The Mystery Seller

by Susie Burton

Disclaimer: 'The Magnificent Seven’ TV series is the property of MGM, Trilogy and the Mirisch Company. The characters from the show and named herein, belong to the Name of Copyright Holder. No infringements of these copyrights are intended, and they are used here without permission. Thank you to Mog for creating the ATF:AU. This work of fan fiction was written purely for my own entertainment, and not for any type of commercial gain.

This is a sequel to Rhiannon’s short story, The Highest Bid, and will not make any sense whatsoever unless you’ve read her piece first. Rhiannon - many thanks for letting me run with my idea following your story. I’m also grateful for the few suggestions you made, which make my fluffy little piece read that much better.

English spellings have been used in this story.

July 2005

Chris looked up from the report he’d been reading as Vin tapped lightly on the doorframe, and then strode into the senior agent’s office without waiting for an invitation. The scowling rebuke for the interruption died on Larabee’s lips, when he noticed that not only had his friend closed the door behind him, but was also pacing the room in a… well, Chris could only call it a nervous manner. That astonishing thought instantly put the blond on the alert, so he dropped the case-file onto his desk and gave the perturbed-looking sharpshooter his undivided attention.

“What’s wrong, Vin?”

Tanner had finally come to a halt at the inner partition wall, and was staring unseeingly through the glass at his colleagues in the bullpen. Chris frowned when Vin didn’t reply or move, so he craned his neck around to try and see what was causing his friend’s strange behaviour. The entire team was currently involved with desk-bound duties, and the other five men appeared to be engrossed in their work. That probably meant they were catching up on the usual Monday morning influx of emails and inter-Bureau communiqués. Whatever occupied the remainder of his squad, they looked to be taking no notice of what was going on in their leader’s office. So everything seemed to be normal to Chris’ eyes.

The blond tried again. “Vin! What’s on your mind?”

That barked out question seemed to break the spell, and the younger agent’s head snapped up, although he avoided making eye to eye contact with the other man. “Chris, I’ve got.…”

Vin turned away, his voice trailing off, although he’d spoken so softly, Chris wasn’t even sure what his friend had said. Not that he needed words to tell him that something was badly amiss. Larabee’s mind was suddenly whirling, as he tried to fathom out why his colleague was acting so out of character. They’d all had a good weekend – mostly spent together, as was their general practice - the highlight of which was the celebrations for Vin’s birthday. Nothing had marred that happy gathering as far as Chris was aware. It was only midway through Monday morning, and no one else had been into Team Seven’s office as yet, so there shouldn’t be any problem this early in the working day. But there was.

Without wasting any more time, Chris decided to get straight to the point. “Vin, you came to me, when I’d specifically asked you all to leave me in peace with this complex report from the AD,” – the older man gestured to the discarded document – “so I’m guessing you want to talk about somethin’ important. Sit, take a load off and start at the beginning!” he ordered briskly.

There was the briefest of nods from Vin, but he averted his eyes when he saw Ezra Standish wander across the office to use the copier that sat close to Chris’ office door. Without saying a word to Larabee, the sharpshooter tugged on the cord in front of him, and pulled down the slatted blinds to cover the see-through wall partitions. Once he was sure the pair had some privacy, Vin came and sat on the seat in front of his boss’ desk.

“Saturday was… somethin’ else – I appreciate what you an’ the fellas done fer me. I also… wanted… t’thank ya for the saddle,” Vin began hesitantly, although he seemed more interested in fiddling with a stray paperclip he’d found lurking behind Chris’ PC monitor, than talking to his friend.

Leaning forward and resting his arms on his desk, Chris regarded the other man intently. “Yep, I think we all had a good time the other night, and you’ve already thanked me for the saddle – several times. Let’s cut to the chase, Vin. What’s put a burr up your ass?”

“I… I gotta real tricky problem, Chris, an’… an’ I don’t know what t’do about it.”

Chris pursed his lips, wondering what on earth it was that caused such uncertainty and… yes, it was definitely anxiety – fear almost – that the older man detected in Vin’s voice and body language. Undeterred, Larabee reached out and placed his hand on Vin’s forearm. “Just spit it out, Vin. A problem shared is a problem halved, you know?” he said with a reassuring smile.

“Reckon… but this ‘uns prob’ly gonna double in size when ya hear it!”

“I doubt it. Things can sometimes grow out of proportion in our own minds, but thrashing them through with a friend can often solve issues amazingly fast. Just tell me what’s worrying you.”

