Day of the Hunters
Notes: This story was originally known as Settling the Score, but after having that on the hard drive for over a year I needed a change, hence, ‘Day of the Hunters’. It is the sequel to ‘Rebuilding the Past’, although if you’re looking for answers regarding Ezra’s past you won’t find many in this story. Some will be answered in the next instalment, ‘Remember Me…’ and more in subsequent parts.
Thanks: to Mitzi and Beth for their inspiration and dedication... you guys are awesome!
Story moved to Blackraptor in October 2009
Standish whipped the cell phone from his ear and stared at it in bewilderment. Who the hell was that? Definitely not Larabee. And what deal? “Chris?” What the hell was going on? Had he dialed a wrong number? No – Chris’ number was on automatic dial. And Larabee had initially answered the phone.
“Larabee’s keeping us company,” the unfamiliar voice announced, a faint chuckle followed the revelation. “He’s been real friendly, but ya see, he ain’t feeling too talkative at the moment.”
“Who the fucking hell is this? Let me talk to Chris!” Standish ordered, shouting into the receiver. His problems suddenly seemed inconsequential compared to the threat that was being played out down his cell phone. How had they gotten Chris? Why had they taken Chris?
“Yer in no position to demand anything…listen up.”
Ezra’s eyes widened and a knot of fear curled in his gut as Chris’ scream echoed down the line. “STOP! Whatever you’re doing to him, for God’s sake, stop! Please.”
The hollow voice laughed into the phone. “Then perhaps you’d like to join us, Mr. Standish. Or is it still, Simon Evans?”
The undercover agent shook with rage. He heard Chris shouting in the background, ordering him not to come, but in the middle of the plea, his friend went disturbingly quiet.
Three Days Earlier - Part 1
Chris Larabee growled an expletive, and swung back on his chair. Disgruntled at the constant interruptions, he gruffly answered the phone. The way his day was unfolding he would never get this report finished by knock-off time. “Larabee.”
“Chris. It’s Orin.” There was a curt note of urgency in his superior’s tone of voice. One the leader of Team 7 was quite familiar with.
Larabee glanced at the half-completed report on his PC and saved it; he would finish it later. “What’s up?”
“Chris…I thought you needed to know, Chen Li was found hanging by the neck in his cell early this morning.” He was obligated to inform Larabee of this new development, it potentially impacted on one of his team members. Technically, all of them were practically joined at the hip.
Larabee collapsed heavily onto his leather chair. Chen Li had been arrested on conspiracy charges along with Averill Torres. Torres was in jail and awaiting trial. The same place Li had been. Li had been a minor player in his grandfather’s firearm smuggling ring and his lawyer had been negotiating a deal for a reduced sentence. In exchange, Li would offer inside information on Torres.
The Torres and Li empires held great antipathy toward each other. More especially so after the bungled raid which saw Torres abducting Li and the attaché case full of gun money Hoi Chung Li, Chen’s grandfather, had brought along for the trade. Fortunately his escape had been short-lived. Torres had deceived everyone…not only had he escaped with the money, but there’d been no guns found at the raid. None of the promised weapons had yet to surface on the streets. Hoi Chung Li had been released after the raid to return to his pawn shop. They had been waiting for the older Asian to make another bid for the weapons, but he’d been biding his time. Now this. Chen Li’s death would not go unnoticed.
“I’m not certain of all the details as yet.”
“And nobody saw or heard anything…right?” Larabee could feel the beginnings of a headache and massaged his temples.
“That’s the way they’re playing it. I’ve sent a team out to investigate.”
“Right.” Chris was about to hang up, but paused when Travis continued.
“Chris…” There was a long stretch of silence that hung empty over the line. “There’s something else…all the surveillance tapes against Torres and Hoi Chung Li have been wiped.”
FUCK! “Then it’s time to bring in Hoi Chung Li.” Standish had been undercover for several months setting up the two sets of gunrunners. Everything up ‘til now had been proceeding much too smoothly.
“There was a warrant signed this morning for his arrest.”
“I can hear a but coming. Was he picked up?”
“Sorry, Chris. Li’s gone to ground.”
Chris groaned. “So…what you’re saying is that Ezra’s the only remaining witness we have against Torres?” And if Ezra were taken out, then there would be no viable case against the gunrunner; Torres would be back on the streets almost overnight. Torres wouldn’t hesitate in silencing the undercover agent to free his hide. And it was, more than a little conceivable, that he was connected with Chen Li’s death. Was Ezra safe…had his cover as Simon Evans kept him safe?
“That is correct. Now, there shouldn’t be a threat to Standish’s continuing working, but—”
“But what?” Chris closed his eyes, dreading the words Travis was about to say.
“It might be worthwhile advising Ezra to take some leave…make himself scarce for the next few weeks, until the trial. I can arrange for a replacement while Standish is absent.”
“Sounds to me like you’ve already got someone in mind.” Why now of all times? He had a shitload of cases falling off his desk that urgently needed investigating. It was a hell of a time to lose one of his agents and then be expected to bring a new agent up to speed. “Shit!” Chris swore, not caring that Travis was listening.
The trial was three weeks away, and he just knew Ezra would be reluctant to take time off. Why should he? They’d put the word around that Simon Evans had gone into hiding. If either the Torres or Li families went searching for Evans they’d come up empty. But his anonymity would be blown away at the trial, which is why they’d hoped Ezra wouldn’t need to testify. So much for that. Chris frowned at the increasing influx of noise coming from the bullpen. Couldn’t his team work quietly? He walked to the office door stretching the phone cord to the limit, hoping to block out the commotion. He kicked the door closed, resisting the urge to look out. He would find out soon enough what caused the racket. “Does Ezra know?”
