Just after 1:30pm on a Sunday afternoon was apparently a very popular time for bowlers; nearly every lane was occupied. Down at one end, Ezra could make out a group of geriatric ladies in neon pink shirts with the words "Lucky Strikes" emblazoned on the backs. A few lanes over a group of Hispanic teens loudly cheered and trash talked each other's efforts. Just past them he could see a man overseeing a party of small children, one of whom was currently waddling up to the line to fling a bright orange ball that looked impossibly heavy for her. Singles, couples, families and friends, all gathered to have a good time. There was something oddly satisfying about the sight and Ezra smiled slightly as he continued to scan the crowd in search of familiar faces.
Finally he spotted them down at the far end. Josiah was making a slow concentrated approach toward the pins, his arm whipping forward in a graceful arc as he released his ball then leaned to one side, following its path as it curved out then spun back toward the middle. The ball hit the center pin squarely, felling all ten in a resounding strike. Josiah pumped a fist in the air then turned and exchanged high-fives with Chris and Vin. He grinned and waved as he noticed Buck, Ezra and JD standing in front of the registry desk.
Vin saw them as well. He launched himself up the small set of steps separating the bowling area from the rest of the establishment and jogged over to them. "Hey, you made good time," he greeted. Nudging the southerner, he added. "Lookin' pretty relaxed there, Ez. Buck's friends rub down all the right places?"
Ezra smiled thinly but was saved from responding by Buck, who nudged him and held out a pair of treadless leather shoes. "Try these on, Ez. They're nines."
The well-worn red and blue footwear received a withering stare. "Must I? I shudder to think how many other people have donned those fashion monstrosities before me. Perhaps you could just allow me to keep score."
"That wouldn't be any fun. Besides, score's all done by computer," Vin told him, shaking his head in amusement. Ezra had opted to try a laid-back style today but it looked like his snobbish side was about to rear its ugly head. Fortunately, this was one problem that had been easy to anticipate. "Don't worry about them. Just follow me."
Puzzled, Ezra shot a questioning look at Buck, who shrugged and grabbed his own rented shoes from atop the counter where he'd set them, returning the size nines. The three men willingly followed Vin back to join the others.
"Where's Nathan?" Ezra had noticed his absence immediately but had assumed the medic had gone somewhere to obtain refreshments or perhaps relieve himself.
"Back at my place," Chris answered, hearing the question as the men descended the steps toward him. "He apologizes for not coming, but he's busy baking a certain somebody a birthday cake."
Larabee's unusually easy going grin brought answering smiles to his friends' faces. Only Ezra frowned a bit. "Nathan doesn't bake."
"Sure he does," JD reminded. "Don't you remember those muffins he brought in a few months back?"
Something like a shudder passed through the entire group. "Vulgar wheat and dried fruit pressed into spheres heavy enough to survive a level 5 tornado without budging. Yes, unfortunately I do remember," Ezra told him. "I think I may still be digesting the one he forced upon me."
Josiah chuckled. "That's bulgur wheat, and they weren't that bad." Everyone stared at him and he shrugged. "Okay, maybe they were but he's gotten better. I tried some kind of tofu casserole he made last week that wasn't half bad."
Ezra shivered dramatically. "Tofu birthday cake. How revolting. Even Mr. Tanner's beloved collection of Twinkies and Ding-Dongs would be preferable."
The team profiler laughed outright. "Don't worry, Ezra. I didn't see anything scarier than a box of raisin bran in the whole kitchen."
This time JD was the one who looked repulsed. "Wait a minute. Wasn't Nathan saying something about bran muffins last week? What if he's gonna try it as a cake instead of muffins?"
"Can't," Vin scoffed. "No kinda frosting goes good with bran muffins and you can't have a birthday cake with no frosting."
Buck snorted. "With Mr. Healthfood in charge; are you kidding? If it does have frosting it'll probably be some kinda no-fat, no sugar, low cal stuff made outta yogurt or something."
The knots of tension Ezra had so recently lost began to renew themselves as he listened. The first real birthday cake he could ever remember having made for him and his friends had left Nathan in charge of it? "Good lord, hasn't the man ever heard of a bakery?" he blurted. "Or a truly wonderful substance called chocolate?"
