Title: The List
Disclaimers: Don’t own anything having to do with The Magnificent Seven. Don’t own the ATF universe, MOG does. Thanks for letting me play.
Author's notes: This is in response to the "Tried and True Plot Device Challenge" where a strange woman approaches one of the boys and leaves them holding a floppy diskette. Originally, it wasn’t meant to be multi-part, but I guess the story had other ideas.
Feedback: Please. firstname.lastname@example.org
Though the day had been unusually warm for April, the evening had cooled enough to make the suit coats a welcome addition. The two men sat on the patio of the upscale restaurant taking in the view as they watched the sun set over the city of Denver.
With a final sigh, the long-haired young man finally folded his menu and set it down before him. "Decided what ya' want, Mr. Simpson?" Vin Tanner asked his dining companion.
"Not yet, Mr. Taylor," replied Ezra Standish.
The two had been undercover working on a case foralmost two months. Their presence at the restaurant, having been precipitated by the tail they had acquired earlier that afternoon after leaving a meeting with their potential buyer, had extended an already grueling day. They had actually been on their way back to the office when Vin noticed a car following them. Ezra had quickly called the office and explained the situation to their boss. They would meet at the office later that night in order to pass along the most recent information.
Since they were unable to return to the office and the dinner hour approached, they had decided to have dinner to pass some time. Arriving at the restaurant, Vin had indicated his preference for sitting outside instead of the close, slightly crowded interior. Settling at their table, they had each ordered a pre-dinner drink.
His eyes focused on Nature's evening show, Vin felt some of the tension that had invaded him earlier begin to ease. His senses were still on high alert, however, and he noted the woman in the waitress uniform approach before she had taken more than two steps in their direction. Knowing this woman was not their waitress, Vin studied her closely to evaluate her threat level.
Above average in height, though not remarkably tall, the young woman carried herself upright and alert. Though pretty enough to notice, she wasn't beautiful enough to remember. Her light brown hair was pulled back in a high ponytail revealing a heart-shaped face. It was the expression in her deep azure eyes, however, that set alarms off in his head. Her eyes were never still. Constantly scanning for any potential threat, Vin identified a dangerous glint in them, one he'd seen in his own eyes and those of his team. The woman approaching them could be a danger.
Maintaining a relaxed posture in his seat, Vin shifted slightly to make sure he had easy access to his gun. Shooting a quick glance at Ezra, he noted that the Southerner was also alert to the approaching threat and ready to respond as needed.
Stopping an arms length away from the young sharpshooter, the mysterious woman looked down into the sky blue eyes of the ever-wary Vin Tanner. Quietly, she simply said, "Your wine list, Agent Tanner," handed him the small menu and left, disappearing into the confines of the restaurant.
Watching the retreating figure, Vin worked to suppress his nervousness. Agent Tanner. She knew who he was. He glanced over at Ezra to find a hint of concern in his eyes as well.
Opening the wine list, Vin caught sight of the diskette trapped inside. Allowing it to slide out of the menu into his lap, he adjusted his napkin to cover it. The motion had been swift and unless someone had been paying extremely close attention, the motion would have gone unnoticed.
Ezra raised an eyebrow in question. Vin gave him the slightest of shrugs before turning his attention to the list as if trying to decide on a wine to have with his dinner.
Two hours later, the two men headed out of the restaurant. Turning their car away from the office and toward the hotel they were using as a residence while undercover, Ezra finally asked the question that had been bothering him, "What was in the winelist, Vin?"
Vin reached into his pocket and extracted the diskette. "This was inside it. Don't have a clue what it was about, but figured we could maybe have a look when we arrived at the office." He paused a moment, scanning the road behind them. "Doesn't look like we're being followed. I'll head in,” Vin commented.
Arriving at the office twenty minutes later, the two made their way up to Team 7's offices where they were greeted with warm hellos. They hadn't had a chance to see their friends face to face in almost three weeks and, while it was nice to have each other to talk to undercover, they had missed the easy camaraderie of their friends.
"Conference room, now," Chris ordered, leaving his office. He paused outside the door to greet his two friends. "Good to see you," he admitted, a smile on his face and a warmth in his eyes. "Let's see if we can wrap this up so you two can come home."
Entering the conference room, the seven settled around the table. Ezra took the lead in updating the team on the latest developments in the case. He estimated that he and Vin would only need another week or so to arrange a meeting with all of the major players, thus allowing for a much larger-scale bust than originally planned. They would be able to take several major dealers as well as potential buyers out of action.
