Main Character: Ezra
Summary: Ezra is transformed by a mad scientist into an animal…
This story also references, briefly, White Collar (Peter Burke), NCIS: Los Angeles (Nathan Getz), Hawaii 5-0 2010 (Lori Weston) and The Sentinel (Blair Sandburg).
This is tosh - pure, unadulterated silliness. But I enjoyed writing it, so there.
Webmaster Note: This story was formerly hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in March 2013.
Ezra flinched and squinted, pain shooting through his skull.
His eyes watered against the bright fluorescent tube light above as he blearily managed to open them. Memory returned with cruel clarity – exiting his sleek Jaguar sports car outside his elegant Denver townhouse home, Ezra had suddenly found himself face to face with a man in a balaclava who'd sprayed him full in the face with what had obviously been a powerful sedative.
Finally shrugging off the effects of his artificial nap, Ezra felt a chill run down his spine. He was fully dressed still, but strapped down onto some sort of medical table that was titled slightly downward reminiscent of the 'beds' used by the Minbari in one of his favourite sci-fi shows, Babylon 5. Not that anyone knew sci-fi was one of his hobbies; the one time he'd carefully skirted the issue during a multi-field office seminar at Atlanta, the whole genre and aficionados of it had been sneeringly excoriated by the gathered FBI agents; the sole exception had been a Peter Brent – no, Burke – out of New York who'd quietly admitted a fondness for Star Trek.
Directly in front of the bed was a very large, complicated looking machine, which ominously had a large “nozzle” like protuberance aimed directly at Ezra's favourite stomach. Indeed, the entire room had that clinical atmosphere of an operating theatre…Oh, dear.
A high-pitched, snickering laugh made his tense stomach muscles spasm tight altogether, and a second later, Dr Alfonso Holbachstein crossed his field of vision. Ezra kept his face bland, acutely aware that his situation had just gone from very bad to utterly abysmal.
Holbachstein was a brilliant scientist. He was also an utterly mad one. For the past three months, Ezra had been deep undercover as ATF Team 7 had gone after drug lord Leon Gonzalo; Gonzalo, previously a small-time player, had suddenly gone major-league after abruptly starting to supply good quality heroin at much lower prices than normal, making a fortune in weeks. Ezra discovered the secret of his success – Holbachstein, who was quite happily synthesising the stuff by the kilo for a cut of the proceeds with which to finance his inventions – vicious weapons of mass destruction that Holbachstein routinely sold to any person, organisation or nation that could – or would - afford his particularly nasty inventions. In post 9/11 America, that was all the country needed, not.
Josiah had profiled Holbachstein for Director Travis, although the bureaucrats being what they were, a military psychoanalyst, a Dr Nathan Getz from LA, a Navy man, and a Homeland Security lady-spook named Lauren…Laura…West…no, Lori Weston…had also been asked to profile the man as an exercise in pointless redundancy as far as Team 7, and their good buddy compadres Team 8 under never-ex Marine Colonel Ryan Kelly were concerned – what Josiah Sanchez did not know about the human psyche, and more importantly the human soul, largely from profound and not always happy personal experience, was not worth knowing.
The trio of psychological evaluations, although completed individually and independently, were unanimous: totally devoted to his warped view of what constituted pure 'science', Holbachstein viewed the rest of humanity as nothing more than very large lab rats. He had gone totally off his head at the takedown (because the fire fight had bullets damaging/destroying his special inventions and research), which saw Gonzalo die - and it had primarily been Ezra's heartfelt, riveting testimony that got the scientist detained for life at an asylum for the criminally insane.
Now Ezra saw the bruises and minor cuts indicating that Holbachstein had managed to effect escape from his prison but he wasn't that surprised. Even, or actually especially in the higher echelons of law enforcement and the psychiatric sciences, which were far too much ivory tower and far too removed from frontline/life-at-the-sharp-end realities, there still held sway the view that 'white collar' criminals and 'academic/scientist' gone-bad types were more to-be-pitied dorks than viewed as extremely dangerous, completely amoral psychopaths. If eventually recovered surveillance footage didn't show Holbachstein acting all meek and cowed and compliant and then practically just simply slipping out of an unlocked janitor access door of his supposedly 'secure' psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane, he, Ezra P. Standish, would voluntarily eat Buckland Wilmington IV's cooking for an entire week.
Despite his first name, Alfonso, Holbachstein took after his Germanic rather than Latin ancestors: mousy, thinning blond hair and his skin was dully pallid – not the healthy pale of someone who had tan-resistant skin but the greyish tone of someone who spent long periods of time in labs away from sunlight, fresh air and a generally healthy environment. He was very tall, but stooped over, and had a thin, narrow face with a pointy chin, long, red-tipped nose and watery, pale blue eyes, the combination of these making him resemble a rabbit. A very rabid rabbit.
“Dr Holbachstein. How very unpleasant tah see yah again.” Ezra drawled in his best Deep South good manners are everything accent.
The scientist glared at him furiously and nodded at the two muscular goons who had accompanied him. “Make sure Standish is secure.” Once again he gave that hitching, breathless giggle that was his trademark. “Time to die, Agent Standish. Time to die sooooo sloooowly…the pain will be unbearable, excruciating, agonising…”
Quite sure it would be, Ezra fought back with the only weapon he had left to him – words. Even in the unlikely event that his team mates were right this moment discovering that Holbachstein had escaped from Arkham Asylum-lite and were dashing to Ezra's house, they would be hours too late to save him. But Ezra knew he could take satisfaction in the knowledge that Team 7 would make sure Holbachstein paid for murdering him. He was part of a family. It had been a long, hard road before Ezra accepted it, but now he knew it as surely as the sun rose in the East. Taking a deep breath and ignoring the grinning goons, Ezra gave a derisive snort and cut across the vituperative words, “Oh please, with that? It looks like a giant cake icer!”
Holbachstein stopped and blinked at this temerity. Then he scowled and patted the large contraption. “This? This is my crowning glory! My great achievement, my ultimate triumph…Pah, you are too stupid to understand the genius that led me to it!”
Ezra managed to look singularly unimpressed, which wasn't hard since he a) genuinely had no idea what the machine was, and b) when he looked at it, the big “nozzle” and white plastic computer machinery behind it did make it superficially resemble nothing so much as a large cake-icing machine.
Rubbing his hands together gleefully, Dr Holbachstein leaned close. “This machine collapses the structure of human DNA. In short, Agent Standish, it disintegrates those it strikes. Your DNA will unravel like a ball of twine, every atom in your body will drift apart and you will collapse into less than dust,” Holbachstein's face twisted into a maniacal sneer, “but the process is slow, Agent Standish. It will take ten minutes for you to die, and for every single millisecond you will feel the agony as your body is ripped apart, molecule by molecule!”
Even the goons jumped nervously as Holbachstein loosed another bout of manic laughter. Ezra could do nothing as the scientist turned on the machine and it began to hum ominously, Holbachstein turning dials and setting readings. Abruptly the scientist's pocket shrilled.
Irately whipping out the cell phone, the madman embarked on an agitated, one-sided conversation. “What?…No! I'm…yes, yes. Now? Alright!” Snapping the phone closed, the scientist ordered the goons to set up a video camera so he wouldn't miss the demise of his first “test subject”. Hitting a final button, Holbachstein and his two cronies had left, shutting the door.
Ezra twisted futilely against the restraints, to see if he could ease his body to one side far enough so the nozzle's whatever missed him – if he could just inch –
With a click, something like a wide laser beam shot out from the nozzle, and unspeakable agony tore through his every fibre…
Ezra opened one eye. His vision was clear and not painful. Opening the other eye, he blinked at the expanse of white above him. He was somewhat surprised, to be honest.
He had never thought deeply on the possibility of the afterlife, other than to simply assume that whilst his six dear friends would be on the express elevator upwards – with Josiah and Nate front and centre - he would be effusively welcomed to a place where the décor was flame-red and actually aflame. The vast expanse of white was far more heaven-oriented than –
Ezra blinked again as a slight turn of his head brought the DNA Disintegrator into his line of vision. He was still in what was to have been his own 'murder room'.
But I'm on the floor. Ezra saw the table he had been strapped to, the restraints torn apart. For a moment, he contemplated his situation. Other than being on the floor he felt fine. For someone who should have been in excruciating agony as his body was slowly shredded into sub-atomic confetti from the inside out, Ezra felt remarkably perky.
In fact, he felt fine…even downright chipper as one of his favourite nearly-stepfathers used to put it – it was a pity, from a personally selfish viewpoint, that the 15th Earl of St. Cyr had seen through Maude like a plate glass window, because the two of them had gotten on splendidly. Unfortunately they'd left abruptly when Maude realised she wasn't about to become the second Countess consort…and fortunately she never knew that he had secretly telephoned the nearly-ex-first-Countess and revealed that the gold-digging sharks were already circling her estranged husband and her eldest son's inheritance could be going down the drain sooner rather than later. Maude – never call her mother or mom, and only occasionally did she permit mama – had thrown the newspaper across the room several months later, bitterly complaining about all her 'wasted effort on a rebound' when The Times reported the rapprochement of the estranged couple, as evinced by the still-Countess's pregnancy.
But then Holbachstein's departing words suddenly came back to him. If Ezra was the mad scientist's 'first test subject', then Holbachstein had really had no idea if the machine actually worked at all.
Obviously, it didn't!
Ezra allowed himself a momentary grin, then realised that if he was to escape alive at all from these goons, he needed to get his ass off the floor and in gear. Suddenly something moved in front of him and he froze at the sight of a thick bar a few inches in front of his face. It was white, with black spots, and had just twitched. Ezra remained motionless, but the bar – possibly some sort of snake? – did not move.
Taking a deep breath, Ezra suddenly threw himself backwards and away, rolling over till he hit the wall and frantically scrabbled to his feet.
Or tried to…
He crashed down again, flailing helplessly as he heard high-pitched snarls, but he was unable to get up. Finally he was able to get onto his hands and knees and brought up one arm to ward off any attaaaaaaaaa…
He stared at his arm. It was long, it was white, it had black spots, and it was made of fur. Blinking at this, Ezra tried to waggle his fingers. The big paw twitched and long, sharp claws suddenly protruded from it. Ezra was suddenly aware that the low growling sound was coming from his own chest.
Just what in hell is going on here?
Cautiously, he tried to shuffle forward and found that he could move…effortlessly.
Easing right up to the machine, Ezra edged around until he found a spot where the fluorescent lighting reflected well off the plastic casing of the big computers, the closest thing the room had to a mirror. Reflected back at him was an image.
He was a snow leopard.
A large snow leopard.
A large, green-eyed snow leopard.
But still a snow leopard.
For a several minutes, easily five or six, Ezra merely stared at himself, too stupefied to even think, before gradually the whirring of the video camera brought him back to himself.
Taking a firm hold on his gibbering panic, Ezra threw it into a little room at the back of his brain and slammed the door shut. Holbachstein was brilliant and an egomaniac, but he wasn't anywhere near infallible. The lunatic had screwed up before – that was how he had ended up being ostracised and then outlawed by the mainstream scientific community that tried to remain generally respectable in the first place.
Holbachstein decided to invent a DNA Disintegrator, but he never tested it, so he didn't know that it actually…he looked down at his paw…transforms DNA into something else.
Ezra suddenly remembered about the only scientific maxim he'd ever retained from his many high schools apart from E = mc2, namely: matter can never be created or destroyed, only changed into something else. Holbachstein had been trying to destroy a considerable amount of physical matter – an adult human body – and had obviously come up flush against the basic laws of physics.
A large portion of Ezra's mind was still running around in circles screaming over the image reflected in the machine, but long-ingrained survival instincts and a lifetime of training in remaining – or at the very least visibly appearing to remain – cool in any crisis now kicked in to help him.
He could collapse in a whimpering heap once he was a long, long way from Dr Moreau. If Holbachstein discovered him here in this state, he would kill him to dissect him – or more likely dissect him to kill him – and then enthusiastically go about trying his accidentally-invented 'matter transformer' on any poor soul who crossed his path.
Part of the reason Holbachstein had been deemed 'never safe' to release was the evidence Ezra had uncovered and earnestly presented at his trial about his experimenting on people vehemently against their will or who had had no idea they were guinea pigs at all. Holbachstein had kidnapped people at random from shopping malls and highways in various countries when he needed a test subject, and there were entire towns, three in the United States alone, which had unwittingly been guinea pigs for some new invention. By some miracle no lasting physical injuries or death had been caused, but his victims were understandably emotionally and psychologically traumatised by their ordeals. Holbachstein would have no qualms about zapping anyone he could with the thing to see what they 'turned into'.
