Perceptions and Observations
The 5th story in the Understanding Ezra Series
This story takes off right after ‘Appearances.’ You may want to go back and refresh your memory if you haven’t read it recently. If you haven’t read the rest of the series, you don’t ‘have’ to, but it would be helpful.
Thanks, as always to Cheryl for betaing the story. She’s a great sounding board and a fount of information, besides just being an overall wonderful person.
MOG created the wonderful ATF universe and Cuervo belongs to her as well. Thanks for letting me play in your sandbox.
“Damn it, Larabee. What were you thinking?” Travis demanded. “Do you know how many law suits we’d be facing if something had happened while he was out there?”
Larabee stared at a spot on the floor. Of course he’d known that sending Standish under while he was still recuperating was dangerous. One glancing blow could have cost the sneaky undercover man his eyesight. But Standish had been the one to suggest the plan and damned if the man hadn’t pulled it off. They hadn’t even had to fire a shot.
“I can’t let this go,
“It’s my responsibility, Judge,”
Travis nodded. “Oh, on that we agree. That’s why you’re the
one being reprimanded. It’s going into your permanent file,
Judge Travis shook his head. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to let the team work on anything in the field while you’re gone. But I want to see a written release from Standish’s doctors on my desk before he is allowed out of the office for anything except to go home. I don’t even want him picking up lunch for the team.”
Travis nodded and hit a button on his phone. “Linda, send in Standish, please.”
A moment later, the door opened and Ezra came in.
“Judge Travis,” Ezra greeted as he pushed the door closed behind him.
“Agent Standish. Agent Larabee and I were just going over your last case. I want you to know that it is not standard practice to put injured agents in such situations.”
Ezra kept his face carefully neutral. “It was my suggestion, sir.”
“I know that, Standish, however, it’s against regulations. Your well-being was jeopardized, unnecessarily,” Travis added with a glare at Larabee.
“We accomplished our goal, sir,” Ezra countered, confused. “That’s what matters.”
The judge looked at his agent dumb-founded. “Son, if that’s what you think, then you’ve been misinformed about the nature of your job here. At no time is the apprehension of a suspect to override the safety of any of my agents. Do you understand me?” Travis asked, leveling his gaze on Standish.
“Yes, sir,” Ezra replied, his face bereft of all emotion as he stood at attention staring past Travis.
Judge Travis exchanged a concerned look with Larabee then continued. “You’re on desk duty until your doctors send me a written release. No more heroics, Standish. I need you in one, whole, working piece.”
Ezra nodded slightly. “Yes, sir.”
“Go on, get out of here,” Travis muttered with a wave of his hand. “I’ll see you on Monday, Larabee.” Why do I put up with this team? He sighed as Larabee and Standish left. Because they get results. But damn, if they keep this up I’ll have an ulcer by the end of the year.
“The Judge said he’d see you Monday… I was just wondering… Has he banned you from his sight or are you planning on avoiding him for the rest of the week?”
“Oh.” Ezra bit the inside of his lip. “Ah, am I to assume that I also should not be coming in tomorrow?”
“What?” Larabee asked, surprised. “No, not unless you’re not feeling well,” he said facing the younger agent. “You’re all right, right?”
“I’m fine,” Ezra replied with a quick shake of his head. “I just assumed that if you are on report, so am I.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong, Ezra,”
“But it was my idea,” Ezra argued. “You shouldn’t be reprimanded for…”
“Ezra. I’m the boss. It was my decision. My responsibility. My punishment. Now drop it.”
They both faced forward as the elevator came to a stop.
Several people got on and the car continued down. Ezra glanced at
“You should not be held culpable for my actions,” Ezra said as the car started moving again.
Ezra frowned, frustrated that he couldn’t seem to get his point across. “I’m not accustomed to letting other people take the blame for my mistakes.”
Ezra opened his mouth to protest then closed it. A perplexed
frown settled on his face. “You are the most obstinate…” he grumbled loudly in reply.
The elevator doors started to close and Ezra rushed through the narrowing
opening. “Pig-headed…” Ezra projected as he followed Larabee, trying to come up
with a third descriptive. His eyes tracked the floor behind
His boss’s smirk fell to a glare. “Don’t call me ‘cowboy.’” Chris spun on his heel and went into his office closing the door firmly behind him. Ezra just grinned as he settled in at his desk.
A few minutes later,
“Where you going,
“Judge gave me the rest of the week off,”
“We still on for Friday?” Buck asked.
“Um,” JD interrupted, “what are you two talking about?”
“I thought you…” “Didn’t you…” they spoke together.
Buck chuckled and
“You tell ‘em, Buck. I’ll see you all Friday,”
“So, Brother Buck,” Josiah said, moving from his chair to lean one hip on Buck’s desk. “What’s going on Friday?”
“And why is
Buck shrugged. “Can’t answer that, Nate, but everyone’s invited to the ranch for our birthday party.”
“Our?” JD asked with a frown.
Ezra’s right eyebrow rose. “I thought you celebrated your birthday earlier this year.”
Buck had the grace to blush, but then grinned wickedly. “Now is it my fault if all those lovely fillies misunderstood? What was I supposed to do? Break their hearts by refusing all those enthusiastic offerings of affection?” he waggled his eyebrows.
Ezra was not the only one in the room to roll his eyes.
Buck had Ezra cornered in the break room. “Come on, Ez. You’ve got to come. It just wouldn’t be right if you weren’t there. Ezra,” Buck whined. “You wanna come, you know you do. Think about it, three birds with one stone. Since all our birthdays fall in July, and everyone else’s is already past, you’re off the hook for birthday parties until next year. Please?”
Ezra took a deep breath. He knew he was missing something, but nodded his agreement.
“Yes!” Buck shouted. He clapped the other agent on the back and raced out of the break room. “He’s gonna come!” Buck hollered as he went down the hall.
Ezra sighed. It wasn’t that he didn’t like spending time with the rest of his teammates, but he was still unsure about their off-duty relationship. The others seemed to enjoy a lot of time together after hours. Ezra had never had that kind of rapport with his previous co-workers. They had either ignored him or envied him. Ezra couldn’t decide which was worse.
Now he had six men that he trusted to watch his back at work. That, in and of itself, was a novelty. The fact that they also appeared to want his friendship continued to baffle the Southerner. His experiences with true friendship had been few and far between and many had ended poorly. Could he bear to give these six men access to his heart? Could he trust them with something much more fragile than his life… his very soul?
Ezra sighed again then schooled his features and headed back to the bullpen. I wonder what sort of barbaric birthday rituals they have instigated. And what on earth am I supposed to bring for presents?
Ezra handed Judge Travis the folder. “Both of my doctors have approved my returning to full duty, sir.”
Travis took the folder and opened it. He read through the first page and nodded then flipped to the second. “This says you’ll need to have your vision tested in one month and again every six months,” he said raising his eyes to meet Standish’s calm gaze.
“Yes, sir. My left eye is not one-hundred percent yet. I… The doctor prescribed glasses for extended reading or computer use, but it won’t affect my work.”
Travis’s lips twitched then he closed the file and pulled the reading glasses off his nose. “No, I don’t suppose it will. I’ve been using these for years,” he smiled, indicating the glasses briefly before setting them on the desk. Ezra relaxed just a bit. “What about the scar?”
Ezra ran a knuckle along the faintly bruised scar on his left cheek. It continued to startle him when he looked in the mirror every morning, but the bruising had faded to almost nothing and the scar would eventually be only a bad memory. “Dr. Newman assures me that it will continue to fade. He wants to allow the tissue time to finish healing and then, probably in another three or four weeks he will perform a laser procedure that should reduce the scarring to almost nothing.”
Travis nodded. “Good. I know that’s a relief. Even though it was useful in your last assignment, that scar is too distinctive for someone in your business.”
“Yes, sir,” Ezra said, running his knuckle lightly against the scar again.
“Standish, I haven’t worked with many undercover agents. Sitting on the bench, I usually only got to see the spit and polished version,” he said with a grin. Ezra grinned back. “However, from the scuttlebutt in the office, I’d gather that most agents, in this agency at least, don’t go quite as far as you in ‘disguising’ themselves.”
Ezra took a step forward indicating the chair in front of the Judge’s desk with a wave of his hand and a raised eyebrow.
“Yes, please, have a seat,” Travis replied. “I was just wondering where you learned to do that and why you feel it’s necessary to such a degree.”
