Victim/Villain:
Chapter 2: Conflict of Interest

by Amanda & Michelle

Synopsis: The FBI recalls Ezra to Atlanta for a special mission. But the consequences are far beyond any the FBI or Team Seven could believe, as both agencies begin to question Ezra’s sanity.

Author’s Note: Sorry for the long wait. Sometimes we forget we aren’t getting paid for this.

Prologue
Chapter 1: Pleasure Doing Business


Blue pre-dawn light silhouetted the dark form of Special Agent Morgan Reilly moving across his master bedroom as he paced from one end to the other. It had been mere hours since Romanov had accepted Jericho’s choice of “Zachary Bennett,” a.k.a. Ezra Standish, as lawyer for their impending negotiations, and Reilly cursed the wee hours between midnight and morning with nothing to do but wait before plans could be set in motion.

Reilly huffed a grim smile at the irony of it all. Months the FBI had been presenting lawyers, playing a game of knick-knack with Jericho. Agent after agent, attorney after attorney turned down, and the one Jericho and Romanov finally agree upon turns out to be the biggest black sheep still employed by the FBI. The whole thing was just so arse about face that Reilly could almost believe Jericho had done it on purpose just to spite him.

Sitting down on his side of the bed, Reilly palmed the small alarm clock to tilt the face’s red digital readout towards him. Fah! Fifteen minutes. He set the clock back on the nightstand, his knuckles striking the empty water glass that also rested on the bedside table. The Irish agent’s foot began tapping on the floor, fingers dancing on his upper thigh in something akin to a caffeine-induced jitter.

He hadn’t known what to expect from the notorious Agent Standish when he and Warfield made their trip to Denver, and certainly had not expected the fierce protectiveness of Larabee and the rest of Team Seven over their undercover man. Loyalty was rapid and all, but not when it got in the way of Reilly’s mission.

The Irish agent stood and walked over to the armoire, where a bottle of expensive whiskey sat open. Reilly took the spirits and poured some into the water glass on the nightstand. He exchanged the bottle for the glass and walked to the window. Pushing aside lacy curtains dyed in shadow, Reilly looked out into the deep blue haze of morning and swatted a damp hank of black hair away from his forehead.

The Russian, Nikolai Romanov, could have made hames of it all. In the Little Czar the FBI had discovered a dangerous mixture of savagery and sophistication, and every agent Romanov had rejected as lawyer had torn out of there secretly up in their hats that they wouldn’t be working with the Red Mafia.

But Romanov wasn’t his target.

Reilly glanced back at the bedside clock. Ten to five. Pointless to sit here doddering about like some corner-boy. There were at least a few things he could do at headquarters before the morning conference.

He switched off the useless alarm and strode to his closet. The folding doors were already open so he kicked a pair of slacks out of his way to reach into the closet and snatch up a dark shirt.

It all came down to Standish. Could the chancer be trusted? For all the man’s cute hoor reputation, the cocky son of a bitch had ability; Reilly had witnessed it last night. Reilly pulled a shirtsleeve up to a muscular shoulder, switching his whiskey to his other hand to pull on the other sleeve.

Trust’s a bleedin’ waste of time.

As Reilly finished dressing he set his glass on the armoire to tighten the knot of his tie. He picked up his Rolex and put it on his wrist. The diamond stud that had been resting next to the watch he put through his left lobe. Reilly took his whiskey and shot back the rest of the drink before replacing the glass on the armoire.

Let the day begin.

+ + + + + + +

The opulent night was over.

Dawn slowly caressed the horizon, encasing the roof of the Grand Tributary Hotel in blue haze. The effect transformed everything on the roof, from the exotic ferns to the hanging lanterns, to corpse-like stillness, pale and cold. The central swimming pool’s water was mirror finished, reflecting the gold rail around it and the imminent sunrise above it. The dance floor was long abandoned. Used plates, napkins, and the occasional half-eaten pastry were strewn about it and everywhere else last night’s party had touched. The only sign that the cleaning crew had even seen the roof was that the buffet had been removed.

A man and a woman were hidden in the shadows cast by the elevator cab, taking advantage of the privacy offered by the seemingly deserted rooftop. The woman’s artificially red lips parted to allow the morning air to enter her throat as the hulking male pressed sloppy kisses on her neck. His mouth traveled down her neck, to her bare shoulders and deeper. The woman’s lips parted again, this time to let breath out in a whisper:

“Oh, Isaak.”

Encouraged, the amorous Russian threw his passion into overdrive. But the tryst was not as private as he or his brunette lover believed. Wide black eyes stalked the duo, and a pair of bare feet treaded softly among shards of bourbon and shattered glass.

The rising sun cast faint light but not warmth. The lovers ignored the cold, but the onlooking woman wearing a sleeveless gold gown rubbed her hand over a bare arm.

Her pale pink lips uttered a quiet word.

“Isaak,” she echoed melodiously into the Russian’s ear.

The strange echo seemed unheard. But after a moment Isaak’s eyes began to roam the rooftop. Seeing no one, his attention returned to Sasha.

The rooftop’s unseen third occupant strode to the short wall on the opposite end of the blue roof. She leaned against the ledge, facing the horizon. A sad, sweet melody began to emanate from her slender throat. As the doleful notes wavered across the roof to the lovers on the other end, Isaak’s gaze again swept the expanse. This time the sight of the woman in the gold gown arrested his eyes from across the pool.

She met his stare through demurely lowered lashes. The love song faded away.

“Isaak,” the woman murmured.

“Hello, sweetness,” he responded. “You’re lovely. How about I do you when I’m done here?”

Sasha went on pressing kisses to Isaak’s neck, oblivious to the conversation. The young man continued his activity, but his eyes remained locked on the vision across the roof.

“I saw you last night,” the girl across the water revealed, ignoring the Russian’s crass remark.

“Yeah, I saw you too. You looked hot.”

“You were behind him.”

“What, who?”

The raven-haired woman was no longer returning Isaak’s stare. Instead she watched her finger as it traced shadows over the stone wall.

“The man with the beautiful green eyes, whose smile was so charming.”

“What, the lawyer? Forget about him. I’m better looking than him, anyway.”

The gold skirt swished gently as the woman turned to face Isaak.

“His jade eyes left me breathless. Your eyes are black as your heart,” she accused breathlessly.

Isaak frowned at the vision. “I’ll please you better than him. Once I touch you, you’ll be mine.”

Sasha noticed that her companion’s mind wasn’t on the game. She looked up at his face, and then followed his eyes across the pool. Seeing nothing, the young woman began to pull away, confused. Isaak directed his attention back to the brunette, slapping her face and pulling her back to him for some heavy necking. Sasha struggled for all of two seconds before giving it back as good as she got.

The woman in gold ignored the Russians. Her eyes were far away. “Who was he?”

“Nobody! I’m a good lover, see for yourself!”

Her eyes shifted to study the brunette who was nibbling at Isaak’s ear.

“She wants him also,” she announced after a moment.

Isaak’s brow lowered and his nostrils flared angrily.

“I want you.”

The woman’s gaze returned to the Russian across the pool. “Come to me.” Her lips curled upwards. “We can take a swim. You’ll always remember your night with me.”

Isaak shifted, but the brunette in his arms anchored him. He looked to Sasha, then back to the woman in gold. “I am, uh, sort of busy now.”

“Come to me, Isaak. I’ll be here.” She turned away from the couple, facing the dawn.

Isaak was still focused on the seductress’s back when Sasha came up for air. She frowned and turned his face towards her. “What’s the matter, Isaak? You aren’t still mad about the lawyer are you? You know I was only trying to make you jealous, baby.”

“You were, huh?” Isaak smirked and pulled the brunette closer. “Forget about the lawyer. Let’s go swimming.”

She shook her head and pouted. “No, it’s too cold. Let’s go inside, yes?”

Isaak grunted an agreement and escorted his paramour to the elevators. His black eyes returned to the raven-haired beauty and he licked his lips as the elevator doors closed.

“You’ll return,” the woman in gold stated softly. “To my regret.”

Her melancholy eyes glowed with the reflection of the rising sun.

“Who are you?”

