Pretty Pictures


by Brandgwen


"Addicted to Bass" belongs to Daemion/Abrahams (copyright 1998 Prozaac Recordings) and "Last Ditch Cabaret" belongs to Mark Seymour (copyright 1997 Mushroom Records). Ezra's past is the sum of previous fanfics.

Agent Chris Larabee liked surveillance photos. Done well, they turned observation and opinion into hard evidence, and if a jury could see something with their own eyes they would very likely believe it. Larabee had some real surveillance experts in his elite ATF team. Josiah Sanchez and Nathan Jackson were steady enough to sit for hours waiting for the shot and quick enough to get it when it appeared. Van Tanner was not so great at the waiting part, but could pick the best vantage point to get any photo. As for Wilmington and Dunne... well they had other strengths. The only member of the team who never worked surveillance was Ezra Standish. More often than not, he was in the photographs.

The photos Chris currently reviewed featured Standish more than once. It was comforting to see him there, even if the usually debonair agent was clad in cheap suits or t-shirts. He had been undercover for six months now, gathering evidence against a major investment company suspected of illegally importing firearms. Chris made a face. Six months was a very long time to be playing games. He had every faith in his agent to get the job done, but more stable men than Ezra had come loose working deep cover.

Larabee selected a set of five photographs, the clearest shots they had the four main players, plus one of Standish in his current guise. He made his way into the largest of the briefing rooms and began sticking the photos onto the large white board at the front. Beside each of the images, he printed the name and position of each person, large enough to be seen from the back of the room. Just as he was finishing, agents began filing in, ready to receive their assignments in one of the biggest raids the ATF had seen in five years.

When everybody was in and seated, Larabee began his speech. "Alright, everybody, this is going to be a big operation. I expect every one of you to pay attention and follow orders to the letter. Is that understood? The venue for this bust is a cocktail party," Larabee was not happy about this, but it was the only place they could be sure they could grab the suspects all at once, "be aware, there will be innocent bystanders. Now, this," he tapped the picture of Ezra with his knuckle, "is our operative. Many of you will know him, but you may not recognise him undercover. He is known to the suspects as Alexander Mitchell and that is how you will address him. These four," Chris pointed to the other photographs, "are our primary targets. They are the ones we know are involved in the smuggling operation. Their names are Conners, Smythe, Jennings and Jameson..."

*******

The first photograph was of a tall, distinguished looking man aged in his late fifties. The CEO of the company, Francis Conners was clothed in a very expensive suit and his grooming was impeccable. He had an air about him that both commanded respect and exuded respectability. Ezra had been concerned about getting past Conners; not that he didn't believe that he could fool him, Ezra just didn't think the man would trust anyone. Not quickly, anyway.

Ezra's contact, a weaselly person named Curtis, fidgeted nervously, as Conners inspected the undercover.

"He's perfect, Boss, I promise. A real expert," he half assured, half pleaded. Ezra hoped Curtis did not blow his cover. Fear was evident in the man's every action and expression.

Evidently, Conners was accustomed to such fear and took little notice. He addressed Ezra directly. "Why should I hire you? What do I know about you, other than what this snivelling sycophant tells me?"

Ezra smiled, wondering if Conners expected him to be intimidated by ten dollar words. He relpied in a confident and well-practised Northern accent, "Mr Conners, I'm sure you can and will check my background for yourself. A man doesn't reach your position without a reliable information network. Dig around, I'm in no hurry - you're the one without a security expert."

Conners' eyes narrowed. This one was almost too confident. Arrogance, however, seemed to be requisite in a good bodyguard - only men who believed themselves invincible would take such a job. "Believe me when I say I will be checking you out. I'll be in touch."

Ezra watched the businessman stride away. He was certain the background Larabee had set up for him would withstand the scrutiny. Larabee was nothing if not thorough. Everything was going to plan. Ezra nodded to Curtis and walked back to his car.

Conners called within three hours. Ezra was impressed by the speed at which the man had done his research. The undercover would have to keep that in mind, should he be forced to deviate from his original story. A meeting was set up in Conners' office, 9 am the following morning.

