China Roses

Book Four

by Beth AKA Midge

ATF Universe

Chapter 4

JD fingered the bullet holes to the Kevlar vest Ezra had been wearing. The young man didn't understand how someone could stand in front of a gun knowing it would go off. He looked at Ezra who sat across from him in the backseat of the SUV. The Southerner hadn't said a word since leaving the crime scene. He looked to the front seat and noticed Josiah and Nathan had also been quiet, probably trying to work things out in their own heads.

"How'd you know?" JD took a chance and asked. He saw Josiah eye him through the rear view mirror.

Ezra held his arm close to his chest feeling more fully the extent of the bullets that tried to end his life. "I didn't, Mr. Dunne."

"But you wore your vest. The whole office heard that fight you had with Chris a couple weeks back about why you don't wear 'em," JD insisted.

"Intuition," was the overly simplified answer. Ezra continued to look out the window at passing traffic hoping the jostling of the vehicle would soon end.

"But he could have shot you in the head?" JD turned the statement into a question trying to better understand the undercover agent.

"A head shot would have been to obvious. You must understand, Mr. Dunne." Ezra didn't look at the kid or acknowledge Josiah and Nathan. "Agent White shot me in the chest to give the possible appearance of something more than an attempted murder. There is 'more room to maneuver' if you will. The shot that killed White was meant to look decisive."

"I don't understand?" JD scratched his head.

"Dead men tell no tales," Josiah spoke up from the front seat and looked at Ezra through the rear view mirror. The Southerner nodded his head in conformation of Josiah's assessment.

Nathan looked at Josiah wondering if the big man knew more about what was going on than he was willing to admit, or if he just understood how truly trapped the undercover agent was. JD shook his head again wondering why someone like Ezra would even take the chance of standing before a man like White knowing what his intentions were.

+ + + + + + +

Chris entered the team's offices still angry. Vin and Buck stayed a safe distance behind the agitated leader and shook their heads when they saw questioning looks coming from Nathan and JD. The sound of Chris's door slamming made everyone jump.

"Chris has got his panties in a bundle," Buck gasped sarcastically, while falling back into the heavy chair Josiah usually claimed for his coffee breaks.

"How's Ez?" Vin looked to Nathan who seemed annoyed with the question.

"Damn fool," Nathan barked. "Try and get him to let me take 'im to the hospital to get those ribs x-rayed, but he won't have nothin' to do with doctors."

"But he's okay ain't he?"

"If he does like I said and take it easy for a couple days. I don't think he broke anything but he's bruised up pretty bad." Nathan headed back for the kitchenette for a refill of his tea.

"He might not be after Chris gets done with 'im," Buck said resting his feet on the empty box the team used as a coffee table.

"Did you guys find anything out?" JD asked, looking at the door to Chris's office.

"Hell no, kid. Whoever's behind this knows what they're doing." Vin headed for his office and stopped at the door. "Where's Ezra?"

"Went down to Research," JD answered. "Josiah went with 'im to keep and eye out."

+ + + + + + +

Josiah followed the Southerner up the stairs. Now would have been a good time to complain to maintenance that the elevators being out more times than not. He noticed how Ezra kept his left arm up tight next to ribs, running up and down these stairs wasn't doing him any good.

"You all right Brother?" Josiah asked noticing their slowing pace.

Ezra stopped and leaned against the stair railing clutching his ribcage. "Does this building not have any maintenance employees? And if it they not WORK?" he asked highly annoyed.

"Maybe that is something you can bring up with the Judge in our next meeting." Josiah smiled at the idea.

"I do not find your sense of humor amusing," Ezra sighed before heading back up the stairs.

Josiah chuckled when he heard Ezra utter a few words he'd never heard the Southerner say before. Obviously the man didn't like being in pain, but Josiah had warned him when they decided to go down to the basement that it was a safe bet they would be walking back up.

The Southerner opened the door to the offices and could tell right away things were tense. Buck, Vin, Nathan, and JD were all in front of the offices talking. Chris's door was closed. Josiah moved past the undercover agent to grab some much-needed coffee.

Chris swung the door to his office open, "STANDISH!" he yelled making everyone in the office wince in sympathy for the Southerner. "In my office now!" Chris moved away from the door and back to his desk expecting Ezra to follow him.

Ezra ignored the looks from his teammates and made his way to the team leader's office. He shut the door behind him and grabbed the closest chair. Chris seemed to watch his every move with such intensity it made the undercover agent wonder if he wasn't going to receive his walking papers.

"I want to know everything that's going on and I don't want any bullshit," Chris met Ezra's gaze with a glare.

"I don't know what's going on," Ezra responded unsure of what else to say.

