"Chris?" a quieted voice asked, followed by two gentle knuckle raps on the door.
Looking up from the notepad he was writing on, Larabee signaled for JD to come in. He laid his pen down on the pad and watched JD close the office door securely. He spoke into the phone at his ear, "Let me call you back," and promptly hung up.
JD held a file in his hands, which he presented to Chris before taking a seat. "Someone accessed Eddie Craig's file."
Chris nodded as he opened the file. "That's what we were hoping." He looked up at JD's concerned face. A flash of panic flitted across his mind as he asked, "It held up, didn't it?"
"No, it isn't that. I mean, yeah, it held up," JD stammered.
"So what's the problem?" Larabee asked, closing the file he had been perusing, even though he knew the contents of it. He gave his full attention to his agent before him.
"It's who accessed the file that has me worried."
Chris shook his head in askance. "Just spit it out JD."
Chris's brow furrowed in confusion. "What? Why?"
"I know, right? It's not like they have any jurisdiction over this case. I just thought you should know."
"But there's no way that they know who he really is?"
JD shrugged. "Can't be sure. I mean, anyone can access the Eddie Craig file, and they'll get the file I put there. But I don't know what kind of clearance the DEA has. The Craig file does not tie to his real file. At all. I put all sorts of encryption and firewalls on his file. On all our files. I just…" he paused. "I just don't like this, Chris. Something ain't right."
Chris nodded. Jesus, Standish, what have you gotten yourself into?
Oak Falls, Colorado – inhabited by six thousand and some change residents. The police force was small, as compared to more densely populated nearby cities, like Denver, which lay only 15 or so miles away.
It was a nice town, as towns go. It would be just the type of place that might inspire someone to settle down with the girl of their dreams and pop out a couple of kids. Or setup a neighborhood store or market. Or, if you were Benjamin Sheppard, you could set up your armory for the sale of illegal assault weapons.
Eddie Craig, sometimes known in other circles as Ezra Standish, hated it here. For two months, he laughed when he was supposed to, hauled boxes of cargo from one place to another, and generally catered to the everyday business needs of the only shipping, receiving and moving company in the county, which happened to be owned by Sheppard. The books were clean, the profit was legit. It was a bona fide business.
It was exhausting.
But it wasn't the only business that was run out of this building and by this owner; one was the legit moving business that employed 16 loyal workers with jobs ranging from accounts receivable clerks to truck drivers, with all manner of things in between. The other business, the one Ezra had been investigating 24 hours a day for the better part of two months, involved shipping weapons and, as he found out only recently, drugs. Sheppard's business also catered to the need for explosives (because seriously, who doesn't need their explosives shipped?).
Ezra, or Eddie, as he was known in this circle, fit in all too well with his surroundings; he understood the material they were shipping and he was easy to talk to. These people didn't have any type of political agenda or radical ideas; they were in it solely for the money. And while Standish could understand the lure of the all-enticing dollar, he deplored the means to come by that dollar.
He had gotten his foot in the door of Sheppard's business by applying for a legit job through a parole officer of the courts. Knowing that the daily business was the legit one, and the night-time business was what they were after, Ezra had been set up as a second shift laborer for the moving company.
It took less than a week to prove his worth when he saw a crate containing C4 explosive being unloaded from a truck. The men unloading it were handling it as though it were made of glass. Ezra had stood back and laughed, knowing that the true nature of the compound was remarkably stable.
He walked over to the guys unloading the crate with the blocks of explosive and calmly put the box he was carrying down on the nearby desk. He slid up next to Sheppard and his two lackeys and peered around them as they pried open the top of the crate and looked at its contents.
He shook his head and laughed. When he was met with an inquisitive look from Sheppard, he shrugged as in apology and started to turn towards the box he had been carrying. Sheppard said to his retreating back, "What's so funny?"
Ezra stopped in his tracks and slowly turned, a half smile on his face. He went back to the crate and elbowed one of the lackeys out of the way. He moved quickly, forming a fist with his hand and smacking the malleable compound within the small crate. The three men beside him shied away from his action as they realized he was going to strike the explosive.
When there was no subsequent 'boom' following his strike, the three men righted themselves and returned to their previous positions, all now sporting looks of interest, if not accompanied by annoyance.
Standish grabbed a small piece of the explosive, kneading it into amoldable mass. Without making eye contact with any of his spectators, he continued to work the clay-like pieces in his hand.
"It's C4 gentlemen," he said, and looked up at the inquiring faces. He flipped the small ball to Sheppard. "Not dynamite."
Sheppard considered the small piece of clay-like explosive in his hand, then looked up at the southerner. "You know about this stuff?"
Standish shrugged his shoulder noncommittally. "I know a little."
