The soft light from standing lamp cast the dark room into muted gre The soft light from standing lamp cast the dark room into muted greys and blacks. The leather furniture had become ensnared in shadows, their outlines blending gracefully with the hues of grey delicately outlining them to any observant trespasser. Plush rugs would have muffled any shoes scuffing or heels pounding on hard wood floors. The intricate oriental designs on the carpets were obscured from the discerning eye by the inadequate lighting. The other lamps and overhead lights remained off. The glow of the streetlights two stories below were muted by the swirling snow flakes. The humming of the refrigerator provided background noise. The falling snow and the snow that insulated the now white streets squelched any sounds of traffic, even Friday night traffic.
Atlanta would have shut down with the first snowflake. South Carolina, forget it, state of emergency would have been declared by now. A half smile creased the clean shaven features of Ezra Standish. Denver and its citizens almost dared Mother Nature to throw her best at them. In a few days there would be no sign of the this tempest. Denver weather had the same fickle nature as most humans.
He leaned against the large picture windows that lined the Western Wall. He stood in the shadows holding onto a small tumbler of whiskey. Whiskey on ice. He ignored the drink. His hand absently held on to the glass, that he had consciously forgot about. The liquor remained untouched. He leaned his head against the window frame his ankles crossed watching the snowfall.
The flakes danced and bounced twirling and flitting passed the window. Even if the city lights were not on the thick cloud cover would have obscured the stars. Ezra watched the turbulent path of the flakes absently twirling the liquid in the glass listening to the ice clink.
He had choices to make. Actually the choices had been made for him. He just had to follow through with them. Standish sighed; he had been forced into a corner and left only one avenue of escape. Except he did not want to escape, he did not want out. Ezra liked where he was liked his job and for the first time in along time had friends he could count on. Better still for the first time in his life someone counted on him. Depended on him to do the right thing.
He found himself trying to do the responsible thing. Wanting to act in accordance that would best benefit the group and not just him. A new concept, one he still tried to finagle and manipulate but found helping the group brought satisfaction and self-gratification. Sometimes he wondered what had happened to him. Who woke this tiresome niggling of a conscience? This sordid display of responsibility to the team. It settled on his shoulders as a bothersome burden. In defense for himself and out of frustration he would on occasion lift Buck’s watch or one of Nathan’s knives just to wreak a little havoc in the office and keep his skills honed. He would deposit absconded items in various places allowing owners to find them in time. Occasionally his placement would frame or cast doubt on other members of the team. A slightly useful though not malicious attempt at some fun. Manipulating the occasional poker game or conning his teammates brought great joy, and kept him in the game, kept him in shape so to speak.
Yesterday, however, a maze had been suddenly built, and he dropped in the middle of it. He wanted to, needed to, talk with Chris. Larabee saw the world with incredible clarity. The leader had been exceptionally busy and in a foul dark mood. Standish backed down. The quiet sharpshooter was nowhere to be found. Standish figured Vin would know a way out, or see things with a different perspective. Tanner, Buck and JD had been out on an assignment. JD was too young to offer much experienced insight, and Buck just was not available. Josiah and Nathan both would listen and offer their best advice and even come up with a suitable solution. Standish had even gone so far as to approach the two men opened his mouth to speak but changed his mind. He had walked away shaking his head, leaving the two men equally dumbfounded.
Ezra had never believed in sacrificing oneself for a greater good. That belief had begun to change over the past few years and now based on those greying changes he knew he had to act on the decision made for him.
Standish did not want to leave, he trusted the other six and they trusted him. Family. He had to do what was best for the family, if walking away was the best thing for the group then walk away he would.
Standish shifted position unconsciously, and continued to watch the turbulent snowfall.
Buck Wilmington and Vin Tanner stood at the bar gathering drinks. The other four sat at their customary table. The ‘Saloon’ held it’s normal boisterous large Friday night crowd. Inez smiled briefly at the two men and pretended not to hear Buck’s overt demonstrations. Vin chuckled he had to give Wilmington credit for trying. With six beers in hand and a pitcher they headed across the wood planked floor to the table.
