Not thinking before you speak is like shooting a gun without aiming.
~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~
“He’s gonna leave.”
“Not if I can help it.” Chris Larabee, leader of Denver’s ATF Team 7, sat behind the wheel of his black Dodge Ram, guiding it through the surprisingly heavy late-night traffic.
“You lit into ‘im pretty hard.” Vin Tanner, Team 7’s sharpshooter, wiggled his cramping toes in the tight confines of his cowboy boots as he sat in the passenger seat of Chris’ truck, nervously eyeing the traffic.
“I know, Vin.” Chris narrowed his eyes, quickly scanning the cross streets as the truck flew through intersections.
“Didn’t deserve any of it.”
“I know, Vin.”
“Didn’t even give ‘im a chance to explain.” Vin stretched his long legs in the tight space then crossed one ankle over the other knee.
“I know, Vin.” Chris clenched his jaw until his teeth hurt and he had to consciously force himself to relax.
“Just told ‘im to get his… What was it? ‘Worthless-snake-in-the-grass-double-dealin’-low-life-good-fer-nothin’-God-damn-no-account-pain-in-the-ass-Southern-hide’ outta yer sight before yer boot found a new home lodged up to the knee in his ‘scrawny, smart-mouthed ass’.”
“I know, Vin.”
“Got to admit the ‘smart-mouthed ass’ part is kinda funny when ya think on it some, but that don’t make it any better to say.” Vin crossed his arms over his chest, curling fingers around taut biceps. “’Course, ain’t a single one of us that was any better than you. Nathan just stood there like a rock with his arms folded…steam practically risin' outta his ears. Josiah, hell all he did was close his eyes and shake his head afore turnin' away. Not a one of us stood up for ‘im. Not a one of us told ya to shut yer yap long enough for ‘im to explain what happened. Never figured anyone or anythin' could strike Buck dumb as a fencepost.”
“I know, Vin.” Chris tilted his head from side to side, enjoying the satisfying pop of several joints.
“Weren’t like he didn’t try, neither. Even after that tongue lashin’ of yers.” Vin slouched down further in his seat, leaning into the door.
“I know, Vin.” His fingers tightened on the steering wheel and guided the Ram into a sharp turn around a corner, barely slowing at the yield sign.
“He got near as riled as you did, and just as loud.” Vin pressed against the door, his body leaning into the curve. “I ain’t never heard Ezra raise his voice like that to no one. Ya got louder and louder yellin’ at ‘im and he got louder and louder trying ta get ya to listen to ‘im. Heck, Team 4 was takin’ bets on when you two’d come to blows and Team 8 was bettin’ on who’d win when ya did.”
“I know, Vin.” Back straight and stiff, Chris leaned forward to check a nearly-blind intersection as he sped through the yellow light.
“Gotta admit that the rest of us didn’t think too much about all of it until Ezra got quiet. Damn, Chris, I couldn’t believe what you said. And poor JD…why, he looked downright shell-shocked."
“I know, Vin.”
“I mean… To accuse ‘im of workin’ with Conrad, of takin’ bribes, of sabotagin’ the bust and allowin’ Conrad to get away. Damn. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes when he asked if that’s what ya honestly thought of ‘im.” Vin shook his head at the memory.
“I know, Vin.” Every muscle in Chris’ body tightened.
“I don’t even really know how to describe that look, Chris. Not anger. Not really surprise or sadness, either. I guess the closest I could come is to call it ‘pain’. I mean, I’ve seen guys gut-shot and dyin’ that kinda had the look Ezra did before he tried to hide it behind that poker face of his. He should know better than to think he can hide stuff like that from us. It’s only been a year, but most of us know ‘im and his tells well enough. Yeah, the more I think on it, the more I can place that look. He looked like a man who’d been gut-shot. Like he was in pain. Like he was dyin’ inside.”
“Like a man with nothin’ left to live for.”
“Like a man who’d bet everythin’ he had on a single, high-stakes hand of poker and lost.”
