Vin rang the doorbell repeatedly, but there was no answer. Frowning, he pulled out his wallet and withdrew a lock pick from a hidden pocket inside. A few minutes later, he opened the door and stepped quietly into the apartment. He had only been there twice before, but it looked exactly the same: neat and spare, without the personal touches one would expect in a home. It was spotlessly clean; the only thing that was out of place was Ezra's coat, which lay in a crumpled heap next to the overstuffed sofa.
Stealthily, Vin made his way toward the bedroom, opening the door soundlessly and peering inside. The shades were drawn, but he could make out a still mound in the center of the large bed. With a hint of trepidation, Vin moved quietly toward the bed, pausing at the side before sitting gently on the edge of the mattress.
"Ezra?" Vin reached a tentative hand toward the blanket-covered man and gently shook his shoulder. "You in there, Ez?"
A moan was the only response as a hand snaked out from under the covers to brush him away.
"Come on, Ez," Vin cajoled. "Wake up."
"Go 'way," the thick voice mumbled.
"Uh-uh. Not until you open them eyes," Vin said.
With a groan, Ezra turned onto his back and opened his eyes, glaring at the intruder in his room. "What are you doing here, Mr. Tanner?"
"I came by to check on you," Vin replied. "You didn't show up at work and we were worried about you."
"I highly doubt that," Ezra said sullenly.
Vin shrugged. "Believe what you want, but it's the truth."
"Well, now you've checked on me," Ezra snapped. "You can report my whereabouts to Mr. Larabee. I'm sure he'll be happy to know that I'm not off burning any crosses today."
Vin stared at him, but Ezra refused to meet his eyes. "You look like ten miles of bad road, pard," he finally said, choosing to ignore Ezra's previous comment. "You sick or somethin'?"
"Yes, I'm sick," Ezra spat. "Sick of being' everyone's goddamned whipping boy!"
"Chill out, Ez," Vin said, lifting his hands in a placating gesture. "I'm on your side."
"No one's on my side, Mr. Tanner," Ezra whispered dejectedly. "It's not a good place to be."
"I hate to disagree with a sick man, but you're wrong about that," Vin said.
"I'll believe it when I see it," Ezra muttered stubbornly.
Vin sighed, then demanded, "Are you gonna come in to work today or are you gonna lay here feelin' sorry for yourself?"
"Not so loud, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said with a grimace. "My head is killing me."
"Hangover?" Vin asked in surprise. He had never seen the southerner drink more than a couple of beers or a glass or two of wine.
"Yes," Ezra admitted. "Consuming a bottle of fine Kentucky bourbon will do that to a person."
"Ouch." Vin winced in sympathy. "You tryin' to cure that insomnia with booze?"
"Something like that," Ezra mumbled in reply.
"Chris ain't gonna be too happy about this," Vin warned.
"Fuck him," Ezra said matter-of-factly.
Vin's jaw dropped. He had never heard the sophisticated agent stoop to using such common profanity. "Want me to tell him you said that?"
A small smile graced Ezra's features. "Why not? It'll make him turn that nice shade of red while the little vein on his forehead pops out."
"You're right about that," Vin laughed. "Nobody can do it as well as you, though."
"I've had a lot of practice," Ezra said with a faint grin.
"So, you comin' in or not?" Vin asked.
Ezra sighed. "I suppose I ought to put in an appearance." He turned to Vin and smiled half-heartedly. "I wouldn't want Mr. Larabee to blow a blood vessel."
Vin chuckled. "He might do it anyway, once he gets a look at ya."
"I'm sure our fearless leader is not unfamiliar with the use of alcohol as a sleep agent," Ezra said pointedly.
"Yeah, but that don't mean he ain't gonna chew your ass about it, though," Vin warned.
"What else is new?" Ezra said with a shrug as he slowly sat up.
"You need any help?" Vin offered, noting the increased pallor on the other man's face.
