Ezra is going to be in deep shit, ATF agent Vin Tanner mused
as he glanced from his wristwatch to Chris Larabee's office. The leader
of the ATF team whose success rate was as legendary as its unconventional
methods sat watching the door and drumming his fingers on his desk. It
was ten fifteen am. The whole team had been at the Bureau doing prep work
for their big mission since eight. Everybody except Standish. Ezra was
still not there.
The condition of Ezra Standish being late was not a phenomenon to any
of the other six agents that comprised Team Seven. In fact, there was
usually a bet riding at the office on just how late he would actually
be. The undercover agent had a notorious animosity for the rising sun,
and everyone had accepted by now that Ezra was not going to change his
habits. Most of the time Chris let it go with only a sarcastic rebuke
that he knew would be ignored by the Southern agent, but today Larabee
had specifically told his men to be in early for some last-minute briefings
and to go over the details of their current assignment a final time
before Ezra went undercover. Chris Larabee's orders were to be followed
whether you liked it or not, and Standish's seeming disregard for the
ATF leader's instructions had put Chris in a foul mood.
Ezra's lack of punctuality was not the only contributing factor, Vin
reflected while keeping an eye out for the tardy agent as he went over
some case photos in his office. This whole week's been way too tense.
The cause of the tension was Team Seven's current case, arms dealer
Meyerhurst was an up-and-coming figure in the world of Denver's organized
crime. Little was known of him or the individuals under his employ,
but he was suspected in everything from money laundering to murder.
Ezra had spent the whole of last month wheedling his way into Meyerhurst's
organization, and his work was finally coming into fruition as the crime
lord had just offered "Anthony Stabler," as he knew Ezra,
a place in his syndicate. That meant Standish would be going under deep
cover in just one day.
But the undercover agent had not been the only one working overtime.
The rest of the team had also been working feverishly to back their
undercover agent, researching Meyerhurst and his operations, establishing
Ezra's new identity as a small arms munitions expert.
Lack of sleep combined with stress had filled the office with cranky,
irritable, short-tempered agents. So far the seven of them had managed
not to kill anyone, but Tanner wondered how long that would last when
Ezra finally showed. The office was a time bomb waiting to go off, and
Chris was the one with the shortest fuse. The sharpshooter didn't want
to be around when he detonated.
The sound of the clock's ticking permeated the office. Ten thirty came
and went. Ten forty-five. No Standish. Vin thought Larabee's stare might
set the door on fire as his fingers picked up the pace of their impatient
At ten after eleven the undercover agent finally strode into the office,
as usual wearing an expensive designer suit, although Vin noticed that
Standish was not quite as impeccably groomed as he normally was. He
had missed a small spot shaving, and there were dark circles under his
usually sharp green eyes.
As Ezra walked sluggishly by Larabee's office, Chris barked, "What
time zone are we in, Standish?"
Ezra pretended not to hear the sarcastic question. He trudged into
the break room, where three other members of the team were taking a
breather from their work, and poured himself a cup of coffee, apparently
not even caring that Vin had been the one who brewed it. Chris, however,
was not going to let go this time. The leader of the most successful
ATF team in the department followed his agent into the break room like
a black cloud of divine judgment and glared at the Southerner's unheeding
"Maybe in Ezra Standish Standard Time its eight o'clock, but here
in Denver, you are over three hours late." Larabee's voice was
pure growl. "Unacceptable!"
The sleep-deprived agent brought his head around slowly to face his
"Unacceptable?" Standish drawled. "What, may I ask,
do you mean by 'unacceptable?'" He continued acerbically before
Larabee could answer. "Perhaps the word you intended is 'inconvenient'
or possibly 'inconsiderate.'"
His words were gaining speed and heat. "Because the definition
of 'unacceptable' would be expecting one to wake at an ungodly hour
merely to expound on a case that the individual is already thoroughly
familiar with, only to be assailed by one of Chris Larabee's unreasonable
Chris' eyes narrowed further. His glares always had the effect of hail
combined with freezing rain, but Ezra was either too tired to feel the
chill or just did not care today. He concluded his suicidal speech with,
"So please, Mr. Larabee, consult your dictionary before taking
it upon yourself to harass my person with inaccurate diatribe."
Sitting at the table where they had been watching the argument unfold,
computer expert JD Dunne looked at Agent Buck Wilmington in the chair
next to him and gaped in astonishment. His pal returned the incredulous
glance. Neither of them were exactly sure what the undercover agent
just said, but it had sounded like a death wish.
Chris' glare reached new depths. Standish was unexcelled at prodding
Larabee into a fury, but usually it was more of a personal challenge
on the undercover agent's behalf. Today there was a dangerous undercurrent
to both men's tones, heightened by the tension in the office.
"Unreasonable? I suppose it's unreasonable to ask one of my agents
to be a damn professional?" Chris took half a step toward the slightly
shorter Standish. "The rest of the team got here on time. They've
been here working their asses off to make sure that you stay safe on
this mission." Larabee scowled and added, "God only knows
why they bother!"
Boom! Sitting at his desk, Vin flinched at the low verbal blow the
team leader delivered to Standish. Tanner shook his head as he watched
the display of tempers in the other room. Chris did have a point, the
Texan admitted to himself. There was a lot to do before they inserted
Standish into Meyerhurst's gang, and less than thirty-six hours in which
to do it. On the other hand, Ezra had been putting a lot of time into
this assignment and would very soon be living his work. What was the
harm in letting the man get a couple extra hours of sleep?
Somehow the topic had gotten off course.
". . . Your bouts of wrath are by and large almost entirely unwarranted.
I do not recollect your being nearly as irate when Mr. Dunne botched
the surveillance on the Watsinburg case," Ezra was seething.
