Crossover "The Beast"
Characters: Chris, Ezra, Charles Barker, Ellis Dove, OC
"I humbly refuse to attend a conference that will merely seek a reduction to the mean regarding my noble method of employment," Ezra protested.
Vin chuckled. "Ya don't do anything 'humbly', Ez."
"Are you afraid you won't learn from the other undercover agents?" Buck inquired.
"I might remind you that pride goeth before the fall," Josiah intoned, looking up from paperwork spread across his desk.
Nathan tried to hide a smile by studying his email account intently, but Ezra saw the medic's quiet glee and sighed dramatically in response.
"I simply feel that this gathering of like-minded individuals will be a waste of both my time and of my natural abilities," Ezra explained.
"We've been ordered to attend," Chris stated flatly, "so whatever your feelings about this conference, I suggest you bury them and start packing."
"Don't worry, Ez," JD interjected helpfully, "Chris has to attend the same conference. See, there's a leadership portion, and 'Judge' Travis thought it would be good for Chris to learn some new techniques. The rest of us are stuck on desk duty until you both get back."
"What, is your glare broken?" Buck teased, and received a potent dosage of the aforementioned gaze that proved its continued effectiveness.
"If, indeed, our esteemed leader will also be in attendance at what promises to be an inane and pedantic conference, then clearly I must accompany him in order to show my support," Ezra conceded.
"Put me down for two," Buck commented. When the other six men looked at him in confusion, Buck explained, "Come on, we all know Ez will want to run some kind of betting pool about Chris at the conference. . . so put me down for twenty on Chris killing two annoying instructors before the end of it."
JD grinned and rallied to defend Team Seven's leader. "I think he'll get four."
The other members of ATF Team Seven called out their wagers, and Ezra wrote down the bets and collected money. Chris looked on disapprovingly, but did not stop the betting, because it reflected his major fear of this conference; that not only would the lessons be ineffective, but that he would also lose his legendary temper during it.
"What portion of the unlucky teaching staff do you estimate will be decimated by our venerable leader, Mistah Tanner?" Ezra asked the only one--aside from Chris--who had not yet placed a bet.
"None," Vin replied, smirking, "but anybody that crosses him during the conference will wish they were dead by the end of it."
"Fine, now that you've all had your fun, get back to work," Chris growled good-naturedly. "Our flight leaves at six a.m. tomorrow."
As Ezra groaned, the others laughed and Chris returned to his office, suppressing a smirk.
"What do you have for me?"
Ellis Dove, undercover FBI agent, rolled his eyes but did not sigh at the abrupt, impatient tone of the question that his partner and mentor was asking. In all fairness, Ellis had been on this case for several days already, and it was only natural to expect some degree of progress.
"The unit is planning a robbery somewhere in the downtown area. . . soon. That's all I can get out of either if these guys," Ellis admitted, turning around in the car's passenger seat to be certain he had not been followed. "They're playing this one close to the vest, probably testing my cover."
"If any information leaks, they suspect you," Charles Barker, the veteran undercover FBI agent stated flatly, as he nodded slightly. "So you may not be able to contact me when this heist goes down. If that happens, just go through with it; don't take any chances. We can always take them when they try to sell whatever high-priced item they're targeting this time."
Ellis Dove laughed. "You're concerned about me?" he asked in disbelief. A few cases before, Barker had tackled Ellis to the ground, taking him out of the range of an IAD set by a rouge FBI agent, but that had been instinct. That was what partners did for each other on a daily basis. Barker never expressed his sappier emotions verbally. He seemed to think it was a weakness.
"If something happens to you, then I need to go in," Barker explained reasonably. "At that point, we've lost weeks of work, and I have to train a new partner."
"Right," Ellis replied, not entirely convinced by his partner's perfectly justified analysis. Barker acted like he didn't care, but on another recent case they had been ordered to keep the media in the dark. Instead, Barker had alerted a prominent Chicago newspaper so that leads would be revealed that could not have been obtained any other way.
"Anyway, they're close-knit. They like that I have a contact who can hack into restricted databases--so bringing Todd in on this was a smart move--and they'll probably keep me on for a while, because my skills as a sniper are useful. We were lucky that their other sniper got injured in that hit-and-run," Ellis Dove commented.
"Yeah, lucky," Barker mused, not quite hiding his amusement. Then, he changed the subject, asking, "Have you had any more problems with Oberlin?" He kept his gaze averted and his voice disinterested.
Ellis shrugged. "A few scuffles. . . nothing I can't handle. Marty keeps him in line."
"Marty," Barker commented dryly. "You are talking about Captain Martin Faulk, right?"
"The one and only," Ellis confirmed. "I know he has a reputation of being cold and calculating, but he likes the hothead discharge cover I'm using. I think it appeals to his ego; he was discharged just before he should have made major, and my cover story involves pulling a major down a peg or two, so. . . "
Barker chuckled. "More like putting one in the hospital. By the way, I checked with Conrad about the Gantry cover story; he cut Van West a deal so that this cover would be secure," Barker did not look happy.
"Van West is getting out?" Ellis could not believe that Barker's handler--a man named Harry Conrad--would make such a concession. "He was organizing hits on people! How could Conrad--"
"Calm down," Barker ordered Ellis Dove. "It isn't that kind of deal. Van West gets separated from gen pop, and a few other perks, but he's still serving his entire sentence."