"The fuck you don't!" Chris snapped throwing his pencil on his desk. Ezra watched until the pencil came to rest next to the computer keyboard. "Agent White tried to put two bullets into you today. And for a man who almost came to blows with me because he refused to wear a vest," Chris raised his eyebrows in accusation, "I'd say you either knew what was going to happen or you have the best instincts I've ever seen in a cop."

Ezra pulled at his slacks and returned his gaze to Chris. "I felt it would be in my benefit to wear a vest..."

"Don't bullshit me!" Chris yelled getting to his feet shoving his chair back until it hit the wall causing the pictures on the wall to move. "I can't have my men wondering who's going to be trying to put a bullet in their backs while they're working on a case." The black clad leader put his left hand on his hip and ran his right hand over his face.

"The only one at risk here is me," Ezra protested, unsteadily getting to his feet.

"Does this situation follow you from Atlanta?" Chris asked trying to move the conversation in a more directed path.

Ezra paused not sure which answer best reflected the question, for his benefit or that of Chris'. "I don't know," was the safe response.

Chris grabbed the water glass off his desk and threw it against the wall. He was frustrated with the undercover agent's answers, or lack of. Glass shattered and the water sprayed in all directions. "I need you to trust us. To trust this team." Larabee turned to look at Ezra who now stood next to his chair with his left arm tucked up tightly next to his chest.

"I can't." Ezra clenched his jaw.

"You can't or you won't?" The team leader challenged.

"I don't know who I can trust!" Ezra snapped taking a defensive stance. "I did my job. Nobody was injured and we got a truckload of weapons off the street. What more do you want?"

"You're a Federal agent. If you had any idea of what was going on with White you should have taken it up with me and if you couldn't with me you should have with someone in personnel," Chris continued to argue.

Ezra laughed sarcastically, "And just what do you think personnel would have done?" Ezra raised a speculating eyebrow. "Or have you forgotten that my word means nothing. I have a reputation here Mr. Larabee and the only way anybody is going to pay attention to what I have to say is if I have solid evidence. It won't work any other way."

Chris sighed and sat back down in his chair. "You could have come to me." Chris lowered his voice and looked back at Standish, "We're a team here Ezra. I have to count on you watching my back as much as you have to count on me watching yours. We won't be a team until that happens."

"Then why did you hire me?" the Southerner asked. It was the question he'd wanted to ask since Larabee had first hired him. He was sure everyone else in the building wanted an answer just as much as he did. Ezra noticed Chris's brow furrow. "There are plenty of available undercover agents out there who are as qualified as I am...and I'm sure they don't have the outstanding reputation that I carry."

Chris looked at his undercover agent while contemplating an answer. He knew that if he said the wrong thing that bridge the team had been trying to build would come crashing down. Despite the rumers, the smart assed comments, and refusal to trust his teammates, Chris liked the undercover agent. "None of the men sitting outside this office have a past they're comfortable with." He decided to be honest, while at the same time keeping his word to Harry. "I undercover agent who could do his job no matter what the circumstance entails. When I read your file...I knew you'd fit in."

Ezra rubbed his right temple, "It's not that I doubt your word, Mr. Larabee; it's the motivation behind it that concerns me."

Chris nodded his head in understanding and he knew when not to push. "I want you to stay with Josiah until this case gets cleared up. I don't want you taking any unnecessary risks." He didn't leave any room for debate.

"I don't need a babysitter," Ezra argued.

"Just because White is dead doesn't mean someone else won't take his place," Chris bit back.

"Whoever was behind this isn't idiotic enough to try something so soon. As for White?" Ezra paused looking at Chris knowingly. "He will be made to look like a hero, his family will get his pension, and the FBI will once again be cleared of any wrong doing." He turned and strode toward the door. "You're dealing with one of the most powerful law enforcement agencies in the world," the Southerner said turning back toward Larabee. "They know what they're doing," he opened the door and headed back to his office, again ignoring the looks from his fellow agents.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah knocked on Chris's door and entered before being invited to do so. The big man noticed the worried expression the dark clad leader sported. Josiah eased himself into the very chair Ezra had sat in and rested his elbows on his knees. "Are you all right Brother?" He asked in a low concerned voice. The whole team had heard the argument outside the office; there was something to be said about paper-thin walls.

"Hell, Josiah." Chris leaned back in his chair. "We've stepped into a huge pile of shit."

"Maybe," Josiah agreed nodding his head. "But who better to handle it." He looked at Chris and smiled. "I've known you five months and I don't believe you're one to back away from a problem."

"I don't even know what the problem is."

Vin stepped into the doorway and leaned against the doorframe. "I think Josiah's right," the sharpshooter offered up his opinion. "We shouldn't walk away from the problem...I think we're the last chance he's got."

