House of Cards
This story was inspired by a short fic called ‘52.’ I asked and received permission from the author, The Chronicler to write the prequel/sequel for ‘52’ and this is the result. I’ve included ‘52’ at the beginning because you must read it for the story to make sense… in fact just consider ‘52’ the prologue. Please be sure to let The Chronicler know that you enjoyed ‘52,’ after all, without this story, ‘House of Cards’ never would have come to be.
Warnings: GEN ATF universe
Characters: Ezra, all seven, Judge Travis
Disclaimers: Not mine, but if they want to give them to me, I won’t argue.
Thanks again to The Chronicler for the inspiration and to everyone else who has let me know they enjoy my interpretation on the guys. Enjoy.
Warning: refers to possible deaths of main characters
Ezra Standish flipped the playing cards out onto the table. Each card was drawn with such intensity that it snapped as its last corner was freed from the deck.
His green eyes were locked in an unblinking stare on the little numbers and shapes of the cards. So intense was his focus that the rest of the world just faded into the background, a nothing that could neither reach him... nor him reach it.
After all, what did he want with that world anyway? What did it ever give him but heartache and pain? And even that much he had to fight for tooth and nail.
Well, damn it, he was tired of fighting, and struggling… and… well... being! There was no reward for good behavior, no plum in the pie, no silver-lining, no pot of gold... hell, there wasn't even the damn rainbow.
The world was cold, gray… nothing. And he just didn't give a damn anymore.
The cards on the other hand...
They had always been there for him, in one way or another. He could make them do what he wanted them to do, except for the few times the outside world dealt him a dose of fate. But, even then, he could predict what the cards would do, manipulate them to his favor. With these cards he could win!
"Agent Standish!" The doctor's hands wrapped around the deck stilling them.
Ezra's cold, hard green eyes turned up just enough to see the man sitting in front of him. How dare this bastard from that world intrude on this, my world, my cards? How dare he try and wrestle away the only thing that is mine, the only thing that is more real, more fundamental than life? His mind screamed and his muscles tensed as the urge to leap forward and rip the very life out of the man surged through them, bringing heated life to what, otherwise, was a cold, numb existence. But instead, he simply said in a soft, calm voice, "Your pleasure, Doctor Morgan?"
The psychiatrist’s eyes narrowed. "Agent Standish," he repeated, only slightly assured that he was being heard, "I wanted to talk to you about what happen to your teammates."
"Teammates?" Ezra repeated. What is he talking about? The only teammates I have are fifty-two little cards. And they are all here. Every last one of them.
"Your teammates," the doctor insisted, releasing the deck. He frowned as Ezra began to flip out the cards again, but, noting that he was keeping beat to his words, there was some indication that he was, at least in part listening to him. So... "The other members of the ATF unit, Team 7. Also known as the Magnificent 7. Special Agent Chris Larabee..."
The King of Spades.
Yes, I remember him. The black King. Ezra's mind recognized both card and name. Unable to separate the two, he knew them both. But Larabee wasn't here and the King was... how was that possible?
"Special Agent Vincent Tanner..."
Ace of Clubs.
Another card and another recognition. But something was missing from the Ace of Clubs. They were one and the same.... so why was only the Ace present?
"Special Agent Buck Wilmington..."
Jack of Hearts.
Yes, he knew that one too. A good friend that card. Always made him smile.... even if he refused to show it... still here, but absent.
"Special Agent Josiah Sanchez..."
Ten of Diamonds.
A good, strong, dependable card. Always close at hand, always supportive, if not in the actual game, at least in knowing that he was never far away. The Ten of Diamonds was, as always, right here and now... so, why did it seem as if he was out of reach?
"Special Agent Nathan Jackson..."
Seven of Hearts.
Ah-ha! Seven of Hearts was the lucky card. No one ever expected much from a seven of anything, but, with a little heart, it could pop up just at the right time and save the game! Nathan had always been a ... handy... card...
"And Special Agent John Daniel Dunne. I believe he preferred to be called..."
Two of Diamonds.
The little diamond in the rough, always seen as being on the tail end of glory, rarely recognized for his true self. That which made the glory all possible.
"JD," Ezra gasped, doubling over in unbearable agony. Six. There were six missing... gone... taken from him... destroyed... that damn world had reached into his deck and stole six cards.... MY six cards... Desperately, he gathered his cards to his chest and began to count them. 49... 50... 51... 52... but… No! There can't be fifty-two cards! Six were missing! Six were destroyed! There can't be fifty-two left...
"Agent...." Again the doctor attempted to still the cards, but his patient leaped back, clutching his friends to his chest, protecting them from whatever had happened to the six.
Doctor Morgan sighed. "Ezra, they are not cards. They are not pieces of a game. They were six real men from the real world. Your real friends."
"Mine!" Ezra hissed at him. He shook his head angrily.
