Day of the Hunters
Ryan entered the elevator and seeing Orin Travis inside he immediately jumped at this opportunity. “Orin, I’m telling you they are cutting me off at every junction. They’ve got me doing stuff that a damn rookie should do.”
Travis pressed the button in the elevator and waited for the doors to close. “Mitchell, give them time…your visit hasn’t come at the best time.”
“That’s why I’m needed here. They’re falling apart, Orin. Wilmington hasn’t even come in this morning, and this guy, Dunne, he could be off for weeks.”
Orin was concerned that Larabee hadn’t explained to Ryan why Buck and JD were absent. “Buck is with JD, and by all accounts JD should return to work next week…Mr. Wilmington tomorrow.”
“Yeah…Well, Tanner and Standish are the real problem…I don’t understand Chris’ leniency with them. The whole lot of them really…they have this system…Oh I don’t know…it’s like code…Anyway…my talents are being wasted on all this pissant research…I’m more of a hands-on kind of guy… if you could talk with Chris…?”
Orin dropped his case on the floor and pushed up his eyeglasses. “You’re here, Mitch…despite the fact that I contacted your supervisor and advised you not to come. You have a chance to show Chris what he missed out on when he bypassed you, but I’m warning you, don’t try pitting one of Larabee’s team against the other, they won’t tolerate it and neither will I. They’re good men…all of them. I suggest you make your flight home in accordance with Mr. Dunne’s return.” The lights on the elevator came on and the doors slid open. Orin bent to pick up this case and walked out onto the sixth floor. He took a deep breath, letting his anger flow through him, like Evie had been coaching him. “I’ll let Mary know you’re in town…Shall I?”
Mitch stroked his neatly trimmed beard and held open the doors. “Don’t…I’d like to surprise her, Orin.”
Travis pursed his lips and nodded. He wondered if he should still let Mary know. Mitchell had been a friend of Steven’s, but he didn’t know how well Mary had known the undercover agent. There seemed to be some tension between them at Steven’s funeral, but that was the last time Orin had seen them together. He shrugged…he knew Mary would appreciate the call…and he didn’t owe Ryan anything.
Mitchell didn’t go to the fifth floor, but instead continued down to the parking garage. When the doors opened he furtively circled around until he was at Chris’ vehicle. He may not be a part of this team yet, but they would soon realize his resourcefulness. He crouched by the truck and attached a small magnetic tracking device under the wheel rims and a second at the rear of the vehicle in case the first was accidentally dislodged or found. He hung back in the shadows and waited, not wanting to run into Standish and have to explain why he wasn’t on the fifth floor. Once Standish arrived and took the Ram, Ryan made his way to his rental and surreptitiously followed the Southerner. There was no need to stay within sight; the tracking device would lead the way. He would show Standish up…prove to Chris that he was the better agent for the team. He knew how to make a squealer talk…he was bound to get more out of him than Standish. And whatever case Standish was working on, would become his.
“Josiah, I don’t want to hear it, Ezra’s going to be fine. Besides, I’ve got something else I need you to do.” Sanchez raised his eyebrows and Larabee continued. “Travis has a team investigating Chen Li’s death—”
“And you’d like an update?” Josiah surmised.
“Yeah…Vin, find out what the word on the street is concerning Hoi Chung Li.”
“You don’t think it’s going to be as simple as that, to find him?” Nathan queried.
“Got to start somewhere. Nathan…I’d like to see the accident reports on both Ezra’s and JD’s accidents.”
“I’ll get on it right away. What about those surveillance tapes that were wiped?”
“Yeah… I’ll get Buck to chase them up when he comes in tomorrow, but whoever did it has probably covered their ass by now,” Chris concluded, realizing this was most likely a dead end. And no doubt, an inside job.
“What are you plannin’ on doing, cowboy?”
“Thought I might visit, Torres.”
“Ya think that’s wise?”
Larabee smirked. “He’s in jail…what’s he gonna do?”
Chris sat into the chair that faced a window, a layer of glass separating him from the felon in the other room. Averill Torres looked through the barrier with indifference.
“What do you want?”
“I’m Chris Larabee with the ATF.” He showed the gunrunner his ID and returned it to his jacket.
Torres slouched back in his chair. He recognized Larabee from the bust. “So?”
“I’m wondering how you’re doing…your trial’s coming up in a few weeks.”
Torres ran his tongue along his teeth and smirked. So he likes to play games. “The rooms are overcrowded, we’re sleeping on portable bunks, the food is shit and they’re keeping us caged like animals.”
Larabee was unimpressed. “That’s the benefits for being caught on the wrong side of the law.”
Torres shrugged. “In your opinion.”
“Chen Li is dead.”
“Yeah…like I said, the prison system sucks.”
“You don’t sound too sympathetic.”
Torres rolled his tongue inside his cheek and yawned. “Wasn’t any secret that we weren’t friends.”
