Team 7 arrived at the 'Saloon' to find the parking lot so full double-parking was standard. The surrounding streets held lines of cars and they had to circle around three times before finding places to leave their vehicles. They met up at the front door, hearing the crowd before entering.
"Wonder what's going on?" Buck asked.
"Find out soon enough," Chris replied.
Seven men walked into the foyer, and Inez's bouncer smiled. He reached over and rang the old brass bell three times before waving them in. A cheer rose from the interior, almost deafening in the intensity. The crowd surged forward for the 'guests of honor'.
Chris planted his feet and stared, taking in the high number of women, most of whom he recognized from the Federal Building. The men wore sympathetic looks and smirks, raising Larabee's self-preservation hackles.
"Hello, ladies. Were you waiting for me?" The ladies man gave them a welcoming smile and stepped around Chris. "Because if you are, here I am." Immediately, four women surrounded him and led Buck to Team Seven's usual booth, kept empty expressly for them. More women 'helped' the Seven to their booth, which caused most of the boys to be filled with a sense of impending doom.
JD spotted Kerry in the throng. "Hey, Kerry. What's going on?"
The wicked grin she gave him did nothing to encourage him. "You'll see soon enough."
Ezra walked a crooked path to the bar, politely dodging well-meaning women. "Inez."
She ignored, or did not hear him.
Standish tried again, a little louder this time. "Inez!"
Buster Burton from Team Six dropped his hand on Ezra's shoulder. "She isn't going to help you, pansy. You're on your own."
Standish replied with an elegant shoulder shrug, an attempt to dislodge the hand. "Pray tell, Agent Burton, why you believe I am in need of assistance." He faced his nemesis.
Buster chuckled. "You'll see soon enough." He released Ezra, walking back to his teammate Joey, currently standing near Inez.
At the booth, Vin said, "I've got a bad feeling about this."
"Whatever comes," said Josiah. Outwardly, his composure showed the impression of having no cares.
"Sometimes, Josiah, I envy your balance."
"Thank you Nathan, but you have your own."
"Oh, Lar-a-bee!" Ellen's voice rose above the din, and they spotted her near the bar. "Feeling a little nervous yet?"
"Should I?" Chris said, a clear challenge in his tone.
"Yes," she replied.
Inez arrived at their table holding a tray laden with drinks. She started passing them out.
"Inez, darlin', what's this?" Buck looked mistrustfully at the tall glass.
"Your order, Senor."
"I know I didn't order this."
Josiah took a tentative sip. "Harp's."
The meaning of that word instantly raised the suspicions of Team Seven. Harp's equaled Harper. Whatever was about to happen, the Instructor sent the message she claimed responsibility. Seven pairs of eyes met and held for an instant.
Ellen's voice broke the moment. "Now that you have refreshments, let's get to it."
"Last drink for the condemned, courtesy of the condemner!" Joey White, from Team Six, drew laughter from the assembled patrons and Agents with his announcement.
Ellen rang Inez's triangle bell. "If I could have your attention?"
When they looked, Team Six's leader stood on one end of the bar with a string in her hand. The end of it fell below the bar, out of sight.
Looking brave, Chris stood and said, "Do it, Ellen. Just remember, whatever she's paying you, it's not enough." His hand never touched the Harp's.
"Oh, nobody's paying me anything for this. This is a freebie. Buster, you ready down there?"
"Hell, yeah." Buster was standing and balancing himself on top of the opposite end of the bar, the other end of the string in his hand.
"Ladies, Gents, and you working stiffs, can I have a drum roll, please?" Ellen waited for all present (except Team Seven, watching in morbid curiosity) to hammer out a loud drum roll on the bar, chairs, tables, and each other. Over the din, Ellen yelled, "We hoist the flag in honor of Team Seven!" Simultaneously, she and Buster lifted their ends of the string and tied them to the hooks above the bar. A roar of approval grew louder from the crowd.
Team Seven stared in disbelief. Seven pairs of underwear hung in a line, stretching from one end of the bar to the other. Beside each pair, a white flag, with the black number "7" in the center, waved merrily. Writing almost completely obscured the number.
Not one man made a move toward their underwear, and no one gave any indication about which pair belonged to whom. Their eyes just swept from left to right down the line, and each man privately wondered how Harper found them. Well, they knew how she found them, but they wanted to know how she took them out without their knowledge.
The furthermost left pair was a leopard print, bikini style. The next pair was deep red, almost crimson silk boxers with a distinctive designer label on them. A dark blue thong, dwarfed by the white flags on either side, hung with the thin strip facing the appreciative crowd. Bright green and red, covered in printed Christmas balls, the boxers lit up in a strategic spot, merrily blinking red right now. A second thong hung on the line, but this one was electric blue, the color warring with the blinking red just a little down the line. It was also hung with the string side facing out. The next pair almost seemed like a letdown. A sedate tan in color, the boxer-briefs looked out of place with the more exotic pairs around it. The last pair more than made up for the previous pair. Black leather, the thong gleamed dully in the dimmed lighting, the silver chain sides winking as the line swayed.
Anger on his face, Chris Larabee took a step forward. His hand reached for the line.