Ezra sat down and considered the question for a moment. “My
mother and I traveled quite a bit as I grew up. One summer found us in
“Do you think you could hold a seminar for our other agents? Show them what you can do?” Travis asked.
Standish bowed his head. “I’m not sure that I would be the best choice, sir. What with my checkered past…” he shrugged as he met the Judge’s eyes again.
“Hogwash,” Travis hissed. “Those fools in
“I can check into some of the local theatre companies,” Ezra said thoughtfully. “I’m not sure everyone would be up to the standards Phillipe set,” he grinned.
“All right. Let me know. Now about the second part of the question…”
Ezra cleared his throat. He’d hoped the Judge had forgotten about that. “Well, sir, to me undercover has always meant that the ‘bad guys’ don’t know who you are, before, during or after a bust. My real face and name are linked only to this building,” he paused considering whether he should say more. With an internal shake of his head, Ezra continued. “On assignment, I have to be someone else, a different look, sound and name. Otherwise I put my life and the lives of my team at risk for reprisal.” He grinned wickedly showing his dimples and gold tooth. “And you have to admit, this face is pretty unforgettable.”
Travis laughed. “All right, Standish, you made your point,” he said still smiling. The young agent had charm. “Find me a willing teacher for that seminar and I’ll set it up.” Travis stood and offered his hand to the younger man. “I’m glad Larabee insisted you join the team. He made a good choice.”
Ezra stood and shook his hand, hiding his amazement behind a poker face. “Thank you, sir.”
“Tell Larabee to come see me Monday morning and I’ll clear your return to work with him,” Travis said, dismissing Standish with a wave of his hand.
“Yes, sir,” Ezra said bemusedly before turning to leave.
Orin sat back in his chair and frowned. Something Standish had said… or maybe didn’t say… He turned to the computer on his desk and pulled up the agent’s file. Ezra P. Standish… blah blah blah… DOB… that can’t be right. Travis looked up as if he could get the answer from the door Standish had just exited. Surely he’s older than that. Damn, I thought he just looked young for his age. Better keep reading and see what other surprises Ezra has in store.
Mother: Madeline E. Woolsworth… Father: Unknown? No siblings...
Okay, skip down… Job title: Special Agent… Aren’t they all? Travis snorted at his bad joke. Specialty: Research. Research? Security clearance: Red… as expected under that title… Degree in Psychology and an MBA from Cornell… Knew that. Where’s the personal stuff? Ah, President of the Chess club for 2 years at Cornell, Librarian’s assistant? Mathematics Club? This makes him sound like a first class geek! I don’t remember this from his file…
Travis stood up and went out to his secretary’s desk. “Linda? Would you pull ‘my’ files on Agent Standish please? I need them right away.”
He returned to his office and continued through the fiction on Standish’s ATF computer records. I guess some sort of deception is prudent if he’s to keep his name safe. Certainly prevents potential hackers from discovering who he really is. I wonder how much of his real life is on file with the FBI?
Linda knocked and came in with the file Travis had
requested. He didn’t trust computers, evidently with good reason, and since
becoming the ATF Director had kept a special file section that only he and
Linda knew about in the archives. He had what he hoped were accurate files for
all of his personnel and copies of the cases that his teams had worked on.
“Let’s see what the original file
Ezra P. Standish… at least the name is the same… DOB… still seems too young. Mother: Maude E. Standish… Father: Unknown? No siblings... Wonder why he changed his mother’s name? Guess that’s for protection, too, if she’s still alive.
Job title: Special agent. Specialty: Undercover. Security clearance: Alpha prime?!! “What the hell? I don’t even have Alpha prime clearance.” Travis frowned and kept reading.
Degree in Psychology
and an MBA from Cornell… Knew that,
and a MFA in acting from
Orin continued to read the file. There wasn’t much truly personal information included, but the ‘highlights’ made for fascinating reading.
The six agents headed out of their office and waited for the
elevator, talking about the upcoming get together at
“You’ve played before, right, Ez?” Vin asked nonchalantly.
“I am passingly familiar with the game, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra said, not allowing anything past his mask of indifference.
“Don’t worry, Ez,” JD assured, “we’ll help you if you need a reminder of what beats what.”
Ezra’s lips twitched slightly. “Thank you, Mr. Dunne. That is most kind of you.”
The elevator doors opened and they exited into the garage.
Ezra grunted in disgust and hurried over to his Jaguar. “Shoo!” he hissed, waving his hands at the big orange and white cat sitting on his roof. “Who’s feline is this anyway?” he growled as the cat deigned to take notice of him, rising slowly to stand on all four feet before stretching languidly, his claws unsheathing. “Stop!” Ezra shouted, grabbing the cat and lifting him quickly from the roof of the Jag. He set the cat down and frowned as the feline wound itself around and through his legs leaving long orange and white hairs on his designer pants.
Vin and JD leaned against the sharpshooter’s jeep watching as they laughed quietly. The other three chuckled, but headed on to their cars.
“That’s Cuervo,” Vin advised, picking the big tom cat up when it approached him. He scratched under the cat’s chin and received a loud purr in return. “He’s sorta our mascot.”
Ezra frowned and opened his mouth to say something, but was interrupted by Judge Travis’s appearance.
“Evening, boys,” Travis said as he exited the elevator and passed between Standish and the others. “Have a good weekend.”
“We will, Judge,” JD said cheerfully. “We’re going out to
Travis stopped in his tracks and turned slowly to see if Dunne was serious. He saw that the young man was and turned his look to Standish. Ezra simply lifted an eyebrow, but the twinkle in his eyes told the Judge that he knew he knew. Travis bit the inside of his lip. “Well, have a good time,” he managed to say before walking off. He got into his car and drove out of the parking garage before giving in to the laughter.
“I shall see you gentlemen later this evening,” Ezra said as he climbed into his Jaguar.
Vin exchanged a glance with JD who just grinned before moving off to catch his ride with Buck.
Ezra opened the door and couldn’t quite hide his surprise. “Vin? I thought you’d be on your way to Mr. Larabee’s by now.”
“Well, Ez,” Vin said, shouldering his way into the
apartment. “I thought you might need a ride. The road out to
Ezra closed the front door and faced Vin with a frown. “Why
didn’t you say something earlier?” He certainly did not want to chance damaging
the suspension on his vehicle. He hadn’t had the need or time to find a
“Well, it just occurred to me,” Vin drawled. He nodded at Ezra. “That what you’re gonna wear?”
Ezra looked down at his khaki pants and designer Polo shirt. “Yes,” he said. “Something wrong with my apparel, Mr. Tanner?”
“No, no, not at all, Ez. It’s just, well, we’re pretty casual out at the ranch.”
“This is casual.”
“What I mean is more like jeans, T-shirt, and boots or tennis shoes, Ez. Don’t want you to get your good clothes all messed up.”
“For heaven’s sake,” Ezra exclaimed softly. “This is Mr. Larabee’s home we are talking about, correct? It’s not like we’ll be having the festivities in the barn.” He frowned. “Will we?”
Vin grinned. “Well, not usually, but we do sometimes take the horses out for a ride.” Vin pushed himself away from the arm of the chair he’d been leaning on and headed down the hall to Ezra’s room. “Come on, Ez. I’ve seen you in jeans before.”
Ezra sighed and followed. “Those are for work, Mr. Tanner.”
Vin laughed. “Oh, that’s a good one, Ez.” He stopped and pointed at his friend. “Those are ‘play clothes’ and the jeans are for work.” Vin laughed again. “That’s good, gotta tell the boys,” he said continuing into the bedroom. He opened the closet door and gaped at the suits hanging there, all organized by color. “Looks like a damned department store,” he muttered. “Come on, Ez, where are they?” he asked, flipping the suits to one side to check the back of the closet.
“Mr. Tanner!” Ezra cried, pulling the Texan back from doing further damage to his wardrobe. “You don’t crush designer suits together, you’ll wrinkle them. Honestly.” He began to adjust the hangers so that none of the suits touched. “I don’t keep my undercover clothes in here. They’re in the other room,” he said irritably.
Vin nodded and left the room.
Ezra shook his head and finished his tidying. By the time he’d returned to the living area, Vin was waiting with a duffle bag that Ezra recognized as one he used for certain undercover personas.
“Come on, Ez. We’ll be late.”
Ezra nodded and grabbed the envelopes from the table by the door. He had had no idea what to get the others for their birthdays, so settled on gift certificates from one of his favorite clothing stores. Not very subtle, he had to admit, but perhaps a little nudge might help improve his co-workers wardrobes. Or maybe not.
