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Dissecting the Toad
AN: "Addicted to Bass" belongs to Daemion/Abrahams (copyright 1998 Prozaac Recordings) and "Into Temptation" belongs to Neil Finn (copyright 1996 Capitol Records).
A muddle of nervous words could never amount to betrayal.
The sentence is all my own and the price is to watch it fail.
As I turned to go, you looked at me for half a second.
With an open invitation for me to go...
Into temptation, knowing full well the earth will rebel.
Into temptation, safe in the wide-open arms of hell.
Chris Larabee had hoped to arrest Ezra Standish, himself. At very least, he had wanted one of his own team to catch up with the undercover agent, preferably away from the other targets. Had things gone to plan, the arrest would have been a simple matter of "Hey, Ez, long time, no see..." and a short trip to the local police station. At worst, a few hours in a holding cell.
Things had not gone to plan. The ATF agent had been taken by a small group of local officers, in the presence of one of the main suspects. As witnessed by Vin Tanner, Standish had seen fit to resist. He had been through the formalities of arrest, just as the suspects had, and now sat in one of the interview rooms, awaiting debriefing.
Please, don't let this be an interrogation, Chris thought, as he approached the interview room at the end of the hall.
Many of the agents who filed into the interview room were Larabee's superiors. Among them the ATF, FBI and Denver PD were all represented. Aware of his position, Chris kept to the rear of the group. Any chance he had of gaining control of the situation depended on him keeping his head down and his mouth shut.
Ezra paced the interview room, rubbing the bruise forming on his brow. He had not been struck hard; obviously the arresting officers had known who he was and why he had resisted. He had feared his companion, Cassandra, would cause trouble, but, when finally they were caught, she had cooperated. Ezra couldn't help but be grateful for that.
"Good evening, Gentlemen," Standish greeted his inquisitors. It felt good to use his native accent, even if the southern tones had become somewhat unfamiliar. It had been six months since he had last employed them.
"Agent Standish," the man who stepped forward was an Assistant Director of the FBI, "Please, sit."
Standish took a seat, disguising a growing sense of trepidation with a deliberately casual manner. Before him sat one of the most powerful individuals in the FBI, his large, sagging form a poor reminder of the fit young agent he had been. Bureaucrat though he now was, he remained formidable. Around this powerful individual stood at least ten others.
Nervous now, Ezra searched through the group for a familiar presence. Larabee stood by the door, avoiding Standish's glance. "This certainly seems a large congregation for a simple debriefing," Ezra began.
"A great many people have a stake in this, Agent," the FBI man's cool response heightened Ezra's discomfort, "after all, this has become both a lengthy and costly operation. However, I am confident that it will pay off. Your work has been excellent and we have sufficient evidence on all four targets to begin prosecution."
All four targets. Ezra had wished at least one innocent.
"Now all we have to do is identify the suppliers," FBI smiled a thick, sloppy smile, while Ezra's breath caught in this throat, "to this end we will be interviewing Conners, Smythe, Jennings and Jameson tonight. They will be released on bail, in the morning. You, too, will be released, following debriefing. Upon resuming your cover, you will be expected to find out as much as possible concerning business associates, supply lines..."
"Excuse me, Sir," the words fell out of the undercover's mouth, almost too quickly, "am I to understand that I am still assigned to this operation? That I am to continue this already protracted charade, indefinitely?" again, Ezra sought Larabee's reaction. The veteran agent appeared almost as surprised as Standish, himself.
The FBI man seemed annoyed by the interruption. He knew little of the undercover's history and cared less. Ezra's position within the import company made him a valuable source of both information and physical evidence. Every man in the room had a great deal riding on his ability to do his job. The possibility that Standish was either ill trained or ill equipped to sustain deep cover did not bare consideration. "Yes, Agent Standish. You will maintain the guise of Alexander Mitchell until otherwise instructed."
"All we need are their main suppliers," Larabee could no longer take a back seat, "do you have any information at all that might lead us to them?"
Standish shook his head. He had been feeding evidence back to the ATF, but much of it had been encrypted, or required further analysis to be of use. "You have all I have."
"There was mention of several individuals in both the audio-tapes and accounting records you sent, but not enough to warrant further action," the Assistant Director's frown produced a proliferation of chins beneath his jaw, "I've wondered why you did not follow up on those leads, before now."
"My targets were the insiders..."
"Such a limited approach? Why not exploit your position to the full?"
"Dealing with four targets within the one organisation is no small task, particularly if you wish to continue breathing..."
"Surely you must..."
"Enough," underling though he was, Larabee's tone silenced the room, "we need evidence. Of the suspects we have, which might roll over?"
Ezra hesitated, as the feeling, which had begun as trepidation, grew into dread. "To save their own skins? Any of them might. I suppose, however, you would be disinclined to deal with Conners or Smythe?" Larabee nodded; Conners and Smythe were prize catches, "Jennings is a heroin addict; he would make a poor witness..."
"That leaves Jameson."
"Cass Jameson is an intelligent woman. Make her the right offer and she will take it."
The rest of the conversation was a blur to Ezra. He would never remember what was said, only that the operation was not over and that he had handed them Cass as a witness. Not for the first time in his life, Standish saw his career flash before his eyes.
