DISCLAIMER: These Characters do not belong to the author or me (but if it were our sandbox, we'd let YOU play in it...) That said, this story was written purely for self entertainment (and the possible entertainment of me, thanks BMP!) and no money is being made, has changed hands, or has been paid out for the contents therein. The Author wishes to thank MOG for the ATF AU, she came up with it, and graciously lets others play there. Special thanks to GSister for Beta-ing, encouraging, and all around nagging. Without her patience and insistence, these stories would never have been.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story was inspired by a scene in the movie American Flyers. You may recognize the instance. The author is merely borrowing it, with all due credit to the movie and its writers, etc.
~Constructive Criticism will be passed on to the author
~Flames will be used to toast marshmallows
You, sir, are an insufferable, intractable reprobate with no appreciation whatsoever for finesse.
ATF undercover agent Ezra Standish may have thought the words. He may have attempted to transmit them psychically. And he may have felt the truth of them in every fiber of his being, but he certainly possessed the prudence not to say them. Not out loud.
After all, he was talking to his boss, ATF Team Seven Leader and Senior Agent Chris Larabee, a man legendary for both his insufferability and his intractability, as well as a nasty vicious streak. And one who held his own longevity in high regard had best attend to the narrow margin between simple reprimand and swift, sudden death--both the physical variety and the less fatal career variety.
Instead Ezra simply responded to the allegation with justifiable indignation at the mere suggestion of something so base. "I did NOT entrap Paul Franks," Standish stated with cold distaste.
"I might have enticed him," he drawled in a tone of deep offense. "Perhaps I may have lured him. But I most certainly did not entrap him."
Chris fixed Ezra with a glare calculated to stop a charging rhino and dropped his voice, forcing Ezra to listen carefully to each precisely enunciated syllable vibrating on the office air. "I don't care whether you enticed him, lured him, or flat out seduced him," Chris said icily. "You'd best figure out fast what you're going to put in that report. Or when Travis is done chewing my ass, I'm gonna chew on yours."
Ezra glowered right back. But he knew a losing hand when he held one. There wasn't much point in arguing back his justification of an action that Chris had ordered him in the most excruciatingly exact of terms NOT to take. What would Ezra say to that anyway? After all, it wasn't that he didn't understand the order. Or even the consequences. It was just that Paul Franks was dangling right in front of him--Franks himself and his entire business trafficking in illegal alcohol. Ripe for the picking. Practically begging to be plucked. And, well, years of instincts can't just be turned off.
So Ezra fleeced him. So beautifully the man didn't even know what hit him until he confessed to his crimes--on tape no less. It was seamless. Slick. Brilliant. Right up until the opposition started screaming entrapment. And Chris Larabee lost his sense of humor.
Ezra scowled harder, but that stony glare on the team leader's face refused to budge or melt or soften one iota. He wasn't kidding. Ezra had better come up with something plausible that could still be signed off on without committing perjury or the man was in bottomless piles of excrement.
Ezra opened his mouth to say something that would doubtless only move him further into the extremes of Chris Larabee's disfavor, vulgarly called "the shit list", when he was saved from his own folly by Buck Wilmington's absurdly loud bellow from a mere twelve feet behind him.
Chris looked annoyed. But at least it was at someone else for the moment.
"What?" he snapped.
Buck, wearing the kind of gleeful grin that made Ezra nervous, waved his phone around in the air and said joyfully, "It's Pete Bryson!"
Larabee seemed less overjoyed. In fact his expression changed only long enough for Ezra to interpret it as a grudgingly annoyed interest.
"He wants to speak to you," Buck said innocently, in complete contrast to the wicked grin that was plastered across his face.
"What's he want?" Chris asked guardedly. Almost hesitantly, Ezra noted with gleeful curiosity.
Buck covered the receiver with his hand, and Ezra wondered when the man would remember they had a mute button.
"Only two days out of jail and Ugly Eddie's on a rampage."
A look of complete and total disgust crossed Chris Larabee's face, followed by a string of muttered swear words. "And the DPD can't take care of him?" Chris asked, loudly enough, that Ezra was sure that the man on the other end of the phone heard it clearly, despite Buck's large hand.
"Sure they could," Buck said smoothly, taking on that tone he used when trying to talk Chris into something Chris did not want to do. The current success rate of the tactic was somewhere between marginal and occasional, but Buck was not one to be easily deterred. "But you know the Denver PD. They'll haul ol' Eddie away and lock him up for life."
Chris scowled half-heartedly at Buck. "And that's a bad thing because...?"
Buck smiled his particularly sympathetic smile. "Now, Chris," he said smoothly. "You know ol' Eddie's the only family Awful Ollie's got."
Ezra, still standing in the doorway, glanced from one man to the other. Had he not been so engrossed by the fascinating turn of the conversation, he might have managed to be offended that he had been so easily forgotten.
Buck paused artfully, just long enough to give his voice the right note of flattery, as he added, "An' you know you an' me are the only ones Ollie'll listen to. The rest of them boys are dumber 'n dirt."
To Ezra's continued amazement, the tactic actually worked. A snort escaped the team leader, and Chris fixed Wilmington with a look that said he knew he was going to regret getting involved.
"Someone ought to just plug that little son of a bitch between the eyes and have done with it," he muttered. But he picked up his phone and stabbed the button for Buck's extension.
Ezra took the opportunity to return to his desk, beside Buck's in the open area Team Seven called their bullpen. He leaned toward Buck.
"Who" he inquired, "is this Ugly Eddie person?"
"Little plugugly nuisance," Buck replied casually, now typing away on his computer. He looked over at Ezra and shrugged almost apologetically. "He ain't so bad all on his own. Just when he gets all liquored up."
Buck went back to work, finished with his explanation, apparently.
Ezra nearly sighed in exasperation. Most days he couldn't get Wilmington to shut up. "And?" he prodded. "What happens when he gets 'all liquored up'?"
"Oh he starts terrorizing the neighbors," Buck said offhandedly. "Destroys property. Threatens people. They get scared and call the police."
"And why do the police call the ATF?" Ezra asked as patiently as possible and beginning to feel as if he were in the interrogation room.
"Ollie's got a still," Buck replied. "Been moonshinin' since the old days. Kind of a family business. That's where Eddie gets the liquor. Since it's illegal alcohol, and since the DPD don't want to deal with him, they call us."
Buck looked up then and smirked. "Chris's got a way with ol' Ollie."