"I won't argue that point with you Vin," Chris rubbed the back of his head. "I'm going to go talk to the Judge...Vin why don't you come with me." He got to his feet. "Josiah keep an eye on Ezra. Don't let him go home alone."

Chapter 5

Brandy, the secretary the team shared with Judge Travis, nodded to Chris and Vin indicating that the Judge was free and they could enter his office without interrupting anything important. The tall thin haired blonde winked at Vin and received a smile for her effort. She knew the Judge would be upset at her for failing to notify him prior to letting the two ATF agents enter his office.

Chris didn't knock. He entered the large office without being invited to do so. The Judge looked up from his paperwork and threw his glasses onto his desk realizing right away why Chris would barge in. He knew it would only be a matter of time before the team leader would want to speak with him. "Agent Larabee, Agent Tanner." Travis motioned for them to take a seat across from his desk.

"Judge." Chris made himself comfortable. "We have a problem..."

"Special Agent Carson came and talked to me about an hour ago," the Judge started before Chris could finish. "He said he had some concerns about the reports that will come out of your office, regarding the death of Agent White." He looked to both agents for conformation.

"And what does Carson think our reports are going to show?" Chris could feel his blood start to boil.

"Agent Larabee," the Judge reinforced. "A federal agent was killed today by an unknown assailant. Agent Standish was the only witness at the scene of the crime and from what I understand he was unconscious at the time of White's murder. In turn...this puts a questioning shadow over Standish's report."

"What?" Chris raised his eyebrows in speculation. "Agent Standish received two bullets in the chest from White's gun."

"Carson relayed that information to me." Travis leaned back in his chair, understanding Chris's anger. "He said White stepped in front of Agent Standish when he was hit in the head which in turn caused him to squeeze the trigger of his own weapon."

"This is bull," Vin objected getting to his feet.

"Have a seat Agent Tanner." The Judge leaned forward and rested his elbows on the desk. "This investigation will be examined by Internal Affairs. After...and I stress this point Agent Larabee...after all evidence has come to light, proper procedures will transpire. I am asking you as an officer of the law that you accept the outcome...regardless."

"So you're going to take Carson's word over mine or that of my teams." Chris rubbed his forehead in frustration.

"I am responsible for the actions you and your team make. The reports I fill out are scrutinized by this State's Federal Courts and if this team is going to succeed where others have failed I have to do my job." He looked hard and Vin and Chris. "I'm not concerned about your feelings, I am, however, concerned about results."

"So what am I suppose to tell my agent. That he was lucky he just happened to be wearing his vest," Chris snapped getting to his feet.

"You tell your agent what I told you," the Judge replied. "Until I have proof that something else happened at that warehouse today things stand as they are and that's the end of it." Judge Travis grabbed his glasses and violently placed them back on. "I'll expect your report by the end of the week." He went back to work not bothering to look up as Vin and Chris exited the room.

+ + + + + + +

Vin stormed out of the office not understanding the bureaucracy the Judge had to tolerate in order to do an almost impossible job. He pushed the door open with such force that it hit the outside wall and rattled the glass in the door window. "This is bull, Chris, and you know it," Vin ranted.

Chris silently agreed with the ranting sharpshooter. He stayed quiet realizing he didn't need to further fuel Vin's already shortened temper. In a way, it was a relief to see someone other than himself be outraged by the politics within the bureau. "Don't say anything about our discussion with the Judge." Chris grabbed the sharpshooter's shoulder and pulled him to a stop.

"It ain't like he didn't know what was going to happen," Vin snapped opening the door to the stairs.

"I mean it Vin," Chris warned. "Write up your report and say nothing about the Judge." Chris waited until he received a nod of the head from the Texan.

"It's still bullshit," Vin snapped then headed up the steps. "Why not tell the Judge about the conversation between White and Ez?" The sharpshooter stopped halfway up the steps and turned to look at Chris.

"What we heard over our headsets is to remain between us." Chris eyed Vin. "I don't want to give Ezra any more ammunition than he already has." He started up the stairs. "I need you to trust me on this."

Vin nodded his head in understanding, "Fine...but I still don't like it."

+ + + + + + +

Josiah looked through the plate glass window into Ezra's office. He noticed how the undercover agent went about filling out his reports as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. He was still in pain that much was obvious, but Josiah had to wonder. What was going through the Southerner's mind? And why did he refuse to trust his teammates? He'd been with the team for a little over two months, if time was what the undercover agent needed, time had been given. Josiah ran a hand over his face and scratched his gently graying beard.

Vin had been hesitant to trust anyone except Chris when he first joined the team. However, it only took a few weeks before the Texan felt comfortable, and Josiah knew a bond had been built. He understood the sharpshooter's hesitance. He'd been in and out of foster homes after the tragic death of his mother. He didn't trust anyone to watch his back, because he'd never had anybody to watch his back. When the first opportunity arose, with this team, he took it. The sharpshooter had staked his claim and he was a part of this team, good and bad.

