Thursday, November 2nd
Black and Orange. Damn it. Everywhere he turned all he saw was those two infernal colors. Mocking him. Reminding him of the nightmare his life had become. What the hell was he going to do?
Ezra Standish scrubbed the heels of his hands over his sweaty forehead, as if he was trying to erase the memory of what he had recently learned. 'My Gawd. What in the world were they thinkin'?' His blood-shot eyes sought out the illuminated clock that seemed to mock him even more than his thoughts. Its red numbers announced to the exhausted man that it was only 3:43 am. 'Wonderful, just wonderful. Now I can not even effect my escape from these horrendous events for a few peaceful hours of uninterrupted slumber.'
He threw back the light comforter and shuffled determinedly to the master bathroom in search of anything that would help him reclaim some sanity in his life. With a heavy sigh, Ezra finally settled on the blue and white bottle containing his fresh supply of Tylenol PMÔ . Lit by the dim light that seeped into the tastefully decorated room, he shook out two tablets and quickly swallowed them before returning to his rumpled bed. After punching his down pillows into submission, he burrowed back under the covers in an effort to reclaim the sleep that had been eluding him these past couple of nights... .
Monday, October 30th
"Fine... . Yes sir... . I understand... . Of course Judge, we'll all be there... . Yes, I understand how important this is... . Your welcome." On those final words, the black receiver was thrust back into its cradle with such force that it rocked back and forth for a few moments before coming to rest. Chris Larabee leaned back in his leather chair and closed his eyes as he tried to gain control of his thoughts. He could hear the rest of the team in the bullpen going about their business. Buck was harassing the Kid about his date with Casey the night before. He knew that if he opened his eyes he would see Josiah perched on the corner of Nathan's desk going over some new article from the most recent issue of National Geographic or some other publication they were always flipping through. Vin and Ezra would probably be holed up in the break room plotting yet another disastrous practical joke on some poor unsuspecting, but at least in their minds, deserving victim. This was how it always was when Team 7 wrapped up a long case. It was not that Chris begrudged his team members the down time because he didn't. When they were on a case every single man gave the matter their 110% effort. No, what he was trying to prolong was the peace that was sure to evaporate as soon as he made his announcement.
"Well," he muttered as he reached for the brass doorknob. "No time like the present."
"Hey guys! Listen up!" Larabee called out to the members of his elite team. "I just got off the phone with the Judge and he has requested the presence of all seven of us tomorrow evening." The six men looked over at their leader, waiting for him to continue. "It seems that there is some sort of charity thing going on and he wants us to represent the ATF at it. You know, some sort of good public relations thing."
"Aw, come on Chris!" Buck interrupted. "This is our time."
"Yeah. You said that we didn't have anything comin' up for the next few weeks," JD piped in, adding his two bits.
"Yeah, I know. Team 6 was suppose to go but it seems that Mike Kelly's kid has decided to share the chickenpox with four of its members so we are now the lucky ones who have been chosen to take their place."
"Can we not just tender our sincere regrets, Mr. Larabee?" Standish offered from his corner desk.
"Let's just say," Chris bit out, shooting one of his famous glares at his undercover agent, "this was an invitation that, short of death, we can not refuse."
"What type of charity thing is it Chris?" Vin asked.
Larabee quickly ducked his head for a moment and counted to ten before answering his best friend's question. He knew exactly the sort of reaction to expect from his men once they were informed of the particulars. This was one of those times he truly wished that he had been born in a different era when he could have been working on a horse ranch and not heading up the best team the ATF had ever had. He knew that the faster you pulled a band aid off the quicker the pain went away so that was going to be his plan. Spit the plan out as fast as possible and pray for the recovery to be as painless as possible.
"Some sort of masked ball that is held at the Grand Ballroom downtown every year," the blonde man said as he stared at the spot on the wall just to the left of Nathan's head.
A soft moan emanated from behind the team's sharpshooter's computer at the pronouncement. From the sounds of it, tomorrow evening was going to be spent suffering through a very long night in a constricting bow tie and cummerbund. Nathan threw a glance over in the younger man's direction in a sympathetic show of support. None of the men, aside from the Armani-clad southerner, enjoyed having to dress up in formalwear, especially if they were being ordered to do so.