“I trust you’ll inform Agent Standish of this new development.”
“He isn’t going to like it, and he would be of more use in the office working than kicking back at the townhouse and twiddling his thumbs.” And it would be easier to protect Standish if he was with them.
There was a prolonged silence over the line. “If that’s how you want to handle it, Chris. If you change your mind, or Ezra does, then I can have Mitchell Ryan on the next plane out.”
With a heavy sigh, Larabee muttered, “Have you already spoken with him?”
“Then, I’m asking you not to, Sir.” He didn’t need this…not now. Shit! If Travis thought his team would welcome Mitchell Ryan into their family to replace Ezra, even for a few weeks, then he was sadly mistaken. Larabee had originally considered Ryan for Ezra’s position when the team was activated. They’d even had a few initial meetings, but Larabee had instinctively disliked the man and pushed his file to the bottom of the pile.
Special Agent Ryan worked for the ATF branch in Connecticut. He’d established a reputation as a hard ass with brass balls. Technically, on paper, he was an exceptional agent and his file was filled with many commendations. But his attitude and social climbing rubbed most people the wrong way. He climbed over the little people taking credit when it was not his. Larabee cringed, knowing Ryan wouldn’t fit in well with his team…yet he knew Travis liked the agent. Ryan had been Travis’ choice for Team 7, which was why Standish had served such a long probation period with the team. “I’ll talk to Ezra, but there hasn’t even been a hint of trouble. If it comes down to the line, we can always take turns keeping an eye on him. Just promise me you won’t speak to Ryan about substituting.”
Travis hedged a direct reply and didn’t make any promises. “I’ll leave it in your hands. Let me know what you decide.”
“Yeah, sure,” Chris dutifully answered, tossing the receiver bluntly into the cradle. He sank back in his chair, rubbing his neck. Five minutes, that’s all he’d need. Five minutes of peace and quiet.
“Sit!” Jackson ordered, gripping Ezra by the elbow and guiding him to the nearest seat. “JD, get me the First Aid Kit.”
“It’s nothing but a scratch, Nathan.” Standish waved off the concerned hands, but gratefully fell into the chair. What a bitch of a morning!
“Either you let me check it out, or you’re going straight to the ER. Might still take you there.” Depending how bad it is, Nathan sighed. He screwed his face, frowning at the sorry state of the Southerner. How had he managed to slip past security? Had no one seen the bleeding agent enter the building? There was enough blood running down his face that he would have left a trail from his car into the office. Surely someone saw the wounded agent staggering around the building? Was everyone so caught up in their own lives that they couldn’t even take a few minutes to find out if Ezra needed help? Or at least get a message through to Team 7’s floor to be on the lookout for the injured agent’s arrival.
Vin gently slapped Standish on the back, keeping a restraining hand there to make sure the undercover agent didn’t stand. “You’d best do as he says,” he whispered close to Ezra’s ear. “Don’t want ya dripping anymore blood onto that expensive suit of yours.”
Ezra frowned at the sea of concerned faces. He should have returned to his abode following the accident. “It is just a minor abrasion.” Again he attempted to touch the wound, but his hand was caught and lowered to his side. Why do they do that?
“Yeah…Just a scratch, that’s bleeding like a bitch,” Nathan mimicked, tearing open a dressing and pressing it against the injury. “Thanks, JD.” He ignored the raspy hiss from the Southerner, but did ease off slightly. He didn’t want Ezra to pass out, he wanted answers.
Dunne settled the First Aid Kit on the floor and joined the circle surrounding Standish. “How’s the Jag?”
Ezra groaned. “Some repairs will be required.”
“I can call the repair shop for you, and drop it off,” JD eagerly suggested.
“Thank you, Mr. Dunne. That would be most generous.” If Ezra didn’t feel like crap he would have returned the jaw-splitting grin that JD bestowed on him. It was like giving a lollipop to a three-year-old, JD couldn’t resist driving the Jag, no matter what state of disrepair the vehicle was in.
JD grinned. Gonna drive the Jag! He resisted dancing on the spot; he figured in Standish’s condition he wouldn’t appreciate his enthusiasm.
“It’s pulling to the left,” Ezra warned, and tossed the keys to the youngest member of the team.
“You hurt anywhere else?” Jackson queried.
“You get a license number?” Josiah questioned.
Standish shook his head, feeling incredibly dizzy as he did so. “No plates.”
“What the hell is going on out here?” Larabee strode from his office and pushed through the circle. The hard demeanor fell from his face when he saw the ashen features of Standish surrounded by the remainder of the team. What the hell happened?
“Ezra had a run-in with a not-so-friendly-motorist and came off second best.” Sanchez ruffled the agent’s hair.
“What!” Chris scowled, coming around to stand directly in front of Ezra to get a better look. “He need to go to the hospital?” he asked Jackson, the most medically trained of the group.
“Probably,” Nathan agreed, ignoring the groan coming from his charge. “I think this could do with a few stitches.” He lifted the dressing a fraction to show Chris and the blood welled again as soon as the pressure was released.
Larabee agreed. “Nathan, you and I will take him. Buck, I want you to do a tag-along behind us.”
That grabbed everyone’s attention.
Ezra swayed in the chair. “I’m not about to abscond,” he responded tartly, insulted by Larabee’s arrangements.
Chris crouched, smiling at his agent. “I’ve just got off the phone with Travis. Li’s grandson hung himself this morning and all the surveillance tapes we had on the meetings between Torres and Li have been erased.” He’d like to get his hands on whoever conveniently cleaned those tapes from the evidence room. “And Hoi Chung Li has gone underground,” he added in disgust. The older Asian had to have been tipped off. Torres had a network of spies and gofers around the city; he had to be the mastermind behind this debacle.
