When You Least Expect
Disclaimer: They are not mine. I don't make profit from this. This is fiction.
ATF universe belongs to Mog. Thanks to my beta Laura, to Angela B. and Murh.
Thoughts in // italics //
Phone conversation in [ " " ]
Feedback is welcome. (be kind I'm still learning English)
Josiah got out of his truck and flexed his tall body. He was so tired. Team Seven had been preparing for a new case, Ezra would go undercover in a few days and they were researching the life of an overseas dealer that the undercover man was going to impersonate.
The long hours profiling that character had taken its toll in Josiah's body. His back was sore and his shoulders tense. He always felt that Ezra's safety depended on his work. He just couldn't relax until his teammate was back at the office safe and whole.
The big man took his briefcase, closed his vehicle and headed for the out door of the building. There he found his new neighbor. The young woman was trying to balance her backpack, a bag with a couple of containers and her keys while attempting to unlock the entrance to the building.
He had helped her a couple of weeks ago, while she had been moving into the apartment that shared his floor. She was nice and friendly, and on more than one occasion she had demonstrate juggling abilities. The sight helped to improve his mood. Suppressing a chuckle he addressed her, "Good afternoon, Miss Amanda. May I help you?"
With a big grin, the little brunette made room for him to reach the door.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Sanchez" she returned the greeting.
Josiah held open the door so she could go in. "Was it a good game?" He asked having caught the letters on her T-shirt and the little banner tucked in the bag with the containers as she passed.
"Yes, our school team won. That's why I'm so late. What about you, long day at the office? You look tired." Amanda asked.
"Yes, it's been a long day, in fact a long week. Unfortunately it is going to stay that way for a while," the profiler finished with a sigh.
He took the bag she was carrying without resistance. In those couple of weeks she was already used to his gentlemanly help. They walked the distance to the elevator while talking.
With a slightly guilty face but trying to be cheerful, she quickly offered, "I'll go easy with the music then." She liked to meditate in the afternoons and sometimes the music could be heard at Josiah's apartment if the doors to the shared balcony were open.
She smiled as the car arrived and they stepped into the metal box.
Josiah couldn't help it, he grinned as he leaned against the shiny wall. Her good mood always lighted his own. "Well, I was hoping you'd play that one with the jungle sounds" He added. "It helps me to relax"
She pushed their floor number and turned slightly to watch him. "I'll do it, if you wish."
He had closed his eyes but his face and stance betrayed that he was having a far from relaxing night. The elevator dinged and they exited it.
"Mr. Josiah, have you already eaten today?" She asked while reaching for her apartment door.
"I got some cookies from Vin's desk earlier. I wasn't really hungry," Josiah explained as he waited for her to drop the backpack inside her home before handing over the bag he carried for her.
"Chocolate cookies, I bet." Taking a blue container from the bag he was holding, she said. "It's a meat dish from my cooking class, I made it myself," as she held it out to him.
He arched his eyebrow at her words and she, a little worried tried to amend her words.
"You don't have to take it, I shouldn't have assumed..."
"What? Josiah asked in confusion, "No...I mean I'd like to try it, really. I simply realized you have at least one of my teammates pegged without having met them." He apologized, "Do I mention them that often?"
Her smile returned, "Nah, not so much. Mostly when they do something that annoys you"
"Well, that has to be at least twice a day then." He said as she placed the container in his free hand. "Thanks" he teased "and good night"
"Good Night, sweet dreams" she laughed.
When she had closed her door, he walked to his own department and quickly discovered how hard it could be to try and open a door with both hands full.
Josiah managed to enter his home and depositing his briefcase on the desk he went to open the sliding glass door to the balcony he shared with the only other tenant of this building's floor. He thanked his lucky stars; he only had to share the balcony with one other person. He was grateful it was with Miss Amanda. He enjoyed listening to her music.
Smiling, he went back inside to reheat the offered meal.
A little later, and with a full stomach, he sat in his living room rereading all the information they had gathered. He could hear in the background the soft music playing next door.
It was almost two in the morning when he finally went to bed. He hadn't realized when the music had stopped playing as he had been too focused on his work.
Dean Hill wasn't a big time mob boss, but some of his contacts were. Undercover agent Ezra Standish, acting as a free liaison from Europe was trying to get sufficient information of the organizations that supplied Mr. Hill's business.
Ezra went in character easily, within the first week he got a privileged place in the business. His natural charm and knowledge of languages and guns helped gain the trust of his current employer.
The size of the business was bigger than they had expected.
The range of deals was amazing, and worried the agent to an extreme. It went from illegally exported chewing gum to high tech guns. Ezra also discovered information about a large cargo of a vitamin drink that contained unsafe ingredients and therefore also illegal in this country.
The agent decided to try to stop the dangerous drink before it was able to hit the streets. For this, Ezra stayed very close to Mr. Hill for a week, missing a check-in with his team and practically remained secluded.
Ezra had been able to get some of the new information to the team before he had lost contact.
Chaos reined at team seven's office from the moment the agent disappeared. The lack of news hit the remaining members hard.
The surveillance didn't show anything amiss, the lines remained clear and tempers were boiling.
The first information they had from Ezra implied that Mr. Hill was working at a massive scale in America, then the team had lost contact with their undercover agent.
Two members of the team stayed at the office at all times. Nathan proposed a schedule of merely a couple of hours on duty each for the ones on surveillance, forcing them to rest to stay sharp. The confined space and nervous moods wouldn't allow more than that.
Chris approved the schedules, but he and Josiah stayed at the office the almost seventy hours that Ezra remained incommunicado.
Josiah examined his profiles a dozen times trying to find a clue of what was happening inside the organization. Chris just paced and muttered about mavericks and lone rangers.
When the Southerner finally contacted them saying he had more information, Chris was ready to strangle the missing agent.
The profiler was willing to hold the younger man while Chris knocked some sense into him, but it would have to wait until they had their friend back from the assignment.
The risks of the job were plenty, but their con man always took extra chances.
A brief meeting was planned.
Ezra was going to dinner with Mr. Hill at the man's favorite restaurant. There, Ezra would bump into J.D. and handle him the cds with the information.
The exchange was successful.
Back at the office after he had played his part, J.D. was at his computer,
"Look at these lists, Chris. Not all of this is illegal. They are delivering to pre-established stores. See this one? It's a naturist shop with exotic but well known products," said J.D. having de-coded the discs.
"And since when do you know about exotic products?" Teased Buck, the tall man had gone back to his carefree attitude. All of them had relaxed now that they knew that Ezra was ok,
// at least for now // a little voice inside their heads had said.
"Well, Casey likes some things from there... Oh, damn" croaked the young brunet as he realized they had bought things at one of Dean Hill's shops. He looked over his shoulder to his friends, "It's near the campus. The students go there all the time"
"That's not all" interjected Nathan, "I recognized at least four of those names. He's supplying a lot of small shops around the city," the tall man said as he swallowed hard.
"J.D. Is there more information about these deliveries?" asked the worried team leader.
"Yes, a lot. Ezra even got the schedules of the truck drivers." J.D was amazed at the detail of the undercover man's investigation had unearthed.
He often wondered what he would need to become as good at undercover as Ezra.
Then, he thought better, // Ezra is all alone out there, having to watch his back at all times and he always looks pale after he gets back. //
Deciding that he couldn't manage a deep undercover, J.D. backed up all the information and sent it to the printer.
The team stayed at the office until each had read all the information.
Having discussed a plan of action, they went their own ways. Buck and J.D. were going home to rest.
Josiah would go to his apartment to rest a little before replacing Chris at the ATF quarters.
Nathan and Vin would replace the Team Three agents that were currently in surveillance covering for the rogue and the kid.
Vin had been trying to avoid being in the same shift with the tall man. The small quarters and all the equipment made him nervous, and when he was nervous he tended to eat more, and eat more in Vin's case means that he ate all the time.
With the medic so close, this would end in one of the tall man's long monologues about healthy food, cholesterol levels and the dangers of processed snacks.
At the parking lot, they said their goodbyes. Josiah even lightly squeezed Vin´s shoulder as he advised the longhaired Texan, "You should try some granola bars. The ones without marshmallows or chocolate chips won't set off Nathan's tirades."
