Point of View
The 6th story in the Understanding Ezra Series
Finally, another chapter. I’m continuing to explore Ezra’s undercover expertise and introduced a few new, but familiar faces in this one, too.
Warnings: Some foul language.
Disclaimers: I’m owned by two cats and a dog. Can’t claim the boys, though I’d like to.
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.
Ezra walked slowly away from the printer as he reread the report. He ran a knuckle lightly down the slight scar on his left cheek as he wondered if the paragraph wouldn’t sound better with the first and second sentences switched. He did so abhor turning in a sloppy report.
“Ezra P. Standish!” a familiar voice cut through his reflection.
Ezra looked up, astonished to see his mother closing on him quickly. He didn’t even have time to say hello before she had slapped his hand away from his face.
“Ezra! You try my patience. How could you allow yourself to get so sloppy?” Maude admonished, barely drawing a breath before continuing. “I thought I’d taught you better. It’s barely been six months since I last saw you and already you’ve developed a tell…” she trailed off and narrowed her eyes as she got her first good look at him.
“My God, Ezra!” Maude cried, capturing his face between her
hands. “What have you done to your beautiful face?” She forced his left cheek
toward her and ran a gentle finger over the healing scar. “I told you! I told
you working as a civil servant would lead to no good,” she said, releasing her
hold and fluttering her hands in distress. “Now see what’s happened? They’ve
scarred you for life. You will just have to resign this ridiculous position and
come with me. I know people in
Ezra closed his eyes. On one level, he was mortified that his teammates had to be subjected to his mother’s eccentricities without warning. Yet at the same time, he felt somewhat pleased by her show of concern, even if it was only for his apparent disfigurement.
“Well?” Maude demanded, having received no response from her only child.
“Well, what, Mother?” Ezra said, outwardly as calm as ever.
“Tell your boss,” she said with a quick glance at the men gathered behind her, “that you quit. We can catch a flight this evening.”
“No, Mother,” Ezra sighed. “I am not going to resign my
position. I have an appointment next week with my plastic surgeon, a quite
talented man, here in
Maude shifted her shoulders back and lifted her chin. She recognized that look in her son’s eye. It meant she had lost this battle… but not the war. She never admitted defeat. “Well, I certainly hope this doctor of yours knows what he’s doing,” she said, fussing with the hem of her jacket so that it lay flat. “Now then,” Maude continued with a brilliant smile, “are you going to introduce me to your co-workers?”
Ezra gave her a small smile in return, recognizing Maude’s change of topic as a diversionary tactic. “Of course, Mother.” He caught her arm and they both turned to face the rest of Team 7. “Gentlemen, this is my mother, Maude Standish. As you have seen, she’s quite… protective of me.”
Buck recovered first, ever ready to charm a lady. “I don’t believe it. You’re much too young to be this rascal’s mother,” he said as he took her hand and kissed the back of it.
Maude lifted one eyebrow.
“Buck Wilmington, at your service, ma’am.”
“Mr. Wilmington,” Maude replied with a smile and a slight nod.
Josiah edged his way in. “A pleasure to meet you Mrs. Standish. My name’s Josiah, Josiah Sanchez,” he said silkily, following Buck’s example with a slightly longer kiss.
Ezra suppressed a sigh, but rolled his eyes. His mother’s personality, though often volatile did cause the most interesting responses from most men.
None of the others seemed quite so eager, so Ezra stepped up to finish the introductions. He started on his left and worked to the right. “Mother, allow me to introduce Nathan Jackson, Chris Larabee, JD Dunne and Vin Tanner. These are the gentlemen I trust with my life every day, so please don’t antagonize them too much.”
Maude sent a quick sarcastic glance at her son then smiled winningly at the rest of the team. “Gentlemen, it’s a pleasure. I hope you don’t mind if I steal my darlin’ baby boy away for a quick lunch,” she said, catching hold of Ezra’s arm and beginning to turn toward the door.
“Mother,” Ezra sighed. “It’s barely ten in the morning. A
tad early for lunch, don’t you think?”
“Ordinarily,” Chris said, stressing the word, “I would let you, seeing as how it’s been so long since you’ve seen each other,” he continued with a slide edge to his tone, “however, we’re wrapping up a case and I need his report ASAP.”
“Mr. Larabee is quite correct, Mother,” Ezra supplied, conveniently forgetting that he had the finished report in hand. “Tell me where you’re staying and I’ll meet you for dinner after work.”
Maude’s eyes narrowed slightly. “I thought I’d be staying with you, darlin’,” she said, looking Ezra in the eye.
“Oh, well, of course,” Ezra covered quickly. “I assumed you had already made arrangements at a hotel since you don’t seem to have any luggage with you.”
“I rented a car, Ezra. You can help me unload later.” Maude patted her hair and smiled winningly at Chris. “Would it be all right if I stole just a few minutes of my son’s time?”
Chris looked from Maude to Ezra and seeing that Ezra was okay with that, gave a brief nod. “I want to see everyone’s reports in the next thirty minutes,” he said, then turned and went back to his office.
“What did you want, Mother?” Ezra asked.
Maude looked pointedly at the other five men standing around them. “Could we talk somewhere, privately?”
Ezra covered his smirk before it could do more than twitch one corner of his mouth. “Of course.” He looked at the others. “Gentlemen, if you’ll excuse us?”
Josiah tipped his head in a slight bow. “Ma’am,” he said with a smile. He headed back to his desk.
Nathan, Vin and JD nodded as well and left Maude, Buck and Ezra alone.
“Well,” Buck said, “it’s been a pleasure. Maybe we can get together while you’re here and you can tell us all about Ezra and the trouble he got into growing up.”
Ezra snorted earning a glare from Maude and raised eyebrows from Buck. “Don’t believe anything she says about my childhood, Mr. Wilmington,” Ezra said with a teasing smile. “You know how mothers are, always exaggerating their children’s exploits.”
Maude huffed indignantly. “Now why on earth would I do such a thing, Ezra?”
Buck grinned indulgently and tipped an imaginary hat to the lady before going back to his desk.
Ezra sighed and led the way to the break room and the privacy Maude had requested. He pushed the door to and turned to face his mother.
“Honestly, Ezra,” Maude exclaimed. “I can’t believe you. After everything I taught you and everything you’ve been through, you’ve gone and done it again.” She met his eyes with true confusion on her face. “Why, son? Why have you let these men in?”
Ezra studied the floor as he pondered his mother’s question. She was right. He should know better by now than to trust anyone but himself, but for some reason those six men had managed to break through years’ worth of defensive walls.
“I don’t know, Mother.”
“Oh, Ezra,” Maude sighed sadly. She moved closer, cupped his cheek in her hand and ran her thumb gently over his scar. “Look what they’ve done to you.”
“My co-workers did not inflict the damage, Mother. A miscreant with a sharp object did. And as I told you before, the doctor assures me that its appearance will be significantly reduced, if not erased by this laser procedure,” Ezra said with what he hoped was enough confidence to convince his mother.
“I’ve known you since you were an itty-bitty baby, Ezra. You can’t fool me.” Maude took a breath and pulled her emotions back under control. “Very well. If you insist on doing things your own way… As if I should expect anything different from you. You always have been a stubborn child.”
Ezra smirked. “I learned from the best, Mother.”
Maude smiled slyly. “Yes, I suppose that’s true.” Her smiled dropped suddenly. She reached to capture his face between both hands and pulled him closer to brush her lips to his cheek. As she backed away, Maude smoothed a hand over her hair and straightened her suit jacket. “I’m only in town for a few days, Ezra. Is there a suitable hotel for me to stay at in this town?”
Ezra grinned ruefully and shook his head.
“I don’t want to impose,” she replied curtly, reminding him of the earlier conversation.
“Nonsense,” Ezra said. “Give me a few minutes to go over my report with Mr. Larabee and I’ll take you home.”
“I do have a car, Ezra. Tell me how to get there and give me a key. I’ll be fine on my own for a few hours.”
Ezra’s hand rose toward his cheek only to be caught in Maude’s grip. “Ezra.”
His eyebrow’s rose as he realized what he’d been doing. “Oh Lord.” Ezra shook his head. “I suppose I have grown too comfortable here.” He sighed.
Maude patted his cheek gently. “That’s why I’m here, darlin’, to help keep you sharp. Now, run along and talk to your Mr. Larabee. I’ll just wait for you here.” She looked around. “I don’t suppose you have a decent frappacino machine.”
Ezra grinned. “Sorry, Mother. I wouldn’t recommend the coffee this morning, either. Mr. Tanner had first crack at the pot and his idea of coffee melts spoons. There should be some mineral water in the refrigerator.”
Maude rolled her eyes. “Go on, dear. I’ll make do.”
Ezra nodded and headed back to the bullpen.
Two days later
Casey Wells pulled the curtain back and looked out the window. She frowned. “Aunt Nettie? There’s a truck and trailer in the driveway.”
Nettie Wells came out of the kitchen and joined her niece at the window. “It’s that delivery I told you I was expecting. Now hurry and finish getting ready so we can make our reservation.” She waited until Casey left the room, and then hurried out the front door.
Buck climbed down out of Chris’s truck and smiled as he saw Nettie approach. “Good mornin’, Ms. Nettie.”
“Buck Wilmington!” Nettie growled as she advanced.
Buck backed up a step. “Ms. Nettie?”
“I told you to bring him after twelve, it’s only eleven-thirty.” She stopped with her hands on her hips, giving the tall ladies man a glare that rivaled Chris Larabee’s.
“We… uh… well, you see…” Buck stammered.
JD came around the truck leading
“JD…” Buck said, shaking his head.
“Hey, Aunt Nettie,” Casey called, jogging over from the house. “Who’re your friends?” She stopped beside her aunt and sent an appraising eye over the horse and the young man holding its halter rope. She grinned at JD.
“This here’s Buck Wilmington and JD Dunne. They work with Chris Larabee,” Nettie replied grudgingly.
“You boarding your horse with us?” Casey asked, moving over to greet the bay.
“No ma’am…” JD stammered.
Buck elbowed him in the ribs. “That’s right,” he covered. “Chris doesn’t have any room at the moment and your aunt agreed…” he trailed off at Nettie’s glare.
“Casey,” Nettie said, turning to face her niece. “This was supposed to be a surprise for after lunch, but since he’s here. Happy graduation!”
Casey looked at her aunt, turned to look at the horse then back at Nettie. “For me?” Nettie nodded. “Really?” Casey asked with a huge smile. “Oh, thank you, Aunt Nettie,” she said, flinging her arms around the older woman and hugging her tight. “He’s beautiful. What’s his name?” she asked, moving back over to the horse.
“Thank you…” Casey looked him in the eye with a smile, “JD.”
JD swallowed and smiled back.
Josiah entered the bullpen, grunted hellos as he was greeted
by JD, Buck, Nathan and Vin and sank heavily into his chair. He scrubbed his
hand over the hair at the back of his head as he stared wearily at his blank
computer screen. God, I hate going to
He startled and looked up. Nathan handed him a cup of coffee, which Josiah took gratefully. “Thanks, Nate.”
“Yeah. Just tired.”
Nathan’s raised eyebrows questioned that simple reply.
Josiah gave him a small, wry smile. “It was a long weekend.”
Nathan nodded slightly. “Well, if you need to talk…” he trailed off, leaving the invitation open.
“Thanks, Nate,” Josiah said, his smile a bit larger and much more sincere. It was good to be home. Nathan sat back down at his own desk. Josiah leaned back in his chair and sipped at his coffee. His gaze landed on an old picture of two young people. A girl and a boy, in their mid to late teens.
He reached out and ran a gentle finger over the photo. Ah, little girl, what happened? Why are you still hiding?
After a few minutes, Josiah sighed and gave himself a mental shake. He turned on his computer and started working. Dwelling on the past only made him maudlin and grumpy. Better to deal with the present. One day at a time.
Chris knocked on the door to the Judge’s office and entered at the responding ‘come.’ “Judge,” he said with a nod of greeting. His eyes drifted to the blonde standing off to the side of the desk.
“Chris,” Judge Travis said. “I believe you’ve met my daughter-in-law, Mary Travis?”
“Not formally,” Chris replied, offering Mary his hand.
She smiled and shook hands with him. “I’ve tried to get an appointment to talk with Mr. Larabee to interview him about his team, but he is always so busy,” Mary said with a polite smile.
