The Last Straw
Disclaimer: I do not own the Magnificent Seven nor profit from
writing about them.
Comments: Since JD is supposedly from Massachusetts-I have mentioned some Boston area cities. Thank you to my cousin for the translations. A huge thank you for MOG and Shawna my betas. Another thank you to those who helped-Tannersgirl and Mattie.
This was what a stroke must feel like, Ezra thought. Only an acute medical condition could explain how he had quickly lost control and found himself having to take up residence in Purgatorio. He had finally stumbled his way into his office after the surprise in the conference room. He sat holding his head in his hands, waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop. Hearing a soft knock he waved Agent Tanner in.
Awkwardly, Vin placed a brown, cardboard box on the neat desk. This must be the stuff the sharpshooter had mentioned earlier. The undercover agent vaguely remembered Vin talking to him after the team had given their condolences. Tanner made no move to open the box. Standish placed the carton in his lap. He assumed it contained maps, and information of the area. He opened the flaps to find an offensive blue and red plaid shirt. Quickly he closed the box and pushed it back to Vin.
"What is the meaning of this?" He questioned, pointing at the box as if it were a ferocious animal. Ezra hated plaid. Armani, Brioni and Prada did not make plaids.
"Umm, Ez, you can't go into Guns and Ammo dressed like that." Vin's blue eyes studied Ezra nicely cut Marzotto suit. Tanner took a seat in the guest chair. Softly, he continued to speak. "You need to blend in and be able to hang out at places."
Maybe he should go to the doctor's. He was not fit for duty. He hadn't thought this whole jaunt into Purgatorio through, and Ezra prided himself on being well prepared for an assignment. He would have to go in as a normal, average guy. Ezra visibly shivered-he was none of those-he was an extraordinary gentleman. Who happened to have a friend in need, and he had agreed to help. He couldn't attach any strings to friendship, could he?
The undercover agent leaned forward across his desk. "Ezra Standish does not hang out."
Vin let a grin slip over his lips. "What do you call what you do at the saloon?"
Without missing a beat, Ezra responded. "Associating with my co-workers."
Vin laughed and nodded. He realized Ezra had come around and was going to go through with the assignment. Tanner placed the box back on the desk.
Ezra nervously placed his hand on the offensive object. "I need to be alone for a minute. I'll be right out."
Tanner winked. He closed the door behind him leaving Standish with the clothing. Ezra slowly took out the shirt, and studied it. "Courage Ezra, courage."
All this time with the FBI and now with the ATF he had masterfully avoided an assignment which would force him into Wal-Mart clothes. He always found a way to keep his clothes, whether he went in as a drug dealer or an arms trader, he wore his own attire. Well, there was a first and a last time for everything. Ezra slipped out of his suit jacket.
The door clicked behind as Ezra made his entrance into the common room of the 11th floor. He was wearing the plaid shirt; a white tee shirt was peeking underneath as accent. He found a worn pair of Levi corduroys in navy, which seemed to match the shirt. The only pair of shoes he had found in the box were work boots. Lovingly, he had wrapped his Ferragamo loafers and locked them in his desk draw before making his appearance.
"He looks like bad Hunter Ken." He heard JD say in the silent office. He looked at his teammates. All seemed to be struggling not to smile or laugh.
Buck came forward. His smile so wide, Ezra could see the whiteness of the ladies man's teeth. "Here." Wilmington handed a plain bag to Standish. "Me and the boys got you something."
Standish put his hand inside the crumpled paper bag and pulled out a short, off-white bottle. "I do not wear Old Spice." The others standing behind Wilmington were all laughing, unable to control themselves. Ezra raised his voice so they could him over the cacophony. "I wear Irish Tweed by Creed. It is worn by Prince Charles."
This only made the fits of laughter worse. Nathan and Josiah were clutching their stomachs, doubled over in amusement. JD had tears streaming down his face, and had to sit on a desk. Buck still in the grips of his delirium, haltingly said, "Ez, in case no one told you before-Prince Charles doesn't go to Purgatorio."
At least Chris and Vin had some decorum. They were laughing, but had covered their mouths, so as not to subject Ezra to any more indignity.
The undercover agent turned to his leader. He had a job to do, and he knew Chris would respect him. "I have a plan."
Chris gestured for Ezra to lead the way into his office to review the plan Standish had devised. Standish held his head up high as he walked to Larabee's office.
Larabee turned to his best friend and whispered, "Did you get the picture?"
Vin produced the small camera from his pocket. "Oh yeah."
Chris listened through earphones as Ezra entered Guns and Ammo to attempt to make a purchase. In a white van, across the street from the store, six men listened as Ezra talked to the clerk.
"I just moved into town, and with all these kids hanging around I think I need a gun, just in case."
The clerk 's response came through clearly from the microphone, which Ezra had placed in the pocket of his flannel shirt.
"I totally understand. It's like you walk down the street and see three drug deals before reaching the corner." Both men laughed at the comment.
