ATF Alternate Universe
�Explain to me again why again we are doing this?� Vin Tanner inquired as he sat in the front passenger seat of Ezra Standish�s Jaguar.
Both men had spent the better part of the morning keeping the art gallery under surveillance. While normally Vin did not have a problem with indulging Ezra in his pet theories, he felt decidedly uncomfortable about expending any more time in pursuit of a matter Chris had deemed clearly out of their jurisdiction. Unfortunately, Ezra was not about to let it go and against his better judgement; Vin had allowed Ezra to convince him to accompany him on this venture.
�Because you know I am right Mr Tanner,� Ezra repeated the same answer he had given Vin twenty minutes ago and an hour before that. Although he had to admit the time was indeed dragging, Ezra was not about to concede defeat, not when he was sure that he was right about this.
�You got a good hunch Ezra,� Vin retorted, staring at the art gallery and wishing he were anywhere else but here at the moment. �But that still don�t mean we ain�t breaking procedure by not turning this over to the FBI boys," he reminded.
Ezra stared at him mortified by the entire concept. �Mr Tanner, surely you are not implying that we turn over what would be a most prestigious arrest to those glory hounds at the Bureau?�
Vin gave Ezra a look that oozed of skepticism and sarcasm before responding to his expression of mock horror. �You ain�t doing this because of any arrest Ezra, you�re doing this because of a woman.�
Ezra�s jaw dropped open. �Sir, I take umbrage at that remark. I am simply hurt because you would think that I would risk a reprimand from our esteemed leader for the fool hardy pursuit of a lady?� He said full of indignation and hurt that Vin knew to be about as genuine as the story the gambler was attempting to feed him. If it were anyone else, they might believe the performance but for Vin Tanner and the rest of Team 7, they were too accustomed to Ezra�s facades to be taken in. �Well I am just beyond words.�
Considering how many words he had uttered to just get to that statement did not lend well to his credibility as far as Vin was concerned. �Save it Ezra,� Vin rolled his eyes and faced front again. �You ain�t convincing me. You�re doing this for the girl," the sharpshooter said firmly.
�Fine,� Ezra nodded, conceding defeat in this point and then glancing at the tracker with a smug smile on his face. �But let�s not point fingers at which of us is prone to extreme acts to win the affection of a lady.�
Vin shot a murderous glare at him and almost smouldered as he answered. �I told you that was an accident. It�was�a�.misfire.� His words came out very slowly.
�I am sure it was," Ezra retorted not believing him for once second and making certain that Vin knew it too. �However, lest you want me to go into detail about how my maiming my derriere proved to your advantage, you will not point any more fingers. Besides, you owe me big Mr Tanner.�
Vin faced front and swore under his breath because Ezra was right. He had shot the man in the butt and embarrassing as it was for the both of them, Vin did feel obligated to make amends. However, any more reminders about it from Ezra and he was likely to get another bullet in the butt and this time it would have nothing to do with a woman.
�Fine, whatever," the sharpshooter grumbled, certain that he was going to regret this.
Ezra was still smirking as he cast his gaze on the gallery again, certain that his hunch was right. Last week, the famous Santa Fe gallery was almost burglarised by a very cool and professional cat burglar, the kind one read about in books or those old movies with Cary Grant. Not only had the suspect not been apprehended but also she had single-handedly managed to elude all three ATF agents hot on her trail. Disarming Chris Larabee was nearly impossible and just when they thought that things could not become any more unbelievable, she had thrown herself off the building to elude capture, surviving by cushioning her fall through the fabric awnings under each window of the building. The escape was spectacular even though the painting had not been stolen.
Ezra had not told anyone that the woman he had encountered on the rooftop and the one who had bid for him were one and the same. Although Chris would have him skinned alive if he knew, Ezra found compelled to keep her identity a secret for the moment even though revealing that snippet of information would have hardly assisted in her capture anyway. His efforts to trace the lady who had bid for him was just as elusive as their efforts to find some clue about their mysterious cat burglar. When Ezra had searched every US government database in existence for the possible match in the method of operation of this particular burglar, nothing had been registered. In desperation, he had resorted to speaking to a poker acquaintance who knew someone at Interpol and could acquire information unofficially.
