Several hours later and after a call for more boxes, Ezra found himself cleaning out Grace's closet. Tucked in the back of the closet was a file storage box. He shook his head as he read the label, "Ezra's things." He took a deep breath and lifted the lid with a little child's hope of unwrapping a much desired Christmas treasure. He broke into a smile when he looked inside. She had done it. She had saved his magic set and his secret agent spy kit. Lifting them out of the box he found the patchwork quilt from his tiny bed back in South Carolina. He knew that there were other things underneath the quilt but didnt go any further. Time was now working against him once again. Tucking the treasures back inside, he carried the box to the stack he was taking with him, not trusting them to the movers.
It was almost nine o'clock before he had finished boxing things up and making the arrangements for what the movers would take and what would remain to be sold. The coordinator of the facility would handle the sale of the remaining items so that he didn't have to make another trip. Looking at the stack of boxes he had determined were too precious for the movers he began to laugh. There was no way they all would fit in the Jag. The pile of boxes told him once again how little he trusted other human beings. In the end, he took the box with the photo albums and the box with the kits and his quilt, deciding he would have to trust the rest to the movers.
After packing the boxes into the car, he came back for one last look around. He picked up the shawl from where it had fallen beside the rocker. With the things packed up in boxes, it was no longer Auntie Grace's home. With a sad heart he turned off the light and locked the door one last time. He walked down the hall carrying the shawl as he left another piece of his life behind.
"Good night, Mr. Standish."
Ezra turned to the young man behind the reception desk at the front exit. "Good-bye, Keith. Thank you for your help. I'll be in contact to finalize the paper work."
"Take care, sir."
Ezra nodded and headed out the door into the crisp evening air. He started the car and headed to the highway for his final trip home. When he hit the Interstate it began to sink in how weary he really was. He had been up for almost thirty-six hours and had barely eaten anything in that time. It wasn't that far to Denver, but he had to pull over and stop three times just to keep himself awake.
He pulled into the driveway, finally home. Ezra dragged himself wearily into the condo and deposited his suitcase in the bedroom. He was exhausted, but it was in a different way than he had ever known. He was more familiar with the weariness of watching his own back, like when he was in Europe with the FBI.
The weariness of too many months in deep cover with no one to watch his back blanketed the southerner. He was a chameleon moving from case to case, country to country, as his skills were needed. Some cases were longer than others were; the last one took eleven months, but had finally been resolved yesterday. When Ezra submitted his report, he submitted his request for transfer as well. He figured it would take awhile to go through so he might as well get the paperwork in process. His superior was an arrogant man who despised Standish's methods. Ezra wasn't a team player, but he got the work done. He had nearly two months of vacation saved up and the burned out agent was in dire need of time off. As soon as the last t was crossed, he cleared off his desk and retreated to his dusty flat in the middle of the city. The southerner crawled into bed, settling in between the silk sheets with a sigh. He closed his eyes and slept deeply for the first time in what seemed like years.
Although he valiantly fought it, something tugged at his consciousness. The persistent ringing finally drawing the agent from the comfort of sleep. Ezra's hand struggled to find the phone at the bedside.
"Hallo?" slurred the southerner
"Ezra?" queried the caller.
"Wissen Sie wie späht es ist?"
"Yes, I know what time it is. It's 7:00 p.m."
"Es ist drei Uhr morgens," replied the grumpy agent.
"Three in the morning? Oh Ezra, I'm sorry. I thought we were on twelve hours difference."
"Fletcher? Sind Sie das?" Ezra sat up and gathered his senses. There was only one reason Fletcher North would contact him. Something was wrong.
"Yes, Ezra. It's me. Would you speak English? My German is pretty rusty."
"Ich spreche Englisch," countered Ezra, insisting that he was speaking English. He was so ingrained in the German culture that he didn't realize he was speaking German. "Im even dreaming in German," he said softly before turning his attention to his caller. "What's wrong? Is it my mother?"
