Well, I still don't own them.
Special thanks to Tiffany Pena for the beta-reading!
For once, the four months of thorough and laborious work had paid off completely – the bust went off without a hitch. Bad guys were arrested, illegal arms confiscated, and all that was accomplished without a single shot being fired. It was almost boring, but Vin surely didn't mean to complain; they could use some boredom, just for a change.
By the time the sharpshooter made it down from his observation post, Chris had already gone to collect Ezra from the PD, and Josiah and Nathan had returned to the office, but Buck and JD were still at the warehouse with him. Wilmington was supervising the process of securing the arms, JD was taking down cameras from the walls – no way would he trust some clean-up crew with his precious toys.
"Hey, Junior." Buck raised his head from another box. "We left you without work today, didn't we?"
Vin shrugged. "Can't say I'm complaining. If they believe more in their lawyers than in their guns…"
"Then a disappointment waits for them there," JD interrupted from the ladder, trying his best to mimic Ezra's accent, and then added in his normal voice. "DA Grady was awfully pleased with the amount of 'legally obtained evidence'."
Buck laughed at that, and Vin joined him; he remembered Grady's grin at their last meeting before the bust, and it sure had been predatory. Or maybe even vampire-like. Nobody would get away this time.
A couple of hours later, around noon, they finally arrived back at the federal building. Buck and JD went down to the labs, while Vin came to the office. Ezra was the only one there, sitting at his desk typing something with concentration.
"Hey, Ez. Where is everyone?"
"Chris is at a meeting with Travis," Ezra answered, continuing to hit the keys. "Josiah is discussing something with DA Grady, and Nathan went to Ballistics to help Buck with weapons." Ezra finished whatever he'd been typing and turned to Vin with a wide smile on his face. "Good day, Mr. Tanner, nice to see you."
"You too, Ez." Especially not through the telescopic sight from the nearest roof. "It was a good show for Oscar back there, you know."
"Oh, thank you, Mr. Tanner. One always feels inspiration when playing for such a well-versed audience."
It had taken Vin a while to start understanding Ezra's manner of speech, but now he had no trouble translating this to 'I know I'm safe when you are watching my back, thank you', so he grinned and asked: "You okay?"
"I'm perfectly fine, Mr. Tanner." Vin raised an eyebrow, and Ezra continued "Or I will be once I get reacquainted with my badly missed silk sheets."
"Think Chris'll let us go early today?"
"There is some chance, Mr. Tanner. Another good thing about uneventful busts – the paperwork is bearable."
"Guess that's a hint, huh?" Vin went to his desk – the report wouldn't write itself.
It wasn't that hard, actually; Vin just opened the report from the last 'uneventful bust' (which had been 6 months ago, they'd been backup for Team 4) and changed some details. He was re-reading the report for the second time, when a strange sound came from Ezra's desk.
"Ez? Something wrong?"
"Vin, I think you should see this."
Vin didn't like the tone of Ezra's voice, so in the next moment he was by his side, looking at the monitor with him. The local news site was opened; Ezra highlighted one paragraph and Vin caught sight of the name of the street he lived on, then Ezra began to read it aloud:
"The Fire on Chambers Street. The call, reporting a fire on the first floor of apartment building 23 on Chambers St., was received at 8:53 a.m. The fire was contained at 9:23 a.m. and extinguished at 9:51 a.m. More than 50 people were evacuated from the building, the resident of the burned-out apartment was hospitalized with minor injures. According to tentative findings, the fire was caused by the explosion of a homemade still."
"Old Jack, damn him!" Vin hit the wall by Chris's office and began pacing. "I warned him dozens of times and ruined the damn thing myself at least twice! Darn fool has finally done it! Dammit, I need to check on things there…"
"Of course, Mr. Tanner. Anyway, it's lunch time already. I'll leave a note to our colleagues."
"Ezra, you don't have to…" It was Standish's turn to raise an eyebrow, and Vin didn't finish the sentence.