"No, thank you," Ezra said, swallowing delicately. "I simply need to adjust to the altitude."
"How about I give you a ride? Be better than drivin' with that headache."
Ezra pondered this for a moment, surprised at the offer, before nodding slowly. "Yes, that might be best." He stood and headed to the bathroom for a shower.
"Want me to make some coffee?"
Ezra made a face. "No, thank you. I don't think my stomach would appreciate that battery acid you like to brew."
"It's not that bad," Vin protested as he took out his cell phone to let Chris know what was happening.
* * * * * * * * * *
Forty minutes later, they were walking toward the bullpen, Ezra clutching his double-sized cup of Starbuck's coffee while Vin teased him about how bad he looked. Ezra ignored his comments while he sipped the comforting brew in his cup, wishing it could eliminate the headache that still throbbed in his temples.
"Hey, Ez," JD said cheerfully. "You look awful."
Ezra merely grunted in response.
"That's what happens when you drink yourself into a stupor," Nathan said snidely.
Ezra shot him a glare, but said nothing as he made his way to his desk. He dropped heavily into his chair, beginning to regret his decision to come into work.
"Ezra," Chris called to him.
With a sigh, Ezra stood and trudged toward Chris's office. Being lectured by his boss was starting to become a daily occurrence. He definitely should have stayed home.
"Want to tell me why you felt the need to get plastered last night?" Chris asked once Ezra was seated across from him.
"No," Ezra said brusquely.
"Tell me anyway," Chris demanded, staring into the bloodshot green eyes of his undercover agent.
Ezra looked away. "I was merely trying to sleep, that is all."
"You need a whole bottle for that?"
"Apparently," Ezra replied.
Rolling a pencil between his thumb and forefinger, Chris said pointedly, "You don't need to be making any more trouble for yourself right now, understand?"
"Perfectly," Ezra said with an icy smile. "You forget, I've been here before."
"Are we through here?" Ezra interrupted. "I still have work to do."
Chris glared at him, but gave him a curt nod.
Giving him a weak salute, Ezra left Chris's office, stopping only briefly at his desk before he fled the bullpen with his files.
Chris watched him go and blew out a breath. Damned stubborn southerner was going to give him gray hair before too long.
"What'd he say?" Vin asked as he lounged against the doorjamb.
"Not a hell of a lot," Chris said disgustedly. "Said he was drinking so he could get some sleep."
"You believe him?"
"No," Chris replied. He looked at the sharpshooter. "You?"
Vin shook his head. "Man don't drink a whole bottle just to get some shuteye."
"Yeah," Chris agreed.
"I reckon he's hurtin' some," Vin said knowingly.
"Can't say I blame him," Chris said sympathetically. "This whole situation sucks."
"Come on, cowboy," Chris said with a sigh. "We've got a meeting to get to."
* * * * * * * * * *
It was nearly 8:00 PM when Ezra called it a night. His teammates were absent when he returned to collect his coat, much to his relief. He wasn't in the mood for any further verbal sparring. Heading for the elevator, Ezra pulled out his cell phone to call a taxi, but froze when he heard footsteps behind him. Whirling around, he drew back his fist to defend himself, but dropped it when he recognized his pursuer.
"Mr. Tanner, you really shouldn't sneak up on people like that," he said wearily.
The sharpshooter grinned at him, his blue eyes twinkling with merriment. "I know, but I just loved the look on your face when you turned around."
Ezra rolled his eyes. "You are easily amused."
Chuckling, Vin said, "Thought you might want a ride home."
Ezra was about to refuse, but then capitulated. "You thought correctly." The elevator doors opened and he stepped inside.
Vin nodded and joined him in the elevator.
"Did Mr. Larabee task you with ensuring that I stay away from any drinking establishments this evening?" Ezra asked
Vin shot him a disgusted glare. "I just wanted to make sure you got home okay, that's all."