“Wonder where Ezra is?” JD asked. Dunne loved Friday night gatherings. Everyone let their hair down so to speak and had a good time. The nights were normally uproariously funny. Tonight seemed kind of subdued. The southerner had avoided the Friday night ritual. That was unusual, for the last eighteen months he had accompanied the others to Inez’s saloon and had a good time.
“I don’t know?” Nathan answered. He thought for a moment and then asked, “anyone know what’s been eating at him anyway?” The din of the crowd made conversation difficult but the question was not missed. Vin, Buck,JD and Chris shook their head no. They had all seen it but figured it would blow over. Vin’s instinct told him different.
“He acted like he wanted to talk to someone about it but couldn’t bring himself to do it,” Josiah said voicing his observations. Larabee nodded in agreement, he had seen it too, but had been too occupied to step forward and coax the younger man into speaking.
Their discussion had been cut short when Scott Mellen suddenly appeared at the table. Buck did not bother hiding his dislike. JD dropped his eyes, he did not trust Mellen, nor like him very much, he played underhanded, with an almost malicious intent. Tanner ignored the man; to him the ADA did not exist, and sipped at his beer. Josiah grinned at the intruder, keep your enemies closer, an adage his father had taught him. An annoyed glare crossed Nathan’s features, this man had less ethical practices than Standish.
“What do ya want Mellen?” Chris rumbled out his tone not inviting at all.
Scott Mellen ignored the uninviting looks and warnings. The smile still plastered on his face, he asked, “ Just wonder’in if Standish handed in his resignation like he was suppose to.”
Heads snapped up, the surprised expressions spoke volumes. The ADA took great pleasure in this and added, “I recommended he do that for the sake of the team, you fella’s,” He stood to his full height and added, “wouldn’t want your good names dragged through the mud with his.”
The knowing smile soon disappeared from his face when Larabee jumped to his feet and grabbed the snickering man. “What the hell are you talking about?” Chris hissed out, his face barely inches from the man he now grasped. The ADA tried to answer but the hand gripping his throat was tightening enough to cut off his air.
The Friday night crowd charged with the energy of the storm and infused with liquid bravery saw a release. The fuse had been lit and an explosion was emanate. Someone saw Larabee and Mellen, pulled on the wrong person to get their attention and a full barroom brawl broke out.
Josiah had stood to prevent Chris from killing the weasel before they got information out of him, but a haymaker punch smashed Sanchez from somewhere beside him. It snapped his head around slinging spit and blood. The others jumped into the melee as the fight suddenly consumed all the patrons like a raging fire.
Buck kept his eye out for JD. The large ATF agent stood behind the young computer expert, watching his back. The kid held his own pretty good. Vin’s agility and speed could not be matched and he easily kept his opponent at bay. Nathan enraged at the potential break up of the team found a release for his anger in a large drunken cowboy who had made a mistake of throwing a racial slur at the chemist. Josiah recovered quickly from the blow and with great menace and determination faced his attacker.
Wilmington’s musings were halted when a bottle slammed into his ribs.
Inez watched in horror as her pride and joy succumbed to the drunken whims of the fighters. She tried to stop it but had reduced herself to throwing empty whiskey bottles at offending patrons who found themselves within her reach. She finally sunk behind the bar and dialed Denver’s finest.
JD found himself going round and around with an opponent that out weighted him by at least twenty pounds. The
young Bostonian held his ground and expertly put the larger man down. He missed the friend that swung at him from the side, knocking the ATF agent across a table spilling complimentary peanuts everywhere. Buck witnessed this and dispatched with the man that had occupied his attention and jumped on the fellow who had broadsided JD.
Nathan watched as Sanchez slipped in spilt beer and went down with a thud. Josiah’s adversary followed him to the ground wildly throwing punches. Jackson quickly made his way over to his fallen friend.
Vin held two potential victims at bay with quick jabs, dancing between debris and bodies on the floor. A smile played at his lips as if he enjoyed the physical exercise. His smile disappeared from his face as he took foot to the knee from an unexpected third opponent. His guard dropped as his leg went up. With a newly exposed target and woefully unbalanced, he fell victim to a right cross to the eye.
