This Story is the first in the ATF/AU Series I wrote back in 2001 entitled the "Townsend Series". The series actually was written out of order. It started with a challenge response on the M7 challenge list and then spurred four more short stories before the 'story' was complete. This story was also a challenge response--I believe I had to make some one on the team doubt another team member and Nathan had to be a focus character.
Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven characters belong to MGM, Trilogy and Mirisch. No copyright infringment is intended
Chris smiled with relief at the sound of Ezra's confident southern drawl on the other end of the phone line.
"You have any problems?" he asked. Ezra had gone 'under' three days ago to attempt to make contact with the Townsend organization.
"None so far. Seems I make a convincing accountant."
Chris laughed outright at the thought of Ezra as a CPA.
Ignoring the laughter, Ezra went on. "I'll have first access to Townsend's records tomorrow morning," he explained.
"Stick to the check in schedule and watch your back."
"Yes sir." Larabee heard the grin in Standish's voice and shook his head as he tossed the receiver back onto the phone base. He wasn't sure how long this case would last but he was confident in Ezra's ability to find the evidence they were looking for. The team hadn't had as much time as they would have liked to prepare for this case but they knew that Brian Townsend was trafficking illegal weapons; they just needed Ezra to find the documents to prove it.
Ezra entered his lavish suite and closed the door solidly behind him, instinctively locking it. Exhaling a long deep breath, he pressed his forehead against the smooth surface and let go.
The trembling started in his hands and quickly spread until even his teeth felt like they were chattering. Nausea swept over him and he ran, barely making it to the toilet in time to lose the five course dinner he'd just gagged down. Wearily he grabbed a towel and wiped his face as he sank back against the cool tile wall. As he moved, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the mirrored shower doors and shivered, not sure if he really knew the man staring back at him any more. The harsh bathroom lighting emphasized the dark circles under his bloodshot eyes. His face was pale and drawn and his posture screamed of exhaustion.
Finally, with great effort, Ezra pushed himself off the hard floor and stripped out of the designer suit. He turned the shower on as hot as he could stand it and then stepped beneath the punishing spray. He concentrated on the burning as the water washed over him, wishing it could make him feel even the slightest bit better…clean. He closed his eyes and turned into the heat, letting the water pound at his face until he was forced to turn and take a breath. He didn't know if he could do this any longer and yet…he had to.
It'd been a week and a half since he'd moved onto the estate and into the richly decorated suite. He'd been confidant coming into the case that with time he could find the documentation they needed to put Townsend away for gun trafficking but he hadn't expected the man's generosity or his 'gifts'.
It'd been after dinner and brandy the first night, when Townsend had gone on about how much he appreciated Eli's willingness to help him out and double check his accountant's records. He wanted to show his appreciation with a gift, some evening entertainment. Ezra hadn't known exactly what to expect but he was in no way prepared for the sight that greeted him. He'd wanted to kill the man with his bare hands the moment Townsend had crossed the room and put his hand on the shoulder of the small girl who'd just been escorted in. The image was burned into his mind for eternity…Townsend's tanned hand gripping the slender shoulder, the girl's light brown hair hiding half her face as she stared at the floor. Townsend must have said something then, because Ezra remembered seeing the man's hand tighten infinitesimally and then the child looked up, her large sad brown eyes meeting his with an emptiness he was way too familiar with.
Years of undercover work had allowed him to keep his face expressionless as he'd thanked his host graciously and offered what he hoped was a viable excuse before he fled to his room and locked the door behind him. He'd called Larabee the next night, after once again declining Townsend's offer and losing his dinner. His intention had been to pull out of the case, he wasn't sure if he could handle it. But Chris had been excited about the progress the Team had been making and was positive they'd nail Townsend as soon as Ezra could find the hard evidence, so he'd kept quiet realizing he had to stay under and keep at the case. In their research, he knew…they'd find out everything about Townsend and they wouldn't leave him floundering on the inside by himself. They'd lend their support in any way they could and as long as he didn't feel alone-- he could hang on.
That had been ten days ago, and there'd been nothing. Only the calls he put in everyday. No one mentioned Townsend's depravity, no one offered encouragement that he faced the monster everyday. He hadn't even talked to anyone except Chris and he'd finally stopped expecting anything more than to give his report and hang up.
