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Had you passed the warehouse, its unlikely you would have noticed it. That's half the reason it was used; neither large nor small, located with many others like it and deep enough into an industrial area that no one would notice the strange men who passed through. What more could a importer of illegal merchandise ask? The warehouse had seen a million crimes take place. It had witnessed the passage of stolen goods and guns, it had seen assault and murder, there had even been an arson attempt. Tonight it was to have been the sale of narcotics to a major dealer. Instead, what would take place was something new... tonight there would be some semblance of justice.
As he waited in a northerly warehouse, Agent Chris Larabee remembered the message he had received informing him of the sale. L, Merry Christmas. Early, I realise, but I'm certain you'll appreciate your gift..., S. After a month of working the fringes of the import business, his group's undercover specialist had been invited to one of the biggest deals Larabee had ever heard of. Say what you want about the man, Ezra Standish was a damn good agent. The information he had supplied - names, dates, places - would soon see the downfall of a major illegal import concern and one of its best customers. A very merry Christmas, even if it was July.
Assembled in the warehouse with Larabee was half of a fifty man raiding party. The group were mixed bag of ATF, FBI and Denver PD officers. A lot of people had an interest in seeing this bust go well. The FBI, in particular, had been after the drug dealer for years. He was a cagey type, no agent had managed to get close to him and a few had even died trying. Chris couldn't help being a little smug that his agent had gotten in.
Next to Larabee, a young agent fidgeted, checking over his weaponry for the hundredth time, making sure it was loaded. Chris frowned. Tanner was not usually one to get nervous. A sharpshooter, he could sit for hours, waiting for the shot. Tonight, something was bothering him.
"You right there, Cowboy?"
Tanner shot his boss a dirty look, then chose to ignore the name they teased each other with. "I'll be better once we get going," he replied, in a soft, but urgent voice. "What the hell is taking so long?"
Larabee shrugged. The deal was being monitored, via a wire Standish wore, by two of Larabee's agents in a nearby van. When it was time, they would contact the raiding parties by radio and give the signal to move. Until then, the agents were stuck with no idea of what was going on.
"Ezra knows what he's doing. Besides, if anything went wrong, Josiah and Nate would get us in there in no time."
Chris wasn't telling his friend anything he didn't already know. No news was good news. Vin just had this awful feeling about the raid. Everything had gone a little too well. The group were ready for some bad luck and Vin didn't want anyone, especially Ezra, in so vulnerable a position when that bad luck showed.
"Just radio the van, will ya? See what's happening."
Larabee shook his head. "Radio silence until we're told to move. You know that."
Vin made a face. He did know that. Maybe he just wanted the raid cancelled, wanted everyone to go home, while they still had their skins in tact. The former bounty hunter shook this idea off. Just another bust, Vin, it'll be fine.
Vin didn't usually ignore his intuitions. He had an uncanny way of knowing the direction a situation was taking. It had proved very useful to him in the past. Vin had grown up around the rougher parts of society. Even now, his apartment was in the most notorious gang area in Denver. While on his own, Vin had allowed himself to be guided completely by his sixth sense and it had kept him alive and sane. As a law enforcement officer, Tanner conceded, a person needed a better excuse that it feels wrong to call something off.
Had Ezra been there, it would have been different. Somehow, the sneaky, double-dealing undercover seemed to have acquired the same talent as Tanner. He could see through people like they were water, yet remained as impenetrable as a brick wall, himself. Vin could conceive that maybe he was wrong about this foreboding, but, had Ezra felt the same thing, Vin would've known he was right. Without that backup, Vin could only sit and wait. Absently, he checked his guns for the one hundred and first time.
JD refused to sit still. This was the part he lived for. Not that the young agent was trigger happy; on the contrary, he had been with the ATF for a couple of years, now, and had seen how dangerous these situations could be, should something go wrong. JD was an idealist and the raid was when he saw his efforts make a difference. The research was tolerable and the detective work occasionally fun, but going in there and arresting the bad guys was what the job was all about.
JD had been assigned to the raiding team concealed the southern warehouse. The idea was that, once the signal was given, the two teams would enter the target building from both the north and south doors, trapping their quarry in the middle. Agents would remain outside, to take any sentries posted and ensure no one from the warehouse slipped out, but chances of escaping the pincer action from two such large teams were small. It was a very good plan.