Carefully moving again, Ezra found that his new body seemed to know exactly what it was doing in the 'muscular co-ordinating of gross and fine motor skills' department and so he could move with fluidity. After taking half a minute's time-out amusing himself by seeing how fast he could retract and shoot out his claws, Ezra winced as he heard a distant, harsh booming. For a moment he cringed, then realised the echoing boom-boom was a twin duet, the heartbeats and footfalls of someone approaching – though still a good ten minutes away.
One swat of his paw had the camera and tripod crashing to the floor, and the few occasions Buck Wilmington had succeeded in bullying him into unrefined eating of BBQ ribs with his fingers instead of cutlery actually came in handy as he used his new sharp teeth to rip the spooled tape into confetti, some of which he ate just for good measure. One thing that humans had in superiority to big cats were taste buds – the film didn't even register with his saliva glands.
The slightly arrhythmic boom-boom was coming ever-closer, the heavy tread of feet drowning out the heartbeats as they did so; two people, walking side by side. Ezra tilted his head on one side. He was surprised by his own olfactory ability, especially through a closed door with them many yards away, but realised that a real snow leopard – indeed, most carnivorous species – had to have a pretty mean nose for food. Humans had never needed nostrils that could scent deer at a half-mile and this modern world all they needed to do was look out for the 'golden arches'.
Ezra found he could wrinkle his nose, something the rational – i.e., still numb - bit of his brain made a mental note not to do in public, as he had no doubt it would make him look as 'cute' as 150lbs of fanged, clawed killing machine could look. He knew it was the two goons coming, doubtless sent by Holbachstein to fetch the videotape of Ezra's gory demise. Even as a human, Ezra had noted a certain fragrance coming from one of the two thugs that clearly indicated personal hygiene was not a priority. That distasteful whiff was now cranked up to the level of rank odour.
The two literally never saw what hit them. Shoving open the door, the largest goon just had chance to spot the destroyed video camera before something large and white collided with them; by then, sharp claws had neatly sliced across their throats, severing jugular, trachea and vocal chords. They were both dead within ten seconds, by which time Ezra was well away across the complex.
He loped along corridors and up flights of stairs. Ezra had no idea if 'real' feral felines or other apex predator species actually had colour vision, but was grateful he did. His exit was also made easier by the fact that his sharper aural and olfactory senses meant he knew people were coming a good five minutes before they were anywhere near him. Thus he was able to cautiously wend his way through the complex, ducking into corridors and empty rooms – courtesy of his human ability to understand what doors were and open/close them – whenever he was approached.
Finally he bounded up a narrow flight of steps, went up on his haunches and brought his weight down on a metal door handle, surging through to the outside world and freedom –
He collapsed in a heap, agonised yips wracking his frame.
Like a deaf man who suddenly regains his hearing while standing in the middle of a rock 'n' roll concert, Ezra was swamped by complete sensory overload. A hundred different sounds and a thousand separate scents simultaneously battered at him, each shrieking for his attention. His eyes clamped shut as the incipient twilight became searing, painfully bright.
In those initial crucial seconds of a realisation, the soft whirr of a video camera had stalled his incipient mental breakdown. This time it was the din of alarm klaxons. Abruptly coming to life, they swatted away the other sensory assaults like a giant obliterating a fly. Ezra lifted his head up, focussing on the sound as he had focussed on the video camera. Flight was important now; sorting himself out could wait until later, much later.
Easily outstripping any human sprinter, Ezra made the secure shadows of the tree line a good three minutes before the first guards-for-hire came barrelling out of the compound, waving their guns around agitatedly and generally getting in each other's way. To his astonishment, Ezra realised he could understand the glowing band of colour around each individual. He had always considered 'auras' to be metaphysical charlatanism, but his new perspective enabled him to see in a wider spectrum. He had colour vision, for which he was grateful though he wondered if all snow leopards had it or if it was a holdover from his transformation from humanity.
Maybe some humans who claimed to read auras were simply able to see in a wider spectrum band than normal? It was entirely possible, since most of those who claimed 'see' auras were women. The X-chromosome controlled colour vision, and women had two X-Chromosomes to a man's only one; a while back Maude had eagerly read up on some scientific research which showed that rarely some women had an additional fourth 'colour' cone that, depending where it expressed on their optic nerve alongside the typical three, made them either partial or full tetrachromats – able to 'see' in four colours, whereas 99 percent of humans were trichromats, only able to see in three colours. A trichromat saw about a million different colours, a tetrachromat over ten million different colours.
It had led Maude to reveal a rare family anecdote, and an even rarer reasonably 'happy' one about how her mother's sister was what today would be termed the family's 'personal shopper' in celebrity-speak due to an incredible eye for colour and the ability to pick out dropped stitches, poorly hemmed seams, 'thread runs' in cloth and cheap dye jobs being sold as expensive couture just by looking whereas anyone else would need an hour and a magnifying glass to spot the flaw.
Whatever the physics, Ezra watched what was going off. He could see everything clearly like he was sat on his couch watching a DVD, but everything was amplified – shapes were much more sharply defined and clear, colours were more intensely vivid, and overlaying everything he looked at were colour patches, as if he were watching the DVD through a heat-sensitive camera.
Each person had 'splashes' of bright red 'hotspots' - as if someone had paintballed them - on their bodies. The head was the largest and brightest red splash, and Ezra remembered reading in some magazine that humans lost most of their body heat through their scalp. Another hot spot was the heart. After twenty minutes of careful observation, Ezra realised he could discern mood from watching the faint glow that surrounded the scurrying men's bodies. Most of the guards had a sort of pinkish-hue, and then Holbachstein came out. The man's entire body was 'pulsating' a deep, dark red – almost a claret or burgundy shade, edging towards purple – which combined with his extremely agitated expression and gestures told Ezra all he needed to know.
Slowly the men began to fan out from the complex and Ezra retreated further and further back into the dense undergrowth, easily undetected. He had realised that the 'complex' was probably the abandoned coking plant situated to the west of Denver City, which put him in Colorado National Park, about fifty miles from Denver proper. From the confused, slipshod search pattern, that any competently trained agent – or even reasonably bright civilian – could have slipped through with a little common sense and not panicking, Ezra rapidly saw that most of the guards were hired idlers, bought for beer and bucks at some bar and with no idea of what they were really doing.
Holbachstein was another matter entirely, however. Clearly shaken from the deaths of his goons, Holbachstein marched haphazardly through the undergrowth, barely aware of the other searchers, muttering agitatedly to himself as he obviously tried to work out what on earth had happened. Ezra, who had taken refuge atop a rocky, ivy and shrub-smothered crag that none of the men had even glanced at, watched with ever growing rage as Holbachstein wandered ever closer.
Suddenly very, very aware of the offensive capabilities of his new body, Ezra slowly eased his prone body upright as Holbachstein came closer. All Ezra had to do was jump – even assuming the impact of the collision didn't kill Holbachstein outright, one flashing claw or his powerful jaws could slash Holbachstein's throat/crush his skull in a second…
It was his tail that saved Holbachstein's life. Crouched ready to spring, Ezra saw a flicker out of his peripheral vision, and the realisation that he was lashing his tail back and forth brought him back to himself. Killing Holbachstein was his heart's desire, but what if even JD Dunne, techno-genius extraordinaire, couldn't figure out what Holbachstein had done to that machine, or how to make it work? Much as he wanted Holbachstein dead, Ezra couldn't kill the man – yet - if it turned out he was the only one who could reverse this process.
Unaware of how close he had come to being slaughtered, Holbachstein continued on his agitated meandering. The search was fruitless. After realising that killing Holbachstein wasn't currently an option, Ezra had slipped silently away in what he 'knew' to be an easterly direction, heading back towards Denver city. The denizens of the wild night showed little inclination to be hostile towards a snow leopard in the prime of strength, and Ezra was constantly testing the range of his senses as he made his way through the mountainous forest, scenting a bear, two wolf packs and several other predatory felines when they were still a long way off. These creatures were content when the intruder did not remain in their territory, but continued on its way.
Ezra watched the forensics Crime Scene Investigation officers going over the ground from his vantage point, hidden in a high treetop a good hundred yards away. One of the officers suddenly called another and he saw her point to his own foot – rather paw – print, clearly delineated in the soft earth. The presence of these clearly efficient officers was providing Ezra with no answer to his problem – how to get back to his family – his team.
It had taken Ezra three days merely to reach a suburb of Denver, where, secreted in the back garden of a residential home, he had caught the news of how several of the elite Colorado-based MCAT ATF teams had raided the abandoned Brandanbeck coking plant in a search for a kidnapped agent. The search had come up blank – neither the agent nor his abductors were found, only two exsanguinated bodies that proved to be those of local petty criminals. Though the announcer stated that the search was ongoing, his attitude was clearly that the 'unidentified agent' must be occupying a shallow grave somewhere in the Denver Mountains. An attitude clearly impacting on MCAT ATF Team 7 – Ezra's heart had clenched in anguish as the cameraman caught a brief glimpse of six figures in the aftermath of the raid, all in tactical combat gear who all stood together with bowed heads and slumped shoulders, clearly distressed.
Unfortunately Ezra knew his situation was very dangerous. Locating Team 7, bounding up to one of them and expecting that person to take one look at him and psychically 'know' he was really Ezra P. Standish was utterly ridiculous, even someone as intuitive as Vin. Humans had very sensible reactions to being faced with creatures that had a fangs and claws. Ezra knew he would need all his wits about him not to end up being shot.
It was now six days since Holbachstein had abducted him and Ezra was painfully aware of the need for progress. Holbachstein wanted revenge against all Team 7; he had just hated Ezra the most. After a while of Ezra not being discovered, Holbachstein would go after the others, and that was something that couldn't be permitted. What if Ezra's situation had been a freak result? Something caused by a shorted out wire? What if the next time, the machine did exactly what Holbachstein had designed it to do? What if it turned one of the others into some sort of mammal too? Holbachstein couldn't be allowed to know what he had done.
The one positive slant to the situation was that Ezra found he had no trouble retaining that which made him 'Ezra'. He had dined well on his journey from purloined milk bottles, roasted joints left on kitchen tables and other foodstuffs impossible to access to something lacking human intelligence, but Ezra found he had no trouble remembering that he was a man, albeit in a very unusual body. He had experienced no compulsions to chase down and rend apart the fawns and lambs he had come across in his journey, nor any sexual urgings towards the two in-heat female pumas he had passed.
The attitude of the local wildlife was also atypical. The female pumas had regarded him warily but with no sexual interest or hostile wariness; likewise cows and other herbivores would look up when he came near, but showed none of the aggression or fear one would expect them to show towards something that routinely had them for lunch. It was as if Nature's creatures accepted that they were seeing a snow leopard, but nevertheless somehow just 'knew' that Ezra was no threat to them.
He knew that human beings would not be as intuitive. The scene played out below was acute evidence of that. It had been late afternoon the day before when Ezra's ears were assaulted by the piercing shriek of someone in extreme anguish. Reacting instinctively, Ezra had set off at a dead run and burst into a small glade near a children's playground. A large, burly man had managed to knock a violently struggling woman to the ground and was tearing at her clothes while she thrashed and screamed in an attempt to get away.
Ezra didn't even slow down – he hit the rapist full on in the back and sent him bowling over. The perpetrator's head hit the base of a tree with a definite crush and he did not rise. Ezra stood over the man's form, trembling from shock and adrenaline, with no idea what to do next. A slight sound from behind him made him turn his head and the woman froze rigid. Her clothing virtually destroyed, she was an attractive brunette in her thirties despite a face mottled with bruises, streaked with tears and swollen red with distress. However when she looked at Ezra, she showed just as much fear of him as when she was being attacked by the intended rapist.
Lowering his head to check that the perp' really was out cold, Ezra slowly walked away, not looking back; able to discern what she was doing out of the corner of his eye. Inching towards her dropped purse, the woman eased out a cell phone and dialled 911, whispering desperately into it with a voice that cracked. Even after Ezra disappeared from sight she didn't move until the paramedics came. From his vantage point, Ezra watched as she shakily explained what had happened. Any scepticism on the part of the paramedics disappeared at the sight of the large paw prints all around the unconscious man.
The police had appeared on the scene in short order and had been an escort for the woman and still unconscious attacker. Their scepticism had disappeared the instant they laid eyes on the paw tracks and their hands had dropped to their sidearms. As he lay on the branch watching the forensics crew, Ezra knew he faced a similar problem. Getting anywhere remotely near Denver City – never mind his team - without being shot was going to take a plan so cunning you could stick a tail on it and call it a weasel. Even assuming he made contact, how could he relate to his team mates what had happened when all he could was growl and yowl?
