Taken to the Grave

by Michelle & Amanda


Disclaimer: Don't own 'em, didn't make any money off 'em. Wish we did - you should get paid for having this much fun. Also, Team Eight is a creation of HeatherF. We hope she doesn't mind us borrowing them.

Summary: An argument among the members of Team Seven makes Ezra's latest undercover assignment difficult.

Notes: We'd love to hear what you think. WOTtwin@netscape.net


Ezra is going to be in deep shit, ATF agent Vin Tanner mused as he glanced from his wristwatch to Chris Larabee's office. The leader of the ATF team whose success rate was as legendary as its unconventional methods sat watching the door and drumming his fingers on his desk. It was ten fifteen am. The whole team had been at the Bureau doing prep work for their big mission since eight. Everybody except Standish. Ezra was still not there.

The condition of Ezra Standish being late was not a phenomenon to any of the other six agents that comprised Team Seven. In fact, there was usually a bet riding at the office on just how late he would actually be. The undercover agent had a notorious animosity for the rising sun, and everyone had accepted by now that Ezra was not going to change his habits. Most of the time Chris let it go with only a sarcastic rebuke that he knew would be ignored by the Southern agent, but today Larabee had specifically told his men to be in early for some last-minute briefings and to go over the details of their current assignment a final time before Ezra went undercover. Chris Larabee's orders were to be followed whether you liked it or not, and Standish's seeming disregard for the ATF leader's instructions had put Chris in a foul mood.

Ezra's lack of punctuality was not the only contributing factor, Vin reflected while keeping an eye out for the tardy agent as he went over some case photos in his office. This whole week's been way too tense. The cause of the tension was Team Seven's current case, arms dealer Michael Meyerhurst.

Meyerhurst was an up-and-coming figure in the world of Denver's organized crime. Little was known of him or the individuals under his employ, but he was suspected in everything from money laundering to murder. Ezra had spent the whole of last month wheedling his way into Meyerhurst's organization, and his work was finally coming into fruition as the crime lord had just offered "Anthony Stabler," as he knew Ezra, a place in his syndicate. That meant Standish would be going under deep cover in just one day.

But the undercover agent had not been the only one working overtime. The rest of the team had also been working feverishly to back their undercover agent, researching Meyerhurst and his operations, establishing Ezra's new identity as a small arms munitions expert.

Lack of sleep combined with stress had filled the office with cranky, irritable, short-tempered agents. So far the seven of them had managed not to kill anyone, but Tanner wondered how long that would last when Ezra finally showed. The office was a time bomb waiting to go off, and Chris was the one with the shortest fuse. The sharpshooter didn't want to be around when he detonated.

The sound of the clock's ticking permeated the office. Ten thirty came and went. Ten forty-five. No Standish. Vin thought Larabee's stare might set the door on fire as his fingers picked up the pace of their impatient rhythm.

At ten after eleven the undercover agent finally strode into the office, as usual wearing an expensive designer suit, although Vin noticed that Standish was not quite as impeccably groomed as he normally was. He had missed a small spot shaving, and there were dark circles under his usually sharp green eyes.

As Ezra walked sluggishly by Larabee's office, Chris barked, "What time zone are we in, Standish?"

Ezra pretended not to hear the sarcastic question. He trudged into the break room, where three other members of the team were taking a breather from their work, and poured himself a cup of coffee, apparently not even caring that Vin had been the one who brewed it. Chris, however, was not going to let go this time. The leader of the most successful ATF team in the department followed his agent into the break room like a black cloud of divine judgment and glared at the Southerner's unheeding back.

"Maybe in Ezra Standish Standard Time its eight o'clock, but here in Denver, you are over three hours late." Larabee's voice was pure growl. "Unacceptable!"

The sleep-deprived agent brought his head around slowly to face his boss.

"Unacceptable?" Standish drawled. "What, may I ask, do you mean by 'unacceptable?'" He continued acerbically before Larabee could answer. "Perhaps the word you intended is 'inconvenient' or possibly 'inconsiderate.'"

His words were gaining speed and heat. "Because the definition of 'unacceptable' would be expecting one to wake at an ungodly hour merely to expound on a case that the individual is already thoroughly familiar with, only to be assailed by one of Chris Larabee's unreasonable ranting tirades."

Chris' eyes narrowed further. His glares always had the effect of hail combined with freezing rain, but Ezra was either too tired to feel the chill or just did not care today. He concluded his suicidal speech with, "So please, Mr. Larabee, consult your dictionary before taking it upon yourself to harass my person with inaccurate diatribe."

Sitting at the table where they had been watching the argument unfold, computer expert JD Dunne looked at Agent Buck Wilmington in the chair next to him and gaped in astonishment. His pal returned the incredulous glance. Neither of them were exactly sure what the undercover agent just said, but it had sounded like a death wish.

Chris' glare reached new depths. Standish was unexcelled at prodding Larabee into a fury, but usually it was more of a personal challenge on the undercover agent's behalf. Today there was a dangerous undercurrent to both men's tones, heightened by the tension in the office.

"Unreasonable? I suppose it's unreasonable to ask one of my agents to be a damn professional?" Chris took half a step toward the slightly shorter Standish. "The rest of the team got here on time. They've been here working their asses off to make sure that you stay safe on this mission." Larabee scowled and added, "God only knows why they bother!"

Boom! Sitting at his desk, Vin flinched at the low verbal blow the team leader delivered to Standish. Tanner shook his head as he watched the display of tempers in the other room. Chris did have a point, the Texan admitted to himself. There was a lot to do before they inserted Standish into Meyerhurst's gang, and less than thirty-six hours in which to do it. On the other hand, Ezra had been putting a lot of time into this assignment and would very soon be living his work. What was the harm in letting the man get a couple extra hours of sleep?

