The Hand of Charity by the Neon Gang


Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #13, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Mary Fallon Zane is the primary authors of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Deyna Greywolf, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Karson Raine, Nina Talbot, Kacey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 7-29-2008. Art by Shiloh

Sitting alone in the salon of his upscale condo, Ezra P. Standish, former FBI agent and current ATF agent, contemplated murder.

The first time he saw the thief, it was late at night, and he had just turned from dropping two bags of trash into the large dumpster outside the condo clubhouse. The half-full moon and external lights on the surrounding buildings cast enough light for him to catch a glimpse of her, even if it was nothing more than a swiftly moving shadow close to the ground. She was skittish, fearful. Not that he blamed her. Life on the streets did that to the heartiest of souls. He'd briefly considered going after her then, but changed his mind. She probably wouldn't appreciate his help, and the last thing he wanted to do was spend half the night trying to catch her. She probably knew the area better than he did anyway. He went back inside, his life immediately falling back into its normal patterns.

So he hadn't really thought much about her at the time. There was no reason to. Nothing around the condo property was ever disturbed, except the dumpster, which he guessed she was raiding for whatever food she could find, and, well, he didn't really care about that. It was no skin off his nose if she wanted to dig through the garbage, although, he had to admit –only to himself – that it did bother him a little that she had been reduced to that.

But that was to change all too quickly.

First it was a torn screen on a first floor window where she'd tried to get inside his home. He'd had that fixed the first time without even realizing she was the culprit. By the third time, however, he'd begun to suspect she was behind the recurring damage. He'd briefly considered sealing up the window, but quickly changed his mind. He liked being able to open that window, which happened to be his study. A cool breeze on a summer evening was delightful. So, instead, he had decorative iron bars placed on all of the first floor windows, telling the others it was just part of his overall security plan.

The next time he suspected she had caused more damage was when he'd been forced to prop the seldom-used door to the laundry room. He had a lot of material to haul down to the dumpster, part of a cover story from a resolved case they had been working on. All alone, he had shoved a wedge under the door and made several trips to the container, his arms loaded with the useless fabric.

Coming in from his fifth trip he had heard it: a loud crash inside his home. He'd hurried in, pulling his weapon from the holster clipped to his chinos.

On the floor in the kitchen was what was left of the large platter that had been sitting on the counter. The cold cuts, cheese, and French bread that had filled the plate were all gone. He cursed softly. He'd pulled the food out and then decided to go ahead and haul the fabric out before he fixed himself a hero for lunch. It was going to be his reward for dumping the stuff himself.

Well, so much for that bright idea.

He'd carefully checked the condo, but she had obviously managed to slip out while he'd been picking up the sharp-edged pieces of the platter.

He'd sighed heavily, forced to lock up and drive to a local French restaurant for lunch.

And then there was the time, a few weeks later, when they had decided to barbecue steaks at the clubhouse, Mr. Larabee's ranch undergoing fumigation for some reason or another. It was an enclosed space, a chain-link fence separating it from the rest of the common area, and came equipped with a modern gas grill.

When the temperature was just right, he had added the steaks to the grill, then hurried inside the clubhouse to grab the home-made marinade he'd prepared the night before. He'd left it in the refrigerator in the clubhouse, determined that not an ounce of flavor be lost. The other members of Team Seven were prepping the rest of their planned meal, JD setting an outdoor table for their use.

He'd hurried back outside, the bowl in his hand, only to find all seven of the steaks gone. He knew she was responsible, but there was no way to prove it.

Vin had ended up driving to a local grocery store, bringing back two of their rotisserie chickens.

And there had been other incidents, too.

Thinking back now, he realized he should have done something about the situation sooner, before it had gotten so far out of hand. But how was he supposed to know that his friends would betray him like they had?

He wasn't sure who the first one was to reach out to her, but he had a good suspicion it was Vin. The sniper had a soft spot that she'd touched somehow, and he'd given in, of that the undercover agent was sure. And that was her foot in the door. After that, she'd quickly conned the rest of them, too.

Of course it could have been Buck who caved in first. He had a marshmallow core when it came to the ladies. All she would have had to do was look up at him with those huge brown eyes and Buck would have been done in for sure.

So, either Buck or Vin had set the dominos in motion and, before long, Nathan and Josiah and JD had fallen under the consummate con artist's spell as well.

He really thought Mr. Larabee had picked better operatives than that. How could they possibly be so damned gullible?