Once the forensics crew had gone, Ezra jumped down from the branch. He had no choice but to venture into Denver. His biggest fear, that the 'snow leopard' would subsume his humanity, had so far proved groundless, but Ezra still had a lot of anxiety. Holbachstein had created the machine by accident, which meant that he might not even be able to reverse the process even if he wanted to. Also, what if it was – or became – permanent? A sort of warped Mission Impossible theme of 'you've got 72 hours to regain your humanity or get used to eating Whiskas Supreme for the next 50 years?' Assuming, of course, that his lifespan remained that of a human and not that of a feline - Cats, even predatory big cats, had a lifespan of only about one third to a half of that of humans; in cat years, Ezra was a nonagenarian at least.
Well squatting under the branches wasn't going to get him anywhere.
The angry roaring of a big cat startled the rescuers; heads bent over bushes and shrubbery lifted up sharply and people looked at each other with widening eyes.
The park rangers had no explanation, nor did mountain rescue. A scout troop had gone camping in the hills just to the West of Denver, and everything had been fine until a very young bear, not much more than a cub, had blundered into camp. The bear had been more frightened than the children and took off at a flat run, but the boys had panicked, and when the scoutmasters regained control, four were missing, all under the age of ten.
The local police force was here, as was Mountain Rescue and the Park Ranger Service, plus even MCAT ATF Team 8 who had been passing en route back into Denver. None of the law enforcement officers made any comment on the grim attitude of Team 8 from Team Leader Colonel Ryan Kelly right on through. They were well known in LEO circles to be close friends of Team 7, whose member agent Ezra Standish had been kidnapped and murdered just over a week ago.
Mary Travis, editor of the Denver City Times and life-partner of ATF 7's Team Leader, Colonel Christopher Larabee had had a sharp altercation yesterday morning in one of the 'regular' LEO morning coffee/breakfast diners with the inappropriately named Derek Wellsay, lead hack of the hard-left, armchair moralist also inappropriately named Denver Intelligencer. The man had made several barbed comments about why hadn't the DCT rushed to publish 'your usual hagiographic eulogy’ to the dead man and referenced the now ancient and now long-discredited rumours of corruption and bribery apparently caused by jealousy over the fact that Standish was independently wealthy and yet instead of frittering life away idly on his ass or joining the liberal crusade against the Fascist police brutality, he had attended Quantico entirely at his own expense and been a rising star in the FBI until envious colleagues spread rumours and attempted to frame him for corruption in Atlanta.
Even amongst those in law enforcement with whom Team 7 were not that popular, Wellsay's denigrating a fallen officer to the face of a close friend – and a female one at that - was appalling behaviour.
Especially as Wellsay knew perfectly well the claims were drivel. After nearly ten years in Team 7, during which time his six teammates had resolutely ignored all questions and investigations and committees threatened or formed about Standish and the sources of his personal wealth, the man had been unexpectedly vindicated and his erstwhile colleagues proven corrupt and 'dirty cops' in the biggest newspaper exposé of 2009, after the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac crash triggered the global recession in 2008 and too many people who thought they were criminal masterminds had become too lazy and complacent to hide their trails.
Ezra Standish had gained a lot more kudos at that time by showing no signs of gloating or taking the opportunity for revenge, instead stating that there was no reason for satisfaction, never mind gloating, because he would always feel guilty about not being able to prove his detractors' corruption and secret criminality before 'they had the time to destroy who knows how many innocent lives over these past few years?’
Mary Travis and Chris Larabee had twin daughters, Sarah and Stephanie, and several law enforcement personnel currently here searching for the missing boy scouts had been present and had had to intervene and tell Wellsay to 'git gone, pronto' when Mary Travis told her little girls – who had the ferocious Larabee bloodthirsty death-glare down pat and were practising it on Wellsay – to go wait outside in a high-octave tone that clearly bespoke violent intent…a tone that had some similarities to the strident tone of the large predatory cat they had all just suddenly heard – loud, angry, and clearly intending to do something about it.
“That’s no puma?” Ryan Kelly, leader of Team 8, stated categorically.
One of the park rangers shook his head. “No it isn't. I have no idea what it is, I've never heard –”
The scream of a child chopped his sentence off.
Everyone – the four missing boys' parents, rescuers, cops – set off at dead run towards the sound like iron filings flying towards a magnet, crashing through underbrush as though it wasn't there. Ryan Kelly and his team, weapons ready, burst out onto the edge of a wide, deep ravine caused by the river rapids surging through it. On the other side, on a large flat rock, were the four boys.
Three were standing side by side, clinging to each other, defensively in front of the fourth, who was sitting down and clutching his own blood-covered arm. They had their backs to the river and the 30 plus adults who could only stand helplessly on the wrong side of the unbridgeable gap. Facing the boys, on its hind paws, was a bear, but this was not the adolescent black bear of their camp, it was a full grown flathead grizzly – Ursus Arctos Horribilis - the most feared beast in the South West.
Between the bear and its snack of four boys was crouched a snow leopard. Ryan Kelly dimly heard one of the ranger's exclaim that such a creature couldn't possibly be here, unless it was an escaped pet. As the adults watched in astonishment, again the cat forced back the bear.
Ellie Mathis' son Joey was the smallest boy of the four, yet he was the one in the middle of the trio, holding together and up his friends. Ellie was a single parent and had been ever since her husband decided he needed to 'find himself” and the only way he could do so was somewhere sunny with the companionship of a variety of vapid and nubile co-eds. Ellie discovered she wasn't really bothered about him coming back after he'd relocated himself and Joey had dryly pointed out to his mom that he hadn't been the kid in their three-person household. Ellie had thrown herself into making her son's life as unruffled as possible, helped by their next-door neighbour Scott, who was large, reassuring and quietly authoritative as a member of the USAF, and with whom Joey had bonded right from being a toddler.
It was Ellie Mathis who rummaged frantically in her purse and coming up with her cell phone, hauled back like a true Little League mom. The phone hurtled through the air and smacked the grizzly right on the nose. It jerked back at this new threat, but within moments it was confronted by a cacophony of yells, screams and missiles as the adults picked up rocks, raided their purses or grabbed whatever else seemed handy enough to throw. Faced by this unnerving development on top of a large, angry fellow predator, the grizzly turned and lumbered away in search of easier, quieter prey.
Ellie Mathis felt no relief at the departure of the huge bear; the adults were still on the wrong side of a chasm with a leopard not three feet from her child. To the collective astonishment of the grown-ups, momentarily flummoxed by their sudden victory, the snow leopard did not turn on the children it had hitherto been protecting. Instead, it turned and faced them and sat on its haunches, seeming to look at them with what one of the park rangers later swore was an attitude of 'get on with this rescue, you idiots'.
A couple of rangers remained in the same position with the local police, who drew their guns and aimed them at the big cat, though the adults knew their police Berettas were of little use – the river gorge was too wide for total accuracy with a handgun even in optimum conditions, never mind the prevailing breeze and the constant spray of mist as the river surged over the rapids; they would only have been sure of a hit with a rifle, but if the cat did attack the children, at least the discharges of the guns might frighten it off.
Team 8, the rest of the Search and Rescue and the parents hurried north for a quarter of mile, relentlessly forging through bracken and brush to a place where the river was wide but shallow, one of the waterway's rare natural fords. Splashing heedlessly through the water with Ellie Mathis in the lead, they began to trek back downstream on the right side of the river.
Ezra stood up, keeping an eye on the police on the opposite bank in case one of them, like that adolescent deputy who was obviously nurturing those three hairs over his top lip, got nervous and fired. An expert marksman himself, he had no fear of them hitting him, but there was a good chance a stray might catch one of the children, and Ezra hadn't just fought off a grizzly bear – for heaven's sake – for a child to be killed by one of their own rescuers!
He heard the approaching parents long before anyone else. Walking slowly away from the huddled boys he was quickly lost in the trees for a good ten minutes before Team 8 and the parents burst into the clearing to be greeted with hysterical joy by their sons, a din Ezra could clearly hear as he loped away with an easy glide. Despite hearing the Search and Rescue and Team 8 heading slowly towards him, he ran on uncaring, he would out distance them by miles easily. However, a new determination was his focus, and had been ever since Ezra laid eyes on Ryan Kelly. The haunted, sad expression on the face of Team 8's leader was but a shadow of the more profound grief Ezra knew his six team mates would be feeling. Getting back to his family was his priority…
In the event it took Ezra yet another five days to work his way unseen into the heart of Denver, although to his relief as he sneaked glimpses of newspapers on porches, there did not seem to be any obituary or memorial service for him in any of them. Once upon a time he would have been completely unsurprised for wholly negative reasons, defaulting to paranoia and anxiety about how his teammates really viewed him, but now, after much hard work and effort on both his own and his teammates' side, he knew better – just as the 'other six' would do if any one of them was MIA, he knew his teammates were stubbornly resisting any such death notice or funeral service until 'we see the body with our own eyes’.
One thing he had found was that as an animal, his sharp eyes worked against him in those things that were purely human actions, such as opposable thumbs using door handles and sliding bolts back/into place, or turning keys. He'd only really been able to skim the newspapers he'd managed to nudge open without mangling them, as print was 'wavy' and difficult to read, and the smaller the letters the more painful it was to his eyes – handwriting was completely illegible no matter how neat.
But in most other ways, his animal senses were a revelation as he made his way with delicate caution through back alleys, over rooftops, through sewers and drainage ditches, across empty lots, through deserted warehouse districts. He saw innumerable drug deals, his sensitive nose logged the hiding places of over five different illegal narcotics that he made sure to 'fix' in his memory for Team 7 to deal with when – Ezra refused to contemplate 'if' – he regained human form; and his sharp ears prevented over a dozen rapes and nearly as many murders as various bad guys ended up getting badly lacerated by something big and nasty with fangs and claws that disappeared into the night as soon as it rendered them too badly injured to proceed with their crime.
By sleeping on the narrow ledges of apartment blocks a couple of storeys up he avoided police patrols and the human predators, although he situated himself directly above full and open-lidded dumpsters just in case he unwittingly moved too much in his sleep and fell off; and gradually made his way to 'Downtown', where Vin lived.
In an actually gradually successful attempt at local economic regeneration and kick-starting the economy post-2008, the city council had put local money and local contractors into regenerating the area that had once been nicknamed, aptly, as Purgatorio. Shrewdly, someone from the Historical Society had got in on the planning committees and instead of tearing down the neighbourhood and building anodyne cloned glass-and-steel brick boxes, all the old 19th Century buildings – well-built and attractive under the grime - had been renovated and restored, including Vin's apartment building, with the old-style brass grill-door elevators and the curving spindle marble and tile staircases turned into chi-chi fashion features rather than rickety obstacles.
The city's 'new' tram service, back in place after being ripped out wholesale in 1920, had been extended to run through Pur- Downtown regularly, and with realistic common sense and no 'global warming scam' nonsense, the streets had been redesigned to appeal to car drivers, and the open spaces were fewer but larger and in full public view to make them more accessible to children playing at the same time as making life easier for the police to patrol and reduce places for gangs to hide out or anti-social types to loiter. The apartment buildings and suburban townhouse streets were now the homes of choice for both the aspirational up-and-coming young professional and middle-class white collar families.
Even better, all the local charities had been incorporated into the regeneration, not forced out as was usually the case by property developers wanting to 'upscale' an area. Such as The Sisters of Mercy Kitchen and Shelter now had space to cater for triple the original number of homeless overnight sleepers, plus an elderly/infirm day centre with even a little music/dance hall, general café and advice centre, a drop-in point to distribute care packages and a small youth centre/boxing gym. The volunteer operating committee with a certain J. Sanchez as Chairman actively pursued outreach and joint working with all military and law enforcement Veteran Association hospitals and local schools in a cross-generational approach that had made strong headway in reducing anti-social behaviour, fear of crime amongst elderly residents, and general petty crimes and vandalism; there had been an increase in the number of young people showing interest in law enforcement, military and clergy careers and a reduction in truancy.
As it happened, the holding company for the owner of the apartment buildings in Purgatorio had offered all persons who had been resident in that neighbourhood for more than five years the option of remaining in situ at their pre-regeneration rent for the life of their tenancy, or buying their apartment outright at its pre-regeneration valuation, with the rent money they had already paid subtracted from the mortgage or asking price.
A couple of years earlier, Vin had swapped his single-occupant second floor apartment with the elderly man who had the 'penthouse' apartment so designated because it had sole access, other than the mandatory external fire escapes, to the laughably so-called rooftop 'garden'. Struggling with arthritis and an elevator that worked only on alternate blue-moons no matter how much you complained to the landlord's agent – who had been fired in the regeneration - old Mr Vasquez had been facing finding scraping together cash for some beat up old trailer or living on the streets as he had been increasingly trapped inside his own four walls.