Ellis sighed, somewhat relieved, but also disappointed that Van West's punishment would be alleviated in any way. Van West had been a manager at a security firm called Emerson, which had done much more than simple security. The company was into blackmail and assassinations, which Van West arranged for by contracting the jobs out to former military personnel and disgruntled law enforcement officials. "So, Van West agrees to not blow the Lieutenant Quentin Gantry cover, and in return he gets to work in the library?"
Barker smirked, but did not reply directly. "You'd better get back, before those two wonder where you've gone."
As Barker spoke, Ellis Dove's cell phone rang. Holding up a hand for silence, Ellis answered it.
"I'm at your apartment, and Obie swung by the gym," Captain Martin Faulk's deep voice resonated anger. "Where the hell are you?"
"Not that it's any of your business, Marty," Ellis Dove sneered, "but I went for a run. I'm at the corner of Hubbard and Illinois.. If it's so damn urgent, one of you can pick me up. . . or you can wait for me to get back to my apartment. What do ya say, Cap'n?"
Barker stifled a laugh. The good thing about this cover was that it was so close to Ellis Dove's actual personality; it required very little acting. It was simply a less inhibited version of Agent Dove, really, which was why it worked so well. Where Agent Ellis Dove would not dare talk back to Barker, Lieutenant Quentin Gantry would have undoubtedly already decked him.
Captain Martin Faulk sighed. "I'll be there in five. Don't keep me waiting, Lieutenant."
"What's going on?" Ellis started to ask, but Faulk disconnected the call before Ellis finished saying the first word.
"Should I try to follow you?" Barker queried, surmising from the one-sided conversation that, whatever the team of former soldiers was planning, it was going down now.
Ellis shrugged. "In this traffic? He'd notice the tail after two blocks. . . if he was distracted. We can't use a tracking device either; these guys are extremely paranoid. Every time I go to the flop house they use as their HQ, I'm frisked and a handheld metal detector is used."
Barker sighed. "Looks like you'll have to see this one through to the end, then. I'll contact Conrad; let him know what's happening."
Ellis exited the car and took a quick lap around the block so he would be sweating when Martin Faulk found him.
"While the photographs are indubitably surpassed in grandeur by their genuine counterparts, I suspect that ogling the poster of the newest releases in ceramic and plastic weaponry is not your sole purpose for attending this seldom-frequented corner of our current--if temporary--residence."
Chris suppressed the urge to jump in surprise. He had not heard Ezra approach. "No, the personality survey they had us fill out at the start of this assigned me to a 'respecting leadership' seminar. Why I need to respect leadership when I am the leader, I don't know. . . "
"Ah, that is. . . intriguing," Ezra stated neutrally. "As a matter of fact, my personality survey located a similar deficiency in my disposition. Were it not so true an assessment, I might be offended." Ezra checked his watch and--yet again--noticed that the timepiece was the only technology they had been permitted. Cell phones, weapons, pagers, and the like had all been confiscated at the door by smiling, but insistent, security personnel. "Shouldn't our instructor already be here?"
Chris shrugged. "The door's been closed for the past five minutes. I tried knocking, but didn't get an answer. I heard that these are being kept somewhere in the hotel," Chris mused, still looking at the poster.
Ezra could easily see that Chris wanted nothing more than to see the state-of-the-art weapons, and made a mental note to bribe the hotel security to ensure such a visit. He approached the door and knocked on it, commenting, "It is ironic that the teacher of this particular seminar would belittle his own leadership by not attending."
Sounds of a scuffle and muted protests from the other side of the door had Ezra reaching for a weapon that was not there. "Mistah Larabee, perhaps we should retreat and alert the proper--"
The click of a hammer being pulled back resounded loudly in the enclosed space of the hallway. "As far as you're concerned, we are the proper authorities," the gunman finished Ezra's suggestion. "Both of you, inside now."
Chris' attention had immediately left the poster when he heard the suspicious noises from inside the room where their next class was supposed to be, but he had been too late to warn Ezra about the lean, dangerous man sneaking up on both of them. He was in his mid to late twenties, held a semi-automatic handgun, and his light blue eyes were simultaneously amused by the ATF agents' predicament and eager to fire if they showed signs of resisting.
"Don't do anything stupid, Ezra," Chris warned. He knew that Ez would want to attempt some insane kind of escape, but trying to disarm the young, blue-eyed gunman would only get both of them killed.
"Mistah Larabee, there is no need to deliver such a considerable slight," Ezra replied, his tone deceptively light. "Why, I was just contemplating the significant genius at work in the warehouse last week when I. . . "
"No," Chris said quickly, barely hiding his fear with anger. "Try something like that, and I'll shoot you myself."
"With what weapon, may I ask?" Ezra joked. "Some wise administrator of this conference must have noticed your name on the list of probable attendees, and decided to forego casualties by relieving you of your preferred handguns."
"I'll ask our friend here to lend me his," Chris threatened, referring to their armed captor. Then he sighed. "Just shut up and get in the room, Ez," he pleaded desperately.
The blue-eyed gunmen looked back and forth between the bickering ATF agents and wondered if one or both of them were crazy. They were being threatened with incarceration, injury, and possibly even death, yet they were bantering about advisable tactics to meet and overcome the situation.
"What the hell is taking so long, Gantry?" the door opened and a shorter, wiry man with curly, black hair glared out. "We need to secure this hallway so no one else realizes what we're doing. Is this the entire roster?" the shorter man called back into the room, and then, with a pained look, asked the blue-eyed gunman called Gantry, "What are their names?"
"This one is called Ezra," Ellis Dove/Lieutenant Quentin Gantry indicated Agent Standish with a tilt of his head. "And he referred to that one as Mr. Larabee."