+ + + + + + +

The question echoed into the horizon and faded away. Golden morning light speared the Confederate gray Atlanta skyline and it gradually dawned on Ezra Standish that he was awake. The vision of Isaak and the strange woman, he realized, had been a dream.

Ezra blinked the sun’s hazy rays from his eyes and went to shield them with his hand. He froze midway with another realization. Why am I on the roof? Fallen asleep on a patio chair? How could that have happened? I only partook of the one bourbon . . .

His ponderings suddenly ceased as it occurred to Ezra that he could not breathe. Some weight lay against his chest, restricting the expansion of his lungs. He looked down to find a raven-black head leaning against his chest. The woman in gold slept in his lap, curled peacefully against him.

As Standish strove to draw breath, the woman awoke. Ezra ceased trying to breathe as her star-filled eyes gazed into his.

“Save me,” she whispered.

+ + + + + + +

Bells rang shrilly around Ezra’s head. The undercover agent started, his heart beating rapidly. He tossed in his bed, completely disoriented. The bells sounded again. In the darkness, the Southerner reached for the source of obnoxious noise.

He put the telephone receiver to his ear.

“H’lo?”

“Good morning, sir. This is your 8 a.m. wake up call,” the voice on the other end chirped brightly.

“Huhhn?”

“It is 8 a.m. sir. Is there anything else I can do for you?” the cheerful voice asked.

“Uh, n-no. Thank you,” Standish mumbled absentmindedly. Reality seemed to be swinging back and forth at him. Was he truly awake now or was he still dreaming?

“Thank you for staying at the Grand Tributary. Have a splendiferous day.”

Ezra glared at the phone a moment before replacing it on the cradle. I don’t think I could imagine a more irritating way to begin the day. This must be real life.

Regardless of the fact, Ezra had no impulse to begin the day. He sank his head back into the pillows, staring into the dark nothingness of his suite at the grand hotel.

Lord, what a peculiar dream . . . In hindsight Ezra could say it had been a mere conjuring of his slumbering mind, yet while he’d been having it Standish had been lost to the vivid reality of the amorous Russians. The vivid reality of a pale oval face crossed with a lost and lonely expression.

“Who are you?” He tasted the question on his lips, a question he would just as soon have asked her. An enticingly beautiful woman, whether an illusion of his mind or flesh and blood as the nymph had been last night. Any man would have dreamt of her. If he weren’t such a career driven workaholic, he might just have allowed her to succeed in seducing him on the roof.

Ezra’s lips turned up as he contemplated momentarily the possibility of such a concession. The pleasant thought was eclipsed as he stared at the black shrouded ceiling, by the image of the dark pools of her starry eyes. But the vision lasted only an instant.

Standish rubbed his own bleary eyes and left his bed to head to the shower. Reality exerted itself heavily as the initial blast of tepid water escaped the showerhead and splashed his face.

Save me. What did she mean by that? The sentiments the woman had expressed in his dream had merely echoed the same she had last night. Save me, she had said, immediately after bestowing that intoxicating kiss on him. Save her from what? From what he could see, it was her own chosen lifestyle that was her biggest threat.

Well, if the enchanting damsel was looking for a knight in shining armor, she had made a poor choice. Ezra was in Atlanta for one reason, and it had nothing to do with playing hero to a girl who’d gotten in over her head in the world of organized crime.

The FBI-turned-ATF agent lifted his chin and breathed in the shower’s hot steam, eyes closed as water pelted his head and ran down his face. Ezra swallowed hard and exhaled.

Was it the prospect of losing his job that had gotten him onto the plane, that day in Denver? Or do I still honestly believe I can regain the FBI’s trust? Ezra asked himself, his inner voice ladened with self-mockery. Ken Owens seemed willing to withhold judgment, but assistant SAC Harry Warfield was not nearly convinced. And in the minds of certain agents among the FBI, Ezra was just as good as convicted. Then there was Reilly. God only knew what he thought.

Ezra stepped out of the shower into the steam-filled bathroom and began to dress. As he pulled a shirtsleeve up to his shoulder, Ezra realized he was humming. The significance of the mournful melody escaped him until he remembered where he had heard it before. The dark-haired girl had been humming the tune in his dream. Right before her exchange with Isaak.

The sudden mental image of the young woman in gold playing Sasha’s role twisted Ezra’s gut, and his fist clenched reflexively. Better to have let her end her life on the ledge last night than to let that brutish neanderthal lay hands on that pale, vulnerable girl.

But it was merely a dream, Standish reminded himself. And like it or not, he was now committed to the Jericho-Romanov negotiations, which meant that the undercover agent had no time for distractions. Ezra shook his head. The hell of it was, his mission for the FBI suddenly seemed a whole lot less interesting than a dark-haired girl wearing a gold dress.

+ + + + + + +

“Where the hell is the Jericho file?” Reilly hollered at large to the main room of the FBI’s suite on the fourth floor of the Century Building. Reilly stood paused in the doorway of the conference room holding a thick stack of folders.

Chris sat on the conference table at its head, his feet up on the seat of a chair. The five present members of Team Seven lounged at various stations around the room like a lazing pack of wolves: Vin leaning against the wall in one corner, quietly sipping from a styrofoam cup filled with coffee from the pot brewing on a small table next to the door; JD slouching with one elbow on the table, running fingers through shaggy dark hair that look rumpled as if he had forgotten to brush it, yawning casually every time he opened his mouth to crack a joke; Buck sitting in a rolling desk chair, his feet up on the table and JD’s newsboy cap pulled down over his eyes.

The hard wood of the rectangular table, concentric to the shape of the conference room, suited Larabee better at the moment than the thickly cushioned rolling chair as he watched Reilly at the open door with the intense stare of the alpha evaluating his competition. In striking counterpoint to the rest of the members of last night’s surveillance team, the FBI agent moved about the cubicled floor with manic energy. The other agents occupying the main space of the FBI’s suite seemed to find him disconcerting.

“I have it, sir,” FBI agent Jean Charles assured him hurriedly. She held a manila folder in the air as she and Ken Owens approached the conference room. Reilly snatched it out of her hands and began leafing through it.

As the three FBI agents entered, Chris resisted the urge to rub the underside of his nose. The room smelled vaguely of glass cleaner beneath the stronger aroma of coffee, probably owing to the large and numerous windows that ran the length of the entire outside wall. The world beyond those windows was a featureless gray between beige blinds.

“You boys all have fun last night?” Jean Charles asked Team Seven with a smirk. The sound of a female voice caused Buck to lift the corner of JD’s hat and peek out from under it. Jean raised a challenging eyebrow at the ladies’ man. Buck took one look at Agent Charles, her hair pulled back into a severe ponytail, her pantsuit completely covering her tall, solid figure, and lowered the hat again with a disgusted snort.

“Thought you were Gina,” he muttered.

“Gina from accounting?” Ken asked. “Good luck, man!”

Chris smirked briefly. Gina was reportedly something of a legend around FBI headquarters. Once a professional call girl, she had decided that law enforcement had a better future. Since she had shown up in the Atlanta office every male agent in the building had asked her out, only to be shot down.

Jean fired an annoyed glare at Ken before regarding Buck. “Good thing for you I wasn’t, Wilmington. Gina would have taken one look at your ugly mug and run screaming for the door.”

Buck swung his feet to the floor as he removed the hat and tossed it on the table in front of JD. “I’ll have you know that Gina thinks I am quite the hottie,” he said smugly.

Jean shook her head as she sat at the conference table. “There’s no accounting for taste,” she said.

JD burst out laughing. Buck looked at him curiously.

“Accounting for taste. Gina from accounting. Get it?” JD guffawed. Jean shared a grin with the computer expert. Buck glowered at his young friend.

“How’d you manage to get away from Jericho?” Vin asked Ken as the undercover agent filled a white styrofoam cup with coffee.

“Ah,” Owens waved a hand dismissively, “that old letch’ll be in bed ‘til noon.”

“Lucky bastard,” Buck muttered.

Ken wore a grin as usual as he took a seat. “That’s how it is, Wilmington. The bad guys get to sleep late but a good guy’s work is never done.”

