Hillbillies & Geeks
Disclaimer: We do not own nor profit from M7.
Mog: Once again, another one of Tidia's plot lines that I just fluff the heck out of. Dedicated to Heather F. ::waving::, whom I don't talk to nearly enough, but who is always in my thoughts (mostly because she has weird animals that never cease to make me chuckle.)
Tidia: There are a lot of people who have been patiently awaiting this fic. I hope you all enjoy it. Thank you to MOG now she only has to get to those SG-1 fics<G>
Synopsis: Vin and Ezra finagle an easy work week, but things don't go quite according to plan when they meet up with a rural family.
Cmon, Chris, there has to be somethin you can do about this?
Vins plea elicited not even a hint of sympathy from the Team Seven leader. Sitting behind the heavy wood desk in his office, Larabee rested his elbows on the arms of his chair and laced his fingers together just inches below his chin. The senior agent merely stared at Tanner and Standish and replied slowly in a flat tone.
You shot an FBI agent.
The Texan protested vehemently. How were we supposed to know he was an FBI agent?!
Maybe, suggested Larabee, in a calm, matter-of-fact tone, when he yelled - Dont shoot Im with the FBI.
Ezra sighed dramatically but it was Vin who voiced their collective thought. Anyone could have said that! He coulda at least yelled Dont shoot Im Agent Gerstaff with the FBI.
Standish added an additional argument. You know, Chris, there is a woeful lack of intradepartmental co-operation.
Chris eyed his undercover man. Made even more woeful, Im thinking, by a member of one Bureau shooting a member of another.
It was only a flesh wound, insisted Tanner. Ezra had tried taking the logical route. Vin admired it but knew it wouldnt work with the senior agent.
My hands are tied. Larabee was fairly sure he kept his smirk in check.
Tanners body sagged like a teenager balking at a parental order. Yeah, but Team Two, Chris?
Swiveling his chair slightly to the left Larabee faced his computer monitor and focused on the document on the screen. You can tell me all about it next week. Now I think youre both scheduled to report for duty upstairs.
Vin and Ezra had effectively been dismissed. The two agents exchanged sulking looks and rolled eyes but knew theyd lost the fight. Tanner followed Standish from the office and a Texas drawl was just loud enough for Ezra to hear. This is bullshit.
As they threaded their way through the bullpen toward the elevators the only thing missing was a cry of Dead men walking.
Buck grinned wickedly and called from his desk. Have fun, boys!
An answer came from Vin in the form of a raised middle finger.
Ezra held his tongue until they were out of earshot. Team Two, he stated with disgust. This really is insulting.
I know, Ez. Vin calmly pressed the call button for the elevator as his partner continued to vent.
I mean, I certainly cannot say I regret that conniving little weasel Gerstaff being sidelined. Lord knows he caused me enough grief when I was with the Bureau, and even since then
I know, Ez.
But Team Two.
He fixed Tanner with a look. You couldnt have missed?? I thought you were a sharpshooter.
The elevator doors opened and the two men waited for its few passengers to exit. The agents stepped aboard and Vin offered a subtle reply to Standish.
It took Ezra several seconds to interpret the answer. Suddenly his expression warmed and he replied as the elevator doors slid shut.
Why, Vin that well, that was that was just a very gracious gesture.
Ezra stood with his arms folded casually across his chest beside Vin. The position hid the fact that Standish held a subtle, yet very firm, grip on Tanners arm. That sonofabitch Texan had twice now tried to make a break for the elevator.
Standish was not going to suffer in this hell alone.
Did you catch that Sci-Fi special on Saturday night?
Several thoughts raced sequentially through Ezras mind as he stared at a skinny 30-something with dark hair styled in an excruciatingly clean-cut fashion. Who the hell was this one? Dennis? Don? Dave? There are only three of them, I should be able to keep them straight. Oh to hell with it, hes Dave now.
Ah, no. Standish wasnt sure he had ever watched a special on the Sci-Fi channel. Most certainly not this past Saturday night. His mind drifted to his friendly weekend date.
Too bad. It was about Chewbacca.
Really? Any sound of interest in the southerners voice was due to apprehension as Dave flipped yet another finely sharpened Number 2 pencil toward the soft ceiling panel. Ezra hoped this one stayed up.
The last one had ricocheted off the spongy tile, narrowly missing the southerner. As a matter of fact, Standish had only seen one in 17 attempts succeed. He was beginning to worry about losing an eye. JD made it look so easy.
The small yellow missile bounced violently off the ceiling and shot to their left as Dave prattled on. Hes going to be in the next movie, you know. Because he was about 200 years old in the first ones.
Ah, replied Standish noncommittally before Vin chimed in.
Shoot, Ez, and to think you wasted that whole evening with Tamara. What were you thinkin?
I cant imagine. Chewbacca. Sounds great.
Ezra suddenly felt three pairs of eyes on him.
You had a date?
A freckled redhead named Sean Seamus? Seahan?...had ceased his rapid clicking at an ergonomically-designed keyboard and offered up the question. Standish knew at that moment the rumors were true.
Team Two was notorious for never having successfully completed a case. It was reported that nepotism had been involved with the formation of the team, but Standish didnt know who would want to take credit for actually being related to anyone on Team Two.
They were full-fledged geeks. Nerds in every universally known meaning. And he and Vin were smack in the middle of them. The usually-composed southerner stuttered a feeble lie. I was visiting my sister.
Beside him, Vin was desperately searching for a way out. So do yall have any cases youre workin on?
The question served to slide the focus of the three men staring at Ezra.
Do we have cases? The third member of the team snorted a laugh and exchanged an amused glance with his co-workers. What team in this building doesnt? He pointed toward a stack of nearly 20 thick manila folders resting on a filing cabinet behind Vin and Ezra.
Tanner decided against letting Brad or was it Rod in on the knowledge that the other teams in the building had an outstanding case load of maybe five.
Vin sighed silently. Getting a clear answer out of these guys was like pushing rope up a hill. He tried again.