“Ah,” Judge Travis nodded. “I see. Well, both of you have a seat and we’ll discuss the reason you’re here.”
Chris’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. He knew Mary Travis’s reputation. Her late husband had been the Judge’s son. A reputable lawyer, Stephen Travis had had a reputation for handling big, controversial cases and winning. He’d been killed about a year ago during a robbery. His wife was an investigative reporter with her own TV show. The Clarion Report did exposés. To date, they’d uncovered five dirty politicians, over half a dozen corrupt city workers and several cops on the take. The show had only been on the air for six months.
Mary Travis had set her sights on interviewing Chris Larabee and trying to scope out any dirt on his team. Chris wasn’t about to let her get her claws into his men.
“I don’t think I’m interested,” Chris said, turning to leave the room.
“Chris,” Travis said with just the right combination of plea and demand. “Mary’s uncovered something big, but we need your help, your team’s help to take the parties involved to task.”
Chris faced the Judge. “Why not just give us the assignment?”
“There may be a leak,” Travis said gravely. “I’d like Team 7 to investigate what Mary has. If it’s true, then we’ll go from there.”
“What if it’s not? What if this is just her,” he lifted his chin toward Mary, “way of getting some dirt on us for her show?”
“Larabee!” Travis snapped.
“I object!” Mary Travis said standing and stalking over to stand in front of Chris. “We only report the truth. If you and your men are on the up and up, you have nothing to fear. The Clarion is about uncovering the bad elements in our society, not badgering good people.”
“Lady,” Chris growled. “I am the bad element.”
They stared at each other for a long moment, then Judge Travis cleared his throat. “This isn’t about finding fault with your team, Chris. The people Mary has information on have been involved in everything from weapons and drug trafficking, to assassination. Just take a look at the file she has, if it doesn’t convince you, I’ll find someone else.” He met Larabee's gaze beseechingly.
Chris exhaled and gave an abrupt nod. “All right. But I’m going to show this to my team. If even one of them says no, we’re out of it and you,” he said, pointing a finger at Mary, “Don’t darken my doorway again.”
She pursed her lips angrily, but gave a sharp nod in agreement.
Chris grabbed the file offered by Travis and left the office.
Mary turned to her father-in-law. “Do you think he’ll help?”
The Judge stared at the open door for a brief moment then nodded. “He’ll help.”
“Stop! Mother, just stop,” Ezra exclaimed, frustrated and
tired of Maude’s nagging. Her ‘several days in town’ was turning into an
indeterminate length of time. “Nothing you can say or do will entice me to
Maude paused, licked her lips and looked her son straight in the eye. “Ezra, I’m dying. All I want is to spend my last few months with my only son.”
A flicker of panic flashed in Ezra’s eyes before his poker face slammed into place. “Mother? What…”
Maude pressed her lips together and closed her eyes for a moment. She just couldn’t do it. “All right, all right,” she admitted sharply. “I’m sorry, I’m not dying.” She gazed imploringly into Ezra’s relieved eyes. “But don’t you see, son? I need you. I want us to be together. To work together.”
Ezra inhaled through his mouth and held his breath for a moment as he tried to control his anger. It didn’t work. “Honestly, Mother! That was… it was…” He tossed his hands in the air as he paced away. “I can’t believe you played that card. Trying to make me believe you were dying…”
“Oh, come on, Ezra,” Maude placated. “If I’d really wanted to make you believe that, you would.”
Ezra spun to face her. He pointed a finger at her, shaking
it in emphasis. “That’s my point. You came here to try and manipulate me into
leaving, but it’s not going to work. I’m staying in
“I just want you to be safe, Ezra. This… career you’ve chosen is so dangerous. Why won’t you come with me? We work so well together,” she said with a fond smile.
Ezra closed his eyes and sighed. He opened them and took his mother by the hand to lead her over to the sofa. They sat down, still holding hands. “Mother… I don’t want that life.”
“But you’re wasting your God-given gifts, Ezra,” Maude argued. “You could be so much more than a… penny ante Fed.”
“Thank you, Mother,” Ezra said sarcastically with a shake of his head. “I am overwhelmed by your pride in me.”
“Oh, Ezra. I am proud of you. I just want you to have what I didn’t. I don’t want you to have to worry about money or where you’re going to stay at night. I want you to be safe.” Maude stared down at her hands.
“In case you hadn’t noticed,” Ezra continued more gently. “My job comes with benefits and a steady pay check. I have a roof over my head and other investments. I am in no danger of becoming destitute. You did teach me well, Mother. Trust in that.”
She looked up at him. “You really trust these people? You’re
sure it’s not like
Ezra opened his mouth to answer what his heart told him. He closed it and licked his lips, then looked Maude in the eyes. “I believe they are better than that.” He glanced at the wall clock. “I’m late.” He leaned forward and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Come by and meet me for lunch.”
Maude frowned as she watched Ezra leave the apartment. How
could she convince him that staying in
Chris stuck his head out the doorway to his office as Ezra was walking toward his desk. “Ez,” he said, motioning for the younger man to join him.
Ezra nodded, set his briefcase down by his chair, and then strolled into Chris’s office sipping his frap. “Good morning, gentlemen,” he said, taking quick note that the rest of the team was already present and wondering if he had forgotten a meeting.
“We were waiting for you,” Chris said, glancing at his watch.
“I do apologize for my tardiness,” Ezra said, keeping his face calm.
Chris shook his head and waved a hand to dismiss the apology. “We didn’t have anything scheduled. Travis wants us to look into something, off the record for now and I want all of us to look at the information.” He looked around the room, making sure he had everyone’s attention. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this and if even one of you has reservations, I told Travis we’d decline.”
“Why don’t you tell us what you know, Chris,” Buck said, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “It’s not like you to dismiss a case out of hand.”
“I’m not,” Chris said gruffly. He sighed and continued. “The Judge’s daughter-in-law, Mary Travis…”
“The lady on The Clarion Report,” JD interrupted.
“Yeah, her,” Chris said. “She’s dug up some dirt. The Judge feels the situation is too sensitive to go through normal channels and that there may be a leak. He would like for us to check it out.”
“What or whom are we to investigate?” Ezra asked.
“It’s all in this folder,” Chris replied, handing the folder in question to Vin who happened to be standing, or rather leaning the closest. “I haven’t looked at it yet myself.”
“You want copies, so we can go over everything at the same time?” Vin asked.
Chris chewed the inside of his lip, then shook his head. “I thought about it, but if there really is a leak, the less paper we have floating around, the better. Why don’t we each take a section and then summarize for the others?”
They nodded and proceeded to split the file into related parts. Vin grabbed some photos and the brief biographies that went with them then passed the file along. Soon they were all busy reading.
About fifteen minutes later, Chris pulled a white board into the room and shut the blinds. “Ya’ll ready?”
Nods or words of consent were returned. Chris nodded. “I’ll get started then. Mrs. Travis has an informant who claims that key people in Wheeler Corp are part of an organization involved with numerous illegal activities. This corruption supposedly goes all the way to the top, Frank Wheeler. The informant has given us several other names, but no substantial proof, nothing that can be used in court, at least.”
Vin spread the photos out on the table one at a time. “Frank Wheeler, head of Wheeler Corp, there’s suspicion that he’s tied to the West Coast Mafia, but again, no proof. His second hand man, Joe Riley. Runs a subsidiary company, Ryland Inc. that may be a front for illegal weapons distribution.” He dropped a third photo on the table. “Kenneth “Kit” Harland. He’s not in charge of anything that we know of, but the information points to him being Wheeler’s ‘enforcer.’ Keeps his people in line and takes care of any ‘house cleaning.’”
Vin tossed the other photos out to let the guys see the rest. “These others hold lesser positions in Wheeler Corp. or Ryland Inc. but are also suspected of handling other shadier parts of the business.”
Josiah pulled a few of the pictures toward him. “There’ve been three disappearances and two deaths, all employees of Wheeler Corp or its subsidiaries. The deaths appear to have been accidental. The disappearances have been dismissed by the authorities as psychological problems. People who just couldn’t handle the stress and took off to unwind. The second death was only a week ago, an accountant by the name of Terrance Hiller.”
JD stood up and went to the white board. “Wheeler Corp is the mother company for over twenty different enterprises.” He wrote ‘Wheeler Corp’ at the top of the board and added other names branching down from there. “Some of these companies manufacture chemicals. Others make everything from blenders to hand guns.” He looked up at the others. “They have their fingers in a lot of pies. And annually, all told, net over a billion a year.”
Buck whistled then added his information. “Wheeler is an
active head of the company, but he also likes to spend his wealth. He has very
expensive homes in
Nathan cleared his throat. “Riley and Harland don’t flaunt the money quite as much, but they definitely aren’t afraid of spending it. Both own homes here in town worth around a million dollars and drive fancy sports cars. Riley’s daughter goes to Harvard and Harland evidently spends a few weeks in Vegas every year, losing thousands.”
Ezra started to run a knuckle along the scar on his cheek,
but stopped himself and instead set down the photo he’d been studying. “I’ve
heard a few rumors about Wheeler Corp. Nothing more than whispers from a few
snitches, you understand, but I believe Mrs. Travis may be on to something
here. My sources have hinted at a large shipment of guns and drugs passing
“And you didn’t tell us this, because?” Chris asked.
“We’ve been busy tying up the loose ends on our last case, Mr. Larabee. And… I only just spoke to my sources over the weekend. I had intended to inform you today. Mrs. Travis simply beat me to it.”
Chris grunted and turned his attention back to the case at hand. “This seems to be larger than one team should handle.”
“We don’t have any solid evidence,” Buck said. “We can always snoop around a bit and call in reinforcements when we’re ready for a bust.”
“Have to see if we can even get anything on these guys first,” Vin said.
“There are a few things I can look into on the internet,” JD offered.
Chris looked around the room at his men. They weren’t backing down from this challenge. In fact, just the opposite. The fact that it would be a challenge seemed to make them more eager to jump in feet first.
“I’m not sure this is a good idea,” Chris muttered. “It’s obviously a huge operation. This feels a bit like sticking a finger in a hole to plug a leak in a dam.”
Josiah grinned. “I was thinking more along the lines of poking a bee hive with a stick.”
The others chuckled.
“Seriously,” Chris said. “This isn’t going to be a quick take down. We could spend months trying to get the evidence we need and if there is a leak…”
“Isn’t this our job, Chris?” Nathan asked. “Regardless of where the information initially came from, it’s our duty to do what we can to put Wheeler out of business. I can’t stand by and watch more weapons pour onto the street, into the hands of children.”
“Nate’s got a point, Cowboy,” Vin grinned.
Chris sighed and looked at Ezra. “Well? Do you think you can weasel your way into the company?”
Ezra’s eyebrows rose. “Weasel?”
The others grinned.
“I shall have to do a bit more research to see how close I might get to Mr. Wheeler.” He frowned. “As you said, it could take a while.”
“All right,” Chris said. “Everyone dig into this a bit more, we’ll discuss what we’ve found and if,” he stressed the word, “we are going to pursue the investigation at,” Chris glanced at his watch, “. Get moving. Ezra, stay a moment please.”
Ezra watched as the rest of the team left, then turned a nonchalant gaze on his boss. “Yes, Mr. Larabee?”
“I figured you would be spending time with your mother this weekend, not talking to snitches.”
Ezra pursed his lips to hide a grin. “I did spend time with Mother, but as you might have guessed from your brief introduction… one has to experience Mother in small doses to appreciate her.” He did grin now as Chris’s face showed a sort of shocked comprehension and grudging agreement.
“I see what you mean,” he mumbled, then met Ezra’s gaze. “Still. When you’re off, you shouldn’t be working, you should be relaxing.”
“I will keep that in mind,” Ezra said. “Is that all?”
Chris groaned, knowing he’d somehow lost control of the
conversation. “Yeah, get out of here,” he said with a wave of his hand.
Ezra smiled and with a short nod, left the room.
“I swear, they’re going to drive me to drink,” Larabee grumbled to himself.
“That Travis woman is going to be trouble,” Kit Harland said, watching his boss and long time friend, Frank Wheeler as he lovingly polished the hood of the Lamborghini.
Frank looked up, a question on his face.