He took the small piece back from Sheppard, ignoring the two lackeys who still looked on intently. "C4, also known as plastique, is a very stable compound and can handle pretty much any condition during shipment. You don't run the same type of safety issues as you would if you were shipping dynamite or nitro." Continuing to work the small piece in his hand, he looked behind him at the desk where his discarded box lay, and reached past the parcel and grabbed the empty flowerpot sitting on a desk. With the C4 now easily pliable, he molded it to the inside of the decorative ceramic pot. He then wrapped the pot in that morning's newspaper that was sitting nearby, and handed it back to Sheppard, who had been watching him with interest. For all intents and purposes, it looked like someone had packed their valuables into newspaper in preparation of a move or storage.
"Sometimes plain sight is the best hiding place. The less obvious, the better." Wasn't that the truth. Ezra had then turned back to his parcel and picked it up and started to walk away. Sheppard chuckled behind him, uttering "I'll be damned." He looked to the slowly retreating back of the southerner, and with a chuckle he called to him, "Come on back here boy. Tell me what else you know."
After that, it was easy to provide ideas for hiding arms within benign-looking shipments. Hell, he'd seen most of the hiding places before in other ATF cases, some of which were rather clever. Although it felt a bit off giving pointers to smugglers, it was a means to an end. And if this played out right, then they would never have a chance to employ half of the suggestions Ezra had given them.
Sheppard took a liking to Eddie, spending time with him both during and outside of work. He clearly appreciated Eddie's intellect and wit, as well as his creativity. He also seemed to take comfort in the fact that Eddie didn't seem to be bothered by what they were shipping.
Even though Sheppard had Craig checked out when he was hired on, he used his own connections and dug even further and harder into Eddie's past now. He had discovered JD's planted file with "Eddie's" record easily enough, highlighting several smaller crimes and culminating in a 5 year stint in prison for trafficking. When Sheppard dug deeper, he had found a few warrants out for Eddie's arrest in neighboring counties, and one in Pennsylvania. Sheppard had asked about Pennsylvania (because it seemed odd), and Ezra had just supplied a chuckle and a wry smile.
People were entitled to their secrets, after all.
And Ezra found himself drawn to Sheppard, even found himself being comfortable enough to call the man "Shep". Sheppard was a genuinely likable guy; he had a sharp wit that Standish truly appreciated, and their banter was reminiscent of Buck and JD. The man had worked hard for the business he had built himself. Sheppard had lost his wife to cancer two years prior, and had started shipping the illegal wares as a way to pay for her medical bills. After she was gone, Sheppard continued shipping. He took good care of the moving company employees, most of which were oblivious to their boss's shadier dealings, and he seemed to care genuinely about them and their families. It had given Ezra pause at several points, having to remind himself that Shep was the bad guy in this situation. But he couldn't help but think that had they met up in another life under different circumstances, they might have even ended up friends.
Ezra lay on his back staring up at the popcorn ceiling. Yes, he had been in worse places, but that didn't make him feel any better right at this moment. He repositioned again, trying to find an elusive comfortable spot. The couch beneath him had somehow become hard and unforgiving, when just a few minutes ago it was at least more comfortable than the bed.
This apartment, if it could be called that, hadn't been updated since at least 1987, at least as far as he could surmise, judging from the Miami Vice colors in the bathroom. The rug clashed with everything; its yellowish orange color tarnished and sullied from years and years of abuse; a swirling flower pattern, which may have once been white but now was quite gray, merrily twined its branches and leaves around first one, then another of its gray brethren. The furniture was a hodge-podge of dorm room rejects, the couch a clashing color of orange from the carpet. A few random chairs were arranged around the room, as though sitting in them would be enticing. As if you would ever even have guests to do so in such a dump.
The beat up microwave that sat on the counter had given up telling the time when Reagan was president. The small fridge had come from a local college, the school's emblem still proudly shining on the door. The few drapes had gone out of fashion long before the rug, and hung limply from their rods to pool on the floor. Years of abuse from sun, smoke and nicotine, as well as an obvious lack of periodic washing, faded the panels to a washed-out peach color.
The one good piece of furniture – which may have only been considered 'good' in comparison to its roommates – was the table. Oval, dark, the top scratched from years of use with uneven lacquer sealing in its scars. It was cleaner than the counter by comparison, sporting no damage that couldn't be identified. The table was sturdy.
He needed sturdy.
He spent many nights sitting at the table, playing solitaire or just shuffling. He had picked the sturdiest, cleanest chair of the bunch and made that his refuge. His place to sit and think. His place to remember who he was.
Because sometimes, that was the biggest struggle of all.
His cell phone rang, breaking him of his thoughts. He answered with a simple, "Yeah?"
"Eddie," Benjamin Sheppard's voice replied jovially. "Come down the bar. I have something for you."
Ezra ran his hand down his face. "Be there in ten."
After disconnecting the call, Ezra threw a shirt on over his t-shirt, slipped on his leather jacket, and slipped out the door.
