Taken to the Grave

by Michelle & Amanda


Disclaimer: Don't own 'em, didn't make any money off 'em. Wish we did - you should get paid for having this much fun. Also, Team Eight is a creation of HeatherF. We hope she doesn't mind us borrowing them.

Summary: An argument among the members of Team Seven makes Ezra's latest undercover assignment difficult.

Notes: We'd love to hear what you think. WOTtwin@netscape.net


Chris Larabee sat at his desk, rapidly tapping a pencil on its dark cherry finish as he stared off into space. Standish was due to call and check in within the next twenty minutes, and there was a meeting in half an hour with the rest of the team to go over what Buck and JD had learned on their surveillance of the Chicago Boys the night before, but that was not what Larabee was thinking about. Something was amiss in the office, and had been now for the last two days. The leader of Team Seven could not place what it was, but there was something that made him feel like this workplace was not the same workplace that had become almost like a second home to him over the years. Gah! What a thought.

If Standish weren't undercover he would have blamed it on him. Thinking about the undercover agent got the pencil tapping faster. Ezra got off on pushing Larabee's buttons. Sure, Chris had been the one to start that little spat last week, but he had really needed to release some excess tension and Standish could be so damned infuriating. Larabee didn't feel guilty about the things he'd said - guilty meant you were wrong, and Chris Larabee was not wrong - but he did regret some of them. Still, the office should have been a place of serenity with Standish being undercover. Instead, just being there made Chris jumpy. He realized he was drumming his pencil and stopped immediately.

That's when it struck him what was wrong in the office. It was quiet. He strained to distinguish sounds of any activity in the other room, but heard nothing. There should have been all sorts of noises out there, from Buck and JD's loud bantering to Vin's more muted voice egging them on and Nathan's recriminations to their health. Ezra's Southern accent lended some spice to the mix, and even though Josiah generally only spoke when he had something to say, his deep voice added a soft undertone to the clamor. For the last two days there had been none of that. For the past two days there had been nothing but silence.

Chris couldn't take it anymore. He got up and swung open the door to his office, half expecting to find out he was alone in the building. But no, there was JD, staring at his computer though he was not really seeing it. Similarly, Nathan had a book open on his desk but was obviously lost in thought. Buck paced the length of his desk, muttering under his breath from the looks of it, and Vin gave no pretense of work but simply sat with his feet on his desk with faraway eyes and a look of misery on his face. Josiah stood by the copier, but he just held the papers in his large hands and stared at the machine as though he wanted to murder it. Not one member of his team was preparing for the briefing.

"Meeting's moved up to NOW!" Larabee hollered and stalked to the briefing room. JD jumped and scrambled to find the files he had printed out earlier. Nathan sighed and bookmarked the page he had been "reading" and Buck stopped suddenly, grabbing his head as vertigo kicked in from the abrupt cessation of movement. Vin did not react to the sudden noise, just nodded his head sadly and got up. Josiah blinked, looking from the copier to the papers in his hands like he wasn't sure how they had gotten there. He shrugged and made his way to the conference room with the rest of them.

Not until all of them were seated did Larabee throw himself into his own chair. He swung it around to face Nathan and Vin. "Talk," he ordered. "What have we learned about Meyerhurst's team?"

Nathan and Vin shared a glance. Tanner nodded at the former medic to go first.

"Meyerhurst's rounded up some nasty people," Jackson said. "They've managed to stay below the radar on the real dirty stuff, so none of 'em have ever spent more than two years in prison. That would be Rick Gadflies. He spent his early days as a pharmacist before becoming a morgue attendant. You all know what happened after that."

Everyone's faces twisted in disgust. They'd all heard the background information Chris and Vin had learned from Standish. JD had gone pale and turned green when Vin had told him Gadflies' history.

"Andrea Kitanovich came to this country after her parents were arrested and executed by the KGB. There is no official record of any trial. Intelligence tests indicate she approaches genius level, especially with computers and electronics. It's unclear where she got the money to put herself through college, but with her knowledge and skill, I think it's a safe bet she used her hacker abilities to 'raise' the funds."

Chris and the others listened attentively as Vin took up the oration.

"Eric Further was a black-ops sniper in the army before taking up contract killing. Like Ezra said, some rival arms dealer hired Further to take out Meyerhurst. Only Meyerhurst got wind of it and turned the tables on the guy. The bad thing for Further was, this rival was the brother of a low-ranking government official, who put a bounty on Further. Only thing that saved him was Meyerhurst taking him in and using his connections to get the bounty recalled."

Vin paused, an uncertain look on his face. The sharpshooter seemed to make up his mind as he sighed and said, "I guess you should know." He looked at Chris. "That was back in the days when I was doing a little bounty hunting myself. I had been on Further's trail, closing in, before I heard there was no bounty anymore."

Larabee nodded sharply, accepting the information.

"This gonna be a problem?" he asked, watching Vin's expression.

The sharpshooter shook his head. "Shouldn't be. Further never saw me - doesn't know what I look like. He might recognize my name if he heard it, but there shouldn't be no reason for my name to come up."

Chris nodded again. "All right, then. What else have you got?"

"No amount of background checks could give us any inkling of where Ron Rye was those five years he was missing," Nathan told him. "We even had JD hacking into some pretty bizarre places. Nothing." Across the table, JD looked disgruntled. "What we do know is that he's wanted for questioning for various reasons by the FBI, the FDA and the CIA."

Josiah looked puzzled. "What could the Food and Drug Administration want with an arms dealer's secretary?"

"Maybe he's being sued by the inventors of rye bread for copyright infringement," JD offered. He sunk into his chair as five pairs of menacing eyes told him the rest of the team did not appreciate the joke.

