High and Dry

Book Three

by Beth AKA Midge

ATF Universe

Notes: This is the third story in the series. You might want to read, The South Wind and The Mouths of Crocodiles, it will introduce some important characters. I had to break these stories into shorter works and I understand that the endings will leave you hanging, they're suppose to. I'm still confused, but I promise they will all make sense in the end. Some language, maybe, a PG-13 rating.

This story discusses the learning disability dyslexia. It is in no way meant to be taken lightly. I myself have diabetes and know what it's like to have people minimize it to a 'controllable disease'. I wrote this to add to the bond between Ezra and Vin.

Special Thanks to Julie and KellyA, you guys are great!!! Thanks so much for your eyes.

Chapter 1

Vin leaned back in his chair frustrated with himself. The team had come together and completed their first mission as a singular working unit. It had taken them one week to gather the evidence they needed to close down a ring of illegal sales of alcohol over the Internet to minors. The culprit was a small Denver liquor store. The case had gone well. Now the team was stuck writing up the reports. The sharpshooter ran a callused hand through his unruly hair and sighed. He hated writing reports. His lack of a college education didn't help his self esteem any either. Nettie Wells had been kind enough to proofread all his reports before now. She was a retired high school English teacher. She knew what she was doing and Vin felt comfortable going to her for help. But now he wasn't sure what to do. Nettie had gone to Ohio to stay with her ailing sister so he was stuck proofreading his own work. He didn't want to go to any of the other guys in the office for help. He didn't want them to know how dumb he really was. JD had a four-year degree in Computer Science from the University of Colorado. Nathan got his degree in Health Science while playing football at the University of Florida. Josiah had two degrees, one in Psychology, a master's to be more candid, and a BA in Criminal Statistics. Ezra graduated with honors from Boston College, then was recruited by the FBI. Even Chris had gotten a Business degree while serving his country as a SEAL. Buck didn't graduate, but he still had college classes he could pull from when the need arose. Then there was Vin Tanner, he had barely finished high school and the only reason he did was because he knew his mother would have wanted him to. His teachers had all told him that he was a smart kid, but he just needed to study more. So he did study more, but it seemed the more he studied, the more confused he got. He misread test questions, confused b's for d's, p's for q's, and always seemed to say the wrong thing. He'd come to the conclusion long before anyone else did that he didn't belong in a college setting, so he'd joined the Army.

On top of everything else, today was Nathan's birthday. Buck had hired two strippers to pose as police officers and they were scheduled to arrive at the saloon right at six. Vin wanted to be there just to see the look on the healers face when he got handcuffed to his chair. Buck, JD, and Josiah had all left early to make the arrangements with Inez. The petite Mexican woman hated surprises and Buck wasn't going to do anything that would threaten the impending relationship between the two of them. They had all tried to talk Ezra into joining them but he had adamantly refused, saying he wanted to catch up on some paperwork he'd fallen behind on. Chris was finishing his reports, his were always the first due, and to be fair, the team leader always gave Vin the extra time he needed to complete his paperwork.

The lean sharpshooter read through his report again knowing full well it was full of mistakes but for the life of him he couldn't find any. He pressed the print key on the computer and waited patiently for the printer to spit out his report. He looked across his desk toward the undercover agent who seemed preoccupied with his own paperwork. Vin had to chuckle lightly, as hard as the man worked he had to wonder why he was always the last one to get anything done. He had to wonder if Ezra didn't plan it that way.

"Is there something I can help you with Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked feeling questioning eyes being directed towards him.

"Just wondering why it takes you so long to get done. See'n how you type faster than I read."

"I highly doubt that our judicial system would take kindly to imperfections in reports that are imperative to the incarceration of criminals whose very convictions depend on our testimonies." The undercover agent looked up as Chris entered the room.

"You should've heard it Chris," Vin shook his head and pointed towards the Southerner. "Man's got a damn dictionary taped to his tongue."

Chris shook his head and leaned against the doorframe. He wasn't the leader of a newly formed ATF team, he was the coach of a little league baseball team with players who consistently challenged his authority. "Nathan just left for the saloon, Buck wants the rest of us to show up in about an hour." He looked towards his undercover agent who willfully went back to typing on his computer, "That means you as well Ezra."

"I highly doubt if Mr. Jackson would miss my presence at his birthday bash."

"I don't care," Chris shook his head and turned towards his office. "Just be there."

"You should go," Vin said still waiting for his report to finish printing. He pushed himself away from his desk, "I'm gonna get some coffee. Ezra, you want anything while I'm up?"

"No thank you, Mr. Tanner." Ezra watched the sharpshooter leave and then looked around the office. He then stood up and retrieved the file he'd printed earlier. He started to separate his statement from Vin's when he noticed some unmistakable errors. The Southerner seated himself back in his chair and began to read the sharpshooter's account of the last week's case and sighed to himself.

+ + + + + + +

Vin came back stirring what everyone else in the office had deemed 'the tar from which roads are paved'. He looked at Ezra and sighed in frustration, "Damn it Ez, ya ain't suppose to read my report." He slammed his coffee cup down splattering the black liquid over the cup rim and his fingers.