"The list says that the students for this session are Chris Larabee and Ezra Standish; there's a notation that claims they're both agents with the ATF's Team Seven out of Denver. That's everyone, Oberlin," a third voice stated calmly. "Get them in here, and put them with the instructor."
Gantry ushered Chris and Ezra into a small room and shoved Ezra toward a corner where the session's instructor cowered. Than man looked like a desk jockey, rather than a field agent. Being a teacher at this conference did not even confirm that he was law enforcement--only that he had a degree in psychology or experience dealing with delinquents and hard cases. The man was in his late fifties or early sixties, and looked absolutely terrified. His hands were restrained by flexicuffs and his mouth was covered with duct tape. Chris and Ezra immediately classified the instructor as a civilian and a liability. . . a person who would need protection and would be useless in a fight.
When Gantry pushed Ezra, Chris glared at the blue-eyed gunman and whispered in a low, menacing tone, "Don't touch him."
"No one tells me what to do," Gantry said, glaring right back. He gestured with his weapon, "Take a seat, Larabee."
The third voice, Chris and Ezra soon discovered, belonged to a tall, red-haired man who was tinkering with a wall safe that had previously been hidden by a cheap painting. The painting had been carefully set aside, frame and picture intact. "You don't want to mess with Gantry, Agent Larabee," the man explained, a touch of humor in his voice. "He got a 'hothead discharge' from the Marines for taking a major apart with his bare hands. I'm Captain Martin Faulk; you've already met Lieutenant Quentin Gantry and Lieutenant Steve Oberlin. We need to retrieve a few devices from this hotel for redistribution, and then we'll be on our way. Don't cause any trouble, and we'll let you live."
Ezra allowed Gantry to put a pair of flexicuffs on him, and noted that, though the restraints were too tight to wriggle out of, he had been afforded the same courtesy as their 'respecting leadership' instructor--his hands were restrained across his front, rather than being pinioned behind his back. For a civilian like the instructor, such a provision meant nothing, but for a trained agent, an oversight like that could make all the difference in a fight. "I take it, then, that you gentlemen--and I use the term loosely--are thieves. You do not regard witnesses as dangerous to the success of your endeavors?" Ezra inquired.
Gantry laughed and moved to put flexicuffs on Chris Larabee as well. A brief battle of glares ensued before Chris relented. "We're going to retire to some non-extradition country after we sell these weapons to a very eager buyer, so it doesn't matter if you can identify us."
"We never told you that," Oberlin said suspiciously. "How did you know about our buyer?"
Gantry smirked and turned to face the other lieutenant. "I do my homework on people I'm about to break multiple laws with. There were several other robberies in and around Chicago over the past few months. In all of those, three masked men made entry, disabled the guards with non-lethal means, and got out with high-end military equipment before the police responded to silent alarms. Going without masks means that you aren't afraid of being identified this time, so you must not be planning on sticking around to be arrested." Gantry snorted as he glanced toward Oberlin disdainfully. "Unlike you, I don't let my temper send my IQ into negative numbers."
Oberlin growled and tried to throw a punch at Gantry, but Quentin Gantry was faster. The hotheaded former Marine caught Oberlin's fist and twisted the arm, bringing Oberlin to his knees. Adding insult to injury, Gantry shoved his fingers into a pressure point, forcing Oberlin to bite back a scream of pain or risk being discovered by hotel security.
"Enough, both of you," Captain Faulk chastised the two lieutenants without looking away from the wall safe. "Gantry, call your hacker friend; I want a background check on our new guests."
"Yes sir," Gantry replied with mocking sincerity and eagerness. However, he immediately released his hold on Lieutenant Oberlin and took out his own cell phone. "Todd? Yeah, it's me. Look, I need you to run down some information on a few names: Christopher Larabee and Ezra Standish. Just triangulate that intel for me, so I can tell my partner. Thanks."
Gantry closed the phone and slid it back in his pocket. "My guy is good," he commented, with an abundance of confidence. "He should have all the information you need in five minutes, captain. No offence sir, but what's taking so long? I thought you would've had the safe's combination."
"We did," Lieutenant Steve Oberlin complained, rubbing his shoulder to ease the pain, "but they change it every week. We should've been doing this before the conference, except that Finney got hurt, and then we had to recruit you instead."
Chris observed the dynamics of the group that chance and bad luck had just volunteered Ezra and himself to stop. Gantry was a new hire, but whether that meant he could be trusted, Chris could not tell. The hotheaded lieutenant seemed strangely in control of his emotions and actions for a man who had been discharged due to fighting with a superior officer. Why would such a capable and calculating man choose to work under another superior officer when his allegiance was no longer required? Why not run his own outfit or--if he truly was not a 'team player'--work solo? Something just didn't fit.
Ezra knew there was something wrong about Lieutenant Gantry, but he could not narrow down what it was. The man reminded him simultaneously of Buck and Vin, a combination which he had not thought possible before meeting the hot-tempered lieutenant. When Ezra heard that Lieutenant Gantry knew this criminal team's reputation for a zero-fatalities record, it was less surprising that Chris and he had been spared. However, Lieutenant Gantry seemed to be trying to draw too much attention to himself by fighting with a man he was supposed to be working with. It was almost like--
It was almost like watching Ezra at most of the busts Team Seven did, Chris thought. This Gantry guy certainly pushed the envelope. Hell, he burst through the seams and expected the other criminals to catch up with him later! The only problem was, Chris could not think of any way to confirm that Gantry was undercover without simultaneously making that knowledge useless and endangering Gantry. Chris shared a glance with Ezra and saw that Team Seven's undercover agent had come to the same conclusion.
