Harper picked up the telephone and called her supervisor, currently working the 'Hogan's Alley' simulation with the State Team. "Hey, it's Harper, we are ready here." She disconnected and looked at the assembled Magnificent Seven. "Okay, fifteen minutes, and you will have home turf advantage."
The smiles they gave her reminded her of the pack of animals she described to JD earlier.
"Looking forward to this." Chris smirked.
"For the first round, you're going to be the bad guys."
"We're already bad ta the bone." Vin quipped.
"Very true, but you get to show these State boys how we do things around here."
"Define we, Instructor. Are you planning on participating?" Ezra stared at her, one eyebrow raised in question.
"We, as in the ATF, Agent Standish. Please excuse my imprecise speech."
The Southerner waved a hand in dismissal. "Ezra, Instructor. You may refer to me as Ezra, if I have not already told you to do so."
"Then forgive me, Ezra. Perhaps your team can show the State Team how ATF teams do things around here. Correctly, I hope."
"They don't have a chance." JD puffed his chest.
Harper said, "I have to warn you, though, they've been together for almost six years. Their newest member has been with them three."
"Consider us warned." The feral grin Chris gave her showed exactly how well they took her warning to heart.
"Okay, but please do not complain to me."
"Would you care to wager on the outcome?"
"I do believe I will, Ezra, but my bet will be on the time involved instead of the winner."
"You're kidding, right, Harpy?"
"Nope. I know you boys will smear the floor with this team; I will wager it will take from entry to demise roughly two minutes, thirty seconds."
"That long, huh?" Nathan grinned at her.
"Okay, one minute, thirty seconds. Forgot you'll have your sharpshooter in the rafters."
Harper pulled out forty dollars and handed it to Ezra. "Put me down for one minute, thirty seconds."
More money came out as they bet on the time. As Ezra counted the money currently in his grasp, the State Team arrived. They outnumbered the Seven four to one.
The leader, standing beside Jeff, looked at the money in Ezra's hands. "Jeff, you didn't tell me that there would be betting involved."
Jeff glared at the Southerner tucking the money in his jumpsuit pocket. "There's not supposed to be."
"However," Harper smoothly interrupted, "If you feel that your pride can take a beating, you are welcome to participate in the opening round of wagers."
"Instructor?" A note of warning carried through the tone.
"What?" Harper raised an eyebrow at her boss, Jeff Hill. She noticed the Senior Instructor for the Denver Training Complex stood erect, unlike normal, probably trying to be taller than his five feet five inch height, especially surrounded by the hulking monsters of the State Team. His brown, spiky hair hid under an ATF skullcap and his own jumpsuit showed a few smudges of paint. Apparently, the State Team hit the supervising Instructor more than once during their run against him. "I have confidence in my team, Jeff, that they'll terminate this team in one minute, thirty seconds."
"Who the hell are you?"
"Ladies and Gentlemen," Jeff said. "May I present Instructor Harper, the training Instructor for Team Seven?"
She walked over and shook hands with each of them, performing introductions. Once the men and women moved through the pleasantries, Harper and Jeff let them wager on the outcome of the first run.
For some unknown reason, the State team believed they would be victorious against the Seven, finally prompting Jeff to bet both for the State team and picked a time for the projected demise of Team Seven.
At this point, Harper kicked out the State team, not wanting to give them more than a cursory glance at the warehouse setup. No more than an undercover operative or responding officer would have. Once they left, she passed out the paintball weapons to Team Seven, the boys checking to make sure all were in working order and nodding in approval after they examined them personally.
"Okay, how long do you want to set up?"
"Whenever they're ready, Harper, we'll take them down."
"All right, Chris. Let's see where they are." Harper reached on top of a crate and found her earpiece, slipping it in. "Jeff? We're ready. Okay, I'll meet you in Control."
Harper gave them a thumb up sign. "Boys, take your positions."
Vin climbed the ladder to the rafters, cradling his rifle with the bag of ammunition hanging from his belt pouch. He found the perfect spot to overlook the entire warehouse, ready to take on any intruder.
Chris took the center of the warehouse, finding a spot near a stack of crates he could use for cover.
Buck took Larabee's left side, the side he preferred, and set up behind a stack of crates.
Between Buck and Chris, JD found an "L" shape set of crates stacked chest high. They gave him a ninety-degree turn that he could pop up and shoot, and still keep moving.
On Chris' right side, near two doors the State Team would use for entry, Josiah placed himself so that he could get the flank of the Team. He also provided a staggered cover for Nathan, letting his partner have the ability to move around behind the entry team and leave the building.
Ezra climbed onto the catwalk above the large back door, the one he knew the majority of the State Team would use to come in. He found the large air conditioning unit, complete with encased running fan, and squeezed his body around it. It provided perfect cover for him, and gave him the opportunity to rain paintballs on them as they came in, causing chaos in the rank and file.
When they were ready, the State Team hit all the doors hard and fast. Their entry was textbook perfect, charging and taking cover simultaneously. Paintballs flew furiously through the air, striking their targets more often than not. As the members of the State Team 'died', they lay where they fell. Groans, yells, and howls filled the room as paintballs splattered and men reorganized.