Ezra, however, was a different story. There was only a couple years difference in Vin's and Ezra's age but they both had guarded feelings beyond their years, when it came to trusting others. As different as they both appeared on the outside, Josiah figured they were very similar on the inside. Ezra had attended as many boarding schools as Vin had foster homes. Ezra had lost his father when he was six in a tragic car accident. Vin's mother had perished after being hit by a car while walking her young son home from his baby sitters when he was just five. Neither man bothered to talk about their past and Josiah understood why.

The big man turned when he head the door to the stairs open. Chris and Vin came in disappointment written all over their faces. Apparently things did not go well with the Judge. "Vin, Chris," Josiah acknowledged.

"Anything happen while I was gone?" Chris looked to Josiah and then to Ezra.

"If I hadn't have been at the warehouse myself I wouldn't think anything was out of the ordinary." The big man threw the team leader a concerned look.

Chris nodded. "Judge wants our reports before the end of the week."

"What's the hurry?" Buck asked coming out of his office.

"They want this thing cleared up...and the sooner the better," the dark clad leader said before heading into his office.

"What the hell's that suppose to mean?" Buck griped looking to Vin for an answer.

Vin shrugged his shoulders and headed for the office he shared with Ezra. "Hell if I know." The sharpshooter slid disappointedly into his chair and looked across his desk to Ezra. "How're the ribs?"

"I'll live," the Southerner replied with a knowing smile. "Don't let the politics of this job detour you from doing what has to be done." He went back to typing.

"How'd you know it would turn out like this?"

"It's not the knowledge of knowing how it would turn out Mr. Tanner, but rather how things are rather slow to change." The Southerner hissed when he reached for the paper coming out of the printer.

"Here." Vin handed Ezra the paper and leaned back in his chair. "So this type of thing has happened before?"

Ezra smiled, "To many times to count, I'm afraid." A hint of disappointment laced his words and Vin caught it.

"The part about someone trying to take you out or the part about falsifyin' reports?" Vin smiled.

"Falsifying reports?" Ezra raised his eyebrows. "Surely you don't think FBI agents would try something so undignified, and as far as killing a fellow agent...that could have repercussions for more than just the assaulting agent." He laid it on the line showing Vin exactly what the Judge had been trying to tell him and Chris just minutes ago.

Chapter 6

Chris notified his team a week later that the Judge, as well as IA, had come to the conclusion that Agent White had been killed in the line of duty. As a result of being shot in the head Agent White had unintentionally squeezed the trigger of his weapon, resulting in Agent Standish being hit twice in the ribs by White's firearm. Because nobody witnessed what had happened and because there was only the sound of two shots being fired any determined intention to harm Agent Standish had been abandoned.

Chris and the team had stood by Ezra, who seemed to take the news without surprise. None of them had said anything about the conversation between the Southerner and Agent White. It was, Chris had argued, the only evidence that could prove White's true intentions, but Ezra had been adamant that they all remain quiet. If the Southerner trusted them with that, as far as Chris was concerned, it was a step in the right direction.

The team leader understood the position the Judge was in. He couldn't be anything but bipartisan and the Judge had done the only thing possible. He'd read all the evidence and relayed his concerns to Chris. The Judge was anything but inept and he understood the legitimacy behind Larabee's concern. Regardless, he had to side with the evidence and without the tape the evidence concluded that Agent White was innocent of any wrong doing.

Chris looked around the offices at his men. A group of men that, despite their differences, came together as brothers, even Standish in spite of his unwillingness to trust this team he seemed to be the missing piece to the puzzle. Chris smiled to himself when JD bounded in out of the elevator carrying two cups of hot coffee in his hands and a large 32oz bottle of Coke-Cola tucked between his arm and chest.

Buck and Vin followed, they seemed dumbfounded by the fact that JD preferred Coke to coffee. They had been discussing at length how it was probably beneficial, considering coffee had more caffeine than Coke.

"Hey Josiah," JD all but yelled, "coffee's here." The kid slid into Nathan's and Josiah's office with there espresso orders. "Vanilla latté's, double shot for Nate." He handed the coffee to the healer. "And a quad shot for Josiah." JD looked questionably at the big man. "How in the heck do you drink that stuff?" he asked referring to the four shots of espresso.

"Brother Dunne," Josiah smiled mischievously, "I grew up in the sixties, you've got to enjoy the legalized substances that are available."

"Whatever." JD quickly exited the office only to run into a young deliveryman. "Can I help you with something?"

"I have a package for..." The blonde looked down to his notepad. "Ezra Standish."

"I can sign for that," JD offered.