“She was seen going into the
“Her father-in-law does work there,” Frank rationalized.
“Yeah,” Kit replied, “but we’re pretty sure she’s gotten more information about us than she should. And from what I’ve seen of her, she probably took what she has to the judge.”
Frank straightened, twisting the polishing cloth in his hands as he thought. “Have you found out who she might have been talking to?”
“Not yet, but I’m on it.”
“Good,” he nodded. “Keep me informed. If we need to, we can put a little pressure on Mrs. Travis. You’d think the woman would have learned her lesson after what happened to her husband.”
Kit smirked. “Now, Frank, you know that was an accident.”
Ezra shook his head. He had to give JD credit. The kid knew his way around computers. With Dunne’s help, Ezra was able to search, albeit somewhat illegally, through the entire Wheeler Corp employee database. He wasn’t looking too deeply into the personnel records, he just wanted to ‘see’ the people working closest to Wheeler and Riley and some of the other top dogs that Mary Travis’s snitch had pointed out.
He’d found that there was an interesting correlation between the jobs people held within a company and their looks. People hired for extremely sensitive positions often had a different appearance than those whose job did not require the same level of dependability. Of course, what ‘trustworthy’ looked like all depended on the ideals of the person doing the hiring.
Ezra wanted to get an idea of what Wheeler wanted in a loyal employee. The kind of employee that he would assume would keep their mouth shut and do what they were told, yet still had access to the company secrets.
The first person he’d looked for was Terrance Hiller, and the other recently deceased employee, as well as the three missing workers. His disguise would need to be as far away from their looks as possible. Next, he’d scanned through the men working for Wheeler and Riley, looking for longevity and their positions in the company.
He sighed. Wheeler seemed to distrust people whom most would consider good-looking. Not that his employees were ugly, they were just incredibly average looking. Of the five missing or dead, one was a woman. The four men were all younger, none past their mid-thirties. His persona would need to appear slightly older.
Ezra made notes as he surfed through the database and by the time they were to meet and discuss their options, he had a pretty good idea of how to get into Wheeler Corp.
Chris watched as his team made themselves comfortable around the conference table. He cleared his throat and got their attention. “All right… I’ve talked to Mary Travis and she’s agreed to get her informant to talk to us, if we so desire,” he rolled his eyes and earned soft chuckles from his men. “I want everyone to make up a list of questions, give them to JD,” he turned to their youngest. “Please sort the questions and filter out duplications.”
“What else do ya’ll have?” Chris asked.
Josiah spoke first. “I called a friend who confirmed Wheeler’s connection with the Mafia. He wouldn’t give specifics, but said the man was definitely ‘in’ with the West Coast.”
Buck scribbled something on his notepad and looked up. “Kit Harland does not have a police record of any kind, but he has posted bail for numerous lowlifes over the past few years. The arrests include a bit of everything, from dealing to prostitution to carrying a concealed handgun without a license. The same law firm handled all the cases.”
“I talked to a couple of my snitches,” Vin said. “They confirmed what Ezra’s guys told him. There’s word a big shipment of guns is gonna be hittin’ the streets in a few weeks. Of course, no one knows, but everyone knows that the stuff is filtered through Wheeler Corp.”
Ezra nodded. “Wheeler Corp is advertising that it is hiring and I have sent in an application for an open accountant position. I believe I can get in, we’ll just have to wait and see how much I can learn from within.”
Nathan frowned. “Don’t you have an appointment tomorrow with the laser surgeon?”
“Yes, but he assured me, the procedure wouldn’t take long and the scar will be reduced significantly. I will try to schedule my interview for later in the week,” Ezra assured.
The room fell silent for a moment. Chris chewed the inside of his cheek. “Are you all sure you want to do this? I still have a bad feeling about it.”
Buck shrugged. “These people need to be taken down, Chris. I think we’re all experienced enough to know when to shout for help.”
“Is there some way anyone else can go in undercover with Ez?” Vin asked.
They all thought for a minute, then Ezra shook his head. “These people are smart or they would have been caught before now. It’s going to be difficult enough for one person to sneak in. I’m the only one who could pull off the extreme change in look and personality that’s needed. The rest of you are too recognizable and unskilled in prevarication.”
“But,” JD said, “if there is a leak and they know about all of us,” he waved his hands to include everyone at the table, “then they’ll know what you look like and probably be checking any new employees.”
“So how are you gonna get past that?” JD asked, worried. “They aren’t going to keep their distance if they suspect something. Your prosthetic appliances and makeup won’t stand up under close scrutiny.”
“I am aware of that, JD,” Ezra said. “I have a few ideas, don’t you worry. I will need a transmitter that I can turn on and off. It will need to be small enough to fit into something I carry. I won’t be able to wear a wire, for those same reasons.”
Chris frowned. “This is sounding better and better,” he growled. “I’m going to tell the judge it’s too dangerous. He can pass this off to some other agency.”
“Chris…” Ezra entreated, “Allow us a few days to check things out, talk to Mrs. Travis’s contact and for me to work on my cover. If you’re still not happy by the end of the week, then…”
The others looked at Chris, almost hopefully. Why they wanted this case was beyond him, but Larabee grunted his agreement and sank back in his chair. “Fine. But if I see too many holes in this by Friday, I’m pulling the plug.”
Ezra grinned and glanced around the table seeing similar expressions on the rest of his friends. He couldn’t say why this case was so important to him, perhaps a need to show his mother what he could do, but he was going to do his best to get Larabee to agree.
“Head home,” Chris said, “we’ll get a fresh start tomorrow.”
“I’ll be in after tomorrow, Chris,” Ezra said.
“You sure? You don’t need the whole day?” Chris asked.
“No. It’s an out-patient procedure, local anesthetic only. I’ll be fine.” Ezra grinned suddenly. “I’ll be needing a pass for a “Eugene Smithers” for the end of the week.
“My cover. I figured you’d like to see him first.”
Chris sighed. “Yeah, okay. I’ll clear him with security.” He’d almost gotten used to talking about Ezra’s covers as if they were real people.
Ezra nodded and left. Now he just had to fine tune plans for
The phone rang. “Riley,” the thirty-something man answered. “Oh, hey Kit.” He listened then ran a nervous hand through his dark hair. “No, no, that’s okay. I’ll tell Frank. You find out everything you can and get back to me. I’ll talk to you later.”
Ezra sighed as he looked at his reflection. He’d taken the doctor’s words that the scar would be all but invisible to heart, but hadn’t considered the effects of the laser procedure itself. His scar’s appearance was significantly diminished, but his cheek was red and a bit swollen from the laser. It would go down over the next several days, but the doctor had said the redness may persist for months. Ezra shook his head.
Guess I’ll just have to come up with a cover story. The good thing was that the shallower parts of the scar were already almost invisible. The deepest part would still show, but it was only a centimeter or so long and with the medication his doctor had recommended, should eventually fade.
Team 7’s bullpen
“Josiah, Nathan,” Chris called out as he left his office. “Mrs. Travis will have her snitch at this address in thirty minutes. I want you two to take that list of questions JD put together and get everything you can out of him.”
Josiah grinned and cast a sly look at Nathan. “A little ‘good cop, bad cop?’”
Nathan rolled his eyes and took the address from Chris.
“And who pray tell,” Ezra asked, “gets to play the good cop?”
“Me,” Nathan said, exasperated. “Always me. I never get to have any fun.”
The others chuckled.
“That’s ’cause you ain’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of convincing someone that you could hurt ‘em,” Buck drawled. He caught sight of Nathan’s glare and coughed. “’less, of course, they deserve it.”
This change of heart had the rest of the men laughing at Buck and Nathan.
“Well, I’m not ever gonna get better at it, if I don’t get to practice,” Nathan mumbled.
“Perhaps I can be of some assistance,” Ezra offered with a grin. “Teach you the finer arts of duplicity.”
“Oh Lord,” Josiah exclaimed. “That’s all we need… Nathan with the skills to make all of us believe that his burgers are made from 100% beef and not soy beans.”
Nathan frowned then grinned and addressed Ezra. “When do we start?”
Ezra and Nate chuckled amidst groans from the rest of the team.
JD threw his baseball cap onto the table with enough force that it slid across the surface and fell to the floor on the other side. “Honestly, Buck,” he continued to rant. “If I live to be a hundred, I’ll never understand women.”
“I don’t know why she had to be so stubborn. All I was
trying to do was show her how to keep
“Ever think that maybe she does?” Buck inserted. “She has been around horses a while, staying with Nettie through high school.”
JD stopped and looked up at his roommate. “So? She doesn’t
Buck chuckled. “Son, I think you’ve got it bad for that little filly. Why don’t you just admit it? Take her some flowers or ask her out to dinner?” he asked with a knowing smile.
“What?! Are you crazy, Buck?” JD screeched. “Where’d you get an idea like that? Me? Like Casey Wells? Huh! Not likely. Woman’s as loony as a… a... a loon.”
Buck cuffed JD on the back of the head as he sauntered into the kitchen. “Whatever, kid. Whatever.”
“You’re wrong, Buck,” JD denied. “No way I could…” He scrunched up his nose in disgust. “Uh uh. Me and Casey? I don’t think so.” He scowled in the direction Buck had disappeared, but the scowl soon turned to thoughtful confusion.
Maude watched as Ezra looked through the closet in his spare bedroom. She sat on the bed considering what her son had told her about this case, as little as that was. Maybe she could help, but should she? If she encouraged him, wouldn’t he just stay here with the ATF? She might be able to mislead him, but that could lead to Ezra being injured again, or worse. Maude sighed.
“Ezra,” she said.
“Yes, Mother?” Ezra replied from within the walk-in closet.
“Come out here and talk to me like a civilized person, Ezra.”
He appeared at the entrance to the closet a second later, looking rather put out. “Yes, Mother?”
“I may have some contacts associated with Wheeler Corp.”
One chestnut eyebrow rose. “Indeed?”
“I might be persuaded to…”
“Mother,” Ezra sighed. “If you are going to attempt to bribe me with information, forget it. If, on the other hand, you truly wish to help, I’m sure Mr. Larabee will be most appreciative.” He turned and went back into the closet.
“Hmph,” Maude huffed. Ungrateful, that’s what he is. “I can probably guarantee you get that position, if I talk to my contact.”
Ezra reappeared. “Mother, if you are going to tease me with bits and pieces, please leave. I’m trying to put together my cover and you are only distracting me.”
“Do you want me to call Charles?” Maude asked, peevishly.
“Are there any strings attached?” Ezra shot back.
“No,” she answered sharply.
“Then, yes, I would appreciate your help, but I’ll need to inform Mr. Larabee.”
“Why on earth for?”
“He is my supervisor.”
“Fine, you call your boss and I’ll call Charlie and see
“Thank you, Mother,” Ezra said softly as she left the room.
“You’re welcome, darling.”
Harland called Wheeler on a special, unlisted cell phone. “Travis is still snooping around, Frank. We know who her snitch is, but he’s disappeared.”
“I want you to lean on her,” Wheeler replied. “Convince her to stop this investigation. She has a son, doesn’t she?”
Harland smiled. “Yep.”
Chris looked at his notes and then over at Buck, who sat, or rather sprawled in one of the chairs in front of Chris’s desk. Buck tugged unconsciously at his mustache as he studied his own notes.
“With the information Nate and Josiah got from Mary’s snitch, and Maude’s assurances that Ezra will get that accounting position…” Chris paused when Buck met his eyes.
“Think it’ll work, stud?”
Chris frowned. “I think we can give it a shot. I still want to see what Ezra has in mind for his cover. He’s always so damn close-mouthed about it until he’s ‘perfected’ the character.”
Buck chuckled softly. “He is a perfectionist. Can’t help but wonder why his mom is involved. They didn’t seem to have a very… close relationship.”
“Yeah. I thought she wanted him out of this ‘civil service’ job.”
“Well,” Buck drawled, “guess we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
Chris grinned. “Don’t let Ezra hear you callin’ his mom a horse.”
“Damn, Chris, you know me better than that. I’d never insult a lady like that. Or a horse.”
Ezra laid out his ‘kit’ and frowned thoughtfully. JD had been correct. The men he had to deceive were not going to fall for makeup and prosthetics. He sighed and ran his hand over his head. Aw hell. He grabbed the clippers and took them into the bathroom. He stared into the mirror for a long moment then let his shoulders drop and his back hunch just a bit. Ezra nodded and straightened to his normal posture as he plugged in the clippers. He draped a towel around his shoulders and looked into the mirror.