Fletcher sighed. He knew his call would alarm the undercover agent, but he was keeping his promise to the young man to keep tabs on his mother and on Grace Harper. Before Ezra left the States, he had promised the young agent that he would contact Ezra if anything happened to them. Likewise, he was to contact the women personally if something should happen to Ezra.
"No Ezra, your mother is fine. Last contact I had, she still had a private investigator on your trail. All she has been able to dig up is that you are still making some very lucrative investments."
"Yes, well, I need to supplement the pittance I receive each month," Ezra replied. "Fletcher, if it isn't my mother "
"It's Grace," interrupted Fletcher. "She's been hospitalized Ezra. She had a heart attack."
"A heart attack?" Ezra was stunned. Aunt Grace couldn't have had a heart attack. "Is she will she..." he couldn't form the question.
"She's doing as well as can be expected."
"What the hell does that mean?" spouted Ezra in frustration.
"Easy, son. It means just that. She is doing as well as can be expected for someone in her late sixties who has suffered a heart attack. She'll be in the hospital for a few more days, but she is going to need some help when she gets home."
Ezra ran his hand through his rumpled hair. "Can you get me home?"
Fletcher nodded absently. "That's why I'm calling. I hear you just finished up a big case."
"Yes and I put in for yet another transfer stateside. Can you help it along? My supervisor isn't exactly the compassionate type. He's turned me down twice already without any good reason."
Fletcher chuckled. "I've heard that about Kessler. We can get you home on emergency leave and we'll work out the rest when you get here."
"Great." Ezra paused, "Fletcher, thanks for keeping your word."
Fletcher smiled. "We're not all lying bastards, Ezra. Now, you'd better get a move on. Your plane leaves in four hours."
Ezra had found his ticket waiting for him at the airport just as Fletcher had promised. He spent as much of the flight sleeping as he could. Fletcher had arranged his passage clear to Charleston, South Carolina where he could take a cab to the small suburb where Grace lived. His belongings were coming on an air freighter in two days, and would be delivered to Aunt Grace's home, until his transfer was settled.
In spite of the bits of sleep he had on the long flight, the southerner was bone tired. He was finding it difficult to speak in his native tongue since he had been so immersed in the Germanic culture. He fidgeted anxiously with the cuff of his finely tailored suit, fighting to keep the thought of Graces condition from overtaking him. Fletcher had said Grace was all right, but that was yesterday. The thought of losing her frightened Ezra to the core. Grace had been an integral part of his life. His first true experience of unconditional love. Grace was genuine in a world full of lies.
His brief visit with Grace at the hospital was reassuring to the southerner. She told him to go home and get some rest. He resisted, insisting that he wanted to visit with her, as they had not seen each other in more than four years. Grace had just smiled and told him to go home assuring him they would catch up in a couple days.
Ezra busied himself finding a nurse to come and stay with Grace. He certainly didn't know how to care for her needs, and it would be good for her to have a companion. After gaining her permission, he checked into her retirement fund and general finances. She had a modest savings account, but her retirement fund had been poorly invested leaving her little to live on. Ezra grimaced, wondering how many other retired teachers in South Carolina had their retirement squandered through poor investment. Something would have to be done for Grace if she were to ever need a nursing facility. Perhaps this was a way that he could pay her back for all her kindness to him. Ezra shuddered as his mother's words came to him. "A Standish is never beholden to anyone. Make sure the other player is always owing you."
Ezra spent the next six weeks with Aunt Grace getting reacquainted and planning for her future. She appreciated Ezra's generosity with the home care nurse, but insisted on what independence she could hang on to. With Ezra's help they found a quaint retirement facility that also offered assisted care when needed. It was a long move for Grace. She wanted to stay in South Carolina but Ezra wanted her as close to him as he could get her. As a compromise, they had agreed on Gloverville, South Carolina. A small community located just seventeen miles outside of Augusta, Georgia. They sold her small home for a good price to a young couple who had their first child on the way and got her settled in to her new home.