Josiah fired from the flank. He worked his way around during the initial entry and surprised them. It sent the sides scurrying for cover, leaving the front members exposed.
Nathan slipped outside by stepping over the bodies, surprising those outside, and leaving no one available to reinforce the beleaguered team.
JD played pop up, shoot, and duck, constantly coming up and taking someone out just when they thought they fixed on his position.
Ezra used his position to rain a lethal hail on the entry's team heads, thankful for the concealing cover of the air conditioning and fan unit surrounded by large ductwork.
Vin looked like he was at a carnival shooting gallery for all the effort he expended, and the giant grin on his face showed how much fun he was having.
Buck kept shaking his head, disgust evident on his features, not even forced to shift position once.
Chris smirked. Even in minimal cover, the chaos of so many people 'dying' quickly overcame training. Very few shots aimed in his direction, and those that did missed miserably.
In the Control perch, Harper looked at Jeff. "This is a massacre."
"I know." He sighed. "What can we do to fix it?"
"Besides the obvious, Harper. Give me options."
Harper nodded, thinking fast. Jeff often challenged the Instructors to come up with ideas, a way he used to keep them sharp and able to act on the spot. He always credited them for their ideas, but the mental exercise helped endear him to Harper. "Start with a step-by-step review - what made them think they would not meet trained, armed resistance? Let it go from there."
"Good. Get their impressions on what went wrong."
"Have Seven tell them, share their experiences."
"We've got a start. Well, there went the last one." Jeff hit the end button, setting off a red flashing light throughout the warehouse, the signal for the end of hostilities. Harper and Jeff left the control room, noticing neither the State Team nor Seven moved from their spots. Jeff nodded in satisfaction because everyone staying put helped with the critique. He also held back laughter; more blue paint covered everything than red. The State Team shot at everything in sight but what they needed to hit; the red of Team Seven coated jumpsuits, hair, and skin, but little else. "Well, what happened?"
The leader of the State Team, Tom Farley, dryly answered. "We got killed, Sir."
Sheepish laughter broke out.
"In ninety seconds." Farley shook his head.
"Standish, you owe me money!" Harper yelled this while staring up at a completely red air conditioning unit, ventilation duct, and paint spray where the tiny balls exploded on impact with the moving fan. A hand appeared up top and waved at her, but the rest of the Southerner stayed hidden.
"All right, what did we do wrong?" Farley, a massive black man rippling with muscles, shifted to a sitting position and waited for the Instructors to answer him.
"Did you prepare for armed resistance?" Harper asked.
"Hell, yeah. We knew we were going against the Seven."
"Did you see anything wrong with your entry?"
"Perfect, just like the textbook says. Worked every time before this."
Chris started chuckling.
"You think this is funny, man?" Farley glared at the blond.
"No. If this were real, you'd be dead. Figure the dead can't talk." Larabee leaned against the crate beside him.
"Since the dead cannot talk, Agent Larabee, how about sharing your suggestions? We are here to learn." Harper cocked her head in his direction.
Chris looked at Farley. "You gonna listen?"
"Yeah. Hey, Spears, take notes."
"On it, boss."
"Nathan?" Larabee's head tilted in the direction of the man leaning in the doorframe of the warehouse.
"Entry was good and clean, but you failed to sweep hard on both sides. That's how I got outside and finished off your reinforcements."
"Bullet in my leg taught me that," Buck offered. "Haven't missed a deep sweep since."
"JD?" Chris flicked his eyes at the youngest.
"You kept aiming where I was, so instead of scanning side to side, you waited for me to show myself again in the same area. I had cover on two sides and moved fast. Don't assume I'm somewhere I'm not, and don't react, act."
From high above, a raspy drawl called to them. "Took me two minutes ta nail that feller, but he caused JD ta sprain his ankle divin' fer cover 'fore I did."
"Sounds good so far. What else?" Farley waited for Larabee to single out the next speaker.
"No one pinned me down, leaving me free to get your flank and cover Nathan's exit. Once there, all I had to do was point and shoot."
"Who got hurt that time?" Farley asked.
"Me." Nathan raised his hand. "Bullet grazed the back of my head."
"Not good. At least it didn't do any damage from the way you were moving. Who's next?"
"Buck." Larabee motioned to the man on his left.
"You folks worried so much about JD's jack-in-the-box act, and Josiah's attack on your flank, that you discounted the threat to your front side. I never moved once, not even for cover. Josiah caught a round in the stomach because we once did what you did."
"Couldn't eat solid food for a long time. Never miss the threat on the front side."
"Tanner, you want to give them the bird's eye view?" Buck looked up at the sharpshooter.
"Ya came in good, but no one looked up. Felt like I was hitting paper targets the way I shot y'all. Took awhile fer y'all ta realize I was here."
Farley shook his head; they all knew to look up. "Let me guess. Someone got hurt?"
"Reckon that's me. Crawlin' around the rafters and damn near bought it when their sniper found me first."
