Title: The List
Disclaimer: See parts 1-5
JD paced the length of the office again. Checking his watch yet again, he let out a huff of frustration when he noted only two minutes had passed. He had called Chris thirty minutes ago, but it would take at least forty for the team leader to reach the office, unless he broke more traffic laws than JD assumed he would.
Maybe it would have been better to drive out to the ranch to give Chris the news, he thought. No. He couldn’t do that. His friend who had developed the decryption software had been able to recover most of the file, though God knew how. Even though his friend had assured him the file could be put to a floppy, the information it contained had JD too nervous to attempt anything like that. Instead he had called Chris. Chris would know what to do.
JD sat down in his chair, resting his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. ‘How could something like this happen?’ he wondered. Yes, he knew people could go bad, had even seen cops and agents taken down for it, but the file he had read - The List... Never could he have imagined corruption on such a grand scale. It was almost enough to make him lose his faith.
But even the number of names on ‘The List’ represented less than one percent of all law enforcement and legal personnel, he reminded himself. The majority, the vast majority of those working in the law professions were decent, har-working and upright.
Standing and once more resuming his pacing of the office, JD felt his anger rise. It was people like those on ‘The List’ that made the job difficult. It was names like those on ‘The List’ that gave law enforcement officials a bad name, not to mention idiots like that undermined the respect they all deserved. People like those contained in ‘The List’ didn’t deserve to live with decent folks, let alone work with them.
"Show me," Chris commanded, stepping into the office.
Startled out of his mental tirade, JD snapped his head around in surprise. "Chris!" he cried. "Thank God," he whispered, hurrying over to his PC as he began talking. "I was looking at Vin’s computer when I noticed the last file he looked at was something called ‘The List’. The name seemed familiar to me. Anyway, I wasn’t able to get any data about it off of Vin’s computer and was about to give up when I remembered I’d seen it in a list of recently opened documents on my PC as well. So, scanning my PC, I came up with the file having recently been opened in a decryption program I’m testing for a friend. With his help we were able to find out what the file was." Looking into his leader’s impatient green eyes, he pulled his desk chair out and indicated for Chris to sit.
Sitting in the seat, his eyes began to ravage the information on the screen. Reading the introduction, he could feel his blood begin to boil. The accusations being given in the note were vile and everything that made him sick. Finishing the note and beginning to scan the list of names attached, he allowed his fist to come crashing down on the desk, shaking everything on top.
JD felt himself calm slightly at this boss's reaction. Chris being angry was never a good thing, but the blond's strong reaction made JD feel justified in his own stong feelings.
"Travis knows," Chris growled, turning his burning green gaze upon JD who could only nod. "Time for a talk with the boss," Team Seven's leader continued, a feral grin gracing his face.
JD shuddered at the sight, very glad he wasn't AD Travis.
Chris rose out of JD's chair and walked to his office. If he noticed JD following, he said nothing. Turning on a light, he sat behind his desk, booted up his computer and called up Travis' home number. Punching the numbers into the phone with enough visciousness to make JD wince, he waited for a few minutes until the phone was answered.
"Good evening, Mrs. Travis," Chris began, using every bit of resolve he could muster not to shout at the woman whom he had, in all probability, just woken from a sound sleep. "This is Chris Larabee," he continued. "I was wondering if Orrin was available?"
JD, hearing only one side of the conversation suddenly got very nervous when Chris' frown deepened and he leaned forward.
"Not in until very early Monday morning," Chris repeated. "Thank you for your time, Mrs. Travis. I apologize for calling at such a late hour... You too... Good night." Hearing Mrs. Travis hang up, Chris slammed the receiver on the phone, lifted the device and hurled it into the wall on the other side of the room. Turning and seeing his anger mirrored in JD's eyes, Chris blew out a breath and said, "He's out of touch until early Monday. Wouldn't even tell his wife where he was going."
JD snorted his disbelief. Then, as if a thought had struck him he asked, "Should we tell the others now?"
Chris paused and contemplated for a few minutes. "Not yet. We can wait until Sunday. But I do want to speak to Vin and Ezra as soon as possible."
"Want me to ttry them now?" JD inquired.
Chris paused and checked his watch. It showed the time to be just past eleven PM. Contemplating his two agents and thinking that if his suspicions were correct, they probably needed all the rest and quiet they could get. "No," Chris advised, pushing aside his own impatience and frustration. Releasing a sigh, he continued, "Let them sleep. I'll call them tomorrow morning and see if I can get them to talk. Go on home for tonight, JD."
JD turned to leave, crestfallen that his big discovery would garner no action until the following day. As he was just about to pass throught the door he heard Chris' voice call, "Good work, JD."
Ezra closed the passenger door to the jag as Vin settled in. He felt worry and concern for his friend. Despite the assurances of the doctor and Vin himself, Ezra could see how stiffly Vin moved and traces of pain on his face. Combine that with the emotional strain of the evening… Making a decision, Ezra slipped behind the wheel of the high-performance car. With a sideways glance at his partner, he declared, “Vin, I want you to stay in my guest room tonight so I can be nearby should you have need of me.” Not hearing a protest, he turned to look at his passenger. Vin sat with his head resting against the seat, eyes closed. His concern increasing, Ezra called, “Vin?”
