Angels in Waiting
The frigid air whipped through the semi-open parking garage sending miniature cyclones of sand and brittle, brown leaves crashing against the cement pillars and the shiny paint jobs of its inhabitants. The unseasonably cold weather of the early October day had sent the people of Denver huddling down into their fall clothing as they scurried to their destinations.
Ezra Standish, undercover agent of Denver’s ATF Team Seven, left the secure warmth of the elevator as it deposited him on the fourth floor of the Federal Building’s garage. He ventured out into the mock storm and cursed the damage this would do to the exterior of his black Jaguar Vanden Plas. Not allowing himself to dwell on this thought, he quickly hit the unlock button on his key chain remote and slid into the driver’s seat. He set his briefcase on the other seat and threw Shostakovich’s Symphony Number 13 into the CD player.
Ezra relaxed into the leather seat as he negotiated the garage’s maze to the exit and out into the rush hour traffic. He’d been working undercover on the Landry case for the last two weeks and after spending all day debriefing and writing case summaries, he could finally enjoy some down time. The agent had been looking forward to this moment all day. Letting the music of Babi Yar wash over him, his thoughts drifted to his volunteer work at Denver’s Children’s Hospital.
On a whim, he had answered a classified ad in the Denver Post. The hospital was looking for people willing to donate their time to keep children company when their parents were not able to be with them. Ezra had always found children a pleasure to be with and entertain, and the little ones seemed equally drawn to him as well.
He’d been going to the hospital for almost a year, now and found it a great way to unwind from his regular duties as a federal agent. Most times he would sit with a child while the parents took a break for dinner or ran home for a while and even some left for the evening to go to work. The first few weeks he had spent time on the regular patient floors where he normally played games and read books to a rapt audience. All the children were mesmerized by his card tricks and he would quite often end up with several patients and even some of the nurses attentively watching him work his magic. Ezra had also become quite adept at playing Cootie and Candyland. He could hear his colleagues taunting him in his head. It would be unbearable if they ever found out about his recently acquired skills.
The sleek sedan slowly headed north on 6th Avenue with the rest of the city’s working population. The cold exhaust from the idling vehicles created a white fog in the faded fall sunshine. It almost appeared as if they were floating on clouds between stoplights
The Volunteer Coordinator had been assigning him to the ICU Ward for the last few months. The severity of the illnesses these tiny bodies endured was extremely difficult to adjust to. Instead of games and trickery, these children craved to be read to, held, or just caressed. Many times they couldn’t feel or hear him, but deep down he knew his presence was known.
Roberto Rodriguez was a dark haired child with large russet eyes. The eight month old had been in and out of the hospital since birth. Born to a heroin addict, his health suffered from the very beginning. The small boy was often admitted for infections and diseases that other children would easily recover from, but for Roberto, it usually turned into something more serious.
Ezra had been Roberto’s volunteer companion for as long as he had been going to the ICU floor, which was shortly after Roberto was admitted to the hospital for the first time. He was, by far, the green-eyed man’s favorite young charge. Often agitated and restless from fever and pain, he would settle right down when Ezra had held and rocked him. Just as relaxing for the older man, he anticipated these rocking sessions almost as much as his patient did. They had gotten to know each other very well during their time together and Ezra wasn’t surprised to find out that Roberto, too, loved the music of Shostakovich.
The Jag pulled into the garage on 20th Avenue and made the spiral climb up the tightly compact and over crowded parking area. Standish quickly made his way to the glassed-in walkway over the street and through the clinic into the main hospital building.
The large high-ceilinged lobby of the hospital was different than most. As Ezra came out of the connecting hallway from the outpatient clinic, he noticed several children pitching coins into the wishing pond, which was dutifully guarded by a stoic cement frog with a trumpet, sitting in the center of a lily pad. It was almost certain that this pond was filled with wishes of wellness, and not fame and fortune.
Ezra passed the fifteen-foot fish tank dividing the sitting area from the rest of the high-trafficked lobby and veered off to the Starbucks coffee cart in the corner of the room. Turning around as he waited in the short line for his jolt of energy, he saw the massive plaster giraffe mechanically moving its neck and head up and down practically nibbling on the heads of the receptionists at the circular desk below it. His mind wandered back to his little charge.
