Disclaimers: I don’t own the boys (much to my dismay). That privilege belongs to Mirisch and MGM (I believe). I am doing this solely for fun and am making no profit from this.
Ratings: PG-13 for language and violence
Author’s Notes: This is just my take on how Ezra joined the Seven
in Mog’s wonderful ATF/AU
Ezra tiredly pulled the .357 Magnum from the holster and carefully placed it on the bureau. He avoided looking at the face in the mirror before him. He didn’t want to see what the mirror had to show him. It wasn’t the physical features that scared him, although the mirror would show the dark shadows under his eyes. Belying the ongoing lack of sleep. The mirror would also show chestnut hair once lustrous and bright now lank and in disarray from the constant worrying it received from Ezra’s restless hands. No, what Ezra avoided was looking into his own eyes. He didn’t want to see the accusation that awaited him there. A simple reflection of the accusation he saw in the eyes of others.
Ezra shrugged his way out of the holster and laid it on the bed. Loosening his tie he pulled it away from his collar. He surveyed the rest of the room without really seeing it. It was meticulous reflecting the care of its owner. It was also cold, completely devoid of warmth and life. Again reflecting its owner. Ezra hung the tie in its orderly row and silently left the room.
He moved into the second bedroom, which served as his office. The blinking icon on the laptop perched on the oak desk indicated e-mail awaited him. Ezra sighed. He knew whom it was from and the subject matter. It could wait. He wasn’t eager to watch his life come crashing down around him.
Ezra bent over and retrieved a coffee cup from under the futon that served as a bed for his visitors. Maude had visited the previous week. Moving in and out of her son’s life like a typhoon. Leaving only a void in her wake, and dirty dishes, Ezra mused. She had failed to note her son’s despair. The long silences and his indifference had simply passed her by. Ezra had attempted to tell her what was occurring at work. Maude had cut him off mid-sentence only saying, “What did you expect? It’s a waste of your God-given talents.” What were his God-given talents, he wondered silently. Hers seemed to be marrying money. She was working on husband #6 at last count.
He placed the cup in the dishwasher in the small kitchen. The ringing phone startled him out of his silent reverie. He let the machine answer. The impersonal voice told the caller to leave their name and number and the owner of the phone would return their call. Not in this lifetime, Ezra thought to himself. He hadn’t even bothered to personalize the message that came with the telephone. His supervisor’s voice floated out of the machine.
“Ezra, this is JT, pick up if you’re there….” The caller paused but Ezra never moved. He merely leaned back against the kitchen counter crossing his arms over his chest. “OK, Ezra, I had my secretary send you an e-mail. We are meeting tomorrow morning at 8am sharp to discuss your next assignment. Be there.” The click of the phone and resulting dial tone told Ezra the caller had disconnected. The machine obediently began beeping for his attention. Walking over Ezra deleted the message.
His next assignment? Ezra would have laughed if the situation weren’t so severe. The only assignment he was likely to receive was a job standing in line at the unemployment office. Even the timing of the meeting was meant as a reprimand. For the past six months, Ezra had been working the graveyard shift. Pulling duty as a dealer in a gambling casino thought to be laundering money for the mob. They knew he was unlikely to be awake at 8 am. The meeting was timed to disconcert him and throw him off his game. A punishment. He wouldn’t be at his best and they knew it.
For six months, Ezra had worked his way into the inner circle of the Vantana gambling empire. His superiors were positive the casino was simply a front for mob interests. Means for the mob to “clean” illicit drug money. However, Ezra had been completely unable to find any such evidence. He had made it into the inner circle of the Vantana family and still no sign of any illegal activities could be found. Then, the rumors that he was on the take had begun circulating at work. Ezra had always been a loner. He had found it difficult to become more than acquaintances with his co-workers. His aloofness had caused feelings of distrust and even dislike to be harbored against him even before his failure to dislodge the shady sides of the Vantana gambling interests. He now watched helplessly as his tenuous career began to dissolve around him.
Ezra pushed himself away from the counter. He moved back to the laptop and brought his e-mail program up on the screen. He was right. The mail was from his department’s secretary. He deleted it without reading it. Shutting the comp down he moved back into the bedroom. It was 2 am. He had to be up by 6 if he was going to make it to headquarters by 8am. Sharp. Ezra sprawled out atop the comforter without bothering to undress.
Chris Larabee brought his rental car to a stop in the garage of the Atlanta Office of the FBI. He gathered up his leather attaché case and stepped out moving to the elevator that would take him to the lobby. Chris signed in with the guard, presented his ATF id for inspection and was escorted by a secretary to the room where he would be meeting his newest if somewhat unsuspecting recruit.
Chris stepped into the small sparsely furnished conference room. Seconds later, two men stepped through the door. Both were dressed in conservative blue pinstripe suits with the requisite red power tie. Chris smiled to himself. He preferred a comfortable pair of jeans, boots, and if necessary, a sports jacket sans tie.
“Mr. Larabee, I presume,” the older man of the two stepped forward to shake hands with Chris, “I’m J.T. Johnson. This is Rick Walsh. Please have a seat.” The man with the salt and pepper hair indicated a chair around the small conference table.
“Agent Standish should be here any moment,” Walsh spoke up. “Can we get you some coffee?” Chris just nodded at the offer. He really hadn’t come here for a tea party but he sensed the two were stalling waiting for the tardy Ezra Standish.
For six months, Chris Larabee had been attempting to put together an elite team of men to work arms and explosives smuggling cases within the ATF. He had found five other men to work with him pulling them from various agencies and even civilian service. However, he had not been able to find a qualified undercover agent. Chris had worked undercover in the past as had several of his new team but Chris was looking for someone who would be able to work in that dangerous world for weeks even months at a time. He had started to despair of finding someone to suit his needs when a fellow agent had left a dossier on his desk one afternoon. Chris had taken it home and spent the evening poring over the document. Ezra P. Standish the file read. Chris wondered what the P stood for.
Standish was a special agent working for the FBI. At 32 years of age, the man’s career had been checkered at best. Commendations for brilliant undercover work were mixed with censures for insubordinate behavior. Phrases used to describe the agent by various supervisors included “not a team player” and “questionable motives”. Definitely somebody you wouldn’t want working for you. Chris had sent out tentative feelers to his superiors at the ATF and to Standish’s superiors at the FBI. It seemed they were only too willing to lend out the special agent to Larabee’s new unit. Of course, no one had consulted Ezra Standish.
Chris was brought out of his musings by the arrival of his newest agent. Ezra Standish looked older than he had in his dossier pictures. He also looked like he hadn’t slept in days. He was immaculately dressed in a black suit with a striped tie. However, the suit and polished shoes failed to hide the circles under the eyes. Haunted eyes, Chris thought. Ezra blinked rapidly as he was introduced to Chris. He clearly hadn’t been expecting Chris’ presence at the meeting. Chris rose to shake hands with the newcomer.
Chris noted that Standish quickly composed himself and spoke, “Pleasure to meet you.”
To Chris, the words sounded strained as if it was anything but a pleasure. Ezra eyed the other two men warily. He felt like a trap had been set for him and he had just walked into it.
Walsh wasted no time getting down to business. “Agent Larabee is here with us from the ATF. He is putting together a team to investigate arms smugglers and the increasing use of explosives to further terrorist activities in the states.”
Ezra just raised an eyebrow. It was all very interesting but he still didn’t see what this had to do with him. He kept his mouth shut, for once. He had come in expecting to find his association with the Bureau had been terminated. Now it looked like that was not the case. However, he had a feeling he wasn’t going to like what these men were about to say to him.
Johnson broke in. “You’ve been assigned to his unit. While you will remain an employee of the Bureau, you will be on loan to ATF indefinitely. You will be transferred to the Denver Area Office of ATF immediately. You will need to pack up your desk here before you leave today. You will accompany Agent Larabee back to Denver tomorrow morning.” Johnson paused and waited for the argument he expected.
Ezra was having a hard time processing what he had just heard. He hadn’t managed to sleep the previous night and the two cups of coffee that constituted breakfast had failed to sharpen his senses to any extent. Mentally flailing Ezra finally managed to ask, “Don’t I get a say in this matter?”
J.T. Johnson sighed. “Standish, your history with the bureau is well…shall we say, colorful. However, we no longer feel that you are a contributing member of our team. If it wasn’t for Larabee’s offer here to take you on,” Johnson continued, nodding to Larabee who had remained silent while he watched the proceedings, “I’m afraid the Bureau would feel obliged to take disciplinary action against you. I believe this is not the time nor the place to discuss these matters.”
Walsh broke in, “Standish, be happy you’re not facing a court hearing on charges of corruption and let’s leave it that.”
Larabee had watched Ezra closely the entire time. He saw the man visibly wince at the veiled threats from his superiors and look quickly at Chris before he looked away. He licked his lips nervously but remained quiet. “How about if I sleep on it?” he asked the room at large. Ezra had seen Chris’ lack of reaction to the threats from the other two men. Obviously, he was aware of the rumors currently ruining his career.
Chris reached into his attaché case and pulled out a folder. He slid it across the table towards Ezra. “Plane leaves at 9 am. Be there.” He stood up quickly wanting to get away from the tense atmosphere in the room. He could fill in his newest Agent about his responsibilities on the plane back to Denver.
“Gentleman, I have further business to attend to while I’m in Atlanta. Thank you for your time.” He shook hands with Walsh and Johnson but Ezra hadn’t looked up from the table.
“Let us show you out.”
The three men left the room leaving Ezra contemplating the folder the ATF agent had given him. Inside were a one way ticket to Denver, CO and a file outlining the purpose of Larabee’s new group. Ezra remained in the room for a long time before finally rising. He had a lot of packing to do.
Business commuters swirled around Ezra as he made his way slowly to gate 32 at Atlanta’s International Airport. He shifted the large carryon trying to ease the weight on his shoulders. He had checked every piece of luggage he could talk the counter attendant into taking. It wasn’t as though he was leaving for an overnight trip. It was clear that no matter what occurred in Denver his career with the FBI was finished. He wouldn’t be returning to Atlanta. Ever. Movers would be at his apartment within the week to pack his belongings. Most of it didn’t matter to him but there was an antique rocker that he hated to part with.
“So, you failed again, Standish. Didn’t manage to fit in at the Academy. Lasted a year working bank robbery…moved to white collar crime but didn’t…” Ezra cut off the mental voice that was listing his failures. He’d spent the night listening to that voice and it hadn’t changed his current situation.
He spotted Chris Larabee sitting at one of the chairs in front of the gate. He was leafing through several manila folders. A slight frown marred his features. Deciding to face the inevitable, Ezra walked up to the man.
“So, we meet again, Mr. Larabee,” he drawled lightly.
Chris looked up at the sound of the soft Southern accent. Standish was standing before him looking decidedly uncomfortable.
“You made it. Wasn’t sure you were coming,” Chris said. He had started to believe the man was going to be a no-show.
“How could I refuse your polite invitation? It was either that or face the proverbial firing squad,” the jovial tone in Ezra’s voice didn’t quite hide the bitterness behind his words.
He studied the southerner for a minute but before he could reply the gate attendant made the first boarding call for their flight. Why did he have a feeling this transition wasn’t going to go smoothly?
Four Months Later
Chris stretched in his chair in the cramped surveillance van. They didn’t have his six-foot frame in mind when they made these things. He noticed JD never seemed to complain. The kid just sprawled in his chair and never took his eyes off the video screen. He readjusted the volume control on the earpiece he was using to monitor Vin and Ezra’s conversation with their suspect, Edward Fallon. The man and his crew were suspected of being a major supplier of small arms to everyone from legitimate foreign governments to two bit terrorist organizations
Ezra’s voice came across the microphone hidden in his coat with a crackle of static. He and Vin were negotiating the man’s next “contract” a proposed delivery of some 200 assorted automatic weapons. Chris sighed and rubbed his eyes. The negotiations were not going well. The suspect was not being cooperative. He was evasive and belligerent by turns but refused to take the bait. Ezra had cajoled, coaxed, and flattered for the past hour to no avail. Chris could hear the frustration levels in his voice rising. This was their third meeting with the man and they still hadn’t managed to gain his trust. Vin’s voice broke in cutting Ezra off. They were trying to convince the man that he and Ezra needed to view the weapons before purchase. It wouldn’t help anyone to bring in one arm’s dealer but leave the cache of weapons on the street.