Ezra stared at Buck, trying to imagine what sort of way his irascible, tactless boss could have with someone called Awful Ollie who supplied moonshine to someone called Ugly Eddie, who then went forth rampaging through the terrified neighborhood.
The sound of an exasperated sigh alerted both men to Chris's presence. He stood in his doorway, black ATF jacket already on.
"Come on," he said resignedly. "We don't get someone down there within the hour, DPD's gonna haul Eddie in."
Buck looked up at him. "Within the hour?" he asked. He looked at the clock. "Hell, Pard, I can't go. I gotta run that surveillance training at ten."
Chris swore and scowled at the clock as if he could make it change its mind.
"I'll go myself, then," he said irritably.
Wilmington's eyebrows shot straight up. "You can't go without backup," he said, alarmed.
"I don't need backup," Chris snapped.
Buck shook his head as if Chris had taken leave of his senses. "You go take on Ugly Eddie by yourself, we might as well just call the hospital and tell 'em you're coming." Buck paused.
Chris glowered at him for a long moment, while Ezra stared in rapt fascination.
"What do you suggest I do?" Chris asked sarcastically, certain, apparently, that there was no other choice than the rash decision to take on a known felon by himself. Typical, Ezra thought.
Buck looked around the empty bullpen and his eyes lit on Ezra.
"Take Ezra," Buck said confidently.
It was Chris's turn to look astonished. He hid it almost immediately, but not before Ezra had time to read it loud and clear: Ezra P. Standish could not possibly be considered capable of dealing with Ugly Eddie. And that rankled more than Ezra had words to tell.
Chris looked a long, long second at Buck. "Ezra?" he asked, as if perhaps he had heard incorrectly, and as if Ezra weren't even in the room. Worse yet, Ezra could hear the hidden amusement in the team leader's voice.
"I am perfectly capable of assisting in the capture of this Ugly Eddie," Ezra cut in.
Chris looked Ezra over slowly, doubtfully. He shook his head. "I don't think so," he said dismissively, displaying his usual lack of tact.
Buck shrugged, as if to say 'It's your decision'. He threw Ezra an apologetic look that burned all the way down.
Ezra straightened his cuffs. "I am a fully trained federal agent with vast experience in apprehending a wide variety of dangerous felons," he said indignantly. "I doubt that the attractively deficient Eddie can pose that much of a challenge to two armed law enforcement professionals."
Chris rolled his eyes and Buck laughed out loud.
"Oh, Eddie's ugly all right," Buck said. "But it ain't his looks that got him the name. It's his attitude."
A wicked little smile twitched up Ezra's lips. He stared right at Chris as he replied coolly, "Oh I am abundantly well versed in dealing with ugly attitudes, too."
The smile he got in return matched his exactly.
"Come on then," Chris said mockingly. "This goes the way I figure, I won't have to be the one to chew your ass later." He turned and headed for the elevators.
His voice floated back a moment later, dripping with irony. "You might want to change."
And Ezra suddenly wondered whether he hadn't just been suckered.
Chris refused to take his truck. And Ezra refused to ride in the available ATF issue sedan, which from the look and smell of it, appeared to have been posted all night staking out a fried fish joint.
With undisguised exasperation, Ezra fished the keys to his Jag out of his pocket. "Get in," he snapped. He looked Chris once over and added, "I assume your shoes are clean."
Chris's lips twitched in amusement. The man might house a small herd of horses in his barn, but he was probably as fastidious about the cab of his truck as Ezra was about the Jag, on the whole.
"We're going to the scrap yard, Ezra," Chris replied, folding himself into the plush leather passenger seat.
Had Buck mentioned the scrap yard?
Chris eyed Ezra's designer suit and the thin smile widened.
Ezra had a sudden brief flash of Buck, back in the bullpen, laughing hysterically as he told J.D. he'd just sent Ezra in his tailored Hickey-Freeman to the scrap yard with Chris to take care of some hillbilly named Ugly Eddie all liquored up on moonshine. He could almost hear the banjo music now. Ezra felt his face burn, but he refused to give Chris the satisfaction of knowing it.
Apparently Chris Larabee had made the trip to this particular scrap yard many times. Ezra noticed that he carried neither map nor directions, just impatiently grunted out where to turn and which direction, that signature expression of Larabee annoyance carved into his features.
They pulled into a long, ill-kept dirt driveway that led directly to a ten-foot fence. A dented and fading sign proclaimed it to be exactly what Chris had said, "Scrap Yard, Oliver Schantz, prop." Only precisely between the comma after Schantz and the abbreviation for proprietor, Ezra could just make out a stain where someone had squeezed in the word "Jr." in mismatched black paint long since faded and scratched almost completely away.
Precisely between two stacks of rust-eaten barrels, which Ezra was sure constituted some sort of EPA violation, was parked a Denver Police squad car. Two patrolmen waited near it. One leaned against the fender, arms crossed. The other sat on its hood, swinging his legs idly against the front tire. They both slid to a standing position as the Jag pulled up.
"Park here, Ezra," Chris ordered about twenty feet from the gate.
Ezra shot a glance at this boss, but he did not question. He hit the brake and parked the car.
They got out and walked toward the waiting patrolmen, Chris all-black, in his all-business attire, right down to the ridiculous black cowboy boots, and Ezra sticking out like a sore thumb in his thirteen hundred dollar suit. The policemen watched them approach intently, almost warily. Close up, though, Ezra could see both men smirking at him plainly.
"Larabee," the older of the pair greeted Chris, sticking out his hand, a thin smile of familiarity across his face. "Captain Bryson said you'd be here."
"John," Chris returned curtly, no smile at all.
The man jerked his head toward Ezra. "You bring your attorney this time? Just in case?"
The younger of the pair eyed both federal agents and ducked his head to laugh.
"Ollie home?" Chris asked, cutting off Ezra's retort. He stared through the chain link, past piles of scrap metal and cut tires, glass and other debris to an inner compound, where a ramshackle house that was most definitely not up to code seemed to be slowly collapsing inside a second circle of chain link.
By way of reply, the police officer handed Chris a small pair of binoculars. Chris looked through it, grunted, and handed them to Ezra. He watched a moment, sifting among a maze of PVC piping, barrels, and scrap wood contraptions that made up the yard before making out a thin old man dressed in sagging clothes that he no longer filled completely. He appeared to have some sort of shotgun.
"Armed and dangerous," said the officer, that thin little smile returning.