Vin’s eyes opened suddenly. Scanning the area, he relaxed and replied, “Alright.”
Settling back in the driver’s seat and turning the ignition, he released a sigh and headed home.
Walking into the apartment, the two tired agents headed toward their respective bedrooms. Ezra, seeing his answering machine light blinking, stopped to hear his messages. Hitting the play button he listened.
“Mr. Standish, this is Jeff Corbin. I have found myself in possession of an extra invitation to the pre-opening review of the new art expo. I was wondering if you would be interested in accompanying me? Please call me at 555-9876. Thank you.”
Ezra sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. He had been hoping for a quiet weekend at home, but the need to ingratiate himself with those on The List overrode his normally reluctant nature. He was about to pick up the phone and call Corbin back when the second message began.
“Hey, Ez!” the voice of Buck Willmington called, blanketing the undercover agent with an unexpected warmth, a warmth he knew to be friendship. “We’re getting together at Chris’ Sunday for food and to watch the game. See you there around noon!”
Ezra let his head drop in defeat. He wouldn’t make it to Sunday at Chris’. The sudden pain in his heart served as a reminder of the cost of his current assignment.
Hearing a noise in the hall behind him, he turned and saw his own feelings mirrored on the face of his guest. There were few things that they enjoyed doing more than Sundays at Chris’ ranch, but they had more important issues to consider. “Mr. Tanner,” he said, trying to break the dark mood that seemed intent upon suffocating them. “I assumed you had retired for the evening. Is there perhaps something I can do for you?” Ezra asked.
Vin nodded slowly at Ezra in acknowledgement not only of his offer, but of his understanding that Ezra didn’t want to talk about the real reason they both felt like roadkill. “Need water to take with my pills,” he said simply.
“Ah,” Ezra replied. “Allow me to liberate a bottle of water from the refrigerator for you, Mr. Tanner. Then I recommend we both abscond to the land of nod that we might arise more fully vested of our senses and with a hopefully new outlook up on this deplorable mess.”
A smile twitched at the corners of Vin’s mouth. “Hell, Ez,” he teased. “Why don’t we just go sleep on it and see what come up with in the morning.”
Ezra caught the twinkle in the blue eyes and gifted Vin with a smile, knowing the Texan had understood every word. “Indeed, Mr. Tanner. Indeed.” So saying, Ezra turned and retrieved a bottle of water that he passed to his friend before they both retired to their separate rooms.
Rolling over onto his side and attempting to open an eye wide enough to focus on the clock at his bedside, Ezra read the numbers three times before fully processing that he was, indeed, awake at 7:30 on a Saturday morning. Closing his eyes again, he once more heard the sound of a spoon being dropped on the floor of the kitchen, a sound that had drawn him from a sound sleep.
His sluggish mind ran through the previous night’s events. It registered that he had come home with someone. Trying to focus on a face, he quickly eliminated his usual female companions, noting the other side of the bed hadn’t been slept on.
“Aw hell,” came the drawled curse from the kitchen as a bowl went crashing to the floor.
Wincing at the sound, Ezra remembered. He and Vin had met with Rollins and several others the previous night. Vin hadn’t been fairing well, so Ezra had invited him to stay the night so he could keep a closer eye on the Texan and ensure he took the medicine he was supposed to. The messages left on his answering machine were the next thing to return to his conscious mind. The messages he recalled elicited a deep sigh from the still tired man.
Deciding it was time to get up and discuss their plan of action, Ezra threw the covers off of himself, firmly stating in his mind that no human should ever be forced to get up at this ungodly hour, and prepared to meet the day.
Walking into the kitchen, he found Vin seated at the breakfast counter, a bowl of cereal before him. “Nodding a greeting,” he walked over to the coffee maker, dreading the brew that existed. How one man could be so accurate with a gun and yet miss the mark completely when it came to coffee eluded him. Opening the cupboard and retrieving a mug, Ezra noted the damp dishtowel in the sink. It still bore the traces of cereal pieces upon its weave.
Seeing his friend not the towel, Vin shifted uncomfortably in his seat, embarrassed by his own clumsiness. “Sorry ‘bout that, Ez,” he offered. “Sorta had some problems holdin’ onta stuff this mornin’,” he admitted.
“Quite all right, Mr. Tanner, I assure you,” Ezra said, waving off the apology. Reaching for the pot, he poured a cup of the brew into his mug. Sniffing to better judge with what form of torture he was about to inflict his taste buds, Ezra’s eyes opened slightly wider in surprise. “This smells incredible,” he offered, turning toward his guest.
Vin smiled a crooked smile. “I can make good coffee,” he said. “I only make it extra strong in the office to make sure I get some.” Seeing a smile form on Ezra’s lips, he allowed his face to grow temporarily serious. “Course, if’n ya tell anyone, I’ll have ta shoot ya,” he declared.
Not entirely successful in suppressing the grin on his own face, Ezra assured, “Your secret is safe with me.”
Moving to retrieve his own bowl of cereal, it being far too early in the morning for a real breakfast, he took the other seat at the breakfast bar. “We have things to discuss,” he offered, not meeting the blue eyes.