“Yeah, Chris?” Vin’s eyes darted to his team leader and best friend.
“You’re mixing your metaphors.”
“Actually, they’re similes.”
Chris raised an eyebrow.
“Least, accordin’ to Miz Christian, my favorite English teacher. And I ain't mixin' nothin' up. I saw what I saw and heard what I…"
“Yeah, Chris?” Vin closed his eyes, leaning back against the headrest.
“Shut the hell up.” With a burst of savage, restless energy, Larabee thrust his foot onto the gas pedal, causing the Ram to lurch forward before settling smoothly into the higher speed.
~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~
Chris charged full force through the quiet, suburban neighborhood before tearing into the space in front of Ezra Standish’s corner unit townhouse, facing the wrong direction on the narrow street with the two driver-side wheels up on the curb, and slammed his prized truck into park before coming to a complete stop. He leapt from the vehicle and sprinted across the short walkway to the front door, only to freeze with his finger inches away from the doorbell as he realized he had no clue how he was going to set things right with his undercover agent. He knew that a simple ‘I’m sorry’ was woefully inadequate – especially after they’d learned…
“Ya know,” Vin’s soft voice sounded deceptively calm at his side. “A wise man once said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single…”
Larabee leveled him with a sharp glare that would have disintegrated a lesser man where he stood. “Haven’t you just about used up your allotment of words for the day?”
Vin ducked his head to hide his grin and raised his hands in supplication as he took a step back to give his friend more room.
Chris took a deep breath and rang the bell then stood back and listened as Westminster Chimes sounded inside the dwelling. The seconds slowly ticked by and after a full minute, he stepped forward again, this time bypassing the doorbell in favor of the slightly more satisfying action of pounding loudly on the door. Still, there was no answer, so he knocked again.
Vin slipped around the side of the townhouse. He glanced into each window he passed, but could see nothing unusual as he made his way towards Ezra’s garage nestled behind the house. Standing on his tiptoes and cupping his hands around his eyes to cut out the background light, Vin peeked through the small, decorative windows. “Jag’s there,” he announced several minutes later as he rejoined Chris at the front door. “He’s gotta be home.”
“Then why the hell isn’t he answering?” Chris rang the bell twice in quick succession and immediately followed with another forceful knock.
Vin grabbed Chris’ arm, halting it mid-motion. “You don’t suppose Conrad or one of his men…”
In the blink of an eye, both men drew their weapons and took defensive positions on either side of the door. Chris slowly reached out and tested the handle, disconcerted to find the door unlocked. They burst through the door, Chris covering high and Vin covering low.
At first glance, nothing seemed to be out of place. The front door opened into a small foyer where a pair of well-worn black loafers lay haphazardly discarded beneath a small, decorative table. Beyond the foyer was the formal living room. Chris, his gun held ready, entered the large, open room and motioned to Vin to proceed on to the adjoining dining room.
To Chris, everything in the living room looked essentially the same, if not slightly more lived-in, as it had the last, and only, time he’d been inside Ezra’s home. Family pictures still lined one wall, but now there were several of Team 7 on various outings along the mantle of the corner fireplace. Mail accumulated during this last undercover assignment lay scattered across the coffee table. A thick, leather-bound tome with a small gold bookmark lay on an end table beside a comfortable looking recliner. The hand-made, crocheted afghan draped over the back of the sofa was slightly bunched and wrinkled as if someone had been recently sitting on the sofa.
Chris secured the room, making sure to check behind each piece of furniture and the heavy drapes framing the large, bay window.
In the dining room, Vin noted the fine layer of undisturbed dust covering both the mahogany upright piano in the far corner and the protective vinyl sheet over the pool table in the center of the room before moving on. He crossed paths with Chris at the large doorway separating the two sections of the home and each offered the other a small shake of his head to signify his findings. An exchange of hand signals indicated their next intentions.
