Chapter 1: Pleasure Doing Business
Chapter 2: Conflict of Interest
Chapter 3: Victim
ATF team leader Chris Larabee woke up. It was a possibly the most unpleasant sensation he had ever experienced.
A disorienting feeling of déjà vu gripped him as he mentally stumbled to awareness. The dull throbbing behind his eyes, his cotton-dry mouth and the unsettling nausea twisting his gut, even the familiar sensation of waking in an unfamiliar bed threw Larabee back to a time when waking to a hangover had been a common practice of his. Even before opening his eyes Chris extended an arm to the bedside table where a bottle of cheap whiskey would be waiting.
There was nothing there. Where the hell was he?
Chris slowly cracked open his eyelids to peruse his surroundings. Memory slowly plodded its way out of the sludge of Larabee's Guinness-soaked wit as he recognized the room of the motel that the FBI had put Team Seven up in for the duration of Ezra's recall. Chris was not the victim of a self-induced alcoholic stupor this morning; rather, he had spent last evening matching drinks with Agent Reilly.
As a fissure of morning light through the draperies split the darkness of the room, its relative brightness splitting Larabee's head as well, the recollection of what had reduced Chris to this miserable state did not serve to comfort him. Reilly was treading the same self-destructive path that had once led Larabee astray. The ATF agent knew all too well the need for justice, for revenge. For absolution. Anger, guilt, futility . . . they were emotions that couldn't see reason or ever look forward. Without an outlet for those feelings the person suffering them would find release at the bottom of a bottle or not at all. Chris had gotten lucky. If it hadn't been for the friendship and support of Team Seven shortly after the deaths of Sarah and Adam . . .
Chris groaned and gingerly rolled himself into a sitting position.
Why couldn't he have stayed in Denver? Larabee had no wish to dredge up memories which were at best only shallowly buried. Damn the FBI. Damn Ezra.
But Standish had his issues with the FBI too. Betrayal and mistrust could tear up a man as easily as anger and guilt, and there was no way Chris had been about to let Ezra return to Atlanta without friends to watch his back. The ATF leader hadn't trusted Reilly. Now he knew the FBI agent's motives, the reasons for his dedication and determination. Chris could identify with them, but could he condone them?
Larabee showered and shaved with only half a mind on what he was doing as he prepared for work, wondering how his newly obtained knowledge would aeffect the decision he had to make today.
At the whispered words, Ezra felt a cool breeze as of a breath upon his ear, yet as he turned to view the source of them he found only darkness. A chill wind blew across the unseen landscape and Ezra felt the bloom of a cold sweat.
"Valentine?" he called out into the blackness. He took a step toward the voice, but hesitated to glance over his shoulder. His eyes detected nothing in any direction. Still, while his heart told him to move forward, the hairs on the back of his neck stood out in crystalline terror, urging him to run the other way.
A memory shot like a dart through the fear, the memory of a delicate hand crushing his throat. The girl hardly needed saving, Ezra felt indignantly. In fact, the opposite was true. Men needed saving from her! Oh, sure, there had been a moment when she had needed saving. That time was long past. No one could save her from Vladimir now,. henceSo Ezra thoroughly rejected the message this dream was sending him. Fear turned to anger and for once, he fought back.
"No!" he yelled. "No!" The dark expanse fell silent. Anger swelled and he found he his hands were clenched around the soft cylinder of a throat. His fingers went limp. With the fury of his anger forcing blood away from the veins to his limbs, it was only now that Ezra realized his nearly numb hands were soaked all the way past his elbows. He brought them up to his face and saw by the barest illumination of a pale green glow, water dripping between his fingers.
Ezra tried to move, but could only take a single lurching step as he discovered he was submerged in water up to his chest. Something beyond the water's weight seemed to be inhibiting the motion of his feet.
Ezra peered into the water. At first, he thought the source of the spectral radiance was coming from some sort of lamp below him. As the waves stilled, however, he saw the light was merely reflecting off the pale skin of Valentine. Ezra's eyes widened in an echo of her two dark orbs, staring at him in lifeless betrayal.. Her pale neck had been splotched with bruises.
He gasped in dismay, but beyond the initial emotion he wondered for the first time if perhaps she deserved this end. The longer he stared at her vacant face, however, and at his own hands in the dank green light, the stronger his own guilt grew.
HAnd he felt alone. So very alone.
"Come back, Valentine," he wept. She sank deeper away until all he could make out were twin voids framed by a white oval face.
"How could you do this to me?" he shouted at her. Her vacant eyes rebounded the question back to him.
Standish jerked up like a shot in the desk chair, shivers chasing down his skin. He heaved breaths desperately, his heart racing. and still seeing the dDarkness still seemed to dominate, despite the monotone light which now surrounded him. His eyes fixated on a spot, an irregular-shaped brown splatter pattern on low-nap gray carpeting. As Ezra blinked at the coffee stain, his pulse slowly returned to a regular pace. He forced himself to release his next breath slowly, inhaling with a steady count.
Calmness arrived, chased by dissatisfaction. He'd hoped for respite from these haunting nightmares while not under the Grand Tributary's roof.
Hazy morning light shone through the blinds in Agent Reilly's office. Beyond the open door, the office pool was quiet, although Standish thought he could hear some voices coming from another area of the FBI suite in the Century Building. He wondered how long he had slept. From the lull it was apparently still too early for most agents to have arrived for work.
Ezra pushed himself to his feet, stretching. His back complained of however long he had spent dozing in the office chair. For the small amount it had left him feeling revived and restored, the nap had been hardly worth it. Standish's vindictive back caused him to stagger a step as he made his way to the window to open the blinds. The dawning day that was dawning scarcely offered more light than the shades had blocked. Outside, treetops waved an eerie good morning as a steady wind swayed them from side to side.
Perhaps he and Vin should have gone to the motel where the rest of Team Seven were lodged last night, as Vin Tanner had wanted, rather than come to FBI headquarters, Ezra considered. After the revelations and near-death experience with the undead maiden known as Valentine, Ezra had resolutely insisted they bring the evidence Vin had obtained directly to the FBI.
Vin must absolutely believe he was nuts, the undercover agent thought, recalling his behavior after the encounter with the ghost on the roof. He still felt her hands around his throat; and irrationally, they seemed to him the caress of a lover. If Vin had not interrupted her then Valentine would have counted him as yet one more victim of her vengeance. The situation had left him terrified out of his mind, and longing for the security of a familiar place, even if that place held memories of some of the bitterest moments of his life.
Where was Vin? Ezra wondered. Perhaps his was one of those voices Ezra Standish had been hearing somewhere in the background of the silence. . It might have been late enough for some early bird agents to begin arriving. Ezra stepped out into the office pool, where he found Tanner arriving as well..
Vin sauntered in at the same time. "Good, you're up," he Vin said. "Everyone else is finally starting to show. Conference room, c'mon."
"In a minute, Mr. Tanner," Ezra forestalled.
The Texan rolled his eyes. "I forgot, you don't wake up real spritely. You got five minutes." He started to walk away.
"Uh, Vin, about last night-" Standish began, halting Tanner, who raised his eyebrows expectantly. Ezra opened his mouth, intending to begin with, "You won't believe this, but. . . " But he could not. No one would believe him. He could hardly believe himself, the truth was too impossible. He closed his mouth. "Uh, thank yous, I guess,." Hhe finished lamely instead.
Vin gave him a sidelong glance, but nodded and continued on his way.
In the years since his departure from it, the entire floor of the FBI offices had been both re-carpeted and repainted, Standish noted, weaving a path along the outer wall of cubicles. They must have rearranged the furniture at that same time. Distressingly little remained the same. Ezra went to a large panel of windows and looked out over the city. The view showed signs of age. New buildings and signs billboards had gone up; those that remained showed signs traces of wear and weathering. If Ezra's hopes were to ground himself in the familiar, then the FBI headquarters certainly failed on that front. Perhaps Denver would bring enough distance to free his mind from an oval face framed by raven hair. From a kiss that tasted of a tear.
The Century Building parking lot lay under Ezra's view. Through the window, he spotted the black sedan he and Vin had driven here from the Grand Tributary last night. Standish wondered where Vin had left the keys, if they were sitting on a desk somewhere for Ezra to grab so he could drive himself back to the hotel.
He had actually turned to check Reilly's office when he realized what he'd been thinking. Like a chain smoker unconsciously pulling the next cigarette from the pack, Ezra's desires kept returning to Valentine. Standish wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead. He tried to control the tremor in his hands.
The elevator's ding announcing the arrival of agents for the workday sounded loud enough to startle Ezra back to himself. He strode down a short hallway next to the elevator alcove. He shoved through the restroom door, stepped to the sinks and cranked the faucet with cold water, splashing his face to wash the useless sleep from his eyes. Feeling only slightly refreshed, he dispensed a paper hand towel and dried his face. With a sigh, he flipped down the faucet handle.
Here in the real world he could almost convince himself that nothing last night had been real. Several times he tried to tell his teammate about the murderer on the roof, but every time he opened his mouth he found he could not say the words. They wereIt was just too impossible. There must be some other explanation. Hypnosis. Insanity. He doubted his senses. And yet, there on his neck was proof. He pulled open the collar of the his shirt and inspected a throat bruised by a hand print too small to belong to anyone but a woman.
He avoided averted his gaze fromlooking at it. The bathroom mirror reflected a stupidly nostalgic image. For all the rest of the floor's remodeling, they hadn't changed a thing in here. The chrome faucets with their round-knobbed handles over white sinks with barely perceptible flecks of color, the green tile and stained grout, the gray stalls. Ezra walked over to the last of the three stalls, entered, and closed the door. A dark scuff scarred the back of the light Formica laminate. Standish huffed a dry laugh. How much time had he spent, leaning against this very tile while avoiding whispers in the office pool, staring at this permanent black mark.
A prolonged squeak from the men's room door signaled someone's arrival. Ezra slid the latch into its chrome keeper and moved to the back corner of the stall as the two agents moved to the urinals, continuing their ongoing conversation.
"I hear Standish is back at the office this morning."
"Really? Is the Jericho thing over now?"
"I dunno. Maybe they're pulling Standish."
"I can't believe Reilly brought him in."
"Yeah, well, that shows how desperate he is."
There was the sound of flushing and running water, then the door creaked again and the restroom fell to silence once again. Ezra rubbed his thumb over the black scuff on the stall panel, which remained stubbornly in place. Some marks could never be removed, it seemed. Why had he ever bothered trying?
Ezra returned to the sinks to face himself in the mirror one more time. With his unkempt hair, growing stubble, and bleary eyes, he looked nearly as disreputable as his reputation suggested. Almost how Vin looked on a regular basis, actually, he thought with a twinge of rueful amusement. Well, say what you would about Tanner's lack of polish in his personal style, the tracker had obtained the evidence of the hotel owner's involvement in Romanov and Jericho's criminal activities with the impeccable timing that had become his signature as far as Ezra was concerned. Once they turned in those pages today, the FBI could obtain their warrant and arrest all criminal parties, and Ezra could return to Denver with Team Seven. Where perhaps these dreams and desires of a dead girl could stop stalking him.
After performing ablutions as best he could under the circumstances, Ezra exited the men's room and tracked familiar voices down a hallway that had once been beige but was now pale blue and lined with potted ficus trees. A sense of reassurance washed over Standish as he stepped through the doorway into the briefing room and saw Team Seven gathered around the rectangular table. His entrance drew the ATF team's attention.
"Finally. What'd you do, get lost?" Vin's tired twang reminded Ezra that his frantic behavior had prevented the tracker from a shower and a bed the previous evening. Agent Reilly at the head of the conference table huffed an impatient echo of the sentiment.
"This room used to be puce," Standish commented on the gray-walled briefing room as he took a seat next to Josiah near near the foot of the table. He nodded to Chris across the way at toward the front. Larabee casually returned the gesture, fixing Ezra with an evaluating stare that seemed to find the undercover agent's appearance wanting. The ATF team leader looked a touch haggard himself this morning, Standish noticed.
"All right," Vin said. "Let's finally get this rolling. Ezra and I have been here all night-"
"Is that why you smell like you slept in a dumpster?" asked Buck.
"Yeah, actually," Tanner responded acerbically. "So I'd like to give this to Agent Reilly and go grab a shower." Vin slid a file folder to Reilly at the head of the table. The pages fanned out before the FBI agent, and he opened the cover to examine them. "That’ is a printout of all the hotel's recent cancellations and refunds. Look closely, you'll find the one that was paid out to Zachary Bennett. Romanov's bribe."
