Nathan Jackson came in to work early Monday morning and promptly buried himself in his cubicle, as was his usual habit, for several hours before coming out for a coffee break. On the way back out of the breakroom, however, he spotted something out of the ordinary just inside Ezra’s workspace and wandered over to investigate.
It was a cane. A very nice cane, polished cherry wood and a heavy brass top shaped like a leaping dolphin. But why did Ezra have a cane with him at work? He moved closer to look into the cubicle and saw the man himself sitting there in his chair, one leg stretched out in front of him, reading. Nathan looked, and then he looked again. “That’s…that’s a cast!”
Ezra didn’t look up from his magazine. “Very astute, Mr. Jackson.”
“It’s a cast!” Nathan’s voice went up. “You’re supposed to be at a meet this afternoon, you can’t go in there wearing a cast!”
That time the undercover agent did look at him, and cocked an eyebrow. “If you are attempting to tell me that arms dealers are magically endowed with instantaneous healing of broken bones, then I believe I chose the wrong profession.”
“You know what I mean!” Nathan was really angry now. “You can’t go if you’re hurt, you’d be a liability. You could get one of us killed, tryin’ to protect you!”
All the humor disappeared from Ezra’s face. “I see.” His voice was suddenly very flat. He stood up, snagging the cane from the back of his chair to balance himself with. The magazine fluttered to the floor, forgotten. “In that case, I believe a slight rethinking of the upcoming appointment is in order. I should certainly hate to have anyone endangered for such an…unworthy cause.”
“Now you’re talkin’ sense,” Nathan told him, hearing the agreement but not the hurt. “You want me to go tell Chris you’re calling it off? He and I’ve talked about this before and he agrees with me, he’ll know it’s for the best.”
“Yes, tell Mr. Larabee that I will take care of the situation myself,” was the cool reply. “And now if you wouldn’t mind, I believe I have elsewhere to be at the moment.”
“Glad to hear it.” The chemist was already walking away. “Wouldn’t do for someone on the team to get hurt because of this, wouldn’t be right.”
“No, of course not.” But Nathan was already too far away to hear the bitter note of betrayal in Ezra’s voice. “That wouldn’t do at all.”
Chris seemed a little surprised when Nathan had passed on Ezra’s message, which in turn surprised the chemist quite a bit. “What? You can’t mean you knew about that broken leg and you were gonna let him go anyway?”
“Of course I knew, he called me from the hospital – I brought him home Saturday night. He said he was fine to do this today, since it was just a preliminary meet.” The team leader shrugged. “But I’m sure he’ll settle it with the front men. Don’t want him out there if he doesn’t feel right about it.”
“Nope.” And Nathan had gone back to his work with a smile, happy to have nudged the stubborn undercover agent in the right direction.
Ezra was back the next morning with nothing much to say, although he seemed…conflicted somehow, as though he were torn between being satisfied about something and being depressed. Nathan thought that was a good sign and said as much to Josiah in the break room. “It’s about time that man realized what it means to be part of a team.”
Josiah raised an eyebrow. “I don’t believe our brother has a problem with that, Nate; after all, he felt secure enough to plan on going to the meet yesterday even though he wasn’t quite at the top of his game, he trusted us to look out for him.”
“He wasn’t thinking about the team, just about his reputation,” Nathan argued. “Man had no business bein’ out there hurt like that, risking everyone on the team for his pride. I’m just glad I was able to make him see sense.”
“Make him…” Josiah’s pale blue eyes widened, then narrowed. “Nathan, what did you say to him?”
“Told him the truth,” the chemist answered proudly. “Told him it was stupid and he was risking gettin’ someone on the team hurt tryin’ to protect him. He knew I was right, he even agreed with me. Said it wasn’t worth anyone getting’ hurt for such an ‘unworthy cause’ and told me to tell Chris that he’d take care of it.”
The profiler actually paled. “Oh my Lord,” he whispered, and then pushed past Nathan and made a beeline for Larabee’s office, leaving a very bewildered chemist in his wake.
Almost immediately he came back out and returned to his own desk without another word to Nathan, and Chris appeared almost right behind him and went straight to the elevator. When he came back into the office not half an hour later the team leader was carrying a tape and wearing a grim expression. He stopped at Ezra’s cubicle and apparently said something to the undercover agent and then left to approach Nathan. “My office, now,” he ordered quietly.
Nathan did as he was told, and he didn’t say anything until Larabee’s office door was closed behind him. “Chris, is somethin’ wrong?”
“You tell me,” Larabee said evenly - too evenly. Nathan started to get a bad feeling. “Want you to take a look at something with me, Nathan.”
The chemist obligingly moved closer to the small VCR setup Larabee kept in his office. “Isn’t that one of our surveillance tapes?”
“Yeah.” Larabee didn’t sound happy about it. “Just watch. And don’t say a word until you’ve seen it all.”