When finally the crowd began to filter out, Chris was the last to leave. "JD will be in the debrief you."
Ezra nodded, staring at the table before him and fingering the bump on his head. As Larabee turned to open the door, Ezra looked up. "Six months is a long time."
His northern accent sounded somehow fitting.
Josiah Sanchez wandered down the corridor, toward the first door on the right. In the end, Team 7 had acquired the task of interrogating the suspects with very little complaint from the other agencies. After all, who knew the case better than Larabee?
As he opened the door to the interview room, Josiah could feel the presence of its inhabitant, almost as a physical entity. Francis Conners had an aura about him capable of filling a room. His appearance, his sense of style, his very essence screamed affluence. This man personified charisma.
Josiah was raised the son of a Missionary, his childhood peppered with such simplistic catch phrases as "believe and ye shall be saved". While Sanchez, himself, had long since abandoned blind faith, he retained the idea that power was derived from within. He was little impressed by the expensive coal dress-suit or the slick manners of the man before him. Chris had matched interviewer and subject well.
"So, Mr. Conners..." Josiah exhaled as he flicked through the folder he had brought with him, "I do believe you are in a little trouble."
"I have no intention of answering any questions, without a lawyer present."
Josiah smiled. "I don't suppose you refer to Ms. Jameson. I'm afraid she's a bit busy at the moment, also."
Conners did not move in his chair, but a shadow of discomfort swept across his face. Obviously, he was not thrilled with the idea of Cassandra Jameson being interviewed. "Ms. Jameson? No, no. Ms. Jameson is the company's commercial lawyer. My own, personal lawyer is one Arnold Richmond. I would appreciate it if he were made aware of my current situation."
"Whatever you say," Josiah rose and went to the door. An officer standing by the room took the name of the lawyer and Josiah resumed his seat. "What would you like to do while we wait for him, Mr. Conners? Or can I call you Frank?"
If Josiah had hoped Conners would flinch at this overt familiarity, he was disappointed. Rather, Conners smiled a somewhat condescending smile and said nothing. His manner toward the ATF agent was as an entomologist to a bug; Josiah was colourful, interesting in a bizarre way, but deserving of no more that being impaled on a pin and stuck in a display case.
"How about we take a look at this folder I've brought with me," again, Josiah turned his attention to the large volume.
"I assume you realise that, until my lawyer arrives, anything I say will be inadmissible in court," Conners, in fact, assumed no such thing. He frankly wondered where on earth the ATF had found this leftover hippy and how many of the aforementioned hippy's brain cells had survived the sixties. The federal agencies must really be scraping the bottom of the barrel, these days. Richmond will make mince-meat of this.
Josiah smiled. "Oh, that's alright. I'll probably to most of the talking, anyway."
Casually, Josiah leafed through the pages, skimming the text and nodding his head, as if reviewing a well-remembered book. "Ah, here's a good bit. Let me see..." Josiah cleared his throat and began to read aloud, "'In the next financial year, I believe it might be advantageous to maximise on our more lucrative activities. It may be that cutting back on our traditional trade might be in order...'"
"What, exactly, is contained in that folder, Agent?" Conners' manner remained aloof, but his voice and eyes both carried a disquiet they had not previously held.
"Transcripts, Mr. Conners, of board meetings. Recognise them? I've listened to the original tapes and I seem to hear your voice a lot."
"Indeed I do not recognise them, but, if they are as you say, I must insist you tell me how you laid your hands on such material."
Josiah shook his head and shot Conners a sly grin. "I'm afraid I can't answer any questions without my lawyer present."
Conners rolled his eyes and settled back into the hard plastic chair he occupied. Josiah couldn't help but feel a little smug. First blood was his. Now who's the bug and who's the bug-catcher?
"Would you like me to read you some more, Mr. Conners?" Josiah flicked through a few more pages, "how about this? 'Accounts being held by our new clientele have been doing very well. We have seen a net increase of 62% on our initial investment over a nine-month period. We might do well to consider re-directing our money back into these particular industries...'"
"Fascinating, Agent," as he listened to more of Josiah's recitation, Conners mind began to whirr. He had always been careful never to mention client names or actual criminal acts in the boardroom. A naturally cautious man, he had kept such details out of his subordinates' reach, as a matter of protocol. Even his peers had preferred these things remain unstated. An inferior man, with a less experienced lawyer, might have fallen victim to such a ploy, but not Francis Conners. "I begin to see why you would feel the need to coax my co-operation. I mean, really, the passages you read might be taken from any board meeting. As a matter of fact, it is hardly surprising I don't remember them - they are decidedly forgettable."
Josiah chuckled. The man was clutching at straws. "Absolutely, Mr. Conners. If this were all we had to go on, you would be a free man. But it isn't. We have bank statements, accounting records and shipping records, all with your company's name on them. We even have statements from you former legitimate clients concerning cancelled contracts and misdirected cargo. We know what your lucrative activities are and we know about your new clientele."
A shiver passed down Conners' spine. "If you can prove all, then why do you feel the need to recite from such a superfluous document as you have in your hand?"