The cell phone rang, and Gantry answered almost instantaneously. "Yes?" After a lengthy pause, Gantry frowned. "All right, thanks." In response to Captain Martin Faulk's irritated request for information, Gantry replied, "Larabee used to be a Navy Seal. There's less information on Standish, only that he worked for the FBI, but resigned under suspicious circumstances. An Internal Affairs investigation was in progress, but nothing was ever proven."
Ezra's expression went immediately and perfectly bland, not betraying the emotional pain that always resurfaced when someone discovered the scandalous end to his career with the FBI in Atlanta.
"There was nothing to prove, that's why nothing stuck," Chris spoke up, his voice heated with anger. He might have had doubts about Ezra when the man first joined Team Seven, but Ezra had more than proven himself in countless cases since, and Chris now counted him among one of the few men he trusted implicitly.
"It's too bad we didn't know your history sooner," Captain Martin Faulk commented off-handedly. "Depending upon your area of expertise, we could have used your help with this job."
Chris took a breath, readying himself to defend Ezra verbally, but there was no need.
Ezra snorted derisively at the captain's offer. "I would not demean myself by joining forces with your substandard, undisciplined, and poorly-led trio of miscreants."
Oberlin started toward Ezra in anger, but Lieutenant Gantry stopped him by holding a hand out in front of the other lieutenant. "Do you have a point, Agent Standish, or are you just trying to get killed by insulting us?"
"I am not one to speak extraneously," Ezra assured Lieutenant Gantry. Chris suppressed the urge to laugh, and did not gainsay his friend. "I would not have attempted such a brazen approach in order to obtain the. . . devices you seek. For example, the weapons were undoubtedly transported to this location specifically for a limited showing at the law enforcement conference that is currently in session. A few well-placed bribes could have bought you the shipment's route arriving at or departing from the conference. A night-time venture during the conference would have been more daring, but at least could have confused the authorities long enough to ensure sale of the items and your own escape. . . because the local police department and hotel security would be preoccupied with questioning and searching the legion of overzealous weapons enthusiasts in attendance at the conference, such as Mistah Larabee. A heist such as this, conducted during classes, will reveal your identities, regardless of whether you leave witnesses or not. Permitting us to live will guarantee that your exact identities will be available to the authorities within the hour, but killing us will confirm that none of the conference's attendees were to blame, because--as you must have noticed--those law enforcement officers unfortunate enough to be ordered to attend this conference have been divested of all weaponry."
Lieutenant Steve Oberlin relaxed, not because he understood, but rather because his eyes had glazed over half-way through Ezra's proposal. Lieutenant Quentin Gantry looked at Ezra with something akin to respect and Captain Martin Faulk stopped his attempts at hearing the correct combination of the lock.
"Those are some good points," Captain Faulk conceded, before turning to glower suspiciously at the hot-headed lieutenant. "Why didn't you think of those issues, Gantry?"
Agent Barker sat in the car where Ellis Dove had left him, tapping a hand impatiently on the steering wheel as another minute passed without information on Ellis' whereabouts. It wasn't that he doubted Ellis' abilities as an undercover FBI agent--the young man had made significant progress since first coming under Barker's tough love style of tutelage--but if something went wrong, Ellis would have to cope with two men who had physical training similar to or better than his own.
Barker's phone rang, and he was surprised to hear from Todd. Ellis had taken Barker's advice about developing contacts that could help unofficially with his undercover assignments, and Todd--who worked in the FBI's cyber division--was one of those contacts. "Wait, repeat that first name," Barker demanded, not certain he had heard correctly.
"Ellis told me that, because of a case he was working on, his phone might be tapped. I offered to give him some counter- surveillance help, but he just drew up some code words for us to use instead. He called me a few minutes ago, said to do a background check on two ATF agents, triangulate his position according to his cell phone, and then call you," Todd recapitulated. "The location is the hotel along the river between. . . " Barker tuned out, having already memorized the address from the first time Todd had mentioned it. "The agents' names were Chris Larabee and Ezra Standish. Larabee used to be a Navy Seal before he transferred to the ATF--"
"I know," Barker whispered and then hung up without thanking Todd for his efforts. Biting back the urge to curse--because the Larabee he knew from sixteen years earlier would only be a liability in whatever situation Ellis found himself in--Barker slammed his car into a U-turn and burned rubber heading for the hotel. He called in the FBI's tactical response team en route, and hoped that they would arrive in time.
Lieutenant Gantry whirled to face his superior officer's allegation of not contributing advice that one of their prisoners had been able to deduce quickly. "Look, I had a hell of a time getting you guys not to shoot me over every dumb, paranoid suspicion you or Oberlin had about me. I thought of all those points, but didn't bring them up because I'd rather shoot my way past some cops or security guards with hardly any training than take my chances fighting you. And another thing--" Gantry glanced toward Oberlin, "I don't see you accusing him of holding back on talking about tactics."
Captain Faulk shrugged. "Obie is a solid soldier; there's nobody else I trust to have my back." Oberlin tried to conceal his pleasure at that praise. "But if I didn't tell him where to aim, he'd be useless," Faulk concluded, and Oberlin's look of pride turned sour and ugly. "What was that? Obie, go check it out. This hallway is supposed to be empty."
Everyone in the room had heard the soft, shifting sounds that became more apparent during the captain's explanation of troop capabilities. The sounds might be nothing--perhaps Housekeeping had changed its schedule and decided to shampoo and dry the carpeted hallway outside this room--or the sounds could be something that would interfere with the soldiers-turned-thieves' exit strategy.
