The persistent ringing of his doorbell wakened Ezra from his slumber. He groaned when he looked at the clock. 8:00 AM. He put the pillow over his head, determined to ignore the ill-mannered cretin who had decided to wake him at such an ungodly hour on a Sunday morning. But the ringing continued, with the added cacophony of a fist pounding on his door. With a growl, Ezra climbed out of bed and stalked toward the door, wrenching it open without even glancing through the peephole, intent upon giving the person on the other side a piece of his mind... or his fist, if it was one of his annoying teammates. The scathing words died on his lips when he saw who was standing there.
"Bradley?" Ezra asked, surprise etched on his face.
"Hello, cousin," the blond man said with a grin, his Southern accent heavy. "Still hate early mornings, I see."
Ezra flushed in embarrassment, remembering that he was standing there clad only in his blue silk pajama bottoms. "Yes, well, I do prefer to sleep in when I am able." He smiled and gestured the other man inside, shutting the door behind him.
"This is a nice place, Ezra," Bradley commented as he surveyed the tastefully decorated condo. "Much better than that gloomy apartment in Atlanta."
Ezra shrugged. "The environment here seems to suit me better."
Bradley looked at him, aware of the hidden meaning in his words. "I heard about your transfer. Maude told me when I saw her at my father's funeral four months ago." He eyed Ezra carefully. "She didn't seem pleased."
Ezra snorted. "My mother has never approved of my choice in careers."
"I know the feeling," Bradley commiserated. "I hadn't spoken to my father in seven years. He thought I should have greater ambitions. I guess he didn't think much of insurance adjusters."
"So what are you doing in Denver?" Ezra said, changing the subject. Dwight Hanford, Bradley's father, was an uncomfortable subject for both of them.
"I have some business at our Denver branch for the next few weeks," Bradley explained. "I thought I'd drop by for a visit, considering I haven't seen you for nearly two years."
"Has it been that long?" Ezra asked, trying to recall the last time he had seen his cousin. They had kept in touch sporadically over the years, getting together whenever they had a chance. Ezra had always looked forward to seeing his cousin, since Bradley was one of very few people who truly understood what his life had been like. Despite his being a fairly distant relation, he had been someone Ezra could count as a true friend.
"Yep," Bradley said with a chuckle. "You still had your arm in a sling from getting shot on that case... the one with the Chinese drug dealers that you told me about, remember?"
"Yes, I remember," Ezra said with a grimace. "That one was quite unpleasant."
"I don't know how you do it," Bradley said, a hint of wonder in his voice. "I'd never be able to get so close to criminals like that." He shuddered for emphasis. "It gives me the creeps just thinking about it."
Ezra grinned at him. "It's one of the only legitimate uses for my god-given talents."
"I guess you're right about that," Bradley laughed. "I remember the time you conned old man Olsen out of a whole bag of candy from his store by pretending you were scared of that old mutt of his. Hell, that old fleabag wouldn't have hurt a fly."
"One of my earliest triumphs," Ezra said proudly. "It was quite an accomplishment for an eight-year-old, if I do say so myself."
"That it was."
"Would you care to join me for brunch?" Ezra asked. "There's a lovely restaurant just a few minutes from here."
"I'd love to," Bradley agreed.
"Good," Ezra said with a smile. "I'll go get ready."
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra made his way to the elevator, humming cheerfully. He and Bradley had spent most of the previous day together, reminiscing about some of the good times they had enjoyed together as children. He had been eight years old when Maude had left him with his Aunt Edna for the summer. The elderly woman had died suddenly of a heart attack during the second week of his stay and Maude, of course, was nowhere to be found. Ezra had been left in the custody of Bradley's father Maude's distant cousin who had made the funeral arrangements for Aunt Edna.
Thoughts of Dwight Hanford dimmed his cheerful mood as Ezra remembered the stern, older man. Hanford hadn't seemed to mind taking responsibility for a young boy, but, as Ezra later discovered, he was primarily interested in another pair of hands to work on his farm.
