Against the Current
Vin Tanner popped the cap from the amber bottle and flicked it towards the trashcan. He missed and the top bounced off of the wall. ‘There’s a cruel joke in there somewhere’, he thought as he leaned against the kitchen sink and lifted the beer to take several long swallows. He sighed and rubbed at his gravelly eyes. It had been a long day.
He had arrived at the Boarding House at 7:00 a.m. and everything quickly spiraled into the gutter. By the end of the workday he’d managed to alienate his coworkers and thoroughly piss off a friend.
When Tanner had accepted the PI job with the Larabee and Wilmington Investigations, he’d thought it was a chance to change a rather lonely existence and start to live a normal life, or at least his ‘take’ on normal. He was now working with a group of men he thought he could trust and respect, and maybe enjoy their company outside of work.
He could leave the red tape of city government behind and be his own man; free to achieve results by his own methods and not the strict standards of the ‘Powers that Be’. Chasing cheating husbands, frauds and criminals was better than being responsible for them. In his former job, the delinquents on probation had been a tough bunch and he was happy to be rid of the constant watchdog status; or so he imagined. Was it true that he had continued that role and passed judgment on the people he felt closest to now?
Ezra Standish had been assigned to him after being picked up for passing dirty money on the street. As a probation officer, Vin had a heavy caseload and because Standish wasn’t a hard-core criminal, he’d given him a break. He’d been wrong and the man had slipped away from him. Tanner had been more than a little annoyed that Ezra couldn’t stay on the straight and narrow, for at least a little while.
When the con man had been picked up again, Vin had come down hard on him and threatened him with the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ method of justice. He’d explained the benefits of prison and told Ezra he’d make a nice trophy for any one of the cellblock gang leaders.
Ezra had finally let the words sink in and was willing to try Vin’s form of rehabilitation. Tanner had recommended to Orrin Travis that the he be placed in the program with the LAW Office group. Standish had been incensed that he’d not even been given an opportunity to prove himself, although Vin got the impression that Ezra was happy to get rid of him.
He’d never forget Ezra’s face when Vin had walked into the Boarding House and announced himself as a fellow employee. As hard as the green-eyed man tried to keep his face impassive, he let slip a moment of irritation, resigned to being kept in line again by this annoying shadow named, Vin Tanner.
Vin decided then that he would get to know the man and keep his preconceived opinions out of it. He’d found that Ezra was smart, had an extremely dry wit, and a penchant for practical jokes, especially where Larabee was concerned. Standish had slowly, but undoubtedly proved to be an asset to their group and could be trusted to back them up.
Yeah, the guy loved money and couldn’t resist an opportunity to invent some scheme just barely within the limits of the law, but that was who Ezra was, and they had come to appreciate that he wouldn’t change. They all had their flaws, including himself, thought Vin as he grabbed a second bottle and moved into his living room.
He plopped down in the large overstuffed chair that was his favorite, finished the dregs of the original bottle and cracked open the new one as his mind rehashed the events of the day.
The investigations firm had been retained on a new case involving suspected white-collar crimes, specifically accountants skimming the books of a venture capital company. The CEO happened to be one of San Diego’s most successful entrepreneurs.
Paul Davies had made his fortune in the late 1990’s by getting in on the ground floor of some lucrative dot com companies, one of them being eBay. He further invested his returns in high tech companies and then companies that manufactured defense weapons. The man had an uncanny ability to invest and get out before the bottom dropped out. By 2000, the dot com companies were collapsing and at the end of 2001, the high tech companies were laying off thousands. With the unrest in the Middle East and North Korea, the defense contractors were now holding investors’ interest. The business prophet had already heavily invested in Raytheon, the makers of the Patriot Missile.
The man and his venture capital company had visibly impressed Ezra, which was strange in itself, because he usually did not allow his feelings to seep through his stony expression. Chris had assigned Standish to pose as a new accountant with the firm hired by Davies. Ezra easily obtained a position, of course with forged credentials, and was able to gain access to records and the accounting executives responsible for the embezzlement.
With copies of the evidence Ezra found delivered to Davies, it was the businessman’s turn to be impressed with the undercover man. Davies was so impressed that he offered Ezra a job in the top echelon of his company. Standish was on cloud nine; he’d finally made it legitimately.
For whatever reason Vin was quick to pull the cloud out from under the ecstatic man’s butt. He had reminded Ezra of his required employment at LAW for at least another year. He went on to rake the man over the coals for his lack of loyalty, trust and ability to be just a plain friend in the face of money. The icing on the cake was when he threatened to hunt him down and hand Travis Ezra’s head on a silver platter if he slipped away again.
