Chapter 1: Pleasure Doing Business
Chapter 2: Conflict of Interest
The storm swept up from the south. It washed through midtown and then downtown, sending tourists in the vicinity of Underground Atlanta scurrying for shelter in the restaurants and bars of Kenny's Alley. On the streets, panhandlers sought refuge in rail stations and shop fronts. A persistent wind drove the storm further north, past the city, and somewhat east to travel up the Chattahoochee River. It ripped along the forested riverbank, its fierce gusting tearing spring leaves from branches where they had newly budded, and stirring last winter's decaying foliage. In the sky, hidden behind dark clouds heavy with rain, the moon reached its peak as the storm arrived at the historic Grand Tributary Hotel. The splendor of the magnificent hotel was not diminished by the rain; rather, as water bounced off its carved columns and embellished eaves, the Tributary's lights were caught and multiplied in the myriad drops. The refraction set the entire establishment aglow, the single bright spot amid a dark and stormy night, reflected below in the wet, deserted sidewalk.
Almost deserted. As sheets of rain drove down through the night, one man left the considerable comforts of the Grand Tributary hotel to brave the deluge.
The undercover agent slipped quietly out the vestibule. His jacket nearly instantly soaked through the moment he stepped under the open sky, a black hole pouring water down from the heavens that painted the streets a blurry gray. Ken Owens pulled the collar up around his neck and ducked his head down, pacing briskly down the street away from the hotel, feeling very noir. For all its fury this storm was a silent entity, lightning and thunder being conspicuously and eerily absent. Street lamps lit Owens' footsteps, but as he left the circle of the Tributary's luminous aura, cast only a very shallow glow against the gloominess of the night's torrent.
Ken's footsteps suddenly were not alone on the sidewalk. A dainty pair of bare feet swept past him. Surprised, Ken looked up against the rain. A stunning girl in a long sweeping ball gown walked along the sidewalk, slowly, as though she didn't feel the rain that slicked down her raven hair and weighed down her golden skirt as she went. She stopped at an indeterminate point down the sidewalk in front of the hotel, a stone's throw away from Owens. He squinted against rain he had nearly forgotten himself as he stopped and gawked at the girl who was staring up the stories of the Grand Tributary. She seemed to be taking the majestic building's measure. After a moment she looked down and half turned, as though to look back across the distance at Ken. Before their eyes could lock, however, twin beams of light from his left snatched the undercover agent's attention. Distracted, he looked down a small side street to find that a vehicle was parked a few hundred feet down, flashing its headlights at him. Ken looked again to the sidewalk in front of the Tributary, but the girl was already gone.
Shrugging and again becoming aware of the rain, Owens marched down the side street and approached the black Explorer, barely more than a shadow in the violent rain storm. He hunched his shoulders against the cold drops, but there was nothing for it: he was soaked. He tapped on the passenger side window and the glass pane slid down. The driver, a silhouette in the dark cab, asked a question.
"Are you sure you weren't followed?"
Ken nodded, drops of water flying from the ends of his hair. He felt more than ever as though he were in a film noir of the 1940's – the question was so cliched of every detective film Ken had ever seen – but the person who asked it would be oblivious to the reference. Jean Charles didn't ask the question to be funny, she was asking because she was a by-the-book agent. Her caution sometimes ran to the verge of paranoia, but that's what made her a good agent. She came off gruff, but it was just her way of looking out for herself and her teammates. Ken thought about mentioning the girl on the sidewalk, but the notion that she had been spying on him for the mafia seemed too utterly ridiculous. Out in the rain, wearing that alluring evening gown, making no attempt to hide from him – not exactly the way you went about tailing someone. No, Owens had not been followed. He was too low man on the totem-pole, basically Jericho's personal assistant. The second he assumed that, however, was the day he got sloppy and maybe killed for his assumption. Ken liked that Jean asked him every time if he'd been followed. It kept him sharp. Kept him from making assumptions.
He heard the click of the door being unlocked and he let himself into the SUV. The air conditioning cooled the water-soaked Ken and made him shiver. Jean noticed and turned the heating knob to the red side.
"Thanks," Ken said, slipping an envelope out from under his jacket and passing it to Agent Charles.
She tucked it into her purse and then looked up out the windshield. "You wanna wait a few minutes before going back? Maybe the rain will die down." Large raindrops were beating a musket-fire volley against the windshield even worse than before. He most certainly did not wish to go back in it.
He smiled at Jean. "Don't mind if I do, thanks."
"How bad was it in there tonight?" Jean leaned back and turned towards him to ask. Ken sat on the edge of his seat, not wanting to soak her leather seats. Her cold leather seats.
"I wouldn't say it was bad, per se. I mean, it's not what you would call good, but we're here to catch bad guys doing bad things, so bad is good for us, right?"
Jean sighed. "What's wrong?"
"It could be nothing," he prevaricated.
"Don't give me that 'I'm Ken Owens, I lived a charmed life' crap," Jean shot back. "Tell me what's really the matter." Heat began to pour out of the Explorer's vents and an opaque haze started crawling up the windows.
Ken had to smile at her wry perceptiveness. "It's been a little unpredictable since Agent Standish entered the fray," the FBI agent acknowledged.
As he'd entered the conference room with his fellow undercover agent, Ezra Standish had, to all appearances, recovered from the shock of nearly falling off the roof only minutes earlier. Owens wasn't sure he himself had recovered from seeing the other man about to tip however many stories to the sidewalk. There was a drink cart in the far corner of the room, a suggestion from the hotel owner, Pamchenko, after tensions had exploded between the two mob bosses the previous meeting; Ken headed straight for it. Standish, on the other hand, smoothed the lapels of his jacket, lit his face with a confident smile, and strode directly to Elijah Jericho to shake his hand in greeting. He made convivial small talk with the Southern mob boss for several minutes until Jericho's Russian counterpart, Nikolai Romanov, entered the room. Owens took a swill of whatever alcohol he'd filled his glass with as the Red Mafia leader strode over to Jericho and Standish. The Russian had, earlier today, accused Ezra of killing his henchman Isaak in answer to Romanov's attempts to bribe mob lawyer "Zachary Bennett" into manipulating this alliance to his benefit. Last night he'd stormed out in a fit of prideful pique. Would he even be open to talking tonight? Standish didn't give him a chance to start into anything, he strode directly over to the Red Fella and shook his hand. Romanov, for his part, seemed to have come to some sort of determination within himself. He took the agent's hand with a steely grip and gave Standish a measured nod.
"I don't trust him." She didn't have to say it, it was fairly obvious, but that was Jean.
Ken wished he could jump to Ezra's defense against her misgivings, but Agent Standish was a hard one to read. This evening hadn't given away any clear tells for Owens. In fact, it had only muddied those waters further.
Sitting on one short side of the conference table, Jericho stroked his goatee, like the devil plotting the demise of a soul. Owens had been with the Southern mob boss for long enough to know that most of the plots Jericho enacted started with a stroke of a goatee. The facial hair partially obscured a large bruise where Special Agent Morgan Reilly had socked him in the jaw last night. The mob boss, dressed in blue and bourbon, strove for the impression of a stately, even grandfatherly, gentleman, but Owens had been investigating the man for a while; he knew the evil that lurked in the heart of Jericho.
Romanov slipped a pair of violet shades over his eyes. Ken wanted to say something snarky about the glare of the fluorescent lights in the conference room, but resisted the impulse to mock the homicidal vor. The Russian mafioso known as the Little Czar took a seat across from Jericho, then leaned back to cross bare arms over his chest. His sleeveless shirt displayed sinister emblems tattooed on his shoulders: a pair of black, eight-pointed stars surrounding an open eye. Those tattoos were a status symbol of the so-called Red Mafia, a map of the mobster's life and crimes. Chilled vodka was his beverage of choice, and his angled facial hair lent his own face a Mephistophelean air.
In the middle sat Standish.
Ken set his drink on the cart, his finger tapping the glass and sending rivulets of condensation rolling down the side.
Owens would have liked the opportunity to read what he could in the agent's expression; a red-fringed lamp behind him turned the undercover operative into a semi-silhouette, obscuring all nuances of expression. As the mobsters settled, he smiled and elevated his glass of merlot. A random onlooker might have thought the undercover agent composed, but after witnessing the man nearly fall from a roof, Ken saw the cracks in the façade. Standish's enthusiasm was just a little overblown. Maybe he was thinking about the view of the sidewalk from the roof.
"What's got you jacked?"
Ken's gaze turned from the threesome to a Southern mobster, his supposed ally, who had interrupted his musings. Owens realized his finger was jittering rapidly against his drink. He stilled the digit abruptly.
"Too much caffeine, Mickey. Too much caffeine," the undercover agent explained with a wry smile. He raised the glass of iced tea to the Southern mobster and took a sip before setting it down again. The mobster laughed and slapped Ken on the shoulder. Jericho's men all liked Ken. That was Owens' mode of operation: humorous but not obnoxious, easy-going but not lazy. Likable, but not noticeable.
It was a far cry from how Agent Standish had achieved his record of success. If either of the two crime bosses sitting with him now liked the undercover agent, it had to be because they saw in Standish something that reminded them of themselves. Arrogant, cocky, self-important and condescending, Ezra was somehow managing to keep both Jericho and Romanov – both men with ego to spare – talking and nodding, albeit with reserve. There were two sides to Agent Ezra Standish's reputation, and after observing him in action Owens could see why it would be easy to believe both.
"Reilly wouldn't have brought him on if he didn't think he could trust them," Ken said musingly.
"Sure, he would," Agent Charles chopped in. "Reilly isn't the same man he was a year ago, you know that. He would have hired Nikolai Romanov to do the job if it meant nailing Jericho. A dirty agent means nothing to him as long as Jericho gets his."
"A man's reputation can be wrong, though," Ken argued. "You know an undercover agent has to adopt a persona for the part he's playing. What made everyone believe Standish was on the take?"
Jean looked at him hard. Owens knew he wasn't doing a good job of hiding the fact that he had something troubling on his mind, but he needed more information to put in perspective what he'd seen in that hotel this evening.
Agent Charles' solid eyebrows came together. "He was always trying too hard," she said at last. "Like we were the ones he had to con."
"That's some thin material to base a reputation on," Ken pointed out.
She shrugged. "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck ..."
"It could be a platypus."
"Owens, would you stop beating around the bush and say what you're trying not to say?" Jean snapped.
Owens wanted to talk to Ezra about what had happened on the roof earlier. Once the meeting had concluded, Romanov left the conference room first. Standish immediately said his farewells to Jericho and made his way out the door. Ken followed the other undercover agent into the hallway, but Standish had already turned the corner toward the elevators. Before Ken could continue after him, Jericho called him back with some instructions for the next day. Owens acknowledged the Southern mob boss and again went to find Ezra.
Ken caught up as Standish was entering the stairwell with Romanov.
His concern rose immediately. The Little Czar had promised retribution for the death of his man, Isaak, who Romanov assumed "Zachary Bennett" had killed. Was the Russian about to make good on his pledge of vengeance?
Fearing for the life of his fellow undercover operative, Ken snuck closer to the door and silently inched it open. To his relief, he could hear Standish speaking calmly.
"My issue with Isaak was a personal matter. I'm afraid I should have made that clearer," Ezra said.
"Personal?" Romanov responded. "Ah, I see. There was a woman between you and Isaak."
There was a pause, and Owens turned his ear to the door thinking he had missed Standish's response, but after a moment he heard the undercover agent answer, "Yes, that was it."
"So, you were not sending me a message after all. That is good."
"Yes. As a matter of fact, I have reevaluated my stance on your proposal," Ken heard the Southerner drawl, "and I'm willing to accept your offer on my 'enhanced services.'"
Ken had to tighten his grip on the handle to prevent himself from falling through the doorway. Did Agent Standish just say what he thought he'd said?
Romanov's satisfied chuckle echoed up the stairwell. "I see. An amusing misunderstanding. Very good. I will send you your money."
The vehicle's heat had become almost stifling now. Ken loosened his jacket and leaned back against the seat.
"Romanov had offered Standish a bribe for tilting the deal his way. After the meeting I overheard Ezra accepting it," he told Jean.
Agent Charles pounded a fist on the center console. "See? What did I tell you?"
"This doesn't necessarily make him a dirty agent," Owens protested.
"By what logic?"
Ken wished he could walk back the context-less manner in which he'd dropped the information. "Look, I didn't have a chance to talk to him afterward," he told his fellow agent. "This could all be part of the operation, some plan of his."
Jean rolled her eyes. "This is Standish quacking like a duck, Owens."
"What about Team Seven?" Ken countered. "Do you really think Ezra would jeopardize his friends like that after the trust and loyalty they've shown to him by coming out here to watch his back?"
"Maybe their loyalty to him is stronger than his is to them."
Owens shook his head. "I want to give Standish the benefit of the doubt, same as I would do for any other agent."
"Other agents don't have Standish's reputation," Jean reminded.
The droplets of water still rolling down his scalp felt like Ken's neurons firing. He saw the logic behind Agent Charles' line of thinking, the "better safe than sorry" philosophy of her mind, but he couldn't justify it for himself. Perhaps it was strange for someone who worked in law enforcement – as an undercover agent in the mob, no less – to want to assign positive motivations in others, but Ken didn't think he would enjoy life much if he subscribed to Jean's outlook.
"I'm not assuming anything," Ken determined. "My job is to uncover truth. I've looked at the man's file. There are a lot of assumptions in it, but not necessarily the truth."
"I thought your job is to get justice."
"You can't have one without the other."
"Well, not everyone thinks like you, Ken." It was Jean's turn to shake her head at him. "I wish they did, but they don't. Larabee and his crew are dangerous, especially Standish."
"All the same, I'm not going to jump to conclusions," Owens replied stubbornly.
"You're too trusting. Watch your back, Ken, or this guy will get you killed." Jean's look was deadly serious. She was really concerned.
Ken grinned his famous grin. "Not to worry, Jean. I'm always careful." He winked and opened the door. The rain poured down, not lessened a bit.
Silence permeated the hallways of the Grand Tributary Hotel. During the day, even far into the night, guests and service staff filled the historic hotel with the clamor of comings and goings, but the hour was now too late for even the most energetic of the late-night set. Only in one room, on the fourth floor, in a suite occupied by "Zachary Bennett," mob lawyer, did any sound of life prevail. If life it could be called.
In the sitting room of his suite, the television made a sort of monotonous buzz in Ezra’s ears. Some program was demonstrating the remarkable qualities of a dangerous-looking kitchen device, but the undercover agent paid the show no mind. In truth, the television served no purpose to him at this moment except to provide the sound of voices, to keep the oppressive silence of a world asleep at bay, and to prevent him from being alone with his thoughts.
Ezra rested his chin upon his hands, his elbows digging into his knees, and stared trance-like at the ream of papers scattered about the coffee table. He should be sifting through the information, noting where the evidence that would put Elijah Jericho in prison could be found. Instead, he was letting himself be driven to distraction by a pair of star-filled eyes.
Driven insane by them might be a more accurate description, Ezra thought, rubbing his own bloodshot, tired eyes in an attempt to stimulate them into wakefulness. What else could he call it, when dreams and visions of a girl haunted a man to the point that he followed her upon the ledge of a roof before watching her blink out of existence? Not that he had precisely watched her disappearing act or even recalled climbing onto the ledge, which perhaps made for further even proof of his mental unbalance. Well, insanity. After all, what else could he call dreams so intense that he was unable to parse them from reality while he was awake?
Even now he could see her face, pale and shimmering, surrounded by waves of night-black hair. Her eyes bored into Ezra with an unsettling mixture of emotions. "Save me," he seemed to hear her say, though her mouth did not open. Ezra wanted to tell her that he couldn't help, he was the wrong person to ask, but his breath stuck in his throat. Valentine's lips parted to speak.
"... but call now and we'll double your order!"
Ezra's jerked to wakefulness with a deep gasp as his elbow slipped off his knee. He looked about his suite, but he was alone.
The Southern agent jumped to his feet. Snatching his room key from the coffee table he dropped it into his pocket before shoving out the door.
Every soft footstep echoed loudly in his ears as he paced the hall, contrasting the silence that pervaded the hotel at this time when all should be asleep. Standish's steps upon the carpeted hallway floor were quick and decisive, though his destination was not. The only determination cemented in his mind was that if he stayed in his room he would fall asleep, and if he fell asleep he would dream of her. They're only dreams, some part of his mind – the logical, sleep-deprived part – tried to reason; they had no power to harm him. Nevertheless, Ezra continued away from his suite, toward the elevator.
Against the silence, the elevator sounded like a dragon, roaring its arrival to the fourth floor. Standish rode it down to the main level. At this pre-dawn hour the lobby resembled a painting, still for all eternity. The only human presence Ezra could see was the desk clerk, who was engrossed in a paperback novel and didn't even note Standish wander past the middle of the foyer to the front doors where he hesitated, watching as the rain beat violently against the glass panels. The storm was at the peak of its fury.
Ezra's hand went to his pocket and fingers found something cool and metallic. His room key? No, he realized as he felt its shape: Valentine's necklace that he had picked up on the roof.
"You are in danger, Ezra."
A strangled shout broke Ezra's reverie. He glanced up and saw the concierge staring at him with shock.
"Is there something wrong?" Ezra asked the young man. It seemed like a stupid question to Standish. Of course, something was wrong. Everything was wrong.
The clerk blinked rapidly at the question. Gradually the shock left his face, although he still seemed somewhat uneased as he stared intently at Standish. Ezra stood up and crossed the lobby to him.
"I'm so sorry, sir," said the young man breathlessly. It seemed the closer Ezra got the more relaxed the desk clerk became. "I, uh, I didn't see you come down and for a second I thought you were a ghost." The small young man smiled sheepishly.
"Ghost?" Ezra's eyebrows shot up.
"Yes, sir. When I saw you, I, uh, figured all the stories that the staff was telling me was true."
"Oh?" This was not conversation to soothe a troubled mind. In his present mood, Ezra found the young man's tone and intimations all too affecting. "Now that you mention, I seem to recall rumors that this hotel is haunted."
"I didn't believe it at first. I thought the staff was making up stories just to scare me, y'know, messing with the new guy. But I've been working the night desk for over a month now, and well, I've seen some stuff that I can't explain."
"You've seen a . . . a ghost?" Ezra asked.
The young clerk nodded dramatically, his eyes wide. "When it rains, I see a dark shape passing by the doors, late at night."
"What does it look like?"
"Well, I, uh, I haven't got the nerve to go up and look. Sometimes it opens the front doors, but I've never seen it come in. That's why you scared me just now. With the rain and . . ." The little man shrugged sheepishly.
"There has to be another explanation," Ezra asserted stubbornly. "There's no such thing as ghosts, not really."
"I said the same thing, sir, I did! But the Tributary really is haunted!"
"Mr. Bennett, you might catch your death listening to such stories," a voice rasped from behind. By the expression on the desk clerk's face Standish expected to be confronted with a fatal specter as he turned to face it. The undercover agent started with sudden fright at the skeletal face before him before he realized it was only Mr. Pamchenko.
"From boredom." The Tributary's owner, his hands clasped behind his back, wore a faint, kindly smile on his face which warmed Ezra despite Pamchenko's wickedly aged countenance. "I hardly think that you need to be perpetuating such tedious stories, young man," the aged Russian addressed the attendant.
"I'm sorry, sir, "the desk clerk muttered contritely. "Most guests like to hear a couple ghost stories."
"Save your tales for the tourists." He beckoned Standish congenially into the lobby. "There is a lot of romance in an old hotel. You must forgive the staff if they make up stories to occupy their time."
"I take it you don't believe in spirits, Mr. Pamchenko," Ezra drawled, allowing himself to be ushered to a velvet couch tucked cozily in a corner with a small table and an armchair.