“We have ta tell ‘em we’re busy Sunday,” Vin agreed. “I hate this,” he spat, dropping his spoon in his bowl.
“Mr. Larabee will figure it out,” Ezra tried to assure Vin.
“He better,” Vin replied, his face growing dark. “He better, or Orin Travis is going to find out what Ranger training really means when this is over.”
Now Ezra did meet the Texan’s eyes. Seeing the dangerous fire within them, he nodded his agreement. “I think it best,” he began, checking his watch, “that we inform Mr. Willmington of our unavailable status for tomorrow. And I feel it best we call now before he is awake enough to argue.” He saw Vin nod in agreement.
“Then we need to disappear for the rest of the day so they can’t get a hold of us,” Vin suggested.
“A very good plan, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra agreed. “Perhaps somewhere outside the service area of our cell phones?” he asked, raising an eyebrow in question.
A grin spread over Vin’s face. “A very good plan, indeed, Mr. Standish,” he offered.
Ten minutes later, the call made, the two headed out of the condo and out of town.
Two hours later Chris dialed first Vin’s apartment and then Ezra’s not receiving a response at either location, he tried their cell phones. Receiving the message that they were both out of the service area, Larabee cursed and slammed down his phone. “What the hell are you two up to?” he wondered.
Ezra pulled off to the side of the road and stared at his companion in stunned silence, his mouth opening and closing in disbelief.
With a wry smile, Vin informed the undercover agent, "Ya look like a fish outta water, Ez." Allowing the smile to bloom into a wide grin, he started chuckling. "Ya act like ya’ve never been to an all-day rodeo before," he stated mirthfully.
Ezra gathered himself together. Clearing his throat, he felt it best to straighten his friend out on this point. "I assure you Mr. Tanner, when we began our evasion this morning, I had a little spot in mind, a small resort an acquaintance of mine…"
Cutting off Ezra’s explanation, Vin explained, "Ez, we’re in a dead zone, they won’t find us here. We can blend in."
Ezra nearly choked. "Blend in?" he squeaked, his eyes wide in disbelief. "Blend in?" he demanded. "Mr. Tanner, I have no idea where you would have… how you could have ever come to the conclusion that someone of my breeding and quality could ‘blend in’ at such an event."
Vin laughed out loud. "Aw, Ez. I’ve seen ya blend inta worse. ‘Sides, ya might like it," he encouraged. Seeing the extreme doubt in his friend’s eyes, Vin sighed. "I’ll spring fer lunch," he offered.
"Of hot dogs and fries and who knows what else?" Ezra looked in disbelief. He watched as his friend turned toward the sign advertising the one-day rodeo. He saw the longing in the emotive blue eyes and cursed the day he let six men into his heart and life. Resigned, he shifted the Jag into drive and said, "Very well, Mr. Tanner. We shall attempt this Rodeo. However, I do not expect to find any pleasure in it."
Vin clapped Ezra on the shoulder, thankful that he would soon be out of the car and in the fresh air. The Jaguar was very comfortable, but he was tired of being trapped inside. "Won’t regret it, Ez," Vin promised.
"I already do, Mr. Tanner," Ezra stated dryly as he turned down the dirt road that lead to the rodeo. "I already do."
As he pulled up to the entrance gate, Ezra scanned the area in front of him. He saw what he had expected to – pickups, old cars, horse trailers old and new – and then did a double take as he saw a nearly new Cadillac parked slightly away from the other cars. Weaving his way across the lawn, he pulled the Jag into a spot on the other side of the black car. He noted the presence of a chauffeur. Puzzled he turned to Vin. Before he could ask the sharpshooter his question, he noted the young man had already exited the car and stood with his eyes closed, breathing in the outside air.
With a reluctant sigh and a heavy sense of dread, Ezra exited the car. As he took his first breath of air, his nose twitched slightly. Though he had spent his share of time around animals and even helped Chris on the ranch with the horses, the change of odor from the processed monotony of the Jag to the ever-changing breeze of the outside nearly sent his sense of smell into overdrive.
"Well, Mr. Tanner," Ezra began. "Lead on."
Vin smiled, turning toward the entry. Waiting in line and paying both entry fees, he easily navigated through the crowd toward the stands.
Ezra followed behind, cursing softly as the mass of humanity Vin had so easily parted seemed to swarm like a mass of unrestrained roaches, blocking his path, bumping into him and generally making his life miserable. Cursing the Texan as he tried not to step in the gooey food messes or the slick animal ones, he did his best to keep up with his friend. Finally Ezra found himself seated next to Vin in the stands.
Vin had already bought a program and looked up from it as Ezra sat beside him. "Where’d ya go, Ez?" he inquired, puzzled. "Thought y’se right behind me."
Ezra leveled a cold gaze at him. "Mr. Tanner," he began before he stopped, mouth open and decided there was no point in continuing. "Never mind."
With a shrug, Vin began informing Ezra of what the morning would hold for them, going into some detail about the skills needed for each event.
As the morning passed, Ezra discovered an admiration for the skill necessary to execute the tasks at hand. He marveled at the rapport between horses and riders, as well as the other competitors. Soon, however, he became less aware of the events unfolding before him and more aware of the hunger gnawing in his belly. "Mr. Tanner," he stated, catching Vin’s attention, "I do believe I will take you up on your generous offer of lunch."
