= = I = =
Dragging himself out of bed and shuffling into the bathroom, he immediately took care of the painful bladder pressure and then climbed in the shower. The cold blast of water was one of his favorite parts of the day. It woke him up, gave him a jump-start. With his eyes still closed, he adjusted the temperature to warm and ran his fingers through his hair. Sliding tired hands down his face, he opened his eyes.
The normal white of the porcelain was blue: an almost royal blue, a deep Pacific sea blue seen just off the coasts of the Hawaiian Islands. He closed his eyes again, thinking he must still be dreaming. Counting to three, he opened them again and hoped to see the white on the three walls of the stand-up shower. Oh, shit! Blinking hard, he checked himself and found his body covered in blue streaks from head to toe. Okay, some bastard was going to die. A certain scruffy Texan he worked with and called friend just signed his death warrant. The blue - whatever - was probably payback for the lap dance he treated his friend to on Saturday night.
Since the showerhead still gushed the offensive blue color, he quickly turned off the water. Grumbling, he slicked as much as he could off his skin, and then shook his hair out, watching the blue spray an interesting pattern across the porcelain. All the while noticing the sickening sweet fruit smell clinging to him. Grabbing a navy towel from the rack holder on the wall, located a few short feet from the square shower, he dried himself quickly. He stepped carefully onto the navy blue bath rug that covered the entire floor. It matched the towels only because one of his former lady loves decided he needed a coordinated bathroom since she spent enough time in there. The thought of her inspired a pleasant memory of their shared activity in the shower, but the sight of himself reminded him of things that were more important.
He found one of the navy washcloths and soaped it, attempting to rub the blue off. The streaks refused to come off his skin. Giving up on his body, he turned to the shower to try to prevent further staining. He did not need the comments from the rest of the team when they used his 'blue' bathroom. The man found a heavy duty cleaner to scour the shower.
The amount of time it took to wash whatever off the tile told him he would not get his morning coffee. With the shower clean, he focused on himself. To his horror, once again, the stain would not come out; it lightened, but it refused to leave permanently. Even three shampoos could not get most of the blue from his hair.
= = II = =
He reluctantly left his warm bed and fell into the shower without looking. Automatically his hands adjusted the water temperature and the gradual, seeping warmth raised his level of consciousness. Before he grabbed the soap or shampoo, he felt something slick sliding down his arms. Forcing his eyes open, he looked blearily at his black streaked skin. Black streaked skin?
BLACK STREAKED SKIN?
Total alertness arrived with the heart-stopping shock. Coal black water ran over his nakedness, staining everywhere it touched. Shutting off the water, he realized his shower walls also wore the dark substance. It smelled good...almost fruity? Grabbing an old towel, he wrapped it around himself, drying his feet as he left his shower. He headed to the guest bathroom. Using the shower in there, after checking to be sure this shower sprayed clean water, he tried removing the offensive stain off with negative results. His hair, his skin, hell, his entire body bore the discoloration.
Some m'f'ng ex-friend named Tanner would f'ing pay for this f'ng bullshit f-up'd g'dmn'd prank. He had no call to do this in retaliation for his 'education'. Wasn't his fault the girls adored him, singling him out. Hell, the fifty helped for the first girl. The others pitched in, but it wasn't his fault. His jaw clenched once, twice, three times before he forced a swallow and calmed his breathing enough to lower his blood pressure. Damn if he needed Nate yelling at him about that too when he went to kill Tanner. Whatever it was dried in a streaked pattern on his epidermis, and he waited until it no longer transferred on everything he touched before grabbing the telephone.
= = III = =
The alarm dragged him from a pleasant dream. Standing, he stretched his arms and legs, hearing a satisfying pop from his back. Stumbling to the kitchen, he turned on the coffee maker then returned to his bathroom, starting the shower and letting it warm up. Eyes mostly closed, he climbed in and started scrubbing, dunking his face and hair under the water then rubbing his face. The soap came next, starting with his face and working down the rest of his body. All this he performed automatically.
He finally opened his eyes to see a blurry mess of red on the tile. The man rubbed the heels of his palms against his tired lids, trying to clear up his vision. Wait a minute...red? Red? What the hell is this? He stared down at his body and found it covered in streaks from top to bottom, yet he knew he was not injured. Aw hell! Turning off the water, he used his towel to dry off with revenge on his mind, noticing all of the streaks remained.
Curious, he reached up to his showerhead, unscrewing it and examining the residue inside. Taking a bit on his fingertip, he tentatively brought it to his tongue. With a small smile, he admired the genius of the prank.