The drive to the bar took less than 10 minutes, and Standish ordered a drink while he waited for Sheppard. As he sat at the bar he and Shep frequented in off-hours, sipping on a Jack and coke, he pondered all the information he had managed to gather on Sheppard. He had gotten copies of shipping manifestos, times and dates of shipments, even a set of books Sheppard used to track payments of the illegal gains. The man had been either so cocky or so set in his business ways of many years that he hadn't even bothered to use anything like a code, just regular shorthand that he used in his regular books. Hell, the man hadn't even invested in a decent safe.
Ezra turned on the bar stool, facing his newest friend. "What's up Shep?"
"Got an errand for you to do. I need you to pick up a delivery." He handed Ezra a slip of paper with an address. "There's gonna be a guy dropping off a truck in that lot," he pointed at the paper in Standish's hand, "in an hour. Go there, the keys will be in it. Drive it back here. Take Jon with you."
"Alright, no problem." He never asked what he was picking up, even when it was something so obviously shady as this. He just did it with a smile on his face and an accommodating attitude. He finished the last bit of his drink and slipped his leather jacket on, then headed for the door.
The blond looked up from the report he was reading. Orin Travis stood at the door to his office, a questioning look on his face.
Travis came inside the office and closed the door completely before sitting down. Chris kept his face impassive, even though this visit seemed… off. Travis never came to his office without calling first, and hardly ever at this late in the day. Something was up.
Travis sat in one of the two leather chairs facing Chris's desk. He took a breath and exhaled slowly, obviously getting ready to approach an uncomfortable subject. Chris hoped Buck and Vin hadn't done something too inappropriate as a practical joke this time.
"I just received a call from the director of the DEA."
His face remained impassive. "Oh?"
Travis locked eyes with Chris before continuing in a monotone, "He wants to know, and I quote, 'What the fuck is the ATF doing with their guy.'"
One eyebrow went up in confusion. "Their guy?"
"Apparently, they have been after Sheppard for quite a while now."
Chris blinked several times, letting the information sink in. "Ezra reported that the drugs are a new development," he replied calmly. "The shipping and transport of weapons, and now explosives, is 'what the fuck we're doing with their guy'."
Travis let the flip response slide, knowing Ezra had been under for almost two months, 24 hours a day. "The director of the DEA says they have Ezra on film and video dealing and trafficking the drugs they're watching."
"He's supposed to do those things. He's undercover," Chris replied, as though he were explaining the situation to an idiot.
Travis took a deep breath before continuing. "The DEA seem to think he's a bit too comfortable in this role. It took them four days to even consider he was an agent."
There was silence for several moments while Travis's statement permeated Chris's brain. Calmly, but with the obvious anger lacing his tone, Chris asked, "Are you saying that these jackoffs are suggesting he flipped?"
Travis took a breath to answer, but Chris cut him off.
"Because that upsets me a little, Orin," he announced calmly, sitting back in his chair. "The same way the Atlanta situation upsets me 'a little'."
"They said they would send this 'evidence' over by the end of the day today."
"Isn't that nice of them," he said in a way that clearly showed his disdain for the situation. "If this were anyone else, we wouldn't be having this conversation," Chris snapped.
"If this were anyone else, they wouldn't have lasted this long!" Travis snapped back, just as tersely. "It's a double-edged sword Chris. He's the best at his job. He lasts longer in these deep cover, high stress environments than 96% of his peers. 96%! That's a real number."
"And the other 4%?"
"Are usually killed."
Chris shook his head and huffed his breath.
"We have to expect that someone with Standish's talent, who can stay under for such lengths of time and has this kind of success rate… We have to accept that uninformed people will think he's jumped sides because of his history. And he is in fact that good, even if no one else is, and that can be hard for people to wrap their heads around." Travis finished his rant red faced and out of breath.
Chris sat with his face impassive, his mouth drawn in a straight line. He sighed audibly, if not agreeing, then at least accepting the Director's point of view.
"Now," Travis continued, "when was the last time you talked to Standish?"
Chris held his gaze another moment before answering. "Vin is his contact." He reached for his desk phone, dialing Vin's extension.
"Yeah?" came Vin's voice.
"Can you come in here for a minute?"
"Yeah," he said and disconnected the call.
"He's coming," Chris said to the AD. Travis nodded.
Vin walked in without knocking. It would take an act of God to get any of them to ever knock, Larabee silently griped.
"Chris," he nodded in greeting, "Judge."
"Tanner," Travis acknowledged.
"Vin, when was your last contact with Ezra?"
Vin looked from Chris to Travis, then back to Chris before answering. "He contacts me daily."
"Well next time you –" Travis began.
"When was the last time you talked to him Vin?"
He paused for a minute, then answered truthfully. "Last Thursday."
"Six days ago?" asked Travis incredulously.
"Yeah. What's wrong?" Tanner didn't seem concerned.
Chris took a deep breath and blew it out slowly, giving Travis a look. "The DEA are on to Sheppard, and they have pictures and film of Ezra dealing."
Vin looked back and forth between the two men, trying to see if they were messing with him. When it was apparent that they wanted an actual answer, he drawled out slowly and deliberately, "I know, he's told me about the dealing."