"Speaking of rafters, here's another one. Ezra? Your input?" Chris let his lips twitch upward as he looked at the paint-splattered unit.
"Will I be injured for showing this handsome visage?"
The chestnut head appeared with the jumpsuit free of any paint. He brushed some dust off his shoulders. "Forgive the deception, but I find experience often instructs better than classroom examinations."
"The point, Ezra." Chris said this with the patience of a man who knew his men.
"Yes, Mr. Larabee." The Southerner straightened. "I once found myself placed in an intolerable situation because of a shooter placed here. Mr. Sanchez's creative blasting with a twelve gauge shotgun freed me, however my vest found itself retired with two bullets in it. Much as I detest the vest, I find myself grateful to have worn it that particular day."
"That leaves you, Agent Larabee." Harper waited for his summary.
Chris nodded. "When the losses started, discipline broke down. Instead of taking out the threat, then treating the wounded, you put yourselves in more jeopardy trying to save each other. Emotions ran too high and made you miss. Took us a long time to learn that."
"Yeah, after your second - or was it third? - three week stay in ICU."
"Buck." Chris shot a warning glance at his friend.
"Regardless of Team Seven's injuries, do you feel you have learned something?" Harper scanned the faces of the State Team.
"Yeah. We suck." Farley laughed, joined by the rest of his people.
"You don't suck. You just lost to the best," JD boasted.
"I feel confident Agent Bishop would contest that." Harper crossed her arms.
"It's true. We are the best." JD caught Josiah's look. "What? We earned our reputation."
"And all the scars that go with it." The female Instructor gave Team Seven's leader a pointed look.
"We've learned and are learning from our mistakes so they won't happen again. Suggest you do the same." Chris held Harper's gaze until she nodded almost imperceptibly.
"Plan on it. Give us ten minutes to do our own review and we'll try this again." Farley and his people stood.
"Make it twenty. We can clean off the paint and show where the shots go this time." Jeff tossed the female Instructor a rag. "Harper can show you how it's done."
"Of course." With a wry expression, knowing Jeff maneuvered her into this, she opened one of the crates and passed out the treated rags used to clean off the water-based paint. Team Seven grumbled good-naturedly as they took them, but did an excellent job of cleaning everything.
Once the State Team finished their own briefing, they cleaned most of the paint from their jumpsuits, hair, and faces before signaling their readiness to start again.
The second time went better, depending on perspective. The State Team suffered a fifty percent fatality rate, but they knew this was still unacceptable. They reset again, running through it with more corrections, but the wealth of experience during firefights showed with the actions of Team Seven.
Seeing the State Team's mounting frustration, Harper suggested the two teams switch roles. This served two purposes: One, the State Team got a break from being attacked and 'killed', and two, Team Seven could try out their new entry patterns.
When Team Seven blasted through the doors, even sadly outnumbered, paintballs filled the air. This time, concealment and numbers worked well for the State Team, only sustaining three injuries before Jeff and Harper called it a draw.
They did it again, shooting to a draw, but Nathan now sported a bright paint stain across his right shoulder.
"Hot damn!" Farley grinned. "We actually hit someone!" Cheers rose from his teammates.
"Sorry, Chris. Won't happen again. Foot slipped on the floor."
Harper added a pearl of wisdom. "Which brings up the point you need to watch your foot placement and be aware of your surroundings constantly. I am not telling you anything new, but reminding you of the basics."
"I agree." Jeff moved to stand next to her. "We've got time for two more runs before I have to debrief the State Team. May I suggest two runs for the State entering? See what they've learned?"
"Sounds good." Farley smiled at the prospect.
The first run went very well, the State Team managing to fight the Seven to a draw with no injuries on either side. All present knew that a draw was only possible because of the circumstances. In reality, the State Team would use flash-bang grenades, and/or tear gas, along with having more officers outside to back them up and reinforce their numbers.
Once they finished cleaning up, Harper said, "Let's make this one run interesting."
"Keep talking." Buck leaned against a stack of crates.
"If no one - Jeff - objects, let's make this a last person/team standing match."
"Explain." Ezra continued checking his manicure, not liking the small blotches of splattered paint around the nails.
"Go all out. Last team to have a person left alive at the end wins."
"Showing the fight or flight reactions for both teams, along with putting them against people having nothing to lose. I like it." Jeff nodded. "One condition: everyone helps clean up afterward."
"Done." Farley agreed, interested in seeing this.
Chris nodded his agreement.
"Anyone care to wager?" Ezra smiled as money, bodies, and names came his way, all betting on the outcome.
When it started, complete teamwork broke down on the State's side, each officer holding the 'every person for him or herself' mentality. Ten minutes later, only two people remained alive - Ezra and Vin. They stared at each other, both holding fire at the last second.
"Hey, Harper, I think ya won more money."
"Good." She came out of the Control perch laughing. "Time to clean up one last time."
Everyone set to work, removing as much of the paint as possible. When they finished, Buck invited the State Team to the Saloon after their debriefing. Two hours later, everyone met up, sharing dinner and drinks. At eight, Harper stood to leave.