"I apologize for my intrusion," the Southerner handed Vin his report. "May I be blunt Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked resting his elbows on his desk.

"I ain't stupid Ez, I know this is full of mistakes," Vin threw the report on his desk in frustration. "I never went to no fucking fancy schools!"

"Any fucking fancy schools," Ezra corrected. "...and I was sent there out of convenience not guidance."

+ + + + + + +

Chris stood in the doorway of his office listening to the argument taking place between his sharpshooter and undercover agent. Both men were stubborn beyond their years, both had troubled pasts, and both had a hard time trusting others. Chris smiled to himself; maybe they could get through to each other.

+ + + + + + +

"Shit, Ezra," Vin paused. "I'm sorry," he shook his head in defeat.

"Most of your mistakes, Mr. Tanner, are the misuse of wording and letter-sequencing. Do you often confuse b's for d's and likewise?" Ezra got right to the point.

"If I knew that Ez, I wouldn't have a problem now would I?" Vin ran a frustrated hand over his face and suddenly found his mouse pad as an added interest.

"Mrs. Wells has been helping you with your reports?" The undercover agent asked realizing the woman had taken a short reprieve to assist her ailing sister. Which left Vin without any help.

"Yeah," Vin nodded his head. "She helps me out with my wordin'."

"Has she ever mentioned anything about dyslexia?" Ezra asked. He knew how difficult a learning disability could be and if the problem isn't caught at an early age adults many times find themselves to ashamed to ask for help, not understanding the problem themselves.

"Yeah, she say's there's some kind of schoolin' you can take, but," Vin shrugged his shoulders, "I ain't one for book learnin'. Besides," the sharpshooter added. "I've made it this far."

Ezra smiled. "I have a cousin who suffers from an extreme case of dyslexia..." the undercover agent started.

"What happened to 'im?" Vin asked out of curiosity. Nettie had been kind enough to help the sharpshooter out. After all, she'd seen all levels of dyslexia, and seen many overcome the problem and she'd seen the same problem overcome others. It always depended on the amount of support a child received.

"He graduated with a medical degree from Stanford University."

"Are you trying to make me feel better or worse?" Vin joked.

"When he was in grade school, his teachers put him in special education classes because they said he was to stupid to learn anything. They even told his parents that he should be placed in a State run institution. That was until one of his teachers recognized his problem. It turns out his IQ is actually at the genius level. His parents put him in an environment where he could learn and now," Ezra raised his eyebrows, "He's a doctor helping the underprivileged in Asia."

"So what are you sayin' I should do?"

"I think you should let me correct your mistakes. I highly doubt that Mr. Larabee will care if your report is a day late." Ezra grabbed a red pen from his desk drawer.

Vin sat nervously watching as the Southerner corrected his mistakes, "Do me a favor, will ya Ez?" Ezra looked up from the report and noticed the protective stance the sharpshooter had taken, it was a stance he'd taken many times as well. "Don't tell any of the guys about this. Once Buck gets wind of this the whole damn building's gonna know."

Ezra nodded his head in agreement, "If you agree not to tell Mr. Jackson that I have a cousin in the medical profession." Vin stuck his hand out and the Southerner shook to their verbal agreement.

Vin leaned back in his chair, "Do you hear much from your cousin?"

Ezra chuckled at the memory, "After I became an agent with the FBI, Cousin Davis called me. He wanted me to put 'the fear of God' into the teachers at his old elementary school. Payback for how they mistreated him as a child."

"So," Vin's curiosity now spiked, "Did you?"

"I told my dear cousin that I could not in good confidence abuse my role as a Federal Employee."

"You didn't," the sharpshooter slumped in disapproval.

Ezra looked at him in question, "I did the only thing a person in my position could do." He paused then grinned, "I called in a favor." Before Vin could ask the undercover agent finished. "My cousin called me a couple months later thanking me for his first good nights sleep in years."

"What did you do?"

"Surely Mr. Tanner, you don't expect me to give away all my trade secrets."

"Oh, come on," Vin encouraged. "What did you do?"

"Taxes can be a curse. Particularly when you have acquaintances in the auditing department."

"IRS," Vin laughed. "Remind me never to piss you off."

"Come now Mr. Tanner." The Southerner disagreed. "I've never been one to use the same tactic twice," he grinned exposing dimpled cheeks.

+ + + + + + +

IRS. Chris shook his head in disbelief still standing in the doorframe. Now, he not only had to watch out for Tanner's warped sense of humor but Standish's strategy for revenge. The team leader looked up at the clock, 5:15, he wanted to get down to the saloon. Knowing Buck, the ladies man went all out for Nathan's birthday, and Chris thought like Vin, he wanted to see the look on the healers face when those two strippers showed up. He grabbed his jacket off the coat rack by his door and slipped it on debating whether or not to force Standish down to the saloon.