Tony stopped him, ignoring the Larabee glare.
"Ah-ah-ah," Ellen said. "Read your note first." She nodded to Cecil, who handed Chris a sealed envelope.
The crowd laughed softly, but waited in hushed quiet for Larabee to find out the rest and react.
Chris ripped open the envelope and removed the single sheet of paper.
Since you found it highly amusing to humiliate me in the front lobby of the Federal Building, I thought I would return the favor.
Each of you will have a specific task to do before you are allowed to 'Claim Your Flag'. Team Six has graciously volunteered to ensure you complete your duty.
I heard you boys can hold your liquor, so I would recommend that you succeed at your tasks, or all of us will find out how true that will be.
See you next week,
Chris raised his eyes to Ellen, who winked at him. He narrowed his eyes. "Buck, you die."
"What did I do?"
He thrust the note at Buck, who sputtered, and then passed it on. This let the others decide how they wanted to handle this...situation.
Larabee knew what he would do, but refused to act for all of them.
"What are the tasks?" Josiah finished off his Harp's.
"They're in a hat and sealed. Even we don't know."
"That was informative," Ezra said, a frown on his features.
"What's ta stop me from grabbin' what's mine?" Tanner stood, taking a step toward the bar. Immediately, two members of Team Six blocked his forward momentum.
"Us." Nottingham grinned evilly. "I'll enjoy knocking you on your butt, too."
"Pack a lunch." Vin sneered at him.
"Don't have to. Comes down to how badly you want your underwear back. Which ones are yours, Tanner? The women know, but they won't share."
Vin stayed still, not wanting to reveal his secret. He planned to rip the whole line down, but this stopped him in his tracks.
At the booth, JD punched Buck. "This is your fault."
"Like hell!" Wilmington indignantly replied.
Dunne poked him in the chest. "You sent her the telegram. You set this in motion."
"He's got you there, Buck."
"I know which ones belong to you, Stud. Want me to point them out?"
"No. Shut up." Larabee glared at Wilmington.
"We all know the light-up ones are yours, Wilmington. That's obvious." Buster yelled. Everyone laughed, and all the women looked at each other before laughing harder.
Buck smiled. "I bought them, but they're not mine." He noticed the men scowled as they re-evaluated, while the women brightened.
Nathan stood, got out of their booth, and said, "So, if all seven of us perform the seven tasks, the line comes down."
"Yeah, or you can claim them as each of you finish. If they stay on the line, though, all Seven have to win." Buster bobbed his eyebrows.
"We'll do it, Chris," JD said. "I'd hate to hurt Team Six all over again. Nah, I'd enjoy that. I just don't want Inez mad at us for destroying her bar."
"Gracias, Senor." The bartender and owner flashed him a smile.
"Just so we're clear, all of you are participating?" Ellen gave them each a piercing look, waiting for them to agree individually. Seven nods - some reluctant - gave her the answers she requested. "Let's get to it. Who's first?" She stayed standing on the bar, Joey White on the other end of it, guarding the ties for the line so that Team Seven did not try anything.
= = Task One = =
"I'll go!" JD volunteered, wanting to get this ordeal out of the way.
A round of cheers greeted his offer, and Buck clapped him on the back for support. The computer expert reached into the upside down cowboy hat, held by Kerry, and pulled out an envelope. Opening it, he read the contents and smiled. "Piece of cake."
Kerry, as the official task reader, snatched the paper from him and read it aloud. "Balancing Act: Take two full trays of cups and water, lift them over your head, and make three complete laps around the bar. You cannot spill one cup, or you start over. To the adoring crowd: intentional physical acts to cause him to spill are prohibited. Words of encouragement, or other phrases not of encouragement, are allowed."
"Inez?" JD asked.
"I'm almost done filling the cups. Let me add you spill, you clean it up."
"You missed the back." She read the back of the paper. "Penalties: When a cup spills, one penalty shot of whiskey will be assessed for each cup, not to exceed three shots at one time. If person completes one lap then spills, he will receive a penalty of one shot, plus up to three for spillage. If person completes two laps then spills, two shots, plus the up to three for spillage." Kerry smiled. "Don't spill."
"Not a problem." JD gave his cockiest smile.
Inez said, "Are you ready, Senor?"
"Then come here." The bartender helped him raise the first tray, then assisted in lifting the second. "Buena suerte."
JD stood still for a minute, adjusting to the weight, before taking his first step. It went well, so he took another. And another. Before he realized it, he was halfway through his first lap. He finished it, feeling triumphant, and started his second.
The crowd stayed quiet for the first lap, letting him finish it and get into a higher penalty bracket. When he walked by Kerry, she said, "Nice ass. Can I pinch it?"
Reflexively, he started to turn his backside away from her, but halted when he heard the cups shifting ominously above his head. "No." He continued on his way.
"You're about to step on your shoelace!" This call came from somewhere in the crowd.
JD went to look down and stopped when he felt the left tray slide. "Bull." He kept going, promising not to fall for that.
"He's going to drop it." Another patron yelled at him, as he finished his second lap.
"Are your wrists hurting?"