The others laughed. "We can only hope," Chris told him. "Maybe you should plan on eating a lot of dinner, just in case."
"I'm almost afraid to inquire. What are we having for dinner and who is in charge of producing it?"
"I am," Josiah told him cheerfully. "A little bird told me that you happen to love barbecued ribs, the messier the better, so I've got several racks marinating in a big batch of my special home-made barbecue sauce. Gonna have corn on the cob, baked beans and a tossed green salad to go with it too."
Ezra was dumbstruck. He loved all of those foods but to his knowledge, he had never shared that love with anyone on his team. After all, it hardly went with the image he usually projected. Armani and barbecue occupying the same location? Ridiculous! Shooting a suspicious look at Buck he demanded, "Are you sure you haven't been spying on me?"
Wilmington grinned. "You can blame Nate for this one. He filled us in on a little discussion about a place in Alabama called 'The Pit'."
Green eyes widened as realization struck. As fellow southerners, he and Nathan occasionally indulged in reminiscences of places and things they had experienced in the past. One such discussion had indeed involved restaurants he had visited while passing through the medic's home state. "Astonishing. I had no idea he was even listening to me, much less taking notes for future culinary reference."
Vin slapped him on the back. "That's what friends are, pard. Folks who pay attention even when you ain't saying anything important."
Ezra ducked his head, not wanting anyone to see how touched he was by those words. Gesturing toward the empty lanes in front of them, he tried a little diversion. "Somebody care to show me how this is done?"
Reaching behind the row of chairs surrounding the scoring table, Vin brought forth an oddly shaped package loosely wrapped in a large sheet of colored birthday paper. "You're gonna need this first."
Accepting it, Ezra grunted, struggling not to drop the unexpectedly heavy package that the other man placed in his hands. Quickly removing the paper his brow furrowed at finding a large leather bag with two zippered compartments. Opening the larger one, he found a green bowling ball with a cloud pattern nested inside the plastic, giving the globe the appearance of a miniature planet.
"Thought you might like to have one of your own," Vin explained. "Just in case you decide this is something you want to try again some time. Open the smaller one and see if those fit you."
'Those' turned out to be bowling shoes, soft light tan leather with a short row of white laces, infinitely more attractive than the typical rental pair. A delighted smile lit Ezra's face as he pulled off his cross trainers and tried them on, finding the shoes a perfect fit. "Thank you, Vin. This is very thoughtful of you."
Vin shrugged off the compliment but his eyes shone, pleased that his gift had been so well received.
"Hey, there aren't any holes in this ball!" JD exclaimed in surprise, spinning the new bowling ball around and around in its bag. "How are you supposed to use it?"
"There's a pro shop in this place," Vin told them. "Ain't usually open on Sundays but the owner's a friend of mine. He's waiting for us and he'll measure your hand and put the holes the right space apart and whatever depth is good for you. Not much point in havin' your own ball if the grip ain't comfortable."
Ezra smiled. "Again, your thoughtfulness is much appreciated. If the rest of you gentlemen will excuse us for a bit, I think we'd best not keep Mr. Tanner's friend waiting."
A surprisingly short time later the two men returned, Ezra grinning widely as he displayed his prize, thumb and middle two fingers securely settled into a set of perfectly spaced new holes. After having Ezra take a few practice swings to determine the natural movements of his hand Vin's friend had recommended a set of hard rubber inserts that would prevent friction blisters to the side of his thumb as well as improving his overall grip. Since Ezra was ambidextrous, the man had drilled the finger holes a bit deeper than normal and made the thumbhole a bit wider, thus allowing him to comfortably use the ball with either hand.
After allowing everyone to admire the new toy and give it a toss down the lane, Ezra took his position on the boards and awaited instruction. He had opted to hold the ball in his left hand for now, so Josiah stepped up beside him. "Have you ever done this before?"