Somehow the topic had gotten off course.

". . . Your bouts of wrath are by and large almost entirely unwarranted. I do not recollect your being nearly as irate when Mr. Dunne botched the surveillance on the Watsinburg case," Ezra was seething.

"Hey!" JD protested, jumping in his chair. "That was Buck's fault as much as mine!"

Buck looked at his younger roommate indignantly. "The hell you say!"

"Who was it that dumped coffee all over the keyboard?"

"If I recall, it was your horsin' around that made me do that!" Buck seemed unusually defensive at the accusation.

JD shoved his chair back aggressively as he started to retort. Former medic Nathan Jackson had been watching the scene from outside the break room, standing just outside with an empty coffee cup in his hands. He slipped through the doorway behind Chris before the two agents came to blows. JD had spunk, but Buck was just bigger.

"Hey, c'mon guys," Nathan interrupted. "It happened, we dealt with it, and it's over." Buck and JD still scowled at each other. Nathan looked at Ezra accusingly. "Now what'd you bring that up for?" he asked.

Chris answered for him. "Because he needs to take the heat off himself. Man's smart-ass mouth is always getting someone else into trouble. Hell, Nathan, you know that."

Ezra's eyes bored holes into the team leader. "Yes, Mr. Jackson. You've been quite vocal on your feelings about me and my 'smart-ass mouth.' I'm sure you and Larabee spend hours commiserating about me and my 'Smart. Ass. Mouth.'" He punctuated the last three words with venom.

Nathan opened his mouth and raised his finger to object, but Vin decided it was time for him to intervene and diffuse the situation. Hopefully he fared better than Jackson had.

"Hey, fellas," he crossed the room in long, hurried steps. "Let's get a grip on ourselves here! What're we all fighting about anyway?"

Chris greeted Vin's arrival with a frightening display of false cheer. "Ah, Vin," he said in a jovial tone that was belied by the frost in his eyes, "Just the person we needed to see. Tell us - am I unreasonable?"

So much for doing better than Nate. Vin really hadn't wanted to get dragged into the argument. You did not tell Chris Larabee that he lacked certain rational qualities at times. Not if you wanted to escape with your face intact, anyway. Larabee's glare was fixed on him, though, demanding an answer, and Ezra was regarding him as well. Damn. He should have just stayed out of it.

"Well . . . it, uh . . . it seems to me that, um . . . you may be overreactin' a mite. Ez has been workin' hard. He deserves a little rest." There, he'd said it.

The Southerner shot Larabee a triumphant smirk. Chris, for his part, stared at Vin in astonishment.

"You're taking his side?"

"Well, Chris, there ain't no sides-" the sharpshooter tried to say.

"I can't believe you're defending-" Chris began darkly.

"Aw, leave him alone. There're worse things he coulda done." This time is was Buck who made the fatal mistake of interrupting Larabee. It was JD, however, who responded.

"Yeah, like spilling hot liquid on sensitive electronic equipment," the young computer genius ribbed.

"Are you still on that?" Buck asked, exasperated. "I told you, if you hadn't been doing your impression of an octopus on crack-"

"Mr. Tanner can hardly be faulted for stating the truth-" Ezra defended Vin.

"I might not agree with you but I don't gossip-" Nathan protested.

"I just don't see why it makes such a difference today-" Vin explained weakly to Chris, who wasn't listening.

"If it's unreasonable to come in on time I don't see why you bother coming in at all," he told Standish menacingly.

The undercover agent's expression did not change, but his whole body stiffened as if preparing for a fight.

"Are you insinuating threats to my career, Mr. Larabee?"

Ezra kept his eyes on his boss while Buck and JD continued bickering in the background. Vin and Nate were also talking, though neither Standish nor Larabee paid any attention to what they were saying as Chris replied, "Your biggest threat to your career is yourself, Standish."

Josiah Sanchez, who had been sitting staring out the window throughout the proceedings, apparently decided that enough was enough, before the ATF leader and his undercover agent ran out of things to say and this fight turned violent. The profiler exhaled softly as he stood up and took a step towards the arguing agents.

"Gentlemen," he rumbled into the melee. His deep bass caught everyone's attention more effectively than a loud yell might have. Once all eyes were focused on him, including those of Larabee and Standish, who had been almost nose-to-nose, he took a sip of his coffee and asked mildly, "Shouldn't we all be getting back to work?"

"You have to have been at work to be getting back to work," Chris growled before shooting one last glare at Standish as he spun on his heel and stalked back to his office. The rest of the team gave a collective wince as the door slammed shut.

Ezra took a swallow of his own coffee, glowering balefully around the room and nodding to Vin and Buck before heading to his own desk. Not that Buck noticed; he was too busy staring daggers at JD.

Vin heaved a sigh and gulped the rest of his brew. Damn. Should have made it stronger today.

Nathan sat on his couch staring at the ceiling of his living room. What a nightmarish afternoon it had been! The ex-EMT was sure he was going to be bandaging someone's gunshot wounds by lunch. By the end of the day he had felt like causing a few himself. All he wanted now was to get some peace and quiet. Not that it had it hadn't been quiet at the office. It just hadn't been peaceful.

The whole day nobody had said one word more than absolutely necessary to anyone else, and the scowls going around the room had severely frightened some poor secretary who had wandered in to borrow some fax paper. Buck and JD, roommates who were usually like brothers with their good-natured bantering, ignored each other the whole day and refused to speak to one another without the aid of an intermediary. Chris practically barricaded himself in his office, while Vin sat staring at his door muttering to himself and wondering where he had went wrong. The undercover agent who had started the whole mess had been a cold flurry of activity, though what exactly he had been doing Nathan wouldn't have been able to say. Josiah had spent the day looking from one teammate to another and heaving sighs like small hurricanes.