"Hey!" JD protested, jumping in his chair. "That was
Buck's fault as much as mine!"
Buck looked at his younger roommate indignantly. "The hell you
"Who was it that dumped coffee all over the keyboard?"
"If I recall, it was your horsin' around that made me do that!"
Buck seemed unusually defensive at the accusation.
JD shoved his chair back aggressively as he started to retort. Former
medic Nathan Jackson had been watching the scene from outside the break
room, standing just outside with an empty coffee cup in his hands. He
slipped through the doorway behind Chris before the two agents came
to blows. JD had spunk, but Buck was just bigger.
"Hey, c'mon guys," Nathan interrupted. "It happened,
we dealt with it, and it's over." Buck and JD still scowled at
each other. Nathan looked at Ezra accusingly. "Now what'd you bring
that up for?" he asked.
Chris answered for him. "Because he needs to take the heat off
himself. Man's smart-ass mouth is always getting someone else into trouble.
Hell, Nathan, you know that."
Ezra's eyes bored holes into the team leader. "Yes, Mr. Jackson.
You've been quite vocal on your feelings about me and my 'smart-ass
mouth.' I'm sure you and Larabee spend hours commiserating about me
and my 'Smart. Ass. Mouth.'" He punctuated the last three words
Nathan opened his mouth and raised his finger to object, but Vin decided
it was time for him to intervene and diffuse the situation. Hopefully
he fared better than Jackson had.
"Hey, fellas," he crossed the room in long, hurried steps.
"Let's get a grip on ourselves here! What're we all fighting about
Chris greeted Vin's arrival with a frightening display of false cheer.
"Ah, Vin," he said in a jovial tone that was belied by the
frost in his eyes, "Just the person we needed to see. Tell us -
am I unreasonable?"
So much for doing better than Nate. Vin really hadn't wanted to get
dragged into the argument. You did not tell Chris Larabee that he lacked
certain rational qualities at times. Not if you wanted to escape with
your face intact, anyway. Larabee's glare was fixed on him, though,
demanding an answer, and Ezra was regarding him as well. Damn. He should
have just stayed out of it.
"Well . . . it, uh . . . it seems to me that, um . . . you may
be overreactin' a mite. Ez has been workin' hard. He deserves a little
rest." There, he'd said it.
The Southerner shot Larabee a triumphant smirk. Chris, for his part,
stared at Vin in astonishment.
"You're taking his side?"
"Well, Chris, there ain't no sides-" the sharpshooter tried
"I can't believe you're defending-" Chris began darkly.
"Aw, leave him alone. There're worse things he coulda done."
This time is was Buck who made the fatal mistake of interrupting Larabee.
It was JD, however, who responded.
"Yeah, like spilling hot liquid on sensitive electronic equipment,"
the young computer genius ribbed.
"Are you still on that?" Buck asked, exasperated. "I
told you, if you hadn't been doing your impression of an octopus on
"Mr. Tanner can hardly be faulted for stating the truth-"
Ezra defended Vin.
"I might not agree with you but I don't gossip-" Nathan protested.
"I just don't see why it makes such a difference today-"
Vin explained weakly to Chris, who wasn't listening.
"If it's unreasonable to come in on time I don't see why you bother
coming in at all," he told Standish menacingly.
The undercover agent's expression did not change, but his whole body
stiffened as if preparing for a fight.
"Are you insinuating threats to my career, Mr. Larabee?"
Ezra kept his eyes on his boss while Buck and JD continued bickering
in the background. Vin and Nate were also talking, though neither Standish
nor Larabee paid any attention to what they were saying as Chris replied,
"Your biggest threat to your career is yourself, Standish."
Josiah Sanchez, who had been sitting staring out the window throughout
the proceedings, apparently decided that enough was enough, before the
ATF leader and his undercover agent ran out of things to say and this
fight turned violent. The profiler exhaled softly as he stood up and
took a step towards the arguing agents.
"Gentlemen," he rumbled into the melee. His deep bass caught
everyone's attention more effectively than a loud yell might have. Once
all eyes were focused on him, including those of Larabee and Standish,
who had been almost nose-to-nose, he took a sip of his coffee and asked
mildly, "Shouldn't we all be getting back to work?"
"You have to have been at work to be getting back to work,"
Chris growled before shooting one last glare at Standish as he spun
on his heel and stalked back to his office. The rest of the team gave
a collective wince as the door slammed shut.
Ezra took a swallow of his own coffee, glowering balefully around the
room and nodding to Vin and Buck before heading to his own desk. Not
that Buck noticed; he was too busy staring daggers at JD.
Vin heaved a sigh and gulped the rest of his brew. Damn. Should have
made it stronger today.
Nathan sat on his couch staring at the ceiling of his living room.
What a nightmarish afternoon it had been! The ex-EMT was sure he was
going to be bandaging someone's gunshot wounds by lunch. By the end
of the day he had felt like causing a few himself. All he wanted now
was to get some peace and quiet. Not that it had it hadn't been quiet
at the office. It just hadn't been peaceful.
The whole day nobody had said one word more than absolutely necessary
to anyone else, and the scowls going around the room had severely frightened
some poor secretary who had wandered in to borrow some fax paper. Buck
and JD, roommates who were usually like brothers with their good-natured
bantering, ignored each other the whole day and refused to speak to
one another without the aid of an intermediary. Chris practically barricaded
himself in his office, while Vin sat staring at his door muttering to
himself and wondering where he had went wrong. The undercover agent
who had started the whole mess had been a cold flurry of activity, though
what exactly he had been doing Nathan wouldn't have been able to say.
Josiah had spent the day looking from one teammate to another and heaving
sighs like small hurricanes.