Bradley was older than Ezra by two years and had taken an immediate liking to his worldly cousin, listening with rapt fascination as Ezra told him about all the places he had traveled and the European schools he had attended. For Ezra, it had been a pleasant surprise to find a friend in the unsettling situation. Bradley had helped him learn to do the chores that were expected of him, since he knew firsthand the perils of displeasing his father.
The elder Hanford had been a harsh taskmaster, expecting a full day's work from each of the boys. He had little tolerance for mistakes or 'tomfoolery', as he called their occasional attempts to make their chores more entertaining. Unused to the kinds of tasks he was expected to perform, Ezra had found himself on the wrong end of the man's hand often during his first few weeks at the farm. More than once he had gone to bed with an aching backside and an empty stomach because Dwight had been displeased with his efforts. It had been Bradley's patient instruction that had finally allowed him to avoid the strict man's wrath.
Ezra smiled. He had had very few friends as a child, but Bradley had been one of them. His cousin had been the only good part of a decidedly unpleasant summer. Bad situations were always more bearable when there was someone to share the burden. He was still smiling when he entered the offices of Team Seven.
"Good morning, Mr. Tanner," he greeted Vin as he dropped his briefcase on his desk.
Vin eyed him suspiciously. "What's goin' on?"
"Whatever do you mean?" Ezra tilted his head, puzzled at Vin's odd reaction.
"You're way too happy for a Monday morning," Vin proclaimed, folding his hands across his chest. "What're you up to?"
"I'm not 'up to' anything, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said, shaking his head in amusement. "I simply had an enjoyable weekend."
"Uh-huh," Vin said, not sounding convinced.
Ezra rolled his eyes as he hung his coat on the coat rack. He wasn't that bad on Monday mornings. "How was your weekend, Mr. Tanner?"
Vin shrugged. "Nothin' special." He was about to press Ezra for more details about his weekend activities, when Buck and JD entered the room in their typically noisy fashion.
"Hey, Vin," Buck called cheerily. "Hey, Ez. You're here early."
"Not that early, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra countered. "You are simply later than usual."
Buck rolled his eyes, while JD snickered and elbowed his roommate in the ribs. "See, I told you your watch was wrong."
Buck cuffed his young friend on the head and shoved him toward the break room. "Come on, kid. I need some caffeine."
Josiah and Nathan entered the bullpen carrying their own mugs of coffee.
"Good morning, brothers," Josiah called cheerily.
Nathan nodded in greeting, sipping carefully at his coffee as he took his seat. "Hey, guys."
Buck and JD had just returned with their respective beverages coffee for Buck and Coke for JD when Chris stepped out of his office, clearing his throat to get their attention. "Everyone into the conference room. We have a new case."
The room filled with the sound of mumbling and shuffling paper as the six men filed into the conference room behind their leader, taking their usual seats and waiting expectantly for Chris to begin.
"It seems that we have a new player in town," Chris began. "Someone is shopping for a large quantity of weapons and explosives. The details on the buyers are vague at this point and it isn't much more than a rumor on the streets, but Travis and the suits upstairs are concerned enough to bring us in to investigate."
"Do they have any idea who's doin' the askin'?" Vin asked.
"No," Chris said with a sigh. "That's what they need us to find out. All they have so far is the shopping list that hit the streets in the last few days. They're worried about the amount of goods being requested. They're figuring it's an out-of-state group, since the rumors seemed to just come out of nowhere and they haven't been able to trace it to any known players."
Buck whistled as he read the briefing sheet. "Damn, they could outfit a small army with this much stuff."
"Indeed, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra agreed. "This is quite a laundry list of hardware."
"M-16's, Uzi's, handguns, M-14's..." Josiah read aloud.
"Sniper rifles?" Vin commented. "That can't be good."
"Yep," Buck agreed. "We used those when we were in the Seals. I'd hate to see the bad guys getting their hands on them."
"Hell, they're even looking for rocket launchers and explosives," Nathan commented disgustedly.