Travis met Larabee's eyes, then turned to face the sharpshooter. "They have film of him hanging out and being chummy with Sheppard, and not just at work."
Vin looked at the Assistant Director with squinted eyes, the look saying Don't even think it.
"They're saying he looks a little too comfortable in his surroundings," Travis added, then looked back to Chris.
Chris drew his left hand across his brow, massaging the spot above his left eyebrow. "They're hinting he's in bed with Sheppard, Vin." The way he said 'hinted' clearly showed his disgust for the whole idea. He dropped his hand to his desk, looking directly at angry blue eyes.
"Well, that ain't true," Vin stated plainly, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. "He ain't flipped."
"We're not saying that he did Vin, but that is what the DEA will imply," Travis placated.
"But he's been contacting you what, daily?"
Vin nodded as he tried to wrap his head around the situation. "Yeah," he answered distractedly. "Voicemails daily, if we don't talk. Texts. I log each communication, like I'm supposed to."
"Where is he?"
Ezra and Jon arrived at the address at the instructed time. There wasn't much by the way of conversation on the drive; Ezra didn't like young Jon, finding him cocky and irreverent, and always trying to prove how valuable he could be to Sheppard. The kid's eagerness to please and desperation to be considered valuable made him dangerous, but not in the "cool" way the boy desired. Ezra had no doubt that the kid would get himself or someone else killed within the year.
Ezra pulled the beat up, dark blue Impala next to the box truck, memorizing the license plate to relay to Vin. He also made note of the graffiti on the side. He turned to Jon, nodding his head in a way that said 'get out'.
The kid put on his best evil smile, and Ezra rolled his eyes. The only thing missing was an evil moustache-twirl and a maniacal laugh, like some cartoon villain.
Jon got out and slammed the door behind him, grating on Ezra's nerves. Ever hear of discretion? The kid opened the door to the truck and found the keys under the visor. He started it up, flipping on the headlights in the waning light. Ezra rolled down the sedan's window and shouted at the truck's closed window "Jon!"
Jon looked out and down at the southerner leaning across the car's front seat. He rolled down the window and barked out an insubordinate, "What?"
Ezra shook his head. This kid really got on his nerves sometimes. "You head out first, I'll be less than three minutes behind you."
Jon waved in aggravated dismissal at the other man and put the truck in gear.
"Hey!" Ezra waited until he had Jon's attention again. "Don't fuck up."
"I won't," he yelled back as he started to pull away.
That has yet to be seen, Ezra thought to himself.
Vin returned to Chris's office with the communication log he was keeping as Ezra's contact. In it, all emails, texts, and transcripts of phone calls during the case were organized and catalogued, and everything within the binder had an electronic backup.
"Everything is on the up and up Chris," Vin said as he handed the log to his boss. Travis took up a standing position behind Larabee to read over his shoulder.
"Have you heard from him today?" Travis asked without looking up.
Vin knew that the look he was giving the otherwise occupied AD bordered on contemptuous, but he couldn't help himself. "Yeah."
When no further answer was forthcoming, Chris looked up to Vin. "And?"
"First text was this morning, and he said all was fine and that it looked to be another 'boring day of honest labor'."
"First text? Was there another?" Travis asked, looking away from the log.
"Yeah. About an hour ago. He said he had to do an 'errand with the punk', which is the young guy that Sheppard seems to be giving a chance." At their questioning looks, he elaborated. "Ez don't like him. Says he's too eager to please."
"What kind of 'errand'?" Travis asked.
"Didn't say exactly, but it usually means picking something up or delivering something… sometimes distributing something." Chris half smiled, knowing that the Texan had just chosen his words carefully, avoiding the same wording the DEA had used.
"So how do you know if it's something case-related, or if it's just a part of his employment there?" Travis pushed.
Vin smiled. "If it's part of his 'job' he says 'Back to work' or some flip comment about 'honest labor'."
"Alright. Vin, we're gonna keep this," Chris indicated the binder, "and look through it before the DEA sends their shit over."
"No problem," Vin answered easily and slunk back out the door, closing it behind him.
"Is this normal?" Travis asked. "This degree of contact with Ezra while he's under?"
Chris sighed loudly and leaned back in his chair, bringing his gaze up to meet his boss's, who still stood beside him. "This is actually better than some of his other cases. At least with this case, he can carry his phone and get these messages out. Other cases we didn't even have that."
Travis let out a troubled sigh.
Chris nodded. Me too.
Ezra pulled out of the lot after Jon had taken off with the truck. He watched until the kid drove through an intersection and off into the dark evening. It seemed like it was getting darker earlier every day. He turned into a convenience store in a strip-mall and grabbed a drink from the large case, which would effectively pace his car behind the truck so as not to draw attention. He had no fear of losing the truck's trail; in fact it would almost be better if they weren't seen remotely close to each other. Two vehicles following each other in close proximity in this town was sure to garner attention from someone. They were both heading for the same place anyway.
