Retribution, Seven Style
Buck Wilmington whistled as he concealed a tiny camera and microphone combination in the drop tile ceiling slightly behind Instructor Harper's desk. Testing the sight on his handheld monitor, it provided an excellent overview of her "L"-shaped desk, computer screen, and the visitors' chairs directly in front. Shifting the stepstool, he installed a second set right above her door in her decorative floral garland. Team 7 had plans for Ms. Harper and wanted a permanent record of the results for future enjoyment and to observe the fun in real-time. When he finished, he bugged her telephone and checked his watch. With a smile, Buck opened the door for Vin Tanner, catching the sharpshooter with his hand raised to knock. Only quick reflexes kept the Texan from rapping his friend and teammate in the nose. Vin smirked and considered doing it anyway.
Seeing the glint in the mischievous blue eyes, the taller man leaned over the shorter Texan and growled, "Do it and regret it. I know who got Ezra yesterday."
"Mornin', Buck," Vin grinned, eyes still twinkling as he sidestepped the surveillance expert.
Buck closed the door. "You bring it?"
"Nope." Vin dropped his bag on the floor and unzipped it, removing his screwdriver.
"'Cuz I don't repeat myself. 'Sides, Ez'll know who did it iffen I did it to her."
Buck laughed, "Ez was sure ready to shoot somebody."
The Previous Day...
Thursday, Team 7's Office
Ezra Standish was in a snit. His cleaner ruined a Prada, they could find nothing at all about the financial backers of their current target, and some son-of-a-bitch reprobate sent him a computer virus deleting all his documents. So much for his quiet, peaceful morning. As the virus finished wreaking havoc, a computer generated hand waved at him and his speakers sounded off, "All gone. Buh- Bye."
"Mr. Dunne," he snapped, pushing back from his desk, "kindly respond and repair this catastrophe immediately." Ezra felt no inclination to attack this latest insulting dilemma in his current sour mood.
JD Dunne hustled over, worked furiously to isolate Ezra's computer from the network, and quarantined the recovered documents in an anti- virus program. It took a full hour before the computer expert was satisfied the hard drive was clean of all viruses. He then tackled the problem of recovering documents. It was a time consuming process of reconstructing each file and killing the buried bugs. Three and a half hours after the crash, JD gave Ezra a sympathetic look. "Sorry, Ez, that's it. Anything you put in yesterday's gone."
"Have you discovered the origin of this devastation?" The undercover agent waved his hand toward his beleaguered terminal for emphasis.
"Nope. Whoever it was covered their tracks pretty well. I can tell you it came from inside the building; where, I don't know."
"How wonderful. Our government spends millions of dollars protecting their employees from malicious outside interests attempting to gain access to our systems yet some good-for-nothing troublemaker inside the building has free rein and too much time to waste."
JD could not answer that. "I'm sending out a virus alert - maybe you weren't the only one." Anything to keep him from nasty southerners with waspish tongues.
"Standish, my office," snarled their leader Chris Larabee, shoulder resting against his doorframe. Ezra easily read the annoyance in his expression.
"Shall I bring a vest?" The owner of the drawl tilted his head slightly, poker face in place.
Chris detested the implications of that statement and retaliated with one of his own. He had not threatened to shoot him in almost a full week; Standish stayed on his good side for this long, an impressive record not likely to be broken for a long time. Larabee cracked, "A body bag if you don't move it."
Ezra sighed. He stood, straightened his trousers, checked his tie, brushed his sleeves, and buttoned his jacket before heading for his boss. Each move he drew out as long as possible, a perverse treat in making Larabee wait after his oh-so-charming rejoinder. As he passed Vin, he softly muttered, "One must look one's best when facing the executioner." The Texan gave him a two-fingered salute and a half- smile. Chris closed the door after glaring the rest back to work.
"Mr. Larabee, to what do I owe the pleasure of your pleasant summons?" The drawl could have been as thick as molasses for all the emphasis he put on it.
