Retribution, Seven Style
Harper telephoned AD Travis and he sounded pleased to hear from her, agreeing to see her immediately. She left the Training Complex and proceeded to his office to find him patiently waiting for her. As usual, she read nothing in his guarded expression.
"What can I do for you, Harper?" He motioned her to have a seat. Her call surprised him; he was planning to speak to her later today but she saved him the summons.
"An incident just occurred in my office, sir, and you need to be aware of it," she began carefully. She schooled her features into a blank mask.
He leaned back in his chair, not liking the sound of this. Usually, Harper handled things herself and he received the incident reports later from her supervisor in the Training Division. He also noted her stiff posture and red hands. Team 7 had better not have anything to do with this, he told himself, if they knew what was good for them. Maybe she found that surveillance equipment; if she did, the boys would attend every black tie function the Assistant Director could arrange for the duration. He did not need them jeopardizing his plans. "What type of incident?"
"Agent Mentral confronted me regarding his status. After I officially protested his absence, Agent Jefferson chose to cower in his office yet demanded that I explain his agent's status. I detailed for Agent Mentral the steps followed and general reasons for his current status, at the conclusion of which he lost his temper and took two swings at me before tackling me. Agents Tanner and Wilmington pulled him off and Agent Jefferson knocked him out. However, Agents Tanner and Wilmington witnessed him tackle me and take me to the floor of my office. Agents Jefferson, Larabee, and Jackson observed him on top of me just after the tackle."
He knew it; his boys were involved. The AD turned over her summary in his mind and found himself inwardly pleased though not a flicker of emotion showed on his face. Down deep in his bones, he felt secure that Team 7 would now protect her, especially considering today's actions.
This was precisely the outcome he desired. He could have 'gently reminded' Chris of the CPR recertification before Harper made it an issue but he wanted her riled. In addition, he wanted her thinking she did him a favor by making a special class.
AD Travis eventually rationalized that yelling at Chris was a perk of the job and an excellent stress reliever. Not that Chris was innocent, especially after that scathing e-mail so thoughtfully forwarded to his attention by the woman waiting patiently across from him. Nevertheless, it set events in motion. Larabee went into that class tired and pissed off and Harper was spoiling for a fight. Orin Travis guessed his people skills were not as rusty as he originally thought.
The older man wished he could have seen the dummies she made up to look like his boys and their reactions. One of the administrative aides saw them before Team 7 cleaned up and spread the word. His assistant told him after hours, knowing he would appreciate the joke.
Instead of being enraged at their frivolity, he was secretly pleased because he knew that his plan was starting to come together. Harper practically told him she intended on starting something and he knew his boys would have their retribution. He and Harper also knew about JD's numerous attempted hacks into her background. The young man's incredible skills testified as to how good he was to get as far as he did undetected by the main system. However, her past required heavy safeguards, one of those alerting her whenever her name was typed into any system remotely attached to their multiple servers worldwide. The result was a less-than-cordial twenty-minute conference ordering her to stand down before she dismembered Agent Dunne for prying.
If he knew his boys as well as he thought he did, they would consider themselves her personal tormentors and guardians. His boys became enormously territorial regarding what they considered 'theirs' and protective to the extreme.
Once the others learned of her new 'guardians', things might be easier on her. He needed to encourage them in the right direction and Research gave him a method. It did not surprise him that Jefferson allowed Mentral to go down alone; Jefferson could not stand her and probably felt no remorse that his agent attacked her. "You all right?"
Harper managed a wan smile. "Yes, thank you."
"The official statements are forthcoming?"
"Yes, sir." He asked a few more questions, gaining a better understanding of the incident, and taking notes for follow up interviews. Unfortunately, Mentral's reaction was expected but Travis wished Agent Jefferson acted more responsibly in this matter instead of the braying ass the AD knew him to be.
A short time later, he changed the subject. "I have a special assignment for you."
"What's that?" Guardedly, she stared at him. She handled ninety percent of the special details with ease but that ten percent kept her on her toes.
"I'll need you to baby-sit for the next month."
"Baby-sit who?" Her chin came forward and her eyes assessed the Assistant Director. Although officially assigned to the Training Division, her unique status placed her under the joint supervision of the Training Division and Assistant Director Travis, making the AD able to give her special projects.
"Team 7." He waited for her reaction.
"Oh no." Her head shook side to side. How did she know he was going to say that?
He nodded. "I'll need you to prepare and teach the classes they need over the next thirty days. They are already aware of it. Will this be a problem?" His eyes twinkled, unofficially aware of the current slew of pranks going back and forth and dared her to contradict him.
Harper pasted on a smile. "Not at all, sir."
He saw through it and smiled internally. "Good. I will handle the Mentral situation. Much obliged for keeping me promptly informed; you know IA will probably want to talk to you." His tone suggested dismissal.
"Yes, sir." Taking her cue, she stood and returned to her office. The incident with Mentral left a bitter taste in her mouth so her thoughts had not been on lunch. Glancing at the clock in her office, she realized this might be her only opportunity so she opened her refrigerator in search of something to eat. She told herself preparing lunch would help her relax and just might help stop the headache forming in her muscles and transmitting nasty, painful messages to her brain.