Several hours later, the tired men of Team Seven headed for home. Vin and Ezra stopped by their desks to catch up on emails and voice mails. Left on their own, Vin finally let out a sigh as he dealt with his last email. "Want ta check out the disk?" he asked, pulling the diskette from his pocket.
“Certainly, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra replied, moving his chair around so it too sat facing Vin’s computer.
Popping the diskette into the drive, Vin clicked on explorer to find out what was on the disk. After being read, the twosome discovered that the disk contained only one file called “The List”. Shooting Ezra a quick look, Vin moved his mouse and double clicked on the icon. The file opened as a text document, but Vin couldn’t make any sense of it. “Ez,” he asked, a hint of his confusion in his voice, “this stuff mean anything to ya?”
Ezra looked at the information revealed on screen. “It’s encoded,” he said in reply to Vin’s question. “As it stands now, it makes no sense to anyone.”
Vin released a breath. “Good ta know it’s not just me,” he said, a wry smile playing across his lips. Then tilting his head to the side, his eyes narrowed in thought. “JD said somethin’ about encryption I think,” the Texan stated. “Maybe he’s got stuff on his PC.”
Ezra stood and made his way over to JD’s PC. Entering the password that JD kept written on a piece of paper on the bottom of his desk drawer, Ezra soon had access to JD’s PC. “Mr. Tanner,” he stated, “if you would be so kind as to bring me the diskette, I shall attempt to run the data through Mr. Dunne’s decryption program.”
Vin popped the diskette out and wheeled his chair over to where Ezra was seated. Handing the diskette to his partner, the Texan leaned forward to watch the screen.
It took JD’s program only minutes to decrypt the file. What it revealed stunned the two men into silence.
Before them lay a brief explanation followed by a list of names, locations, monetary amounts, and inventory lists. The explanation read as follows:
I’ve given this to you because I have heard of your infallible integrity. I’m risking much by getting you this information, but I can’t go on knowing what I do and doing nothing. I will be disappearing after giving this to you. Please don’t try to find me.
Below is a list of one of the largest illegal weapons cartels you will find. I don’t say these words lightly and risk much by saying them at all, but I can no longer stand by doing nothing while innocent people die.
I have documented proof that the men and women listed below are involved in my uncle’s business. I will forward this information to you when I am satisfied that I have safely hidden myself, or within six months should I be unable to make contact with the parties holding it. Next to each name, you will find a brief description of that person’s role in the cartel. Below the names I have included a list of locations I know my uncle uses to store his wares.
Please take all precautions and actions necessary. I assure you this is not a joke.
The two agents looked at each other as they finished reading the short missive. “Do you think it’s real?” Vin asked.
Ezra tilted his head to the side as he pondered Vin’s deceptively simple question. They had received the disk under unusual circumstances, but the urgency in the note and the woman’s demeanor as she passed the diskette indicated the seriousness with which she took this. With a sigh, he offered, “I just don’t know, Mr. Tanner. Perhaps we should check this with Chris or perhaps even AD Travis.”
“Check with Travis on what?” a voice behind them asked.
Turning toward the sound of the voice, the two men noted AD Travis himself standing in the doorway to the office. Allowing themselves to breathe again, Ezra explained, “Sir, you startled us.”
Travis nodded. “I can see that,” he stated, a small smile of satisfaction on his face that he was still able to sneak up on two of his best agents. “What do you need to discuss with me?”
Vin and Ezra exchanged a glance before Ezra nodded to Vin indicating the sharpshooter should explain. Clearing his throat, Vin began, “We were at dinner when a woman brought over a wine list.” He watched as Travis took a seat, holding off his questions until Vin was finished. “She called me Agent Tanner, so she knew who I am. I opened the wine list and found she had hidden a diskette inside of it. Me and Ez were just looking at the information and, well… Here. Take a look for yourself,” he finished, moving aside so Travis could take a look.
Moving his borrowed chair closer to the computer and taking out his reading glasses, Travis settled the glasses on his face as he began scanning the file before him. His expression remained neutral as he read the brief introductory note and scanned the list of names. His lips pressed together in a grim line as he noted that a few of the names on the list belonged to law enforcement officers in various departments and branches. He even saw the name of a judge listed.
Leaning back in the chair, Travis took of his glasses, tapping the earpiece against his mouth in thought. “Who else knows about this?” he asked.
“No one. We just decrypted it minutes ago,” Ezra replied, anxious to see what Travis had to say.
Nodding his head absently, Travis continued for several moments in silence. The two agents watched his face turn serious and his mouth thin to a firm line. Leaning forward slightly in his chair and nodding his head once, Travis took a deep breath and addressed Vin and Ezra. “This information goes no further than the three of us,” he stated.