“What time’s Standish getting up this morning?” Jean asked under her breath. Agent Charles had been with Ezra’s division during Internal Affair’s investigation of Standish and had so far made no bones about the fact that she considered the undercover agent’s presence a mistake.

“Don’t think I care much for your attitude, Chuck.”

“Breaks my heart, Wilmington.”

“Alright, enough of that slagging,” Reilly broke in. The FBI agent still stood with no apparent intention of sitting down. “According to the schedule Ken’s brought us, Standish, Romanov and Jericho begin the negotiations at nine p.m.” Devoid of tie today, Reilly loosened the collar of his shirt with a finger even though the top button was already unfastened. “So tonight, I’ll be in the van watching the monitors, providing we can get that equipment set up in the Tributary’s conference room-”

“You mean we’ll be watching the monitors,” Chris interrupted.

Reilly tugged at his ear. “You’ll have plenty of time to irritate me in the course of this mission, Larabee. Why not give tonight a rest?”

“I’ll rest when the damn mission’s over.”

JD half raised his hand. “Er, just how long d’ya think that’ll be anyway?”

“Merciful hour!” Reilly swore. “I don’t know. Could be two, maybe three years. Mobsters, they’re so unpredictable. And then there’s your boy – prince of unpredictability.”

“Two or three years?” the kid repeated incredulously.

“Stop shittin’ us, Reilly,” Buck spoke up. “Just how long do you think you can have Ezra, anyway?”

“As long as I bleedin’ want him,” the Irishman declared peevishly.

“You’re starting to piss me off, Reilly.”

“You’re already pissing me off, Larabee.”

Ken broke in to the conversation. “Look, Standish is only here as long as it takes to get the job done. A Jericho-Romanov alliance is beneficial to both these guys – they can’t wait to sign the deal and start making money. As long as things go smoothly, Standish could have a contract signed in a few days, at most a few weeks.”

Chris wondered who else noticed that Owens had neglected to say how long the negotiations would last if things didn’t go smoothly.

“And if Standish wants to extend the process a bit, I wouldn’t mind staying an extra few days at the Grand Tributary,” Ken joked. The federal agents who’d been about to burst out of their seats all settled back in their chairs.

“Ken, you’re running around so much I bet you don’t even know what the inside of your own room looks like,” Vin teased.

“Sure I do. Uh, just give me a hint. There’s a bed in it, right?”

“Whatever. Fine,” Reilly impatiently agreed. “Tanner, you’ll relieve Jackson and Sanchez and take the afternoon shift. Wilmington,” he addressed Buck, “you and Jean are our inside team tonight.”

Jean had sat as far away from the ladies’ man as she possibly could. The two locked horrified glances across the room. “Great,” Buck said without enthusiasm. “How are we going in?”

“As a couple in the restaurant.”

Buck shifted his horrified gaze to Reilly. “When you say as a couple, you don’t mean . . .”

“I mean as a couple. Husband and wife. Boyfriend and girlfriend. Secret lovers. Take your pick.”

Wilmington returned his stare to Agent Charles, whose hard-angled features hardened even further to fix Buck with a death glare. “Try anything funny with me, Wilmington, and I guarantee you’ll live to regret it,” she threatened.

The ladies’ man looked like Jean had just suggested taking a bath in piranha-infested waters. He turned to Chris with an entreating look. Larabee only shrugged, but the corners of his mouth tipped in what could have been a very slight smirk.

+ + + + + + +

Elijah Jericho’s lips curled into an oily smile. “Can I give you anymore information, Mr. Bennett?”

Ezra shook his head congenially. “Mr. Jericho you have been most forthcoming about your operations. I thank you for the information, and unless you have something else you wish to discuss I shall take your leave now.”

“Until we meet again, in oh, about an hour or two.”

Jericho stood up from the dinner table as Ezra did.

“I shall see you at the negotiation table, sir.”

They shook hands over the remnants of their steaks and Ezra departed from the Grand Tributary’s five-star restaurant, the Red Heron.

The hotel’s lobby was all but deserted as Ezra sauntered across the open expanse to the elevators. He stopped before the burnished gold doors and pushed a button. Standish stared past the lit “up” indicator as he waited alone for an elevator to descend.

Although not as exciting, the first half of Ezra’s day was proving to be equally if not more demanding than the night before. Although Ezra had never even seen a bar exam, much less passed one, his cover as lawyer didn’t require a knowledge of law so much as a knowledge around the law. Years of pounding Atlanta’s streets as a police officer provided him with enough to fake it. Mostly, this mission required a snake charmer. Standish had spent the day learning what sort of serpents he was dealing with and what tune he’d be playing.

The elevator was taking forever. Standish glanced at his watch impatiently, his foot beating an even tempo against the carpet.

“Just the guy I wanted to see.”

Ezra looked behind him. Isaak. Marvelous. The image of the dark-haired girl in the gold dress came unbidden to Ezra’s mind at the sight of the Russian mobster. He turned his head back to the elevator so he didn’t do something irrational like hit the neanderthal. It had been just a dream.

“A shame I’m unable to reciprocate the sentiment. What do you want, Isaak?”

“I want your blood,” Isaak sounded pissed, and reeked of vodka. Ezra jerked his head around, but it was too late. The beefy Russian had already reeled his arm back and his fist struck Standish against the cheekbone. Dazed, Ezra offered no defense as Isaak shoved him through a door marked “stairs”. Alone in the stairwell, Isaak twisted Ezra’s arm around behind his back, pinning the undercover agent against the wall.

“The Little Czar has an offer for you,” Isaak hissed into Ezra’s ear. “Work for him. Get him what he wants. Tilt the score to his side. You do that, he’ll give you an extra fifty percent. You don’t, and you hurt, got it?”

“Your offer lacks charm,” Ezra growled. He felt his shoulder straining almost to the point of dislocating. So Romanov thought he could be intimidated, did he? Over my dead body, Standish thought as he snapped his head back hard into Isaak’s nose. The Russian grunted and released Ezra’s arm, giving Standish enough leeway to spin around and swing his right fist into Isaak’s face.

The big man staggered backward. He glared at Ezra, wiping blood from his lip.

“I’m gonna beat you a new head,” Isaak menaced. He braced as if to charge, but a click resonating in the stairwell froze him in place.

“How ‘bout I don’t give you the chance, pard?” Vin Tanner menaced back, his revolver thrust into Isaak’s spine.

Ezra felt a flash of something that resembled regret that Vin had somehow materialized to interrupt the impending violence. Suppressing the unreasonable irritation, Standish threw a nod to the man who would be his chauffeur.

“Impeccable timing, as always,” Standish congratulated Tanner, shaking his suit back into position. He suppressed a groan as his shoulder protested the movement. Addressing the stoneman in a steely voice, “You can inform Mr. Romanov that I am susceptible to neither bribes – nor threats. My services are impartial, and will remain so.”

Isaak growled at Ezra and moved forward, but behind him Vin cleared his throat and nudged his gun further into the Russian’s back. A dangerous smile appeared on the tracker’s face. “Lot of big words there. Need me to spell it out for you?”

The Russian grunted, and his next words were to Ezra. “I will deliver message to the Little Czar. And then I will enjoy cutting you to pieces.” Isaak grinned nastily. “Women won’t admire your eyes so much after I take them out of your skull. We’ll see how much she wants you then.”

The gray walls of the stairwell seemed to loom closer for a moment. As Ezra blinked to refocus his vision the narrow corridor retreated, though the walls still seemed to pulse behind Vin and the Russian.

Isaak still wore that goonish grin. Ezra shook his head and met the neanderthal’s expression with a provoking smirk of his own.

“It seems I am continually donating advice to you,” Standish observed. “I shall really have to begin charging a consulting fee. But I will offer you one more free tidbit.” Ezra’s smile dropped. “Touch her and you’ll regret it.”

The Russian smirked mockingly at the undercover agent. “She was manipulating you, you know. To get to me. I will give her your regards,” Isaak said before slamming his arm against the door and making a violent exit from the stairwell.

The gray walls of the stairwell suddenly returned to normal. Ezra blinked rapidly. What the hell had he been thinking? The dark-haired girl could obviously make her own decisions concerning men. She had been the one to come on to Isaak. Ezra had already established with himself that he was no white-horsed champion. It wasn’t as if . . .