At least Nathan was home now and could just forget this whole day.
He did not look forward to going back to the office tomorrow. He wondered
how Buck and JD were going to survive living together if they were fighting.
Maybe the forced companionship would assist their reconciliation
A knock at the door startled Nathan. He looked at his watch. Nine thirty.
Who could possibly be visiting him this late? Nathan hoped he hadn't
been supposed to go out with Rain tonight. But hadn't she said she was
going to be working this evening?
Another knock spurred Nathan to his feet. "I'm coming, I'm coming,"
The chemist pulled open his front door. JD stood on his porch with
a duffel bag in his hand, shuffling it from one hand to another, waiting
impatiently for Nathan to answer the door. Dunne looked up with a grim
"Can I bunk with you for a while?"
Ezra stared out the dark windows of the towncar, watching the big gray
buildings as they sped past. Michael Meyerhurst's right-hand man, Dale
Oscar, sat to his left, talking about some boxing match he had attended
last night. Ezra wasn't paying attention. The altercation that had taken
place yesterday and had still been causing angst in Team Seven's ranks
this morning filled his mind.
Damn Chris. Why did he have to be so unrelenting, so damn antagonistic?
The team should have been functioning as one cohesive unit, backing
each other to ensure this operation went smoothly. Instead, JD and Buck
were at each other's throat, Chris felt that Vin had betrayed him and
hence ignored him the best he could all the while making biting remarks
to Ezra. Nathan for some reason was also angry at Ezra and would hardly
say two words to him. Josiah had been trying his best to patch things
up, but nobody was having any of it. Ezra had never felt so insecure
and at the same time so relieved about going undercover. Well, except
near the end in Atlanta.
He supposed that, yes, he may shoulder some blame in this fiasco, but
of all the days Chris chose to make an issue out of Ezra's coming in
late, why did it have to be that day? The undercover agent had been
up late the night before and had still been up into the early morning,
doing some last minute research on Meyerhurst. When he had finally retired
to bed, sleep had been as evasive as a royal flush in a poker game.
Ezra was always keyed up before a big assignment, and that night had
been one of the worst. Eight o'clock was an absurd time to begin work,
but he had planned on being at the office by nine. He had slept through
the alarm clock, though, and hadn't even woken until quarter to eleven.
That the Southerner had gotten to work as quickly as he had was a miniature
And he might have explained all this to Chris, had Larabee not jumped
on him the second he walked through the door, before he'd even had a
chance for a decent-or-otherwise cup of coffee. But no! No quarter from
the almighty, ever perfect, can't do anything wrong, Ezra's late, let's
kick him when he's down, Chris Larabee. Everybody else does their job
so well except Standish, we've got to make an example out of him.
The black car came to a stop, and Ezra mentally shook himself out of
his bitter reverie as he realized they had reached their destination.
They had arrived at what looked to be an abandoned office building,
a three-story complex that was in sad shape. The glass had been broken
out of a half a dozen windows, the landscaping was overgrown, littered
with trash, and weeds were growing out of massive cracks in the heaving
concrete of the parking lot. Ezra noticed that the unobtrusive white
entrance door had a nice new lock on it, though.
Besides the lock, the complex was just like all the other falling down
wrecks that littered the area. It truly was a dump of a neighborhood.
While it had apparently once been an industrial epicenter, businesses
had moved on long ago and now the town was home only to the destitute
and desperate. And the various gun runner, it would seem.
Dale hadn't shut up since Ezra had got in the car with him thirty-five
minutes ago. He was still talking as he led the ATF agent into the office
building. It was obvious that not a lot of effort had been made to rejuvenate
the interior of the dilapidated building. Stark squares of pale green
revealed spaces where pictures had once hung and the paint had faded
around them. As they proceeded down the dimly lit corridors Ezra noted
the fine cracks in the drywall, the empty light sockets. This building
had obviously suffered a long period of disuse before Meyerhurst appropriated
it. Not a lot of time had been dedicated to interior design since then,
They navigated the rundown hallways until they came to a large office,
where Ezra's new "boss" was sitting behind a magnificent oak
desk. A muscular black man in an Armani suit skulked just behind him.
The man at the desk looked up as he heard Oscar and Standish approaching.
". . . a left hook right to the kisser! Man, if I had had money
"Dale." Michael Meyerhurst corked the flow of incessant chatter
with one authoritative word. The big man cut off mid-sentence, unperturbed,
and took a step aside to lurk in the background and let his boss greet
the new arrival.
Meyerhurst's office was classy enough to belong on Wall Street. And
rich enough, too. The oak desk was faced by two matching chairs, and
three plush designer chairs were situated around the spacious office.
Tasteful and expensive artwork hung on the periwinkle walls.
"Anthony," Meyerhurst stood and came out from behind his
desk. He extended a hand to shake Ezra's. Ezra returned the handshake
and the crime lord's polite smile. The man had never been anything but
amiable in the time the undercover agent had known him. It was not an
ingratiating sort of affability, but a rather an 'I-have-control-over-your-life-and-death-so-why-not-let's-be-pleasant-about-it'
kind of attitude. Somehow he still managed to convey the impression
wearing a black tailored suit and a bright pink tie. It was actually
somewhat subtle compared to some of the outlandish ties Ezra had seen
Meyerhurst wear on past encounters.
"I'm so glad you decided to take me up on my offer," Meyerhurst
continued. "It will be a pleasure to have you in our organization."
"The pleasure will be all mine, I assure you," Standish replied.
"It has been a delight to work with a gentleman of your professional
caliber, and I am sure you run your business with the same efficiency."
