After the last Agent/student left and she cleaned up the area, Harper showered and dressed again in her customary suit. Walking back to her office, she settled herself behind her desk and filled out the paperwork required showing the students passed the examinations, and forwarded the results to her training supervisor to follow the chain of command to their individual files.
She sent a few more e-mail reminders about upcoming training classes before she logged onto her Internet mail. As promised, a series of files waited for her from her source.
Attached you will find what you asked for...I trust you know the differences in my files. In addition, I enclosed a picture of the gown I purchased. Thank you for your patronage. Any questions let me know.
Harper flipped through the files and found them perfect for her needs. She sent a final e-mail.
Subject: Nice Choice
Thanks, Masque. The dress will be fabulous on you...just as this is fabulous for me. Enjoy...hope to see you soon...do not take so long next time when answering a personal e-mail. I hate worrying about you.
Harper printed the files before placing them in an envelope and locking it in her briefcase. She wanted to review the information before she passed it on to AD Travis. Checking her watch, she realized it was past six o'clock and her stomach reminded her she ate next to nothing all day. Standing up and stretching, not hiding the wince, Harper looked forward to dinner. She planned to eat at the small restaurant located in the shopping center just down from her hotel.
Packing everything up, she shut down her computers, locked the closets and cabinets, and secured her office. Harper walked out to her car and drove to the restaurant, carrying her briefcase in with her while she ate. Once she returned to her room, she left all outward trappings of Instructor Harper and made herself comfortable in a T-shirt and shorts.
Her next act involved starting the bubble bath and dropping into it, heaving a full body sigh when the garden tub filled. The hot water felt good against her sore muscles and all the bruises she collected from today's class. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the rare moments of relaxation. A short time later, she stiffly crawled from the tub and dried herself carefully because of the bruises.
Harper groaned, realizing she faced another self-defense class, this one much larger, on Wednesday. Fortunately, none of this group planned on challenging. It was a straight refresher and she counted on Team Seven's reputation to keep the students from giving her too much abuse. She figured having that particular team there would discourage attacks on her and allow her to move through it quickly.
Once she settled in her bed, she grabbed her briefcase, unlocked it, and reviewed the files. There was plenty of information to cover, so she spent the next couple of hours making notes and outlining her additions to the files. Once she finished the rough drafts, she pulled her laptop over and typed out the information. An hour later, Harper decided she did enough work and put it all away, setting the alarm.
The ringing telephone jolted her from her half-dozed state. Fumbling hands reached and grabbed the annoying machine. "Harper."
"How's my girl?"
"Who else are you expecting to call? Unless you've got a sweetheart you're not telling me about?"
"No sweetheart, Da, except for you. You're up early, aren't you?"
"Uh-huh. Why don't I believe that?"
"That's my skeptical girl."
"Well, no need to get snippy, girl. Just checking."
"Good. Your ma read the cards and runes."
"Oh? I thought she was going to call me."
"She refuses to talk about it, sweeting."
"That doesn't sound good."
"She's smiling, though."
"That's even worse."
"Quit rolling your eyes, girl, I can tell from here."
"Don't Da me; I know you."
"So what has she said?"
"Da, I know you, too. You eavesdropped when she did the reading."
"I did no such thing!"
"Don't tell me that."
"You're too smart for your own good."
"What did she mumble?"
"She said something about you meeting your destiny, that your life will be forever altered, and that she saw you surrounded by men."
"Men? I don't need men in my life."
"Yes, you do. You just don't know it yet."
"What else did Ma say?"
"Oh, that. She keeps mentioning things about knights in armor and men in black. I don't know what it all means; she caught me this time."
"She caught you?"
"Well, maybe if I hadn't whooped when she said you would be happy..."
"Uh-huh. Has she talked to you yet?"
"Give me time."
"Sure, Da. Anything else?"
"No, that's about it. Just wanted to talk to my girl."
"I love you too."
"Take care of yourself, you hear me?"
"Always do, Da."
"Better than normal?"
"I love you, little girl."
"I love you, too."
Harper hung up the telephone and settled herself back in the bed. Lying under the covers, the perfect idea of what to do to Team Seven crossed her mind. She drifted to sleep happily planning her next set of actions out in her head.
= = 7 = =
After the refresher, Team Seven dragged their battered selves out of the Training Complex, showered, and met up again at the saloon. After receiving their drinks, Chris looked at them until they fell silent.
"Boys, we've got a problem."
"Ya ain't happy about getting yer ass kicked, cowboy?"
Green eyes glared at an unflinching Texan face before continuing. "We have to deal with Harper almost every work day for the next month."
Buck grinned. "So what's the problem?"
"Down, Brother Buck."
"Josiah, I'm not a dog."
JD interjected a comment. "You sure act like one."