After about ten minutes of driving, Ezra broke the silence. “How far is it to Mr. Larabee’s?”
“’Bout forty miles.”
Ezra glanced at the Texan and suppressed a sigh. Not that Vin could have heard it over the radio, and with the doors and top off, the wind whistled through their hair making conversation a bit difficult anyway. “How did he ever end up way out here?” Ezra asked, thinking aloud.
“What was that?” Vin asked.
“What is Mr. Larabee doing with a ranch way out here? I wouldn’t think he had time to work such property.”
“He don’t, really. Has a few head of horses,” Vin said turning the radio off. “The ranch belonged to his wife’s dad.”
“I didn’t know Mr. Larabee was married,” Ezra said, unable to hide his surprise.
“Was,” Vin said sadly. “She’s dead.”
Vin nodded. “She and his son were killed in a car accident a few years ago.”
“Good Lord. I had no idea.”
“He don’t talk about them much.”
Ezra nodded his understanding and allowed the silence to
take over again. He felt unaccountably closer to the enigmatic blond. Though
there was really no comparison between losing a family to death and his loss of
Ezra gave himself a mental shake and reached to turn the radio back on. He would not dwell on ‘what ifs.’ If he’d listened to his mother in the first place, then his heart wouldn’t have been broken. Enough, Ezra. Pay attention to the road in case you ever have to come out here on your own. He rolled his eyes at his inane attempt to distract himself. So far they’d come straight out I25, didn’t exactly require an eidetic memory.
About twenty minutes later they turned onto a small paved road that gave way to gravel and then a dirt path. Vin slowed the jeep and dodged pot holes as he sent a quick grin toward Ezra.
“He’s been griping about getting this road finished since I’ve been on the team. Figure one of these days he’ll crack an axel and have it done.”
Ezra smiled at Vin’s joking tone and looked out the window. The property must have started where they turned onto the road because Ezra saw no other fencing until the house came into view. A barn and several corrals sat off to one side of the sprawling, one-story ranch-style house. It was in dire need of a paint job, but otherwise seemed sturdy enough.
Vin parked the jeep beside Buck’s red truck and hopped out. The door to the house opened as Vin grabbed a bag out of the back and headed toward the porch.
JD yelled back into the house. “Hey, Vin and Ezra are here,” then he bounded down the stairs and jogged over with a smile. “Glad you could come, Ezra. Hey, Vin.”
“Mr. Dunne,” Ezra greeted, pulling the bag that Vin had packed for him out of the jeep. He frowned at the weight, wondering what on earth the Texan had put in it.
Buck, Josiah, Nathan and
Buck joined JD and grinned at Vin. “So you convinced him to stay the weekend, eh?”
Ezra’s head turned so fast that his neck popped. He saw Vin shrug.
“Ain’t like he can leave,” he drawled slyly.
“Wha… what are you talking about?” Ezra stammered, feeling a bit trapped. “I thought this was just an evening affair.”
“Well now, Ez,” Buck said, draping a friendly arm over the other man’s shoulder. “Since we drove all the way out here and the party might involve a bit of alcohol,” he grinned broadly, “we usually just stay the night. Tomorrow we can get in a little riding…”
“But… I… I didn’t bring…” Ez protested, shrugging out from under Buck’s arm.
“I packed everything for ya, Ez,” Vin grinned.
The others smirked as Ezra looked from man to man realizing he’d been tricked. “Mr. Larabee, I must protest. I had plans for this weekend…”
Buck came up behind him and put both hands on Ezra’s
shoulders then gave him a slight shake. “Come on, Ez. We’re off duty, let me
introduce ya to everyone. Now,” he said pushing the shorter man toward
Ezra stared at Buck for a moment then dropped his gaze as he nodded. He heard the others chuckling behind him and closed his eyes. Buck gave him another shake and Ezra looked up.
“We’re just here to have a little fun, pard. We wanted you to join us.” He paused for a second. “If you really want to leave, I’ll drive you back.”
Ezra took a deep breath to collect himself. They’d really caught him off guard and he’d lost control. “Nonsense,” he said giving Buck’s arm a slight pat before he turned to face the others. “I was simply concerned about what I would wear. After all, appearances are everything. As it is, I’m afraid to see what Mist... Vin has packed for me.”
Vin grinned. “Don’t worry, Ez. You’ll fit right in with the rest of us.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Ezra muttered as he followed the others into the house.
The evening was pretty quiet, all things considered. They’d
had a long week, even though
They sat around the living room with some movie on the television that held only sporadic attention. Quiet conversations between various parties floated around the room. Ezra allowed himself to be drawn into one or two of the discussions, but for the most part just sat back and listened.
Somewhere around , they decided to call it a night and split up to get ready for bed. Ezra found a pair of pajama bottoms and a t-shirt in his bag that would suffice for sleeping apparel. He grimaced at the assortment of clothing in the bag, but decided to deal with that in the morning. Ezra brushed his teeth at the kitchen sink while Buck and JD argued over who would get the bathroom after Josiah, then he wandered back into the living room to see where he would be sleeping.
“Ah, man!” JD cried out from the hallway.
“Grab the couch, Ez!” Vin shouted.
Ezra reacted quickly, though uncertain as to why. He leapt over the back of the couch and landed on the pile of blankets just before JD. The computer expert landed on top of Ezra with an ‘oomph.’
“Mr. Dunne!” Ezra exclaimed, pushing the younger man off him and onto the floor.
“Dang it, Ez,” JD groused, sitting up as he pushed his hair back out of his eyes. “I wanted the couch.”
“Seems you weren’t fast enough, kid,” Vin taunted.
Ezra looked from JD to Vin then up to the chuckles coming from the hall. Nathan and Buck were watching with amusement. “Aren’t there any beds in this house?”
“Sure there are, Ez,” Buck explained. “It’s just that the guest rooms have only one queen-size apiece, so we gotta share or sleep on the floor.”
“’Sright,” Vin grinned. “And both Buck and Josiah snore.”
“Do not!” Buck argued.
“You do, too!” JD huffed as he picked himself up off the floor. He shot a look at Nathan and got a quick nod then both men raced down the hall and entered the same room. The door slammed behind them.
“Aw, hell,” Buck muttered as he watched them disappear. He ran a hand through his hair as Vin laughed.
“I assume that everyone agrees that Mis… Josiah snores as well?” Ezra asked with a grin.
“Oh, yeah,” Vin said. He popped the lever on the recliner and leaned back. “Recliner or couch are my first choices. JD cuddles and Nathan hogs the covers.”
Ezra smiled and shook his head as Buck banged on the bathroom door.
“Come on, Josiah.”
“There are some things that just can’t be rushed, Brother Buck,” came the muffled answer.
“Oh, God,” Buck said, leaning his head against the wall briefly. He straightened and headed down the hall to the master bedroom. He knocked once then opened the door.
“Buck! What the hell?”
“I’m using your bathroom, old dog, get outta my way.”
Vin and Ezra snuggled down on their respective beds, chuckling in good humor.
Ezra smiled to himself as the lights finally went off throughout the house and his teammates voices slowly dimmed to silence. Perhaps this wasn’t such a bad way to spend the weekend after all.
Ezra woke with a start, his heart pounding as he tried to remember who he was supposed to be. His eyes darted around the room and landed on Vin stretched out in the recliner, his mouth hanging open due to the way his head lay partway off the pillow. Ezra took a deep breath as he realized where he was. He ran a hand over his face and glanced at the clock on the mantle. He squinted as the face refused to come into focus. Damn. His reading glasses were sitting on the table by his bed at home.
Ezra yawned and sat up, stretching slowly before standing and moving to take a closer look at the clock. ? He shook his head. The long, boring week in the office had allowed him to catch up on some much needed sleep. So much so that now, when he really could sleep in, his body wouldn’t allow it. Ezra sighed. The rest of the house was silent. He picked up his bag and took it into the kitchen, setting it on the table while he checked out the coffee situation.
He found the coffee and made a mental note to bring his own beans and grinder the next time. Ezra snorted. Why would he assume there would be a ‘next’ time? He started the coffee maker and began sorting through the bag Vin had packed for him while the coffee perked.
Not as bad as I assumed. Ezra smiled wryly. He’d already seen his overnight kit, of course, and evidently Vin had grabbed a stack of boxers from his dresser. There were several pairs of jeans, the nicer ones, not the ‘fashionably holey’ ones he used for certain personas and a pair of sweat pants. Vin had also included several t-shirts and a couple of denim shirts as well as a pair of tennis shoes and a pair of well-worn boots. No wonder the bag is so heavy. I will fit in quite well with these ensembles. He chuckled lightly and pulled out the sweats and a t-shirt. Since he was up, he might as well get in a workout before the others woke.