+ + + + + + +

Vin sighed, it had only taken Ezra a few minutes to correct the mistakes the Texan had made in his report. "Why don't you come on down to the saloon. Least I can do is buy you a drink."

"You can post date the offer," the undercover agent flipped off his computer.

"You should come," Vin insisted. "JD's got himself a bet going with Buck, Josiah, and Nate," the sharpshooter noticed Ezra's interest spike. "He bet 'em five bucks you'd show up tonight."

"Obviously, in the few weeks that I have come to know Mr. Dunne his ability to procure funds is as offensive as his constant Coke drinking." Ezra slipped into his jacket, "However, the idea of watching Mr. Wilmington, Mr. Sanchez, and Mr. Jackson lose their money could be quite entertaining." He smiled flashing his gold tooth.

"Are you boys going to sit around all night?" Chris entered the office. His jacket collar was pulled up around his neck to help fight off the bitter air when he exited the building.

"Just tryin' to talk ol' Ez here into going with us to the saloon," Vin flipped off his computer and slipped on his jacket. "Told 'im he should get a cut on some of JD's winnings."

"Hardly more than the price of a beer," Ezra complained, disappointed the kid had only bet five dollars on a sure thing. "I'll have to better educate Mr. Dunne on the finer points of gambling."

"Great," Chris groaned. "Not only will JD have Buck teaching him about picking up women, Josiah's constant answering of questions by use of quotes, Vin's ability to plastic wrap a toilet seat, and now your ability to con us out of our hard earned cash." Chris grumbled following the two agents out of the office.

Ezra pushed the down button on the elevator and folded his arms across his chest. "I do hope you realize Mr. Larabee, that I will hold you to the same agreement as Mr. Tanner." He stepped into the elevator and leaned against the back wall. He knew Chris had been listening to the conversation between Vin and himself and he had no intention of dismissing the fact.

Chris nodded his head in understanding before smiling to himself, "I reckon I will."

"Goes for me too Pard," Vin looked at Chris hoping for some kind of an understanding.

"I've known it all along Vin," Chris looked at the sharpshooter and saw a look of humiliation. "It ain't nothin' to be ashamed of," he tried to reiterate, "Nettie came and spoke to me about it. She said Casy's struggled with it for years, that's how come she picked up on it with you so fast."

"So you don't mind that she helps me with my reports?" Vin followed Chris and Ezra into the elevator.

"I had her sign a confidentiality agreement. She's now a part time civil employee of the FBI and ATF," Chris looked at Vin with a smile, "Seems you're not the only one in this building who needs help with reports."

Chapter 2

Buck slapped JD on the shoulder as the youngest agent of the group seated himself in the booth next to his good friend. Josiah and Nathan sat on the other side of them waiting for the rest of the team to show up. JD was hoping Ezra would make an effort and celebrate Nathan's birthday with the rest of them. The kid wanted the undercover agent to feel like he could belong to this group of less than respectful men. He liked the undercover agent. Ezra was the only one of them who treated him as an equal and not a 'wet behind the ears' kid. It had been the Southerner who mentioned to Chris that JD's youthful face would be beneficial in the arrest of the criminals who saw fit to sell alcohol to minors. It was JD's first undercover assignment, to be truthful, he stood in a doorway and accepted a package of booze without having been asked to show his identification. In young JD's eyes it was his first undercover assignment and thrilled that the case went down without any hitches.

JD took a sip of his beer and a bite out of a stale pretzel. "Want to hear a good joke?" He spoke up wanting to break the silence.

"This ain't about a one legged dog is it?" Buck protested, looking again at the clock above the mirror behind the bar.

"Shut up Buck," JD snapped. "You wouldn't know a good joke if it bit you on the ass."

"Okay, lets hear this fabulous joke," the ladies man challenged. "And if it's about a three legged dog I'm gonna shoot you."

JD sat up straighter and cleared his throat, "Did you hear..."

"Man kid," Buck gasped, "Never start a joke with 'did you hear' damn, it's just aimin' to be bad."

"Let Brother Dunne finish his joke," Josiah piped in. "If it's as bad as we think it's going to be we'll have more time to recover."

JD shook his head in disbelief; nobody had any faith in him when it came to telling jokes. "Did you hear," he continued, "About the guy who went on the Dating Game?"

"Can't say as I have Brother," Josiah encouraged.

"He chose himself," the kid laughed outright, "and scored." Buck, Nathan, and Josiah all let out a stifled chuckle.

"Oh hell," Buck laughed pulling five dollars out of his wallet seeing Vin, Chris, and Ezra enter in through the saloon doors.

"There is a sight I never thought I'd see," Josiah's baritone voice echoed.

"Hey Ez," JD almost bounced out of his chair. "Glad you came."

"Mr. Dunne."

"You wanta hear a joke?" the kid smiled.

"I am not sitting through that joke again kid, no way in hell." Buck grabbed a pretzel out of the basket on the table.

"It ain't the same joke," JD took a sip of his beer wiping the white froth from his top lip before continuing. "What's six inches long and women love?" He looked around the table.

"Folding money," Ezra replied pulling his jacket tails out from behind him.