Meyerhurst's smile broadened. "Anthony, you could not have chosen
a better time to become a part of my operation. Let me take you down
to the conference room, where I'll introduce you to a few of your new
associates. You of course already know Eric Further, my personal bodyguard,
among other things." Ezra nodded at the bald man. Further, for
his part, was uninterested.
The four men left the office, Meyerhurst and Standish in the lead.
"What do you think of my building?" Meyerhurst asked as they
walked. "No, don't answer that, I know it's shit. That will change
one day very soon." Ezra cocked an eyebrow. "I am currently
working on a deal that will change everything. Bigger payoffs, better
accommodations, no need to camouflage my operation in a second-hand
complex falling apart in the middle of a veritable slumsville. I keep
my office the way it is to remind me what I'm working towards. Everyone
who's with me will be in that kind of luxury, my friend."
They now stood in front of a closed door with the words "Main
Conference Room" engraved on it.
"And behind this door is a group of people who are in complete
agreement with me. I have many teams and individuals in my employ, but
the team you will be working with is my best."
Dale opened the door and led the small party into the conference room.
The dominant piece of furniture in the stark, windowless room was a
large round table, around which sat the remaining members of Ezra's
new team. They looked up when Meyerhurst entered. The arms dealer wasted
no time getting to the introductions.
"Here we have Rick Gadflies, procurator of the unattainable,"
Meyerhurst gestured to a short man with thinning brown hair and large
glasses. "Do yourself a favor - don't ask him where he gets it."
Rick grinned and gave Ezra a slight wave.
Next to the small man, sitting at a conspicuous distance from him with
her boot-clad feet up on the table, was a young woman wearing a black
t-shirt and black backwards baseball cap. "Andrea Kitanovich,"
Meyerhurst introduced. "Kitty's a genius with computers and electronics."
The "genius" looked Ezra up and down appraisingly and then
went back to studying her nails. They were painted black.
"And that is Ron Rye." Meyerhurst indicated a very large
man in a camouflage jacket sitting with his head on the table and his
arms crossed around it. The crime lord spoke softly to Ezra. "Rye
disappeared for about five years a while back. Nobody knows where he
was or what happened, but ever since he's been back he's been a bit
. . . unstable. Don't look him directly in the eyes." Ezra's own
eyes widened a bit, and he nodded. Ron Rye chose that moment to get
up from his chair and move to a corner, where he started thumping his
head lightly against the wall. Everyone in the room ignored him.
"Lastly, there's Tony." Moving to the last man at the table,
who vaguely reminded Ezra of a mole wearing a garish orange suit, Meyerhurst
reached into his suit coat and pulled out a gun. Without hesitation
he shot Tony dead center between the eyes. The weasely-looking little
man fell lifeless to the floor.
"Tony," Meyerhurst continued in the same tone, "thought
it would be more profitable to play both sides. He's been selling information
to the Feds at the same time he was spying on them for me." Putting
his gun back into the holster, Meyerhurst said, "I don't tolerate
being played, Mr. Stabler. I hope you can understand that."
"Perfectly." Ezra smoothly hid his shock at the way Meyerhurst
had calmly dispatched the double agent. For a while there the "team"
had vaguely reminded him of Team Seven, but the others' reaction of
largely ignoring the cold-blooded killing of one of their own quickly
dispersed that illusion.
"Glad to hear that," Meyerhurst smiled again. "And I
must not forget Dale Oscar." Turning to the Tom Cruise look-alike,
Meyerhurst clapped him on the shoulder. "Ozzie has been with me
from the beginning. Watch out for the scoundrel - his practical jokes
have left people missing limbs. Everybody, this is Anthony Stabler."
"What are we, the Brady Bunch?" Kitanovich muttered without
looking up. The others voiced various greetings. Except for Ron Rye.
The giant of a man seemed pretty much oblivious to all that was going
on around him.
Dale grinned at Ezra. "No sooner do we lose a Tony than we gain
one, huh Tony?"
The undercover agent looked at the tastelessly dressed corpse on the
floor. "Please," Ezra said, "call me Anthony."
Twenty-four hours later Vin and Chris were waiting for Ezra to meet
them for the designated rendezvous in a Marriott parking garage. Vin
was leaning up against his Jeep, watching Chris pace restlessly from
one concrete pillar to another. It had been extremely awkward on the
car ride over. Larabee had been avoiding Tanner at the office, and this
had been the first time the men had been alone since the argument. Neither
had said a word to each other during the short trip, and the silence
had been deafening even when Vin had switched on the radio.
Ezra's Jag pulled up next to his teammate's vehicle. The undercover
agent got out of his car and greeted Vin with a two-fingered salute.
Larabee got a curt nod.
"What have ya got?" Vin asked hurriedly, hoping to preclude
any snide remarks from Chris about the agent's tardiness. Ezra was ten
Standish raised an eyebrow behind his designer sunglasses at the abruptness
of the question, but quickly got to the point of the meeting.
"I have apparently been more successful than I had anticipated
in winning Meyerhurst's trust. He has given me a position on his most
elite team of criminal thugs. I join the ranks of such sparkling personas
as Dale Oscar, Andrea Kitanovich, Eric Further, Ron Rye and lastly Rick
Gadflies, former morgue attendant. I did some digging around (ha ha,
little graveyard humor there) and discovered that Mr. Gadflies was arraigned
for selling human organs on the black market. He spent two years in
state penitentiary, where he quickly gained himself a reputation for
acquiring even the most unlikely items. Meyerhurst finagled some of
his connections into getting him released early and Gadflies has worked
for Meyerhurst ever since."
"Sounds charming," Chris said dryly.
"Who's this Further guy?" Vin asked. The name sounded familiar.