Chris looked each of the men straight in the eye before adding, "The Judge says that this is for his favorite charity benefiting the Denver Homeless Kids Community Club." His gaze settled on Ezra, who was mentally reviewing his closet's inventory with a small smile, before adding his final surprise. "Oh, one last thing. Our masks will be delivered to us here later this afternoon," Larabee growled before turning on his heel and retreating to the safe haven of his office.
Standish's well-groomed head jerked up at that final pronouncement with startled eyes. "How marvelous. Now we are reduced to dressing up like two-bit performers from a side show," he drawled.
The rest of the day passed in a blur of paperwork. Regardless of how diligently they worked, the paperwork always seemed to multiply by the end of a case. The numerous forms, written reports and expense requests relating to their case all needed to be completed and turned into the supervisor's office by the end of the week. Occasionally, Buck would lob a plastic ball over his computer monitor, aiming for his partner's dark head, breaking up the monotony of the forced task at hand. After numerous coffee breaks and stretching of the legs, even Larabee conceded that his men were not going to make a dent in the necessary paperwork. Four o'clock found the seven of them relaxing in the bullpen, rehashing details of how Nathan and JD ended up at the wrong end of the suspect's rottweiller. Josiah was wiping tears from his craggy face as Nathan valiantly tried to explain how JD had convinced him that the best way to get past the snarling guard dog was to act like one. Even Chris was faintly smiling at the mental picture of two of the ATF's highly trained professionals crawling around on all fours, howling at the moon. He was always amazed at the 'brilliant ideas' JD would come up with that would sometimes actually get them out of some pretty tight spots.
Out of the corner of his eye, Vin caught sight of a bespectacled teen-ager lurking just inside of the glass doors of their offices. He pushed up from his spot on the carpeted floor and padded over to the young man.
"Uh, hi mister. I was looking for a ... " the kid said as he squinted at a small wadded up piece of paper. "Oh yeah!" he exclaimed with a relieved smile. "Mr. Larabee. I got a delivery for him here."
"I can sign for it," Vin drawled. The Texan reached over and scratched his name on the appropriate line and gently pried the box from the kid's hand. With a small smile, Vin slipped a five-dollar bill in the now-empty hand and lightly directed the kid back towards the doors.
"Whatcha got there, Vin?" Chris asked.
"Package for you. Think it's from the Judge."
Larabee slowly stood up, stretching the tense muscles that had formed in his neck. After the final pop, he reached out to accept the proffered package. His six-team members crowded around, straining to see the hidden treasures. With a small frown, he ripped apart the cardboard flaps and peered inside. Seven smaller, individually wrapped packages were nestled in white tissue paper. Each was tagged with a team member's name. The only other item in the box was a small white envelope with his name printed on it. Two slender fingers reached out and snagged the envelope from its resting place. Breaking the seal, Larabee withdrew a single folded sheet, flipped it open and read it aloud.
I have personally selected each mask for you and your men. The festivities begin at seven tomorrow evening. Don't be late.
'Well, at least there won't be any fighting over who gets what mask,' Larabee thought.
JD grabbed his package and tore into the wrapping enthusiastically while the others watched him with indulgent smiles. As the last of the paper floated to the floor, JD held up his mask to his eyes in confusion. He jerked around to glare at the sound of his roommate's roaring laughter.
"What's so funny?" he snapped.
"Look at it. What does it remind you of, Kid?" sputtered Buck.
JD held the small strip of green strip at arm's length, turning it over. "I don't know. Just looks like some small green mask."
"I think what Buck was tryin' to say," Vin offered, "was that it looks like the mask that Robin wears."
"Robin? Robin Williams?"
Amid the loud burst of laughter, Josiah maneuvered closer to the young man and asked, "Naw. Come on, ain't you ever heard of Batman and Robin?"
"Ah, come on. You mean ... " JD grimaced.
"Yeah! You are the Boy Wonder!" Buck whooped, wiping the tears from his eyes.