As he got back in his car, he opened the cold water and sipped it in a moment of relief. He capped the bottle and put it on the seat next to him and pulled out his phone. He started to type out the license plate number in a text message he would send to Vin, then he would head out to follow Jon. Before he could finish the whole plate number he got an incoming call. The contact info flashed up as 'JON'. He groaned. As he flipped open the phone.
"What?" he snapped. "We've been separated for less than five min—"
Jon interrupted. "I got a fucking problem." His voice was tight and held a note of panic.
Ezra's stomach dropped. "What kind of problem?" He prayed it was something inconsequential, like a flat tire.
"A cop just pulled me over."
He couldn't help but raise his voice in anger. "The fuck for?"
"No idea, but if he runs the plate against my license they ain't gonna match…"
"I know!" Ezra fired up the car and pulled out of the convenience store a little faster than he should have, if he was trying to avoid unwanted attention. He took a deep breath and blew it out his nose in frustration as he adjusted his speed and switched the phone into his right hand. Why can't anything be easy? "Where are you, exactly?" Fuckin' backwoods podunk cops. Can't let a speeder or a slight lane drift go.
"Past the exit for the mall, and I can see mile marker 38. Fuck, he's coming up."
Ezra clenched his teeth and laid a little heavier on the gas. The engine roared in response, trying to keep up to the demand. A nervous kid was bad enough, but a nervous kid with a gun was worse.
"Don't do anything stupid, I'll be there in three minutes." God, please don't let this kid shoot the cop.
Ezra hung up his phone, stuck it back into his pocket and focused his thoughts on driving, paying extra attention to the mile markers. He was less than two minutes away.
Fred Anderson was a veteran of the police force for 17 years. Truck stops were pretty much the most exciting thing he ever had to deal with in this small town. That's why he liked living out here; such a sense of inherent safety and community. Say what you wanted about the country, but Fred doubted that any of his counterparts in the city could say they felt the same.
So yeah, the box truck had been a bit zippy, and yes, he could have let it go, but then he saw that one of the tail lights was broken, and figured that two strikes deserved a citation. If it had been one or the other, then fine, but not both. The truck pulled over without incident, and Fred stopped the cruiser ten feet behind the truck's rear bumper. He reached over and grabbed his hat from the passenger seat and got out of the car, leaving the blue lights and the overly-bright flood lights on, illuminating the truck's cargo door. He slipped his hat onto his head as he walked around the cruiser's driver's door.
Fred glanced at the encroaching dark on either side of the road, seeping out from the trees in shadowy tendrils and up the small incline, trying to reach the pavement. He looked behind him quickly as he started to come up to the driver's side, wary of any traffic that may be coming. He had seen too many videos of troopers getting nailed by irreverent drivers while standing next to stopped vehicles. Thankfully, no cars were coming in either direction. And, thankfully, this wasn't a particularly busy stretch of road.
His walk was slow and deliberate, and he would openly admit that he took some pleasure in knowing that his slow approach went a long way to making the driver penitent. But he also knew that he wasn't invincible, and never took anything for granted.
As he stopped next to the driver's side window, he found the occupant had rolled it down.
"Problem, officer?" the man asked.
Fred was a little surprised by the driver's appearance. He was young; maybe 20 or so, and wore a black hooded sweatshirt that was free of visible rips or tears. Fred was figuring that the truck would be some sort of work vehicle – a plumber or electrician – but he noticed the kid's hands on the steering wheel as being well taken care of. Not a tradesman's hands or typical tradesman's clothes.
"License and registration."
"Was I speeding?" the kid asked.
Fred nodded his head, as he was looking down at the offered license. "Going a little fast, yeah. You also have a taillight out," He gestured towards the back of the truck while still holding the man's license.
"Oh," the kid said through a sigh. "I'm sorry, I didn't know." He smiled.
The kid leaned over and started searching through the glove box and under the center console and visors, his obvious unease growing. "Uhh," the kid mumbled.
"Is this your truck, son?"
The driver was still shuffling through random papers and junk as he spoke. "It's, uh, my boss's."
Fred nodded slowly. "Right. Can you step out of the vehicle and walk to the back of it please?"
The shuffling stopped and confused eyes met Fred's. "Why?"
Fred's gaze didn't waver under the scrutiny. "Please, sir. Step out of the vehicle." He opened the door for the driver.
The driver discarded the pile of random paperwork on the deep dashboard and slid out of the truck as ordered. He glared at the cop as he turned towards the back of the vehicle and walked ahead of Anderson.
Fred released the holster snap keeping his weapon secure as the hairs on his neck started to prickle. The road was eerily empty of other motorists in both directions, and the meager light had finally dissipated and the area had been enveloped by the dark. Fred had a bad feeling. As he rounded the back of the truck on the driver's heels and into the flood of light, the driver turned to face him, bringing the gun he had hidden in his clothes up to bear. Fred had his gun up instantly, instinctively. He didn't know who fired first, but as the first shots rang out, Fred tried to get behind the cruiser for protection, and the kid started to slide around the passenger side of the truck, aiming over his retreating shoulder and firing as he beat a hasty retreat.