Larabee let go of Mellen’s neck when he saw Tanner’s head get whipped around as a result of a solid hooking punch. The tracker had stumbled and crashed to the floor and struggled to get back on his feet. His efforts were greatly hampered by the repeated knees to his exposed ribs. Chris snapped off a quick jab knocking Mellen senseless and launched himself in defense of his sharpshooter.
None of the combatants heard the sirens or acknowledged the authoritative voices of the DPD until collars were grabbed and wrists locked behind backs. Battered, bruised, bleeding and with torn clothing the brawlers were loaded into a paddy wagon. The back cargo doors slammed shut with resounding doom and locked securely. The six ATF officers sat mingled amongst the other brawlers.
Tanner held his aching side trying to convince himself that his ribs were not cracked. JD held his head while Buck leaned forward trying to stem the flow of blood from his nose by pinching the nostrils closed. Josiah moved his shoulder in circular motions gauging the discomfort and testing his range of motion. Nathan swayed silently with the motion of the truck ignoring the pain in his bruised knuckles. Chris just sat glaring around the small wagon daring anyone to make a move.
Ezra Standish was pulled from his reverie by the shrill of the phone ringing. He stared at it, contemplating who it could possibly be calling. He checked his watch it was a little after midnight. The phone rang again. Standish sighed. Probably Buck or one of the others needing a ride home. Standish answered the phone determined not to drag his Jag out into this mild snowstorm.
“Hello,” His voice poorly disguised his annoyance.
A mechanical voice sounded. Standish started to hang up, he hated telemarketers, but the question startled him. “Would you accept a call from Denver Police Department?” Ezra furrowed his brow. He could here someone yelling in the background, “just say Yes!. Ezra! just say Yes!!” It sounded like JD.
Standish hesitated for a moment caught off guard. He chuckled when he recognized the situation, “Of course..” he quickly corrected himself and stated clearly, “yes.” There was a pause and a click and JD’s relieved voice shouted above the background noise, “Ezra? Can ya come get us.”
“Where are you?” There was a pause, “forget that. What happened?”
JD started to explain but suddenly a chorus of voices shouted out, “Tell’im to shut-up and just get down here.”
Standish stopped by Inez’s saloon and exchanged his Jag for Josiah’s beat up rolling trash heap of a Surburban. It could hold more people than any of the other vehicles. Ezra and the others had dubbed it “The Tank”. Standish easily found the hideaway key in the magnetic box up under the front quarter panel.
He turned his attention however toward The ‘Saloon’. It was in shambles. The young Mexican propiortress was nowhere to be found but a litany of Spanish spewed from somewhere with in the building as things banged off walls. Ezra peaked through a broken window and watched as the barmaid tossed things harshly into a barrel occasionally missing and slamming things off the abused wall. Standish calculated his odds at surviving a Q and A session with the feisty barmaid and thought he stood better luck facing angry pitbulls.
Chris Larabee glared at anyone who met his gaze. His knuckles were swollen, cut and bruised. He surveyed his team. Vin held an ice pack to his eye, the swelling in his cheek pooching out from under his hand. Buck sat against the wall holding onto his left side, his mouth swollen with split lip, at least his nose finally quit bleeding. JD appeared to have faired the best of the group with only bloody knuckles. Josiah sported a bruise that ran from his swollen left eye down his cheek to his chin. Shirts were untucked and torn, blood splattered shoulders and collars. Jackson did not bother trying to check out anyone. No one wanted to be touched and he did not feel like fighting. The rest of the holding cell’s occupants kept a discreet distance from the six seething men. The drunks and previous brawlers had come to realize just how trapped they were when they gazed upon the six very dangerous men, now sitting amongst them.
Mellen was not present. EMT’s had hauled his whining moaning butt off in an ambulance. Buck had suggested a premature burial.
A distinctive southern drawl could be heard down the hallway. The soft patient tones and educated vocabulary contrasted sharply with the overworked underpaid civil servant who had to pull night duty. The voices drew closer.