"How heavy is that?"
"You can't do it."
"Watch that stool there!"
The noise level grew; constant insults and comments thrown at him without break. A few people screamed just to startle him. The weight of the two fully laden trays took its toll, and the two trays were not as high, but still above his head. When he passed his team, they nodded their encouragement.
"Finish it, JD." Chris gave him a look that said the leader felt completely confident JD could do this task.
The people refused to give up their chance. The yelling rose in volume, and the chant of "Go! Go! Go!" overrode everything else.
Arms aching, concentration evident on his face, JD finished his third lap and carefully put the trays down. His eyes showed him not one drop of water spilled.
"He did it!" Inez yelled. The crowd cheered his accomplishment. After all, this was all in fun. She gave him his regular drink, and he returned to his table relieved and triumphant. His teammates congratulated him.
= = Task Two = =
"Next?" Ellen's unholy grin created feelings of dread in all of them, combined with the obvious enjoyment of her task.
"Ezra? You're volunteering."
"Yes, Mr. Wilmington. The sooner I finish, the quicker I can enjoy your humiliation." He went over to Kerry and selected an envelope. Reading the contents, no one could see a flicker of distress on his face. He handed it to her to read.
She read aloud. "Silver Tongued Devil! A tongue twister." Cheering broke out. "Your mission: to say this tongue twister three times fast. Each time you make a mistake - and you will - the penalty will be one shot of whiskey. It will be read to you aloud, then said one line at a time with you repeating the line, and then you will be allowed two minutes practice." Kerry looked at him.
Ezra nodded, motioning her to go.
"Okay. Here's the tongue twister." She cleared her throat.
"I ain't the mother pheasant plucker,
And I ain't the mother pheasant plucker's son,
But I'll pluck that mother pheasant,
Until the mother pheasant plucker comes!"
"Pluck me!" Notthingham yelled.
Laughter echoed around the room, and several people tried to say the tongue twister with minimal degrees of success.
Kerry said, "For Ezra: I ain't the mother pheasant plucker."
"I ain't the mother pheasant plucker." The Southerner sounded strange saying this.
"And I ain't the mother pheasant plucker's son."
"And I ain't the mother pheasant plucker's son." He managed to say it right again.
"But I'll pluck that mother pheasant."
"But I'll pluck that mother pheasant."
"Pluck away, pansy!"
"Shut up, Buster, and let me get through this reading." Kerry paused.
"Last line: Until the mother pheasant plucker comes!"
"Until the mother pheasant plucker comes!" Ezra dutifully repeated.
"Start your two minutes - NOW!" Kerry timed him with her watch.
Ezra recited the words to himself, his lips moving with little sound coming from his mouth.
"Time's up. Three times fast."
"Wait. Allow me to line up the shots." Inez poured a line of whiskey shots within easy reach of Standish.
"I ain't the mother pheasant plucker, and I ain't the mother pheasant plucker's son, but I'll pluck that mother pheasant, until the mother pheasant plucker comes. I ain't the mother pheasant plucker, and I ain't the mother pheasant flucker." Ezra took a shot and grimaced.
"Hoo! Hoo! Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!"
"Again." Ezra started over. "I ain't the mother pheasant plucker, and I ain't the mother pheasant plucker's son, but I'll pluck that mother pheasant, until the mother pheasant plucker comes! I ain't the mother pheasant plucker, and I ain't the mother fleasant. Aw, hay-ell." The Southerner slammed another two fingers of whiskey back.
"Go, Standish, Go, Standish." Joey yelled from his position above the bar, still guarding the line ties.
The normally smooth-speaking Standish opened his mouth and said, "I ain't the mother plucker feasant." This shot went down quick.
"Ez, ya need some help over there?"
"Mr. Tanner, I am perfectly capable of saying a child's riddle."
"Yeah, right, and ya already got three shots in ya."
"Watch and learn." Gathering his composure, he said, "I ain't the mother pheasant plucker, and I ain't the mother pheasant plucker's son, but I'll pluck that mother pheasant, until the mother pheasant plucker comes! I ain't the mother pheasant plucker, and I ain't the mother pheasant plucker's son, but I'll pluck that mother pheasant, until the mother pheasant plucker comes. I ain't the mother pheasant plucker, and I ain't the mother pheasant plucker's fon." His shoulders drooped as he took another shot.
"I'm watching, Ez, but I ain't learnin'."
"Shut up, Mr. Tanner." More frustrated with himself, he tried again. "I ain't the mother pheasant plucker, and I ain't the mother pheasant plucker's son, but I'll pluck that mother pheasant, until the mother pheasant plucker comes! I ain't the mother pheasant plucker, and I ain't the mother pheasant plucker's son, but I'll pluck that mother pheasant, until the mother pheasant plucker comes. I ain't the mother pheasant plucker, and I ain't the mother pheasant plucker's son, but I'll f-." This shot was a little sloppy, but none spilled. It just wasn't pretty to watch.
The crowd cheered anyway, enjoying the sport.
"I didn't know ya knew that word!"