"Everyone, it has been a pleasure. Sadly, I have a large number of things to do. I will see Team Seven tomorrow afternoon."
Jeff stood. "I'll walk you out."
"Night, Harpy. I'll remember what you said." JD gave her a smile.
"Good. Glad to help. Night, all." She left with a wave, nodding at the greetings called back to her. When they got to her car, Harper said, "Jeff, you don't mind me taking the morning off?"
"Nope. You rarely ask for leave. You just need to make sure Team Seven's certifications are done by the end of the month."
"They will be, whether we all survive it or not."
"May I ask you why you're taking off?"
"A little retaliation. Can you stall Team Seven here for a couple hours?"
"Don't tell me why, okay? Ignorance is bliss."
"Oh, you will find out tomorrow. Don't be surprised if you get a call."
"I don't want to know. I don't want to be fired."
"You won't be; Seven already knew they didn't need to report to the Training Center tomorrow morning, because I told them during the lunch break. They don't know I'm on leave, and that's the way I like it."
"Why am I scared now?"
"Smile, Jeff, and give me two hours. You will enjoy the results." With a small pat on his cheek, she climbed in her car and left.
"If they don't kill me before I see the results." Sighing, Jeff returned inside and managed three hours before the first person left.
Barbara Linden opened the door for the women's rest room on the main floor, used by most of the women in the building. She burst out laughing at the sight on the far wall.
Someone had covered the wall in objects of different shapes and sizes, and then attached to note with a permanent marker on a string. The note read:
Show your support for the ATF's Team Seven! Sign or leave a message. Guess what belongs to who!
There will be a ceremony later this evening inside The Saloon.
But don't tell anyone - it's a secret! Let's see if we can pull one over on The Magnificent Seven!
They should arrive around 1900 hours.
Thanks for your support and silence!
Since Barbara was one of the biggest social animals in the building, every woman knew about the new decorations and made it a point to sign. They also kept it secret from the males in the building, because the men would tell their brethren. They made plans to meet at the saloon after work, with the men grudgingly invited. The men were not sure what was going on, just that something was about to happen, and they wanted to be there.
= = 7 = =
Vin flicked the lights on in the silent office, continuing into the break room. He fixed a pot of his usual strong coffee and met Josiah, who was starting his day early as well. The profiler removed his gloves and hung his coat, nodding hello, as he headed for the coffeepot himself. He was the only other member of the team beside Vin that liked his brew strong to jump-start him in the mornings.
"Mornin', Josiah." Vin greeted the older man, yanking out his chair out and plopping down. The room filled with the chorus of a heavy rock song.
I'm hot, sticky sweet, from my head to my feet, yeah
Vin flew from his seat. "What the hell?" The music stopped, but Josiah's booming laughter continued. The sharpshooter examined the underside of the chair, discovering a small weight-sensitive transmitter. Playing a hunch, he peered under Josiah's chair and found one there. "Sit down, Josiah. What's yer tune?"
With a grin, Josiah settled in his chair. Hidden speakers erupted in sound.
What I want - is what you got - and what you got - is what I want
Vin laughed as hard as Josiah did. He checked the rest of the seats, finding them wired identically. He could not check Larabee's chair, because Chris kept his office locked. Josiah stood and the room was cast into silence again.
"Should we?" Josiah glanced at the other chairs, and then at Vin.
"Nah. I'll get blamed, so I wanna be surprised."
"I wonder who's responsible if this isn't yours?"
"Someone skilled with electronics."
"JD?" Josiah briefly entertained the thought of Harper, but discarded it because of all she did on Monday.
"She got hers in earlier this week." Josiah rubbed his jaw.
"Don't know. Yet."
A few minutes later, Nathan entered the office.
Josiah saw suspicion fill Nathan's face at the barely concealed grins on him and Vin.
"What will blow up and how mad will I get?" He looked at his desk.
"Nothing, brother." Josiah assured him, still grinning.
"Then why are you two fools grinning?" Nathan hung his coat up and aimed for the break room.
"Feel like it." Vin shrugged.
"I need coffee, and you need to work on your poker face. Ask Ezra for some tips." Nathan poured himself a liberal amount of dark brew and sipped. He yelled while grabbing both creamer and sugar. "Y'all could have warned me about the strength of this coffee." He heard chuckling from the other room while he sweetened the noxious brew. Returning, he felt two pairs of twinkling eyes staring at him as he sat.
With brown cocoa skin and curly black hair,
just the way he looks at me with that gentle loving stare
"Vin!" Nathan raised his voice, the exasperation evident in the tone. He stood and the music stopped. "All right, you got me. Now fix it."
"Not me, pard." Vin smirked at him and presented a truly innocent face.
Nathan looked from him to the eyes watering, still chuckling profiler. "Josiah?"
"Not me, brother." The blue eyes twinkled with mirth and not a trace of guilt.
"JD, or Harper."
"All of them get rigged?"
"Yup." Vin's Cheshire cat grin spread wider.