“What the hell was that about?” Vin asked as he holstered his revolver. Standish looked at the sharpshooter. He had actually forgotten that Vin was there. Ezra opened his mouth to make an explanation for the exchange when it suddenly occurred to him that the scene between Isaak and the girl in the gold dress had been a dream. Merely a figment of his cognitive powers of visualization. Then who had Isaak been referring . . .

“He still pissed at you flirting with his gal?” Tanner hazarded.

Sasha? “I suppose . . .” Ezra’s eyes narrowed as he considered. “Yes, that must be it.”

Vin shook his head. “Try to remember you ain’t Buck, Ezra.”

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just . . . concentrate on the damn job, so we can all go home.”

“I assure you, Mr. Tanner,” Standish allowed a light frost into his tone, “my focus is on one thing only here.”

Vin simply nodded. Ezra said nothing as he stepped around the sharpshooter to the stairwell’s exit.

“I’ve got your back for the night shift,” Vin said behind him. “Buck’s gonna be close too. But Ezra?”

Ezra paused, his hand on the door. “Yes?”

“Be careful.”

+ + + + + + +

Agent Jean Charles leaned forward on her elbows and smiled at Buck over a table draped in red cloth. “We’ve already had appetizers, dinner, dessert and after-dinner drinks,” she said through gritted teeth. “The waiters are cleaning up all the other tables and giving us dirty looks. If we don’t leave soon one of them will probably poison our mints.”

Wilmington leaned his face on one of his hands and gazed back dreamily at the hostile agent across candles burned low. “I agree, Jean, but we gotta wait for Ezra to get out of the negotiations first. We’re his backup. We owe it to him to stay as long as possible.”

Jean suddenly put a hand over her stomach as if she were fighting off a wave of nausea. “What if they go all night?” she asked.

“Well . . .” Buck studied the fancy chandelier hanging overhead while trying to come up with a solution. “We could always get a room.”

Jean emitted a horrified and indignant huff. Buck returned a questioning glance.

“Look, Wilmington,” Jean said in a low growl. “I don’t know what class of woman you’re used to working with, but I’m not that easy.”

Buck snorted. “Nothing about you is easy, Chuck. And don’t get your hopes up. That isn’t what I meant.”

“Yeah, right. This evening is over, Wilmington. If you’re so eager to stay up all night, fine. But you’re doing it without me.” Agent Charles shoved back her chair and threw a cloth napkin on the table.

Over the wire, Chris congratulated Reilly. “Great work. I’ve never seen two agents do a better impression of an old married couple.”

Wilmington stared at the empty chair in front of him. “What do I do now? I can’t just sit here by myself!” he asked under his breath.

“Hang tight for a minute,” Larabee responded. “We just had some activity in the meeting room. Romanov stormed out and Ezra is on his heels.”

“I see them. They just came down to the bar. Romanov looks real upset. Ez is trying to calm him down but Romanov just walked away. I’m gonna go up the bar and see what happened.”

Buck got up from the table shaking his head like a man abandoned without cause. He sauntered up to the bar and ordered a tonic and lime. A little ways down, Standish sipped his own beverage. He looked displeased.

“What happened, pard?” Wilmington asked into his drink.

Ezra leaned back casually on the bar. “Nothing terribly unexpected,” he murmured. “Too many egos in one room. I’ll have them back at the table by tomorrow afternoon.”

“Too many egos, huh? I’m going home to get some sleep. You gonna be okay?”

“I think the excitement is done for the evening. Good night, Mr. Wilmington.”

Buck shot back the rest of his drink, but before he had taken a single step away from the bar, Ezra asked under his breath, “Buck. The dark-haired young woman wearing the gold dress at the party yesterday, have you seen her since last night?”

Buck’s face twisted in failed recollection. “Which one was this?”

“I hardly believe you of all people could have missed her. She was about twenty. Sleeveless satin gown.”

Buck looked to the ceiling as he tried to recall. After a moment he shook his head. “Damn, I must have missed her. Why d’you ask?”

Ezra stared at Wilmington a second before waving his hand dismissively. “No particular reason. We had a brief encounter but I haven’t been able to determine her identity.”

“Well, pard, I’d be glad to investigate.” Buck grinned. “If I have to interview every female under the age of thirty in this hotel . . .”

Standish rolled his eyes. “Never mind. Good night, Mr. Wilmington.”

Wilmington shrugged and sauntered out of the Red Heron restaurant, shaking his head. What an evening.

As he exited through the lobby he passed Jericho and a foxy redhead. The redhead looked his way and winked. Buck felt infinitely better as he left the Grand Tributary.

+ + + + + + +

“Mr. Bennett. You too felt the need for a drink?”

Ezra turned at the sound of Elijah Jericho’s Southern tones. The crime boss inclined his head congenially towards Standish as he escorted his tall, skinny paramour to the bar next to Ezra. The undercover agent nodded back politely and raised his glass slightly.

“Just something to relax before bed.”

“Yes, Louise and I had the same idea,” Jericho said as he waved the bartender over.

A distant scream diverted any further conversation. The lounge’s occupants looked in alarm for the source of the sound. Jericho and Ezra were on their feet and in the lobby immediately. “Dead, he’s dead!” Sasha exclaimed in a panic.

“What is it, what happened?” Jericho demanded as he approached the hysterical woman.

Through heaving sobs she answered, “Isaak – he’s fallen!”

Standish and Jericho exchanged confused looks.

“Down the stairs?” Ezra asked Sasha.

“No,” Sasha wailed. “Off the roof!”

+ + + + + + +

“Are you falling asleep?”

“Hell, no. . . . Are you?”

The surveillance van that housed Agent Reilly and Chris Larabee was dead silent. Without the exuberant JD manning the equipment, the team leaders discovered after a few hours of watching the Grand Tributary that they had nothing to say to each other.

Hours? More like minutes, Larabee thought. He was thankful they would be packing up and leaving very soon, since the negotiations had just broken up.

A rap on the back of the van startled both agents, who put their hands to their gun holsters as Reilly unlatched the back door. Buck stepped casually into the vehicle, grinning at his boss’s glare.

“Jean took the car, so I thought I’d hitch a ride with you two. Hope you don’t mind.”

Reilly huffed and slammed the door shut. Chris just shook his head and went back to powering off the surveillance equipment.

As he did so, sirens began to whine in the distance. Everyone’s head snapped up to alertness as the shrill cry became louder and closer. Larabee moved quickly to the front seat, just in time to see three Atlanta police cars pass by, their alarm lights flashing wildly. Agent Reilly bolted into the passenger’s seat in a heartbeat. Both team leaders watched aghast as the cop cars swerved to a stop in front of the hotel, only a block away from the van’s location.

“What the hell are they doing here?” Buck asked as he poked his head into the front compartment.

+ + + + + + +

The Grand Tributary’s expansive lobby was made small by the amount of people milling about it. It seemed as though every guest had heard the scream and had come to see what it was about. Uniformed police officers were trying to control the crowd, instructing anyone who had not known the man or been present at the death to return to their rooms, but their announcements were drowned out by the clamor of concerned voices. Ezra looked around for a young woman with dark flowing hair, but did not see her. He did see Sasha, though. She was standing next to Nikolai Romanov, his arm around her still-shaking shoulders. The Russian crime lord wore a dark expression as he gave his statement to a plainclothes detective.

In the midst of the pandemonium, Pamchenko stood with his hands grasped lightly behind his stooped back and watched through the glass doors the police wind yellow tape along the front of his hotel. He could have been watching a sunset for all the concern that showed on his wizened face. Ezra tailed a step behind Jericho as the two strode across the lobby to confront the Grand Tributary’s owner.

“You called the cops?” the Southern crime leader whispered incredulously.

Pamchenko returned an even look. “The body has been out on the street for who knows how long. They couldn’t be avoided. Just follow my lead. I have an arrangement with certain members of the Atlanta P.D. All will be well.”

Jericho looked skeptical but had no choice but to give Pamchenko the benefit of the doubt, as at that moment one of the plainclothes detectives approached.

“You’re the owner of this hotel, I understand?” the detective asked.