"Your turn is coming!" A new light of determination filled his eyes. "I ain't the mother fleasant flucker." His head nearly impacted with the bar when it fell, but the shot went down.
The crowd ate it up, laughing hysterically at the slurring beginning to appear in the smooth voice.
"Last time. "I ain't the mother pheasant plucker, and I ain't the mother pheasant plucker's son, but I'll pluck that mother pheasant, until the mother pheasant plucker comes! I ain't the mother pheasant plucker, and I ain't the mother pheasant plucker's son, but I'll pluck that mother pheasant, until the mother pheasant plucker comes! I ain't the mother pheasant plucker, and I ain't the mother pheasant plucker's son, but I'll pluck that mother pheasant, until the mother pheasant plucker comes!"
"'Bout time ya finished." Vin said, just as Ezra sat down.
"Fluck you, Vin." He raised his voice. "Mr. Tanner volunteers to be next."
= = Task Three = =
Giving the buzzed Southerner a hearty shove, Vin stood and headed for Kerry. He noticed Chris finished his Harp's and signaled Inez for his usual beer. The Harp's reminded Tanner that Harper was nowhere around. Vin looked directly at Ellen. "Where's Harper?"
Ellen said, "On her way to New York City for a seminar. She won't be back to work until Monday. But don't worry, we're videotaping this for her."
"Turn the cameras off!"
"Sorry, Chris, but they're run by Harper's computer, and we don't have the code." Ellen held her hands out and shrugged with an insincere smile on her face.
"I can try, but it will be hard. She's probably made it tougher."
"I'll kill her later." Chris swallowed half his drink, a dark scowl on his face.
"Where's the hat?" Vin looked at Kerry, who held it out to him. Tanner picked an envelope, read it, and grimaced. "Bucklin, this one was yours."
"What's it say?" Wilmington started over to see the task.
Kerry snatched it before Buck could. "Ladies Man. You have three options. One: pick three girls and kiss them senseless."
"You're right; that was mine!"
"It's not now, so don't argue!" Tony yelled.
"Two: Moon the entire bar for five seconds."
A woman yelled, "I like that!" Female catcalls filled the bar.
"Three: Drink a pint of whiskey straight in five seconds. And since I'm Irish, a pint would be the same size glass that your Harp's came in. If option three is chosen, and the subject fails, the penalty of completing either one or two will be assessed."
"Gimme the whiskey."
Inez silently set the tall glass before him, filled to the same level of a Harp's with amber liquid.
Vin wrapped his hand around it. "Someone gonna drive me home?"
"Got you covered!" JD yelled.
Taking a deep breath and exhaling, then taking another and holding it, Vin grabbed the glass and upended it. When he finished, he checked Kerry's face.
"Pucker up, or give us a moon!"
"Stuff it, Ezra!"
The now drunk undercover Agent was paying his tongue twisting tormenter back. His intoxicated demeanor, now courtesy of three Harp's and further fueled by the numerous shots, had the usually poker faced operative making kissing faces and puckering his lips in his teammate's direction.
Nathan shoved a glass of water in front of Ezra, which was ignored.
Vin sighed. He figured mooning them would not be that bad; he could always tell them to kiss his ass. One hand went to his belt and several women howled. A few stood up and got closer. Then he realized some of these women would kiss his ass, if not grab more, and that thought stopped him.
Unexpectedly, he grabbed Kerry and kissed her, feeling her relax once she understood what was happening. He let her go, and then reached across the bar to yank on Inez, planting one on her. Releasing her, he grabbed the closest female body, wanting this over and done. When he finally came up for air, he saw Mary Travis' stunned face. He flushed, grabbed one of the leftover shots from Ezra's tongue twister, and downed it.
Inez handed Mary her own shot, then tossed one back herself while Kerry refilled her second since Vin kissed her. Mary took it and drank it quickly before setting it down.
"When Harper said I would find it interesting here tonight, I didn't know it would be this interesting." Mary smiled broadly.
Chris came up beside her and asked, "Where's Harper now?"
"Her flight left half an hour ago. I'm supposed to pick her up Sunday night. I take it she's responsible for this?" Mary waved her hand at the crowded room.
Chris only smiled, and it was not a friendly smile.
"Mary, sorry if I startled ya. Just fulfillin' my part of the deal. Think I'll go over there with Ezra." The sharpshooter's words started to slur and he swayed a bit as he apologized, trying to ignore the glare his friend's green eyes shot in his direction. The glare never fazed him before. It still didn't. But his booze befuddled mind wanted to laugh out loud when he saw what his friend still tried hard to ignore.
"It's quite all right, Vin." Mary smiled, and then leaned forward to hear Inez's whisper.
Tanner took a few steps toward the booth, stopping beside Chris. "I ain't poachin'. Reckon Harper's ta blame; wouldn't of considered kissin' yer Mary otherwise."
"She's not my Mary." Chris scowled at Vin.
"Yet." Vin almost let loose the laugh he'd been holding at his friend's green tinged, 'jealous-but-didn't-realize-it' face. Instead, he wagged his eyebrows and smiled, staggering over to join Ezra at the table. Nathan slid a large glass of water in his direction as he took his seat.
