ATF (gen) No pairings
Warning: a little bad language as usual
Helluva way to start a Monday.
The first that Chris Larabee caught wind that something was up was in the elevator from the parking garage. Apparently, he was one of the last to know whatever the hell it was and that was the icing on the cake on an already frustrating morning.
He had been the last of Team Seven to pull into his spot in the parking structure, if the vehicles dripping snow and ice in their respective parking places were any indication. Even Ezra's new baby, a classic silver '74 Mercedes 450-SL was in place, a stark contrast beside Tanner's jeep with it's new tan hard-top incongruously shiny against the beat-up blue body and diamond-plate reinforcing on the sides. Usually they were the last to arrive, not him.
Chris's day had started with discovering the power was out in the main barn and all the water frozen in the horse stalls. It had to be ten below zero out, and just as he finally finished tending the stock and phoned in to the power company, an emergency call came from his neighbor Chanu TaNoose. Chanu's smaller ranch backed up to the same lane as Chris' just off the county road a mile away, and they shared some BLM pastureland in the high meadows on the mountain behind Chris's place. They were cooperative neighbors, and called on each other when they needed help – like this morning when Chanu's pickup battery was dead and his wife Clare had an appointment to take their new baby to the doctor. So Chris had frozen his ass off doing a good deed jumping the battery from his Dodge Ram to Chanu's old Ford first thing --not that he minded doing it, considering it was Clare and the baby involved, plus Chanu would go over to his place to check the stock around noon. However, it all conspired to make him even later, and traffic into Denver had eaten away another fifteen minutes. He had too much paperwork on his desk with a meeting coming up about expenses this afternoon. He didn't need anything else to bite him in the ass.
God, he hated surprises – particularly about members of his own team. Ones that brought the kind of attention that he hated. Not to mention it was the kind of thing that the whole of the ATF building was going to have a field day with from the sound of it. The gossip mill was apparently already going strong and it wasn't even 9 AM yet, and Chris had no idea what this was all about yet.
Gloria Potter, Orrin Travis's secretary had opened the first salvo when he held the elevator door for her in the garage.
"Why, thank you, Agent Larabee," she puffed, her mouth muffled by her heavy winter scarf. "Did you see the Newspaper yesterday?"
His Sunday paper lay unread in the den, since he had spent all day shoveling snow and helping the farrier with corrective shoes for Pony.
"Something interesting?" he asked, dreading the answer for some reason. He pushed the 7th floor for himself and the 14th floor for her.
Gloria's eyes widened and she unwrapped her scarf from around her plump face. Her dark eyes crinkled a little at the corners in surprise as she said, "You don't know about Agent Tanner?"
The hackles went up on his neck, alarm bells went off in his head, and it was at that moment he knew that the Universe had picked this morning to show that No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.
Had something happened to Vin and no one had called him? "What newspaper are we talking about?" It couldn't be the Free Car and Truck Trader with an article on the World's Ugliest Jeep, could it? he hoped, knowing better.
"The Denver Post," she said in that tone of voice that told him that she obviously thought he was an idiot because he did not already know whatever it was she was trying to tell him.
Chris peeled off his black cap and ran a hand through his getting-too-shaggy-again hair. "Gloria," he said patiently, "I didn't see the paper. Is this something that I'm not going to be happy about?"
As Team Leader for the six other members of his department, Chris was always prepared for trouble. Hell, he was one of the best at dealing with the worst, toughest situations Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives could throw at him. However, it was the kind of trouble his team had a tendency to find between cases that inspired him to carry a bottle of Pepcid AC –the fast acting kind – in his coat pocket at all times.
Gloria took a breath and was about to say something when the doors opened on the 4th floor and Bill Simons stepped in. Simons' jowly face lit into a malicious grin. "Heard about your boy Tanner, Chris." He winked broadly. "Real sweet. Big surprise, seein' him in the paper yesterday. Never figured him to be into that kind of thing. Never struck me as the type. Standish, maybe, 'cause he's –you know – kinda prissy. But Tanner?" Simons shook his head and laughed again as he stepped off on 5th. "Helluva team you got, there, Chris. What's next? Ballroom dancing?"
Gloria's eyes widened as she looked up at Chris. "It's not a bad thing, Chris. So there's going to be talk about him now – It's to be expected." He almost expected her to pat him on the hand and say, "there, there."
Chris stuck his hand in his pocket for the Pepcid bottle. "Please, find me a copy of yesterday's Post, Gloria, and send it down to my office."
