To Your Health
Vin settled into his seat. He hated flights. He hated planes. He hated going into situations like this and he hated the way Ezra had shut him out.
It wasnít like Ezra to be this quiet, or this distracted and that worried Vin, especially given the circumstances of their upcoming case Ė a thousand miles away from their team, unknown support, unknown enemies and they didnít have any idea what the problem was. Theyíd only been told that it was extremely sensitive and they didnít want it discussed except face to face. Whatever it was, no one was happy. Vin and Ezra had been present at the last confrontation between Travis and Larabee. Travis was just as unhappy as Chris over the situation, but hinted that a lot of strings had been pulled to arrange this and the orders came from people higher up than the Travis.
This wouldnít have happened when they were with the ATF, but they werenít with the ATF anymore. Two years prior Washington had decided to create a new law enforcement organization, one with more flexibility, with more authority, one focused solely on controlling weapons - legal and illegal. This new organization - the Weapons Control Bureau - would be made up of the best teams and individuals from various other government agencies. Washington had been most anxious to get Travis and had agreed that the headquarters for Western Operations would be Denver. Naturally once Travis agreed, he quickly elected Team Seven to join him.
In the time they had been working with the WCB, Vin had learned a lot - they all had. And, though they had spent a lot of time in training and in learning, Team Seven had managed to keep their high success rate intact, each member becoming proficient in all areas of their new organization, not just the weapons they would be fighting, but the different jobs they would fill.
One of the drawbacks of the new WCB was that not all the rules were laid out and there was still a bit of empire building going on among some of the regional offices. One of the side-effects of this was that communication wasnít as good as it should be among the different regions. Though not all did so, many regions jealously guarded their information, refusing to share it with others. This practice was changing, but as with many others, it was changing slowly.
So, Vin and Ezra had prepared as best they could, beginning with resurrecting their roles. Of all the roles they had played, Vin couldnít understand why they had been asked to re-use these two. Not that Evin Daily was that difficult a personality to slide into, but his memory of what happened last time heíd played this role made him uncomfortable.
About eighteen months before, on his first undercover assignment with Ezra, Vin had been excited. His nervousness had not been lost on Ezra, so when they were developing their covers, he had decided to try and keep as close to Vinís name as possible, figuring it would help the Sharpshooter react more naturally. Thatís when theyíd come up with the name Evin.
The group they were infiltrating was trying to make their name as a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately theyíd been succeeding by leaps and bounds. When Team Seven began the case there had been much debate about letting Ezra go in alone. Eventually they had agreed to allow Vin to go in with him since both the leader of the group and Vin were from Texas. If nothing else, they figured it would help them make a connection.
Vin had been tense going in as Ezraís partner, but the gamble of their Texas connection paid off and the case had progressed quickly.
The bust was set. Everyone was in place. Vin and Ezra had managed to arrange the meet in a location where Team Seven wouldnít need a Sharpshooter. Everything seemed to be going smoothly Ė at least until someone from the suspectís past decided to make an appearance. Chaos had ensued. Their suspect went to the morgue rather than prison. Ezra and Vin had only just managed to escape the area with their covers intact. The only other man to get away was the one who had shot their suspect.
Two weeks later they had been contacted by the second in command of the group. They had been cautious about the meet, but had gone through with it hoping to wrap up the last few remnant of the group.
"Relax, Mr. Tanner," Ezra soothed as he watched his partner fidget with the wire. "Everything is in place, including our comrades. Nothing is going to happen. All of our data show that the perpetrator of the crime which deprived us of the head of this organization is well hidden from the eyes of the world and law enforcement especially."
Vin sighed and made a conscious effort to force his hands away from the hidden microphone. "I know youíre right, Ez," he conceded, "but Iíve got a bad feelingÖ"
At that point they ran out of time. The second in command appeared and the two men slid into their covers, prepared to do the deal and make the arrests.
Ezra was talking circles around the man when Vin noticed something wasnít right. It took only a few seconds for him to realize that this wasnít a buy, but an execution with he and Ezra as the victims. Just as Ezra was closing the deal, the silver of a knife blade flashed and Vin dove at Ezra. They were in the open and had no cover. A burning pain erupted in Vinís thigh as he felt the weight of the knife and the bite of steel inbed itself in his flesh. Unable to suppress the cry of pain, he tried to focus as Ezra grabbed him and shouted over the sound of guns firing that they needed to find cover.