The shrill ring of his telephone brought his thoughts back to the reality of the situation. Aw, hell! He was a dead man. The responsible party got someone else, if not everyone on his team. There was no way he was answering that phone; he knew that ring. He knew they would blame him for this. He admitted this was good, but he had his own plans for them and he needed time to prepare.
He knew who was behind this; thoughts of simple revenge were no longer priority. This was all out war!
= = IV = =
Hoping the hot water heater lasted long enough this morning, the ATF agent dragged himself into the bathroom and started the water. Using his hand, his face buried in the magazine article he began the night before, he tested the temperature and deemed it appropriate.
Having learned to check the shower before climbing in (recalling a certain collection of bullfrogs placed there to scare him), the man smugly patted himself on the back, as he saw the light purple water swirling around and sprinkling the walls. Hah! Thought they could get him with this; he didn't think so. Pleased with himself, he reached around the water and shut it off, watching the purple drip from the showerhead.
He pulled the shower curtain all the way back to closer examine the tiles, leaning pretty far forward for a better look. As he did, he felt a large amount of cold water pour over his bare shoulders, back, a purple deluge swirling about in the bathtub and off of him, the only obstruction in the water's path down. His bangs fell in his eyes and he pushed them away with disgust. Water ran down his back onto his thighs and feet. Looking up, he belatedly saw the carefully camouflaged heavy-duty plastic that held the water until he pulled the curtain all the way open. A piece of clear fishing line connected the corners of the plastic with the edges of the shower curtain. So, instead of just him and shower getting purpled, the floor at his feet bought it, and the rug eagerly lapped up the moisture.
Somebody would pay dearly for this, he told himself. Figuring the worst was over, he ran the shower until the water cleared and climbed in. The floor would wait. Using the soap, he tried removing it to no avail. Turning the water off, he dried himself and planned a death. It was not his fault what happened Saturday; he just went along for the ride. A quick mop-up with the bleach got the bathroom tiles mostly clean, and the rugs went into a plastic bag for later cleaning. He'd scrub the rest of the mess later. Gathering clothes and supplies, he left for the office to shower again in the Training Complex's men's locker room, hoping the industrial strength soap stocked there would do the job of removing ...whatever.
= = V = =
Mornings were not his strong suit. He knew it and accepted it. Therefore, his morning shower gave him the time he needed to take the first steps toward humanity.
Like his friend, he used the first few seconds of cold to jump-start his nerves, and then allowed the warmth to fill his bones. Once it did, he blinked a few times and wiped the sleep from his eyes.
The multitude of colors on his skin surprised him. Red, blue, yellow, green, orange, purple, and black formed rainbow artwork along the length of his body. Shutting off the water, he dried himself and aimed for the telephone. He received no answer at the residence of the suspected culprit.
He mentally reviewed his behavior in the last couple days that might have led him to deserve this treatment, and found nothing he had done to Tanner that would bring this on. Well, except the twenty that he shoved down the front of Vin's jeans that the dancer had no problem going after. With a sigh, he packed spare clothes and prepared to go to the athletic club to change and shower there. Before he left, he sprayed cleaner on his shower walls and hoped the commercial proved true about no scrubbing.
= = VI = =
Quietly crawling from his bed, the tall man started the shower. A few seconds later, he checked the water temperature because the shower was for cleaning only, not loitering and using all the hot water in the heater. The bright orange water covering his hand inspired a raised eyebrow of surprise and he considered this situation. Bright orange equaled Emergency Medical, so someone who knew him was playing a joke. He considered it a not-so-very-funny joke at this time of the morning. This joke required a good tongue-lashing given to the perpetrator. The orange also reminded him of the orange vest the dancer wore in her 'cop' uniform, that she had draped (at his suggestion) around their sharpshooter.
His ordered mind immediately began making a list of appropriate annoying actions that would remind a certain someone exactly why it was not a good idea to mess with him. With a purpose, he cleaned the shower, packed spare clothes, and left for the gym, to shower and change there.
As he reached the gym's locker room, he realized he forgot the soap in his haste. Sighing with disgust, he opted to use the shampoo and lathered it all over his body. When he finished his shower, he dried himself briskly with the white towels he brought and they, along with his skin, slowly stained orange. That settled it; Tanner would pay dearly for this.
= = VII = =
He hated mornings. Mornings were the hours between sleep and life, determined to be the bane of his existence. Owlish eyes barely acknowledged much less truly saw the surroundings, as he waited for the water to warm. Once the soothing heat coated his skin, he closed his eyes and let it pour over his face and body.
When he finally looked, the light green shower tiles bore darker green stains. Annoyed and disgusted, he immediately considered the maid grievously erred during her weekly cleaning the day before. Staring at himself, shock set in.