Chris refused to take the bait; the topic of his current ire at his undercover operative required more of his patience and attention than beginning with bickering. "Your expense report."
"I was unaware there was a problem." He kept his face bland and voice expressionless.
Here we go, Larabee thought to himself. Let the battle begin. "Sit." Green eyes brooked no disobedience.
"I prefer standing." They both knew the dance and walked through the opening steps, giving courtesy her due and setting out the ground rules.
Chris shook his head because he knew better - if he told Ezra the sky was orange, the southerner would tell him in forty words or more it was red just to be perverse. "Suit yourself." The leader dove in. "Tell me how a masseuse is a work related expense." Of all of the expenses, this one took audacity. Chris willed patience, determined to understand why the excellent agent before him continually tried sliding various 'miscellaneous' expenses past him.
Having expected this, Ezra replied with a touch of indignation in his tone, "A perfectly legitimate expense. Our target felt uncomfortable meeting in public eateries and locales plus has a weakness for blondes."
"And?" The word snarled out in that lovely low tone he used to encourage cooperation.
"The sessions facilitated in the relaxation of our target, placing him a better frame of mind for conducting business." Ezra flicked a piece of microscopic lint from his coat sleeve in Chris' general direction, whether on purpose or not, leaving the leader to figure it out.
Patience, Larabee, patience, he reminded himself. To hell with patience. "Twenty sessions over two weeks?" He picked up the expense report, pointing at the entries marked 'Fox Hunt Health Club'.
The southerner met the stormy, green icy glare with his calm green stare. "Ten apiece. He insisted I join him and I offered payment as a gesture of good will." This comment sounded like it was directed at a third grader.
Larabee ignored the tone with his next ominous contention, "Two thousand dollars worth of good will?! We can't afford that. We're already fifteen percent over this quarter's projected budget." He felt a throbbing in his forehead and knew he would deplete the antacid bottle by a considerable amount after Ezra left.
Ezra watched the vein with detached amusement. Like an oft- repeated number, the steps never forgotten no matter the emotional state, they danced. They went through this after every assignment. Chris questioned, Ezra countered, and the expense stood. Excepting, of course, the ATF's replacement of ruined suits. Thankfully, he recently found an amazingly gifted tailor. Since then, the undercover operative carefully chose when to insert cleaning and repair tickets for his wardrobe damaged in the line of duty. Which happened too frequently in his humble opinion. He gave Larabee a moment's reflection before allowing his natural sarcasm free rein. "With the highest arrest, recovery, and conviction rate, our employers should be generous with the incidental costs given our phenomenal success rate." Ezra finished checking his manicure.
Chris grunted. "We work for the Federal Government. Generosity's not a trait."
Not censure but not total acceptance. "I obtained receipts for each session." He played his trump card, sensing it was the right time.
Chris allowed himself a half grin. "Receipts?" Magic words for those sticklers in accounting, finance and budget.
"Correct, Mr. Larabee."
"We can corroborate this with the surveillance tapes?"
Ezra nodded and then a horrified expression crossed his handsome face. "You did not honestly believe I would participate in physical activity in the company of a target? Actually perspiring, running, and such outside the privacy of my own home? In public?"
"Nope. That's too much like menial labor and you're too vain." Chris smirked. "Expense approved." Ezra gave him the traditional two-fingered salute. "And Standish?" The southerner paused at the door. "You still have her number?"
A gold tooth gleamed in the artificial lighting. "Yes, Mr. Larabee."
"Good. You are financing from your own personal funds an expedition for yours truly in appreciation of my continued generosity." He could toss out the big words too and enjoyed reminding Ezra of that fact upon occasion, along with watching his expression for a specific look.
"I am?" An eyebrow raised, innocence personified.
There was that look. Points to Larabee for causing it; he had not lost his touch. "You are." Chris gave a wolfish grin and a look that plainly read 'do-it-or-die'. And death would not be quick.
"It will be my extreme pleasure, sir." Ezra closed the door thinking that at least it was another session for him as well. He passed Buck hefting a gym bag. With an unsympathetic grin he said, "Mr. Wilmington, today would be the day you volunteered for that she- devil's class?"
