Testing the Waters

A challenge from the Write 'Em, Cowboys list: to write a story that begins with the following sentence: "The Pacific Ocean, he mused, was damned big."

The Pacific Ocean, he mused, was damned big. And the lifeboat he was sitting in was damned small.

"God damn you, Nicky Appleton!" Ezra shouted, shaking his fist in the air. Not that Nicky Appleton could hear or see him. Nicky was safely on the yacht that was rapidly steaming its way toward the horizon. Ezra watched until he could no longer see it, suspecting they would be watching him as well.

As he loosened his bow tie and undid his top two shirt studs, he idly wondered if shaking his fist was going a little bit too far. As he considered that he was now in the middle of the ocean, alone, still in the tux he'd been wearing for the card game that ended up going all night, with all the rest of his things left behind in his cabin, he thought not.

With the yacht out of view, he set to checking what resources he had. The box under the stern seat had, amazingly, a flare gun. That had to be an oversight. He could not imagine they'd have left him anything resembling a weapon if they knew it was there. He put the flare gun back in the box and reached for the canvas duffel in the bow. Someone clearly didn't want him to die, they just wanted him off the yacht. There was bottled water, a few protein bars, a chart and a compass. On the chart was a sticky note with an arrow pointing to a spot in the ocean and the words "you are here" printed in pencil. The last thing he pulled out of the duffel was an envelope with his name on it. He raised an eyebrow at that, then opened the envelope.

The note was in Nicky's handwriting, short and to the point: Sorry to drop you like this. I'll be in touch. N.A.

"I'll be in touch?" Ezra repeated incredulously. What an incredibly cavalier way to leave him. From the moment the scowling dark-suited man had come in to speak to Nicky, he'd suspected his cover was blown wide open. The dark expression on Nicky's face had confirmed it. With all the politeness in the world, he'd been asked to keep his seat, but he heard the underlying threat of bodily harm, and complied. He'd waited when Nicky had left the room to confer with his man, and then allowed them to put him adrift. Of course, if he'd resisted, the likelihood of ending up dead would have increased, and being a very practical man, he opted for alive.

He was beginning to feel like he'd tumbled down the rabbit hole. Nothing about this case had been normal from the moment they started looking into Nicky Appleton. Appleton was not the usual sort of felon they went after, but from somewhere much higher up the food chain, they'd been asked to investigate. And, after weeks of work, the sum total of the evidence they had was a few Cuban cigars. Illegal, to be sure, but hardly worthy of the hundreds of man-hours they'd put in so far.

His instinct told him there was much more to this case, both in the reason they were asked to look into Appleton in the first place, and in what Appleton was up to. But right now, all they had were the cigars and his suspicions. And if he was going to be able to act on his suspicions, he had to get off this damn big, empty ocean.

Picking up the chart and compass, he looked around. Still nothing but ocean in every direction. If he remembered correctly, under normal visibility, that meant that the horizon was somewhere between three and four miles away. He spread the chart open on his knees, looking at it carefully. If the sticky note was correct, he was about five miles off the coast of Baja California. And when he oriented the chart with the compass, east, and land, was behind him. No problem. The sea was calm, he had an oar, and it was mid-morning. He should be able to get to shore before dark.

Getting the life boat turned around wasn't difficult, and he crouched in the bow, rowing steadily. He kept himself going with the thought that he'd make shore at one of the resort towns and be greeted with a hot shower and a cold margarita.

He wasn't that lucky. He got to shore before dark, but it wasn't at a resort. It was at a small fishing village, if the few huts near the ocean could be called a village, and there were none of the modern conveniences he was hoping to find. The people were friendly and sympathetic, and helped him pull the life boat up on the beach. Since he had no money, they could not be convinced to take him to town that night, but they did take him in, feed him dinner and give him a cot to sleep on.

He didn't sleep well, morning found him grouchy and tired, and the bumpy ride on the few miles of rutted dirt road to the town of Camalu made for a miserable start, but a chance to use a phone made up for everything. He had to trade his wristwatch to pay for the phone call he was both eager to make and, at the same time, dreading the response he'd get.

Vin's laughter was all he'd been expecting to hear. "Why, yes, I'm fine, thank you for asking." Vin only laughed louder, but did finally say that he'd drive down from Los Angeles and pick him up.