"His former employment was as a freelance hit man. He was contracted
to take out Meyerhurst, but Meyerhurst discovered the plot and reportedly
offered Further three times the money to take out the individual who
had engaged his services. Further did so, and ended up with a price
on his own head. It was rescinded, however, when Meyerhurst took him
in as his personal bodyguard."
Vin nodded. That was how he knew him. He had never met up with Eric
Further during his stint as a bounty hunter, but he had tracked the
man for three days before he heard the bounty had been repealed.
"What about the rest of them?" Larabee asked.
"Andrea Kitanovich, AKA Kitty, graduated college two years ago.
She has been working for Meyerhurst as his own personal hacker and all-around
computer expert for three. Came to America with relatives when she was
in her early teens after the untimely death of her parents. Her wardrobe
and Mr. Larabee's share a remarkable similarity in color scheme."
All three men looked at Chris' black button-down shirt for a second,
then Ezra continued.
"Ron Rye was Meyerhurst's personal assistant until he vanished
under mysterious conditions about seven years ago. He reemerged under
equally perplexing circumstances and has been with Meyerhurst the last
two years. None of the others are aware of, or are willing to divulge,
where Rye was in those five years. The man is unstable, to say the least.
"Dale 'Ozzie' Oscar has been with Meyerhurst from the beginning.
They grew up in the same neighborhood, Oscar a willing participant in
whatever scheme Meyerhurst concocted. His loyalty to Meyerhurst is unquestionable,
though I do have some doubts about his macabre sense of humor."
Standish paused as if he were about to say something else, but apparently
decided not to mention what or whoever was on his mind.
Larabee shook his head when it was clear the undercover agent was finished.
If he was impressed at the amount of information Standish had acquired
on Meyerhurst's people in such a short time, he didn't show it.
"Quite a peanut gallery Meyerhurst has assembled. You must fit
Vin couldn't see Ezra's glare behind the sunglasses, but he knew it
"Yes, well, I never thought I'd live to see a bigger band of miscreant
morons than Team Seven, but it would appear I was mistaken."
Seeing a dangerous glint in their leader's eyes as he opened his mouth,
Vin cut in before Larabee could respond. Damn, they were going to have
to end this fight soon. Continually interrupting Chris was not good
for Tanner's career, or his health.
"Now that we know the players, we'll see if we can uncover any
relevant information on 'em. Meyerhurst got anything in the works?"
Ezra eyed Chris for one second further before replying to Vin. "Meyerhurst
has aspirations to the next level of organized crime. He has a meeting
with the Chicago Boys, part of the Gianotello crime family, in the interests
of joining them and broadening his criminal horizons. The Boys are arriving
in Denver tomorrow morning and the rendezvous is scheduled for the early
evening at Meyerhurst's restaurant. Meyerhurst is desperate to make
this deal; he has all his assets invested in it."
"The Chicago Boys, huh? What flight? I'll have Wilmington and
Dunne keep an eye on them." Chris mused over the new information,
almost forgetting he was mad at his two agents.
Ezra gave them the requested information. As they concluded the meet,
the undercover man took off his sunglasses to rub the bridge of his
nose absentmindedly. Vin gasped at the large cut under Ezra's left eye.
"What the hell happened to your eye?" he exclaimed.
"I foolishly asked Ron Rye if I could borrow his pen," Standish
explained, replacing his sunglasses.
"And he hit ya?"
"Apparently it was his favorite pen."
Josiah wondered if this was what hell was like.
He was trapped in small quarters with two whining babies - Buck and
JD. The two of them were surveilling the Chicago Boys, and Chris has
sent Josiah along to babysit. The Almighty must be testing his patience,
Sanchez decided. The second the ex-roommates stepped into the van together
there had been nothing but constant bickering, recriminations and denials.
For a while they had run out of nasty things to say to each other and
blissful silence had reigned. Then Buck had brought out his lunch.
"Peanut butter and jelly?" JD exclaimed incredulously.
"Well it's better than coffee, ain't it? Besides, it won't get
on any of your stuff unless you start goofing around."
"Come on, kids, play nice," Josiah admonished. Why couldn't
Chris have put Nathan on surveillance? The ex-EMT was probably doing
paperwork in a nice quiet office right now, positively heaven compared
to tracking the moves of three notorious mobsters with Abbot and Costello
here. Maybe if the stakeout had been more interesting, the two agents
would have been distracted enough to forget they were mad at each other,
but so far the Chicago Boys had been behaving themselves. The trio had
ridden to their hotel in a cab and checked in about two hours ago. The
AFT team had been watching the Hilton's doors ever since, but the criminals
Buck and JD glanced at the profiler before shooting twin glares at
each other. JD then returned to staring at the security monitor they
had tapped into and Buck went back to his lunch. JD had his back to
Wilmington, so he did not see the glob of strawberry jam seep out of
Buck's sandwich as the ATF agent took his first bite. Josiah saw it,
though, and watched in mute horror as the bright red goop oozed from
the sandwich and fell like a sticky missile of death towards JD's laptop.
He heaved a sigh of relief when the dangerous substance missed Dunne's
computer and instead landed on the desk next to it. Josiah chalked it
up to Providence and thanked God that JD had missed the whole thing.
Buck looked down and saw the incriminating mess. He hastily grabbed
a napkin and began to clean up the evidence, glancing up to see if JD
had noticed. When he saw Sanchez watching him, he raised a finger to
his lips and gave the big man a look that clearly said "not a word
of this to the kid." Josiah rubbed his eyes wearily. What had he
done to deserve these two?
"What did I do to deserve getting partnered with you?" moaned
Andrea Kitanovich in a light Russian accent. The young computer genius,
along with "Anthony," Rick Gadflies, and Ron Rye had been
waiting in Meyerhurst's building for the last hour for the rest of the
gang to return from their meeting with the Chicago Boys. Her question
was directed towards Gadflies, who was sitting at the conference table
picking his teeth. The ex-mortician looked up and waggled his eyebrows
at the dark-haired woman.