Sitting next to Chris, Vin growled, irate over the casual statement. "If he's so concerned why doesn't he stop selling guns."
Larabee saw the sharpshooter's blue eyes were blazing with anger. The flippant remark had hurt Tanner, still reeling from the loss of one of the Los Lobos. It only strengthened Chris's resolve to bring the scum bag straw purchaser down.
The clerk stopped chuckling. "So you want something basic?"
"Yep, and nothing that's going to break the bank." Ezra said with a conspiratorial tone in his voice.
The six agents heard the case door slide open and the clerk place a gun on the counter. "This one should serve your purpose," there was a click of a gun's chamber being checked. "A Taurus Model 65, the best self-defense caliber for most people. It's list price is $313.00 for a blued finish."
There was a long pause, which was probably Ezra examining the gun. "I'll take it." The case was shut and there was an audible click of a lock being fastened.
"By law I have to put your information through the FBI's Insta check." The clerk told Ezra.
Standish lowered his voice, as if he was telling a secret. "Umm, well truth be told, I was convicted for a crime." Chris had arranged for the record of one Eric Simpson to read he had been convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol. "I was innocent, " Ezra continued. This illicited a laughing response from the occupants of the van. It was a statement they had heard numerous times from a variety of criminals. "But it's going to show up on my record." Larabee could tell the undercover agent was turning on the charm in hopes he'd be able to purchase the weapon. Therefore, another plan would have to be thought up. One not involving said agent having to dress in inexpensive clothing and live in Purgatorio. He had to hand it to the undercover agent, he was really trying to avoid having to take up residence in Purgatorio.
"Sir, I am sorry but I can't sell you a gun." The clerk responded with a terse tone of voice.
"Shot down!" JD exclaimed. "Sorry, figure of speech. You know what I mean."
The occupants of the vehicle grinned. Chris himself was finding his agent's discomfiture amusing. He had to stifle a laugh as he remembered when they went to the garage to show Ezra the car he would be driving.
"No," Standish had gasped upon seeing the 1988 maroon Dodge Daytona in the parking spot usually reserved for the Jaguar.
Tanner stepped in to qualm the undercover agent's fears. "Don't worry Ez, we just moved your car, right there," Vin pointed to a space a row down. Standish visibly relaxed when he saw the shiny, black vehicle was fine. He then turned to look at his temporary vehicle and grimaced.
"At least it is low to the ground," JD said with a smirk as he inspected the car by kicking its tires.
"Please, Agent Dunne, do not compare this poorly American-engineered vehicle with my own luxury automobile," he said, looking at the vehicle as though it made him physically ill.
"Ezra, you do know Ford owns Jaguar right?" Nathan said with a smile on his face. He drove a Ford Explorer.
"Yes, I do know," frustration edged Standish's voice. "I just tend to selectively forget," he mumbled the last part.
"Look, Ezra, it is only temporary," Vin said, glaring at the guys to stop the teasing for awhile. It was, after all, because of Tanner that Ezra had agreed to do this assignment. Chris knew that even though Standish complained and protested he was still committed to helping a friend, and seeing justice done. The undercover agent liked to project himself as the black sheep of the seven; the man on the fringe. The more he tried to distance himself the more he got teased by the others to show he belonged and they included him in their camaraderie. Chris had to admit, though, Ezra gave back as good as he got.
"Thank you, Agent Tanner, I plan to have the straw purchaser show himself sooner rather than later." With a loud squeak, he opened the driver side door. Vin threw him the keys, and awkwardly Ezra slid into the front bucket seat.
"Whatever makes you feel better," Chris replied as the rest of them walked to the surveillance van.
"Please?" Chris heard the plea coming through the headset, as did the others, bringing him to the problem at hand.
"What a sorry thing to hear. He's begging." Buck said shaking his head.
"Do you know anyone who can? You know on the side?" Ezra continued his plea to the clerk.
"That's against the law," the salesperson responded, obviously losing patience with the irksome customer.
Standish raised his voice in frustration. Chris knew he was not happy that the plan would have to go onto phase two. "You have a flag up there which tells me I have a right to bear arms. I need to be able to protect myself!"
"You are going to have to leave." The sales clerk stated.
The six heard Ezra huff and puff, and then the chime of someone leaving the store. From the window they could see Standish was outside glaring at the van.
He spoke into the microphone. "Agent Sanchez, I hope you can assure me that because of what I am going to do there is a place in heaven for me."
Josiah solemnly made the sign of the cross in Ezra's direction. Buck, JD, and Nathan followed the large man's lead and bowed their heads.
"Hell boys, he's gonna be livin' in the nice section," Vin said as he moved into the driver's seat and started the engine to the van. They pulled away from the curbstone and followed the Dodge Daytona to Ezra's new home.
Chris didn't think it was going to matter to the undercover agent. He was not going to be happy living in Purgatorio. Larabee could only hope the case would end quickly.