"Which we can use to obtain a warrant to seize hotel records," Nathan jumped on the inference.
"And those will tie Jericho to the money laundering scheme," Chris concluded. "Good work."
On the opposite side of Josiah, JD asked, "Does this mean Ezra can come home with us?"
The bulk of ATF regard turned to the FBI agent at the front of the room. Reilly seemed to have drunk from the same well which had poisoned Chris last night, givingen them matching baleful rims around their eyes. Something besides a bottle had passed between the two men, Ezra thought as he observed the team leaders match stares in some sort of private challenge.
Reilly's finger tapped the pages on the table. "This for sure gets us Romanov and the hotel owner. But not Jericho," he said. Various groans and imprecations rose up from around the table.
"Jericho told Ezra he's using the hotel to launder his money," Vin reminded. "You start investigating the hotel's financials, you're gonna get what you need on Jericho."
With no break in his staring contest, Reilly spoke directly to Chris, "Verbal confirmation is tenuous, at best. What if we can't determine which amounts are tied to Jericho? What if Jericho's lawyers bring up Standish's reputation and throw enough shade on his word to let him wriggle off the hook?"
The casual doubt cast upon his word cut a stab of emotion through his gut. Ezra looked down quickly to hide his expression. Once his features were under his control, he raised his head . . .
. . . and blinked in astonishment.
The briefing room no longer graced his sight. Instead, the aqua waters of the Grand Tributary's rooftop swimming pool greeted his vision. The surface rippled, as though recently disturbed. Standish looked around frantically. He stood alone on the roof.
How had he come here? Had he drifted off into another dream? The scent of pool chemicals invading his nose seemed vivid enough to wake him if he had been caught in a doze. The breeze that slowly approached like an ambush to chill his skin and ruffle his hair came out of the same flat morning gray sky Ezra had seen out of the window this morning.
He crouched down on one knee to scoop a handful of pool water. Wet. The perfectly mundane sensation of cold liquid dripping down his arm and soaking up into his shirt sleeve seemed incongruous with the heightened fears he'd experienced in recent slumbering visions. Ezra gazed intently into the pool as if it held the answers.
As the ripples cleared, a figure emerged in the water's reflection. Valentine's pale features seemed to be mirrored in the pool's surface as if she stood behind Ezra, staring into the water the same as he. Ezra twisted his neck with the purpose of perceiving her directly. Yet the rooftop behind him was vacant. He was alone.
Astounded, Ezra glanced back at the reflection. She remained underwater, dark eyes entreating. Her lips formed a word he couldn't hear, although it might have been his name. She reached her hand out towards his face.
Ezra pushed back on his heels and scampered backward away from the pool. He glanced up . . .
. . . at the gray walls of the FBI briefing room.
Ezra blinked rapidly in confusion. He sat in the utilitarian gathering place again, twisted at a half-turn in his chair. Looking over both shoulders revealed nothing but the briefing room and government agents.
"Yeah, well, the rest of us have to leave tomorrow, so Ezra's word will have to be good enough," Vin was saying to Reilly.
Josiah, in the seat next to Ezra, glanced at the undercover operative twisting around in his chair. "You looking for something, brother?" he asked softly. Standish shook his head instinctively.
Were the visions becoming still more invasive? He thought distance from the Grand Tributary and its ghost would have torn this supernatural veil that connected him and Valentine. Instead, the girl's spirit seemed to be calling out to him all the stronger.
"What about Ken?" Nathan asked. "Can he get his hands on anything that would confirm Jericho's involvement with the money laundering?"
Reilly heaved a thundering sigh. "Maybe. I don't rightly know, do I? What I do know is that it'd be a hell of a lot more risky for Owens to start poking his nose into Jericho's money situation than it would for Standish at this point."
Buck scoffed. "You think Jericho is just going to hand Ezra all his financial records just because he's helping him negotiate a deal with the Russian mafia? If anything he'll probably be cagier with him."
Standish found himself strangely disconnected from the conversation that would decide his future. He wondered if he should perhaps confess it all and let someone else decide if he were crazy or not.
He leaned over and in a conspiratorial voice said to Josiah: "Do you see the bruise on my neck?" The Southerner pulled his collar down a bit for Sanchez to see.
The preacher gave a quick look. "Yeah. What happened?" Ezra waved off the question.
So that proved he hadn't hallucinated it. He wanted to be sure.
"Standish can work out a way."
"So can Owens."
The argument continued without need for Ezra's participation. He had more pressing worries to think about. Ghosts were not supposed to haunt beyond the boundaries of their prescribed abodes. No, not ghost. What had Vin called her?
"Josiah," Ezra spoke in a low tone, "you might know. What, pray tell, is a rusalka?"
"A rusalka?" One of Sanchez's commendable aspects was that, as his mind seemed to run in odd intuitive circles itself, he never seemed to judge a person on asking seemingly random questions. "In Slavic folklore, it's the spirit of a maid who died a violent death. They usually dwell in ponds or lakes, emerging at night to dance naked in meadows."
"You're kidding. . . ." the undercover agent reminded himself that his belief in his own sanity depended on his belief in fairy tale creatures. He coughed. "That sounds lurid, but harmless."
"Not so fast," Josiah warned. "Rusalki sing and dance in order to lure their victims to a watery grave. It's said that their kiss is death."
A tickling sensation at the back of his neck caused gooseflesh to rise beneath his sleeves. "Is there anything one might do to save ... to save themselves?" asked Ezra.
Josiah shrugged. "Avenging her death is the usual. Some cultures leave offerings to appease their spirits."
Before Standish could ask what sort of offerings one might present a maiden's vengeful spirit, Chris stood, forestalling conversation around the table.
"You thought this decision out?" Larabee asked Reilly. He slid the hotel printout into his hand and held it up. "This ends it. You make the call and everyone in this room gets what they want."
The Irishman thumbed his wedding ring around his finger. Slowly his gaze rose from the pages in Chris' hand to the agent's eyes. "It's not enough," he said at last.
Larabee's hard stare held challenge, but also a strange understanding. "When will it ever be enough?"
Ezra didn't understand what unspoken communication was contained in their silent conversation. What he did know was that Valentine's eyes were a prison he could not escape from by running.
"Gentlemen." The word choked out of him before he cleared his airways with a cough. "I believe I have some unfinished business at the hotel."
A shower may have improved his odor and general appearance, but it had done nothing to elevate Vin's mood. As he sat at a stop light in the driver's seat of the luxury sedan transporting Ezra back to the Grand Tributary, Tanner's hands tightened and loosened on the steering wheel until his knuckles ached. He reached over to the temperature controls and turned the air conditioning up before the light turned green, then eased the car through the intersection.
The view from the rearview mirror showed Standish. For once, the undercover agent wasn't fussing with his clothes. He'd had the opportunity to get cleaned up as well, and though he seemed to be lacking some of his usual polish, as he closed his eyes to look inward he assumed a doggedly determined confident expression, smiling like a shark.
"What are you doing?" Vin asked.
"Getting in character."
"How 'bout making sure you remember where you are in that character?"
Through the mirror, Ezra's green eyes met Vin's with one cocked brow. "What do you mean?"
"You think I didn't see through that whole bravado act down at headquarters?" Tanner challenged. "I found you on that roof, remember? I don't know why you won't say what happened, but don't pretend it was nothing. I ain't some scumbag mark."
"I assure you, Vin, I don't think anything of that sort." Standish sounded mildly affronted.
"Gimve me a break, Ezra." The air conditioning was doing little to cool the heat Vin felt rising under his collar. He cranked it to max. "Trust is a two-way street, but ever since we came to Atlanta you seem bound and determined to keep it one direction."
Ezra directed his heated reply out the window. "I resent the implication that I do not trust you and Team Seven. As I recall, you are here because you're the only ones I do trust."
"Prove it. Tell me what's going on."
For a moment Vin's challenging gaze locked onto Ezra's, and the undercover agent seemed about to speak. Then, out of the corner of his eyein his periphery, Tanner saw a truck stopped in the road ahead and had to slam on the brakes for another red light. When he turned back to Standish, the man was looking out the back window pensively.
"Well?" Vin pushed.
Ezra sighed. He met Vin's eyes through the mirror's reflection. "To be honest, I'm not even sure, myself. . . . You won't believe this, but . . . . Mr. Tanner, how did you come to learn the particular details of the Grand Tributary's legendary spectere?" Standish redirected.
"Friends in low places," he answered. "Folks in the kitchen are pretty chatty 'bout it."
"A lot of them have seen it, have they?"
"TWell they say they do. That's what makes it a fun story, right?"
Ezra's green eyes reflected clinically at him. "And they describe the same person? They call her by the same name?"
"What's your point, Ezra?" Vin was getting impatient at this detour.
"Naturally, you think the idea of ghosts is entirely absurd."
"Naturally," Vin agreed.
"Why?" Standish asked.
"Because it's impossible. I asked aboutlooked into your ghost, Ezra. I know where the story's coming from. Turns out some sixty-odd years ago, the hotel owner's daughter went missing. Her name was Valentine. She was a socialite., tThere's old photographs of her at fancy shindigs at the hotel. That's how everyone knows what she looks like. Ghost stories are just that – stories."
Ezra nodded methodically. "You're right, of course, Mr. Tanner. A silly story for tourists, that explains everything. Somehow I became unforgivably distracted by it."
It wasn't an explanation, but it was the most honest thing he'd heard from the undercover agent in days. Feeling somewhat mollified, Vin said, "What about that girl?"
"I know what I have to do about Valentine." There was a strange tenor to Ezra's voice as he said the name. Tanner couldn't tell if the agent sounded sad, tired, or something else.
A horn honking startled Vin into looking up. The light had turned green, and the truck was a hundred feet ahead of them. Tanner stepped on the accelerator.
"Whatever it is you're doing about this girl, you might want to let Ken in on it," Vin suggested. "He's really worried about you."
A derisive snort escaped Standish. "Oh, sure. Absolutely. Why not?"
"I'm serious, Ezra. He's a good guy who made a mistake, and he's putting himself in inas as much risk as you in there. You need to watch each other's backs."
Ezra thought in silence for several moments. "I suppose, " he finally acknowledged.
Vin nodded at him through the mirror. Sometimes you had to take what you could get from the cagey agent. Tanner nudged the climate controls to a more reasonable temperature before he froze them both out. As they neared the Grand Tributary, the streets became lined with flowering trees. They seemed to spark something in Ezra's memory.
"Vin, do you still have that necklace.? The peach blossom?" asked Standish.
Tanner reached into his pocket - awkwardly, due to his sitting position and the need to continue driving, and pulled out the gold charm necklace he'd snagged from Ezra last night.
"Here." He extended his arm behind the driver's seat, and held the flower necklace out to Standish.
Ezra hesitated a moment then took the necklace. "Thanks," he said, his expression inscrutable as he studied the jewelry's delicate curves.
Vin pulled up to the front of the hotel. "We're here." Twisting to look the undercover agent in the face, he asked, "You ready for this?"
An ironic smile quirked Ezra's lips. He squared his shoulders and met Vin's blue eyes with a smug smirk. "What do you think, Mr. Tanner?"
Standish's mask of confidence was a perfect fit. He gave off the impression of a man who had everything under control, who could make even the Russian mafia and the Southern mob dance like puppets to the wave of his hand.
"I think you belong in Denver with Team Seven," Vin told him. "Get in there and get the job done."
Ezra's arrogant expression slipped a mere sliver. "By all means."
As Josiah pulled the Jeep to a stop along the side of the narrow cemetery lane, he looked to the skies, wondering if rain was imminent. The Jeep had an open top, and the rental company likely wouldn't be happy to have the vehicle returned with water damage. It was windy, clouds were coming in, but inclement weather would probably hold off until this evening, Sanchez judged.
Though the skies remained fair at the moment, the clover-covered incline beneath Josiah's feet was wet and soggy. The ground squished lightly as, at the top of the low hill littered with headstones, he came upon Agent Reilly genuflected before a grave, the knee of his slacks dark from the damp grass.
Sanchez stood reverently over a tombstone several paces to the left of the FBI special agent.
"What are you doing here?" Reilly's rough brogue cut the sacred silence.
"I came to pay my respects," Josiah answered.
Reilly swept a fallen leaf from the carved letters: Margaret Lynne Reilly. "You didn't even know her," he said.
"Oh, not to her." The former preacher gestured to the grave in front of him and nodded down at its headstone. "To him."
Reilly rose and read the name. "Ralph McGee.?"
