Odd Man Out
Judge Travis had been having a good nights sleep, and he needed it if he was going to judge the finals for several competitions tomorrow. Earlier, he had been in his plush suite at the hotel, grading performance tapes and papers. At 6 he had ordered a big steak for dinner from room service, watched some TV, and he and his wife had gone to bed early, around 10 P.M. The AD had a big bed with a canopy boasting translucent white curtains and gold embroidered sheets with the hotels insignia at the center, like a royal coat of arms. The pillows were soft and filled with goose down feathers; they sank pleasantly when you laid your head down on them. The mattress was gentle on his old back, and the comforters were snug and thick. He was having a truly wonderful night.
Then at 2 am, he got a call. A call that in spite of his want for sleep, he knew he should not ignore, so he had gotten up and gotten dressed. He had kissed his wife and explained in two words why he had to go. She murmured understanding, rolled over, and fell back asleep in their comfortable bed, as he shut the door behind him and pulled his jacket on. Now, he was walking down the hall of the DCPD at 2:32 in the morning, looking for 57 agents, but in truth he was only here for seven of them. The officer led him into the cells and lo and behold all of them were filled to the brim. 50 of the countrys finest had all succumbed to seven men, his seven men.
"All right, who started it?" Travis asked, already knowing full well what the answer was but asking for good measure anyway. He did not want to come across as biased, after all.
All 50 of the jailed agents pointed to Team Colorado, who simply looked back at the judge with defiant, satisfied grins from within their cell. They peered at him around broken noses and several black eyes.
Travis sighed. All Larabee had to do was gnash his teeth to add to the animalistic glint in his eye, and the judge would believe the man was really the hell beast half his superiors insisted he was. "Boys." He nodded a small greeting.
"Ya come to get us out?" JD asked. Buck cuffed him again on the head and snorted. JD cuffed him back. The AD ignored them.
"This is becoming a disturbing habit with you boys," Travis stated in his regal voice, hand over his mouth to hide his equal feelings of exasperation and amusement.
Bucks smile widened, if it were possible, and his one good eye lit up with mischief. "Aw hell judge, least ya always know the first place to look when ya cant find us."
"This is the last time I take you boys anywhere," Orin threatened. He looked at the unadulterated glee that came to six out of seven faces. "Never mind. I shouldnt reward you for this kind of thing."
Ezra snorted (Damn it Mister Larabee!) at his comrades. "You gentlemen just dont know when to play your hand."
They shrugged apologetically as the judge nodded to the officer. He put the key in, then pulled it out, confused. "Its already unlocked sir," he muttered, thinking back on whether he had actually locked it or not after the agents had been taken in. The night officer was absolutely certain the door had been locked when he left them to do the paperwork; at least he thought he was certain. He really needed to stop these late night shifts; it was apparently affecting his performance.
Travis only looked pointedly from the unlocked door to Ezra, but the young man was the picture of innocence, to those that did not know him.
In the van, after Judge Travis had gotten everyone loaded in before Buck could get himself shot by one, Detective Valerie Kuhns, he asked the question that had plagued his mind since the "debriefing" Police Chief O Leary had conducted over the phone.
"Texas agent David Yates?"
"Josiah," Team 7 answered uniformly, as if that explained it all; and for the most part, it did.
The big preacher shrugged. "Big mouth. Hard head."
"Well, now that my good nights sleep has been unmercifully intruded upon " Travis began.
Chris looked at the driver from the passenger seat. "Ashcroft threw the first punch."
"Who threw Ashcroft?"
"As I was saying I expect you boys to win big tomorrow after tonights stunt."
"Whys that?" Buck poked his head between the two, waiting for Larabee to get his ass chewed out. Luckily, no chewing came to fruition.
"I expect you boys to win because you evened up the odds in that little brawl gentlemen."
Chris raised a questioning brow (Damn it Ezra!) to his boss.
"Ashcroft broke his arm in that fall, Montoya sprained his ankle slipping in spilled tea and Nelson threw his back out."