"Good morning, Mr Mitchell," the greeting was cordial, if not welcoming.

"Mr Conners," Ezra replied with a nod, not intimidated.

The CEO motioned for Ezra to sit, then got right down to business. "I've checked your information, Mr. Mitchell. You've been a busy boy. Arms trafficking in South America, drugs in Europe. How did you find the time?"

"When dealing in arms and drugs, Mr Conners, it is usually wise to keep moving. If you stay in one job too long, the authorities tend to catch up. As it is, no one can prove I was ever in either of those places."

"How long do you intend to stay in this occupation? I have no need for a security expert who will desert me in a month."

Ezra smiled. "A legitimate position like this one? I would be a fool to leave it."

This Mitchell was no fool, you could see that plain as day. Conners found himself wishing he could trust him; if loyal, the man would undoubtedly be an asset. But one could not go putting faith in people they had only just met. "I'm afraid you are unsuitable for my purposes, Mr Mitchell. One of my security people will see you out."

Ezra groaned, inwardly. Realistically, he had known that getting inside the operation would not be so easy, but Conners scheduling a meeting did seem promising. As he as shown out of the building, be took in every detail he could, unsure if he would see the inside again.

The small red light reflecting off the linoleum floor tiles could have been anything. It was, in fact, coming from a timed detonator, attached to an explosive device, taped under a table. Apparently, the company had enemies other than the ATF. No one had even noticed it, but Ezra's expert eye detected it in an instant. Standish approached the table, reaching his hand underneath.

"Hey, Mitchell, I was told to see you out, not give you a guided tour," the security guard was both annoyed and nervous.

"One moment," Ezra pulled the bomb out from under the table and quickly disconnected a series of wires, disarming it. "Shouldn't one of you boys have picked up on this?"

The guard's eyes grew wide and he quickly marched to an internal telephone. He spoke briefly and in a matter of minutes the building was swarming with guards, sweeping for additional explosives. He then lead the smug Standish back up to Conners' office.

"Mitchell, I hear you've saved me a bit of trouble," this one act of good faith was all the excuse Conners needed to take a chance on this new man, "perhaps I was hasty in dismissing you. Start tomorrow, early. There will be a meeting in the boardroom, 9 am. I expect you to see the room cleared of listening devices... and explosives." With that, Conners turned his attention to a folder on his desk; a silent dismissal.

Ezra exited the building, this time without escort. He could barely keep a grin from creeping across his face. The boardroom would be free of explosives. The only listening devices would belong to the ATF.

*******

The next photo was of the primary shareholder within the company. Margaret Smythe owned fifty-two percent of the entire operation, meaning nothing went on without her approval. Aged forty-one, she was an extremely attractive woman who dressed in flattering business suits and wore her hair coiled in elaborate French rolls. She had originally inherited her money, but, thanks to an unscrupulous approach to business, had multiplied her net worth many fold.

Getting to know Margaret Smythe was not difficult. A born socialite, she wished to be adored by all she encountered and was willing to work at it. She charmed and flattered Ezra, believing his regard would help secure his loyalty.

"Thank you, Mr Mitchell, for your kind assistance. I don't know what I would do without you."

"Please, Mr Mitchell, I'll not be satisfied unless you call me Margaret."

"Why, Alex, I'm so glad you could join us, this afternoon. Would you mind lighting my cigarette, I'm awfully clumsy when it comes to that sort of thing."

Ezra played along. To do otherwise would offend her and make his job that much harder. He would light her cigarette and then one for himself and smile graciously at the lady. Like drinking, smoking was a social habit. A suspect at ease was often easier to get close to and Margaret was no exception. Within a month, she truly believed Alex Mitchell would take a bullet for her.

This did not mean she trusted him with business. The daughter of a well-respected family, she was very conscious of the image she projected. As a result, not only did she fear criminal proceedings, she was shy of any hint of scandal. Ezra had tried for weeks, unsuccessfully, to get information on the heiress. It was impossible to plant listening devices in her offices, or home; she had each swept twice a week by at least two of Ezra's subordinates. It was just as difficult to plant a device on her person. Ezra had to find some other way to get near her.