Ezra was very eager to see Roberto. Their last rocking chair session was not nearly as calming as usual. The fifth floor ICU was full to capacity with imbecilic adolescents on their way to recovery.
The fourteen youths had made national news after each downing a handful of pills stolen from one of the girls’ neighbors. It had been a mail order prescription left on the front porch by the delivery service. Within three hours there were OD’d teens unconscious everywhere at the high school’s homecoming dance.
Ezra and Roberto had been privy to their celebrity status having made ABC and CNN news coverage. The kids and their families had passed the incident off as ‘curious teenagers experimenting with drugs’ when interviewed by the local authorities and the FBI. It was very disheartening to everyone else on the floor to see no remorse or no intent of discipline.
Ezra had been furious. Not only were these misguided teens and their visitors disturbing truly ill patients, but they had taken away beds from children who had no choice in their sicknesses. Roberto had been extremely restless that night and Ezra had tried everything to comfort the little boy. Finally, the child collapsed from pure exhaustion in to a fitful sleep. The auburn-haired man had been exceedingly worried, but unfortunately he could do nothing, as he was placed undercover the next day.
The Volunteer Coordinator had left a message two days ago that he would be needed to sit with Roberto tonight and Ezra was anxious to find out how the child had faired over the last two weeks.
Jabbing the elevator button, he tried to prepare himself for the suffering he would witness in the next few minutes. He had seen many dreadful sights in his career, at first with the FBI and then with the ATF, but nothing prepared him for the plight of the children on the fifth floor. With a heavy sigh, Ezra entered the elevator and pushed to the back to make room for an empty gurney and two orderlies.
Once at the nurse’s station, he had a view of the entire floor and he scanned the beds immediately to his right. The third bed down was empty. He turned to ask where Roberto had been moved to, hoping that he was up on a regular floor and the familiar face of Kate Sullivan, one of the unit’s RN’s.
“Mrs. Sullivan,” Ezra greeted. “How are you this evening? I am looking for Roberto Rodriguez. Has he been moved?”
The middle aged, blonde frowned and avoided Ezra’s gaze. She drew in a courageous breath and replied, “No one told you about Roberto?”
A blazing fireball descended from Ezra’s heart into his stomach creating an instant sick feeling. His heart began to double beat when he noticed the blanched look of the normally exuberant nurse. He searched her face, hoping he’d made a mistake in reading her features.
“What about Roberto?” Ezra barely whispered.
Kate sighed and looked at her feet. “He passed away early this morning. There were complications due to the pneumonia and he wasn’t strong enough to fight anymore. Dr. Clemens tried every antibiotic, but his lungs collapsed and he stopped breathing before he could be intubated.”
Ezra heard nothing the woman had said after her first sentence. He could feel his whole body throb with his heart beat and it became difficult to breath with the tightness in his chest.
This wasn’t happening. He had heard wrong. When he saw Roberto before the case, though agitated, he was almost well enough to return home to his foster mother. How could this have happened? Death wasn’t supposed to claim ones so small and helpless.
All of a sudden the lights were too bright and the area too cold and sterile. Ezra realized the nurse was asking him a question.
“Pardon?” Ezra tried to tune into the here and now.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Standish. I know you were very close to Roberto.” She paused not knowing what else to say to this man who was not the stereotypical volunteer. She often wondered about this man in his expensive suits who looked more at ease with children than adults. She questioned if he was trying to redeem himself in some way because of something in his past.
The floor tilted and Ezra knew that he needed to escape this nightmare. As numbness of mind and body set in, the southerner forced himself to face the woman in front of him.
“Thank you for informing me of Roberto’s…” He clenched his jaw and added, “Thank you. Good night.”
Ezra turned and practically ran down the hall avoiding the elevators. He didn’t remember the journey out of the hospital. When his mind began to register reality and the painful loss, he was miles outside the city, more than halfway to Cheyenne.