Adrenaline coursing through his veins, Fred reached the cruiser door he had left open reached for the radio and started yelling into it, "Officer needs assistance! Shots fired! I repeat, officer needs—"
And then blackness.
Ezra saw the lights way up ahead and knew it was Jon. In the now dark, he shut off his headlights and coasted slowly up about twenty feet behind the cruiser. He hoped that the lack of light and motorists, as well as the car's dark color would keep it from being noticed. Plus, the officer would be more intent on the traffic stop. Even so, he pulled the car as far over to the side of the road and down into the trees as possible. Thankfully, the land in this stretch of road was moderately flat and easily maneuverable.
Ezra shut off the interior light sensor, then opened the door as silently as possible. As he got out of the car he took his weapon out of its holster and walked around the door, leaving it open. He started walking toward the situation playing out ahead of him. Jon was just getting out of the truck, and the officer was holding the door for him. Ezra looked behind him on the deserted strip of road, and silently thanked Lady Luck for the lack of light. He made it to the trunk of the cruiser, hunching over to look through the back window and windshield, laying his free hand on the trunk lid.
Even through the two glass panes, he saw the look on Jon's face; it was a look of defiance and fear, but it also had 'I'm about to do something dumb and desperate' written all over it. He saw the kid slide his hand under his sweatshirt and palm the .38 he had in the waistband of his jeans. Ezra started to stand up straight, and whispered angrily, "Shit."
Jon spun and brought his gun up, which was met with the more experienced weapon of the officer. Jon fired first and missed, while the officer kept his bead on Jon while firing multiple rounds as he retreated to his cruiser.
Ezra ducked as the officer made his way back, but not before he saw Jon firing indiscriminately over his shoulder and behind him as he retreated to the passenger side of the truck.
The officer was ducked in to the 'V' that the open door and the body of the cruiser made, radioing frantically for assistance.
Ezra did the only thing he could do to save the situation. He rushed the officer and slammed his gun into the back of the stooped officer's head, striking before he had a chance to be seen. The officer was jerked forward with the initial blow, then fell backwards to land face up and arms splayed. Ezra bent down and checked him for any bullet holes. The poor bastard didn't even have a chance to think about what hit him; he was out cold. And, thankfully, lacking any injuries aside from the knock to the head.
Good thing Jon had shitty aim.
Ezra stood quickly and came around the front of the cruiser. "Jon!" he yelled. "Where the fuck are you, you little shit?" he muttered to himself, then yelled again "Jon!"
Jon came out of the shadows on the passenger side of the truck, and met the business end of Ezra's gun before he was recognized. Ezra lowered his gun.
"You kill him?"
"What in holy fuck were you thinking?!" Ezra yelled, then noticed that Jon was holding his left arm as blood seeped through the fabric of his dark sweatshirt, turning the fabric shiny in the flood lights of the cruiser.
"Eddie, I—" he started, but wasn't able to finish. He suddenly had a face full of angry southerner. "Jesus Eddie, back the fuck off!"
"You stupid fucking prick!" he yelled at the same time Jon was snapping at him to back off. He then flung the injured Jon towards the passenger side of the truck. "Shut up and get in the fucking truck!"
The kid complied without further protest. Ezra turned towards the cruiser, knowing that the on board dash cam would have captured the whole incident. He looked towards it, knowing that his face would be seen clearly, in a gesture, he hoped, of reassurance to the audience that he knew was going to see that tape, and soon.
He got in the truck and started it up and tore out of there, the tires slipping on the loose soil of the roadway's shoulder and kicking up a cloud behind them. Next to him, Jon panted through the pain in his arm as he came down from the adrenaline high. Ezra shook his head at him. "What were you thinking?" he shouted. "You were planning on taking on a cop? Do you know what kind of shit that would have caused? Hell, still could cause?" Then, more calmly, "You're telling Sheppard about this little fuck up, not me."
"They got you on camera in a firefight with a uniformed officer! Stupid!" he added as an afterthought, then smacked the steering wheel once, dispelling some of his anger.
Jon looked at him when he seemed to calm. "Are you sure?"
Angry and wild green eyes turned and pinned the younger man to his seat. "Of course I'm fuckin' sure! I destroyed it," he lied, "but I have no idea how those things work. I think they instantly upload now." Ezra ran his hand through his hair, blowing out his breath as he did, coming down off his own adrenaline high. Next to him, Jon remained silent.
He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. Larabee was going to kill him.
What a shit show.
Chris was looking through the file the DEA had sent over by courier. In a petulant display of passive aggression, they made sure it arrived at the ATF offices after the close of the day. But Chris had been waiting for it, and wasn't leaving until he got a look at what it contained.