At least Nathan was home now and could just forget this whole day. He did not look forward to going back to the office tomorrow. He wondered how Buck and JD were going to survive living together if they were fighting. Maybe the forced companionship would assist their reconciliation

A knock at the door startled Nathan. He looked at his watch. Nine thirty. Who could possibly be visiting him this late? Nathan hoped he hadn't been supposed to go out with Rain tonight. But hadn't she said she was going to be working this evening?

Another knock spurred Nathan to his feet. "I'm coming, I'm coming," he muttered.

The chemist pulled open his front door. JD stood on his porch with a duffel bag in his hand, shuffling it from one hand to another, waiting impatiently for Nathan to answer the door. Dunne looked up with a grim expression.

"Can I bunk with you for a while?"

Ezra stared out the dark windows of the towncar, watching the big gray buildings as they sped past. Michael Meyerhurst's right-hand man, Dale Oscar, sat to his left, talking about some boxing match he had attended last night. Ezra wasn't paying attention. The altercation that had taken place yesterday and had still been causing angst in Team Seven's ranks this morning filled his mind.

Damn Chris. Why did he have to be so unrelenting, so damn antagonistic? The team should have been functioning as one cohesive unit, backing each other to ensure this operation went smoothly. Instead, JD and Buck were at each other's throat, Chris felt that Vin had betrayed him and hence ignored him the best he could all the while making biting remarks to Ezra. Nathan for some reason was also angry at Ezra and would hardly say two words to him. Josiah had been trying his best to patch things up, but nobody was having any of it. Ezra had never felt so insecure and at the same time so relieved about going undercover. Well, except near the end in Atlanta.

He supposed that, yes, he may shoulder some blame in this fiasco, but of all the days Chris chose to make an issue out of Ezra's coming in late, why did it have to be that day? The undercover agent had been up late the night before and had still been up into the early morning, doing some last minute research on Meyerhurst. When he had finally retired to bed, sleep had been as evasive as a royal flush in a poker game. Ezra was always keyed up before a big assignment, and that night had been one of the worst. Eight o'clock was an absurd time to begin work, but he had planned on being at the office by nine. He had slept through the alarm clock, though, and hadn't even woken until quarter to eleven. That the Southerner had gotten to work as quickly as he had was a miniature miracle.

And he might have explained all this to Chris, had Larabee not jumped on him the second he walked through the door, before he'd even had a chance for a decent-or-otherwise cup of coffee. But no! No quarter from the almighty, ever perfect, can't do anything wrong, Ezra's late, let's kick him when he's down, Chris Larabee. Everybody else does their job so well except Standish, we've got to make an example out of him.

The black car came to a stop, and Ezra mentally shook himself out of his bitter reverie as he realized they had reached their destination. They had arrived at what looked to be an abandoned office building, a three-story complex that was in sad shape. The glass had been broken out of a half a dozen windows, the landscaping was overgrown, littered with trash, and weeds were growing out of massive cracks in the heaving concrete of the parking lot. Ezra noticed that the unobtrusive white entrance door had a nice new lock on it, though.

Besides the lock, the complex was just like all the other falling down wrecks that littered the area. It truly was a dump of a neighborhood. While it had apparently once been an industrial epicenter, businesses had moved on long ago and now the town was home only to the destitute and desperate. And the various gun runner, it would seem.

Dale hadn't shut up since Ezra had got in the car with him thirty-five minutes ago. He was still talking as he led the ATF agent into the office building. It was obvious that not a lot of effort had been made to rejuvenate the interior of the dilapidated building. Stark squares of pale green revealed spaces where pictures had once hung and the paint had faded around them. As they proceeded down the dimly lit corridors Ezra noted the fine cracks in the drywall, the empty light sockets. This building had obviously suffered a long period of disuse before Meyerhurst appropriated it. Not a lot of time had been dedicated to interior design since then, apparently.

They navigated the rundown hallways until they came to a large office, where Ezra's new "boss" was sitting behind a magnificent oak desk. A muscular black man in an Armani suit skulked just behind him. The man at the desk looked up as he heard Oscar and Standish approaching.

". . . a left hook right to the kisser! Man, if I had had money on Argyle-"

"Dale." Michael Meyerhurst corked the flow of incessant chatter with one authoritative word. The big man cut off mid-sentence, unperturbed, and took a step aside to lurk in the background and let his boss greet the new arrival.

Meyerhurst's office was classy enough to belong on Wall Street. And rich enough, too. The oak desk was faced by two matching chairs, and three plush designer chairs were situated around the spacious office. Tasteful and expensive artwork hung on the periwinkle walls.

"Anthony," Meyerhurst stood and came out from behind his desk. He extended a hand to shake Ezra's. Ezra returned the handshake and the crime lord's polite smile. The man had never been anything but amiable in the time the undercover agent had known him. It was not an ingratiating sort of affability, but a rather an 'I-have-control-over-your-life-and-death-so-why-not-let's-be-pleasant-about-it' kind of attitude. Somehow he still managed to convey the impression wearing a black tailored suit and a bright pink tie. It was actually somewhat subtle compared to some of the outlandish ties Ezra had seen Meyerhurst wear on past encounters.

"I'm so glad you decided to take me up on my offer," Meyerhurst continued. "It will be a pleasure to have you in our organization."

