By Beth ©
FBI Files (Seven)
Notes: This is the third FBI story and it takes place right after ‘The Devil’s Den’. You should read the other stories before this one. I’ll list them as I go.
Games People Play
The Devil’s Den
Special Thanks: To Yolande, Anna, and Mummra for betaing this for me!
Please send comments and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Vin leaned against the wall, watching weary travelers greet their families and friends. Flight 194 from Portland Maine had arrived late and everyone looked relieved to finally be on solid ground. He could hear announcements for delays, departures, and cancellations over the speaker system. People continued to sleep on their luggage and the uncomfortable airport chairs as they waited for their flights.
Traveling was a bitch.
Vin stood up straighter when he saw Ezra step though the gate doors. He looked haggard, probably from his lack of sleep. His carryon bag hung from his right shoulder and his briefcase was held tightly in his left hand. His black coat gently slapped the back of his calves as he walked. He nodded to Vin and they started walking toward the exit together.
“Thought I’d give you a lift,” Vin said, already knowing the response.
Ezra nodded thankfully. “I must admit, it sounds safer than taking a cab,” he replied sarcastically.
“So you’ve heard,” Vin surmised. “Wasn’t sure with all the cases you’re workin’ on.” He stepped onto the escalator. “Travis put McCoy and a few other agents on the case…I guess D.C. Police ain’t real happy about it.”
“A foreign national gets his head blown off in the back of a taxi…nobody’s going to be happy.”
Vin noted Ezra’s sarcasm and exhaustion and could only nod in response. If anyone knew about public relations it was Ezra, particularly where foreign affairs are concerned. “The others are down at the saloon—wanted us to stop in for a drink.”
“And you’re the one that got suckered into picking me up,” Ezra replied, not hiding his chuckle.
“Had some other things to see to, so I volunteered.” He stepped onto the curb, and moved suddenly as a family of five rushed passed him, late for their plane. “Besides, I didn’t think you’d want to face Nathan or Josiah in the state you’re in.”
Ezra nodded: “It seems I owe you one.” He rubbed his eyes, trying to gather his wits. He was tired and wanted to go home and get some rest, but it was his duty to accept the offer of a drink at the saloon…his mother raised a gentlemen after all.
Vin laughed and unlocked his truck doors. “Put it on my tab,” he replied, slipping onto the driver’s seat.
Ezra placed his carryon behind the seat of the extended cab and sat down. For the first time in days he was comfortable, and he watched the rain fall from the sky and violently splatter against the windshield. The roar of the engine echoed in the confines of the cab and the vehicle shifted slightly as Vin put it into gear.
“You find that girl?” Vin asked, expecting bad news. He’d been involved with law enforcement long enough to know that most cases involving a kidnapped child, ended badly.
“Eight hours ago,” Ezra replied humbly.
“You off for a few days?” Vin questioned, changing the conversation quickly.
“I’m flying out tomorrow afternoon to help with a serial arsonist in Tampa.” Ezra ran his hand over his face and leaned back. He’d been back from Germany less than five months and already his caseload was too heavy. “Mulnivch decided to transfer 30 profilers overseas to investigate the rash of violence in Germany and Austria…that short hands the Behavioral Science Division—so I have to take on more cases…just like everyone else.” There was an odd sense of humor in his tone when he spoke, as though he knew this was his destiny.
“You’d think they could do somethin’ else,” Vin said, taking a turn toward the saloon. “They’ve been workin’ Chris and Josiah pretty hard the past couple of days…shit, they didn’t give us any time to screw our heads back on after Mason.”
Ezra laughed outright and then shook his head. He acted as though he had something to say, but decided to keep quiet.
“Just so you know…” Vin started, parking his truck, “…today was Chris and his wife’s wedding anniversary. We all decided to go on down to the saloon to chew some fat. Buck thought it would be best to keep him away from home tonight.”
“Chris was willing?”
Vin laughed: “No.”
For a Tuesday night the saloon was rather busy, with more than ten people sitting around the bar and tables. Chris and the others had gathered in the back corner with their backs to the walls…standard procedure. A petite Mexican woman stood behind the counter and smiled at the two men as they entered.
The smell of beer, peanuts, and body odor filled the air, and nobody was trying to pretend it wasn’t there. Vin and Ezra made their way to the table in the back and laid their coats over the backs of their chairs. The pitcher of beer was half gone and the bowl of peanuts was reduced to shells and brown flakes.
“Welcome back, Ezra,” Josiah said, leaning back in his seat. He looked tired, with dark circles under his eyes and two days worth of stubble embracing his chin.
“Mr. Sanchez,” Ezra replied, taking a seat at the table.