Entering the large, open kitchen, Chris noticed a few dirty dishes resting in the sink while the faint smell of tomato soup and grilled cheese still lingered in the air. A fresh bowl of cat food sat untouched in its customary corner of the room and Chris spared a moment to wonder where the She-devil herself was lurking. He surprised himself when he realized a small part of him hoped the feline was all right.
Vin bypassed the kitchen and entered the adjoining family room. Overflowing bookshelves and a built-in desk lined one wall of the room. His eyes were instantly drawn to a few printed pages lying next to the computer. He tapped the computer’s keyboard to turn off the dancing Ace of Spades screen saver and saw there were no active programs, so he turned his attention to the printouts. With a single glance to the top sheet, Vin felt a tidal wave of fear build.
“Chris!” he called in an urgent whisper as he joined his team leader at the center island of the kitchen. He thrust the small stack of papers into Chris’ hand. “The computer is on. No programs running, but these were sitting next to it.
Chris scanned the documents and his heart instantly plummeted into the pit of his stomach. He was quite familiar with these; Ezra presented similar pages to him before each undercover assignment and the first few sheets in particular had crossed Chris’ desk only a few weeks ago. The pages contained a detailed description of Edmond Stratton, the man Standish portrayed in his latest undercover assignment into Conrad’s illegal organization. The description outlined Stratton’s every physical and psychological characteristic, including family, personal, professional, and illicit background as well as the make-up Standish used to disguise his appearance. The subsequent pages contained similar information on several more of Ezra’s undercover personalities.
“Chris, if one of Conrad’s men was here and saw this…”
A sudden cessation of a previously unnoticed background noise instantly brought Chris and Vin’s attention to the second level of the townhouse. Wordlessly agreeing on a plan of action, the two made their way to the stairs and began a slow ascent. They were halfway to the top before their progress was suddenly halted when they had to dodge a small, orange and black projectile shooting past them from above.
“Shit!” Chris swore, bringing his breathing and heart rate under control when he realized what had just attacked them. “One of these days, I’m going to wind up shooting that goddamned cat!”
“That probably wouldn’t be a good idea, cowboy. Ezra’s grown kinda attached to that little ball of fluff,” Vin said with a smile as he clapped Chris on the back.
“Mr. Tanner is absolutely correct, Mr. Larabee.”
Chris’ and Vin’s heads shot up, their eyes and guns landing on the ‘missing’ agent standing at the top of the stairs with his own weapon in hand, but pointed safely into the air.
“Mr. Larabee, I know we’ve had this conversation before, but will you please refrain from perforating Cassie? I would be forced to return the favor and I’d much prefer to avoid the mess on my carpets. Though, some days the enjoyment I’d receive would be worth it.”
With an audible sigh, Chris and Vin holstered their weapons. Ezra leaned in through his bedroom door and tucked his into a dresser drawer.
“That cat hates me, Ezra,” Chris complained. “She’s an evil, sadistic, spawn of the devil himself…” A sharp elbow to the ribs from Vin ended his tirade.
“She’s not evil, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra argued as he sidled past his two teammates and made his way to the lower level of his home. “She’s just an impeccable judge of character.” With that, he turned the corner at the base of the stairs and disappeared into the kitchen.
Chris and Vin exchanged a questioning glance at the icy tone, then followed. They found their quarry at the kitchen island, rinsing the dirty dishes and loading them into the dishwasher. Cassie, the Devil Cat, was purring loudly as she sat perched on the breakfast bar, content to supervise her human as he worked to tidy her domain.
Chris shooed Cassie away then he and Vin sat on the high stools of the breakfast bar. Cassie laid her ears back and growled for a moment before wandering over to rub against Ezra’s legs, as if to reaffirm her claim on her human, then trotted over to her food dish and began to eat.
“Damn cat,” Chris grumbled again, matching her previous low growl and earning a quiet chuckle from Vin. Larabee ignored him and instead turned blazing eyes on his undercover agent. “Why the hell didn’t you answer the door, Ezra? We were out there for a good ten minutes before letting ourselves in through the unlocked door. Then, we spent another fifteen poking around down here because we thought something might have happened to you!”
