The Magnificent Eight
Main character: Chris
Previously published in: Let's Ride! 11 (Neon Rainbow Press, 2006)
"So, next item of business, Chris. Do you have those evaluations and recommendations for me?" Orrin Travis asked, setting aside a thick file and picking up his legal pad.
"Yes, sir," Chris answered, handing over a file of his own.
Travis eyed it without opening it. "And..."
Chris grimaced faintly; he hadn't been looking forward to this part. "And, sir, I had my reservations about Standish at first, but he fits. I don't see any of the problems we were warned about, the men trust him, and he's got skills we can use. We'll keep him."
Orrin nodded. "You said as much last time, and my answer still stands - he's yours as long as you want him. God knows no one else seems to." That last under-the-breath mutter didn't seem to be for Chris' ears. "What I really want to know is, what about your eighth man?"
Chris made an effort not to squirm, because Chris Larabee did not squirm. But he still wished he had a better answer for his boss. "None of the men worked out, sir."
The director's eyebrow went up. "None of them?"
The man's brow came down into a frown, and Travis opened the file and flipped through a few sheets before stopping at one. "What about Katsoulis?"
Chris' well-schooled expression didn't change. "A little too... outgoing for my team, sir."
Orrin tipped his head. "That might be an asset for a technical man."
"Yes, sir." Chris couldn't disagree. Katsoulis had certainly been a mechanical genius.
"I'm sure Wilmington-"
"Buck hated him, sir," Chris said bluntly, and diplomatically.
"Chris, if you don't get that idiot out of my face, I'm gonna make sure his jaw has so many wires and pins in it, he won't be able to talk until Christmas!"
Chris swallowed a sigh. Chris Larabee didn't sigh. "What did he do now, Buck?"
It was all the invitation Wilmington needed. "You know that secretary downstairs, Ellen? The one I've been trying to get up here for two weeks? She finally comes up to talk to me, but somehow she runs into Mark first. Next thing I know, she's slapping him and telling me she better not see me down by the sec pool again! I don't know what he said to her, but she looked ready to bury any guy in an unmarked grave who even looked at her!"
"C'mon, Buck, you've never gotten slapped by a lady before?" Chris asked warily.
"Not like this." Outrage calmed into something more serious, and Chris' attention sharpened. "Chris, I'm tellin' you, this guy is getting to everybody. He tells jokes that make even 'Siah blush, and that donkey voice of his is gonna break our cover one day, I know it. He even makes Vin twitchy."
Chris tried not to grin at the thought, but Buck was being serious. Even more so, Chris already knew the guy wasn't working out. The glowing technical reviews he'd gotten on Katsoulis hadn't mentioned the obnoxious personality that matched the talent.
As if to punctuate the point, outside Chris' door came a braying laugh. Buck's jaw tightened and Chris listened halfheartedly for any of his men to join in Katsoulis's good humor, but there was dead silence from the other room.
"All right, Buck, you've made your point. I'll take it up with Travis."
"You do that." Buck hesitated, gave him that Wilmington grin. "Sir."
"Get out of here," Chris said with a small smile, which vanished when Buck opened the door. He only glimpsed the room beyond, but it was enough to see everyone hunched over their desks, studiously workin. JD's shoulders were around his ears as if he were a turtle, trying to ignore the big man perched on the edge of his desk. Chris was just in time to hear the punchline of the clearly ribald joke Katsoulis was telling, and he couldn't help wince as Buck gave him a pointed glare, then banged out of the room.
Yeah, definitely not working out.
"All right. Well, with his skills, we should easily be able to find him another place," Orrin said, setting a sheet aside.
"I'd recommend Team Three," Chris said pleasantly, and hid a smile at Travis' hard look.
"Fine. What about Zimmer?"
Chris shook his head. "The guy's irresponsible, Orrin. I don't know how he made it out of training in the first place."
Again with the rising eyebrow. "He knows eight languages, he's an expert in foreign economics, and he's been an agent for three years without a single black mark on his record."
"I wrote him up," Chris said flatly.
"Yes, I know. He wasn't too happy about that, either. He's also asked for a new assignment. May I ask what happened?"
It wasn't a request and they both knew it. But Chris was surprisingly reluctant to go into detail. "He was... supposed to provide back-up and he didn't. He nearly got one of the men killed."
"Vin? Buck?" Orrin asked with a knowing look.
"Ezra," Chris said tersely.
It was a fact of their job that a lot of times, Chris sent his men into danger while he and the rest of the team waited outside for the elusive signal to come in, or, too often, an indication something had gone wrong and they needed to play cavalry. Chris didn't like it, but it was what they did.
That evening wasn't making him like it any more.
