Title: Past Picture Imperfect

 

Author: Beth Green

 

Email: Beth

 

 

 

Crossover between Magnificent Seven's ATF AU and Friday the 13th, the TV series.  Familiarity with either universe is not a requirement for enjoyment of this story.  The story was originally published in the zine ‘Things That Go Bump in the Night,’ by Neon RainBow Press.

*****

 

The offices of the ATF's elite Team Seven contained a noisy babble of voices combined with a blur of activity; in short, the usual controlled chaos. 

 

The team members shared an open bullpen area that had originally been divided into cubicles courtesy of removable half-walls.  After they had hired their seventh and final member, the first thing that Chris Larabee's team had done to their assigned office space was to remove the dividers.  The team leader himself maintained a separate office, while the rest of the team occupied desks in the large open bullpen area.  The seating arrangements made communication between the various team members incredibly easy, and encouraged an easy camaraderie among the men.

 

The downside of the arrangement was that it allowed for very little privacy.  Ezra Standish was regretting that fact as he met with the postal delivery man.

 

"Mr. Standish, I've got a registered letter here."  The postman waved the envelope as he continued, "I need you to sign for it."

 

All eyes in the room turned to focus upon Ezra.  The steady background noise of voices ceased as the members of Team Seven made no efforts to hide their interest in the delivery. 

 

The ATF agent did not appreciate the attention.  Ezra rose from his desk to retrieve the envelope.  "Let me see that."  He frowned when he found the information that he was seeking.  Deciding to satisfy a measure of his friends' curiosity, he shared the return address by reading aloud, "From The Law Offices of Steinman & Steinman, P.C.; Grosse Pointe, Michigan."

 

He shrugged, no further enlightened than he'd been a moment ago.  "Never heard of them."

 

Ezra's first impulse was to refuse the letter.  However, years of personal experience had taught him that lawyers were not easily discouraged.  If he ignored this letter, Messrs. Steinman & Steinman would no doubt persist in their efforts to contact him.  Resigned to whatever fate awaited, Ezra signed for the letter.

 

He returned to his seat and placed the unopened envelope upon the far corner of his desk blotter.  Standish turned to his computer and resumed work on the Internet search he'd been conducting prior to the postman's arrival.  He smiled, inwardly pleased by the grumbles of dissatisfaction verbalized by his teammates.

 

JD Dunne, the youngest member of the team asked, "Aren't you going to open that?"

 

Ezra did not bother to acknowledge that he'd heard the question.

 

Nathan Jackson tried a little applied psychology.  The team's medic stated, "Ezra, you can try all you want to pretend you ain't got a curious bone in your body, but we all know better.  You want to know what's in that letter just as bad as we do."

 

The man so addressed ignored them and continued to work on his computer.

 

Josiah Sanchez, the team's senior member, spoke up.  ""Ezra, sooner or later we're going to find out what's in that letter; might as well make it sooner.  Besides, you'd be able to concentrate better on your work if you relieved your curiosity, and ours."

 

Vin Tanner appeared to be the only team member on Ezra's side. "Leave the man be.  The more you push, the more he'll just dig in.  Don't y'all remember that 'Curiosity killed the cat?'"

 

Buck Wilmington, the most talkative member of the team, felt obliged to continue the quote, "'But satisfaction brought him back.'  Come on, Ezra, give it up.  Who and what did you do in Michigan?"

 

Ezra did not want to give his friends the satisfaction of having their efforts at annoying him into satisfying their curiosity rewarded.  He continued to stare at his computer and did his best to close himself off from outside distractions. 

 

He turned his attention inward, remembering the reason for his familiarity with the state of Michigan.  Ezra had been a short-term resident of the state at the ripe old age of twelve.  The move had been the result of his mother Maude's fourth marriage.  Ezra's new stepfather was a member of a family that had made its fortune in the automobile industry.  Maude was determined to carve out a share of that fortune for herself.

 

The house that they moved into was part of an appropriately ostentatious display of wealth.  It was a century-old mansion built upon the shores of Lake Saint Clair.  Ezra hated it.  The house was cold and drafty and filled with delicate furniture that the boy was cautioned to avoid actually using.  To add to his misery, the local children were cliquish and insular and did not welcome the newcomer into their midst. 

 

The only thing that made Ezra's life bearable was his stepfather, John Ford.  Unlike some of Maude's previous husbands, Mr. Ford actually tried to be a father to the lonely boy.  Both man and boy discovered that they enjoyed the same things: yachting excursions, fine food, museums, and the theater.  They especially enjoyed their periodic retreat visits to the small cottage that Mr. Ford owned.  It was a lovely bungalow situated upon ten acres of land.  The pale brick exterior of the building blended naturally into the surrounding area, and helped to keep the cottage hidden among the tree-lined shores of Cass Lake. 

 

Ezra's mother, Maude, hated the cottage with a passion.  He could recall her objections quite clearly. 

 

"We're off in the middle of nowhere!  There are no shops other than the loathsome Bait and Tackle.  There's nothing to do!"

 

John ignored Maude's protests and spent increasingly more time at the cottage during the brief six months of their marriage.  To no one's surprise, Maude and John eventually divorced, and Ezra's mother moved on to husband number five.  The memories of the life that Ezra had led in Michigan faded over time and distance.

 

Looking back upon his past, Ezra was not surprised that Maude had divorced John.  It seemed that John cared more for Ezra than he did for his own wife.  While it was ideal from the young boy's perspective, from Maude's point of view the situation had to have been intolerable.

 

If the letter from Steinman & Steinman did involve John Ford, Ezra wanted to handle any emotions that the letter would evoke in the privacy of his own home.  He decided that he would not deal with the envelope's contents until later and in private.

 

Ezra chafed at the slow passage of time.  By four p.m., the waiting had become unacceptable.  Standish tucked the letter into the pocket of his suit jacket and walked into his supervisor's office.

 

The door was open in silent invitation, so Ezra crossed the threshold.  "Mr. Larabee . . . Chris, I was wonderin' if it would not unduly inconvenience the team, would it be acceptable if I were to leave the office an hour early today?"

 

Chris looked up, his expression undecipherable.  He stared at Ezra for a tense minute before he replied, "Sure."

 

Ezra turned to leave, brought up short when Chris added, "Go read that letter before it burns a hole in your pocket."

 

The team undercover agent was surprised by the intuitive accuracy of Chris' response.  Ezra liked to pride himself on the neutrality of his body language.  If Chris could read his current circumstances so well, it was more important than ever that Ezra not attempt to continue to work.  His mind was obviously elsewhere.

 

Ezra did not attempt to mask his feelings of gratitude as he turned to reply, "Thank you." 

 

Chris did not bother to reply verbally.  He tilted his head in a nod of both acknowledgement and dismissal while Ezra took his leave.

*****

 

Once Ezra was in the privacy of his home, he removed the letter from his pocket.  He frowned, hesitating to open it, delaying the inevitable by holding the envelope in his hands while he examined the exterior in greater detail.  Ezra's silent survey revealed no further information other than the unsurprising fact that the envelope was made of high quality paper.

 

He silently berated himself for his cowardice.  If this is bad news (and what letter from a lawyer isn't), the sooner I find out, the sooner I will know how to proceed.  Ezra stepped toward his desk and reached for his letter-opener, but stopped himself in mid-motion with a thought.  Bad news always seems to be less distasteful after one has dulled the senses with alcohol.

 

Ezra ignored the voice of his conscience that chastised him for the timidity implied by this further delay.  He set the letter precisely in the center of his desk and walked over to a sideboard.  He didn't give much thought to beverage selection as he reached for the nearest bottle at hand.  Ezra displayed an appalling lack of appreciation for the fine Cognac he selected, and guzzled the amber liquor as if it was cheap wine.

 

Appropriately fortified, Ezra returned to stand at his desk.  Quickly and efficiently, he slit the envelope open and removed the contents: a one-page letter, neatly typed on company letterhead.  Ezra thought that he'd prepared himself to receive the information presented, but his throat tightened and he swallowed back a rumble of nausea.  His hands grew cold as the chill of shock and unexpected grief swept through him while he read.

 

Dear Mr. Standish,

 

I regret to inform you of the recent death of John Ford.  After a brief illness, he died peacefully in his sleep on April 1st of this year.

 

Per his request, I am writing to inform you that he has left you a bequest in his Last Will and Testament.  The reading of the Will is scheduled for next Monday, April 10th, at the Grosse Pointe Shores estate house.

 

Your presence is requested at that time.  Please contact me at the address listed below to confirm your attendance.

 

Sincerely,

 

Jacob Steinman

Attorney at Law

 

Ezra's hands trembled as he read.  By the time he'd finished, his entire body was shaking and he collapsed into the desk chair.

 

His conscience scolded him, John deserved better than your useless grief now when it is far too late to make an attempt at reconciliation. You allowed your childhood feelings of rage and abandonment to smother your urge to contact a man who could have remained a father to you, if you'd let him.  John remembered you while you did your best to forget him.  You've no right to anything of his. 

 

After Maude had taken Ezra and left the Ford mansion, John had written several letters to Ezra over the course of the next few months.  Although Maude was happy to be out of Michigan, Ezra felt miserable, angry, and abandoned.  His anger overpowered any feelings of loneliness, and the boy that he was had thrown the letters away, unread.  He refused to respond to any of his ex-stepfather's overtures.  Eventually, the letters stopped coming.

 

Much as he felt himself unworthy, nevertheless Ezra felt that he was duty-bound to honor John Ford's last request.  And perhaps a small measure of his mother's teachings regarding the importance of wealth played a role in his decision as well.  Ezra would travel to Michigan for the reading of the Will.  He proceeded to make plane reservations, and called to arrange for the time off from work.

 

He then made one more phone call.

 

"Hello, Mother."

 

His mother Maude's greeting was warm and enthusiastic.  "Ezra, darling, how are you?"

 

"As well as ever."

 

"You sound tired."

 

"I suppose that I am.  Mother, I was calling to see if you'd heard any news regarding John?"

 

Maude's response was answer enough.  "John who?"

 

"John Ford."

 

Ezra heard the sigh before his mother replied, "If anyone would have heard from John, it would have been you and not me.  You should know that as far as I'm concerned, the man is ancient history."  She added, "Isn't he?"

 

Ezra had learned from his mother that wealth was something to be acquired and not to be shared.  He had no intention of sharing anything of John's with his mother so he simply replied, "More than you would suppose.  He died last Saturday."

 

Maude knew how fond Ezra had been of John.  Her voice was gentle and sincere when she spoke.  "I'm so sorry."

 

There was silence on the line after that.  Neither mother nor son could think of anything further to say.  Ezra finally spoke. "I thought that you should know."

 

Maude responded, "Thank you, dear."  She paused, then continued, "You know where I'm at, if you need to talk."

 

"Yes, I do."  Ezra did not think that speaking further with his mother would accomplish anything.  It never had in the past.

 

Ezra's voice was heavy with regret for more than just John's death as he concluded the phone call.  "I must be going.  Take care of yourself."  Ezra knew that his mother would obey the latter directive.  She had always considered her own personal well-being to be her number one priority.  There was nothing more to be said.

 

"Goodbye."

*****

 

The flight into Michigan was uneventful.  Ezra had secured lodgings at a local motel.  He did not know any of John's relatives very well, and did not expect that anyone would be inviting him to stay elsewhere. 

 

The ATF agent's supposition proved to be correct when he arrived at the Ford mansion.  He was greeted coldly by the young man who answered the door.  By the man's facial bone structure and his obvious wealth and arrogance, Ezra assumed that the doorman was a member of the Ford family.  Ezra politely introduced himself. 