Buck Wilmington, JD's best friend, was leading the second team. It made him nervous, to say the least. He sat, silent, by the radio, listening for the signal. He was terrified he would miss it and ruin all the hours of work that had gone into the bust. Hell, if things didn't move like clockwork, someone could get killed. Tension flooded through Buck's body. Why had Chris assigned him leader? Why not Josiah or Nathan? All Buck wanted to do was tease JD about his excessive enthusiasm and laugh with the other agents about the kid's stupid hat. JD. Knowing my luck he'd be the one got killed... hey, was that the signal? Buck quietly laughed at himself. He was jumping at every crackle of static.
"What's so funny, Buck?"
"Nothin', Kid. Except, of course, you looking like it's your birthday and someone just handed you a million dollars," Buck had to relax and teasing his young friend was a sure-fire way of doing it.
"It's better that sittin' there, looking like someone just shot your dog," countered JD.
"Well, you know, when someone gives you responsibility, you gotta take it real serious. You'll find out, when you grow up."
JD scowled, but it was half-hearted. Buck's teasing got on his nerves, but his silence was worse. At least the teasing was normal. "Why should I wait 'till I grow up? You didn't."
Buck laughed and took a swipe at the kid, who ducked away, escaping by an inch. Normally, Wilmington would have continued the chase, but tonight, his nerves somewhat steadied, he returned his attention to the radio.
It was in Nathan Jackson's nature to worry about his friends. Having been trained as a medic in the Gulf War, he was always first to see to their bullet wounds, to tell the group how badly a team member had been hurt or translate the medical jargon thrown at them while they sat in hospital waiting rooms. In Nathan's opinion, he had every right to be overprotective - other people's injuries were hard work for him. However, listening to the southern undercover speak through the headphones made Jackson acutely aware of how far away Ezra was. Nate would not be there, should something go wrong. Ezra was on his own.
Nathan sat listening to the signal transmitted from a wire sewn into Ezra's shirt. The signal was weak and Nathan had to turn the volume up high. The background noise coming through the headphones hid a lot of the conversation. Later, he would have to dampen that down.
"Come on, Standish, just a bit closer to the action."
The undercover was as close as he could get, without drawing attention to himself. In fact, knowing Standish, he was probably a little closer than was safe. Nathan suspected Ezra got a real buzz out of undercover work. The charming agent spent his whole life manipulating those around him to suit his own purposes. Undercover, he got to put those somewhat dubious talents of his to good use. On a case, Ezra would put everything on the line to get the best approach to the suspect, the right piece of evidence. If something went wrong, Standish could always talk his way out of it. So far, this approach had not got the agent killed, but Nate was worried it was a matter of time.
Nathan Jackson did not understand his colleague at all. At the start of their relationship, his opinion of the man swung between disgust at his blatant disregard for others to admiration for his professional ability. Rationally, Nathan suspected Ezra was neither criminal nor hero; he was just another human being, living his life and doing the job as best he could. It was this human being for whom Jackson now feared.
Josiah Sanchez entered the van, baring steaming coffee and sandwiches from the nearby deli. "I miss anything?"
Jackson shook his head and took one of the cups of coffee. The two had been listening to the wire for four hours, now. Certainly not a marathon effort, but enough to warrant a caffeine hit.
Josiah picked up his set of headphones and resumed the vigil. "If you need a break, I can take care of this for a while."
Nathan shook his head, again. Although his tall frame needed a stretch and his head ached from sitting in the close, dark space, he did not want to leave his post. While he could hear the southerner talk and move, he was okay, everything was going to plan.
Josiah understood his partner's need to keep his ear of proceedings. Sanchez, too, hated being a fly-on-the-wall, unable to alter the situation he monitored. He hated that his friend was at risk, while he, himself, was safe. Ezra Standish was certainly one of a kind. Unlike Jackson, Josiah had never even tried to understand Ezra. There were too many pieces which didn't fit together. Instead, Josiah tolerated the man's bouts of self absorption, revelled in his acts of kindness and returned what friendship was offered, unconditionally.