Vin smiled, stood and clapped Ezra on the shoulder. "Well, let’s go then," he encouraged.
Making their way past the corral area where the barrel riders were preparing for their competition, the two men approached the area where food was being sold. Contrary to Ezra’s perception that the food would be inedible, he found himself surprised at the quality and variety of food available. Neither man had known there would also be a chili cook-off and a pie contest.
Satiated and happy, the men began their way back to their seats. As they passed the corral, they heard the loud snapping of fire crackers. Out of the corner of his eye, Vin saw a horse panic and begin to rear as the rider struggled for control. Bolting into the corral, Vin made it to the woman just as she lost her seat. Reaching out to catch her, Vin caught sight of Ezra as he too reached the woman as she fell. Quickly moving away from the terrified animal, Vin nodded to Ezra to take the woman.
Holding the terrified woman in his arm, Ezra began speaking soothing words to her, intermixing questions regarding her health and well-being. While most of his attention was focused upon the shaken woman, he watched out of the corner of his eye as Vin approached the snorting, fearful horse, speaking quietly to it. Within moments, Vin had hold of the bridal and was petting the beast’s nose while he continued a soothing litany.
Both men turned as a voice behind them called out "Anna!" and a man in grey suit pants and a white shirt ran over to the girl. "Anna, are you alright?" the concerned man inquired.
Turning from the comforting arms of her rescuer, she replied, "Yes, Papa, I am unhurt."
A few feet away Vin’s eyes widened as he finally saw the face of the woman he and Ezra had helped. Quickly hiding his shock, he turned his attention back to the horse. Though outwardly he appeared calm, Vin’s mind was spinning. Anna was the woman who had passed him the diskette. That meant if she were still here, then she was in danger. Closing his eyes briefly, he suppressed the sigh of resignation; as if the case weren’t complicated enough, they now had a young woman to rescue.
As the woman left his arms to speak to her father, Ezra had started to walk toward Vin. He saw the momentary shock on his friend’s face and furrowed his brow as to its source. Arriving beside his friend, he turned and looked in the direction Vin’s eyes were trained. It took only a moment for his quick mind to register his own shock at seeing the woman from the restaurant. Quietly he said, "It would appear, Mr. Tanner, that our friend there has been unable to ensure her emancipation which would explain the lack of corroborating evidence. She is not yet safe."
As Vin and Ezra stood quietly watching the father and daughter, they noted movement at the entry of the corral and looked over to see none other than the girl’s uncle, Frederick Fellini walk into the corral. The two agents exchanged a glance. In the few weeks since they had begun their investigation, they had learned much about the man who headed perhaps the most intricate and powerful arms smuggling ring in the nation.
"Anna!" he cried, walking up to his niece. "Are you all right? We saw what happened," he said, embracing his reluctant niece.
"I’m fine, Uncle Frederick," she said without any warmth.
A flash of displeasure flared in Fellini’s eyes at the less than warm response from his niece. Letting it pass for now, he turned to the two men still standing by the horse. Walking over, he offered his hand. "Gentlemen," he greeted, "I can not begin to thank you for your quick and decisive actions. They certainly saved my niece from injury."
Vin looked down, embarrassed by the thanks. "Weren’t nothin’," he offered quietly.
For his part, Ezra had seen the woman pale as she caught sight of her two rescuers. Ezra only hoped she wouldn’t give anything away. He relaxed slightly when he saw her regain her composure.
"I assure you, young man," Finelli said, "It is something. There are very few men in my experience who would react as quickly or as selflessly as the two of you have done." Pausing, he waited until Vin’s eyes rose to meet his. Holding out his hand he said, "My name is Frederick Fellini."
"Vin Tanner," the Texan said, taking the proffered hand.
"Ezra Standish," the Southerner replied as the hand was offered to him.
Turning to his brother-in-law and his niece, Fellini motioned for them to approach. "May I present my brother-in-law, Robert Haskell and his daughter, Anna," Fellini said formally.
The two men first shook Haskell’s hand, Vin blushing at the emotion and intensity of the man’s thanks. They then shook hands with Anna, being careful not to reveal they knew who she was. They accepted her thanks as well.
"Papa," she said quietly, turning to her father. "I must leave. I ride next."
"Are you sure," Haskell asked, his concern evident in his face and voice.
Anna looked into her father’s eyes and nodded. "I need to, Papa," she explained.
With a sigh, he helped his daughter mount and then watched as she left.
Turning to leave, Ezra and Vin stopped as Fellini called their names. Turning back to face the man who was the target of their investigation, the two agents waited to find out what he needed from them.
"We are very thankful for your help tonight. I insist you come home with us tonight and have dinner. Perhaps stay the night that we might repay you for your kindness," he said. His tone of voice clearly indicated that Frederick Fellini was not a man to be put off or disobeyed.
Exchanging a glance, knowing they didn’t really have a choice, they turned back. "We would be honored to join you this evening, Mr. Fellini," Ezra replied.
