Hidden 7 mos ago Post by Leidenschaft
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Leidenschaft Relax, only half-dead

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>SOMEWHERE OUTSIDE CLARKSBURG, WV
>JUL.19.2019
>1300...///

The old faded red Camaro rolled over hot asphalt, windows down and music cranked up. The muscle car roared and belched black smoke as it topped a hill, sun flashing off the windshield as it came cruising down the empty road. AC/DC squawked from the ancient speakers thumping and shrieking over the rattling the car made when pushed around a curve too fast. The driver with a cigarette burning between his lips framed by a full brownish beard, his grown out dark blonde hair blown back by the wind.

Resting his tattooed arm on the door frame, Queen grinned around the smoldering menthol as they made rapid time to Clarksburg, to the location Tex had given them. His white trash persona was in full blast from the old muscle car to his Molly Hatchet t-shirt and can of beer snugged against his crotch as he drove.

Beside him was Ghost, dressed the same as always, brown cargos and dark gray shirt, biceps bulging and testing the seam strength. His red brown beard obscuring his features along with the ball cap and Oakley shades. Their long guns were carefully stashed but both were strapped, not unaware they were bound to find trouble.

Queen figured they would but for now he enjoyed hauling ass through the West Virginia hills, heading to find this team UMBRA. A bunch of Feds weak on fire power, investigation nerds like himself but they were soft and new. He grinned, glancing at Ghost, "How'd you think they'll like us?"

"I'm sure you'll be everybody's favorite," Ghost grunted. He watched the passing scenery, feigning nonchalance. In reality he was nervous. He hated meeting new people, working with new teams. Teams of normal people. He hated having to play the chameleon, to try and blend in among the sheep. He was out of practice; with THUNDER it didn't matter. THUNDER already knew he was a wolf.

The big Operator shifted in his seat, feeling his Glock dig a little. The low slung car wasn't conducive to appendix carry. "You gonna let your dick cause trouble?"

Queen scoffed, pushing his own sunglasses up as they slid down his nose. "My dick causes good times," he grinned, taking a drag of the Kool then shot a glance at Ghost. He was stone face, more than usual when they were alone.

He sniffed, trying to lighten the mood of his teammate, "Don't you worry, probably a buncha stuffy academics and stiff neck Feds. You can have me all to yourself."

"Yeah, yeah," Ghost snorted, shaking his head. "I just wanna get this done. You know I'm not big on… interdepartmental cooperation."

Queen, unable to resist, chuckled as he glanced at the t-shirt pulled tight across the older man's defined chest, "That's the only thing you're not big on. It'll be alright, you'll be the goon to cover their asses and maybe get to kill commies and Nazis in one mission. See, a bright side?"

Ghost gave one of his rare genuine smiles, the gesture taking almost a decade off his weathered face.

"Hard to get any more American than killin' Nazis and communists," he said. "If we can throw in a few Muslims it'll make it a perfect little vacation."

Queen could see the smile and rather than relax him it made his gut tighten. What was a flippant joke to normal people was reality for Ghost, the display of teeth more shark than man. "Yeah...hey, who knows? Maybe you'll get lucky. Uh...check the GPS, I think the turn off is coming up."

Ghost chuckled again at the thought of scoring the Holy Trinity of kill streaks. He checked the GPS and nodded, his smile fading.

"It's this one coming up," he said. They were just a few minutes out, and he felt his mirth fade, replaced by the gnawing nerves.

The neighborhood was run down, faded and peeling, with big mongrel dogs in yards and most cars were a decade old or more. Except one and Queen whistled, "Someone's slumming it. What do you think? Horny housewife or she looking for a score. Probably both."

He gestured to the bright brand new teal Prius then looked at the address of the rundown yellow house it sat outside. "Christ, it's ours. Well...civilians, am I right?"

Queen revved the engine a few times as if to rid himself of the taint of the Prius then spotted a familiar figure on the porch, smoking.

The Chevy Camaro rumbled to a stop, music cranked up at white trash levels and parked behind a big Ford truck with Texas plates.

Ghost dismounted almost immediately, stepping behind and then around the truck. His eyes swept the area, side to side, a quick peek into the Ford before moving on. They finally settled on Donnelley and Ghost approached the porch.

"Tex," he said, giving him a small nod. He stopped short about ten feet out; this was Donnelley's turf, not his. There was nothing wrong with asking permission before you entered another man's territory.

Donnelley could feel something in the air change when he heard the car, before he could see it. When it rumbled into view and out hopped Ghost and Queen, he didn’t know whether to be happy or distrusting. Maybe a little of both. Donnelley took a long, slow drag of his cigarette and blew it out, “Ghost.” He returned the nod, and a small smile crept onto his face as he looked Queen up and down, “They give you an inch and you take a fuckin’ mile, boy. I’m surprised y’aint got a goddamn Dixie flag on that hood.”

Queen had none of Ghost's qualms about territory and casually walked towards the house as if belonged there. He flashed a big smile on his bearded face, his grown out hair hanging in lank strands held back as he pushed his sunglasses up. "Hell, you know me, I go just far enough."

He reached to shake Donnelley's hand, pulling him into a quick embrace and he whispered, "I'll keep an eye on Ghost, make sure he don't scare anyone."

“Best keep the other one on your dick, make sure it don’t find itself anywhere we don’t need it, partner.” Donnelley chuckled, giving Queen a few pats on his back before letting him go.

He looked to the door, to Ghost and Queen. His old team meeting the new. His old pack meeting his family in there. If anything popped off, he trusted Queen, and he trusted Dave and Jason to keep them if he couldn’t. He put his hand on the doorknob and twisted, pushing the door open and taking a step through, “Everyone, meet two of our guardian angels.” He said, “This is Queen and Ghost.”

Queen rolled his eyes slightly but the mischievous grin was still on his lips when reminded again of his troublesome dick. He hitched his faded denim vest made from an old jacket over an even older baseball t-shirt with the ridiculous as only a 70s band from Florida could be album artwork emblazoned across his chest. He was right behind Donnelley, leaving Ghost to bring himself along.

Ghost filtered in behind the other two, pulling the door shut behind him. His sheer mass filled the space, especially when compared with Donnelley and Queen. He played his eyes around the room and bolted on a smile, consciously focusing on arresting the tension he seemed to bring into every situation.

From behind the back of a recliner facing away from the door, Ava tentatively poked her head out. Her bright blue eyes peered out through her large round glasses at the newcomers with a mixture of curiosity and the usual nerves she felt meeting new people.

Her eyes played over the large, intimidating man behind Donnelley. He looked like a professional soldier, not unlike Jason and though it was hard to make out his face beneath the hat, sunglasses and beard there was a friendly smile on his face. She looked next to the leaner man beside Donnelley, distinctly handsome even beneath his own beard and long hair. She spied the shirt peeking out from beneath his vest and smiled a bit at the absurd, faded art she could make out.

“Um, hi.” She said, lifting her hand in a small wave. She picked up her laptop and set it to the side before standing up and approaching the two men. There was a polite, if slightly nervous smile on her face as she held out her hand for either of them to shake. “I’m Ava, welcome to UMBRA.”

Ghost stepped forward, pushing past Queen before he could say something ridiculous, get distracted, and trap him in a fatal funnel. He took Ava's hand and gave it a gentle shake.

"Ghost," he grunted, trying not to loom and not quite managing it. Behind Ava Dave stepped into view, an almost protective stance to him as the large Operator hovered over her.

Dave extended his own hand and watched as Ghost eyed it, then him, seeming to evaluate him for a few heartbeats.

"Hey man, I'm Dave. Dave MacCready."

Ghost nodded once and gave his hand a quick squeeze, seemingly dismissing him before moving off to the side and out of the doorway.

Queen gave a delighted smile when Ava approached, waiting until Ghost rumbled his greetings. His keen eyes watched the subtle interaction, how the man, Dave, instantly hovered over the little redhead. Hell, he would, too. His mind was already turning to how easy it would be to hook Ava's legs over his arms and...

He shook his head and then put his hand out, "I'm Queen. Pleasure to meet you, Ava. Thanks for the welcome."

His eyes glittered with joy and lust which did not fade at the sight of Dave.

Dave's grin almost faltered, first from the swift dismissal he received from Ghost, then at the unnerving light in Queen's gaze.

"Er...Howdy," he said, giving the tattooed man a nod.

Ava continued to smile as she shook Queen’s hand. “Of course.”

Laine glanced up from the couch where she was still tucked in and working on her own laptop. She stood up, though still dressed in casual black jeans at least she had put on makeup and black form fitting t-shirt. Her dark green eyes scanned over the pair, they certainly looked like men Donnelley would know.

"I'm Dr Laine," she introduced herself, her husky southern California voice suddenly feeling distinct with the drawling accents of Dave and Donnelley. "I'm with the Bureau, Behavioral Analysis."

She offered her hand towards the lean tattooed man, ignoring his traveling gaze, it wasn't the first time.

"Howdy, Doc," Queen grinned, his blue gaze licking over her then back to Ava and Dave.

She nodded, then shot a glance at Donnelley before turning to Ghost. The man was huge, about Jason's size but older, even with the rich chestnut beard and sunglasses obscuring his face. Laine held her hand out to him, her eyes on her own reflection from his dark tinted Oaklies. Somewhere in a corner of the room, a pair of blue eyes narrowed. Donnelley’s jaw set despite himself.

"Ghost? Thank you for your help, I'm Dr Laine, BAU."

"Behavioral Analysis." There was a hint of genuine interest in Ghost's voice, something he for once didn't have to fake. She was a good looking piece, for one. That helped. But she was also a wizard, and people who dealt with psychology always interested Ghost. She'd bear watching. "Well, I'm just Program. But pleased to meet you. Doctor."

"Nice to meet you as well, I do profiling serial killers to put it simply," she elaborated, hearing the interest. Laine tilted her head slightly, "No day job?"

Ghost glanced up and caught Tex's eye. He held his gaze, then gave him a slight nod of acknowledgment. The barest tilt of his head.

"This is my day job." He released her hand and stepped to the side, moving further into the room.

Pari set down her laptop on the bed and made her way through the safehouse to introduce herself. Since the earlier morning briefing, she'd applied a touch of makeup at least, but still wore the same jersey and cosy sweatpants. She moved quietly until she came to the front room. Her soft gaze fell on the two newcomers, an incredibly robust looking man - like an absolute bastion of ultra-masculinity. She was reminded of the action heroes of movies - this man would fit right in to them.

Beside him was yet another rugged man. He seemed rougher around the edges, and yet refined at the same time. She glanced to both Laine and Ava, hoping they might catch her too. Another day, another set of muscle through the doors, she thought to herself. Her intuition was trying to tell her something. The two men had intense auras about them, that was for sure.

With a smile, she spoke out into the quiet. "Hello there,” she announced to the room. “Good afternoon to you both, I'm Parinaaz Bhatt, FBI.” Pari spoke with a nod of her head. “It's nice to meet you both." She reached her hand out to the more refined at first, the larger had seemed to escape through the room to the furthest corner, but she gave him a friendly wave.

Queen dragged his eyes away from Laine's ass as she had turned her back to him and looked up as another female voice was heard. He grinned, arching his brows in interest as certain parts bounced under the basketball jersey.

"Queen, DEA," he said, deciding to join the normal people giving off their day jobs. It might make him less intimidating and less like the unreadable mass that was Ghost. "[I]Namaste[/], Agent Bhatt. A pleasure for us to join, y'all."

He took her hand to shake, giving it a gentle squeeze, his eyes focused on her dark gaze, "I'm even willing to forgive a Boston jersey."

"Ah," Pari smiled with a twinkle in her eyes as she gave a polite bow of her head. "Namaste Khush Raho, Queen," she chuckled. "As long as you aren't repping the Heat, we'll get along," she added with a laugh and without any real malice to her comment.

Biting his lower lip slightly Queen looked her over then gave her a sheepish smile, "I live in Miami, you might have to fight me now."

The woman laughed again, this time bringing a hand up to her chest. “You’re funny,” Pari remarked. “Let’s let our teams fight it out though.”

He chuckled, tucking his thumbs in the belt loops of his jeans, "We can...care to make it interesting?"

Queen ran his tongue along his back teeth, watching her expression, his pale eyes a shade of something that hovered between blue and green but never lost their sly gleam.

“Oh? Are you talking about a wager?” Pari asked, tilting her head to the side. Her posture relaxed, and she placed a hand on each hip. “Interesting how?”

"That's generally what I mean, a bet," he said, then looked her over, glancing back at Donnelley. "I dunno yet... it'll have to be something. Something you value, yet wouldn't mind losing."

Queen raised his brows at her, then scratched his bearded cheek with his thumb, his smile returning, "What do say, think about it?"

“Hmmm,” Pari mused. She narrowed her eyes and glanced across into the middle distance, thinking about what sort of object would meet the criteria, and eventually she decided it was vague enough for her to be comfortable with it. A smirk played on her lips, and she looked back up at Queen, meeting his eyes with her own - holding her stare confidently against his, noticing the colours that danced around his irises - like seafoam. “You’re on, Queen.” She replied playfully, raising a brow at him as she folded her arms over her chest. “No getting upset when we thrash you though, eh?”

Queen shrugged playfully, then flashed a lascivious grin, "I'm flexible, I don't mind getting thrashed."

Ava jumped as her phone in her back pocket started buzzing silently. She fished it out and gave a quick look at the screen. “Oh, Donnelley.” She said, holding up her phone and pointing to it. “This is the guy.” She said, before sliding her thumb across the screen to answer it. “Hello?” She answered, looking back at Donnelley as she headed for the kitchen so they wouldn’t disturb the others.

In the far corner of the room Jason watched the greeting silently, arms squeezed over his broad chest and leaning against the wall. He eyed Ghost first but was getting distracted with Queen’s flair as he made his way around the room. It didn’t occur to him until then how uncomfortable he felt not being the biggest one in the room. He never consciously recognized it, nor was he one to measure up to anyone in the room, but Ghost’s curtness and bulk had Jason’s back tensing between his shoulder blades. It wasn’t just a size thing, either, but he tried not to dwell on it.

He rocked himself from the wall and threw his hand out at Queen with his best playing nice smile, “Jimenez. DIA.”

Queen had drifted from the playful conversation with Pari to study the room again, especially without Donnelley bird dogging him. That was until the large handsome Latino man made himself known.

The smaller man grinned, a flash of interest in his pale eyes as he reached for Jason's hand, "Queen. DEA. Too bad, just one letter off and we could be best friends."

Jason gave a hearty chuckle at the quip. “Seems the only friends you guys can make, anyway.”

His tattooed hand gripped him, giving a short shake and Queen made a quick study of Jason's olive skin and unusual freckles the dark brown eyes that held a wariness he saw more often than not in his line of work.

Letting go of his hand, Queen hooked his thumbs in his front belt loops, asking, ¿Acere, qué bolá?

Jason cocked his head as he made sense of the dialect, one he wasn’t too familiar with but swore he had heard before.

“Todo es un revolú, broki,” Jason replied in Puerto Rican slang. “¿y tu, hermoso?”

Queen's grin grew, his sea colored eyes twinkling with delight, "Boriqua! Soy de Florída, mano. "

He was genuinely tickled by another to speak Spanish with to keep his skills sharp. Queen glanced at Ghost, remembering how he didn't like when he couldn't understand the language. He shrugged, then replied in English, mostly, "It's going much better now."

His keen gaze caught brooding in the man, not that it wasn't appealing in some manner but he felt compelled to reach out to Jason, "Que, paso? La Pinché?"

“Figured everyone doing this would feel the same,” Jason replied. He glanced at Ghost for a moment, then looked back at Queen. “Agency woes. Get me liquored up and I’ll be your chatty Cathy. Had a close call recently.”

Queen rubbed the new beard growth and cocked an eyebrow, "Yeah, you get used to it or you learn to uh...deal. DIA bullshit? Intriguing, mano... I'll bring the liquor after we finish our business tonight."

He smiled, his gaze flicking over the big man with a glint of appreciation. "I'm gonna go grab my bag from the car, it's nice to meet you, Jason."




Donnelley entered the kitchen, footsteps quiet as if the person on the other end would see him there. A moment after, a smiling Avery traipsed in after him, “What’re we doing?”

“Shut up.” Donnelley shushed Avery, nodding at Ava and then continued looking at her with one part expectation and another part hopefulness.

Ava looked over to him with a frown and a slight shake of her head. “Yes, I know what clearance I am.” She said, glancing away to focus on the phone call. “How can I not be high enough to request the records of a past agent?” She asked, a slightly frustrated note entering her softly spoken voice.

The teeny voice answered and whatever it was they were saying, made her frown deepen and a crease form in her brow. She looked back at Donnelley and shook her head, covering the speaker with her hand. “He’s just spouting a lot of jargon at me and not giving me a straight answer.”

“Let me see it.” Donnelley beckoned for the phone, almost letting the irritation from the person on the other end of the line make him snatch it from Ava’s hand.

“Ma’am, whatever clearance you have is irrelevant. You need to submit the proper forms with the proper signatures-“

“This is Joseph Donnelley, Office of Operations.”

“Uh Huh.”

“I’m the Team Lead on this case. I’m going to put in a formal request with my Case Officer’s signature on it, and if it gets approved, I’m going to find you.” Donnelley seethed, almost unexpectedly feeling a fire being stoked, “You’re on thin ice. And when it breaks, son, I’ll be under it.”

He disconnected the call and handed the phone back to Ava, thankfully having the restraint not to slam it against the counter top. He rubbed the bridge of his nose, eyes screwed shut, “I need me a drink.”

Ava tucked her phone into her back pocket again, frowning up at the man. “I’m sorry that didn’t work.” She said, leaning back against the counter with her arms crossed over her chest. “Do you think going through Foster will get us the information?”

“If there’s one thing the Army taught me it’s that every bureaucratic bullshit problem can be fixed.” Donnelley shrugged and snorted, “Even if you’re sitting at a goddamned Four-Star’s desk by the end of it.”

“Baughman’s files are too important a lead to let die.” He rolled his jaw, shaking his head a bit, “Almost like someone doesn’t want us to see the things.”

Ava arched an eyebrow, her frown deepening with worry. “That can’t be...right? Why would someone do that?”

Donnelley chuckled, trying to be reassuring after his words put a frown on her face, “Just one of my crackpot theories,” He smiled, “Let’s hope it stays that way. At least we got the BLACKBOX.”

“We did.” Ava said, perking up slightly with a small smile. She glanced over in the direction of the living room and then back at Donnelley, the smile still on her face. “Ghost and Queen seem nice, how long have you known them?” She asked curiously. “And, I’m guessing those are their codenames? Or nicknames?”

“Yep.” He nodded, taking his own look at the living room. Ghost brooding in the corner behind his Oakleys and Queen being Queen and ogling everyone. He looked back at Ava. “Just keep everything professional with them. We ain’t gotta be friends, just work together well enough. You remember all them rumors about Working Groups and Operations Officers kept you up at night?”

He left it unsaid, raising his brows and nodding at the two in the living room, “They’re some of the best at what they do. I’d know, I did it with them.”

Ava’s eyes widened behind her glasses. “Oh.” She said with a downward tilt of her lips and a concerned crease forming between her eyebrows. “Should I...I don’t…Okay.” She said, shifting on her feet as she considered the unspoken insinuation hanging in the air. “I’ll keep that in mind and try to stay out of their way.” She added, folding her arms back over her chest, holding herself as a new wave of nerves fluttered in her chest.

“We’re all in agreement to stay in our lanes. Nobody’s gonna mess with your work.” He nodded and smiled, hopefully reassuring Ava. The last thing he needed was some nerves about teammates fucking things up, “We’ll all get along, trust me.”

“Right, Avery?” He turned to the younger man, still waiting next to the fridge. The other man smiled and held a thumb up.

Ava smiled both at Donnelley and Avery. “Alright, I trust you.” She said to Donnelley, unfolding her arms and bracing them back against the counter she was leaning against. “Speaking of work, since the files didn’t pan out, what can I do next?”

“I’d like it if you researched what you could on the River Valleys Retreat. They have to have some sort of paper trail online if they’re still in operation in the Twenty-First Century.” Donnelley nodded, “You and Queen can try to find out who this Renko guy is. Maybe he’s an asset, maybe he’s an obstacle.”

The redhead nodded. “Right, I can do that. I also fiddled with that back door virus for the Sheriff’s station during the break. Just polished it up so it’ll be more effective when we eventually use it.” She didn’t know where to start tracking down Renko, but maybe Queen would have an idea. She tried to ignore the little anxious twinge she felt to be working with Queen already. It’ll be fine. She told herself.

She pushed away from the counter and rubbed the back of her neck. “I guess I can get started on that now.” She leaned to the side slightly to see into the living room better, her eyes on Queen for a moment. “Or, maybe after a little lunch? Do you think the others are hungry? Maybe Avery and I can make something or go get some fast food?”

“Oh, do you guys think they have In-N-Out here?” Avery perked up, the Californian showing, “I haven’t had that since…” he frowned and looked off into the corner, “Like, ever.”

“I don’t know?” Ava answered with a curious frown. “We can look it up, but burgers sound really good right now. Worst comes to worse we can get Burger King or McDonalds.” She looked to Donnelley. “What do you think? You think everyone’s stomachs can handle that after last night?”

Laine was heading to the kitchen to get the two new men a beer when she heard Avery's suggestion.

Poking her head in, she looked sharply at him, "Did you say In N Out Burger?"

She walked quickly to him, "Is there one here? I never thought to look, holy shit. Google it!'

Laine fumbled for her phone, "It's the best thing after a night of drinking."

“Relax while you can. Me and the boys are goin’ to Benwood tonight.” Donnelley said, folding his arms.

Ava’s grin at Laine’s excitement faded as Donnelley made his announcement; the smile falling to a thoughtful expression. “Already?” She asked, arching her eyebrows in slight surprise. “Well, I’ve got some more information for you about the place, I’ll go print it out.” She said before she exited the kitchen.

Laine glanced up from her phone, her brow furrowing slightly at his announcement. There was not much she could offer other than moral support and taking care of her end of things. Once Ava left, Laine moved over to Donnelley, "Who are you taking?"

“Queen, Ghost,” He pursed his lips in thought, and after a quick bout of consideration, spoke again, “Dave. I’ll leave Jason with you.”

His eye caught on hers for a moment and the quick flashes of memory from Annie’s Diner rose from the back of his mind. He quieted them. He’d been the one fucking her hadn’t he? Not that brooding mound of man. And then he was ashamed to put it in such crude parameters. “He and Avery are an army of two, Huh?”

“Oh, dude, I love that game.” Avery smiled the wider.

“See?” He smirked at Laine.

Laine met his eyes, a slight smile appearing then said, "That's fine, we'll be well protected I'm sure. I've been wanting to pick Jason's brain for awhile, going back to the cabin and what we found. And I want to know what Baughman was up to, his connection to what's in the hills, it'll help us with Dulane."

“Sure will,” Donnelley nodded, “Still got no answers to why he was ever here in the first place.”

He shook his head, a small growl escaping his lips, “Request for the case files got blocked.”

Laine's smile faded and she gave him a puzzled look, "Blocked from us? Why would they do that, we were the team to clean out his apartment and found his cabin and...and his project."

She gave a slight raise of her eyebrows at Donnelley, not wanting to mention the undead Mrs Baughman in front of Avery. "And now they decide cut us out...what can we do?”

Ghost entered the kitchen and gave Donnelley a questioning look. He’d grown tired of standing around awkwardly eyeballing the big Mexican and the redneck and had decided to see if there was food to be had. He squeezed past the other occupants of the kitchen and headed for the refrigerator, leaning down to peruse the contents.

“Who’s being cut out of what?” He asked. His deep voice carried its habitual edge and he made a conscious effort to relax that, smoothing his basso rumble for Dr. Laine’s benefit. “I only caught the end, sorry.”

“Bureaucratic bullshit, you know how it is.” Donnelley clucked his tongue and sighed, “Fuckin’ idiot ridin’ a desk wants a signature before he’ll put it in goddamn consideration. I don’t know how long it’s gonna take to get Foster to sign off on a fuckin’ paper for a ‘maybe.’”

"Hopefully as long as it takes him to realize it would help our investigation," Laine said, then looked over at Ghost in the fridge. "I can make some lunch, there is no need to go out for fast-food, we bought a lot of groceries."

“Gimme the address for his desk,” Ghost said, injecting a hint of humor into the statement. In truth it was only half a joke. He began taking out sandwich materials, closing the fridge with his boot. “So when do we go snatch up that Nazi prick?”

“Tonight.” He said, smirking at Ghost’s eagerness, “It’ll be you, me, Queen, and Dave. Eat light, ladies, wouldn’t want you gettin’ a cramp.”

Laine glanced between them, narrowing her eyes slightly at the use of ladies as a slur but only said, "So, carbs? Is that what you need?"

“Maybe Tex needs carbs,” Ghost grunted. He began building a sandwich, heavy on the meat. “Protein...That’s what I’m after. If a cramp is what kills me I fucking deserved it.”

She raised her brow slightly at the layers of ham between the slices of whole wheat bread, watching Ghost take a bite. "Protein, of course. Gotta feed all the muscles around here. Avery bought a bunch of chicken breasts, I'll start there.




Once he wrapped up the brief conversation with Jason and people drifted off to go back to work, Queen stepped outside to grab a smoke and fetch his bags. He stood on the porch, flicking the Bic with a tacky skull and roses printed on it and inhaled the menthol tobacco. Queen took a critical once over of the neighborhood, his dark sunglasses back in place. It was a low income and majority Caucasian block, families with multiple generations living in the houses. They would stand out only because they had no elderly or children but hopefully the neighbors would mind their own business.

Queen took another drag and turned his attention when the door scraped open.

Ava peaked out of the cracked door for a moment, checking to see if the man she was looking for was out there. The smell of cigarette smoke got to her before she even saw the long haired Queen. She smiled politely as she opened the door and stepped outside. “Hi, um, are you busy?” She asked, shutting the front door so the cigarette smoke didn’t filter into the house.

Queen saw who it was and grinned, his inspecting gaze hidden behind his sunglasses. "Not at all, just burning a little off the end of my life. What can I do for you, Ava?"

He used her name, a reminder he had paid attention when they last spoke, a way of making that personal connection. A simple trick but one often overlooked.

Ava returned his smile, her glasses darkening as she stood outside in the sunlight. She crossed her arms over her chest and shuffled on her feet for a moment. “Well, Donnelley wanted us to work together on tracking down someone and I just wanted to let you know. And maybe figure out a good place to start.”

Queen raised his brows, Donnelley doing him a solid for putting him with the cute ginger. "So you're the one that found Jay and his buddies? T... Donnelley mentioned that, hell of a nice job. Jay's a nice juicy peach of intel."

“Oh, yeah,” She said, her smile turning a bit shy as her cheeks flushed. “Thank you, I couldn’t have done it without the others.”

"Sure, sure," Queen said, flicking his ashes. "Someone had to bring you coffee."

He chuckled, then looked at her, enjoying the sight of the blush under the freckles. The grin turned slightly wolfish, "You have to tell me how you did it, I'm always looking for new tricks."

She blushed a little more and rubbed the back of her neck with a nervous chuckle bubbling out of her chest. “I’d be happy to later.” She cleared her throat, trying to will the heat away from her face. “I hear you have intel gathering skills of your own though?”

Queen could see she was shy, self conscious and it made him want to scoop her up and put her on his knee. Instead he glanced down, pinching his cigarette in a classic Eastern Bloc manner as he thought on an answer. He nodded, then said, "I do, it's my little niche in THUNDER. I'm a DEA undercover agent when I'm not moonlighting with the Program. Finding people and the naughty things they do and catching them doing it is my specialty."

He met her gaze through the sunglasses, just making out the blue under dark glass."Computers or leg work, whatever it takes, y'know. But I'm curious, what part of the alphabet soup did they pull you out of?"

“CIA.” Ava answered with a smile, her eyes widening slightly between her darkened glasses to learn he was an undercover agent. “I’m technically a contractor for Booz-Allen, but I don’t think the Program will let my contract expire any time soon.” She said with a light chuckle. “I, uh, like your shirt by the way.” She said, pointing to the absurd art on his baseball tee. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s great.”

Queen whistled, then grinned widely, "You're a spooky spook, I kinda like it. You're much better looking than most of the agents. But don't tell Donnelley I said that. He likes to think he's the prettiest ginger."

The blush returned to her cheeks at the compliment and she gently tugged her necklace out from beneath her shirt. “Ah, well, thank you.” She said, nervously fiddling with her pendant as she glanced down.

He gave a playful flick of the cigarette before taking a deep drag, letting out a stream of smoke as Ava pointed out his shirt. Her own shirt was of the same baseball three quarter sleeve variety only with pink sleeves and a cartoon turtle who seemed quite pleased with himself.

Queen glanced down, in the open denim vest was the vintage tour shirt from one of the local rock heroes. "That's Molly Hatchet!" He exclaimed, tugging open the vest, proudly displaying the bizarre barbarian like figure emblazoned across his lean hard chest. "Have you heard them before?"

“Uh, no, I haven’t.” Ava said with a guilty frown and a helpless shrug, her flustered reaction from the compliment fading as the topic changed. “I’m sorry. I like the art though, very He-Man.” She added with a small smile. “What kind of music do they play?” She asked, now genuinely curious.

Queen laughed then snuffed out the cigarette in the ashtray next to the chair before pulling out his phone. "Just done good ole Southern rock and roll He Man music. Hold on, for your first experience I need to do this right."

He scrolled through his Spotify before finding the song then asked, "Come over to the car, it actually has nice speakers."

Queen started walking then paused mid stride, turning to look at her, his expression holding somewhere between amusement and challenge, "If you're down with it, Ava."

Ava blinked and tilted her head to the side. “I don’t mind, I’m curious about what kind of music goes with that album art.” She said, stepping down off the porch. She looked up and down the street as she put distance between herself and the safety of the house behind them. It was the middle of the day though, no one would go shooting up their temporary home and base of operations...Right?

She continued to fiddle with her necklace.

Queen waited for her, noting the little nervous gestures and smiled to himself. She reminded him of highschool and college, shy girls that still craved attention but could not be themselves to initiate. He opened the passenger side, hold it as she slipped into the old borrowed Camaro. After a glance at her ass as she got in, he closed the door and quickly got into the driver's seat, putting the key so he could lower the windows.

"Alright, ignore the mess we were drivin' all night," he said, taking a beer can from the console and chucked it in the back. Queen glanced over at her, amused at how far back she was, Ghost used all the leg room he could get.

"Hatchet is one of Florida's native sons, along with yours truly. Check it out," Queen hooked up the Bluetooth, then played the classic hit "Flirting with Disaster." youtu.be/_K_-D5B7DIg

He leaned back, his arm going up onto the back of the bucket seat Ava sat in, watching her as the song came on in all in its to the twangy, gravelly voice and guitar glory. Queen was genuinely curious at her reaction, she certainly wasn't southern nor seemed the classic rock type. His gaze traced her features, lingering on the cute pink lips and that lead him down other paths of thought.

Ava glanced around at the inside of the car, ignoring the mess and the faint smell of beer, cigarettes and hours old fast food. Well, not completely ignored it, but she was more interested in the dashboard and interior. The radio was new, but other than that the dashboard looked like the original and she grinned at how purely 80s it looked.

The music came on and Ava was bracing herself to dislike it, but was pleasantly surprised by the liveliness of the music. She smiled as the vocalist started to sing and she picked up the opening lyrics. “I like it!” She laughed, clapping her hands together as she looked at him, a little spark of mirth in her deep blue eyes. “It's perfectly fitting for this car. This is a 1985 Iroc Z right? These cars were made for going fast.”

Queen grinned crookedly, leaning in as his arm draped casually over the headrest of her seat and met her gaze. “Hell yeah, I like a girl that knows her cars and quality music when you hear it. And yes, it does fit the car. It fits me, don’t you think?”

His pale eyes showed more blue in the sunlight, a similar shade to the faded denim vest he wore as he searched her eyes. Queen laid a hand on the steering wheel, the wiry muscles moving under the heavily tattooed skin as he gripped the leather covering. “We should take a spin, see how fast you wanna go.”

Ava blinked rapidly at him, nerves curling in her chest as he leaned in close, her mind flashing back to the words of warning Donnelley spoke to her. The space of the car suddenly felt too small, especially with his arm stretched out by her head. Her heart started to beat faster and her face pulled into a distressed expression, with wide eyes and paling skin, as anxiety from having such unfamiliar and intense focus on her kicked in.

“Uh, no, no thank you.” She said, her voice shaking slightly as she reached for the car door handle behind her. It took her a moment to find it and push the door open as quickly as she could. “I-I have things to do. For the case.”

Queen flinched back when she suddenly changed from enjoying herself to anxious. He furrowed his brow but made no move to reach for her or call her back. “Alright, I’m gonna burn another and bring my bag in. We can talk later about what Donnelley wants us to find.”

He leaned back in the driver’s seat, reaching for the pack of Kools and watched her, giving her a placid smile.

“I-It’s alright, I’ve got it handled!” Ava said as she slid out of the car and quickly walked back toward the house, her arms wrapped tightly around herself and head ducked down; her long curly red hair twitching in the summer breeze. “Thank you!”

"Jesus fucking Christ," he muttered, lighting his cigarette clamped between his teeth before turning the car off and getting out.

He was reminded suddenly of the girls from St Anne's Catholic school in Jacksonville that he and his high school buddies from Finegan High would try and pick up. Those girls were always skittish, the temptation of sin outweighed by the threat of damnation for young Billy Patrick putting his hand under a plaid skirt. But that was half the fun, wasn't it?

He watched her go through the door and sighed, blowing smoke through his nostrils. Queen pulled the duffel bag from the back of the car and slung it over his back, his thoughts moving in the direction of Jay and his neo Nazis shithead friends.

Queen reentered the Safehouse, spotting Donnelley in the kitchen and he called out, "So where ya boys gonna bunk?"

“There’s a door marked ‘Boys’ over there.” Donnelley’s voice from the kitchen. “Mine’s the one that says ‘Men.’”

"Thank you, Daddy," Queen called out playfully, then went to claim a bed.

“Don’t get too comfortable,” Donnelley stepped out of the kitchen and smiled at Queen, his voice calling him Daddy bringing something out in him, “We’re goin’ out on the town tonight.”

Queen caught his eye, a mischievous smile touched his lips. "Time for our kinda party? Who's the special guest, does it start and end with a Jay."

Donnelley gave a wink, “Best believe.”




>1415

A large pot of water on the stove and a variety of vegetables laid out on the cutting board marked the start of the process of making a late lunch/early dinner for the team. A duty Laine had taken on herself since the first safehouse. It was nice to cook for others, more than what needed to go on her lone plate. She caught sight of Donnelley coming back into the kitchen and asked, "Are you busy, I could use your knife skills."

Donnelley smiled at the opportunity to cook with Laine. Cooking and being in the kitchen had become a recurring theme in his life, it seemed. He wasn’t about to complain, lord knew if there was a time to play pretend and be domestic for a couple hours, it was now. They’d be running and gunning in short while. He pushed those thoughts away as he took the knife in a practiced chef’s grip.

“Sliced, diced, julienned,” Donnelley smirked at her as he stepped up to the cutting board, “What you need?”

"Onions and red pepper diced, carrots julienned, and the rest sliced," she said, setting out a couple of zucchinis and yellow squash, a head of broccoli. "We're getting all the vitamins."

Laine rolled a lemon over the counter, her palm pressing it. "The chicken should have been marinated but I got drunk. So I'll cook it with sauce."

She smiled a bit as he chopped, reminded of the time they spent together not a few days ago. "So, these two... friends of yours, they seem interesting. How long have you known them?"

“First mission together was 2016. Went to some third world toilet bowl and wagged our trigger fingers at some bad guys.” Donnelley chuckled, “We did not like each other one bit at first. Team Lead was an asshole, and uh… well, you know me.” He gave a smirking glance at Laine.

"You were the new asshole," she responded, the little smile now crooked. "But you ended up getting along with them, with your team leader? Or was UMBRA your way out?"

“I found some common ground.” Donnelley shrugged, remembering the nights with Queen and earning Ghost’s respect, bonding with Maui over family, “When Foster was lookin’ to start up a new team at his higher-up’s request, there was only one person he could find who wanted to step up.”

He looked at Laine and winked, “Moi.”

“Queen’s nice. Been a real good friend to me for a long time. I keep those close in this line of work.” He smiled, without really trying to, “Ghost, he’s good at what he does. Other’n that? I never knew much about him outside of it. Somethin’ ‘bout him makes you not wanna ask.”

He shook his head, “But, even then, he’s one of the few people I’d trust at my back when the chips’re down. Just gotta make him want to be at your back.” He nodded, “Back then, it was THUNDER against the world. Nothin’ else mattered outside of that.”

She whisked the lemon and melted butter, listening to him and watching his expressions. The description of Ghost caught her attention and she stored the information. "And now you've gone from carefree cowboy bachelor to family man."

Laine gestured in a vague circle to indicate UMBRA, then spoke softly, "Daddy..."

She chuckled, recalling Queen teasing earlier about the rooms.

Donnelley’s smirk turned to a devious little grin at Laine. He looked over at her and let his eyes roam freely for a few seconds, lip bitten, “Has its perks.”

Laine gave him a smoldering look before taking the bowl of sauce and chicken to cook together in a skillet. She washed her hands and went over to him, the urge to steal a kiss unhidden in her green eyes. "I bet it does, boss," she said.

He looked into her emerald eyes and what he found there was in his blue eyes too. He cast a glance around to see if anyone was watching and quickly wrapped his lips in hers, “It’s ‘Sir.’” He corrected cheekily as he pulled away.

Laine bit her lip slightly, savoring the illicit kiss and said, "Yes, sir ..."

She trailed off so she could check the blue flame under the pot of water, adjusting it. Laine felt herself warming after that exchange and rolled her eyes, there would be no time or place in the crowded Safehouse for anything more than the stolen kiss.

"Where are you taking Jay and whoever else you pick up?" Laine asked, forcing herself to get away from the stray thoughts his single bedroom.

Donnelley glued his eyes to her ass as she turned away from him, thoughts of sneaking off somehow flooding his mind, memories of her naked body. “We, uh,” Donnelley shook his head and went back to slicing and dicing, “We gotta find some place to interrogate them. Give that asshole a reason to switch for us.”

"Some seedy motel room?" She suggested, turning back to help him finish the vegetables. Her eyes met his briefly and she added quickly, "For an interrogation. Those places that might be used to ignoring noises."

“Five guys go into a hotel room and then the gruntin’ and yellin’ starts.” Donnelley chuckled and shook his head, knowing what Queen would say, “Perfect deniability. You’re gettin’ good at this.”

Laine laughed, then she shrugged, "I'm trying to get into that sort of headspace, scratching out any sort of SOP I'm used to."




>1415

After the brief conversation with Donnelley, Queen entered the men's bedroom, a cramped affair that had four grown men pushed into a room made for one adult or at most a pair of children. He picked the unoccupied bed under the window, easier for him to smoke out of and left the bed facing the door for Ghost. The other two on opposite sides were clearly slept in, except one was made in the neat manner of a military man and the other by civilian.

Queen left his bag on the bed, but not before taking his drug stash and tucking it into a vest pocket, buttoning it closed. He didn't trust that the other men might not be Nosy Nellie's and poke around his bags. His green pack of Kools and disposable lighter went into the other.

Stepping out of the room, he closed the door and looked into the open room and spotted Ava working on her laptop. He stayed in the hall, debating for a moment on leaving it alone but he didn't like how she had been made anxious by him and it might affect their work.

"Hey, there," he said, his sunglasses now dangling from the pocket with the cigarettes. He put his forearm against the door jam but went no further. "Watcha working on?"

Ava gave a small start at the voice from the doorway.She was seated on her bed, pillows stacked behind her back as she leaned back against the wall with her laptop balanced on the cat plushie Laine had gotten her in her lap. “Um, hey.” She said, her voice small and tinged with warriness. “I’m just getting ready to look into the Rivers Valley Retreat. Donnelley wanted me to look into that along with, uh, the other thing I told you about.”

Queen nodded, clearing his throat, "Look, uh...I wanna apologize if I made you feel upset or anxious. It wasn't intentional, Ava. I just got carried away, you're fun to talk to."

“Oh,” She straightened up slightly, some of the tension easing from her shoulders. “Thank you Queen, I appreciate that. I’m just not used to things like...that and it felt very sudden.” She reached up to rub the back of her neck, tilting her head to the side with a wine. “Though, looking back, there were some pretty obvious signs leading up to it I didn’t notice. So I guess I accidentally lead you on?”

Queen furrowed his brow, a puzzled expression that faded slightly into a smile. "Signs that I think you're cute and smart? Nah, you didn't lead me on, I made a move too fast, it wasn't cool. No hard feelings on my end. Hopefully, you can forgive me."

Her lips turned up slightly in a half smile. “I can.” She motioned to her laptop. “Especially if we’re going to find this guy. All I have right now is a name to work off of, Renko. With Jay I had his entire arrest record as a starting point.” She said, looking to her laptop with a frown as she rubbed her hand over her chin, her index finger rubbing her lips for a moment. “This is more of a challenge.”

"Renko? Hmm, sounds a little Ruskie to me," Queen said, leaning against the door frame. "Might start with prison nicknames if you haven't done that yet. Or known Russian mob aliases. DEA or FBI has database would have those records. I could help, if you want?"

“Ooh, that’s a good idea.” Ava said with a grin. “Sure, I’d love help on this.” She cleared her throat. “Especially since you’re DEA and that way I don’t have to go...borrowing the information from them without permission.” She said with a sheepish smile and a small shrug.

He chuckled, his eyes glinting with amusement and interest. "Is that how you found our boy, Jay? Poking around in Fed files?"

“Whaaat? Noooo.” She said slowly, looking down at her cat pillow and wiggling one of the stumpy paws. “I’m just an IT nerd that likes cute turtle shirts and cat plushies.”

Queen grinned, his teeth grazing his lower lip slightly. "Yeah, right, you're completely harmless and soft. "

He winked playfully, "Just a little angel on our shoulders, leading us to the bad guys."

She laughed, rubbing her hands together. “I do what I can.” She smiled. “So, uh, when do you want to work on this?”

"I have time now, a little bit," Queen said, checking his phone. "I could put in a request, I brought my work laptop. It's back in the room...uh, shit Donnelley is gonna want to brief me soon."

He scratched his beard thoughtfully, "I can at least get that done before prepping for the raid. If it gets a hit, then I'll reach out to some contacts I have that specialize in Russian mob."

Out of sudden curiosity, he swiped his phone open and typed in "Renko". "Huh," he said, furrowing his brow. "Try Googling Renko, it's a word for a Japanese financial chart."

“If this whole Renko thing turns out to be code for their finances, I’m going to be annoyed.” Ava said with a snort. “I doubt it, due to the context of the emails I read, but I guess anything is possible.” She adjusted the glasses on her face as they started to slip down her nose. “But, that’d be great. You do that and I’ll have the fun job of sifting through the area’s local social media.” She said, glancing suspiciously at her laptop. “I’m bracing myself for a lot of backwoods memes.”

"What was the context?" he asked, tucking his phone away.

“Oh, right, sorry.” She said with a frown and a shake of her head. “Renko is someone that Jay and the Russians hate about as much as us. He’s some kind of nuisance to them but why was never specified in the emails.” She scratched her head. “He must have some weight behind him that they’re afraid of or something since they haven't killed him yet. Or maybe he’s in hiding. Appalachia is a big place.”

Queen thought it over, the playfulness finally stilled in his eyes. "Some kind of problem they can't just kill off. Probably local, prominent or connected to someone who they can't afford to piss off. You tell the FBIs about him?"

“Laine and Pari? Yeah they know.” She nodded, frowning in thought and leaning back against the pillows. “We were actually theorizing the same thing about the killer that brought us here. Since he’s bringing all this attention to Blackriver that they don’t want but for some reason they aren’t doing anything about it.”

She looked over at him with furrowed brows. “You don’t suppose that Renko might be the name of the killer?”

"There's a chance, sure. Hell, it's not my specialty and I'm not completely up to date on all the details but it's definitely making my Spidey senses tingle. If it is him, we'll be killing two birds with one stone. But we gotta find him first," Queen said, crossing his arms over his chest. "Picking up Jay hopefully will lead us to him."