As Sanchez listened, the signal became stronger. Ezra had found a way to move closer the the dealer's conversation. Josiah hoped he wasn't risking too much.
Ezra had been feeling pretty pleased with himself, when he had sent that message to Chris. It would be a major sale, an important bust, and not just anyone could have gotten an invitation, especially after only a month. He wished he could deliver the message in person. Larabee had taken a risk in signing the former FBI misfit to his group. In return, Ezra worked hard to deserve that chance. He actually enjoyed providing his boss with results; payment of a debt.
Instead, Ezra had to settle for attending the inter-agency meeting, held the evening before the bust. The ATF and FBI both wanted to be running the show. Both had contributed large amounts of information to the investigation and both needed convictions for the two ringleaders. Ezra had watched, silent, as representatives from both parties argued for position. DA Travis also sat in silence, as he assessed each alternative.
"Our operatives have been working on the drug ring for years. We have hundreds of thousands of man-hours invested." whined the head of the FBI investigation.
"We have just as much to lose, if you screw up the importer bust," returned Larabee. The look on his face showed he had every intention of leading this raid. Were Ezra a betting man, his money would have been on the ATF.
"The information we have on both suspects far outweighs yours. We've had eleven undercovers involved over five years!"
"Sure, but ours got in," Larabee smiled.
Ezra couldn't believe his ears. Larabee was gloating. He was actually participating in the sordid cross-agency rivalry and he was playing dirty. Well, well, you are full of surprises. Standish decided to help. "If I may draw your attention to one small detail, District Attorney Travis?" the DA nodded, "I will be participating in this production blind; while my own actions will be scrutinised thoroughly, I will have no way of monitoring the actions of my colleagues. I believe my familiarity with Agent Larabee's methods would prove advantageous, should an anomalous factor alter the pre-existing formulation."
The judge nodded, Larabee grinned and the FBI agent looked confused, as if still trying to unravel the undercover's words. Exactly what Standish had intended.
Ezra stood amongst the importer's goons, hoping things went as well, tonight. So far, so good; they had made it to the warehouse without any complications. The bosses were discussing inconsequential things, the weather, etc., while their sentries and bodyguards made one last look around the building. All in all, there were at least twenty men present, maybe more, so they made short work of sweeping the warehouse. Ezra had managed to position himself behind the importer, where the sale could be closely monitored by Nathan and Josiah.
"So, you have some merchandise for me? Might I see it?" began the dealer, greed glinting in his eyes.
The importer looked around for his nearest subordinate. "Stewart, get a bag of the merchandise and give it to our esteemed associate."
Ezra couldn't believe his luck. By asking him to get the drugs, not only was the boss providing him with an excuse to stand right in the middle of the action, he was enabling him to get a close look at what Ezra liked to think of as "Exhibit A". Ezra handed the bag to the dealer, who slit it open with a pen knife. Ezra stepped back, as the dealer tasted a small amount of the powder. By the look on his face, this was quality stuff, but, before he could comment, a messenger from one of his sentries came and whispered in his ear.
"I believe we have a problem," the dealer began, fury simmering in his voice. He motioned for the dealer to move closer and the two turned away from their employees. They talked in hushed voices, which Ezra knew the wire would not pick up clearly.
"I'm sure it's not with the merchandise. I tried it, myself, before I agreed to sell it," the importer was indignant.
The dealer shook his head. "Not the merchandise, the company. There's a surveillance van two blocks south of here."
"I hope you don't think I have anything..."
The dealer shook his head. The importer had a thing or two to learn, but he was a crook. The dealer was sure of this. "Do you have any new men? Anyone you're not entirely sure of?"
The importer furrowed his brow, then it came to him; Stewart. He had only known the man two months, but Stewart had known about the deal from the start. The importer had thought him ambitious and shrewd, but, in hindsight, it was clear who the undercover was. Furious, he turned and aimed the gun at his betrayer, as Standish stood there, helpless, speechless.
The gun fired once. The dealer, seeing what his associate was about to do, tried to stop him, grabbing his arm and pushing it down. The last thing they needed was gunfire in the warehouse. Stupid damn importers. Not a brain between them. It was too late, however, the trigger had been pulled. The only thing changed by the dealer's actions; the bullet entered Ezra's stomach, rather than his head.