Josiah grinned as they pulled up to the hotel and began to unload. "Could this be a sign brothers?"
"Of New Yorks utter resentment and possible physical hostility tomorrow? I concur," Ezra stated, yawning as he stepped over Buck to get out of the stuffy rental van. "Good night gentlemen." He excused himself brusquely and stepped through the hotels revolving glass door without a backwards glance.
The Judge threw a questioning look towards Larabee at Standishs brief manner of statement and abrupt departure. "Something happen today Chris?"
"Im not getting anymore sleep, not tonight anyway."
Usherton along with the rest of his team were freed once a phone call was placed to Head Supervisor T.K Davidson. It was three am by that time, and he was not happy. He now sported twin black eyes and a bruise from a nasty blow to the ribs where Larabees elbow had connected when he had attempted to grab the man from behind. Davidson had been in a foul temper and had even gone so far as to threaten Usherton with suspension.
The supervisor of Team New York was an embarrassment, apparently. They had already known Travis Team Colorado was a bunch of mercenary Neanderthals, but New Yorks finest had more expected from it. Witnesses, from teams that had failed to get involved, stated that Ashcroft had thrown the first punch. Team Colorado reciprocated. Apparently, Team Colorado had won. The three7-year-old agent sighed, his eyes racking in his sore and complaining team. They were better than Colorado damn it. Larabees gang was a bunch of cowboys and hooligans, if he ever saw any; a team from a place of culture and flare like New York should have defeated them last night, and with style to boot. His pathetic bunch had gotten their asses sorely kicked by a bunch of drunk cowboys, and it was embarrassing. "Were gonna be the God damn laughing stock of the bureau for last nights stunts," he said to no one in particular. His team wisely chose not to answer in the crowded hotel elevator. The DCPD had to pull Standish and Wilmington OFF of FOUR of his men, while Tanner promptly whipped up on Cronkin, and Usherton himself, had suffered a beating from Larabee. Ashcroft fingered his new cast distastefully, and Montoya leaned on his crutches with a particularly dour look on his face. Nelson stood ramrod straight to avoid excess strain on his back and the brace hooked around his middle.
"We need to get even boss," Lamonte said in his scratchy voice as they cleared the 20th floor.
"Well, we certainly arent getting into another brawl with those cowboys," Usherton sniffed. "Were better than them gentlemen."
"Yeah, but what are we gonna do to get even?" Lamonte pushed again, motioning to an ugly cut under his left eye for emphasis.
"Do you WANT to be suspended for disorderly conduct? We came THIS close boys," the leader stated with as much dignity as he could. He held his thumb and index finger a fraction of an inch apart to emphasize his point. "This close! We get even by massacring them tomorrow in competition."
Lamonte did not look impressed, and neither did Ferretti, Kingston, or Cronkin for that matter. The team supervisor glowered at them. "If you idiots do anything that risks this teams upstanding record and my chances of becoming a director "
"Easy boss, we aint gonna do nothing," Kingston intervened. Usherton was about to say something as a look flitted from his second in command to Lamonte, but the "ding" of the elevator distracted him. He was tired. He wanted to get some sleep before the 8:00 wake up call.
Ezra groaned and tried to ignore the infernal racket coming from the nightstand right beside his ear. He rolled over and covered his head with his extra pillow to muffle the noise, hoping for enough respite to be able to go back to sleep. After a minute or so, the noise miraculously stopped. The disoriented southerner rolled back over to see what had happened exactly, for he of all people knew wishes seldom came true, only to come face to face with the smiling visage of his roommate. Consequently, he found his answer. He groaned, rolled back over, and covered his head once again. It was in times like these that he wished he had his own room, like the team supervisors did. Chris wasnt the only one that liked solitude.
"Wake up Ez were due for the seminar in half an hour," Vin drawled lazily, shaking the older man by the shoulder.
"Please proceed without me Mister Tanner, as I am very much incapacitated at the moment," Standish drawled from under the pillow.
