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Ezra grimaced as he stepped into the elevator. Frank Ford. Undercover agent. Team Two. Standing there. At one time the darling of Denver ATFs undercover operatives. But he had let his ego outstrip the facts. And was caught by surprise when Team Sevens new arrival, rumored to be dirty no less, started to eclipse him.
For a moment Ezra considered stepping back out and taking another elevator. Or going back to Starbucks and coming in even later, but he supposed that testing Chriss temper this morning of all mornings would not be wise. Therefore, he composed his expressionless face and stood as far away from Ford as it was possible to get in a small metal box. Eleven floors to go, he thought to himself as the elevator started upward.
Although Standish was aware of the eyes boring into his back for nine straight floors, he was willing to bear it in exchange for the utter silence. He nearly sighed as the silence came to an end immediately after the tenth floor.
The voice was cold, nasal, dripping with the accent of the mans native blue-collar Boston. Lemme give ya a little ca-ree-uh advice, Standish, Ford offered.
Ezra debated with himself the merits of replying or just ignoring the man. He went for door number one, turning slowly with a toothy smile. The mind boggles, he drawled with careful enunciation. I can hardly wait to benefit from your wisdom.
Fords eyes glinted nastily. Nothin huge. Just a little phrase ya might wanna staht practicin.
Im in suspense, Ezra drawled turning back to the elevator doors, utter disinterest set firmly upon his features.
Ford could hardly keep from laughing before he spilled his punchline. Can ya say Ya want fries with that?.
He laughed at the very thought of his Armani clad rival dealing out fast food at a downtown eatery. Maybe the mall.
He was suddenly disconcerted to see the benign smile of pity that spread across Standishs lips. Why yes, Ezra drawled pleasantly after a moment. Yes I can. In five languages, in fact. While you, my friend, from what I hear, have yet to master basic English.
The elevator door opened on the eleventh floor about the time Standish was proving his point in the fourth language. He was speaking in Italian when the door closed again.
Arriving at his own floor in a black mood, it dawned on Ford how strange it was that so many countries would use the French term. Wasnt that cheating? He snorted. Itd be like Standish to cheat. Lying, cheating, dirty bastard.
Standish was confronted with a closed bullpen door. He stopped. Wondered if he had missed a scheduled meeting. He didnt think so. That would be bad. He raised his hand to the knob, only to have it yanked from his grasp as the door opened. Tanners eyes lit on him with an evil grin. Ezra sighed. Hed had more than enough already this morning.
Tanner didnt open the door. He stood blocking it instead and tossed back over his shoulder a description of the man standin at the door.
Standish gritted his teeth.
That sounds like Ezra, all right, Nathans voice said thoughtfully, teasingly from within. Ask him for the password.
Ezra snarled and ripped off an epithet worthy of Vin Tanner himself.
Buck burst out laughing.
Vins eyes twinkled. Reckon thatll do, he said, stepping aside to admit his teammate. Then shutting the door behind him again.
We are behind closed doors? Ezra asked, placing his briefcase on his desk and moving toward the kitchen for another cup of coffee. Lately he noticed his usual Grande wasnt going as far as it used to.
Bracing for the siege, Josiah added, tipping his head toward the coffee room, where a large pile of provisions had accrued on the small table.
Ah, Ezra said thoughtfully.
Buck sent up for the eats after Chris told him to shut the damn bullpen door, J.D. added, giving, in Ezras appraisal anyway, a surprisingly good imitation of a Chris Larabee growl.
Coming back into the bullpen Ezra noticed that Josiahs jacket was sporting a large rip in the elbow. He looked questioningly toward Nathan, who caught his glance. The medic shook his head.
Josiah smiled unpleasantly and unrepentantly. Lets just say it was a poor choice for Clint Delvin to be whistling tunes from the Wizard of Oz this morning.
Oh? Ezra asked curiously, noting the surprise on J.D.s face, looking up from the coffee cup he was cradling in both hands. Should I inquire which tune?
Tanner supplied the answer, his voice a low, humorless growl. Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead.
Josiah straightened his sleeves self-consciously. I had perfect self-control, he replied to the question no one had asked.
Nathan shook his head again.
Scowling now, J.D. added, Buck and I got If I Only Had a Brain.
Ezra turned to Wilmington. Whatever comment he was going to make was stopped by the sight of the tasteful jacket. And coordinating shirt. And a tie that didnt even have cartoon characters on it. In fact the only appropriate comments that came to the undercover agents sharp mind had to do with going to a funeral, which Ezra didnt even want to talk about. Or perhaps a sudden acquisition of professionalism, the possible reasons behind which, he did not want to broach. Nor did he feel up to the task of resisting the monumental temptation to say that now was a bit too late for them all to behave like professionals. So he said nothing. Just took his seat. Feeling J.D. staring at him curiously for passing up the perfect jibe.
Mumbling words of greeting, the six directors took their seats at the long, oak conference table, sliding into the same padded seats that offered no real comfort, as if they had never really left. Benedetto noticed that the seventh seat had been removed. Unnecessary now, it had been hauled away in the night. Disappeared, like it had never been there at all. Pitchers of water stood on the table, ice cubes still afloat, glasses stacked neatly beside them. A coffee cart hunkered in the corner near the door, offering the comfort of a nice hot drink to ease their burdens.
One by one the six men opened their briefcases, removing their notes, their stacks of transcripts, and reports, and laying them out on the table. Preparing to bear the weight of their decisions. To contend first with their anger or their sympathy and be swayed by neither one. To reach a decision that would benefit Denver ATF as a whole.
At least that was the task, as presented to them. But Vincent Benedetto was never one to lie to himself. He regarded the many piles of papers with weary eyes that saw both what they were intended to be and what they potentially could become. Guides and signposts through the labyrinth of leadership and decision making. Or props. Crutches. Something to hold up and point to and say, Here. This is why I made the decision I did. I went by the facts. I am not to blame.
To be completely honest, he also knew what he wanted the decision to be. As for his boss, well, they had worked together too long and knew each other too well for there to be any secrets left between them. He knew how his supervisor wanted this to turn out. But it was not his job to force the issue to come out the way they wanted. His duty was to the ATF and to his region and to his city. His job was to find the best solution they could all live with. And if that meant compromising his personal preferences, then he would do so to see his duties fulfilled.
