At 12:48 pm Robert Norton, with Standish in the front passenger seat, steered the ATF motor pool beater with the chipped, green paint job into the parking lot of the Koffee Kup, a decrepit little place with a permanent look of 1950-era food and beverage stains.
Agent Norton didn't feel nervous, but the car ride over had felt awkward to which the man attributed to more than just the circumstances of having to step in for Team Seven's undercover agent. Norton was keenly aware that Standish's superior record extended beyond the Denver ATF. Although it was true that not many outside of Team 7 actually knew Standish personally, the Southerner was well-respected among the ranks of ATF undercover agents, including himself. That was precisely why he'd had been mortified and then guiltily embarrassed to hear Standish struggling to speak. He couldn't help it.
It had been a silent car ride over to the meet. Norton had had no expectations that the man, whose job he was about to take over, would suddenly become talkative, nor did he desire that. Norton had quickly realized that Standish had a hard enough time communicating with the teammates who knew him well enough to be able to fill in the meaning when correct words failed, but Norton barely knew Standish and did not have that kind of familiarity to call on. The first time he'd heard Standish's attempts at verbal communication, Norton had been horrified at how little he understood when Standish had not kept to one or two word answers.
Norton resolved that if they managed to pull off a successful transition meeting, then he would buy the first round of beer for Team Seven next time there was a get together at The Saloon.
It wasn't long before Norton steered the car into the parking lot of the Koffee Kup. The lunch crowd had not yet begun to thin out so the lot had a good many cars in it. Even so, Ezra easily spied Bulldog's car. Standish signaled to Robert the presence of the informant inside the restaurant by pointing out the informant's old, blue Ford Mustang.
Robert nodded his head approvingly. "Good. He's on time. Let's roll." The agent parked the beater and then he and Ezra got out and walked over to the restaurant entrance with Standish carrying the laptop in an old black computer bag.
When the agents stepped inside, Ezra nearly gagged from the odor of heavy cooking grease over substandard cleaning. Good Lord, has the Health Department ever inspected this place? Ezra wondered. He deliberately assumed a neutral expression as a middle-aged woman wearing a stained uniform, permanent scowl, and too much makeup, approached. "Booth or table?" she asked without benefit of a smile.
Ezra quickly surveyed the scene and his eyes picked out the bandana-wrapped head of Deonte "Bulldog" Wilson over the top of one of the booths at the rear of the restaurant. Without waiting for a response, Ezra, with a tilt to his head to the woman, and a casual gesture with his hand in the direction of Bulldog's booth, started walking in that direction. "Our friend is there," Norton chipped in helpfully as he followed after Ezra.
Without hesitation, Standish, with Norton following after, smoothly slid into the booth where Bulldog sat, hunched over a very dark cup of coffee. The informant looked up and his mouth opened as if to greet Standish, but his mouth abruptly closed and he gazed with unhappy surprise at the unexpected, unfamiliar guest.
"Who is this?" The man asked accusingly. He was looking around as if he expected to be surrounded by armed ATF agents at any minute. "I have a meeting with you, Simpson; three's a crowd."
Bulldog made as if to get up and in that instant, Ezra forgot all his past nervousness and self-doubt. He plunged into the role that he and Nathan had crafted together because the moment had come and there was no turning back. Ezra employed his acting skills to make a guttural noise that was supposed to represent the word, "wait", but to make his meaning clearer, he reached out a hand and grabbed Bulldog's right forearm to stay his body while simultaneously opening up is laptop.
Bulldog's eyebrows scaled his brow and he looked with suspicion at the laptop. "What?"
Ezra started typing.
Bulldog sat back down and stared at "Agent Simpson". "What's your problem? You forgot how to talk?"
"He didn't forget," Norton said coolly.
"I ain't asked you," Bulldog said with an equally cool tone.
Ezra finished typing and turned the laptop around. His best poker face was firmly in place. He knew his written skills were far stronger than his speaking skills, but his ability to write was not flawless. He was counting on Bulldog's reduced reading skills owing to poor education and the appearance of hasty typing to deflect any suspicions about errors that would undoubtedly be there.
Bulldog read what was on the screen slowly, his lips moving silently. Then he looked up into Simpson's face, his own expression somber. Suddenly, Bulldog grinned jovially. "You got jacked-up from surgery? Man, I would never let no doctor carve me up like a turkey!" he vehemently swore.