Chris snorted. "Eddie in there with him?"
"We haven't seen him," the younger officer replied.
His partner flicked a sidelong glance toward him. "Maybe not, but he's in there," the officer said confidently.
Chris nodded and turned to Ezra. "Let's do this," he said. Dismissed, and gladly, the police officers got into the cruiser, pulled it through a turn and traveled back up the dirt driveway, trailing a cloud of dust behind them.
Chris and Ezra watched them go. Then Chris moved off toward the gate. Ezra fell into step beside him.
Chris began to sum up the scenario as if this ludicrous situation were just any other op. Ezra tried not to roll his eyes.
"Ollie's around 80. He inherited the scrap yard business from his father. That gun's been in the family about a hundred years, I gather."
He paused. "It's either empty or it's loaded with rock salt and tacks. I give even odds either way."
"So he may or may not be armed," Ezra grumbled.
A thin smirk crossed Chris's lips. "Thought you liked to gamble," he drawled mockingly.
Chris stopped in front of the gate and looked Ezra over appraisingly. He was wearing that doubtful look again. "Can you run in those shoes?" Chris asked.
Ezra bristled, eyeing Chris's black cowboy boots, pointy toes and all.
"I am not a rookie," Ezra snapped. "I am fully qualified. And I have been a federal agent longer than anyone on this team, you and Buck Wilmington included. I can handle any situation you throw my way, dressed in this ensemble or any other."
Chris stared at him for a minute, and Ezra glared back at him as if he could set his head on fire.
A second later Chris shrugged dismissively and went on explaining the situation. "Eddie won't let us get anywhere near Ollie. So we'll need to get Eddie out of the way first."
"I assume you have a plan for that," Ezra said. Of course he did. Chris Larabee had a plan for everything. Arrogant bastard.
Chris grinned. "Eddie's mean, but he ain't real bright."
The smart remark leaped to the tip of Ezra's tongue, about someone else he could name who matched that description, but he clamped his teeth together before it could leave his lips.
"Usually, we just call him out, and that'll do the trick," Chris replied. He stopped suddenly and looked Ezra over once more. And Ezra could almost hear the words suggesting that Ezra just climb up the nearest scrap heap and hide while Chris handled Ugly Eddie himself.
Arrogant, conceited, bastard, Ezra amended. His thought was interrupted by Chris. The leader's tone was serious. "Eddie's gonna come at us full tilt," he said, "and without a thought in his ugly head other than getting a piece of you."
Ezra glowered at him. "I might remind you that I am proficient in several types of hand to hand combat."
Breath hissed out between Chris's teeth in a sigh of exasperation. "Just run, Ezra. Don't fight him. 'Cause if he catches you, I'm gonna have to shoot him. And I don't want to do that. You think you can manage to follow orders this time?"
Ezra gave Chris the most arrogant smile he knew. After all, he had patterned it from Chris's own. "Well if running is all you need, you might note that I passed my yearly fitness qualifications with flying colors, too."
"Fine," Chris snapped giving Ezra a burning glare. "Have it your way. I'll call him out. When I tell you to run, you head for the Jag. Eddie's a good sprinter, but he can't corner worth beans. Run him around the car and beat him back here to the gate. I'll shut him out."
Ezra was still wondering how on earth even someone named Ugly Eddie could be that stupid when he realized they were inside the gate. Chris let out a shrill series of whistles and hollered out "Hey Eddie! Come and get us, you ugly little bastard!"
From the shack inside the fence the old man returned a shrill "Get him, boy!" And a short-legged, black and white mottled mongrel shot from somewhere to the left of the house, coming at them with unlikely speed.
Ezra stared, incredulous.
Beside him Chris stretched one arm slightly toward him. "Hold it, Ezra," he breathed, as if he thought Ezra might bolt.
On the contrary, Ezra stood rooted to the spot, watching with morbid disbelief, as the squat torpedo closed on their position, short legs grinding like pistons, pointy bat ears flapping backward from the flattened face, teeth bared, pink tongue sideways into the wind. Ezra could almost see the strings of drool trailing behind. Somewhere in the back of his head, his logical mind began to attempt to discern the ancestry of the misbegotten beast that hurtled toward them.
The command to run interrupted his thoughts.
Chris was already on the move. And Ezra leaped into a sprint, abandoning all pretense as he realized the dog was gaining fast.
"The car, Ezra!" came the shout from his left, as Chris whipped open the gate, stepping up and riding it backward as it swung wide up against the inside of the fence, and Chris slid safely between the gate and the fence, chain links standing between him and the onrushing beast.
Ezra cursed Chris with all his might, realizing the dog had only one victim on its radar screen now: Ezra Standish. He sprinted for the car, cursing himself now for not going with Chris's first idea. He could be atop a pile of scrap right now, watching Chris run for his life.
He gained the car and hooked sharply left, imagining the hot breath, and the slobbering maw drawing nearer. There was a moment of amazement as Ezra discovered Chris was right. The dog couldn't corner to save its life. He gained distance around the trunk, as the short little legs flung the long torso wide. And Ezra zoomed toward the front of the car, planting his foot and throwing his weight to the right, as if he were wearing soccer cleats. His foot slipped and for a sickening moment, he imagined he felt glistening fangs sink into his Achilles tendon. He threw himself forward toward the fence.
Chris had the gate all but closed and was shouting at him now. Ezra couldn't make it out through the swear words in his head. Back on the straightaway, he could feel the dog gaining on him as he flung himself toward the opening and Chris.
He gained the chain link just ahead of the beast, and Chris reached out and yanked him inside, slamming the gate home. They both stepped back instinctively, as the dog flung its misshapen body at the chain links again and again, as if it could chew its way through the steel. The gate rattled but it held.
Chris exhaled then nodded his head and dusted off his hands as if he had been the one to do the dirty work. Ezra glared up at him from his position with his hands on his knees. "You neglected to mention," he accused between pants, "that Ugly Eddie is a dog."
Chris turned to look at him, and had the gall to look genuinely surprised. "You didn't know?" he replied.
"How was I supposed to know?" Ezra snapped sarcastically. "It wasn't in your briefing."
Chris stared at him a minute more before the answer became clear. Buck. Chris had expected Buck to tell him. Before volunteering him. All the more clearly, Ezra heard Buck's voice back at the bullpen, loudly speculating how Ezra was faring at the scrap yard. Ezra felt his face get red. He was definitely going to kill the man. And slowly.