Ezra hesitated, a lifetime's experience urging him to bluff. Should he pretend to possess more experience than he had, bluster his way through the match trusting to sheer luck that he might play well enough not to look like a fool and invite the others' scorn? Or should he take a chance that these men, his friends, wouldn't laugh or make fun? Could he simply admit his lack of skill and hope for the best? Remembering how they had all gone out of their way to make sure he would have as good a birthday as they could possibly give him, Ezra made his choice. Grinding his first instinct beneath a figurative heel, he said, "I learned to keep score for my uncle and cousins during the summer I stayed with them. Unfortunately, they lost all patience for teaching me how to participate after I rolled a gutter ball on my first three attempts."
"They gave up on you after three lousy tries?" JD said in disbelief. "How dumb is that? I must've guttered about twenty times before I finally got it right."
"Most reassuring. I should be able to take an extra seventeen erroneous shots before you all wash your hands of me then."
The words were spoken so seriously that it was difficult to tell whether Ezra was joking or not. Hoping that he was, that he knew better by now than to think they would so easily give him up as a lost cause, Josiah coached his friend into a proper stance. "You should be able to take about three steps before you hit the line," he advised. "Count 'em out to yourself and take one, pull the ball back on step two and release it on step three."
Nodding, Ezra focused on his target and took a breath, releasing it as he started forward. Silently counting he did as advised and managed to release the ball on three only to watch in disappointment as it slowly rolled into the gutter, just as it had that long ago time.
"That's all right," Josiah told him, seeing the look on his face. "You managed not to step over the line into the lane and you rolled the ball instead of dropping it, which is more than I expected for a first try."
Searching for any hint of mockery, Ezra was surprised to find nothing but encouragement in the older man's pale blue eyes.
"Try again and this time don't worry about aiming. Just approach a little more slowly than before and try to bend your knees a bit when you roll. Take it nice and easy."
Silently begging Buck's pardon for his earlier assertion that bowling took no particular athletic skill Ezra obeyed, deliberately kneeling forward a bit as he let go of the ball. The motion was anything but graceful but as he watched, the pale green sphere obligingly rolled along the boards and took out the ten pin before dropping into the gutter. "I did it," he said in surprise. Appreciative whistles and soft cheers sounded behind him and he turned, a grin lighting his face. "I got one."
"Good going, Ezra," Vin praised as he came up to take his own turn. "I'll show you something on your next turn and we'll see if you can't take down the rest of the little varmints."
That single small victory, coupled with the support of his teammates, buoyed Ezra's confidence considerably. He watched with eager attention as the other five bowled, taking careful note of their stances as they approached the pins. Each man had a slightly different style and with each frame Ezra received instruction from a different teacher. Frame by frame he learned to keep his arm straight, to follow through on a roll, how to bend his body to one side to increase the arc of the ball and what boards, arrows or pins to aim toward for different results. He was, as with most things, a quick study and became a bit more proficient with every attempt.
The other men took turns gleefully rubbing in the superiority of their various teaching techniques with every improved shot their pupil made but no one gloated excessively over their own successes. Knowing just how inferior his new skills really were, Ezra found himself grateful for the courtesy. He hoped he would soon improve enough to encourage the friendly insults his group normally indulged in during any sporting or gaming event.
By the second game Ezra had not thrown a single gutter ball and when, in the tenth frame, he finished the game by getting his very first strike the effect was electric. Other bowlers stared at the group of men in the far lane, some with annoyance, most with amusement as whistling, cheering and excited shouting erupted from them. Ezra's face was flushed with triumph, not even caring that he had again finished the match with the lowest score, as the tide of congratulations washed over him. JD had been right. This was fun!
+ + + + + + +
"You know, Josiah, with that wicked hook shot of yours, you oughtta consider going on the road."
Sanchez chuckled. "Well, if I ever decide this federal agent gig isn't working for me, I'll consider it." They were nearly to Chris' ranch and JD was still happily involved in a play by play of the last match. He had given up his usual shotgun seat in Buck's pickup, leaving Chris to ride in his place as he followed the others to the Suburban. Josiah looked in the rearview mirror at his two back passengers. "What do you guys think?"
Vin pretended to consider the matter. "Think maybe we should start up an ATF bowling league so you can get in some extra practice?"
"That's a great idea!" JD agreed enthusiastically. "We'd kill those jerks from Team Five. Chris and Buck were both kicking ass in that last game before Josiah stole it from 'em with a turkey."
