Title: Far From Home
Main Characters - Ezra et al, OMC
Type of Story: Gen, holiday PG
The August Challenge 2004 (the Song Challenge): offered by Jen Brooks
Write us a story inspired by a song. I don't know about anybody else, but I have a whole list of tunes I associate with the boys and their adventures. Let's compare Magnificent soundtracks! You don't have to use the lyrics in the story -- we're not looking for songfic here -- but please do include the lyrics at the end of the fic, with due credit.
Notes: I suppose this is a bit of a cheat <G> This was originally written for last year for the Mag7 25 days of Christmas challenge, but it does fit Jen's challenge - so in the interest of the season, I'm hoping I'm playing my cards right and wishing you a Merry Christmas! (redux)
Far from Home
"Are you far away from home, this dark and lonely night? Tell me what best would help to ease your mind. Someone to give direction for this unfamiliar road or one who says follow me and I will lead you home?"
Playing Santa each year for the Salvation Army was one of Tommy's favorite things. Armed with extra thick socks and the best Dr. Scholl's had to offer in arch support, he stood, hour after hour, ringing a small hand bell that might once have been tuned to A natural, but now tended more to C sharp. He smiled at the many nameless faces that paused from their pre-holiday hustle to drop a few dollars and loose change into the dangling red kettle. All those hands, large and small, some smooth and tender, others rough and work-worn, cheerfully giving of their bounty to help another set of hands that they would probably never meet in a friendly shake.
Tommy loved them all. The harried moms who would sigh and acquiesce to their little ones request for "a quarter mommy, please, to put into Santa's bucket?" He beamed at the "suits," which would balance their briefcases precariously as they dug into pockets and purses for a ten or twenty. Dads toting toddlers in backpacks got a tip of the cap, as they too would reach deep into their spare change. Even the sad-faced head shakers, speeding up their steps as they rushed by, got a glowing grin and a whispered prayer from the faithful man.
As the sun dipped behind the high-rises, the erstwhile Santa redoubled his efforts. Last chance to bless all those creatures crossing his path this holiday season. For the past thirty years some lost soul would come his way. All during the long ups and down throughout the year, Tommy prayed for that unknown stranger whose thread entwined with his, if only for a few moments. One year it was a young couple off to grandma's with their baby, simply out of gas. Another time it was a lonely and bitter Vietnam veteran and there was the frustrated mom with a bevy of toddlers needing an extra pair of arms and a sympathetic ear. There were the two young schoolgirls who helped him retrieve a frustrated businessman's wallet that had fallen through a grating, and the bedraggled limping tomcat that'd been a fixture in his home for ten years. With the exception of the tom and the Vietnam vet, who'd named his boy after Tommy, he'd never seen or heard from them again. That was almost the best part, the beauty of virtual strangers coming together in the ancient dance of caring hearts.
This year, well, Tommy thought, it just might be extra special. In the fall, he celebrated his eighty-first year. Thankfully, his health was still good, but he'd lived through enough yesterdays to know that you never knew what today might bring, let alone tomorrow. Didn't matter, he put the whole thing into someone else's eternal hands fifty years ago, kneeling on the shag carpet of a Hilton, with a Gideon Bible at his elbow. So, Tommy just smiled and rested, taking as much delight as the youngsters in the falling white stuff that was brightening the twilight and promising a white Christmas for the city of Chicago.
For the tenth time he watched as the hunched figure made his uneven way to stare uncertainly at the building across the street. For the past few hours, the man had walked up and down. Tommy thought he might have made more than ten trips, but there were ten, at least, that he counted.
"Is he the one, sir?" Tommy whispered, as he packed away the three-legged stand.
The man shook his head and slumped down to the curb. Traffic was almost non-existent now. Only a few cars carefully negotiating the snow-covered streets.
"I believe he is, sir. That fellow looks like he could use a friend." Tommy never liked to forget whom he was talking to. Sir seemed appropriate. Quickly, he emptied the contents of the kettle into the bank deposit bag and slipped around the corner to toss it into the after-hours depository. As fast as arthritic knees could handle, he hustled back to see if the man was still there.
"Okay, sir." The man was still sitting there, holding his head in his hands, apparently oblivious to the icy cold slush puddling about his inadequate footwear.
Tommy finished packing up the rest of his gear and leaned it up against the wall in the entryway of the Chat 'n Chew.
"Hey pal, how you doing?"
No answer, not even a movement of the head.
Stepping down in front of the despondent man, Tommy gently patted his arm. "Hey, pal. It's." The startled reaction almost landed his red-suited bottom in the street. He saw with dismay that the guy had slid and slipped down into the slush in the street. Reaching quickly, the older man grabbed for the hands, only to find they were cuffed together. The man tried to fend him off, but he was not a match for the strong and determined Tommy.
"Now look son, you are soaking wet and it's freezing cold. Let's go in here to the coffee shop and get you warmed up." With that, the sometime Santa hauled the man to his feet and manhandled him into a booth, sitting beside him, effectively trapping the fellow.
"Tommy, honey, you want a couple of coffees?" Deb smiled and shook her head. She knew the old man well; he fixed her car more than once.
"Thank-you, Deb, and maybe some of your soup too. I'm thinking we're mighty cold."
Tommy studied the shivering man, coming quickly to a number of conclusions. The fellow had certainly not escaped from Chicago's finest; those cuffs were not CPD standard issue. Secondly, whoever had cuffed him was probably responsible for the considerable bruising on his face and neck, and the split lip. He was inclined also to think that the fellow was not on the wrong side of the law, Sixth and Federal didn't seem to be the place for a fugitive to hang out. Deb swung by with two coffee mugs, a carafe full of the fragrant brew and two bowls full of her best-selling chicken noodle soup.
"Thank-you, dear." Tommy grinned; his strong white teeth gleaming like toothpaste commercial. His flirting distraction worked, the woman paid little notice of his disheveled companion.
Left alone again in the deserted café, he once more turned his scrutiny on the man beside him. "Son, you need to eat this soup while it's hot. Can you manage?"
No answer, but blue-tinged fingers snaked out and snagged the spoon. With a small smile, Tommy watched the hearty and hot soup disappear efficiently. Even with his hands joined at the wrist, there was a certain elegance to the movements. He ate quickly, clearly very hungry, but with a certain furtiveness as if he were afraid it might vanish. Three cups of coffee followed the soup.
Turning slightly in the booth, Tommy began to try and figure out what to do with this fellow. A trip to the hospital seemed in order; maybe the local police station. And he ought to get those cuffs off somehow. Staring into the rich black liquid sloshing in the creamy crockery, he almost missed the softly whispered words.
"It's Tommy, son, Tommy Zinn."
"Thank-you, Mr. Zinn."
Eyes roved over the craggy face, seeing the abundance of laugh lines and the warm and open expression, looking for something. Tommy let him look; he had nothing to hide.
"Do you know me?"