Deciding she was really hungry, she made a thick bologna sandwich, piled high with meat and mustard, taking a bite as she sat behind her desk. Her eyes immediately watered. Her mouth set on fire. All of it caused by hot, extra spicy, Dijon mustard. Coughing, she reached for her water bottle and tipped it back, hoping the icy liquid would chill the burning sensation in her mouth. Ice-cold vinegar slid down her throat. Vinegar? Talk about a bitter taste! She immediately stood and spewed it into her trashcan. Her mind considered how attractive she probably looked making faces and spitting out drinks. Jerking open the small door of her refrigerator, she noticed the rest of the bottles were unopened; just the one she used periodically throughout the morning bore the taint. The smell filled the office, getting thicker in the confined space.
Now more than aggravated, Harper checked the rest of the items in her refrigerator for tampering. Screwing up her courage, she sampled each one. The mayonnaise was finely blended cottage cheese; the ketchup was super spicy guaranteed-to-burn-your-face-off hot sauce; the lemonade made without sugar; the miniature pitcher of iced tea contained a brew three times the strength; and finally the ice trays reeked of vinegar. Not counting they took every napkin from sight, replaced the black pepper with cayenne, the salt with sugar, the sugar with salt, and removed all her utensils except the set she brought with her that morning.
Glaring directly into the cameras, she growled, "I hope you're enjoying this," unaware of the unmanned recorders while Team 7 enjoyed their own nice, peaceful lunch at the nearby diner. She walked to the local deli and bought lunch deciding they could not tamper with her food there. In addition, it would give the fan a chance to clear out the overpowering odor of vinegar.
They just missed her leaving so instead enjoyed the video playback of her face twisting as the various tastes assaulted her mouth. The next phase went into play during real time while she walked to the deli.
This time, Ezra, JD, Josiah, and Chris entered her office, each with their own agenda. JD modified his programs on her computer, Chris decorated, and Ezra initiated his own brand of revenge. Josiah snooped; if everyone else was acting juvenile, he could be just as delinquent. Besides, he rationalized, this was research.
Harper returned from the diner full and content, the tastes of spicy mustard and vinegar a not-so-distant memory. Cautiously she opened her door and found her office violated again but at least it had a much-weakened smell. She questioned why she bothered locking it.
Across her desk, a barrage of Dixie cups covered every conceivable surface. Each cup held almost an inch of water and someone stapled every cup to its neighbor. "Cute. Real cute." On the supply closet door was a full sized color poster of a mythical Harpy, her face blown up and tacked over the print's.
First things first - the cups. After considerable thought and a few false starts, she figured a way to remove the paper cups and the water involving a backboard and infinite patience without spilling any on her desk. Once that disappeared, she dropped into her chair. Only to hear the damn whoopee cushion go off again.
Ripping it out from under her seat, she tossed it on the desk and unlocked her computers, using the two systems to run different programs simultaneously. Trying to open them, she realized they blacked out her monitors. Turning up the contrast, she used the mouse to open the word processor program.
More correctly, she tried using the mouse. The mouse refused to cooperate. Flipping it, the ball's hatch sported a piece of duct tape across it. Ripping that off, she found the ball missing. With a scowl, she scanned the room and found it. It currently hung (along with her other mouse ball) as a strategically placed matched set on the Harpy poster.
"Wrong kind, Larabee. They should be brass." Carefully easing them off as not to ruin the poster, she fixed the devices and dropped in her chair again. This time, the loosened screws and supports gave. It tipped over, tossing her onto her back and butt. "Ouch."
Lunch had been enjoyable and now the entertainment added to the fun of the day. Watching her think about removing the water and cups from her desk almost sent them into insensibility. Ezra found perverse joy in her removal of duct tape.
Chris lost control as she said, "Wrong kind, Larabee. They should be brass." He sputtered on his drink and nearly dumped it down the front of Vin's shirt. Only the sharpshooter's quick reflexes kept him from wearing the leader's drink in his hair.
"Hey cowboy, watch it. Yer supposed ta drink it, not throw it."
Chris smirked at him then burst out laughing as Harper hit the floor. He crossed his booted feet up on the table and vaguely wondered how she knew it was him that doctored the poster. A curious smile remained in place as he watched her pull herself off the floor.
Nathan winced. "That had to hurt," he commented.
"I remember that position," Buck said. "Yeah, when I put her there yesterday."
"Before or after she took you out ground fighting?"
"Shush, JD." He waved his hands for silence. "Let me enjoy the moment." Buck closed his eyes and smiled.
"Moment's over," Josiah told him. "Watch."
"I intend to, Mr. Sanchez, do I ever intend to."
Once upright, chair located behind her on her right side, she rubbed her back absently with her left hand while her other hand tried opening her top desk drawer for a screwdriver. It would not open. Yanking harder on it only resulted in her feet slipping and her sliding under her desk with a loud thud.