"I don't know," Jackson admitted. "Nor what the CIA has to do with anything. But the FBI wants to talk to him about a double homicide that took place about a year ago during a routine missing persons investigation. Two federal agents got their skulls cracked open."

JD was not the only one who blanched. "God rest their souls," Josiah muttered. The conference room was quiet for a moment.

Tanner cleared his throat softly into the silence. Chris nodded at him to continue.

"Dale Oscar's been in and outta prison a couple of times," Vin pressed on. "Once for driving through a car wash with a guy strapped to the roof, another time for blowing up a gazebo, and the last one for . . ." Vin leafed through some papers in front of him. Oh, I can hardly wait for this one, Chris thought.

"Oh yeah. This last one for impersonating a traffic cop. He caused an eight-car pile-up during rush hour in the middle of a busy intersection."

Where did Meyerhurst get these people? Larabee wondered. And he had thought he had problems. It vaguely crossed his mind to be worried about Ezra, surrounded by six extremely shady and some obviously insane characters, but Chris dismissed the thought. Standish had made it clear several times that he could very well take care of himself.

Larabee rounded his chair to the other side of the table where Buck and JD were sitting with Josiah in between them. "What happened with the Chicago Boys after they met Meyerhurst last night?" he asked.

Buck cleared his throat under the uncomfortable weight of Larabee's glare. "After the Chicago boys left Meyerhurst's restaurant they went to this night club," he said. "Turns out it was Eddie Dumluk's club." Wilmington glanced at Chris. "Dumluk is Meyerhurst's biggest rival in the arms business," he explained.

"I know who Eddie Dumluk is," Chris snapped. "What happened then?"

"Right. I followed them inside and saw them all going up to Eddie's office. Dumluk was real happy about something. He was smokin' a cigar and offered Chicago Pete one too. At one point a waiter went up to the office with a couple bottles of champagne."

"It looks like the Chicago Boys are double crossing Meyerhurst with Dumluk," JD concluded. Buck shot him a dirty look. JD pretended not to notice. Larabee turned his glare onto the young computer whiz, and Dunne looked like he suddenly wished he had kept his mouth shut.

"Do we have any proof?" Chris asked.

JD shifted in his chair. "Well, no, not really. If we had the right gear we could've listened in, but the budget department won't let us have anything cool because someone keeps ruining the equipment." Larabee's glare hardened. "Um, yeah, we couldn't hear anything. Maybe Ezra'll know."

Just what Chris wanted, to ask Ezra. Sure, things like this were the reason Standish was undercover in the first place, but asking anything of the smug, insufferable Southern agent stuck in Larabee's craw. Where did the man get off? Larabee was many things, but he was never unreasonable. Unforgiving at times, unrelenting yes, but always the embodiment of reasonable.

"Ezra will be calling soon - provided he calls on time. In the meantime, check Dumluk's bank accounts. See if he's had any unusual deposits in the past few days."

There was little chance that the arms dealer would be dumb enough to put money from an arms deal into his standard bank account. Chris was sure JD could track it down to any offshore accounts that Dumluk might have set up, but that was only if the deal had already gone down, and money exchanged. It never hurt to be thorough, though. Maybe they would get lucky.

"Anyone have anything else to add?" As if on cue, the phone rang.

"Good morning, Mr. Larabee. Slept well, I presume?" A Southern-accented voice came over the speakerphone. "Dear lord, is it morning?" they heard him mumble, almost too soft to catch.

"Fine, thanks," answered Chris sarcastically. He could play at being civil just as well. "What's new in the criminal underworld?"

"Oh, I am bursting with lucrative information. I just couldn't wait to share all my valuable news." In a small voice he added, "Now if only I could remember what it was. Ah, yes." In his normal tone he continued. "As you know, Meyerhurst is working on a deal to sell guns to the Chicago Boys. He has a lot riding on this deal. If it goes through, doors will be opened and he will be in prime position to enter the elite circle of crime families and mobsters, whereupon he can amass untold wealth and status.

"However, yesterday he discovered a hitch. Unbeknownst to Meyerhurst, the Chicago Boys also made plans to meet with his biggest rival, Eddie Dumluk. When Meyerhurst found out, he charged me with infiltrating Eddie's night club to find out how close Dumluk and the Chicago Boys are to an accord."

"He did what?!" Buck burst out.

"Hmm, yes, ironic, isn't it? I, Ezra P. Standish, undercover agent for the ATF, working undercover for Michael Meyerhurst, criminal. Meyerhurst apparently recognized my God-given abilities of deception. It is a testament to my skill that he remains blind to the fact that he himself is being deceived."

Chris rolled his eyes at the agent's self-commendations. "Can we get back to the point here?" he asked. Something was odd about Standish's behavior, even for Standish.

"As you wish, Mr. Larabee. Where was I? Oh, yes. I was charged with infiltrating the black veil of Dumluk's secret dealings. Impossible, you say? Find out Eddie's private negotiations, having never even seen the man before in my life, and yet to do it in just one evening? Even I wondered if Mr. Meyerhurst had overestimated my abilities. But I went anyway, regardless of the odds of my failure, regardless that I was cheating discovery and death on two counts."

Vin and Josiah smiled at Ezra's embroidered account of his venture. Nathan leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, disgusted. JD simply shook his heads, but Buck was grinning and leaning forward in his chair, obviously enjoying himself.

"There I was at Club Dumluk," Standish continued, "sitting at the bar sipping a Cuba Libre, my head nearly blown asunder by the blaring rock music-" Static on the line obscured his next few words. " . . . pondering the many ways I could-" They all heard some vague mumblings. " . . . long story short-" Here Ezra's words slurred incoherently. " . . . I opted for subtlety."

"You got drunk!" JD and Chris exclaimed at the same time. JD exclaimed. Chris snarled.