He frowned again as he turned his head from side to side. He smoothed his hair back with one hand and held it there as he considered the look. A rueful grin tipped the corners of his mouth as he flipped the clippers on. They vibrated in his hand for a few seconds before he lifted them and started to work.
Minutes later, Ezra turned the clippers off and set them on the sink. He stared at his reflection. “The things I do for the public good.” He ran a hand over the stubble and sighed again as he reached for the shaving cream and his razor. “There’s no going back now,” he said to himself. “Never do anything halfway.”
When he was done, Ezra removed the towel from around his neck and assumed the slumped posture he’d practiced earlier. He looked into the mirror and saw a balding, middle-aged man staring back at him. Ezra shuddered, then blinked away his emotions and considered the image objectively. He pulled some of the hair from one side across the top in an attempt at a ‘comb-over’ and nodded to himself.
Ezra cleaned up the bathroom and went back into the bedroom
to change into the clothes he’d chosen for Eugene Smithers. A few minutes
later, he stood in front of his full length mirror. “Hello,
The man in the mirror looked to be in his late thirties,
maybe mid-forties. His hair was a bit longer on the sides than might have been
acceptable in most white-collar businesses, but it was obviously an attempt to
Ezra swept his hand over his head to put the hair back into
place and decided that that was a good nervous gesture for
Ezra grinned and headed out into the living room.
Maude looked up from her magazine as Ezra entered. Her eyebrows rose. She stood as Ezra stopped in front of her. Her appraising gaze took in the components of this persona while she walked slowly around her son.
When she returned to the front of him, he held out his hand.
“Eugene Smithers,” he said his accent flattened and a bit nasal. “I’m here from the temp agency. For the accounting job,” he clarified as he shook her hand with a slightly weak grip.
Maude suppressed a proud smile, only a slight lifting of the corner of her lips gave anything away. Ezra grinned in response.
“What do you think?” he asked, spinning slowly in place.
“I think that you are wasting your gifts on people who do not appreciate them,” Maude replied flatly.
“Now, now, Mother,” Ezra said. “You’ve always said that no one could truly appreciate what we do, so we just have to make due with our own satisfaction at a con well-played.”
“Don’t throw my own words back at me, Ezra,” Maude fussed. “I hope your teammates,” she stressed the word sarcastically, “at least, appreciate your sacrifices.” She sent a pointed look at the top of his head.
Ezra sighed, running a hand across his bald scalp. “I’m sure they will, but not before they razz the hell out of me.” He grinned at the thought.
Maude shook her head. “Your tooth, Ezra.”
He ran his tongue over his gold tooth and lifted his eyebrows. “Right,” he said, turning to go back into the bedroom for the cap.
Maude shook her head as she watched him leave the room. “How long will you be carrying on this charade?”
Ezra came back into the living room, his gold tooth now covered. “I’m not sure. I have the interview for the temp accountant position in the morning. Since Charlie has promised me the position…” he shrugged. “It just depends on how quickly I can get into their good graces.”
His mother frowned. “Maybe I can help…”
“No.” Ezra shook his head and put his hands on his mother’s shoulders. “No, Mother. You’ve helped already. This is a Federal investigation. These men have killed and I’m sure would have no qualms about doing so again. I won’t have you any further involved.”
“No. And if you persist, I’ll have Mr. Larabee put you under house arrest.”
“Oh, wouldn’t I?”
The knock on the door caused four heads to look up from their desks. The middle-aged, slightly balding man standing in the open doorway cleared his throat. “I’m supposed to meet a Mr. Larabee?”
Buck stood and crossed the room. “Can I tell him your name?”
The man dragged a nervous hand over his head, pulling a few strands of hair over his bald spot. “My name’s Eugene Smithers,” he said, casting his glance up at Buck for just a split second before averting his eyes.
Josiah frowned as Buck led the man to Chris’s office. Something wasn’t right. He looked at JD and Nathan, but they had both gone back to working. He watched as Buck knocked lightly on Chris’s door.
“Chris, there’s a Eugene Smithers here to see you?” Buck said, the question in his voice asking if Chris knew of the meeting.
“Good,” Chris’s voice came past the door. “Send him in.”
Smithers nodded at Buck and entered the office, closing the door behind him.
Buck turned and met Josiah’s eyes. They exchanged a frustrated look and Buck shrugged. He’d just turned to go back to his desk when Chris’s voice rang out again.
“What the hell have you done?”
Buck spun and shoved open Chris’s door, one hand on his gun. “Chris?” He saw Smithers sitting in the chair in front of the desk with Chris standing over him. The poor man looked like he wanted to crawl under the chair. “Chris?” Buck repeated.
Chris looked at him and shook his head. “Go on. We’ll be out in a minute.”
“Okay,” Buck said. He pulled the door to and moved over to Josiah’s desk.
“What’s going on?” Josiah asked.
Vin walked into the bullpen sipping on his third cup of coffee. He stopped at his desk and frowned at the others who were all watching Chris’s door. “What’s going on?”
“Don’t know,” JD answered. “Some guy’s in there with Chris and he is not happy.”
“The guy?” Vin asked, confused.
“Chris,” Nathan supplied. “From Chris’s bellow, I’d say this guy is in deep shit.”
The door opened and Chris came out, his face flushed with anger. Smithers followed and stepped to one side as he cleared the doorway.
“Holy shit!” Vin exclaimed. He took several long strides across the room only to stop and stare at Smithers from one angle then another. “God damn, Ez.”
“Ez?” JD squeaked, moving closer to Chris and Ezra.
“What?!” Nathan exclaimed as he too rose and moved across the room.
Buck slapped his hand to his forehead as he stared with the rest in disbelief. “I can’t believe I fell for that again.”
“Ezra?” Josiah said, his eyes taking in the shaved head. A picture flashed into his head. Oh, God, no. Not again. “Not Ezra, too,” Josiah whispered. Please Lord, I can’t do this again. It’s not fair. His blue eyes turned a steely gray with determination. Josiah stood and stalked over to stand in front of Ezra, shoving Vin away with one hand.
“Hey!” Vin cried out as he stumbled several steps before catching his balance.
“What the hell are you do you think you’re doing?!” Josiah thundered, his face inches from Ezra’s. Oh, Hannah…
“Excuse me?” Ezra spluttered.
Josiah spoke right over the top, not waiting for an answer. “Who do you think is going to fall for this?” he said with a wave of his hand toward Ezra. Who are you hiding from?
“Ya’ll did,” Ezra said smugly.
Again, Josiah didn’t appear to hear. “This is insane,” he said, his voice getting louder and deeper as he continued. “There’s no way this is going to fool anyone. No reason for you to go to such idiotic extremes,” Josiah gave Ezra a none-too-gentle push with two fingers. I won’t let you fall. “Chris said he’d tell Travis to fuck off if it was too dangerous. Obviously, you didn’t understand,” he shoved Ezra again, causing the younger man to take a step back. I can’t lose anyone else I care about. I won’t. “This is way out of line, Ezra, to go so far just to prove you can do the job,” Josiah rumbled, his brow furrowed with anger and concern. I should have been able to help her, but I waited until it was too late. I won’t fail this time. Whatever it takes. “I could convince any shrink that you’ve gone over the edge with this stunt.”
Ezra stared up at Josiah in shock. Josiah’s anger surprised him, but his accusations hurt. He looked around at the others and saw Josiah’s words echoed in their faces. His stomach gave an odd twinge. Others had questioned his sanity before. Questioned his ability to do his job or the way he did his job… That wasn’t what caused his stomach to churn. It was that these men had never truly doubted his competence before. At least, not out loud.
“Are you questioning my sanity, Mr. Sanchez?” Ezra challenged.
“You have to admit, Ezra,” Josiah said with a shake of his head, trying to regain control of his temper. It’s going too far… isn’t it? What Hannah did… “I mean… a disguise is one thing, but shaving your head?”
Ezra swallowed his indignation. He’d expected his friends… his co-workers to tease him about that, but… to think he was losing touch with reality? “What you need to understand, Mr. Sanchez,” Ezra said smoothly, keeping his temper firmly in check, “is that I will do whatever is necessary to keep myself from being discovered. If that means shaving my head, so be it. If I must dance naked on a bar, then that’s what I’ll do. I do not consider it crazy if it keeps me alive and out of the hospital.” He ended with a glare that he sent quickly around the room until it landed back on Josiah.
Josiah closed his mouth that had somehow fallen open during Ezra’s speech and considered the younger man’s words. Ezra isn’t Hannah… This is his job… Get a grip, old man. He met Ezra’s gaze and nodded slowly. “All right. I see what you are saying, Ezra. But I… I’m not sure I completely understand. There had to be a better way…”
“I understand,” Vin said softly. His eyes locked on Ezra’s as the undercover agent faced him. “But you need to remember that you’ve got us coverin’ your back now.” He held Ezra’s gaze until he saw understanding in the green eyes. Vin nodded.
Josiah threw a confused glance at Vin, then blinked as he realized he was the one out of line. Oh, God, what have I done?
Chris cleared his throat. “Okay. I think we need to get back to work here. Ezra, when’s your interview?”
“ tomorrow morning,” Ezra answered, turning to face Chris.
Chris nodded. “Well, you can’t hang out around here looking like that. Head on home and get some rest. Call me as soon as you hear anything.”
Ezra nodded and with a glance at the others and another nod to Vin, he left the bullpen.
Josiah ran a trembling hand over his face and sighed. I screwed up. God forgive me.
Several moments of silence passed awkwardly until Buck turned on Vin. “What did you mean by that?”
Vin shook his head. “Ezra’s real careful about his covers. Haven’t you noticed? He always has a tight background, answers for little things you wouldn’t think would matter. Like what kind of mixed drink is his favorite.” The others nodded thoughtfully. “Most of us woulda fallen back on our own favorite if asked, but not Ez. Each of those ‘personas’ has their own quirks and distinct personalities. It’s like Chris said, it’s hard not to think of them as individual people and not just Ezra play acting.”
“So?” Buck continued, still not understanding. “He’s thorough. That’s what makes him so good at his job.”
“Yeah,” Vin agreed, “but the reason he’s so thorough is because he’s used to not having anyone coverin’ his ass. At least not for a long time.”
“Damn,” Josiah said sadly, as he finally realized Ezra’s motivations. “I thought he was starting to trust us.” And now I’ve given him reason not to.
“It’s not that,” Chris clarified. “I think he does trust us, but he sees not needing backup as part of being successful at his job.”
“How do you figure that, Chris?” JD asked, surprised that Chris had assigned something to Ezra that JD himself had secretly felt.
“I hired him because he is the best,” Chris said. “You think
I didn’t check his background first? Talk to his supervisors? Peers? Granted, I
had to dig a bit, and I don’t think any of them really grasped the nature of
Ezra’s success, but little pieces here and there added up. And when I went to
the judge with my request and my proof, such as it were,” Chris tilted his head
quickly to one side, “well, he immediately saw what I did. An agent with a lot
of talent, who needed someone to help keep him grounded and a team he could
count on to provide a safe haven.” He measured the concern in each of his men’s
eyes. “Trust me. I’m keeping a close eye on Ezra’s state of mind.” He looked at
Josiah and then Vin. “This may seem a bit out there, but I think he trusts us
more than you think. He has turned down assignments in the past that he thought
were too risky. That’s part of what got him into trouble in
Nathan chuckled. “Trusts us a bit too much, eh, Chris?”
Chris frowned. “I hope not.”
Ezra stalked down the hall to the elevator and jabbed the call button viciously. He cursed, then cursed again as he looked around. No one was in sight. Ezra took a deep breath, grateful that no one had seen his slip up. He stared down the hall toward the Team 7 office and scowled. He was a fool. His mother was right. He should never have let himself trust these men.
To hell with this.
Ezra straightened his shoulders and stalked back down the hall toward the
bullpen. He didn’t have to put up with this again. He’d turned a blind eye and
the other cheek in
Vin’s voice reached clearly into the hall.
“Yeah,” Vin agreed, “but the reason he’s so thorough is because he’s used to not having anyone coverin’ his ass. At least not for a long time.”