There were pictures of Ezra looking to be dealing drugs, and others of him hanging out with Sheppard and his people. Standish looked very ingrained in Sheppard's group; there were even a couple of pictures with Standish and Sheppard laughing together and Sheppard with his arm around the southerner's shoulders in a brotherly way.
To Chris, it looked like it was supposed to. Standish was working his way into the man's good graces, and he wasn't doing anything unexpected. Hell, the communication log that Vin was keeping had mentioned that Standish had been asked to deal, among other things. And of course he looked comfortable in the role; Ezra was more that great at his job.
Larabee dropped the stack of pictures to his desk and sat back, sighing.
The DEA could pound sand. They had nothing.
After a silent trip, Ezra pulled up to the garage door and honked the horn twice. As it opened before them, he pulled into the garage and killed the engine. He slid out of the driver's seat and shut the door firmly behind him.
Sheppard walked out of his office towards the newly arrived truck. A beat up trucker hat covered his gray hair, but his smile was genuine as he approached. "My man," he said in greeting to Ezra. He reached out and gave Ezra a friendly slap on the shoulder. "Where's Jon?" he asked. Ezra nodded towards the truck cab, as Jon came around the front of the truck, still holding his arm. The kid looked like a whipped puppy.
"What happened?" Sheppard asked. His smile faded away. "Why are you both in the truck?"
"I had to dump the car," Standish said.
"Why? What happened?"
Ezra looked over at Jon expectantly.
"We… I mean I… ran into a problem."
"What kind of problem?" Sheppard asked slowly, a hard edge to his voice.
"I got pulled over…"
"WHAT?" Sheppard roared. Jon froze like a deer in headlights.
Ezra picked up the story. "Busted taillight. Don't worry, I took care of it." He gestured to the truck behind him. "We should unload this and then get rid of it. It's not worth the risk that they have the make and plates. Probably already have a BOLO out on it."
Sheppard was glaring at Jon. He walked right up to the young man and removed his hat, running his hand over his mussed up hair. He leaned in, his face only about an inch or two from Jon's face and sneered, "Do you know how big of a fuck up this is?"
The kid floundered a little, opening and closing his mouth like a fish gasping for air, trying to decide what would be the right thing to say.
"No," Sheppard continued, "I mean can you even fathom what could have happened? We could all be hauled off to the pen and left there to rot." He smacked Jon with his hat for emphasis, hitting the injured arm.
Seeing how angry Sheppard was and hearing Jon's hiss of pain, Standish tried to defuse the situation. He came closer to the kid, still behind and slightly off the kid's left shoulder as he spoke. One hand stayed on his hip and the other was held out to the side in a gesture of concession. "Shep, it wasn't totally his fault. We didn't know the taillight was busted."
Sheppard leaned back, out of Jon's face and smiled. Then, as he backed up, he started to laugh maliciously. Jon started to grin reflexively, looking to a few of the faces now staring at him, and let out a nervous chuckle.
Standish's eyes darted back and forth between Sheppard and Jon, and also looked at the few other people in the shop at that time. They weren't laughing. Ezra felt cold sweat trickle in between his shoulder blades.
"Jon," Sheppard started, as he calmed his mirth. He placed his cap back on his head. "I'm sorry my boy, but you're just not up to running with the big boys."
"I'm sorry Mr. She—"
It's a weird sound. If you've never heard it, it's hard to explain. It's almost like a pop, but still different. The silencer makes a bit of a whoosh at the same time, almost like someone trying to clear a hair off their tongue without using their hand, but it doesn't completely arrest the sound. Then there's a sickening sploosh-type of sound as the bullet travels through skin, bone and brain, annihilating everything in its path. All these sounds happen in the exact same second.
Jon never got to finish his apology before his brain was blown out the back of his head by Sheppard's silenced handgun. Blood and matter from the wound sprayed onto the side of the truck, adding to the graffiti already there in a macabre mural.
Ezra hadn't reacted to Shep's swift movement nor the sudden sound of the weapon discharging. The high velocity slug had finished its path before Ezra even realized it had been fired. His eyes reflexively shut and he flinched when debris landed on his face, like blinking in a rain shower. Bits of what he knew were blood and brains and bone had landed on his face, his jacket, and in his hair. Jon's lifeless body fell to the ground in a heap.
Sheppard turned to one of his other guys in the shop. "Unload the truck and get rid of it." He tossed the gun onto the table behind him. Nodding towards the crumpled body on the floor, he added, "That too. Dump them in the lake." He looked back at Ezra, who had yet to move.
Standish had managed to open his eyes and straighten himself. His gaze locked on Jon's body.
"Eddie," Shep said.
It took Ezra a second to realize he was being spoken to. He looked up to Sheppard. "Yeah?"
He waved the agent towards him, expecting Ezra to come stand next to him. Ezra did so robotically, stealing one last glance at the boy's body on the floor as he stepped around it. A dark crimson puddle had started to bloom on the floor and spread like an oil slick.
Jesus, he was just a boy.