The two men crawled along the floor of the abandoned office building toward a pile of old office furniture; the linoleum floor was taking the impact of most of the bullets. They were almost to their chosen shelter when a bullet landed particularly close, kicking up shards of linoleum.
The two men came to a stop and Vin started moving forward, stopping only when he realized Ezra was not following. Turning to look at his partner, he spotted a piece of the flooring protruding from the side of his friendís head. He could feel the blood drain from his face as he feared the worst. "Ez!" he cried, shimmying back toward the still figure. With shaking hands he reached down and found a strong pulse.
Lowering his head to his arm and breathing a sigh of relief, Vin grabbed his friend and started dragging him along, not seeing the trail of blood they left behind them.
As he felt his strength waning, Vin shut out everything but the thought of reaching safety. He remembered dragging himself and Ezra behind the desks and then nothing more until they woke up in a double room at the hospital, their worried friends gathered around.
Vin glanced up when he felt a hand touch his shoulder. He calmed when he realized it was the airline attendant asking what he wanted to drink. Asking for a soda, he glanced at the form beside him. Ezra hadnít moved since they had first taken his seat. Whatever was bothering his friend, he hoped the Southerner either came to terms with it before they had to begin or would be able to lock it away. They couldnít afford a slip-up.
Thanking the stewardess for the drink, he turned his attention back to the file before him. There was very little useful information. What the Toledo office had been willing to share was that they were close to breaking a major gun-ring with ties to their case. Tanner and Standish had somehow become key pieces in assuring the deal and were to take on their roles as Evin Daily and Ephraim Huntly. They would be briefed upon their arrival.
After an hour of struggling through the information he and Ezra had been able to gather before their departure, Vin decided heíd learned all he could. Closing the file, he put it away and stood, figuring a walk up and down the aisle would help him relax.
He had just turned toward the back of the plane when he heard Ezraís cell ring and his friend answer. Walking away to afford Ezra some privacy, he made his way to the back where one of the stewardesses cornered him. They chatted for several minutes before Vin headed back to his seat with a phone number.
Taking his seat, he found Ezra in exactly the same position he had been the entire flight, though he looked a bit paler than before. Taking a closer look, Vin also noticed the tension in his friendís form had increased. Catching a glimpse of the emerald eyes, Vin wondered at the expression. He knew his friend well enough now to tell what he was feeling. What Vin read was fear, worry and Ö despair? surrender? Resignation? He wasnít sure, but he absolutely had to find out. What he didnít know could get them both killed.
Stepping out of the plane, Ezra stared blankly at his surroundings. There were people wandering about and he had no idea what to do. It wasnít until the softly drawled, "This way Ez," was whispered in his ear that he was able to recall his reason for being in an airport.
Shaking off the dark specter that had been consuming him, he slid into his professional persona and followed the lithe Texan through the crowds of waiting passengers and into the public area of the airport.
Vin scanned the crowd of those waiting for passengers and soon found a man in a crisp suit waiting for them. Making his way through the throng, he approached the man who was about the same height. Evaluating the young man, it was easy to tell he was a federal agent. His stance, confidence and the slight bulge under his jacket bespoke that much. "Weíre Tanner and Standish," he said to the young man.
The man smiled and offered his hand. "Sam Advis, Toledo office. Good to see you here," he greeted, shaking both menís hands. "Iím supposed to take you to the office, but if youíd like I can stop by the hotel first so you can drop your stuff."
Vin nodded his thanks. "Reckon itíd be nice to drop off our stuff."
"Ok, then letís go," Sam encouraged, leading the way to baggage claim.
As the three men settled into the car, Vin felt it was safe enough to ask about the case. "What can you tell us about the case?" he inquired of the driver.
Sam smiled. He had wanted to be the one to pick up Tanner and Standish being well aware of their reputations as well as the legendary status of Denverís Team Seven, but his boss had warned him against saying anything to either man. There were too many things that could go wrong, that could prejudice them against the case, against what his team would have to request of the two men.
Seeing the manís discomfort, Vin let out a sigh and stared out the window as Ezra soothed, "I assure you we understand you may not be free to speak of the case. Rest assured we will attain our rooms with the utmost alacrity that our arrival at your offices may be as timely as possible."
Samís brow furrowed as he worked out what Ezra had said. Finally understanding, a smile broke out on his face. "Thanks," he breathed. "Iíve been asked not to say anything since itís pretty complicated."
