Victim/Villain:
Prologue

by Amanda & Michelle

Synopsis: The FBI recalls Ezra to Atlanta for a special mission. But the consequences are far beyond any the FBI or Team Seven could believe, as both agencies begin to question Ezra’s sanity.If you think you know what’s going to happen, think again!

Main Characters: Ezra, All Seven, and yes, some of our own.


“He turned down another lawyer today,” undercover agent Ken Owens of the FBI reported to the man seated across the desk.

“Crap. That’s what, the fourth agent in the past six weeks?” responded his superior, Special Agent Morgan Reilly.

“Yes, sir, and three others who weren’t FBI besides that.”

Reilly pushed himself up out of his chair forcefully. A simple gold ring adorned the hand that struck the desk. “What is Jericho’s problem?” Frustration laced the tall man’s gruff Irish brogue. “He’s a bloody mob boss; it’s not like he’s negotiating an international peace treaty or something!”

“Well, sir, in a small way it is. Atlanta may not be the UN, but it is Jericho’s turf. And this is not some gang from Brunswick or even Chicago that he’s dealing with – it’s Nikolai Romanov! Any loopholes in their bargain, any misunderstandings and Jericho might just watch himself be bullied out of Atlanta. That’s if he’s lucky. If not he could end up with a war on his hands, and even Elijah Jericho can’t stand up to the Russian mafia.”

“You’re preaching to the choir, Owens.” Reilly loosened the knot of his blue silk tie as he made a half-turn and began a slow pace along the back wall of the office. “These are no bogtrotters Jericho’s checking out; he’s examining the best lawyers in the state,” Reilly muttered to himself. “Who’s he looking for?”

“Zachary Bennett.”

“What?” Morgan Reilly whipped around to face his agent, his brow furrowing fiercely.

Ken’s bright blue eyes lit up as he grinned. “Jericho dropped the name this afternoon. Zachary Bennett worked with him six years ago in similar circumstances and Jericho thinks he can help with the Russians.”

Reilly issued a heavy sigh. “Crap.”

Ken frowned. “I thought this was good news, sir. I checked the files and found out Bennett was an undercover FBI agent.”

“That he was,” Reilly confirmed. “Worked in Atlanta during our big operation to bust Carl Hundburg, back when Hundburg was expanding his empire into Jericho’s territory. The information he gathered while posing as an attorney for Hundburg was instrumental in the conviction.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“The problem is the agent: Ezra Standish.”

>>< <> ><<

“You can’t trust him,” Assistant Special Agent in Charge Harry Warfield said for the half-dozenth time since the FBI agents’ plane had landed in Denver. He and Reilly stepped into the ATF building’s first-floor elevator.


“So you’ve mentioned. Yet Elijah Jericho will trust none but him!” said Reilly, exasperated. He pushed the button that would let them off at Team Seven’s floor.

“What does that say for his references?”

“I don’t care about his references,” Reilly growled. “I care about my operation.” His right hand reached for his tie, but he stopped himself and left the knot in place.

“Then what about his reputation?” Warfield persisted. “Agent Reilly, you’ve been working in Atlanta long enough to know the story. If you care about your mission, then you won’t leave its success in the hands of such a dubious character.”

“I know the rumors. I know the reputation. But I don’t know the man.”

“Thus the trip to Colorado.” Warfield’s tone carried a patronizing quality. “Trust me, it’s a waste of time,” he continued. “You wouldn’t care to know Ezra Standish. Nobody would; that’s why the FBI stashed him in Denver with the ATF for the last five years.”

Reilly shifted his wide shoulders in a shrug. “If that’s so then you won’t have to worry. Even if Jericho likes him, Standish still has to earn Nikolai Romanov’s approval. If he’s the blackguard you say, Standish will be back in Denver in a flash.”

“Listen, Reilly, meeting Standish is one thing; taking him back to Atlanta and insinuating him with Jericho is something else. Don’t expect too much just because I agreed on taking you to Denver. I will only humor you so far.”