“Chris, you know I ain’t one fer… fer swindling folk. It jes’ ain’t in m’nature t’be underhanded or sly, ‘cause m’ma always told me to be a good honest man, an’ ta remember I’s a Tanner.”

“No way are you sly, Vin! And who the hell’s accused you of swindling?” Larabee demanded angrily. His piercing hazel eyes were now locked on the closed blinds, as if he could pick out the slanderous culprit through the tightly drawn shutters. There was no need to put the pair’s ‘unique mental telepathy’ into play - the astute senior agent had a sneaky suspicion he knew who Vin was referring to.

“Aw heck, not one of the fellas, Chris!”

“Then who?”

“Me,” Vin responded in a small voice.

Larabee blinked several times, shaking his head, like he’d completely lost the thread of the conversation. No, he must have misheard. Vin Tanner was the straightest and most honest man he knew, and nothing anyone – including his friend himself – told him would make him change his mind about that given fact.

Taking a deep breath, Chris attempted to drag the details from his friend. “Let me get this straight. You’ve swindled someone out of… what for Christ’s sake? A chocolate covered doughnut? Or did the vending machine spit out two candy bars instead of one this morning? No… don’t tell me you forgot to pay for a beer at Inez’s? Oh, well, she’ll probably take payment in kind or somethin’! A warm kiss for a cold beer sounds like a reasonable settlement,” the blond remarked blithely, waggling his eyebrows in a suggestive fashion.

Tanner shook his head vigorously in denial, but still said nothing.

When it became clear that the sharpshooter wasn’t going to elaborate, or readily talk about what was tearing him up inside, Chris tried another angle. “Okay then, this must be about money. You found a nickel, but weren’t able to discover who dropped it?” he surmised, knowing how aptly the Team’s teasing sobriquet of ‘Robin Hood’ applied to his generous colleague.

A look of guilt flitted across Vin’s expressive features, as Chris said ‘money’. Jesus! He’d hit the jackpot! The older agent’s eyes widened in utter disbelief and he sat up straighter in his chair, when the other man hung his head in shame. Clearly this was a serious matter, otherwise his normally unflappable friend wouldn’t be looking so wretched. “You’ve… swindled…. Cheated… someone out of… money? Damn! How much money are we talking about, pard? And who did you cheat that it’s got you wound up like a rattler about to strike?” Chris wanted to know.

“I didn’t mean to cheat, but I still feel like a hustler anyhow,” the sharpshooter murmured unhappily.

That vague explanation piqued Larabee’s curiosity even further. “Are we talking about a prank that’s gone wrong? Or have you set someone up for…?”

The senior agent stopped when he saw the raw hurt in Vin’s eyes. He hated it when the Texan was in full emoting, ‘little boy lost’ mode. God, no one – neither man, woman or beast - could resist Tanner when those killer blue eyes went into action! Taking another calming breath to gather his equilibrium, Chris leaned forward in his seat and took up the posture of a caring and understanding confidante. “Tell me precisely what’s troubling you, and maybe I can help fix it.”

“First off, this ain’t one of my pranks, Chris,” Vin muttered. “This is ‘bout me takin’ money… actual greenbacks… from someone under false pretences.”

Getting meaningful information from the reticent sharpshooter was as painful as extracting teeth, and Chris was starting to lose patience. “Who did you con, Vin? Just spit the goddamned name out, for pity’s sake!” he requested tersely.

“Ezra,” Vin replied miserably.

That was the clincher for Larabee, as it was the last thing he’d expected to hear after his friend’s diffident comments. Pushing himself back in his chair, the blond suddenly roared with laughter. He just couldn’t contain his reaction - which was relief more than anything - and tears streamed, unchecked, down his face. Nearly half a minute ticked by, and Chris held onto his stomach as he shook with unrestrained mirth.

Vin slapped the palm of his hand on the desk. “It ain’t funny, Chris!” he snarled angrily.

Wiping moisture from his eyes, Chris gazed at his friend, his humour quickly dissipating when he saw the look of indignation coupled with anguish on the other’s features. “I’m sorry, Vin. It just struck me as funny. I guess if you’d said that you’d conned anyone other than Standish, I’d have been a bit more sympathetic. You just made my week!”

“T’rrific! I’m mighty pleased to hear I gave ya a laugh… not!” the Texan growled sarcastically.