Ezra handled all the last minute details while Grace was creating her new home in Gloverville. That last afternoon, he stood in the doorway of Grace's tiny kitchen in Charleston remembering how that small house had been his sanctuary so many times. His movers had packed his last box in the truck, leaving the suburb ten minutes earlier. 'It's just a stupid house,' thought Ezra as he tried to push aside the maudlin emotions, but he found himself drawn one last time down the hallway to his small room. It was hardly the same. The room was empty of furniture but full of memories. Reminding himself again that it was just a building, Ezra sighed, heading for the front door. He was due tomorrow in Atlanta for his new assignment, and the plane would wait for no one. At least Aunt Grace was a bit closer to him with her move to Gloverville. It was just under three hours driving distance or a short hop on a plane from the suburb of Augusta to his new assignment in Atlanta.
He had made that trip frequently. He had visited Aunt Grace every two or three weeks, depending on his caseload. His visits became even more frequent towards the end of his twenty-two months and thirteen days in Atlanta. He had not told Grace much about the accusations and innuendo that surrounded the last few months in that regrettable time. She knew that there were problems but since Ezra never told her the specifics she offered him the only thing she could - her love and support. She had been a rock, someone who believed in him when no one else did. Fletcher North had been shot and killed in the line of duty over a year earlier, leaving Ezra that much more alone in the Agency. He would come to stay with her, sleeping restlessly on her small couch in the living room. She would come out in the middle of the night and pull up a blanket or just to rest a soothing hand on his mussed hair.
Ezra sighed as he shifted his pillow. His body was exhausted but his mind still raced. He really shouldn't have had so much coffee on the drive home, but he had needed it to stay alert on the road. Ezra took several slow deep breaths in an effort to relax. He really needed to sleep. He sighed again knowing that sleep would only come when it came. He couldn't force it. Thoughts of Atlanta filled his mind.
Ezra didn't stand a chance in Atlanta. His very first assignment made some of his superiors look bad. It was a case they had been struggling with for more than two years, and Ezra stepped in and brought it to a conclusion in six weeks. While people were glad the case had been resolved and the criminals would be put away for a long time, noses were out of joint that the new guy had brought it to such a swift and successful completion. It made them look stupid that they had to bring someone in from the outside to help them. It didn't help that Ezra wasn't a team player and kept everyone at a distance. He did not get along well with his supervisor, and things became more complicated when Maude showed up about eight months into his Atlanta stay.
Maude's private investigator had finally found her baby boy and she decided that it was time to see him. Initially, she had planned to apologize for the cruise fiasco and go on as if they hadnt spent the last few years estranged. She believed that Ezra had not understood that what she was doing was for his welfare. If he had married Maria, he would have been set for life. He would not have had to work and he would not have had to marry several times to build his fortune. All he would have had to do was stay married to her for a time before pursuing his own dreams. While she understood his anger on one level, his disappearance after the incident was unforgivable. She hadn't even known whether or not he was alive until she got word of some investment he had made. Now that she had found him she had two choices. She could rake him over the coals for leaving her worried for almost six years or she could try to woo him back in her own personal way. It wasnt a surprise as to what route she chose. She knew that her boy had always admired Jaguars. She smiled as she looked over the cars at the dealership before selecting the sleek black car. She was positive that this would be just the thing to regain his favor.
Ezra had accepted the black Jaguar with little trepidation. He had wanted a Jaguar ever since he was a small child and one of his mothers old boyfriends let him steer his antique Jag around an obstacle course in Milan. When she presented the keys to him he found that he didnt want to say no. He wanted that car. Having had a few years to establish himself and settle things in his own heart about his mother, Ezra welcomed the chance to start fresh with her. He went into this attempt with open eyes. He knew what to expect and was determined not to wear his heart to close to the surface.
He grinned at the memory of the fit she had thrown when she found out that he was working for the FBI for pennies. It had been oh so dramatic. His mother should have been an actress. She made it sound as if he had committed a cardinal sin by working at all, and for the FBI? Well that was twice as bad. How could he waste his skills working against all she held dear when he should be by her side helping her rake in the money from wealthy fools? Ezra knew that his mother would never understand the contentment he felt when a killer, drug dealer, bank robber or a kidnapper was brought to justice. He didn't really understand it himself, but he knew this was what he wanted. He just wished that he could find a place where he fit in. He was always the outsider, and now he was often the scapegoat.