= = Task Four = =
Before Chris could sort out what the Texan meant and his own feelings, Kerry garnered his attention. "You want to go next?"
"I'll go." Buck clapped a hand on Chris' shoulder. "In a minute." He steered Chris a few steps away, leaning down to whisper in his ear. "Jealously looks ugly on you. You know how I feel about ugly. So go talk to Mary, and don't get pissed. It's not his fault she walked in right then."
"I'm not mad at him, Buck, and I sure as hell am not jealous, but I'll blame Harper. Let's get this over with." With that, they returned to the bar. Chris leaned against it, waiting for Mary to finish sipping her drink.
"Okay, darlin', what do you have for me?"
"Take your pick." Kerry proffered the hat.
Buck drew an envelope and gave it to her. "Surprise me."
"With pleasure." Eagerly, she opened the envelope. "Marksman."
"Tanner, this one was yours!"
"Could've been Nate's!" The rapidly getting drunk Texan yelled back at the three Wilmingtons he saw.
Kerry read, "You are to make three bull's eyes on the dartboard, dead center, and take a shot for every miss. You will continue until you make all three, no matter how long it takes."
"Easy as falling off a log." Buck walked over to the dartboard, collecting three darts. Those sitting or standing near the board quickly found places out of dart range.
His first dart hit the center ring and fell.
"A miss!" Buster yelled.
"You have to have a bat to swing and miss!" Brian Gilbert, from Team Six, called.
"Critiqued by a man who's never gotten past second base; don't that beat all?" The mustache stretched up into a smile.
"Your shot, Senor Strikeout."
"You wound me, Inez." He presented her with a hand over his heart and a wounded expression.
"Take your shot, Senor, if you plan on having another at bat."
Buck downed it, then grabbed and kissed her, stopping when the hard wooden tray she always carried hit the back of his head. "For luck." The surveillance expert gave her a lopsided grin, and then threw the dart. Dead Center. "Come back here, Inez. I need some more luck!"
"Make your own!"
Laughing, he threw the third dart and missed completely.
Tony handed him a shot. He said, "You're not kissing me."
"Wouldn't want to. You're too ugly." Buck downed it, and then accepted the three darts from Buster. His throw went dead center. Holding the last two darts, he lined up his next throw, one dart in each hand, the left hand down at his side.
Right as he released it, Inez screamed, making half the room reach for where their weapons usually rested. The dart impaled the wall.
"I'm sorry. I thought I saw a mouse." For some reason, no one believed her.
"Thanks, Tony." Buck accepted it, and then aimed his final throw from this set. He expected something, and was not disappointed. Five or six women standing at his side flashed him. The dart missed miserably. Buck lifted the shot glass in toast. "I'll take that one for the team."
Now re-armed, Buck decided to have fun. "Ellen, come here."
"No. I'm not leaving my post."
Buck scratched that idea, quickly thinking of a new one. "Inez, darlin'!"
"What do you want?" She asked while walking over.
Buster said, "Wilmington, quit flirting and throw."
"One second, Buster. Inez, if I make this, will you kiss me?"
"I beg your pardon."
"You heard me, darlin'. If I miss, double the shots."
Inez stared into his eyes, narrowing her own. "Triple."
"Done." Without looking, Buck threw, watching her face for the result. Her eyes widened and he smiled.
"I'll be damned." Tony shook his head. "He hit it without looking."
"Come here, Inez."
Bound by her foolish agreement, Inez gave Buck his prize. When they came up for air, she shoved him away from her, muttering in Spanish as she retreated behind her bar.
Buck winked at her, swaggering to their booth. "Next?"
= = Task Five = =
Josiah decided it was his turn. "Miss Kerry, do me the honor of picking."
She reached in, handing one to him as he joined her at the bar.
He read it with a smile. "For you."
"Quarters! Objective: bounce ten quarters into a cup in one minute. One shot for every miss, two shots for not finishing in a minute. Start over if you fail to complete in the time allotted. Last quarter must roll off the nose."
Loud groans came from several people, obviously remembering how hard that was when they played in college.
"He'll never do it." Ellen muttered this from her post on the bar.
"Yes, he will," Chris replied, standing next to Mary.
"Are you sure?" Mary raised a quizzical brow.
Chris smiled at the blond beside him. "Yes."
The table was set, all prepared for Josiah's race against the clock.
"Ready?" Kerry waited for his acknowledgement.
The first quarter missed, so Josiah took a shot from the line of glasses beside his right hand. He picked up the next quarter, holding it just so in his left hand, bouncing it at the proper angle off the table's surface to rebound into the cup. He did this eight more times, not missing once, before leaning forward.
Josiah lined up his nose with the trajectory he wanted the quarter to take, and then rolled the thin metal disk down his nose, off the table, to land with a clink in the cup.
"Fifty-five seconds." Kerry said this with awe coloring her tone. "Where were you when I was in college? I can't bounce a quarter to save my life. Unless it's...never mind."
The pale blue eyes twinkled to match the broad smile. "Quarters champion for my squad. Paid a few bar tabs that way."
"When this is over, please teach me."
"I'd be delighted."
