* * *
With thanks and apologies to Walter Mirisch, John Watson, Trilogy Productions, CBS, Maria Mogavero, and Jimmy Buffett, and proceeding under the assumption that forgiveness is easier to ask than permission...
I'm breaking one of my own long-standing rules and posting this without any beta-reader having set eyes upon it. As they say, rules are made to be broken ... and this is for Amy Stahling, whose insight into Ezra and overall guidance have made my stories immeasurably better than anything I might have done flying solo. It simply didn't seem right to have her beta her own gift. ;-)
This story takes place after my tales "A Mile High in Denver" and "Island of Bones."
The lyrics of "Love and Luck" are a loose translation by Jimmy Buffett of the Zouk (Antibes/Caribbean native music) song "Kole Sere" by J. Beroard and J.C. Naimro. "Kole sere" is Caribbean Creole for "love and luck." "Gris gris" is a voodoo charm, usually a small bag containing several odd items chosen with the individual and the purpose in mind, and normally intended to bring good luck.
* * *
* * *
Everybody needs a little good luck charm
A little gris gris keeps you safe from harm
Rub yours on me and I'll rub mine on you
Luckiest couple on the avenue
LOVE AND LUCK -- Jimmy Buffett, J. Beroard, J.C. Naimro
* * *
Ezra Standish stood in the door of his office and paused for a moment, scanning the stark and unlit space with a critical eye. The walls were bare, and the desk nearly so. If not for the paperwork stacked tidily in wire baskets, the file folders that stood like soldiers in the black steel vertical file, and the silver picture frame and potted cactus which sat side by side next to the computer terminal, a casual visitor might have thought that the office was vacant and unused.
Ezra smiled, a smile that was genuine and touched his eyes, warming them from their usual pale cold green to the color of the warm Caribbean sea. Hands full, he used his elbow to flick on the overhead lights and stepped inside, carefully setting down his go-cup of cappuccino, his briefcase, and a large paper shopping bag on the desk blotter before he stepped behind the desk and settled into his chair. He reached for the cappuccino and popped the top to allow it to cool, then reached into the shopping bag. After a moment of rummaging, he fished out two objects wrapped in old issues of the "Island News." Names were printed in marker on the newsprint.
He unwrapped the smaller one, labeled "To Ezra from JD," first. It was a thick lucite coaster with a cork inset; embedded in the resin were garishly colored seashells of all kinds, and around the border in bright rainbow colors were the words "Souvenir of Key West." The larger item simply had the letter "B" scrawled on it. Ezra pulled the crumpled paper apart to reveal a ceramic coffee mug emblazoned with brightly colored images of palm trees, cheeseburgers, margarita glasses, and the legend "Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville -- Key West, New Orleans, Charleston." Ezra smiled again. He lifted the paper Starbucks cup and poured the fragrant drink into the mug, took a sip, then placed the mug on the coaster and contemplated the set.
It had been a long drive from Miami, where they'd picked up the rented van at the airport, to Key West, where the Titusville Diving and Salvage bust was to take place. Buck had insisted on playing Jimmy Buffett CDs all the way down A1A, a four hour trip. Chris and Nathan had assumed long-suffering looks and JD had complained constantly, but Vin and Josiah had smiled and even sung along, and Ezra had found himself unexpectedly enjoying the music too.
* * *
Seven days before:
The flight from Miami had been long, and the turbulence had unsettled most of the passengers. Even the crew looked relieved when the plane began its descent into Denver International Airport. Ezra hadn't been bothered, except to register some slight disappointment when it became clear that the plane would actually land safely. He'd moved like a ghost through the atmosphere of high spirits surrounding the Friday night travelers who filled the gateways and main terminal. Silently he collected his luggage and caught a cab, speaking only when it was necessary to give the driver directions.
The condo had been dark and silent, as always, and Ezra kept it that way throughout the weekend. He moved about in the shadows, leaving the shades down even during the day, never switching on the television or the stereo and only rarely using the lights. When he finally unpacked, he'd left the suitcase open on the large chair in the bedroom even after it was empty. He'd spent the weekend sitting in his living room, drinking whiskey, contemplating the untouched Bekins boxes that lined the bare walls, and reflecting gratefully on the prescience that had left them unopened. There would be little effort involved in returning his few possessions to Atlanta. Or moving them on to wherever the future might take him.