“Definitely.” Ava agreed. “Especially if you bring me any of his electronics. The federal database is a good place to start, but it’s hard to beat information straight from the source.”

Queen grinned again, "I'll be sure to grab all phones and hard drives I can find. That's my usual job anyway, after we clear out the bad guys. You get first dibs."

She returned his grin with a smile. “Thanks. I appreciate it.” She said, glancing at her laptop for a moment. “Can I ask something? It’s unrelated to work but I’ve been curious since you introduced yourself.” She said, looking back over to him.

He stood up straighter, then nodded the grin fading to a small smile under his beard, "Sure, anything."

“Why do they call you Queen?” She asked curiously.

Queen snickered and rubbed a hand over his hair, "It's because I rule."

She grinned and nodded her head slightly at him. “Fair enough. Do you also slay?”

Hooking his thumb on his belt loop, Queen raised his eyebrow playfully, "Everyday, baby."

Ava chuckled, brushing a stray red curl behind her ear. “Good.” She said, stretching her arms out in front of her for a moment before picking up her laptop and the plushie to set to the side. “Here, I’ve printed up all the info I found about Jay and the residence.” She said, standing up and opening the drawer in the night stand by her bed; inside an orange pill bottle rattled around. She pulled out a manilla folder and shut the drawer, holding the folder out to him. “Since you’re the Intel guy for THUNDER, you might be able to make the best use of this.”

He watched her unobtrusively, noting the cute tight ass when she bent over her night stand. Queen could not miss the sound of pills but from his vantage point at the doorway he could not see what kind. He straightened up when Ava approached, the folder held out.

"Appreciate it," Queen said, forcing himself not to look her over as she got closer. He took the file and flipped it open, his cheerful expression turning studious. "Hmm, buncha good old boys turned extreme racists, running drugs and guns. Just my favorite type of idiot, I'm going to enjoy us ruining their night."

“Me too, that bastard shot at us.” Ava said with a frown. “Shot Dave twice and got me in the stomach so this is my payback.”

"Well, we'll definitely enjoy it a little more," he said, a bemused smile trying to emerge but he glanced down, tucking the folder under his arm.

“Um, sorry.” She smiled nervously. “I guess I should have asked how up to speed you are on everything.”

"It's no problem, that's what briefings are for. But it's nice to get a headstart," Queen replied, then looked at her, sensing her nervousness, "So... we're ok, right?"

Ava smiled a bit more easily and nodded. “Yeah, I think so.” She bit her lip for a moment before saying, slowly, “Um, just for the sake of honesty, I’m not really... looking for anything, right now.”

Queen nodded, sighing softly before flashing her a smile, "No problem, I appreciate it. I'd be lying if I didn't admit disappointment but thank you for your honesty."

“Of course.” She smiled again, feeling relieved he understood and took it well. “I think we’ll work well together though, for however long you and Ghost are around.”

Dave rounded the corner into the hallway, a spring in his step as he headed for the men’s bunk. Word that he was supposed to go out with Donnelley and his buddies had finally reached him, and his nerves were singing with anticipation. With hours to go and nothing to do, he’d decided that the best way to spend his downtime (and keep himself sane) was to check on his gear.

He pulled up short when he spotted Queen leaning against the doorway to the women’s room, coming to a slow stop. The flamboyant man had struck him as a bit friendlier than the hulking Ghost, and Dave gave him a tentative smile.

“Hey, man, what’s up?” he said, nodding. He walked over and peeked around the corner, visibly brightening when he spotted Ava. “Oh, hey sugar! They already got you busy?”

“Hi Dave.” Ava beamed as his handsome scruffy face appeared in the doorway. “Yeah, you know how it goes. Good work begets more work.”

Queen glanced over as Dave approached, giving him a brief once over then smiled, noting the reaction and nickname. "She gave me some homework to brush up on about this asshole, Jay. Said y'all both got shot. I'm sure you're looking forward to getting your hands on him. And thanks to our guiding angel here, we'll get the chance."

He winked at Ava and tapped Dave in the chest with the file before stepping back out of the doorway.

Daves smile became slightly strained when Queen tapped him with the file, then returned to normal. “Yeah, my vest stopped the one, other hit me in the arm. Ain’t a big deal.” He looked over at Ava and his voice grew serious. “Gonna get that motherfucker for shootin’ you, though. Don’t worry ‘bout that.”

“I appreciate it Dave, but please be careful.” She said with a frown of genuine concern, looking at him and then to Queen. “All of you. Jay might be some backwoods gun runner, but who knows what else he might have from dealing with these Russians.”

Queen nodded and looked down at the tattooed marks on his knuckles before glancing at Dave then back to Ava, "It won't be my first time going up against the vor v zakone. The Bratva we're facing don't fuck around, but with luck we'll surprise Jay and his boys before they can call their friends. This is what our team does. This why Donnelley wanted us here."

“Well, I’ll do my best to keep up,” Dave said. “I ain’t what you’d call a professional, but… I did okay in the last big throwdown they brung our way.” He paused. “Hope there ain’t any civilians there. I don’t want anybody hurt who don’t deserve it. Wouldn’t sit well with me.”

Queen raised his brows, "Jay ain't exactly dressed like the Waffen SS. We'll do our best to apprehend the ones on the list, if anyone tried to stop us...well, they stop being neutral, don't they?"

Dave shrugged. His earlier discomfort was gone, replaced by steely resolve. “If they ain’t armed, I ain’t doin’ more than buttstrokin’ ‘em. Ain’t like an unarmed man is that hard to take down, ‘specially for somebody like Ghost.” He grinned. “You scared of a scrap?”

Queen faced Dave, his pale eyes scanning over his posture, his expression then he grinned slyly, "I'm not opposed to some buttstroking from you."

Ava’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped open slightly as she stared at Queen, stunned. She then shifted her gaze to Dave to see his reaction.

Dave blinked, his mind slowing down as he processed the statement. Then his eyes widened.

“Oh. Oh!” He shook his head. “I uh... Nah, man. I’m good.”

Queen chuckled at both of them, almost an impish giggle as he crossed back into the men's bedroom. He sat on his bed, thumbing through the folder Ava had given them.

Ava peaked out the doorway to look at the men’s room as Queen disappeared inside. She looked up at Dave. “If it makes you feel better, he was pretty forward with me too.” She said with a small shrug.

Dave’s eyebrows furrowed and he glanced over his shoulder.

“Huh.” He grunted. “Well...I guess…” He sighed. “I dunno what I guess. I still ain’t got a read on these guys. Seems, uh… Pretty talkative though, huh? On the friendly side?”

“He’s definitely friendly.” She agreed, scratching her head as she stepped back over to her bed. “But, he’s funny and he knows his stuff about intel gathering. He’s going to help me with tracking down Renko and already gave me some ideas and will be able to access to the DEA database.” She sat down on the bed and pulled her plushie back on her lap then put her laptop on top of it.

"Well that's good," Dave said. "I guess I'll leave you to it. I gotta get my gear ready so we can go get that bastard. Keep doin' what you're doin'!"

He gave her a wave and a final smile and headed for the men's bunk.

Queen clocked Dave's entrance but continued reading, starting up a little whistling tune as he did. He sat back on his bed, against the wall under the window, his gear beside him.

Dave crossed to his rack and sat, picking up his gear from its place by the head of the bed. He turned the SLR over in his hands, checking the sights, pulling the magazine and checking the chamber before reseating it. He handled the AK variant with easy familiarity, clearly comfortable with the model.

"So uh," he began, glancing briefly at Queen. "Sorry if I came across a little… You know. If you're into dudes or whatever that's cool, just wasn't expectin' it."

Queen snorted and laughed, glancing over at the other man. "I'm into all sorts of things," he said, tapping the papers together, a grin growing under his beard.

He set the folder aside and clasped his hands in his lap. "But I should be apologizing to you, it was only a joke because you set me up so well. I couldn't resist. The look on your face though..."

Queen chuckled, then shrugged, looking over at Dave with an enigmatic expression.

Dave nodded along, continuing to fiddle with his rifle until Queen fell silent. As the pause lengthened he looked up at the other man, frowning a little. "What?" He asked.

Queen glanced up, "I understand why you were trying to make us...well me, look bad. She's very sweet. But I couldn't let that go...'buttstroke'."

He snickered to himself, studying the pictures of the suspects.

Dave's frown deepened and he lowered the rifle. "Look hoss, I ain't tryin' to make anybody look bad. That was just a joke. Sorry if you felt that way. The way you was talkin' in there with everybody I thought maybe you're just a kidder."

Queen furrowed his brow, looking at him. "I'm quite the kidder, the word is funny but you weren't joking about the civilians and what might happen if they're caught up. How long have you been in the Program?"

"Well no, that bit I wasn't jokin' about, just the bein' scared of a scrap part. But I've said the same thing to Donnelley," Dave said. "This is my second round with UMBRA. He already knows I ain't hurtin' innocent people. I'll pack my shit and go home first."

He nodded, then replied in a passable imitation of Dave's accent, "Well, I ain't as big as y'all but I've been scrappin' all my life. I ain't afeared."

Switching back to his Florida drawl he naturally spoke with, "Second run? Well...we were all innocent once."

He went back to attempting to memorize features of the suspects.

"Yeah, run your mouth," Dave grumbled, looking over his plate carrier. Satisfied that it was in order, he left it and the rifle sitting on his bed as he stood to leave. He paused in the doorway. "I've already shown I can hang. Donnelley wouldn't be bringin' me along if I couldn't. But...Man, if you ain't in this to help people, why the fuck even bother with it?"

He shook his head and then left heading down the hallway for the back door.

"I trust Donnelley," Queen said, but to the rest he did not have an answer. Maybe once he did, a conviction against the darkness, the fight for another sunrise. Hell, he used to fight the war on drugs unironically. He watched him leave and waited a few moments before getting up to shut the door and then dug out his stash.

Queen saved the cocaine for later but popped a couple of Oxys, reminding himself to raid the kitchen for some coffee filters to wash his opioids.
Hidden 7 mos ago Post by KuroTenshi
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KuroTenshi

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>1812...///

Ava opened the front door of the house and was greeted with the spicy, sweet and now familiar scent of Laine’s clove cigarettes. She smiled at Laine lounging in the folding chair as she stepped out into the warm summer evening. “Hey.” She said as she stepped out and shut the door behind her. “Is it okay if I join you?”

Laine glanced over her shoulder when the door opened, smiling as Ava stepped out, “Sure, if you don’t mind the smoke.”

She shifted the chair around, so it faced the low step, “We should have more chairs.”

“Get a complete set.” Ava chuckled as she sat herself down on the concrete step. “Dinner was good by the way, thank you for making it.” She said, placing her hands over her bent up knees.

“No problem, I like cooking,” she replied, crossing her legs. “Donnelley prepped, he’s handy with a knife. Looks like they’re gearing up...boys night out.”

Laine took a drag, hiding her concern as she turned her head and blew the smoke away from Ava. “We’ll just sit around and give each other manicures and try to break this damn case open.”

“Yeah.” Ava frowned, glancing back at the door for a moment. “I’m worried about them, I hope things go well and no one gets hurt.” Especially over a vital piece of information she hadn’t been able to uncover. “I’ve got some ideas about the case though. I’m not an investigator like you and Pari but, I don’t know, maybe an outside the box perspective might help?”

“Me too, but they know what they’re doing,” Laine said, glancing over at her, “And of course, I welcome your participation, you’re a smart cookie. Plus you have found those emails and maps, that’s really going to help. Trust me, the ‘experts’ are spinning our wheels, we can use the help.”

“I’ll try to provide it.” Ava smiled, her feet lightly tapping on the steps for a moment. “But, um, there was something else I wanted to talk to you about.” She said, the smile fading to a confused frown, her brows knitting together to add to her bewildered expression.

Laine flicked the ashes, sitting up to give Ava her attention. Her gaze met with Ava's, the soft light of the late summer evening giving her red curls a fuzzy halo. "Anything, of course. What's on your mind?"

“Just, something you said earlier I can’t really wrap my head around and I can’t tell if it’s the concept itself or I’m just weird.” She said, reaching up to rub the back of her neck. “The stuff about only feeling sexual gratification through violence? I just...Can’t get my head around it.” She shook her head. “How does that happen?”

Laine smiled slightly, giving Ava an amused glance. "Because you don't understand why someone gets sexual gratification by extreme violence doesn't make you weird. It makes you normal."

She took a drag, the clove cigarette crackling softly as the embers flared, "If you're asking how paraphilic disorders occur, it can vary depending on possible other psychological disorders and early childhood experiences. Sex and violence become fused and that's where the danger starts."

Laine huffed a soft dry sigh, not quite a laugh. "I don't suppose that answers your question?'

“I guess not.” Ava frowned, looking down at her knees. “I just don’t get it, is sexual gratification really that important?”

"It's worth killing for some," Laine said with a sigh, "Sexual gratification is a powerful motivating force. Haven't you ever done something risky because you're aroused by it?"

“Uuh, not really, no.” Ava said, clearing her throat as she looked back down at her knees, her fingers drumming on her legs. “I don’t really, um, have that?”

Laine glanced over at her, taking a moment for the silence to hang between them on the chance Ava might add anything else. When the quiet stretched too long, Laine asked, "Sexual arousal?"

Ava flushed and nodded, still looking down. “Yeah, I’m a little...asexual.” She said hesitantly, chancing a nervous look back up at Laine to see her reaction.

Laine tilted her head a bit, eyeing Ava's expression, "Just a little? Do you mean on the scale of asexuality?"

“Yes.” She said, straightening up slightly and lifting her head higher when Laine didn’t immediately reject the notion. “You know about it?” She asked, curiosity mixed with relief sparking across her eyes.

Laine nodded, tapping the growing ash from her cigarette, "I have, though it's not a subject that comes up often in my line of work. Human sexuality is fascinating to me so I've read about it on my own. It's not exactly codified in psychological texts but I believe it to be valid. What brought you to this conclusion that you're asexual?"

She paused then added, "If you don't mind me asking?"

“I don’t mind.” Ava smiled. “It’s actually nice to be able to talk about this, outside of the Internet anyway.” She brushed some of her hair behind her ear. “And I don’t feel sexual attraction when I look at people, so that’s how I came to that conclusion.” She answered with a slight shrug. “Well, no, sorry,” She frowned at herself. “I’ve felt it one time but haven’t again since so I think I’m on the Gray Asexual or Demisexual side of the spectrum.”

Laine shifted in her chair, propping her elbow on the arm of the chair, as she looked at Ava, "Tell me about the first time that you felt it, what happened?"

“Oh, um,” Ava rubbed her hands together as she frowned in thought. “I was in college and I was about 13 years old, just started going through puberty. There was this guy I had a lot of classes with and he was basically my best friend. He looked out for me, hung out with me and we were close.” She looked down at her hands and shrugged again. “It felt like one day a switch or something got flipped on and for weeks all I could think about was him and me doing…” She trailed off and rolled her hand in a vague gesture. “You know.”

"Having sex," Laine filled in, "Did you ever do more with him other than fantasizing? Tell him about your feelings?"

“Absolutely not.” Ava shook her head with a grimace. “He saw me as like his little sister and he was 25 at the time, it would have freaked him out. I didn’t know what to do with my feelings though and I kind of...sabotaged our friendship over it.” She sighed and hung her head, pushing up her glasses to put her face in her hands. “Thinking back on it, I feel like such an asshole.”

"It's certainly a confusing time," Laine said, quiet for a moment as her gaze drifted past Ava, before she snapped out of her drifting thoughts, then looked at her intently, "What happened that you feel that way, like an asshole?"

“I avoided him.” She said, her voice muffled slightly by her hands. “I got myself transferred out of the classes we shared, didn’t take his calls and tried to avoid him on campus. He ended up confronting me about it and I had a meltdown and yelled at him I just didn’t want to be friends anymore.” Ava lowered her hands and folded her arms on her knees, her eyes on a crack in the concrete with a little yellow weed trying to grow out of it. “And we never spoke again.”

Laine bit the inside of her lip, knowing it must have been terrible. How lonely to not be among kids her own age at that time. "Did you talk to anyone about your feelings for him? Obviously, you would have been too young to pursue him but it's confusing when sexual feelings get mixed with previously platonic affection. Especially the first time."

“...No.” Ava admitted, glancing over at her, brushing some of her hair behind her ear so she could see her better. “I was afraid people would think I was weirder than they already did or they might think he was preying on me or something. I just wanted to forget the feelings and move on.”

Laine smoked in silence, letting her settle on those internal observations. Finally, she said, "Those were valid fears, and being as intelligent as you are it might have been frustrating not to understand why you felt these passions towards your friend, someone perhaps you even looked up to as a brother or at least a mentor? So, you pushed him, the source of this trouble as you saw it, away. And then the feelings ended?"

“Eventually, they went away, yeah,” Ava answered with a frown. “Then I never felt sexual attraction again, I finally looked into it when I was about 20 and discovered the asexuality spectrum.”

Laine thought for a moment, examining Ava then the last glowing embers of the black cigarette. "So you have never felt anything for anyone since then? Not even another friend or co-worker?"

“Not really, I actually don’t have a lot of friends,” Ava admitted slowly. “I have one friend, my neighbor. With coworkers I usually only discussed work with them, I didn’t socialize much outside of that.” She nodded her head back to the door. “I know we haven’t known each other long, but UMBRA is the closest I’ve felt to people outside my family in a long time. Especially Donnelley, Dave and, um, you.” She said with a small smile.

Laine returned her smile, her thoughts turning to Dave and Donnelley and how very different her own relationship with them was. She cleared her throat, "Bonds forged under fire are often very strong. Especially in our situation where we can't tell anyone outside the Program about what we experience. I certainly consider you a friend, Ava. I'm glad you see me the same way."

The dark-haired woman looked at her, perched on the porch step and said, "Just a word of advice, don't be ashamed of feelings. Even the troublesome ones, they have merit and are valid. If you want to, you can always talk to me and it stays between us. I can't offer therapy or anything but I can be a friend."

“Thanks Laine,” Ava said, her smile brightening. “I’ll definitely keep that in mind.” She suddenly gave her a mischievous look. “I don’t know if you remember, but last night you said I could call you Heather.”

Laine chuckled then rubbed her finger along her jaw, "Vaguely, I recall. You can if you want, I am not fond of my first name but it is mine."

“I won’t,” Ava said with a chuckle. “I like Laine better, Heather sounds like...the antagonist in a 90s teenager movie. Like you’re the bitchy cheer captain or something.”

"Watch Heather's, it's where my mom got the idea," Laine said, rubbing out the cigarette butt in the ashtray on the ground beside the chair. "Popular antagonists, for sure. Luckily my dad has a cool last name."

She flashed a grin, then glanced thoughtfully at the front door. It wouldn't be long before most of the men left to go after Jay and Laine said quietly, "I almost wish I was going."

Ava glanced back at the door as well. “You do?” She asked with a frown, turning her eyes back to Laine. “Any reason why?”

She ran her fingers through her short dark hair, "To question him, of course. It's hard for me to let go of that need. To be part of the interrogation but...it's not an FBI investigation."

“No,” Ava frowned. “It’s not.” She glanced back at the house, where the Operators were getting ready to go out on a hunt. “There’s still plenty for us to figure out though.” She said, turning back to Laine with a small, encouraging smile. “Things that need investigating. Did you want to hear the theory Queen and I came up with?”

"Jumping right in with the new guys?" Laine said, "Impressive. What did you come up with?"

“Well, Donnelley asked that we work together on finding Renko.” Ava explained. “So I filled him in and he thinks that the reason this Renko guy is still alive despite being trouble for Jay and the Russians is because he must have someone of affluence protecting him. Someone the Russians and AB don’t want to piss off. And we theorized the same thing about the killer during the briefing because he’s bringing attention to Blackriver people don’t want. So, maybe Renko is the name of the killer?” She suggested with a slight frown. “I’m not an investigator like you, does it sound completely out there?”

Laine nodded slowly, "That does sound promising, it hits a lot of points on the profile as well. I'll be sure to remind Donnelley about asking after Renko. I'm glad you picked that out of the emails, very astute."

“Thanks.” She smiled. “Once Donnelley picks up Jay, I’m sure we’ll get our answers.”

Laine stayed quiet then fished out another cigarette, contemplating it rather than lighting. "I'm sure we will, they're professionals at this right? I just have to let them do their thing."

She stood up, "I think I'm going to take a little walk around the block. Don't worry, I'm packing."

Laine flashed her Glock in the holster in her open hoodie. "If anyone asks, I'll be back in a few minutes. I just need to...walk."

“Oh, okay,” Ava said, giving her a mildly concerned look as she glanced back out at the neighborhood. “Do you want to be alone? Maybe one of the guys can keep you company?”

"I'd rather be alone," Laine admitted, then shrugged, "The guys are busy anyway. I won't be long, literally just around the block. Besides, I grew up wandering around LA, I can take care of myself."

She put the cigarette back into the box and started walking briskly down the driveway.

“Aright, be safe!” Ava called out after her as she watched her walk away. The idea of staying on the front steps until Laine came back, to make sure she was okay, tickled her mind but thought better of it. Laine probably wouldn’t appreciate her sitting out on the stoop like a lonely puppy waiting for her.

She sighed and stood up, dusting off the back of her pants before walking back into the house.
Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Leidenschaft
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Leidenschaft Relax, only half-dead

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>CLARKSBURG, WV
>JUL.19.2019
>2000HRS...///

Behind the door labeled ‘Men’, loud and angry music played from a speaker mingled with the sounds of clicks and clacks of brass checks and magazines, buckles, and zippers being worked. Donnelley had packed light, This was supposed to be a precise strike with no room for error. Just another snatch-and-grab. He looked at himself in the full-length mirror, dressed to impress. His black slacks, his white button-up, his hair done up. He indeed looked like a Fed.

His tactical gear was in the corner, ready. He slipped a cigarette between his lips and sighed to himself, another day at the office. This was American soil, and here he was breaking the law to get the objective. It wasn’t the worst thing he’d done for the Program. Ghost could attest to that. Memories of Libya stabbed from the corners of his mind and he shook them off, turning for the door.

He switched the music off and exited his room, wanting to get some conversation before the quiet could get to him, knocking on the door to the men’s bunks and standing back for it to open.

It was Queen who opened the door, still wearing his Molly Hatchet t-shirt and a sly smile. "It's the big boss man, fellas. Everyone look busy."

He stepped back to let Donnelley in and closed the door behind him.

“Everyone’s kits in order?” Donnelley asked, his eyes sweeping the room, seeing the faces of his tactical team in varying degrees of intensity.

Jason was kneeling over a black GoRuck bag looking over the trauma kit he was packing. He wasn’t about to sling it over his shoulder for the exfil, but he’d stash it in their vehicle just in case. His sidearm was already holstered underneath his armpit, and his shotgun had both magazine tubes loaded with slugs. He was ready to bang, but a nagging weight of anxiety crushed his ribs in. He’d have to swallow it down and try to keep up. None of the guys around him had rust to shake off. There was a medication rattle deep within his backpack as he wrestled a bottle of Adderall free. Best get focused, he thought.

“Just in time,” Jason said, pouring a few Adderall on a nearby drawer top and beginning to crush the pills up with the butt end of a magazine.

"Locked, cocked, and ready to rock," Queen drawled, sitting on his bunk. "How we going in?"

He gestured to Donnelley's business suit and raised his brow.

“Dress appropriately.” Donnelley spoke around his cigarette, “Jay’s goin’ to find out who he’s up against.”

Queen pulled off his jeans, kicking them aside, “And I so looked forward to ingratiating myself with a buncha dumbass Nazi hillbillies.”

He grabbed his DEA tactical gear from his suitcase and pulled on the black tactical pants, followed by the boots.

Ghost looked over his dark cargo pants and charcoal hoodie.

"I'm good," he grunted. "We goin' in as cops or goons, I'll look the part either way."

“I reckon,” Donnelley snorted, “You always been good at lookin’ scary, you scary sumbitch.”

Jason scraped a few lines of the crushed pills and railed one through a cut plastic straw. His head shook and he flexed his jaw open while snorting the amphetamine deeper up his nostril. The pressure in his chest grew and he flexed his back muscles to pop his spine in a quick rattle, then looked over at Queen and gestured the straw his way as the come-up hit.

Donnelley turned to the rest and nodded over to his room, “We’re bringin’ along one of them laser pointers on the trip. Verify Jay is in there, case the place and go in hard. We don’t have the blueprints to this place, but it ain’t big. Close quarters, we keep up with that violence of action and we’ll catch them with their dicks out.”

“If Jay doesn’t happen to be there, we get an HVT bagged and gagged and ask him questions in the field. I’m gonna run down everyone Jay knows until he’s shittin’ himself.” Donnelley smirked. “I want our window to be as small as we can make it. One of these guys gets to a phone, they’ll be waitin’ for us. Quick strikes, all night, until we find this fucker or find out he’s too far away. Our prime goal is gettin’ to these Russians, Jay is our key in.”

Queen nodded, adjusting the straps of his Kevlar vest, black with white DEA letters on the front. "We'll get em, fast and clean."

He had zip ties and a taser stuffed into his pockets and he glanced over at Jason after hearing the sharp inhalation. “Este güey,” Queen gasped in Mexican Spanish, giving a playful grin to the big Puerto Rican. “I didn’t know you were down.”

With a flourish, he took the straw and helped himself, snorting a short line of the crunchy powder. Queen rubbed his nose then dug into his own pocket, a small baggie of cocaine in his palm. “In case you wanna up the ante.”

Donnelley held his hand out now that he was done playing leader, “Anybody sharin’?”

“Of course,” Jason answered, and cocked his head down at the straw in Queen’s hand. “Don’t mind if I do,” Jason added, grinning at the baggy of coke. It would be his first time taking cocaine for a job, but it couldn’t be any worse than uppers, right? More than anything he knew he couldn’t say no.

“Help yourself, compliments of the Miami field office of the Drug Enforcement Agency,” Queen said then glanced over at Ghost, “Want your ice?”

Ghost took his skull pipe out of a pouch on his flak, extending a hand. He'd watched them snorting pills with disdain; it was party-boy shit, reeking of college kids and club bathrooms. If you were going to catch a pre-gig buzz, you could at least do it like a professional.

After a bump of coke, Queen brought the tiny ziplock bag that held the confiscated meth from the lab he had helped bust before the Cuban case. The cook had been a chemistry student and it showed, the meth wasn’t bathroom sink trash.

“Same as what I gave you in New York,” he assured the big man as he passed over a rock, watching him prepare the pipe, studying the evil sardonic grin and smiled back at it. “Light it up.”

Ghost sparked the pipe and took a heavy drag. The effect was almost immediate. He felt his muscles tighten, and his pulse began to beat rapidly.

"I'll need that later," he growled as he exhaled, offering the bag to Queen. The pipe went back into its case, the remains of the rock nestled inside.

Queen grinned then took the bag, tucking it away, “I got it. Feeling that good shit, gonna let this monster loose, boys. Fuck them and theirs.”

His face felt numb and his mind sharp, the thoughts racing to one goal. Get fucking Jay.

He picked up his micro Uzi and slung it over his chest, his 9mm tucked away in the holster at his hip. “Alright, Tex, let’s ruin their night.”

“First things first,” Donnelley stretched up toward the ceiling, hearing his shoulder and back let loose a series of rattling pops, “Fuckin’ hand me that straw.”




A few minutes of drug-fueled chit-chat later, Donnelley was the first out of the room, intent on checking on the rest of his team. He had to make sure everything was in order before they left. He couldn’t forgive himself if he sped off without making sure his people were as safe as they could be. Jay and his attack on the Safehouse was sobering for him. They weren’t invincible and untraceable. They were dealing with an enemy that was smart, and had unnatural resources, of New York was anything to go by. Avery was asleep on the couch and he slapped the man’s foot hard, jerking him awake with a yelp, “Stay the fuck up, kid.”

“Yessir.” He groggily nodded as Donnelley made his way towards the front door.

He closed it behind him and finally lit that cigarette, watching the streets with careful eyes, tempered with the unbridled rush of amphetamines and coke, willing him to do something with the jittery, restless aggression.

Dave watched Donnelley pass through the house and, after a moment's hesitation, followed after him. He joined the man outside, pulling the door to.

"Hey man," he said, stepping up beside him. "What's the deal with the brief? When we doin' that?" He figured he already knew the answer, but wanted to hear it face to face.

Donnelley turned when he heard the front door open and close again, seeing Dave stepping up to him. The look on his face told Donnelley he knew already. It didn’t help. “I need you to stay.” Donnelley said, his face not betraying any of his feelings about the decision, “I can’t have the people here unprotected, not after Blackriver.”

Dave's frown deepened, but he gave him a slow nod, hanging his head a little.

"Yeah, I can do that, man. You know I'll watch 'em. I guess uh… Be careful, man. Watch your back." He offered his hand, biting back his disappointment in favor of an encouraging smile. "I'll have everythin' safe and sound when y'all get done."

Donnelley offered his consoling smile, trying to turn it into something more brave and fierce as he clapped his hand with Dave’s, “Ain’t another soul here I’d trust, man.” Donnelley said, “I’ll double-tap some shitheads for ya.”

Dave's smile widened, becoming a genuine grin.

"Alright man, I'll see you when you're done." He patted Donnelley on the shoulder and then headed into the house, heading to prep his gear.

Queen stepped out of the room, a loose swagger in his stride now as he was dressed for the raid, a combination of black tactical gear and the DEA vest over his Molly Hatchet t-shirt. His eyes were noticeably dilated, the pale irises only rings around the dark pupils, causing him to blink in the bright kitchen lights. Queen spotted Ava and he slid his sunglasses in place, despite the fact they were going out into the dark. He leaned against the wall, his hand resting on the micro Uzi, “Get ready, cause I’m coming home with all the hard drives and phones. I’m gonna keep you busy all night.”

Ava shut the fridge, a can of cherry 7-Up in hand as she looked up at Queen. Her eyes widened slightly seeing him in tactical gear and heavily armed. “Um, okay, I’ll get my stuff ready.” She said, giving him a small smile. “It certainly won’t be the first time I stayed up all night for work.” She lightly plucked the tab of the soda can with her finger, creating a soft metallic ‘tink’ sound.

“I know we got off on a shaky foot, but be careful, okay?” She said, her deep blue eyes bright with sincerity as she creased her brow with worry.

Queen sniffed then grinned at her, his eyes dancing behind the dark aviator lenses, “Nah, don’t worry about me, Angel. You got us good intel, that’s all we need. Ain’t no one killed me yet.”

He moved towards her, giving her a quick look over before grabbing a bottle of water from the refrigerator. “We’ve worked together for a long time, Ghost and Tex, er Donnelley, and myself. Like a well oiled machine.”

Ava flushed lightly hearing him call her ‘angel’, looking down as she cracked open the soda with a soft hiss. “Alright, I trust you guys.” She said, taking a sip of her drink. Ava glanced back up at him as she lowered the can, a corner of her lips pulling up into a little smile. “You call Donnelley Tex?”

Queen rolled his tongue against the inside of his cheek as she turned pink under her freckles at his compliment. He smiled, leaning back against the counter to keep himself still, “I do appreciate your thoughtfulness, though it’s been a while since anyone worried about me. Kinda nice, even if it’s just, you know...being polite.”

He cast a glance at her, biting his lip slightly at the numbness there. Queen chuckled, “And yeah, Donnelley is Big Tex. I gave him that name, well I started calling him that and it stuck, despite his protests. You all don’t have those names but in teams like ours, it’s a good idea.”

“Oh?” She asked, tilting her head to the side a little, like a curious kitten. “Why’s that? Is it because it’s something you all bond over?”

He sniffed and pinched his nose in a quick gesture, then shook his head, “More like the jobs we do, it’s a good idea not to use any names. Even among people you think you can trust.”

Queen eyed her and flashed a crooked grin, “Angel, I know what you could do if you had my name and all the things you could find on me and my family, anyone connected. Even if I’m careful, there’s always a cyber footprint here or paper trail there. You’re as dangerous as any of us, look what you did to Jay and his buddies.”

He laughed and poked the tip of his tongue briefly between his teeth. Queen met her gaze behind his dark glasses, “I know because I do the same shit in my way, find people that need finding and it all starts with a name. Not that I wouldn’t trust you, of course, as long as Donnelley does.”

Ava frowned for a moment before she slowly nodded. “I understand and I don’t hold it against you, Queen. Especially since this is the Program.”

He shrugged, tossing the water bottle back and forth for a moment, “Yeah it’s no big deal, just how it is. I worked years of undercover, it’s practically second nature for me to conceal.”

Queen paused and ran a hand through his shaggy dark blonde hair, “Kinda sucks, you know. When your world is shrunk down to a handful of people. But such is the life of a superhero, we sacrifice.”

After a dramatic eye rolling sigh before smiling at her, hoping to amuse the young woman after the serious turn. He looked at her longer this time and then set down the bottle, “You know what, that looks good. Can I get one of those sodas? I don’t think I’ve had cherry 7-up since I was twelve.”

“Of course.” She smiled, stepping over to the refrigerator to open it and pull out another can of soda. She shut the door with her elbow and held out the unopened can to him. “Here, hope it tastes as good as when you were a kid.”

Queen eagerly took the cold pink can and popped the top, tipping it slightly towards Ava with a sly grin, "I'm sure I will, I love the taste of cherry."

Dave entered in time to catch Queen's remark and his jaw clenched. He forced a smile onto his face.

"Hey, sugar," he nodded at Ava. "Looks like we're gonna be hangin' together."

He nodded at Queen as well, determined to make amends. "Y'all be careful out there. Jay don't fuck around."

Queen took a drink, side eyeing Dave but only nodded, suppressing a burp. "No worries, this is what we do."

He smiled, his gaze on the other man, "Too bad though, I was looking forward to working with you."

"Well, it'll happen, don't doubt that," Dave said. "I got a feelin' there's plenty more crazy shit to come."

Queen glanced at Ava then at Dave, taking another drink of the 7-up. "Yep, no doubt. That's what we do in the Program."

“Definitely, there’s still a lot we can do, especially when we have more intel.” Ava piped up, smiling warmly over at Dave. “And I’m glad you’re staying with us, Dave. Help keep this place safe, right?”

Dave returned her smile. "That's the plan, sugar. Keep the bad guys out. Y'all are gonna be just fine with me and Avery here."

Queen grinned, his gaze shifting behind the sunglasses, "No doubt, you'll have plenty of intel after tonight, Angel. We'll go through it, should be interesting based on that email account you found."

Ava looked down bashfully at her new nickname, her pale cheeks flushing pink beneath her freckles once again. “Very interesting and useful.” She agreed with a clearing of her throat before taking a drink of her soda.

Donnelley shut the door behind him and went straight for his room, grabbing up his go-bag, flak, and rifle. He stopped in the kitchen doorway and looked at everyone assembled before settling on Queen, “Five mikes, wrap it up. Get the boys too.”

He looked at Ava and Dave, “Y’all good here?”

Dave's jaw worked for a moment. "Yeah, we're good," he grunted. "I'm gonna go...do some stuff. Be safe."

Ava lifted her head, watching Dave leave with a surprised frown. “Um, okay Dave?” She said as he left the kitchen, doubting he actually heard her. She glanced at Queen in confusion before turning her gaze to Donnelley. “So, you guys are leaving soon?”

Queen set down the can as Dave left, watching him walk away before giving Ava an enigmatic smile. "Gotta hit while the iron's hot, as they say."

He turned, giving Donnelley a nod before heading off to find Ghost and Jason. Donnelley clapped his shoulder while he passed and looked back to Ava, nodding, “Yep. We’re out for blood tonight. Ain’t gonna stop until we get Jay.” He stepped a little closer to Ava, “How you feelin’?”

“I’m alright,” She answered with a frown, her finger idly playing with the tab of the soda can. “I’m just...worried about you all leaving and possibly getting shot at.” She said, leaning back against the counter. “I know you’re experienced professionals, but after being in the middle of a shoot out…” She suppressed a shiver and rose her soda up to her lips. “I’ve a better understanding of them.”

“I know.” Donnelley nodded at her, eyes intently watching her wilt a bit. He gave a consoling smile, “We’ll be back by the mornin’. Early enough for you to wake up to the smell of pancakes and bacon again.”

He chuckled, “My treat.” Donnelley said, “‘Sides, they know what happened last time they tried it with us.”

“I need to ask you a favor.” Donnelley said, his smile sobering up some, “You’re the only one I trust with this.”

Ava stood a little straighter at his words and the expression on his face. “Of course.” She said with a nod, her gaze turning curious. “What is it?”

“Stay on your phone and your laptop tonight.” He nodded as he watched her stand at the ready, made him feel like he’d put his trust in the right place. She was one thing he could thank Foster for, “We’ll be feeding you names and intel. As fast as you can, I need you to give us addresses. Understood?”

Ava nodded, the curiosity giving way to a firm expression in the face of his request. “Sure, I can do that.” She arched an eyebrow at him. “You expecting to hit multiple targets tonight?”

“I’m hoping we don’t have to.” Donnelley shrugged, “We’ll be back, don’t you worry on that.”

A small smile turned up the corner of her lips as she looked back up at him. “I’ll hold you to it.” She chuckled. Ava glanced around him, in the direction Queen had left and set her soda down on the counter. She stepped up to Donnelley and gave him as firm a hug as she could. “All the same, be safe and good luck.”

Donnelley’s brows rose as he lifted his arms without thinking for Ava’s hug. Something in that gave it that much more importance in coming back in one piece. Tilly’s hugs might’ve been smaller, but they held the same message. After a quick second, he returned it, stepped back and winked. A little bit of bravado for them both, “Ain’t gonna get Tex and the boys.”

The smile returned with the hug as the short embrace ended, but Ava felt some of her nervous energy subside. “Right, I’ll see you tomorrow.”




Dave stalked from the room without a backward glance, digging out his dip and snapping the can hard as he angled for the front door. Once outside he dug out a generous pinch and crammed it into his lip.

Laine strolled up the block, passing the Camaro and the Prius until she turned up the walkway. She saw Dave, his brow furrowed and lip full of dip. Her gaze traced the features of his handsome face before she announced her presence, "Hey, Dave. I guess I didn't miss the guys leaving. How are you doing?"

"I ain't goin'," Dave grumbled. He mentally kicked himself and forced a smile onto his face. "Got pulled to help watch the house, keep y'all safe. It'll be a good night. The other guys are inside, they're leavin' in a minute."

She looked at him, at the forced dimpled smile and said, "Well, I appreciate you staying with us. I know it's tough to be left behind, but honestly I would rather have someone I know we can depend on. I don't know Avery or those other two, I'm sure they're well trained but..."

Laine shrugged, looking up at him, "I know you'll throw down for us. If it comes to that, there is a reason we're here in Clarksburg and not Charleston."

Dave's forced smile grew a little brighter. "Yeah, I got y'all's backs. I think we're probably good for tonight, don't think there's any way anybody knows we're here. But if not, we can handle business. I still got a score to settle."

Laine smiled slightly, "Let's hope for a quiet night. Maybe you can suggest some of that Ozark mountain music, since I've already had a taste of that good ole mountain dew."

"I might can manage that," he said. "There's probably some on the YouTube. Once the guys leave we'll take a look."

His mountain man charm tickled her and Laine chuckled, flashing a full smile before sobering. "I should grab Donnelley before he leaves, since I won't be there to ask anything of Jay."

"Oh, yeah, probably," Dave said. His expression was a little lighter, the darkness behind his steel eyes having faded a bit with easy conversation. "I'm kinda disappointed I won't get a piece of the bastard, after he got Ava shot. But I guess Donnelley will handle that."

Laine gave him a brief, penetrating look, searching his eyes before replying, "You got yours with...you know and Ava is fine, don't get too caught up in wanting revenge. Justice isn't vengeance."

"Yeah, I know," Dave said, looking at the ground briefly. "Just, seein' her get hurt, and still havin' the guts to come out here? I feel like the bastard's got it comin'."

"I know, and that goes for you, too," Laine said, unconsciously touching her neck, rubbing her fingers against her pulse briefly. "Trust me, I understand your desire but I also know it's a dark road and you're a good man, Dave. So, I'll remind you of that if I need to."

"I appreciate it," he nodded and then gave her another smile, this one almost like his old self. "You doin' good? Didn't know you went for a walk, that ain't really safe."

"Yeah, I just went around the block, sometimes I just need a moment alone," Laine said, "Clear my head. That moonshine was potent."

She tucked a lock of dark hair behind her ear, trouble still behind her steady gaze. "I suppose we're all a little nervous."

"Yeah, I feel ya," he said. "But it'll be alright. Don't stress none, leave that to me. You focus on figuring out what we need to know."

Laine huffed a soft laugh, crossing her arms under her breasts, looking away for a moment, “Right, we’re the professionals.”

He was always anxious before an outing. The jitters met with hanged man’s chuckles and fiery bravado. Modern day gunslingers, Big Tex and THUNDER riding again, he told himself. He stuffed another cigarette in his lips and stepped out onto the porch to see Dave and Laine, hoping they didn’t see his hands shaking just the slightest, or smell the bourbon on his breath. He usually liked to be alone before a raid, but the familiar faces were welcome, “Howdy.” He said, stepping up and running a hand through his hair before he lit his cigarette.

Laine looked up at Donnelley when he exited the house, her gaze on his scarred face. “I was just going to look for you, do you have a moment?”

His brow quirked and he nodded, “Sure. What’s up?”

Laine glanced at Dave, then Donnelley, “I just need a word in private. Excuse us, Dave.”

She walked around to the side of the house, not waiting to see if Donnelley came along. Donnelley gave a glance to Dave as he followed after Laine, standing opposite her on the side of the house.

Laine watched him approach, finding any sort of privacy in the crowded home was difficult but they were alone on the side of the little yellow house. “I wanted to ask you to a couple favors. When you’re questioning Jay, see what he knows about Renko. I know you probably know all this but just indulge me since I won’t be there. Renko, Maria, and the Blackriver sheriff...”

She recounted then looked at him, sighing deeply, “I doubt you’ll record anything.”

Donnelley nodded just once, “You know how these go.” He cleared his throat, looking to the side before meeting Laine’s eyes again, “And I’ll get everything Jay knows. Trust me on that.”

Laine licked her lips slightly and nodded, “I know how it goes. And I do trust you, it’s just hard for me to relinquish control sometimes. Including interrogation but...yeah, well it’s not the FBI.”

She raised her brows slightly, her hands now behind her back as she leaned against the house. “I want you to be careful and come back, we...I need you here. This team...”

Blowing a breath between her lips, she shook her head and glanced around before taking a step towards him and pressing her mouth against his in a swift, firm kiss.

Donnelley’s breath hitched in a soft grunt as Laine had surprised him. By the time he’d settled into it, he’d placed his hand delicately along her jaw and returned the kiss before he broke away, holding her there, one hand on her shoulder and the other on her hip.

He nodded, “One piece.”

Laine searched his eyes, “I’ll be waiting.”

Reluctantly she pulled back, making the move so he could go gather his team, Laine never liked long goodbyes.




There was an inbalance between the static kitchen with its sterile halogen glow and Jason’s buzzing thoughts. It was washed out, calm, but every inch of him felt tense and shaky, most of all in his chest. Inside there was tumult, but outside only the indistinct chatter of Queen and Ava nearby. The big man had his trauma kit slung over his left shoulder and his Kel-Tec KSG in the same grip, over his right shoulder his HK417; another back up he’d like to keep around. Overall he looked as nondescript as he could, his tac-vest blending into a slim black t-shirt with just as tight blue jeans.

He lumbered into the kitchen then leaned against the countertop, letting the calm spread from the groan of the lights above him. Jason had to take note of the distinct quiet, the lack of energy erupting everywhere at once. It was going to be different tonight, they were going to crash in on that chaos. It’s opposite felt unsettling, near unbearable. Fuck, I’m in my head too much about this[/|], he thought. [|] Fucking coke. He stared at the pattern repeating on the floor, the grooves and knicks catching shadows. Just jitters, he reassured to himself. Just rust, he lied.

Queen came back around the corner, spotting Jason. Donnelley was gone and Ghost was on his way. “There you are, amigo, you look ready to rock and roll.”