“And you had nothing to do with his death?”
Torres snorted and shook his head. He glanced at the guard by the door and up at the security camera. “Like I already told the other pigs investigating his death…we weren’t even on the same block. Don’t expect me to send a wreath.”
Chris glared through the thick glass at the inmate. “I s’pose you haven’t heard any rumors?”
“Not that I’d tell you.” Torres stood and walked over to the guard. “I’m ready to leave.” He knew the drill and turned around for the handcuffs to be placed on. He smirked at Larabee and couldn’t resist another jibe as the guard knocked on the door. “I was considering buying a Jag when I’m released, but I hear they don’t handle too well in accidents. Reckon I’ll get something with more grit.”
The guard shrugged, herding the inmate through the door that was opened from the opposite side.
Chris jumped up and slammed on the glass. “Hey! Bring him back!” he demanded. “We haven’t finished,” he shouted, picking up the speaker as the guard and prisoner disappeared. “Fuck!”
Standish glanced up and down the quiet suburban street. The engine idled quietly and he rested his forearms across the wheel, staring out the windshield. He’d never come to this neighborhood before and was pleasantly surprised to find that it felt both welcoming and innocuous. It was truly a family-oriented suburb; perhaps that was why Nathan and Raine had been so taken with it.
Both sides of the street were lined with giant oak trees and all, bar a few properties, were fenced. Lawns were well-cared-for and lush from plenty of fertilizer and water. Shrubs and hedges were a common factor among the residents and the odd water feature. In general, the district was tranquil and unassuming. It was perfectly suited to Nathan Jackson and his fiancé Raine. And when they were married they would plan on taking over residence of the split-level house, but until then they planned on setting it up as a rental property. It would help pay off the mortgage. The house was temporarily empty, since Nathan had only taken over the deed a fortnight before and it would be several weeks before tenants would start inspecting the property. That gave Ezra some time to sit back and relax. Or so he thought.
Ezra grinned wistfully, watching a group of neighborhood children gather on the pathway, tossing a baseball back and forth. They chattered briefly, as though deciding where they should go, and then set off together ambling along the sidewalk toward the park. There were several bats and a number of gloves being carried between the children. Their blissful laughter intruded through the open window, but they paid scant attention to the driver of the black Ram as they passed the vehicle. Standish wondered if Nathan and Raine had already met their future neighbors. Their children were an absolute delight.
Checking the rear-view mirror, Ezra backed up the driveway and parked. It wouldn’t take long to get inside and then he’d move the black truck into the garage. He’d be safe here and his absence would not put the others at risk, again.
Chris arrived back at the office to find Josiah and Ryan working independently. He nodded in Josiah’s direction, but continued through to his office. He’d just taken his seat when Ryan appeared in the doorway. Chris took a deep breath…you can handle this.
“I’d like to discuss a permanent placement on your team.” Chris had to be considering it, why else would Larabee allow him to stay, if not to test the waters?
“I’m not in the position to engage more agents.”
“But you can always do with more…I’d bring stability to the team…and if you are really set on only seven, then it gives you the opportunity to thin the ranks.” When Chris discovered Standish had lied about meeting with an informant, and there were probably other instances where Standish had conned the team, then Chris would realize his trust had been betrayed. The whole team seemed to be hung up on trust and loyalty. He smirked, deciding that he might keep that piece of information for now…there’d be an opportune moment later.
Chris grabbed hold of his desk, his fingers turning white while his temper boiled. “Ryan, the seven of us work well together…how do you figure you’d fit in with the dynamics of this team?” And why would he want to?
“Chris, Chris, Chris. Who needs to fit in? I’d be working for you…if you’re worried that they will snub me…then don’t. I’m used to that. And I’m not here to make friends…” But being on the most-respected team in the country would certainly help his career prospects. Once he got a foot in, he’d start pulling those strings.
“Friends watch your back…you’d need to trust your backup.”
“Hell, they get paid to do that.”
Chris shook his head, relieved that he had never invited Mitch Ryan onto the team. “No…there is no position vacant on this team.” And if there was, Ryan wouldn’t even make the ‘BQ’ list as a candidate.
“Take some time to reconsider…I don’t mind waiting.” Mitch didn’t wait for a reply, but immediately took his leave…he was curious about the address he’d followed Standish to earlier. Maybe, by proving Standish was up to something, he could convince Larabee that he was the better man for the UC position.
Chris slid bonelessly into the booth. Forced from his office to keep the obnoxious Ryan from interfering…Hell! Larabee squeezed the bridge of his nose and winced. Goddamn, him!
“Like that, is it, cowboy?”
“You have no idea, Vin. You got my message?”
“Yeah,” Tanner glanced around the ‘Saloon’, winked at Inez and climbed into the opposite side of the booth. “Wasn’t sure you’d still be here, but it looks like you’ve only just made it yourself.”
