I arrived at work rather early for me. The clock had just reached 9 when I strolled in and found the others clustered around my desk. Something clenched inside of me and I wondered what my 'admirer' had given me now. Vin noticed me first and he blushed for some reason, giving way to let me approach my chair.
The scarf was back on my desk but with an addition.
My initials were tastefully embroidered at one end in a dull gold that went very nicely with the brilliant green of the silk scarf. "Well, my admirer has good taste at the very least."
"She likes to sew anyway." Buck said slowly. "I don't think we need to worry about it being one of the guys. I don't think any of them embroider."
"Perhaps." Larabee glared at my innocent scarf while I was still in shock at Buck's suggestion. "We need to be a little more careful watching who comes and goes through these rooms, guys. This may be a harmless flirtation on somebody's part but until we know who, I want us to be alert."
"Any ideas, Brother Ezra?" Josiah was sniffing my rose with a faint smile.
"None, Mr. Sanchez. I do not believe that anyone has made any overtures to me about anything other than one of our cases. I am so rarely here that perhaps they have simply mistaken the desk as belonging to one of you."
"Nope, Ezra, those are your initials. I'd say who ever it is knows you at least a little and wants to know you better." Nathan nodded to me and returned to his desk.
That's what I was afraid of. Sighing, I picked it up and laid it aside so I could set my briefcase down. "Gentlemen, I appreciate your concern but I'm sure this will all blow over as soon as I go back undercover. And I have some files to go over with our esteemed leader about a possible persona, so if you would excuse us?"
They dispersed a bit reluctantly while I hung up my coat and took the files that Miss Clover had given me out of my briefcase. By reading and rereading the files, I'd come to an understanding of Vernon Munson that anyone else might find odd. But I had a knack at putting myself into another's mind and then acting on it. I wasn't up to the profiler's job the way that Josiah was but the actor in me somehow knew what made someone tick so I could copy it.
It's one of the reasons that I'm so good at what I do.
But this time, my emotions kept getting in the way and I'd been up most of the night distancing myself from any personal involvement. That always left me cold and aching but nothing that a couple of aspirin wouldn't cure ... and perhaps a brandy with lunch. I mocked that silly part of me that persisted in dreaming of things that could never be and people who could never feel what I was feeling.
Larabee beckoned me into his office and I took the files with me along with my notes and the possible scenarios I'd come up with. Two hours later, I had his permission to begin my next assignment. That was something of a record for me. Mr. Larabee wanted to take Munson with a passion that I shared even if I hid it better than he did.
Buck was waiting for me with an invitation to lunch that I took with a sense of caution. I'd found myself on the other end of a couple of practical jokes that had made me wary. But to his credit, he wanted to help me with my secret admirer. We went to a nearby restaurant which was a step up from his usual choice and several steps down from mine but the food was adequate and the service quick.
Once our waitress had left, he started right in with some suggestions that I found rather touching. When I told him that they'd have to wait until I returned from my taking down Vernon Munson, he turned serious in a way that I've never seen in him before.
"He's scum, right down to the toes of his expensive boots." His tones were bitter and he turned the bottle of beer in his hands, but his thoughts were far away. "I won't ever forget how bruised and battered Vin was by the time that we got to him. I wish I'd dropped him out of the window of that fancy mansion of his. If I had, you wouldn't have to go in now and finish what we started."
I had to go slowly since I didn't want him to think my curiosity was of the scurrilous kind. "Vin mentioned that Vernon was kind at first, even helping him with his reading."
"Oh yeah, he really suckered Junior good." He took a swallow of beer and looked at me with sad eyes. "Vin was new to the team and still wary of us. He had the kind of childhood that no child should have to have. He was passed around Texas from family to family until he left the juvenile system at sixteen. He's still real innocent though, you might have noticed that about him?"
I clenched my jaw to keep back the words I wanted to say, contenting myself with a nod. He took that as an indication to continue. "Hell, up until last night, he still thought that all male loving was the rape kind."
I almost choked on my water. He leaned over and patted my back while I tried to regain my composure. "And now he doesn't?"
"Hell, no. Chris and I took him over to Inez' and filled him in on the good side of men loving men." Buck's eyes twinkled at me. "You probably already figured out that Chris and I go back a long way. Vin went home to think about it but he'll be fine once he gets it all into place. I think he was more shocked at the fact that so much of the ATF lusts after him. Men and women."
That was all too plausible. I'd seen the looks that he engendered just walking by with that graceful stride of his. I mourned for the loss of some of that innocence but felt just a smidgen of hope that he hadn't meant his disgust from the day before. He was still very young in the ways of the world and I hoped he never grew jaded.