"Shit," JD sighed feeling defeated in his ability to tell jokes.

Buck shifted nervously in anticipation of the arrival of the stripers. "Hell kid, you keep tellin' as many jokes as you do you're bound to get one right."

"Shut up Buck," JD snapped watching as two female police officers entered the saloon and spoke momentarily with Inez who then pointed toward the table with the seven agents. The kid smiled, it was a good thing they didn't invite Rain, Casy, or Mary.

"Which one of you is Nathaniel Jackson?" the tall blonde asked holding up her clipboard.

JD picked up his glass of beer and took a quick sip to hide the smile he was sporting. Josiah bit down on a stale pretzel and looked inquisitively at Nathan. Vin leaned back in his chair and watched in curiosity the men sitting around; it was going to be fascinating to see how each one of them reacted. Chris remained idol watching his medic with interest. Buck couldn't have cared less about his teammates surrounding him he was more interested in the brunette with large doe eyes.

"I'm Nathaniel Jackson," the medic spoke up unsure of what was happening.

"Mr. Jackson could you please stand up?" the blonde continued, keeping her eyes on the suspect.

"Perhaps, officers," Ezra interjected, knowing full well who they were. "If Mr. Jackson is being arrested you could enlighten us on the very basis of his arrest." Ezra watched the healer get to his feet. The undercover agent looked to JD who was finding it increasingly difficult to keep a straight face and the fact that Ezra was complicating the situation only made it worse.

The shapely brunette professionally handcuffed the healer and placed her hand on his elbow, "You're being arrested for unpaid parking tickets."

Buck forced his laugh into a cough. It was perfect. Nathan had complained not two days ago about Rain getting three parking tickets in his dark green Chevy Blazer. Nathan's facial expression changed from suspicion to one of defeat.

"Surely Officers," Ezra protested, "Mr. Jackson is in the midst of celebrating his birthday, being that he is also an officer of the law perhaps you could see fit to allow him the reprieve he so deserves and allow him to turn himself in tomorrow."

Nathan shook his head in defeat. The brunette forced him back onto his chair and cuffed him to the armrest. As soon as she finished the music started and both women threw their hats on the table and proceeded with their performance. Buck laughed at Nathan's expression of relief but the healer gave him a glare that Larabee would have been proud to call his own. Vin slapped Ezra on the shoulder in a show of support for the undercover agent who seemed to convince not only Nathan but the two strippers as well that they were cops.

Buck whooped and hollered as clothing was discarded. Nathan bowed his head in embarrassment. Chris laughed as a shirt was gently wrapped around his neck. JD spit his beer out onto the tabletop as the tall blue-eyed blonde ran her fingers over his neck and fingered the buttons on his shirt. Ezra leaned back in his chair and watched the show around him.

By the time the show was over everybody at the table was short fifty bucks and the strippers were three hundred and fifty dollars richer. Buck's voice was hoarse and Chris and Josiah had consumed too much alcohol, something that wasn't totally uncommon. Vin tried to talk Ezra into telling him how he hacked his way into the FBI personnel files so he could remove his date of birth from his personal record. Ezra tried to be evasive, saying that he didn't have any idea what Tanner was talking about.

"I'll have you know Buck," Nathan joked, "I will get you for this." He rubbed his wrists after the stripers quickly removed them and then headed off for their next booking.

"Hell Nate," Buck drank the last bit of his beer and smacked the kid on his shoulder, "You can hire two strippers for me anytime you see fit." The ladies man grinned.

"You couldn't afford strippers Buck." JD piped in, "You'd go bankrupt, see'n how you borrowed more money from us tonight to stick in those ladies undies."

"Stand close around, ye Stygian set, With Dirce in one boat conveyed! Or Charon, seeing, may forget that he is old and she a shade," Josiah hiccupped and grinned from ear to ear. "Walter Savage Landor."

"What the hell is that suppose to mean?" Buck asked leaning forward in his chair looking questionably at the big man.

"Ask me again tomorrow Brother," Josiah leaned back in his chair and rested his head against the wall, "My mind ain't so clear right now." He chuckled closing his eyes.

Nathan stood up and tapped the big man on the shoulder. "I'll be taken 'im home," he helped Josiah to his feet and the two of them staggered out to Nathan's Blazer, the healer trying desperately to keep the big man on his feet.

Buck grabbed Chris's arm and steadied the blonde, "I'll be taken Chris here home." The ladies man pushed his long time friend forward and they both headed out of the saloon leaving the three men remaining at the table.

"Seems you boys had quite the party," Agent Carson interjected, grabbing a chair and seating himself beside Ezra.

"I don't recall anyone invitin' you to sit down," Vin leaned back in his chair allowing the front two legs to come off the floor. He could feel the tension in the room thicken.

"You didn't," Carson agreed. His pudgy cheeks glowed from the consumption of too much alcohol. His over rated comb-over falling non-to gracefully to the side of his head. He looked at Ezra and snickered, "Never thought you'd be one to spend your money in a place like this."