Rumors were running rampant that he was on the take. No one could understand how he could afford to live in an expensive condo and wear the expensive clothes he splurged on. When he drove to the office that first morning in the Jag, well, that had pushed things over the edge. There was no way that he could afford his lifestyle on the salary he made. Of course not, but he didn't live off just his salary. He lived off twelve years of excellent investments that had continued to grow and flourish beyond his wildest dreams. While he didnt go out of his way to justify his lifestyle, he knew that there was nothing he could do that would satisfy his colleagues fascination in his life. It didn't help that a supervisor of another team in the building was old friends with one Agent Beebee, the same agent who had done everything short of arresting him so many years ago on suspicion of kidnapping and murder. Add to that all of his mysterious weekend trips out of town that had also come into question. While he may have been inclined to explain his condo and car if asked politely, he would never allow himself to be pushed into revealing the purpose of his unexplained trips. Those were private and Ezra would never talk about where he went.
The last six months of his two-year stint in Atlanta were pure hell. No one trusted him and he trusted no one. He had no one to back him or stand by him in the midst of lies about him. No one would work with him unless forced, and the greater part of the last six months he was relegated to desk duty. He had asked for transfer numerous times but the requests never made it past the immediate supervisor.
He had become so used to the constant complaints from the men he worked under, he wasnt surprised when he heard his name being screamed that morning he strolled in the office, carrying his coffee and the folder containing his latest research.
"Standish! It's about time you showed up. You're late!" snarled Bob West, Ezra's supervisor.
Ezra had no respect for the man. His career was dangling off the end of a limb and West was working on the branch with a saw with the tenacity of a woodpecker. Ezra tossed a file folder on West's desk with a smirk. "Just doing as I was instructed, sir." The words were thick with sarcasm, leaving no room for misinterpretation. "Here's the file you requested."
Ezra hadn't noticed the blond man sitting in the chair to his left when he entered the room. The open door blocked him from the southerner's view. The man sat quietly watching the interplay between the undercover agent and his supervisor. Standish had a reputation for not being a team player, but his success rate as an undercover agent was incredible. West had done his best in the last half hour to paint a very ugly picture of Standish, claiming the man was on the take and that he had failed to backup a fellow agent, causing the man to nearly die. Regardless of all the garbage that was being thrown on the mans reputation, Chris Larabee was not easily fooled. West obviously had a vendetta against Standish and, after his first glimpse of the man, Chris was convinced that the southerner had the mouth and the attitude that fed into West's anger. Personalities aside, Standish's record said he was the best and that was what Larabee needed for his team.
Chris cleared his throat gaining the attention of both men. "Give us the room, Agent West," Chris ordered as he unfolded his long frame from the uncomfortable visitors chair. West cringed at the dismissal by the blond, but his air of authority sent the FBI agent scurrying from the room.
"He's all yours," West threw back at Larabee. "And good riddance." The windows of the office rattled with the force of the slamming door.
Ezra looked at the blond with uncertainty coursing through his blood but not a single ounce of trepidation showed on the southerner's face. The undercover agent crossed his arms defensively and waited.
"Have a seat, Agent Standish," said Larabee as he moved around the desk and sat in West's chair.
"I'd rather stand," declared the southerner. Chris raised his eyebrows. He could do without the attitude, but he needed the talent.
Ezra eyed the man in the chair, waiting for him to continue. He had no idea what was going on, but this man was obviously an authority figure and Ezra's experience with superiors was less than stellar. They only represented someone who wanted all they could suck up from the southerner, just to hang him out to dry.
"Did Agent West tell you about this meeting?" Chris went with his instinct. If West had it in for the southerner, keeping him in the dark to make him look bad would be a natural step.