He poured a cup of coffee and took it with him as he padded quietly into the bathroom to change. Minutes later, Ezra slipped out the front door and eased the screen door shut. He took a deep breath of the cool morning air knowing it would warm up quickly once the sun made its appearance. Ezra weighed his options and decided on the barn.
Ezra stretched out a bit then started running through his forms. He wanted to warm up with a Taekwondo form or two before moving on to the less familiar jujutsu katas. The familiar forms loosened his muscles and he started to practice the beginning level katas. He quickly moved up to the more advanced patterns, clearing his mind as he focused on performing each move precisely. Sweat had started to stain his t-shirt when he heard the door squeak open. Ezra paused maintaining his position as he glanced to see who had entered.
“Good morning, Mr. Tanner,” he said then continued with the kata.
“’Morning, Mr. Standish,” Vin grinned.
Ezra grinned briefly, but did not break his concentration. He was almost through his current level and the moves required all of his focus. Vin sank to the floor, sitting tailor-style to watch. After just a few more minutes, Ezra completed his last kata. He stood straight for a moment, rolling his head slowly then folded at the waist and grabbed his calves to stretch his back. He pulled himself up again and smiled at Vin.
“Anyone else up?”
“Not yet. Kinda surprised to see you up so early. You sleep okay?”
“Quite well,” Ezra replied, taking a seat on a hay bale next to Vin. “I simply found myself unable to take advantage of the opportunity to sleep in.”
Vin grinned and nodded toward the center of the barn. “See you found my spot.”
Ezra raised one eyebrow. “Your ‘spot?’”
“Where I work out when I’m here. The floor’s nice and smooth and it’s big enough so’s I don’t have to worry about hitting the walls.” Vin stood, moved into the center of the barn and stretched much like Ezra had earlier. “How long have you been practicing jujutsu?”
“Since college.” Ezra watched as Vin started the same katas he’d just practiced. “You?”
“Army,” Vin replied, not breaking his flow.
Ezra leaned back against the stall. A gray muzzle popped over the top of the stall door, nuzzled his hair then lipped at his shoulder and Ezra rubbed it soothingly as he watched. Vin was quite good, moving through the beginner and the intermediate katas quickly and accurately. He’d barely broken a sweat when he reached the level Ezra had stopped at and continued through another grade of moves before he finished. Ezra nodded to himself, he’d suspected Vin excelled in one or more of the martial arts, but when using the moves on the job, they tended to become somewhat improvised depending on the situation. Unless one had the opportunity to watch the combatants, it was difficult to name a specific discipline.
Ezra stood as Vin walked back over to him. “Should we see to the horses?” Ezra asked.
Vin nodded his agreement and showed Ezra the feeding schedule and where to find the appropriate feed. They split the duty and soon had all eight horses fed and turned out. They then mucked out four stalls apiece and were just refreshing the water buckets when the barn door opened again.
“You guys done already?”
“Just finishing up, cowboy,” Vin said with a grin. He wiped his face with the tail of his shirt and looked at Ezra. “I’m about ready for a shower and breakfast, how ‘bout you, Ez?”
“Sounds delightful, Vin,” Ezra replied with a cocky grin. He
stepped out of the stall where he’d just finished filling the water bucket and
“Um, yeah. Nathan and Josiah are almost done,”
Vin’s grin widened. “Don’t tell me, Josiah claimed his blueberry pancakes were the best again and Nathan’s out to prove his raisin ‘cakes are.”
Ezra realized they were talking about a running competition between the two men, one that the rest of the team seemed to capitalize on. “I suppose this means I will be required to try both styles of these culinary wonders. They can cook, I hope.”
“Very funny, gentlemen.” He headed for the door. “I shall claim the first shower for that,” he tossed over his shoulder as he exited the door.
“Hey!” Vin called, chasing after him.
Ezra laughed and sprinted to the house. He pulled the door closed behind him, just getting the lock turned as Vin pounded up the stairs. Ezra laughed as he waved at Vin through the window then grabbed his bag. He gave JD and Buck a smile and a two-fingered salute as he passed through the living room to the bathroom.
“What was that all about?” JD asked. Vin pounded on the door, demanding to be let in and the youngest agent went to the door. He smiled through the window on the door. “Hey, Vin. What’s up?”
“Let me in, JD!”
“What’s it worth to ya?” JD teased.
“Better be careful, kid,” Buck warned with a smile. Vin always got even.
“JD,” Vin growled. “Cotton,” he reminded softly, an evil grin on his face.
JD swallowed hard and just barely kept from glancing over at Buck to see if he’d heard. “Keep yer pants on, Vin,” JD mumbled, unlocking the door and letting the sharpshooter in.
Vin sent a knowing look at JD then looked toward the guest
bath. He sighed and retrieved his bag from behind the recliner. “I’m gonna use
JD and Buck just laughed.
Ezra hung back from the rest of the men as they headed for the barn. Breakfast had been a loud boisterous affair as had clean up afterward. Despite having ‘let his hair down’ a bit to tease Vin earlier, Ezra still felt unsure of how much of himself he could or should expose to his teammates. It was decidedly unnerving after keeping such a tight rein on his feelings for so long.
“You know how to ride, pard?” Buck asked as they entered the barn.
“Yes,” Ezra said watching as the others headed to their horses.
“Why don’t you take
“How green is he?” Ezra asked looking over the bay Morgan in the end stall.
“Well, Buck, Vin and I have been working him for some time.
Nettie Wells bought him as a graduation present for her niece, Casey. He’s
saddle broke and we’ve all ridden him, he’s got a real nice gait, but I’d like
to see how he handles for someone new.”
Ezra grabbed the bridle hanging on the hook outside
“There’s a good boy,” Ezra praised stroking the soft black
muzzle as he took another few steps to close the distance. “Let’s just get this
bridle on you,” he said putting words to action as he deftly slipped the bit
“Looks like he knows what he’s doing, old dog,” Buck
Ezra spent a bit more time brushing
Ezra smiled and looked up from the horse to see the others grinning back at him. “Shall we?” he asked.
“Where’d you learn to ride, Ezra?” Josiah asked bringing his
horse, Prophet up beside
“I had numerous occasions growing up to practice the equestrian arts.”
Josiah shook his head and grinned. “That didn’t exactly answer my question, son.”
Ezra shot a glance at the profiler. “My mother’s second husband had horses. He indulged me.”
“Did you have your own horse?” JD asked, turning in his saddle, resting one hand on his horse’s rump to look at Ezra.
“No, JD, I did not. We were never in any one place long enough. I did learn enough of the rudiments while Mother was with Uncle David, so that when the opportunity arose for me to ride later, I was proficient enough to be allowed to continue my training.”
Nathan frowned, trying to read between the lines. Something about what Ezra wasn’t saying made him think there was more to the story. “So how long was your mom with your Uncle David?”
Ezra rubbed a knuckle along the scar on his cheek. You’re getting sloppy, Ezra, if Nathan picked up on that. Have to be more careful. “Well, you have to understand Mother. She never was one to be tied down. Of course,” he continued with an air of amusement, “she never likes to be without an escort either.”
Nathan looked over his shoulder and nodded encouragingly for Ezra to continue.
Ezra suppressed a sigh. “I believe they were divorced after almost two years of marriage. A real record for Mother,” he added so softly that only Josiah heard him. Ezra looked up and decided to focus the attention on someone else. “So, M… JD, where did you learn to ride?”
As they returned to the barn, Ezra brought
Chris smiled and nodded. “Thanks for putting him through his paces, Ezra. You know, you’re welcome to come out and ride anytime. None of the horses get the exercise they need. Though I wouldn’t recommend Peso unless you really want a workout,” he said, tossing a teasing glance over his shoulder at Vin.
“Ha, ha,” Vin said. “Don’t listen to him Peso.”
“And if you decide to get one,” Chris continued, “you can board it here.”
“Get one?” Ezra asked, startled.
“Yeah,” Buck chimed in. “We pay board and feed. Yosemite and his son take care of them most of the time. When we’re here, we try to give them a break and do the feeding and mucking out.”
Ezra ran a knuckle along the scar on his cheek, not sure what to make of the offer. “I shall give the notion due consideration,” he said thoughtfully.
