Ezra Standish sighed with relief and picked up the cup of hot chocolate he had just made himself. He walked from the kitchen into the living room and set the cup on top of the wet bar while he dug out the brandy. He really needed a little something extra tonight, just a touch to relax him and help him sleep.
He had just come out from an undercover assignment that had lasted almost two months. To make it worse he had been alone for the whole time, with none of the others under with him. After all a lowly bookkeeper for a toy manufacturer who just happened to be using his legitimate business as a cover for a highly illegal gunrunning business didn't need bodyguards or henchmen.
Even worse, Team Seven's sharpshooter hadn't been at the take down that afternoon. Vin Tanner had been called to testify in a trial at a little town up in the mountains west of Denver and the task of covering the Team during the takedown had fallen to Team Four's sharpshooter, Dave Winslow, a competent man but *not* Vin Tanner. Still, everything had gone smoothly and the job was completed with no injuries among the Team.
Nathan had descended on him like the wrath of God as soon as everything was cleared up, poking and prodding then declaring him to be suffering from exhaustion and stress, as if that were anything out of the ordinary when he'd just finished an undercover assignment.
Larabee had taken one look at Ezra, noted the pale face, the faint tremors in his hands and the look of utter exhaustion that he had simply been too tired to hide and had given him an ultimatum. Either, go home and go to bed right then or be dragged by main force to the hospital... and to make sure that he complied, Larabee had ordered Sanchez to drive him home.
The big profiler had not only driven him home, he'd come in and waited until Ezra had showered and changed into his pajamas then had literally stood over him until he had reluctantly climbed into bed, ignoring Ezra's protests that he was too wound up to sleep.
Only when Ezra had taken the sleeping pills that Jackson had offered and lain down, appearing to be asleep had Sanchez retreated out of the townhouse, locking the door behind him and setting the alarm before joining Jackson who was waiting patiently to drive him home.
That had been an hour ago. Ezra hadn't been asleep, he doubted he would get to sleep before midnight.
And yes, he knew that he shouldn't put the brandy in the hot chocolate, after taking the pills but he just didn't care.
He carefully poured just a capful, not even a jigger or an ounce into the cup and put the bottle away. Picking up the cup, he turned to walk to the couch when he suddenly doubled over.
The cup fell from nerveless fingers and shattered on the tiled floor as he went to his knees.
It felt like something had hit him in the stomach, a sharp, wicked blow that took his breath away. Then it felt as if something had latched on to him, like a claw, clutching at his insides, tearing at him, pulling him along, demanding that he follow.
He struggled to his feet without conscious thought, grabbed the keys to the Jag and his trench coat from the hook beside the door, struggling into it as he staggered out, into the autumn twilight, leaving the front door standing open. He ran to the garage, yanking the door open. He grabbed a rope off the wall without thinking and jerked the car door open. He threw the rope into the passenger seat and started the Jag.
Slamming it into reverse he accelerated out of the garage, backing down the drive at breakneck speed, he yanked the wheel and hit the brakes at the bottom of the drive, slinging the Jag into the road, heedless of any other traffic. He jammed it into drive and stomped the accelerator.
Behind him the light shone out of the open front door of the townhouse.
He maneuvered through the Denver streets on autopilot, with no idea where he was going just following the dreadful pull that had him in its grip.
He flew on to I-70 heading west, weaving in and out of traffic. No thought in his mind except a constant chanting of, 'hurry, hurry, hurry'.
Exits flew by him, headlights and neon signs were a blur until he saw the sign for ninety-one south and without conscious thought, flipped on his blinker, decelerating just enough to make the exit and turn south on the highway.
Again his foot seemed to have a mind of its own, pressing down on the gas pedal. The chant in his head, faster and louder, 'HURRYHURRYHURRY'.
He didn't know how much time had passed, his hands were locked on the steering wheel in a fierce, white-knuckled grip.
He swung off the main road, roaring through a small town whose name he never noticed. He started up into the mountains, the Jag's engine roaring as he drove like a maniac, taking roads he'd never traveled before at speeds he'd never have even considered, if he'd been in his right mind.
He never noticed the scream of a siren behind him, never noticed the flash of red and blue lights.
He drove on.
The wall of the mountain on his right, the sheer dropoff on his left, he followed the curves and switchbacks as if the Jag were glued to the road. Then his headlights glinted off twisted metal, where the guard rail was tore asunder and he hit the brakes, the Jag coming to a rest, sprawled across both lanes of traffic.
He was out the door before it settled, grabbing the rope off the seat, he plunged over the edge of the drop-off, following the path that something large and heavy had left as it had torn through the underbrush and foliage on it's way down the side of the mountain. Slipping and sliding, he charged on.