"At least I didn't get killed today."
"She cheated!" Ezra exclaimed indignantly.
"So did you," replied Nathan.
"I took advantage of an opportunity."
"As did she."
"Ez, ya know better than ta let Buster rile ya." Vin gently admonished.
"Pray tell, Mr. Tanner, if you yourself escaped unscathed?"
"I won my fight." Vin sipped his beer.
The Southerner countered. "That does not answer the question."
"'Least I didn't moon the room."
"Shut up, Tanner."
The other six laughed at the scowling face of a miffed Larabee.
"Wish I could've traded places with you, Stud."
"Shut up, Buck. In fact, all of you stuff it."
It took a moment for the laughter to cease. Once Chris felt confident he held their fleeting attention again, he continued, "I was thinking the faster we get through the material, the sooner we're done with it."
Josiah's eyes twinkled when he asked a question. "And Harper?"
Chris scowled. "That too."
"Why don't you like her, Chris? I don't get it." JD looked expectantly at his friend and boss.
Larabee watched Buck rolling his eyes, Josiah's grin widening, Vin smirking, Ezra flashing his gold tooth, and Nathan sighing in resignation.
Josiah saved Chris from explaining. "JD," the big man said, "Chris and Harper are both strong-willed, independent people. Neither deals well with authority and both will test the person trying to control them. Since the ATF has given both significant leadership roles, they are constantly trying to establish dominance over the other." He watched the reactions of the others. He saw Nathan smile.
The second Nathan saw Josiah watching, he immediately looked down at his beer, so no one, including the profiler, could see his smile.
Ezra raised an eyebrow, a smirk hovering on his lips.
Vin looked amused by the description, and Josiah saw future teasing from the sharpshooter in store for Chris.
Buck added his opinion. "Basically, JD, we've got two bulls locking horns. No, that's not right because she's not a bull. Too many curves." His hands demonstrated what he meant.
JD smacked his roommate before saying, "She won't fall for you."
The rogue grinned. "I'll enjoy trying. Unless, of course, the stud has intentions in that direction?"
The stud in question, Chris, settled for a glare instead of a punch because a punch required he move. His thigh finally stopped throbbing in three-quarter time and he felt no reason to remind it to start again. "Buck, I'll enjoy watching you crash and burn. Josiah, it's not a dominance contest."
Vin asked, "Then what is it, if it's not an old fashioned pissin' match?"
Chris rolled his eyes before he answered. "A difference of opinion."
"She's not seeing things your way?" Nathan commented wryly.
"Wouldn't put it that way." Unconsciously, his hand massaged his chest.
"So what are you proposing, Mr. Larabee?"
"I'm not proposing anything to anyone!"
Ezra corrected himself with a rephrased question, ignoring the badly hidden amusement of the others at Larabee's statement. "Your suggestion for handling this situation, sir. I have a few ideas of my own."
Chris smirked. "My suggestion, Ezra, and this applies to the rest of you, will be to get as much done as possible each day. We'll skip breaks, take short lunches, and we'll go home tonight and study."
"Study?" Six voices chorused back at him.
"Policies and procedures, boys. Bone up - that's tomorrow's topic. Unless, of course, you have them memorized?"
Buck stared at his friend for a few seconds.
"She knock something loose in there?" The rogue reached over and whacked Chris rapidly in the head a few times.
Larabee grabbed the hand and flung it away with a scowl.
"Chris." Vin waited until the leader looked him in the eye. "Ya think ya could narrow down what we'll be lookin' at tonight? We've got stacks of manuals. Truth is, the less time I spend in a classroom, the happier I'll be."
The leader nodded, privately thinking that with Vin agreeing, the rest would follow suit. "Search warrants, execution of warrants, and raids, whatever the fancy term the ATF uses for them."
JD caught on to the unspoken message. "You want to prove we know our stuff, right?"
"Yeah, JD." Vin agreed. "We may do things a little different, but that don't mean we can't follow the rules."
"Along with winning another battle in the war for dominance."
"Josiah, knock it off!" Chris stood and grabbed his empty glass. "Let me put it so all of you understand. Each day in class is one day we don't work on our cases, or get caught up on paperwork. Now, the faster we get through this, the less time we spend with Harper and the more time we have to work." He limped away for a shot, and a refill, at the bar.
"She's got him wound tighter than a cuckoo clock right before the top of the hour."
"Perhaps, Mr. Wilmington, perhaps. Mr. Larabee's suggestion does have merit." Ezra finished his wine and held the empty glass in front of him deep in his contemplation.
"Meaning what, Ezra?" Nathan crossed his arms.
"Consider his current temperament after one day's exposure."
"Like he got stung by a swarm of bees in the butt," Buck muttered.
"What would a month do to him?" The words hung over the table, Ezra studying each man's face.