As the two men walked back towards the office, Sheppard scrutinized Eddie's face, trying to puzzle together what the problem was. "Cheer up, Eddie. This deal is going to make us all very wealthy, and will set up a new pipeline for our shipments."
Ezra tried to plaster a smile on his face, but he knew it wasn't very convincing. "Yeah."
Shep stopped their forward movement with an outstretched hand and turned Ezra to face him. "Hey, you with me?"
Ezra shook his head slightly. "Yeah. I'm sorry, I just wasn't expecting…" he gestured back towards the truck.
"Hell, you didn't even like him anyways." He looked Ezra up and down, and seemed to realize just now that the man had blood on his face and clothes. "Eddie, go and take a shower in the locker room. Leave me your jacket; I have a guy that can get it clean. I'll get you a shirt to change into; I'll get rid of that shirt for you."
Ezra was still in a daze as he slid out of the leather jacket, followed by his shoulder holster and weapon, and finally his button-down shirt and t-shirt, handing everything to Benjamin Sheppard. Benjamin Sheppard, who had just murdered a boy right in front of his eyes. Benjamin Sheppard, who just brought this game to a whole new level.
Ezra made use of the locker room shower, allowing the hot water to cascade over his shoulders and down his back. The runoff at his feet had run pink at first, but had since become clear. The last bits of young Jon washed down the drain, carried out on a tide of soap and suds. Ezra leaned his head and forearms against one of the tiled walls, letting the hot water beat on his back.
How could I stand there and let that happen?
He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly, catching the small droplets of water dripping down his face, sending them splattering to the wall. He had to get himself under control.
Snap out of it, Standish. You've seen people die before.
But this kid didn't just die. He was murdered.
He shook his head in a vain attempt to clear it of these thoughts. Too much. It was all too much.
Taking one last deep breath and holding it, he turned toward the showerhead and let the water beat on his face. He lowered his head as he exhaled, water pouring over his head plastering his hair down to his skull before peaking at his nose and chin and cascading in an arc to the floor and down the drain. His skull. Half of Jon's skull was gone… blown into a million little bone fragments that would never be reunited with the rest of his body, wherever his body ended up.
He ran his hand up his face and into his hair and along the back of his head. His in-tact head.
God, I helped kill him.
Bringing his hand around suddenly, he slapped the tiled wall with enough force to make his hand sting.
He would have killed him anyway. It had nothing to do with you.
But Shep's words echoed in his head… "You didn't even like him anyways…"
He slapped the wall again, harder this time, and then shut off the water. No amount of water would wash away his sins. No amount of washing would make him feel clean again.
Tanner sat on his couch, watching the last bit of news before he headed to bed. He had stayed late with Chris to get a look at the stuff the DEA had sent over, and had agreed that they didn't have shit. Of course, that didn't alleviate his fears that they would try to make something out of that nothing; put some sort of slant on it to suit their needs. He shook his head and shut off the TV. He wasn't really watching it anyways.
As he was shutting off his lights and heading to the bedroom, his phone rang. He quickened his pace to reach the phone in time to take the call. He made it into his bedroom by the third ring and took the phone off the charger to answer it before it could go to voicemail, not looking at the caller ID.
He was quiet for a minute, trying to figure out the whispery voice. He pulled the phone away from his ear and confirmed the identity of the caller from display. "Ezra?"
There was no answer at first, and Tanner thought he may have been disconnected, or even butt-dialed.
An exhaled breath. "Jesus Vin… they killed him."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa…" Vin knew his own voice sounded panicky. "Ezra, who did they kill?" He grabbed the small notepad and pencil sitting on his bedside table and started writing.
"Just… blew his fuckin' brains out right in front of me. I didn't do a thing…"
Vin sat on the edge of his bed and listened to the pain in his friend's voice. "Ez, talk to me. Who did they kill?"
Another pause. "He was just a boy. A baby. God, Vin, he didn't even see it coming."
Tanner closed his eyes and dropped his head back as realization dawned on him. 'Errand with the punk'. That kid, Jon, was dead.
"Jesus, Ezra. Are you all right?"
A deep breath in, a small hitch at the end of it, and a slow expulsion of air through the mouth.
"Bullshit." Vin heard the snort of amusement on the other end and could imagine the small smile on Ezra's face.
One more deep breath. "We picked up a shipment tonight. A drop job." A pause. "There was an incident on the highway."
"What kind of incident?"
"Shots were fired. I came up to it late. It's all gonna be on the dash cam. Tell the officer… I'm sorry."
"Sorry for what? Ezra, what happened?" Vin's voice was tense.
"I have to go."
And the line went dead. Vin stared at the phone for a moment, then returned it to the charger. He looked down at the scribblings that he wrote during the call. He immediately rewrote them out into detailed notes while it was fresh in his mind, including how Ezra sounded and what was said. Tomorrow, he would have to find that footage of whatever 'incident' Ezra was talking about.
He reread his notes and sighed. I don't think this can wait till morning.
He picked up his phone again and dialed.
"Chris, I think we have a problem."