Chastised, Ezra said quietly, "My apologies, Mr. Tanner. I simply did not expect any such concern for my well-being, considering that my condition is self-inflicted."
"Ain't a one of us who hasn't been there at one time or another," Vin said with a shrug.
Ezra looked at him doubtfully, still unsure as to the man's motives. He seemed sincere enough, but Ezra had a hard time believing that anyone honestly gave a damn about him. Given the current state of his reputation, it was easier to believe that Vin was simply playing watchdog, keeping tabs on his whereabouts in order to inform Larabee. It wouldn't be the first time for such an occurrence.
In the midst of his troubles with the FBI, one of Ezra's associates at the FBI had apparently lent his support in the face of the accusations that had been flung in his direction. The agent had been so convincing in his sympathy and offers of friendship that Ezra had almost fallen for the con. He was so desperate for someone to believe him that he had not questioned the other man's motives, and it was only after he caught his so-called friend tailing him home from a meet with one of his informants that Ezra realized the truth. Ever since then, he had vowed to never let anyone in again. Ezra Standish would not be played for a fool.
The drive to his condo was completed in silence and, for once, Ezra appreciated the taciturn nature of the longhaired sharpshooter. Given his dark mood, he had no desire to be sociable and he didn't think it would be wise to inflict his bad temper upon Larabee's best friend. He was relieved when they finally pulled up in front of his apartment.
"Thank you, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said as he climbed out of the jeep. "I appreciate the ride."
"No problem, Ez," Vin replied. "You take care of yourself, okay?"
"I always do," Ezra said resignedly as he started up the walk. Because no one else will.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Fuck!" Larabee cursed as he glared at his watch. "Where the hell are they?!" It was five o'clock Saturday morning and neither party had shown up for the planned weapons deal.
"Looks like we've been stood up again, boys," Buck voiced over the comm. link.
"Ain't nothin' here," Vin said from his position on the roof.
"All right. Let's pack it up," Chris said, his voice tight with anger. He was getting damned sick and tired of expending a lot of effort for nothing. Silently, Team Seven gathered their gear and moved toward their van.
"I guess Standish ratted us out again," John Vargas griped as he headed toward Team Two's van.
Chris's head snapped up at the comment and he reached out toward Vargas, grabbing him by the front of his shirt. "You keep your comments to yourself, you hear?"
Startled, Vargas nodded mutely. Larabee was not someone he wanted angry with him.
"Good," Chris said with a feral grin. Satisfied with the response, he pushed Vargas away and strode back to the van. "Nobody badmouths any of my men," he said in answer to his team's unasked question.
The other men remained silent, not wanting to provoke their leader's ire. Larabee didn't like it when things went wrong and they valued their own hides too much to push the issue when he was in such a foul temper.
Chris's disposition didn't improve upon his return to the office. Travis had set up a meeting with him and Farrell, to discuss the 'problem'. Unfortunately, Farrell believed that Ezra was the problem and Chris wasn't looking forward to the coming confrontation. He wasn't going to throw his agent to the wolves without concrete proof of wrongdoing.
* * * * * * * * * *
"What are you saying?" Assistant Director Travis asked sternly. There had been little progress in the investigation and he was starting to feel the pressure from above.
"I'm saying that we don't know anything yet," Chris answered patiently. "Buck is meeting with his source later tonight to see if he knows why they backed out."
"I think we know what happened," Farrell said derisively. "Standish tipped them off. Again."
"Do you have proof of that, Agent Farrell?" Travis asked.
"Um, no, not yet," Farrell replied.
"What about the surveillance?" Travis asked, giving the man a hard stare.
Farrell fidgeted in his chair. "Standish didn't meet with anyone yesterday, but that doesn't mean he didn't use a phone."
"What about earlier this week?" Chris asked pointedly.
"He had lunch with Hanford last Sunday, but nothing the rest of the week," Farrell replied.
"Are you certain?" Travis asked.