“You’re not humoring me, Warfield. You know just as well as I do that the FBI needs an agent negotiating the Jericho-Romanov alliance. Yet every agent we try to infiltrate for the role, no matter what background we give him, gets rejected. In a way, it was Elijah Jericho himself who requested Ezra Standish. You are not humoring me,” Reilly reiterated. “We need Standish to work out, and you know it.”

“He won’t work out,” Warfield replied darkly.

“We’ll see.”

“And then there’s the issue of Chris Larabee.”

“What bloody issue? Chris Larabee is not going to Atlanta.” Reilly reached for his tie again, stopped, and instead brought his hand up to tug at his left earlobe, the one with the diamond stud in it.

“I know that,” Warfield said peevishly. “But Larabee is notoriously protective of his agents. How do you think he’s going to react when we go in there and tell him we’re taking a member of his team?”

“Larabee can carry-on from here to high heaven for all I care. If I believe that Standish can do the job, nothing is going to stop me from bringing him back to Atlanta.”

“Whatever you say, Reilly.” Warfield sounded disbelieving. Both men were silent for a moment.

“I do wish I knew how you convinced the assistant director not to tell Larabee and his team we’re coming,” Warfield commented.

Reilly smirked. “There was nothing to it, Warfield. Orrin Travis is a rational man. I simply appealed to his sense of reason.”

Warfield raised a questioning eyebrow but Reilly did not expound.

“We’re here,” Morgan Reilly said as the elevator came to a stop.

>>< <> ><<

The five agents immediately visible as Warfield and Reilly walked into the office didn’t notice the pair’s arrival. In fact, four of them had their backs to the two FBI agents as they gathered around the desk of JD Dunne, a dark-haired kid who looked too young to be an agent. He was being hassled by Buck Wilmington, a tall man with a thick mustache, older than Dunne by at least a decade.

“Come on, JD, you’re not really going to give that to Casey for your anniversary are you?”

JD looked at the sale circular he held in his hands. “You don’t think an MP3 player is a good gift? I mean, it’s the anniversary of the day we met; it’s not like it’s a wedding anniversary.”

Wilmington rolled his eyes with comic exaggeration. “Geez, kid, you might as well get her a frog gigger.”

“What the hell is a frog gigger?” JD asked.

The mustached man ignored the question. “Women like men to give them fancy, frilly things. Something that sparkles and is completely useless.”

“Buck, don’t you think JD knows Casey well enough by now to know what she will or will not like?” The question was posed by Nathan Jackson, Team Seven’s forensic expert and former EMT.

“I’m sure he does, Nathan. I just think he’s not as in tune to the female mind as yours truly.”

“You’re full of crap, Buck. You think she’ll like it, don’t you, Josiah?”

Josiah Sanchez, the eldest member of Team Seven, answered, “If it comes from your heart, I think she’ll like it, son.”

Buck snorted. “Yeah, right.”

Josiah shrugged.

Dunne was beginning to look at the prospective gift dubiously. “What do you think I should get her, Vin?”

Vin Tanner was Team Seven’s sharpshooter. A lean man with long hair and a Texas twang, he sat on one arm of the chair that Josiah was sitting on. “Hell, kid, I don’t know. Why don’t you ask Ezra? He shops at all them fancy stores.”

“Ezra?” Buck laughed. “What does Ezra know about women?”

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Wilmington?” a Southern accented voice carried across the room, laden with affront. “What makes you think I am as ignorant concerning the female of our species as our young friend there?”

Buck looked over to a work station on the other side of the room, where a man in a dark gray Italian suit sat with his back towards the other agents while typing on his computer.

“Come on, Ez. I hardly ever see you with a woman! You’re a work-horse – no time for play.”

“Just because I take my job seriously, unlike some I could name, does not mean that I am unacquainted with the art of courting a woman,” Ezra Standish responded without turning from his workstation.

“So what do you think I should get Casey?” JD asked.

“As much as it pains me, I am for once inclined to agree with Mr. Wilmington,” Standish answered, still typing. “A lady wants to feel she is special. She needs to know that you appreciate every little detail about her.”

Dunne looked impressed. “Geez, Ez, what will it take to do that?”