The profiler chuckled. "Or you could control your hunger."
The prospect of a couple of hours without snacks made the sharpshooter shudder.
From one of the windows of her apartment, a young woman saw her neighbor's truck park outside the building.
// Josiah is back, he's smart and big, he would do // She thought and waited.
Amanda nervously paced in front of the phone, taking deep breaths and trying not to cry. Why hadn't he called the moment he arrived? She had left a message at his answering machine half an hour ago.
"Come on," she mumbled to the machine, then went to the balcony, but his side of the door remained closed.
// He would call, or come. Yes, he would //
She continued pacing for fifteen minutes. // I need a change of clothes and makeup, lots of makeup. //
At her bedroom she tried on a couple of blouses and clean jeans. Amanda brushed her hair, but let it hang free and she applied what she had learned at a beauty shop last summer. The brunette liked the results and with a last look at the mirror, went back to the living room.
Josiah's door to the balcony remained shut.
Nervously, she rearranged vases and framed pictures around the house. She examined closely her phone. It was working and the volume was ok. Putting the phone down, a horrible presentiment invaded her mind and she ran to the window. His truck was gone.
In despair, she collapsed in the couch and buried her head in the cushions for around five seconds before she took a deep breath and, getting her cell phone, she punched speed-dial 2, then halted, she couldn't call Josiah. She cancelled the call and pressed 5.
It didn't take long for the person at the other side of the line to pick up.
[[ Hello ]]
"Barry, it's Mandy. I need a big favor..."
Chris Larabee, feared team leader and nightmare of criminals, jumped at the sound of the elevator. He almost rolled his eyes at the sight of the profiler reaching his desk.
"I thought you were going to rest," he said to the older man.
The big man went slightly pink as he answered, "Couldn't sleep and thought you would need the reprieve as much as me, so I came back. Any news?"
"You were gone less than an hour; of course there isn't any news" hissed the blond.
"Go home, Chris. I'll call you when I get Nathan's report."
"Nah, I don't think I could stay away neither. I'll be at my office, catching some z´s."
Blue pale eyes followed the dark clothed man until he went out of sight.
Massaging his temples with tired fingers, Josiah went to work on Mr. Hill´s files.
Vin´s stomach growled loudly.
"I can't believe you are hungry again," said Nathan as he stepped out of the elevator. They were back at their office to do the report of the day's work.
Their shift had ended without incident, but Vin had managed to devour two bags of chips, half a dozen mini donuts and only God knows how many chocolate bars. Nobody would know because the blue eyed man had shredded the evidence in really tiny pieces that not even Nathan could get together... and he had tried.
"I'm a growing boy," said the Texan with a wicked smile.
Whatever the taller man was going to say died in his throat at the sight of Chris throwing a three point shot with a small ball at the wastebasket near their desks.
"Good shot, cowboy," drawled the long haired man.
The blond smiled and did a shush motion. "Josiah is on the couch in the break room."
"Hadn't he gone home?" Nathan was especially concerned about his old friend. Josiah always worried (to the point of exhaustion) when Ezra was undercover.
"He did," sighed the leader, "and came back in 35 minutes... I dozed in my office for a while, but he kind of collapsed while getting coffee," he admitted.
He had barely finished talking when the medic darted to his friend's side, checking the older man´s pulse, breathing and temperature. Josiah was comfortably stretched out on the sofa.
"Nathan?" questioned the sleepily and confused man in a soft voice.
"It doesn't look too bad, mostly tired I think."
The preacher's son was disconcerted. "What doesn't look too bad?"
"You, ya big fool. Chris said you collapsed," Stated the medic angrily. "When was the last time you ate or slept?"
"I did eat before coming back; I simply couldn't rest without knowing if something was wrong with Ezra. I have had a bad feeling all the week," he argued, "And I didn't collapse... I just thought that it was a good idea to lie down for a moment."
A voice from outside the room yelled in a Texan drawl, "Oh sure, and I'll just lay at my desk now and take a nap..." the noise of a ball hitting the sharpshooter interrupted him.
"Ouch, stop it, cowboy. I'm trying to sleep."
But the blond leader's clear voice growled before Vin could throw the ball back.
"I want all the reports before any one goes back to sleep. Clear?"
The men answered at once, "Yes, Chris.", "Sure, cowboy!" and "Sure, boss."
Nathan helped the profiler to his feet, watching him closely. He made sure the big man was awake enough to function as he went to work at his report.
The men at the desks remained in silence for a while. Nathan was the first to finish his work. He picked it from the printer and went to Chris' office.
The door was open but still he knocked softly before entering. Josiah and Vin were close behind.
"Here it is, Chris. Not much apart from what I already told you by phone," the medic said.
"You called him before coming?" Josiah was astonished. "Why I didn't know?" Turning to Chris he asked, "Why didn't you wake me?"
"It was before you came back, and when you did I told you there hadn't been news." Chris stated.
"Did you check your messages at home, preacher?" chuckled the long haired man perched at a corner of their leader's desk.
Knowing that he had overreacted, Josiah blushed a little and in a subdued voice apologized. "Sorry... I can't explain it, but I haven't liked this case from the beginning." He cleared his throat and continued, "Look at all the information Ezra got. This is not a small scale business. Dean Hill has a lot of connections and has some real dangerous things for sale. We investigated him for almost a month and only now know the size of his enterprise. I think Ezra should come back before something bad happens."
"Almost too late for that, Mr. Sanchez."
Four synchronized voices asked, "Ezra?"
"Gentlemen?" Teased the undercover agent.
Their leader didn't have time for games and went deadly serious in a second. "What are you doing here? What happened?"
"Oh, I was sent by Mr. Hill to investigate the situation of two of our employees that were arrested for attacking a young girl at the University campus early today. Those two men seemed to have sampled some of our merchandize and Mr. Hill is not happy. So he sent me to investigate the men´s legal situation."
"It would help our case, if we can retrace an illicit substance to one of Hill's businesses," guessed Nathan.
"Yes, it would," stated the blond leader. "Nathan, Ezra, look at what the DPD has about these men. Give us names to work with. Vin, call Buck and J.D. We need them. And Josiah, first check your home messages, then come to my office with the data we have about the shops around the campus." Chris stayed barely enough time to see everybody get busy before heading to his office.
Josiah reached his workplace, called home and listened to his messages;
An artificial voice informed him that he could renew one of his subscriptions to a specialized magazine and get a cook set simply by calling back before two days.
The next one was Nathan reporting that Ezra was back at the Hill's mansion safely and that Vin would call later if there was any news. Josiah blushed and avoided Vin´s knowing gaze.
The third one was his neighbor. She had never called him before, but he thought that Amanda´s voice sounded strange. She was simply asking the profiler to call her when he came home; strangely, the tone of her voice lacked all her usual spark and charm.
The last call was Buck who had hit redial by mistake and apologized for probably interrupting Josiah´s dreams. An amused J.D. could be heard in the background teasing him.
The preacher's son disconnected the call, collected the files Chris had requested and rose from his desk. He had merely advanced a couple of steps when an idea came to his mind and froze his progress.
The rest of the team looked up from their respective tasks at his sudden halt. They watched as he hit his forehead softly with the folders in his hand before turning and asking the undercover agent, more to corroborate than to have an answer, "You said a girl was attacked at the campus?" Ezra had barely nodded his head when the big man continued, "It was early in the morning?"
The southern eyes went big as he nodded again. Josiah went on, "Near the library?" Ezra saw the older man go pale at his confirmation.
"Amanda" the big man breathed. Ezra, Nathan and Vin almost missed the worried whisper.
The undercover´s quick mind gave him an advantage of few seconds over the other two agents. "The probability is like one in a thousand, but I think I will go with you. We have to be sure your friend is ok," the southerner suggested rising from his chair and taking out his keys, only to be blocked by Vin, whose reflexes worked as fast as Ezra´s brain.
"You can't. It's too dangerous for your cover. I´ll go with Josiah."
Chris, having heard only Vin's last remark, asked the Texan with a bit of anger showing in his voice, "Where are you two going?"