Josiah's grin graced his grizzled face, revealing the agent's pleasure at his next words. "Because this superfluous document proves that you know. This document is why you, personally, will end up spending a great deal of time in prison."
Silence. Josiah could see the idea of prison sinking into Conners' consciousness. It was not a pleasant site. The darkness and dank stench seemed to blanket the man, ahead of time. Just for a moment, the formerly strong and engaging face seemed to crumble and fade.
"Agent, I am a very influential man. Money can procure many things, be they possessions or protection. Money such as mine can buy justice."
"I'm sure that's true, Mr. Conners, though I'm not sure you could bribe a judge to ignore this kind of evidence. That could cost him his job."
Reflexively, Conners straightened in his chair, trying to assume a dignified pose. "I was not speaking of bribery. However, I assure you, my legal advice will be second to none."
Josiah smiled. "And those very talented professionals will advise you to plead guilty. You're right. That's justice."
A knock was heard on the door. Richmond had arrived. Josiah turned to acknowledge the officer who stuck his head in. "Alright, son, we're almost done, here."
"Almost done?" Conners' voice was weaker than it had previously been, "I cannot think of anything more you might have to say."
"You might just be able to make things easy on yourself. We have you and we have the company, but we want your contacts."
Conners shook his head, sighing. "An interesting thought, but I doubt revealing sources would do much for my state of health."
Josiah scrutinised the man before him. So large when they had first met, now so small. Such a man would never risk making the kind of enemies cooperation with the ATF would create. Much to his amazement, Josiah felt his elation turn to pity. "I see gold makes poor armour, Brother Frank."
Josiah left the former CEO to converse with this lawyer.
Chris stood in the corridor, waiting for Josiah to finish. "How did we do?" he asked, an edge in his voice betraying some of anxiety he felt.
Josiah shook his head. "He's scared, alright. He all but confessed, right there. He won't be any trouble, once he's talked to his lawyer."
"But he won't give up any contacts?"
"Like I said, he's scared," the ATF agent furrowed his brow, staring at the door of the interview room, "he just hasn't got it in him. The man has only just realised how truly mortal he is."
Chris nodded his head. While he had never wanted to cut Conners a deal, he was even less inclined to prolong the investigation. It had to end that night. "One down, three to go."
Buck had noticed Margaret Smythe as she was shown in. In truth, everyone had; she was a striking woman. Her poise and breeding accompanied by all the trimmings wealth could offer could turn just about any head. But then, Buck's head turned quite readily, anyway. She glanced up at him as he entered the interview room, then refocussed her attention on her hand, which she had placed flat, palm down on the rickety table before her.
"I trust, Officer, that my lawyer has been contacted. I did supply his name and contact number as I was shown in."
"Then I'm sure someone has gotten onto it, Ma'am, and that's Wilmington. Agent Buck Wilmington."
Margaret looked up, the tiniest hint of flirtation in Buck's voice attracting her attention. Much about the man before her attracted her attention. A few years younger than herself, perhaps, but she had worked her magic on younger, still. His eyes carried the same sense of fun his voice had betrayed. "Buck. That's an unusual name."
"Well, yes Ma'am. I'm an unusual person."
I'll bet you are. Smythe drew herself up and hooked one leg over the other. In spite of the slippery plastic chair in which she sat, she managed to maintain both grace and dignity. The skirt of her short, black dress sat a little higher of her leg. "Really, Buck, you must call me Margaret. I'll not be content until you do."
Buck smiled he most congenial smile and leaned back in his chair. "So, Margaret, how are you doing, this fine evening?"
She rolled her eyes. "Buck, my dear, if you're going to try and wheedle information out of me before my lawyer arrives, at least do it with some finesse."
"Apologies, Ma'am, I was just making conversation, while we wait for your lawyer."
"Really," she allowed her eyes to wander around the interview room. There was little to see. The walls were painted white, the table a metallic grey. A few stickers and posters adorned the walls, sporting safety slogans, or advising inhabitants of the nearest fire escape. Her eye caught on one small sign, stuck at eye level, by the door. Your right to smoke is respected, your decision not to is appreciated.
"Do you mind, Buck, if I smoke?"
"Not at all."
She made a show of looking for her cigarettes, then turned a hopeful gaze on her captor. "It seems my store has gone astray. Do you think I might borrow one?"
Buck shook his head. "Sorry, Ma'am, don't smoke."
She frowned, then sighed. "Now, Buck, whatever happened to Margaret?"
Buck chuckled, "sorry, Ma'am, I forgot."
She smiled slyly and regarded him through lowered eyelashes. "Then I will have to make you remember. It shouldn't be too difficult. After all, men being men, you do have a weakness," an arrogance in her manner betrayed her as a woman used to accumulating information, "all I need to do is ferret it out and you will have to do as I say." She waved her hand at him with a flourish and silently wished for that cigarette - the trail of smoke would have appeared wonderfully exotic.
"All men, Margaret?" Buck grinned, "do tell."