“Okay, okay! Don’t lose your shirt! Tell me the impressive tale of how you managed to con our resident conman.”

“Ya know the present Ezra gave me on Saturday? Well… that was mine.”

Chris cocked his head in puzzlement. “Of course it was yours, Vin. He got it for your birthday. That’s what friends do when they celebrate together.”

“No, that ain’t what I’m sayin’. It was mine to begin with. I… I sold it to… to… aw, damn, what did he call hisself? Umm…. Verbal diarrhoea or some such handle. I didn’t know who I was sellin’ it to.”

Now Larabee was truly confused, and floundering in a muddy pond. “You… sold your own birthday present to… to Ezra in the first instance?” he enquired.

Tanner’s chin dipped in affirmation, and he squirmed uneasily on the chair. But Chris ignored this as he continued to prise what he could from the reluctant man. “So, if I’m hearing this correctly… Ezra bought a rare, souvenir program for your birthday, but didn’t realise that you were the mystery seller?” the older man guessed.

“Yeah. Y’see, I had two programs from the Cowboy’s ‘78 Super Bowl win. One of ‘em belonged to m’dad, an’ I still got that. It’s real special ta me, an’ I’d never sell it. He was at the game an’ met all the players afterwards, ‘cause he was involved in coaching kids at a local football club. The one I kept has his name on it… written, then signed by the winning team.”

“And you sold the other one – the one that Ezra purchased - to a local dealer?”

“Not… exactly,” Vin answered cagily, with a pained grin that was born from embarrassment. “I… put it on eBay. That one belonged to my uncle. He had no family ‘ceptin’ me, so when he was killed in Afghanistan, I got it along with his other personal stuff. I was planning to send the money from the sale to the orphanage where m’dad worked, but I don’t reckon it‘d be right now, seeing as what’s happened.”

“Why ever not?” Chris asked in astonishment.

“Aw, come on, Chris! When Ezra finds out what I did, he’s gonna be moping an’ sulking, an’ using them high-falootin’ words ‘til m’head’s explodin’ from hearin’ it. Nah, it’s not on. That souvenir program’s his by rights. I have t’come clean an’ tell ‘im I fleeced him fer $158.”

“You didn’t deliberately fleece him, Vin, and it’s not like he’s going to quibble about a few dollars. Hell, that’s pocket money to Standish! But it’s not about the cash. He went to a lot of trouble to get you something suitable as a gift, and I think he’d be pretty upset if you gave him back his money. Or worse still, tried to return the program to him.”

Vin scanned his friend’s face and eyes, easily seeing the honest conviction behind Chris’ words. “He did look kinda pleased wit’ hisself, didn’t he? ‘Though I was also thinkin’ he had some kind’a scam goin’ wit’ Buck an’ JD.”

“You noticed that too? I’ve been meaning to ask Buck what that was all about.” Chris chuckled as he recalled their party on Saturday night. Nothing had been said, but the rest of the Team had noticed the stunned and incredulous looks Wilmington and Dunne had exchanged on seeing Ezra’s birthday gift to Vin.

“I’m not sure I want t’know. They were cookin’ somethin’ up between ‘em all right!”

“It certainly looked that way. Are we done now?”

The younger man puffed out a stuttering breath as he debated the best course of action. He still felt like a complete jerk, but could see the wisdom in Larabee’s statement. Ezra would be wounded, mortified, if he ever found out what had happened, and Vin couldn’t bear the thought of knowingly upsetting his friend. That would only compound the problem. With his mind now made up, Tanner nodded his agreement. “I’ll send the money to the kids home like I wanted to, but I’ll ask ‘em to treat it as a donation from Ezra. Chris….”

“You don’t have to ask, Vin,” the blond interrupted. “Our conversation stays in this office. Now quit worrying about it.”

Vin rubbed his chin as a thought occurred to him. “Damn! If I donate to charity on behalf of someone else, then they can’t declare it as tax-allowable to the IRS!”

“Well, honours are even, Vin, ‘cause neither can you!”

That remark seemed to set the seal of approval on proceedings for Vin, as it was fitting that he’d gained no more benefit than Ezra would. His eyes locked with Chris’, and the pair smiled in satisfaction. A chuckle escaped the sharpshooter’s lips and, as Chris began to chortle, Vin’s giggle turned into a full belly laugh. The younger man had finally seen the funny side of receiving back, as a gift, an item that he’d originally owned and disposed of. In more ways than one, this year’s birthday would be one he’d remember for some time to come.