Giving the appearance of a man going to the gallows, Buck nodded with a hangdog expression on his face. It did not sound like as much fun now as it did then. "Yup. Don't miss me too much."
"I do not believe that is possible." The telephone ringing on his desk distracted the undercover operative from his next insult. Ezra never noticed, but Buck suspiciously eyed the sharpshooter hanging up his telephone as Ezra picked up his. "Standish...Hello?" With a shrug, Ezra returned the receiver to its cradle, or tried to. The receiver refused to leave his hand even though he was no longer gripping it. He glared, as if that would help. His mind flashed through the various possibilities used by one of these overgrown delinquents as being either tape or that dreadful glue stick. Using his left hand, he carefully pulled trying to separate the receiver from his skin. Instead all he got was a slight tugging pain and his left hand stuck as well.
Gales of laughter erupted around him as he fruitlessly tried freeing both his hands. Chris left his office and smiled at the grip Ezra had on the telephone. "Always knew you were stuck on yourself; never thought you'd stick to the phone."
Ezra quickly lost patience with these hooligans. "Will one of you depraved miscreants assist in removing my hands from this odious predicament?"
"Hate ta see him with a chicken," drawled Vin. More laughter and a flaming green-eyed, pursed lips, tightened expression, southern glare.
"Shh! Shh! Everybody Shh..." Buck hissed, waving his hands for silence. They complied, stifling snickers, intently listening, and questioning looks on their faces. Nothing. Because Ezra had not disconnected and had not activated a line, even the strangled telephone remained silent. "Damn, Ezra, you choked it to death! I'd hate to see your palms after this."
Fresh howls filled the room. No help was forthcoming from JD, currently laughing himself silly. Josiah gained just enough control to try to use force in freeing Ezra, making the smaller man yelp instead as the glue stubbornly held his hands fast. "Mr. Sanchez, please refrain from separating my epidermis from my anatomy." Ezra twisted away and Josiah stepped back, squeezing his shoulder, the older man smiling ear to ear.
"Mr. Tanner, if you would be so kind as to pick yourself up off the floor, I would appreciate some assistance."
Nathan Jackson sauntered over with an immense grin and examined Ezra's situation. "You know, looks like heavy duty glue or rubber cement. Maybe some nail polish remover will break you free."
"Please tell me one of you heathens possesses a small measure of that substance." The tone was a cross between and order and a hiss.
The huge smile and shaking shoulders should have warned Ezra. "Sorry, Ez, but I can't stick around. I have a Harpy to deal with. Don't get too attached to that phone; and here I thought you liked your cell better." Buck dodged the toy ball a groaning JD threw at him and it bounced harmlessly on the floor. Laughing, he closed the door as he left.
"And you guys say my jokes are bad?" JD shook his head in disbelief as his wise cracking friend left the room.
A strange sound came from their leader. It took a moment to identify it - singing. Singing? What in the hell was happening here?
"Stuck on you, got this feeling..." his rich voice emphasized 'stuck'.
Nathan joined in. "Down deep in my soul..."
JD, Josiah, and Vin added in, "That I just can't lose, yes, I'm on my way..."
"Will one of you sons a bitches find some nail polish remover before my eardrums rupture?" Ezra managed disconnecting the receiver from the base and swung at Vin's head.
"Hey!" The sharpshooter ducked and used both hands to spin Ezra around right into JD. JD twisted the southerner and launched him off- balance at Nathan. Nathan straightened Ezra out and dropped the smaller man in a chair, sending him spinning him in circles to the leader. Josiah rumbled with laughter at the spectacle as Chris promptly wheeled him back to his desk all the while dodging the swinging joined arms.
Enough was enough. Time to restore order, Chris told himself. "Tanner, go find nail polish remover. The rest of you, back to work."