"Good! Good," Fellini smiled. "Now you will join me as we go to watch my niece and the rest of the rodeo." Draping an arm over the shoulders of each of the men, he began leading them toward the stands. "I fear we must stay to the end since I will be presenting the prizes, but in my experience, the rodeo is a most relaxing distraction."
The men headed out toward the stands.
Buck got out of his truck, closed the door behind him and headed for the barn, knowing that would be where he could find Chris. The two men had agreed to meet at the ranch today to begin doing repairs needed after the harsh winter. "Hey, Chris!" he called in greeting as he entered the warm barn.
Chris stood brushing Pony, eyes focused somewhere in the distance, completely unaware of his surroundings. He had tried both Vin and Ezra all morning and had been unable to reach either of them. The need to speak to the two men, to find out the truth about their actions, their words, ate at him. The fact that they had disappeared caused a battle between anger and worry to rage within the blond. His mind refused to rest and began playing worst case scenarios.
"Hey!" Buck said, waving a hand before Chris’s eyes. "Anyone home?"
"Huh?" Chris asked, snapping out of his daze. "Buck?" he asked confused.
A smile appeared on Buck’s face. Tapping his friend lightly on the side of the head, he asked, "Anyone home today, Stud?"
Shaking his head to clear away the last remnants of his daze, Chris smiled up at his friend. "Sorry, Buck," he apologized. "Just a lot on my mind."
The smile disappeared as Buck nodded. "Vin and Ezra."
Chris’ face became serious. "Vin and Ezra," he confirmed. "JD came across what we think is the reason for all this. Now I can’t get a hold of either of them."
Buck’s eyes widened, a hurt expression appeared on his face. "You found out and you didn’t tell me?" Buck accused. "God, Chris," he berated, "you think you’re the only one worried about them boys? You think you own the market on concern? Why the Hell didn’t you call us?"
Chris was about to respond in anger when he caught sight of the genuine pain and fear in his oldest friend’s eyes. Releasing a heavy sigh, he apologized. "I"m sorry, Buck. But we can’t be sure that the file we found is the motivation. I couldn’t get a hold of Travis and haven’t been able to get a hold of either of the other two all day. I'm worried. What if something happened to them?"
Buck took a deep breath and released it. "We should call the rest of the boys and get together. Then you can catch us all up at once," he suggested.
Chris nodded and stood. It looked like the repairs would wait a little while longer. "I wanted to confront them with the information and find out if it was true first," he explained. "But I guess we’ll have to wait until we see them tomorrow."
Buck stopped and winced. "Ah, geeze, Chris," he lamented. "I forgot to tell you. They won’t be here tomorrow."
"What?" Chris growled, spinning to face his friend, his glare falling full upon the mustached man.
Resisting the urge to run, Buck held up his hands and explained, "They left a message on my machine this morning, or Ez did. He said he and Vin were unavailable this weekend. He sent his regrets and said they’d see us in the office on Monday."
"Damn!" Chris shouted. Rubbing a hand over his face, he looked up at Buck. "Alright," he said, switching into command mode. "Call the boys and get them out here. We’re going to go with the assumption that what JD discovered is really the problem. I want to start our own investigation today. I also want to see if we can track down their movements over the past few days. This has got to end."
Buck offered up a smile, a gleam in his eye. "Now you’re talkin’, Stud!" he exclaimed.
Within an hour and a half, the remaining three members of Team Seven gathered at the ranch. Chris and Buck had taken the time while waiting for everyone to set up a command center of sorts in the living room. Drinks and snacks were ready to go. Both Chris’ desktop and laptop had been set up with connections to the internet. The printer sat ready ready. Paper and pens were arranged around the room.
When they were all gathered, Chris handed JD the diskette and let him start the briefing.
Popping the diskette into the drive, JD quickly brought up the file. "I was looking through Vin’s computer when I came across a reference to a file called 'The List'. It had been on a floppy and I was unable to retrieve any data about it. It struck me as odd, but it was the only file that seemed to fit the parameters of what we were searching for. Anyway, it rang a bell and I looked at my own computer. Sure enough, they had put the diskette into my computer as well. The only reason I could think of that they would do that would be to use the decryption software I’ve been testing for a friend. So, calling my friend, we worked through the program and files and came up with this," he said, nodding toward the screen.
Approaching the screen, the three men began reading. After a few minutes, they sought their chairs. Chris and JD gave them a few minutes to process the information, familiar with the stunned state in which it left the reader.
Nathan broke out of his stupor first. "But how? I mean... Those names... Those people... They can’t all..." he stammered, looking to Chris for confirmation that what he’d read was nothing more than an elaborate hoax.
"Don’t know, Nate," the blond offered quietly. "That’s what we need to try and find out." Looking each of the other four men in the eye, he set his jaw and his eyes grew hard. "If Ez and Vin are working this on their own, they could be in a lot of danger." His anger flared. Just the thought of his two friends facing the kind of danger involved made his blood boil. The fact that he and the rest of the team had been kept in the dark made him see red. "Travis was wrong not to tell us about this. He was wrong to put Vin and Ezra’s lives in danger without warning. If anything happens to them..." Chris trailed off and he felt Bucks hand on his shoulder.
"What do you want us to do, Chris?" Buck asked.