“Yes, officer,” Pamchenko responded with a sad shake of his head. “What a terrible tragedy. And on the eve of such a blessed event. The wedding party will be crushed.”

The detective looked up, his impartial expression replaced by one of consternation. “A wedding, hmm? I hope he wasn’t, er, wasn’t the groom?”

Jericho hid a smile behind the act of stroking his pointed beard. Even Ezra had to admit he was impressed with Pamchenko’s aplomb as he answered the concerned officer: “No, no. The boyfriend of one of the bride’s guests. No close relation to either of the happy couple.”

The detective looked relieved as he resumed his impassive questioning. “Who are you two?” he asked, gesturing to Jericho and Standish. “Did you have any relation to the deceased?”

“I am the bride’s uncle,” Jericho answered, smoothly picking up on Pamchenko’s fabrication. “This is my friend and business partner. Neither of us had met this man until his unfortunate accident tonight.”

Ezra confirmed the crime boss’ claims.

“Well, we should have this all cleaned up in about half an hour. We’ll be out of your hair after just a few more questions.”

Pamchenko gave a dry cough. “Is there any reason to suspect that this was other than an accident?” the hotel owner asked casually.
The detective shook his head. “No, we’re simply covering all the bases. Although no one saw the actual death, many witnesses reported seeing the victim drinking heavily tonight.”

Pamchenko leaned forward slightly. “And the evidence will surely prove such an assumption, correct?” he asked significantly.

A tiny smile quirked at the detective’s lips. “I think it’s safe to say the toxicology report will come back positive. Thank you for your time, Mr. Pamchenko.”

Jericho chuckled lightly under his breath as the remaining trio watched the lobby slowly begin to clear out.

+ + + + + + +

Inside the surveillance van, the police scanner squawked out sketchy details of the situation that had called Atlanta’s finest to the Grand Tributary. As the three agents gathered around the speaker, Larabee was just realizing that Reilly could out-fidget even JD given the right impetus. Restless hands continuously loosened his shirt collar, or tugged at a diamond-studded earlobe, or pushed back sleeves that were already rolled up past his elbows. He’d been like that for the last twenty minutes, since news of a man’s death had filtered through the speaker.

Buck exchanged glances with Chris behind Reilly’s back. Wilmington opened his mouth to say something when the Irish agent abruptly turned and made for the van’s back door.

“I’m done bloody doddering around in here,” Reilly muttered as he opened the door and exited the surveillance vehicle.

Larabee raised a cool eyebrow that was somehow both irritated and incredulous as he and Wilmington stared after the FBI agent. Chris recovered himself first.

“Stay here,” the ATF leader ordered as he followed Reilly out of the van.

A sizeable crowd had gathered on the sidewalk around the yellow police tape that roped off Isaak’s gravity-ravaged body. Larabee caught up to Reilly as he was flashing his ID to the officer in charge to be allowed through the barricade. The FBI agent had not spared a glance behind him since leaving the van, but he paused as Chris approached the crime scene.

“He’s with me,” Reilly told the police officer keeping the crowd back.

That remains to be seen, Larabee thought grimly.

+ + + + + + +

As Jericho expressed the perverse inclination to see Isaak’s body, Ezra turned a distasteful grimace into a polite smile and followed the crime boss out of the pandemonium of the Grand Tributary’s lobby into the chaos of Atlanta’s streets. Yes, that was Isaak. Yes, he was pretty much dead. Ezra wondered how long Jericho would feel the need the stare at his flattened corpse. The undercover agent was beginning to feel his stomach turn at the gruesome sight. He looked away.

From the moment Ezra had received his wake up call the day had been proving most surreal. Despite that, Standish couldn’t believe his eyes as he watched his two bosses saunter up to him in the midst of an operation. Yet there they were, ATF agent shadowing FBI agent as Reilly milled around the scene of Isaak’s demise.

Even as Standish considered ways to get Jericho back into the hotel, Jericho and Reilly spotted each other through the throng of curious onlookers. The swarm of police officers and medical examiners seemed to part specifically to let crime boss and agent approach each other through the flash of photographers and hum of whispered comments. Chris and Ezra locked eyes in a moment of mutual confusion.

Reilly and Jericho each slowed to a stop as they came within a few feet of each other. The older Southern gentleman smiled smugly at the Irish agent; Reilly, however, met Jericho’s eyes with unrivaled hostility.

“Jericho,” Reilly acknowledged in a tone just sideways of civil. “I shouldn’t be surprised to see you involved in this holy show.”

“Reilly,” Jericho returned unctuously. “Indeed I am most astonished to see you here. I hope your career has not taken a turn for the worse if you are investigating drunken mishaps.”

The FBI agent smiled without humor. “Bodies falling from the sky always interest me, especially when they take place at a hotel where I find Elijah Jericho and Nikolai Romanov on the guest list. Maybe I’m gone in the head, but that strikes me as a bloody big coincidence. Wouldn’t you say?”

“Your mind is certainly of a suspicious bend,” Jericho agreed. “It just so happens Mr. Romanov and I are both here to celebrate a wedding. His second cousin to my niece. I’ll graciously accept your congratulations.”

“Not in this lifetime, Jericho.”

Ezra, standing at Jericho’s left shoulder, had to decide whether to stay out of this lunacy or attempt to intervene. He took a step forward, moving into the role of indignant attorney. “Zachary Bennett, Mr. Jericho’s lawyer,” he introduced curtly. “Is there a particular reason you are harassing my client?”

“I haven’t even begun to harass your client, Bennett,” Reilly jeered. “When I do, you’ll know.”

Ezra wasn’t sure if this was a bit of role playing for the mission’s benefit or if Reilly had simply gone off the deep end. “That sounded like a threat,” he said. “What was your name again?”

“Don’t mind Agent Reilly,” Jericho asided to Standish. “He and I are acquainted of long ago. Which reminds me . . .” The crime boss turned back to Reilly. “I was so sorry to hear about your wife.”

Reilly’s fist snaked out and smashed Jericho in the face. Chris had been watching the confrontation with incredulous bemusement, but even his eyebrows suddenly shot into his hairline as the crime boss reeled back several steps and would have fallen had Ezra not caught him and stopped his backward momentum.

“You bloody bastard,” Reilly growled as he made a grab for the mob leader. Standish pulled a dazed Jericho away from the FBI agent’s grip while Larabee stepped forward and caught Reilly’s arm before he could take another swing at the older man.

Awash with anger and confusion that was not feigned, Ezra continued to act his part. “Agent Reilly, I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but I hope this is a desperate bid for a new career, because when I’m through with you you’ll never work in law enforcement again.”

Jericho had regained his footing and his composure. “Mr. Bennett,” he said, putting a hand on Ezra’s shoulder. “I don’t think there’s any need to ruin Agent Reilly over this incident. I will not be pressing charges.”

Standish stared at Jericho incredulously. “Mr. Jericho, the man assaulted you without provocation! Surely-”

“No charges, Mr. Bennett,” Jericho reiterated. His lips turned up mockingly as he turned back to the FBI agent still being held back by Larabee. “I’m sure Agent Reilly was ‘gone in the head’ at the time.”

Ezra was relieved, though at the same time astounded, that he would not be forced to sue Agent Reilly for all he was worth to protect his cover.

The commotion had by now gained the attention of the other law enforcement personnel on the scene, and several of them started to make their way over. Reilly shook free of Chris’ restraining hand and waved away the approaching police officers. He returned a murderous glare to Jericho’s condescending expression.

“Don’t do me any bleedin’ favors, Jericho. I’ll be seeing you in court one way or another.”

Before the crime boss could respond, Reilly spun on his heel and pushed past Chris, heading away from the hotel. A couple of police officers on the scene wore looks of understanding and murmured encouragement as the FBI agent brushed past them and slid under the yellow tape.

Larabee shot one last look at Ezra and Jericho before following after Reilly.

Jericho wasted little time staring at the retreating agents. “I believe I hear a bourbon calling my name, Mr. Bennett. Come, let’s not get any further in these officers’ way.”