At all times, one of Ezra's men would be assigned the task of chauffeuring Ms Smythe around. The lady had never learnt to drive, herself, and was much more comfortable with one of her hired guns at hand. Upon reviewing the monthly rosters, as was his job as head of security, Ezra discovered she had three favourites, whom she occasionally requested; Mercer, Ballantyne and Ellis. Each had been with the company for more than ten years. During that time each had received regular promotions and pay increases. In desperation, Standish decided to look at these men, to see if they might be involved in any wrong doing.

There seemed to be little pattern to when Mercer was requested as chauffeur. At least once a fortnight, he would drive Ms Smythe to her cabin outside of town, they would stay the night and return the next day. On might have suspected an affair was being had, but Standish did not think her so obvious. Besides, Mercer, ill-kempt and overweight, did not seem to be Margaret's type.

Mercer invariably wore a lightweight, brown jacket. Standish had never seen the two parted, except when the security guard undressed to shower in the guards' locker room. It was during such a shower that Ezra snuck into the locker room, took the jacket from its hook and silently unpicked a seam holding the lining to the jacket. He slipped a tiny bug into the lining and resewed the seam. Before Mercer had finished rinsing his hair, Standish was gone.

During the day, Ezra occasionally checked the reception from the bug, but didn't bother really listening, until nightfall. In a dark blue rental car, with portable listening equipment, he followed his quarry out of town. The two spoke little; they had driven this road many times before and so had nothing left to say.

As they neared the cabin Mercer spoke. "Ms Smythe, would you like to see Robert now, or go to the cabin, first?"

Margaret sighed. She truly despised this chore. Her nephew had been in hospital five years, now, and while she loved him dearly, she hated to see him in so much anguish. She would have preferred to stay away and just pretend that everything was alright. However, part of her could not abandon the boy. "The hospital, I suppose."

Intrigued, Ezra followed the car to a very beautiful, if somewhat remote, private hospital. He looked at the sign that marked the front drive - "Saint Helen's Psychiatric Hospital" - and understood Margaret's desire for secrecy. This woman, somewhat behind the times though it was, would be devastated if people were to discover there was mental illness in her family. Ezra pulled out of the driveway and returned to town.

Jimmy Ballantyne was the most frequently requested chauffeur. An amateur boxer, Jimmy was fit and muscular. His thick neck and crooked nose made him look somewhat stupid, by Ezra knew him to be both clever and ruthlessly efficient in his job. Margaret had chosen her bodyguard well.

Every Thursday morning, Ballantyne would take Ms Smythe on a three hour shopping trip. He would pick her up from her home at around nine, drive her to whichever shopping centre she felt like visiting and return around twelve, bearing various parcels. It was a simple task for Ezra to plant a listening device on this man; he was in the habit of leaving his gun holster locked in the weapons room with his gun, overnight.

The first two hours of the expedition went as they should have. The two shopped, stopped at a cafe returned to the car. We're running a little early, Ezra noted. At this rate they would be back before eleven.

As Ezra followed their vehicle, he came to realise that they were not heading for the Smythe house. Rather, Ballantyne drove down a toward a secluded road.

"Stop here, James," Margaret's voice was low and husky.

Here's the illicit affair, thought Ezra. He listened to the rustling and the moaning for less than a minute before pulling out of the road and returning to his office.

Ellis was requested as chauffeur only once a month. Standish was unsure if he was even worth looking into, but things were getting desperate. Ezra followed the car at a safe distance for more than an hour. They seemed to be travelling in circles. All the while, Margaret Smythe talked on her mobile phone.

The conversations were mainly business related. She began by talking to her banker and then her stock broker. Her lawyer was also on the list. Ezra wondered why she felt the need to speak to them from her mobile. Then she called her accountant. No names were mentioned, but Ezra suspected Smythe used Jennings, the company man. If so, he would be using a company line and so the call would be all but untraceable.

"... yes, I do appreciate that these things take time, but I must insist you move the Moloney money to a different account, post haste. It has been sitting there for almost a month and the Christchurch payment is due any day, now. We can't allow a build up of funds..."