She lowered her eyelashes at him, half playfully. "Still wheedling, I see. You are making more of an effort, however." She turned the idea over in her mind and decided there was little harm in spilling this particular secret. None to herself, anyway. If nothing else, it would divert his attention until her lawyer arrived. "Well, I say all men have a weakness, but, of course, that's not true. Most have at least three or four. The really interesting men out there can have up to ten."
"Really interesting, huh?" his smile encouraged her to elaborate.
"Why, yes. The more flawed a man is, and the more colourful his flaws, the better. Take my follow detainees, for instance," she knew this would pique his interest, "Francis Conners wants his finger on the trigger and half the world in his pocket, which pretty much makes him dull as wood. That boy, Jennings, wants to be the wiseguy on television, living the high-life, always getting the girl. What a shame he's such a worm. As for Mitchell..." she paused, collecting her thoughts, "Alexander Mitchell wants everything he doesn't have and more of what he does. There's an interesting man."
Buck was surprised. Knowing Ezra, with his expensive suits and fast car, Buck might have guessed this, himself. The persona the undercover had adopted possessed none of these things. "Really? I saw him when they brought him in, but Mitchell didn't seem like the filthy-rich, has-everything type."
She laughed a smooth, breathy laugh. She enjoyed extolling her feminine knowledge and this man's interest seemed to be growing by the second. Not surprising, of course. How often would an ATF agent come in contact with a woman of her quality? "My dear Buck, some men want possessions and power for show, but not all. And a clever man does nothing unless it suits his purpose."
Buck nodded, his smile faltering only slightly. A clever man does nothing unless it suits his purpose. This woman had Ezra pinned too well. "Tell me something, Margaret. If Mr Mitchell doesn't believe in throwing his weight around, how do you know he has it?"
"Naturally, I don't know he has it," again she focused on her outstretched hand. Leaning forward, she examined her fingernails, as if the fate of the world lay in her cuticles, "but he and I have completed certain... transactions," she glanced up at Buck, coyly, ensuring she had his attention, "for example, one may wish to know something about another individual within the company. Alex can get that kind of information. Maybe you require particular security measures. Alex may or may not oblige. Its not blackmail, understand. One chooses how one deals with their employees. However, if the loyalty of a man such as Alex Mitchell might be bought, one would be foolish not to pay up."
Outwardly, Buck appeared to be absorbing this information. Inwardly, his mind raced. How much of this was true and how should he deal with it? Perhaps she was just bluffing - stalling for time - but what if she wasn't?
The woman sitting across from him shifted in her chair, vainly trying to shield her face from the harsh lighting of the interview room. The lines around her mouth and eyes deepened as she threw him a flirtatious smile. "So tell me, Agent Wilmington, is that against the law? To exact special treatment with money or influence?"
"I can't rightly say; commerce ain't my area of expertise," Buck hoped she did not notice the tightness of his voice, "he might just be on the right track... so long as he isn't a federal agent, that is."
She smiled. This Wilmington would make a worthwhile ally. Bribing him would have made the whole business a little easier, but she had not really expected him to accept it. No, he was far more open to charm.
"Tell me something, Margaret, does this special treatment include have guards rostered to drive you around."
Margaret faltered, a little, before answering, "Not exactly. After all, I am a major shareholder - that, in itself, buys influence. However, having Alex on side makes it easier."
Buck watched as she nervously ran a hand over her hair. Lacquer and an armoury of pins ensured the immaculate french roll had not a hair out of place. Causally, he wondered if her hair ever moved.
"Mitchell would also make sure you got the guard you wanted, I suppose?"
She didn't answer.
"I'll take that as a 'yes'," he continued, "you see, we've been noticing a pattern in your choice of drivers. One takes you out to see your nephew, one to... well, we needn't go into that," Buck gave her a mischievous smile, "and one just drives you around, while you make telephone calls."
The multiple layers of foundation covering her face could not hide the change in her complexion. "I... I have not idea what you mean," she faltered.
Buck nodded. "No need to talk about that, now. Your lawyer will be here, soon. We can talk, then."
Fury crossed her eyes, as panic overtook her. "We will not. I refuse to have my family name slandered by any petty police concern. I am sure my lawyer will agree."
"I doubt it," Buck replied, lightly, "keeping you mouth shut will only get you in deeper."
"I don't care," she hissed, "no Smythe will ever admit to wrong-doing, as long as I am alive."
Buck closed the door behind him and turned to give his report.
"She gonna cooperate?" Chris got in, first.
"Nope. A real piece of work, that one. Intends to plead innocent, all the way to the gallows."
Larabee let out an annoyed sigh.
"You 'right there, Chris?" Buck knew they had enough to convict Smythe without her testimony.
"Yeah, it's just that we now have two of them refusing to give up names. We may have to send Ezra back in."
"Ezra, right," Buck couldn't disguise his hesitation.
Chris didn't miss it. "Buck? There anything else you want to tell me?"
Remembering whom he was speaking to, Buck hurriedly pushed away his confusion and replied, "Nah, Chris. Nothing else."
Eric Jennings rocked back and forth in his chair. The small, almost imperceptible movement somehow seemed to calm him - settle his nerves. He wished his lawyer would hurry up and get him out of there. The small room was stifling.