It was Josiah who answered him, "I got a call from Miss Amanda." He paused taking a deep breath. Chris glared impatiently, his stance obviously asking, ¨and this is important because...¨
"You know I have been having a bad feeling the entire week. I thought it was because of Ezra, but what if it was because of somebody else?"
"Josiah, this is..." the dark clothed man started when he was interrupted,
"Amanda goes to the library early every day, near the place where the attack happened; I need to check that she is ok."
"Then call her. There is not need to..."
"I need to see her to know that she is all right." Josiah´s intentions were very clear after those words.
Trying to avoid any more complications, the sharpshooter looked at his blond friend in the eyes before telling him, "It´s not far. We'll be back before you know, cowboy. And Buck and J.D. will be here soon. They'll would help around until we are back."
Vin inclined his head and arched his eyebrow in a very Ezra's way, almost daring, while his eyes were telling Chris;
// you wanna try and stop Josiah? You'll end up in the hospital and I´m not bringing you food or flowers. //
Chris suppressed the urge to make a face at Tanner and managed to say in a calm tone,
"Bring something to eat on your way back." Then he disappeared inside his office.
The journey to Amanda´s home was made in silence. Vin didn´t need noise to pass the time and Josiah was too worried to utter a word.
Standing in the walkway, Josiah knocked firmly at her door. Vin tensed as he heard somebody coming close to it. Somebody too heavy to be the little thing the profiler had described as his neighbor.
The door was opened by a man a little taller than Vin. His hair was salt and pepper. He had light brown eyes and his expression became worried at the sight of the two men. He obviously had expected one visitor, but not two.
The three men paused momentarily, assessing each other, until a soft familiar voice called from inside the apartment. Josiah bullied his way to the living room past the stranger and took the young woman in a gentle hug. She seemed to disappear in his arms.
Vin went inside more slowly. The other man closed the door and motioning to him toward the kitchen. "Hi" said the man nervously, "I´m Barry, I´m a friend of Mandy's."
"Hi," mimicked the younger man. "I'm Vin, and I´m a friend of Josiah´s."
Barry chuckled dryly as they shook hands.
They heard the voices of their friends in the next room. Both of them stayed in silence, to eavesdrop while Amanda described that morning events to the profiler.
"I was at the library with Mrs. Clark when we heard a scream outside; I yelled to her to call security and went out." She swallowed. "There were two men; they were trying to get a girl inside a truck. She´s a freshman, young and skinny, but she was fighting them with all her strength. I tried to help her but one of the men hit me and I fell down." She paused, "The girl used the distraction and ran away."
Josiah tightened his embrace.
"They went after her, but they saw the campus security and attempted to escape going in separate directions. The chief got one and his guys the other. Then the cops came and took them away."
"You were hurt," said Josiah turning her face softly to look closely at her cheek, the makeup hid the bruise but couldn't disguise inflammation and scrapes. "Did you go to a hospital?" he asked in concern.
"I went to the campus clinic and then came here. The chief said I had to go to the DPD and make a statement. They couldn´t find the girl and he said that if I didn´t press charges, they would have to let them go." Her voice trembled a little. "I didn't want to go alone, I... I called Barry and he went with me." Josiah guessed that she had called him before, but when he hadn't called back she had asked the other man instead.
Feeling guilty, he placed one of his hands on her head and caressed her hair. They stayed in silence, for a while.
Vin and Barry, still in the kitchen, looked at each other as the voices in the other room dimmed, they ventured a glance to the other room. They stood with just their heads peering into the opening, looking bodiless, watching their oblivious friends.
Josiah and Amanda were sitting on the couch near the window of the living room. Vin saw that Amanda was still embraced in Josiah's bear hug, but the profiler's expression was sad.
Leaning slightly, Josiah placed a kiss on her temple. As her face turned toward him, both younger men, feeling like peeping toms, quickly went back to the kitchen blushing slightly even if they hadn´t been caught spying on their friends, but by each other.
Vin then remembered his promise to Chris and, taking out his phone, he promptly called him.
Unfortunately he got bad news. The sharpshooter was informed that Ezra got a call from Mr. Hill; the man had a lawyer ready to bail his men out, immediately. The undercover agent had tried to dissuade him but without success, so the men who had attacked the young women would be free in a matter of hours.
Barry noticed the disgusted face the Texan acquired after his call. "What happened?" he asked. He knew that Amanda´s neighbor and his friends were law officers.
"They're letting them free"
"Who?" he asked confused, but in less than a second he understood, "No, it can´t be."
"They got a lawyer." The look at the longhaired man's eyes told Barry that there was more than what he already knew, but also, that he wouldn't want to know the entire story.
After placing a kiss at the top of Amanda´s head, Josiah was glad to see her turning her head toward him. She smiled at him and buried her head against his chest, trying to hide her blushing face from his gaze. "This is so embarrassing. I'm sorry, I didn´t mean to fall apart like that," she apologized disentangling their arms and withdrawing to the corner of the couch.
He chuckled softly at her discomfort, "This is falling apart? Come on Miss Amanda, you need to let it out, truly out."
"I just did it," she replied.
"Without tears, screams and nervous breakdowns?" he asked in a mocking tone.
She became angry and hurt at his unkind words. "I can't believe you´re criticizing my breackdowns, I thought you would... I thought..." She didn´t finished, as tears started rolling from her eyes. She attempted to restrain them, but she couldn´t.
He recaptured her in his embrace; she tried to get free... for a little while.
Josiah rested his chin at the top of her head as she cried and sobbed and trembled in his arms. Finally succumbing to the fear and shock she had experienced.
Vin and Barry were eating some re-heated lasagna when Josiah came to the kitchen. Amanda had cried herself to sleep and he had tucked her in her bed before going in search of Vin.
The big man had forgotten that the sharpshooter had come with him. Stopping in his tracks at the door frame, he realized he had forgotten more than just Vin.
The man sitting across the table from the Texan paused in mid-bite and rose to his feet, with unease he introduced himself, "I´m Barry, I'm Mandy's friend." Barry later would swear the tall man had growled at him.
Fortunately for Barry, Vin intervened. The sharpshooter told the profiler all the details that he could, having a civilian so close and protecting Ezra´s undercover persona.
"Go back to the office," ordered Josiah. "Explain to Chris that I´m going to stay here. If Miss Amanda ID'd them, they can ID her." Both Vin and Barry noticed the way Josiah stressed her name, accentuating the hostility the big man had showed while Barry introduced himself.
Vin could have laughed as Barry´s face paled and focused intently on his plate of lasagna. Obviously, the profiler had taken offense at Barry's nickname for Amanda.
It could have been funny, // if only the girl's life wasn't in danger // he thought.
Swallowing with care, Barry risked a thought to vocalize, "I can stay with her"
The taller man was at his side in an instant looking down at him, "What do you do for a living, Barry?"
"I teach, at the University, but..."
Josiah towered over him and the younger man shuddered. "Do you think yourself capable of defending her against armed men, Professor Barry?"
"Aa...armed? Well, no, but..." stuttered the brown eyed man. He loved the sweet girl but she obviously would be safer with this giant acting as her bodyguard.
With courage he didn´t really feel, he managed to offer, "I'll better go back to the campus. Should I inform the Dean of the situation?"
Vin managed to step between the two men "He must know by now, but maybe you can explain to him the circumstances." Getting Josiah to back off wasn´t easy.
"I´ll go then. Could you tell her that..." Barry's thought died as he saw Josiah. "Never mind, I'll tell her later when all this is over." And he hurried out of the apartment.
Vin was used to Josiah´s papa bear behavior but still, the murmured remark was unexpected; Vin didn't think that Barry was old enough to be Amanda´s father, and even in the case that he was a teacher at the U, he didn't see the man´s behavior as a motive to be fired from the campus. He had been helping the girl, went with her to the DPD and had kept her company. Barry looked like a good man to him if not to Josiah.
Vin and the rest of Team Seven had heard about the cute girl from the day she moved to the apartment next to Josiah's. Vin supposed the team had misinterpreted Josiah's care for the girl. If the man thought Barry was too old for her, he obviously wouldn´t see her as any more than a kid to protect, wouldn´t he?