"The pleasure will be all mine, I assure you," Standish replied. "It has been a delight to work with a gentleman of your professional caliber, and I am sure you run your business with the same efficiency."

Meyerhurst's smile broadened. "Anthony, you could not have chosen a better time to become a part of my operation. Let me take you down to the conference room, where I'll introduce you to a few of your new associates. You of course already know Eric Further, my personal bodyguard, among other things." Ezra nodded at the bald man. Further, for his part, was uninterested.

The four men left the office, Meyerhurst and Standish in the lead.

"What do you think of my building?" Meyerhurst asked as they walked. "No, don't answer that, I know it's shit. That will change one day very soon." Ezra cocked an eyebrow. "I am currently working on a deal that will change everything. Bigger payoffs, better accommodations, no need to camouflage my operation in a second-hand complex falling apart in the middle of a veritable slumsville. I keep my office the way it is to remind me what I'm working towards. Everyone who's with me will be in that kind of luxury, my friend."

They now stood in front of a closed door with the words "Main Conference Room" engraved on it.

"And behind this door is a group of people who are in complete agreement with me. I have many teams and individuals in my employ, but the team you will be working with is my best."

Dale opened the door and led the small party into the conference room. The dominant piece of furniture in the stark, windowless room was a large round table, around which sat the remaining members of Ezra's new team. They looked up when Meyerhurst entered. The arms dealer wasted no time getting to the introductions.

"Here we have Rick Gadflies, procurator of the unattainable," Meyerhurst gestured to a short man with thinning brown hair and large glasses. "Do yourself a favor - don't ask him where he gets it." Rick grinned and gave Ezra a slight wave.

Next to the small man, sitting at a conspicuous distance from him with her boot-clad feet up on the table, was a young woman wearing a black t-shirt and black backwards baseball cap. "Andrea Kitanovich," Meyerhurst introduced. "Kitty's a genius with computers and electronics." The "genius" looked Ezra up and down appraisingly and then went back to studying her nails. They were painted black.

"And that is Ron Rye." Meyerhurst indicated a very large man in a camouflage jacket sitting with his head on the table and his arms crossed around it. The crime lord spoke softly to Ezra. "Rye disappeared for about five years a while back. Nobody knows where he was or what happened, but ever since he's been back he's been a bit . . . unstable. Don't look him directly in the eyes." Ezra's own eyes widened a bit, and he nodded. Ron Rye chose that moment to get up from his chair and move to a corner, where he started thumping his head lightly against the wall. Everyone in the room ignored him.

"Lastly, there's Tony." Moving to the last man at the table, who vaguely reminded Ezra of a mole wearing a garish orange suit, Meyerhurst reached into his suit coat and pulled out a gun. Without hesitation he shot Tony dead center between the eyes. The weasely-looking little man fell lifeless to the floor.

"Tony," Meyerhurst continued in the same tone, "thought it would be more profitable to play both sides. He's been selling information to the Feds at the same time he was spying on them for me." Putting his gun back into the holster, Meyerhurst said, "I don't tolerate being played, Mr. Stabler. I hope you can understand that."

"Perfectly." Ezra smoothly hid his shock at the way Meyerhurst had calmly dispatched the double agent. For a while there the "team" had vaguely reminded him of Team Seven, but the others' reaction of largely ignoring the cold-blooded killing of one of their own quickly dispersed that illusion.

"Glad to hear that," Meyerhurst smiled again. "And I must not forget Dale Oscar." Turning to the Tom Cruise look-alike, Meyerhurst clapped him on the shoulder. "Ozzie has been with me from the beginning. Watch out for the scoundrel - his practical jokes have left people missing limbs. Everybody, this is Anthony Stabler."

"What are we, the Brady Bunch?" Kitanovich muttered without looking up. The others voiced various greetings. Except for Ron Rye. The giant of a man seemed pretty much oblivious to all that was going on around him.

Dale grinned at Ezra. "No sooner do we lose a Tony than we gain one, huh Tony?"

The undercover agent looked at the tastelessly dressed corpse on the floor. "Please," Ezra said, "call me Anthony."

Twenty-four hours later Vin and Chris were waiting for Ezra to meet them for the designated rendezvous in a Marriott parking garage. Vin was leaning up against his Jeep, watching Chris pace restlessly from one concrete pillar to another. It had been extremely awkward on the car ride over. Larabee had been avoiding Tanner at the office, and this had been the first time the men had been alone since the argument. Neither had said a word to each other during the short trip, and the silence had been deafening even when Vin had switched on the radio.

Ezra's Jag pulled up next to his teammate's vehicle. The undercover agent got out of his car and greeted Vin with a two-fingered salute. Larabee got a curt nod.

"What have ya got?" Vin asked hurriedly, hoping to preclude any snide remarks from Chris about the agent's tardiness. Ezra was ten minutes late.

Standish raised an eyebrow behind his designer sunglasses at the abruptness of the question, but quickly got to the point of the meeting.

"I have apparently been more successful than I had anticipated in winning Meyerhurst's trust. He has given me a position on his most elite team of criminal thugs. I join the ranks of such sparkling personas as Dale Oscar, Andrea Kitanovich, Eric Further, Ron Rye and lastly Rick Gadflies, former morgue attendant. I did some digging around (ha ha, little graveyard humor there) and discovered that Mr. Gadflies was arraigned for selling human organs on the black market. He spent two years in state penitentiary, where he quickly gained himself a reputation for acquiring even the most unlikely items. Meyerhurst finagled some of his connections into getting him released early and Gadflies has worked for Meyerhurst ever since."

"Sounds charming," Chris said dryly.

"Who's this Further guy?" Vin asked. The name sounded familiar.

