Chris walked into the Training Center with mixed emotions and a slight limp. He felt a little angry about all the maneuvering occurring behind his back regarding his team, and a little frustrated that he was kept out of the situation until the last possible moment. Yet he still held a bit of respect for both Harper and AD Travis for doing what they did to protect his team. His six men looked up at him, and their expectant faces did not make this part of the job easier.
"You look poleaxed, pard."
He met Buck's eyes and watched the surveillance expert immediately stiffen in his seat. "We've got problems."
"What kind of problems?" Nathan asked.
"Big ones." Chris propped his hip on the side of a table, taking the weight off his battered leg. "Someone's targeting us. We need to make it through our next couple of busts injury free."
The questions came in overlapping voices. Chris raised a hand and they stopped. "Some bean counter thinks we're too injury prone. That all our medical expenses are our fault for not following the rules."
"Where's the jackass?"
"Easy, boys, I'm just as pissed." Chris gave them a look.
"That nail-chewin' face gave that away. Reckoned Harper ticked ya off again."
"Figure I have reason to be pissed. If we don't make our next two outings injury-free, we could face a formal Inquiry Board."
"Dear Lord! That...that...that...help me out with a descriptive term, Mr. Wilmington."
"That low-down, maggot filled, dickless wonder."
"Thank you. He must have significant justification. Inquiry Boards require time and evidence to substantiate their formation."
"He's had time. Travis and Harper kept him at bay as long as they could."
"Meaning?" Josiah's eyes waited for the rest of it.
"Meaning they've launched a counter-attack to discredit the jackass. Ezra, Harper's responsible for your virus last week."
"Pray tell her reasoning for that calamity."
"Someone tried to hack into and copy your files."
JD practically leapt from the chair. "No way. I put plenty of firewalls and traps on our files. They're impenetrable."
"He got pretty far, JD, through yours and almost through Harper's blocks."
The computer expert looked pained. "I didn't know she put blocks on there."
Chris laid a hand on his shoulder. "You weren't supposed to, son. Harper designed them that way. The good thing is he took nothing but files full of gibberish and viruses back with him."
"I get it!" JD nodded to himself. "She created a secondary directory, a mirror image of the primary files, so if someone tripped a trap, or hit an invisible firewall, the primary immediately got wiped, and the secondary acted like the primary, leaving him time to copy the virus directory. When he backed out, thinking he got away clean, her program purged the virus directory and the primary, cleaning it out of all the viruses she planted. Making it so I could recover your data. The buh-bye you heard was her sense of humor about the whole thing. I thought the location of the files was weird, but didn't want to jinx myself and lose everything. Cool." He looked up to see five pairs of eyes glazing over, and a bright green pair belonging to one of the few people on this team that could and did follow his explanation.
"As long as you understand." Buck cuffed him on the back of the head.
"Quit it." JD whacked Buck back. "So Harper fed him his own problems. Did she make it user specific?"
Chris gave a quick, affirmative nod. "Our problem is making sure we don't break any regulations and stay healthy."
"Why would Harper do all this? She didn't know us until recently." JD asked.
"She has her reasons. I agree with them, but if you want to know, ask her yourself."
"Chris, I'm wondering about the videos. My guess would be that she wanted us to identify our own weaknesses and correct them." Josiah stared at his leader.
"I don't agree with her initial presentation, but she's right. We have a few things to fix."
"May I come in?" Harper stood in the doorway, a small plastic storage tub in her hands.
"You have them?"
"Good." Chris waved her in.
"Harpy, you're asking for an invite into your own classroom?" JD stared at her, a small smile playing on his lips. "I thought this was your domain."
"Agent...Chris and I agreed that he should be able to explain what's going on to you in private. Have you told them everything?"
"The basic points."
"Why?" Ezra held her in place with a stare. "Why help us, Instructor Harper? Why us, over all the other teams? Why do we get preferential treatment?"
"Self-preservation?" She answered with a tentative smile.
"Uh-huh. Try again."
"Time for a moment of brutal truth. I would hate to see a successful team torn apart because of some hypocrite that cannot follow the rules and waves them in defense of his actions. Do I break regulations? Yes, and I will admit that, but the ones I break will not get anyone killed. Am I perfect? Far from it. But I work for the same ATF you do, and I admire your impressive records. Yes, you boys break the rules all the time. For the most part, I do not believe you do it on purpose, because you just don't think about your actions. Your reactions are automatic, almost instinctual. Regardless, you do get results and many nasty criminals off the streets."