Chris nodded and waited for the waitress to leave their drinks before continuing. “Josiah and Nathan are on their way. I told Buck I’d catch him up tomorrow.”
Larabee managed to grin. “Driving Buck around the twist. Casey is gonna play nursemaid tomorrow.”
“He’ll enjoy that,” Vin grinned. “Ezra coming?”
Larabee shrugged. He’d gotten the impression Standish wanted to have an early night. “Boys.” He grinned as the other members of his team arrived. He waited until the new arrivals ordered then got down to business. “This isn’t going to be a long night, guys. I know it’s been a long day, but I’d like an update on what you found, or didn’t find today.”
Josiah chuckled. “Ryan gettin’ under your skin?”
“He’s angling for a position on the team.”
Vin almost choked while chewing on a handful of pretzels. He coughed a few times while Nathan patted him on the back and was forced to wash it down with his beer. “He wants Ezra’s job?”
“Don’t think he cares whose position he takes.”
“He’s even started looking around for a permanent place to stay,” Nathan added. “I was showing Josiah the specs of my new place and he was really interested. Tell me he ain’t staying?” Jackson asked Chris.
“Not in my lifetime,” Larabee growled.
“Our brother doesn’t seem too keen to have Ryan as a tenant,” Josiah chuckled, tormenting Nathan.
“Never gonna happen,” Nathan retorted. “No way, no how!”
The four spent a few hours at the ‘Saloon’. Vin admitted he had no luck tracking down Hoi Chung Li and apparently the investigation into his grandson’s death was proceeding slowly. Josiah found out that Chen Li, although he’d been found hanging in his cell, by cording stripped from a mattress, had actually been dead before he’d been hung. There was no way his death could be passed off as suicide, but the investigating team held little hope of finding the murderer with the conflicting information.
“Is there any connection to Torres?” Larabee asked hopefully. Since meeting with the prisoner that afternoon, Chris had been undecided whether Torres’ remark about Jags and accidents was an admission he’d organized Ezra and JD’s accidents or that he’d somehow heard.
Josiah shook his head reluctantly. “He was locked in his cell at the time Chen Li was murdered. Apparently there’s a problem with overcrowding at the jail…it’s only designed to hold 1300 inmates, but there’s currently over three times that amount. Every cell has three to four inmates, where normally they hold two. There aren’t enough guards to allow recreational time and the cells are jam-packed.”
“So why isn’t there an eye witness?” Chris wondered in frustration.
“Oh it’s worse than that,” Josiah answered. “The investigating team is going to be working on this one for months…even longer, sorting through all this crap. Every prisoner they talk to has a different version of events…they’re lying through their teeth…saying anything to get their sentences shortened, moved to another facility or even for a box of cigarettes.”
“Great,” Chris sighed.
“That’s not all,” Josiah continued. “Li was trying to make his own deal in exchange for information against Torres…he was only days away from being taken into protective custody by the DA’s office.”
Larabee shook his head in disappointment. “Thanks, Josiah. Anything I ought to know about Ezra or JD’s accidents, Nathan?”
“There are a couple of sketchy reports on Ezra’s. Found a couple of witnesses, but they can’t even agree on the color, let alone the make of the car involved. The cops are still looking for it, but don’t hold out much hope. JD was pushed out into the intersection by a female driver driving an 80’s station wagon…it was totaled in the wreck. If you want to go over it, it’s been impounded. They brought her in to the hospital too, but she was discharged with superficial scratches and bruising. She gave the cops a statement…It all seems above board,” Jackson reported.
“Just a gut feeling.”
“You check her out? She have any connection to Torres?”
“I’m working on it.”
Chris kicked the door closed and flicked on the lights as he walked through his home. The headlights from Vin’s jeep swept through the family room windows as Chris walked past the room and continued into the kitchen. It was late, but he still needed to eat. He rummaged through the freezer until he found dinner. Damn he missed coming home to Sarah’s home-cooked meals. He absently jabbed several holes in the plastic wrap of his frozen dinner and then placed it in the microwave. He made coffee while the timer counted backwards.
The phone rang just as he sat down to eat. “Typical,” he moaned. “Larabee.”
“Chris…It’s Ezra.” Larabee needed to know the truth…especially as he had to find alternate transportation into work for the morning. And future mornings, until he could return the Ram. Ezra needed someone on the team who knew where he was staying. And Chris would keep him up to date.
Chris slammed down the phone. Why did Ezra always make things so difficult? Couldn’t he for once simply accept help? He’d be safe at the ranch…they could protect him, but not while he was hiding from them. Hell, Chris’d go around in the morning and talk some sense into the stubborn Southerner. He stared at the cold and uninviting meal and sighed, contemplating reheating it in the microwave when the crunch of gravel outside caught his attention. “What’d you forget, Vin?” he mused on his way to the entrance. He’d just turned the knob, releasing the catch when the door flew open. Several intruders rushed through the doorway and before Chris could react he was hit in the face and wound up on the floor.