A sob was ripped from his throat as he saw what had torn the path.
Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!
It teetered precariously, balanced on a ledge, creaking ominously. He could see the rear axle as it swayed up and down.
Still moving without thinking, he threw himself to the ground and slid under the rear of the jeep, he wrapped the rope around the rear axle, and tied it securely. He clambered back out and ran to a nearby tree wrapping the rope around it, once, twice, three times then tying it off.
Then finally he was beside the driver's seat, reaching out to check for a pulse in Vin's neck, almost sobbing when he found it.
Vin raised his head, looking at him with dazed eyes. He groaned then lifted a hand to his forehead and the large gash there. "Ez?" He asked in a puzzled voice.
All Ezra could do was nod. He couldn't seem to form words. He pushed Vin back against the back of the seat and checked to see if his legs were free. Finding that they were he unfastened the seatbelt and pulled Vin's arm over his shoulder.
An ominous groan from the jeep and the loud "Pop!" from the rope spurred him to throw himself backwards, taking Vin with him.
They hit the ground and Ezra rolled them, trying to get as much distance as possible from the jeep before it fell.
With a loud "CRACK!" the rope gave way and the jeep tilted forwards. It held for a second then plunged downward, into the ravine.
Vin lay limp beneath him, having slipped back into unconsciousness.
Ezra clamped his arms tightly around his friend and let go, let the darkness claim him.
Vin was safe. Nothing else mattered.
It was just after eight PM.
Pitkin County Sheriff's Deputy Caleb Hawkin's had been sitting beside the road, just outside Meredith, watching for a bunch of teenagers that he'd had several complaints about in the last week, when the dark colored Jaguar went past him like a bat out of hell.
The driver had to be crazy. Nobody drove like that in these mountains.
He started the patrol unit and flipped on his lights and siren. Picking up the mike he called the Sheriff, Ben Foster as he followed the Jag up the mountain road.
He held his speed down to a relatively safe one, knowing that there was literally no where for the Jag to leave the road until it came out at the next town, Basalt, some twenty miles farther along. The sheriff was headed down that same road, on his way back from Basalt.
He was glad that he hadn't been going at full speed when he rounded a curve and found the Jag parked in the middle of the road, blocking both lines of traffic. He stopped the patrol car and approached the other car carefully. He could see that the driver's door was standing open and quickly noted that there was no one in the car.
The Jag's headlights were pointed directly at the raggedly broken guardrail. He felt a chill go through him. He knew that the guardrail had been intact that afternoon when he'd made a routine patrol along this road.
Calling Ben to let him know where he was and that the road was blocked, he shone his flashlight down the embankment. From the trail torn through the underbrush it was obvious that someone had gone off the road.
He carefully made his way down following the trail. His flashlight glinted off a bumper and he noted the tag number, then moved the light around to see what else he could see. Someone had tied a rope to the rear axle and back to a tree. He played the light over the jeep and saw two men. One pulling the other from the jeep just as a strand of the rope holding it gave with a loud pop.
He moved past the tree and towards the two men, who were rolling away from the jeep as it swayed dangerously. Then there was a terrific CRACK and the rope broke, the jeep plunging over the edge.
He threw himself to the ground as the broken rope lashed back towards the tree, narrowly missing him as he went down.
When he was clear he climbed to his feet and went to check on the two men.
They lay together in a heap. The smaller man, dressed in a trench coat and what looked like pajama pants and bedroom slippers was on top. The other man, wearing jeans and a denim jacket had a nasty gash on his forehead.
Both appeared unconscious.
Feeling distinctly unsettled, Caleb called Ben and told him to send the EMTs and a MediVac chopper.
In less than half an hour the place was crawling with people. A MediVac chopper sat on the road in a wide spot half a mile up from the broken guardrail.
Caleb had moved the Jag, the keys had still been in it, to clear the road and Ben had joined him on the scene before the EMTs arrived.
A wants and warrants inquiry on the Jag had returned that the car belonged to an ATF agent and that there was an APB out on it as Denver PD had discovered his townhouse standing open and the agent and his vehicle missing.
A similar inquiry on the jeep, Caleb had automatically noted the tag number when he first saw it, had returned that it also belonged to an ATF agent.
A call to the ATF had returned that both men worked on the same team.
Sheriff Foster called ATF Team Leader Chris Larabee to inform him that two of his men were being transported by MediVac to the Four Corners Memorial Hospital in Denver.
It was just after nine o'clock at night.