Vin and Ezra looked at Travis, shock evident in their eyes. “Ya mean we can’t tell the boys?” Vin asked, incredulous. Part of what had made Team Seven one of the most successful teams in the nation had been their openness with each other. Secrets were not held on Team Seven.
“Sir,” Ezra began, shaking off some of his initial shock. “I must protest. Our compatriots are most capable…”
Travis raised a hand and cut him off. Looking both men in the eye, he explained his decision. “Right now we don’t know how accurate this information is. If this list gets out and it turns out it’s not true, then many lives could be ruined by it,” Travis waited until he saw both young men understood. “If this information is true…” Travis stopped and shook his head. He couldn’t think of the repercussions.
A heavy silence fell upon the men as each contemplated the seriousness of the accusations and information contained within the list. Each of them knew if the information got out at all, the chaos it would create would be staggering. Not only that, if the accusations proved false, then it could easily mean their careers. If, however, the information got out and it was true, it could mean their lives.
Never one to sit still when a threat existed, Vin asked, “OK Judge. What do you want us to do?”
Ezra leaned back against the wall, eyes closed, thankful the assignment was finally over. For once, Team Seven had stumbled across a group unwilling to engage in a gun battle. With the suspects safely cuffed and ensconsed in various modes of transport to take them in for processing, Ezra decided he needed a moment to collect himself. Two weeks ago a woman had passed Vin a diskette containing information on a large illegal weapons cartel; the largest Vin or Ezra had ever seen. AD Travis had stumbled across the two of them as they completed their review of the information. Taking a look himself, Travis had asked the duo to keep the information to themselves.
Though it went against their instincts to keep anything from the team, Vin and Ezra reluctantly agreed. Fulfilling Travis' request, the two began some delicate inquiry and discovered evidence that pointed to several of the accusations being true. They had met with Travis two days before and now were faced with a new assignment from the AD while continuing with their normal workload.
Sensing a presence lean against the wall beside him, Ezra wasn't entirely surprised when he heard the lazy drawl say, "Sure could use a vacation."
A smile curling his lips, Ezra opened his eyes just wide enough to take in the tired visage of his friend. "So could I, Mr. Tanner. So could I," he replied.
"Reckon things'll get a mite worse before it's over," Vin observed. Though his tone was light, Ezra could see the weight of their new endeavor resting on his friend.
With a heavy sigh, Ezra could only agree.
Both men stood straighter as they noted the approach of Buck and Nathan. "Well boys," Buck called, draping an arm over the shoulders of his two friends, "time ta clean up and hit the saloon."
"Not until we get the reports started," came the authoritative voice of Chris Larabee. He smiled at the groans of his men. Nodding at Ezra and Vin, he offered, "Good work." A brief moment of concern washed over him as he noted the tired, haggard expressions on their faces. He knew this assignment had been hard for them and that it had dragged on far longer than expected, but somehow their expressions seemed to convey something more than just the current case was affecting them. Shaking off that thought and vowing to talk to his friends later, he encouraged his men to get back to work securing the scene so they could do the required paperwork prior to a trip to the saloon that night.
“Shall we, Mr. Tanner?” Ezra asked, moving off to help secure the scene.
“Sure thing, Ez,” came the drawled response.
Several hours later found the duo the last to leave Team 7’s offices. They had deliberately worked it out that way today, though since they were usually the last two to leave after a bust, it didn’t seem unusual.
The two rode the elevator down in silence. Stepping off the elevator, they made their way toward their cars. Slipping into his Jeep, Vin turned the key and was rewarded with a dull click. Glancing over, he noticed Ezra had stopped outside his car. Puzzled, Vin sent a questioning glance toward Ezra.
With a slight incline of his head, Ezra indicated the man who had just entered the garage behind them.
Turning to look, Vin saw it was Tom Rollins, leader of Team 10 and one of the names on the list. With another quick glance at Ezra, Vin received the acknowledgement he was looking for and turned the key again. “God damned piece of junk!” he shouted, slamming the steering wheel with the palm of his hand.
“Problem Mr. Tanner?” Ezra asked, strolling over to the Jeep while keeping an eye on Rollins whose attention they now had.
“Battery’s dead, I need a jumpstart,” he grumbled. “’Course if they paid us decent wages I wouldn’t have ta drive this old heap,” he complained. He too noted that they now had Rollins’ undivided attention.
“I understand your concerns, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra continued. “I too must express my disappointment with the monetary reward we receive for our exceptional work. In the business world we would be recompensed in accordance with our efforts.”