Now that was unexpected. Reaching over, he gently captured the skinned chin. The pupils were large in the dim light, but clearly unequal. Turning the unresisting head, he hissed seeing the deep purplish bruise extending down from the dark brown hairline and covering the right temple. He let go and gently patted the hunched shoulder.
"No, I'm sorry, I don't know you."
"I think we better get you to the hospital. That head doesn't look too good. You got yourself a right nasty concussion. Do you remember what happened to you?"
"Is it Christmas yet?"
"Well, in about eight more hours. It's Christmas eve."
"I have to get home. I promised."
Tommy sighed. "Do you know where home is?"
"No. I thought.is this Sixth? I need to find the Federal complex."
"There is no Federal complex here; this here's Sixth and Federal."
"It didn't seem right."
"Maybe we should check your pockets; do you have a wallet or anything?"
"No. I looked already."
Pouring them both another cup of coffee, Tommy asked, "Why don't you try to tell me everything you can remember. Between the two of us, maybe we can figure out who you are and then we can call your family and get you to a doctor. Now, first off son, I can tell you, you don't sound like you're from Chicago. That accent is definitely from the South."
Trembling hands rubbed an aching head. "Perhaps, but that doesn't seem right, either. We're in Chicago?"
Seeing the nod, he added, "Aw hell, he's not going to be happy about that."
"Who?" Tommy was beginning to feel like he was on a tilt-a-whirl.
"Promised him. Made me promise I'd be there for Christmas. At his house, at the ranch."
"Yes, it's right outside Arapaho National Forest. Do you know it?"
"That's in Colorado, son, near Denver." Tommy did know it; he had fished and skied there with his friends, back in the sixties, his sixties that was.
"Denver, that's right, that's where Buck lives."
Tommy's head was aching, but he gamely pushed on. "Who's Buck?"
"He's JD's best friend. Hell, more like big brother."
"Friends of yours?"
The bruised forehead wrinkled in thought. Slowly, the weary fellow sighed, "Maybe."
"Can you remember an address or phone number?"
"Maybe Purgatorio. No, that's not right. The CDC isn't in Purgatorio, that's where Vin lives."
"The CDC is in Atlanta."
"Yes, but I live in Denver now." Okay, that was at least something certain. Tommy tried another track.
Do any of these folks have a last name?"
This was like trying to follow a raindrop through a puddle. "Tanner?" he prompted.
"Vin Tanner. He lives in Purgatorio."
Digging in his jacket, the old man pulled out one of his favorite inventions of the twentieth century: the cell phone. Maybe he could get a listing for a Vin Tanner, in Purgatorio, Colorado. It was a no go.
"Excuse me, Mr. Zinn, could you take me to the airport? I have to get there; Chris is going to be really upset. He'll think I ran out on him. I promised, don't you see?"
"Son, I don't think you are in any shape to be put on an airplane, even if I could get you a flight."
Tommy's heart went out to the bewildered fellow, whose only thought seemed to be keeping a promise. He was worried though, about the wandering train of thought and the fragmented conversation. The airport was out of the question. O'Hare was like a temporary holding bin for insanity at best. No place for an already battered and confused man without a shred of identification.
"Not only that son, where would you go when you got to Denver?"
"The Federal Complex."
The hands scrubbed at the head again, "Not sure, but seems to be important."
"Do you work there?"
"The Federal Complex."
"Can't seem to locate it."
"No," Tommy said, "I guess you can't."
"Just call me Tommy, son."
"Not your son, Tommy."
"No, you're not, but I could call your Dad for you."
Tommy sighed. "I lost my wife, almost six years ago. Still hurts."
"Daddy died when I was a little boy."
"And it still hurts."
"How about your Mother?"
"She doesn't 'do' family Christmas. It's not profitable."
Tommy frowned. "Well, we could still call her."
"We could, if I could just remember." The young man trailed off, reaching up with a hand to rub his aching head. Holding his cuffed hands up, he asked, "Do you think you could take these off?"
Tommy thought hard for a minute, and then made his decision. "Sure, kid." Dropping a couple of bills on the table, he waved at Deb. "Gotta go. Merry Christmas."
Careful to keep the shackled man in front of him, he steered the confused man out of the restaurant and over to his mint condition '69 Chevy Corvette Stingray. Sylvia had always tolerated the 'Ray, calling it his mid-life crisis. Even Tommy would admit that it was a bit out of character for him, but there you have it.
A low whistle as he unlocked the door told him the younger man was with it enough to appreciate his pride and joy.
"Yes, she is."
"You restore her yourself?"
"Yep. Took me ten years to get her looking like she ought."
"I have a friend who could use your advice. I'm afraid Mr. Sanchez hasn't got the right touch."
Gently maneuvering him into the passenger seat, Tommy probed. "What kind of car does, uh what is his name again?"
"Sanchez, Josiah Sanchez. Drives an old '88 Suburban. A big ugly monster, a monstrosity really. Seems to breakdown at the most inopportune moments."
"What color is Josiah's car?"
"Supposed to be white, I think. More like dirt with rust accents."
Tommy chuckled. Kid might have his bell rung, but his sense of humor was in one-piece. Now you've given me something to work with, the retired engineer thought as he drove to CFD Engine House no. 23.
The few firemen working in the truck bay waved cheerfully, recognizing the sleek Chevy pulling into the drive.
"Hey, Matt." Tommy greeted the paramedic, "You are just the guy I need to see."
Matt raised an eyebrow, but having been the designated helper on more than one of Tommy's little errands, as the man referred to them, he was not overly surprised. At least the tattered stray getting out of the car walked on two feet, instead of four.
An hour later, closeted in his office, Tommy and the Chief tried to hunt down addresses or phone numbers based on the information they'd managed to gather from their confused guest. The "kid" as Tommy had taken to calling him was napping on a spare bunk. Matt and his partner, Karen, checked him out and cleaned him up, though both felt it warranted a hospital trip. He'd refused, adamantly and as he was an adult, they could not force him to go. They greeted the presence of the handcuffs with raised eyebrows, but after checking for any police communiqués bearing his description, they complied with Tommy's request and removed them.
Chris hung up the phone with excruciating exactness. The other five men stared at the black instrument as though it possessed some kind of divine knowledge.
When the silence got to be too much, even for Larabee, Buck ventured a soft, "Chris?"
Agent Larabee pushed back his desk chair and walked over to gaze out the window at the glittering Denver skyline. He could see the reflections of his team in the glass, neatly tucked behind his own. Every face was tired and frustrated, every one worried, and every one sad.
Chris took a deep breath and turned to lean on the sill. "Nothing. He wasn't one of the dead. They've all been positively ID'd."
"That's good, isn't it?" JD begged.
Josiah sat down, leaned back and stared at the ceiling.
"Yeah, kid," Vin said without conviction.
JD slumped down on the narrow sofa, chewing absently on a fingernail.
"What else?" Nathan asked, watching Chris intently.