The sharpshooter went back to the ATF building with the hamburgers, fries and soft drinks he had bought on the way. Even Nathan dug in without a lot of fuss.
Buck showed great interest in Miss Amanda's well being and suggested that he could replace Josiah if the team needed the profiler's services at the office.
"Mr. Wilmington, we wouldn´t want to expose her young and innocent mind to even one minute of your stories. The consequences could be disastrous." Ezra´s green eyes sparkled with mischief as his words lightened a little the mood around the break room.
Buck's outrage dimmed as he saw that even Chris smiled at the Southerner´s comment. All of them had gotten angry the moment they knew that innocent girls had been hurt. But Chris had been ready to throw a fit at the latest news.
"Well, Gentlemen it has been a pleasure, but I must deprive all of you of my charming company. I have obligations to fulfill elsewhere, so I bid you goodbye."
The members of the team surrounding the table nodded. J.D. managed to say, between chews of his second bag of fries, "Bye, Ez. Take care."
Chris stood and clasped the gambler´s shoulder. "Something else happens, I want you back here immediately. This case is becoming more complicated than we thought. Don't take unnecessary risks, you hear?"
The undercover agent didn´t break the eye contact. "Loud and clear, Mr. Larabee." And with his usual salute, he went back to his duty, without really agreeing to the request.
The remaining five agents were missing Josiah's help, especially Vin who had to team up with Nathan.
At least the Texan had a full stomach and they weren't close to surveillance equipment, but still the medic's work style was too closed minded for the sharpshooter, who had gotten used to Josiah's open minded and free style.
Ezra went back to the Hill's mansion. The boss wasn't happy after that morning incidents, the maids stayed out of range, afraid their employer could redirect his anger against them.
The man's assistant informed the Southerner that Mr. Hill was currently entrenched in his library.
Hiding his trepidation, he knocked at the panel door. He could hear the sound of things hitting the walls, probably books thrown by the angry man.
Ezra took a deep breath and adopted his undercover persona. Eric Key, Ezra's undercover name, was a ruthless man who would never be afraid of a small man like Dean Hill, the man had more power than they had anticipated, but still, Key's reputation was well known even in America.
With an unconcerned air, Ezra went into the room. A book passed flying over his head to the open space behind him and slid until it hit one of the ornamented tables causing the lamp on top to tilt and fall. The resulting crash made Mr. Hill's assistant jump and disappear at a run.
Ezra didn't take his gaze from the little man in front of him, "Excellent aim, Mr. Hill." Said Ezra/ with a hint of amusement in his voice. For those that were close to Team Seven he would have sounded a lot like Vin Tanner.
"Don't you dare laugh at me!" threatened the older man.
The only reaction of the undercover agent was an arched eyebrow. The eyes showed nothing.
The smaller man recoiled at the cold green gaze aimed at him.
"Mr. Key, I wasn't expecting you," Hill replied as an apology that sounded extremely false to the gambler.
"You shouldn't employ men that cause this much trouble." Ezra commented roughly.
"Don't you worry, they will be punished. I hate to be in the middle of this kind of scandal. Having young girls running terrorized is going to attract the media."
"You should use this to your gain"
"And what would you suggest?" The man was barely containing his fury.
"The media would like to interview the employer of these men, so do it; make the audience know that you have fired them because you don't approve of that kind of behavior."
Ezra was following Team Seven's plan; they wanted to interrogate the drivers about Mr. Hill's business and the men would be more cooperative if they were questioned after the man fired them in public.
"I'll think about it," said the older man, nodding. He went to the door and called loudly to one of the maids to come and clean the mess in the library. Turning back to his associate, he invited Ezra to the dinning room for a refreshment.
"So, Mr. Hill, have you reached a decision about the deal I proposed?" inquired Ezra, getting back at the business.
"My contacts in France and Germany are willing to pay what you have stipulated. American goods are highly valued there. Unfortunately, the British are demanding to test the merchandise before agreeing."
He had to pause. Watching the man eat was nauseating. Attempting to avoid the sight, Ezra focused his gaze at a point over Mr. Hill's head. Without losing track of the maid's coming and going, he continued.
"Mr. Cross would come next week. He would like to meet you to negotiate personally. He´s presumptuous and insolent, if his empire wasn't so important I would have killed him and his obnoxious bodyguard some time ago."
Standish was glad his assumed personality was of a spoiled and ruthless man so he could voice his complaints and no one dared to contradict him. He let the disgust he felt toward the man in front of him show in his voice, sounding as if it was directed to the fictional character that Mr. Larabee would be assuming.
"We can arrange a meeting, I'm sure. Their demands aren't that bad," Hill tried to soften the mood. For Ezra, he sounded too patronizing.
"After all, we are talking about great benefits to all of us."
The agent could see the spark of greed that illuminated the detestable man's eyes when he talked about expanding his business.
"I'll check the dates and times with your assistant, Mr. Hill, and we'll let Mr. Cross decide. When it's confirmed I'll inform you."
"You do that," said the dealer eagerly. "I have wanted to know that man for some time now."
Ezra left the room and went to his chambers.
They were close to finishing the case. He hoped everything would go smoothly. If they could arrest Dean Hill at the meeting, with all the evidence he had gathered, they'd have a case solid enough to put the man away for a long time.
The gambler took a shower and went to sleep thinking in his teammates. // It's going to be over soon // he prayed.
Josiah closed his cell phone.
"Your friends?" asked a soft voice from the kitchen. Amanda had slept for a couple of hours and was now hungry.
"Yeah," said the big man, going to her side. He made a show of falling in a chair, moaning. Certain members of Team Seven were doing his best to annoy the older man. They called the profiler every time they reached a dead end, which happened every five minutes. They asked for advice on the research, at dealing with Nathan's stubbornness, J.D.'s energy, Vin´s attention problems, Chris´ lack of patience and Buck's tendency to mix up files.
"Maybe you should go there," Amanda suggested timidly.
Josiah looked at her. "That's not necessary," he reassured her. "I'm doing more work from here than if I were there." He placed his phone at the table, in close reach. "What are you cooking?"
"It's homemade pizza. I thought there was still some lasagna left, but I couldn´t find it. Barry must have been ravenous to eat the almost five portions."
Josiah smiled at the memory. "Well, he had help. Vin was with me earlier. After you fell asleep, I found them here eating it. I´m sure it was Vin who inhaled most of the food."
That surprised her. "He like it that much or was he just bored?"
The big profiler chuckled.
Amanda took the pizza from the oven to cool, and mixed a salad to go with their meal.
The big man helped her to set the table and they spend a relaxed dinner.
They watched the news and found that these men´s boss, Mr. Hill, had fired the drivers and was offering his help and legal advice to the girl they had attacked, if she decided to press charges.
// He is a good actor, // thought Josiah, careful that his feelings about the news didn´t show.
// For the masses, that man, is as innocent as a lamb. //
After they cleaned the dishes, they had argued a little. Josiah insisted on spending the night at her apartment.
Amanda was pleased to know that he cared that much, but his apartment was barely on the other side of her door and the building had a good security system.
Amanda didn't consider it necessary that he stay the entire night awake watching over her.
She had to give in when he pointed that any security system wasn't 100 percent infallible and, that from the other apartment, he could miss her call or not be quick enough.
That had scared her, so, that night, Josiah stayed on Amanda's couch.
Morning brought a few surprises.
Vin went early in search of the profiler. He couldn´t bear another day dodging ¨Mr. Healthy Food¨ aka Nathan. He remained at the door, waiting for Josiah to buzz him in, but there wasn't an answer from the older man's apartment. On a hunch, Vin rung the number next-door to Josiah's, and wasn't at all surprised that the man he had been looking for was there.
After the short elevator ride, Vin came across the big man who was waiting for him near his apartment. Amanda was at her door jam watching them.
With a respectful nod, he spoke, "Morning Josiah, Miss Amanda." Vin got closer and, for the first time, had a clear view of the girl. What immediately caught his attention was the big bruise that went from her check to her temple. She also had bruises and scrapes on her hands and forearms.
If Amanda hadn't been the focus of the attack, he didn´t want to think about how much the other girl had been hurt.