While the various law enforcement agencies in the country had proved to be useless in his search, Interpol was another thing entirely. They had a file on a female cat burglar who had been operating in Europe for almost 10 years and had not been sighted on American soil until now, even though she was believed to be a native. Beyond that, they had little information on the woman herself, but her pattern was clear. She had never been caught and she had a reputation for being absolutely relentless. On the rare occasions that a heist did not go her way, she was known to make a further attempt. In each case, she had stolen everything she set her sights upon. There were no exceptions.
Ezra was certain that the woman who had attempted to steal the Monet last week and the cat burglar known as �La Renarde Rousse� to Interpol was one and the same. Ezra did not know why he was determined to find her but he knew if she was this �La Renarde Rousse� translated from French into the Crimson Fox, then her pattern would indicate that she would come back for the painting. Her Interpol dossier made reference to that as well as the fact that such secondary attempts were usually done swiftly after the initial failure and usually successful.
�If she tries for it, she�s gotta be crazy,� Vin commented, having been appraised of this much of Ezra�s theory if not the part about the auction. �It's broad daylight.�
�Yes,� Ezra agreed. �But the owner is rather eccentric. He insists on taking the painting out of the state on his own and keeping it very close to him.�
�That him?� Vin remarked and gestured at a rather short man with dark looks who was carrying the painting in a leather case surrounded by private security as he headed towards a Rolls Royce parked in front of the gallery. In front and behind the prestige automobile, were nondescript cars waiting for him to proceed on his journey and told the two ATF agents that these were apart of his security escort.
�How Marilyn Monroe,� Ezra commented making reference to the woman walking next to owner. She was a leggy blond who was practically spilling out of her low cut dress and was capturing everyone�s attention with her cleavage as she sauntered along. She looked typically vulgar with big red lips that left no imagination as to where her talents lay and remained at his side appearing more like an adornment than a human being. Even her walk on stiletto heels seemed ungainly and lacking grace, serving only to remind Ezra what a lady of class could achieve in the same footwear.
�I suppose some guys like that sort of thing,� Vin remarked with a hint of distaste even though Buck would be tripping over his tongue about now.
�Not I,� Ezra retorted firmly and the two ATF agents observed quietly for the next few minutes the departure of the Roll Royce with its entourage. When the cars had travelled far enough away, Ezra brought the Jaguar�s engines came to life and followed the convoy discreetly, in its trip to the airport.
�If she�s going to try for it, I�d like to see how.� Vin glanced at Ezra, not wishing to come right out and say that Ezra was wrong but he certainly believed that the gambler�s usually formidable hunches was inaccurate this time. No burglar would be that brazen or foolish to attempt a robber in daylight with so many security men around the target.
�She going to try for it,� Ezra said confidently, uncertain how he knew but was absolute on that fact. �I know she is.�
+ + + + + + +
They followed the painting and its owner all the way to the airport and found that the journey had taken place without incident. Whatever Ezra was expecting to take place had not and Vin held his tongue knowing that this was important to the gambler, if not understanding why that they maintained the surveillance. Still, he did appreciate was to be so completely transfixed by a woman that all good sense could dry up like a well inside a man�s head.
They reached the airport and still there were no signs of anything amiss. Ezra was starting to feel doubt appear in his mind. Perhaps he had been wrong? Maybe she was not the Fox at all and that he had made a damned fool out of himself in front of Vin even though he knew the sharpshooter would never say a word to anyone else. Vin if anything was good at secrets and keeping confidences. Still, they were at the airport and since they had already stuck their neck out this far in pursuing a case that Chris Larabee had told them in no uncertain terms was not in their purview of influence, Ezra saw no reason to disengage the surveillance now.