But first, Chris apparently was dead set on confronting the ancient moonshiner with the shotgun filled with rock salt and tacks. Unless it was empty. Or unless this time Chris was wrong and the old man actually had it loaded with proper ammunition.
Chris, of course, was not thinking about that at all. He was heading off with a long-legged stride and not a doubt in the world, apparently, toward the pathetic shack of the shotgun-toting scrap yard proprietor.
Ezra forced his breathing to calm, straightened himself and his suit and set off after him.
They stopped at the inside fence, where Awful Ollie Schantz, Junior stood waiting for them, gun in hand.
Closer now, Ezra could see how the stained clothing sagged off the old man's lean frame. He had been tall once. And muscular. And had probably once had teeth, Ezra guessed as the man gaped an empty grin in Larabee's direction.
He then glowered over at Ezra and jerked the shotgun toward him in a manner that any firearms instructor worth his salt would have reprimanded the man severely for. Ezra stared in bizarre fascination at the clabbered together shack behind him.
"Who's that?" the man grated out suspiciously.
Chris slid a glance over at Ezra. He exhaled patiently and Ezra suddenly realized he was supposed to answer.
"Standish," Ezra said, suddenly catching on, pulling back his jacket to show his badge. "Agent Standish, ATF."
"Revenuer," the old man spat in disgust, tobacco staining the dirt that covered most of the yard.
Chris sighed. "It's the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms now, Ollie. Put the gun down."
The man swung the gun back toward Chris but jerked his head toward Ezra. "Where's the other one?" he asked. "The one with the dog's name."
Ezra, heaven forbid, almost laughed out loud at that and a thin, thin smile crossed Chris's face. "Buck couldn't come," Chris said calmly.
The old man sighted down the barrel at Chris. "Coulda plugged the both a you boys by now," he snarled. "You boys always was dumber 'n dirt." He spat onto the ground again and Ezra wondered how he chewed the stuff, lacking teeth as he was.
"Put the gun down, Ollie," Chris said patiently. "Or we're going to have to take out our guns. And nobody wants that."
The man appeared to consider the merits of shooting Chris then turned as if to consider shooting Ezra instead.
Chris tilted his head and glowered a little more.
The old man let out a long sigh and lowered the gun to point at the ground. "Weren't gonna kill ya," he groused. "Just pepper your backsides a little."
"Uh huh," Chris agreed, undoing the soiled loop of twine that held the front gate closed, and stepping into the shabby yard.
Ezra noticed that Ollie still held the gun. And Chris let him keep it, though he kept the man in front of him.
"Your still, Ollie," Chris said simply.
The old man leveled a watery, yellow-eyed glare in Ezra's direction. "He don't talk none?"
Chris snorted at that. "Must be your lucky day. Most days can't get him to shut up," Chris replied.
Ezra made a face behind his back.
Chris was not sidetracked by Ezra or the old man. "The still," he repeated.
With a long muttered string of words that Ezra could only guess at, although the tone was pretty clear, Awful Ollie shuffled ahead of them, gun in hand, toward the door of his shack.
Ezra couldn't help but wince as he entered the dark interior. Shuddering away the thought of rats, and scrupulously avoiding looking around, he followed the old man and Chris down a narrow hall into a back room.
"Man's got a right to brew his own," the old man growled, as the still came into view.
It was a monstrous contraption coppered together from pieces of scrap, probably collected piece by piece from this very scrap yard. It stretched across the small square room, tubing and wires and glass and heating units strung around the room and stacked almost to the low ceiling. Rube Goldberg would have been proud, thought Ezra.
Chris grunted his reply to the old man and ducked under a set of wires, appearing to admire the construction.
"You gotta stop givin' rotgut to Eddie," Chris said, slowly walking to the other side of the room until he stood nearly shoulder to shoulder with Ollie.
At that remark, a wheezing laugh escaped the man. It turned into a rattling cough. "I don't give it to him," he said. "Eddie's smart enough to figure out how to get it himself."
"It ain't good for him," Chris said quietly, cool green glance following a line of tubing across the ceiling, as if he'd forgotten he was standing next to a marginally unbalanced octogenarian holding a shotgun full of rock salt. And Ezra noticed with professional interest how artfully Chris's grammar had deteriorated since coming through the front gate.
"Try and stop him," the old man shrugged, challenging.
"Then keep him locked up," Chris suggested.
"Tried that," the old man admitted grudgingly, looking up at Chris. They were the first words from him that weren't belligerent.
Chris looked right back at him. "They're gonna take him away," Chris said frankly. His tone softened. "And one of these days you won't get him back."
The old man regarded Chris with hooded eyes.
A moment later, Chris reached up and unhooked what was apparently an important part of the contraption.
The old man sighed and turned toward a low table against the wall. Like most everything else in the house, the table had once been garbage until it had been repaired, ingeniously if not attractively. He poured a glass of clear liquid into a tin cup and handed it to Chris.
Chris took the cup, while Ezra watched in disbelief and he swirled it under the dim light of the bare bulb, hung from the ceiling on an extension cord.
"Go on," Ollie urged. "Some of my best yet." And something that almost looked like a smile crossed over his face.
Chris smiled regretfully back at him and returned the cup. "Not on duty, Ollie."
The old man wheezed out a laugh. "You could use a snoot full," he said pertly. "Loosen you up."
Ezra was horrified to hear the snort of agreement escape his own lips.
The old man turned to him and extended the cup. "You?" he asked.
"He's on duty, too," Chris interrupted.
Ollie glared over at Chris. "He always a prick?" he asked Ezra.
Ezra bit his tongue. Clearly the truth was out of the question here. Chris cracked a grin at his undercover agent, almost as if he dared Ezra to go ahead and answer. And Ollie laughed, too.
The laugh turned to a soft sigh, as Chris dropped the precious piece of the still into a battered metal trashcan. A moment later, Chris pressed his booted heel into the can and Ezra heard the pop and crackle of glass being ground into a thousand tiny shards.
"Damn revenuer," Ollie said, shaking the gun half-heartedly by its stock.
Chris nodded once and turned toward the door.
Ollie shuffled out ahead of them. Back up the hall. Back into the yard. Back to the gate.
"Keep the dog away from the still, Ollie," Chris said sternly. "I don't want to come back here."
Ollie closed the gate to his yard and secured it with the twine. The two ATF agents turned to go, when old Ollie grinned again gleefully, toothlessly.