Ezra shook his head. "No, I was not informed of this meeting or it's purpose."
Chris smiled at the confirmation of his initial instinct. He stood up and offered his hand to the man across the desk. "My name is Chris Larabee. I've been assigned to form a special task force for the ATF." The two men shook hands briefly and Chris pulled back with surprise at the firmness of the other mans grip. "I've been told you're one of the best. Are you interested?"
Ezra sat down in the chair next to the small fan and took a moment to collect himself while he straightened his jacket and tie. This was not what he expected. "Excuse me, Mr. Larabee, but I'm certain you are a man who doesn't go into something blind. I assume you have done a complete background check?" Chris nodded in response. "And you are aware of the accusations against my character?"
Chris gave a short nod. "Are they true?" He watched the southerner's blank façade slip as a moment of shock flickered on his face, but quickly the unreadable wall returned to it's place.
"No." He was surprised at the question. It was direct and straightforward. The man didn't beat around the bush. The biggest surprise was that he appeared to be willing to believe his answer. A vague memory of Fletcher North taking him at his word ran through the southerner's mind.
"Good. You in or out?"
Ezra didn't know what to think. This man could be offering him a fresh start, or it could be some elaborate ploy to ditch him and send him to Siberia. He shook his head slightly. Larabee didn't appear to be the type that could be used. The man was dead cold serious.
"There may be some difficulty with a transfer."
"Not a problem," said Chris. "You will be on permanent loan from the FBI to the ATF."
"And where would this illustrious offer take me?" asked Ezra.
"Denver." Chris looked at the southerner trying to read his reaction. All he could see was the rapid eye movements as he weighed his options. Knowing that the young man before him didn't really have a choice, Chris pushed his business card across the desk to Standish. "You start Monday. Eight o'clock sharp. Don't be late. You have any questions or any problems with your arrangements, contact Michelle at the number on that card. She'll take care of it."
Chris stood and walked around the desk as Ezra picked up the card with his left hand. He shook Ezra's right hand, and said, "Welcome to the team." Larabee exited the office, leaving the stunned agent behind.
Ezra shook his head in disbelief at being offered a second chance and muttered to himself, "What just happened here?"
Sleep had finally claimed the southerner somewhere around three o'clock in the morning. He had set his alarm for nine, which would give him more than enough time to prepare for the hardest day of his life. The day he must say his good-byes to his Auntie Grace one last time.
Ezra showered and dressed, leaving the jacket and tie for later. His refrigerator and cupboards were pretty much empty except for a stray package of Poptarts that made him think of Vin. They had to be leftovers from one of his visits. Even though this was something he would not normally choose to eat, beggars couldnt be choosers. He popped them into the toaster and poured himself a cup of coffee. He slipped onto one of the leather-covered barstools at the bar in the kitchen and waited. The pastries popped up from the toaster and he dropped them quickly on the plate, shaking his singed fingers. He hadn't thought they would be that hot. He sipped his coffee and then picked up the paper, trying to focus his mind on anything but the memories of Grace and the day that he would soon have to face. The headlines blared the news of some large drug bust one of the local police units had been involved with. The story brought back the memories of his beginnings with Team 7. So much for focusing his mind off of the past.
Ezra remembered those first tenuous weeks with Team 7 in Denver. He had no preconception that this assignment was going to be any different than any other. The things his mother had taught him as a child had come back to haunt him. You couldn't trust anyone. They always had their own best interests at heart would use you for their benefit and discard you when you were no longer of use. Six men offered friendship. Ezra offered an obnoxious attitude. There was no point in opening up and letting someone close just to be wounded. He would do his job and leave the niceties to someone else.
He shook his head as he thought of one persistent Texan. Vin Tanner could be a pit bull when he clamped on to an idea. The sharpshooter had decided to bring the wayward southerner into the fold come hell or high water. Ezra chuckled. Vin was certainly tenacious. He refused to accept "no" as an answer from the undercover agent. His longhaired, lanky co-worker persevered even after Ezra's loathsome error in judgment.