Vin nodded and Ezra smiled at the young man.
Releasing a sigh, Ezra called upon all the lessons his mother had taught him and boxed up his worry and concerns. He needed to focus on the job at hand. There was nothing he could do about the Doctorís information until after this was done. He knew the dangers involved in any undercover assignment, going into this one without their team to back them, there would be additional dangers they would have to worry about - miscommunication, misinformation, misunderstandings... The men on the Toledo team might not understand their signals - might move too soon. Of course, Ezra was also aware how foolish it was for him to worry about it before finding out all the details.
As Sam pulled the car up to the front of the hotel, he helped the two men bring in their luggage. Check in took very little time and within fifteen minutes the three men were on their way to the WCB office.
Entering the office building, the trio went through security, the process hastened by Samís easygoing attitude and friendly relationship with the guards. In no time, Vin and Ezra found themselves in a conference room.
Taking seats, they watched as four men entered the room bringing the total to seven. Studying the recent arrivals, Ezra quickly evaluated the men. On of them seemed to be a bit out of place, but he couldnít quite place his finger on what was different about him.
"Gentlemen," Sam said as everyone else took their seats, "allow me make introductions. The gentleman at the head of our table is Marvin Hemke our Team Leader here in Toledo. The gentleman to his right is Calder Robb head of our Sandusky field office. Next to Mr. Robb is Ezra Standish of Denverís Team Seven. At the foot of the table is Dennis Wright of the Canadian Border Protection Force or CBPF. Next to Mr. Wright is Vin Tanner also of Denverís Team Seven. Next to Mr. Tanner is Robert Cole, our undercover agent and point on this case. And finally, I am Sam Advis, agent."
Ezra and Vin had exchanged looks when Dennis Wright had been introduced. What in the world was the Canadian Border Protection Force doing involved in an WCB case?
Introductions done, Ezra took the lead. "I assure you Mr. Tanner and myself are pleased to make all of your acquaintances, but I fear we are still very much in the dark as to why we have been summoned here." He watched as the five other men in the room all shifted uncomfortably. The unhappy looks shot at Marvin Hemke by Wright and Robb didnít go unnoticed.
Finally clearing his throat to take control of the meeting, Marvin began his explanation. "Several months ago Robert was working to break a local ring when a meeting took an interesting turn." Opening the folder he had brought with him, he handed out copies of a photograph, keeping a close eye on the visiting agents. He watched as the two men looked at the picture then glanced at each other. He was impressed that he had detected no reaction other than the exchanged look. He had heard a lot about Team Seven and the agents on it; it pleased him to see that, at least initially, their reputation was well earned.
"We were under the impression that Winston Garver currently resided in a cemetery in Denver," Ezra observed, his emerald eyes turning to meet those of the Toledo team leader.
"So were we," Hemke assured. "Thatís part of the reason we wanted you here. Since his resurrection heís been almost impossible to get near. We have an opportunity to get close by giving him what he really wants."
"The weapons we promised him," Vin observed quietly watching all of the other men in the room shift uncomfortably. The weapons that Vin and Ezra had offered to supply Garver were top of the line, very rare, exceedingly deadly and almost immune to all methods of detection.
"Yes," Hemke confirmed reluctantly. "We donít know why heís requested your presence rather than let Robert deal with you, but itís important that we get in. This may be our only shot to bring this down."
When silence reigned for several seconds, Ezra cleared his throat having drawn a conclusion of his own. "This being some sort of international smuggling operation between the US and Canada?" he ventured, knowing his assumption had been correct when he saw the slight smile form on Dennis Wrightís face.
Wright saw Hemke about to protest and interrupted. "We canít prove that yet, Mr. Standish, but you are correct. We suspect Mr. Garver is involved in, if not running, an illegal gun smuggling ring. Over the past year we have noticed an increase in gun-related violence in several of our cities. Through exhaustive efforts of our own, we have managed to track the source back to the this region of the country. We sought out Mr. Robbís assistance and believe the guns are crossing the border somewhere in Lake Erie, possibly on one of the American Islands. But, lacking proof, we have been unable to move on our end."
"I reported our suspicions to the AD here and was put in touch with Marvin. He brought both of us in on Robertís investigation and weíve hit a critical point," Calder explained. "If we can pull this off, we plug a huge hole and take a lot of guns off the streets of both the US and Canada."