She took a breath before continuing. "Regarding the jerk stirring up trouble, his methods are wrong, and to me, his reasoning is suspect. This may surprise you, but I take no pleasure in writing up other Agents. However, I will not stand by and let someone that has a flagrant disregard for the rules and procedures stay on the job and possibly get someone killed. Therefore, if being the bitch, she-devil, Harpy, or whatever people choose to call me, obtains the desired results, then I can take a few shots at my reputation. I will be damned if I do not do my best to keep your team together. Satisfied?"
"I'm glad yer on our side." Vin gave her a two-fingered salute off his brow.
Four other faces showed their agreement to her reasons.
The leader met her look head-on, inclining his head to one side in acceptance, and telling her without words that her defense of Travis would remain between them. "Harper has fifteen videos of where we've made mistakes, or done something wrong. We're going to go over them one at a time."
"Not wrong, but unwise." Harper set the clear plastic storage tub beside the VCR.
"We'll identify the problems, come up with solutions, and after lunch, we're scheduled for some warehouse simulations."
"Yeah. Everything has to go down in a warehouse." Buck nodded his head.
"Isn't that rule somewhere?"
"No, JD, but warehouses often are the places where the goods are stored. We've upgraded the simulator to be more realistic." Harper fed the first video into the machine, taking the remote and handing it to Chris.
"You're giving me the remote?"
"I object to men having remotes on general principles, but right now, it will be better if you control it."
"Harper, did ya critique all of them?" Vin asked.
"Yes. My function, however, was defined to me as a silent spectator."
"I'd like ta hear yer ideas."
"Thank you, Vin."
Nathan cleared his throat. "Why don't we watch them ourselves, find what we can, and then have Harper go over it? We may see something she didn't, or vice versa. Part of correcting a problem is identifying the mistakes. If we can see our own mistakes, that's a big part of the battle."
"Brother Nathan is right. We can do ourselves more good if we find them ourselves, instead of having one person point them out to us." Josiah crossed his legs, looking for the entire world like a sage who just dispensed valuable advice.
Ezra sighed. "If we must."
"We must," Vin said in a fair imitation of the Southerner's voice.
"I'll say this once. No bean counter will break up my team. Period." Chris gave each man a significant look, reaffirming his commitment to him.
"Amen to that."
"Let's get to it." Buck rubbed his hands together.
During the next few hours, Team Seven ripped apart their own actions, finding their own faults and mistakes. Whenever someone missed one, another teammate pointed it out. No one harshly criticized another, nor did anyone take offense, although some good-natured ribbing did take place. The mood stayed relatively serious throughout, each person bringing his own perspective into play.
Harper sat back and watched, fascinated by the interaction. She saw a unity of purpose and almost a true brotherhood when they identified problems and offered solutions. It made her believe that these men truly were The Magnificent Seven. They discussed each idea, no matter how far-fetched or outlandish, and no one showed any ego bruising. She now understood why Travis told her to remain silent, offering her point of view only when asked. Her comments usually came after they finished one video and wanted to see if they missed anything.
They continued their discussion over lunch, inviting her to join them at the nearby deli. By the end of the meal, a plan developed on implementing the changes.
= = 7 = =
Reporting to the locker rooms, they changed into the jumpsuits and added the sensor nets supplied by Harper for the holographic attackers.
The simulator allowed someone in the Control booth, or using a remote, to start a program. This program, based on the level of difficulty selected, created computer-generated holographic opponents, who fired beams of light from pistols or rifles. If their beam of light hit a sensor on the jumpsuit, that person was 'shot', if not 'killed'.
Team Seven assembled in the center of the warehouse, surprised to find Harper in a jumpsuit.
"Thought this was for us." Chris gave her outfit a pointed look.
"It is for you. Regulations require I wear this, and demonstrate the upgrades. Have you worked this simulator since we improved it?" Harper checked their faces.
"Nope. Why don't you show us why we're trussed up like those people who believe wearing aluminum foil hats block the rays from outer space?"
"What a vivid description, Buck. Step under the perch, please." Harper waited until they filled the space below the Control room, jutting out partway into the warehouse. "I will be controlling the program. When you see the red flashing lights, stay where you are. Do not move so we can analyze what went right, and what went wrong. Each encounter will be filmed, and the tapes turned over to you at the end of training."
Harper walked over to the closet, unlocking it and revealing a padlocked cabinet. She entered three codes into the alarm panel keypad, and then opened the cabinet with a key. The Instructor removed a handgun from a drawer, leaving it open for now. She added a sensor net over her jumpsuit before moving to the center of the warehouse simulator.