Chris didn’t like sending Vin into undercover situations. Hell, he didn’t like placing any of his men in danger while he remained safely behind the lines. However, there was a real possibility that Chris knew the dealer from working similar cases in the past. Ezra was an obvious choice to make contact but, dammit, Vin was not. He had spent too much time in the criminal underworld as a bounty hunter. Someday, Chris could feel it in his bones, some two bit thug was going to recognize Tanner and things were going to go straight to hell. Chris could feel it in his bones. Chris had passed over JD as an option. He was too green and Chris was not going to be responsible for his death. Josiah and Buck had volunteered but neither man was comfortable undercover. Nathan was definitely out of the question. He and Ezra had never developed the rapport it took to function properly as a team.
Ezra’s first meeting with the group; four months previous had not gone well. He had been arrogant and defensive the day Chris brought him in to meet the other five men. Chris’ new undercover agent and his elite team had gotten off to a rocky start. Ezra’s relationship with Nathan was especially rough. Nathan was an extremely compassionate and moral human being. He held himself and those around him to high standards. Ezra regularly failed to meet those standards (sometimes Chris thought it was deliberate). The two men had circled each other like tiger’s in a cage that was too small from the start. Nathan could not get past Ezra’s rather shaky career and those damning allegations of corruption not to mention the southerner’s less than compassionate and very vocal attitude towards other people particularly those in need of a helping hand. Ezra refused to let his defenses down and make the first move towards friendship. They disagreed on just about every subject of conversation that came up.
For instance, their views on investing differed radically. Nathan believed in supporting companies who showed a high degree of social and environmental responsibility. He didn’t support arms manufacturers or greedy oil conglomerates and he contributed a share of his salary to United Way every year. Ezra believed in having a stock portfolio that consistently outperformed the market. It didn’t matter if the company revenues came from penicillin or B-1 bomber manufacturing. Nathan seemed to feel it was his duty to point out the error of Ezra’s ways. Ezra just as stubbornly secretly contributed money to child charity groups including The Make-a-Wish Foundation and Children’s Hospitals all the while ridiculing Nathan’s “tree-hugging” beliefs.
Every time Chris thought the two men were going to bridge their defenses, Ezra would start another hare-brained scheme or Nathan would take offense at some imagined slight on Ezra’s part and the dispute would erupt again. No, Chris thought, Ezra and Nathan would not be good in the field together. They’d end up shooting each other and not the bad guys. Best to keep Nathan working behind the scenes and leave Ezra to what he did best. Con every around him.
In truth, Ezra’s relationship with Chris hadn’t developed much further than a good morning and various work-related questions. Of course, Ezra’s near abandonment of the group about two months previous hadn’t helped matters. Vin and sometimes Buck and the others would often come into his office in the early mornings and share a cup of coffee. Chris didn’t recall Ezra ever doing so. Ezra usually arrived 30 to 40 minutes late dressed impeccably in some suit whose designer Chris couldn’t begin to name. Unlike the rest of the group, who had paired off, Ezra always seemed the odd man out. Drifting from group to group but never really fitting in. Chris couldn’t tell if the Southerner deliberately stayed away from the other men or if he just didn’t feel welcome.
Chris heard the meeting he was monitoring began to break up as the arms dealer and his men made tentative plans to meet again. They were going to have to make some progress soon or weeks of groundwork were going to be for naught. He turned to watch the monitor screens above JD. Ezra and Vin moved out of the building and climbed into the Jag parked at the curb. The Southerner’s sarcastic “That went well” came in clearly over the link. Chris just shook his head. That was another question that nagged at Nathan, which he had voiced to Chris. How did an ATF Agent afford a Jag? The car pulled smoothly away from the curb and roared away into the night. Chris watched it’s taillights recede into the darkness.
Soon after, Fallon and the two men with him pulled out of an underground parking garage and moved off in the same direction as Vin and Ezra. They failed to note the car that detached itself from the opposite curb and followed at a discrete distance. Chris silently watched as Josiah and Nathan followed the dealers. He and JD were scheduled to meet with Vin and Ezra to discuss the results of the meet. Josiah and Nathan would join them back at headquarters after determining Fallon’s destination. Most likely, he would just head back to his hotel.
Chris moved into the driver’s seat of the van and slipped it into gear. JD busied himself transcribing the results of the meeting into the laptop. Chris pulled away from the curb and followed Vin and Ezra. He wasn’t looking forward to this meeting. He didn’t think Ezra was going to like it much either.
Chris slapped the freshly printed copies of the meeting’s transcription on the table in front of Ezra. The southerner blinked licking his lips nervously before he raised his eyes to confront Larabee’s annoyed glare. Chris didn’t back down. He had taken on the man at considerable risk to his own reputation and career. So far, it had resulted in one near disaster and this operation wasn’t meeting with much success. He wasn’t going to mollycoddle Ezra.
“Dammit, it’s been almost three weeks and as many meets and we don’t have a clue where they’re keeping the weapons. I need results, gentlemen,” Chris turned his annoyance on the room in general. He didn’t directly accuse Ezra of failing but the FBI Agent mentally inserted his name into Chris’ tirade.
Ezra was frustrated by his own failure to gain Fallon’s trust. His first assignment with Chris’ team had been nothing short of a debacle. His own fault, to be sure, but in the two months since the incident Ezra had taken seriously his obligation to the group. He hadn’t opened up to them in any significant way but he had danced constant attendance.
“I assure you we’re doing everything possible to gain the man’s trust,” Ezra broke the heavy silence that had fallen in the room. Chris’ eyes shifted to meet his. “It’s going to require patience and time.”
“Time is something we don’t have,” Chris’ voice bristled. “These guns have street value of a quarter million dollars. We let them slip through our fingers and there’s going to be hell to pay. I, for one, don’t intend to let this happen. You better figure out a way to gain his trust, Ezra.”
Ezra just sighed shifting positions in his chair uncomfortably. This time he avoided Larabee’s gaze. Chris’ tirade continued even after Nathan and Josiah entered the room reporting that Fallon had simply checked into his hotel. Buck was monitoring a surveillance system of the dealer’s phones and hotel room. JD was set to replace him later that night. So far, the dealer had been one step ahead of them. He hadn’t breathed a word about the guns in his hotel or to his prospective buyers.
Ezra poured himself a drink and moved across the dark living room of
his townhouse to the picture window. He had rented the place a month
after moving to Denver.
He watched the moon setting over the mountains. He thought about turning on music for company but decided it would only accentuate his loneliness.
“Moving to Denver,” he mused. “More like being kidnapped and held hostage.”
The day had not gone well. After more than six weeks, countless hours, and a great deal of money greasing palms he wasn’t even close to buying himself a popgun let alone an illegal arms cache. Chris Larabee was not happy and he made that point quite clear to Ezra at the debriefing that evening. For a man who rarely spoke, he had quite a vocabulary. Most of which, he had shared with Ezra.
It had hurt no matter how much Ezra tried to detach himself from the anger in Larabee’s voice. Ezra wouldn’t even admit to himself how much the camaraderie other six men had come to mean to him. In only four short months, Ezra had finally found something that was worth living for. Something he desperately needed. He secretly laughed at the antics of Buck and JD. Vin had taken to trading barbs with him at every chance.
He remembered an evening playing poker with Vin, JD, and Buck. This was before they had learned that Ezra had an extensive background when it came to a deck of cards. Vin had invited everyone to his apartment for an evening of poker, tall tales and not so good beer. Ezra didn’t know what possessed him to attend the event but attend it he had.
“Buck, would get your feet out of my chair,” JD told Buck with an exasperated tone for the second time that evening. Every time JD got up to get another round of beers Buck would make himself comfortable. JD began to sit down forcing Buck to remove the offending toes before JD had a chance to sit on them. Ever since JD had joined the team, Buck had taken it upon his person to advise JD on everything from his love life to how to properly shoot his gun. JD sometimes found the constant advice to be smothering but the other men found the whole situation highly amusing.
Buck eyed JD’s newspaper boy hat with disgust. “Boy, when are you going to throw that thing away and get yourself a real hat.” Buck’s choice in hats ranged from baseball caps from local sports bars to a rather battered old cowboy hat that he always wore fishing. Called it his lucky hat.
“I like this hat, Buck,” JD defended his choice in headgear. Ezra had begun dealing out the cards with a dexterity the other men found amazing. Ezra hadn’t shared his past with the men. They didn’t know he’d dealt in high stakes poker games while working undercover for the FBI or where he’d initially learned to manipulate a deck of cards. That would lead to the inevitable questions concerning his abrupt departure from the Agency. Questions Ezra certainly wasn’t going to examine too closely. Better to let the past stay buried. He suspected they were aware of most of it. The inter-agency grapevine was infamous.
Vin picked up his cards sighing inwardly at the fourth bad hand he’d been dealt that night. He stared suspiciously at Ezra. “How do we know you ain’t cheating?” He’d noticed that Ezra rarely lost and he always volunteered to deal.
Ezra let a sly grin cross his face, “You don’t.” He was beginning to relax into the easy camaraderie the other men offered. He tried to ignore the voice in the back of his head that insidiously whispered to him not to let his guard down. Not to trust the other men. He’d trusted people before and paid dearly for it.
During that evening, Ezra had managed to ignore the pernicious inner voice. He laughed and joked with the others, his caustic wit easily up to the task of defending him from the group’s teasing. Being teased by coworkers was not a situation Ezra was familiar with. At least, not in the recent past. He had enjoyed the evening immensely. He had also not told a soul. Relaxing evenings with the other six men were rare for Ezra. Too often, he came in to work to find the men had spent the evening together drinking at a local bar, or barbecuing in someone’s backyard. Too often, Ezra had not been invited or had ignored the tentative invitation thrown his way.
Sighing, Ezra knocked back the last of the whiskey. It burned its way down his throat and warmed his stomach. It was getting late, or extremely early, depending on your point of view. He moved into the kitchen and rinsed the cut-glass tumbler in the sink. Setting it to dry in the drainboard, Ezra moved into the master bedroom. God, he hoped he could sleep tonight. Starting tomorrow, the pressure would be applied to Fallon to disclose the location of the guns, and to Ezra to gain Fallon’s trust and accomplish his assigned task.
Ezra leaned his head into the cupboard above the coffee maker and waited for the pot to brew. Unfortunately, his nap had turned into another tossing and turning session. He’d attempted to read through the Fallon file again. Anything to try to defeat this current round of insomnia. He’d ended up spending the small hours of the morning losing at solitaire. The coffee maker gurgled as the last of the water drizzled through the filter and into the pot. Ezra poured the hot coffee into the Thermos mug and capped it tightly. Grabbing up his briefcase and the Jag keys, he made his way out the door and into the small garage. With any luck, he wouldn’t be too late.
Chris Larabee watched his errant agent make his way past the conference table in the group’s small offices. He glanced at the clock on the wall and just shook his head. Some things would never change, he thought. He chose to ignore Standish’s tardiness. It wasn’t as though the man didn’t put in a 40-hour week. Getting Ezra to show up for work by 7:30 was as impossible as getting Buck to swear off women for a week. It just wasn’t going to happen and it wasn’t worth getting into a fight over.
Ezra balanced the mug and briefcase in his left hand as he fumbled for the keys to open his office door. He moved into the cold, empty room and placed the briefcase and coffee on the desk. Settling into his chair, he pulled his laptop out of his briefcase and parked it on the dockable workstation. He had just brought up the first of the Fallon files when Buck poked his head through the door.