Josiah started laughing and kept laughing until he held his sides. He wheezed, "Ezra's right. He'll be intolerable."
"Someone will end up getting shot," remarked JD.
"I'm not fixing up anyone who finally makes him snap. Wait, my ride-a-long's next week."
"Which means, Nathan, you'll have an extra week with her and off the team." Buck pointed out.
"Let's do it. Maybe we'll get most of it out of the way before I go. Probably talk to her later about what I'll miss."
"We're agreed?" Vin stared at each of them.
"Agreed." They answered, either nodding or giving the words.
Chris came back to the table in time to hear the chorus. "Agreed on what?"
"We'll be good little boys and study, Pa, so we'll show you how smart we are." Buck delivered this line with considerable levity.
"Good." Chris eyed them warily. "If you don't, you'll deal with me." The look he gave promised they would not like the consequences.
"I'm having another beer 'fore I go home. Unless ya object, cowboy?"
"I bought you a round to make sure you saw things my way." The trademark Larabee smirk appeared, with Inez dropping off a fully laden tray. He lifted his mug and toasted, "To your health."
They echoed the toast, drinking and joking before separated to go to their individual homes. Each dug through mountains of paperwork, books, and thought hard on where to find their infrequently used policy and procedure manuals. None of them wanted to deal with Larabee personally if they failed. In addition, all seven were cursed with abundant pride and the drive to do well. Team Seven studied that night and they studied hard.
With personal satisfaction, Harper watched Team Seven finish their drinks and snacks, cleaning up before entering the Training Center. At least she did not have to start the day by yelling. All seven men filed in and took seats near the front, surprisingly without argument or bickering. It made her wonder what was going on. She tried an experimental, "Good morning."
"Instructor Harper, may I say how lovely you look in black?" said Buck, an earnest expression on his face.
"Good morning, Instructor Harper. I trust we are here early enough to begin immediately?" asked Ezra, checking the clock on the wall against his own timepiece.
"Yes," she answered. She handed them the sheet for the first part of the class - policies and procedures - and watched them sign in without complaint. "Are you gentlemen feeling all right?" Harper finally asked.
Chris gave her a quizzical look. "We're fine, Instructor Harper, but thank you for asking."
Fine, she thought to herself, they planned to kill her with kindness. She could work with this. "Okay," she said aloud. "Let's get started. I apologize, but some of this material is rather dry and there is not much I can do to improve it."
"We understand, Harp-Instructor Harper," corrected JD, "please continue. I'm sure there's a lot we need to learn today."
She stared at them and grew suspicious. From Tanner to Jackson to Sanchez, all of them wore identical 'I want to learn' expressions. Harper said, "All right. First we take a pre-test to see how much you actually know and give me an idea where I need to focus." Harper passed out the test booklets and pencils, and then started the exam.
All of them finished quickly and turned the paperwork in. She graded their pre-tests and found everyone scored a hundred. They knew the procedures; now she faced the task of making sure they followed them and put them into practice.
"Okay, since you all scored a hundred, and if no one objects, I'll use these scores for the written final." Harper waited until everyone nodded agreement. "Take a ten minute break and we'll get started on the practical."
Chris cleared his throat. "Instructor Harper, can we skip this break and move right into the practical? We know we have a large amount of material to cover and want to get it out of the way." What he did not say was that none of them wanted to take classes for the next month, and the more they finished now, the faster they returned to their cases. After his little 'pep talk' last night about behaving themselves to get done faster, along with the threats he dished out, his boys decided to cooperate.
"Sure." She agreed. "Any time you want to skip a break, tell me. The more we get through, the faster you get done and get to leave." As she said this, she nearly kicked herself for not seeing their ploy sooner. No one commented on that, either verbally or non-verbally. Harper resigned herself to a very long month. The first test of their cooperative resolve would come during this next exercise.
She brought down two projection screens and flipped off the lights. On only the left screen, a computer-generated image in bright colors and simplistic graphics appeared. It showed a large open area with boxes, crates, and shelves everywhere, a typical layout to any warehouse that the ATF frequently raided.
"What you are about to see is a computer generated recreation of a raid performed by an ATF team. I want you to watch it through once without taking notes, and then on the second pass find what the team did wrong. If you require more viewings, I will do that. The point is to see how many procedures were not followed and how that affected the outcome."
Team Seven watched with boredom when the raid started. The ten-member team started the raid, each 'person' wearing a bright number on the back to be easily identified, along with all the bad guys in black with their own numbers. She heard some muffled laughter while they watched and thought that maybe she could break through their self-imposed reserve, hopefully to get to the sense of humor hidden within them.
When it finished, they chuckled softly to themselves at the poor graphics. The computer generated 'people' were practically blocks and bore no real resemblance to human beings. Even Harper admitted they sucked, but the point was to have them focus on the action, not the people.