“How was Maine?” Chris asked, taking a peanut shell out of the bowl, only to break it into little pieces.
“Cold,” Ezra answered, picking up the glass of beer that was placed in front of him. “I must admit, you all look worse for wear.”
Nathan chuckled and then sighed. “Everyone’s been pushed to their limits these past few weeks.”
“And it ain’t going to get any better until the Bureau gets off their ass and starts puttin’ agents where they’re needed,” Buck complained. “Don’t remember bein’ this tired or short handed.”
“Heard they’re doubling most shifts in the bigger cities,” Josiah added, running a hand over his face. He looked longingly at the younger, fresher faces, in the bar…wishing he had the energy they did.
Buck fingered the lip of his beer glass, watching as the moisture slipped downward onto the tabletop. “Travis’s tryin’ to get us some help…but,” he shrugged his shoulders, “the other departments are lackin’ in staff as well.”
“130 agents retired last week…most decided to take it early. They expect more next month.” JD shook his head, sighing in disbelief at his own words.
Chris looked at the faces of his men, not thinking about the words they spoke. He was just as tired, but for reasons only he seemed to understand, the hard work and long hours were a reprieve from the heavy thoughts of his family. “Be thankful you’ve all got jobs,” he said sharply. “There are a lot of folks who don’t.”
Buck took a deep breath and nodded. “Ya’ll right?” He looked toward Chris, feeling as though the length of the day was coming to a halt.
“Fine,” came the soft response.
“Josiah was telling us about his time at Yale,” JD said, feeling the need to change the subject. “He said that was where he met Emma Dubonnet.” A smug grin appeared on the kid’s face, knowing embarrassment lay in due course for the older agent.
“The actress?” Vin asked, wanting to be sure of whom they were speaking.
Josiah nodded slowly. “Yes, she was a vision of loveliness if I’ve ever seen one.”
“Where’d you meet her?” Buck asked his curiosity peaked. He’d also seen some of her ‘films’.
“School,” Josiah answered softly. “She was starring in Shakespeare’s Othello, as Desdemona.” He smiled, looking up at the ceiling, remembering the way the dress she’d worn had caressed her body, the way her hair had bounced over her shoulders…the way she’d looked at him from afar.
Buck snickered and shook his head. “She must’ve been somethin’?”
“What happened between you?” Chris asked, surprised by Josiah’s acknowledgment.
“We were together for a while…about two years,” he sighed, and ran his fingers over his short graying hair. “After I graduated, I decided to study cultural theology in a more ‘traditional’ setting. I told her I’d be back and we’d pursue our future plans…”
“So what happened?” JD pushed, needing to know.
“She couldn’t wait that long,” Josiah said, sighing in disappointment. “She’s working in Vegas now as a lounge singer.”
“Wow,” JD sighed, shaking his head. “Who would have guessed?”
“She must have gotten to you,” Nathan surmised, watching his friend as he reflected on his past.
Josiah laughed and nodded at the same time. “I fell hard for her,” he admitted.
“Shit, Josiah, how many have there been?” Buck asked, lacing his words with humor. He winked as the waitress placed another pitcher of beer on the table and replaced the empty bowl of peanuts with a full one.
“Less than others, more than some,” Josiah replied, with a grin and a wink.
“Kiss and tell,” Buck pleaded.
“Sorry, Brother,” Josiah responded, with a smile of his own. “What about you, Chris…? How’d you meet Sarah?”
Chris took a deep breath and leaned back. A multitude of feelings hit his mind and stomach at the same time. He didn’t want to talk about his wife and son, but at the same time…he did. There was no denying they were gone, and by refusing to speak of them he felt as though he was dishonoring them. Was the pain it caused him to remember, more important than honoring their memory?
Slowly, Chris ran his fingers through his hair and decided to share his memories with his friends, his teammates, and for the most part, his new family. He didn’t know if it was harder being a widower and acting the part, or being that angry bitter old man that tended to make most people stop and become leery of their actions. It really didn’t matter which part he played, or portrayed, because in many ways he was both. He missed his wife, and Lord knows he’d do anything to get her and Adam back, but it didn’t work that way.
“We, ah, met in Chicago after spending an hour fighting over a cab—”
“An hour?” Nathan asked skeptically, having never heard the story.
Chris nodded and continued, “She was a law student. We decided to go out and have a drink of coffee—at the time I was the youngest detective on the squad and I had just put in for position within the Bureau…” he shrugged, “…Sarah and I ended up getting married a year later—six months after that we’re movin’ to D.C.” He smiled when he spoke. “We wanted to put off having kids until we got settled…when we were ready…” Chris shook his head and took a deep breath. “We tried, and we tried…”
“And they tried,” Buck snickered, dodging the peanut that was thrown at him.