“Damn,” Josiah said sadly. “I thought he was starting to trust us.”
“It’s not that,” Chris clarified. “I think he does trust us, but he sees not needing backup as part of being successful at his job.”
“How’d you figure that out, Chris?” JD asked.
“I hired him because
he is the best,” Chris said. “You think I didn’t check his background first?
Talk to his supervisors? Peers? Granted, I had to dig a bit, and I don’t think
any of them really grasped the nature of Ezra’s success, but little pieces here
and there added up. And when I went to the judge with my request and my proof,
such as it were, well, he immediately saw what I did. An agent with a lot of
talent, who needed someone to help keep him grounded and team he could count on
to provide a safe haven. Trust me. I’m keeping a close eye on Ezra’s state of
mind. This may seem a bit out there, but I think he trusts us more than you
think. He has turned down assignments in the past that he thought were too
risky. That’s part of what got him into trouble in
Nathan chuckled. “Trusts us a bit too much, eh, Chris?”
“I hope not.”
Ezra backed away from the door and automatically resumed his
“Josiah,” Chris said, his tone ordering the profiler to
follow. They entered Chris’s office and Chris shut the door. “You want to tell
me what that was all about?”
Josiah sank heavily into one of the chairs, shaking his head. “Not really.”
Chris stared at him.
Josiah shrugged. “He triggered an old… fear?” He sighed. “It’s personal, Chris,” he pleaded for understanding.
Larabee frowned. “If it comes into this office and messes with the team, it’s not personal anymore.”
Josiah ran a hand over his face, then leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. He clasped his hands together and stared at them. “I know. It won’t happen again.”
A long silence fell as Chris waited for more.
The older man looked up and gave a sheepish smile. “I owe Ezra an apology. Think he’ll accept?”
Chris pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Maybe. If you explain the situation to him.”
Josiah looked away. He nodded slowly. “Yeah. He deserves that, at least.” He turned back to Chris. “Mind if I go?”
Chris leaned a hip against his desk and shook his head. “Make it right, Josiah.”
Ezra opened the door to his apartment. “Mother?” he called. No one answered. Ezra sighed, relieved to have the place to himself for a bit. His mother’s stay had gone on much longer than he ever expected. He locked the door and started to pull off his suit jacket as he walked across to the dining area. A brief note from Maude lay on the table, letting him know she’d gone out for a while.
He settled the jacket to hang on the back of the chair and stood with his hand resting on it lightly for a long while as his mind played back the incident from the office. He was still shocked by Josiah’s behavior, but now, looking back, he decided there was more to it than his shaving his head. What that was, he didn’t know.
Vin’s words of support warmed his heart and helped him look at the event with an objective eye. Until Josiah had spoken, the others had seemed surprised and maybe even a little amused. It wasn’t until Josiah brought up the possibility that he was losing his mind that the rest of the team became worried… concerned for his mental state.
Ezra nodded to himself. They did care. He had just hit a sore spot with the profiler. I wonder what? Ah well, I’ll probably never know. He removed his tie and unbuttoned the first few buttons on his shirt. Once this was all over, he’d try to talk to Josiah. For now, he’d let the man cool off.
Ezra changed into some more casual, comfortable clothes. He raked his hand over his head and grinned ruefully. It will grow back, Ezra. A knock on the door interrupted his musings.
He looked through the peephole and both eyebrows rose. Ezra opened the door. “Mr. Sanchez?”
Josiah looked up. “May I come in?”
Ezra hesitated for a split second, then nodded and let him in. He led them into the living room. “Please, have a seat,” he offered, waiting until Josiah sat on the sofa to take his own seat in the recliner closest to it.
“I owe you an apology, Ezra,” Josiah started. He watched Ezra, as if expecting an interruption, but Ezra simply sat and waited for him to continue. Josiah suppressed a smile. “I… Seeing you like this,” he waved his hand at Ezra’s head, “it triggered a memory, and I didn’t handle things very well. I thought I should explain.”
“Okay,” Ezra said neutrally.
Josiah stared at him for a second then snorted with amusement. “You’re good. Okay… I have to give you a little background for this to make sense.” He paused. “I haven’t… No one else knows…”
“You have my word, nothing we discuss will go any further, unless you say otherwise,” Ezra assured softly.
Josiah nodded. “Thank you. I know they’d understand… I’ve just… I’ve been dealing with this on my own for so long now.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “I have a sister, a younger sister. Her name is Hannah. She was so bright and beautiful and strong-willed…” he trailed off, his eyes distant.
“What happened?” Ezra encouraged quietly.
“I’m still not a hundred percent sure. I left home when I was eighteen, joined the army. I had to get out of the house. My father…” Josiah took a deep breath. “My father was a preacher, but after my mother died, he lost his way. Started to see only the bad in people, including his children. I protected Hannah the best I could, but after a while…” he shook his head.
“About a year after I left, I got a call from my father saying he needed me to come home. Hannah had been hurt. I tried to get leave, but…” he shrugged. “I couldn’t get a straight answer from my father, he just kept saying that her wild ways had finally caught up to her. When I finally got leave at Christmas, I rushed home to find Hannah practically comatose. She just sat in her room, rocking back and forth, and petting on a doll Mom had given her when she was little.”
Josiah stood and started to pace. “I confronted Dad, asked what had happened, but he just gave me the same line about her being a wicked, wild child and that she’d reaped what she sowed. He didn’t seem any more stable than Hannah.” He stopped by the window and gazed out as he continued. “I finally got a name from him. A police officer, and went to talk to him. He told me Hannah had been found in an alley behind a bar, beaten and… raped.”
He spun suddenly. “Six months! Six God damned months she’d been like that and my father blamed her,” he shouted. “Blamed her and didn’t raise a hand to help her,” he added brokenly. “I…” he swallowed hard. “I got him to sign over her power of attorney,” a quick, feral grin flashed on his face. “Well, threatened really, then I had her examined and finally admitted to a psychiatric care facility. She’s never improved.” He turned away and wiped at his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Josiah.”
Josiah nodded his acknowledgment. “Almost thirty years…” He cleared his throat. “I went to visit her last weekend. Just before I got there, somehow, she’d gotten hold of a pair of scissors and had cut her hair, hacked at it really. When the nurses tried to get the scissors, Hannah freaked, started pulling her hair out and hitting herself with the scissors. They said she was screaming that she had to look different so they wouldn’t recognize her.” He glanced over his shoulder and met Ezra’s compassionate gaze. “Once they got her sedated, they shaved her head so they could treat her injuries and keep her from pulling her hair out again.”
“I’m sorry,” Ezra repeated. “I never intended to…”
Josiah turned and waved his hand. “I know. It wasn’t your fault. When I realized what you’d done… I flashed on my first sight of Hannah this weekend and just lost it. I’m sorry. I know how much thought you put into your covers.” He grinned slightly. “Granted, I’m still a bit unsettled by this and not a hundred percent sure about your sanity…”
“Mr. Sanchez,” Ezra protested, suppressing his own grin. He easily recognized Josiah’s teasing tone. “I’ll have you know, you have to be crazy to be an undercover agent. It’s part of the requirements for the job.”
Josiah smiled fully this time. “For all of us, I think. Anyway, I apologize. I should have handled myself better.”
“I understand, Josiah,” Ezra replied solemnly. They held eye contact for a moment and then both nodded in satisfaction. “I do have one thing…” Ezra continued uncertainly.
“I,” he paused and licked his lips. “I’ve been working on a
background for my cover and I needed an explanation for my recent injury,” Ezra
said with a wave toward his cheek. “I had already decided that
Josiah stared at Ezra for a minute, not sure what the problem was. “Oh!” he chuckled. “You’re afraid I’d take offense at that?”
Ezra shrugged. “After hearing your story, I certainly do not wish to aggravate things.”
Josiah smiled. “I honestly don’t think I’d have thought a thing about it if you hadn’t mentioned it. After thirty years, I’m not that sensitive. Hannah’s ‘mental instability’ is a fact of my life. How exactly was that supposed to explain your scar?”
Ezra cleared his throat. “She cut me.”
“Ah,” Josiah said. “Well, have you thought about what her illness is? Is she staying with you because she can’t be trusted to be by herself, and if so, how are you going to explain leaving her alone while you’re at work?”
One eyebrow rose. “I am still working on the background, but if you have any suggestions, they would be appreciated.”
“Sure.” Josiah paused. “But we’re okay, with what happened earlier?”
“All is forgiven. However,” Ezra continued slyly. “I do believe you owe Mr. Tanner an apology for knocking him across the room.”
“What?” Josiah spluttered.
Ezra grinned wickedly.
Chris knocked on Judge Travis’s door and entered at the brusque “come in.” “You asked to see me, Judge?”
“Come in Chris, we’ve got a bit of a situation,” Travis said with a frown. He waited until Chris took a seat, then continued. “Mary received this note,” he handed a piece of paper to Chris.
“Don’t worry, forensics has already been over it. It’s useless. No prints, nothing.”
Chris opened the folded paper and read. “People who answer questions disappear. People who ask questions lose kin.” He looked up at Travis. “A threat. To whom? I thought her husband was dead.”
“My grandson, possibly,” Travis said. “Me, my wife…” he shook his head. “I don’t want to take any chances. I’d like to put Mary and Billy in a safe house with your team guarding them.”
“We’re already spread pretty thin here, Judge, just trying to investigate this thing. And Ezra’s going under today for who knows how long.”
“I know, I know. I just don’t know who else to trust.”
“Surely one of the other teams… Team 8 or 4?”
Travis shook his head. “They’re both smack in the middle of their current cases.”
“FBI?” Chris suggested reluctantly, knowing that he was about to agree to the judge’s request.
“There’s just not enough evidence yet for them to get involved.”
Chris exhaled noisily. “All right. But no safe house. They can stay out at my ranch with one of us at all times. I’ll be back out each evening. And you need to make sure Mrs. Travis knows she can’t be calling anyone or using her e-mail, she might give her location away.”
Travis nodded. “I’ll make sure she’s clear on the particulars. Thanks, Chris. I’ll call you in a bit to arrange things.”
Chris nodded. “I just hope we don’t all regret this later,” he mumbled to himself as he left the office.
One week later – Larabee ranch
Chris spun and slammed his palm against the door frame. “Will you stop your damn complaining?” he shouted.
Mary Travis, who had been following right behind Chris on the way to the kitchen, stopped dead in her tracks and stared at the agent.
Chris cast a quick look past Mary to see if Billy was in sight, then lowered his voice. “You’re here for your own protection. I don’t know how long it will be, but you’re safe and Billy’s safe. Why don’t you just pretend you’re on vacation? Take advantage of the time to be with your son.”
Mary took a deep breath as she realized something. “I’m sorry, Mr. Larabee. I hope our presence here isn’t too hard for you. I know about your wife and son.” She put her hand to her heart. “I lost my husband last year… I understand how you feel.”
“No. You don’t,” Chris snapped. “I would give anything to have just one more day with my son,” he said hoarsely. “One more look at my wife’s smile.” Chris blinked rapidly and glared down at the woman whose presence reminded him all too much of his losses. “You have no idea how I feel.” Chris turned and stalked through the kitchen and out the side door, leaving Mary staring open mouthed.
“Hey, stud,” Buck said as he skipped up the stairs of Chris’s porch. “How’re you doing?”
“Not so good, Buck,” Chris replied, handing his old friend a cup of coffee. Buck was here to take over so that Chris could go in to the office. “I really let her have it last night,” he admitted softly.
A gentle smile graced Buck’s face. “Knew it would happen, old dog. It was just a matter of time. Mrs. Travis is a spitfire. A fine woman, but definitely has a mind of her own.” Buck’s smile dimmed a bit. “Just like Sarah.”
Chris’s head popped up. “She’s nothing like Sarah,” he hissed.
Buck chuckled lightly. “Right,” he drawled. “Sarah didn’t get under your skin with a know-it-all attitude and self-confidence that would make a mountain lion turn tail,” he said sarcastically.
Chris stared at Buck for a moment then grinned ruefully. He chuckled and shook his head. “Okay. So, maybe she reminds me of Sarah a little bit. But she had no call…”
Larabee waved one hand and moved down the stairs and across the yard to the nearest corral. Buck followed and they both leaned against the fence. Several of the horses came over looking for handouts. When they didn’t get anything, they wandered off again.