"A what?" Ezra asked, brow wrinkling at the unfamiliar term.
"A turkey. Three or more strikes in a row," Vin explained. "Like the way Josiah finished the last game."
He nodded his understanding. "That was most impressive. Perhaps you should consider the idea. Professional bowling would keep you from getting bored should you ever decide to retire from public service."
The grizzled profiler grinned. "And naturally I'd need somebody to come along and be my agent, right? Keep track of all those winnings I'd be raking in?"
A dimpled grin flashed at him. "Naturally."
Vin chortled. "Nah, he'll be too busy working the crowd and taking bets on how everybody's doing. Better let me be your agent."
"Maybe Ezra'd rather join the circuit with Josiah," JD suggested. "He was getting pretty good there at the end. I bet with a little more practice, he'll be almost as good as me."
"He says modestly," Ezra mocked. "Did I or did I not best your score in the final game?"
"Lucky shot," Dunne dismissed. "I'd have beat you if the ten hadn't spun and knocked that seven pin down for you. No way you could have done that on purpose."
Ezra yawned dramatically, patting his lips with his fingertips. "Believe whatever makes you feel better, JD."
The younger man instinctively bristled then laughed when he caught the sly twinkle in his friend's eyes. "Guess we'll just have to have a rematch some time and find out who's really the best."
"Sounds good to me," Vin chimed in. "What do you say Josiah? Think we can take these boys again?"
The big man grinned. "I'd be willing to put my skills to the test again. Ezra?"
Ducking his head, Ezra lifted his eyes in a sideways cant that gave him an unusually shy appearance. "Well, it would be a shame to let Mr. Tanner's fine gift go to waste. If you're all sure you don't mind playing again with such a rank amateur, I believe I'd enjoy another session."
Vin slapped a hand on his leg and gave a satisfied nod, JD let out a whoop and Josiah told him, "Be our pleasure but next time we'll have to bring Nate with us. He's fun to have along just for the floor show."
"And what, pray tell, does our Mr. Jackson do that's so entertainin'?"
"Well, you know how Nathan likes to be prepared for everything?"
"He prefers to leave nothing to chance," Ezra agreed.
"Well that goes for his bowling technique as well," Josiah explained. "I've never in my life seen so much concentration go into positioning the ball, finding the right stance, choosing the boards; hell, I think he'd test the direction of the wind if there was any!"
Vin snickered. "And after all that fartin' around he staggers up there graceful as a drunk on a Friday night bender and flings the ball like a damned horseshoe. You never know which way that sucker is gonna go."
"Funny thing is, he still manages to come out top dog better than half the time," Josiah added with a deep chuckle. "It's quite a sight."
"I'm sure it is," Ezra intoned flatly. He strongly suspected that his leg was being pulled but when it came to these men one just never knew.
+ + + + + + +
Fifteen minutes later, both vehicles were parked in Chris Larabee's long driveway. JD hardly waited for the Suburban to come to a complete stop before jumping out and jogging over to Buck's truck where he instantly began filling his friends in on the conversation they had missed.
Ezra exited far more sedately, shaking his head in amusement as he watched the young man chatter away. "I swear, that boy is like a magpie on a sugar high when he's got information to impart."
Josiah laughed. "A few hours around JD making thirty four seem older than it did this morning?" Ezra nodded ruefully. As he, Vin and Josiah started toward the house, Josiah clapped him on the back. "Well, don't let it worry you. When you get to be my age you'll find that hanging around with youngsters like JD makes you feel just as young as they are."
"Your age?" Ezra repeated, raising an eyebrow. "I hardly think you're ready to take up residence in a home for the aged and infirm just yet. Might I remind you that my mother, a woman most decidedly in her prime, is four years your senior?"
The big man looked interested. "Is she? You certainly wouldn't know it to look at her! Well, well, I always did have a weakness for older women."
Ezra rolled his eyes at the reminder of the profiler's tender feelings toward his mother. Vin, who had been laughing at their exchange decided, "I don't think we need to break out the rockin' chair for anybody just yet. Y'all seem pretty fit to me, but maybe you oughtta have Nathan check you over, just to be sure."