 

The young man did not bother to return the favor.  "Oh.  Standish."  He continued with a shrug of indifference, "I suppose you'd better come in."

 

Ezra followed his reluctant escort to a large living area with comfortable seating.  Ezra chose a seat near the door, expecting that the family members gathered there would be grateful if he were to make a swift exit once he had received his bequest.

 

Ezra had researched the family's recent history prior to his arrival.  John Ford had not waited long to remarry after Ezra and Maude had left his life and home.  John's second marriage had produced an heir, a son named Benjamin.  Ezra's escort bore a strong resemblance to John, and the ATF agent suspected that the young man might be the heir.

 

His supposition proved to be fact when the young man turned to a short, balding man at the front of the room.  "Mr. Steinman, Standish is here."

 

The lawyer nodded.  "Thank you, Benjamin."  He turned to address the gathering.  "All right.  Everyone seems to be present and accounted for.  Let's begin."  The man proceeded to read a long list of bequests.  To no one's surprise, the bulk of the estate was left to Benjamin and his mother.

 

Finally, the lawyer mentioned Ezra's name.  Mr. Steinman's simply read, "To Ezra Standish, my son for all too brief a time, I hereby leave the deed to the cottage on Cass Lake and its surrounding property." 

 

Although the message from beyond the grave was short, it added to the burden of guilt Ezra carried for allowing John Ford to disappear from his life.  It seemed that Mr. Ford had been unable to easily dismiss Ezra from his memories despite the younger man's failure to reconnect with his stepfather.

 

Ezra had been leaning forward as the information was presented.  He leaned back once the bequest had been read, tuning out the rest of the reading of the Will.  His thoughts focused inward. 

 

Ezra had many fond memories of the time he'd spent at the cottage.  His stepfather occupied a prominent place in the recalled events.  Although Maude usually accompanied the two of them to the Cass Lake cottage, she did so under protest, and did not participate in their activities.  Ezra and John were often left by themselves to attend to their own amusements.  Their shared interests made the visits quite enjoyable for both man and boy.  For the brief six months that Mr. Ford remained married to Ezra's mother, the boy that he was had the novel experience of being the focus of attention for no reason other than the pleasure of his company.  The memories were some of the best from an unconventional childhood. 

 

Ezra's private reminiscence ended with the conclusion of the reading of the Will.  The ATF agent was pointedly excluded from the group of family members who gathered afterward in a tight-knit little group to discuss the bequests.  Ezra took no offense at the snub.  Not being a part of the group, the ATF agent met with the lawyer and signed the necessary paperwork.  In return, he received the deed to the property and the keys to the cottage. 

 

Business concluded, he headed for the door, unnoticed by the other beneficiaries - or so he thought.  After Ezra exited the main door of the house, the young man who'd escorted him in followed on his heels.

 

"Standish!  Can I talk to you for a minute?"

 

Ezra had no pressing reason to leave, so he halted his forward progress and waited for Benjamin. 

 

"Look, I just wanted you to know, there are no hard feelings.  You can have the cottage.  It's obviously something that you liked a lot better than I ever did."

 

Benjamin's words were sincere enough, but there was no sentiment behind them.  Ezra recognized the cold calculation in the young man's eyes.  It was an expression that Ezra had worn himself on many occasions.  He uttered a polite response.  "Thank you."

 

Benjamin continued, "There's something else of my father's that I think you should have.  If you could wait here just a minute, I'll be right back."

 

Intrigued and more than a little bit wary, Ezra waited.  Benjamin came out of the house a few minutes later carrying a cardboard box.  He handed the box to Ezra.  "It's a camera.  It's very old; an antique."

 

Ezra hesitated before accepting the box.  He had good reason to doubt the stranger bearing gifts.  Perhaps the item had been stolen, or had been intended for someone else.  However, the Will did dictate that the house and its contents belonged to Benjamin.  Ezra supposed that it would do no harm to examine the contents of the box.  He unfolded the flaps and discovered that the box contained an old brown clamshell case.

 

Ezra reached into the box and pulled out the case  It felt strangely hot to the touch.  He would've sworn that his brain sent the signal to his hands to let go of the object.  Instead, Ezra's hands tightened around the case.  He opened it and gazed upon the old camera enclosed within.  Ezra lifted the camera out of the case and the odd burning sensation faded as quickly as it had begun.  Any misgivings that Ezra may have had about the gift vanished once he was in possession of the camera.  Ezra examined the camera, reflecting that it looked like the old-fashioned cameras he'd only seen before in pictures.  A bellows-like attachment in the middle of the camera was revealed when the camera was removed from its case.  The bellows folded tidily within the case for easy storage.  .  Ezra  was awe-struck by the pristine condition of the object.  He had no intention of ever letting it go.

 

Ezra turned the camera around in his hands, examining it from every angle.  He murmured, "It's beautiful."  The ATF agent was no expert in cameras or photography.  To his untrained eye, what he held was truly exquisite.  Ezra could not believe his good fortune.  A roll of film was also tucked within the cardboard box.  Ezra was eager to try out his new toy.  To his great disappointment, no operating instructions had been included. Ezra was so intently focused upon the camera that he nearly forgot to mind his manners. 

 

Belatedly, he turned to Benjamin.  "Thank you."  He repeated the words with more enthusiasm, "Thank you!" 

 

Ezra was so taken with his gift that he failed to notice the satisfied smirk on Benjamin's face as the man replied, "You're welcome.  You have no idea what you've just been given."

 

The younger man turned and reentered the house.

 

Ezra was too busy admiring the camera to notice.  He spent long minutes examining the object until, with a shake of his head, Ezra recalled his attention to his physical surroundings. 

 

There was no reason for him to linger where he was not wanted.  He had no desire to return to his hotel room.  After a moment's thought, the ATF agent decided to drive up to Cass Lake and inspect his inheritance.  He opened the trunk of the rental car and started to place the camera within the cargo netting, but stopped himself in mid-motion.  No.  I'd better keep the camera inside of the automobile where I can keep an eye on it.  Ezra used his suit jacket to make a protective nest for the camera on the floorboard of the passenger seat area. 

 

If any of his friends had been present to witness the activity, they would have questioned Ezra's mental well-being.  The fastidious man was very careful of his appearance, and would not under normal circumstances expose an article of clothing to the threat of dirt which may have not been properly cleaned from the floorboards by the rental car agency.  However, Ezra was alone and free to do as he pleased.  Perhaps if one of his friends had been present to witness the bizarre behavior, that friend would have been able to intervene and put a stop to the events set in motion by Benjamin Ford. 

 

Perhaps it was already too late.

*****

 

Figuring that the landscape had probably changed over twenty years, Ezra consulted a map before heading up to Cass Lake.  The closer he got to the cottage, the more familiar the streets became.  The first thing that Ezra noticed when he turned onto the road leading into the subdivision was how much of the formerly forested area had been developed.  While the Ford cottage remained nestled cozily within the greenery of a ten acre land holding, the neighboring lots had been sold off and further subdivided, leaving many houses fighting for space along the crowded lakefront.

 

Ezra's fond childhood memories were diluted by time and the harsh realities of change.  The cottage looked smaller than he remembered.  The pale brick exterior of the building was more noticeable in the partially deforested area.  In his memories, the coloring served to add to the natural feel of the property.  In the present, the color seemed merely depressing.

 

He supposed that he had naively expected the warm, comfortable feeling from his childhood to return once he set foot upon the property.  He scolded himself for his sentimentality.  Mother would be appalled.  He could hear her voice guiding him as he explored the property.

 

"Its been well kept up, and modernized over time.  With the right real estate agent, you should be able to clear half a million dollars quite easily."

 

Despite the silent urging of his mother's advice, Ezra wished that he could keep the cottage.  However, practically speaking, it made no sense for him to do so.  If he kept it and rented it out, the property taxes alone would negate any profit.  His work at the ATF guaranteed that he would have little time to fly back and forth between Michigan and Colorado.

 

No, he would have to find a real estate agent and put the property on the market.

 

As he explored the rooms of the cottage, his thoughts kept straying to the gift that Benjamin had given him.  It occurred to Ezra that the cottage would be a perfect subject to capture on film with his new camera.  If the device still worked, he would be able to take pictures to show to a prospective agent, as well as to his friends back home.  With that thought, he quickly concluded his tour and returned to his car and his camera.

 

He removed the camera from its box and carefully inspected the device.  His late stepfather had taken exceptional care of the photographic equipment.  There was nothing revealed in a visual inspection to indicate that the camera was defective.

 

Ezra would need to do further research, but he was certain that he would be able to operate the camera after receiving the appropriate instruction.  He dismissed any further thoughts of the cottage, deciding that at present a thorough study of the camera was of primary importance.

 

He returned to his hotel room and booted up his laptop computer.  Ezra set the camera next to the laptop on the desk and began to research his new possession.  He discovered that the boxy-looking camera with its collapsible bellows attachment that separated the lens from the viewfinder was something called a Vanity Kodak camera.  It was relatively simple to operate, with an exposure calculator around the lens to aid in selecting the proper aperture and shutter settings to improve picture quality in respect to the available light.  Thankfully, an exposure meter was not required.  Ezra did not notice the passage of time as he read page after page of information.  His hard work eventually paid off.  Film for the camera would be difficult to come by, but not impossible.  There was a specialty shop in Grosse Pointe that carried the required film.  He would certainly need more than the one roll he'd been given along with the camera.

 

Ezra rubbed his eyes, startled when he looked at his watch.  In his obsessive research, it seems that he'd spent the entire night on line!  It was already six o'clock in the morning.  The camera shop did not open until 11:00 a.m.  Ezra reflected that that was just as well, as 11:00 a.m. was the hotel's checkout time.  Now that he owned a residence in the area, there was no reason to continue to spend money upon hotel lodgings.  Standish decided that he would reside at the Cass Lake cottage for the remainder of his stay.

 

Ezra set his alarm for 10:00 a.m., wanting to get to work on his photographic project as soon as possible.  If the camera shop had been open for business earlier, Ezra would have gladly foregone sleep in order to obtain the needed film.  For someone with a self-proclaimed allergy to mornings, such a sentiment was indeed odd.  However, there was no one present to remark on Ezra's behavior, and he himself saw nothing wrong with it.

*****

 

Ezra walked into the camera shop.  He was the only customer.  He placed the cardboard box upon the counter in front of the storekeeper.  "I need 127 roll film for a 1930 Vanity Kodak camera."

 

The owner was suitably impressed.  "Wow.  That's something you don't see every day.  Especially not one that's in working condition.  Mind if I take a closer look?"

 

Ezra realized that he did indeed mind.  He hurriedly closed the lid of the box, almost slapping the man's hands away as he did so.

 

The proprietor raised his hands, trying to calm his obviously upset customer.  "It's okay.  It's just, I've only seen one of those before, and it wasn't in working condition."

 

Ezra was not appeased.  He curtly stated, "Do you have the film or don't you?"

 

The man nodded.  "Yeah, I do.  The other camera I was talking about, guy thought it worked and it didn't.  That's the only reason I have the film in stock.  It's in the back."

 

The proprietor left Ezra alone at the counter while he retrieved the film.

 

To Ezra's pleasure, the man returned with a case of film.  He was careful to set it on the counter away from Ezra's precious box.  "If you want the whole case, I'll give it to you for a hundred dollars.  It's not like anyone else is going to use it."  He pointed to the cardboard box and suggested, "While you're here, you might want to get a proper carrying case for that."