Sprawled on his back Larabee blinked back the pain that lanced through his skull and dared not move as he faced down three assault rifles. He seethed in silence while several intruders prowled through his home, systematically searching each room and downstairs to the basement. He heard furniture being overturned, closet doors opening and closing and glass breaking. That was pure maliciousness and unnecessary. He stared back into the face of the man coordinating the assault and snarled, “What do you want?”
Jason Craig ignored Larabee for several minutes, his eyes following the progress of his team inside. He had others outside, checking the barn and surrounding area for Standish, but didn’t expect they’d find him out there. He figured Standish would be inside. But with each negative nod, Craig gritted his teeth more firmly, finally glancing at the man at his feet. “Where’s Standish?”
Chris winced, automatically sitting upright, but he was shoved back down with a boot to his chest. These were Torres’ men and they were after Ezra. He glanced at his jacket hanging over the kitchen chair, hiding his gun, still in the shoulder holster, draped over the same chair – did he have a chance to reach it? Did he dare risk going up against six armed men, who held him at a disadvantage? He sighed softly as one of the intruders walked into the kitchen. It wasn’t long before his gun was discovered, and all hope was gone. “Who the hell are you?”
Craig lowered his weapon and squatted down to Larabee’s level. “I’m crushed…you don’t recognize me?”
“Only as a piece of sh… Arggggg!”
Craig grinned and patted Chris on the leg. “Fingers are so sensitive…don’t you agree?”
Chris grimaced, holding his left hand close to his chest after the guard behind him had brutally stomped on his outstretched hand. He attempted to sit up, but a kick to his lower back kept him on the floor. “You won’t find Ezra here, asshole,” he grunted. His contempt earned him a boot to the face and he groaned, rolling to protect himself. Stupid, Larabee…real stupid.
“There’s no one else here,” one of the intruders informed Craig.
“Where is he?” Craig lifted Chris’ chin, jerking his head back so it banged on the floor tiles. “You can walk away from this with just a few bruises…all we need is an address for Standish…he’ll never know it was you.”
Chris spat in Craig’s face and sneered. He had no chance of escaping without being shot and he had no intention of ratting out a friend. “Go to hell!” Chris kicked out and brought Craig down on his buttocks, but his success was short-lived as he was plunged into darkness.
“Take him out to the van,” Jason Craig ordered, grimacing as he wiped off the spittle. “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”
Vin jogged up the last of the internal stairs, panting heavily when he reached the bullpen. “The Ram isn’t downstairs and the security guard says he hasn’t seen it this morning.”
“I can’t get Chris at home or on his cell phone…Ezra’s machine is picking up at the townhouse and his cell is turned off,” Buck groaned, dropping the phone into the cradle. Where the hell were they? “When Chris called last night, he mentioned Ezra had a meet with an informant yesterday…did anyone check to see if Ezra made it back okay?”
“He would have checked in with Chris,” Vin reasoned.
“And we can’t confirm that, ‘cuz Chris ain’t here.”
“Standish won’t be with Chris,” Ryan interrupted.
“Who the hell are you?” Wilmington growled.
“Mitch Ryan…I started here yesterday. You would have known that, Wilmington, if you’d been here.”
“A couple of days while JD’s off, is all,” Vin quickly clarified, seeing Buck’s ire rise.
“Get out of here!” Buck roared.
Ryan shrugged and casually strolled out. So Wilmington is no better than the rest. How does Chris cope with these incompetents?
When Ryan had gone, Buck studied his friends’ faces. “What does he mean that they won’t be together? Didn’t Ezra take the Ram? Wasn’t he supposed to pick Chris up this morning?”
“Ignore him, Buck. Ryan’s just trying to make a name for himself…attempting to cause friction between us, but it won’t work,” Nathan declared. “We need to concentrate on finding our brothers.” Even he was getting worried.
“It could be nothing,” Josiah suggested, always the voice of reason, “they might only be held up in traffic.”
“It’s ten-thirty. Even Ezra’s usually here by now,” Nathan stated emphatically.
“I’m gonna go out to the ranch and check around,” Tanner announced. He was sick of waiting.
“I’ll go by Ezra’s,” Josiah volunteered.
Ryan wandered back into the bullpen and grinned smugly at the remainder of Larabee’s team. It irked him that they paid him no attention, but that would change. He tossed a printout on JD’s desk and sat on the corner of Vin’s desk. “Standish made a call to Larabee’s place last night at 11:08. The call lasted for six minutes and forty-seven seconds.” As much as he despised doing menial work, he was adept at doing his job. And the tap he’d put on the Southerner’s cell phone had paid off. The morons at the telephone company didn’t even question the legitimacy of the signature on the court order. It was too easy…That’ll teach Standish to go sneaking off and deserting his team.