The doctor nodded. "Yes, your friends, your comrades. But they died. You were there. Do you remember?"
But the Agent glared at him. "They aren't dead!" he snarled. Snatching a card, he snapped it out to show him. "See? See! He's here! Ten of Diamonds! Whole! In one piece! Right in the deck where he belongs!"
"Ezra, that is a card, a little piece of decorative, stiff paper," Morgan explained. "Who's the ‘he’ in that card?"
Ezra turned the card so he himself could see it. Of course it wasn't a ‘he.’ ‘He's’ belonged to that world... that world that he wanted no part of any more. This was his. His card… His little world that belonged to him and only him... All fifty-two of them.
But six were missing his muddled mind reminded him. Count the cards! Where's the six? How can there be fifty-two if six were missing? Where were the six?
Watching as the Agent delved back within himself and started to frantically count the cards again and again, the doctor gave a long, tired sigh. Slowly standing up, he waved to a pair of interns who stepped forward with the patient's dose of sleeping agent. Leaving the sick man to their care, he crossed the room to where another man stood, waiting for his report.
"Well?" growled the graying man, not showing a sign of patience.
"Well, Judge Travis… that is a very sick man." The doctor ran a hand down his tired face. "Whatever happened, whatever he saw when his team was killed, was enough to send him running for cover in the only place he feels safe: his mind. And he has folded his mind over onto itself so many times, trying to cover his tracks, hiding and escaping the reality of it all..." He shrugged. "It's gonna take one hell of a pathfinder to find a way out of that mess."
Orin Travis watched as the remaining member of his best team was led from the room in a drugged haze. "Doctor Morgan, that is the only man who can tell us, for sure what happened. I need to know what happened to the other members of his team."
Morgan frowned. "Well, perhaps you can tell me how they died. If I can paint a partial picture for him, perhaps he'll fill in the blanks."
"We don't know how they died," Travis said a little too quickly.
"I don't understand. Didn't the autopsy reveal..."
"There was no autopsy," the ATF director cut him off. When the doctor continued to frown at him, he explained. "There was no autopsy because there were no bodies."
"Then how do you know they're dead?"
"Because!" Travis snapped. He threw a finger in the direction Ezra had been lead away in. "The first and only coherent thing out of his mouth when we found him was 'They're dead! The Magnificent Seven are dead!'" He shook his head. "Doc, I need that man. Only he can tell me what the hell happened... to him and to six other good men who have no one else to speak up for them. Six, damn it. Six!"
If you enjoyed this story, we're sure that The Chronicler would like to hear from you.
3 weeks earlier
Ezra Standish flipped the cards through his fingers with mindless ease as he waited for the others to arrive. He’d been under deep cover for almost a month and prayed that today would bring the culmination of their hard work… of his hard work.
A shipment of automatic weapons destined for the armed forces overseas had been hijacked several months earlier. Now, rumor had it that the weapons were up for sale. Ezra had gone under to try and make contact with Eric Madigan, the man supposedly in possession of the weapons.
Several prior attempts had been made to infiltrate Madigan’s growing organization, but each time the agent had been discovered. Judge Travis suspected a leak, but had been unable to discover who was responsible. He’d called on his favorite team to bring Madigan down once and for all. To prevent the leak, only Travis and Team 7 knew about the job. Hopefully this would keep them safe and allow Ezra to get close to Eric Madigan.
Five members of Team 7 were under cover on this assignment, however, as usual, it was up to Ezra to make the connection and plan the purchase of the weapons.
As middle man, ‘Dapper Dan’ Marley, Ezra had managed to meet Madigan and convince him that his boss, Mr. Reno, aka Josiah Sanchez, would be willing to buy the guns at the appropriate cost.
Ezra sighed and ran his hand through his dark blonde hair. He sighed again as he wiped the excess hair gel off his hand. At this length, his normally refined tresses tended to curl and only a judicious amount of hair product could tame the waves. Besides, the slicked back style went with his new image.
He’d described Dapper Dan as a cross between Buck’s ladies man and JD’s over enthusiastic bouncing with a bit of gangster thrown in for good measure. Of course, this had earned him a bombardment of wadded up paper balls from the two men in question. Ezra grinned then sighed again. He missed his teammates. Okay, he missed his friends.
Dapper Dan cut quite a picture with his stylishly long, blond hair, just touching his collar in the back. Blue eyes and a gold tooth were set off by a Chicago accent, designer shirts, an Italian leather jacket, and a cocky, yet deferential attitude. Dapper Dan knew which side his bread was buttered on. He acted as a go between, passing information from Madigan to Mr. Reno on his cell phone as ‘the boss’ was currently busy in California. Mr. Reno would be making his first appearance today for the meet that would end this whole charade.