Moving smoothly and without hesitation, Lieutenant Oberlin drew his sidearm and moved to the door. He swung the door inward and stepped out, keeping parallel and almost flush with the wall. Shouts came from further down the hall, Steve Oberlin opened fire, and then was thrown backward, out of the room, by the force of three or four bullets hitting him.
As soon as Oberlin went down, Captain Faulk abandoned the safe. As his hand slipped on the dial, the final number was entered, and the small door swung open. Captain Martin Faulk tried to run for the door, intending to grab Oberlin and drag him out of the line of fire, but Lieutenant Gantry stopped him, standing squarely in front of the doorway and refusing to move.
"You can't do anything for him; not like this, sir," Gantry tried to reason with the desperate soldier, "We have the weapons," Gantry nodded to the safe's open door, "and we have prisoners. They will agree to an exchange, transport. . . whatever it takes to keep us from hurting anyone. That's what you want to do. Run out there now, and you'll only give them another target."
Captain Faulk's eyes were wild with fury and remorse. He was thinking of the last thing he had said about Obie--that the man was useless as a tactician--and he wanted to make that right. He and Oberlin had served together; loyalty to each other had become even more important than loyalty to the service. What Gantry was suggesting made sense. Nodding slowly, Faulk ordered, "Take the talkative one; find out what we're up against."
Lieutenant Gantry grabbed Ezra by the scruff of his impeccable suit jacket, twisting the material until Ezra had the choice of choking--and ruining the clothing--or walking in front of Gantry as the lieutenant ducked into the hallway. Chris growled and started to rise, but Captain Faulk leveled his own weapon at Chris, so the leader of Team Seven eased back into a crouching position; he was ready for action, but secretly hoped nothing would happen over the next few minutes. If the situation deteriorated, Ezra would be caught in the crossfire.
"Identify yourself," Gantry called out past Ezra.
"My name is Agent Charles Barker, with the FBI," a voice shouted back from cover. "Let the hostages go, and come out with your hands up."
Lieutenant Gantry smirked, dug his weapon into the soft flesh behind Ezra's ear and asked, almost conversationally, "Have you ever known that request to work in situations like this, Agent Standish?"
Ezra stole a small breath from within the vise-like grip that Gantry maintained on his collar. "Usually, it leads to the opposite effect of the intended request," Ezra admitted.
Back in the small conference room, Captain Faulk saw recognition and confusion cross Agent Larabee's features. "What is it?" he demanded.
Chris glared, but replied, "I knew a Charles Barker back when I was a Seal. There was an extraction. . . it went bad, but we managed to get him out with only minor injuries. He hated me then."
Captain Faulk tilted his head, considering the options that this new information provided. "Why?"
Chris gave a predatory smile that had Captain Faulk checking the safety on his gun, even though the ATF agent was unarmed. "We had different opinions of what was necessary. I was young and naïve; he was young and obedient."
Though Chris refused to say anything else on the subject, Captain Faulk was able to infer the differences that would cause two military men to reach such an impasse. "Gantry, get back here!"
Turning to Chris as Gantry and Ezra retreated back into the room, Captain Faulk began issuing a different set of commands. "Agent Larabee will deliver our demands to Agent Barker. They have a history that makes Larabee less valuable as a prisoner than these two." Faulk ripped a corner of the border off the reproduced painting and grabbed a pen from the pocket protector of the cringing instructor.
Scribbling a few lines on the scrap of paper, the captain shoved the paper into Chris' hands and concluded, "You have five minutes to get this to Agent Barker and return. For every minute you are late, Gantry or I will shoot your agent in a different limb. At the ten-minute mark, he will be executed."
Chris' jaw clenched in a display of impotent anger. Not daring to meet Ezra's gaze, Chris stood abruptly and snapped, "Stop wasting my time, then." A path to the door cleared quickly, and Chris strode into the hallway, hands above his head.
"I don't believe it. . . " Charles Barker breathed in amazement as he saw the tall, gaunt figure approaching from the far end of the hallway. "Hold your fire, I know this man," he ordered the backup he had called in to stand down.
Even though Todd had told him Larabee was among the hostages, Barker had hoped that Todd was mistaken. "Larabee," he said in a normal volume as the one-time Navy Seal came into hearing range, "what the hell are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same," Chris returned, his tone guarded. "We're a long way from Macedonia." After a pause in which neither man volunteered any more information, Chris held out the scrap of paper. "These are their demands. The captain--his name is Faulk--said I have to be back there in five minutes or they'll shoot a man under my command. You must have retrieved Oberlin already; I didn't see him on my way over here." When Barker nodded slightly, Chris continued. "There's something about the other lieutenant--Gantry--he isn't who he claims to be."
"No, he's my partner," Barker revealed. "If anything happens to him because you compromised his cover, you will answer personally to me," the FBI agent stated calmly. His assertion was even more chilling than if it had been delivered with a glare and a growl, because Barker's tranquil announcement promised revenge that Josiah would have called 'biblical'. Chris remained silent, recognizing the same sort of reprisal that he would have sworn against someone who threatened any member of Team Seven.
Reading through the demands quickly, Barker shook his head. "There's no way I can get all this in the time Faulk gave us," the FBI agent commented. "Unless. . . " Barker flipped the paper over and hurriedly wrote something else on the back. "Tell them to move on my signal, and that this is the best offer they're going to get."