Six days had passed since he drove up to 995 East Trent Street. The fact that Agent Tanner was actually impressed with the surroundings scared Ezra. The home was constructed of cinder blocks providing very little warmth within the cold walls. Brown velour-covered furniture occupied the living room. In the bedroom, resided a full size bed, nightstand and a bureau all made of faux wood. They were not reminiscent of his antique furniture. At night he would lull himself to sleep with the thought, 'Courage, Ezra, courage,' and the knowledge one of the seven was outside.
He had entered into a routine of sorts. Each morning, Ezra awoke at an ungodly hour. He put on his work clothes and drove the Dodge to a construction site. There Vin would be waiting to take him to work. He was making it to work on time, and hoped Larabee was not getting used to it. He would go back to his old habits soon enough. At work he changed into his normal clothes, and reveled in being able to wear a suit for eight hours. At night, the routine reversed itself. He would then frequent the local haunts-convenience stores, bars, etc. Tonight he found himself at McGee's Pub, a lovely establishment situated within Purgatorio serving only the best Bud and Bud Light. His mission was the same- to let people know he wanted a gun, and maybe a certain straw purchaser would show himself.
He knew Agent Tanner was getting restless. Although their morning trips were as silent as usual, Ezra could still read the sharpshooter. It was not just because the straw buyer had yet to make an appearance. The time was shortly approaching in which Ezra was going to be pulled off the case. The manpower of the seven men was being taxed and they had other assignments to attend. No matter how much they wanted to catch the criminal, in a couple of days their efforts would have to end.
He ordered another beer and laughed at a comment made by the man sitting on the barstool next to him. Most of the inhabitants must have thought him a curmudgeon. Yet, his neighbors thought differently of him. With a baseball cap low on his forehead, he thought about his neighbors.
Two days after he became a resident of Purgatorio he returned 'home' at night to find two children playing in his yard. It had been a long day at the ATF office and to return to these bleak surroundings did nothing for Ezra's mood. He walked up to the children and warned them. "You're on private property."
There was a lanky boy around six with dark, medium length hair and a girl not much older with her hair in a braid down her back. Both stopped running and turned to him, "So?"
It was already dark outside and Standish wanted these unmannered children to leave. "Don't you think you should be getting home? Isn't your mother looking for you?"
The boy began running again. The little girl, standing with hands on hips, answered. "Nope, she's working."
The undercover agent did not want to know why a mother would leave two children unsupervised. He was losing patience, and tried not to let it show. "Have you done your homework?"
"Yep," the girl answered in a monotone voice. She pulled her braid to the front, and began to examine the ends.
Ezra bent down so he was at the little girl's level. She had large brown eyes. "Have you eaten dinner?"
"Had some cookies," she said as she watched her brother run around the backyard. "Come on, Ricky, let's go home!" She yelled out motioning to the younger boy.
"Okay, Lily, coming!" He said a little out of breath as he ran as fast as he could and stopped suddenly in front of Ezra with a toothless grin.
The two waifs were walking away from him into the darkness. 'Don't get involved,' Ezra told himself as he was returning to the house. His conscience got the better of him and he called out to them. "Where do you live?"
They were at the end of the driveway. "Next door." The girl turned around swiftly, her braid bouncing in the air.
He sighed as he jogged up to them. "Seeing as we are neighbors. My name is Eric by the way. I feel it is my duty to escort you home."
They shrugged their shoulders, ambivalent about the perilousness of their surroundings. It was only a few steps, surely Ezra could make sure they made it home fine. Granted, Buck was watching, too, from across the way and probably found the whole situation amusing. Standish looked down at the two little ones leading the way. They were very trusting. Luckily, he was an ATF agent. It was damn fortunate nothing untoward had happened to these kids. They were at the doorstep. Not one light had been left on. Ezra tried not to feel anger towards the parents of these two. He had never met them. The little boy twisted the doorknob.
"Cookies are not a healthy meal. There must be something else you can eat."
"Dunno, maybe," the girl said as she entered the house, and was about to close the door.
Ezra stuck his hand on the door so that it would not close in his face. "I am not the greatest cook, but perhaps I can make you something to eat."
Ricky and Lily shared a look and a nod, and decided to let Ezra in. In the small home, similar to the one he was staying in, they pointed him to the kitchen. Wordlessly, he entered and began rummaging through the refrigerator. As he closed the refrigerator door finding nothing, he thought he had to remind these children to be wary of strangers. He could hear the television turned up loud in the other room. Finally, in the cupboard, he came across a box of macaroni and cheese. As he opened the box, he cringed at the memory of seeing Buck prepare some of the pasta. The mental picture of the powdered, fluorescent orange, imitation cheese that was sealed in the unlabeled white packet almost made him call for Ho Mein's for delivery; but the last thing he needed to do was to attract attention to himself. Hell, there was little guarantee that the Chinese restaurant wouldn't laugh out loud once he gave the address. So macaroni ala formage it would be.
He stayed awhile, made sure they ate and cleaned up, then, went back to his very humble abode. He left his phone number with them and kept checking on them through the window of the living room. He must have fallen asleep while reading A Tale of Two Cities, because, there was a loud, impatient knocking at the door as if someone has been trying to get his attention for awhile.