“How in the hell do you know that?” Nathan was shocked. “You tapped their phones?” That was an invasion of privacy…he’d have to watch Ryan, he’d be pulling their bank statements if they weren’t careful. “And you got a court order to do that?” Like hell! There wouldn’t be a judge in Denver who would have signed Ryan’s request.
Mitchell scratched at his beard and stared in return. “As if you haven’t stretched the rules on occasion - you want to know where Chris is, don’t you? Then Standish was probably the last person to talk with him…Tanner, you said you dropped Chris off at ten-thirty and didn’t stay long. I suggest you find Standish and you’ll get your answers.”
“Newsflash, brother,” Sanchez growled, “Ezra is missing, too.”
Ryan rolled his eyes. “Standish isn’t missing, he called Orin this morning. And he lied about going to see an informant yesterday…He’s run out on you.” He couldn’t resist smirking…it thrilled him that he’d been the one to deliver that piece of news.
“What?” Tanner glared, daring Ryan to repeat the accusation. If Ezra didn’t meet with an informant yesterday, he’d have a damn good reason.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Buck snarled.
“Heard he makes a habit of runnin’—”
“Ryan! Gentlemen…” Orin Travis interrupted, scowling at Ryan; how did Mitch know about Ezra? “Ezra called to advise me he was taking leave until the trial. I agreed with his decision. Agent Ryan will join the team until he returns.” The AD held up his hand to stop the barrage of questions thrown simultaneously as him. “Ezra promised to keep in touch, but will do so at unspecified times. There will be no debate on Agent Ryan’s position, he is here now and you need team members. Any word on Chris?”
“We’re working on it.”
“Keep me up to date,” Travis ordered.
A thick buzz entered Chris Larabee’s head as his level of consciousness increased. Cold spread along one side of his body, and his arms, shoulders, neck and chest ached. He lifted his head off the concrete floor and gritted his teeth as a fresh wave of pain pulsed through him. A warehouse. His hands were cuffed at his back and both feet were bound with a rope; he wouldn’t be leaving any time soon. He fell back with a grunt. Nobody approached him, but as his head cleared he could hear that he wasn’t alone.
“The minute any of them leave, I’ll have someone on their tails…Yeah, yeah… I know…He’s got to turn up soon…and if Larabee doesn’t spill his guts, then we’ll take another one.”
Chris lifted his head and watched Craig talk into his phone; he didn’t appear particularly pleased. Chris tried to straighten out his stiffened joints, but found he’d been roped like a calf. He rolled onto his back, wincing as his hands were squashed under him; his left wrist was swollen tight in the cuff and he wouldn’t be surprised if more than a couple of fingers had been broken. That was probably the least of his worries. He was bound to hurt more before this was over. Not a good thought.
“…Yeah…As soon as he surfaces we’ll take him out….don’t worry…they won’t connect you to this.”
Chris stilled, alarmed at what he was hearing. Was this guy talking to Torres? Were they talking about Ezra? Or me?
“So, you’re awake.” Craig returned his phone inside his coat and squatted beside Chris. “Guess it’s time.” He looked beyond Chris and spoke. “Get him ready.”
“What do you want?” Chris asked, struggling against the arms that lifted and dragged him across the warehouse floor. The rope between his arms and legs was cut and he was dumped into a metal chair. They proceeded to tie him to the seat, but not once did they remove the cuffs or the rope around his ankles.
“Answers,” Jason Craig replied. “Take his shirt off…and bring me that box.”
“I don’t know where Ezra is.”
Craig ignored him and opened a rectangular box. “We shall see.” He picked up a pair of brass knuckles, but dismissed these…maybe later. A slim narrow knife and bullwhip were also passed over. “Perfect. Ever felt the bite of a cattle prod? Quite a nasty piece of equipment really.”
Chris eyed the stick as it was waved before his eyes, instinctively shrinking back into the chair, but there was no escape. “No.”
“Then tell me where Standish is?”
“Go to hell!” Chris pressed his lips together and refused, knowing what was coming next. His eyes widened, as the prod touched his side. He screamed a blood curdling cry. The veins in his neck throbbed, his head thrown back and his body writhed against the electric shock. And then there was merciful blackness.
Vin kept his foot heavy on the accelerator and the portable siren screaming on the trip from the office to Larabee’s ranch; which took less time than normal to reach. He pulled up in a gravel-crunching halt, sending stones flying in all directions. From the outside, nothing seemed out of place. He jumped from the jeep and jogged up the steps and knocked loudly. “Larabee?” He rubbed his hands together to combat the chill in the air, and cursed the lack of heating in his jeep. “Chris,” he called through the solid door. Vin waited impatiently only a few minutes more before producing a key. The door pushed open as his cell phone started to ring. “Fuck! Larabee?” he shouted, hurrying through the ransacked ranch house and checking all the rooms. “Tanner,” he shouted into the cell angrily. Who had done this? And why Chris?