Chris turned quickly, and jogged back down the hall. Seeing Barker had taken him back to an earlier period of his life, and the memories had thrown off his sense of time. Chris had no idea if one minute or four had passed. As Chris crossed the doorway, he heard Faulk ordering Gantry to take the first shot--and he saw Gantry hesitating.
"You didn't see them in the hallway, captain," Gantry argued. "Larabee offered to shoot Standish himself if he tried anything heroic. I'm sure it's the FBI delaying Larabee; he wouldn't endanger his own man."
"Stop!" Chris barked at the captain and the lieutenant/FBI agent as he held out the scrap of paper for Captain Faulk to take. "Barker said to wait for his signal, and this is the best offer you'll get from anyone."
Faulk grabbed the paper and read what Barker had added. Then he reread it. "This FBI agent is going to let us escape, as long as we agree to leave the civilian behind, and to turn you two loose when we're clear. Why would he take a chance like that?"
Chris shrugged. "He may hate me, but Barker keeps his promises. He always completed the mission, even if his methods were questionable."
Gantry snorted, thinking that Barker hadn't changed at all from when this former Navy Seal had known him. Charles Barker solved cases by any means necessary, and either ignored, or lived with, the consequences.
"You saved him once, and he's returning the favor, even though he dislikes you," Captain Faulk reasoned. "How will we know what the signal is?"
Chris smirked. "Unless he's changed, you'll have to be deaf to miss it."
As soon as Chris finished speaking, flash-bang grenades went off at the end of the hallway where the law enforcement officers had congregated. Making a quick decision, Captain Faulk shoved the prototype ceramic gun and plastic knife into his belt, grabbed Chris' arm, and pushed the AFT agent back into the hallway, using the tall blond as a shield. Gantry used Ezra for the same purpose, and the military thieves retreated down the hallway, away from the law enforcement officers and Charles Barker. Separated by no more than two paces, Faulk and Gantry hit the door to the attached garage almost simultaneously, pulling Chris and Ezra along with them.
Gantry and Ezra separated from Faulk and Chris, and as soon as Faulk's view of the lieutenant and Ezra was obscured by a concrete pillar, Gantry/Dove released Ezra from the flexicuffs with his pocket knife and handed the ATF agent a back-up piece. "My name is Ellis Dove, and I'm an undercover FBI agent. I don't have time to explain more now." Ellis stated. "We have to move quickly to help your partner."
Ezra studied the man he had known as Gantry intently for a few moments, and then nodded. "I believed something in your conduct was not precisely criminal."
Ellis Dove smirked and shrugged. "My partner. . . he calls it 'the beast'. He says that I can use it, or it can eat me alive; it's all a matter of control."
Ezra smiled slightly. He would not have referred to his own capacity for fooling the criminal element as a potentially malignant secondary personality, but he could see why some undercover agents might ascribe to that school of thought. "Then perhaps we should exercise some control over this particular situation, Agent Dove."
Ellis chuckled, and then, as one, the ATF and FBI undercover agents turned and took off running toward Chris Larabee and Captain Martin Faulk's last known position.
Charles Barker cursed quietly as he ducked and weaved past the stunned FBI tactical response team, all of whom were still reeling from the flash-bangs he had set off as a diversion. Running past the room where, until a scant few minutes ago, Captain Martin Faulk and Ellis Dove had been holed up with advanced weaponry and three hostages, Barker noticed that--as stipulated--the civilian instructor had been left behind, and was not hurt. Continuing to run, Barker hurried into the hotel's attached parking garage. He and Larabee had had their share of disagreements during the short time they had known each other back in '93, but--if possible--Barker wanted Larabee to live. He had only talked to the former Seal for five minutes, but the man seemed to have changed dramatically during the sixteen years since Barker had seen him last. It would be interesting to speak with Larabee at length, to see if the man still held Barker morally culpable for a situation that had spun inexplicably and impossibly out of his control.
As Barker approached the garage's exit to street level, he found that Ellis and Agent Standish had cornered Captain Faulk and Chris Larabee just shy of the exit driveway. "Standish, Gantry," Barker acknowledged both men with a nod, and was careful to use Ellis' cover name, "I'll take it from here."
"If you take offence, I sincerely apologize, Mistah Barker," the one called Ezra Standish said without taking his gaze off of Larabee and Faulk, "but as a renowned and respected compatriot of mine would say, 'there is no way in hell'. . . sir."
"If I stand down, you might back out of the deal we had for my immunity," Ellis, still playing Gantry, complained.
"Immunity?" Barker pretended to be surprised by the scenario Ellis had invented. "That agreement was never put in writing, son. If you're lucky, you'll get a reduced sentence. Agent Standish," Barker ordered, tossing a pair of handcuffs to the undercover ATF agent, "Would you do the honors?"
Ezra quickly disarmed and restrained a still-shocked Lieutenant Quentin Gantry.
Captain Faulk's body was mostly blocked by Chris Larabee's. The only shots available would anger but not disarm the captain. . . but the news that his team's most recently recruited member had been a turncoat all along unnerved Captain Faulk, causing him to make a mistake.
"Were you the one that put Finney in the hospital with that drive-by?" Captain Martin Faulk accused Gantry. "You didn't want me to save Obie when he got shot. You've been undermining us from the beginning!"
"Marty, you've got to believe me," Ellis/Gantry protested, and that single statement was enough to draw Captain Martin Faulk out from behind the protection of his human shield.
Ezra aimed and fired, but his shot was a second behind Barker's, because Barker understood his partner's goal. He was able to anticipate Martin Faulk's reaction because he and Dove had been working this case together long before the conference brought Chris Larabee and Ezra Standish into town. So, when Captain Martin Faulk shifted to shoot the traitorous Lieutenant Gantry--and, in his anger, forgot to move Larabee in tandem with him--Barker aimed and fired.