That evening after dinner,
“So what are the stakes?” Ezra asked.
“Oh, we usually just play for chips and bragging rights,” JD answered.
“Sometimes,” Josiah added, “for who brings the beer the next time or does the dishes, that sort of thing.”
Ezra nodded as Buck brought out the cold beer and passed everyone a bottle. “I presume we are staying the night tonight as well?”
Vin opened his bottle and nodded. “Yep. We’ll head out around tomorrow, give everybody a chance to get stuff done at home.”
JD grabbed the cards and started to shuffle. Ezra winced a bit at the way he manhandled the cards.
“All rightee. Let’s get this show on the road,” JD said enthusiastically. “Standard five card draw’s the game, gentlemen. One dollar ante.” He dealt the cards then picked his up and began organizing them to his satisfaction.
Ezra sat back as he picked up his cards. He didn’t really care what he had, his main goal for the next few hands was to watch his opponents and learn their tells.
“Dealer takes two,” JD said.
Buck leaned over and peeked at his hand. “With those cards you should take three, kid,” he offered with a smile.
“Buck!” JD hollered, pushing the older man away from him. “Cut it out. I know what I’m doing.”
The others chuckled and when Ezra’s turn came he declined any cards.
“You sure you want to do that, Ez?” JD asked.
“I have played before, JD,” Ezra assured.
JD nodded and the hand continued.
After four hands, it was Josiah’s turn to deal and Ezra decided it was time to test his observations. At the end of the turn, it was down to Buck, Chris and Ezra. Ezra was pretty sure that Buck was bluffing and that Chris knew it and that’s why he had stayed in. Ezra tossed in his chips. “I see your raise, Chris and call.”
Buck laid his cards down revealing a pair of fours. Chris grinned and showed a pair of kings.
“Dang, I knew you were bluffing, Buck!” JD exclaimed earning a cuff to the back of the head.
“Then why didn’t you stay in?” Buck countered.
“Whatcha got, Ez?” Vin asked.
“Well, I do believe that my pair beats what’s on the table,” Ezra said with a slight smile. He laid down a pair of threes and a pair of tens. “My two pair, that is.”
JD grinned. “He, he, that’s good, Ezra. Nice hand.”
Vin and then Chris dealt the next hands, then it was Ezra’s turn. He picked up the deck with a sigh of relief and began to shuffle without even thinking about it. The cards flew through his fingers, dancing in the air before slipping back together.
“You gonna deal ‘em, or make love to ‘em?” Vin drawled. 2
Ezra looked up and felt a blush rise to his cheeks. “Ah, right, sorry,” he said, setting the cards in front of Chris to cut the deck.
The others chuckled.
“I think Brother Ezra has been holding out on us,” Josiah teased.
JD had watched the entire show with disbelief. “I thought you didn’t know how to play.”
“Now, son,” Ezra chided gently, “I never said that. I said I was passingly familiar with the game.”
Noises of disbelief and sarcasm floated around the table and Ezra had to fight the urge to grin. “Actually, I played quite a bit in college. Put myself through school on my winnings.”
Buck moaned while Chris, Nathan and Josiah just smiled and shook their heads. Vin grinned and pretended to push his chips toward Ezra. JD sighed.
“Come, come, gentlemen,” Ezra soothed. “I may have more experience, but I am only human.” He looked around the table. “Anyone care to raise the stakes? Say, the winner gets first choice of sleeping accommodations for the evening?”
“Not my bed,” Chris qualified.
“Now, Chris,” Buck started.
“That ain’t hardly fair, pard,” Vin grinned. “If your bed’s not included, you don’t have any reason to play.”
Chris looked around the table at the knowing grins on his friends’ faces. “Aw, hell,” he mumbled. “All right. But I get next pick.”
The others laughed and Ezra picked up the deck. “Gentlemen, the game is five card stud, one-eyed Jacks are wild…”
Vin woke with a start and listened, trying to figure out what woke him. The sound of feet treading lightly on the stairs outside gave him the answer. A quick look around the living room told Vin that Ezra had risen before him, again. What surprised him more was that the other man had managed to do so without waking him, until now.
Vin sat up and stretched. He’d join Ezra in the barn and maybe the two of them could spar a bit. Ezra wasn’t at the same level of training in jujutsu that he was, but it was good to practice with a partner. None of the others took their martial arts training as seriously as he, and evidently Ez, did. To them, the Arts were a means to subdue bad guys. To Vin, they were a way to help him reach a spiritual peace within himself.
He dressed quickly in a pair of sweat pants and a t-shirt and jogged out to the barn. The door was far enough ajar that he could peek in without breaking Ezra’s concentration. What he saw surprised him. Ezra was working out, but they were not the familiar jujutsu katas Vin had expected. He moved quietly into the barn and sat by the wall. He shook his head in amazement. Ezra was practicing Taekwondo. Vin had dabbled in this Art as well, but hadn’t had time to earn more than a few belts. Usually one chose a single discipline to master, but it was quite obvious that Ezra was a Master of Taekwondo and well on his way to a similar level in jujutsu.
Ezra finished the form he was on and stretched a bit before moving across to a bale of hay where a cup of coffee sat. He took a sip and grimaced at the now cold concoction.
“How long have you been practicing Taekwondo?” a voice drawled amusedly from the shadows.
Ezra turned quickly, reaching for his gun before he realized that, one: he wasn’t armed, and two: it was only Vin. “Vin. That’s a good way to get yourself shot,” he said with a wry grin.
Vin returned the grin. “Well?”
Ezra sighed. “I believe I was ten when I started in that particular discipline.”
Vin nodded. “I’m not as familiar with it, but looks to me like you’re at Master level.”
Ezra shrugged, looking wistfully into his coffee cup. “I have some measure of proficiency.”
Vin snorted. “Yeah, right. Just like I do in jujutsu.”
Ezra looked up, eyes wide as he began to protest, then stopped when he recognized Vin’s sarcasm. He shook his head. “Very well then. We both appear to be quite proficient in our chosen Art.”
“Yeah,” Vin grinned, “but you’ve gone pretty far in jujutsu, too. I’ve messed around with Taekwondo, but only the first few levels. Would you consider teaching me?”
Ezra looked surprised, but recovered quickly. “Certainly. If you will return the favor?” he asked doubtfully.
Vin’s grin widened to a broad smile. “Sure. That’d be great. When do you want to start?”
Ezra blinked then smiled. “Why don’t you warm up a bit while I refresh my coffee? We can work on a few forms when I get back.”
Vin nodded agreeably. “Cool. Bring me a cup too, would you?”
Ezra chuckled as he headed out the door.
Vin smiled to himself. Seems they’d made quite a bit of headway this weekend bringing Ezra into the fold. Hopefully, the undercover agent’s newfound ease would carry over into the office.
Monday morning, the office
Ezra wandered into the bullpen armed with a good night’s rest and a cup of Starbucks. The others were, of course, already at their desks. It was almost . Ezra saw no reason to change his work habits just because he’d had a full eight hours of sleep. He smiled congenially at Buck and JD and returned ‘good mornings’ to Josiah and Nathan as he strolled to his desk.
Something felt different today. He sat down at his desk and flashed a smile at Vin across the way. The Texan smiled back and returned his concentration to his computer screen. Ezra turned on his computer and looked around, trying to discern the difference. Nothing was obviously out of place. No new furniture or equipment.
Ezra frowned briefly. The change wasn’t physical and if he was honest with himself, he’d admit that he had known that from the start. No. The change was within. He had finally succumbed to this group’s heavy-handed attempts to drag him into their circle of friendship. Ezra grinned, but quickly took a sip of coffee to hide it.
He had to acknowledge these men as his friends. People he trusted to watch his back at work and at play. Of course, he didn’t have to tell them that he trusted them. Not yet at least. It was still too risky. He’d been burned before and didn’t want to go through that heartache again. So, for now, he would ‘hang out’ with them, accept their friendship and return it as much as he could, but not let them see how much that friendship truly meant to him. Therein lay the danger, the path to destruction. If his mother knew of his need to rely on these men, she would have a cow. Ezra smiled as he recognized that quaint phrase as something Buck had said over the weekend. He shook his head ruefully. Already they were corrupting him. He grinned and got to work.
Chris came out of his office about thirty minutes later. “Conference room,” he said shortly.
His six agents rose and followed him. Ezra, Josiah and Nathan carried pads of paper and coffee cups while JD brought his laptop and coffee. Buck and Vin just brought coffee. Buck claimed he wouldn’t be able to read his notes later anyway, and Vin would just grin and repeat, verbatim, whatever had just been said.