He regarded his interviewer as he entered the room, carrying a briefcase and a manilla folder. The man was physically imposing, but seemed to move with a quiet assurance that marked him as a thoughtful person. You can take this guy, Eric. Just keep your mouth shut.
"Mr. Jennings, my name is Nathan Jackson. I'm an agent with the ATF," the man offered his hand, which Eric warily shook.
"Hi. I'd like to call my lawyer, now."
"I'm pretty sure that's being taken care of," Nathan placed the manilla folder on the table and began to sit.
"Yeah, well, why don't you make real sure," Eric was impressed by the cockiness in his own voice.
He was even more impressed when Jackson stood, walked to the door and called the man guarding the entrance over. "Double check that the lawyers have been called, will you?" the guard nodded and Nathan closed the door.
"I have nothing to say, you know," the impertinent exterior was holding, but, inside, Jennings could feel his bravado falter.
Nathan nodded, resuming his seat and opening the manilla folder. "We really don't need you to talk. We have you cold."
"Right, which is why you're wasting your time interviewing to me," Jennings drew his hand across his forehead, agitated.
Nathan didn't respond. Instead, he pulled a stack of computer printouts out from the briefcase. Placing them, one by one, on the desk, he organised the documents into three piles.
Eric shifted in his seat. "What're they?"
"These are your accounting files, Mr Jennings. Don't you recognise them?"
Eric picked up one of the piles and began flicking through the pages. "Nah, these aren't mine. These have names, rather than account numbers. I'd never print out hard copies of this sort of thing. Even if I did, I'd shred them, when I was done," a high, nervous laugh formed in the back of the accountant's throat, like fingernails on a blackboard. "Nice try, Agent, but you got the wrong guy."
"No kidding," Nathan smiled a small smile. He replaced the accounts in the briefcase, leaving only the manilla folder on the desk. Next, he retrieved a smaller stack of printouts, statements bearing the banners of various national and international banks. "How about these?"
Jennings read the first page as closely as he could. Every now and then, his attention would wander, or his eyes become cloudy, causing him to lose his place. Finally, he settled with flicking through the stack, seeing the different page headers. "Means nothing to me," his face betrayed the lie. This information explained how the numbers on his account sheets had been replaced by names.
"Nothing? Well, here's the problem; we have witnesses and documents which indicate, not only that you ran these accounts, but you made direct profit from them."
Eric's hands shook before him and his eyes betrayed an unusual degree of alarm. This guy would sell out his own mother, Nathan thought.
"I hear you're a heroin user," Nathan suddenly changed tack, testing to see how well this potential witness would stand up.
Eric Jennings inhaled sharply and frowned. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Nathan ignored his denial. "When did you last shoot up?"
"I said," agitated, Jennings leaned over the table, "I don't know what you're talking about."
Stupid kid. "Listen. I'm with the ATF. I'm not after drug connections, I just want to know if you are going to go into withdrawal any time soon."
Eric leaned back in his chair and regarded the agent before him. "Looking after my welfare, right? Very charitable of you. How about you just get me my lawyer."
"He's on his way. As for charity, it's actually got more to do with my not wanting you to be sick in my interview room. Now, seeing as your lawyer isn't here yet and we can't use anything you say, now would be a good time to tell me when you last took an opiate."
Eric leaned back in his chair and scowled. "Yesterday evening. Methadone, to help me relax."
"Methadone?" Nathan was surprised. People didn't get high on methadone.
"Yeah, methadone," Eric squirmed a little, "I use it when I need to keep it together. You know what I mean." Somehow, Eric doubted the man before of him did know what he meant.
Methadone, just to function normally? This one must be more screwed up than I thought. "When? What time."
"I don't know," Jennings snarled, running a, now, violently shaking hand through his hair, "six, seven."
Nathan looked at his watched. Eleven o'clock. Maybe twenty-nine hours since Eric had taken the drug. "Nothing since then, though?" Nathan could see his answer in the young man's face. Cold sweat dampened his hair and he seemed distracted, confused. The symptoms had set in.
"We were gonna shoot-up at the party. You guys showed up before the drugs did."
"Who are we?"
"What? Oh, uh, me and just a few others..." the sentence drifted off, then, suddenly, a flash of suspicion shot through Jennings' eyes, "why do you ask? You're ATF. No interest in drugs, you said. What's the deal?"
Stupid, stupid kid. "Same as before. I just want to know if anyone we have here is going to lose it. Who else?"
"No one. I have nothing more to say..." A violent trembling ran through the accountant's body.
The speed with which Jennings replied bothered Nathan. Was he protecting someone? Certainly not Conners; he would never let his guard slip so far. Smythe, perhaps? Or someone else? Six months undercover, would Standish go so far? Nathan felt the blood run to his head.
Jennings exhaled a painful sigh and began to pace the room. "Hey, listen, I'm not feeling so good..."
Jackson left the room as Eric vomited in the corner. Stupid, stupid, stupid kid.
"You know, I bet his parents spent a fortune on that brat's education. What does he do with it?" a violent heaving sound emanated from the interview room.
Chris grinned. He had assigned Nathan to Jennings interview because, of all his men, Nathan was the one best equipped to deal with a drug addict. He had, however, anticipated Jackson's lack of sympathy. "I take it, then, he would be a less than stellar witness."