Ezra pulled a card to the top and smiled. The ace of spades… his own trademark. He flipped up the next card and was a bit surprised to see the king of spades. Personally he assigned this card to Chris Larabee. The leader of Team 7 had a deadly aura to him when he was pissed off that just seemed to fit the suit of spades. And, of course, what other card could he be but a king as the head of their merry little band.
The cards shuffled and the ace of clubs landed on top. Ezra grinned. This was Vin’s card. A man that was always ready to back you up yet managed to remain in the background, unassuming and quiet until the right time.
Ezra had had way too much time on his hands during the last month. Out in the cold, his only contact with the team was through brief, coded phone calls to Josiah. Ezra had tried to find some way to stay connected with himself and his real life. The playing cards had become a sort of life line that he’d started carrying with him. One late night too many had found him assigning cards to his friends.
The jack of hearts turned up next. Buck Wilmington. Who else? A man with a heart of gold. A professed lady killer who did his damnedest to make every woman he met feel like a queen. And he usually succeeded.
Josiah’s card, the ten of diamonds, sparkled like the soul of the man it represented. A man who cared deeply for others and went out of his way to help those in need.
The seven of hearts was the perfect match for Mr. Jackson. Another selfless giver of his time and energy, always wearing his heart on his sleeve. Always there to patch up his friends when needed.
And then there was the young Mr. Dunne, not really so much younger than Ezra, or Vin for that matter, but his boundless energy disguised his true age and wisdom. The two of diamonds was the card for this diamond in the rough.
Ezra shuffled his cards and tapped them together one last time before slipping them into his pocket. He glanced at his watch. It was almost show time. Not much longer and this whole mess would be over and they could relax out at Chris’ place with a mess of BBQ ribs and some of Josiah’s five alarm chili. He couldn’t wait.
Ezra scanned the area noting the apparently abandoned van with the flat tire. He smiled. JD was already in place. The flat tire was an artistically done ruse. The van’s presence meant that Vin was also in his strategically chosen spot inside the warehouse. The others would arrive together.
Josiah as Mr. Reno, his two body guards – Chris and Nathan, and Buck as the chauffer/additional muscle. Dapper Dan would rejoin his boss and associates to let them know all was on schedule and introduce them to Mr. Madigan.
Ezra frowned. He had not been sure Madigan would show for the meet. It had taken quite a bit of fancy footwork to ensure that the man would be present for the deal. Still… something didn’t feel quite right.
He started his car and drove it across to the parking area in front of the warehouse. So far, none of Madigan’s people were here. Josiah and the others should be arriving soon and Ezra/Dapper Dan had a duty to check out the meeting place. He left the car and entered the warehouse.
The property was owned by a subsidiary of a subsidiary that couldn’t be traced back to Eric Madigan. Crates labeled ‘Fragile’ and ‘This end up’ lined the walkway from the door and led to an opened area with seven other entrances defined by the crates. Ezra carefully studied the area, looking up to try and find Vin without luck. The man could find a shadow to hide in at noon.
Ezra smiled and leaned back against one of the crates to wait. He pulled out his deck of cards and started to shuffle.
JD adjusted the volume on his board. “Ezra just went in,” he reported. “I don’t see anyone else around.”
“Interior’s clear,” Vin added over his comm. unit.
“Okay,” Chris said. “Let’s move in.”
Ezra put his cards away and moved to the center of the cleared space as Josiah and the others came into the warehouse. “Mr. Reno,” he said, unable to contain his broad smile at the pleasure of seeing his friends again. He walked forward to shake the older man’s hand. “Good to see ya. Did you have a nice flight?”
Josiah nodded, frowning slightly as he checked out the vicinity. “I thought Mr. Madigan would be here already, Danny.”
Dapper Dan ducked his head in deference. “Well, ya see, he should be here any time now. He was a bit nervous about our meeting… But I assured him, Mr. Reno, sir, that we wuz on the up and up. He’ll be here,” he said quickly, nodding his assurance.
Josiah lifted his chin a bit and huffed before heading over to one of the chairs set up around the table. Two of his body guards, Chris and Nathan, moved in to stand slightly behind him while Buck took up a position closer to the door they’d just entered.
In keeping with the assumption that Madigan had the warehouse bugged, Ezra continued with his charade. “Mr. Madigan has the items we need and I think he’ll deal fair with you, Mr. Reno.”
“You done a good job here, Danny,” Josiah rumbled.
Ezra grinned. “Thanks, Mr. Reno.” He turned at the sound of a vehicle pulling up outside. “That must be him.”
They waited for a few minutes, but no one entered.
“Why don’t you go see what’s keeping our host,” Josiah said.
Ezra frowned and nodded before heading for the door. He couldn’t understand why Madigan would wait outside. Maybe the man is more paranoid than I thought. I doubt he has any idea that we’re ATF, but…
He opened the door and frowned. The only cars out front were his own and the limo Josiah and the others had arrived in. Strange… Ezra walked out into the parking lot and looked around.