"Good. Who's next, so we can finish this and I can learn?"
= = Task Six = =
"Me." Nathan stood, joining Kerry at the bar when she retrieved the hat. She held it out, letting him pick one of the two remaining envelopes. He read it, shaking his head at the contents.
Kerry accepted the paper and read. "Romeo, oh Romeo. Your name is now Romeo!" Catcalls and whistles sounded throughout the room. "Find three women and give each a different pickup line. If all three accept, you've won. Ladies, react normally. If someone declines, take a shot, find a new woman, and give her a different pickup line. Keep going until you succeed."
"So I'm pretending I'm Buck."
Wilmington yelled, "There's nothing wrong with that!"
"From your perspective!" Nathan squared his shoulders, and then looked around. He found his first female, a friendly face from the Administrative Assistants' Pool. He walked over, absolute silence at his back, and said, "I'd use a cheesy pickup line my friend taught me, but I think you're too smart for that. Can I just buy you a drink?"
She smiled and replied, "B-52, please."
Applause broke out.
"Thank you." He kissed the back of her hand, and she giggled. Inez brought over the requested drink.
Nathan straightened, selecting his next woman. Standing beside her table, he said, "I'm not looking for a relationship; I'm looking for an experience. Will you help me find one?"
"Look no further."
JD yelled across the bar. "You're The Man, Nathan. Buck, take lessons!"
Immensely relieved two out of the three accepted, Nathan thanked the woman for her reaction and picked his next try. Leaning against the bar, he whispered something to Inez. Pulling out a wineglass, she filled it, then walked over to the lady in question.
"The Senor over there," she pointed, "wants to tell you every great body needs milk." She left the milk and Nathan's card on the table.
The woman smiled and nodded her head.
Buck rolled his eyes. He tried whispering and failed. "Nathan's always after us to take care of ourselves. Why hasn't he given us milk?"
"Because you're not as pretty as this lady here." Jackson shot a triumphant smile at Buck.
The woman actually handed him her phone number, saying in an oh-so-husky voice, "Call me sometime."
Nathan thanked her, and all the other women, by paying for the drinks they ordered.
"Larabee! Larabee!" A chant filled the Saloon for the last, remaining victim.
= = Task Seven = =
Chris motioned Kerry to read the last task.
She skimmed it and laughed. Her hands spread wide. "A Poet who doesn't know it!"
A howl, catcalls, whistles, and screams came from the assembled Agents. Hands pounded tables, clapped together, and feet stomped on the floor.
"Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! HEY! Let me finish!" Kerry raised her voice, waiting for everyone to stop, so she could read the actual assignment. "You WILL stand ON the bar, and create a poem about anything, but IT MUST BE ORIGINAL. If you stop, you must take a drink and start over, using the same verses you just said."
Team Seven fell into sidesplitting, gut-busting, hold-each-other-up hysterics. The rest of the Saloon occupants were not too far behind.
Ezra said, "A poet named Larabee, this I must see!"
Vin, highly drunk now, yelled, "He couldn't rhyme if ya fed him a line!"
"He must compose verse; he's looking rather terse!" Josiah wiped a tear from his eye.
More horrible rhymes, including one about a girl from Nantucket, filled the room.
Shaking his head, Chris climbed on top of the bar, centering himself between Ellen and Joey on either end. Inez handed him a full shot. He began.
"I'll tell you a tale fraught with woes."
"Fraught? Your vocabulary astounds me!"
"Shut up, Ez, or it's all for naught! Go ahead, Chris." Vin and Ezra continued laughing.
Gritting his teeth, Chris downed the shot for stopping and waited for the refill. He tried again.
"I'll tell you a tale FRAUGHT with woes,
About a woman who underestimated her foes.
She went against The Magnificent Seven
The best team this side of Heaven."
Chris ignored the snorts from the other teams.
"So let me begin with introductions,
As leader, that's one of my functions."
He pointed to Vin.
"I can trust this Texan to watch my back,
Even when he's calling me cowboy just to get whacked."
Chris shifted to Josiah.
"This man is sturdy and strong, having wisdom to guide us,
But confound us with a sentence long, smiling while we cuss."
Josiah lifted his water, having switched to ensure there were enough drivers.
Larabee nailed Ezra with his eyes.
"Showing us a front so that he thinks we guess what's real,
Trusting him complete, but asking what's the deal?"
One bright green eye lazily winked, a gold tooth flashing.
With a smile, Chris moved on.
"My longtime protector with a heart of gold,
A love of women, and a valued friendship that's never been told."
Buck coughed and lowered his head to hide the sudden mistiness in his eyes.
Chris faced Nathan.
"A watcher and a worrier, but a rock of support,
Keeping us strong, and a person of the giving sort."
Nathan nodded and smiled.
Larabee looked at their youngest.
"With boundless enthusiasm and no task too great,
We see through new eyes, believing he's here because of Fate."
JD positively glowed.
Chris put one hand on himself.
"I'm a fair minded leader, always remaining cool and calm,
Chris didn't let the new wave of snickers from his team delay him, as he continued.
Control of the Magnificent Seven firmly in my palm.