“We ended up going to one of those fertility clinics.” Chris’ eyebrows rose and his eyes flashed cynicism as well as a threat for everyone not to laugh.
“So much for doin’ it naturally,” Buck laughed, remembering Chris’ story from experience. “Ya’ll should have seen him when I sent a box of Penthouse magazines to his meeting at HQ.”
“Damn near got me fired, Buck.” Chris smiled, folding his arms on the table.
Vin chuckled: “I have a hard time seein’ you jackin’ off in a petri dish, Larabee.”
“It was a plastic cup, asshole,” Chris replied, earning laughs from around the table.
“I take it the procedure was a success?” Ezra asked, grinning from one ear to the other.
“Yes,” Chris answered sadly. He missed his family.
Buck laughed, remembering back. “Sarah went shoppin’ this one time and left Chris with Adam—he was just a tiny shit at the time, and still wearin’ diapers.” He laughed harder. “I go over to sit with ‘im and watch the game, only, when I get in the house, here’s Chris runnin’ back and forth to the john—pukin’ his guts up because little Adam had shit his pants.”
Josiah snorted and his drink spewed out his nose, and JD fell off his chair…obviously the beer was getting to everyone.
“Boy he could pack a punch,” Chris chuckled, shaking his head.
“Most diapers can,” Nathan laughed, having experienced some of his own.
“How about you, Nate?” JD asked. “Where’d you meet Rain?”
“College,” the doctor replied. “She was a cheerleader…”
“And you played football.” Buck batted his lashes and laughed.
Nathan rolled his eyes and smiled. “She’s the one that pushed my decision to join the Bureau,” he admitted. “For our third anniversary I took her to a Yankee’s game—”
“For your anniversary?” Josiah questioned, “Thought you were smarter than that, Brother.”
“Me too,” Nathan laughed. “At the time I thought it was a good idea.”
“What happened?” Vin asked, after taking a drink of his beer.
“I got lost—”
“You drove?” Chris questioned, slightly surprised.
“It was supposed to be a romantic weekend,” Nathan sighed, “Instead, we spent the whole time in a back alley motel…nine months later Janice was born.”
Buck snorted and laughed while the others joined in.
“Couldn’t have been too bad?” JD snickered.
“What happed to usin’ protection?” Buck continued to tease.
“We were lost,” Nathan replied, not trying to hide his own smile.
Buck laughed and looked toward JD. “Out with it, Kid…who was the love of your life…or have you even lost your virginity yet?”
“Fuck you, Buck,” JD snapped, tossing a handful of peanut shells at his friend. “What about you? Have you ever met anyone worth staying with…or have they all been one night stands?” He bit back, unwilling to let Buck get off scott free.
“Louisa Perkins,” Buck let her name melt passed his lips. “She was built like a brick shithouse.”
“You say that out of respect of course?” Ezra muttered, shaking his head.
“Hell yeah,” Buck grinned, “She’d be the first to admit it.” He took a long drink from his beer and shook his head. “First time I met her,” he patted his chest, “…I was in love. She had the reddest hair of anyone I’d ever met.” Whether he knew it or not, his hands moved up in the air and his fingers quickly took their ‘holding’ position.
“How long did your mother breastfeed you, Mr. Wilmington?” Ezra asked, failing to hide his grin.
Buck cocked an eyebrow and quickly put his hands down. “What makes you think I was breastfed?”
“You were, and probably a little later than most,” Ezra replied confidently, not bothering to hide his grin.
“Hell, Ezra,” Chris said, “we’ve been trying to figure out for years what Buck’s problem’s been,” he looked at his long time friend, “it’s good to know what it is.”
“You and the horse you rode in on.” Buck leaned back in his seat. “She was a great gal.”
“What happened?” Vin asked, uncharacteristically.
“She moved on to bigger and better things,” Buck answered sadly.
“There was a while there when the boys and I thought they was going to get married,” Chris said, speaking of the first team…the one that hadn’t quite cut the mustard.
“No shit?” Josiah inquired, not quite believing what he was hearing.
“This must’ve happened before Josiah or I signed on,” Nathan deduced.
Buck nodded and finished his beer. “What about you, Junior?” he looked at Vin…hoping to see him blush.
“My personal life is just that, personal.”
“Ooh, the silent one has a voice,” Buck joked, receiving the bird for his effort.
Vin suddenly chuckled and shook his head. “There was this one.” He sighed, disbelieving the fact that he was going to tell the story. “We met in college and dated a few months…she was a film major so we watched a lot of movies together,” his eyes seemed to lighten as he spoke, “but she refused to watch Psycho—for whatever reason. Well, it ended up bein’ required for one of her classes—”
“This is goin’ to end bad,” JD replied, with a grin.