‘Where was he going?’ He pulled the Jag into the next rest area and turned back toward Denver.
Fresh air forced it’s way into the smoke-filled establishment along with its most recent customer. The frosty night air was a welcome respite for those patrons adhered to the stools at the bar across from the heavy oak door. The man, making his way on the cusp of the winter breeze, removed his scarf, cashmere overcoat and gloves as he hesitantly plunged into the thick smog of the interior. The heavyset bartender noted the sullen appearance of the man as he continued past the bar. The slumped shoulders, bowed head and down cast eyes were clear indications of his mood in the opaque room.
“Hey, Ez! Over here!”
Ezra paused in his movement towards the back table as if to reconsider his attendance amongst his co-workers. ‘No’, he thought, ‘his friends. That’s why I’m here. Isn’t it?’ With a suppressed sigh and a forced smile, he continued toward the enthusiastic voice that was yelling his name.
“Mr. Dunne, Gentlemen,” he finally replied with a nod.
“Hiya, Ez. Didn’t think you were coming.” Vin Tanner sipped from his beer, placed it on the pockmarked table and kicked out a chair towards the morose undercover agent.
Ezra folded his things over the back of the chair and sat down heavily. “Yes, well, it seems my services weren’t necessary this evening.” He rubbed his closed eyes with thumb and forefinger wondering if this had been a mistake. He really wasn’t up to conversation, but the thought of a couple of tumblers of scotch to wash away his thoughts and warm the numbness was almost irresistible. Raising his head, he realized the waitress was poised in front of him, tray in hand and a raised eyebrow. Assuming she’d already requested his order, he obliged her with a call for the much needed drink.
“Did they run out of kids for ya?” asked Buck.
“Now that would be a day to give our thanks to the Almighty.” Josiah presented a wide grin to the others.
A ghost of a smile on his face, Ezra thought, ‘yes, that would be a day, indeed’. He actually voiced, “Fate, or any other power, would not have it that way.” Lowering his head to hide his too moist eyes, “Roberto passed away this morning and……. I couldn’t……”
Rescuing his best undercover man, Chris Larabee picked up where his agent left off. “You just needed some time.” He paused and added, “That’s understandable.”
“Wow, that’s awful, Ez. I thought you said things were looking up for him.” JD fidgeted uncomfortably in his chair.
Green eyes scanned the smoky room. “I thought so too, but such positive hopes should never be voiced for fear that they will not stay true. Until now, I’ve never understood the staff’s hesitancy for optimism in some of these children’s treatments.”
“Don’t know how you do it. Must be the saddest thing to see those kids in pain. It’s hard enough takin’ care of adults and watching them suffer, never mind the little ones.” Shaking his head, Nathan circled his glass in the condensation puddling before him on the dark table.
Ezra frowned. “I once said the same thing to one of the parents of a child in the ward. She told me that she didn’t have a choice, and neither would I, if it were my child. She had said that there never was, and never would be, a choice. It was her child, and anything, and everything that baby needed, she would give up her last breath to provide. It wasn’t a choice; it was a fulfillment, a future; it was love. Yes, sometimes, it is very sad, but not for me…. for them.”
Ezra’s face reddened as he realized the diatribe he had given his fellow agents. His emotions were too raw to try to hide them. Seizing the glass that the waitress had just deposited in front of him, he ingested a healthy swallow and hid his eyes from the expressions around the table. His thoughts kept returning to Roberto. The child hadn’t even known a real home for more than a few days at a time. His foster mother tried her best to care for him, but his complex medical needs were often too great and he would end up hospitalized, yet again.
Buck cleared his throat. “What a shame. Such a waste when something like this happens.” Wilmington looked away when he realized what a lame attempt he had made at comforting his friend.