"Wait just a sec," JD started, sitting up straighter in defense of the Southerner.

"Quite alright Mr. Dunne. Agent Carson is only voicing his disappointment in his own ability to manage his money," Ezra smiled flashing his gold tooth.

"Actually I was referring to your less than reputable means of obtaining the money you so freely spend," Carson poured himself a glass of beer from the pitcher on the table.

"Now hold on," Vin slammed the front two legs of his chair on the ground.

Ezra ignored the sharpshooter and focused his attention on Carson. The man was drunk and only there to try and get under the Southerner's skin. Nobody within the FBI wanted to make him feel comfortable and Agent Carson was only relaying what others wanted to say but lacked the courage or tact to do so. The FBI wouldn't care if Ezra suddenly disappeared, matter of fact, they would prefer it. The looks, whispers, and office gossip only confirmed it. It was no different here than in Atlanta. "And you would know how I spend my earnings because...?" He raised his eyebrows and waited for the upcoming reply.

"Oh," Carson sighed folding his arms across his chest. "Maybe it's the black Jag you drive around, or the suits you wear. Hell, I'd like to see the inside of your..." Carson smiled, "Humble abode."

Ezra laughed, "Your deductive reasoning astounds me." The Southerner leaned forward and pulled out of his pocket a deck of well-worn cards, "Would you care for a game?"

"I've never played a dirty cop, and I don't intend to."

"Damn you Carson!" Vin snapped.

"Mr. Tanner, Mr. Dunne, I'll see you tomorrow," the Southerner motioned for them to leave the table.

"We ain't leavin' ya Ez," JD protested squaring his shoulders.

"Goodnight gentlemen," Ezra motioned for them to leave again, his voice more serious.

JD started to protest again but Vin grabbed him by the arm, "Come on kid," the sharpshooter gave Ezra a two fingered salute. "See ya in the mornin' Ez."

Ezra nodded his head and looked back at the tabletop effortlessly passing his poker cards between his fingers. "I see no point in continuing our current conversation," he didn't look at Carson when he spoke, but kept his eyes attuned to the cards flying through his fingers.

"Just so you know, Standish, I'm keeping my eye on you."

"You do that Carson," Ezra looked up and smiled. "You might want to get yourself some glasses," the Southerner put his cards back in his pocket and stood up, the stench in the room finally getting to him. "Call yourself a cab, wouldn't want you driving home drunk," he handed Carson twenty dollars for the ride home. Ezra grabbed his jacket and slipped it on, "Good Night."

+ + + + + + +

Vin pulled JD out of the saloon, "We can't leave 'im in there alone Vin," JD protested pulling away from the sharpshooters grasp.

"We ain't," Vin motioned toward his jeep, "We'll wait and make sure he gets out okay."

JD picked the up the empty aluminum coke cans off the passenger seat of the Jeep and handed them to Vin who in turn threw them in the back, "Don't you ever clean this heap?" the kid asked almost to afraid to sit on the dirt-caked cloth seats, "All you need is a pair of ladies underwear in the jockey box and this it'd look like Buck's truck."

"Just cuz it ain't clean don't mean it ain't comfortable," Vin grabbed a bag of beef jerky out of the jockey box. He offered some to JD who hesitantly took a piece. The sharpshooter turned his windshield wipers on as the rain started to pour out of the dark sky. He wanted to have a clear view of the saloon doors, just in case Ezra was going to have a problem with Carson.

"Why do you think Agent Carson hates 'im so?" JD asked chewing on his piece of jerky.

"Ain't just Carson," Vin watched the doors intently. "Everybody in that building we work in knows about his past with the FBI and none of 'em are going to make it easy for 'im here."

"You'd think he would have been able to leave that all behind him when he left Atlanta," the kid rested his foot on the dashboard.

"Here he comes," Vin leaned forward in his seat making sure nobody followed the undercover agent out of the saloon.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra walked to his car pulling the collar of his jacket up around his neck to ward off the rain and cool wind. He shook his head looking at his front and back tires on the driver's side of his Jag. Both tires had been slashed. He walked around checking the passenger side and sighed in relief, at least they didn't do all four. He threw his jacket into the backseat of his Jag and started to roll up the sleeves of his shirt.

+ + + + + + +

"What's he doing?" JD asked leaning forward in his seat watching as the Southerner rolled up his sleeves then pop his trunk.

Vin jumped out of his jeep and jogged over to Standish's car, "Need some help?" He asked noticing the two slashed tires.

"Thank you for the offer, Mr. Tanner, but I can handle it," Ezra reached into the trunk of his car and retrieved two tires.

Vin watched the Southerner in surprise. Ezra had done this before and by the looks of it more than he'd be willing to admit. "I can give you a lift home, won't be no trouble," the sharpshooter watched as the undercover agent's white shirt quickly became drenched. Vin glanced up as JD quickly headed over.

"Want some help Ez?" JD asked in disbelief looking at the slashed tires.