Vin had always been good with what little money he had, and had taken advantage of the latter offer to buy his apartment outright and then set to creating a rooftop space accessible to everyone in the building that satisfied temporarily his need for open space and green nature until such times as he was able to get to Chris's horse-stud ranch, Four Corners. Nowadays Vin was wont to gently tease Chris about the fact that his apartment's value had increased tenfold in the last few years since the regeneration, '‘n' yer wuh allus wantin' me t' git outta 'ere, Cowboy.'
Chris responded by growling and menacing – which intimidated Vin not in the slightest – but Team 7's ferocious Alpha Male didn't really mind; none of them did, because what they had all wanted was for Vin to live in a safer neighbourhood, which he now did, and he hadn't had to move 'mah scrawny Texan butt 'n' inch’ to do it. Close as they were, every member of Team 7 had some parts of their lives still personal and private, or in the case of Chris and Buck and Josiah, still classified, and so none of them knew that the owner of most of central Purgatorio since the early 1990s was, behind all the holding companies and subsidiaries, one E. P. Standish.
He'd never had motivation to look at that particular place in his property portfolio until joining Team 7; that it was a rundown slum area had meant nothing to pre-Team 7 Ezra, who had built near-impenetrable emotional defences around his battered heart, and even now, it meant nothing to him that the regeneration had increased his wealth for that property alone by about $50 million USD.
What did matter was that Vin was happy because the friends and neighbours he had come to care about were more happy and secure, and he finally lived somewhere safe and clean and worthy of the immensely brave, loyal, bright and kind man he was. If Ezra had been able to get away with it, he would have found a way to refurbish Vin's apartment in marble and ivory and porphyry and camphorwood and refund every cent of the man's mortgage money.
After watching the apartment building for an hour or so, Ezra discarded his initial strategy of simply making his way inside or up one the outer fire escapes to the rooftop and getting inside the apartment of the man he regarded as his co-closest friend, alongside Josiah, ever in his life.
Vin was too good a shot and too used to life in the wild to be frozen with fear even if, or especially when, faced with what appeared to be a snow leopard – there was too much a risk of ending up as Vin's hearthrug. Besides, what Ezra really needed was the chance to 'prove' his humanity. If he could get near one of JD's computers, he could communicate via type and then they would get somewhere, whereas Vin's dyslexia meant he still avoided computers unless he really needed them – the invention of the 3G smartphone and iPads, and voice-activated software like Sat Nav, where Vin had clear pictorial icons he could just press with his finger and minimal text, or he could just take or receive a photograph of something, had been a godsend to the Texan.
To this end, Ezra carefully snuck to Vin's old but carefully maintained 'vintage' jeep, and buried himself on the floor in the rear and waited with absolute stillness, only the top of his head visible as he watched the entrance to the block. As dawn began to get established, Vin exited the building, though Ezra's senses of smell and hearing had already logged 'Vin' as approaching.
What he saw made Ezra instinctively lower his head in sadness as the Texan came towards the jeep. Vin had always been a little on the scrawny side, but now the weight had melted off him. His face was putty grey and gaunt, dark circles under dull, faded eyes and lifeless, straggly hair. He walked with a weary disinterest in the world around him – although this area was no longer Purgatorio it was still an extremely dangerous thing to do for any frontline law enforcement officer. Ezra remained totally motionless, hardly daring to breathe, but Vin merely trudged up to the jeep and got in the driver's seat with a robotic exhaustion that made Ezra suspect he could have been a full-grown Roswell Grey or an entire troupe of Folies Bergère dancing girls and Vin would not have noticed him.
Listlessly Vin pulled on his seatbelt, then inserted the key and turned on the ignition – and froze when a large furry animal suddenly flowed between the front seat gaps to sit on the passenger side of the jeep!
Ezra blinked in distress when Vin's heart rate shot up, hating to unnerve the other man, but he remained still knowing any gesture of affection was likely to be wildly misconstrued. The sharpshooter remained frozen for a good half-minute as he assimilated that yes, a snow leopard really was sat not six inches away from him on the front passenger seat of his jeep. Very carefully Vin inched his hand towards the ignition key, only to freeze again when the cat snarled.
“Okay, easy.” Vin murmured softly, racking his brains frantically. He couldn’t just still here – Although Pur- Downtown was getting there, it still wasn't yet fully reinvented as a nice middle-class suburb where kids stayed in bed till 8:00am and then remained safely indoors till the school bus came. It wouldn't be long before those few unfortunates such as the homeless or latch-key kids began to emerge and there was no telling what the predatory cat would do with all those tasty snacks on hand. Moving with precise slowness, Vin set the jeep in motion with not so much as a jolt and trundled down the road at a full five kilometres per hour, casting oblique glances when the leopard didn't so much as twitch.
Continuing on and thankful the for mostly deserted road at this hour, Vin gradually increased his speed to 10kph, then 15, then 20, then 25, his wonder increasing likewise as the cat showed no dislike or aggression. Hell, had he not witnessed the thing move from the back of his jeep to the front, Vin would have thought it was a statue as it sat there on it's haunches with it's tail wrapped around it's paws and it's eyes narrowed to mere slits.
Vin moved his finger towards the indicator for left, “Gotta get y'all to the zoo –”
Vin instantly retracted his hand from the indicator and ignored the left-hand lane, continuing straight on as he consciously forced his heart rate down. Maintaining speed, Vin twice more tried to go left to pick up the highway for Denver Zoo, each time his intention was aborted as the cat snarled and showed truly impressive fangs.
Vin gnawed on his lower lip anxiously – they were getting into the center of Denver City, and traffic was ever increasing. “Dammit, ah almost think yah wants me t' tek yah inta work.” He muttered aloud to himself.
Vin turned to stare at the cat with astonishment; it regarded him intently. Vin blinked unaware he was muttering “no” to himself – the cat hadn't responded to his words…?
He glanced up – directly ahead was Vin's final intersection. If he went straight over, he'd eventually leave the city behind, if he went left, he could make his way in a big circle back to the zoo – if he went right, it would take him to the Denver Federal Building. “Ahm goin' left - !” Vin got no further as instantly the cat snarled and bared it's teeth. “Okay I'll keep on going!” Another snarl. “Then I'll go right!”
“No way!” whispered Vin but he went into the right hand lane and turned right and the cat began to purr.
Vin wasn't a man who scared easily or for long. Still moving slowly, he attempted to repeatedly take a direction other than that which would lead to work, only for the snow leopard to immediately react with aggression; by the time he eased the jeep into the underground parking garage, Vin's face was alight with confusion and wonder, though he couldn't bring himself to directly address the animal and see if it responded.
Knowing speed was of the essence, Ezra launched himself out of the jeep with a great bound and was across the garage even as Vin scrambled to unclip his belt and grab for his rifle in the back. As Ezra had anticipated, Ronald the handyman had just exited the service elevator, and Ezra bounded in as the doors re-closed, ignoring Vin's yell.
Ronald was an excellent handyman, but he was over fifty-five and had got the job as part of a Disabled Veteran's Employment Scheme as career Army after having been deafened by an exploding grenade in the First Gulf War. He never even noticed the feline that went straight past him and didn't look up as Vin ran towards him. The doors slid shut and Ezra reared up on his hind legs, hitting the button for Team 7's floor. By the time Vin got to the elevator and jabbed the call button, the elevator was too far up to go straight back down – it would go up to all floors that called, then back down again. Of course Vin would use the stairs, but fit and active as the Texan still was, Ezra still had a big enough lead.
The service elevator opened and Ezra bounded out onto a deserted floor; knowing that Vin was even now racing up the stairs to this level, Ezra hurried to Team 7's office at the end of the corridor, again rearing up and batting down the door handle to get in. Once inside he spotted instantly what he needed – JD Dunne, bless him, always left his computer on Standby instead of switching it off completely…
Vin Tanner arrived breathlessly on Team 7's floor and gave a soft gasp of relief to see its deserted state. Instead of searching every room, his instincts told him to head for Team 7's own office. Drawing his gun, he eased his way inside, closing the frosted-glass main door behind him to prevent the leopard escaping. Moving cautiously, Vin moved into the bullpen. Travis had offered to relocate them when he redesigned the elite teams as MCAT after the Twin Towers, but they were comfortable where they were and although Chris had always had his own office over there in that corner, they were all happy with the main bullpen and the washroom and kitchen. The leopard was sat in JD's chair, its attention fixed on the screen as if fascinated. Vin hesitated – to destroy such a beautiful creature was a moral crime if nothing else, yet he couldn't allow it to hurt anyone if it decided to atta……..
Automatically Vin's eyes swept the area and now they suddenly actually registered the words floating, in very, very large print, on JD's monitor: PUT GUN DOWN VIN.
Vin was dimly aware of a strange, muted 'yik, yik' sound and vaguely realised he himself was making it.
Sinking down into a chair – Josiah's, he absently noted - he finally managed to understand: Vin stared at the message on the screen, then at the snow leopard who was staring at him with unmistakeable urgency.
Finally he fumbled for his cell phone and hit a single button. Each of the seven had this button on their cell phones – this button was linked to six others that the sender was in need of immediate assistance, that all activities must be dropped and to come to the sender right damn now.
On Ezra Standish's desk, its top neatly piled with the workload of what everyone bar Team 7 now accepted was a dead agent, a cell phone sounded to the notes of House of the Rising Sun by The Animals because no matter how often Ezra put it to Smooth Operator by Sade someone – Buckland Wilmington IV please stand up, along with your accomplice/acolyte JD Dunne – kept changing it to the famous song about a Deep South professional gambler and a New Orleans brothel.
Almost instantly after, Vin's cell rang; not taking his eyes of the snow leopard, Vin simply picked up the cell phone and rasped, “I'm in the office, git here now!” before ending the connection. Four more times he delivered the same instruction.
It took less than ten minutes before Ronald the handyman was startled as he looked up to see the arrival of five fast-driven vehicles that didn't park but simply screeched to a halt before they hit the parking garage walls. Five men tumbled out and raced up the stairs as Ronald watched them go with raised eyebrows. He didn't figure what had set their butts on fire, but privately hoped that whatever had got them so animated lasted long enough to get them through the fugue they'd been in since they lost poor Ezra.
Their entry into their office was textbook law enforcement, as none of them forgot that Vin could have theoretically made the call with a gun to his head and a group of bad guys waiting to grab them when they went in, but they all halted as they saw Vin sitting, apparently unharmed, at Josiah's desk, while a…
…large snow leopard sat in JD's chair.
“Huh?” JD blinked as his brain confirmed his eyes’ message.
“Vin?!” Chris hissed softly, keeping his handgun rock steady on the big cat. “What the hell is that?”
“It’s a snow leopard.” Vin answered calmly and with no audibly detectable tone of irony.
“Vin, why did you type a message to yourself to put your gun down?” JD asked as Chris was momentarily lost for words; even for Vin, that reply was taking Zen to extremes.
“I didn’t – it did.”
Nathan said carefully, “The snow leopard?”
“Um, Vin…” Josiah began in a very gentle tone.
The cat moved and five handguns snapped up – ignoring them utterly, the cat extended a paw and one gleaming claw popped out of its pad. Carefully it depressed the keyboard.
JD made a soft sound as four letters appeared on screen.
Had he not still been too freaked out a mite himself to appreciate it, Vin would have relished the five utterly stupefied expressions on their faces. Everyone was frozen.
But it was JD who – perhaps still more trusting and open to the wonders of the universe than the rest even now – suddenly swallowed and before any of the others could stop him, moved to the leopard in a way that blocked their line of fire. To shoot it, their bullets would have to pass through him. “Ezra?”
The snow leopard leaned forward and rubbed its glossy head against JD's chest like an overgrown house cat.
Even now he was no longer the youthful rookie, JD Dunne had never seen the point of hiding your emotions behind a mask of stoicism. Flinging his arms around the snow leopard's neck tightly he buried his face in fur, tears sliding down his cheeks from beneath his closed eyelids, and feeling the vibrating purrs shiver through his body.
The other five men were still stupefied, but now accepting – there was no way a real snow leopard – any kind of animal other than a long term house pet like one of Chris's dogs – would tolerate a weeping adult human cuddle-crushing it half to death.