‘A shame.’ Ezra thought. ‘Yes. A waste, certainly. Buck was right. It was all very shameful. Shame on everyone for not preventing such catastrophes. Where the hell were the parents?’ Ezra thought back to the last few months of visits to the ICU. Where was the parent of the child that had been attacked by the family’s pet pit bull terrier and had to be med-flighted to the Trauma Center of the hospital? Just what were the parents of the teenager in a coma thinking when they told him it was ok to smoke? He had asthma, for Christ’s sake, and was playing basketball with some friends when he collapsed. More stupidity insured he went twenty minutes without oxygen. Sadly, no one there even knew how to perform CPR. Another child that did not make it off of the 5th floor.
The 5th floor. A person may as well call it the floor of no return; at least not the same way that you went in. That was how it was for everyone who entered, not just the patients. The staff, volunteers, parents, friends and other family never left unchanged. Whether self-inflicted, negligence or a fate of just plain unfairness, these children relied on all of them to get through their ordeal.
‘Ezra, get a hold of yourself’, he thought. ‘This line of thinking will get you nowhere. You knew this would happen if you started to care about them’, he admonished himself. Why was this situation affecting him like this? He faced killers and thieves for a living. How could one small boy make him so emotional? This couldn’t possibly be worth the hurt he was feeling. He would think twice before returning to the hospital.
Ezra exhaled long and hard and quietly stated, “They depend on us. All of us, and we let them down every day.” They had all failed Roberto, especially him. He wasn’t there when he was needed the most.
Chris sympathized with the downtrodden man. He reflected on his own experience in the ICU at Children’s Hospital and how he had failed Adam. ‘No’, he told himself, ‘he would not go there, not tonight.’ Instead he said, “We all do the best we can, Ezra. As parents, as doctors and nurses, as friends and family, even as volunteers, we all try to do the right thing. Without us, they would have nothing. It isn’t perfect, but it’s the only way we know how. Most parents try their hardest to give the best to their children. It just doesn’t always work out the way they want it to. Some things are just out of our control.”
Buck studied Chris’ features for any hint of self-recrimination. When he was assured it was only minimal, he contributed his own opinion. “Yeah, I’d like to think that because of us, there’s one less kid with a hole in ‘im cause of a gun. One less orphan because of a drunk driver. I have to believe that what we’re doing makes a difference or else I couldn’t go into the office everyday. It would be hard just getting out of bed in the morning.” The ladies man surprised himself, never realizing he felt this strongly about his job and how it affected the little ones. Not a bad feeling, really, he thought.
“Doctors and nurses don’t know everything; no one does. They’ll be the first to tell you that. They’re just like everyone else. Just trying to help those that need it. If it weren’t for them, though, these kids, or anyone for that matter, wouldn’t have any chance at all.” Nathan’s own convictions were apparent in the steady gaze he gave the others. “First do no harm. It’s easier said than done, unfortunately.”
Josiah caught Ezra’s emerald-eyed stare. “We have to have faith. Faith in our family, friends, doctors and even our government, but most of all in ourselves. We all have our own destiny. I believe that destiny is guided by a higher power; that help is there when I need it and I will be led towards the right decisions in my life.” The large man paused for effect. “I read once, that scientists studying the South Pole discovered that the earth moves more slowly at the edges. It’s true. Those on the edge must slow down and re-evaluate their destiny, their faith.”
“Ok, Josiah, you’re shut off. You’re getting’ a might strange on us here,” Vin chuckled, lightening the mood. “I know it’s a sad thing, Ez, but the little feller was better fer knowing y’all. And it’s all he did know. Like they say, ignorance is bliss.”
“Ok, now who’s shoveling out the philosophical B.S.?” JD kicked Vin under the table.
“I appreciate what you gentleman are trying to accomplish with your kind words of wisdom. But I think it’s best that I retire for the evening. Good night all.”
The six friends watched as Ezra stood, donned his winter apparel and saluted them goodbye. He pushed his way through the crowd and smog and out into the cold again.
Ezra hesitated on the steps leading up to the rundown, but neat, little ranch house. He raised his hand to knock on the wooden storm door. ‘What was he doing here?’ He asked himself. He shouldn’t be here. This would not help him move beyond this turmoil. The man shivered and at the last minute, turned and rushed back down the steps to the cracked sidewalk leading to his car.