Vin’s smile increased in size and his white teeth seemed to shimmer. “I ah, got this gas mask from a guy I knew that worked with the Hazmat team.” He reached up and rubbed the tip of his nose. “Anyway, I waited until she was takin’ a shower and snuck into the bathroom wearin’ that mask. I flung the curtain back and she screamed so loud I thought for sure my eardrums had popped.” His cheeks tightened as he tried to control the urge to laugh.
Chris laughed and shook his head. “I bet you ended up in the doghouse for that one.”
“Hell, I’m still eaten dirt. She, ah, left me three days later…said I was too immature for her taste,” Vin said, in joyous disbelief.
“Smart woman,” Ezra commented, tossing a couple of peanuts into his mouth. “Surely, Mr. Dunne, you have a story to enlighten us with?”
JD bowed his head and slipped back into his seat. He looked around the room for a moment, trying to decide what he should or shouldn’t say. “When I was sixteen—”
“It is a virgin story.” Buck slapped his knee and laughed.
“Can you spell asshole, or do you need me to get you a dictionary?” JD bit back, his smile stretched across his cheeks, animating his features.
“Go ahead, Brother…tell us your story,” Josiah said, resting the palm of his right hand on his thigh. He looked at JD intently, wanting to know more about him.
The kid shrugged his shoulders and sat up straighter. “As I was saying,” he looked toward Buck before continuing, “When I was sixteen, a group of us from school decided to sneak into the movies because we didn’t have enough money to pay for tickets… Anyway, me and Timmy got caught at the exit door by one of the employees. Timmy took off—leaving me there to pay the piper…so to speak. At any rate, she took me into the back room and we, ah—”
“You did not!” Buck exclaimed, not believing a word of JD’s story.
“Not everybody gets it in the back of their El Camino.”
“Hey, you keep Lucy out of this.”
Chris laughed and ran his fingers through his blonde hair. “What about you, Ezra?” he asked, hoping to get to know the profiler, like he had the others.
“Gentlemen do not kiss and tell.” Ezra smiled and looked toward the table surface.
“What about Li?” JD asked. “What was she like?” There wasn’t any malevolence in his question, it was honest, innocent, and expected.
“She was small, had baby soft skin, and she loved the color red.” Ezra smiled, having known the questions would come and having decided long ago to be honest with himself as well as the others. “She also had a hell-fire temper.”
“You, Ezra P. Standish, employee of the United States Government, could piss someone off?” Buck commented.
Ezra chuckled and nodded. “I came home late from work, on a Friday night, and she had made this traditional Chinese dinner. However, by the time I arrived home the meal was cold and sadly it ended up in the garbage disposal.” He raised his eyebrows and smiled. “When I walked in through the front door she proceeded to throw every available plate she had at my head. I of course, did a swan dive behind the couch to avoid any oncoming projectiles.”
JD snickered along with Nathan and Chris…both of whom could relate.
“When she stopped trying to kill me with the plates she proceeded to steal my car keys and shoved them in her pocket…all the while threatening me with petite fists.” Ezra moved in his seat, trying to maintain his composure.
“What happened?” Chris asked, with a grin.
“Being the gentlemen that I am…” Ezra ignored the snickers from around the table, “…and believing whole heartedly in not hitting a woman.” He smiled and shook his head, all the while keeping his eyes away from the others. “I proceeded to grab her ankles and hang her upside down while standing on the sofa…then shake her until my keys fell from her pocket.”
Buck roared with laughter with the rest of his teammates, all of whom had a difficult time seeing Ezra in such a ‘position’.
“What happed after that?” Vin asked, feeling the pain in his cheeks from laughing so hard.
Ezra rolled his eyes and a faint tinge of red appeared on his cheeks. “She ended up pregnant—”
“Make up sex!” Buck laughed, slapping the table with the palm of his hand.
“Could you speak a little louder, Buck? I don’t think they heard you in Jersey,” Vin chuckled, thinking they’d all had enough to drink for the night. He looked to Ezra and saw a glimpse of the sadness he was now feeling after talking about the woman he loved. “Why’d you choose profilin’?” he asked, to change the subject.
Ezra’s brow furrowed, and he thought about the question, thankful to get away from such a painful subject. He shrugged, unsure of the kind of answer Vin was looking for. He took a long pull from his glass of beer and elegantly wiped his upper lip free of the golden fluid. “I would imagine it would be similar to the rest of your decisions to participate in your fields. Perhaps, Mr. Tanner, you had the highest score on all the arcade games with rifles?” He looked at the sniper with a knowing eye. “And you, Mr. Dunne, were how old when you rebuilt your fist computer?”