Any one case youre really focused on?
Yep, answered Sean, who was back to furiously typing away at his computer.
Okay, what? Tanner shot back in frustration.
Well, Sally is working on it. Dave put a pencil down and gestured for them to follow.
Three computer monitors on a shelving unit rested amidst a sea of cables, a hub, and one homemade server.
I named her Sally for Sally Ride, the first female astronaut. Sometimes we call it Mustang. Dave lovingly stroked the center monitor that had an endless number of calculations appearing and disappearing in a hypnotic scroll as the three men stared at the screen.
Dave mistook Tanners What the fuck do these guys do all day expression for one of interest and began to explain how Sally was helping them.
Shes tracking Redfellas. Dave chuckled at his own joke. Its what we call the Russian mobsters. Vyacheslav Sliva expanded a branch of his Ismailova gang to Denver about a year and a half ago.
Ezra knew what the other agent was talking about and nodded without realizing it, which only encouraged Dave.
Theyve been hot and heavy in all the standard mob jobs racketeering, extortion, weapons and drug trafficking the usual. But theyre slippery as all get out. The Fibbies tried two major busts in the last eight months but when they moved in, poof, not a Red to be seen.
Well, the three of us figured they just werent looking the right way. See, humans are creatures of habit. They find something that works and they repeat it. So we wrote a program for Sally that takes in every location associated with any reported activity by Ismailova, plus the time of day it was reported, the alleged crimes, flights in from Miami and Moscow, even what the weather had been like on the day in question.
Sally will give us the top five most likely times and days for their next big activity.
Vin stared at the other man for a full three seconds, blinked twice, then responded. Sallys gonna do this?
The dark-haired agent smiled proudly and nodded. Yep. We picked out some of the ATFs oldest unsolved case files and were going to have Sally run the same kind of probability scenarios on them. The rest of her is in the other room. You wanna see?
Uh that sounds like a real interestin invite but we dont wanna distract her or nothin. Well just take one a them cases over there and uh, see what we come up with.
Vin backed away slowly, pulling Ezra with him. The Texan grabbed a thick manila folder from the tall stack on the filing cabinet.
Sure, okay. Dave gave them a broad grin and a thumbs up.
Tanner and Standish didn't relax until they were in the elevator. Ezra pushed the P button, which would lead them to the garage and freedom. My God, how do they get any work done?
Didnt you see that backlog stack? They dont get any work done. Aint no wonder the top dogs think were good. Vin flipped haphazardly through the file hed grabbed before handing it to Ezra.
Standish glanced over the Initiation Report page affixed with two prongs to the left-hand side of the folder and smiled. He interrupted the elevators single-stop journey by pressing the button for another floor.
We should make just one quick stop before we pursue this assignment. I would imagine well be out of the office for the whole week with this case.
Tanner returned the sly look, picking up on his partners idea. Yep, Id reckon youre right.
Vin took his eyes off the long, empty stretch of U.S. Highway 40 just long enough to glance again at the two small metal cases of photo surveillance equipment resting behind the passengers seat of his Jeep. Ezra checked the pieces out in Team Twos name. Vin didnt expect any damage to occur to the Bureau tools, but it never hurt to cover ones ass.
And how again are we gonna justify this?
Oh, ye of little faith, Mr. Tanner.
Me of too much experience with you, Ez.
Standish cut off the Texan before he elaborated. Its Surveillance 101, my friend. He fished in the backseat for the casually discarded case file and once again scanned the only page either of them had bothered to look at. We make our way out past the sprawling metropolis that is Podunkville--
Whatever you say out where these people... he paused, checking the typed sticker on the file, the Smoots were supposedly rumored to have possibly used a health clinic earlier this month.
Thats a lot a maybes. What are these people wanted for?
Oh who knows, well read up on it over supper. And as far as those maybes, well, the more vagueness the better. We take some pictures, talk to a bartender or clinic nurse, make some case notes, and show up on Friday in time to turn everything in and avoid any more contact with the Island of Misfit Agents.
Vin shook his head and revealed the hint of a smile. You aint got no intention of doin any real work this week at all, do ya?
Mr. Tanner, this is a reconnaissance assignment. Just think of yourself as Marlon Perkins observing from safely behind the camera.
Guess that makes you Jim.
The thought gave Ezra pause. Anyone over 35 could recall not only Mutual of Omahas Wild Kingdom but also its host and main sidekick. Faithful assistant Jim faced down bears, snakes, big cats and a plethora of sharp-toothed creatures while Marlon described it all, wrapped in the metal safety of a helicopter or Range Rover.
I checked out the cameras, argued Standish, you have to be Jim.
Like hell. I aint bein Jim. Jim was always gettin' his butt whupped up on by some pissed-off critter. You said I was Marlon, that means youre Jim.
Ezra grabbed a quarter from a plastic cup half full of change that rested between the seats. Call it.
Standish flipped the coin as Vin chose. Heads.
The quarter landed solidly in the southerners soft palm and a quick flip relocated it to the back of his other hand. Ezra revealed the outcome and cursed in the same instant.
Damn. Best two outta three?
Vin just flashed a smart-ass grin and tipped his head low to glance over his sunglasses at his partner. No chance Jim.
The look of wide-eyed shock on Ezras face came at the exact moment the southerner yelled a warning expletive and braced his hands against the dashboard.
Tanner whipped his focus forward and his reflexes took over. The deer dashed away untouched, fleeing the sound of screeching tires and a heavy, scraping thud as the Jeep veered right, careened through a deep, narrow ditch, and high-centered on the rotting trunk of a fallen tree.
The engine stalled with a violent jerk, leaving the two men in stunned silence. Vin spoke first.
The color hadnt quite yet returned to Ezras face. Yes. Quite.
Standishs long, slim fingers eased their grip on the dashboard as the southerner noticed their reclining angle. A sight better than your vehicle, Im believing. You?
Ill be fine once I figure out what the hell I ran up on.