Ezra loaded the last dish into the dishwasher, started it, then leisurely dried his hands before coolly replying. “I was upstairs taking a shower, Mr. Larabee. In fact, I’m rather surprised that you didn’t note the sound of running water immediately upon entering my residence.”
Vin looked somewhat distressed at the thought while Chris merely looked incredulous.
“A shower?” he nearly shouted. “We’ve been here for over twenty-five minutes, worried sick, and all that time you’ve been in the shower?”
Identical raised eyebrows from both Ezra and Vin coupled with Ezra’s wet hair and informal attire of a loose-fitting, white t-shirt, gray sweat pants, and bare feet, caused Chris to snap his jaw shut, ending the rant before it had a chance to really start.
“I will, however, admit to the mistake of not locking my front door. My phone was ringing when I arrived home and in my haste to answer it before the machine, I apparently neglected to engage the lock. It was a simple oversight that I will endeavor to not repeat in the future. However,” Ezra studied his unexpected guests with a calculating eye. “I get the feeling that my error probably saved me from having to replace the door after you two kicked it in.”
Vin chuckled. “Ain’t no ‘probably’ to it, pard.”
“Yes, well…” Ezra stepped to the refrigerator to get himself a bottle of beer. He rolled his eyes as Vin followed along behind him and retrieved one for himself and Chris. “By all means,” he said sarcastically with a dismissive wave of his hand, “help yourself. Now that the pleasantries are out of the way, would someone mind telling me how I’ve come to find the two of you in my home at this late hour? I would assume your time would be better spent recuperating after our latest grueling case and less than stellar bust." Ezra spotted the pile of computer printouts still sitting on the breakfast bar where Chris had dropped them earlier and, after briefly glancing through them, stashed them in a drawer. "This intrusion into my privacy was uninvited and, quite honestly, unwelcome.”
Here goes nothing. Chris mentally prepared himself for what he was sure would be an unpleasant conversation. “We’re here to talk about what happened tonight, Ezra.”
Ezra froze for a moment, the bottle of beer raised to barely touch his lips. His left hand, casually resting on the edge of the breakfast bar, curled into a fist and his whole body vibrated with repressed anger. In the blink of an eye, he resumed a relaxed pose and took a swallow of beer, then set the bottle down with deliberate care.
“My report was on your desk hours ago, Mr. Larabee. Anything I have to say about the case is in that report. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
“We ain’t exactly here about the case or the bust, Ez,” Vin cut in. “Though, we thought ya might like to know that Conrad was caught about an hour ago and we found our leak. Seems one of our informants, Eddie, thought he could make a little extra money by playin’ both sides. He tipped us off about Conrad’s operation, then waited a while ‘til he knew we’d have someone undercover and were plannin’ a bust, then he went to Conrad tryin’ to sell ‘im information on the ATF’s movements concernin’ his operations.” Vin rolled his eyes. “I don’t know who was more stupid; Eddie for tryin’ to play both sides or Conrad for goin’ ahead with the sale then tryin’ to go after Eddie when it all fell apart.”
Ezra shook his head sadly. “Well, the bust was – if you’ll pardon the pun – a bust, so each of them did at least partially succeed in their plans. Tell me, was Conrad apprehended before he could cause irreparable harm to Eddie?”
“Yeah,” Vin answered. “Conrad was yellin’ so loud at Eddie that someone actually called the cops. The DPD caught ‘im layin’ into Eddie and turned ‘im over to us as soon as they found out who they had.”
“I see,” Ezra replied, nonplussed. “That all sounds rather…anticlimactic. Well, thank you for the information, gentlemen…” he began to walk towards the front door with the intention of showing his company out when Chris’ hand shot out to clamp firmly on his forearm.
“Don’t leave.” Chris’ voice was barely above a whisper, but easily heard in the silence that surrounded the three men.
Ezra recovered quickly from his momentary shock and fought the instinct to forcibly remove Chris’ hand. “Mr. Larabee, I have no intention of going anywhere but upstairs to bed. This is, after all, my home.”