"He will one day be appreciated for the beautiful young man that he is. That must have been a very interesting conversation, I'm sorry I missed it." And that was God's honest truth. The knowledge that Buck and Chris had once been close wasn't quite the news that he might have thought. They were too comfortable together to be anything but old lovers.
"Yeah, he's a good man and he deserves somebody real special. I think he finally understood that good friends make the best lovers." Buck smiled at our waitress, bringing our food. "That looks great, honey. I'm going to need some ketchup though."
While I watched Buck destroy a perfectly good sandwich, I thought about what he'd told me. Vin's innocence shone from him and I really hoped that Buck hadn't given him the wrong ideas about the other options for loving. My salad was fresh and with just a touch of oil and vinegar, was a perfectly good lunch even though Buck shook his head over my 'rabbit food'.
I quizzed him on the previous investigation of Munson and he buckled down and gave me the details that no report ever completely gets right. What he does, he does well and I appreciated the extra flesh on the bare bones of that case. It all went into my mind and the sub-layers that I'd be drawing on while undercover. Lunch took over an hour but I felt much better about my interpretation of what would bring me to Vernon's attention.
We walked back to the office and I sat down at my computer to construct a background that would hold up to the scrutiny of a probe. J. D. was most helpful with suggestions and the way to imbed information into the databases to support my persona. He was more intelligent than he let on but since he was the youngest of the team, he knew his role and fulfilled it to perfection.
His naiveté was less than Vin's but he seemed to instinctively know that the others didn't want to admit that to themselves. We had an agreement to let each other be who we really were and I rather enjoyed having at least one of the team know more than just my first layer as it were. The only other one who probably knew me was Josiah and his all-seeing eyes would have been frightening without his gentle spirit. Occasionally he called me 'son' and I really didn't mind since he was more father than I'd ever had growing up.
Once I had the basics in place, I went back to Larabee's office to give him the paperwork he needed. He sat me down and gave me the usual speech about being careful and making sure that I could back up any allegations that arose in the course of my investigation. I nodded in all the right places and put on a suitably earnest look while I assured him that I'd be careful.
Perhaps he was fooled but he'd surprised me before so maybe he was just crossing all the T's for the record. Josiah accompanied me down to the lab where the latest wires were to be found. His presence was comforting while the technician poked and prodded my suit and person. They really were marvels of miniaturization and practically undetectable unless I was stripped naked and moved away from my clothes.
Not something I planned on doing.
Josiah gave me a firm handshake and a promise to bring me to the attention of his Lord. Prayers never hurt and I thanked him before returning upstairs to get my coat and scarf. Running the silk through my fingers, I made sure there wasn't anything else added to it except the initials.
Whoever she was, I admired her grasp of psychology. She'd taken a gift from another person and instead of destroying it in a fit of temper, she'd made it part of her campaign. How she knew that I wouldn't just throw it away, I don't know but if it was a guess it was inspired. Nothing that Vin ever gave me could be discarded. It was too precious and rare like the man himself.
I would not be taking it undercover. My clothes would be quite different for this role. Michael Munson's travel in Central America was the key. It had not escaped my attention that Vin and Michael were virtual twins. Vernon was obviously in lust with his older cousin and constantly drawn to those who resembled Michael. I was going to be a returning Peace Corps volunteer who'd worked with his cousin in Guatemala.
My Spanish was excellent and I'd spent time all over Central America so my knowledge would back up my story. And my green eyes would remind Vernon of the man he loved. If he even knew what that emotion was. A drug addled brain might hold onto the remnants of an old passion and give me the 'in' I needed to investigate the drug smuggling.
Wrapping my scarf around my neck, I tucked the embroidered end inside and buttoned my coat over it. It was time to take my wires and my information home to effect my transformation into Edward Stanton, earnest volunteer and all-round-do-gooder. It would be a stretch but then I was gambling my life on my ability.
It was a sure thing.
Walking down the flights of stairs, I entered the parking garage to find Vin half in and half out of his rusty old Jeep. I could almost hear the silent curses that he was muttering under the hood. Taking a brief moment to admire the provocative pose that he was unwittingly giving me, I took a deep breath and approached him.
"Is there something I could help you with, Mr. Tanner?"
"Ouch!" He hit his head on the upraised hood and rubbed the spot while grinning at me. "Hope you didn't hear any of that. Darn thing won't start and she's got new spark plugs. Hate to think I wasted twenty dollars when she really needs a new starter."
Good heavens, he was worried about $20. "What about the battery? Would some jumper cables be of any use?"
"Nah, she's got juice, just no spark." He was still rubbing his head and the lost-little-boy-look melted a little of my steely resolve to give him a wide berth.
I was probably going to regret this but the chance to store some more memories was too much temptation to pass up. "Perhaps I could give you a lift home and tomorrow Mr. Wilmington could help you work on ... her."