Vin yanked the offending linen from his coworker amiably, tossing it aside before rolling Ez onto his back. The smile never left his face. "Cmon pard, you know its mandatory attendance."
The southerner closed his eyes tighter in an attempt to hold on to his drowsy feeling. Standish sighed, once he realized sleep had completely fled him upon having seen Vins disgustingly chipper morning attitude. He relented and opened his eyes, albeit under protest. "Very well then. May I hazard an inquiry as to what our illustrious orator will be lecturing us on today?"
Tanners smile turned wry. The sharpshooter would be damned if Ez didnt talk like that in his sleep as well. Perhaps the most alarming thing was the fact that he was beginning to understand all those pretty, if unnecessary, words. "Agent Chen from Team Massachusetts is gonna be givin a lecture on group dynamics and teamwork today," he started, offering a hand to pull the undercover agent up out of bed.
Ezra snorted, a habit the southerner was picking up from Chris, Vin noted, and slid around the proffered hand and got to his feet on his own. "A monumental waste of both his time and ours Im sure," the southerner drawled lazily, making a beeline for the much too cramped bathroom without even making eye contact with his roommate.
Vin shoved his discarded hand into a pocket, watching Ezras back with a small sigh. "You want me to go downstairs and get you some breakfast pard?"
"If you are referring to that greasy swill that the hotel kitchen deems "continental" as said breakfast, I would much rather starve, Mister Tanner."
"I could swing to that Starbucks around the corner, if yad like."
There was a pause from the other side of the door. "Very kind of you, but it would make us quite tardy. I think it would be most prudent if I forgo for the day."
Vin grunted in response, tying his unruly hair into a ponytail with a black band so it would not disturb his shooting competition later in the day. That had been the second slight Ezra had given him in less than ten minutes. Yesterday must be bothering him something fierce.
The phone rang, making him jump slightly. He looked sheepish for a second, despite being alone in the room, and picked it up. "Tanner."
"Heya Junior, you get Ez outta bed?" Bucks chipper tone was muffled by whatever it was he was shoving into his mouth. "I saved ya an omelet and some bacon ifn ya think you can get him down in time."
"Are all of ya down there?"
"Yup. Were havin breakfast. You guys cuttin it a little close dont ya think?"
"You try wakin Ez."
Buck laughed, and Vin could picture the twinkle in the older agents eyes. "Yeah, guess ya got a point there. I just called to make sure ya wouldnt be late, Chris is already in a temper."
Vin raised a brow, Ezras consummate habit, at the tone. "Yeah?"
"Heard tell he got in late after talkin to the judge. Guess he got analyzed."
Vin allowed a quiet intake of breath. "He that mad?"
"Well be down in ten."
"Ya better hurry, the omelets getting cold."
Vin hung up the phone, eyes darting to the bathroom door and the sound of the shower running. He wondered what had been said last night between Chris and Judge Travis.
Chris sat down quietly at the table, eyeing his eggs and sausage with slight distaste. He did not fail to notice Buck hastily clicking his cell phone shut. "That Vin?"
The ladies man smiled. "Yeah. Theyll be down in ten."
Larabee shoveled the first forkful into his mouth and chewed slowly. He didnt much taste it, as he recalled what had been said last night in the confidence of the judge.
"Ezra died today."
"I heard." They were in Chriss room, a comfortable suite on the 17th floor. Judge Travis poured himself a drink from the mini bar and sat down in a large red armchair facing the bed, where his agent sat.
"I dont think he trusts us anymore," Supervisor Larabee said quietly as he ran a hand over bleary eyes, taking care to avoid the bruises on his face.
"I think he still does."
Chris was almost incredulous. "After what happened today? Heck, I dont even trust me anymore!"
"The man trusts you unquestionably, Chris."
Chriss eyebrow darted up before he could stop it; damn that southerner. "Care to explain?" he asked, skeptically.
"He trusts you, but he doesnt think hes a priority."
"What are you saying?"
The older man turned contemplative. "Im surprised Josiah hasnt picked up on it but the psychology of it is that Standish put himself out there and he got burned. It just reinforced his other doubts."