“Hey there, Ezra,” he cheerily greeted the southerner. Ezra peeled one eye from the computer screen and eyed Buck in a less than welcoming manner.
“Something you wanted, Mr. Wilmington?” Although Ezra did use the first names of most members of the team, he didn’t consider this time of the morning to be a civilized hour. It was far too early to relate to anyone on a first name basis from Ezra’s point of view.
“And a good morning to you, too,” Buck continued never missing a beat and ignoring Ezra’s grumpy demeanor. He moved into the small office perching on a small stack of boxes that had been left unpacked. Ezra had deliberately not placed a second chair in the office. He noticed it hadn’t really stopped the other men from coming in and making themselves right at home whenever they felt like it. Buck was being gracious since they usually chose his desk to rest on.
In defeat, Ezra pulled away from the computer and gave Buck his full attention. He cocked one eyebrow at Buck when the other man didn’t continue with the conversation immediately. Buck was surveying the barren white walls. The lack of personal items on the desk didn’t miss his attention, either.
“Jeez, Ezra, when you going to decorate this place? Make it feel like someone lives here?” Buck was still looking around the small room.
“I don’t live here, Mr. Wilmington. This is my place of employment,” Ezra pointed out trying to steer Buck away from that particular issue. “I suppose you consider a toybox proper office décor?” Ezra manipulated the conversation back to the mustached man.
“Well, hell Ezra, it’s a lot more interesting than this,” Buck waved his hand around the sterile office setting. “I can’t tell if you’re moving in this office or moving out.” He didn’t hear Ezra’s slight intake of breath at his rather accurate assessment of Ezra’s state of affairs or more accurately state of mind.
‘Neither can I, Buck. Neither can I,’ Ezra’s mental voice agreed with Buck. Aloud, Ezra retorted, “Is there a reason you feel compelled to grace me with your presence or have you recently become an interior design critic?”
Ezra’s sharp tone was not completely lost on Wilmington. Before Buck could reply Ezra’s cell phone rang shrilly. Both men froze and looked at the little phone lying on the desk. They both knew the only person currently using that number would be Fallon. Ezra sighed as he reached for the phone. It was time to go to work and earn his keep. Buck stood up immediately and left the office quietly shutting the door behind him.
“Ezra Simpson,” Ezra greeted his caller. He knew a listening post would immediately monitor the call. It took the pressure off him to relay conversations to his fellow agents verbatim. The phone message would be transcribed and send out to the entire team.
Buck felt the door click shut behind him. Shaking his head, he moved over to the conference table where Josiah sat perusing mug shots.
“How is he?” Josiah asked his eyes flickering in the direction of the closed office door.
“Looks like hell. Wonder when the last time he got a decent night’s sleep was?” Buck answered as he flopped down into one of the chairs. No answer was forthcoming from Josiah who completely agreed with Buck’s assessment of Ezra. “He’s on the phone right now with our gun dealer.” Buck leaned forward resting his hands on his knees. “Gawd, I’ll be glad when this sorry case is over.”
“You and me both, Brother Wilmington, and I think no one will be happier than Ezra.” Josiah concurred.
“The meet is set for tomorrow evening at 7:30 near Tingley Park,” Ezra leaned back in his chair and surveyed the other six men around the conference table. He’d immediately reported to Chris when he’d ended the call with Fallon. Chris had called the rest of the Team to participate in their discussion.
“What do you mean he doesn’t like Vin?” JD spoke from the far end of the room. He was twiddling with his pen trying to emulate the Iceman from the movie Top Gun. Although, not a new release, the movie had become JD’s latest obsession.
“It would seem Mr. Fallon has taken an extreme dislike to our Mr. Tanner here. Claims he’s and I quote ‘Always sneaking around like a damn cat never saying more than two words. You’d think he was a damn deaf mute.’ Makes him quite nervous it would appear,” Ezra explained to the kid. The discussion with Fallon concerning Vin had monopolized most of the phone conversation. Fallon had made it clear that Vin’s quiet demeanor unsettled the gun dealer. His whole personality rubbed the man’s nerves raw.
Nathan spoke up, “Do you think this distrust of Vin is what’s keeping the man from selling us the guns?”
“Could be,” Chris commented. “Question is, what do we do about it? Ezra’s not going to meet with Fallon alone.” Chris didn’t like this case. Fallon was a cold-blooded butcher if you believed the background they’d dug up on him. None of his men were going to face him alone.
Ezra looked quickly at Chris before dropping his eyes back to his meeting notes. He still hadn’t managed to gain Larabee’s trust. They thought he needed a watchdog.
Vin squirmed uncomfortably in his seat as the other members of the team talked about him as though he wasn’t in the room. Come to think of it, he wasn’t really. They were talking about the bodyguard to a wealthy gunrunner. Not, Vin Tanner, ATF Agent. A thought occurred to him. A small mischievous smile crossed Vin’s face.
Chris noticed it right off. He didn’t like it when Vin got that look on his face. “What’s on your mind, Vin?”
“Well, why don’t we put Ezra’s God-given gifts to work?” Vin told the group.
Ezra cast a suspicious look in Vin’s direction, “What do you have in mind, Mr. Tanner?” He licked his lips nervously. In only four months, he’d learned to be very nervous when Vin started acting too innocent. One never knew what would appear in place of one’s coffee in the morning. Or who would be the unfortunate recipient of Vin’s latest prank. Ezra had learned to be afraid. Very afraid when Vin Tanner’s rather devious mind went to work.
“Well, if Fallon don’t trust me, then get rid of me,” Vin shot a cat who ate the cream grin at the rest of the group.
Buck was the first to catch onto Vin’s scheme. He leaned back
into this chair crossing his arms behind his head, “Now this I gotta see.”
He caught Vin’s eyes exchanging grins with the ex-bounty hunter.
The low sleek lines of the Jaguar pulled through the paved semi-circle marking the entrance to Tingley Park. The car headlights briefly illuminated the three men leaning against the hulking presence of a Lincoln Continental. Ezra let the Jag roll to a halt near the Lincoln and shut the engine down. The headlights died automatically shrouding the area in soft twilight. Ezra hesitated briefly before reaching for the door handle. Vin gave him a sidelong glance. Ezra took a deep breath and pulled the door handle opening the door.
Ezra quickly exited the car and moved around the hood. He stopped a few feet from the gun dealer. Vin moved to stand a few feet behind and to the side of him. Ezra noticed that Fallon eyed Vin rudely before flicking his eyes back to meet Ezra’s.
“Simpson,” he nodded curtly to Ezra.
Ezra gave the man his brightest smile all the while thinking Maude would be so proud of how he’d learned to use his God-given talents. Nothing was quite like having to pretend to like men you secretly despised. “Well, Mr. Fallon, I’m glad to see you’re still in good health.”
Fallon just snorted at Ezra’s concern, “Cut the small talk, Simpson. We have bigger fish to fry here.”
“Ah yes, about those ‘fish’ as you put it. Time is running short and I need to close this deal in a timely manner. There are other ‘fish’ in the ocean and I am beginning to feel that my time is being wasted.” Ezra knew that pressuring the man into revealing the location of the guns might not be a good idea. However, it was important that they feel his frustration.
“Don’t try to bluff me, Ezra,” Fallon said never batting an eye. “Shipments the size of this one don’t come along everyday. I happen to have something you want but you haven't given me anything in return.”
“I haven’t given you anything?” Ezra asked, the exasperation showing through in his voice. He’d parted with thousands in “good faith” gifts.
“Shipments may be rare but buyers willing to part with such large sums in cash are equally rare, Fallon,” Ezra countered. “Now, I’ve been trying to conduct business with you for weeks now and you have completely stonewalled me. What do I have to do to gain your trust and close this deal?” Ezra noticed that Fallon’s eyes had once against strayed to Vin who winked at Fallon behind Ezra’s back. Damn the man. He wasn’t really paying attention to anything the southerner said.
“Mr. Fallon?” Ezra called, giving the gun dealer a less than affectionate gaze. “Might I trouble you for your attention?” The southerner asked tartly. Fallon rolled his eyes and looked back at Ezra. Ezra took a silent deep breath. It was now or never.
"Fine. What? What do you want? Is it me? Did I do something? Is it him?” Ezra gestured to Vin. “It's him, isn't it? Fine!" Ezra continued in the same tart tone. “Consider the problem solved.” Ezra didn’t fail to notice that Fallon was eyeing him like he’d suddenly sprouted wings. Ezra pulled the gun from the waist holster covered by his jacket. Reaching into his pocket and shielding his activities from Vin he screwed the silencer onto the barrel of the gun with three sharp twists. Fallon’s men had frozen when he pulled the gun but they hadn’t drawn their own weapons.
In one swift move, Ezra turned around and shot Vin. Three sharp spats issued from the Glock. Vin staggered back as blood erupted from his chest courtesy of the radio-controlled squibs. He never uttered a word as his hands strayed down to his chest and came away bloody. He stared at Ezra in disbelief. Without another sound, Vin’s eyes rolled back into his head and he crumbled to the ground with a small thud. Ezra winced inwardly. Now that had to hurt.
Fallon and his three henchmen stared at the southerner open-mouthed. Ezra never skipped a beat. Silently unscrewing the silencer and replacing it and the gun in the pocket and holster, respectively, Ezra stalked over to the trunk of the Jag. He popped it open with the remote entry and reached in to pull out a plastic painter’s canvas and a roll of tape. He flashed a quick grin to the four stunned onlookers.
“Handy in emergencies.”
He spread the plastic next to Vin, rolled the Texan onto it and wrapped him up securing the plastic lightly with tape. The last thing he wanted to do was to suffocate the man. Squatting down, he pulled Vin’s body over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry and climbed to his feet with a grunt. He reminded himself to discuss with Vin his dietary habits. Damn, the man was heavy. He situated his unwieldy package within the confines of the trunk and closed the lid with a bang.
“THERE! Is there any fuckin’ thing ELSE I can do for you so that we may conduct business like civilized human beings?!”
Fallon continued to stare at him openmouthed. Finally the man started guffawing. The laughs shaking his thin frame. Ezra drew a deep breath as he pretended to “get control”. He ran his hands through his hair. He withdrew the silk hanky from his breast pocket and dabbed at some blood flecks on the sleeve of his suit coat. Slipping the hanky into his pocket, he checked his tie and flashed Fallon his best smile.
“I’m glad you approve, sir. In the meantime, as that is not a ziplock bag and I have no desire to ruin the upholstery in my trunk...you will excuse me…I have a disposal job to accomplish. Shall we meet again tomorrow?” Ezra said masterfully hiding the loathing that he felt towards these men. To laugh at a man’s murder. Disgusting.
Shaking his head in amusement at Ezra, Fallon extended his hand to Standish, “Tomorrow at noon in my hotel room. The Doubletree Room 260.” Ezra shook the man’s hand promising himself a thorough hand scrubbing with the strongest soap he could acquire.
As Ezra began to turn away he stopped and turned back toward the four men. “By the way, I will be bringing another associate of mine. One I think you’ll find more agreeable. Good evening, gentleman.” Ezra slipped behind the driver’s seat of the Jag. He shuddered. Sometimes, the problem with this job was the company you were forced to keep.
Ezra was forced to drive for some time before he decided he hadn’t been followed. At least, not by anyone associated with Fallon. He finally pulled the car over in the parking lot of an abandoned store. The black van, which had been following him since the park, pulled in beside him effectively cutting the view of the Jag off from the street.
Buck was the first man out of the van. “Damn Ezra, don’t that just beat all,” Buck didn’t think he was ever going to stop laughing. Josiah and Chris had exited the van behind Buck. Ezra stoically withstood Buck’s excitement and slaps on the back. Just then, a pounding from the trunk of the Jag caught everyone’s attention.
“Looks like Brother Vin wants out of that trunk.”