"On the contrary, Mr. Bennett. In Russia, we believe in many spirits and creatures of mischief. Our lore is full of them. But we are not in Russia, and in America there are no such things as ghosts."
"Hmm." Ordinarily Ezra would have agreed, but spooks were a more comforting explanation for his troubles than insanity. Slightly.
"You look unwell," Pamchenko observed. "Is everything well with your room?"
The Southern agent made an effort to compose himself. Appearances were everything. "My, ah, my room is a picture of perfection, Mr. Pamchenko." Ezra drawled. "I, uh, I fear I've procured a touch of insomnia tonight. I thought a little walk would dispel the malady." It was not the smoothest answer he'd ever given, so Standish attempted to move the focus from himself. "But what steals your slumber at this unholy hour?"
Covering a slight cough, Pamchenko waved the question away. "Old men never sleep. I like to walk my hotel in these hours. It is very peaceful at this time, don't you think?"
Peaceful might not be the emotion Ezra was experiencing right now. His heart still drummed wildly. He nodded his agreement
"It is a fortunate coincidence to find you here, though," Pamchenko said. He reached in and pulled an envelope from his inner pocket. "Nikolai approached me earlier this evening and explained your arrangement with him. Here is the refund for your room."
The hotel owner passed Standish the envelope. Ezra took it with confusion. "I'm afraid I don't understand," he said.
"A hotel provides many services, Mr. Bennett, among them being laundry."
"Oh. Oh, I see. Thank you, Mr. Pamchenko. You are the soul of exceptional customer service." Standish folded the envelope and tucked it in his pocket. He had the feeling that the amount of the refund for a room he never paid for in the first place would be enough to book a normal hotel room every day for several months.
Pamchenko coughed a chuckle. "It seems only fair. You are, after all, wandering about the hotel rather than enjoying your room and bed. I hope that my friends are not being too much of a strain on you. I feel a sense of responsibility for your lost sleep," the elderly Russian apologized with a wry smile. "After all, it was I who brought Nikolai and Elijah together."
That bit of news trigged some instinct in the undercover agent which he was too tired to fully grasp at this moment. "How did that come about, pray tell?" he asked, trying to draw out more information.
"I fear if I begin long stories now you may fall asleep on your feet! Truly, Mr. Bennett, you appear on the verge of it already. Why don't you return to your room?"
"I assure you, I am a nocturnal creature by nature."
Shrewd and ancient eyes looked right through Standish. "As I said, old men never sleep - but you are not old, Mr. Bennett. Something else is the problem, I think?"
The Southerner acquiesced to the old man's perception. "I'm afraid my dreams have been troubling my sleep of late."
"Ahh . . . Bad dreams," Pamchenko nodded thoughtfully, "are a thing I hope my guests never have."
"I don't see how you can prevent it," Standish drawled lightly. "If you could make nightmares disappear under your roof then yours would be the most profitable hotel in the world."
The old man's chuckle ended with a cough. "Alas, I cannot even stop these unpleasant apparitions from my own sleep most nights. Too much living, I suspect." He gave a small, sad smile.
The hotel owner seemed strangely sincere. Had Ezra touched upon a subject that personally affected him? "How do you recommend dealing with habitual nightmares, Mr. Pamchenko?"
"Oh, well ..." the old Russian rubbed his chin thoughtfully at the unexpected solicitation for advice. "My mother told me if you have had a bad dream, you can discard it first thing in the morning by retelling it to water running from the faucet so that it goes down the drain."
"And that works?" Ezra asked skeptically.
"Never," Pamchenko winked, laughed and coughed again. Then Pamchenko's face grew serious. "Old Russian superstitions are all I have to offer. I am afraid I cannot assist you with nightmares, Mr. Bennett. Perhaps if you discover the secret, you will tell me. In the meantime, I hope you sleep well. And please, don't let ghost stories disturb your dreams."
Pamchenko bid Standish goodnight and resumed to his meanderings. Once the hotel owner left the silence returned, although not as surreal as it had been. Ezra was reluctant to return to his suite. Instead he let himself sink deeper into the couch. He rubbed his hands over his face and through his hair, leaning back into the plush velvet and staring up at the ceiling.
The splendor of the tributary extended beyond the walls. Even the ceiling, with its framed panels and crystal chandeliers, was magnificent to behold. Pamchenko had certainly done a remarkable job in maintaining the historic hotel in its original luster. It was strange to think that a former mafia man would take so much care in restoring the old building, and sad to think that most of the grandeur the Grand Tributary had been paid for in blood.
Fatigue began to make Ezra's eyelids heavy. He should probably go up to his room, but he couldn't muster the will. Standish pulled the gold peach-blossom necklace from his pocket and twisted it back and forth to catch the light on its details.
The shining reflection suddenly burst into blinding light.
Ezra lifted his hand to shield himself from the stinging intensity of the white light, squinting at the sunlight through his fingers.
For the sun, Standish realized, was the source of this radiance, as a wide beam of sunlight streaked through the hotel’s double glass doors. A slim figure stood in the lobby before the doors, silhouetted in the illumination. Ezra's hand fell and he rose to his feet as he recognized Valentine.
The golden sunlight warmed the lobby's deep red and rich jewel tones, and played off the polished wood and crystal lamps. Valentine stood next to an ornamental potted tree, one hand up across her slender neck as she twirled the end of a sleek ponytail. From the confines of a cream suit popped a red blouse, the same shade as painted her shapely lips. She appeared to be waiting for someone.
The double doors opened, again dazzling Standish with sunlight as a boy in a black suit entered. It was the chauffeur who belonged with the Rolls Royce, the young Russian from Ezra's previous dream. His attention flickered to Valentine standing next to the doorway and he flushed. She recognized him and smiled. Tucking a return smile away, he approached a rough-looking man wearing a paisley shirt who looked out of place in the posh hotel, particularly standing across from the richly tailored gentleman to whom he spoke. That fellow seemed oddly apprehensive and deferential toward the rougher fellow. The chauffeur came up and said something to him quietly in Russian. The paisley-shirted man nodded curtly once and waved his hand to dismiss the driver.
"Is there anything else, sir?" His head shook in a negative. "I can do more, Billy," the young man persisted.
"Billy" looked the chauffeur from the brim of his hat to the tips of his shiny black shoes. Then he again waved a dismissal and turned back to the other man. With a grim frown, the chauffeur paced back towards the doors, passing Valentine, declining the invitation to talk that was in her eyes. Though the oblivious driver missed it, Ezra caught the mild hurt and disappointment as she frowned at his back.
As Ezra was about to approach her, a voice across the lobby called, "Valentine!"
Two men and a woman glided down the curving staircase like a gaggle of elite swans. One of the men Ezra recognized from his previous dream, the older gentleman who had called Valentine's name. Two wings of gray sprouted from his temples, combining with his tall stature and his imposing stare to give him the air of a stern Greek statue. Zeus with all the thunder but none of the lighting. He strode down the stairs with single-minded determination to meet with a pair of important-looking businessmen near the other end of the lobby.
The woman was evidently his man's wife, though she held the arm of the second, younger man as they drifted down the stairs at a slower pace. She wore a white fox fur around her shoulders, with the animal's face still intact upon her bosom, frozen in an angry snarl. She spoke to the young man with the predatory conviviality of high society, her nose wrinkling to a sharp point in patent laughter, her free arm swishing back and forth with animated gesticulation, coming to rest upon the fur when not in use.
The younger man bore her affections with the polished patience of the prey intent on snaring his own victim. As Valentine approached, the blond shifted his attention to her. There was a look in his eyes that reminded Ezra of the hungry gaze with which Isaak had watched her on the roof. Ezra felt his fist clench around the peach blossom necklace and he moved to stand nearer, just outside of their circle of conversation.
There was a flash of some emotion in Valentine's eyes, some feeling Ezra couldn't put a name to yet seemed in some way familiar. Before he could identify it, she inhaled sharply and returned the young socialite's possessing stare with a hunting glare of her own.
"Mother," she addressed the woman. "Cliff."
Valentine's mother returned the greeting and quickly left for other pursuits, leaving her daughter with the young man. An oily grin spread across Cliff's face as he looked Valentine up and down from her red suede pumps to her jet-black ponytail.
"Valentine," he said, "I have reservations tonight at the most spectacular restaurant. It's a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience, they say. Why don't you join me?"
"Oh, I don't know. I've probably already been there," she replied, crossing her arms and turning away slightly, as if bored, but casting a glance back at Cliff beneath her lashes. To Ezra's eye, there seemed to be a perfunctory nature to the game the society girl was playing here.
"I could take you to a show afterward," Cliff persisted, his smile slipping only a little.
Valentine lifted her shoulders in a shrug. "If it's something I might like."
"Perhaps I might be your escort to the Pindering Gala being held here next week," the blond proposed.
"Oh, you're cruel, you are," Cliff said. "How many times have I asked you to go out with me? How long will you make me wait before you say yes?"
Valentine twirled her finger around her ponytail again, which seemed to highlight her unadorned earlobes. "Until you present a compelling argument for me to do so," she said.
A shrewd look entered the socialite's eyes. "I should have heeded that reputation of yours."
The girl's finger stilled abruptly. Ezra frowned. The young man had broken the rules of the game, shattered an illusion in a cruel, vulgar way. For a moment, Valentine's mask of social grace laid in pieces on the floor along with that illusion.
"And what reputation is that?" she asked in a quiet voice.
Cliff's smug smile sent a flush of heat through Ezra. "It's pay for play with you, so I hear. The hotel owner's daughter doesn't have the time of day for anyone who can't furnish her as richly as her daddy adorns his hotel."
The young lady's fist clenched around the tip of her ponytail before her hands dropped to pick an invisible speck from her skirt. Valentine's reaction trigged in Ezra recollections of his old days in the FBI, before Team Seven, and a deep stab of indignation on her behalf rammed itself through his heart.
Not about to allow the cad to show his barb had wounded, "Well, I guess you've answered your own questions, Cliff," she said. "There's no point to standing around talking about it." She turned abruptly, her heels clicking briskly as she headed toward the lobby elevator.
"Where are you going?" Cliff called after her.
"To get some air," Valentine responded. The mirrored gold doors slid shut behind her, throwing back Cliff's rueful yet smug expression before the socialite headed off with some seeming purpose in mind.
That left Ezra staring at himself foolishly in the door's reflection, until it suddenly occurred to him that going to the elevator to get some air meant that Valentine was going to the roof. He ran to the doors and pushed the up signal, but the wait for the cab's return would take too long, so Standish pushed through the stairway door and began his ascent to follow the girl.
The hotel stairwell seemed like some kind of otherworldly passage that went on indistinctly and indefinitely. Ezra felt a nagging question in the back of his mind, a sense that nothing about this made sense, but in the hazy of this gray corridor he couldn't get a grip on anything other than the fact that he had to follow Valentine to the roof. It was the only action that held any meaning or reason in the misty fog of this place.
At last he came to the last stairway platform and the last door. Unlike the lobby doors, no dazzling light shone from the small window embedded in the rooftop egress. In fact, the world beyond that door was nothing but darkness.
Ezra pushed through to the rooftop and looked around. The rain from earlier in the night had stopped. In fact, there was no evidence that it had ever rained. The skies were clear, as clear as that first night when Ezra had come to the Grand Tributary. Except there had been thunder that night. Ezra listened for it now, but heard nothing.
A sudden sound behind him startled Ezra into turning around. The stairwell door opened and a young man in a chauffeur's suit stepped out, the boy Ezra and Valentine had seen in the lobby. As the Russian stepped onto the roof, he swept the chauffeur's cap from his head and shoved it into his pocket. Dark hair so brown it was nearly black fell into his eyes. He swept the lock back.
The young man strolled out to the blue shroud of the starlit sky blanketing the roof. He pulled a playing card-sized case out of a pocket, opening the metal lid to reveal a small pile of cigarettes. He selected one, then slipped the case back into his jacket. He paused before putting the cigarette to his lips and inhaled deeply the cool night air. The indrawn breath he held released in a rush as the gentle sound of water splashing snared his attention.
Someone swam in the roof's in-ground pool.
Softly illuminated by moonlight, a female figure clothed only in a flimsy white slip weaved across the pool. Her long dark hair waved in sync to her undulating body as her long, lean limbs stroked the length of the pool.
The cigarette the young man had been about to light dropped from nerveless fingers.
For some reason that cigarette hitting the ground resonated as though it weighed a hundred times its mass. Voices murmuring incomprehensible sounds rose and faded in Standish's ears. Ezra's senses blurred and his head swirled as though traveling through great motion, but after a moment his vision cleared and all was still as night.
Ezra stared, transfixed, as close to the pool wall, Valentine broke the surface, rivulets of water streaming down her hair and face. Her hands swept across her eyes to wash the water away from them, then her fingers parted to reveal the oval shaped face.
As Valentine's hands came away, she saw the chauffeur. She tensed, frozen, panic and uncertainty etched in her features. The young man stared helplessly, like a cobra mesmerized by a skilled snake charmer. His mouth opened and closed soundlessly.
Details rose up in Ezra's senses and overtook the encounter. A light breeze bellowed as it swept across the rooftop; the smoky-stale scent of the chauffeur's unlit cigarette clashed with the clean fresh odor of chlorine, poison against poison; water collected on Valentine's lashes, dripped down the soft curve of her nose as her large dark eyes held his in a steadfast refusal to blink. Her lips were parted, though they too remained still as if the image of the young woman clothed in blue moonlight existed only as a photograph, frozen in the moment before she spoke.
She was looking at the dark-haired chauffeur, who was staring back. A babble of foreign words issued from his mouth. His speech, incomprehensible to Ezra, was soft and earnest.
"I'm sorry," the lady in the water spoke, sinking deeper, "I don't understand you."
Confusion masked the young man's face. He stepped forward to peer closer at the young lady's moonlit features. "Valentine?" A grin spread over his face and he began to laugh, relief relaxing his posture.
"How – how do you know my name?" Valentine asked.
"I am Vladimir." His speech was covered heavily by a Russian accent. "I am the driver you saw when, when you first arrived," he further explained. "I heard your father call your name."
Her eyes and the top of her head came in view as she lifted her head above the pool wall to see him better. "I know you. I've seen you," she said. For several moments she looked at him, considering, then she chuckled lightly and lifted herself halfway out of the pool, crossing her arms and setting her chin upon them. She kicked her legs lightly behind her. "Why did you laugh, just now?"
He smiled sheepishly and scratched his neck. "When, ah, when I first saw you in the pool, I think of stories my mother used to tell me of beautiful maidens who haunt the depths and lure foolish men to their deaths. I think you are a vila, or maybe a rusalka."
"What are those?"
"Fairies and spirits of my country. They are said to be very beautiful."
Valentine blushed and smiled just a little. "What did you say when you thought I was a fairy?"
The Russian's grin faded and a flush crawled up his own cheeks. "Neecheeva, nothing. What are you doing here? Are you alone?"
The girl in the pool considered her situation, by herself, clad only in undergarments and completely vulnerable. She drifted slightly away from the chauffeur. "Just me and, and, uh . . . my friend."
Ezra felt strangely disembodied as Vladimir's eyes scanned the roof. "I do not see your friend."
"He, uh, he'll be back very soon."
Approaching slowly, the young man knelt by the side of the pool. He froze as Valentine warned, "You might not want to come too close." At his quizzical expression she explained, "Haven't you heard the rumors? I'm a man-eater."
"A man-eater?" The Russian was evidently unfamiliar with the term.
"Like a black widow spider. I'll use you to get what I want then kill you." At Vladimir's raised eyebrow, Valentine laughed. "Or at least leave you." The girl pushed off the side to tread water in the middle of the pool, tracing waves with her finger. "All week you've been watching. I've seen you staring, but you've never said anything."
The chauffeur smiled ruefully. "I have heard no rumors of you, and wouldn't believe even if I had. In my mind I've said a hundred thousand words, but until now I've been afraid of what you'd say back."
Valentine's eyes searched the pool's blue depths. "You don't seem the type to be afraid."
"Men are always afraid of a beautiful girl. Some just hide it better than others."
"Why? We don't bite."
"Yes, you do," the young Russian laughed. "You cannot help it. A man looks at you and is bitten. Such a woman could have anyone she desired; what chance have we? Especially someone of my kind."
She paddled closer to the ledge where he knelt. "What kind is that?"
"I drive for Boris Krashenninkov." Shame brought blood to his face. "Only a driver. A nobody."
She reached the wall and folded her arms on the tiles. "You look like somebody to me."
"One day." For the first time taking his eyes off the vision in the pool as he promised himself, "I will be ..."
The elevator doors dinging open interrupted Vladimir's declaration of intent. Valentine's eyes widened as Cliff strode out upon the roof. Ezra, engrossed in the interplay between Valentine and the Russian chauffeur, felt contempt toward this presumptuous interloper.
Vladimir stood and narrowed his own look upon the wealthy young man. A small paper bag with a jewelry store logo swung from his fingertips. The chauffeur might as well have been as invisible as Ezra for all the blond socialite noticed him. Cliff bent a knee, pulled a little velvet box out of the bag, and proffered it to Valentine.
"I've brought you my tribute," he said. "Shall we get you dried off so we can make it in time for that dinner reservation?"
Cliff opened the box to reveal a pair of earrings that sparkled blue and gold in the pale moonless night. They were stunning, and Valentine's breath caught at the sight of them. Ezra recognized the gleam of desire that flashed across her eyes.
Vladimir frowned. He turned away, returning his chauffeur's cap to his head. He'd taken one step to leave when Valentine said:
"I'm sorry, Cliff. I have plans with somebody else this evening."
Vladimir's second step remained in suspension. Though his back kept to the wealthy pair, his shoulders took on an air of listening.
"I beg your pardon?" Cliff spluttered.
Valentine reached toward the earrings, but rather than take them, she pushed the jewelry box and his hand away. "While I appreciate the offer, I'm afraid cannot accept your gift."
Cliff rose as if he'd been slapped. "Other plans? With whom? Him?" He jerked a thumb at the Russian chauffeur. Vladimir turned to face him.
Tossing her damp, dark hair over a shoulder, Valentine said, "Yes, with Vladimir." The girl returned a grin to the delighted look he directed to her.
Cliff's glower deepened and his hands shook with rage, but he only stared back and forth between the hotel owner's daughter and the immigrant chauffeur. Finally, thin lipped, he nodded.
"All right, Valentine. You're angry that I brought up your reputation earlier so you're going to prove me wrong by slumming it with this fellow. Well, enjoy yourself. I'll be here until the Pindering Gala. If you get bored before that, you look me up."
A cool breeze blew across the roof. Valentine hugged her arms around herself, frowning at Cliff. Before she could frame a retort for him, he turned to Vladimir and said, "Get your kicks while it lasts, boy. This one will eat your heart for breakfast once you've served your purpose."
With a murderous glare at the both of them, Cliff stalked to the open elevator and left. Awkward silence hung over the rooftop's remaining occupants for several moments. Ezra's usually glib tongue failed to frame suitable words to repair the mood Cliff had destroyed.
It was Vladimir whose lightly mocking words restored it. "Was that the friend you spoke of earlier?" he asked. "I do not approve in your choice of friends."
Valentine laughed. Shaking her head, she gestured to the black sky. "My friend was the moon, and as you can see, like an ungallant gentleman, he has quite abandoned me."
The Russian paused a moment, looking at his shoes. Then he raised his chin and said, "It is a good thing, then, that you have made a new friend. Do you often swim alone at night?"
"No. It was just an impulse."
"But I may feel impulsive again. Tomorrow evening?"
He grinned. "Will your friend be there, or might you need someone to keep you safe?"
"You'd better come again, in case I need someone to save me." Valentine echoed his laughed as she pushed off from the edge and swam.