 

Ezra shook his head.  "No.  That's all right.  Just give me the film."  He pulled out his wallet and counted out a hundred dollars in twenties.

 

Ezra was usually quite conservative with his money.  For him to invest a hundred dollars in film for a camera that might not even work was quite out of character.  However, despite his limited knowledge of photography, Ezra did not doubt that the camera worked.

 

After his Internet search, he knew that film for his camera was not readily available.  To find an abundant source of a valuable commodity boded well for Ezra's investment in his future as a photographer.  He had done enough studying overnight that he had no doubt of his ability to use the camera, and was anxious to get started.

 

Belatedly remembering his manners, he wished the proprietor a good day as he exited the shop.

*****

 

He drove to the cottage, exceeding the posted speed limit for most of the drive there.  Rather than sitting on the floorboards, the camera now shared the front passenger seat of the car.  Ezra found his eyes drifting time and time again to the camera hidden within the plain cardboard box.   

 

The ATF agent tightened his grip on the steering wheel, giving his hands something to do other than grab for the camera, which is what his brain was urging him to do.  Ezra laughed at his atypical behavior. Between my emotional upset regarding John's untimely death and my sleep deprivation, it's no wonder I can't concentrate on driving.

 

He pressed down on the accelerator pedal, making the car move just a little bit faster. The sooner I get off the road, the better.

 

It took far longer than Ezra would've like, but he eventually arrived at the cottage.  His exhaustion displayed itself in a nervous energy that caused his hands to shake when he tried to load the film into the camera.  At least, that's the reasoning Ezra gave himself for his physical failings.  Ezra tightened his hands upon the camera, willing the trembling to stop.  Much to his relief, it did, and he was able to proceed.

 

Ezra had enough presence of mind to know that he needed to be conservative in his use of the film.  He did not know where to find more.  He set up his shots carefully, taking several views of the exterior of the cottage before moving to the interior.  He planned to use one roll, and one roll only, today.  Once he'd finished his assigned task, he gave in to his fatigue and collapsed upon the bed in the master suite.  Hours later, he woke to find that he'd curled his body protectively around the camera in his sleep.  He laughed at himself.  Some people curl up with their dogs or cats.  It seems that I have a pet camera.

*****

 

Once he'd had a decent night's sleep, Ezra returned to the camera shop.  He needed to get the film developed. 

 

The proprietor promised to have the pictures done before the end of the day.  "Normally I'd say to give me until tomorrow, but I'm as anxious as you are to see how they turn out."

 

Despite the man's polite reassurances, Ezra cursed the delay.  If he had his own darkroom, he could have probably made pictures from the negatives within the hour.  His mood improved at the thought of his inheritance.  Once the cottage has been sold, I can buy my own darkroom.  That is, once I learn how to develop film.

 

Ezra spent the intervening time at the library, doing additional research on photography.  He returned to the camera shop half an hour early, and annoyed the proprietor between customers. 

 

"The negatives did produce reproducible images?"

 

"As I told you earlier, they did."

 

"Are you certain that the prints aren't ready?"

 

"My assistant will let you know when they're done."

 

Finally, at 4:30 p.m., the assistant appeared with a stack of prints.

 

The proprietor admired the black-and-white images along with Ezra.  "Mister, you do good work.  You got the exposures just right.  The clarity and depth of field in these images is professional quality work."

 

Ezra ignored the compliments as he stared at the photographs.  Despite the lack of color, the images looked more real than the cottage itself.  It took Ezra a few minutes of intense examination before he realized why that was so.  These were not photographs of the cottage as it looked today; these were pictures straight out of Ezra's childhood memories, including furniture that was no longer in use.  As he stared at a faint image in a background mirror in one of the pictures, Ezra realized that it appeared as if John Ford himself were in the photograph. 

 

As soon as the thought occurred to him, Ezra hurriedly gathered up the photographs and tossed them into the box containing the camera.  "I'm sorry, I've got to be going.  How much do I owe you?"  Ezra tossed enough money on the counter to cover the cost of film development and hurried out the door.

 

His breath came in short pants as he clutched the cardboard box to his chest.  He stood outside of his car, willing his panic to subside.  Get control.  This is obviously some sort of trick.  He calmed down as he thought of a scenario that could explain the extraordinary photographs.  Benjamin Ford set this whole thing up.  He supplied the camera store with film, knowing that I would be forced to use the services of that particular shop in order to use the camera.  He also supplied the old photographs from his father's collection.  The proprietor reproduced them on modern photographic paper."

 

Ezra returned to his rental car.  Given what had just occurred, he could stay and investigate, or he could simply leave these people to their own lives and return to Colorado.  Ezra nodded, deciding that Michigan had lost any appeal it may have had prior to today.  He returned to the cottage and retrieved his travel cases.  He was going home.

 

He decided that the camera was too precious to risk leaving it in the care of the airport baggage handlers.  He bought a carryon bag big enough to hold the camera and its cardboard box, and checked the remainder of his luggage when he arrived at the airport.

*****

 

Ezra was back at work the next day.  He did not arrive empty-handed.  He carried the bag containing his camera.  As expected, his teammates verbalized their curiosity regarding the contents of the bag.

 

Buck asked, "Hey Ezra, what d' ya got there?"

 

JD enthused, "Cool!  You brought back souvenirs!"

 

Ezra tried to ignore his friends, but they were persistent.  Buck began to speculate.  "Hey, I bet I know what's in the bag.  It's your inheritance."

 

Standish realized that he'd have to say something if he wanted the barrage to stop.  He testily replied, "How astute of you to guess.  You're exactly right.  The sum total of my inheritance fits within the confines of this small bag."

 

Buck would've thought that Ezra was kidding, except for one thing.  The bag never left his side.  He decided to put a hold on his curiosity - for one day, at least. 

 

When Ezra showed up with the bag the next day, and the day after that, Buck's desire to discover the contents of the bag increased.  By Thursday, Buck decided that he was tired of waiting.  It was time to take action.  He waited until Ezra had his back turned away from the bag before he slowly and stealthily made his approach. Buck ducked low so that he was hidden by the desk and reached for the bag.  He was shocked a moment later when Ezra twisted around and in a blur of motion pointed a gun at him.

 

"What the hell?"  Certain that his friend was not serious, Buck nevertheless took a step back and raised his hands.  "Now hold on just a minute there, pard.  No harm meant.  I was just gonna take a little peek."  He smiled tentatively.

 

Ezra ignored the friendly overture.  His voice and manner were deadly serious as he stated, "Leave the bag alone."

 

Buck nodded.  "Sure.  Whatever you say."

 

Chris Larabee, the team leader, chose that moment to walk into the bullpen.  He barely glanced in Ezra's direction as he headed toward his office, stating, "Put that gun away.  If you're gonna shoot Buck, do it on your own time."

 

Ezra startled at Chris' words, and quickly placed his gun back into its holster.  He rubbed his hands over his face, trying to erase the thought that had occurred to him.  My god!  For a moment . . . If Buck had persisted in his actions . . . I was actually considering pulling the trigger. 

 

Preoccupation with the camera seemed to be consuming his thoughts of late.  Initially, Ezra considered his obsession to be harmless.  He supposed that he was using it as an excuse not to think about John's death.  However, his overreaction just now proved that his preoccupation was less than benign.

 

As much as Ezra hated to do it, he had to get rid of the camera.  He stared at the bag sitting harmlessly by his feet.  It's only a simple camera.  I shouldn't let a sentimental attachment prevent me from doing the right thing.  I can put an advertisement on E-Bay, and get rid of the thing at a profit. 

 

He picked up the camera bag and immediately changed his mind.  What am I thinking? I'm simply off-balance due to John's untimely demise.  I would never shoot Buck.  If I were in my right mind, I would not be considering getting rid of a rare antique.  Besides, after the questionable origin of the photographs from Michigan, I've yet to figure out whether or not the camera actually works.  Ezra gave the bag a friendly pat.  I might as well relieve everyone's curiosity, and attempt to take some photographs around the office.  If I can prove that the camera works, I'll be able to make that much more money if I should ever decide to sell it.

 

He placed the bag on top of his desk and announced, "Very well.  Before your excessive interference in my private affairs compels me to commit homicide, I'll show you all what I inherited from my stepfather."

 

After Ezra's earlier response to Buck's proximity, the members of Team Seven stayed a comfortable distance away as Ezra opened the bag.  He pulled out the cardboard box and removed the camera.

 

Buck snorted.  "All that fuss over some old camera?  The way you've been acting, I figured there must be a million dollars in that bag."

 

Ezra hastened to explain.  "This is not just 'some old camera.'  It's an antique.  What is even rarer, this particular antique appears to be in working condition."  Ezra removed film from the box and loaded it into the camera.  "That being said, it's high time I discovered whether or not this antique is ready to be retired."

 

All of Ezra's teammates volunteered to be subjects for his photography experiment.  For some reason that he could not fathom, Ezra was reluctant to use his camera on any of them. 

 

He walked around the office, taking numerous still-life shots.  The more he looked through the lens of the camera, the more unreal his surroundings seemed to be when not seen through an artificial lens.  The camera felt comfortable within his hands, as if he'd been using it his entire life.  Who who've guessed that photography could be such an enjoyable, all-consuming activity?  Finally, the ATF agent had one shot left.  He looked around the office and saw JD smiling at him from the safety of his desk.

 

JD raised a hand in a friendly wave.  "Hey, Ezra, I understand you not wanting to aim that thing at Buck.  His face 'd probably break it.  How about me?"

 

Ezra nodded, forgetting his earlier resolve not to photograph any of his teammates.  "Why not?"

 

JD stood up and asked, "Where do you want me?"

 

Ezra stated, "Where you're at is as good a place as any.  Now, hold still."

 

Buck prompted, "Smile and say 'cheese.'"

 

JD moved to respond to Buck, and Ezra snapped, "Hold still!"

 

JD's smile froze in place.  Through clenched teeth, he complained, "Jeez, don't be so touchy.  I volunteered, remember?"

 

Buck stated, "More like you whined and pleaded until Ezra had to take your picture just to shut you up."

 

Ezra remained quiet, his temper rising at the infantile behavior of both men.  JD's image was perfectly centered when Ezra depressed the shutter control.

 

JD blinked, then blinked again and swayed slightly in place.  His frivolous mood was replaced by one of puzzlement.  He'd felt an odd rush of heat throughout his body when the picture was taken.  The sensation disappeared as quickly as it had occurred.  The young man shrugged it off.  Huh.  That was weird.

 

Ezra replaced the camera in the bag.  "I hope that everyone's curiosity has been thoroughly satisfied.  In the future, I would appreciate it if you all would mind your own business."

 

Buck shook his head.  "If you'd quit carrying that damn camera around like it was some sort of security blanket, maybe your friends would quit worrying that you're not playing with a full deck."

 

Rather than interrupt his careful repacking of the camera to utter a verbal response, Ezra simply raised his middle finger in response.

 

Buck chuckled.  "Ezra Standish, at a loss for words.  Now I know you’re a few French fries short of a happy meal."

 

JD offered his own opinion.  "Aw, Buck, leave the man alone.  You're just upset 'cause he wouldn't take your picture."

 

Buck opened his mouth to reply, then abruptly closed it when he realized that JD was right.  But, he was also correct in his own thinking.  Ezra had been off, mentally, ever since he returned from Michigan.  He stated, "I'm upset 'cause the man pulled a gun on me."  That was also true.  When Buck had looked into Ezra's eyes over the barrel of the gun, he'd seen the steely glare of a cold-blooded killer.  He mentally shuddered at the memory.