Chris Larabee was halfway home when his cell phone rang with a call from Denver PD telling him that a routine patrol had found the front door of Standish's townhouse standing own and both the agent and his car missing.
Within minutes he was on his way back to Denver.
He dialed his cellphone one handed as he drove with the other.
Sanchez answered on the third ring.
"What the hell happened? I told you to take him home!"
Josiah didn't even blink. He recognized the voice instantly and knew exactly who Larabee was yelling about. "I took him home! Hell, I put him to bed!" Josiah roared right back at him. "What's happened?"
"He's missing. Call Nathan and meet me at the townhouse."
It only took one call to round Buck and JD up since they roomed together.
By eight-thirty they were all gathered at Standish's.
The place felt strange.
Two police cars sat at the curb and one was parked on the front lawn, their red and blue lights still on and turning, casting eerie shadows over the scene. Officers were going door to door, asking if anyone had seen anything.
Chris stood in the center of the living room. The only thing that looked out of place was the broken coffee cup lying shattered on the green tiled floor. He knelt beside it, dipping fingers in the pooled liquid. It was fairly fresh, cooled but not dried up. Lifting his fingers to his nose, he smelled it. Chocolate and some form of alcohol.
He saw the bottle of brandy sitting out on top of the wet bar and nodded. Ezra had most likely not been able to sleep and gotten back up after Josiah had left to fix himself a cup of chocolate.
But what the hell had happened then? It looked, for all the world, like he had just run out of the house, leaving the door standing open behind him.
Josiah and Nathan returned from checking the bedroom. It didn't look disturbed. The bed was rumbled where Ezra had lain in it and the covers thrown back as if he'd just gotten up, but there was no sign of a struggle.
One of the uniform officers came in, "Agent Larabee?"
Chris rose turning to face the young officer.
"Sir, this is Mrs. Langton. She lives across the road. She says she saw Standish tear out of here around seven."
Chris looked at the small white haired woman and nodded, "Ma'am could you tell me exactly what you saw?"
"Well, I was taking Pookie, that's my little dog, for her evening constitutional. We just walk up and down the sidewalk in front of the house. When I saw dear Mister Standish come running out of his house. He left the door open and everything. Just ran to the garage and jumped in his car and took off. I mean it scared me. He squealed his tires and burned rubber taking off. He never does that! And he never even waved at me and Pookie! He always waves at us when he sees us out."
"Ma'am," Josiah interrupted her, "Which way did he go?"
"On my! Let me think a minute. The street was on my left and he went the other way from where we were facing. That would mean.... West. He went west." She nodded firmly.
"Was there anyone with him?" Chris asked.
"Oh, no! He was right by himself. It was so strange. It looked like he had on his pajamas! But that couldn't be! Mister Standish would never just take off in his pajamas!"
"No ma'am." Josiah agreed with her.
He exchanged looks with Chris and Nathan. Something had to be wrong. Under normal circumstances Ezra Standish wouldn't be caught dead out in public in his pajamas.
Larabee's cellphone rang.
He pulled it from his pocket and answered. A second later his head came up, "What?!" disbelief colored his voice.
He paused to listen then asked, "When?"
Another pause then, "Where are you taking them?'
He nodded his head, not thinking about the fact that the man on the phone couldn't see him. "We'll meet you there."
He closed the phone and turned to his men, Buck and JD had joined the others while Mrs. Langton had been telling her story. He had a puzzled look on his face. "That was the Pitkin county Sheriff's department. Vin's jeep went off the road between Meredith and Basalt. They're air lifting him and Ezra to Four Corners Memorial."
"What was Ezra doing out there?"
Chris swallowed hard, trying to process what the sheriff had told him. "Apparently he was saving Vin's life. The deputy was only on the scene because he was chasing a speeding car... Ezra's Jag. It was Ezra that pulled Vin from the jeep just before it tilted off the ledge it was on and went into the ravine. Vin's unconscious and they can't wake Ezra up either."
Nathan shook his head. "Reckon the sleeping pills finally kicked in," he muttered.
Chris raised an eyebrow at him.
"I give Josiah two to give him when we brought him home. Figured he was too wound up to sleep without them."
"I thought he was asleep when I left him." Josiah rumbled.
Chris rubbed a hand over his eyes. "Let's get to the hospital. Maybe when Ezra wakes up we can find out what happened."
The nursing staff didn't even blink when the five ATF agents charged into the waiting area.
Maria Concetta Gonzalez, the head nurse on duty came out of the nurse's station to meet them. "Tanner is in Exam room five. Standish is in three."
She didn't even try to stop them as they headed for the rooms she had named.