Looking once more into they eyes of each man in the room, he said, "I want to find out if this is true or not. I want to know how much of the information we can verify." He saw looks of determination on each face. "But we have to be careful and not leave any trace of what we’re doing," he warned. "Vin and Ezra’s lives might depend on it." He waited until he received nods of agreement from everyone. "We know some of the people on that list, and we know some of them to be dangerous. Let’s get started. We’ll break in a few hours and compare notes."
Three hours later the men once more sat around the table, their faces grim.
Nodding toward Josiah he asked, "What did you find?"
Josiah picked up his notes. He didn’t need to reference them, but his rising anger needed a focus and crushing the papers holding his notes would be far less harmful than any other course. "Everything I looked at checked out," he said.
"Nate?" Chris asked.
"Same," came the short reply.
"Buck?" Chris queried.
"All of it, Chris," the lady’s man said. "Every last little damn bit of it is true."
"Same here," JD injected not waiting to be called on.
Chris nodded. He felt his chest constrict slightly as he realized his fears were coming true. Where are you boys? he wondered again of Ezra and Vin. You better make it in Monday in one piece or else.
"What now, Chris," JD asked, anxious to do something.
"We wait," came the response. Chris rose and moved to the window, staring out of it.
"Wait?" JD cried, incredulous. "Vin and Ez are out there somewhere and we wait?"
"JD, son," Josiah soothed. "We don’t know what their plan is. We don’t know what they’re doing. Doing anything more than what we’ve done could put them in even more danger."
JD sat, fuming. He knew Josiah was right, but it just wasn’t in him to sit by passively when his friends could be in danger. "So what are we going to do in the meantime?" he demanded.
"Fence needs mending," Buck said quietly.
The others nodded. If they couldn’t help their friends, at least they could put their frustrated energy to use in finishing the repairs.
The rodeo over, Vin and Ezra waited for Fellini to return to them. They would have discussed the upcoming evening with each other, but the presence of Anna, her father and one of the bodyguards made talking impossible. As the situation stood, neither Ezra nor Vin could relax. Given the rigid form of the woman next her father, they knew it would be a difficult evening for her as well.
“Wonderful day, was it not?” the beaming Fellini asked, approaching the silent group.
“Yes, indeed, Frederick,” Haskell replied, showing his fear and subservience to his brother-in-law yet again.
“And what did you gentlemen think?” he inquired of the two agents.
“Not bad,” Vin offered knowingly. “Seen some better, seen some worse.”
Fellini eyed Vin carefully and nodded before turning to Ezra. “And you Mr. Standish? What did you think of my little rodeo?”
Ezra smiled, only the truth would be needed here. “I must admit to having never imagined attending such an event,” he began, “however, I do believe this experience has changed my opinion.”
Fellini smiled broadly and slapped the Southerner on the back. “Good, good,” he laughed. “Come, let us leave and return to the house. I know my chef will have a fine feast awaiting us.” Then turning, he lead the way toward the parking area.
As the group approached the area where the Jag and Cadillac were parked, Fellini paused momentarily, uttering a gasp of appreciation before walking over to Ezra’s car. Scrutinizing the vehicle as he walked around it, Ezra approached and stood slightly off to the side. “This,” Fellini uttered reverently, “is a work of art. And I can see its owner appreciates the better things of life.”
“Why thank you Mr. Fellini,” Ezra responded, “I do.”
Fellini looked at Ezra, eyebrows raised. “This is your car, Mr. Standish?” he inquired, reassessing his opinion of the man. A smile once more slipped across his face, reminding Ezra of a cobra’s smile before it strikes. “We may have a few things to discuss tonight. I myself have several cars I think you will appreciate. Would you mind if I drove it?” he inquired.
Ezra stiffened. It had taken him a very long time to trust Vin with his car, handing the keys off to a stranger did not sit well. Trying to think of a graceful way to decline, Fellini laughed again. “My apologies, Mr. Standish. That request was unfair of me. I will retract my question, though I believe I would enjoy a ride in such a fine example of man’s ingenuity.”
“As you wish, Mr. Fellini,” Ezra responded with a smile, relief flooding his system. He also made a mental note to be careful around the man. Fellini was very perceptive.
Looking at the remainder of the group, Fellini stated, “Mr. Tanner, it would be an honor if you would join us. Anna and Robert and the others will ride in the Cadillac and the pickup.” Then, opening the passenger side door, which Ezra had unlocked remotely, he slipped into the Jag. Exchanging a quick glance, Vin and Ezra followed suit, Ezra sliding behind the wheel, Vin into the back seat.
As they approached the road, Ezra turned according to Fellini’s directions. “So, what do you gentlemen do for a living?” Fellini asked, trying to find out more about these men. They had impressed him with their quick response to a crisis and their behavior afterward. He felt relaxed with Ezra with whom he could discuss the finer things of life. The Southerner had quickly impressed Fellini with this gentleman ways and obvious education. As for Vin, he enjoyed the blunt honesty and forthrightness of the man who still managed to convey respect in his words. Fellini was a man who found himself constantly surrounded by those willing to bend to his opinion; there was a danger and solidness to the Texan that intrigued him.
“We are agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms,” replied Ezra.