Green. Streaks, stripes, from head to toe, coating important things, green everything. No! That son-of-a-bitch was dead. He knew Vin got embarrassed during their 'field trip' with all the attention lavished on him, but the hundred dollars Ezra spent was well worth it. Watching the woman take the shy Texan into the curtained back area, for a private session, while a blue-eyed death glare was aimed in his direction, still amused him. This, however, did not. It would be a slow, painful death. His calculating mind considered numerous tortures and the best ways to use them to inflict retaliation. His retaliation against the currently prepared, and probably anticipating it, sharpshooter would occur in the future when the man was not expecting it.
"Lady, ya tryin' ta get me killed?"
Harper glanced up in surprise at the timber in the usually soft Texas drawl. She was expecting a visit from one of the team, but she figured it would be in the black form of Larabee. She choked back a laugh at her pun, imagining the stern leader now literally wearing his usual black cloud. Just as she had to bite her lip to keep from smiling at the red streaked visage before her. The highlights in his blondish-brown hair really helped make him a passable redhead.
"Agent Tanner, are you all right? Are you breathing okay? Changing colors is usually not a sign of good health. In fact, you look a little . . .red."
"It ain't funny." Vin glared at the obviously gloating Instructor. Her unholy, Cheshire cat, teeth-spreading, all-out grin needed to go.
"Depends on whose perspective you're looking at it from. From mine, this is better than expected. Do I smell strawberries? It is a rather brave choice for a man but it suits you. Does the cream come with it, and where can I find the champagne?" She winked.
He flushed to the roots of his hair and changed the subject to one he found more comfortable. Vin hoped that the red streaks covered the heat he felt in his face and ears. "Ya know they're goin' ta think I did it?" He stared at her and wondered what planet she came from in order to do something of this magnitude. His ringing cellphone, that he rapidly turned to voice mail and promptly ignored, told him he was not alone in this.
Wide, innocent eyes blinked at him from beneath the serene expression on Harper's face. "Perhaps, Mr. Tanner, I should schedule your colleagues for refresher courses in deductive reasoning."
Vin plopped down into one of the chairs facing her desk. "You're good." He had to give credit where credit was due. He also wondered where she learned to break into people's houses without leaving a trace - and with him, that was hard to do. In fact, damn near impossible.
His admission thrilled her; his reputation was so much better in Denver than hers and she worked hard at coming up with things that they would not expect. Harper grinned and gave a slight nod of acceptance at the reluctant compliment. "Does your reputation feel threatened?" Harper had to admit even in a turtleneck covering him from chin to fingertips with his well-worn jeans that there was not a thing wrong with the man across from her. She immediately pulled back from those thoughts, knowing they would only get her into further trouble.
"Ain't got no reputation."
"I know better, Agent Tanner." Harper leaned back in her chair still smiling at the young man before her. "I've heard several interesting stories of how you manage to keep not only your teammates and other unsuspecting but deserving Agents on their toes."
"Can't prove nothin'." His eyes dared her to do otherwise.
"That's why you're good."
Blue eyes twinkled as he gave her an accepting half smile.
"Do we take bets on who's better?" she queried.
Looking down at the red tinge on his hands, he chuckled a bit before saying, "I'd settle for a truce."
She quirked an eyebrow at the unexpected answer. "Is that possible?"
He did laugh at that. "After this mornin'? Hell, if'n ya did what I think ya did, I just hope they don't shoot me first and ask questions later." Vin dreaded facing his team because they just might make him the first test subject for how fast an Agent will hit the ground launched from an open window on their floor. Hell, Ezra would probably take bets to the half second. She started talking so he focused on her.
"Agent Tanner, I'm truly . . ."
The formality needed to go. If the woman could break into his home and set up his shower without him knowing, Harper deserved to call him by his first name. "It's Vin."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Ya can call me Vin. Never was one fer formality; 'sides, just cause we're enemies, don't mean we can't be friends." He grinned at her with a challenge in his eyes.
She studied him for a moment then nodded. "Vin, I am truly sorry if I caused you any undue distress. Please call me Harper."
"Why not your first name?"
"What does Vin stand for?"
He chuckled. "Point taken. Harper it is."
The Instructor eyed him closely and commented, "But you must admit your team asked for it."
He shrugged his shoulder and held his hands up. He stood reluctantly and headed for the door. "Guess the war's still on?" No one challenged Vin like this in a long while; this could be fun.
"May the better person win." She held out her hand.
He shook it quickly before moving for the exit. Pausing at the doorway, he smirked at her and made his parting shot. "I'll let Ez know you're takin' bets."