Ezra took his usual seat and looked expectantly at Chris.
Chris waited for everyone to get settled then started. “For the next three weeks, this agency will be on a special task force focused on fighting the sale of alcohol to minors. All other assignments have been postponed. The mayor is on a tear and wants to see results. And since he’s buddy-buddy with Travis, he was able to assert his influence and get the task force approved.”
The others groaned dramatically, though not truly upset by the assignment. It would be a nice change from fighting gun runners and tracking down explosives.
“What’s the plan?” Buck asked.
“The mayor’s ‘advisors,’” he said scornfully, “have given us a brief list of suggestions. We are mainly interested in catching the stores that knowingly sell to anyone under twenty-one. The idea is to have our agents pose as bums and ask likely prospects to purchase alcohol for them.”
“No,” Standish said firmly.
“Pardon me?” Larabee replied, stunned.
“I will not lure innocent children into purchasing illegal wares.”
“They’re hardly children, Ezra. They’re old enough to know
right from wrong,”
“I will not be party to it,” Ezra declared. “And just because they know it’s wrong, does not mean they have the self-confidence to refuse an assuring adult armed with cash reimbursement.”
Vin grinned and held up his hands. “What he said, cowboy. Ain’t never really thought about it that way before, but it just don’t feel right somehow.”
Larabee groaned and looked to Josiah. The big profiler
grinned. “I have to agree with our younger brothers,
“Send JD in to purchase the ill-gotten goods,” Ezra suggested. “With a slight change of wardrobe and instruction from me, he would pass as underage.”
“Hey!” JD exclaimed sending a hurt look Ezra’s way.
Buck laughed. “Be glad, JD.”
“Indeed, Mr. Dunne. Your youthful appearance, as annoying as you may find it now, will persist as you mature and you will be quite pleased with your boyish good looks when the rest of us are being asked if we want our senior discount,” Ezra drawled with a rueful smile.
This drew a chuckle from everyone, including JD. The youngster of the group then shrugged dismissively, accepting the Southerner’s oblique apology.
“Well,” Ezra said slowly, waiting for
“Why is that?”
“True,” Ezra replied nonchalantly, “but I wouldn’t be relying on their looks so much as their demeanor.”
“You all play poker,” Ezra said. “Well, everyone has tells, correct?” The others nodded. “You know how to recognize when some people are bluffing or have a really good hand?” More nods. “People have tells in other areas too,” Ezra explained. “A young person, who knows they are not old enough to purchase alcohol, will have some nervous behavior that an experienced eye would easily note.”
Ezra’s right eyebrow rose. “Not at all. What I’m saying is that Vin, Josiah and I have more experience.”
Vin leaned forward putting his elbows on the table. “How do you figure that, Ez?” he asked, clearly interested.
Ezra sighed. “By the very nature of my job, I have to be
good at reading people in all situations. Right at this moment, Mr. Larabee is
peeved. That clenched jaw is a dead giveaway, and he’s certain that his many
years in the police department out weigh my few measly years with the Atlanta
PD and the FBI.” Ezra met
“Mr. Wilmington has similar feelings, but he’s also concerned about not being able to back up JD.” Buck’s mouth opened then closed as he cast a quick sideways glance at JD. Ezra smirked. “And Mr. Dunne, well, he’s aware that we all have more experience than he does, but is still a bit put out that I would so blatantly flaunt the fact.” He looked JD in the eye. “You tend to tap your finger on something when you feel less than appreciated.”
JD looked down at his hand and stopped the offending finger. He met Ezra’s kind smile with a slight blush.
Ezra turned to Josiah next. “Mr. Sanchez’s job also requires him to be able to read people. A profiler has to be able to get into a suspect’s head and figure out what their next step is. I’m certain, with a little practice, that he’d quickly pick up on the relevant cues.”
Vin grinned as Ezra looked at him. “As for Mr. Tanner, he has the advantage of more years of on the job training than any of us. The skills he learned growing up will lend themselves quite nicely to this endeavor,” Ezra said with a nod of respect to the sharpshooter. Vin tipped an imaginary hat Ezra’s way.
“What about me?” Nathan asked.
“You, Mr. Jackson, have a serious character flaw that makes success at such an activity more difficult for you.”
“I beg your pardon?!” Nathan replied indignantly.
“You, sir,” Ezra said with a smile, “are too honest for your own good. You can’t help but see the positive side of everyone, and that detracts greatly from your ability to recognize a con.”
Nathan opened his mouth then closed it as he considered the words. He smiled and shook his head. “I suppose that was a compliment of sorts.”
Much to Ezra’s chagrin, Chris decided he should ride with the Southerner for the first week to ‘brush up’ on his people reading skills. Ezra found himself in an awkward silence while he and Chris set up the surveillance van across from the convenience store they had chosen as their target.
They finally settled into their seats and watched the store front. It had been decided that late afternoon and evenings were the best times to catch offenders. The older teens and underage adults would be out of class or off work by then and possibly looking to score alcohol. Thursday through Saturday were expected to be their biggest nights.
Chris sipped at his bottle of water then glanced at Ezra. He knew the undercover agent was nervous about sharing the assignment with him, but outwardly, Ezra looked as cool and unconcerned as ever. I wonder what it takes to rattle him. Chris shook his head infinitesimally. Don’t think I really want to know the answer to that.
“When Judge Travis told me that your doctors released you back to field work,” Chris said, “He mentioned that you had some follow up appointments. Just let me know when you need off and I’ll get the dates cleared.”
Ezra looked at Chris and nodded then turned his attention back to the store.
Chris sighed. “Look, Ezra…” he started.
“Mr. Larabee, I didn’t intend…” Ezra said at the same time.
Both men paused, but Ezra waved his hand for Chris to continue.
“No,” Chris said. “You first.”
Ezra took a deep breath. “I never intended any disrespect when I said your observation skills weren’t…,” he sighed and met Chris’s amused gaze. “I simply wanted to offer the best solution to the problem.”
Chris grinned. “I know that, Ez. That’s why we’re here. I do know that I’m not the best at everything,” he cast a sly glance at his agent. Ezra chuckled. “And I’d really like to learn from this experience, so what say we forgo the formalities and try to make the most of it?”
Ezra pursed his lips, unsuccessfully trying to hide a grin. “That sounds… like a plan, Chris.”
The next few days passed fairly quietly for the pair. When they saw a likely candidate enter the store, they waited for him or her to exit and took surveillance photos. Then they approached the youth several blocks away, identified themselves, checked identification, confiscated the alcohol and phoned the parents when necessary. A statement was taken and the youth informed that charges would not be filed if testimony was given against the store employee who sold them the alcohol.
After two days, Chris and Ezra had almost a dozen witnesses. They got an arrest warrant from Judge Travis and made two arrests. The store owner and one of the employees had both knowingly sold alcohol to underage clients.
Chris parked the van in front of Ezra’s apartment building. It was early yet, but since they’d closed down one source already, he felt justified in starting fresh tomorrow. “Meet ya at the office around two, Ez. We can finish up the paperwork and pick a new location.”
Ezra nodded as he collected his jacket and a bag of trash to dispose of. “Good night, Chris,” he said then closed the van door and headed for his building.
The van pulled out onto the street as Ezra tossed the bag into the trashcan by the door. He stopped and looked around. It was barely , and though the sun had passed below the horizon about half an hour ago, the sky still wasn’t completely dark. Street lights had come on and people were making their way home after work or perhaps dinner.
Ezra took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He didn’t really want to go in just yet. A brief frown was replaced with a decisive nod. He strode leisurely down the sidewalk. There was a family grocery nearby that one of his neighbors had mentioned. Ezra had been meaning to check it out and see about setting up an account there. With his crazy schedule, especially when he was undercover, it was nice to have the ability to simply call in for a fresh supply of staples that would be delivered to him.
He wasn’t sure the service would be available here, but
hoped he could persuade the owner to try it if not. Such a service had been the
only stable thing in his life in
Ezra sighed, taking casual note of the other store fronts on the block. A florist, a diner, a laundry service. He’d have to try them as well. He currently took his suits to one closer to the office.
Potter’s Grocery came into view. Ezra was surprised to actually see crates with fresh fruit sitting on display right outside the door. How very quaint. He grinned. Perhaps this would work out as he’d hoped.
Two sharp reports shattered his peaceful musings. Ezra reached into his jacket pocket for his cell phone as he ran for the store.