"Well," Farrell hedged. "We sort of... lost him on Wednesday night."
"You lost him?" Travis said doubtfully.
"Yes," Farrell said hesitantly. "I only had one agent on him that night, since one of my guys caught the flu, and he never saw Standish leave work."
"He left early that day," Chris pointed out. "Your guy should have seen him. Unless he was out buying donuts?"
"Hey, the guy has to take a leak some time," Farrell said defensively.
"What about Hanford?" Travis interrupted.
"He was at his hotel Wednesday night," Farrell stated confidently. "He went out shopping in the afternoon, but spent the rest of the time in the hotel."
"So you have no proof," Chris said, a satisfied smile spreading across his face. "We didn't even know about the buy until Monday, so there's no way Ezra could have told Hanford on Sunday."
"Doesn't mean Standish isn't dirty," Farrell argued. "We just haven't caught him yet. I'm working on a warrant for his phone records and a tap as we speak."
"Agent Farrell, I'd advise you to keep your accusations to yourself until you can provide me the evidence to back them up," Travis warned. "I will not allow unfounded rumors about any of my men to circulate here. Understood?"
Farrell gave him a tight nod, favoring Chris with a frosty glare as he left the office.
"Chris," Travis said. "He is right, you know. Just because we haven't seen it, it doesn't mean Standish isn't involved."
Chris slumped in his chair wearily. "I know."
Travis eyed his agent critically. "You look like hell, Chris. You and your boys go home and get some rest."
Chris nodded, smiling slightly. "That sounds like an excellent idea."
"I'll speak with you on Monday, then," Travis said dismissively.
"Yes, sir," Chris said as he rose from his chair and exited the office. Maybe things would look better with some sleep.
* * * * * * * * * *
Chris took a pull from his beer, then stared into the bottle.
"Whatever you're lookin' for, you ain't gonna find it in there, cowboy," Vin said as he joined his friend at their usual table at the Saloon.
Chris snorted. "Don't I know it."
The rest of the team, minus Ezra, gradually filtered in, having agreed to meet for drinks that night after they had gotten some sleep. They weren't in the mood to celebrate, but it seemed like a good way to let off some steam.
"Hey, pard," Buck greeted Chris as he slid into his seat, the last one to arrive. "Got some news."
Chris lifted an eyebrow in inquiry.
"Little Jimmy heard those bodyguards complaining about having to cancel the deal again. It looks like the same reason as before." Buck paused for a moment. "They said the buyer has an inside source that tipped him off to the raid."
"Aw hell," JD said morosely. "They're gonna think it's Ezra."
Josiah sighed sadly. "Things are not looking bright for our brother."
Nathan shook his head disdainfully, but remained silent.
"Farrell hasn't got anything on Ezra," Chris said. "His surveillance guys didn't see any contact between him and Hanford since before we even knew about the deal."
"That's good," JD said. "Isn't it?"
"Doesn't mean he didn't call him," Nathan countered.
JD was going to protest, but Chris held up his hand. "Nathan's right. We don't have evidence one way or the other, so we still have to keep Ezra out of this for now."
Vin shook his head. "He ain't gonna like that."
"Nothing we can do about it," Chris said with a shrug.
Inez arrived with a tray of beers for them, frowning when she noticed that Ezra was not there. "Is Señor Standish joining you tonight?"
"No," Buck answered. "Not tonight, darlin'."
"Well," she said with a sigh. "It is probably for the best. He should not be drinking so much."
"What do you mean?" Vin asked curiously.
"He was here, let me think... Wednesday night, " she said thoughtfully. "Yes, that is right. He came in at four-thirty and drank quite a lot. I was very worried about him."
"When did he leave?" Chris asked.
"It was nearly eleven o'clock when his friend arrived," Inez said as she collected their empty glasses. "I was glad that someone took him home, since he was in no condition to get there by himself."
"What friend?" Buck asked, sharing a look with Chris. He had a bad feeling about this.