"Speaking of Nathan, I'm surprised he hasn't made an appearance yet." Ezra pulled open the front door and politely gestured his friends in ahead of him. "I would have thought that clatter-trap engine in Josiah's vehicle would have long since alerted him to our presence."
"Yeah, sure hope he didn't pass out from all the toxic exhaust fumes floatin' into the house," Vin added cheerfully. As the only member of the team with a vehicle even more notoriously decrepit than Josiah's, Vin enjoyed getting his licks in when he could.
Sanchez serenely allowed the insults to his beloved Suburban to wash right over him as he called out, "Hey, Nate, we're here!"
There was no answer. Vin started toward the closed kitchen door, cocking his head and frowning slightly. "You fellas hear that?"
A bemused look passed among the three of them as they recognized the sound of a radio blaring, coupled with a loud, slightly off-key but very familiar voice warbling along.
"Ain't no mountain high enough," Vin chimed in sotto voce, a smile lighting his face. "Ain't no valley low enough."
Quietly shushing the rest of the men entering the house, Josiah pushed gently against the free-swinging kitchen door. Huge grins spread across all six faces as they observed the often-staid Nathan Jackson dressed in a full-length apron and performing a shimmying little soft-shoe as he scooped frosting from the bowl at his side and swirled it over the cake in front of him. More than one man had to clap a hand over their mouths to keep from laughing when their friend raised the cream covered spatula to his lips, closed his eyes and began crooning, "If you're ever in trouble, I'll be there on the double. Just send for me. Oh baby!"
The medic jumped like he'd received an electric shock when Ezra lost his battle to stay silent and sang out, "My love is alive, deep down in my heart, although we are miles apart."
Making a surprisingly quick recovery, Nathan sang back, "If you ever need a helping hand, I'll be there on the double just as fast as I can."
The entire group dissolved into laughter as the performance wound to a close with Nathan and Ezra both singing with great gusto into imaginary microphones.
A moment later a still grinning Nathan switched off the radio. "No offense there Ezra, but you sure ain't no Tammy Terrell."
The shorter man smiled back. "Yeah? Well you ain't exactly Marvin Gaye yourself."
Not sure if he was more surprised by Ezra's recognizing an R&B duet or by his playfully laid-back speech, Nathan chuckled. "How'd everything go today?"
"Went great," JD answered. "That breakfast place is to die for and the lady who runs it is a real sweetheart."
With a reminiscent smack of his lips, Buck added, "I haven't stuffed myself with that much food since-"
"Last night?" JD suggested, bringing hoots of laughter from the rest of the men.
Buck swung a companionable arm around Ezra's shoulders and hitched his eyebrows suggestively. "I still haven't got all the details about the massage, but I didn't hear any objections once we managed to get his ass through the door."
"Objections about what?" Nathan asked, curiosity growing as he spotted the red tinge creeping along Ezra's cheeks. "What happened?"
"Nothing," Ezra said firmly, shooting Buck a glare before he could elaborate. "It was very relaxing and Buck's two friends proved to be wonderful professional masseuses."
"You liked bowling the best though, right?" JD prompted.
Buck traded a pitying glance with Josiah over the top of the young man's head and begged, "Say it ain't so, Ez. Not that it wasn't great and all, but you can't seriously have preferred bowling to having two beautiful young ladies giving you their undivided, skilled attention, rubbing their hands all over your body for the better part of two hours."
Ezra's color rose even more and he had to clear his throat before answering. "Let's just say that I thoroughly enjoyed both gifts but for entirely different reasons." Deliberately turning his back on Buck's knowing leer he added, "I must admit though that bowling proved to be a surprisingly entertaining activity."
Vin smiled. "Josiah creamed us all, as usual, but Ez was really comin' on strong there at the end. I think he's a natural."
"Good goin'. And happy birthday!"
"Thank you, Mr. Jackson. I must say, this has been a most interesting day thus far."
"Sorry I had to miss out on all the fun but I figure it'll be worth it once you try this baby." Nathan gestured proudly toward the creation behind him, his brow furrowing when Ezra leaned forward, studying the tall circular cake suspiciously.
"It looks like chocolate," he murmured. Reaching out one finger he took a small swipe of frosting and put it in his mouth. Surprise spread over his face. "It is chocolate!"