"They found blood, his type, skin and hair on a pipe along with his weapon, coat and cell phone on the docks. They'll send down divers day after tomorrow." Chris clenched his jaw. "No need to hurry, after all tomorrow is a holiday."
Buck stopped his tirade to glare at the judge. Opening his mouth, he was about to continue when Chris shook his head.
"I just got off the phone with a Mr. Malinowski. Want to guess what the Chicago head of the FBI had to discuss?"
Orin watched as the men slumped into positions of defeat recognizing the question as a rhetorical one. He sighed, leaning against the doorframe.
"He sends his congratulations for taking out the Moresos. He sends his condolences about the apparent loss of our agent. He sends his assurance that they are working hard to locate him. He sent another message: back off."
No one said a word, but the judge knew them well enough to hear what they had to say anyway. He came into the room and perched on the edge of Chris's desk.
"I know you don't like this. None of you. I know you believe the fibbies dropped the ball. Be that as it may, you have no jurisdiction and no business - no, Chris I mean it - no business interfering in this investigation. I know you want to go there, but you can't. And don't buck me on this, gentlemen."
Dropping his bench voice, he softened seeing his words hit them like a blow. "Ezra is one of the most resourceful people I've ever known. Who in the hell do you think blew up that warehouse? I believe our Mr. Standish will show up, knowing him," Orin grinned, "with some long-winded, implausible - for anyone but him - tale and an equally implausible expense report. Besides, aren't you all spending the holidays at the ranch?"
Chris forced himself to answer, "Yeah."
"Well then, I suggest that you had best be heading out. This agency closed, um, three hours ago. Go. You are on vacation for the next ten days, as you well know. I have directed security that none of you is permitted in the building without my specific permission. That is also not up for discussion. Now, I'll give you ten minutes to clear out." Holding up his hands, Travis assured them, "I will be in regular contact with Malinowski. I promise you I will keep you posted. Move it, gentlemen."
Ten and a half minutes later, a surprisingly quiet group of men exited the elevator into the parking garage.
"He's right, you know," JD ventured. "Ez is resourceful."
Josiah nodded, "Brother Dunne is correct."
"There's no real proof from a bit of blood. He probably cut his knuckles on a few heads," Nathan said.
"Shit, that boy's like a fish in the water. Probably took off those expensive clothes so he wouldn't ruin another suit."
"Was just an overcoat." Chris mumbled.
"See pard," Buck slapped Chris on the back, "what did I tell you?"
Vin added, "Yeah, cowboy, he'll have one of those four figure expense reports tucked in his pocket."
Travis watched his agents drive away, hoping all the while the wishful words he spoke were soon to be the truth. The fact was he agreed with Malinowski; dragging the lake was more than likely the only way they were going to recover his missing agent. As the taillights of Josiah's ailing Suburban disappeared around the corner, he pulled out to make his way home to his worried wife.
Tommy gently shook the young man's shoulder. "Need you to wake up kid."
A hand swatted at him, prompting chuckles from the audience.
Karen shook her head, "Good luck. He's a dedicated sleeper."
Tommy nodded and persevered.
"Hey, kid don't you have to be somewhere?"
"Chris!" Their sleeper bolted straight up, only to sink back down into the cot as his face turned an interesting color of puce.
Tommy backed away, wincing in sympathy as violent bouts of vomiting racked the younger man. Thankfully, Karen wasn't surprised and was right there with a basin.
"How's the head?" Matt said, running a warm washcloth over the bruised face.
"Bet it does. You know, I really think you need to get checked out. How about we swing by the hospital?" Matt asked, deftly slipping off the soiled shirt and t-shirt.
"Why?" Karen asked, handing him a clean CFD standard issue tee and sweatshirt.
Smoothing the dark blue shirt with a bruised hand, he smiled his thanks. "I have to go home. I promised."
"Yeah, I know promises are real important." Matt said, frowning at the bruises peppering the man's torso. "But, man oh man, you got one hell of a whack on the head, you could be heading for deep trouble."
"I'll be all right; Mr. Jackson is quite familiar with head injuries."
Tommy sat down on the cot, "Does Mr. Jackson have a first name?"
There was a long pause and they could see him struggling for something just out of his reach. "I can't seem to think straight."
Matt looked at Tommy and mouthed 'hospital'. Tommy nodded towards the kitchen.
"Go ahead and put those on," Matt told the fellow sitting on the bed, "We always have extra lying around." He dropped a pair of jeans on the bed and pointed to a pair of sneakers. "Got these out of the donation bin, we collect stuff for Tommy to take to the Salvation Army. Not new but they're clean. Keep you a lot warmer than the ones you got on."
"Not a problem."
Matt didn't wait, as soon as he got into the kitchen he lit into Tommy. "That man has a serious concussion. You saw him, he can barely hold a coherent thought in his head; his confusion is obvious. Good grief, he doesn't even know who he is! He could have a skull fracture or a hematoma; he could be seriously injured. Without a CT scan or x-rays we don't know. He needs to be in a hospital. Somebody surely tried to kill him. He is in trouble. He could be trouble for that matter."
Tommy waited for the EMT to wind down. "We got a listing in the Denver area for Josiah Sanchez, complements of the DMV. Tired calling but just got an answering machine. Got the address though. Tried getting through to the Federal Building. Got hold of a guard, so I started asking for some of those names he gave us. Found out they work there. Figure that kid does too. Must work for some federal agency, since the guard said the 'agents had left for the day'. Couldn't get any other information out of him, so I figure the best thing to do is take the kid to Denver."
"You'd do that for me?"
The soft comment startled them. Matt quickly pulled out a chair and gently pushed the man into the chair. "Here. Sit down before you fall down."
He got a dimpled smile for thanks, before he asked again, "Tommy, did you mean it? Would you take me home?"
Tommy nodded, "Yeah, son. I'll take you home."
Matt sighed and pulled out a chair. "Gonna take forever."
"Figure about fifteen-eighteen hours."
"Gonna be snow."
"Ain't nothin' new."
Their token argument was interrupted by a soft, "How?"
"How are you going to take me home? I can't remember.."
"Got the address for that Sanchez fellow. We can start there."
"But I got to go to Chris's."
"You got any idea where that is?"
"Near the forest. We ride there on the weekends."
"Son, that's just a bit vague. You got anything more specific, like his last name? Or better still, any clue about your name?"
Biting his lip, the confused man shook his head. "Maybe. Max? I seem to remember somebody calling me Max." He looked up, eyes clouded with dismay, "but it doesn't seem quite right."
"You want me to call you Max?"
"Um, well no."
Tommy could feel Matt's disapproving eyes and he could hear his counsel about head injuries and hospitals. But right then, looking into a pair of troubled green eyes he heard another counselor.
"Come on, son. Let's hit the road."
Chris listened to the soft whir of the mantle clock getting ready to strike. Midnight already.
"Merry Christmas, Brothers."
Chris heard the others answer but he just couldn't.