He shook his head sadly. Well, it was too damn late now. She'd practically moved in, and he couldn't imagine any way to move her back out again, not without pissing off the others, and he couldn't afford to do that.

So, what could he do?

He thought and thought, and thought some more, but no flash of inspiration was forthcoming.

"Wonderful," he muttered, "just wonderful."

At least she wasn't hanging around the trash can, like she had been for the past few days. But he hated it when she was lying, stretched out on his best sofa, watching Vin clean and check his weapons, or watching Buck and JD while they played video games. And she really seemed to enjoy accompanying Josiah on his rollerblading excursions. Nathan had even talked to him about taking her for a check in his precious Jag, but he had managed to avoid that – so far.

But why would she ever choose to leave? There was certainly no reason for her to. Hell, she'd found Paradise.

Ezra suspected she knew he wasn't happy about her being here. He could tell by the way she looked at him, her eyes narrowed suspiciously, like he might toss her out at any moment.

Like that was going to happen, no matter how much he wanted it to. Not with the way Vin, Buck, JD, Nathan and Josiah fell all over themselves to get her something to eat or drink. Hell, even Chris had gotten close to her, going so far as to call her "little sister" and tell her that: "You really are a looker."

Well, he wasn't going to fall for the con.

He knew better.

She was a dirty little thief and nothing she did was going to convince him otherwise.

But no matter what he said, the others refused to listen to him, and that really irked him. After all, he did own the damn building.

Fine, he thought. But one of these days they're going to see her for what she is, and then I can be as smug as I want when I say 'told you so.'

And that day couldn't come soon enough.

Where is she now? he wondered, glancing around. She was nowhere in sight, which probably meant she was taking a nap on his bed.

Ezra shook his head. He'd never seen anyone make themselves at home like she did. And never once did she ask. She just did whatever she wanted, whenever she pleased – rather like his mother, actually – and then she'd flash those big brown eyes at them, and be damned if she didn't get her way each and every time.

Correction, she got her way with the rest of the team, not with him. He refused to give in to her manipulations. The others could be her puppets if they wanted to be, but he wasn't going to.

Which was probably why she was hiding. With no one else around to run interference for her, she was avoiding him.

Well, that suited him just fine. She didn't like him, and he didn't like her. He didn't want to spend his time with her, or thinking about her.

But he couldn't help himself.

He shook his head. Even Father Tim, of all people, had fallen under her spell. The man had met her when she'd accompanied Vin to the church they all volunteered at one day, and they'd hit it right off. How the priest could be so naïve, Ezra wasn't sure, but he was. In fact, the last few times he had been undercover she had stayed with Father Tim, no doubt taking advantage of the man's generous nature. Not that he seemed to mind. In fact, he'd told her she could come and stay with him any time she wanted to.

But no, she stayed here, with him. And why not? She had all the good food she wanted, plenty of attention, a comfortable bed to sleep in, and she had even usurped his favorite spot on the sofa. And what did it matter that he didn't use the sofa much, it was still his favorite spot.

"She might as well be a damn princess," he muttered to himself.

What really worried him, though, was the thought that she might not be the last. He could not afford to take in charity cases. They were federal agents, for God's sake! What would Travis say when he finally met her?

His eyes narrowed. Hell, she would probably turn on the charm and win him over just like she had the rest of the team.

With a heavy sigh he leaned back again the sofa arm and stretched out, determined to take advantage of finding his favorite spot unoccupied for a change.

It wasn't like she pulled her weight around the place, either. In fact, she seemed to take great delight in creating mess after mess that he ended up having to clean up. Well, no more, Ezra decided. From now on they were all going to pick up after her. Maybe that would take some of the luster off her charade.

Yeah, that was the way to go. He'd force the rest of them to see her for what she was – a freeloading, conniving, thief.

But it wasn't going to be easy. The rest of them were so damned protective. It was like she couldn't do a damn thing wrong. But he knew better. He knew she'd broken in that day and filched his cold cuts and cheese. He knew she was the one who had made off with the steaks, too. And that pie Inez had baked for him.

Oh, and there were his missing Italian loafers, too. And that gray cable sweater… and his spare wallet… He knew she must be behind their disappearances.

He shook his head. He was starting to get obsessed. He had to stop thinking about her.

He leaned over and grabbed the remote control for the television and turned it on. He flipped through the channels, finally settling on CNN. The broadcast held his attention until he heard a loud thud upstairs, like someone turning over a piece of furniture.

"You better not be making a mess up there!" he yelled, his tone threatening.