 

Ezra let the comment slide.  His mind was not completely absorbed in his work.  The agent kept glancing over at the bag containing his camera.  The closer it got to five o'clock, the more distracted Ezra became.  He was anxious to get his film developed.  Ezra had done some research, and had located a specialty camera shop that could handle his film.  The minute that the clock ticked over to five o'clock, the ATF agent was out the door.

*****

 

Twenty-four hours later, Ezra was examining the developed photographs.  As he had in Michigan, he'd carried the camera into the store with him.  He set the bag on the counter while the clerk retrieved his photos.  Ezra didn't wait to exit the camera shop before he began to examine the pictures. 

 

His intense perusal of the photographs caused the store clerk to ask, "Is something wrong?"

 

Ezra ignored the man and examined the photographs in minute detail.  What he was looking at was impossible.  And yet, he held the evidence in his hands. 

 

The ATF bullpen in the photos did not appear as it was in the present day.  Rather, the black-and-white photos were pictures of the past.  Ezra slowly shuffled through the small stack of  photos.  They depicted the office that he worked in, and yet they didn't.  The office furniture in the pictures had little in common with Team Seven's current arrangements.  The desks in the photographs were isolated from each other by removable half-walls.

 

As for JD's photograph, the young man in the picture was indeed JD, but a much younger JD.  The face in the picture wore stubble in an attempt to look older than he actually was.  It was the eyes the really captured Ezra's attention.  They looked uncertain and fearful, and impossibly young.  That certainly did not describe the JD Dunne that Ezra currently worked with.  There was also another man visible in the background in the picture, a man who was a complete stranger to Ezra.

 

The store clerk repeated his inquiry.  "Sir, is there a problem?"

 

With a conscious effort of will, Ezra tore his attention away from the photos.  "No.  No, everything is as I expected it would be."  The ATF agent tucked the photos into the envelope provided by the store, and secreted the envelope in the camera bag.

 

He drove around aimlessly, the camera bag secured safely in the passenger seat of his Jaguar.  Confused thoughts swirled within his brain.  It's not possible.  Someone is playing an elaborate practical joke.  And yet, he'd seen the evidence with his own eyes.  The camera itself was from out of the past.  The pictures that it took seemed also to be from out of the past.  No!  Ezra refused to believe it.

 

Ignoring the traffic around him, he made a tire-squealing illegal U-turn and headed back to the camera shop.  He planned to interrogate the shop's employees and find out who had set him up.  The closer he got to the store, the more rage he felt.  How dare they!  Someone is going to pay for trying to make me think that I'm going out of my mind!

 

Ezra screeched to a halt in front of the store, ignoring the fact that he was parked illegally.  He slung the camera bag over his shoulder and pulled out his weapon. 

 

Ezra marched into the camera shop and confronted the clerk at the counter.  He pulled out his badge wallet and shoved it into the face of the startled clerk, his other hand holding his gun steady as he aimed at the man's torso.  Ezra's voice was a menacing snarl as he explained, "In case you are unable to read, that badge identifies me as an agent of the ATF."

 

The clerk took a step back and raised his hands in surrender.  His face a mask of fear, he stuttered, "I-I didn't do anything!"

 

"Who did?"

 

The clerk's body trembled as he asked, "Who did what?"

 

Ezra nearly strangled himself in his haste to remove the camera bag from his shoulder.  He dropped the bag onto the countertop and reached inside for the photos.  Still holding the gun in his right hand, he nevertheless used both hands to rifle through his belongings.  The ATF agent retrieved the photos and spread them out along the top of the counter. 

 

It felt stiflingly hot inside of the store.  Ezra paused to wipe sweat from his brow, then explained, "These photographs are not the pictures that I took.  Who gave you these?"

 

The terrified clerk responded, "I swear to God, Mister, those pictures came from the film that you gave to me!"

 

Ezra stared at the clerk, wanting to put a bullet in the man despite the fact that he was obviously too frightened to have done anything other than tell the truth.  It took a conscious effort of will for the troubled man to convince himself to put his gun away.  He grudgingly admitted, "I believe you."

 

The clerk asked, "Can . . . Can I put my hands down now?"

 

Ezra frowned as he put away the pictures.  Not bothering to look in the clerk's direction, he said, "Of course."  His brain was busy working on the problem of how he had been conned, and by whom.  If the camera shop employees were innocent, then the film had been switched.  Ezra had a pretty good idea who would've done such a thing.

 

He returned to his car and decided to pay Team Seven's practical joker, Buck Wilmington, a visit.

*****

 

Atypically careless of his vehicle, Ezra screeched to a stop outside of Buck's apartment building.  He began to pound on the door and ring the bell simultaneously.

 

Buck was surprised to find Ezra at his door.  Other than team get-togethers at their boss' ranch, Ezra was not one to pay social calls on his teammates.  Also, as the team's undercover specialist, Ezra was known for his meticulous planning and attention to detail.  For Standish to show up unannounced was another addition to Buck's observations of his friend's increasingly bizarre behavior.

 

His eyebrows rose in concern as he asked, "Ezra, what's wrong?"

 

Ezra shoved past Buck and into the apartment before turning to confront his friend.  Once again, he drew down on his fellow ATF agent.  Ezra waved his gun threateningly as he declared, "Somebody set me up!"

 

Buck raised a hand to his chest as he protested his innocence.  "Whatever it is you're talking about, I swear it wasn't me!"

 

Ezra began to pace as the rush of adrenaline through his body made him jittery.  Never letting Buck out of the gun's sight, he stated, "You know exactly what I'm talking about!"

 

The accused man shook his head in denial.  "No I don't!  All I know is, you've been acting half out of your head ever since you got back from Michigan."  Buck reached out a hand and pushed Ezra's gun aside so that it was aimed harmlessly at an inanimate object, rather than himself.  "Why don't you put that pea-shooter away before you hurt someone?"

 

Ezra glared angrily at Buck.  It was fortunate that Wilmington could not read his mind.  His friend would have realized how perilously close Ezra had come to pulling the trigger when Buck reached out his hand.  The moment passed, and a measure of sanity returned as Ezra re-holstered his weapon.

 

Buck stated, "That's better.  Now, why don't you tell me what in the hell is going on with you?"

 

Ezra still believed that Buck had perpetrated an ingenious practical joke.  However, if Buck wished to pretend that he'd been wrongly accused, Ezra would play along - for now.  He would allow the man to convict himself with his own words.

 

Ezra stated, "Someone has tampered with my camera."

 

Buck laughed.  He couldn't help it.  "All this over some old camera?  I thought you were like that guy in 'The Fugitive,' on the run after somebody accused you of a crime that you didn't commit."

 

Buck paused a minute, frowned, then continued, "No, wait a minute!  That's me!  My friend barged his way into my apartment without so much as a  'How d' ya do,' waved a gun in my face, and accused me of messing with his precious camera."  Buck waved a hand practically in Ezra's face as he continued, "For your information, I haven't touched the damn thing!  The first time you waved a gun in my face, I got your message loud and clear.  You pulling your gun on me again is just plain nuts."

 

Rather than be offended at Buck's slur regarding his mental health, Ezra began to relax his guard.  Buck was speaking and acting as if he were indeed innocent.  Perhaps Ezra had wronged his friend.

 

Ezra felt weak as the rush of adrenaline began to fade.  He sat down on the nearest chair and moved his camera bag up so that it rested upon his lap.  He drummed his fingers along the bag's zipper as he debated whether or not to consult Buck regarding the mysterious photos.  Something about them urged Ezra not to share.  However, the burden of carrying the secret alone seemed to be affecting his judgment.

 

Ezra opened the bag.  "These are supposedly the photographs that I took yesterday."

 

Buck looked them over carefully, a puzzled look upon his face and he looked upon the past shots of the office.  He shared his thoughts as he paged through the photos.  "Hell, Ezra, this is how the office looked before you even moved up here from Atlanta.  First off, I don't know why anyone would've taken pictures of the office back then, in black-and-white, no less.  Second, I don't know why anyone would share 'em with you."

 

Buck was suddenly still and quiet as he gazed at the final photo, the one of his friend and roommate, JD Dunne.  His face reflected his confusion.  "Well, damn!  This is JD, but this looks like the kid did when he first joined the team."  Buck elaborated, "When I saw that look in his eyes, like somebody 'd shot his dog, I asked him what was wrong.  That's when JD broke down and told me about how his mother had just died and he didn't have any family or any place to stay.  He moved in with me right after that."

 

Still staring at the picture, Buck stated, "I can tell that this picture is a couple of years old.  That's Ernie Brown in the background, the sharpshooter we almost hired instead of Vin.  I don't know anyone who would've taken his picture back then.  Not in the office.  I can ask JD about it.  Maybe he'll remember."

 

Ezra had gone this far.  He decided to share the rest of the photographs.  "If this was the first time I'd received such strange photographs, I wouldn't have cause to doubt my mental well-being."

 

"It's not?"

 

Ezra reached for the second set of pictures as he continued, "While I was in Michigan, I took advantage of the opportunity to revisit a cottage that I remembered from my childhood."  Ezra left out the fact that he now owned said cottage.  He figured that the scope of his inheritance was not information to be shared.  "Understandably, the cottage and its surroundings had changed in the years since I'd last seen it."  Ezra continued, "My new camera in hand, I decided to try it out by taking pictures of the cottage."

 

Buck looked over the second set of pictures, commenting, "Nice place."

 

"Be that as it may, those pictures are not the cottage in its present form."  Buck looked up, anticipating Ezra's next words.  "What you are looking at now is the cottage as it existed twenty years ago.  Those pictures were supposedly taken with the same camera that I have here."

 

Ezra patted the bag holding his treasured camera.

 

Buck pursed his lips in a silent whistle as he handed the pictures back to Ezra.  "That's damn strange."  He continued, "You do know that you're talking something straight out of the 'Twilight Zone,' don't you?"

 

Ezra nodded.  "What I've described is patently impossible.  When I decided that I was the victim of a prank, your name immediately occurred to me as the culprit."

 

Buck smiled.  "Thank you for the compliment.  If this is a prank, I don't have any more idea than you do how it was done."

 

The older man's smile disappeared as he speculated out loud.  "If it isn't a prank . . ."  His voice trailed off, as both men considered the implications of the latter statement.  Buck continued, "If this isn't a prank, that camera is worth more than its weight in gold."

 

Ezra nodded.  "Yes, pictures of the past.  Just think of the secrets that might be revealed.  If you were to take a photograph at a homicide scene where the perpetrator is unknown, to have the camera reveal a memory from beyond the grave . . ."

 

Buck looked up sharply at Ezra's words, interrupting his speech.  His gaze intent and piercing, he stated, "Ezra, I need to borrow your camera."

 

The thought of anyone touching his precious camera was unacceptable, now more than ever.  Ezra curled himself protectively around the camera bag.  "No!"

 

"Aw, come on, Ezra, I swear I'll treat it as gentle as a newborn babe.  I got an idea on how to test your theory."

 

Ezra shook his head.  "No.  Tell me what picture you want, and I'll take it."

 

Buck abruptly turned and walked away.  "Yeah, okay."

 

Ezra warily observed his friend.  It wasn't like Buck to give up so easily.  His suspicion was confirmed with Buck's next words.

 

"Look, I've got dinner on the stove for two, and JD called at the last minute to tell me he won't be home 'til late.  I know you haven't eaten yet.  Why don't you join me?"