By the descriptions Josiah had given her, Amanda knew this young man was Vin, the team sharpshooter and bottomless stomach. "Good morning, it's a pleasure to meet you. Please call me Mandy. All my friends, but Mr. Josiah, call me that."
The longhaired man could have sworn that Josiah had rolled his eyes at that, so mostly to tease the older man, he quickly accepted.
"Thank you, Mandy." A grin developed on the girl's face at his words.
"Vin," interjected the profiler in a cold voice, "Could you stay with ¨Miss Amanda¨ while I take a shower and get a change of clothes?" Vin got a taste of Josiah´s bitterness, the same ire that the big man had directed at Mandy's friend, Barry, the day before.
The Texan said a firm, "Sure." His whole behavior let the older man know that he wasn´t the enemy.
Josiah caught the silent message. Immediately, the profiler was sorry at having snapped at Vin. He tried to make amends. "Thank you, Vin. I´ll be back in a moment."
After the big man had closed his door, Amanda gestured to the young man to come with her, "Sorry about that. I don't think he had adequate sleep. My couch is too short, and he´s been so tense the entire week, really worried for one of your friends."
"Don´t worry, I know." Vin followed her to the kitchen
"Of course you do." She directed him to a chair at the table. "Would you like something to eat while we wait for Josiah?" She was already pulling things from the fridge, sure of his answer.
"If it´s not a bother," said the Texan innocently.
"It's not. I like to cook and, right now, being busy helps my nerves." She took a container from the cupboard and placed it in front of the longhaired man.
"I did those yesterday."
Curious, Vin opened the box and his breath caught at the delicious aroma. // I'm in heaven, // he thought.
"These are peanut butter, and these chocolate chip and those are caramel chip ones." She pointed at the mentioned cookies and noticed that the young man had closed his eyes inhaling deeply.
"I hope you´ll enjoy them."
Vin opened his eyes and looked at her. "All those are for me?"
"Well, if you want, you can share with your teammates." The girl smiled "But it´s not necessary."
Vin put the cover in its place after he got out one cookie of each kind.
"Then I'll have to think about it." He said with a grin.
Mandy went back to the stove. "Well, I can make a mean omelet. Would you like to try it?" She was already mixing ingredients in a bowl.
Vin stopped munching at his treat just the time it took to mumble, "Sure".
A cup of coffee was placed in front of him. "It´s not too strong but..."
"´m sure it's fine." he interrupted.
When Josiah got back, he was astonished. Vin Tanner was eating an omelet with green vegetables in it and wasn't complaining.
At his expression, the Texan explained hastily, "Those are peppers, not really veggies."
The preacher's son chuckled, "If it´s ok with you, then I'm ok with it."
He sat at Mandy´s side and she passed him a cup of coffee. Both, Amanda and Josiah, had already had breakfast before Vin came.
"And what brings you here, brother?" Asked the big man already guessing Vin's motives.
He was only partially right.
"I´ll need your help to tie and gag Nathan at the office, preacher. And I need to talk with both of you, about the men who attacked you, Amanda."
The smile that was blossoming on the profiler's mouth at the image of Vin trussing the bigger medic froze at the mention of the drivers. "What did you find?"
"You have nothing to worry about, now." At their confused expression Vin continued, "The DPD found them in a old warehouse. Apparently they couldn't live with the guilt and killed themselves."
Amanda gasped. Instantly Josiah's arm drew her close to his shoulder.
"Sorry, should have said it different," drawled the young man apologetically.
The girl swallowed and looked at him, without leaving Josiah's shelter. "Don´t be. I needed to know." For a moment the three of them stayed in silence, processing the news.
"It's kind of unreal, don't you think?" asked Amanda. "I can't believe they were the kind of guys who would beat people in broad daylight and then kill themselves in shame."
The sharpshooter stared at his cup of coffee for a long time, trying to say something without giving away the DPD information. "We´ll ask around to find what happened," he concluded.
"Have you heard from Ezra?" Asked Josiah after a while. As if it was an entirely different issue.
"Not yet, and Chris´ not happy," murmured the Texan.
"You should go to work, Mr. Josiah. Your friends need your help and... Well, guess I'll be safe now."
Josiah wasn't at all convinced this could be a good idea. "Only if you don´t go to the Campus today and promise to call if anything happens," conceded the big man, his pale blue eyes reflecting the concern for his friends.
"I´ll promise," Amanda said rising her hand in a solemn vow.
"And you will call her every five minutes to check that everything is all right," finished Vin happily, earning him a scowl from Josiah, but making the young woman laugh.
The two agents left the building. If Vin noticed that the profiler kissed Mandy´s check as he said goodbye, he didn't mention it nor teased the older man.
At the Hill's mansion;
The news the undercover agent had received that morning was unnerving. Dean Hill had ordered the dismissal of the two men who had attacked the girls. That the man had fired them wasn't as disturbing as the fact that those men were now dead.
Ezra went to call Mr. Cross to arrange the date and time of the meeting and let him know that they had lost two probable witnesses. // Mr. Larabee is not going to be happy //
Chris answered the secure line. [[ "Cross." ]]
"Mr. Cross, its Eric Key. Mr. Hill has agreed to meet you to negotiate the prices."
[[ "When?" ]]
// How talkative, // thought the undercover agent.
"Is Friday noon soon enough?" // or it's too soon? // implied Ezra.
[[ Friday noon is ok. ]] Ezra understood the message: they would be ready by then.
"Perfect, I'll send the address and specifics by fax to your office."
[[ Hill lost two men. ]] Chris made it clear; It wasn't a question.
Ezra thanked God, he hadn't been sure of how tell him without blowing his cover or worrying the team unnecessarily, "Oh, did you hear about that already? I assure you it will not happen again." // I'm safe. //
[[ Be sure it doesn't.]] Again Ezra understood the message; get out if there is trouble.
[[ I don't want trouble at the meeting ]] said Chris.
"Don't worry, Mr. Cross. I'll make sure everything is ready for you."
// I'm not leaving before we get him // Ezra promised himself.
[[ I'll have my bodyguards with me, ]] informed the blond.
"Of course. Your security is our priority." Answered the undercover agent comforted at the thought that they would be close. Out loud he said "As always it was a pleasure to do business with you."
[[ Whatever ]] growled Chris ending the call while thinking // smart mouth //
On an already dead line, Ezra finished the call with a final "Good day, Mr. Cross."
In the ATF building Larabee was relieved that his agent had called. The situation at Hill's residence was tense, but Ezra was managing.
They had lost the chance to interrogate the two recently fired men. Their deaths were too convenient to Hill.
The DPD was investigating the ¨suicide¨ of the two drivers but they didn't have proof of Dean Hill being responsible. They'd have to wait and see what Ezra would send; clues or names that could implicate the man with the murders.
The leader of Team Seven didn't have to wait long. Buck brought him the bunch of papers that Ezra had sent. The mustached man was grinning. He took a chair near Chris and they sorted the information: A map of Denver, with a mark at the reunion point. The next sheet was instructions to get to the address from the airport. Useful for Mr. Cross, who would be coming from London, but irrelevant to Larabee. Then, information about the merchandise Hill had or could get, both legal and illegal.
//Only Ezra would send this kind of proof by fax. // thought the ladies´ man with a chuckle.
In a handwritten note, the undercover agent explained that it was all the information he had at the moment.
Larabee sighed, no links to the suicides. They should wait a few more days.
Watching the rest of the team arriving, he called them to the conference room.
After analyzing the last list Ezra had sent, Nathan pointed the articles whose trade was regulated or restricted.
Vin and Buck would go to the stores, the ones they knew that had deliveries from Hill, to check them. The sharpshooter thanked all the gods he could think of. Working with Buck was more his style and both felt comfortable working together.
J.D and Nathan, first would acquire the blue prints of all the buildings that were close to the meeting point. Chris and Josiah would need to examine them to design the plan of action. Then they would go and take over the surveillance of Hill's residence. It wasn't that they didn't trust the others ATF teams, they simply liked to watch Ezra's back themselves.
By noon, Chris and Josiah had everything ready; designated positions, equipment requested and granted, backup teams notified and AD Travis updated. All this was made around the profiler's numerous calls to his neighbor. Chris was sure the girl was as annoyed as he was.