“You think?” Chris answered Josiah wryly. Ezra finally extricated himself from Buck long enough to pop the lid of the trunk. Chris leaned over to help Vin free himself from the plastic sheeting and crawl stiffly out of the trunk.
“Damn, Ezra, were ya just gonna leave me in there?” Vin asked sharply. He hated enclosed spaces. Somehow, when he’d come up with the plan and proposed it to the group he hadn’t thought about how they were going to dispose of the ‘body’. When he had figured how that particular problem was going to be taken care of, it was too late to back out. He had to admit though, it hadn’t been easy to lay on the ground and listen to Ezra’s tirade and not move a muscle. Damn the man had great comedic timing.
Finally, Vin moved off to the passenger side of the car. Eyes followed him. “I need a beer. Ezra’s buying.” Ezra just rolled his eyes at Vin’s spending his money.
“Sounds good,” Chris agreed, “but Vin, change your shirt first.”
Ezra cupped his shaking hands under the bathroom faucet and liberally
splashed water onto his face. He repeated the process this time holding
the water to his face before letting it trickle through his hands.
He still wasn’t able to control the tremors that ran through his fingers.
He roughly dried his face on a paper towel. He stared at the haunted
reflection in the mirror. The sound of the door opening behind him
startled him out of his reverie.
Chris entered the small room and studied his newest agent carefully. Ezra’s behavior since they’d reached the bar hadn’t been lost on any of the four men. According to Vin, he hadn’t said a word on the way to the bar. Chris thought this a little strange considering the scene the two men had just played out together. Then, Ezra had entered the saloon and ordered two shots of whiskey, with a beer chaser. Definitely not his usual choice of spirits. The bartender had silently served him. Ezra downed both shots of whiskey without even grimacing. He’d then proceeded to toss off the beer. The other three men had watched him with raised eyebrows. Ezra ordered another beer and finally moved to join them at the table. However, three words hadn’t even been exchanged when Ezra had sworn something under his breath and shoved his way out of his chair. He’d made his way to the men’s room without a word. The other three stared at his departing back before sharing puzzled glances with each other. When the southerner failed to return in a timely fashion, Josiah had volunteered to go after him. Chris had gone instead.
Ezra looked up and met Chris’ steady gaze in the mirror. It only lasted a few moments before Ezra dropped his eyes and contemplated the porcelain sink. Chris easily spotted Ezra’s rather ragged breathing and the tremors that periodically shook the southerner’s frame. He was on the downward spiral of a post-adrenaline rush Chris correctly assessed. Chris sighed. It hadn’t really occurred to him that Ezra would be so adversely affected by the scenario he and Vin had played out. The FBI Agent always seemed so cocky and self-assured in his undercover roles that Chris hadn’t given today’s plans a second thought. They had all assumed Ezra would play out the role and never skip a beat. They were wrong judging by the southerner’s rather ashen features and trembling fingers.
“You okay?” Chris asked him bluntly.
“I assure you, Mr. Larabee, everything’s fine,” Ezra lied never taking his eyes off his hands, which were now clenched white knuckled on the sink in an attempt to stop the shaking. Ezra finally forced himself away from the sink and turned to face Chris. He graced the man with a fake smile.
Chris moved in closer to Ezra. He tried to refrain from rolling his eyes heavenward. The man could try the patience of a saint, he thought. Maybe he should have sent Josiah. He seemed to have more luck talking with Ezra than the rest of them combined
“You did a good job back there, Ezra.” Chris leaned his hip against the sink counter next to Ezra folding his arms across his chest. “That wasn’t an easy thing to do.”
The southerner didn’t meet Chris’ eyes but instead “Well, I’ve been asked to do some peculiar things in the line of duty but murdering my partner has never been among them,” Ezra nervously licked his lips nervously trying to forget what had happened between him and his last ‘partner’. That was something he hoped these men never learned about him. Ezra felt the tremors in his hands start up again and he hurriedly clasped them across his chest to try and still them. He flashed a nervous grin at Chris. Damn, he cursed silently; he was behaving like a boy faced by schoolyard bullies.
Chris studied Ezra for a second trying to figure out exactly what was wrong. The southerner was a veteran undercover agent. He wasn’t some wet behind the ears rookie. He would understand that there was usually a crashing letdown waiting at the end of an adrenaline rush. Hell, that was why Vin had suggested the bar. Why the hell was Ezra so upset? Before bringing Ezra in with his team, Chris had studied his background extensively. He knew Ezra had spent weeks even months in deep cover. He’d been involved in some pretty hair raising schemes. A lot of them his own doing, judging by the howls of protest his superiors had registered in his file.
A small thought wriggled its way into Chris’ mind. Ezra had worked alone. Only occasionally had a fellow officer been with him. Even when the FBI had assigned him a partner, Standish had still gone under solo. Now, he was responsible for another human life in addition to his own. Was it possible that Ezra worried about that responsibility? Hell, Ezra didn’t even like them, Chris thought. He’d held himself aloof from the rest of the team from day one even going so far as to abandon them at one point. Exactly, that little voice repeated. He’s scared to get to close or care about them in any way. Trying to shield himself from the hurt that often accompanies friendship. Why, Chris didn’t and couldn’t begin to understand but he was suddenly positive he knew the reason behind Ezra’s shaking hands and rather liberal use of alcohol when they’d arrived at the bar.
Chris reached to lay a hand on the southerner’s shoulder. Ezra tried to flinch out of the way but Chris was ready for the move. He squeezed the southerner’s shoulder firmly.
“You and Vin did a damn good job out there, Ezra” Chris repeated himself. Ezra remained silent. He really didn’t know what to say. Commendations hadn’t exactly been forthcoming from Chris Larabee these last few months. Ezra finally avoided the whole situation.
He pulled away from Chris’ touch, “I think we better rejoin our comrades before they send out a posse.” Chris sighed but decided not to push the man. He followed him out the door as the southerner retreated to the relative safety of the group at the table. Vin met Chris’ eyes as Ezra neared the table. Chris just shrugged slightly. Ezra obviously hadn’t felt like talking.
“Here you go, Ezra,” Buck said pushing a draft beer in front of him. “Vin agreed to pay for this round. We thought it was proper since this is his wake.” Ezra took a healthy dose of the alcoholic beverage and refused to laugh at Buck’s rather bad joke.
“You know, when you mentioned the ziplock bag, I thought you were gonna hear us laughing all the way from where the van was parked.” Nathan grinned at Ezra.
“Damn straight, Ezra.” Buck laughed as he recalled the comment. “Where’d you come up with that one?”
“You missed your calling, Brother Ezra. You should have been a comedian,” Josiah joined in the fun.
“Nah, can you just see Ezra doing standup wearing Versace?” Vin asked seriously.
Ezra rolled his eyes at their ribbing. He knew they were trying to help him relax in their own way. He just wished they’d chosen a different subject. The night stretched on for awhile. The topic of conversation switching from the day’s events to teasing Buck when Inez shot him down for the millionth time back to the day’s events to talk of women in general. Ezra remained silent for the most part but did manage to tease Buck about the meaning of ‘nunca’. As the night began to wind down, Ezra pushed his way from the table.
“Gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure but I think…”he never finished the sentence as he climbed to his feet and the effects of two whiskeys and four beers on an empty stomach within the space of a few hours made itself known. He swayed slightly forced to grip the table to keep his balance. The other four watched expectantly. They’d been waiting for this moment as the southerner downed beer after beer.
Chris pushed his chair back and leaned over fishing Ezra’s keys from his coat pocket. “What I think is one of us is driving you home.” Ezra put up a token protest but the room had started to spin mercilessly. Chris just shook his head letting a small grin cross it. Ezra was going to regret this tomorrow. He tossed his truck keys to Vin. Why don’t you drop everybody off and take my truck home with you. They’d come to the bar in only two cars.
“Come on, Ezra,” he placed his hand behind the southerner’s elbow and hauled him out the door.
Chris struggled with Ezra’s almost dead weight as he fumbled with the keys and tried to open the doors to the townhouse. Ezra had fallen asleep during the drive home and Chris hadn’t completely managed to wake him from the alcoholic stupor. He was a little surprised the man would allow his guard down like this around another person. Today had definitely shaken the man. Chris turned his attention back to the door as the deadbolt clicked and he swung the door open. He sure hoped the place didn’t have an alarm system. He doubted he’d ever get the correct sequence of numbers out of Ezra.
To his surprise, a green light blinked on the keypad by the door. Ezra had apparently failed to arm the system when he left that morning. Just as well, Larabee thought. Or else, they’d have some explaining to do to the police when they arrived. Chris manhandled Ezra through the door pausing to shut and lock it. He fumbled along the wall until his hands found a switch that turn on the entrance light illuminating the room in its soft glow. Ezra moved away from his rather unsteadily and made his way to the couch in the living room.
“Oh no, you don’t,” Chris told him as he grabbed his arm and propelled Ezra to the small hall off the living. He’d never been in Ezra’s townhouse but he figured the master bedroom would logically be down this hall. Ezra was being uncharacteristically quiet and he didn’t protest Chris’ firm guidance.
Chris was rather surprised when he flipped the light switch as they entered the bedroom. It wasn’t what he expected of Ezra. Come to think of it, he wasn’t sure what he expected Ezra’s home to be like. More modern, he thought. The room that greeted him was pleasantly old-fashioned. A massive bed dominated the room. So tall, a set of steps was placed next to the side. Definitely not the kind of bed one fell into. More like, climbed onto.
Ezra moved away from Chris again and made straight for the bed. God, he was so tired. He crawled onto the bed without bothering to remove his clothes. Chris sighed as he watched the southerner. The man was definitely going to regret tonight’s actions. He moved back down the short hall and into the kitchen. A quick search yielded a glass and a bottle of aspirin. Filling the glass from the kitchen sink and shaking several aspirin loose from the bottle Chris made his way back into the quaint bedroom.
“Ezra, wake up,” Chris shook his shoulder firmly. Apparently, the man wasn’t completely asleep as he swiped at Chris’ hand.
“Go’way,” Ezra slurred at the annoying hand on his shoulder his southern accent very thick.
“Not until you drink this,” Chris shook him insistently. The aspirin and water weren’t going to prevent tomorrow’s misery but they might help diminish it some. Chris knew being the expert on self-inflicted misery. He forced Ezra to sit up and down the aspirin and entire glass of water. He also helped the man remove the suit coat and his guns. Ezra lay back down again muttering something Chris didn’t quite catch.
Chris placed the empty glass on the bedside table and watched his wayward agent as sleep claimed the man. Sighing, Chris moved to the foot of the bed and removed his man’s shoes and socks. It wasn’t until he picked up Ezra’s right foot to get the shoe off that he felt the ankle holster and gun. He pushed the leg of the pants up and stared at the small derringer Ezra kept hidden. Damn, the man was a walking arsenal and the ankle holster was definitely not regulation. Chris ripped the Velcro free and removed the ankle gun; too, laying it next to the other two guns he’d taken off the man on the bureau. He pulled a blanket off the quilt rack at the foot of the bed and threw it over the man.
Chris quietly left the room pausing to check on Ezra once more before he switched off the overhead light. He made his way back to the living room. The hallway light provided enough illumination for him to navigate without bumping into anything. He got himself a glass of water as he pondered taking Ezra’s Jag and driving out to his place. He decided against it. He was paying a teenage neighbor to care for the animals since he never knew when he’d make it in. Besides which, he was too tired and he really didn’t want Ezra waking up here alone.
Chris made his way silently into the living room and was glad to find a wool throw neatly folded across the back of the leather sofa. Almost groaning in relief, he pulled off his guns and boots, wrapped himself in the throw, and sank into the overstuffed sofa. Gawd, he thought to himself. Ezra’s furniture must have cost as much as that damn car.