Fellini started in surprise. “The ATF,” he said appraisingly. “Well, that would certainly explain your quick response and cool heads in light of my niece’s situation.” He quickly ran through the names of the people in his organization to see whom he had at the Denver ATF. Depending on how things went tonight, these two might be worthwhile additions to his organization. “And what do you do with the ATF?”
“We’re field agents,” Tanner responded, well aware of the danger of giving too much information to the man. Besides, he figured, if he and Ezra had just stumbled upon the man on their own, instead of knowing who he was, they would have offered no more information.
Fellini smiled at the answer. It was exactly what he had expected, something specific enough to satisfy the casual question, yet vague enough to protect themselves. Most likely, he determined, the pair worked undercover together. After all, it was obvious to him that they were comfortable with each other and knew where the other man would be, where they were expected to be. “It must be fascinating work,” he observed.
“It has its moments,” Vin replied.
“Indeed, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra chimed in. “It does have its moments. And you, Mr. Fellini,” Ezra inquired, “what is it you do?”
Fellini’s smile grew. He could play the game as well as anyone. “I’m a businessman,” he replied.
“Looks like ya do right well for yourself,” Vin stated.
Laughing, the businessman nodded, “Indeed I do Mr. Tanner. Indeed I do.” Indicating another turn, he continued, “There are problems I deal with everyday, and solutions I need to find. That’s what I do mostly in my businesses, I find solutions to very large problems.”
Ezra met Vin’s eyes in the rear view mirror. “What kind o’ large problems, Mr. Fellini,” Vin asked.
Turning to look at the Texan in the back seat, a sly smile curved Fellini’s lips. “Perhaps we can discuss that after dinner over some brandy, “ he replied. “I think you gentlemen might be interested in some aspects of my business.” Seeing both men nod, he indicated another turn. Five minutes later he told Ezra to pull into a drive and before a large, ornate wrought iron gate bearing a family coat of arms done in gold. “Welcome to my humble abode,” Fellini said, nodding to the guard to let them in.
The drive up to the mansion proved a breathtaking experience. The lawn and landscaping bespoke man’s vision of nature’s beauty while the vista of mountains in the background contrasted the effect with the raw power and majesty of the Earth. For several minutes the drive up to the house left the traveler lost in the wonders of nature. Rounding a bend in the road, the traveler soon found himself lost in the wonders of man’s architecture.
The house itself was beautiful. It put to shame the vaunted mansions of Newport and could only be described as a building on the same level as the finer palaces of Europe and Asia. The stonework alone would take days to review. Looking beyond the sweeping marble stairway that led to enormous carved walnut doors, one could only gasp at the sheer size of the building and number of windows.
“Could house an army in there,” Vin observed quietly, not realizing he’d spoken his thoughts aloud.
“Yes you could, Mr. Tanner,” Fellini agreed. “An army of servants at least,” he finished, looking very much as if he were a cat playing with a mouse.
“You home is remarkable,” Ezra said, trying to catch his breath. He had seen some beautiful homes in his time. He had even stayed in some beautiful old plantation homes with relatives. None of that experience prepared him for the palace he found himself approaching. Chastising himself for his lack of aplomb, Ezra tried to recover by asking, “Did you build this yourself, Mr. Fellini, or was it moved here from somewhere?”
“That, Mr. Standish, is an interesting story and one I would be most willing to tell you. First, however, if you would park your car over there, we can actually enter the house so you might better appreciate the wonder that it is,” he said.
Man sure does love his house, Vin thought to himself following Fellini to the front door which was opened just prior to their arrival by a butler. Shaking his head, Vin followed the other two inside.
The tour and dinner completed, Mr. Fellini dismissed his niece and brother-in-law, as well as Ezra and Vin’s protest that they needed to leave soon and cease trespassing on Fellini’s good will, and led the two agents into the library. Vin selected an oversized leather chair near the open window while Ezra took one further in the room. Fellini shifted another chair slightly and sat, indicating for the butler to bring over the brandy. Pouring out and serving his guests, Frederick Fellini settled back in his chair and looked at the two young men before him. “So tell me,” he demanded, “how do you really enjoy working for the ATF?”
Vin shrugged. “’S OK, I suppose. Pay ain’t much and hours suck, but it keeps ya busy.”
Ezra allowed a look of disgust to cross his face. “I am a gentleman, sir,” he began, “and as such I detest having to work, yet in today’s world, it is a necessity to do so. I, too, feel as Mr. Tanner does. The pay is deplorable, the hours ungodly and the only thing to be said for the paperwork is that it keeps the paper mills open and does help pass the time.”
Fellini smiled at their responses, seeing possibilities. “But isn’t the work worthwhile?” he asked, trying to find the truth from the men.
“Mr. Fellini,” Ezra said, setting his brandy glass carefully on the table next to him before folding his hands in his lap and staring directly at the man. “The end result is rarely satisfying or worth the time and trouble we have put into it. No sooner do we finish the paperwork and spend an inhuman amount of time in reviews and in court, than the miscreants in question are returned to civilization at large and resume their old ways. I do believe we have arrested some of the same criminals several times. Is that not so, Mr. Tanner?”