"Great. Just great. Even the Judge thinks of me as a kid."
"Don't worry, JD," Larabee offered. "He doesn't think of you that way. He knows your are a very talented agent. If he didn't, you wouldn't be here. Well, let's see what the Judge picked out for the rest of us."
Nathan quickly passed out the remaining packages before he carefully started to open his own. The ex-medic's hands stilled when a sharp whistle broke the silence. He looked over in Vin's direction just in time to see the Judge's choice for the sharpshooter. Vin held up the offensive black object and immediately began to voice his strong refusal.
Grinning at the old man's sense of humor, Larabee quietly reminded the man, "Vin, remember what the Judge wrote in his note. How he 'personally selected' that one for you."
"Chris," Vin shouted, "there is no way in hell that you're gonna make me wear this thing again!" With that said, he tossed the black cloth down and slumped back in his chair, crossing his arms in defiance.
"Hey Chris," Buck called out, "ain't that the Zorro mask Vin here used to dance his famous routine in?"
"Shut up, Wilmington!" The longhaired sharpshooter glared at his friend with the promise of retribution if the ladies man continued to pursue this trip down memory lane.
Unable to stop himself, Ezra added, "Come now, Mr. Tanner. If I recall correctly, you were the absolute hit of the entire revue. All of the ladies were unable to contain their excitement at the mere sight of you behind this illustrious mask."
"Ez, don't go there," Vin warned softly.
The undercover agent knew a threat when he heard one and, being one who believed in self-preservation, he wisely refrained from adding anything further to the current conversation. Instead, he busied himself with opening his own package. To his delight, he discovered a replica of the famous white mask worn in one of his favorite Broadway plays. Holding up the half mask to his face, he peered at his counterparts with a smile playing on his lips.
Josiah caught sight of the southerner and nodded his approval. The Phantom's trademark suited the man. The large man returned his attention to his own package, wondering what the Judge had selected for him. With a small smile, he held up a brown leather mask, studded with natural stones that were similar to the native ones found in South America.
Meanwhile, Nathan had continued digging through the tissue paper and withdrew a gold mask similar to the ones he saw in New Orleans. He turned the mask over to look at it more closely and found that it was indeed a product from a past Mardi Gras celebration.
"Hey, Nate," Buck said, poking JD in the side, "looks like you got a girlie mask."
"I'll have you know, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra smoothly interrupted. "It is a well known fact that many great men, including King Louis the Fourteenth, have been known to wear such a mask with pride. I believe that the good judge made a wise choice for our friend here. Besides, we are all waiting breathless with anticipation to behold what creation you are holding there."
Buck grunted his defeat as he removed the covering from his mask. After a few seconds, a huge smile creased his face as he held up his mask in triumph. "Hah! I am the one, the only... ," he exclaimed, jumping up on his desk, holding his fists on his hips, "I am BATMAN!"
"Well, Chris," JD asked in an attempt to ignore his loud friend. "Which one did the Judge pick out for you?"
With a sigh of resignation, the Team's leader made quick work of the outer covering and inwardly sighed in relief. In his hands, he held a plain black mask that would cover three-fourths of his face, making it nearly indistinguishable from anyone who knew him.
"Ah, a mask befitting its wearer," Josiah noted.
"All right, let's get this place cleaned up," Larabee ordered. "It's time to head home!"
The cool autumn air invaded the condo's interior as Ezra entered his home. He tossed his keys onto the smooth surface of the table in the entryway. After placing his briefcase next to the hall closet, he pulled off the gray jacket and loosened his silk tie. He moved into the dimly lit living room and flipped on his stereo, sighing in appreciation as Chopin's Prelude No. 3 in G Major washed over his tired mind. As the piece progressed, he went to his bedroom and changed into a comfortable pair of sweatpants and a long-sleeved tee shirt he had just gotten from Land's End. With a glass of aged whiskey resting at his side, Ezra stretched out in his leather recliner, preparing to enjoy the remainder of his evening with a good book when the sound of the telephone intruded.
"Really. Is that any way that my baby boy should be answering the telephone?"