"Safe!" Buck played the part of the umpire and signaled the classic baseball gesture to the howling amusement of the others.
One hand plopped on the top followed by the other as she scooted out from beneath the desk on her backside. She stared at the drawers. Duct tape. Every drawer sported the gray impossible to remove, left as a message, duct tape. Standish, her mind identified as the culprit, that southern pain in the ass. Okay, she told herself, this meant war.
She guessed the slippery plastic sheeting beneath her desk came from them as well, hastening her slide. She ripped it up first then worked on the drawers. Once she freed them, Harper used the screwdriver to tighten the loosened bolts on her chair.
Chair situated, plastic removed, duct tape taken care of, Harper felt confident enough to sit at her desk and finally unlock her computer. She stared at the screen and her lips twitched. The computer whiz turned the screen around so everything read backwards and it appeared she looked at the program from inside the computer. Dunne went on her retaliation list right below Standish and Larabee and the jerk(s) responsible for her ruined meal.
Once Harper fixed that, she opened their profiles again to complete her review of their needs and started humming. After that, she wrote her statement about Mentral, hating this part of her job but knowing it needed doing. At exactly two o'clock, the heating system for the building gave one last hurrah and a humph sounded through the building. She welcomed the heat after such a chilling morning.
Something caught her eye. A sparkle, just off to her left. Wait - there went another one. And a third. She tipped her head back and saw the glitter flowing from her vent. Red, purple, blue, silver, green, black, and orange glitter fluttered around her, covering everything in its path. She could not help it; she laughed then quickly closed her mouth because of the glitter falling everywhere and going up her nose. She immediately thought of a payback.
When the heat finally kicked off at two thirty, she found herself coated in glitter, the sugar garden now sported multi-colored snow, and everything sparkled. She felt it was the time to brave; no, tame, she corrected herself, the den of the lions. Using stealth, she left her office, weaved through the hallways, up through the atrium, across the corridors, and into the main part of the Federal building without being detected by Team 7. To them, she dropped off the edge of the earth, or at least their surveillance.
"Where is she?" Buck was unnerved not seeing his target on the screens.
"Don't know," Vin answered, savoring the rich, chocolate chip cheesecake he brought back from lunch. Their statements on the incident in her office were finished and they were now relaxing for a few minutes.
"If you're looking for me, I'm right here," Harper announced from the doorway. Buck killed the screen, flashing his most charming smile at her as a door slammed in the background. Specifically, the door for Chris Larabee's office.
"What brings you up here, darlin'?" The rogue tried not to laugh at her sparkling hair and shimmering skin. The black jacket glowed from the different colors. Vin smirked. JD laughed aloud, Ezra gave a satisfied Cheshire grin, and the two questionably sanest smiled.
"Other than catching you in the act of spying on me?" Her face never changed expression. Glitter fell to the floor as she breathed.
"Now, darlin', you know..." He looked at the others for help; they were finding the ceiling or the floor more interesting than facing the Harpy's wrath. A dark scowl swept his supposed friends.
Harper hid a smile. "I know you are trying to pay me back for the CPR class. A little retribution? I'd hoped you'd be more creative." Her hazel gaze challenged each face that popped up at her mention of the word retribution. "However, the day is still young. My main reason for being here is obtaining your signatures." She handed each person a manila folder and by extension glitter, catching and holding Vin's blue eyes. Lowering her voice, she leaned forward so only he could hear. "Agent Tanner, I expected more from you. Your reputation almost rivals mine. Ah, well, it's up to you to prove me wrong." Her grin held a challenge and his slow answering smile showed him ready, willing, and able in taking it.
She turned back to the group at large. "What you have in your hands is a list of training classes all of you have dodged over the last year. The seven of you must complete the courses within the next six months and I need your signature stating you accept the selections and will comply."
Josiah looked up from his list, surprised at finding three seminars regarding human nature/psychology, suicidal subjects, and suspect profiling he truly wanted to attend. Each year, he put in for the classes and never received approval because of the cost. "Agent Harper, I see classes on here I've been denied before. You sure this is right?"
A smile graced her face. "It's correct, Agent Sanchez. I reviewed the lists of past and present requested classes by each agent and arranged attendance for those who qualified as needing them for their jobs."
"Wow! I get to go to the computer convention on company time! This is sweet," JD exclaimed, his eyes wide with anticipation. The second listed workshops while the third paper explained about requisitions and what he'd need to place orders with the companies he spoke with. Something about a duly authorized ATF representative required to countersign. He scrawled his signature and gave her the papers.
"You'll need to attend a number of workshops as well, Agent Dunne. I hope you'll find the ones selected for you appropriate; unfortunately I have been unable to corral your leader to review these files before today's deadline."
Ezra found himself scheduled for multiple classes in a variety of topics: Undercover Operations (five different subjects), Surveillance Techniques, Profiling, and a class entitled Essential Street Survival Skills. "Pray tell, Agent Harper, what does Essential Street Survival Skills encompass?" He had never heard of it.
She chuckled. "Agent Standish, may I approach?"