I take no threats against my team, no quarter given or asked,
And I will defend them to my very last."
The team leader looked at everyone.
"Now that you have met my men,
Numbering seven, but a perfect ten,
Meet our foe,
On whom, havoc we will sow."
Chris took a quick breath.
"Many know her as a tough and heartless witch,
Many call her Harpy, or just THE BITCH."
"An acid tongue inside her head,
When we're done, she'll wish she were dead.
We'll plot, we'll plan, and soon we'll demand,
A surrender from her, heard across the land!"
More tables were pounded.
"We'll not tell you when, or how, or who,
Nor will we tell you what we will do.
But beware, Harper, and be wary,
For YOU ARE OUR QUARRY!"
Cheers resounded, along with glasses raised in toast. The audience showed their appreciation for the poet's wit and prose.
Larabee held other ideas. After a quick bow, he set his drink down on the bar, walking to the end.
Ellen smiled, shrugged, and moved aside.
He untied the 'flag' line, let that end drop, and then made his way to the other hook, officially lowering the flags. Chris hopped down inside the center section of the bar, recovered his prize and carried the bundle to the booth. He said one thing when he shoved it under the table. "We'll sort it out later."
"What's written on the flags?" JD reached down and examined the first white flag he could reach. "They're messages."
"What?" Buck looked over Dunne's shoulder. "Hoo-wee. Phone numbers, signatures, love notes - we hit the jackpot!"
"Schpeak fer yerschelf, Bucklin." The whiskey slurred the already raspy voice of the Texan.
Nathan was still trying to get Tanner and the undercover Agent to drink more water glasses that he kept supplied in front of them. "Drink up. I don't want you boys sick."
"Too late for that. I'm dreading them tomorrow." Chris shoved the flag line under the table. "We'll sort these out later, unless you want everyone to know what belongs to who?"
"Gawd forbid! It's a traveschty, I tell you!" The Southern smacked his hand on the table in emphasis of his declaration, sloshing some of the water out of the glass of water Nathan just sat before him. The drawl, so much more pronounced, made Ezra's words sound different.
People came over to their booth to congratulate them, thank them for the evening's entertainment, and to compliment them on their various skills. Kerry sat beside Josiah taking in her lesson on the proper way to play quarters. Slowly, the noise level rose as normal conversation resumed.
Ten minutes later, Inez rang the large triangle for silence. She achieved her goal. When every eye focused - or tried focusing - on her, she finally spoke. "Someone would like to say something." The bar owner placed the telephone on the bar.
"Well done, Team Seven!" Harper's unmistakable voice sounded tinny, but the sarcasm came through clearly. "I enjoyed the presentation and the in-flight movie."
"Hope you enjoyed the opening act of your demise." Chris moved closer to the telephone.
"Thanks for giving me something to write about, Harper. I've enjoyed watching the many talents." Mary smiled.
A pair of green laser beams nailed Mary in place. "You're not writing any of this."
"I can write anything I want." Mary kept her smile, but crossed her arms.
"Oh, she can quote me on this. Mary, are you ready?" Harper's voice carried through the still and silent Saloon.
"Always." The newspaperwoman opened her notebook.
"As I sit up here and hover,
You boys better run for cover.
I'm not done with my shocks,
Or finished attacking my flocks.
The training Instructor listened, surprised by the silence. After a beat, she continued.
"What, are all of you in a lather?
Whatever is the matter?"
"Get to the point." Chris said this with equal parts amusement and wariness.
"Fine." She said,
"Travis gave me Team Seven,
To torture to the opposite side of heaven.
So when I return from this trip,
The score will be Harper 7, the Seven, ZIP."
"She's got you there!" Buster yelled.
"Yeah, right." JD snorted.
"Enjoy your night,
Then the frights,
And your drinks,
Here's hoping I make you think.
Goodbye and farewell,
I'll see you all in Hell!"
They heard a click and then a dial tone.
Kerry said, "Looks like she got the last word." Scattered laughter broke out at her statement.
"Speaking of last words, we should be heading out." Josiah stood, indicating the drunken duo halfway passed out, leaning on each other at the table.
Nathan chuckled. "Ezra first?"
Chris nodded. "We'll be here waiting. Might need some help with Vin."
"See you in a few." With a wave, Nathan and Josiah hefted the Southerner, supporting him as he attempted walking out. They convinced - more like tricked - him into turning over his Jaguar keys. Buckling him in the passenger seat, Josiah drove the Jag with Nathan following. Between them, they steered Ezra into bed, leaving the undercover Agent slowly stripping his clothes off from a horizontal position on the bed.
Downstairs, in the center of Ezra's coffee table, Nathan found a bottle of wine with a large bow. A piece of paper sat beside it, clearly in Harper's handwriting. It read:
Please accept this token as an apology for your humiliation.
Nathan pointed it out to Josiah, who nodded as if this act was expected.
Shrugging, the pair returned to the Saloon. Nathan checked the sharpshooter over once more before helping Chris get the unresisting man into his truck. The medic assured the leader that Vin and Ezra would be okay, despite the amount of alcohol consumed, but they wouldn't be happy about it the next morning. Laughing as Larabee rolled his eyes imagining the scenario to come, he waved as the Ram pulled away with Josiah following in Vin's jeep.
