Ezra Standish frowned at the folder in his hand, and then slammed it down on the desk. It was safe - no one was here to witness the physical manifestation of his temper.
Idiots, all of them. Too concerned with the short-term rewards, and not the long-term consequences - which were about to jump up and bite them all on the ass. Well, he at least could see the long-term - something that he'd learned at his mother's knee - and he had no intention of seeing those incompetent imbeciles destroy his inheritance.
Turning to face his computer, he opened a database and pulled up six records, taking note of the latest information in each.
Two minutes later, he began making calls.
"We need your help."
Chris Larabee looked at the three men standing in front of him - who had summoned himself and his partner out of the water in the middle of a rather crucial test - and said, in a tone that could have frosted glass, "You have got to be kidding."
"I assure you, Commander Larabee--"
"Mister Larabee," Chris interrupted, his tone even colder.
"Mister Larabee, I am not kidding. I am in fact, quite serious."
Chris stared at the speaker for a moment longer, and then shook his head. "Forget it. C'mon, Buck, let's get this stuff put away." With that, he turned his back on the three men and stalked over to the pile of scuba gear he and his partner, Buck Wilmington, had removed when they'd surfaced.
"You'll have to forgive him," Buck said genially to the three of them. "He just ain't in the best of moods lately. Now, if you'll excuse me..." He nodded to them, and then turned to head over to Chris.
The man who'd spoken frowned, and then turned and nodded at the other two. "We don't have time for this. Plan Two," he ordered quietly. Removing a small box from his pocket, he opened it and handed one syringe to each of the other two men.
Josiah Sanchez frowned as he took in the four surveyors standing by the strand of trees. "You aren't wanted here," he declared. "And I don't care who you bribed to get those papers - all you're going to be doing here is leaving."
The surveyors looked a bit nervous - which was only understandable. After all, Josiah was taller than all of them, and while it wasn't by much, he was very good at looming - and was doing so, in the hopes of intimidating them. He'd much rather convince them to leave by talking rather than fighting - but if he had to fight, so be it.
However, he wasn't about to get the chance, as a moment later, an ATV burst into the jungle clearing, carrying a group of men - three of them - all of whom were heavily armed.
The ATV stopped between the surveyors and the tribesmen standing with Josiah, and the driver got out. "Mr. Sanchez?" he inquired.
Josiah frowned. Why were these men looking for him? "Yes," he replied warily.
"We need your help."
JD Dunne looked up from where he'd been contemplating the bars on the window of the cell as he heard the sound of people approaching. He saw a cop, followed by two men dressed in business suits.
Feds? Nah, they don't have the look, JD thought. Besides, what he'd done to the DMV computers was classed as a misdemeanour; or, at least, so Colin had told him. But he doubted that the Feds would be interested in him anyway, and certainly these suits wouldn't be here for--
"C'mon, Dunne," the cop said, unlocking the door to the cell. "You've made bail."
"What?" JD exclaimed, stunned. What's going on?
"You're free to go, kid," the cop replied.
One of the two suits stepped forward. "Mr. Dunne... as Officer Pollock has said, your bail has been posted. All we ask in return is for a moment of your time."
"And who are you?" JD demanded, not bothering to step out of the cell.
"I am employed by someone who requires your assistance in a matter of utmost urgency."
Nathan Jackson sighed as he finished pulling off the no-longer sterile gloves and disposed of them in the biohazard container off to one side. "That was the last one?" he queried the paramedic next to him - Raine Matthews.
"Yeah." She tossed her own gloves into the container, and then scrubbed her face with her hands. "God, what an awful mess."
"You can say that again," Nathan agreed, as he turned to look over the area that had, until a few minutes ago, been a busy triage centre just outside the radius of the train crash. "I'll be glad to get home and sleep. In fact, I think I'll be sleeping for a week."
"You aren't the only one."
Abruptly, a voice called out from behind them, "Dr. Jackson?"
Nathan turned around. "Yes?" he demanded, his tone impatient. If this was that administrator type about paperwork again, he was going to--
It wasn't the administrator. Instead, there were two men dressed in suits standing at the far entrance to the triage tent.
"Dr. Jackson, could we please have a moment of your time?" one of them inquired politely.
Nathan sighed again. So much for getting home to sleep immediately. "I'll see you later, Raine," he said, and Raine gave him a faint smile and headed for her car. Turning back to the strangers, Nathan replied, "Only a moment, gentlemen - I'm afraid I'm rather tired."
"Understandable," the apparent leader of the two agreed. "Very well, I'll be quick. We need your help, Dr. Jackson."
"My help?" Nathan queried, surprised. "And I prefer 'Mister' to 'Doctor'."