With his hand he brushed his hair away from his face. "Coming!" He opened the door to find a thin woman with lank hair wearing a waitress uniform.
"I just wanted to thank you," She said, and she pointed to the house next door. "My kids told me, and I wanted to make sure you are not some nutcase."
"I assure you, I'm not, ma'am. But. . ." Ezra replied to the woman who had the same eyes as her daughter.
"I know what you think, but you don't know." She hitched her handbag further up her shoulder. "Their father walked out on us. I have two jobs so I can clothe them and pay the rent, and I also go to school."
"I understand," Ezra replied. He had to give the woman credit. He may not of have approved of her parenting techniques. At least, she was keeping her family together, unlike Maude, who took every opportunity to send Ezra to stay with relatives. The children's mother interrupted his childhood reminiscing.
"Well thanks, Eric, and if you are ever at the Mug and Muffin ask for Meg. Coffee will be on the house." Meg said, as she headed down the walkway and made her way back to the house next door.
"Meg?" Ezra called out. "You won't mind if I keep an eye on them from time to time?" The undercover agent figured he could watch over them while he was in Purgatorio.
She stopped and took a moment to assess Standish again. "Nope."
Over the week, he discovered Lily was a budding artist and Ricky had a tendency towards math skills. Both, after their initial surliness, and outward toughness had turned out to be charming children.
The next day, after his incident with the children, he met the woman from across the street. He was getting into the borrowed heap of junk. He could not bear to call the Dodge 'his vehicle.' In a way, it seemed to degrade the Jaguar.
He heard the woman's engine sputter. The car was not turning over. She got out, wringing her hands and looking up at her house. Ezra looked at his watch. He had time to help. For once, since this whole farce had started, he would come in at his usual late hour. There was another bonus. Agent Tanner, the teacher's pet, would also be on the tardy list.
He walked up to the plump, older woman. "Ma'am, may I help you?"
She looked at him warily. Ezra wondered if he would get the same look if he were wearing his Brioni suit. He tried not to dwell on it. Soon enough, he would be wearing a perfectly tailored set of clothes.
"No, no, my car won't start," a faint accent tinged her words. "I don't want to bother my husband, he just got in from the late shift."
"May I?" Ezra asked, gesturing to the hood of the old vehicle. He opened the hood and looked around at the dark, dusty parts that made up the inside of the car. He had no idea what he was doing. He shut the hood. He looked at the distraught woman. "How about if I give you a ride?"
She wrung her hands again. "I'm a cleaning woman at the O'Neill building. Is it on your way?" Her eyes darted from him to her car.
"Yes, I pass right by there," Ezra answered and put his hand out gallantly for her to proceed before him to the Dodge. She stepped into the car, shut the door and fastened the seatbelt. Standish noticed she had maneuvered herself so she was against the door and as far away from him as possible.
The undercover agent started the engine and pulled out onto the road. Without taking his eyes off the street he told her, "I'm Eric and I donít bite."
She nervously laughed. "Carmen, I wouldn't have accepted the ride, but I missed the bus and I can't afford a taxi,"
"Not a problem." He wanted to say she didn't have to be nervous, that he was an ATF agent. Unfortunately, he couldn't. He could only get her to her destination as soon as possible.
Carmen was nervous and began chatting to bring her some ease. Ezra found it was common for people to react this way.
"You're new to the neighborhood."
"Yes," Standish answered as he turned onto the highway, waving as a driver let him proceed on the ramp.
"My husband, Lenny, and I moved here a year ago. I have an elderly mother with Alzheimers. Her bills are a lot so we had to make some changes." She explained to the undercover agent.
Within moments, he pulled up to the building and he let her out. "Have a good day." He said to her as she alighted from the vehicle.
"Thank you," she replied as she slammed the door.
Ezra watched as she walked in front of the Dodge and safely entered the building. He headed to the construction site and thought about the people he had met. Purgatorio was full of surprises. He had assumed, somewhat discriminatory of him that the town was made up of drug dealers and troublemakers. He never thought about the circumstances surrounding the inhabitants. It gave Standish something to contemplate.
Ezra was still thinking about his neighbors as he threw some money on the bar of McGee's to cover his beers. He was going to call it a night, an uneventful night. He would make himself a cup of coffee and have some muffins. Carmen had been bringing by some baked goods since he had done the kindness for her. In his kitchen, he would look at Lily's latest painting, which he had taped onto the refrigerator.
He understood. It wasn't like he had an epiphany. It was something he always knew. He loved Maude. He respected her intelligence and savvy. He did not respect her. There were his neighbors making their way through life the best way they could-honestly. They were not on a quest for riches or power. They wanted to make a decent life for themselves and leave a legacy for their children. He wanted to help, granted it would never be on the same level as Agent Tanner, but Ezra was practical and liked to concentrate on the individual rather than the masses.
He got into the car trying to ignore the harshness of the maroon interior under the street light. As he pulled away from the curb, he made up his mind what he was going to do tomorrow.