Vin refilled his glass and carried one over. Nudging Chris, he pushed the glass into his hand.
"Come on, cowboy. Don't care if you ain't drinkin' to the day, but you better be drinkin' to Ez."
Vin's hand came down hard on Chris's shoulder. "And before ya go jumpin' to any conclusions, I propose a lil wager." Vin grinned at the mostly disapproving stares. "Now fellas, I'm putting my money on the middle of the afternoon, about three. How about you Bucklin?"
Buck grinned back, though it didn't reach his eyes. "Well, I don't think that boy will want to wait too long for his presents. So, I'll say two PM. How about you kid?"
JD bit his lip. Did they really think this would work? If Ez was.. "I'll say six. Ez ain't never early."
"Four." Josiah intoned, looking over at Nathan.
Nathan surveyed his teammates and smiled. Damn that sneaky Standish. "Five."
Chris knew what they were doing, he just hoped that they were all right and that Ez was gonna be here period. He could feel Vin's hand gently squeezing his shoulder and JD's wistful gaze. With a whispered prayer, he made his call. "Eleven fifty-nine."
Tommy hummed along quietly with the radio as they passed through Des Moines. His passenger was dozing, tucked under a Pendleton blanket. They made good time and traffic was delightfully light. Considering the speed he was driving, he was hoping all the good little highway patrols were safe at home, dreaming of gumballs.
They were in the middle of nowhere when Tommy spied a tiny foreign import sitting cockeyed on the berm.
"Perhaps we'd better stop."
Tommy slowed down, pulling in carefully so that nothing would impede their escape should it be necessary.
"This might not be a good idea."
"I know." The response was the slightly slurred. "But somebody could be in trouble. They would stop."
"Okay, but you stay put."
"No, I go. You back me up."
"Kid.." Tommy started.
"JD's the kid. He's a good backup, good shot too. Quite an asset to us.." He trailed off, uncertain as to what the kid was an asset to, but he knew he was important.
"And what are you?" Tommy asked, keeping an eye on the figure running towards them.
Tommy laughed. "Yeah, I can see that," he said good-naturedly.
With a gold tinged grin, the young man climbed out of the car.
Tommy watched as the two figures met, paused for a moment and then headed back to the car.
The door opened and a young woman, no more than nineteen or twenty with a gray tweed newsboy's cap jauntily perched on her head slid into the back seat.
"Oh my gosh! Thank you so much. I was convinced that I was certain to spend the night on this desolate roadway. My car, that piggish beast, had the utter temerity to simply stop. I mean, I know its got gas."
Tommy jumped in quickly as she took a breath. "Where do you need to go?"
"Well, there's a bus station in the next town, I could."
"My dear girl, I would wager that there are no busses running now."
Tommy agreed, "He's right, my dear. Where are you headed?"
"Willston." Seeing twin blank looks, she launched into a surprisingly clear set of directions, complete with creative hand gestures that mirrored the twists and turns in the road. Winding up, she thrust out her right hand and grinned. "By the way, I'm Kate."
"Pleased to meet you, Kate. Tommy Zinn." He approved of the firm grip and the forthright brown eyes.
Kate turned to the handsome man in the passenger seat, but he'd turned away to lean against the window.
Reaching over, Tommy squeezed her hand gently. "He's just a bit under the weather."
"No, I'm the one who should beg your pardon. Pleased to meet you Ms. Kate. I can't tell you my name.."
Tommy jumped in, seeing the flicker of alarm in the brown eyes and the distress in the green. "Our friend here has a nasty concussion. Works for the government. I'm taking him home, for Christmas. Just like I'm going to drop you off. And since we have a good ways to go, ladies and gentlemen, settle back for the ride. Can't quite offer you a sleigh and eight little reindeer, but you got Santa, sort of, and eight cylinders."
Kate laughed and his quip even garnered a dimpled smile.
Vin starred at the fire, watching idly for salamanders to make their appearance. It was just after three in the morning. Nathan and JD had headed off to bed about an hour earlier. Nathan was unnaturally talkative all evening, he'd paced and fretted and nearly set them crazy, till he raided Chris's bookshelves and taken himself off to the back bedroom. JD on the other hand sat like a zombie drinking beer after beer until he'd simply fallen asleep. Vin had lifted the half-finished bottle from his hand and Buck steered him into the guest room.
Josiah was still rummaging around the kitchen. So far, he'd made chocolate chip, sugar, and peanut butter. Now, to judge from the smell, was working on oatmeal cookies. The sweet, homey smell filled the house.
Buck pranced into the living room, plopping a plate in Vin's lap. "They're hot."
"Bet you got your fingers smacked."
Crunching down on the nutty oatmeal, Vin grinned. "Worth it."
"Damn right." Buck said from the window, licking chocolate off his fingers.
"He still out there?"
The light flashed off the head of the ax as Chris split another log. The single light shone down on the lone figure, casting long shadows that stretched out into the circling darkness.
Tommy pulled into the truck stop. Kate had assured him that it would be open, no matter what the day or time and she was right. His stomach was growling and his passenger could probably use a square meal too. Deb's wonderful soup and coffee carried them a long way, but now that just a distant memory.
"Son?" He shook the shoulder gently.
"Go 'way, I'm fine." Strained husky tones and the rapidly blinking lids gave lie to that statement, but Tommy simply dispensed with chatter and pried him out of the car with his strong hands. That weekly bowling league came in handy once in a while, he thought to himself.
There were no further comments as he steered the fellow underneath the faltering neon "open" sign. Sleigh bells jingled as they made their way into the vestibule. The bright fluorescent lighting brought out the bruises on the battered face.
"Lord almighty, mister, what happened to you?" asked the waitress, sitting in the first booth, a huge tone ominously labeled, 'Psychobiology: Theory and Concepts. Third Edition.' propped in front of her while the tabletop jute box blared 'Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer'.
"Ran into something."
"Bet you did," she said with a concerned frown. "You fellows want a table or a booth?"
"Booth, please." Tommy answered, looking around for the restrooms.
She pointed, further along the aisle between booths. Laying two dog-eared menus on the table, she added, "You boys want coffee?"
"Be right up."
They both felt better after visiting the facilities. Tommy watched how his comrade meticulously washed his hands and carefully used the towel to handle the faucets and door handle.
"Most of the medical types I know do it that way. Old nursing trick. You maybe a nurse or EMT or something?"
"I don't believe so. Though I would wager it'd be more expedient if I were."
Looking at the cascade of vibrant colors flowing down the handsome face in front of him, Tommy agreed, "I'd say, based on what I'm seeing."
"Yes, well, I believe this is par for the course," he said, gingerly running his fingertips down the spectacular bruising decorating the swollen cheek.