And he could just imagine her response, too: "I can do anything I want, asshole. I've got the others wrapped around my little finger, so what are you going to do about it?"

"Well, you don't have me wrapped around your little finger," Ezra muttered, hunkering down in his seat and forcing his attention back to the television until a second crash caused him to bolt off the sofa.

"I'm going to kill her," he growled softly, heading for the stairs, taking the steps two at a time to quickly reach the second floor. A third loud thump had him muttering soft curses by the time he reached the bedroom.

He barreled in, coming to an abrupt stop. Two teenaged boys were standing in the room, rummaging through his dresser drawers. They had already tossed aside the three they had already looked through. The three sounds he'd heard.

So, where is she? he wondered. Probably hiding, he decided as he studied the boys as they realized he was there. They were both drunk, or, more likely, high on something.

And they both had knives.

Great, Ezra thought. He had his sidearm in its holster at the small of his back, but he would really rather avoid killing them. The stains would be impossible to get out of the carpet.

"Gentlemen," he said, holding his hand up and away from his body.

"Stay back, man," one of them snapped, waving his blade in front of him like he was trying to cast a spell or something. "I don't wanna have to cut you, man."

It was obvious to the undercover man that neither one of them knew how to use their weapons – not that they couldn't still be dangerous.

"You have an opportunity to save yourselves from potential entanglements with the constabulary," Ezra stated in what he thought was a reasonable tone of voice.

"Huh?" one of the pair replied.

"Turn and go, now, and we'll pretend this never happened."

"Fuck you!" the second youth yelled. He was smaller than the other boy, his blond hair so fair it was almost white. "Give me your money, old man!"

"Old?" Ezra echoed, his eyes narrowing.

"You heard me!"

"All right," Standish agreed, reaching for his back pocket with his right hand.

"Stop!" the first, dark-haired boy screeched, glancing nervously from Ezra to his cohort and back again. "He might have a gun or something, man."

"I was just going to hand you my wallet," Ezra stated. "However did you get in here, anyway?" he asked, wondering how they had gotten past his rather impressive passive security system.

"None of your damn business!" the blond snarled. "Hand over the wallet, man. Now."

"Of course," Ezra agreed, reaching back again. He grabbed his gun, drawing it and pointing it at the blond.

"Fuck!" the dark-haired teen yelped. "I told you, man! I fuckin' told you!"

"Shut up!" the blond snarled, his gaze locked on Standish. "You can't kill both of us," he spat. "We'll still get you."

"Perhaps," Ezra said, his tone and posture one of a man completely confident in his situation. And his lack of fear terrified the teens. "But I will definitely take one of you with me. Now, which of you would prefer to die?"

"We better do it, man," the dark-haired boy said, casting furtive sideways glances at the blond.

"No!" the blond yelled at him, then glowered at Ezra and said, "Move, old man."

"I don't think so," Ezra replied. "You see, this is my home, and I say what happens here."

"We're gonna stick you, fucker!" the blond yelled.

"You miscreants do not even know how to use those knives," Ezra said. "Put them down – now."

The dark-haired boy's gaze flashed back and forth from Ezra to the blond for several long seconds, then he cursed softly under his breath and leaned forward to set his knife on the bed.

The blond saw the movement. "Fuckin' pussy!" he screamed, reaching out and grabbing the other boy's shoulder, shoving him at Ezra.

Having to make a split second decision, Standish opted to catch the dark-haired boy rather than shoot him, or his annoying companion. But as soon as he had a hold on the boy he realized he might have made a fatal mistake. The blond reached into a pocket of his hugely oversized jeans and pulled out a snub-nosed .38. He had just started to lift the weapon when Ezra heard the growl, low and menacing.

There was a loud, high-pitched scream and flash of movement. The blond teen screamed in pain. "Get it off! Get it off!" he wailed.

Ezra grabbed the knife from the dark-haired boy and tossed him onto the bed, then reached down and jerked the blond to his feet.

She backed off, her shoulders hunched forward, her head still down, her fangs showing as she continued to growl at the blond.

"Easy," Ezra said.

She looked up at him, then cocked her head to the side and flashed him that smile that seemed to melt the hearts of all who met her. Finally, she shook herself and sat down, panting happily at a job well done.

"Fuckin' dog bit me!" the blond screeched. "Fuckin' bitch!"

"Hey," Ezra snapped, giving the boy a hard shake, "shut your mouth. Didn't your mother teach you not to use language like that?" He couldn't believe it. She had actually protected him. She didn't even like him and she had protected him!