"Round two, time to take notes." Harper restarted the presentation and observed them actually doing what she asked; Larabee and Standish scribbled furiously, Tanner made mental notes, Sanchez studied it, Jackson examined it, Dunne watched and wrote, and Wilmington jotted something down every few seconds. When it finished, she asked, "Again?" Larabee and Standish nodded, so she played it again, watching each of them finding more to cover in their lists.
"Okay, you've seen it three times," she said, moving to an easel with a thick pad, brought in for her to take notes on their findings. "Time to tell me what you found." Harper prepared a marker and asked, "Who wants to go first?"
Dunne raised his hand. "I'd like to try."
"Okay, just give it to me and I will make a list. We'll see who picks up on the same things when we finish."
"First, Agent Five was either incompetent, or new."
She wrote '5 - incompetent or new'. "Why?"
"All of the others except eight, nine, and ten kept checking on him, making sure he was okay, covering him, and I didn't see him do anything wrong, so they must not trust him."
"Why don't you think they trust him?"
"Because he's doing the job, I didn't see any flaws with the work, but the others still kept checking. So is number five incompetent?"
"I'll answer that later. Keep going."
JD continued, "Number Two was the worst offender - he kept ignoring his own welfare to check on Five. I counted three times that he broke cover to look for, or see, what Five was doing."
"So Two broke cover three times," she said, adding that to the list. "What else?"
"Four never stayed in position, constantly changing and making One readjust."
"Three stayed out of it pretty well and did what needed to be done, but I thought Three held back a bit."
"Held back how?"
"Didn't go rushing pell-mell into the fray."
"What's wrong with that? One of the procedures states 'Assess the situation'."
"I don't know. It seemed to me that Three kept assessing and not acting."
Her hand scribbled on the pad. She divided it into pages, one for general comments and one each for the fake Agents. "Okay. Keep going."
"Who's up next?"
"I'll go." Nathan offered. "I did pick up on what JD said about Five, getting checked up on and agree with that. I also noticed Six stayed where he was supposed to be, but that did not work because the others moved."
"So we have a second on Five getting watched and Six staying with the program, but the dance getting changed midstream. Is that accurate?"
"Yes. Add in there that Four instigated most of the changes in position."
"Other than that, no one got hurt, or shot so it was a good bust."
"Does the ends justify the means?" she asked the room in general.
"Yes," answered JD.
"So procedure goes out the window if the end result is what the ATF wants?"
"No," Ezra interjected. "The ATF wants the end result and perfection in reaching that objective. Frankly, Instructor Harper, that is a statistical impossibility. I could name several excursions where the Agents followed procedure and it still went badly."
"I'm familiar with most of the ones you refer to, Agent Standish, and I agree that not every raid can go well, or perfectly. There will be problems, as the nature of our work requires us to be fluid in our actions. However, we are analyzing this particular raid for problems to pass your practical examination. Did the ends justify the means in this case?"
"Yes," Ezra answered. "None of the violated procedures affected the outcome."
"Okay. So what other procedures got violated in this justified raid?"
"I believe I will go next." The Southerner volunteered. "First, Three kept moving with the situation and managing to cover all the others, as needed. Seven stayed on the outskirts and kept a close eye on everyone, but Seven could have participated more."
"Seven seemed to try to be everywhere at one time."
"Nothing wrong with giving backup where needed." Harper pointed out. "How did that violate procedure?"
"Everyone knew their assignment, yet kept the boundaries moving and modifying the parameters. Seven kept up, but wanted to be in the center of it and help more."
"Everyone knew their assignments?"
"Yes, Instructor Harper. Everyone."
"Okay. What else?"
"I agree with Two watching Five and I counted six times he broke cover. Four took unnecessary chances by continually shifting positions; for each of his shifts, someone else shifted with him."
Harper nodded and scribbled. "Next?"
"I believe that concludes my contributions."
"Thank you. Who's up?"
"I'll go," Buck spoke up. "Two was not the only one checking on Five; everyone else took a turn at it and broke cover at least once to make sure Five did the job. I'm guessing Two was the leader, with the way he kept throwing himself out there in front. Four must be the maverick on the team, because Four could not stay put. He jumped around more than a Mexican jumping bean. One stayed constant, I'm guessing he's the sniper, and I couldn't find anything wrong with what he did, except with everyone constantly moving, he constantly needed to change his targets and re-memorize the playing field. That's bad to do on short notice; someone could get shot."
"I'll agree with that." Harper nodded, writing down Buck's observations. "What else?"
"They work well as a team, though. Everyone compensated for everyone else and no one was left hanging out there."
"Other than that, I can't really see anything else wrong."