"He was a tall man, with blond hair," Inez said. "Quite handsome, too. I have never seen him before."
Chris reached into his briefcase with a sense of dread. Removing one of the surveillance photos, he showed it to the pretty brunette. "Is this him?"
Inez scrutinized the photo and slowly nodded her head. "Yes, this is the man." She looked around the table at all of the men, surprised at the strange looks on their faces. "Is something wrong?"
"Maybe," Vin replied.
Her eyes widened and she gasped. "He did not hurt Señor Standish, did he?"
"No, nothing like that," Josiah said reassuringly. "But he's a dangerous man."
"I gotta call Travis," Chris said reluctantly.
"Inez, if you see this man again, can you give us a call?" Josiah asked.
"Yes I will do that." She nodded her head vigorously. "Señor Standish is a nice man. I do not like the idea that anyone would hurt him."
"Neither do we, darlin'," Buck said seriously. "Neither do we."
* * * * * * * * * *
Monday had, again, arrived too soon for his liking. Ezra muffled a cough behind his handkerchief as he shuffled down the hall toward his office. He had refrained from consuming excessive amounts of alcohol, but had developed a cold over the weekend, making him feel miserable despite his best efforts to the contrary. Bradley had taken him to lunch again on Sunday, but he had turned down his offer of tickets to the theater for that evening. He simply felt too ill to do anything but sleep.
He had barely sat down at his desk when he was once again summoned to Chris's office. Making a face, Ezra moved stiffly to comply, ignoring the heavy silence that surrounded him.
"What is it this time, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra said hoarsely. "This is getting to be quite tiresome."
"Shut up, Ezra," Chris said harshly.
Ezra's curtailed his protest when he saw the look on Larabee's face. He met the team leader's blue-green gaze steadily, despite the shiver of apprehension that rippled through his insides.
Chris finally dropped his eyes and he toyed with the paper on his desk before looking up again. "Ezra, I'm afraid you've been suspended. I'll need your badge and gun."
Ezra froze in shock, not wanting to believe the words Chris had just uttered. "Excuse me?" he asked in a voice that was shakier than he intended.
"You heard me," Chris said, not wanting to repeat the words.
"For what reason?" Ezra looked at him, completely bewildered.
"IA is opening an investigation," Chris answered reluctantly. "They believe you've been selling information to weapons dealers."
Ezra's mouth dropped open. He had heard this accusation the other night in the gym, but he didn't expect anyone would actually believe it. "That... that is completely ridiculous! How can you believe I would do such a thing?!"
"It's out of my hands, Ezra," Chris said, hating that he had to be the one to do this.
"This is Farrell's doing, isn't it?" Ezra said bitterly. "What kind of trumped-up 'evidence' does he claim to have?"
Chris looked at him for a moment, then pulled out one of the surveillance photos of Ezra and Bradley Hanford. He handed it to Ezra, carefully gauging his reaction.
Ezra looked at the picture, then back at Chris, a bewildered expression on his face. "What does Bradley have to do with this?"
"He's the suspected weapons dealer," Chris said.
"Bradley? That's absurd." Ezra shook his head, confused at the accusation.
"How do you know him?" Chris asked, curious as to where his undercover agent had met a white supremacist.
"He's my cousin," Ezra explained. "I stayed the summer with him and his father when I was eight."
"Ezra, your cousin is the head of the Brotherhood for a Pure America," Chris said with a sigh. "They're a militant group of white supremacists."
"But that's...." Ezra trailed off as he realized that it could possibly be true. His cousin had suffered under the influence of his racist father for more than just the summer that Ezra spent with them. He rubbed a shaking hand over his eyes. "Aw hell."
Chris eyed his stricken agent with sympathy. If Ezra was telling the truth, then it had to be quite a blow to realize what kind of man his cousin had become.
Ezra raised his head. "I never divulged a thing to him," he said, his eyes pleading with Chris to believe him.