“In my experience it takes at least two carats.” The voice that answered JD’s question had a Southern accent. But it wasn’t Ezra’s voice. At his work station, Standish abruptly stopped typing. As he froze in uncertainty at the computer, the other five agents gathered around JD’s desk reacted decisively quick.

Suddenly in the sights of five presumably loaded guns, Harry Warfield shrugged.

“But maybe that’s just my wife.”

The sidelong dirty look that Warfield threw at Agent Reilly clearly said, “I told you so.” Then he cleared his throat and asked mildly, “Could any of you gentlemen direct me to Chris Larabee?”

“That would be me.” An intimidating figure made more so by unrelieved black attire stood in a doorway that had previously been closed.

At the sight of their leader, the ATF agents re-holstered their weapons and began to scatter back to their work stations. “Shouldn’t sneak up of a fella like that,” Buck told the two intruders before walking back to his own desk.

The threat of physical harm abated for the moment, the two FBI agents turned to the leader of the ATF’s Team Seven, Chris Larabee.

“I’m Assistant Special Agent in Charge Harry Warfield; this is Agent Reilly of the FBI.” They handed over their badges for Larabee to inspect, which he did silently before handing them back. “We’d like to have a word with you, in private. You and Agent Ezra Standish.”

The room lapsed into dead silence. Every single occupant of the office stared at the Feds with expressions of extreme misgivings, all except Standish. He still sat rigidly at his computer console.

“In my office,” Larabee directed Warfield and Reilly.

Larabee called Ezra’s name quietly. As the undercover operative slowly turned and rose from his chair his coworkers nodded and murmured supportively. For his part, Ezra ignored everyone, walking into Chris’ office with an expression so bland it was almost aggressively impassive.

Chris shot a quick look at the rest of his team before proceeding into his office and shutting the door.

>>< <> ><<

Standish’s poker face as he entered Chris’ office was almost perfect. To all appearances Ezra was completely at ease. Except for his eyes. They roamed the room, scanning it, moving unhurriedly but as if seeking a means of escape should escape become necessary. The undercover agent eyed the two FBI agents warily before moving inside, where he leaned up against the right-hand wall and crossed his arms with a nonchalant look on his face.

Agent Warfield had already seated himself in one of two chairs that occupied the space in front of Larabee’s desk. Reilly stood next to the other chair, but made no move to sit. He had watched Agent Standish make his entrance and had not taken his eyes off the undercover agent since. Standish still appeared unruffled by the FBI agent’s penetrating gaze.

Chris Larabee took a seat behind his desk. As Reilly remained locked in a staring contest with Ezra without making a move to sit, Chris addressed Warfield: “Your agent have an aversion to chairs?”

Warfield shot a glare up at Reilly, who had seemingly not heard the acerbic question. “Don’t mind Agent Reilly,” he said. “He tends to go off to his own little world sometimes. It’s the Irish in him.” Larabee’s unimpressed expression remained unmoved. Warfield cleared his throat. “Allow me to explain our presence here,” he said.

“Please do,” Chris requested tightly.

“The Atlanta division of the FBI has seen the need to recall Agent Ezra Standish back to Atlanta, the duration of which is yet to be determined. Under Agent Reilly’s command . . .”

Agent Reilly abruptly strode up to Ezra, interrupting Warfield’s spiel. Standish regarded the taller man with surprise as Reilly spoke: “They tell me that you’re an untrustworthy git and that my coming here is a complete waste of time. I hear that in a pinch your as likely to scatter as to stay. We never met in Atlanta, but I’ve heard the stories. Rumor is you’re a dirty cop, Standish.”

Chris bolted up out of his chair. “What the hell is this?” he growled. Warfield looked scandalized. Reilly ignored both of them, his whole attention reserved for Standish.

Ezra’s face had not changed in expression one iota. “I believe, Agent Reilly, that only the lazy and ignorant listen to rumors. I further believe that I am neither lazy nor ignorant, and as such, do not have to stand here and listen to this. Excuse me.”