“Whatever ya say, Ez,” Vin agreed, glaring at his dead Jeep. “Just a little sick and tired of livin’ like I am. Didn’t used ta bother me ‘til I got a taste of the high life on our assignments. Kinda hard ta know what ya want and see it out of your reach.”
“Indeed, Mr. Tanner, indeed,” Ezra agreed sympathetically. After a moment of silent commiseration, he took a breath and seemed to come back to the present situation. “If you will hand me the cables, we might as well get your car running before our keepers begin to worry about our absence.”
“Yer right, Ez,” Vin grumbled. “Getting’ just a little sick and tired of bein’ treated like a baby that can’t even wipe it’s own butt without Larabee’s help. I’ve been takin’ care o’ myself since I’s five. I don’t need him tellin’ me what ta do.”
“I understand completely,” Ezra said, taking one end of the jumper cables and popping the hood on his Jag. “I understand completely,” he repeated noticing that Tom Rollins had continued into his own car. Waiting for Rollins car to disappear out of the garage. Ezra looked into Vin’s eyes and could see his own troubled spirit reflected in the blue depths. This was going to be harder than they thought. He could only hope Travis knew what he was doing. He’d had his life ruined by lies once before and wasn’t looking forward to it happening again.
Ezra and Vin both parked outside the saloon and entered together. Without exchanging a word, without even acknowledging the presence and greetings of their co-workers, both men headed straight for the bar.
“Whiskey. Straight. Shot,” Vin demanded.
“Same,” came Ezra’s terse reply.
Raising an eyebrow and shooting a worried look at the table where the rest of Team Seven sat, Inez noticed the concern on the faces of the five men there, but served the whiskey as requested. Her eyes widened when as one, both men picked up their shots and downed them in one swallow.
“Again,” Ezra demanded.
“Leave the bottle,” Vin counseled.
Shooting another look at the rest of Team Seven, Inez did as asked, filling both glasses and leaving the bottle before heading off to tend to other patrons.
The two men stood, staring intently into the drinks before them. “Not enough whiskey in the world,” muttered Ezra, downing his second shot.
“Say that again,” Vin agreed, downing his own shot.
Before Ezra could refill their glasses, both men became aware of the presence behind them. Without turning, Vin simply acknowledged, “Chris.”
“Something wrong, boys?” he asked, suspicion and concern lacing his voice.
“Something, Mr. Larabee?” Ezra drilled, turning to glare in his boss’s, his friend’s eyes and hoping Chris wouldn’t be able to read the truth there. “Is something wrong?” He allowed a snort of laughter.
Vin just shook his head; not looking at Larabee, knowing his best friend would be able to read the truth in his eyes.
“What could possibly be wrong, Mr. Larabee?” Ezra inquired, sarcasm oozing from his voice. “We just finished an extremely long and delicate undercover assignment, spent hours doing paperwork, are tired, exhausted, are trying to remember our own names instead of our covers and have barely had a chance to catch our breath before we’re ordered to join ‘the gang’ at the Saloon.” Turning to face Vin, he asked rather pointedly, “Why, Vin? How could anything possibly be wrong?”
The longhaired agent responded with a snort of disgust. He then reached for the bottle and poured each of them another shot, already feeling the effects of the first two. He knew he would pay the price the next day at work if he continued drinking at his current rate, but he and Ezra needed to start creating cracks, needed to start making it believable that they were open to the temptation the cartel had to offer. So sorry, Cowboy, Vin thought, closing his eyes against the pain he knew he was causing himself and Chris. He tried not to think about the disappointed and hurt look that he knew would be in those green eyes. He tried not to think about the horrible toll this was taking on Ezra’s soul, or his own.
Chris stood looking at the two men, stunned. Too shocked to speak for a moment, his anger seized the opportunity to flair. Clenching his teeth at the unexpected attack from his two close friends, Chris gritted out, “If you didn’t want to come, you could have said no.”
Ezra and Vin both snorted at that. Downing another shot of whiskey, Ezra looked into the blazing green eyes before him and asked forgiveness for what he was about to do. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything so preposterous, have you Vin?” He blearily turned to eye the shaggy head still focusing on the drink before him. “Say no to the great, exalted and fearsome Chris Larabee. My God, man!” Ezra exclaimed, trying to refill his glass and splashing some on the bar in the process. “Half the time we obey your half-assed orders and follow your ill-conceived plans because we’re too afraid you’ll shoot us if we don’t. You’re not exactly the most stable of men, you know,” Ezra taunted, feeling each word rip into his own heart and exact a piece of his own soul. Travis better be right about this plan because, God help him, he didn’t think would survive this.