Gloria tried a little humor. "It's actually a little funny, isn't it? I mean, a young man like Vin Tanner – sharpshooter, ex-Ranger –he's so masculine and rough around the edges – it's really –well—"
Chris held up one hand to stop her. "Give me a heads up if this is something Orrin wants a meeting about."
The doors on 7th opened and Chris stepped out just as Gloria said after him, "In this day and age, there's nothing wrong with man who chooses to –" but the doors cut her words off.
Chris stood for a moment in front of the elevators, trying to put it together. What in the hell had Tanner done to get himself in the newspaper, exposing some kind of secret?
He refused to speculate until he knew more.
Chris peered ahead through the glass doors across the corridor that lead into the bullpen, where he could see several of his team gathered around Buck's desk. They seemed to be looking at what had to be the offending newspaper, plus some additional photos.
Whatever Tanner had done, it had been caught with photographic evidence. God, please don't let it bring down IA, Chris thought as he moved stiffly toward the doors. Internal Affairs loathed Team Seven for no other reason than the sheer volume of paperwork their firearms use generated. Had Tanner opened them up to something. . .?
Chris paused another moment before he opened the door, shrugging out of his canvas stockman's duster with the fleece lining and shaking it out. There was no snow on it, but it seemed like something to do. The Pepcid bottle rattled so he reached in and thumbed open the cap to shake two into his palm. Then made it three just in case.
Vin Tanner. His closest friend and confidante. Buck was his oldest friend, but Vin was his closest, simpatico since the first moment they had met back when Tanner was still a with the U.S. Marshals.
What the hell had Vin done and not mentioned, to at least prepare him? He popped the anti-acids.
Simons' words ate at him. "Standish. . .not Tanner." What the hell had he meant by that? Anyway, Ezra wasn't prissy. He just dressed well and kept himself clean-cut, and liked the finer things in life.
Didn't make him prissy, for cryin' out loud. And Tanner was the furthest from prissy you could get!
Chris pushed through the glass doors into the office, and walked slowly past the empty cubicles, not intending to sneak up on his men, but wondering what they were gathered, staring at in such a tight group.
He could hear Buck chuckling about something; JD perched on the corner of the desk while Ezra looked over his shoulder at whatever photo it was that held JD's attention.
"Talk about hiding his light under a bushel," Josiah said from behind a copy of the Post's Sunday magazine section with Martha Stewart on the cover.
"Pretty damned funny, if you ask me," Nathan said. "Nobody suspected at all?" He looked at the other four men gathered around. "Not even Chris?"
"Nope," Chris said as he got within six feet of them before they realized he was there.
A collective expression that could only be called "deer in the headlights" crossed their faces. Chris glanced up at the clock, then around the office. With as much restraint as he could muster, he said, "Where's Tanner?"
"He's in," JD said. "Said he had a stop to make—" JD rolled is eyes toward the ceiling. "Upstairs."
The phone rang on Buck's desk. "Wilmington -- What can I do you for?" Suddenly Buck straightened up and growled, "I'll take that bet, Simons. I know Tanner. . .." Simons must have said something else, because Buck snapped, "Make it fifty and you're on!" Buck dropped the phone back in the cradle with a snort.
"What did Simons want to bet on?" Chris asked, his voice even quieter now.
"If Vin really did it, or was there a ringer? He thinks the whole thing was rigged. Asshole."
JD said, "Bill Simons is such a jerk."
Chris Larabee smiled. It was that smile they all hated to see, since it meant unpleasant things were in store for anyone who was within range. Ezra took a step back, and even Josiah straightened from where he had been leaning on the cubicle divider while he read the article – *whatever the hell it was!*— in the magazine section. JD laid the photos on the desk – they appeared to be of groups of people in party and formal clothing at some kind of dinner.
"You mad at Vin about this, Chris? I mean – I'm sure he didn't mean anything by doin' it, and maybe he didn't even know it was going to end up in the newspapers –"
"He rarely goes undercover, so it should not damage his efficacy in the field, " Ezra observed with a hopeful smile. Chris was unsure if Ezra was hoping that it would not impair Vin's ability to assist in his undercover assignments or merely to placate in the situation. With Ezra, it was a toss up, Chris thought uncharitably.
"Now, Chris," Buck said, "I'm sure Vin meant to let you in on this before it hit the papers, but maybe he got a little caught up in all the doings at the Festival, what with them giving out the awards and all –"
The last thing Chris heard from Vin on Friday was that he had some event at the Junior college where he had been taking some preparatory courses for him going for a Masters' in Law Enforcement.