"Ralph McGee," Josiah continued. "Born nineteen fifty-one, died two thousand one. Husband and father. He passed pretty young, wouldn't you say?"
The FBI agent tugged at his earlobe. "You know him?"
"Then what the hell are you doing?"
"I told you, paying my respects."
"To a complete stranger?"
"I prefer to a future friend."
Reilly went back to stand beside his wife's grave. "You believe in an afterlife, then?"
Sanchez shrugged. "Seems to me it's the only thing that can make sense out of this world."
For a moment, the simile silent as the grave rose to literal meaning as the two agents stood without speaking, the strong breeze blowing bits of white petal and spring foliage across the dead expanse.
"Do you think they cry out for justice?" Reilly asked in an uncharacteristically low tone.
"Justice is a funny thing," Josiah mused. "When we're wronged we say we want it, but how many of us fear getting what we deserve? Perhaps what you're looking for an is excuse," the former preacher suggested.
"Excuse for what?" snapped Reilly.
Sanchez leveled a frank gaze at the other agent. "Justice is for the dead. Revenge is for the living. You ever think it's not her pain you want Jericho to pay for, but yours?"
"That's not it."
"Suit yourself. I just hope you're not so deeply mired in your own sense of pain and loss that you would give up your own soul to take out Jericho. I don't think my future friend would like that."
The Irishman still had no answer. He dropped to one knee again, and Josiah turned to walk away.
"How does Larabee do it?" Reilly asked.
"Live each day, with the loss, with a great dark hole inside in place of a heart, without letting that hole eat him alive."
Sanchez thought the question over for several moments before replying.. "I reckon there came a moment when Chris stopped feeling sorry for himself, and started sympathizing more for other people. I think it's the job that keeps him going. As do his friends."
Josiah waited for a response. None came, and this time Agent Reilly let him walk away.
"I must thank you, Mr. Bennett, for a delightful meal," Jericho said.
"I was so pleased you could accept my last minute invitation." Ezra, sitting to the mobster's left in the vehicle's back seat, nodded graciously. "I felt obliged to return the favor for the other day, after all, to keep my fair and impartial reputation."
They drove the streets of Atlanta's outskirts for a while, toward the Grand Tributary. The older area gave off a slower vibe than the city's downtown, lined with small shops and a handful of pedestrians strolling the sidewalks. Standish chattedmade small talk with Jericho as they rode. As the car decelerated to a halt at a stop sign, Ezra pointed at text printed on a green awning visible up the block.
"Isn't that the jewelers where you acquired that exquisite time piece?" he asked. "I'd hate to impose on your time, but might we stop on our way back? I find myself in the market for some jewelry."
"Not at all," Jericho replied, and Ezra signaled the driver to pull over at the jeweler's shop. "For yourself?"
"No, for a woman," Ezra explained. He slipped his hand into the pocket of his suit coat and pulled out the gold peach blossom necklace. "I'd like to replace this. It was a gift to her from her ex. I don't know why she persists in wearing it, but I'm determined to rid it from my sight."
"No doubt," Jericho commiserated. "A wise decision, to offer her something new. It's such a tedium when women make a fuss."
The driver parallel parked in the only spot remaining on the street, directly in front of the jewelry store. On either side of the shop's recessed door, its sparkling wares were displayed through large glass panes. Inside, through the left-side window, a young man with dark shaggy hair leaned over the display counter, animatedly pointing at various contents. He seemed to be soliciting the opinion of a taller blond man who stood beside him like a black pillar.
Jericho paused, his hand resting on the vehicle’s exit latch, as the young man's broad gestures attracted his attention. , his hand resting on the vehicle's exit latch. "Does that gentleman look familiar to you?" he asked, frowning.
"The young man?" Ezra squinted through the tinted glass. "No. No, don't think so."
"Not him, the man in black." The Southern mob leader rolled down his car window for a clearer view, giving the subject of his query a harder look. Then his cold eyes widened as recognition came into them. "He was with Special Agent Reilly the night Romanov's henchman diedfell from the roof. He's FBI."
"Are you certain?" Standish leaned over Elijah Jericho for a better view, raising his hand across his forehead to shield his eyes. "You're right," he confirmed, straightening up. "I can return here another time, if you'd rather avoid the trouble."
"Nonsense, my friend. The FBI would hardly dare hassle us while we're shopping in a public store. Shall we go in?"
Before Ezra could reply, the shop door opened and the black-clad man walked out onto the sidewalk, speaking into his phone. Standish leaned back deep into his seat behind the driver, and Jericho instinctively did the same.
Chris Larabee's impatient words floated to them clearly through the open window. "Look, we have the hotel owner, and through him, Romanov. I don't care what Reilly wants, I'm not waiting until we can find a tie to Jericho for him. I'm not going to sit on this and risk letting two key figures in the Russian Mafia slip through our fingers. I want to get Romanov before he leaves the hotel." He paced a few short, frustrated steps." No, I don't know how long that will be, which that’sis why we're doing the raid and nabbing both him and the owner tomorrow morning."
He punched the button to end his call and yanked open the jeweler's entrance. "JD, would you hurry up and make a decision?" they heard before the door completed its closing swing.
Jericho motioned the driver to pull away. Once the car was on the road again, the Southerner rolled up his window and leaned back, stroking his beard.
"My, my," he said. "It seems the FBI has been investigating our Russian friends."
Ezra's fingers clawed into his hair and he shook his head in disbelief. "I am stunned," he said. "We must hurry back and give them warning."
Jericho steadily continued to shape the point of his goatee. "Hold that thought," he told Standish. "I believe there's an opportunity in front of me."
The undercover agent regarded Jericho with puzzlementd surprise, then seemed to have a moment of insight into the other man's ruminations. "Ah! I believe I glimpse the way your mind is turning. We could warn them what the FBI is planning, they can escape the country, cover their tracks, et cetera. But if you allow things to proceed, then Romanov is removed from your path, and you're back on top where you belong."
"Precisely. It doesn't sound like much of a choice when you phrase it like that, does it?" Jericho chuckled.
"Indeed not," Ezra replied with an answering snigger. "Though I will lose no sleep over Mr. Romanov, it is a shame about Mr. Pamchenko."
Regret for his friend's imminent downfall lasted roughly half a second. "A pity," Jericho agreed. His self-satisfied smirk turned into a scowl as another thought occurred to him. "And now I must search out a more secure avenue of laundering my money."
With a dismissive wave of his hand, the undercover agent told him, "No need to fret about that. I have a host of resources among my contacts. If you can procure a list of what funds you need laundered and where, I can search out an appropriate agency for your needs."
"I would be much obliged," Jericho thanked him.
"May I suggest, then, that we check out of Mr. Pamchenko's delightful establishment this afternoon?" Ezra suggested.
The white-haired mob boss shook his head. "If we leave suddenly Romanov will get suspicious," he said. "That could ruin the entire plan. We will have to seal our alliance tonight."
"What if the FBI is able tie you to Romanov due to your agreements here?" Standish protested.
"They can't," Jericho responded, "because you are the only one who will have a physical record of the agreement in the case of disputes. I will finalize the deal with Romanov tonight. I'll agree to whatever he wants, get the meeting over with as quickly as possible. Then we will be free to vacate the hotel without alerting him."
Ezra frowned, then nodded. "As you wish, but I'm leaving directly after the meeting tonight, and I suggest you don't tarry long either. Be sure to get me your, ah, your laundry list sometime before the meeting. We'll want to lay low for a little while after this goes down. I'll contact you when I've found a suitable replacement for you."
Jericho's smug smile reappeared. "Perfect."
Sinking back into the leather seat brought the face of the driver into Ezra's view through the rearview mirror. Vin caught his eye in a moment of unspoken communication. Ezra had to agree. That couldn't have gone more perfectly.
"Oh, great," Buck grumbled. "What's he doing here?"
Chris hefted the duffel bag on his shoulder and glanced up to see what Wilmington was grouseding about. They and the rest of Team Seven were lugging their equipment to the FBI surveillance van parked on the lowest floor of the garage. Other agents would be prepping utility vehicles, outfitting them for tonight's sting, but that was happening elsewhere. Here in the back corner of the structure, silence lay steadily on the concrete pillars and the team walked alone past a mass of empty parking spots.
The black surveillance van, however, had not been waiting for Team Seven in lonely solitude. The subject of Buck's consternation sat on the bumper, arms crossed, his legs stretched before him. As they neared, Special Agent Reilly pushed himself off his chrome bench, and said, "I'm going with you on this one."
With a steely look, Larabee reached around the Irishman to unlatch the van's back doors.
"Warfield okay with that?" Nathan asked, opening the driver's side door.
"What's he going to do, kick me off the op?" Reilly dismissed.
"Uh, maybe he'll fire you," JD suggested, climbing into the van. Reilly shrugged.
Chris schlepped the last bulky duffel bag onto the van's floor for Dunne to drag all the way in. He turned to the hot-tempered Irishman and issued a challenge. "Think you can get through the day without hitting Jericho?"
A grim smile tugged the corners of Reilly's lips. "Nothing's guaranteed in this life," he said, "but I'll give it my best attempt."
"That inspires confidence," Buck muttered.
Larabee returned Reilly's even stare. Then his head dipped in a short nod.
"Get in," the ATF leader instructed.
At the steering wheel, Nathan Jackson pulled the van out of the parking garage. Rain began to beat a slow patter on the windshield.
Ken had all the makings of a great night - busting bad guys and putting an end to an undercover operation that had stretched on ridiculously long. As the FBI agent knocked on Jericho's door, he sighed. Too bad the evening was dawning with an uneasy atmosphere of foreboding hanging over it. Maybe it was the weather, or the anticipation of a long-awaited goal finally about to be met, but Owens felt uneasy for reasons he couldn't explain. This plan, Standish's brain-child, was solid. After all the FBI's years of effort, it seemed they were truly about to shut the door on this case.
Jericho opened the door and Ken stepped into the mobster's suite. If Elijah Jericho was in any emotional turmoil, he certainly didn't show it. Standing before one of the room's full-length mirrors, Jericho gave his goatee an evaluating stroke and picked up a blue tie on the dresser next to it. As he began to knot it around his neck, he addressed Owens.
"Ken, that envelope on the stand by the lamp, do you see it?"
"Take it down the hall to Mr. Bennett."
Owens thought the mental focus he had to maintain to prevent his hands from shaking as he picked up said envelope might give him an aneurysm. The physical evidence he held was his ticket out of here, the linchpin in the FBI's case that would seal Jericho's coffin. It was tempting to take it and walk directly out of the hotel, but that wasn't the plan. Keep to the process, Owens, he told himself. Don't get sloppy at the finish line.
Leaving Jericho to finish his ablutions for tonight's meeting with Nikolai Romanov, Ken strode down the hallway and rapped smartly on Ezra's door. "Candy-gram," he sing-songed. "Your neighbor down the hall sends his regards," Owens told the answering agent, stepping inside the room and holding up the rectangular envelope. "Actually, it's more of a parallelogram," Ken said. Standish was too distracted by the act of snatching the evidence into his own hands to chuckle at Ken's clever pun.
"This is it?" Ezra asked.
"That's it," Owens confirmed. "You sure you don't want to ditch our double date this evening and take that out for a beer with the guys right now?"
For once, Ken saw Standish's undercover persona as well as his undercover agent persona drop. As Ezra regarded the envelope that contained the map to tracking Jericho's criminal finances, his hands tremored as Owens' had wanted to, and he moistened his lips as if his mouth had gone suddenly dry. Then, with a rueful smile, the agent came back.
"Tempting," Standish said. He tucked the envelope into the suit jacket hanging over the back of a chair, and picked up a small electronic device with a long tail. "Since you're here, would you assist me with this wire?"
"You wearing one tonight?"
"If it's to be the last night, I want to get as much as possible."
Ken nodded and helped the other agent get the listening device attached and adjusted. "Here, that part's a little loose," Owens taped the wire flat.
"Testing. One, two, three," Ezra spoke into the air.
"That an outgoing transmission only?"
Standish confirmed with a nod. His cell phone buzzed and he took a glance at the screen. "They seem to be reading."
"Fantastic," Ken said as Ezra swung his suit coat off the chair and slipped his arms into the sleeves, giving the lapels a sharp tug into place. "Game face ready?" Owens asked.
Standish's trademark cocky smile appeared. "Let's not keep them waiting," he said.
As the two undercover agents left the suite and headed for the elevator, Ken wished his stomach would stop turning in nervous flip-flops. Everything was going to work out great, he told it as he stepped into the elevator cab with Standish.