Harper slowly kneeled beside his left arm and whispered in his ear, "It's sleight of hand, illusions, hiding weapons, fighting dirty, creative storytelling, lying on the spot, camouflage, and all the other things undercover operatives do daily to blend in. It's taught by a team of twenty-year-plus undercover veterans from fifteen different agencies."
Green eyes lit with anticipation. Potentially learning all the little tricks of the trade from professionals added to Mother's educational tips and his personal repertoire sounded very lucrative.
Harper whispered one more thing in his ear. "Take plenty of money with you; you'll lose most of it in the poker and gambling tournaments."
"Perish the thought," he replied with a gold tooth grin.
"Truth hurts." She straightened and took his papers after he signed. Ezra flicked the sparkles off his Armani with a scowl.
"Could you please shed elsewhere?" he complained. Her non- verbal response was to come over and shake her head so most of it fell on him before stepping away. "Really, Agent Harper, you must do something about that dandruff problem. I can recommend a specialist if you like." He started taking it and tossing it in the concentrating sharpshooter's hair. Vin was engrossed in his folder and paid no attention.
"No thank you, Agent Standish; I believe I will recover posthaste." Unlike all of you when I am through with you, she thought to herself.
Nathan signed his with a flourish; he was immensely pleased his requests finally found a pair of ears that truly listened. "I'm grateful, Harper." He handed her the forms.
"Don't be grateful, Nathan; learn something. That's all the payment I need. From all of you; I want you to use this."
Vin read slowly and carefully through his list, working through the words with his fingers, discovering classes in advanced ground fighting, intimidation techniques, long range weapons training, close quarters combat (armed and unarmed), undercover operations specializing in bodyguard training, and Essential Street Survival Skills. All in all, everything he'd need to be better at his job. He wondered about Essential Street Survival Skills but figured he would hit Ez up later for answers. "Nice choices, Harper."
"I try." Her hand accepted his packet.
Buck caught Vin's look and cleared his throat. "Harper, I've got a question for you."
"You have any more of those self-defense refreshers coming up?"
"Perhaps. Are you volunteering?"
"Well, Vin here likes to watch."
"Sounds kinky, Agent Tanner. I'll need to add that to your habits in your profile."
"That ain't true," he immediately defended himself as the scoundrel shook his head in disagreement. "Buck," he hissed. Blue eyes narrowed in warning as he flushed. Glitter fell in his face and he flicked it at the resident lothario.
"Now Vin..." The mustached man was enjoying this.
Harper laughed. "I'd bet he'd want to go against Roxanne, especially after the number she pulled on you yesterday. Am I correct, Agent Tanner?"
"Yes, ma'am." He shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
"Well now, we have a situation here that could be mutually beneficial for both of us."
Ezra disliked that look.
"You see, I have a large class next Wednesday and I need help."
Buck sighed in resignation. "Punch dummies?"
"Not exactly. Saying all of you agree, I would like Agents Tanner and Wilmington to help Roxanne in going through the moves with the students while I certify each person. This way I have instructors and dummies. Afterward, I will close the facility for a private session. I'm guessing wagers will be placed given Agent Standish's reputation."
The undercover operative saw right through her statements. She meant the sharpshooter and the surveillance expert would teach while the rest wore that dreadful, cumbersome padding. Before he could deny her, Vin spoke.
"Sounds fine, ma'am."
"Good. I'll expect all seven of you at one on Wednesday."
"All right," JD said excitedly about this training.
Josiah intoned, "I'll be there."
"Might be fun," the medic added.
Vin patted Ezra on the shoulder from behind, letting more sparkles fly from the man's clothes. "Ez'll be there."
"I am quite capable of answering for myself and my response is..."
Buck reached over and squeezed the southerner's shoulder hard, saying, "Yes."
"Excellent. I'd hate to make attendance mandatory." Her fake, toothy model smile did nothing to reassure Ezra. "And Agent Larabee?"
"He'll be there," Vin assured her.
"Will you tell him or shall I?"
"I'll talk with him." Vin cringed at the thought of telling Larabee he had volunteered him for the class. Oh well; Chris could only shoot him once.
"I'd like to buy you dinner as a thank you for today and helping Wednesday. Do you have any plans this evening?"
"Only if you'll allow us to choose the restaurant," the undercover agent drawled in pleasure. He thought of that new, expensive bistro requiring jacket and tie. Images of Vin, Buck, and Chris suffering through dinner with her and a tie amused him.
"Certainly." She braced herself for the bad news.
"Saloon," the Texan spoke up quickly, having correctly guessed Ezra's intent.
"Okay. Say seven?" Heads nodded and Ezra reluctantly conceded. "Now, if I could collect the rest of your signatures?"
"Tell me something," Buck inquired gesturing to his folder, "How'd you get those tightwads in Budget to go along with this?" His list included Surveillance Techniques and The Art of Spying. It also included a note informing him at the upcoming law enforcement convention where he'd be authorized to place orders for gadgets and goodies as long as he had it approved by a duly authorized ATF representative.