“Nice of him to inform me of this new development,” Ezra sarcastically drawled. “But that doesn’t demand the royal escort.”
“I was on my way out to let you know,” Chris defended Travis’ actions, even though he was unimpressed by the AD’s methods himself. “Travis only found out this morning. And considering your little bust up, I think the extra precaution is warranted.”
“Ya don’t seriously think Torres was behind Ezra’s accident this morning, do ya?” Dunne questioned. The gunrunner was in jail, awaiting trial, after all.
Chris shrugged, patting the Southerner’s knee as he stood. “Better safe than sorry.”
Larabee leaned on the doorframe, his arms crossed over his chest. He heard the heavy footfalls of Wilmington before he saw the moustached man and turned to meet Buck’s worried frown with a reassuring grin. “He’s fine.”
“Yeah? He patched up already?”
“Just fussing.” Chris smirked, watching the grouchy Southerner as he attempted to avoid further poking and prodding from the doctor. “Nathan’s about ready to strangle him.”
Buck chuckled. “They do put on a good show. Ezra make a statement?”
“Yeah.” Chris lifted a sandy eyebrow at his oldest friend. How’d you know?
“Saw the traffic cop leavin’ as I was coming in,” Buck grinned, knowing Chris would be curious.
“Not a lot to go on, though.” Chris snorted and shook his head. “You notice anyone bootlegging us?”
“If there was, then they’re fucking good.”
“Some good news, finally,” Chris sighed. The doctor joined them at the crowded doorway and stopped as Larabee and Wilmington barred his escape. “How’s Ezra?”
“Mister Standish has a slight concussion, bruised ribs and we stitched closed that gash. He’ll be fine to leave here, so long as he isn’t left on his own. I’d like someone to monitor him for the rest of the day and preferably overnight.”
Larabee nodded. “Anything else?”
“He’s all yours.” The doctor grinned, pushing through the ATF agents’ blockade. “If there is any significant change in his status, don’t hesitate to bring him back,” he called from the corridor.
“Ready to go?”
“Yes! Let’s depart this facility.” Standish jumped off the hospital trolley, eager to leave, but swayed as his feet hit the polished floor.
“Not so fast,” Nathan ordered, grabbing the Southerner by the forearm and steadying him. “We’re taking him, where?” Jackson questioned Chris.
Chris held up his hand to forestall the argument that Ezra was about to begin. “Back to the office.” Ezra grinned smugly at the former medic.
“What?” Nathan queried, not happy with the arrangements. Standish wouldn’t rest if he were back at the office.
“We’ve got too much work to do, Nathan, to take one, or two of us away. There’s a couch in my office, he can use that. I’ll work at Ezra’s desk.”
“He’s not going to rest,” Jackson argued, attempting to appeal to Larabee’s better judgment. Standish needed a bed and he needed to sleep. “The minute you close the door, he’ll be working at your computer,” Nathan predicted.
“There is nothing wrong with—”
“Shut up, Ezra!” Jackson interrupted.
“I am quite—”
Standish winced at the loud reprimand. “You don’t need to yell, Mr. Jackson.”
“Let’s get going, we’ll work something out,” Chris smirked, winking conspiratorially at the former EMT.
Chris glanced speculatively at Jackson as he quietly closed the office door. It was about the fourth time Nathan had slipped inside the darkened room and checked on the stubborn Southerner. Standish had put up some resistance to resting, and was rather vocal when Larabee removed the PC, the stationary and current files the team were working on. It was probably more for show than out of any real desire to work. Since they had left him though, the room had become quiet. “He okay?”
“Sleeping,” Nathan whispered; a grin spread over his face.
Wilmington chuckled. “You going to let him go home tonight?”
“Might be easier if we head out to the ranch. That way at least I get a bed.”
“Reckon he’s done that on purpose,” Tanner mused. “Ya know, not having a spare bed, so none of us can stay over at his place – unless we take the sofa.”
“The man does like his privacy,” Josiah intoned.
“Yeah, but we’re his friends,” Buck growled. “‘Bout time he started to let us in.” Again, Buck silently added.
“I think that boy is hiding behind far too many secrets,” Sanchez puzzled. He watched Vin, JD and Nathan nod in agreement, but was surprised to notice a strange look of fear and concern pass between Buck and Chris. Now he knew there was something they were hiding from the rest of the team and it concerned their errant undercover agent. “Maybe he could be convinced that sharing a problem is a weight halved,” he directed this statement at both Larabee and Wilmington.
“That’s good advice, Josiah,” Buck laughed half-heartedly. “You should talk to him.”
Dunne almost flew to the underground parking garage – his feet never touching the ground for more than the necessary spurt needed to bounce the next leap into the air. His wide smile edged from ear to ear and although he was concerned for Standish, he couldn’t contain the bubble of excitement that heralded the opportunity to drive Ezra’s beloved Jag.
His enthusiasm dropped a notch as he was confronted with the Southerner’s wrecked vehicle. “Holy Shit!” Dunne methodically perused the dented and crumpled Jag. He whistled, in exclamation. How in the hell, did Ezra escape with only a crack to his head? What a wreck. Wonder if it still drives? Both ends were buckled and the left side was crushed inwards. Maybe he would have been better off calling for a tow-truck, but JD dismissed this option when he glanced at his watch. No time, the garage that Ezra frequented would be shutting up for the night and JD’d have to wait until morning to get it in, if he didn’t deliver the Jag now as he’d promised. Damn! Should have done it at lunchtime. Too late now. Dunne had promised Ezra he’d get his car to the repair shop, and he would. He’d just take it slow; hope for the best.