Vin had to sweet-talk three administrative assistants, blushing the entire time, before he found one with enough nail polish remover to free the southerner. The irritated undercover agent then spent the rest of the day nursing his red hands and snapping at everyone in sight. Vin continued provoking the man with a wicked grin, earning him a long-winded diatribe on his disrespectful attitude toward the 'grievously injured' and more than a few accusations of blame.
Early Friday Morning
Shaking off the memories, Vin looked around and Buck disappeared into the hallway to install more cameras throughout the Training Complex sections Harper frequented. Located just down from a side exit, the small square room serving as Instructor Harper's office was spartan in taste, with just a few decorations on the off-white walls. The ornaments included MC Escher prints and views of the Baltimore Inner Harbor.
The only colors came from the garland swag above the door and a purple and black Baltimore Ravens pennant proudly displayed alongside a blue and white old Baltimore Colts pennant. Personal effects were few. A framed snapshot of her with an attractive older couple outside a pub sat on the desk near the corner. The only other visible items sat on top of the small refrigerator in a miniature bookcase - a collection of shot glasses from different locations all over the world.
He committed the layout to memory knowing he would need the details for later. Once he entered the office door, the wall ran left about five feet before cornering. The prints and skylines hung on this wall. Two feet from the corner was a locked door, another smaller door further down in the far-left corner. The refrigerator and shot glasses sat between the two doors, the trashcan to the right of the small brown refrigerator.
Along the back wall sat three full bookcases side by side, the pennants in the bare right corner directly behind her desk. The desk, shaped in an "L", took up the majority of the right wall with shelves overtop the two computers and printer. Below the "L" along the left side sat the drives, wires, and modems.
Two chairs - the standard office fare - awaited guests before the desk. Stepping around them, he slowly read the titles on the books, using his fingers to move along the complicated word groupings. He smiled at the more pretentious: 'Applications of Ethical Concerns in the Law Enforcement Community and Effects Thereof' and 'Preparation of Commercial Accounting Practices and Procedures'. Then there were the goofy titles that made him chuckle: 'We Can Balance!'; 'Taking Control'; and finally 'Team Building Exercises: Making Them Want to Play'. The rest consisted of technical manuals, policies and procedures, general orders, and a fair amount of accounting books.
Vin blessed the older building for having the vents in the upper right corner instead of built into the drop tile ceiling. Shelving his curiosity, he continued his 'assignment', finishing up as Buck returned.
The mustached man carried the equipment going back with him one handed. Plopping the equipment briefly on the floor, he removed the duct tape from his stash. He grinned, waving two videocassettes under Vin's nose with his right. "This oughta be interesting." He handed the cases to Vin and taped the real videos under her lower right desk drawer.
After reading the titles on the cases, Vin grinned back, blue eyes sparkling. "Educational."
"Let me get cracking and we'll watch from upstairs. I don't want her catching us."
"Won't know we were here." Vin collected the last of his supplies and left her office, heading for his own. Buck completed his work quickly, hiding a third camera/microphone combination, adding extras in the Training Center and other places until he felt satisfied. Before he started back, he also attached JD's gizmo on her computers, powering them up so the computer whiz could hack into it again and finish installing his own brand of retribution.
Team 7's Office
Entering their collection of offices, Josiah found Vin - as expected - but Buck and JD surprised him. "Brothers, what brings you in early?" He sipped from his coffee as Buck tested the various views again on the far wall, leaving one of each up. Larabee permitting, they would spend the day in the Conference Room watching the spectacle and working simultaneously. The unholy grins on the three faces combined with the visual stimulation reminded Josiah of today's significance. Today was the day the team paid Harper back for the CPR recertification class.
"Josiah, you didn't forget?" The puppy dog eyes turned full- force on him with the hopes his friend had not disappointed him.
"No, JD, I didn't forget." He reached into his briefcase, removed the incense he bought two days ago and handed it to Vin. Why they wanted the hard-to-find banana scented incense remained a mystery but he provided a holder as well.