"Sounds like they want to start a war," JD said.
"Perhaps one of our favorite crime organizations is planning for some offensive action?" Ezra offered.
"Or maybe a terrorist group is doing some shopping," Vin suggested grimly.
"Anything's possible at this point," Chris said with a shrug. "We need to get out there and start checking our sources." He looked at each of his men in turn. "Talk to your snitches and check with any contacts you have in the police or other law enforcement agencies. Maybe someone has heard about similar large weapons purchases or inquiries in other parts of the country."
"If they've got the kind of money it takes to buy this much stuff, then it's likely that someone knows who they are," Josiah said thoughtfully.
"The dealers are gonna be fallin' all over themselves tryin' to hook up with these guys," Vin added. "They ain't gonna want to pass up that kind of cash."
"They will probably be rather tight-lipped about any potential deals, however," Ezra pointed out. "They become quite territorial over deals of this size and it may prove difficult to pry any information out of them."
Chris gave them a predatory grin. "That is why they called us in."
"Yeah," Buck boasted. "We are the best, after all."
"Okay, ladies. Enough discussion." Chris surveyed his team once more. "It's time to earn our reputation."
The men stood and left the room. Vin, Josiah, Ezra, and Buck immediately grabbed their coats and headed out to hit the streets, while JD, Nathan, and Chris started on the phones and the computer. Team Seven was on the job.
* * * * * * * * * *
A loud knock on his door intruded suddenly on the silence in Chris's office, startling him momentarily. "Come in," he called, curious as to who was interrupting his work, since most of his men wouldn't have bothered to knock on the door before opening it.
The man who stepped into his office sported a precise haircut and was dressed in a plain gray pinstripe suit, white shirt, and conservative navy blue tie with red stripes that just screamed 'FBI' to Chris. He looked to be about the same age as Chris and stood ramrod straight in front of the ATF team leader's desk until he was asked to sit. Chris gestured toward the guest chair, smiling inwardly at the level of formality that most FBI agents he had met seemed to display. It was no wonder a maverick like Standish had never quite fit in.
"Agent Larabee?" the man began, rousing Chris from his reverie. "I'm Special Agent Paul Farrell, FBI."
"What can I do for you, Agent Farrell?" Chris asked calmly.
Farrell shifted uncomfortably in his seat, aware of the reputation of this man and his team, and knowing that Larabee wasn't going to like what he had to say. "I, uh, have a rather delicate matter that requires your attention." He lifted the folder he was carrying and opened it, retrieving several photographs. "I believe you recognize the man on the right."
Chris took the photo and frowned. It was a picture of Ezra Standish, smiling and shaking hands with a slightly taller blond man in front of his condo. The rest of the photos showed the two men having lunch or standing together next to Ezra's Jaguar. He regarded Agent Farrell coolly.
"Why are you watching my agent?"
"We weren't watching him," Farrell replied. "It's the other guy we have under surveillance."
"His name is Bradley Hanford. He runs the Brotherhood for a Pure America, a radical white supremacist group," Farrell explained. "He used to be very active in the KKK and Aryan Nation, but apparently they weren't militant enough for him."
"You sure it's the same guy," Chris asked doubtfully, nodding toward the pictures.
"It's him," Farrell said confidently. "We followed him here from St. Louis."
Chris sighed and rubbed his eyes. His undercover agent was the biggest magnet for trouble he had ever encountered in all his years in law enforcement. "And now you want to know why he was seen with Agent Standish."
Farrell nodded. "We've heard rumors that Hanford might be here looking to buy weapons and we didn't want to step on any toes if your guy was undercover."
"When were these taken?"
"Yesterday," Farrell said.
Chris groaned inwardly, but maintained his cool facade. "As far as I know, Agent Standish isn't undercover." He held up his hand to forestall the inevitable questions. "But, that doesn't mean he's not working on something. He has a habit of doing his own thing."
"So I've heard," Farrell said with a frown. "Tell me, Agent Larabee. Do you trust Standish?"