“Nine,” came the soft answer.
“And Mr. Larabee,” he looked hard at the team leader, “perhaps you were the squad leader for your boy scout troop?” Ezra smiled, watching Chris nod his head slowly.
“You seem to know a lot about us,” Nathan surmised, wanting to know how Standish would associate him with his job.
“And dare I say, Mr. Jackson, that you obliterated your Doctor game before it was out of the box.”
Nathan laughed, flashing bright white teeth. “Uncle. Unlike the others, I know when I’m beat.” He dodged the napkin ball that Chris threw at him and then refilled his glass with the rest of the beer.
Buck waved to Inez and winked, letting her know they needed more to drink, and then he turned his attention back on his friends.
“So why’d you become a profiler?” Vin asked again, hoping for an answer.
“It just seemed natural at the time.” Ezra ran his fingers through his hair. “At a very early age I leaned how to read people—probably because of the time I spent in and out of gambling halls—”
“Your mom let you go?” Nathan asked, surprised.
“She was the one who took me…usually the private poker rooms.”
“What’s gambling got to do with profiling?” Chris asked.
“Rule number one, Mr. Larabee, poker is not gambling.” Ezra raised his eyebrows in correction. “Poker is a skill: learning tells, marks, and cheaters…Truthfully, it’s not much different than interviewing suspects or witnesses.”
“So who were you interviewin’ as a kid?” Buck asked, tossing a peanut shell in the newly filled bowl.
Ezra chuckled: “I was not the…best…student at any of the academies I attended. I scarcely passed my sophomore year—spending most of my time learning card tricks, card games, and the ins and outs of betting… And, I taught other students some of what I learned…for a price, of course.”
“Of course,” Josiah chuckled, actually liking what he was hearing.
“How’d you get into Harvard with shitty grades?” Vin asked.
“I didn’t finish school with shitty grades and near perfect SAT scores and a distinguished application essay carry a lot of weight.” Ezra grinned and shook his head, remembering an easier time in his life, when things weren’t so complicated.
“No help from your mother?” Chris pushed, testing ground.
Ezra clenched his jaw. “No, no help from my mother.” He pulled unconsciously at his sleeves.
Josiah cleared his throat, sensing Ezra’s reluctance to say anything else. “When I was a boy I had the opportunity to watch my father preach on an Indian reservation. Preaching the word of God, as he liked to say…but what I saw was a man completely ignorant of the words he spoke. That was the first time I saw him fall from that pedestal that I’d placed him on.” He concentrated on the bowl in the center of the table and spoke softly, “He wasn’t a violent person, just…angry.”
“Is that how you see yourself?” Nathan asked, grasping his beer glass.
Josiah shook his head and looked hard at his friend. “For the first thirty years of my life I tried so hard to not become him, that I went full circle and became him. However, my father’s ability to control his anger through physical exertion was not my strongest suit.” A small spread across his face.
“Bust a lot of heads in your time, Josiah?” Vin inquired.
Josiah ran his fingers through his graying hair and laughed. “Yeah, I’ve busted a few. I’m not proud of it though, and I’ll spend the rest of my life wishing I never had…but that’s part of life, isn’t it? Learning from your mistakes, and trying to keep from making the same ones over and over again.”
“If you could go back in time and change things from your past…would you?” JD asked, understanding, on some level, the older agent’s self-discovery.
“No,” Josiah answered honestly, “I wouldn’t. Not because it would make my life easier, but because of what I learned from all those times—good, and bad.”
“Can you incorporate death in that answer?” Ezra asked, speaking from experience.
Everyone around the table got quiet, partly because of their consumption of alcohol, exhaustion, and because of the topic. JD fingered the lip of his beer mug. Buck ran his fingers through his hair and looked toward Chris, who seemed deep in thought regarding the question. Perhaps he was trying to place reason and answers to questions that had been asked a million times over. Vin looked at Ezra and saw a man who had come up with those answers long ago…perhaps from experience…or because he’d had to. Nathan took a long pull from his beer and looked at his friends.
Josiah thought long and hard about the question and then looked at Ezra. “I’d have to say yes. Though, I wish the people I’ve lost over the years were still with me—their deaths have, on some levels, affected my life in more ways than even I understand… And, it’s not my place to say their deaths were justified. The only thing I can do is accept that, and improve my life around them…and what they aspired me to be.”
“Have you?” JD asked, soaking in Josiah’s words like a dry cloth to water.
Josiah shook his head and looked longingly at much younger eyes. “I’ve done the best I can.”