The leader of this one of a kind team walked in the office and scrutinized the three grinning loons and the jovial Josiah. He failed to notice the views on the wall with his morning tunnel vision for his office and his coffee. "What? Never mind, I don't want to know." Chris warily entered his office, shed his coat, and found his coffee mug, all without incident. He sighed in relief; no need to start shouting at them yet. This might be a good day.
"Wouldn't do that," warned Buck as the man in black strode by him. "Not unless you brought the sugar."
Then again, this might be a bad day. Chris stopped. Tired eyes met dark blue amused ones. "Vin made it?" So began a daily, long- standing argument.
"Didn't I order you to hide it from him?" the leader complained, nailing each of them with a scowl before disappearing into the break room and rattling around the cabinets for the elusive sugar.
"Ain't nothing wrong with my coffee. Ya wimps just can't take real coffee, that's okay leaves more for me," said Vin, smiling evilly as he nailed Larabee in the back of the head with a hackeysack. The Texan received a hard tossed hackeysack and a hand gesture back in response.
"I appreciate your coffee, Brother, Vin." Josiah gripped his shoulder briefly.
"Thanks, Josiah." Vin smiled at the older man. Of the seven of them, when Vin made the coffee, only he and Josiah drank more than one cup, especially after it aged.
Chris noticed the new additions in the refrigerator when he searched for cream. "What's this?"
"Do you really want to know?" Buck quirked an eyebrow at his friend, leaning back in his chair and watching expectantly.
Chris honestly thought about it. "I'm gonna regret this," he mumbled to himself as he closed the refrigerator door. "Yes, I want to know." He leaned against the break room doorframe and stared at his snickering idiots.
"Retribution, Seven Style," JD said. Three simple words and Chris remembered the extensive plans his team set up without him for the newest training Instructor and realized it happened today. They gave him the option of claiming innocence although they asked his opinion on this or that as they plotted and schemed. He also was prepared, immaturely not wanting to be left out of the fun, with a few items locked in his office closet.
"Live and in color," Buck said with a face-splitting grin, pointing at the wall.
"You gonna watch the wall, Buck?" So much for anything resembling work getting done today. He could be a hard ass and deny them this; silently he reasoned he should, but deep down he had to admit he wanted a little payback himself, childish as it was.
"Nope. Hoped you wouldn't mind us working in the Conference Room."
Larabee's scowl served as a warning, "As long as work gets done."
"It will, Chris." JD reassured the blond.
Nathan strolled in and took in the multiple video views of the training center. "Today, huh?"
"Oh, yeah," JD sniggered in anticipation, tapping the keys on his computer.
The EMT sighed and stared mistrustfully at the black sludge masquerading as coffee in the break room. "Who made this?"
"Who do you think?" JD asked, not looking up from his keyboard.
Nathan made a face. "Should have known." With a sigh, he futilely hunted for the sugar. "Okay, who hid the sugar?" he yelled.
"There's packets in that tin in the right cupboard," Buck answered. Rolling his eyes, the medic wondered where the large bag of loose sugar disappeared to and then remembered JD mentioning something about snow. Shaking his head, Nathan found the packets and emptied them in the dark brew. Walking out, he noticed Buck's stiff posture as he stood behind JD. The medic then remembered the jovial agent 'volunteering' last Wednesday as a punch dummy for Harper's self defense refresher class the previous day.
"Buck, you get yourself beat up yesterday?" No one had heard from the mustached man after the four-hour class.
JD started laughing, "Some girl kicked him so hard in the chest she left a bruise."
One hand tried to cover the younger agent's mouth before he revealed the damage. "Shut your trap, kid," his roommate warned. JD elbowed the bruised spot, causing Buck to flinch and unload an open-handed smack.
"Ow. Not my fault you can't hold your own with a woman. Don't take it out on me." JD rubbed the back of his stinging scalp, glaring at his unrepentant 'big brother'.
"What was her name?" Josiah was interested because Buck rarely lost a fight, especially to the fairer sex.
Buck grinned, a full teeth-and-mustache face stretching exercise. "Roxanne." One hand rubbed his chest gently, the other lying over his heart.