At the controls, Ezra's hand reached up for the roof button. The limb froze, and he hastily pulled it back. Standish stared at the button as if he'd nearly activated an explosive.
Ken looked at the buttons. He looked at Ezra. He reached over and hit the number two. The doors slid shut and the elevator began its gentle descent.
A sigh issued from the Southern ATF agent. "Hey, Ken?" he said.
"Thanks for having my back."
"It was just a button."
Ezra shook his head. "No, I mean, before. And generally speaking."
"Oh, sure, no problem. Everything okay?"
"It soon will be."
The elevator shuddered to a stop and the doors opened to present the Grand Tributary's second floor hallway, at the end of which awaited a room full of mobsters. Ezra met Ken's eye and gave his fellow undercover agent a nod, which Owens returned. Taking a deep breath, Ken followed Standish into the hall. This is the last time, he reminded himself. Just get through this night and it would all be over.
Nikolai Romanov set down his pen with a satisfied click. Across the conference room table, Jericho tucked his fountain pen into the inside pocket of his black suit coat.
"Well, gentlemen," Ezra slid the document they had both just signed off the table, "let me be the first to congratulate you on your alliance. May it lead to increased prosperity for you both."
A round of hand clasping commenced. Jericho summoned Ken with a hand wave. "Inform Mr. Pamchenko that a bottle of champagne is in order," he instructed.
"I couldn't agree more, sir," Owens responded, leaving the Grand Tributary's conference room to go summon the hotel owner for the celebration.
While Jericho sequestered himself on the opposite side of the room for a tete-a-tete with his other lackey, Mickey., lLikely with he gave Mickey instructions to prepare his belongings for imminent departure, Ezra thought as he noticed the mob boss slip a room key into the other man's hand.
, Romanov cornered Ezra for a bone crushing handshake.
"I am very impressed with your services, Zachary," the Little Czar credited Ezra with the incredible deal he'd just gotten out of the Russia-Atlanta alliance. "You were a very worthwhile investment."
"Thank you, Mr. Romanov." StandishHe had been concerned that Jericho had been overly conciliatory in his enthusiasm to see Romanov busted by the FBI, but the Red Fella had been too blinded by his greed to suspect any workings beneath the surface. "I trust you will keep that capital investment between us? I do have my reputation to consider, after all."
Ken Owens returned, a bottle of champagne tucked beneath each arm, followed by Vladimir Pamchenko.
The sight of Valentine's murderer locked Ezra's jaw in its polite smile, lest it slip and draw suspicion. He couldn't prevent his eyes from darkening to match the emotion pulsing in his heart, however, so he averted his gaze to the conference room's uniformly patterned carpet. Perhaps his obsessive behavior and desire for Valentine could be explained by the supernatural hold she had on him, but the disgust and revulsion he felt against this vile man, Ezra knew with certainty, came from within himself.
"Mr. Bennett," Pamchenko shuffled over to Standish holding two bubbling glass flutes. "I expect there are few more happy than yourself to see this process finally come to an end."
Ezra accepted one of the glasses the hotel owner extended. "The nightmare is over," he agreed. Maintaining an undercover persona had never seemed as difficult.
"Here is to nothing but pleasant dreams in the future." Vladimir raised his champagne in toast. Ezra echoed the motion and drank, but in his mind he toasted the arrest of this loathsome old man which was shortly to transpire.
Here's to your downfall, Standish drank to Elijah Jericho, Nikolai Romanov, and Vladimir Pamchenko. How many years had Valentine's killer walked free? The undercover agent prayed that the justice that was finally to befall her former lover would be enough to set Valentine's soul at peace.
Ezra set his champagne flute on the conference room table and excused himself from the conversation. With a quick glance to make sure he caught Ken Owens' eye, he slipped out the door.
Moments later, Jericho followed him into the hallway.
"You are leaving, I presume?" the Southern mob boss asked.
"Yes, it seems a good idea for me to get this agreement," Ezra indicated the criminal's signed agreement document tucked in its manila envelope, "out of the building as expeditiously as possible."
"I quite agree. I think I shall shortly follow suit."
Standish shook his hand one last time. "Give Romanov my heartiest farewells, would you?"
"I will do that. I suppose I should really thank Agent Reilly for hitting me the other day." Jericho stroked his beard, the bruise the FBI agent had given him having faded to a nearly indistinct yellow. "How ironic, that if not for that I would never have recognized his compatriot."
"Ah yes, Reilly," Ezra faux-recalled, adding casually, "He really seemed to have something against you."
Jericho laughed. "Yes, well, I had his wife killed."
It was a good thing Standish had gotten practice maintaining his poker face just now, or he might have betrayed his undercover facade at the Southern crime leader's smug attitude. "Did you, now?" he asked, feigning amused admiration.
"The man's doggedness was becoming a nuisance. I thought it would get him off my case. Sadly, even the best laid plans sometimes fall short," Jericho explained with a sigh. He shrugged and the smarmy smile returned. "Still, all worked out for me."
The two men said their goodbyes and Jericho returned to the conference room. Ezra could hear another toast being proposed before the door swung shut.
Ezra headed down the hall to the elevator. The newfound knowledge explained a few things about Agent Reilly. A peculiar feeling of kinship toward the FBI agent came over him. Strange, Ezra thought, since he hadn't lost anyone dear to him. He wasn't Chris Larabee. He didn't know the experience of a woman he loved ripped from his arms in untimely death.
Standish entered the elevator cab and pushed the lobby button.
Perhaps Valentine wouldn't be the only woman to receive long-awaited justice tonight. Did Reilly's wife haunt him? Ezra contemplated, his newfound belief in the phenomenon lending credence to the thought. Or would a literal haunting have been a relief for the agent, confirming the reality of some life of the soul beyond the grave?
The elevator doors opened. Ezra stepped out and turned right.
What did it truly prove, though? Standish wondered. What would happen to Valentine should she be freed from this earthly plane? Had she any more insights into the Great Beyond than mortal men? An image of Valentine took shape in his head. Not the fey ghost who had tried to strangle him. The society girl with the impish smile who had fallen in love with an immigrant driver. What otherworldly force could make the one out of the other?
Ezra rounded a corner and found himself in a grand room with a floor inlaid with a myriad of multi-colored woods polished to a high shine, three crystal chandeliers hanging from a ceiling artfully frescoed with decorative plaster work. Shoulder-height vases filled to overflowing with fresh flowers perimetered the open space. It was the Grand Tributary's ballroom, he realized, at the rear of the hotel's bottom floor. How had he gotten so turned around? At least, he thought, he hadn't wandered mindlessly up to the roof. Still, he needed to get to the front of the hotel to signal the team of agents outside that they should make their entrance to arrest the criminal coterie.
Vin must still be waiting for him on the stairwell on the second floor, Ezra realized. Standish hadn't been supposed to use the elevator at all; rather, he was to have joined Tanner, who'd been waiting nearby in case of trouble, and they would have exited the hotel together. His heart jumped as he realized that the supernatural miasma of the Grand Tributary was still affecting his mind. He needed to be more careful than that.
Retreating from the ballroom back into the vacant hallway, Ezra took stock of the location he had wandered to. Doors to somewhere patterned the wall, punctuated as all the halls on all floors were with side tables and floral arrangements. At the end of the hallway was an unobtrusive door marked exit, leading to the rear of the Tributary. He walked toward it, thinking perhaps there may be a nearby stairwell. He pulled out his cell phone to text Vin, but found he had no signal.
There were no stairs next to the lonely exit. Should he leave Vin behind with Owens and get the evidence out of the hotel? Ezra peered through the door's glass panes. Rain poured down torrentially. He would have to return to the lobby to avoid a drenching walk around the building.
A silhouette outside caught his attention. Ezra pressed his forehead against the glass. What little light the Grand Tributary's outdoor fixtures cast into the gloomy downpour reflected the shine off a figure in gold. Valentine, Ezra saw, glowing like a lamp in the darkness. It took his breath away to see her, wandering through the rain. Her finger would taste a leaf from a tree, touching everything carelessly as she swayed slowly. She soon detoured from the path and down through the grass that lead into the forest behind the hotel.
Shaking his head violently to clear the image of her, Ezra backed away from the door, not trusting himself against throwing it open and running after the rusalka. The strain of resisting caused his shoulders to tremble as he kept his arms fixed at his side; still, he found himself reaching for the handle and resolutely thrust his hands into his pockets. Something cool and metal met his fingers. The peach blossom necklace Vladimir had given Valentine, of course.
Ezra frowned, recalling the scene of the young socialite receiving the expensive gift at the angel fountain. That had to be the place the spirit now sought in the forest. Could the young lady's vengeful spirit really be appeased by some offering? Ezra wondered. Would the justice about to descend on Vladimir be enough to save Valentine? A vague memory of his duty to that justice and the evidence he needed to secure whispered through his mind, but evaporated quickly, like a single raindrop on hot pavement.
The rain's tempo increased as if in warning as Ezra set his hand upon the door handle.
"The thundering blaggart did it," Reilly spoke in an astonished undertone, reflexively rubbing his wedding band with the thumb of his left hand. He stared at the speaker through which the surveillance team listened to the transmission from Ezra's wire.
"Good job, Ezra," Chris muttered. He snatched the walkie that Reilly had just picked up. "You're not supposed to be here, remember?" Larabee told the FBI special agent. He pressed the button and addressed the agents in the utility vehicles parked a further distance from the Grand Tributary. "All teams into position. Prepare to move in."
The other groups rogered their acknowledgments. Reilly pushed past JD to lean into the front of the van. "Any sign of Standish yet?" he asked Nathan and Josiah, watching the hotel anterior for the undercover agent to exit and signal his readiness for the FBI to enter.
"If there was, you would have heard us say something," Josiah said calmly, adjusting the focus on his binoculars.
"Well, be vigilant. It's hard to see anything through this rain." Precipitation had increased as the surveillance van sat outside the hotel over the evening, and now fell steadily. Reilly made a grab for Sanchez's binoculars, but the former preacher twisted them out of his reach. "Patience is a virtue," he reminded.
Grunting, the FBI agent settled forward to squint through the rain-splattered windshield.
For several minutes the surveillance team waited in silent anticipation. The Tributary's front entrance, illuminated brightly under the glow of several decorative light fixtures, remained devoid of any signs of life.
"Where is he?" Reilly asked. "What happened to him?"
"It does seem to be taking a little long," Nathan admitted.
"Hey, guys," JD piped up. The older agents turned to him, tapping at the speaker receiving Ezra's transmission. "Uh, we're not getting anything out of this anymore."
Ezra traced Valentine down the dead path.
It took mere instants after leaving the Tributary for rain to plaster his hair to his skull. Jogging down the hill beneath the trees' spring growth had provided Ezra only slight refuge from the downpour. His footing slipped on the muddy ground, and his heart lurched as he caught himself on a tree branch with his free hand. He slowed his descent down the dirt trail lest he slip again. His pulse raced, and he licked raindrops from his mouth. The dark forest path put him in mind of his dreams and of the uncertain terror that always accompanied them. Could it be those nightmares weren't visions of a past but premonitions of a ghastly future? he wondered, squinting at a slight graying of the black tunnel up ahead as the wooded avenue let out into the clearing. He remembered suddenly that he was pursuing a supernatural murderess. Was he saving himself from madness or dooming himself by this adventure?
Gusts of wind sent driving rain at his face, pelting him for his foolishness. Ezra stepped out into the clearing. At the center stood the rusalka. She balanced steadily like stone herself upon the rim of the decrepit fountain, staring up at the entwined angels.
Standish recognized the strange effect the sight of her had on him, and struggled to keep his head. He risked his life with this gamble, he knew, but the undercover agent made a living out of that risk. Tonight, he put his life on the line for something more than a paycheck.
Ezra drew cautiously near the rusalka. She hadn't acknowledged his presence yet and Ezra vividly was vividly nostalgic of their first meeting. What had been the words they exchanged that night? He had been so enamored of her beauty, captivated by her sadness. Her seductive hold over him had not yet gripped so tightly as now. "My dear, we are practically swimming now," he said as the rain sheeted upon them in waving blasts, "and I am shortly to fly. I believe it is time for that dance."
Her gold gown shimmering with the movement, she twisted to regard him. Her wet hair caught the green reflection of the leaves overhead. Lord, she was beautiful, he thought. A shame she was dead.
"You shouldn't linger so close to the ledge," Ezra advised, possessed by the reckless spirit of what he was about to do.
Far from the hate-filled orbs of the murderess he had encountered last night, her eyes were soft and vague. "Why?" the rusalka asked.