Sighing heavily, Ezra forced himself to turn off the shower. He dried off quickly ad dressed in a pair of lounging pajamas that'd come with the suite before he went into the bedroom and searched through the uncharacteristic mess to find his cell phone. He needed to check in with Chris.
Chris handed a cup of coffee to Josiah and tried not to think about the fact that Ezra was late calling…again. Nathan looked up from the report he was reading and Chris saw the concern in the former medic's eyes. "Not yet." He answered the unspoken question.
"Damn." Vin muttered softly causing both Buck and JD to look up from the computer game that they were half-heartedly playing. Everyone was concerned, thus they were all sitting in the office at 8:30pm on a Friday night…waiting.
Ezra's first check in had been normal, the second strained and with every call after that there was something in Standish's tone that just wasn't right. His voice grew colder each time Chris spoke to him and it no longer held the animated intonation that Larabee was used to. Whenever he tried to question Ezra, the call would end rather abruptly. Then the calls started coming later and were even shorter. Chris started answering the calls on the speaker phone after he finally shared his concerns with the others, trying desperately to see if any of them could figure out what was bothering their friend. So far, they'd learned nothing.
The phone on his desk rang, jarring him from his thoughts and he hurried into his office. "Larabee," he answered smoothly, knowing that everyone had followed so that they could listen. He smiled at Ezra's soft greeting and switched the phone over to speaker.
"How are you doing, Ezra?" He asked immediately.
"Still no luck with the files but I think I'm getting closer. I found some pages on an account I'm not familiar with and am going to check into it more tomorrow. Did Mr. Dunne receive the passwords I sent him?"
Chris saw Vin, Nathan and Josiah all frown at the weariness evident in Standish's voice. "I did Ezra," JD answered. "Thanks."
"You're welcome. I have to go."
"What's going on there, Ezra?" Nathan asked suddenly, his voice filled with suspicion.
There was silence for a moment before Ezra answered harshly, "I'm doing my job, Mr. Jackson."
"Shit." Buck pounded the wall with his fist as the line went dead.
"Why'd he hang up?" JD asked, looking from Buck to Chris and then to Vin, searching for some kind of answer.
"Chris, I think we need to consider the possibility that he's in too deep," Nathan said, ignoring JD's question.
"Excuse me?" Chris sat back in his chair.
"He's shutting us out," Jackson said plainly.
"And?" Vin asked quietly but Chris recognized the challenge in Tanner's voice. He could see where this was going.
"Townsend's a very charming man." Nathan looked from Vin to Chris. "He and Ezra have a lot in common."
"Bull shit," Buck all but barked at his teammate.
"Buck, he's under a lot of pressure," Nathan argued. "He's pretending to be someone without scruples and maybe, just maybe this time…he likes being that person better than being Ezra."
Buck scoffed again, but Josiah nodded hesitantly. "Might explain it," he admitted cautiously.
"But this is Ezra…why would he do that?" JD asked disbelievingly.
"Townsend has a lot of money," Nathan answered.
"Hell, so does Maude!" Buck shouted, "and Ez hasn't had any trouble turning her away."
"But he's not living in her mansion, not living the good life day in and day out."
"But Ezra's been on hundreds of cases like this before," Buck tried again.
"He's never crossed the line before." JD pointed out.
"That we know of," Nathan threw back. Silence descended instantly on the room as the tension grew. "Why else would Ezra be pushing us away like he is?" he asked finally.
No one responded for another minute and then Vin pushed away from where he'd been leaning against the windowsill and maneuvered past the others as he made his way to the door. He stopped at the door and turned back, his gaze angry sweeping over them all before he focused on Nathan. "The man is suppose to be your friend," he accused. "You're pissed that he got all defensive when you questioned him and yet here you stand, doubting his loyalty first chance you get. No wonder he pushes us away." Half way out the door he stopped again. "There could be a whole lot of reasons for how he's acting, maybe you should think on some of them before you accuse him of switching sides."