"I'll set this for Level One so you can see what to do." From a pocket, she produced a small black device, punching a few buttons. A green light flashed all over the warehouse. She shifted the remote to her left hand, handgun to her right.
A see-through form of a man appeared on the catwalk above, firing a beam of light at Harper. She rolled out of the way, firing and dissipating the hologram with a fatal 'shot' of light from her specially designed handgun. She went through three more scenarios before stopping the program. The red light flashed, the crimson filling the interior with an eerie glow.
"As you can see, Level One does not present too much of a challenge. We use this for new Agents. It runs from Level One to Level Ten, programmable for the number of people participating. Where do you want to start?"
"Okay, Chris, you have it." Harper took them over to the cabinet, letting them chose the weapon that they felt the most comfortable with in the field. "Now that you're armed, go make your entry."
When they stood outside, they went over the new entry pattern again, one last time just to be sure they all knew where everyone else would - or should - be during the raid. They hit the doors and went. Level Five did not present a challenge, quickly terminating with no injuries.
"Take it to Seven."
This posed a bit more challenge, but not the degree Chris wanted.
"Nine?" Harper suggested as they took a breather.
"You will get killed."
"Maximum, Harper. We need to have it as real as possible."
"You asked for it. Enter when ready."
At this level, three of the Seven 'died' before clearing the door. The new plan fell apart when Chris and JD both dropped, quickly followed by Nathan trying to save them. Vin never made it to his high perch because of the 'deaths'.
Chris said, "Again."
The results were worse; now four 'died'. Vin made it to his rafter, but not in time to save his teammates.
"You want me to take it down to Nine?"
"No. We're making the same mistakes."
"Like coddling me." JD muttered this beneath his breath.
"No, we're not," Buck immediately replied.
"Chris, ya keep movin' around like that, yer gonna get killed. Find a hole, get in it, and stay there 'till I get up top and can give y'all some cover."
"I'm not moving around, Tanner."
Vin snorted. "Bull. Just remember - every time one of y'all moves, I've got ta keep up with ya and track yer baddies. Either work together and stagger yer forward push, or stay put and let 'em come ta ya."
"I would prefer not staying a stationary target."
"Ezra, I ain't complain' about ya - ya know when to find cover. I can bet on that. Just John Wayne down there thinks he's made of Teflon. Guess what, Chris, ya ain't. Bullets can hit ya."
"What else?" Harper encouraged the dialogue, since it brought things out into the open where they dealt with them and did not allow them to fester.
"I'm trying to stay with the pattern, but that's not working." Nathan shrugged.
"That's because the rest of us aren't." Buck rolled his shoulders, one hand on the back of his neck. "And that's screwing you up, leaving you open."
Josiah examined the weapon in his hand. "Making me cover for him, putting me out of position."
"Which pisses me off. Do y'all understand how hard it can be ta track the lot of ya? I know where yer supposed ta be, but ya ain't there. I gotta find ya, giving the scum opportunities ta shoot at ya." Vin sat on his rafter, glaring down at them. "I'm doin' the best I can, and this ain't workin', boys. I'm gonna miss somebody, and I don't want ta think about what will happen when I do."
"Well, if you didn't break cover to keep checking on me, no one would have to move as much, and Vin's job would be easier." JD glowered at all of them.
Chris ran a hand down his face. "Anything else? Let's get it all out in the open."
"I fear I have a small part in this fiasco." Ezra straightened his shoulders.
"I am not usually part of the entry team, Mr. Larabee. I'm already inside when this whole...debacle starts. Perhaps we could rework the simulation to account for that?"
"I'll reprogram it."
"Keeping all this in mind, let's try again."
Harper came down from her reprogramming, standing underneath the perch. "I'm going to run this down here. Maybe I'll see something different at ground level."
They went through it again, and again, and another time. Each person worked on fixing their mistakes, but this time hesitations caused them to be shot or die. Tempers rose and patience dwindled. Finally, one of them snapped.
= = 7 = =
"Will you stop mothering me?" JD yelled, as the latest simulation failed miserably with both Buck and Chris 'dead'. He walked away, stepping outside the warehouse.
Buck dropped his head and Chris ran a hand down his face. Nathan winced while Josiah watched, ready to interfere if needed. Ezra kept his own counsel. From high above, the whisper of a Texan curse filtered down to them.
"Okay, everyone, take ten." Harper strode over from her position against the wall. The men scattered in different directions aiming for their own interests, either a drink, the bathroom, or the youngest.
Buck and Josiah both started after their youngest only to have Harper step in front of them.
"Let me," she said. "I think I can get through to him." Without waiting for their acknowledgement, Harper walked after JD. She overheard their remarks on the way out.