"But thatís not all of it," Vin chimed in again, sensing something more. He saw everyoneís face grow serious as the atmosphere in the room grew heavy and grim.
"No," Hemke stated. "Thatís not all of it."
A nervous stillness settled upon the room. Quick furtive glances shot among the Ohio agents. Wright, while not participating in the nervous glances, settled back in his chair and looked decidedly displeased.
Finally Hemke sighed and began explaining. "Robert had been under about two weeks when Peter Milovick, his target, asked him about upping the amount of product. The sudden increase and Milovickís behavior during the meeting hinted at something much larger. Robert came back to us with the deal and his suspicions. With a little more work, we were able to pick up hints at something much larger behind Miovick. By chance, Robert happened to arrive early at a meeting in a restaurant and was shocked to see Garver there, but was introduced and seemed to hit it off."
Wright picked up the narrative. "It was shortly after this that Calder and I approached Mr. Hemke with our information." Making sure he had both Ezra and Vinís attention, he continued, "We have been working very intensely for some time, though through different means. Several months ago we became aware of Garverís presence and have been working to get a man on the inside. We managed to get one of our men in as part of Garverís bodyguard team. Thatís how we discovered the connection to the American Islands."
Vin glanced around and noticed that none of the others would meet either his or Ezraís eyes. The nervousness of which he had been vaguely aware suddenly coalesced in his stomach, making him feel somewhat ill.
Seeing the look exchanged between Ezra and Vin, Wright knew he had to continue, though it gave him no pleasure. "We found his body shortly after we received the information." The silence which blanketed the room was only disturbed by the quiet movement of the air through the HVAC system.
Finally Ezra broke the silence. "There was no indication as to what had happened to reveal his identity?"
"None," came the tight answer from Wright. "We do know that he was tortured for several days prior to his death."
"And heís not the only one to have suffered this fate," Calder Robb interjected causing the eyes of the Denver agents to fall on him. "There have been several bodies found in the lake, on both sides of the border that bore similar indications to those suffered by Wrightís man. Their discoveries have been kept fairly quiet since the discoveries have been scattered, but the identities of the bodies... Some had suspected ties to Garver, some we didnít have enough left to identify."
"Has either government approached him?" Vin asked, sickened by what he was hearing. He felt his stomach clench and his heart rate increase as Hemke, Robb and Wright exchanged distressed looks.
"Heís disappeared," Sam blurted out, unable to stand the tension.
Faces grim, Ezra and Vin leaned forward. "Tell us more," Ezra demanded. "Tell us everything."
The Denver agents stood on the small patio outside of their two-bedroom suite. Nature seemed to be going out of her way to create the most beautiful, soul-stunning sunset either man had ever seen. Unfortunately, both men were so lost in thought they failed to note the golden hued beams sparking heavenly lights in the rainbow explosion of the sky.
As the final ribbons of color faded to black, Vin finally broke the trance-like cloak that had smothered he and Ezra. Glancing at his friend, he found it easy to tell the Undercover Agent was worried and knowing Ezra as he did, he knew it wasnít worry over the case. "Wanna talk about it?"
Ezra sighed deeply. How could he tell Vin the information he had received that day? How could he burden his friend when they were already burdened by the upcoming case? Choosing a safer topic he replied, "Tristan."
Tilting his head to the side, Vin could tell that wasnít the real reason, but let it slide for now. He would try again after dinner. "Chris will take good care of him."
Ezra smiled briefly at the Sharpshooter. "I know. But I still worry."
Vin stepped up and rested a hand on Ezraís shoulder. "Weíll give Chris a call after dinner and ..." His voice trailed off as he realized he wasnít supposed to contact Larabee or any of the others until this was over. That order had come from Hemke and was supposedly supported by higher ups. It was one of the many aspects of the case that didnít sit well with the Denver agents. "Letís get something to eat," Vin said, stepping toward the door.
Ezra found he really wasnít that hungry, but Ďappearances are everythingí he thought, his motherís voice echoing in his head. Standing, he followed his friend, aware of the concern and worry in the Texan. He wished he could think of something to do or say to alleviate that tension, but he just couldnít think of anything that would help, certainly not the truth.
The duo made their way down to the hotel restaurant. I had been recently refurbished and still held the air of newness. Settling at a table overlooking the lake, the men scanned the menu and quickly ordered. Vin raised an eyebrow at Ezraís choice of salad without dressing and coffee with the meal, but didnít say anything, figuring Ezra would talk to him eventually.