Ezra had almost walked away on their first assignment as a complete team. He suspected he was being set up to take a fall and he pulled back in self-preservation. He had not run, but his failure to respond in a timely manner could have cost his teammates their lives, especially young JD. He had redeemed his lack of action by jumping back in to the action after his conscience betrayed him. His entrance into the gun battle had turned the tide back to the favor of Team 7, but it had also sealed his fate with them. He was certain they would never trust him after his failure. He would be kicked off the team, and probably run out of law enforcement all together.
Surprisingly, that was not what happened. Larabee had approached him angrily. "What the hell happened?" Ezra had not been able to answer. He couldn't put into words the fears running through his mind. Chris had closed the space between the two of them, invading the southerner's comfort zone. With his face less than three inches from Ezra's the blond growled, "Don't ever let it happen again."
Standish had been stunned by the encounter. Larabee had offered him a second chance. Looking at his teammates, he knew they were angry at what had happened, but they would follow Larabee's lead. A flicker of hope had begun to burn in the southerner that perhaps these men were for real. That brief hope had been quickly snuffed out when Ezra realized he had just thrown away any chance he had to belong. For some strange reason that had really bothered him. He had assumed, despite Chris's terse warning and willingness to keep him, that he would be ostracized once again.
What he hadnt counted on was the one man who he would come to call his best friend. The very next day the quiet man had literally began pestering the undercover agent non-stop to join them for drinks after work. Ezra had refused as usual, but this time it hurt a little to say no. He had known it would be uncomfortable for the others if he had shown up. Vin had laughed, somehow knowing his thoughts, and scoffed that they were all big boys and could deal with it like men. With a slightly embarrassed smile, he had then handed Ezra the package.
"I had to open this to sign for it. Dont want ya thinkin I was pryin."
Ezra grimaced when he saw what was inside was his airline ticket to visit Grace that weekend.
"I thought ya came from Atlanta. Says that this ticket's to Augusta."
Ezra thought about a cutting remark, but choked it back. Tanner was extending the hand of friendship and he was biting it.
"I did come from Atlanta, but I have business in Augusta," he answered simply.
"Is she purty?" asked Vin with a grin that made Ezra smile.
"She's beautiful, Mr. Tanner. If you'll excuse me, I must go if I am to catch my flight. Perhaps next weekend I could join you?"
Vin grinned. "Deal."
He had journeyed to see Grace that weekend to help her prepare for her newest move. He had dragged her from Charleston to that little berg outside Augusta to be closer to him. He then dragged her from Augusta to Colorado Springs to be closer to him. Now, Grace was making her final trip to a little spot on the north side of Denver, ever closer to him. He didn't understand why she agreed to the moves or why she had chosen Denver to be her final resting place. Perhaps she had wanted to be close to him as well?
Ezra dropped the newspaper. He hadn't gone past the first article on the front page. He just couldn't focus. He shook his head when he realized the pastries, if one could call them that, were cold. He nibbled on one anyway and checked his watch. It was time to get ready to go.
He walked to his bathroom, washed up, and checked his appearance in the mirror one more time. He put on his tie, becoming irritated when it wouldn't lie perfectly. He battled with it briefly before he was satisfied with the end result. He slipped into his black suit jacket and decided he looked fine. On the way to the door he slipped his sunglasses into his pocket despite the dreary weather. He picked up his umbrella and headed for the Jag.
JD had an errand to run during lunch. If traffic was good, he could make it across town and back and not be too late getting back. He had picked up the package for Casey's birthday and was headed back when he hit the traffic jam. He groaned as the cars came to a complete stop on his side of the four lane. He reached for his cell phone when he remembered he had forgotten to grab it off of the charger before leaving the office. He then fiddled with the radio for a minute trying to get a traffic report. When he glanced up he caught a glimpse of a black Jag headed the opposite direction. He could see that the driver was dressed in a black suit but couldnt make out the face.
JD spun his head to the side as the car passed, but it was too quick to get a good look, and there were two lanes of traffic between them. He thought it was odd that Ezra would be back in town without saying anything.