“She just kept going on and on about how much time she was wasting here,” Chris said softly. “I told her, maybe she should be grateful to have the time with her son. That’s when she apologized for bringing back bad memories and said she understood how I felt,” Chris ended sarcastically.
“Reckon she would, a bit, having just lost her husband last year,” Buck said.
Chris pushed off the fence and glared at Buck. “She’s still got her son, damn it! She’s got no right to go digging into my life and sympathize,” he sneered, “when she’s still…” Chris swallowed hard and blinked back tears that suddenly threatened to fall.
Buck sighed. “I miss them, too, Chris. But what happened is public knowledge and she is a reporter. She’s probably known all about you for months,” he added with a gentle, teasing grin.
Chris took a deep, ragged breath then exhaled slowly. “I suppose you’re right. It just… caught me by surprise how much it still hurts.”
Buck nodded. “Yeah.”
“So, fill me in,” Chris said, changing the subject. “Ez have anything new to report last night?”
The first two weeks at Wheeler Corp went pretty much as Ezra
had expected. At least, where the job was concerned. He got the position with
Wheeler Corp, went in to ‘work’ everyday from eight to five and started to make
nice with the other employees. He made sure to talk about how he and his older
sister had moved to
His life after leaving Wheeler Corp at five every day was
not going as expected. For some reason, Maude had decided to attend to business
So now she was playing the part of Maggie Smithers,
Maude seemed quite happy to help out, even going so far as to don her own disguise to fit Ezra’s image of Maggie. She merely toned down her makeup, using hardly any at all and let her hair dry without the usual taming so that it fell in shoulder length waves. She also darkened it a few shades to a mousy brown. That, coupled with a change of wardrobe, gave Maude a change in looks that was even more impressive and convincing than Ezra’s.
Her continued eagerness to help was beginning to get on Ezra’s nerves though. He couldn’t figure out why she was staying in town or why she’d stooped to help with the case when there was no monetary reward involved. He couldn’t deny that it was nice to work with her again. If there was one thing he could trust about his mother, it was her professionalism while working a con.
They talked at night about
Ezra looked up from his desk. His direct supervisor, Fred Turner was heading his way.
“Need to talk to you, come with me,” Turner said, leading the way down the hall.
Ezra nodded, shut down his computer and quickly followed.
They went up to the next floor and into an office that appeared not to be in use.
Turner let Ezra enter first then closed the door. “Hear you might be interested in some overtime.”
Ezra nodded eagerly. “Things are a bit tight right now. Could always use the extra cash.”
Turner frowned thoughtfully. “Well, I know of a position…
wouldn’t be with the company, but it’s a night job. You could maybe pick up
some extra cash…” He gave
Ezra let his eyes widen, then narrowed them quickly. “Of course, sir. I’d never reveal what I’m working on. All that information is strictly confidential. Mum’s the word,” he said emphatically.
“Even if it’s not quite on the legal side?” Turner prompted.
“Oh,” Ezra said. “Well, sure…” He hesitated briefly, then lowered his voice. “I don’t suppose this overtime pay would be higher in that case?” he asked hopefully.
Turner sneered. “Yeah. It pays pretty good. Long as you keep your mouth shut and do your job.”
Ezra smiled. “I’m your man, Mr. Turner. I really appreciate you asking. You won’t regret it.”
“Better not, Smithers.” He handed him a slip of paper. “Be at this address at seven tonight. Park around back and knock on the door. I’ll tell ‘em to expect you.”
Another week passed. Ezra worked at Wheeler Corp during the day, picked up Maude, went to his temporary abode, ate and then went down to the warehouse for another four to six hours to tend the books for his ‘second’ job. Once or twice a week, he’d go by a bar on his way home to relax with a drink and maybe a game of pool, and personally update one of his teammates as to his progress.
So far, his evening employers hadn’t trusted him with the real books, just the doctored version. His job consisted of mostly data entry. He hadn’t even seen the rest of the warehouse yet, just the small office where he worked.
Ezra shut down the computer and rubbed his eyes tiredly. The foreman at the warehouse had just come in and told him it was quitting time. A glance at his watch told Ezra it was almost in the morning. He yawned and stretched before standing up. He’d just put his jacket on when the door leading to the rest of the warehouse opened again.
A man that he’d only seen in photos came in and closed the door behind him. “You Smithers?” Kit Harland asked.
“Yes,” Ezra answered. “I was just leaving. I had to shut down the computer first.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Harland said impatiently. “I wanted to see if you can come in Saturday. We need a few extra hands with a shipment.”
“I don’t usually work weekends,” Ezra hedged. “We get extra for that?”
Harland snorted. “Yeah, might even call it hazard pay.” He chuckled at his own joke. “Be here at Saturday.”
“Okay.” Ezra watched Harland go back into the warehouse. He switched off the lights and left through the outer door. He kept his face neutral until he was several streets from the warehouse, then he grinned. Finally.
Vin tossed the envelope onto Chris’s desk. “He’s in,” he drawled as he dropped into the chair in front of the blonde’s desk.
Chris’s lip curled in a rather sinister, but pleased grin. He opened the envelope and read Ezra’s report. “Good. Good. Once he gets the transmitter turned on, we’ll be in business. Let the others know we’ll have a briefing in twenty minutes to go over the plan again. I’m going to update the judge.”
Joe Riley tossed a manila envelope onto Frank Wheeler’s desk. “It’s confirmed. The ATF has a team checking us out. My people have been following them for the last few days. Mary Travis is staying with the team leader just north of town.”
Wheeler pulled a stack of papers and photos out of the envelope. “So this is Team 7,” he murmured. Rumors about the new ATF team abounded in the criminal underworld. He flipped through each brief while Riley summarized for him.
“That’s the youngest, Dunne. Electronics and computer
expert. If it’s got wires, he can make it dance. Tanner, sharpshooter. Sniper
in the Rangers, one of the best.
“And Standish?” Wheeler asked.
Riley shrugged dismissively. “Paper pusher. Does the research for the team. His tail said he never left the building until it was time to go home.” He smirked. “Oh, he acts like a regular 007. Fancy car, fancy suits, brags about his job to the waitresses at Starbucks, but he’s never been in the field according to our research.”
Wheeler stared at the last photo. Bright green eyes stared back. “So what do they have? Are they close?”
Riley sighed and dropped into the chair in front of the desk. “They know that the shipment is coming in, but not the specifics, as far as we can tell.” He paused. “We could reroute it,” he suggested hesitantly.
“No,” Wheeler shook his head. “Not at this late date. Our buyers would not be happy. Can we get them to back off somehow? Neutralize one of their team?”
“That would just make it worse from what I understand.”
Riley shook his head. “She and the boy are well protected and the judge and his wife, too.”
“Damn. All right. I want you to tell Kit to prepare for the worst.”
Joe sighed, but nodded. “I hope we don’t have to do that. It’ll cost us a fortune.”
“Tell me about it.”
JD ran through his morning routine. It consisted of checking his e-mail, running a few bug programs to make sure no one could access their network and checking the team’s personnel files for unauthorized access. JD had created a program to flag the files with a unique symbol that would show up if they were hacked. Ezra’s cover would be compromised if that ever happened. And even with all the safe guards on the system, JD knew what hackers could do. After all, he was one.
His e-mail box opened and started downloading the messages to his mail program. Meanwhile, JD pulled up the ATF database and requested the team’s files. He’d long ago given himself the appropriate access to those files.
JD opened his own file first. He straightened up quickly and almost lost his seat as the tiny symbol appeared in the upper left corner of his screen. “Damn. Chris!” he called anxiously. “Chris!”
“What is it, JD?” Chris asked as he exited his office.
“Someone’s accessed our personnel files, well mine at least,” he clarified as his fingers danced across the keyboard to bring up the other files. “And Buck’s, Josiah’s…”
Chris moved to stand behind the computer tech. “How do you know?”
“See that symbol in the upper left corner of the screen?” JD asked, pointing out the little circled 7. “That will only pop up if someone without the right authorization opens them.”
“And you have the right authorization?” Chris asked wryly.
JD gave him a ‘well, duh’ look and continued checking the other files. “Ezra’s, yours, Nathan’s…”
“Wait a minute,” Buck said, he had joined Chris behind JD’s chair. “Go back to Ezra’s file.”
JD clicked on the window.
“Who the hell is that?” Chris asked.
The photo on Ezra Standish’s file looked a bit like Ezra. Auburn hair, green eyes. But it was not Ezra.
Chris read through the file. “That’s not his address. JD, find out who this guy is. Discreetly. If this is what I think it is…”
JD turned his head sharply to look at Chris. “We don’t want to bring attention to him.”
Chris grinned. “Right.” He clapped JD on the shoulder. “Keep up the good work.”
Ezra calmly stood in line with about two dozen other men,
just outside the warehouse office. They’d been let in that far, but now several
‘heavies’ were frisking everyone and running some sort of electronic scanner
over each man. Ezra concentrated on being
No. Ezra focused on being a grunt, a nobody who needed to make extra cash any way he could to support his sister. Not blowing his cover was all that mattered at the moment. That and catching these bastards red handed.
Harland watched as one of the other goons frisked Smithers.
The goon pulled a cell phone out of
Ezra controlled his breathing, careful not to sigh or give any other sign of his relief. Now he just had to wait.
Maude Standish was nervous. There weren’t many things that could do it, but not being in control of a con was one. It didn’t matter that her precious, baby boy was the one at the reins. She frowned. Ezra had been the mastermind and master of this charade from the beginning. Even though she’d managed to worm her way in, Maude had no illusions about who was pulling the strings.
She glanced at the time on her cell phone again and nibbled her lip. Ten more minutes. Maude took a deep breath and sat down. No sense in giving in to her nerves. Even when alone, it was safer to stay in character. She closed her eyes briefly, sending a prayer to any god that would listen to keep her boy safe.
Maude huffed and opened her eyes. Her faith in anything other than her own talents, and Ezra’s, had been sadly lacking for the past twenty years. She wondered if God truly was as forgiving as her mother had taught. Perhaps… if all went well tonight, Maude might reconsider her belief, or lack thereof.
Chris entered the storage shed and squeezed along the side of the van to the back doors. The shed sat on property across the street from the warehouse where Ezra was working. Chris climbed up into the van and took a seat beside JD.
“Anything yet?” Chris asked.
JD looked up from the monitoring equipment and shook his head. “No. Maude’s not due to call for another few minutes.”
Chris nodded to himself. “Everyone else is in place.”
“Yeah. They all checked in. Just waiting for Ezra.”
Their plan was currently in flux. What they did next would depend on what happened once Ezra was able to turn on his bug. Teams 3 and 6 were on standby to assist with the bust. If the buy went down tonight. If Ezra was able to get incriminating evidence. If…
Buck, Josiah, Nathan and Vin were hiding in opportune locations around the outside of warehouse while Chris and JD monitored the situation on the inside from their communications van. Once Chris got word from Ezra, the call for back up would go out and they’d make the bust.
Now they just had to wait.
A shrill ring broke through the concentrated silence within the warehouse. Everyone stopped what they were doing and turned to locate the source of the sound. The phone rang again and Eugene Smithers blushed furiously at the none-to-friendly attention he was receiving.
He pulled the cell phone out of his pocket and looked at the screen. “Damn,” he muttered under his breath. “…sleeping pills must have worn off.” He looked up and shrugged sheepishly. “It’s my sister. Sorry. Won’t happen again.” He punched a button and stuffed the phone back into his pocket before picking up a crate and moving toward the truck they were loading. The rest of the crew went back to work.
Ezra groaned as he lifted another crate. “These things sure are heavy,” he said softly to the man beside him. The guy grunted his agreement, but continued to work in silence.
“Keep it moving,” Harland growled to the group. “We ain’t got all night.”
The stack of crates was dwindling and Ezra began to think they were going to miss the chance to catch Harland with the goods. He cast about for some way to get the evidence they needed and suppressed a grin when he noticed the bailing wire that had been used to secure the crates to their original pallet. It was still attached to the pallet, the cut end bouncing slightly each time a crate was removed. Perhaps, if he could bend it across the path they were taking to the truck…
He eyed the pallet and realized that he could legitimately step up onto it in the quest for one of the crates toward the middle. If he planned his steps just right, he could maneuver the wire as needed. Ezra grabbed his next crate and searched the faces of the other workers to see who would suit his needs.