He was not surprised to find the mood around the table somber. Gravely serious on one hand and angry on the other. Cranston would be playing the role of moderator today. Playing it to neutral perfection, Benedetto knew. But it would end with Cranstons final decision, based on what he heard from the other directors and from the available testimony. Cranston had been appointed to head the inquiry precisely for this reason. He was not likely to ramrod the inquirys decision into fitting his own ideas. Ideas, which at the moment, Benedetto would be hard pressed to identify. The man had given precious little of his own point of view away, in his effort not to sway the inquiry with the weight of his office.
Benedetto understood that. It was the very reason his own supervisor had declined to participate. Instead he had requested Benedetto to attend in his place. And Vincent knew his boss would be waiting upstairs to find out the outcome.
Hofstader blew out a long breath born of frustration. If I may be frank, this is one hell of a mess. He pushed his notes away in disgust.
Benedetto eyed the field veteran on his right. He could not disagree, and he noticed that although there was some uncomfortable shifting in uncomfortable chairs, and some frustrated looks on the other side of the table, no one bothered to disagree. He caught a quick glance from Cranston. A nod. A go ahead.
Benedetto suppressed a sigh of his own, and spread his notes out on the table. Weve read all the reports and heard the testimony, so now its time to make a decision. He glanced around the table. Theres a lot here to consider, so for the sake of our sanityand our tailbonesmy suggestion would be to cut to the chase. Lay the cards on the table.
La Force was the first to take up the offer. After reviewing the testimony and the IA report, I feel very strongly that Agent Larabee has a pervasive lack of respect for chains of command and procedure, and that left to their own devices, his agents are inclined to follow that lead.
Ramirez nodded his agreement. Benedetto noticed that, as LaForce paused for breath, no one took the opportunity to disagree. Himself included.
LaForce continued. I believe it is a dangerous precedent. To let it continue unchecked sends the wrong message. Not to mention undermines the good work done by our teams who do adhere to regulations and authority.
He looked around the table.
And Id like to add to that, Ramirez said gravely. The issue of loyalty concerns me. Although AD Travis ably argued that under Larabees leadership Team Seven has not demonstrated any serious ethical breaches, I am concerned that holding one mans authority higher than the authority of the agency one serves, creates a cult of personality. It gives that man more power than is warranted or deserved by his position. He narrowed his eyes in aggravation as he looked around the table. Lets not forget that Agent Larabee is not a director. Nor is he an assistant director. It is not his job to decide policy and procedure. It is his job to fulfill the mandates of his mission under the guidelines established by this bureau and its leadership and set policies and procedures. And if Agent Larabee doesnt understand that, it should be driven home, or he should be relieved of his duties.
Costas blew out a breath and looked sideways at Hofstader, who cleared his throat and regarded Ramirez impatiently. Thats all very nicely stated, Hofstader said, a note of frustration evident in his own voice. But lets consider the realities. To date, Team Seven is arguably the best team in the Western region, taking into consideration the size of their caseload, and percentage of cases solved and arrests made. If we look at their evaluations, you will see that their chain of command, which includes several of the directors present, have rated their overall work to be highly satisfactory, including a number of field commendations for decisions made under fire. Reprimands to date have been taken care of at the Team Leader or the Assistant Director level. There is nothing here to suggest that we have even issued a warning about the way Agent Larabee has conducted his team. Frankly, I think it will look very bad if we suddenly decide that Agent Larabee should be relieved of his command based on one incident in which he did not even take part.
Cranstons gaze moved from Hofstader back to Ramirez.
Consider this the rectification of our earlier mistakes, Ramirez replied icily, if your main concern is appearances.
LaForce licked his lips and frowned at Hofstader. Look bad to whom? he asked.
Costas snorted and turned to Hofstader, replying to the question himself. To the other teams and team leaders.
Who have to adhere to the set of rules that Agent Larabee so casually disregards when it doesnt suit him, Ramirez retorted. I would think that at least some of them would be glad to see Team Seven brought back into line.
Thats probably true, Hofstader conceded. But Id like to be there when you deliver the message to Agent Larabee that were reining him in.
Ramirez scowled. Thats exactly what I mean, he replied angrily. Agent Larabee answers to the directives of this command. We do not tiptoe around Agent Larabee. Like his chain of command has been doing for the past three years. Its a bad idea. Its a bad precedent. And it sends a bad message to the other teams.
Costas shifted in his chair again, as if uncomfortable with the words he wanted to say. But we cant forget that we agreed to certain conditions when we recruited Agent Larabee to start up RMET Seven. Among those was agreeing to a lack of direct access to his agents. We gave our tacit approval to setting his own procedures when we hired him.
LaForce shook his head. And as I recall, the decision to start this team under Larabee came at the assistance and patronage of a particular U.S. Senator, did it not? Who was already well acquainted with Agent Larabee through Larabees parents, correct?
Benedetto raised his eyebrows. Ah the accusation of nepotism rears its ugly head. He had wondered when that might come up and nearly laughed to see the scowl on Cranstons face.
Director LaForce, Cranston grated. The initiative to establish RMET Seven was a joint effort between the Senator and my office. Are you accusing me of practicing favoritism in the establishment of this team?
LaForces quick downward glance showed that he was aware he had stepped out of bounds. Im not accusing anyone of favoritism, he replied firmly. I simply agree with Director Ramirezs assessment that concessions were made without thoroughly thinking through the potential problems.
Hofstader scowled. For the most part those problems are still potential, he ground out.
And shouldnt we try to keep them that way? Ramirez replied. I dont see the point of waiting around for a bigger disaster before we attempt to rein Agent Larabee in.
By then it could be too late to enact changes, LaForce agreed.
Costas snorted. More than likely, its already too late. He turned back to his notes. I reiterate that Agent Larabee has been very clear about his role in enacting policy and discipline within his team. Not to go into unnecessary details, but Agent Larabees main concern has always been avoiding confusion and conflict in the chain of command, to ensure quick decision making, to allow his team to respond rapidly in the field.