Blood and destroyed tissue from the long, blackened lump on the side of his head had begun to dissipate through the veins and capillaries of the head and neck. Gravity and the body's circulatory and lymph system pulled the damaged cells down, forming a bizarre pattern of purple, blue, red and yellow that appeared to paint the skin. Eyes took on a reddish hue from the passage of blood drainage; even the ear was tinted a yellowish-green. The entire effect was garish and a bit disconcerting. If anything, Tommy thought, the poor man looked worse than he had earlier.
The waitress reappeared as soon as they slid into the booth.
"Here's your coffee, just made a fresh pot. Name's Kathi, by the way. You ready to order?"
"How about two specials?"
"It's really good," Kathi smiled, I had some earlier. Rizwan makes it every year, from what I understand. Gotten to be a tradition."
So, at just past three o'clock on a cold and frosty Christmas morning, they ate roast goat with couscous accompanied by rounds of pita and hummus and flava beans. For desert they munched on figs coated with honey while the jute box hummed out John Denver crooning 'Christmas for Cowboys'.
"This certainly must be the most authentic meal I've ever eaten on Christmas Day," remarked Tommy marveling at the incongruous setting.
"I must say, though I've partial to ham and sweet potatoes, I think you have a point. Our Lord was, after all, a devout Jewish boy."
"You got that right. Although -" Tommy glanced askance at table-top jute box, where some song was now following the strains of 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree' he couldn't identify. He listened for a moment to the words: "And what do you intend to find? Solitude, your peace of mind? Holding out for something less than touching the hand of God?"
Nodding his head, he smiled at the curious glance he was getting. "That's a Christmas song I haven't heard before."
Kathi chuckled. "That's no Christmas song," she said, topping off their coffee cups. "Busboy plays that thing all the time. Some group from down south, weird name. Hey Phil," she called to the dark-haired teen stacking glasses behind the counter. "What's this stuff you got on the box?"
"That Ms. Kathi, is the song Closer. They played that on Roswell."
"That's wonderful, Phil, but what group is it?"
Sighing theatrically as he ambled into the kitchen, he yelled, "Better than Ezra."
Rolling her eyes at the boy's antics, she commented, "There's an odd name for you. Though no worse than Smash Mouth, I suppose. You just bring that up to the register when you're done." Dropping their check on the table, she strolled off, unconsciously humming to the music.
"Tommy. I think that's it."
"That's my name."
Tommy yawned, back to feeling off kilter. "Run this by me again."
"I think that's my name."
"Are you sure? That's not exactly a very common name in this day and age."
"It sounds right. I remember being called Ezra."
"Well," Tommy hesitated, "you thought you remembered being called Max too."
"Yes, but it wasn't right. This feels right."
"Okay, Ezra it is. How about a last name?"
"I seem to remember so many. I just don't know. none of them seem quite correct."
Sliding out of the booth, Tommy assured him, "I'm sure it'll all come to you, just give it time. And since we have a deadline, we better get going."
"That's enough. Christopher Larabee, get your ass in here right now."
Chris flexed his shoulders and squinted at Josiah. "Later."
"Now." Josiah marched across the yard and pulled the ax from Chris's hand and pointed towards the open kitchen door.
The air was frigid and quiet, now that the thump of the ax was stilled. The stars glittered with a startling brightness in the fathomless ebony sky. Josiah paused to look up and Chris followed his gaze. A shooting star darted across the inky expanse like a crystalline bird. Both men watched trailed the arc and, for a twinkling of an eye, soared along.
Josiah clamped a warm, meaty palm against Chris's neck and rubbed lightly. "He'll come home."
"He promised. I sent him off, and then made him promise."
"Doing your job. Both of you."
"Doesn't make it any easier."
Josiah lingered as Chris made his way into the softly lit kitchen. Turning his face once more to the winter night sky, he sought out the Morning Star and whispered softly, "We'd all consider it a tremendous favor were you to bring him safely home."
Christmas dawned brightly behind the 'Ray zipping along its way west. Ahead the shining rays of the breaking day cast dusky shadows over the puffy underbellies of the snow-laden clouds. The big clouds were rolling down the mountains as if they were tipsy overgrown sheep. Tommy just hoped that they wouldn't burst until they climbed this pass. They'd made pretty good time, so far. Another four or five hours should put them in Denver. Then, it was just a matter of finding their way to this Chris fellow's ranch.
"Reckon we'll need a little help with that one, sir." Tommy murmured.
"Hey, Ezra. How you feeling?"
"Dreadful. What did you want?"
"You need me to stop?"
Tommy glanced over. Even bundled in Tommy's overcoat and the tightly woven wool blanket, Ezra was shivering. His voice was husky from sleep and a bit slurred. Daylight did nothing to improve the appearance of his battered visage now gleaming with perspiration.
"I said no. Did you not hear me the first time?"
The bite in the words concerned Tommy. Karen had drilled him on the symptoms of a concussion. Perhaps the shortened temper was just that. He hoped so, because the other thought that occurred to him was not encouraging.
"Okay. We'll stop at the next town of any size; make a pit stop, grab gas and stretch our legs."
Tommy waited in vain for agreement; the man was already asleep again.
Nathan woke early, as he always did. He was one of those folks who go from solid sleep to complete alertness in an instant. It served him well in the military, as a treasury agent and without question as an EMT. But today it was a blessing he could do without. His active, orderly mind immediately began reviewing the reports the FBI sent. They chilled his blood worse than the bitter wind and falling snow. All his forensic training told him that the evidence in those reports pointed towards a body. His imagination did the rest of the damage.
"Don't go borrowing trouble," he admonished himself. "Not that we don't have enough without you borrowing some. "We'll find him, he'll be alright." He promised the worried fellow facing him in the mirror. "He has to be."
It was a work of will, years of self-discipline that drew his attention back to the here and now and set about getting ready for the day.
Double-knotting his shoestring, he reached for his sweater. Smiling to himself, he ran his sensitive fingers over the finely knit fabric. The thing was a work of art. All done in white on white; handmade, just for him, one of a kind, in fact, from Ireland. Last year's Christmas gift - from Ezra. Nathan loved it.
Nathan slipped the sweater over his head, relishing its touch, relishing the connection with their missing teammate and his missing friend.
"Come home, Ezra," he whispered as he turned the knob and went to face the new day.
For the fifth or sixth time, Tommy tried to wake Ezra with no response. Running his hand over the younger man's rumpled brown hair, he practically screamed, "Ezra!" Still nothing.
"Is there a problem?"
Tommy turned to see a local policeman and the young woman from the gas station-convenience store standing behind him. Nervously twisting her sweater, she peered in the door at the unresponsive man.
"My friend here has a concussion and I can't seem to wake him."
The officer's stern demeanor dropped as he instantly became concerned.
"I'll escort you to the hospital," said the officer, activating his radio as he headed for his patrol car.
The tiny community hospital of Ogallala, Nebraska, population 5637, sat just a bit north of the state line between Colorado and Nebraska. The two-story building was nestled in a small grove of trees. Parking the 'Ray in the visitor's lot, Tommy hurried towards the emergency department. The orderlies had whisked Ezra off on a gurney as soon as they pulled into the bay.