 

With Buck's words, Ezra allowed the smell that had been impinging on his olfactory sense to penetrate his thoughts.  The unmistakable tang of chili was in the air.  Ezra knew from past experience that Buck's chili was some of the best.  His stomach growled in anticipation, and Ezra gave in.  "In light of the fact that you're offerin' to share your meal with me despite my earlier rudeness, I suppose the polite thing to do would be to accept."

 

Buck smiled.  "Okay.  I'll go and set the table.  The chili should be just about done."

 

A kind host, Buck provided beer to cool the spice of his chili.  The combination of beer and a full belly caused Ezra to temporarily lower his guard.  He did not take the camera with him when he went to use the bathroom.  He came back to find Buck sitting at the table, holding the camera. 

 

Ezra was seized by an all-consuming rage that took away his ability to think.  He uttered a gutteral, "NO!" and threw himself bodily into his friend.

 

Buck dropped the camera and raised his arms to defend himself as Ezra delivered blow after blow.  The beleaguered man attempted to talk his friend into some semblance of sanity between blows.  "Shit! . . . What the hell are you doing? . . . I didn't hurt your camera! . . . Goddamn it, that hurt!" 

 

Being physically larger than his friend, Buck managed to roll so that Ezra was underneath him.  He began to subdue his struggling friend by wrapping up the man's body with his own. 

 

Ezra knew that he was fighting a losing battle.  He reached out a free hand blindly, trying to find something, anything to use as a weapon.  His groping fingers latched onto the camera.  He raised it and brought it crashing down onto Buck's head.

 

Buck collapsed onto Ezra, unconscious.  Ezra shoved the heavier man off of him, breath whistling through over-stressed lungs.  He looked at Buck and considered hitting him a few more times, but then realized that using the camera for a weapon even the one time was a foolish thing to do.  God, I might have broken it! 

 

Ezra ignored his friend's prostrate body and began to scrub the bloodstains from the camera with his shirtsleeve.  This is ridiculous.  I'm sure there's something in the bathroom I can use to clean this with.  Ezra found a bottle of alcohol and some cotton swabs and began to clean off the camera.  He ignored his own disheveled appearance.  Finally satisfied that he'd removed every trace of blood, Ezra left the bathroom.  He carefully replaced his camera into its bag, never once sparing a thought for anything other than the camera.

 

He returned to his apartment and packed a suitcase.  If Buck recovered, he did not want the man showing up and trying to steal the camera.  Ezra reflected that the one good thing that Buck had done was to open his eyes to all of the possibilities open to him courtesy of his marvelous camera.

 

He spared a thought as to who had the most secrets that it would be worth his while to discover. The first person who sprang to mind was his mother, Maude.  It was high time he paid her a visit.

*****

 

Buck heard the door of his apartment slam.  The noise echoed through his aching head.  The last thing he remembered, Ezra had gone crazy on him.  With that thought came the recollection of exactly why Ezra had attacked him.  Shit!  The camera!  Buck sat up quickly with the intention of pursing the fleeing agent.  He immediately regretted the action when he became dizzy and nauseous.  He half-crawled into the bathroom where he was promptly and violently sick.  The chili was pretty awful as it made a return visit.

 

Before he realized it, he was no longer alone in the bathroom.  JD had arrived in time to hand his friend a glass of water to rinse his mouth out with.  The young man looked on in concern.  "God, Buck, what happened to you?"

 

Buck made his way shakily to his feet, lamenting the bruises showing on his face as he looked into the mirror above the sink.  "The ladies won't find much to look at for the next few days."

 

JD questioned, "A lady did this?"

 

Buck smiled ruefully.  "That wasn't any lady.  It was Ezra."

 

JD's voice raised in disbelief as he repeated, "Ezra?  Ezra!"

 

Buck nodded, closing his eyes as a wave of dizziness passed over him with the action.

 

JD asked, "What did you do?"

 

Buck complained, "I get the crap beat out of me, and all you can think to ask is what did I do?"

 

JD was immediately apologetic.  "Sorry, Buck."

 

Buck confessed, "I touched his damn camera."

 

The young man's eyes widened in shock.  "You touched his camera?  No way!  That can't be all it was."

 

"I'm afraid so.  There is something seriously wrong with Ezra.  We need to find him, and get that camera away from him."

*****

 

The first place they checked was Ezra's apartment.  It was obvious that he'd packed and left in a hurry.  Their next step was to call on the resources of the ATF.  They alerted their teammates to the emergency, and everyone met in the ATF office to begin the hunt for their missing member.

 

When Buck related the details of Ezra's visit, he purposely omitted any information regarding the bizarre nature of the photographs.  After issuing a BOLO for Ezra's Jaguar, they began researching bank and credit card information, as well as checking on friends and associates.

 

For his part, Buck silently tried to put himself in his friend's shoes.  If I was Ezra, and I could photograph anyone and anywhere to find out their history, where would I go? 

 

When he put it that way, the answer was fairly easy: to Maude.  Buck decided not to share the information with his teammates.  As much as Ezra wanted to keep the camera, Buck wanted it, no, needed it, more.  What he'd told Ezra was true: he only needed it to take one photograph.  He would do whatever it took for the opportunity to do so.

*****

 

One day passed into two, and the remaining members of Team Seven discovered that they had another missing member to deal with. 

 

JD ran into the office, not bothering to hide his worry and panic.  "Buck's gone!"

 

Chris questioned, "What do you mean, gone?"

 

JD reported, "When I got home, it was just like Ezra, only messier.  It looks like Buck packed a bag and took off!"

 

Chris had been about to make a phone call.  The phone was in his hand, and received the brunt of his anger as it went flying off the desk and into the wall.  "Goddamn it!  What the hell is going on around here?"

 

As if God had decided to provide an answer despite the blasphemy, a pair of visitors, a young man and a woman, walked in as Chris was shouting his question.  The man stated, "I believe that I can answer your question; at least, part of it."

 

In no mood to be polite, Chris asked, "Who are you?"

 

The young man was a brunet who looked like the quintessential college student.  He introduced himself.  "I'm Ryan Dallion."  He pointed to the striking redhead beside him.  "This is my cousin, Micki Foster."

 

Micki spoke up.  "We're looking for a man by the name of Ezra Standish.  He has something that belongs to us."

 

Ryan continued, "It's a camera, an antique.  I don't suppose you could tell me where to find the camera or Mr. Standish?"

 

JD stated, "We're looking for him ourselves."

 

Chris cautioned JD not to offer any further information and curtly asked, "Do you have any way to prove that the camera belongs to you?"

 

Ryan nodded.  "Yes.  We own the Curious Goods antique shop.  I've got the paperwork with me that shows the provenance of the item in question."

 

JD grumbled, "Sure talks enough like Ezra."

 

Chris extended his hand in silent demand for the paperwork.  Ryan did not hesitate to give it to the Team Seven leader.  Chris looked over the paperwork, then grunted, "Everything seems to be in order."  His question more of a demand, he continued, "So, what can you tell me?"

 

Ryan looked around the room and gave a resigned sigh as he assessed his audience.  "I know you're not going to believe me, but all I can tell you is what I know to be true.  The camera is cursed."

 

Chris gave a snort of disbelief.  "Cursed.  Okay.  Thank you.  Just leave your name and number and we'll call you if we find your camera."  Chris left the bullpen and retreated to his office.

 

Vin stated, "Seems like this whole place is cursed," and got up to follow his friend.

 

Micki turned to the remaining team members.  "Whether you believe it or not, Mr. Standish is in terrible danger as long as he has that camera.  We need to get it back so it can be disposed of properly."

 

JD was not willing to discount anything that might help to find his friends.  He offered, "You know, Ezra didn't start to go all looney tunes on us until he came back from Michigan with that camera.  Don't you think it's strange how he never lets it out of his sight?"

 

Josiah nodded.  "It went beyond strange when he pulled a gun on Buck to keep him away from it."

 

"Not to mention the fact that he beat the crap out of Buck when he actually managed to touch it."

 

Nathan Jackson, the team medic, shook his head.  "You all are about as crazy as Ezra if you believe that camera is cursed.  I'm going back to my computer, see if I can pick up the trail on either Ezra or Buck."

 

Josiah stated, "You know, we still haven't managed to track down Maude.  She's Ezra's mother, after all.  It makes sense that he would try to contact her."

 

JD nodded.  "Yeah.  You're right.  Let me see what I can find out."

*****

 

It took Ezra a full day before he managed to discover the whereabouts of his mother.  As per her usual pattern, Maude had abruptly moved from her last known location without leaving a forwarding address.  He knew that she was in California somewhere so he began driving west.  The only thing he had to do was to find out precisely where in the state she had gone to ground.  Once he had pinpointed her location courtesy of numerous telephone calls, he headed for the nearest airport and bought a ticket for California.  Hoping to avoid pursuit, he used a credit card issued in the name of Edward Smith, an alias that he'd previously assumed for an undercover operation, to purchase the ticket.

*****

 

Buck's assignment when the team began to look for their missing member was to track Ezra's cellphone calls.  His friend had made many calls after he first hit the road.  After the thirteenth call, the cellphone activity abruptly ceased.  Buck smiled.  Rather than call every number listed, all he had to do was find out the details of Ezra's last conversation with whoever was at that particular number.  That proved to be ridiculously easy.  As soon as he called and heard the voice on the other end of the phone, Buck knew: it was Maude.

 

After he said, "Hello," Buck kept his tone of voice light, not wanting to alert Maude to Ezra's troubles.  "Hey, Maude, it's Buck.  I was wondering if you've heard from Ezra within the last day or two?"

 

Maude covered for her son and answered, "No, I haven't.  Is something wrong?"

 

Buck breezily replied, "Nope.  Just forgot to ask him something before he took off.  That's okay.  It'll keep.  Tell him 'Hi' for me when you see him."

 

Buck smiled when Maude did not immediately deny Ezra's impending visit.  It was proof enough.  He politely disconnected the call, then paused to consider his next avenue of investigation.  The agent contacted the second from last number that Ezra had called.  From that person, Buck found out that Maude was currently in San Francisco.  The mustached man purchased a plane ticket for the next available flight out.  Unlike Ezra, he did not bother to hide his own trail.  Buck would get the camera from Ezra long before anyone else could join them.

*****

 

Back at the offices of the ATF, the team members made near-simultaneous discoveries.  JD announced, "I got a hit on one of Ezra's aliases!  He purchased a plane ticket on the red-eye out to San Francisco."

 

Vin announced, "Buck sure seems to think it was Ezra who bought that ticket.  Otherwise, I wouldn't have just found an entry on Buck's charge card that shows he also bought a ticket a couple of hours later, also to San Francisco."

 

They informed Chris of their discoveries, and the remaining members of Team Seven were soon on their way to San Francisco.

 

Ryan and Micki announced that they were also going.

 

Chris tried to discourage them.  "You can wait here.  I told you before, we'll let you know when we get the camera back."

 

Ryan shook his head.  "Whether or not you believe in the curse, no one should touch the camera.  Only Micki and I know how to handle the object properly."

 

Chris disagreed.  "Much as we might like to, we don't plan to toss your precious camera around and break it.  We might break a few heads, but there's no reason to wreck your camera."

 

Micki backed up her cousin.  "You don't understand.  The curse is transferred by physical contact with the object.  Your friends have more than likely both touched the camera.  They may both be affected."

 

Nathan commented, "You make it sound like some kind of virus or infection."

 

"I suppose it is," Micki continued.  "The object was cursed with the intent of doing the most harm to the most people.  What better way to have the curse spread than to use a physical object as a vector?"