Hofstader nodded. Director Costas is correct. The foundation of the team is to look to the Senior Agent for direction.
Under those conditions, he opens himself up to be held responsible for actions undertaken by his team, whether he is present or not. Like an AD or a director, LaForce replied, his tone showing clearly the very absurdity of the idea.
Hofstader and Costas looked at each other and at Cranston.
I do believe Agent Larabee would agree with you, Hofstader said with a tight smile.
No wonder theyre so goddamn loyal, Ramirez muttered under his breath. Aloud he replied, Fine. He can have it his way. Discipline Agent Larabee for the actions of his team.
And establish a directorial oversight, that will ensure adherence to bureau policies and prevent a situation like this from happening again, LaForce added firmly.
Thats sufficiently vague, Hofstader snapped. Did you have anything concrete you wanted to suggest?
Costas shook his head. He shot a look to Cranston. I feel compelled to bring to all of our attention that Agent Larabee is not likely to accept changes to the established way of doing things.
You mean our here-to-fore hands-off attitude and penchant for looking the other way, Ramirez retorted. Of course hell object. He wont be allowed to do whatever he wants.
Costas pointedly ignored the interruption. We should carefully consider the likelihood that he will not accept the changes.
Then he is invited to seek employment elsewhere, Ramirez replied. As he indicated at the original inquiry after the team returned from Texas.
And LaForce agreed.
Hofstader threw up his hands. All right then. Who do you propose to replace him with? Since our choices all worked out so well the first time.
Costas smiled tightly. Of course, on the issue of loyalty, I think well be hard pressed to convince the rest of the team to accept it.
They are likewise invited to seek employment elsewhere, LaForce returned coldly.
Costass expression did not change. So long as we recognize that we face the very real possibility of losing the entire team.
Benedetto interjected softly. Not to mention any fallout among Larabees many admirers among the other teams.
Ramirez grimaced at that, but LaForce spoke. Its the admirers that worry me. That and a number of young agents who have come up believing that Team Seven represents some sort of paragon of excellence. His lips twisted. They call them the Magnificent Seven.
Benedetto had to duck his head not to smile at that, as he pictured the team in cowboy garb, Yul Brenner shouting orders and waving a machine gun, and Steve McQueen laying along a rafter with a high-powered rifle and Agent Vin Tanners long hair.
LaForce seemed irked by the reaction. Team Seven is not an example I would care to see emulated by future teams.
Benedetto kept his head down, rolling through an image of a future bureau filled with Larabees and Wilmingtons and Tanners, Dunnes, Sanchezes, Jacksons, and worse yet, Standishes. Ramirez and LaForce seemed genuinely concerned about that. He, however, was fairly certain that this peculiar mix of personalities was not likely to be easily replicated.
His face was serious when he looked up to speak again. Do we seriously want to consider losing one of our best teams? Is that in the best interests of the bureau, our district, or even the public that we serve?
The other directors looked at each other for a long time.
LaForce drew breath to speak again, but was interrupted by a sudden knock at the door.
The directors fell silent. Frowning, Cranston called out for the unknown person to enter. A very young, very junior member of Benedettos staff poked her head nervously in the door. But she quickly put on her professional game face and strode into the room toward the table filled with directors.
I apologize for the interruption, she said with calm sincerity, taking in each of the assembled directors before stepping up to Benedetto. I was asked to deliver this to you right away, she said, handing over a folded message.
Benedetto nodded at her and gave a brief smile, dismissing her. She nodded back and turned sharply on her heel. He waited for the door to close behind her before he unfolded the note.
The other directors waited with ill-disguised impatience, as he read the message through, his eyebrows knitting slowly together. He read it over again just to be sure, then handed it to Cranston. Cranston read it over once or twice, while the others waited, their curiosity growing. Cranston handed the paper back, with a barely hidden expression of disgust. Benedetto folded the paper back up and then flattened it under his palm, feeling the corners of his mouth pulled into a tight straight line.
Hell of a mess indeed, Benedetto growled, throwing a glance at Hofstader, who had said it first. He addressed the board, struggling to keep the anger out of his voice. News from Texas. Senior Agent Matthew Richter, Texas Team Four, is to receive an official commendation for his quick thinking in the capture of four militia members and the subsequent reclamation of a large cache of illegal weapons.
There was silence. Costas looked down at the tabletop and shook his head. Does his vaunted quick thinking apply to the circumstances under which our heavily sedated agent somehow agreed to pose as a militia prisoner in order to lure the militia to attempt to kill or recapture him?
He threw his angry glance at LaForce and Ramirez, as if they had had something to do with Richters questionable actions.
Cranston held up his hand. We have already agreed that the actions of Team Four and the events leading to the capture of the militia members are outside the scope of this inquiry. He paused. And Assistant Director Travis and Agent Larabee have both made it clear that they have no desire to pursue the matter.
Costas launched a protest.
Cranston narrowed his eyes before he could get it out. I have no intention of getting into an interregional pissing match over the hero of the moment. Let them have their day in the sun.
Costas glared back with more gumption than Benedetto had seen from him yet. Just seems a damn shame that Texas gets its intelligence wrong, resulting in injury to our agent, who is then held a virtual prisoner for two weeks, and when its over, they give their agent a commendation, and we put ours in front of a board of inquiry. Im sure this will play well with the troops, too.
Dead silence fell over the table as the directors all eyed each other. None of them seeming very happy with their position. Or very certain what action to take.
Doug Stone was on his fifth phone call in a row. Not that that was particulary surprising. Doug did a lot of work on the phone, using the instrument so much that sometimes it was impossible to tell whether the calls were business or personal. But Kirk Gustin, who sat at the desk across from Stone and was forced to endure listening to Dougs end and only Dougs end of every call, had slowly become adept at deciphering the who, what, and whys of Stones innumerable conversations.
Todays topic eluded him however. And by the third call he had become exasperated by the steady stream of No kidding?, Youre joking?, You cant be serious!, and variations of the same theme that spilled from the mans lips as he furiously scribbled notes to himself, then reached for the dial to call yet another person in his endless information chains.