�We might as well follow this unfortunate situation through,� he said trying to hide his disappointment. �I apologise for leading you on a wild goose chase Mr Tanner.�
�Don�t worry about it Ezra,� Vin patted his back as they both emerged from the Jaguar and made their way to the terminal. The painting was still in their scope of vision because they were professionals and were much better about keeping a low profile than the rent-a-cops the owner had hired for himself. �I would have thought she might turn up, too, with what we know about her,� he said sympathetically.
�Thank you, Mr Tanner,� Ezra replied, genuinely touched as the two men crossed the street and entered the glass doors of the airport terminal.
The owner of the Monet was standing just before the check in counter while his girl friend was nowhere to be seen. For a few moments, the ATF agents lingered about uncomfortably, wondering what the group was waiting for and hoping that they had not been spotted by the man�s security. Chris would give them all kinds of hell if he knew they were here right now and after his lack of success, Ezra was not in the mood to endure Chris Larabee�s stern reprimands. Fortunately, no such calamity took place as the girlfriend made her emergence from the ladies room and both agents let out a sigh of relief when they realised that had been the reason for the sudden pause.
From the minute she stepped out of the ladies room, Ezra knew something was wrong. For a moment, he could not imagine what that was. He stared at the blond as she walked towards her lover, hips moving sensuously, legs striding forward with complete grace and eye catching poise while her modesty was concealed in a tight fitting leather skirt. It was almost poetry in motion if a leggy blond could ever be described that way. Ezra was somewhat surprised, considering he had not thought much of the woman when he had first laid eyes on her at the gallery. Back there, her mobility had been uninspired and she looked like any blond with a rich boyfriend. However, now she was something beautiful and heart stopping, Ezra could not imagine what had caused the change until suddenly it hit him like a ton of bricks.
�Vin!� Ezra called out bolting forward. �It's her!�
�What?� Vin called after Ezra as the gambler was already running. �What do you mean it's her?�
�A switch!� Ezra returned as he pulled out his gun from inside the folds of his jacket. �She pulled a switch in the ladies' room!�
The commotion attracted the attention of the security guards who immediately sprang into action. Ezra was ready for them, brandishing his badge for them to see as they converged upon him. �ATF! That woman is a suspect! She�s the one who tried to steal the painting last week.�
Immediately, all eyes turned to her direction only to find that she had kicked of her heels and was running through the terminal, putting as much distance between herself and the men who would soon be in pursuit. No one attempted to interfere with Ezra following her flight and the gambler found himself running after the lady faster than he had ever run before. People immediately moved out of the way, knowing some kind of arrest was transpiring and not wishing to become caught in its crossfire.
The Fox leapt onto a turnstile that was ejecting baggage and moved across the obstacles with surprising ease, marvelling Ezra with her agility as she leapt up the conveyor belt and finally disappeared through the opening. Vin was a few paces behind him, trying to move through the chaos created in the wake of the chase between Ezra and his cat burglar. While the travellers had stepped out of Ezra�s way, they only succeeded in hampering the efforts of Vin and the security guards who were a short distance behind him. Ezra took the same path she did, clambering up the conveyor belt that led into the baggage area of the airport. No sooner than he had passed through the small opening, he felt a sharp kick land on his side and throw him off the conveyor belt. He fairly spun in the air and flew several feet before impacting against the concrete floor. He landed hard, dropping his gun as he heard the sound of bone snapping upon impact. Ezra let out a cry of pain but somehow managed to get to his feet.
She dropped to the floor directly in front of him while he was searching for his gun. This time, there was none of the surprise that had been present at their initial encounter. She was almost caught and she knew it. For her to escape, she had to go through him. With the same astonishing speed, she planted a high kick straight in his sternum and sent him reeling.
Ezra slammed against the wall, groaning in pain as the hard impact aggravated the broken ribs created by her initial kick. He could feel the sharp pain of the injury stabbing at his sides and knew he was not in any shape to fight her. He grunted slightly and tried to retaliate but she had the advantage and intended to use it. Another fist struck his jaw and if he had been standing before, he was not by the time she was done with him. His head spun as he went down hard against the concrete.