He looked down, meeting her huge brown eyes. "Uh… good dog."

She thumped her tail against the floor, her ears folding back happily.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Wow," JD said first, after Ezra had told them about the earlier break-in. Then he smiled at the dog and added, "Good girl!"

"Does this mean we can finally give her a name?" Nathan asked, folding his arms over his chest, a gesture that said he wasn't going to take "no" for an answer.

"A name?" Ezra moaned, rolling his eyes. "Must we?"

"Come on, Ez," Buck said, "she saved your life. She deserves a name for that."

"'Dog' suits her just fine," Standish countered.

Vin, who was sitting next to her on the sofa, rubbed her head. "I think I know what breed she is."

"Mr. Tanner," Ezra groaned, "I do not care what breed she is."

"But y' ought t' pick a name that fits her breed," Vin countered.

"She's pretty, that's for sure," JD added. "She should have a classy name."

"Yeah, just look at those big brown eyes," Buck said. "She's just waiting for you to reward her with a name. How can you say no?"

"Easily," Ezra replied, but he was lying. It wasn't easy. In fact, he was having a hard time not walking over and giving her a good scratch behind the ears for saving his ass. Still, she seemed to know it was just a front this time. He watched her curl her tail as she held his gaze.

"Well, why don't we all come up with something, then we can vote on the name we like best," Josiah offered. "What breed is she, Vin?"

"Shiba Inu," Vin replied. "They're mountain huntin' dogs, from Japan."

A moment later, JD was typing on the computer. "Hey, I think you're right, Vin! Uh, says here that Shiba Inus are independent and intelligent, but hard to train…" He grinned over at Ezra. "Good luck, Ez."

"Okay, anybody have a name for her?" Buck asked.

Ezra shook his head. "This is not a democracy. If she's going to have a name, she's going to be—"

"Jacquelyn," Buck offered.

"That sucks, Buck!" JD told him. "She doesn't look like a Jacquelyn. She's Japanese!"

Ezra held up his hands and the others fell silent.

"Where'd that come from?" Vin asked the ladies' man.

Buck glanced down at the floor, his cheeks going rosy. Then he looked up and sighed. "All right, if ya have to know, it's for Jacquelyn Smith, you know, one of Charlie's Angels? She was my favorite."

"You didn't like Farrah?" Chris inquired with a grin.

"I liked all of 'em just fine, just liked Jackie more."

"Figures," JD said, shaking his head.

"Hey, they were the most kick-ass women I remember seeing on TV and I was young and impressionable."

Josiah rolled his eyes and leaned over the back of the couch and petted the dog's head. "I think I'll stick to Little Sister," he said. "That okay with you?"

The dog looked up at him and howled softly, her tail waving.

"See! Even she agrees with me!"

"Nope, she was sayin' Jacquelyn's a nice name," Buck argued.

"How about Apple?" Nathan asked.

"Apple?" Ezra echoed.

"Well, she's kind of a red color and it looks like it'll be healthy to have her around," the former medic argued.

"No," Ezra replied.

"How about Kimono?" JD asked.

"Over my dead body," Ezra replied.

"What? At least it's Japanese!" JD defended.

"So is Kamikaze," Chris said, green eyes sparking with amusement, "and it'd fit if she decides to hang around here."

Ezra shot his boss a sour look.

"I think y' ought t' call her Aiko," Vin said.

"Is that Japanese?" JD asked.

Vin nodded. "It means 'little loved one,'" he said, continuing to scratch her neck.

"That's nice," Josiah said, grinning.

"It fits her," Buck agreed, nodding.

Chris, Nathan, and JD all agreed.

"You know how to speak Japanese?" JD asked Vin.

The sniper looked a little smug as he replied, "Know a lot 'a things, JD."

"But Japanese? How—?"

"So, what d' ya think?" Vin asked Ezra, killing Dunne's question.

"Well, I suppose that it might be an acceptable moniker for this… mongrel."

"She is not," JD defended.

"She's no mutt," Nathan concurred.

"Be that as it may, you seem determined that I keep this… dog…"

"And she needs a name," Buck added.

"Aiko is a nice name," Chris stated. "Seems to fit."

"Yep," Vin agreed.

Ezra tuned them all out, meeting the dog's warm gaze. All right, Aiko, you've won me over, he admitted silently. But if you ever let on, so help me…

She opened her mouth in what he was sure was a dog-smile and he knew exactly what she was thinking: So, what will you give me for my silence?