 

No one had anything further to add after that comment.  Micki and Ryan bought seats on the first plane out to San Francisco, and joined the ATF agents on their flight.

 

They only hoped that they arrived before the situation deteriorated into chaos beyond redemption.

*****

 

Ezra rented a car and carefully made his way to his mother's hotel.  He didn't want to do anything to draw attention to himself.  After his assault on Buck, Ezra did not doubt that there was a warrant out for his arrest.  That fact that Maude was in San Francisco decided Ezra's next move.  Maude had once mentioned that Ezra had been conceived in San Francisco.  It had taken Ezra considerable time and effort, but he was able to track down where his mother had been staying at the time.  As Maude had never seen fit to inform him of the identity of his father, he decided to see if his camera would reveal the answer.

 

Maude greeted him warily.  "Ezra, dear, you look positively exhausted.  Does your current lack of attention to appearances have anything to do with the fact that Buck Wilmington called here looking for you?"

 

Ezra cursed.  "Damn, the man is more clever than I thought.  Mother, would you care to take a drive with me?"

 

Maude shrugged.  "Do I have a choice?"

 

While Ezra's lips formed the word "Yes," the determination in his eyes revealed that a refusal would not be tolerated.  Maude followed the path of least resistance, and decided to willingly accompany her son. 

 

They drove in silence until Maude noticed the direction that they were going.  She frowned, and asked, "Do you have some specific destination in mind?"

 

Ezra's smile was cold and unfriendly.  "I thought that we should revisit the old homestead."

 

Confused, Maude replied, "You never had a home here."

 

"Perhaps not, but it was you yourself who stated that I was conceived in this very city."  He gave his mother one last chance to freely share the information that he required.  "I don't suppose you'd care to share the identity of my biological father?"

 

"After all this time, I would hardly think that it matters.  Who cares who the actual sperm donor was?"

 

Ezra's words were short and terse.  "I care."

 

He pulled up in front of a boarded-up house that might have been grand in its day but was now an ill-kept ruin.  Ezra announced, "Home sweet home."

 

Maude countered with one simple word: "No."

 

Ezra ignored her and reached for his ever-present camera bag.  "I've brought you here because I've recently acquired a passion for photography.  I want to take your picture in the house where I was conceived."

 

Maude repeated a more emphatic, "No!"

 

Ezra exited the car, walked around to the passenger-side door, reached in a grabbed his mother.  He began to pull her out of the car, stating, "I wasn't asking."

 

Maude exclaimed, "You're hurting me!" as she tried to pull away from her son.

 

Ezra apologized, but did not loosen his vice-like grip upon her arm.  "I'm sorry, but I rather doubt that you will voluntarily comply with my direction."

 

Maude attempted to reason with her obviously disturbed offspring.  "This is insane!  If you want to take my picture, by all means go right ahead, just not here!"

 

Ezra approached the door of the house, pleased to see that it had already been broken in.  It saved him the time and trouble of doing it himself.  He shouldered the door aside and dragged his unwilling mother with him into the dim interior of the building.  Ezra looked around and speculated, "Hm, now let me see.  Where would the master bedroom have been?"

 

He dragged Maude from room to room until he noticed her balk at entering one particular door.  Ezra smiled.  "Ah, this must be the place."

 

Maude shook her head, tears gathering in her eyes as she pleaded, "No, Ezra, please, don't do this!"

 

There was no furniture left in the room except for an old bed-frame.  Ezra dragged a protesting Maude over to what was left of the bed and forced her to sit.  He held her in place with one hand while he removed his belt with the other.  "Now, Mother, this won't take a minute.  I just don't trust you to sit still while I take your picture."  He used his belt to secure her hands to the bed-frame, then stepped back.

 

He ignored the tears streaming down his mother's face and her cries of protest as he retrieved his camera. 

 

"Don't do this, please!  I'm begging you!"

 

He got Maude centered perfectly within the viewfinder then took her picture, and added a few more shots, just to be certain to capture her image.  When he was done, he was so intent upon his thoughts as to the necessity of finding somewhere to develop the photos that he nearly left Maude tied to the bed-frame.  Her pitiful cries reminded him of her plight.  His voice inappropriately pleasant under the circumstances, he retrieved his belt.  "There!  All done!  Now, that wasn't so bad, was it?"

 

Maude did not speak.  She slapped Ezra hard across the face, then ran out of the house.

*****

 

As soon as he got off of the plane in San Francisco, Buck used his ATF ID to question the employees and track Ezra through the airport.  He was exceedingly pleased when he discovered that the car that Ezra rented was equipped with a GPS locator.  From that point on, it was a simple matter for Buck to track down the missing agent.

 

He pulled up behind Ezra's rental car where it was parked outside of the run-down house.  The front door was open, so it wasn't difficult for Buck to figure out where Ezra was.  He began to walk up the front walkway when Maude came running out of the house.  He stopped her head-long rush and wrapped his arms around the distraught woman.  He patted her back and offered words of comfort as she sobbed into his shirt.

 

"Oh, God!" . . . sniff . . . sniff . . . "I can't believe . . ." sob . . . "Ezra . . ."

 

"It's okay, take it easy, I'm here to help."

 

"Ezra . . . "  Maude pushed herself away from Buck and tried to reorder her scattered wits and appearance. "He's still in there."

 

Buck stated, "I'll take care of Ezra."   He reached into his pocket and retrieved a set of keys.    "Here's the keys to my rental car.  You take it, and you go get yourself all prettied up.  Okay?"

 

Maude nodded, then snatched the keys out of Buck's hand as if she were afraid he would change his mind.

 

Buck dismissed Maude from his thoughts as he focused attention on Ezra and, more importantly, the camera he possessed.

 

He met Ezra just inside the entryway.  Ezra clutched the camera bag protectively to his chest when he saw Buck.

 

Buck remained calm and offered a friendly greeting.  "Howdy, Ezra.  Been taking some pictures?"

 

Ezra defensively replied, "Not that it's any of your business, but yes, I have."

 

"How you gonna get 'em developed?"

 

"I'll find a way."

 

As he'd hoped, Ezra offered him an opening and Buck took it.  "Might be I know a way.  I lived in San Fran for a time.  I know a lady who owns a photography studio.  What d' you say, we pay her a visit?"

 

Ezra was not ready to relax his guard.  "And in return?"

 

Buck smiled.  "In return, you owe me a picture."

****

 

Buck's lady friend greeted him enthusiastically.  After an extended personal greeting, Buck got down to business.  "Donna, I hate to show up on your doorstep hat in hand, so to speak, but I got a favor to ask.  You know I've been working for the ATF?"

 

The lady responded with an affirmative nod.  Buck continued, "My friend Ezra's also an agent.  He's got an old camera and there's some pictures that we need developed quickly and quietly."

 

Donna agreed to their request and led them toward her darkroom.  "Let's see what you've got."  Ezra retrieved his camera and handed over the precious film.  Donna allowed the two men to observe her as she worked.  In less than an hour, the black-and-white images began to appear.  Donna frowned.  "What is this?  Some kind of porno sting?"

 

Buck's eyebrows rose as it became obvious what he was seeing.  "God, Ezra.  Why in the hell would you take these?'

 

Ezra shook his head, muttering, "No, no, it can't be!"  He felt as if he were suffocating within the confines of the small, dark room.  He wanted to look away from the pictures, but he couldn't.  It was all his fault that they were there.  He had his proof, in stark black-and-white, of what his was his mother had been hiding about his father all these years.  His mother had been an unwilling participant at the time of his conception.  Her young, battered body was tied to the bed.  An unidentified man, his back to the camera, loomed over the terrified woman in the picture.

 

Ezra felt the bile rise in his throat as he finally tore himself away from the horrific sight.  Donna called to his retreating back, "Bathroom's the first door on your right!"

 

Ezra barely made it to the toilet before he began to retch violently.  Tears fell from his eyes as he realized the full depth of his depravity.  His father had been a rapist, and Ezra was following in his footsteps.  He had tied his own mother to the bed, forcing her to revisit the traumatic scene of his conception.  "Oh, God!" 

 

Ezra was certain that God was not listening.  Under the circumstances, he was closer to the devil.  The distraught man sobbed out his sorrow and grief as he was racked again and again by dry heaves.  He barely noticed when Buck joined him in the small bathroom.  He did notice when Buck removed the camera bag from his shoulder.  Ezra attempted to scramble to his feet to prevent the theft.  Buck shoved him forcefully back and in his weakened state, Ezra was unable to stop himself from falling.  His head impacted against the sink and that was the last thing that Ezra knew before he lost consciousness.

*****

 

Buck stepped out of the bathroom, camera bag in hand.  He reassured Donna, "Ezra 'll be all right.  He just needs a few minutes."  He continued, "Lady in the picture is someone close to him.  Ezra didn't know what she'd been through until he saw the pictures.

 

"Do me a favor?"

 

Donna nodded, "Of course, anything."

 

"Burn the pictures.  The negatives, too."

 

"Sure, Buck.  See you later?"

 

Buck was noncommittal.  "Maybe."

 

He didn't want to lie to the lady, but he fully intended to be on the next plane to Las Vegas.  Ezra was on his own.  Buck thoughtfully left the rental car for Ezra, and called for a cab to take him to the airport.

*****

 

The remaining members of Team Seven were following the trail Buck had clearly laid out.  They used the same technique that Buck had to track down Ezra's rental car.  They found it outside of Donna's photographic studio.

 

They hurried inside, followed closely by Ryan and Micki.

 

Chris waved his ATF badge and asked, "Where are they?"

 

Donna held a hand to her throat and let out a relieved breath of air.  "Oh, thank god!  I can't get in touch with Buck, and his friend is in the hospital."

 

Ryan got to the point of his business.  "Where's the camera?"

 

Chris angrily stated, "Screw the camera!  What happened to Ezra?"

 

Donna hurriedly explained, "Buck's friend Ezra got upset when he saw some pictures I'd developed.  He was feeling sick, and went to the bathroom.  Buck said Ezra needed some privacy, but when he didn't come out of the bathroom I finally went in and found him lying on the floor."

 

Vin asked, "Where are the pictures?"

 

Donna was certain that the ATF agents would not like her reply, but she had to tell the truth.  "Buck asked me to burn them, negatives and all.  So, I did."

 

Nathan requested further details regarding Ezra's condition.  "What did the paramedics say?"

 

Donna explained, "By the time they showed up, Ezra was waking up.  They said it looked like he'd fallen and hit his head."

 

"Did they say where they were taking him?"

 

Donna nodded.  "San Francisco General."

 

"Buck didn't go with him?"

 

"No, he left earlier."

 

Chris asked, "Did he say where he was going?"

 

"No; I'm sorry."

 

Ryan persisted, "What about the camera?"

 

Donna frowned as she thought, "I'm not sure, but I think Buck had it with him."

 

Chris huffed out a frustrated breath.  "Fine.  Okay.  We need to split up.  Nathan, Josiah, you go to the hospital and find out what you can from Ezra.  Whatever you do, don't let him out of your sight.

 

"JD, Vin, we're gonna follow Buck.  So far, he's left us a trail a blind man could follow.  Let's hope he's stayed true to form."

 

JD pulled out his laptop computer and discovered that Buck had purchased another airline ticket; this time, to Las Vegas, Nevada.

 

Chris nodded.  "That makes sense.  Ezra headed for home, so to speak, with Maude being here in San Francisco.  Before he moved to Colorado, Buck called Las Vegas home."