So in tune with each other were they that they skipped right over several psychological stages of 'denial' so beloved of the psychiatric profession and an immediate ferocious whispered argument broke out between them about how to help Ezra and what to do for the best. After about a minute, the cat in question had had enough – he was the Top Cat here, and everyone else including Chris was going to have to put up with being Officer Dibble for a while. Gently disengaging himself from JD's grip, Ezra gave a loud snarl that immediately transfixed everyone's attention, as hostile noises from a large predator with long fangs and sharp claws inevitably tends to do. Flexing his claws, Ezra turned and began to type laboriously – H, O, L,
“Holbachstein!” Buck barked aloud. “Damn it, it’s Ezra!” He glared around at the others, “Unless any of you got a better explanation.”
Their faces were still held traces of disbelief, but Ezra didn't blame them; if it was Buck or Nathan trapped in this feline body, he'd be having some trauma over it too. However, they were crowding around him without any fear or hesitation; Team 7 was comprised of men who knew from experience to trust what their own senses were telling them, and right now they were faced with a snow leopard who could type, and who knew the name 'Holbachstein'.
Turning back to the keyboard, Ezra typed laboriously with one claw: HOL KDNP ME KILL ME FRST TST FR HIS MCHN HOL LEFT THRT IT KILL NOT KILL MAKE ME THIS
Chris read the words and expanded them as he figured out what Ezra meant. “Holbachstein escaped and kidnapped you intending to kill you with some new nasty he'd invented?”
YES, Ezra typed.
“First test for his machine...” Buck muttered. “Ezra was going to be victim number one, but something went wrong?”
HAD ME TIED MCHNE DISNTGRT ME HAD 2 GO DIFF ROOM LEFT ME SO MCHNE CUD KILL DID THIS NSTED
There was silence as they digested these words, then Josiah exclaimed, “Of course! Matter cannot be destroyed, only transformed from one form of energy into another.”
“What?” Chris snapped.
“Basic physics – and philosophy.” Josiah replied. “Some people believe that matter – the physical universe – was created when God took some of His own energy and transformed it into matter. You cannot destroy matter, only change it from one form of energy to another; the ability to destroy matter would make you able to kill a small part of the Divine, which is impossible as the Creation is always inferior to the Creator. Holbachstein was trying to break one of the basic universal laws of physics, so of course this 'machine' of his didn't work, it transformed Ezra's matter into something else, rather than destroying it.”
Nathan suddenly looked ill. “Good grief, how many other people do you think he's done this to?”
NONE. By means of slow typing Ezra was able to convey the videotape's destruction and his own escape. Holbachstein had no notion of what the machine could do and was probably still fixated on locating and killing Ezra. He watched with relief as the other six men lost their haunted, grey expressions and came to life again as they had a purpose – find Holbachstein, fast, and get Ezra back to being bipedal and snarky… though nobody uttered a word, the real possibility that Ezra might be permanently stuck in feline form hung heavily in the air already, because these men were nothing if not perceptive and quick on the uptake.
Abruptly Ezra jumped down from JD's chair and loped into Chris's office out of sight. Before anyone could challenge this behaviour, there was a knock on the outer office door and Ryan Kelly from Team 8 came in with some files, looking mildly surprised to find them huddled around JD's desk and no longer lifeless and uninterested in the world around them. It took five long minutes to get rid of him and only then did Ezra reappear.
“Ez’ yah'll hafta t'stay wi' Chris till we find that scum.” Vin suddenly announced. “He's the only one wi' a home that's outta town enough, 'n' wi' space enough, for a snow leopard not ta be noticed. Yawl can't stay in the city, some jackass'll shoot yah.”
The others nodded in unison, remembering their own response to Ezra when they thought he was a snow leopard – no way could he remain around a lot of people!
Ezra didn't yowl but made an uncertain noise that to his relief, Chris immediately interpreted. “Mary's not home this week; the Mayor's asked her to stay in town for the Council meetings about the tram extension project out to the suburbs, for her Op-Ed piece.”
Ezra nodded acceptance of Chris's offer, aware that it would be almost impossible to get to his upmarket townhouse without being spotted by a member of the public or to deactivate the security systems and so forth even if he could do so.
Chris and Mary's twin daughters attended the same small day-boarding school as had their respective two older half-brothers, the one still living and the one long dead, which enabled them to come home on Friday nights and return on Monday mornings but had the security of their parents, living half-brother and two living grandparents plus a variety of 'honorary' uncles and aunts all close by in the same city. The school was a feeder for Colorado Christian University only ten miles away in Lakewood, and after much thought, Billy Travis had eschewed mightier and more famous colleges; Billy was a thoughtful, intelligent youth acutely attuned to his mother's long, deep grief over his father's death and Chris's own anguish about the loss of his own son – Billy's school friend Adam Larabee. He had achieved a full ride sports scholarship and was always in the starting line-up for the CCU Cougars.
That meant all three children would be safely away from Chris's ranch, and Mary would also be away, since she maintained the city-centric townhouse she and her husband Stephen Travis had had for the sake of her job as the Times editor and his as a Federal prosecutor; she had worked her way up as a cub reporter, and clung on through the harrowing years following Stephen's murder, and it was a position she fully deserved and for which she was widely respected. She did not grandstand or power-play and she insisted on firm ethics and no harassment or stalking whilst also not neutering or whitewashing the rich and powerful.
Although nobody – well, nobody with manners – ever talked about it, they all knew the other reasons that Chris and Mary maintained two homes despite their long-term 'committed relationship'. When Mary had accidentally become pregnant with the twins, due to one of those viruses swept aside with a few pills, a lot of people had made unsubtle hints about marriage; Mary had publicly and flatly rejected the notion out of hand. The simple fact was that Mary had not felt ready to give up the surname of her beloved husband, Stephen Travis, nor did Chris feel able to relegate Sarah Connor to being the 'late first Mrs Larabee', and besides which, neither of them buckled to anyone else's preferred timetable. They had not wanted their daughters to grow up hearing the rumour that their existence 'forced' mom and dad to 'get married'. Billy had clearly given his support to his mother and stepfather in every way that mattered, and Orrin Travis and his wife Evie had also given the couple their full support, knowing of Mary's deep love for their only son but also aware that she had in many respects put herself into an emotional 'suspended animation' after his death that was psychologically detrimental if continued too long.
For the remainder of the day, Ezra remained in Team 7's office, slipping into Chris's office whenever anyone entered, as his teammates bent their every effort to locating Holbachstein. Chris deliberately remained late in the building, he and Ezra making their way down the stairs to the parking garage without incident. Chris opened the passenger side and Ezra bounded easily up onto the seat as Chris shut the door and went round to the driver's side.
Conversation en route to Chris's ranch was nil – though completely relieved to be back with his friends, Ezra was deeply embarrassed to be able to respond only with snarls, yowls, and other undignified noises and his team mates had quickly figured this out.
Ezra entered the ranch house cautiously, but there was no need for panic as neither of Chris's dogs reacted. Old Diablo and young Sam regarded him quizzically for some time and would not come near him, but showed no other hostility. To Ezra's gratitude, Chris simply opened the door of the small ground-floor guest room next to the kitchen that Ezra habitually slept in when Team 7 stayed over and left it open. Feeling better than he had for days, Ezra made himself comfortable on the bed and went to sleep.
Team 7 explained away their grim looks and their constant attendance at Chris's ranch over the next few days quite simply by honesty – they were working a huge case, and they had found 'links' to Ezra's kidnappers.
Nor was this a lie. JD was able to locate Holbachstein with amazing ease since the man had bought highly specialised computer equipment; the good news was the mad scientist was still near Denver; the bad news was that he was holed up with one of the myriad anti-government/racist mini-militias that infested the USA. Their 'stockade' – a glorified group of shacks – was in the Denver Mountains and had the disadvantage of being difficult to sneak up on.
Buck and Josiah went personally to the small town nearest and by liaising with the local Sheriff's office, were able to ascertain that the militia were allowing Holbachstein to run some 'repairs' on a mysterious 'contraption' in return for a lot of cash that they intended to use to by serious arms – ground to air missiles and such.
Taking the socio-political 'temperature' of the Sheriff's Department and the townsfolk in general, Buck and Josiah reported with satisfaction that they would meet no resistance either in fact or in attitude. The town was one of those that exemplified what was best about small-town local American communities and most townsfolk would be discreetly happy with any law enforcement agency that lanced that particular long-term boil-blot on their landscape. Apparently a small minority of the town's teenage boys and the odd couple of girls tended to flirt with the militia before wising up or more usually having their parents and the sheriff forcefully do it for them, but as long as the militia group was present they would always be a risk to the town's young and gullible and old and vulnerable.
“Holbachstein obviously hasn’t used the machine on anyone else.” Josiah proposed upon his and Buck's return to the ranch. “If he had, there would be uproar in that stockade, yet they all treat Holbachstein like he's nothing more than a weird, barely tolerated cash cow.”
Ezra jumped down from the couch and began to pace agitatedly; despite JD's best efforts and managing to obtain an outsize keyboard, Ezra was still able to communicate only via typing, which was tremendously slow.
“We’ll get him, Ezra.” Vin tried to reassure the pacing cat.
“It’s not that.” JD surprisingly was the one who could most quickly interpret Ezra-the-leopard's moods. He slid off his chair so he knelt in Ezra's path and began to soothingly stroke Ezra's fur. “Holbachstein invented a matter transformation machine entirely by accident. He still thinks it's a disintegrator. Ezra's worried that if Holbachstein messes about with the machine too much, he may make some irreversible changes to it.”
And Ezra will be stuck like this forever…
There was no need for JD to finish the sentence that hung in the air between them.
Chris began to roll up the map they'd spread on the floor while Buck and JD began the important task of gathering beer and nuts. The militia group's 'security' was about as useful a block as a sieve; apart from a few middle-aged overweight die-hard originals, most of the group's membership were large, local lummoxes with little between their ears other than their skulls, twentysomething loafers who swaggered around impressing women and other local layabouts – or so they fondly believed.
Due to their constant inebriated bragging, Team 7 soon learned that on Friday virtually the entire group was going on a trip to harass a newly-opened Southern Black Baptist church, which would leave the stockade with only a 'skeleton crew' – plus Holbachstein. Josiah had contacted the minister, and Larabee the local PD – the church-attacking group would have a few seconds to incriminate themselves and would then all be arrested on a variety of minor and major charges by the waiting LEOs.
Once the main group had driven off, Team 7 would take the surveillance van out into the wilds, then circle back through the forest on foot and come at the stockade through the forest proper to the North, instead of the previously used FBI tactic of approaching from the South West. Director Orrin Travis, still under the impression that Ezra was dead, had given Chris carte blanche for Team 7 to undertake the mission and to do so alone, since more personnel meant a greater likelihood of being spotted. Once they had Holbachstein, they would get him to reverse the process and they would then miraculously 'discover' Ezra dishevelled but alive in the stockade.
“We’ll get him, Ezra.” JD encouraged as he came back into the room with bowls of popcorn, potato chips and savoury nuts clutched precariously in his arms.
Ezra inclined his head but made no other response. He refused to yowl and growl, and typing was not only slow, but quickly became painful to curved claws designed to slice and dice not pound a keyboard.
That first weekend at Chris's ranch, after they'd talked everything to death (and Nathan had insisted on giving Ezra a physical examination), Ezra had used the keyboard to relay as much information as he could recall, including the locations of the drugs he'd smelled en route into Denver. He'd also conveyed his fears of self-loss, and his relief that though his physical form changed, he remained quintessentially Ezra. That had started off Josiah on one of his long explanations about the immutability of the Soul versus the transubstantiation of the flesh, which had left them all glassy eyed, but that marathon type-athon had been enough for feline muscles and claws.
During that first weekend, Chris had got Orrin and Evie Travis to take their step-granddaughters for the weekend, but Ezra had used the computer to assure Chris he was fine staying in the ample outlying areas of the ranch. Shortly after the recession began in 2008, a development company offered Chris Larabee the opportunity to extend the acreage of his family's ancestral horse stud ranch by a healthy amount of square mileage at a below-market value price. The development company rep admitted to Chris that the company needed a quick sale and liquid assets, having bought up the small 'dude' ranches and dilettante vacation places surrounding Four Corners, including those with vital water access rights, for an inflated price only to be scuppered by the recession before they could turn the land into a suburgatory of Denver City by concreting it over.