The blast knocked him off his feet, slamming him into the concrete as flames and debris flew over his body. Ezra pushed himself to his knees and staggered to his feet. He turned to stare in horror at the flaming warehouse. “God, no.”
A smaller explosion and stream of fire forced him to stumble further from the building. From this angle he could see the front and one side of the warehouse. Flames flickered in all the windows.
The roar of an engine caught Ezra’s attention. The surveillance van lurched to life and sped toward the warehouse. “JD!” Ezra screamed as the van drove straight for the door on the side of the building. Ezra tried to run, as if he could stop the van, but the ground seemed to move beneath him and he couldn’t keep his balance. He landed hard on his hands and knees, his head spinning. Ezra took a deep breath and looked up. He could see only the last few feet of the van sticking out. The fire licked at it like an eager lover. “JD!” Ezra pushed himself to his feet and staggered through the mess to reach his friend.
Another explosion threw him back and with a resounding thump to his head Ezra lost consciousness.
It was very loud. Noises surrounded him but none of them made any sense. They hurt his head. He felt a hand on his arm. A voice... Not familiar… not important. What is that infernal noise? He tried to sort out what had happened. Warehouse… Madigan… Josiah. God it was so good to see his friends again. Well, at least most of them since he never actually saw Vin or JD.
Was that the noise? A party? No. He couldn’t hear Josiah’s hearty voice, or Nathan. Buck and JD would be cutting up and causing Chris to good-naturedly reprimand them. Vin would chuckle his amusement softly.
Where are they?
Okay, Ezra, get back on track and try to concentrate. You were at the warehouse waiting for Madigan to show up… Josiah had arrived with the others… Where was Madigan? Why was he late? I went outside to check and…
An explosion? Fire. NO! No, no, no… Chris! Nathan! Where are you? Did they get out?
JD! What did you do that for?
Wait. JD had to have rescued them. Yes. That was it. They’re all fine.
So where are they? Why can’t I hear them?
Ezra opened his eyes. The blurry world started to come into focus and the sounds started to make sense. The voices belonged to the paramedics. One was kneeling beside him while the other stood off to one side. Both were looking toward the source of the incessant heat Ezra could feel.
Another man, a firefighter limped over to the paramedics.
“Are you all right?” one of them asked.
“Yeah, just caught my leg on something sharp,” the fireman replied as he sat on the bumper of the ambulance.
“Any other survivors?”
“I doubt it. The flame’s too hot. No one could survive that for long.”
Ezra closed his eyes. Any other survivors? No one could survive that for long. Ezra’s mind refused to accept that his friend’s, his family might be gone. Any other survivors? No one could survive that for long. It just wasn’t possible, not after he’d waited so long to find them. Any survivors? No one could survive. Chris? Please? Buck? Someone? survivors? No… no… no… no…
A hand on his shoulder broke the spiraling train of thought. He opened his eyes to see Judge Travis peering down at him.
“Standish? Can you hear me, son? What happened?”
Ezra grabbed Travis’ arm. He pulled himself up and looked him right in the eye. “They're dead! The Magnificent Seven are dead!”
Judge Orin Travis paced the ER waiting room. He had six men missing, presumed dead and one agent barely hanging on to his sanity. After Standish’s anguished announcement that Team 7 was dead, Ezra’s words had descended into gibberish. Granted the man often spoke in language that had to be deciphered, but it usually made sense.
The only phrase the undercover agent had said that made any sense to Travis was when he could get Standish to focus enough on the problem at hand. He tried repeatedly to get Standish to tell him what had happened to his team, but every time he breached the wall Standish was building, all he got was “The Magnificent Seven are dead!” and then Ezra would disappear back into himself mumbling about making sure his cards were all there and safe.
Travis stopped his pacing and stared at the doors to the examination rooms as if his glare could speed things along. He already knew that Standish had suffered minor injuries. A few burns, cuts and scrapes as well as a slight concussion. It was the state of the man’s mind that had him worried.
Of all his agents, Standish was the one with the most control. Over his emotions, his actions, hell, over his entire body. At a party one year, he’d seen Ezra build a house of cards eight feet high without ever having to start over. When he’d finished, Ezra had walked slowly around the tower of cards with a slight smile on his face, then he’d walked away.
Vin had taken several pictures with a disposable camera and then asked if Ezra was going to knock it down. Ezra simply shook his head. “Can I?” Vin had asked in unison with JD. Standish shrugged. “Do what you want.”
The demolition plans were elaborate and finally the house went down. Laughter and good natured teasing surrounded the event. Ezra watched calmly with that same small smile. Travis remembered it well, wondering why the man hadn’t joined in.
He’d asked Ezra and surprisingly enough gotten an answer.
“I can’t predict where they will fall,” Ezra said then went to refill his drink.
As the others got down on the floor to clean up the mess Vin called to Ezra, “Come help pick up.”
