Odd Man Out
The referee clicked his stopwatch, before standing to attention, like a statue, at the side of the room. Ezra leaned back in his chair and relaxed. He took a sip of water from the glass resting on the table and looked expectantly at the man sitting opposite him. The young blonde actor smiled back, though Standish could tell it was only to be polite. A gig in Washington DC was a far cry from glorious southern California, the undercover agent mused.
After five or ten minutes, the southerner heard a muted "thump" from the one-way mirror above. Looking up, he gave a two-fingered salute, knowing without having to see it, that Buck had returned the gesture enthusiastically. He could also picture Chris and Josiahs smiles at both of their antics, and he could practically see Josiah whisper to Chris the word "hams," in his minds eye. Indeed, what a wonderful day it was for a competition.
The crackling PA captured his attention a second later. "Mister Wilmington, please refrain from pounding on the glass!" an irate Judge chastised the exuberant surveillance agent. The voice coughed in an attempt to regain some of its dignity, before it continued with the announcement. "Ezra Standish, Team Colorado, Class A, National rank #2. Score is as follows; style, 10 of 10.; Appearance, 10 of 10; Believability, 10 of 10; Conduct, 10 of 10; Characterization, 10 of 10; Utilization of facts, 10 of 10; requirements, 20 of 20 fulfilled; Performance, 20 of 20; Overall score, 100%."
The whooping inside the room came on once again in the background. "Mister Wilmington, please contain yourself." Another annoyed cough before the judge went on. "Winners for this years ATF Individual Undercover Agent competition are as follow; Ezra Standish, First; Caleb Thompson, second; Lafe Faulkner, third." There was another muffled uproar. "Mister Wilmington, if you do not cease immediately I will have you removed from the premises."
"WOOOHAH! GREAT GOIN EZ!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
Ezra smiled a genuine smile and exited the staging area with a spring in his step.
Outside the door, he was greeted with an excited slap on the back and a trophy half as tall as he was. "Talk about a whuppin," Wilmington grinned broadly before thrusting the prize into Ezras hands. "You beat Thompson by ten whole points, Ez."
Standish looked down at his prize graciously. "Im glad that was entertainin for you gentlemen. Now, I think, if we hurry, he can still catch the last end of Mister Tanners finals."
Chris smiled his cool smile, but he could not quite hide the pride that shone in his eyes over his friends achievement. "Lets go then boys."
"Target six is ready. Begin."
At the referees go ahead, Vin took a bead on the moving target some 300 yards in front of him. He fired.
The clock stopped at 3.56 seconds. The target was brought in and the bulls-eye was measured to count the score. The judges at the long table marked on the paper on their clipboards and made comments on the lines below the row of tables. The audience in the bleachers was silent; the sound of birds chirping was the only accompaniment to the Sharp Shooting Final Competition.
Tanner felt, rather than saw, the others approach the staging area on the back lawn of the hotel. He smiled and turned in time to see Chris, Buck, Josiah and Ezra hastily find seats next to JD and Nathan. Buck held up Ezras trophy and grinned stupidly. The Texan chuckled and reloaded his weapon as his opponent lined up to take his shot at target number six. Good job Ezra!
Chris leaned back in his seat and watched Vin work in that smooth, easy manner the younger man had perfected over the years. He scanned over his team as well, though he hardly saw them with his eyes. In his mind, he remembered last years competition, and marveled at how things can change with one, inciting incident. He compared last years self-doubting, self-exiled agent Standish to the comfortable, smart assed, and most importantly, open, man that sat to his immediate right today. Oddly enough, the supervisor of Team Colorado wondered whether those four slugs he had taken to the right side of his chest and upper arm had been something good, after all. Look his men now; they were even more formidable than they had been last year. They were a united front.
As if reading his boss mind, Ezra took a moment to look at Chris from out of the corners of his eyes. The left side of the undercover agents mouth quirked into a crooked, lazy, half smile, somewhat reminiscent of Vins. Chris returned the gesture in kind. They had come a long way.