Again not an extravagant man financially, Chris and Mary had been able to afford most of the asking price by putting in half each and covered the remainder with a small loan. Mary had made Chris's mind up by urging him to buy it and trying to give him a considerable sum of her savings to help out, telling him that the Four Corners ranch 'isn't just land, it was and is a lifeline, not just for me but for Billy and everyone…the ability to just walk or ride and let all the stress and pressure of my life – our lives – seep out of our soul is priceless...to do what we want secure in the fact that this is our land and I can build a camp fire or a rope swing without issue…to have wide open vistas full of pure air and light and space…this place has done a lot to keep Billy and me – and Stephen's parents - sane, and I know for a fact being able to come here has stopped Vin Tanner cracking up altogether…’
Chris's long-time and exceptionally capable ranch manager had put together a business plan to run the smaller ranches as vacation cabins, tourist-trap 'real cowboy lifestyle' vacation experiences, and 'premium range' luxury beef cattle pasturage. The result was that the now much larger Four Corners ranch had been in the black in every year since 2008 and he and Mary had repaid the loan in full just last year, three years ahead of schedule and now owned the land outright.
Chris had, again at Mary's tactful suggestion, extended and refurbished the ranch house fixtures and infrastructure such as the water storage and heating and food stores, to cater for the fact that six men and their assorted Significant Others Plus were usually to be found here on almost every free weekend. Each of the other six men had their own 'guest' bedroom, dating back from when Chris's great-great-great-grandfather Larabee had had the original ranch house built in the early 1800s and ranchers and their wives tended to have 'dynastic' ambitions to go with their lack of contraception and a dozen kids were the norm.
However until Chris's upgrade the main house hadn't been decorated or refurbished as such other than being kept clean by his weekly housekeeper in a very long time, for an acutely painful reason. Exasperated by her own father Hank's intransigence over her own family knick-knacks, not realising he was sliding into grief-fuelled mental illness from losing her mother, Sarah Connelly Larabee had had all her husband's family heirlooms and keepsakes and furniture carefully labelled, taken away and restored and stored safely ready to be brought back to Four Corners when her and Chris – and Adam's – family project to redecorate the main ranch house was complete.
That had been two months before Cletus Fowler, paid by Chris's deranged ex-lover Ella Gaines to murder Sarah Larabee, had launched his arson attack and killed both her and their son Adam whilst Buck and Chris were coming back from their latest service mission, so all the Larabee family 'treasures' – except the living ones – had survived. Gradually over the years Chris had been bringing the odd bits and pieces back out of storage, but the birth of the twins had speeded up the process, and although it was unspoken it was clear he had found having the ranch house refurbished therapeutic on several levels.
Yet again, nobody had any idea that the development company had only one ultimate owner, and E.P. Standish had made sure the entire ranch would remain in the Larabee family for a very long time to come, structuring the ownership deeds so that, if necessary, future heirs could sell off or long-term lease small parcels of the acreage to alleviate financial pressures rather than having all or nothing facing them.
Now, Ezra considered his current options; his normal response when Team 7 gathered at Chris's ranch of a weekend to watch the game was to retreat to Chris's cosy, book-lined den that was separated from the larger room by an arch and lose himself in something edifying or entertaining; as the assorted ladies attached to Team 7's agents would have already taken themselves off to do far more interesting things without menfolk getting underfoot – it was amazing how many girls-only spa weekends happened to fall on the same dates as the football, or hockey, or baseball. Unfortunately, while he could – barely - read as a snow leopard, there was no way he could cope with his long-range cat eyes straining to focus consistently on small, black print.
Josiah settled himself in the huge, stuffed armchair that had moulded itself to his impressive frame nicely over time; Nathan took the other armchair and JD sprawled out on the small two-seat couch; JD often forgot himself as he got wrapped up in the game and after several incidents of having beer and butter-soaked popcorn upended in their laps, the others had insisted he be the sole occupant of the couch. Ezra alone had spotted a gleam of triumph in the youngest team-member's eyes – Mr Dunne had indeed grown up into a shrewd man.
The huge, antique four seater couch had been passed down through generations of Larabees, hand-carved by a Welsh craftsman from a single massive English Oak, and it didn't even flinch under the combined weight of the sprawled Chris, Vin and Buck. Ezra narrowed his eyes; he wasn't going to curl up on the floor like some damned house pet, and since he couldn't read –
Only Vin was fast enough to jerk up his beer and bowl of snacks as a large snow leopard suddenly jumped up and sprawled full length across all their knees, settling his head comfortably on his paws that rested on Chris's legs while his long tail whacked Buck in the face before settling down with Vin in the middle. Realising that to push the big cat off would be both foolish and very painful if – when – it dugs its claws into their legs, the three disgruntled men settled back down, firmly placing their bowls of goodies on Ezra's back and ignoring the sniggers of Josiah, JD and Nathan.
Their irritation didn't last; as the game went on first Vin, then Buck then Chris absently stroked the soft silky fur of the large, warm, living comforter and gradually a serene quiet fell over the room. The TV played to itself on low as Nathan and JD snored softly in duet. Aware that the three men he was sat on were also dozing, Ezra remained still. Looking up, his eyes met those of Josiah; the big ex-priest smiled gently at the tableau, especially as Chris had both hands resting on Ezra, like a little boy cuddling a pet.
Chris watched Vin ahead of him slip through brush and bracken like it wasn't even there with a tinge of envy – the Texan sniper was the personification of 'silent but deadly'. The surveillance van was covered with camouflage two miles back and slowly the six men and the leopard had made their way to the back of the stockade. Brambles and trees crowded in – it was clear that the militia group had never anticipated an attack from the North –
Abruptly Ezra moved, cutting off Vin's forward movement. For a moment they all froze as still as statues while Ezra padded forward slowly and began to paw viciously at small tussock. Worried that it might be an explosive device, although sure Ezra would have smelled that and not be pawing at it if so, Chris nonetheless moved forward cautiously but then saw the glint of a metal turning wheel, like you got on the hatches in submarines.
“Hellloooo, what do we have here?” murmured Buck rhetorically as the six men gathered around and helped Ezra remove the flora, displaying a rusted metal escape hatch that looked like it hadn't been used in a decade.
“This is too good to be true, surely?” Nathan questioned.
“No.” Josiah contradicted, examining the hatch cover. “This particular group of malcontents was founded by Bradford Whitlock – known to sensible locals as Whitlock the Witless – who was paranoid on top of being a megalomaniac; I'm willing to bet there are several escape tunnels in this place that he didn't tell even his so-called inner circle about.”
“Whitlock was killed trying to escape from prison eight years ago; all his original recruitees are either dead, in prison, on the run or frying their brains with booze and drugs every week.” Chris mused. “Given the average IQ of the guys in that place, I'm willing to bet these tunnels haven't been used or even rediscovered since Whitlock originally had them built…Let's try it.”
It took the combined strength of Josiah and Buck – the two largest, strongest men in the group – to open the hatch so they could look down into impenetrable gloom, giving credence to the idea that nobody knew about the tunnel.
Chris eyed the darkness askance – “I…”
With a bound, Ezra disappeared down the hole like Alice after the White Rabbit.
“Ezra!” It’s hard to yell in a whisper, but somehow Chris managed it.
A low growl of defiance answered him.
Chris descended next down the metal rungs, warning Ezra that they would discuss this when Ezra was human again. Ezra rumbled softly towards something in the corner, a small rectangular metal object that Chris rapidly discovered was an industrial junction box. Once again it took Josiah's strength to move the rusty switch-handle, but then the tunnel was filled with dim light. Small miner's lamps had been strung along the ceiling, and most of them were not working, but enough shed pale light on the tunnel. It was dead straight ahead apart from this bit, which bulged out in a circle directly below the escape hatch.
“Where is the power coming from?” Buck questioned as dirt and dust covered everything.
“It must be attached to the stockade’s main power supply.” JD responded. “A portable generator would have run out of power long before now and batteries would be long dead. I can't believe that these militia guys are so stupid they haven't ever wondered, 'hey, what are all these extra fuses for' when they look at the stockade junction box.”
“Apparently they are.” Chris growled. “Let’s move.”
The tunnel was tall enough for even Josiah to stand upright in, but so narrow they had to proceed in single file with Chris determinedly in front, Ezra on his heels. The walls and ceiling were packed earth with wooden boards and beams as supports and a single thick cable running the length of the ceiling in the middle.
Ezra snarled suddenly and everyone froze at the snow leopard's display of temper. Ezra sniffed the air cautiously, he could smell Death – but it was old Death, long gone. He gave a soft rumble and Chris moved forward cautiously, only for the man in black to stop dead and swear viciously.
They came out of the narrow tunnel into another small circular space with a hatch directly above them. This space however had other occupants – skeletons. Nathan came to the fore as they examined the scene. Dressed in the ragged remnants of what appeared to be heavy-duty digging or mining overalls, some of the skeletons still had shovels and helmets with miner's lamps on them. JD swallowed as he saw how some of the remains had patches of skin and hair on them. All the skeletons were damaged – bullets lay on the dirt inside rib cages, showing they had once penetrated flesh.
Lots of bullets.
“Machine pistol,” Vin growled softly, “with something that fires so many rounds per second and them all in a confined space…” he didn't say fish in a barrel because he didn't need to.
“From above...” Nathan gave his verdict, straightening from his examination of the skeletons. “Look how nearly every skull has bullet damage. They were gathered at the bottom, looking up, and whoever was up there simply pointed a machine pistol down here and cut them down. Probably Whitlock – it's just the sort of thing a homicidal paranoid would do to protect the secret of the tunnels.”
Josiah had made his way cautiously up the ladder and turned the hatch wheel, but no matter how he strained, could not lift the hatch. “I can hear something creaking above me,” he said finally, “I think they've put some furniture on the hatch cover.”
“Makes sense if Whitlock was about the only one who knew the escape tunnels were here, as he obviously made sure he was,” Buck commented perceptively, nodding at the skeletons. “When me ‘n' 'Siah canvassed the town there was no hint of any mass disappearance of local workmen at the time Whitlock built the stockade, so I'd bet he outsourced the labour to non-local transient labour – most likely illegals – knowing nobody would either miss these poor fellas or dare report 'em gone if they did. Were I a betting man I'd guess he weren't so witless that he didn't make sure to have plenty of tunnel entrances inside the main stockade house, but he was paranoid enough to go to great lengths to disguise them so nobody else knew there was the entrance to a secret passage right next to them. Probably had to pull this then turn that and press the other in the right sequence to get the tunnel entrance door to open from inside the house so nobody found any of 'em by accident.”
In grim silence they retraced their steps, not commenting as Ezra painfully scrabbled up the metal steps to the outside. Spreading out, they began to search the undergrowth intently, and it was Vin's sharp eyes fifteen minutes later that found another overgrown tussock with an equally rusted escape hatch. Going down again, they found that this tunnel was also hooked up to the main power, though the lights were even more feeble than the first tunnel. Moving forward in silence, they were unsurprised to find another group of skeletons around the base of the entrance hatch. Once again Josiah climbed up and this time the hatch cover rose.
Josiah quickly lowered it as he felt things slide away then peeked through. “It's pitch black.” he whispered.
Slowly he eased his way up, followed by Chris, then Buck who realised – “It's a broom closet!”
“Built in – very clever.” Josiah muttered.
The closet was a very large, walk-in cleaning cupboard that Whitlock had obviously chosen because it was built-in to the house and not mobile, in line with Buck's theory about him disguising the entrances to his tunnels even from his own acolytes. A few mops, brushes and buckets adorned the floor but all were coated in thick cobwebs and deep dust. Helping Ezra up, the six men found themselves crammed into the confined space –
“Like something out of a B movie comedy.” grunted Buck in irritation. “Let's get out of here and get 'em!” Suiting action to words, he grasped the small round door knob handle and slowly eased back the door of the closet – which opened inwards - as the others crushed back to give it room. “Huh?”
Someone had taken the handle off the outside of the door, and now the doorway was blocked. JD gave a nervous laugh. “They sawed off the handle and wallpapered over the door.”
Nathan gave a disapproving sniff. “Fortunately for us they did a pathetic job of it – the wallpaper paste was no good so it's come away from the door, that's why it didn't rip when Buck opened it.”
There was a snick as Ezra extended one claw, stuck it in the wallpaper at about chest height, and dragged it down smoothly; then the leopard stuck his head through the gap and surged out into the room.
Quickly demolishing the wallpaper, Team 7 found themselves standing in small, deserted storage room on the ground floor, which must be the small utility room near the kitchen. They were quite alone.
“Let’s rock and roll.” Ordered Chris.
It was laughably easy. Bellies already beginning to hang from day after day of junk food, beer and cigarettes, even the youngest of the militia group remaining behind were woefully unprepared for an attack that came from within the main house in the compound; unfortunately their appetite for violence was unmatched by a high IQ – en masse they lunged for their guns, a fatal error to make against angry, armed men who were instantly ready to fire.