He was so caught up with his thoughts that he didnít notice someone was keeping a keen eye on him.
He pulled into the driveway; his headlights throwing light well into the deserted backyard. A glance next door told him Meg was home for the night with her kids. He fumbled a moment with the keys and then opened the front door, as he turned he saw Nathan pull up and settle in for the night. He tossed his keys on the kitchen table and picked up the phone.
"Larabee," came the reply after two rings.
"Just letting you know I won't be in tomorrow," Ezra said as he stretched the phone cord and opened the refrigerator door, which was littered with Lily's drawings.
The undercover agent heard the loud sigh Larabee gave, which meant he wanted an explanation. The southerner didn't want to hear the words that he knew were incorporated with that sigh. 'You better have a stellar reason.'
Standish took out a bottle of San Pelligrino mineral water, and poured himself a glass. "My residence is in need of some maintenance."
"You pay condo fees," Chris answered, puzzled by the undercover agent's request.
Ezra cleared his throat. His hand was cool from holding the glass and he placed it on his neck as he answered. "I mean here in Purgatorio,"
Larabee was frustrated and anger spiked his words. "I need the manpower. I can't have one of the team watching you mow the lawn."
Ezra wasn't looking forward to mowing the lawn. As he stretched the phone in the other direction he looked through the window, soon a visitor would need a machete to get to the door. Hell, the only gardening he had ever done was trimming a bonsai tree. "I understand, but I thought it would help me to blend in," Ezra continued trying to convince Chris it was in everyone's best interest for him to miss work for the day. "And it may assist in bringing a successful end to this case."
"Best I can do is have Vin check on you during the day," Larabee conceded after a long pause of dead air over the phone.
"Fine, I'll be here." Ezra replied, feeling strange he was not going to have a shadow tomorrow.
Chris changed the subject. "How'd it go tonight?"
The undercover agent would have loved to say that finally there was a lead. Instead, he softened the truth. "Yet another establishment knows I want to purchase a weapon."
Larabee's voice held a tinge of disappointment. Standish understood. The leader didn't want to be the one to tell the sharpshooter that the assignment was over with unsuccessful results. He was also under pressure from his supervisors to work on other more 'important' cases.
"Okay, Ezra, let me call Vin so he doesn't pick you up tomorrow."
In the morning, the thoughts of helping his neighbors quickly faded as sweat began to trickle down his chest. Ezra did not like manual labor. He had mowed the lawns of his two neighbors and thought for all his efforts the property value in the area should skyrocket. He found the lawnmower in the basement of the house. Luckily there was still some gas in it. Though, as he tried to complete the back yard of his present residence he was struggling to start the engine. He pulled and it sputtered. He did not hear when a man crept up the shaven lawn.
Ezra was visibly startled by the heavyset, pock-faced man before him. "Sorry, didn't hear you." Standish wiped his greasy, blackened hands on a dishcloth he had brought outside. He felt his body tensed as it prepared to fight a possible threat.
"Yeah, whatever," the man said as he hunched his shoulder and his beady eyes darted. "You," the pock-faced man jutted out his chin, "still interested?"
"In what?" Ezra asked the rude man.
"You have sh** for brains?" The heavyset man squinted. "You wanna buy a gun?"
Standish did not find it refreshing to have his intelligence insulted by a criminal. He kept his cool exterior and replied, "Yeah, are you selling?"
"Yep, not here, though." The heavyset man scratched at a pockmark. "You gotta come with me."
The undercover agent let his eyes look out on the street. There was not a familiar car there. "Let me wash up and grab my wallet."
"'Kay," The man followed Ezra into the house. Standish looked to the phone. He was hoping he was going to have some privacy to make a phone call. He would have to do this solo.
He briskly washed his hands, removing as much as the grease as possible and stuffed his wallet in his back pocket. "Ready."
Ezra followed the man down his driveway to an old Ford Escort parked across the street. As they pulled away from the car, the house became smaller and smaller in the distance leaving Standish with an uneasy feeling.
The driver expertly darted down side streets into parts of Purgatorio Ezra had never seen. He felt as if he was in a complicated labyrinth without a solution. He memorized as many street names as possible, and then went to work.
"You're a hard man to make contact with."
The pock faced man made another sharp turn. "Yep, I like it that way. I'm the only gun facilitator in Purgatorio."
Ezra gripped the dashboard as the vehicle surged forward. "Thought they called people like you straw purchasers?"
The man grinned. "I like to think of being the middleman in an entrepreneurial venture. I buy the guns and sell it to you who can't, making a little profit of course."
"Of course," Standish replied. The car was slowing down. Ezra glanced around taking in the scenery. They were near buildings that seemed identical. Concrete masses that went up eight floors, intermittently dispersed were warehouses.
"We're here," the heavyset man said as he parked the vehicle. He led the way to one of the buildings. A man larger than Josiah guarded the metal door, which was tinged with rust. Ezra saw the two men exchange a nod and the large man opened the door.