 

Ryan and Micki consulted briefly together before deciding that they, too, would split up.  Ryan would accompany the men following Buck.  Micki would follow up with Ezra, in case Buck did not have the camera.

*****

 

Ezra did not appreciate the overly cheerful nurse who poked her head into his room.  "Mr. Standish, you've got a couple of visitors."

 

Ezra looked up disinterestedly as Nathan and Josiah walked into his room. 

 

Josiah had convinced Micki to wait in the visitor's lounge.  "Ezra doesn't know you.  I don't really, either, when you think of it.  If my friend's got anything private to tell me, I don't want your presence to persuade him to hold his tongue.  We'll accomplish more if you wait here."

 

Not being able to immediately come up with a logical counter-argument, Micki had reluctantly complied with the order.

 

Josiah could not recall ever seeing Ezra look so hopeless and utterly defeated.

 

In full medic mode, Nathan asked the expected question. "So, Ezra, what do the doctors say?"

 

Ezra shrugged.  "I've been diagnosed with a concussion.  They've admitted me for something called 'twenty-three hour observation.'  If my head is still attached to my shoulders come the morning, I should be paroled from this place."

 

Nathan nodded.  "Makes sense.  Head injuries should not be taken lightly.  Brain damage often doesn't show up until hours, sometimes days after the original injury."

 

Josiah interrupted.  "Brother Nathan, you certainly know how to bring cheer to a hospital room."  Josiah knew that Nathan and Ezra did not have the smoothest of relationships.  The only reason Chris had sent Nathan to the hospital was for his expert medical opinion.  If they wanted any detailed information from Ezra, Josiah suspected that it would be easier to obtain if Nathan wasn't present.

 

He suggested, "Nathan, why don't you see if you can find Ezra's doctor while Ezra and I have a private little chat?"

 

Nathan wanted to hear more than just Ezra's nonprofessional opinion of his medical condition.  He gladly left the room in search of further information.

 

Josiah closed the door of the private room softly behind his friend.  He returned to Ezra's beside and took a seat.

 

"What happened?"

 

Ezra sighed.  "I really don't know.  The past few days kind of blur together in my mind, as if I'm trying to recall some nightmare that would be better off forgotten."

 

When Ezra did not offer any further information, Josiah asked, "Do you know where Buck went?"

 

"I don't know.  I seem to recall him being present right before I lost consciousness."

 

Josiah attempted another line of questioning.  "Can you tell me why you came to San Francisco?"

 

Ezra did not hesitate to answer, "To see my mother."

 

Ezra's answer presented another possible line of research.  Josiah followed up by asking, "Mind if I talk to her?"

 

Ezra blinked slowly, obviously fatigued.  "I can't stop you.  But, know this: no matter what I've done, my mother is very protective when it comes to her only son.  She will not share anything other than the most mundane and trivial details regarding my activities without my express permission for her to do otherwise."

 

Josiah took a minute to think about the scant information he had so far.  After a lengthy pause, he decided to ask the next question despite the fact that he already knew the answer.  "Will you  give her that permission?"

 

Ezra closed his eyes as he answered, "No."

 

Josiah asked one final question.  "Do you know where the camera is?"

 

Ezra's voice was a near-whisper as he replied, "Buck has it."  He added, "And may God have mercy upon his soul."

 

Ezra did not say another word, feigning sleep in order to encourage his visitor to leave.

 

Josiah left, more confused than he'd been before he'd entered the room.  He headed to the visitor's lounge to update Micki.  Nathan had joined her in the waiting area.  Josiah answered the question that he knew was uppermost on Micki's mind.  "Buck has the camera."  He turned to address Nathan as he continued to speak.  "It's up to Chris, Vin, JD, and Ryan, now."

*****

 

Chris was relieved when JD's computer search revealed that Buck was still leaving a trail for them to track.  They followed their friend to Las Vegas.  As they had in San Francisco, they located his rental car thanks to the information provided by the GPS.  They found the car parked outside of a seedy apartment building off the strip. 

 

Chris swore when he recognized the address. "Shit!"  He ran a hand through his hair while the others waited for an explanation.  It was not forthcoming.  Chris stated, "This is Buck's private business.  Let's give him a few minutes, wait and see if he comes out on his own."

 

Nearly half an hour passed before they spotted Buck's familiar figure exiting the building.  JD couldn't sit still any longer, and jumped out of the car to greet his friend.  The others followed his lead.

 

After the mess with Ezra in San Francisco, JD was exceedingly worried about his best friend.  He was elated to see Buck alive and seemingly well.  When he got closer, he amended that thought.  Not so well.  The bruises Ezra had inflicted several days previously had yet to fade.  On top of that, Buck looked pale and shell-shocked.  He held Ezra's camera bag to his chest, as protective of the object as Ezra had been.  JD aborted the hug he'd intended to give as he looked his friend over.  "Jeez, Buck, what the hell have you been doing?"

 

Buck blinked his eyes, startled, as if he'd not noticed JD's approach despite its lack of subtlety.  He took a minute to consider JD's question before he simply replied, "Takin' pictures."

 

Ryan Dallion cautiously approached.  "Mr. Wilmington . . . Buck, that camera is stolen."

 

Buck nodded slowly as he replied, "I won't deny it.  I took it from Ezra."

 

Ryan hastened to correct Buck's mistaken impression.  "That's not what I meant.  The camera was stolen from my shop.  Your friends can back me up on that."

 

Buck used his greater height to advantage as he stared down at Ryan.  His reply of, "Is that so?" indicated that he was willing to argue the point.

 

Chris approached from one side, Vin from the other, as the men surrounded Buck.  Chris pointed toward Ryan and ordered Buck, "Give him the camera."

 

Buck was unwilling to comply.  His eyes narrowed in challenge, he stated, "Make me."  Chris and Vin struck silently and efficiently.  Vin kicked out at Buck's legs from below as Chris struck from above.  Completely thrown off-balance, Buck went down hard.  Chris yelled at JD, "Sit on him!"  As he and Vin fought to restrain their struggling friend. 

 

Ryan concentrated his attention on the camera.  He pulled the strap of the camera bag from Buck's shoulder, while Chris restained the arm that the bag hand been slung over and prevented Buck from striking out at Ryan.

 

As soon as the bag was in Ryan's possession, Buck yelled, "The film, man, the film!  For God's sake, you can keep the camera, just give me the damn film!"

 

Ryan was reluctant to do so.  He used his jacket to cover his hands, so that he never came into direct contact with the camera as he examined the film.  He noticed that although the camera was old, the film itself was new.  As an inanimate object, the film should not be a problem once it was separated from the cursed object.  Ryan considered that fact and decided that it would cause no further harm to do what Buck wanted.  Ryan made sure that Buck could see every move as he removed the film and then placed it onto the ground in front of Buck.

 

Buck immediately ceased struggling.  Chris asked, "You done?"

 

Buck nodded.  "Yeah."  He was surprised to find how true that statement was.  A moment ago, he'd been willing to kill in order to keep the camera.  Now that at least the film had been returned to him, Buck's rage faded.  He repeated, "Yeah, I am."  When his fellow ATF agents continued to sit on him, Buck asked, "You gonna let me up?"

 

Chris momentarily tightened his grip in silent warning, then asked, "You gonna try to run?"

 

Buck stared back so that his friend could read the truth behind his words.  "Nope."

 

Chris nodded and released his grip.  "Okay, let him go."  Vin and JD were happy to do so.  Vin rubbed a hand along his ribcage as he declared, "Damn, Buck, you hit hard."

 

Buck countered, "Well, I wouldn't 've had to if you hadn't hit me first."

 

Vin nodded.  "I expect you got a point there."  He pointed to Chris.  "It's all Chris' fault."

 

Chris shook his head.  "No, it's all Buck's fault."

 

Buck ignored Chris as he quickly retrieved his precious film and tucked it safely into his pocket.  He finally replied, "It's not my fault, it's Ezra's."

 

Vin offered his opinion of that statement.  "Now you ain't hardly bein' fair, with Ezra stuck in the hospital back in San Francisco and not here to defend himself."

 

Buck looked up, startled.  "In the hospital?  What do you mean?  What happened?"

 

Vin replied, "We're not sure.  By the time we caught up with him, the damage had already been done.  Your friend Donna says she found him unconscious on the floor of the bathroom in her studio."

 

Buck winced as he recalled exactly how that might have happened.  Rather than explain, he asked, "Is he all right?"

 

Chris reported, "As far as we know.  Nathan called to say that the doctors found a lump on his head and they're keeping him overnight.  He's been diagnosed with a concussion."

 

Buck felt guilty when he heard the news.  Whatever responsibility he felt for his friend's condition was ameliorated by the film he'd obtained.  The ATF agent's violence toward Ezra would be nothing compared to what Buck would do if he found the man he expected to appear in the pictures he'd taken.  He closed his hand protectively around the film in his pocket.

 

Chris suggested, "Let's go home."

 

Buck shook his head.  "You all go on without me.  I got me some old friends here I haven't seen in a while."

 

JD shook his head.  "Uh-unh.  If you stay, I stay."

 

Chris nodded.  "I'm afraid that goes for all of us."

 

Buck shook his head, obviously displeased by his friends' decision.  He did not voice his objections, knowing that if their roles were reversed, he would do the same.

 

After calling San Francisco for an update on Ezra's condition and to inform their teammates that they were staying with Buck in Las Vegas, Chris booked rooms for himself and his friends at the local Holiday Inn.

 

Once he'd obtained the camera, Ryan Dallion did not linger.  Chris was more than happy to bid goodbye to both the man and his cursed camera.

*****

 

Back in San Francisco, Nathan and Josiah were relieved to know that Buck had been found safe and sound and that the camera had been returned to Ryan.  With only a few hours remaining in Ezra's hospital stay, they waited with their friend at San Francisco General until he was released. 

 

Mikki had left earlier, after Ezra had revealed that he did not have the camera.

 

When the doctor finally signed Ezra's discharge orders, Josiah asked, "Do you want to stay in town and visit with your mother?"

 

Ezra did not think that Maude would want him anywhere near her at present.  He sadly shook his head.  "No, I believe that I should leave this place sooner rather than later."

 

Josiah made arrangements for himself, Ezra, and Nathan to catch the next flight home to Denver.

 

Ezra could not shake the dark cloud of depression that was his constant companion.  His friends worried and fussed over him.  Ezra appeased them by attributing his listlessness to the afteraffects of his concussion.  It was much more than that.  Ezra could not help but wonder if his mother regretted the fact that she had not terminated her pregnancy, fearing that the old adage would prove to be true: 'Like father, like son.' Ezra prayed that it was not so, but after his behavior over the last several days, he had serious doubts about his character.

 

Realizing that Ezra had not been privy to Ryan Dallion's remarkable claim, Josiah shared Ryan's statement that the camera was a cursed object.

 

Ezra sadly nodded his agreement, adding, "That is not the only thing that is cursed."

 

Despite Josiah's gentle prodding for him to elaborate upon his statement, Ezra remained silent for the remainder of the journey home.

*****

 

Buck's teammates did not disturb him while he called around town and tried to find somewhere he could take his film to be developed.  Once he'd accomplished his task, Buck stated, "I'm heading to a local camera shop to drop off this film."  When both Chris and JD rose to follow, he added, "I don't need a babysitter."

 

Ignoring Buck's protest, Chris walked toward him, stating, "Nobody said you did."

 

Buck threw his hands up in defeat.  "Fine.  Suit yourself."