The shooting last year had been the turning point. Chris realized that it sometimes took something intense to get a man to see what was important. It seemed that Ezra being shot had opened Larabees eyes, and vise versa for Standish. He chuckled to himself. Both of them were such stubborn mules that it had taken four or five bullets to make them see a lick of sense.
Although those bullets might have done a good thing for Team Colorado, Chris sincerely hoped that Joe Lamonte and Craig Kingston were getting the shit beaten out of them in jail. Colorado had busted the two for their scam last year, with relative ease. JD had hacked into their phone accounts from both the hotel and their personal phones to find out when they had contacted Kaplan. Buck had convinced, or rather, charmed, a waitress from the threerd Street Diner to testify at having seen the three men together that morning. Hotel security had Kingston and Lamonte throwing looks at Kaplan during Courtwrights lecture. To top it all off, Kingston had sung like a canary on Lamonte the moment all that evidence had come to play. That was loyalty for you. The bastards could rot, for all Chris cared. As for the rest of New York, Team 7 had been convinced none of the others had been in on the plan. But, they were still all bastards as far as Colorado was concerned. Usherton had had the balls to offer Ezra one of the open seats on Team New York after Lamonte and Kingston had been carted off. To quote him, "it is a most prestigious offer, to be certain."
Ezra had just smiled in that polite, infuriating way he always did, and told Usherton in no uncertain terms, exactly where he could stick his job offer, along with his so-called prestige. Chris couldnt help but think his undercover agent was picking up Bucks convoluted sense of subtlety.
The leader shook his head to clear it of such absurd thoughts and glanced at JD, who was clutching a good-sized first place Team Competition trophy under one arm. Buck had a third place medal draped around his neck. Chris had not won anything again this year, but then again, he figured the whole concept of whipping a team of rookies into shape would always elude him, no matter how many times the rest his team swept the competition. He snorted to himself and concentrated on watching Vin.
"Target seven is ready. Begin."
It slid along the grass in a zigzag pattern as the light reflected off of the shining red target on its backside. Vin, with a small smile and a twinkle in his eye, fired. The target actually moved into the bullet. The clock stopped at 3.42 seconds. The judges scribbled down some more notes.
Texas sharpshooter, Rick Dawson, missed his next shot, and that sealed it. The judges wrote down one last thing as Dawson shook his head with disgust. The referee took both competitors weapons and laid them on the table with the others. The judge seated at center tapped the microph1 before speaking into it once he and his compatriots had finished muttering to themselves. "Vin Tanner, Team Colorado, Class A, National rank #1. Score is as follows, Accuracy, 70 of 70; Speed, 30 of 30; Final score, 100%."
There was another pause, and Buck actually was able to contain his cheering for the announcer to finish. "Rick Dawson, Team Texas, Class A, National rank #2. Score is as follows; Accuracy: 60 of 70; Speed, 28 of 30; Final score, 88%."
Dawson scowled, but stayed silent as the third judge prepared to read the winners list. "Winners for this years ATF Individual Undercover Agent competition are as follow; Vin Tanner, First; Rick Dawson, second; Gretchen Harris, third."
There was thunderous applause and much whistling. Vin looked down and laughed, embarrassed at the attention. He was handed a trophy and a picture was taken, which only served to add to the sharpshooters embarrassment. He smiled and waved at the spectators as Team Colorado left the lawn together for some much-deserved relaxation time. When they returned to Denver, they could expect a load of shit from the other teams for all of this hoopla.
"Congratulations Vin," Ezra smiled and shook the younger mans hand. Vin stood eye to eye with Ezra and let them do the talking. Ya did good yourself there pard.
"Whats say we go head out poolside before tonights send off barbeque?" Buck suggested, draping an arm around each of the big winners. "Maybe we can find some nice young ladies to impress with these, " the big agent suggested, holding his medal up with a devilish smile.