Ezra rolled over trying to ignore the sunlight that brightened the room. He pulled the quilt up over his head and resolutely shut his eyes. He was just about to doze off again when the alarm by the bed began to shrill stridently. He reached out with a fumbling hand and slapped it off. Groaning he rolled over onto his back. It was then that he became fully aware of his throbbing head. His mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton. As he pulled an arm up to cover his eyes with his hands, he noticed he was still wearing yesterday’s clothes. Really, he thought, it was all just too much.
He tried to remember the events of the previous night. He vaguely recalled leaving the bar following what must have been an unimaginable number of beers. Cheap beers, to add insult to injury. He didn’t recall driving home and realized that he must not have done so. Which didn’t explain how he’d arrived in his own bed. Half-undressed and alone. Again.
Ezra contemplated going back to sleep again when he smelled the definite aroma of coffee. He was pretty sure he hadn’t been in any condition last night to fill the coffeepot and set the automatic timer. He obviously had an uninvited guest. Well, he might as well find out who had witnessed his misery.
Chris poured himself a cup of hot coffee when he heard the shower in the room off Ezra’s bedroom start. Guess he’s awake, he thought to himself. Chris eased himself down in one of the chairs at the antique oak table in the dining room that extended into the kitchen. There had been no paper on the porch step that morning. Obviously Ezra wasn’t subscribing to the Denver Sun or any of the local papers. Chris pulled some paperwork out of the briefcase he’d retrieved from the Jag. He might as well start filling out the never-ending reports this job entailed.
Chris was halfway through his second page detailing the actions Ezra and Vin had taken the previous day when Ezra appeared in the archway from the hall to the kitchen. Chris looked up masking a smile behind his coffee cup at the southerner’s appearance. Ezra was impeccably dressed as always but you couldn’t hide bloodshot eyes behind Armani suits and silk ties.
“Mornin’, Ezra,” Chris greeted the southerner receiving only a grunt in return. Definitely not a morning person, Chris thought. “Coffee’s on.” He nodded his head to the kitchen. He took another sip. One thing about it, Ezra bought damn fine coffee. “You ready for today?”
Ezra poured himself a cup of coffee. This morning he thought he’d take it strong and black. He turned to face Chris.
“Mr. Larabee, the only thing I am ready for at this…ungodly hour is the comfort of my down pilla,” Ezra’s voice was heavy from sleep. Chris smirked and took another sip of coffee.
“I take it you slept here last night?” Ezra asked as he surveyed Chris’ clothing. Not to mention, his very presence in the house. Come to think of it, he hadn’t received a single visitor, overnight or otherwise, since the move to Denver. He tried not to contemplate what that said about him.
“Yeah, long way back to the house. Didn’t figure it was worth the trip.” Chris didn’t mention that he’d felt hesitant to leave the southerner alone with his demons. He’d checked on Ezra a few times during the night. The man was a restless sleeper, Chris had discovered.
“You gonna be up to meeting with Fallon today?” Chris asked studying Ezra closely. “The last thing we need at this point is any major delays.”
“Don’t let these bloodshot eyes fool you, I shall be prepared to meet with our Mr. Fallon this afternoon,” Ezra eased himself down in the chair across from Chris.
“Remind me to ‘just say no’ next time I am asked to partake in Vin Tanner’s version of ‘good beer’,” Ezra moaned as he rubbed his eyes. Chris just laughed. Storing the report back into his briefcase he slapped the southerner on the back. He nearly laughed again at Ezra’s moan of protest.
“C’mon, Ezra, we’ve got bad guys to catch,” Chris stood up fishing the Jag’s keys from his pocket. “I’m still driving,” he told Ezra in a no-nonsense voice.
“Wonderful,” Ezra moaned into his coffee cup. Pouring the remaining coffee into his travel mug he followed his ‘fearless’ leader out the door leading to the garage.
“Hey there, Ezra, how’s the head?” Vin teased the southerner when he followed Chris into the suite of offices. Ezra tried to flatten Vin with a glare but it wasn’t quite as effective as those Chris Larabee leveled people with on a daily basis.
“The ‘head’ is fine, Mr. Tanner. No thanks to your rather dubious taste concerning what constitutes good beer,” Ezra shot back.
Vin just grinned at him refusing to be insulted. He leaned back in the office chair crossing his left leg with his right. “Aw hell, Ezra, everybody knows that Leinies is an excellent brew.”
“Leinies? Is that what it’s called? Good Lord, dare I ask what that name represents?” Ezra moaned as he continued to make his way across the room to his small office.
Before Vin could reply, Chris came back into the common room. “Has anybody seen Buck this morning?”
Josiah spoke up; “He’s being fitted for a miniature mike and transmitter.”
Chris nodded. He’d suspected as much. “I want to go over his cover with the whole group as soon as he gets back.” He headed off to the locker rooms for the change of clothes he normally kept there.
Ezra moved over to his mailbox and began sorting through the stack of papers there. Why was it that even at work 80% of the mail you received was junk mail and the remaining you didn’t want to read? Ezra was sorting the stack into ‘keep’ and ‘circular file’ when Buck came breezing into the room.
“Hey there, Ezra,” he said brightly. He was actually excited about the chance to work undercover. He rarely got to do so usually providing support to the team. “Whoo! This is gonna be fun.” From the looks of things, Buck was revved up on all eight cylinders. Ezra sighed inwardly as he dumped the larger pile of mail into the trash and navigated his way to his office. He really wasn’t up to dealing with an over-enthusiastic Buck Wilmington. It hurt his head too much. Ezra sighed as he grabbed up his brief notes and made his way to the conference table where the other men were gathering. It was going to be a long day.
When Buck slammed the door of the Jag, Ezra forced himself to remain calm. He tried to remind himself that the lady’s man didn’t have a great deal of undercover experience. He would be understandably nervous. That or he just didn’t understand the value of a fine car. Ezra wasn’t sure which was true.
He checked Buck over with a critical eye. The team hadn’t been able to get Buck in a suit. The best Ezra had been able to manage was a pair of freshly pressed jeans and a sports jacket. Buck had only agreed to the jacket as a means to hide his weapon. Ezra had argued they had appearances to maintain. To which Buck had replied he wasn’t there to look like a heifer in a flower patch. He was Ezra’s bodyguard not his business partner. Ezra had finally thrown up his hands in a gesture of surrender.
“Are you through, Mother?” Buck smirked as he watched Ezra give him a once over.
Ezra shot him an annoyed glance. “I am just ascertaining that you aren’t wearing part of that concoction you called lunch.”
“THAT, Ezra, was a chile cheese dog with extra onions,” Buck teased the southerner.
“Yes, and how you can stomach something like that is beyond me,” Ezra shot back as they approached the lobby. Ezra hadn’t been able to find much of an appetite when lunchtime rolled around. He’d simply taken a few more aspirin and washed them down with cold coffee.
“Wait here, Mr. Simpson. Mr. Fallon is just finishing some business over the phone,” Fallon’s man was courteous as he escorted the two men into the living room of the large suite. The courtesy ended there, however. The man moved back behind the sofas where he leaned against a wall. He never took an eye off the two men. Ezra shook his head ruefully, what had happened to honor among thieves? Seems nobody trusted anyone these days.
The door behind Ezra opened with a click. Ezra forced himself to relax and not behave like he was going to get a bullet in the back any second.
Ezra rose smoothly as Fallon came into view.
“Ahh, Ezra, I appreciate your promptness.”
Ezra grimaced when Fallon extended his hand. Looked like he was going to need more hand soap.
Ezra waved a hand in Buck’s direction, “I’d like you to meet my associate, Mr. Dale Wilmington,”
Fallon turned his gaze to Buck.
Buck smiled at Fallon; “It is so good to meet you.” Buck was open and enthusiastic complimenting the man on his taste in clothes, asking how he was enjoying his stay in the Mile High City. He was everything that Vin had not been. Fallon grinned at Ezra slyly as he shook Buck’s hands.
“Guess you got that hazardous waste problem disposed of?”
“I assure you, sir, our former associate is resting in peace.” Buck grinned at Fallon as Ezra resettled himself on the couch. Crossing his legs he prepared to engage in the small talk that had pervaded their last few meetings. This time it wasn’t to be though.
“Well, Mr. Simpson, let’s get down to business, shall we?”
Ezra didn’t let the relief show in his voice. He’d begun to despair of ever getting this man to tell him his secrets.
“That, my good sir, would be a pleasure.”
“The weapons are being contained in a small home on Colorado Blvd. It’s a standard exchange. We arrive with the money. They give us the guns.”
Chris nodded. This wasn’t news to him. They’d been monitoring the entire conversation through a link in Ezra’s jacket. None of the agents were sure why Fallon had suddenly become so cooperative. It appeared that he’d fallen hook, line and sinker for the Vin ‘shooting’.
“The exchange takes place at 8,” Buck continued. The group discussed the situation awhile longer agreeing on tactics before the meeting began to break up. JD was the first to leave the room followed closely by Josiah and Nathan. Buck was halfway out the door when he heard Chris speaking to Ezra.
“You okay with this?” Chris asked his undercover agent softly. He didn’t like Ezra’s reaction to the events of the previous day. He knew Ezra was on edge and not at the top of his game emotionally.
Ezra eyed Chris his face betraying no emotion whatsoever. Chris wasn’t someone who controlled his temper well and as he watched Ezra present him with a face completely devoid of emotion he wondered where the man had learned the trick. It irritated Chris to no end when he was unable to guess where Ezra was coming from.
“I’ll be fine,” Ezra said simply his gaze never wavering from Larabee’s. Ezra was relieved when Chris chose to back down. Actually, the meet scheduled for the following morning wasn’t really bothering him. He’d been through this type of covert operation dozens of time before. In the scheme of things, Fallon was a small time dealer although he did have violent tendencies. The man shouldn’t present a challenge.
Ezra couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong. One minute he and Buck had been talking to Fallon and his associates and the next he’d heard Buck yell out a warning before he was slammed from behind and forced to his knees. A cry had been wrenched from his throat at the blinding pain that was centered in his shoulder. He’d instinctively clawed for his gun with his right hand as he twisted around to confront his attacker. His arm and fingers wouldn’t function properly and he’d turned around in time to see a baseball bat descending towards his right hand. The resulting blow to the wrist had actually numbed his arm. It was rather bizarre. Or that’s what his mind told him. Somehow, it should have hurt but didn’t. At least, not yet. Another blow to his ribs resulted in an audible crunch. He barely heard Buck yelling “ATF, Freeze” before the baseball bat connected with his head.
Buck watched in horror as Ezra sprawled out on the floor. He forced his mind off the disabled agent and to the six men he faced down. He sure as hell didn’t like the looks of the five automatic weapons he faced. He was outgunned and outnumbered.
Fallon had felt his world fall out from underneath him when he heard Simpson’s bodyguard yell ATF. This was not the way it was supposed to happen. The plan had been simple. Get Simpson to show up with the money to buy the guns and simply rob him. That way, he had the guns AND the money. Federal agents? The gun dealer turned thief was beginning to feel ill. However, that didn’t stop him from turning his gun on the downed man. He forced himself to calm down and think.
“Make a move and he’s dead. Anybody comes near this building and I’ll shoot them both. Do you hear me out there?” Fallon’s words were delivered at the top of his lung although he suspected the men inside were wired and he could easily be heard by whatever surveillance was outside.
Ezra groaned on the floor and began to move slowly one hand reaching up to cradle his head. Buck tensed as he faced the armed men. “As for you Wilmington, is that your name? Put that gun down and I’ll get Tacho here to lay off with that bat of his. You can’t get all of us before we kill your friend.”
God dammit, Buck swore to himself. He finally held his hands up in a gesture of surrender and very gently placed his gun on the ground. Ezra needed him and he was seriously outgunned. This was not a good day to die.
Chris was in a frenzy. “What the hell’s happening in there?” He yelled at no one in particular. The remaining five members of the team and the men assigned to back them up when the bust was made had been in position when inside the building all hell had broken loose.