"Okay, moving on. Who wants to share next?"
"Reckon, I'll go next." Vin sat up from his relaxed position in his chair. "First, they worked well as a team, covering each other. Second, they came outta it alive, so that's another good thing. Everyone's already said what I planned on hittin' about constantly moving around. Makes it a real bear fer me ta watch y'all and I reckon that poor sucker One goes through the same thing. Also Five was the weak link of the group; everyone split their attention and that never does anyone any good."
Harper scribbled on the sheet and then asked, "What else?"
Vin shook his head. "I'm done."
Josiah raised his pen. "I'll go next."
"Let her rip."
"I have to say that it's easy to sit here and judge, after the fact, on procedure violations."
Harper straightened to comment. "I agree with you. However, critiquing often helps people think before they act."
Josiah nodded. "True. My analysis: this is a cohesive team used to changing midstream, keeping events smooth in the midst of chaos. Yes, they violated a few procedures already mentioned, but nothing major. Overall, an effective raid staged by a well-trained team."
"Okay. That leaves you, Agent Larabee."
"Chris." One of these days she would remember not to call him by title - once he gave that privilege to someone, unless he said otherwise, he did not want to hear his formal title.
"Chris." She acknowledged. "What's your take?"
"Everything already mentioned, and Josiah's right. This team pulled off a good raid, with no injuries and a successful series of arrests. The few policies that did get violated did not affect the final outcome."
"I'll accept that," she answered. "To answer your question, Agent Dunne, Agent Five is not incompetent at all; he's a brilliant Agent, with minimal experience in comparison to the rest of his team. Now, do you want to see the raid in real time based off the actual films taken from it?"
They nodded. Buck called out, "It will be better than those stick people in the computer generated one."
"I think there will be surprises. Keep in mind what all you've told me so far, especially while you watch the tape."
They nodded and she pressed Play. The grainy black and white film started at the same point the computer image did, with one major exception - real people populated the screen. Team Seven watched in complete surprise when they recognized themselves. She ran the computer images simultaneously, the real version on the right screen and the computer version on the left. The raid went down and they truly 'saw' the procedure violations, the ones they so easily named off, performed by themselves.
"Turn it off," Chris growled, standing up with both hands flat on the table in front of him.
"Is there a problem?" asked Harper innocently.
He swallowed twice before he trusted himself to speak to her. "Yes. I would like to talk to you privately."
"Of course. Everyone, take a minute to think about what you saw." She stopped the video and flipped on the lights. "Chris, if you'll follow me?"
She led the way to her office and unlocked it, waiting for him to enter. He ushered her forward first and slammed the door behind him. "What the hell is your problem?"
"That was blunt."
"Deal with it. Why put us through that exercise in humiliation?"
"Before I answer that, answer this question. When is the last time you critiqued one of your raids?"
"We don't need to critique."
"Really? Why is it then you all found something wrong with your own actions? Is your team perfect all the time?"
"No one's perfect, Harper."
"So why do this?"
"To show you that your team is not infallible. Did you ever wonder why you're here? Why they put aside an entire month for your team to do for this training? Because there are problems."
Cold green eyes swept over her. "There are no problems."
"We've identified a big one today. All of you watch over JD too much."
"He's the youngest and has the least experience."
"As team leader, do you have a problem asking him to use his computer skills?"
"No," Chris answered without hesitation.
"What about going after an armed suspect alone?"
She pinned him on that one. They just saw the proof. Even after all this time together, the team broke cover and changed the game plan to protect their youngest. Chris hated her intensely for doing this. "Lady, we don't need you creating problems where none exist." He glared at her.
"No, you do not," Harper calmly replied. "I am not creating problems. I am making you address one that you do not see that will get someone hurt. Could you live with Buck's death because he broke cover to check on JD?"
Those words chilled him to the bone. "That's not going to happen."
"Your team counted him breaking cover six times. Six times, Chris. Once and he will be lucky not to get shot; two is pushing it; anything more and he becomes a predictable target. Wait for him to pop up and shoot. Rather cold, I know, but rather true."
Damn her to hell twice over. Chris saw it and knew in his heart that she was right. Buck made himself a predictable target by watching over the kid. He stopped his thoughts there; even he thought of the talented young man as a kid. They needed to cut the apron strings and let JD stand more on his own two feet. He did not think he could forgive himself if Buck got injured, or worse, died while checking on JD. And he knew the kid - young man, he corrected - would hate himself, and the team, for letting it happen for as long as it did. JD often told them that they checked up on him too much; maybe he had a point. Chris looked at the hazel eyes across from him and felt frustrated. No, she did not create the problems; she was making them face them in more controlled surroundings. It did not mean he liked her for it. Who was she to do this? "I'm wondering who appointed you our therapist."