"He will not like the odds. See you at the self-defense refresher this afternoon. I wonder if they will wear more clothes than a nun's habit for that."
He grinned and winked at her as he tipped an imaginary hat, heading down the hall. She leaned back in her chair, still amused by their exchange. She looked forward to whatever the easygoing young man threw her way.
= = 7 = =
Six of the seven staggered their entry into their offices, all the while making sure the hallways were clear of people and no one saw them go in. Josiah arrived first, heading straight for the break room, trying the stronger dish soap beside the break room sink to eradicate the stripes. It did not work. He heard the door for their offices slam and highly agitated mumbling.
"I'm gonna rustle me up a Texan and have him for breakfast. Yes, sir, I will take his balls and shove them SO FAR up his..."
"Hello, Brother Buck. What ails you?" Josiah interrupted Buck, before the description became more detailed than he wanted to hear. The profiler concealed himself in the break room.
"Stupid, ornery mule-headed, soon-to-be-dead, good-for-nothing, low-down snake called Vin Tanner, is gonna die and nothing you can say will stop me from doing it." Buck stuck his head in the room and Josiah started laughing.
Finger marks stretched down Buck's face in varying shades of blue and his hair glistened with a blue-black crow shine. For once, the ladies man's shirt buttoned all the way to the top.
"What are you laughing at? You got more colors on you than a peacock in full bloom."
"At least I don't look like the Ty-D-Bowl(tm) man," Josiah retorted. "You want some help with your rustling?"
"If there's any killing involving Vin Tanner, y'all can stand in line," called their resident medic. "And this time I'm not fixing him back up."
Buck turned around and Josiah joined him in the doorway, staring at the bright orange discoloration on Nathan's dark skin. They burst into laughter, the incongruous sight causing their own troubles to be forgotten.
Nathan finally noticed their problems and chuckled along with them. "Have to say he's creative. Close as I can figure he put it in my shampoo bottle. Thought I was safe after I saw the shower water."
"Creative is what will happen once I locate that odious former compatriot of ours." The thick Southern drawl came from the entrance to the office, where the normally dapper man wore a black turtleneck and dress pants in place of his normal suit. Ezra's entire face was the green color of money and the expression promised a painful, Southern rebel death for his partner. The condition of his teammates finally registered in the undercover operative's face. "What happened here?"
The sight startled the ladies man. "Damn, Ez, you look like you're trying out for an alien for that new 'Star Trek' series. Can't see ya as a Southern Vulcan there, pard." Buck beamed, because at least his entire face was not coated like the undercover operative's.
Giving the taller man a complete once-over, Ezra exclaimed, "Dear Lord, Mr. Wilmington! You look like one of those blue men on that television program you rave about - what are they called? Bolians? And you, Mr. Jackson -- a walking traffic vest. We will not even discuss what Mr. Sanchez looks like."
"Hey, guys," said JD, tossing his coat on the rack. When he faced them, Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan broke into chuckles and that caused momentary embarrassment to show on the computer whiz's face. He figured he'd deal with it head on and said, "Okay, I know, I look like Barney the dinosaur."
"Kid, the way you're yapping, you sound more like Dino from the 'Flintstones'."
JD made a face at Buck. "At least I'm not blue from Inez turning me down," he retorted, dodging the automatic swing aimed at his head.
All humors ceased with the forceful slamming of the front office door. Five men turned, looked, and turned right away from the fatal kill-you-where-you-stand Larabee glare. Hands covered mouths and chins fell into chests to muffle the laughter. The door to the leader's office slammed hard enough to rattle the windowpanes in the office.
"I do believe it has become open season on zebras," Ezra wryly commented from a safe distance.
The door flew open and Chris pinned Ezra in place with piercing eyes. "I heard that. Not one f'ng word. The only thing I will allow any of you to say is Tanner's here. When that happens, find somewhere else to be. Am I understood?" With each step away from his office, he threatened the personal space of his men, and they reacted instinctively by moving closer together and away from him.
Once they were in a nice bunch, he noticed their discombobulated appearances and studied each in turn. Buck wore blue, probably for a broken heart; Nathan wore bright orange, probably for his EMT; Ezra wore green, probably for money; JD wore purple, probably for his constant purple lollipops; and Josiah sported a multitude of colors, probably for each of the different facets of his personality. Chris figured that worthless piece of shit sharpshooter gave him black out of some perverse sense of his nature. "That m'f'r got all of you, too?"
Slow nods greeted his pronouncement. "I'm first...you can have what's left." Before anyone could argue, they heard the door for their office open and everyone turned to look.