Nathan glared at the interview room door. "Dose him up on a weeks worth of opiate and I'm sure he'd be fine."
"That's a no. Can't say I'm surprised," Larabee's tone went flat. Three down. Things were looking bad.
"So Standish might have to go back," Nathan stated, his anger flaring, now at a new target.
"Looks that way," noting his companions obvious ire, Larabee studied Nathan's face, "there isn't anything else you want to tell me, is there?"
"No," the answer was automatic.
Chris nodded and began to walk away.
"Hey, Chris," Nathan swallowed as much of his anger as he could, finding it replaced by concern. "I didn't see him when he came in. How is Ezra?"
Chris paused. "You wouldn't recognise him."
Watching through the viewing window, Vin found he did not like the woman pacing around the interview room. There was something in the way she walked, the way she held herself which did not sit well with him. It was neither over-confidence nor aggression, but rather a kind of readiness. She was preparing for whatever came next. She seemed tense, but not destructively so. She was even singing to herself.
"Standing by the stereo / I'm feeling so alone / My back against the speaker / And I'm moving on my own / Surrounded by so many and they're staring at my face / A word about my weakness / I'm totally addicted to bass..."
Cass moved around the room, trying to use as much of her excess energy as possible before her opponent arrived. She circled the perimeter, again and again, tapping her hand against the wall and singing quietly to herself. Calm, calm. Its just another meeting, another deal. Feeling her pulse begin to slow, she tried to concentrate on the task ahead.
The door opened and Vin Tanner entered the room. Taking his time, he closed the door behind him, pulled up a chair and placed a thin manilla folder on the metal table before him. On the far side of the room now, Cass ceased her movement and watched him. Seated, the ATF agent regarded her, silently.
"Ah, I don't suppose you'd like to tell me what is going on, here, Agent..."
"... Agent Tanner?" allowing him to break the silence would have been the more conventional move, but she somehow suspected convention would be wasted on this man.
"Yeah, sure. I was just waiting for you to ask for a lawyer."
"Well, that's what your friends did. First thing they all did, actually."
"Associates, Agent Tanner, not friends," she didn't know why she felt the need to point that out, but it somehow seemed the prudent thing, "and I am a lawyer."
He half smiled and looked at her even more closely. "Yeah? What's that they say about lawyers who represent themselves? They got fools for clients?"
Cass pulled a face and moved to sit in the chair opposite Tanner. "I like foolish clients. You can usually bill them for more. Now, weren't you going to tell me why I'm here?"
"Huh," he tapped his finger on the folder, but didn't open it, "we've been picking up information about the company you work for. Apparently, you've been doing some illegal importing."
"They, Agent Tanner. I'm not an importer, I just handle their contracts, etcetera."
"So you admit there's been illegal dealing within the company?" again, the almost smile.
"Not to my knowledge."
"Right, 'cause that would make you an accessory."
Silence. Vin frowned and tapped his fingers on the folder, as if considering this information. Of course, he wasn't. She hadn't given him any information. Idly, Cass wondered why this method of interview was so disquieting. It was as if he was completely bored by the whole process and couldn't care less what she had to say. Did he expect her to confess, just to make conversation?
"Agent Tanner, may I ask you a question? That ATF agent, the one who seems to be running things, here, is he you're boss?"
Vin nodded, eyeing her with some suspicion.
"I only ask, because I seem to remember him from some function or other we were both forced to attend. Larabee, am I right?" mentally, Cass began fitting pieces together. Chris Larabee, ATF. What cases had he previously been involved in?
Another nod. Vin could see the cogs moving in his subject, but allowed them to continue. As long as she was talking, there was a chance of his extracting information from her.
"Hum. Quite a reputation, as I understand. A very good agent, an intelligent man. Why would such a person allow the arrest of five relatively influential individuals, without sufficient evidence on them to prosecute?"
Vin opened the folder to reveal a single sheet of paper. This he handed to Cass then leaned back in his chair to watch her reaction.
"This is a list of files from my computer hard-drive," Cass saw little point in denying it. They could certainly prove where it came from. Larabee... very good conviction rate, as she recalled. "Where did you get this?"
"This isn't all we have. We have copies of every file on that list. We also have a warrant to look into any others you might have. By now, though, I'm guessing the guys from the FBI have finished with that."
"This has to be inadmissible. You can't just hack into someone's personal files," Chris Larabee... head of a crack team of ATF agents. Sharpshooters, medics, undercovers...
"Its admissible," Vin assured her, quietly.
Cass didn't even hear him. Suddenly it all made sense. Not five suspects. Four suspects and an undercover. For one agonising moment, her heart stopped beating and two words formed in her mind... that bastard.
"Ms. Jameson?" something had disturbed his subject's composure, but Vin really didn't think it was anything he had said. However, there was not use wasting it. He tried another angle, "why don't we talk about your... 'associates'. What about..." Vin paused, as if pulling a name out of the air. He had seen Cass and Ezra being arrested, he had seen how protective Ezra had been, and mischief got the better of him. "... What about Alex Mitchell?"