Kirk would have resorted to reading Dougs notes, having long since learned to read the mans handwriting upside down, but apparently, Dougie had gotten wise to the trick because this time hed written it all in that damn shorthand he had learned somewhere and was always talking about how useful it was in this profession. Since Kirk could not read shorthand, even right side up, he abandoned that idea. In the end, he put down his own pen and leaned back in his chair, staring at Stones head and waiting to be enlightened.
At long last, Doug hung up and waggled his eyebrows at Kirk. He opened his mouth, finally, to spill it but was cut off by his phones insistent ring. Doug nearly laughed at the black look of frustration that Kirk threw at him, as he reached for the phone.
Stone, he said. Followed by Yeah then That was quick! and, predictably, No kidding? He paused a moment then said darkly. Wait till this gets out.
Kirks fingers itched to tear the phone from his teammates grasp. He willed himself to be patient as Doug hung up. But instead of filling him in, Stone jumped up from his seat with more animation than he had shown since combined U.S. military intelligence had got their impatient claws on Team Eight and started breathing down their necks demanding more and more information on Dowd and company. Doug disappeared into Ryan Kellys office and shut the door.
Kirk, Brett, and the other two members of the team exchanged glances. Kirk very nearly tiptoed to the door to put his ear against it. The only reason he didnt was the bad example it would set for the more junior members of the team. It was a precedent he didnt want to set, especially since he sure as hell wouldnt have wanted anyone listening in on some of the conversations hed had with Kelly in the past. So he waited. They all waited. And no one got any work donemilitary or no military.
Whered you hear that? Kelly demanded as soon as the words were out of Stones mouth.
Stone hadnt expected his team leader to be happy with the news, but he hadnt anticipated quite this level of angry. He shifted his feet before giving his usual answer to that question. I prefer not reveal my sources.
Kelly eyed him irritatedly, and Doug could tell it wasnt just the usual answer that had the Senior Agent irked. Doug frowned. Suddenly unsure. It is true. Isnt it?
The team leader blew out a breath. Yeah, he said finally. Its true. His voice was resigned but the expression on his face was dark. Word came from Travis this morning.
Doug sat down suddenly. Bastards, he spat out.
Ryan Kelly raised an eyebrow. You dont know the half of it, he replied, a faint growl behind his words.
Doug shook his head. From what you said
Kelly looked up sharply. Cut him off. What I said was between us only, he snapped. I thought I made that clear.
Stone held up both hands, palms out. Whoa, Boss! he replied. You were very clear. And I didnt say a word. None of us did.
He watched relief replace the skepticism on his team leaders face.
But you should tell them, Doug urged quietly. Tell the brass what you told us.
Kelly grimaced. I cant, he said angrily.
Stone frowned. You were there, he said more firmly. They should know.
I cant tell them, Kelly bit out.
Stone gave his boss a long, searching look. Why not? he blurted out finally, perplexed.
A strange, sad but determined smile twisted up one corner of Kellys mouth as he wryly replied, That I cant tell you.
Doug gave him a sour look. Well it aint fair, he said looking down at the floor. And Kelly knew his giant-sized agent wasnt referring to being kept out of the loop.
You werent supposed to know, Kelly said gently.
When Doug looked up, his bosss eyes were serious, earnest. Dont tell anyone, he said finally. Especially Team Seven.
Stone glowered. What is this, the sixth grade? How long they figure they can keep the lid on this?
As long as possible, Kelly replied with a bitter laugh.
He repeated his words one more time, only now it was clearly an order. Dont tell anyone.
Anyone. Pure and simple. Meaning just that.
Doug crumpled up his notes in disgust and threw them into Kellys wastebasket. Yes, sir, he snapped sourly and went out again.
Kirk waited. Brett waited. They all waited. But Doug said nothing. Simply resumed his work. Silent.
Brett frowned. Then raised his eyebrows meaningfully at Kirk. Getting no response, the younger agent jerked his head toward Stone and raised his eyebrows again. Kirk glowered back, but did as he had been silently requested, leaning across his desk and whispering to Stone, What was that all about?
Dougs eyes were hard and angry when he looked up, coldly replying, None of our business, apparently.
Kirk stared at him. They all stared at him. But Doug went determinedly back to his work and said nothing more about it.
Brett shrugged at Kirk and turned back to the work at hand. A secret, then, he thought, his tongue thoughtfully planted in his cheek. Well, if there was one thing he knew about a bureaucracy like the ATF, it was that secrets leak. They get out. And the bigger and juicier the secret, the faster it was likely to get around. Based on the amiable Douglas Stones present angry expression, it seemed that once this one got loose, it was likely to sprout wings.
The lid was not screwed on as tight as anyone had hoped.
God damn it all to hell! Buck exploded, shattering the silence that had reigned over Team Sevens bullpen since mid-morning. The second in command slammed his foot violently into the back of his metal desk hard enough to move the other three desks that abutted his own.
At the desk adjacent, Ezra Standish jumped as his hot coffee, spilled down onto his paperwork. He jumped to grab a tissue before it damaged the cross-referencing notes hed been so diligently working on all morning. He threw Buck an angry glance. What in heavens name could possibly ?
He was cut off, as Buck jerked up out of his chair and yanked his computer screen around toward Standish and jabbed a finger at it as if he wanted to reach in and shred the e-mail message that filled the screen. A moment later Ezra knew why, even as he realized from a soft ding from his own computer that a new e-mail had just arrived for him. Forwarded to the entire team, based on the To line on Bucks message. Staring at Buck, the rest of the team reached slowly for their keyboards to open their messages.
Chris appeared suddenly in his doorway, his face carefully composed. Buck , the team leader began, a warning embedded in his scrupulously even tone.
Buck rounded on him, giving him a savage glare. Dont Buck me, the taller agent snapped, pointing the deadly finger squarely at his boss.
Behind and around him, angry muttering, like bursts of staccato gunfire began to increase in volume and length, as one by one, the rest of the team read the message and began to understand its meaning.
Buck stabbed his finger through the air as if he were pounding his point through the center of Chriss chest. If thats the way its gonna be, Buck snapped, so angry he was nearly sputtering, then I oughta just fuckin quit.
His eyes sparked. His finger leveled itself at Chriss face. You oughta just quit, he snarled.