To Ezra's ear, Valentine's words seemed like the repercussions of a drum across the empty sky. "Save me ... Save me ..." He heard them so tangibly that he actually looked up into the darkness for their source.
The deep sky gave the illusion of reflecting the waters of the pool below it where Valentine swam, Ezra noticed. Suddenly, he was falling into it. Gravity became confused and he struggled to find his feet in absolute darkness. Ezra took panic-filled, gasping breaths as the sound of splashing water from the rooftop pool and Valentine's laughter grew distant.
All sound faded into the blackness that was drowning Ezra. In the undercurrent of the night sky, however, he thought he heard the echo of the other words the mysterious woman had spoken to him: "You are in danger, Ezra."
The quiet chirpings of birds, frogs and insects down by the Chattahoochee River echoed up the ravine behind the Grand Tributary as Vin Tanner took the sidewalk towards the front doors, visually marking the spot where Nikolai Romanov's henchman took a notoriously wrong step off the roof two nights ago. Vin gazed past the hotel's architectural splendor to the roof above. It was quite a ways up. How long was the drop to hell? Vin looked back down to the barely visible stain on the sidewalk. About that long. He suppressed a shudder before passing by. Down the sidewalk a bit was where FBI Special Agent Morgan Reilly had socked Atlanta mobster Elijah Jericho in the teeth that same night. It surely must've been a sight. Vin couldn't help a quiet chuckle at the mental image. For all the Irishman irked Team Seven, Tanner had to respect the man's grit.
The doorman swung the Tributary's entrance open as Vin approached. The Texan stepped through with the reluctance of a man used to opening his own doors. The Grand Tributary smelled like brandy and floral arrangements to his nose, uncomfortably reminiscent of a funeral parlor. It was a palpable reminder that danger lurked around every corner here. Vin strode across the magnificent expanse of the Tributary's lobby. Now, early in the morning, the lobby was just seeing signs of life. Maids, cooking staff, and the early riser were quietly milling about. Even among the humbler of the hotel's occupants, Tanner still felt out of place in the richly attired Grand Tributary. He supposed he'd just never get used to this much extravagance.
Vin started to the elevators, but some flash of red in a secluded sitting area of the lobby caught his attention. It was a brunette wearing a scarlet wrapdress, crouched over a man slouched on the sofa. It seemed as though she was tickling his nose as he slept. The slumbering man was Standish, Vin realized with a slight double-take. He adjusted his course for a better view of the show.
The brunette's fingers moved to play in Ezra's hair. The Southerner's face twisted in his sleep. "Wake up, lyubimaya moya," she whispered, startling back as Ezra awoke with a huge breath that lurched his whole body.
"Valentine!" he gasped. His eyes fluttered and looked around, features registering confusion.
"You were having bad dreams, milaya moya," the Russian woman cooed, barely missing a beat as she moved up to the couch to plaster herself next to Standish and rub his neck. Vin leaned on the back of an armchair, watching.
"Sasha?" Standish, pulling himself into a sitting position, pushed the woman's hand away. "Madam, desist."
"Oh, Zachary, you were having such a nightmare! I only wished to brush them away from you." She smiled and tried to leaned in closer, which was hardly possible. Her hand rose to Ezra's face again, but Standish caught her wrist and scooched away.
"Well, thank you, my dear. Alas, I've, ah, I've tangled with your paramours before and I have no wish for your attentions to be misconstrued by Nikolai Romanov."
"Nicky? What does Nicky have to do with it?"
"Are you not, uh, with, him?"
"Oh, no! Do not worry about Nicky. I was tired of him." Meaning he was tired of her. "I want a great man. A powerful man." Meaning a rich man. "Surely you are a powerful man? You need a woman." Vin thought she may have literally purred.
Tanner stepped in. "Am I interrupting something?" he asked.
Sasha had somehow escaped Standish's grip and was evidently attempting to occupy the same spot on the couch, her arms 'round his neck and foot crawling up his leg. What was the woman, some kind of octopus? Ezra extricated himself out from under her tentacles. "If you'll excuse me, my dear, I have some, ah, business to attend to."
Sasha pouted. "Surely the driver can wait while you escort me. To my room."
"Alas, I'm . . ." Ezra seemed to be suffering from the constraints of acting like a gentleman. Fortunately, Vin was present. He narrowed his eyes and loomed menacingly over the brunette.
The Russian mobgirl squeaked. Imperiously indignant, she stood. With a last glance at Ezra and a glare at Vin, she clicked briskly away.
"Thank you, Mr. Tanner," Standish muttered, not watching Sasha leave. He looked about him with an air of bewilderment, frowning at the sofa as though it was out of place, rather than himself.
"What did you do, sleep in the lobby all night?" Vin asked. "Ain't the rooms nice here?"
Standish pulled his attention away from the Tributary's furniture. "A bout of insomnia," he explained, massaging the side of his face. Vin might buy that; the Southerner's green eyes were lined red. Ezra's hand reached his chin and he winced as he felt the roughness of a five o'clock shadow that was moving its way up to five-thirty. Looking down at his sleep-rumpled slacks and shirt, he said, "Good Lord," under his breath. Tanner decided not to mention the disarray of his hair.
"Must have been some bout," said the tracker. "If you plan on having any more of those, maybe you'd best stay away from the women. They weaken knees."
A bloodshot glare was Vin's reward for his teasing admonition. Ezra rose from the sofa.
"I assure you, Mr. Tanner, I am not interested in what Sasha was offering. I am neither suicidal nor stupid." His words had some zip; still, the undercover agent sounded tired.
"That's great to hear, but you are sleeping on the couch," Vin reminded. Standish squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his forehead. "What happened last night?" Tanner asked.
"There was ... someone ... on the roof," Ezra spoke like a person trying to remember details of a dream that was rapidly dissipating with wakefulness. He shook his head. "No, that's not right, she wasn't there."
This conversation was getting weird as well as awkward. Vin guessed some people needed more time to really wake up than others. The tracker glanced around the lobby uncomfortably to make sure they weren't attracting to much attention. His eye caught on something on the floor that must have fallen out of Ezra's pocket when he'd stood.
Tanner snagged the folded white envelope from the floral-patterned carpet and extended it to the undercover agent. "This yours?" Vin asked.
His thoughts interrupted, Standish opened his eyes and brought his hand away from his face. He looked at the envelope with some confusion, then recollection dawned as Ezra accepted it from the tracker, his expression changing from puzzled to shrewd in a heartbeat.
"Yes, that's right," Ezra said, smacking the envelope on the palm of his hand. Whatever was in it seemed to be just the dose of caffeine the undercover agent had needed to pop into wakefulness. "Thank you, Mr. Tanner."
With an astonishing burst of alacrity, Standish turned on his heel and strode toward the elevators, leaving Vin to catch up.
"Whoa, where are you going?" he asked.
"If you'll excuse me, I must attend to some morning ablutions. Before I'm mistaken for . . . a driver." The light dig referring to Vin's undercover position as Standish's chauffeur came off with some perplexity, as if it had triggered a recollection from Standish. The elevator door opened immediately in response to his touch on the button. Ezra measured the cab with his gaze with much the same look as he stepped in, his brow furrowed as he hesitatingly selected the floor to his room.
Not as awake as all that, then, Vin thought. He considered following the undercover agent to find out what the hell all that was about, but, with a glance at the couch where Standish had slept the night, Tanner decided to give him time to compose himself. After all, if anything important had happened last night, he would have mentioned it.
A light drizzle spread a gray haze over the Century Building's parking lot as Team Seven arrived at the Century Building, home of Atlanta's FBI headquarters. Chris steered their rental car, a late-model sedan, with one hand on the wheel as he held his cell phone to his ear with the other.
"He slept in the lobby? Why the hell would he do that?" Larabee spoke into the phone's receiver.
"Couldn't sleep or something, I guess," Vin's voice returned from the other end. "He was pretty out of it when I woke him up. Ran off to get a shower and a shave before I could get any details about last night."
"We'll have to get them from this morning's briefing," Chris said. "I'll talk to you afterward."
"Got it," Tanner replied. Larabee ended the call and swung their gray sedan into the very back row of the lot, beneath a tree glistening with misty leaves.
JD bounded out of the back seat the second Larabee shifted the vehicle into park. "Let's get this briefing over with so I can hit the mall," he said.
"Still in a muddle over that gift for Casey?" Nathan asked, opening the passenger-side door.
"I told you, kid," Buck said as he exited behind Dunne, "You ain't gonna find what you're looking for at a mall. You're looking for something special."
"Any idea what that is?" the young agent asked, exasperated.
Wilmington shook his head. "If it's something someone else can tell you, kid, then it ain't special."
Chris switched off the ignition, shaking his own head as he and Josiah behind him got out of the car. The ATF agents from Denver began walking through the small parking lot toward the building's entrance. A dark blue car passed in front of the group and swerved into a parking spot. Larabee's eyes narrowed in irritation.
"Was that Agent Reilly?" Josiah asked.
It was. The Irishman got out of his car, a cardboard coffee cup in one hand and a bag of the brew in his other. The knot of his navy tie hung loose around the unbuttoned collar of his light blue shirt.
"Well, would you look at that? We beat Special Agent Morgan Reilly into work this morning." Buck appreciated loudly as Reilly approached.
"Jam on your egg," the FBI agent responded. Chris presumed the euphemism to be the Irish equivalent of "as if." Taking a slug of his beverage, Reilly said, "I went out for coffee. You boys are here on the heel of the hunt."
Judging by the dark half moons shadowing his eyes, Larabee expected Reilly was running mainly on caffeine and determination. Maybe a bit of the hair if the dog that bit him, if the red lines rimming those circles were any indication. By the time they gathered for the briefing of the previous evening's negotiation, Reilly had finished his store-bought coffee and already downed a cup and a half of the full pot he'd brewed.
"That man is a jack-in-the-box winding himself tighter and tighter," Josiah commented to Chris as they took their seats in the briefing room. The FBI special agent paced impatiently beside the chairs near the front of the room. "I wouldn't want to be around when he finally pops."
The sound of Agent Jean Charles' brisk steps preceded her entrance. Her chunk heels clicking with military precision, she proceeded to the front of the space with a pile of manila folders in her arms. She slapped a file folder into Reilly's hand and passed the rest to the room's other occupants. Aside from her own, there were two left.
"Where are Tanner and Wilmington?" Charles asked.
"Vin's at the hotel," Chris said. He glanced around the room. "What happened to Buck?"
Sipping his own mug of coffee, Nathan scanned the cubicles in the main space through the open door of the briefing room. "I believe he went to say good morning to Gina." He caught the eye of the ladies' man and waved him over.
"Oh, for crying out-" Agent Charles scowled.
"Just get on with it already," Special Agent Reilly spoke over her. "Wilmington can catch up."
With a curt nod to her boss, Jean opened her folder and began to outline everything that had happened between Jericho and Romanov the previous evening and what the FBI had learned because of it. Despite her own late night activities and the time it must have taken her to prepare her report, her sharp eyes showed considerably less sleep deprivation than those of her manic boss. The glare she gave to Wilmington as his arrival interrupted her report was sharp enough to slice a tin can.
"According to Ken, it looks like Isaak's death might have been accidental after all," she concluded, closing the manila envelope over the file.
Reilly nodded in acknowledgment of Agent Charles' report. The Irishman had settled briefly on the corner of the table to listen to Jean's summary. Now he gulped the contents of his coffee mug and slammed it down like it was an empty shooter at the bar, startling JD, who sat closest. Reilly burst to his feet.
"Grand. Get all that filed and processed." Already he was two steps toward the door.
"There's one more thing," Agent Charles inserted hastily, halting Reilly. A hint of hesitation flashed in her eyes before her brows came together to cast a challenging glance around the room. "Last night Owens overheard Standish and Romanov talking privately. Standish accepted his bribe."
For a brief moment, the only sound in the room was a plastic creak from one of the chairs as Jean's words processed through the group.
"Bullshit," Buck spoke out first.
"Merciful hour!" Reilly swore nearly the same time. "Are you bleedin' serious?"
JD shook his head. "No way. There's no way Ezra's over there accepting bribes."
"Are you calling Ken a liar?" Agent Charles shot back.
"Maybe. Or maybe you are, Chuck," Wilmington returned. "You've had it in for Ezra from the beginning."
"I do my job, Wilmington, and I call it like I see it. Don't ever call me a liar."
"Calm down," Nathan advised. "Is Ken sure about what he heard?"
"Yeah, maybe he was just hearing what he wanted to hear," JD chimed in.
Agent Charles stared them all down like an alley cat backed into a corner. "Question Owens' integrity again and I'll make you question your face. It's more likely that your agent decided to use this opportunity to pad his pockets."
The room descended into a volley of castigations and accusations, punctuated by the occasional insult.
"All right," Chris finally cut in, forestalling a bickering comment from Buck. "Let's assume nobody's making anything up. What did Ezra have to say about it?"
Jean frowned obstinately and crossed her arms. "Owens didn't have a chance to talk to him afterward," she admitted.
A derisive huff escaped Buck, echoed by Nathan's tongue click. Josiah slapped his knees and rose to his feet.
"Well," said Sanchez, "guess there's nothing more to talk about." The former preacher exited the briefing room, followed by Buck, Nathan, and JD.
Chris stood as well. Reilly, having been on his feet and pacing the whole time, started tapping his fingers against his thigh as if it was a calculator.
"If Ken didn't talk to Ezra, we don't know anything," Larabee told the two FBI agents.
"Call him," Reilly ordered, still wearing a whole through the floor. "Get Standish in here. If that blaggard has jeopardized my operation, I'll hand him his bleedin' head."
Chris stepped into the special agent's path. "How about instead of jumping around half-cocked you people can take a breath? Vin will talk to Ezra and find out what's going on," he suggested steadily. Larabee shot a glare at Agent Charles scowling at the front of the room. "If you want your operation to succeed, you've gotta show a little faith in the people you brought in to do the job."
A sound like a bull exhaling escaped Reilly. "Let's just hear what Standish has to say."
Ever since waking up in the lobby this morning, Ezra felt as if his mind had been running Alice in Wonderland's non-stop caucus race. The envelope falling out of his pocket had been like a life-preserver to a mind drowning in its own thoughts, and the undercover agent had seized on it as such. He remembered Pamchenko's words from last night and his instincts were screaming. If correct, then Standish might have found the lynch pin in the whole case.
In order to pursue that instinct, Standish extended a brunch invitation to Jericho. In his room, making himself presentable for public view, Ezra found his mind wandering to his dreams and thoughts of Valentine. It was only when the hot water started to turn cold in his shower that his focus snapped back to the task at hand, by that time running quite late for his rendezvous.
The open-air terrace of Red Heron restaurant had space enough to accommodate as large a luncheon crowd as Atlanta could throw at it, but this early afternoon the only person occupying the outdoor tables was Elijah Jericho. Overhead, a cloud-filled sky rumbled with ominous thunder, keeping at bay the patio's usual multitude of customers. It seemed like Elijah Jericho would challenge even the weather.
"So sorry to keep you waiting, my friend." Ezra approached at a brisk stride.
"Not at all, Mr. Bennett." Jericho gave a twist of his wrist to display flash of a platinum-banded watch whose face was studded with twelve diamonds to mark the hours. "Your tardiness afforded me the opportunity to repeatedly admire my latest acquisition."
"An exquisite timepiece," Standish admired.
"Unfortunately, you weren't present to voice an opinion as to seating arrangements. I hope you aren't put off by a few clouds."
"Hardly. This is actually ideal." Ezra took the chair across the table. "I have something of a sensitive nature to discuss with you."
A waiter arrived with a plate of assorted brunch foods. "I knew you would not wish me to wait for you," Jericho commented as the dish was set before him. "Do you want anything?"
"You were quite right." Standish addressed the waiter. "I'll have what he's having." With a nod of acknowledgment, the waiter returned to the restaurant's indoor dining area.
Jericho's habitual leisurely manners made conversation seem casual, but Ezra sensed an unrest in the mood between them. The old crime boss liberated his fork and knife from a rolled napkin and examined the flat of the knife for spots before setting it beside his plate.
"'Something of a sensitive nature'. I do hope it's nothing serious. This week has already been full of so much excitement. I wasn't expecting things to be so … unpredictable. My, my." A sudden gust of wind pulled at the table cloth, the sharp whip of the cloth punctuating his words. "I hope we don't have cause to regret our arrangement, Mr. Bennett. It would be a pity if the weather forced us to abandon our meal."
A man did not need to be fully rested to catch the implication in the mob leader's chit-chat. Ezra kept his response calm and confident, "It would indeed be a pity, Mr. Jericho. But never fear, I have a keen eye for the weather. The trick to avoiding storms is to keep abreast of which way the winds are blowing."
"And how are the winds blowing for us today, Mr. Bennett?"
The Red Heron's terrace overlooked a ravine which led down to the Chattahoochee River. The treetops swayed in a mesmerizing pendulum effect behind the Southern mob boss, foretelling approaching rain.
"Favorably," Ezra answered. "You can be assured."
Jericho spread the napkin across his lap. "That is most welcome to hear," he said. "I'm afraid it's seemed to me recently that winds had been decidedly unfavorable. But perhaps that is just the foul one that always accompanies our Russian friend. Oh, not you, my friend," he addressed the hotel owner, who had accompanied the elegantly attired waiter who had just arrived with Ezra's meal.
"I thought I should take some offense, for a second. And then I'd have to regret bringing this." Pamchenko raised a bottle of wine in his wrinkled hands. "In my hotel, no meal is complete without an excellent vintage to wash it down. Allow me to share one of our lightest whites with you today."
"My thanks to you." Jericho replied to him. "You are quite generous."
"Not at all," Pamchenko returned. "It is the least I can do for someone who has been such a good comrade and customer all these years."
The waiter flipped the upturned wine glasses that had been part of the table settings. "Shall I open the bottle, Mr. Pamchenko?" he asked.
"Nonsense," the hotel owner replied. "There's still some strength left in these old hands." He pulled an opener from his pocket, removed the foil and inserted the corkscrew, then deftly tugged out the cork. As he set it down, the bottle caught the tines of Ezra's fork. The silverware catapulted through the air and to the ground with a clatter.
"Ah, my apologies," Pamchenko said. "While my dexterity is alive, I fear my eyesight is failing me. He gestured to the waiter to bring a new fork. "Still, silverware falling signals unexpected company. A fork indicates that it will be a woman."
The old man's words held a lightly teasing tone. Jericho and Standish chuckled obligingly. The waiter returned with a new fork and poured the wine.
"Would you care to join us in a toast, my friend?" Jericho asked Pamchenko. He turned to Ezra. "If there is anything I have learned from Mr. Romanov in the past few days is that it is bad luck to drink without a toast, Mr. Bennett."
Standish obliged and raised his glass as the waiter poured a glass for the hotel owner. "Shall we say, to old friends?"
"Old friends," Pamchenko returned. They raised their glasses and all drank the fresh pale vintage. There was a floral underpinning to the white that Ezra didn't care for, but he pretended to enjoy it.
Pamchenko excused himself, leaving them to eat their meal and speak in private. Although their brunch of fresh fruit, scones and some kind of ethnic casserole looked and smelled amazingly appetizing, Jericho ate with restrained sophistication.
"A man of his years and experience must be a very beneficial friend to have." Ezra commented. "I admire your loyalty to each other over all these years."
Jericho was restrained in more than just eating habits today. He took a good long time before addressing Ezra. "I believe you had something to tell me, Mr. Bennett."
Now was Ezra's time to throw all the chips in or leave the table. "I feel I must confess something to you, Mr. Jericho. About our friend, Mr. Romanov."
A leisurely bite from the Southern gentlemen belied the intensity of the blue eyes he fixed on Standish. "You have me intrigued, Mr. Bennett. I am all ears, sir."