His words caught her attention like a slap in the face. Coldly, she replied, "are you asking me, Agent Tanner, if I am sleeping with your team's undercover?" She stood and, obviously agitated, began pacing the floor.
This reaction took Vin completely by surprise. Actually, that had been exactly what he was asking. He just hadn't expected such a direct response. She knows. No sending Ez back now. Chris will be pleased. Vin had to admit, he was, too.
"Alex is an undercover. He must have got those files one of those times in my office..." she almost choked at the thought.
As Vin watched as Cass gradually regained some composure. This changed the nature of the negotiation, but it was still just a negotiation. If the head of security at the company was a plant, the ATF must have collected enough evidence to go after the whole building, if they so chose. Why was she being interviewed?
"You know how this will go," Vin began in an almost lazy drawl, "unless, of course, you change sides. We want names."
Vin nodded. "Will you testify?"
Chris was standing just outside, awaiting summons.
"Mr. Larabee," Jameson greeted him. Indeed, he was the man she remembered seeing.
He sat down where Vin had been sitting and waited for her to resume her seat. "I understand you have some information for us?"
She studied the table before her, before focusing on Larabee. She was stalling, trying to figure out the best way to play this new situation. He saw no harm in it and sat back to watch her.
"I can give you connections, but I need to know I'll be looked after."
"At the moment, you are facing gun trafficking charges. We can have those reduced. You may not even do time."
She shook her head. "If I'm going to give these people up, I need witness protection. My liberty is pretty useless if I'm dead."
Larabee frowned. "What makes you think you're worth that much to me?"
"I can give you a list of names as long as your arm."
Pause. "What about your friends?"
"Associates. I can give you histories on Conners, Smythe and Jennings stretching back five years."
She paused - time to call in her final card. She voice dropped a fraction and she leaned, slightly, across the table. "Agent Larabee, I will testify against these men for a reduction in my sentence, but that's not all you need..."
This caught Larabee's attention. "Go on..."
"If you're looking for a selective memory, I can have one, but it will cost you."
Larabee nodded. "I'll see what I can do."
JD had walked only two steps inside the interview room, when his eyes and throat were accosted by smoke. "Jesus, Ezra!" he spluttered, spilling the stack of files he carried across the floor.
"Agent Dunne," came the composed reply. Ezra sat, lazily, at the interview table, facing he door. In his hand was a half-smoked cigarette. On the table were the stubs of six more. Obviously, Standish had kept himself busy while waiting for him. The thick air reminded JD of some of the seedier bars Buck had introduced him to.
Irritated, JD rapped the no smoking sign with his knuckle and scooped up the pile of paper. "Since when do you smoke, anyway, Ez?"
Ezra grinned and took another puff, apparently amused by JD's reaction. Suddenly, though, as if catching himself in a moment of weakness, his smile faded. "Ezra doesn't smoke. Alex does," tiredness passed across his eyes, adding years to his normally child like face.
"Fine," muttered JD, putting the sheets of paper in order, "whatever."
Ezra stood and began pacing around the room, his free hand jammed in his trouser pocket. His whole manner seemed somewhat closed off and protected, as if he were the only warm thing in a very cold room - or perhaps the only cold thing in a very warm room. His face was clean shaven and his clothing tailored, but JD knew this was on account of the cocktail party. Otherwise, Ezra had been sporting cheep suits and a three day growth. JD had never seen Ezra's hair so long, he wondered if it had been cut, at all, since the undercover had assumed his current guise. It could easily have been tied back in an elastic band, but now hung around the agent's face and in his eyes, thin and lank.
JD sat down and the interview table. He waited a few moments for Ezra to join him, then, realising this was not going to happen, reached with his foot under the table and kicked the opposite chair out. "Sit down, Ezra, we've gotta get through this before the others are finished with the suspects."
Ezra sat on the edge of his chair and watched JD sort through the pile of evidence he had brought with him. JD would pull out a sheet of paper from the folder and show it to Ezra, who would fill in the details of how it had been obtained and what it meant. Occasionally, JD would bring Ezra up to speed on any further analysis that had been performed on the information. Bit by bit, they pieced together the past six months.
Overall, Ezra seemed to have a fairly good understanding of what had been going on within the company. Very little of the new information JD brought into the discussion came as a surprise to him. That was, until they came to the encrypted files Ezra had sent from Cassandra Jameson's computer hard drive. Viewing them, Ezra frowned.
"What's up, Ez?" asked JD, wearily. It had been almost an hour and, while undoubtedly important, debriefing Ezra was dull.
Standish shook his head. "I had no idea how involved she was in this," he poured over one file in particular, "she mentions at least three of their clients here, by name."
"So she must have had fairly direct dealings with them. Maybe even one-to-one contact..."
Ezra's face became inscrutable. After years of knowing the man, JD recognised this as a look the undercover adopted when he didn't want his thoughts read. JD took a stab at it, anyway, "You didn't know about that."
Ezra glanced up, then replied, off handedly, "No matter, I do, now."
JD sighed. If the other man didn't want to talk, there was very little point pressing it. Instead, JD changed the subject. "Okay, Ezra, I'll bite. What's with the accent?"