The leader nodded. "Yes, Mr. Jackson - your help."
Vin Tanner scowled furiously at the trap at his feet.
He had no objections to people hunting because they needed food; hell, he'd done that more than a few times himself. After all, that was the way nature was.
This, however - this was no trap set for rabbit or hare. This was a wolf trap - set by someone who knew the trade and wanted to make sure that any animal caught in the trap wouldn't damage its fur. A trapper and illegal fur trader.
He crouched down next to the trap, absently shoving a thick branch into it to activate it, making sure that no animal would get caught, and studied the ground carefully.
'Bout two hours ago, Vin estimated, as he took in the tracks... and then he abruptly whirled around, one hand on his rifle, as a group of three men stepped out of the underbrush.
"Who the hell are you?" Vin demanded, keeping his hand on his rifle as he studied them. They didn't look like trappers, and Vin's instincts - which he trusted more than anything else - told him that they weren't; but also that they were here looking for him.
"Who we are is not important, Mr. Tanner. What is important is that we need your help."
Vin frowned. "Sorry. Got work to do here," he declared curtly. He had to deal with the trappers before any more wolves were killed. The three packs in the area were small enough as it was - they couldn't afford to lose any more members.
The three men looked at one another. "We were afraid you were going to say that," the second one said, and before Vin had a chance to either run or raise his rifle, the third man - whose right hand had been hidden by the first man - raised a dart gun and fired. Vin felt the dart prick his skin, and then blackness swept over him as he collapsed.
Chris blinked and his eyes focused on a blur of white. After a minute or two, the blur managed to resolve itself into a ceiling, and abruptly his memory of what had happened came surging back.
Drugged? Yeah... Ketamine hydrochloride, I think. God, I hate being drugged...
Pushing himself up - gingerly, as his head was pounding - he looked around the small room he found himself in.
He was lying on a bed, fully dressed. There was a chair in the far corner, and the door was facing the foot of the bed.
Burying his face in his hands for a minute, Chris drew in a deep breath and let it out in a sigh before running one hand through his hair and forcing himself to stand up.
He swayed dizzily for a moment - I really, really hate being drugged... - and then regained his balance.
Five minutes after Chris had managed to stand - enough time for him to have explored the room twice and checked it over thoroughly for any sign of hidden cameras or bugs; a leftover habit from his days as a SEAL - there was a knock on the door. A moment later, it opened, and a young woman stepped in.
"Mr. Larabee," she said, giving him a polite nod. "If you will follow me, I will show you to the lounge."
Chris frowned, and sat down in the chair. "What lounge?" he demanded, feeling a cold fury rising in him. "Where are we? And who is responsible for bringing me here?"
The woman simply smiled. "You are in the building housing the corporate headquarters of Standish Industries, and it was Mr. Standish who requested your presence. You will be met in the lounge, and everything will be explained to you."
Judging by her expression, the woman wasn't going to tell him anything else. Reluctantly, Chris stood back up and gestured for her to lead the way.
When they reached the lounge, Chris saw Buck - who was obviously also suffering the aftereffects of the dose of ketamine hydrochloride; Chris recognised that expression - along with three other men. Or perhaps two other men and a boy, he reconsidered, looking at the young man sitting on one of the couches, looking around the room curiously. There was a buffet at the far end, but it looked to be untouched so far. Not that Chris could blame anyone here, especially if they'd suffered the same thing as he and Buck had.
"Chris!" Buck exclaimed, as soon as he walked in. "What the hell's going on?"
Chris shrugged and turned to look at the woman who had guided him here, only to discover that she had disappeared.
"All I know is what my guide told me," he replied. "This is apparently Standish Industries, and Mr. Standish was the one 'who requested our presence', to quote her."
"Standish?" the tall black man said, his tone one of distaste.
"Huh... fancy words for drugging and kidnapping," Buck declared at the same time.
"They drugged you?" the kid on the couch asked.
"Yep," came a voice from the door, and Chris turned around to see a young man - who looked to be only a few years older than the kid, if that, standing there. He looked almost ill; possibly he was sensitive to ketamine hydrochloride.
Then he met the young man's eyes, and found himself blinking in sheer surprise. He'd never felt anything like that before - almost as though the other man had reached into him, past all his defenses, and read his soul. At the same time, he felt as though that was exactly what he had done to the other man as well; and Chris knew, without it having to be said aloud, that here was someone who would guard his back and face his demons with him, no matter what they turned out to be. And vice-versa.
"Vin Tanner," the young man introduced himself, the expression in the deep blue eyes telling Chris that Vin had felt the same thing he had.