"Not nearly as drunk as Dumluk, I assure you." Ezra's voice tightened. The loud yell probably aggravated the headache from his hangover. Serves the bastard right, Chris thought. Before he could lay in to Standish for his breach of procedure, Ezra continued. "In his stupor Mr. Dumluk confided that he has indeed made a deal with the Chicago Boys. The transaction is scheduled for midnight tomorrow night in the train yard."

Killing Standish could wait, Larabee decided.

"Have you told Meyerhurst yet?" Chris asked.

"Mr. Larabee, it wounds me to think that you believe I would tell my mark such vital gossip before I would inform my own co-workers."

"Is that a no?" Chris inquired tersely.

Ezra's exaggerated sigh filled the room. "That is correct, Mr. Larabee. I am en route to Meyerhurst's locale as we speak."

"I'll have a team set up to raid the Dumluk-Chicago Boys deal tomorrow night. In the meantime, Ezra's cover with Meyerhurst will remain intact. We can't get him on this deal, but we'll get him on the next one."

A stream of caustic swear words came over the line.

"You got a problem with that, Standish?" Chris growled at the phone.

"My apologies. My comments were not directed at you, rather at the driver's ed dropout that nearly merged into my Jag. The plan sounds fine."

"So glad you approve. Be sure to check in on time tomorrow. And Standish, if you call in wasted one more time, it had better be to phone in your resignation."

It seemed Ezra wasn't sure what to say. There was a moment of silence as the rest of the team sitting around the table tried uselessly to pretend they weren't listening. Then the undercover agent's accustomed aplomb was back as his voice came over the speakerphone and answered with his usual arrogance.

"Until then."

? ? ? ?

Meyerhurst was furious. It was not a demonstrative anger. His nostrils were flared ever so slightly. His eyes were maybe a modicum narrower than usual. But he was gripping the armrest of his chair so tightly that his knuckles were cracking.

"When are they making the trade?" he asked, sounding pleasant as always.

"Tomorrow night." Ezra marveled at the man's control. Chris would have hit something, or someone, by now if he were as angry as Meyerhurst probably was. And he certainly would be shouting. Meyerhurst didn't shout, for which Ezra's pounding head was extremely grateful. The crime lord's swirly green and yellow tie was giving him a severe case of nausea. He really had not intended to drink so much last night. Getting drunk on the job, especially for an undercover agent, was not only stupid, it was dangerous. But Standish had got to thinking about Larabee and Team Seven until one drink had turned into another and another. It hadn't helped that Eddie Dumluk had been very encouraging to his new "friend," all the while drinking two to each of Ezra's one.

The office was silent for a moment, except for the occasional soft popping of Meyerhurst's knuckles. Then the arms dealer released his death hold on the abused armrest and pulled out his cell phone.

"Rick," he said into it amiably. "I need something. Get me Eddie Dumluk's personal firearm. Mmm hmm. If Anthony here is any indication, Dumluk will still be in bed for some time. I need you to make sure he stays there until tomorrow morning. No, don't kill him. Sleeping pills will be just fine. Meet me at the office in two hours. Oh, and while you're out, get me yesterday's security footage from the hotel. The Hilton. One of the side entrance doors will be fine. Two hours." He ended the call and punched in another set of numbers.

"Kitty, do you have that information on the Chicago Boys I requested? Good. Fax it to me right away. I'm going to have some video for you to doctor in a couple of hours as well, so get in here. What was that? No, you may not have permission to kill Oscar. Yes. I would take it amiss." Meyerhurst paused and listened for a second. "Fine. You are allowed hurt him. Just don't damage anything permanently. Yes. Fax me that data."

Meyerhurst hung up the phone, shaking his head. "Apparently Ozzie played a harmless little prank on Kitty last night," he explained to Ezra. "She is somewhat bent out of shape about it this morning."

Ezra smiled politely. Harmless little prank? Somewhat bent out of shape? The man had an undeniable talent for understatement.

"Ozzie does have an exceptional mind when it comes to mischievous stunts," Meyerhurst continued. He chuckled a little. "Of course that one was nothing compared to the little joke we have planned for Dumluk. It should be quite memorable."

Ezra tried to concentrate on what the crime lord was saying, but his brain had suddenly started pounding in his ears, making it very difficult to hear. The aspirin he had taken this morning must be wearing off.

Meyerhurst looked up at Ezra. "You look like shit," he said bluntly. "Go home and get some sleep. You deserve it - you did exceptional work last night. But be back here by eight tomorrow morning."

Standish nodded gratefully, instantaneously regretting the action. His head swam at the movement, causing him momentary dizziness. He recovered himself immediately, saluted his "boss" and headed for his car. There was something he should have caught just now, he felt, but his muddled brain just wouldn't grab hold of whatever it was. Something about Gadflies and Dumluk and a joke? Oh, well. Things would make more sense when he woke up.

? ? ? ?

It was Saturday morning. People were supposed to sleep late on Saturday morning. Nathan Jackson knew this as an indisputable fact. Then why, oh why, he wondered, did JD seem unaware of such common knowledge?

Nathan put his pillow over his head and tried unsuccessfully to ignore the blaring television in the living room where JD had been sleeping on the couch for the past five nights. Was the young computer expert deaf? Even from his bedroom Jackson could clearly hear every word of the show JD was watching. Nathan sighed.

Jackson liked JD, he really did, but if he and Buck didn't make up soon and return things to normal, Nathan was going to flip out. The ex-EMT wasn't a neat freak, but he did like to keep his house relatively clean and in order. JD's idea of order was lining up his dirty dishes on the counter according to the color of the food remnants that were on them. In his defense, Dunne had adjusted Nathan's satellite dish so it got even better reception than it had, not to mention several more channels than were being paid for. If only JD would watch the fruits of his labor at a lower volume.