"Other doubts?" Chris noted with distaste the inane questions he was asking, but he had to be clear. This was his man they were talking about.
"He was in his semifinal round yesterday you know."
"Yeah." Chriss eyes turned suspicious at the change of topic, but he let the judge continue.
"He was up against Micah Rowley. Micahs a real veteran; been top five in the nation for the past ten years, and he came in first three times. He graduated from one of the finest drama schools on the east coast you know, majored in improvisational acting because he was so fast on his feet. The man could make you believe the shirt on your back was his and charge you for using it." Travis trailed off fondly, with his hands folded in his lap. After allowing himself a little laugh, he turned speculative eyes on Chris. Larabees gaze was downcast, anticipating.
Chris didnt say anything. He had a sinking feeling that he knew where all this was leading, and he was quietly praying it was not about to go there.
"They did the same drill, in front of the same judges, and got the same prompt something about drawing out a verbal confession for the tape. They didnt have a lot to go on, about a page of information. Ezra went after Micah, and Micah had gotten out with 99% score. Hes never scored under a 95%. Your man was the underdog, Agent Larabee. No one really thought he could possibly beat Rowley. I was watching the performance behind glass in the platform with the rest of the audience." He paused, a little smile forming in his eyes.
"And?" Chris prompted.
"Agent Standish could make you believe the shirt you were wearing was actually a pair of pants that belonged to him that youd horribly disfigured, and he could make you pay for damages and rental fees."
The corners of both mens mouths turned up into half smiles at the description. "He did good?" the Team 7 supervisor asked, fondly.
The judge inclined his head into a half nod. "He blew everyone away. Had the actor playin the drug boss so turned around he practically jumped into a pair of handcuffs. The observers gave him a standing ovation and applauded, even though he couldnt hear them from behind the soundproofing. 100% score."
"Yeah, Ezras the best but whats your point, Judge?"
"My point is " Travis paused and leaned forward in the chair. "My point is, where exactly were you, when all of this was happening?"
Chris paused. "What do you mean? I was watching Vins " the leader trailed off. "Priority," he muttered, lowering his head. "All five of us were watchin Vins competition. It was at the same time."
"Priority, Agent Larabee."
+ + + + + + +
Chriss head darted up at the sound of Vins voice as it broke into his thoughts, but not into his inner turmoil. Vin smiled wryly, knowing without words what had transpired. "Good coffee?" the Texan asked, innocently.
Larabee glared. "Yeah."
Nodding, the shooter took a seat beside his leader and gratefully accepted the omelet and greasy strips of bacon Buck had gotten for him. "Swellings gone down," he drawled to nobody in particular, piling a forkful of food into his mouth and chewing slowly. The Texan gingerly held a hand to the bridge of his nose where the cartilage was broken.
"You look like a damn coon," Buck grinned.
"You aint so good yourself there Buck," Nathan retaliated for Vin. "Yall look like half a raccoon."
Buck winked with his good eye. "Always knew Nelson would sucker punch a man first chance he got."
"Wheres Ezra?" JD asked, pushing the straw around his milk carton in a haphazard attempt to garner some of the sweet liquid, without requiring the actual effort of tilting the container to its edge.
"Was still shavin when I left the room," Vin shrugged. "Man takes longer than a damn woman to get himself ready."
Chris looked up at the mention of his undercover agent. "He okay, Vin?"
Tanner got a speculative look in his eye. "Reckon he will be with a few changes." The younger man continued to eat.
+ + + + + + +
Joe Lamonte was a competitor. He had grown up all around the streets of Brooklyn with a stern Italian father and a tough as nails waitress mom. He had had three big brothers with whom to fight with all his life. Under such circumstances, competition and winning were the most important things in the world.