Ezra ushered Jericho back into the hotel, the crime boss engaged in massaging his jaw. The undercover agent spared a look for Isaak, now wrapped up in a black body bag. Was it really alcohol that had caused the fall? Standish’s eyes traced Isaak’s line of descent back up to its source at the rooftop yet saw nothing but faint blue light.

Thus concludes our first day of negotiations. Simply marvelous.

+ + + + + + +

The ATF agent caught up with Reilly a couple hundred yards down the sidewalk. Buildings loomed dark on either side of the pair as they passed through the night-shrouded neighborhood. Chris fell into step with the FBI agent, the black-clad Larabee a shadow beside Reilly’s broader and slightly shorter figure. Chris turned a darkly expectant look on Reilly and waited for him to offer an explanation, but the agent remained closemouthed.

Larabee’s irritation broke. “What the hell was that?” he finally asked.

Reilly’s jaw clenched, but beyond that he made no acknowledgement to Larabee’s question. Taking a set of keys out of his pocket, he handed them to Chris.

“Here,” he said. “Take the van back to headquarters.”

They had reached the surveillance vehicle, waiting with Buck across the street. As Larabee stared at the keys in his hand, Reilly began to walk off in the opposite direction.

“What the hell . . . Where are you going?” Chris growled after him.

The ATF agent hadn’t really expected an answer from Reilly, but as the Irishman strode off into the night, Chris heard the words “. . .the local . . .” float back. He looked from Reilly to the hotel and back again.

What the hell?

+ + + + + + +

In Ezra’s dream it was day. The sun gleamed off a sidewalk so clean and white that it hurt his eyes just to look at it. So he steered his eyes up the pristine pavement, until a pair of shoes halted their track. The shoes were red suede pumps, terminating legs that were slender and curvaceous, much like the body they belonged to. Not that this young lady was advertising her gorgeous figure; a modest knee-length skirt draped from her narrow hips and a white blouse buttoned to the chin covered most of her ivory skin. Her dark hair was pulled into a ponytail around a perfectly oval face.

If Ezra had been able to gasp in a dream, he would have. This was the same woman who had kissed him, whose face had been haunting him since the other night!

“Valentine!” a deep voice shouted. The young lady turned her head and looked at a gray-haired man. He was paused in the act of proceeding through of a pair of doors. Ezra recognized those doors. The man stood at the Grand Tributary’s front entrance.

“Coming!” the girl called back. Valentine, Ezra noted. Her name is Valentine. She did not immediately run to join her older acquaintance but stepped back to look upward at the Grand Tributary’s impressive exterior. Seemingly satisfied with the imposing edifice, she brought her head back down and swept her vision around the surrounding area. Her gaze did not go far before being immediately arrested by the sight of a young man.

Standing rigidly by a vacant Rolls Royce, the boy’s thick dark hair, hawkish nose and high cheekbones clearly denoted him to be of Slavic descent. Dressed in a dark suit accessorized with white gloves and a chauffeur’s cap, a foolish and startled expression ruined what would otherwise have been a very professional appearance. The boy was gawking shamelessly at the beautiful girl.

Shame came once he realized that the young woman had caught him staring. He quickly averted his gaze to the gleaming pavement. A pink flush crawled up his neck, but he dared to glance again at the dark-haired beauty.

Valentine had not looked away and a coquettish smile now touched her lips. The chauffeur began to return the smile, but another shout caused the girl to hasten towards the Grand Tributary’s entrance.

As she was about to disappear into the lobby, the girl glanced behind her. Ezra felt an inexplicable chill as the force of her dark eyes engulfed him . . .

. . . and the brightness of the day was suddenly eclipsed by a torrent of blackness.

Slow, creeping coldness entwined around Ezra’s being as he struggled to ascertain his whereabouts. It seemed as though he was on his back, floating, as below and around him lay nothing but an abyss of unending darkness. Above quivered a faint grayish-green light, whose unsteady rays formed a misshapen sort of circle. He slowly came to understand that the revolting light was being obstructed by a dark shape.

The mysterious form refused to become clear in his sight though his eyes fought to focus. Gradually features began to reveal themselves from the darkness. Queasiness wrenched his stomach as he recognized a pale oval face and expansive black eyes. The familiar eyes of Valentine, which were staring vacantly down at him.

Vacantly, he realized after a moment, because they were dead.

In the blackness of his hotel suite, Ezra shot up in his bed, shivering uncontrollably.

+ + + + + + +

“Chris, I don’t know how much longer I can put up with that woman.”

The dark cowboy tilted his head at what he thought was a ladies’ man sitting across the booth. For once it seemed as though Buck Wilmington’s famous charm was useless.

“C’mon, Buck, Jean’s not all that bad, once you get used to her.” The kid spoke up through his mouthful of scrambled eggs as the trio enjoyed breakfast in the small cafeteria of the Century building. The transplanted ATF agents had missed the morning rush, and the dimly lit eatery was quiet but for a tv set in the corner, playing the local news. Surprisingly, no news of a dead body at the Grand Tributary had been reported. Which was fortunate, because that meant no news of an FBI agent slugging one of Atlanta’s most powerful mobsters.

Wilmington chewed halfheartedly on his bran muffin. “Easy for you to say, JD. She likes you. I believe she’s made it her life’s ambition to make my life miserable.”

“Buck, she feels the same way about you. If she worked any harder to avoid you she’d have to make it her new career!”

The ladies’ man threw up his hands in exasperation, striking some silk greenery potted next to the booth and launching a puff of dust. “That’d suit ol’ Buck just fine, ‘cept she’s no good at it. I swear she waits around corners ‘til she sees me coming, then walks out so I can run into her. Chris, I can’t take it any more.”

“What are you telling me, Buck? You wanna leave? Head back to Denver?” Chris took a sip of his black coffee and shrugged. “Can’t stop you if you do.”

“No, I ain’t saying that.” Wilmington looked away, bristling his mustache with thumb and forefinger before continuing, “But I sure don’t intend on staying here no two or three years, and I know the other guys feel the same way. I can’t figure A.D. Travis being overjoyed at it neither.”

“Yeah, I thought the judge only gave us two weeks. Where does Reilly get his ‘two or three years’?” JD asked.

Larabee regarded Wilmington with a quiet stare, then turned his attention to JD. “Travis gave us two weeks. Where Ezra’s concerned, the judge doesn’t have much of a say against the FBI.” Chris’ expression darkened. “Reilly’s got him as long as he wants him.”

“Just great,” Buck muttered. “Next thing you know the man’s going to be challenging Romanov to an arm-wrestling competition. And they call us loose cannons.”

Chris’ coffee tasted murky and bitter near the bottom. “Let me handle Reilly. So what about you?” he turned to JD. “You with Buck?”

The younger agent frowned uncomfortably and shrugged. “I’m all for watching Ezra’s back and all, but Casey’s and mine anniversary is in two and a half weeks. I don’t think she’ll understand if I miss it.”

Larabee remained quiet a moment longer before ending the guilty silence.

“Relax, fellas. Ezra wants to be here less than any of us. Hell, he’s probably got this case half wrapped up already.” Chris drained his cup and set it on the table. “Let’s regroup, check his progress. Have Vin set it up with the rest of the guys.”

The three agents soon departed, Buck and JD with the intention of heading into the city to do some sightseeing. Chris left the café and rode the elevator up the FBI’s floor.

The sound of raised voices greeted Larabee even as he was still twenty feet from Reilly’s door. Inactivity surrounded an explosion emanating from the FBI agent’s office as a host of agents stood shock-still listening to the rampage of assistant Special Agent In-Charge Harry Warfield going at it with Special Agent Morgan Reilly. Ken Owens had his blonde head nearly buried in a file cabinet. It would have been useless to pretend not to hear – a herd of elephants stampeding through the room would have been easier to ignore.

“Damn it, Warfield, you can’t expect me to dodder around the office, filing paperwork, while someone else calls the shots out in the field.”

“I sure as hell can! Maybe that was something you might have wanted to consider before getting completely hands on with your case subject!”

Several agents jumped at a sudden THUD.

“The blackguard had it coming, Warfield.”

“Do you have any idea what I had to go through to convince my superiors you should be permitted to stay on the case at all? You came this close to getting kicked off completely!”