Ezra stiffened, suddenly aware there was an odd look of "I know something you don't know" in the old man's face. He threw a glance at Chris to see that his team leader had caught it, too. He was looking at the old man, an odd mix of curiosity and adrenaline-charged challenge on his face. Almost as if Chris had just figured it out.
A second later Ezra heard the low growl to their left.
"Eddie's got a rabbit hole," the old man crowed, a wheezing laugh erupting out of him.
Both agents turned to see the dog, squat, bow-legged, not a hundred feet away, glaring at them through little piggy eyes.
Chris swore under his breath. One arm brushed Ezra's elbow. "Slow," he said.
Right Ezra thought, as they backed up, his eyes on Eddie. Good boy. Stay, boy.
Slow, he reminded himself. Steady. No sudden moves.
Step by step, they retreated. Slow and steady. Toward the fence. One step at a time.
And between steps he cursed the dog, Chris Larabee--and Buck Wilmington, especially, for being a tricky, conniving reprobate.
The dog growled.
"Here Eddie! Get 'em boy!" yelled out the old man. Chris and Ezra looked at each other. An ominous jangle of collar and rabies tags sounded as the dog leaped forward at his master's command.
Chris repeated his swear words with more emphasis. He did not need to repeat the order to run.
It was a full-on sprinting race to the ten foot gate, Ugly Eddie in the distance and closing fast. Four legs flying, bat ears back and teeth bared, he came, fat sausage body bending and flexing as he covered the ground with startling speed.
Farther behind them, loud, raucous, laughing interspersed with the harsh sound of coughing and delighted cheering for Eddie to catch them and rip off varying parts of their anatomy.
Running the straight line was out of the question. The dog was too damn fast on the straightaway.
"Split up," Chris barked out and he broke left, like a professional running back around a stack of colorful plastic bales.
Ezra had no choice but to follow suit, zigzagging right around the chopped tire pile.
The dog did not hesitate but hurtled after Ezra, flinging itself wide around a corner and coming at him. Ezra zigged. He zagged. His hand reached out and pulled down a pile of rubber tire. Eddie swerved and slowed but came right back as they hit the main dirt track now. Chris came from behind a tower of scrap metal only a step or two ahead of Ezra, both men completely focused on gaining the gate.
Behind him, Ezra could hear the jingling tags and huffing breath. He poured on all the speed he could muster. He was nearly there.
Almost in the same instant, to Ezra's horror, he realized there was no time to open the gate. Chris, slightly ahead of him, jumped for the fence at full speed and launched himself up the chain links with admirable agility. Ezra hit the fence just below him, a split second too late, as he felt sharp teeth grab his pant leg and give a yank that nearly pulled Ezra's leg out of its socket. He tightened his grip on the chain link and tried to shake free. But the dog held on obstinately. And the pants, being well worth the thirteen hundred dollars Ezra paid, refused to rip free.
Part bulldog, Ezra confirmed, as the dog's thick neck collapsed itself like an accordion and it began a series of sharp tugs backward and downward. The fence jerked and the gate rattled. Ezra's fingers clamped hard around the chain link as the metal dug into his flesh. Better metal than teeth, Ezra was sure.
He kicked out but the dog wouldn't let go. So he tried bashing it against the fence, but the dog was solidly built and surprisingly heavy. The weight of the beast nearly dragged Ezra from his precarious perch.
Part pit bull, no doubt, Ezra thought kicking out his leg with renewed vigor, hoping to contact flesh.
One leg already swung awkwardly over the top of the shuddering, quivering fence, Chris stopped and looked back. He hesitated only a second before he kept right on going, throwing the other foot over the top of the fence to safety. If Ezra had not, at the moment, had all he could do to keep the dog from ripping his leg off, he would have spared a few choice words for treachery of that order.
"Ezra," the voice said above him, sounding irritated, of all things.
"What?" Ezra snapped back. The dog shook its fat neck, tugging harder now, as if it sensed the fatigue in Ezra's hands and shoulders.
Chris bent down over the top rail.
"He ain't gonna let go," Chris said simply.
Ezra let his attention move from the dog just long enough to give Chris a blistering black look. "Thank you so much for the timely information," he growled out.
The dog jerked again and Ezra felt his left hand come off the fence. He dropped several horrifying inches before he came to a sudden jerking stop that nearly pulled his shoulder out of joint and caused his jaw to clack closed. A pair of sunglasses tumbled down past Ezra's head.
Nearly level with Ezra's chin, the pointy cowboy boots were jammed into the diamond-shaped enclosures of the fence as far as they would go. Practically upside down, Chris Larabee now hung over the top of the fence, one arm hooked to the elbow under Ezra's shoulder, the other holding a death grip on the top fence pole.
It wasn't a position any human being could hold for long. Chris apparently knew that himself, as he offered his solution to the matter.
"Give him the pants, Ezra."
"What?" Ezra demanded with such strident disbelief that he almost forgot the dog, until another hard tug nearly pulled both of them away from the fence. Ezra shook his leg with renewed vigor.
"Give him the damn pants," Chris said, through his teeth, his face now turning red from the blood rushing downward into his head.
Even dangling from a fence with a man-eating dog trying to drag him backward, Ezra could see the ridiculousness of that suggestion.
"These are thirteen hundred dollar pants," he said.
Chris glowered at him. "It's cheaper than replacing your leg."
"Give him your pants," Ezra retorted, ducking as Chris's cell phone clattered by, bouncing once off Ezra's back. He had a brief hope it would hit the dog, but no such luck. Not even a distraction as it plumped into the dust.
Now completely upside down, Chris grinned that crazy little smirk that was somehow even more disturbing distorted by gravity. "My pants are safe up here," he said sensibly.
Ezra thought he had never hated the man more.
The dog gave another hard series of tugs, using all the weight of solid muscle, Ezra's leg came free of the fence, pulling backward until he realized Chris was right. He'd either have to give the dog the pants or surrender his leg.
As if he could actually hear Ezra change his mind, Chris braced himself boots and knees, let go of the top bar and leaned down as far as he could to grab whatever part of Ezra he could still reach.
Swearing in every civilized language he knew, Ezra let go of the fence with one hand and undid his pants.
The dog, sensing victory, pulled harder, tugging the left leg down, as Ezra struggled to free his shoe and to somehow climb up the fence and out of both pant legs at the same time, while Chris impatiently tugged him upwards by jacket, shirt, elbows, shoulders and skin.