On Sunday night the doorbell rang, and Ezra flinched. He had known this would happen, had known there was no way to avoid it, and yet had come up with no plan to deal with it other than trying to ignore the bell.
He was unable, however, to ignore the voices.
"Ezra, we know you're home ... your car's in the garage."
How could Buck know that? The garage door was down.
"Yeah, Ezra!" JD's voice. "We can see it through the window. Come on ... we just wanna talk to ya!"
Ezra sighed, assumed his best poker face, and answered the door. Buck and JD stood on the porch, dressed in jeans and souvenir Florida t-shirts. Buck, a spectacular black eye still shadowing his face, carried a twelve-pack of Corona, and JD held a paper shopping bag with twine handles and "Shop Key West" printed on the side. The boy's grin faded and Buck's eyes narrowed when they saw Ezra's unshaven face and reddened eyes and wrinkled clothing, but Ezra offered neither apology nor explanation.
"What do you want?" he said bluntly, although he already knew.
Buck recovered first, visibly mustering his usual jovial character. "Hey there, Ezra! We got home this afternoon and thought we'd come on over, see how you were doin'."
JD nodded vigorously. "Yeah. You left without even sayin' goodbye." The hurt in the boy's eyes was evident. "We were worried about you, so we brought you some stuff to cheer you up!" He winced as Buck kicked his ankle, and held up the bag.
"I don't need any 'stuff' to 'cheer me up'," snapped Ezra. The young agent's face fell, and Ezra masked his regret with more surliness. "I'm not in the mood for company. Good night."
And he slammed the door.
* * *
The cappuccino was still steaming, and Ezra blew on it slightly before he took another sip and replaced the mug on the coaster. He reached into the bag and fished around again, withdrawing two long, narrow packages wrapped in brown paper and two small blocks of wood, each painted black and with a small hole in the center of the top. He placed the items on the blotter, picked up the package with the name "Nathan" neatly printed on it, gently worked free the tape that sealed the wrapping, and unrolled it.
Inside was a small black flag with a skull and crossbones on it -- a Jolly Roger. Ezra knew his history. Privateers had sailed under two flags; the banner of whatever nation issued their letters of marque and, beneath it, a red flag which demanded surrender or no quarter. When the red flag was eventually forsaken for a black one sporting a skull and crossbones, the *joli rouge* was translated to the Jolly Roger in honor of Old Roger, the British term for the Devil or a vagabond rogue with no visible means of support. Ezra chuckled at Nathan's choice.
The second bundle, bearing the inscription "To Ezra, from your friend Josiah," contained another flag. This one was dark blue with a pink conch shell centered in a sunburst. In the upper right hand corner were five small stars representing the Southern Cross, and across the bottom the motto, "We seceded where others failed." The flag of the Conch Republic, raised over the Florida Keys upon their defiant secession from the United States on April 23rd, 1982. Another banner befitting a rogue and a rebel.
Smiling again, Ezra inserted the masts of both flags in their wooden bases and placed the standards on top of his computer terminal.
* * *
Five days before:
Things had been tense for Ezra Standish following the return of Larabee and the rest of the team. Everyone except Chris had been determinedly cheerful, Buck and JD effusively so, and Ezra had responded by being even more standoffish than usual. He avoided invitations to lunch and drinks after work, and had endeavored to spend most of his time in his office with the door closed, ostensibly working on the Titusville Diving and Salvage report. In truth, he *had* been working on the report ... between bouts of anger, depression, apathy, and resignation. Ezra had finally brought the damned thing home, hoping that the solitude of his condo would allow him to focus on chronicling the events of the operation, and not anguish over their inevitable consequences.