"His former employment was as a freelance hit man. He was contracted to take out Meyerhurst, but Meyerhurst discovered the plot and reportedly offered Further three times the money to take out the individual who had engaged his services. Further did so, and ended up with a price on his own head. It was rescinded, however, when Meyerhurst took him in as his personal bodyguard."

Vin nodded. That was how he knew him. He had never met up with Eric Further during his stint as a bounty hunter, but he had tracked the man for three days before he heard the bounty had been repealed.

"What about the rest of them?" Larabee asked.

"Andrea Kitanovich, AKA Kitty, graduated college two years ago. She has been working for Meyerhurst as his own personal hacker and all-around computer expert for three. Came to America with relatives when she was in her early teens after the untimely death of her parents. Her wardrobe and Mr. Larabee's share a remarkable similarity in color scheme."

All three men looked at Chris' black button-down shirt for a second, then Ezra continued.

"Ron Rye was Meyerhurst's personal assistant until he vanished under mysterious conditions about seven years ago. He reemerged under equally perplexing circumstances and has been with Meyerhurst the last two years. None of the others are aware of, or are willing to divulge, where Rye was in those five years. The man is unstable, to say the least.

"Dale 'Ozzie' Oscar has been with Meyerhurst from the beginning. They grew up in the same neighborhood, Oscar a willing participant in whatever scheme Meyerhurst concocted. His loyalty to Meyerhurst is unquestionable, though I do have some doubts about his macabre sense of humor."

Standish paused as if he were about to say something else, but apparently decided not to mention what or whoever was on his mind.

Larabee shook his head when it was clear the undercover agent was finished. If he was impressed at the amount of information Standish had acquired on Meyerhurst's people in such a short time, he didn't show it.

"Quite a peanut gallery Meyerhurst has assembled. You must fit right in."

Vin couldn't see Ezra's glare behind the sunglasses, but he knew it was there.

"Yes, well, I never thought I'd live to see a bigger band of miscreant morons than Team Seven, but it would appear I was mistaken."

Seeing a dangerous glint in their leader's eyes as he opened his mouth, Vin cut in before Larabee could respond. Damn, they were going to have to end this fight soon. Continually interrupting Chris was not good for Tanner's career, or his health.

"Now that we know the players, we'll see if we can uncover any relevant information on 'em. Meyerhurst got anything in the works?"

Ezra eyed Chris for one second further before replying to Vin. "Meyerhurst has aspirations to the next level of organized crime. He has a meeting with the Chicago Boys, part of the Gianotello crime family, in the interests of joining them and broadening his criminal horizons. The Boys are arriving in Denver tomorrow morning and the rendezvous is scheduled for the early evening at Meyerhurst's restaurant. Meyerhurst is desperate to make this deal; he has all his assets invested in it."

"The Chicago Boys, huh? What flight? I'll have Wilmington and Dunne keep an eye on them." Chris mused over the new information, almost forgetting he was mad at his two agents.

Ezra gave them the requested information. As they concluded the meet, the undercover man took off his sunglasses to rub the bridge of his nose absentmindedly. Vin gasped at the large cut under Ezra's left eye. "What the hell happened to your eye?" he exclaimed.

"I foolishly asked Ron Rye if I could borrow his pen," Standish explained, replacing his sunglasses.

"And he hit ya?"

"Apparently it was his favorite pen."

Josiah wondered if this was what hell was like.

He was trapped in small quarters with two whining babies - Buck and JD. The two of them were surveilling the Chicago Boys, and Chris has sent Josiah along to babysit. The Almighty must be testing his patience, Sanchez decided. The second the ex-roommates stepped into the van together there had been nothing but constant bickering, recriminations and denials. For a while they had run out of nasty things to say to each other and blissful silence had reigned. Then Buck had brought out his lunch.

"Peanut butter and jelly?" JD exclaimed incredulously.

"Well it's better than coffee, ain't it? Besides, it won't get on any of your stuff unless you start goofing around."

"Come on, kids, play nice," Josiah admonished. Why couldn't Chris have put Nathan on surveillance? The ex-EMT was probably doing paperwork in a nice quiet office right now, positively heaven compared to tracking the moves of three notorious mobsters with Abbot and Costello here. Maybe if the stakeout had been more interesting, the two agents would have been distracted enough to forget they were mad at each other, but so far the Chicago Boys had been behaving themselves. The trio had ridden to their hotel in a cab and checked in about two hours ago. The AFT team had been watching the Hilton's doors ever since, but the criminals hadn't moved.

Buck and JD glanced at the profiler before shooting twin glares at each other. JD then returned to staring at the security monitor they had tapped into and Buck went back to his lunch. JD had his back to Wilmington, so he did not see the glob of strawberry jam seep out of Buck's sandwich as the ATF agent took his first bite. Josiah saw it, though, and watched in mute horror as the bright red goop oozed from the sandwich and fell like a sticky missile of death towards JD's laptop. He heaved a sigh of relief when the dangerous substance missed Dunne's computer and instead landed on the desk next to it. Josiah chalked it up to Providence and thanked God that JD had missed the whole thing.

Buck looked down and saw the incriminating mess. He hastily grabbed a napkin and began to clean up the evidence, glancing up to see if JD had noticed. When he saw Sanchez watching him, he raised a finger to his lips and gave the big man a look that clearly said "not a word of this to the kid." Josiah rubbed his eyes wearily. What had he done to deserve these two?