The hallway before Standish was dark and littered with paper. Ezra continued to stay in character. "I know this is illegal, but there's not going to be any trouble is there?"
The metal door clanged loudly shut and Ezra was unable to hear the answer.
Ezra was always telling Vin he had perfect timing. Tanner never thought on it much until he went to check on Standish and found him getting into a strange Ford Escort. He followed at a distance, which was difficult as the Ford in front of him weaved in and out of streets and took turns without signaling.
Deftly, Vin pulled out his cell phone and hit the number two. The speed dial immediately connected him.
"Larabee," answered Chris from his desk at the office.
"I'm followin' Ezra," Tanner announced, watching the Ford take another turn. He cradled the phone against his neck as he placed two hands on the steering wheel.
Larabee's replied was dampened slightly since the cell phone no longer rested closely against the sharpshooter's ear. "We're gonna head out to his place."
Vin nodded reactively. "I'll call once they get to where ever the hell it is they're goin' to."
"Don't do anything stupid."
"Trust me." Tanner didn't wait for the reply, just punched the power button before tossing the phone onto the passenger seat. He wouldn't be doing anything stupid as long as Ezra was okay. All bets were off, though, if Standish was hurt or struggling. They finally stopped and Vin pulled around to another building and took out his binoculars.
He watched as Ezra and the heavyset driver got out of the car. The undercover agent seemed fine. There was a huge mother f***** at the door. Vin placed a phone call to Chris who was en route to Ezra's house. They would be at the new location in ten minutes.
Finally, the team pulled the Ram and Nathan's Explorer in beside the Jeep. Vin jumped off his car hood, and filled the team in on what he had seen.
Larabee listened intently. He looked at each of the men. "We are going to do this nicely for a change."
Buck smirked and pulled out his Glock 19. "What the hell do you mean by 'nicely'? I'll tell you that a lot of the ladies of the world find good Ol' Buck nice enough."
Vin grinned at the ladies man. Larabee dispatched the team to wait on the side of the eight-floor building. The sharpshooter watched with gun drawn as Josiah sauntered up to the large enforcer.
"Brother!" He called out his familiar greeting to the giant of the man leaning on the metal door.
"I don't know you," the bodyguard replied and stepped forward to meet Josiah. Sanchez met the man with a jovial smile. The enforcer replied by shoving the ATF agent, forcing him to take a step back.
"That's not polite." Josiah came at the large man his hands out and within a minute the enforcer was in a headlock turning red and gasping for breath.
Chris patted Josiah on the back to signal a job well done then began interrogating the criminal. "Where is he?"
"Who?" The subdued bodyguard replied.
Larabee gave a nod to Sanchez who tightened the hold.
The enforcer squeezed his eyes shut and breathlessly whispered, "Seventh floor."
Sanchez let the man go and he dropped to the floor. Vin dragged him away from the doorway. Buck held the door open, and Tanner filed in with Wilmington and Dunne behind him. They would be taking the stairs while the others would take the elevator.
"That was nice?" Tanner heard Dunne comment.
They raced up the next flight of stairs, agilely jumping over boxes and strewn litter.
"Josiah doesn't cuss," Buck answered. "The rest of us would have shared some of our f***in thoughts."
They waited behind the door at the seventh floor landing. They all heard the ding as the elevator reached the same floor and then Chris's voice as he yelled out, "ATF!"
Vin whipped the door open, gun drawn. There was another smaller guard trying to open the door at the end of the hall all the while saying, "Sh**! Sh**! Sh**!"
"Damn, we tried to do this nicely Chris," Buck yelled. "Freeze, asshole!" The wiry man dropped his gun and got down on his knees. Vin rushed passed him, kicking the criminal's gun out of his reach. JD stopped and took out his handcuffs.
The sharpshooter reached the door and could hear screaming emanating from inside. "YOU SET ME UP! YOU SET ME UP!" Then, he heard the sound of glass smashing and a lone gunshot.
Ezra didn't know the Calvary was coming. He was the ever-diligent undercover agent, noticing minor details as they took the elevator to the seventh floor of the vacant building. There was also a stairwell. Standish noted the two exits. At the end of the hallway there was another guard, a much smaller man, not as imposing as the enforcer at the entryway.
"You were saying that you had a problem?" Ezra continued the conversation with the pock-faced man. He had yet to learn the man's name. Standish wasn't concerned when the time came he would improvise a plan to take the man down. Ezra had confidence and bravado on his side. He had the advantage like he always did. He had been playing the 'game' since he was a child. He learned from the best-his mother. The 'game' was hard to describe. Suffice it to say, Ezra Standish could be anyone's best friend in a half an hour. It went further than that. The mark would believe Ezra was his equal. He could be as low as the low lifers and as high as the high rollers. It was a learned talent. He watched his mother marry man after man she did not love. Yet, an untrained eye would never know.
"Sold some gang banger a gun and POW," the straw purchaser pretending his fingers were a cocked gun. "He shot some kid who had connections."