"Hurry up, Ezra," he snapped. "You ain't no feather."
As luck would have it, the right pant leg snagged on his shoe. The dog, no less stubborn than Larabee himself, yanked harder on his end of the pants, while Chris yanked harder on his end of Ezra.
"Wait! Wait!" Ezra cried, stuck in the middle and feeling shoulders and toes starting to separate in different directions. "It's stuck on my shoe!"
"Lose the shoe," Chris grunted, face beet red, dragging Ezra upward inch by inch, the dog sliding forward in the dirt, then dragging Ezra back again with renewed vigor.
Ezra stared at him.
"Lose the shoe before I drop you."
Chris's black ATF jacket had slid downward along with his shirt, both bunching up under Chris's armpits. The swaying gun, still fastened securely in its shoulder holster, gently bumped against Ezra's head.
Ezra grunted, struggling to pull himself up another handhold. His arms now shook with the effort.
"Ezra," Chris snarled, breathing harder. He didn't need to finish the sentence. Ezra could feel his own fingers slipping. There was no way Chris could haul him up by himself.
He might be forced to fold this hand, but that didn't mean he had to go meekly.
"Give me a second," he said, adjusting his grip. Concentrating, and not letting go with either hand, Ezra used the links to pry off the shoe until it dangled from his toes.
"What the hell are you doing?" Chris demanded, his voice rising stridently, and muffled somewhat by the jacket and shirt sagging down around his ears.
"Buying us time," Ezra retorted. "Now shush."
Had he not been so busy trying to angle his leg around, he might have had the sense to realize the inherent danger of ordering Chris Larabee to "shush." Fortunately, Ugly Eddie had both men far too occupied to worry about intra-team etiquette.
Another vicious yank from the growling dog nearly lost Ezra the shoe balanced precariously on his toe. But then Eddie tugged sideways and left his flank exposed. Ezra launched the shoe straight at the dog's head. For a horrifying instant, he thought perhaps the dog was just too thick headed and single minded to feel the blow. But as the heel clocked the little beast firmly in the ear, the jaws let go long enough to let out a snarl.
Ezra scrambled to pull his feet up beneath him as the dog made a vicious teeth-bared leap toward the fence. From above, Chris tugged with all his might, hands on Ezra's jacket, then his shirt, then, Lord how embarrassing, the waist band of his silk boxer shorts and then one leg, pulling Ezra over the fence onto the other side. The whole fence rattled as the beast flung itself repeatedly against the chain links, barking and snarling.
Chris jumped down the last few feet, landing lightly in the dirt, panting, but grinning as Ezra made his way gingerly down the other side.
With a huff Eddie plopped down into the dust, shaking his new Italian leather chew toy.
"Well, that was fun," Chris announced sardonically.
"You, sir, have an odd sense of fun," Ezra replied, stepping down into the dust. He straightened his jacket and pulled his shoulders back.
Chris grinned harder, watching his undercover agent, now missing his pants and one shoe, limp toward the Jag with near perfect composure. He stopped at the car door and slipped his hand into his jacket pocket. It stayed there. An odd expression froze on his face.
Both men heard the incongruous jingle and turned to stare back through the scrap yard gate. There sat Eddie, shoe shunted aside among pants, sunglasses, cell phone and scattered small change. From under one black and white, dirt-spattered paw peeked the unmistakable fob of Ezra's key ring.
Both men stared at the cur, pig eyed, multicolored, sausage-bodied, thick-necked--and victorious after all.
Ezra's mouth tightened in displeasure. He looked over at Chris. "I don't suppose we could flip to see who goes back in there for the keys."
The dog pawed at Chris's cell phone, his jaws still foaming joyfully into the soft brown hand-stitched leather shoe.
Chris looked over at Ezra.
The undercover agent shrugged. "Prudently," he offered. "I believed my phone would be safer locked in the car."
Unexpectedly, Chris began to laugh.
"Well I was right, wasn't I?" Ezra asked testily.
Chris started to laugh even harder.
Ezra glowered at him. "I fail to see the humor of being stranded at the scrap yard," he said blackly. He did not add in my underwear. No doubt that would be a great source of humor, indeed, when Buck told the story tonight at the Saloon. Like a headline splashed across the front page, he could see it: How Buck Wilmington Tricked Ezra Standish into Losing His Pants to a Scrap Yard Dog.
Chris plopped himself down on the hood of the Jag, ignoring the scowl that came his way. "Don't worry," he said. "Ol' Buck'll come lookin' for us when he finds out we didn't come back."
"Oh that's just splendid," Ezra groused. "And here I am with half my suit devoured by a mongrel cur." He could hear his teammates laughing already.
"I don't suppose there's any chance he would just let this go?" Ezra asked almost hopefully.
Chris chuckled. Fat chance of that. Buck could never let a good story go, especially if it involved an embarrassing lack of clothing. And both Chris and Ezra knew it.
"Look on the bright side," Chris said, philosophically. "You can consider this your ass-chewing."
"Oh that's splendid, Mr. Larabee." Ezra growled. "I feel so much better now."
Chris shrugged. He leaned nonchalantly back against the windshield, to Ezra's enormous displeasure, and stretched long legs down the hood.
And Ezra, gingerly, resignedly seated himself on the other side of the hood, He studied the new scratches on his legs and more than one place that would likely turn into a bruise.
There was a long silence, while black thoughts about how he would seek revenge if one word of this story got out ran cheerily through Ezra's head. Contemplating vengeance was far preferable to dwelling on the indignity of sitting on his own car hood beside his team leader, who having escaped almost entirely cleanly, had deigned to haul Ezra over the fence sans pants.
Still staring off into the distance, Chris cocked his head thoughtfully to one side. "Cheer up," he said. "The dog's never eaten Buck's suit."
"I fail to see how that is supposed to cheer me up," Ezra retorted testily, a cool breeze raising goose bumps on his legs.
"Shoot, Ezra," Chris exclaimed with a suspicious looking grin. "You're always bragging about your good taste in clothes." Chris waved his arm over at Eddie, now contentedly pawing and gnawing at Ezra's Hickey-Freeman suit pants. "Guess Eddie just supplied the proof."
"Ha ha," Ezra retorted.
He inhaled. "I don't suppose you have any ideas for effecting our release from this miserable state of affairs?"
"Yup," Chris said, lacing his hands behind his head and leaning lazily back against the windshield. "All you gotta do is entice, lure, or perhaps just seduce Eddie away from those pants."