“That ain’t what he meant, Ez,” Vin said as he moved to stand between Ezra and the front door. Chris also stood and moved between Standish and the stairs, thus effectively blocking all avenues of possible escape.
Ezra’s brows drew together in confusion as wary green eyes alternated between Vin and Chris. “You’ll excuse me, gentlemen, if I’m having trouble following your line of thought.”
Chris nervously cleared his throat and relaxed his grip until his hand was simply resting on Ezra’s arm, but he maintained steady eye contact with his agent. “Things were said earlier this evening that never should have been. Hell, they should have never been thought!”
“And other things were kept bottled up when they should have been said,” Vin added.
“I was angry tonight,” Chris continued, “and I started yelling at you before I gave the thoughts a chance to filter through that lump of clay I call a brain. I know this assignment wasn’t easy for you – or any of us – and I know that the way the bust fell apart wasn’t your fault. Hell, I knew that even before we found out about Eddie. And, I know for one hundred percent sure that you’d never cross that line to work for the other side. What I’m trying to say is that I’m sorry for the way I treated you and for the things I said.”
Ezra’s head swiveled back to Vin as he once again took over.
“The rest of us are sorry, too, Ez. We may not have done the yellin’ or accusin’, but we’re as much to blame for what happened because we kept quiet. No one stood up for ya and that makes us no better than those fools who turned their backs on ya in Atlanta.”
“What we mean to say, Ezra, is that you’re a part of this team. You’ve earned your place and proven yourself time and time again. We know Atlanta was a living hell for you and we’ve been just as bad to you, but you belong here with us and we want you to stay. Please, give us another chance.” Chris finished his heart-felt speech and studied his agent for a reaction.
Ezra’s brows remained furrowed in confusion for several long moments before shooting up as his mouth dropped to form a silent ‘o’ when understanding dawned. What he did next surprised his two companions.
He laughed a deep, rich, belly laugh that seemed to emanate from his very soul.
He laughed so long and so hard his face turned a bright crimson and tears streamed from both eyes.
He laughed until he was gasping for breath and bending forward with one hand on his knee to support himself while the other wrapped around sore abdominal muscles.
He laughed until he’d exhausted himself and Chris and Vin had to help him into the living room and set him in the recliner.
He laughed until he simply couldn’t laugh anymore.
Cassie, her curiosity piqued, left her dinner to join her human on her chair. She tilted her head to the side, as if wondering what had gotten into her human that made him act so strangely, but she apparently decided she didn’t care too much when his hand came up to gently scratch beneath her chin. She purred, leaning into the touch.
Chris and Vin stared at each other in confusion as Ezra’s uncontrollable laughter subsided to breathy gasps and the occasional suppressed chuckle.
“I’m sorry, gentlemen, for such an unseemly display of hilarity,” Ezra choked out when he was finally able to regain his breath. “But, that was…” He chuckled again. “That was…well…funny.”
Chris clenched his teeth, feeling his anger warring for dominance over confusion. He’d been expecting Ezra to be angry. He’d been expecting to be thrown out of the townhouse before he’d had a chance to offer his apology. He’d imagined arriving only to find Ezra’s belongings packed and his agent long gone. Chris had even gone as far as to imagine the perfect scenario in which Standish simply forgave him, no explanation necessary, and they all continued with their lives as if nothing had happened.
In all the possibilities that had run through Chris’ mind during the frantic dash to the townhouse, Ezra launching into hysterical laughter after hearing Chris’ heart-felt apology and plea to remain on the team wasn’t something he’d imagined.
Chris took a deep breath and blew it out slowly, releasing the tension and irritation that had been bubbling beneath the surface over the past few minutes. He forced knotted muscles to relax and his jaw to unclench. “Ezra,” he ground out with a deceptively sweet lilt. “Would you mind telling us what you find so damn funny?”
The humor evaporated from Ezra’s countenance. “You were serious.” It was more a statement of fact than a question. “What on Earth would lead you to believe that I would be offering my resignation at this time?”
