Josiah sat at his desk. Nathan had filtered in first carrying a coffee. Buck and JD pushed and tripped each other from the elevator and harassed one another all the way down the corridor to the bull pen. Sanchez shook his head. Those two were worse than hyperactive kids.
The team was feeling better. They had rested, the tension of the last case easing. The burden of reports and paperwork still hung in the air but the agents did not seem concerned. Chris and Vin were due back sometime today. That translated into work needed doing.
Josiah sighed. He had planned on phoning Ezra this morning but with Chris back Standish would have to start returning to work. Ezra’s self imposed solitude and recovery would come to an abrupt end and the finishing touches on the last case would get completed.
Sanchez held off on the phone call. The undercover agent would get one more day of reprieve before Larabee thrust them back into the mix.
“Anyone hear from Ez?” Jackson asked as he sipped his coffee.
Buck stole JD’s chocolate covered donut while the kid switched his attention to the Chemist.
“No,” Wilmington mumbled out shoving as much of the donut into his mouth as he could.
Dunne spun around and yelled, “Buck you pig! That was mine!”
Buck smile was distorted by the remnants of donut that puffed out his cheeks and threatened to spill through over stretched lips. Wilmington merely smiled and nodded, “Noaut anymore,” well that was what he tried to say but instead only garbled strangulated sounds muffled by the donut escaped.
“If you choke, I ain’t helping ya,” Jackson said. Those two were incorrigible.
“Well brother Ezra had best show up in the morning,” Sanchez intoned ignoring antics of the now wrestling JD and Buck, “cuz Chris is due back today.”
+ + + + + + +
Ezra woke in a strange room. His head hurt and his stomach flip-flopped and the disorientation that engulfed him did nothing but heighten his discomfort.
Where was he? Mid Morning sunshine cut through the window panes. The room was furnished with a bureau and mirror, a desk and chair and a rocker sat by the bed.
At first he thought he was at Larabee’s, or maybe one of the other’s places. The minute he opened his eyes that theory was soundly shoved aside.
A safe house? Hardly the small room was tastefully decorated and extremely comfortable. Standish actually considered drifting back to sleep. The sun light cut across the plush off white rug dropping soft morning shadows on the room. It was warm and comfortable.
He lifted a hand to the burning sensation on his left temple. He felt a knot and a cut. What happened? Some how he ended up in a strange room with a blow to the head clad only in boxer shorts. He knew if Buck were in his shoes, Mr. Wilmington would find this situation exciting.
With growing trepidation, but the need to solve the mystery he climbed from the comfort of the bed and started searching for clothing.
+ + + + + + +
Henry Burkhardt read the information Terry and André had successfully scrounged up for him. It was not promising. It seemed a mongoose had entered their midst’s. Going on the name dropped by the injured visitor last night they made an unfortunate or maybe a fortunate discovery.
Chris Larabee headed one of the most successful ATF teams in the Denver area. They had met with such good fortune as to be dubbed as the ‘Magnificent Seven’ by their peers.
It seemed Larabee had lost one of his agents. A one Ezra Standish lay in the upstairs bedroom recovering from a blow to the head.
“You want us to git rid of him Mr. Burkhardt?” Mancini asked. Once finding the truth behind the young man’s identity, the two body guards wanted to quickly dispatch of the intruder.
Henry had stopped them. The young man was a guest in his home. He was hurt and more importantly saved the life of his Godson. Though the ethics and morals of his organization had changed, Henry Burkhardt refused to turn his back on a favor owed. He believed in his own form of right and wrong, he had his own idea of justice and fair play. Killing the youngster upstairs would not be the honorable thing to do.....right now.
There was something about the situation that bothered Burkhardt. He did not have the full details on the Denver based team and very sketchy backgrounds on the agents. Reading the portfolio on Larabee it indicated the man protected his team fiercely. Why would he send one of his agents to New York? To the slithering likes of Hawkins no less.
Samuel Hawkins was an underhanded, traitorous individual who recognized no boundaries to get ahead. He crossed the unforgiving line between law and criminal. Why would Larabee send one of his agents to such a despicable fellow? Unless Larabee did not know.
Guidino had taken it upon himself to investigate the reason for the southerner’s appearance in the fair Eastern city. He had come up with very little. Standish had only been here a few hours. As for his case and his objectives, Terry felt that was clear. Burkhardt did not.