“Are you saying I should be grateful for being dug out of surveillance? Bloody hell!”

“I’m not expecting any gratitude, Reilly, but I sure expect a little – hell, a lot! – more self-control from my mission leader. Because if something like this happens again I’ll kick you off the case myself! You got me?”

The Irish agent growled something suitably affirmative. Warfield burst out of Reilly’s office and streamed past agents now making a futile and useless attempt to act as if they had been working all along rather than listening to the commotion in the other room.

Chris strode toward Reilly’s office. Ken marked Larabee’s destination and shook his head warningly. Chris ignored him.

“Owens!” the Irish accented bellow thundered. Ken flinched and hurried around Larabee to respond to the summons.

“Get back to the hotel and find out what the hell happened to Romanov’s bloody henchman.” The words were barked before Owens had taken one step into the office. Ken nodded quickly and hurried the hell out of Dodge.

Reilly stalked back into his office, swinging the door hard behind him. Chris caught the edge before it slammed shut and entered. Reilly glanced at the ATF leader.

“So apparently I’m off surveillance.” The FBI agent walked around to the other side of his desk, disturbing some drywall dust on the floor as he passed a deep gash high on the wall. He kicked a heavy-looking paperweight out of his way before dropping into his chair.

“So I heard.” Chris said ironically. “Can’t say I’m sorry. You wanna tell me what the hell that was about last night?”

“Bite my shite, Larabee.” The Irishman dug into the pile of papers on his desk.

Chris stepped forward and slammed his hands onto the paperwork. “Look, Reilly, you want to play it like you’re Clint Eastwood, that’s fine by me. It’s your operation, your swimming pool, and I really don’t give a damn. But those are my agents out there, my friends, and concealing relevant information only puts them in more danger.”

“Lay off it. Remember, Larabee, I didn’t ask you or your buddies to come here.”

“You asked Ezra.”

“And he was the one who insisted the rest of you play tag. You want to blame somebody if something happens to one of your agents? Blame him.”

Chris nodded. “That’s real cute, Reilly. And if Ezra gets hurt because you neglected to give him all the facts? Oh, that’s right. I forgot.” Larabee’s glare sharpened to a diamond-edged razor. “The FBI doesn’t give a damn about its agents.”

Chris stood firm as Reilly slammed his fist against the desk.

“Damn it, it’s none of your business!” the FBI agent shouted. He glared up into Larabee’s unflinching gaze. This close Chris could see that Reilly’s eyes were rimmed red and could smell the lingering traces of alcohol on his breath. Into the strung silence of the agent’s staring match, it was the Irishman who looked away first, heaving a sigh that was more like a growl. “It won’t bring Standish to harm, I guarantee that.”

Chris straightened, taking the weight off his elbows so that just his fingertips rested on the desk. “You can’t be sure,” he said.

Reilly returned an even stare. “Nothing is sure in this life, Larabee.”

Larabee glared. “You be sure of one thing, Reilly. My team is a higher priority to me than your mission. Things get any shittier around here, I’m pulling them out. All of them. No matter what stands in my way.”

Reilly stood and met the glare. “Ezra Standish is here ‘til the job is done, my word on it. You and all the bloody Russians are the means to an end. Jericho’s end. And I’ll reef anyone who gets in the way of that.”

+ + + + + + +

Late afternoon found Ezra bent over the desk in his suite, nursing a cup of coffee while perusing documents that would aid in the evening’s negotiations. The information in front of him was a godsend to the FBI’s investigation of Elijah Jericho, but despite their importance Standish could not bring himself to concentrate on the files. Instead it seemed every sip of strong black coffee resulted in his staring into the cup’s murky liquid and remembering the vision of very beautiful, very dead, black eyes. Eventually he’d had to get up and add cream to his beverage, just to stop revisiting the image.

He thought his problem had been banished as he returned to his research, but the burgundy red wallpaper of his suite soon captured his attention, recalling yesterday’s gruesome image of Isaak’s body on the sidewalk.

Ezra shuddered.

Isaak. Ezra didn’t have to worry about the neanderthal making good on his threats anymore, whether against him or the entrancing seductress who had them both entranced. Except even the Russian henchman’s transformation to road kill was causing difficulties between criminal parties. Except that Ezra couldn’t be sure Isaak hadn’t made good his lascivious intentions against the girl called Valentine.

Standish abruptly tossed the page that he’d been holding for the last five minutes down and wrenched his hands through his hair.

Stupid! That had been a dream! There was no way to know if Isaak and the girl in gold had encountered each other in real life. Why couldn’t Ezra keep that fact straight?

A knock rapped at the suite’s door. Standish abandoned his already neglected pages to answer it.

“Ken,” Ezra acknowledged his fellow FBI agent.

“I brought the file you requested, Mr. Bennett,” Ken Owens held up a manila folder.

Ezra gestured for the agent to enter the suite and closed the door behind him. He glanced at the file but found it no more engaging than his already abandoned papers. “How went your meeting at headquarters?”

“Tense,” Owens commented wryly. “As you might imagine. A dead body is going to wreak havoc on negotiations. Reilly’s put me in charge of investigating the particulars.” He perched on the edge of the desk and thumbed through Ezra’s research. “You made copies of these, right?”



“Naturally, Mr. Owens,” Standish snapped halfheartedly.

Ken glanced at Ezra. “Sounds like you had a tough day too. Is it Romanov?”

Thinking about the Russian recalled to Ezra’s mind his last encounter with the Little Czar that afternoon. Ezra had been walking the hallways when Romanov, flanked by two henchmen, had blocked his path.

“You make your point most effectively, Mr. Bennett.”

Standish’s eyes narrowed cautiously. “What do you mean?”

“I can see you are no man to be trifled with. That is fine. I respect that.”

Not understanding what Romanov was talking about, Ezra opted for silence. Fortunately the mafia don opted to fill it. The silence was not improved by what he had to say.

“Isaak was a fool, but he was my fool. I understand why you killed him, but I do not forget a debt. You owe me, Mr. Bennett. Do not think I will not collect one day.”

“Romanov thinks I killed Isaak.” And he respected Ezra for it, sort of. Not that Standish believed that made him safe for an instant.

Owens turned a surprised gaze on Ezra. “Why would he think that?”

Standish relayed the exchange between himself and Isaak at the elevators. Ken listened thoughtfully. “And now Romanov thinks you murdered his flunky to send a message?”

“Precisely.” Ezra casually took a deep drought of his coffee, but from the corner of his eye he gauged Owen’s reaction. Plenty at the FBI would believe anything about a dirty agent, even if he was convicted only by rumors.

The FBI agent flicked at the corners of the files on the desk. “So assuming it wasn’t you, who are our other suspects?”

“Is it possible Jericho was involved in any way?”

The FBI agent shook his blonde head, still perusing paperwork. “There’s no advantage to murdering a potential ally’s go-to man. In fact Jericho’s quite upset about the whole thing.”

“He disguises the fact well.”

“Don’t buy it,” Owens looked up to warn. “Beneath that show, the bastard is boiling.” At Ezra’s raised eyebrow, Ken shrugged. “Jericho is like that. I don’t recommend playing poker with him.

“Yes, wouldn’t that be an interesting game,” Standish murmured. If neither Jericho nor Romanov had shoved Isaak off the roof, then who did? And why? “Isaak left our negotiations last night in as foul a mood as Romanov, if you recall.”

Ken nodded, picking up on Ezra’s train of thought. “We hadn’t been out for more than ten, fifteen minutes before his girlfriend found his body. After the meeting broke up he must have gone directly to the roof-“

“-perhaps to cool off.” Ezra concluded. “Would you be interested in retracing our unfortunate Russian friend’s final steps with me, Mr. Owens?”

Ken leapt off his perch of the desk. “Just as long as we don’t have to repeat the very last step.”

The two agents meandered down the hall, stopping in front of the elevators. Ken pressed the elevator button and the reflective gold doors slid open. Both Southern agents entered the small cab. Mirrored sides threw their images back at them from every angle. Owens depressed the small “R” button.