Standish had parked illegally in front of the DPD. It was Sanchez’s truck let him worry about the parking ticket. There was no way Ezra was going to ruin good leather insulated boots in sloppy weather. Twenty minutes later, after dealing with a tangle of red tape, he headed down to the drunk tank.
The sight that befell him sorely tested his poker face. A bemused smile split his face. Dimples twitched under twinkling eyes. Never in all his years in Atlanta would one of his co-workers ever think to call him for something like this. Here in Denver. . . .it was a sure thing. Team Seven trusted their undercover agent.
It would be a painful thing when he left.
His six teammates sat scattered about the holding tank. The rest of the occupants were crowded into a corner. Larabee and the others appeared to be bruised from head to toe. The angry, impatient, expressions nearly brought a laugh to his lips.
“Well, well gentleman I leave you alone for one night and you succumb to this?” He held his arms out and raised slightly indicating the iron cage. A full dimple smile glowed across his face. “Have I not taught you anything about behaving oneself in public?”
“Shut up Ezra and get us out of here.” Larabee spat standing up approaching the bars. Ezra immediately took an involuntary step backward. “Now, now, Mr. Larabee sweet talking me will not win you any favors.” Standish returned glibly. The southerner turned his attention to the desk sergeant and added in a very serious tone, “Mr. Larabee is a prominent diplomat.” The portly officer merely raised his eyebrows in question.
“Ezra so help me if you don’t get us out of here...” Chris grabbed the bars hissing at the undercover agent.
The gambler cut him off and addressed the officer pointing out the finer art of negotiations, “You notice the supportive choice of language, the soft soothing tones, and his willingness to barter....” Standish rubbed his chin with one hand while supporting the elbow with his other hand as if scrutinizing a painting. He leaned slightly toward the policeman, as if seeking his opinion. A genuine smile played on his face.
“Ezra quit clowning around and get us out of here.” Nathan added also joining Larabee at the bars. Rain was going to kill him.
Vin smiled grimacing as the action disturbed battered cheek muscles. He could just picture that tiny blood vessel in Chris’s forehead beginning to throb.
“I must say Mr. Jackson it surprises me to find you in such a sorry state of affairs. The others I can understand... but you? Surely you are above such sophomoric impulses.” Ezra stood his ground. He hoped the others understood the humor in this situation.
“Yeah well we wouldn’t be in this mess, if we weren’t saving your squirrelly arse,” Wilmington offered. He leaned against the bars a somber expression etched on his concerned features. He did not want to lose the conman not to the likes of Mellen and if he had to tear apart more than one bar then he would do it.
“Me? Why Mr. Wilmington I was across town when this melee occurred,” Ezra cocked his head slightly. The suddenly sober expressions on the others worried him. Even the amused smirk on Tanner’s bruised countenance had slipped. JD met his gaze with a questioning expression.
“When were you going to tell us about Mellen?” Chris asked quietly. The anger hit close to its target.
They all saw the fallen expression. Vin noticed the prey like fear that flashed across the dimpled face. The dimples disappeared as the smile faulted.
Josiah watched saddened, as the southerner dropped his head in defeat. Standish, who fought discreetly and covertly and with such tenacity , had not so much as put up a battle, not even a skirmish. What did Mellen have on him?
“Well?” Nathan prompted.
“You’ve been incarcerated because of Mellen?” Standish asked, weary of the facts. How much did they know?
“ Chris here, tried to ‘negotiate’ with Mellen,” Tanner started still holding his ice pack to his eye.
“But he couldn’t answer very well cuz Chris was kinda strangling him.” JD added.
“Josiah tried to point out the errors of his ways,” Nathan joined in, enjoying the shocked expression on the gambler’s face.
“But someone blindsided him,” Buck explained through swollen cut lips.
“And the rest is as they say history,” Josiah finished working the fingers in his injured hand.
Standish stood transfixed listening but not believing what he had heard. These six men that defended one another vehemently had done the same for him. Now they stood bleeding and bruised behind bars and wanting an explanation. Ezra did not relish the topic. Did not even want to think about it. Mellen had him between the proverbial rock and hard place.
