His mouth was full of cotton. Ezra opened one eye and glared at his clock radio, which continued to chirp merrily away, adding to the throbbing in his skull. Lifting a leaden arm, he swiped at the clock, slapping it into submission. Nothing would have made him happier than to shut his eyes and return to blessed slumber, but the uncomfortable pressure in his bladder made that impossible. With a groan, Ezra levered himself out of bed, stumbling sleepily toward the bathroom to answer the call of nature.
Though he seriously debated returning to the comfort of his bed, Ezra decided things were troubled enough in his life without angering Larabee needlessly with further tardiness. Instead, he stripped off his pajamas and stepped into the shower, closing his eyes as the warm water sluiced over his body.
After dinner the previous night, he and Bradley had returned to Ezra's condo, where Bradley had produced a bottle of excellent cognac from his rental car. They had stayed up until the wee hours sharing the fine liquor as they talked. Ezra didn't remember having that much to drink, but based on the size of his hangover, he must have gotten a bit carried away. He grinned to himself. Leave it to Bradley to find some especially potent spirits.
An hour later, his headache somewhat subdued by aspirin and caffeine, Ezra dragged himself into the office, barely glancing at his teammates as he made his way to his desk. He dropped tiredly into his chair and closed his eyes, massaging his temples briefly before removing his coat and heading to the break room for some much-needed coffee. He was going to need more than the usual one cup of Starbuck's to wake him up this day.
"Good morning, brother," Josiah said quietly as Ezra reached for the coffee pot.
"If you say so," Ezra said with a grunt.
"Are you feeling all right?" the big man asked, a hint of concern in his voice.
"I am quite fine, thank you, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra replied flatly. "Merely a bit of overindulgence last night."
Josiah frowned. "Any reason you're drinking in the middle of the week?"
Ezra tossed him a frosty look. "Not that it's any of your business, but an old friend is in town and we shared an excellent bottle of cognac."
Josiah chuckled. "Only you would get drunk on cognac, Ezra."
"It was very good," Ezra said with a trace of a smile as he headed back to his desk.
Josiah's expression turned serious as he watched the younger man retreat from the break room. He hoped Ezra's 'old friend' was not going to get him into trouble.
* * * * * * * * * *
The day passed quickly, despite his hangover, and Ezra eventually found himself making the dreaded trip back to his office to gather his things. He had been able to keep his mind off of his teammates all day, but now, all of his worries and concerns pushed their way to the forefront of his thoughts. Squaring his shoulders, he strode casually into the bullpen, stopping short at the emptiness that greeted him.
They were gone. Their coats and briefcases were still in place, but they were nowhere to be found. Ezra checked the conference room and break room, but the silence confirmed it. Then it occurred to him: the bust must be taking place now. He felt a small kernel of hope building. Maybe, once this operation was finished, things would return to normal... well, as normal as things could ever be where Team Seven was concerned. But the cynical, nagging voice in his head whispered, Don't count on it.
* * * * * * * * * *
"What now?" Vin asked, stifling a yawn. It was nearly six in the morning and they had finally called it a night and returned to the office. The bad guys had never showed up at the warehouse.
"Now we find out what went wrong," Chris said grimly.
"I'm gonna see if I can get in touch with Little Jimmy," Buck said. "Maybe he knows why they called it off."
"You think you'll find him at this hour?"
Buck's shoulders slumped. "Probably not."
"Why don't you all go home and get some sleep," Chris said. "Come back here after lunch. We can get back on it then."
"That sounds great," Nathan said sleepily as he shrugged into his jacket. "I'll see y'all later."
"You can crash at my place, Chris," Buck offered. "No sense you driving out all that way just for a few hours."
Chris nodded. "I'll be along in a few minutes."
Buck and JD plodded tiredly out the door, followed by Josiah and Vin, but Chris stayed behind for a few minutes, sending out a couple of emails before leaving himself. He paused for a moment when he passed Ezra's desk, frowning at the unpleasant thoughts that crossed his mind. He shook his head and continued down the hall. There was time enough for speculation later.
* * * * * * * * * *
For the second time in less than twenty-four hours, Ezra found himself stopping short upon entering the bullpen. It was empty, again, but this time, all of his teammates' coats were missing as well. He frowned, wondering where the rest of his associates were. It was a little after nine in the morning and there was no sign of their presence. Ezra's stomach suddenly clenched in fear. What if one of them had been injured? If they had indeed been participating in a raid of some sort the previous evening, it was a definite possibility that one of them had been hurt. Quickly, he sat down and picked up his phone, checking his voice mail for messages. Surely they would inform him if that were the case... wouldn't they?
His voice mail was clear, so Ezra checked his email, settling back in his chair in relief when he found a message from Chris, letting him know that the rest of the men would be in late that day. The relief turned into something else, though, when he realized that Chris had not explained why they were going to be delayed. Ezra shrugged off the feeling as he prepared for another day of training. Perhaps when they returned, all would be explained. Perhaps.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Chris." Buck stuck his head into his friend's office.