Barker's shot grazed Chris Larabee's shoulder, but it pierced Captain Faulk's heart, dropping the soldier-turned- criminal before Faulk could shoot Dove.
Ezra moved cautiously over to examine Captain Faulk. After disarming the soldier, checking for a pulse, and not finding one, Ezra turned his attention to Chris. "Mistah Larabee, if you would permit me to examine your wound--"
"It's only a scratch," Chris insisted, but Ezra persisted in inspecting the injury.
"Your customary tendency to grossly understate the reality of events is shockingly close to the truth in this instance," Ezra ascertained. He knew very little about first aid and medical care, but Nathan had given every man on the team a crash course in assessing the severity of wounds. "You may need a few stitches, but I doubt the injury will unduly inconvenience you."
"Standish, did you have to put these on so tight?" Ellis Dove groaned.
"Quit whining," Barker snapped as he slowly strode over to the cuffed agent, fished in one pocked for a key, and then released his young partner. "He had to make it look good; you could learn a few things from him." Addressing Chris, Barker said, "Once you've had that looked at, Ellis will buy both of you a few rounds for wrapping up his case."
Ezra was momentarily reminded of JD as the younger of the two FBI agents gaped in astonishment at being drafted into paying for drinks..
"I. . . " Ellis considered contradicting his partner, but then thought of something another agent had once said to him. 'We all get made some time. . . only, we don't always survive it.' He had guessed early on--by the significant looks the two ATF agents had shared--that they suspected him of not being a criminal, but neither had confessed those suspicions to Captain Faulk or Lieutenant Oberlin. By keeping their silence, they had saved his life, just as surely as Barker had by shooting Captain Faulk mere moments before. Ellis shrugged. "You're right, drinks are on me.. Let's get you to the closest hospital, Agent Larabee."
Ezra examined the tavern as Ellis Dove led him to a booth, away from Chris and Agent Barker. Though the mirrored booths were probably meant to make the bar appear larger than it actually was, Ezra suspected that Charles Barker had chosen to frequent the establishment because mirrors improved and expanded his line of sight. The way Barker had spoken of Ezra's skill as an undercover agent convinced Ezra that Barker was a similarly paranoid individual.
"Barker will want a few minutes alone with your partner," Ellis Dove informed Ezra, and then ordered two beers for himself and the undercover ATF agent. Ellis sat down opposite Ezra in one of the booths and then leaned forward and spoke in a conspiratorial tone. "See, he pretends that it's just a job, but really the job is all Barker has, so when someone gets hurt because of something he did--"
"Agent Barker feels responsible," Ezra nodded. The men of Team Seven all shared the tendency of accepting the burden of blame even--or especially--when it was undeserved. "It was the only shot that could have been taken, given the circumstances," Ezra assured Ellis Dove. "Mistah Larabee will understand that.
Perched on neighboring bar stools, Charles Barker and Chris Larabee sipped at their separate steins of beer in silence. Finally, Agent Barker spoke. "When I heard you were one of the hostages, I thought you would endanger Ellis."
Chris scowled. "Even back in Macedonia, I never intentionally put you or the team you were with in danger."
"A lot of us died anyway," Barker claimed. "But I'm not talking about Macedonia. After we talked in the hall, I noticed you were different."
Chris reined his temper back in, realizing that Barker had not been trying to offend him. "Several years after I met you, I got married."
"Congratulations," Barker replied dryly, and Chris laughed in response.
"You would see marriage as a burden," Chris noted, "but Sarah wasn't like that. She changed me, saved me in a way. We had a son. . . " Chris' voice trailed off as his memories leaped to the night of the fire. Taking a steadying breath, Chris gave a brief account of the way his family had died, how he had believed it to be his fault until discovering the true culprit, the years of trying to drown his misery in alcohol, and finally how becoming the leader of Team Seven had pulled him back from the brink of disaster.
Barker did not speak for a few minutes after hearing Chris' story of the joys and sorrows that had occurred in the sixteen years since they had last seen each other. When Barker did speak, it was in a tone promising vengeance. "This Ella Gaines. . . did you ever catch her?"
Chris smiled sadly. "Yes and no. She's a woman of means.. Ella married a wealthy man and was widowed within two years. The police ruled it an accidental death, and she inherited his estate. The law can't touch her, but she isn't pursuing me anymore. Once she realized that my friends look out for me, she backed off." After a pause, Chris concluded, "I saw in Agent Dove's eyes that he wasn't responsible for that sniper being put in the hospital. The hit-and-run with only dead-end leads sounds more like something you would do."
Charles Barker's mouth set in a thin, uncompromising line.. "I'm not going to teach you the difference between right and wrong, Larabee," he stated in a low, angry tone.
"I don't expect you to," Chris replied. "But I also don't want to open the paper next week to find that Ella Gaines met with an unfortunate accident. It's more of a punishment for her to live, and know that she can't have me."
Barker stared at Chris, surprised. "You have changed."
Chris chuckled. "For better and worse, but mostly for the better. I give my friends the credit for that. You've changed too. From what I remember, I would have pegged you as the type to work alone. Fewer people to mess up the mission; and the mistakes are yours and yours alone."
Agent Barker nodded. "For a while, I was exactly like that. Then, I heard about this kid coming through Quantico. Ellis was better than anyone the instructors had ever seen. Only the oldest instructor--a guy who had just started teaching when I went through there--recognized something of me in Ellis. He called me up, we reminisced about my training, and then he mentioned Ellis Dove. When Dove finished training, I requested that he be assigned to me."