Nathan sighed again and reached for his robe. He was never going to get back to sleep.

Out in the living room, JD sat ensconced in a nest of blankets with a bowl of cereal, watching cartoons. He looked up when Nathan trudged in.

"Morning, Nate," he greeted. "I didn't wake you did I?"

"Yeah, you did," Jackson replied as he switched on the coffee maker in the kitchen. "But I'll live." He got a mug from a cupboard and looked at the television. "Could we please watch something other than cartoons?"

JD shrugged. "Sure," he said, picking up the remote and changing the channel. "You want to see the news?"

"That's fine."

Nathan began to gather up dirty dishes from various stations around the kitchen and living room and stack them in the sink. He should make JD wash them. He was about to make the suggestion when the news report caught his attention.

" . . . unidentified body discovered in hotel parking garage. Police have few leads except for a pistol that was found beneath a car some feet away . . ."

"Nathan! That's South Side Jim," Dunne exclaimed.

Jackson watched as images of the victim flashed on the television screen.

"One of the Chicago Boys?"

"Yeah. Paul Gianotello's first cousin," JD said.

This was not good. Paul Gianotello was the Chicago Boys' boss, and head of the second most powerful crime family in the West Coast. Killing his cousin would mean powerful retribution against whoever had done it.

The phone rang and Nathan answered it. Buck was on the other end. Didn't he know the rule about sleeping in on Saturday either?

"Yeah, we saw the report. JD recognized South Side Jim. Uh huh. Yeah, I suppose someone had better call Chris. Do you think we should wait until he wakes up? What do you mean he'll already be up? Don't you people know what Saturdays are for? Never mind. Yeah. I'll call him."

Nathan hung up the phone. He wished he had stayed in bed longer.

? ? ? ?

Ezra knew things would make more sense in the morning. Of course, the news report which by some miracle he had actually woken up early enough to catch probably had something to do with that. As the agent listened to the newscaster explain the particulars of the killing, Ezra groaned and put his head in his hands. Marvelous work, Standish. Simply marvelous. All the details of the day before suddenly become blazingly apparent. Dumluk's personal firearm, sleeping pills to make sure he didn't have an alibi, the security footage for Kitty to doctor, the information about the Chicago Boys . . . Meyerhurst had apparently determined that the best way to eliminate Eddie Dumluk was by framing him for the murder of South Side Jim!

A prank indeed. Not only would Dumluk lose the weapon deal, he was also most certainly going to be spitted and barbequed for Paul Gianotello's next picnic. Meyerhurst won in both cases. Ezra could see Dale Oscar's resourcefulness was being put to good use.

He should have caught this yesterday morning. The undercover agent cursed himself again for getting drunk with Dumluk. Now he was going to have to call Chris. Said task was certainly not high on the list of things Standish wanted to do first thing in the morning. Listening to the man lecture him about drinking on the job was sure to put a damper on his whole day.

He was pleasantly surprised to find that Larabee's line was busy. Did people normally engage in phone conversations at such a horrendously early hour? Ezra decided to try Vin instead.

The sharpshooter picked up on the first ring. "H'llo?"

"Mr. Tanner, you sound positively sprightly this morning," Ezra greeted.

"Ez?" Vin said in wonderment. "That you?"

"How very perceptive, not to mention eloquent."

The easy-going sharpshooter gave a small chuckle. "Just never though I'd hear your voice at this time a'day. Hell freeze over or something?"

"I'm not in a position to expound on that situation, I am delighted to say, but South Side Jim may be able to inform you." The Southern agent rejoined.

"South Side? Isn't he one of the Chicago Boys? What happened to him?"

"He was found dead in his hotel parking structure this morning, shot in the back by a gun owned by Eddie Dumluk."

There was a momentary silence on the line.

"What are you sayin', Ez, that Dumluk killed one of his business partners?" Tanner asked gravely. "That doesn't make sense."

"No, Mr. Tanner, I am telling you that Dumluk is being framed for the murder of Paul Gianotello's cousin - by Michael Meyerhurst. I was there yesterday when he made the whole plan, but I was so hungover I couldn't put the pieces together!" That fact still infuriated Ezra to no end. He proceeded to tell Vin about the phone conversation he had overheard and his suspicions about a frame-up.

Vin was quiet for a moment. "You should call Chris and tell him all this," he said softly.

Ezra uttered a short, bitter laugh. "You may find this incredible, Mr. Tanner, but I did try to get a hold of Mr. Larabee already. His line was busy, and thus I called you. Having imparted my knowledge once, I shall leave you to tell our esteemed leader. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to prepare for a meeting at eight."

"Ezra-" Vin started, but Standish interrupted him.

"Goodbye, Mr. Tanner. I'll check in later when I have more information."

? ? ? ?

If Larabee got one more phone call with bad news, he was going to chuck his phone down the nearest manhole. First it was Nathan, telling him about South Side's murder. That was bad enough. Chris had had no time to wonder about the implications of this revelation, however, when the fatal call from Vin came, telling Larabee why and how the mobster's life had been terminated. That his undercover agent had been the source of this information was no comfort at all to Chris. Especially not after the FBI had phoned. Once he had received that call, Chris had gone to the gym. The events of the previous night played out in his head as he strapped on his boxing gloves and jabbed at an old punching bag.

He would kill Standish. Of all the stupid, idiotic, no-good, half-assed, did he say stupid, things that the agent could have done . . . Meyerhurst had laid out his whole plan right in front of him, but did Standish do anything about it? No! He was too hungover to even think of telling his co-workers about this integral plot twist! Missing a connection like that was entirely unacceptable.