The two agents eased themselves from the tilting Jeep and appraised their situation.
Crouching on the uneven ground, Tanner peered underneath. Shit.
Ezra gazed at the vehicle. Well its a Jeep. Cant you just pull yourself out or something?
Vin stared briefly at his partner with a flat, fixed gaze. He decided against voicing any of the sharp-tongued remarks that sprang to his mind. If were lucky, we might be able to rock it off.
Standish absorbed that suggestion, then flashed a confused expression. You mean, as in, pushing it with our hands?
A sudden bang of backfire from the road behind them caused the two agents to flinch and unconsciously reach for their respective weapons. Coming to a shaky stop on the shoulder of the road, a pale yellow and primer-gray 1967 Ford F-350 Crew Cab shuddered in behind Standish and Tanner.
The drivers door opened with a laboring creak and a weather-beaten man sporting a short graying beard and stained pin-striped overalls climbed from the front seat.
Couldnt help but spot you fellas from a ways off. My wife seems to think you boys might be in needin of a bit a help.
He jerked a thumb toward the cab where an equally elderly woman sat wedged between two pre-teen boys while balancing on her lap a younger girl in pig-tails. In the rear seat a teen-age boy and girl stared at the two strangers. The woman smiled congenially and nodded her head.
Vin spoke up. He didnt trust Ezra to say anything just yet. The man had yet to remove his hand from the Walther P-99 hidden under his black leather Ferragamo jacket.
Well thats a right smart woman you got there, sir. My names Vin, this is Ezra. Wed be obliged for any help, the Texan nodded toward the old F-350, and that outfit a yours sure looks like it could tug us outta this fix. The deer around these parts sure can take a man by surprise.
Ezra felt precariously balanced between an episode of The Waltons and a James Dickey novel. He chose to stay quiet, and very still.
The man made his way over to peer under the Jeep with Vin while the Texan voiced his thoughts. Im hopin I aint done any damage to that front axle, but from here, it aint lookin too good.
Glancing up at grill of the Jeep the man grunted out an observation. CJ-7? Dana 30 front, open knuckle design.
Tanner seemed a bit surprised. Yes, sir. You know your Jeeps.
A positive-sounding grunt was the first answer. Just worked on a lot a cars over the years to pay the bills is all. Well, lets get you outta here. He rose without further conversation and signaled toward the car.
The two teenagers from the back seat joined them, followed by one of the young boys. It took less than ten minutes and Tanners haggard blue Jeep rested safely on the shoulder of the road. Ezra had to admit, he was impressed; still apprehensive about the pack of backwater yokels, but impressed.
He watched as Vin started the vehicle and drove it a few hundred feet, testing its drivability. Even Standish picked up on the odd wobble. Tanner circled around and stopped the Jeep back on the shoulder of the quiet highway.
The Texan focused his attention on Ezra. Well, we should be comin up on Empire here pretty soon. There oughta be a mechanic I can work with-
Vin was cut off by the elderly woman, whom they now knew as Emily. Oh you dont wanna be goin to him. You jus look at that man and know he aint got no comptence in him atall. Not a lick.
Shed herded the children back into the pick-up after Vins Jeep had been righted, but shed come out to stand beside her husband, who now tried to quiet her in a casual manner. Now, Emily, you dont know nothin a the sort. These boys need some tools and where else they gonna get some fixin but in Empire.
Emily You know--
Well, of course Now shush.
It didnt take Standish and Tanners Bureau training and experience to pick up on the entire conversation/argument that took place in a series of a few words, several sharp-eyed glances and ten seconds.
Emily smoothed out the front of her long, floral print dress and addressed the two young men before her.
You just follow us on up the hill. A stubby, wrinkled finger pointed to a snaking road that climbed up 3,000 feet of hill. Well go slow. Vin - you and Ephraim can take a look at your Jeep at the house. There oughta be no problems gettin you boys back on your way.
Tanner and Standish settled themselves back in the Jeep but neither spoke until they were under way and gingerly following the pick-up in front of them. Ezra quietly cleared his throat and Vin noticed his partner dexterously maneuvering a quarter across the fingers of his right hand.
Best two outta three? queried the Southerner.
Vin kept his eyes on the road, refusing to answer.
The two vehicles finally came to a stop in a large clearing a half-mile down a dirt road which split from the main logging route theyd followed for most of their climb up the small mountain. Vin switched off the Jeeps motor and the two men absorbed the scene before them.
A house that didnt seem to be much more than 1,000 square feet squatted in the middle of the clearing looking tired and, to Ezras eye, like the entire structure leaned a few degrees to the right. Moss covered the roof and Standish wondered why the screen door was allowed to stay, considering the large hole torn in the screen portion of it did little to insure the doors efficacy.
To one side of the yard a small tent was pitched beside a rusty swing set. A large moving van could just be seen from around the far corner of the house and several cars sat in various states of repair. Something behind the home sent up curling streams of continuous white steam.
One man in his forties eased himself out from underneath the hood of a 59 Fairlane resting on blocks, while a woman around the same age came from the house balancing a 6-year-old on her left hip.
Another man, in his thirties, came from around the back of the house. He pulled off a sweat-stained Carhart ballcap just long enough to wipe a hand across his forehead and across the top of his hair, which was pulled into a tight ponytail that fell to the middle of his back.
The children from the truck had piled out but hung close to the vehicle, joining the rest of the group to stare at the two strangers. Tanner and Standish gazed from the perceived safety of the Jeep and watched as a black and tan coonhound with a pink ballet tutu tied around its midsection trotted casually across the yard and into the house, chased playfully by a seven-year-old boy.
Dear Lord, whispered Ezra, Its Tennessee Williams meets David Lynch.
Tanner slapped his partner lightly on the arm and chastised him as they locked their weapons in the Jeeps glovebox. Be nice.
And that smell Standish wrinkled his nose in an exaggerated fashion and glanced at Vin, its like
Tanner matched Ezras cant quite place what that is expression. He knew what the southerner was about to say. Yeah, thats kinda what I was thinkin too.