"I don't know," he said. "You must have done something
"Please, Mr. Gadflies, that is such a clichéd response."
Ezra sat at the end of the table, dealing himself another round of Solitaire.
This was getting tedious. Meyerhurst had only taken Oscar and Further
with him to meet the Chicago mobsters, and it irked Ezra to no end that
he had not been able to persuade Meyerhurst to take him along. It did
make sense. There were only three Chicago Boys at the meet, and Meyerhurst
did not want to make them feel threatened by having more men there than
they. Of course he would take his right-hand man and his personal bodyguard.
But in the meantime Ezra was stuck in a room with Ron Rye, Andrea Kitanovich
and Rick Gadflies, none of who would play poker with him after their
"friendly little game" the first night.
"Yes, Gadflies. You are a big cliché. Thank you, Mr. Stabler."
Kitanovich nodded appreciatively at the agent.
"At your service, Ms. Kitanovich. Though please, call me Anthony,"
She nodded again in acknowledgement. "And you may call me Kitty."
Ezra smiled and gave the young Russian a salute. They both looked over
to where the grave robber was prying the fillings out of the teeth of
an old skull.
"Honestly, Mr. Gadflies," Standish drawled, "that is
disgusting. I mean picking your teeth is bad enough, but those aren't
even your teeth."
"Gold is gold no matter where it comes from," Gadflies rebutted.
"I must concede that point. And speaking of, where exactly did
those bones come from?" Not that Ezra was really sure he wanted
"One of the city's older and finer cemeteries. I tell you, they
certainly don't make 'em like they used to."
Before Ezra could open his mouth to comment on Rick's use of yet another
cliché, Meyerhurst walked in, Dale Oscar and Eric Further flanking
their boss. Ron Rye, who had been silently staring with dark intent
at the room's other occupants, now switched his gaze to the new arrivals.
"Chicago Boys interested?" Rye asked in a gruff voice. Ezra
was rather surprised. He wasn't quite sure how much the distant giant
had been following the proceedings. Or any proceedings at all, actually.
Meyerhurst sat down in an available chair and loosened the knot of
his blue and orange spotted tie. "Very interested, unless I miss
my guess. They inspected the sample merchandise and we've come up with
an agreeable price. Confirmation is needed on their end to go through
with the transaction, so we're meeting again in two days to get the
final answer. And there is absolutely no reason for them not to say
yes. Then the ball of opportunity begins to roll. Once Chicago Pete
agrees to buy the guns, he will then introduce me to Angry Jack Gianotello.
Angry Jack will put us on Easy Street, my friends."
A lyrical chiming resonated in the room. Ron Rye jumped up, swirling
around for the source of the sound. Meyerhurst pulled a cell phone from
"It's okay, Rye. It's just my phone. You can sit down." Once
Rye had sat down again, glaring worse than ever, Meyerhurst answered
his phone. "Hello? Yes, would you please hold on a second? Excuse
me, I'm going to take this outside. Feel free to head home, I'll get
in contact with you all later." As he walked out of the conference
room Further began to follow, but Meyerhurst waved for him to stay.
As the arms dealer left, Dale sat down and swung his feet up onto the
table. A big grin lit his face, as usual.
"Boys and girls, we are prepped to hook up into some sweet action,"
Ozzie said, drawing out the word "sweet" into two syllables.
"You shoulda seen these players tonight - all decked out in fancy
suits, wearing the biggest diamond rings I've ever seen."
The right-hand man had the rest of the team's attention. Gadflies didn't
pause in his work but he cocked his head and glanced up occasionally.
Kitty clasped her hands in front of her and leaned forward on her elbows.
"And they've all got these high-falutin' names," Oscar continued,
"like, South Side Jim and Donnie the Nose. You know," he said
contemplatively, "when we make it big time I'm going to have me
a swanky name like that. How about Diamond Dale? Or maybe Dale 'The
Eliminator' Oscar. What do you guys think?" He looked up to gauge
Kitty was unimpressed. "I think 'Oscar, Meyer's wiener' would
be more appropriate," she said derisively.
Oscar huffed while the others laughed. Rick Gadflies laughed, anyway.
Eric Further, who had stayed pretty much to the sidelines through Dale's
description of the meeting, emitted a small smile. Kitty wore a satisfied
smirk and Ezra allowed himself a chuckle. Ron Rye muttered under his
"Bad kitty," Gadflies guffawed, changing the Russian's smirk
to a scowl of disgust at the little man.
Dale put his feet to the floor and leaned forward to face Kitanovich.
"Not 'bad kitty,'" he said. "Pussycat Kitanovich. Or
maybe Kitty Kilobyte."
Oscar was trying to push the hacker's buttons, but she surprised him
and said matter of factly, "No. 'Black Cat.'"
Ezra chuckled a bit. "'Black Cat' Kitanovich. It does have charm."
"So you've been thinking about this, huh, Miss Black Cat?"
Dale was grinning again. "What about you, Gadflies? Have you got
a nickname picked out already?"
The once-mortician put his skull down, leaned back and crossed his
hands behind his head as he pondered the question. "Well,"
he said after a second, "I think I'd like to be called . . . 'Rick
Detroit.'" He glanced up for approval.
Dale "the Eliminator" and "Black Cat" Kitanovich
looked at each other in puzzlement.
"Hey, Gadflies, aren't you from Pittsburgh?" Oscar asked.
"Yes, but it's a known fact that people think you're tougher if
you came from Detroit." The former morgue attendant said defensively.
"What do you think, Anthony?"