Smiling, Chris began telling Barker about JD. Ezra heard the raised voices, and needed to stand and cross the room to defend himself when Chris told Barker about one of the pranks JD had pulled on Ezra. Ellis joined Chris, Barker, and Ezra at the bar, and a few rounds later, the stories were still being told, albeit the facts were becoming exaggerated.
Ezra did not believe Ellis Dove's recounting of an incident involving Agent Barker, a rocket launcher, and a borrowed SUV, but Chris just smiled, and wondered silently how Barker had snuck the rocket launcher out of the FBI's evidence lockup. At the end of the night, Chris and Ezra returned to the hotel, and Barker reviewed the case with Ellis, giving advice on how to play his role better next time.
Ezra and Chris had been allocated use of one room in the hotel. There were two queen-sized beds, a bathroom, and a flat-screen TV, but no private space, so Ezra overheard the cell phone call Chris placed to JD later that night.
"No, I don't think he's dirty," Chris said, his patience waning. "Is there some way you can check without raising any flags? Ellis has potential as an undercover agent, and if Barker is going to jeopardize that. . . thank you." After listening to JD's report for a while, Chris said, "Wait; let me put you on speakerphone so Ezra can hear this. Repeat that last part."
"Ez?" JD's voice was slightly distorted by the speakerphone technology, but he still sounded excited when he asked, "How many did Chris get?"
Remembering the betting pool that Team Seven had started before Chris and Ezra departed for the conference, Ezra answered, "None, Mistah Dunne. However, one miscreant is now deceased, and another is in serious condition at an area hospital. Mistah Larabee suffered a minor abrasion to his left shoulder, caused by the rapid passage of a metal projectile en route to the aforementioned criminal's heart."
JD marveled out loud about how lucky Chris and Ezra were. The young agent claimed that every time he went to a conference, nothing interesting happened.
Rolling his eyes at JD's monologue, Chris interrupted, "JD, you were telling us about Barker's history?"
"Oh, yeah." Focused now, JD continued. "You said I should do the search so that it didn't raise any flags, but those alarms were already tripped. From what I can see, it looks like Barker is the subject of a discreet IA investigation. I dug a little deeper, and found that they tried to recruit his partner, Ellis Dove."
"Tried?" Chris asked doubtfully. In his experience, Internal Affairs generally got what they wanted. He had believed that ATF Team Seven was the only exception to that rule.
"The recruitment was unsuccessful," JD explained. "Ellis told them that he already had a job; that he was Barker's partner. . . that's what the report says, and even when they showed him circumstantial evidence suggesting that Barker was dirty, he refused to investigate his own partner."
"Is he loyal," Ezra asked, "or inadvisably dim- witted?"
"Ellis seemed smart enough," Chris commented. "You saw how quickly he adapted his cover story for the showdown with Captain Faulk."
"I checked Ellis' computer usage," JD revealed. "His internet history shows that he's been looking into several keywords not associated with any of their cases." Chris pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to ward off the headache that was gathering behind his eyes at the thought of how many restricted databases JD had accessed to get this information. The Bureau's Internal Affairs department, Ellis Dove's personal computer, the FBI case files for Barker and Doves' cases, and who knew how many others. . . Chris only hoped that the kid had covered his tracks. Chris' attention was redirected when JD said, "One of the keywords was Red Gauntlet, and another was Macedonia--"
"They're trying to use Macedonia against him?" Chris asked, his tone disbelieving. As a Navy Seal, Chris had not liked the tactics that Barker's team used. If Seals were considered Black Ops, then the men Barker worked with had gone into an even darker range of tactics. Now older and wiser to the ways of the world, Chris was willing to admit that sometimes politics called for actions that would be considered heinous by some, but those very actions would nonetheless reap benefits for a greater number of people. The ends truly did justify the means, and Charles Barker belonged to that rare breed that was capable of shouldering the responsibility for stooping to use such means.
"It looks like IA wants to find evidence that Barker is dirty," JD continued, "but he's an effective agent, and there are no complaints against him. Either he's really good, or--"
"Or irrevocably despicable," Ezra concluded JD's statement, thinking of the accusations that had been leveled at him during the end of his stint with the FBI. He wondered if the same politics that had driven him out of the Bureau were even now conspiring to ruin Agent Barker as well.
Chris sighed. "JD, I want you to keep tabs on the progress of this investigation, but don't draw attention to yourself. If Barker needs our help in the future, I don't want the FBI's IA department to see us coming."
JD replied affirmatively, and Ezra interjected, complaining to JD that their flight back to Denver was scheduled to leave at the unforgivably early hour of seven in the morning.
Chris left Ezra to continue the conversation and fell into bed, knowing that Ezra was a night owl so it was Chris' responsibility to be well-rested in order to wake up by four o'clock the next morning. He expected to dream of Macedonia or of the standoff with Captain Faulk, but his sleep was undisturbed until the alarm clock went off at three fifty-seven.
On the flight to Denver, Chris thought of the strange paths that his and Barker's lives had taken. If he had not joined Team Seven, Chris would not be in a position to help Barker, and probably would not even care to do so. Meeting Ezra and discovering that a good system could mistake a driven agent for a dirty one had opened Chris' mind to the possibility that Barker was a good agent. His experiences with Ella Gaines and other betrayals, though, prepared Chris for the possibility that the next time he flew into Chicago, it might not be to defend Barker, but to rescue Ellis.