= = 7 = =
Tanner paused at the entrance to Team Seven's office and peered in through the glass doorway. Since he visited Harper's office first, he arrived later than usual. He could see all of his teammates were present, even Ezra, and gathered at the far end of the bullpen. Prepared for the inevitable, he took a deep breath and pulled open the door.
Wincing at the summons -- sometimes, he hated it when his friend did that -- he continued forward, keeping his head down and his face obscured by his long hair. Making his way toward his teammates, he stopped when he eyed the tips of the black boots that he knew belonged to Larabee. He could feel the variety of daggers being thrown his way in the form of 'if looks could kill' glares.
Silence permeated the air in deathly stillness, everyone waiting for the leader to take the first strip of hide from the resident jokester.
Larabee took a deep breath and tried to calm his boiling anger. "Vin . . .I have put up with a lot of your practical jokes and gags...but this...this is going too far."
Vin bit the inside of his cheek, trying hard to contain his laughter. He took perverse pleasure in the fact that he was getting to reap a little joy in someone else's practice joke. A joke he could admire for the cleverness and the skill in the execution. He looked forward to the gauntlet thrown down this morning, one that he happily picked up and carried to them. But first, he had to set his errant colleagues straight, and extract a little revenge himself for their faithless accusations.
"Well, Junior?" Wilmington grew impatient as he clenched and unclenched his hands in anticipation of settling his own retribution. Vin just went a touch too far this time and needed to learn a lesson. This explanation better be good.
Slowly, still trying to keep a stern face, the sharpshooter raised his head to meet the green glare of his friend. They were even funnier looking up close, now that he could see the damage she wrought in one smooth stroke, all of it brought on by their own behavior.
Taking in the pale red lines streaking down the sides of his face and the now noticeable red highlights in the longish brown hair, Larabee's glare faded as his frown deepened. There was no logic in the trickster pulling the stunt on himself. "It wasn't you."
Vin quirked an eyebrow at Chris's remark that told his friend, 'No shit, Sherlock!', but remained silent, waiting for Larabee to figure it out.
It took to the count of five for the light bulb to blink on in the minds of the six astonished Agents as they declared in unison, "Harper!"
"Took y'all long enough. How dare y'all, anyway, blamin' me. Ya think I would do something like this? Ta all of y'all, at the same time? I ain't got a death wish. Y'all owe me an apology." He glared at each of them in turn. "And lunch."
Feet shuffled, throats cleared, and finally JD went first. "Sorry, Vin."
"I apologize for my incorrect assumption, Mr. Tanner."
"Vin, I'm sorry I jumped to conclusions."
Green eyes met blue eyes in silent understanding. The words were too hard for Larabee, so Vin let him off with the non-verbal apology.
Once Larabee received the nod of acceptance, he faced his men. "I'm going for a walk. If you hear screaming, ignore it." Plopping his favorite Stetson on his head, he tugged the brow low to cover the striping on his face and pulled his collar up to cover his neck. Chris felt he resembled that zebra Ezra talked about and hated every minute of it.
Storming down to the Training Complex, he aimed for her office, only to find it closed and locked. He did not bother with the schedule outside her door; he stalked to the Training Center. A large sign on the outside of the closed doors read, "CENTER CLOSED - TESTING IN PROGRESS. DO NOT DISTURB."
In his current state, he ignored the sign and ripped the door open. A classroom full of students stopped taking their tests and stared at him. From in the front of the room, a pair of hazel eyes flamed. "Class, put your pencils down and close your test books. I will be back in one moment. No one will talk in my absence, nor will any of you open your test books. Disobey my instructions and I will remove you from the classroom with an immediate disqualification. Am I understood?" When they nodded, she walked straight down the aisle, grabbed his arm in a painful grasp, and dragged him into the small break room. Closing the door, she finally let go. "What is the meaning of this?" she hissed, tapping her foot on the floor and crossing her arms.
"What is this?" Chris returned, pointing at his face.
"Can you read?" asked Harper, ignoring his question.
"Then tell me why you ignored the sign? Or does your anger overrule your good sense?"
"Harper," he started, cut off immediately by the irritating, annoying female in front of him.
"Instructor Harper, and Shut Up, Agent Larabee, before I am forced to write you up for interfering in a testing procedure. I am not joking now. If you had bothered to check my schedule or read the obvious LARGE sign on the door, you would know I am administering an exam. Now, whatever business you have with me will wait until the self-defense refresher at one o'clock this afternoon. I will be testing until that point."