“Damn,” he muttered, not finding his cell phone. He grabbed a man’s arm who was running the opposite direction. “Call the police.” The man nodded and Ezra let him go.
He pulled his weapon and eased up along the front of the store to peek through the window. He could see two men facing the back of the store and someone’s head at about waist level, possibly kneeling on the floor. Ezra leaned back against the wall. Great, a hostage situation. He looked around. And no backup in sight.
Chris was reaching over to turn on the radio when a chirping noise got his attention. He looked at the seat beside him, but didn’t see anything. The chirp sounded again, definitely from that direction, but not visible. He sighed. It sounded like a cell phone. Chris patted his inside jacket pocket and felt the small bulge of his own phone. Must be Ezra’s.
He pulled over and searched down beside the passenger seat. Sure enough, the small phone was wedged between the seat and the console. “Must have fallen out when he picked up his jacket.” Chris sighed again. He was only a few minutes from Ezra’s and the cell phone was the only way he knew he, or any of the others could reach Ezra for certain. Chris shook his head and threw on his blinker before checking traffic and making a u-turn.
Maybe Ezra would want to catch dinner.
The front door to the store was pushed almost all the way closed. Ezra took a breath and called out, “Hello? In the store? Is everything okay?”
A man’s voice answered gruffly. “Everything’s fine… Store’s closed, go away.”
Ezra rolled his eyes. “I thought I heard gunfire. Do you need assistance?”
“You a cop?” the voice asked suspiciously.
“No,” Ezra replied, not technically. “I was just passing by. Are you sure everyone is all right?”
He heard two male voices arguing softly enough that he couldn’t make out the words. Ezra took a chance and peeked into the window again. The two men were definitely at odds with each other, talking and waiving their arms… and thus their guns, in the air.
The third person was no longer visible from where Ezra stood. He glanced around and saw that the street was empty of pedestrians. But just at that moment a familiar van turned onto the street. Ezra smiled slightly in relief and motioned for Chris to take the van on past the store.
He turned his attention back to the store for a moment. “If you’re sure everything’s okay, I’ll be on my way.” Ezra thought he heard a gasp, but the man’s voice quickly responded.
“We’re fine… Thanks,” he said after a long pause.
Ezra jogged down the street to where Chris was waiting by the van.
“What’s going on?” Larabee asked.
“I heard two shots fired within,” Ezra reported. “There are two armed suspects and at least one hostage. They think they are still in control of the situation. I lost my cell phone…”
Chris handed it to him. “Has anyone called this in yet?”
“I asked a passerby to do so,” Ezra said with a shrug and a worried glance at the store.
Chris opened his own cell and called the DPD. After a short conversation he nodded and hung up. “They’re on their way and an ambulance too. They got a robbery call,” Chris said blandly. Unfortunately, the PD usually had their hands full on Friday nights and tonight was no exception. A robbery, which was how the call had been logged, was lower in priority than an armed hostage situation with shots fired.
“Two of them?” Chris asked.
“That I saw.”
“Think there’s a back door?”
“Can you keep their attention long enough for me to get in?” Chris asked knowing Ezra had a better chance of looking non-threatening than he did.
Ezra grinned. He rumpled his hair a bit and loosened his tie then handed his badge to Chris for safe keeping. The gun he placed back in its ankle holster. “Let’s go.”
They both jogged back to the store. Ezra waited for a moment while Chris slipped into the alley then the undercover agent put on his best overworked, underpaid white collar worker façade and trudged through the door into the midst of things.
The two gunmen turned with surprised looks on their faces.
“Hey,” Ezra said, entering the store with his eyes down, “I’m sorry to butt in here, but I,” he looked up and let his eyes go wide at the sight of the guns. He also took in the man on the floor and the weeping woman kneeling beside him. “Wow, man, I…”
“Shut up!” the taller gunman said. “Get in here! Stupid, nosy…” he ranted, waving his gun hand for Ezra to come further into the store.
“What we gonna do now,
“Shut up, Stoney, just shut up and let me think,”
The woman on the floor sobbed as she brushed the hair back from the injured man’s face. Ezra could see that the man was already dead.
“Perhaps if you just leave,” Ezra suggested.
Ezra raised his hands complacently. If these men had been smart, they would have already killed the woman and left. Ezra didn’t want to give them any ideas though. A movement from the back of the store caught Ezra’s attention. He checked and saw that the gunmen were arguing amongst themselves again before he glanced quickly at Chris. His boss quickly mimed a plan and Ezra blinked his understanding.
“My uncle will fix this, Stoney,”
Ezra tilted his head and frowned. “Is that a siren I hear?”
He settled her in behind the deli counter. “Stay here,” he whispered. She nodded and Ezra went to join Chris.
“Where’d he go?” Stoney’s voice whined.
Chris and Ezra shared a look of disbelief. Ezra pulled his gun and nodded to Chris that he was ready. Both men popped around opposite ends of a shelving unit as Chris identified them.
“ATF! Throw down your weapons, we have you surrounded.”
Ezra suppressed a smirk.
Stoney followed his lead, tossing a hopeful look at his
partner. “Your uncle can get us out of this, right
“Shut up, Stoney.”
Ezra patted Mrs. Potter on the shoulder one last time as he
let the female PD officer take over. Mr. Potter had been killed almost
instantly by the two shots fired by
Chris leaned against the van waiting for Ezra to leave the store. The Southerner’s shoulders were bowed with an invisible weight as he walked toward Chris. Larabee sighed to himself.
“She’s lucky you stopped by,” Chris said. Ezra’s head jerked up. “They probably would have killed her too, you know.”
Ezra sighed heavily but nodded. “I know. It’s just…”
“Yeah.” Chris ran his hand through his hair. “You want to get a drink?”
A small frown creased Ezra’s forehead, then he nodded again. “Yes. Yes, I would.”
They ended up at a small bar not far from Ezra’s apartment. Walking distance actually. The two men sat in a corner booth, each nursing a beer.
Chris stared at his bottle tearing the label off in strips as his mind drifted back to the loss of his family.
Ezra stared at the rings of condensation on the table where the bottles had sat.
After waving the waitress off for a third time, Ezra looked up at Chris and snorted inelegantly.
One blond eyebrow rose questioningly.
“We aren’t making much headway into the ‘drinking’ department,” Ezra commented dryly. His own bottle as full as Chris’s.
Chris gave a wry grin. “Guess I’m past that stage in my life.” Ezra frowned his question. Chris shrugged. “After my family died… I crawled into a bottle and tried to drown their memories.” He met Ezra’s sympathetic gaze. “It didn’t work. Almost killed me, but it didn’t help me forget.” He chuckled humorlessly. “Still get pretty depressed sometimes, but I’ve found other outlets.”
Ezra nodded knowing that Chris needed no reply. He was simply sharing a part of his life that Ezra had known nothing about. But more, Chris was trusting Ezra with a vulnerability.
“I lost someone once,” Ezra said softly. “She didn’t die,” he clarified, meeting Chris’s eyes briefly, “but she was just as thoroughly ripped from my life. I never even got a chance to say good-bye.”
“Ever look for her?”
Ezra nodded. “I got close once…” he trailed off, lost in the memories.
“What happened?” Chris asked, pushing his pile of torn paper to one side.
“I was… instructed to stop looking for her,” he replied tightly.
Chris frowned. “And?”
A shoulder lifted and dropped. “I continued my search and ended up in the hospital.”
“Any idea who did it?” Chris growled, his anger at the perpetrators clear in his voice.
Ezra shook his head. “They made it quite clear that the next time would be worse.” He sighed and leaned back in the booth. “After that, all my trails went cold. It was like she dropped off the face of the earth.”
“I’m sorry,” Chris said.
Ezra just nodded.
They sat in silence for a few more minutes then Chris stretched and yawned. “You ready to go home?”
“Yes, I believe I am,” Ezra said.
They stood and dropped a few dollars on the table as a tip then walked out onto the street toward the van. When they reached it, Chris opened the driver side door and climbed in. “Need a lift?” he asked with a small grin.
Ezra grinned back but shook his head. “No thanks. I’ll walk. See you tomorrow afternoon, Chris.”
“See ya, Ez.”
“Thanks for the backup,” Ezra said, gently pushing the van’s door closed.
Chris gave him a little salute and started the van.