Moloney and Christchurch? Ezra almost laughed. These names had been drilled into his head for the two weeks before he had gone undercover. They were gun dealers and serious ones. Ezra watched the tape reels turn as the conversation was recorded. Gotcha.

*******

Eric Jennings, the subject of the next photograph, was the company's senior accountant. He was young for his position, at thirty-two, and appeared even younger. He was an arrogant son-of-a-bitch who had long since gained a reputation for being both clever and morally bankrupt. He had done a good job laundering the proceeds from the arms sales. As far as the ATF could prove, he was squeaky clean.

Jennings was a pain in the arse. So full of his own self-importance was he, that, more than once, he demanded the head of security, himself, act as his bodyguard. Conners did not argue; indulgence was a small price to pay for such a brilliant mind. Ezra wanted to argue, but Jennings was a target, so getting to know him was Ezra's job.

Jennings seemed to take to this Mitchell person. Being a confirmed coward, Eric admired the awe Mitchell's occupation inspired. He felt empowered just being around Alex and flattered himself that they were actually friends. Ezra understood this and allowed the accountant to follow him around. Eventually, he even grew accustomed to the whining little man.

Ezra had been working the case for three months before he got his first of many invitations to one of Jennings' infamous parties. Jennings was young, had too much money and no class. He had long since realised that money bought power, friends and a few other perks, which nerdy Eric had never experienced before. As far as Ezra could gather, there were two reasons for attending one of Jennings parties. The first was that you wished to do business in a social setting. The second was you wanted to get very high and pick up one of the many women who seemed to congregate there.

Jennings house was enormous and situated in one of the most exclusive neighbourhoods in Denver. By the time Ezra turned up, the whole living room smelt as if talcum powder and dozens of used needles rested in the many ashtrays around the room. At least they won't die of nicotine poisoning, Ezra thought, making his was past the drooling, giggling crowd, stepping over Jennings, himself. Out in the rear courtyard, most of the business people stood, sipping martinis and talking in hushed tones. Ezra noted a few familiar faces, including Conners speaking to a young woman Ezra recognised as his fourth target, Cassandra Jameson. Ezra snorted, as he realised Conners was actually drunk and trying to peer down the shorter woman's dress. She had her arms folded across her chest and was trying to ignore her married boss's indiscretion.

Conners spotted Ezra and called him over. "Mitchell! Mitchell, my man, come meet our most enchanting Miss Jameson!"

Ezra smiled and approached the couple. "Mr Conners, I didn't expect to see you here, tonight."

"I never miss an opportunity to socialise with my employees," Conners leered at Jameson, again, and Ezra could see her discomfort with this display heighten. "Anyway, Mitchell, I just wanted to introduce you to our lovely Miss Jameson. She takes care of all our major legal matters."

Ezra extended his hand to the woman, with his most endearing smile. "A pleasure."

Jameson shook it, politely, but there was no return smile. She seemed distracted by the whispers circulating around her, knowing full well they involved her relationship with her boss. Her older, married boss, who just refused to leave her alone.

Ezra chatted for a while, actually having quite a good time. Conners was many things, but never dull. Eventually, Standish excused himself. He almost felt guilty, leaving the lawyer alone, but Standish was here to work. He walked back toward the house, but, before reaching the living room, made a detour up the stairs. On the second floor were Jennings' bedroom and study. Both doors were closed and locked, but Standish made short work of this. Within minutes, he was seconded behind closed doors, going through Jennings' files.

Jennings, being the paranoid type, kept paper copies of most of his files. The files included neither names nor account numbers, so Jennings believed them secure. What he forgot was that fact that bank statements could be subpoenaed and dates and amounts cross-referenced. While Standish suspected many of the cash sinks were Swiss bank accounts and thus untraceable, all they needed to show was that Jennings had managed some of the accounts they already knew were dirty.

Standish thumbed through the files, looking for dates that correlated with known arms deals. He then looked for anything dealing in large amounts of money. All in all, he stole from the office about a three-inch stack of paper. Walking through the livingroom, no one noticed him leave. He went to his own office, faxed the information to a secure line held by Chris Larabee, then returned back to Jennings' house. By this time, the host had retired to his luxurious bedroom, with one of his less discerning female guests. Thanks to this distraction, Ezra even managed to re-file the pages, without detection. Mission accomplished, Alex Mitchell returned to the party.