Ezra moaned quietly at the sound of his mother's voice emanating from the receiver he was clutching in his hand. 'Dear Gawd, what did I do to deserve this tonight?'
"Ezra? Are you listening to me?" Maude's voice sounded a bit rough to Ezra but he pushed that thought to the back of his mind. His first concern was trying to figure out how to end this call as soon as possible.
"Of course, Mother. Don't I always give you my undivided attention?" Ezra asked wryly. He pushed himself into a sitting position and took a long drink from the cut crystal glass. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"
"Well, dear boy, I wanted to let you know that I was planning on gracing your little town with my delightful presence next week!" Maude announced. "I wanted to be sure that I would be able to spend some time with my darlin' boy."
'Oh, wonderful. The Whirlwind is coming to town!' Ezra thrust his fingers through his chestnut hair, tugging at the ends. "Of course I would love to have dinner with you, Mother. Which evening were you thinking about?"
Finally, ten minutes later, Ezra shoved the receiver into its cradle and moved stiffly across the room to refill his empty glass from the fully stocked wet bar. His once peaceful evening had been shattered by a single phone call. Getting shot by gunrunners was more pleasurable than the thought of a visit with his mother.
Tuesday, October 31st
The entire team had given the southerner wide berth that morning when it became clear that he was not his usual charming self. Vin and Josiah had both attempted to begin a conversation with the man but immediately turned their good intentions elsewhere at his sharp responses. They all knew from past experience that whatever was bothering the man would come out sooner or later.
The day passed in a blur of shuffling papers and soft curses as the men set themselves to the task of completing the reports from the previous week's successful bust. Paperwork was the bane of their existence. Each of them, at one time or another, had voiced the wish that they were back in the good old days when all lawmen had to do was catch the bad guys and hand them over to the courts. A time when there were no reports to file, no committees to answer to any time one of them used a bullet.
By four o'clock that afternoon, Vin's report was handed in to Chris and they all let out a collective sigh of relief. Buck and JD had finished theirs up earlier, fidgeting as they waited for Vin to complete the final paper. They had been quietly plotting how they could get the floor's secretary to share her stash of Halloween candy with them and needed Vin for their plan to be successful. They all knew that Sheila could not resist him and would gladly hand over the entire bowl if he asked. Josiah had said once that it was his blue eyes and laid back way of approaching life that made the sharpshooter irresistible to the ladies. As soon as Vin came back out of Chris' office, the duo pounced.
"Hey Vin," Buck said as he placed an arm around the younger man's shoulders, "did ya know that Miss Sheila has Butterfingers at her desk?"
Tanner's eyes lit up at the mention of his favorite candy bar. "Naw. I hadn't had the time to see her today."
"Well, you know how much the little lady likes to visit with ya," Buck said, steering him towards the door. "And ya know that JD here really needs something to keep his blood sugar level up. What, with him bein' a growin' boy and all."
Knowing what the older agent was up to but unable to resist the lure, Vin grabbed JD's shoulder and headed towards the promised sweets.
"Ten bucks says that boy not only gets one bar, he ends up bringing back the entire bowl," Buck offered with a grin in Standish's direction.
"I never accept a bet that I am not sure to win, Mr. Wilmington. Surely you know that this is what is commonly known as, I believe the term you have used in the past is, 'a sucker's bet'," Ezra smirked.
The sound of JD's voice could be heard as the two agents returned from their self-appointed errand. "Ah, come on Vin. It's not like your going to eat all of it. Besides, Miss Sheila did say that I could have some."
Josiah just shook his head and returned his attention to his newest acquisition to his home library. It wasn't often that he came across a first edition of a Charles Dickens's masterpiece that he could afford. He wanted to thoroughly inspect the book and enjoy the aroma of old ink.
"JD, she gave you your piece of candy," Vin said as he entered the offices with his arms wrapped tightly around a large orange and black bowl. "She said that I could have the rest. Said nothin' about havin' to share with anyone else!"
Standish had moved quietly to Buck's side when the two young agents had returned and whispered, "I'll wager ten dollars that Mr. Tanner not only keeps all of the goodies for himself but that young Mr. Dunne winds up meeting the floor within the next five minutes."