Ezra averted his eyes, but not before he saw the ironic smirk that cracked the calm composure of Chriss face, as the team leader said quietly but firmly, Might come to that, yet. But it wont be over this.
Goddamn miserable son of a bitch! Buck growled savagely. His brows knitted together, blue eyes flashing. He fucking blackmailed you.
Buck sucked in a sharper breath and his eyes widened in further realization of facts he had so carefully kept away. Away from his mind. Safely at bay. Not willing to consider them. But now there they were on the tip of his tongue.
That bastard almost got you killed! His voice shook with anger. And now theyre practically pinning a medal on him.
Chris scrubbed a hand over his face.
Nathan closed his eyes. Medical charts that had been banished from his memory now rising unbidden in his mind. Followed by the images that had faded from his overheated imagination as they had turned to the business at hand.
He could feel his teammates looking at him. He opened his eyes. Facing them, the brown depths bleeding out what he had known. And hadnt told.
Vin swallowed. Hard. Turning blue eyes on Nathan like a spotlight demanding to know the truth. Like an interrogation. Where were you on the night of , Nathan thought incongruently. Almost hysterically.
Chris saw the look in Vins eye. The sudden pallor of Nathans face under that glare. And opened his mouth to intercede. Redirect. To placate.
But he was silenced by Nathans sudden fury.
Dont, the medic snapped abruptly, leveling a hot burning glare in Larabees direction. His teammates faded away from his awareness, like he was in a tunnel. Him at one end and Chris Larabee at the other. He heard the words come from his mouth, rolling up out of some room deep inside, and he knew that he couldnt have stopped them noweven if he really wanted to.
You couldve died down there. Two or three times over. An we would never have known. That bastard left you for dead. And we were getting ready to put his body in your grave. Next to your wife and son. He hardly stopped to breathe, his voice rising higher. Pirelli came within a half hour of beating you to death! he snapped. A half hour! If that detective hadnt stepped in If the ambulance hadnt been there already He swallowed, but did not stop, his words gathering speed. And the fuckin hospitals didnt do you no favors, movin you around. Then Richter blackmailed you into fightin the militia for him. Hed have let them shoot you dead and still been happy to take all the credit for it. So dont .
He stopped. His breath coming hard. Dont you hand me any nothing-really-happened-so-everythings-all-right bullshit.
Chris stared at him. They all stared at him.
I read your damn charts, Nathan finished, the words coming out hard, harsh, halting. I know how close it was. So dont tell me its fine.
Five agents stared silently at the medic. While Chris stared at them. At the identical expression etched onto each face. Slack jaws. Eyes vacant. And brows come together suddenly, as if frozen in mid gasp. Horrified. An expression so familiar that he could feel it stab right through him. The face of someone who has only just heard terrible news.
And still he wanted so badly to remind them that it didnt happen. It was over and done. Not real. Like a bad dream that they all had to get past. But he couldnt. Not with his career and the teams future still hanging on a decision, and Nathans words still ringing in his ears.
He stared at them. It could have happened, yes. But it didnt. He thought it. Again. But he didnt know what to say.
The awful silence was broken by a sudden, embarrassingly loud growl from Vins empty stomach.
All eyes turned toward the sharpshooter. Chris had hoped for some comment. Some smart remark. Anything to break the tension. But there was none. No one spoke.
Ezra flicked a glance toward Chris and saw his discomfort. Too little too late, he realized, of course, but at least this was one plight he could rescue his team leader from. Minor though it may be.
He cleared his throat.
I think gentlemen, he said in his smooth Georgian accent, that Mr. Tanners inner clock has indicated that it is time for us to partake of lunch.
Our last meal? Josiah asked sardonically, and Nathan sourly agreed.
J.D. was the first to actually move. Toward the coffee room. Ostensibly to see if anything suitable was left. But more likely to break the strain in the air.
Vin crossed his arms stubbornly over his chest. I aint hungry, he growled.
Buck, still staring at the Texan, stood frozen for a moment. A laugh burst from him, as Vin was again loudly betrayed by his own stomach.
Sure ya arent, Junior, Buck cracked, pulling the reluctant sharpshooter up from his chair. You best feed that beast before it starts roamin the countryside lookin for virgins. Speaking of which, he added suddenly, swinging a long arm across Tanners shoulders, did I ever tell you about the time I
Relieved, Chris grimaced as he predicted the direction that story was going to take, but his thoughts were interrupted as Buck swiveled his head and pinioned him with still-angry blue eyes. You. Eat. was all his oldest friend said before steering the petulant sharpshooter toward the kitchen. Two words only, but Chris read all the warnings implied beneath them. And knew it would make no difference whether he could force anything past his knotted stomach or not.
He turned to Ezra, who had stepped aside to let him pass. Or maybe force him past. But, then again, Ezra had gotten him off the hook.
The undercover agent tipped an imaginary hat at the team leader as he passed, allowing himself to flick a small conspiratorial smile at the taller blond. A smile that clearly showed he was still playing both sides.
Behind Chriss back, the smile widened. Genuinely, at the brief look of recognition that had flashed across the team leaders face when Ezra had redirected the conversation. But it was the gratitude that he saw there that had made it worth Ezras while.
It was very late, by the time Travis called. Quitting time had come and gone. No one had left. They had put their work away, to be sure, the very moment the clock reached the bureau-appointed and officially sanctioned and approved time. But they were still here. Talking quietly. Playing trashketball. Whatever made the waiting easier. Because thats what they were doing. Waiting.
They waited through two long hours. They waited through the brief phone call. They waited for Chris to appear in the doorway. Looking tired. As tired as they were. But the moment he smirked at them, the weight flew off their chests. And they listened intently to the news he could give them.
We can all go home, he said. A smart-ass gleam replaced the weariness in the green eyes, as he added, And we all get to keep our jobs.
One or two cheers went up as sounds of relief flooded their small room.
Buck started toward him like a gigantic panther stalking its prey. Chris held him off with one hand, adding dryly, Travis and I meet tomorrow to talk about appropriate discipline.
Chris gave them all a warning glance, eyeing the stalking second in command in particular, as he added, That doesnt mean that there wont be some changes.