All in all, it might have been much worse. Jack's apartment had burned-out completely, but the fire hadn't spread further – those who projected the building must have done something right. Of course, the basement was flooded, but it had been empty for some time waiting for a tenant, so the main problem of the building now was the smell of smoke (the smoke itself had already vanished) and the soot. After making sure none of the neighbors he knew had suffered damage from smoke inhalation and that everyone was more or less okay, Vin, closely followed by Ezra, headed off to check on his apartment. The layer of soot was practically invisible, but the smoky smell was even stronger than in corridor.
"Well, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said, helping him open the kitchen window, "I certainly hope you are not intending to sleep here tonight. Severe headache is guaranteed."
Vin, already feeling nauseous, had to agree. Industrial smoke had nothing in common with the smell one brought home from a camping trip. "Reckon I'll be bunking with Chris for a while."
"I would also recommend you to take anything of value you have here and leave the windows wide open for a week, at least."
"Seems like a good idea. I'll be right back, prop that window with something, ok?"
Receiving a nod in answer, Vin went to the bedroom. The window there was less stubborn, and Vin managed to open it alone. Taking a deep breath of clean, chill February air, he glanced around the room and saw a paperback crime novel lying on the floor; he'd picked it up from JD on one of their recent stake-outs. The story was pure trash, but the book would do nicely as a prop for the window, not letting it be slammed by the wind.
Now to the 'valuable things'; actually, Vin only had two of them in this apartment – his spare gun and the framed picture of his mother. The rest was divided between his desk in the ATF office, Chris's ranch, and the house of Nettie Wells. Vin pulled the gun from its holster under the bed and put it in its case, next he grabbed the special holster, then he carefully took the frame off his nightstand with his other hand and went back to the kitchen (which in truth was twice as big as the bedroom and had a couch in it).
He laid the case and holster on said couch but was reluctant to just lay the frame, so he handed it to Ezra. Then Tanner kicked his duffel bag from under the couch, got a bunch of clothes from the closet and threw them in it. Of course, these clothes would spend the coming night hanging outside Chris's house, airing. He put the case and holster in the bag, looked up and saw Ezra staring at the picture with a very strange expression on his face. Vin was puzzled at first, but then remembered that Ezra hadn't seen the picture of his mother before, of all the guys only Chris had. 'Hey, he probably thinks she's my girlfriend!' Vin chuckled to himself. Annie Tanner on that picture was almost a decade younger than Vin was now.
"That's my mother, Ez. Annie Tanner."
"Oh." Ezra took his eyes from the picture to Vin and back. "Now I see the resemblance. Vin, she is very beautiful."
"Thanks." Vin took the frame back, gently wrapped it into one of his T-shirts, put it in the bag and zipped it up. "Well, let's get out of here, before we start seeing pink elephants or Chris decides to send out the cavalry."
"Right behind you, Mr. Tanner."
"Hey, Ez, you with us?"
"Pardon me, Mr. Wilmington?"
"You've lost a good fifteen minutes there, Ez. Sure you didn't inhale something from that still back in Purgatorio?" Buck finished the question and tried to duck Vin's slap on the head. Unsuccessfully.
Team 7 was sitting in the Saloon, quietly celebrating the end of the case. The real celebration was postponed till March, when AD Travis had promised a week's vacation for the whole team.
"Unlike you, Mr. Wilmington, I'm not under any influence. My apologies for missing part of the conversation, gentlemen, I must be a little tired."
"I bet," Chris mumbled. "Standish, you've already handed in your report, so you're fully entitled to at least a couple of days off. You can actually take them, you know."
"Why, Mr. Larabee, what a novel idea! I believe I'll think on it. But I believe it's time for me to head home." Ezra began to get up.
"You sure you won't fall asleep behind the wheel?"
"I appreciate your concern, Mr. Jackson, but I assure you I'm perfectly capable of driving myself home. Gentlemen," with a court nod, Ezra left the Saloon.