Ezra continued to work on changing his tires while trying to ignore the questions being directed towards him. He wiped his face free of the rain and carefully placed the jack under the rear axel. He was angry and feeling like a cornered animal. He hated that feeling, he needed his space and JD and Vin were crowding him. The undercover agent continued to work in silence on the wheel.

"Let me give you a ride home," Vin offered, again hoping to get some kind of a response.

Ezra pulled the flat wheel from the car and quickly replaced it with the new one. "I believe, Mr. Tanner, that Mr. Wilmington nor Mr. Jackson, will not take kindly to Mr. Dunne's catching cold."

"Hell Ezra, you're the one in the cold rain without a jacket on," JD stepped closer to the Southerner noticing how quickly and proficiently he replaced the flat tires on his car.

Ezra finished, his shirt and face smeared with dirt and grease. He threw the two flat tires into the trunk of his car. He would take them in tomorrow and get them replaced for the next time this happened. He was sure there would be a next time. "I know what you're trying to do," he slammed the trunk shut. He wiped the rain from his face again and leaned against the car, "Go home Gentleman."

Vin grabbed JD's shoulder and pulled him toward his jeep, "See ya tomorrow Ez." The sharpshooter knew when not to push and now was that time. He understood how easily people could crowd another without doing anything except offer some kindness. Kindness. Something neither he nor the Southerner understood or cared to receive, because more times than not it came with a price.

While moving back towards Vin's Jeep, JD turned back to notice Ezra throwing on his jacket. "He gonna be alright?" the kid asked hoping the sharpshooter could give him some kind of an insight into the man that made up Ezra Standish.

"I reckon he will JD."

"Who do you think slashed his tires?" JD asked before sliding into the black soft-top jeep.

"Seems funny how Carson shows up right after it happens," Vin buckled his seatbelt and turned the engine over. "Just can't see 'im pullin' a stunt like that though."

"You think it's wise to leave 'im out there. Maybe we should wait around, make sure he gets on the road okay." JD watched as the Southerner leaned against his car. He didn't move just crossed his arms over his chest and bowed his head. The kid didn't know what to think, he didn't have any idea how hard it could be to move from a past that wouldn't leave him be.

"We'll drive around the block and park on the other side of the street," Vin put the Jeep in gear and drove out of parking lot taking the direction he would to get himself and the kid home.

Ezra watched Vin drive out and the Southerner sighed. He needed some time to think, some time to be alone. He'd never been someone who could talk out his problems or what he was thinking. He'd only had himself to depend on and that wasn't going to change now, not after everything he'd gone through all his life. The parking lot was empty except for the saloon employees' cars. Carson had gone out the back way. He'd taken Ezra's twenty bucks and it would have been interesting to see if the man had used it to call a cab to get home. He needed one, but Ezra wasn't his baby sitter and he suspected that Carson hadn't come alone.

Ezra watched as a young male crossed the street and headed in his direction. The youth was wearing only remnants of clothing. His jacket was torn at the elbows and the rain seemed to soak him to the bone. He wore an old baseball cap with the insignia torn and battered beyond recognition. His sneakers sprayed water from around the laces with every step he took.

+ + + + + + +

Vin turned the lights to the Jeep off and pulled to a stop across the street from the saloon. He and JD could see Ezra's back and were surprised he still hadn't moved. Then they saw the figure crossing the street. JD leaned forward his interest spiked. Vin did the same. They had no intention of letting anything happen to the Southerner no matter how hard he tried to push them away. Vin understood. He knew what it was like to spend your life always looking over your shoulder, isolating yourself to keep a safe distance from anyone who might get close. The difference between the undercover agent and himself was the fact Vin had been cleared of all allegations. The young sharpshooter had been wrongfully accused of murder but forensics had proven that he didn't pull the trigger. Ezra on the other hand was still running from demons, only the Southerner didn't know from what direction the demons came.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra raised his eyebrows in interest when the youth stopped directly in front of him. "You a cop?" the youth asked sliding his hands out of his pockets exposing hole ridden gloves.

"Depends," Ezra slid his hands into his jacket pocket and gently gripped the small weapon stored there. "What do you need a cop for?" the skepticism in the Southerners voice was obvious.

"I used to nark for a cop named Dizzy over at the fifth," the kid coughed into his hand. "He retired 'bout a month back. He said I should come here, this is where all the local pigs hang out."

"How much?" Ezra asked, knowing the kid was needing a fix.

"Dizzy gave me a hundred," he looked at Ezra with wide eyes.

"Fifty," Ezra stated flatly, "And that's high. I would imagine, Dizzy, paid you according to the amount of information you acquired." He watched as the youth hesitantly agreed by slowly nodding his head. "What's your name?"

"Red," he raised his chin in defiance. The young man was finding it difficult to maintain a defiant stance under Ezra's scrutinizing gaze. "Josh," he said quietly, "Josh is my real name."

Ezra stuck his hand out and Josh shook it with enthusiasm. "Why did you approach me Josh?"

"I seen who slashed your tires. I know who it was because he worked with Dizzy a couple times. He's a suit works with the Feds."

"Does he have a name?" Ezra looked at the young man wanting more than anything to sit him before a much needed meal.