Ezra made himself comfortable at the store that doubled as the local café and settled in to wait. Vin had located Camalu. According to the maps, it was on the Pacific coast of Baja California, about 150 miles south of the border. Allowing for every probable delay, they figured it would be most of the day before Vin got there.

He spent the day watching cars go by on the two lane highway, talking to curious children, drinking beer and worrying about what the hell was going on and what they were going to do about it. Finally, as the sun was setting, a dark, government-issue sedan pulled off the road and stopped. The driver's side door opened, and out stepped Vin, grinning in that unfortunate way he had when you were the butt of his joke.

"About damned time," Ezra said as he stood up. "Did you bring everything?"

"Good to see you, too," Vin answered him, his blue eyes laughing even more than his smile as they gave Ezra and his ensemble the once-over. "Cash and I.D., I even grabbed you a change of clothes." Ezra grimaced as Vin looked him up and down once more, his grin growing. "But I think the rumpled tux look is a good one for you."

He ignored Vin's comments and opened the car door. His overnight bag was on the back seat, and he rummaged into it to get to his wallet and cash. Walking past Vin, he went into the store, intent on buying back his watch. It took a little talking, but the store owner was finally convinced to sell it back to him for half again what he gave Ezra for it. With a little creativity, he could put the overage on his expense report.

When he got outside, he found Vin staring off at the sunset. "I'm ready to get out of here any time you are."

Vin looked at him and nodded. "Thought we'd stop in Ensenada for the night."


"Sure. Good food, real margaritas. And it's a damn long drive to L.A."

And it would give them some time to talk. There were too many things about this case that weren't adding up. "Good hotels with hot showers?"

Vin nodded again.

"What's keeping you, then?" He got in the passenger seat and closed the door.

Once they were on the road, he looked over at Vin. "What did you tell Chris?"

"Haven't talked to him yet. Why?"

"Something isn't right about this case. I've been doing some thinking today--"

"In between beers," Vin interrupted him.

"In between beers," Ezra agreed. "But thinking nonetheless. And, as I said, something isn't right." He glanced over and saw he had Vin's attention. "First, we don't know, or, more properly, Travis won't tell us who ordered this investigation. Then the background research, even with J.D.'s and my considerable skills, yielded nothing substantial. My time with Nicky was no more fruitful than the original research, with the possible exception of discovering that he smuggles Cuban cigars and liquor that has avoided import tax, both of which we initially suspected."

"We've chased empty leads before."

"But not like this one. Not on orders from above Travis's head. Not that led us to so much nothing." He rubbed a hand across his eyes. "And not that on the heels of so much nothing had them discovering I was not who I said I was."

Vin chuckled. "And not who left you out on the ocean."

"With a chart and a compass and a farewell note."

"All right," Vin said, "I'll give you that this case is different. But what's got you all twisted up about it?"

Good question, he thought. "I wish I was sure."

By the time they got to Ensenada, it was fully dark, and Vin followed the signs to the hotel district by the ocean. They picked one that boasted not only ocean front rooms, but a bar and restaurant on the premises.

It was a warm evening, so after they checked in and took enough time for Ezra to change out of the rumpled tux and into the jeans and polo shirt Vin had brought him, they found a table on the patio where they could talk without being overheard.

"What are you going to tell Chris?"

Ezra huffed out a short laugh. "What I'm going to tell Chris doesn't worry me half as much as what I'm going to tell Travis."

"Could let Chris handle that," Vin said with a grin.

"I could." Ezra shook his head. "But I won't. He's going to want the same answer that I do: why the hell have we been tasked to look into Nicky Appleton."

"Be interesting to know why they picked our team."

That was one question Ezra was afraid he knew the answer to, but he wasn't sure he was ready to share his suspicions or fears about that with anyone. To avoid answering, he signaled the waiter for two more margaritas.

"You ain't the only one been doing some thinking, though," Vin continued. "J.D. was peeved about all the dead ends he ran into, so he did some snooping, tried to find where this assignment came from."

Ezra sat forward, his elbows on the table, intensely interested. "Did he find anything?"

"Course he did." Vin shook his head. "Damn near got caught at it, too, from what he told me."

"Are you going to tell me or make me wring it out of you?"

"Like to see that," Vin chuckled, lifting one eyebrow suggestively, which Ezra ignored. "But the short version is he thinks it came from somewhere in the intelligence community."

"Somewhere? What does that mean? CIA? NSA?"