His eyes danced behind his dark reflective lenses as he gave Jason an appreciative once over. “You brought bandaids, good idea.”

Jason snickered. “Let me pretend to be a PJ for a bit, at least,” he said. “I’m feeling coiled. How about you?”

Queen grinned, glancing towards the door and back at Jason, “Like I gotta fight or fuck someone real soon. Did you PJ before DIA?”

“Yeah, I was a greenfoot for a bit,” he replied. “I like to fuck after. Get all that aggression out.” He wondered why the hell he said it.

Queen only smiled more, a sly grin that matched the thoughts racing in his head, “Post fight fuck is the best. Nothing like a war boner.”

Reluctantly, he added, “Tex is outside, waiting on us to show our pretty faces."

"So he's waiting for me, then." Ghost's habitual growl carried a hint of humor as he strode into the room, kitted out with his custom .300 and his plate carrier hung with magazines and grenades. His Glock rode at his thigh, a formidable knife sat on his hip. Centered on his vest was a patch that showed a brick wall, the words JUST HERE FOR THE VIOLENCE scrawled across it.

He'd shed his Oakleys in preparation for nightfall, and the smile he'd pasted on didn't quite reach his coffee-dark eyes. It had been a while since he'd been around outsiders; he was having trouble dissembling, masking himself from the world, especially without the comfort of the dark sunglasses that let him look where he wanted to unobserved.

He fixed each man in turn with an iron-hard stare, giving them a shark's grin.

"We all set?"

“Let’s roll,” Jason said, getting energized in Ghost’s devil grin. He rocked himself to standing and made his way out of the kitchen, jutting out a meaty fist at Ghost as he passed.

Ghost knocked his polymer-shelled knuckles against Jason's fist. His gloves were tactical gauntlets; they went a quarter of the way up his massive forearms, strapped on tight to keep out debris. He could put his fist through drywall and not feel a thing; he'd picked them up after an ugly infection from ripping open his knuckles against a Syrian's teeth.

Queen had pushed his own sunglasses up, no longer hiding his dilated eyes from Ava and Dave. He met Ghost’s dark gaze and felt the familiar crawling up his spine, violence was near. The morale patch was closest to the truth when it came to Ghost, nothing else seemed to bring him greater joy. And he was good at his job.

“I’m ready, gotta ride this buzz,” Queen announced, pushing away from the counter to head out the door as the two big men followed. His own morale patch was sewn next to the white standard block letters of DEA on his kevlar. A small but bright yellow happy face grinning blankly out at the world with the words “Don’t Trust Me” embroidered below it.

He left the kitchen and was passing through the living room, spotting Ava on the couch with her laptop. “See ya, Angel,” he said, giving her a playful wave before heading out the door.

The movement of the wave caught her attention, making Ava look up from her laptop. She reached up to remove the red and gold, flower decorated headphones from her ears. “Oh, bye, good luck!” She called out as she watched the heavily armed men filter out of the house with a frown.

Donnelley was stood in the driveway next to the SUV, watching his team step out of the house one by one. They each looked ready, especially Ghost, but when was Ghost not? Already, he felt the excitement in his bones, the aggression in his blood, a jittery will to violence. Something Tex reveled in, an unrelenting whisper in his ear that made his fingers flex and knuckles pop beneath his black Mechanix gloves. “Mount up. We’ve got a drive ahead of us.”

"Am I driving, Tex?" Queen asked as he walked around the front of the SUV.

“Yup.” Tex tossed the keys jingling in Queen’s direction before turning for the SUV, opening the back and stashing his pack, slipping his plate carrier over his head before getting into the back. Today’s outing called for the shortest barrel on his Badger. The suppressor was screwed on, but he’d sacrifice the noise reduction for the stopping power of not using the subsonic .300 Blackout. “Remember, priority is capture of HVT Jay, he’s our link to Nikolai and the Russians. Anyone who knows his whereabouts come second, but if they ain’t gonna come quietly, you dust them if worse comes to worse.”

“I want cellphones and hard drives in our bags, that’s second priority. Third, we need to know what they do about the Blackriver Sheriff and the MacOnie family.” He said, going over his gear once more just in case, “And I wanna know who Renko is. We’re gonna ask around for him.”

"Should've brought my SAWZ-ALL," Ghost muttered as he climbed into the front passenger seat. "Didn't get to use it last time. There a Home Depot on the way?"

Queen started the truck, tapping his fingers against the steering wheel, "I'll keep the drives and phones together, any sort of files. These knuckleheads might write shit down."

He checked his phone, "Home Depot 3.4 miles west. How bad you want that saw, big man?"

Ghost frowned pensively.

"Only if there's time," he said. "I have my knife. It'll do fine. The saw is more of an academic curiosity than anything."

Queen glanced at Ghost, "Right, well we should probably get Jay first. Then you can experiment."

The big man grunted, a sound of both annoyance and agreement. "Like I said, I can just use my knife. I'll bring it next time."

“Closer we get to the target, the less talk I want.” Tex piped up from the back, punctuated by the metallic clack of his pistol’s slide being thumbed into place as he absently checked his equipment. “If I can make Brujos talk with sewin’ needles, your knife’ll do the job.”

Queen glanced again at the mirror this time at Donnelley. He was in charge, this was his show now, not part of it. "Yessir," Queen drawled, speeding up to change lanes.

Jason’s gaze had been roaming back and forth between Queen and Ghost as they mentioned the sawzall. He could only imagine the application, and knew immediately none of it was hyperbole. It was going to be one of those missions. Messier than what he was used to, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to protest. He double checked his rifle’s safety and made sure his optics battery wasn’t drained. They were little tasks to keep his mind from wandering.

“Do we have an ID photo of our HVT on us to confirm him on site?” Jason asked, now watching the pillars of streetlights strobe past out the window. “And do we go in masked?”

Queen reached into the console and brought out a slim file that had been stuffed into it. He passed it back to Jason. "Recent mugshot and description, addresses and some of his known associates. And I always go masked, old habit. Can't let them see this gorgeous face."

He flashed a playful smirk in the mirror then grew serious again, the closer they got. His balaclava was around his neck would be pulled up over his mouth and nose and his goggles and helmet doing the rest of the masking. He learned early on from the Mexican federales the benefits of complete masking and wore gloves to also cover his tattoos.

Jason didn’t worry about the additional information, instead flicking on the car light and studying the mugshot. He looked at the most prominent features, the nose, the eyebrow ridge, the jawline; whatever he could identity quickly or in low light. After feeling confident he committed the visage to memory he folded the photo and slipped it into a front false pocket in his tac-vest, then replaced the files in the console.

“Since we’ve all got callsigns,” Jason said, rifling through his goruck bag and pulling out a shemagh, “I’ve gone by JJ or Boyscout.” He looked at Donnelley, tying the shemagh around his neck. “Your pick.”

“Boyscout,” Ghost interjected. He’d pulled a plain, lightweight neck gaiter from his cargo pocket and was slipping it over his head where it could be pulled up quickly, bandito-style, when it was time to go. “Your name’s Jason. Don’t want anything with J’s. Too easy to hone in on for the right people.”

"Boyscout...that one of those ironic nicknames?" Queen asked, the eagerness of Jason to take the coke and his own Adderall stash was fresh in mind.

“Tex, Ghost, Queen,” Tex let the callsigns roll off his tongue as he slipped the skull mask up over his mouth and nose and pulled it back down, nodding at Jason, “Boyscout.”




>BENWOOD, WEST VIRGINIA
>JUL.19.2019
>2200HRS...///

The black SUV’s brakes whined to a stop on the street, parking on the opposite side of the house the GPS had led them to. Bone Thugs softly played from the speakers inside and Tex patted Queen on the shoulder before he rolled down the window, the music turned down to nothing. Tex slipped the headphones over his ears, the wire connected to the listening device in his hand as he pointed the laser at one of the windows of the small one-story house not dissimilar to their own safehouse.

The sounds of canned laughter and dialogue from a TV making their way to his ears. Living room, maybe. He switched off the laser and pointed it at another window, the soft sounds of snoring. The loud rumble of motorcycles grew in Tex’s ears until they came into view. Two riders pulling up into the driveway next to the old gray sedan that was there before. They exchanged a few words as Tex pointed the laser towards them, “-the lady. Leave in the morning. Don’t bother her, just let her live. We ain’t there.”

“Still fucked up what happened to Carlisle. You heard about that shit?”

“Who hasn’t. Let’s go, gotta meet Jay later.”

The two big men, bald, bearded, and tattooed made their way to the front door. One of them knocked as Tex’s grip on his rifle tightened. “You see a gun, don’t hold your fire.” Tex whispered, “They’re talkin’ about a lady. Talkin’ about meetin’ Jay later. Mentioned Carlisle.”

Ghost rolled his head on his powerful shoulders, loosening up. He pulled his neck gaiter up over his nose and mouth.

“If we know Jay ain’t here, why don’t we just follow ‘em?” He asked, prepping his rifle nevertheless. “You know I’m always down for a hit, but it might save us some time.”

“No tellin’ when they’ll leave.” Tex clucked his tongue, taking his moment before he spoke again, “If they don’t get up and go after a few minutes, we’ll get in there and cut out the middle man.”

“I’m down for waiting a bit,” Queen muttered, slouching in the driver’s seat as he watched the bikers ambling up to the door. He automatically searched for any gang or MC patches or tattoos from what he could see but it was not important enough to risk lifting his binoculars.

"Wonder who the lady is,” he said, running through names and associates he had read in the files from Ava but no female popped into mind. Maybe one of Carlisle’s victims or someone the Russians wanted intimidated without their fingerprints on it.

Jason made sure to take big breaths, focusing only on what he was hearing from his team members mixed with the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest. He peered out the window into the low lit street, where his ‘sector’ should be. Breathe in, breathe out. No movement, not much of anything. Overhearing the team, Jason agreed with Ghost. It was the confirmed path to Jay, but he wasn’t about to play majority rules, nor had he the rapport Ghost had with Donnelley. No, Tex.

“How are we stacking up for entry?” Jason asked in a low tone.

“If it comes to it…” Tex narrowed his eyes as they were let in, one of the bikers hanging around for a second before hopping on his bike and zooming off.

“Wait for a second and get on his ass, keep your distance, Queen.” Tex said, patting Queen on the shoulder, “It’s about to get hot, boys.”

"I got it," Queen replied, waiting and counting to ten before pulling out and tailing the biker.

He had studied the map of the area earlier that day and when the biker turned onto one suburban street and glanced over his shoulder Queen passed him. The next street would take him to the same main road so he turned up that way and sure enough, the biker was sitting at a red light. Queen settled in a few cars behind him, traffic now heavier on this street.

Jason angled his KSG towards the floor and grabbed for his rifle, positioning it to ease the barrel upward towards the door window if needed. He scanned his sector again, giving himself the illusion of being useful. It was something. His gaze whipped between the windshield and his door window, the cocktail of drugs making his focus hyperaware and manic. He focused on the bike and its rider, then his vehicle sector, then back at the bike again. The urge to burst out, to exact the violence expected, was roiling in his chest and gut.

Ghost eyed the biker, then glanced back at Donnelley.

“He stops somewhere private, we can always just jump out and mob his ass,” he said. “Drag him off the hog, kick him in the head a few times, then throw him in the trunk. Or hell, just bump his back tire, he’ll go right down. If he busts his head open, we go back to that house.”

Tex looked at Ghost, back to the biker, and clucked his tongue, “Queen, once we get to a quiet stretch of road put him on our right side. Bump his tire.”

“I got this, gonna put his ass on the ground, ” Queen acknowledged and focused on tailing the biker, tapping his fingers in a staccato on the wheel. His heart thumped and he glanced over at Ghost and then at the road, at the biker and the other cars now thinning out. “I-fucking-got-this,” he chanted to the beat of his fingers.

Their target turned off onto a road that lead away from town and Queen pushed the gas to catch up, the trees now outnumbering buildings. The road was empty and a quick look in the rearview mirror showed no one behind him. “Get ready, gonna give him a love tap,” he said, accelerating the SUV and the bumper hit the back tire of the Harley harder than he planned. “Oh fuck!”

He slammed on the brakes, turning the truck to a halt to keep from running over the man as the motorcycle shot out sideways in one direction and the rider in another. The man hit the ground with a sickening thump, rolling violently across the asphalt onto the gravel of the shoulder of the road. Queen gawked as he watched the ragdolling biker then glanced at Ghost and the men in the back, “Well...he’s down.”

Ghost snorted, watching the biker cartwheel across the pavement with undisguised amusement. He unclipped his rifle as the SUV came to a stop and then threw open his door, drawing his pistol and advancing on the downed biker. As he neared the man he knelt beside him, reaching out to check a pulse. The man gave a gurgling groan and Ghost frowned, turning his head.

The biker’s face was shredded, a generous portion of it ground away on the asphalt. His eyes rolled in his head, focusing for a moment on Ghost’s face, and the operator sighed and shook his head. He holstered his pistol, grabbed the man’s helmet in both hands, and twisted hard. The vertebrae went with a sound like waterlogged sticks breaking over somebody’s knee. He stood and walked back to the SUV, hopping inside.

“Back to the house,” he said. “Your love-tap fucked him up too much to be useful.”

“Goddamnit.” Tex rolled his eyes and sighed hard, “At least I get to shoot someone.”

Queen grimaced as he watched Ghost snap the man’s neck and he leaned back against the headrest. He had been too hyped up, he reasoned to himself. The cocaine he was used to but adding in the Adderall which should have focused his energy left him jittery. He rubbed his nose and pinched it, thinking about the coke in his pocket. He had fucked up but there was still another chance. He shifted the truck back into drive, “There’s a bright side to everything. How you doing back there, Boyscout?”

“Right as rain,” Jason replied, swallowing down any feelings he had on the execution. They were here to kill men, and they just killed one. That’s all that mattered for the moment. It only reaffirmed what Jason assumed—tonight was going to be messy. “I guess we best move quick, especially if he was being expected.” It didn’t have to be said, but Jason needed to think aloud. It wasn’t a suggestion, only narrowing of his focus. He checked outside his window again, the Applachian night droning but otherwise mute in its inky darkness.

Queen pulled around, making a U turn and sped back to the house. His hand thumped the steering wheel in rhythm to the music as they wound through the neighborhood until he reached the corner of the block their target house was at. He cut the lights and engine, coasting to a stop a few houses down. A single street light was dark, no doubt shot out by one of the boys that occupied the house. A faint yellow sodium light at the corner did little to illuminate but it did not matter, THUNDER always came dressed for the occasion.

A motorcycle still sat in the driveway along with a lifted Chevy Silverado with a rebel flag hanging in the back window. Queen squinted at house set back behind a chain link fence and a yard that needed to be cut last week, there was probably a dog. Assholes like these always had some big dangerous dog, a Rottweiler or something like that. Queen unbuckled his seat belt and slung his mini uzi over his chest. He glanced at Ghost and back at Boyscout and Tex.

“Well, back to square one, who wants to take a peek inside?”

"Boyscout, you're up," Ghost said. He looked over his shoulder at Jason. His tone brooked no argument; this was his first op with the man, and Ghost wanted to pop his cherry quickly and establish whether or not he could hang. Tex might trust him; Ghost didn't. "Come on, I'm going too."

“Rog,” Jason mouthed. He dropped his rifle muzzle to the floor, and pulled his shotgun up to high ready. His fingers brushed the car door latch, but he wasn’t going to move until they all broke away from the vehicle. The throbbing pulse of his heartbeat throttled in the veins of his neck.

“You need the laser?” Tex looked between Ghost and Jason, or Boyscout, he reminded himself, “Might help, I can’t get those back windows from the truck.”

He turned to Queen, patting him on the shoulder, “Queen, you and me take the front rooms. Ghost and Boyscout take the back, breach on my signal. Listen for two taps on the mic.”

Queen ran a hand over his vest and fingered the micro Uzi, the comfortable small weapon that could unleash chaos in one squeeze of the trigger. He could use another bump of coke, the high already fading from the crackling peak but after the misjudged love tap on the biker, he hesitated. There would be time later, after the work was done and Queen pushed the nagging to the back of his mind. He nodded at Tex, then slid out of the driver’s seat, careful to close the door with a near silent click.

Crouching low, he scuttled over to the chain link fence and examined the lock that was in place. It would not be hard to just climb over the fence but there would certainly be some sound. He shrugged to himself, the gate could squeak too, bringing unwanted attention. Queen glanced over at Tex, gesturing to the fence.

They made the hop easily enough, walking in a slow methodical crouch as they approached. The house was quiet but the lights were on inside and a shadow flickered across the blinds as someone passed. Queen froze and they waited, but nothing happened. His muscles twitched and his eyes scanning for movement as they crept forward, now more than halfway across the weed filled yard when it happened.

Squeeee!

The wheezing high pitched sound was from his left where Tex stood a few steps over and Queen jerked his head to look. Under Tex’s boot was a large bone shaped dog toy, the faded blue color well hidden among the clump of crabgrass. Just as Queen mentally swore the porch light flicked on and the door flew open. Backlit in the frame a large man in faded Rahowa t-shirt stood with a Rottweiler dog at his side.

“What the fuck?” He saw the two men in the flood of light from the porch and inside, two well armed masked men in dark tactical gear and he reacted quickly.

Fass! Fass! Get em, goddamnit!” the big man shouted, releasing the blur of movement and muscle.

The massive black and tan dog was now racing towards them. Like a well trained attack dog, he did not bark but bared fangs as he covered the short distance. The man was now reaching back as if to draw a weapon but the dog had Queen’s full attention as it barrelled towards him.

Queen fired, an explosion of noise that sent a burst of 9mm rounds into the Rottweiler’s chest and square head, dropping the animal with a whining yelp that made his stomach churn.

Tex growled, leveling his sights on the dog before Queen’s uzi spat into the hulking mass of fur and muscle. He quickly switched targets and squeezed off three rounds that were meant for the asshole in the doorway, but the dog had served as a good distraction. The man ducked down quick enough for Tex’s rounds to slap holes into the front door, stitching a trail that followed him inside. “Fuck,” Tex spat, the screaming he wanted to do replaced by a stern growl, “Breach, breach, breach!”

Ghost had made his way to the back yard true to his namesake, silent death on two tree-trunk legs. The shoddy fence proved no obstacle for the hyper-fit operator, and he’d cleared it and moved on the house with laser focus, his heart pounding out a steady rhythm in his ears. Cool, calm, collected; that was Ghost. Delta to his core, the Reaper made flesh, 220 pounds of life taking -

Sudden gunfire shattered his concentration and he swore. The hasty breach, breach, breach came over the coms before he and Boyscout had set their positions. Ghost moved into a run, clearing the back yard in a few big steps, leaving Boyscout to keep up or fall out. He reached the back door at a run, planted, and then slammed his big right boot into the door just beside the knob. It gave way with a hard crack and then Ghost was through, stepping immediately into an oversized metal water dish. He cursed bitterly and loosed a hasty triplet at the first male he saw, stumbling over and hurling himself behind the nearest piece of furniture.

Jason had been right behind Ghost keeping a few bounding steps away and trying to his best to move fluidly with him. He moved with an ease that reminded Jason how stiff and uptight he was, but was too hyper-focused to consciously register anything other than situational awareness. When Ghost cleared the fence Jason provided overwatch, then quickly scaled after him. As they rounded the building a spat of rapid fire rang out, followed by the quick burst of Tex’s rifle. Breach, breach, breach! crackled from the comms, and the large men sprinted for the back door.

It slammed open and Ghost breached, immediately letting loose his rounds and finding cover. Jason was right behind him, seeing the first man over Ghost’s shoulder, and was in the doorway as soon as Ghost dove for the furniture. He lined up center mass and fired a slug, his compact KSG roaring as it recoiled into the pit of his muscled shoulder. The man’s body was recoiling from Ghost’s rounds, but the slug ripped through his chest with a sickening ease. Behind him the livingroom was suddenly speckled with gore and bone fragments, the man’s body convulsing in haggard breath as the large wound disrupted the lungs and filled his chest with pouring blood. While racking his slide for another round Jason trained the shotgun on the woman, screaming, “Get the fuck down now!”

Tex came through the door straight after, turning to cover a short hallway while Queen moved past his back and into the living room. He turned his attention on the scene, stepping up alongside Queen. He nudged the AB asshole with the toe of his shoe, watching him desperately cling to a life he was quickly losing. Tex looked from Jason to the lady, watching her quivering on the ground, he held his hand up towards Jason, “Boyscout, Ghost, clear that hallway,” he said in his News Accent, none of the Texan twang in it, “I’ll get the lady.”

Jason didn’t respond, only reacted. Tex gave the order and he was moving to the hallway, knowing Ghost would be behind him. There was a stink to the house, the smothering heaviness of summer heat soaking years of sweat and neglect into the walls. There was also gunpowder and the acrid chemical odor of substances under heat, caustic and sharp.

Queen knew the smell and he was not surprised, these were exactly the type of people to cook in their own house. He curled his lips at the stink of meth and looked over at the woman cowering. He recovered his expression, from a snarl to sympathy in a flick of emotion.

She was a middle aged woman but looked older, sallow cheeks and pock marked skin where she had scratched herself. Queen knelt down, his Uzi now slung aside, “Easy, we need you to stop crying. Take a deep breath, that’s it. I’m sorry what happened.”

His voice altered from the normal Florida drawl to a more local flavor, hoping it might help her. “Look at me, don’t look at him. He’s done.”

“He needs a doctor!” she bawled, clutching at her arms.

“Don’t think about him,” Queen said, putting a slow and gentle hand on her bony shoulder. “You need to think about yourself and what’s gonna happen in the next five minutes. Tell me how many others are in the house?”

“Fuck off, pig,” she spat but there was no energy to it, it just dribbled down her chin as she shook but she had stopped wailing. “Y’all shot my man, he dyin’.”

“No more have to get hurt, but you need to help us,” Queen said, glancing as the two big men hustled down the hallway.

“Nobody else,” she took in a ragged breath, and then a few more as she held her hand to her chest, “Jesus Christ, nobody else. Oh my god, you killed him… you killed him!”

“Where’s my dog? Where’s Jay?” She sniffled.

“Funny you should ask.” Tex said, “We’re looking for Jay too.”

He stepped up and offered his hand out to the woman. She took it with a twiggy hand and he helped her up, placing her in the chair and stepping back, “We were told that Jay was here, what’s your relation to Jay?”

“Fuck you.” She spat.

Jason had stopped where the livingroom narrowed into the hallway, shotgun aimed down the corridor and his body leaning against the corner. He couldn’t think if the uncleared rooms had windows, if anyone left was making a run for it while they shook down the poor woman. He began to cautiously advance, his breathing pressured and sharp as he tried to swallow it down in controlled breaths.

“We know you’re cooking here, ma’am. We can report this place to the State PD and have you locked up.” Tex said, “Or you can answer my question.”

“Not tellin’ you shit, you fuckin’ pigs!” She howled, almost shaking now. Tex couldn’t tell if it was the age or being angry as he snorted and shook his head, somewhat impressed with her ability to withhold information.

Queen furrowed his brow and glanced at Tex. He looked at the woman as she glared back at the masked men who had just brought death and chaos through her front door. He took a chance and pushed up his goggles and pulled his mask down enough to show part of his face. An unspoken attempt to establish some sort of trust before Ghost came back or Tex lost his patience. "Jay's in danger, he's in over his head, ma'am. I'm sorry it ended up like this but if we don't get to him first, he'll end up dead, too. And by much worse means."

The woman remained silent, only glaring through fear in her eyes. Queen shook his head, flipping his mask back over his mouth as he muttered, "I fucking tried."

Ghost returned a moment later, fire in his eyes. He'd fucked up, looked like a fool in front of the cherry. He felt the wet squish of dog water in his sock and snarled beneath his balaclava.

"This bitch talking?" He growled, stalking towards the group, his hands fisted tightly around his cut-down rifle.

Queen grimaced under the mask then shook his head slightly, turning away from the older woman. He took a step back, giving the big man room.

Tex looked around, from Ghost to Queen and then to the lady. He held her gaze, watched her in the silence as she slowly started to piece together what was suddenly in the air. Tex looked at Ghost, if nobody could make her talk then they’d have to try something else. He didn’t like it, but the mission demanded it. He wanted those Russians, and right now this old Nazi sympathizer was the biggest obstacle.

He pulled his mask down and fetched his pack of cigarettes from a pouch, lighting it up, “Nah, she ain’t talkin’.”

Ghost growled, a low, animal sound coming straight from his chest. He grabbed the woman by the face, his large palm covering her mouth, and bulled her up against the wall. Then he cut a thunderous hook into her skinny side.

"Where is Jay?" He snarled. He leaned close. "Tell me, or I start breaking bones. I'll start with your fucking hands. Where is he?"

She drew in a breath and worked her mouth around, teeth bared, “Fuck… you…”

Queen drew a sharp breath through his teeth and stepped forward, "Look, we just need to talk to Jay. We know what you got operating here and add in the hate group associated, he could do federal too but I ain't tryna bust him. We need him for information, got it? He'll be compensated and not face charges."

He spoke, pulling back memories of being DEA Agent Patrick and raiding meth labs and crack houses to find bigger fish. Queen stepped over, standing just to the side of Ghost so she could see him.

“He’s…” She coughed up blood over Ghost’s forearm, “He’s at the clubhouse. McMecken’s Run.”

"McMecken's Run," Ghost grunted. He drew his pistol, shoved the suppressor against the woman's eye, and blew her brains out the back of her skull.

He let the body drop, shoving his pistol into its holster. Ghost fixed a defiant eye on Tex.

"She saw your face," he grunted. "Let's go to McMecken's."

Queen silently watched and when it was over, he touched the morale patch, the smiling face and its motto. Whether it was any sort of trust in his lie or Ghost's sincere promise of pain she had given up information. Hopefully it was true.

"Yeah," Queen said, then jerked his head. "Where's Boyscout?"

Tex shrugged, a glance towards the crumpled body of the old woman before responding to Queen, “Checkin’ out the goods in the other room.” Tex cocked a brow as he looked at his two teammates, “Think they keep their money here?”

The mention of goods and money brought Queen back to familiar territory and he shrugged, looking away from the pair of dead people. "Let's go find out, I need their phones and hard drives, too."

By then Jason was exiting the first room on the right and pacing towards the next, leaving behind an empty, disheveled bedroom with a desktop. Approaching the next door, he made a quick note of the computer left behind. They’d be taking it with them for Ava. He entered the next room as he did the first, balancing his KSG low and quickly working the handle as he stepped in and readied the shotgun towards the first corner. His nostrils burned with acetone and burning plastic, the air stifling and heavy in his lungs. In the first corner was a messy pile of baggied amphetamines, the stacks large enough to supply the town and then some. Jason swept over what was their makeshift lab as he cleared the rest of the room.

“Computer in the first right room,” he muttered over the comms. “Cook lab in the second. Lots of meth. Clearing the last room.”

Jason stepped back into the hallway and something peculiar dissipated his focus. It was laughter, light hearted cackling like a laugh track. Behind it was a buzzing, a sound both raspy and telephonic. It was so out of place Jason paused to make sense of it. There was another burst of laughter and a few pattering claps. After a moment he realized it was coming from the last door, a thin improvised sheet of particle board locked from the outside. He approached with less vigilance than before, fixated on the random strangeness of sounds. Jason worked the lock, tried his best to realigned his focus, and burst into the room.

Pale, shuttering television glare filled the room, cast shadows against the walls and contoured a mess of childrens toys and noisemakers scattered about. In the corner was a dirty mattress, a small girl swallowed in oversized clothes sitting on top of it and curled up against the wall. She had headphones that squeezed into her frail skull, matted with weak, thin hair. It looked like she hadn’t eaten in several days, and little before that. The T.V. flashed as the camera shot changed, casting them both in less light.

“Fuck,” Jason mouthed, then over the comms said, “we have an issue.”

Tex looked at Ghost and Queen before responding to Jason, “Hold, I’m coming.”

When Tex made it down the hallway, he was mentally preparing himself for almost everything besides what he saw as he sided up with Jason. There was a long few moments of silence between them. He glanced back to where Ghost was and swallowed hard before looking to Jason. The kid looked lost, but eerily unaware of whatever danger they were in.

He’d seen kids that were scared, some of them were drugged up so bad that they didn’t know where they were. The insinuation of the mattress, the lock, the living situation. Even if the worst case wasn’t true, letting a kid live like this made Ghost’s punishment not enough for Tex. You take a man’s life, that’s one thing, but there wasn’t a child alive he’d ever met that deserved this.

In that girl’s eyes were a hundred or more memories of Dalhart. That youngblood superhero Deputy Donnelley felt that surge of hot rage crawling up his spine for the first time in what felt like an eternity. Back when the world was him and everyone else. Back when he trusted in God and Law. Back when evil was just tweakers and murderers and angry husbands. He cleared his throat, a low and raspy whisper, “What do you wanna do, Boyscout?”

"Do about what?" Ghost had followed, the blood staining his forearm a dark smear where he'd wiped the bulk of it on the couch.

He leaned past them and took in the sight of the little girl, the conditions she'd been kept in. The big man looked from Tex to Boyscout and shrugged.

"Your call Tex," he grunted. He sniffed and looked back into the room, his disinterest clear. "She hasn't seen our faces. I say leave her. Throw her ass on a neighbor's doorstep, let CPS clean up that mess."

Jason's eyes never wavered from the girl. Showing comfort would be too alien here, and one so distant in his thoughts it hadn't even surfaced. She was going to need to care. A lot of it. And they didn't have the time.

"Hospital," Jason said, almost a murmur. He finally looked at Tex, trying to ignore Ghost's apathy. "Is there a hospital on our route?"

“Maybe…” Tex said, eyes on the girl the whole time, until he shifted his weight to a foot and looked between Ghost and Boyscout. He didn’t trust the neighbors, “She’ll talk. We’ll take her, drop here off at a hospital far from Benwood after we’re done with Jay.”

Queen stepped into the first bedroom, now cleared by Boyscout and began collecting phones and using his tools to pop out the hard drive and open any locked drawers that might be there. He picked a few sizable rocks already bagged up and kept an eye out for cash.

"I think I got everything of use in that room," he announced, approaching the men. He could see them clustered at the door and a vague uneasiness hit him when he heard last few words.

"What's going on?" Queen asked, slipping between the wall and the bulk of Boyscout and peered into the room. His reaction was much that of Tex, the shock and outrage and the unfortunate memories of other times finding children in drug dens in similar or worse condition. "Shit..."

He glanced at Tex then the other two, "Well, fuck we can't leave her here and we're not..."

Queen cut a sharp look at Ghost then back at Tex, "What you said, dropping her off some other place. Let's do that."

“Get her,” Tex nodded, “Wrap her up and get her in the truck.”

Without hesitation he stepped into the room, walking slowly and smiling, though as he got closer he could see how bad she was. Very thin and dark circles under her eyes as if she had not slept. She watched him too, apprehension and resignation in her dull gaze.

He squat down beside the mattress, placing his hand against it. "Hey, let's get you outta here," he said, putting on a smile to hopefully put the girl at ease. He noticed the headphones but left them alone, reaching to scoop up the frail girl. She looked about age nine or ten, he wasn't sure, but weighed nothing as he pulled her towards his chest.

The girl reacted instantly, a high pitched screech of protest and she began to wail, kicking out feebly. Her cries were panicky and wordless, animal terror at what more strange men were going to do with her.

"Shhh, its okay," Queen said, "We're not going to hurt you. We're here to help."

The words stuck in his throat as he lifted her up, her tears streaking her pallid face. It had been a long time since he had felt like he was legitimately protecting anyone, despite the good he knew the Program did. He also had a lot of innocent blood on his hands.

The girl struggled but succumbed to her weakened state, sagging against his shoulder as he held her in his arms and Queen whispered to her, "What's your name, sweetie? I'm Billy. We're going to get you outta here."

Tex almost flinched at the sudden screams as Queen scooped her up. She didn’t answer Queen, only heaving in stuttering breaths and shaking, staring off into nothing. “Just get her to the truck, Queen.” He said, placing a hand on his shoulder as he passed. He turned to Ghost and Boyscout, back to business, “We gotta keep up the momentum, blow that fuckin’ lab and let’s get outta here.”

"Right," Queen responded, snapping out of his focus on the girl. He bundled her off, be cradling her head against his shoulder to shield her view of the dead people before exiting the house. A quick glance told him the neighbors had minded their own business and no sirens or spectators to be seen.

He put the girl in the back seat, buckling her in and she continued to stare blankly, her gaunt face seemed suddenly older than her years. "Sorry they did this, kid. But you're okay now," Queen assured her, to no response but he didn't expect any. Out the back he found an emergency blanket and covered her with it. "Stay put," he gestured and got into the driver's seat.

Ghost watched, an irritated frown creasing his weathered face beneath his mask. This was a waste of time. He was twitchy, he was bored. There were Nazis to kill and instead they were playing nanny with some kid.

"Let's go," he grunted. "Probably got paint thinner or something in that lab, we gotta get this fire going and then move before somebody shows up and tells Jay that his mom's house is burning down and her brains are on the floor."

“Boss,” Jason said, low and concerned. He watched Queen wrap her up and take her down the hallway, something in him simmering from not showing her any compassion, but it still felt wrong in the moment. He kept his eyes down the hallway as Queen kept walking, and continued, “We can’t let her come with us. Shit might get hot, we might have to alibi for a dirty kid with a bunch of gunned up men.”

He sighed and looked around, studying the room again. The locked door he understood, but the excessive amount of noise seemed strange. Why have her in headphones on top of all the noise? It had to be tweaker nonsense, but it still rubbed Jason the wrong way.

Tex nodded, his rifle hanging by the single-point it was on as he placed his hands on his hips, shaking his head after Queen and the girl. He looked back at the room. The blaring noise from the television almost drowning out his thoughts before he shut it off and flooded the room with darkness.

“Boyscout, it’s goin’ to take us a bit to extract all the shit from the phones and the hard drives and get a bead on the clubhouse.” Tex rolled his jaw, “Drop the kid off at a hospital or something and meet back up with us when it’s done. We’ll send you a rendezvous point. Good?”

Tex turned and left for Queen and the girl, trusting that Jason and Ghost would be able to handle the lab.

“Rog,’ Jason said. He took one last look of the room, trying to block the escaping images it conjured in his mind. She suffered here, a suffering not meant for anyone, especially so young. There was pain, there was neglect, and then this; the de-evolution of being. She was a thing in this room, an object discarded. Fuck these people for what they did to her, he thought.

If he was going to drop her off at a hospital they’d need another ride, so he walked to the living room to check the poor bastard he had gunned down. At first he saw the gaping wound in the man’s sternum, his wide eyes glossed over and staring where the ceiling met the wall. He began to check the corpse’s pockets for keys, then he noticed the woman, her slumped body and the growing pool of dark blood dripping from the exit point at the back of her head.

Jason stood tall, looking at the dead woman that was vehemently alive just minutes before. He hadn’t heard what happened. “What the fuck is this?” he said, loud enough for Tex and Ghost to hear.

Tex looked at Ghost and back to Jason. There was no point in lying, nor would he ever to a
teammate. “She saw our faces.” He said simply, dragging hard off his cigarette.

"Welcome to THUNDER," Ghost said, looking Jason in the eye. He held his stare for a moment. "Cry later. We've got a fire to start."

He turned and walked back down the hall towards the lab, searching for an accelerant.

Jason held the gaze, read the implication flaring in Ghost’s eyes. It practically said ‘I did it, what are you going to do about it?’ and all Jason could do was look down at the woman again, feeling his back and traps tense from Ghost’s stare. Now wasn’t the time. He studied the burnt blood caked around her eye socket, her slack jaw and stringy, yellow white hair. There wouldn’t ever be a time, not with Ghost. Don’t fuck with him, Jason told himself. We gotta move. Gotta take care of the girl. He went outside to check the bodies on the porch for keys, one grim glance cast towards Tex on his way out.




Flames, blackened tire marks, and the dead were left as THUNDER’s calling card. They sped off into the night and into the next town over, eyeing police cruisers warily until they finally found their destination, a lonely truck stop on the edge of town. Tex had changed into his civvies in the bathroom, looking more the old punk than the Fed that had left death in Benwood. They hung back in the stolen Ford sedan, clinging at the edges of the WiFi signal the truck stop was putting out.

Tex opened the back door of the Sedan and the suspension rolled as he sat, “They didn’t have no Grande caramel macchiato espresso shit, but I got some red bulls.” Tex sighed as he rummaged around in the plastic goodie bag, glancing at the programs working on Queen’s laptop screen, “How long’s this gonna take, Queen?”

Queen sat with half turned with the laptop balanced on his thigh. The harddrive was hooked up and he was transmitting the data, looking up briefly when Tex spoke. “Not too long, now that I know the email trick Ava figured out that cuts down on the time searching for communication. I say ‘bout an hour, maybe less with her help. Sending her the files now. Phones are downloaded already, interesting pictures if you wanna take a look.”

Gesturing with his chin as he took a Redbull, he traded it for one of the phones. “Got some pictures of people not on our list of associates and some interior shots of this house and another location. I’m piecing those together now. No pictures of the girl, though.”

“Didn’t really expect there to be,” Tex said as he scrolled through the pictures, many of men with shaved heads or the typical outlaw biker attire. He got to one with Jay front and center, all of them toting guns, and Michael beside him. “These fuckin’ pricks. I tell you these guys tried to kill us before?”

“You told us,” Ghost grunted. He’d wrapped his mitt around a Red Bull and was busy chugging it down. He hated energy drinks; they tasted like battery acid and citrus. But energy was energy. “When are we headed for this McMecken joint? I want to tell Jay what a handful his folks were.”

“We’ll have time to talk all about it, don’t you worry on that score.” Tex said, eyeing the pictures and committing the faces to memory.

Queen finished uploading the data from the hard drive to the encrypted cloud drive and sent a quick message to Ava. "Gotta present for you," he muttered then hit send. "Alright, she should be getting it now."

He leaned back, stretching and popping his back after sitting hunched over. Queen took a drink of the red bull and he itched to pull his goody bag out and take another bump.




((Scene music:youtube.com/watch?v=pgdJp5DRQ90))

Pillars of post light strobed in from the night as Jason eased the SUV down the road. Darkness dominated the periphery, snaking tree branches reached out from what seemed an inky void. Beside Jason wrapped in her dingy blanket was the girl, leaning against the passenger side door and turned inward to face him. She stared, her grimy face blank, any hint of awareness absent. Jason glanced at her, then turned his focus back on the road. He had to drive slow, within the speed limit, and in Clarksburg that seemed to be typically twenty five and under.

“Hey,” Jason said, as calm and docile as he could, “what’s your name?”

She didn’t answer, still staring.

“I uh-” Jason said, then paused trying to find the right words. “I know this is scary right now, but we’re here to help you. I’m here to help you.” He checked his phone for the directions to United Hospital downtown and took a right turn. “I’m taking you to the hospital,” he added. “They’ll make sure you’re safe, that you’re not hurt.”

She said nothing. The silence between them drudged images of the executed woman back at the drug house. He thought of her slack jawed blank face, her hollowed socket oozing what was left of her eye. She saw our faces, Donnelley had said. What was the supposed good they were doing when just the wrong amount of information killed the woman they were trying to save. But were they trying to save her? Weren’t they trying to save everyone? And from what exactly, Jason thought. He knew what OPSEC meant to a group like this, but he wasn’t expecting it to be as wild west as it was; and the night wasn’t over. He had to get back to the team as soon as possible.

Besides, he told himself, it didn’t matter in the end. He’d have to think about it later, when their rabbit hole of violence led to the other end. He hoped it had answers, but most likely would only lead to more questions. That’s how these things worked. The justification became lost in the means, and you kept working it and working it hoping you could recapture the reasons why you did it all in the first place. Nothing ever gets solved, only worked. He hoped this would all be different, would be worth it. She was just a girl, it had to be. Jason cursed the silence for giving him the space to think. He always hated silence. To avoid it he turned back to the girl to break the train of thought. She was still eying him blankly.

“Are you hurting anywhere?” He asked. No answer. It had to be those damn headphones.

By now he was reaching what Clarksburg called downtown as the spattered neighborhoods of sagging houses flowed into a collection of brick and mortar business buildings, none higher than ten stories, hugged by tree choked hills. The streets were bathed in sodium light, but there was little commotion on the streets to fill it. Jason eased to a stop at an intersection and shifted his body to face the girl.

“Can you hear me?” he asked, but she still had no reaction. He reached for the bulky headphones hugging her head and slipped them off, the girl suddenly erupting in protest. Her voice peaked to a shrill screech, her hands cupping her ears before her limbs shot frantically about the cab. Jason pulled the headphones away from her reach, the SUV slowly rolling into the intersection as his attention was fixed on the distraught girl and not the gas pedal. She kept reaching for the headphones, eyes wild and desperate, and the fight between them sounded the car horn twice.

“Calm down!” Jason yelled, but his voice was overtaken by her high pitched scream. She reached for the car stereo and smacked it to life, turning the volume knob until whatever was on the radio became an incomprehensible blaring of sound.

The car jolted to a stop in the middle of the intersection as Jason became aware of idling forward, finally giving up fighting the girl. He handed her the headphones, driving the SUV to the next street as he turned off the radio.

“Alright, alright,” Jason said, huffing disdain as she calmed down. Her eyes were wide with fear and her little chest bobbed beneath the blanket, but she returned to her otherwise placid state. Behind them the revolving blue-red of police lights flashed.

“Fuck,” Jason said, immediately throwing his shotgun on the floor of the rear seats as he studied the rearview mirror. The cop’s siren wailed for a few seconds and switched off, his high beams masking his squad car trailing the SUV. Jason slowly eased to the side of the street, each side flanked with glass front shops, while he struggled to come up with a plan.

There were a few minutes of waiting before the sheriff's deputy swaggered up to the SUV, Jason’s right hand in his lap ready to spring for his .45 concealed under his left armpit. You can’t shoot this guy, Jason thought; play it cool. The deputy lit up the cab with his flash light, shining the bright beam in Jason’s face and moving it over to study the girl. Jason rolled down the window.

“License and registration,” the deputy said. He was of an average build, but his rounded jaw and puffy chin gave him a doughy appearance. The deputy was younger than Jason, but not by much, and his stature of confidence puffed his chest out from his black and grey uniform like he was Jason’s senior.

“Hey officer-”

“Sheriff’s deputy,” he corrected in his Appalachian drawl. “Is that girl alright?”

Jason looked over his shoulder, seeing the girl still struggling with her breathing. “Yeah,” he answered, “I’m-”

“Sir, I don’t see you reaching for your identification,” the deputy said. Jason noticed the deputy’s interview stance, a hand poised near a holstered but unfastened pistol. He realized the deputy must of ran the SUV’s plates, and whatever he didn’t find put him on edge. Jason had to think fast.

“Jesus Christ,” Jason feigned. “I’m reaching for my agent badge, don’t fuckin’ shoot me.”

The deputy looked perplexed, and his eyes darted back and forth between Jason and the girl. She was staring at him, her pulsing lungs beginning to slow. Jason reached into one of his pockets, producing the FBI badge Donnelley had given him weeks ago when he first joined. He thrust it out the windowing, saying, “Before you were up my ass about I.D. was trying to say I found this girl working my investigation. She needs medical attention.”

The deputy studied the badge number and fake name, mouthing it silently to himself before mouthing, “Stand by.” He walked back to his squad car.

“Fuck,” Jason spat again, grabbing his burner phone and texting Donnelley: Pulled over by sheriff’s deputy. Will update. After another round of waiting the deputy returned, his posture just as rigid and cautionary.

“Sir-”

“Agent,” Jason corrected, trying his best to transfer his anxiety to annoyance. He had to look the part.

“We’ve got no return on your vehicle or your badge number,” the deputy said, his round face tensed by Jason’s impatience. “Even local PD doesn’t know you’re here.”

“Why do you think that is?” Jason asked. The deputy’s jaw tensed and he glanced at the girl again, but he didn’t answer.

“It’s because we don’t need local law enforcement fuckin’ up our shit,” Jason continued. “Now this girl needs medical attention and I still have to work. If you want to dick me around because your beat is slow and anything happens to her I will personally make sure you’ll be running night security at a fucking grocery store. In fact, what’s your badge number?”