Chris hung up the phone and rubbed his temples, trying to ease the constant ache that had taken over. It'd been a week since the last speaker call and Ezra's calls had been barely enough to assure him his agent and friend was safe and still breathing. This last call had been all of six words. "No progress, I'll call again Tuesday." Standish was putting four days between his check in, last time it'd been three. When Chris had tried to drag out the call…Ezra hung up.
Beside his growing concern over Ezra, the team was in shambles. Vin and Buck were barely speaking with Nathan, while JD and Josiah tried to take the middle ground. If it weren't for the fact that they'd lose Townsend…he'd pull them all off the case right now. It was high time though that they confront the issues and deal with the doubt and uncertainty that was tearing them apart.
He stood confidently and strode out of his office. "Meeting. Conference room. Now," he ordered without stopping or checking to see if the others would follow him. He waited, standing at the end of the conference table, his arms crossed in front of him as he watched each man enter the room. Once they were seated he leaned forward, placing both hand on the table's glossy surface.
"This ends now," he growled, focusing on each of them individually before standing up straight again. "We are a team and no matter what our personal doubts or disagreements may be- we have always been able to work together and this case is no different. Starting now, we're going to start acting like a team." He paused again, waiting to see if anyone would challenge him. When no one did, he continued, "Now, Vin was right." He saw Nathan look up quickly and held up his hand cutting off any protests. "We should be looking for all the reasons Ezra might be pulling away, not just assuming or focusing on one."
Nathan nodded reluctantly, a guilty expression stealing across his face telling Chris that the agent was already reconsidering his hasty first judgment.
"JD and Buck, I want you researching everything you can about Brian Townsend. Not just the case file but go back as many years as possibly. I want to know everything from how many blankets he likes on his bed to what his favorite food is. Start with whatever Ezra scrapped up before going in and work from there. Vin, you and I are going to see what we can find out on the street." He paused and turned to Josiah, "Josiah, I want you and Nathan to call any other agencies or local authorities that might have anything on Townsend and persuade them to share."
"Chris, we did this when we first pulled this case," Josiah reminded.
"Not really." Chris shook his head. "The case came at us fast, Ezra went in within two days and that wasn't enough time to do a thorough background on Townsend. We should have done this right after he went in and I'm willing to do it ten more times if it means helping Ezra. We sent him in there alone, without knowing his target as well as he's used to and I'm beginning to think that was only our first mistake on this case."
Ezra frowned as the words and numbers on the chart in front of him blurred together. He rubbed at his watery green eyes and sat back in the padded leather chair. His fingers trembled lightly as he set the report down on the desk and his head ached mercilessly. He couldn't remember the last time he'd gotten a full night's sleep or even been able to keep down and entire meal. He spent his days trying to concentrate on his job and his nights trying to block out the memories that living with Townsend were dragging out of the corners of his past. Every night he forced himself to remember that if he pulled out now, not only would he have failed to retrieve the evidence Team 7 sought but also he'd be condemning even more children to the horror of Townsend's abuse.
He knew he was barely hanging on…it was taking everything he had just to smile at the appropriate times and maintain the charade of camaraderie he needed in order to keep his cover.
Ezra jumped at the sound of Townsend's voice, unaware that the other man had even entered the office.
"You alright, Simpson?" Townsend asked, real concern shadowing his voice.
"Just lost in thought, Brian," Ezra managed, cursing inwardly that he was so off his game.
Townsend sat down in the chair opposite the desk, waving for Ezra to stay where he was when the younger man began to move. Townsend's tall lanky frame looked awkward in the smaller chair.
"I've made an appointment for you."
"An appointment?" Ezra met the other man's hazel eyes and frowned with confusion.
"You've been suffering from the flu bug for over a week now." Townsend pointed out. "You're going to my doctor this afternoon."
Ezra's eyes widened with surprise. He'd used every excuse in the last three weeks to avoid accepting any of the man's sickening offers. He hadn't realized the other man had concluded that he was ill.
"You're losing weight, Eli, and you look like hell." Townsend tossed a ring of keys to him. "Take the black BMW. You have just enough time to get there."
"Do I have a choice in the matter?"
Townsend grinned and passed a slip of paper across the desk. " you put up a fight I'll send Frankie to drive you. Here's the address. Now get going."