Ezra's voice was butter-smooth over the wire, schmoozing their gun connection into making a deal for a bunch of rocket launchers and assault rifles, maybe a few grenades thrown in. Heinrich Zimmer, Rick to his friends, Heiny to Chris' team, interjected something occasionally in his soft, accented tones. The gun dealer's voice was much sharper, untrusting and jittery. Chris tensed every time he heard it, sure the next line would be the guy going off the deep end, probably followed by gunshots.
Apparently, Zimmer thought so, too. "He's not interested, Ezra. Perhaps we should go."
You would have had to know Ezra, as Chris was starting to, to hear he was taken aback. "Now, now, Mr. Zane, I'm sure our friend here is just being cautious." Chris heard the unspoken "What in God' name are you doing?" loud and clear.
"Fine, you stay here and commit suicide." And, by God, those were footsteps echoing faintly over the line. Walking out on Ezra.
JD, hunched over the audio equipment, stiffened. "Chris, I think he just-"
Chris was exchanging a disbelieving look with Vin. "I heard, JD. Tell Ezra to get out of there. We can at least get the guy for possession now."
JD nodded and started talking. And Chris straightened in the cramped van, his expression going hard and cold.
"Don't muss him up too bad," Vin said with a bare twinkle in the eye. But he didn't look happy, either.
Chris nodded, went out. And almost ran into Zimmer.
"What did you think you were doing?" he asked coldly. "You left Ezra high and dry back there."
"It wasn't working." A careless wave. "Standish should have gotten out, too."
"The guy was still listening, and Ezra was doing his job. Which you weren't. You don't leave someone you're supposed to be back-up for, ever."
Another shrug. "Any undercover agent has the prerogative to pull out of a situation if it looks like it's going bad."
Ezra came up to join them, eyes full of wariness. It was mistrust Chris had worked hard to dispel those last few months. He raked the man with a hard gaze, not seeing any injuries, and relaxed inside, where it didn't show. Good, now he could concentrate on tearing Zimmer a new one.
But the guy wasn't done yet. And it was a good thing Nathan joined them at that point, too, or Chris might have belted Zimmer. As it was, when the aptly Heiny murmured, "I hear Standish is good at taking care of himself," Chris growled and took a step toward him before reining himself in.
"We're a team," he spat. "We take care of each other." He saw Ezra start a little from the corner of his vision.
But from the look on Zimmer's face, it didn't get through to him, which meant they were through with him.
He was gone the next day. And Ezra... Well, Chris just hoped that thoughtful look in Standish's eyes boded well for them.
Orrin gazed at him a moment, not saying anything, then silently set the sheet aside. "All right. What about DeCarlo? Most teams already have a pilot."
Chris made a face. "The guy's a brown-noser, Orrin, practically licked my shoes."
Travis' face crinkled into a grin. "Well, now, that doesn't sound so bad. Might make a good change from all the renegades you have, Chris."
The comment took him aback for a moment. True, they were all rebels in their own way; none of them had really found their place in previous assignments until they'd ended up together. But the six were also team players, even Ezra, obeying Chris without question and looking out for each other. The inevitable disagreements were discussed and settled in private, the fights nothing Chris wouldn't have expected from seven very diverse men working in close quarters.
"Orrin..." He leaned forward. "...I want men who'll be who they are, not who they think I want them to be, and they know it. I wouldn't have picked them in the first place otherwise. We start that and things are gonna go south fast."
Travis pursed his lips. "I see. And there's no chance DeCarlo was just intimidated by the infamous Larabee scowl and might have come into his own in time?"
The infamous Larabee scowl made its appearance. "No," Chris said tersely.
"Agent Larabee? I have those topographical maps you wanted, sir."
He motioned DeCarlo in and finished his conversation with Josiah before hanging up. DeCarlo was shifting on his feet as he waited.
"Was that Agent Sanchez?" he asked, southern drawl more nasal than Vin's or Ezra's.
Chris gave him a bemused look. He wasn't sure yet what he thought of a guy who couldn't seem to use anyone's first name. And not in Ezra's polite-distance kind of way, but in a way that managed to sound almost patronizing.
"Yeah. He's doing some research on VanderWoode before paying the man a visit."
The tone of the "oh" made Chris'eyes narrow. "Something you want to tell me, DeCarlo?"
"Mmm, no. Just... you do realize Agent Sanchez's ways of finding information are a little... unorthodox."
Chris gave him a bland look. "Don't know what you mean."
"Well." Evan DeCarlo sat without waiting for permission and leaned back, just a good ol' boy shooting the breeze. "I saw him the other day in front of that massage parlor on Grand, the one everybody knows is a front for a whorehouse. He spent over an hour inside."
"You waited," Chris said flatly.
"Well, sure. You know, just in case he, uh, needed back-up or somethin'." A lazy smile invited Chris to share the joke.
