!" Ezra shouted, struggling to get free. "He's just a child. He didn't do anything to you."
Harding smiled coldly and shoved Vin away. The boy landed hard and stayed where he fell, curling up into a ball around his injured limb and sobbing powerfully.
The gunrunner watched for a moment, seeming rather entertained by this show of distress, then he refocused on Ezra. "Maybe you're right, Jimmy-boy," he said, his suddenly friendly tone causing Ezra to tense even further. "He didn't do anything to me."
Marley's alarmed protest of, "Boss, don't!" was enough to warn Ezra to spin toward his captor, turning his back just as Harding's hand dove into the lining of his coat, drew forth a pistol and fired.
Fire erupted inside Ezra's torso as a bullet tore through the shoulder blade and burst out the front of his chest where it continued its path straight into Marley. They fell to their knees together, the large man's grip clenching reflexively tighter as he lifted the other hand to his chest, staring in shock at the blood that had begun to pump out of him in frothy bubbles.
"No!" Vin screamed, all but forgetting his own injury as he scrambled forward, right hand desperately pushing at the big man who suddenly collapsed and landed halfway onto Ezra, pinning him to the floor. Ezra was able to yank his arm free as Marley's grasp went lax and with Vin's help, shoved the heavy limp body away from him. He gasped in pain as the terrified little boy pressed a hand clumsily against his chest. "You're bleeding bad! I don't know how to stop it, Uncle Ezra!"
"Uncle Ezra," Harding repeated from behind them. He had lowered his gun to follow their path to the floor. Oddly, he seemed perfectly calm, not even seeming to notice that he had mortally wounded his more loyal employee as he studied the one who had betrayed him. He shook his head. "One of Larabee's men, I presume."
Ezra did not respond except to struggle up into a sitting position. He ignored the waves of dizziness that swept over him as he pulled Vin close to his uninjured left side, accepting the boy's help as he slowly got to his feet. As gently as he could, he pushed Vin behind him where his own body could act as a shield. The pain was excruciating and he could feel hot blood streaming down his chest and back. Ezra knew that it was only a matter of time until he collapsed again or bled out, but he was determined that he would keep Vin from further harm for as long as he could.
Harding watched his struggles with bland amusement. "That won't do any good, you know," he said conversationally. "All I have to do is shoot you both in the head, then just leave your bodies here when I go."
"They'll catch you," Ezra gasped. "Don't make it any worse."
At this, he actually laughed. "Worse? Don't be ridiculous. I must assume that you've been feeding Larabee information all along on my business, so I'm already facing charges for selling illegal arms. Add kidnapping, assault of a Federal officer and this," he gestured unconcernedly at the still body of Marley, "and I'm already looking at life in prison. How could it be worse? With the two of you dead, at least I'll have the satisfaction of knowing that Chris Larabee's life will be equally ruined."
He sounded so pleased as he casually outlined his intention that Ezra could think of nothing else to say. He could feel Vin trembling hard behind him and took a couple of steps back toward the corner, steering Vin toward its relative safety.
"Say goodbye to Uncle Ezra, boy," Harding said, smiling coldly as he pointed his pistol at Ezra's forehead.
The ATF surveillance van had broken every traffic law in Denver as it sped toward Harding's hideaway. Nathan and Chris had followed every word and action, filling the vehicle with a litany of heartfelt swearing when they had heard Vin's scream and the subsequent gunshot.
"Oh, God, we're not going to make it in time!" Chris moaned a few moments later as he heard Harding tell Vin to say goodbye. They were still several blocks away.
Then, like an answer from heaven, came the sound of a heavy crash and Josiah's deep voice shouting, "Freeze! ATF!"
Chris shoved down on the gas pedal, coaxing a little more speed from the van as he careened around corners and came to a screeching bone-shaking halt on the quiet suburban street, just as another gunshot sounded from the house. The noise echoed over the surveillance speakers as Chris and Nathan leapt from their vehicle and charged full-bore towards the open front door, guns drawn.
They arrived to find Josiah, still in his delivery uniform, standing over the collapsed body of Emory Harding. He held his gun pointed menacingly at Harding's head, even though it was clear that the insane gunrunner would not be harming anyone else ever again.
Chris ignored them and the body of Harding's henchman, moving anxiously toward his injured family members, who had backed into a corner, Ezra's body blocking Vin's from clear view. Ezra's face had gone gray, his skin beaded with sweat, green eyes unfocussed but still somehow filled with grim determination. Part of Chris wanted to shove him aside into Nathan's waiting hands and get straight to his son, but he recognized the expression in Ezra's eyes. He was on the verge of collapse, probably not even aware that the danger was over, but determined to maintain his guard over Vin.
Reaching out slowly, Chris laid a hand on Ezra's uninjured shoulder. As expected, his friend flinched and tried to block Vin even more. "It's okay, Ezra. It's Chris. You did great. It's all over now."
Behind Ezra, Vin's head, which had been tightly pressed to his uncle's back, lifted. "Dad?" he called out hopefully, then immediately shoved his way free of his protector and launched himself forward, flinging both arms around Chris' waist.
Ezra made a weak attempt to stop him, but his strength chose that moment to give out. He fell bonelessly toward the floor, only stopped from collapsing entirely by Chris, who caught him in a clumsy one-armed embrace, the other already pressed tightly around Vin's sobbing body as all three fell to their knees.
As Nathan and Josiah came to join the awkward huddle, Vin was not the only one whose eyes were wet.