Buck and Vin got back to the bullpen with a wealth of information. He affirmed that it was for the case, but now Buck's little black book had half a dozen of new names in it.
"Potential witnesses," he had said. The fact that they were all females from 25 to 35 years old wrested credibility from his words.
Vin handled the notes they had written from each store. All of them had at least restricted products that they sold without a doctor's prescription. Six of the health food shops had illegally imported goods and only one had the dangerous drink that Ezra had mentioned in his first reports. It was the store near the campus, and the boy at the cash register identified the delivery guys as the ones that had attacked the girls near the library.
Vin had examined the bottles and persuaded the boy to put the drinks in storage. Ezra would have been proud of the story the sharpshooter had concocted.
Buck was impressed, not only by Vin´s imagination, but that the boy had believed that the longhaired man was some kind of shaman who was tracking a ceremonial plant that had been stolen by a foreigner and was being used in the drinks.
Then Buck had convinced the frightened clerk that if he sold the bottles, Vin would put a curse on him for helping the evil man to steal from his people.
Both agents had barely reached their car before busting in laughter.
Chris smiled as the retelling of the tale had Buck imitating the glare the sharpshooter had given to the boy, which made Vin glare at the mustached man in irritation.
Josiah was laughing openly, // Not yet a Larabee's special, but close enough // he thought.
It was the day before the meeting that Ezra got the name of the two bodyguards responsible for the punishment of the drivers. He found that Mr. Hill had wanted it to look like a suicide, but the DPD was investigating it as murder. Both bodyguards had barely escaped Hill's fury and were now on the run.
Ezra knew that the Magnificent Seven would bring down Hill's empire easily. What he feared was the price they would have to pay for it. Dean Hill was losing ground. His temper was interfering with his business. He was becoming unstable and much more dangerous.
Unfortunately, being so close to the raid, Ezra was unable to present this information to his team.
Meeting day, warehouse district;
Everybody was in position, even the bad guys. Vin had, as usual, taken the high ground, watching through the sight of his gun as Ezra instructed a few men on how to organize the crates Mr. Hill had brought with him.
// By size, by contents, by color or by origin, // thought the amused sharpshooter remembering the neatness that prevailed at the undercover agent´s desk.
Vin got the confirmation of the teams through the mic. He was ready when a limousine arrived. Buck, playing bodyguard # 1, got out. The back window of the car lowered a little and the tall agent made a show of telling Mr. Cross, (Chris undercover name) the position of all of Hill's men, especially Eric Key´s location.
The agents at the center of the action weren't wired, but the limo had a microphone and the building had been bugged before the meeting. By Buck´s update all the agents in and out of the building knew how close the hostiles were to the undercover agents even if they didn´t have visual contact with them.
Chris closed the window. "Let's ride boys" he announced. The mustached man opened the door and Chris left the safety of the black, big car.
Nathan, playing bodyguard # 2, left the driver's seat and stood leaning at the door, ready to cover his teammates if they had to leave in a hurry.
Mr. Cross/Chris evaluated his undercover agent´s look. The shadows under his eyes weren't totally disguised by the sunglasses. He wasn't as good as he had stated in their phone calls. Ezra even looked slightly anxious. Chris stayed alert as they approached the dealer.
"Mr. Cross, let me introduce you to Mr. Hill," said Eric/Ezra with a neutral tone.
The disgust that showed at Chris eyes concealed the worry he felt. "Shut up, Key. And show me the merchandise. Then, Mr. Hill and I will discuss the prices," growled the blond.
With authentic indignation, Ezra opened some of the wood boxes. Intentionally, he unsealed the ones that contained illicit items.
Dismissing the intermediary and taking advantage of Ezra being busy with the crates, Mr. Cross/Chris started arguing with the dealer about the expensive cost and low quality of some of the products.
Thankfully, Mr. Hill, like a lot of people in this world, was intimidated by the blond´s presence, so Chris´ offer was finally accepted by the older man without a lot of negotiation.
When they were closing the deal, the yell of "freeze, ATF, you are under arrest!" mobilized a lot of people at the scene, not all of them being agents, which resulted in a moment of almost total confusion with shouts and shots fired.
Chris and Buck followed Ezra as he ran after Dean Hill. Nathan and Vin covering them from their positions.
Suddenly, Ezra quit the chase and, turning 180 degrees, shouted "Get down" as he tackled Chris who also knocked Buck backwards. Hitting the ground pretty hard, both agents were already disorientated when an explosion rocked the entire building.
Dean Hill, in his attempt to escape, had set off one of the explosives he had for sale.
Using the distraction he got to his vehicle and tried to drive out of the building.
A couple of agents from Team Three and Team Five had to jump out of the path of the fleeing car which hit the patrol cars that were blocking his way.
Before the suspect could leave the building, a succession of shots blew the car´s back tires. Mr. Hill lost control and crashed into the side of the warehouse.
Everybody was dazzed by the explosion. Agents and criminals alike had been knocked down by the shockwave, and some of them were bleeding. There was smoke and pieces of wood burning everywhere.
Nathan got to his feet and slowly walked to where the undercover agents had been before the detonation. He found his friends behind some crates that had protected them from the full blast. They were slightly damaged, but alive. Ezra was holding his arm; he had hurt his shoulder as he had hit the blond. Fortunately the force of their crash had been enough to get the three agents; Ezra, Chris and Buck, to safety.
Looking up, at the high ground, Nathan searched for a way to get to the sharpshooter. Avoiding the glass and wood debris with some effort, Nathan got to the elevated platform. The sharpshooter appeared to be unconscious, lying in the floor, cuts and bruises covering the visible flesh.
The medic was pretty sure it had been Vin whose shots had stopped the dealer from escaping, but he couldn't explain how he did it. He looked as if the blast had knocked him out.
He called for the paramedics and started checking the young man.
The people on the ground were already taking care of the injured. After subduing the miscreants, the agents, now armed with extinguishers were opening paths for the ambulances.
DPD officers led the uninjured out. The place had a good ventilation system and the smoke from the blast had almost vanished by the time the medics arrived. The ATF had managed, without the fire department, to control the small fires to preserve the scene and the evidence of the case.
While Nathan was evaluating him, Vin had awakened and explained that the shock wave had thrown him against the wall, where he had hit his head. He also confirmed that he had shot at Mr. Hill's vehicle but after seeing it hit the building´s side his head had started to hurt and he had collapsed.
Nathan knew that if Vin had admitted that his head had hurt, the pain must have been bad. The young man had lost consciousness for a while and was bleeding; he had a dark, wet patch of hair at the back of his head. The ATF´s field medic made room for the paramedics to assess the sharpshooter's condition.
Vin was taken in an ambulance, with a concussion. At the hospital, the doctors would want a few tests before they let him out. Ezra and Chris went with him to help the sharpshooter to stay calm and to get themselves checked. The blond was having trouble breathing deeply, his ribs probably were broken, and the gambler would need x-rays to know the extent of the damage at his shoulder.
J.D. had cuts that would need stitches; he had been near the patrol vehicles that the escaping car had hit. Nathan and Buck had small cuts and abrasions that would do with a first aid kit, but neither of them would need to ride in an ambulance.
At the Four Corners Hospital;
After getting clean and patched, Nathan and Buck were directed to the waiting room where Josiah, the only one without injuries, was seated. J.D. joined them a little later, sporting 14 stitches in total.
The nurses, already experienced in dealing with the Team, kept them far from the rest of the patients, but well informed of the condition of their friends.
One of nurses announced that Vin would be placed in a private room as soon as the tests were done.
Chris, Ezra and Vin, the three most injured agents, would need help after they were released. Nathan was already planning how to keep them in line.
Usually, Buck and J.D. would take care of each other, Josiah would take charge of Ezra's recuperation and Chris would help with Vin. All of them would promise to behave just to be out of Nathan's clutches. Unfortunately, with Chris hurt, the best course of action would be to hold them apart, before they could kill each other.
With all the seriousness he could manage, Nathan looked at Buck. "You'll take Chris. Josiah, you'll take Ezra, and I'll deal with Vin."