Standish took a good look at Rick Gadflies. The man was maybe five
foot seven, skinny, with a complexion that rarely saw daylight. His
thin brown hair covered a balding round pate and the thick large glasses
he wore made his pale eyes seem owlish. Ezra smiled.
"I think the name makes perfect sense, Mr. Gadflies."
Rick beamed. "How about you? What will your name be?"
The undercover agent mused a bit before he caught himself. What was
he doing? This was a mission, damn it, not some frolic with a bunch
of friends. He wasn't supposed to be having fun.
Yet he was, Ezra had to admit to himself. Meyerhurst's group had accepted
him into the team almost immediately, and Standish actually somewhat
enjoyed their company as well. Chris had made the statement in jest,
but truly it almost frightened Ezra how well he did fit in with these
people. Perhaps it was merely because they reminded him in many ways
of Team Seven. He could seriously envision having this conversation
in the office with the rest of the guys. The undercover agent had to
suppress a shudder as he thought of the names Buck and JD would surely
conjure up for each other. If they were on speaking terms, that is.
Ezra felt rather guilty over that debacle. His intention had been to
get Larabee off his back, not drive a wedge between the two agents.
Time enough to think about that later.
In the meantime, these people were definitely not Team Seven, Ezra
reprimanded himself, remembering the dead man in the orange suit who
he had replaced. There were similarities - from the team's easy banter
down to the number of members in the group. But where Team Seven was
fiercely loyal and each member upheld high moral standards - to one
degree or another - many of the characters in Meyerhurst's gang were
of questionable loyalty, Standish had learned. And their morals were
not so much low as they were non-existent. They are the anti-Seven,
Ezra thought with an inward grin. He wondered what that made him.
"Emerald-Eyes Tony," Dale supplied, interrupting Ezra's chain
of thought. Mentally chiding himself for letting his mind wander while
undercover, Standish gave the man a mock-stern glare.
"I told you, Mr. Oscar, the name is Anthony."
Kitty eyed Standish thoughtfully. "Anthony the Sharp."
Ezra considered for a moment and shook his head.
"Then what?" Ozzie asked.
A small smile spread across Ezra's face.
"Aces," he said.
"Anthony Aces. Yeah. That's kinda got a nice ring to it,"
Standish nodded, but the name that flashed in his head was 'Ezra Aces.'
Dale looked over to where Ron Rye was sitting apart from the group,
staring mutely at the ceiling. "Hey, Rye," he called, "What
are they gonna call y-"
Everyone stared at the erstwhile secretary.
"That's, uh, real good Rye," Oscar said after a second, although
Ron hadn't taken his eyes off the ceiling. "Good name. Yeah."
Dale looked to Eric Further, who was leaning against the doorframe and,
except for his slight amusement earlier, had given no indication that
he was following the conversation. In fact, he appeared somewhat bored.
"Further, you over there thinking up a name for yourself?"
The former hit man regarded the rest of the team contemptuously. "I
have a name. And making up a ridiculous appellation to accompany it
will make me no more or no less who I am." Having said his scornful
piece, Further turned away from the group.
Ozzie stifled a fake yawn, rolling his eyes and shaking his head, grinning.
The other three smiled at his antics.
They sat in silence for a little while until Rick Gadflies brushed
his little gold strike into a plastic baggie and stood up. "Well,
ladies and gentlemen, I must be off. Oil tycoon Robert Baron passed
away last week and the funeral was today. Old money, you know. Any of
you care to join me in a little treasure hunt? Grave couldn't have been
filled in more than an hour ago, should be nice and soft for digging."
Disgusted shakes of heads answered the grave robber, but Dale looked
thoughtful. "Old money you say?" Rick nodded eagerly. "What
the hell, I'm in. I'll swing by my place to pick up a shovel and meet
you at the cemetery in twenty minutes."
"Fabulous! Are the rest of you sure you won't come? We're bound
to uncover some valuable antiques."
Ezra tilted his head to the side contemplatively. "Is there really
any profit in depriving the deceased of the gains they attempt to take
with them beyond the grave?"
"Believe it!" said Gadflies. "You know that Lamborghini
I drive? George Thomas Trilan stipulated in his will that he was to
be buried in that Lamborghini. Do you think anyone realized that he
was actually laid to rest in a rusty old Buick?"
"That's . . . incredible!"
"Now that you know, will you join us?" Gadflies asked hopefully.
"Thank you, but no. I like my Jaguar. However, should I ever be
in need of a replacement vehicle, you shall be the first one I call."
"I know how much you like those fancy suits. We could-"
"NO, Mr. Gadflies."
"Okay, okay." Gadflies shrugged. "Kitty?"
Kitanovich shook her head no. "But good luck anyway, Rick. At
the very least you'll get some more gold fillings."
"Commendable thinking, Kitty," Gadflies said, "But the
man was ninety-six years old. The only thing I'm likely to find in his
mouth are some expensive dentures. Ozzie, I'll see you in twenty."
With that, the little man left.
"I can't believe you agreed to go with him." Kitanovich ribbed
Oscar. "I thought dead bodies were your thing only if they were
"Oh, I wouldn't miss this expedition for anything. Mr. Baron's
going to be a little fresher than Rick expects," Ozzie said, trying
to sound casual.
"Sounds like you have a practical joke in the works, Mr. Oscar."
"Let's just say you're going to be sorry you missed out when Rick
opens up the coffin and finds not a dead Robert Baron, but a very alive
"Who is John Whitney?"
"John owes Michael thirty large. I went to collect yesterday and
he couldn't pay up, so now he's helping me pull a prank. He's been in
Baron's coffin for a few hours now, just waiting for Gadflies to dig
him up. And I'm going to be there to see both their faces."