"Sorry, but it has to be signed by the addressee." The blonde held tight under his arm the thin package.

JD shrugged his shoulders and motioned for the deliveryman to follow. "Hey Ez." JD knocked on the office door grabbing Vin and Ezra's attention. "You got a delivery."

Ezra looked up from his computer, obviously not expecting a package. "Who's it from?" He looked questionably at the tall blonde in the blue uniform standing next to JD.

"Jules Mon... Montier," the blonde tried to pronounce the last name. He shrugged his shoulders and handed the Southerner his clipboard to sign.

Ezra smiled, "Montier," he properly pronounced while signing the conformation of delivery slip. The youth handed the thin manila packet and quickly headed out. Ezra looked at the familiar address on the outside of the envelope and smiled. Memories started flooding back of his time at the boarding school where he'd spent his sophomore and junior year. It had been the best two years of his life and he looked back on those years with fondness. His mother had insisted he attend a French boarding school. The idea hadn't appealed to the young Standish but at fifteen he didn't have a say in his upbringing. Being that Maude's new husband was a French Banker and had attended the very school Ezra was then attending didn't help matters any. He slid the letter and large photographs out of the envelope.

"What is it?" Vin questioned noticing the pleasant look the Southerner now sported.

Ezra looked at the photographs and smiled. During his stay at the boarding school he had been given the opportunity to exercise racehorses owned by the Dean of the institute, Jules Montier. A close friendship formed between student and teacher. Jules had taken the Southerner under his wing and allowed him to grow. China King had been Jules prized racehorse and to prove to the young Southerner how much he trusted the young man he allowed Ezra to be the soul caretaker of the animal. Jules noticed how close Ezra grew with the beast and he noticed how the horse, in turn, grew to trust him.

The photographs were of China King and Ezra on the track, the big powerful chestnut stallion in full stride. "Boy he could run," Ezra said in a low voice, fondly remembering how it felt to ride such an animal.

JD picked up one of the pictures and took a closer look. "This you Ez?" He looked to the Southerner who was now reading the letter written in French.

Ezra's eyes strayed from the letter and looked to the young agent. "Yes, Mr. Dunne."

"You were a jockey?"

"Hardly," Ezra chuckled. "I used to exercise racehorses while I attended a boarding school in France." He returned to reading his letter.

"Looks like me and you got more in common Ez," Vin smiled mischievously.

"What, pray tell, are you implying?" Ezra asked, looking up from his letter.

"Nothin'," Vin shrugged. "Just that when I was fourteen I went to live with an old retired cop, Doc and his wife Betty. They said I could live with 'em as long as I went to school, but they let me work their cutting stock." Vin smiled remembering back. "I have a horse, Mr. B, Doc gave 'im to me just before he died a couple years back."

"Vin keeps him out at Chris's ranch," JD added.

"That is truly a touching story Mr. Tanner but I do have a question," he waited until Vin nodded his head. "What kind of a name is Mr. B?"

"He comes from a line that Doc started. And Doc, well...he named the horse Mr. Peabody. Now I couldn't go and call Mr. B, Mr. Pea, considering he's a palomino an' all." Vin finished with a smile.

JD covered his mouth after he snorted, "Talk about writing your name in the snow." He laughed earning a chuckle from Vin.

Ezra rolled his eyes, "Saving the poor animal from a humiliating name does deserve some acknowledgement." Ezra smiled returning to his letter.

"What's everyone laughing at?" Buck asked entering the office. He noticed JD's red complexion and the sharpshooter's smile.

"Vin was just tellin' Ez about Mr. B." JD said leaning against the window in the office.

"You should let me tell you about my horse Tard," Buck smiled causing Vin to fall out of his chair in a fit of laughter and JD to spew the sip of Coke he'd just taken out all over his hands. "What?" He asked, looking around innocently.

Ezra shook his head trying desperately not to laugh. He sighed to himself in disbelief...he was working with Neanderthals. The Southerner shifted his gaze from JD, who was wiping his hands on his pant leg, to Vin who was trying to pick himself up off the floor in a semi graceful manner. Buck looked pleased with himself. The undercover agent went back to reading his letter and visibly paled when he got to the last paragraph.

"You all right Ez?" Vin asked, noticing the Southerners whitening complexion. The sharpshooter sat up straighter in his chair and looked to JD and Buck when Ezra didn't respond.

Ezra read the last paragraph again not quite believing what it was he was reading. He quickly got to his feet. "Shit," he muttered then looked around the room before hastily making his way to the elevator. When the doors to the elevator didn't open quick enough the Southerner took the stairs.

"What's goin' on?" Chris asked, slipping out of his office while putting his jacket on. He saw the look on the Southerner's face that brought him some concern.