"He didn't get that far in, was afraid they'd find his trail, so he backed out. But he said it was definitely outside the ATF."

"Damn." Ezra sat back in his chair, staring across at Vin. "What the hell is going on?" What could the intelligence community possibly want with a millionaire playboy, minor league smuggler? And what could they possibly expect the ATF to achieve beyond dealing with Nicky's smuggling? Yes, he decided, he'd truly fallen down the rabbit hole. "You know, I'm not going to think about this any more. When we get home, I'll think of something creative for a report, but I do not have any desire to be involved with the intelligence alphabet soup."

Vin nodded. "Know what you mean." He finished the last of his margarita. "'Cept I think he was getting a little ahead of things. If it was anyone outside, I'd guess DEA."

Taking a deep breath, Ezra relaxed. That made much more sense, even if nothing they'd found pointed to drugs. Didn't mean that Nicky didn't have an alternate smuggling stream that included harder stuff. Still, that wouldn't fit with the sense of the man's character that he was building.

"No, not drugs." He couldn't say why for sure yet, but he'd stake his reputation that Nicky wouldn't be involved in drugs.

"Why not drugs? This guy get some kind of pass on sleaze because he's got a yacht?"

Ezra looked hard at Vin, not liking the hint of jealousy he was hearing. "You're joking, right?" He glanced out at the ocean, gathering his thoughts. "I get an odd sense of honor from him. That he has scruples. And that the scruples would include not being involved in drug smuggling." He looked back at Vin. "No facts, just a feeling."

"You get along good with him, don't you." It was a statement, not a question.

"It's an assignment. Nothing more." Vin didn't look convinced. "A very strange assignment that came from outside our agency and is very mysterious."

"Which is pretty much what we knew before J.D. nearly got himself caught hacking into things, and before you spent a few days on a luxury yacht and got dropped off on the ocean."

Laughing softly, Ezra pulled out his wallet and opened it, sliding out enough cash to cover their bill, along with a generous tip. Dropping the bills on the table, he stood up. "And maybe after a hot shower, and a good night's sleep, it'll look a little less like we've been attending the Mad Hatter's tea party."

"Yeah." Vin slid his chair back, standing and looking over the patio wall and down at the ocean. "Least nobody lost their heads."

Ezra was tired, too tired to continue with metaphorical discussions, so he turned and started out of the restaurant, expecting Vin would follow. By the time he got to the elevator, Vin had caught up with him, and they rode up to their floor in silence.

Once inside their room, he rummaged in his overnight bag for fresh clothing, then ducked into the bathroom. That hot shower was looking more and more attractive, and right after that, the big soft bed. It had been a long week, capped as it was by being left on the ocean.

The combination of the long hot shower and scrubbing off the accumulated dust and salt water and perspiration went a long way toward letting him relax enough to think clearly about everything that was going on. And the one thing that was abundantly clear was that there wasn't a thing he could do about the situation at the moment. His best bet would be a good night's sleep and then get back to Denver as quickly as possible. Maybe if they started over where he first met Nicky they could get some new leads.

He finished towel-drying his hair and looked at what Vin had brought him to wear. Most of his things had been left on Nicky's yacht, and that once again sparked his anger. Unreasonable, he knew, he lost things all the time when he was undercover, but this time was different, and he still had to work out why he felt that way. In the mean time, he had a pair of running shorts. Not his, he was sure, but from his bag. Vin's, no doubt. Dammit. The anger surged again. He shouldn't have to rely on other people's clothing. Oh, sure, they'd fit, and it was better than having nothing to wear to bed, but. Soft gray cotton, loose-fitting and comfortable. They'd do for now.

Vin was lounging on one of the beds in the room, tv on but sound turned down, remote control in hand as he flipped through the channels. Ezra watched a moment as the images flashed by, shaking his head when Vin settled on some sort of ultimate fighter show. As tired as he was, he couldn't sit down yet, so he stepped out onto the small balcony, leaning on the rail as he looked over downtown Ensenada. Bright lights, music, laughter and voices, just regular people going on with their lives.

The hand on his shoulder startled him. He glanced back at Vin, shook his head in answer to the unvoiced question. No, he wasn't really all right.

"Come on." Vin gripped his shoulder lightly, guiding him off the balcony and to the bed. "Lie down and let me work out some of those kinks."