"Those tightwads in Budget don't understand field work. I do. I fought and won, conditionally. Let us just say I am your duly authorized ATF representative. I know how much we can spend and it won't come out of your team's funds."
"Appreciate it," Josiah was impressed.
She leaned close as she passed him. "How's my profile coming?" With a grin, she enjoyed the somewhat surprised look on his face before walking a few steps away.
"More interesting by the minute." He enjoyed the rear view. The slow smile over her shoulder told him she knew what he did. He winked at her and her grin widened.
"Now, the fun part. Your boss." She knocked on the leader's door. The team followed intent on watching the fireworks.
"I'm busy," Chris snarled, not wanting to deal with the Harpy.
"Too bad, Agent Larabee. I need your signature and I need it today."
"You can wait," he replied through the still closed door.
"I can wait for hell to freeze over but I never thought you too cowardly to face me, cow-poke. Guess you wear black to hide all that yellow, huh?" Harper turned away from the door, ignoring the shocked faces around her, and started out of their office.
The door nearly flew off the hinges. "JD, did she call me a cowboy?" Green eyes nailed the woman's back. She turned to face him with a smug smirk and a raised eyebrow, infuriating him more. He fell right into that one and wanted to kick himself for it.
"No, sir, she called you a cow-poke." JD's neck hurt from going back and forth between them.
Girl had spunk, Buck told himself before stirring the pot. "And a coward," he added, grinning at the death glare aimed at Harper. The glare swept him once to remind him who was boss. He kept smiling with a small shake of his head.
"You calling me a coward too, Harper?" Each muscle screamed for a fight. She would not insult him this way in front of his men, not in his office, not on his turf. He stood straight, arms at his sides, unconsciously clenching and unclenching his fists.
She then invaded his personal space, stopping right in his face. "I know how big my brass set is but I have doubts as to the size of yours." Harper paused for a beat as the red slowly changed the color of the ear tips. "Way I see it, a man who runs into his office and slams the door when I walk in doesn't want to see me. Makes me think he's afraid of me." She folded her fingers and examined the nail on her straight pinky finger then at him from the waist up. "Maybe intimidated or jealous, perhaps?"
Three seconds passed. Vin watched the throbbing vein in the blonde's forehead. Nathan wondered if he restocked the bandages in the first aid kit. Buck gave a low whistle. Josiah morbidly admired her moxie, adding this to his profile. Ezra smiled, knowing that look and waited for the imminent explosion. JD held his breath. "Get in my office, Harper. Before I forget I'm a gentleman and do something I'll regret." He growled each word whisper soft through clenched teeth and a tensed jaw.
"You're a gentleman?" she snorted. "Hah!"
He fumed and glared fiercely. She should have incinerated on the spot in a form of spontaneous combustion. "Give me a reason not to drag you in there myself." That wolfish smile threatened to devour her whole.
"Okay, with that charming invitation, I'll just run." Her words belied her actions - slow, miniscule shuffle steps, one foot in front of the other around him. "If you want to make this physical, you are due for a self-defense refresher.
"Aw, hell," Vin muttered. So much for convincing Chris to volunteer.
Ezra chuckled, earning a glare from Larabee.
"Shut up and get in there." He jerked a thumb. Chris literally shook with the barely restrained rage. A single scan of his team found them intensely fascinated by his reaction. Once the door forcibly slammed, he thrust his open palm at her. "Give me what I need to sign."
With calm patience, she handed over the files. "You need to review each page and say you agree with it. Of course, if you had done that a month ago when I sent it up to you, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
"Harper," he snarled. Green eyes glared into unfazed hazel ones. He read his own list and saw several leadership seminars as well as a team retreat planned. "A team retreat? Lady, you're nuts!"
"It's one of the best retreats out there. It makes each person work both as an individual and as part of a team."
"They don't do that asinine 'trust each other and fall down in each other's arms', do they?"
"No, they do role reversal. Make each person on the team perform the function of every other member for better appreciation of their jobs."
Chris snorted. "We don't need it."
"Actually, you do. At least in my professional opinion as your Training Instructor. Besides, it's a three week paid vacation in the woods."
The leader never heard the last sentence. He thundered, "What do you mean in your professional opinion?" His voice carried out to his men unashamedly gathered and listening intently at his office door.
== 7 ==
"So much for dinner," JD sighed.
"Five dollars says we go," Ezra offered. "With her." He placed a five on the table.
"Ha! Five against!" the youngest replied, showing his money.
"Count me in," Nathan added. "Going."
Buck tossed his bill. "Against."
"Going." Josiah's five landed on Buck's.
"Against," responded Vin.
"Three on three, gentlemen. This shall be interesting."
== 7 ==
Oblivious to the betting pool, Harper quietly answered the knee jerk reaction. "Can you honestly say you could profile a target? Alternatively, find every piece of forensic evidence? Or even know where to start?"
"That's why I run a team, Harper. Each person has a special- ty." Chris explained this as he would to a five-year-old, mocking her with his voice.
She replied in kind, "Do you under-stand those special-ties? The cost of it on their hu-man-ity?"