Chris sneered as he thrust his fist into the blue canvas bag. Unacceptable. He'd tell Standish what unacceptable was. It was getting drunk on the job. It was losing control while undercover. It was having a mobster murdered while you slept, a murder you could have prevented, and allowing a sleazeball crime lord to put one past the good guys. That was unacceptable, damn it.

Sweat dripped down Larabee's face as he poured out his anger into the unfortunate punching bag. He hit it with a hard left, then another, then a right. Who the hell was Ezra working for anyway? Why did Chris even bother putting him undercover? So he could ignore his responsibilities? So he could get wasted every night? So he could sleep longer?! The blows rained viciously upon the bag.

Realistically, had Chris known before the fact about Meyerhurst's intention to frame Eddie Dumluk for the murder of South Side Jim, could he have done anything about it? Maybe not. But at least he could have prevented a call from the FBI in Chicago wondering what the hell was going on in Denver, why one of their case targets had been murdered on Larabee's watch, and why his agents weren't doing their job. Hell, he'd like to know the answer to that one himself. Whap!

Larabee left the bag rocking wildly on its chain as he headed towards the lockers. After a quick shower Chris got into his vehicle and drove to the office. He'd felt guilty about calling the guys in on a Saturday, especially when they could all use the rest, but he really didn't have a choice. There was a lot of cleaning up to do after the mess Standish had left.

Chris was surprised when he pulled his black Explorer into the Bureau parking lot to see Vin's Jeep already parked in its usual space. There was a good twenty minutes before the time Chris had told his agents to be in. He and Vin usually went horseback riding on Saturday mornings, Chris reflected. Larabee hadn't even thought about it until just then. He felt a small pang of remorse as he recalled yelling at the easy-going Texan during their phone call this morning. He had wanted to yell at Ezra.

Chris rode the elevator to the twelfth floor and looked around for Vin. He wasn't at his desk, nor was he in the break room. Larabee realized he hadn't seen much of Vin at all this week and wondered if Tanner was avoiding him. It didn't make much sense to Chris. Sure, he had been a little peeved about Vin taking Ezra's side during the argument earlier that week, but the man was entitled to his own opinion, and Larabee was a reasonable guy, after all.

The sharpshooter didn't show his face until the rest of the team arrived. By that time Larabee was too involved in making phone calls and discontinuing plans for that night's raid to question Vin about his behavior. There would be time later, Chris promised himself.

? ? ? ?

Ezra had amazed himself that morning by being ten minutes early for his eight o'clock meeting with Meyerhurst and company. It was incredible, he mused, what almost twenty hours of uninterrupted sleep could do for a person.

The conference had confirmed Standish's suspicions of a frame up as Meyerhurst had explained that he had already called Chicago Pete that morning to offer his condolences over the loss of their man. Oscar had snickered at that. In the interest of their deal and any future dealings, Meyerhurst had looked into the matter and come up with some "evidence". They were to be meeting later that day, at which time Meyerhurst would reveal the killer to be Eddie Dumluk.

Photos of what looked to be stills taken from a security camera had sat on Meyerhurst's desk. They plainly showed Eddie Dumluk entering and leaving the hotel, the time stamp in the corner placing them to have been taken at the time of the murder. Ezra had to admit, Kitty did exceptional work. If he had not know better he would have sworn they were real.

Meyerhurst had taken Further and Dale with him again to present the proof to the Chicago Boys, sending Gadflies on an undisclosed "mission" that had had the ex-mortician grinning like a giddy schoolboy with a secret. Meyerhurst would have brought Anthony along, he had explained to Standish, but he needed him to stay with Kitty and help her keep an eye on Ron Rye.

"He got to have a bit of fun last night, and you know how that goes," Meyerhurst had said with a significant look to Ezra. Actually, Ezra hadn't known how that went, but apparently Gadflies did, and had expressed his concern.

"Do you think Ozzie should stay, in case Rye gets out of hand?"

Meyerhurst had smirked at the question. "I'm sure Kitty will be plenty of protection if Anthony needs it. Wouldn't you agree, Dale?"

Oscar was sporting a black eye and a split lip. Kitanovich's revenge, he had explained earlier. His sore lip didn't stop an obviously insincere smile as he had answered a grudging affirmative.

The psycho in question had actually been sitting upright and alert through the whole conversation, but he had been staring into space at exactly nothing. He had continued to sit there in a catatonic state even after the rest of the team had departed, leaving Standish and the young Russian alone with a potentially volcanic potato.

Kitty and Ezra had engaged in computer poker on her laptop for a while. It was the only way she would agree to play cards with him. Standish had begun to understand how people felt playing with him, however, when she had won nine out of every ten games for two hours. When he had finally ceded to her superior computer manipulation, they had stared at the ceiling tiles with Ron Rye for an indeterminable length of time, until Kitty had stood up and stretched.

"I am bored. Let's go get some lunch."

Ezra had glanced at Rye, who appeared to have fallen asleep with his eyes open.

"What about him?" he had asked, gesturing with his head toward the comatose giant.

Kitty had shrugged unconcernedly. "He can come with us. Come on. I will treat."

The idea of venturing out in public with Ron Rye hadn't seemed wise, but with Kitty insisting Ezra hadn't been able to refuse. He had wondered how the computer genius planned on getting Rye coherent enough to move, but she had just stepped up behind the big man and slapped him on the back of the head, saying, "Stand up. Let's go."

And he had. The restaurant the trio had gone to had been a small, out-of-the-way deli that apparently Kitty went to often. Most of the workers had spoken with one kind of accent or another, and Standish had wondered how many, if any, were legal.

They had managed to have lunch without any incidents, even though Rye had bared his teeth and grinned savagely at the poor Mexican who had asked him if he wanted mustard on his sandwich, replying with a rumbled, "No."