But his words fell on deaf ears. They were just waiting for him to stop speaking. They werent actually listening. And there was no holding Buck off anyway. He found both of the mans big arms wrapped unceremoniously and embarrassingly around his shoulders. As if he were J.D. for Gods sake. Crushing him. Thank God it was his shoulders, he thought, or he might have had all breath squeezed out of him. As it was, he could have gone deaf from the whoop the man let out.
Chris glowered at his old friend sourly, but couldnt hold it in the face of that stupid-looking grin and the blue twinkle in the cobalt eyes. To his chagrin, he knew darn well that a similarly stupid expression had plastered itself on his own face.
Go home, he growled at them. And was happy to see that they wasted no time in taking his advice. For once.
He picked up his own briefcase and locked up his office last. He found J.D. waiting in the bullpen door.
He looked at the young agent questioningly. J.D. cleared his throat, looking almost nervous, but he didnt say anything. They walked toward the elevators in silence. Side by side.
The small metal box slid smoothly toward the parking garage. Chris regarded his youngest agent from the corner of his eye. A thought bubbling up from the back of his head where he had stuck it this morning. Overtaken by events. But now it occurred to him to ask. Now that they were alone. He turned to the youth beside him.
The title on the album? he asked.
J.D. jerked toward him, as startled by the sudden break in the silence, as by the question itself.
Your idea? the taller man asked.
Looking away again toward the elevator doors, Chris had the good grace to ignore the way J.D.s face reddened. And J.D. was grateful. Because Buck surely wouldnt have.
Then again, J.D. considered, Chris probably wasnt all that comfortable with the conversation anyway. He stared up at his boss. Having asked at all must mean that Chris really wanted to know.
J.D. looked at his shoes for a moment before answering simply, Josiah gave me the idea. And the verse. He halted. Not sure what to reveal. But in the end, he added, Just seemed to fit. You know?
He winced. Watched Chris mull it over as the numbers ticked down. Still thinking about it as the doors slid open onto the gray concrete expanse of garage. Still turning it over as they started out toward their cars. Then he turned slowly to look at J.D. through shielded eyes. Shielded from what, J.D. wondered.
After all that, Nice, was all he said. Quietly. But it was enough. J.D. hardly even heard the soft but unnecessary Thank you that followed.
Part of the reason he hardly heard it was that it was all but drowned out by Bucks shout of Where the hell ya been? You two are slower than pair of turtles goin backwards through molasses in January.
Both men turned grateful faces toward their boisterous friend. And Buck grinned back. He waved Chris over impatiently.
Get in, he ordered. We gotta get your truck.
Then he winked at J.D. over the top of his little red, rebuilt classic. See ya at home, kid.
J.D. gave his best friend and roommate a wave and pulled on his motorcycle helmet.
Buck turned to Chris as they pulled out of the parking spot. Dont spose youd tell me what all that was about?
What? Chris asked.
You and J.D. he replied.
The smile that split Chriss face foreshadowed his one-word reply. Nope.
Buck shrugged. Ill blackmail it outta the kid, then.
Chris smiled but said nothing further about it.
In fact he said nothing at all on the way out to Johnny Ringos. Staring out the window instead. But that didnt concern Buck. He was used to Chriss long silences. And had come to accept that hed hear anything he needed to know once Chris was ready to tell him.
But that sure as hell didnt mean that Buck had to keep still. He turned up the radio, set to a banjo-jangling, fiddle-screeching, old-fashioned twanging country music station and began to sing along. Loudly and gleefully off key. Purposely ignoring the wheels silently turning in the head beside him. The blond was completely lost in thought.
The darkened countryside flashed by outside Chriss window. But he wouldnt have seen it anyway, even if it were broad daylight. His eyes were turned inward. Thinking.
John 15:13. He had looked up the verse that morning. No easy feat, since first he had to figure out where the hell he had put Sarahs bible. And second, he needed to be ready to run by the time Tanner arrived. As it was, he had found the verse only a second before the doorbell rang, skidding to the door to stop the impatient, repeated ringing, his sneakers still in his hand.
Since then he had had other things on his mind. But now, it came to him. The time to think about it more thoroughly. And the idea that J.D. and Josiah had picked it. For him.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
He discovered, in the end, that he was simply afraid to look at it too closely. To consider it too deeply. Or to read too much into the selection. Perhaps it would evaporate. Or perhaps hed just find something there that he didnt really want to know.
He chose discretion, or perhaps cowardice, instead of valor. And turned the radio up louder, throwing Buck a rare smile, and joining him in raucously demolishing one of their favorite old classics.
Long after the sun had sunk behind purple hills. Long after supper had cooled and then congealed inside the refrigerator. Long after she had slipped under the sheets and the quilt in the bed they shared, Raine finally heard his keys jingling at the front door. Patience rewarded. She waited a bit longer until she heard his footsteps, tired and plodding coming up the front hall, marking each step patiently until he appeared in the doorway.
The bedroom light was still on, letting him know that she had been waiting for him. Now that he had arrived, she scanned his face from beneath her lowered lids, looking for an indication of the news. New strains or anger. Or maybe relief from the tension that had been slowly pressing them both down. Some sign hinting at an end to the silence that had slowly overtaken him. But she could tell nothing from the view she had of his back, as he skinned out of his work clothes, barely bothering to slide on a battered pair of shorts before snapping off the light and slipping under the covers beside her.
He let go a huge breath as he lay back, as if hitting the mattress had knocked the wind out of him. And she turned and rolled into his arms. Resting her chin on the back of one hand that rested on his chest, she searched his face up close in the dim moonlight filtering through the bedroom window.
She saw the fatigue there. And the weariness that he had borne for weeks. But something was different. Something in the way his face seemed less closed. Less clench in his jaw. Less hunch in his shoulders. She searched again, and she waited, exercising the very end of her patience, and biting back the demands she itched to make. Or perhaps just the urge to scream.
At long last, she prodded him to speak. Gently. But meaning business. It was her life, too.
You seem a bit less tense, she observed, letting her voice rise at the end, intimating the question she had not asked.
A short chuckle escaped him, his lips curling back to reveal white teeth to the moonlight. Do I? he asked.