"We might fall," Ezra replied gently, practically feeling gravity loosen its hold on his feet. His gaze drifted to the angelic lovers. "Then again, perhaps we would fly."
The ghostly enchantress shook her head. "You would die."
Ezra smiled with false bravery and raised his arm as if to offer his hand. But said hand was actually full of flowers. He had impulsively filched them from a vase in the ballroom before rushing out to follow the rusalka. "For you, dear Valentine."
The ghost's lips fell open into a delicate red oval, speechless as she drew the bouquet up to her face. The pale shades of blossoming peonies, roses, and delphinium invited her to delight in their scent. She traced the flower petals with an elegant finger, and in that moment in her eyes Ezra recognized joy. He realized that it was an emotion he had only ever read on her face in his dreams, during her happy courtship with Vladimir. Ezra felt warmed all over, astounded and gratified that he had been the cause of it now. In truth, the weather had beat a few white petals from the larkspur. But some of the other flowers must have been hardy blossoms that remembered they’ had been born outside and had grown up experiencing both the soft and harsh conditions of nature, for they held onto their petals resolutely. Indeed, some of the delphinium bent and glided as if to confirm the enchantment of a dance in the rain.
His impetuous bouquet had effectively banished the listless ghost, and manifested the living Valentine who had supplied the better half of his dreams. She raised her eyes and met his, and for the first time ever Standish felt like he was truly connecting with Valentine. Not the ghost, not the rusalka. The person.
"Ezra?" she asked. Her voice was full of awe, as if even she could not believe the change that Ezra's gift had brought in her. "Why are you doing this?"
Ezra grinned, enchanted how bygenuine his dream girl's genuine reaction. The raindrop could have been rays of sun for all the heeded them now. "You are dressed for a ball, my dear Valentine. I'm doing this because it would be criminal to deny such an entrancing lady a dance." He extended his hand to her.
As if she was the one caught in a supernatural spell, she laid her fingers upon his and stepped down from the fountain ledge. Ezra swept her into a waltz, keeping time with the steady beat of rain upon the stone angels. The bouquet in her hand upon his shoulder anointed their dance with a floral perfume.
As they twirled around the forested clearing, Valentine's lips teased at the slightest smile. Her face sometimes turned with the dance steps, but her eyes always returned happily to his.
A gust of wind blew an angry downpour across the clearing, and Ezra faltered a step under its fury. That seemed to signal the end of the dance as the young lady pulled away. Confusion registered in her lovely features. She backed away slowly from Ezra and sat on the fountain beneath the angels, setting the bouquet beside her. "You found me," she murmured to him. "I had been nearly lost."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I had forgotten myself. Forgotten my past and even my own name. Until you reminded me. I had been so lonely for so long. Thank you for the dance, Ezra." She did smile at him, but her eyes were growing sad again, and the smile did not quite light them up. "And for the flowers. But you should go now."
The rain seemed cold again to Ezra as he watched her wilt, like the bouquet being steadily beaten down by the weather. "What will happen to you when I go?"
Valentine spread her fingers and stared at them. "The part of me that feels like myself, she's fading. You brought her back, Ezra. Brought me back. But the anger is still here. It never goes away.” Her voice became imperative. “You have to leave."
"Valentine," Ezra said, hesitant now to approach. "I ... I'm leaving tonight. I had a job to do here, but now it's over. Do you understand?"
"Good. I want you to live, and be happy, Ezra." She made no move, her eyes upon the flowers that began to grow tattered under the rain's resolute onslaught. "I’ll cherish this moment for as long as I remember it." Her tone was already growing flat and lifeless.
Suddenly he doubted himself. Her good intentions toward him rather threw him. She wanted him to be happy? What had he really done for her, that she should wish his happiness? And could he really be happy leaving her in this state, knowing that all joyful memories, including this one, would be devoured by the uncontrollable rage that had turned her into a monster?
"Valentine, I want you to be happy, too." Standish continued with considerable trepidation, "I'm an undercover agent for the FBI. Vladimir is going to jail."
Her inscrutable eyes turned upon him. "For killing me?" she asked.
Ezra shook his head, not daring to say anything that might trigger the anger of the rusalka. "Do you ... do you think that would save you?" he ventured. "His old crimes might still be discovered, once the FBI starts investigating. . . ."
He took an instinctive backward step as she rose to her feet, but Valentine only gave him a challenging side-eye as she turned toward the river.
"Let me show you something," she said, and then the undead maiden stepped out of the clearing deeper into the woods.
He shivered, suddenly aware that every stitch of him was soaking wet. With no time to consider consequences, Ezra followed into the darkness after the rusalka.
Once Ezra had parted from Jericho, the only sounds to be heard from his wire were the background noises of the hotel or the soft beat of the undercover agent's footsteps against the floor. For some time, there had been nothing for the surveillance team to listen to but white noise static. It had taken JD some minutes to realize that they had stopped receiving even that.
"Is it the speaker?" Chris asked as Dunne reconnected some wires and power cycled the receiver. The young hacker waited for the blinking lights to turn solid, then twisted the volume knob back and forth. Still, the only sound they heard was the absolute absence of sound, save for the rain that pelted the roof of the van.
JD shook his head. "I think it's Ezra's wire."
"We're going in now." Reilly made a move for the walkie again, but Larabee snatched it first.
"You're not the shot-caller here,." Team Seven's leader reminded. He snapped the walkie radio up to his mouth. "All teams, are you in position? Get ready to move."
The rainDamp chilled Ezra to his core, and his muscles convulsed he shivered as he followed trailed the rusalka through the foresttrees. Her pale skin was quite easy to see; her whole form seemed to glow as if by moonlight, although the heavy clouds made that an impossible prospect cover blocked any possible rays. He wanted to say something to her, but Valentine led with such an intense, urgent wavering expression that Ezra hadn't any words to offer. To look at her face was to see the inner conflict of her two selves at war with each other. Though Ezra walked quickly to keep up, she only ever seemed to sway slowly forward, like a wisp of lace in the wind.
She turned and waved her hand, beckoning him to follow her farther into the woods. Ezra silently kept pace, squinting through the wet haze, and enduring the chilly drops washing over his face and drenching his clothes.
Finally, they came down to the wide shore of the Chattahoochee, where the river cut the forest in half. Ezra surveyed the arealooked around, saw the lights of the Grand Tributary in the far distance. Still, Valentine led him farther down the river bank.
"Here." She stood by the trunk of an oak tree and pointed to a rather unremarkable patch of ground some seven several feet downward.
Ezra stood in the rain, looking at Valentine standing in the rain. He cocked his head questioningly. "HIt's here," Valentine enumerated. "Buried."
"What's buried here?" Ezra practically had to shout over the din the raindrops made on the Chattahoochee. The rusalka's words had carried clearly, although she hadn't raised her voice at all.
Her eyes were blacker and sadder than ever. "I am," she whispered.
"We've got movement at the front of the hotel," Josiah called out.
A press of agents clogged the channel between the back of the van and its front seats.
"Is it Ezra?" Chris asked.
Sanchez, peering through the binoculars, shook his head. "Don't think so. Can't see who, though ..."
Reilly shoved Buck away from the gap and leaned forward as Nathan hit the windshield wipers.
"Bleedin' hell!" The Irishman tumbled over a disgruntled Wilmington in his haste to get to the rear of the van. "It's Jericho!" he shouted as he burst out through the double doors.
"Shit. Go now!" Larabee barked through his walkieradio. "Everyone, move in!"
Team Seven's leader jumped out of the van on Reilly's heels, puddles making explosions of water with each step as they ran toward the Grand Tributary. Elijah Jericho, his back to the agents, carried a black umbrella as he strode down the wet sidewalk away from the hotel. As the Southern mobster turned the corner down the side alley next to the hotel, Reilly put on a burst of speed. Larabee swore under his breath, watching the FBI agent disappear around the same corner. Feeling his shoes losing purchase on the wet pavement, Chris slowed to a jog as he approached and made the turn himself.
Reilly's extra output of acceleration had allowed him to catch up with Jericho, who still had not noticed his Federal pursuers in his steady haste down the side street. As Reilly closed the gap, he shouted Jericho's name. The Southerner glanced over his shoulder, that white goatee of his dropping in shock at seeing Reilly's fist flying toward him. Reilly caught Jericho by the collar of his navy trench coat and hurled him against the wall of the Tributary, the agent's own momentum carrying him past the mob boss.
Larabee drew his service weapon as he verged upon the scene, cutting off Jericho's potential escape down the avenue where he'd entered.
"You good, there?" he asked Reilly.
Leaning forward braced against his knees, his broad chest rising and falling deeply in huge gulps of breath as the rain poured down his face, the FBI special agent nodded. He straightened up and turned to the Southern mob leader.
"Elijah Jericho," Reilly said. "You are under arrest."
Ken could have done a happy dance when he saw Elijah Jericho, sporting a pair of handcuffs and dripping like a wet goat, led into the conference room by Special Agent Reilly. The undercover agent styled a shiny set of shiny cuffs, himself, maintaining his secret identity for the nonce, sequestered with Mickey and the other criminals who'd been cornered by the FBI's dynamic entrance. Owens actually felt a little sorry for the feeble old hotel owner, who seemed rather bewildered; but Romanov's outraged facial expression at having his purple shades removed by some random task force member had been one of the most satisfyingly comical moments of Ken's career.
"Where's the lawyer? Zachary Bennett, where is he?"
The question, asked to Jericho by Reilly on the other side of the room, caught Ken's attention through the crowd of mobsters and law enforcement. There was no need to sell Standish's cover any further. Why would they ask that? Shouldn't they know where he was?
"You'll be speaking to my lawyers soon enough," Jericho promised with a baleful glare indicating that would be his final word on the subject.
Larabee approached Pamchenko. "Where's Bennett?" he demanded of the hotel owner.
The elderly Russian had regained his aplomb, however, and turned a frosty stare on Chris. "You, sir, are dripping on my carpeting," Pamchenko sniffed at the rain-soaked agent.
Staring the old man in the eye, Larabee gave a shake of his black sleeve that sent pinpricks of water scattering over the walls and floor. Then he turned to the younger Russian, Nikolai Romanov.
"Bennett, where is he?" Chris asked. The Little Czar raised his tattooed shoulders in an unconcerned shrug.
Larabee glowered. He moved down the line of handcuffed men until he came to Ken.
"You," he said. "You know what happened to Bennett?"
Owens shook his head. The ATF leader's dark glare deepened. He reached out and grabbed Ken by the shoulder.
"I don't believe you," Larabee growled, dragging the undercover agent through the room's double doors. Ken staggered along as Chris yanked him down the long hallway until they were out of earshot of anyone in the conference room. Then he spun Owens around and uncuffed him.
"Ezra is missing?" Ken asked, rubbing proper circulation back into his wrists. "You try calling him?"
"Yeah," Larabee confirmed as the rest of Team Seven converged on the two agents. " No answer. Anybody see him?" Chris asked Buck. Wilmington shook his head.
"He get out of the conference room all right?" Vin questioned Owens.
Ken nodded. "Yeah, he left when it was all wrapped up and everyone started drinking. Jericho followed him out but was only gone a minute, and Mickey was still inside with me. He never made it to the stairwell?"
"We've got to spread out and look for him," Chris said. "Buck, you're with me on this floor. Nathan, Josiah, take the next one down. Vin and JD, you two take the lobby and ground floor."
"I'll check his room," Owens volunteered.
"Great. Let's go."
Larabee and Wilmington split off while the rest of the team headed for the stairwell.
"Do you think he went looking for that girl?" JD suggested as the search party's brisk steps carried them down the hallway.
"What girl?" Ken asked.
"Ezra met a girl on the roof that first night," Nathan explained. "Thought she might be in trouble."
"We couldn't find her in any of the surveillance photos, though," JD remarked.
Vin threw a sideways glance at the shorter agent. "None of them?" he asked skeptically. "Not one single lady in a gold dress. How many photos did you take, five?"
"More like five hundred. Buck was behind the shutter, remember?"
The young hacker's answer seemed to trouble Tanner. The gold dress conversation tickled something in the back of Ken's mind but he couldn't bring it to the forefront.
They reached the stairwell and split off, Team Seven for the lower levels, Ken heading up.
"Ah, Vin! Did you bring your friend to try our famous stroganov?"
Inside the Red Heron restaurant, business went on as usual. As JD completed a perimeter of the dining area, Tanner had spotted Andy waiting tables and approached him.