Guidino had met Ezra Standish once before, in Alanta. The southern agent had been with the FBI at the time, partnered with Dick Palamon. Terry related the tale to his employer. Palamon had thought the kid would turn his back on law enforcement and enter the employment of a one Mr. Lagraven. To everyone’s surprise Standish had refused. It earned him a respectable beating both physically and mentally. Standish landed in the hospital for three days. Palamon started a dirty rumor campaign against the kid. The young FBI agent dug in and went to work everyday facing the scorn of his partners and co-workers, worse yet never knowing that it was his partner and mentor that had set him up to fall. Then Larabee entered the picture. The ATF agent whisked Standish away to Denver incorporated him into his team. In a few short months Team seven of ATF had become a formidable opponent in the arms business.
Burkhardt listened to the tale in rapt silence. Guidino held a hint of admiration for the young man upstairs. Terry found very little that deserved his notice let alone his respect.
Henry remembered that incident so long ago. Patrick had just died. Lagraven had asked for assistance in a matter and Burkhardt had sent Guidino. It had turned out to be a losing proposition. One could never hope to a gain loyal and devoted associates if one picked individuals who turned on friends. A dog that bites its master unprovoked is bound to bite again. Henry had no use for turncoats.
“Would he recognize you?” Henry asked. As much as he hoped to thank the young ATF agent upstairs he was not willing to endanger his life time employees.
“No,” Guidino stated matter of factly, “the boys worked him over pretty thoroughly he never saw my face.”
Burkhardt read the file again. It held pictures of the seven men. Six men and a boy really. Mancini and Guidino had hesitated at Larabee’s picture. He could have been Henry’s son or nephew. They appeared so much alike, even the aura of authority exuded from the photograph.
The rest of the men were non descript. Tanner was long haired, a rebel of sorts from the looks of it but second to none with marksmanship ability. Dunne was just a kid barely mid twenties. His computer and technical wizardry made him a formidable presence, one not to be ignored or underestimated. The others were a melting pot of genius in their own fields.
What if Larabee did not know where his undercover agent had been whisked away too? Why would Hawkins take him? That was easy. Hawkins was rot. No one would work for such a loathing individual on a volunteer basis. The New York based agent had pulled an underhanded trick and now played with the future of a young law enforcement officer. He toyed with a ‘Patrick’.
“No leave Ezra to me,” Burkhardt answered slowly working through his thoughts. He had an ATF agent under his roof. Not only an agent but one who excelled in undercover work, a professional conman of sorts.
Mancini and Guidino exchanged glances at the use of the lawman’s first name.
Henry ignored the disagreement from the younger men. Burkhardt appreciated their protectiveness. They had been with him through the loss of his wife and young son and through the loss of his little brother. Mancini and Guidino were trusted friends and employees. Their opinions and input were important and valued. Burkhardt closed the file, thus ending the discussion and handed it to the Terry.
“I’ll handle this,” Henry repeated. Sometimes the two men that stood beside him were like pitbulls. They just would never let go. “We don’t know why he is here, lets find out first.”
“Henry he’s not Patrick,” Terry responded softly knowing he tread on sacred ground, “he’s an ATF agent,” Guidino pushed gently.
“I know,” Henry responded acknowledging both observations. Patrick would have been a fantastic police officer if given the chance.
The kitchen door swung open. Terry smoothly slid the file out of sight. Ezra Standish, ATF agent, undercover expert, entered the kitchen of one of the biggest and most feared gunrunners in New York history.
Henry smiled brightly. The young agent that stood before him radiated the same inner strength as Patrick Conner. Patrick was a rookie, striving to make a name for himself in the NYPD. He graduated first in his class.
Burkhardt quickly dismissed the intrusive thoughts.
Ezra blatantly stared at the elderly gentleman at the kitchen table. It could have been Chris Larabee in more than a few years. It was not Mr. Larabee. Standish realized that right away. The scattered pieces of the last twenty-four hours had begun to fall into place as he found clothes and got dressed. Though the events of last night still eluded him, Ezra recalled enough to know that Larabee and his team were in Denver, Ezra himself in New York.
Two muscle men stood to either side of the older gunrunner. Standish had to concede that Burkhardt had to be extremely smart and gifted to have survived the game this long. The two enforcers watched the ATF agent as a pair of pitbulls would watch a fox approach a hen house. They were ready to pounce.
The tension in the room became tangible.
“Ezra,” Henry intoned standing up and indicating to a light oak kitchen chair, “come sit down and have some breakfast.” Burkhardt watched the young man’s expression. If he was shocked Burkhardt knew his name he disguised it masterfully.