Harper met his gaze dead on and replied calmly, "Travis."
He drew back at that. Travis never said a word to him about any of this.
"You look surprised, Chris. Travis knows that if he said something to you, he would make the situation worse, because you would do your best to prove him wrong. That does not solve the problem; it hides it so that it festers."
"When did he talk to you?"
"Several times in the last few months. He worries about your team, because he cares. He cares about the others, but for some reason I can't see, your team is special to him. When we talked about your in-service, he wanted me to include something to make you face the problems. I tried the simulations out on other teams with their own raids and it worked. They are much more of a team, because the critique forced them to see their weaknesses."
"We're already a good team." He defended.
Her voice softened. "I know; the Magnificent Seven. I have read your case files and you are Magnificent. I would be a liar if I did not admit your team has considerable skill and ability."
"Then why this?" Chris pointed toward the Training Center.
"Identify the problems and deal with them," she answered. "You cannot deal with the problems if you refuse to admit they are there, or do not see them."
"Another reason for that team retreat?"
"Among other things. You are my responsibility for the next month," she said. "Except for Thursday and Friday; I will be in New York City for a seminar."
Chris sighed. "I don't need this."
"Me, or the problems?"
He rubbed his temple. "Both."
"Tough. You have both. To borrow a phrase, deal with it."
"You always this charming to team leaders?"
"When they act like arrogant sob's and have no clue what's going on under their noses."
"Are you suggesting I am not aware of what my team does?" Green eyes bored menacingly into hazel ones.
The single word, spoken with complete confidence, rattled his composure. "How dare you, lady."
"I dare because it's my job. My job is to make sure that all of you know the rules and apply them. Knowing and applying them are two separate issues. Your written examinations tell me you know the regulations, but that tape shows you and your team do not put that knowledge into practice."
He dismissed her claim with a wave of his hand. "One tape, one example."
Hazel eyes calmly regarded him. "Do you want to see others?"
"I selected that tape from fifteen others, all showing the same disregard for specific regulations to varying degrees."
Chris glared. "Fifteen tapes showing the same thing?" The tense lines of his body showed he did not want to believe her.
She explained, "Yes. Buck constantly breaks cover to check on JD. You constantly shift positions. Vin constantly reacquires targets with every one of your shifts. Josiah tries to be everywhere, because he hates whenever any of you get hurt and will do anything he can to prevent injuries. Ezra looks for the best possible angle, often costing him precious seconds. Nathan tries following the policies, but cannot because the rest of you are not."
"No one ever complained."
"Travis has spoken to you about this before and deflected some of it off of you, because of your phenomenal success rate. What happens when you don't get lucky? Whose funeral do you want to eulogize?"
"That's a very cold way to put it."
"Don't tell me the thought has not crossed your mind."
"It has." Chris admitted, reluctantly.
Her eyes regarded him and gave him a possible solution. "Then let me be the bad guy, Chris. Let them hate me for pointing this out. I am not doing any of this to undermine your authority."
"Feels like it."
Harper sighed and sat down behind her desk, motioning for him to do the same in one of her chairs. After a second, he did.
"Chris, you are without question an excellent leader. No one doubts that."
He waited silently.
"You also have six of the most challenging individuals on your team."
"Challenging's not the word for it."
"Frankly, no one else here, or in the ATF, could control them. Or you. I know this, Travis knows this, and many other team leaders know this. So the policy has been to let you run things your own way and that has worked."
"Your team suffers more work-related injuries than any other team in the ATF."
"We also go against the toughest criminals."
"True." Her voice gave weight to that, having dealt with her own tough criminals. They met on even ground regarding this issue.
"What's the catch, Harper?"
"A special inquiry board may be assembled to investigate your closed cases. Their purpose will be to find out if any, or all of the injuries were avoidable."
Chris shot out of the chair. "What the hell? Why wasn't I told?" He winced when his weight landed on his sore leg, deepening his scowl.
"You were not told because you are not supposed to know. Travis and I are not supposed to know."
The bitter taste of betrayal filled his mouth. He tamped down his anger and growled. "Go on."
"We discovered this when someone tried hacking into your training files. Since I am your training Instructor of record, I added extra safeguards in addition to Agent Dunne's. They prevented the person access. I followed the hack back to the source. Without admitting to anything, considerable information was discovered on those responsible. I took everything to Travis and that's why we're pressing to get your training done."
"So it looks like we are up-to-date."
"Who's doing this?"
Harper sighed. "If we can get you trained, and your next two busts go injury-free, you're out of the woods. No inquiry board will be formed."
He slammed his hand down on the surface of the desk causing everything to rattle. "Tell me."
She reached for the telephone and dialed a private number. "Sir?"
Orin Travis replied, "Yes?"
"Permission to tell him."