A few minutes later, he paused, wiped his face with a handkerchief, then got back into line and made his move. Ezra stepped off the pallet, his left foot landing on the bailing wire. He headed for the truck and was rewarded with a loud curse and a crashing noise as the man behind him fell. His crate had broken open when it hit the concrete floor, spilling packing material and automatic rifles.
“Oh my, what a mess,” Ezra exclaimed as Harland cursed and shouted orders for the weapons to be picked up and the other men scrambled to do so.
Out in the van, Chris heard Ezra’s signal and made the call for backup.
Ezra went over to help and inconspicuously nudged one of the rifles under the pallet. Once the guns were repacked, the men went back to loading the truck. Ezra glanced at his watch and then the ever-diminishing stack of crates. Hurry, he urged his team silently.
Chris paced impatiently inside the cramped quarters of the van. After Ezra’s signal and the initial outburst of noise surrounding it, things had gone quiet inside the warehouse. The only sounds were footsteps and the occasional thud and scrape. Larabee glanced at his watch again and growled, “Where the hell are they?”
JD sighed. “It’s only been a few minutes, Chris. They’ll be here.”
‘They’ were Teams 3 and 6 who had been waiting for Chris’s call in a parking lot about three miles away. JD checked in with the rest of Team 7.
A new voice came over their headsets. “Larabee? It’s Peterson, do you read me?”
Chris grunted. “Took you long enough.”
Peterson chuckled. “You kidding? I’ll have you know we brought extra reinforcements in the form of cops wanting to give us speeding tickets.”
Chuckles from all three teams filled the airway for a moment.
“Where are you?” Chris asked, bringing the situation back under control.
“Just turning onto
“Good. On my mark, gentlemen,” Chris said as he jumped down out of the van. He turned back to JD. “Let me know if anything changes in there.”
JD just nodded and continued listening to Ezra’s com signal.
Harland put his hand up to his ear and frowned as he
listened to his lookout. Damn it. His eyes narrowed as he looked around the
warehouse floor at the men still working hard to load the guns on the truck. He
motioned to one of them. When DeLancy reached him, Harland whispered, “We’ve
got trouble. Looks like someone’s outside about to take us down.”
“Shit,” DeLancy cursed. “Who do you think?” he asked, following Harland’s gaze across the warehouse.
“Don’t know. Don’t really care. We’re out of here, it won’t matter who it was,” he said, meeting DeLancy’s eyes with a smirk.
DeLancy grinned back. “I’m on it. Better scat, it’s a short fuse.”
Harland nodded and the two men left in opposite directions.
Ezra frowned as he noticed Harland heading for the door. “Where is Harland going?” he said softly.
“Where is Harland going?” Ezra’s voice whispered over the transmitter. JD frowned. “Chris, something’s happening. I think Harland’s on the move.”
“We’re going in,” Chris announced. “Everyone in position?” Affirmatives came back from all the teams. “On three… One… T…”
A loud boom shook the area. The windows in the warehouse shattered, sending shards of glass raining down on the ATF agents outside. Screams of pain and shouts of confusion could be heard coming from inside the warehouse.
“Call the fire department, JD!” Chris shouted as he and the other agents ran toward the warehouse.
Flames flickered in the windows and smoke began to pour out the broken panes. A door burst open and men staggered out. Teams 3 and 6 dealt with the men exiting the warehouse while Team 7 headed inside to try and find Ezra. A scene from hell met them.
The remains of a large container truck smoldered in the center of the warehouse surrounded by half a dozen burned bodies. Some of them were obviously dead, but a few still moved weakly, trying to get away from the pain and the truck. Fires had ignited all around the warehouse, burning anything flammable. More men struggled to their feet, their faces streaked with blood and soot. Some helped each another, while others just tried to escape the fire.
Nathan cast a glance at Chris and headed for the injured men by the truck. Josiah and Buck followed to assist. Chris and Vin ushered those still on their feet toward the exit, searching for Ezra as they went. The smoke was getting so thick that it was hard to breath and then another explosion rocked the warehouse sending everyone to the floor.
Chris wiped the blood from his eyes and levered himself up. Vin was right beside him and he soon accounted visually for the rest of his team.
“We’ve got to get out of here, cowboy,” Vin said, coughing to clear the smoke from his lungs.
“Ezra…” Chris started.
Vin shook his head. “He either got out already or…” he glanced toward the truck. “Let’s go see if he’s outside. Get the rest of these men to safety.”
Chris clenched his teeth, but nodded and moved with Vin to help get the rest of the workers out.
They all staggered out to a different kind of night. Bright red and blue and yellow lights lit up the area in flashes. A firefighter came up to them. The big black man had to shout over the sound of the fire. “Anyone else in there?”
Chris shrugged. “Maybe. I’m missing one of my men. Could be others in there, we don’t have a total head count.”
The firefighter nodded and motioned for six other firefighters to enter the warehouse. The two dragging a hose led the way for the others.
Chris coughed and gathered his men with his eyes. “JD? Any word from Ezra?”
“No, Chris,” came JD’s worried reply. “It’s so loud in there, I don’t know that I could hear him anyway.”
“Get out here. Everybody split up and check the men out here,” Chris ordered before heading toward a group of men sitting some distance away under the watchful eyes of their fellow agents.
There was another explosion within the warehouse and everyone turned to face the building, holding their breath as the fire chief called for his men to respond. The relief on his face told the others that the firefighters were safe. Then he ordered them to withdraw.
Buck cast a frantic glance at Chris. They hadn’t found Ezra among the survivors. That meant he was either one of the bodies around the truck… something Chris and the rest of the team weren’t ready to accept, or he was alive and still in the warehouse.
Chris turned to the fire chief, ready to vent his opinion, when the six fire fighters exited the burning warehouse. One of them supported a seventh man, guiding him toward the waiting ambulances.
Team 7 converged on the firefighters and sighed with relief at the sight of a very sooty, slightly soggy, Ezra Standish. The firefighter with Ezra helped him sit on the bumper at the back of the ambulance. The undercover agent leaned forward, coughing viciously. One of the paramedics put an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth.
“Ezra?” Chris said as he reached his friend. “You okay?”
Ezra looked up, his eyes red and weeping from the smoke. He nodded and pulled something out of his shirt, handing it to Chris.
Chris took what looked like a rectangular metal case. It was a hard drive from a computer. He glared at Standish. “Is this why you were still in the warehouse?”
Ezra’s eyebrows rose in confusion. He pulled the mask away from his face. “All… cough, cough… all the weapons were destroyed,” he replied.
“You could have been destroyed,” Chris growled. “I thought… we thought you’d been…” he looked to the others for help, but saw only relieved grins. Chris looked at Ezra who still sat with his oxygen mask pulled away from his face. Chris sighed and gently put the mask back over his frustrating agent’s mouth. “We’re going to have a really long talk about acceptable risk, Ezra. Really, really long.”
Ezra cocked one brow in confusion and looked to the rest of his teammates. “What’d I do?” he croaked.
Chris stalked off, grumbling about crazy Southerners. The others shook their heads and laughed.
Nathan patted Ezra on the shoulder as the paramedics
strapped him to the gurney. “They’re gonna take you to the hospital and make
sure you’re all right, Ez.”
“I assure you, Mr. Jackson,” Ezra started only to erupt into a new coughing fit. The paramedic rolled his eyes and firmly replaced the oxygen mask.
“No talking, Ezra,” Nathan said sternly. “We’ll see you at the hospital shortly. You want me to tell your mom what happened?”
Ezra’s eyes widened at the question. “For heavens’ sake, no!” he said, his voice muffled by the mask. “I’m fine… cough. I’m sure I’ll… cough… cough… be going home soon. Cough…”
Nathan shared a smile with the others as Ezra was lifted into the ambulance. “Be good, Ezra.”
The undercover agent waved a hand dismissively in the air as the paramedic closed the doors to the ambulance.
Nathan shook his head. “I’m going to go talk to the fire fighters,” he said. Josiah and Vin nodded. Buck and JD headed for the van.
Nathan went over to the group of firefighters that had gone into the warehouse. They had already been checked out by the paramedics and were waiting to see if they were still needed to handle the fire. The warehouse was a loss, so the rest of the fire fighters were simply keeping the blaze under control until it burned out.
“Hey, guys,” Nathan said. “I just wanted to thank you for saving my partner.”
All six replied with some version of ‘no problem,’ ‘glad to help,’ or ‘that’s our job.’
Then one distinctly female voice spoke up. “He was lucky. He’d gotten turned around trying to find his way out. I found him just before that last explosion.”
Nathan frowned. He’d thought all the fire fighters were men. Of course, it was hard to tell under the bulky fire suits. “Well, thanks. We weren’t sure he was going to make it out of there.”
“You’re welcome,” she replied, taking off her helmet and extending her hand.
Nathan shook her hand automatically, but couldn’t take his eyes off the lovely features of the woman before him. Her long dark hair, held back in a loose pony tail, had tumbled down as she took off her helmet. The fire and the flashing lights made it difficult to tell what color her eyes were, but they twinkled with amusement at Nathan’s speechlessness.
“Uh… Nathan Jackson.”
“It’s good to meet you,” Rain said. She looked up as someone called her name. “I’ve got to go. Maybe I’ll see you again sometime?”
Nathan closed his mouth that had somehow fallen open. “Um… sure. I’d like that.”
Rain grinned and jogged off toward the fire chief.
One of the other fire fighters chuckled and slugged Nathan
gently on the shoulder. “Better be careful,
“His daughter?” Nathan repeated as he turned from watching Rain talking to the fire chief.
Chris and Vin followed Ezra’s ambulance to the hospital. Buck and JD were taking the hard drive back to the office to see what they could retrieve while Josiah and Nathan finished up at the scene.
The ambulance pulled in at the emergency exit, the back doors burst open and the medics pulled the gurney out. One of the men continued CPR while the other pushed the gurney toward the doorway.
“What happened?” Chris asked following them.
“Cardiac arrest,” the medic pushing the gurney said as they passed through the automatic doors. “I need a doctor, STAT!”
Several nurses and a man in green scrubs rushed over. “What do we have?”
“Smoke inhalation, he went into cardiac arrest just before we arrived,” the paramedic reported as they continued toward an emergency bay.
Chris and Vin followed only to be stopped by a nurse as Ezra disappeared through the door.
“I’m sorry, gentlemen. Only hospital personnel are allowed,” she said.
Chris whipped out his badge. “ATF. That man is a witness, he needs protection.”
“You can wait here, sir,” the nurse said. “We’ll let you know how he’s doing as soon as possible. Please, have a seat,” she motioned toward the waiting area.
Chris stared after her as she went through the door. He shared a quick look with Vin as they both listened to the muffled sounds within.
Beeping monitors, rustling, and a few words filtered through the door. “Clear!” A harsh clicking noise, then more rustling and “No good. Go to 350, clear!” A long tone followed by more hurried noises, then silence.
The door opened and the man in the green scrubs came out. He met Chris’s eyes. “You with the man inside?”
Chris and Vin nodded.
“I’m sorry,” the doctor said. “He had a massive heart attack in the ambulance. We were unable to resuscitate.”
“But,” Vin stammered, “he was fine, he was just coming in ‘cause he inhaled a little smoke.”
The doctor shrugged. “The smoke inhalation and stress probably brought on the incident, but he undoubtedly was heading for a coronary sooner or later. I’m sorry, gentlemen. We do need you to fill out some paperwork for us.”
An orderly came out of the room at that moment. He was also dressed in scrubs and had a surgical cap on his head.
“Bob here will take you to get those forms filled out,” the doctor advised.
Chris met ‘Bob’s’ bright green eyes and pressed his lips together tightly.
“This way, gentlemen,” Bob drawled, his twinkling eyes belying the serious tone of his voice.
Vin lifted his hand and rubbed his nose to cover his grin as he followed Chris and the ‘orderly’ down the hall. They stopped at the nurse’s station. Bob picked up a clipboard and turned to face Chris and Vin.
He kept his head down and spoke softly. “I assume our compatriots are concluding our affairs at the warehouse?”
Chris nodded. “What now?” he whispered.
One of the nurses that had worked on Eugene Smithers came up to them. “If you’ll follow me, gentlemen?” she said, then headed for the elevator.