Ezra glanced at his Rolex. It was a quarter after one now. So much for checking in with Chris. Not that he was anxious to talk to the ATF leader anyway, but he had ought to at least appear to be making an effort. Ezra had thought they would head back to Meyerhurst's building after lunch, but Kitty had surprised him by asking if they could walk through the park. The Russian computer whiz hadn't struck Ezra as the outdoor type. He had acquiesced gracefully, even though it meant postponing his requisite call to the ATF leader.

"You late for a date?" Kitty asked, coming up next to Standish. Ron Rye followed a step behind, not sure whether the local wildlife was friend or foe. Ezra raised an eyebrow at Kitty's question. "You have been finding your watch extremely fascinating for the last half an hour," she explained, wearing a very carefully neutral expression.

Shit! What was wrong with him lately? First getting wasted on the job, now letting his guard down with Kitty. Obviously he had raised her suspicions somehow. Ezra gave a light chuckle.

"I'm just fretful that our erratic friend back there will decide that the park squirrels would make a good dessert. Shouldn't we be returning him to the office?"

Kitty glanced back at Rye. He was licking his lips almost eagerly as a chipmunk scuttled underfoot.

"He's fine," Kitanovich said. She turned back to Ezra. "You do not have a girlfriend you are hurrying off to?" the Russian asked casually.

It suddenly occurred to Standish that the young woman was probing. She didn't suspect Ezra - she had a crush on him!

Ezra liked the young Russian hacker well enough, but there was absolutely no way in hell he'd ever be able to engage in a relationship with her. She was one of the subjects of his investigation; should he succeed in his job then she would go to prison along with her associates.

It wasn't as if Kitty didn't have her attractions. Ezra had many times been impressed by the keen intelligence she evinced, as well as her computer savvy. Her caustic wit was on a par with Standish's own style of sarcastic banter. But it was not the part of Kitty that reminded him of himself that he found appealing.

He got the impression that the Russian had once been as naive and as impressionable as JD. Except, somehow throughout the deaths JD had witnessed in the course of Team Seven's sometimes brutal missions, JD had managed to retain his optimism and regard for human life. Ezra could not forget the bored expression on Kitanovich's face as she watched her boss splatter Tony's brains onto the floor that first day. A shame really. Circumstances and the wrong company had turned her bitter and cold, but sometimes Ezra could see the lost innocence. Like now, as she waited for his answer, her face an inscrutable mask betrayed only by too-eager eyes.

He hated himself for contributing to the theft of Andrea Kitanovich's innocence. But he could not give her an answer that would lead her on.

"I do have a girlfriend," the undercover agent lied. Ezra felt his heart contract as he saw her eyes return to their guarded stoniness. Sometimes he loathed his job.

They had reached the end of the park and were now strolling along main street, which was full of Saturday shoppers. Restaurants had tables set up on the sidewalk for patrons to enjoy the afternoon sun. Ezra looked behind him and saw Ron Rye reach over and pick up a knife from a table setting as they walked by.

Standish grabbed the giant's fist with one hand while deftly apprehending the sharp utensil with the other. "I don't believe you need to cut a steak just now, Mister-" Ezra's usual use of the appellation seemed misplaced, "Rye." The glazed look suddenly became very focused and Ezra could feel Ron Rye begin to push strongly against his grip.

Then, suddenly, all resistance ceased and the blank stare returned. "He needed a haircut," Rye said, and kept on walking.

Kitanovich shared a concerned look with Ezra.

"Perhaps now would be a good time to return to the office," she sighed.

Standish nodded in fervent agreement.

"Back to computerized poker?" he asked, keeping his eyes on Ron Rye. The undercover agent did not feel like losing at cards again, but he thought it might cheer Kitty up.

Indeed, she gave him a sidelong glimpse and smirked. "Have you ever been to an online casino?"

? ? ? ?

"Later" did not come until Larabee had sent his agents home that afternoon when it was clear there was nothing left for them to do. Chris himself still had several phone calls to make, and he was about to settle down in his office to make them when he noticed Vin still sitting at his desk. I should go over there, Chris thought. The sharpshooter was leaning back in his chair with his feet up on the work surface, turning a foam football in his hands and gazing off into space. Tanner seemed so deep in thought that Chris didn't think he noticed his boss's silent approach. He should have known better than to underestimate the former bounty hunter's instincts.

"Howdy, pard," Vin greeted quietly without looking.

"Hey," Chris returned. The Texan still didn't say anything. Chris sighed. "Vin, I'm not mad at you," he said.

Tanner glanced up at Chris. "Sure you ain't," he said.

What the hell was that supposed to mean?

"I'm serious here, Vin. I'm not angry."

"Right, Chris." Vin nodded.

"Damn it, Vin, I'm trying to apologize here," Chris shouted. "Would you just listen to me when I tell you I am not mad!"

Vin finally lowered the football and smiled at the ATF leader. "Hell, Chris, I know that. I was just trying to get you riled up."

Larabee stared incredulously at his friend. A smile of his own finally teased at the corners of his mouth.

"You're trying to raise my blood pressure, aren't you?" Chris asked.

"All the time," Vin admitted. "Shoot, after a week of the silent treatment I had to hear you yell at someone, just to return the world to its natural order."

Chris swiped the football out of Tanner's hands and made as if to hit him with it. "I only yell when you ingrates deserve it."

"Sure you do," Vin grinned.

Chris did hit him with the foam ball. "Of course I do. I am, after all, a reasonable guy."

Tanner's face was carefully expressionless.

"Right, Chris."

Now what the hell was that supposed to mean?

? ? ? ?

Standish, you are an imbecile of the highest proportions, Ezra told himself. He wasn't quite sure what had possessed him to go back to Eddie Dumluk's club. He had absolutely no earthly clue as to why he was watching the upstairs office, waiting for Dumluk himself to come down the stairs. This endeavor certainly fell under the category of It Seemed Like A Good Idea at the Time.