They’d heard Ezra talking to Fallon when Buck yelled what must have been a warning. Long before he should have Buck had identified himself as an ATF Agent. Chris was on the verge of sending the troops in when Fallon’s voice had come in over the headset he was wearing in a crackle of static. He was warning anyone outside of the building to back off. Chris hated doing it but he couldn’t send in the team without first knowing more about the situation. He ordered the team to stand down.
“JD can’t you make this any clearer?” Chris was yelling at this point but he didn’t have time to be polite. The radio transmission from the small mike Buck was wearing was full of static.
“I’m working on it,” was all the young agent had to say as he bent over the receiver.
Suddenly a screech of feedback forced both men to hastily remove their headphones to protect their hearing. When Chris put his back on the wire was dead. Damn, he thought they must have found Buck’s mike. Now they were almost completely in the dark about what was going on.
“JD, get on the phone with headquarters. Tell them we need a hostage negotiating team and more back up. Now!” Chris hated to relinquish control but this was a hell of a lot more than any of them had bargained for. That’s what I get for thinking Fallon was going to be an easy catch, he mentally kicked himself.
Fallon was pacing the small room swearing to himself in a long litany of expletives. He had removed the small transmitter from Wilmington after threatening the man with Simpson’s life. Or whatever the hell the man’s real name was. Buck had almost instantly surrendered his mike. He’d recalled the somewhat lengthy file on the man alluding to his treatment of subordinates who’d betrayed him. He had no doubt the man would kill Ezra without a second thought.
Finally, Buck spoke up never taking his eyes off Ezra, “Look, I just want to help him. I won’t try anything.” Fallon just shrugged and turned back to his men issuing orders at a rapid rate. In no time, the blinds on the windows had been shut snugly as were the doors leading into the room.
Buck knelt down next to the wounded agent. Ezra had rolled himself onto his left side but had made no further attempt to move. He was conscious his eyes open as he blinked dazedly his gaze on some unseen point in the room. Buck carefully placed hands on the back of Ezra’s head and his hip. Ezra started sharply at the touch.
“Ezra, it’s me, Buck,” he soothed the hurt man. “I just want to get a look at you, partner. Just try to relax.” Ezra didn’t respond except to close his eyes completely as Buck began to examine the head wound. Blood was pouring from the wound but Buck had enough EMT training to know this was common. Fortunately, the bat had connected with Ezra’s forehead. It had split open the skin and an ugly bruise was forming but the front of the skull was the strongest point. That kind of blow to the temple might have killed him. Buck also suspected the last blow had been rather glancing since Ezra had been falling away from his attacker. He turned back to Fallon and this time his words were hard.
“I need something to help stop the bleeding. Towels, rags, anything.” The men ignored him until Fallon nodded his assent. “Give him what he wants.” Fallon had no wish to be tried for the murder of a federal agent. That is, if letting the man die didn’t immediately aid in saving his life or getting out of this mess. One of the men disappeared from the room and returned a few seconds later with some towels.
Buck grabbed one and folded up a corner and applied pressure to the wound on Ezra’s head. He’d rolled the man onto his back. This seemed to bring Ezra out of his daze. He hissed trying to pull away from Buck’s ministrations. “Hold still, Ezra,” Buck told him sharply. Ezra’s head slowly rolled around until his eyes met Buck’s.
“Yeah, pard, it’s me. Just lie still.” Buck watched as Ezra cradled his right arm in his left. “You hurt anywhere else?”
Ezra seemed to think about it for a second before he softly whispered, “Just my shoulder and my head.” He’d quickly discovered that any movement on his part sent his shoulder protesting in pain.
Buck didn’t understand as he recalled the sickening crunch he’d heard when the bat had connected to the man’s ribs. Buck had been convinced that every one of Ezra’s ribs had been shattered or driven into his lungs. “Let me take a look.”
With the hand that Buck wasn’t using to apply pressure to the head wound, he began to feel around Ezra’s rib cage. He slipped his hand under the left lapel of Ezra’s jacket. Ezra winced slightly when Buck applied pressure to his rib cage but it didn’t seem to cause him much pain. Buck stared at him puzzled when a thought occurred to him. Reaching back under Ezra’s jacket he came into contact with the small cell phone Ezra normally carried. He pulled the phone out where he could see it. Buck stared at the small piece of twisted metal. He was unable to suppress the giddy feeling of relief that overcame him and laughter erupted from his lips. The baseball bat must have landed squarely on the phone saving Ezra from a world of hurt.
Ezra opened his eyes and glared up at Buck. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out was so damn funny about the whole situation. He hurt abominably. From what he was able to sort out, they were hostages of a cold-blooded killer or worse. Leave it to Buck to find the humor in a situation this dire.
Buck noticed the southerner’s glare, which only deepened his relief. Buck held up the remnants of the cell phone.
“Hope you weren’t expecting any calls.”
Vin and Josiah were forced to physically restrain Chris as he confronted the police negotiator, Keith Baxter. He was beyond all reason, “Dammit, those are my men in there! You are not going to say anything or do anything that puts them in any danger. You sure as hell are not going to poison them with that damn gas.” He had overheard the SWAT team and his superiors discussing the use of tear gas to flush Fallon and his men out of the house. He didn’t know what condition Ezra and Buck were in but it couldn’t be good. He’d been exposed to the gas once; they all had, in small concentrations during training. It had been hell. He couldn’t imagine being hurt or injured and dealing with it. Ezra had suffered through a particularly severe reaction to the irritating fumes. When the hell had he lost control of this whole situation, he wondered?
The negotiator turned to Chris and tried to soothe the irate man. In his softest most reasonable voice he tried to explain the need to end this situation quickly as if Chris was a layman who didn’t understand the danger of an extended hostage situation. The effects of the CS gas would be short-lived. His agents wouldn’t suffer any lasting toxic effects. Within 30 minutes of exposure, the irritation to the eyes and mucous membranes would most likely cease. Even earlier, if the men received proper treatment immediately upon rescue.
Chris continued to argue with Baxter his voice rough with emotion, “If Fallon is a non-responder, all the CS gas in the world won’t do us a damn bit of good and my men will suffer for it. I’m not gonna let that happen.”
“Agent Larabee, it’s better than risking a bullet. Fallon’s a cold-blooded bastard. He won’t hesitate to kill them and I think you know that.” Baxter tried to convince Chris. The black-clad agent just glared at him. He couldn’t stomach the thought of Buck or Ezra being hurt in any way. Especially not by their own men. Hell, it was as bad as shooting a man in the back.
Finally, Chris pulled himself free of his men’s hold; “You’re not using that poison on my men.” Chris moved away from the small group and leaned against the Suburban behind him. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared at the small group of men who hadn’t taken their eyes off him.
“Okay, Larabee, have it your way for now. But this can’t go on much longer. If we can’t resolve the situation quickly, we’re going in,” Larabee’s immediate superior responded to him. His tone brooked no room for argument. Normally, Larabee would be the first one to argue for the immediate use of force and to let the cards fall where they lay. This time, however, it was his men in there. He just wasn’t willing to risk them.
“Aw hell, Ezra, you’ve gotta try and lie still,” Buck tried to soothe the pain-ridden southerner. Ezra shifted positions restlessly despite Wilmington’s restraining hands. Buck had managed to stop the bleeding from the head wound but he was pretty sure Ezra’s shoulder had been dislocated. There was nothing he could do about that and he knew Ezra’s every move caused the man pain.
“What’s happening?” he asked, his voice thick with pain. God, it was so hard to think. He squeezed his eyes shut as a sharp pain lanced through his aching head. One shaking hand moved to try and hold his head but Buck’s hand intercepted him. Buck squeezed his hand as he brought it back down to Ezra’s chest.
“Leave that alone, Ezra,” Buck admonished the hurt man. “You’ll just get it bleeding again or infected.”
“What’s happening?” Ezra repeated himself as he struggled to a sitting position. Buck just sighed. He tried to ease Ezra into a more comfortable position leaning against him. He was extremely careful of the injured right arm and shoulder. He’d managed to fashion a sling of sorts out of the towels he’d been given. If nothing else, it reminded the southerner to keep his arm still. Not that he needed reminding, Buck thought, it probably felt like it was on fire even when he didn’t move around. Buck had heard that the longer a joint remain dislocated the worse it was to reduce back into position. Ezra would require surgery to get the bones properly repositioned. The head wound worried Buck somewhat. So far, Ezra had remained lucid but Buck could see that the southerner’s pupils were unevenly dilated. Not a good sign in Wilmington’s mind.
“Nothin’, Ezra. Everyone’s just waiting around waiting for someone else to make the next move.” Buck explained to the groggy man. He’d heard the multitude of police sirens that no doubt signaled the arrival of backup for Chris’ small team. Dealing with a hostage situation was not in their training. Chris would be forced to call in help. Buck smiled slightly when he pictured Larabee’s anger at being forced to relinquish control over to the “proper authorities”. As someone who’d been there more than once, he pitied the man on the receiving end of Larabee’s anger and frustration.
Ezra shifted positions against Buck trying to ease the ache in his arm. “Dammit, Ezra,” Buck whispered fiercely to the smaller man, “would you just lie still for one second.”
“Mr. Wilmington, your concern is…” Ezra never finished his sentence as another injudicious move of his arm sent fire lancing from his fingertips to his chest. He pressed into Buck gasping as he cradled his right arm fiercely with his good hand. He hadn’t told Buck that in addition to the dislocation he thought the arm was broken just above the wrist.
“Ezra, dammit Ezra, answer me!” Ezra vaguely heard Buck’s voice whispering urgently too him. Ezra didn’t have the awareness to spare at the moment to answer the man. However, he did hear something else in Buck Wilmington’s voice. Concern and caring. It stunned him. He wasn’t used to that in the people around him. Hell, he wasn’t even entirely convinced his Mother really cared for him. He looked up to find himself staring into Buck Wilmington’s concerned blue eyes. Buck had shifted positions until Ezra’s back was against the wall and he knelt in front of the hurt man.
Finally, the pain receded back to its miserable dull ache and Ezra answered the worried man, “Buck, my given name is not dammit Ezra.”
Buck stared at him speechlessly for a second before he started laughing. Almost giggling with relief. If Ezra was still able to joke, the situation couldn’t be all that bad. He forced himself to quiet down, as one of Fallon’s men looked their way. So far, their captors hadn’t paid them much attention. They’d simply thrown them into a corner of the room and forgotten about them. Buck really didn’t want to become the center of their attention. He turned back to Ezra.
“Sorry, pard, you had me worried there for a second,” Buck said softly as he squeezed Ezra’s uninjured arm. Ezra just stared at him as though he’d grown two heads.
Buck settled against the wall next to Ezra. He brought his knees up and rested his forearms on them. “Don’t these guys realize there’s no way out of this? I mean, there’s no way Chris or anybody else is going to negotiate and let slime like this go free.”
“Somehow, Buck, I don’t believe these men are thinking rationally at this point.” Ezra closed his eyes and laid his throbbing head back against the wall behind him.
“You know standard operating procedures are probably going to be relied upon,” Buck said. He watched Fallon as the man yelled into the phone. Buck knew at this moment he was talking to a police negotiator. Someone trained to gain the trust of the armed hostage taker. Wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, Buck could tell by the man’s whole demeanor. He was cold, talking into the phone in sharp clipped sentences. Laying out his demands most likely.
“Hey Ezra, do you think he wants the usual demands?” Buck asked the agent next to him. He got no response from Ezra. He moved forward softly to peer into Ezra’s face. Damn, he was asleep. Buck reached over grasping Ezra’s jaw firmly in his hand. He shook the southerner slightly.
“Ezra. Ezra, wake up,” he told the southerner firmly. Then more firmly, “Dammit, Ezra, wake up.”
Ezra’s eyes opened and Buck found himself looking directly into Ezra’s green eyes. “I think it’s best if you tried to stay awake for now, Ezra.” Ezra sighed and nodded slightly. He knew Buck was correct. However, he was so sleepy.