J.D. snorted, // Vin under Nathan's care for a week! He's going to be thrilled. //
Buck smiled and gave the big profiler a wink, while he suppressed his own chuckles.
"Great plan, Nathan."
They were sitting around the room when a young woman came in. A big bruise covered one side of her face. J.D. noticed that she had a backpack, Buck that she had nice features, Nathan that she had bandages in her hands, and Josiah that she was paler than she was that same morning.
Josiah went to Amanda´s side and gently hugged her. He wished he had a camera as he saw the look on his three friends´ faces.
"Brothers, this is Miss Amanda," said the big man.
"Nice to meet you," murmured J.D.
Buck reached for her hand, but was intercepted by Nathan, "Be careful, Buck. She's been hurt"
"Don't you worry, my friend" answered the mustached man as he held her hand tenderly.
"And the rest of them?" Amanda asked timidly after being introduced. She knew that the one that had worried Josiah the most wasn´t there...nor the cookie monster.
Josiah squeezed her lightly. "They're getting checked, but they are out of danger."
"Thank God," breathed the girl. "I was afraid you were hurt. The news showed a burned building, a lot of demolished cars and they said a lot of agents had been injured."
"And how did you know that we were there?" J.D. was intrigued. Not only had she found they had been part of the bust, but she had found them at the secluded hospital waiting room.
"The reporter interviewed Judge Travis. He said that agents of Teams Three, Five and Seven had been hospitalized," explained the young woman.
"I´m sure he didn´t say names. You found us with so little information?" Nathan was impressed.
She blushed, "No really, they said a few more things and, well, I do pay attention to what Mr. Josiah says. I don´t think that there are a lot of Judge Travis' who supervise ATF teams in Denver. Also, there couldn't be a lot of Team Sevens with sharpshooters that could do spectacular shots after almost being blown to bits."
"It wasn´t spectacular, you know," drawled an unsteady Texan, that was using the wall for support.
Nathan was at his side in a second. "What are you doing here? You were supposed to go to a room after the tests."
"I must have done a wrong turn somewhere," teased the long haired man.
"Vin," The medic said in an admonishing tone while he helped the younger man to a seat.
"Chris is all right," interjected Buck understanding Vin's worries. "Just bruised his ribs. And Ezra should wear a sling for a couple of weeks but that's all, Junior."
The big smile in his face tranquilized the Texan more than any reassurances.
"Then, I guess I should go and find out when I can leave here."
His attempt to leave the room was restrained by a hand on his shoulder.
"Going somewhere?" growled the blond ATF team leader that was holding him down.
"Ow, cowboy... you´ll see...It was... hum...Have you met Mandy?" tried to divert the injured man.
Ezra, who was just arriving, took pity on the embarrassed man and helped him to redirect the focus of the conversation. "I don´t think I've had the pleasure. It´s an honor to finally meet you, Miss Amanda."
"She likes to be called Mandy, don´t you?" interjected Vin, missing the look the comment brought to the profiler´s face.
"Yes, I do." smiled Amanda.
"She also makes wonderful chocolate chip cookies, or so I did hear. What do you think, brother Vin?" The big profiler knew that the sharpshooter had got a box full of cookies from Amanda, and he had eaten them all without sharing.
Vin saw the flash of betrayal cross the young agents´ faces. He knew he had lost at least two allies against Nathan's planned tortures.
Vin didn't have time to say anything. One of the doctors that had been looking for him called out loud to the floor´s security guard, "Here he is. They can unlock the doors now."
Buck and J.D. chuckled as Vin went red.
After getting all the injured seated, Nathan and the doctor discussed, in front them, the treatments for each one. To Ezra and Vin's dismay, Nathan assured the physician that the injured ones would not be left alone.
The bust was successful. They had the merchandise, mostly, though some had been burnt or blown up, the tapes from the long range mics, (the ones inside the storage area had been damaged by the blast,) all the data that agent Standish had gathered while undercover, even the one send by fax to the ATF office, and the investigation the Team Seven had documented.
The Judge was also grateful that all the agents were in not so bad shape. No one had been killed. The agents with burns and cracked bones would stay at the hospital for observation, but all the members of Team Seven were being released that same day.
Even Dean Hill, would be out of the hospital in a couple of days. He had cracked his hip and broke his left leg, but after the car crash, he was lucky to be alive. The collision with the patrol cars and building had left the vehicle so twisted around him that the rescue team had had to cut the metal of the back of the car and take apart the driver´s seat to get him out.
All in all, the judge was pleased. He was planning to give free time to the Team Seven agents so they could baby-sit the three temporarily impaired teammates far from the office.
The entire ATF would be grateful for this.
After talking with Mandy, Nathan had called Rain, Mary and Casey, knowing that his teammates wouldn´t stay at the hospital for long. And to reassure the women that all the agents were alive.
Nathan and Buck took Chris, Vin and Ezra to the Larabee ranch. The women had agreed to the EMT's plan. They would join them there later, to help.
Amanda gave Josiah and J.D. a ride to the ATF´s building so the big man could pick up his own vehicle. He had brought Nathan´s van to the hospital after driving the limousine back to their quarters. Fortunately, the big black car was armored and hadn't been damaged by the explosion.
The young woman had been invited to the ranch with the rest of them. She just needed to wait for J.D. who had to check and sign the equipment return list.
Mandy didn't want to arrive at Larabee's home empty handed, so, while waiting outside the federal building, she went to a nearby store, and filled her cooler with soft drinks, ice and beers. She had hesitated about the beer, but decided that the guys could store it for later consumption if they were taking their prescriptions...which she doubted.
It wasn´t long before J.D. joined her. Together they watched Josiah emerge from the parking garage and they followed him.
Inside her car, the conversation went to how had she meet Josiah.
"Wow, have you really known him that long?" J.D. was surprised. He had assumed that she had met him less than a month ago, when she had moved to the profiler´s building.
"Yes." she smiled, "I was only ten years old and let me tell you, if you think his height could intimidate you now, think about being just a little kid and meeting this giant man."
"Did you run and hide?" asked the young brunet laughingly.
"I did" She admitted, "my Aunty tried to made me see how kind and gentle he was, but it took a while to convince me. It was his voice that did the trick. Even now I haven´t heard him raise it in anger."
"I have," stated the computer expert. "And even if that is scary, it's when he starts talking very low, kind of growling, that you need to run for cover."
"I think I´ll pass on that experience, thanks," reasoned the girl.
J.D. grinned, "You just need to watch him. When he gets that look, the one he gave Vin when he called you Mandy, it´s the clue to retreat slowly, without turning your back on him." He mimicked getting plastered to the seat as part of his explanation.
She laughed softly. "You make it sound dangerous"
"Could be" he said with a grin. "And how did your aunt meet him? You know?" J.D. asked.
"My grandfather owned the apartments Mr. Josiah was interested in renting, and my aunty convinced the family that having a police officer in the building could be a good idea. I´m not sure, but I think she fell in love at first sight. Even if he didn´t feel the same, she loved him."
"Really? He never returned the feeling?" // that was sad. // he thought.
"Aunty told me he was in love with this beautiful girl... Aunty thought she would never have a chance..."
"And she did?" questioned delightedly the young man.
She shrugged. "I don't know." The silence that followed that statement didn't hold. Making the last turn they could see the Larabee´s home and several cars already parked outside.
"There must be a convention" guessed Amanda.
"Nah, we just are a big family, that´s all," declared firmly the brunet.
Amanda couldn't help it. The statement brought back her smile.
They left the vehicle and joined Josiah at the house´s front door that Rain was holding open. After introducing Amanda to her, Josiah went to the kitchen to investigate what Mary and Casey were cooking. They had chased everybody from the room and Chris was getting worried.
Still smiling at the group's antics Amanda told Buck, "I bought some drinks before coming. They're at my car. Would you help me unload it?"
"I´ll do it with pleasure, Miss Mandy," Buck's words gained him a few hits of popcorn and chips.
But Chris saw it. "Keep it up and you are cleaning the floor, Tanner," he shouted.
"Can´t do, cowboy. Doc said I have to take it easy," drawled the longhaired man.