The gambler’s green eyes searched the men before him and lingered slightly on JD. He was just a kid, still naive to the malicious manipulative ways of others. Ezra would do what he had to, to protect these men just as they had done for him time and again.
Chris scrutinized the young undercover agent before him. Standish had fallen victim to rumors, been drummed out of the FBI and on the brink of losing his career. When Larabee had reeled the undercover in and placed him on the team, Chris knew he took a giant risk. Everyone, even Judge Travis, had tried to dissuade him, convince him to pick someone else for his elite team. Standish was a loner, not a team player and questionable ethics and morals on top of that there was a questions of whether he had been on the take. Larabee firmly believed in Innocent until proven Guilty. Standish was never found guilty. Some had said the southerner was just smarter than the System.
The gambler had lost everything due to the rumors, the cold shoulders and charges. Lost his friends, his job, and most of all any trust in others. He never expected anyone to back him, or support him. He turned to himself when the chips were down.
Chris leaned against the iron bars. He watched his agent. Standish took an involuntary step backward distancing himself unconsciously from the rest. Larabee recognized attempt at seperation.
Ezra licked his lips nervously. A dry chuckle rolled easily from his lips as he cocked his head slightly sideways.
Buck groaned. Vin shook his head and Josiah wondered if Ezra realized they knew how to read him.
Larabee cut the rhetoric short before it even began, “Don’t give me a song and dance Ezra.”
The beguiling smile dipped and a heavy sigh escaped.
“It’s for the best,” The soft Southern tones barely reached the cell.
The desk Sergeant watched the display and began to see what the agent meant about negotiations. Larabee apparently knew his stuff.
“Best for whom?” Chris nearly growled. How dare he assume what is best for the team.
“Who you tryin’ to protect Ezra?” Jackson rested his forehead against the vertical iron and held the undercover agent’s eyes. Not an easy feat, considering Standish kept dropping his gaze.
Again Standish took a step backward.
Vin propped his forearms on his knees curious about the physical parrying Standish employed when deflecting verbal questions. Ezra backed away. Not in a linear movement either, he side stepped chose an angle and never crossed his feet. The shifting and movement came out subtle. Small imperceptible steps but they were there. Tanner could appreciate the slight dance. The soft shuffle and the quiet deflections. Without anger or apparent self defense Standish attempted to avoid the words as if they were punches thrown. Someone had taught him well. Hell he even tucked his chin in slightly to his chest like a boxer protecting his jaw line. The only thing he didn’t do was put his hands up on guard.
“Ya know Ez its easier to take down one than it is to take down Seven,” Tanner pushed himself to his feet with a grimace and a groan.
Standish raised his eyes briefly and for a flash of a moment met Tanner’s gaze, “Perhaps but it is sometimes for the health of the herd to cull the ones already bleeding.”
“Gawd damn you Standish what the hell is going on?” Larabee’s words dripped venom. The desk sergeant wondered if he should let Larabee and his men out now or wait for the morning shift.
“Gentlemen,” a new voice shifted the gazes in the cell. Everyone directed their eyes to the new comer.
Judge Travis entered the room in casual clothes. Though his black robe, suit and tie were absent his authority carried clearly around his persona. Respect and fairness exuded from his person.
The desk seargent unconsciously lifted his belt and adjusted his shirt and pants. He sucked his belly and puffed out his chest.
Standish attempted to melt back into the shadows.
Everyone knew the Judge.
“Mr. Standish I’ve already seen you so please refrain from trying to disappear,” Travis nailed the younger man with a feigned caustic stare, “I would hate to put an APB out on you.”
Larabee frowned and looked over at his men. What did the Judge know about all this?
“Mr. Larabee our fair City does not appreciate the casual destruction of one of its favorite watering holes,”
“Mellen started it,” JD blurted out standing up in defense for his team leader. Buck covered his eyes and Josiah chuckled. The blind exuberance of youth.
“Mr. Dunne was I. . . ..” The Judge paused and then focused his gaze on Chris, “Mellen?”
Larabee merely nodded his head. Both men then focused their gazes on the undercover agent who was no more than a dark silhouette within the shadows of the cinderblock walls.