Vin shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. "He was just reading a letter then rushed out of here like a fire'd been lit under 'im." The sharpshooter headed to the elevator noticing the doors opening, "I'm goin' to find out what's goin' on." He looked to the others. "You comin'?"

+ + + + + + +

Ezra reached the first floor and burst through the doors. He looked casually around the entryway trying not to create attention and slipped through the front doors of the building. He shrugged his shoulders when he saw the horse trailer and obviously distressed driver leaning against the door to his truck. Painted in big black letters on the trailer and drivers side door of the truck was 'The Cross Country Horse Transportation Co'.

"You Ezra Standish?" the short stocky man asked. Though his clothing was clean, it was well worn. The front of the man's jeans were lighter from years of bucking hay bales and the plaid work shirt's buttons strained to maintain their hold on the impressive beer gut. Sweat stained the hat rim of his cowboy hat and his beard made it almost impossible to tell if he really had a neck, or if his head came directly out of his shoulders.

"Yes," the Southerner sighed, "I'm Ezra Standish."

"Good," he retrieved a packet from within the confines of the truck. "My name's George Thomson, I own this outfit." He handed Ezra the package. "I'm suppose to drop this filly off for you. I have explicit instructions that only you take her." He watched as the Southerner looked through the package that contained a pedigree, health records, and the filly's registration papers. "Brought her all the way from Boston," George continued. "Where do you want her delivered?"

Ezra looked at the man questionably. "I don't have the facilities to care for a horse."

"Well, you'd better damn well get some," George protested, "I have another pickup in the morning. I don't have time to sit around here and wait for you to make up your mind."

+ + + + + + +

Chris, Vin, JD, Buck, Nathan, and Josiah all gathered outside the front of the Federal Building. "What's goin' on?" Chris asked the men around him then looked at his undercover agent who seemed to be arguing with the driver of the rig parked out in front of the building.

"Looks to me like Brother Ezra has got himself a horse," Josiah said, noticing the brown muzzle poking out of a narrow gap in the horse trailer.

"I bet he wouldn't never have signed for that delivery if he'd known this was part of it," Vin laughed watching the distressed Southerner.

Ezra glanced back and glared at his fellow teammates. He would have to seek his revenge in a careful manner. He looked to George who was now standing with his hands on his hips.

"My instructions are to deliver this horse to you...if I have to unload her here I will, if you have someplace to take her...fine, but either way I have to get this done and be on my way." George started to move to the back of the trailer.

"You cannot possibly leave this animal here, in downtown Denver no less," Ezra protested, following the driver to the back of the trailer.

JD stepped up to the side of the trailer and stuck his hand through the narrow slot and smiled when he felt the velvety nose sniff his hand. "Watch your hands there young'in," George snapped. "She's got one hell of a bite." He opened the back gate. "She's kicked my trailer to pieces, didn't think I was going to make it with all the racket she was causin' back here."

Ezra sighed and ran his hand over his face. The three-year-old liver chestnut filly was cramped in the confined space of the trailer and the undercover agent shook his head in disbelief. Coming all the way from Boston it was no wonder she had put up the protest that she had. Ezra moved past George and stepped into the horse trailer disregarding the smell or manure that was caked to the floor. He looked again to her registration papers; 'The China Rose' was her name. Her sire was China King and her dam was Rose'adante. Jules had sent the filly as a gift, he wanted Ezra to have a part of his past that wasn't tarnished. So Jules Montier paid to have the animal sent to the states from France, he knew that once she was past the three months of quarantine nobody would treat her as well as the Southerner. Ezra stepped up to the thoroughbred filly and rubbed her withers, she couldn't get her head around to look at him because of the divider, but she seemed to accept his touch without question.

Chris stepped up to the back of the trailer and looked inside, surprised that the Southerner didn't hesitate to walk through the manure to get to the mare. "You can board her out at my place," Chris offered resting his foot on the floor of the trailer. "I got six horses of my own and Vin and Buck both board with me, and..." the team leader smiled, "I charge a reasonable rate."

Ezra looked back to Chris, "As much as it pains me Mr. Larabee," a touch of annoyance laced his words, "I believe I will have to take you up on your offer."

Chris smiled and stepped away from the trailer as he looked at his watch, "It's a quarter to five." He looked around to his men, "I guess we can call it an early day." Chris watched as Ezra exited the trailer and noticed the filly nicker at his absence.

George closed the gate relieved he had someplace to drop the troublesome burden. "Where do I go?" He looked at Chris and then to Ezra.

"You can follow me," Chris offered. "I'll be in the dark gray Dodge Ram, I'll honk when I'm ready," the team leader grabbed the Southerner by the elbow and pulled him aside. "Are you going to come out and take care of this animal?"

"No, Mr. Larabee, I intend to abandon her," sarcasm dripped off his words.