He'd taken a break and gone to the kitchen to freshen his drink when he heard the knock on the door. Ezra tensed. No one ever "just stopped by" his condo; no one ever "just dropped in." He'd made a point of discouraging such things; on the infrequent occasions that he'd succumbed to socializing with his coworkers, he'd joined them at the small bar down the street from the ATF offices or, even less frequently, gone to one of their homes. His own residence had remained sacrosanct, and he liked it that way. At least, he told himself so.
A second knock on the door. Ezra suspected another well-intentioned but unwelcome attempt to reassure him that all was well, in spite of the disaster that the TDS operation had become. He knew the truth, and increasingly resented his coworkers' attempts to delude him into believing otherwise.
Irritated, he abandoned his glass on the counter top next to the refrigerator and stalked to the foyer, drew back the deadbolt and opened the door. Nathan Jackson and Josiah Sanchez stood there with beer, broad smiles, and what appeared to be the same shopping bag that Buck and JD had brought along on their visit. Ezra scowled, and decided not to mince words.
"Gentlemen, I am not interested in entertaining company this evening." He tried to shut the door, but Josiah put his foot on the threshold and prevented it. He peered over Ezra's shoulder into the condo, spied the boxes there, frowned, and turned worried eyes on the young man standing in the doorway.
"You packin', or just never unpacked?" asked Josiah.
"Yes," answered Ezra shortly.
Josiah reached out to put a big hand on Ezra's shoulder, but the southerner stepped back. "Brother Ezra--" he began, but Standish cut him off.
"My mother has misled me about many things, Mr. Sanchez," he said curtly, "but I'm sure that she would have mentioned any blood relationship between the two of us. If only to express her regrets."
Josiah sighed and tried again. "Ezra--"
"Gentlemen, my report on the TDS venture is overdue. I'm expecting Mr. Larabee and a hired assassin at any moment. If you linger on my doorstep, I can't be responsible for what happens to you."
Nathan, standing hipshot to ease his wounded leg, rolled his eyes. "We ain't here to listen to you feelin' sorry for yourself, Ezra," he said.
"Good, because I wasn't looking for an audience," Ezra shot back. "So you'd best be on your way."
He slammed the door.
* * *
There were still two objects left in the bag, both large and rather heavy. Ezra hefted the more bulky of the two packages and wondered at its awkward shape. Printed carefully on the wrapping paper were the words, "I owe you a rescue. Use this when you need to collect. Vin." His curiosity piqued, Ezra peeled back the white wrapping paper to reveal a queen conch shell, the inner lip lustrous pink, and the smaller end sawed off and filed smooth. A conch horn, used by the Seminole Indians in times of need, and of celebration.
Ezra put his lips to the mouthpiece, but decided it would be imprudent to sound the horn in his office. The lump that suddenly appeared in his throat would have made it difficult, anyway.
* * *
Three days before:
Ezra had a headache. He knew exactly why; too much champagne at lunch ... and too much Maude.
Ezra unlocked the door to the condo and slammed it behind him, instantly regretting the act when the sound echoed painfully in his aching head. As if the past ten days hadn't been a brutal enough exercise in committing seppuku, his mother had to show up, uninvited, and act out the role of kaishaku. Ezra would certainly have preferred the traditional option of choosing a close friend for his public beheading. But then, Ezra reminded himself bitterly, he had no close friends. And Maude had rarely paid any attention to Ezra's wants or needs.
Standish sighed, laid his briefcase on the coffee table and headed to the bedroom to change. He hung up his suit, pulled on a set of sweats and was just slipping his feet into a pair of deck shoes when he heard the bell.
*Dammit ... not again. Not tonight. Whoever it is, they're out of here.*
It was Vin.
He smiled at Ezra and didn't wait to be invited in or run off. He simply walked, stiffly and favoring his side, past the man and into the condo, leaving the southerner standing in the doorway looking at the empty porch. After a moment of stunned immobility, Ezra wheeled and stormed into his living room. He found Vin lounging on the couch, his booted feet sharing the glass-topped coffee table with the same shopping bag that previous visitors had been carrying. Ezra glared at the boots and the bag, and at Vin.
"A gentleman does not walk into a home uninvited," he said coldly.