As suddenly as they had stopped, the cars in front of him began to move and he was on his way once again. He glanced at his watch and noted that, if nothing else went wrong, he'd only be twenty minutes late.
JD hurriedly parked Buck's truck back in it's spot and headed up the elevator to the office.
"Where ya been? Your late!" scolded Buck. He held out his hand. "There had better not be a scratch on her."
JD handed Buck his keys. "Nope. Got caught in traffic. Hey, speaking of traffic, I think I saw Ezra."
"What?" asked Vin. "He ain't back yet."
"No. I'm pretty sure it was him. Black Jag. He was wearing a fancy suit. Headed north."
"It wasn't him, Kid," said Buck. "He's still gone. He'd call if he was back."
JD shrugged. "Yeah, that's what I thought too."
"Get back to work, ladies," Chris called from his office, and everyone moved back to their desks.
While the six men turned their attention back to the paperwork covering their desks, the solemn driver of the sleek black Jag headed north to the cemetery just outside of town. The place that Aunt Grace had finally decided on was a pretty little place that, while it was a little remote, it was close enough to her Sweetie. Ezra slowly followed the driveway to the small chapel. He went inside and was met by the funeral director who showed him to Grace's graveside. The casket was beautiful in its simplicity. Grace had insisted that he not waste any money on something fancy that was just going to be stuck in the ground. The plot they had selected was situated next to the flower garden near a tall oak tree.
Flowers. Aunt Grace adored flowers. Ezra remembered his earliest days with Aunt Grace, back during his first stay with her. Part of being in her home was assisting with the chores. He did all right with the dishes and he kept his room clean but when it came to gardening, he drew the line. He abhorred dirt and there was no way that he was going to willingly participate in such a horrendous chore that would leave him covered in dirt.
When he refused to help, Grace had scolded him and used the same tactics as she had done with the suitcase. He could have his supper only when all of the weeds were pulled out of her flowerbeds. She pulled her share of the weeds and then went into the house to make supper. She watched Ezra occasionally as he tried to decide how he would get out of the job. She saw him glance at the sun and realize it was going to be dark soon. She didn't like to use his fears to garner his cooperation, but for now that was the only thing he responded to. When he realized it would be dark soon, he decided that dirt was better than dark. She watched as her great-nephew pulled his first weed and carried it between two fingers to the wheelbarrow. He placed the dreadful item in the cart and shook his hand to get the dirt off. Grace fought off the laughter as Ezra carried each weed individually to the wheelbarrow. Tomorrow she would show him how to pile them up and carry the entire pile at once.
While he despised the weeding, he found that he actually liked planting the flowers. They made Aunt Grace smile, and it made him feel good when something he had worked so hard at, bloomed so beautifully. Grace had taught him the different varieties of plants and what grew well in the differing climates and seasons. He never learned to like dirt, but he did learn the advantages of a good sturdy pair of gardening gloves. Gardening had become a relaxing escape from the pressures of his early years and was now a refuge from the ugliness of law enforcement. His teammates would be surprised if they knew the window boxes outside his condo were planted and maintained by one Ezra P. Standish
Ezra laid a single rose on the casket as the preacher read a few words from Scripture. The southerner didn't hear them as he fought for composure. He would not lose control again. He reached in his pocket and slipped on his sunglasses in a vain attempt to conceal his teary eyes.
His hand snaked back into his pants pocket and he toyed with the now ever present ring. A silly trinket really, but it was the secret decoder ring from the spy kit Auntie Grace had given him so many years ago. He had kept it in a velvet pouch in his jewelry box for many years, but now it was with him everywhere he went. A simple child's toy that symbolized Auntie Grace's love for him. She had spent extra money to buy him this treasure simply because she wanted to. He had never experienced that kind of love from anyone before Auntie Grace. Until then, everything he had known had a price tag attached.