He sat down at a roughly made plywood table and pulled out a couple of suitcases underneath. He opened the lock and in front of Ezra there appeared a myriad of handguns. "So here are your choices; all never been used, fresh from the gun store." The man moved his hand gracefully over the weapons as if he were a model.
Standish picked up a 9mm semi-automatic.
He examined the unloaded gun gingerly as if he did not have a lot of experience with weapons.
"Six hundred," the straw purchaser said as he nodded at the undercover agent's choice.
"Are you talking profit or price gouging?" Ezra commented as he studied the Kel-Tec P11 again. He knew it was worth around three hundred dollars. He pretended to shoot it at a spider making a web in the corner.
"Youíre my last sale and I'm out to Mexico. I'm gonna lead the lush life." The pock-faced man was tapping his fingers against the plywood waiting impatiently for Ezra's decision.
Damn, the undercover agent thought, he was going to have to work fast. Incredibly fast as he heard the acronym "ATF" and saw the straw purchaser's eyes widen, then came the accusation, "YOU SET ME UP! YOU SET ME UP!"
Standish pointed to himself as if he was innocent in any wrong doings. The man looked around wildly searching for an exit. One was blocked, leaving only the window. Ezra watched as the criminal took a running start and dove through the window.
"Damn!" The undercover agent yelled as he leaped after the pock-faced man grabbing his foot before he was able to fully get through the window.
The heavyset man began to twitch his leg in an attempt to shake Standish off. Ezra hung on laying on the floor, trying to gain some leverage so he could pull the straw purchaser back in.
Suddenly, there was the echo of a gunshot then a searing pain. With an almost detached interest, Ezra noticed the blossoming stain of blood spreading from the wound on his shoulder. He could feel his arm straining to hold on. He didn't have to wait long as Vin burst in, kicking down the door. It smacked against the wall in his wake. The straw purchaser raised his gun at Tanner, but it was too late. He had already closed the distance and was holding his Glock to the pock-faced man's head. Effortlessly, he took the gun away from the criminal and pulled him roughly back into the room.
"You can let go, Ez," the sharpshooter drawled as he patted down the compliant pock-faced man.
Standish let his tentative grip drop and fell back to the ground, holding a hand against his shoulder. Chris and Nathan came over and helped him sit up against the wall. Gently, Jackson removed Standish's hand from the wound so he could examine it more closely.
Ezra kept his eyes on Vin who was in a tense stance. The sharpshooter knuckles were white as they gripped on to his gun, aiming at the head of the straw purchaser. Standish realized Tanner had found the supplier of the 'murder' weapon. The undercover agent could see Vin's face was contorted with 'what if' questions. Chris and Nathan also followed Ezra's line of sight. Larabee was getting up from his crouched position next to Standish to assist Tanner with his dilemma. Ezra put out his hand to stop Chris and noticed the blood. He wiped his bloodied hand on the plaid shirt and started laughing.
Vin dropped the gun and relaxed, a concerned look came over him. "Nate?"
"The bullet went through. He's gonna be fine." Ezra laughed harder at Nathan's comments, causing the medic to ask, "Why are you so happy? You got shot!"
Standish pulled the plaid, flannel shirt slightly away from his body. "The clothes are ruined." Blood was splattered over one shoulder where there was a large tear and his distorted handprint decorated the other side of the shirt. The tense mood was broken.
Josiah closed his cell phone and joined in the laughing. "Ambulance is on the way."
"Why is everyone laughing?" JD entered the room, escorting the handcuffed associate of the straw purchaser. The young agent gestured for him to sit next to the other criminal.
Buck answered. "Well, Ezra's Movin' on Up! To the East Side! To a dee-luxe apartment in the sky. . ."
JD raised his voice in song, joining his roommate. "We're movin' on up! To the East Side! We've finally got a piece of the pie!"
The others joined in; although, Chris mostly shook his head and guided the police officers and paramedics to their location.
Ezra didn't know if he ever wanted his friends to serenade him again. Although they were highly capable ATF agents, they did not have a high degree of vocal talent.
Vin awoke exhausted. He had gotten home late after making sure Ezra was comfortable and situated in his room. Chris had made him leave. When he returned to his apartment, he battled with his thoughts. He should have been the one who was hurt. He was the one who had taken the responsibility of protecting the kids in his building.
It was four-thirty in the morning and since he wasn't going to be able to get back to sleep he thought he better put the time to good use. The creased sheet, which had entwined itself around him dropped off as he headed toward the bathroom.
The sun was coming up over the horizon. Even though there was a dimness of morning light, Vin still had perched his sunglasses over his eyes. The limited light was still too harsh for his sleep weary eyes. He pulled into the driveway and collected a cardboard box from the backseat of the Jeep. He was going to clear out Ezra's temporary home of all of the undercover agent's belongings, so Standish would not have to do so himself. It didn't take him much time. Ezra had brought his Sonicare toothbrush, some books, a few CDs and some other toiletries. Tanner locked the door behind him and placed the box in the front seat. As he went around the car, he could see the neighbor from across the street waving at him to stop.