With a gleam, Wilmington quickly agreed and turned to shake his teammate's hand to seal the bargain. No sooner did the two release their clasped hands the sound of a body hitting the carpeted floor was heard. "Damn, Ez! Here, take the money," he said, shoving the bill into the gambler's outstretched palm.
Larabee had chosen to leave the sanctuary of his private office at that particular moment and chuckled at the sight of two of his best agents wrestling over a bowl of snack size candy bars.
"Okay guys," Larabee said, interrupting the jovial scene before him, "Let's knock off a little early. I know that some of us need more time than others to get ready for this shin-dig tonight."
Loud hoots and slapping hands were heard as the men celebrated their early release from work.
"Remember, we are all suppose to be there at seven sharp," Larabee reminded them. "Do not be one minute late." Chris caught the eye of his undercover agent as he uttered this last order.
The large grandfather clock had just begun to chime the hour as the seven men convened in the spacious lobby. After final minor adjustments to their attire, the men placed their respective masks over their faces and prepared to join the festivities. With seven sets of squared shoulders and long matching strides, they entered the party with the unspoken plan of biding their time until a respectable period had elapsed and they could make their departures.
The Grand Ballroom was decked out in style, providing an elegant showcase for the numerous pumpkins and bales of hay that graced its marble floors. The organizers of the party had managed to create the effect of a warmly lit barn amid the glamour of Denver's elite society. A dance floor had been installed near the front of the room to the left of the orchestra. Many gaily decorated tables and chairs hovered around the outskirts of the room. There was even an apple bobbing area set up for those brave enough to attempt to capture the elusive target.
Vin and JD immediately split off from the others and headed off towards the feast that was laid out on the banquet tables in the back of the room. They soon returned with their plates overflowing and a couple of bottles of beer. Chris and the others had found a table that was partially lost in the shadows of the room and, just as they settled into the padded chairs, Judge Travis and his wife, Evie, appeared at their table.
"Good to see that you could make it, boys!"
"It was kind of you to extend the invitation, sir," Ezra replied.
The Judge looked over each member of his elite team, smiling with pleasure at the sight of their faces encased in the masks that he had personally chosen with each man in mind. "I hope that you all are enjoying the masks that I had sent over!"
Chris quickly jumped in, "Yes sir. It was really nice of you to go to so much work. I'm sure that I speak for the rest when I say that we all really appreciate the thought that you put into your choices for each of us." He leveled one of his famous Larabee Glares at Tanner, daring him to contradict his words. In defeat, Vin grabbed his cold bottle of beer and took a large swig from it.
" I do hope that you gentlemen do not plan on hiding back here the entire evening!" Evie scolded gently.
"Of course not, ma'am," Josiah assured the worried lady. "We were just acclimating ourselves to the festivities."
With a final smile and a pat on the shoulder, the Travises moved off to visit with the next table.
"Brother Nathan," Josiah boomed, "I think that it is time for us to see what bountiful feast has been assembled for our pleasure."
Ezra, spotting a couple of old acquaintances from his time in Atlanta, left the others at the table and set off to join them. The remainder of the team watched him as he began to speak with a lovely redhead who was standing next to the men Ezra had just joined. "Man, that guy knows all the good-looking women!" JD sighed.
"Well, at least he don't have to deal with havin' animal magnetism! Right Buck?" Vin teased.
The ladies man sat up taller in his seat and shot a grin in the younger man's direction, "Someone must spread this special God-given talent and I happen to be the chosen one!"
"Ah hell, Buck. That ain't talent you're talking about. It's just shy of harassment that you share with all those poor unsuspecting ladies!" Chris tossed over the table with a smirk.
"Now Chris, you know that ain't true. None of the ladies who have spent time with me ever left feeling harassed! Nope. Those ladies went away filled with pure happiness and you know it!" Buck countered with a grin.
Laughing, Larabee stood up and cocked his head in the direction of the bar. Taking his old friend up on the silent invitation, the two men left Vin and JD to enjoy their meals in peace.
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