"What are the other songs?"
"Don't know. Wanna be surprised. Told ya I'd get blamed, Josiah."
Nathan stared at his friend. "Let's hear yours." Josiah obliged and the song filled the room. Nathan started laughing and Josiah stopped it by standing. "That's good. What's yours?"
"Nope." Vin shook his head.
"Our unknown prankster picked some racy lyrics for our sharpshooter."
Nathan dropped into Vin's chair.
I'm hot, sticky sweet, from my head to my feet, yeah
Nathan rubbed his eyes at the blush covering Vin's cheeks. He moved away from the chairs; a loud noise coming from the entrance to their offices caught his attention. "Here come Buck and JD."
As usual, the pair argued loudly about something, en route to their desks. Apparently, it concerned who drank the last beer and whose turn it was for buying replacements. Since they shared a place, this argument frequently occurred, as one finished the last of something and did not replace it.
"Hope you stopped for coffee," called Nathan when the pair commenced a shoving act through the door, neither wanting the other to go ahead of him.
"Vin made it?" JD peered around Buck's back, having lost and been tossed out the door.
"I told you if you had hurried up we could've stopped. Now you have to go get some."
JD snorted. "Like hell. Get it yourself." He came back in the office and ducked the swat at his head. "Knock it off, Buck. If you hadn't had to talk to - what's her name this week?"
"Shut up, Kid." Buck slapped his hand over JD's mouth. JD rolled his eyes, before handing his mug to his big brother. Buck grabbed that mug and his own, disappearing into the break room.
"Man, I'm glad my bike's fixed. Now I don't have to ride with Buck all the time. Sometimes, I swear, we need space from each other. My bike gives me that."
Nathan asked, "Your donorcycle?" The look he gave JD conveyed - yet again - his disapproval of JD riding a motorcycle.
"It's safe, Nathan," replied JD, sliding into his chair.
I'm too sexy for my shirt, too sexy for my shirt, so sexy it hurts
"What? Vin!" JD sprung from his chair, nearly tipping it over in the process, and glared at the sharpshooter.
Once Vin, Josiah, and Nathan stopped laughing, Vin shook his head, his long hair moving side-to-side. "Not me, pard."
JD snorted. "Yeah, right."
Buck returned with two coffees, humming to himself or some such thing. From his expression, it was obvious he didn't hear JD's chair play music. The taller man placed them on his desk, removed his coat, and sat down.
Macho, macho man. I've got to be - a macho man
"JUNIOR!" Buck leapt up and made a grab for the quicker, snickering man, who beat a hasty retreat out of the reach of long-limbed arm. Josiah let Vin by him before extending his leg, tripping Buck, as he did routinely when the ladies man landed in trouble either receiving, or giving it out. Buck landed on all fours then tried scrambling after Vin on his hands and knees. Of course, Chris chose that precise moment to enter the office and witness the mayhem firsthand.
= = 7 = =
The leader stared at his crack team, narrowed green eyes sweeping over them. Buck continued to crawl on his hands and knees chasing Vin, currently moving as fast as his bent over laughing form would let him, to the other side of the room. JD was laughing uproariously at something. Josiah and Nathan were leaning against their desk casually sipping coffee and offering Buck pointers on crawling, suggesting he use the calluses he surely developed on his woman-loving knees. Chris checked his watch - five of eight in the morning. It was too early for recess. He sighed. "Buck, get off the floor. Vin, quit moving. Don't the rest of you have work to do?"
"Go t'hell, Larabee. I'm enjoying watchin' Buck crawl."
"Not in this lifetime, Junior. I don't crawl for anyone."
JD started ticking off fingers. "Except for Jennifer, Rebecca, Karen..." Buck landed a swift kick to the younger man's shin; not enough for bruising, but enough to stop the tirade.
The guffaws turned to poorly concealed chuckles when the Larabee glare swept over them. They stood by their desks and shared a look, choosing silence until Chris heard his song.
Satisfied he restored order, Chris unlocked his office door and pushed it open.
Kid Rock's infamous lyric bellowed from the hidden speakers. What little semblance of control the team had recovered fled. They folded over, covered their mouths, or outright howled, as they migrated for the nearest exit, one eye on Larabee and the other on his gun. The song repeated the yell.
"TANNER!" The bellow shook the office windows. At the other end of the hall, half of Team Six looked up at the roar, and then returned to work, figuring the group was starting early today.
"Weren't me, Chris," Vin yelled over the music, standing by the door and ready to run.
Chris slammed the door and glared again at his retreating team. He remained outside his office with death in his gaze.
Should've been a cowboy, should've learned to rope and ride, wearing my six shooter, riding my pony on a cattle drive...
"Shut that off . . .if any of you plan on seeing lunch alive." Whisper soft, his voice 'encouraged' them into hunting for the hereunto hidden speakers. Vin moved to the door and searched for the transmitters. He located them and tossed them to JD. Chris entered his office, set his briefcase on the desk surface, and removed his coat. During each breath, he wondered if he could make use of the frequently daydreamed cruel punishments. There was a tuxedo affair next month; they might like having six more men for security. He finally sank into his chair.