Ezra made a small production of checking over both shoulders for listeners, although he and Jericho remained alone on the restaurant patio. "The other day, Romanov insisted on a private meeting. He," the undercover agent added a hesitation, "he, ah, he offered me money."
"Did he now?" The mob boss' voice was flat but unsurprised.
"Yes, to tilt negotiations to his advantage."
"I take in your willingness to tell me that you refused?" surmised Jericho.
"On the contrary, I accepted," Ezra said.
The Southern mobster set down his fork and stared at Standish across the table. His fingers hovered over the knife resting on his plate. Unlike the hotel owner's, his digits were rock steady.
"I would choose my next words very carefully, Mr. Bennett. Why are you telling me this?"
The undercover agent leaned in across the table in a move that both placed him in a more intimate, conspiratorial posture and made him more vulnerable if Jericho decided to reach over and stab him in the throat. "I have an idea, Mr. Jericho. It's apparent the Little Czar has no real intention of splitting power. Once he has a foot in your operations, he will walk all over you." Ezra reached into his breast pocket and removed the envelope Pamchenko had given him last night, sliding it across the table to Jericho.
Jericho's face had not gained or lost in expression, but Ezra was still breathing from all the right orifices and not a hole in his neck, so he supposed he must be doing fairly well.
"Are you proposing to help me with this supposed problem, Mr. Bennett?" Jericho asked. He took the knife and lifted the flap of the envelope with it, surreptitiously eying the amount inside.
"I am," Ezra confirmed.
"And what is your motivation for such magnanimity?"
"If you recall, I had a hand in aiding you early in your operation, Mr. Jericho, during your alliance with Mr. Hundburg. We had good rapport, and I felt a great admiration for you then, as now. I feel rather personally invested in your continued success." Ezra slowly leaned back. "And then there's my own reputation to think of. I promise my services to be fair and impartial, Mr. Jericho. I see nothing fair about the Red Mafia's designs on what you've worked so hard to attain. So, I want to rearrange the power balance of these negotiations. From now on, I'm in your corner. If you'll allow it."
Jericho straightened his posture as well and stroked his goatee, considering. He recognized the logic of what Standish was saying, but he seemed to need some extra motivation before he bought what "Zachary Bennett" was selling.
"And, may I be honest, Mr. Jericho?" Ezra took a sip of wine. He didn't need to act as he spoke from the bottom of his heart: "I truly despise Nikolai Romanov."
The mob boss smiled. "In that case, Mr. Bennett, I would be grateful for your services on my behalf." He raised his wine glass once again. "To new friends."
They both drank, and Jericho pushed the envelope back toward Ezra. "Trust is worth more than money. Take it. After all, you have earned it."
Ezra returned the envelope to his breast pocket. He took up his fork and speared a chunk of cantaloupe. "You and Mr. Pamchenko have been acquaintances quite a long time," he said conversationally. "He mentioned the other night that he was the one who brought you and Mr. Romanov together."
"That's true," Jericho responded.
"How did that come about?"
The Southern mobster stroked his goatee with a wry twist to his mouth, momentarily highlighting the bruise on his chin where Agent Reilly's fist had connected. "Ironically enough, you might say it came about due to the FBI. Agent Morgan Reilly, specifically."
"That charming gentleman from the other night?"
"The same. He's been a particular thorn in my side since he arrived in Atlanta. I've attempted every sort of pressure you might imagine to deter his dogged agenda against me to no avail, it seems. The scrutiny he and the FBI have upon me means I can no longer use the businesses I own to launder the money from my other operations, so I have been forced to use Pamchenko's services here at the hotel. Romanov is likewise a client. When my circumstances became taxing, Pamchenko suggested this partnership to join our strengths." The Southerner made a face as if his meal had gone sour. "Time will tell if my friend's advice ends up being beneficial or not."
Ezra felt a surge of elation at hearing his theory confirmed. He took a long sip of water to cover the emotion. For the first time since returning to Atlanta, Standish had the finish line in sight.
Vin rode the elevator up to Ezra's floor, watching the floor indicator arrow climb to the number four. Beneath his feet the antique cab swayed and lurched. It halted with an imperative bell ding, its sudden cessation causing Tanner to sway for balance. The gilded doors parted. Vin took half a step forward before realizing he stood suddenly face-to-face with his fellow ATF agent.
"Oh. Mr. Tanner," Standish greeted with a half-nod. He strode into the elevator, forcing Vin to recant his half step, and shoved the topmost button. "Pardon me, but I was just on my way out."
Before the doors could slide back together, Vin reached out and halted them. Ezra shot a small glare of annoyance at the restraining hand. "We gotta talk," Vin said.
"Now?" the undercover agent complained.
"Yeah, now. But not here." Vin gestured at the open hallway. "Let's go to your room."
Instead, Ezra stabbed the close-door button with his finger. "My intended destination is suited just as well for conversation."
Vin glanced at the glowing circle indicating the floor Standish had selected. "The roof?" he questioned.
"I need some air," Ezra explained, jamming the button again.
"It's pouring rain." Tanner jabbed the open-door button and slammed his hand between the doors, breaking their imminent connection. He pulled the Southerner out of the cab and guided the reluctant agent down the halls. Standish's baleful eyes protested but he said nothing. They stopped in front of his room. "Your key?" Vin reminded.
With the aggrieved air of a pouty adolescent, Ezra pulled the brass key out of his trouser pocket and brought it to the lock. A secondary shiny glint from Standish's pocket made Vin pull a double-take. Was it a fine chain, like from a bit of jewelry? He tried to get a better view but Standish had the door unlocked and everything shoved back into his pocket before Tanner could get a clear impression.
Ezra led the way into the suite, switching on a lamp that illuminated the lounge area. Straight behind the sitting room, the door leading to the bedroom was open. Through it Vin could see the window being pelted by rain. The drops beat an uneven rhythm.
The heavy walnut door clicked shut behind them, ensuring a private conversation. Standish turned to face Vin and stated: "It's just as well you came by, Mr. Tanner, I have some news myself." Tanner raised his eyebrows at the Southerner's sudden turn of attitude. He perched unceremoniously on the back of a chair to listen. Standish sank into an adjacent dark green chair as he bragged, "I happened into some rather revealing information this afternoon. Jericho's vulnerable spot. That slimy geezer is using the Grand Tributary to launder his cash."
"Yeah? Doesn't he have a gaggle of his own businesses to do that?"
"It seems Agent Reilly and the FBI were putting too much scrutiny them. He was forced to call on his old friend, Pamchenko." The Southerner tugged the sleeve of his suit coat into a crisp line and smirked victoriously.
Good news, but not the information Vin wanted to know right now. Tanner crossed his arms. "Got anything else you wanna tell me about?"
Standish's smirk froze on his face. The rain beat harder into the silence of Ezra's taciturnity. His hands drifted into his pockets. "Such as?"
"Maybe something about Romanov?" Vin prompted.
Confusion waved over Ezra's brow. "What about him?"
"That whole FBI office is buzzing with a story that you took a bribe from him."
Standish's smirk turned sardonic as he averted his gaze towards the weather pounding against the bedroom window. "And how did that rumor start circulating?" the Southern agent asked mildly.
"Ken told Jean. I guess he overheard you."
"Is that so?" Ezra replied. After a beat he pulled his hands out of his pockets and faced Vin again, "Well," the undercover agent resumed, a new sharpness in his eyes although he tried to mask it with his typical charismatic energy. "He's not mistaken. I accepted Romanov's offer."
Vin rubbed his face and sighed. "What the hell would make you do that?"
"Money, of course, Mr. Tanner. How inconvenient that you've found out, but I suppose I could pay you a percentage to keep silent about it." Ezra spread his hands and Vin was surprised to see in the palm of one a gold glint. "How does ten percent sound? Or will you be greedy and ask for a full half?" Biting sarcasm crackled in his tone. He closed his fist around the bit of metal in his hand.
Vin stepped off the plush chair back. "Cut the crap, Ezra."
Ezra rose to his feet as well. "What do you think, that I returned to the bosom of the FBI in order to weasel cash for my retirement fund?" he asked, voice laden with affront. "That I couldn't resist doing the very thing they suspected of me, right under their noses? If that were really true do you think I would have let myself get caught?"
"Keep it down, you arrogant bastard. If you're so upset about your past then why accept the bribe and then hide it? How did you think this would look to the FBI?"
"I didn't hide it. I just didn't tell you about it yet." He held the small gold something and he was worrying it with his fingers. It was a necklace; Vin could tell by the chain.
"Why the hell not, Ezra? Would have been nice to find out when I saw you this morning, instead of hearing it all over the Fed's office."
"This morning I woke up in the lobby with a four-armed Shiva hanging all over me," Ezra said. "Excuse me for not giving a full briefing on the spot." Before Vin could frame a reply, he paced away and continued, "Tell the FBI that Romanov cornered me and I feared for my life. My options being limited, I accepted his terms."
"That what really happened? Romanov's been making threats since you got here, what made you think he was serious this time?"
The lights suddenly dimmed, browning out the room for a moment without a warning. Vin's skin crawled involuntarily. Ezra gave a quick glance around the room but ignored the phenomena to give an answer. "No, what really happened is that I got tired of hassling with Romanov so I told him what he wanted to hear in order to move past him. We need to focus on Jericho. He's the reason I'm here, isn't he? But the FBI will have an easier time believing I'm a coward than trusting I knew what I was doing. And I informed Jericho about my 'conspiracy' earlier today, so you don't have to worry about him finding out."
Vin assessed the undercover agent's appearance. He had bags under his eyes that were traced with red lines. His shoes were scuffed, very atypical for the fashion forward Southerner. His voice sounded a bit ragged. His appearance, combined with some unusual behavior, indicated a problem. Standish had an answer for everything. But it was the secret he was concealing from his team that made Vin angry. Whatever that was.
"What's going on with you?"
"What are you talking about?"
"You look like you haven't slept in days. You've been unhinged this whole mission. What are you hiding?"
"I'm not hiding anything!" Ezra insisted. The lights flickered again. "Old wiring," Standish muttered. "Everything's under control, perfectly copacetic."
"Look, Ez, the team followed you all the way out here so we could get your back." Vin advanced toward Standish. "If you don't trust us, you at least owe it to us to do your damn best. We don't like being here any more than you do."
"So leave! If you aren't around when I'm being threatened by mad Russians in stairwells then who needs you?" Standish snapped back. "And while we're asking questions, where exactly were you when Romanov was making me an offer I couldn't refuse? Maybe I should have Owens watch my back from now on. He seems good at the job." At his side, the necklace chain swung frenetically from Ezra's fist.
Vin was annoyed at the Southern agent's self-pitying arrogance. The team tracker and undercover agent had never quite clicked on a personality level, which most of the time Tanner was able to ignore, but not today. Standish seemed to forget that it wasn't just his reputation that was in play on this mission, it was the entire team's. Something had been off about Ezra's behavior since nearly the beginning of this operation, and Vin's instincts had a pretty good idea as to the cause.
"Who's Valentine?" Vin asked. To his amazement the undercover agent actually staggered back several steps.
"Valentine." Vin repeated, narrowing his eyes. "Who is she?"
Bafflement had rendered Ezra's poker face completely exposed. He looked as if he'd been struck by lightning. "How? . . . how do you know her name? Have you met her?"
"You ain't Buck, Ezra. You say it ain't Sasha that you and Isaak got into that spat over, but that belongs to somebody." He jerked his chin at the necklace in Ezra's grip. Standish opened his hand and regarded the gold charm in his palm as if it were a viper. "And she's obviously on your mind."
"How do you know her name?" the undercover agent repeated. His fist covered the charm once again. A flower, Vin saw.
"You said it in your sleep. Not going to deny it then?"
An enigmatical look crossed Ezra's features. "It's not what you think. As you said, I'm not Buck. She ..." his next words were carefully measured. "I encountered her at the party the first night. She ... seemed in some sort of trouble. She asked for help."
"Help with what?"
"... I don't know."
"We're not here to help every random girl with unspecified problems. Who is she? Have you seen her since?"
Ezra seemed reluctant to answer simple questions. Vin hit the back of the chair. "You don't get to hide things from us, Ezra! Tell me what's going on with you and this girl. Is she still at the Tributary?"
Standish barely registered Vin's anger. He seemed lost in thought. "Maybe. I thought I saw her again the other night but she was gone before I could ... could pursue her." He swallowed. Whatever he was looking at lay far beyond the textured carpeting he was staring at.
"Vanished into thin air?"
Standish threw him an odd, cockeyed glance but expounded no further.
Vin wished he could pry into the Southerner's brain to understand this recalcitrance. "You want me to look for her?"
"No. No! I told you, I have things under control. If you and the rest of Team Seven are so anxious to leave then that's fine with me. The girl is nobody important. And Jericho is as good as locked up. I don't need you here." He walked to a desk along the wall and pulled an envelope out of the drawer. "Here's the money from Romanov. Count it, log it, report it. Will that make everyone happy?"
Vin snatched the envelope. The tracker didn't care for Standish's assumption that he could be played and manipulated like some criminal mark. Ezra was good, but he wasn't always as good as he thought he was. The woman was the key, he thought. If he could find her he could get the answers Standish wasn't sharing.
The lights dimmed and brightened yet again. Vin decided that despite the luxury and style, the Grand Tributary was a creepy place. He turned to leave, giving up his irritating teammate.
"You gonna sleep in that thing tonight?" Tanner asked acerbically, pointing at the bed in the suite's adjoining room. "Or are you going to try out some of the lobby's other furniture?"
The door shut with a slam behind him.
At the ATF building in Denver, Team Seven alone had almost an entire floor to themselves. In Atlanta, the entire Federal Bureau of Investigation operated out of a single floor of the Century Building, the other levels being occupied by businesses and associations. Therefore, when a rumor sprouted out of a pile of bullshit, it took very little time to blossom and proliferate throughout the agency. And any rumor about Standish was one well-fertilized little seed.
Leaning alone in the corner of the building's dark elevator cab, Chris spoke into his phone. "Got it. Thanks for the update, Vin." He ended the call with a curse and an angry sigh. The elevator doors slid open and Larabee exited, pushing past two FBI agents whose conversation had ceased abruptly as soon as they'd noticed the ATF agent's presence.
The beige hallways of the Century Building were filled with agents just returning from lunch. Chris stepped out of the hall into the main work area, immediately becoming immersed in of a buzz of muted conversation that filled the air like cigarette smoke. Rumors died in the presence of Chris Larabee, however momentarily, as the ATF team leader weaved his way around desks and work stations, aimed for Reilly's office door.
Reilly was in the same position he'd been in before everyone had broken for lunch: at his desk, sleeves rolled up, top button unbuttoned, tie in a heap beside his coffee cup, reading over the file Jean had prepared this morning for about the fifth time, scouring it for any small detail that might be used and brought against Elijah Jericho. He glanced up at Chris as he approached, but said nothing. So Larabee said it.
"You hearing these rumors?"
The agent took a swig from his coffee mug. The man must have been trying to give himself caffeine poisoning. "No. Some laudy daw told me only the lazy and ignorant listen to rumors."
"Your agents are spreading the word that Ezra took Romanov's bribe."
"He didn't, then? Is that what your man Tanner says?"
Larabee went tight-lipped with irritation. "Ezra accepted the offer to get Romanov off his back, so he could focus on Jericho."
Reilly's fingers began to jitter atop the file he'd been perusing. "Grand. That's just grand, actually. So what's your problem?"
Larabee glowered. "The agents out there running their mouths."
"This chinwagging was bound to happen. Standish has too much of a reputation around here for it to be avoided. Those agents were gagging for something to talk about, and now they've got it." Reilly picked up his empty coffee mug and stalked over to the coffee pot in the corner. He glared out into the office pool at the agents who were being too obvious in their listening, and they pretended harder. "All things considered, it could be worse."
"And what if it gets worse?" Chris asked. "Last time it nearly destroyed the man's career." The building was filled with people who would be happy to see that eventuality.
Reilly faced the ATF leader. "He's not the only one with a career to worry about. I've chanced my arm bringing him into this operation despite his reputation."
"Yeah, you're a real hero."
"Bite my shite." Reilly turned toward the coffee maker and pulled out the pot.
"I noticed you immediately assumed he'd taken the bribe."
"He bleedin' did take the bribe."
"To help your case. Man can't do his job if his mission leader doesn't trust him."
"Bleedin' hard for a mission leader to have trust in his man when he neglects to give his team vital information," Reilly groused as he poured coffee into his mug. "Why didn't Standish let us know what he was doing?"
That one was hard to argue with. Chris couldn't deny he was troubled by Ezra's behavior regarding this matter, but he would never admit it to the FBI mission leader.
"I would love to go and personally ask him," said Larabee, "but I can't go anywhere near the hotel since my status as a Federal agent is blown, thanks to your actions with Jericho the other night."
Reilly's grip went white-knuckled on the handle of the coffee pot. "I shouldn't have hit him," he growled through gritted teeth.
The special agent's arm whipped out and he smashed the coffee pot against the wall. As glass and coffee exploded everywhere, Reilly snarled, "I should have bleedin' shot him!"
Nobody in the outer office area even pretended to work. Every ear on the floor gawked in silence. For several long moments, Reilly stared at the coffee pooling into his carpet. Then he walked to his desk, sat down, back to the file on his desk, flipped to the next page, and began to read it.
"Get the hell out of my office," he told Larabee. "I have a job to do."
Appearances were everything. It could practically be the undercover mantra. Maybe it actually was, he should look it up sometime. Keep up appearances and people would believe anything. And sometimes, considered undercover agent Ken Owens, if you knew how to read them, appearances actually told the truth someone was trying to conceal. Owens, slouched at the bar inside the Red Heron restaurant, kept that in mind as he watched Ezra Standish operate.
The Red Heron restaurant's private dining room had every appearance of belonging to a provincial palace. On three of the walls, oversized murals looked out into various marsh scenes depicting a large heron with wings of an unlikely red. The fourth wall, a half-wall, faced out toward the restaurant, the lower section wallpapered in burgundy; the upper half was glass with a frosted burnout pattern of reeds, cattails and flowers. The door of opaque glass was closed, blocking the murmured hum of conversation from the main dining area and ensuring conversation remained private in the sequestered area large enough for just six red-clothed tables. Five of those elegantly draped tables lay empty as Standish sat to a meal with two of Atlanta's most notorious mobsters.
The trick to reading appearances was knowing what was real and what was an illusion crafted for the benefit of the rest of the world. Take for instance, Elijah Jericho. Slicing daintily at his pork medallions, the gray-haired mobster was the picture of a grandfatherly gentleman. His dark blue suit primly pressed, the Southern crime boss presented a façade of stately dignity and unimpeachable morality. Funny how the further one was from something the closer they strove to appear to be so. Jericho would stroke that pointed beard of his like a sophisticate while watching a man who owed money be unmercifully beaten. Ken had witnessed it.
Then there was the Red Fella vor, Nikolai Romanov. A man who styled himself the Little Czar and wore sunglasses indoors at night revealed more of his hidden insecurities and vulnerabilities in his ostentatious posturing than he thought. Though he carried himself large, Romanov was still essentially middle management among the Russian mafia, and his desperate projection of strength served as much for his own protection as it did for intimidation.
Agent Ezra Standish, however, was more complicated. Clad in a dark olive-green suit, sipping his merlot, he nearly oozed . . . something. A charm so thick and obvious that it had to be an act, at once so amiable that criminals couldn't help but like and relate to the man. He was good, Standish was. To read him one would have to pierce not just one but multiple layers of finely crafted illusion Standish had built up.
"Another drink?" the bartender stepped up and asked. Ken nodded.
As he was filling Ken's order, a young waiter slipped behind the bar and started talking to the tender. He spoke low but excited, and Ken couldn't help but hear. That sort of tone just invited a spy to listen.