JD gingerly sat in the leather seat, pushed at the now deflated airbags and keyed the engine over. A good start, at least, but a shiver trembled down his spine. Dunne checked over his shoulders, both sides and craned his neck to seek out the dimmer areas of the parking garage. The bizarre feeling of being watched didn’t leave him as he cautiously pulled out into the traffic. “Just imagining it, JD,” he told himself. It was a very restrained Dunne who drove the damaged vehicle; much of his enthusiasm had diminished after seeing the state of the car. And to think Ezra continued to drive after his accident that morning. How far had Standish driven the wrecked vehicle before arriving this morning?
JD was several blocks from the repair shop when the rain started pounding on the windshield. Great, that was all he needed! His face scrunched into a grimace, fearing the damaged vehicle would spring a leak and he’d be swimming before reaching the repair shop. “Oh man, the things I gotta do,” he groused, good-naturedly. But it had been his offer to Standish that now saw him in this situation and he was normally eager to drive the undercover agent’s car. Just wished it were under better circumstances.
The traffic light turned red and he eased down on the brakes, bringing him to a shuddering stop. Guess the brakes need fixin’ too. The wipers swiped the tempest off the windshield and he waited impatiently for the light to turn green.
There was a blare of horns and a harsh skidding sound behind him. He glanced up into the rear view mirror just as the back of the Jag was slammed violently from behind. JD’s head ricocheted forward, snapping quickly in time with the wrecked vehicle as it was catapulted into the oncoming traffic. Dunne screamed, covering his face with his raised arms. There was nothing else he could do!
Standish flipped the top card from the deck and sent it sailing through the air to land on a growing pile at the end of the bed. The Seven of spades was exposed and he paused for a second, then it too, followed the path of its predecessors. The TV was on somewhere within the sprawling ranch house, but the volume was turned down too low to hear it from the guest room. Earlier the water in the pipes had ticked and hummed, alerting Standish that Larabee had risen. And now he could hear Chris moving about in the kitchen, attempting to be quiet. When the last card joined the haphazard pile, Ezra sighed and came to the conclusion that he couldn’t hide any longer. He roughly gathered the deck together and sat it on the bedside table and wandered through the house, until he reached the kitchen.
Chris held a newspaper above the flat surface of the table, scanning the open pages with assumed interest. He grinned over the top of the paper as the Southerner entered the room. “Morning. Kinda early for you. Wasn’t expecting you for another hour or two.”
Standish glowered at the older man. If he had been at his townhouse then he wouldn’t be awake at this ungodly hour. If he had been sleeping in his own bed and not woken every couple of hours through the night then he probably wouldn’t be feeling quite so fatigued and irritable this morning either. His mood had nothing to do with a slight concussion, a headache or lack of sleep. He bit his tongue to prevent an angry retort. Chris didn’t deserve it. He sighed; Larabee had been gracious in allowing him to spend the night.
Ezra glanced around the barren kitchen and seeing the coffee pot reached for it. “Is the coffee fresh?” It occurred to him that Tanner had also stayed the night at the ranch. Not that the Texan appeared to be around; perhaps he was out with the horses. But if Vin made the coffee, Ezra had no intention of partaking. His hand hovered over the pot.
“I made it.”
Standish grunted, quickly poured the brew into a mug and turned to lean against the bench. “Is Mr. Tanner outside?” Standish glanced through the kitchen window into the yard. He couldn’t see Vin’s jeep, but Ezra couldn’t quite recall whether they had all arrived in Larabee’s Ram or if Vin had arrived separately.
“He left early, wanted to drop by his place and pick up a few things before going into the office. How you feeling this morning?”
“Fine,” he answered absently, as he wandered through to the family room and sank wearily onto the sofa. Vin was gone. That left Ezra alone with Chris. And Chris had a tendency to worry about the undercover agent, for whatever reason. He could do without a sermon or more advice at present. He just wanted to go home.
Chris followed the Southerner into the room and took a chair opposite. “You coming into the office today?” He wanted the query to sound natural, but the concern was picked up.
“Is there some reason I shouldn’t?”
“Up to you, Ezra. But if you want a few days off, that can be arranged.”
Ezra stared at him skeptically. He knew how hectic the workload was at present, and how difficult it would become should one of the team take time off. “I’ll manage.”
“Take the day off, Ezra…you can stay here.”
Ezra set his mug on the coffee table and tentatively stretched back onto the cushions. “You’re not concerned my accident was anything more than that? I assure you—”
Chris thinned his lips, knowing he couldn’t keep the new development from Ezra any longer - he needed to know. “JD spent the night in the hospital.”
Ezra sat forward on the couch, wincing as he moved too quickly. “What happened?”
“He was taking the Jag to the garage and was involved in an auto accident—”
“While he was driving my vehicle? How badly is he injured?” Standish dropped his head into his hands.
“Whiplash, bruising, a couple of broken ribs…nothing too serious,” Chris downplayed.
“Has he been discharged?” In Ezra’s estimation, if Dunne were home his injuries were not life-threatening.
Larabee returned to the kitchen and dropped his empty mug into the sink. Standish was smart; he’d give him that…knew how to attain the relevant information that hadn’t been offered. That’s why he was such a good undercover agent. “They kept him in overnight. Buck stayed with him.”
Standish had followed his boss from the living area and leaned against the refrigerator. His injuries had to be worse than Chris was alluding to. “He in the ICU?”
“No. He’s in a general ward,” Chris reassured. He could see the muscles tighten around the Southerner’s mouth, and the worry lines creased his brow. “He’ll be released later this morning…no need for you to worry. This isn’t your fault—”
“I allowed him to drive my car…” Ezra rubbed his forehead and thumped his head back on the fridge. “I should have called a tow truck and arranged—”
“It was raining, the brakes on the car behind failed and nudged JD into the intersection. End of story…it was an accident,” Larabee interjected, easily reading the wavelength the undercover agent was on.