This wasn't the first time Vin had done this for him, but this time it felt different. The massages he'd given Ezra before had been hard, but pleasant, working to force cramped and hard muscles to relax. This time, though, this time, the pleasure was held at bay by a pressure and kneading that seemed to be pulling his muscles from his very skin. When one last knuckle dug bruisingly into his back, Ezra turned over and grabbed Vin's wrists, stilling them. "What the fuck is going on here?"

Vin stared down at him, his face expressionless. "I watched you with him." Vin pulled his hands free. "In Denver."

"Of course you did." Ezra slid up to sit against the headboard, putting distance between them. "You were my backup." But he knew it was more than that, had been for a while. "Dammit, Vin, now is not--"

"Then when?" Vin almost shouted. He took a deep breath and sat back. "You were missing for more than twenty-four hours, and out of our jurisdiction. Anything could have happened."

"But nothing did happen." Ezra rubbed a hand across his eyes. "Hell, you laughed about it when I called you from Camalu."

"I was standing in an office, surrounded by half the L.A. field force. What was I supposed to do?" The corner of Vin's mouth quirked up, but the amusement didn't reach his eyes. "And, you have to admit, it was funny, once I knew you were safe."

Ezra supposed it was funny, in a way, but not to him, not when so many questions were still unanswered. And not now, while Vin was pushing so hard at their personal problem.

"You didn't answer my question, though." Vin was back to being serious. "When is the right time?"

Never, Ezra thought. But Vin deserved an answer. They'd been skirting this issue for months, and he knew his resistance would eventually drive Vin away, and he didn't want to do that. Not really. "There is no right time." He held up a hand when Vin started to speak. "I can't risk losing the chance I've been given on this team," he said, low and intense.

Vin was just as intense when he spoke. "If all I was after was a quick fuck, I'd have quit chasin' you a long time ago."

Ezra closed his eyes, fear chasing desire through him. From practically the first day they met, he and Vin had been dancing around each other. Friendly touches had turned into affectionate hugs, and sometimes, few times, fleeting make-out sessions that ended only because Ezra had refused to go any further, to trust that Vin's promises to respect their working relationship were not only sincere, but ones he could honor. It was time, he realized, for him to take a leap of faith and let desire win. Opening his eyes, he looked at Vin, reading the apprehension in his eyes, the held breath. The desire that mirrored his own. Yes, this was worth the risk.

He leaned forward, reaching for Vin, meeting him in a kiss that started soft and hesitant and quickly became heated and passionate. It wasn't the first time they'd kissed, but it was the first time Ezra let himself go to truly enjoy it, to not worry about what would happen next.

Twining his fingers into Vin's hair, he indulged himself in the touch and taste and feel of Vin's mouth. Soft lips, smooth teeth, and his tongue: teasing, tantalizing. Ezra wanted nothing more than to lose himself in sensation. Leaning further forward, he tried to push Vin backwards and down onto the bed, but he was surprised when Vin twisted and ended up on top of him. His momentary unease left the moment he looked up and saw Vin's smile, full of both lust and caring. Heat blossomed in him, pooling in his groin, and if what he could feel of the hard body on top of him was any indication, the heat was more than shared.

Vin dove in for another kiss, hard and fast, then moved down, his mouth leaving a warm trail over Ezra's chin, down his neck and across his chest, stopping at his nipples, taking one in his front teeth, nipping and tugging, and at the same time pulling and twisting the other with his fingers. Ezra gasped and arched off the bed, pushing into the combined touch, wanting more.

He didn't get more, though, as Vin kept moving, dragging his teeth across Ezra's ribs and belly, dipping his tongue into Ezra's belly-button. Then, as Ezra once more pushed upward, Vin stripped off Ezra's jogging shorts.

"Beautiful." The word was a soft sigh of hot breath over his cock. "Don't move."

Suddenly the warmth over him was gone, and he opened his eyes to see Vin push off the bed and strip out of his clothes. Vin grinned at him, touched him on the foot, then spun away to dig into his suitcase, coming back with the same grin on his face and lube and condoms in his hand.

Ezra leaned up, reaching for Vin, wanting to touch some of that expanse of honey-gold skin, but Vin met his hand with his own. "Let me do this." He lay back, watching as Vin knelt on the bed, moving between his legs and Ezra shifted, spreading them wider for him. Vin set aside the things in his hand, then leaned over Ezra, kissing the middle of his chest, then his mouth.