"Did you hear about last night?" the waiter asked. The bartender shook his head, still filling the drink, but with his attention caught by the waiter. "The porter saw it."
The bartender made a response but his voice did not carry like the waiter's. The young server's head bobbed up and down excitedly.
"He was loading luggage in a taxi and saw it in the street. He was so scared he ran inside without even picking up a tip."
The bartender placed the glass in front of Ken politely before returning to the conversation with the waiter at the far corner of the bar.
"Bull," he opinioned loudly. For all the bartender denied the waiter's statement, he was clearly made uneasy by the conversation, feverishly scrubbing glasses with a towel. After several more true-blue testimonials, he growled at the waiter, "Enough, Andy! Take your gossip back to the kitchen and leave me alone." The young man wisely retreated.
"Bourbon and water, heavy ice," a familiar drawl from behind Ken spoke. Standish, done with his conversation with Jericho and Romanov, took a seat next to Ken.
"Looks like everyone had a good talk," Ken commented, low and casual.
"There seems to be a great deal of talk permeating the air lately," Standish snipped in a low tone infused with heavy snark. He ignored Owens' confused side-eye.
The barbed comment seemed like a reference to something Ken was supposed to know about, but didn't. Not one content to complacently linger in confusion, "What do you mean?" Ken asked.
The bartender set a glass already dripping with condensation in front of Ezra. "This is not the venue to discuss it," said Standish, taking a sip of his drink.
That much was true. As Ken had himself observed, a conspiratorial tone would only attract the attention of the bartender and waitstaff. Still, he'd had enough of being left in the dark.
"Just give me a clue," Owens entreated.
The other agent fixed Owens with an evaluating look. "Evidently there's a heavy buzz at the office today regarding my pecuniary arrangements with our Red friend."
It took Ken a moment, but he figured out Standish's intimations.
"Ezra," he said in a very low voice, "I would never intentionally spread rumors about you or anyone. I was just reporting on what I'd heard." Owens felt like a heel for kicking off a new set of rumors to surround Standish; but, he justified to his bruised conscience, he had heard what he'd heard.
Standish stared into his drink, swirling the ice slowly for a quiet moment before taking a swig.
"I'm sorry, I should have waited until I could talk to you," Ken apologized. If they had been in a situation more conducive to conversation, he might have pointed out that the undercover agent could have sought him out to explain his plans and intentions to his fellow operative, but they had probably been speaking too long in conspiratorial tones as it was, and in all fairness Owens had to admit that he could have done the same and asked.
Standish seemed overly involved in watching the ice melt in his bourbon. "It's no matter," he said finally, shrugging into a carefree smile that didn't reach his eyes. "Surely inevitable."
Ken's memory flashed the image of Agent Standish on the ledge of the roof, overbalanced and about to topple off. "You know you can talk to me, if there's anything going on," he said.
"Of course." Ezra swallowed back the remaining contents of his drink before it could be watered down further. "We're on the same team, after all."
The perfunctory response was a bigger "screw you" than the words Standish might have vocalized. It occurred to Owens then that as much as Ezra was convinced no one at the Bureau would ever trust him, Standish had an even greater fear of trusting the Bureau, so much so he would never share any hidden troubles with his fellow undercover operative. Too much damage had been done in the past, Ken realized, and now in the present. The epiphany wasn't going deter the blond agent from trying. Owens' laid back demeanor was a character trait he'd assumed for the job; in real life curiosity was a persistent failing of his. Sleeping dogs had never been safe in his vicinity; Ken had always had to poke the damn thing to see if it was feigning.
"If there's a problem, I can help," he persisted.
"I appreciate the offer, but there's no problem." Ezra set his empty glass on the bar. "I did not sleep well last night and I find myself with a headache. I am going to retire to my suite."
"Sure," Ken said, pretending he believed the Southerner.
After all, appearances had to be maintained.
Rain fell on the motel's partially-lit sign as the buzzing and flickering neon flashed the word "vacancy" into the night. Vin's rented Jeep pulled into the lot.
JD turned back from the window and sat cross-legged atop a puke-colored bed coverlet, nearly hitting his knees on the small table set up in the middle of the double he shared with Buck. The room smelled like dog breath, Buck had declared when they'd made their arrival several days ago. If its odor was sub-human, its appearance matched: natty carpeting, frayed curtains and a television set that must have originated in the sixties. The piece of "art" that hung over the bed was possibly an impression of a stream running through a yellow forest or, if you squinted, a hunchback swan. Team Seven's inclusion in this mission may have been the ultimatum for Ezra's involvement, but the FBI certainly felt no obligation to spend taxpayer money on deluxe accommodations for the duration of their stay in Atlanta.
Hearing the Jeep's engine stop, "Vin's here," JD announced, flicking cards across the makeshift poker table. Josiah, reading a book, sat propped up against the headboard of the other bed. At its foot, Nathan, one leg tucked beneath him and the other swung to the floor, studied with mild annoyance the hand Dunne had just dealt him.
"Great. He can deal," he grumbled.
A knock resounded against the door. Nathan threw down the lousy hand to let in Vin.
"Chris here yet?" Tanner greeted, rain sheeting down behind him.
"Hello to you, too." Jackson returned. Vin stepped inside, shaking water from his long locks. "He's at the Century Building. Here, it's your turn to deal." Nathan dragged a chair from beside the television stand up to the makeshift poker table for the tracker.
Tanner sat down and took a deep breath. "Smells like dead animal."
"That would be the leftovers under the bed," Josiah mumbled satirically, turning to the next page.
"Kinda reminds you of home, don't it?" Vin said, snagging the deck of cards from Dunne's hand.
It did, sorta. "We can't all stay at the Taj Mahal," JD defended.
"Actually," Josiah pointed out, "the Taj Mahal is a tomb. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan had it built in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, out of love."
"I wish I could get Casey a gift that good," Dunne lamented.
Nathan, retaking his seat across the table, looked at him skeptically. "You want to get her a tomb?"
"No. Well, yes, just not . . . You know what I mean!"
Vin swiveled the chair and tried to stretch his legs, but his toes hit the side of the desk before he could fully extend them. A grunt of displeasure escaped. "Still nothing, huh, kid?"
Ruefully, JD shook his head. "I was thinking maybe a watch?" he suggested.
"A boxed DVD set?"
"It's a really good series."
"Uhhhm . . . No."
"For Casey? It's your head, kid."
Dunne heaved a sigh that ruffled the tips of his shaggy hair.
Vin began rifling the cards together. "How 'bout jewelry? I heard diamonds are a girl's best friend."
"Casey's not really a diamond and pearls kind of girl."
"So get the girl a gift certificate."
"You've never had a steady girlfriend, have you Vin?"
Cards rifling through his fingers, the Texan gave JD a Look. "Maybe the reason you've been having such trouble is because you should be looking for a ring."
JD gulped, then gestured to Vin's hands. "You gonna deal those cards, Tanner, or what?"
Vin chuckled, but kindly let the distressed beau off the hook. Distributing hands to Nathan, JD, and himself, he noticed another absence. "Where's Buck?"
"On a date," Jackson answered, "with Gina from accounting."
Tanner smirked. "Trust Buck to have a gal in every port."
"Animal maggotism," JD muttered, picking up his cards. Of course, Buck could be a wild ladies' man. JD had a steady girl, and if he wanted to keep her he'd have to get her something really special for the anniversary of their meeting only several days away.
A thunderous series of knocks impacted the motel door. Dunne jumped up to open it and allow their team leader to enter.
"You're a few hands behind," Nathan observed as Chris came into the room. "Trying to outlast Reilly?"
Larabee shook off the hair plastering itself to his forehead, covering the wall art with fine droplets. "I got a phone call on my way out." Slipping his wet jacket off his shoulders, he glanced around the room. "Everybody here?"
Chris looked for a place to set his sopping jacket but found no space left unoccupied. He settled for draping it on the drawer knob of the television cabinet, dragging the room's second chair away from the wall to straddle it and lean against the back.
Larabee addressed his team. "They need us back in Denver."
"Now?" Nathan asked, at the same time Vin went," What for?"
"One of the teams caught a lead on a huge gun smuggling operation coming into Denver out of Mexico. They want all hands on deck for this one," Chris told them. A drop of water rolled down his forehead and splattered on the back of a playing card. "They've given us two more days here."
"What about Ezra?" asked JD. "We can't just leave him here, can we? After all that stuff that happened today?"
Chris shook his head. "I tried. The FBI gets to keep him until this is over."
Vin slid the wet card from the table and shook it off. He tossed the jack of spades back. "Don't know if Ezra would even want to come," he said.
Furrowing his brows, JD said, "Why not?"
"Man's got something to prove," explained Josiah.
Proving yourself was a concept the young hacker understood too well, but the idea of leaving their team member behind still didn't sit right with him. "Well, this is Ezra we're talking about," said Dunne, trying to insert some optimism into the room's dour mood. "He'll have this whole operation wrapped up lickety-split and will be back to help us with the gun smuggling thing before we know he's gone."
Team Seven's tracker seemed determined to be a downer. "Yeah, but Ezra is severely off his game," Vin said.
Larabee frowned. "What's wrong with him?"
"Pressure getting to him?" Josiah suggested.
"You've seen Ezra under pressure; he thrives on it." Tanner shook his head. "There is something going on with him. Strange as it is, I think he's fixated on some girl."
"Who's fixated on a girl?" Buck breezed the room with impeccable timing, bringing some of the rain in with him.
"Back so early?" Nathan asked, surprised.
'Y'know, you wouldn't think a former call girl would be so prudish." Wilmington threw himself down on the closest bed, getting the ugly coverlet all wet. "Now, who's fixated on a gal?"
"Ezra," JD answered, glaring. That was his bed the ladies' man was soaking. Buck didn't get the hint.
"He mentioned a gal to me a few days back." Wilmington shrugged under their reproving stares. "So what if he is having a little romance? What's the harm?"
"We ain't got time for his romance." Chris told Buck about the phone call recalling the team to their home state. "What's this about a girl?" Larabee asked Vin.
Now that he'd brought it up, Tanner seemed reluctant to dive whole hog into his theory. "I don't know. Ezra's got it in his head that there's some girl hanging around the hotel that's in trouble. But he doesn't know how, or why, or even who she is."
Larabee frowned. "You think she's distracting him that much? Why hasn't she been brought up before?"
"She's definitely a distraction. But, Chris, you should hear him," Tanner said. "I'm not sure this woman even exists, much less if she's in any kind of danger."
Chris thought in silence for several moments. Then he said to Vin, "Look for her. If we have to go, the least we can do is eliminate her as a distraction for Ezra. You know the FBI won't waste time on it."
"We might be better off pursuing the money laundering Ezra mentioned," the tracker said. "Only thing I've got on this gal is a first name. Even I can't do much with that."
"He said she was at the party that first night," Buck mentioned. "He described her: 'bout twenty, dark hair. She'd been wearing a gold dress."
"Any idea who she is?" Nate asked. Wilmington shook his head.
Josiah commented. "She must be quite something for Ezra to risk his opportunity to show off to the FBI."
Vin sighed. "Her name's Valentine, that's all I know. I can check with the desk clerk tomorrow, see if anyone is registered under that name."
"He met her at the big party on the roof? Maybe we could take a look through the surveillance pictures," JD suggested.
Larabee nodded. "Okay, let's find this girl. In two days we go back to Denver and Ezra's on his own."
They didn't play cards for long. Chris had to arrange flights and Vin had to return to his mausoleum in the morning. Soon after they left, Nathan and Josiah left to the room the two of them shared. Talk of women had made JD think how much he missed Casey, though he would never admit it to the guys. Women had a funny way of getting a hold of a fellow. Dunne laid on the bed and stared at the ceiling with the buzzing of the "vacancy" sign filling his ears.
It was ironic, Ezra considered, that the suite which had last night seemed an unbearable torture chamber today felt like a sanctuary. He closed the door and threw the security lag as if he could bolt out the world, heaving a sigh as if he'd been holding his breath until his lungs would burst. He slipped off his suit coat and out of habit hung it in the closet with the rest of his costume, the wardrobe of a professional dirty lawyer. The disguise looked much the same as the clothes of a dirty FBI agent, Standish noted sourly. He jerked off his tie and threw it on the closet floor.
Once he'd finished undressing, Ezra turned away from the closet and was immediately presented with the bed, as if the white pillows and pressed sheets had sat there waiting for the moment like a horror film spook. The euphoria he'd reveled in this afternoon after learning about Jericho's money laundering ties to the Grand Tributary had been completely dispelled by the phantom whispers of FBI agents Ezra had been hearing, not so much within his head but somewhere within the vicinity of his chest, ever since his conversation with Vin. Compared to that, dreams of a lovely rich girl pursuing a romance with some pauper chauffeur seemed positively entrancing, even if they did end with darkness and death.
Perhaps he was that fool in the scary movie who couldn't see himself walking into his own demise, but he threw himself on the bed regardless. He was too exhausted to resist. Ezra flipped off the bedside lamp and closed his eyes.
Ironically, once he decided he did want to sleep, it evaded him like a feral cat. Standish laid in bed, eyes closed. There was nothing for him to hear in the silent room, so he listened to his pulse beating in his ear drum. His pillow seemed a speaker to amplify the sound, so he laid with his face to the ceiling. His back hurt in that position, likely from sleeping on the couch the previous evening. It was a mild ache, but seemed to be making more of itself in an attempt to keep Ezra awake. He returned to his side and punched out his pillow so his ear wouldn't rest directly on top of it. His body seemed to find the exercise refreshing. Ezra resolutely closed his eyes and focused on slowing his breathing.
The day insisted on reviewing itself in his mind. Those memories were the specter he wished to avoid most, but the process began nevertheless. There he was, waking up on the couch, strangely disappointed to find Sasha's face before his eyes and not Valentine’s. There was Vin, chasing Sasha away. There was Vin again, tearing him down for neglecting to tell about Romanov's bribe, ignoring Ezra's newfound information about Jericho's money laundering partnership with the hotel. There was Ezra and Jericho at brunch, the sun shining upon well-dressed men and women filling the restaurant veranda's white-lacquered tables. There was Valentine, standing out against the crowd in a bright red skirt as the golden green foliage of the trees hid the Chattahoochee from view.
Vladimir, smoking a cigarette, exited the Red Heron's restaurant smoking a cigarette, scanning the crowded patio. Valentine's eyes brightened and her lips turned up delightedly as she spotted Vladimir weaving his way through the crowd. As he approached she affected to not see him, chatting instead with two well-dressed girls only slightly older than she.
Her running small talk persisted pointedly as Vladimir came up to her table. The Soviet chauffeur stood patiently waiting for Valentine to notice his presence until finally one of the other young ladies at the table paused their conversation.
"I think he wants to talk to you, Valentine," the society girl said with a somewhat disdainful gesture towards Vladimir.
Valentine glanced up at the chauffeur with a haughty and mischievous smile. "Oh? He had no trouble making me wait for him last evening, why shouldn't I make him wait for me today?"
The chauffeur looked down and shook his head, smiling ruefully.
"If I may, Miss Valentine?" He leaned down and extended his hand. Valentine wore a self-satisfied expression but she laid her hand atop his and stood to be led away.
Valentine's lunch companions stared and whispered to each other as Vladimir led the dark-haired young woman a bit away from the mass of people. Ezra spotted Cliff watching the couple with a contemptuous expression on his face from a table near the patio's columned railing.
"Where are we going?" Valentine asked as Vladimir pulled her down a set of steps that led off the veranda toward the Chattahoochee River.
It seemed he might lead her into the dense woods that blocked the sight but not the sound of the river; instead he led her into an area that, while filled with tall trees, was manicured and maintained like a park. He guided her onward through a space turned fairy tale setting by sunlight glinting through the leaves, until the wooded section opened to a clearing. At the center of it, a fountain depicted two angels ascending skyward. Golden light caught the glistening water, making the fountain dance as if the angels were living, breathing figures rather than beings made of stone.
Valentine gazed at the scene in open-mouthed appreciation, but seeing Vladimir's satisfied expression she crossed her arms and said to him, "So, do I get an apology for last night?"
"Ah, I am sorry, Valentine," Vladimir said, pulling her arms uncrossed to lead her closer to the fountain. "Billy was down a man and he need someone to run an errand, so I volunteered. Our date completely slipped my mind."
Valentine dug her heels into the ground and her eyes narrowed dangerously. "You volunteered," she repeated flatly. Vladimir opened his mouth but Valentine cut him off before he could defend himself. "No, no. I can see how running an errand for your boss would be so much more appealing than having dinner with me."
Vladimir winced at her sarcasm. "I'm sorry," he said once again. "I've been trying to get Billy to think of me as more than a chauffeur for months, and this was a good opportunity. I do want more for my life, you know." Vladimir saw that his excuses were not holding truck with Valentine. She yanked her arms out of his grip with a huff. "But to forget you was utterly unforgivable," the chauffeur admitted hastily. "You should refuse to see me, refuse to even speak to me ever again – even though I have tonight off and would gladly attempt to repair for my blunder with dinner and a movie – you should certainly banish me from your sight. I ... I will drown myself in this fountain now for shame."
With a roll of her eyes at his dramatics, Valentine reached into the fountain and splashed him with a handful of water. "Well . . . It would be a pity to waste your night off." She sat on the ledge of the fountain. "I suppose I'll give you a break and let you take me out."
He laughed and sat down next to her.
"I have something for you." Vladimir pulled a red jewelry box from his pocket and held it out to Valentine.
The smile faded from her lips. She took the box and opened it, revealing a gold filigreed peach-blossom charm attached to a chain.
Valentine stared at the necklace without expression. The chauffeur's eyebrows came together, evidently having expected more of a reaction. "You don't like it?" he said.
"Vladimir, why did you give this to me?"
"I told you, I am more than a chauffeur to Billy now. I have been making more money, so I thought-"
"You thought you needed to buy my time, otherwise I'd get bored with you?"
Understanding dawned on the Russian's face. "Ah, I am so stupid," he said. "I did not even think ..." Vladimir plucked the red box from her hands. "Forget it," he said, standing. "It was an unthinking gift. A silly impulse that I had. I will return it tomorrow."
Valentine bit her lip, a cautious sense of guilt in her eyes. "Was it ... did you really just buy it on impulse? Not because you thought you had to?"
"As impulsive as a nighttime swim," the young man answered. He took her hand again, pulling her to her feet so her lips could meet his. "As impulsive as a kiss."
A smile had returned to those lips. With a mischievous quirk, she snatched the red box from his hand.
"In that case," said Valentine, "I will accept this. I've never seen anything so lovely."
"You have never seen yourself wearing it," Vladimir said, removing it from the box to put it on for her. She pulled a face at him and rolled her eyes at his shameless flattery, but turned to allow him to clasp it at her neck. Once it was on, she leaned over the fountain to admire her reflection in the water.
"It's beautiful," she repeated, fingering the cool gold charm. Valentine turned to face the young Russian. "I'll wear it to the Pindering Gala," she said.
Vladimir raised skeptical eyebrows. "You'd better not," he said with an ironically mocking tone. "What would Cliff and those others say?"
"From now on, I don't care what anyone says," Valentine responded. "I'll never take this off."
The gloom of foreboding seeped over Ezra. Night seemed to crawl out of the woods over the clearing as the dream descended into the darkness he'd come to expect. Ezra ran toward the fountain, hoping to escape the unmanning sensation of his feet giving out from under him as the ground melted into blackness. He reached the fountain and clung to the stone wall, a sense of relief at its solidness giving him hope. Suddenly an arm shot out from the water and grabbed his wrist, pulling him in.
Once again, Ezra drowned.
There had been a break in the weather today. The world was fresh and green, but strong winds signaled that the rain was far from over.
As Vin arrived at the Tributary that morning, he had to skirt his way into the hotel around a flood of people pouring out of a flow of vans pulling up to the front doors.