Like a rhinestone cowboy
"Somebody's getting shot!" He stalked into the main area of the office and nailed each man with a glare, searching out the guilty party. His shoulders slumped when he realized none of his men were that foolhardy. "Your chairs rigged?" Nods greeted his question. "Let's hear it." One by one, each played his music with the exception of Vin. JD activated Vin's chair for Larabee's amusement. "What about Ezra?"
"What about me?" the undercover operative asked from the doorway.
"Wondering when you planned on making an appearance." Buck covered.
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Mr. Wilmington, it is not even eight thirty. I believe I still have five minutes." Ezra placed his leather case on the desk and removed his coat. He pulled his chair out and wondered why six pairs of eyes watched him sit.
Black velvet and a little boy's smile,
Black velvet with - a - slow southern style,
A new religion to bring you to your knees,
Black velvet, if you please
Josiah and Nathan held each other up while JD clutched his sides. Buck used a wall, while Vin collapsed on the floor wiping tears from his eyes. Even the thundercloud smirked at the shocked expression on Ezra's face.
Slowly Ezra stood, pinning Vin with a not very amused visage. "Mr. Tanner, would you care to explain?"
"Why's everyone blamin' me?"
"Because, Mr. Tanner, your predisposition for activities of this nature indicates, with strong assurances, your involvement."
Vin rolled his eyes.
"Huh?" asked JD.
Ezra's shoulders slumped. "He's done it before."
"Why didn't you just say that?"
"I believe I did, Mr. Dunne."
"Someone's having fun at our expense." Josiah pointed out, still chuckling.
"May I assume all of us have been similarly afflicted with an odious melody?"
"Yeah, Ez," Buck answered.
"Might I inquire the melodies assigned the lot of you?" The group complied with the exceptions of Vin and Chris. Again, JD activated Vin's chair. Ezra turned to Chris. With a slight nod in his direction, Vin activated the rhinestone cowboy song.
"Dear Lord. And no one died?"
"Should have heard the door," said Buck.
"The door sang?"
JD explained, "It played Kid Rock's 'Cowboy' then Toby Keith's 'Should've Been A Cowboy'."
"I note a recurring theme."
"A deadly theme." Chris shifted his gaze to the youngest. "JD, sweep the room for cameras and bugs. Our joker needs to lose his," he paused to look at Vin, "or her eyes and ears. Fix the chairs so we can have some peace and get some work done." Entering his office again, he activated another hidden transmitter.
Every breath you take, every move you make, I'll be watching you
"Now, JD!" Chris slammed the office door shut. He started talking to himself. "If this...joke... was Harper, she has a slow, agonizing death coming to her...or another oh-so-pleasant visit by me, a visit where I talk, she listens, and I control the outcome."
The intercom engaged. Chris glared at the ceiling
Think of me, think of me fondly, when we said goodbye.
Remember me, once in a while, please promise me you'll try
In the main area, Standish smiled. "Christine from 'Phantom of the Opera'." Ezra identified. "Our prankster possesses some culture." The intercom changed tunes.
Why don't we get drunk and screw?
I just bought a waterbed,
and it's filled up for me and you
"Or not." Ezra shook his head.
"No, you're right, Ez. Jimmy Buffett. Definitely has taste," replied Buck.
Within minutes, JD found all the bugs, speakers, and cameras. He flipped one over and read 'Training Division'. Laughter escaped his lips until his eyes watered and his side cramped.
"What's so funny?" Buck came over and looked over JD's shoulder.
"It...says..." he tried to clear his throat to speak, after laughing so hard, "Training Division".
Six men looked at each other and lost all control, including Ezra. They started pointing at each other and singing someone else's songs.
"I wonder how she pulled this off."
"By being her normal, Harpy self." The snarl behind Vin's shoulder announced Larabee's arrival. He held his hand out. JD tossed the marked equipment to Chris, who caught it, turning it over and reading the origin, with a less-than-amused expression on his face. The leader grabbed a telephone and punched in an extension.
A mechanical female voice greeted him. "Hello, Instructor Harper is currently away from her desk. Please leave a message, or send an e-mail. Thank you." Cursing, he dialed another extension. "Jeff, it's Chris Larabee. I need to speak with Instructor Harper, immediately." Pause. "When will she be in? Thanks, but no thanks, Jeff. I'll track her down myself." The receiver slammed. "Out of the office until noon."
"Delayed execution," muttered Ezra, under his breath. Again, the Instructor surprised him with her actions and her continued retaliation against them. He guessed their day of retribution would exact a heavy price.
Josiah nodded. "Retaliation." He sighed. "For every war that starts, especially a prank war, it begins with an opening round. That happened during the recertification class. The injured party metes out retribution and, like most things, the incident fuels retaliation."
JD cringed. "For all we did to her."
"Mm-hmm. It's her turn now." Nathan crossed his arms. "I'm guessing the shower surprise was a start."
"She warned us, guys," Buck mused. "Remember her expressions when she promised this against us?"