"No name," Josh shifted his feet. "Tall guy, brown hair, has a long scar down his cheek. He came here tonight with a short heavyset guy."

Ezra pulled out his wallet, "You can call this number and leave a message. You hear something that may be of interest let me know where I can meet you." He looked Josh in the eye, "I never meet informants in the same place twice, different locations each time. I'll pay you fifty for anything solid, you take me for something and I'll have you arrested for misrepresentation of information directed towards a Federal Agent." The charges of course would be false, he only said it because he knew if the kid was lying he'd quickly change his mind and turn tail before committing himself to something he couldn't handle.

Josh stood wide-eyed and unsure of how to respond. He was a throw away, nothing more, or at least he saw himself as nothing more. He didn't want to go to prison. "My shit is good, Dizzy never had a problem with any of it." He tried to sound convincing.

Ezra hid the smile and handed the kid a blank card with the phone number he'd put down. "Don't do anything stupid," He pulled fifty dollars from his wallet, relieved that Buck hadn't borrowed anymore. "Live informants are paid more than dead ones." He handed Josh the fifty.

Ezra watched Josh take the money and carefully place it as well as the card into his sock. The young man stood up and tipped his hat to Ezra than headed back from where he came. The Southerner watched until the youth was out of sight before he slid into the driver's side seat of his Jag. Ezra turned the engine over and waited momentarily before driving out of the gravel parking lot. He slowly drove past JD and Vin and waved in their direction before heading home.

+ + + + + + +

Vin leaned back in his seat and sighed. He had a good idea of what went on between Ezra and the street youth. The kid probably saw who knifed Ezra's tires and stuck around to give him a description of the perpetrator. It was a quick way to make some cash. Informants were difficult to find especially a reliable one.

"How'd he know we were here?" JD asked shifting comfortably in his seat as Vin started the Jeep again.

"I reckon he's been lookin' over his shoulder for a long time, don't think he's gonna stop this late in the game." Vin surmised as he pulled the jeep out of the parking spot then he drove JD home in silence.

Chapter 3

Chris entered the ATF offices earlier than usual. The hangover from last nights binge seemed to reside right behind both eyes and the inability to get a decent night sleep had caused him to avoid the regular morning traffic and head into work early. He was thankful he beat Vin in this morning. He didn't think he could handle the sharpshooter's coffee. Chris sighed seating himself behind his desk and rubbed his eyes. He was relieved that Vin had talked with Ezra yesterday, even though it was Ezra who started the conversation about the sharpshooter's reading and writing handicap. Vin had a skill that bypassed men with college degrees. It was a skill that took patience, timing, and nerves like steel. So what if he had a difficult time with his letters, his reading and writing difficulties didn't make up the man Chris had come to know and relate to as a friend. In Chris's eyes, Vin's dyslexia wasn't any different than Ezra's migraines, JD's fear of failure, Nathan's overcompensating for not being a full fledge doctor, or his own problem with depression. They all suffered from issues and problems that weren't any fault of their own. As a team, he expected his men to stand behind one another, no matter what.

He heard the Texas sharpshooter before he saw him, "Vin."

Vin slipped into Chris's office and carefully placed a freshly brewed hot cup of coffee on the desk for the team leader to enjoy. The sharpshooter knew Chris would have a hangover the size of Texas. "How's the head?" he asked slipping into a chair across from the black clad blonde.

"I forgot how much Buck enjoyed throwing parties," Chris sat up straighter and tipped his head in thanks for the coffee.

"I think poor Nate's gonna have one hell of a time figuring a way to get 'im back," Vin smiled and took a sip of his coffee and decided to get right to the point. "Someone slashed Ez's tires last night at the saloon."

Chris leaned forward in his chair placing his elbows on his desk, "Who did it?" He asked, furrowing his brow.

"Don't rightly know," Vin rested his left ankle on his right knee fingering the cuff of his pant leg. "Carson showed up after you all headed out."

"You think he did it?"

"No," Vin shook his head. "But that don't mean he didn't get someone to do it."

Chris nodded his head in understanding, "Did you give Ezra a ride home?"

Vin shook his head, "He had two tires in his trunk. Don't think this was the first time somethin' like this has happened." The sharpshooter looked his friend in the eye, "JD and I followed him and made sure he got home alright."

"Did you see anything else?" Chris eyed Vin trying to decide if the sharpshooter was keeping anything from him.

"No," the sharpshooter smiled knowing exactly what the blonde leader was trying to do. "But I reckon 'ol Ez knows more than what he's willing to tell."

"Not unlike somebody else I know," Chris smiled knowingly.

The sound of the elevator doors opening caught Vin and Chris's attention. JD and Buck came through the doors laughing and carrying on. Chris reached into his desk and pulled out some aspirin knowing he would need it. JD slid to a stop in front of Chris's office door, "Hey, Vin," he paused, "Chris."

"JD," Chris looked up to meet the kid's gaze.

"Vin tell you about Ez's car?" he asked, moving away from the door entry as Buck slid in beside him.