Nathan was starting to go from worried to scared; he would have felt much better if Chris had been yelling or growling the way he usually did. But he settled gingerly on the edge of a chair and fixed his eyes on the small screen. To his surprise – which was quickly followed by horror – he found himself watching footage of the spot where the meet had been meant to take place the day before, and then Chris fast-forwarded the tape until several cars pulled into the scene and the front men got out…as did Ezra, cast and all. Nathan watched as the undercover agent greeted the armed men with a smile and apparently explained his injury in a way that made them laugh. “What the hell…”
“I said no talking,” Larabee snapped. “Just watch.”
The social niceties observed, Ezra limped over to inspect the samples the men had brought with them. He didn’t appear happy with several of them and a debate ensued which included the undercover agent gesturing meaningfully toward the guns the bodyguards were carrying and then contemptuously back at the displayed weapons. The debate became an argument…and then suddenly the front-man had one arm around Ezra’s throat and the barrel of an assault rifle pressed against the side of his head. The man appeared to be yelling at someone, then stopped and apparently waited for a response; after a few moments more he released an apparently unconcerned Ezra, who stepped away and straightened his clothing with an irritated look on his face. Ezra asked a question and then rolled his eyes at the man’s sheepish answer, gesturing to the surrounding area and then dismissing the front-man’s apology with a shrug. And then they went back to wrangling about the weapons again, reached some sort of agreement which they then shook hands on, and then everyone went back to their cars and the scene cleared out again.
Larabee stopped the tape at that point. “It goes on for a bit more,” he said tiredly. “Until he came to get the camera and turned it off about an hour later.” He cocked an eyebrow at Nathan. “Mind telling me what it was you said to him that convinced him he needed to go out there without backup?”
Nathan was stung. “I didn’t say nothing like that to him!” he insisted. “Like I told Josiah, I saw Ezra’s cast yesterday and told him I didn’t think he should be endangering everybody by going to that meet if he wasn’t one hundred percent. I got him to agree with me that it wasn’t worth the risk of getting someone of the team hurt protecting him…”
He trailed off, realization dawning on his face, and Larabee sighed and nodded. “Yep, he agreed with you, all right – what he heard you saying was that he wasn’t worth risking anyone else on the team for and so he decided not to risk anyone but himself.” He sighed again. “Is there anything else I need to know about this ‘conversation’ of yours before I try to undo the damage you did, Nathan?”
That wasn’t a question Nathan felt like answering, but he knew better than to hedge; he had a feeling Larabee had guessed there was more. “I…I told him I’d talked to you about it before and you agreed with me.”
“Great, just great.” Chris sat a moment more, staring at the ejected tape, and then he shook himself. “Nathan, I know you meant well, and I can’t exactly say that things didn’t work out for the best after seeing that tape…”
“What exactly do you think was goin’ on there, Chris?” Nathan asked him cautiously. “Why’d they hold him at gunpoint and then let him go again?”
“Someone fingered him as a federal agent,” was Larabee’s answer. “They were yelling out to his backup to show themselves, and when no one came out they knew they’d been wrong.”
“So you mean if we’d been there…”
“He’d probably be dead,” the team leader answered quietly. “So this time luck was on our side and your…interference saved his life.” He looked up suddenly, turquoise eyes piercing, demanding. “But what about next time, Nathan? What about the next meet, the one he hasn’t given me the time for?”
The chemist’s mouth dropped open. “You mean he…”
“Didn’t say a word,” Larabee confirmed. “Mentioned it in the report he submitted along with the surveillance tape, though. So I’d say Ezra expects to be carrying this case all by himself until he’s out of that cast – because you just jumped in and piled a bunch of unfounded guilt on him to get him to agree with you.” He held up his hand when it looked like Nathan was about to say something else. “No, I don’t want you to say word one to him until I get this mess straightened out,” he ordered. “I’ll be talking to him right after I’m done with you, and I don’t need you stirring the pot any more than you already have – he’s gonna be damned hard to convince as it is. And under the circumstances I’m not going to reprimand him, because most of this is your fault.” Larabee grimaced. “I wish I could reprimand you, but the regs don’t give me grounds to punish someone for being stupid. So you both walk this time, and hopefully I can convince Ezra that his team doesn’t think protecting him on the job is a risk they shouldn’t have to take.” He took the rewound tape out of the machine and laid it on his desk, settling back in his chair. “Go back to work, Nathan, this meeting is over. We won’t mention it again.”
Nathan just nodded and left; he didn’t really feel like there was anything he could say. But as he sat at his desk staring at the report he was supposed to be working on, all he could see was his teammate – a man he really did think of as his friend, dammit! – standing there in that parking lot with a gun to his head, alone except for a bunch of men who were ready and willing to kill him. Because of a few hasty, careless words.
Words that had come out of Nathan’s mouth. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Ezra limping into Larabee’s office, leaning on his cane and looking closed-off and defensive, saw the deep concern etched on Larabee’s face as he held the door open for his slow-moving agent. Oh, the hurt those words had done.