"What else would it be?" Nathan said, his confusion obvious. "I thought you told Chris that was your favorite."
"Did I?" he said, looking to Larabee.
The team leader grinned. "Don't you remember that time Judge Travis' wife made us a carrot cake? You said that vegetables had no business masquerading as confections when there was a perfectly good supply of chocolate available at any local supermarket."
An embarrassed smile flickered over Ezra's face. "If I had realized you gentlemen were monitoring my words so closely I would have spoken with more care."
"But if you'd done that we might be having tofu cake with yogurt frosting right about now," Buck reminded him with a wink.
Ezra shook his head. Seeing the unrepentantly grinning faces of his friends he realized that he'd been conned by the lot of them. Somehow, though, he could not bring himself to be upset at having fallen into the trap. Licking his lips, he continued to study the gooey frosting swirled richly over the surface of the cake. "Is it chocolate all the way through?"
"Mostly. The middle layer is vanilla marble cake but the top and bottom are both devil's food," Nathan said, chuckling a bit. "Just seemed appropriate."
Reluctantly abandoning his perusal of the dessert Ezra caused the five observing members of Team Seven to burst into laughter again when he reached out and gave the astonished baker a quick embrace before striding out of the room without another word.
+ + + + + + +
The party went on through the remainder of the afternoon and into early evening. Josiah's homemade barbecue sauce proved a rousing success with everyone, most especially the guest of honor. Ezra provided the evening's entertainment by consuming an astonishing three servings of ribs and a hearty helping of each side dish. His usual genteel manners were forgotten as he happily gnawed rib bones and corncobs, taking little notice of the smears of sauce decorating his lips and chin.
Vin laughed as he watched his friend finally give up on the meal and dip a napkin in his water glass, carefully wiping away the evidence of his feasting. "Dang, Ezra. Most days you hardly eat enough to keep a skinny sparrow alive but ever since this morning you been goin' at it like you're expectin' a famine."
Ezra shrugged. "Just because I don't hoard snack food like a cache of pirate gold doesn't mean I never eat. I simply prefer a healthier lifestyle than some other people I could mention."
Gesturing with a rib bone at the heap of like objects on the other man's plate, Josiah prompted, "And today?"
A bright smile, charming in its relaxed warmth, graced Ezra's features. "Today is my birthday, to do with as I please, and it is my pleasure to fully enjoy the bounty bestowed upon me by good friends."
Pleased expressions filled every face at those words. It was a rare thing for Ezra to so openly acknowledge their friendship and more than one glass was raised in silent salute.
"Maybe I shouldn't have made you that big ol' chocolate cake, then," Nathan teased. "If you dive into that the way you did Josiah's barbecue you may not fit into any of those fancy suits of yours come tomorrow."
"I'll manage. I could use a little time to recover from this fine meal before dessert, however. Perhaps a distraction might be in order."
Ezra's gaze settled on Chris, who smiled and asked, "What do you have in mind?"
"I believe it's high time we went in to investigate those three temptin' little packages decorating your coffee table, Mr. Larabee."
An unusually merry laugh broke free from the team leader. The expression in the younger man's eyes, mischief coupled with pure childlike anticipation, was one he could not deny. "All right, little boy. I guess you've been patient long enough. Let's go open some presents."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra perched on the edge of the middle sofa cushion in Chris Larabee's living room, directly in front of a small display of gifts: two packages and an envelope. He rubbed his hands together, trying to decide which to open first.
Grabbing the larger package, a shirt box by the look of it, wrapped in a sheet of the brightest, most colorful, ugliest gift-wrap he had ever seen, Ezra raised a brow to JD. "Yours?"
The young man nodded eagerly. "How'd you know?"
"Just a hunch."
Before he could do more than break the tape off one end, Ezra's cell phone rang. Shooting an apologetic look at the others, he freed the device from his pants' pocket and snapped it open. "Standish." After a brief pause, a look of mingled surprise and pleasure washed over his features. "Why, thank you, Mother."
The rest of the men braced themselves. One could never anticipate how the southerner would weather a call from his flighty, self-centered, con artist mother. Was she about to ruin what had otherwise been a perfect day?