"I'm actually looking for my boss," Vin told the young man. He described Ezra. "You seen him?"
Andy shook his head. "But it has been one exciting evening, let me tell you!. I heard there was a police raid on one of the upper floors."
"Uh-huh," Tanner nodded, visually scanning the tables and bar area. JD appeared from behind the silver swinging doors leading to the kitchen. He shook his head and cut across the dining space toward Vin.
"Oh, and there's been another rusalka sighting!. At the back of the hotel, going down to the woods," Andy told the tracker with enthusiastic relish. "Tell you what, I'm not going to be the one taking out the trash tonight!"
"Yeah, thanks, Andy," Tanner said as the young man left to continue his duties. He shook his head at the waiter's back. "What the hell is a rusalka?" Vin asked the rhetorical question as he and JD weaved through dining couples on their way back to the lobby.
"The undead spirit of a drowned maiden who lures men to their deaths," Dunne answered.
The unexpected answer stopped Vin dead in his tracks. "How?" was all he managed to spit out.
JD shrugged. "It was in a video game I used to play. You coming?"
In the lobby, a pair of FBI agents spoke to a wide-eyed Maria and her male counterpart at the concierge desk. While JD approached to inquire about Ezra, Vin ventured down a hallway that led deeper into the heart of the hotel. The area seemed little used nowadays, and even Tanner's quiet steps seemed to echo down the white marble corridor.
Vin came to a pair of open double doors and stepped into a massive room. The clear expanse seemed designed for hosting lavish parties, Tanner thought. It certainly wasn't hiding an undercover ATF agent.
As Vin turned to leave, a scattering of leaves and petals beneath one of the giant vases caught his eye. The tracker crouched down for a closer examination. The pale petals felt soft and fresh, as if they'd been jostled off rather than wilted and fell. A quick glance revealed no floral debris littering the ground beneath any of the other ceramic pots, meaning the staff kept this room clean even when it was going unused.
Tanner straightened and returned to the outer passage. What did it mean? He could glean nothing actionable from the data so he tucked it into his intuition matrix for later.
A little farther down, the hallway terminated in an almost disappointingly standard glass exit door. Vin peered out into the near-darkness, seeing nothing but a sidewalk that likely led around to the front of the hotel and a narrow lawn that disappeared as it toppled over the hillside that led down to the woods along the Chattahoochee River. There was a fountain in a clearing nearby that way, Vin knew.
The rain still fell significantly. There was no conceivable reason for Ezra to have come by this way, but Vin's instincts were beginning to harry him in a certain direction. He sent a text to JD and stepped out into the wet, dark world behind the Grand Tributary.
The sidewalk extending along the back wall of the building was clear. By the dim yellow glow of the light above the exit door, Tanner saw the sodden grass mashed into the shape of a man's foot in a trail leading toward the tree line. Vin jogged across the lawn in the direction he rememberedof the path down leading to the angel fountain to be.
Streaming rivulets of water made footing along the muddy trail difficult, and Vin picked his way down carefully with the flashlight he always carried,. until tThe landscape leveled off and he broke out of the woods into what had once been the park-like setting with the stone fountain.
A bouquet of battered flowers lay abandoned beneath its angelic lovers, scattered by the wind and rain.
Vin cursed under his breath. "Ezra!" he called. There was no answer.
The heavy rain had slowed to a gentle but steady patter. Tanner used his flashlight to scan the muddy surroundings, hoping any footprints hadn't already been washed away. His own boots had left deep prints that were already discouragingly pooled with water, but the persistent tracker persisted and found a heavy indentation, as if from the toe of a shoe as the foot it belonged to had takenof a hurried step. Lighter depressions away from the fountain seemed to confirm the theory.
Why on earth would Ezra have gone deeper into the forest? Vin wondered. Whatever the reason, Team Seven's tracker felt confident he had done so. Tanner pushed into the brush after him, following the undercover agent's trail along the Chattahoochee.
Ezra's trail through the wooded riverside would have been impossible for a less experienced tracker, and Vin was glad the Southerner had not tried to hide his tracks by any means. He seemed to be pursuing a straightforward path along the river, and after a while Tanner stopped looking for tracks and focused on pushing his way forward as quickly as possible.
The method reaped results. FiWhen he finally he spotted the agent, but what he saw halted him dead in his tracks. caught up with Standish, tThe Southerner was not alone. A woman in a gold dress was there too.
Vin's momentum nearly carried him into the river as he slid to a muddy stop. The tracker clung to a small tree to keep his footing, staring in shock at the scene before him in shock. He hadn't believed that Ezra's mystery woman existed, and but now here she was, in attire most unfitting the woodsy setting.
Not that the soaked undercover agent's clothing was in any way appropriate to the task he was undertaking,as he furiously shovelinged wet dirt along the riverbank with a sturdy stick. The woman in the gold gown watched from over his shoulder, her expression almost one of pain, with eyes wide andwith fevered look in her eye,. hHer hands constantly strayeding toward Ezra before she pulled them back spastically.
Ezra hadn't noticed Vin. Vin shouted his name. Absorbed in his work, Ezra still didn't notice, but the girl rusalka did. She sawlooked at Vin and smiled, almost like with relief. Vin Tanner’sfelt his breath catch caught in his throat. She was heart-breakingly beautiful. Swaying seductively in the curve-hugging gold dress, Sshe floated toward the tracker, swaying seductively in the curve-hugging gold dress. The rain began to slow to the pace of mere teardrops. The strange woman drew close, and reached up out her hand to nearly touch Vin's Tanner’s face. Vin stepped forward.
Ezra Standish shouted a cry of triumph. The dark-haired lady froze, surprised, then turned quickly turned aroundto see. Bent over the shallow hole he'd dug out of the eroded bank, Ezra had unearthed bones.
The rain hadheavens ceased their flood of tears. Vin looked gasped and looked around, put out a hand in front of him, where the girl had been. She was gone.
"Vin?" Team Seven's undercover agent finally noticed Tanner. Standish looked scanned the treelinearound, but as Vin could attest, Valentine had disappearedvanished with the rain.
"What is this?" Vin asked softly, sliding down next to Ezra to on the riverbank.
"A murder," Ezra replied, gazing sadly upon the skeleton he had excavated. "Maybe now she can finally have peace."
After several minutes of persistent pounding on the door of Ezra's hotel suite, Ken determined that if Standish was inside, no amount of noise would persuade him to open it. Owens sighed. Perhaps one of his neighbors on this floor had seen something, Ken thought. The endeavor of questioning them proved only slightly more fruitful than banging on Ezra's door, however, as few of the rooms were occupied at this dining hour, and of the handful of people to whom Owens managed to speak, none had seen Standish or heard anything unusual on this floor. Except some obnoxious knocking a short while ago.
Discouraged, Ken returned to the elevator. He didn't have to wait long after pushing the button for the doors to slide open, revealing a familiar pretty face.
"Sasha?" Owens spoke her name reflexively. The Russian moll gave him a disdainful glance as she exited the elevator cab and kept walking. "Hey," Ken followed her. "You may not remember me. I'm here with Elijah Jericho."
"I have seen you," the brunette said scornfully. Apparently, she only had taste for bigger fish.
"I'm looking for Zachary Bennett," Ken cut to the chase. "Have you seen him?"
"Why would I have seen him? He is brute. The man he employs is brute," Sasha pouted angrily. "Let him be with Isaak for all I care."
Owens let allowed her to stalk away. He returned to the elevators, stepping into the cab Sasha had just vacated. Hopefully the other agents were having more luck in their search for Standish,. Ken thought as he reached to punch the button for the second floor. With his hand outstretched, he paused.
Ken pulled out his phone and called Larabee. That nagging feeling in the back of his mind had returned. "Still nothing? Yeah, fourth floor is a bust. Has anyone thought to check for him on the roof? I know it's raining, but ... not anymore? Maybe I'll take a quick look."
Some sort of intuitive impulse, perhaps. Ken Owens pushed the button for the roof.
"Call off the troops," Vin spoke into the cell's receiver. "I found him. Yeah, he's all right. He was, uh, tracking down some extra evidence."
Ezra visually traced the collection of bones to its head. He dug his fingers into the mud until they connected with a hard, smooth dome, then he excavated the rest of the skull. Ezra stood, flicking wet dirt from his fingers, staring at Valentine's physical remains. He had a hard time reconciling the skeletal grin to the melancholic smile a dance around a stone fountain had produced only a short time ago.
Vin hung up the phone and stepped over to the unceremonious grave. "That your Valentine?" he asked.
Ezra nodded. "Killed by Vladimir Pamchenko. When he was just a driver with ambitions."
Vin frowned at the skeleton revealed in the bank beneath a tree with exposed roots, roots which were like a hand loosely holding Valentine's body. He shook his head. "We'll come back here with a forensics team," Tanner said. He clapped Ezra lightly on the shoulder. "C'mon. Chris wants us at the van."
"You arrest Jericho and the others?" Ezra asked.
"At least I could give her justice. I hope that's enough."
They trudged back to the hotel through the woods. Ezra followed the path Vin picked out with his flashlight. The tracker led them up and out of the woods directly, away from the Chattahoochee rather than alongside it, to make their trek to the Grand Tributary easier, with less chance to trip over roots in the dark.
A sea of flashing lights and vehicles filled the space in front of the hotel. Ezra saw Vladimir Pamchenko being escorted out of the Grand Tributary toward a police car, his hands cuffed before him. Ezra pulled the gold peach blossom necklace from his pocket, imagining how satisfying the satisfyingly shocked look on Pamchenko's face would be if he were Standish to storm over there and slam Valentine's necklace into his hand. How would the former chauffeur react to being told he would shortly face justice for her murder?
"Something's wrong," Vin observed, interrupting Ezra's envisioning of the encounter. Standish followed the tracker's gaze to an ambulance parked directly in front of the hotel.
Ezra couldn't care less that his bedraggled appearance sparked some shocked looks as he and Tanner passed. He didn't even care that the glares from the FBI agents surrounding the ambulance were particularly malicious. What alarmed him were the tears running down Jean's cheeks and another agent sitting shock-still on the curb with his hands clasped tightly against his forehead, eyes closed.
At the surveillance van, a sober-looking Team Seven gathered in wait for their missing agents.
"Ezra?" Buck had to look twice as the strobing red lights lit the muddy Southerner's approach. "What happened to you?"
"Where have you been?" Chris demanded.
"We'll explain later." Sweeping his head to indicate the flashing scene and somber atmosphere, Vin asked, "What's going on here?"
A pall descended over the group. Josiah, sitting on the van's bumper, looked down at his shoes. Standing on either side of him, Nathan and Buck also seemed to find their footwear worth examining.
JD's eyes suggested strain from more than just the lights strobing in the darkness. The young man gulped out, "It's Ken, he … he-"
Ezra's stomach dropped to the pavement as Dunne's words faltered. Fear stuck his own words in his throat. For long moments nobody said anything, and Ezra's anxiety increased a hundred times in the silence. Finally, Vin quietly spoke what the undercover agent hesitated to ask.
"What happened to Ken?"
Larabee swept his hand across his mouth and shook his head, in his eyes anger with no outlet. "Drowned. On the roof."
By his widened eyes and shocked expression as he exchanged glances with the undercover agent, Vin immediately came to the same conclusion as Ezra. Standish averted his gaze to the gold peach blossom in his hand. "The swimming pool?" He found his voice to ask, surprised at its flatness.
Chris nodded. "His cover may have been compromised. We don't know."
In low tones, Team Seven filled in their missing members on what had happened at the hotel since they'd been missing. Standish heard none of it; he just kept staring at the gold blossom in his palm. Ezra's fist clenched around the necklace and his green eyes sharpened. Without a word, he slipped away from the group and strode into the Grand Tributary Hotel.
Vin couldn't believe Ken Owens was gone. The fact that the life of such a decent man had been snuffed out by that pretty lady he'd seen with Ezra in the woods seemed only scarcely less comprehensible. How would they explain the rusalka to Team Seven and the FBI, Tanner wondered. Should they even try?
"... after that, we'll get Ezra back to the Century Building for debriefing," Chris told the gathered agents. The ATF leader's gaze narrowed as it circled the group. "Where is Standish?"
Everyone's heads snapped up to count the team's number down by one. Vin swore under his breath, turning from the surveillance van to scan the figures moving in the darkened tableau in front of the hotel, trying to pick out Ezra among them.
"What the hell?" Buck exclaimed.
"How'd he disappear again?" Nathan asked.
"There he is!" JD pointed to the hotel entrance just as Vin's searching gaze spotted the undercover agent veering toward the doors at a run.