“Thankyou, Mr. Burkhardt,” Ezra answered smoothly accepting the invitation with a grateful dimpled smile. Oh Gawwd he was a dead man. His cover was blown. Those two Neanderthals behind the old man were going to kill him. He did not want to die in New York or one of its suburbs. Push come to shove he did not want to die at all.
Mancini watched the smaller man. He was graceful under pressure. The southerner had to have known he stepped into the ring entering into a possible fight he could not hope to win. He was either very very good or over confident and a fool. André would wait and watch. His boss was a master at manipulation.
“How’s the head?” Henry asked heading toward the refrigerator. His tone was light and friendly. Guidino and Mancini kept themselves between their charge and the potential predator.
Ezra had to admit it was nice to be called by his given first name even if it meant his impending doom. If he had to face death at least he could do it as Ezra Standish and not Eric Simpson, or Evan Sutherland. Today he got to be himself. He just hoped it was not his last day on earth.
“A bit tender,” Standish answered truthfully. No sense lying just yet there was no need. His head did hurt actually it felt like it would split in two.
“Terry get Ezra some Motrin,” Burkhardt asked of the larger of the two body guards. Henry leaned into the refrigerator and pulled out a box of eggs. He looked over his shoulder at the young agent, “Motrin ok with you Ezra?”
Ezra stared at the older man. Why worry about a headache if he were to die of lead poison before the day was out, “Motrin’s fine,” Standish answered and then chuckled remembering Jackson’s admonishments, “though a friend of mine would say its not very good for the stomach or kidney’s.”
Burkhardt smiled and nodded, Nathan Jackson would be that friend.
“Cheese omelet?” Henry asked reaching under the stove grabbing for a frying pan.
Ezra hesitated. He knew he should be hungry he had not eaten in days. His stomach was queasy a result of both his fear and head wound. If he were to die today he did not want to go on an empty stomach.
“Yes please,” He answered pleasantly, “would you like some assistance, surly I am in your debt,” Standish continued pushing back from the table. The chair’s movement’s were muffled by the oriental rug that centered the room. The pegged wide hardwood floors nicely accented the kitchen cupboards and counters. The inner stove wall was made of aged brick. Like Chris’s home it had the faint touch of a woman presence but it seemed to be slowly fading.
Burkhardt cracked the eggs against the side of the pan dropping their contents into the heating cooking ware, “Sit tight, you’re a guest here,” Henry replied keeping his back to the ATF agent, trying to remind himself it was not Patrick that sat at his kitchen table waiting for breakfast.
Standish complied. He could not understand it but he felt himself relax.
“Cheddar or American?” Burkhardt asked as he gazed over his shoulder. Terry placed two motrin in front of the agent. Ezra whispered a thankyou. Funny he should be thanking a man who would probably try and kill him later this day.
“American, please,” Standish answered gingerly swallowing the two tablets chasing them with the glass of water Guidino set before him.
Within a few minutes a steaming omelet, toast and coffee were placed before Standish. Burkhardt slid into the chair opposite of him. Ezra’s mouth watered and his stomach growled. Gawd he was hungry.
The older man furrowed his brow it would seem sometime had passed since the young man’s last meal. Burkhardt watched as the ATF agent dug into the meal with proper table manners.
He would let the man eat in relative quiet. They would start talking when he was done.
Ezra had not been that hungry since he was a kid. The comfortable bed, the motrin, and hot omelet went a long way to soothe frayed nerves and exhaustion. Sure he was in the viper pit and sure he would probably face his demise today, but right now with his belly getting full, his headache disappearing and sun shining through the kitchen window, all was right in the world.
Henry Burkhardt in a few simple polite overtures gave him some reprieve from the harsh realities that had become Ezra’s life. Burkhardt also held his fate but that was somehow better than having Hawkin’s trying to control it. Ezra ate his breakfast in silence trying to keep shaking hands steady. He had never had an omelet taste so good or coffee that hit the spot so effectively.
Ezra liked the kitchen atmosphere. Going against proper etiquette Ezra swiped up the remnants of melted cheese off his china plate with his golden brown toast.
Burkhardt watched pleased Standish enjoyed his meal. Patrick was never a morning person preferring the night patrol over day shift. Breakfast he had said was an affront to the senses. It appeared that Patrick and Ezra were in fact different people.
“Glad you liked it,” Henry said smiling as the undercover agent sipped the last of his coffee washing down the remains of his breakfast.