Suddenly the idea of going up the Grand Tributary’s penultimate level filled Ezra with an uneasiness he did not quite understood, except that it again brought to mind a pale oval face with deep eyes. The elevator stopped with a shudder and a ding. The gold doors opened and Ken immediately stepped onto the roof. Ezra followed more slowly, taking the vista in.

Overcast skies had darkened into gray twilight, black clouds painting the horizon a panoramic monochrome except in the west, where the setting sun’s ambient light filled the sky with an eerie white glow. The breeze that had all day been promising rain had lapsed into a curious and unsettling stillness. As Ezra and Ken circled the roof looking for any signs of Isaak’s presence last night, surreal silence absorbed the soft beat of their footsteps.

Standish stopped in front of the pool, its waters dark and gray under the fading light of the overcast sky. Ezra looked to the elevators behind him. It remained quiet. Just he and Ken occupied the roof.

“So you be Isaak-” Owens spoke into the stillness.

“Excuse me, why do I have to be Isaak?” Ezra interrupted edgily. His nerves were getting harder to suppress. “As I recall, he’s the one who ends up as a sidewalk pancake.”

“I guess that would make him a crêpe as well as a creep. Okay, fine. Big baby. I’ll be Isaak.” Ken retraced his steps to get in front of the elevators.

“So I’m Isaak. I’ve just gotten off the elevators, I’m pissed off – but then what else is new?” Ezra watched Ken begin taking slow steps across the room towards the north. “Probably be pacing around, maybe hit something.” Owens stopped in front of a stone pot. The feathery plant had been torn up by the roots and lay mangled on the ground. Ken continued his narration. “After playing in the bushes, eventually I end up . . . over there.”

Both agents turned their attention the edge where Isaak had made his made his swan dive to the concrete last night. It was almost the exact same place where Ezra had stood at the party the other night to collect himself, Standish realized. A coincidence, he told himself. Not a very pleasant one, his subconscious added as he peeked over the stone railing at the sidewalk. It seemed very far away.

The official death report reeked of contrivance to Ezra’s mind. Not that he was going to shed any tears for the Russian missing link, but Ezra liked his world to make sense and Isaak’s death made none. Isaak, like all the Russians at the hotel, drank like a fish. Surely his tolerance for alcohol was sky high. Even if he’d had alcohol on the roof there was hardly enough time for the Red Mafia henchman to drink to incapacity.

A distant rumble in the skies growled ominously, forecasting rain that had yet to come. Ezra looked up at the gloomy clouds and turned away from the railing. He brought his head down and a shiny object at his feet caught his attention.

It was a necklace. Ezra picked up the delicate gold chain. A gold filigreed peach blossom the size of a quarter dangled from it.

“Ken,” Standish caught his comrade’s attention. He showed the bit of jewelry to the FBI agent.

“Isaak’s girlfriend?” Owens inquired. “I wouldn’t put it past her to have shoved him off this roof. I saw her with Romanov after lunch today. Could be she’s trying to move on to greener pastures.”

“Yes, it seems plausible.” Ezra sighed. “At this point it seems improbable that either Jericho or Romanov were directly involved with the murder, if that’s what it was. That will be enough for me to take into negotiations tonight, at least.”

Ken left his side to further examine the rooftop, leaving Ezra to stare at the shiny charm in his hand. It seemed to him that he had seen the bauble sometime in the last few days, but he didn’t recall it being around Sasha’s neck. The finely crafted blossom didn’t seem like something the tawdry mob girl would wear. Perhaps he could ask someone who had spent more time staring at her expansive terrain.

Ezra held the charm up by its chain to look at the delicate flower in the soft light. Diffused white reflections played on the surface of the gold ornament like a slow blink, and Standish suddenly knew where he had seen the charm before. It had been around the neck of a dark-haired young woman wearing a gold dress – the Valentine of his dreams.

A sudden chill breeze from the east startled Ezra into looking up. The undercover agent inhaled sharply at the sight of a familiar figure.



She stood on the balcony as if the mere thought had conjured her. Again dangerously close to the edge, the young woman stared forlornly into the distance, a solitary and lonely silhouette against the pale western sky. Her shapely figure broke the horizon, darkly curvaceous against the stark background. The cool breeze whipped her dark hair and her golden dress around her, and she crossed her arms across her body to hug bare shoulders as if to stave off the wind’s embrace.

How she had appeared on the roof without Ken or him seeing her was a mystery Ezra didn’t care to solve at the moment. She was here; that was what mattered.

Ezra slipped the necklace into his pocket and began slowly advancing towards the mysterious woman, not wanting to spook her off the ledge.

She was farther away than she had been the other night, but somehow she must have sensed Ezra’s presence. She turned slowly and gracefully to face his way, seemingly immune to the pressures of gravity.

Her lips moved, but her voice did not reach Ezra’s ears. He heard only the white-noise roar of wind.

“I can’t hear you,” he called to her. “Come down, I need to talk to you.”

She made no move. Had she heard him? She spoke, but her words were still being carried away by the breeze.

“Please, I must speak with you. Are you all right?” The woman’s lips moved in what may have been an answer. He still couldn’t make out what she was saying, but he thought perhaps he had heard her voice. What was she saying . . . Danger?

“Are you in danger?” he asked.

As he closed the proximity between them, Ezra was again struck at what an exquisitely beautiful creature this young girl was. He stood close, a merely an arms reach from her two feet. Bare, oddly enough. He extended his hand to the lady, offering her to take it and come down from the ledge. She put her hand in his and Ezra immediately found himself drowning in her dark mesmerizing eyes. They were full of a kind of pleading urgency, but although she stood close, almost indecently close, Ezra could still not make out the words the strange woman was trying to tell him.

“I can’t hear you, Valentine,” he whispered, and cursed himself for a fool when he realized what he had called her. Ridiculous to think that he had dreamt her true name.

But by the shock in her eyes and parted lips, he had guessed correctly.

“How could you know . . .” Her voice carried clearly and melodiously to his hearing. She turned her head away from him abruptly to stare at the Atlanta skyline. Before Ezra could avert his own gaze her regard returned to him sharply, her eyes burning holes into his. “Who are you?” she demanded, but softly.

“Ezra,” he replied, caught too off-balance himself to lie.

Valentine took his arm with her other hand and pulled herself seductively close, pressing her body against his. Eye contact broke as she brushed her cheek against his and whispered softly into his ear.

“You are in danger, Ezra.”

“Standish! What the hell are you doing?!”

Ezra’s head snapped to the sound of Ken’s voice. The sudden movement caused Standish to tilt and lean precariously. A dizzying view of the street rocking some distance below made Ezra realize that he was balancing on the ledge of the roof, a few seconds away from plummeting to his death.

Steady hands caught him and pulled him back to the roof.

Ezra recovered his footing and released his grip on Ken Owen’s shoulder. “You okay?” Ken asked. Standish nodded breathlessly. “What the hell were you doing up there?” Owens asked. “You nearly did follow Isaak’s last steps.”

What the hell had he been doing on the ledge? He didn’t remember climbing onto it. You are in danger. Standish gazed wildly around the roof, but Valentine was nowhere in sight.

“Where did she go?” Ezra asked Ken. Owens looked at Standish strangely.

“Who?”

“The girl who was up there with me. I thought she might-” jump, Ezra’s mind finished the sentence even as it told him he’d better check to make sure she hadn’t executed those very intentions.

He peered cautiously over the ledge and looked to the street below. The sidewalks were conspicuously devoid of corpses.

“Hey. Ezra. Are you all right?” The question was asked in a low, urgent murmur. Standish glanced at Ken, who observed the undercover agent with worry.

“Fine. Absolutely. Just . . . getting some perspective.” Ezra brushed by his fellow agent and paced quickly to the elevators, leaving a confused and concerned Ken to catch up.

This was insane. Who was this woman, who seemed to appear and disappear like some kind of wraith? How had she utterly captured his mind over the past two days? It was almost as though he was imagining her –

I’m not, of course, Ezra assured himself hurriedly. Insanity was something other people did, not him. If being raised by Maude hadn’t driven him out of his mind, certainly nothing could. No, Valentine had to be real, and there had to be a logical explanation for his dreams. He just couldn’t think of one.

It was a very quiet elevator ride down to the second floor.

END

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