Ezra turned and walked back toward his building reflecting on the day. It had been quite a full day, in more ways than one. His apartment was dark and quiet when he entered, not that he’d expected otherwise. He removed his gun and emptied his pockets onto the table behind the couch. “Damn,” he muttered. Chris still had his badge. “Oh well, I’ll get it tomorrow.” He took off his jacket and laid it over the back of the couch then toed off his shoes.
He thought about the things he and Chris had discussed over the last two days. Trivial things during the day, but still, it warmed him to think his boss wanted to take the time to get to know him. Of course tonight… tonight they had both shared very painful memories. Memories resurrected by the death of Mr. Potter, a reminder that life could change in a heartbeat.
Ezra rubbed his face with both hands, grimacing as his left hand ran across the scar on his cheek. “I wonder if I would have joined the FBI if you had stayed?” he wondered aloud. His thoughts were maudlin tonight. He chuckled sadly. “Chris probably wonders what his life would be like if his family were still alive,” he mused. He wandered into the bedroom and sat heavily on the bed. “Enough, Ezra. We did good today. And probably saved the Potter children from becoming orphans.” He flopped back onto the mattress, his arms flung out to the sides.
“Damn it! Damn it all. It’s just not fair,” he whispered hoarsely into the darkness.
Ezra met Chris at the office at two the next afternoon. His mood had not improved much and it seemed Chris was also stuck on last night’s events. None of the others were in, so Chris and Ezra worked on their reports and then headed for their next assignment.
The rest of the week went smoothly and on the following Thursday, Ezra found himself partnered with JD and Nathan who had returned from his seminar.
“What about him?” Nathan asked.
“No,” Ezra replied with a slight smile.
“Well, why not?”
“He’s too relaxed. Look at the easy way he’s swinging his arms as he walks, and his hands. If he were planning to do something illegal, his hands would show his tension, either by clasping something or fiddling with something.”
“You mean like… jiggling his change in his pockets,” Nathan said thoughtfully.
“Exactly,” Ezra grinned.
JD watched the monitor, absorbing everything Ezra and Nathan were saying. He’d felt a bit defensive at first, seeing his assignment with Ezra as a slight to his abilities. After all, he had been a good cop before joining Team 7. But now that he’d seen what Ezra was talking about, JD realized he had a lot to learn. And that he wasn’t the only one. Shoot, Chris had taken the first turn with Ezra, and Nathan sure didn’t seem to have any trouble taking lessons from their undercover agent.
JD smiled and relaxed. He would learn from this and be a better agent because of it. Buck was constantly telling him how to do things, in an affectionate, big-brotherly way. At first, Buck’s apparent nagging had bothered JD, until he realized it was the ladies man’s way of passing on his years of hard-learned knowledge as well as showing how much he liked the younger man. This was no different. Ezra had knowledge he was willing to share and JD intended to take advantage of it. Maybe their willingness to learn from him would help Ezra realize that he was a part of the team and a good friend to boot.
Things were quiet in the van for a while and JD was starting to get itchy. Oh, he could sit still and be quiet for hours when needed, but their situation wasn’t life threatening and the silence was driving JD crazy. He cleared his throat.
Ezra and Nathan exchanged a knowing glance and continued their people watching.
The silence held for another few minutes.
JD shifted in his seat and looked over at Ez and Nathan. They seemed quite content to watch the monitor or out the small, side window of the van. The computer tech squirmed.
Seconds ticked by.
“Hey,” JD said, “You guys hear about the guy with a monster?”
Ez and Nathan looked at their watches then up at each other. Ezra grinned and held out his hand. Nathan sighed, but smiled back as he handed Ezra a buck.
“Hey!” JD exclaimed. “What was that for?”
Buck and Ezra were partnered during the last week of the task force. Ezra found himself enjoying the time he spent with the garrulous ladies man. Buck’s tales were nothing if not entertaining. That is to say, Ezra couldn’t tell how much of what Buck said was true and how much was plain hooey.
“Linda said the mayor and Travis were pretty pleased with the results of the task force,” Buck said, ending the lull in conversation on the lazy Friday afternoon.
“Linda?” Ezra asked.
“Linda Martin. We had lunch earlier in the week and she brought it up,” Buck replied, munching on a French fry from their late lunch.
“Linda Martin?” Ezra asked incredulously.
“The Judge’s secretary?”
“Yeah,” Buck said as a frown started to form on his face.
“The Judge’s secretary?” Ezra repeated.
“That’s what I said, Ez.” Buck looked at him. “Geez! Get your mind out of the gutter. We had lunch. Her husband’s an old friend from the PD.” Buck shook his head. “The three of us get together every other week or so for lunch, but Dan had a court appearance this week and couldn’t make it.”
“Oh,” Ezra said. “I’m sorry.”
Buck chuckled. “That’s okay, Ez. I know my reputation, but I never knowingly go after married women. ‘Course if Linda weren’t married…” he trailed off suggestively.
Ezra snorted and shook his head. “You are incorrigible.”
“Yep,” Buck said with a grin.
Silence fell between them for a moment, then Ezra glanced at Buck.
“I dated a judge’s daughter once,” Ezra admitted softly.
“Yeah? What was her name?”
“Tracy McLaughlin. She had hair the color of sunshine and the deepest brown eyes,” Ezra sighed.
Buck chuckled. “How old were you?”
“A very mature sixteen,” Ezra huffed. He looked at Buck and grinned. “We met when I was at boarding school and I fell head over heels. I just knew she was the girl I’d marry. I couldn’t understand why she always met me for our dates, why she didn’t want me to come to her home.”
Buck suppressed a laugh at the martyred, story-telling tone Ezra had taken.
“I knew I couldn’t live without her and I was so sure she
felt the same. At the end of the spring semester, I decided to ask her parents
permission for her hand.” Ezra shook his head. “My peers laughed at me. They then went on to bet me that the old man
would never accept me and would in fact threaten bodily harm if I so much as
Ezra looked at Buck, his eyes showing that the incident no longer bothered him. Time and distance had allowed him to laugh at the situation.
“What were the terms of the bet?” Buck asked.
“Ah, now, Buck, here is where you get the answer to a question you asked me a while back,” Ezra replied mysteriously. He continued. “Needless to say, I knew they were wrong and wasn't worried about the terms. The bet required the loser or losers to get a tattoo or piercing, something of permanence to show their shame.” Ezra smiled, running his tongue over his gold tooth.
“I went the very next day to
He declined and we argued some, then I insisted he call
Next thing I know, my so called friends are helping me up off the McLaughlin’s front lawn. Blood is pooling in my mouth and when I spit it out, my tooth landed in a puddle of blood.” Ezra grinned at Buck again, this time showing his gold tooth.
“Naw, they didn’t,” Buck said.
“Yes. They did. They insisted that I pay up on the bet and since I needed the dental work anyway, one of the miscreants suggested a gold tooth. As his father was a dentist, it wasn’t too difficult to convince the man that I was sincere. Of course, the fact that I sort of mislead him into thinking the loss of the tooth was his son’s fault might have had something to do with his easy capitulation.”
Buck laughed. “That’s quite a tale there, pard. You ever see
“Are you kidding?” Ezra asked incredulously. “The girl tore my heart out and stomped on it and was indirectly responsible for my disfigurement. I didn’t even have the pleasure of enjoying her company, if you know what I mean.”
Buck hung his head and laughed. “Ez… You got sucker punched for something you didn’t even do?”
“Yes, I fear the Judge misread the situation.” Ezra shrugged. “The only bright spot in the whole sordid affair is that I didn’t have to pay a dime for the dental work.”
Maude Standish sat in her
There it is again. Maude frowned. She couldn’t see him clearly from here, but he’d made that same unconscious motion twice already. You’re getting soft, baby boy. She straightened her shoulders. I’ll just have to see what I can do about that.
The end… for now
Feedback is greatly appreciated and cherished. Judy
1 Jujutsu is the more correct spelling for jujitsu according to the Wikipedia.
2 “You gonna deal ‘em, or make love to ‘em?” Vin drawled. --- I have the very uneasy feeling that I’ve absconded with this sentence from someone else’s story, or at least a reasonable facsimile. If you recognize it as your own, please know that I did not intend to steal it. It’s just so Vin.
Okay, okay, if you must know, here’s the joke JD started to tell Ez and Nate:
A policeman stopped a man who was walking along with a monster and ordered him to take it to the zoo at once. The next day the policeman saw the same man with the same monster.
"I thought I told you to take that monster to the zoo," he said.
"I did," said the man, "and now I'm taking him to see a movie."
~joke taken from one of the ‘bad cop jokes’ websites.