“That what this is about Mr. Standish?” The Judge turned and tried to nail the Southerner with eye contact but the man held silent wrapped in the cloak of blurring shades of grey.
“Mellen said Ezra here had to hand in his resignation for the sake of the team,” Buck stood up with an air of indignity. He had the urge to mangle Mellen again.
“ ‘Cept we don’t know why?” Jackson pinned the dark shadow sliding along the wall with a poignant gaze.
The Judge sighed and uncrossed his arms. He rubbed at his face and took a breath. With his other hand he fished into his winter coat pocket and removed a business length envelope, “This resignation?”
The form within the shadow stopped moving.
The agents in the cell focused on the long off white envelope held in the Judge’s course hands.
“Or do you mean this one or perhaps this one,” He fished out another and then a third. Chris smirked and dropped his chin to his chest. Judge Travis hand managed to intercept the letters of resignation for the heads of departments and ATF in Denver.
Buck whooped and slapped JD on the shoulder. Dunne lunged forward under the blow and tossed a back elbow at Wilmington.
The humor and levity suddenly died when a weary Southern voice softly spoke, “But what about Mr. Dunne. . .surely this would be more acceptable than the alternative?”
Chris and Vin shared a look before joining everyone else at staring at JD.
“Me?” Dunne struggled to his feet, “What do I have to do with all this?”
The Judge stopped everything, “Nothing Mr. Dunne,” Travis held Chris’s gaze for a moment and then turned toward the undercover agent, “I took care of it Mr. Standish as I have taken care of this matter as well,” the Judge waved the letters of resignation. “There was never anything to Mellen’s charges against Mr. Dunne and there is nothing to the allege charges against you,” The Judge indicated to the Sergeant to unlock the cell door, “it was a noble thing you tried to do Mr. Standish. . .but foolish and unnecessary. . .I suggest next time you speak to someone before tucking your tail and running,” The Judge found the green eyes amongst the shadows and held them.
Anger and pride mingled freely in his words. Chris managed to see something they all had missed.
Standish’s cheeks burned with chastisement and embarrassment.
The others filed out of the cell in limping shuffling gaits. Tanner and Buck immediately invaded the protective covering of shadows and dropped brotherly arms around the gambler’s shoulders. With undeniable power and grace they guided him away from the wall. The six men headed down the corridor their voice ringing off the walls and laughter rolling across cells.
The Judge grabbed Larabee by the arm and held the leader of Team Seven back, “He was trying to protect JD. . .Mr. Mellen thought he had found some discrepancies in the kid’s personnel file,”
“Why the hell didn’t Ezra say anything,” Larabee shook his head in angry disappointment, “Why the hell did he cave in so easily?”
“He put the welfare of the team first,” The two men walked down the corridor, “ that surprises me. . . .as for talking to someone. . .I suspect the only one that man truly ‘talks’ to is himself.”
“Its gonna change,” Larabee’s soft promise had the Judge smiling.
When the two men exited the DPD station a full fledge snow ball fight had ensued. JD, Buck and Vin had Jackson and Josiah pinned by the Judge’s SUV. The threesome fired snowball after snow ball into the curled standing forms of the chemist and exanthropologist. Suddenly from behind Buck Vin and JD snow balls hailed from above. Standish had swung around back and slammed them with a barrage of hits.
With the reprieve Josiah and Nathan gathered returned the volley.
Vin, Buck and JD found themselves caught in the middle. With cries of deviance they charged in opposite directions after the split forces. Vin sprinted after Ezra. JD and Buck with arms covering their heads charged Nathan and Josiah. The snow fight turned into a good natured street brawl.
The Judge shook his head and unlocked his car.
“Try not and get arrested again Chris. . . .otherwise I’ll send Evie down to get you out.”
“No problem Judge,” Chris turned his attention from JD who clung to Josiah’s back smashing snow into the giant man’s hair, back to the Judge, “how’d you know we got. . . .”
“Heard it on the scanner. . . .’sides got a call from Mr. Kelly he heard about it from Inez. . . .she tried him first but he suggested she have you boys arrested.” Travis smiled.
He could already see Larabee planning his revenge on Ryan Kelly and team 8.