"I'm JD Dunne," the kid said, from over by the couch.
"Nathan Jackson." The tall black man.
"Josiah Sanchez." The giant who was sitting in the chair next to the door.
"An' I'm Buck Wilmington," Buck added. "So, any guesses as to why Standish kidnapped us?"
Sanchez shrugged. "All I know is that the men who spoke with me said that my help was needed."
"Same here," Jackson put in.
Chris glanced at Vin.
Yep, me too. The younger man didn't say anything out loud, but his thoughts were clear enough on his face for Chris to read.
Dunne nodded in agreement.
"Well, it looks like we all got the same story - did anyone get any specifics?"
There was a general shaking of heads. Chris sighed. "Then I guess we're going to have to wait for an explanation. And I sure hope it's a good one."
Vin sat down next to JD Dunne and glanced over to where Chris was pacing back and forth, glaring up at one corner of the room, where the security camera was situated. The black-clad man was pissed off, that was certain.
So was he. He'd been working so damn hard trying to save those wolves, and now thanks to Standish Industries - which already had a bad reputation when it came to dealing with the environment - he'd lost what might have been his best chance to find the trappers.
Unconsciously, he found his gaze returning to Chris.
It was... bizarre... but the moment he'd walked into the room and met Chris Larabee's eyes, he'd felt like he'd known the other man forever... almost as though they'd simply recognised each other... or their souls had. It was something he'd never felt before, and he wasn't quite sure what to do about it.
So don't do anything about it; concentrate on what's going on right now.
"How long we been waitin' here?" he asked softly.
"About twenty minutes," Josiah Sanchez replied.
"Too damned long," Chris growled, stalking to one corner of the room and fixing his glare on the camera. "If someone doesn't come soon, I'm getting out of here - no matter what."
Glancing at Chris' friend - Buck Wilmington - Vin could see that the tall man was thinking the same thing he was. He definitely ain't kiddin'... Well, that's telling 'em, I guess... Someone had better get here pretty damn quick, 'cause if Chris decides t' leave, I'm goin' with him.
A soft clearing of his assistant's throat indicated Jason Webber's presence at the doorway of his office. Looking up from the report that he had been reading for the last hour - no matter how long he stared at it, the implications didn't get any better - Ezra Standish raised one eyebrow and said, "Yes, Jason?"
The stiffness in his tone indicating his doubts about his boss's intentions, Jason said, "They're all here, sir. It's time."
Sitting back in his chair, Ezra picked a near invisible piece of lint from the sleeve of his Armani suit, sighed, and then rose to his feet. "Well then, let's not keep our guests waiting any longer than is absolutely necessary. I'm sure that they are beginning to wonder why--"
"Representatives of Standish Industries kidnapped them, flew them halfway across the country, stuck them in a room full of strangers and then left them alone?" queried Jason dryly.
"Exactly," said Ezra with a cheery smile.
"Sir," said Jason, "you do realise that this is completely nuts, don't you? This is the biggest bunch of mavericks I've ever seen. They'll never be able to work together as a team."
"Would you care to place a small wager on that, Jason?" asked Ezra.
Laughing softly, Jason said, "With you, sir? No. I know better than to accept a bet against you."
"Well then, I'm sure there are a whole group of people just chomping at the bit to yell at me. Let's not keep them waiting."
Ezra Standish was the long-lost grandson who had been summond to Edward Standish III's sickbed ten months before and informed that he was the only man his grandfather - whom he had never seen before - trusted to run the billion dollar conglomerate that was Standish Industries. Ezra's mother had been disowned for refusing to marry the man her father wanted her to. Then she'd done the unthinkable; she'd run off, gotten pregnant, not married the father of her child, and spent the next twenty years working as a newspaper journalist.
Maude Standish was not anyone's idea of what a hardened foreign correspondent should be like, but that was what she had been. Killed by a car bomb when Ezra was twenty-two, she'd left her son alone in the world. No one from her family had bothered to attend her funeral or ever made any move to contact her son.
Ezra had spent the next eight years in various countries all over the globe. Speculation was rife within Standish Industries as to what their new CEO had done in those intervening eight years.
The board was worried about a CEO who had no clue how to run a conglomerate. Then again - they also feared someone taking over who might actually figure out what they were up to - and that was exactly what they'd gotten. Hence the group of men downstairs.
As for Ezra Standish, the staff and workers of Standish Industries had learned a few things - not much, just enough to whet their appetite for more. He'd attended the Harvard Business School for a while, but had gotten bored and left. He'd lived in most of the major capitals of the world, attended school all over Europe, could speak a wide variety of languages... and he was a consummate gambler. He could ride, shoot and loved fast cars, especially his Jaguar. That had been his twenty-first birthday present from his mother, and he loved it dearly.