"If she got into our office again, there's no telling what she did." Nathan warned. "It took time for this. I wonder what else she rigged."
Trained eyes swept the room for anything out of place. Chris searched his office, finding a note taped underneath his desk. He opened it and read aloud.
You got your retribution. Now it's time for my retaliation. Monday was a warm up. Are you men enough to take it?
"She wouldn't," JD said with a shake of his head.
"I'd say she'd dare." Ezra drawled. "We might have been a tad over enthusiastic with our retribution."
"Like the adult movies?" Buck chuckled.
"Or crashing her computer?" JD snickered.
Vin smirked. "Replacing her ketchup with pepper sauce?" The rest started laughing, remembering the little things done by the team.
Chris sobered first after five minutes of sputtering, pointing, and horrible re-enactment. "We have work to do, ladies. Quit clucking like hens and get started."
"I'd better check the computers before you boot them." JD started the anti-virus program he designed and stored on disk for each computer, one at a time, and nothing appeared. This program was not one the ATF knew about, nor would they approve of it, so he kept it off the mainframe. When he finished, they started pulling up their reports and settled in for a morning of clicking keys.
= = 7 = =
JD re-filed the anti-virus program in the hidden spot and entered his personal files. As soon as it opened, the screen flashed and restored, complete with a white and black rectangular screen border. "What the hell?" He minimized the screen and reached for the anti-virus disk again. His speakers erupted into song.
Three blind mice, Three blind mice
Each time, one of the black or white borders flashed with a musical note. He realized it resembled a piano. Five pairs of eyes met his wide ones. He opened the CD drive and inserted his virus disk, starting it immediately.
Feed me Seymour, feed me all night long. That's right, boy, you can do it. 'Cuz when you feed me, Seymour, I'll grow up big and strong
Cough. Clear throat. Snicker. Sputter. Whistle. Various sounds like these greeted JD's ears, as the piano on his border played it out.
Unfortunately, the piano played loud enough for the Papa Grizzly/Mother Hen to hear. "JD!"
"I don't know, Chris."
"I'm working on it."
Cough. Sputter. Chuckle. Cough, cough. Rumble.
Paper shuffle, paper shuffle.
JD shut off his speaker volume and re-started the anti-virus program. As he clicked with the mouse, he faintly heard "Three Blind Mice". Each keystroke lit a white or black rectangle on his monitor. The virus killer captured the problem the second time around, much to JD's relief. He rebooted and his screen returned to normal after flashing a gold harp at him.
= = 7 = =
Buck's screen suddenly blacked out. "JD?"
"Here, run this now." JD passed him the anti-virus CD. A bare female leg appeared in the corner of the screen, as if appearing from behind a curtain. Lo and behold, the curtain appeared with the knee. Traditional strip tease music blared from the speakers, catching the team's attention. They gathered around, Chris included, as a sexy cyber-siren performed on screen.
"Whoo-ee! She's got some taste." Buck whistled in appreciation.
With her back to them, the siren untied the bikini top and let it fall. The bottoms quickly followed it, the harp-decorated curtain strategically covering her backside. When she turned around, the screen blacked out.
A painful wail filled the offices. "You just don't do that to a man!" The others scattered, nervous about returning to their own computers.
= = 7 = =
Josiah's went next before the scan started.
Free your mind, and the rest will follow
A new mechanical voice said, "Hello, Josiah. Let's play a game of three riddles. I'll give you three riddles to answer correctly. Click yes, or no now."
Josiah clicked on 'no' with the knowledge if he clicked yes, his boss would consider instating the 'shoot first' policy. The screen turned black with a golden harp in the center.
"Thank you for playing," the pleasant voice said. "Riddle number one: What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening?"
"The riddle of the famed Sphinx," said Ezra. "I expected more originality. Man, of course."
His answer came simultaneously with Josiah's typing of the same answer.
"Very good. Riddle number two: What can go up a chimney down, but can't go down a chimney up?"
"Huh?" said JD.
Vin smiled when the others repeated the riddle, throwing out answers like Santa and birds. "Try an umbrella." He laughed outright, as they worked it out with their hands. Josiah typed.
"Correct. Riddle three: What has ten and four arms, legs, and eyes, one hundred forty digits, is known by multiple names, has twenty eight cheeks, and a sobriquet with music?"
No one thought of an answer immediately, each pondering for a few minutes.
"Let's break this down," said Nathan. "Fourteen arms, legs, and eyes."
"A mythical monster?" suggested Buck. "One of those ancient gods? Josiah, any insight?"
Josiah shrugged slightly, still thinking hard.
"One hundred and forty digits," Chris mused aloud. "Digits are numbers, or fingers and toes."
Josiah added, "If it has fourteen arms and legs, then five digits per hand and foot, totaling one hundred and forty."
"Most Gods are known by more than one name," said Ezra.
"Twenty-eight cheeks?" queried JD. "Nah. It couldn't mean that."
"What?" Six voices chorused back at him.
Buck cut in. "Butt cheeks. It has seven asses."