Ezra slowly drove through the familiar streets of Denver, the image of Annie Tanner fully occupying his mind, as it had ever since he'd left Vin's apartment. He was positive he'd seen the girl on the picture somewhere before, a blue-eyed blonde in a notable red-yellow sweater, obviously knitted by hand, but where? Where could he possible have seen a picture of Annie Tanner? Annie Tanner… Annie Ramsey! The realization struck suddenly, and Ezra quickly pulled over, not wanting to cause an accident while the memories flooded his mind.
Old Victorian house, warm and cozy. Large main hall, with a working fireplace and walls adorned with the pictures of a girl, from infancy to late teens; she was wearing a red-yellow knitted sweater in the last ones. The hostess of the house, the girl's mother, a grey-haired woman in round glasses; Ms. Alice Ramsey, who still believed, against all odds, that one day her prodigal daughter would come home.
There were three people in this world to whom Ezra Standish owed the fact that he wasn't completely his mother's creature. Three people, thanks to whom he'd managed to grow up into a person able to earn a place among Team 7, to gain the friendship and trust of its members. Ms. Alice Ramsey, an English teacher at Bradford's boarding school in Memphis, was one of those three.
Ezra had been 13 when he was admitted to Bradford's; already a complete cynic by then, he'd believed he knew more than his teachers. Ms. Ramsey had proved him wrong on the first day; and by the end of the first week a full-scale war had been going between a cocky flamboyant teenager and a middle-aged perceptive teacher, affectionately and deservedly nicknamed Miss Marple by her students.
Ezra didn't remember when his animosity had turned into deep respect and then friendship, only that it had. The boy he'd been then, had used an expanded English vocabulary to confuse people around him – Ms. Alice had shown him the beauty of the language itself. He'd read nearly anything printed– she'd taught him to distinguish the true art from the garbage, both in literature and cinematography. She'd shared with him her love and knowledge of European culture, and somewhere along the way had managed to remind him about timeless truths, things he'd never forgotten afterward.
Ezra had spent only a year in Bradford's, but he still kept in touch with Ms. Alice; and, of course, he knew about her runaway daughter – first through local gossip, then later from the woman herself. Was it possible that at some point in her journeys Annie Ramsey had become Annie Tanner? It'd been a while since Ezra had seen Annie's pictures, but he remembered the sweater. And yet, he had to make sure before he would tell anyone of his suspicions.
Finally back at home, Ezra booted up his laptop and found a suitable flight to Memphis in the morning, there were plenty of seats. Deciding that Chris and Vin must have already made it to the ranch, he dialed Chris's home number.
"Good evening, sir."
"Ezra? Decided to take these days off after all? "
"Something like that, Mr. Larabee. Will it be acceptable if I leave town until Monday?"
"Don't see why not. Where are you going to?"
"Memphis." A year ago Ezra would have been irritated with the question, seeing it as an invasion of his privacy from his superior, and tried to avoid an honest answer, but now he knew why Chris always asked. These days, when every second news release told about terrorists, air crashes, or natural calamities, Larabee preferred to know exactly where on the planet each one of his men was at any given moment. And Ezra understood him fully.
"Memphis?" Chris asked, surprised. Clearly he expected to hear Las Vegas, or the name of some famous ski resort.
"Memphis. I was reminded about a family duty there I've been neglecting for some time, I want to fulfill it while I have the opportunity."
"You sure? You need rest, not another undercover assignment."
Ezra chuckled. "Mr. Larabee, while I concur with your assessment of my family events in general, I assure you that this one is an exception. Everything will be all right."
"If you say so. Take care and don't turn off your cell!"
"Yes, sir." Ezra hung up, telling himself he hadn't actually lied to Chris. Annie's picture had reminded him about Ms. Alice, and he hadn't seen her in person in almost five years – and that was a shame. And Ms. Alice had been more of a family to him than most of his Uncles and Aunts put together. But now he needed a plausible excuse for showing up at her door out of the blue; he had no right to risk raising false hopes or to bring unnecessary pain. The truth would have to wait until he was sure of his suspicions.
To be continued…