Chris and Buck peeled off and went into room five to check on Vin. Josiah and Nathan headed for three to see about Ezra. JD hovered half way between for an instant, torn between wanting to check on Vin and wanting to check on Ezra. Then he followed Buck into five only to pop right back out, as soon as he saw that Vin was conscious and apparently going to be fine, to dive into three to see how Ezra was doing.
Ezra was asleep. He lay pale and barely breathing on the examining table, wearing nothing but his pajama bottoms. His slippers and trench coat were lying on a nearby counter. He never even stirred at their entrance.
Nathan picked the chart and read it through. After a moment he gave a snort and shook his head. "He's asleep."
The young intern glanced up at him. "It does appear that he is just asleep but we can't wake him."
"He took a couple of sleeping pills about six o'clock. 'Sides if Ezra don't wanna wake up, he could sleep through Gabriel blowing his horn at the end of the world." Nathan informed the young man.
The intern frowned, "Well, he does seem to be breathing okay, and there's no sign of a concussion, just a few scrapes and bruises that he most likely got going down that mountainside.... But we probably should keep him for observation."
Nathan continued to flip through the chart, "Ya'll X-rayed him... head, chest, back, both arms and legs. Ain't nothing broke, not even a rib cracked. CAT Scan...clear. MRI on his head... clear. I don't see any reason to keep him..."
He trailed off and Josiah finished the thought for him, "...and if he wakes up in a hospital he's gonna be pissed."
Just then Buck appeared at the door, "Junior's got a concussion, nasty cut on his head and some bruised ribs. Doc stitched the cut, wrapped the ribs said he could go home if somebody stayed with him. Chris is gonna take him out to the ranch. How's Ez?"
"Sleeping." Nathan and Josiah said in chorus. Then they exchanged looks, If Vin was going home, there was no way they could leave Ezra here. When he woke up in the hospital and found out that Vin had been let go home, he'd have a conniption fit, especially since Vin was the one that had had the car wreck.
Nathan turned to the intern, "Ya might as well release him to us. I'm an EMT. I'll be responsible for him."
The intern didn't look happy and left the room without agreeing. He returned a few minutes later though and brought the head ER doctor with him. As soon as Doctor Mitchell saw who was in the room he sighed and shook his head. "Release him. It's more trouble than it's worth to try and keep him."
Vin was asleep in the guestroom upstairs.
Ezra was asleep in the small room off the kitchen that he had claimed as his own, never having awakened during being carried from the ER, placed in Nathan's SUV, driven to the ranch, carried into his room and tucked into bed by Josiah.
Now the rest of them sat around the table in the kitchen, Buck, Chris and Josiah nursing beers while JD and Nathan indulged in a cup of hot chocolate.
"What I want to know," JD voiced the question on all their minds, "is how did Ezra know where Vin was... I mean even you didn't know what route he was taking home did you?"
"Nope." Chris answered. Then he took a long pull on the beer. "I tried to tell myself maybe Vin called Ezra... but that doesn't fit either. Ezra left the townhouse around seven. It was a quarter *after* seven when Vin called me to tell me that he was headed home and he hadn't talked to Ezra because he asked about him, if he was out from under, if we got the guys...."
"In fact to reach the point where Vin went off the road when he did, Ezra would have had to leave the townhouse before Vin left Basalt." Josiah put in. "From the time that Vin left Basalt, he would have just reached the point where he left the road a few minutes before Ezra arrived. From what the deputy said, the wheels on the jeep were still turning. It hadn't been down there but a few minutes when he followed Ezra down to it."
"There is no way Ezra could have known where Vin was or that he needed help... but he got there just in time." Nathan shook his head. "It's impossible."
"One for the books that's for sure." Buck said quietly. "Maybe when Ezra wakes up, he can tell us what happened."
Ezra groaned and opened his eyes. He felt like he'd gone ten rounds with a gorilla. His mouth felt dry and cottony. He tried to swallow and couldn't.
"Ughhhnnn." He groaned again and rolled out of the bed, sitting up on the edge, getting up he headed for the bathroom... and ran face first into a wall.
Bouncing off, he staggered back and forced his eyes open. What the hell was a wall doing there?
He blinked, his vision slowly clearing. He was facing a blank wall.
He turned around.
This wasn't his bedroom.
This was his room at Larabee's.
How had he gotten here?
Never mind. He was too tired and sore--- Why was he sore? --- to care how he'd gotten here. There was the door into the kitchen and he could hear the others out there. He'd get a drink of water and then maybe he'd ask who the hell had dragged him out here.