Ephraim was already consulting with the two younger men from the homestead. Emily waved a friendly hand at the newcomers. Come on and meet everybody.
The agents brushed off their thoughts and climbed from the Jeep. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the family arranged themselves in a zig-zagging line in accordance with age. Emily smiled and started with the oldest man.
This here is Ephraims nephew Leonard and his wife, Lucille. Then Leonards brother Wallace, and Leonard and Lucilles children.
The two teens from the pick-up were first, then the two preteen boys, the girl with pigtails and the dog-chasing boy.
Luther, Terri-Lynn, Tobias, Jerry-Joe, the twins - Abagail and Amos, and Bob. Emily pointed lastly to the baby on Lucilles hip.
Tanner took the lead, picking up on the uneasiness from the southerner standing beside him. Nice to meet yall. Im Vin, this here is Ezra.
The Texan nudged Standish subtly, prompting a hesitant response accompanied by an automatic smile. Charmed, Im sure.
Emily took control once more, doling out commands. Luther, Terri-Lynn, Tobias, Jerry-Joe you get them groceries and such outta the truck. Amos, get Abagails play dress offa that poor dog. Chester?! Its alright, boy, come here. Leonard, Vin here is gonna need some tendin to his Jeep. I just know you and Uncle Ephraim can help get things runnin right.
Wallace, dont you worry about nothin but tendin to your pots. Me an Lucille will fix us up some lunch. Lemme see that little boy.
Aunt Emily gathered up Bob from Lucilles strong arms and layered the boys chubby cheeks with loud kisses.
Ezras male pride made a valiant attempt to appear knowledgeable and interested in the workings of the Jeeps drive train but after 20 minutes hed made a casual break from the three other men staring at the undercarriage of the vehicle.
Vin glanced up and for a half-second his muscles tensed as his Bureau training subconsciously took over and Tanner scanned the unfamiliar surroundings for his missing partner.
Ezra sat on a stump, his leather coat discarded in the Jeep. One of the surveillance photography cases lay wide open in the dirt beside him, and Tobias, Jerry-Joe, and the twins clung close by, enthralled with the digital pictures Standish was taking of them and Chester the dog.
An hour later Lucille called everyone in for lunch. Vin and Ezra hung back, walking slowly toward the house.
Tanner worked absentmindedly at some axle grease under his nails. You want the good news or the bad news first?
Ezra sighed. Might as well be the bad, leave the best for last.
Were probably lookin at another day here.
Standish halted, Youre not serious. There must be a mechanic in town, we can just--
Ez, I was lucky enough to get it up here in the first place. Or didnt you notice the wobble?
Yes, I noticed the wobble.
The skid plate is bent up pretty good, I need to figure out if the transfer case got banged up at all. We aint drivin anywhere till I can get that plate off and check everything out, not to mention seein whats makin it shimmy.
Vin spoke again quickly. The good news is, at least we got a viable reason as to why were out of the office.
Tanner followed the smell of biscuits into the house, ignoring the desperate southern voice behind him.
Thats the good news? We had a viable reason. And it involved being in a hotel and eating in a restaurant Vin !
I think Im beginning to scare myself. Ezra stated to Vin as the two of them stood alone in front of the house following lunch. This is the second time in less than four hours Ive been impressed by this odd country clan.
The Texan suppressed a grin. And learnin about Luther studyin for his truckers endorsement exam and Terri-Lynns hopes for that scholarship to beauty school didnt?
Thats cosmetology college, Vin. Did you notice poor Abagail has sported three different hair styles since weve been here?
So what is it that impressed you over all a that?
Ive eaten in some of the top restaurants in the country Spago, Balthazar, The French Laundry - and those ham slices in that red eye gravy, those fried green tomatoes the cobbler
Dont forget Aunt Emilys biscuits.
I couldnt. That meal was on par with any of those restaurants.
Shoot, Ez, sounds like youre gettin in touch with them Southern roots a yours.
The only Southern roots I have are of the gentile kind, Mr. Tanner.
Uh-huh. Vin smiled slyly as he walked to join Ephraim and Leonard at the Jeep. At least, you hope that was ham.
What? Vin? What do you mean by that? Vin?
Standish shook off the thought of possum when he was corralled by Tobias and Jerry-Joe, whom hed earlier promised to show card tricks to.
The younger of the two, Jerry-Joe wasnt as active as his other siblings. Hed been quite open at one point during lunch in sharing with the two newcomers some of the details of his kidney ailment. He spoke matter-of-factly but his mother shushed him in a quick, subtle fashion.
Not before, however, Ezra and Vin garnered enough information to wonder how a family as noticeably poor as this one could afford costs associated with anything more detrimental than a common cold.
Though Jerry-Joes greatest current concern seemed to be with mastering magic tricks. Hed barely let Ezra out of his sight after discovering the sleight-of-hand maneuvers displayed by the southerner.
Tobias took careful charge of the Olympus E-1 digital camera; and, after some instruction from Standish, documented the afternoon in a professional, if not occasionally militant, manner.
Vin kept a casual watch on his partner throughout the day. Hed have some serious blackmail material once they got those pictures printed out. The team would never believe him if he tried to convince them without documented evidence that hed seen their Agent Standish wearing a hat folded from newspaper while pushing a seven-year-old boy on a swing.
Several hours later a small hand grabbed Ezras and tugged lightly. The southerner glanced down to see Abagail, with Amos and Chester the dog in tow, attempting to pull him around to the back of the house.
The young girl leaned away from Ezra, trying to use her weight to move him. Uncle Wallace has to help winch the Jeep up. Luther and Terri-Lynn are at the creek, will you come watch his pots with us?
Standish had no idea what Wallaces pots contained or why they needed to be watched and he wasnt sure he cared to find out. Lord, but he was worn out. How do parents do it everyday?