Had he gotten involved with something on campus, something that landed his ass in the newspapers? The possibilities were endless in a college setting--
"What 'festival'?" Chris was getting no answers and knew nothing more than he had when he had left the elevator. He could still taste the Pepcid in his mouth and needed more already. "What awards?"
"Chris, here comes Travis –" Nathan said, nodding toward the glass doors as AD Orrin Travis stepped off the elevator and waited for another person. Several women in the elevator were smiling and chattering amongst themselves as they moved aside to allow Vin Tanner to step out. Apparently Travis was waiting for him. Vin nodded and smiled politely at the women who kept talking cheerfully to him even as the doors closed. While Travis waited, the team's sharpshooter and weapons expert seemed to take a deep breath before coming toward the doors, like he did to center himself before doing something dangerous.
His long hair was pulled back in a neat pony tail, and he wore a denim sport jacket, over his usual pullover and dark pants. He called it his On The Carpet-Asschewing outfit. In his hand he carried an oversize manila envelope, the kind that usual held personnel files.
Oh, shit. Chris' gut tightened at the thought that he had not even known Tanner was in trouble, let alone that it had all gone down before nine in the morning on a Monday.
Dammit, if he'd known, maybe he could have helped Vin somehow--
Chris waited, gritting his teeth in anticipation of Trouble, as Orrin and Vin entered.
"Mornin' fellas," Vin said. Already he was red-faced with embarrassment. "Look, I'm sorry if I kept this a secret from y'all," he said quietly, his stress bringing out his drawl. "It just kept goin' along and suddenly here it was, and I didn't know it was gonna end up like this. . ." he gestured toward the photos and the newspaper's color section laying on Buck's desk.
Chris stayed silent, watching the reactions for clues. He felt more than a little pissed off about still not knowing the full extent of what was happening. He just had to be prepared for the consequences to Vin now that AD Travis was involved and it was all over the building. Whatever the hell it was.
"Orrin," Chris said. "Now what?"
Travis looked at Chris oddly for a moment, then said, "Well, I suppose it's going in the inter-agency newsletter. And Mary wants to do an interview, considering the situation is so unusual, what with Tanner's specialty and his record."
What happened to 'innocent until proven guilty'? Chris wondered. When did it become. . .toss the poor bastard to the wolves in front of God, the Bad Guys and everybody else?
Chris swallowed hard and stared. "You okay with all this, Vin?" He asked softly, expecting to see Vin bolt like a mustang.
Vin shrugged. "Never expected all this fuss."
"You set a hell of an example, Vin." Nathan said, "Can't wait to try out your new 'specialty'."
Chris was not sure he heard right and took a step back.
"Shoot, Vin, we all want to give it a try!" Josiah added.
"Hey, Vin," JD said. "You are so cool."
Buck unlimbered himself and clapped Vin on the back. "The ladies love this kinda thing."
Orrin indicated the envelope. "We'll want a copy of the award certificate, and Gloria's copy machine doesn't make 11 X 17's. JD, would you mind?"
JD grinned. "Are you hanging one in the trophy case next to the sharpshooting trophy?"
Vin was looking at Chris as he said, "You fellas aren't –you know – embarrassed?"
Buck said, "Aw, Bill Simons from Four is makin' all kinds of noise – don't believe you actually did it, but I got a bet on that it was all you!"
Vin nodded. "Couldn't have done it without Jean-Claude, but yeah – it was all me."
"Who's Jean-Claude?" Chris asked quietly.
Ezra smiled. "Monsieur Jean-Claude Chagalle. Pastry Chef at La Petit Trianon."
Vin nodded. "He's my professor. Damned nice fella for bein' mostly French. Used to be SAS in the UK. You know all that super-survival shit they do? Reckon he got tired of eatin' bugs and worms and wallerin' in the dirt. So he became a Cordon Bleu Pastry Chef."
Chris leaned against the edge of the desk. "Pastry chef?" It was then that he actually saw that the photos of brightly-attired people partying around a central table of food included Vin standing beside a fancy cake. It was elaborate and complex, chocolate-frosted and decorated with white curly-cues and lattice, shaped in a smooth dome.
Vin edged closer to Chris. "Mid-term was a competition. I won."
"For. . ..?" Chris asked.
"Chocolat bombé avec cr¸me cacao," Ezra said with the emotion usually displayed by Buck regarding women. "Is it true, as the food critic said, that you added a soup¨on of cointreau to the filling?"
Vin nodded. "Just a 'tetch'. I tried Jack Daniels, but it messed with the texture."