*******

Photo number four was of a young, business-like woman. Cassandra Jameson wore a grey, knee length dress, had her mousy hair pulled back in a bun and wore no makeup. She had practised commercial law for only five years, but her phenomenal success had prompted Conners to lure her away from her former employer to work in his company. Rumour had it, she was paid a lot more than her tax forms indicated.

Ezra had seen Cass many times before he actually approached her. She had appeared austere to say the least. Her face was neither pretty nor ugly and her figure acceptable, if somewhat on the short side. Some said that underneath her unflattering attire, she was a very attractive woman. Ezra wasn't sure of that. Some also said she gave Conners more than sound legal advice...

Ezra was walking down the corridor which lead from the boardroom, past the executive offices, to the main entrance. He had been checking things out, ensuring everything was secure for the meeting to be held there the next morning (and planting a few bugs of his own). It was well after seven and almost all of the offices were deserted. Only one showed any signs of life. In her office, Cass was searching a journal database on the internet. The usually tense lawyer seemed relaxed and at home. She taken out the bun and her hair fell around her shoulders. A pair of earphones were attached to the disk player on her computer and Cass was singing along, "I've got two pale hands up against the window pane / I'm shaking with the heat of my need, again / Starts in my feet, reverbs up to my brain / There's nothing I can do to..." she looked up and saw Ezra listening. Blushing scarlet, she tore the headphones from her head and began to stand. "Is there something I can help you with, Mr Mitchell?"

Ezra laughed. "No, Ms Jameson, I was just listening." Her blush went from scarlet to purple and Ezra began to worry her head would explode. He took his leave, "forgive the intrusion."

After that little encounter, Ezra had to re-evaluate his read on Conners' lawyer. In a way, his observations seemed to add weight to some of the gossip circulating about her. The woman he had seen was neither dowdy nor unattractive. Conners would certainly have seen something in her. On the other hand, Ezra doubted she would have seen anything in him.

Ezra ran into Cass the following day. He realised that, with her involvement in the legal workings of the company, she could well be involved in the smuggling. He had to get to know her and their chance encounter could be the perfect ice-breaker. She was still embarrassed about being caught the previous night, but soon relaxed when he didn't mention it. She even accepted his invitation to lunch.

"What, exactly, is it you do here, Mr Mitchell?" she asked, as they took their seats in the company cafeteria.

Ezra shrugged. "Manage the security devices, keep the officers on their toes," he smiled his most endearing smile, "and, please, call me Alex."

She nodded. There was something about this one. He was all charm and courtesy, but there was cunning, too. Of course, everyone was up to something in this place. She wondered what Alex Mitchell was up to.

Over the next few weeks, Ezra saw a lot of Cass. He soon realised that his charm tactics did not work on her. They didn't make her pliable, they made her suspicious. A girl like her needed people she could rely on, so he switched to sincerity. For her part, she was the most sincere person he had ever met. He watched her at work, negotiating deals with international concerns, with a professionalism which did her great credit, but, when they were alone, she was an open book. It bothered him how much he liked her. He had now been undercover for four months. In all that time, she was the only person he had been in contact with whom he could trust even remotely. Still, he kept his eye out for anything that could implicate her in any wrong doing.

He had taken to visiting her whenever they both worked late. She had come to look forward to it, even planning her overtime for when she knew he would be staying back. It was on one such occasion that she had left Ezra alone in her office, her computer logged on, to take a confidential phone call in another room. Silently, he slipped behind the keyboard and accessed the internet. It took him only a few minutes to email every document in her hard drive to an anonymous address; an address held by JD Dunne. He opened one or two and saw that they were encrypted. JD would make short work of that. Ezra erased the email from her sent-mail folder and exited the internet, erasing the history and returning to the screen at which she had left it. Assuming she did not check her internet usage closely, it was the perfect crime.