"Mr. Oscar, won't the poor stiff have suffocated by the time you
and Mr. Gadflies liberate him?" Ezra asked.
"Oh, I gave him an oxygen tank. It would ruin the joke if Whitney
weren't alive when we dug him up. Of course, by the time we do, his
air supply should be getting pretty low." Dale chuckled menacingly
at the thought of the debtor lying in the pitch-black coffin, wondering
if each breath would be his last. "I don't think John's gonna have
any trouble paying me when I go to collect on Monday."
"Very imaginative, Ozzie. Well, I'm going home. Goodnight, boys."
Kitty's leaving started a trend, and Ezra found himself heading towards
his car in company with Dale Oscar.
"Must be a spacious coffin, to encompass Mr. Baron, Mr. Whitney
and an oxygen tank." The ATF agent could not help thinking about
poor John Whitney, lying in what could be his own grave, not sure if
anyone was going to dig him up, his air running out with every breath,
and lying cheek to cheek with a bona fide corpse to top it all.
"I'm afraid there just wasn't enough room for Mr. Baron in his
final resting place. I had to take him out." Dale answered. A gleam
in his eye told Ezra there was more to it.
"Dare I ask where the body is now?"
"Don't you worry about Kitty all alone in that big apartment of
hers?" Ozzie mused in mock seriousness.
"You didn't!" Ezra was agog at the man's tenacity.
"I mean, she's so anti-social. She needs a man to warm that bed
of hers." Dale's grin was decidedly shark-like. "Not that
Robert Baron is going to be very warm at this point."
Ezra shook his head. "Three pranks with just one body. Mr. Oscar,
I admire your resourcefulness, if not your self-preservation instincts."
Dale took a pair of dentures out of his pocket and tossed them up and
down, laughing all the way to his car.
Ezra was just getting into his Jag when he heard someone call out his
alias. Meyerhurst was walking briskly along the parking lot towards
him. He approached Ezra and said, "I'm glad I caught you. There
is something I need done, and I think you're the man who can do it for
"At your service," Ezra responded courteously.
"That phone call was from an informant who tells me that Chicago
Pete is also taking bids from my rival, Eddie Dumluk. If this information
is correct, they are meeting with Dumluk as we speak and could very
well have already struck a bargain." Meyerhurst's eyes narrowed.
"I have not worked so hard for this deal only to have it snatched
out from under my nose by an idiot like Dumluk. But there is no need
for me to expend my energies if it is not true. This is where you come
in." Ezra's eyebrows rose in question and Meyerhurst continued.
"I need you to find out who they're buying the guns from, and I
need you to find out tonight."
"May I ask, Mr. Meyerhurst, how do you expect me to accomplish
this?" Ezra asked warily.
"Dumluk owns a club on the other side of town. He is there every
night, without fail."
Standish waited for Meyerhurst to continue with more detailed instructions.
When none were forthcoming he asked, "Do I assume correctly in
thinking you expect me to walk into Mr. Dumluk's establishment, sit
down and blatantly ask the man if he is selling arms to the Chicago
"I do presume you will be slightly more discrete than that. But
essentially, yes. Eddie has never seen you; he doesn't know you're one
of my men."
"Still, that is not the kind of information one imparts to a complete
stranger," Ezra said skeptically.
"Does that mean you're not willing to try?" Meyerhurst's
face remained friendly, but there was a dangerous edge to his question.
Ezra paused. He didn't know why he was arguing with the man. Infiltrating
Dumluk's nightclub was certainly in his realm of capabilities, and the
information he would acquire would be useful to Team Seven as well.
But there was one matter that was bothering him.
"What makes you believe I am qualified to perform such clandestine
Meyerhurst smiled. "I have a rare gift of recognizing ability
in others, Anthony. You have a way with people. Thirty seconds after
I met you, I liked you. You make people trust you." Ezra tried
not to choke at that statement. "I see in you a quality. Tony had
it too, dumb bastard. You wouldn't have thought it to look at him, but
he did." Meyerhurst paused and looked Ezra in the eye. "People
like you can wrap other people around your fingers and have them dancing
to your tune with a smile on their face, all the while believing it
was their idea. If you think I'm wrong and you can't do this for me,
tell me now and that's fine. But keep this in mind: small arms experts
are a dime a dozen. This is the reason I brought you into my organization,
Anthony. Now I ask you: having never met the man, can you get Dumluk
to tell you the inner workings of his secret transactions in the space
of a few hours?"
The dead man in the orange suit flashed through Ezra's mind again,
even while considering the irony of Meyerhurst's statement. Standish
"You didn't just hire me for my startling good looks, did you?"
The crime lord laughed and clapped Ezra on the back. "That's what
I wanted to hear. Be here tomorrow morning to tell me what you've found."
Meyerhurst turned and strolled to his own car, whistling a bright tune.
Ezra stared at his retreating form.
Well, well. How droll. It seemed that the very perceptive Meyerhurst
was even more deluded than the undercover agent had hoped. At least
he recognized talent and skill when he saw it. Larabee would never have
admitted those things about Ezra. Chris would have said, "Standish,
you're an untrustworthy sneak. That's why we need you to do this. Dumluk
should respond to his own kind." Everybody has their specialty
in this outfit, Ezra. Yours is lying and manipulating. It wasn't as
if he wasn't good at it. Perhaps it was because the undercover agent
was so adept at the manipulative arts that Chris felt compelled to bust
his chops so much. The other members of the team may not follow protocol
all the time, but at least they were honest. Yeah, well, honesty wasn't
going to cut it with people like Meyerhurst, Standish thought bitterly.
Ezra got into his Jag and slammed the door harder than the cosseted
vehicle was used to. Time to go do his job.