He answered immediately, "Yes."
A sad expression crossed her face fleetingly. "No, you don't."
Her response angered him further. How dare she, an outsider, say he did not know his team! "You..."
She held up her hand. In her whip-crack voice she said, "Let me finish." He bit the inside of his cheek hard. Waving one indolent hand for her to continue, giving her an expression clearly resigning her to hell and offering to help her there. "Your team is known as the Magnificent Seven. You have earned that reputation. Do you agree?"
The blond leader tightly nodded. "Your point?"
"But do you respect that reputation? Do you respect the twisted thinking your profiler does to understand a criminal mind and predict what that person may or may not do? The infinite patience of gathering minute evidence and reading dry, technical reports? The constant demand on upgrading skills to beat computer systems that improve daily? The risks involved in setting up cameras and microphones then listening for hours on end to nothing? The constant lying about your true nature to fit in and make a mark trust you, doing detestable things, then having to push all that baggage aside at the end of a case? Or spending hours staring through a rifle scope with only your thoughts for company, knowing with absolute certainty someone will die at your hands when you pull that trigger?" She let him consider in silence.
Her words punched through his defenses and he actually listened. Yes, he knew his team well, but had he ever thought along the paths she presented?
What kind of mind would it take to constantly examine the darker depths of human nature yet remain relatively sane? Hell, Josiah kept half of them centered and the other half tethered to the others; he was their anchor. What did the big man truly think?
Or Nathan, the other anchoring rock? His plate stayed full using his skills to patch their injuries and his caring nature to watch over their general well being in addition to his job of going through reports of chemical composition and examining crime scenes. He knew they did not appreciate him enough yet he willingly stayed and gave the impression he loved his job.
Speaking of loving his job, JD radiated enthusiasm. He continually did the impossible for them with computers. They danced for the kid but Chris knew the technology changed daily. How could the kid - young man, Chris corrected himself - keep up and never let the team down? He took each obstacle as a wall to surmount with continual optimism.
As for optimists, there was Buck, his oldest friend. They had been through hell together and even at his worst, Buck still counted him as a friend. They may have put a little distance between them but the big-hearted man thought Chris was a friend worth saving through it all. Hell, Buck spent part of his time disguised as the utility man or some other public works official; another part making questionable entries for installation; and finally the last part cooped in a van listening to nothing...or Ezra. Same difference.
Ezra, the damn southern pain-in-the-ass and best undercover operative Chris ever met. He wore more layers than an onion, the outer ones easily shed from each assignment. At least, Ezra made it look easy to lose the personas he adopted. In reality, he played his cards close to the chest and probably did that out of necessity. Being what a mark wanted required skill but how hard was it really to drop those personas at the end? How hard was it to remember who he was after what he did, and was that another reason he kept his distance from the others. He knew that lately Vin had been helping Ezra unwind after each assignment.
What about the Texas sharpshooter? He corrected himself mentally - sharpshooter, his foot - what an understatement. He'd thought about it before but now that she mentioned it, what must it be like to watch through a scope and kill on command. No one sitting beside him, no one to talk to, just distant voices in a headset; death in and on your hands in the form of a rifle with shoot to protect and even to kill orders? How much damage did that do to a soul, especially a deep, caring one such as his best friend's?
In the two minutes of silence, heavy in intensity, he realized what she challenged him to grasp. He led them, yes, but did he understand them? Could he do their jobs half as well if necessary? Chris brought his green gaze to meet her unwavering understanding. Somehow, his anger dissipated as he realized she truly wanted to help and not hinder. Maybe the retreat might let the others realize what she just made him see for himself. "I hate it when you do that."
"What? Make you think? If that is the case, I'll arrange to desensitize the smoke detectors. Wouldn't want you to overload or cause a fire."
"And I just starting to think you were human, Harper." It occurred to him to wonder exactly how how many layers she wore daily. She cloaked herself behind such mystery and practically encouraged the rabid dislike she dealt with day after day. Probably needed to be a pain in the ass to stay sane.
"Sorry, I stopped being human a long time ago." She kept the tone light so he would not read the truth in that statement.
He smirked, an 'up yours' twist of his lips. "I hadn't noticed."
"Well, this is what's left after dealing with aggressive, know-it- all alpha males with power almost equal to their egos." Her palm covered her mouth and her eyes widened dramatically.
"Meaning," he growled, daring her to say she just described him. Was she actually teasing him?
Harper slapped the back of one hand. "Bad Harper. Bad, bad Harper." Smack, smack. "Da always says not to describe someone's personality traits in front of them, even in general terms."
That did it. So much for patience and understanding. This was teasing insults; two could play this game. "What are you calling me, Harpy? I'm not enthralled by your voice just yet." His inflection should have warned her. Should have being the operative terms.
"Oh, I'm sorry." Her expression easily showed she was not. "I forgot alpha males are predatory when confronted by a challenge or challenger. Especially when said challenger invades their territory."