The fully loaded BMW would have impressed Ezra if he was aware enough to notice his surroundings. He shifted gears smoothly as he rounded a bend in the road and glanced at the clock on the dash board. He knew he needed to call Chris and let him know what was happening. It's been four days now since he'd spoken with his boss and even then he'd been short and almost cryptic. Larabee was probably ready to kill him-slowly-for all the times he ignored specific questions and cut the calls short, but he couldn't help it. He could handle anger directed at him but not concern. At first he'd wanted to blame Chris and the team for not realizing what was wrong, for not being there for him but his heart knew they had no way of knowing what he was going through. Besides, it wasn't like he was about to say "hey, Chris…I'm having a hard time here cause Townsend likes hurting little kids and it's reminding me too much of some things I went through when I was young." He didn't think he was ready to reveal that much about himself and he knew that if he allowed himself to be real with Larabee or anyone else…he'd break down. If he broke, he'd blow his cover and then the last three weeks would have been for nothing.
The warmth of the car's interior pulled at Ezra as the scenery blurred by. He never noticed his body relaxing back into the leather seat or the sudden heaviness of his aching head. He didn't realize his eyes had closed until the steering wheel jerked suddenly in his hands. He gasped as the car skidded off the shoulder and had just enough time to crank the wheel hard to the left and hold on before the thunderous, gut-wrenching crash took him into darkness.
Chris glanced at his watch with a scowl. Ezra was late again and with four days having passed since his last check in, he was feeling more unnerved by the minute. Half of him was ready to ream Ezra a new one for pushing them so far out of the loop, and the other half just wanted to know what was going on. He and Vin had spent hours on the street trying to catch up with Ezra's contacts and making some of their own, all the while finding out very little about Townsend they didn't already know.
His cell phone rang and he answered it quickly. "Larabee," he said, hoping to hear the smooth southern drawl on the other end.
"Excuse me sir, I'm calling from Denver Memorial Hospital." The woman's voice sounded reassuring but Chris felt his heart stop beating as he stood to his feet.
"Yes?" he managed to acknowledge.
"I'm sorry to disturb you but we admitted a male patient." He could hear her rattling some papers. "A Mr. Eli Simpson, this evening and this number was the only one we could find on him."
"How is he? What happened?"
The lady cleared her throat. "There was a car accident."
"Mr. Simpson is suffering from multiple fractures to his ribs and a serious concussion but is in stable condition."
Chris walked to the open door of his office and leaned heavily against the frame as he listened.
"Are you a relative, Sir?" the woman inquired.
"Yes, Ma'am," he lied instinctively. "I'm his half –brother, Chris Larabee…I'll be there in twenty minutes."
"I'll make note of that."
He disconnected and looked up to find he had a very worried audience. "Nathan, what's the number for Denver Memorial?" he asked anxiously, knowing Jackson had an almost photographic memory when it came to things like dates and phone numbers.
"555-6731" Nathan rattled off quickly.
"Chris, what's going on?" Buck asked but Larabee cut him off as he started speaking into the phone.
"Hello, My name is Chris Larabee and I need to confirm that my brother, Eli Simpson was admitted there this evening? Yes, alright…thank you Ma'am." Chris turned the phone off and turned to the others.
"It's legit?" Vin asked.
"Yeah. Let's go." Chris started for the door and ran into a pale looking JD who was just entering. "Where've you been?" Chris asked, surprised he hadn't noticed Dunne was missing.
"I found something on Townsend," JD explained shakily.
"Bring it with you," Chris ordered.
"Where?" JD looked at Josiah for an explanation as Larabee pushed past him.
"Ezra's in the hospital."
It took half an hour to clear up the paper work and explain to the hospital staff that Eli Simpson was really Special Agent Ezra Standish of the ATF. Thankfully Nathan had had the foresight to grab Ezra's identification on the way out of the office or it would have taken even longer.
Chris was not prepared for the sight that greeted him when he entered Ezra's room. Hospital's had a way of making even the healthiest man look pale but Ezra's color was frightening. Unconscious, Standish's drawn features coupled with the dark circles under his eyes and obvious weight loss made evident the state of his agent's health even before the accident.