The brush of Vin's cock against his had him arching off the bed once more, demanding more contact. He wrapped his arms around Vin and tried to roll them over, but Vin pulled away with a soft laugh. "Eager, ain't you?" Vin reached for the lube. "How about I just fuck your brains out."

Vin's words drove a thrill through him, and he lay back, grabbing his knees and spreading himself open. "Do it."

"Yeah," Vin sighed out. Fingers slick with lube stretched and prepared him, then a breathless moment waiting while Vin rolled on the condom, and it was happening, that pressure, burning, filling, and it was all so good, Vin deep inside him, leaning over him with a soft smile, kissing him as he started moving.

Long, deep thrusts over and over, and Ezra moaned into Vin's mouth. Letting go of his knees, Ezra reached between them and stroked himself with one hand and grabbed Vin's ass with the other.

Now the moan was Vin's, and his motion increased, driving, pounding into Ezra, hot, sweaty, perfect in its intensity, and Ezra sped up his own hand to keep up, to bring himself closer, and then he was there, and he choked back a sob as he exploded into his hand, his body clenching hard around Vin, who reared up, mouth open in a silent shout as he, too, climaxed.

Ezra grunted when Vin collapsed onto him in a hot, sweaty heap, but it felt right, and he stroked Vin's back with his fingertips, easing them both as they lay there, letting the spasms and aftershocks subside.

When Vin eased off him to lean on an elbow, Ezra knew what was coming, and he consciously relaxed as Vin shifted, carefully pulling out. Always the same, that sense of emptiness, but it was mitigated by the deep kiss from Vin, but not by the chill when Vin pushed off the bed. He swiped at the jizz on his belly, thinking about following Vin to the bathroom to clean up, but was saved the trouble when Vin came back and dropped a warm, damp towel on his chest.

He let Vin take care of the towels, shifting over to make room when Vin came back to bed, sliding under the blanket next to him. Vin rested on his side, facing Ezra, and Ezra could feel the weight of his gaze. He knew when Vin was going to speak, suspected he even knew what Vin was going to say, but he wasn't ready now. Gently, he held up a finger, touching Vin's lips.

Vin sighed, but said nothing, and eventually, his breathing evened out and Ezra let himself fall into sleep as well.

He woke to the faint sounds from the street and the sun streaming through the window. It looked like the start of a nice day. Next to him, Vin was sprawled on his stomach, still asleep, his hair tumbled about him, obscuring his face. It was nice, he thought, to wake up with someone but not have them all over him, smothering him. Carefully, not wanting to wake Vin, he slid out of bed, pulled on the running shorts and went to the window, looking down over the city in the early morning light. As he watched the city wake, he reflected on the night before. It was certainly too late to change his mind, and, as he considered it, he had no inclination to do that. His body reminded him that he had been well fucked, and his mind knew that he wanted it to happen again. It might be difficult for them to make this work, but it was a difficulty he was willing to risk.

A slight creak of the bed told him Vin was now awake, and he glanced over and smiled when Vin came to stand close by him at the window.

"You okay?" Vin asked softly.

"I was not a virgin," he answered.

"Not what I meant."

He knew that wasn't what Vin was asking, but it wasn't a discussion he was ready to have. They could take this a day at a time, and for this particular day, they had work to attend to.

"I'm fine." He turned to face Vin. "Really. And we need to get back to Denver. I have a few thoughts about sorting this mess out."

Vin reached out and touched him on the cheek, then leaned in for a kiss. It would be so tempting to give in to the pleasure and spend the morning in bed, but Ezra knew his mind wouldn't let him. The mystery of Nicky Appleton had to be unraveled. But he was willing to take long enough for a thorough good morning before heading out on their journey home.

"Yeah," Vin said as they broke the kiss, "you're fine." Vin's hands slid to Ezra's buttocks, holding tight, pulling their groins together, rubbing against him. "Feel more than fine to me."

As he leaned in for another kiss, Ezra thought perhaps there wouldn't be any harm in a short delay before they headed home.

By the time they got out of Ensenada and up to the border crossing, it was mid-day. With the traffic at the border, it was evening before they'd retrieved Vin's luggage, turned in the pool car and gotten to the airport. They got seats on the red-eye to Denver, and between flight delays and the drive into town, saw no reason to go anywhere except straight to the office.