The deputy was struggling with what looked like a mix of angry and confusion, cueing Jason the facade was working. The deputy pursed his lips, looked at the girl, and then back to Jason. “Would you like an escort?”

“What’s your badge number, deputy?” Jason asked.

The deputy turned towards his vehicle, his boots clicking as he muttered, “Have a good night.” It was followed by some sort of curse under is breath, but Jason couldn’t make out what was said. Not that he cared, all that mattered was that the deputy didn’t pry any further. Jason didn’t waste time sticking around, and drove away faster than he had entered downtown.

For the rest of the trip the girl remained silent, though through the corner of his sight Jason could make out that she was looking behind them. It wasn’t through the windows, but at the seats. There was an acute sharpness to her gaze, as if she was seeing something in the empty rear seats he couldn’t. He tried to ask her if she saw anything, and she looked at him acknowledging she could hear him, but again didn’t answer.

After a few more minutes Jason saw the bright glare of the hospital’s parking lot. He circled the large complex before spotting the E.R. entrance, trying his best to spot any security cameras and parking in the most veiled spot he could find, wedged between a Ford truck and a foreign sedan. The girl seemed to not want to leave the car as Jason tried to usher her from outside the passenger door, but when he extended his hand she clasped his thumb with her clammy grip. They began walking towards the sliding front doors, her irregular steps pattering against the cool concrete.

“I need you to walk in there,” Jason said. His words slowed her pace, and she looked concernedly at the doors sealing the bright glare within. Jason turned to her and crouched as she wrapped her blanket tighter around her frame.

“It’ll be okay,” He said, giving her a weak but sincere smile. “They won’t hurt you. No one will hurt you. Just walk in those doors and find someone.”

Jason watched her ponder the command, mouthing something he couldn’t make out. She began to take her first steps to the entrance, then turned around.

“Come and see.”

Jason stood from crouching, something icy and leaden sinking in his gut. “What?” he asked.

“Come and see,’” She said, and then disappeared past the hospital doors.




While Tex was sitting in silence punctuated by sniffles and cleared throats, he rolled down his window and lit up a cigarette. Under the whistling of his drag on the cigarette came the buzzing of his phone. He retrieved it from his pocket and peered at the screen, his eyes running the lengths of boredom, to confusion, to worry, “Oh fuck.”

‘Pulled over by sheriff’s deputy. Will update.’ Rang through his mind again and again. He turned his gaze to Queen and Ghost, “Boyscout got pulled over.”

Queen glanced up with alarm tingling up his spine then breathed out. "He's DIA right? He could maybe talk his way outta this."

Then he remembered, rubbing his hand over his face, "Fuck, the girl. That'll look suspicious, what do you wanna do?"

“You keep workin’. We’ll get the coordinates and move in on ‘em, Boyscout can handle himself.” Tex answered, blowing smoke through the cracked window with a little more annoyance. “I don’t wanna have to shoot anymore cops.”

"Shouldn't have split the team," Ghost said. He was looking down at his Red Bull can, studying it intently. His voice was calm, but tension showed in his massive shoulders. "Should've left that fuckin' kid standing in the street where the firemen would find her. Bet they're already at the house."

Queen glanced up at Ghost, then back at his computer screen. Even though he had felt acute wrenching sympathy for the poor girl Queen could not argue with the cold logic. Technically, he was correct but the thought of leaving the traumatized child in the street left an uneasy knot in his stomach.

"Yeah, well," Queen muttered, typing clicking another folder. "He'll be fine, dude was a spook in the Middle East."

"Yeah, so were me and Tex," Ghost shrugged. "It makes cops easy prey."

With a sniff, Queen replied to the subtle taunt. "And killing cops brings heat. Thought you didn't want to draw attention," he looked over at Ghost, meeting his dark eyes briefly. Snake eyes, Queen thought. Cold, reptilian, and calculating, waiting for a time to strike. Maybe they were teammates now but Ghost was who they sent to eliminate the deadly men of the Program who fucked up and Queen had a distinct feeling Ghost had probably already planned how he would kill him.

His neck prickled with anxiety and his face felt hot as the thought flickered across his mind. Queen pushed it away, it was no time for paranoia. Reaching into the plastic bag he found a Snickers bar and claimed it.

“We’ll continue.” Tex said, looking at Queen from the rearview, a silence between all of them. That would please Ghost, he’d bet. “We can’t let Jay get away, Boyscout is on his own until we’re finished.”

“If we can't get him out of whatever jam he’s in…” Tex eyed his Badger with some weight in his eyes, “We all know what needs to be done.”




>MCMECKEN’S RUN, WV
>JUL.20.19
>0045

“Music.” Tex frowned.

They’d moved in and set up a fast hide in the trees outside of the Clubhouse. Close enough for the laser, but good enough that some drunk AB could walk across their heads while going for a piss. They’d donned their tactical gear again, Tex now looking like an armored punk. They’d lay in wait and scope the place, wait for their moment. Wait for Jason to text them back that he’d found the truck they ditched on the dirt road up here.

The lights of the Clubhouse were bright and shone cones of light into the blackened forests. Faces flashed by the windows or hung around, all smiles. Not for long, as far as THUNDER was concerned.

“Weird,” Tex said as the rhythmic thump-thump of a rap song faded out only to transition to another, no sound of conversation, “White man’s the greatest creation, worst creation makes rap, greatest creation listens to rap.”

“We could do a DNA test, Queen, maybe one of them’s your dad.” Tex grinned over at the Florida boy.

Queen slowly raised his middle finger at Tex but the smile behind it was full of wry humor.

"Ain't none of them pretty enough," he replied, shifting to adjust his vest before settling back in. He scanned the faces, recognizing some from the photos on the phone.

Ghost watched the passing faces through the sight of his rifle, ignoring the banter of the other two men. He'd taken another hit from his pipe before they'd left the car, and he could feel the pulse of the music in his veins. The beat wasn't bad; rap wasn't his preferred genre, but Ghost respected talent wherever he found it.

His finger rested on his trigger in flagrant violation of the Four Weapons Safety Rules. Every now and then mimed giving it a squeeze, whispering bang as a face paused in the center of his sight, imagining the target's head coming apart under the impact of the heavy subsonic bullet.

"Where is Boyscout," he grunted, beginning to tire of the game. "We're on the clock." He was also bored; being bored was bad, but being bored with targets in visual range bordered on sinful.

“Couldn’t tell ya,” Tex sighed, starting to lose faith and shoulder a little bit of embarrassment. UMBRA was not making a good impression on his old friends in THUNDER, so far. As Team Lead, he almost took it personal. “How many targets y’all count? Pos ID on Jay yet, I haven’t seen ‘em?”

Queen scanned through his binoculars, the count so far was three men and a woman, one of those trailer trash bleach jobs with big tits but no ass. He shifted his focus to a back room but the blinds were drawn. A shadow and then movement behind the screen of cheap slats, one maybe two figures in that room. His gut tightened, instinct told him this might be their target.

He hardly heard the rumble of voices beside him as he leaned forward, focused on the door of that back bedroom. It opened to reveal a tall well built man with short cropped light colored hair, he turned just enough for Queen to recognize the crooked set of his nose.

"Jay," he muttered, elbowing Donnelley, "Just outside the bedroom door, he don't look happy."

“Maybe he heard about karma visiting his momma.” Tex quipped, looking at the two of them on either side of him. Jason was still a no-show as of now, and Tex shook his head and growled at that, “Fuck it. We’ll make our move now, straight through the front. I’m point.”

Tex got to a crouched stance and made for the Clubhouse, moving tree to tree. His slow advance accompanied by the soft whisper of underbrush beneath his boots. There was a few meters of open ground between the treeline and the front door, an old pickup at rest the only cover, as well as a Dodge Charger and a couple motorcycles. “Check your fire. We want Jay alive.” He whispered into his mic, “Stack at the front door. You got the sledge, Ghost?”

“I am the sledge,” Ghost grunted. He approached the door and hefted the breaching hammer, a 12-pound number with a shock-resistant handle and a battlescarred matte-black head. Winding back, he pivoted at the waist, putting all of his considerable power behind the swing. It struck just above the lock and the frame splintered, the door bounding open. He dropped the hammer and raised his rifle, pressing back against the wall to clear a space so the other two could enter.

Queen would follow Tex, letting him pass before falling in behind him. The Uzi sat snug in his hands, his gaze cutting back and forth as they burst into the house.

"On the ground," he ordered, spotting two surprised faces gawking at them. The woman with bleached hair and a young man with a large tattoo on his neck of an iron cross.

Tex heard Queen shout behind him and the two in the living room almost immediately threw themselves to the floor with their hands behind their heads. Lucky, as Tex’s trigger finger was primed on his Badger as he watched them through his sight picture. Past the two couches, a door was set closed in the wall, Jay behind it. “Queen, put some cuffs on ‘em.” He said, covering them while Queen went to work, “Ghost, let’s pull Jay out of his fuckin’ hidey-hole.”

"Got it," he said, hustling over to the pair. Queen knelt, putting his knee in the back of the man.

"Don't fucking move, shit bird," he snapped when he felt Iron Cross start to squirm.

"I got rights!"

"Not tonight, you don't," Queen said, then slapped his ass, "Don't make me hogtie you."

The zip tie cuffs snapped and hissed as Queen jerked it tight. He cuffed the woman who had sense enough to keep her mouth shut as the pinch of plastic squeezed her wrists.

"Two secure, front room clear," he said into the comms.

Ghost followed Tex, rifle up and scanning. They reached the door and he stacked.

“You breach,” he grunted. “I’m point.”

“Rog’.” Tex nodded, just before slamming his boot into the door just next to the knob and sending it clattering open, slamming against the wall and jittering on the other side. Just as Tex dodged out of the doorway he flinched away from a splintering hole burst into the wall at the sound of a loud BOOM just next to his shoulder.

“Fuck y’all!” Jay screamed, looking up and seeing a huge slab of man bearing down on him as he fumbled with the shells for his emptied sawed-off.

Ghost rushed Jay, his heart pounding in his ears. Alive, the parameters specified. But not necessarily unharmed. He dropped his rifle, letting it hang as he reached Jay, then blurred into motion.

A hard elbow strike caught the man on the edge of the jaw, and then Ghost snatched his gun-hand, forcing it up. He followed into a tight kimura and twisted his upper body, drawing into himself to apply pressure to the lock. Jay's shoulder came loose with a pop and Ghost followed through with his hip, turning the technique into a neat takedown. Then he released with his right hand and drew his pistol, shoving the barrel into Jay's mouth.

“Ah, huck…” Jay swallowed hard around the cold steel.

Queen left the people bound and hustled over to the room where Ghost hulked over Jay, face fucking him with his pistol. He raised his brow, a devilish grin flickering over his face.

"Hot."

Tex entered and brushed past Queen, a wolf’s grin plastered on his face as he saw Jay in the most compromising of positions. It couldn’t have been more humiliating for the asshole who tried to have him killed if Ghost was fucking him. “Hey, you remember what you said to me back at the Motel?” He asked, watching Jay’s face go from confusion to remembrance, and finally to simmering anger that only made Tex grin wider, “You look scared, partner.”

Queen stood at the doorway, fishing out the coke and took a quick bump, snorting hard. He laughed as Tex stalked the helpless Jay, the rush jolting through his body as his nerves tingled. His fingers twitched on the Uzi as he glanced back towards the living room the people still laying prone. His thoughts flit back to the girl, her haunting strangeness and the prickle of sensation tickled the back of his neck.

“Queen, cuff this fuckhead. We’re gettin’ him out of here.” Tex chuckled, “You gonna get it now, boy.”




Cleared, no heat. Girl at the hospital. No id. Inbound, Jason texted to Donnelley.

He was now driving faster, at first a modest five over, but now his foot was bearing down on the pedal as his mind spun. Come and see. She said it clear as day, just like the man had in the execution video months before. The world seemed to tilt. Beyond the barrier of night Jason felt an unraveling, as if reality itself was fraying beyond the reach of light. His chest was tightening. Come and see. Where had he heard that before? It tugged at his subconscious, a vague familiarity beyond the video of Anis al-Shamard’s death.

“Get your shit together,” Jason muttered to himself. The road seemed to lurch as he drove onward, the concrete blurring and fusing with the buildings and woods that framed the narrow alley of his vision. He felt lighter, as if he and the car were drifting, like he couldn’t feel the tire’s contact on the road from the rumble in his boot. What did she mean? What did it mean?

Jason shook his head and narrowed his eyes as he focused on the road. He read the passing street sign and looked to his phone to check his route. There was no signal. When he looked back up there was a figure illuminated by his headlights. Anis al-Shamard’s headless body was standing on the curb, his head cradled in one hand, and the other lazily pointing down the road. The stump of his neck was blackened with coagulated blood, the expression of anguish the same one was immortalized in his decapitation. The earth seemed to tilt again, a faint ringing calling out from the darkness beyond. Jason watched in dumbfounded shock as the SUV strolled past Anis’s headless image, pointing in the exact location he was supposed to be heading. He just drove, not checking the directions, not thinking much of anything at all. Only the girl and those haunting words.




The sound of the vehicle made Queen snap his attention away from Jay who seemed both terrified and furious at the same time. Especially after Queen had gleefully gagged him before they hustled the target out the door, leaving his buddies cuffed on the floor.

The headlights were off and he stood stiffly, his finger on the trigger of the Uzi before realizing it was their own black Expedition.

"Cavalry arrives," he said, tucking the weapon back.

Tex stepped around the Expedition and nodded at Jason as the window rolled down, “We got him. Queen and Ghost are gonna ditch that truck and hold Jay for a bit. You and me from here, partner.”

Jason’s complexion was pale and his expression grim. He nodded slowly, markedly different from the verbal confirmations he was giving early. He tried to convince himself it was the drugs. That’s right. Had a taste, but you know that wasn’t enough. All this adrenaline was fucking with him, raking the bottom of his mind and drudging up the buried skeletons. Pull it the fuck together, Jason, he demanded.

The realization of Jay’s capture finally sunk in. Some racist tweaker fucks are dead, no one caught, no one hurt. That was worth a change in mood, but Jason could shake the stormy haze cracking inside his head. He looked over Donnelley’s shoulder, still wordless.

Tex looked back over his shoulder, trying to follow Jason’s eyes and catching on that he’d probably never get there. He turned back to the other man and his brows furrowed slightly as he spoke in a hushed tone, “Boyscout,” he paused, “Jason, it doesn’t take a Master’s in Psych to see somethin’ ain’t right. Is somethin’ not right?”

Jason darted his glance back to Donnelley's, surprised he'd be checking on him now. Maybe he was that shaken up. "Right as rain, Tex," he said lowly. "I'll tell you when we roll out. Something's not right." He looked over Donnelley's shoulder again, hoping it would conjure the other two out of the house.

Queen sauntered over to the two men, leaving Ghost to handle Jay. His attention was directed at Tex, he wanted to get on with what was coming next.

"What's the story, which vehicle you want us in?" he asked, looking over Jason. "Girl say anything?"

Yeah, she fuckin’ said something alright, Jason thought. “Yeah, she said you looked prettier than mommy.” He wanted the humor to break the mood, but it came out colder than he had intended. The night was stagnant, hot, and near silent. A dog bellowed in the distance.

“We leaving, or what?” Ghost’s hard voice cut the reverie, punctuated by a muffled curse from Jay as the big operator tugged at his dislocated shoulder. “We’ve got shit to do. I want to get this nerd in a chair and start breakin’ shit.” Jay made a few pleading sounds and Ghost shook him again. “Shut up. We’ll talk later.”

Tex sighed and nodded, patting Jason’s door and turning to the others, “Take Jay and trash that fuckin’ truck. Find a hole to hide in and we’ll rendezvous when everythin’s done.” He said, “Me and Boyscout’re leavin’.”

Queen's brows ticked up at Jason's comment but he said nothing for once, distracted by Jay's appearance. He already had a taste of Ghost, perhaps it would make their questions more palatable.

"Got it, if there's one thing I know is finding a hole to hide in," Queen grinned, then gave a flippant salute to Tex before heading to the truck.




The night had become suffocating without the haziness of drugs and adrenaline. The air roared in the open window on Donnelley’s side of the Expedition, his cherry glowing in the dark, streetlights offering clear moments in slices as they passed. It was that time of night where morning was bleeding into the blackness and the whole world seemed to be holding its breath. Not yet tomorrow, but not quite tonight. No other cars on the road, and for all the two of them knew, they were the only ones who existed.

Donnelley and Jason had been chasing their headlights for maybe half an hour now, and up until just then, Donnelley was content to sit and stew in the silence.

He glanced at Jason in the driver’s seat, eyes always forward and looking like he was having an entire conversation in his own head. Donnelley took another drag, “Tell me about what happened, Jason.”

And Jason was waiting for that question, head spinning all the while as the only thing breaking the silence was the rubber and asphalt singing their path. Had it been that obvious? Or was Donnelley accustomed to the same glowering disturbance wrinkling his face?

“The girl,” he said, and paused, not knowing if it was the right place to start. He replayed the drive in his head, tried to think of everything wrong that transpired masked in its nervous pace. “The headphones, the room. She freaked out if those headphones weren’t on her.”

Jason turned to Donnelley, eyes stony. “She said something to me should couldn’t have possibly known. I don’t even know how I know it.”

Anis al-Shamard.

“I don’t wanna read too much into it. You start seein’ the Program’s shit everywhere and that’s when you know you need to step back for a while.” He said, mentally shaking his head at his own self for his suspicions about West Virginia and those Iraqi Yezidis. He cleared his throat, took another drag and scratched at his brow, “What was it though?”

“Come and see,” Jason said. He remembered it then, the obscured man whispering to the recorder, Anis’s head dangling from his wrenched fingers. Something still lingered, another thread deeper than this recent revelation.

“The program’s shit,” Jason murmured, almost mockingly. “You try to rationalize what you can, huh? Try to be so certain none of this isn’t getting to you. But you feel it, don’t you?”

Did he, or was he losing his edge? Had it always been dull, not up to the task? No, he felt something, like he always had. Waiting for him here.

Donnelley didn’t realize how hard he was breathing until he could feel his head get lighter, his chest tighter. The air that had seemed so cold and empty was now almost thick, choking. That voice on the phone before he found Laurie and Weissman dead in those hills. Two more faces to add to the nightmares. Two more graves not dug. Two more folded flags. He ignored the monologue from Jason’s mouth and almost hyper focused on that set of fucking words. Come and See.

“Are you sure,” Donnelley said slow, eyes sliding over to Jason and fixing him, eyes narrowed to lethal slits, his voice bordering on something between anger and fear, “Are you sure that’s what you heard?”

“It was the only thing she said to me,” Jason replied.

Donnelley stared at Jason, face not softening a bit and instead looking like he’d a bad taste in his mouth as he shook his head and turned away, taking a drag. “I don’t like it.” He said, as if that was a great revelation and something of value to add. “I have a theory. Maybe it’s crackpot, tinfoil…” he waited for Jason to ask him to continue and hoped he didn’t at the same time.

Donnelley’s protest was a relief as much as it was troubling. Now Jason didn’t want to steer his eyes away from the road. He could feel the heat of Donnelley’s stare. “What?” he asked, sounding more eager to hear than he’d have liked to reveal. But if anyone would know, would be informed, it would be Donnelley.

“Before I came back from the Agency to here, we were working that case on Anzor Bekzhaev. Daesh.” Donnelley frowned, “They’re skinnin’ Yezidis by the village over in Iraq. I get the call and it’s happenin’ here too. What if this is bigger than just some backwoods killer in West Virginia?”

Jason’s eyes narrowed. “Wait, the skinning or the words?” It seemed impossible that just a phrase could traverse whole oceans, whole people, to follow them. “What if we’re the connection,” Jason said. What if I’m the connection?

“The skinnin’.” Donnelley said, “If it was the words too? There wouldn’t be a fuckin’ doubt. I got one of my guys keepin’ an eye out for somethin’.”

Donnelley shifted in his seat and took another drag, “When Foster called me, Laine was the first to arrive on the scene after me. The autopsy found a black stone inside of our victim, Maria Vasquez.” Donnelley could remember the sight of it, how it had effected Tom, how it effected him. “She ain’t the first. She ain’t gonna be the last. There was a mass grave full of bones from past victims and there’s a parallel with that. If my guy does an autopsy on one of the Yezidis and finds a black stone…”

“Jesus,” Jason murmured. The details sent an aching tension in his back and by instinct he checked the rear view mirror. There was nothing but the red glow of their brake lights on the asphalt.

“I need you to be available in the event that happens. You’re the only that operates in my circles, my AOs.” He said, “Foster thinks all these years in the Program is gettin’ to me, makin’ me see strings to places that ain’t there, I need you to look with your own eyes and tell me I ain’t.”

Jason wondered if this was normal, if the paranormal equivalent of shellshock came like a cancer after years of exposure. He knew it would be better than to ask, knowing the answer was the kind left behind the locked door of decorum. Operational decency, you see. Don’t ask about salary, don’t ask if the job makes you go crazy.

“What, Foster thinks he’s impervious?” Jason asked. He shook his head, lips suctioning against his teeth. “If this is connected I’ll be available. Gives my keepers the excuse to not worry about me—but fuck man, if we’re seeing the same thing? What the fuck does that mean?”

Donnelley swallowed hard, looking out the window and blowing smoke into the billowing air. He thought on that, if his suspicions were true, what then? How hard would that next sunrise be to get? How much would it be worth, especially if he had to work hard to get it again, and again, and again, and again? Maybe Foster was right, maybe there was no end, at least an end that Donnelley could bring about to this war. Maybe this operation was too big, even for the infamous, smirking cowboy asshole named Joseph Donnelley. Maybe Atlas’s knees were starting to buckle, so to speak. Sisyphus was getting tired, and the rock only getting heavier and heavier.

He shook his head, “I don’t know.”

Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Leidenschaft
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>CLARKSBURG, WV
>JUL.19.2019
>ZERO HOUR...///

The television set’s light played heavy on the angles of Avery’s slack face. He let go a snore and the rise of his chest made the remote slide off of him and clatter to the ground as he jolted awake, flailing for his pistol before he calmed himself. “Fuck me…” Shoulders heaving with shuddering breath as he sat in silence.

He sat up, looking at the television. The news channels were still talking about the violent kidnapping of Gregory Carlisle, the deaths of his guards and his daughter. His wife was sobbing uncontrollably on the screen, the muted TV making it a bit more distanced from reality. “Shit.”

He switched the channel to something else, Dragonball. He let go a chuckle as he settled back on the couch, the change in channels being a change in mood for him.

“I know this show.” Dave’s voice came from near the back door; a little bit of alone-time had more or less recentered his mood and he felt ready to join the others without worrying about saying something he’d regret. He pulled the door shut behind him and walked over to the couch, poking at the dip in his lip with the tip of his tongue. “This is that Dragon Ball, right? My boy used to watch this. Had all the little action figures and stuff.” He smiled, as he did whenever his son was mentioned.

“Hell yeah,” Avery chuckled, looking at Dave, “I had all the seasons and shit. Used to watch them with my team in Africa.”

A few seconds passed as Avery upped the volume a couple notches, “Were you ever in?”

“In, like...In the military?” Dave shook his head. “Nah...I uh… I never served. Learned everythin’ back when I was growin’ up.”

“No shit?” Avery turned around on the couch to look at Dave, “Like a hitman or something? Lotta SOF dudes running around, how’d they get you?”

“My Old Man is kinda the Arkansas version of bin Laden,” Dave said, focusing on the TV rather than meeting Avery’s eyes. He figured the younger man would hear the stories one way or the other. “Kind of a Sovereign Citizen boogieman. Former Marine Recon, back in ‘Nam. Anyway, I went to basic training instead of school as a kid.”

“Damn.” Avery said, quietly turning back to the TV. The anime went on in their silence for a few beats, neither of them talking to each other. Finally, Avery turned back around, “How, though? You know, they get military dudes and Feds and stuff. How’d you get picked up?”

“Oh.” Dave shrugged. “Found one of them slabs on my mountain. Had a body on it. I ran my mouth, then some prick named Bob showed up with a briefcase of cash, and… Well, you know. Program shit.”




Laine was sitting at the dining table with her laptop, eavesdropping on the news, the growing horror about the firefight becoming more clear. Not that Carlisle had been sympathetic, he was a piece of garbage that preyed on children. He had information though, to bigger monsters that needed to be taken down. But his kids at least had been innocent, maybe the wife too. She turned her focus on her laptop, trying not to let her mind wander down the dark alleys of memory. Laine had known a man like Carlisle once, or at least the potential to be one, she did not stick around to find out.

Once the blaring cartoon came on, she shook out of the recollection of the photographer’s studio and what happened there. She put the earbuds in, drowning out the shrieks of Dragonball-Z with Sisters of Mercy. Laine worked on refining the rough draft of her profile for the unsub, going back over autopsy reports and forensics. Pari had her own laptop out, lost in her work with her own headphones on, expensive Beats from the look of them. The FBI agents were in their own worlds, working the case from opposite ends.

The sound of footsteps on hardwood came from the short hallway leading to the bedrooms. A moment later, Ava poked her head out with a grin, her hair falling down her back in damp waves. “I thought I heard Dragon Ball! Hell yeah, I’m going to hang out with you guys.” She said, stepping out of the hallway, dressed in a pair of comfortable pajama pants and loose grey shirt. A cartoon fox with glasses was printed on the front with the words ‘Oh for fox sake’ beneath it.

She had her laptop tucked under her arm and her phone in hand as she passed by Dave to sit down. She glanced up at him and paused for a moment to give him an inquisitive smile. “Hey, are you okay?”

Dave brightened visibly when Ava appeared. He smiled at her reassuringly. “Yeah, I’m good, sugar. Been kind of a weird day, is all. I’ll tell ya about it later.”

He nodded at her laptop. “You joinin’ the other brains, or you gonna watch cartoons with us?”

Her smile grew more relaxed and natural hearing that reassurance and seeing his own smile. “Cartoons with you guys. No contest.” She said, making her way over to the recliner and sitting herself down in it. “Only thing that would be better than Dragon Ball would be watching the Last Airbender.” She chuckled, folding her legs up on the recliner, putting her laptop on her legs and opening it; her phone resting on the arm next to her.

Dave circled the couch and sat down beside Avery, picking the side closest to the recliner.

“I know that show, too,” he said proudly. “It’s the kung fu one, with the magic and stuff. That’s another one Mal used to watch. Hell, he still might, and just don’t talk about it anymore. But now he’s kinda gettin’ to that age where it’s all sports and stuff.”

“Shit, I remember that.” Avery smiled at the both of them, looking over from his quiet attention on whatever over the top fight had been going on in the show, “Soccer for me. What about you guys?”

Dave shrugged. “I liked demolitions trainin’?” He grinned. “But no, I didn’t play sports. Just did combatives and shit with my brother. And the older recruits.”

Avery’s eyes widened with his grin, “You got to blow shit up as a kid? Man, I would’ve loved that!”

He looked to Ava and smiled, “I think you’d be a soccer girl. Or cheer?”

Ava stopped fiddling with her laptop to shoot a confused look over at Dave. At Avery’s question however, she blinked and shifted her gaze over to the young Army Vet. “Uuuh, I was more of an indoor kid.” She answered with a shrug and a sheepish smile. “I mostly played video games when I wasn’t busy with school.”

Dave briefly thought back to playing games of ‘Bull in the Ring’ with the other recruits, fending off attacks from multiple angles. His father had been a big believer in full-contact training.

“It was alright,” he said, shrugging. “I got pretty good at it. Kept me in shape.”

“I’ve always been kinda skinny. Even after Selection and everything, I was a string bean.” Avery chuckled, getting up from his seat and heading for the kitchen. He opened the door of the fridge and returned with a beer in hand, glancing at Pari and then Laine. “What are you guys doing?”

Laine glanced up at the kid, popping out one of the earbuds, "What's up?"

When he repeated the question, Laine sighed and stretched her arms over her head. "Running in mental circles, to be honest. I'm doing a comparison of skeletal injuries of the last four victims. A friend of mine at CJIS sent me some three-dimensional models to look over."

On the screen was a group of detailed models of human pelvis, four of them, divided into quadrants that she could manipulate simultaneously with the mouse. "I could use one of those beers."

“Sure thing!” Avery smiled, leaving for a moment to fetch another beer. He handed it to Laine and took a peek at the screen of her laptop, “So what’s that for-“

A knock at the door made his eyebrow quirk and he looked to Dave, already fully kitted for a war and found himself lacking. “The boys can’t be back already…”

Ava leaned around the recliner to look at the door, glancing over at Avery and then Dave. Her heart started to beat a little faster and her stomach did a flip as her mind raced back to the night of the shooting. “Maybe, it’s one of the neighbors?” She suggested, her voice growing softer than usual.

Dave rose to his feet, taking a few steps to put himself between Ava and the door. His AK and vest sat against the wall and he crossed quickly to them, slinging the vest on and picking up his rifle. After a quick brass check he clacked off the safety, pulled the stock tight into his shoulder, and centered his red-dot on the door.

“Avery, your call. We gonna answer it, or just let ‘em think nobody’s home?” He asked.

Avery had not been this focused since his time in Africa. He swallowed down a nervous mouthful of spit and nodded at Ava, “Hand me my gun.”

When he got it in his hands he looked at Dave, “Dude, the lights are on and the TV’s going…” Avery shrugged, going for the door and hiding the pistol behind his back, “Flash!”

He listened for the answer to the challenge word and heard nothing. “Fuck.” He said, “We need to check the perimeter.”

The knock made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, anything unexpected was bad. She slapped her laptop closed and stood up, shaking Pari out of her concentration.

"I'm going to the bedroom, come with me," Laine said, then turned looking around for Ava.

"Ava..." Laine hissed, moving quickly to the living room. "Come with me, now."

She grabbed for her hand, listening to the men speak quietly and Laine said to Dave, "We're going to hide out, I have my gun. Do what you need to do."

Ava shut her laptop and shoved her phone into her pajama pocket before going with the pull of Laine’s hand. Her hands were trembling softly, her palms sweaty and clammy but she held onto Laine’s hand tight as she glanced nervously at the door. The color had seemingly drained from her face, leaving it as white as a sheet as the shooting back at the cabin played out in the back of her mind.

Dave’s mind spun for a moment and he took a steadying breath. “Alright you guys get in there an’ get low. Hear that, sugar? We’re gonna be fine, but you go keep your head down. Avery, fuckin’...Try an’ find a window. Get an angle. See if you can get a peek at what we’re dealin’ with. Shit pops off I’m just gonna let rip through that door, but I don’t wanna do that if I don’t have to.”

He walked to the couch, taking a low stance behind it. It wouldn’t stop a bullet, but he could at least drop and get concealment if things started going south.

Laine pulled Ava along, hustling her towards the bedroom. "It'll be alright," she muttered, more to herself than Ava.

Pari was already inside, laying prone, almost under her bunk. Laine grabbed her shoulder holster and pulled her Glock, double-checking the chambered round. She took the extra magazine and tucked it into her pocket of her black jeans. When she picked up the Kevlar vest and the helmet marked with the bold white letters "FBI" she paused.

Laine looked at Ava and said, "Get up, real quick."

Ava jumped as Laine spoke to her, snapping her out of the partial daze she had found herself in. She pushed herself up off the floor, her eyes darting around as she sniffed loudly at the air. “Do...do you smell wires burning?” She asked Laine in a whisper. “Like...ozone and something metallic is burning?”

"What?" Laine asked as she put the kevlar soft vest over Ava's head, strapping her in. "What smell...ozone?"

A prickle of recognition crawled across her scalp. Michael. The Russians. "Stay here, if you have a gun, keep it ready."

Laine made for the bedroom door, "And stay down."

Avery was busy checking the windows, taking quick scans outside of each one before returning to Dave’s side, “Fucking nothing, dude.”

Again, the knocks at the door, getting more frantic as they went on. Avery looked sidelong at Dave before he stalked towards the door, his eye going over the peep-hole. “Nothing.” He swallowed again, fingers creeping towards the deadbolt and sliding it back, looking over his shoulder at Dave. He turned the knob and swung it open. Nothing.

“Don’t shoot!” Came a voice from the other side, a vague accent tinging the words. “Don’t shoot, please!”

A hand first, then a man came into view, holding a pistol to his own temple and he stuck his hand out just as he spotted Dave behind a couch, “Stop! I’m a dead man already and if you do not listen to what I say, I will kill myself and leave you to deal with the mess!”

A few moments stretched on as Avery looked between the stranger and Dave. The stranger spoke again, “Something is coming, and we must stop it before it comes through!” He looked between Avery and Dave, dropping his backpack and retrieving salt from it, welcoming himself inside with his gun to his head again, “Good, we must begin, is anyone else here?”

Avery’s eyes went about the room as the hairs on the back of his neck began to stand on end. The room chilled with the Stranger’s arrival and there was the smell of burning wires. “You smell that?” The Stranger asked, eyes wide as he was busy making a circle of the salt around himself, big enough to fit a few more, “That’s it, it’s close. Is there anyone else here?”

Avery looked to Dave, his tongue not moving and looking to the other man to hopefully answer.

“Fuckin’...What?” Dave looked from the Stranger to Avery and back. “What do you mean, somethin’s comin’?”

He watched the man draw his circle with mounting alarm; the sudden stink of an electrical fire raised the hairs on his arms and he held his aim on the newcomer. “Who are you, man? How’d you even...What the fuck is this about?”

“Just get inside!” The Stranger yelled, Avery not wasting time in following him.

Laine came out of the bedroom, her gun drawn and stared at the man. "What's going on, is he Russian?"

“Fuck if I know!” Dave said sharply. “Look man, we’re gonna be more likely to listen if you put that fuckin’ gun down.”

"What's he doing with the salt, that's occult..." Laine trailed off, the smell was stronger and anxiety gripped her. Something Donnelley said about New York nagged at her but her focus was on the stranger. "Sir, please. Put the gun down and tell us what's happening."

The Stranger threw his gun to the ground, not caring where it landed. He shook his finger at Dave and his own gun, “Your guns may kill me, but they will not kill what’s coming.” He smiled nervously, “Now, please-“

The lights flickered and the television went to static as an ungodly howl resonated through the room, Avery feeling it in his chest as if it came from right next to him as he let go a weak whimper from his lips, “What the fuck is it?”

The lights went out without warning, “Something from hell.” The Stranger said, voice quivering as he took Avery by the shoulder, “Get inside and steel yourselves!”

“Fuck it,” Dave spat. “Get in the goddamn circle. Ava! Pari! Get the fuck in here right goddamn now!

He headed down the hall towards the spare bedroom, shouting. His heart was pounding, his hand slick on the grip of his rifle; he knew that howl. He’d spent a day and a night hiding from it.

“Fuckin’ move it, get out here! Get over there with the others!”

Laine moved quickly, glancing back as Dave passed her to gather the other two. The howl made her knees tremble and her mind scrambled to make reasoning of it but there was none. She stepped inside the circle, any silliness she might have felt gone with the very real fear gripping her chest. She still held her gun despite the stranger's dismissal of their usefulness.

There was a thump from the bedroom before Ava came stumbling out of the doorway, her glasses absent as she rubbed, practically clawing at her eyes. She shook her head as she ran into the hallway, crying out with a shaking and rough voice, “Stop! Stop! What is this!? Make it stop! Make it stop!”

Dave caught her as she staggered past. He was now uttering a steady stream of profanity and minor blasphemies, but he let his rifle dangle and picked her up, crushing her to his chest.

“C’mon, c’mon,” he said, carrying her bodily down the hallway back towards the group. Pari passed them up and he gave her a one-handed shove of encouragement. “Right over there, c’mon, with the weird guy. Avery, that dude does anythin’ stupid, shoot his ass, I kinda got my hands full!”

He hauled Ava into the circle with the others, squeezing her tight. “Relax, sugar,” he said, his voice rough with tension. “Just relax.”

The Stranger was already handing out sheets of paper, the first going to Avery, “Read this and keep your eyes closed, it cannot touch us if we are in the circle but it will not go away if we do not read! Loud!”

As if whatever was coming had sucked the air from the room, all went quiet and still. No breeze, no drafts from the door or sounds even from their own hearts. Everything deathly silent until a rumble of thunder rattled everything in the room, a glass breaking on the floor from its fall, “Read!”

The Stranger began in earnest, chanting the bizarre incarnation of whatever unknown language graced the pages. The longer it went on, the less reality seemed to grip the world. The lights flickered and shadows danced along the walls, demented voices slithered from the quiet, “Close your eyes if you must!”

A terrifying roar and howl came from the air before something coalesced from thin air, a shape, and then a form, and then movement like ripples in the air until it revealed itself in all its horror and rot. The thing stalked on all fours, biting at the air around them, staring into them with ghostlights set in deep pits in its skull. Flesh hung ragged from its limbs as it moved without tendons. The Stranger stared back unmoved and only spoke the words louder through gritted teeth though his eyes grew bloodshot and his lips trickled red.

Dave caught a glimpse of the thing and then looked away, holding tightly to Ava. He focused on the paper the Stranger had given him, mumbling his way through the words a few times before he managed to get them sounded out, listening to the others for clues to pronunciation. He squeezed Ava and leaned against Laine, seeking comfort in physical contact as he shouted the strange syllables written on the page.

Laine took the paper, staring at the writing and began to recite the words though they were alien on her tongue. She could sense it close, the sound of it snapping and growling, it was a physical threat just feet away. Only a sprinkle of goddamn sodium chloride and a stranger's advice stood between them.

Ava kept her hands over her eyes, her fingernails digging into the delicate skin of her eyelids as the flashes of visions of a half decayed and sinewy Hellhound continued to play across the darkness of her shut eyes. She leaned into Dave, breathing heavily and using him as a focus, an anchor point. The warmth of his body, the faint scent of his cologne and the strength of his arm around her was grounding, a spot of guiding hearth of fire in the darkness and madness trying to overtake her mind.

She gritted her teeth through the images of empty eye sockets, lit from within with sickly unnatural spectral light. She heard the other’s voices around her, chanting together as one and listened intently to the words they were saying. Then, looking into those hollow sockets with her mind’s eye, she started to chant with them.

The temptation to look up at the creature was strong but Laine forced herself to resist, looking instead at the paper. Repeating the words over and over, entering a sort of trance that a Catholic might experience saying the rosary. The words flowed in rhythm with the others, she first had heard Pari's distinct accent and Dave's drawl but now they spoke as one.

The litany rose and fell as Laine remembered Donnelley's voice, the conviction. It looked right at me, it was real. This thing was no doubt looking at them, she could feel its malice.

As their chanting carried on, things only grew more chaotic. The beast thrashed about the room, knocking head-sized holes in the wall and overturning furniture in its rage and frustration. Chinks in its corporeal form began to rip away at its flesh and bone as it howled, charging and biting, but every time stopped in thin air at the edges of the salt circle as if it were a wall of iron.

The Stranger’s voice grew louder and louder until he was shrieking the incantation and the beast fell away, yelping. Gradually, pieces of it turned to dust that floated away on an unnatural wind until nothing was left of it but the ghostlights. They lingered, letting go one last rumbling growl before fading to nothingness.

Of a sudden, the Stranger clutched at his chest and coughed up a fine spray of red. What at first sounded like sobs rendered into laughter the louder they grew until the Stranger crawled to a couch that hadn’t been overturned to sit on it, weakly laughing with a grin as strong as ever.

“Yes!” He raised his hands to the air and let loose a string of Russian curses before he began to rummage around in his backpack, bringing out a bottle of vodka that he uncapped and flicked the plastic cap away into a corner of the room. After a hearty gulp, he set it on the table, putting his feet up and sighing like a man who had gotten through yet another hard day’s work, “Thank you, my friends, very much. Now that you have helped me, perhaps I owe you some things in return.”

He smiled at them all one by one, “First, I am a Russian agent,” he said nonchalantly with a shrug as if he’d introduced himself as a plumber, his accent making a little more sense, he smiled all the wider and held his arms out, “Let us put some cards on the table, Da?”

“What,” Avery put his trembling hand down and let his paper flutter to the ground, “the fuck…”

The paper still gripped between her fingers, Laine finally dragged her gaze from it and faced the dark-haired stranger. "What the...what was that?" She asked, dazed for a moment and stepped back, gathering her thoughts.

Laine could taste blood and reached up, rubbing the back of her hand against her mouth, leaving a bright red smear. Wiping it on her jeans, she tasted blood again, "What the hell?"

She shot a look at the Russian, also bloody mouthed, and rubbed her hand across her lips. "You brought that here, how did you know where..."

Laine caught herself, then looked at the others in various states of bewilderment. How the hell did this man find them in Clarksburg, it had been a last minute change after Charleston had been compromised.

Ava trembled against Dave, tasting blood on her tongue as she tried to catch her breath. Her throat felt raw and rough, as though she had been screaming for hours. The stinging from the scratches over her eyes was a dull note of pain against the adrenaline rushing through her body.

“The Hound.” She whispered, her voice croaking with roughness. “It was the Hound. I didn’t look but I saw it. I saw it.”

"Shh, you're okay sugar," Dave rasped. He carried her to the recliner and sat her down, then stood there beside her, hovering protectively.

"That-" he broke off to gag and then spit a sludge of dip and blood onto the ground at his feet. After a few more harsh coughs he shook himself. "That's the thing from the mountain. The thing that killed my team. I know that sound."

He spat again, grimaced, and then dug out his can, snapping it a few times.

“How did I know?” He chuckled, which erupted into a coughing fit of blood before he wiped his mouth again and took another swig, “I am Russian agent. I come from GRU-SV8, we are like you. Hunting what horrors are from beyond. But our countries, they are not friends.”

He frowned, before he replaced his smile and nudged the vodka in their direction, “But, hopefully, we can be.”

Dave looked around at the others, then sighed. He looked at Avery, remembering how the younger man had automatically delegated the authority to him.

“Fuck it.” He reached out and took a good pull from the bottle, fighting back a gag as he choked down the mix of liquor and blood. When he’d finished he shivered and offered it back. “We really need to teach y’all how to make liquor, cuz I can’t drink this paint thinner all night.”

Laine frowned at what the Russian told her. A similar group like them but from Russia and the Russian mob was pulling supernatural strings in West Virginia. Maybe but it did not explain how he knew about the Safehouse. She stepped out of the circle and said, "I think we need to all sit down and catch our breath. I should call the boss."

Laine reached for her phone and hesitated. Her instinct was to reach out for Donnelley, to pull him back to make them safe but he was probably deep into snatching Jay. He might have his phone turned off but if he did not then be another worry while his focus was on the dangerous job. Instead, she tapped Foster's contact and called him. As she waited, she looked at the Russian, giving him a controlled smile.

Ava eventually caught her breath, her body still shook and her skin was drenched in a cold sweat, but she wasn’t hyperventilating and felt like she could focus her surroundings. She slowly lowered her hands from her eyes and looked over at the strange man that had brought Hell to their doorstep. She could only dimly make out his shape in the darkness without her glasses, the only illumination in the house coming from the faint orange light of the streetlamp outside and Laine’s cell phone.

She didn’t say anything, just watched him as she reached into her pocket and pulled out her own phone. She turned on the flashlight and pointed it over at the stranger so they could see him better.

Pari used her phone to light her way to the kitchen, searching for flashlights or candles in the drawers.

Dave glanced down at Ava with a reassuring smile, reaching over and giving her shoulder a quick squeeze.

“So,” he said, looking at the stranger. “I think maybe some names are in order. An’ maybe you tellin’ us how you knew that shit was comin’. And…” He paused and frowned. “Man, we got a lot to cover, let’s start with names. I’m Dave.”

“Dave,” The Stranger let it roll off his tongue as if trying it out, while he held his hand out for a shake. He smiled all the wider, almost seeming excited to be with someone else for a while, “My name is Renko.”

Ava straightened in her seat, her eyes focusing on the fuzzy image of their new ‘friend’ in shock. “Huh, Queen was right.” She muttered to herself. At least they didn’t have to go to the trouble of finding him now, but...How did he find them?

“Hello?” Foster’s groggy voice came over the other line of Laine’s phone. “Laine?”

“We have an unexpected visitor,” Laine said, as the others were introducing themselves. She paused, the name triggering instant recognition. “Renko, he says he is with the Russian version of our team. He was followed by..uh...something. Something dangerous but it went away.”