The three men followed silently. They went up to the fourth floor and she led them into a private room.
“Have a seat, agent,” she said. “The doctor will be in to examine you shortly.” And with that, she left the men alone.
Vin flopped into one of the chairs. “I’m sure glad you told us what you had planned, Ez. ‘Though my stomach still flopped when the doc said you hadn’t made it.”
Ezra smiled tiredly as he took a seat on the bed and pulled the scrub cap off his head. He ran his hand back and forth across his scalp a few times and then covered his mouth as he coughed.
“You all right?” Chris asked.
“Fine,” Ezra wheezed. “I assume Josiah is taking care of my mother by now?”
Chris looked at his watch. “Should be hearing from him soon. Why don’t you lie down while we wait for the doc?” he said as Ezra started coughing again.
The undercover agent waved his hand. “Easier to… breathe… sitting up,” he gasped.
“I’ll get the nurse,” Vin said heading for the door.
Chris nodded and moved over to grasp Ezra’s shoulder. The younger man bent nearly double as another round of coughing racked his body. “Ezra?”
Ezra took a slow breath. “Water? Please?” he wheezed softly.
Chris went into the bathroom and quickly returned with a cup of water. He helped Ezra steady the cup as he drank.
“Thank you,” Ezra said finally, handing the cup back to Chris. “I think it’s mostly my throat that’s irritated,” he said hoarsely.
“Why don’t we let the doctor make the diagnoses, Ezra?”
Ezra smirked, but didn’t get to reply since Vin and the doctor from the emergency room entered at that moment.
After examining Ezra, the doctor looked at Chris. “Well, his lungs sound good. I’d like to keep him overnight though, keep him on oxygen and see how things look in the morning. The nurse will come in and get him set up shortly.”
“I am in the room,” Ezra said dryly.
“That’s fine,” Chris replied to the doctor, ignoring Ezra’s eye roll and Vin’s grin. “You have the documentation you need from Judge Travis?”
The doctor nodded. “Yes, Mr. Davids here,” he said with a quick nod toward Ezra, “will be the patient on record. I have to admit,” he grinned, “all this cloak and dagger stuff is kind of exciting.”
Ezra quickly stifled his grin at Chris’s glare, letting it slip back onto his face when he saw the gleam of amusement in his boss’s eyes. “Perhaps we might request your services in the future, should the need arise?”
The man’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “You do this often?”
“I sincerely hope not,” Chris said emphatically, sending another glare at Ezra. “Still, it would be easier to have a set but limited number of people we can count on, if necessary.”
The doctor nodded thoughtfully, then extended his hand to Chris. “Todd Stames. Have Judge Travis contact me. I’m sure he’ll have some questions.”
Chris shook his hand. “Thanks.”
Vin and Ezra exchanged thanks and handshakes with Stames as well then the doctor left, advising them that he’d check on Ezra again in the morning.
The nurse came in almost immediately and set Ezra up with a nasal canula, then quickly and efficiently began to remove Ezra’s shirt as she spoke. “I know you’d probably like to get cleaned up, but it’s late, Mr. Davids, and you should rest. You can take a shower in the morning.” She looked up at Chris and Vin. “Perhaps your friends could bring you a change of clothes.”
Ezra eyes pleaded for help from his friends as the nurse slipped a hospital gown onto him and tied it in the back. She took off his shoes while Chris and Vin smothered their laughter. Ezra glared at them.
“All right, now the pants,” the nurse said, causing Vin to lose it completely.
“I think not!” Ezra exclaimed. “I’m perfectly capable…” he was interrupted by a spate of harsh coughs that left him gasping for air.
“Easy, Mr. Davids,” the nurse comforted, rubbing his back.
Chris moved closer to help if needed and Vin sobered up quickly as concern replaced his amusement.
“Ya all right, Ez?” Vin asked.
Ezra nodded, not certain he could speak without inciting another cough.
“He needs his rest,” the nurse said, “and he won’t get it with you two cutting up in here. Out.”
“But,” Vin started.
“He needs protection…” Chris began.
“Yes, from you two,” the nurse rebutted. “Out. You can stand guard outside the room. Shoo.”
Chris and Vin found themselves being ushered out of the room. They cast stunned looks over their shoulders at Ezra as the door shut behind them. Ezra chuckled only to find himself with a similar stunned expression when the nurse turned back from shutting the door and demanded that he remove his pants.
Maude eased the door opened and slipped into the hospital room. The lights were down in deference to the early morning hours, but she could easily see Ezra lying curled on his side, the sheet pulled up around his shoulder. She moved quietly to the bed and pulled the blanket up as well. Ezra always got cold at night.
“Mother?” he asked, his voice rough with sleep and the effects of the smoke.
“Yes, dear. Go back to sleep.” She smoothed his hair back on his head as sleepy green eyes blinked up at her.
“Did Mr. Sanchez…” Ezra coughed, then cleared his throat, “did he get you safely back to my apartment?”
“Of course, Ezra. Everything is fine. I brought you some things for the morning,” Maude replied softly. She touched his cheek. “Go back to sleep, son. I just wanted to say good-bye. I’ve got to catch a plane in the morning.”
“Where?” Ezra croaked.
“I thought I’d spend a few weeks in
A half smile tugged at Ezra’s lips. “You do look out for me, Mother.”
“And don’t you forget it, baby boy,” Maude admonished. “I still wish you’d reconsider.”
“I like it here, Mother. I…”
“Shhh,” she said. “Never explain yourself unless absolutely necessary.” Maude sighed. “I suppose I’ll just have to drop in more frequently to make sure you don’t forget your lessons.” She smiled fondly.
Ezra grinned back. “I look forward to it.”
Maude leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. “Sleep,” she said, then turned and left as quietly as she came.
Ezra snuggled deeper into the covers and closed his eyes. He fell asleep with a smile on his face and without realizing that Vin had witnessed their entire conversation from the shadows.
Ezra came out of the hospital room bathroom, running a hand over his now totally slick scalp. With the overnight kit Maude had brought, he’d shaved the rest of his head, showered and dressed in fresh clothes. He felt a hundred percent better even with the slight irritation in his chest.
The door to his room opened and Buck came in. He stopped in his tracks at the sight of Ezra.
“Sorry, wrong room,”
“Buck?” Ezra called.
Buck turned. “Ezra. Geez, you’ve got to stop doing that to me,” he complained as he moved over to stand closer. “I was just getting used to the ‘balding’ Ez and now you’ve gone completely Kojak on me.”
Ezra rolled his eyes as the big rogue grinned and ran a hand across Ezra’s slick head.
Ezra ducked away, irritated. “I assume the others are not far behind?” he asked.
“Yep. Josiah and JD were picking up breakfast for us. You doing okay, Ez?”
Ezra hopped back onto the bed, leaving the chairs for the rest of the team. “Much better. The doctor should be by shortly to affect my release.”
“Good. You had us worried last night. I don’t think I’ve seen ol’ Chris move that fast in a while.”
“I’m sorry,” Ezra said. “I merely wanted to secure some evidence so that all our efforts weren’t in vain.”
Buck nodded. “I know, Ez. But we’d rather flush an entire investigation than lose you. Be prepared for a lecture. Chris ain’t gonna let you off easy, though he’ll probably wait ‘til you’re back in the office,” he finished with a grin.
“Thanks for the warning,” Ezra said wryly.
“No problem, pard.”
Noise in the hallway signaled the approach of the other five team members. They entered the room carrying bags and cups of coffee from various eating establishments.
Josiah handed Ezra a Starbuck’s cup and a bag from his favorite pastry shop. JD set a box of donuts on the side table and Nathan handed Buck one of the Styrofoam cups he carried.
They all settled in around the room. JD and Vin hopped up on the bed beside Ezra while the others made use of the surprisingly numerous chairs in the room.
Ezra frowned as he realized there were just enough seats for all of them.
Vin nudged his arm with his elbow. “I brought a few extra chairs in while you were in the shower.”
“Oh,” Ezra replied. He took a sip from his cup and smiled his thanks to Josiah. It was his favorite.
“All right, boys,” Chris said, taking a bite out of an egg and sausage biscuit sandwich. He finished chewing before he continued. “It’s been a long night. I know I haven't gotten any sleep yet, and I'm sure most of you didn't get much, if any either," He turned and glared at Ezra, the only one who had gotten at least a few hours. Ezra just grinned. A crooked grin crept onto Chris’s face in reply. “I just want to hit the highlights before we head home. We’ll get a fresh start on the reports tomorrow.” He looked at Buck.
“Well, we hit the jackpot with that hard drive Ez brought out. Although nothing links back directly to Wheeler Corp, we have evidence of multiple shipments of weapons and drugs that have come through that warehouse. And we can link Kenneth Harland to them thanks to Ezra’s eye witness account and that of several of the other workers.”
“Unfortunately,” Nathan added, “Harland disappeared. The coroner hasn’t identified all the bodies yet, but they have verified that none of them are Kit Harland. It looks like they had the truck and warehouse rigged to blow if things went bad. All the weapons were so badly damaged that the ones we could tell were rifles didn’t have any identifying markings left.” He looked at Ezra. “You were damn lucky. If the explosive charges they set had gone off at the same time, as I suspect they were supposed to, then everyone in that warehouse would have died.”
Ezra nodded and looked away.
“What we were able to do,” JD said, “was link the warehouse to a few holding companies way down on the Wheeler Corp family tree. Nothing that will implicate Frank Wheeler or Joe Riley, but a couple of their henchmen will be spending time behind bars.”
Vin leaned across Ezra to grab another donut. “Looks like
your ruse worked. Wheeler’s people are fast. Someone’s already checked into
“I’m glad all our plans were effective,” Ezra said. “I assume all went well with Maggie Smithers as well?”
Josiah grinned. “Yep. Seems a neighbor called in a disturbance at the Smithers residence late last night. The police called for an ambulance. ‘Maggie’ was delivered to a psychiatric facility.”
Ezra grinned. “Thank you for taking care of my mother, Josiah.”
“My pleasure, Ezra. My pleasure. She’s quite an amazing woman.”
“That she is, Mr. Sanchez. That she is.”
“Hey, Ezra,” JD interrupted. “Who is that guy on your personnel file?”
“Ted Stammish?” Ezra frowned. “Come, come, Mr. Dunne. Surely you found out at least that much.” He grinned.
“Duh,” JD replied. “But how’d you get a real research assistant with the department to dress and act like you? Especially one who just happens to have the same color hair and green eyes?”
“That, Mr. Dunne, is a trade secret,” Ezra teased.
“Oh, no. Not this time,” Chris argued. “I want to know how you pulled that off. And is it permanent?”
Ezra nibbled the inside of his lip for a moment. “Ted
started work at the
Silence filled the room for a minute until they realized Ezra had finished talking.
“Oh, come on, Ez,” Vin wheedled. “Ya gotta give us more than that.”
Ezra smiled slyly. “If I do, I’d have to kill you.”
Vin snorted as the others chuckled at the old joke. His amusement faded as he caught a glint of something in Ezra’s eye.
“Okay, okay,” Buck said, “But you have to tell us when and why you danced naked on a bar.”
“What?!” Ezra exclaimed as he turned to stare at Buck, totally surprised by the change of topic. “How… I… that was just an example, Buck, I never…” he finished rather lamely.
“I knew it!!” Buck interrupted with a broad grin. “I got ya. Come on, Ez, now you gotta tell us all.”
Ezra dropped his head and covered his face with one hand. He’d completely given that one away. Oh well…
“It was back in
The end for now.
Feedback, as always, is appreciated. Judy
Author notes: Okay, now I’ve
pulled in all the ladies, well at least the regulars and potential love
interests for the guys. I tried to incorporate things from the series – Wheeler
is the bad guy from Witness. Chris got to use his ‘bad element’ line (I love
that line<G>) on Mary and they’ve got a bit of strife going like at the
beginning of the show. Casey and JD had a little off screen ‘girls can do
everything guys can’ scuffle. Rain’s dad is Eli Genesee. I know his first name
was Eli, and at one point in the pilot the chief called him something that
could have been his name, or maybe just ‘my friend’ in another language… I
could make out ‘gen see’ or maybe ‘ten e see’ ???
Anyway, I decided to make
Hope you enjoyed it, stay
tuned for more.