They manhandled Vin into his bedroom, Chris tugging off Tanner's boots and ducking the fist when he reached for the shirt. Josiah left at that point, heading for the kitchen for aspirin and water for the sharpshooter. He smiled when he saw the open box; a beautiful dream-catcher nestled in tissue paper, sitting on the kitchen counter. Vin's note read:
Sweet dreams, Texan. It's your turn now
Chris looked at it and smirked. "She doesn't quit, does she?"
"Nope. He'll be riled tomorrow, saying his head stays on his shoulders."
"Don't remind me. We'll sort out the flags tomorrow. Remind him why he did this."
They got Vin to take the aspirin and drink the water before leaving. On the way out of the Saloon earlier, Chris had grabbed the bundle and tossed it in his truck.
During the ride back, Josiah made a comment. "Brother, you surprised me with your verse."
A thoughtful look crossed his face. "I used to make rhymes for Adam as a game."
Sanchez clapped him on the shoulder. "You did a fine job tonight. Now, if you don't mind dropping me off at the Saloon, I'd appreciate it, instead of taking me home like you are?"
Surprised, Chris made a U-turn at the next intersection. "Sure, sorry." He dropped Josiah off, heading home. Once inside his ranch house, he found a gaily-colored present on his table. He unwrapped it, laughing at the contents. She gave him a framed movie card from the western, "The Magnificent Seven". It was a shot of all the men in a straight line on horseback. He picked up the note.
Payback's a witch and so am I. Hope I didn't dent that colossal ego too much. Interesting drawers, by the way.
= = 7 = =
Josiah reached his place and found a present sitting on his hassock. She gave him a book of philosophy, a compilation of various famous and not-so-famous philosophers throughout history. He laughed hard at the note.
How much have you learned, profiler?
Thought you might like a deeper look
Into the past and the thinking that shapes the future.
= = 7 = =
Nathan helped load JD's motorcycle onto the back of Buck's truck, chuckling as they bickered about JD's driving. Arriving home, he found a note on the counter.
I apologize if you were humiliated, since you probably knew nothing about my singing telegram. I will not hold it against you. Just consider yourself collateral damage. Left you something in your refrigerator.
He opened the refrigerator door and found a large, fresh vegetable tray, complete with all his favorites. He smiled.
"I can drive," Buck said.
"Yeah, right. You've had too much."
"Define too much."
"I've had a whole lot less than you. I'm driving." They reached Buck's truck.
"Fine." Buck pulled down the board ramp he kept in the bed for instances like this, and JD, with Nathan's help, walked his bike on the truck. After securing it in the bed, JD grabbed the keys. They climbed in, waving goodbye to Nathan.
"I'm not that drunk. I just had a couple shots. But, Kid, I could drive better drunk than you can sober."
"Stuff it, Buck. Don't forget to take your aspirin before bed. I'm not hearing you bitch about a headache in the morning."
JD reached over and hit him. Finally, they reached their home, JD unlocking and opening the door. He made it two steps in and stopped.
Buck slammed into his back. "Keep moving."
"Look around." JD barely raised his voice above a whisper.
Wilmington raised his head, flipped on the lights, and scanned the living room. Something felt...off. "It's clean!"
"Yeah, it's clean." They continued their tour, finding everything immaculate.
"Kid, she got us good."
"Who else?" Buck started laughing. When he opened the refrigerator, the emptiness amused him further. "Hope you weren't counting on those mold experiments. They're gone."
"Those were yours. I refused to clean them, remember?"
Wilmington found something else of interest in the cabinets. "She alphabetized the cans!"
"What's this box say? Couch contents?"
"The toilet's spotless."
"So that's where that CD went."
"The hamper's empty."
"My room! Buck, she cleaned my room. She even folded my underwear!"
"Can we hire her?"
JD strode over, anger in every line of his body. "You think this is funny?"
"Hell, Kid, the place is cleaner than before I moved in."
"You don't get it! She knows everything about us. My JOURNAL!" Dunne raced for his computer, finding a package beside it. Ripping it open, he found the hottest computer game on the market, one he planned to buy if it ever stayed in stock. He snatched up the note.
Small recompense, but hope you enjoy it. Your secrets are safe with me. I didn't read your journal, nor did I turn on your computer. I cleaned it, though.
Some things are NONE OF MY BUSINESS.
"I might forgive her...eventually."
Meanwhile, Buck found his room neat as a pin. In the center of the bed, a small, wrapped basket waited for him. Ripping it open, he burst into laughter at the contents. She gave him a complete massage kit, full of heat-activated and scented oils, brushes, sponges, assorted other items, and an instruction manual. He wiped away the tears of amusement to read the note.
I might let you make it up to me for humiliating me in front of the entire Federal Building. For now, I'll enjoy the thought of you wondering and worrying about what I got into and found during my cleaning. See you in a few days.
"Darlin', I look forward to it." Still chuckling, he found the aspirin and took it, settling into bed for a dream-filled sleep.
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