He wasn't in a sharing mood. "So, you think Josiah-"
DeCarlo raised his hands. "Hey, I'm not sayin' anything. Just... you know, thought you should hear about it."
"Then again, maybe he was just visiting his sister's best friend who works at the front desk there and gets information for him," Chris said through increasingly gritted teeth.
"Oh. Ah, yeah, that'd be a good reason, too." Another ingratiating smile. "Well. No harm, no foul. Just wanted to make sure you knew."
Chris' jaw shifted. "Anything else I should know?"
DeCarlo's head tilted. "Well, now that you mention it, I've noticed Director Travis uses-"
"Dismissed," Chris hissed before he said something worse.
DeCarlo blinked. "Huh?"
"You're dismissed. Get out of my office and don't come back."
Chris had only to half rise out of his seat for the younger agent to get the message and bolt.
It took Chris a lot longer to calm down enough to make it official.
Orrin sighed. "We're getting down to the bottom here, Chris. What about Ed Graham?"
Chris smiled thinly. "You mean 'Edward'?"
Travis's eyebrows just climbed again.
"Very impressive," Chris said, nodding. The target came back a clean nine out of ten. "Not a bad shot for a chemist."
"I don't do all my work in the lab, Mr. Larabee," Graham had answered, grinning back at him. "Sometimes I even get my boots dirty."
Not bad. Buck and JD had had lunch with their potential new teammate the day before and had reported back favorably. Chris could see why: Graham was easygoing, smart, and good at what he did. Chris had been looking for a scientist and had found a potential field agent in the process, and he wasn't complaining. He'd see how the intro to the rest of the team went, and then they could make it official.
The door to the shooting range swung open, and Vin walked in, trailed by Josiah. The two were in the midst of a friendly argument, but broke off when Chris waved them over. "Graham, want you to meet two more jokers on the team: Josiah Sanchez and Vin Tanner."
Graham reached out a hand, shaking heartily with Josiah, who nodded at him.
Vin gave him a friendly grin as he stretched out his own hand. "Nice to meet ya, Ed."
Chris' eyes narrowed as the smile tightened on Graham's face at the greeting and Vin got a perfunctory shake at best. "Edward," Graham corrected, then quickly turned away and back to his weapon.
Vin gave him an unconcerned shrug and smiled at Chris. "Gonna work on J'siah's aim. Or lack of," he added with a grin at his teammate.
Josiah growled good-naturedly. "I prefer to think of myself as proficient in other weapons, Vin."
"Yeah, like those big words."
"'Proficient' isn't exactly Mensa material, Mr. Tanner," Graham said unexpectedly. He didn't seem to notice the surprised silence in his wake as he aimed and fired, emptying his clip into the target down range.
Vin's gazed from the gun to the target and back again. "You're lifting your shoulder when you pull the trigger. 'S putting you off a hair."
Graham lowered the gun, his earlier pleasant demeanor gone. "I don't need any advice from you, all right?"
Chris' expression hardened. He met Vin's eyes, saw comprehension and - Chris noted with rising anger - wry ambivalence. Maybe he was used to being looked down on, but Chris didn't take to it too kindly.
Graham was gone by lunchtime.
"Let's just say Agent Graham doesn't play well with others he considers below him."
Travis's face twitched. He didn't like a bigot, either. "Nathan?"
A slow nod. Then the file closed. "Unfortunately, Graham was also our last current candidate. Now, I know a team doesn't have to have eight people, or an even number, but you must admit it is good to partner up a team, makes the members a little more accountable to each other. Not to mention that it would round out the skill set of Team Seven a little more."
Chris shrugged. "You know as well as I do my team looks out for each other, Orrin." He snorted. "Ezra's probably gotten more visitors the last few weeks than he has the rest of his life. And as far as skills, we do all right. We've got what we need and can borrow the rest."
Orrin looked him over. "You sure?"
Chris nodded once. "I'm sure."
Travis took a breath. "All right. Well, then, I guess I'll stop sending poor souls your way. You know two of this bunch have already requested transfers to different states?"
Chris gave him a wolf smile. "Just two?"
"I suppose I should be glad there weren't any ER visits," Orrin grumbled, and shook his head. "Graham, he didn't say anything outright to Vin, did he?"
"He had, you would've had an ER visit on your hands."
A dry smile. "Right. So, Team Seven stands at seven then."
Chris smiled back, sincere. "Sounds about right, doesn't it?"
"The Magnificent Seven? That it does, Chris." Travis nodded, and they stood and shook hands. "I look forward to seeing how it works out."
It was after he left Travis's office, heading down an empty hallway, that Chris let himself breathe and quietly say, "Yeah. Me, too."