His eldest brother, Tommy, used to be the best at everything. He was the best musician, the best student, the best athlete, and the best son. Joe had tried so hard in those younger days to outdo his big brother and please his father. His father had never been satisfied with his younger sons achievements. He had never been a good student academically, like Tommy, nor was he prodigious worker at the store his dad owned, like his brother Johnny. Joe remembered those times he would spill something at the market, or bring home a failing test grade, and his father had just thrown his eyes heavenward and mutter Catholic prayers for help, in Italian. His mother would just chew the inside of her mouth patiently and tell him in that resigned tone of hers, "Joe baby, ya gotta be good at SOMETHING."
So, he had looked for something to excel at. Something he could devote himself to completely, because he had the ability. He wanted to show his dad that he too, was the best at something. He WAS good at something. With that determination, and those goals in mind, he had poured his heart and soul into his work, because from early on, the one thing he found himself to be good at was shooting a gun.
He had been 18, a senior in high school, who was barely going to graduate with his full credits. He had come to the store to work his shift after school, because now that Tommy, Johnny, and Anthony were gone, he was the only one left to help with the family business. A thug with a piece had held them up that afternoon, when he was working the register out front. The man had looked insane, pale shaking. He was on something, that was for sure. His robber held the gun loosely, gesticulating as his eyes darted around for any sign of trouble. He wanted all the money, now. The money in the register was everything the Lamonte family had to run the store with, and to live on for the next month. Joe had been afraid that if he had let the man get away with it, his dad would come down on him about how Tommy would have used his boxing moves, or Johnny would have outsmarted him, or Tony would have wrestled him to the floor. So, being the smallest of all four brothers, Joe used the only thing he had that his siblings didnt, his speed. He grabbed the gun, turned it on the man, and shot him, all in the span of five seconds.
His dad had come running around from the inventory room in the back of the store at the all too familiar noise, fearing the worst for his last child. The robber was on the floor bleeding like a slaughtered pig, clutching his shoulder and screaming. Thomas Lamonte Sr. called the police, and asked for an ambulance. Then, as he hung up the phone, he had turned to his last remaining boy, and nodded. It was the only form of approval the youngest boy had ever gotten from his father.
So, Joey could shoot. He was good at something. Instead of going to community college like his brothers, he sighed up at the police academy. He learned how to REALLY shoot, and he was damn good at the work. After graduating, he got himself a job at the precinct in his neighborhood. He had started out slowly, as an easy street cop and worked his way up, becoming a detective. Now, he had found something else he was good at. Not only could he do the work, he could even play the political angle. He made friends with higher ups in the game and even formed ties with some retired mobsters who would occasionally pull strings for "Lil Joe Lamonte". He was written a recommendation to be put on Ushertons Team 5 years ago by his police chief, and the mayor.
His precinct had thrown him a farewell party, envious of him for his good luck. The team he was going to be on had a great record. They had a street rep. They were the best in the entire God damned nation, just like him. Yeah. Tommy was fixing cars down in the old neighborhood. He had a slew of screaming kids and a dominatrix Latino wife. Tony was making ends meet as a teacher in the New York Public School system, talking about European history or some shit like that. Johnny was a two times divorced working manager at the family store now that the old man was too frail to be doing that sort of thing. Who was the best now? Who had won this one, huh? Hed proven to his family that he was a competitor. He was the best, a winner.
He smirked to himself at the thought, only to recoil in the pain that action caused to his face. The New York agent touched the patch of soreness and bruises across his cheeks. But, he had lost last night, hadnt he? For the first time in five years, hed lost, even with the best of the best at his side. He was a street-smart brawler damn it, and that pretty boy Standish had knocked him out with a right, a left, and a left, followed by a stunning uppercut. Those were the kinds of moves they taught kids in prep school. The 34 year-old Italian could see it; replay the whole thing in his head. He could have spat. Shit! He must have looked like such an ass out there! A joke to the street, to his neighborhood! He should have fucking kicked that white trashs pansy ass and THEN some. He had beaten all of his brothers in brawls before. Hell, hed broken Anthonys leg once! Anthony had been an all-state wrestler in high school, a linebacker on the football team, and a good half-foot taller than Joe. Anthony had been big and broad, but Joe had come out of his momma narrow and short. But, where Tony had been gentle because of his size, Joe was anything but. He had kicked his brothers sorry asses more than once, and he still could. But, he had lost to "Mr. private school/yacht club" last night. Mister, "daddys golfing at the country club, I drive a Jag to work, top of his class, Ivy League alumnae, I play tennis on the weekends," had tossed him out like a bulging sack of garbage. Loosing to someone like Ezra Standish made the New Yorker crazy with fury.