The undercover agent ducked past Agent Reilly and beat his retreat. He pulled open the door and walked into the main office area, not bothering to close the door behind him. Reilly was quick on his heels, followed by Chris and Warfield. Ezra’s poker face was gone. His whole body trembled with rage.

The parade of agents out the office led hastily by Ezra got the attention of the other five men in the workplace. It took a lot to shake Standish’s composure, and the door had been closed for less than five minutes. If they were curious as to what had been said, they did not have to wait long for an answer.

“Where are you going, Standish? Bolting already? Only guilty men run. I guess they were right about you in Atlanta after all,” Reilly continued to bait Ezra.

Shocked intakes of breath echoed around the room. Standish whirled to look Reilly angrily in the face. “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Ezra hissed. “Ignorant cretins such as yourself need no proof to believe the worst about someone.”

“So what’s your side of the story?” Reilly leaned in confrontationally.

“I don’t have to explain myself to a lowlife piece of gutter trash like yourself. You want a story? Go read a newspaper.” Ezra, though looking up, managed to look down his nose in contempt before again turning away from Reilly.

“Oh, I have a story. Ezra Standish, federal agent, accepting bribes, selling out his partner, running out on his team. Any of this ring a bell?” Reilly’s words halted Standish in his steps. He did not turn around, but his shoulders trembled furiously.

By now every member of Team Seven was on their feet staring murder at the provocative FBI agent. “I’m gonna ring his bell,” Vin muttered, but like everyone else was frozen in macabre fascination at the scene playing out in front of them.

Everyone except Chris Larabee. He rounded on Reilly furiously. “Who do you think you are, Reilly? Ezra is a capable and trustworthy agent. He’s got nothing to prove to you or anyone else.”

“Up the yard, Larabee. I’m speaking to Agent Standish.”

“You picked the wrong topic, fella.” Buck didn’t often sound menacing, but he did now.

“We don’t take kindly to rumor mongers around here.” Even the normally even-toned Josiah couldn’t keep the threat from his voice.

“Reilly, you are way out of line,” Warfield remanded severely over Reilly’s shoulder.

“Lay off, Warfield; you were saying almost exactly the same thing in the elevator ten minutes ago.”

The muscles in Warfield’s jaw bunched and a deep red blush crept up his neck. About half the frosted glares focused on Reilly relocated to the Assistant Special Agent in Charge.

Ezra turned to face Agent Reilly. In the short reprieve he seemed to have regained some of his composure. His hands no longer shook, and his detached expression had returned. His eyes, though, still resonated with restrained hostility.

“If you came here for a purpose, Agent Reilly, then get to it. If your purpose is to regale us with unsubstantiated rumors and past indiscretions, I suggest you find the quickest route back to Atlanta. Because no one here is willing to listen.”

Reilly scrutinized Standish as if he were an entomologist trying to classify what kind of fly Ezra was. “For the past year the FBI has attempted to obtain enough evidence to arrest and convict Elijah Jericho, who controls much of the organized crime in Atlanta. We’ve had limited success, but the real opportunity is in the offing. Last month Jericho was approached by the Russian mafia and offered an alliance of sorts. He’s looking for a lawyer to negotiate the terms.”

“Is that supposed to mean something to me?” Ezra asked sharply.

“Zachary Bennett. That mean anything to you?”

A bit of the edge came off of Ezra’s posture. “I know who Zachary Bennett is. So what?”

“Elijah Jericho is looking for Bennett. He’s turned down at least seven lawyers, four of them agents, but he has confidence that Zachary Bennett is the right man for the job.”

Ezra slowly grinned in new understanding. Reilly nodded once.

The other members of Team Seven eyed their undercover agent and the FBI agent in confusion.

“I don’t get it,” JD said. “Who is Zachary Bennett?”

“I am,” Standish said smugly. Seeing from his teammates bewildered expressions that the statement required further explanation, he went on, “It was the alias I used when I was playing the part of a mob lawyer back in Atlanta. I offered my services as an impartial third party to negotiate an alliance between Carl Hundburg and one Elijah Jericho.”

“Oh.” Understanding dawned on JD’s face. “So what they’re saying is that they need you.”

“Yes, JD. They need me immensely.”