Hands clenched so tightly his knuckles were white, Chris glared at Ezra trying to maintain his composure. He shot a glance over at the table where the rest of the team was sitting. JD sat with his eyes wide and scared, darting between the two men leaning on the bar and his hero. Buck’s face was grim, his eyes serious, ready for whatever was to come. Josiah had his brow furrowed as if puzzled by the behavior of the men before him. Nathan looked nervous; his hands were twitching as if already checking out his friends’ injuries.
“You’re drunk, Ezra,” Chris said, his voice vibrating with rage.
Vin snorted loudly and laughed. “Ha! That’s something’ ya’d know all about. Larabee,” he said downing his shot of whiskey and wishing it would dull the burning pain in his heart and soul. “That’s yer answer ta everythin’. Can’t deal with a little trouble come yer way, drink yerself inta oblivion! Not havin’ a great time at work ‘cause something reminded ya of yer dear departed family – drink yerself inta oblivion! Yeah, yer a great example, cowboy,” Vin sneered, any and all warmth lacking from the normally familiar and comfortable nickname.
All the color drained from Chris’ face, his hands unclenched, his mouth dropped open slightly as Vin poured himself another shot. So hurt and stunned by Vin’s attack, Chris lost track of everything else around him.
Buck saw red. He might have been able to hold off when the smart-mouthed Southerner started in on Chris, but when he heard Vin’s attack and saw the effect; he decided he had had enough. Standing and charging across to the bar, Buck got right into Ezra face and hissed, “You smart-mouthed snake. You don’t know what you’re talking about. You aren’t fit to shine Chris Larabee’s shoes. You should feel honored that he even acknowledges your existence. There isn’t a finer man ever walked the face of the Earth.” Then turning to Vin he started, “And you! You’re supposed to be his best friend. How dare you pass judgment on him?” Angered even more by the fact Vin wouldn’t turn around and look at him; Buck grabbed the young man’s shoulder and physically turned him. His mind had but a split second to register the deep pain and sorrow in the blue eyes before his anger once more got the better of him. “You are nothing more than a gutter rat. You don’t deserve to breathe the same air as Chris Larabee! You don’t deserve to be considered worthy of being in the presence of decent folk. There are two types of people in this world, decent and trash. You are and always will be trash. Neither of us may know our fathers, but at least my mother got paid.”
The last comment snapped something inside of Vin. Between the emotional pain he was suffering and Buck’s attack on his mother, he let his fist fly before he could rethink the action. He watched as Buck went crashing to the floor and was completely unprepared for the dark, avenging angel that swooped down upon him, lifting him by a hand fisted in his shirt and throwing him across the bar to crash into a table surrounded by men who were more than willing to join in a fight.
Somehow in the battle and confusion that ensued, Vin and Ezra managed to make their way out of the bar and to their cars.
Seeing the mirror image of his own pain in Ezra’s emerald eyes, Vin couldn’t help the tears that began running down his cheeks.
Ezra saw the tears and found he could no longer hold his own back. This situation was hitting too close to the still-fresh pain he held from his betrayal in the FBI. Walking over to his friend, Ezra reached out and placed a hand on the Texan’s shoulder. Clearing his throat to find his voice, he offered the only thing he could. “Whatever the outcome, Vin,” he said, friendship and understanding pouring from the normally shuttered eyes, “I will always be here for you, friend.”
Vin placed his hand on Ezra’s forearm and nodded, not trusting his voice. Watching Ezra shuffle back to his Jaguar, Vin opened the door to his Jeep and got in. He knew he shouldn’t be driving, but right now, he just didn’t care. Right now it was hard enough to just keep breathing.
Buck Willmington slowly opened his eyes, trying to ignore the pounding in his head. Giving up on the attempt, he allowed his dazed senses a few moments to recover. Trying to figure out why his jaw hurt so much he tried to focus on recent event. The word Saloon ran through his mind. Yes, that’s right. The boys had all gone to the saloon after a long day. Everyone was happy the case was over and Vin and Ezra would be coming back into the fold, back to the office so things could get back to normal.
Vin and Ezra. His eyebrows drew downward as he focused on the names. They’d both been tired and troubled, everyone figured time hanging out at the Saloon would help them. Instead, they’d been late and ignored everyone. Buck remembered feeling concern and puzzlement, especially when he watched the two men order whiskey and down it as if they were dying of thirst.