“Ezra, wake up!” the command was whispered sharply but Buck finally got his point across. Ezra dragged his eyes open again.
“Maybe if you entertained me with one of your charming anecdotes it would help me stay awake,” Ezra said hoping Buck’s voice would help him stay centered.
Buck didn’t need any more encouragement than that. Even under these circumstances, Buck could always come up with a story.
“Did I ever tell you about this girl I met once? Whooee, boy. She was so ugly she’d make a freight train jump the tracks and take a dirt road. Yessiree, let me tell you about her…”
Standard Operating Procedures. Chris Larabee was beginning to hate those words. If the negotiations failed, the next step was to try to flush the men out of the compound with tear gas. If the canister bombs failed, they would then be followed by an all out assault of the building. Well, the negotiations had failed and now they were sending in the tear gas and then the troops. Chris tried not to think about Buck and Ezra who would be subject to the gas and quite possibly caught in the crossfire between the police and Fallon’s men.
Chris shifted uncomfortably in the Kevlar vest. Buck and Ezra would not have even the small protection the vests offered. A full-face respirator hung from his neck. He hoped like hell that they wouldn’t need the masks to enter the building. He pulled the SIG and checked the clip once more. Fully loaded. Chris settled back into position. He noticed Nathan beside him mirroring his actions.
“Come on,” Chris muttered under his breath. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
“Easy there, Chris,” Nathan reassured him with a hand on his arm. “Best we not rush into this. Besides, I don’t think Buck and Ezra are gonna like this next part very much.”
“Yeah,” Chris agreed, “neither am I.”
“I hear you, Chris. I hear you.”
The two men settled back to wait for the signal to enter the building. Chris knew Josiah, Vin, and JD were with the SWAT team going in through the side entrance. Chris winced when he heard popping noises followed by the unmistakable sounds of shattering glass. The tear gas had been delivered.
Buck had finally been forced to let Ezra sleep. The afternoon had dragged on endlessly. Finally, the effects of concussion, the dragging pain and just plain exhaustion had overcome Buck’s insistence that Ezra stay awake. Buck checked his watch again. It had only been 30 minutes since he’d last forced Ezra to wake up for a few minutes and speak with him. Not that it mattered, Buck thought ruefully. Even if Ezra wasn’t coherent or had difficulty waking up there wasn’t much Buck could do about it. It’s not as though he could dial 911 or rush him to the nearest emergency room. Ol’ Fallon would probably deep six that idea in a hurry.
Ezra now lay with his head cushioned in Buck’s lap resting on his uninjured side. Buck had been surprised to find he could keep Ezra quiet and still this way. Ezra had never seemed the type to accept that type of comfort. Just goes to show you never could tell abut a person, he thought. Two of Fallon’s men had felt the need to share a few rude remarks and gestures. Buck had chosen to ignore them as he tried to keep Ezra as comfortable as possible.
Buck felt the pattern of Ezra’s breathing change and he tensed under his hands. Buck rubbed the southerner’s back and side soothingly.
“Easy there, pard,” he spoke softly. “What’s wrong, Ezra?” he asked worriedly when Ezra didn’t relax. Since he was lying with his back to him, Buck was unable to see Ezra’s face.
“I hope that is a rhetorical question,” Ezra’s voice drifted up to Buck.
Buck laughed, “Well, it wasn’t meant to be but I see your point.”
About the only thing that had made the day bearable was the fact that Fallon had left them alone following their initial takedown. The gun dealer/thief had no interest in the two men except as hostages who might be useful in extricating himself from his current predicament. Lord, Buck thought, the whole time we’re scamming him he’s doing the same damn thing to us. The problem with Fallon’s plan was he hadn’t realized his intended victims’ were federal agents. He’d thought they were just stupid rich men out to buy arms to further their own terrorist agendas.
Fallon watched his two hostages and cursed. Federal agents, who would have thought? He’d never pegged Ezra Simpson as a fed. That probably wasn’t even his real name. Yeah, he thought, and the guy Ezra’d murdered was probably still alive, too. You should make your living as a conman, son, you’ve got the gift, Fallon mused to himself. Hell, we’d have made a great team.
He’d run this scam half a dozen times. Usually, he made a hasty escape after securing the money. It was successfull because illegal gun buyers weren’t going to run to the police for help. Now he was caught in a situation that was increasingly out of his control. He slammed the phone down when the negotiator’s voice began to get on his nerves. He was a thief dammit not a hostage negotiator. He heard the rumblings of discontent that were coming from his men. So far, he’d just ignored them but it was only a matter of time before somebody somewhere did something stupid.
Ezra tried to ease his position as the muscle spasms in his injured shoulder worsened. Now he knew what it felt like to be on the wrong end of a baseball bat. He had a feeling this was only going to increase his aversion to the sport. He felt Buck’s hands on him once more and heard the man’s increasingly worried voice. Good Lord, Buck was worse than Nathan was when it came to the mother hen instinct.
Buck returned Fallon’s stare with an angry glare of his own. He’d tried earlier to convince the man to at least release Ezra as a goodwill gesture. His pleas had fallen on deaf ears. Ezra’s injuries were not life threatening but he was in a great deal of pain. And dammit, Buck hated to see anyone suffer. Especially men he considered his friends. Ezra had held up well though despite his misery. He’d never thought the southerner could be so stoic. He’d have to ask Ezra about that when they got out of this mess.
Buck’s thoughts were interrupted when the windows in the front of the room shattered. He jerked around trying to see above the furniture to the other side of the room. The mist from the canisters that rolled across the room told him everything he needed to know. Pepper spray of some sort or CS gas. Their rescuers wouldn’t be far behind. However, the next few minutes weren’t going to be pleasant.
Ezra yelped in pain as he felt Buck drag him from his lap. He’d heard the breaking glass but his pain-fogged exhausted mind had refused to register what that meant. He felt himself dropped to the hard floor and the weight that covered him sent screams of protest radiating from his shoulder.
Buck ignored Ezra’s protests as he scrambled to protect the southerner. His eyes were already beginning to water from the effects of the irritating fumes. “Lie still, Ezra, before you get us both shot,” he whispered roughly into the ear of the man squirming beneath him.
Fortunately, for Buck the effects of the gas weren’t too overwhelming. It was damned irritating and caused his eyes to water and nose and mouth to burn but he had never been completely overcome by it. Ezra, he remembered, would be a different story. In training, the southerner’s reaction to the gas had been rather violent. He’d been completely incapacitated by the stuff. They’d been forced to stop the scenario while Nathan and a medic had assisted Ezra in scrubbing every bit of the stuff from his body and washing the noxious substance from his eyes, nose, and mouth. Ezra had felt ill for days afterward.
Buck clutched the southerner to his chest as he felt Ezra began to react to the gas. He caught Ezra’s good hand in his own and forced it away from his eyes. That impulse only served to spread the fire.
“Leave it alone, Ezra. Lie still.”
Buck tried to see what was going on in the room while he made himself and Ezra as small a target as possible. His watering eyes however made it impossible to focus. He forced himself to ignore the desire to claw his eyes out. He could hear the yells coming from Fallon and his men. Buck hoped like hell that they were too preoccupied to decide they needed a hostage to use as a shield from the oncoming assault. Buck closed his eyes and lowered his head to Ezra’s shoulder trying to breathe as little as possible. He could feel the moans coming from the man beneath him. God, he hated this shit.
Pandemonium broke loose in the room. Armed men dressed in khaki or black fatigues seemed to spill through the doorways and windows. Shouts of “Freeze” and “Federal Agents” strangely muffled by the respirators they were wearing. Gunfire erupted almost immediately. Buck shifted positions over Ezra and hoped like hell that nobody chose to use them as targets. Buck squeezed his burning eyes shut. He knew he was better off lying still and waiting for someone to get him and Ezra out of the building. Buck just wished they’d hurry the hell up before he became a close personal friend with a bullet.
Chris slipped through the side door of the building with Nathan at his back. He eased through the kitchen of the house. They both knew it was imperative they choose their targets carefully or they’d end up shooting one of the good guys or god forbid Ezra or Buck. He heard the voices of the second team identifying themselves as federal officers and then the sound of gunfire erupted from a room to his right. Chris moved quickly in that direction.
Buck wasn’t prepared for the hands that grabbed his arms and shoulders. He reached back trying to jab the would-be attacker in the ribs with his elbow. Chris grunted as Buck’s elbow connected with his ribs.
“Buck, Buck, it’s Chris. It’s Chris. Come on let’s get out of here. You can let go of him now, Buck. Nathan’s got him.” The words and familiar voice finally penetrated Buck’s mind and he released the man beneath him and let Chris haul him to his feet. It wasn’t until then that he realized the shooting had stopped. The air was punctuated with only a few moans. He let Chris manhandle him off the floor and out of the building.
The fresh air was a welcome relief and Buck sagged to the grass choking and coughing. Chris was beside him ripping the respirator off and removing his gloves. “You okay there? Don’t have any holes in ya?” he asked as he watched Buck breathe in great gulps of air.
“Never better,” Buck choked out. A second figure ran up beside him. It was a medic judging from the man’s clothes. He was breaking out an eyewash bottle and sterile bottles of water. Before Buck could protest or even ask what was going on he found himself forced to submit to the eye-washing and skin scrubbing.
Chris was watching Buck when two more men exited the building dragging Ezra Standish between them. Nathan and Josiah eased the man to the ground. Ezra immediately tried to curl up into a ball coughing and choking. The hand that wasn’t in the makeshift sling was trying to scratch at his inflamed eyes.
Nathan’s voice was stern as he tried to penetrate the Southerner’s misery, “Leave it alone, Ezra. You’re only makin’ it worse.” Ezra didn’t respond and Nathan and Josiah were forced to physically hold him still. Chris winced when he saw the bruise across Ezra’s forehead and the cut where the skin had split open. A medic shouldered Chris out of the way as he assisted Nathan in washing out the FBI agent’s eyes and scrubbing his exposed skin. Chris again winced in sympathy when Ezra protested the vigorous scrubbing. That had to hurt.
Chris leaned back tiredly in the armchair in the hospital’s surgical unit waiting room. He and the other five men had arranged themselves around the almost empty room. They’d all been forced to give up their contaminated clothes and submit to a thorough shower before being allowed to leave for the hospital. Now Chris knew he thoroughly hated the use of CS gas.
The ER had been crowded but they’d accepted Ezra immediately as a trauma case. The resident who’d informed them of his condition a few hours ago had almost been overwhelmed when the six men had crowded around him. Standish had suffered a serious blow to the head but except for a moderate concussion the CT scans were clear. They’d been unable to reduce the acute shoulder dislocation using a local anesthetic. Immediate surgery would be required. Fortunately, the resident informed him that he hadn’t broken any bones in his forearm. It was just badly bruised. The inflammation should begin to disappear in a few days. The doctor also assured them that the southerner had suffered no serious side effects from the tear gas. Just some discomfort. He’d then answered their questions before making his way back into the ER and on to his next patient.
Chris fidgeted in the chair beside the bed. He rubbed his eyes as he stretched out his legs trying to relieve the stiffness. He was getting too damn old to be sitting in these hospital chairs, he thought. Ezra had been awakened the previous night by the staff in the recovery room and periodically by the nurses on the floor. Each time, he’d been groggy and slightly disoriented. More from the anesthesia and the hellish day he’d suffered through than from any effects of the concussion the nurse’s assured the Team. Chris and Buck had finally been left alone with him as dawn approached. Chris had sent the rest of the men home. He’d intended to go home, also, until Buck had refused to leave.