Ezra laughed at whatever the woman was saying. "Yes, it has. You may be surprised to know that I am, right at this moment, in the middle of a surprise birthday party thrown by my colleagues. In fact, I was just about to open some of their gifts when you called." His eyebrows twitched in reaction to her reply. "Did you? Well, I'll keep an eye out for it. Thank you for remembering."
Almost a full minute passed before Ezra spoke again but the smile on his face never wavered and the lack of tension in his frame soon had his friends relaxing as well. From the sound of it, Maude had actually thought of someone other than herself and remembered her son's birthday in time to send a gift. Expressions of pleasure and satisfaction were exchanged as they watched their friend enjoy his phone call, a wicked gleam filling his jade eyes as he described his day, omitting certain details and playing up others for the presumed shock value.
"Yes, I will. All right. Thank you again, Mother. Goodbye." As he snapped the small phone shut and returned it to his pocket, he apologized. "Sorry for the interruption, gentlemen."
"No problem, Ez," Vin answered quietly, smiling at the soft expression on the southerner's face. It wasn't something he would ever admit out loud but Ezra's friends all knew how much that call had meant to him. Wanting to divert any embarrassment over having an audience to what he probably viewed as a sentimental moment, Vin gestured at the package still balanced atop the other man's knees. "Let's find out what JD got ya before the suspense kills us all, huh?"
Thankful for the recognized courtesy, Ezra complied. Easily popping the tape off, he slid the box out of the gaudy paper and looked inside. From the front of a black T-shirt, the image of a roaring grizzly bear stared back at him. Frowning, Ezra lifted the garment out of the box and shook it out to have a better look. Noticing the words printed below the ursine image he read out loud, "You don't have to be faster than the bear. You just have to be faster than your friends."
JD squirmed slightly when the rest of the guys stared at him with expressions ranging from pity to amusement to 'you've got to be kidding'. Ezra stared blankly at the shirt and JD's shoulders slumped. He had thought it was funny and completely perfect for Ezra's rather warped sense of humor. Now he wondered if he had made a serious mistake. Hell, today being a notable exception, how often did Ezra even wear T-shirts anyway? "I still have the receipt," he offered sadly. "I'll take it back and find you something better."
The blank look vanished at once, changing to a mixture of concern and surprise. "You'll do nothing of the kind. I was simply caught a bit off-guard." Without waiting for anyone else to speak, Ezra stood up. Pulling his green T-shirt free of his waistband he quickly exchanged it for the black one and declared, "A perfect fit."
Somehow knowing that the other man was not simply referring to the size of the shirt, JD relaxed.
Ezra read the caption again and smirked. "I expect you to remember this little bit of philosophy the next time you decide to drag us all off on one of your wilderness sojourns, Mr. Tanner."
Vin laughed. "Gotcha."
"Still got two gifts to go," Buck reminded them, nudging the envelope a bit closer to the edge of the table. He shook his head in amusement when the contrary man immediately reached for the other package instead.
Ezra weighed the object in his hand. "By the feel of it, someone has decided to expand my library," he mused. "Josiah?"
The older man shook his head, canting an eyebrow in Nathan's direction. The medic immediately shrugged, licking his lips as he said, "Hope you like it. I read it and I thought it was good but I don't know if you will. I mean, I hope you do. I've seen some of the stuff on your shelves at home, so I figured maybe it'd fit in."
Ezra blinked, surprised to hear the normally composed Nathan almost babbling. "Well, since it's a hardback edition that rules out my first guess of 'Medical Care for Dummies'," he quipped, glad to see the other man smile at the mild joke. Curiosity now thoroughly piqued, Ezra ripped open the tasteful blue wrapping paper and gaped at what he found inside. "Oh, my. Is this-?"
Nathan's nervousness reappeared at the stunned reaction. "It's not a new copy, I'm afraid. It's been out of print for awhile but I found that at a used book store downtown." A gleeful little exclamation startled him into silence and he watched open-mouthed as Ezra examined the book, studying the rather lurid drawing of a scantily clad woman holding a smoking gun before opening the cover and flipping through the pages with greedy fingers. "You like it?"