There were still unexplained gaps in his personal history, though. Jason had his own guesses about that time - not that he'd shared them with his co-workers or ever mentioned them to Ezra himself. His cousin was career law-enforcement - all that side of the family was; in fact, his cousin had gone one step further than mere law enforcement. He was deeply involved in counter-terrorism and worked for the Bureau. On the few occasions Jason had met any of his cousin's colleagues, they'd all seemed to share one characteristic: for lack of a better term, the vibes they gave off were tinged with danger. Ezra Standish gave off those vibes too; which had led Jason to speculate that perhaps some of the missing years had been spent involved in some form of law enforcement, or the equivalent.
By this point, they'd reached the upper level window that looked down into the lounge area below. Tasteful leather couches and chairs were scattered around the room and there were bookcases on the back wall of the room full to overflowing with every genre imaginable - Ezra Standish was an avid reader. The buffet area set up in the far corner seemed to be untouched; their guests were obviously not in a trusting or amenable frame of mind.
"How much do you think this is going to cost you, sir?" asked Jason.
"Probably more than I realise," said Ezra absently, as he stared at the glowering figure in black who stood glaring at the security camera in the top left-hand corner of the room. "If you're referring to monetary outlay, that's irrelevant, but I'd say a minimum of fifty million dollars."
Jason fought to keep his jaw from dropping. Instead, he said, "I'll go announce you, sir."
"Thank you, Jason."
As soon as he spotted the well-dressed young man entering the room where they had all been 'so politely' asked to remain, Nathan Jackson hissed, "What the hell do you think you people are playing at? Does Standish really think he can get away with this?"
Unperturbed, Jason said, "Mr. Standish did authorise his representatives to explain the reason for his request to meet. None of you gave them the opportunity to do so. Their instructions were to try persuasion before any other methods were attempted."
"Indictable methods!" hissed Nathan Jackson.
"There are reasons behind Mr. Standish's methods. Valid ones. Ones he would like to explain."
"I don't want to hear them," declared Chris Larabee from the corner.
"That's unfortunate," came a southern drawl from the open doorway, "because you're going to hear them anyway."
"And you are?" asked Larabee in an irritated tone.
"Ezra Standish, gentlemen. Thank you so much for agreeing to come."
Watching the six confused men shoot quiet glances at each other, Ezra said, "I will handle the briefing from here, Mr. Webber. Thank you."
"Yes, sir," said Jason, walking to the door and closing it gently behind him.
Motioning to the leather chairs scattered around the room, Ezra said, "Gentlemen, now that you're here, please at least hear me out. You have my sincere apologies for the manner with which you were brought here but time is of the urgency.
"I will donate $100,000 for each of you to the charity of your choice for the inconveniences caused. Should you agree to help me in this matter then you will each receive $10,000,000 to do with as you please."
As he expected, the amounts being offered silenced them for the time being, but Ezra knew he'd have to be convincing or they'd walk, regardless of the money being offered. Standing with his shaking hands clasped firmly behind his back, Ezra said, "First of all, if you'd listened to my representatives, you would have been told what no one outside the immediate company knows; Standish Industries is not being controlled by a 'board of trustees' for my late grandfather's estate. It's being controlled by me. The old bastard left me everything. The successes and the messes. You're here to - if you agree - help me with the messes."
Seeing the youngest of the group open his mouth to speak, confusion evident on his face, Ezra held up his hand for silence. "I'll answer whatever questions I can once I've finished, Mr. Dunne."
Watching as the young man settled back into his seat, Ezra continued. "Standish Industries has its fingers in more pies than I care to contemplate, and not all of them are good. I've spent the past ten months going over everything with a fine tooth comb, and I do not like what I'm seeing.
"Our environmental policy is excellent in some respects, and downright criminal in others. We have hounded smaller companies out of business to the detriment of many small communities, and poisoned rivers and streams over at least three states. This has to change. This will change."
A new voice spoke up. The long-haired man sitting next to Mr. Dunne said, "That ain't news. Fair enough, I'll accept that it weren't you that did all this. Still don't change that it was done."
"Yes, Mr. Tanner, I know," said Ezra. "Steps have been taken."
"Steps?" queried Vin Tanner.
Rocking back on his heels, Ezra took a deep breath and said, "I've contacted the state governments of every state that has been affected by the negligent practices of Standish Industries to inform them that we are aware of what has happened and that full restitution will be made. Be it financial recompense for communities, reclamation of destroyed waterways, reforestation... whatever... we will do what is needed."