“It’s Josiah. Ezra’s place has been trashed…”
“Yeah? No shit…So’s Chris’,” Vin responded as he continued to wander through the ranch house. “Fuck!”
“Vin? Brother? Is something wrong? Is Chris…?”
“Chris ain’t here.”
Tanner forgot the cell as he entered the bathroom. “Oh shit,” he whispered. He reached out to touch the red ‘paint’ and shuddered. Blood? Was this Chris’? How badly was he hurt? His gut churned as he read the message written on the bathroom mirror.
‘LARABEE FOR STANDISH’
Vin leaned heavily against the wall, staring fixedly at the mirror. Nothing else…no more instructions. A tiny voice echoed, calling him back to reality, and finally he realized it was Josiah. He backed out of the bathroom and slid down the wall until he was seated on the floor. “They’ve got Chris and want to trade him for Ezra.”
“Where? When? How do you know?”
“I don’t know! The message just says, Larabee for Standish and it’s written in blood. Hell, Josiah, we don’t even know where Ezra is.”
“We’ll find, Chris,” Josiah reassured, “we’ll get him back. And not at Ezra’s expense.”
“Hell, I ain't suggestin’ anything like that,” Vin retaliated. “Look I gotta go…need to call forensics and get them over here. I’ll talk to ya later.”
Vin eventually returned to the office, unable to assist more out at the ranch. He tossed his coat on the top of his desk and slumped on the corner of Buck’s. “Have we heard any more demands?”
Wilmington shook his head. “I’ve tried Chris’ cell phone again; it’s ringing, but ain’t being picked up.”
“They’re making us sweat,” Josiah’s gravelly voice filled the room.
“Has anyone heard from Ezra?” Vin glanced around the concerned faces of his friends.
“I don’t think we need to worry Ezra—”
“He’ll want to know,” Vin snapped. “JD, too.”
“JD knows,” Buck responded. “He wanted to come in, but I told him there was nothing he could do.” Nothing any of them could do, but wait.
“He’s going to fret all day,” Nathan presumed.
Wilmington nodded. “He’s got Casey to keep him in line.”
“Gentlemen,” Travis greeted the remainder of Team 7, “the FBI has taken over Chris’ disappearance; they’ll be in to talk with you all momentarily. I strongly advise that you pass on all and any information that is pertinent, as it will benefit Chris’ rescue.”
“You can’t do that!” Vin growled, belatedly adding, “Sir.”
“I can and I have…it’s not an ATF case—”
“I won’t discuss it further, Mr. Tanner.”
“Sir…we’d appreciate if Ryan didn’t hear about the offer of a trade between Chris and Ezra,” Buck requested, knowing he was asking for all of them.
Travis stopped at the door and turned. “He won’t hear it from me, but word gets around, you won’t keep it from him indefinitely. And he is temporarily on this team.”
“Yeah, I know…it’s just he’s going to be on Ezra’s case the moment he finds out,” Buck attempted to justify his request.
“Hmmm…Where exactly is Mitch?”
“Doing research downstairs,” Josiah quickly interjected.
Orin frowned at the sudden smirks that flashed on Wilmington and Jackson’s faces, but he didn’t push the matter. “I trust you to all cooperate fully with the FBI. And if anyone hears from Chris’ abductors, I want to be informed. There’s to be no heroics, and under no circumstances will you withhold any information.” Silence built in the bullpen until AD Travis left the floor, then a snigger and a snort broke the quiet.
“Well, he is,” Josiah huffed, but a twitch at the corner of his mouth tempted his lips into a smirk as he returned to his work station.
“Hell, it doesn’t bother me how you got rid of him, Josiah,” Buck chuckled, glad to be rid of Mitch Ryan, even if it was only temporarily.
“I only suggested…”
“But it was that look in yer eye, big fella,” Nathan badgered the profiler. “He didn’t stand a chance, once you got riled.”]
“Way to go, Josiah,” Vin applauded, only now realizing what Sanchez had done.
Josiah sighed and rolled his eyes. “He’s too sensitive…” he persisted. And seeing the looks that comment garnered, he mumbled, “I wouldn’t have hit him…honest.” A few moments of peace settled around the bullpen when Josiah finally muttered, “Not too hard.”
“Orin… I know we’ve talked about this before…but I really think you ought to talk with Chris when he returns.” Got to have Orin in his corner to back his request for permanent transfer.
Orin Travis sighed, looked over the rims of his glasses and peered at the younger agent. Chris Larabee was missing…probably hurt judging by the disaster at the ranch house. How can Ryan dismiss this and carry on as though it wasn’t an issue? Chris had been right about not wanting Ryan on his team - Ezra had been the better choice. “Just what is it that you wish me to discuss with him?”
“My position on the team—”
“Is only temporary,” Travis quickly finished. It was easy to see the disharmony among the ranks with Ryan on the team.