Ezra held Chris’ eyes for a long moment, then dropped his to the floor. “Two accidents in the same day…” he left the sentence hanging and headed to the guest room to collect his belongings. That was too coincidental! Ezra had originally dismissed his own accident as just that, but now one of his teammates was suffering because of his lack of foresight. He should have paid heed to Larabee’s concern that his accident may have been intentional. He should never have considered allowing JD to get behind the wheel of the Jag. He had unwittingly put his friend at risk.
Chris thinned his lips, not happy with how their conversation had ended. He was anxious to see JD himself to confirm the agent was not seriously injured. He’d spoken with JD’s doctor and the nursing staff to allay his fears, as well as Nathan and Josiah with regular updates from Buck throughout the night. Still, it bothered him that he couldn’t have been there in person. When Buck had first called about Dunne’s accident Chris had been torn between staying with Standish and making the trip into the hospital. That would have meant bringing Ezra with them and that wouldn’t have been fair to Ezra. Thankfully Buck had been thinking straight; he’d made Chris’ decision easier by telling him to stay at the ranch with Ezra; JD would have wanted it no differently.
Chris followed Standish to the guest room, anxious to set the Southerner straight. Hell this wasn’t Ezra’s fault…none of them had seen this coming. They’d been so intent on protecting Ezra they hadn’t given a thought to JD. Chris had been blindsided by JD’s enthusiasm to drive the Jag. As team leader he should have organized a tow truck himself. “Ezra—”
“You’ve known all night.” It wasn’t a question.
Larabee nodded vaguely. He’d been relieved not to go through this the night before. He wanted Ezra to be thinking clearly when he was told.
“Were you planning on telling me?”
“Of course.” He hadn’t intended mentioning JD’s accident until later, but things had a way of turning out differently than the way planned.
“You could have gone.”
Larabee mentally counted to five. How can Standish think so little of himself? “You’re just as important as JD or any other member of this team. Besides, he had Buck, Nathan and Josiah there…He’ll understand why we couldn’t be with him.”
“Is that where Vin’s gone?”
“Yeah.” Tanner had been just as anxious as Chris had been.
Ezra lowered his head and plucked at the cover on the bed. “Could we stop by the hospital on the way in?”
“Sure, was planning on going by,” Chris grinned.
Tanner parted the door, slipping quietly into the semi-darkened room; the Venetian blinds drawn, preventing the morning brightness from entering. He saluted Wilmington with a two-fingered wave and a small smile.
Buck straightened in the plastic chair, rubbing at his face tiredly, but still managed a lopsided smile in welcome. “Hey.”
Vin glanced at the still figure asleep on the bed and winced in sympathy, noting at once JD’s bruised and swollen face. He treaded softly to the opposite side of the room to join Buck by the window. “How’s he doing?” Vin whispered.
“Had a rough night, but he’s been sleeping for the last couple of hours.”
“Geez, he looks like he’s been through a blender.” Vin winced.
“You ain’t so pretty in the mornings either, Vin,” Dunne rasped over torn and puffy lips. Of course his lips were the least bothersome of his injuries. He struggled to find a comfortable position, but stopped abruptly as his broken ribs reminded him why he was in the hospital.
“Take it easy, little buddy,” Buck urged. He slipped his arm under JD’s back and gently sat him forward. “Vin, can you straighten those pillows?”
Tanner walked around the opposite side of the bed and rearranged the pillows. He patted the younger agent’s knee as he settled back against them. “That better?” Vin always found it hard watching his team mates hurt and this time was no different. He’d had the extra worry of knowing JD had been hurt and having to wait all night before he could check on his friend.
“Yeah,” JD sighed. He closed his eye that wasn’t already swollen shut and fought to control the pain.
“He alright?” Vin whispered to Buck over the tired patient. He couldn’t see the broken ribs, but he’d seen JD’s discomfort. What he could see made him shudder. JD’s face was a rainbow of purples, blacks and browns. His right eye was completely closed and numerous cuts and abrasions had been treated with a yellow paint and left open to heal. A bulky bandage was plastered on his chin and a thick brace wrapped around his neck. One arm had an IV drip and the other sported a bandage on his lower arm.
Dunne lay unmoving, his eyes remained closed, but he knew Vin was watching him intently. Hell, Buck had been doing it all night. “I’m going home later today, Vin.”
Vin shared a worried look with Buck, wondering if that was such a good idea. His silence must have alerted JD.
“Most of this is just window dressing,” he gently touched the neck brace, “no real damage…except to Ezra’s car,” he moaned.
“He’ll understand.” Buck squeezed the younger agent’s hand and smiled. “He’s not gonna be riled at you.” Wilmington would guarantee that.
Tanner chuckled. “Hell, Ezra had already done a number on it before you did.”
“Yeah, but I totally wrecked it.”
“You just get yourself better,” Vin urged. “Ezra’s insurance will cover it.”
“Where’s Standish’s desk?”
Vin closed the file he’d been perusing and stood, stepping away from his work station. He stared coldly at the intruder. He knew the guy, but it’d been a couple of years. Not much had changed in those years; if anything, the newcomer appeared to be slicker. “Who’s askin’?”
“Tanner…right? Mitch Ryan…we’ve met before.” The tall agent lifted the edge of his jacket and briefly flashed his badge that was clipped onto his belt.
Both Josiah and Nathan stopped what they were doing and joined Vin in the middle of the bullpen. “What can we do for you, Mr. Ryan?” Josiah asked. He’d never met Ryan, but was immediately familiar with the name. He remembered Chris had interviewed him for the undercover position for the team a few years back. He could see the same recognition on Nathan and Vin’s expressions too.