“Need is irrelevant, Agent Standish.” Warfield gave up all hope of diplomatic relations with the ATF. “You are still in the employ of the FBI. At my order, you will be immediately recalled to Atlanta and placed in Agent Reilly’s contingent.”

“Like hell he will,” Buck muttered defiantly.

“He has no choice. Agent Standish will follow my command, or he will be out of a job.”

Ezra’s smug expression faded, replaced by a barely controlled poker face.

“Then my team comes, too,” Chris declared suddenly. Every eye in the room moved to Larabee.

“Certainly not!” Warfield exclaimed incredulously. “The FBI has absolutely no need for ATF assistance in this matter.”

“If you think I’m going to let my agent go off without someone to cover his back, you’ve got another thing coming.”

“He’s not your agent, he’s mine, and I absolutely will not allow it.”

“Well, Mr. Warfield, I am sorry to hear you say that. Because if Team Seven is not a part of this operation then I refuse to be party to it either.” Ezra’s poker face was back solidly in place.

“Standish, I told you, if you refuse to follow my orders you will be-”

“Terminated. Yes, I heard. However, if Team Seven does not accompany me to Atlanta I shall terminate my employment myself.” A small smile tugged at Reilly’s lips as Ezra delivered his ultimatum.

Warfield’s eyes narrowed skeptically. “You wouldn’t-”

“Quit? Believe it, Mr. Warfield.”

“Fine-”

“Agent Larabee, could I have a word with Agent Warfield in private?” Reilly interrupted, earning a glower from his superior officer.

Chris indicated the door with a jerk of his blond head. “Use my office.”

>>< <> ><<

The door slipped quietly shut behind the two FBI agents. Reilly’s shiny black Doc Martins began tracing quick, short steps back and forth in a five-foot, oval pattern. He began tugging at the knot of his tie. Agent Warfield stood stationary with a look of contempt and disgust on his face.

“I told you,” he said condescendingly. “Agent Standish is unreliable, untrustworthy, and he is evidently a step ahead of us.”

“He’s devious, quick-thinking and a gambler. And he is exactly the chancer this mission calls for.” The Versace tie came off and got stuffed into Reilly’s suit coat pocket.

“Yet he will not be coming back with us.”

“You heard him,” Reilly said as he unbuttoned the top button of his collar. “He’s willing to take the job if we bring his team along and let them handle his security.”

“I am not about to allow Chris Larabee and his crew of circus clowns to run rampant in my division. The man and his team are a menace. It’s no wonder Standish has managed to integrate himself so well with them,” Warfield said. “But Standish technically still works for the FBI. He has to do what we tell him.”

“Unless he resigns. Or did you forget that part of the conversation?”

Warfield missed the irritation in Reilly’s tone. He waved the statement away dismissively. “Standish won’t quit. It’s a bluff.”

“It’s no bluff.” Reilly flexed the fingers of his right hand. “He’s not letting on, I’d stake my fortune on that. If you force Agent Standish to return to Atlanta without Team Seven, he will resign. Standish may be a gambler, but he’s a good one who knows when his opponent will call.”

Warfield shrugged. “Well then, that’s one less black sheep on the FBI’s payroll.”

The assistant SAC jumped as Reilly suddenly punched a hole in the wall. The taller agent took a step forward and grabbed Warfield by the lapel. “Look, Warfield, you may be willing to risk this operation to avoid working with Standish, but I’m not. If I have to agree to bring back a damned gypsy caravan to get Standish on this case, I will do it, and you will supply the bloody tambourines. So here is how it’s going to happen: we’re going to go back out there and tell Standish that we agree to his terms. He will come back to Atlanta with us and we will allow Larabee and Team Seven to tag along and supervise his security. And after Elijah Jericho and Nikolai Romanov have completed their deal, you never have to see Standish again. Does that work for you?”

Warfield nodded.

“Grand.” Reilly let him go.

Harry Warfield squared his shoulders and adjusted his suit coat.

“I hope that’s not how you appealed to the reason of A.D. Travis.”

END
Chapter 1: Pleasure Doing Business

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