“Mr. Standish?” The woman had turned on the porch light against the darkness and held the door open. “May I help you?”
“Ms. Logan.” The frozen agent paused. “I…” He stammered out.
“You must be chilled to the bone out there; come in,” she invited.
Ezra followed the petite, thirtyish woman through the enclosed porch and into the warm, fragrant kitchen.
“I take it you heard about Roberto?” She asked with a slight waiver to her voice. She looked away trying to gain the strength to continue the conversation. “I know he wasn’t with me for very long, but I miss him so much.”
Again, her composure threatened to shatter. “I wish I could have spent more time in the hospital with him. It tore at my heart to leave him there alone, but I foster three other children. It was a comfort, though, to know that he had you and his nurses to make his pain bearable.” She looked at Ezra hoping to see an understanding of her self-imposed guilt.
After an uneasy silence, Margaret Logan gestured to the well-worn Formica table. “Please, sit. The coffee just finished brewing and the cookies are fresh from the oven. I always bake when I’m stressed or upset. Let me take your coat. Listen to me.” She chastised herself. “I’m rattling on and I don’t even know what brought you here.”
Ezra slipped out of his coat and woolens for the third time that evening. He offered a flat smile and finally spoke. “I’m sorry for the intrusion. I don’t know exactly why I’m here.”
The foster mom hung Ezra’s things on a peg by the door and proceeded to retrieve the coffee and cookies along with cups and napkins. She paused in her efforts to study the distressed looking man before her. “You cared about him and now he’s gone. He wasn’t even yours, but he’s left a gaping hole inside of you.”
She looked up from pouring the hot liquid and realized the words she had spoken were her own feelings. “I apologize; I didn’t let you finish and now I’m putting words in your mouth.” The red head blushed to compliment her hair.
Sipping at the fresh, strong brew, Ezra ventured, “He was so beautiful when he smiled. It was a miracle that he was such a complacent child with the suffering he had to endure.” After further contemplation, he continued, “The face of an angel, really.”
“Like that song,” Margaret said. “Angels in waiting. Waiting for wings, to fly from this world, away from their pain.”
The dam broke and tears spilled down her cheeks. Shoulders shook with grief and her hands went to her face to hide the sorrow.
In empathy, Ezra reached to comfort the woman seated next to him with an embrace. He squeezed his eyes shut, but his own tears escaped him. The two stayed that way, reassured that each of them was not alone in their heartache. Calmed by the mutual anguish over a small cherubic child.
Margaret’s sobbing subsided and she delicately pulled away from Ezra. Wiping at her eyes, she was about to make an apology for her emotional outburst in front of this virtual stranger, when a rattling cough was heard from the next room.
“Excuse me, please, Mr. Standish.” She quickly exited the room.
The undercover man remained seated trying to regain control of his own emotions. He thought about racing from the house and this embarrassing visit, but something wouldn’t let him. He barely knew this woman, but felt surprisingly drawn to her because of her connection with Roberto. More loud coughs interrupted his thoughts.
Ms. Logan entered the room pushing a wheelchair containing a pig-tailed child of about ten. In between coughs, huge smiles appeared on the little face. The girl, with rigid limbs and drooling mouth, wore a bright red flowered dress, a matching neckerchief, and hair ribbons to complete her ensemble.
“Mr. Standish, I’d like you to meet Jessica.” Margaret introduced.
Ezra bent down eye to eye with the little girl. “Hello, Miss Jessica. You may call me Ezra. Only my dearest friends are allowed to use my given name.” His words were greeted with a big toothy grin and twinkling eyes. The man smiled back finding the child’s disposition immediately contagious.
“How long have you lived with Ms. Logan?” Asked Ezra knowing that a response was not possible.
Margaret gave a short laugh. “Oh, this one is my own. The other three children I care for are at a soccer game tonight with a friend of mine.”
“Do all of the children have special needs?” He asked unbelievingly.
Pushing Jessica up to the table, she replied, “Yes. As a single mom of a child that needs round the clock care, it was the only way that I could earn a living and stay home to take care of her. I have first hand experience caring for children with disabilities and, I’m sorry to say, very few people will consider taking these children into their homes.” She eyed Ezra closely and noticed the sympathetic, yet admiring expression.