The face Ezra made should have incinerated Chris on the spot. Instead it only added to Larabee's insolent mirth.
By the time Buck had finished conducting training and run for a sandwich, he had nearly decided he might consider being nice to Ezra for the rest of the day to make up for this morning's subterfuge--although the imagined image of Ezra's face the moment he laid eyes on Ugly Eddie had made him chuckle to himself loudly enough for every patron of the sub shop to look his way with odd expressions on their faces.
He had tried to call Ezra's cell phone to see if the man wanted him to pick up lunch as a peace offering, but after being sent to voice mail twice, he gave up. Likely, Ezra was holding a grudge. All the more reason to play nice this afternoon. Ezra was highly creative in the revenge department. And Chris would have Buck's head anyway if the shenanigans mucked up any of their real-life, actual work.
That thought got Buck to wondering.
Chris wasn't likely to be too appreciative of Buck saddling him with Ezra without informing Ezra of the situation. When he volunteered Ezra, Chris had expected that Buck had already briefed Ezra about what he was getting into. Buck had worked side by side with Chris in too many jobs and for too many years to feign ignorance on that score. But hell, was it really his fault that Ezra was probably too damn arrogant to come clean and admit his ignorance of the situation? Not his fault. Not really. But then, that was exactly what Buck had been counting on when he set the prickly know-it-all up to begin with.
Testing Chris Larabee's temper, however, was not something a man took lightly. Fun to try on occasion, true, but not the kind of task a man undertakes without plenty of advance preparation. Buck put on his best contrite tone to talk to Chris. But there was no answer on his phone either. That was curious. Chris was downright obsessive compulsive about cell phones being turned on and answered when his agents were on duty.
The little voice in the back of his head began to whisper insistently.
By the time Buck was in an elevator heading up to the eleventh floor and his desk, he had nearly convinced himself that his little voice was only being paranoid. Hell, Chris knew how to handle Eddie. They'd gotten by that dog a dozen times. Chris wouldn't let Eddie get a hold of Ezra.
And Ollie never really loaded that shotgun. Not that Buck could remember. Not with ammunition anyway. What could possibly happen?
Chris and Ezra's chairs were unexpectedly empty when Buck got back to the bullpen, holding a sandwich under his arm.
He counted the others. Josiah, Nathan, J.D., and Vin. All working diligently.
He laid his sandwich down on his desk and asked as casually as possible where Chris and Ezra were.
"Not back yet," Josiah commented without even looking up.
Perhaps they were at a meeting, or laying groundwork on another case. "Still at the scrap yard?" Buck asked tentatively.
"No," J.D., who was typing away, answered. He looked up and shook his head apologetically at Buck.
Nathan's voice answered from his desk. "Chris took Ezra to get stitches."
"Stitches?" Buck asked, a tiny little croak in his voice.
J.D. looked up at him, no humor in his expression. "He said Ezra got attacked by a dog."
Buck stared back at him. Damn, damn, damn. "And he needs stitches?"
He felt Vin Tanner's eyes on him even before he heard the quiet Texan drawl. "Lotta stitches. Said one leg got tore up pretty bad."
The room suddenly felt very warm.
Buck sat down. A cold hard lump had taken up the space in his stomach that he had intended for the sandwich.
They were all looking at him.
"You all right?" J.D. asked.
Unsure exactly how to answer that, Buck ignored the question. "How long ago did Chris call?"
"Can't be more than a couple of hours," Josiah answered.
A couple of hours!
"Um..." Buck began, hesitant now, "did anyone talk to Ezra?"
From the way they all looked at each other Buck guessed not.
"A couple of hours and no word since then?" Buck looked at Nathan and waited. Surely Nathan would have something to say on that score.
Aggravatingly, the man made no comment, forcing Buck to ask, "Should we go down to the hospital?" He could hear his own voice rising, hardly even bothering to hide it now.
Nathan shook his head, lips tight. "Chris asked us to stay here," he said, sounding like he was talking more to himself than to Buck.
Buck looked to Vin.
"You know Ez," the sniper said with a tiny little shrug, as if that explained it all.
Nathan snorted irritatedly at that. "Yeah, you know Ez," he echoed, his voice holding an edge. "Man's got too much pride. Says he doesn't want anyone to see him this way."
Through the sinking feeling in his stomach, Buck thought to ask if Chris was okay.
"Oh yeah," Vin said, twitching his shoulder up again, as if to say it only figured.
"Apparently Ezra bravely threw himself between Chris and the dog," Josiah filled in.
Buck leaned back in his chair and stared vacantly at his computer screen.
Oh God. It had been too beautiful, too easy, too perfect. The perfect opportunity. Right in his lap. Shit. And he couldn't have taken a couple of seconds to think about it before setting Ezra up? Ezra was never going to forgive him.
His mind was too busy trying to wrap his brain around a suitable "Sorry my joke landed you in the hospital" present, and wondering how many dozens of bottles of good red wine, pounds of Belgian chocolate, and pre-embargo cigars would be required before Ezra would speak to him again, and how fast it would all max out his platinum Visa, that it took him a second to notice that the others were all looking expectantly at the bullpen doorway.
He turned to see Chris, standing there, disheveled. His clothes were covered in dust, and his black ATF jacket had a jagged rip in the right sleeve that peeled back to reveal both the white cotton lining and a good deal of the shirt sleeve underneath. Head down, the team leader's hands were jammed into his pockets.
Vin broke the silence first. "How's he doing?" he asked, voice so soft Buck nearly flinched to hear it.
They saw only the top of Chris's head as he shook it slowly back and forth.
"Shit," Tanner murmured.
Nathan reached for his jacket. And Chris's head came up to fix the team medic with a stern glare. "He said no visitors," Chris snapped. "And I aim to make sure he gets that at least."
"But Chris," J.D. interrupted. He halted when the hard hazel glare fell on him.
"How bad is it, Chris?" Josiah said.
Chris inhaled, drifting toward his office door as if to avoid the question. He ran a hand backward through his hair as Buck's mouth slowly went dry.
"Damn dog shredded that leg pretty bad," the leader said, his voice unnaturally flat, as if in effort to keep emotion out of it. Emotions Buck could guess at: fury, fear, guilt. He suddenly regretted every chuckle he had while Ezra was being mauled by that damn foul-tempered dog.
"And...," Josiah pressed. "What did they say?"