‘What happened next?’ he wondered. The image of moving darkness came to mind. Chris. Chris had gone up to talk to them. But things didn’t go well. Ezra turned and attacked Chris verbally. Then Vin had joined in… Buck released a loud groan as he remembered his words with Vin. The ache in his jaw suddenly flared. He deserved the pain. Of all the things he could have said, of all the times his mouth could have run away with him… “Sorry, Vin,” he whispered, trying not to move his jaw.
“You with us, Buck?” Nathan’s voice asked. There were times he couldn’t believe his teammate’s stupidity, but this time they’d taken it out on each other and a part of him feared they wouldn’t be able to get over it. Looking up into JD’s frightened eyes, he saw his own fear expressed. Would their team survive this?
“Sorry Vin,” the dazed man repeated.
Nathan’s lips compressed to form a straight line. He would not make this worse. Not tonight. “Your head hurt?” he asked the still dazed man, checking his eyes to make sure there was not concussion.
“Jaw,” came the pained reply.
“It don’t seem ta be broke,” Nathan informed him. “Just going ta have a really bad bruise. Hold this ice on it,” he commanded waiting until Buck reached up to hold it in place.
Standing up, he looked around and saw Josiah sitting by Chris. With a sigh, he moved over and took a look at the blond. “Going to have quite the black eye,” Nathan commented as he checked Chris over, finding little other than bruised knuckles and the black eye. Josiah caught the medic’s eyes and indicated for him to leave. Nathan went off to check the other participants.
Placing a hand on his leader’s shoulder, Josiah simply asked, “Would you like to talk about it.”
Chris stared down at his free hand, his other holding ice against his swelling eye. He didn’t want to talk about anything. He wanted to know what happened, why Vin and Ezra had attacked him. He wanted to know how much of what they said they thought was true. Then thinking back, his anger began to stir again. Just who the Hell did those two think they were? God’s gift to the ATF? He didn’t need them in his life and he sure as hell didn’t need them on his team. All he needed right now was a good, stiff drink. “Drink yerself inta oblivion,” a voice ghosted through his mind in a slurred drawl. Did he really do that? Is that what Vin saw? Well who the hell was Vin anyway? The sharpshooter could barely function in the real world, who the Hell did Vin think he was coming down on him? “Ta Hell with you, Vin,” he whispered.
Josiah closed his eyes and offered a short prayer; suddenly uncertain of whether this breach could be healed. Had too many things been said that should never have been said? Could these men who had suffered so much find the room for forgiveness yet again? ‘Father, help us to find the way home.’ he prayed.
JD looked from Buck to Chris. He was scared. His family was coming apart and he didn’t know why. He didn’t want to lose this family too. He had been looking forward to Vin and Ezra returning. They hadn’t been able to spend time together for almost two months. Had they pushed too hard? Had they not been aware of how close to the edge the two men were?
Glancing around the room, he saw Josiah’s eyes closed and knew the profiler was praying. JD offered up his own prayer as well as he continued to scan the room. Tracking down each face, his brow furrowed. Where were Ezra and Vin?
Getting up and walking over to Nathan, JD waited for a few minutes until he was free. “Nathan,” JD began cautiously, “have you seen Vin or Ezra?”
Nathan looked startled and quickly scanned the room. “No, I haven’t. I wonder where those two went? Neither of them was in any shape to drive, and Vin’s got ta be hurting from the impact with the table.” Scanning the room again and not finding his quarry, he met JD’s eyes. “Go see if their cars are out there,” he commanded.
JD turned and moved quickly to the door. Stepping out, he scanned the road in both directions. Exiting a little further, he turned the corner of the building to check the parking lot. This wasn’t good. Neither car was there. That meant that the two of them had driven home in what was obviously a state of intoxication. “What are you guys doing?” he asked quietly before returning to the saloon and informing Nathan of what he’d found.
Walking into the bar, he winced at the destruction they’d left. Fortunately the bar had been fairly empty and no one wanted to call the police. They had all agreed to pay for damages, Chris vowing that Vin and Ezra would be reimbursing them since he blamed that duo for starting the whole thing. But looking at the damage, he knew it would cost quite a bit more than Vin could comfortably give, and possibly more than Ezra could either. Things just seemed to be getting worse. With a sigh, he picked his way across the debris littering the floor and squatted down my Nathan. “They’re gone,” he reported simply.
Nathan hung his head. Vin was going to be sore. He knew the sharpshooter suffered from back pain to start with and looking at the broken table upon which he’d landed, he wondered if his friend would be able to walk in the morning. Maybe he should stop by and check on him. Then, remembering Vin’s anger and harsh words, decided he might be better off waiting until Vin sobered up before confronting him. Nodding his head to show he understood, he simply said, “Guess we better start getting these yahoos home. I’ll stay and help Inez clean up. You take Buck home. I’ll see if Josiah will drive Chris.” Watching JD wander off to speak to Josiah, Nathan wondered if he could call in sick tomorrow. He really didn’t want to be in either Vin or Ezra’s shoes, especially not if Travis found out.