"Roxanne to your Cyrano?" drawled Ezra from the doorway where he hung his coat. The day of reckoning for one sharp-witted, shrew- mouthed training Instructor was an adequate reason to forgo his normal amount of sleep in order to watch her downfall.
Josiah chuckled while staring directly at Buck's nose. "Think he's got the nose for it?"
"He can smell a woman at twenty paces," Ezra replied, a slight twist on his lips.
"At five paces I can smell her on him too," Vin deadpanned, waving a hand back and forth in front of his own nose.
"Cute, Junior. Like to see you go two hours with that bunch," the taller man bowed up in front of the sharpshooter. In a perfected, unexpected move, Buck dumped the younger man on his back before Vin could realize what he intended. He then towered over the downed Texan. "Roxanne will put you on your scrawny butt just as soon to look at you. Harper's no slouch either."
Nathan simply shook his head, "Y'all are forgetting Vin's martial arts training."
Vin had not and plotted his own revenge. He swept the gloating man's longer legs out from under him and quickly pinned his friend.
Still sore from the previous day's class, the ladies man tapped twice. Vin immediately released him.
"Won't help," Buck admonished, accepting Vin's help up to his feet, calling it a truce for now. "Those lovely ladies can take care of themselves."
"Care to make a wager?" Sly green eyes were alight with the possibility of money and the thought of one mischievous partner being bested by a woman and she-devil.
"Bucklin, ya think ya can set it up?" Vin was never one to back away from a challenge and privately, he thought it would be interesting to see how Harper and company performed in self-defense. He could sense more to the stern trainer than she projected and figured she could offer an adequate challenge. Maybe not to his standards but adequate. Seeing the resulting injuries to the ladies man he could respect their abilities and wanted to see them for himself. Usually Buck put up more of a fight during their impromptu matches.
"Junior, if you want to kiss mats, I'll happily arrange it." He whacked Vin hard on the back forcing him to a stumble a step. In retaliation, the sharpshooter immediately swung around and punched the taller man's arm.
Josiah pursed his lips, "I imagine Agent Harper will welcome a new participant, especially after today." Hmm...that might be interesting to watch. In fact, he might even consider putting his money on Harper just for being the long shot and underdog because of Vin's impressive skills.
JD smacked the desk in frustration. "Damn it."
Buck crowded the younger man's shoulder as he attempted to access Harper's personnel files again. "Still can't get in?"
"What upsets you, Mr. Dunne?"
"This!" JD pointed at the screen. A firewall blinked the words "ACCESS DENIED" just before kicking the hacker out. "Give it a try, Ez. I know you're good at this." Between those two, computers systems everywhere shuddered in fear.
With a sigh and put-upon expression on his face, Ezra leaned over JD and applied his magical touch. Even his considerable skills paled against the strength of the firewall until he breached it right into considerable heavy-duty black ice. The level and type of security dumbfounded the undercover operative. Even his file was not that classified.
"Aw, hay-ell." Ezra frantically disconnected from the mainframe, yanking and pulling connections before the automatic tracker found the source of the intruder and set off internal alarms. "I strongly recommend not accessing that file for quite some time." His finger shook rapidly at the terminal while astonishment covered his face and he worked on making his mouth function properly. "Like never."
The rest of the team stared at their normally unflappable friend with unabashed curiosity, calculating what could ruffle his composure that effectively.
"Whoa. I only thought they did that for upper level directors," Dunne muttered in an awed tone. He had seen that ice before and never broken it no matter how hard he tried. Usually, if he had to circumvent that officially or unofficially, he called someone from his own set of informants. Informants that he kept from the team for their protection; people that balanced on both sides of the law. Unfortunately, they could not teach him their methods because then he would be obligated to report and arrest them.
"Indeed. Our Agent Harper conceals much." He thought of his own private inquiries on the challenging woman. Instead of useful information, all he received back were negative responses ranging from 'Don't go there' to the threatening 'Stop asking before I have to report you'.
"What's so big that even her profile's sealed?"