Tanner laid his head back against the cushioned chair and set his beer on the floor. ‘Why had he said all that?’ He was a man who, most times, thought long and hard before he spoke his mind. The anger had flared instantly and hot and he’d exploded before he even had time to think. He still didn’t know why he had reacted so badly and not given Ezra the opportunity to revel in his good fortune and make the right decision on his own.
Vin squeezed his eyes shut tight hoping the scene he kept seeing would just disappear. Instead, the door buzzer dissolved the vision from his mind. His first thought was to just not answer it, but if it was one of the guys, they wouldn’t let it go. He probably deserved whatever sermon they’d deliver. He rose reluctantly and went to the door.
He was a little unnerved to find the southerner on the other side of the peephole. As Vin opened the door, he prepared himself as best he could for any retribution for his actions this afternoon. He noticed that the man before him looked haggard, but otherwise unreadable, composed as usual. ‘At least he doesn’t look like he’s going to clock me’, thought Vin.
Ezra Standish stood outside the little bungalow located just outside the city. It was the first time he’d called on Vin at his place of residence and was surprised by the domesticated appearance. The partly wooded yard was surprisingly big for the area, at least an acre or more, the landscaping immaculate.
The undercover PI had time to inspect the yard while sitting in his car at the curb for 20 minutes delaying the actual trip to the door. He felt foolish now, standing there not knowing what he hoped to accomplish. Maybe, he reasoned, he’d at least discover the motivation behind the opinions Tanner had broadcast to the entire office. Before Ezra could speculate further, the front door was pulled open.
“Hey, Ez,” Vin offered quietly, while discretely sizing up his visitor. “Come on in,” he added, moving out of the doorway.
“Mr. Tanner,” was all Ezra said as he entered and followed the former Texan down the hall to the small living room. The inside was well kept and tastefully decorated, though the furnishings were outdated.
Standish began to think this was not one of his better ideas. As a matter of fact, it probably was quite stupid. Why did he care that Vin had read him the riot act about his lust for wealth or that he didn’t trust him? Other than the fact that it was uncomfortable being taken to task in front of his co-workers, he really didn’t care what people thought of him. Especially opinionated, Texas-born, former Justice Department lackeys. Ezra was just doing his time at Larabee and Wilmington Investigations and then he would be free to move far away from San Diego and forget it ever existed.
They entered the living area and the southerner was immediately drawn to the focal point of the room, an aquarium taking up the better part of one wall. It had to be well over a hundred gallons and was filled with large exotic looking fish, colorful stone and natural looking flora. Everything about the tank was state of the art and obviously a passion of the man in residence. Ezra was noticeably fascinated.
“Quite impressive, Mr. Tanner. Have you had the aquarium long?” asked Ezra, hoping to distract both of them from the apparent tension between them.
“Yeah, ‘bout a year now and ‘fore that, smaller tanks and pet shop fish,” replied Tanner with a hint of pride.
“These are not from a pet shop?” Ezra found he was really interested in this magnificent display.
“Nah, you get ‘em from breeders. Some, I’ve gone to Mexico to get.” Vin watched Ezra inspect the fish and their habitat. Things seemed to relax a bit between them.
“What are their names?” inquired Standish wanting to know more about the obviously tropical finned animals.
“That big black and white one with the mean face is Crab and the little pink one over there by the green bush is Shrimp. The red one…”
“Let me guess,” Ezra interrupted having realized that Vin misunderstood his question, but playing along anyway, “it’s Lobster.”
Tanner gave the green-eyed man beside him a blank stare. “Nope, it’s Robin.”
“Of course, I should have known,” chuckled Standish.
The two stood there watching the creatures’ ballet of movement for a few minutes.
“Very serene. Calming,” said Ezra finally of the dozen or so fish in the tank. “They all seem to move as one at times and then dart off on their own unexpectedly as if temporarily unsettled by something.”
The double meaning wasn’t unnoticed by either man, each contemplating the thought for a few moments.
“Funny thing about these guys. They’re all different breeds. When I’d get a new one, I would hang a small container inside on the rim with the new one in inside. The others would get curious and swim around the new guy in his little clear box. Some would kiss along the wall separating them and some of the big ones would crash against it looking like they wanted to bust in and eat the new one like half a sandwich. Little by little they would get used to each other and I’d free the new one to be with the rest.”
Vin gestured to the two chairs in front of the tank and Ezra took a seat while continuing to study the aquarium.