“The GRU?” It sounded as if Foster sat up in a hurry, “Who- What does he want? What do you mean?”

“He said GRU-SV8, he calls himself Renko which is a name mentioned in the intel that has been gathered. I don’t know what he wants except he arrived here with a gun to his own head and was followed by ....something. I don’t know what it was except it was kept away by salt and some strange sort of prayer or chant he had us recite. I plan on speaking to him now, but you might want to come down here,” Laine said, eyeing the man the whole time. “We lost power, too. This place is compromised.”

“Then move,” Foster said, “move and tell me where. Keep him talking, but don’t tell him anything sensitive.”

“Right,” she said, mind already racing to possible places. “I’ll call you later.”

Laine disconnected the phone once he ended the call and looked at the group, their features cast in sharp ugly shadows created by the flashlights. Pari had returned with two small flashlights and a first aid kit found in the bathroom.

“Boss says we’re moving locations tonight, pack your things,” Laine said, tucking her phone against her palm and then took a few steps over to the Russian.

“Renko,” Laine turned to him, meeting his dark gaze in the low light. “We’re going to be moving but let’s have a quick chat. How did you find our location? I think that if we’re going to establish a working relationship we need to get a few things in the open. Second, what the fuck was that thing and will it come back?”

“For me. That was the fourth time it has happened in three years. I was working a case on the Tadjbegskye Bratva,” He said, sighing, “I am surveilling you. The GRU wants Intelligence on active Delta Green teams. You are one.”

“The Old Man would shit if he knew he’d been right about the fuckin’ Russians,” Dave grumbled. “Er...No offense, hoss.” He gave Renko a tight, apologetic smile, then turned to Ava. “You okay, sugar? Sure, you’re doin’ fine. Listen, we gotta get packed, you and Pari go grab y’alls bags. Okay?”

He threw a glance at Avery. “For fuck’s sake, man, get your rifle an’ vest. We gotta boogie an’ us two are on security detail. Renko...Sorry, bud, but uh...Just keep bein’ cool, okay? An’ leave that gun on the ground. We got plenty of guns on us an’ I really don’t wanna have to shoot you. You seem pretty cool.”

Ava looked up at Dave and glanced over at Renko for a moment, still unsettled by what just happened but trying to focus on the present. She looked away as she stood up from the chair, reaching out to grab Dave’s arm. “You should...probably search him for any electronics and confiscate them.” She said softly before releasing him to head for the women’s bunkroom, using the flashlight of her phone to light the way and carefully stepping her bare feet around the debris on the floor.

“I am a spy. I understand.” Renko shrugged at Dave, “I think you all are pretty cool too. I like all of you, you saved my life.”

“Yeah, well, I feel like that’s mutual, bud,” Dave said. “You got any electronics on ya? Phone, anything like that where we might get traced?”

“If I wanted to bring the GRU here, I would not have knocked.” Renko smiled before he stood, brushing himself off and holding his arms out, “Search, please.”

Laine glanced at Dave, the silent question hanging between them. “I know how, it’s part of the training. Unless you…”

She made a gesture of patting down then shrugged, waiting for Dave to make the call as he had suggested it.

“Oh, uh...I’ve got...You know.” Dave hefted his AK. “Prob’ly better if you do it and I cover ya.”

Laine nodded then faced Renko, going through the pat down method taught at the FBI Academy, running her hands along his arms and neck, under his arms and along his torso and belt. She glanced at him but continued, going down his legs and up to his groin and then the ankles. Standing up, she shook her head, “Nothing I could find.”

Taking a couple of steps back, she glanced at Renko wryly, “If you have anything tucked into an orifice that’ll be your secret to keep. I’m Laine, I suppose it’s polite to give you my name now.”

“Don’t worry,” he shrugged, “We stay just friends. I want to be trusted, because I need friends too. We all need some from time to time, yes?”

“I can tell you where the Sheriff of Blackriver’s cousin is.” Renko smiled. “The first gift of my friendship.”

Laine nodded, the tension that was ever-present when UMBRA was activated, about who you could and could not trust or speak openly with was only alleviated by having the trust of the team. His mention of the cousin made her look sharply at him, a gut feeling she recognized going off inside of her. “Tell me about this cousin,” she said, tucking her laptop under her arm, “We have to go but I need to know about him.”

She held off asking the direct questions about the cousin, instead letting Renko fill in the space with his information without coloring it with her suspicions.

“He is in Charleston. He parties, has many friends in the Bratva, secures the deals between his family and Nikolai’s.” Renko showed his first hint of anything negative as he frowned, “Nikolai is a stain on Russia, him and all his kind. I will lose no sleep if and when he dies.”

“We have a goal that is the same. You want to find Nikolai, I want him dead.” Renko shrugged, “I too must go. Do not worry about talking to me again, I will know where to find you.”

He winked and trod off towards the still-open door.

“Hold on,” Laine called out, “You’re not going to just take off like that. What if that thing comes back?”

“Then I’ll come back with it. I told you, they want me.” Renko smiled before turning back for the door.

Dave shifted his gaze from Renko to Laine. Bratva, spies, occult bullshit...All of this was well outside his usual area of responsibility. He was a demo guy, and not even a professionally trained one.

“Look, just let him go, Laine,” he said. “We ain’t keepin’ him around if he doesn’t wanna stay, short of tyin’ him up. Let’s just get movin’. We gotta leave. I wanna take my truck, we can load the bags an’ shit in the bed. Probably best if we have two vehicles, anyway.”

Laine sighed deeply, "Right, I'm not going to detain him against his will."

She watched Renko leave and said, "Stay safe."

Laine turned away, then back to Dave, "We'll need to pack up for the other guys. I'll get Donnelley's gear if you and Avery want to get the others."

Once she turned in the hall and entered the women's bedroom, the other two packing what little they had unpacked.

"We'll need to box up some of the food and the mugs of course so wherever we go we don't start from nothing," Laine said, looking at Pari as she finished clasping her designer suitcase closed.

"I'll take care of it, the Prius has surprising trunk space," Pari said, dragging her suitcase behind her as she left the room.

Laine grabbed her duffel bag and tucked her cellphone in chin to use the light as she tossed her clothes into the bag. Zipping her laptop into its carrying case she looked over at Ava, "How are you holding up?"

Ava was sitting on her bed, her glasses retrieved and back on her face as she mechanically went through the motions of folding her clothes up and putting them in her duffle bag. She looked over at Laine, angry red scratch marks over her eyes now visible from the light of Laine’s phone.

She opened her mouth to answer, then closed it a moment later as a croaking sound came out. She took in a deep breath and just shook her head, looking down as she zipped up her duffle bag.

"Ava?" Laine put the laptop case down and moved closer, shining the bright light at Ava’s face. The bright red scratches stood out starkly on her fair skin. “You scratched yourself, what happened?”

Lowering the light so as not to continue blinding her, Laine sat beside Ava, looking at her intently. She was still strapped into the blue FBI vest over her pajamas and at the moment it shook Laine just how futile the gesture had been. They had all been so damn frail in the presence of whatever that was, Laine had not looked but sensed the creature and heard its unearthly howls.

Ava looked up at her, tears shining in her eyes. “I saw it.” She whispered, her voice soft and hoarse. “Before it came, I saw it in my head and heard it, clear as day. I didn’t look at it, but I still saw it.” She shuddered and wrapped her arms around herself. “I thought I was going crazy...Maybe I did go crazy, I started scratching my eyes because some part of me thought that would make it go away.”

Laine raised her brows slightly, her green eyes peering curiously at Ava as she explained. “I didn’t look either but I didn’t see it in my head. How long before it arrived did you see and hear it in your head? What did you feel?”

Ava squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. “I-I don’t want to talk about it.” She said, her voice cracking as she took in another series of deep breaths. Her hands started to shake again and she gripped her arms tighter to try to still them. “I-It...I can’t. Not right now.”

“Alright,” Laine murmured, putting a light hand on her shoulder, brushing back her wild curls. “We don’t need to talk about it now. Take deep breaths, Ava, nice and slow.”

Laine inhaled deep and let the breath out slowly, the same deep breathing exercises taught to her a long time ago by a therapist. “Deep breath, count to ten and release. It’s what I do when I’ve seen too much.”

Ava nodded before following Laine’s instructions, taking in deep, shaky breaths and holding it for a moment then breathing it out. She repeated the exercise until it felt like she wasn’t about to fall to pieces. She could at least hold it together for a little longer. “Okay.” She said as she released her last breath. “I’m okay-ish now.” She looked up at Laine and tried to give her a thankful smile. “Thank you, Laine.”

Laine gave her shoulder a brief rub, patting the Kevlar. “Anytime. And okay-ish is good. It’s been a night and it’s not over yet. Look, whatever it was, it’s gone. It’s gone and Renko who trailed it in here is gone, too. But Foster told me we need to move locations, I need your help finding some motel we can hole up in, again. I’m going to call Donnelley, he needs to know what’s going on.”

“I’ll see what I can find,” Ava said with a frown. “This is the second time I’ve been in a Safe House for two days and we had to bug out to a motel. I hope this doesn’t become a pattern.” She said, reaching over and knocking her knuckles against the wood of her nightstand.

Laine nodded and muttered as she took out her phone, scrolling through her contacts, “It makes me wonder how these are actually ‘safe’.”

"I need a cigarette," she said as she tapped his contact and the call started.

“We’re a little busy.” Came Donnelley’s voice from her phone’s speaker.

"Yeah? Well, we had Renko from GRU drop by for a quick visit. Brought a fucking....thing from Hell with him and we're breaking camp, other than that it's been a quiet night," Laine said, her tension unleashing now that she didn't have to keep her compsure so tight.

“What?” Donnelley said, the shortness in his voice masking the confusion. Somewhere behind him, a scream could before it was muffled again. “GRU? Russian? What did he say?”

"That he wanted to be friends, that we saved his life and the same Bratva we're after is after him," Laine said, ignoring the scream. "He gave me information on a cousin of the Sheriff, he's in Charleston. We're leaving the house, GRU has us under surveillance."

"But that thing... Jesus fuck, Donnelley," she said, her husky voice cracking slightly. "He used a damn salt ring to keep it away."

“It works.” Donnelley said, an image of him shrugging along with the statement, “Listen, you need to be careful with this. I don’t know why he exposed himself if he has you under surveillance, but he wants something.”

Donnelley sighed hard, “Keep him friendly. Don’t tell him more than you need to. Get every piece of information from him that you can. Sooner or later, he’s goin’ to ask for somethin’.” He said, “I want to know what it is. We’ll talk when we get back.”

"He's gone," Laine snapped, "And so are we, I'll let you know where we end up."

“Do that.” Donnelley said, the sound of him toying with his phone apparent, “Who the fuck said you could talk?-“ and the call ended.

Laine looked at her phone, then jammed it in her back pocket before glancing at Ava, "Let me know once you get the motel arranged."

She went down the hallway and to the room marked "Men" and opened the door. Inside it was tidy but with a scent of tobacco and it reminded her. She dug out her pack of Djarums and lit one, not caring anymore about smoking inside now. Laine had almost felt settled in and they were on the run again.

She found his duffel bag and opened drawers, looking to see if he had put anything away for a prolonged stay. As she put away jeans and t-shirts, boxer briefs and socks she found a small leather book. It was an old fashioned photo book with plastic sleeves and about the size of her hand.

Laine flipped through it, the first photo of a young, unscarred Donnelley cradling an infant beside an attractive woman with blonde hair. His ex and his daughter, the next few pictures featuring a growing girl riding a tricycle and going trick or treating in a cowgirl outfit and Donnelley dressed like a cowboy. Laine smiled slightly and turned the page. An older Tilly, beaming between her parents with a soccer trophy in her hands. Then it ended and the photos were of him and other men in military gear, unknown faces until the last two photos. Scarred Donnelley and the tattooed man Queen, smiling unabashed drunken grins with drinks in hand. The last photos was a team picture with grim faced Ghost hulking in the center, flanked by Donnelley and an unknown man with Polynesian features.

She put it in the duffel bag, sliding it into a pocket where she found a couple of issues of Hustler and Swank and a three pack of condoms. That gave her a moments pause but she had no time to think about it. Laine left them there and finished packing, taking the bag with hers over her shoulders.




Ava watched Laine leave the room and glanced around at the darkness and quiet of the bedroom. Her skin started to crawl sitting in the room alone, the shadows and stillness of the room starting to feel oppressive and she stood. She had pulled on her Uggs so her feet wouldn’t be cut up and she gathered up her duffle bag, her laptop bag and the stuffed cat Laine had gotten her. She crushed it against her chest as she left the room, making her way to the living room to be close to another person.

She entered into the room and paused. In the dim light provided by the candles Pari had lit, she saw Avery standing in the center of the room, staring into space. She swallowed, her brow furrowing in concern as she set her things on the non-destroyed couch and walked up to him.

“Avery?” She called out softly, moving into his field of vision so she didn’t startle him. “Are you,” She hesitated before she finished that sentence. ‘Are you okay?’ Of course he wasn’t okay, none of them were okay after what they had just experienced.

Ava shut her mouth, cleared her throat to buy herself time before asking, “A-are you hurt?”

Avery shook his head without looking at her. It was understandable that everyone would be shaken, but the lack of youthful energy of the man before her was so unlike the Avery who’d greeted them at the door and treated them like friends. No smiles on his lips, “Nuh.” He slowly came to put his eyes on Ava’s, slack-jawed and with eyes quickly starting to glisten, “Jesus fucking Christ.”

His lip quivered just as his hands snapped to his face and he collapsed to sit on the floor, heaving sobs from his mouth like a terrified child. “Jesus fucking Christ, Jesus fucking Christ, Jesus fuck…”

Ava jumped as Avery broke down, staring at the Army Vet with wide eyes for a heart beat before she sat down next to him. She was smaller than he was, but still, she reached over to put an arm around his shoulders in a half embrace. “I know.” She whispered to him, leaning against him, hoping that the offer of physical comfort would be enough to help pull him back. “I know.” She said again, blinking her own eyes to keep back the tears.

Laine walked into the living room and saw the two leaning in together. Her stomach knotted, recalling her first time faced with the deadly supernatural. She set the bags down and went over, listening to the young man sobbing.

She looked at Ava, who was hardly much better off after their conversation. Laine sat on the other side of Avery, waiting a moment until he quieted.

"Avery," she started to say, then hesitated. Laine watched how easily Ava hugged him and felt a twinge of envy, it was never that easy for her.

"Avery, we're safe," Laine murmured, then put her hand on his shoulder. "You did good, we're all alive. We're safe."

Avery quieted with a few deep breaths that hitched in his throat. By the time he quieted, he was breathing evenly. Deep, long, but even. He stood, placing his hand on Ava’s shoulder and squeezing it for a moment before he wiped a glistening trail of snot from his upper lip. “Fuck,” he dug the heels of his palms over his eyes to try to dry them and turned for the rooms, “I, uh…”

He looked at Laine and then Ava, before he looked away from both, closing his eyes and letting his head hang. He cleared his throat, speaking softly and more defeated than ever, “I’m going to get my things.”

Laine held his shoulder, finding herself rubbing in slow circles in an instinctive comforting gesture. "There is no shame in being afraid," she spoke in a quiet, measured tone. "Everyone of us was terrified and we've experienced the...weird shit. I don't even know how one gets used to it. I ran off screaming after my first uh.. encounter."

She thought briefly at Donnelley's unconcerned reply to the mention of the creature and the salt. Taking her own deep breath, she said to Avery, "Yeah, let's get out of here. Ava's found us a motel. It'll be alright, dude. Maybe you can drive with me, we can talk about home. I got my eye on that Camaro."

Laine stood up, watching him then glanced at Ava. Both of them looked worse for wear and she was keeping herself as composed as she could but the knot of tension and anxiety grew hot in her chest.

Avery swallowed, a half-hearted smile flashed across his lips and a single bark of a chuckle that sounded more hollow than anything huffed past his lips, “Yeah,” he said, “Okay.”

While they were speaking Dave tottered out of the men's room, bent beneath the weight of his and Ghost's bags. Judging by the rattle and weight, he was pretty sure that Ghost's bag was nothing but guns, ammunition, and wrenches.

"Hey, I'm 'bout done in there, 'cept for your shit, Jason's, an' Queen's," he grunted. He paused, hitching the bags higher on his struggling shoulders. The hollow look in his eyes and the concern on the faces of the women spoke volumes, and Dave bit back a curse and pasted on a smile. "Know what, I'll take care of that shit, just get your weapons, alright buddy? I'm gonna need you if bullets start flyin'."

Avery seemed to perk up in all the wrong ways at the appearance of Dave. He returned Dave’s smile, but it was a disjointed little thing on his gaunt face. “No, I got it, man.” Avery chuckled, stepping in Dave’s direction to pat him good-naturedly on the shoulder, every muscle in him seemed stiff as his voice croaked, “I’m fine, man.”

His eyes glanced Ava and Laine’s direction before he refocused them on Dave, nodding, “I’m fine.” He said, almost more to himself than Dave, sniffling as he stepped past him to retrieve what little he had in the house.

Ava looked up at Dave and then glanced at Laine with concern in her eyes. “I don’t think he’s fine.” She whispered to both of them, pushing herself up to stand again.

Dave watched him walk away, his jaw working. He was frustrated; God knew he himself wasn't fine. But he had a responsibility. He had to be fine because freaking out was a luxury he couldn't afford.

"I think you're right," he said quietly. "But… He ain't got a choice. We can panic later, but Christ, he's the only other shooter we got right now."

He looked at Laine, some of his own worry showing in his steel blue eyes. "Can you talk to him? On the drive? I don't wanna push, but shit… I can't watch our backs alone, I need him. I know it's heartless as hell, but…"

He trailed off, shook his head. "Just try an' get him centered? Please? We need another serious gun in this fight."

Laine met Dave's gaze then stood up, speaking quietly, "That's my plan, I'll do my best. He's had a shock, probably his first time seeing...the weird shit. But you're right, we need him. We gotta keep our collective shit together."

She moved to pick up the bags, hefting Donnelley's over her shoulder. "You didn't happen to find the keys to that Camaro in the guys' room?"

"Wasn't lookin'," Dave shrugged. "I grabbed my shit and Ghost's cuz he's bunked next to me. I still gotta get Queen's and Jason's bags, and Avery's dependin' on if he does it or not."

"Alright, just take any keys you can find," Laine suggested, "I figured you could take Ava and I was going to have Avery ride with Pari but now, I guess I'll take him with me...shit, that leaves her alone. I'll figure it out."

She shook her head and went for the door, looking over her shoulder at Ava and the destroyed furniture and dents in the walls beyond her. That unreal thing had been real. Fuck you, Renko, this cousin better be legit. Laine thought as she left the house.




It had taken Dave three trips to get the men’s bags loaded into the bed of his truck, and by the time he was done he’d worked up a healthy sweat. Between the weight of the bags, his own gear, and the rifle he refused to take off, it was a nice workout hauling clothes, guns, and ammo at maximum speed through a destroyed house and slinging them into an F250.

Once everything was loaded up he’d taken Ava’s bag from her. “C’mon, sugar, you’re with me,” he said, giving her a wink and the most reassuring smile he could manage under the circumstances. “You found us a lil’ hideaway yet?”

“Yeah, it’s a little Days Inn over in Bridgeport.” She said, frowning as she looked around the eerily quiet neighborhood. She still wore the FBI ballistic vest Laine had given her over her lounge clothes, her arms crossed over her chest to hide the large yellow letters. She let Dave take her duffle bag, but she kept her laptop bag on her shoulder. “I already gave the address to Laine and Pari, so I can give you directions.”

Dave nodded along as she spoke. He looked her over, then unzipped his bag and dug around for a moment.

“Here,” he said, retrieving a green flannel shirt. “Put that on. Cover up that vest for ya. Might hafta roll the sleeves a bit.” He shook out the shirt and held it up for her.

“Oh, thanks.” Ava smiled slightly as she took the flannel shirt and hurriedly put it on. She stopped realizing she still had her laptop bag on her shoulder and sighed. She took it off, set it down and then put on the flannel. “I know I should have taken it off and given it back to Laine.” She said while buttoning the shirt, the sleeves and fit almost comically large on her. “But, well...I didn’t want to.” She admitted with a frown while glancing up at him. “You know?”

“Can’t say I blame ya,” Dave said. He tapped the front of his chest rig, the ballistic plate producing a dull thunk. “I’ve got a coat in the back I can put on if I need to get out, but I think I’ll be fine takin’ it off just to get our rooms. You go ahead an’ keep that secret squirrel vest on, though.”

He reached into the backseat and, with a crinkle of plastic, produced a water bottle, which he passed to Ava before grabbing one for himself.

“So,” he said, taking a large swig and swishing it around to clear the blood from his mouth. He spat it on the ground and grimaced. “So. How far’s this Bridgeport?”

“Ten minutes.” She answered as she took the water bottle. She rolled up the sleeves to her elbows before cracking open the water. “Not that far, so Donnelley and the others can find it, but it’s a small city and the inn is on the edge of town so we can at least have some security.” She took a small sip and grimaced as the cool water came in contact with her scratchy throat. “They’d got a breakfast bar with a waffle station.”

Dave nodded. “Well...I do like waffles,” he said. He gave her another smile. “Good find, sugar. You ready to mount up?”

“Yeah.” She said with a nod, clearing her throat. “I need some tea when we get there.” She said, taking another swig from the water bottle. She glanced over at the safehouse as she started to head for the passenger side. Just last night they were all having a nice, relaxing cookout in the backyard. That time seemed so far away already.

Breathing out through her nose, she turned away to open the passenger door and climb inside.

Dave climbed into the driver’s side, finally removing his rifle and laying it across the floorboard in front of the bench seat where he could reach it should the need arise. The pistol he kept strapped to his thigh; it was a more practical weapon from a vehicle, anyway. He pulled the door shut and jammed the key in the ignition, the big truck turning over with a rumble.

“Alrighty, let’s take us a drive,” he said, forcing some cheer into his voice.

“Mm,” Ava mumbled as she leaned against the door, pressing her forehead against the cool glass of the window. She gave him the initial directions to find the highway that would take them to Bridgeport and then fell silent, staring out the window with her arms wrapped around herself.

Dave followed her directions, watching the mirrors for signs of pursuit. Once he’d merged them onto the highway he frowned, turning his attention to Ava. He’d seen the scratches on her eyes, heard her screaming when the thing had been about to make itself known. He felt a dull ache at the thought of the fear she must have felt; he’d had everybody else to focus on. It seemed easier.

“You did real good in there, sugar,” he said, his voice rough. He cleared his throat, then reached over and rested a gentle hand on her shoulder. “You kept it together. I heard you readin’ with the rest of us.”

Ava jumped slightly at the hand on her shoulder, but quickly relaxed. “Thanks.” She said softly, sitting herself upright and looking to him with a small ghost of a smile. “I’m glad that we all are okay, that was...really scary back there.” She said, letting out a shaky breath and rubbing her hands together. “Getting chased out of another safehouse, by that...thing.” She shuddered, the image of that beast flashing across her mind in vivid detail. She felt her throat tighten and she started to take deep, steady breaths.

Dave watched her from the corner of his eye as she spoke. At the change in her demeanor he held his arm out. “C’mere,” he said. “C’mere, it’s alright.”

Ava looked over at him, taking in the outstretched arm for a moment before undoing her seatbelt. She slid over the bench to him and tucked her head under his arm and against his chest, curling up against him. “I-I saw it, before it came.” She said, her body trembling as she gripped a hand onto his shirt. “I saw it and I heard it, in my head. It felt like it was right on top of me, looking at me.”

He squeezed her tightly to him, despite their mutual body armor rigs preventing the best contact. He could feel her shaking and he drew her in, reaching down to gently take her hand.

“It’s gone now,” he rumbled, his voice pitched low, comforting. “It’s gone, an’ now we got a buddy who can get rid of it if it comes back. An’ ain’t nothin’ gonna hurt you when I’m around, okay, sugar?”

“He brought it to us.” She said in a whisper, reaching up to take off her glasses so she could press her face against his chest. “What if he does it again and next time, we can’t stop it? What if it comes after us next and he’s not there?”

Ava squeezed her eyes shut as she felt the dam of emotions threaten to spill over. “Why didn’t any of you see it like I did?”

Dave hit his hazards and allowed the truck to slow, drifting to the side of the road. It rolled to a stop and he dropped it into park, then wrapped both arms tightly around Ava, resting his chin on her soft curls.

“Shhh,” he said quietly. He felt his heart kick up at the voicing of his own unspoken fear, but kept his tone steady and soft. “I can’t answer that, sugar. There’s powers at work here we don’t understand, but you got me. You got this whole team, all of us, we’re in this with you. We’re gonna get through all this.”

Ava choked on a sob and buried her face against his chest. “It’s happening again.” She said, her voice soft and straining with emotion as she tried to keep some semblance of control.

“What’s happening again?” He looked around, eyeing the darkness outside the truck.

“I’m seeing things again.” She answered, her body trembling in his arms. “Like when the Program recruited me.”

He relaxed and gave her a gentle squeeze. “We’ll...I dunno. Talk to Foster, maybe. He’s got you out here for a reason, I figure a weirdo like him knows plenty of what’s goin’ on. He might know some people.”

Like a flip had been switched, the flood Ava had been keeping at bay came rushing forth. She broke down and started crying into his chest.

Dave shifted to get better access, holding onto her and letting her cry. He reached up and stroked her hair gently, speaking quiet, comforting words, his cheek on the top of her head.

“It’s alright, sugar,” he said, keeping his eyes on the darkness outside the windows. “Everythin’s gonna be okay.”




Dave pulled the truck into the parking lot of the Days Inn about 20 minutes later than intended. After Ava had vented he’d stopped so she could get some tea, and they had driven the rest of the way in comfortable silence, his arm looped around her. He stopped the Ford in an empty space and glanced down at the mass of curly red hair that was leaned against his chest.

“Tea helpin’?”

“Yeah, I love lavender tea.” She answered quietly, relaxed under the comfortable weight and warmth of Dave’s strong arm over her shoulders. Cradling the warm cup in her hands helped with some of the chills and the liquid soothed the roughness of her throat.

“Thank you Dave.” She said, looking up at him. “For everything.”

“Hey, of course,” he said, smiling. “You know I’m here for ya, sugar.” He gave her a squeeze.

“I know.” She smiled, glancing down as her head rested on his shoulder without much thought. “...How are you doing?” She asked, her eyes turning back up to him. “I don’t think I’ve asked you that yet, I’m sorry.”

“I’m…” He trailed off, then sighed. Honesty was probably the best policy. “I’m scared. Real scared. I’m okay in a gunfight, but...Avery, he froze up, an’ I’m kinda...You know. Just doin’ what makes sense. I kinda wound up havin’ to make some decisions back there and now I’m just hopin’ shit goes right.” He gave her a nervous grin. “But I’m managin’ so far.”

“I’m sorry.” Ava said again, leaning against him a little more since she couldn’t hug him. “For what it’s worth, I think you made all the right calls and did great.” She said, looking back up at him with a small smile.

“Well, thanks,” he said. He laughed a little. “Been a real shit-show of a night. You think you’re gonna be able to get some rest? I ain’t. If you’re not, well...I’ll probably set up to keep watch for a few hours, once we get checked in. You can hang out with me, if ya like.”

“Yeah, I don’t think I’ll be sleeping either.” She said with a sigh, hesitating a moment before sitting herself upright. “Especially since Donnelley asked me to keep by my phone and computer all night.” She stared down at her tea and then lifted her head with a small smile. “I’m going to watch the most wholesome thing I can find if that’s alright?”

Dave laughed. “You watch whatever you wanna watch. I’m just happy for the company.”

“Me too.” She smiled a little wider and easier, happy to hear him laugh. She took a sip of her tea and scooted away from him. “I guess we should go find the others?”

“Yeah, guess so,” he said.




Music rumbled at a low volume from the speakers of the Chevy Camaro as it rolled through the dark streets, Laine following the directions she made Avery give her off his phone. She wanted to make him focus on something other than what was in his head, there would be time enough at the motel. Street lights flickered over their faces as they drove and Laine glanced at him, “What’s the next turn?”

She already knew it, Laine had looked over the directions before getting into the car. Pari was a few car lengths behind her, somewhere in that bright Prius. Bridgeport was not far but it felt better to be out of the city. Swearing internally she remembered how she had insisted to Donnelley that Clarksburg would be safe.

Avery hadn’t blinked until he realized his eyes were burning, clamping his eyelids shut and shaking his head, “What?” He said, before realizing almost too late, “Left, left, turn left.”

He sighed, shaking his head, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

Laine hung a sharp left, taking it too fast but the low slung Camaro performed admirably. She stepped on the gas and pulled away into the darkness of the stretch of road that lead to Bridgeport.

"Avery, there is nothing to be sorry for," she said, her voice slightly husky with the California coming through stronger as she spoke. "My first time wasn't easy either. I could have been killed if not for the team saving me. I wanted to run and never look back. I was terrified and I couldn't comprehend what I saw, what had tried to kill me. But Donnelley told me something that has stuck with me and it keeps me coming back, even when all I want to do is hide and pretend I never knew this war existed."

She glanced at the kid, he seemed so damn young even though only about ten years separated them. Laine paused, giving him a chance to absorb before she continued. "He said that this is the only war that matters, that we measure success by seeing another sunrise. That's all. Just another sunrise."

Laine smiled sadly, then glanced at him, "I think of those sunrises back home, the golden glow over the city and as it touches the beach and washed warm over the ocean. I think...that's worth it. I want to see that again."

“Where are you from?” Avery asked, looking at her from the phone in his lap. “I’m from San Fran. Hunter’s Point.”

He swallowed, “Another sunrise…” he shook his head, “That’s enough for him?”

"I'm from LA, born in Van Nuys but spent most of my growing up in Torrance," Laine replied.

She turned into the parking lot of the Day's Inn, smiling slightly at the appropriate choice Ava had made. Perhaps it had been subconscious but the glowing sun on the sign seemed to reinforce her point.

"That's what he said," Laine recalled, "Another sunrise... another day to fight the darkness."

Avery nodded, taking a moment of silence to appreciate the words. These people were a class above any he’d met, and beneath all of the shock and terror coursing through him, he found himself admiring them, “Another sunrise.” He said before opening the door and stepping out, “Another sunrise.”
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>CLARKSBURG, WV
>JUL.20.2019
>0230...///

Clarksburg was a nice quiet little city much to Queen’s disappointment. It took him almost half an hour of driving to find a suitable seedy motel because even Fed towns had red light districts. The motel was one of those charge by the hour affairs he was so familiar with in his line of work. Borrowing Ghosts’ baseball cap and hoodie, he left Jay in his care while he went to check in. The clerk only made a passing glance at the gloves worn on a warm night and that he signed generically, Mr and Mr Smith.

Cash was more important and an extra hundred dollars made sure they would not be disturbed. Jay paid for his own torture cell, Queen smirked to himself as he left the tiny office. The night still held sway, the spare lighting casting long dark shadows as he made his way back to the car. The truck was gone, replaced by a piece of shit no one would miss until morning. Leaning into the window, he said, “Room 116, bottom floor at the corner. Should be private enough.”

Giving Ghost his hat back, Queen opened the door to get Jay out. “Keep your mouth shut,” he reminded him, “Or we might decide we don’t need you.”

The room was small with two full sized beds and wood panelling on the walls, a small table with cigarette burns in the veneer and a chair with mysterious stains on the seat made up the furnishings. An old tube tv was bolted in a corner, the convex glass covered in a layer of dust. The carpet and bedding were a matched shade of puke tan and avocado and it smelled like old semen and stale smoke under a recent layer of Lemon Pledge.

Queen stepped aside so Ghost could escort their guest into the room and he shut it after, pausing to text Tex the address. “Home sweet home,” he said, sniffing and rubbing his nose, checking for blood but it was clean.

“Look, man,” Jay swallowed, eyes darting left and right for some hope and finding none, “Whatever they’re payin’ you, we pay better. That asshole ain’t worth shit, the ginger with the scar.”

Jay didn’t make any attempt to wriggle out of his binds, he’d been trying the whole drive here and it hadn’t worked. Maybe words would. Neither of these guys looked like Feds, but neither did any of them. This one, the one with the long hair and tattoos, he looked like his ilk. “Consider it.” He said, hushed.

Queen lit a Kools, taking a deep drag of the menthol cigarette as Jay made his offer while Ghost had stepped away. "I always consider my options," he said, tilting his head up, looking down at the bound man. "The trouble is trust, my friend. Let's say I take your offer, how do I know you and yours won't just fuck me in the ass. You probably would. I know I would."

Queen smiled, his sea blue gaze lingering on Jay, "Gotta give me something, boss. To show you're not just blowing smoke."

He raised the cigarette to his lips, puffing slow and savoring the nicotine.

“Let me get that chance, man. Loosen somethin’ on me, just say I got away and I’ll give you somethin’.” Jay said, though there was pleading in his eyes.

"Tex won't believe that." Ghost's voice was a low growl from the doorway. He'd stepped out for some air, to have a rare cigarette and cool off after the hyper-vigilance of the raids. He knew himself, knew his temper. If he went into an interrogation keyed up there was a very real chance he'd go too far and kill the asset. It had happened before.

"Tex wouldn't believe somebody got away from me. People don't get away from me." He crossed the room to Jay, adopted a Hajj-squat in front of his chair, and removed his clear eye-pro.

Interrogation meant intimidation. Ghost was good at that. The best at that. He knew the effect his cold brown eyes could have on a man, especially one who was powerless. Ghost found Jay's gaze and held it, falling silent and giving the man the full effect of those reptilian orbs. Then he simply let the minutes pass, allowing his unrelenting stare to do its work.

Queen snorted and shook his head, stepping away to sit on one of the beds, letting Ghost do his thing. He found himself almost disappointed in Jay, he had been built up so much as this would be assassin, the connection to the Russians and a dangerous foe. Let Jay go and cross his fingers he'd get paid. What an asshole. Not that Queen would ever do it but that was just insulting.

After letting Jay squirm, Queen finished his cigarette, then said, "Sorry, you ain't got good credit."

“You think nobody’s gonna be lookin’ for me? Huh, fucker?” Jay snarled in Queen’s direction, though it could be noted that he deliberately avoided looking Ghost in the face, “Y’all on borrowed time! Better get what you want outta me now ‘cuz my boys find out I’m in this place, they’ll take turns on you, pretty boy!”

He frowned, shoulders rising and dropping and eyes furious, but still never straying Ghost’s way, “See how some real white boys fight.”

"I've killed more men than you've probably met," Ghost said lightly. "Especially as white trash from a town smaller than the bases I trained on. If your friends come, they'll die too, and the world will be a little bit better for it."

He reached out and gave that dislocated shoulder a slow, firm pull. "And once I've killed them, I'll take it out on you."

Jay yelped in Ghost’s face, almost trying to get back from his iron grip and only succeeding in squirming pitifully, “Fuck you, man, fuck y’all…”

Queen chuckled at the threats from the man tied up in the stained chair, then glanced at Ghost, "Think he'll be as stubborn as his Mama? I got twenty says he doesn't last as long as she did."

“What!?” Jay whipped his head in Queen’s direction, jaw clenched so hard he might think his teeth would break, “Bullshit!”

He looked at Queen and Ghost, and back, “Bullshit!” He barked again, “You ain’t do shit to her! Y’all have rules and laws, and shit, you can’t do shit to her!”

Queen shrugged, then grinned mischievously almost to himself. He pulled out his pack of cigarettes and flipped the lid back and forth, thinking of the cocaine in his pocket. He could use some for what was coming but he waited. Queen said, "Alright, you've dealt with cops, maybe even Feds. You know the deal. We don't need a little meth bust."

There came a single knock at the door, followed by three in quick succession, and then one more. Donnelley and Jason were outside, and once Queen opened the door, Jay got another view of that smirking ginger asshole who looked at him like a child who gotten just what he wanted at Christmas. And wanted to beat the shit out of it. Donnelley stepped inside first as Jason closed the door behind him and stood next to Ghost, that same smile on him the whole time. “Hello, Jay.”

"Enjoy," Queen said, stepping over to the bathroom now that Tex had returned.

“He ask y’all to untie him or somethin’ yet?” Donnelley asked, holding Jay’s stare, “They always do. They never get it. They always talk.

Donnelley smirked down at the huge Operator on his haunches, fixing Jay with that goddamn stare of his. Ghost was the best partner he could ask for when it came to things like this. Sometimes Good Cop, Bad Cop was the way to go. Other times you needed to be the hand dangling the asset above the shark. “Don’t they, Ghost.”

"Every time," Ghost said quietly. He stood, his knees cracking like muffled gunshots in the quiet of the room. He didn't wince, didn't grunt; all he did was curse within his own head. He was getting old, and he hated it.

Ghost walked a few steps away, turning so that Jay could watch him draw the combat knife at his belt. The razored glittered in the sickly light of the cheap motel bulbs, standing out against the matte finish of the blade. Ghost knew his part.

"So, should I take a few fingers now, to get us started?" He asked, his tone light and conversational. "Or do you want to see if he plans to cooperate first?"

Donnelley shrugged as he crossed his sinewy forearms, “I got some common courtesy.” Donnelley said, hiking up the legs of his trousers so he could take Ghost’s place in front of Jay, squatting down and holding his gaze. He could swear Jay was shaking a little, “Tell me if this sounds familiar to you, a’right, boy?”

Donnelley frowned, eyes narrowing, “NPS Rangers Frank Wilkins and Billy Britt find a husband scared shitless out in the woods. Somewhere near, his wife is completely fuckin’ skinned. When they report it to their Supervisor, Phill Hoffman, you show up and make sure everybody knows to keep their mouths shut.” Donnelley spoke, flexing his hands in and out of tight fists, “Frank and Billy nod and go along with big, bad Jay’s hush-hush. Billy goes to town on leave, somethin’ happens, he gets robbed and killed.”

“NPS Ranger Billy Britt, one of two people who know about David and Bethany Miller, killed the second he gets too far away from Blackriver. NPS Ranger Billy Britt, the one dude in Blackriver with our calling card gets robbed and killed.” Donnelley’s brows went up, “Frank Wilkins almost gets the same until I take him under my wing, you and your boys happily givin’ me and mine some target practice. What a fuckin’ coincidence.

“The fuck’s your point, man? Y’all ‘ready know who I belong to, what’s your point.” Jay asked.

“Just like I refrained from scalpin’ your momma like a Comanche and hangin’ her from the streetlights, because she’s only the first link up the chain to what I really want,” Donnelley set his jaw and leaned in close, nose almost touching Jay’s, “Your momma gave you to me. You’re gonna give me Nikolai Gorochev, Phil Hoffman, and everybody else in Blackriver responsible for the murder, and cover-up of, Maria Vasquez.”

“Question one, Nikolai Gorochev’s daughter and her husband are going to stay at the River Valleys Retreat. Have they arrived yet?” Donnelley asked, and Jay did not answer, “Have. They. Arrived?”

Jay swallowed a mouthful of bloody spit in silence. Donnelley held his gaze for a few long moments and then nodded, grabbing the underside of the seat Jay was on and hauling him up and over, the back of Jay’s head smacking off the ground. Donnelley undid the knot keeping Jay’s hand tied and pulled his arm taut at the shoulder, resting his knee on his forearm to keep his hand on the floor, “Take a tip off his finger,” Donnelley looked to Ghost, “You choose which.”

Ghost studied the knife for a moment, letting things build. Then he knelt beside Donnelley and rested the edge of the blade against the first knuckle of Jay's pinky finger.

"He's a gangster," Ghost said. "Figure we'll start Yakuza style. See if he's as hard as those Eastern boys."

He put his left hand against the back of the blade, then leaned on it hard, simultaneously dragging the knife back with a sharp jerk. The knuckle parted, the tip of the finger rolling free with a small rush of blood.

"Next one comes off slower."

Jay’s scream was muffled by Donnelley’s hands over his mouth, pressing down on him hard and making sure he didn’t make too much noise as his head wriggled uselessly, tears welling up in his eyes and rolling down the sides of his head. “Have they arrived, Jay?” Jay shook his head and Donnelley hauled him back up to an upright position, tying his hand back to the arm of the chair, “Thank you.”

Jason was leaning against the wall, his big frame next to the door. He was staring with grim intensity, and when Jay began to scream he casually fingered the blinds to see if anyone was in earshot. This was always messy business. He remembered a time he watched what Jordani intelligence had done to a terrorist captive, the disregard of survival and the man’s slow, agonizing descent into an unrecognizable form. Always messy business. He dare not intervene, not on account of whatever decency protested inside him. He had to keep reminding himself this man deserved it, and continued to watch silently.

“Now, when are they going to arrive? Where are they now?” Jay stayed silent, head slowly hanging, “Come on. You can tell me anything, Jay, I’m here for you.

Donnelley smirked, “And the longer you make this, the more creative I’ll get.”

At the first scream, Queen bent over the counter of the sink and snorted hard, clearing the line one a single take. He shuddered and shook his head, rolling his shoulders as he rubbed his nose vigorously. He twirled the rolled twenty dollar bill and began to cut another small line. No more screams but muffled voices, Tex’s voice.

After the next hit, he staggered back, bumping against the wall and muttered, “Shit, fuck yeah.”

Queen jumped in place like a runner warming up, his body wired up and the worry and exhaustion fled from his bones. He caught his reflection in the mirror and cursed, a trickle of blood smearing into the dark blonde beard. He washed it away and stuck a wad of toilet paper up his nose to soak it up before tossing it in the toilet.

Queen stepped out, looking around the room with a jittery jerk of his head. “We forgot the stereo, we need some fucking music for this shit.”

“We’ve got music,” Ghost said, nodding at Jay. He forced a grin he didn’t feel.

Torture was boring. There was no fight, no challenge. Ghost was a warrior, not an inquisitor, and these little sessions always felt like a waste of his time. Still, he knew his role, and he played it. “I think Tex here is losing his patience, so we might get the music going again.”

Queen looked at Ghost then over at Jay, who had blood dripping freely from one hand. He thumbed open the pack of Kools and tucked a cigarette behind his ear.

The micro uzi was now half hidden in the waistband of his tactical pants covered by the Molly Hatchet t-shirt. He didn't care to stand around and watch that asshole get chopped up. Tex would brief them on anything important he found out, it wasn't his case anyway.

"Hands bleed so much," he commented, then said to Tex, "Hey, I'm gonna keep an eye out on the parking lot."

He turned his attention towards Jason against the wall watching the interrogation. The big man's expression told him what he needed to know.

"¿Oye mano, vamos a hanguiar un rato?" Queen suggested, jerking his chin towards the door, "Wanna take a look with me?"

“I think we should all take a break.” Donnelley sucked his teeth, just as his phone began to ring. He dug the vibrating thing out of his pocket and saw who it was, Laine. He looked back to Jay, pitifully bleeding in his seat. This’d take time, time he wasn’t sure they had before Nikolai’s daughter could slip beyond their grasp. “How does that sound, Jay? We can all just have ourselves a minute.”




>DAYS INN
>0330...///

“You gonna be a good boy for me, Jay?” Donnelley eyed the man in the back seat, trussed up like a buck. His furious eyes met with Donnelley’s smiling ones as he pushed the door open and left Jay alone in the back of the truck. With his feet on concrete in the parking lot of yet another hotel, he reached up toward the sky, growling with the effort of the stretch before taking a drag from his cigarette and sending it off into the night with a flick of his fingers.

It was all business from here. He knew the tone in Laine’s voice from countless arguments in the past with another woman. He took a deep breath as he checked his phone for the room numbers, finding his way there through hallways, leaving the rest of the team to deal with the mess of a man they’d turned Jay into. He didn’t even give the man at the welcome desk a glance as he passed. He had bridges to mend. When he finally got to the door, his knuckles rapped sharply against them, stepping back and waiting for whoever would answer.

The knock brought Laine out of her thoughts, the file spilling out of her lap as she stood up from the bed. Checking her weapon still tucked into her shoulder holster, she glanced at Dave and Avery. "That sounded like his knock," she said, though as Laine approached the door she kept from standing directly in front of it.

Ava lifted her head from her laptop, glancing over at the door as the knock sounded. Her heart immediately began to beat quicker, her stomach flipping with anxiety as she eyed the door. She shut her laptop and stood up from the bed, inching herself further from the door.