Id love to, my dear, but with those clouds moving in Ive gotten a bit of a chill. Ezra tried to extract himself from her tiny grip. My coat is in the Jeep--
Amos darted away excitedly. Ill get it!
Abagail tugged again and Ezra realized he was about to go pot watching.
Amos scrambled lightly into the Jeep and grabbed up the soft, black leather jacket. It was almost as long as he was and, as he ran to deliver it, he flipped it over his shoulder like hed seen his father, uncle and great uncle continuously do with sacks of grain and potatoes.
The young boy didnt notice the small eel-skin billfold that flopped from the inside pocket. Falling down to the dirt of the front yard it landed open, face up and displayed the gold badge and identification of Ezra P. Standish, Special Agent, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
Wallaces pots definitely took Ezra by surprise. He rounded the back of the house and the smell he and Vin thought they recognized when they first arrived hit him like a wall. The undercover ATF agent found himself staring at a make-shift carport which housed large propane tanks and several enormous copper containers bound together by bends of copper tubing.
His eyes widened and his mouth fell open just slightly. His mind scanned over each piece of equipment. Cap Arms. Thump Keg. Worm Box. Fresh water sluice.
Abagail was already over at one of the pots. Having climbed up on a step beside one of the containers the young girl innocently informed Ezra of what she was watching for. If it gets too hot you can get bad condensation and then the whole batch could be poisnous.
Standish was reasonably certain the small brunette was merely parroting bits and pieces of information shed picked up from her siblings and guardians. It did not, however, make the process or the hundreds of gallons of moonshine undoubtedly produced by the operation innocent.
Oh my, the southerner repeated.
Heres your coat!
Ezras heart shot to his throat, stopped for a moment, then dropped back down into his chest before he realized the commotion behind him was just Amos and Chester.
Th-thank you, my boy. Standish slipped the jacket on quickly. Um why dont you go help your sister watch those pots. I have to go speak with Vin. But Ill be right back.
Yes, I definitely need to go speak with Vin.
Lucille had watched from the porch as her second youngest son raced from the Jeep, weighed down with Ezras coat. She shook her head and smiled as hed obliviously dashed away from whatever it was that had dropped from the jacket. Its a good thing they have us to pick up after them.
Seated close-by in a high-backed wooden chair that rested against the house, Aunt Emily shared her nieces contemplative expression. She expertly snipped off the ends of another string bean before dropping it into the colander at her feet. And they never change, Lucy. You pick up after em from the day theyre born to the day the die.
Lucille drifted off the porch. Ezra had been so good with the children and theyd taken to him so readily. She didnt think hed be upset to hear shed had to retrieve one of his belongings from the dirt. But two steps away from the billfold she gasped softly.
It was like a coiled snake, resting on the ground, daring her to move as she stared at it hypnotically. Aunt Emily noticed the change in her nieces body language and called out to her.
Whats the matter, Lucy?
The younger woman stared to her left where Vin and the other men were involved with the Jeep. She suddenly snatched up the billfold and spun to face her aunt, whod come up behind her.
Lucille couldnt speak, she just held the badge and ID out to Emily with an expression that melded worry and anger. The emotions swelled when she saw her aunts reaction, or rather lack of reaction.
The elderly woman only smiled in a warm, familiar fashion. With both hands she casually enveloped the eel-skin billfold, gently closed it and pulled it from her niece.
Lan sakes, child. Dont go lookin so surprised. Me an Ephraim knew what they was afore I even made him bring em up here.
Ow! Damn it! Vin yanked his hand back quickly. In an effort to pull the dented skid plate from its jammed position Tanner attempted to use a long flat-head screwdriver as a pry bar. It surprised him when the metal tip slid from its position against the flat plate and sliced across his left thumb.
He rolled out from under the Jeep, shaking his hand. It took about 5 seconds for the blood to seep from the deep gash. But then it really started flowing. Vin instinctively clamped his right hand over it. Ignoring any thought of the dirt and car grease that covered his palm.
From their spot in the yard, Lucille and Emily heard Vin curse loudly before appearing out from underneath his Jeep.
Lan sakes, sighed Aunt Emily, now what?
The two women watched the shaking of the hand, the staring at the thumb and the obvious gesture of someone attempting to staunch the flow of blood.
The older woman shook her head. Men. Best go help him, Lucy.
But what, child? She laid a gentle hand on her nieces arm. The Smoots aint mixed and sold for four generations and not been caught just cause were lucky. Dont you worry bout nothin. Now go help that boy afore one a them fool men tries to put a tourniquet on his arm.
Lucille went reluctantly, but her aunt was not a stupid woman. If Aunt Emily said not to worry, Lucy would just have to do her best not to worry.
Ezra was nearly to the front of the house when he heard Vin yell. The southerner reigned himself in from his sprint after three steps. Training over-ruled instinct, he needed to find out what was going on. It wouldnt do either of them any good if he jumped to conclusions.
Its not like they know Ive seen the 2,000 gallon still in their backyard. And even if I had they dont know were ATF agents. We just stay nice and relaxed, get the Jeep fixed, and go on our merry way.
Ezra glanced up at the darkening sky and realized nightfall would be upon them within the hour. He swallowed hard and sighed dramatically. Oh, we are so dead.
Vin let Lucille peel his hand away to examine the gash. The blood was flowing freely across his palm and down the Texans wrist.
Lucy shook her head as if dealing with one of her children. Lan sakes. Lets get you in the house and get this cleaned up.
Vin felt foolish for letting the accident happen in the first place. Its alright, maam. I can just--
Dont even try, Vin. Wallace tipped back his Carhart ballcap. The Smoot women only take no for an answer when they want to.
Tanners head shot up. Scuse me? Smoot?
I said, the women of the Smoot family are about as hard-headed as they come. Its best if ya just go along with her. Suns just about down anyway. We aint gettin any more work done on this tonight.
Vin hoped his surprised expression could be attributed to the throbbing of his thumb. He and Ezra were standing in the middle of their case file. And he didnt even know why the Smoots were wanted by the ATF.