"It's way out of your way, Ezra and you probably got plans." The wistful look pierced all my layers of armor as if they were nothing.
"No plans save for some packing. Actually, you could help me out with that if you would be so kind." I was going to hate myself, I just knew it.
"Really? You'd let me help?" He seemed so excited at the prospect of helping me and the boyish glee touched me with a warmth that only he could produce.
"Certainly, Mr. Tanner, I should probably shop at the local Good Will for the kind of clothes that a returning Peace Corps volunteer might have. I'm not sure just where the nearest one is but I seem to remember one in your neighborhood." I was lying of course. I knew every inch of the Purgatorio district in its relation to his apartment building. His safety was top of most of the teams lists. I would venture to say that any one of us could find his building and apartment blindfolded.
"Sure is." He let the hood down gently, as if that could possibly hurt the old wreck. "It's about two blocks from my building and the Sisters of Mercy have been having a clothes drive to restock the shelves. I'm not saying it's the cleanest stuff at the moment but you could wash them once or twice to make sure they're okay to wear."
I restrained my shudder with a determined air. "I'd be washing them anyway. Perhaps after this case is over, I can go through some of my wardrobe and find some donations for the good Sisters endeavors?"
His smile lit up the underground parking ramp. "That would be right kindly of you, Ezra. They'd sure enjoy having some good cloth to work with."
"You can remind me after we finish the Munson case." I told him and watched his face fall. "Don't worry, Mr. Tanner, this case won't take long to wrap up. And I will be just fine although I can not promise the same about Mr. Munson."
"I'm just a mite worried about the case but I don't want you to think that I don't think you can't take care of yourself." He looked hopeful and I felt a little more ice melt from around my heart.
"Thank you, Mr. Tanner, I appreciate your trust and I promise not to abuse it. Now, we should be on our way so I can finish my shopping in time to do a washing or two." I led the way to the gleaming Jag sitting three spots down from his rusting Jeep.
I could feel his warmth by my side and I took another deep breath to fill my lungs with his scent. I wished I could ask him about his shampoo but that would definitely be too personal a question. The key chain control unlocked the door for both of us and he grinned over the top at me.
"You just love those toys, don't ya, Ezra?"
"I find them comforting, Mr. Tanner. In case of need, seconds can make the difference." I smiled gently and slid behind the wheel after placing my briefcase behind the driver's seat.
"Yeah, I know what you mean." He frowned when he settled in beside me. "I been thinking about what I want on my new Jeep when I get the last thousand saved up. Has the Jag ever gone bad on ya?"
"No, not yet." I started the engine and let it run for a moment before backing out. "She's five years old now and my mechanic keeps her in excellent condition."
Vin nodded. "Yeah, maintenance is important. It's why I try to keep the oil changed and all the rest of it. But I'm kind of hard on her and she is creeping up on 12 years old."
"We'll all be glad when you get something new." I risked a glance over at him and caught the tail end of a smile.
"Yeah, Chris gives me hell every time he sees it and Buck won't
ride with me anymore." He looked at me and I restrained myself from
melting at the wry smile.
I nodded and kept my eyes on the traffic around us. It would be all too easy to let my control slip this close to him. The car radio began playing the familiar strains of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and I let the lilting violins soothe away the tension. The public radio station in Denver was even better than the one I'd grown used to in Atlanta and all my radios were permanently fixed on its frequency.
"That's real pretty, Ezra. What kind of song is it?" Vin's eyes were far away when I risked a side-glance at him.
That was a nice neutral subject and I made the story of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's life and music last all the way to Purgatorio. Vin hung on my every word and that was a rather heady experience for me. He was like a sponge soaking up the knowledge and mulling it over in his mind.
I parked in the alley behind his apartment building and set the car alarms. Taking my briefcase with me, I followed Vin up the stairs to his apartment. The tight jeans showed every flex of the long muscles of his back and legs. I contained my drooling but memorized every movement for replay later. And if my gaze returned rather frequently to the rounded globes of his ass, well that was understandable.
His apartment always amazed me with the clean lines of the few pieces of furniture and the pristine cleanliness of the whole room. When the door closed behind us, I felt the first hint of awkwardness creep in.
"Um, Ezra, can I ask you a question?" Those blue eyes looked into mine and I wanted nothing more to stand there forever, lost in that innocent gaze.
I had an idea I knew what he was going to ask and so braced myself, drawing in like a turtle into his shell. "Of course, you can."
But he shook his head. "Nah, I'll ask later. We need to find you something to wear when we go to the Good Will store. You'd be the center of attention in that pretty suit of yours. I've got some jeans and a sweatshirt you can put on while we're shopping."