Chris was talking on the phone, but waved Buck inside. He spoke for a few more minutes before hanging up and rubbing his eyes tiredly. "Travis isn't happy," he sighed. "He was really looking forward to getting Arbella and the buyer off the streets."
Buck slouched into a chair and frowned. "I heard from Little Jimmy."
"Yeah?" Chris eyed him hopefully.
Buck nodded. "Yeah. He talked to Arbella's muscle again last night." He looked at Chris seriously. "The buyer backed out at the last minute. Said he got a tip from a source that the cops were onto them."
"Shit," Chris cursed.
"Yeah," Buck agreed. "You know who their prime suspect is gonna be."
"I know," Chris said grimly.
"You sure he didn't know about the bust?"
"No," Chris answered reluctantly after a moment's thought. "Ezra isn't stupid. There's a good chance he figured it out or heard about it through the grapevine."
"Damn," Buck said. "What do we do?"
"Nothing," Chris said firmly. "All we got is some FBI suit claiming Ezra is dirty and a mysterious buyer that no one has been able to identify yet."
"And one racist son of a bitch that Ez seems awfully chummy with," Buck pointed out.
Chris shrugged. "Until I see proof, it's just coincidence."
Buck shook his head skeptically as he stood. "I hope you're right."
"Me too," Chris said softly after Buck had left. With a grimace, he picked up the phone again to inform Travis of the new information.
* * * * * * * * * *
Chris was putting the finishing touches on his report when the insistent knocking sounded at his door. With a groan, he saved his report and called out, "Come in." He knew who it was and was not looking forward to the imminent conversation.
Farrell entered and sat down, not waiting for a chair to be offered. He tossed a packet of photographs on Chris's desk. "Wednesday's surveillance photos."
Chris picked one up and felt his heart sink. It was Ezra and Bradley Hanford, having dinner at an elegant restaurant. Hiding his feelings, he turned to Farrell and lifted an eyebrow. "So?"
"So?!" Farrell sputtered. "Standish has dinner with the suspect the night before the buyer mysteriously gets cold feet, and you don't think it's significant?"
"Doesn't prove anything," Chris retorted. "All it means is that he had dinner with your suspect. And besides, Ezra didn't even know about the bust."
"Yeah, right," Farrell said sarcastically. "I've heard about you and your men, Larabee. You cover for each other."
"You'd better watch what you say around here, Farrell," Chris said in an icy tone. "You really don't want to be accusing my men of compromising an investigation, especially without any evidence."
Farrell snorted. "Oh, I'll get evidence all right."
Chris glared at him. "Then don't bother me unless you do."
Farrell stood and returned the glare. "I'll be back, and when I do, I'm going to take down Standish and anyone else who gets in my way." He turned and left the office quickly, slamming the door behind him.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra was reading a newspaper as he stepped out of the elevator and didn't see the angry agent who was storming down the hall until he nearly bumped into him.
"Oh, excuse me," Ezra said apologetically, barely glancing up from his paper.
"There is no excuse for you," Farrell replied caustically.
Ezra's head snapped up and he was taken aback by the hostility radiating from the man before him. Until he recognized him. His mouth tightened into a hard line. "What are you doing here, Farrell?"
"None of your business," Farrell snapped.
Ezra narrowed his eyes. "It had better not be."
"Is that a threat?"
"If you like," Ezra stated calmly as he turned his back on the other man.
"Don't walk away when I'm talking to you!" Farrell demanded, grabbing Ezra's arm.
In a blur of motion, Ezra spun around, twisted the man's arm behind his back and shoved him into the wall. "As one of my associates would say, put that hand on me again and I'll rip your arm off and beat you over the head with it." Ezra smiled at the sudden pallor on Farrell's face. He would have to thank Buck for providing him with that line. He released Farrell and turned away.
"This isn't over, Standish," Farrell yelled.
Ezra ignored him and continued toward his office, a satisfied smile playing across his face. It felt good to get a little payback at Farrell's expense, since the annoying agent had been one of Ezra's biggest detractors in the Atlanta FBI office. His smile fell a bit when he realized that Farrell had been coming from the direction of his team's office. The pieces began to click into place. Farrell was probably here stirring up trouble for him and was likely the cause of his team's strange behavior of late. Ezra sighed, wondering what, if anything, he could do about it.
The sound of someone clearing his throat caught Ezra's attention and he turned to see Vin lounging in the doorway of the men's room. "Mr. Tanner," he said in greeting.
"You want to tell me what that was all about?" He nodded his head toward the elevators, where Farrell was just stepping inside.
"An old... associate from Atlanta," he replied carefully, not bothering to hide the distaste on his face.