Ezra’s reply earned a mix of glares and chuckles. “It was not I who knocked it down.”
Orin sighed. Ezra Standish was a control freak. If he didn’t know something, he found out. If he couldn’t be somewhere, he got someone to cover for him. If he couldn’t prevent his team from being injured or killed…
Orin sank heavily into a chair against the wall. The thought of losing this team tore at his heart. They were more like family to him than employees. Surely Team 7 had found a way to escape the fire. They weren’t called the Magnificent Seven for nothing.
But then… where were they? Why hadn’t they called in? And if there was a chance that they were alive, why was Ezra burying himself in his mind instead of out there trying to find them?
Orin ran a hand wearily through his hair. Hopefully the doctor could give him some answers. It was readily apparent that their fear of a leak was true. He had already spoken to the fire marshall and police captain at the scene and indicated that there were no survivors. By tomorrow the news would be all over the headlines. Until he could talk to Ezra, the world would believe that everyone in that warehouse had perished. Including Ezra Standish, or as Eric Madigan knew him, Dan Marley.
JD rubbed the healing burn on his cheek gently then shrugged his shoulders trying to get comfortable in the slightly too small, borrowed shirt he was wearing. In the three weeks since the fire, the skin had healed well, thanks to Nathan’s diligent tending, but the new tissue itched, so did his wool pants. He sighed, tugged at his shirt collar and looked around the room at his similarly clad teammates. Beggars can't be choosers. At least we have clothes. They’d been lucky. Except for Ezra… JD blinked back tears that the thought of the spunky Southerner still brought. He cleared his throat and ignored the concerned glances sent his way as he recalled the way things had gone down that day.
JD had heard Josiah send Ezra out to check on Madigan, but the young agent had been busy trying to angle his various cameras to get a good look past the large truck that now blocked his view of the warehouse. Finally he found the angle he wanted and gasped in recognition.
“Get out of there!” he yelled into his headset. “It’s a trap. They’ve rigged the place to blow!”
Inside the warehouse, Vin dropped from his perch some twelve feet above the floor. He landed badly, twisting an ankle. “Over there,” he called waving toward a solid looking storage shed in the corner. It might provide some cover.
Chris spun and ran over to help the sharpshooter up as the others raced for the shed. They’d barely managed to squeeze between the shed and the wall of the warehouse when all hell broke loose.
Five of the seven found themselves cut off by flames.
“JD!” Chris yelled. “Can you drive the van through the door on your side of the warehouse? We’re trapped.”
Inside the van, JD shook himself and nodded still stunned by the explosion, he didn’t even realize that the other truck had left. JD started the van and drove it straight at the door. “I’m coming in, get under cover.”
He jerked forward as the van crashed through the door and slammed to a stop when it hit a stack of crates. JD scrambled out and yelled over the roar of the flames. “Chris! Buck? Where are you?” A piece of flaming wood dropped from above hitting JD’s cheek. He yelled in pain and surprise as he looked up and saw the others descending from the top of the stacked crates.
JD helped steady Vin as the rest of the team kicked at burning debris to clear the path through the hole in the wall. They squeezed past the van and moved quickly away from the burning building as another explosion rocked it.
“We have to get out of sight,” JD warned. “It was Brad Carlson. I saw him and some of Madigan’s goons set the final wires by the door. If they know we made it…”
Chris nodded. “Come on. I know where we can regroup.” He led the way down the alley checking around the corner before motioning for the others to follow.
“Chris?” JD asked sending a scared look back at the warehouse. “Where’s Ezra?”
JD took a deep breath and bit the inside of his cheek as he focused on the computer screen in front of him. It had taken them hours to make their way to the safe house Chris knew was not currently in use. Then Nathan had his work cut out for him tending burns and cuts as well as Vin’s sprained ankle. Their injuries were painful, but not serious, and no where near as painful as the thought that Ezra might have been caught in the explosion.
“How’s it coming JD?” Buck asked recognizing the pained expression in his friend’s eyes. Ezra’s loss had hit them all hard, but JD seemed to feel even more responsible than the rest of them.
JD shrugged. “I’ve traced the phone numbers back to three locations. It would help if Carlson or one of Madigan’s people ever slipped up, but so far they’ve been very cautious about what they say on the phone. I’m sure one of these three addresses will lead us to Madigan and the guns, but we may have to do some recon to figure out which one.”
Buck patted the computer expert on the shoulder. Without JD’s expertise they never would have been able to continue to track Carlson’s movements. Brad Carlson was ATF. He’d never been very popular with Team 7, but up ‘til now they couldn’t really complain about his job performance other than the fact that Carlson had always seemed to get the glory for work he hadn’t done.
Evidently Carlson was working for Eric Madigan, providing information that only someone from inside the ATF could. Ezra had died because of Carlson and none of them would rest until the rogue agent was caught.