In order to buttress the cover story, Ezra made convenient use of the scar his neck bore from Nathan Jackson's emergency tracheotomy the medic had performed on him to save Ezra's life, by exposing his neck briefly to Bulldog's gaze.
Bulldog fell for the ruse. "Damn, that's fucked up!" Bulldog exclaimed mildly, with a drawn-out emphasis on the first word. "You really can't talk?" he asked, sounding curios.
Ezra turned the laptop around and quickly typed out the fact that no, he really couldn't talk but the vocal cord paralysis would resolve on its own, given time and therapy. How much time and therapy was anybody's guess though. Ezra typed that his boss had demanded that he devote the next two weeks to time off and healing. He turned the laptop back around for Bulldog to read.
Bulldog read the screen again with his face scrunched in concentration. "Uh. I get it. You can't talk but your friend here can." His gaze slid over to the man next to Ezra. "And you would be?"
"Agent Kenny Strong", Bob Norton smoothly offered his cover name while removing a pack of Bulldog's favorite smokes from his pocket and sliding them over to the informant. "You don't know me, but I assure you, Agent Simpson and I are not just fellow agents, we are old friends. We came into the ATF together from college. When I heard about the trouble he had with being able to speak after surgery, I offered to help him out by volunteering to meet with you."
The informant said nothing, but after a minute he took the proffered pack of cigarettes, slipped one out, and promptly lit it. He took a few drags and grunted his contentment. "Thanks," he said, then Bulldog leaned forward and looked at both agents with an assessing stare.
Just then a disinterested looking waitress sauntered over, pen and pad in hand. "You ready to order?"
"Coffee. Black." Ezra successfully said.
"Just some ice water," Norton ordered.
The waitress failed to hide what sounded as a snort of distain before turning on her heels and walking off.
After a time, Bulldog said, "I know what you want and it's gonna cost a lot more than a pack of high-priced cigarettes," he said flatly.
Relief swept through Ezra. Bulldog seemed to be consenting to Agent Norton as his new handler. Temporary handler, Ezra reminded himself. Then he typed: Not problem taking care of you, you giving us King Street Boyz Rmafotion.
Bulldog frowned as he read the message. "Fuck the King Street Boyz. Do you have any idea what the Mendoza Cartel would do to me if they find out I'm the one who let the Feds in on the time and place for the weapons return?"
So you do know when and where the meeting will be. Ezra was secretly pleased to get confirmation on that. Exactly what was on the meeting's agenda had never been discussed with Bulldog prior to the meeting. Now it was just a matter of making a suitable trade for the information.
Ezra nodded his head towards Bulldog in understanding. The informant was taking by giving them information about the meet between the powerful, infamous Mendoza Cartel and the smaller, local gang known as the King Street Boyz. Bulldog had proved a valuable informant over the years, but this information elevated his importance to a higher level. The ATF had thus authorized more to work with in terms of remuneration.
Ezra began typing out a rough monetary offer. When he was finished, he showed it to Norton first then Bulldog when Norton gave a subtle nod.
Bulldog's eyes widened ever so slightly but his demeanor remained calm. He took another drag from his cigarette. "Nice, but that's not what I need."
Ezra exchanged looks with Norton, then cocked an eyebrow at Bulldog and waited for clarification.
"What exactly can we help you with?" Norton asked.
Bulldog scratched his head through the bandana. "It's my kid brother. The little dumb ass. He got busted for DWI when he got into a bit of a hit and run situation.
Norton shrugged casually. "Did someone die?"
"Nah. That ain't the problem." Strangely enough, Bulldog began to laugh. "My drunk brother hit an old drunk dude who was trying to cross the freakin' road on a dark night. Stunned him good, got a broken leg, but he's gonna be okay."
"Doesn't sound all that serious. What's the problem? Crappy lawer?" inquired Norton.
"Uh. No. Bitch is okay."
Ezra drummed his fingers on the table to signify is desire for the informant to just spit it out already.
"My brother's been doing a little interstate commerce with some untaxed cigarettes from time to time." He uh, had a shipment in his van that he was taking up to a bodega in Manhattan when the accident happened. Yeah, so the cops on the scene confiscated his shipment and now he's looking at some federal charges."
"What do you want?" Norton asked.