"Just a minute - "
She cut him off again. "What part of shut up don't you understand, Agent Larabee? I will see you at one this afternoon. This meeting is over." Turning, she presented her back, opened the door, and closed it in his face. By the time he opened it again, she had closed the Training Center doors. His fist buried in the break room door before he gathered his shattered, furious composure and walked back upstairs. His entire demeanor screamed for everyone to clear a path, which they did, without noticing in his or her fear the streaks on the furious leader's face.
He reached his office and slammed the door as an announcement of his arrival. Six men stared, and then looked away as the door to his office bounced off the back wall before banging closed with a heavy thud.
"Must not have went well," Nathan commented.
"Got him pissed off again? She makes a habit out of that." Buck agreed with a head bob.
"Don't think it took much." Vin pointed out.
"A lovely shade of black. I wonder what product she used for that effect?" drawled Ezra.
"She is a perverse, capricious creature, brothers, and one worthy of our notice." The profiler added as he stretched out his legs.
"Yeah, Josiah, but I wish he didn't take out his black moods on us." It took a second before they all started laughing at JD's unintentional pun.
"Any of y'all having trouble cleaning that stuff?" the medic asked the room at large.
"Sprayed some stuff to clean it. Hopefully it will be gone when I get home tonight."
"Yeah, it scrubbed right up," said Vin. "I'm gonna enjoy that lunch y'all are buying fer me today."
Buck snorted. "Who said we're buying you lunch, Junior?"
"Because y'all feel real bad about accusing me of somethin' I didn't do. That ya blamed me before thinkin' things through."
"He's got us there, brothers. Count me in." Eventually the rest of the Seven agreed to pay with the noted exception of their leader currently ranting in his office.
Chris grabbed the telephone and dialed before he thought about the consequences.
"That woman is a menace and does not deserve to be an ATF Agent." His words clipped out into the receiver through a clenched jaw and grinding teeth.
It took a moment for the AD to recognize the voice. "Chris?"
"You have to do something about her. She's rude, pushy, and went too damn far."
"Chris, calm down and tell me what happened." The AD used his best command tone, hoping the ex-military man would respond. What could have Harper done to them? His secretary told him about the singing telegram, the roses, and the car this morning when he came in. Travis knew Harper would retaliate immediately and from the sounds of it, she retaliated in a big way if she infuriated Chris this much.
"Your little pet project Harper. She's out of control."
At least the voice sounded calmer. "What exactly has she done?"
"She turned me into a zebra and my team into a laughingstock!"
A zebra? This sounded interesting. "Chris, come up to my office so we can discuss this rationally."
"I'm not walking the halls like this!"
"All right. I'll be right down." He disconnected, informing his assistant he would be taking a walk and be back shortly.
Stepping into Team Seven's office, he immediately saw Ezra's green face. "Standish! What happened?"
"A she-devil on a rampage."
That was probably the shortest sentence he ever got from the long-winded Southerner, and probably all the information he would receive. He looked over at Nathan and saw orange?
"Agent Jackson, what is on your skin?"
"Either Jell-O(tm) or Kool Aid(tm)," the medic replied with a resigned sigh, while working on paperwork.
Josiah passed him with a smile. "Hello, sir."
"Hello, Josiah." He stared at his face. "What happened to your face?"
"Retaliation," the profiler replied, a cryptic half-smile on his face.
Taking a deep breath, AD Travis looked around the rest of the office. "Agent Wilmington, please tell me why you look like one of those fellows on that computer commercial."
Buck grinned at him. "I got on the wrong side of a siren."
These enigmatic remarks needed to go. "Agent Tanner? Why is your hair red?"
"Tryin' something new." His sardonic grin gave nothing away about the origin of the coloring.
"And Agent Dunne?"
"Sir?" JD looked up from his computer, exposing his purple streaks.
"Why do you look like Billy's Barney?"
"Haven't figured that one out yet, sir."
The door flew open and a highly agitated Chris Larabee swept the room with a glare. His green laser beams settled on the AD and he held the portal open, waiting for his boss to go inside before closing it, leaving the two men alone.
"Chris, is your team trying out a new type of camouflage today?"
The leader faced him and then Travis saw the black lines down his face. He bit back a chuckle; zebra was an accurate description.
"Your pet did this!" Chris roared, his restraint so obviously gone.
"That demented vulture you call Harper."
Oh boy. He had heard Harper often pulled things on a grand scale, but this was something. They had this coming and he felt no sympathy, but he could not have his crack team look like rejects from a makeup convention. "You have proof?"
"Proof? You want proof?" Both hands slammed palms down on his desk. "Who else is stupid enough to do something like this?"
"Agent Tanner," the AD calmly replied.
"He didn't do it."
"So you have evidence."
"I don't need it. I know she did it."
"Chris, we have something called innocent until proven guilty in this country. Don't jump to conclusions."