"Like it?" Ezra repeated in disbelief. "Nathan, this is 'Modesty Blaise'. An original copy of the 1965 novel, no less. I haven't read one of these since I was a child!"
Buck peered over his shoulder at the seductive looking woman on the cover and whistled. "She a cop? Cause I'm telling you right now, I'd let her frisk me any day!"
Ezra laughed. "She's a secret agent. Modesty Blaise was a British comic strip character in the 1950s, rather like James Bond but entirely original." His beaming smile once again shined on the surprised black man. "Thank you, Nathan."
A deep chuckle distracted Ezra from his continuing perusal of the novel and he looked up, slightly embarrassed when he realized that Josiah was standing in front of him, holding out the envelope that he had entirely forgotten.
"Not sure we can top Nathan's choice, but Chris and I decided to go in together on your gift," the big man explained.
Curious now, Ezra carefully set the book aside and accepted the small parcel. "A movie pass?" he murmured, drawing a stiff paper card out of the envelope. Taking a closer look, he smiled. "It's for the Regal."
"And it's not just a pass," Chris explained, pointing to the words typed at the bottom of the card. "It's a one year unlimited pass. Any show, any time, as often as you like."
Ezra was delighted. The Regal was an old theater dating from the 1930s and refurbished to its former glory by an owner who possessed both good taste and a healthy dose of nostalgia, rarely showing anything made more recently than the early 1970s. It had become a favorite haunt of Ezra's after he had moved to Denver to join the ATF and it had not taken long to discover that Chris and Josiah, fellow classic film buffs, also frequented the small movie-house.
"Theater tickets were Josiah's idea," Chris continued, "but we didn't want to get you something that you might not be available to use because of an assignment. Figure this is something you'll get our money's worth from."
"Indeed I will. Any chance you gentlemen might join me for its inaugural usage?" Ezra asked hopefully. "The Regal has a new double feature starting up next weekend. 'Rear Window' and 'Vertigo', I believe."
Josiah grinned in anticipation. "Count me in."
"I'm there," Chris agreed.
Buck and Vin added their willingness to join the party as well and the five men entered into an animated discussion of the pros and cons of various Hitchcock films while JD and Nathan slid quietly out of the room. Ezra hardly noticed their absence until the lights suddenly went out, leaving the room illuminated only by the flickering glow of candles as Nathan carried in the cake and six voices rose up to sing an enthusiastic chorus of 'Happy Birthday' to him.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra juggled his possessions as he unlocked the front door of his apartment and switched on the lights. Buck had offered to help him carry everything inside after giving his fellow agent a lift home, but Ezra had declined. A book, T-shirt, bowling bag and one good-sized slice of leftover chocolate cake hadn't seemed worth the bother.
Setting his burdens on a small table, his gaze fell upon the balloons tied to the bookcase in the corner. Stepping closer, he slid a finger along one of the ribbons and studied the happy face bobbing just above his head. That little Mylar creature seemed to represent him perfectly at this moment: bright, buoyant, and unable to stop smiling. After the cake, which had been a blissful concoction of creamy exterior and light fluffy interior, they had all played poker and told stories both innocent and outrageous for hours. Ezra's face fairly ached from having done so much laughing.
Chris had given him one last gift on the way out. He had the day off tomorrow to spend however he pleased. Maybe he'd go back to the Southern Cross and catch up properly with Miss Marlene. Reaching into his jeans' pocket, Ezra withdrew a scrap of paper covered in curly feminine script; Brandy Blake's home phone number. A crooked little grin creased the dimples in one cheek. Perhaps he'd cut that visit with Marlene a little short...
Detouring into the kitchen he grabbed a fork and a glass of milk then returned, kicking off his sneakers and flopping back into his favorite chair, a big overstuffed blue one that he refused to replace even though it clashed with his cream and beige décor. As he removed the plastic wrap protecting the piece of leftover birthday cake, the splashy cover of Nathan's present caught his eye. Perfect. Grabbing the book, Ezra curled his body into the chair and settled in for one last serving of sweet self-indulgence before bedtime. He smiled to himself. His friends had been right. Sometimes it was the simple pleasures that made life worth living.
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