An hour later a worn and weary nurse made her way into the abandoned waiting room. "You here with that Ezra fellow?"
"Yes, ma'am." Tommy stood up and holding out his hand introduced himself.
"Well, he's awake now, Mr. Zinn." she said. "Unfortunately," she muttered, glad to be away for one moment from the irascible man.
"How is he?"
Joyce sighed, messaging her temples and staring for a moment at her shoes. She grimaced with distaste as she realized that they bore evidence of the bouts of nausea currently assailing her least favorite patient.
"Ma'am?" Tommy peered anxiously at the woman who seemed to be mesmerized by her shoes. "Are you all right?"
"Sorry, Mr. Zinn. It's been a long night. I've been on duty since 3, yesterday afternoon. I should have gotten off at eleven last night, but they were short in the ER and here I am. Not to mention that your friend in there is being a pain-in-the-ass."
Tommy laughed. "So, he said." Draping his arm over her shoulders, he gave her a gentle hug. "Merry Christmas to you, my dear. And thank-you for looking after all these needy folks, Ezra included."
Joyce looked up and couldn't help but smile too. Her feet still hurt, her eyes felt as if the eyelids were made of sandpaper and she still couldn't wait to get off but that tight knot of misery in her center had lightened.
"How about something to drink? My treat."
"Well, he'll be in radiology for another twenty minutes at least, so sure, I'd love something."
Buck could feel JD's hazel eyes boring through him; even though his own were determinedly shut. "Come on, kid, lemme sleep."
"It's after three, Buck."
Oh shit. Buck cracked open his eyes to see JD's anxious face just inches from his own. "Chill, kid. You still stand a good chance on winning..
"Damn it, Buck. I don't give a flying f."
"Hold on, now kid." Buck clasped his hand over JD's mouth, glad that their little conversation was unobserved. "And keep down your voice. Chris ain't gonna deal with this."
Wiggling out of his best friend's grasp, JD nodded. "But least he ain't drinkin'"
There was a loud crash from the kitchen.
"Oh no." JD groaned as he and Buck raced into the kitchen. The floor was covered with various pots and pans and the contents of the flatware drawer.
"Hey, boys." Josiah hiccupped, scattering forks and spoons as he sat up.
"Come on, hoss. Let's get you out of here."
"No." Josiah said. "I'm cooking dinper.I mean supner.aw, hell, shinner.."
"Yeah, whatever." Buck and JD wadded through the stainless steel to each grab an elbow and haul Josiah to his unsteady feet.
"Preacher man, you are soused." Buck sighed. He was prepared for Chris, but not Josiah. What the hell was up with this? After settling him into the guest room, Buck asked JD. "Where is everybody?"
"They went for a ride." JD said. "Chris was riding Chaucer," he added trying to figure out what that meant as Josiah bellowed 'Please Daddy don't get drunk this Christmas' at the top of his lungs.
Shutting the door firmly. Buck shook his head. "Kid, this could get a lot worse before it gets better."
"You think, Ez..? JD stopped, unable to talk around the tightness in his throat.
Buck slumped against the wall, unable to keep the burn from his eyes. "I don't know. I just don't know."
JD wrapped his arm around Buck. "It'll be a Merry Christmas, you'll see. Ezra promised Chris."
"Let me tell you, Mr. Zinn, when that whole family crowded into that delivery room, the words 'body odor' took on a whole new meaning. We had every window in the place open. Even so the stench was unbearable. The OB was telling her to push and she said, 'I can't, he's stuck.' And the doctor looked at the grandmother and us and said, 'There are a lot of women who would love to have Rambo stuck between their legs'."
"Rambo! They named their baby Rambo?" Tommy roared with laughter, enjoying the labor and delivery room stories the OB nurse was telling. It was helping them both to relax a bit.
"Yep. The OB-Gyn was joking around, anything to get our minds off the clan, if you know what I mean, but the mother seemed to think it was a great idea. Guess he's in school by now." At a low beep, Joyce paused, reaching for the pager at her waist. "Radiology." she said. "You're welcome to come along to pick him up. The doctor should be able to give us a better read on his condition after that.
Tommy glanced at his watch as they entered the room housing the CT scanner. It was getting late.
Ezra curled up around himself, a look Tommy had yet to see on his face.
"Chris?" he asked as soon as they walked into the room, "Vin? Buck?"
The rad-tech came over and spoke quietly, "He's been saying the same thing over and over. Poor guy. I'll get the scans to Doc."
Tommy went over and patted Ezra's leg. "Hey pal. Remember me?"
"You said you'd take me home." he said, the accusation plain.
"Then let's go."
"Whoa." Tommy and Joyce both pressed him back down on the gurney.
"Mister, you are in no condition to go anywhere." Joyce was tired. She didn't want to be there either, if the truth be told, but there was no way she was going to let a man with a grade 3 concussion walk out of the emergency department without a physician's say-so. Head injuries weren't a part of her normal protocols in Labor and Delivery, but she damned well knew that they were tricky and dangerous. Twenty-four hours on duty or not, her patient's well-being was paramount.
"Madam, you will return my apparel, immediately and release me. At once."
"No, sir. You are in no condition to be anywhere but right where you are. You will be released when the doctor says so and not one minute before."
Ezra sat up, swaying slightly from the pain in his head. "You have no right to hold me against my will. I am a fully functioning adult and I have the right to refuse treatment. And I am leaving. Right this minute."
Joyce was undeterred. "Fine. Answer three questions and you're out of here."
Green eyes blinked at her in suspicion. "What?"
"Answer three questions and you can leave."
Worrying his lip with his thumb, Ezra had enough wherewithal to realize he was being set up, but he was desperate.
Ezra looked at Tommy. "You will take me home?"
"Yes, as soon as you can leave."
"Fine," Ezra started to nod, but the lancing pain in his head put an end to that idea.
"Okay," Joyce said, with some asperity, though she felt bad about what she was about to do. "One, what's your last name? Two, your birth date and three, name and address of your emergency contact."
Ezra stared at the rough white blanket and tried to wrench the information from his confused mind. Names and faces flashed through his head, but none of them made any sense. How could he have so many different identities and why weren't any of them quite right?
He remembered guns and horses, card games and warehouses, a sleek Jaguar, a beat up pick-up and men laughing around a big pot of chili. He could picture himself and a long-haired man with brilliant blue eyes opening crates of explosives. A name: Vin. There were shouts of 'ATF, freeze' and images of someone squeezing his shoulder and demanding, 'You be there.' and his voice saying, 'I promise, Chris.'
Then he remembered standing on the edge of a dock and looking down into ice-rimmed black water and fighting, he could see a pipe, felt the bone-crunching whack and heard a splash. Then there was a bright light, lots of noise and then, Santa Claus was pulling his ass out of gutter.
Tommy watched with concern, as perspiration beaded up on Ezra's upper lip and his face paled under the vivid bruising.