"Good," Chris smiled. "Make sure you stop and get some beer." The team leader started to walk away, "Make sure it's a good brand...I hate that shit Buck drinks."

"Hey Ez." Buck hit the Southerner in the shoulder. "What do you like on your pizza?"

Ezra looked at Buck realizing he'd just been conned. "Cheese, Mr. Wilmington, I like cheese on my pizza." The Southerner shook his head as he headed for his car; he could hear JD and Buck debating on how many pizzas to purchase. Nathan muttered under his breath, hoping Ezra's newly acquired filly was broke and Vin and Chris walked side by side, apparently pleased with themselves.

Josiah smiled and jogged to catch up with the Southerner, "You can follow me out to the ranch." He offered knowing Ezra had never been there.

"I'm not inept at following instructions," Ezra replied under his breath.

"Never said you were," Josiah smiled again catching the Southerner's comment. "He's got quite a place up in the mountains, beautiful riding country." He tried to strike up a conversation.

"I have never made a habit out of visiting my employer at his home, or that of fellow employees."

"We're not just coworkers here Ezra." Josiah pulled the undercover agent to a stop. "We're a team and we're friends. And if we were all married Buck would be trying to talk us all into swinging," the big man laughed.

Ezra looked at Josiah like he'd been sucker punched, "God forbid!" The Southerner smiled and raised his eyebrows, "For a man who almost became a priest, Mr. Sanchez, you know quite a lot about...shall we say...the more liberal views of married life."

Josiah's baritone laugh echoed throughout the parking garage. "Well Brother, that's why the word 'almost' has a special meaning in my life."

Chapter 7

Ezra pulled his Jag to a stop behind Josiah's dark blue Chevy Blazer. He was surprised to see Chris talking with George, the driver, apparently discussing who would be removing the horse out of the trailer. Nathan had gone back up to the offices just to make sure everything was closed up. He wanted to return home and change his clothing before heading out to the ranch. JD and Buck were still picking up pizzas, and from Josiah's description, that would take a while. Apparently Buck had a crush on the cashier. Vin had gone to the store to grab some much needed 'munchies'; if he didn't have his beef jerky the world would soon come to an end, and Vin intended to be eating jerky when that time came.

The Southerner handed Chris two bags full of beer. "Imported," Chris smiled looking at the green bottles.

"You said get some good beer, and I quote 'I hate the shit Buck drinks', this is defiantly not what Mr. Wilmington consumes." Ezra raised his right eyebrow, knowing for a fact that what comes out of Inez's tap wouldn't even be legal except for the fact that it's served almost exclusively to cops.

Chris smiled, "You can put your horse in the end stall." He pointed to the barn. "You might want to let her run around a bit in the arena before you do."

"That's if you can get her out of the damn trailer," George said opening up the back gate. "She damn near ripped me a new asshole the other day."

Josiah chuckled at Ezra's expression. The Southerner gave the driver a look of 'you probably deserved it' before reaching into his coat pocket for a sugar cube. "Should I get the camera?" the big man asked receiving a glare from the undercover agent.

Chris stood next to the team strategist to watch the show. It had been a long while since they witnessed a rodeo, even though Ezra wouldn't be riding, from what Chris had heard from George it was enough to think the Southerner should have worn gloves. "I hope Nate brings his first aid kit," the team leader leaned over and said to Josiah, who only chuckled in response.

Ezra stepped up into the trailer and ran his hand up along side the nervous filly. He touched her rump then moved up her back to her withers and finally managed to reach around the divider and untie her from the tie-hook. China Rose, or China, as the Southerner had come to call her, stood still accepting his touch without a fight. She had the same nerves as her sire, and she reacted to people in the same manner that people reacted to her. China King had been very much the same. Ezra unhooked the divider and carefully led the excited mare out of the trailer. She jumped down the step and relaxed a bit when she hit solid earth. Ezra quickly offered her the sugar cube and she ate it greedily. She responded to the sound of horses nickering from the barn with a nicker of her own and pawed the ground impatiently. Giving the filly the respect she commanded Ezra led her to the barn with George, Josiah and Chris right behind him.

Chris looked at the mare with a practiced eye. She was tall, a little over sixteen hands, if he had to guess. Her short back, long belly and the angle of her shoulder gave him the impression that she could truly run. She was built a little thicker than most thoroughbreds, but it added to her appeal. A long neck, small head and large eye added to her already impressive conformation. The only fault Chris could find with the filly was the slightly cow hawked hind legs and even then it wasn't bad enough to warrant any concern.

Ezra opened the piped gate and unhooked the lead rope. China took off without baulking to stretch her cramped legs. She ran from one end of the arena to the other tossing her head, kicking her heels, and nickering to the other horses.