"Regular traffic jam today, ain't it?" Tanner commented to the busy doorman as he opened his own door for a change.
"Yes, sir," was all he had time to answer before turning to the next guest.
Unfortunately for the ATF tracker, his target destination for this morning - the front desk - was swamped. A steady line of men and women checking in stretched across the lobby, and the friendly smiles of the two hotel workers behind the concierge showed a hint of panic in the corners of their eyes. Vin moseyed past the parade up to the counter, catching a few looks from people who thought he might be cutting in line. He leaned his elbow against the black marble, waving off the prim blonde desk clerk who glanced at him with a look of consternation to indicate that he was fine waiting.
As Vin lingered off to the side, his eyes wandering the lobby, he spotted Pamchenko approaching out of the Red Heron restaurant. The elderly hotel owner shuffled to the concierge desk, smiling politely and shaking some hands among the procession of new guests.
"Ah, good day," Pamchenko greeted Vin as he came behind the counter. "You are Mr. Bennett's driver, if I am not mistaken. Is he going out this morning, then?"
Tanner shook his head. "Actually, I was just waiting for-" he glanced at the desk clerk's name tag- "Maria to have a quick minute, but you seem to be running a pretty thriving business. Is something special going on today?"
"Yes," the hotel owner confirmed, stifling a light cough. "There is a local corporation with headquarters in Atlanta that brings in its managers from all over the state for an annual meeting. We are hosting them."
"You're putting up another meeting?" Vin asked, surprised that the former mafia man would take that kind of risk with Romanov and Jericho holding their negotiations at the Grand Tributary.
"The meeting itself is offsite, at one of the company's locations," Pamchenko explained.
"Is it the Coca-Cola headquarters?" Vin asked.
Pamchenko shrugged. "Maybe."
"That could be a pretty big meeting."
"Yes, I'm afraid you could be waiting for quite some time," the elderly Russian said. "Is there something I might help you with?"
Surprised at such personal hospitality from the hotel owner to the mere driver of one of his guests, especially as his employees struggled to keep up with the never-ending flow of new guests, "I wouldn't want to trouble you," Vin said. "I'm sure you have more important things to be doing."
"Nonsense, it's no trouble. What can I do for you?" Pamchenko asked with assertive politeness.
Tanner shrugged. "Well, if you could help me out, I'd be much obliged," he said. "I'm looking for someone staying at the hotel here, a girl."
"Ah." With a knowing smirk, Pamchenko sat down at a computer terminal, slowly dragging the mouse and clicking it several times. "I am sadly less competent at our computer systems than the least competent of my employees," he admitted to the tracker, "but let's see if an old man can't help you find your young lady. What is the last name?"
Rubbing the back of his head, Vin answered, "To tell you the truth, I don't know the last name."
"No last name?" Pamchenko's wrinkled countenance turned a sly smile and side-eye on him. As he set his withered hands to the keyboard, he chuckled, "Let us try a first one, then. I trust you at least got that."
With little hope in the success the search's outcome, Tanner gave him the name. "It's Valentine."
The old man's fingers hovered over the keys. He turned a strange look on Vin. "Valentine?" At the tracker's nod, he said, "An unusual name," and pecked it out on the keyboard.
Pamchenko squinted at the screen as it compiled the results. He leaned in until his nose was near touching the screen, then further back until his hand pulled out of reach of the mouse.
"Bah," the hotel owner spit with a look of frustration. "My old eyes will never focus on these screens. Please, bear with me one moment." After a click, the printer on the counter behind the hotel owner surged to life. Pamchenko grabbed the sheets that it spit out and began to peruse them, scanning down with his finger.
"Valentine, Valentine. Oh, here's one."
Vin straightened in surprise.
"Mr. Valentine Pelka. I guess it's one of those names that works both ways," Pamchenko said. He completed his way down the list. "I don't see any others."
Tanner sighed and hung his head. As he expected, that was that. "Guess it wasn't meant to be. Thanks anyway," Vin said.
"She was quite special, this Valentine of yours?" the old Russian asked.
Caught by surprise by the hotel owner's interest, "What can I say about Valentine?" Vin extemporized. He smiled and shook his head as if wistful of some beautiful encounter. "I didn't think they made women like that. Not ones that would be interested in a fella like me, anyway."
Pamchenko studied him with an inscrutable expression for a moment, and the ATF tracker feared he'd made some kind of misstep. "Perhaps there is another area I might check for you," he said.
Vin blinked in surprise. "I really don't want to put you out." He tried to make sure there wasn't too much protest in the protestation.
The hotel owner smiled indulgently and turned back to the computer screen. "Did you know that I also was a driver in my youth? One never forgets what it was like on the bottom rung of the ladder." He performed several more slow mouse clicks. Once again the printer hummed to life. "If this girl was in your room, perhaps she decided she didn't need her own."
It took a moment for Vin to grasp the old man's intention. Once it clicked, a small surge of excitement pulsed through him. "Those the cancellations?" he asked casually.
"Cancellations and refunds, yes."
Tanner could have clicked his heels together as Pamchenko pulled two pages from the printer tray. Instead he made light conversation. "Do a lot of folk ask for refunds? I mean, seems like a pretty nice hotel to me. I think you'd have to have unreasonably high expectations to walk away unsatisfied from this place."
"There aren't too many with standards higher than ours," the hotel owner said with a little zip of professional pride as he scanned the record. "I only wish to be thorough."
"I sure do appreciate it," Vin told him, covetously eying the printout under Pamchenko's fingers.
After couple minutes later after reviewing the list, the old Russian straightened in his chair. "I'm sorry. Either she's not with us or she's staying with someone else. I do make a point of being aware of the people in my hotel, however. Perhaps I have seen her. What does your mystery woman look like?"
"Er, young. Dark hair. Pretty."
"I'm afraid that describes a great many women." Pamchenko cast a sympathetic look at Tanner, which turned into a small frown as he said, "Perhaps, though, it is for the best. Women, they can be dangerous to an unsuspecting heart."
It was an odd thing to say, but then, old people often said strange things. "Don't I know it," Vin replied with a chuckle. "Thanks anyway, sir. It was a long shot anyhow. I really appreciate the effort, though. You get five stars from me."
Vin angled away from the concierge so he'd have a view of what would happen to the pages Pamchenko had printed out. The hotel owner tossed them into the trash bin under the counter beneath the printer, not even bothering to tear up the sheets. He puttered around behind the desk for a few minutes more, then disappeared through a door labeled "office." Maria and the other hotel worker continued to assist the slowing line of check-ins.
Tanner dropped down onto a green sofa in the center of the lobby. There were no pillows or sheets strewn about the couches or the love seats, the ATF tracker noted sardonically. And, if he could get his hands on the pages in that trash bin, Team Seven's undercover agent might not have to sleep either on them or the bed in his suite ever again.
Chris waited just outside the Century Building, leaning against a tree. In the dingy gray light of the day, the black-clad agent stood out like a noonday shadow beneath its branches as he watched the parking lot for Harry Warfield's return from lunch. The special agent in-charge generally took longer lunches than the rest of the FBI office, Larabee had noticed, as he seemed to take the opportunity for building his network of professional acquaintances. Chris recognized in Harry Warfield a man of ambition.
A shiny black sedan completed a leisurely turn into the Century Building's lot. Larabee remained with his back against the tree until Warfield pulled into his parking spot near the front doors.
Warfield stepped out of his vehicle. "Larabee," he greeted as Chris approached.
"We need to talk."
"Can it wait until we get inside?" Warfield asked, his arms laden with his coat and briefcase, as well as a paper bag that might have been from a bakery.
Chris shook his head. "Your agents in there like to chat. I'd like to keep this out of the rumor mill for a while."
That suitably garnered Warfield's attention. "What is it?"
"My team and I have to go back to Denver," the ATF leader told him.
"Yes, I got the call," Warfield said. "I know you have concerns about your agent. Rest assured, we'll keep Standish safe on this operation." He closed his car door with his shoulder and took several steps past Larabee toward the building.
"I want you to take Reilly off the Jericho case," Chris said.
Warfield halted in place and sighed. "You may shadow under trees, Larabee, but you don't beat around the bush, do you?" He turned to face Chris. "Why would I take Reilly off Jericho?"
Team Seven's leader measured two of his own paces toward the special agent in-charge. "See, what I have to question is: why wouldn't you do that?" he told Warfield.
Harry Warfield, apparently, was a man to beat around the shrubbery. "What do you mean?"
"Reilly should have been removed from the case when he hit Jericho," Chris said. "You know that."
The Century Building doors opened to let a man and a woman exit. Chatting amiably with each other, they paid no mind to Larabee and Warfield. The two agents fell silent until the pair had passed.
"Look, I'm not taking Reilly off the operation," Warfield said. "I get where you're coming from, I really do. Reilly's rash actions got him off the surveillance detail. He's learned his lesson. Nothing like that is going to happen again."
Chris narrowed his gaze at the special agent in-charge. "That's not good enough. Something like that should have gotten him kicked off the entire investigation."
"It was my call to make."
"It was the wrong call, and you know it."
Warfield had no reply. He frowned, and Larabee knew he'd started down the right direction.
"I'm not leaving Atlanta with Agent Reilly in any way involved with the operation against Jericho," Chris said. "If I do, the first visit I make in Denver is to A.D. Travis to voice my concerns about how things are run here. He might not have the authority to do anything about it, but he'll get the people who do asking questions I don't think you have any good answers for."
"That's a bold ultimatum, Larabee." Setting his briefcase on the curb, Warfield sat against his hood and sighed. "And I really wish you'd reconsider it. You don't know everything about ... about the situation."
The bureaucratic agent's response caught Chris by surprise. He had been expecting more bluster and swagger.
Chris shrugged. "So tell me."
"Look, you're not wrong," admitted Warfield after a moment. "Reilly's been my friend since before I got this position. That puts me in a terrible situation."
"I'm not going to leave my friend in a dangerous situation just because you can't discipline yours."
"You don't understand." Warfield shook his head. He glanced around to make sure there was nobody in the parking lot in earshot, then told Larabee, "Because I know him, I'm more worried about what Reilly will do if I take him off the case than if he stays on."
More people exited the building and Warfield waited to resume until they were gone.
"He won't do anything to endanger Standish," the special agent in-charge told Chris with disarming sincerity. "He wouldn't risk this opportunity with Jericho."
It seemed like Warfield was about to explain more explicitly; however, the previous group had been a precursor of a wave of men and women exiting the Century Building, likely from one of the other businesses that occupied it.
Warfield picked up his briefcase. "You're right, though," the special agent in-charge said. "I don't want all this coming up and causing a fuss. If you want me to take Reilly off the case, I'll do it. But please reconsider." He turned and headed in against the tide. "You can let me know tomorrow."
Vin folded the last section of the day's newspaper and tucked it back inside the rest he'd already read. He set the periodical back on the coffee table and wondered how he was going to justify sitting on the lobby sofa any longer now that he'd already educated himself on yesterday's world events, the highlights of Georgia sports, and which Atlanta personages no longer graced this mortal realm. He considered going back to the crossword puzzle, but he wasn't keen on the idea of the next day's obituaries reading: Vin Tanner, died of boredom.
Either working the front desk had inspired Pamchenko to add personnel to the concierge or the hotel owner was serious about seeing his guest's needs attended to at any given minute of the day, because since the pages that Vin was waiting to snatch had hit the trash bin behind the desk, there had been no fewer than two people at the counter for a single moment, even though the parade of corporate meeting attendees had concluded some time ago.
The elevator doors dinged and Ken Owens exited into the lobby. A tense frown hung upon the undercover agent's normally carefree face as he spoke to the concierge, then paused to greet Vin.
"I, uh, I hear Mr. Bennett will be needing a new driver in a couple of days," Ken spoke in a moderately low voice. Tanner frowned as he was reminded he'd been supposed to tell Ezra about Team Seven's recall.
"Yeah, that's the word," he said, shifting to get a better view of the concierge behind Owens. Maria left as her shift ended, but she was immediately replaced by a young brunette with a round, fresh face.
Owens nodded and his eyes turned inward for several moments. "Would he tell you if there's something bothering him?"
Vin tore his gaze from the front desk momentarily to regard the FBI undercover agent with a measure of caution. "Probably not," he said. "Why?"
Ken sighed. "Because I know for a fact he won't tell me." A huffed laugh escaped Owens lips before he replied, "I asked. He insisted nothing was wrong and made me feel like an idiot for bringing it up."
The man certainly had a decent read on Standish, Vin had to admit. "What makes you think something's bothering him?" Tanner probed.
"I don't know. I mean, I haven't had a chance to get to know him very well, maybe this is just the way he is. But I kinda expected him to open up a bit after he nearly fell off the roof the other day."
The front desk could have caught fire for all Vin watched it now. Owens had his full attention. "Nearly fell off the roof?" he repeated.
"Yeah." The undercover agent's expression grew deeply concerned. "Didn't he tell you about that?"
Ken told Vin about the joint investigation of Isaak's death that had nearly ended with Ezra literally following the dead man's final steps.
"He said it was fine, that he'd been looking at a perspective or something like that, but it gave me enough of a fright that I was sure he'd have told you," Owens concluded.
"He didn't," Vin said with a frown.
"Then we have a problem." Ken leaned in and spoke low. "Look, the man puts on a very convincing show. Wouldn't be very good at his job if he didn't. But I'm not Jericho or Romanov or any of those others," the undercover agent said seriously, "I'm a fellow agent. He needs to trust me enough to tell me if something is wrong."
"Trust is a two-way street," Tanner reminded.
"I know, I blew it with the whole bribe thing. And that's the problem. What if he's in some kind of trouble he won't tell me about when you're gone?"
Ken Owens was a good guy, Vin realized. The sound of the cherub-faced brunette as she engaged in friendly conversation with a customer drew Tanner's attention back to the concierge desk momentarily.
"Well," he told Owens, "we may not have to worry about that, if you can help me come up with a way to get our hands on that trash bin."
"It's a bit of a long story, but there is a printout list in the trash of hotel refunds, including at least one that Pamchenko used to launder Romanov's money," Vin explained.
Ken's mouth fell open. "How ... Never mind, you can tell me later." His face took on a thinking expression as he surreptitiously watched the desk. "It'd be so much easier to grab it from the dumpster."
"Yeah, but I can't wait until they empty it at the end of the day. What if it gets buried and I can't find it? Or if someone come across it and realizes they should shred it?"
"Hmm. We need them to empty the trash early. Maybe we can get them to fill it up by asking them print out a bunch of stuff?" Owens brainstormed.
"We'd need them to print a lot," Vin shook his head skeptically. His eye caught on a piece of artwork depicting a bird. It was much better than the work that hung in Team Seven's motel, Tanner thought. Then an inspiration sparked itself in his mind. "Do you know where the dumpsters are?" he asked Ken.
"Behind the kitchen, I think. Why?"
The ATF agent grinned. "I have an idea. Wait here and watch that trash can for me?"
A short time later, Vin returned with a plastic bag giving off a very pungent aroma. He strode up to the concierge desk. "My apologies, ma'am, can I ask you to throw away my leftovers in your trash bin right there?"
The young brunette cherub smiled like the soul of customer service. "Of course, sir."
Tanner returned to Owens on the sofa. "Now I just need a good place to wait," he said.
Ken set down the newspaper's crossword puzzle. "I have to get back to Jericho to get ready for tonight. But I happen to know there's a good view of the concierge from the bar in the Red Heron," he suggested.
JD ran nimble fingers across a keyboard. "You know, when I was young-"
"Younger?" suggested Josiah, laid back into a rolley chair with his fingers steepled in front of him.
"I always imagined evidence would be kept in a big warehouse behind a door marked 'Evidence,'" JD continued. He navigated a series of mouse clicks through the passwords and computer folders necessary to access the surveillance photos from the Jericho operation. "Like, guarded by a nerdy guy wearing a brimmed hat, you know, who needed some sort of password before he allowed you to pass. Hey, maybe in the way old days – when you were young," he said to Josiah, "that's how they did it." Sanchez raised a stoic eyebrow.
Chris also occupied a chair next to JD, though he had pushed it several feet away and allotted only half an ear for Dunne's chatter. Both eyes, however, were firmly planted on the office across the space, where Reilly worked at his desk. If work it could be called. File folders and assorted papers lay scattered as the special agent would type furiously at his keyboard, only to attack the delete key moments later.
His conversation with Warfield and the approaching deadline for his team's departure absorbed Larabee's mind. The obvious course of action was to insist on Reilly's removal from anything to do with Elijah Jericho. The hours ticking by had provided no reason to change his mind.
The former preacher said something about youth and their lack of wisdom and character, then walked over to Chris, vacating the chair for Buck to occupy. Wilmington wheeled it over to JD's elbow, himself and Nathan serving as wingmen to Dunne's captaining of the computer terminal the team had commandeered from the FBI.
"Find anything yet?" Larabee asked Josiah without diverting his stare.
"Nope," Sanchez answered Chris. He rested his thigh upon a desk in a lean-to position across from the team leader. The profiler followed Larabee's gaze to where Reilly was treating his desk like a tossed salad, searching among the mess of pages. Not finding whatever he sought, he slammed his fist on the desk. Sanchez let out a low whistle. "That man seems to be wrestling some mighty powerful demons."
Chris didn't reply.
"They ever get a new coffee pot in here?" Sanchez asked offhandedly.
"There's some from last night." Jackson's finger jabbed the computer screen and JD double-clicked on a folder, finally drawing Larabee's eyes away from the office. Nathan, Buck and JD all leaned in to study the photograph on the screen. No girl with long black hair at the negotiation table. JD clicked on the picture. Or in the lobby. Click. Or in the lobby. Click. Or in front of the Tributary. Cycling through a few more photos revealed plenty of women, but none matched the description of Ezra's mystery girl.
Chris frowned and sat back again. He was vaguely aware of Josiah having said something, but once more found himself too absorbed in watching Reilly perform office work as if he was sparring to do more than grunt a reply.
JD shuffled digital folders and the screen displayed the photographs from the first night of negotiations.
"Ah, Isaak. I knew him, Horatio," Josiah commented, surrendering hope of drawing Chris into conversation.
"Now the sidewalk knows him," Wilmington commented dryly as the color stills documented the grisly end of Romanov's henchman. A distinct lack of women was displayed in that crowd. "Go to the photos from the party that first night," he instructed his teammate.
JD obliged and the first images loaded up. This set was replete with points of interest to scrutinize. "That must be Sasha. Wow!" The chatter around the desk stayed constant throughout the search. "There's Isaak again." "He looked better in the previous snapshots." "Could that be her?" Nathan pointed to a pretty dark haired woman. "The dress is kinda more yellow than gold." "Same thing, isn't it?" "I'd say it's green, actually." "Chartreuse." "That's just the lighting. I think it's gold." "She's a bit old, anyway." "That is not old, you puppy."
The conversation delved into a tangle of viewpoints and debates over the likelihood of this woman fitting Ezra's sparse description.
Chris frowned. This mystery girl was probably a waste of time. How bad did Ezra have it for this girl, really? Compared to all the dangers in the Grand Tributary, she seemed a triviality. Larabee hadn't even bothered to tell the FBI about her. Chris huffed a silent laugh at the thought of telling the FBI they needed to investigate the hotel for a dark-haired young lady to ease their undercover agent's mind. As if Reilly gave a damn about anything other than Jericho.
JD narrated the slideshow. "Now enters Romanov. Now we make small talk and try to kill each other. Now we get along and all have drinks."
Morgan Reilly walked over with an empty coffee cup. "I'm not here to look over your shoulder," he said in grudging answer to their frank stares. "You're between me and the water cooler."
"Best be on your way then," Buck said faux chipperly. Reilly ignored him and glanced at the computer screen.