Larabee continued to rant, pacing back and forth in front of a almost grinning Travis. "This is ridiculous, sir, we cannot work with her."
"Strange, I thought you all fit very well together." He interlaced his hands and waited.
Chris's gaze jerked up to his employer's gloating face. His eyes narrowed as he said, "You planned this."
Travis attempted looking bewildered. "I have no idea what you mean Chris."
Suspicion filled his gaze when he tried looking Travis in the eyes. "You've been setting us up."
Travis knew Chris to be sharp; that was what made him so good. It surprised him that Chris and his team took this long to figure something was up. That showed how well Harper rattled people's cages. Chris and Harper would work well together in the near future, if what might need to be done in the future came to pass. "I'm sure you two can come to some sort of working agreement," he paused, heading toward the door, and added, "in an adult manner."
"What are you planning? You're up to something, trying to slip out before I can ask any questions."
"Remember what I said about innocent before proven guilty, and don't worry; I'll step in if I feel her pranks are something you can't handle." Travis chuckled to himself as he opened the door. Stopping once again, he turned back to a stunned Larabee, and gave him a stern look. "Of course that will go both ways." Biting his lip at the look of total disbelief on the blonde's face, he added a parting shot. "Oh, and Chris, check with our lab, I'm sure they would have something that can remove those stains. We must remember appearances count."
He disappeared from their offices leaving a shocked leader and six victims in his wake. He made it wearing a straight face as far as the elevator doors closing before howling with laughter. When the elevator reminded him he had not pushed a button, he wiped his face with his handkerchief and pushed the appropriate button. Fresh chuckles started when he heard, "SON OF A BITCH!" coming from the offices he just left.
= = 7 = =
"SON OF A BITCH!" Larabee roared. Chris stomped out of his office and yelled, "He's playing us!"
"Chris, you might want to calm down there. Your face does not need red to go with the black. Then you'll look too much like the devil." Buck shuddered. "And I'm thinking you'd win if you went up against him right now. So settle down."
The blond stared at his oldest friend, too angry to be placated. "Shut up, Buck, and listen to me." He took a deep breath and said, "We've been led by our noses and didn't even know it."
"You'll have to explain that, Chris," said Nathan, an inquisitive look on his face. "Take a couple more breaths to get your blood pressure down. I don't want you to have a stroke."
Glaring at Nathan, but doing what the paramedic asked, Chris said, "Harper. All of it. It's been a set up from the get-go." He wondered how he never saw it earlier. Either Harper knew nothing about it, or she was that good. The leader watched their faces for the revelation.
Buck tried fitting all the pieces together and failed miserably. "Pard, spell it out."
"Dear Lord!" exclaimed Ezra. "It is so obvious someone with limited intelligence should have seen this. Mr. Larabee?"
Ezra explained to the others, "Assistant Director Travis planned from the beginning, gentleman, for us to take Harper under our collective protection."
JD snorted half his soda and blew the other half all over Josiah. "Sorry, 'siah. What in the hell are you talking about Ezra? Us protecting Harper? That's insane."
Standish stared at Josiah, watching the thoughts pass over his face.
Josiah absentmindedly cleaned the carbonated, caffeine-laden beverage from his face, still thinking the situation through. The pieces started falling together -- the forced recertification class, her efforts in getting them training, the practical jokes...Mentral...no, not Mentral, but the effect was the same. Each action forced her closer into their circle as either a friend or enemy depending on the mood. He sagely nodded his head. The master tactician Travis outmaneuvered them and they did not realize it with the diversionary tactics of a highly trained Agent who was probably unaware of her own manipulation. "Brothers, we've been had." He looked at Nathan because he saw Nathan's face slowing comprehending.
Nathan obviously reached the same conclusion, nodding his head. "Yup."
Vin muttered, "Damn, she's good." He looked over at the youngest, who had started walking, talking, and waving his hands.
"We've been set up to take care of Harper and protect her from everyone who hates her in the building," JD said. He looked at them for confirmation.
The Southerner gave their youngest a sardonic grin. "A duty we voluntarily took upon ourselves based on the circumstances. I highly doubt even the she-devil is aware of the level of manipulation perpetrated on her person."
"She better not be aware," their leader said, "or she will pay dearly for it." His tone clearly implied a threat.
The paramedic redirected the conversation. "To what end?" asked Nathan. "Why would the Assistant Director want her protected by us? Yes, we saved her from Mentral, but we can't watch her twenty-four/seven. It doesn't make any sense."
Chris ran his hands down his face before replying, "Some other reason only he knows. Or she does. I'll just have to ask her during class today."