His arms wrapped around her, enfolding her, his eyes thoughtful in the moonlight, looking backward into the day that passed. He smiled ruefully at her.
Thats probably cause I hauled off and yelled at Chris about almost getting his damn fool self killed. And to stop telling us that nothing happened.
She frowned, as much in sympathy as at hearing the bitter tinge in his voice. He looked down at her, imitating her frown, his handsome face filled with dark humor.
She turned her head away. Resting her cheek against his chest and trying to imagine her Nathan actually yelling at Chris Larabee, a man he so admired, though few had earned that honor. She heard the quiet rumble of Nathans voice vibrating within him as he spoke again. Thoughtfully. Distantly.
You know, he began, and she turned her head up to see him better, to watch his face as he spoke. Seeing his brows knitted together in an impatient, exasperated frown. I love that stubborn, obstinate, hardheaded horses ass like he was my own brother, but now and then Id just like to knock him upside that hard head until he gets it through his thick skull.
He did not elaborate on what precisely needed to be gotten through the team leaders thick skull. Probably a lot of things, Raine reflected. But she smiled.
Mmm, she muttered, with a sleepy sigh. I know the feeling.
His arms tightened around her. There was no point arguing with her when she already knew she was right, so he kissed her instead. Once. Softly.
Then she snuggled down against his shoulder.
Oh, he said abruptly. An afterthought. And we get to keep our jobs.
She shook her head as well as she could shake it without lifting it from the comfortable hollow of his shoulder. But she smiled fondly, tightening her arm across his belly to show that she had heard. And was glad.
Of course, she had already known. Had it been otherwise, had one or all of them been fired or forced to resign, they would not be lying together in bed. Theyd be in the kitchen. Pouring hot coffee and trying to assess the damage and what could be done about it.
Instead they were safe together beneath the comfortable weight of an ancient quilt. Just missed by the tornado that had swept through their lives, picking up their orderly world and scattering their careful plans. But it had passed, she thought hopefully. And looking sleepily through the list of all the things that mattered most, she discovered that everything they needed was still here. Moved around and shaken up to be sure. Bruised and disordered maybe. Altered perhaps. But here.
Tomorrow they could begin the job of inspecting the damage. To his career. To their lives and friendships. To fit all the pieces back together again one at a time. But she could live with that. Because she knew he could live with it, too.
She knew that because she felt sleep come over him. Felt his breathing and heartbeat slowing. Felt each tight muscle slowly relax in a way she hadnt felt in a long time. She wasted no time in following his lead. And soon, entangled in the comfort of each others arms, Nathan and Raine slept more peacefully than either one had since seven men had flown off on a simple backup mission more than a month ago.
This time it was just Assistant Director Orin Travis and Team Seven Leader Chris Larabee. In A. D. Traviss office. No tape recorders. No directors. Just the boss, and the man who was supposed to be receiving the dressing down of his life.
Travis was doing his best, too. Blunt. Angry. Angry at the directors. Angry at Senior Agent Matthew Richter, AD Rivers, and all the members of Texas Team Four. And particularly angry at the seven agents under his direction who had caused most of this trouble. But at the moment, he was mostly angry at Chris Larabee, as he watched his Senior Agent listening to everything he had to say. Calmly, patiently, passively and without comment other than to nod his head at the appropriate times. His face did not give away one iota of his thoughts, displaying a perfected detached analytical acceptance. That was bad enough, but what irked Travis most was in one corner of the team leaders mouth, where the AD knew a smirk was struggling to be born.
Damn you, Travis fumed silently at his agent. Dont look so smug. Theyre going to be watching every move you make from now on. You wont be able to scratch without a staff of directorial assistants writing it up in triplicate.
It was a nice threat. Satisfying actually. But empty he knew. Fact was, Chris Larabee could be smug. Because Chris Larabee had got his way. Again. And Travis wondered why he should be so surprised. After all, he had helped Chris get his way. Again. It made him angry all over again.
In addition, Travis grated out harshly, continuing his tirade, you can consider yourself ineligible for promotion for the foreseeable future. And dont expect to be receiving any merit increases this year.
That alone would have made another agent squirm. Or protest. Or something. Chris said nothing. He cared little for promotions. And wasnt in it for the money.
Agent Wilmington has been removed from consideration for all current leader position vacancies and all currently scheduled promotion lists. Travis continued. When he is returned to the promotable rosters, he will begin again at the bottom of the promotion list.
The team leader managed to look insincerely contrite over that. Agent Wilmington would have refused promotion away from his team anyway. And it wouldnt have been the first time. Not that Chris would ever stand in Bucks way, but he knew damn well that Larabee would shed no tears over continuing his working relationship with his oldest friend, his veritable right hand.
No one on your team will be receiving merit increases this fiscal year.
That oughta hurt, Travis decided, considering their impressive success rate up until this fiasco. Chris looked vaguely disappointed about that, but clearly the wound was not fatal. None of the rest of them were in it for the money either.
The AD handed Chris an official memo over his desk. And this memo is to be placed permanently in your file. It is from Director Cranstons office and details your penchant for out and out ignoring orders, directives, regulations, and chains of command. As well as how you are personally responsible for passing this penchant on to the agents under your leadership.
He knew better than to expect the man to even flinch. He watched the green eyes skim the carefully prepared words. Chris handed it back without a word.
A similar letter will be going into the personnel files of each member of your team, regarding their misappropriation of surveillance equipment, conducting an unauthorized surveillance, and possible destruction of public and private property.
That got a reaction. Travis saw the flash of anger from the team leader.
Travis held up his hand. The letter does acknowledge that they admitted their activities despite a lack of corroborating evidence and showed a clear willingness to cooperate with the subsequent investigation.
The angry look was quelled, or more likely pocketed again, wherever Larabee stored up his anger until it could be conveniently unleashed. He resumed his composed detached listening.
Travis referred to a private interoffice memo on his own desk before continuing. The board of inquiry does acknowledge, however, that ATF leadership also shares responsibility for the actions of your team during your absence, in that the manner of your replacement could have been accomplished in a way that was less disruptive to the team and more likely to promote acceptance of new leadership. They acknowledge that their action in this regard may have contributed to a breakdown in communication between the team and its supervisors and that the decision to block Team Seven completely from the subsequent investigation into events in Texas may have engendered an atmosphere of distrust that might have exacerbated the situation. The board of inquiry concedes that Team Sevens unauthorized activities were facilitated by the absence of clear leadership in a crisis situation, which was not immediately recognized by the teams chain of command.