“Want a beer?” Tanner moved to pick up his empty and the other now warm brew and move towards the kitchen.
“If you’re partaking,” replied the auburn haired guest.
Returning with two frosty bottles, he handed one to Ezra and continued.
“At first, the others would leave the new fish alone and I’d find him in the corners or hiding in the plants. Sometimes they were all like that, needin’ to get off on their own. But sooner or later that new one would join the others becoming one helluva strange school of fish.”
Vin paused to wet his throat with the icy beer. “Once in a while a couple of ‘em will get into a scrap and beat the heck out of each other, but then I’ll come back and they’ll be swimmin’ together again like nothing ever happened. Sometimes it’s eerie, they all move together so closely that you’d swear they were one living thing.”
Ezra listened intently. He’d never heard this man say so much in one sitting. He knew that in his own way, Vin was trying to get a message to Ezra, he wasn’t sure of what exactly. But then again, Josiah’s parables eluded him the same way. He was not a man that understood human nature or emotion. It was about as clear as mud or some of Vin’s morning brew.
Standish still wasn’t sure why he had come here, except he was stunned at Vin’s outburst this afternoon. Of all the members of the LAW men, he would have thought that Tanner would have been the one to be happy that Ezra had been offered a well paying, ‘legal’ job. The southerner knew he had performed well for the Davies job, while actually enjoying the work. Catching the culprits and getting paid at the same time were definite perks, but having Davies offer him a VP of Finance position was a great boost to his self confidence.
Just knowing that he could take home a quarter mil a year without having to steal it was somewhat self-satisfying. Yes, he knew that he would have to be released from his current obligation at LAW or be apprehended and brought back. It was tempting, but in the end he wasn’t sure it was what he really sought out of life. ‘What was he thinking?’ For as long as he could remember, all he wanted was to be independently wealthy and never worry about money again. Was he actually beginning to subscribe to the belief that it took more than money to be content? He chuckled to himself, ‘not a chance’.
To be truthful, though, employment at LAW had not been nearly as dreadful as he’d imagined. He was able to use his talents to assist the others in some interesting cases. Working with this group of misfits was quite amusing at times and for the first time in his life, he’d leave work with a smile on his face and not worry about retaliation in the form of broken limbs or a knife in the back. That is, until today when Vin threatened to hand him over to Travis and possibly a prison term.
“Ez?” Standish seemed lost in his own thoughts or hypnotized by the movements in the tank. Vin couldn’t tell, but Ezra turned, startled at his voice. “I’m sorry about today. I had no right to call ya on the carpet like that. It’s not my business how you live your life any more. That’s for Travis and you to work out.”
“Shall we attribute it to a bad day, then?” The green-eyed man knew he was letting Tanner off easy, but something told him that the man had been beating himself up more than Ezra ever could. He just didn’t understand the reason behind Vin’s outburst. He thought that they had developed a tentative friendship and maybe a little trust along the way. Did Vin really think that he’d leave the others high and dry for a promise of something better? Okay, that wasn’t so hard to believe; he gave them reason all the time to think that he would skip out in a minute if the opportunity came along. Ezra had hoped that they’d come to learn he wasn’t that shallow, especially in their company.
“I wasn’t bein’ fair. I didn’t give you the chance to show us that we’re more important to you than a pile of money and a desk job. I just jumped right in and slammed myself against the glass separating us, daring you to fight back and show your true self.” Vin paused and stared at the slow moving occupants of the tank.
“I was afraid. Afraid that the friends I had just made would drift away, starting with you. I’m not good at making friends; I’ve never stuck around in one place long enough. I was just starting to feel like maybe this was home and when I saw that look in your eyes… I don’t know, just lost it, I guess and I’m sorry.”
The two men continued to sip at their beer and watch the aquatic scene before them. The sun had left the room and the only light came from the artificial bulb in the tank. It gave off an iridescent glow to room, paling everything a ghostly shade.
“Don’t trouble yourself, Vin. I can identify with your feelings, really. I’d say we both have some things to discover about being a part of a group. We’re used to our independence; it’s difficult to become a piece of a larger entity. It will take time to adjust and come out from the shadows of the corner, so to speak.” Ezra grinned and relaxed into the comfortable chair.
Vin was glad that Ezra had understood and accepted his apology, but most of all he was relieved that things wouldn’t change, at least for now. He’d have a chance to find out about friends, trust and maybe family.
“So, what are the names of the others?” asked Ezra. ‘I truly am a glutton for punishment,' he mused.
“Well, the black one with the beady green eyes is Cowboy. The long one with the hairy mouth is Lothario and the….”