Buck spoke first. "Think she'll get through?"
"Maybe, maybe not."
Taking a deep breath, the training Instructor left the warehouse simulation. She found JD leaning with his back against the wall; one knee bent, and both hands covering his face. Harper stopped near him and realized how young he was in years, especially considering his outburst requiring they treat him with maturity when he then left and sulked.
He never opened his eyes. "Go away, Buck."
"Sorry, but I am definitely not Buck."
One hand rose of his face to allow him to stare at her. "What do you want?"
"Sucks being the youngest, doesn't it?"
Her use of the word 'sucks' brought his full attention on her. "What would you know?"
"Youngest of seven kids and the only girl. My brothers call me Runt."
"Yes, Runt. Hated it and always will, but love it at the same time. Means they care. So answer me a question."
"Do you take them for granted?" She tucked a piece of hair behind her ear and tilted her head in his direction.
"Huh?" His other hand fell to his side, his eyes staring hard at her.
"Your team, your brothers. Do you take them for granted?"
"What do you mean?"
"Consider a life without them for a few seconds. We work in a dangerous business, and we could lose someone we care very much about at any time."
"That's a horrible thing to say!" His expressive eyes showed both the revulsion at the thought, along with the guilt of having thought about it already.
"And something you've considered. Am I right?"
He finally, reluctantly, nodded.
"Agent Dunne, let me paint you a picture."
"JD, then. Call me Harper or Harpy."
He gave her a smile. "I like Harpy."
"Wanna know a secret? So do I." They shared a grin. "Seriously, close your eyes and listen. Visualize this in your mind. It might help you to understand things."
"I'll try it." He closed his eyes and tipped his head back against the wall.
"Picture a pack of animals, a hunting pack. At their head is a large wolf, mean and nasty in the eyes, growling and snarling most of the time, circling the pack constantly and facing any threats against it head on. He does not back down from anything unless he chooses to do so. Anyone comes near his pack, he shows his teeth."
"Sounds a whole lot like Chris."
"Hush and keep listening." She liked his smile, secretly pleased he kept his eyes closed. "On his right stands a wolverine. Quiet, unassuming, but vicious when provoked. This wolverine loves solitude and enjoys being outside, free from the constraints of society. Forced to fight, there's no one more deadly."
"Vin," JD whispered.
"This wolverine helps the lead wolf circle the pack, checking over everyone and making sure they all are okay in his own quiet way."
"Oh yeah, that's Vin."
"On the other side of the leader stands a huge Great Dane. This Dane, bigger than most of his pack, acts the friendly sort to just about everyone, taking the measure of the person while still guarding his family. He plays the buffoon, the goof, and the Romeo to keep things light, but he also feels things very deeply, and he will take action to emphasize his point. He protects what's his with a streak of mean that most people don't think he's capable of, much less acting on."
"To one side lies an older wolf, silver all over his coat, serenely sitting there and laughing to himself every once in a while as he watches his pack. If someone strays too far, he will bring him back. If they look troubled, he will listen. However, do not underestimate him. He may be older than the rest of the pack, but beneath the surface lays a large, generous heart that competes with the instincts of a fighter. He will fight, and when he does, look out, but until that point, he will conserve his energy and watch the others with calm amusement. He learned when to fight and when to hold back, having earned wisdom in his years."
"The melanistic cheetah prowls around the outside of the pack as well, checking the well-being of his charges. He has eliminated all the fat from his body and left only pure muscle. His temperament honed through experience to deal with all the contrariness of six other pack animals that would rather suffer in silence than accept help. He will stand behind the leader and order people around with the same amount of authority, including the leader. He cares for each of them, but they sometimes fight against his orders."
"The beautiful fox keeps himself apart from the pack, but he's not allowed to stray too far. The older wolf and the wolverine will keep nudging the crafty animal back into the fold, no matter how many times the fox pushes them, or plays games with them. The fox enjoys tormenting the leader. The leader secretly enjoys it, often encouraging the banter between them. The cheetah will snap and growl at the fox and the fox will snap and growl back, but both respect the other even if they won't admit it."
"Finally, we have the youngest member. He is a proud wolf, but a young wolf. He is full of himself, learning arrogance from his pack, and has more energy than all of them combined. He exhausts the pack with his boundless enthusiasm and joy of living. Sometimes, more than they want to admit, he reminds them of what it was like to be young and they enjoy that. The problem comes because he is the youngest, and the pack feels responsible for him. Every member of the pack will do his best to protect the youngest, at any cost to themselves."