"What the hell is going on here, Ezra?" he whispered quietly. What was his friend hiding from them?
Larabee turned abruptly at the quiet whisper from JD. Dunne stood just inside the hospital room, shifting uncomfortably and pointedly avoiding focusing on Ezra. He still clutched a file folder in his hand and was now, in his nervousness tapping it repeatedly against his thigh.
"What is it JD?" Chris tried to keep his voice from betraying his impatience. He didn't want to deal with business right now.
"I think you should see this." JD's eyes flitted to Ezra and then back to him.
"Can't it wait?"
"I don't think so." The determination in JD's voice reminded Chris that the man before him might be young but he was a professional and he had very good instinct and judgment.
"Alright." Motioning for JD to take one of the room's plastic chairs he picked up the other one and moved it so that when he sat down, he was next to Dunne.
Chris couldn't help but smile as JD immediately flipped the file open, switching modes as he began to talk. "I dug a little deeper into Townsend's computer files, using the passwords that Ezra sent me. While he's been looking at the finance stuff, I went looking through a lot of Townsend's files." JD looked up at him as he handed him a print out. "I checked out his cache and found this."
Chris scanned the page quickly and shrugged. "Porn sites? Hell JD, you can find this crap on Buck's computer if you look."
"Not this stuff." JD denied sharply, handing him a printed picture.
Chris' eyes widened as he looked at the photo then at JD, "kiddie porn?"
"Oh yeah. Now check this out. It was encrypted but I called a friend."
"A friend?" Chris raised an eyebrow and JD ducked his head.
"A hacker friend," he admitted. "He did all the work-my hands are clean."
"Good." Chris took the next paper and read it carefully. "Oh God."
"Yeah." JD scowled. "Real twisted guy." Chris followed his sad gaze over to Ezra. "You think Ezra knows Townsend was actually buying children?" he asked quietly.
Chris looked down at the papers in his hand and then back up Standish, taking in the full effect of the man's poor health. "I have no doubt that Ezra knows more about this than he'll ever be willing to tell us."
Ezra grimaced and bit his lower lip as he finally worked the loose sweatpants Chris had brought him up over his hips and sank back onto the edge of the hospital bed, exhausted from the single task of putting on his pants. His ribs, wrapped tightly, pulled painfully when he reached for his shirt and he changed his mind, deciding he could wait a few minutes before putting it on. After three days of "observation" he was ready to go home but he was contemplating the importance of being fully dressed when he left.
He'd woken to find Chris hovering over him and immediately steeled himself for Larabee's wrath. Instead, Chris had been gentle and reassuring and it'd almost been his undoing. Ezra wasn't completely sure his walls of defense were sturdy enough at the moment to deal with kindness so he'd pulled back hard and responded with distance and anger. It wasn't difficult at all since Chris had just informed him that he'd been pulled from the case.
He'd argued and fumed and threatened as much as any hospital bound man could but Chris had stood firm and hadn't taken the bait. He was adamant, Ezra would not be going back to Townsend. Eli Simpson was no more and Ezra could only feel the heavy burden of his failure. He'd failed the team, he'd failed himself and most of all…he'd failed those little girls.
The door to his room opened with a small squeak and he looked up in surprised to see Nathan standing there watching him.
"I assume you've somehow earned the dubious honor of driving me home?" he asked.
Jackson nodded. "I can't believe you did this to yourself, Ezra."
Standish shook his head and closed his eyes until the dizziness had passed. "I seem to recall that a tree did this to me, Mr. Jackson."
Nathan grunted and moved closer, reaching for the shirt that lay ignored on the bed beside Ezra. "Well, that tree didn't starve you or keep you from sleeping for three weeks. You know they kept you here longer because you were severely dehydrated and dangerously exhausted." He said, holding the garment up so that Ezra could slip his arm into it.
Ezra didn't respond as he allowed Nathan to help him with the shirt.
"You scared me, Ezra," Nathan admitted. "And I owe you an apology."
Standish watched Jackson curiously now, as he waited for him to continue.
"I actually thought you might have been considering switching sides on us."
"What makes you think now that I didn't?" Ezra asked calmly.