"I would guess undercover," Ezra drawled. "The ATF seals off our files when we enlist so an inappropriate person cannot compromise our safety."
"Yeah, and it remains in effect for years, doesn't it?" The mustached man looked to their operative for confirmation.
"Correct, Agent Wilmington."
"Why training, though?" The medic leaned back in his chair, pondering. "Training's one of the least popular for career smart moves."
"Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach," Buck reasoned with the old adage.
Their leader watched silently, exiting his office when he heard about her sealed file. He remembered what he saw in her eyes when they argued in her office. What did she say? 'You'll have to do better because you don't scare me.' Maybe, Chris thought, teaching was the only option left for her besides quitting. He also knew that agents involved on extremely sensitive cases received exceedingly restricted access similar to hers. "Let it go," he ordered. "None of our business."
"Why seal her files and put that much security on it?"
"I said drop it, JD," Chris' green glare swept the room assuring everyone would understand his order was final. Every once in a while they needed reminding that many decisions and discussions were handled above their level and his orders were not allowed to be debated or questioned, just obeyed, during those situations.
Seeing a hidden truth in his friend's eyes, Vin sought to soothe the situation by kneeling beside the seated young man. He made sure their eyes met as he spoke, "Everyone's past is their own, JD."
With those words, Tanner reminded the young agent that most of his teammates had histories that they would rather forget, and JD nodded his head in understanding. He still had things he had not told them about the struggles that he endured caring for his sick mother, finding them too painful to share just yet.
"She's here," The lanky sharpshooter found the perfect excuse for changing the topic and pointed at the wall where one of the views showed her walking down the hallway to her office door.
The mad scramble for the Conference Room ensued, bodies knocking one way or the other, with Josiah and Nathan following, enjoying their teammate's antics. For fun, Josiah gave Nathan a tiny shove sideways and the medic chuckled. He stopped dead and nearly let Chris walk into his back. With a graceful sidestep, Chris entered around them with the patience born of long experience and handed everyone files from the upcoming case with significant vigor to silently reinforce his message work would be done today.
Pads and pens surfaced as they made themselves comfortable for the floorshow. Boots thumped as they struck the wooden, scarred table and the beeping of JD's laptop as it booted up added to the general racket. Coffee mugs settled on the flat surface and each man stared at the images on the screen. Surprise and amazement changed their expressions as they watched.
"What the hell happened to her?" exclaimed Buck.
Harper arrived at the Training Complex soaking wet and late, at least for her. Her red and white tailored skirt, blouse, and jacket clung to her body with the tenacity of Velcro on fleece. The cause: a flat tire in the pouring rain on the side of the main highway. Black and gold corrosion streaks coated her skirt where the flat brushed against it during her war to remove the prematurely rusted bolts. Her hands bore smudges from the dirt and grease. Her dealer would be getting a call about the bolts; the car was still under warranty and should not have done that.
What topped her aggravation were the three cars that blew their horns as the operators waved and purposely sprayed run-off rainwater from puddles all over her. She thought she recognized one of the drivers and he would pay dearly. Fortunately, the wipes she kept in the vehicle cleaned the bulk off her fingers and a spare towel in the trunk got the worst off her so the interior of her car was not ruined.
After placing her briefcase with her laptop on the floor in her office, the Instructor proceeded to the small break room.
Angrily she yanked the basket out of the coffee maker and began filling it, adding extra coffee grounds because she needed it. Anybody that complained; too bad. Cope. The cold water soaked her to the bone and gave her chills even through her drenched coat. Setting the coffee to make, she dried her hands and even attempted to wipe the dripping puddles she was leaving on the floor as she backed out. "Stupid flat tire," she grumbled. "Couldn't be on the passenger side; oh no; it had to be on the driver's side. Right next to huge puddles. Puddles people took perverse joy in hitting. Jerks." In her anger and haste, she never noticed the stronger scent or different quality of coffee.
Nathan said, "That explains why she's wet."
"I had nothing to do with it. This time." Buck gave them a lopsided, roguish grin. Josiah groaned.