"Shit." Vin took off after him. "Ezra!"
The undercover agent ignored the shout. Tanner threaded through the swarm of agents and emergency vehicles, quick as a needle toward the hotel with the rest of Team Seven darting to his heels.
Vin plowed past an already bewildered doorman. In the lobby, Tanner's trademark timing betrayed him. Rushing to the elevators, he arrived just in time to see the mirrored gold doors slide shut with the ATF undercover agent enclosed inside the cab.
The team caught up to Vin as he swore and banged hism palm against the metallic barrier.
"What's going on?" Chris asked.
"He's gonna get himself killed," Vin said, watching the progress of the elevator arrow to the top. "C'mon."
"The stairs?" Buck asked with dismay as Tanner shoved through the stairwell door beside the elevator.
"C'mon!" Vin yelled.
The six agents barreled up the stairs. Vin led the charge, wondering if they would be in time to prevent Valentine's vengeful spirit from killing another friend.
In a corner of the Grand Tributary's lobby near a marble column, as Special Agent Reilly stood guard over his prisoner, the FBI agent observed Standish race into the hotel, followed momentarily after by his team. He frowned and tugged at his earlobe, wondering what the maverick ATF team was about now. Did they hope to find something on the roof that would make sense of Owens' death? Nothing could bleeding make sense of that, Reilly thought. All the major crime factions in the hotel had been placed under arrest and detained at the time it had occurred.
"Ken was one of yours, then?" Jericho, observing the EMTsemergency medical technicians close the doors on the ambulance containing the undercover agent's body, missed the ruckus at the elevator.
Reilly frowned at Jericho. Elation that the day of the crime leader's arrest had finally come clashed with the sorrow of Ken's untimely, inexplicable death. Could the mob boss have figured Owens out beforehand and set up his death to appear as an accident? Though the circumstances would seem to make that scenario unlikely, Jericho was a dab hand at just that kind of set up, Reilly thought, absently rubbing the ring on his left hand.
"What a terrible misfortune." With his hands cuffed behind his back, Jericho couldn't perform the accustomed stroke of his beard that would normally have accompanied his conversational, utterly calculated tone. "Was he a close friend? These tragedies seem to follow you around, Agent Reilly."
To keep his fingers from clenching into a fist, Reilly worked the knot of his tie loose. "Unless you fancy becoming one of those tragedies yourself, Jericho, I suggest you shut your yap," he warned.
The Southern mob leader smiled provokingly, however, and continued in his tactically-infuriating tenor, "I am sorry that I didn't know Ken as well as I should have. I would have arranged for a much more fitting send off. Something a bit less quick and easy."
Reilly's fingers tightened into a sinewed nexus of wrath. Now that he was caught, Jericho thought to incite the special agent to violence in order to bring a case the FBI, Reilly knew, and weaken their standing against him. But if he punched Jericho with as much force as that fist was capable of dealing, the smug scumbag would get the back of his head smashed against that marble pillar, and that would be the end of Elijah Jericho.
Reilly felt the tendons in his hand straining at the tension flowing through them, the skin across his knuckles so taut that bone threatened to tear through. Another moment and those bones would have been tested against the hardness of Jericho's skull, but a glare of red and white lights out of the corner of his eye flashed his attention briefly. It was the ambulance ushering Ken's body away from the hotel.
If Reilly shattered Jericho's face, he would be shattering all the work, the effort and the time Ken Owens had put into collecting evidence against the mob boss and his criminal enterprise. The culmination of his life's work, and his resulting death, would be in vain.
Reilly's fingers fell open in a tremble.
"Shut up, Jericho," the Irishman growled. "I know you're trying to lean into me to make me lose my cool. It's not going to work."
The white-haired Southerner raised a smug eyebrow, evidently feeling up to the challenge.
"It's not going to work," Reilly told him, "because I have you six ways from Sunday. I have you for money laundering, racketeering, and," he stepped toward Jericho, backing him up against the pillar with a fierce smile of his own, "I have you admitting to a Federal agent that you had my wife murdered."
For the first time in any encounter, Jericho's arrogant poker face slipped and allowed a trace of alarm into his eyes. "What are you talking about?" he asked.
"Ken wasn't my only friend," Reilly revealed. "You haven't figured it out yet? Your buddy, Zachary Bennett, is one of my trusted agents."
Jericho's expression was an apoplexy of disbelief, outrage, and panic. Reilly took him by the shoulder and passed the cornered crime boss to a uniformed police officer.
"Take him away."
Ezra strode across the lobby, leaving squelchy, muddy footprints on the splendid oriental rugs and gleaming tile along the way. For once in his life, he cared nothing about his appearance.
It was the mud from Valentine's desolate grave that dripped off Ezra. The Southerner was tracking that mud into the Grand Tributary. The shiny gilt magnificence of the historic hotel was broken by his bedraggled and soaked self. Amazing that all it took was a trail of flat, dull brown mud to break the romantic illusion. Vladimir Pamchenko's mud, trailing from his lover's burial ground to site of her murder atop his lavish hotel. A full circle.
The undercover agent slipped into the elevator and rode it upwards.
Vladimir's mud. Valentine's body. Somehow, Ezra had gotten all tangled up in that ancient heartbreak. Somehow, he'd let the beautiful and lonely ghost have access to his heart. He'd gotten wrapped up the quixotic idea of saving her, and those stupid feelings had gotten in the way. They'd gotten a man killed.
As the cab ascended, Ezra lost himself in waves of guilt and loathing. He should have told his fellow undercover agent about the danger lurking on the rooftop. He shouldn't have allowed concern over his reputation to prevent him from warning Ken or confiding in him. He should have trusted, despite his feelings.
Regret added to his misery. If he had focused on the job, everything would have been fine. Instead, he had tried to save Valentine, a ghost. Tried and failed. Justice would not be the balm to sooth her spirit, it seemed. Maybe nothing could. Ezra glared at the mud puddling around his feet. He had wanted to save her. But desire hadn't been enough, and Ezra regretted his own impulse to try.
The doors slid open. Ezra was met with a giant X of crime scene tape across the opening. He ripped through it.
"Valentine!" he shouted over the empty expanse. A cold, stiff breeze snatched his call and ripped across the roof with it. .The heavy rain had left puddles, and every surface shined reflectively. Traces of the strobing police lights on the streets below echoed on the water.
The rusalka reclined beside the pool. The lights flashed against the shiny material of her dress. She languidly waved one hand through the water, as if washing off the violent deeds which stained it. She didn't glance at Ezra, but gazed through downcast lashes at the ripples cascading over the obscured waters.
What detestable shroud of vengeance animated this rusalka? In life, Valentine had not been like this. Valentine had abhorred violence, breaking away from her lover when she discovered his murderous ways. Even doing so she had seemed sad, not hateful. Some other force must have created the wraith. The passionate violence of a young Russian chauffeur, forced to confront the consequences of his own guilty deeds, perhaps. Whatever this rusalka was, it was not Valentine.
She lifted her hand out of the pool, mesmerized by the water dripping off her fingers like blood. Her beauty was alluring beyond reason, but behind that beauty lurked a monster as savage as the gangsters that were being arrested below. They were paying for their crimes. Would the rusalka pay for hers? Fury and betrayal rose to eat Ezra's other feelings. He had been trying to help her.
Ezra strode to the monster's side. His heart beat so that it felt as if his ribs caged a wild beast, pounding against its prison and hurtling itself against the walls that it might tear through them.
"The man you killed. His name was Ken Owens. He was a good man," Ezra threw the statement at her as if it were a dagger. "He would have tried to help you, if you'd asked." Standish's own guilt in the matter throbbed like an open wound.
Her eyes undulated toward him, casually seductive. Saying nothing, she lifted her hand outward towards him. Her gold necklace was still clenched in Ezra's fist. He pitched the peach blossom necklace at her feet. It skidded toward the pool, the chain sliding over the edge, but stopping short of dragging the charm into the water. Calmly, the rusalka leaned over and plucked the necklace off the tile. Ezra scoffed in disbelief.
"You have no heart," he accused.
"My kind lives without it," she murmured. The rusalka tilted her head and lifted her hair, offering her bare neck to him. Ezra felt her supernatural allure undermining his anger. His jaw clenched, and he combated desire with increased rage.
"You asked me to save you."
Reconciled that he wouldn't be assisting, she clasped the chain around her neck herself.
Ezra, still wet and feeling the grit of mud beneath his fingernails, realized he'd been digging Ken Owens' grave at the same time he'd been unearthing hers. Perhaps he now dug his own now, but it was too late to care. He grabbed the rusalka by the shoulders and pulled her to her feet. "For you, I abandoned my mission. I risked my life, and it wasn't enough. Now ... what? Kill me?" She struggled, her wild expression flashing between panic and rage, but Ezra's grip kept her close.
"I can't escape you, my dear. I can't do any more for you. Might as well do this now and get it over with," Standish said with his a cynical, impulsive energy. "One more bauble for the collection, eh, Valentine?"
"Ezra ..." Her interstellar eyes grew large with pleading.
A breath was all the space between them as he leaned in with seething words. "The cost of your vengeance is being paid by the innocent. Do you think your own pain makes this wanton slaughter justifiable? They never saw you coming, but I do, Valentine. Go ahead, if you think your hatred can be eased by killing."
He noticed then that her hands were coming up on either side of his forearms, moving in robotic jerks, as if some force tried to hold them back but had not the strength.
Valentine was trying to protect him against the rusalka.
A strong gust of wind pushed shoved against his back, as if to push him yet closer to the figure in his embrace. A chill ran through him. "You're trapped inside, aren't you?" Ezra whispered. "Just a girl held captive by a monster."
A single tear slid down her cold cheek. "Maybe the monster is me," Valentine whimpered, "maybe it devours me. Either way, I can't escape. You can. Please. Let me give you the only thing I have left. Go. Now, while you still can."
Ezra searched for the innocent girl in the deep black eyes across from his. She wavered moment to moment in the reflection of the voids of the monster.
"All that you accuse, it's true," she said in sorrowful answer to his hesitation. Then her voice grew cold as it continued in explanation., "If I have no empathy it is because my murderer had none. The night the rusalka was created, whose hands were full of spite? Whose pride and ambition held no forgiveness? Valentine was good, but Valentine died that night. Her spirit drifts alone in the darkness, not strong enough to fight his hatred."
The ice in her voice melted in an instant and was again choked with regret. "“Understand, every bit of loathing the monster feels for these poor men, I feel towards myself. I had no choice in becoming this thing. To be released and die forever is the last hope I still hold." Her eyes grew distant. Valentine's strength in this internal struggle was waning, and at this proximity Ezra could see tide of victory in this battle turning toward the rusalka.
Ezra released her icy frame, taking several paces away from the undead maiden. His anger toward her had evaporated and left in its wake only profound sadness. The mighty wind that had carried the rain past roared all around, washing away all sound from the rest of the world, leaving the pair on the roof alone together.
"Is justice not enough?" he asked at last.
The rusalka slowly swayed closer. "Justice is a cold revenge. It cannot find a lost heart. Death is all I know. Hate is all I feel."
Behind him a clatter echoed from the stairwell. The voices of Team Seven, rapidly ascending the steps. The noise drew the attention of the rusalka, who broke eye contact and looked over his shoulder.
"Then I'll show you another way to feel." Ezra stepped up and closed the gap between them. Behind him, he heard Vin shout his name. He ignored Team Seven, his focus all on Valentine as he pulled her into him. "I don't know if there's any salvation in it, but it's everything I have to give."
Ezra kissed her. As she returned the kiss, he felt her hands close gently on his face. Gravity was upended. The world suddenly churned in chaos around him.
"How could you do this to me?" he heard. Then the encompassing water began to infiltrate.
Chris had overtaken Vin on the steps to the roof, and the team leader was the first to reach the target of the apex floor. Throwing himself out onto the rooftop, Larabee braced himself his hands against his knees to catch his breath. Right behind him, Tanner dashed out onto the roof without a moment's pause, as if anticipating Team Seven's undercover agent stood to be surrounded by a horde of gun-toting criminals.
"Ezra!" Vin shouted.
Expecting to see the worst, Chris lifted his head and straightened to reach for his pistol. But there was only Ezra, standing beside the pool across from a dark-haired girl in a gold dress. As Vin shouted and ran, Standish pulled the young woman into a kiss.
"What-" Larabee had time to exclaim before the girl leaned hard into Ezra and tilted them both into the pool.