The day after the explosion brought the news they’d feared. No one had survived the fire. Chris decided to use the news to their advantage. If Carlson thought Team 7 was dead, then he would stop looking for them. It gave the remaining six a great advantage. Because they weren’t sure if there were other ATF agents involved, Chris decided not to contact Judge Travis until they were certain they could catch Carlson and Madigan together with the guns.
Using the secondary contact information Ezra had set up in case his Dan Marley personality failed to gain entrance to Madigan’s organization, the team was able to establish a long distance relationship with Madigan. Paul Rossen, an arms dealer based in Spain, aka Buck Wilmington, contacted Madigan and through several ‘long distance’ phone calls, agreed on a price for the weapons. In two days he was to arrange for his people to inspect the shipment and make payment.
Chris hoped that they would be able to catch Carlson and Madigan before the meet. If not he would contact Travis and arrange to have a select group of agents help with the bust. Men Chris and his team knew and trusted.
After they brought Carlson and Madigan down, then Team 7 would have time to mourn.
Judge Travis grabbed the man closest to him and hugged him tight. A very surprised Buck Wilmington returned the hug with a ginger pat to the older man’s back. Travis backed away with a relieved smile and caught Josiah next.
“Thank God,” he said as he continued to greet each of the six men in the same manner, appearances be damned. “I thought you were dead.”
“Sorry about that Judge,” Chris said after receiving his hug. “JD saw Carlson help with the explosives at the warehouse and we just couldn’t pass on the chance to take the bastard down. Especially when we saw on the news that everyone thought we were dead.”
Travis nodded. “Yes, well, about that… I’m sorry, but not knowing who the leak was… I thought it for the best. We had no way of knowing you’d escaped.”
Chris nodded, his mind drifting. “If you’ve got everything covered here Judge, I think we’d all like to go home and get some rest.”
“Home?” Travis asked with a sharp look at Larabee. “I thought you’d want to see him.”
“Him? Him who?” Vin asked.
“What?” “He’s alive?” “Where is he?” “Is he okay?”
Six voices accosted the Judge with variations on the same questions. He raised his hand for silence. “I apologize. I didn’t realize you thought… Ezra is alive. He’s at the hospital.”
“What?” Nathan almost shouted. “It’s been three weeks. How bad is he hurt? What’s…”
“Nathan,” Chris interrupted. “Let the man speak.” He faced the Judge expectantly.
“His injuries were minor,” Travis stalled, hating what he was going to have to tell these men.
“Then why is he still in the hospital?” JD asked.
Travis sighed. “Physically he’s fully recovered. Mentally… Ezra isn’t exactly playing with a full deck,” Travis cringed at his own words.
“I think you’d better explain on the way,” Chris demanded, guiding the Judge to the closest vehicle.
Chris and the others watched their seventh through the one way mirror as Dr. Morgan explained Ezra’s condition. Ezra sat in the next room playing solitaire and looking very normal, unless you counted the slightly long, unkempt hair, the dark circles under his eyes and the white hospital pajamas he wore.
“He’s built up a fantasy world to protect himself from your deaths,” Morgan concluded.
Chris turned to face the doctor. “I want to see him.”
Morgan shook his head. “I’m not sure that would be such a good idea. The shock might…”
Josiah took a step toward the doctor. “And letting him continue to believe we are dead is a better solution?”
“No, it’s just that…”
“Dr. Morgan,” Judge Travis intervened, “these men know Agent Standish. If anyone has a chance to break through his barriers, they do.”
Morgan frowned. “Okay, but I’m going to go with you.”
“No,” Larabee said shaking his head. “You can observe from here.”
“Now look here…”
“Doctor,” Travis warned.
“You have no authority here,” Morgan exclaimed. “I’m that man’s doctor and I will not allow you to threaten his progress…”
“Progress!” Nathan chimed in. “In three weeks, it doesn’t look like you’ve made any progress! Let us speak to him. We’re his friends, his family. We don’t want to hurt Ezra.”
Dr. Morgan stared at the black man then moved his gaze to each of the other men in the room. He sighed. “All right. But I’ll warn you right now, if I see any signs of undue stress, I will have you removed immediately.”
“Thank you, Doctor,” Josiah said.
Ezra flicked his eyes toward the voice. “Mr. Larabee,” he replied politely. He knew it was just a figment of his imagination, but his mother had raised him to be a gentleman.
The figment smiled. “We thought you were dead.”
Ezra’s hand hesitated briefly before he placed the next card. This was new. None of his other hallucinations had thought he was dead. “Well, as you can see, I am quite well.” He continued with his game.
A hand touched his and Ezra flinched. That damned doctor was always interfering. “I asked you not to do that,” he said looking fixedly at the cards in the captured hand.
“Ezra, look at me,” Chris demanded softly.