"What are you fellas even doing? Riding out the day, I gather, while I'm slaving away working up the affidavits and paperwork we need to prosecute Jericho. You look like a bleedin' secret club. Nothing better to do than look through old photographs? I've looked at them. What we need isn't there."
"It's our time, we do what we want with it. Lay off." Larabee said evenly.
"Fine, whatever. Let me know if you find something fierce." He turned away from the ATF agents dismissively.
"Sure. Right." Larabee agreed acerbically.
With a habitual earlobe tug, Reilly moved on to the water cooler near the back wall. He had effectively squashed all the bantering conversation. JD went back to clicking through photos mechanically.
"We may have to leave with Ezra's mystery woman undiscovered," commented Josiah quietly to Larabee. "You worried about leaving our con man with Agent Reilly?"
"If Ezra loses any more focus the shit'll rain down." Chris said, "And I don't trust Reilly not to push him into it if he doesn't think Ez is giving one hundred percent."
Josiah looked over at the FBI agent and scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Maybe Reilly is more worried about what he'll do with himself if Ezra succeeds."
"Die of alcohol poisoning, probably," Larabee scoffed.
Josiah must have spent a good share of thought on the volcanic Irish agent. "You might want to hold back that rush to judgment, brother Chris," he warned. "You've done your own share of dancing with the devil."
Larabee pushed off the rolling chair. "Yeah, well, I'm not gonna let Reilly's personal demons get my people killed," he said.
"Where's he going?" Dunne asked as Chris stalked away.
"To poke a bear," Wilmington muttered. Josiah pensively pondered Larabee's retreating back. "JD, what else can you access from that computer?" he asked.
While any nearby federal employees were scattering away from the water cooler as expeditiously as possible, one dark figure was approaching. Reilly looked up from filling his mug at the ATF agent closing the distance.
"Getting one last eyeful before you leave, Larabee?" Reilly snarked. He chugged his water and grimaced at the taste. "You gonna keep staring at me like a constipated greyhound or do you have something you wanna say?"
"All right," Chris nodded. "Let's discuss how things are going to work around here once my team and I leave."
"Sounds like loads of crack, but I don't have time to blather about things that aren't your concern. Affidavits don't write themselves." Reilly took another sip of water and pulled another face.
"I don't trust you," Larabee told him. "I think you and I need to talk about that until I do."
Reilly stared flatly at Chris without replying. He dumped his mug of water out in a nearby potted ficus tree, then made a move to the side door on his left marked "stairs."
Chris followed. "You avoiding this conversation?"
"I'm going to the cafe downstairs to get a real drink. Talk your bleedin' head off if you want." Reilly scoffed, but slowing down on the stairs. He tugged his shirt collar impatiently. "Doesn't matter if you trust me or not, Larabee, you don't have any choice in the matter."
"There are always choices."
"Yeah? What are yours?" The Irishman turned, his color rising at Larabee's stoic persistence.
Chris's head quirked in an insouciant shrug, though his eyes remained flatly locked on the other man. "I get Warfield to take you off the case."
"You can't do that." Reilly pried the knot of his tie as if it was a hand around his throat.
Larabee descended the next step to stand across from the FBI agent on the landing between floors. "I already have," he said.
"Warfield wouldn't agree to it."
"Warfield likes his job," Chris fired at him. "You shouldn't be anywhere near the Jericho case, and he knows it. Maybe I don't have a say in my team's coming or going, but I can sure as hell make sure you are done calling the shots around here."
"Son of a bitch!" Reilly surged, fist first, toward the ATF agent. Larabee had anticipated the blow; he stepped into Reilly's swing, dodging the punch and steering the other man's momentum into the wall behind him. A grunt that contained more of frustration than pain escaped the furious agent and he turned to face Larabee again, his wide shoulders rounded like a bull's.
"Great impulse control you've got there," Chris told him, planting his feet and lowering his center of gravity, ready for the fight the other agent wanted. "Thanks for proving my point."
Realized dawned on Reilly that he'd taken a swing at the guy who held all the cards in this game. No matter what happened next, he'd just handed the moral victory to Larabee. Reilly banged his fist down on the handrail. He straightened, nodding his head tersely even as his hand continued to clench and unclench.
Half a floor above, the door from the FBI offices clicked open and Jean Charles stuck her head out into the stairwell.
"Reilly," she hailed the special agent. "Warfield was looking for you."
The vein along Reilly's temple flared as he glared at Larabee. "Tell Warfield he'll have to wait," he growled, then he turned and stalked down the stairs.
"You going to get coffee, sir?" Agent Charles called down to him.
Already having descended to the next floor, Reilly shouted back to her, "The local."
"Hrm, something stronger," Jean muttered. She shot a dark look at Chris before disappearing back through the door.
When Larabee returned to the FBI floor, he found Josiah watching for him. Sanchez waved him over to the workstation Team Seven had hijacked.
"Come here for a minute," said the profiler.
"What is it?" Chris asked when he'd stepped over to the computer. "You find the girl?"
"I started scanning the investigation files on Jericho to see if the name Valentine pops up," the young hacker explained. "It didn't, but I noticed a note in one of the files that links to an ongoing investigation as a possible connection to the Elijah Jericho case." He pointed to the screen. "That name caught my attention."
Larabee read the file name aloud: "Margaret Reilly Home Invasion."
JD glanced up at the team leader. "It's Reilly's wife, Chris. She was killed in a suspected home invasion last year."
"Looks like a robbery gone bad," Josiah said. "A few things were taken. No suspects were charged, though."
Chris scanned the investigation report. "It was Jericho," he said.
"They didn't find any ties to him," JD said.
"You remember the reason Ezra said Jericho started laundering his money through the hotel? Too much pressure from the FBI, from Reilly. This was Jericho telling him to back off."
"Didn't work," Dunne muttered.
"They couldn't link it to Jericho, though, or there's no way Reilly would be heading up this investigation," Chris said.
"But Agent Reilly knows who's behind it," Josiah commented.
The regular, even click of Jean Charles' chunky-heeled stride announced her proximity. Before she walked by, Buck stopped her, "Hey, Chuck. What's the bar that Reilly goes to?"
Agents Charles brought her heavy brows together in confusion. "What?"
"The local hangout," Chris said, "What's it called?"
"The Downtown Dublin."
Vin loved it when a plan came together. When the rank aroma from his bag of "leftovers" became too much for the concierge to handle, the brunette cherub put in a call to the janitorial staff to come change the offending trash.
Tanner drank a toast to himself with a last sip of beer and dropped some cash on the bar. Keeping an eye on the housekeeping staff with the office trash in her bin as she disappeared through a door, Vin hopped off his seat with the intention of making his way to the dumpsters behind the hotel. As Vin strode toward the Red Heron's exit, a small commotion just inside crossed his path.
"Clumsy oaf!" a Russian accent berated one of the servers, who was on his hands and knees wiping a cadre of spilled drinks off the floor.
"S-s-sorry, s-sir, I didn't mean to . . ."
Romanov, glowering down at the dark-haired waiter, shook moisture from his sleeve. The poor server kept on babbling apologies, even as Romanov's henchmen moved as though to grab him.
"Whoa, there!" Vin stepped between the Red Fellas and the waiter. "Is there a problem here?" he asked evenly.
"None of your concern," Romanov responded icily, disdainfully looking up and down Tanner's chauffeur suit. "Go away."
Behind Vin, the waiter had stood and was wringing the alcohol-soaked rag in terror. Tanner turned back to the mafia boss. "Look, it was just an accident. He apologized." The dark-haired server nodded in fervent agreement. "Why don't you let it be?"
The head of the Red Mafia leered dangerously, but before he could make his next move one of his lackeys leaned over and whispered in his ear. Vin heard the name "Isaak" mentioned. Romanov looked anew at Vin, with a modicum more respect.
"You are Zachary Bennett's man?"
The Little Czar stared, wheels turning behind the violet shades. Then without another word, he entered the Red Heron as though nothing had happened.
The waiter blew a gusty sigh of relief. "Thank you, sir!" He shook Vin's hand, his own wet with booze. "I can't tell you how much I appreciate your help. My name is Andy. I usually work in the kitchen, but they're short on wait staff today."
"No use killing over spilled brandy," Vin said with a wry twist.
Andy chuckled nervously and began picking up the broken glasses, collecting them on his tray. Tanner took a knee to assist.
"You don't have to do that," the young waiter issued protested. When Vin shrugged him off, "Can I do anything to thank you? Oh, I know! Have you had dinner yet?"
"Nope. As a matter of fact, I was just-"
"Then you're in for a treat! Follow me."
The grateful waiter pulled Vin along to the rear of the Red Heron. The Tributary's restaurant was still fairly busy even though it was well past the dinner hour. They kept along the walls until they reached the swinging double doors that led to the kitchen, Andy waving him along.
Once he realized the young man's intended destination, Tanner followed eagerly. As Vin knew from his earlier foray into dumpster diving, the hotel's refuse was collected in containers behind the kitchen area. Andy may have unintentionally given him access to a shortcut.
In the kitchen, a divine scent greeted Tanner's nose, a beefy, spicy aroma wafting in steamy waves. Soon the Texan sharpshooter was seated at a short section of unused counter in the corner of the kitchen enjoying a dish of high class cuisine. His chatty new friend kept up a running dialog as Vin sampled the expensive vittles. Tanner had to interrupt to complement the savory concoction of beef and gravy. "This is great, Andy. What is this?"
"Stroganov, a house specialty at the Tributary. This isn't our normal way of making it, though. Mr. Pamchenko likes to break out the old recipe for certain guests. Those fellas from Russia can't get enough of it. They're frightening people," Andy commented with a shudder. "I spilled a bit of gravy on one of them, accidentally, and I though he was gonna spill my guts! Then I nearly get fired out of the whole deal. Tell you what, the whole incident makes all those rumors pretty believable."
Vin split a roll in two and used half to mop up his gravy. "What rumors?"
"They say Pamchenko was once a bigwig in the Russian mafia." Andy ladled another spoonful of the stroganov into Vin's bowl and Vin took back every uncomplimentary thought he'd ever had about the Grand Tributary.
"So that's the rumor, huh?" Vin smirked into his plate.
"One of 'em anyway." Andy set the empty pot of stroganov down on the counter and leaned on it as he continued his amicable chatter. "There's lots of gossip around a place like this. The stories I could tell about the Tributary could fill a book, true tales of humor, drama, love and death." The waiter relished his words, gesturing with flair and a grin.
"Sure, Andy," Vin humored the exuberant youth. JD would have gotten along with this kid like peanut butter with peanut butter.
"No, really." The waiter leaned forward even closer. "I have inside information, intimate details, on the deepest, darkest, best kept secret this hotel has."
"I'm absolutely positive that Hoffa is buried in the cellar."
"Any proof of that?"
"Well, no. Not yet."
"But if you believe nothing else, you must believe what I tell you next, my friend." His voice grew deep with the gravity of his warning. "There is a story that has lived at the Tributary longer than I've been around, that you won't believe; nevertheless, I tell you every word is true. But before I tell you this story let me offer you a caution: if you are at all skittish don't hang out on the roof." He halted his narration and looked significantly at Vin.
"Why not?" Vin asked around a mouthful of good eats.
"On the roof there haunts" - pause for dramatic effect - "a ghost." He waggled his eyebrows with all the relish of a boy scout by the campfire. Vin laughed. "You don't believe me?" Andy asked, still wearing a giant smile. "I swear on my life, it's true! The hotel has a ghost."
"Not ghost," a deep, Russian-accented voice intoned before Vin could respond. From the stovetop across the counter, a huge man with a stout potbelly and a chef's hat had overheard Andy's exuberant chatter. The waiter ignored the interruption.
"People say she hums a sad tune," Andy expounded. "Waiting to get revenge on any man who falls prey to her siren song."
"So, the ghost is a woman, huh?" Vin humored.
Ivan the Terrible Cook smacked a fish down on the counter and said, "Not ghost." Andy looked over his shoulder and pulled a face, then resumed his chat with Vin.
"That's what they say. I've never seen her myself; I first heard about it from a bellhop when I got hired in. Most everyone says they've seen her on the roof, but sometimes on rainy nights you can see her walking on the sidewalk in front of the hotel."
"Only when it rains?"
"That's what they say," Andy repeated.
"So, you haven't actually seen the ghost?"
"Not afraid, are ya?" Vin grinned.
The waiter hung his head a little sheepishly. "A little, actually. They say that the ghost-"
"Not ghost!" The giant bear of a Russian cook loomed over them, arms crossed. "Rusalka." With a fierce look at Andy, he pointed to a line of plates waiting to be delivered to their tables, then turned to berate a sous chef whose sauce was beginning to boil over.
"What the hell is a rusalka?" Vin asked Andy.
The young man shrugged and glanced ruefully over at the counter full of plated food. "Guess I'd better get those dishes out to our guests if I don't want to join Valentine as a story they tell the next generation of hotel staff."
Tanner dropped the forkfull of stroganov that had been on the way to his mouth. "Valentine?" he asked. "The ghost's name is Valentine?"
"Not ghost," Andy winked at Vin. "Rusalka."
With a grin and cheesily conspiratorial waggle of his eyebrows, the waiter disappeared into the Red Heron's dining area. Vin sat staring at the swinging silver doors for several moments before his instincts snapped at him to recognize the opportunity he'd been waiting all day for was about to pass.
Vin slipped off his stool and out the back door. It led to the most unimpressive section of the Grand Tributary, but the part that Tanner was happiest to see right now. The trash receptacles were screened from public view by a tall brick wall.
The tracker's plan had been to get to the dumpsters shortly after the janitorial crew had tossed the office trash inside, so it would be sitting directly on top. Unfortunately, Vin had not estimated for the loquacious water who’d kept him occupied for so long in the kitchen with his ghost stories and such. He slid open the dumpster door and peered inside. The bag he thought was the office trash seemed to be to the rear of the container, half buried in kitchen refuse. Tanner sighed. Looked like he was going in.
Chris followed Agent Reilly to a pub called the Downtown Dublin, a plain square building nestled in a quiet section of neighborhood.
Inside, the warm glow reflecting off polished wood furnishings offset the pub's dimness. As Chris entered, several of the bar's patrons were happily engaged in singing an off-color song, off-key. They couldn't quite seem to agree on the ditty's exact wording, but that wasn't bothering them any. Half the beer they aimed for their throats was ending up on the table in front of them.
Some of the tavern's less intoxicated customers eyed Larabee as he took his first few steps toward the bar. Though not a police hangout as Chris had first assumed, the Dublin was a local joint whose clientele were on a first name basis with the bartender. He was a short, round little man with a fringe of curly red hair surrounding his shiny bald pate who reminded Chris of one of the Three Stooges.
"Halloo, strahnger!" the round man greeted from behind the bar. "Ha'e yerself a seat. Wought be yer playshur?"
It took a moment for Larabee to translate the bartender's thick brogue.
"I'll let you know," Chris replied. He had spotted Reilly at the far end of the bar. The FBI agent's suit coat lay on the stool to his right. His sleeves were rolled up past his elbows, the top button of his shirt was undone and his blue silk tie rested on the bar next a dark bottle whose label Larabee couldn't see. Chris went up and casually occupied the stool to Reilly's left.
The dark-haired agent took a swig of his beer. It was already half-emptied of its contents.
"Unless you're here to piss up, Larabee, you can just piss off," Reilly said as he set the bottle back to the bar.
Chris eyed the FBI agent. Reilly continued to drink and stare darkly ahead of him as the bartender came up to the agents.
"Ha'e yae made up yer mind yet, strahnger?" he asked.
Chris nodded toward Reilly. "I'll have what he's got."
Reilly tossed back the rest of his beer and set it on the bar.
"Might as well get me another one, Mac."
The bartender nodded amiably. "Two o' th' black stuff, coomin' up."
Reilly and Larabee sat at the counter in silence until Mac came back and set a couple of bottles in front of them. Reilly took his and drained a quarter of the bottle in one go. Chris picked up his bottle looked at the label. It was a Guinness. He chuckled softly and took a sip.
"There's a place back in Denver the team and I go to after work. Its owner is this Mexican woman, Inez. She gives Buck almost as hard a time as Jean."
As Larabee set the beer on the bar he began to spin the bottle slowly by its neck.
"My wife Sarah used to get on me for doing this," Chris said, watching the bottle turn. "Going out for a drink or two after work." He huffed a short, bitter laugh. "To be honest it was always more than one or two. Sarah was always saying I should come straight home and spend more time with her and our boy, Adam." Chris smiled ironically and shook his head. "Damn if she wasn't right, too. If I'd been with them maybe I'd have been able to stop it. The bomb that was meant for me." He frowned and stopped the bottle in mid-turn, balancing it on its edge. If Chris let go it would drop.
"Instead, it killed them."
Chris seized the beer and took a heavy swig. He set the bottle back on the counter and stared through it with a detached expression.
Reilly flexed his fist around the neck of his Guinness, tightening his grip and loosening it by turns. A moment passed between the two agents in dead silence, except for the drunken singing in the background.
Larabee threw back another swig of beer.
"My da and the Dublin's owner came to America together," Reilly finally spoke. "The aul fella first let me come with him to this boozer when I was sixteen. Been coming here for years. I come in one day, and instead of Mac's mug behind the bar I see this fine thing. Maggie. I sat down in this very spot, you couldn't pry me away with a crowbar."
Reilly looked down at his Guinness and laughed. "Don't remember exactly how we got into it. Closing time comes around, and Maggie and I are shooting back Irish car bombs. I couldn't tell you how many we had between us, but before we know it it's ten o'clock in the morning the next day. I'd passed out on the bar, she was curled up behind it, sleeping like a hibernating bear. When she woke up I helped her clean up the Dublin and she fixed us coffees. Woman made the best brew I've ever tasted."
Chris's lips perked up a bit around the mouth of his beer. Reilly drained another quarter of his Guinness.
"You found out what happened to her," he guessed. "Maggie was at home alone one night while I was working late," the FBI agent told Larabee. Reilly's white-knuckled grip on the bottle should have broken its neck. "I always worked late. On the Jericho investigation."
Larabee drained the last of his stout and set the empty bottle on the bar. Mac brought another one before Chris had time to miss it.
"You against the world now?"
"Your wife was killed by a bomb. Are you telling me that doesn't affect you there in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives?"
"My job's always been important to me."
"Y'know, before Maggie . . . before, I thought a lot of things were important. Now that's she's gone, I realize she was the only thing that meant anything in my life. Now that it's too late." Chris nodded quietly beside the FBI agent. Reilly finished his beer and set it down harshly, regarding the empty bottle with a grim smile. "Damn, I loved that woman. If I had a second chance, there'd be nothing I wouldn't do to protect her. Nothing."
"Listen, Reilly," Chris said. "I'm no kind of example, and I'm the last person who has a right to judge. But I've been there, I've tried this," he lifted his beer. "It doesn't help.
The bartender came over and discretely set two more dark bottles on the counter across from Reilly and Larabee. For a moment the FBI agent fingered the rim of his drained Guinness, considering. Finally, Reilly pushed the empty bottle in front of him away and reached out to slowly pull the two new beers toward Chris and himself.
"I'm not rolling yet, Larabee." Reilly held one of the Guinnesses to Chris. "What do you say to a drink . . . to our wives."
This evening's negotiations had been the smoothest yet. Both mobsters believing that their lawyer was secretly working to tip the balance in their favor made the egotistical rivals more agreeable, even if just barely. Under most circumstances Ezra would have been patting himself on the back for a job well done, but the fact of the matter, it seemed to him, was that repairing his damaged reputation among the FBI had been a futile goal from the start, and was certainly impossible now. Ezra didn't care what they thought of him and didn't care if this alliance between Jericho and Romanov went up in smoke.