“Yes it was excellent,” Ezra replied. He leaned back in his chair his belly agreeably full, his headache gone and the sun shining on his feet.
“I must confess I normally do not indulge in the morning ritual feast, but this was excellent,” Standish confessed.
Burkhardt regarded the younger man and reassessed his earlier observations, Patrick and the agent were uncanny in their similarities. Still this brash young man before him was not his little brother and an ATF agent on top of everything else. It was time to lay out some bait and see what he caught.
Henry sighed and delved into the matter at hand. Mancini and Guidino stood off to the side blending into the background giving the men their space but not leaving their protectorate alone with the agent.
“So what landed you in New York?” Burkhardt asked. He would start slow and gauge the undercover agent in front of him.
Ezra noticed the change in body language of the man before him. Standish had to remind himself that Henry Burkhardt was a gunrunner, not an older version of Chris Larabee. Larabee was a man he trusted with his life and well being. The gunrunner offered the uprooted agent a small respite an oasis of sorts from the brutality of his current situation but it was all about to come to an end. Standish would stay within the bounds of the truth as long as he could without betraying his friends.
“An airplane,” Ezra deadpanned, honestly, a smile creasing his face. Might as well have fun on a full stomach, especially if this was his last day on this earth.
Henry chuckled, ‘smart ass’, “Of course.” He paused looking forward to the verbal jousting, “Will you be staying in New York long?”
Mancini and Guidino exchanged glances the young upstart toyed with fire.
Standish sat back in his chair. No probably not, with any luck Larabee will contact him and pull him back to Denver or at least inform Ezra that he had in fact been transferred. Either way Ezra planned on bailing out. He would not work for the likes of Hawkins for any amount of time. If he had to resign from the agency then he would do so with no qualms. His only regrets were that somehow he failed Chris Larabee and the others.
“No,” Ezra drawled out, not wanting to expand on that train of thought. It bothered him to think that Vin and the others thought he might have betrayed their trust.
Burkhardt scrutinized the agent over the rim of his mug as he took a sip of coffee. He had found a sore spot. Hit a nerve. Standish was in New York against his will. Did Larabee send him or did Hawkins ‘steal’ him. Henry prided himself in his knowledge of inter agency workings. He understood the politics that ran the enemy camp. It was privy to this working intelligence that kept him in the game so long and kept him out of jail. The ATF was a political system. It was built on the working blood and sweat of good agents but occasionally a shyster entered the mix and upset the cart. It was these trouble makers that blurred the lines for others.
Hawkin’s personnel agenda could very easily tear apart the life of the man that now sat before him. Why should Henry even care? Simple, someone had tried to do the same to Patrick. Burkhardt had missed his chance to protect his brother. He would not be negligent again he owed Patrick that much.
Ezra stared at the other man doing his best to appear unruffled. How much did he reveal last night. How did Henry learn his name? Was their an ally in the gun runner? No, he was the enemy. Yet Burkhardt treated him as family, called him by his given name, gave him a place to stay, fed him and offered friendly conversation. When was the last time anyone had done that for Ezra? Sure Josiah, Nathan and he had drinks at Inez’s the night before he was transferred, but did they know? They had to have known. They played him, worked him like a mark. Maybe Henry was doing the same thing? Probably, but so did Maude, so did the rest of his relations. What difference did it make? Did it taint him to enjoy the company of an arms dealer? Maybe, but his surrogate family his friends already believed that of him. He was already labeled as corrupt. What did he have to lose in building a friendship to a man that had given him more in just 18 hours than his supposed allies had in two days?
Standish felt his headache coming back. Confusion cascaded over him like mountain water over rocks. He had a mission, an objective. The boundaries had always been clear before, good guys verse bad guys. Today the good guys seemed more soiled and the bad guys offered comfort and a strange sense of security. Please Mr. Larabee contact me.
With a discerning eye Burkhardt noticed the flurry of hesitancy and confusion that crossed the clean shaven features. Hawkins had transferred this agent without anyone’s knowledge. The fact was so clear and hit so quickly Burkhardt nearly stood up indignant. From the slight shift in posture and ever so negligible change in the light green eyes, Henry knew Standish had no idea what truly transpired. The ATF agent believed he had been abandoned by his team. Henry knew Standish thought he had been ousted from Denver by Chris Larabee himself. A similar scenario had plagued poor Patrick. He had been trod upon by others in the law enforcement agency because of his relation to his older brother.
Henry Burkhardt decided to take a gamble.