"What did I do to deserve getting partnered with you?" moaned Andrea Kitanovich in a light Russian accent. The young computer genius, along with "Anthony," Rick Gadflies, and Ron Rye had been waiting in Meyerhurst's building for the last hour for the rest of the gang to return from their meeting with the Chicago Boys. Her question was directed towards Gadflies, who was sitting at the conference table picking his teeth. The ex-mortician looked up and waggled his eyebrows at the dark-haired woman.

"I don't know," he said. "You must have done something right."

"Please, Mr. Gadflies, that is such a clichéd response." Ezra sat at the end of the table, dealing himself another round of Solitaire. This was getting tedious. Meyerhurst had only taken Oscar and Further with him to meet the Chicago mobsters, and it irked Ezra to no end that he had not been able to persuade Meyerhurst to take him along. It did make sense. There were only three Chicago Boys at the meet, and Meyerhurst did not want to make them feel threatened by having more men there than they. Of course he would take his right-hand man and his personal bodyguard. But in the meantime Ezra was stuck in a room with Ron Rye, Andrea Kitanovich and Rick Gadflies, none of who would play poker with him after their "friendly little game" the first night.

"Yes, Gadflies. You are a big cliché. Thank you, Mr. Stabler." Kitanovich nodded appreciatively at the agent.

"At your service, Ms. Kitanovich. Though please, call me Anthony," Ezra said.

She nodded again in acknowledgement. "And you may call me Kitty."

Ezra smiled and gave the young Russian a salute. They both looked over to where the grave robber was prying the fillings out of the teeth of an old skull.

"Honestly, Mr. Gadflies," Standish drawled, "that is disgusting. I mean picking your teeth is bad enough, but those aren't even your teeth."

"Gold is gold no matter where it comes from," Gadflies rebutted.

"I must concede that point. And speaking of, where exactly did those bones come from?" Not that Ezra was really sure he wanted to know.

"One of the city's older and finer cemeteries. I tell you, they certainly don't make 'em like they used to."

Before Ezra could open his mouth to comment on Rick's use of yet another cliché, Meyerhurst walked in, Dale Oscar and Eric Further flanking their boss. Ron Rye, who had been silently staring with dark intent at the room's other occupants, now switched his gaze to the new arrivals.

"Chicago Boys interested?" Rye asked in a gruff voice. Ezra was rather surprised. He wasn't quite sure how much the distant giant had been following the proceedings. Or any proceedings at all, actually.

Meyerhurst sat down in an available chair and loosened the knot of his blue and orange spotted tie. "Very interested, unless I miss my guess. They inspected the sample merchandise and we've come up with an agreeable price. Confirmation is needed on their end to go through with the transaction, so we're meeting again in two days to get the final answer. And there is absolutely no reason for them not to say yes. Then the ball of opportunity begins to roll. Once Chicago Pete agrees to buy the guns, he will then introduce me to Angry Jack Gianotello. Angry Jack will put us on Easy Street, my friends."

A lyrical chiming resonated in the room. Ron Rye jumped up, swirling around for the source of the sound. Meyerhurst pulled a cell phone from his pocket.

"It's okay, Rye. It's just my phone. You can sit down." Once Rye had sat down again, glaring worse than ever, Meyerhurst answered his phone. "Hello? Yes, would you please hold on a second? Excuse me, I'm going to take this outside. Feel free to head home, I'll get in contact with you all later." As he walked out of the conference room Further began to follow, but Meyerhurst waved for him to stay.

As the arms dealer left, Dale sat down and swung his feet up onto the table. A big grin lit his face, as usual.

"Boys and girls, we are prepped to hook up into some sweet action," Ozzie said, drawing out the word "sweet" into two syllables. "You shoulda seen these players tonight - all decked out in fancy suits, wearing the biggest diamond rings I've ever seen."

The right-hand man had the rest of the team's attention. Gadflies didn't pause in his work but he cocked his head and glanced up occasionally. Kitty clasped her hands in front of her and leaned forward on her elbows.

"And they've all got these high-falutin' names," Oscar continued, "like, South Side Jim and Donnie the Nose. You know," he said contemplatively, "when we make it big time I'm going to have me a swanky name like that. How about Diamond Dale? Or maybe Dale 'The Eliminator' Oscar. What do you guys think?" He looked up to gauge their reactions.

Kitty was unimpressed. "I think 'Oscar, Meyer's wiener' would be more appropriate," she said derisively.

Oscar huffed while the others laughed. Rick Gadflies laughed, anyway. Eric Further, who had stayed pretty much to the sidelines through Dale's description of the meeting, emitted a small smile. Kitty wore a satisfied smirk and Ezra allowed himself a chuckle. Ron Rye muttered under his breath.

"Bad kitty," Gadflies guffawed, changing the Russian's smirk to a scowl of disgust at the little man.

Dale put his feet to the floor and leaned forward to face Kitanovich. "Not 'bad kitty,'" he said. "Pussycat Kitanovich. Or maybe Kitty Kilobyte."

Oscar was trying to push the hacker's buttons, but she surprised him and said matter of factly, "No. 'Black Cat.'"

Ezra chuckled a bit. "'Black Cat' Kitanovich. It does have charm."

"So you've been thinking about this, huh, Miss Black Cat?" Dale was grinning again. "What about you, Gadflies? Have you got a nickname picked out already?"

The once-mortician put his skull down, leaned back and crossed his hands behind his head as he pondered the question. "Well," he said after a second, "I think I'd like to be called . . . 'Rick Detroit.'" He glanced up for approval.

Dale "the Eliminator" and "Black Cat" Kitanovich looked at each other in puzzlement.

"Hey, Gadflies, aren't you from Pittsburgh?" Oscar asked.

"Yes, but it's a known fact that people think you're tougher if you came from Detroit." The former morgue attendant said defensively. "What do you think, Anthony?"