JD smiled gently and rested his elbows on the table. “How do you know it’s enough?”
“I don’t, JD…I just know that I did the best that I could at that particular time in my life. On many levels it probably wasn’t enough.” Josiah shrugged.
“After momma died, I spent a lot of time thinking about the things I’d done wrong as a kid…things that had made her life harder—you know, just stupid things really.” He shrugged and leaned back in his chair, he never taking his eyes off the beer glass that was in front of him, as though it were telling him what to say…giving him permission. “There was this one time…for Christmas, Momma got me a pair of corduroy pants…they were light green and had more pockets than overalls.” JD ran his fingers through his hair, feeling bad for his actions. “They were so ugly.”
Buck smiled, having a good idea of what had transpired so many years ago. It wasn’t easy telling your mother who worked hard her whole life that the one thing she could afford wasn’t ‘cool’.
“I went out and played football in them, tore a hole in the knee…I hated the way the kids at school teased me about wearing them, so just before I got home after school—I ripped a larger hole in the pants and stained my face with dirt and made myself cry…” JD cast his eyes downward in shame and embarrassment.
“How old were you?” Ezra asked, looking more at JD’s actions than listening to his words.
“Eleven or twelve…old enough to know better at any rate. When I walked into the house she came running up to me, wanting to make sure I was okay. Mom, she didn’t care about those pants.” JD chuckled, as though absorbing the information for the first time. “She cut them down and made them into shorts for me.” He smiled and shook his head. “I wore them everyday that summer.”
“If your mother was half the woman you make her out to be, JD…” Buck said softly, “…she knew about those pants.”
“Mothers know everything…even the things you think they don’t know—they know,” Nathan laughed, shaking his head. “My mom had this way of looking at you…you didn’t even need to say anything and she already knew you were lying, cheating, or hiding something. And the guilt trips…” he sighed and took a deep breath, “…they were worse than any kind of spanking you could get.”
Josiah chuckled, remembering his own mother and those looks that could clench his heart.
“My mother didn’t get mad very often, but when she did—look out,” Nathan finished. His voice seemed distant as he spoke, and it was clear that he missed her. “I was fifteen when she passed away. My father told my sisters and I that her heart gave out while she was sleeping.”
“You didn’t believe him?” Chris asked, feeling a bit of a connection with Nathan’s father.
“No,” Nathan supplied, he shook his head and picked up a peanut. “I never pursued it though… My mom was real sensitive, and she took a lot on herself…and I think it just got too heavy for her to bear.”
Chris nodded in understanding and took another long gulp from his beer. He wiped the foam from his upper lip and looked toward the window, noticing how the lights reflected off the windows; headlights from passing cars appeared like glitter under the kaleidoscope of glass. “I lied to her,” he spoke softly of his wife. He didn’t understand why he was saying anything, or his need to, but for reasons better left for the gods to discuss, he made the decision to open up.
Everyone around the table went silent, and sleepy eyes now appeared focused.
“They kept her in this room…closed off from everyone. The doctors said it was because she was at risk for infection…but she thought it was because she looked so hideous.” Chris rubbed his chin, keeping his eyes on the window, and he smiled tightly…trying to hide his pain. “I never told her how beautiful she was…”
Silence seemed still as death. Nobody knew what to say to a man still mourning the death of his family.
“She hung on for a long time…wanting to know what happened.” Chris’ eyes watered but the tears never fell. “I told her Adam made it out alive…and he couldn’t wait to see his mother.” He leaned back in his seat and sighed. “She died three hours later.”
Buck’s heart clenched with his friend’s grief. He knew better than most that Chris’ lie had been a way for him to say goodbye, without putting it into words. “It wasn’t a lie,” Buck said softly, “Sarah knew what you were sayin’. If she knew you’da lied to her…she’d a kicked your ass from here to Podunk Alabama.”
Chris chuckled. Yes, he thought, perhaps she would have…he wished she’d been able to.
“What was the last thing she said to you?” JD asked, feeling the need to know.
A long sigh passed through thin lips. “She said she was warm.” He smiled peacefully.
“My mom asked for a Coke,” JD whispered.
“Be thankful you were with them when they passed,” Josiah whispered. “Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the easy way you always use. Put no difference into your tone, wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow… What is death but negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near just around the corner. Henry Scott Holland.”
“That’s a nice thought, Josiah,” Vin said. “But it’s not that easy.”
“If it was easy, Vin, it wouldn’t be real.”
Buck chuckled and shook his head. “You’ve had too damn many philosophy classes in college.” He slapped the table and slowly got to his feet. “I’ve got to piss,” he announced, looking awkwardly toward the bathrooms.