Holbachstein let out a high-pitched shriek and took to his heels, but the big cats are amongst the fastest land-based predators; the snow leopard took off from a standing start next to Chris and hit Holbachstein in the back as the man reached the top of a flight of stairs, hearing the deeply satisfying crunch of cartilage as Holbachstein's impact with the floor broke his nose. For a long second Ezra battled the desire to rend Holbachstein into bloody gobbets of flesh, but sanity prevailed, especially as he heard the gunfire falter and die as Team 7 cleaned house.
Ensuring all the militia members were dead or handcuffed, and disabling all the guns anyway as a precaution, the other six men made their way to where Ezra was sat foursquare on the moaning scientist's back. Once all their guns covered him, Ezra stepped off Holbachstein and Josiah hauled him upright. An angry Josiah was an impressive sight, especially when holding Holbachstein as if he weighed little more than a feather.
“W-W-hat…?” Holbachstein’s eyes were glassy and his face sheened with sweat.
Buck as ever got straight to the point. “Yah gonna change Ezra back, then your ass is going to jail for – ever!”
Holbachstein continued to dangle and Buck growled, “Bite him, Ezra – wake him up.”
Ezra growled and this caused Holbachstein to look at the snow leopard properly for the first time; under any other circumstance his expression of utter shock would have been highly amusing. “Transmogrification?”
“Whatever. You’d better be able to reverse it.” Chris's tone was quiet but icily lethal.
They made their way towards the room where Holbachstein's machine was, but the lunatic made no resistance; what little sanity he possessed was in full scientist mode as he stared at Ezra enraptured. “Standish retains his sense of self?”
“Yep,” Buck growled in a tone that did not invite further questions, but Holbachstein persisted; in clipped sentences the six men explained Ezra’s human sentience remained and that he had communicated his state to them by typing, but Holbachstein had stopped listening and was muttering complicated formulae to himself interspersed with rhetorical exclamations of “Impossible!” and “Fantastic!”
Pushing open the door of what was clearly a converted bedroom, Team 7 paused on the threshold as they saw the machine for the first time, standing diagonally in one corner, the nozzle aimed at the far wall, against which were propped an array of bottles and other household items that Holbachstein had clearly been trying to obliterate without success – presumably the device only worked on the animate, not the inanimate.
The momentary spell was broken by Buck, irrepressible as ever, “Damn if Ezra weren't right – the thing does look like a giant cake icing machine.”
Holbachstein, completely lost in the wonder of discovery, had forgotten his desire to see Ezra die in agony and twitched forward, muttering about precise calibrations and ratio of absorbance. Distracted by his own eagerness to be bipedal once more, Ezra did not catch the scent till it was too late.
Incredibly, it was Holbachstein who screamed “NO!!” as the situation went straight to hell.
The young militiaman had taken refuge in the one place he thought the Feds would not be interested in looking, behind the crazy man's machine. Right-thinking folk knew nothing good ever came of Jewry, and Holbachstein's weird 'Destructor' contraption would never work. If it did – or as soon as his money ran out - he would be disposed of as was proper for all inferior races. Unexpectedly faced with every member of the attacking Feds surging into the one room he had assumed would be a safe hidey-hole, the youth panicked and popped up from behind the machine like a jack-in-the-box, his gun cocked and ready to fire.
Holbachstein's shriek startled all them for a second, but the way he twisted out of Josiah's grasp and sent the big man staggering back into Buck as he dove for the doorway saved the ex-priest's life as the militia idiot's first bullets whizzed through the empty space where their bodies had been moments before.
He wasn't given another chance – as experienced law enforcement officers none of the six human members of Team 7 had re-holstered or even lowered their firearms simply because they believed they had killed or incapacitated everyone in the compound. Six weapons discharged simultaneously and the man was hit fatally in the head and heart several times. Unfortunately one death spasm sent three bullets drilling into the machine's operational console followed by the full weight of his body crashing onto it. Ezra yelled a warning but all that issued from his mouth was the piercing scream of a feral cat before he was enveloped in utter agony – every fibre of his being felt like it was being scoured in acid – then he mercifully lost consciousness.
Ezra blinked at the expanse of brown as he blearily opened his eyes. The whole horizon was dark, bark brown – and rising up and down slightly. His head felt like the aftermath of a Rolling Stones concert and his hand was twitching like –
Yes. Present and correct, one human hand, protruding from the sleeve of a familiar red jacket sleeve. Memory came rushing back and Ezra sat upright, clamping his lips together as the room spun sickeningly. Opening his eyes he caught sight of Holbachstein and his stomach again rebelled violently – snapping them shut once more, Ezra turned his head away from the sight and re-opened them.
The machine stood innocuously in the corner, the dead militiaman still draped over it. Behind it in the corner was a coat rack with a couple of shabby white 'lab' coats hanging from it – presumably Holbachstein had tried to insist on a level of scientific decorum and had probably been ignored. Resolutely ignoring the rest of the room, Ezra focussed on the coats, walked shakily to them, removed them, walked more steadily back, and dropped them over Holbachstein's remains, careful not to look at what he was doing. From scalp to shoulders, Holbachstein was Holbachstein; from there down was a nightmarish mish-mash of feathers, fur, scales and a raw pink gelatinous substance that Ezra knew would haunt him forever and would ensure he could never eat blancmange again.
Taking a deep breath, Ezra looked about him. The 'brown horizon', which did indeed take up a goodly proportion of the ex-bedroom, was a bear. Ezra crouched down beside it, relieved to see that it was fully formed and apart from apparent unconsciousness, appeared fine.
He studied it for several minutes before he realised what it was. Much larger than even a grizzly – colossal was a suitable word - with dapple-grey 'spots' on its snout, Ezra realised with a thrill of shock that the creature was a Cave Bear…Ursus Spelaeus. Memory came clearly back to him – a school outing from one of his many exclusive boarding schools to a zoo.
The most interesting feature of the playground for rich kids had been the 'interactive' Extinct Zoo, which displayed creatures such as T-Rex and others. Amongst the many exhibits had been all seven species of elephant – of which only three now remained – that Ezra had been genuinely interested in, but next to that was the North America section – Cave Bears, Cave Lions, giant horses and camels had once roamed the Midwest.
Ezra laid a hand on the thick, warm pelt. The Cave Bear had been a giant amongst its species and was unique amongst all the ursine species. Unlike all currently existing species of bear which would attack Man – even actively hunt humans in the case of the Polar Bear – Cave Bears were almost completely herbivorous and consistently easy for humans to domesticate and make pets due to a placid nature. Evidence of Cave Bears as pets abounded in many North American and European archaeological sites. Ezra knew that the bear had to be Josiah.
“Oh mah lord.” Ezra looked around him.
Crumpled near the bear was a panther whose ebony fur was as black as midnight. A large, full grown timber wolf with an impressive ruff lay prone on its side against the wall, next to it was a dog-fox whose fur was a deep, rich russet that many a redhead would die for.
“Mr Tanner? Mr Larabee?” Ezra looked around anxiously with a hint of panic and then blinked in amazement and despite the surreal nature of the situation, smiled: “How apropos.”
Also crumpled on the floor were two birds. The smaller was a medium sized hawk whose feathers were a rich bronze, and next to it was the symbol of America, the Bald Eagle. This one's feathers were much blacker coloured than usual for the species and even comatose it exuded viciousness. Ezra looked around him, his keen intellect fitting the pieces together. The machine's field of fire was a narrow diagonal beam – the militia man's collapse must have sent the beam to 'broad disperse', but it wasn't wide enough to blast the whole room. Everything within the beam had been… 'transmogrified’…
“Holbachstein was partly out of the field of the beam, and it killed him trying to change him.”
Hearing the words from his own mouth brought Ezra back to the present and the need to act quickly. Orrin Travis had arranged for back up to arrive thirty minutes after Team 7 began their assault, which meant in six minutes seven seconds the cavalry were going to charge the front gate.
It took four precious minutes to revive his six teammates and calm down the growling, yipping, squawking sextet.
“QUIET!” Ezra was perversely pleased when total silence instantly descended. “In two minutes the rest of the good guys are going to be here. Now, Holbachstein is dead and this machine is clearly on life support. All I can do is set it to go one more time and hope it reverses the process – I could kill you all, or you could all end up staying like that for eternity. Are you sure you want me to proceed?” He winced at the cacophony of growls and screeches.
Ezra went behind the machine and carefully lifted off the stiffening corpse, licking his lips as he saw the damage wrought. The two birds, bear, panther, wolf and fox huddled together in the centre of the room, all wobbly and ungainly. The wolf's ears twitched back and forth and Ezra realised that the ATF and FBI must be approaching in the distance. It was now or never.
Perhaps because of his failing mind, Holbachstein's creation was easy to use. You pressed the large green button to start, the red one to stop. Hoping it still had enough juice for one more blast, Ezra slapped his hand down on green – then ducked reflexively as the machine's circuits blew in a shower of sparks.
“It’s a miracle!” Orrin Travis repeated for presumably the millionth time as Ezra sat in the back of an ambulance with a blanket around him. The remainder of Team 7, similarly singed around the edges, were close by.
Ezra had had no time for relief when he threw himself out from behind the machine to see his six colleagues back in human form. The machine was fizzing and popping and burning and for all Ezra knew was programmed to turn into one big bomb if messed about with. Helping each other out of the room, the seven men stumbled out of the main house into daylight and a barrage of drawn guns.
Ezra's nimble mind concocted a believable story of kidnap and being forced to listen to Holbachstein's insane ramblings for days on end by the time ten minutes had passed.
Now he felt a surge of satisfaction as he saw the Feds begin to bring out something else other than bodies – pieces of the Transmogrifying Machine, all of which were blackened and charred. It was clear little if anything would be salvaged from the device, for which Ezra was grateful. He was going to put this nightmare behind him.
Six months later…
Ezra cursed and ducked as bullets whizzed overhead. Why oh why did the bad guys insist on trying to draw their weapons and shoot men who already had their guns drawn and who were wearing body armour!? Now here he was ruining his new pants in this godforsaken dirt-hole warehouse trying to take down a drug lord who was more slippery than an oiled rat. He was dimly aware of Team 7 taking care of business around him and darted forward between crates.
It was the flash of light that saved him – ducking reflexively against the bright flash, he felt the heat of the passing heavy calibre bullet that smashed into crates behind him and Ezra hissed into his lip mike, “Vin, sniper, two o'clock high!”
Vin's own rifle barked an answer and Ezra was able to move again. Five minutes later, the entire drug cartel was deceased, but the six men of Team 7 were anxiously crouched behind crates as their sniper and the former drug lord's battled it out; then it happened – a sharp cry and a rifle spun into the air to hurtle and smash on the concrete.
“Go, Vin!” cheered JD, standing up.
Chris raised his hand in salute to the tiny figure they could see balancing high up on the water tower. “Get yer ass down here, Tanner.” He growled into the lip mike.
“Patience is a virtue, cowboy –”
The sniper had lost his rifle and his handgun was useless, only the fact that he was seconds from death galvanised his dazed brain into confused action. His shot, fired from a Beretta, came nowhere close to the Texan.
But Vin flinched and ducked reflexively at the sound, and his foot twisted on the edge of the tower platform. He had nothing to grab hold of and as the six men watched in horror, Vin Tanner fell from the tower.
Ezra was frozen with agony as the figure spun over in the air like a toy thrown by a spoilt child, twisting and spinning and shimmering –
A momentary haze obscured Vin and instead of a plummeting body, a golden hawk spread out wings and beat them frantically to achieve lift. The fall turned into a swoop, and the hawk soared back up into the sky with a triumphal scream.
Nobody moved, nobody even breathed until Ezra gasped and realised he hadn't been drawing oxygen into his lungs. The hawk came back now, heading straight for them, its flight path wildly wobbly but clearly intent. Flapping harder as it got lower to the ground, the hawk hovered about six feet away and was once again enveloped in a sort of opaque haze that solidified into Vin Tanner.
Five men erupted into exclamations, demands, questions. Vin shook his head and raised an objecting hand. “Ah don't know! I jus’…did it.”
“Stand clear.” Turning to look at Ezra, who had not questioned Vin, they found he had drawn away from the group. “I am about to experiment.”
Closing his eyes, Ezra concentrated on remembering the experience of being a snow leopard, the smells of the forest, the heady scent of leaves and flowers, the rich aroma of soil, the myriad heartbeats of rabbit and the vast distance his eyes could see…slowly Ezra opened his eyes and found himself staring straight at Chris's knees. Either he had crouched down or…Ezra stretched out an arm that had now become a foreleg of white fur with black spots.
“Good God.” Nathan muttered
“Amen, brother.” Josiah responded as they all stared at Ezra.
One Year after that…
Chris twitched the laces of his stretched out, booted feet away from the sneakily encroaching claw. “Damn it Ezra, I'll kick you if you don't stop trying to untie my laces.”