Vin smiled easily. "Hell, Ezra, I ain't no gentleman. You know that ... you remind me of it all the time. 'Sides," he said, looking around the room at the bare walls and packing boxes, "this ain't no home. I've seen hotel rooms looked more lived-in than this place." His blue eyes met Ezra's green ones, and the southerner's hackles rose at the sympathy he saw there.
"What do you want, Mr. Tanner?"
Vin's answer seemed a non-sequiter. "I think your ma really cares about you, Ez ... she just don't have a clue about how to be a mother. Some women are like that."
"None of your business, Vin," snapped Ezra. "I don't need her to be a mother. And I don't need your pity."
"Well," Vin replied, unoffended, "just so's you know, I'm at your back, Ez. Same as with Chris ... whether you think you need it or not."
The words and quiet drawl abruptly defused Ezra's anger, and he leaned against the wall, dispirited and suddenly weary beyond words. "Don't waste your time, Vin. I'm not worth it." He brought one hand to his face and held it to his eyes. "Just leave me alone."
He didn't look up when the Texan got to his feet, walked over and dropped a hand on his shoulder. "I'll let myself out." Ezra heard the knob turn and the door open and shut behind him. He opened his eyes.
The shopping bag had been left behind on the coffee table.
*Dammit,* he thought. He walked slowly across the room, peered inside at the paper-wrapped bundles, and shook his head. Gingerly, as if it held explosives, Ezra picked up the bag and carried it to the hall closet. He pushed it inside, all the way to the back, behind his winter coat and boots and the case for his laptop, and closed the door.
* * *
Ezra set the conch horn in a prominent spot on the corner of his desk and reached once more inside the shopping bag, withdrawing the last item there. It was large and flat and wrapped in paper that said it came from the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, Key West, Florida. A small envelope with his given name printed on it was taped to the outside. Carefully, Ezra pulled the envelope free and opened it. The card inside bore a line drawing of a Spanish galleon. Ezra opened the card and read the scrawled words.
"A relic from one successful salvage operation, in commemoration of another. Good job. Chris."
Ezra looked at the words for a long time; his eyes blurred, then cleared again, and he slipped the note back into its envelope and unwrapped the package.
Inside was a framed, velvet-covered board with a silver Spanish coin nestled in the dark blue cloth behind non-glare glass. A small brass plaque declared it to be part of the treasure from the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, sunk in the waters off the Florida Keys in 1622.
* * *
One day before:
Ezra came in early, although it was unnecessary; he wouldn't need much time. There were few personal files on his computer and in his desk drawers, and the only other things in the office that belonged to him were a small, silver-framed postcard of an Erte print and a potted cactus. The computer files would be dumped, the paper files shredded or tucked into his briefcase, and the frame and cactus would be surreptitiously placed in the office of the man who had given them to Ezra, before the southerner slipped out of the ATF building for the last time.
Chris Larabee's final report on the bust of Titusville Diving and Salvage had been turned into the brass the day before. Ezra had left his copy in his In box, still in its "Confidential" envelope, the seal unbroken. He didn't need to read it. Seeing the purple and yellow bruises on Buck's face, watching Nathan limping down the hall, wincing as Vin eased himself into his desk chair, told Ezra what the inevitable conclusion of the team leader would be. No bust was worth the lives of his teammates ... his friends. And no half-assed, insubordinate, ill-prepared, bad attitude, loose cannon southerner deserved the benefit of the doubt. Or a second chance.
Standish flicked on the office light and stopped in surprise. There on his blotter was a thick document, folded back to a page toward the end. A neon line had been drawn in yellow highlighter around two paragraphs. Ezra looked over his shoulder. The outer office was still dark ... it was six in the morning, an ungodly hour even for the others on the ATF team to which he had briefly belonged and for which he had acted as leader on one disastrous mission. Cautiously Ezra rounded the desk, sat in his chair and picked up the report.
"In conclusion," it said, "I would like to recommend for commendation Agent Ezra Standish. In the face of unforeseen and unavoidable circumstances which unexpectedly compromised the safety and success of the operation, Agent Standish demonstrated quick thinking and personal courage. His actions saved the lives of the men on his team, secured the illegal weapons which were the target of the operation, and maintained the secrecy necessary to allow the strike team in Northern Florida to simultaneously secure the main offices of Titusville Diving and Salvage, confiscate its files, and arrest its staff and senior officers.