Chris noticed the smile that etched itself onto the undercover agent's face. It wasn't forced, or conniving, but genuine and it reached his eyes. "You got yourself a good lookin' horse there Ezra." Chris rested his arms on the top railing of the arena fence. "She's got some good breeding behind her."

"Mr. Standish." George stuck his hand out and Ezra shook it without hesitance. "I'll leave you my card." He reached into his wallet. "If you ever need to transport a horse give me a call." He slapped the Southerner on the shoulder then headed out of the barn.

Josiah stifled a chuckle when he saw the filly roll and cover herself in dirt and sand. She stood up, shook, and again ran around the arena. Chris was right in his assessment, she was beautiful. She also looked like a handful. It would be interesting to see how the Southerner took on the role of a horseman. The filly trotted over and nuzzled Ezra's arm and the Southerner complied by giving her a sugar cube. He stroked her muzzle and scratched under the nose strap of the halter. Josiah looked up when Vin entered the barn followed closely by Nathan.

China reached over the top of the fence to look at the new comers, her ears perked forward in interest. Vin reached up to stroke her nose but instead she nibbled at his jerky smelling fingers, "She's sure a pretty thing Ez." Vin moved aside allowing Nathan to get a better look at her.

Nathan reached into the plastic bag and pulled out a couple carrots. "Rain sent 'em," the healer replied noticing the questioning looks being directed towards him. "She said they'd spoil if they didn't get used up." He couldn't help but smile when the filly nudged him for more.

"Did that Montier guy give her to ya?" Vin asked stepping up to the stall next to the arena that contained his horse Mr. B.

"Yes, Mr. Tanner." Ezra snapped the lead rope to China's halter and led the now blown filly out of the arena.

Chris opened the empty stall across from Vin's horse and held the gate open for the Southerner who led the filly in. "What's her name?" Chris asked. "So I can properly address her."

"China would be appropriate I believe." Ezra stepped aside as Chris closed the gate. The young mare sniffed curiously at the stall before exiting out the back door into the small paddock outside.

"Well Brothers," Josiah boomed. "I need a beer." He put his hand on Nathan's shoulder and steered him out of the barn and toward the house.

Vin gave his palomino, Mr. B, a pat on the face before nodding to Chris and exiting behind Josiah and Nathan.

Chris hung back and watched as the others headed to the house. "I keep the hay in the loft, there's grain in the tack room." He watched as Ezra leaned against the stall door and nod his head in acknowledgement, "You gonna break her yourself?" Chris asked noticing how quiet the Southerner had become.

"Are you offering?" Ezra asked raising his eyebrows.

"A few years ago...I would have." Chris chuckled, "Now, however, I hire a kid down the road. He's real good, doesn't have a mean bone in his body."

"Everybody has a mean bone, Mr. Larabee." Ezra disagreed before looking back into the stall.

Chris nodded his head understanding the Southerner's meaning. "The Judge did what he had to do." He looked for some kind of a reaction that would tell him something about the undercover agent. It was driving Chris mad knowing Ezra not only expected but tolerated the 'smear campaign' that seemed to rise up against him.

Ezra smiled when his filly trotted back into the stall. "The Judge did what was safe." He rubbed China's nose. "I learned a long time ago what matters most are the ideals of the majority."

"You think this whole thing was planned against you?" Chris leaned against the stall looking curiously at his undercover agent.

"No." Ezra shook his head and gave the filly the last sugar cube he had.

"Then why not let the Judge know what was said between you and White?" Chris asked, needing an answer for keeping vital evidence out of his team's reports.

"Your faith in the system is breathtaking to say the least," Ezra replied. "When I was twenty two I was recruited by the FBI. I didn't even think twice about taking them up on their offer, it wasn't what my mother had in mind for me, which suited me just fine. I went through the academy and almost immediately they started me on undercover work and I enjoyed it. Gave me a chance to use my 'God given talents' if you will. Six years later the rumors started to fly, I didn't realize it at the time but I had stepped into something I obviously wasn't suppose to have." Ezra looked at Chris, "When you hired stepped in it as well."

"What is it exactly that we've stepped into?" Chris raised a speculating eyebrow.

Ezra raised his eyebrows. "I don't know." He shook his head in defeat.

"Well..." Chris stood up and slapped the undercover agent on the shoulder. "We're not going to figure it out here in the barn. Besides, we should get to the house before Buck and Josiah drink all the beer."

"I'll follow in a bit." Ezra watched as Chris nodded his head in understanding then slowly headed to the house. The Southerner once again looked back to the stall containing his newly acquired equine and sighed. How was he to believe things would be different here than in Atlanta because in Atlanta he'd thought he found a place to belong as well.

The End

Please send comments to:

Continues in: Brothers in Arms