Joyce went over and gently got him to lie down. "Why don't you rest a little more?"
Ezra complied. He didn't really have any other choice. Wrenching his eyes open, he sought out Tommy, "I promised Chris, and I still have so far to go."
"We'll get you there," Tommy said, "I promise."
While Josiah slept off the after-effects of exhaustion and a fifth of Jack Daniels, Buck and JD cleaned up the kitchen and finished putting together dinner. By five, they both were watching rapidly darkening barnyard for the missing horsemen.
Buck's low, "Thank God," alerted JD to their arrival. The horses were wet and lathered and the men sweaty and weary, but they were back. The young agent trotted out to lend a hand.
The men were quiet as the horses were unsaddled and rubbed down, but seemed more at ease at least until JD gave his terse report about the profiler's afternoon adventures. Chris and Nathan headed indoors leaving Vin and JD to finish up.
"You okay, kid?" Vin asked as they cooled down the horses.
JD opened to mouth to say fine, but knew from experience he'd cut himself on Vin's sharp gaze. He settled for a quick shake of the head.
JD didn't know what to say. In some ways Vin and Ezra were as close as he and Buck. His two friends' relationship was more complicated, more suited to their more complex personalities, but still as closely held.
"Ez never broke a promise."
Vin nodded. "Not iffen he could help it."
"C'mon Vin, don't be giving up on him."
A smile skittered across Vin's face. "Nah, I ain't giving up on the man, JD. Hell, he'll show up if nothin' else because he knows I got his name in the draw."
"What you get him?" JD asked, glad again that he'd drawn the profiler's slip. It was always easy to buy something for Josiah.
The smile deepened into his trademark mischievous grin and he shrugged. "Guess you'll just have to wait and see."
"Ah, come on Vin. I'll tell you what I got Josiah."
Vin snorted. "Books."
JD looked crestfallen for a moment, but then brightened, "I know what Buck got you."
"You do?" Vin asked a bit eagerly.
Beaming, JD nodded.
"Good, then I guess ya get two out of seven."
"Darn, Vin." JD began, hustling after the sharpshooter, their banter filling the space left behind as they headed into the house.
Joyce pulled carefully out of the parking lot of the Ogallala Community Hospital and headed south along the highway. Twenty-four hours on duty left her a bit muddled but long years of practice going without sleep stood her in good steed. With plans for nothing more than a long, hot shower and sleeping maybe well into the New Year, she almost missed her headlights sweeping over the slight figure trudging along the edge of the highway.
"No way. Not your problem, just keep going," she told herself even as she pulled her Suburu over on the shoulder.
Head down, the man didn't even see her until he almost collided with the car's bumper.
There was no answer from the man standing there shivering in the winter breeze.
Joyce frowned, reaching for her cell phone. "Stubborn, bull-headed.." Shaking her head, she guided the unresisting man over to the car. "Get in."
Weary green eyes looked up. With a sigh he gingerly climbed into the front seat, leaning gratefully closer to the heat vents.
Joyce slipped behind the steering wheel and smiled, "You are a piece of work. How in the hell did you manage to inveigle yourself out of the hospital? On second thought, don't answer that."
Pressing a number on the cell she observed her one-time patient. His color was a bit better and the lines of strain around his eyes had eased.
"Head better?" she asked, waiting for the Emergency Department receptionist to track down Tommy Zinn.
"Yes, thank you. I have an answer for you: Chris Larabee."
"I thought your name was Ezra."
"It is." I think, he silently added. "Chris is .."
After a few moments, Joyce suggested, "Brother, maybe?"
Ezra bit his lip. "He's no son of my mother."
Before Joyce could navigate around that twisted reply, Tommy's cheerful but cautious voice came over the line.
Christmas dinner was a quiet affair. Even well into his cups, Josiah, with a bit of help from Buck and JD, had actually managed to pull off a decent meal. There was an unspoken agreement not to mention the empty place at the table. Just as there was an agreement not to dig into the pies that Mrs. Wells sent over or to attack the brightly wrapped pile of presents that Nathan so painstakingly arranged. Everyone helped clean up and Chris thought that even Sarah would not have found fault with their spit and polish job. One by one they found places to slump around Chris's big gathering room. Josiah and Nathan flipped over the chess board and began a game of checkers. Vin curled up with some magazine in the window seat, while Buck stretched out in front of the hearth watching Chris aimlessly poke and prod the fire. JD paced.
Angling another log on top the bounteous blaze, Chris watched the kid pause before the DVD cabinet for maybe the tenth time. "Go ahead, JD, find something you want to watch."
Looking to Buck for confirmation, JD swung open the doors of the cabinet where they stored the games, videos and DVDs the team collected over the past few years. They'd given Chris a Playstation2 last year for his birthday, indulging Chris's passion for video games - especially Tekken. The nice thing was that PS2 played DVDs too. Now to find one they could agree on.
"Any suggestions?" JD asked over his shoulder, running his finger along the titles.
"It's a Wonderful Life." Josiah said.
"Nestor, the Long-eared Donkey."
"Geez, Buck." JD shook his head. There was no way they were watching that thing. It embarrassed him to death 'cause Buck always cried.
"How the Grinch Stole Christmas," Vin piped up.
"Prancer." Nathan suggested.
JD shook his head. That one made him cry.
Chris crossed over to the cabinet and pulled handed him a case. JD bit his lip and searched Chris's face for a sign that he was certain. Suddenly, it occurred to him why the man was riding Chaucer. This was the same.
Holding up the case, he announced, "A Christmas Carol, with Alistair Sim."
It could have been funny how everyone's eyes went to Chris, before murmurs of assent. It wasn't. They might have even argued that George C. Scott was the ultimate Ebenezer. They might have scoffed at the untoward sentimentality of any telling of Charles Dickens's reformer's tale. But they didn't.
"Thank, God," Tommy said as they entered Denver city limits. Every time Ezra dozed off, Tommy worried that he'd be unable to rouse him again. They never did get the read on his films from the ER doctor and he was concerned that the younger man was seriously injured. His hasty conference on the side of the highway with Joyce helped him draw the conclusion that, though unadvisable, continuing their trip didn't pose any horrible risk. Anyway, Denver hospitals were better equipped for any emergency that might arise.
In the dim light of the dashboard, Tommy checked his watch. Almost ten. It surely looked like he wasn't going to get Ezra home in time for Christmas. At least, Tommy thought, he would be able to get him home. Still it seemed like a shame; the poor fellow was so desperately trying to hold to that promise. Peering up at the dark sky obscured by the city lights, Tommy murmured, "Sir, I know, well, it's a small thing wouldn't you agree? But it really means a lot to this young feller here and seeing as the day is in honor of your birth and all. And I know you think an awful lot of keeping your word, seeing as you could have done otherwise, if you wanted. I appreciate your consideration."
"Oh, hey Ezra, how you feeling?"