"Ill get you next year, Buck," JD challenged good-naturedly, not bothered at all that his mentor had beat him out, yet again, in the quarters.
"I look forward to it, Kid." Buck shoved his best friend lightly. "Now cmon last one that gets back down to the pool pays for drinks!"
"Oh, I aint paying again!" JD rose to the challenge by sprinting toward the elevator. Buck gave chase, but JD rapidly hit the "door close" button and waved as his best friend missed the lift by an inch. Wilmington shot towards the stairs with a muffled curse.
"Damn fools," Nathan shook his head, watching them go.
"Well you heard the man, Brother Nate. Last one back pays." Josiah shrugged his bushy eyebrows mischievously and took off at a ground eating pace towards the elevators.
"What? Oh, not you too." Nathan gave chase in spite of himself.
Vin, Chris and Ezra looked at each other. "They really can be quite immature at times."
"Reckon they can be."
They stopped walking. Vin glanced towards the elevators, then to the stairs. Chris and Ezra watched. They stared at each other, and no one said anything for five or six seconds. Ezra and Chris darted for the elevator. Vin whooped loudly and sprang to the stairs, his trophy clutched firmly under arm.
True to form, the one that had instigated the challenge had been the last to arrive. Bucks excuse had been a damsel in distress on his and JDs floor who couldnt quite get her door open. He shrugged helplessly at the looks he got and good-naturedly paid for poolside drinks. He flirted and got a discount from the serving girl anyway.
"You still wearing that medal?" JD snorted and pointed to Buck, bare-chested for all save his competition prize.
Buck feigned offense. "Course I am. You dont get one of these every year."
Vin grinned from his lounge chair. "Speak for yourself, Bucklin."
"Sounds to me like youre braggin there, Junior."
"Least hes got a right to, grand champion two years running," JD shot back at his big brother, as he put his drink down and sat up in his chair. "Aint so much for you; third place, Buck."
Buck raised an eyebrow at JD, something he had learned, with practice, from Ezra. "That so? Well, I dont see YOU wearin anything Kid cept maybe some WATER!!!" Wilmington reached over and shoved JD into the pool.
The kid came up sputtering indignantly at his best friend. "Buck!!!" He attempted to splash Wilmington, but it didnt quite make it. Buck laughed raucously.
"What? Ya needed to cool down some kid."
Josiah chuckled mightily. "Wonder where he gets that from, Brother Buck?"
"Whatre you insinuatin Josiah?" Buck did his best to look innocent. "Kid WAS saying my medal here werent nothin to talk about."
"Yet you jest keep on talkin bout it!" Nathan reminded him.
"You know how Buck likes ta brag bout things bein bigger than they are," Vin drawled, a double-edged comment.
"Just what are you sayin Vin?" Ezra asked, innocently.
"Just what I did say," Tanner replied evasively.
Chris and Buck eyed each other. "Seems to me Chris, that we should be teachin these youngins a little respect for their elders." Buck looked at his oldest friend.
Chriss eyes glinted. "Seems bout right," he agreed.
Ezra realized, a little too late, that he was lounging between Wilmington and Larabee. Both men reached over and deftly tilted his chair, spilling Standish into the pool, and knocking JD, who had been trying to climb out, back in.
Vin laughed uproariously. "Real graceful there, Ez!!!"
Josiah and Nathan got up as Tanner lay on his chair, too caught up in laughing to notice that he was being flanked. The profiler grabbed Vins shoulders and Nathan took hold of his ankles. "Hey! Fellas! Fellas! Whatd I do?! AGH!!!"
Tanner made the biggest splash of them all.
Chris chuckled and lay back in his chair, stretching out comfortably, as the "youngins" splashed each other in the pool. They were just great big, two year old men. Spying Ezra out of the corner of his eye as Vin and he ganged up on JD, Chris realized he wouldnt have it any other way. Yeah, seven would always be an odd number. Damn if it wasnt plenty lucky, too.
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