She was out of breath when she finally reached him.
"Ma'am," he greeted her. Vin and the others had watched Ezra's dealings with his neighbors with keen interest. They never brought it up with the undercover agent, because they were unsure if it was part of his cover or some sort of hidden side of Standish.
"Where's Eric?" She asked as her dark eyes assessed Vin, trying to figure out if he was friend or foe.
"He got hurt at work." Tanner didn't like to lie and in this case he didn't have to.
"Here, " she handed him a paper plate with muffins stacked high, which could be seen through the cellophane wrapping. "Tell him I'll be looking in on those kids."
"He's gonna be happy to hear that," Vin said as he accepted the plate. He smiled. He knew there was more to Ezra than that selfish bastard he tried to pretend he was. He watched as the neighbor carefully crossed the street.
The city streets were slowly coming alive as Vin made his way to the hospital. He parked an empty space near the emergency room and grabbed the muffins, toting them up to the third floor room. The hospital was still quiet at five thirty in the morning, and although visiting hours didn't start for another three hours, the nurses were too busy to pay attention to one straggler.
He quietly crept into Ezra's room. It was semi-private, but no one was occupying the other bed. The lights were still off. Vin placed the box on the lone guest chair and sneaked a look at Standish's sleeping form. Guilt washed over him as he saw the sling, propping up Ezra's injured shoulder. It took Tanner a moment to realize a pair of green eyes was staring at him. Vin kept his voice low.
"Thanks." There was more he wanted to say, but Ezra interrupted him.
"For?" Standish's husky, sleep-filled voice replied.
Vin leaned against the wall, and kept himself in the morning shadows. "For all you went through."
With his good arm, Ezra pulled himself up higher on the pillows. "All in a day's work, Agent Tanner." The undercover agent yawned and grimaced as his shoulder flared up.
"Shouldn't a' gone down like this," the sharpshooter quietly replied. "Not if I had done my job." He saw Ezra was scrutinizing his guilty manner. Vin decided to divert attention from himself and picked up the plate of baked goods. "Muffin?" he offered as he precisely took away the clear wrapping.
"So you could be in pain, be a pain in the ass and somehow feel better?" Ezra wasn't falling for the diversion. Vin wished he would just let the conversation drop. But Standish was riled with Tanner's attitude. "And which job did you not succeed at -Robin Hood, Saint Vin? Which exactly?"
Vin sighed as he explained. "Ez, I'm supposed to keep those kids safe." It was so hard to explain. How he wanted those kids to have all the chances he missed. How he saw himself at their age reflected in their eyes. It scared him to see he had lost so much of life's innocence.
"You do Vin." Ezra calmed down. "I am sure Eduardo would say the same."
At the mention of the young man's name, Vin closed his eyes. "But he can't." When he opened them, he stared at Ezra. Standish nodded. He understood that Vin would come to terms with Eduardo's death in his own way in his own time. Tanner could see Standish wasn't going to push any further.
"A straw purchaser is off the street," Ezra commented. He had only seen them drag the straw buyer and his associates away.
Vin filled him in on the latest happenings. Vin crossed his arms to help him balance against the wall. He had a biting tone to his voice. He was disgusted at the system this moment. "Prosecutors are busy. One straw purchaser is not that important when they got legal problems going on with the tobacco industry." There was a companionable silence, and Vin pushed himself off the wall. Enough had been said. He was planning on leaving and letting Ezra get his rest.
"Were those muffins intended for me?" Standish asked as he gestured to the plate.
Vin grinned and placed a muffin on the hospital tray. He rolled it in front of Standish's bed. "Yep, your neighbor sent them, said she'd check on the kids."
"I know why you do it," Ezra said as he gingerly removed some crumbs from the corner of his mouth.
"Do what?" Vin said as he swallowed a large piece of the muffin and contemplated having another one.
Ezra chuckled. "That self sacrificing s***."
"Oh yeah?" Tanner was curious to hear Standish's opinion. He didn't understand why people thought it was so strange. Vin wasn't anything special. He was just a man who saw a problem in Purgatorio and thought that maybe he could fix it. At least, that is how he looked at. It wasn't self-sacrificing.
"Yes," Ezra picked at the blueberry in his remaining muffin. "Helping people, not just as an ATF agent, brings its own rewards."
Vin nodded realizing Ezra was finding his own 'moral compass' as Josiah liked to say. Tanner lowered his voice to a whisper. "You know there's talk in the office-stuff like Ezra has a heart."
The undercover agent put a hand over his face in a dramatic fashion. "Not that, my reputation." He let the hand fall. "May I presume Agent Wilmington is involved?"
"Yep," Vin grinned thinking about the comments Buck had been making of late.
"Wonderful, I am Buck fodder." Ezra sighed and relaxed into the pile of pillows behind his head.
He was more than that, he was a trusted friend. They continued the playful banter, both realizing this conversation would not go past the two of them. Vin couldn't say the same though about the picture of a flannel dressed Ezra Standish.