The club wouldn't get busy until much later, however there were still a good many people sitting at the bar having an early drink, and several of the tables were occupied. Dumluk did good business, Ezra mused from his table in a shadowy corner. He sipped his club soda and calculated the profit that Dumluk made on a Saturday night with this establishment. Standish shook his head. The real money Eddie brought in was in selling guns to people like the Chicago Boys.

Ezra checked his watch again. Meyerhurst hadn't said when he would be back from his meeting with the two mobsters, but it could be any time. What the hell had possessed him, Standish wondered for the umpteenth time. He'd told Kitty that he was looking into buying a club, and that there was one for sale that the owner was willing to cut him a deal on if he moved quickly. Kitanovich graciously allowed him to leave in order to examine the building, but even she would be suspicious if "Anthony" wasn't back relatively soon. Not to mention he'd left the young Russian at Meyerhurst's building alone with Ron Rye. She has a gun, he had told himself, she'll be fine. Still, Standish could not wait for Dumluk much longer.

And he didn't have to. The club's owner swaggered down the polished steel steps, adjusting the collar of his flashy silver jacket and surveying the main floor. Ezra leaned back further into his booth as he kept an eye on Eddie Dumluk. The arms dealer mingled with the staff a bit and gave instructions to the bartender before leaving through a back door. Standish laid a few dollars on his table and stealthily slipped out after Dumluk.

The door led to the club's kitchen. Eddie was nowhere in sight, but there was another door on the opposite side of the room, which was the only door besides the one Standish had entered through. There were not many people in the kitchen, but there were a few. The undercover agent addressed the bewildered kitchen staff as he crossed the room.

"Did he sneak out the back door? That's my cousin for you - always trying to pretend he's not happy to see me. Don't worry, I can find him on my own, thanks."

Ezra continued the dialogue until he was safely out the door. He found himself in the club's back alley, alone except for three large dumpsters. Where had Dumluk gone? A loud laugh alerted Standish to the presence of two people behind one of the steel containers. Ezra carefully concealed himself in the shadows cast by the setting sun and snuck closer to the voices.

". . . Are the guns ready to be delivered tonight?" Dumluk was asking a man in a green jacket. The man nodded.

"Everything's set. Are the Chicago Boys still going through with it even though their man was killed?"

Dumluk shrugged. "I haven't heard from them, so we have to assume it's still on. Didn't have anything to do with us after all."

He gave his associate a few more instructions and the man left. Dumluk himself stayed in the alley, apparently engaged in uneasy thought as he paced a few steps back and forth. He stopped suddenly when he heard Ezra's voice out of the shadows.

"You, sir, are up a proverbial creek without a paddle."

Dumluk whirled around in panic. "Who said that?" he shouted.

Maybe it was because Ezra was feeling unusually useless since he had gone undercover. After all, what had he done upon joining Meyerhurst's team? He'd gotten drunk on the job and let a man be murdered while he slept off the aftereffects. Not exactly the stellar performance that had earned him the reputation of one of the best undercover agents in law enforcement. Perhaps this was simply a desperate bid to win back some self-respect.

Ezra stepped into the light, feeling for all the world like a character in a cheesy movie. "Just a dispenser of wise counsel. You show up for that meeting with the Chicago Boys tonight and you are tomorrow's fish bait. Mobsters don't take it very kindly when you kill their men."

The gun runner squinted at Ezra in confusion. He did not appear to recognize him from the other night. "What are you talking about? I didn't kill anyone. And who the hell are you?" Dumluk suddenly realized he was alone in a deserted ally with a stranger talking dangerous nonsense. "I have security you know. You try anything funny . . ."

Standish rolled his eyes. "Please, Mr. Dumluk, if I had any untoward intentions, do you not think that I would have fulfilled them before revealing my presence to your personage?"

Eddie blinked. "Huh?"

"You are safe from me. It is Michael Meyerhurst and the Chicago Boys who ought to concern you. I came to inform you that you have been framed by Meyerhurst for the murder of South Side Jim. He and the Chicago Boys are plotting your demise as we speak."

Ezra watched the information penetrate Dumluk's dense skull and get rejected through his mouth.

"That can't be true. How could the Chicago Boys think I killed South Side? I was here all day!" the arms dealer protested.

At least conversing with Eddie Dumluk always made Ezra feel better about being himself. Even if this endeavor proved to be futile.

"Where is your gun, Mr. Dumluk," Standish asked patiently, "your personal firearm with your initials engraved on the handle?" Now if that isn't an idiotic piece of paraphernalia for a criminal to have, I don't know what is.

The message appeared to be getting through to Dumluk. He wrung his hands nervously. "It's been missing since yesterday. Meyerhurst couldn't . . . could he?"

"He is a resourceful man, Mr. Dumluk, and you have made him exceptionally angry by stealing what Meyerhurst considers his deal with the Chicago Boys." Ezra's tone conveyed pity for a condemned man. Dumluk's eyes darted as if expecting to find both Meyerhurst and the Chicago Boys waiting in the shadows to pounce. He licked his lips apprehensively.

"Who are you? Are you with Meyerhurst? Or with the Chicago Boys?" The arms dealer didn't wait for a reply. "What can I do?" he asked pathetically.

Yes! This was what it came down to. This was the question that he had risked his life to answer, to save Dumluk's life and his own reputation. Standish attempted to sound detached.

"You need protection, Eddie. No matter where you go, Paul Gianotello and his men will look for you, and eventually they will find you. I have no doubts about your fate once they get their hands on you, do you?" The arms dealer gulped audibly. "The way I see it, Eddie, you have no other choice. You have to turn yourself in."

Dumluk gaped. "To the Feds? I'll go to jail!"