Heaving a sigh, he picked up the first aid kit and walked back toward Inez to offer what help he could.
Consciousness attacked Vin. Normally he would either shift from asleep to awake immediately or he would gently rise from sleep to consciousness. Today, consciousness attacked with a vengeance.
He waited a few minutes until he adjusted to the pounding in his head before beginning a mental inventory. First he noticed the pounding in his head. One source came from the back of his head. Without moving his arms, he tried to remember how he hurt his head. An image seemed just on the edge of awareness, but he couldn’t quite place it. Next he noticed his mouth was dry and cottony. “Whiskey,” he muttered, remembering drinking far too much far too quickly the previous night.
Mentally checking over the rest of his body, he became aware of his upset stomach and the extreme stiffness and pain in his back. That couldn’t be good. But why did his back hurt?
Attempting to focus on the events of the previous day, he started at the beginning. He and Ezra had gone to the meet. The bust had been good, but it signaled the beginning of their plan to ingratiate themselves with the cartel. Neither of them was happy about it. Neither he nor Ezra wanted to do… That was it. A groan escaped the pained man. “The Saloon,” he groaned. Would the Chris ever forgive him? Would he even be able to look his friend in the eye? “So sorry, Cowboy,” he whispered to the air.
Rolling over on his side, a move that caused several hisses of pain, he looked at the clock. Seven o’clock. He sighed and tried sitting up. As soon as he began to rise, he felt his back muscles spasm. He needed to get to a doctor. He’d be luck to walk downstairs, let alone drive. There was only one person to call and he hated to do it, knowing Ezra was hurting probably as much as he was, but he didn’t have a choice. He couldn’t go to any of the other boys. Not now.
Reaching for the phone he placed the call.
The phone rang, Ezra decided to let the machine get it. He wasn’t feeling well, though he was quite sure the multiple shots of whiskey had something to do with that. The machine clicked on and a voice sounding every bit as ragged as Ezra felt started speaking. “Ez, ya there? ‘S Vin. Need ya ta take me ta the clinic or hospital. Can’t drive. Call me.”
Ezra was up and across the room before the last word was out of his friend’s mouth. “Vin!” he called into the phone, hoping to catch his friend. “Vin, what’s wrong?” he asked worry and concern overwhelming his normal morning lethargy.
“Ez?” the pain filled voice croaked. “Ez. My back. It’s hurtin’ bad. Can barely stand. Need something.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can, Mr. Tanner,” he assured the pained man.
”Ez?” Vin asked, his tone becoming serious.
“Yes?” replied the Southerner.
“We gotta talk.”
“Indeed, Mr. Tanner. Indeed,” Ezra agreed, hanging up the phone.
Rushing through his morning routine, Ezra quickly made his way to his car and across town to Vin’s apartment. Parking out front he had just reached for the door handle when he noticed the sharpshooter making his way over to the car. The normally easy movements of the young Texan were stiff and ungainly today. This could not be good.
Waiting until his partner was settled, Ezra pulled out and headed toward the nearest clinic.
Glancing over at the Southerner, Vin directed his eyes out the windshield. “Can’t do this, Ez,” he said simply. “I was like ta die yesterday sayin’ those things. The look on Buck and Chris’s faces…”
Ezra swallowed back his own pain. “Yes, Mr. Tanner, I am in complete agreement with you.” After a brief pause he continued. “I haven’t had much experience with friends and family in my life, but I fear I’ve come to agree with Josiah’s assessment that we are all brothers. Now, being forced to lie to them, being forced…” he drifted off, shaking his head. “We need to discuss other options with Mr. Travis. Certainly there must be some other way he will let us do this.”
Vin just stared out his window. As they pulled into the parking lot of the clinic, he waited for Ezra to stop the car before reaching for the door handle. “I hope you’re right, Ez. ‘Cause I don’t think I can do this any more.” With that he opened the door and walked into the clinic, knowing Ezra would park the Jag and follow him.
Locking the doors to the Jag, Ezra made his way to the clinic. Reaching for the door, he saw the shaggy head of the sharpshooter bending over forms. He paused for a moment, thinking of how much the men of Team Seven had come to mean to him over the years of their association; of how much they had come to mean to Vin Tanner. He thought of several ways he might be able to go about getting Vin out of their current circumstance, but knew the Texan wouldn’t let Ezra go this road alone. Somehow the man who seemed most his opposite, could read his heart and knew what this was doing to it. Releasing another sigh, he opened the door and walked in.