Although it was early, the rest of the team was at the office, thanks, no doubt, to Vin's call to Chris from LAX.

"Welcome back, boys!" Buck greeted them with a slap on the back. "What did y'all send us?"

"Send you?" Ezra was tired and now confused.

"This." Buck held out his arm, indicating a large box on Ezra's desk, labeled 'overnight international' in several languages.

"I didn't send anything." Ezra looked closer at the box; it was addressed to him and appeared to have been sent from Acapulco. If he was a betting man, and he was, he'd wager Nicky had made port at Acapulco. "But I think I know who did."

"Appleton?" Vin asked.

Ezra nodded. "Shall we see what treasures we have?"

Vin pulled out his jackknife, slitting open the seals on the box for him. Most of the contents were the clothes and personal effects he'd left behind on the yacht. The bonus in the box was a padded envelope with his name on it. Ezra tore it open and pulled out the only thing in the envelope, a jump drive, holding it up for everyone else to see.

"Um, Ezra, before you plug that in, can we take your computer off the network?" J.D. was already reaching for Ezra's keyboard and mouse, then snaked his hand to the back of the workstation, unplugging the network cable. "Okay. Now, if there's anything nasty on there, it stays here." J.D. reached out and wiggled his fingers. "Hand it over."

Smiling, Ezra dropped the jump drive into J.D.'s hand, watching the monitor as J.D. plugged it in and opened the drive. There were two video files, and as J.D. went to open the first one, Ezra felt an unease and wished he could watch them alone, but such was not to be. Whatever was in the files would be seen by everyone on the team.

The image resolved, and it was Nicky, sitting at his desk, smiling. "Hi, Ezra," Nicky said. "I'm terribly sorry to have left you like that, but I had some business to take care of, and I didn't want you involved. When you watch the other file, you'll understand." Nicky paused, rubbing his left forefinger across his upper lip. "I don't imagine they told you what was really going on, but we will be seeing each other again. Tell Oscar he made an excellent choice." Nicky reached toward the camera and the image went dark.

The team was silent until Vin finally asked, "Who the hell is Oscar?"

The pieces were finally starting to fall into place. "I suspect it's Oscar Reinhart," Ezra said quietly. "He handles most of the high level informants for the FBI." He put a hand on J.D.'s shoulder. "Open the next file."

Again, the image resolved to show Nicky Appleton, but not in his office. It was a room piled with wooden crates, the same sort that Nicky used to smuggle his cigars and liquor, but the open crate in the bottom of the frame was full of packages of white powder carefully wrapped in plastic. "As you can see," Nicky said, "a few of my employees have tried to take advantage of me. This is not the sort of cargo I care to carry. By the time you see this, it," he gestured at the crate of powder, "will have been disposed of and the employees will have been delivered to their very disappointed buyer and an angry enforcement agency." The image centered on Nicky. "I tell you this so you know the limits of my business. No drugs, no guns." He grinned. "But a few excellent cigars and some fine brandy? Those I will do my best to share with my well-placed clientele."

As the image went dark, the team around Ezra remained quiet. His own mind was racing, though, and there was something he needed to know. "J.D., after you reattach my computer to the network, see if you can find records on the agents reporting to Reinhart. Concentrate on the past few months."

"Ezra?" Chris asked.

He looked at Chris, hesitated a moment, then tilted his head toward Chris's office.

As soon as the door closed, Chris turned and was in his face. "What is J.D. going to find?"

"I hope I'm wrong, but I suspect he'll find a dead agent."

"A dead agent who was Appleton's contact."

Ezra nodded. "It's the only time Reinhart sends in a new man."

"You know this guy?"

"Reinhart?" Ezra considered how much to say. Reinhart was FBI, and shouldn't have been able to control him any more. But it looked like he had some influence that stretched across agency lines. None of this boded well for Ezra's future, but he knew where he wanted to keep his loyalty. "Yes, unfortunately. One of his duties is to control the agents who are the undercover contacts to extremely high level informants."

Chris stepped back, running a hand through his hair. "Fuck. We've been played. Travis played us from the beginning on this one."

"If he even knew." Reinhart was a sneaky bastard and Ezra wouldn't put it past him to have gone way over Travis's head to make this thing happen.

"Well he's going to know now." Chris jerked the door open, striding out with purpose. "J.D., what did you find?"