Chris exhaled slowly, unable to meet Josiah's eye. He refused to look at Buck, at any of them. "There's too much damage to patch up," he said. "They're going to have to replace the whole thing."
Buck's brain stuttered, then tripped. What...?
His head snapped up to see every one of them staring at him, including Chris, who was wearing an oddly unsettling little smile. Grins broke out across all their faces.
"Hell," J.D. piped up suddenly. "Those pants probably cost more than Vin's car!"
"His pants!" Buck roared in disbelief. "All this is about Ezra's pants?"
"Damn!" J.D. exclaimed, leaping right out of his chair and pointing his finger at Buck. "You should a seen the look on your face!"
Josiah chuckled. "A more sheepish and contrite expression I have never seen on Brother Buck's face!"
Buck felt the heat creeping up his neck. He glared at his teammates. "You just don't do that to a man!" he snapped.
It took only another instant until it clicked home that everyone else was already in on the big joke--and there were only two men who could have orchestrated it.
He swiveled his chair around to glare at Chris.
Chris looked neither sheepish nor contrite. Nor did he look exactly like he was enjoying the joke. On the contrary, Buck didn't like the little smile on his old friend's face at all.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Chris said smoothly, his right hand resting apologetically on his chest. "Did I leave out the important details?" His eyes held a mocking glitter.
No sir, Buck didn't like that little smile at all. He swallowed, adding up lots and lots and lots of pre-embargo Cubans and several long weeks of mucking out stalls to his penance.
"Chris...," he said. And his eyes fell on that jagged tear in Chris's sleeve.
The team leader's eyes flicked toward his office door.
Buck closed his mouth and stood up. He went into the office without a word, knowing his payment was going to be a lot worse than expensive cigars and shoveling horse shit.
J.D. was still howling with laughter as Buck closed the door.
"Well?" Chris asked, arms over his chest.
Buck rubbed the back of his neck. And Chris watched him open his mouth and then close it again several times. He let Buck swing for several long, long seconds.
"You're damn luck nobody got hurt," Chris growled.
Buck nodded his head. Still looking at the floor.
"You're lucky I didn't shoot that damn dog," he growled, considered, and added, "or Ezra."
This time Buck did look up.
Chris narrowed his eyes, trying so damn hard not to let that tell-tale crinkling at the corners ruin this attempt to teach Buck a lesson for good. It was probably too late. Buck was looking at him suspiciously now.
"You owe me a requisition for a new jacket and a new cell phone," Chris said, still trying to be stern.
Buck's eyes fell on Chris's sleeve and he looked at the leader expectantly.
"I had to go back for the car keys," Chris said.
It wasn't much of an explanation, and Buck frowned at him.
"They were in Ezra's pants."
A thin, thin smile formed, as Buck was reminded of a number of "explanations" the Denver PD brass had pulled out of Chris line by line. Almost all of which Buck had enjoyed far more than the brass.
He watched that thin smile widen, as Chris continued, smoothly. "The pants were on Ollie's side of the fence. Along with Ezra's right shoe, my cell phone, and one pissed off dog."
A tiny smile began to blossom in the corners of Buck's mouth.
"And you had to go back for them?" Buck asked.
Chris turned suddenly away and coughed into his hand. "He did suggest we flip for it," he said blandly. "But all the loose change was on Eddie's side of the fence."
Buck's eyes narrowed further. But he could feel the grin starting to spread across his own face.
Chris tried to glare at him now, but the idiot actually laughed out loud.
"Shut up," Chris snapped, swearing as he flicked his eyes at his door. "I'm supposed to be reaming you out in here."
"Sorry," Buck said, now coughing into his own hand. His eyes glittered unashamedly up at Chris. "Well, what the hell happened? And how did Eddie get Ezra's pants?"
The smirk spread across Chris's face. "What's it worth to you to find out?" he said slyly.
"Come on," Buck urged.
"Uh-uh." Chris demurred, wagging one finger in Buck's direction. "You want to know the whole story, you gotta pay up."
Buck's eyes widened a fraction. "Pay up how much?" he asked.
"Thirteen hundred dollars," Chris answered.
Buck choked on his laugh. "You're kidding!"
"That's Ezra's price." Chris replied dryly.
"How much to hear it from you?"
Chris's eyes glittered. "Six months of no practical jokes."
Buck's eyes slid toward the door.
"They're already on the payroll," Chris said, intercepting Buck before he'd hardly even had time to think the thought.
"They all know?" Buck asked.
"Yup," Chris replied. He held up a hand, and the sound of laughter came clearly through the closed door. "Everybody but you."
God how Buck hated to be left out of any good joke.
Buck searched Chris's face and didn't like what he saw. "You're serious," he said, scowling.
"Yup," Chris said, looking downright smug.
"And I'm serious about this, too, Buck," Chris said, opening the office door and snarling out just loud enough that the rest of the team would hear it. "You let another one of your stupid practical jokes put someone on this team at risk and I'll kick your ass from one end of this department to the other."
Dead silence fell on the office outside.
Buck said nothing. Couldn't even think of anything to say. Not even after the door clicked soundly shut behind him, and he was left standing in the bullpen. The others stared right past him at the closed door. Chris almost never closed his door.
Buck felt his face turn red with the realization that not only had Larabee just made him the Shit List Poster Boy of the week, he still didn't know exactly how the joke had turned out. He swore silently at Chris and Ezra both and made his way back to his desk trying to ignore the pointed looks the others tossed at each other.
Listening intently, Chris Larabee smiled to hear it: the satisfying sound of silence. He slipped behind his desk and turned his attention toward his computer and a stack of reports.
Getting snared was probably the best lesson Ezra ever had about entrapment or Buck ever had about stupid practical jokes. When Buck was done fuming, he would try to worm the story out of J.D. and then Vin, and then Josiah, and Nathan. Threats of wrath and retribution--not to mention the prospect of having a whole lot of fun at Buck's expense--helped to ensure that the rest of the guys could be trusted not to breathe a word without Chris's or Ezra's say so. In the end, Buck might actually fork over some money to hear the story, not to mention the possibility of avoiding a revenge that would undoubtedly be calculated to catch Buck with his pants down in the worst of ways.
With any luck, Chris thought with satisfaction, professionalism might reign for at least another week.
Give or take.
"Awful" Oliver Schantz, Jr., muttered some choice words when he had to come to the fence to sign for the package. But it turned out Eddie liked them fancy dog biscuits even more than moonshine.