They were almost finished with their meal, their conversation having remained neutral throughout, when Dennis Wright appeared in the dining room and walked to their table, "Gentlemen," he greeted, shifting slightly on his feet, the only betrayal of his nervousness.
"Inspector Wright," Ezra acknowledged. "Please sit."
Smiling at the invitation, the inspector settled into one of the empty chairs. Conversation was delayed as the waiter came up and took Wrightís order for coffee. Once that was delivered, the Canadian leaned forward and kept his voice low. "Gentlemen," he began. "I donít know you well and you donít know me either. This makes trust very difficult, especially where such a sensitive subject is concerned."
Ezra and Vin exchanged a quick, surprised look. Curious to find out what was so important, Ezra prompted, "I assure you, sir. Whatever you tell us, stays with us."
Wright stared into the green eyes and read the sincerity there. Turning toward Vin he saw the same determination there as well. Nodding once in approval, he said, "Good. What I have to tell you could be dangerous if not deadly for one of my men if it were to slip out." He saw the two men tense a little at this, pleased that they were reacting so professionally. "I have a man undercover in Garverís compound outside Toronto. Heís been working on this for several months and has provided my government with the data necessary to pursue this investigation. In his last report, he hinted that Garver might have people in various agencies on both sides of the border answering to him."
Ezra and Vin glanced at each other, both feeling a tingling of uncertainty and danger growing. Not only was this information not good, they both suspected it was only the beginning. "Go on," Vin encouraged, his voice low.
Wright grew more serious, leaning forward a little further and lowering his voice. "This whole set-up doesnít sit right with me and hasnít from the start, but there is little I can do in this country." He easily read the agreement in both sets of eyes. "Thereís nothing I can really do as far as changing the plan, but I can let you know of my suspicions. First, I doní t believe Hemkeís boss knows of his restrictions. Obviously the man was involved in approving your coming here and in the secrecy, but I donít believe he was told the full extent of the danger you would be entering. Secondly, I am almost positive that forbidding you to contact your Team Leader came as a surprise to Robb, so he most likely isnít involved. What worries me is Cole and the autonomy the three of you are given in the meet. Originally it was just supposed to be a show of good faith, but meeting in the marina without water backup..."
"Didnít sit right with us either," Vin assured, feeling some small relief that this man was on their side.
Wright nodded and released a small breath of relief. "I donít know what I can do, other than assure you that, had Robb or I had more of a say in the planning, this would not have been the case. As it is, Robb has been fighting with Hemke since you left and has finally gotten the man to agree to let you have on-water backup. I can have someone on the Canadian side of the lake ready to back you as well."
"We understand, Inspector," Ezra assured. "Let us hope we donít need his assistance."
Wright nodded he wanted to do more for these men. From what heíd read and what heíd seen, these men were among the top agents in their agency and deserved better than what they were receiving. Finally, he asked, "Is there anything I can do for you?"
Vin and Ezra each weighed the question. There was little the man could do given his circumstances and obvious lack of connections. Yet they did know someone with enough pull to help them should their fears be founded. Vin nodded his head once.
Ezra turned to face Wright. "There shouldnít be a need. If all goes according to plan we will be back within three hours of our departure. Should we fail to return in that allotted time, or the boat is unable to retrieve us, we ask only that you contact our Team Leader in Denver, Chris Larabee. He will know what to do," Ezra instructed as Vin held out a card with Chrisí contact information.
Wright nodded, feeling better knowing he now had backup should he need it. Normally this wouldnít have been an issue, but on this side of the US/Canadian border and he had no authority. "Very well," he said, accepting the card and standing. Nodding at the two, his face remained grave. "Let us hope weíre wrong," he said before turning to leave.
Two tense agents from Denver couldnít help but agree.
Chris pulled up his driveway and couldnít stop his smile as Tristan made his way off the porch to greet him. The dog wasnít bounding around like he normally did out here, but he was healing.
Stepping out of the truck, he greeted the dog and watched as Tristan ran around him in large circle. Looking over to the corral, he saw the horses who had been let out that morning. An odd feeling passed over him as he noticed Ezra and Vinís horses stood apart from the others. Frowning, he debated calling the Toledo office, but heíd been ordered by Travis not to do so.
Looking eastward, away from the setting sun, he said a silent prayer that his friends were safe.
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