Ezra shook his head. “You’re not real.” He shook off the hand and started to gather the cards from the table, stacking them sloppily together then clasping them to his chest. He shook his head. “You’re dead. You’re not real.” One of the cards slipped from his grasp and Ezra reached frantically to pick it up.
Chris beat him to it.
“Give it back!” Ezra demanded lunging for the card. More slipped to the floor. He slid off the chair landing on his knees as the distraught man snatched each card off the floor. “Mine. They’re all mine. You can’t take them away from me.”
Chris swallowed hard then knelt beside his friend. “Ezra. It’s Chris. We aren’t dead. We’re all right here,” he said looking up at the other five briefly before returning his attention to Ezra. “We’re alive.”
“No survivors. None. Not real,” Ezra repeated like a mantra. “Not real. Mine. You can’t have them.” He rocked back and forth as he gathered up the cards. For every one he grabbed another would slip from his grasp.
“Ezra!” Chris snapped. He grabbed the younger man by the shoulders and gave him a shake. “I am not dead. I’m alive and so are Buck and JD, Nathan, Vin and Josiah. We’re all right here. It was a trick to fool Madigan and Carlson. Carlson was the leak. We all made it. You’re safe. We’re all safe.”
Ezra continued to shake his head as Chris spoke. Can’t listen. No hope. Hope. If I believe, I’ll die. Not real. Not… The two hands on his shoulder were joined by a third and then a fourth on his back. Not real? A hand brushed the tears from his cheeks. Ezra looked up. Vin? He closed his eyes and clutched the cards harder to his chest.
“We’re alive, pard.”
“Right here with ya, Ez.”
“Just open your eyes and believe, son.”
Ezra lifted one hand, cards spilled down his lap to the floor, his eyes still squeezed shut. He touched the arm attached to one of the hands on his shoulder. It was real. But who did it belong to? He could open his eyes and find out, but then it might be that doctor and all his hopes would die. He would die.
“Ezra,” Chris’ voice pleaded. “Trust us.”
Ezra dropped the rest of the cards and seized Chris’ arms. “Are you really here?” he whispered, not daring to open his eyes just yet.
“Yeah, Ez. I’m really here. Alive, just like you.”
Ezra lowered his head to his chest trying to control his frantic heart. He opened his eyes and saw a pair of jean clad knees just a few inches from his own. Could it possibly be? “Chris?”
“Look at me, Ezra.”
Ezra slowly lifted his eyes, taking in the ill fitting, blue denim shirt and the arms that his hands held so tight. The chin was familiar, though covered in a couple of day’s worth of beard. Nose… could be… The intense hazel eyes made Ezra gasp. He reached out with one hand and touched the oh so familiar face. The lips grinned. Hazel eyes twinkled. Ezra closed his eyes then opened them again. The vision was still there, smiling that crazy lopsided smile that only graced Larabee’s face when he was truly happy about something.
“Dear Lord, where did you get those clothes,” Ezra said, the relief so thick in his voice that it brought tears to his friends’ eyes. And with those words, Ezra Standish slumped to the floor.
“What the?!” Chris exclaimed, cushioning Ezra’s head so it didn’t hit the floor.
Nathan and Buck helped stretch Ezra out on the floor as Dr. Morgan and Judge Travis burst into the room.
“Stand back, let me look at him,” Morgan ordered. Nathan was
already taking vitals while Morgan checked Ezra’s eyes. He glanced at Nathan
and got a reassuring nod from the medic. “I think it was just too much for him.
“Fainted?” Buck repeated.
“Sometimes the mind just gets overwhelmed,” Josiah soothed.
“Should we move him back to his room?” Vin asked.
Dr. Morgan shook his head. “He’ll probably come around in a few minutes. I don’t want him to wake up in a different location. Let’s just keep everything as close to how it was when he passed out as possible. There’ll be less adjustment for him that way.”
The men made themselves comfortable around the room as they waited for Ezra to wake. They didn’t have to wait long. A low moan captured everyone’s attention and they gathered back around Ezra.
Green eyes fluttered open and locked on Chris. Disbelief then hope flickered across his face followed closely by caution. “Chris?” Ezra whispered.
“Still here, Ez.”
Ezra reached up and touched his arm then let his gaze roam to the others. Vin, Josiah, JD, Nathan, Buck. They were all sitting beside him on the floor grinning like crazy people. No, wait, he was the only crazy one. But surely his hallucinations would act more dignified than the real people in question. He could never have imagined them all like this.
Ezra sat up, crossing his legs tailor-style as he drank in the faces of his friends.
“Ain’t ya gonna say something, Ez?” Vin asked with a grin.
Ezra let go of his hold on Chris’ arm and touched Vin’s grinning face. He brought his other hand up to grasp Josiah’s hand briefly before continuing to make contact with each of his friends. “You’re alive,” he breathed softly. “But… I heard…”
“Whatever you heard, Ezra,” Josiah said, “It was wrong. We are real. We are alive.”