J.D. was pale. "The last agent that worked with Appleton was killed. Shot in the head, execution style."

"Son of a bitch." Now Vin was in Ezra's face. "You are not doing this."

He put a hand on Vin's chest and spoke softly, for Vin's ears only. "We will discuss this later."

"Standish!" He jerked his head to look at Chris. "With me. We're going to talk to Travis."

Vin stepped back to let him by, and he followed Chris to the elevator. They were alone in the car, and after a moment Chris asked, "Anything I need to know about you and Vin?"

Of course Chris had caught the undercurrents between them. "Nothing that will affect the job." He sincerely hoped he was telling the truth about that.

When the doors opened on the fourteenth floor, Chris was out of the elevator like a shot and Ezra had to hurry to keep up with him. Chris blew past Travis's protesting secretary and slammed open the door, stopping only when he got to Travis's desk.

Doing his best to appear non-plussed, Travis looked up. "Can I help you, Agent Larabee?"

"Did you know what you were sending Agent Standish into?" Chris slammed his fist on Travis's desk. "Did you know Appleton's last contact was executed?"

Travis remained impassive, looking at Chris, then at Ezra. "Close the door, would you, Agent Standish." After Ezra had complied, Travis looked up at Chris once again. "What exactly are you talking about?"

"Mr. Larabee, if I may?" Ezra stepped up beside Chris, hoping he could defuse the situation before it turned any uglier. Chris looked hard at him, then nodded, taking a step back from the desk. "Director Travis, were you aware that Nicky Appleton is a high value informant and that the purpose of our assignment was to allow him to vet me as his new contact?"

His expression unchanged, Travis asked, "What would bring you to that conclusion?"

"He asked me to convey his regards to Oscar." Ezra gambled that dropping that one name would be enough.

It was. Travis's eyes narrowed and the muscles in his jaw clenched. "That son of a bitch."

"You saying you didn't know?" Chris growled.

"No, not completely." Travis took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "I knew Appleton was looking for a contact. I didn't know Reinhart was involved."

Ezra felt a great weight lift off him. Without realizing it, the fear that he was once more a pawn in a game had grown in him, and learning that he was not alone was reassuring. Not comfortable, to be sure, but in numbers they had the strength to potentially control the game.

Making a quick decision, Ezra smiled at Travis. "Thank you, sir." Turning, he grabbed Chris's arm and steered him to the door. Thankfully, Chris said nothing until they were out of Travis's office and well away from his secretary.

"What the fuck was that?"

Ezra kept on walking to the elevators and punched the call button. "Anything more we said would have alerted Travis that we were digging in the FBI database. Now that he knows Reinhart is involved, I imagine he'll do some desk pounding of his own and we'll benefit from what he learns."

Chris smiled and slapped him on the back. "Not bad. But how does that get you off the hook as Appleton's contact?"

"It doesn't. But if we find out why the last man was killed, I can avoid his mistakes."

"I'm not sure I like this."

"I'm quite sure I don't like it, but I think we can control the situation and still give Nicky the contact he wants."

Nothing more was said until they were back in their own office, then the objections from the rest of the team were heard.

"No fucking way!" was Vin's only comment.

Buck was less emphatic, but no less opposed. "The guy dumped you on the ocean and probably killed his last contact."

From across the room came a low rumble. "I say we let Ezra play this out." Josiah came forward to join the rest of the team. "Appleton knows who he is, in fact, Appleton asked for an undercover guy, right? Appleton didn't kill the last guy. As long as Ezra keeps to Appleton's script, he'll be fine."

Ezra wasn't sure he'd go as far as 'fine,' but he was willing to let things progress. There was no telling how often Nicky would be in contact, and, in its own way, while he was furious about being manipulated, the possible intrigue of the assignment held some attraction for him.

"Gentlemen," he glanced around at the entire team, "while I appreciate and share your concern, I think Josiah is correct. Going along with the game, as it were, will not put me in immediate danger. And it could, in the long run, yield some invaluable intelligence."

The nods and mumbled agreement from the rest of them was all he knew he'd get, so he picked up the box and looked at Vin. "Mr. Tanner, you may drive me home. I'm tired and hungry and could use a shower." Without waiting for an answer, he headed for the door, suppressing a smile when Vin beat him there and opened it. He suspected there would be some talking before he was allowed to sleep, but maybe, if he played his cards right, there would be some non-verbal communication as well.