“You askin’ for help, or directions?” Vin asked.
“Fuck you, junior,” Buck replied jokingly.
“Just checkin’,” Vin chuckled. He looked toward the clock that hung on the wall flashing Budweiser in red florescent lights.
“Brothers,” Josiah announced, “I’ve got to get some sleep.” He sat up straight and stretched his shoulders and back.
Nathan pulled his cell phone from him pocket and started dialing: “Anyone else need a ride?” he asked, placing the phone next to his ear.
“Hey, that’d be great, Nate…save Casey from coming to get me,” JD said, wiping his pants free of peanut residue.
Nathan smiled when Josiah nodded, letting him know he needed a ride as well. Buck retook his seat at the table, fully refreshed. Nathan stood up and started speaking softly on the phone while moving away from the table.
“What…” Buck asked, lifting his hands and shoulders, “…I go to take a piss and everyone decides to leave?”
Nathan motioned toward the table from the door, indicating Rain was on her way to pick them up and give them a ride home. JD and Josiah both stood up.
“Too much animal maggot-tisim,” JD replied, slipping on his coat.
“Magnetism,” Buck corrected in an annoyed tone.
“Whatever, Buck,” JD smiled. “I’ll see ya’ll tomorrow.” He flipped his collar up and headed for the door.
“Little shit’s gettin’ an attitude,” Buck commented, leaning back in his seat.
Vin chuckled, watching as Josiah took some money out of his wallet.
“Go home, Josiah…” Chris stopped him. “I’ll pay for the drinks.”
“You sure, Brother?”
“Yeah,” Chris smiled, and with a nod told the older agent to go home.
“Take it easy, brothers,” Josiah responded and left.
Chris fingered the base of his glass, thinking about a different time. He was glad everyone had talked him into coming, it was better than drinking alone at home. He rested his elbows on the table and slowly lowered his head, roughly running his fingers through his hair before slipping back into his seat.
“Ya’ll right?” Buck asked, the humor in his tone was gone, replaced with concern.
Slowly, Chris nodded. He looked toward Ezra and noted his silence. “You had the opportunity to kill him…why didn’t you?”
“Would you have?” Ezra asked outright. He wasn’t hiding, or pretending that Chris’ past was worthy of anymore concern or trepidation than his own.
Chris looked hard at the profiler: “Yeah,” he answered, “I would have. He killed her, maybe not directly, but he hired someone to do it. In the same position…I’d a killed him.”
“Then what separates you from him? He justified every murder and rape he ever committed…”
“But he killed your girl,” Buck pushed, trying to understand better.
“He killed a lot of people.” Ezra sighed and uncomfortably pushed himself up in his seat and then ran his fingers through his hair. “And he didn’t just kill ‘my girl’,” he replied sharply, painfully. “Premeditated murder is still murder, Mr. Wilmington. I’d be lying if I didn’t think about pulling the trigger when I had the chance…I did. But I also saw the faces of those victims, children that were so mutilated it took dental records to identify them…I’m not that man.”
“You mean Mason?” Buck asked.
Ezra nodded and looked blankly at the table before him. “You only saw a fraction of the mayhem Mason is capable of…and the thought of coming close to that…” he sighed, unable to continue.
“Why did you call her Li?” Vin asked, moving the direction of conversation. “Why not Pong…like it should have been?”
Ezra smiled, which lightened the mood at the table. “She spent most of her life here in the States and as a result, faced the ridicule of her heritage.”
Buck drank the last of his beer and listened intently to the story being told. He watched Chris and noted his interest as well.
“Her father called her Pong through grade school, but when she reached junior high…she insisted he call her Li. She informed him of being constantly referred to as the ping pong table…because she was flat chested.”
“That’s cruel,” Vin shook his head, all the while hiding his smile.
“So was she?” Buck pushed for an answer.
“What?” Ezra asked.
Chris shook his head with knowing disgust. “You completely lost the point of that story.”
“I did not,” Buck protested. “Ezra’s not a boob man…I can deal with that.”
A bowl of empty peanut shells was thrown across the table and chuckles escaped from the four remaining men. The night had suddenly grown long and the midnight hour was fast approaching. Inez stepped up to the table and smiled warmly. Her long brown hair glistened in spots under the yellowish lights in the room, and nothing seemed to faze her. She placed a tray filled with cups and a large pot of coffee onto the table.
“Inez,” Buck smiled and winked, “you’re an angel disguised as a barmaid.”
“I own this joint, senor, and I am no maid for anyone…particularly you.” She winked at Vin and smiled before heading back to the bar to tend her other customers.
“That woman is a bronc that needs broke.” Buck muttered watching her hips sway back and forth under her short skirt.