“Don’t look at me like I’m some kind of superwoman. I’m far from it. The job isn’t hard, really, just different. They have different needs, different levels of accomplishment, but the love they give and receive is the same. It would be nice if they were miraculously cured, but I wouldn’t trade who they are for the world.” Margaret carefully dabbed at Jessica’s face with the bandana tied loosely around the child’s neck.
Ezra stood, still smiling at the happy waif seated in front of him. “I would love to stay and visit longer, Miss Jessica, but I have an unrelenting, slave-driving boss who will hang me by my toes from the nearest tree if I am late for work tomorrow. And it is getting rather late. It was a pleasure to meet you and I hope we shall meet again soon.” He shook the child’s unresponsive hand and laughed when she squealed her delight at his attention.
Margaret Logan moved to retrieve her visitor’s coat and smiled her gratitude at the man still entertaining her daughter. “I’m really glad that you decided to come by. Roberto was a special child and has touched a lot of lives for the better. I hope you’ll come see us again when you can stay longer. You can meet the rest of our clan.” She smirked knowingly at Jessica.
Ezra buttoned his coat and wrapped his scarf tightly against the impending night air. “I just may take you up on that offer. Good night ladies and thank you for a delightful time.” With a short bow and a tip of an imaginary hat, Ezra turned and left, closing the door behind him.
The older red head looked at her daughter and giggled. “Do you think we scared him off?”
(Two Weeks Later)
“Buck! I want your report before you head out. And that goes for the rest of you, too. No one’s leaving early for the long weekend until they’re on my desk.” Larabee fairly bellowed at his men. He’d already caught Buck trying to sneak out at lunch. They were like a bunch of kindergarteners that needed constant supervision. He turned to the approaching undercover man. “Ezra, that means you, too.” He added.
Whipping a tidy stack of papers from behind his back, Ezra waved them at the ATF Team Leader until they were grabbed from his hand. “Completed and accounted for, Mon Capitan,” he spouted sarcastically. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I shall take my leave from this serfdom.”
Vin looked up at the two men across the room. “Hey, Ez, what’s the rush. Aren’t you meeting us at Inez’ later?”
“I’m sorry Mister Tanner, I have made other arrangements for this evening. Maybe another time.” The sharply dressed man returned to his desk to reclaim his coat and briefcase before heading for the elevator.
“Not so fast, Ez.” Buck grinned and blocked the southerner’s escape. “What’s so great that you’d miss out on our usual Friday night shindig at the Saloon? Huh? It wouldn’t be a lady, now, would it?”
JD jumped up brandishing Buck with an irritated look. “Come on Buck, leave Ez alone. It’s none of our business why he’d do something else rather than spend time with his friends.” He grinned mischievously at the impatient man in front of Buck. “Besides, we’re talking about Ezra, here. It can’t be a lady. He doesn’t know any. When’s the last time he was out on a date? Huh?”
JD ducked the woolen glove that was torpedoed at him by the green-eyed man. Ezra pierced him with an indignant glare. “It just so happens that it is a member of the fairer sex with whom I have plans.”
Nathan looked up stunned. “No kidding. There’s hope for you yet.” He chuckled and dodged the second glove.
“Come on, Ez. Details. Details. We need to know the details. What’s she like? Blonde? Sexy long legs? Oh, no, wait, we’re talking about you. Ummm. Is she rich? Smart and snobby?” Buck was jumping side to side as if he was a goalkeeper at the elevator.
Exasperated, Ezra set down his briefcase and turned to the rest of his co-workers. “I’ll have you know that she is beautiful with very long legs and cascading red hair. A woman that enjoys a well told joke and, I might add, dresses impeccably. But most of all, she has nicest set of wheels I have ever seen.
Josiah perked up and asked. “Does this perfect woman have a name?”
Ezra dashed past Buck through the open doors of the elevator. As the doors began to close, he winked and replied, “Her name is Jessica.”