Chris felt the anger building inside of him, but restrained himself. "You have a lot of nerve asking me that," he said icily.
"Standish does have a reputation," Farrell said pointedly.
"All I care about is the work he does for me," Chris retorted. "And that has been nothing but exemplary since he's been here."
"Ten months isn't a very long time to get to know someone," Farrell pressed.
"Long enough," Chris replied, a warning tone in his voice.
Farrell was smart enough not to push Chris any further. He had no desire to be on the receiving end of the man's infamous temper.
"What else have you got on this guy?" Chris asked, wanting to know more about this man with whom Ezra appeared so friendly.
"You can keep this stuff. I've got more copies," Farrell said as he handed his folder to Chris, who opened it and began perusing the information inside. He came upon several more photos of Hanford, some dating back many years. One in particular caught his attention. A young boy, identified as Hanford, stood next to a group of men clad in white KKK robes, cheering and lifting his fist in support, while a cross burned in the background. It was the boy standing next to him that had garnered Chris's interest, however. He recognized Ezra from some old family pictures the undercover agent had shown him one night when Chris had driven him home from the hospital after he had broken his arm during a bust. The pain medication had weakened his defenses and made him more talkative than usual. He had dragged out the slim photo album while Chris was still there, showing him the few pictures he had of his childhood.
Chris sighed in resignation. The boy in this photo was definitely Ezra Standish. He stood next to Hanford, seemingly ignoring the crowd behind him as he held out a white pointed hood, looking at it curiously. Chris felt his heart drop to his stomach.
"What is it?" Farrell asked, noticing his unusual interest in the picture.
"Nothing," Chris said, shuffling the pictures as he tried to cover his lapse, but it was too late.
Farrell grabbed the picture in question and stared at it for a minute before his eyes widened in surprise. "I'll be damned! It's Standish, isn't it?" He looked at Chris for confirmation.
"I don't know," Chris said, disgusted with himself for being so transparent.
"The son of a bitch is in on it!" Farrell continued excitedly. "No wonder we've had such a hard time getting this guy. He's been getting inside information from Standish and keeping one step ahead of us."
"You'd better have proof before you go around making any accusations, Agent Farrell," Chris said, turning his glare on full blast. "Nobody maligns one of my agents without the evidence to back it up."
Farrell flinched under the piercing gaze, but maintained his confident air. "Tell me, how does Agent Standish get along with Agent Jackson?" Farrell smiled smugly, already aware of the fractious relationship the two shared. "He had a problem working for a black supervisor once... an agent named Watson, if I remember correctly. Didn't treat him with any respect whatsoever. I guess he doesn't like to take orders from someone who isn't white."
"That's enough, Farrell," Chris warned. "Ezra is not that kind of person and I'll stand behind him all the way."
"You may have to," Farrell warned. He paused at the door. "Just so you know, we'll be keeping him under surveillance from now on. I'd advise you not to interfere."
"And I'd advise you to get your ass out of my office before I throw you out," Chris said, his calm voice belying his desire to throttle the man standing in front of him.
Farrell smirked and gave Chris a sarcastic salute before walking out the door. Chris stared at the closed door for a moment after he left before lowering his head onto his arms. He was going to have a serious talk with Ezra when he returned.
* * * * * * * * * *
A few minutes after Farrell had left, there was another, more tentative knock on his door. Chris lifted his head as Nathan opened the door and stepped inside.
"Everything okay, Chris?" Nathan asked sincerely. "I heard some yelling...."
Chris pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "We may have a problem." He handed the folder containing the photos and information he had received from Agent Farrell to Nathan and waited as the other man quickly scanned them. Chris knew the moment Nathan encountered the KKK rally photo by the frown on his face.
"What does Ezra have to do with this?" Nathan asked when he was through.
"I don't know yet," Chris said with a sigh. "The FBI has been tracking Bradley Hanford for a long time. There's a possibility he might be our new buyer in town. Those pictures with Ez were taken yesterday." He paused and ran a hand through his sandy hair. "Except for that one with the rally."