“Standish has done a runner…now I know Larabee’s team is concerned with finding Chris, and probably you too…but I’d like to offer you some peace of mind.”
“And how do you propose to do that, Mitchell?”
“I know where Standish is hiding… you do realize he was the last person to have contact with Chris? I’m offering to go over there, have a quiet word with him, find out what they discussed last night, and if you feel it’s absolutely necessary, we can have him moved to another safe house.”
Travis sat forward and leaned his elbows on the desktop. Thank God, Ryan didn’t know about the offer to trade Ezra for Larabee. Ryan would be determined to proceed with that course of action just for his own ends. That wasn’t an option. He would like to know what Ezra and Chris talked about too, but he was fairly certain it had nothing to do with Larabee’s disappearance. Ezra didn’t even know Chris was missing…if he did, Standish would have returned. Hell, Ezra would have offered himself as bait for Chris’ safe return. Not something he could see Ryan doing anytime in the future. “Ezra had nothing to do with Chris’ kidnapping. And how do you know where Agent Standish is?” he practically growled at the agent.
Mitchell grinned. “I’m not totally inept…I have my ways.”
Orin shoved back his chair and pointed at Ryan. “If you have the address written someplace then I want it destroyed…forget where he is and I prohibit you from mentioning this with anyone else. Do we have an understanding?”
Mitch scratched his chin and frowned. “You don’t want to know where he is?”
“Ezra Standish is a valuable member of Larabee’s team. He has proven himself time and again, and to the toughest skeptic of all - to me. He is a first-rate agent and a decent man. At the moment, through no fault of his, his life is in danger…and the best way to protect him is if nobody knows where he is. And that includes me.” Although he suspected Larabee knew where his errant agent had disappeared to and that could be why Chris had been taken. He didn’t envy Larabee’s position at the moment. “We will continue to search for Chris, but not at Ezra’s detriment.”
Unfazed by Travis’ declaration, Ryan played with his tie. Team 7 was down another agent. Three, now – Standish, Dunne and Larabee. “I’m prepared to step into Chris’ shoes…his team needs direction.” This was the perfect opportunity.
“And Buck Wilmington will fill that role until Chris returns,” Travis dismissed, already punching numbers into the keypad to make a phone call.
Orin held his hand over the mouthpiece… “Yes, Mr. Wilmington.”
“But…if you give me a chance…I can prove to you that I would be the better choice.” Hell, Wilmington was docile…and certainly showed no inclination towards being a leader.
“This is not up for discussion!” AD Travis growled and immediately apologized into the phone. “Sorry, Carol…could you hold the line for a minute?”
Ryan was nothing if not persistent, but he knew when to pull back and wait. Can always push for Chris’ position later, when Wilmington has made a mess of things. “So, can I count on you for a recommendation to—?”
Ryan stood and sniffed. Orin would come round…after all he’d known Orin and Evie for years. As he left the Assistant Director’s office he called the cab company on his cell and accidentally bumped into the janitor who was emptying the wastepaper baskets. “Get out of the way, you clumsy oaf.” Why the hell can’t they clean up after hours, when the building’s empty? How pathetic, having to associate with the lower class.
Ryan didn’t return to Team 7’s office; in his opinion, he knew better than Wilmington and Travis. He knew that Standish was the key to finding Larabee. He took the elevator to the lobby and waited for the cab he’d arranged to pick him up. Ryan could have used his rental, but he planned on returning with Larabee’s vehicle – probably with Standish too. He knew where Standish was and made no secret of it, loudly announcing the address to the cabbie. It wasn’t his fault that all these idiots were hard of hearing. He had no qualms about sending the cab fee to accounts either.
Eugene Carmichael watched over the top of his newspaper as the Connecticut undercover agent climbed into a cab. Ryan hadn’t seen him, but he wouldn’t have recognized the CIA agent, nor expected him. Ryan was unimportant, he was technically a part of Team 7, but word around the building was that Larabee’s team didn’t trust him. He wouldn’t know anything. Carmichael watched the cab thread its way through the traffic and then resumed his staunch position pretending to read the paper. He’d wait all day if necessary. He’d learn something soon. He had men situated throughout the building; it was easier than bugging so many offices, and more reliable. One of Larabee’s team would slip up and they’d lead him to Ezra Standish.
Carmichael stood a little taller, welcoming the contact from one of his team. He nodded, listening to the small microphone in his ear. “Yeah,” he answered, “he’s just come down and jumped in a cab. Announced to the whole fucking world, where he was going.” He listened intently then swore, “Son of a bitch!” The CIA agent folded the newspaper and tossed it in the garbage can. Eugene talked into the mic again, unfazed by the curious looks he was garnering. “Garcia, I want you down here now. Forget about the trash, your job’s finished up there. Spencer, wait for Garcia. And Lewis? Pick me up.” He waited impatiently on the sidewalk and when the dark green Hummer turned onto 25th Avenue he jumped into the vehicle. He grimaced at the dark-skinned driver as they sped off into the rush hour traffic. “I’m gonna have that jackass’ badge when this is through.”