Bulldog's eyes rolled. "Like I said, the Feds are involved. I need you to make this go away, otherwise my kid brother is going away. You make it happen and I'll tell you where and when the King Street Boyz will make the weapons hand off. Do we have a deal?"
Ezra began typing out a short series of questions in order to get more salient facts. Where? When? How? Who? He carefully typed in Bulldog's answers. They now had a problem. Ezra was fairly sure that something could be arranged, but it wasn't in either agent's power to agree, on-the-spot, that federal charges against the informant's brother would be dropped. Time was of the essence. The Mendoza Cartel wanted their weapons back immediately, thus the clock was ticking. Ezra sighed inwardly. Bulldog would have to be persuaded to give up the information ahead of any guarantee.
Ezra began typing fast and furious:
Well, this is…easy no problem. Boss will working and fact-checking of course, but you can once you know we confirm the scope of your brother's criminal enterprise, say yes and you see me can accommodate your request. So to understand is that none of that is nothing going to drive if that meeting between the Cartel and the King Street Boyz goes down, and the ATF doesn't get to come out and play too. The Cartel is for not playing. They want weapons o'here and back yesterday. We know that and you know when it's happening. You know, maybe tonight. So you see when sun is coming up tomorrow and we don't looking for information then, ok, I assume the meet already went down. Ok now your brother is most likely going to Federal prison because you won't have swomg value the ATF wants. Is that what you want?
Norton was reading the screen as Ezra was typing and when he was done, Standish turned the laptop towards Norton only and let the agent decipher what he'd written. Norton said nothing and kept his expression unreadable while he was reading.
Ezra's heart sank. Norton was struggling to understand what he'd written. Ezra feared he'd overplayed his hand and now Norton could not figure out what he was trying to communicate. He waited with baited breath until at last, Norton rendered for Bulldog his interpretation of what he'd read. Remarkably, Norton had successfully interpreted the essence of what Ezra had written.
"That ain't what I want, you know that. Why you wanna do me like that?" Bulldog said mulishly after Norton finished speaking.
"It's business," Norton said soothingly. "That's all. Now, do we have a deal?"
There was silence that stretched on too long before a, "Yeah, we have a deal," was heard from Bulldog.
Ezra breathed a discreet sigh of relief. While he harbored no genuine sense of friendship with Bulldog, Ezra didn't consider him to be a bad guy as far as informants went. Over the years, Bulldog had given Ezra lots of information regarding the inner workings of the gang so Ezra wanted to do whatever he could to help the man's brother out of his trouble.
"Time? Place?" Norton asked, looking animated.
Bulldog told the two agents everything he knew. Using his patchwork sources of information, Ezra's informant had pieced together and later confirmed exactly where and when the two groups would meet so that the anxious local gang could turn over the mistakenly stolen weapons peacefully to the Cartel and avoid a bloody take back.
The meeting, which had started less then 20 minutes ago was coming to an end. Neither the ordered coffee nor the water had made an appearance. It didn't pay to linger when meeting with an informant. As if on cue, Standish and Norton stood up.
Bulldog was Norton's informant now and it was up to Norton to make the communication arrangements for further contact. Norton asked Bulldog to pull out his phone and when he did, Norton had him put his phone number in under the name, "Herold Automotive Repair".
"Simpson and I thank you. Give us a day or two to work on your brother's situation. In the meantime, find a reason to be out of town in the next three days. Capice?"
"Don't have to tell me twice. I'm outa here," Bulldog declared.
Ten minutes later the two agents were in the car, headed back to Denver.
Norton had steered the car out of the parking lot and into the street, then he'd made a series of turns until he took the freeway on-ramp. Ezra was sitting quietly in the passenger seat. Standish was feeling a conflicting mix of elation and acute exhaustion. With Norton, he had pulled off a successful meet and achieved all of the objectives. Even though the tasking was simple, it was a satisfying victory for Ezra at a time when his health had been too precarious to even think about a return to anything remotely related to undercover work. At the same time, Ezra had used enormous amounts of energy to focus and communicate as clearly as he could. He was exhausted and he gave in to the urge to put his head back on the rest and close his eyes. It was a rough ride in the borrowed beater but the car may as well have been Ezra's smooth Jaguar by the way the motion was luring him to sleep.
Agent Rober Norton glanced over at the sleeping Southerner and smiled. "Good for you, Ezra Standish. Good for you."