"What do you think?"
Before she could reply, Chris smacked the speakerphone button. "Who's doing this to my team?"
Harper stayed silent.
"I'll let Harper tell you."
"Why wasn't I informed?"
"You're being told now."
"That's not an answer."
"Chris, believe me when I tell you we're doing everything we can."
"I want to be involved."
"Then take the classes and fix the problems."
"Why not come to me, sir?"
"Because you would not have believed me."
"Save it, Chris. I've talked with you about the rules before and you have handled it. But you need to practice in the Training Center. I couldn't schedule that without raising suspicions."
Harper finally spoke. "Enter me. Putting you through these required classes lets us give you the chance to fix the problems in a controlled, private environment. All without red-flagging the people behind the proposed board."
Chris fell back into the chair, one hand absently massaging his thigh. "What's at stake?"
"Depending if the board even convenes, anything from probation to disbanding your team."
"Like I said before, Chris, if we can fix it now, and your next two busts are injury-free, there won't be a board," Harper said this with an earnest expression.
"Because it will show that you took initiative and remedied the situation without outside interference." The Instructor leaned back in her own chair.
Travis added. "Our evaluations will reflect that, Chris. No one questions your leadership abilities on our end."
His eyes narrowed. "Then who?"
Travis ordered. "Tell him."
"The accountants at Headquarters who handle workman's compensation initiated the investigation."
"Bean counters!" Chris surged to his feet. "Accountants? What do they know about what we do? What gives them the right to question us? They're not getting shot at. They don't do what we do every day!"
"Calm down, Chris."
"Chris, sit. Please."
"Harper?" Travis passed the responsibility of the explanation to the woman who discovered the situation.
"Gee, thanks." Taking a deep breath, she explained. "HQ hates workman's compensation. They check, cross check, re-check, and stick every claim under a microscope. Then they magnify it by at least a thousand. When certain names keep popping up repeatedly, they get suspicious. AD Travis has done a good job deflecting their attention over the past couple years."
"I hate tap dancing, Chris. You should be grateful."
Chris remained aloof. "I'll hear everything before I compliment your shuffle-hop-step."
Larabee motioned Harper to continue.
"The caliber of the criminals kept them at bay. Until Accounting received a tightwad six months ago, who's mission in life is to question everything. His natural skeptical nature raised doubts when he heard all the jokes about Denver's Team Seven high injury rate. So he started his own investigation and did not like what he found. That's when he started making noise about a board."
"What's his name?"
"Let me finish. We know more than he does, but he has not played by the rules. He tried officially accessing your past case files where injuries have occurred, but discovered he does not have the clearance. Getting the clearance will take time, and he's impatient."
"Too impatient." Travis agreed.
"What's he done?" asked Chris, physically bracing himself for the next revelation.
"Tried breaking into your files." The AD paused and added weight to the next word. "Illegally."
One piece of the puzzle finally fit in a slot. "Ezra's virus." He caught the tiny wince on Harper's face. "You did that?"
"Well..." She appeared to hesitate.
"Tell me why you felt it necessary to obliterate my Agent's files." Chris leaned across the desk and invaded her personal space, as she so often did to him.
"I authorized her to do that."
Chris kept his eyes focused on Harper while saying, "You, sir, authorized a virus attack?"
"Yes. We put that in place when we discovered the accountant's considerable computer skills. JD's incredible, but he's young and still learning. Harper attached the virus to the files, so that when an unauthorized person tried accessing them, the entire computer dumped its contents."
"So they could not be viewed or copied." Chris rationalized. He stayed in Harper's face and they stared at each other, anger in his eyes and calm assurance in hers. "You send a surprise back?"
Her lips stretched up at the corners into a smirk. "For every file he thinks he copied, he's brought in a new virus. It's user specific, so only he will deal with it. I can't wait to hear the fallout."
"We put it on all your programs, Chris." Travis cleared his throat. "Ezra and Nathan are the most meticulous record keepers, so we figured their systems would be the first targets."
"With his attempt to access classified documents, we now have charges and evidence to bring against him. Sir? How soon?"
"When he reports the destruction of his computer to Maintenance. If he doesn't, we'll nail him for tampering."
"So if my team pulls off the next two raids without injury, we're in the clear and you've made this gutless bean counter look like he's got a grudge."
"Yes," answered Harper, still not flinching from the invasion of her space.
Chris focused on her. "What's your angle?"
"Lady, you've got the deserved reputation of hell on wheels. We both know you have a sense of humor, but what's your motivation to help us?"
"Would you believe it reflects badly on me, as your training Instructor?"
"Self-preservation. I can understand that. What's the other part?"
Travis stayed silent.
"Sir, I will call you back." She reached around Chris and disconnected before resuming her position. "What I say stays between us, okay?"