Craig Kingston sat next to him in the booth of the little, nondescript diner just off of Capitol Hill. The New York sharpshooter fit Standishs description too, but Lamonte decided he had a respect for the man. Ole Kingston was ruthless. He was as competitive as the Italian was, and he was just as temperamental. Lamonte figured there must be two kinds of white trash. Craig was okay; at least he knew how to make his way in their city. Hell, hed seen the man set his scope on some scumbag and gut shoot him first, instead of taking the head shot right away, just because Kingston didnt like the bastard.
Kingston for the most part, just sipped his mocha-chino, from the Starbucks across the street and looked distastefully at the plate of pancakes a small blonde waitress had shoved in front of him moments before. Kingston was here because he didnt like Tanner, plain and simple. Tanner had ousted him out of the shooting competition two rounds ago, and the aristocratic sharpshooter was still smarting from it. He was bred to be a champion. He would be damned if he let that no account half-literate Texan and his team of misfit throwaways take his team down as well. If there were something he could do about it, hed go along with one of Lamontes half assed schemes, this time. "Whens your man getting here?" Kingston queried. They had half an hour before they had to sneak back onto conference grounds for Chens talk. That damn Asian kept attendance records like he was their freaking parole officer.
"Hell be here Kingston, so shut the fuck up," Lamonte bit back under his breath.
Craig was about to shoot his own mouth off in reply to the Italian, but he stopped when someone slid into the booth directly against theirs. The newcomer sat facing straight forward, back to back against Joe in the line of booths against the window.
Lamonte stiffened slightly. "Kaplan?" he whispered, though the two stayed completely back to back.
The man had massive shoulders, and he sat hunched over a newspaper. He wore a narrow brimmed black hat and a long black overcoat, on top of a gray suit and a tie. His outfit was nothing out of the ordinary for a business day in Washington. He turned the page of the paper before casually asking, "Lamonte?"
"What can I do for you, Lil Joey?"
Kingston perked at the sound of the name, and mouthed, "Lil Joey?" in his teammates direction. Joe shot him a look of death and continued his conversation, ignoring Craig. "I need a favor, Jeff."
"You know about the conference?"
"Joey, its my job to know what goes down in this town."
"You know Team Colorado?"
"From the sound of it, Ill get to know em better than I do."
"Todays competition against them is at 5:30. Between now and then, I want a guarantee that my team pulls through as champs this year."
Kaplan only grunted in response, as a waitress came and placed a cup of coffee in front of him. He thanked her in his gruff voice and waited until she was out of earshot before replying. "5:30 today?"
"Kind of short notice."
"Its cause I know youre the best, my friend."
"All right. Any special requests?"
"Just eliminate them," Lamonte responded, his hand trailing over a sharp bruise on his chin.
Kaplan took a gulp from his coffee as he considered Lamontes request. He did owe Lil Joey after all; the man had looked the other way during an indiscretion the hired hit man had made for one of his boss New York clients. Lamonte and his ATF team had had enough evidence to put him away for good, but Joe had been playing his political game, getting his allies on all sides of the field. For that, he owed Lamonte big. He WAS a professional; one with a professional debt. "Okay, Ill take care of it," he replied before polishing off his drink. He took a five-dollar bill from his wallet and threw it on the table. "Consider my debt wiped clean, Joe Lamonte."
"Youre debtless, Jeff."
Kingston and Lamonte never reacted as Kaplan got up and walked out of the diner. For the entire world to see, it seemed as if the three people in the booths, on this early morning DC working day, had never even noticed the existence of the others. But, they were after all, professionals.
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