Ezra resisted the urge to strangle Eddie. "But you will be alive, Mr. Dumluk. And if you cut a deal and agree to testify against the Chicago Boys, they will be in prison while you live out the remainder of your life in the comfort of Witness Protection."

Dumluk appeared to be considering. Standish had to refrain himself from looking at his watch again. He wished the arms dealer would hurry and make up his mind. Meyerhurst would surely be back shortly, if he wasn't already.

"How about if I just go to the Chicago Boys and explain that I was framed?" Dumluk asked hopefully. It was Ezra's turn to gape.

"Are you without any mental faculties at all? Do you know what would happen to you if you were to present yourself to the Chicago Boys? Let me enlighten you." Ezra had lost all hope of reasoning with this idiot. "Chicago Pete would chop off your fingers, sauté them in a white wine sauce and feed them to you one at a time. Then he would go to work!" Dumluk paled visibly at the image. But Standish just didn't have the time.

"If you want to toss your life to the wolves, then by all means don't let me stop you," he continued. "I merely thought perhaps you might appreciate the warning and do something intelligent for a change. Apparently I misjudged the depths of your self-destructive stupidity. Now if you will excuse me, I have a previous engagement."

The undercover agent left a confused and worried Eddie Dumluk in the alley. He made it back to Meyerhurst's building just minutes before the crime lord himself returned. Kitty flashed him a small but rare smile before resuming her normal impassive expression as Further burst in, followed by Meyerhurst and Dale Oscar. Meyerhurst was speaking into his cell phone. He did not look pleased.

"I am very disappointed that we could not take care of this sooner. Had you remembered it this morning you could have taken care of the situation before it became a liability . . . You're sorry." Meyerhurst rubbed his eyes with a long-suffering look on his face. "You will be sorry, if this becomes a problem . . . Go. I'll be sending my men down. Make sure you keep the police occupied . . . Don't let it happen again."

Meyerhurst snapped his phone closed and addressed the questioning looks of his crew.

"We have what could potentially be a major crisis. That call was from one of my informants, a security guard at the hotel where the Chicago Boys are staying. It would seem that our meeting with South Side was not as private as we'd been led to believe. A security camera was put up in that part of the garage two weeks ago. Very fortunately, the manager who had the camera installed is on vacation abroad, and no one else remembered its existence until my informant did. He is unable to get his hands on the tape for the next couple of hours. Until then the tape is a severe liability. I need someone to go retrieve it for me."

Ezra felt like he was on a third grade playground during recess and the kids were choosing sides for a game. Pick me, he thought inanely at Meyerhurst.

Kitty examined her black-lacquered nails. "Where's Gadflies when you need him?" she commented.

"Rick has other concerns to attend to," Meyerhurst said. "For this job, I'm sending . . . Anthony." The arms dealer turned to the undercover agent and Standish tried to hide his elation. Finally, something concrete that he could bring to Team Seven. This evidence would be more than sufficient grounds to apprehend Meyerhurst.

Just as the gift had come, it was quickly taken away.

"Please take Dale with you," Meyerhurst requested.

Ezra kept his expression smooth. Did the arms dealer not trust him? "I am apt to be more expeditious if I undertake the endeavor unaccompanied," the undercover agent offered casually.

The members of Meyerhurst's team, with the exception of Eric Further and Meyerhurst himself, tried to figure out what Ezra had just suggested. Meyerhurst nodded but said, "Perhaps, but with all the law enforcement skulking around the hotel I would feel better if you had some backup. Just in case."

Well that rendered Standish effectively useless in retrieving the tape. With any luck he would be able to get a phone call off to Team Seven in time for one of them to obtain the video.

As Oscar and Ezra stood up to leave, Rye came to his feet and moved to stand in the doorway.

"Looks like you made a friend." Ozzie chuckled. "Might as well bring him with us. It'd take longer to convince him he doesn't want to go."

Off on another fun expedition with Dale Oscar, serial prankster, and Ron Rye, psychotic secretary, Ezra thought. Perfect.

? ? ? ?

Chris Larabee wondered if he should be worried or furious. Standish was over five hours late checking in. Chris understood that it was not always possible to get to a secure location to make a phone call, but how hard was it to sneak away for five minutes and let your people know what was going on? So, Larabee wanted to know, was Ezra in trouble or was he simply blowing Chris off?

Vin had left about an hour ago. It was quite a relief to have the air cleared between them. The sharpshooter as he departed for the day had seemed more relaxed than he had in weeks. Come to think of it, Chris felt the muscles in his shoulders were not nearly as tight as they had been lately.

The ATF leader's cell phone rang loudly. He hurriedly pressed a button and answered, "Larabee."

"Mr. Larabee," his undercover agent's Southern voice addressed him over the line.

"Standish," the team leader acknowledged, a sharp edge creeping into his voice. He remembered his conversation with Vin and moderated his tone. "You were due to check in hours ago. What's going on?"

"I have just been made aware of a security tape that captured the entire proceedings of South Side Jim's murder," Standish spoke in hushed and hurried tones. "In twenty minutes Dale Oscar, Ron Rye and myself will be at the Hilton to procure the video. I suggest that one of Team Seven get there first."

"Ezra, what are you talking about? The police have already-"

"Mr. Larabee, I understand that you have questions, but unfortunately I just do not have the time. In thirty seconds Oscar and Rye will be here and we will be en route to the hotel. The tape shows Meyerhurst shooting South Side Jim in the back, and is all the evidence we need to convict the man. Twenty minutes. Get someone there before us."

The line went dead. Chris stared at the phone a second before turning it off and quickly grabbing his jacket as he ran out of the office. He considered calling Vin or another member of the team, but decided against it. It would take too long. Larabee took off for the hotel in his Explorer, squealing tires all the way.



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