"I'm helping your team for AD Travis. I'm not sure what he told you about me, but I'm grateful for the opportunity here. Not many people like me, and I'll admit my attitude has plenty to do with that. He took a chance on me and I will do just about anything for him. You're his favorites, all seven of you, and if protecting you from morons makes him happy, then I'll do it."
He read the sincerity and determination in both her words, and her face. Still, he said nothing, sensing there was more.
Harper sighed. "You deserve to know it all. Travis gave himself enough rope when he let you form your team. He took abuse from just about everyone because of who you chose. Orin stood firm and told them to wait and see. All of you proved yourselves time and again, until everyone shut up. If this board forms, there will be questions. They will examine everything, and for every violated procedure, or irregularity, there will be consequences. But the blame and disciplinary action won't stop with your boys, or you. It will go through me, stop long enough to bury me, and continue to Orin. They will hit him hardest, considering he let things go on this long. He won't tell you any of this himself."
Chris slumped back in the chair and ran a hand down his face. "What could they do to him?"
"Demotion, take away his pension, forced retirement, or optioned resignation - quit or be fired. Then they would either terminate, or transfer me to some place miserable in order to make me quit. The ATF and I have a sordid history, and getting rid of me legitimately would relive them of the monster headache and ticking time bomb I represent to them. As for you seven, disbanding and eventual termination, because you will not be able to protect each other. All because you are a bunch of mavericks and doing the job your own way. So there's everything, Chris. It's up to you now."
"Not everything. Why the jokes?"
Harper smiled again, this time giving him a view of white, straight teeth. "Contrary to popular belief, I like to laugh. Being special to Orin makes you special to me. He's enjoying our joke war, I'm enjoying it, and so that leaves you and the boys. Are you boys enjoying it?"
He gifted her with a rare Larabee smile. "Thought you could do better than colored showers."
"That a challenge?"
"As you like it."
"Just remember you asked for it."
"Do your worst," he said, green eyes twinkling.
"I'll save my worst for when we're out of the woods."
"Travis means that much to you?"
"More than you know."
"Then you better tell him we're behind him too."
"Tell him yourself." She dialed and Travis answered immediately.
"Sir? We'll do whatever it takes to get rid of this mess."
"Thanks, Chris. Go ahead and tell the others, but make sure it stays among us."
"Take a step back and let them work it out their way. Offer advice when asked, but play it as a silent spectator."
"Chris, we'll get through this."
"You know we will." His voice held back conviction and promise.
"Then get to work." Laughing, Travis disconnected.
Harper turned off the telephone and waited.
Chris stood and noticed a new addition in her office. He walked over to the bookshelf and examined the picture of six smiling men and one smiling woman. All seven hung in a straight line, Harper in the center, leaning on their crossed arms on the side of a pool. Only their faces were visible, the rest hidden beneath the water. He raised a questioning eyebrow in her direction.
"My brothers. Found the picture the other day and framed it. Did I ever mention I was the only girl of seven, and the baby?"
"Six older brothers?"
"Then we're not too much of a challenge." He teased.
"Ha! You're more of a challenge, because I can't knock your heads together like I can my brothers." She stood and moved next to him. "From left to right: Aidan, Breanden, Cullen, me, Donal, Edan, and Farrell. Though my father conveniently forgets them when he's talking to me, and that my brothers have already given him grandchildren plus live nearby. He does all this to make me feel guilty about being single, and wants me to have kids to bounce on his knee."
"Do you feel guilty?" He studied her, searching out the truth in her body language.
Harper blew out a breath. "No point in feeling guilty about something that will never happen. Now, you ready? I'll give you a few minutes to talk to them before I come out."
Something in her eyes pleaded for him to let her first statement, about things never happening, go. He accepted her change of subject. "Bring those other films when you come. We'll spend the morning going over them."
"You busy this afternoon?"
"No, why?" Why, he privately realized, was becoming one of the staples of his vocabulary around her.
"Well, I reserved the warehouse simulation, so you could practice."
"Who are we going against?" He knew she already lined up opponents to make it real.
"You're starting to worry me, because you already guessed I had someone."
"Once burned, twice learned."
She laughed. "We have a nationally ranked State Police Special Response Team here on an exchange program. They told Jeff, my training supervisor, they would like a crack at 'The Magnificent Seven'. When Jeff stopped laughing, he brought it to me. You'll have an hour by yourselves and three hours with them."
"Jeff and I figured your team would enjoy being the bad guys a couple times before switching. Ninety minutes good, ninety minutes bad."
"Jeff and myself. Other than that, closed session."
"Let's get cracking. I'll talk to the boys, while you find those tapes."
"Okay. Ten minutes?"
"Got it." Harper unlocked her supply room, while Chris walked back to the classroom.
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