The knocking came again, more incessant this time and Avery took the risk of peering through the hole. “It’s Donnelley-“

“Yes, it’s Donnelley, open the goddamn door.” Came his voice from the other side as Avery opened it.

“Hey, boss.” Avery said, looking the other man up and down.

“Hey,” Donnelley smiled, looking into the room at the others, “Y’all alright?”

Ava relaxed when the door opened to reveal Donnelley. She smiled, it was a small one filled with exhaustion, but a smile nonetheless. The red scratch marks over her eyes had dulled to a less jarring pink, though they still stood out against her pale skin. “Hey,” She said softly with a small wave of her hand. “I’m...okay.”

"Peachy," Laine said, moving away from the door to allow him inside. She looked at him in silence for a beat then continued, "We're alive. Did you get anything useful from Jay or was that his answer?"

She gestured to a few drops of blood splattered on the cuff of his jeans. He stepped back, shuffling that foot back an inch and sighing, “We got Jay.”

Dave’s blue eyes flashed a cold light, and he grinned. “Hell yeah. Y’all come out of it alright? Nobody got hurt or nothin’?”

“Nobody that didn’t need to.” Donnelley flashed a fleeting grin to Dave. His enthusiasm for gunfights and violence wavered in the face of Laine, and how any of these faces could have not been here when he got back. “What about y’all? Can’t have been an easy thing.” He said, knowing it wasn’t easy when he had to do it, “Looks like you came out the other side though.”

“We did.” Ava nodded, fiddling with the sleeve of the flannel shirt she borrowed from Dave so she wouldn’t touch her eyes. The news of Jay’s capture got her heart racing again, her mind going to the bullet still inside of her abdomen. “Where, uh, are the others?”

Donnelley thrust his thumb over his shoulder, “Outside with Jay.” The longer he looked, the more he could see the pink lines over her face, feeling something sink in his gut. While they were out tweaking, running guns, and blowing up meth labs, his people were hunted. “I’m glad y’all made it. I’m,” he glanced towards Laine and cleared his throat, looking towards Dave, Avery, and Ava, “I wish I could’ve been there.”

“We managed,” Dave shrugged and gave Ava a gentle pat on the shoulder. “Me an’ Avery got the security locked down, man. A-Team, right Avery?” He grinned at the other man. True to form, Dave still wore his flak, and his AK was slung around his neck.

“Hell yeah.” Avery gave a weak chuckle, looking to Dave and back to Donnelley. He still had his Remington in his fist and his Glock tucked in his waist, “Not bad for a PsyOps dude, huh.”

“Not bad at all.” Donnelley nodded. He felt like he couldn’t feel more sheepish if he’d been wringing his hands and pouting in front of all of them. These were newbies, not yet knowing the very real rigors of working for the Program, and being absent from that trial by fire left him feeling like a weak leader. “About Renko…” he looked to Laine.

“About Renko,” she echoed then pressed her lips into a fine line. “He showed up on our doorstep trailing a...”

Laine paused, not wanting to bring up the horror that had entered their world. She shrugged, “He brought something with him and I’m pretty sure you know what it was. The fact there’s even Russian spies watching us was a surprise. He left after it was over and basically said he owed us for helping. He gave us some information about a MacOnie.”

Laine looked at Ava, then back at Donnelley as she chewed the inside of her lip, digging in hard before crossing her arms under her chest. “Anyway, that’s what happened. I didn’t have time to interrogate him and I wasn’t going to force him to stay. So if we fucked up according to spy versus spy games, then I’ll take the responsibility.”

Donnelley sighed, “No, no. You did fine.” He said,taking a couple steps into the room and sinking into a chair, almost immediately feeling the weight of the night in his bones. He didn’t want to get up, “So he barges in, has you banish a demon, and tells you about ‘a MacOnie.’”

He clucked his tongue, “Sounds pretty extenuating.” He eyed Dave and Avery’s weaponry and armor, giving them a smirk, “They just let y’all in like that?”

"Something like that, all in a night's work, you know," Laine said, then gave a smile that did not touch her eyes. "Oh, we took a little precaution, signed in as different couples. Dave and Ava on a honeymoon, I'm robbing the cradle with Avery. Fake names and the whole thing. Smuggled in the weapons, funny how no one really pays attention at two AM."

“Ain’t it?” Donnelley snorted.

“Helps when you got pretty women doin’ the talkin’,” Dave grinned. “I didn’t go near the window, just stood there by the truck holdin’ our bags and gave ‘im a wave.”

Another knock, the classic 'shave and a haircut, two bits' secret knock and a voice, a high pitched falsetto with a thick Spanish accent, "Housekeeping, you need towel? You want mint for pillow?"

“Door’s unlocked, slut.” Donnelley’s voice rose, waiting for Queen to come in.

The voice came again, "You want blow job? ¡Ay Dios!"

The door popped open and Queen stepped in, a big grin on his face and his eyes danced. He looked over at the group, noticing the weariness on their faces. The storm gathering in Laine's expression and he quickly decided not to mess with her, turning to Ava with a bright smile.

He ignored the presence of Dave and his big dumb flannel on the young woman. Might as well have his class ring on her neck. Queen smirked to himself until he noticed the scratches on her face. Self inflicted, he guessed, his brow furrowing for a moment before the chemicals swept away the concern.

"Angel! Your information was on point," Queen announced, flashing her a wolfish grin. "Wanna see the big fish we caught? Don't worry, he's still squirming."

Ava returned Queen’s smile, his arrival snapping her out of the silence her thoughts had swallowed her into. “Oh, that’s good. I’ve actually been sifting through the data you sent and found some interesting information so thank you for that.”

She hesitated for a moment at the mention of seeing Jay. She was surprised to find that she did, a morbidly curious side of her that wanted to see the man that tried to kill them and she had dedicated hours digging into the life of.

There was still that part of her tugging her back though, making her hesitate. A part of her that realized she was crossing a line from being a disconnected observer, to being an active participant in the darker side of Program fieldwork.

She turned her gaze to Donnelley, her brow furrowing as she asked, “Is...Is that okay?”

Donnelley opened his mouth, but the words first to his lips didn’t leave. He wanted to say ‘only if it’s okay with you,’ but he knew now more concretely than ever that the training wheels and handholding had to come off at some point. They’d faced down the evil in the world, true malevolence, just like he had a full five times in his life. “Go.” He nodded, tilting his head at the door. “Everybody.”

Laine held back, glancing at Donnelley, "I'm sure I'll get to see him soon, if we're questioning him."

The unspoken remainder of the sentence was a flash of her green eyes at the blood splatter on the cuff of his jeans.

Queen grinned with delight, then offered Ava his arm in a playful southern gentleman manner. "Do me the honor?"

Dave put a hand on Ava's shoulder and gave it a squeeze, a hard stare fixed on Queen. He was fully aware of the insult the man was paying him by acting like he wasn't even there.

"C'mon sugar, let's take a look at our boogeyman," he gave her a tight smile. "See he ain't all we built him up to be."

Ava looked up between the two men, sensing a note of tension in the air between the two of them. “Um, yeah, we can, all of us.” She said, smiling nervously up at them in hopes of diffusing the stress mounting.

She patted Dave’s hand on her shoulder and awkwardly hooked her arm with Queen’s.

Queen grinned, a flash of challenge in his seawater eyes towards Dave as he looked over Ava's head. "Wait til you hear how we finally got him," he said, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow. "It all started with a squeak toy."

Dave rolled his eyes but followed along, gripping his rifle tightly to keep from clenching his fists. Queen hadn’t been back ten minutes and Dave found himself inexplicably driven to punch the man. It wasn’t his usual MO, but it had been a real bastard of a night and his nerves were raw. He fell in behind Queen and Ava and briefly entertained himself with the mental image of his buttstock meeting the back of the raggedy bastard’s head.

Queen held Ava close as he chattered about the wild hunt, leaving out the more gruesome aspects. He joked about the scaring the guard dog after he fired. "I aimed just to the side, he tucked that stump tail and ran," he chuckled, then dusted over the death of Jay's mother, her role in giving up her son wrought from a mother's fear for his life. He lied easily, making a light adventure of what had been a grisly job.

The story concluded as they approached the car, he said with a more serious tone, "Then we found the..."

He hesitated, then released Ava's arm reluctantly as Ghost's close observation was not something he wanted. He held up a room card instead, "107 is our room, we should take our boy in there," Queen said, flipping the swipe card between his fingers with a well practiced gesture.

Ghost watched the trio approach, his reptile-eyes moving lazily from one to the other as he leaned against the car. He noted how cozy Queen seemed to be getting with the little redhead, and how the hick seemed to want to put a manure-shovel through his brain, and bit back a frustrated grumble. The sight of the keycard made him take a quick look around; he’d tossed his rifle in the trunk and put a light jacket on over his flak. His pistol still rode at his thigh, but it was dark, and at a distance he figured people were less likely to notice it.

“You bring your friends to gawk at the animal?” Ghost said. “Doesn’t take this many people to walk a meth-head up some stairs.”

Ava shrunk back towards Dave, partially from Ghost’s words, but her eyes were glued to the car. Her heart was beating quicker as her stomach curled with anxiety. The entire walk from the hotel room she had only half listened to Queen as her mind focused on edging closer to that line.

She crossed her arms over her chest, her fingers digging into the thick fabric of the flannel sleeve. Avery stepped around her, seemingly ignoring Ghost save for a sidelong glance cast his way. He peered into the dark windows of the SUV and laid eyes on Jay. His lips pursed and he turned away, clearing his throat as he sided back up with Dave.

“Well, uh,” Avery scratched the back of his neck and looked around at his teammates standing around, “Let’s get him inside, I guess.”




With the absence of the rest of the team the air between Donnelley and Laine grew thick with a litany of unspoken things. A pregnant silence hung over Donnelley’s shoulders as he and Laine looked at each other, a recurring theme of tension and hotel rooms playing out yet again. He looked to the closed door and then nodded to Laine.

“I hope everything went well on your man hunt and there was no unavoidable deaths,” her voice had a higher pitch than normal, a razor of sarcasm under the concern. Laine hated the sound as it reminded her of her mother when she was about to launch into a passive aggressive diatribe.

She cleared her throat, speaking in a more even tone, "We can step inside the room next door, if you want."

Donnelley nodded, gesturing to the door in question, “No.” Donnelley said, one part of him not wanting to get up and the other part of him wanting it straight from Laine without any sort of waiting. “Just talk to me.”

Laine took a deep breath, her hands resting on her hips as she turned to him. The anger had been building since the flight from the Safehouse now looking at Donnelley, he became a focus for her fear and uncertainty.

"So, apparently the Russian intelligence knows we're here, despite changing our Safehouse location at the last minute," Laine walked around, pacing back and forth. "That thing...shit, Ava nearly clawed her eyes out, and Avery was damn near catatonic afterwards. Dave held it together, thankfully. Without his cool head you'd have more dead agents."

“I don’t blame them.” Donnelley said quietly, sighing as he leaned forward and rubbed at his face. He looked at Laine and cut to the chase, speaking the words into the dangerous space between them, “I’m sorry.”

The silence persisted like it always did with Laine. Tugging more and more out of him, “You did everything right, Laine. It wasn’t all Dave, I’m sure. You were there too.” He said consolingly, trying to bridge that gap again, mend the bridge, “You’re all alive, that’s what matters.”

Laine rolled her jaw, glancing aside. Damn him. She wanted to be angry, to rid that demon of fear and helplessness against the man who was responsible for them. “I was there, but I couldn’t look,” Laine said, turning back to him. “I’ve never been too afraid to witness but I was. I needed you there, we needed you. We’re not secret agents, we’re not fucking ghost busters or exorcists. We’re analysts, and Dave is just a civilian, a skilled one but...”

She dropped her hands, then looked at him in silence for a long moment, “You should have been there. Those men, your old team, could have found Jay, you didn’t need to go, did you?”

“I did. It’s our case, not theirs, and I needed to be in that position with them.” Donnelley tried to make his tone seem less matter of fact, but to him it was just valid. The truth. A hard pill, but he’d had to swallow several. “You know that. I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“Jason was there, he knows how to handle himself in that situation,” she said, “You went because that’s fun, that’s not sitting in a hotel and going over files with the nerds.”

Laine bit her tongue after it slipped out and she felt her face flush, resentment that had built up over the hours flooded out.

Donnelley pursed his lips, almost hurt by the accusation of abandoning his team to go party with his friends and kick a few doors in. “That’s my job, Laine. I do it for the Agency and I do it for the Program, that’s always been my job.” Donnelley sighed, sitting back in the chair and looking away from Laine, feeling the shell start to harden around not only her, but himself. “I ain’t gonna pretend like kickin’ doors hasn’t been what I’ve been doin’ my whole life.”

“But don’t you pretend like I don’t care a shit about you,” Donnelley stood, letting that hang in the air for a few moments before he continued, “Like I don’t care about everybody on this team. I already lost two people. One’s in fuckin’ therapy for I don’t know how long and the other two ain’t ever comin’ back.”

“If you’re askin’ me if I regret not bein’ there during that, the whole thing at the safehouse, then yes. I almost lost you once already on the goddamn first day.” He said, sharing Laine’s glare, “But if you’re asking me if I think I’m too much of a hotshot cowboy that’s too high-speed for paperwork?”

“Don’t you fuckin’ insult me like that.” He said, slowly shaking his head, “I can’t be everywhere. Sooner or later, UMBRA is going to have to be able to work without me being over your shoulder. That’s the fact of it. I wasn’t there for Jason, I was there for oversight.”

“And I know for damn sure this ain’t all about me not doin’ any damn paperwork…” Donnelley sighed.

Laine tensed, wanting to fight, wanting to scream the tension out of her chest that had grown since Renko's appearance. "Of course it's not about damn paperwork, it's about Russians with interdementional evil guard dogs they can sic on anyone they want to get rid of and there is fuck all we can do about it."

She ran her hand through her short dark hair, leaving it partially ruffled and sticking out. "I can't help, I don't understand it even when it's right in my face. Ava, she almost clawed her eyes out because the thing projected itself or something into her mind moments before it materialized in the living room of the goddamn Safehouse. How do I help her? It's all in your head, kid? It's not and I don't..."

Her voice, already raspy with emotion, cracked. "Avery, the kid was in severe shock, I honestly am worried he might hurt himself because of what he saw. Dave said it was similar to what he saw in the mountains."

She crossed her arms tight under her chest, drawing inward, "I didn't see it. I refused the look, I was afraid. Donnelley, I was so fucking afraid to look."

Donnelley took a tentative step towards Laine, offering her a look of sympathy and understanding. She was right, they were new, and there are damn few people in the world that could stand a chance against whatever he saw on that ship with THUNDER and what they all saw in the Safehouse.

“I know.” He offered, stopping just in front of her with a hand reaching out, but stopping just short, “I know. You think I’m not scared everyday? I saw it too, and Jesus fuck, it scares the shit out of me every time I manage to go to sleep.”

Laine shook her head, "I've never been able to not face what I needed to, I've never been a coward unable to look into the darkness. But fuck, the darkness is looking back and it has teeth."

She looked up at him, meeting his gaze then said softly, "Goddamnit, I wanted to be angry at you. I want to blame you for not being there and it's not fair. I'm sorry."

Laine let her hands slip, rubbing her arms as if suddenly cold. "I shouldn't put it on you that burden. I know you already carry so much."

“I know, I wish I was there, Laine.” Donnelley nodded ever so slightly, keeping his eyes on Laine before he tried at a small smirk, “I’ll let you slap me, if you’d like.”

Laine pressed her lips together tight, this time trying not to smile, "Stop it. I want to be mad otherwise I'll curl up in a ball and cry."

His offer made her breath hitch, halfway between a laugh and a sob. She made to reach her hand back in an exaggerated wind up, but she checked her blow at the last moment. She let it land against the scarred side of his face, a firm caress rather than a slap. Laine cupped his cheek, not trusting herself to speak.

Donnelley went as far as to close his eyes and offer his jaw out, but was taken by surprise when her hand fell into a caress along the scar marring the side of his cheek. He opened his eyes and looked into Laine’s green gaze, the tension in the air turning lighter before he leaned forward and planted his lips on hers, savoring the moment.

She returned his kiss, closing her eyes and leaned into him, the tension in her shoulders starting to relax. Laine broke the kiss to take a breath, leaning her forehead to his. A dozen questions about Jay and Renko ran through her mind but she held back.

Her body now pressed against him, she murmured, "You always know how to disarm me. I was going to really tear into you."

“Yeah, I’m sure of that.” Donnelley chuckled and kissed her forehead, “I’m promising you that’s the last time any of you get caught up like that. I’m sorry.”

Laine sighed, pulling back enough to look at him. "You can't promise that."

A small teasing smile flickered on her face as she finished the statement, "Mr Donnelley."

“I can promise I’ll try to keep it.” He chuckled as she called him by his formal title, a sure way to get a rise out of him, “Don’t go temptin’ me now, I might not be able to resist those charms of yours, Doctor.”

Laine gave his cheek a pat, slipping her hand down to his shoulder, "Then I better not tempt you too much, the night isn't over yet."

Reality settled back around them and she let him go, reaching up to smooth her hair down. "How do you want to proceed?"

“You lead with Jason. I’ll be there, but I think the fact I beat his ass wouldn’t be the best rapport to go off of.” Donnelley frowned and shrugged, “‘Less that’s too crazy an idea.”

"Probably not," she agreed, then gave him a coy smile, "Look at you, not going to the power drill right away."

She sat on the end of a bed, looking up at him, "Do we even try pretending anything is official, like his Miranda or is that already not an option?"

“We’ve been going under the official cover of being Feds after the Russians. Best we keep it that way, I want him to have some hope he’s getting out of this.” Donnelley smirked, “I’m a merciful God.”

Laine smoothed the comforter under her hands, "Hope is what will get him to be honest. Because he's in a bad place, ratting out any mob is a death sentence let alone one that could send an assassin like the thing after Renko."

She glanced up at him, "I know you want revenge on Jay, I can't say that I wouldn't mind you giving him a few smacks but this is the best way."

“You trust me that I know when it’s time to stop playing games and put my nose to the grinder.” Donnelley nodded, placing his hands on his waist, “My guys in the Agency know, and some IS dudes in Guantanamo and shallow graves are proof. Jay’ll talk.”

Laine bit her lower lip and nodded, glancing away from him, "You certainly know how to do that."

Donnelley furrowed his brow and sighed, “I meant to say that you’re right. It’s not all like that.” He pursed his lips, sitting down next to her, “We’ll take our time, do things right.”

Laine looked at him, putting her hand over his with a squeeze of solidarity and something more personal.




>THIRTY MINUTES LATER...///

Jay sat alone in the hotel room, a lot nicer than the one they’d had him in near McMecken’s Run and the clubhouse. His mind flashed back there, wondering if Bobby or Candy were still alive, wondering if his mother was okay. Even her asshole boyfriend, Chuck. Fuckin’ Chuck. Fuck Chuck, he snorted at his own humor in the still air of the room before it got a lot more weighty with the sound of the door opening.

And who would be standing in the doorway and closing the door behind him than that fucking asshole Gorochev wanted him to kill. He should’ve just shot him on the porch of that cabin and been done with it...

Donnelley looked Jay up and down, still unimpressed with this hillbilly assassin crime-boss. Jay looked at him with that same bane in his eyes, like if he concentrated hard enough, Jay could do what Taliban, Chechen militia, ISIS, and a shitload of West Texas tweakers couldn’t. And so Donnelley donned that smirk he always had and made a few kissy-faces at Jay. “You ain’t scarin’ shit with that mean mug, boy.”

“Fuck you.” Jay growled.

“Mhm.” Donnelley chuckled, looking behind him as the door opened and shut again.

In the time it took to get Jay settled, Laine put herself together. Changing her jeans and t-shirt to slacks and a button down blouse, her hair now neat and glasses perched on her nose. She held a folder in her hand and stepped into the room.

She looked at Donnelley over Jay's head, then down at the man, "Mr Jackson Mitterick, aka Jay. Aka the man with attempted murder of federal agents charges among many others hanging over his head. Just a reminder, you have the right to remain silent but I would suggest that you talk to us."

Jay eyed Laine up, a smirk growing at the corners of his lips, before it vanished with the appearance of Donnelley’s firm hand on his shoulder, “Please talk, Jay.” Donnelley said, hand giving Jay’s shoulder a friendly squeeze, “We need what you know.”

“Please don’t. I’m bored. Gouging some answers out of you might be the only thing I get to do for a while.” Ghost’s harsh growl announced his presence as he exited the bathroom, pulling the door closed behind him. He’d shed his hoodie and armor, and wore only a white wifebeater with his tactical pants.

The pale fabric accentuated his tanned skin, and clung to the hard ridges of his hulking frame. The operator tanned regularly, in the sun when he could, in tanning beds when he had to. There was a bodybuilding maxim: the darker the tan, the bigger the man. It added definition to his vicious musculature, and he liked the way the pale scars that covered his body stood out. Many of those scars were visible now, divots and lines that told a violent story.

He walked to the other side of the room, passing between Laine and Jay to lean against the wall next to the door. Anybody coming in would be immediately faced with a very unhappy doorman.

“Me and Ghost’re gettin’ bored, man.” Donnelley said, looking at Ghost with a small smirk before patting Jay on the back of the head with a little more force than he needed. He sided up with Ghost and crossed his arms, “Whichever way this goes, Jay, we’re gettin’ answers. Please answer the nice lady’s questions.”

“Should I take my shirt off too?” He turned his head and mumbled to Ghost, a smirk barely hidden on his lips.

Ghost gave him a sideways look. “You’re too small, leave it on,” he grunted. “You wanna take your shirt off and be scary, start lifting with me.”

“Hell yeah,” Donnelley nodded, “Try to schedule in some sessions after my Hot Yoga.”

Laine watched Jay as the other men spoke, only allowing a brief moment to take in the detail of Ghost's muscular arms and shoulders as he passed her field of vision. She tapped the folder against her palm, then spoke to the prisoner.

"We need what you know about the Russians and about murdered girls in Blackriver," Laine continued, "Please understand, I'm here to help you but only if you help us. You're a liability for the Russians now and I think you know what that means, Jackson. Start from the beginning."

Holding the mic outward so it would pick up the voice of Jay, Laine started the recording. Jay nodded, knowing what would be coming to him if he didn’t do what Laine said. His eyes grew distant as he opened his mouth and let go of the things he remembered.




Donnelley rapped his knuckles on the door to the ladies’ room. Laine and Ghost were working Jay over, so he figured he was in good hands for the time being. The news about Ava concerned him, how she had taken the coming of the otherworldly beast the hardest, next to Avery. The younger man was next on his list. He waited for the door to open, mulling over how to or even if he should broach the subject of the Hound with Ava so soon.

A few moments ticked by before Ava opened the door, one of her hands tucked slightly behind her, her tired eyes peering up at Donnelley from behind her glasses. She managed to muster up a smile for him, the pink scratch marks on her face still visible against her pale skin. “Hi Donnelley, is everything alright?”

“Just peachy.” Donnelley have a smile that reached his own eyes, red from exhaustion as well, “I’m makin’ the rounds, wanna make sure all my best friends are alright.”

He hung about in the doorway, scratching the back of his hand, “Got a moment for me?”

“Of course.” She nodded, stepping back from the door and opening it wider so he could come inside. “I finished going through that stuff Queen sent me so I have some information for you.” She said, her hand moving forward from behind her back to reveal the pistol she had been hiding. She flipped the safety on as she turned to walk over to the small sitting area in the room. Just a small sofa that was tinged slightly yellow and looked more comfortable than it was, seated in front of a low coffee table with Ava’s laptop resting on top of it and a paper coffee cup.

Donnelley stepped inside, closing the door behind himself and eyed the gun. She was learning, getting used to how dangerous this life was for Working Groups in the field. He didn’t know if he liked that, but in the end, he didn’t like how most of the things in his life had went. He sat down on the edge of one of the beds, “Go on, what you got for me?”

“I have the names of three of Jay’s closer associates and was able to dig up their criminal records; all linked to the Aryan Brotherhood. Gary ‘Sly’ Bruster, Hubert ‘Clovers’ O’Grady, Clemence ‘Big Clem’ Jackson.” Ava said, sitting down on the couch and setting her handgun down on the coffee table. “Text messages gave me info on their personal lives, one of them has a son in Juvy and I’ve got addresses for each of them, but I don’t know how current they are.” She pulled one of the musty throw pillows into her lap and wrapped her arms loosely over it.

“And, I found something disturbing in the texts.” She added, looking over to him with a disquiet frown. “The Russian’s gave Jay and by extension Jay gave them, a group of ‘creepy’ children.”

Donnelley’s brow furrowed at Ava’s words, the image of the child sitting alone in that dark meth-house room. She had said children, so there was more than just her. “What did they say about the children?”

“Not much.” Ava answered, her frown deepening. “They didn’t even seem to know why they were given these kids. Just that they were from Jay and Jay got them from the Russian’s with no explanation. They didn’t sound like they wanted the kids either, there was talk about just turning them over to CPS, but they were afraid of retaliation from Jay. They also expressed being creeped or weirded out by the children, but they never specified what made them creepy. It seems like each of those associates were put in charge of at least one or more.”

She squeezed her arms tighter around the pillow. “Those poor kids.”

“I’ll keep an eye out for them. Get with Queen and have him track down those fuckin’ assholes.” Donnelley said, shaking his head slow as he rubbed his beard, “Maybe we’ll find those kids. Sound good?”

“I hope so.” Ava said, her brows knitting together in concern. “I’d hate to think of them going through what Maria did.” She said with a shudder crawling up her back.

“Yeah.” Donnelley nodded, eyes growing distant and the moment growing quiet. Remembering finding Maria for the first time. Learning her name and seeing her picture, getting to know her as she was… “How are you holding up, Ava?” He asked, almost trying too hard to move things away from Maria and the things done to her.

Ava glanced over to him at the question and then looked away, pulling the pillow tighter against her chest. “I’m...alright, I guess.” She answered, her voice growing quieter than usual. “I’m alive.”

Donnelley rolled his jaw and nodded in agreement, eyes focused but soft on Ava’s own, though she didn’t hold his gaze. Her eyes were distant, and the scratch marks were faded, the anger guttering but still smoldering pink. “You remember our conversation in the restaurant? When it was just you and me?”

“Yeah,” She breathed out, tearing her eyes away from the point in space she was staring at to look back over at him. “I do.” She tried to pull her lips into a ghost of a smile. “About not being alone, right?”

Donnelley added his own smile, hopibg to strengthen hers. He checked his watch and sucked his teeth, “Yeah.” He said, looking back at Ava, “It’s not just you that’s still alive. We all are, and come a few hours, there’ll be another sunrise for all of us to wake up to.”

“I don’t know about Agent Whoever that was supervising you in Logistics, but…” He chuckled, “If I say I got an open-door policy, you best believe I got one. You ever wanna talk, yell at me, discuss the plan… or, hell, just cry. I know I done a lot of it. Ain’t ashamed of it neither.”

He breathed a laugh at himself and scratched at his beard, “Point is, you can come to me. Or any of us.” He said, “Whatever you saw there, Ava, I’ll be standin’ my ground and grittin’ my teeth next to you if it shows up again.”

Ava grew quiet, her eyes dropping down as her smile faded. “Can...Can I talk to you about something? Right now?” She asked, lifting her eyes back up to his; a dark shadow creeping over her bright blue gaze.

Donnelley’s smile drooped a bit as he nodded, leaning forward and knitting his fingers together in front of him, noticing the trouble on Ava’s brow, “Anything.”

Ava took in a deep breath, her hands starting to tremble as they gripped onto the pillow. “I...I saw the Hound, before it came.” She said, her voice surprisingly steady even though there was a tremor in her hands. “And-and I don’t know what that means because it’s...not the first time.”

Donnelley’s brows furrowed just the slightest as he listened to Ava. This was the first time he’d ever heard of that from her, “It’s happened before this?”

“Kind of? I was asleep at the time but I think it counts.” She said, sniffing slightly as she blinked her eyes to keep back the tears that were gathering. “It was how I was recruited into the Program, back when I worked in the CIA. I had an...episode, where I had nightmares of…” She paused as her voice caught for a moment.

“I’m not goin’ to force you.” Donnelley said, clearing his throat and looking to the side for a moment, “Who knows about this?”

“Foster.” She answered immediately, rubbing her sleeve across her nose; then immediately looking down at it guiltily. “He’s, um, he said he told them to recruit me...because of the dreams.”

Donnelley leaned back and sighed hard, looking away from Ava. Foster knows, he thought, and nobody else but who he told about it. That included damn near everyone, and that included him. He nodded sharp at that, looking back at Ava, “Okay.” He said, letting the moment quiet down and unintentionally putting some weight between him and Ava, “If you need anything else, I’m always around. You have my number too.”

He smiled, levering himself up with his hands on his knees. He stretched his arms out to the side and dropped them at his hips, yawning, “I’m damn beat.” He chuckled, “Try to get some rest, okay? I know it’s hard, but…”

He shifted on his feet, “Maria still needs justice.”

“I know.” She nodded, looking down at her laptop. “...Do you know what it means?” She asked, looking back up at him, her eyes searching and hoping for answers. “Why I’m seeing these things?”

He looked back at Ava, sitting on the bed and alone. Her words reflected ones he’d heard years and years ago, a younger Donnelley giving the same answer, and just as helpful. A set of words he’d been saying more and more these days. He looked down at the ground and muttered almost helplessly, “I don’t know.”

He stood there for a few long, painful moments, wanting to do something. But there was nothing he could do for the wounds Ava had now. He swallowed hard, stepping towards her and sitting next to her as she stared down at the ground. “I’m sorry.” He said, letting those useless words dissipate on the stagnant air.

Ava’s lip trembled as she reached up and took off her glasses, rubbing at her eyes with the back of her hand. She opened her mouth to say something, before shutting it when the words got caught in her throat. She took in a deep breath and let herself lean against his arm.

Donnelley looked down at her, only able to see the top of her head, but knowing there was a procession of tears down her cheeks. He reached over her and gently placed his hand on her shoulder, “It’s okay,” he offered, “It’s okay.”

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>DAYS INN
>CLARKSBURG, WEST VIRGINIA
>JUL.21.2019
>0600...///

Another smoke cloud wafted by on the wind outside the Days Inn. The sky was not tinged with the pillars of black smoke, nor was there the thunder that the mines brought. Too close to civilization for that violence, miles between the dirty faces and black lung coal, and here. And even those long, tree-screened and green miles were not enough to put Donnelley at ease. And so he smoked, dropping a smoldering butt next to a couple others and grinding it down into the cement with a dirty heel of a shoed foot.

He heard the sound of the doors opening, but didn’t look to see who it was. The last few times he did, it was just tourists ready to get back on the road after a good night’s sleep.

It was Jason emerging from their room, eyes squinted to slits as he adjusted to the light. The glare teased a bright and sunny morning, and he hoped the wind brought an overcast to better fit this shit hole town. He took heavy steps joining Donnelley, taking a drag of a narrow e-cigarette and blowing a plume of soothing cannabis smoke out his nostrils. A hang over from a night of drugs lingered mostly in his head, a deep, dull ache he could only describe as head nausea.

He came up on Donnelley’s right, studying him, wondering when he ever slept. An elderly couple left their room across the parking lot, the opening and closing doors pulling Jason’s attention. The wife had a purple tinge to her silver hair, a style Jason was convinced compensated for a slow emergence of colorblindness from age. The husband looked like one of those winnebago types, striped polo shirt tucked into shorts, long socks and a ghillie hat over liver spotted scalp. The two of them a blissful, slow lurching from their narrow world to their last days. Jason imagined they thought travel could best fill that nagging dread, that any experience no matter how trivial could compensate for the growing realization they had wasted their lives. He stood there silently watching them slowly pack their car, not realizing the moment was stretching uncomfortably long.

“That girl,” he said, voice slightly raspy, “I want to check up on her, maybe get Laine to talk to her. Hold off a few days, you know?”

If they went to her now they would likely run into police, but after the initial reports and no one coming to claim her they wouldn’t be around. That is, if no one claimed her. Still, it was better to wait and let the potential intel slip away than raise any additional unwanted attention. Besides, she was a little girl and hadn’t said a thing to Jason. Except she had. One nagging phrase, the mere thought of it grabbing hold of his hangover and smearing it all over. His head began to throb.

Jason took a quick hit and offered the e-cigarette to Donnelley. “You alright?” he asked.

Donnelley was quiet for longer than he liked, mulling the question over. To anyone else, it would’ve been a simple matter, just a muttered ‘Yeah’ and a fake smile. But to Jason, to his team, that question carried weight. It mattered. Alright and not-alright in this job was less beaming versus moping and more mission-ready versus fingering the special bullet kept in your pack for that day that always comes.

But he wasn’t there yet. Fuck that, “Yeah, I’m good.” He said, looking at the vaporizer and then up Jason’s hand and arm to the man himself, “This shit is gettin’ weird, man.”

Donnelley waved off the vape and continued his vigilant stare off into the galaxy of his mind, meteors of doubt, looming planets of suspicion. “Ava had visions of that thing the others saw last night.” He cut himself off before he spilled any more than he had to without checking for people who could be listening for secrets. The Russians were everywhere, he had to assume. “Let’s talk in the car. I wanted to get everyone breakfast or somethin’.”

Jason wore cold worry on his face, watching Donnelley with sudden focus. He pocketed the e-cigarette and moved towards their SUV’s passenger side, giving one glance over his shoulder to their rooms. Visions. He could hardly discount them given the circumstances. Isn’t that what this all is, weird shit. What was weird was that he welcomed it. Anything, any glimpse to make sense of this small black hole they were all falling into, a hole borrowed into the earth, a hole with no bottom. And when Donnelley said what the other’s saw last night what exactly was that? Answers. Jason needed answers. He sat in the passenger seat and deflated into its padding with a sigh. Answers. It would keep him going, keep him focused.

As they pulled out he tapped the radio and found whatever fm station came first, the fiery sermon of a southern pastor ringing with righteous fervor. It reminded Jason of the deep south baptists he was happy to never predominately run into as a kid. They weren’t your charismatic Joel Osteens with their sharp tooth smiles.They wanted to scare and bully the faith into you. He turned it up to a distracting volume, one they’d have to talk over.

“What about Ava?” Jason asked.

-ain’t healed. You ain’t whole. Tell me, folks, when you go shopping at da grocery store do you see happy people? Do you see God glowin’ in them?

Donnelley pursed his lips at the choice of noise that Jason had chosen. He looked at the man and shook his head at the whole situation, “Ava had visions of what the Russian mob is callin’ the Hound. I’ve seen it before, workin’ with my old Group. What’s even more fucked is that she says it ain’t the first time she had visions.” Donnelley said, “She had them while she was contractin’ for the Agency. Said Foster picked her up and gave her a spot in the Program, but that was long before we met her.”

“I need to know what Foster said, who he told about her, and what Laine told Foster about what happened to them last night.” He frowned, a growl lost in the volume of whoever preacher man this was, “I get it, we like secrets and shit, bein’ all spooky. I don’t like it when I don’t know the secrets.”

“We need that girl too. Ava’s Intel said that the Russians gave her to Jay, along with some other children.” Donnelley said, “Maybe she knows where the rest are, or knows someone who does. She can verify if Jay feeds us bullshit.”

“We’d be lucky to get anything out of her,” Jason said. He was rubbing his palm against the gruff of his cheek, the rasping sound of stumble against skin buried in sermon. “The way she acted…”

Jason shook his head.

-be quelled. Psalms chapter nine, verse seventeen. ‘The wicked go down to the realm of the dead.’ and let me tell you, folks, that realm is real. It’s been coming up every day, little by -

“...iunno. Damaged. Near feral. When I looked her in the eyes it was like I wasn’t even seeing a person. We’d be lucky if she could remember her name.”

He nodded slowly, thinking as his eyes stared at the dashboard. He didn’t want to look outside, not with the sermon coming in over the surroundings of sagging, sad appalachian suburbia. “So we better get the girl as soon as we can,” he said. It didn’t matter if they’d draw attention. It was either them or the Russians, and he didn’t want to think about what they might do to a six year old loose end. “Problem is we don’t have a safehouse, do we? We can’t lay down in a fucking hotel for more than today, really.”

“We need to move like yesterday.” Donnelley nodded, almost mimicking Jason, scratching at his beard as he took full inventory of all the different mental boxes he shoved all his stress into, “Especially because we have that asshole sleepin’ in a bathtub in our room. Only a matter of time until some cleanin’ lady comes in and thinks we’re keepin’ him to fuck or somethin’.”

He snorted, a little bit of humor to lift his morning spirits. It was a weak flame though, as he looked out the windshield at the hotel and thought of poor Ava. That wind made it gutter. “Dave and Laine can do it. Pose as a couple and claim the girl if she ain’t been got already.” Donnelley sighed, rubbing at his tremoring, hungry stomach, “Let’s get breakfast and everyone briefed on the plans. After that, we’ll move and maybe I’ll put a call in for a place to lay our heads.”

Breakfast would be good, Jason thought. It hadn’t occurred to him until now how hungry he was, or at least his body was telling him he was hungry. Amphetamines diminished his appetite for days on end, and the coke would only make it worse. He’d have to force himself to eat for the next few days.

“Do we-,” he began to say, then paused. Baughman’s wife flashed in his mind. Her dead flesh wrapped around Heather. It undeniably proved some sort of background world. And then the books agent Baughman had been keeping. The Hound. The Three. Jason had no idea what the intrusion was, but it came in clear and demanding. The Three? He shook it off.

-you stagger. The shadows of the devil will reach out for you, yes they will. And you’ll be swallowed by sin and you won’t even know it. But the lord is waiting. He’s the ligh-

“Baughman,” he said, “the things he was reading about, whatever the Russians use or have or know about. Do we use it?”

He wouldn’t dare call it magic. Occultism? Was there anything to do or use that wasn’t blowing away whatever the hell came crawling? If there was, he wanted to know it. He wanted to stop firing in the dark.

Donnelley shook his head with a fervor, as if even uttering about its existence would bring back that Hound. “No.” he said through frowning lips as the SUV began its slow roll through the parking lot. Once he got to the edge of it, he stopped to let a family mosey by on the sidewalk, all smiles and ignorant happiness. Two men not ten feet away were talking about very real witchcraft and all they were thinking about was where the closest ice cream shop was. It’s what he fought for, Donnelley guessed, “The Program- we- search for and destroy that shit.”

The SUV lurched forward and he turned into their lane, following traffic towards wherever breakfast would be. “I’ve seen what it does.” He muttered, flashes of memory, the smell of blood and the curdled howling gurgling up from a beastly throat in the bowels of a Russian cathedral somewhere in Chechnya, “Nothin’ good.”

He slowly brought the SUV to a stop at a four-way and checked his mirrors. He set to looking side to side and scanning the streets as he spoke of the first thing that wasn’t about the sinking ship they were trying to bale out in West Virginia, “What’re you feelin’ for breakfast, man?”

“A foul mouthed girl with loose morals,” Jason said in a deadpan tone. He started scanning the roadside for some food. Everything seemed to be sit in diners or fast food chains that weren’t open. It didn’t really matter what he ate. But it was true what he said, he needed a little physical comfort. He wanted to leave someone sweaty and sore.

“Fuck man, I don’t know,” he added. “Something hearty. Maybe fried. So this Hound, what the fuck was it exactly?”

“Just,” Donnelley sighed and shrugged, no other word was as campfire spooky- or apt, “evil. Not the kind that blows up buildings for religion, but… like Satan.”

He breathed a chuckle, glancing at Jason before the SUV moved again and off they went, “Like the devil. I was told it could hunt you anywhere you go, appear anywhere, and it wouldn’t stop until it got you.” He remembered blowing Carlisle’s brains all over the inside of the ship, “Or somethin’ got you first.”

“Fried,” Donnelley nodded, “Some of that southern fried steak. Or some biscuits and gravy. Shit on a shingle.

“I could get down with all of that,” Jason said. Satanic evil. No, he thought, a true evil, not the christian boogey man evil. The only evil Jason saw was the root of it all. A whole world of people preying on each other. He thought of Ghazni. Operators turning on each other, firing on anything in sight. It wasn’t so much evil as it was chaos. Pandemonium. But it was there, the type of Donnelley was talking about now. Why was this force only for the wrong side’s use? Donnelley had to be wrong, there had to be some equivalent that didn’t drive you mad or twist you into something hollow.

“Maybe we need to change our SOPs,” Jason said. “We’ve been compromised twice. I call that a real fuck up waiting to happen.” Jason sighed. He felt an urge again, a quick, warm pulse centered on his groin. He need some release. “You ever rotated your bed down location? Hop safehouses every few days. We had an op along the Syrian coast after Assad pulled in the Russian mercenaries. They’d gun us down if they could, assaulted us a few times. So we started rotating our base every few days, keep them guessing.”

Jason saw a restaurant sign growing in the distance, a local diner advertising pick up orders. The preacher began another fire and brimstone tirade and he turned it off, sick of his verbal venom. He tapped Donnelley’s right shoulder and pointed to the sign. “There’s a place,” he said.

“We could go dark,” Jason added after a moment. “Keep contact with only one handler, centralize everything. Leave false safehouses, small traps.”

“Had to do that in Chechnya.” Donnelley left off the part where it didn’t work because of his fuck up in the mountainous roads to the target. Even so, Jason had a point, and it only made him frustrated with himself that he’d never thought of it until now. Too complacent, and in his and Jason’s line of work, complacency was death. “As far as going dark,” he shook his head, “Somebody back at the Office is going to want to know how and why a fuckin’ GRU Officer found our Workin’ Group and made contact.”

Made contact was putting it lightly. He had two agents suffering from severe stress and mental fatigue now, and two compromised safehouses. As a Team Lead for the first time, he was making a great case for his continued leadership. He turned the SUV into the parking lot of the tiny diner, slapping the big vehicle in park and shutting off the engine. “Counterintel is going to be pullin’ their fuckin’ hair out and rearin’ to fuck the first thing they can get their hands on for us makin’ them do their job. Tighten the leash and make it a noose if they have to.” He sucked his teeth and shoved his door open, his mood only darkening to a shade of black at the prospect of a windowless room and a recorder across from some double-chinned, balding suit, “Burn that bridge when we get to it.”

Jason followed, giving the surrounding tree choked hills a panning observation. How the hell could anyone be content for their entire lives here, he wondered. A nice place to pass through, sure, but in the little time was here it became an oppressive surrounding. He once hooked up with a woman outside Oakland that hiked the big routes across the country. Pacific coastline down to central America. Through the Appalachian trail. She could have come through here, but he couldn’t manage her staying for long. These people here only saw their reality from the boundary of the mountains. Might as well be on another fucking planet. The restaurant’s grimy glass paneled door opened with a jingling bell as Donnelley entered, and Jason was two steps behind him.




>DAYS INN
>0720...///

This was starting to become a routine, a recurring theme. Sleepy eyes all on him as they all waited on his word of what the day would hold for them. He waited for them all to settle, eyeing each of his team, and Avery. He may as well be part of their Working Group now, the young PsyOps Specialist seeing more than most ever would in the tiny span of a single night. A baptism of fire, and looking over at Ava, that fire still burned in the minds of all of them. Just some felt more of the heat. “Alright.” Donnelley finally said, “Here’s the situation. You know me by now, I don’t sugarcoat this shit. We got two safehouses that have been compromised, two team members KIA up in beautiful Appalachia, and we still don’t know who, how, or why Maria Vasquez was killed and skinned.”

“To continue our operation here in West Virginia, we’re going to have to make some changes. We can’t stay here today, and wherever we move to, we can’t stay there for long neither.” He put his hands on his hips, still dressed in the blue fitted jeans and Cro-Mags band tee that clashed with his voice of authority. “Furthermore, we have a source of potential intel floating around in the outside world. Last night, THUNDER and I found a child. Ava’s Intel posited that this child was given over to Jay and his AB by the Russians.”

“They may be sensitive to our work here and I don’t want the Russians to get to them before we do. The child’s last known is a hospital in Benwood,” Donnelley folded his arms, “Dave, Laine, I want you two to claim the child. I don’t care how, but we need her in our custody.”