Ryan noted where Vin, Nathan and Josiah had been seated; he turned up his lip and walked past the barricade, dropping his briefcase on the first available desk.
“That’s Buck’s area.”
“You’re Josiah Sanchez and you must be Nathan Jackson,” Ryan easily dismissed them and glanced around the office. “I’m surprised Chris allows Wilmington and Dunne to be so lax. I presumed it was an eight o’clock start…I suppose he has his reasons. Is Chris in?”
Vin glanced at Josiah and shook his head. Was this guy for real? He bit his tongue to stifle his knee jerk response. “Ya can wait in his office—”
“I have work to do, Tanner… Unlike some, I don’t waste my time. It appears that Chris is in dire need of reliable help and my presence has come at the most opportune time.” He lifted his briefcase off Buck’s desk and settled himself into the desk adjacent. Which coincidently happened to be Ezra’s desk.
“Well that’s news ta me…last I knew you didn’t work on this team,” Tanner seethed.
Ryan continued setting up his laptop, fiddling with leads and plugs. “I guess Chris feels he only needs to inform those who are important.”
Vin sneered; this jerk was trying to pull his chain. He and Chris shared a bond; of friendship and loyalty…there was no way in hell Larabee would let something this important slip. But that didn’t mean Ryan could just waltz in here and take over Ezra’s position. He surged forward, his fists clenching, but was restrained by Josiah and Nathan.
“No point doing anything you’ll regret, Vin,” Sanchez urged.
Ryan looked up from his liquid screen, surprised to find Tanner being held back. He smirked; wrongly interpreting Vin’s reaction as an insecurity and began calculating how he could use this to his advantage. “Oh please, Tanner…don’t put yourself out,” he mocked. “Don’t you fellows have anything to get on with?”
“We’ll get this sorted out,” Josiah promised, patting the younger man’s shoulder.
Mitch sat back in the chair and studied the layout of the office. “It would be more beneficial if this desk was over by the window.”
Nathan snorted, how many times had Ezra requested the same move? “We like the design how it is.”
“And ya won’t be staying here long enough ta get comfortable,” Vin stated.
Larabee tensed as he exited the elevator slightly ahead of the Southerner. What the hell? Before he’d stepped inside the bullpen the hairs on the back of his neck tingled and his keen sense of hearing detected the Texan’s irate drawl. It was easily discernible from the foyer.
“Mr. Tanner seems to be marginally displeased.”
Larabee grunted; his body alert and prepared for action, should he be needed. He hadn’t expected to find the sharpshooter leaning over Ezra’s desk arguing with…Ryan? “What’s going on, Vin?” Although the question was asked of Tanner, Chris glared malevolently at Mitchell Ryan.
Ryan sneered at Vin, but his mask slipped into a pleasant façade as he stood holding out his hand to the ATF team leader. “Good to finally be on your team, Chris. I trust we’ll work well together.” When Larabee refused to shake his hand, Ryan dropped it by his side.
“Chris, tell this…” Vin resisted the urge to add, asshole, “Ryan, that he can pack up his stuff and slither back to where he crawled out of, ‘cuz we don’t need him.”
Larabee thinned his lips and glared at the Connecticut agent. “What are you doing here?”
“Orin mentioned your team needed a replacement, and I am best qualified. You couldn’t do any better than me,” he added smugly. Especially after meeting the rest of this motley group.
Josiah rolled his eyes and shared a look of stunned incredulity with Jackson, who in turn shook his head.
“That would be AD Travis, to you,” Larabee corrected, folding his arms over his chest. If Travis thought he could overrule Chris where his team was concerned, he was seriously mistaken …especially as Chris had specifically asked him not to contact Ryan. Standish was still here, but unfortunately JD was now on sick leave. Chris would hash this out with his superior later. “Fine…You’re here.” He didn’t have the time or energy for this hassle and was certain he could find some errands for the unwelcome agent. It irked the team leader that he didn’t have the chance to inform his team of the possibility of Ryan joining them…Damn, it was too late now. He could feel Standish stiffen and subtly move away. Need to clear the air. “Don’t make yerself comfortable,” Chris sneered at Ryan. “Boys…My office. Not you, Ryan,” he quickly amended, seeing the undercover agent move off his seat.
“Chris, if this meeting has anything to do with a current case, I am ready to be involved from the onset, that way none of us gets confused about which tasks we should be undertaking.” Ryan picked up a notebook with the sole intent of following.
Larabee turned on the unwelcome agent; “This doesn’t concern you!”
Ryan ignored the warning and continued on his path to Chris’ office. “I’m quite adept at analyzing information…If you’re at an impasse perhaps a new perspective will help. I’m positive I can suggest a new tactic or direction—”
“Let me make myself clear…I don’t want you near my office. If I wanted to discuss a case with you — which I don’t, I would have invited you…since I didn’t, I expect you to take notice.” Chris pointed into the bullpen, reluctantly at Dunne’s desk. “Take JD’s desk for the moment, but I don’t recommend touching any of his stuff…ya see, Buck might take offense,” he threatened.
“Chris…?” Nathan queried his boss’s decision, but Larabee waved it off.
Ryan didn’t cower easily. He’d already set up on Ezra’s desk; rearranging the undercover agent’s personal items and replacing them with his own. He couldn’t see the necessity to move now. “Look, Orin said I was here to replace Standish…that’s his desk…so I might as well use it seeing as he won’t be needing it,” he announced smugly.