Josiah might say Chris reacted exactly like the textbook description. He enjoyed the game up to now; time to turn it around. Right now. Most times, he let insults go but this woman pushed his every button. Chris felt his blood boiling and the desire to drop kick her out the window, woman or not. Larabee warned her, "Lady, I make it a practice not to hit women if at all possible. You're pushing that practice." He laid his hands flat on his desk and stared.
She showed her inner resolve by not backing down from him. "You want to hit me? You outweigh me, have more muscle, and your ego's knocking me back from there. But you don't scare me, cow-poke. You're acting just like Mentral." She let her insult hang and perversely enjoyed watching him try to regain and retain his composure. They both knew she was right.
Chris seethed. He shook with a rage, a rage with no outlet. He would not hit her. It was just not in his nature no matter how badly she provoked him. Again, this stick thin one-hundred-ten-pounds-soaking-wet-if-she-was-lucky, annoying, arrogant, rude excuse for an ATF Agent held the upper hand. Damn it. She verbally attacked him personally and professionally in his own damn office in front of his own damn men and he all he did was shake in anger. And the Harpy knew it. Now, he he had enough to nail her for inappropriate comments but Travis liked her, God only knows why. Her next words did little to endear her further.
"This may be your territory but you are coming to mine the next thirty days. Don't push me, Larabee; I push back."
A challenge. Again. He wanted to push her, hell; all seven would make her suffer. "That so?"
"Tell you what. You seven are due for a self defense refresher. On Monday, I'll let you pick your best fighters for one-on-one. Three sections and three matches. Beat me two out of three, I will sign you all off. Lose and you stay."
He actually laughed, seeing an outlet for all this pent up aggravation. "Josiah would break your back; Vin'll put you down fast, and I'll take you out ground fighting, not counting Ezra's boxing skills, Nathan's fierceness, JD's grit, and Buck's mean right jab." Just picturing her in Josiah's bear hug brought a half- smile to his face.
"Then you accept, cow-poke?" There was that teasing challenge again.
He glared. "Don't call me that."
She goaded, "You prefer cowboy?"
That nudged him over the edge. "Monday when?"
"Prepare to lose."
"Check your ego at the door. You'll fight better without it."
"You've got more guts than sense."
"Or confidence in my skills and a lack in yours."
"And you said I had an ego?"
She shrugged. "It won't be a fair fight."
His eyes narrowed. "Why not?"
She treated him to a full smile. "I'm better than you."
Chris leaned forward with a feral grin. "Like hell, lady. It will be a pleasure proving you wrong."
"We'll see Monday, won't we? Now about the retreat?"
The look he gave told her clearly the issue had not settled and would not be until Monday's class. He returned his attention to the course description with difficulty. "How long is it?"
He nodded acceptance before flipping through each of the profiles and agreed with the classes she chose for his men, classes that he never could send them to himself and it frustrated him every year. Now she was doing it, the wench. Each selection she picked tailored for the individual agent. "I don't have the budget for this."
"The ATF does."
"Not in mine."
"No; in mine."
Chris stared at her. "Training's paying for this? We're not the only team, are we?"
"No. I know how to punch the numbers, much to the chagrin of the people in Budget. They didn't appreciate me telling them they're being inefficient and challenged me."
"They challenged you?" Oh, this kept getting better. She must enjoy pissing people off, a damned annoying hobby.
"Told me if I could find the money in the Budget, I could get the classes I wanted. So, I reviewed the operating budget and found poor accounting. Since they planned to waste money anyway, I liberated it. Administration was not too thrilled with me but they adjusted to my point of view. At the risk of repeating myself, I'm not a woman to be ignored."
"I believe it," Chris muttered. The blond reviewed the range of emotions she put him through in this visit alone. At least he no longer felt like tossing her out the window; he would wait until Monday and smear her in the mat. Chris could only imagine the dressing down Admin gave the bean counters when she finished pointing out their failings. The ATF prided itself on excellent budget maintenance.
"You plan on signing them or staring at them?" The window looked tempting again.
He started signing the sheets and discovered each page required his signature twice. By the fifth stack, his signature resembled a scrawl. The eighth stack didn't even rate a glance - just her pointing where to sign. The last two pages required his full signature. Ten minutes passed in silence with the pen on paper the only sound filling the room.
"You know we'll be spending more time together, Agent Larabee."
"Chris." He looked across his desk at her. What was that saying? Know your enemy?
She inclined her head. "Chris. I spoke with AD Travis."
"The way I see it, we're constantly butting heads. I have enough problems with the rest of the building and I'd like it if this next month goes smoothly."
"What are you suggesting?"
"A temporary truce."
This intrigued him; to his surprise, she offered the truce first. "Terms?" He waited for the bomb.
"You and your team actually try learning something and I'll be less of a Harpy."
"That's it?" Where was the catch? There had to be a catch.
"Well, I'd like to take all of you to dinner tonight as a peace offering and as a thank you for helping today. Tonight around seven at the saloon?"
"Peace offering or last meal?" He still regarded her suspiciously.
"Consider it an opportunity, then, to regale me with stories of your prowess and stick me with the check." She shrugged with indifference.