The snow leopard stretched out on the ranch's front porch gave a derisive sniff but closed its eyes and raised its head towards the sun, basking.
Despite his present irritation, Chris couldn't cling to any genuine grumpiness, so raised the bottle of beer to his lips again to disguise his smile. Ezra in human form was as coolly aloof and impenetrable as always, but Ezra the snow leopard was a much more playful – dare Chris think it, affectionate – entity.
Absently Chris flexed the fingers of the arm that was currently in a sling – the source of his irritation. The joint operation between MCAT ATF Teams 7 and 8, the DEA and FBI to take down a major home-grown terrorist cell of 'white Muslim' self-styled jihadists had gone down almost perfectly – bar one lucky lunatic who managed to 'wing' Chris's left arm literally.
The bad guys and law enforcement officials had been treated to a spectacular Larabee temper tantrum that substantially increased the infamous legend of the man in black and which had the unfortunate shooter rapidly jettisoning his beliefs and singing like a canary to any cop who would listen in a desperate attempt to appease the ranting Larabee. However, only a select few – six men in all - knew the reason for Chris's ire – even eagles need both wings to fly, and Nathan had firmly vetoed any avian adventures for two weeks.
Chris sipped his beer again and pretended he wasn't watching the skies for sight of a golden speck. Since Vin's inadvertent transformation in extremis, they had discovered that they could 'transmogrify' at will. Chris knew that it had brought the team even closer together – including Ezra who even on good days could still hold a part of himself back if he was tired or stressed. As a snow leopard, Ezra was much more tactile and reciprocated 'horseplay' that he simply did not engage with as a human.
Chris was certain there was no human being on Earth more deserving of the gift of flight than Vin Tanner; the Texan loved to soar high above the land in company with a certain black eagle, and it filled in Vin that need for privacy, that need for personal space which used to see him pull back from his team mates like a tortoise in its shell when the sensory overload of urban modern life got too much.
Again taking advice from Mary, Chris had gratefully and graciously accepted the sums offered by the others when he and Mary purchased the outlying ranches from that development company, and had never been more glad that he had listened to her…Although mostly used by themselves, occasionally friends like Team 8 came to the main ranch or stayed at one of the outlying small ranches – in recent years Team 8 had practically co-opted what had been the small Figure 8 'dude' ranch for themselves – and it was obvious how many people found the wide open space relaxing and regenerating and peaceful and how they benefited from the security of knowing they could ride or walk or drive on quad-bikes as far as the eye could see without encroaching or straying onto someone else's private property or infringing some obscure bylaw they couldn't possibly have known about. Most importantly of all for Team 7, now they all had a wide area of unspoilt mountain and forest range in which to be their non-human selves without detection or distraction.
Philosophising about why the machine had deigned to transform him into a creature extinct for over five millennia made Josiah happy, if no more comprehensible; Nathan had admitted his favourite storybook character had always been Bagheera, panther companion of Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, freed from slavery by a broken cage lock. Buck and JD would often go loping off into the woods together exploring and JD, already having grown into a fine young law officer, was even more steady in temperament as a result of being a dog-fox.
The biggest surprise had been Buck, who several times had let slip some perceptive – even wise - comment that contradicted his perpetual attitude of jovial, boisterous bonhomie and truth to tell, made Chris wonder just how well he knew his oldest friend. A classic example had occurred several days after Vin's transformation as they discussed the ramifications of their abilities…
JD had spent hours researching everything he could find about the species of animals they were, and the discussion had started off with them wondering how their lifespan as humans would be affected, if at all.
Nathan, medically astute as ever, had had an epiphany during this, and pointed out his own marriage to Rain, plus the romantic – and sexual – relationship between JD and his wife Casey née Wells, Buck and his wife Inez née Recillos and Chris and Mary Travis. What if their 'new' abilities were not tetragenic – affecting only the individual – but hereditary? Just before Holbachstein had kidnapped Ezra, Nathan and Rain had agreed that they were finally in a position both financially and career wise to start a family, but as Nate pointed out, there was no medical way to test whether he would walk in and find panther cubs in the nursery one morning.
Ezra had pointed out how useful his snow leopard form was in literally sniffing out crime in Denver, for example places used to store illegal drugs. Flying high above the Denver forest, Vin and Chris had spotted some illegal trappers on Chris's land and had flown straight back to the ranch to call in the park rangers. When questioned by the delighted rangers they had quickly concocted a tale about hiking in the forest and being lucky enough to spot the poachers before they themselves were seen, but as Ezra pointed out, they couldn't keep using the same excuses for obtaining information and solving 'impossible' to detect crimes like the two rape attacks prevented, respectively, by Nate in one incident and Buck and JD in the other.
As Ezra's friend, the criminal psychologist Dr Blair Sandburg had pointed out to them once a few years back during a previous joint-agency case, modern technology and post 9/11 information sharing mandated by the President when he set up Homeland Security meant that it was too easy and too quick for anyone motivated by even mild dilettante interest to gather together all those disparate fragments of information and factoids and 'citizen-journalist/nosey rubber-necker with a smartphone Youtube clips' without ever getting up from in front of a computer screen, in a way that only just as recently as the 1990s would have passed safely under the general radar of the world due to being too scattered to effectively collate, compare, contrast and draw conclusions from.
Across the board, not just District Attorneys and Federal Prosecutors but Defence lawyers were all tricky operators – what if one demanded in court to cross-examine an 'informant' that one of the team had made up to disguise the fact he'd been in animal form at the time? Of course like all good – real – cops, they would go to jail rather than expose their sources, who trusted them to keep their anonymity. But the fact remained that they needed to construct watertight cover stories if they were going to utilise their animal sensory abilities in doing their jobs, to provide a plausible 'evidence' chain or 'string of clues' that would satisfy others and look genuine 'on paper' as to how they had successfully cracked the case. There was also the imperative to prevent nasty people like the FBI, CIA and other shadowy government agencies discovering their 'talents' and trying to replicate them with prejudice at Team 7's expense.
“You’re all forgetting the important bit.”
They had looked in surprise at Buck, who generally kept quiet during hot and heavy 'learned debates' and 'ethical philosophising'.
“However we use our abilities as animals, the one definite thing we do know is that we’re stuck with them.” Buck had stated flatly. “Remember one thing – Holbachstein did not invent a Transmogrification Machine – it was an accidental creation while he was trying to make something else. Even if the mad doc' had lived, or if there is somebody out there with the same IQ as him, there's no guarantee that he or they could re-create what he did without even knowing it. The machine was reduced to scrap metal and the FBI aren't going to be able to rebuild it if they try for a thousand years, so from now on until the day we die, being able to transform into an animal is going to be part of our existence. What I'm trying to say is that if we're gonna go on with our lives, we need to let the people we care about the most know what's going on, because if I was Rain and found a baby panther in my little one's cradle, or I was Mary and I walked in here and found my girls cuddling a snow leopard, I'd be a mite more 'n' just freaked out.”
It had been sound advice – not just impossible to ignore, but inexcusable if they loved the individuals in questions as much as they claimed. Chris had admitted he had been considering asking Mary to marry him before Ezra's kidnapping, and both JD and Buck had been intending to raise the topic of children with their respective wives, Casey and Inez.
Buck knew Inez was confident enough in the manager of her bar to take a step back from the day-to-day running in preference for full-time motherhood, and JD knew Casey wanted her grand-aunt Nettie Wells to have the chance to be 'honorary' grandmother to her children as she had been Casey's de facto mother after her parents and grandparents had all been killed in a terrible Interstate auto pile up that left the baby Casey the only survivor.
Casey didn't talk about it a lot, but she was aware that Nettie had been Letitia Wells, a vivacious, single career woman with a handsome, wealthy Significant Other and a life full of travel and vivacious socialising on the day she opened the door to a respectfully earnest police officer who told her that her brother, sister-in-law, nephew and niece-in-law were all dead, along with her niece-in-law's parents and only sibling, an unmarried brother on leave from the Army, and the only one pulled alive from their SUV was her nephew's six-month-old baby daughter, miraculously uninjured.
The Significant Other had tolerated the disruption to their comfortable lifestyle for three months before giving her an ultimatum to place the baby in State care for adoption or find another lover. The Board of Directors of the high-powered firm for which she worked were equally as punctiliously non-discriminatory, whilst silently making their concurring opinion clear. 'Nobody would have blamed her for placing me for adoption and getting on with her life, as she had always made it clear children weren't going to feature in her life. She gave up everything she could have for the baby she got left holding, there is nobody I want to show more that I've got my life together and I'm happy and have a family of my own.’
JD Dunne understood that sort of love – his own parents had been high school sweethearts who married right out of college and never looked at anyone else than each other. Everyone agreed that his own parents had adored each other and his father's sudden death from an undiagnosed heart condition at only 29 when he himself had only been six months' old had shattered his mother's world. A quiet, sensitive boy, he had overheard several times in his life well-meaning others urge his mother to remarry for financial security or use his paternal grandparents' legacy to pay for him to go to private school – private boarding school – to give her 'space to get on with your life'. Instead his momma had used the money to send him to an excellent but more expensive local day school, and when he was self-flagellating himself with guilt during her terminal cancer for being unable to afford exotic treatments, she had given him a severe dressing down that she had not a moment's regret that she had given her adored husband's only child the best possible start in life…I expect you to be my Danny's son, John Daniel Dunne, and don't you ever forget that.’
After much inner debate, Josiah had decided not to let his sister Hannah in on the secret. In the years since he had joined Team 7, helped by Blair Sandburg who had made some calls and got her transferred to a much more modern, therapeutic sanatorium, Hannah Sanchez's mental health had improved greatly, to the extent she now lived in Denver's Sisters of Mercy convent and worked alongside Josiah with the city's less fortunate at the shelter. But she herself had always stated that her mental health was too fragile to cope with 'too much reality' and reluctantly Josiah realised that it would be too much of a burden to place on her.
After some thought, Chris had got Orrin and Evie Travis, Mary, and Billy to the ranch on a weekend when Sarah and Stephanie were on a sleepover party in Denver City, considering them too young to deal with the information as yet, whereas Billy Travis had always had an old head on young shoulders even before his father's murder. JD had brought Casey and Nettie, Nathan had brought Rain and Buck came with Inez, as Vin, Josiah and Ezra were the only still single ones in the Team.
Getting the group to stand on the porch, the seven men had explained the situation and the cause, then transformed into their animal counterparts in front of them. There had been understandable shock, but no horror, only understanding and determination to find a way forward and much discussion as Nathan in particular insisted everyone understand the probable ramifications.
Rain was still determined to start a family in the next eighteen months, and the possibility of bearing children with the ability to transmogrify was a bridge she intended to cross when or if she came to it; Inez and Casey had agreed with this view, and Nettie, Evie and Orrin Travis had been serene with the wisdom age brought with it. Billy was startled, but Chris's faith in his level-headed de facto stepson was sound.
Mary had said much the same to Chris, even as she accepted his marriage proposal, in a more private conversation. Whilst they deeply loved their daughters, further children, particularly the possibility of sons, had been something neither was keen on. Both had deeply loved their respective dead spouses, and though they were sure of their feelings for each other, it had taken some emotional adjustment after the twins were born as neither Mary nor Chris was individually comfortable with a child that didn't have Stephen Travis as a father or Sarah Larabee as a mother.
Chris came out of his reverie as Ezra tilted his head on one side in a listening attitude. A few minutes later, a large wolf and a dog fox came bounding out of the tree line neck and neck in what was clearly a race that the dog fox won by a tail-length.
Already resuming humanity as he bounded up the porch steps, JD collapsed grinning into one of the rocking chairs and snagged an open beer from the cooler, while Buck also changed back and leaned against a lintel, sipping a chilled brew.
A sleek black panther padded delicately out of the undergrowth shortly after that, followed in short order by an absolutely colossal bear whose stately pace was measured. At this point Ezra also returned to human form, and the six men sat drinking beer, five of them watching Chris scowl and trying not to smirk as seconds became a minute, then two.
Finally a golden dot grew into a lazily coasting hawk making its way back to the ranch house. The bird swooped down as if to land on the porch rail, but became Vin to stand effortlessly upright on the ground. The Texan ignored Chris's glare as Ezra handed him a beer; Chris's tendency to be over protective – of them all, but particularly of Vin – was the source of much well-hidden amusement.
“Have fun?” growled Chris.
“Yup.” Vin replied blandly.
Pressing his lips together to stop a chuckle, Buck stood up and managed, “The game’s starting fellas, let's get inside.”
Together seven extraordinary men who had been made unique turned and walked inside the ranch house, bickering affectionately like little boys.
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