"I think Carson did it," Buck offered up his thoughts without question.

"Don't go making accusations you can't prove Buck," Chris stood up and stepped in front of his desk.

"Hell Chris," Buck paused leaning against the far wall in the office. "We all know Carson's had it in for Ezra from the start."

"Maybe," the team leader agreed. "But why?" he looked around the room to each of his men who only offered a shrug of their shoulders. "I don't want anybody harassing Carson," Chris looked to Vin and then to Buck, "I don't want to give Carson or the FBI anything that's going to shadow this team. Is that understood?" He waited until he received nods from Vin, Buck and JD before he continued. "Vin keep an eye on Ezra," Chris returned to his chair.

"He's not going to like that," the sharpshooter disagreed.

"Watch his back Vin, that's all I'm asking. He doesn't have to like it." The team leader motioned for the door and without speaking a word the team members exited the office.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra arrived a half hour late, dropping off his slashed tires had taken longer than he expected. He hadn't slept well and the dark circles under his eyes proved it. He knew when he walked into the office that everyone would know about the incident at the saloon. Ezra had no intention on dwelling on the matter. Josiah stepped up next to him as he headed for the office he shared with Vin.

"How are you doing this fine day Brother?" Josiah asked gently grabbing Ezra by the shoulder pulling him to a stop.

"Mr. Sanchez," the Southerner acknowledged before heading back to his office.

Josiah watched him go wishing he could better understand the undercover agent. JD had informed him and Nathan about the tire slashing and the big man felt for the Southerner. It was like watching a man carry the burdens of the world on his shoulders and all Josiah could do was watch. The big man turned when he heard the bell to the elevator and he watched the doors open and out stepped FBI Agents Carson and White.

"Agent Sanchez," Carson said looking past the big mans shoulders.

"Agent Carson, Agent White. Can I help you with something?" Josiah eyed Nathan who quickly joined him.

Carson smiled when he noticed Ezra sitting at his desk, "White says he saw someone suspiciously looking around the parking lot at the saloon across the street last night."

"Really?" Josiah raised his eyebrows.

"We'd like to speak with Agent Larabee," Carson motioned toward the blonde leaders office.

"He's in a meeting right now," Nathan spoke up.

Agent White moved from Carson's side and toward the office containing Standish. White looked around the offices, apparently Tanner, Wilmington, and Dunne were in a meeting with Larabee. That suited him just fine. The tall lanky agent leaned against the doorframe of Ezra's office and rubbed his nose, "Saw you come in late this morning."

Ezra reached into his desk and pulled out a notepad, "Is there something I can do for you Agent White?" He looked up to meet the agent's gaze. He refused to comment on White's notation.

"Office gossip has it your tires got slashed last night. That true?" He rubbed the long scar down his cheek before returning his hand to his pocket.

"So you know something about the unfortunate incident?" Ezra looked up from his computer screen knowing full well the man standing in his office was the one that took a knife to his tires.

White looked back to Carson who was still talking with Nathan and Josiah and then turned his attention back to Standish. "I've known a lot of cops in my day." He paused squaring his shoulders, "Sure, some took a few payoffs to cast the occasional blind eye, but I've never known one to blatantly spend their money and claim their innocence all in the same breath."

"If you have some proof of the shadow you feel so free to cast, perhaps you could enlighten me?" Ezra threw his pen on the desk and waited for an answer.

"Anderson said you were a slippery son-of-a-bitch," Agent White smiled. "Ya see, I got transferred here two days before you arrived. Seems 'ol Eric didn't want you out in Denver to create havoc among the locals. He sent me in to work with Agent Carson over there," he motioned with his shoulder to where Carson was standing.

"Anderson transferred you to keep and eye one me?" Ezra raised his eyebrows, "Am I under the wrong impression that Carson is incapable of keeping an eye on me by himself?"

"Hell no," White almost choked. "He just wanted to make sure you walked the straight and narrow. And that's easier with two of us watching your every move."

"Does 'keeping an eye on me' include slashing my tires?" Ezra threw a look of 'don't even try and deny it' to White, who seemed to take the accusation with a knowing ease. "I could go to personnel and file a complaint."

"But you won't," White challenged. "Because if you do things are going to come to light neither of us want exposed. And some of those things," White raised his eyebrows again, "Even Judge Travis is going to have a hard time accepting. We all know how he likes to keep things black and white, and you're nothing but a big gray area." The tall lanky Agent smiled again crossing his arms over his chest.

Ezra stood up and started to walk out of his office but stopped when he was shoulder to shoulder with White. "I billed your account for my tires," he smiled without looking at him. "Don't ever go near me or my car again," the undercover agent looked White in the eye. "You dropped this last night," he handed the lean agent his FBI identification.

White took the badge in surprise then hastily put it back in his jacket pocket. He watched as Ezra passed Josiah, Nathan and Agent Carson without looking back at him. The man was guilty, White just had to find solid evidence to prove it. He intended to do that by whatever means necessary.

The End

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Continues in: China Roses