Tanner gripped Ezra’s arm, but Standish pulled out of the hold, shaking his head in confusion. He was tired, too little sleep the night before or perhaps the concussion was having a delayed effect. He’d been under the assumption that Ryan would be substituting for JD and it came as a shock to realize that the replacement had been originally arranged for him. He refused to look at Larabee; Chris’d see too easily the disappointment he felt. Why hadn’t Chris bothered to inform him? Is this why Chris wanted him to take today off? He gulped for air, but anger quickly replaced his confusion. His accent thickened and he didn’t hold back the contempt he felt for the intruder. “I’ll not be sharing it with the likes of you.”
Ryan didn’t miss a beat. “You’re Standish?” He hadn’t needed to ask, but the stiff nod affirmed the Southerner’s statement. “I was told you were taking leave—”
“Well, he ain’t,” Tanner brusquely added. The Texan was mighty pissed; he wanted to wipe that smug grin off Ryan’s face and send him packing. Vin didn’t understand why Ryan was here, but he trusted Chris. There had to be an explanation. They usually didn’t get replacements when one of the guys was off, but JD would be back next week. And if Chris wanted to take advantage of Ryan’s arrival, then it’d only be for a couple of days.
Chris smirked. “I’ll be back to discuss your workload, Ryan.” Turning his back on the agent, Chris called over his shoulder. “And get your stuff off Ezra’s desk!”
“I don’t understand, Chris. Why is he here?” Standish sighed. He had never met Mitchell Ryan before, but the Southerner recognized him. His gut twisted, like a knife was slowly turning in his belly. Why now? Was Ryan angling for his position on the team? Was Chris giving him a practice run at his job? But if that was so then why had Larabee been angry about seeing the undercover agent in Denver?
“Travis organized it. He thought you might want some time off before the trial, and suggested we get a replacement, seeing as things are kinda tight at the moment. Didn’t realize he’d gone ahead with it.” Asked him not to…why’d he go ahead with it?
“With Ezra staying on, we don’t need him,” Vin echoed the Southerner’s thoughts.
“Except we’re still a man down.” Chris remarked. There was no need to mention that JD wouldn’t be in the office for the next few days.
“We’ve been down to less before,” Josiah stated.
“Yeah…but when the whole department is in the hospital…it really doesn’t matter about gettin’ substitutes.” Nathan grinned, sitting on the couch and relaxing against the wall.
“That only happened once,” Larabee defended, “and I was only in overnight.”
‘That’s ‘cuz you signed yerself out,” Vin chided. Chris glared at the Texan, but Tanner ignored it and pushed the in-tray to the center of Larabee’s desk and sat on the exposed corner. “So we’re stuck with him?” Tanner sounded morose.
“A couple of days tops,” Larabee responded. “I’m sure we can find some cases that need extensive research done on them.” He grinned slyly.
Standish leaned on the closed door and ran his fingers through his hair; how he hated this turn of events. “Am I to assume you gentlemen have previously met with the doctrinarian, Mitchell Ryan? He seemed to be acquainted with you both.”
Larabee sighed and shared a look with Vin. He’d never discussed with Standish the other applicants for the position eventually awarded to Ezra. “Ryan had a chance to join the team when it was first formed.”
“No ya don’t,” Larabee growled, alarmed by the pain that flashed momentarily in the Southerner’s eyes. “Hell, Ezra, after I interviewed him I knew he’d never fit in. He’s not a team player—”
“And I was?” Standish asked incredulously.
Chris shrugged, grinning, knowing what Standish was thinking. “I liked how you came across in the interviews…Ryan didn’t try to hide his arrogance.”
“Reminds me of a weasel.” Vin chuckled.
“A vulture,” Josiah decided.
“Nah… a flea,” Jackson announced, “they always drop in unannounced and stay forever, come for a free feed and never bring a plate, and cause all manner of discomforts for the host.”
Ezra rolled his eyes. “You’ve obviously given it considerable thought, Nathan. I was more partial to the similarities between Mr. Ryan and the hyena.”
Everyone looked toward Larabee, waiting for a comparison. “I’m the team leader…and I’m not about to join in your childish name calling.”
“So?” Tanner smirked, knowing Chris too well.
Chris grinned slyly. “In Buck’s absence, I’m going to say he’d call Ryan a sewer rat and for JD, I figure he’d be happy with a snake. Other than that…I’m making no comment.”
Standish returned to his desk, albeit somewhat disturbed. He was, to some extent, mollified at hearing Chris’ explanation, but he was struggling to get past his antipathy toward Ryan. Get over it Standish, he is officially replacing JD, not you. There was plenty of preliminary and background information needed for an assortment of cases, and not a great deal of time to prepare. Grudgingly he conceded that an extra hand would help. And Ryan seemed to be working quickly through his in-tray.
Ezra distractedly tapped a folder a couple of times and set it askew, open at the first page. He studied the contents longer than usual, lost in his musings. He’d read the same information a dozen times, and nothing penetrated through the thick fog. He glanced up; a shiver running down his spine, someone was studying him closely. There was only one person he’d attribute the rude scrutiny with and lifted his chin a fraction, giving Ryan a sidelong look, but the man worked fervently at his own laptop. Ezra allowed his curiosity to surface, and blatantly observed the other undercover agent. Ryan’s eyes never once left the liquid screen.
“Hey, Ezra,” Tanner whispered. “Something up? Yer head ain’t ailing ya is it?” JD got several days off and he was sure Ezra should have taken time off too; he figured it was Ezra’s stubbornness and determination that had him working when he should be resting. That and Ryan.
The Southerner took a deep breath and unconsciously rubbed the small bandage on his forehead, before answering. He cleared his throat. “No. Nothing is amiss.”
“Want some coffee?” Vin asked as he stretched his arms high above his head. When Standish refused, Tanner idly pushed back his chair, delaying his departure to the break room. “Ya want to talk about anything… anything at all,” Tanner glanced pointedly at Ryan, “ya just say the word.”