When Travis stopped to take a breath, the low voice inserted itself dryly. Whose permanent file does that go in?
Travis glared at him.
Chris did not blink. I want a copy of that acknowledgement stapled to the front of each of the personnel memos regarding my teams actions in my absence.
Travis glared harder. You are not in a position to demand anything, Agent Larabee.
Damn the look he got in return was cool. And completely unrelenting.
Well discuss it, Travis replied coldly.
The smirk that had been struggling so long finally reached the open air. And sat smugly there on the corner of his lip, as he offered politely, You can staple it to the back then.
The audacity was staggering. It was all Travis could do to keep from catching that damn smirk, as he snapped back. Fine.
He succeeded finally in getting his angry expression back into place and continued relentlessly.
I am hereby directed by the board of inquiry and your immediate chain of command to ensure that clearer chains of command and closer oversight are established over you and your team.
He skewered Chris with his best glare helped by a finger leveled at the mans heart. They want steps to be taken immediately to ensure that you and your team adhere more strictly to established regulations, policies, and procedures.
He had to give Chris credit. Aside from a slight hardening of the look in the mans eye, there was no discernible reaction.
He leaned forward. You, Agent Larabee, are going to be held personally and professionally accountable for ensuring that the team meets bureau standards.
Nothing. Not a flinch. He didnt even have the good grace to look satisfied, since Travis knew damn well that the directors had just given him exactly what he wanted. And, unless Travis missed his guess, and he doubted that he had, more than one of the directors would realize this, too.
But that didnt mean it had to be pleasant. He stabbed the finger through the air at the team leader. And you will begin with the immediate censure and discipline of Agent Buck Wilmington for the teams actions during your absence.
To Traviss utter surprise, Chris frowned. Not in anger, but in consideration. He cocked his head to one side and said seriously, sincerely, Ive been working on that.
Travis stared at him. Youve been working on that? he asked, dismayed at how confusion slipped, uninvited, into his tone. Hell, hed have figured the man had been too busy saving everybody elses ass to start working on punishments.
He narrowed his eyes and couldnt help the sarcastic drip in his tone as he replied, What, pray tell, have you come to decide? Travis frowned at the realization that he was starting to sound like Ezra Standish.
Chris leaned forward in his chair and pursed his lips thoughtfully at Travis. Well, he began slowly.
Oh, thisll be good, Travis thought.
Ive been considering that absence of clear leadership you mentioned earlier, Chris said.
God I hate it when he does that, Travis thought. Quote the opposition. Agree with their point of view. Right before you bulldoze right through them like toothpicks standing in front of a tank. Travis practically held his breath to see where Chris was going with this.
The team leader was stroking his jaw thoughtfully. His eyes far away. I agree that the absence of clear leadership was a contributing factor to their actions during my absence.
You do, do you? Travis grunted back sarcastically. He paused, while Chris focused back on him. And what do you propose will rectify that situation?
The smile cracked across his entire face. Im glad you asked that, he replied and launched into his explanation and proposal with such earnestness that Travis was forced to shake his head in disbelief. He thought for a moment about reminding Chris that he was still in the middle of being dressed down, but seeing the intensity in the green eyes, Travis was forced to give in and listen.
I havent given Buck much chance to lead many missions, Chris was saying. As a result, he hasnt had a lot of practical opportunity to hone his leadership skills in real situations.
Travis felt his head tilting slowly to one side in a mirror of Chriss, as he tried to anticipate Chriss reasoning.
As the second in command, Chris continued, the team looked to him for direction when they came back from Texas.
He paused and looked at Travis, who nodded slowly. After all, Travis conceded, he couldnt deny that. He had counted on that very fact to keep the team together when the first of their new team leaders had been installed.
Chris continued, assured that Travis was following. Buck himself admits that forced into the leadership role, and given the circumstances, he neglected to put the team first. He led them in the direction they wanted to go, not in the direction that would serve them best.
Chris gave Travis a long look. His voice was grave. He needs to learn to put the team first. To lead them in the direction that is best for them. Whether they like it or not.
Like in full retreat from a doomed warehouse leaving one of their own behind? Travis thought suddenly. Unwillingly. He pushed the thought away. Not willing to admit that what happened in Texas was the worst possible circumstance and yet a prime example of exactly what Chris meant.
The AD swallowed, but his voice was steady as he asked. And how do you plan to teach him that?
Chris smiled. Theres only one way to learn leadership, Judge, Chris replied. He had the good grace not to add, And you know it.
Travis began to shake his head no. Not now. Let it all die down some.
But Chris was ignoring him.
He needs more time at the helm. Not less, Chris said. With absolute sincerity. Dead serious.
Travis sighed. Dont you think thatll look like youre rewarding him? the AD asked, squinting at the man he sometimes thought was completely oblivious to the political perceptions of those above him.
Chris grinned, his eyes glinting. Would you consider it a reward?
Travis refused to grin back. Im not concerned about what I would consider it, he retorted.
Chris shrugged and sat back in his chair. You want to be sure that strong leadership is in place if something like this happens again, then thats the best way to go, he said flatly.
Travis continued to glower at him. But he knew that wouldnt change his mind. He sighed. And you really expect me to be able to sell this to the chain of command? he asked.
A smile flashed briefly across Larabees face as he replied flatly and with complete confidence, If anyone can, you can.
Travis closed his eyes. And considered the idea as impartially as he was able, what with his own tail feathers still in flames from his immediate supervisor. He wished hed handled his own dressing down as well as Chris was handling his. Trouble was, the more he thought about it, the more he became convinced that Chris was right. The man was a natural leader. He knew his people. He knew what made them tick. And Buck was not going to become the leader Chris had often told Travis he could be, unless he had more opportunity to hone his skills.
All right, Travis said in return. But what are you going to give the chain of command in return?
Chris opened his hands out to the air. What do they want? he asked.