“I’ll put in a call to Foster and see if he can’t leverage some assistance. Set up some safehouses we can use, as well as some dummies.” He said, “Expect Foster to contact us to follow up on our Russian friend as well. We may be recalled to Langley.”

“When the time comes, be truthful.” Donnelley sighed, “It’ll be done and over with quicker that way. We can get back to work faster too.”

“Questions?” He asked, eyebrow quirking, “Suggestions?”

Ava shook her head, the scratches nearly faded from her face, but the bags beneath her eyes seemed a little darker. She had forced herself to get some sleep, snagging short hour long naps whenever the exhaustion got to be too much. She didn’t dare sleep much longer, always setting an hour long timer when she dozed off. She was afraid of the nightmares that would come or the possibility of more visions she didn’t understand plaguing her sleep.

What terrified her the most was going to sleep in bed or on the couch and suddenly waking up, on her feet and in another place. She hoped that if she did have a sleepwalking episode, someone would be able to stop her, but a little nagging voice in the back of her mind asked; what if they didn’t?

Ava glanced up at Dave, sitting beside her on the small couch before her eyes shifted back over to Donnelley. She shook her head at the nagging little thought, pushing her glasses up to rub at her eyes. She needed to find a solution to her current bought of insomnia, it was starting to make her paranoid.

Ghost's rough voice spoke up first, from the back of the room. He wore his vest and rifle, and had noted with approval that the redneck Dave was too.

"Jay," he growled. "You want me to liquidate that asset, or are we still using him?"

Laine sat on the corner of one of the beds, a cup of coffee in hand. She listened intent and at the mention of the child looked up sharply at Donnelley. Her mind raced at his suggestion that Dave and she try to pick up a traumatized child from a hospital. As she considered a plan Ghost's voice cut through her thoughts.

She looked at him, frowning slightly, "I don't think you need to do that. Isn't he on probation, he could go back to prison?"

"Didn't we kidnap and torture him without a warrant?" Ghost shrugged, seemingly bored by the whole ordeal. "He's racist trash with a history of violence and ties to outlaw bikers, street crews, and organized crime. Nobody will blink if he winds up in a ditch with two in his face."

Laine sighed, "You have me there."

She shifted on the bed, hiding her expression behind the styrofoam cup as she drained the lukewarm coffee. After a moment she said, "About the girl, I think we'd have to go in as child protective services. They wouldn't just release a child suffering trauma, not even to the parents if they followed protocol. The police might even already be involved."

Laine turned to face Ava, noting the strain on her pale features. "Maybe you can get us some official looking paperwork."

“I probably can.” She answered, lowering her glasses back over her eyes. “I’ll look into it and see what I can do.” She frowned as she thought the situation over. “What if there are CPS agents already on the scene?”

Laine pressed her lips together, "I'd thought about that. I should just call the hospital and ask. Inquire about the girl's status and go from there."

She took out her phone to look up the hospital number as the others talked.

“Speakin’ of Jay, I’m goin’ to want to get the audio you had of him last night.” Donnelley said to Laine, “Whatever info he gave you, Queen and Ava can try to verify it through any of their sources.”

“I want a bead on those associates of Jay too. Either look them up or ask Jay about them. After we get set up with some houses, we’ll move Jay there and move on his fuck-up friends.” Donnelley uncrossed his arms, “I’m goin’ to go bother Foster unless anybody else has anythin’.”

Dave raised his hand. He'd been perched beside Ava, listening as best he could through his fatigue fog. He hadn't slept; the clothes he was wearing were the same things he'd had on when the Hound came for them, right down to the plate carrier.

"I uh… I know we're s'posed to get this kid, and bring her wherever we're goin', but...What if she needs... medical?" He cleared his throat and rubbed a hand wearily over his short-cropped beard. "What I mean is...Fuck, I dunno. How are we supposed to take care of a kid? We gonna send her somewhere, or keep her with us?"

Laine glanced up at Dave, then rubbed her eyes. "I can try talking to her but she will need to go to someone who specializes in children. Otherwise we watch out for her until that can be settled. I'm calling the hospital now. But I agree, it's a dangerous proposition but it's probably worse to leave her where the Russians can snatch her back."

She stepped aside to use the phone, going into the bathroom but left the door open.

“If she needs medical, then we have Jason for simple things. If she needs a team of doctors and psychologists, then,” She probably might, Donnelley thought, but only shrugged, “She’s been closer to the Russians than any of us have ever been. Unless they kept her in a cage outside, she might know something. She might be able to give us something so another girl isn’t put where she was.”

“I hate to say it,” Donnelley clucked his tongue, “Unless you got Nikolai Gorochev and his daughter on speed dial, Jay and this girl are the best we got.”

He pursed his lips, head inclining towards Dave and Ava, “Unless what Renko said about the MacOnie in Charleston holds up.” Donnelley looked between the two, “He didn’t leave his business card or anything, did he?”

Ava shook her head, leaning her head against her fist. “No, he said not to worry about talking to him, he will know where to find us.” She scowled. “If he’s somewhere close by watching us, I’m going to find that fucker.”

“If none of us clocked him before he wanted us to know he was there, something makes me think we aren’t anytime soon.” Donnelley sighed, though the look on Ava’s face that seemed so alien a mood to attribute to her made him continue, “You should try though. I don’t like being watched.”

Donnelley nodded to Dave, “You see him, you call it in. I’m not goin’ to wait on his ass to talk to me.”

Laine returned to the room, her own dark mood expressed in a down turning of her mouth. "The hospital wouldn't give anything up. They're actually doing their job protecting her privacy unfortunately for us."

She tucked her phone into her pocket, then turned her attention to Ava and Dave, "We need to get into that hospital. I think impersonation of a social worker might be our best shot. If you could dip into child protective services and find an ID template or custody paperwork of some kind. Or even if they have a record of the girl yet. I'm not sure about this spy stuff, but it's a start. I'm open to other suggestions."

“We need to maintain low-visibility. Goin’ in with CPS as your cover would be our best bet, but if we’re goin’ to do it, it needs to get done soon.” Donnelley said.

"I think I'll need to maybe change my appearance," Laine said, then blushed slightly, then added in a defensive tone, "Maybe just a different look, a wig...like spies do."

A hint of a smile touched her lips as she glanced at Donnelley, recalling his ginger hair dyed black. "Dave needs a nap and I'll pick him up some clothes a state plainclothes officer might wear. Ava, if you're able to get that information, it would really help."

“I’ll get on it.” Ava nodded, pushing herself up from the couch. “Anything else?” She asked, looking between Donnelley and Laine.

Donnelley shook his head, almost halfway out the door already with phone in-hand, “Not from me.”




This was always the part Donnelley hated. Come crawling back to Foster so he could ask his Handler for help, a beggar asking for handouts. Especially after the on-again-off-again head butting he did with Foster all the time. It seemed the two men were alike enough to get along, but also different enough to be at each other’s throats quite a bit. He hoped Foster would be able to set aside the differences. Donnelley knew that sometimes he himself wasn’t.

But the fact he was holding his phone in front of himself, paralyzed with the possibility of being left to the wolves, he felt about ready to kiss as much ass as he needed to. His thumb hung over the call button on his burner, right over Foster’s contact. Finally, he pressed it, and the dial-tone began. It didn’t last long, to Foster’s credit, “Donnelley?”

“Who else?” Donnelley answered, “Listen, I need you to do something.”

“What is it?” Foster asked, his tone sounding genuine enough.

“We need a new safehouse. Jason and I were talkin’, and I think we really should do what we did back in…” Donnelley paused, biting back the name of that fucking place. He knew that it would bring back memories not only for him, but Foster as well, “You know. That place.”

“Chechnya.” Foster said, sounding not the least bit perturbed by that cursed word, “I’ve thought about it too. It sounds really smart. Ingenious.”

The way Foster said it made Donnelley frown, “But…”

“I asked the Gods, Donnelley,” Foster sighed, “You can guess what my prayers were answered with.”

“Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me?” Donnelley un-balled a fist he didn’t realize he’d even made, took a long breath and blew it all out, “Of course. I understand.”

“I’m sorry, Donnelley.” Foster breathed, now sounding at least like he felt something about it, “With the way this case has turned out so far, we’re lucky they haven’t left us in the cold. I did my thing, you know.”

“Kneepads and sore jaw?” Donnelley attempted a smile to go along with the joke, but was unable. Shit fucking luck.

“Yeah,” Foster have a half-hearted chuckle, the defeat in his voice sounding like it was healing, but still there, “We’ll have to struggle on. They wanted results faster-“

“Faster!?” Donnelley fumed, balling the fist again and desperately searching for something to break, and desperately hoping he didn’t find anything, “Do those armchair investigators even fuckin’ know-“

“I know, Donnelley, I get it-“

“The fuck-“ Donnelley cut himself off, realizing he’d been shouting, then decided to take the conversation to one of the vehicles. He still had the keys to the Suburban from the breakfast run and he began a fast, angry pace to the driver side door, “The fuck you do.”

“You think I don’t?” Foster shot back, “You think I didn’t fucking mourn all of you back when I thought you’d died with Peake and Guzman in Chechnya?”

Donnelley heard Foster’s breath crackle in the phone’s earpiece, “I’m sorry-“

“You’d fucking better be! They were my friends, too, Donnelley. People that I’d known longer than some fucking functioning alcoholic Green Beret working through a fucking divorce.” Foster’s breath came on heavy until he spoke again, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“No, you shouldn’t have.” Donnelley rolled his jaw, eyes on the steering wheel, “I already lost two good people on this Op. We don’t want to lose any more, we need to go dark, set up dummy houses, everythin’.”

“I know we do. But The Office doesn’t see it that way. Allocating safehouses over to the Program from the Agency isn’t easy.” Foster sighed, the image of him shrugging along with that was vivid in Donnelley’s mind, “That first one was a privilege. The second one was a fucking favor. And after getting contacted by a GRU Officer? Counterintel already called me, they want all of you in front of a recorder in Langley.”

“Okay. When and where?” Donnelley said, expecting that already.

“No ‘fuck off, fuck you’ punk rock bullshit from Donnelley?” Foster said, not expecting that ever.

“I don’t have time for that shit. There’s girls gettin’ skinned, my team’s frayed. Maybe a little stay-cation at The Office’ll be good for them.” Donnelley shrugged.

“Twenty-fifth.” Foster said, “Maybe we can ask those pricks in Logistics for those resources in-person. They’ll think twice when they see Ghost.”




Another denial, another argument, another reminder about what he was- and still was, in some regards. Another cigarette. Donnelley flicked the butt of his cigarette into the parking lot and turned for the door, making his way inside the hallways and finding the rooms his team was in. He knocked on the women’s bunks, hoping Laine was still inside, waiting for her to open the door.

She was making a list of things to buy and locations in Clarksburg, subterfuge was nothing she was trained for yet a disguise Laine could manage. The knock made her pause and she tucked her phone away, going to the door cautiously.

Through the peephole she saw only Donnelley so opened the door. Laine looked him over then let him in.

Donnelley stepped inside and looked for Avery, not seeing him. Part of him wanted to, to know how he was holding up. It would kill him if he found out Avery was on a fast track to a self-ventilated skull in a bathtub. He shook himself from the thought and put his eyes on Laine’s, “I’m goin’ to need the recordin’.” He said, “Listen to what he said. I want to ask him about Renko, didn’t get a chance to before… you know.”

She went to her laptop case and pulled out a thumb drive, the novelty one Pari had given to Ava a couple days earlier.

"I downloaded it, just in case that's a copy," Laine said, then met his gaze when he mentioned Renko.

"Well, ask him," she said, "He's been cooperative, so far. I'm not sure if it's my interrogation or the presence of Ghost. He seems very scared of him even if he's not asking any questions. It's effective at least."

Laine paused and continued, "Ava's information noted Jay's group thought Renko was a pain in the ass, Renko had the Russians tag him with their hound but he knew exactly how to handle it, he even seemed calm. He knew where we are or can find us when he wants. He's possibly an ally, I think. Or maybe it's wishful thinking."

Donnelley nodded for Laine to play the audio from her laptop. He pursed his lips at the mention of just who this Renko was. He wished he could’ve been there, seen him, talked to him. It wasn’t every day that Donnelley got to take part in the real spy games. Kidnapping confirmed ISIS and snapping photos of suspected ISIS in the hopes of confirming they were ISIS so that they could kidnap them got boring after a while.

“Enemy of my enemy,” he said, finally, “There’s a reason the Russians want him dead. I want to know why.”

Laine opened her laptop and booted it up, loading the recording. Her own voice sounded from the speakers as she introduced the people present, except Ghost, and the questions began:

Laine: Please understand, I'm here to help you but only if you help us. You're a liability for the Russians now and I think you know what that means, Jackson. Start from the beginning.

Jay: I started workin’ with the Mexicans. I don’t know which ones, but they paid good and let me use my own dudes for running guns and drugs. Then the Russians came, you know. I’m a businessman, so obviously I gotta go where the money is… and not end up like some of the Mexicans who didn’t get out when they could.

Laine: Elaborate please, on what Nikolai and his men have you doing.

Jay: Same thing, pretty much. You know, look dangerous, be dangerous. We buy and steal guns, smuggle them in and sell them to the Russians. We used to sell them to anybody, but the Russians are where we get the most money from. Then… they, uh… made us smuggle other things too.



Girls.


Laine: Girls like Maria Vasquez, kidnapped and trafficked. Who was she sold to?"

Jay: She wasn’t yet. The Russians take American girls and send them to Europe, they take European girls and send them here. Sometimes, though, they don’t make it out of Blackriver. It happens to people sometimes, you know, I’m sure Frank Wilkins blabbed about them two hikers up in them hills.

Some of the guys were born around Blackriver, the ones who work for me, and they know ‘bout this place. ‘Bout the MacOnies and the O’Dhoules. Some say the MacOnies do witchcraft, believe that Civil War shit about the MacOnies massacrin’ the O’Dhoule men, rapin’ their women and takin’ their children to give to...

...to somethin’ out in the woods. They say the MacOnies took the women and children and hid them in the mines, that’s why the Marshals didn’t find anythin’ back then. I usually tell ‘em to shut the fuck up, but when I saw what happened to Maria… I just do what they fuckin’ tell me, okay?


Laine: (silence) Did Maria go to a MacOnie? Did the Russians make an arrangement with them for more than guns?

Jay: (breathing becomes heavier)...Bad things happen to women out here sometimes. Real fuckin’ bad, scary, creepy shit happens in them hills. Shit that makes me not wanna go back, ever. Some say shit like this didn’t happen until the Russians came and Sheriff MacOnie went away. Until after Dulane blew up them people.

Laine: (inaudible murmur) 'The Sleeper has been awakened.' Has anyone ever mentioned that? I've seen up close what they did to Maria, tell me the details of what you know for certain. Where did the Sheriff go?

Jay: Nobody knows. The Russians came, the Sheriff left. Time was, the Sheriff was in the pocket of the Mexicans, same as his County Prosecutor brother. Now the Russians are here, he’s gone. Usually the Russians would sick the Hound on people and show the aftermath off, but… it’s like he just fuckin’ disappeared. What you said about my Mama, she’s safe?

Laine: No word, no rumor or anything about Sheriff MacOnie. A man of his position in that county doesn't just vanish. Did the Russians say anything about their dealing with the law in Blackriver? (Pause) Your mother is...(inaudible murmur).

Donnelley: Safe. Keep talkin’.

Jay: Uh… Okay… Well, yeah. The Sheriff, people say he’s on vacation. Easier to manage that way, or somethin’. Park Rangers are under our… their wing too. Those lost hikers turned up and I told the Rangers to keep it hid, then Maria happened and… you know what happened after that..

Donnelley: Got a lot of your buddies killed? Yeah, I remember.

Jay: (Silence) How long y’all keepin’ me like this?

Donnelley: Long as you’d like us to. Tell us the truth, we’ll turn you over to State PD, see what they want. Maybe we’ll let you visit your Ma. Never see us again, partner. ‘Less you want to.

Jay: (Silence) Okay. I’d like some water, somethin’ to eat. What else you wanna know?

(Whispering, unintelligible. Door opens and closes.)

Laine:Other than meth, what sort of drugs is your crew trafficking, anything prescription?

Jay: Anythin’ we can get. The Russians couldn’t take over the coke routes, but we make up for it in meth. Some of the lower guys steal ‘scripts, move ‘em out in Charleston and the other cities. You’d have to ask them though, I ain’t in charge of the little guys, I run the big routes through Blackriver.

Laine: Midazolam and Propofol. Ever hear any your boys moving that and where?

Jay: I don’t know… upon request, maybe.

(Door opens and closes, rustling of plastic bags.)

Donnelley: Food. Water. He been good?

Laine: He's fine. He said he doesn't know who might been sold Midazolam and Propofol or Maria. Unfortunately.

Jay: I don’t run the little guys, but I… I know who does.

Donnelley: And…

Jay: Big Clem. Clemence Jackson, Hubert O’Grady too. People call him Clovers.

Donnelley: (Silence) Huh. You’re bein’ very forthcomin’, friendo. I hope you’re tellin’ is the truth with all this play nice shit, because Laine ain’t always goin’ to be around…

I’ll check with Ava, see if she can get anything on Big Clem and Clovers. Maybe give him a break, have Ghost watch him while he eats and get Queen to relieve Ghost in an hour.


(Door opens and closes.)

Laine: What do you know about the girl? The girl they found with your mother. Said the Russians have her to you but why?

Jay: (Shuffles in seat) I dunno, man. They just gave her to me and I put the girl with my Ma. The other one, I dunno… I really don’t.

Laine: What instructions did they give you? You sure don't seem to know much for being the big boss. I think you're holding out on me. So again, what was the child for?

Donnelley listened to Laine’s closing remarks on the audio recording and looked to the woman herself, his face still stuck in a thoughtful frown, lips drawn thin and brow slightly furrowed. ”The other one?”

[Hr]

Dave leaned against the wall and knocked listlessly at the door to the women’s hotel room. Since the briefing he’d snagged a shower and changed clothes, but despite his exhaustion he couldn’t make himself sleep. His mind, sluggish as it was, kept trudging in circles around the events of the past two days.

He grumbled and knocked again, hefting his duffle bag in his left hand. He’d tucked his holstered pistol into his waistband and covered it with an old Hank Jr. T-shirt, but he knew that popgun wasn’t enough. He didn’t want to walk around with his gear out, so instead he’d stuck his AK and armor into his bag, so he could snatch them up in a hurry.

“Hey, you in there sugar?” He called, then paused. She was probably asleep; God knew she had to be tired, too. He hesitated, then backed up, turning to head back to the men’s room and let her doze.

The door clicked open and Ava poked her head out, her hair wrapped in a towel. “Oh, hey Dave.” She said, her lips splitting into a tired, but happy smile when she laid eyes on him. “Is everything okay?” She asked, her expression sobering with concern as she glanced up and down the hallway.

“Oh yeah, everythin’s fine,” Dave said. “Just figured if you was workin’ maybe you’d like some company. I can’t manage to sleep. I ain’t much of a computer guy, but I hear I’m fun at parties.” He gave her a sleepy grin and shrugged his shoulder. “Plus it ain’t good for any of us to be alone right now.”

“No kidding.” She said, her smile returning. “I’d love your company, come on in.” She opened the door wider and walked away. She stopped by the bed, setting down her small G26 on the nightstand and picking up Dave’s green flannel. “Um, here, you probably want this back.” She said, turning to face him with the shirt in her hands.

He shrugged and smiled, closing the door behind him.

“You can hang onto it, case it gets cold,” he said as he threw the bolt. “I got a hundred of them things.”

“You sure?” She asked.

“Yeah, you’re good.” He put a brief hand on her shoulder as he passed by and dropped his bag on the bed nearest the door. He joined it a moment later, sitting down with a groan and a pop from either knee. “You got any sleep yet?”

“Just some power naps here and there.” Ava answered, tossing the flannel over the back of a chair. “I have to get working on the CPS stuff so I don’t think I’ll be getting any sleep for awhile.” She explained, reaching up to unwind the towel and letting her wet strands of hair fall down around her shoulders. “What about you Dave?” She asked, her expression turning concerned. “Have you gotten any sleep?”

“Nah, but I’m good,” He shrugged. “I figure I can’t need to sleep that bad or I woulda by now, right?”

“Well,” Ava frowned, draping the towel around her shoulders to dry portions of her hair, partially obscuring her shirt of two happy avocados surrounded by the words ‘let’s avo-cuddle’. “There gets a certain point where you’re up for too long and things get...weird. That’s why I’ve been forcing myself to nap.” She let the towel fall and looked Dave over worriedly. “You should try to sleep Dave, I know it’s...hard, after everything, but you should.”

“I know.” He gave her a reassuring smile. “I’m sure it’ll happen sooner or later. No sense tryin’ to force it, though. Tried that, and just laid there for 20 minutes starin’ at the wall.” He fought down a yawn despite his words.

“So uh...This CPS stuff. What’s the plan with all that?” Dave made a vague gesture towards her laptop.

“See if they’ve sent CPS agents to the hospital where the girl is.” Ava answered with a shrug, removing the towel and walking off to the bathroom to hang it up to dry. “If they haven’t, maybe find a way to get ahold of official paperwork so you and Laine can pose as CPS agents.”

Dave’s eyes were immediately drawn lower, and he watched with great interest as she walked to the bathroom in her grey yoga pants. “Right, that makes sense,” he said. “Kinda add to the disguise. Like with the badges.”

Ava re entered the room, placing her hands on her hips as she looked at him with a sigh and a smile. “Well, make yourself comfortable. I probably won’t be good for conversation, but the TV has some good channels so you can find something to watch.” She snapped her fingers. “Oh, have you seen Blue Planet? I think the BBC Channel just has that on loop.” She said, picking up the remote and turning on the television mounted on the wall before tossing it over to him.

Dave kicked back on the bed and began listlessly flipping channels, occasionally looking over at Ava as she worked on whatever tech-sorcery she was performing.

"So uh… How you holdin' up, sugar?"

Ava pressed her lips together and she took in a deep breath. “I’m...as okay as I could be.” She answered, her eyes fixated on her computer. “Just, processing still and figuring out what it all might mean.”

"Yeah, I feel ya," he watched her as they spoke, feeling the tension in her words. "That part of why you ain't sleepin'?"

“...Part of it.” She answered, her voice growing quiet. She cleared her throat and glanced over at him. “What about you? Why aren’t you sleeping?”

“Who, me? I don’t sleep, I’m a redneck war machine.” He gave her a crooked grin, then sighed. “That an’ I’m worried if I do, then the next time I wake up it’ll be face to face with that…Hound or whatever it is.”

Ava faced him fully, her brows furrowing as she felt her heart go out to him. He had pulled her away from the jaws of that monster when she had been too disoriented from her visions to do anything. He had been there for her when she was emotionally raw from the experience. He had done so much to help her, it pained her to see him likewise struggling.

She offered him a smile. “Well, I have work to do and I won’t be going anywhere and clearly, I get advanced notice when that thing comes around.” She motioned to him. “You can try and sleep here if you want? Think of me as your...paranormal early alert system.”

He chuckled, his gaze lighting briefly on the scratch marks still visible around her eyes. “Yeah, we’ll give that a shot,” he said. “Just wake me up if somethin’ happens. Or if you just wanna talk, or...Whatever.”

“Alright,” She nodded and picked up her cat plushie next to her to throw at him. “Now, go to sleep Mountain Man.”

Dave caught the plushie and grinned, tucking it under his arm. “Wake me in a few hours, I don’t need to be out all day,” he said through a yawn.

“I will wake you if anything requires your attention.” She promised him, waving her hand at him. “Sleep well Dave.”
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>DAYS INN
>CLARKSBURG, WEST VIRGINIA
>JUL.21.2019
>0600...///

Another smoke cloud wafted by on the wind outside the Days Inn. The sky was not tinged with the pillars of black smoke, nor was there the thunder that the mines brought. Too close to civilization for that violence, miles between the dirty faces and black lung coal, and here. And even those long, tree-screened and green miles were not enough to put Donnelley at ease. And so he smoked, dropping a smoldering butt next to a couple others and grinding it down into the cement with a dirty heel of a shoed foot.

He heard the sound of the doors opening, but didn’t look to see who it was. The last few times he did, it was just tourists ready to get back on the road after a good night’s sleep.

It was Jason emerging from their room, eyes squinted to slits as he adjusted to the light. The glare teased a bright and sunny morning, and he hoped the wind brought an overcast to better fit this shit hole town. He took heavy steps joining Donnelley, taking a drag of a narrow e-cigarette and blowing a plume of soothing cannabis smoke out his nostrils. A hang over from a night of drugs lingered mostly in his head, a deep, dull ache he could only describe as head nausea.

He came up on Donnelley’s right, studying him, wondering when he ever slept. An elderly couple left their room across the parking lot, the opening and closing doors pulling Jason’s attention. The wife had a purple tinge to her silver hair, a style Jason was convinced compensated for a slow emergence of colorblindness from age. The husband looked like one of those winnebago types, striped polo shirt tucked into shorts, long socks and a ghillie hat over liver spotted scalp. The two of them a blissful, slow lurching from their narrow world to their last days. Jason imagined they thought travel could best fill that nagging dread, that any experience no matter how trivial could compensate for the growing realization they had wasted their lives. He stood there silently watching them slowly pack their car, not realizing the moment was stretching uncomfortably long.

“That girl,” he said, voice slightly raspy, “I want to check up on her, maybe get Laine to talk to her. Hold off a few days, you know?”

If they went to her now they would likely run into police, but after the initial reports and no one coming to claim her they wouldn’t be around. That is, if no one claimed her. Still, it was better to wait and let the potential intel slip away than raise any additional unwanted attention. Besides, she was a little girl and hadn’t said a thing to Jason. Except she had. One nagging phrase, the mere thought of it grabbing hold of his hangover and smearing it all over. His head began to throb.

Jason took a quick hit and offered the e-cigarette to Donnelley. “You alright?” he asked.

Donnelley was quiet for longer than he liked, mulling the question over. To anyone else, it would’ve been a simple matter, just a muttered ‘Yeah’ and a fake smile. But to Jason, to his team, that question carried weight. It mattered. Alright and not-alright in this job was less beaming versus moping and more mission-ready versus fingering the special bullet kept in your pack for that day that always comes.

But he wasn’t there yet. Fuck that, “Yeah, I’m good.” He said, looking at the vaporizer and then up Jason’s hand and arm to the man himself, “This shit is gettin’ weird, man.”

Donnelley waved off the vape and continued his vigilant stare off into the galaxy of his mind, meteors of doubt, looming planets of suspicion. “Ava had visions of that thing the others saw last night.” He cut himself off before he spilled any more than he had to without checking for people who could be listening for secrets. The Russians were everywhere, he had to assume. “Let’s talk in the car. I wanted to get everyone breakfast or somethin’.”

Jason wore cold worry on his face, watching Donnelley with sudden focus. He pocketed the e-cigarette and moved towards their SUV’s passenger side, giving one glance over his shoulder to their rooms. Visions. He could hardly discount them given the circumstances. Isn’t that what this all is, weird shit. What was weird was that he welcomed it. Anything, any glimpse to make sense of this small black hole they were all falling into, a hole borrowed into the earth, a hole with no bottom. And when Donnelley said what the other’s saw last night what exactly was that? Answers. Jason needed answers. He sat in the passenger seat and deflated into its padding with a sigh. Answers. It would keep him going, keep him focused.

As they pulled out he tapped the radio and found whatever fm station came first, the fiery sermon of a southern pastor ringing with righteous fervor. It reminded Jason of the deep south baptists he was happy to never predominately run into as a kid. They weren’t your charismatic Joel Osteens with their sharp tooth smiles.They wanted to scare and bully the faith into you. He turned it up to a distracting volume, one they’d have to talk over.

“What about Ava?” Jason asked.

-ain’t healed. You ain’t whole. Tell me, folks, when you go shopping at da grocery store do you see happy people? Do you see God glowin’ in them?

Donnelley pursed his lips at the choice of noise that Jason had chosen. He looked at the man and shook his head at the whole situation, “Ava had visions of what the Russian mob is callin’ the Hound. I’ve seen it before, workin’ with my old Group. What’s even more fucked is that she says it ain’t the first time she had visions.” Donnelley said, “She had them while she was contractin’ for the Agency. Said Foster picked her up and gave her a spot in the Program, but that was long before we met her.”

“I need to know what Foster said, who he told about her, and what Laine told Foster about what happened to them last night.” He frowned, a growl lost in the volume of whoever preacher man this was, “I get it, we like secrets and shit, bein’ all spooky. I don’t like it when I don’t know the secrets.”

“We need that girl too. Ava’s Intel said that the Russians gave her to Jay, along with some other children.” Donnelley said, “Maybe she knows where the rest are, or knows someone who does. She can verify if Jay feeds us bullshit.”

“We’d be lucky to get anything out of her,” Jason said. He was rubbing his palm against the gruff of his cheek, the rasping sound of stumble against skin buried in sermon. “The way she acted…”

Jason shook his head.

-be quelled. Psalms chapter nine, verse seventeen. ‘The wicked go down to the realm of the dead.’ and let me tell you, folks, that realm is real. It’s been coming up every day, little by -

“...iunno. Damaged. Near feral. When I looked her in the eyes it was like I wasn’t even seeing a person. We’d be lucky if she could remember her name.”

He nodded slowly, thinking as his eyes stared at the dashboard. He didn’t want to look outside, not with the sermon coming in over the surroundings of sagging, sad appalachian suburbia. “So we better get the girl as soon as we can,” he said. It didn’t matter if they’d draw attention. It was either them or the Russians, and he didn’t want to think about what they might do to a six year old loose end. “Problem is we don’t have a safehouse, do we? We can’t lay down in a fucking hotel for more than today, really.”

“We need to move like yesterday.” Donnelley nodded, almost mimicking Jason, scratching at his beard as he took full inventory of all the different mental boxes he shoved all his stress into, “Especially because we have that asshole sleepin’ in a bathtub in our room. Only a matter of time until some cleanin’ lady comes in and thinks we’re keepin’ him to fuck or somethin’.”

He snorted, a little bit of humor to lift his morning spirits. It was a weak flame though, as he looked out the windshield at the hotel and thought of poor Ava. That wind made it gutter. “Dave and Laine can do it. Pose as a couple and claim the girl if she ain’t been got already.” Donnelley sighed, rubbing at his tremoring, hungry stomach, “Let’s get breakfast and everyone briefed on the plans. After that, we’ll move and maybe I’ll put a call in for a place to lay our heads.”

Breakfast would be good, Jason thought. It hadn’t occurred to him until now how hungry he was, or at least his body was telling him he was hungry. Amphetamines diminished his appetite for days on end, and the coke would only make it worse. He’d have to force himself to eat for the next few days.

“Do we-,” he began to say, then paused. Baughman’s wife flashed in his mind. Her dead flesh wrapped around Heather. It undeniably proved some sort of background world. And then the books agent Baughman had been keeping. The Hound. The Three. Jason had no idea what the intrusion was, but it came in clear and demanding. The Three? He shook it off.

-you stagger. The shadows of the devil will reach out for you, yes they will. And you’ll be swallowed by sin and you won’t even know it. But the lord is waiting. He’s the ligh-

“Baughman,” he said, “the things he was reading about, whatever the Russians use or have or know about. Do we use it?”

He wouldn’t dare call it magic. Occultism? Was there anything to do or use that wasn’t blowing away whatever the hell came crawling? If there was, he wanted to know it. He wanted to stop firing in the dark.

Donnelley shook his head with a fervor, as if even uttering about its existence would bring back that Hound. “No.” he said through frowning lips as the SUV began its slow roll through the parking lot. Once he got to the edge of it, he stopped to let a family mosey by on the sidewalk, all smiles and ignorant happiness. Two men not ten feet away were talking about very real witchcraft and all they were thinking about was where the closest ice cream shop was. It’s what he fought for, Donnelley guessed, “The Program- we- search for and destroy that shit.”

The SUV lurched forward and he turned into their lane, following traffic towards wherever breakfast would be. “I’ve seen what it does.” He muttered, flashes of memory, the smell of blood and the curdled howling gurgling up from a beastly throat in the bowels of a Russian cathedral somewhere in Chechnya, “Nothin’ good.”

He slowly brought the SUV to a stop at a four-way and checked his mirrors. He set to looking side to side and scanning the streets as he spoke of the first thing that wasn’t about the sinking ship they were trying to bale out in West Virginia, “What’re you feelin’ for breakfast, man?”

“A foul mouthed girl with loose morals,” Jason said in a deadpan tone. He started scanning the roadside for some food. Everything seemed to be sit in diners or fast food chains that weren’t open. It didn’t really matter what he ate. But it was true what he said, he needed a little physical comfort. He wanted to leave someone sweaty and sore.

“Fuck man, I don’t know,” he added. “Something hearty. Maybe fried. So this Hound, what the fuck was it exactly?”

“Just,” Donnelley sighed and shrugged, no other word was as campfire spooky- or apt, “evil. Not the kind that blows up buildings for religion, but… like Satan.”

He breathed a chuckle, glancing at Jason before the SUV moved again and off they went, “Like the devil. I was told it could hunt you anywhere you go, appear anywhere, and it wouldn’t stop until it got you.” He remembered blowing Carlisle’s brains all over the inside of the ship, “Or somethin’ got you first.”

“Fried,” Donnelley nodded, “Some of that southern fried steak. Or some biscuits and gravy. Shit on a shingle.

“I could get down with all of that,” Jason said. Satanic evil. No, he thought, a true evil, not the christian boogey man evil. The only evil Jason saw was the root of it all. A whole world of people preying on each other. He thought of Ghazni. Operators turning on each other, firing on anything in sight. It wasn’t so much evil as it was chaos. Pandemonium. But it was there, the type of Donnelley was talking about now. Why was this force only for the wrong side’s use? Donnelley had to be wrong, there had to be some equivalent that didn’t drive you mad or twist you into something hollow.

“Maybe we need to change our SOPs,” Jason said. “We’ve been compromised twice. I call that a real fuck up waiting to happen.” Jason sighed. He felt an urge again, a quick, warm pulse centered on his groin. He need some release. “You ever rotated your bed down location? Hop safehouses every few days. We had an op along the Syrian coast after Assad pulled in the Russian mercenaries. They’d gun us down if they could, assaulted us a few times. So we started rotating our base every few days, keep them guessing.”

Jason saw a restaurant sign growing in the distance, a local diner advertising pick up orders. The preacher began another fire and brimstone tirade and he turned it off, sick of his verbal venom. He tapped Donnelley’s right shoulder and pointed to the sign. “There’s a place,” he said.

“We could go dark,” Jason added after a moment. “Keep contact with only one handler, centralize everything. Leave false safehouses, small traps.”

“Had to do that in Chechnya.” Donnelley left off the part where it didn’t work because of his fuck up in the mountainous roads to the target. Even so, Jason had a point, and it only made him frustrated with himself that he’d never thought of it until now. Too complacent, and in his and Jason’s line of work, complacency was death. “As far as going dark,” he shook his head, “Somebody back at the Office is going to want to know how and why a fuckin’ GRU Officer found our Workin’ Group and made contact.”

Made contact was putting it lightly. He had two agents suffering from severe stress and mental fatigue now, and two compromised safehouses. As a Team Lead for the first time, he was making a great case for his continued leadership. He turned the SUV into the parking lot of the tiny diner, slapping the big vehicle in park and shutting off the engine. “Counterintel is going to be pullin’ their fuckin’ hair out and rearin’ to fuck the first thing they can get their hands on for us makin’ them do their job. Tighten the leash and make it a noose if they have to.” He sucked his teeth and shoved his door open, his mood only darkening to a shade of black at the prospect of a windowless room and a recorder across from some double-chinned, balding suit, “Burn that bridge when we get to it.”

Jason followed, giving the surrounding tree choked hills a panning observation. How the hell could anyone be content for their entire lives here, he wondered. A nice place to pass through, sure, but in the little time was here it became an oppressive surrounding. He once hooked up with a woman outside Oakland that hiked the big routes across the country. Pacific coastline down to central America. Through the Appalachian trail. She could have come through here, but he couldn’t manage her staying for long. These people here only saw their reality from the boundary of the mountains. Might as well be on another fucking planet. The restaurant’s grimy glass paneled door opened with a jingling bell as Donnelley entered, and Jason was two steps behind him.




>DAYS INN
>0720...///

This was starting to become a routine, a recurring theme. Sleepy eyes all on him as they all waited on his word of what the day would hold for them. He waited for them all to settle, eyeing each of his team, and Avery. He may as well be part of their Working Group now, the young PsyOps Specialist seeing more than most ever would in the tiny span of a single night. A baptism of fire, and looking over at Ava, that fire still burned in the minds of all of them. Just some felt more of the heat. “Alright.” Donnelley finally said, “Here’s the situation. You know me by now, I don’t sugarcoat this shit. We got two safehouses that have been compromised, two team members KIA up in beautiful Appalachia, and we still don’t know who, how, or why Maria Vasquez was killed and skinned.”

“To continue our operation here in West Virginia, we’re going to have to make some changes. We can’t stay here today, and wherever we move to, we can’t stay there for long neither.” He put his hands on his hips, still dressed in the blue fitted jeans and Cro-Mags band tee that clashed with his voice of authority. “Furthermore, we have a source of potential intel floating around in the outside world. Last night, THUNDER and I found a child. Ava’s Intel posited that this child was given over to Jay and his AB by the Russians.”

“They may be sensitive to our work here and I don’t want the Russians to get to them before we do. The child’s last known is a hospital in Benwood,” Donnelley folded his arms, “Dave, Laine, I want you two to claim the child. I don’t care how, but we need her in our custody.”

“I’ll put in a call to Foster and see if he can’t leverage some assistance. Set up some safehouses we can use, as well as some dummies.” He said, “Expect Foster to contact us to follow up on our Russian friend as well. We may be recalled to Langley.”

“When the time comes, be truthful.” Donnelley sighed, “It’ll be done and over with quicker that way. We can get back to work faster too.”

“Questions?” He asked, eyebrow quirking, “Suggestions?”

Ava shook her head, the scratches nearly faded from her face, but the bags beneath her eyes seemed a little darker. She had forced herself to get some sleep, snagging short hour long naps whenever the exhaustion got to be too much. She didn’t dare sleep much longer, always setting an hour long timer when she dozed off. She was afraid of the nightmares that would come or the possibility of more visions she didn’t understand plaguing her sleep.

What terrified her the most was going to sleep in bed or on the couch and suddenly waking up, on her feet and in another place. She hoped that if she did have a sleepwalking episode, someone would be able to stop her, but a little nagging voice in the back of her mind asked; what if they didn’t?

Ava glanced up at Dave, sitting beside her on the small couch before her eyes shifted back over to Donnelley. She shook her head at the nagging little thought, pushing her glasses up to rub at her eyes. She needed to find a solution to her current bought of insomnia, it was starting to make her paranoid.

Ghost's rough voice spoke up first, from the back of the room. He wore his vest and rifle, and had noted with approval that the redneck Dave was too.

"Jay," he growled. "You want me to liquidate that asset, or are we still using him?"

Laine sat on the corner of one of the beds, a cup of coffee in hand. She listened intent and at the mention of the child looked up sharply at Donnelley. Her mind raced at his suggestion that Dave and she try to pick up a traumatized child from a hospital. As she considered a plan Ghost's voice cut through her thoughts.

She looked at him, frowning slightly, "I don't think you need to do that. Isn't he on probation, he could go back to prison?"

"Didn't we kidnap and torture him without a warrant?" Ghost shrugged, seemingly bored by the whole ordeal. "He's racist trash with a history of violence and ties to outlaw bikers, street crews, and organized crime. Nobody will blink if he winds up in a ditch with two in his face."

Laine sighed, "You have me there."

She shifted on the bed, hiding her expression behind the styrofoam cup as she drained the lukewarm coffee. After a moment she said, "About the girl, I think we'd have to go in as child protective services. They wouldn't just release a child suffering trauma, not even to the parents if they followed protocol. The police might even already be involved."

Laine turned to face Ava, noting the strain on her pale features. "Maybe you can get us some official looking paperwork."

“I probably can.” She answered, lowering her glasses back over her eyes. “I’ll look into it and see what I can do.” She frowned as she thought the situation over. “What if there are CPS agents already on the scene?”

Laine pressed her lips together, "I'd thought about that. I should just call the hospital and ask. Inquire about the girl's status and go from there."

She took out her phone to look up the hospital number as the others talked.

“Speakin’ of Jay, I’m goin’ to want to get the audio you had of him last night.” Donnelley said to Laine, “Whatever info he gave you, Queen and Ava can try to verify it through any of their sources.”

“I want a bead on those associates of Jay too. Either look them up or ask Jay about them. After we get set up with some houses, we’ll move Jay there and move on his fuck-up friends.” Donnelley uncrossed his arms, “I’m goin’ to go bother Foster unless anybody else has anythin’.”

Dave raised his hand. He'd been perched beside Ava, listening as best he could through his fatigue fog. He hadn't slept; the clothes he was wearing were the same things he'd had on when the Hound came for them, right down to the plate carrier.

"I uh… I know we're s'posed to get this kid, and bring her wherever we're goin', but...What if she needs... medical?" He cleared his throat and rubbed a hand wearily over his short-cropped beard. "What I mean is...Fuck, I dunno. How are we supposed to take care of a kid? We gonna send her somewhere, or keep her with us?"

Laine glanced up at Dave, then rubbed her eyes. "I can try talking to her but she will need to go to someone who specializes in children. Otherwise we watch out for her until that can be settled. I'm calling the hospital now. But I agree, it's a dangerous proposition but it's probably worse to leave her where the Russians can snatch her back."

She stepped aside to use the phone, going into the bathroom but left the door open.

“If she needs medical, then we have Jason for simple things. If she needs a team of doctors and psychologists, then,” She probably might, Donnelley thought, but only shrugged, “She’s been closer to the Russians than any of us have ever been. Unless they kept her in a cage outside, she might know something. She might be able to give us something so another girl isn’t put where she was.”

“I hate to say it,” Donnelley clucked his tongue, “Unless you got Nikolai Gorochev and his daughter on speed dial, Jay and this girl are the best we got.”

He pursed his lips, head inclining towards Dave and Ava, “Unless what Renko said about the MacOnie in Charleston holds up.” Donnelley looked between the two, “He didn’t leave his business card or anything, did he?”

Ava shook her head, leaning her head against her fist. “No, he said not to worry about talking to him, he will know where to find us.” She scowled. “If he’s somewhere close by watching us, I’m going to find that fucker.”

“If none of us clocked him before he wanted us to know he was there, something makes me think we aren’t anytime soon.” Donnelley sighed, though the look on Ava’s face that seemed so alien a mood to attribute to her made him continue, “You should try though. I don’t like being watched.”

Donnelley nodded to Dave, “You see him, you call it in. I’m not goin’ to wait on his ass to talk to me.”

Laine returned to the room, her own dark mood expressed in a down turning of her mouth. "The hospital wouldn't give anything up. They're actually doing their job protecting her privacy unfortunately for us."

She tucked her phone into her pocket, then turned her attention to Ava and Dave, "We need to get into that hospital. I think impersonation of a social worker might be our best shot. If you could dip into child protective services and find an ID template or custody paperwork of some kind. Or even if they have a record of the girl yet. I'm not sure about this spy stuff, but it's a start. I'm open to other suggestions."

“We need to maintain low-visibility. Goin’ in with CPS as your cover would be our best bet, but if we’re goin’ to do it, it needs to get done soon.” Donnelley said.

"I think I'll need to maybe change my appearance," Laine said, then blushed slightly, then added in a defensive tone, "Maybe just a different look, a wig...like spies do."

A hint of a smile touched her lips as she glanced at Donnelley, recalling his ginger hair dyed black. "Dave needs a nap and I'll pick him up some clothes a state plainclothes officer might wear. Ava, if you're able to get that information, it would really help."

“I’ll get on it.” Ava nodded, pushing herself up from the couch. “Anything else?” She asked, looking between Donnelley and Laine.

Donnelley shook his head, almost halfway out the door already with phone in-hand, “Not from me.”