Lucille guided him into the house and Tanners mind raced. Cmon, now, Vin. No sense jumpin to conclusions. It aint like they know were Bureau boys. We just get the Jeep fixed and be outta here tomorrow.
Tanner tried to glance around for Ezra but Lucille had the lanky Texan steered into the house and behind closed doors before he could even scan the yard. Vin sighed inwardly, Oh, we are so dead.
Peering carefully around the corner of the house Ezra spotted Vin but wasnt encouraged by the scene that greeted him. Tanner was being led away by Lucille, and a noticeable amount of blood ran down his partners forearm.
He suppressed absurd thoughts of The Pope of Greenwich Village.
Cmon Ezra! Amos raced past, headed for the front yard. Abagail and Chester brought up the rear guard. The little brunette, whose hair was now in a tight French braid, skipped backwards a few steps.
Its gonna be dinner soon! We gotta go help!
She rushed forward to grab the southerners hand and drag him from his spot against the edge of the house.
Leonard stood on the front porch, holding the door open for his brother, when he spotted his youngest daughter accosting one of their guests.
Abagail, would you let the poor man alone for five minutes.
Ezra flashed a smile and tried to look relaxed. Oh, dont worry, theres no crime involved. He inwardly winced at his choice of expressions. I mean shes not causing any harm.
The two oldest children suddenly appeared on the porch, undoubtedly having finished with their duties at the still around back, and Standish felt himself herded into the simple home.
Once inside Jerry-Joes voice echoed Ezras thoughts as they noticed Lucille bandaging Vins hand.
Lucille answered her son in a tight voice. Just a little cut from a screwdriver, aint nothin anybody gonna die from. Are your hands clean? You should be helpin Aunt Emily with dinner.
Ezra caught Vins eye, as if trying to determine if there was anything more to the explanation that had just been given. The southerner was also desperate to communicate to his partner the recently acquired information regarding the enormous illegal alcohol operation going on in this quaint familys backyard.
Tanner and Standish had logged a fair amount of undercover time together. The silent communication skills honed during operations such as that frequently became second nature. So when Vin saw the slight tilt of Ezras head he knew what Standish was asking.
The Texan negated the suspicions with a nearly infinitesimal head shake of his own. But Ezra definitely picked up on a secondary expression in his partners eyes that signaled Vin knew something Standish didnt. Something the normally quiet agent really wanted to communicate.
And seated in a rocking chair in one corner of the room Uncle Ephraim watched the entire curious exchange.
Tobias! Leonards fatherly voice cut through the activity of the room. That camera aint no toy.
The pre-teen was still eagerly experimenting with the Bureau Olympus that Ezra had allowed him to play with earlier in the afternoon.
Standish spoke up quickly. I gave him permission. Its quite a sturdy piece of equipment, and Tobias has clearly handled it with a maturity far beyond his years. Despite everything going on at the moment the southerner couldnt help but grin at the boy.
Tobias smiled back. I could be a wildlife photographer just like Ezra. How old do you have to be to work for Wild Kingdom?
The little white lies told by Standish and Tanner during lunch that afternoon had apparently made quite an impression on one of the children.
Ezra answered honestly. Im not quite sure but probably older than Luther and Terri-Lynn. He lowered his voice conspiratorially, You could do Vins job, though he just sits in the Jeep away from any danger and does the narration.
Tobiass Uncle Wallace broke into the conversation. Tell you what Toby, when yall are old enough to handle this, then youll be old enough to have a fancy job.
The man held a glass bottle of what appeared to be water. With a smooth hand he tipped some of the liquid into five glasses of varying sizes and styles resting on the large wood table where the family took their meals.
Standing at the sink, his sister-in-law, Lucille took in a sharp breath. Aunt Emily looked up from the large pan she was tending to on the stove top and addressed her niece.
Now Lucy, what good is havin a gift if ya cant share it? The elderly woman shifted her gaze first to Standish, then to Tanner. Wallace was given an expensive bottle of Russian vodka by some fellas he worked with on a fishin trawler. You try some a that, Vin, and any pain in yer thumb will just be washed right away.
Emily laughed freely. But ya best sip, it seems them Russians like things strong. Now yall sit down, suppers ready.
She turned her attention back to the pot on the stove; but not before flashing a wink at her husband, who still sat in the corner rocker, silent but taking in all that was going on.
Vin had a glass of vodka placed in his hand at the same moment dinner was laid out on the table. Spicy smoked pork, collard greens, cornbread dumplings and pecan pie. The Texans intuition battled with his training.
There was a reason why the Smoots had a file with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He cursed himself and Ezra for not having at least read through the documents in the manila folder. Yet Tanners instincts didnt have him on edge.
If anything, Vin felt completely comfortable and at home with the large family. He wished he could break away just for a moment and compare notes with Ezra to find out what the southerner had been trying earlier to wordlessly say.
Tanner took a sip from his glass and a few seconds after the alcohol slid smoothly down his throat he knew exactly what his partner was trying to communicate to him.
Vodka, my ass! the Texan said silently to himself. It had been the smell of fermenting alcohol that accosted him and Ezra when they first arrived at the Smoot homestead. The internal fire that retraced a lightening path back up Vins throat to his tongue caused his eyes to widen and brought on a small cough.
The room echoed with laughter at Tanners expense, but he didnt mind. His intuition and instincts had brought him through more precarious situations than he could count. He would trust them again.
Vin read the unsure expression in the green eyes across the table from him. Its all good, Ez.
Standish smiled and the Texan picked up on every bit of insecurity that laced through the expression. Famous last words, Mr. Tanner.
Vin stared solidly into his friends eyes and winked confidently. Trust me.
Ezra shook his head but his smile relaxed to a more natural one. He raised his own glass toward Tanner. Well when in Rome . Na zdorovia! Raising the glass a bit higher he added, Thats Russian for Be Healthy.