"I take it you don't like him very much?"
Ezra gave a short laugh. "Very observant of you, Mr. Tanner."
"That why you nearly busted his arm?" Vin pressed.
Suspicious, Ezra said stiffly, "I don't appreciate being manhandled."
Vin eyed him steadily, then nodded, apparently satisfied with his answer. "That was a good move you used on 'im."
Ezra shrugged. "Something I picked up."
Vin pushed away from the doorway and strolled slowly toward the bullpen. "Maybe you can show it to me sometime."
"Maybe," Ezra said softly, troubled by the conversation. He had no doubt that Chris would soon know all about his confrontation with Farrell and he wasn't certain how his boss would react. Affecting a relaxed stride, he made his way to his desk and busied himself with sorting through his mail.
Ezra lifted his eyes to meet the cool gaze of his superior. "Yes, Mr. Larabee?"
Chris nodded toward his office, then turned and went inside.
With a sigh, Ezra followed, feeling the eyes of his teammates on his back. "Showtime," he muttered to himself.
"Sit down," Chris directed.
Ezra sat, leaning back in the chair casually. "What can I do for you?"
"Tell me about Farrell," Chris said in a tone that made it clear it was not a request.
Ezra smiled slightly. "Mr. Tanner is expeditious, as usual."
Chris stared at him expectantly.
Ezra sighed again. "Agent Farrell is a former colleague from Atlanta."
"That's a reason to assault him in the hallway?" Chris gave him a penetrating stare that would have made a lesser man squirm.
Ezra returned the gaze placidly. "Of course not. He put his hands on my person and I merely showed him the error of his ways."
"Ezra," Chris warned, not fooled by the flippant response.
"The man is a complete and utter jackass," Ezra said directly. "He caused me a substantial amount of grief in Atlanta and I have little patience in dealing with the sanctimonious bastard. I was quite pleased when he finally transferred to St. Louis."
Chris studied him thoughtfully for a moment then sighed. "Well, you'd best stay clear of him while he's here."
"And why is he here?" Ezra asked pointedly.
"I can't tell you that," Chris said, looking away.
"I see," Ezra said slowly.
Chris returned his gaze to his undercover agent, noting the hurt that flared briefly in his eyes before the armor fell back into place. "Aw hell," he muttered, reaching into his desk drawer. Tossing the picture of the KKK rally on the desk, he asked, "What do you know about this?"
Ezra blanched when he saw the photograph, picking it up by the corner as if it were something disgusting. "Damn," he whispered softly, dropping the picture back on the desk and shutting his eyes.
"I guess you recognize it," Chris stated.
"Unfortunately," Ezra said as he rubbed his temples. It all made sense now. The awkward silences, Nathan's hostility they all thought he was a card-carrying racist.
"Nathan wasn't too happy when he saw that," Chris said. "It might be a good idea for you to avoid him for a little while."
"I should have known that Farrell would dredge up something like this," Ezra said resignedly. He and Bradley had had long discussions about that summer and how much they hated what Dwight and his fellow Klan members stood for. Ezra had never understood how people could harbor such hatred and was glad that Bradley seemed to have avoided the bigotry his father had preached.
"Care to explain?" Chris inquired flatly.
"Not particularly," Ezra said, shaking off the memories and opening his eyes. "It's not a time I'm fond of remembering."
"You'll have to do better than that," Chris warned.
Ezra fixed his eyes on Chris, his expression stony. "I was eight years old and I most certainly did not attend that... gathering by choice. This picture was taken by a local reporter and printed in the town newspaper." He sighed. "Hell, I didn't even know what they were all about. I believed it was just another of those men's clubs with silly hats and rituals."
Chris eyed him doubtfully. "You're from the South and you didn't know what the Ku Klux Klan was?"
Ezra said tightly, "I spent most of that period of my life attending schools in Europe. I knew little about such organizations."
"Farrell also claims that you had a problem working for a black supervisor in Atlanta."
Ezra snorted. "Agent Watson was an ignoramus, no matter what color his skin happened to be. He gained his position via one of those affirmative action programs that Mr. Jackson supports so strongly." Ezra shook his head. "The man wasn't qualified for his job and nearly got me killed with his bumbling efforts."
"Farrell's not going to let this drop," Chris said with a sigh.
"I don't care about Farrell," Ezra said acidly.
Ezra searched Chris's face. "You don't believe him, do you?"
"I don't know what to believe, Ezra," Chris replied after a moment's hesitation.
Ezra nodded, lowering his gaze. "I understand." It was plain on the man's face that he had his doubts, and if Chris had doubts, the rest of the team was certain to follow suit. "Is that why I was reassigned?"
"Ezra..." Chris began.
"It's all right, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said flatly. "I'm quite used to this game."
"This isn't a game, Ezra," Chris said.
Ezra shrugged. "And what is my next assignment?"