Taking a seat next to his friend, Ezra asked, “Might I offer my assistance with these forms, Mr. Tanner?”
Vin looked up with a smile of gratitude. “I’d really appreciate it, Ez,” he replied.
With Ezra’s help the forms were filled in quickly. Then the wait began. Both men were quiet, lost in thought. Finally Vin asked what they both feared, “Think we’ll ever get them back?”
Ezra sighed and looked heavenward. “I don’t know, Vin. I hope our ties are strong enough to withstand this current storm, especially once the full truth is revealed to everyone. But right now, I just don’t know.”
“Mr. Tanner?” a nurse called out.
Vin stood slowly. “Be right back,” he said, heading for the exam room.
Ezra sat in the waiting room, alone with his thoughts; thoughts he wished would go away. Images of his association with Team Seven played before him. He saw his own doubt when Larabee offered him the job, the first assignment where he’d nearly run out on them. He saw images of the various birthdays and special events. He remembered the day he first accepted the gift of brotherhood he’d fought against for so long.
He saw Bucks happy-go-lucky smile and heard his raucous laugh; saw the hidden depths in his blue eyes and the scars he refused to let people see. He heard Josiah’s deep rumble of laughter and booming voice of greeting. He saw the compassion displayed in Nathan’s eyes, the dedication to right in his every action. He saw the knowledge-thirsty JD, absorbing everything any of them offered. And finally he saw Chris, a man who had been through a metamorphosis over the time the team had been together. He saw a man who had gone from a cold, imposing shell, to a living, breathing, caring individual. A feat accomplished by them all, but begun by the man who was now being examined in that small room.
What would happen to Chris Larabee when Vin Tanner was taken away? What would happen to Vin Tanner or Ezra Standish? What would happen to all of them?
Two things he knew for certain: that without his brothers, without their family, each man would be lessened and that if things didn’t work out and they lost everyone else, he would never abandon Vin Tanner to the lonely life he had lived for so long. He vowed that Vin Tanner would always have a friend in Ezra Standish.
Turning his head as he noted movement on the other side of the room, he saw Vin talking with a doctor and accepting a prescription. Standing and unconsciously brushing down his coat, he glanced at his watch and winced. They were going to be late into the office, late even by Ezra’s standards. Sighing heavily, he knew they couldn’t avoid the confrontation that would be coming.
He watched as Vin finished his conversation and headed slowly toward Ezra. Meeting the Texan’s eyes, he could see the pain Vin was trying to hide. “I’ll go bring the car around,” he offered as Vin approached. He was rewarded with a grateful smile. Leaving to get his car, he stopped long enough to squeeze Vin’s shoulder. Neither of them felt all that comfortable with large amounts of physical contact with others, but given their present emotional state, that extra touch was needed.
Vin watched as Ezra went out the door to pull the car around. He was grateful for the encouraging squeeze Ezra had provided him. The doctor had said his back was bruised and would be painful and sore for a few days, but that it should return to normal shortly. He had given Vin a prescription for muscle relaxants to help ease the pain.
Vin allowed a sigh to escape. He knew Ezra had been out here remembering how good they had it for a time. He knew the Southerner had been questioning the path they were walking and probably thinking of a way to get Vin out of this assignment. He was also aware that Ezra knew him well enough to know that Vin didn’t give up on family, so most likely the undercover agent had decided to stick by Vin come Hell or high water.
He knew all this because he’d been having the same thoughts while in the exam room.
Seeing Ezra’s Jag pull around, he glanced at his watch and cursed. As if things weren’t bad enough, now they were going to be late. Making his way to the car, Vin eased down into the passenger seat. “Ez, can we stop by that drive-through pharmacy?” he asked.
“Of course, Mr. Tanner. Given your current state of physical discomfiture, I do believe a stop by the local pharmaceutical dispensary is in order,” Ezra replied, trying to overcome his doubts, fears and pain with his one defense – language. He efforts drew forth a wan smile from the man sitting beside him. Noting a shift in Vin’s facial expression, he asked, “Is there something else on your mind, Mr. Tanner?”
Vin looked at Ezra for a moment. “Think I got an idea ta help us out,” Vin said. “Just gotta call Travis and work it out before we get to the office.”
“By all means, Mr. Tanner. Proceed,” Ezra encouraged, seeing a faint glimmer of hope in the emotive blue eyes of the Texan.
Forward To Parts 6-10