"There's nothing I can do about it, Ezra," Chris said, trying to ignore the desperation he could see in his undercover agent's face. "You were seen with him before both deals were mysteriously cancelled."
A frown wrinkling his brow, Ezra shook his head. "I did not see Bradley at all after I heard about Friday's bust."
"You knew about it?"
Ezra gave him a wan smile. "I overheard Agents Vargas and Nagel discussing it in the locker room downstairs Monday night."
"Ezra, Inez saw Hanford with you at the Saloon on Wednesday," Chris explained. "She said he took you home."
Frowning, Ezra said, "I don't remember seeing him."
"Inez said you were really plastered," Chris pointed out.
Ezra dropped his gaze and when he looked up again, his face was devoid of all emotion. "I see," he said stonily, reaching inside his jacket to remove his badge and gun. He dropped both items in front of Chris and stood to leave.
"Ezra," Chris called to him, but couldn't continue when he caught a glimpse of the anguish that lurked beneath the cracking façade. The distraught man gave him a curt salute then quietly slipped out of the office. Chris dropped his head forward onto his desk. Sometimes he really hated his job.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra re-entered the bullpen, ignoring his teammates entirely. Numbly, he moved to his desk and sat down, staring at his blank computer screen for a moment before he forced himself into action. There were only a few personal files in his desk and no mementos or other personal items like those that decorated his teammates' work areas. He collected the files and dropped them into his briefcase before grabbing his coat off of the back of the chair. Without a backward look, he walked out of the bullpen, quite likely for the last time. He kept his shoulders straight and his posture erect, refusing to reveal how truly devastated he was by what had just occurred.
"Shit," Vin swore, tossing his pen onto his desk angrily. "Did you see the look on his face?"
"What look?" JD asked, giving Vin a puzzled glance. "He didn't have any look on his face."
"That's the point," Vin said. "He only looks like that when he's real upset."
"Ez's real good at hiding how he feels," Buck agreed.
"It's a requirement for undercover work, JD," Josiah explained further. "He wouldn't get very far if he actually let the bad guys see how he really felt about them."
"Yeah, I guess you're right." JD nodded in comprehension. "Must be really hard to do that all the time."
"That's why he's so good at his job," Buck said.
"Maybe too good," Nathan muttered as he headed to the break room for another cup of tea.
"You know, there's one thing I don't get," JD said. "Chris said that Hanford was at his hotel Wednesday. How could he be there and at the Saloon at the same time?"
"The FBI guys screwed up, kid," Vin said. "Chris figures Hanford got away without them noticing."
JD sighed. "This sucks."
"You won't get any arguments here," Vin agreed.
Chris walked out his office, a bleak look on his face as he looked at Ezra's empty desk.
"I'm glad I don't have your job, pard," Buck said sympathetically.
"That was definitely not fun," Chris said with a grimace.
"He say anything?" Josiah asked.
Chris nodded. "Hanford is his cousin."
"Damn," Buck said, disappointed. "So it might just be true."
"Yeah," Chris commiserated. "Though, he looked completely surprised when I told him what the bastard has been up to." He paused. "I just don't know."
"What are we gonna do now?" asked JD.
"We keep after Hanford and Arbella," Chris stated firmly. "Once we get those bastards out of the way, we can get to the truth of the matter and concentrate on more important things."
"Like gettin' Ez out of this mess," Vin added determinedly. "I don't know about you, but I ain't lettin' that FBI asshole drag Ez down without a fight."
"Me neither," JD agreed.
Chris smiled when he saw Vin and JD rallying behind their black sheep. Josiah and Buck seemed to be on the fence, and Nathan had certainly made his opinions plain. Chris wasn't sure himself what to believe anymore. He wanted to believe in his undercover agent, but the evidence was telling him otherwise. Chris sighed. He had a feeling that the beleaguered agent was going to need all the help he could get.