“Standish…I know you’re in there…Open up,” Ryan shouted from the patio.
Ezra flung the door open and grabbed Mitchell by his jacket hauling him inside. He glanced up the rain-swept street before slamming the door closed. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Ryan straightened his tie and smoothed down his coat. “Nice digs,” he commented conversationally. “Jackson and his partner’s names are on the deed. What are you doing here?”
“How did you find me?” Ezra queried, mentally running through options and wondering where he should go to next. If Ryan could find him then he wasn’t particularly safe…he needed to leave here immediately.
Ryan continued to wander through the house as though he was a potential buyer. “You didn’t exactly cover your tracks, Standish. And it was even easier discovering who owns this joint. Jackson even showed me snapshots of the place.”
“The others know I’m here?” Chris knows…but he wouldn’t have told Ryan…perhaps the Connecticut agent overheard Chris discussing his whereabouts with one of the others…but he’d asked Chris not to divulge that information. Although Larabee had been rather displeased with his decision to go into hiding.
Ryan scratched his beard and ran his hand along the balustrade. “They’ve got more important things to worry about.” But if the team had bothered to listen to him then they’d probably be closer to finding Larabee now. Serves them right for dismissing him as unimportant to the FBI, saying he’d have nothing pertinent to add to their investigation.
“I’d like you to leave. Get out!” Ezra glared at Ryan’s back.
“A little touchy, aren’t you? The only reason I’m here is to do my job. And seeing as Wilmington is not leadership material…” And this would put him in a more favorable light with Orin and Chris, when he returned.
Ezra squeezed the bridge of his nose in confusion. Huh? What has Buck got to do with Ryan being here?
“…If you kept in contact with your team…then you would’ve known.”
“Known what? What the hell are you implying?”
“I am here in an official capacity…I need a statement from you regarding your conversation with Chris Larabee last night.”
Ezra’s mouth twitched upwards. How did Ryan know about his conversation with Chris? And what difference did it make? And why…? The Southerner frowned suspiciously at the undercover agent and then at the front door that trembled under a barrage of knocking. “Did you bring company?”
Ryan shrugged and rolled his lips. Good God who was he expecting? “It’s probably kids selling cookies.” Ryan in his usual, egotistical way; assumed he was just too good to have been followed. He walked past Standish to open the door.
“Don’t!” Ezra rushed forward, knowing that nobody would be out selling anything in the drizzling rain. He pulled up quickly, never reaching the door. “Shit!” he dove over the back of the couch and rolled to the floor to avoid the short burst of gunfire that followed several gunmen entering the house. Hell! Damn, Ryan! Ezra lay flat on the carpet, wincing as bullets ripped into the walls.
Then it was quiet. All he could hear was his heart pounding wildly. “Ryan?” he hissed, hoping the other agent had not been caught in the blast, but knew that would be deluding himself. Standish pulled his 9mm Sig Sauer from the back of his belt and crawled around the end of the sofa. He gave a short start seeing Ryan down, his chest covered in blood. Hell! This shouldn’t have happened. He brought his weapon up quickly, bringing it to bear on the gunman nearest him. He didn’t need to turn to know that he had been targeted by more than the one he had in his sights. His skin tingled and he wondered what they were waiting for.
“You want to beg?”
Ezra stared straight into the barrel of a revolver, his own weapon pointing back at the gunman in the green ski mask. Another clicked behind him and he caught a shadow off to his right, too. “No. Go to hell!” he answered defiantly. He grimaced as another intruder shoved a gun barrel in his ear and carefully removed Ezra’s Sig from his grip. He didn’t want to give it up, but if it gave him an extra few minutes…he reluctantly released it.
“Not even for him?”
Standish glanced at the sprawled agent and sighed, looking back up at dark brown eyes that exposed the intruder’s emotions. Standish saw no compassion there. And Ryan had to be dead. “Is he alive?”
The gunman shrugged, turned the revolver on the downed agent and fired. Craig wanted Standish dead, but he didn’t say anything about any others…but there’d be no way he’d want to leave any witnesses.
“NO!” Ezra screamed and threw himself at the masked man, heedless of the weapons trained on him. He pushed the gunman back, but was struck on the head and shoved aside by another. He hadn’t been fast enough and another bullet had struck Ryan. Mitchell Ryan lay motionless by the door, not even flinching as the final bullet found flesh. Standish had to consider that the Connecticut agent may be dead already. He came up slowly to his knees and stared up, again, into the revolver. His eyes widened as he watched in slow motion the chamber turn and click. His time had run out.
“Too late,” the gunman mocked and he squeezed the trigger tight. A single shot rippled through the suburban house and blood spattered on the tiles.