“I thought I was alone,” Ezra said so apprehensively that six men reached out as one to touch him and assure him that they were real.
“Ezra,” Dr. Morgan said quietly. “Do you know who I am?”
“Of course, Dr. Morgan.”
The doctor smiled. “Do you know where you are?”
Ezra looked around the room and tilted his head. “A hospital, though I fear I do not know which one.”
“That’s right, Ezra,” Morgan continued as if speaking to a child. Ezra looked toward his friends and rolled his eyes earning several chuckles. “This is the Gaines Psychiatric Hospital. Do you know why you’re here?”
“I blew a fuse?” Ezra deadpanned. The doctor’s eyebrows rose. “I lost my marbles. Disconnected from reality. Checked myself in for a stay at the Looney Toon motel.”
By this point the others in the room were trying vainly to control their mirth.
Judge Travis snorted and patted the doctor on the back. “Give it up, Doctor. When he’s in his right mind, no one can keep up with Agent Standish.”
“I was in my left mind?” Ezra quipped, causing Josiah to lose his tentative control and let loose a belly laugh. Ezra simply raised an eyebrow. “Really, Doctor. I think you have more work to do with these poor souls than with me.”
Morgan grinned and shook his head. “It’s nice to finally meet you, Agent Standish. I think, perhaps you should return to your room for some rest now. We can get together afterward to discuss what’s happened.”
“And my release?” Ezra suggested.
“All in good time, Ezra.”
The first few days were the hardest with Ezra going into a panic when he wasn’t in sight of at least one of his friends. Dr. Morgan had finally agreed to allow one person to spend the night at the hospital until Ezra could get a better grip on his fears.
After almost a week and dozens of suggestions and trials to help Ezra past his fear, it was JD’s idea that did the trick. He suggested that they each give Ezra a token, something to remind him that they were alive. JD’s contribution was his lucky rabbit’s foot. Vin offered an old arrow head he’d found as a child. Josiah gave Ezra a leather pouch he’d made, a medicine bag he said, to carry the items in. From Buck he got a feather, from a very special pillow Buck advised, waggling his eyebrows. Nathan gave him a double-headed quarter for making his own luck. And finally, Chris added a spent shell casing as a reminder that only the living could clean up after a fight.
It was another week before Dr. Morgan was confident enough to release Ezra from the hospital. And then, only if he continued his therapy sessions and stayed with someone until Morgan okay’d his independence. The fact that Ezra did not argue about staying with someone told the others that he was far from recovered.
On the way out to Chris’ ranch, they stopped at Ezra’s and collected some of his things. Buck, JD and Vin went to the store to get food for their celebration.
Ezra leaned against the porch rail and smiled. Finally, almost two months after the explosion, he was right where he wanted to be. The BBQ grill was fired up and ready to go. Nathan and Buck argued over whose sauce they were going to use. Josiah and Vin were in the kitchen making the chili and JD and Chris were busy icing down the beer. Ezra sighed contentedly nursing his beer as he watched.
“You okay, Ezra?” Chris asked moving in to lean beside the younger man.
“I am doing remarkably well, Mr. Larabee.”
“Glad to hear it.” Silence stretched between them as Nathan got a bottle of water poured down his back. He yelled and set off running after a laughing Buck.
Ezra chuckled. Chris grinned at the sound and glanced at his friend. “It’s good to have you back.”
“I’m not the one who was missing,” Ezra countered blandly.
“We may have been missing physically, but you weren’t home either,” Chris argued lightly.
“True,” Ezra said. He stared down at the bottle in his hands then touched the medicine pouch hanging around his neck. “But they say home is where the heart is and my heart was missing, so I had a good excuse.”
Chris blinked as his eyes filled. He swallowed hard and took a deep breath before he was able to answer. “Yeah, guess you did,” he said, emotion thickening his words. “I guess the only thing that kept the rest of us together when we thought you’d been killed was the need to catch Carlson. I’m not sure what would have happened if Travis hadn’t told us you were alive.”
Ezra tipped his bottle toward Chris and the blond tapped his bottle to it in return. “To Judge Travis,” Ezra toasted.
Chris grinned and took a sip of beer. “You really had him worried, Ezra. He said you weren’t playing with a full deck.”
Ezra spluttered on the beer he’d just taken into his mouth and glared at Larabee. His friend grinned wickedly. Ezra rolled his eyes as he dabbed the beer from his face and hands. “I always play with a full deck, though I prefer to stack it myself,” he said slyly.
“You admittin’ to cheatin’, Ez?”
“No sir. But I will admit to playing a few special cards close to my heart for safekeeping.”
“I think the saying is “close to my vest.””
“Indeed?” Ezra said, hiding his grin as he took another swig from his bottle.
So, did you like it? Let us know. Judy