Orrin chuckled. "Well, Mister Tanner, your skills never cease to amaze." Then their staid and serious boss said, "Does this mean we should transfer you . . . to the bombé squad?"
Everyone groaned and Orrin flashed a rare grin.
Chris was still unsure if he processing what was happening around him. First Tanner as a pastry cook, and now AD Travis making bad puns.
Monday. It was Monday. That was it.
"Coffee on?" he asked, his voice sounding desperate to his own ears.
Nathan said, "You okay, Chris? You're looking a little peaked."
The phone rang and Buck grabbed answered, then replied to the caller, "No, this ain't the Larabee Catering Squad, Henderson!" Buck rolled his eyes, listening. "Hell, yes, our boy can take yours! Dessert at the Spring BBQ? Oh, no you don't! No setting the menu in advance." He looked at Ezra. "Standish will handle 'our' negotiations!"
Vin winced and Travis chuckled. "The price of being the champion, Vin."
JD handed him the copies of the certificate that had Vin's name in big calligraphic letters in the middle, surrounded by gold swirls. "I'll get one of these framed and in the lobby trophy case today." At Chris's skeptical expression, he said, "PR isn't as bad as IA, no matter what you think, Chris."
A moment later, Orrin took the extra copies of Vin's winner's certificate and left, carrying it as if it was a Doctoral Graduate Diploma instead of a prize for a fancy cake. Something about Vin had aways made Travis act like a proud uncle whenever Vin passed written tests or exams, and this was no different. They all felt that way, since Vin did not find hitting the books easy, considering his minor dyslexia and a slow start on education in general. Now, a few courses at a time, he was working toward his Masters in Law Enforcement. For that matter, a knot of pride was forming in his own chest, one that was a seemed to grow a little every time Vin passed another course then chose to go on toward his degree.
Chris kept silent and leaned on the wall, arms crossed. A satisfied chuckle started in his gut and threatened to break out in a smile but he managed to stop it as Vin cast another sheepish smile his way. Tanner wasn't getting off that easy, after the worry he'd laid on this morning –even if it was unintentional.
Vin sidled up to Chris and said, "Sorry I didn't tell you, pard. Didn't think it was important when the semester began."
"This some part of the Law Enforcement curriculum that they didn't tell me?"
"Had to take a couple humanities courses. and this one looked more useful than most. Spent a some time before I went in the Army workin' as a short order cook and baker for a while. Kinda took to it, I reckon. Just never got to do it much since what with this bounty-huntin', then the Marshals and now this."
Josiah said, "We thought you lived on junk, Vin. Didn't expect gourmet pastry from you."
Vin shrugged, embarrassed. "Well, I reckon I wanted to try my hand at makin' my own Twinkies and Ho-ho's and it just kinda got outa hand."
The rest of them burst out laughing, to which Vin threw up his hands in disbelief. "But I'm not kiddin'."
Buck held up the color spread in the magazine that showed Vin in a white apron and baker's hat, his hair tied back in a net, with his steely-eyed sniper's expression firmly in place as he sighted in to put the finishing flourish on a white frosting lattice over the chocolate shell covering of his prize-winning masterpiece.
"Who'd 'a thunk ol' Vin Tanner would win the city-wide pastry bake-off and get his ass plastered all over the Home and Hearth Section of the Sunday Post?"
JD called from the break room door, "Coffee's done. Buck brought donuts. Not as good as Bom-Bay Tanner, but they're Krispy Kremes!"
Nathan and Josiah headed for the break room. "Ezra didn't make some of that sissy hazelnut coffee again, did he?" Nathan grumbled.
"Givalia Cr¸me Bruleé flavor in honor of Mister Tanner's emergence as a stellar member of the culinary community!"
"Amen, Ezra. Fine choice!" However, Ezra groaned as Josiah deliberately added, "Where's the Coffeemate?"
Vin called after, them, "All I done was make a damned cake to get a decent grade. Don't be callin' me no names, Ezra." Vin glanced at Chris. "You okay, Cowboy?"
The smile that finally escaped along with Chris's deflated bad mood was one of relief, considering what the morning's revelations had first sounded like and he nudged Vin with his shoulder. "Yeah. You makin' this bombé thing for the Game next Sunday?"
Vin shook his head vigorously. "Uh-uh. Apple torte, maybe. That fuckin' bombé took me nigh on twelve hours or more!" Vin headed for the break room with the others. "Hey, JD, save me one of them jelly-filled ones!"
Chris followed, happily listening to the rowdy banter echoing across the empty main office.
Buck was right.