Standish took a good look at Rick Gadflies. The man was maybe five foot seven, skinny, with a complexion that rarely saw daylight. His thin brown hair covered a balding round pate and the thick large glasses he wore made his pale eyes seem owlish. Ezra smiled.

"I think the name makes perfect sense, Mr. Gadflies."

Rick beamed. "How about you? What will your name be?"

The undercover agent mused a bit before he caught himself. What was he doing? This was a mission, damn it, not some frolic with a bunch of friends. He wasn't supposed to be having fun.

Yet he was, Ezra had to admit to himself. Meyerhurst's group had accepted him into the team almost immediately, and Standish actually somewhat enjoyed their company as well. Chris had made the statement in jest, but truly it almost frightened Ezra how well he did fit in with these people. Perhaps it was merely because they reminded him in many ways of Team Seven. He could seriously envision having this conversation in the office with the rest of the guys. The undercover agent had to suppress a shudder as he thought of the names Buck and JD would surely conjure up for each other. If they were on speaking terms, that is. Ezra felt rather guilty over that debacle. His intention had been to get Larabee off his back, not drive a wedge between the two agents. Time enough to think about that later.

In the meantime, these people were definitely not Team Seven, Ezra reprimanded himself, remembering the dead man in the orange suit who he had replaced. There were similarities - from the team's easy banter down to the number of members in the group. But where Team Seven was fiercely loyal and each member upheld high moral standards - to one degree or another - many of the characters in Meyerhurst's gang were of questionable loyalty, Standish had learned. And their morals were not so much low as they were non-existent. They are the anti-Seven, Ezra thought with an inward grin. He wondered what that made him.

"Emerald-Eyes Tony," Dale supplied, interrupting Ezra's chain of thought. Mentally chiding himself for letting his mind wander while undercover, Standish gave the man a mock-stern glare.

"I told you, Mr. Oscar, the name is Anthony."

Kitty eyed Standish thoughtfully. "Anthony the Sharp."

Ezra considered for a moment and shook his head.

"Then what?" Ozzie asked.

A small smile spread across Ezra's face.

"Aces," he said.

"Anthony Aces. Yeah. That's kinda got a nice ring to it," Oscar said.

Standish nodded, but the name that flashed in his head was 'Ezra Aces.'

Dale looked over to where Ron Rye was sitting apart from the group, staring mutely at the ceiling. "Hey, Rye," he called, "What are they gonna call y-"


Everyone stared at the erstwhile secretary.

"That's, uh, real good Rye," Oscar said after a second, although Ron hadn't taken his eyes off the ceiling. "Good name. Yeah." Dale looked to Eric Further, who was leaning against the doorframe and, except for his slight amusement earlier, had given no indication that he was following the conversation. In fact, he appeared somewhat bored. "Further, you over there thinking up a name for yourself?" Dale asked.

The former hit man regarded the rest of the team contemptuously. "I have a name. And making up a ridiculous appellation to accompany it will make me no more or no less who I am." Having said his scornful piece, Further turned away from the group.

Ozzie stifled a fake yawn, rolling his eyes and shaking his head, grinning. The other three smiled at his antics.

They sat in silence for a little while until Rick Gadflies brushed his little gold strike into a plastic baggie and stood up. "Well, ladies and gentlemen, I must be off. Oil tycoon Robert Baron passed away last week and the funeral was today. Old money, you know. Any of you care to join me in a little treasure hunt? Grave couldn't have been filled in more than an hour ago, should be nice and soft for digging."

Disgusted shakes of heads answered the grave robber, but Dale looked thoughtful. "Old money you say?" Rick nodded eagerly. "What the hell, I'm in. I'll swing by my place to pick up a shovel and meet you at the cemetery in twenty minutes."

"Fabulous! Are the rest of you sure you won't come? We're bound to uncover some valuable antiques."

Ezra tilted his head to the side contemplatively. "Is there really any profit in depriving the deceased of the gains they attempt to take with them beyond the grave?"

"Believe it!" said Gadflies. "You know that Lamborghini I drive? George Thomas Trilan stipulated in his will that he was to be buried in that Lamborghini. Do you think anyone realized that he was actually laid to rest in a rusty old Buick?"

"That's . . . incredible!"

"Now that you know, will you join us?" Gadflies asked hopefully.

"Thank you, but no. I like my Jaguar. However, should I ever be in need of a replacement vehicle, you shall be the first one I call."

"I know how much you like those fancy suits. We could-"

"NO, Mr. Gadflies."

"Okay, okay." Gadflies shrugged. "Kitty?"

Kitanovich shook her head no. "But good luck anyway, Rick. At the very least you'll get some more gold fillings."

"Commendable thinking, Kitty," Gadflies said, "But the man was ninety-six years old. The only thing I'm likely to find in his mouth are some expensive dentures. Ozzie, I'll see you in twenty." With that, the little man left.

"I can't believe you agreed to go with him." Kitanovich ribbed Oscar. "I thought dead bodies were your thing only if they were fresh."

"Oh, I wouldn't miss this expedition for anything. Mr. Baron's going to be a little fresher than Rick expects," Ozzie said, trying to sound casual.

"Sounds like you have a practical joke in the works, Mr. Oscar." Ezra observed.

"Let's just say you're going to be sorry you missed out when Rick opens up the coffin and finds not a dead Robert Baron, but a very alive John Whitney."

"Who is John Whitney?"

"John owes Michael thirty large. I went to collect yesterday and he couldn't pay up, so now he's helping me pull a prank. He's been in Baron's coffin for a few hours now, just waiting for Gadflies to dig him up. And I'm going to be there to see both their faces."