"I cite Agent Standish's actions in the capacity of researcher, undercover agent, and team leader, as the primary factor in the success of this operation."
Beneath the circled paragraphs was a small yellow sticker which said simply, "Thanks, Ezra. C.L."
* * *
Outside, people were beginning to filter into the office. Ezra stood up, the plaque in his hands, and walked over to the wall. He found a nail left by a previous occupant and hung the plaque, straightening it with a critical eye.
"Well, hell, Ezra ... looks downright homey in here!"
Standish jumped slightly and turned to see Buck Wilmington leaning in the doorway, a cup of coffee in his hand and a grin curving his mustache upward at each end.
"It looks like a Gulf Coast souvenir shop," Ezra shot back. But he was smiling.
Wherever Buck went, JD was close behind, and Ezra was not surprised to see the young man peer over Wilmington's shoulder. "In that case, Ezra, how much for the pirate flag?"
"Hey, I paid good money for that!" Nathan Jackson pushed the boy into the office and walked past him. "Glad I didn't waste that two bucks!"
"One fifty," Josiah Sanchez corrected him as he joined the group. "Remember, the flags were two for three dollars."
"Hell, you guys got off cheap," drawled Vin Tanner. "I laid out a fiver for that seashell."
"Vin, that was fifteen dollars!" exclaimed JD. "I know 'cos I almost bought--"
Buck kicked the boy in the ankle. "You were obliged to spend more," the tall man told Vin. "He pulled your sorry waterlogged ass out of the ocean before Jaws had a chance at you."
"His sorry waterlogged ass wouldn't have been *in* the ocean if not for me," said Ezra softly.
"Well, you'll just have to sooth his trauma with a round of beers at Inez's saloon tonight," said Buck. "Right, boys?"
A chorus of agreement filled the office with "Yeah"s and laughter. Ezra swallowed hard. "I shall be pleased and honored, gentlemen."
"You're buying for *all* of us, right, Ezra?" Chris Larabee limped into the room, still favoring his wrenched knee.
"Of course, Mr. Larabee," Ezra nodded.
Chris looked at the plaque hanging on the wall, the colorful assortment of gifts on the desk, the five men standing in the doorway, and back at the southerner. He nodded at the young agent and touched two fingers to an imaginary hat.
"Good. No designated drivers tonight ... this is a party. I'm payin' for the cabs. See you boys at the elevator at five sharp."
"Yes!" Buck slapped his knee, winced at the movement, and leaned a little on JD's shoulder as he and the younger man left the office, Nathan limping behind them and Josiah bringing up the rear. Vin stayed behind, leaning on the doorframe and grinning.
"I think *I* owe *you* a beer, friend," he said.
"Not likely," Ezra replied, a hint of regret in his voice. "But I wouldn't be too concerned ... I'm sure that sometime in the future you'll have occasion to pull *my* sorry ass out of a sling, and we'll be even."
Vin grinned widely. "Sounds good to me. Just don't be in too much of a hurry to even things out, Ez."
"Don't worry. See you tonight." Ezra sat behind his desk and made a show of opening his briefcase and pulling papers from it.
"Right." Vin nodded, and left the office.
Ezra looked up from behind the open leather case, lifted his new mug and drank down the last of his cooling cappuccino, adjusted the flags on his computer terminal and the conch horn on the corner of his desk, and went to work.
* * *
Better days are in the cards I feel
I feel it in the changin' wind
I feel it when I fly
So talk to me I'll listen to your story
I've been around enough to know
That there's more than meets the eye
With a little love and luck
You will get by
With a little love and luck
We'll take the sky
In this mangled modern world
You've got to try
Try a little love and luck
And you'll get by
Love and luck, oh yes
We will get by
Kole sere, kole sere
Kole sere, kole sere
Kole sere, kole sere
Kole sere, kole sere
Ha ha ha ha...