Almost exactly twelve hours later, Ezra opened heavy eyelids to find himself lying in the all too familiar confines of a hospital bed. He shifted in place, then gasped as a spear of pain shot through his right shoulder.
"Take it easy," a voice told him, drawing his attention to the side of the bed where Josiah Sanchez stood. "You shouldn't be moving around until that shoulder has a chance to heal up a little."
"Shot," he murmured, remembering. "Harding shot me."
"That's right, but you don't have to worry about him any more. Harding and the other man who was with him, Marley, are both dead."
Ezra frowned. "I thought I was about to die. Harding was going to shoot me again, but I can't remember why he didn't."
Josiah smiled. "I came through the door just as he was about to fire. When I told him to freeze, he decided he'd rather turn the gun on me, so I shot him instead."
"Killed him?" Ezra verified.
"Blew his miserable heart out," he confirmed in a tone of uncharacteristically vicious pleasure. "Chris wasn't happy that he didn't get the satisfaction, but considering the alternative he wasn't really upset."
Ezra's brow wrinkled as he tried to recall the scene. "I didn't mean for Marley to die," he said with a note of real regret. He wouldn't let go of me when I turned to try and escape the path of the bullet."
Josiah nodded. "He got in the way. I know. Vin told us what happened and the M.E. confirmed it when he was examining the bodies for transport."
Ezra's eyes, which had been sliding closed again, suddenly opened wide. "Vin. Is he all right?"
"He's fine," Josiah reassured him. "You did a great job last night. You saved his life."
"He must have been terrified," Ezra murmured, "but he was so brave. I've never been prouder of him."
The older man sighed. "The emotional trauma may take a while to get over, but Buck and Chris are going to set up appointments with the boys' psychologist as soon as possible. He'll help all of them sort through any lingering problems."
"And you're sure Vin is all right otherwise?" Ezra confirmed anxiously, suddenly afraid to believe it.
"Why don't you ask him yourself?" a voice asked from the doorway.
Josiah moved out of Ezra's line of sight, allowing him to see a smiling Chris Larabee, who stood with one hand resting protectively on the shoulder of his son. Vin was bouncing in place in his eagerness to come inside.
"Vin wanted to make sure you were okay and when we explained the situation, the doctor was willing to bend a couple of rules to let him pay a short visit."
Ezra smiled, his entire body wilting with relief at the sight of the apparently healthy little boy. "Most kind."
Vin needed no other invitation. Pulling free of Chris, he ran to the bed and circled around to Ezra's uninjured side, clutching his extended hand tightly. "How are you?" he asked solemnly. "Do you hurt very much?"
"It does hurt," he said honestly, "but that will fade in time. It seems the doctors have done a fine job patching me up." He lifted his right hand a few inches to wiggle the tips of his fingers in demonstration. Even that simple action proved painful but it succeeded in bringing the smile back to Vin's face.
"See my cast?" he asked proudly, showing off his left arm, which had been encased in neon-blue plaster. Propping himself against the bed for balance, he held up one foot as well. "The nurse made it almost the same color as my shoes."
"Very impressive," Ezra told him, pleased to know that the boy had not chosen to negatively associate his favorite footwear with his ordeal. "How do you feel?"
Vin considered the question seriously. "I'm okay. It hurts a little and I was pretty scared for awhile last night, nightmares and stuff, but Chris let me sleep with him and that made me feel better."
Glancing at Chris, Ezra gave him a knowing smile. He would have bet considerable money that Vin had not been the only one who had needed the comfort of having the boy near to hand last night. Chris returned the smile with a small shrug.
With a smug grin, Vin told him, "JD's really mad that he wasn't allowed to come up and see you today, but he's too little."
Knowing full well that Vin was also too little according to hospital policy, Ezra wondered what sort of persuasion Chris had used to get him permission for this visit. "Tell him I appreciate that he wanted to come. And please tell him that I'm looking forward to seeing him as soon as I'm released."
"Okay," he agreed. "I just hope he acts happier to see you than he was to see me. JD started bawling when I came home."
Ezra smiled. "I would say that he was very happy to see you then. Where are he and Buck now? And Nathan, for that matter."
Josiah answered the question. "AD Travis volunteered to baby-sit. Took JD and his grandson Billy out for ice-cream while Nathan and Buck personally take care of booking David Riggs for kidnapping and felony assault."
At Ezra's surprised look, Chris added, "Buck put out an A.P.B. on him last night after JD managed to identify his photograph. Can you believe that idiot was still driving the van he and his partner had used in the kidnapping when he tried to make his getaway? Apparently it's also the same vehicle that was used to transport that stash of weapons you informed us of down in the basement. The forensics team is having a field-day."
"Why am I not surprised?" Ezra said, the words ending in a yawn.
"We should go and let you get some rest," Chris said. Unable to properly shake Ezra's hand without hurting him, Chris instead rested a hand on his chest right over the heart. Looking him straight in the eye, he said with sincerity that spoke volumes more than the few simple words, "Thank you."
Equally sincere, Ezra replied, "It was my honor."
As Vin made a move to try and climb up the side rail of the bed to get closer, Chris quickly lifted him high enough to give Ezra a kiss on the cheek. "I love you, Uncle Ezra. Thanks for saving me," the boy said softly. "I'm really glad you're gonna be all right."
"I love you too, Vin," he whispered. "I'll see you soon."
His answering grin warmed Ezra clear through.