Nathan's brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"
Chris took the folder and removed the photo, pointing to Hanford. "This is Hanford," he said, then moved his finger. "This is Ezra."
Nathan was silent for a moment, then looked at Chris with a hard gleam in his eyes. "I knew it! That bigoted son of a bitch! Now I know why he was so much against affirmative action." Nathan remembered the argument clearly. He had commented to his teammates that there didn't seem to be many people of color employed by the ATF and the discussion had turned to affirmative action programs, which he supported. Ezra, on the other hand, had taken the opposite view, claiming that such measures were nothing more than reverse discrimination that promoted unqualified individuals into positions they didn't deserve. After several minutes of heated argument, Nathan had given up in disgust, knowing that Ezra would only manage to twist his words around until they suited his purpose. Now, though, it appeared there was a repugnant reason for his views.
"Nathan, he's just a kid in this photo. It doesn't necessarily make him a bigot anymore than his views on affirmative action," Chris argued.
Nathan ignored him. "I can't believe this got past the security checks."
"We don't know the whole story," Chris said calmly, trying to placate the angry agent. "I'm going to talk to him when he gets back. Don't jump to any conclusions, okay?"
Nathan stared at him, then nodded sharply. "All right, but I'm not working with him if I don't like his answers. I've had to work with racist assholes before, and I'm not going to put up with that crap again."
"I don't think any of us would disagree with you on that."
"You gonna tell the rest of the guys?"
"Yeah, as soon as they all get back." The phone rang, interrupting their conversation. "Larabee," Chris answered.
Nathan watched as the expression on his leader's face grew darker.
"Sir, I don't think that's a good idea," Chris said tightly, frowning even more deeply at the reply. "I don't care what the FBI thinks!" A storm of emotions rolled across Chris's face and finally, with his teeth clenched tightly, he said, "I understand, sir."
Nathan waited patiently as Chris hung up the phone, knowing that he had not received good news.
"Goddamn it!" Chris cursed. "That was Travis," he said, looking up at Nathan. "We can't discuss this situation with Ezra. Seems the FBI thinks it's better to keep him in the dark and under surveillance."
"Travis is letting the Feebs call the shots?"
"He has no choice," Chris replied. "Farrell thought we wouldn't be cooperative, so he complained to the higher-ups and they got Travis to keep us out of the way." Chris's disgust with the situation was plain on his face.
"Maybe it's for the best," Nathan offered. "If Ezra is in league with these guys, it will be easier to catch them if he doesn't know we're on to him."
Chris eyed the dark agent steadily. "You really think he's one of them?"
Nathan hesitated a moment, before shrugging his shoulders. "Probably. It's no secret that he ain't my favorite person, but... hell, you saw the pictures and you heard the arguments. I just don't know him well enough to believe he ain't part of this."
And that's the problem, Chris thought to himself as Nathan left his office. None of them knew Ezra very well, despite the fact that he had been part of their team for nearly ten months. He had recently become much more open in the workplace and had gradually gained the trust of the rest of the team, but they knew little about his personal life. The man kept that part of himself separate, not allowing them inside the protective walls he had built up after years of disillusionment. A casual observer wouldn't notice it, but the Ezra Standish with whom Team Seven interacted on a daily basis was just another mask the undercover agent wore.
It had only been two weeks earlier that Ezra had finally, albeit reluctantly, accepted an invitation to go fishing with them for the weekend. Chris smiled as he remembered the surprise on everyone's faces when they discovered that Ezra actually knew which end of the fishing pole was which and managed to catch more fish than any of them. It proved how little they actually knew about the man.
Recently, there had been signs that the enigmatic agent was beginning to open up more, giving them glimpses of the real man behind the mask. Chris knew Ezra had been burned before by his former FBI co-workers and he was glad to see the man finally beginning to show them some trust. But this situation had the potential to destroy that trust if it turned out that Ezra wasn't guilty of anything more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Chris sighed, wondering why everything involving Ezra Standish had to be so complicated.