Ezra peered at the men next to him from behind the dark glasses. It was a travesty that the only other mourners were the two men from the funeral home. He regretted again having taken Grace away from her home in South Carolina where he was certain that the whole community would have honored her. She was a well-liked and respected teacher. He would have to remember to contact the pastor of the little Baptist church she had attended. Perhaps he would arrange a memorial service in her honor.
It was over. Ezra looked up somewhat startled by the brevity. He wasn't ready to let go.
"Would you like a few minutes alone?"
Ezra nodded numbly as it began to rain.
The preacher squeezed his arm gently. "Take all the time you need."
He had stood alone next to her grave in the chilling drizzle for more than an hour. He couldnt seem to make himself leave her. To begin the next part of his life without her love and support. When the storm began to worsen, the funeral director braved the elements and hurried over to his side, holding an umbrella uselessly over the soaked figure. Only then did Ezra finally realize that it was time he made that next step. He wordlessly nodded at the funeral director and made his way to his car, getting in without a second thought to his leather interior. As the heater began to warm the car and thaw his frozen fingers, he pulled out a towel and swiped his face before roughly brushing it over his hair. He slipped the key into the ignition and, with one final kiss for the woman he loved, he pulled out of the drive and slowly made his way home to begin again.
Before he had left for the service, Ezra had arranged with the building manager to give the movers access to his unit. He now sat alone in the silent condo. It was nearly five o'clock and the movers had just departed. They had managed to get everything here in one piece. Ezra found it ironic that moving boxes once again lined his hallway. Having moved so often in his life he had not unpacked for several months after his arrival in Denver. After his experience in Atlanta had nearly ended his career, he fully expected that his time in Denver would be short-lived. It had been a pleasant surprise to find himself supported by Team 7. He smiled as he remembered Vin constantly harping on him to unpack. His smile widened. "Harping," he snorted. The Texan's harping consisted of quietly volunteering to help him "put away his stuff."
Vin. He hoped the sharpshooter was all right. He regretted that he had been unable to be there for his friend, but it was better this way. Vin would have to go to Josiah or another counselor for help. The Texan was much better off relying on someone who was qualified to help.
Looking at the boxes, he knew he was far too tired to unpack them tonight, and he wasn't really certain he was ready to unpack them at all. He was barely able to control his emotions as it was, and he needed to have them in check to go back to work. The southerner began rocking slowly in Aunt Grace's wooden rocker. 'No. It's better to leave the memories in the boxes,' thought Ezra as his heart sought the comfort of the gentle movement.
He tried to push all thoughts from his mind and found his hands exploring the fine craftsmanship of the wooden arms to the chair. He closed his eyes and saw Aunt Grace rocking in this very chair as she read to him. Ezra let out a low moan from the depths of his soul and pushed himself out of the chair. He should not have brought her things here. They would be a constant reminder of her, a knife constantly gouging at his heart.
He looked at the kitchen knowing that he should eat, but he would have to order in or go shopping and he had the energy for neither option. Shaking his head he moved slowly toward his bedroom, squeezing between his antique table and the piano. Damn movers. They never put things in the right place unless you guided them step by step. How did they expect anyone to sit at the dining room table with a piano neatly wedged against it? They could have moved it two measly feet, but no, they had to park it against the table. Ezra sighed. He would get one of the guys to help him move it he thought as he brushed his hand over the smooth wood. He jerked his hand away from the cool surface, as if he had been burned. What was he thinking? He couldn't let one of his teammates help. They would want to know where the piano had come from, and would pester him with questions he didn't want to deal with. He'd just have to muscle the piano into place himself. Ezra gave a tentative push on the old spinet to no avail. It didn't budge. It had settled nicely in the plush carpet. He rubbed his eyes wearily. Tomorrow. Tomorrow he would have to go back to work. Tomorrow he would move the piano into place. It didn't matter to him that it was just five o'clock. He was too tired to do anything. Ezra wandered into the bedroom, sat on the edge of the bed and pulled off his shoes. His jacket was hanging somewhere in the living room. Slipping out of his shirt and slacks and leaving them laying over the valet in the corner, the grieving southerner lay on the bed and slept.
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