Vin skidded to one knee at the pool just as the pair dipped below the surface. He thrust his arm into the water, fishing for a hold on Standish. The tracker came up empty and smacked the pool's surface in frustration. "Ezra!" Vin called to the agent beneath the water. "Damn fool. Ezra!"
The other members of Team Seven began to arrive on the roof, gasping with exertion as Chris had done. Larabee sprinted over to the pool as Vin reached in for another try.
Larabee couldn't understand why Ezra and the girl hadn't surfaced yet. "What's going on?" he asked, dropping to a knee on the wet tile beside Vin.
"She's holding him under," Tanner's voice strained as he slid into a position on his side to stretch his arm into the pool up to his shoulder.
Chris could scarcely see anything in the dark waves as he peered urgently into the pool. A flash of gold swam just beneath the disturbed surface like some malevolent sea creature. Larabee snatched at it, but the optical distortion of the water must have made it seem closer than it was, because his hand passed right through what had to be the skirt of the woman's golden gown. Chris couldn't see Standish at all.
"Ezra in there?" Buck had one boot pulled off before he was halfway to the pool, and he closed the distance in a hobbled run. JD and Nathan followed shortly behind, with Josiah bringing up the rear.
"Yeah," Chris answered.
At the same time, Vin warned, "Don't, Buck. You don't know what you're dealing with here."
"I know he's gonna drown," Wilmington protested, pulling off his second boot.
"She'll kill you, too!" Tanner snapped. "Idiots! Here, try and grab him from that side."
As the tracker bent his head to reach into the pool again, the ends of his hair trailing in the water, Wilmington and the others met Larabee's eyes with open-mouthed stares of frantic bewilderment.
What the hell were they dealing with? Chris wondered, trying desperately with his team to pull his undercover agent from the grip of a petite girl in a gold dress.
A whisper of shouts reached Ezra's ears through the violent splash of his body thrashing in the water. The sound was quickly engulfed and vanished into nothingness.
The rusalka had tipped them into the pool. Bubbles cascaded around them, capturing very faint light in their fragile shells before fleeing away to the surface, bearing the last of the light with them. They flew faster and farther away as the rusalka dragged him deeper and deeper. The impact of the water had broken off their kiss. Now she was his anchor, sinking him through the murky water. Yet in the darkness, he could still make out the deathly pale oval of her face, inches apart from his.
The face drew an involuntary gasp from Ezra, which was a terrible thing to do underwater. He suppressed the next impulse to cough up the water he had just intaken, and which now burned his insides. Through his encounters with the seductive killer called a rusalka, a winsome mask had concealed the horror of the monster. Now the true terror of the rusalka became apparent by a face contorted in the evil passions of vengeance. The eggshell skin was cast in sickly greenish-black shades. The fire of hatred burned in the cold void of her eyes. Her slender arms were like iron bands around him, her fingers like claws digging into his shoulders. Ezra's heart faltered in his chest.
"How could you do this to me, Ezra?"
The monster may have looked like the rusalka, but the gentle voice, tormented and anguished, sounded like Valentine.
"What do you mean?" he wanted to ask, but couldn't because there iwas no talking underwater. She seemed to hear his question, regardless.
"In killing you, my last hope dies."
Ezra's thoughts were growing confused. His lungs burned, and although he knew he couldn't let go of his breath to ease them, he was forgetting the reason why.
"Why should it? Am I not just another guilty victim?"
"No, Ezra. You're the man I love."
Her admission stunned him. How could he be anything to her? A sense of fading stole the question away. Wisps of vague color played around his vision. Suddenly he saw the rusalka's face retreating. The rusalka had released him. She was leaving him with no sense of up or down, lost and alone.
A swell of peace washed over Ezra as the malevolent wraith abandoned him, bringing release from the spirit of vengeance. Even this black abyss he floated in was preferable to that oppressive influence. For a moment, he let himself find happiness in that relief.
But if he stayed here, he would be leaving Valentine alone in her abyss forever.
Ezra kicked and thrashed in the cold darkness, struggling not for the lost surface, but to gain connection with her once more. His hands seized upon the rusalka's bony wrists. He gripped them tightly as she tried to yank them away. The pair spun as if dancing in the flows. As he drew her in, the hot blackness of the rusalka's eyes filled his focus.
He found himself alone in a world of nothing, a dreamscape void all around. Ezra twisted, searching for Valentine. He gasped a breath to call for her, but the attempt only left him coughing into the silence. He moved forward, the heavy step threatening to land him on his face. Valentine. The need to rescue her from the monster was the one idea drove driving him. Her name burned in his chest, the fire of the unspoken call scorching his throat. He had to save her before his entire insides burst aflame.
His plodding steps could carry him no further. Exhausted, Ezra fell, catching himself on hands and knees that splashed as they met ground which shimmered in front of him. Despite the foggy desperation that trembled his entire body, a burst of hope filled him, like oxygen to his lungs. He peered through the rippled surface.
There! Beneath the dark waves Ezra saw Valentine, struggling as if trying to writhe free of invisible hands holding her down. He thrust his arm into the water and extended his own hand.
She looked up at him, ripples of water distorting her features. "Come with me," Ezra said without words. She reached toward him, but suddenly he was the one in the water, sinking. Then he felt a delicate hand slip into his outstretched palm and grip it with surprising strength.
Brilliant rays suddenly engulfed the void. In the cascade of rainbow light, Ezra could see Valentine's face, full of wonder as she drew her arms around his neck and embraced him. He clasped her tight. Then light swallowed everything.
The next thing Ezra knew, he was coughing up water and breathing air. In trying to do both simultaneously he nearly blacked out again. He turned on his side and hacked and sputtered and coughed on the tile. Then he stared around in bewilderment. He had returned to the glistening night rooftop. The men of Team Seven were gathered around him in curious fashion. Buck stood in just his socks. Vin huffed as from exertion, his hair dripping and hanging in wet tendrils. Those who weren't entirely soaked had shirt sleeves damp up to their shoulders. Nathan knelt by Ezra's side.
"He's back!" and other forms of encouragement and cheers went up. Hands clapped Nathan on the shoulder and Ezra on the back. Standish wondered how they knew he'd been gone. Then again, he himself couldn't have explained where he'd been.
"Where?" he tried to ask after Valentine, but his raw throat wouldn't let him get the question out. Where was she? Ezra looked to the dark expanse of pool water. He spotted the body, the skirt of a gold dress floating listlessly in the pool. Ignoring the protests of his team, Standish shoved past them on his hands and knees and threw himself back into the water to get her.
Once the company had themselves seen the object of his attention, they too made efforts to help him retrieve the girl's body. There was a chaotic cacophony of men in and out of the water, arms thrust out to help. Chris jumped into the water to help Ezra lift her to Vin and Buck. Then the rest of them assisted push and shove Ezra out over the edge. Ezra crawled forward on the tile and took Valentine into his arms.
Her eyelids were shut. She hung limply in Ezra's embrace. She looked different, her skin waxy and transparent. The only movement came from her hair blowing in the dying breezes. Ezra drew his hand up to her icy cold cheek.
Valentine's eyes opened. Gasps went up along among the circle of men who had been starting to debate the merit of attempting resuscitative measures on the girl. She gazed at Ezra with dull eyes that nevertheless held a brighter spark than the black voids of the rusalka. Valentine's eyes were brown, Ezra noticed.
"Thank you.," She smiled at him, a genuine smile without a trace of sadness. It reminded Standish of the young and happily-in-love Valentine of his dreams. He returned the smile. He remembered what she had said earlier to him.
"How can you love me?" he croaked. "You hardly know me;, how can I be anything to you?"
"You're a good man," Valentine answered breathlessly. "You're the man willing to die to save me. Even when I didn't deserve it."
Her body began to slowly disintegrate in Ezra's arms. The wind carried dust-like particles of her away into the air. He felt a flash of panic. "No, no," he protested. "You're free now, Valentine. Stay with me."
She smiled and raised a skeletal hand to his face.
"Hate held me here. Love sets me free. I'll carry it with me to the next life, Ezra."
"I would have gone with you." He didn't know what to do. The tighter he held her, the more he felt her becoming dust in his hands.
As the rest of her fell apart, her brown eyes became yet brighter and luminescent. "We'll see each other again. Dream of me sometimes, Ezra."
The last of Valentine faded away in Ezra's arms, leaving him holding nothing but the cold night air.
Ezra stared sadly at his empty arms. He had not realized that success would feel so bittersweet. When had his feelings for a dream girl become so real? Team Seven stared in bewilderment. Chris Larabee had probably never looked more taken aback in his life. Nathan's mouth open and closed as if the former medic was working out a prescription against mass hallucination. JD gawked unabashedly. Josiah was the only one who faced the scene with anything close to aplomb, because that was just his way. Vin, having encountered the paranormal rusalka earlier tonight, shook his head as if he still couldn't believe. Wilmington was the first to find his words.
"What the hell just happened?" Buck asked. He looked around as if he would find the girl who had just vanished hiding somewhere.
"Ez, you okay?" Vin questioned. "Valentine . . ." The tracker searched for words he couldn't yet process.
"She's free," Ezra answered, a faint smile turning at his lips. "No more ghost. I saved her, I suppose."
A flash of metal on the wet tile caught Josiah's attention. He leaned down to pick up the necklace and handed it to Ezra.
"So that was your rusalka," Josiah said. "What was it she wanted in the end?"
"The same as everyone, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra replied, fingering the gold peach blossom. "A true love."
The men of the Magnificent Seven shuffled their feet awkwardly. Chris grunted. JD looked away. Buck wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
"So," Vin said, "Can we all go home now?"
Ezra had no reply. He realized his throat and lungs were burned raw and it hurt to speak.
The Downtown Dublin was full this evening, although it was early on a weekday. The majority of the crowd were FBI agents dressed in black. A framed picture of Ken Owens was displayed on a table near the bar. Team Seven had been allowed to stay in Atlanta for the undercover agent's funeral that had taken place this afternoon, and the Irish tavern was crowded with mourners gathered to celebrate Ken's life.
Ezra, Chris and Agent Reilly sat at the bar, all clad in dark suits, though Standish was the only one of them who still wore the jacket. The three men drank silently. In a roomful of mourners, they seemed slightly apart from the rest of the crowd by dint of an air of deeper melancholy. It was that common atmosphere that kept most others at bay.
Some in this life were immune to such deterrents, however. Bursting through the door as he entered the pub late, JD made a beeline toward the first familiar faces he saw, which happened to be the trio at the bar. The young man held a black velvet box in hand. "Hey, I finally found the perfect anniversary gift for Casey," Dunne said enthusiastically. "You wanna see?"
Without waiting for an answer, JD opened the hinged case. Inside was a gold brooch in the shape of a branch covered by tiny peach blossoms. Standish tried to speak, but words caught in his throat.
"Good job, JD," Chris said.
"It's a grand trinket," Agent Reilly praised.
Ezra finally found his voice. "Casey will be delighted. It is perfect," he assured the young man.
Smiling, Dunne walked away with the box. Sitting at a round table were Vin, Josiah, Nathan, and Buck, who was doing his best to rile Jean Charles by challenging her to join their table. JD proudly showed his find to the approving ladies' man.
Watching the young agent's enthusiasm, Ezra raised a glass. "To the all the women men love," he offered with a rueful shake of his head.
"Love is too trite a word," Reilly mumbled. He raised his Guinness and drank. Chris lifted his own beer to his lips.
"Was Ken married?" Larabee asked, setting his bottle on the polished wood counter.
"No," Reilly answered. "Said he never got around to it."
"Good," Chris responded. "Dying's a terrible thing to do to someone you love."
The Irishman nodded. Standish took a draught of his beer contemplatively.
"I don't know, gentlemen. It all ends someday. Might as well make the most of it," Ezra said. "In the end, love is the only thing you can take with you. Maybe Ken should have made the time."
Somewhere, somebody raised a glass. "A toast! To Ken Owens!. The man never had a bad word for anybody. He was generous to a fault and all of us here are better for knowing him. To our friend, Ken Owens."
The room thundered with a chorus of, "To Ken!"
Across the room, Buck tried to explain animal magnetism to a horrified Jean as the others laughed. Vin glanced over to the three men at the bar and nodded.
Ezra returned Tanner's gesture and elevated his mug in answer. He paused before the drink could pass his lips, however, and turned to Chris and Reilly with more his accustomed congeniality. "Gentlemen, it seems the Russian influences I experienced of late are still hale in me, and I cannot drink without a toast each time I raise a glass. So, allow me to propose one more." The men lifted their bottles as Ezra saluted: "To friends."
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