"Better, I think." Ezra grimaced and shifted his position. "Were you talking to me?"
"No. You thirsty?"
Tommy grinned and handed over a bottle of water. "I think we should head to that address we have for Josiah Sanchez. Should be home this time of night, don't you think?"
"Shouldn't we call?"
Tommy held up his cell. "Got the answering machine. You're friend must have quite a sense of humor. Message said that the answer was forty-two. That's all. I left a message after the beep."
Ezra slumped, staring out the window. "Then he is not at home."
"Now we don't know that. Lots of folks don't answer the phone when they're sleeping."
"Josiah always answers his phone, if he is at home." Ezra said with conviction; although, he could have said why he was so certain.
"We could check with the neighbors?"
"We have to find Chris's. If I could just remember."
"How about," Tommy proposed carefully, "we start someplace that seems familiar and work from there?"
"Makes sense," Ezra said with a wry chuckle. "One of the few things that does, here lately."
Tommy beamed; his young friend was feeling better or at least had his sense of humor back. Thank God.
"We could start at the Federal Complex on 6th?" Ezra rubbed his sore head gently, once more catching fleeting images that didn't altogether make sense.
"Excellent." Tommy agreed, as he tossed the ADC map of Denver he'd picked up at the service station. "Here, knock yourself out and give me some directions."
Ezra laughed, "Mr. Zinn, I believe I've had all the knocks I can take."
Tommy joined in. "Reckon you have. Glad you're feeling better."
"Me too. Listen Mr.."
"Tommy, you remember."
"I think I owe you an apology. Please forgive me for any earlier unpleasantness. I had no cause to be irritable with you when all you have done is your best to get me home."
Tommy risked at the man sitting beside him, so still and read the sincerity. "S'okay. I'm betting that you've had easier days?"
"I'm not a criminal, Tommy."
"No. You're not." Reaching over he flipped the knob on the radio. "Ought to be some Christmas music on, don't you think?"
"Sure." Ezra agreed, perusing the map.
The federal complex on 6th was locked up tighter than a drum. And very little looked all that familiar as they trudged around the plaza. Ezra slumped down on the steps.
"It's not helping," he muttered, grinding a sprinkling of salt under his heel. "I'm sorry for schlepping you all this way, Tommy. Maybe we'd better just find a hotel.." The words trailed off as he realized he hadn't a cent to his name. "Good Lord, what am I thinking? I know I've been whacked about by a bunch of miscreants. I can surmise that much, given the evidence. I am vaguely certain I work here in this building. Chris, Vin, Josiah, Nathan, JD, Buck - they are as real as this hand," he said, waving it in front of his face. "But everything else, all those bits of minute that you normally could easily catalogue, is as jumbled and tumbled as the acrobats at Cirque de Soliel. Then in the midst of all this, I presume on your good nature and drag you half across the country to do what, exactly?" Ezra dropped his head to his hands.
Crouching down, Tommy patted his knee. "I think the what was keep a promise. Seems like that's pretty important to you. And I think it's only fitting that you do so. After Christmas is all about a kept promise."
Ezra looked up into Tommy's kind blue eyes. "I want to be home, you know? I want to keep the promise I made to Chris, because he trusts me to keep my word. But Tommy, I want to be there for me too. I need.."
Reaching out a hand, Tommy pulled Ezra to his feet. "Come on my man, we have a good hour yet. What do you say we head out towards the forest and see what happens? I have great faith that something will work out. You'll see."
Ezra grasped the hand and couldn't help by smile at the erstwhile Santa. He had his doubts, but there was something just so incredibly irresistible about Tommy's optimism.
Settled back into the 'Ray. They drove West along the deserted highway. Warm once again, Ezra soon dozed off again leaving his chauffeur to navigate the road while singing along with the radio.
"How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given." Tommy broke off suddenly as a shape darted across the road. Gently, but urgently he hit the brakes and came to a slushy stop on the edge of the road.
Jolted awake by the sudden stop, Ezra peered out into the fog and snow. "What happened?"
"Something ran out," Tommy said, wiping his hand over his face. "Couldn't tell what it was, but I don't think I hit it."
"There's a lighted area over there, shall we perhaps find someplace to settle for the night?"
They drove carefully along the narrow ramp and headed toward the soft glow. About three miles along, a graveled road branched off from the asphalt.
"What do you think, Ezra?"
"I don't know.."
Chris raised the ax and let it fall, slicing cleanly through the old oak.
Vin reached over and grabbed the logs, stacking them neatly on the abundant woodpile.
Chris nodded and snagged another log.
"Don't ya think you got enough?"
A shrug and a clean slice.
Vin sighed, staring into the dark, quiet night. The dial of his watch glowed, 11: 54. It sure looked like ol' Ez wasn't going to make it.
Sinking the ax into the stump. Chris clapped Vin on the shoulder. "You're right, let's go in."
The two men walked slowly towards the dark house. Just as the passed the edge of the porch, the motion sensitive light went out.
Vin froze. "Did you see that?"
"I don't see anything."
Vin stepped back, triggering the light. "Damn, now I can't see anything."
Shrugging they continued up the porch stares. This time they both stopped. There was the unmistakable sound of an approaching car. In a moment the lights swept over them.
"Damn, that's a fine vehicle," Buck said opening the door and stepping out on the porch, followed by JD, Josiah and Nathan. He eased in front of Vin and handed both men their weapons. They stood and watched as the driver stepped out.
"Merry Christmas, gentlemen. My name is Tommy Zinn and my friend Ezra here is looking.."
Tommy stood bemused as the men moved almost instantly to engulf his passenger. He laughed at the scolding the tall dark man was giving. Man sure knew how to read the riot act.
Finally, as the noise level reached supersonic decibels, someone said, "Quiet."
The lean blond made his way over to Tommy. "Thank you," he said holding out his hand.
Tommy shook it warmly. "You must be Chris."
"It was my pleasure, Chris. I admire a man that keeps his promises." He nodded towards Ezra, chuckling at the mustached fellow grabbed him into a bone-crushing hug. "Besides, a man likes to be home for Christmas."
"What about you, Tommy?" Ezra had disentangled himself from JD's vigorous handshake. "You're terribly far from home."
Tommy grinned up at the motion light and whispered his thanks. Wrapping a gentle arm around Ezra's shoulders and leading him towards the house, Tommy assured him. "Don't you worry, I'm never far from home and neither were you."
Merry Christmas Everybody!
Amy Grant and Chris Eaton
Are you far away from home
This dark and lonely night?
Tell me what best would help
To ease your mind
Someone to give
Direction for this unfamiliar road
Or one who says, "Follow me and
I will lead you home."
The Savior of old
To love so
The loneliest soul
He says to one and all,
"Child, you can follow Me
And I will lead you home
Trust Me and follow Me
And I will lead you home."
Be near me, Lord Jesus
I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever
And love me I pray
Bless all the dear children
In Thy tender care
And take us to Heaven
To live with Thee there