Ken tried to catch his eye, but Standish ignored him, pretending to miss the unspoken communication as he pulled out his phone to check his messages. There was one from Vin. As he stepped into the elevator, he listened to the voicemail.
"Hey, meet me behind the hotel when you get this message. It's important."
Standish lowered his finger from the roof button and selected the ground floor instead.
"Behind the hotel" was a vague destination location. Ezra called Vin once he reached the lobby.
"Where are you?" he asked the tracker.
"Behind the hotel," Tanner's voice came over the line. Standish rolled his eyes, but before he could say anything, Vin clarified, "Just keep going along the building. It's behind the restaurant, where the dumpsters are."
Ezra took some issue with the way Vin mentioned the dumpsters as a landmark like they were some sort of tourist attraction. Standish followed his instructions, walking down a narrow drive that was evidently meant for trash pickup and freight deliveries. It was not the hotel's most charming area, especially not in the fading gray light of a day that had never seen the sun. Standish did not see his ATF counterpart anywhere about.
"Now what?" he asked into his phone.
"Start heading down the hill, toward the trees," Vin told him. "There's a path."
An unsettling feeling of deja vu gripped Ezra as he obeyed Tanner's directions and found the trail through the trees just over the crest of the hill. The derelict path, once gravel, was mostly overgrown with limp, brown grass. He wandered down the path through a park that no longer held life. Everything was dry and brown, dead twigs and dead leaves littering the ground. What was green was sickly, and most of that was weeds. But it was very private.
Trees led him down to a clearing no more full of life than the rest, but with a dry fountain in the center of the courtyard. The fountain's pair of stone angels twined upward toward heaven, but the stone was chipped and discolored. Vines crawled over the celestial couple, choking the enchantment from the figures. The bowl around which they danced was full of dirt and compost instead of water.
Ezra stared at the statue, wondering if he'd wandered into one of his dreams or, from the state of the setting, a nightmare. For the charm of the secluded location where Vladimir had given Valentine the peach blossom necklace had been completely desiccated.
"Sad, ain't they?" spoke Vin from behind.
The part of last night's dream where his feet had dropped out from under him came to Standish's mind. He felt that was happening again, but looked down to see that no, beneath his shoes the ground stayed solid.
"You know the one about the butterfly dreaming he's a man?" Ezra asked Vin in a mumble.
As his eyes returned to the statue in the fountain, Ezra's hand searched his pocket for the peach blossom charm and found it.
"Why are we here?" he asked Vin sharply.
"Because I have something to show you and I couldn't exactly go wandering the hotel looking like this," Vin explained. Ezra pulled his gaze away from the fountain and looked at the tracker. The somewhat comical sight of his chauffeur getup stained with red sauce and the confetti of lettuce sticking in his long hair was enough to bring Standish to a better sense of equilibrium.
"What did you do, jump in the trash?"
"Yeah, that's exactly what I did," Tanner confirmed. "You wanna know why? For this."
Vin waved a stack of pages at Ezra and extended them to him. They were lists, he saw, pertaining to the hotel, but Standish's brain was still trying to process the meaning of the fountain park that had come alive out of his dreams and then promptly died. The significance of these printed sheets evaded him.
"What is this?"
Tanner snatched the pages from Ezra's hands. "It's the smoking gun." He shook them again. "This is the evidence we need to tie Jericho to the hotel's money laundering."
Ezra still wasn't following. Vin seemed impatient with Ezra's inability to put the pieces together. "Look, these are all the refunds and cancellations the hotel has done over the past few days. There's the one to you, the bribe Romanov filtered through Pamchenko. Don't you get it? This is the search warrant that will get us into all the Grand Tributaries' records. Once we have that, we have Jericho. We can give this to the FBI and then we can all go home. We can get out of here tonight, with this."
A part of his mind recognized that this was magnificent news. This was the brass ring, the prize he had come to Atlanta to win. It even, this part of his mind noted with vindictive satisfaction, came about because he had accepted Romanov's bribe. He should be elated, over the moon.
"I ... I can't leave," Ezra said.
Vin gave the undercover agent a look like he'd just left his buddy hanging for a high-five.
"I'm sorry, what?"
Around the clearing, a fog seemed to be slowly descending over the forest out of the treetops. Ezra fought to prevent it from settling over his brain as well. He shook his head, but his vision didn't clear.
"Ezra, Chris got a call. The rest of us have to leave the day after tomorrow. Without you. We've been called back. So if you want to come back with us, this is it. You've done it, see? You've stuck it to the fibbies. They can eat crow after this, 'cause you did it."
How to explain to Vin what made no sense to himself? As the gray mist invaded the clearing, Ezra's vision began to echo the pulse in the vein beneath his eye. Ezra looked down and discovered that he'd pulled the necklace out of his pocket. He stared at it in the palm of his hand, and for a moment nothing seemed real except the white shine off the charm's gold petals.
Vin glanced at the necklace curiously. "Funny thing is, looking for that girl of yours is what led me to this-" he gestured with the pages- "in the first place. Pamchenko used to be a driver. Apparently has a soft spot for chauffeurs trying to reunite with their true loves or whatever. Fortunately for us, he's too ancient to know how a shredder works."
"You were looking for Valentine?" Ezra said absently, still engrossed in the way the light played off the surface of the golden peach blossom while the rest of the world seemed to have lost its luster. "What did you find?"
An exasperated Tanner plucked the necklace from Ezra's hands. "Nothing, Ezra, because there's nothing to find. You had me looking for a ghost."
The fog retreated back into the trees. Ezra's hand shook as he raised it to his forehead to massage his brow. "A ghost?" he repeated stupidly. "Wh-what are you talking about?"
"Or rusalka," Vin said with a light snicker, as if it was a joke Standish was supposed to understand. "Seriously, Ezra," he continued in a more sincere tone, "Valentine is the name of the ghost they tell the tourists about."
"That - that can't be right," Ezra stammered. "There must be another..."
"There ain't." Tanner shook his head and glanced at the necklace. "I'm sorry, Ez, ya got played."
With the fog having rolled back from his vision, the world seemed to be returning in hyper-realistic detail, colors more saturated and edges sharper. Ezra resisted the urge to snatch back the necklace like a child. He redirected his gaze to the fountain. The fountain that time had forgotten, but that Ezra's mind had recreated with exact precision in each feature, down to the expressions on the angel lovers' faces.
"What did you say just now," Standish asked Vin, "about Pamchenko?"
"That he doesn't know how to use a shredder? And because of that we get to leave."
"No, no. You said he used to be ... a chauffeur?"
"Yeah, he was a driver."
Realization snapped together like galaxies colliding. "Good Lord."
Ezra spun and ran back up the path. He dashed up the hill to the stairs that led up to the Red Heron's veranda, through into the restaurant. Cutting past the astonished looks of guests and waitstaff, he exited the Red Heron into the Grand Tributary's lobby, toward the elevators. Too frantic to wait, he burst into the stairwell and ascended the steps by the double with a mindless desire which was eerily reminiscent of a dream. But Standish knew for certain this time that he did not dream.
Vladimir Pamchenko, the hotel owner was Vladimir, the chauffeur.
Once he allowed himself to believe in the impossible it seemed obvious. The earnest young immigrant pulled from his dream was the same decrepit old sinner who ran the Grand Tributary. Implications began to tumble in dizzying spirals through the Southerner's head. The gears of his mind in their furious turnings powered his legs beyond sustainable speed.
If the impossible were possible and the character of Vladimir was not a figment from a dream, then Ezra had been dreaming his past. The fountain proved it. If Vladimir had become the ancient Pamchenko over time, why had the ravages of years left Valentine still young? Only one destination could hold the answers to this mystery.
He burst through the door to the roof.
The sunlight which had failed to rouse itself much at all today had completely given up its ghost. A thought which made his hair stand on end. The sky had grown dark and starless. A slight breeze sneaked across the roof, chilling the sweat on the back of Ezra's neck and making him shiver.
"Valentine!" he shouted, breathlessly, as his lungs reminding him that the Grand Tributary was a very tall building. At any rate the exertion had made a good excuse for his current physical strain that he wasn't at all certain was due to merely running. "Valentine!" he teetered forward on legs that tingled all over with pinprick sensations.
He approached the pool. The water, glinting with a few reflected lights of Atlanta, was still. Ezra grabbed hold of the rail that paralleled it, leaning against it to support his weak knees, gulping breaths. His heart felt like it would beat right out of his chest. Maybe this had been a wasted effort. Maybe he was being ridiculous. Or insane.
"Ezra," a lady's voice whispered soft as a feather into his ear.
His breath stopped, although his heart drummed faster than ever. Standish turned face to face with his dreams. With the pale oval face of the raven-haired girl in the gold dress.
Her hair dripped in sinuous tendrils against bare shoulders spotted with droplets of water, like mermaid scales. Her gown, clinging to each curve of her figure, seemed so saturated with water that the weight could pull it off at a touch. Perhaps he had only just missed interrupting an evening swim.
Her sudden manifestation seemed confirmation of everything his rational brain yearned to decry. Ezra found he wasn't afraid, though his body might have denied that claim if he had taken a moment to poll his own rather than covet hers. But in her presence it seemed the only thoughts his poor clouded mind could muster were lascivious.
Only when Ezra had stumbled to one knee and had to catch himself on the pool rail did he realize he'd been about to move toward her.
What had happened? Staring fixedly at the still hem of her dress, he tried to shake off the overwhelming desire that had gripped him. Climbing to his feet, he skirted away to the opposite side of the railing. Putting a barrier between himself and the girl.
The unearthly maiden watched him retreat with dark eyes full of confusion, as if Ezra was the one who could appear and disappear out of nowhere. And with sadness, like Ezra by backing off was abandoning her. Ezra halted guiltily, as if there were some truth in the unspoken accusation.
"What are you?" she asked him.
"Wh-what am I?" he repeated incredulously.
"You haunt my dreams."
Ezra choked back half a wild laugh. "Maybe that is the explanation," he said. "Maybe you are alive and I am the ghost."
She glided her hips forward and Standish's body seemed intent on proving itself alive and well. His mouth went dry and he snapped his eyes resolutely shut as he slid further down the rail away from her.
"Is your name Valentine?" he asked.
"Valentine? . . . Yes," he heard her answer after a moment's hesitation. "Valentine."
Ezra squeezed his eyes tighter. "Did your father own this hotel?"
There was an even longer pause. "I think he did. Yes, that's right."
Ezra swallowed. "Did ... Were you in love with Vladimir?"
The girl spoke no reply. Ezra inhaled deeply; the smell of the pool filled his nostrils. In silent darkness he waited, eyes closed, listening.
"Ezra?" his own name seemed to echo through his mind.
"You're letting me get too close."
The warning whisper was breathed into his left ear. Ezra's eyes shot open. Valentine stood immediately before him. Her hand reached out.
"What are you?" he gasped.
A fey look overtook her obsidian eyes and she touched his cheek. She leaned forward to kiss Ezra, her lips soft and trembling.
"I am the victim," he heard.
Ezra was in the dream. It was a feeling he recognized, although nothing had changed, not the roof, nor the bleak starless night, nor the girl in the gold dress. But she WAS different, he realized. This Valentine stood balanced on ledge where he had first seen her, her arms wrapped tightly around herself and her shoulders shaking violently. Her eyes were directed blankly at the long distance downward. Curled in one fist she held the peach blossom necklace. It dangled against her bare arm.
Ezra heard footsteps. "I'm sorry, Val-" The young Russian driver called as he entered the rooftop, but cut off as he noticed the perilous situation of his paramour.
"O Gospodi! Valentine! Get down from there!" Vladimir rushed toward the girl. Hurriedly he grabbed her and pulled her down into his arms. Valentine writhed and wriggled until he placed her on her feet on the ground. He attempted to hug her, but she tensed as he placed his hands on her shoulders, and pulled away from his touch. Her brows lowered and she avoided the gaze of the Russian boy. He spread his hands out as if to plead with her.
"I'm sorry you saw that. Please forget it, Valentine."
"Go away, Vladimir. I want nothing to do with you."
Vladimir flinched back as if struck. "How can you say such a thing to me?"
The girl reached up to wipe tears from her eyes. The gold charm in her grip vacillated wildly. She thrust the necklace towards the young Russian without looking up at him.
"Take it back."
"You said you would never take it off," Vladimir spoke angrily, leaving the necklace in her fist.
She looked away, at the pool. Her sadness seemed to deepen, perhaps remembering their moonlit introduction. "You're not who I thought you were."
Vladimir spun away, both hands rising to rake his fingers through his hair. "Cliff was right about you after all. You have had enough of me and now you are trying to break my heart." His voice choked with emotion as he made the accusation.
"I break your heart?" Valentine spun to face him, her expression as she regarded him fully for the first time filled with horror and disgust. "Vladimir, I saw you carry a body to the woods. A body! I know what kind of man you work for now, and what kind of man you truly aspire to be." She stared at the necklace. "I know how you earned the money to pay for this."
Blood rose to Vladimir's countenance. "Who are you to disdain how I make money? You have never had to work a day in your life." He suddenly grabbed her wrist, the necklace swinging furiously back and forth between them. "When you want something all you have to do is seduce someone for it."
She jerked her arm but Vladimir's grip was strong. "I've never received a truly valuable thing from any man." Valentine scalded him with fierce words, "I thought you would be the one to finally give me what I wanted, but I was wrong. A man like you is incapable of giving anybody anything worthwhile."
Her outrage at last gave her strength to wrench her arm free and push him away. An angry cloud descended over his features. Vladimir grabbed Valentine with both hands and she screamed. She thrashed against him until both fell, splashing into the black water of the swimming pool. Splashing, screaming and coughing echoed over the rooftop for a moment, but quickly the screams were muffled. His face a mask of rage, Vladimir held the gold-clad girl beneath the water until she struggled no more. Abruptly the Russian released his grip and gasped. The girl's body bobbed limply in front of him. Sudden realization dawned on his face, and he hastily turned her face up. It was too late. The chauffeur gave a bitter and angry cry. Valentine remained silent and dead, her eyes cold and void as the starless sky.
Standish tasted tears on his lips once again. He opened his eyes and saw Valentine's features, the cold eyes no longer vacant but imbued with extreme emotions, the like of which Ezra had never seen on a woman's face before. The kiss turned suddenly passionate and her fingers dug into his shoulders. He drew back but she pulled him in with surprising strength, murmuring, "And I am the villain."
A man Ezra didn't recognize smiled lustfully at the alluring girl in the golden gown. "Come closer," she hithered from her seductive stance by the rail. He approached her and leaned in, but instead of a kiss, she took the man by the neck and choked him. He struggled against the delicate young girl's iron grip to no avail. Only when he stopped thrashing did she drop him, stone dead at the elegant hem of her dress. "I loved you," the girl said to the lifeless corpse. "How could you do this to me, Vladimir?"
Another time. Another strange man was swimming laps when he saw her. Valentine tread the aqua waters as though nothing more than foam on the surface, despite the fact that her wet gown should be dragging her to the bottom, weighing her down. She smiled entreatingly at the man swimming. "Whatever you want, come and take it." He approached eagerly and died as she held him underwater with strength that was not human. "I loved you," she accused his floating form. "How could you do this to me?"
Over and over again he saw them die, dozens of men, murdered violently at her hands. Some were dressed as waiters, others wore designer suits. Their age ranged from kids barely out of high school to white-haired grandfathers. Every one she enticed and seduced, drawing them closer merely to kill them heartlessly in cold blood. Ezra had not recognized a single face until suddenly a stoneman in a suit stormed onto the roof.
Isaak, very much alive, angrily paced the green tile floor until Valentine suddenly appeared by the ledge. She ran her arm slowly along the wall meant to stop people from accidentally toppling to their doom and stared at Romanov's henchman through lowered lashes. When Isaak saw her he stopped pacing and leered goonishly at her curvaceous frame. "Why are you so angry?" she asked in dulcet tones. "Come to me. I'll make you forget." The Russian Neanderthal hadn't needed to be asked twice, stalking over and putting his goonish hands on Valentine. She smiled and took him into her arms. She turned him against the railing, kissed him passionately as she put both hands on his chest, and pushed. Isaak railed backwards and over, falling off the roof, his arms and legs flailing futilely. Before he could so much as scream, his body splattered against the sidewalk. High above, Valentine coldly traced shadows on the railing with a graceful finger. "How could you do this to me?" the question floated down to the dead man.
Ezra jerked furiously away, breaking contact from her lips. Without him noticing, her hand had come away from his shoulders. He felt the spider touch of her fingertips as they crawled up his neck. The siren ghost trembled, for a moment looking nearly as lost and frightened as he felt. "Val-" he tried to entreat her, but her eyes had shrouded with cold black hate and her hand squeezed tight around Ezra's throat.
By the time Vin had gathered the wherewithal to follow the undercover agent, he'd disappeared. Standish could move pretty quickly when he wanted to, it turned out. Tanner walked out of the woods, littering the grassy hill with lettuce as he shook out his hair. He wished Ezra had left some breadcrumbs of his own. Vin could only assume he had headed indoors.
The landscape behind the Grand Tributary was scarcely less dark than the forested clearing had been in the twilight as night descended over the hotel and its surrounds. Vin guided himself up the hillside with the lights from the building.
Better yet would have been some breadcrumbs into Ezra's mind, Tanner groused internally, flicking a chunk of iceberg into a patch of brush. To call his behavior odd would have been an understatement. As Vin followed the glow of the building lamps in the dark, he tried to shed some illumination on Ezra's actions by the light of what he knew.
The girl, this Valentine, she was the key to figuring it out. Tanner looked at the necklace he'd taken from Ezra. Maybe the name had been fake, but the gold charm had come from someone. Was Ezra being set up? Vin frowned, remembering what Owens had told him about Ezra nearly falling off the roof. Then he thought how Ezra had wanted to go to the roof rather than his room to talk.
Vin entered the parking garage by the lights of the Tributary's outdoor fixtures. Something strange was going on, that was for sure. Vin's jacket had sustained most of the dumpster damage, and his white shirt could pass as presentable if nobody looked too closely. He strode to his car, took off his jacket and stowed the printout evidence securely inside the vehicle.
There was really only one place Ezra would have gone. The parking garage's elevator didn't go directly to the roof. Vin had to take it to the lobby and then switch cabs.
Who would want to set up Ezra in such a convoluted plot? Vin wondered as he impatiently watched the numbers climb obstinately slow. That didn't matter at the moment, the tracker told himself, his foot tapping to beat the band. Everything else could be figured out later, so long as he could satisfy what his instincts were screaming at him now.
The elevator cab finally lurched to a stop. Vin rushed out onto the roof before the doors had completely opened.
"Ezra!" he called.
The roof showed scant illumination as all the lights of the city seemed quite distant, but a flash of movement caught Vin's eye. There, near the pool. Someone laid sprawled alongside it.
"Ezra!" Vin ran towards the prone figure, relief flooding him as Standish pushed himself up, one hand braced against the tile, the other at his throat. The undercover agent coughed violently, then looked around with a wild, terrified expression. Vin looked, too, but didn't see anyone.
Ezra yanked himself up with the pool railing, then grabbed Vin's arm and dragged him back toward the elevator, the action so quick and sudden that Tanner nearly lost his footing.
"What? Ezra, what just happened?"
Standish shook his head, suppressed another cough, and shoved them both into the elevator cab. He jabbed the door close button until they slid shut, then jammed his finger on the button for the ground floor. The undercover agent only lost his frenetic energy and stepped back from the controls when the elevator began moving downward. Ezra's body descended with it, sliding down to the floor of the elevator like his knees would no longer hold. Once again he began to cough uncontrollably.
Vin had never seen the undercover agent so uncomposed and frightened. "What happened?" he repeated.
"We're leaving." Standish's voice caught on a significant burr in his throat as he said, "We're getting the hell out of here."
Chapter 4: Villain
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