*******

Ezra's photograph resembled the agent very little. He had been hired by Conners as a security expert, after the man's existing expert had failed to prevent a surveillance camera being installed in Conners' office and had mysteriously disappeared. His clothing was cheap and casual, but the weapons he carried (a semi-automatic side-arm, a holstered pistol and a small revolver strapped to his ankle) were impressive and to-the-point. Vin Tanner had helped him select them. He wore a baseball cap on his head, his hair long enough to run his fingers through and a three day growth on his face. The sum total was no one you wanted to mess with.

Ezra had never been undercover for more than three months. It was usually a practice reserved for those specially trained. He was, however, something of a veteran agent and the case was very important, so, as the weeks ticked by, Ezra just accepted it. He did miss certain things; his own clothing, for one. He was accustomed to wearing fine fabric in stylishly cut suits. The off-the-rack specials his cover demanded were a long way from being up to scratch. He missed his house. The place he was living in for the duration of the case was a complete dump. Finally, he missed his friends.

Gradually, Ezra found himself being sucked into the world he inhabited. He even found he thought of himself as Alex Mitchell. He began to feel connected to the men he worked with, forget his real purpose for being there, and even care about his assumed job. Whenever this happened, Alex (no, Ezra) would give himself a good shake and get back to business. But, day by day an emptiness grew.

Then she filled it. This lawyer he had thought of as cold became his main source of warmth, his only source of reality. It all began so professionally. He had capitalised on a chance encounter and insinuated himself into her life. He had used his natural gifts to surmise her character, her needs. He had told her what she had wanted to hear and then sat back, waiting for her to tell him what he wanted to know; her part in the smuggling. Gradually, however, he had forgotten this hidden agenda.

It was getting on to six months, now. A small irrational part of him had given up on his ever being recalled from the field. A part of him didn't even want to be recalled...

He had visited her office, as he had done so many times before. They had talked until well past ten and there was no one else in the building. She wore a blue, sleeveless dress and her hair loose around her shoulders. Over the last few months, her dress had become more flattering. Or maybe it was just his imagination. He laughed at the game he was playing with himself. He was thinking of the two of them as if there were normal people; people for whom such a friendship could grow into something else. Oh well, just so long as it was only himself in this game, nothing would come of it.

"What's so funny?" she demanded, watching his broad smile and flashing eyes.

"Nothing," he answered, stifling a yawn, "I think, Ms Jameson, we'd best be going. It's late to be in the office, people will talk."

She half smiled at his joke. Let them talk. He rose from his chair and, gentlemanly, opened the door for her. She approached not the door, but the man and did what she had been thinking about for almost two months. She stood on her toes and gently placed her lips against his.

Alarm bells went off. He thought of all the trouble this would cause and a voice inside his head (sounding for all the world like Chris Larabee) told him to get out, get out now. But he stood there and felt how warm and soft she was. As he breathed in, he caught the apple scent of her hair. He realised how much he needed this. A voice much louder and more urgent than anything Larabee could muster said ahh, what the hell.

*******

The two attended the Smythe cocktail party as a couple. It was beautiful. The marquee was covered in fairy lights, the night was warm and the sky cloudless. Music played from loud speakers, just loud enough to create atmosphere. She was perfect. Then it all went to hell. They heard the raid before it reached them.

"ATF, freeze!"

Women screamed, men demanded explanations. Ezra looked down at Cassandra's horrified eyes and knew; she was part of the smuggling. The core of his body went cold.

"Let's get out of here," she whispered. He nodded, knowing they would be surrounded. Knowing that, were she to succeed in breaking the circle of ATF officers, he would prevent her escape, himself. He swallowed hard as she took him by the hand and they began running away from the house. All the while, a gravely voice sang over the speakers...

Chaos is creeping through your pretty pictures, Here in this land of savage dreams. You dare to walk alone through empty streets where Nothing is ever what it seems. Somebody calls you, but you dare not answer; Must be the voice of desperation. Here in there days of joy and instant karma You hide your stash and keep your station.

Just let me paint a rosy picture Where doom and gloom is not allowed. We'll go cheek-to-cheek As we squeeze into the crowd. Your living death blew me away In this last ditch cabaret...

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