Standishs own fit of coughing blended quite well with another round of laughter.
It was time to leave the Smoot family. Ezra and Vin had greatly enjoyed the hospitality of the large extended family. Aunt Emily had a golden touch in the kitchen. Vin wouldnt tell Nettie about Aunt Emilys flaky, sweet biscuits. In two days the sharpshooter felt like hed gained weight, hopefully no one would notice.
Tanner tossed his and Ezras overnight bags into the back of the Jeep and could hear Standishs voice drifting from the front porch.
Believe it or not, Ive known a brewer or two in my time. One gentleman, whom we were transporting uh, giving a ride to, was a bit of a compulsive talker. I recall him complaining that too many brewers used gelatin-based fining agents. Leaves the product cloudier than it should be.
He insisted on Alcotec 24 Turboklar. Here ya go, I wrote it down. I think youll notice a very clear and obvious improvement in the quality.
The Smoot brothers were impressed with the suggestions. After all, they had to think about little Jerry-Joes medical bills. Then there was Terri-Lynns dream of attending the cosmetology college.
Hey, Ez, Vin waved at the southerner, gesturing for him to break away from the group of men.
They seem like nice folk. Tanner tipped his head in the direction of the tiny house. Just tryin to get by like anybody else. Its probably the best livin wage theyre gonna get. We cant bring em in.
Ezra shrugged in an agreeing sort of way. Perhaps we could suggest to them to try to change their ways. They dont know who we really are, and its not as if its a secret that moonshining is illegal. Hell, Im sure even Marlon and Jim knew that.
Vin smiled as Standish continued. Ill talk to them. Maybe they could use their knowledge for something more legitimate. The southerner cast a sidelong glance toward the back of the house. Although I am at a loss as to what one does with high-volume bootlegging experience on ones resume.
Tanner laid a hand on the hood of the vehicle next to him. The Jeeps up and runnin fine. We should be makin our way back. Vin turned his phone on and saw a familiar No Service message. Weve been outta cell range too long.
Standish searched for his own phone, slipping his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket; but the confused look on his face prompted Vin to question his partner.
Tanner followed Ezras gaze to the southerners right side. Slim fingers just barely pulled a familiar eel-skin billfold from the coats pocket. Standish smoothly transferred it to its usual resting place. I always keep it in the inside left pocket.
Vin shook his head, dismissing the thoughts both of them had. You think two ATF agents would just be allowed to walk away from a bootlegging operation in the middle of wooded mountains 30 miles from nowhere?
Point taken. Hows your thumb, by the way?
Are you kiddin? Im thinkin about cuttin my other thumb just so I can focus on somethin other than the hangover I got right now.
You and me both, my friend.
Vin glanced over Ezras shoulder to where Tobias was taking a few final pictures. This time it was of Chester, sitting patiently in the chair on the porch, once again dressed in the pink tutu but now also wearing Uncle Wallaces Carhart ballcap.
The Texan ran a hand through his long hair. And to think, we cant even tell anybody about any a this. He paused as a thought struck him. What are we gonna tell people about this?
Mr. Tanner, Ezra shook his head in mock disgust, have I taught you nothing? We read through the file tonight over a nice supper at a restaurant in Empire. Tomorrow we take some pictures, talk to a bartender or clinic nurse, make some notes, and show up on Friday in time to turn everything in, having successfully avoided any contact with what did I say?
The Island of Misfit Agents.
Youre pretty damn slick, Agent Standish.
Why thank you, Agent Tanner.
Ezra Standish always believed no good deed went unpunished. The last few days had been like a vacation. This, of course meant, it couldnt last. He and Tanner never did get around to reading over the Smoots case file. Truth be told, they couldnt find it.
The two agents suspected it was lying in a pile of mud next to a fallen tree somewhere off of U.S. Highway 40. Not that either of them was that concerned. If it had been an important case then Team Two definitely would not have been allowed to have it in their workload.
Tanner and Standish pulled into the garage at the Federal Building and saw Buck and Nathan heading towards Wilmingtons truck.
The pair waited for the arriving agents to retrieve their belongings and the photography equipment from the back of the Jeep.
Nate was the first to speak. Shaking his head and smiling. The prodigal sons return.
Whoo boys! What do you two do, shit ice cream? Wilmington slapped Vin on the shoulder. Tanner stumbled slightly from the sudden onslaught.
The Texan queried him, looking confused. What?
I cant believe it either. Nathan shook Ezras hand and lightly patted him on the arm. I guess you brought Team Two luck.
Luck? Wilmington repeated with a laugh, Shit, Nate, if the third biggest bust in the western regions history is your idea of luck I need to be draggin your ass with me next time I go to Vegas.
Third biggest ? Ezra caught himself and smoothly covered his confusion. Well, for you boys it would be luck. For us its just pure talent.
Pure bullshit, maybe, retorted Jackson with a grin.
Buck rubbed Tanners stomach. Maybe we can get us some of that luck, Nate.
Vin slapped the other mans hand away but Wilmington just laughed and backed toward his truck. Hey, us regular working-dogs dont have any of your magical powers so we have to follow up on leads the old-fashioned way. But, well stop by at the party when we come back.
Tanner waved goodbye and he and Standish headed for the elevators. What the hells going on?
Ezra shook his head, feeling a bit dazed. I have no idea.
They exited at the lobby level, making their way to the second set of lifts that would take them to the main floors of the Federal Building.
Great job! An ATF officer they recognized from the third floor yelled across the lobby to them.
Thanks, answered Standish, hoping his false smile wasnt obvious.
As they passed through the metal detectors another agent pointed at Vin. Hey, hey!
Right back at ya. Tanner said as he returned the gesture.
They passed through a gauntlet of accolades before reaching Team Twos floor. A party was in full swing. A table had been set with platters of food and sodas. After Team Nines toilet papering of the administrative offices alcohol was no longer allowed on the premises.
You take the left, Ill take the right. We meet back here in five, Standish said through a clench-toothed smile. The southerner wove his way through the office, picking up snippets of conversation.