Their youngest put it together to hopefully knock something loose, or generate some ideas. "Okay, fourteen arms and legs, fourteen eyes, ten fingers and toes per arm and foot, and seven butts."
A slow smile crossed Vin's features. "Move over, Josiah." He started typing.
"Of course." Ezra breathed.
"One of you two wanna share?" Buck looked from the sharpshooter to the Southerner.
"The Magnificent Seven."
Josiah chuckled. The theme music blared from the speakers and the printer shot out a piece of paper. Josiah grabbed it and read:
Congratulations! This entitles you to one free round at the Saloon. See Inez for redemption.
Two more printed after it, probably for JD and Buck.
"Who's next?" asked JD. "Who hasn't cleared their computer yet?"
"I have not."
"Better do it now."
"Give me that." Chris snatched a CD and started his computer.
= = 7 = =
"Howdy, Cowpoke!" A twang filled familiar female voice bellowed from his speakers. He shoved the CD in to no avail; the keyboard and mouse locked on him.
Chris reached for the power button and JD yelled, "STOP!" Laser eyes turned on the youngest.
"Let it go, Chris. So far, she has anticipated every move. Turning it off might start a cascade effect. Once her program runs through, it allows itself to be removed."
"Since you ain't turned the power off, cowpoke, you've realized I'm smarter than you gave me credit for." A round of applause sounded.
"Now, Chris, don't shoot it." Buck warned, waving his hands in a calming gesture. "Think about the reports you'll have to fill out. You want everyone to know why you shot your computer?"
Chris eased his hand from his gun, not remembering putting it there. "I'll shoot her."
"She ain't callin' ya cowboy." Vin chuckled.
"Cowpoke's close enough." The screen should have incinerated from the hatred in his stare.
Unfazed, the computer talked. "I've got five multiple choice questions for you. Answer correctly to be a real cowboy."
Josiah grabbed the fist before it connected.
"Calm down, Chris. She's trying to rile you," added Nathan. "She might be going too far...but she has the right after the episode with her car. You don't want her to make you mad, Chris, and let her beat you on her terms?"
"Too late," Larabee muttered.
"Question one is in two parts: What is the name of the man responsible for killing Billy the Kid? (a) Harvey Logan; (b) Ephraim Finch; (c) William Cody; (d) Pat Garrett; (e) None of the above."
"Wild West trivia? She gives me trivia questions?" Chris punched the letter D.
"Correct. Part Two: Where did Pat Garrett kill Billy the Kid on 14 July 1881? (a) Kansas City; (b) Dodge City; (c) Fort Sumner; (d) Laramie City; (e) None of the above."
Chris punched C. "Correct. Question two: Who was the last stagecoach bandit in 1899? (a) Billy Leroy; (b) Pearl Hart; (c) Jennie Metcalf; (d) Bill Cook; (e) None of the above."
"Pearl Hart," said their resident lothario. "Trust me, I know this one."
"If it relates to women, he knows." cracked Nathan.
Chris punched B, while Buck punched Nathan. "Correct. Question three: Range cowboys considered which customs bad luck? (a) Buttoning the vest; (b) Changing underwear; (c) Hat on the bed; (d) Putting his socks first; (e) All of the above; (f) None of the above."
"E, Chris." JD shrugged when they stared at him. "I looked it up for a paper for school once."
Chris punched E. "Correct. Question four: By definition, a cowboy is: (a) Person who tends cattle especially in the western US; (b) A hired hand who rode horses to drive cattle to pastures and water; (c) Chris Larabee; (d) All of the above; (e) None of the above; (f) A and B only."
A vicious poke of the finger on F resulted in a playing of "Wrong, wrong, wrong," an excerpt from the "They're Playing My Song" musical. Wisely, the other six held their tongues and swallowed their laughter. "She's dead," Chris pronounced in a flat tone.
"A subtle message buried for your discovery." Ezra grinned at the pulsating vein on his leader's forehead. He found her retaliation a welcome break from the routine and enjoyed watching Larabee completely angry at someone other than him. No wonder the others watched when Chris had a 'talk' with him; it was almost painfully comical.
Josiah wondered if she pushed too far with this. Crossing Chris Larabee, especially with the cowboy issue, ranked as a not-so-bright maneuver.
Nathan mentally reviewed the contents of his first aid kit, knowing someone would need help shortly.
Buck found himself torn between outrage for himself and Chris, and admiration for the foolish stunts. It took guts to provoke Chris.
JD stared at the computer and Chris, waiting for the explosion. He knew Chris wanted to destroy the computer yet barely refrained.
Vin could not resist. Her retaliation showed considerable thought on her part, customizing each program for the user. "Ya gonna answer, cowboy, or glare it inta submission?" Calmly he accepted the glare and raised an eyebrow. The others bit their lips and waited with the fascination of voyeurs.
The key with D received a vicious punch. "Correct. Congratulations." The printer spit out another certificate for dinner for all of them.
"She will die a painful death."
BANG! BANG! BANG! ON THE DOOR, BABY!
= = 7 = =
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