Vin snorted softly. “Hell, Ez, might’s well install a revolvin’ door in that jail. Onliest ones that don’t come back are the ones ‘at wind up dead.”
Inwardly, Fellini felt himself warm toward the men, wondering if they even suspected how close they came to revealing what he wanted to know most, if the two of them were approachable. The more time he spent with the men, the more he liked them, and there were not many people in this world Frederick Fellini liked.
Ezra, sensing Vin’s discomfort with the topic at hand, shifted it to more neutral ground by asking about the painting hanging over the fireplace. Conversation remained sociable as the night progressed. A brief but extremely polite argument occurred around Eleven PM when Vin suggested he and Ezra leave. The issue met its resolution when Frederick, as he insisted they call him, offered not only two of the more magnificent bedrooms, but assured both men he would have clean, new clothes waiting for them the next morning. Citing the long drive back to Denver proved the winning argument. Vin was exhausted, his back was hurting, the sharp pain near his shoulder blade that had made it so hard to hold onto anything that morning had remerged with reinforcement. Ezra read the exhaustion in his friend’s face and relented.
Conversation continued along what Ezra felt were interesting lines when Frederick suddenly asked, “What do you consider the greatest of society’s ills?”
Taken aback by the question, neither man was able to respond for several minutes. Exchanging a glance with Vin, Ezra began, “I fear this is not a topic to which I dedicate much time or reflection. Certainly I am aware of the problems in society, however, I do not believe I could narrow it down to just one. There are the throwaways of society that drain those few worthy enough to rise above their lowered circumstance. Certainly the plague of diseases and drug addictions must rank in there.” Ezra trailed off, not knowing what else to say.
Turning his attention to Vin, Frederick waited for his response.
Vin looked the man in the eye and said bluntly, “Them what deserves don’t always get.” Reading the satisfied gleam in Fellini’s eyes as well as the slight upturn of the corner of his mouth, Vin knew he’d answered the question correctly. He only wondered if Frederick had any idea that Vin’s idea of those that deserve and Fellini’s own were diametrically opposed.
Leaning back slightly and folding his hands over his stomach, Fellini smiled at the two men and said, “There are several interesting theories and ideas out there today that I find interesting. Listening to both of you, I could say that boiled down to its essence both of you clearly see undesirable elements of society. These elements were once manageable, but now, due to the extreme population explosion, have expanded far beyond what anyone could reasonably consider acceptable.”
Seeing he had the agents’ undivided attention, he continued, “Overpopulation is the problem, gentlemen. There are just too many people on the planet Earth. If there were fewer people, then we wouldn’t have most of the problems we do. With fewer people, there would be less need for burning the rainforests. With fewer people, there would be less spread and mutation of disease. With fewer people, human society would evolve to levels only dreamed of.”
“A fascinating theory,” Ezra commented, hiding his revulsion of where he saw this conversation headed.
Vin eyed the businessman warily. “How many fewer,” he queried.
Evaluating the mood of the two men, Fellini was pleased with what he saw. “A reduction by two thirds would be ideal, though a reduction by half would be acceptable,” he stated.
Vin nearly choked on the thought that his man wanted to wipe out two thirds of the world’s population. Ezra swallowed his horror and asked, “But how would one accomplish such a feat? In past ages, disease, war, famine and natural disasters helped ensure a reasonable population. Now, we have overcome most of these maladies. So, how do you recommend we obtain this acceptable level of habitation?”
Fellini leaned forward, very much interested in the conversation and excited by the open and interested response of the two men. “There are many ways we could assist in this,” Fellini explained, “of course, perhaps the most appropriate would be to allow the undesirable elements to eliminate themselves. Such a measure would require little encouragement, though I fear, given your profession, both of you would object to my first theory.”
“And what’s that?” Vin managed to ask without growling in anger and disgust.
“Weapons,” Fellini explained. “We allow more weapons to flood the streets. That way the sewage that is dragging down the human race and destroying our world can eliminate itself. And those that survive would obviously be nothing more than the victims of unfortunate circumstances and welcomed into true civilization. Those others who are unworthy and live among us could be eliminated through other means”
Ezra swallowed the bile that threatened him. Vin bit his tongue to keep himself from telling Frederick exactly what he thought of that plan. The man couldn’t know that Vin was one of those considered sewage. Faces of the good people he’d known while growing up on the streets, while living in Purgatorio that had passed away due to the violence his host now promoted flashed before his eyes. Disgust for Fellini nearly consumed the Texan, but his professionalism quickly reigned in his more destructive feelings and he managed a slow nod of agreement.
Just then the clock struck midnight. Shifting his gaze to the clock, Ezra smiled politely at his host. “This is a most fascinating discussion, Mr. Fellini… Frederick, however, I fear it has been a long day and Mr. Tanner and I will be unable to provide an appropriate audience for you just now. Might we retire for the evening and continue this discussion in the morning?” Ezra asked.
“Of course,” Frederick said, looking every ounce like a cat playing with a mouse. He had them, or would soon enough. These men would make fine additions to his organization. Rising from his chair, he pulled the cord that would summon the butler. Waiting for his servant to arrive, Fellini bid them good night and departed.
Two very disturbed ATF agents were led to luxurious bedrooms that did little other than turn their stomachs