Amanda, Buck and J.D. left the house but could still hear the reply that Nathan gave the Texan. "And now you remember that? After I had to get you back from the stable?"
Buck carried the cooler inside, placed it near the door, quickly snatched J.D.´s cap and left in a run. Amanda barely avoided being run down by the young man who was in pursuit of the mustached man.
With a resigned air, Nathan walked to the porch and yelled, "Buck, if you or J.D. get your wounds dirty, I will make Josiah sit on you while I clean and stitch them...without any kind of anesthetic, you hear?"
Rain got close to Mandy. "Don't worry. He's just trying to keep them in line. They could hurt themselves playing like that."
The two chastised men went back to the house. Nathan was examining the youngest man's injury when Josiah left the kitchen. "Miss Amanda, I think we could use your help with the food," he announced.
Unhappy comments floated in the air, mixed with J.D.´s whining at the medic´s probes.
"Of course, Mr. Josiah, I just need to put the beer in the fridge and..." she trailed off at the sudden silence, feeling the glares of almost everybody focusing on her.
"Beer?" asked a surprised Buck.
The big profiler was as puzzled as the young woman. His friends had never reacted that way to a beer before.
Thinking that it was because of the prescriptions they probably were taking she pulled back the six pack´s. "I´ll take them back to Denver." She tried to amend.
"Where did you buy them?" asked the team leader icily.
Josiah reacted immediately, "It´s just beer. What´s wrong with you?" They couldn´t have mistaken the beer bottles with Mr. Hill's drinks, could they?
Chris was astonished. "What´s wrong? She admitted to have bought the beer she brought. We´ll need to know where she got it. How can you say that it´s just beer?..."
Josiah booming laugh interrupted Chris tirade. Amanda, having realized the problem, rolled her eyes and folded her arms. Waiting for the old man to stop laughing.
He was still chuckling when she inquired, "What did you tell them?" Turning to the rest of the team, she asked, "How old do you think I am?"
Controlling his breath, Josiah apologized, "Sorry, Miss. Amanda. I didn´t tell them you were underage, but they seem to think so."
"Preacher, you said she was studying at the U," Grumbled the Texan from the living room couch.
"And she got her driving license two weeks ago," stated J.D.
// That would explain his insistent offer to drive here, // thought Amanda, remembering the young man´s face when she offered him the ride from the ATF building to the ranch.
"And you clearly pointed that Miss Amanda was a sad eighteen girl," accussed Nathan.
"Well, I was" accepted Amanda, "But it was a long time ago..."
"I didn't have a license because I sold my car before coming back to America. I go to the campus every day because I have to teach some classes in payment for the scholarship I got years ago. And he would remember a sad girl because the last time I saw Mr. Josiah before I went overseas, I had just buried the closest person I had to a mother..." she added, not sure if she would feel flattered or hurt at being considered that young. It happened a lot, but still, sometimes, it was annoying or embarrassing, like now.
She hesitated a little before going to the kitchen.
"So she´s not that young?" asked Buck intrigued.
"No, she´s not. But you better stay away from her or I will choke you with my bare hands," warned the profiler.
"Have you known her a long time, Mr. Sanchez?" inquired the gambler.
"It´s a long story," managed the older man.
"I have nothing else to do," interjected the Texan.
Josiah, sat at one of the couches and, taking a deep breath he began, "I had just graduated from the academy. I was looking for a place to live and I found this great apartment building. There I meet my first love... she was beautiful, her name was Emma. She was the owner´s daughter. She wanted to be an artist and when she got enought money she left Denver. I had a job and responsibilities, so I stayed. Nevertheless I got news about Emma by her sister Annette, but I didn´t see her again for a long time."
"Your home is really that old?" guessed the computer expert, which resulted in a light blow in the head from Buck and a glare from Chris.
"It has been remodeled over the years," explained the profiler. "Some time later Annette moved to the appartment next door, and we became good friends. After I became a detective, the job made me leave home a lot and she would take care of things around in my absence, sometimes for months. Then, one day, Miss. Amanda came to live with her. She was nine or ten..."
"She was ten," stated J.D. who avoided Buck´s second blow.
"Well, at first, she was scared of me; even then she looked younger than she was. But, after a while, I won her trust by showing her that her opinion was important and respected. After that, we were neighbors and friends for a long time."
"When she went to college, I missed her company. Then Annette got sick and Miss Amanda came back to stay with her. Before Annette died, she pleaded with me to keep an eye on Amanda for her. At Annette's funeral, I saw Emma. She was still beautiful. She had a rich boyfriend at her side, and she had already divorced a couple of times. Most of the family gave Amanda their condolences, but Emma was so mean to the girl that she cried all the way back home."
"That would explain your attraction to my mother; cold demeanor with a list of rich ex-husbands, among other qualities," interjected the Southern.
Ignoring the gambler, Josiah continued, "It was a hard time, the next couple of months. Then, Amanda got the offer to study in Europe and she accepted. When she left, I felt that I had failed Annette. I got a little lost in my way, got a leave from the force and traveled some. Around that time I became a profiler and was recruited by the feds and life went on."
"I was thinking about retirement when Nathan told me of Chris' project and now Amanda is back and planning to stay. I got my second chance and almost blew it. She got hurt and involved in our case."
Before any of his friends could say anything, he stated, "I know there wasn't a lot I could have done to stop it, but I'm going to do my best so it won't happen again."
The team stayed in silence. They could understand the feeling. Nobody would want to see their loved ones hurt.
"Tell me something, Mr. Sanchez." Ezra was thinking fast over the puzzle Josiah had described. "You think Miss Amanda was Miss Annette's daughter, don´t you?"
"The idea crossed my mind, yes," replied the older man.
"And, as you were in love of her sister, you have always considered Miss Amanda as part of your family, don´t you?" the gambler insisted.
"Something like that." said the profiler reluctantly. Ezra narrowed his eyes; he had missed something, // what else? //.
"Food is ready!" announced Mary from the kitchen door. "Josiah, if you´d have told us before that Mandy was a chef, the meal could have been ready hours ago and without so much mess."
"Mess? What mess?" growled the blond leader getting to his feet a little unsteadily.
"Don´t mind it, Chris. It´s already taken care of," calmed Casey, bringing a bowl of salad to the table.
Nathan got worried. "She didn´t get too close to the oven or got her hands wet, did she?" After all, the girl wasn't at her best and Josiah wouldn't be pleased if she got hurt again.
"She just helped us with the directions," answered Mary. "She could have cooked, but Chris doesn't have any wood spoons that she could manage with the gauzes at her palms."
// Wood spoons? // thought Josiah, then he remembered. // I didn't renew my magazine subscription, damn! //
Mary went past the profiler and gave him a funny look as he hit his forehead softly against the doorframe.
The aroma of the pot that the blonde brought made mouths water and stomachs growl.
"Hey preacher," said the sharpshooter, with a sudden inspiration. "Since Ezra didn't want to stay in your house for the week like the doctor said, I think I will go with you and leave him here with Chris. I know that the company and the food there would be better than here."
Chris tried to get hold of the Texan's neck. "The company?, I'll show you what you´ll miss, you scruffy, smart mouth, rat..." With the blond's movements restricted by the bruised ribs, the Texan escaped easily.
"Hey!" shouted Buck, taking offense at the comment, as he would stay in the ranch to help Chris with the horses.
Vin was being chased by Chris, and Nathan was in close pursuit. "Chris, be careful! he suffered a concussion! Vin, don´t trip him or you could break his ribs!"
Casey and J.D., already sitting at the table, said at the same time, "Kids never behave!" and burst into laughter.
Josiah went slowly to the porch. His emotions still running high after retelling his memories, even if the month's worries were finally settling. He was taking deep breaths when he felt a hand at his shoulder. Ezra was at his side.
Seeing the deep sorrow reflecting in the light blue eyes, he asked, "Mr. Sanchez, when did you find out that you had loved the wrong sister?"
For a moment, Ezra thought that the profiler would not answer his question, then he said softly, "Once, I heard that you could find love when you least expect it. But I only lost my blindfold that day at the cemetery..."
Josiah closed his eyes lost in the memories. "It was too late, Ezra. I was too late."