Yeah, shes our secret weapon
Like I said at the warehouse this morning, Ismailova is over.
Boy! The look on their faces
We kept opening crate after crate. Ive never seen so many AK-47s
Yep, got Sliva too. We stopped a major pipeline.
When Ezra circled back around to meet with Vin he saw Tanner already there talking to JD and a member of Team Two.
Don, JD, the southerner greeted the two men.
Um, its Dino, corrected the man in a quiet, polite voice.
Ezra ignored him. I was just speaking to Brad and Sean.
Dino look puzzled, You mean Rob and Shane?
Standish favored the man with a smile he reserved for ineffectual middle management and those of slow wit. Yes. Theyre looking for you. They have a matter they would like to discuss which needs your expertise.
JD watched Dino wander off in search of his teammates. Dunne knew Standish well enough to recognize when Ezra doled out his idiot grin, and the young man wondered what kind of week the southerner endured with the geek-patrol.
Raising his glass of punch slightly in a toast, JD confided in his teammates. Buck said you guys would go postal with Team Two, but I was pulling for you.
How much did you win? Vin asked, not missing a beat.
Twenty. Dunnes smile combined the innocent joy of winning with the devilish delight of taking money from his roommate. Im telling ya, guys, the only thing that could top this bust is if somebody bagged the Smoot brothers.
Standishs eyes widened slightly and he swallowed once before clearing his throat. Im sorry, who?
The Smoot Brothers. The expressions JD read on his friends faces made him elaborate.
Cmon, you know. The Smoots - oldest, continuous bootlegging family in the U.S.
Ezra and Vin still looked confused, so the younger agent tried again. Every agent has heard of the Smoots. Theyre that family that started moonshining back in the 20s and just never stopped. He took a sip of the bright red fruit punch.
Its rumored they supplement entire counties in states where the bars are few and far-between. Most productive bootleggers in the Midwest. They must make a fortune. They just dont stay put long enough for anybody to get a lock on them.
Standish responded with authority. Ah, of course The Smoots. Yes.
Oh yeah, added Vin, them.
JD finished off his glass and set it down on the nearest desk.
Well, we best be goin, Ez Tanner pulled at Standishs suit jacket.
The undercover agent nodded. Yes. Reports to write. You know how it is, no rest for the wicked.
Ezra and Vin made their way to the elevator. The sharpshooter stabbed at the call button marked with a downward pointing arrow.
Every agent has heard of the Smoots. Standishs sharp, mimic was delivered in a hushed voice as he ran a quick hand through his dark hair. I cant believe we lost the case file.
We? queried Tanner, matching his partners quiet timber. You had it last!
And you had it first! Didnt you even look at it?
Course I looked at. The most recent page, anyway. Thats why we were out towards Empire in the first place.
Tanner jabbed at the down button again, hoping to rush the elevator.
The southerner sighed through pursed lips. There was a lot more to that file, I guess.
The elevator doors finally opened as Vin replied. Ez, we gotta bring em in.
Well, that was nice of them. Ezra passed Vin a Mason jar containing a one-finger shot of Smoot Brothers Refined Shine. The bottle Standish had pulled from bore a handmade label displaying the new name and a childs crayon drawing of a black and tan coonhound wearing a pink ballet tutu.
The agents relaxed in two abandoned lawn chairs, which had been left to them along with a single bottle of grain whiskey and a note of thanks. Unfortunately, the Smoot clan left no forwarding address.
Sure was, agreed Tanner. The Texan sat silently for a moment as his mind drifted over all the events of the past week. How long you think they knew about us?
Ezra gazed out at the horizon. Who knows. That Aunt Emily shes a sharp one.
Damn fine cook, too, Vin added.
That she is. And judging from the pictures I downloaded, young Mr. Tobias might just get that job as a professional photographer.
Vin took a small sip of his whiskey. Send em to me, will ya?
I already burned a cd of them for you. Its in the Jeep. Standish gestured with a thumb toward the vehicle parked behind them in the clearing. Do you think theyll be able to see to Jerry-Joe properly?
The genuine concern in the southerners voice prompted Tanner to answer sincerely. Theyve run a damn successful, non-taxed, family business since the 1920s. Im thinkin each a them kids got a helluva trust fund comin to them once they come of age. I wouldnt worry none about whether or not Leonard and Lucille can afford the best doctors out there.
The two men lapsed into silence, watching the skys colors flare, blend and melt into a gorgeous sunset. A question from Vin broke the meditative mood. So whatre we gonna tell Chris come Monday?
Standish studied the few ounces of clear liquid in his Mason jar glass and took a tentative sip. Not a thing.
Nothin? The Texan paused, his own glass halfway to his lips. And how you figure we gonna explain our obvious absence in the RedFellas bust report?
Ezra coughed softly as the moonshine slipped past the bottom of his esophagus and started its retro-burn. Were in the report.
We are? Vin sounded decidedly doubtful. He lowered his glass to rest on his knee, suspicious of the southerners apparent lack of distress. And uh how exactly did we get in the report?
Mr. Tanner, when you think of Dave, Sean and Brad-
I thought it was Rod?
Was it? Well, whomever when you think of them what comes to mind?
Vin didnt follow his friends line of thinking and shook his head accompanied by a slight shrug of his shoulders.
Star Wars computers those haircuts Ezra listed some clues.
Those guys aint been laid in a while Tanner took up his glass, shot back the single swallow and held the Mason jar out for more liquor. He coughed his way through a question. Ez, what the hell did you do?
Standish poured Vin a two-finger shot this time and merely raised his eyebrows in response to the query. They all have dates. I am sure they will all be very happy.
Youre a good man, Tanner patted him on the shoulder. Something tells me its gonna be a great day tomorrow.
The Texan rested back in the lawn chair. To hillbillies, he raised his Mason jar.
Ezra replied as their glasses clinked together, And geeks.
We hope you laughed as much as we did :0)