Standish looked up at his interviewer, as if taken off guard by the question. He had thought the reasons behind his maintaining the northern accent obvious. "Didn't they tell you?" he asked, studying JD's face, "I'm to resume my cover after tonight. This isn't over."
JD shrugged. "Sure I knew. I just thought this would be a chance to relax a bit - be yourself."
Ezra snorted, derisively, but didn't answer. The two sat in silence for a moment. JD checked his watch.
"I wonder if the others are finished," JD mumbled.
Standish smiled, dully. "I imagine you would have liked to sit in on one of their interviews. Learn a few tricks of the trade."
Dunne growled, "It's not like I've never interviewed anyone before, you know? I guess this case is just too important to risk me screwing it up."
"You think that's why you're here? So you can't screw up?"
JD narrowed his eyes, slightly. He didn't like behaving like this. He knew he should just be a professional and accept whatever task he was assigned, but it was late and Ezra was being a pain in the arse, so JD allowed himself the luxury of petulance. "How am I supposed to learn anything, if they keep coddling me? I mean, this whole debriefing thing would have been much simpler, if Chris had just come in and done it, himself, you know?"
Ezra shook his head, pulling his chair closer to the table and lowering his voice. "I'll let you in on a secret, JD. The reason Chris Larabee isn't here has nothing to do with you. It's me."
JD raised an eyebrow. He knew Ezra and Chris didn't always get along, but Larabee had been worried about his operative for months, now. Why wouldn't he want to check on him?
"I'll explain," said Ezra, reading the agent's expression, "you see, I've been gone a while. During that time, Agent Larabee has had no means by which to monitor my conduct. This makes him uncomfortable. He suspects there are details about the last six months he doesn't want to know about."
JD looked up from the table into Ezra's face. For the first time in that night, Ezra seemed to be fully focused on the man across from him. His carefully maintained northern accent had faltered, revealing a slight southern tilt. JD got the feeling this was the first time the undercover had really wanted to communicated anything. It was as if he needed JD to understand. "What are you talking about? Ezra are you in trouble?"
Standish didn't answer, but sat, regarding his opposite.
"Ezra, what's going on? What have you done?" JD was beginning to panic, now. He cast his mind back over the interview, trying to think of something, anything, which might give him a clue as to what was troubling the undercover. "Who is Cassandra Jameson? What have you done?"
Ezra smiled, as if JD had made a phenomenal connection. "It doesn't matter, don't you see? We all screw up; it's the nature of the job. Remember that when this all comes out. The only thing that matters is that Larabee doesn't know. Why are you here? To make sure that whatever happened while I was absent remains absent."
A little breathless, JD watched Standish light another cigarette. "Ezra, what are you..."
The interviewee interrupted him, "I expect your superior will be ready for you by now."
The smoky air of the interview room seemed to cling to JD as he walked out into the hall. A little light headed, he didn't even notice Chris standing by the door waiting for him.
"JD?" the question was sharp, breaking through the younger man's daze.
"Yeah, hi Chris," JD struggled to regain composure in front of his boss's stare.
"Anything we can use?"
JD noticed the way Chris had posed the question. No 'anything unusual?', nor 'anything of interest?'. He only wanted to hear what he could use. JD frowned. Larabee knew his men inside out. Even when he didn't like what he saw, he never looked the other way. That's what made him such a good leader. He didn't just forgive flaws, he understood and could anticipate them. "No. Nothing. He'd already passed on everything he knew."
Larabee nodded. "Well, I think you'll both be glad to know that one of the suspects rolled over. The undercover operation stops here."
A wave of relief washed over JD. The cold, hard rock of anxiety, which a settled in his stomach during the interview, began to shrink. "That's great Chris. I'll go tell him."
Larabee nodded and began to walk back down the corridor. Dunne watched him, then, no longer able to restrain himself, asked the question weighing on his mind. "You know, don't you? All this stuff that's been so carefully hidden from you, you know."
Larabee stopped and turned back. "I have an idea. Off the record, of course, but I know Standish and I know these situations."
JD absorbed this. "But you're not gonna do anything? Whatever he did, you don't care?"
Chris shook his head. "Of course I care. I can't have my men bending and breaking rules whenever it suits them, but if any of this gets caught up in the official channels, he'll be out. For good." Larabee's voice softened a little, as he took in the kid's worried features. "Undercover is a tricky business, JD. You walk into an unknown situation and make friends by lying. It takes a certain..." Larabee searched for the right phrase, "moral flexibility."
"So, if you spend six months exercising moral flexibility, you get good at it. Standish was put in a position he couldn't deal with. I knew that then, I know it now. I also know that it will never happen again."
JD returned to the interview room, to find Ezra pacing, again. The coldness he had assumed before the interview had been reinstated. "Something else, Agent Dunne?"
"It's okay, Ez. You don't have to go back."
Ezra nodded. JD left the room. As he began down the corridor, JD glanced through the one way window, which separated him from his fellow agent. To his amazement, the coldness had evaporated.
A relieved Ezra Standish leant his back against the wall, his hands over his face and slid to the floor, in an exhausted heap.
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