* * * * * * * * * *
Chris gazed somberly at the men gathered in Team One's conference room. All of his team had returned, except for Ezra, and Chris had ushered them all to the conference room on the next floor to discuss the recent turn of events. He was thankful, for once, that Ezra was always the last to arrive.
"What's up, Chris?" asked Buck, concerned by the expression on Chris's face. "Why are we meeting in here?"
"Yeah, what's wrong with our own conference room?" Vin grumbled.
"We may have gotten a line on our buyer," he began, passing around copies of Hanford's picture. "Meet Bradley Hanford, head of the Brotherhood for a Pure America. They're a group of militant white supremacists based in Missouri. The FBI informed us of his presence here in our fair city."
"I get a feeling there's more," Josiah said, eyeing Chris knowingly.
"You could say that," Nathan said with a snort.
The group turned expectantly to Chris, who sighed and passed around a second set of photos, showing Ezra and Hanford.
"This one was taken yesterday by the FBI's surveillance team." Chris watched as the confusion flashed across their faces.
"What the hell?" Buck said with a frown. "What's Ez doing with this guy?"
"I suspect that is the sixty-four thousand dollar question," Josiah said with a sigh.
"Maybe Ez found out about him on his own," JD offered with a shrug.
"Looks like they know each other," Buck said.
"It gets worse," Nathan said. Turning to Chris, he said, "Show them."
Chris said nothing as he handed copies of the KKK rally photo around the table. "The kid on the right is Hanford. The one in the center holding the hood is Ezra."
"How do you know that?" asked Vin.
Chris rubbed a hand over his forehead. "I saw some pictures Ez had of when he was a kid that time I drove him home from the hospital. He had the photo album out and showed it to me. I recognized him when Farrell, the FBI guy, showed me the picture."
Buck looked at him skeptically. "Ez showed you his photo album?"
Chris shrugged. "He was pretty stoned on pain medication."
"Damn," Josiah said.
"Yeah," Chris agreed.
"How come nobody caught on to this before?" Buck asked.
"That's what I want to know," Nathan said. "Pretty sloppy job on background checks, if you ask me."
"What are you sayin'?" Vin demanded.
"I'm sayin' that somebody should have picked up Ezra's connection to these bastards before now," Nathan said hotly.
"Those pictures don't prove anythin'," Vin said defensively. "All it means is that he's known the guy for a long time."
"Come on, Vin," Nathan said. "You think Ez could know the guy for that long without knowing about involvement with white supremacists?"
"Yeah, I do," Vin said stubbornly. "Ez ain't a racist and he wouldn't hang around with one if he knew about it."
"These pictures do tell quite a story, Vin," Josiah contended.
"Well, I don't care," JD said, folding his arms across his chest. "I don't believe it either."
"Why don't we just ask Ezra?" Josiah said, attempting to placate the two younger agents.
"We can't," Chris said. "We've been ordered to keep this under our hats. Seems the FBI talked the suits upstairs into keeping us out of the way while they put Ezra and Hanford under surveillance."
"That sucks," Buck said disgustedly.
"The don't want us to 'compromise the investigation'," Chris said sarcastically, his distaste for the situation plain on his face.
"It makes sense," Josiah said reasonably. "This way, they can't accuse us of hiding the truth."
"I still don't like it," Buck said. "I don't trust those guys."
"Me neither," Vin said. "There's nothin' they'd like better than to see Ez take a fall."
"There's nothing we can do about it right now," Chris warned. "We'll just have to sit tight and make sure we don't tip our hands to Ezra."
"Shouldn't be too hard," Buck said tightly. "I don't feel much like talking to him right now."
"You got that right," Nathan agreed.
Vin glared at them, while JD shook his head. Chris watched the discord brewing among his men and frowned. This case could tear his team apart in more ways than one and he found himself feeling angry with Ezra for once again causing turmoil on his team.
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