Buck was now sprawled out in the chair next to Chris his feet propped up on the bed snoring softly. A thin blanket covered him. He looked like hell, Chris thought. He doubted the man would be quite so quick to volunteer to go undercover next time. Although, who would have guessed that Fallon and his men were only trying to steal money. They’d actually managed to subdue the gun dealer and his associates with minimal trouble. A few shots had been exchanged but most of the men had been more worried about trying to draw their next breath. It would have been a hell of a lot easier, Chris thought, if they’d left the damn house instead of barricading themselves inside when the gas canisters had been deployed.
Chris turned his eyes back to the man in the bed. Ezra’s arm was firmly strapped to his chest. A small bandage covered the stitched wound in his forehead. The bruise spreading out from underneath it. When Buck had told them about the baseball bat, Chris wasn’t sure which member of the team was the angriest. JD had looked downright ill. If he stuck with the team, Chris thought, the boy was going to grow up fast.
Buck stirred in the chair beside him. Chris leaned back in his chair as he watched him wake up. Buck yawned and pulled his hand out from under the blanket to rub his eyes sleepily. He stretched out with one arm wincing when his sore muscles protested.
“Have a nice nap?” Chris teased him gently. Buck grinned back at him ruefully. He had to admit he’d be glad to get home and back to his own bed. However, he didn’t want Ezra waking up alone. He suspected the man was too familiar with that sensation.
“How’s Ezra?” He turned to study Ezra with a critical eye.
“Sleeping. Like we should be.”
“Some people have all the luck,” Buck replied as he settled deeper into the chair.
“Well, I don’t know but I don’t think Ezra feels too lucky right now.”
“I gotta agree with you on that one, pard. I gotta tell ya though, Chris. He never faltered on me once. Didn’t complain. Nothing. I wouldn’t a thought he had it in him.” Like the rest of the men, Buck’s assessment of the southerner had been tarnished when Ezra had walked out on their first operation together.
Chris didn’t respond just turned to watch the sleeping man again. Ezra’s rapport with the group was tenuous at best. Maybe this latest case would help the southerner find more solid footing with the rest of the team.
“They releasing him today?” Buck broke the silence.
“Yep, no such thing as long hospital stays nowadays. I have to go in today to start filling out the paperwork from this case. Josiah and Nathan are going to take him home this afternoon.”
Buck grinned at Chris, “Now that should be entertaining.”
Ezra sat on the edge of the bed as he tried to dress himself. Who would have that having only one useful arm would make everyday chores so difficult? Josiah and Nathan had brought him a change of clothes when they came to chauffeur him home. However, he’d staunchly refused Nathan’s help when the other man had offered to help him dress. With a reply of suit yourself, Nathan had stepped back to watch the spectacle.
Now Josiah was downstairs getting his prescriptions filled at the hospital pharmacy and Nathan was trying to hold back his laughter as he lounged in the visitor’s chair. Ezra glared at him trying to decide if it was worth swallowing his pride and asking for help. He’d have to, he supposed. He couldn’t very well parade out of the hospital wearing nothing but his boxers.
Seeing Ezra’s chagrin, Nathan finally relented. “Here Ezra, let me help you with that.” He gently pulled the Ezra’s good arm away from the sweatshirt. He eased it over the southerner’s head being careful not to rub the stitches on his forehead. Ezra managed to get his good arm through the shirt and Nathan settled it around his torso. Ezra was able to manage the sweatpants although Nathan hovered over him. He didn’t want the man falling over in a dizzy spell and re-injuring himself. For the next two to three weeks, Ezra’s arm would be strapped to his body to prevent all movement while the stressed ligaments in his shoulder healed. It was going to make a lot of two handed tasks difficult.
Josiah breezed through the doorway just as Nathan finished tying his shoes. The big man forced himself not to laugh at Ezra’s predicament. It was amusing though to see the most fiercely independent of the group forced to rely on others. Judging by the exasperation on Ezra’s face, he wasn’t too happy about it either.
“The car’s outside by the lobby and the orderly was just coming down the hall with the wheelchair.” Josiah told both men. He watched Ezra gingerly slide off the hospital bed reaching out a hand to steady the younger man. The southerner tried not to wince as the movement woke up the little men with hammers that insisted on using his head as an anvil.
He’d never admit it but he was rather touched by the caring the rest of the team had shown since he’d first opened his eyes that morning. Both Buck and Chris had been there. Both men looking the worse for wear. Both delighting in assuring him that he looked far worse than they did.
Ezra hadn’t managed to hide his surprise at their presence. Larabee rather seemed to enjoy his discomfiture. Grinning at him wryly when Buck’s boisterous personality had threatened to overwhelm the shaky southerner. He thought it rather interesting watching Ezra, usually so glib and quick with a comeback, just stare at Buck almost open-mouthed at Buck’s continuing mother hen routine. Finally, Chris had taken pity on the man. He’d pulled Buck away from the bed after informing Ezra that Nathan and Josiah would be in later to take him home. In the meantime, he needed to get Buck home and deal with the aftermath of the raid at work.
Nathan made his way through the halls of the ATF building nodding greetings to people he knew as he passed. As he entered the Team Seven suite of offices, he spotted Chris pouring his first cup of morning coffee. Seeing him, Chris sat down at the conference table and motioned for Nathan to join him. Nathan poured himself a cup before sliding into a chair opposite of Chris.
“How’s he doing?” The team leader asked as he sipped at his coffee. Nathan had volunteered to stay with Ezra for the night. The exasperation that crossed Nathan’s face almost caused him to laugh out loud.
“That man is as stubborn as a mule. Doctor tells him not to do something. Damned if he won’t go and do the exact opposite. I told him if he’s not careful he has a 68 percent chance of that shoulder slipping out of place every time he moves it the wrong way. Do you think he’d listen to me? No, had to see for himself that it hurts to move that arm.” Nathan finally quit venting his frustration at Ezra to Chris. Chris just smiled and took another sip of his coffee.
“Warned him if he didn’t want to listen to me that I’d send Buck and JD over to baby-sit him tonight. Can you just see those two playing indoor football with all them antiques he’s got? Let me tell you, I got his attention real quick with that suggestion. I think he’s going to keep that arm in a sling and let us help him.” Nathan and Chris shared another laugh at the thought of Ezra’s antique furniture reduced to firewood by the rambunctious Buck and JD.
Nathan looked down studying the design on his coffee cup. He’d been bothered by the lack of personal ornamentation in Ezra’s home. He wondered if Chris had noticed its barrenness when he’d been there. Despite the rich tones of the furniture, there was nothing to indicate Ezra’s flat was a home. No pictures of friends or family cluttered the surfaces. No momentos picked up in his travels adorned the walls. In fact, packing boxes still lined the walls of the study and great room.
Chris knew Ezra was having a rough time making the transition onto Team Seven. Problem was Chris just wasn’t sure there was anything he could do about it. The demons that haunted Ezra had started long before Chris had taken the man on, although; he’d probably acquired more in his time with the team. Chris winced every time he thought of the near fiasco that was the first case the entire team had worked together. He’d never discussed with Ezra his reasons for abandoning them. Now he wondered if that hadn’t been a mistake. It certainly had never made the official reports. Chris didn’t want Ezra receiving any official reprimands. He figured that they had an understanding between them and informing the powers that be about Ezra’s desertion wouldn’t accomplish anything.
Ezra hadn’t failed them this time. He hadn’t run out on the group. In fact, he’d been at the forefront of the investigation the entire time. It sure as hell wasn’t Ezra’s fault nobody had seen Fallon coming.
Chris grinned wryly at Nathan, “Think we’ll ever work a ‘normal’ case?”
Nathan watched Chris thoughtfully. “Somehow, I doubt any case Ezra Standish ever works will be ‘normal’.”
Chris just sighed, “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Nathan chuckled. He nodded yes when Chris asked him if he was going back to stay with Ezra another night. Chris was slightly surprised at the answer. He knew Ezra Standish was not Nathan’s favorite person. He’d sometimes wondered if the two disparate souls would ever get along. If Nathan could bridge the differences that separated him from Ezra, maybe there was hope for the rest of the team, too.
They were interrupted when Buck and JD walked into the room. JD was excitedly telling Buck about something he and Casey were going to spend the weekend doing. Chris gave Nathan a tight smile before motioning the other two men over. As soon as Vin and Josiah arrived, he could start the debriefing on the raid.
Ezra leaned his head back into the soft comfort of the leather sofa. He’d been listlessly flipping through the TV channels but the soap operas and inane chat shows that constituted daytime television failed to hold his attention. He pressed the power button shutting off the TV before placing the remote on the end table next to him. He closed his eyes. It helped ease the headache. The Tylenol that the doctor had prescribed for the pain was only starting to kick in.
He contemplated making himself a drink but he decided he’d better not. Nathan had said he’d check in on him after work. Knowing Nathan, he’d measured the amount of liquor in the crystal decanters on the small bar before he’d left. He could picture the scene the black man would make if he found Ezra’d been drinking while taking prescription painkillers and anti-inflammatories with a concussion to top it off. No, Ezra decided, he didn’t want to go there.
Well, if he couldn’t drink, he needed to find something to do. He’d go insane sitting in this room for the next week. He’d been given one week’s leave to recuperate. After which, he’d be confined to light desk duty until he re-qualified on the firing range. He couldn’t go for a drive. The doctor had forbidden driving for 48 hours. Besides which, Nathan had probably taken the keys to the Jag, too. Come to think of it, he might have taken the Jag. Ezra hadn’t checked for its presence in the garage.
Before he’d left for work that morning, Nathan had admonished the Southerner
with a long list of ‘don’ts’. He hadn’t been amused when Ezra had
jokingly asked if he was going to attach a house arrest cuff to his ankle
to track his movements.
“Don’t tempt me, Ezra,” had been Nathan’s tart reply.
Ezra studied the deck of cards lying on the old chest that served as a coffee table. He contemplated a game of solitaire but decided it’d be too difficult one-handed. He could play the video version that had come with his laptop’s operating system. However, there was something about the feel of a real deck of cards sliding through his fingers that he found soothing. Maybe I should have made my living as a gambler, he thought. Ezra knew he was pretty good at reading people as long as it remained impersonal.
Ezra almost laughed at the mental picture of himself making his living in the casinos that now dotted the country. He had to admit the idea had possibilities. Still smiling, his eyes came to rest on the packing boxes that lined the far wall. The top box was marked “momentos, living room”. Ezra studied the box. He almost couldn’t remember what the contents were. It had been so long since he’d dared to make anyplace he’d lived in a home. His existence with the FBI had been almost nomadic. Shuffled from group to group and city to city as his career began to stagnate and his self-esteem to evaporate away.
Almost unbidden, other thoughts came to his mind. Vin Tanner’s faith that Ezra would be able to hoodwink Fallon into believing he had killed the ex-bounty hunter. It must have taken a lot of faith on Vin’s part to lie there in that park playing dead knowing that one misstep or wrong word on Ezra’s part could get them both killed.
The knowledge of Vin’s faith in him was replaced with the presence of Chris Larabee, a man Ezra secretly admired, following him into that bathroom at the bar and commending his work earlier that day. Chris didn’t hand out compliments lightly. Ezra remembered what it had felt like to walk into his kitchen the next morning to find the agent drinking his best coffee. Someone had cared enough to make sure he made it home that night.
The image of Buck Wilmington telling him about a girl even a freight train thought was ugly finally brought laughter to his lips. He knew Buck must have been as scared as he had been but the man had never let it show. And waking up in that hospital bed to find Buck and Chris sitting with him. Maybe that’s what had touched Ezra the most. He hadn’t been alone.
Ezra sat on the couch for a long time thinking.
Finally, he pushed himself upright taking a moment to make sure that dizziness didn’t send him straight to the floor. He walked to the pile of boxes his good hand reaching out for the box of momentos. He peeled back the tape sealing the lid shut and opened the box. Carefully removing the first paper covered object; he set it on the second stack of boxes and unwrapped it. It was a picture of him and Maude taken during one of her visits housed in a delicate silver frame.
Maybe this time it would be all right if he tried to make this house into a home.