"A few pointed comments from some friends reminding me that I know you better than that."
Ezra smiled coldly, enjoying the fact that Nathan shivered in response. "Do you?"
Jackson sighed heavily and stuck his hands into his pockets. "You can stop the act now, Standish. You already played this round with Chris. You know we aren't going to let you push us away now that we can get up in your face."
"I don't know what you mean by that." Ezra concentrated on the task of buttoning his shirt. He could feel Nathan's eyes boring into him and he willed the man silently to back off. His head ached, his ribs throbbed, he could barely breathe and he felt the fragile control he had on his emotions slipping away fast.
"You're a smart man. You know you aren't going to be able to hide behind the anger forever," Nathan's voice was softer now.
"Go away," Ezra whispered plaintively, hot tears filling his eyes as he blinked furtively. His vision blurred and he could no longer see the tiny white buttons on his shirt.
"We know about the girls."
Ezra flinched backwards as if someone had struck him and then gasped in pain, almost falling over. Nathan stepped forward and caught him, supporting him gently.
"You don't know," Ezra protested in a weak whisper, trying to focus on the physical pain in order to block the emotional. The tears that he'd been holding in for three weeks ran unheeded down his face.
"We do, Ezra. JD found the information in Townsend's email. We know he was ordering them, buying them. That's why you couldn't sleep or eat isn't it? You lost so much weight because you knew what he was doing and you simply couldn't stomach the man."
"No." Ezra's voice sounded strange to his own ears.
"No?" Nathan pulled back, his hands holding onto Ezra's arms to continue providing support as he took in the tears.
"He would offer them to me." Ezra felt like he was going to gag on the very words. "Every night he'd offer and every night I'd try to come up with a good excuse…" He swallowed hard and went on. "And I couldn't do anything to help them, Nathan. If I pulled out, we'd lose our case against him and it'd be my word against his about the abuse. I never witnessed anything." His hands started to move as he spoke, pulling away from Jackson. "I just knew. I knew that look; I know it. I know what it's like to be where those girls are, I know what it's feels like to have an adult control you…everything about you, to force you to…" He stopped suddenly, realizing what he had just revealed to the man now sitting on the bed beside him. "I left them in there," he finally whispered. "I failed them."
The silence was unnerving and Ezra again took on the task of buttoning his shirt, pausing only long enough to quickly wipe the moisture from his face. He couldn't bring himself to look at Nathan so he missed the other man's struggle for control. He missed the rage that darkened Jackson's features and the tumultuous sadness that immediately followed. He jumped when Nathan's slender hands gently grasped his and stilled their movement. After a moment he looked from their hands and met Nathan's gaze, surprised to see the tracks from tears there.
"You tried, Ez," Nathan said softly. "You stayed in there, facing those demons every day just doing your best to put that monster away.
"And I failed," Ezra said quietly, his gaze drifting down ward again.
"No," Nathan almost growled. "We failed you when we weren't there to back you up and didn't do our research thoroughly the first time around. We sent you in there unprepared and when you need us most we were fighting amongst ourselves, throwing our doubts and judgments at each other and I'm truly sorry for that." He tightened his grip on Ezra's hands as he continued. "You are one of the strongest men I know Ezra, but you're human and even you have your limits. We all forgot that on this case."
Standing suddenly, Jackson let go of Ezra's hands and bent to pick up a sneaker. "It's wise to know your limits." He smiled as he knelt and quickly put the shoes onto Ezra's feet.
Ezra reluctantly accepted Nathan's words as true. He knew the former medic was right…he did have limits; otherwise he probably wouldn't have gotten up close and personal with a tree. The knowledge, however, didn't completely erase the sense of failure, the possibility that he could have done more or the profound aching sadness that he hadn't been able to save anyone from Brian Townsend.
Nathan must have read his thoughts because as he carefully helped Ezra to his feet and into the wheelchair that the discharge nurse had left for him earlier. He smiled reassuringly. "We'll get him Ezra, as a team we will get him."
They were halfway to the door when Ezra remembered the beginning of the conversation. "Mr. Jackson."
Nathan stopped the chair and looked down at him, concern clouding his features again.
Story continues in "Under Pressure"