"You're a piece of work, Harper."
"I've been told that before. Free food and drinks?"
"Like that would sway me."
"Or the fact that your team probably bet either for or against us going. I'm sure some doubt our ability to sit together in a public place and have a civilized conversation without verbally flaying strips off each other."
He doubted it himself. "They already said yes?"
"Sort of. They won't go if you don't."
An idea bloomed in his head. He pulled out his wallet and removed a twenty, leaning into her space, their faces inches apart. "Twenty dollars says you can't go the entire meal without throwing a single insult at anyone."
"Just tie my hands behind my back," she sarcastically cracked. "I'll raise it." Harper crowded him herself, closing the distance between them. If they were a couple, they would probably kiss. No chance of that happening. "Forty dollars says I can do it but you're not allowed to provoke me. You provoke me and you'll pay a twenty dollar penalty toward the bill for each offense." He considered and smirked his infuriating smirk. "Is that a yes?"
"I'll take your money and let you buy us dinner."
"Good. I can't wait to see what's left for me as retribution." She smiled and backed off first, giving him the sense she acceded. "One last thing."
"May I borrow Agent Jackson for a week starting not this coming Monday but the following?"
"An exchange program with Denver Fire Department. He'll get a ride- a-long on an ambulance toward his medical requirements and we get a DFD officer."
"You talk to Nathan?"
"Unofficially. I didn't want to do anything without his or your consent."
"Asking me's a formality?"
"No. If you can't afford losing him, I won't set this up."
"Thank you." She started gathering her papers. Harper kept her humor in check, knowing she had him now. He signed the main paper she craved and he had no idea what she planned for him. "Thank you, Agent Larabee - Chris. It's been educational." She held her hand out and he stared at it for a second before shaking it.
She left his office, detoured behind Buck's chair, and snaked one arm around front, pinning him against his chair. Her fist pressed hard against the bruise. He hissed. "Just making sure you're paying attention," she whispered in his ear. His eyes slanted her way, not moving his body and waiting to see her next action. "You ever watch me strip again without my permission and I will personally make you an eunuch." He tried shifting away uncomfortably, crossing his legs involuntarily, and she held him in place. Her palm flattened on the sore spot and caressed once, her voice dropped another notch. "Do you enjoy watching, Buck? You might learn something if you watch long enough." Harper released him, laughing at his enthralled expression - a cross between fascinated, scared, and amazed. With a wave, she left them for her office and the next surprise.
For once, Buck found himself speechless. His mouth opened, closed, opened, and stayed that way until JD smacked it shut for him. That action caused him to shake his head to clear it.
"Mr. Wilmington, I am astonished. Never have I seen a member of the female persuasion flabbergast you to such extent. May I inquire what the she-devil said to you?"
"Told me if I ever watched her strip again without her permission, she'd personally turn me into an eunuch."
"What's that?" asked JD, unfamiliar with the term.
"A gelding, kid." At this point the other men of Team 7 reflexively closed or crossed their legs.
"What a repugnant thought," commented the southerner. "Yet I dare say she might actually follow through on that statement."
"Ez, do me a favor."
"Yes, Mr. Wilmington?"
"Shut up! I like all my parts where they are!"
This brought chuckles to the others until Vin brought forward something they had not considered. "Reckon if she threatened Bucklin, the threat's fer all of us. We all watched and she'll figure that out soon enough."
The room immediately sobered and waited in nervous silence for their leader.
Chris finally exited his office and found his men quietly gathered in the Conference Room, curious expressions on their faces. Something else was there but he was unable to identify it.
"Well?" Buck waved his hands, his patience gone.
"We're going to dinner on the Harpy tonight." Money exchanged hands; damn, Chris thought; she called that right. He smirked and considered himself a clever, sharing boss to his men. "And if you boys want to get in on some action, the Harpy and I have our own little side bet."
"Regarding?" Ezra raised an eyebrow.
"She put up forty dollars saying she would not insult anyone at dinner tonight." Guffaws sounded through the room.
"Agent Harper possesses extraordinary intelligence; what are her stipulations?"
"I'm not allowed to provoke her. I provoke her, I pay a fine each time of twenty dollars."
Vin caught on to the unspoken message. "But ya didn't say anythin' about the rest of us. Reckon we might help ya win, cowboy, if ya buy the next time." Chris narrowed his eyes then agreed with a nod.
Buck decided Chris needed tormenting about Harper's earlier comments. He walked over and tossed an arm over his friend's shoulder. "So, Stud, we heard the yelling then nothing. Y'all kiss and make up?" The glacial glare should have frozen and cracked the mustache off the face.
"Should I check for blood spills, Chris?" Nathan asked with an innocent look.
"No," he shook his head slowly as he eyed each member of his team, "but there will be if you jokers keep this up."
"Hey guys! Check this out!" called JD from the conference room doorway. He pointed at the screen. "She's made it back." The group returned to their reclined positions and watched. Except Chris because he was not ready to see her again, even if she was on the screen. Besides, he had a couple calls to make.
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