Ezra smiled at the genuine offer. “His presence doesn’t bother me,” he answered loud enough for Ryan to hear.
“Ya sure?” Vin leaned forward, resting his elbows on his desk. “Chris didn’t know he was coming,” he attempted to impress upon his fellow teammate. He’d heard the tail end conversation Chris had with the Assistant Director over the phone and was convinced that Travis had arranged for Ryan without Larabee’s consent.
“Yes…ya just agreeing with me to shut me up or yes, ya believe Chris?”
The Southerner grinned. “I thought you were going for coffee?”
Vin growled deep in his throat. “Ezra!” he hissed.
“Yes…I agree,” Standish retorted, a wicked glint sparkling in his eyes. “Coffee sounds like a marvelous idea.” His grin broke into a chuckle as Tanner rolled his eyes.
The phone on his desk rang almost a minute later. Ezra answered absently. “Standish.”
“What? Not Evans?”
He swiveled in his chair, turning his back on his compatriots. A grim mask dropped into place. “Who is this?”
“Real shame hearing about your accident,” the voice taunted. “Pity yer friend got in the way.”
Swallowing the nausea, Ezra held the phone tightly to his ear. This man had caused both accidents, Standish mentally tallied. But were they aware that it was JD driving the Jag in the second accident or had they assumed that it would have been him? “Is there a purpose to this call?”
“Not really… just a warning. You might want to find somewhere else to be in three weeks time. ‘Cuz next time we won’t miss,” he threatened, and the phone connection abruptly ended.
Ezra held the phone, stunned, after the call ended and replayed the short conversation over in his mind. How had they made the connection between Simon Evans and Ezra Standish? How had they gotten his phone number? Had they been following him? Did they know where he lived? What else did they know? After the bust, Evans supposedly made his escape and headed for Aruba. Had they followed that false lead down and discovered it only a scam? Was Averill Torres behind this or was this Hoi Chung Li?
It didn’t bother Ezra terribly, the threat – he’d had them before. But knowing how overprotective the others had been of late, he was determined to keep this to himself. He didn’t want any of his friends harmed because him. More harm, he amended, realizing JD had already been an innocent casualty. Ezra couldn’t be accountable for them. And to keep them safe, he reasoned, it would be best to put as much distance between himself and them. The voice had threatened him, but it wouldn’t take too much detection to realize that threatening Ezra’s friends would be more effective. And if they didn’t know where he was, they’d be safe, too, he reasoned.
He could concentrate on his safety if he didn’t need to watch out for the others. He wasn’t running out on them…but he did need to do this. After several minutes of quiet contemplation Ezra had the perfect place in mind where he could… disappear. Torres’ trial was set for three weeks; Ezra would take leave until that time. Perhaps Travis was right in suggesting the time off after all. Chris wouldn’t be happy, but given the circumstances, it was the right choice.
“Ezra!” Chris shouted into the bullpen, smiling at the reticent expression Standish greeted him with. “Here.” He tossed the collection of keys through the air. They landed with a metallic clink when the Southerner caught them single-handedly. “Take the Ram.”
Ezra looked guiltily at the keys in his hand. “I wasn’t planning on returning after this meet.” There was no meeting arranged, but he needed to leave now, during daylight hours to lessen any suspicion Larabee and the others might develop. He didn’t want to take Chris’ vehicle, but how to extricate himself without alerting them to his subterfuge.
“Ya planning on wrecking the Ram?”
There was a minute pause, and Ezra grinned despite himself. “No.”
“Then take it…I’ll get a lift home with Tanner, but I expect you to come and pick me up tomorrow.”
Vin snorted. “Guess you’ll have to set yer alarm clock, Ezra, ya know how Chris likes to get here on time.”
“Good Lord,” Standish mumbled.
Mitch Ryan shutdown the program he’d been working on and closed his laptop. Perfect! He’d had enough of this boring research. “I’ll be ready in a few minutes—”
Standish mentally groaned. “You weren’t invited.”
“I’m here to do a job…and I have every intention of—”
“If Ezra doesn’t want you along, then you won’t interfere…You of all people should understand about informants,” Larabee growled. “I’m not going to remind you that you’re here against my request…so don’t press your luck.”
“Fine…I’ve got some research to do on the fifth floor,” Ryan announced, and quickly gathered up his laptop and several folders, then left the office.
“Thanks,” Standish sighed.
“If you don’t mind the company, perhaps I can come along,” Josiah suggested. “I’ll stay with the Ram while you’re meeting your informant—”
“NO! I mean, no…I’m sorry Josiah, but this guy is really skittish.”
Chris squeezed the Southerner’s shoulder. “Mightn’t be a bad idea, Ezra…Josiah can watch yer back.”
“Chris…Josiah, although I appreciate the offer and understand your concern I will be quite safe…if any of Torres’ men are out there they won’t be expecting me in Chris’ truck.” Standish glanced at each of the remaining seven. He needed to leave and without any of the others. For their safety. “With Buck and JD absent, you can’t afford to send someone …you’d reduce the team to three.”
Tanner chuckled, “Yeah it ain’t like we’re gettin’ anything worthwhile out of Ryan.”
“I promise to take the utmost care of your vehicle, Chris.”
“Don’t reckon Chris’ll mind if ya fart in it,” Tanner scoffed, knowing how pedantic the Southerner was about his beloved Jag.
Larabee rolled his eyes and snorted. “And you would know,” he glared at the Texan, “puking your guts out over the front seat on Saturday night.”
Ezra groaned at the combined laughter. “Tell me at least the odor has diminished?”
“Sure…But if you could leave the windows rolled down while you’re parked.”
Ezra rolled his eyes and moaned at the warm-hearted jibes.