For a moment, I was speechless at the very thought of wearing something that he'd worn. But I managed a nonchalant smile and nod, which he returned with a grin. The chest of drawers in the corner served as his closet and he knelt down to pull open the bottom drawer while I watched.
The jeans and sweatshirt were old and faded but scrupulously clean just like everything else in his apartment. He rose gracefully and handed them to me. "These should fit you okay, Ezra. There's a hanger on the back of the bathroom door so's you can hang up your suit."
I couldn't trust my voice right then so I just nodded and left him for the safety of the small bathroom. Laying the bundle on the closed toilet lid, I began stripping off my Ralph Lauren navy-blue suit. The white hanger was cheap plastic and barely adequate for the job but I mentally consigned the suit to the cleaners and kept on getting undressed.
The jeans were soft as butter and hugged me from back to front. The sweatshirt was a faded momento of the University of California but the soft forest hue made my eyes look even greener. My handmade leather loafers from Italy were black and wouldn't look unduly ridiculous with the outfit. I'd have to dig out my old running shoes for the actual charade.
Opening the door, I came out, carrying my suit on the hanger. Vin was rocking in the battered old rocker by the window and I suddenly knew that was one of his favorite spots. I felt privileged to be shown such a personal sight of this private man. The pensive look on his face told me that he was thinking hard.
"Hey, Ezra, that shirt never looked that good on me." He jumped to his feet and met me in the middle of the room.
"It's quite the wrong color for you, Mr. Tanner. Blue would work better with your eyes." I bit my tongue at his blush. That was much too personal a remark. "I'll just put my suit in the car and we can peruse the clothing selection at the local emporium."
He nodded. "If'n you can bring yourself to call me Vin, it would sound a lot better to the Sisters."
"Of course." I was going to have a sore tongue at this rate if I didn't quit biting it. "Did the Sisters ever say why they chose Purgatorio for their House?"
"Nah, I don't think anybody had the nerve to ask them. Sister Ernestine is about six feet tall and built like a linebacker. She's real no nonsense." Vin joked all the way down the stairs, naming the other sisters and describing them. He had a sense of humor that rarely surfaced during the serious hours of ATF business.
After re-locking the car, we went down the street towards the shabby building with the freshly scrubbed windows. In the afternoon dusk, they gleamed amid the dusty glass of the other buildings that lined the street on both sides. If they did nothing else, I hoped the Sisters of Mercy would bring a little cleanliness and light into the lives of the inhabitants of Purgatorio.
The smell of mildew, which I'd been expecting, was overpowered by the smell of disinfectant. Clothes hanging on old metal hangers surrounded us on circular displays, slightly the worse for wear. One had a distinct tilt to it and I made a mental note to avoid that one or prepare myself to fix it. Vin greeted one of the black clad nuns behind the counter and I listened in while I took a look through the racks.
They were discussing some game that was going to be played in the playground and Vin was promising to come and help out. I found two pairs of jeans that were slightly tattered but substantially in one piece. The worn spot in the left knee would widen into a respectable hole if I worked on it. Some work shirts in heavy denim that had been washed until threadbare completed my ensemble. I chose a green hooded sweatshirt to play up my eyes.
Not quite a substitute for my scarf but safer if there was a chance of bloodletting. I was feeling quite protective of Vin and rather annoyed at the drug smuggling Mr. Munson. It wasn't so much chance as choice and I intended it to be mine. I'd stop at a K-mart and pick up some cotton boxers. If I washed them several times and made sure I put in some softener, they would be adequate if not comfortable.
Edward Stanton wouldn't know silk boxers from a hole in the ground. The sacrifices I make for my art. I joined Vin at the back counter and paid for my selections with one-dollar bills. The good sister smiled and thanked me sweetly while putting my new clothes into a recycled plastic bag. Vin nodded approvingly at me and I left the place with relief.
The smell had been overwhelming and I breathed in the cold air with a sense of relief. There weren't many cars in this part of town and the lack of pollutants in the air was like a breath of spring. Vin was quiet while we walked back to his building and I gave him the courtesy of respecting his silence. He was still struggling with something and I had a good idea what it was.
But I definitely wasn't the person who could help answer his questions and coward that I am, I was hoping to get away before he could corner me. Alas, it was not to be. On the corner of the street within half a block of safety, he stopped and trained those beautiful blue eyes on me.
"Ezra, I'd be real grateful if you'd have dinner with me tonight. I got some questions that kind of have me puzzled." The entreating look made me capitulate without a whimper.
"Certainly, Vin. Lead the way." I returned his smile and mentally gave myself a shake. I would keep it friendly and open but general ... extremely general. At least, that's what I told myself while I climbed the stairs behind the tightest, most beautiful ass in Denver.
Control, I told myself. Keep control.