"In your mood, Stud, asking is going to sound a whole hell of a lot like an interrogation."
"Then she won't last long." Chris smirked.
Harper finished giving the morning exams and the last student left. After forwarding the examinations to the review board, she checked her voice mail and found a message from AD Travis requesting she call as soon as she finished. Dialing, she stretched to the refrigerator and helped herself to some water.
"Hi, it's Harper. You wanted to talk to me?"
"I have an assignment for you."
"Now a good time?"
"Yes." He disconnected and Harper headed upstairs to his office, wondering what was up now. He already had her babysitting the jackasses of Team Seven. What more could he want?
His assistant let her in and Travis glanced up from his desk, motioning her to sit down. "Harper, I need your help."
"Whatever I can do, sir."
"I need you to perform research on an organization and an individual using your contacts." The AD knew she had a roster of contacts that would give her information, without alerting anyone they were doing so; this bought them consideration if they ever were caught doing something illegal.
"Of course." She pulled out a pad and inquired, "The name?"
"Harcourt Fenton." He handed her a folder with what little information Research discovered on him. Somehow, what Research found gave him the wrong feel and he wanted her take on it.
"Okay. How deep?"
Travis looked at her over his reading glasses. "Go as deep as you would if you were working it yourself."
She drew back a little bit. "I do that anyway, sir, and you know it. However, what you are requesting will be expensive and I will need your authorization."
"All right. What's my timetable?"
"Have everything ready within the next three to four weeks. I'll need it by then, so be thorough."
"Just be careful. I don't want you upsetting the natives. Are we clear?"
"Then it will be more expensive than you thought, because there's only one source that can do that for me."
"Cost is not an issue."
"How are things with Team Seven?"
"Today's their self-defense refresher at one. We'll see how it goes."
He crossed his arms and stared directly at her. "Let me say one thing: appearances need to remain professional. Am I understood?"
Her throat suddenly dried. He knew about this morning's retaliation. "My appearance is always professional," she replied, attempting misdirection to dodge the issue.
"As I expect so are your charges, correct? Because if I hear that something happened that I would need to act on, I will not hesitate to do so. Clear?"
As warnings went, that was very clear. No more food dye, Jell-O(tm) and Kool-Aid(tm) mixes. "Clear, sir."
"Yes, sir," she replied, standing and starting for his office door.
"Sir?" She turned and faced him.
"Off the record, that was one of the best practical jokes I don't know about. Whoever thought of that definitely would not be someone I would want to cross." His twinkling eyes betrayed his amusement although the rest of his face remained stern.
"No sir, I don't believe that would be a person to be crossed. I'm sure the victims are beginning to understand that. If I were the suspect, however, I would have to reinforce that opinion. As they say, I scream, you scream." Harper walked out on that note, leaving a highly amused AD behind her.
He had heard about the banana split sundae they made of her baby and saw the video from the parking garage cameras. Confiscating the tape before something official could come of it, he took it home and played it for Evie, who found the entire thing amusing. She felt that it was about time that someone challenged the 'boys' and gave them a person to be wary of, if not concerned about. Evie also hoped Harper would get even.
= = 7 = =
Harper returned to her office and started her search for information. Sitting at her computer, she logged into a program with a scrambler that would not allow anyone to trace her actions. She typed:
Hello! We have not talked in a while - you need to return your e-mails, darling, and I am requesting a favor. Drop me a line.
Almost immediately a reply appeared:
Subject: RE: Greetings!
It's been ages...I apologize...the beach has been outstanding this time of year. I've kept busy with my work and have not had time to chat. What can I do for you?
Harper accessed the chat rooms.
You have been invited to a private chat room. Click yes to accept.
The receiver marked the appropriate box and found Strummer waiting.Strummer: Hello, Masque! How are you?
Masque: Hello, Strummer...outstanding. What can I do for you?
Strummer: I need information.
Masque: That will be costly.
Strummer: I know.
Masque: :: Sigh :: On who?
Strummer: Harcourt Fenton.
Masque: You have expensive taste.
Strummer:So do you...on me. I need everything you can get without rattling the bushes.
Masque: How tempting. Give me a few hours.
Strummer: Thanks, Masque.
Masque: Anytime. I'll love the new Vera Wang dress you're buying.
Strummer: Enjoy and thanks.
Masque: Oh, I will. Tootles.
Harper leaned back in her chair with the confidence of knowing the information she would receive would be well worth the cost of the gown from the informant budget. Checking her watch, she saw it was time for the self-defense refresher for Team Seven. Maybe they found a way to clean off this morning's decoration, and perhaps Larabee had enough time to cool down. Then again, maybe not.
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