Chris pinched the bridge of his nose; the headache he’d refused to acknowledge an hour ago was beginning to throb with blinding intensity.
“Hell, Ez, Chris here was pretty rough on ya when we all knew ya didn’t deserve any of it and none of us backed ya up.”
“Wait a minute,” Ezra interrupted, rising from the recliner to draw himself to his full height. “The two of you, and probably the rest of our associates, believe that I would quit my job and abandon the team because of that…incident earlier today?”
Vin looked down at his boots, unable to meet Ezra’s searching gaze. “We, uh, we all figured that after Atlanta…”
Again, Ezra could only laugh. “Gentlemen,” he said, “tell me, exactly where was I when you recruited me to join this merry band of misfits?”
Chris groaned inwardly. He could already see the point Ezra was about to make and was beginning to feel somewhat silly for his rash assumption.
“Atlanta,” Vin supplied with a grin. He’d also figured it out and could now understand some of the humor Ezra found in the situation.
“And, pray tell,” Ezra continued, “how long had the various rumors about me been circulating through the bureau at that time?”
Chris felt another surge of anger, this time directed at Ezra’s former FBI teammates and all Standish had been forced to endure at the hands of the men who were supposed to back him up. He buried the feeling and instead focused on the current situation. “A little over a year. I get your point, Ezra.”
“You may hear the words, Mr. Larabee, but I don’t think you truly understand.” He sidestepped his companions to give himself more room to move. “Sixteen months.” Ezra gestured widely with his arms. “I lived under the veil of suspicion in Atlanta for sixteen months. It was a type of Hell I couldn’t begin to describe. I wouldn’t wish something like that on my worst enemy. But, Gentlemen, they didn’t run me off and I didn’t quit.” He extended one long, slender index finger to emphasize his point. “I wasn’t about to let them win. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t appreciate your little display of anger, Mr. Larabee, nor do I appreciate being the convenient target for you to vent your frustrations.”
Chris actually looked contrite. “I can tell you how sorry I am…”
Ezra held up a hand to forestall the apology. “My point is that I survived everything Atlanta had to throw at me. A simple display of the infamous Larabee temper isn’t going to break me. I had nothing in Atlanta, Chris, but I stayed anyway. Here, I’ve found something worth fighting for. Your friendship. All of you have become like a family to me.”
A small smile tugged at one corner of Chris’ mouth. “That’s good to know,” he said with a tilt of his head.
“To get me off this team,” Ezra continued, “you’d have to make good on your many threats to shoot me. Even then, I do believe I’d simply remain here in my non-corporeal state to haunt you.”
Both Chris and Vin chuckled.
A moment of awkward silence followed.
“As the touching Hallmark Moment has obviously passed, would you gentlemen please excuse me.” Ezra glanced at the time displayed on the grandfather clock as he moved towards his front door. “It’s rather late – or extremely early as the case may be. It’s been a long day and I’ve still got a number of things to take care of before allowing myself to retire for the evening.”
“Sure thing, Ez,” Vin answered, relieved. “We’ll see ya at the office bright and early Monday morning.”
“I’ll be there at my usual time,” Ezra replied.
The three men had just reached the door when Vin’s cell phone rang.
“Hello? Buck! Yeah… We’re at his place now. Nahh… Everything’s fine.” Still talking to Buck, Vin motioned that he’d meet Chris in the truck before opening the door and tramping his way across Ezra’s manicured lawn to the Ram.
Chris patted Ezra on the shoulder. “We’ll see you Monday.” When Chris moved to get around him and out the door, Standish grabbed hold of his arm, pulling him back. Chris’ moment of surprise was quickly replaced by irritation then confusion as the smaller man locked his eyes with a serious gaze.
After a moment, Ezra spoke. “Don’t ever run out on me again.”
Chris ducked his head to hide the smile at the reference, then gave a slight, somber nod and, after bringing two fingers to the brim of an imaginary hat, continued out the door.