"Mr. Oscar, won't the poor stiff have suffocated by the time you and Mr. Gadflies liberate him?" Ezra asked.

"Oh, I gave him an oxygen tank. It would ruin the joke if Whitney weren't alive when we dug him up. Of course, by the time we do, his air supply should be getting pretty low." Dale chuckled menacingly at the thought of the debtor lying in the pitch-black coffin, wondering if each breath would be his last. "I don't think John's gonna have any trouble paying me when I go to collect on Monday."

"Very imaginative, Ozzie. Well, I'm going home. Goodnight, boys." Kitty's leaving started a trend, and Ezra found himself heading towards his car in company with Dale Oscar.

"Must be a spacious coffin, to encompass Mr. Baron, Mr. Whitney and an oxygen tank." The ATF agent could not help thinking about poor John Whitney, lying in what could be his own grave, not sure if anyone was going to dig him up, his air running out with every breath, and lying cheek to cheek with a bona fide corpse to top it all.

"I'm afraid there just wasn't enough room for Mr. Baron in his final resting place. I had to take him out." Dale answered. A gleam in his eye told Ezra there was more to it.

"Dare I ask where the body is now?"

"Don't you worry about Kitty all alone in that big apartment of hers?" Ozzie mused in mock seriousness.

"You didn't!" Ezra was agog at the man's tenacity.

"I mean, she's so anti-social. She needs a man to warm that bed of hers." Dale's grin was decidedly shark-like. "Not that Robert Baron is going to be very warm at this point."

Ezra shook his head. "Three pranks with just one body. Mr. Oscar, I admire your resourcefulness, if not your self-preservation instincts."

Dale took a pair of dentures out of his pocket and tossed them up and down, laughing all the way to his car.

Ezra was just getting into his Jag when he heard someone call out his alias. Meyerhurst was walking briskly along the parking lot towards him. He approached Ezra and said, "I'm glad I caught you. There is something I need done, and I think you're the man who can do it for me."

"At your service," Ezra responded courteously.

"That phone call was from an informant who tells me that Chicago Pete is also taking bids from my rival, Eddie Dumluk. If this information is correct, they are meeting with Dumluk as we speak and could very well have already struck a bargain." Meyerhurst's eyes narrowed. "I have not worked so hard for this deal only to have it snatched out from under my nose by an idiot like Dumluk. But there is no need for me to expend my energies if it is not true. This is where you come in." Ezra's eyebrows rose in question and Meyerhurst continued. "I need you to find out who they're buying the guns from, and I need you to find out tonight."

"May I ask, Mr. Meyerhurst, how do you expect me to accomplish this?" Ezra asked warily.

"Dumluk owns a club on the other side of town. He is there every night, without fail."

Standish waited for Meyerhurst to continue with more detailed instructions. When none were forthcoming he asked, "Do I assume correctly in thinking you expect me to walk into Mr. Dumluk's establishment, sit down and blatantly ask the man if he is selling arms to the Chicago Boys?"

"I do presume you will be slightly more discrete than that. But essentially, yes. Eddie has never seen you; he doesn't know you're one of my men."

"Still, that is not the kind of information one imparts to a complete stranger," Ezra said skeptically.

"Does that mean you're not willing to try?" Meyerhurst's face remained friendly, but there was a dangerous edge to his question.

Ezra paused. He didn't know why he was arguing with the man. Infiltrating Dumluk's nightclub was certainly in his realm of capabilities, and the information he would acquire would be useful to Team Seven as well. But there was one matter that was bothering him.

"What makes you believe I am qualified to perform such clandestine operations?"

Meyerhurst smiled. "I have a rare gift of recognizing ability in others, Anthony. You have a way with people. Thirty seconds after I met you, I liked you. You make people trust you." Ezra tried not to choke at that statement. "I see in you a quality. Tony had it too, dumb bastard. You wouldn't have thought it to look at him, but he did." Meyerhurst paused and looked Ezra in the eye. "People like you can wrap other people around your fingers and have them dancing to your tune with a smile on their face, all the while believing it was their idea. If you think I'm wrong and you can't do this for me, tell me now and that's fine. But keep this in mind: small arms experts are a dime a dozen. This is the reason I brought you into my organization, Anthony. Now I ask you: having never met the man, can you get Dumluk to tell you the inner workings of his secret transactions in the space of a few hours?"

The dead man in the orange suit flashed through Ezra's mind again, even while considering the irony of Meyerhurst's statement. Standish smiled archly.

"You didn't just hire me for my startling good looks, did you?"

The crime lord laughed and clapped Ezra on the back. "That's what I wanted to hear. Be here tomorrow morning to tell me what you've found." Meyerhurst turned and strolled to his own car, whistling a bright tune. Ezra stared at his retreating form.

Well, well. How droll. It seemed that the very perceptive Meyerhurst was even more deluded than the undercover agent had hoped. At least he recognized talent and skill when he saw it. Larabee would never have admitted those things about Ezra. Chris would have said, "Standish, you're an untrustworthy sneak. That's why we need you to do this. Dumluk should respond to his own kind." Everybody has their specialty in this outfit, Ezra. Yours is lying and manipulating. It wasn't as if he wasn't good at it. Perhaps it was because the undercover agent was so adept at the manipulative arts that Chris felt compelled to bust his chops so much. The other members of the team may not follow protocol all the time, but at least they were honest. Yeah, well, honesty wasn't going to cut it with people like Meyerhurst, Standish thought bitterly.

Ezra got into his Jag and slammed the door harder than the cosseted vehicle was used to. Time to go do his job.


Comments: WOTtwin@netscape.net