"She's too tough for you, Stud," the leader said with a smirk.
Buck, not put off by the comment, let his natural enthusiasm and charm come through in bravado. "We're just getting to know each other."
"Before or after she put you in the mat?" asked Josiah, slanting his eyes sideways at his teammate with a lifting of the corners of his mouth.
"That's foreplay," Buck responded with a nod. "I'll have her coming around soon enough." Nathan nailed him in the head with a paper missile for double meaning of that statement.
"You just wish half your lines worked on Inez. What did she say last time, Buck?" asked Nathan. "Nunca? Never?" Buck glowered at Nathan before staring at the screen.
"Just a matter of time before Inez comes around," he told them confidently. "No woman can resist me forever." Various groans accompanied that pronouncement.
"Man, she's soaked," JD said, choosing to ignore the banter around him as he watched Harper's actions. The skirt welded to her legs and showed every line and the stockings became a second skin. "That sucked about the flat tire."
"Vin?" the slow drawl asked, still watching the screen as she left the break room.
"Yup," the Texan confirmed with a slow nod and quirked his mouth, exchanging a look with the southerner full of trouble.
"Okay, what'd I miss?" JD looked from one smirking face to the other.
"Be my guest, Mr. Tanner."
"It was y'all's idea."
"Flawless executed by yourself."
"Vin! You didn't?"
The furious growl from their leader snapped the lean young man's face up to meet his with a surprised questioning statement, "What?" Eyeing his friend closely and then glancing at the dripping training Instructor, realization dawned on where his friend's thoughts had gone. Shaking his head in denial, he protested the unsaid accusation, "I wouldn't do anythin' that mean."
"Someone's getting executed if they don't spill it."
Green and blue eyes showed mischief as they looked at each other and then the blonde. "Temper, temper, Mr. Larabee." Ezra waggled a finger, also determining where their leader's errant thoughts had gone. "If you must know, Mr. Tanner replaced her usual blend of coffee with an exceptional dark roast supplied by yours truly. And I too must protest you could conceive we would initiate any action that would cause anyone harm."
Dawning finally came to the others in the room and they turned frowning countenances to their leader.
"You wanted to be left out of the plans, pard," Buck reminded him, "but you should know better than that I'd ever agree to anything that might harm a woman."
"That's right!" JD agreed, disappointed his hero believed they intentionally flattened her tire for her.
Shrugging an apology, Chris nodded in acceptance and sighed in relief. Deep down he knew his team would keep their word that this was all in fun and only planned little aggravations to harass Harper, nothing life threatening or seriously harmful. A flat on Denver's highways could result in injury. Nathan brought their conversation back around to their original discussion. "That coffee you're talking about, is it that dark coffee you brought last month that doubled as rocket fuel?"
"The same, Mr. Jackson." Ezra inclined his head. "Yet I object to the appellation of 'rocket fuel'. It is an acquired taste."
"Like beer," Buck added.
One eyebrow raised. "I would hardly call the pigswill you guzzle ale of any sort. If one must indulge, one should partake of a fine import." He shared a wink with Vin. Surprisingly, the sharpshooter had recently introduced him to an excellent, strong import during their clandestine meeting a short time ago.
"That's because you don't appreciate the simpler things, Ez. Give me a good woman and a good beer and I'm happy."
"Make that a woman, Buck. The good ones don't fall for your animal maggotism."
"JD," began the tall agent, "to quote a friend, 'you don't know nothing'." He mimicked the younger man's hand movements from when he said the same thing about his feelings for Casey.
"And you're full of crap."
"Gentlemen, please. If I may redirect your attention to the screen? The entertainment's about to begin."
Josiah chuckled as both Buck and JD fell silent, immediately transfixed by the unfolding events. He wished his own attention span could be that short on occasion.
In the privacy of her office, she pulled another complete outfit from her closet and placed it on the chair. Next came the clean towels from the spares she kept for emergencies. After locking the door, Harper straightened and unbuttoned her jacket.
Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org