Nathan and Josiah sat, tensed, desperately trying to make out the whispered conversation over the wire. Josiah watched his partner frown, as his concentration deepened. They both jumped when the gun went off.
Josiah grabbed the radio, "Teams one and two, move now. I repeat, move now." He continued reciting this mantra a few more times, as his whole being was drowned in adrenaline.
The two teams entered the warehouse at almost the same time. The place was chaos, every crook for himself. None got through the descending wall of law enforcement agents. Within minutes, dealers and importers were cuffed and lined up against the wall, like ducks in a shooting gallery. Larabee and Wilmington approached each other, meeting the centre of the room.
"You find Ezra?" Buck asked, the success of his first major command overshadowed by fear for his friend.
Chris shook his head. He turned to Vin, who stood, distracted, to the side. "You and the rest of the team find Standish. The FBI can have the privilege of cleaning this lot up."
Exactly what the younger agent wanted to hear. He was off in a flash, rounding up JD, as well as Josiah and Nate, who had abandoned the van after the raid. It was two hours before they found their fallen friend.
Ezra had been stunned when first he was shot. There had been no pain, only surprise and panic. Then, suddenly, burning agony swept over him, making him dizzy, choking off his very breath. He heard the crash of the doors fly open and knew the raid was on. He also knew he stood no chance if he remained in the middle of the ensuing stampede. Even if he weren't trampled to death, some spiteful criminal could use him for target practise. Clutching his stomach, trying not to drip blood, he had dragged himself over to a stack of crates piled in a corner. He crawled behind the crates and propped himself up against a wall. Leaning heavily, he sat and waited, passing in and out of consciousness.
"Oh, God, I've found him. Nate, get over here, now!" Vin scrambled over the crates, pushing them away, with a crash. Ezra opened his eyes to see the sharpshooter kneeling over him, trying to stop the flow of blood from his stomach. The fear on Vin's face was obvious. All he could see was the blood. So much blood oozing slowly between the agent's fingers, pooling, thick and red, on the floor. Somehow, the blood had managed to get on the undercover's face and in his hair, staining the whole area. The wounded agent stared, mute, his green eyes accentuated by the red.
Nathan rushed over and, pushing Vin aside, knelt by the agent. He helped Standish lie down flat and began his examination. The bullet had entered and exited on the left side of Ezra's abdomen, about an inch above the hip. "This is okay. It looks like a lot of blood, but a wound like this will take days to kill you," using a bandage he had stolen from the warehouse manager's first aid kit, Nathan put pressure on the wound.
"Are you sure?"
"Oh, yeah. It's just a gut wound. I doubt anything major has been hit. It's too low for the spleen or pancreas. Kidney, maybe, but you don't really need both of those."
"Hurts," moaned Ezra.
"Yeah, I'll bet," replied Jackson, dismissively. To Vin he said, "see? He's awake and everything. Intestinal wounds bleed slowly and constantly and hurt like hell, but they take a real long time to kill you."
"Oh, okay," Vin nodded. If Nathan was sure, he was never wrong.
"Oh my God," gasped JD as he approached the scene. His eyes grew big with horror.
"It's okay," Vin reassured his friend, "he's even awake enough to give us dirty looks."
The paramedics, having finished with all the other wounded, arrived at Ezra's side. Within minutes, he was in an ambulance, headed for the hospital.
Nathan's diagnosis turned out to be correct. In surgery, the hole in Ezra's abdomen was patched. Within a few weeks of treatment, any infection of the wound or peritoneal cavity had been wiped out. Ezra returned to work in a little over a month, very little the worse for wear.
Ezra wandered through the office, returning smiles and greetings, as if in a dream. With all he had been through, he couldn't believe he hadn't quit, already. He sat down at his desk to a mountain of paperwork. Why did he bother?
At the top of the mountain was a handwritten request from Larabee. S, Welcome back. I'm keeping you off fieldwork for another few weeks. I'm sure you have enough paperwork to keep you busy. I need that warehouse report yesterday. Merry Christmas, L... Ezra snorted. He knew that remark would come back to haunt him. ...PS You scare me like that again, I'll shoot you, myself With a grin, Ezra attacked the mountain.
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