He knew, dammit, that he had gone to bed in his own bedroom. Hell, Josiah had all but tucked him in!
He forced himself to straighten and walked to the door. Why did he feel like he'd been beaten with a stick?
Opening it he stepped out into the kitchen.
All conversation stopped.
Why were they looking at him like that?
He edged towards the sink, appropriating a glass off the drain board on the way. He filled it and drank it down. Finally he felt like he could speak. He turned and regarded the others, everyone but Vin was gathered in the kitchen. He looked from one to the other.
They were regarding him like he was a bug under a microscope. He didn't like the feeling.
He cleared his throat, "Mister Larabee," he acknowledged his host. Manners, Ezra, manners. "Might I inquire how I came to be occupying your spare room?"
"You don't remember?"
"No, sir. I do not."
Josiah stood and asked quietly, "What's the last thing you remember?"
"You... you over grown behemoth, bullying me to take some sleeping pills. A man would think that he would be safe from bullying in his own home..."
"You don't remember anything after that?"
"I... uh..." He had a sudden flash of dropping a cup on his livingroom floor. Then driving... neon signs... sirens... lights... Vin's face... blood running down it. "I'm not sure... Vin? What happened? Did something happen to Vin?"
"Vin going to be fine... but we were hoping you could tell us what happened." Larabee said.
"I don't know... Vin... Vin was hurt?" The confusion in his eyes was plain.
Nathan took his arm. "Maybe you better sit down, Ez."
He guided the undercover agent to a chair at the table. Then asked quietly, "Can you tell us what you remember? Anything at all."
"I... I'm not sure what happened. I remember getting up, going in the kitchen, making some chocolate. I went into the living room and I... don't know how to explain it.... It felt like something hit me... in the stomach... I dropped the cup. I don't remember leaving the townhouse... I seem to remember driving... I couldn't tell you were I was going.... I just don't know... I had this terrible feeling of urgency. I had to hurry, hurry. It was like something was pulling me along. I had to go. I couldn't stop. Then all of a sudden I had to stop and I saw this broken guardrail. I got out of the car and went down the embankment. I saw a jeep.... Vin's jeep! I remember pulling him out and rolling away from the jeep. That's the last thing I remember. I don't know how I got here...." He looked up with frantic eyes. "Vin? You said he's all right?"
"Yeah. He's got a concussion but he's fine."
"Blood... I remember blood."
"He had a gash were he hit his head. The doc stitched it. He's gonna be fine." Nathan reassured him.
Josiah had sat down beside him. "But if you hadn't gotten there when you did, he'd be dead. His jeep went off the road in the mountain's, Ezra, it fell into the ravine just seconds after you pulled him out of it."
"I... I don't understand...." Ezra stammered.
"Neither do we, son. But the fact remains. Vin needed you and somehow... you were there."
"And I don't have the words to tell you how grateful we are that you were." Chris added softly. "Thank you, Ezra."
Ezra just stared at them. He really didn't' understand what had happened, apparently he had saved Vin's life but he didn't know how it had happened. He had been so tired... so worn out....
He shook his head to clear it. He still felt groggy like he was moving in slow motion, walking through a dream. Finally he latched on to the one thing that seemed sure. Vin had been hurt.
"Upstairs." Chris answered.
Josiah inclined his head regarding Ezra with a slight smile. "You want to see him? Come on. I'll take you up."
Usually Ezra would have refused the offer of assistance, but he still felt strange, disoriented, unsure and unsteady on his feet. He rose and let Josiah guide him to the stairs and up, with a hand under his elbow.
He stopped in the doorway to the guestroom and stood a moment looking at the still form on the bed. There was a white bandage around Vin's head and he appeared to be asleep.
Then blue eyes opened and Vin turned his head to look at him, "Ez?"
"Yes, Mister Tanner?"
Josiah nudged him into the room and he went to sit on the edge of the bed.
Vin's hand reached for his, fingers curling around his hand. "Thanks, Ez." It was a horse whisper.
"I... you're welcome, Vin."
He turned to look at Josiah but the big man had already retreated from the room.
Vin's grip tightened on his hand and he looked back at his friend.
"Stay?" Vin asked softly.
Lowering his eyes, afraid to meet Vin's, Ezra nodded.
Vin scooted over and tugged at Ezra's hand. "Ya look tired. Lie down."
Still not looking at Vin, but not trying to pull away, Ezra lay down beside Vin, their hands still linked.
A moment later, Josiah reappeared in the doorway and smiled as he looked at the two sleeping men, snuggled tightly together on the bed.
Softly he quoted, "The Lord moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform."
He stepped back and quietly closed the door.