“Only in your eyes,” Vin commented, shaking his head. “You ain’t never goin’ to get near that one.”
“Wanna bet?” Buck challenged, keeping his eyes on the prize.
“I do like the sound of that word,” Ezra replied with a grin. He poured himself a cup of coffee and quickly started drinking the sobering substance.
“How much?” Buck asked, raising his eyebrows.
“Twenty,” Vin replied.
“Double that…you already owe me twenty,” Buck said with a grin.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” Ezra sighed, shaking his head, “a proper wager deserves a more civilized proposal.”
Chris raised an eyebrow while pouring himself a cup of coffee; this was going to be interesting.
“Civilized proposal?” Buck questioned, repeating Ezra’s words.
“A mere forty dollars for such an…impossible, endeavor deserves more thought and consideration… And we must have a time frame to avoid any overshadowing of favors.”
“This ain’t one of those poker rooms you were talkin’ about,” Vin added.
Ezra grinned: “Not hardly…however, it does merit the same thoughtfulness.”
“I’m in for forty,” Chris said, looking at his profiler with a grin on his face.
“Awe, enlightenment is a possibility for Cro-Magnon man,” Ezra replied with a grin. His eyes twinkled for the first time in weeks and his infectious grin was becoming more catching.
“I think I liked that reclusive Ezra better,” Buck muttered, grabbing forty dollars out of his wallet. “I get six weeks,” he said, holding his money in his hand.
“Better make it eight,” Vin replied with a laugh.
“Eight it is,” Ezra finalized the bet.
“You can’t tell her about the bet,” Vin added, placing his money on the table.
“A man like myself doesn’t need the lure of money to bait a woman,” Buck replied, looking toward the bar. He winked when Inez looked up at him and smiled. “Ya’ll are buyin’ us dinner…I can feel it.”
“When pigs fly,” Vin chuckled.
Buck rolled his eyes and watched as Ezra carefully folded the money together and slipped it into a secret compartment in his wallet. “You ain’t gonna spend that are ya?”
Ezra chuckled: “No, I invest.” He grinned while documenting the bet.
“So if you weren’t a law enforcement officer…?” Buck teased.
“I’d probably be running from the law,” Ezra replied in good humor.
“It is a fine line,” Vin added, shaking his head.
Chris chuckled and pushed himself away from the table. Considering the alternative, he was glad he came. Thankful that his men had the insight and audacity to get him here, he saw them for what they were…friends that were closer than brothers, and teammates that never left a man behind. He reached into his wallet and grabbed enough cash to pay for all the drinks.
“How do we get home?” Buck asked, rubbing his forehead.
“Call a cab,” Chris chuckled, getting to his feet.
“You’re a bucket of laughs, Larabee,” Buck responded, slowly following the group. He reached out and gently grabbed Chris’ arm, pulling him to a stop. Buck watched Vin and Ezra exit the saloon before saying anything. “I want to ask you somethin’ and I want—deserve an honest answer.”
Chris sighed, noting Buck’s seriousness. “Okay,” he answered softly.
“Why the affair with Mary?”
Chris took a long deep breath and thought hard about the question. How could he answer without causing more pain? He looked hard at Buck. “Because she wasn’t Sarah.” He sighed and turned his gaze to the window. “Mary’s bold, aggressive…she’s pushy. She dies her hair and shops at the expensive stores. She gets her nails done every weeks and looks the part of a D.C. reporter.” He paused, before continuing, “Sarah wasn’t like that…she sang off key in the shower, she bought shampoo that was on sale, not by the brand name.” He smiled and chuckled. “She used to buy toilet paper in bulk and she was always trying to lose that last ten pounds.”
Buck nodded, understanding better.
“I miss that about her—those stupid imperfect quirks that at times drove me nuts… Sarah was soft…she knew how to pick me up when I was down and kick my ass when I got too bull headed.” Chris smiled sadly. “I miss my wife…always will. What happened between Mary and I was something I had to go through—I’m not glad I did it, but I’m glad it was her that was there. I won’t apologize for it, Buck…and you need to realize, I’m just as human as the rest of you.”
Buck looked hard at his friend and saw his honesty. “Let’s go,” he said softly, heading for the door.
“Goodbye, senors,” Inez yelled, as the exit door was opened.
Buck turned and waved to the beautiful brunette. “To quote a classic Bob Segar song…Someday Lady You’ll Accompany Me…”
“To quote the master himself, Bob Dylan, It Ain’t Me Babe,” Inez yelled back, as Buck mimiced getting pushed out the door. She could hear him reciting Segar’s song and she could only shake her head in response. “You almost done, Sam?” she asked, moving on to her next customer.
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