"You're talking about me now."
"When all seven are together, they are near invincible, but they have a weakness. The need to protect each other, especially the youngest, blinds them to the fact the youngest needs to learn his way. As much as the young wolf loves the pack, he must be an individual. And as much as the pack loves the young wolf, they need to learn to give him some room."
"So what's the young wolf supposed to do?" He opened his eyes and faced her.
"Let the Harpy offer suggestions."
"First, you have to realize how much they care about you, JD. Some of them would rather have a ten-penny nail driven through their anatomy than admit to you or themselves they care, but they do. Second, you have to figure out how to consider their feelings and balance them against your own independence. If you go slowly, you can do this and make them realize themselves you're a grown man who can take care of himself."
"I'd like that."
"Have any ideas?"
"What if I went in the building sooner? Maybe between Chris and Buck, that way Buck's behind me and won't break cover to check on me. He can see me that way."
"You can try it. How do you plan to propose it?"
"I thought so. I will take care of it."
"No." JD took a deep breath. "I'll do it."
"Trial by fire?"
"Yeah. If I want them to accept me as a man and not a kid, I'm going to have to act like a man."
"Can you give me a couple minutes?"
"Sure." She started walking the other direction to give them space.
"Runt?" Her head whipped around and he gave her a devil-may-care grin. "Just kidding, Harpy."
"Hey, I never called you the runt of your litter."
JD laughed and opened the door. "True, but at least I'm not a Harpy!" He closed it before she could protest and went to gather his pack. He liked that term - pack - for the seven of them.
"Guys? Can I make a suggestion?" JD waited for them to gather around.
"What?" Buck asked.
"First, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have gone off that way."
"No, Chris, it's not. I'm acting like the kid you tease me about being. I'm not, and I should stop behaving that way." JD took a fortifying breath. "I came up with an idea that might help."
Nathan said, "Let's hear it."
"What if I went in between Chris and Buck? Chris, you know I can shoot and watch your back; I'm almost as fast you are. This puts Buck behind me, somewhere he can keep an eye on me without breaking cover. He'll also catch what I miss."
"Good idea, JD." Vin had come down from the rafters earlier for a drink and now sat on a crate holding his bottled water. "That puts ya between the two mother hens and lets ya prove ya know what yer doin'."
"I do know what I'm doing, Vin, but I know all of you need to see it to be sure."
The team leader walked over to him, looking him in the eye. "Son, we never thought you don't know what you are doing." Chris kept his voice pitched soft. "You wouldn't be here if I thought you couldn't do it."
JD nodded. "I know, but for all this time you've treated me like the rookie. All of you. If you can shield me, you will. And I like that. I grew comfortable with it. But I have to pull my own weight, too. I can't stand the thought of someone getting killed because they're babysitting me."
"Nobody wants that, Kid."
"See, Buck, you don't even realize that you're calling me Kid. Nicknames are fine, but I have to show you I'm a man. If changing positions for now will help you see how far I've come, how much all of you have taught me, then I'll do it."
"At least, let's try what he suggests. I've been known to try anything once." Josiah smiled at JD, walking over to give him a supportive pat on the back.
"Okay, Ki - JD. We'll give it a go."
"Whatever it takes to end this torture, count me in." Ezra looked up from his seat on the metal staircase. "Find the she-devil, Mr. Dunne. I am not moving unless required."
"Harpy?" JD yelled, walking over to the door. "We're done." He opened it and stuck his head out. You can come in."
Harper entered the warehouse, finding all of them - including Ezra - preparing for another round. "You boys ready?"
"Whatever comes," Josiah said. He winked at her.
"Okay. Make your entry."
The simulations went smoother after the talk and the break. Chris remembered to stay put, or as put as he could, letting the others work their magic and forward their advance. Ezra found cover and held it, using his position to keep people pinned down until Vin set up in the rafters.
The teamwork started showing, JD catching everything aimed at Chris' back, and Buck watching over both of them. Nathan was able to stay with the forward momentum of the team, now knowing where they were and where he was in relation to them, eliminating the guesswork. Josiah pulled up the rear, after exchanging places with Nathan, giving the big man a better chance of keeping their back exit clear if they needed a quick retreat.
Only one person was 'shot' in the first run through, and that was for a slow reaction, not because of their earlier problems. They continued practicing until their time was up, and they agreed they felt more comfortable with the new arrangement.
Harper stepped forward. "Do you want to try this against the State Team?"
A collective 'Yes' came from the group in answer to her question.
"Give me your weapons and sensor nets." She collected their gear, locked it away, and then went over to the telephone.
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