Alphabets 2: Round for Seven Voices, Chapter 1, by DarkBeta

(Once again, The Magnificent Seven, The Sentinel, and Susan Foster's GDP universe are not mine. Neither is Mog's modern-day Mag7 universe, to which this has a merely tangential relationship.)

The tangle on Chris Larabee's desk could be mistaken, at first sight, for a sort of horse harness. The nylon straps were black. They always were, as if a man could not be properly broken while wearing sky blue or green. Chris glared at it, with a loathing wasted on the inanimate.

The guide's leash meant that the weapon vendors the Mountain Area Guard had been after were trafficking in flesh as well. Which meant, procedurally, that he should turn the case over to the GDP. Denver wasn't big enough to have more than a GDP contact office. They'd call in personnel from the training centers in San Jose or even Cascade.

Strangers. Coming into his territory.

Well, the GDP was a beauracracy. (So was the MAG. Since Larabee had little trouble circumventing rules with which he disagreed, that didn't trouble him.) The GDP investigators would need a week or two to get their act together. Maybe his team could hand them a closed case as they got off the plane, send 'em back to the coast before they ever left Denver International.

Chris pulled a pad of paper from under the harness. First step, have JD run a search for pirate web sites. Tell Buck to ask around the party circuit. Set up a background so Standish could go in as a buyer.

The undercover agent wasn't going to be happy. He hated sex cases. They made him sick -- literally. A couple of times, when he couldn't snag Buck or J.D. quickly enough, Chris had been the one stuck holding the agent's head once the bust was over. Keeping the G-- D--- Panderers out of Denver was worth the cost.

"Ezra, did ya ever hear the nursery rhyme? 'A dillar, a dollar, a ten o'clock scholar?'"

Chris looked up as he heard Buck in the outer office. J.D. chimed in.

"I know that one! '. . . why are you come so soon? You used to come at ten o'clock and now you come at noon!'"

"Many thanks for the folkloric demonstration, gentlemen. I assure you, my childhood hours were employed in more remunerative endeavours than nursery rhymes."

"Ey, Ez. Chris wants to talk to you."

"Ez-rah, Vin. Not 'Ez'. Even your laconic manner should be able to encompass that second syllable."

Vin snorted. Ezra Standish rapped politely on the frame of the open office door. He walked in already talking.

"If this concerns last week's expense request, Mr. Larabee, I assure you I recorded a fair and equitable replacement cost for the suit jacket . . . ."

Chris knew better than to wait for a break in the conversation.

"I have something for you . . . ." he started, gesturing at the half-finished list on his desk.

He was ready to ignore Ezra's usual argument. Silence caught his attention.

He looked up. Standish wore his usual half smile, but his nightclub pallor was fading to something vampiric. They stared at each other.

Guesses Chris Larabee had never allowed himself to make clicked into place. Standish saw that he knew. The agent turned and walked away. Chris stood up, watching him move toward the outer door of the MAG Seven office.

He wasn't running. Running would attract attention. Buck, JD and Nathan hadn't noticed the flight. Even Vin only looked inquiringly at Chris.

Ezra always had a backup plan. There would be a rented locker close by. Cash, fake ID, a change of clothes. Once he got out that door, Ezra P. Standish would vanish.

"Buck. Stop him!" Chris ordered.

Buck took a couple seconds to flick a paper football across JD's desk.

"I never heard you say a word, Chris. How'd ya manage to piss 'im off already? Come on, Ezra. You know Chris can go off half-cocked. Give us a chance to talk him 'round . . . ."

He caught the smaller man's shoulder. Standish turned. One open-handed strike and a sharp jab threw Buck back. Standish's own flinch was so controlled as to be almost invisible.

Everyone stared.

"You hit Buck. Ezra, why'd you hit Buck?" JD asked.

Standish backed away. The door opened behind him. Sanchez blinked across a box of donuts. Standish stepped sharply sideways. One of his several personal weapons appeared in his hand, threatening the room without actually singling out a target. Chris reached for his own weapon.

A guide wouldn't shoot. A guide couldn't hurt or kill, for terror of the psychic feedback. But he'd seen Ezra fire, in defense of the team, and he'd seen the targets die. Which meant, if he'd driven the guide to panicked flight, that the danger to his team was real.

"You don't need that, son," Sanchez rumbled.

"Be assured I am no kin to anyone in this office," Standish told him, his half-smile so stiff it looked cast in plaster. "You should appreciate that fortunate circumstance."

"Who will you shoot first? Surely not the kid. Maybe you found Buck's boots under the wrong bed, but he doesn't deserve to die. And you owe your life to Nathan, a dozen times over. A bullet would be a real bad payback."

Josiah's low, weathered voice was hypnotic. Nathan and JD crouched by the wheezing Buck Wilmington. Standish backed toward the wall to keep both Sanchez and his boss in view. His eyes flicked from one person to the next.

Chris couldn't risk moving forward. Ezra kept a closer watch on him than any of the others. Josiah shifted in place, dragging Ezra's attention to his looming presence.

"You can't really think a couple shots from that little popgun will stop Chris Larabee. So will you shoot me, Ezra? Is that what you're going to do?"

Standish sighed. He straightened. With the hand not holding his weapon, he adjusted the hang of his suit jacket. Chris listened to a heart rate that gave the lie to the outward insouciance.

"No, Mr. Sanchez. I'm not going to shoot you."

Chris lunged forward, a wordless shout acknowledging he was going to be too late. The half smile was still on Ezra's face, as he brought the weapon under his chin.

"Sorry, Ez," Vin said, reaching across his shoulder to deflect its barrel.

His blow pulled the guide's finger against the trigger. The gun went off. The bullet ricocheted three times off the concrete slabs of the wall and ceiling and embedded itself in the "THOM-ZYL" file drawer.

Shouts of alarm came from the offices on either side. Nathan, Buck and JD uncurled from the tangle caused by each of them trying to shield the other two. Josiah bent over to pick up the donuts he'd dropped.

"Guess I better toss these out."

"Waste of good food," Vin complained.

He set the safety, tossed the gun to Chris, and caught Ezra's wrists behind him. The agent didn't struggle.

"An unnecessary exertion, Mr. Tanner. I am not so foolish as to try my martial skills against you or Mr. Larabee."

"'N I'm not dumb enough to think you only got one gun."

"Keep him in my office," Chris said.

He handed the gun to Buck, as runners pounded along the hallway outside.

"Better tell JD what's going to happen the next time he gets careless with a loaded weapon."

"But I didn't . . . why are you picking . . . it wasn't my fault!" JD sputtered.

"Now, kid, ya got to listen to old Buck. It doesn't pay to take these things lightly. Why, I knew a man in Amarillo . . . ."

Teams Six and Eight arrived. Their scolding and jeers, Buck's shouts, JD's red-faced attempts at self-defense, and a long-winded parable from Josiah, made a cacaphony. Chris folded his arms, waiting for the moment of maximum confusion.

Without instructions, Buck picked up on the need to keep Ezra's name out of this. He jumped on the kid every time JD might have said something he shouldn't. And Josiah had drawn Nathan aside. Ezra always turned up in Nathan's rants, so the other teams wouldn't react to it.

They worked together like fingers of a hand, better than he'd ever hoped for. Ezra had seemed to understand his value to the team, had seemed to give them a tentative trust. It had all been lies.

Chris glowered, stoking his anger. Members of the other teams began to look uneasily in his direction. A few of them decided the interesting events were over, and eased toward the door.

Rage was good. Rage was a reliable cloak over the discovery that another man held his life. And the knowledge that Death was no longer the friend Chris had awaited two years before.