�What is it with you?� he heard her voice suddenly ask.
Ezra looked up at her through the haze of pain and saw that she had discarded her blond wig and beneath it was that amazing copper coloured hair. �You are a criminal," he replied, as if that ought to answer everything.
�No, that isn�t it.� She leaned over him and took his throbbing face in her hand. �You�re taking this awfully personal. If I didn�t know better, I say you were tracking me.�
�I have a penchant for red hair," he found himself admitting, uncertain why when she had just effectively kicked his ass. �And you are the most beautiful woman that I have ever seen.�
Her surprise showed and then she smiled at him and Ezra found his insides melt because those incredibly red lips and emerald colour eyes were playing the strings of his heart like a harp. Once again, her mouth lowered to his and when she kissed him, he had never been so aware of anything in his life. It was not a kiss of passion like before but soft and lingering, paralysing his mind with the sheer silken pleasure of her lips against his. Her tongue danced with his for a second that seemed to stretch forever and when she finally pulled away, Ezra was breathless.
�Oh you are sweet," she sighed, looking at him with a bemused smile. �I�d love to finish this with you but I�m a little pressed for time. Just do me a favour,� she said planting a softer kiss on his cheek. �Don�t get in my way again, I don�t like hurting you.�
With that, she released him and vanished once again.
+ + + + + + +
Vin found him a few seconds later and did not pursue the suspect when he realised that Ezra was injured and had at least two cracked ribs. While the other security guards continued the search, Vin saw to it that Ezra received medical attention at the local hospital. If Ezra had been disappointed that his quarry had slipped away from him once again, then it was nothing compared to dressing down both he and Vin received when they found themselves in Chris Larabee�s office the next morning.
�What part about 'not our jurisdiction' did you not understand?� Chris glared furiously at the two of them, awaiting an answer even though the leader of Team 7 could guess that none of any satisfactory value was forthcoming.
�It ain�t Ezra�s fault,� Vin spoke up, knowing that Ezra was injured enough and did not need to bear the full brunt of Chris� wrath as well as the pain. �He had a good hunch and I thought it was worth following up.�
�Mr Larabee,� Ezra quickly interrupted. �I alone induced Mr Tanner to accompany me on this escapade, he had nothing to do with it except to aid me in my foolish theories.�
Chris watched the two of them continue to defend each other for a few more minutes before deciding that he needed a really stiff drink or a gun, whichever came first.
�Shut up," he said finally and immediately put an end to their chattering voices which were giving him a headache. He gazed at Vin and Ezra who reminded him of two little boys with their hands caught well and truly red-handed with nothing to say that could exonerate either. �I don�t care whose fault it is. You are lucky that Mr Costanza, the owner, thinks you two single-handedly saved the Monet from being stolen again. His girl friend was knocked unconscious in the ladies' room as you guessed Ezra, and the switch must have been made there. Even though they searched the airport and no trace of your suspect was found, he still thinks that you did a great job.�
Vin and Ezra exchanged looks of relief when Chris cleared his throat. �I, on the other hand, ain�t a part of this mutual admiration society you�ve got going so I�ll tell you this only once; you pull this crap again and I�ll see to it that you both will be in airport security, permanently. Do I make myself clear?�
Affirmative responses came rather contritely and Chris let out a sigh of resignation. His anger was directed more at the fact that the duo had gone it alone without back up instead of all the violations of jurisdiction he was still explaining to the bureaucracy. If either man had underestimated the danger of the suspect they had been pursuing, they could have been in a life-threatening situation without anyone to cover their backs. That, in Chris�s opinion was an unacceptable risk he expected none of his men to take with their lives.
�You�re dismissed," he replied, waving them out of the room.
Both turned to leave when Chris added further, �Oh Ezra, one other thing...�
The gambler turned to Chris, wondering what else the man could say to make him feel any worse. �Yes Mr Larabee?� he asked quietly.
�Next time, wipe the lipstick off your face.