“You saved my Godson’s life last night,” Henry stated matter of factly. He watched as the puzzled expression of the undercover agent met him.
Standish merely raised an eyebrow. He did not remember much of last night or much of that day except the measly pointed features of Hawkins and the tentative overtures of friendship put forth by McDermit. McDermit. Damn he had to contact the kid let him know everything was alright. Was the kid alright was he injured the melee last night? Standish did not recall much of anything.
Burkhardt waited for the agent to respond but instead Ezra held his tongue. The older man knew Standish remembered very little of the last eighteen hours.
“I’m grateful for your timely intervention,” Henry continued hoping to get some kind of reaction from the young man. None so far. Burkhardt took a step he knew Mancini and Guidino would disapprove of adamantly. He just hoped his two life time friends would hold their tongues.
“You are welcome to stay here as my guest until your business in New York is concluded.”
Standish nearly reacted to the invitation. He was in, he had an invite to stay with Henry Burkhardt. It was to easy. Then again, it suddenly became very complicated. Ezra liked Henry and though the man held his fate in his hands Standish could not help but admire the older gentleman. He had admired so few people in his life time, Chris Larabee being the last. Now under the guise of friendship Burkhardt gave the ATF agent free access to his house. Ezra wanted to refuse, longed to walk away. He wanted to thank Burkhardt for his kindness and generosity but Ezra needed out. His friends of the last eighteen months had turned their respective backs on him. Ezra did not want to do the same thing to the old man before him.
Was Henry a friend? No, Ezra concluded, unsure of himself. How could one develop ties of friendship and all the trials that went with the relation in just a few short hours. Hell just over breakfast. Then again had not the same thing occurred with Chris? Though Ezra could honestly say he did not really find a friend in Chris for many months. Yet the first day they had met in the FBI conference room that morning so long ago, Standish knew he would follow that man’s lead. Larabee was someone to respect and look up too. Ezra had never met any one like that before until now. Henry Burkhardt.
Standish sighed, maybe it was the blow to the head.
“I could not do that, it would be taking advantage of your generosity,” Ezra drawled out. He could not believe he just said it. Damn he was suppose to stay here, suppose to be the inside man. Now he was trying to back out. What was he thinking? Gawd Chris please call. Give me some help, some direction.
“Nonsense,” Henry answered slightly surprised by the agents remark. Burkhardt had planned on keeping close ties on the ATF agent. He thought he handed Standish exactly what Hawkins wanted. It seemed the undercover agent was having a hard time developing loyalties to his new leader. He knew Standish would not cross the line, Patrick would never have either, but still Ezra wanted no ties to New York.
“I’ll have Terry or André pick up the rest of you belongings,” Burkhardt added putting an end to the conversation.
“I only had a duffel and toiletries,” Standish responded, what was left as his life was not worth recovering. Hawkins took the only thing worthwhile and that was the cell phone in which Larabee knew the number.
“Fine I see you and the one time occupant of the guest room are the same size you may wear the wardrobe found in there,” Burkhardt proffered, “if you that is alright with you.”
Ezra tried to gauge the man in front of him. What was Burkhardt after? His head hurt, the motrin seemed to fade as his mind churned.
“Why don’t you go lay down for a bit. The doctor said you should take it easy today get some rest,” Burkhardt responded watching as Ezra rested his head in his hands. He expected a fight but instead the undercover agent just agreed. Henry helped Standish from the kitchen chair and led him through the swinging door into the living room.
The undercover agent sat on the couch not wanting to succumb to the effects of the blow to the head. He refused to stretch out and relax. Life had dealt him some serious blows in the last 48 hours and it took the wind from him. He never really recovered from the last case and now he was thrust into the grind again. Standish fought a losing battle on all fronts.
In a few minutes Standish was dozing on the upholstered couch. Burkhardt watched him with a mixture of concern and apprehension. He tossed a blanket over the recumbent agent wondering if Patrick had met someone with a genteel heart would he still be alive.
Guidino and Mancini followed silently. Once the breathing leveled out and took on the shallow rhythm of sound sleep did the threesome talk in hushed tones.
“Henry,” Terry began. He did not get much further. Burkhardt stopped him with up raised hands.
“I know but one must remember to keep ones friends close and ones enemies closer,” Henry remarked dryly reciting and old adage he had tried to teach Patrick.
“Which one is he?” André asked softly his gaze switching from the sleeping agent to his employer better yet his friend.
In a soft voice ladened with confusion Burkhardt muttered, “I don’t know.”
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