 

JD stepped back, satisfied that the Team Seven leader would be along to keep an eye on their formerly missing teammate. 

 

Chris waved a set of keys in front of his friend, stating, "I've got the keys to the rental car."

 

Buck was less hostile toward Chris after that revelation.  He wisely accepted his friend's offer of a ride.

 

Chris took advantage of the privacy of the rental car to question his long-time friend.  Inclining his head toward the object in Buck's hand, he asked, "What's on that film?"

 

Buck stared at the film so long before he spoke that Chris had resigned himself to the fact that he was not going to get an answer to his question.  Therefore, he was surprised when Buck finally said, "Nothing.  And maybe . . . Everything."

 

Chris continued, "That hotel where we found you . . . Is that the place?"

 

Buck knew exactly what Chris was asking: Is that where a distraught seventeen-year old Buck had found his mother's body after she'd been viciously attacked and murdered by an unknown assailant?  Buck knew that Chris wouldn't have asked if he wasn't already pretty sure of the answer.  He admitted the truth: "Yes."

 

Chris frowned.  "Maybe Dallion was right.  That camera is cursed, if it's got you revisiting that particular scene from your past."

 

Even though Buck doubted that Chris would believe him, he decided to share the particulars of the camera's unique vision.  "That camera, it doesn't take pictures of things as they are.  It shows things as they were."  Before Chris could share his disbelief, Buck continued, "If I'm right, this film may very well show me a picture of my mother's murderer."

 

Chris didn't bother to argue against the conviction in his friend's voice.  He sighed, and depressed the accelerator pedal a little bit further to coax more speed from the rental car.  The sooner Buck got that film developed, the sooner he could rid himself of the fantastic notion that that damn camera could see into the past.

*****

 

When they arrived at the camera shop, Buck combined his considerable powers of persuasion along with his ATF ID and a healthy outlay of cash to get the proprietress to develop his film within an hour.  He paced anxiously while Chris lounged against the counter.

 

The young lady emerged from the back of the store an hour later, pale and frowning.  She set the pictures down upon the counter, where Buck and Chris looked them over.  Buck's mother was displayed obscenely in front of the camera in the picture's foreground, her eyes sightless and staring, her face frozen in a mask of fear, her body a bloody mess of knife wounds.  In the background, clearly visible, was a man with a knife.

 

Buck slumped against the counter, faint with the sudden onset of memories. 

 

He remembered every detail of that day.  His mother had not woken him up in time for school that morning.  No matter where the evenings had taken her, Buck's mother never failed to be present for her son each and every morning.  The previous night, she'd been 'entertaining' johns at the usual place.  Buck hurried to the hotel a block from their apartment.  The desk clerk knew his mother well, and directed the young man to her room on the second floor.  Buck knocked and called out, "Mom!"  When she did not answer, he tried the door.  It was not locked.  Buck walked into the room, and what he found would live on forever in his nightmares.  Although the pictures were in black and white, Buck's mind's-eye easily supplied the colors.  There was blood everywhere.  The police had always suspected that one of his mother's 'clients' had murdered the part-time prostitute, but had never been able to identify the man responsible.

 

Buck's mind was catapulted back into the horrific past at the sight of the pictures.  He did not hear the owner's words as she spoke.

 

"I expect that you need a better picture of the man in the background.  I'll go in the back and work with the negatives to get you a better view of his face."  She shuddered.  "Whoever the bastard is, I hope he rots in hell."

 

Chris could not tear his eyes away from the photos.  He absently nodded to the proprietress.  "Yeah.  Thanks."

 

Buck had shared the police department's crime scene photos with him once, when he'd been explaining the circumstances surrounding his mother's murder.  Chris did not remember them as being anywhere near as repulsive as these photos were.  He forced himself to look away from the photos and toward Buck.  His friend's look of horror and fear turning gradually to anger helped Chris to act.  He grabbed the photos and turned them face down. 

 

Buck continued to stare at the countertop, not seeing present-day reality.  Chris wrapped his hands around Buck's arms and turned him away from the photos and toward him.  Buck's head pivoted to look at the photos instead.  Chris shook his friend.  "Buck!  Look at me!"

 

Buck did, finally.  He face crumpled and tears streamed down his face as he repeated, "Oh God, oh God, oh God!"  His breath came out in ragged sobs as Chris pulled his friend closer, until Buck wrapped his arms around his friend and squeezed him tight against his chest.  He cried out his sorrow while Chris hung on silently.  From his own personal experience with grief, Chris knew that anything he said would be ignored at this point.  All he could do was to hold on to his friend while he fell apart.  Afterward, he would help to put him back together again.

 

By the time the owner returned with the new photos, Buck had calmed down.  His soul felt raw with renewed grief and anger.  However, unlike twenty-three years ago, Buck could do something constructive with his anger.  He could find the man who'd murdered his mother.  Buck examined the new photos, thankful that his mother's image had been cropped out of them.  The man in the pictures was tall and dark-haired, and what some women might consider handsome.  If Buck had his way, the man could soon add the word 'dead' to his physical description.

 

Buck gathered up the photos and accepted the negatives from the owner.  He thanked her, and he and Chris took their leave.

 

Their next stop was the Las Vegas Police Department.  He and Chris used their ATF IDs to gain access to mug shot files from twenty-three years ago.  It took a while, but they finally found their man.  Buck excitedly approached the homicide detective, Jim Brass, who'd been assisting them. 

 

"This is the guy!"

 

Brass nodded.  "Okay.  Let's see if we can find out what our perp has been up to for the last twenty-three years."  He turned to his computer terminal and entered the man's name into the search engine.  In a surprisingly short amount of time, he had his answer.  "Well, the good news is he's saved us all a lot of time and trouble."  Buck and Chris read over Brass' shoulder as he continued, "He's dead.  In an MVA, twenty-two years ago."

 

Buck felt no relief at the news.  He'd been cheated of his revenge thanks to a simple motor vehicle accident.

 

When Buck showed no inclination to leave, Brass shut down his computer and stood up.  "So, we score one for the good guys.  By the looks of things, this guy would've kept on killing if he hadn't taken himself out of the game."  He offered his hand to both Buck and Chris, and they shook.  Brass bid them goodbye, with a parting word.  "If the LVPD ever needs help from the ATF, guess I know where to go to pull in a few favors."

 

Buck nodded absently in agreement.  "Yeah, uh, thanks."

 

After they returned to the rental car, Chris did not immediately start the engine.  He turned to his friend and held out his hand as he demanded, "Give me the pictures."

 

Buck looked up, startled.  "What?"

 

Chris' hand did not waver.  "You heard me.  Give me the pictures and the negatives, both."  When Buck hesitated, Chris continued, "I'm not gonna let you even think about giving in to the temptation to look at those things ever again.  Once was bad enough."

 

Buck could find no reason to disagree with his friend.  He handed over both items, commenting, "Ryan was right.  That goddamn camera is cursed."

*****

 

Buck had no desire to linger in Las Vegas after his visit with the LVPD.  He and his friends boarded the next plane to Denver.

 

Although Team Seven was reunited, it would be a long time before Buck and Ezra would be able to shake off the effects of the extraordinary camera.

*****

 

Ezra's emotional recovery received a much-needed boost when his mother paid him a visit a week after he had returned to Colorado.

 

As per her usual modus operandi, she showed up on his doorstep unannounced.

 

It was Sunday afternoon, and Ezra was not expecting any visitors.  His eyes widened when he saw his mother through the door's peephole.

 

He cautiously opened the door, pleasantly surprised by Maude's enthusiastic greeting.  She hugged her son to her bosom, and declared, "Ezra, my dear, you look like hell."

 

Ezra returned her hug, pleased at the sheer normalcy of his mother's greeting.  He was not surprised that she noticed the ravages wrought upon him by many a sleepless and hagridden night.

 

He in turn was pleased to see no evidence of distress of any kind visible when he looked at his mother.  He replied, "And you look lovely as ever."

 

Maude nodded.  "Thank you, dear," as Ezra escorted her to the nearby loveseat. 

 

He seated himself in a chair at a right angle to her own.  Ezra truthfully began, "This is an unexpected pleasure."

 

Maude smiled tentatively.  "It took me this long to figure out what I could possibly say to you.  I rehearsed my speech on the way here, but the words seem to have flown completely out of my head."

 

Ezra stated, "I thank you for giving me the opportunity to beg for your forgiveness.  I truly don't know what possessed me to behave the way I did.  I am more sorry than words can say."

 

Maude held out her hand.  "Apology accepted."

 

Ezra clasped her hands within his own.  "Thank you."  He let her go, then began to wring his own hands together in agitation.  "I didn't understand why you never told me about my father.  Now that I know, I wish that I could assure you that I am nothing like him.  However, my actions seem to indicate otherwise."  His eyes lowered to the floor.  He could not bear to see her response to his words.  He remembered his mother as he'd seen her pictured: young, battered, and defenseless.  The fact that he forced her to relive that scene was a blot upon his soul.  He did not understand how she could so easily dismiss his actions.  Nevertheless, it seemed that she did.

 

Maude leaned toward her son and patted a comforting hand against his shoulder as she attempted to reassure him.  "You're a good man, Ezra.  Don't let anyone tell you otherwise."  She added, "Especially not Ezra Standish."

 

Ezra was not ready to forgive himself.  How could his mother excuse what he'd done?  He begged, "Please forgive me, Mother.  I cannot begin to tell you how sorry I am."  He continued, his voice heavy with sorrow and regret. "It seems that the apple does not fall far from the tree.  Mother, I know what happened.  I know how I came to be conceived."

 

Maude shook her head.  "I don't think that you do, not really.  You couldn't, unless you were there.  The way you've been acting, I suspect that you may have heard rumors.  Well, they are true, at least partially so."

 

Maude nervously began to pace.  "Oh, where do I begin?  What you did to me, that day, brought back memories of myself that I prefer to forget.

 

"This is not the sort of sex talk that a mother usually has with her child.  In my younger days, I was quite adventurous, sexually speaking.  I took it into my head to explore all, and I mean all, aspects of my sexuality.  In order to do so, I asked certain things of the men . . ."  She paused to clarify, "Yes, I mean 'men' in the plural sense, of the men that I slept with.  Your father helped me to act out a certain fantasy.  He got a bit carried away in the process."

 

Maude stopped her pacing to sit beside her son.  "But I swear to you, Ezra, I don't regret the result, which is you, my dearest son.  Whatever you've been thinking, you stop right now!"

 

Ezra had forgotten the fact that his mother had not seen the photographs that he'd taken.  In light of what he'd seen, Ezra did not suspect that his mother was nearly as much a willing participant in his conception as she made out in her confession.  Nevertheless, for his own peace of mind, Ezra was content to accept most of she'd said as the truth.  A faint smile showed as he responded to his mother's confession.  "As you suspected, my detective skills led me to form certain assumptions as to the circumstances surrounding my conception.  It proved to be disadvantageous to both of us that I did not share my suppositions.  I thank you for your honesty, and regret that I was not equally forthcoming."

 

He sighed, and continued, "If I had been, perhaps all of this," he waved a hand over his shoulder, toward the past, "could have been avoided."

 

Maude nodded.  "You forgot that the past is meant to be forgotten.  We have now, and the future to look forward to."  She placed her hand over Ezra's as she declared, "Remember that, and forget the past."

 

Ezra smiled in response, all the while knowing that he could not dismiss the past so easily.  It was a part of him and how he came to be.  The specter of his unknown sire could not be forgotten.  He would have to do his best to live beyond the image.  He only hoped that his best would be good enough.

*****

~end