Josiah Sanchez stared at the young man addressing them. "That is going to be difficult and time-consuming."
"Indeed, Mr. Sanchez," agreed Ezra. "Jason, my former assistant - you met him earlier - will be co-ordinating the task force that I've called in from experts across the country to deal with it all. Tonight was his last task as my assistant. He will do well. He is as dedicated as I to putting right what the company has done wrong."
"That's all well and good," said Nathan Jackson, sarcasm dripping from every word. "What do you need us for, then?"
"I don't intend to stop there."
The faces in front of him were less hostile now, but still not friendly. Now or never. Would they do it?
"I only ever met my grandfather once, gentleman. A tale of family member against family member. I won't bore you with the details. I almost didn't answer his lawyer's call saying that he wanted to see me, not even when I was told he was dying.
"In the end, however, curiosity won out. Mother had told me so little about the man who had turned his back on her that I was curious to see if he was the monster she made out.
"The answer to that was both yes and no. The family flocked round him waiting for him to die; it was most unbecoming. The old man pulled one final thing over on them, though. Against all expectations, he picked me as his heir. Having finally met my cousins, I could understand why. Vultures, all of them. The family all have bequests, but he gave me everything else, asking only one thing. 'Fix my mistakes. Make things better.'
"Jason will lead the team that makes right Standish Industries' mistakes. I'm hoping that you gentlemen will be the team that Standish Industries uses to make things better."
"Mr. Standish... Ezra..." said Buck Wilmington, his tone one of exasperation. "Look, would you just get to the point, already!"
Ezra swept his gaze round the room. "Thanks to my grandfather, my personal fortune - not monies associated with the company - now rests at several billion dollars. I didn't particularly want it, but I've got it. With it comes opportunities and responsibilities.
"Between you, you have a variety of skills. Messers Larabee and Wilmington are former Navy SEALs, marine biologists and expert divers. Mr. Jackson is a qualified doctor, specialising in emergency medicine. Mr. Sanchez is a world-renowned anthropologist, psychologist and trauma counsellor. Mr. Tanner is quite simply the best tracker and guide there is; as at home in the open country - be it jungle, desert or prairie - as most people are in cities; as well as being a former Army Ranger. And finally, Mr. Dunne; what you don't know about computers isn't worth knowing.
"My goal is to set up the A.L.E.R.T. - All-Purpose Leading Environmental Response Team - Foundation. Its primary goals would be: promoting reforestation programmes; working to save endangered species; monitoring environmental conditions; and co-ordinating aid efforts in natural disasters, search & rescue, urban reclamation, health and education programmes in schools. I want this foundation to 'make things better'.
"Your reputations preceded you, gentlemen. I want your support. More... I want your help. We'll call in whomever people you think could help. I'll get you any toys or gadgets you want. Always in the past, you've been constrained by how much money you had available and the politics driving the people or companies you were working for. This won't be a problem here. The money comes from me. You will be in charge of your programmes. You will make the decisions. Yea or nay comes from you. We can go up against any company or government world-wide, no vested interests to stop us - and yes, that includes Standish Industries.
"What do you say, gentlemen? Do you want to 'make things better'? This time, the choice is yours."
"With you the man in charge?" said Larabee.
"No, Mr. Larabee. You will be in charge."
"Come again?" said Chris, genuinely startled.
Ezra looked at the black-clad man and smiled. "If you all agree to join this foundation, then I think you should co-ordinate us."
"I don't know a damn thing about--"
"Forgive me, Mr. Larabee," interrupted Ezra, "let me clarify that statement."
Looking at the group in front of him, Ezra betrayed his nervousness by running his hand through his hair, saying, "Obviously, we'll have administrators, lawyers, staff as needed. I know a few good people to handle the day to day running of things.
"I'll provide the money... as well as a few more skills and talents that we can discuss in due course. What I would like is for us seven to be the 'board' of the foundation, as it were. A majority vote will hold sway in more mundane tasks. Emergencies would require a unanimous vote for action. However, I fully believe that Mr. Larabee has the capability and the presence to be commander in the field. From what I know of his records, I trust him to do what is right."
Round the room, glances were exchanged. Caution was there... but hope and excitement were dawning too. Smiles appeared, and, at the final wordless nod between Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner, Chris turned to Ezra Standish and said - on behalf of them all, "We'll give it a try."
Letting a relieved grin finally make its way to his face, Ezra moved to the bookcase and pulled the hidden switch to reveal the bar. Taking seven shot glasses and a bottle of malt whisky, he poured seven drinks. Each man took the drink proferred and Ezra offered the toast. "To making things better."
"To making things better!"