"Team Five needs some research done on the Landers case," Chris replied reluctantly.
"Of course," Ezra said with a bitter smile.
Chris blew out a frustrated breath. "This isn't my call, Ezra."
"It never is," Ezra said blandly as he got to his feet. "At any rate, I do hope you were successful in yesterday's operation. I'd hate to think I was missing out on any more excitement."
"What operation?" Chris asked, dismayed by Ezra's apparent knowledge of the bust.
Ezra rolled his eyes. "I overheard your plans to take down Arbella and his buyer. Were you not successful?"
"No," Chris said. "They never showed."
"Pity," Ezra said indifferently as he reached for the door. "I hope you have better luck next time."
Chris stared mutely at the door as it shut softly behind the southerner. "Shit," he cursed softly to himself. Instead of clarifying things, as he had hoped when he had shown Ezra the picture, it seemed that he had complicated them further. He hated to do it, but now that he knew about Ezra's awareness of the bust, he would have to pass the information along, which didn't bode well for his undercover agent. It was just one more nail in the coffin that Farrell was trying to build and Chris could do little to stop it.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra walked stiffly back to his desk, keeping his expression blank and pretending not to notice the sudden shuffling of papers that accompanied his exit from Larabee's office. Calmly, he gathered his papers together and lifted his coat from the back of his chair. With a mirthless smile, he saluted his teammates. "Good night, gentlemen." He heard the half-hearted murmurs of his associates as he walked out of the bullpen as though he hadn't a care in the world, even as he felt the ice beginning to form around his heart.
* * * * * * * * * *
Five pairs of eyes followed the smooth agent out the door before turning to the door to Chris's office. It only took a few minutes before the door opened and Chris entered the bullpen, a troubled expression on his face.
"Uh-oh," Buck said. "What's wrong?"
Chris rubbed a hand over his face. "I showed him the picture of the rally."
"Was that a good idea?" Josiah asked.
Chris shrugged. "I was hoping he might volunteer some information about Hanford, but he never even mentioned his name."
"What did he say?" asked JD.
"Not much," Chris replied. "Said he was eight and he didn't go to it willingly."
"You believe him?" asked Buck.
"I don't know," Chris said honestly. "He did seem upset by the photo."
"Hell, he was just a kid," Vin said. "He probably didn't have any choice about going."
Nathan sniffed. "Maybe he's just upset about us finding out he was brought up in the KKK."
"Maybe," Chris grudgingly conceded. "That's not the worst, though."
"He knew about last night, didn't he," Vin said knowingly.
"Yeah," Chris said with a sigh. "He made a comment about it as he was leaving. Said he overheard us discussing it."
"He could have passed along that info, then," Buck said.
"It's very possible," Josiah agreed sadly.
"I had to tell Travis..." Chris trailed off, unwilling to continue.
"Had to be done, pard," Buck said.
"Doesn't mean I gotta like it," Chris retorted.
"Man, I need a drink," Buck said, eager to put this day behind him.
"Me too," Vin agreed with a sigh. "You guys comin'?"
The rest of them nodded and returned to their desks to finish up for the day before heading for the Saloon.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra sat in his car with his eyes closed, leaning his head back against the soft leather seat. What a mess. It was something he should have expected. Things were going too well for him and he was actually feeling the faint stirrings of happiness. He should have known that it was just the prelude to yet another disaster. Ezra gave a derisive snort, realizing that he had conned himself quite thoroughly into believing that things would be different this time. His skills must have slipped, since he certainly should know better by now. Ezra Standish and happiness were simply not compatible.
A loud banging sound woke him suddenly. Ezra looked around for a moment, confused, until he realized he was still sitting in his car in the parking garage of the Federal Building. Turning to his left, he saw Vin Tanner crouched next to his car and looking at him through the window.
"You all right?" Vin's muffled voice questioned.
Ezra rubbed his eyes and lowered his window, not wanting to be so rude as to speak through a pane of glass. "I am fine, Mr. Tanner," he replied.
"You sure?" Vin asked doubtfully.
"Yes," he replied. "I have been suffering a bout of insomnia lately and am simply quite fatigued."
"Oh," Vin said, not sounding entirely convinced. "I guess you aren't going to be joining us at the Saloon?"
"Not tonight," Ezra confirmed. "I am going to go home and sleep, if I am able."
"Well, take it easy," Vin said, slapping the side of his car as he walked toward the exit.
"I intend to, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said as he raised his window and started his car. In his rearview mirror, he saw the rest of his teammates exiting the elevator and following in the same direction Vin had taken. They usually walked to the Saloon, since it was located only a few blocks away from the office. Ezra smiled sadly, knowing that he was likely to be the topic of conversation this evening. He wouldn't have joined them even if he hadn't felt so exhausted. Stifling a yawn, he turned his car toward home.
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