This was always the part Donnelley hated. Come crawling back to Foster so he could ask his Handler for help, a beggar asking for handouts. Especially after the on-again-off-again head butting he did with Foster all the time. It seemed the two men were alike enough to get along, but also different enough to be at each other’s throats quite a bit. He hoped Foster would be able to set aside the differences. Donnelley knew that sometimes he himself wasn’t.

But the fact he was holding his phone in front of himself, paralyzed with the possibility of being left to the wolves, he felt about ready to kiss as much ass as he needed to. His thumb hung over the call button on his burner, right over Foster’s contact. Finally, he pressed it, and the dial-tone began. It didn’t last long, to Foster’s credit, “Donnelley?”

“Who else?” Donnelley answered, “Listen, I need you to do something.”

“What is it?” Foster asked, his tone sounding genuine enough.

“We need a new safehouse. Jason and I were talkin’, and I think we really should do what we did back in…” Donnelley paused, biting back the name of that fucking place. He knew that it would bring back memories not only for him, but Foster as well, “You know. That place.”

“Chechnya.” Foster said, sounding not the least bit perturbed by that cursed word, “I’ve thought about it too. It sounds really smart. Ingenious.”

The way Foster said it made Donnelley frown, “But…”

“I asked the Gods, Donnelley,” Foster sighed, “You can guess what my prayers were answered with.”

“Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me?” Donnelley un-balled a fist he didn’t realize he’d even made, took a long breath and blew it all out, “Of course. I understand.”

“I’m sorry, Donnelley.” Foster breathed, now sounding at least like he felt something about it, “With the way this case has turned out so far, we’re lucky they haven’t left us in the cold. I did my thing, you know.”

“Kneepads and sore jaw?” Donnelley attempted a smile to go along with the joke, but was unable. Shit fucking luck.

“Yeah,” Foster have a half-hearted chuckle, the defeat in his voice sounding like it was healing, but still there, “We’ll have to struggle on. They wanted results faster-“

“Faster!?” Donnelley fumed, balling the fist again and desperately searching for something to break, and desperately hoping he didn’t find anything, “Do those armchair investigators even fuckin’ know-“

“I know, Donnelley, I get it-“

“The fuck-“ Donnelley cut himself off, realizing he’d been shouting, then decided to take the conversation to one of the vehicles. He still had the keys to the Suburban from the breakfast run and he began a fast, angry pace to the driver side door, “The fuck you do.”

“You think I don’t?” Foster shot back, “You think I didn’t fucking mourn all of you back when I thought you’d died with Peake and Guzman in Chechnya?”

Donnelley heard Foster’s breath crackle in the phone’s earpiece, “I’m sorry-“

“You’d fucking better be! They were my friends, too, Donnelley. People that I’d known longer than some fucking functioning alcoholic Green Beret working through a fucking divorce.” Foster’s breath came on heavy until he spoke again, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“No, you shouldn’t have.” Donnelley rolled his jaw, eyes on the steering wheel, “I already lost two good people on this Op. We don’t want to lose any more, we need to go dark, set up dummy houses, everythin’.”

“I know we do. But The Office doesn’t see it that way. Allocating safehouses over to the Program from the Agency isn’t easy.” Foster sighed, the image of him shrugging along with that was vivid in Donnelley’s mind, “That first one was a privilege. The second one was a fucking favor. And after getting contacted by a GRU Officer? Counterintel already called me, they want all of you in front of a recorder in Langley.”

“Okay. When and where?” Donnelley said, expecting that already.

“No ‘fuck off, fuck you’ punk rock bullshit from Donnelley?” Foster said, not expecting that ever.

“I don’t have time for that shit. There’s girls gettin’ skinned, my team’s frayed. Maybe a little stay-cation at The Office’ll be good for them.” Donnelley shrugged.

“Twenty-fifth.” Foster said, “Maybe we can ask those pricks in Logistics for those resources in-person. They’ll think twice when they see Ghost.”




Another denial, another argument, another reminder about what he was- and still was, in some regards. Another cigarette. Donnelley flicked the butt of his cigarette into the parking lot and turned for the door, making his way inside the hallways and finding the rooms his team was in. He knocked on the women’s bunks, hoping Laine was still inside, waiting for her to open the door.

She was making a list of things to buy and locations in Clarksburg, subterfuge was nothing she was trained for yet a disguise Laine could manage. The knock made her pause and she tucked her phone away, going to the door cautiously.

Through the peephole she saw only Donnelley so opened the door. Laine looked him over then let him in.

Donnelley stepped inside and looked for Avery, not seeing him. Part of him wanted to, to know how he was holding up. It would kill him if he found out Avery was on a fast track to a self-ventilated skull in a bathtub. He shook himself from the thought and put his eyes on Laine’s, “I’m goin’ to need the recordin’.” He said, “Listen to what he said. I want to ask him about Renko, didn’t get a chance to before… you know.”

She went to her laptop case and pulled out a thumb drive, the novelty one Pari had given to Ava a couple days earlier.

"I downloaded it, just in case that's a copy," Laine said, then met his gaze when he mentioned Renko.

"Well, ask him," she said, "He's been cooperative, so far. I'm not sure if it's my interrogation or the presence of Ghost. He seems very scared of him even if he's not asking any questions. It's effective at least."

Laine paused and continued, "Ava's information noted Jay's group thought Renko was a pain in the ass, Renko had the Russians tag him with their hound but he knew exactly how to handle it, he even seemed calm. He knew where we are or can find us when he wants. He's possibly an ally, I think. Or maybe it's wishful thinking."

Donnelley nodded for Laine to play the audio from her laptop. He pursed his lips at the mention of just who this Renko was. He wished he could’ve been there, seen him, talked to him. It wasn’t every day that Donnelley got to take part in the real spy games. Kidnapping confirmed ISIS and snapping photos of suspected ISIS in the hopes of confirming they were ISIS so that they could kidnap them got boring after a while.

“Enemy of my enemy,” he said, finally, “There’s a reason the Russians want him dead. I want to know why.”

Laine opened her laptop and booted it up, loading the recording. Her own voice sounded from the speakers as she introduced the people present, except Ghost, and the questions began:

Laine: Please understand, I'm here to help you but only if you help us. You're a liability for the Russians now and I think you know what that means, Jackson. Start from the beginning.

Jay: I started workin’ with the Mexicans. I don’t know which ones, but they paid good and let me use my own dudes for running guns and drugs. Then the Russians came, you know. I’m a businessman, so obviously I gotta go where the money is… and not end up like some of the Mexicans who didn’t get out when they could.

Laine: Elaborate please, on what Nikolai and his men have you doing.

Jay: Same thing, pretty much. You know, look dangerous, be dangerous. We buy and steal guns, smuggle them in and sell them to the Russians. We used to sell them to anybody, but the Russians are where we get the most money from. Then… they, uh… made us smuggle other things too.



Girls.


Laine: Girls like Maria Vasquez, kidnapped and trafficked. Who was she sold to?"

Jay: She wasn’t yet. The Russians take American girls and send them to Europe, they take European girls and send them here. Sometimes, though, they don’t make it out of Blackriver. It happens to people sometimes, you know, I’m sure Frank Wilkins blabbed about them two hikers up in them hills.

Some of the guys were born around Blackriver, the ones who work for me, and they know ‘bout this place. ‘Bout the MacOnies and the O’Dhoules. Some say the MacOnies do witchcraft, believe that Civil War shit about the MacOnies massacrin’ the O’Dhoule men, rapin’ their women and takin’ their children to give to...

...to somethin’ out in the woods. They say the MacOnies took the women and children and hid them in the mines, that’s why the Marshals didn’t find anythin’ back then. I usually tell ‘em to shut the fuck up, but when I saw what happened to Maria… I just do what they fuckin’ tell me, okay?


Laine: (silence) Did Maria go to a MacOnie? Did the Russians make an arrangement with them for more than guns?

Jay: (breathing becomes heavier)...Bad things happen to women out here sometimes. Real fuckin’ bad, scary, creepy shit happens in them hills. Shit that makes me not wanna go back, ever. Some say shit like this didn’t happen until the Russians came and Sheriff MacOnie went away. Until after Dulane blew up them people.

Laine: (inaudible murmur) 'The Sleeper has been awakened.' Has anyone ever mentioned that? I've seen up close what they did to Maria, tell me the details of what you know for certain. Where did the Sheriff go?

Jay: Nobody knows. The Russians came, the Sheriff left. Time was, the Sheriff was in the pocket of the Mexicans, same as his County Prosecutor brother. Now the Russians are here, he’s gone. Usually the Russians would sick the Hound on people and show the aftermath off, but… it’s like he just fuckin’ disappeared. What you said about my Mama, she’s safe?

Laine: No word, no rumor or anything about Sheriff MacOnie. A man of his position in that county doesn't just vanish. Did the Russians say anything about their dealing with the law in Blackriver? (Pause) Your mother is...(inaudible murmur).

Donnelley: Safe. Keep talkin’.

Jay: Uh… Okay… Well, yeah. The Sheriff, people say he’s on vacation. Easier to manage that way, or somethin’. Park Rangers are under our… their wing too. Those lost hikers turned up and I told the Rangers to keep it hid, then Maria happened and… you know what happened after that..

Donnelley: Got a lot of your buddies killed? Yeah, I remember.

Jay: (Silence) How long y’all keepin’ me like this?

Donnelley: Long as you’d like us to. Tell us the truth, we’ll turn you over to State PD, see what they want. Maybe we’ll let you visit your Ma. Never see us again, partner. ‘Less you want to.

Jay: (Silence) Okay. I’d like some water, somethin’ to eat. What else you wanna know?

(Whispering, unintelligible. Door opens and closes.)

Laine:Other than meth, what sort of drugs is your crew trafficking, anything prescription?

Jay: Anythin’ we can get. The Russians couldn’t take over the coke routes, but we make up for it in meth. Some of the lower guys steal ‘scripts, move ‘em out in Charleston and the other cities. You’d have to ask them though, I ain’t in charge of the little guys, I run the big routes through Blackriver.

Laine: Midazolam and Propofol. Ever hear any your boys moving that and where?

Jay: I don’t know… upon request, maybe.

(Door opens and closes, rustling of plastic bags.)

Donnelley: Food. Water. He been good?

Laine: He's fine. He said he doesn't know who might been sold Midazolam and Propofol or Maria. Unfortunately.

Jay: I don’t run the little guys, but I… I know who does.

Donnelley: And…

Jay: Big Clem. Clemence Jackson, Hubert O’Grady too. People call him Clovers.

Donnelley: (Silence) Huh. You’re bein’ very forthcomin’, friendo. I hope you’re tellin’ is the truth with all this play nice shit, because Laine ain’t always goin’ to be around…

I’ll check with Ava, see if she can get anything on Big Clem and Clovers. Maybe give him a break, have Ghost watch him while he eats and get Queen to relieve Ghost in an hour.


(Door opens and closes.)

Laine: What do you know about the girl? The girl they found with your mother. Said the Russians have her to you but why?

Jay: (Shuffles in seat) I dunno, man. They just gave her to me and I put the girl with my Ma. The other one, I dunno… I really don’t.

Laine: What instructions did they give you? You sure don't seem to know much for being the big boss. I think you're holding out on me. So again, what was the child for?

Jay: I ain’t in charge of the Russians, just my guys. I don’t know. They just gave them to me and… that’s it.

Donnelley listened to Laine’s closing remarks on the audio recording and looked to the woman herself, his face still stuck in a thoughtful frown, lips drawn thin and brow slightly furrowed. ”The other one?”

[Hr]

Dave leaned against the wall and knocked listlessly at the door to the women’s hotel room. Since the briefing he’d snagged a shower and changed clothes, but despite his exhaustion he couldn’t make himself sleep. His mind, sluggish as it was, kept trudging in circles around the events of the past two days.

He grumbled and knocked again, hefting his duffle bag in his left hand. He’d tucked his holstered pistol into his waistband and covered it with an old Hank Jr. T-shirt, but he knew that popgun wasn’t enough. He didn’t want to walk around with his gear out, so instead he’d stuck his AK and armor into his bag, so he could snatch them up in a hurry.

“Hey, you in there sugar?” He called, then paused. She was probably asleep; God knew she had to be tired, too. He hesitated, then backed up, turning to head back to the men’s room and let her doze.

The door clicked open and Ava poked her head out, her hair wrapped in a towel. “Oh, hey Dave.” She said, her lips splitting into a tired, but happy smile when she laid eyes on him. “Is everything okay?” She asked, her expression sobering with concern as she glanced up and down the hallway.

“Oh yeah, everythin’s fine,” Dave said. “Just figured if you was workin’ maybe you’d like some company. I can’t manage to sleep. I ain’t much of a computer guy, but I hear I’m fun at parties.” He gave her a sleepy grin and shrugged his shoulder. “Plus it ain’t good for any of us to be alone right now.”

“No kidding.” She said, her smile returning. “I’d love your company, come on in.” She opened the door wider and walked away. She stopped by the bed, setting down her small G26 on the nightstand and picking up Dave’s green flannel. “Um, here, you probably want this back.” She said, turning to face him with the shirt in her hands.

He shrugged and smiled, closing the door behind him.

“You can hang onto it, case it gets cold,” he said as he threw the bolt. “I got a hundred of them things.”

“You sure?” She asked.

“Yeah, you’re good.” He put a brief hand on her shoulder as he passed by and dropped his bag on the bed nearest the door. He joined it a moment later, sitting down with a groan and a pop from either knee. “You got any sleep yet?”

“Just some power naps here and there.” Ava answered, tossing the flannel over the back of a chair. “I have to get working on the CPS stuff so I don’t think I’ll be getting any sleep for awhile.” She explained, reaching up to unwind the towel and letting her wet strands of hair fall down around her shoulders. “What about you Dave?” She asked, her expression turning concerned. “Have you gotten any sleep?”

“Nah, but I’m good,” He shrugged. “I figure I can’t need to sleep that bad or I woulda by now, right?”

“Well,” Ava frowned, draping the towel around her shoulders to dry portions of her hair, partially obscuring her shirt of two happy avocados surrounded by the words ‘let’s avo-cuddle’. “There gets a certain point where you’re up for too long and things get...weird. That’s why I’ve been forcing myself to nap.” She let the towel fall and looked Dave over worriedly. “You should try to sleep Dave, I know it’s...hard, after everything, but you should.”

“I know.” He gave her a reassuring smile. “I’m sure it’ll happen sooner or later. No sense tryin’ to force it, though. Tried that, and just laid there for 20 minutes starin’ at the wall.” He fought down a yawn despite his words.

“So uh...This CPS stuff. What’s the plan with all that?” Dave made a vague gesture towards her laptop.

“See if they’ve sent CPS agents to the hospital where the girl is.” Ava answered with a shrug, removing the towel and walking off to the bathroom to hang it up to dry. “If they haven’t, maybe find a way to get ahold of official paperwork so you and Laine can pose as CPS agents.”

Dave’s eyes were immediately drawn lower, and he watched with great interest as she walked to the bathroom in her grey yoga pants. “Right, that makes sense,” he said. “Kinda add to the disguise. Like with the badges.”

Ava re entered the room, placing her hands on her hips as she looked at him with a sigh and a smile. “Well, make yourself comfortable. I probably won’t be good for conversation, but the TV has some good channels so you can find something to watch.” She snapped her fingers. “Oh, have you seen Blue Planet? I think the BBC Channel just has that on loop.” She said, picking up the remote and turning on the television mounted on the wall before tossing it over to him.

Dave kicked back on the bed and began listlessly flipping channels, occasionally looking over at Ava as she worked on whatever tech-sorcery she was performing.

"So uh… How you holdin' up, sugar?"

Ava pressed her lips together and she took in a deep breath. “I’m...as okay as I could be.” She answered, her eyes fixated on her computer. “Just, processing still and figuring out what it all might mean.”

"Yeah, I feel ya," he watched her as they spoke, feeling the tension in her words. "That part of why you ain't sleepin'?"

“...Part of it.” She answered, her voice growing quiet. She cleared her throat and glanced over at him. “What about you? Why aren’t you sleeping?”

“Who, me? I don’t sleep, I’m a redneck war machine.” He gave her a crooked grin, then sighed. “That an’ I’m worried if I do, then the next time I wake up it’ll be face to face with that…Hound or whatever it is.”

Ava faced him fully, her brows furrowing as she felt her heart go out to him. He had pulled her away from the jaws of that monster when she had been too disoriented from her visions to do anything. He had been there for her when she was emotionally raw from the experience. He had done so much to help her, it pained her to see him likewise struggling.

She offered him a smile. “Well, I have work to do and I won’t be going anywhere and clearly, I get advanced notice when that thing comes around.” She motioned to him. “You can try and sleep here if you want? Think of me as your...paranormal early alert system.”

He chuckled, his gaze lighting briefly on the scratch marks still visible around her eyes. “Yeah, we’ll give that a shot,” he said. “Just wake me up if somethin’ happens. Or if you just wanna talk, or...Whatever.”

“Alright,” She nodded and picked up her cat plushie next to her to throw at him. “Now, go to sleep Mountain Man.”

Dave caught the plushie and grinned, tucking it under his arm. “Wake me in a few hours, I don’t need to be out all day,” he said through a yawn.

“I will wake you if anything requires your attention.” She promised him, waving her hand at him. “Sleep well Dave.”
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>0630...///

Ava woke up screaming.

Her eyes snapped open and immediately she was assaulted with bright fluorescent lighting stabbing into her eyes. She shut her eyes reflexively, her breathing coming in heavy, sob filled gasps as her shaking hands slapped over her torso. She searched for injuries, for bloody tears in her flesh like the ones she witnessed in her nightmare.

She felt something tug at her hands as she tried to move them and was suddenly aware of a loud, shrill rapid beeping piercing into her ears.

What the fuck is going on!? Her mind screamed, her heart started beating faster than before and the beeping grew louder and more rapid.

At the sound of her struggling and screaming, a door burst open and curtains were ripped away to reveal a man bedecked in scrubs; blue pants and a floral pattern shirt. He had tired eyes that his hopefully calming smile tried to reach, but to no avail, “Calm, calm, it’s okay!” He cooed, glancing at her vitals, and satisfied nothing but the fright was getting to her, looked back at her, “Do you know where you are? What happened?”

Ava jerked at the voice and peeled open her eyes, squinting both from the lights and the absence of her glasses. “W-who are you? Where am I!?” She asked, her eyes adjusting enough to the lights that she could make out the scrubs he was wearing.

She looked away from him, her eyes frantically darting around the room to take in her blurred surroundings. It looked like she was in a hospital room, but why was she in the hospital?

Her mind started racing over the past evenings events, but the last thing she remembered was failing to get into the CPS database and then going to sleep.

“It’s okay, Miss, you’re in the hospital. You’re safe. I’m Tony, what’s your name?” He asked, stepping back so he wasn’t looming over her.

“Why am I in the hospital?” She asked, her breathing starting to slow but there was still a quickness to it born of fear and confusion.

“You were found wandering. No ID, no shoes, nothing.” He looked sorry, clearing his throat, he said, “A gentleman brought you in, but he left before you woke. Do you have anyone you can call?”

“Gentleman?” Ava asked, her breathing returning somewhat to normal but her heart felt like it was trying to fly out of her chest. “Yeah, yeah I have people to call.” She said, rubbing her hand over her sweat slick forehead. “What did the man that brought me in look like?”

“Five-ten, six-foot, maybe? Black hair, white guy.” Tony said, scratching his own dusky skin, he was just a head taller than Ava, “Kinda looked, I don’t know, sad. He seemed like he cared a lot, he was really worried. Never gave us a name though.”

“Did he have an accent?” Ava asked with a frown, her mind whirling. It sounded like...But it couldn’t have been.

Tony shook his head, eyeing her vitals again before continuing, “No.” he shrugged, “Not one from around here. West coast, far from here.”

Ava continued to frown as she processed the information and tried to keep herself calm. “Okay, uh, I need to make a phone call, but one last question. Did I do or say anything...unusual?”

“You were screaming. When we stabilized you, you kept talking about Tom. Was that the guy’s name?” Tony asked. “The one that brought you in?”

“I...don’t know.” Ava answered, a chill running up her spine as the name rang familiar. “Uh, can I get a phone and a pad of paper and a pencil? Also what hospital is this?”

As Tony pushed himself off the wall he was leaning on, he smoothed out his scrubs and spoke, “United Hospital Center.” He smiled, “I’ll go get a phone and some paper.”

He turned back to her before he left, eyebrow quirked and pursed lips, “You know, if you get the feeling like you might’ve known this guy… like he did something to you… we’re more than happy to contact the police or something.”

He tried to regain a more positive stance, “But I am glad that you’re alright. I’m sorry for the fright you had.”

“Thank you.” Ava smiled tiredly, trying to ignore the creeping sense of dread in her stomach as she pieced together what happened. “I don’t believe he did, I think he was just...a kind bystander that helped out a sleeping walking woman.”

Tony chuckled and nodded, “Me too.”




EARLIER...///

Donnelley woke up reaching for his gun.

There was frantic knocking at the door and he looked at the clock, barely six o’clock in the morning. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and grasped up the pistol on his nightstand. Still in his boxers, he put his eye to the peephole and saw Avery, looking up and down the hallway before he went back to beating the shit out of his door. He ripped it open and grabbed Avery by the shoulder, hauling him in stumbling. “Shit!”

“You wanna wake up the whole goddamn floor, son?” Donnelley jabbed his finger into Avery’s chest, to which the younger man stepped back and smoothed his shirt down, fixing Donnelley with an indignant eye.

“She’s fucking gone, dude.” Avery opened, and Donnelley was frozen in confusion.

“What?”

“Ava, she’s fucking gone, dude.” Avery swallowed, running a hand through his hair and swearing under his breath.

“Fuck.” Donnelley threw on a pair of pants and rushed out the door, tossing the handgun on his bed, Avery on his heels.

“I woke up the guys and the girls are already awake.” Avery said from behind Donnelley, paying half-attention as he pounded a fist on THUNDER’s room.

“Open the fuck up, Queen, Ghost.” Donnelley said, voice raised.

When the door opened, Queen stood with rumpled hair and a leopard print sleep mask shoved up on his forehead. His eyes sharpened as he saw the expressions on the men's faces and he stepped back, opening the door to let them in.

He stood in his black silk boxers, the full extent of his tattoos on display over his lean muscled chest and back. "Morning, boys. What's up?"

“Get dressed,” Donnelley spoke pointedly as he made his way in, before glancing down at his own naked torso, “Ava’s… missing.”

Queen's attention snapped up, clearing the sleepiness. "How the hell is she missing with that hillbilly helicopter hovering around her?"

While he joked dryly he was pulling on a pair of jeans and digging out a clean t-shirt. Queen sat on the bed to put his boots on, glancing at Donnelley.

Ghost dressed swiftly, layers of hard muscle disappearing beneath his usual “gray man” aesthetic. Cargo pants, navy blue shirt, hiking boots, and his gun. He pulled on a dark brown ball cap and stood.

“It’s not like you weren’t sniffing at her panties,” Ghost grunted. “Does she have a phone? Has anybody tried calling her yet?”

Queen only ticked his eyebrows up with a sly smirk as he tucked away the compact handgun and knife, concealed from view.

“She left it.” Avery spoke, a voice of defeat already that Donnelley wanted to shove out of the room.

“Meet up in the men’s room.” Donnelley left it at that, heading there quick as he could, but making a detour to put on a shirt and a pair of jeans, as well as to grab his gun. By the time he got to his destination, he saw both Dave and Jason fully dressed and nodded at their readiness. He knocked at the lady’s room, hearing the shuffling of the girls getting ready, “It’s Donnelley.” He said.

Laine yanked the door open, dressed comfortably in black leggings and a Blondie t-shirt. "I'm calling the hospitals," she said, moving out of their way and picking up her phone.

Dave joined Donnelley, his face creased with worry. He had a dip jammed in his lip and his hat pulled low over his sleep-tousled hair. “We gonna go lookin’, or what?” He asked. “What’s the plan? Should we start goin’ to hospitals?”

“We need to figure out what the fuck even happened,” Donnelley said, rubbing the wrinkles in his forehead, he turned to Laine and Pari, “You two didn’t notice Ava walk on out?”

Pari shook her head, “No. We were all asleep, the girl’s quiet.”

“Nobody noticed anything?” Donnelley growled. Pari said nothing, just got to work packing her things.

“I thought we were safe-“

“Obviously fuckin’ not.” Donnelley held a knife-hand in Avery’s face, sighing as he withdrew it, “Call Detective Roy, see if State PD has anythin’ on anybody who looks like Ava. Fuck it, call Dawant, I don’t give a shit. Check with the front desk to see why they didn’t fuckin’ ask what the hell was goin’ on, check cameras.”

Donnelley paused, rubbing a slow hand along his lengthening beard, “If they came through, why didn’t they spring Jay?”

Laine tapped her phone, "No one fitting her description at the Clarksburg hospital. I'll try the others. Anyone check with the front desk?"

She was already going to the door, her brow furrowed. Laine had shared a bed with Ava as Pari took the other in the motel room. A fist of guilt gripped her heart, she must have slept through whatever woke Ava and prompted her to leave the room.

Dave started at the mention of Jay and his goons, his work-weathered hands balling into iron-hard fists. Without a word he stormed down the hall, banging on THUNDER's door until the imposing figure of Ghost pulled it open with an annoyed glare.

"Jay," Dave snarled, pushing past the operator. His blood was boiling, handsome face twisted with rage and worry. He barged into the bathroom and snatched Jay by the throat, opening the conversation with a thunderous punch that flattened the Nazi's nose.

"Where the fuck did they take her?!"

Ghost quirked an eyebrow but said nothing, simply leaning against the bathroom door and watching the show.

“What the fuck are you talking about!?” Jay screamed back, his voice noticeably more nasally after the blood started pouring from it, “What the fuck!”

“Dave, stand the fuck down!” Donnelley’s voice came from the doorway, his hand held out in peace but his face stern, “You think they’d leave their boy? Leave him alive, at least? We keep shoutin’ somebody’s gonna come askin’, let that fuckin’ prick bitch go.”

Queen glanced at Ghost then shrugged, going over to Dave to try and separate him from the helpless Jay. "C'mon, listen to Tex," he said, grabbing Dave's upper arm to pull him away.

Dave snarled and shoved Queen away, but stopped himself from swinging. With visible effort he mastered himself, taking deep, slow breaths. Finally he turned back to Jay, pointing a blunt finger at him.

"If you're lyin' to me, I'm gonna kill you," he growled. "By Jesus, I swear it. I'll kill you with my bare hands."

Queen saw the violence flash in Dave's eyes and held his hands up though he kept himself in a defensive stance in case the Ozark boy had second thoughts.

“What the fuck, what the fuck, man…” Avery had a hand to his forehead and was looking between Dave and the door, just waiting for a cop to come strolling in.

Dave growled and pushed his way out of the room, storming back to his own quarters. Ghost watched him go, then shot a glance at Queen and Donnelley.

"Didn't think the hillbilly was a fighter," he said. "At least he can throw a punch."

Queen grabbed some toilet paper and wiped at the blood on Jay's face and examined the damage to the nose. Satisfied the man could breathe, he tossed the paper in the toilet and flushed.

"Oh yeah, hell of a right hook to the tied up guy," Queen replied, then turned to Tex. "Want us to drive around the neighborhood, maybe she just went for a walk or something."

Ghost snorted and rolled his eyes. "She probably just quit. But if we're going to panic, I guess we're going to panic. You're driving, Queen."

Donnelley put his hands on his hips, looking from the path of destruction that Dave left to Jay, and the river of blood cascading down his confused face, “Shotgun, I guess.”

[Hr]

Laine returned from the office, holding the phone to her ear as she spoke, "Yes, mid twenties, a lot of red hair, glasses. Caucasian, petite build. I think she was wearing a t-shirt, with a cartoon on it. Yes, I'll hold again."

She leaned against the wall just inside the door, folding her free hand under her other arm as she waited.

Across from her, Donnelley sat on the edge of the bed, watching Laine as she stared at the ground with the phone to her ear. He wondered just how and why this could happen. He’d made a promise to Ava that she’d never be alone, and he aimed to keep that. He held his phone in his hand and he looked down at it, no calls or texts from Ava still. He was worried. But nobody needed another person to be flying into panic like Dave and his fists.

“How many have you called?”

Laine looked up and said, "Two, the hospitals in Clarksburg and I'm calling the one closer to Bridgeport. I'm on hold."

She put her hand on her hip, huffing a sigh as the audible Muzak tinkled over the phone. Donnelley sighed, putting his cell away and looking at Laine, “I need to ask you about Ava.” He said, “About what she saw and what happened.”

Laine shook her head, "I don't know much, other than I saw her screaming and clawing at her eyes as we got into the salt circle but I'm pretty sure it was before it arrived, I think, but it was chaotic."

The hold music cycled once more as Laine continued, "Something came into the house, something big and...well, I closed my eyes after reading the word that Renko gave us."

“Try to think back if you can. Did she see it before or after?” Donnelley asked.

Laine closed her eyes, the line clicked but went back on the infinite loop of smooth jazz. She pictured the scene, of Dave ushering Pari and Ava to the salt circle. Just before the thing appeared.

"Before," she said, opening her eyes. "When Dave brought them out of the room she was screaming and scratching, he got her to stop but the panic was there. It was before. You might talk to Dave, he mentioned something about 'before', said he had a talk with her about what happened."

Donnelley nodded, slow as he looked away from Laine. From what Ava had told him, he knew it was true. Why Foster had taken personal interest in Ava was beyond him, perhaps just a way to protect an asset that could be valuable in the future. Stick her in a place no one would think to look- Logistics- and pluck her out when the time came.

When the time came… time for what? Donnelley sighed, he was getting in his own head, like Iraq. He gave Laine a small smile as he stood, “We’ll find her. She’s alright.” Donnelley nodded, trying to sound like he knew for a fact, “Thank you for talkin’ with me.”

He turned for the door and stopped just short, “Some of the boys and I are going for a ride, see if we can find her on a stroll, maybe. Just call me if you need anything.”

Laine nodded, meeting his gaze the gnawing fear she felt but refused to voice reflected in his eyes.

"Ma'am, you still holding?"

Laine almost dropped her phone at the interruption of the hold music. She tapped the speaker button and replied, "Yes, I'm here."

"Sorry for the wait, but we did have someone brought in that matches your sister's description."

"Is she okay? Can I talk to her?" Laine snapped at the morsel of information.

"I can't release any information," the nurse said then paused, "But she's awake."




>UNITED HOSPITAL CENTER
>CLARKSBURG, WV
>JUL.22?.2019
>0630...///

Tony knocked before he entered again, a cell phone and some printer paper in either hand. He wheeled the little desk over to Ava’s bed and placed both items down, along with a pencil he retrieved from one of his pockets, “Here.” Tony smiled, taking a seat on one of the chairs, “Phone’s mine, by the way. Need a phone book or...?”

“No thanks, I know the number.” She said, giving him the best smile she could muster. “I...I don’t suppose I can have some privacy during this call?” She asked, her voice hopeful.

“Oh, yeah. Sure.” Tony stood, and gave her another smile before he rounded the corner outside.

Ava watched him leave then picked up the phone to quickly dial Donnelley’s burner. “Please pick up. Please pick up.” She whispered to herself as she held the phone to her ear, her eyes darting to the doorway.

“Who is this?” Donnelley’s voice came quick and firm, not recognizing the number from the sparse contact list in his issued phone.

Ava felt some of her anxiety ease away hearing the familiar voice. “It’s me, Ava.” She said, her voice softening unintentionally as she felt emotion well in her chest. “I’m at United Hospital.”

“You’re at the hospital?” He asked, his voice equal parts confusion and relief, “We’ll be there. Are you hurt?”

“No, just freaked out.” Ava answered. “I‘ll tell you everything when you get here.”




>UHC, Clarksburg, WV
>0700...///

Donnelley had the door open even before the vehicle came to a full stop in the parking space, stepping out and heading straight for the front door. Once they’d gotten confirmation that Ava was here and that they knew her, they were given the directions to her room. At every moment on the way here, and peering around every corner of the hospital’s hallways, Donnelley was looking for anyone watching them. The possibility this may be a trap did not elude him, get the team out in the open and snap photos of them, get their identities.

But the long walk was uneventful. They made it to Ava’s room’s door and Donnelley gingerly opened it. He stepped inside and the sight of Ava seemingly unharmed lifted a weight from his shoulders, “God, you’re alright…” he smiled.

Ava straightened up in bed when the door opened, the sight of Donnelley’s familiar face making relief flood through her. “Hi.” She said, giving a weak smile as she waved to him. “I’m sorry.”

Dave had been tense since the morning began. From the beginning he had seen himself as a sort of protector; he couldn’t really hang with the tactical boys on equal footing, but he was hell in a gunfight and viciously protective of his friends. When Ava went missing, it had felt like a failure. He’d let his guard down, and the most vulnerable of their little family had vanished from under him.

He slipped past Donnelley and approached the bed, bending down to pull Ava into a firm hug.

“Thank God, I thought they had ya,” he said, squeezing her tightly. “Are ya alright? You okay? Not hurt or nothin’?”

Ava squeaked from the strength of the hug, her arms pinned to her sides but she lifted her hands up to pat and hug Dave back as best she could. “I’m okay.” She answered, her voice muffled by his shirt as the scent of cologne mixed the smell of earth and pine filled her nose. She relaxed a little more. “I’m sorry for scaring you all.”

Laine appeared beside Donnelley in the doorway, the worried furrow of her brows still visible. "You sure did, what happened?"

“I slept walked.” Ava answered, patting Dave to release her from the hug.

“Right into the hospital?” Donnelley asked, “Do you remember anythin’? At all?”

“I remember a horrifying nightmare with the Hound.” Ava said when Dave pulled away from the hug. “According to the hospital staff I was screaming and crying about ‘Tom’.” She shuddered feeling the terror and anxiety start to creep back but she tried to focus on getting everything out. “They said I was found wandering and that a man brought me in. He didn’t leave a name or anything, but I had my suspicions so I drew this.”

She pulled out a folded up piece of paper from behind her pillow and handed it over to Dave. “It’s Renko, I showed it to the nurses that saw him bring me in and they said it looked a lot like him.”

Laine crossed her arms, studying the picture from her vantage point then looked at Ava. "Who is Tom?"

Ava shrugged stiffly and shook her head, her expression paling. “It’s...from the nightmare.” She straightened up in the bed and looked at them all, pleadingly. “Can we leave?”

“Yeah, ‘course we can,” Dave tucked the picture in his pocket and gave Ava a gentle pat on the shoulder. “We’ll talk about all this later. Gonna get you outta here first.”

“Tom,” Donnelley said, eyes wide as he looked to Laine, “No…”

Donnelley swallowed hard, placing his hands on his hips and pacing the room before he left, gingerly letting it close behind him before making his way back to the vehicles. He’d assumed Tom had maintained contact with Foster, maybe he’d been on a case that was pressing or his Supervising Agent with the FBI was grilling him harder than Jason’s. He hadn’t been around for a while, though.




Donnelley rapped his foot on the concrete in mania, dragging hard off a cigarette and paranoid eyes scanning the parking lot with an anxious violence set in his shoulders. The ring in his earpiece trilled again before being cut off and replaced with Foster’s voice, “Donnelley.”

“Foster, Ava had another dream-“

“Get to Massachusetts.” Foster said, words quick, “As soon as fucking possible.
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>DAYS INN
>CLARKSBURG, WV
>24JUL2019
>1800...///

“Y’all got any smokes?”

Jay’s voice broke the silence of the card game, the only sound was the soft rhythms of the music being played at an almost imperceptible volume. Sounded like Motley Crüe, maybe, shit his dad listened to. His two roommates, or captors, had been in concentration over their hands. They took their gambling seriously, it seemed. Over the past day or so… had it been that long? He couldn’t remember. This room at this hotel had been his new reality for he didn’t know how long. At least they’d stopped beating him, as he’d learned being forward with information helped the punching stop. At least they’d taken off the cuffs since he’d learned not to try anything with Ghost’s watchful eye on him.

“Guys?” He tried again to get their attention.

Queen looked from his cards and thumbed over them, glancing over at Jay, "Whatcha do for one?"

A lazy feline grin crossed his face as he reached up to snatch the cigarette behind his ear and twirl it in his fingers. He put it between his own lips before reaching to snag the pack Kools from his vest pocket.

Jay sighed long and hard, breath moaning in his throat as he hid his face behind his hands. He muttered a swear and let his hands fall to the table, defeated. “I’ll tell you ‘bout them Rangers in the Forest.” He paused and after not receiving any reward he continued, “And that other Ranger, Billy, got killed in Charleston.”

Ghost perked up, pulling his eyes away from a decidedly mediocre hand and fixing that crocodile stare on Jay. The card game wasn't going in his favor, and it had been his idea in the first place; boredom was a virus. He had to keep his mind occupied, and even he could only work out so much before he got antsy.

"Keep talking," he said, his tone lazy. "Earn that smoke."

“Jesus,” Jay protested, sagging back in his chair and scowling, “Y’all wanna know my fuckin’ blood type and shit too? Favorite animal?”

Their eyes were still on him as they waited. After not getting any response, he shook his head, “Fine.” He whined, “Billy got killed after he made a call to somebody. You folks, maybe, I dunno. Next thing anyone knew, he’s dead. Wasn’t my people, Russians.”

“Nikolai’s guys. You know the ones, Bratva. They caught some other dude in Boston, don’t know how, but I heard the rumors.” He sniffled, rubbing at his nose, "Billy got killed because he talked too much. We tried to get Frank because he wanted to talk too much.”

“Your guy got killed in Boston because he knew too much.” Jay frowned, “You know, bein’ honest, I never wanted this. Momma said I should be a chemist.”

Ghost grunted. Bratva bored him. Back in the '90s they'd been bad motherfuckers, all former Spetznaz with nothing to do but kill for mob bosses if they wanted a real paycheck. Now all the Spetznaz had jumped on the contractor train, making their rubles in Syria and Chechnya, and the Bratva were left with untrained thugs with gold plated AK's and heroin addictions.

"Tell me about the forest," he said, looking back down at his cards. "What happened there?"

“What, with the girl? Fuck if I know, man.” Jay shrugged, “She was inherited by me and mine from the Sinaloa when they got kicked into the ditches. We handed her to Nikolai and she ain’t been seen since. ‘Cept for, you know. That time.”

“But yeah, man, Bratva been doin’ some weird shit. Talkin’ ‘bout London and Afghanistan. Callin’ each other comrade. It’s like, who the fuck you foolin’ with that commie shit?” Jay chuckled, “They say Nikolai is way older than he looks. Fought in Afghanistan for the Soviets, but he looks like he could be my older brother. Probably too much of that crocodile they’re smokin’ or whatever over there.”

Jay got a curious look on his face at that, tapping his finger on the table and staring hard at nothing in particular, “I think one’s got a tattoo- I mean they all do- but one’s got some kinda army tattoo. My buddy, Sly, he’s into that history and stuff and he pointed it out after we heard the rumors about Nikolai.” Jay sucked his teeth, “Buncha grown ass men playin’ pretend.”

He perked up, “I get a cigarette or what?”

Queen tapped out a cigarette and held out the green package for him to take. After he did, Queen flicked his bright colored Bic and lit his own cigarette before leaning over to offer the flame to Jay.

"Good boy," Queen cooed in an overly sweet tone. "You get a cookie. By the way, what's that tattoo look like before we get back to this hand?"

He sank back into the chair, dragging on the menthol and watching Jay from the smoke he blew out his nose.

“Got that, uh,” Jay took a long drag and savored it with closed eyes, and spoke while letting go of the smoke, “Got that hammer and sickle, the star, you know? And a parachute. VDV? Don’t know what it stands for, Sly might. You could talk to one of those dudes like you talked to me.”

Jay chuckled, but it pattered out as his humor hadn’t struck with the others, “Uh, yeah. You know, some got Marx, some got Stalin. Like I said, playin’ pretend. From what I seen, they’re trained. Better shooters than I got, and half of us got outta the Marines or the Army and came back here to shoot better.” He chuckled, “I mean, shit, Sly’s a Ranger.”

The mention of Soviet Airborne tattoos and trained shooters drew Ghost's attention, and he felt a flutter of excitement. Still, that would come. This was intel time.

"Tell me about Sly," Ghost said evenly. "Maybe you'll get another treat."

“Oh, fuck, man. He’s a friend, though…” Jay winced, then spoke again after a moment, “What do I get?”

Ghost gave him a level stare. "Queen. Is the pharmacy open?"

Queen stretched luxuriously, popping his spine and exposing the flat inked panes of his stomach as he reached his arms up. "You know I'm 24/7," he said around his cigarette, then dropped his arms turning his pale gaze to Jay. "What's your poison, honey?"

He dug into his pocket, dropping a plastic bag with other small Ziploc bags inside. He picked up one with a thick little chunk of meth and another with powder. "Or maybe you got script taste," he said, dropping those and picking up a bag of colorful pills and tabs. He rummaged through and took a couple of distinct orange Percocet and tossed them in his mouth, chasing them with a swallow of Cherry Coke.

“I like the real shit- er, no offense.” Jay smiled sheepishly at Queen, “China White?”

Queen's eyebrows arched and he leaned back, "Well, sheee-it. We got us Iggy fucking Pop right here."

He sniffed then a playful smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, "I might have something. Whatcha got for me?'

Jay puffed his cheeks out as he reached into his pocket and produced his phone. He set it on the table, slid it towards Queen and tapped the screen to life, the phone lighting up with a picture of Jay holding a little girl, both beaming at the camera, “Sly’s address is in there. His brother’s address, anyways. Dude’s homeless, floats from the clubhouse to his brother’s couch and anybody who’ll take his ass for a night or two.” Jay said, “He’s our muscle. Top gun, cool head in a shootout. Mean left.”

Queen glanced at the phone, then grinned, "Cute kid. I wonder if Maria's dad still has a picture like this on his phone or maybe whoever the fuck is looking for that girl we found at your place."

He looked at the phone and scrolled through it, clicking his teeth when he found the information. "Shame those girls got caught up with the likes of the Russians, yeah?"

Queen copied the information down and slid the phone back to Jay, meeting his gaze. Without looking over, he passed the paper they had been writing debts on to Ghost, Sly's information scrawled across the page.

Some of the life drained out of Jay’s face at that. He tried not to think about things like that, don’t bring the stress from work home, don’t be an absent father, don’t tell his little girl that he was a piece of shit. “Yeah.” He nodded, his eyes so heavy of a sudden, filled with shame, “Damn shame. You know, and I know this don’t mean shit, but I’m glad I’m helpin’ y’all.”

He looked at the two of them, letting his eyes fall back to the table, “But I know it don’t mean nothin’.”

Ghost looked over the paper, then stood.

"Wait on that treat," he said, looking at Queen, then at Jay. "I'm going to make a call. This checks out, you get your biscuit."

He left the room without another word, stepping into the hallway. A moment later he was on his pre-pay, the most recent number he'd memorized for Tex keyed in and ringing.

The other line picked up, Donnelley clearing his throat, “Jeff?”

Ghost grunted. "About that friend of ours. He gave me the contact info for his coworker. Says he can help us out. Guy's a little higher up the chain with their company."

“Oh, supervisor’s gonna be happy about that,” Donnelley’s telltale Texan was absent, and his voice was pitched down a tad, “I think it’s best we cut out the middle man and go straight for this higher-up. Let him off easy. Pressure’s on back at the Office, we’re under a crunch now. Do what you have to ASAP, the company wants you back soon.”

"Sounds good. I'll book a flight as soon as I wrap up this meeting." Ghost killed the call and pulled out an all-weather pen, scribbling a quick note across the top of the paper with Sly's info on it. Then he walked back into the room.

"It checks out," he said as he slipped back into his chair. He passed the note to Queen, the word HOTSHOT penciled neatly at the top. "Give him his cookie, we've got our new muster orders."

Queen glanced at it and then folded it, tucking it into his back pocket. He beckoned Jay with a tilt of his head, "That shit I don't carry in my pocket. I got some gear in my overnight bag."

He walked to the bed, rummaging in it and brought out a folded canvas pouch, the kind that used to hold wrenches and screwdrivers. Inside there was a tight wrapped bag of capped hypodermic needles and a scorch marked spoon.

Queen looked over at Ghost then at Jay.

"Let's get some privacy, I might wanna taste, too," he said, flashing a mischievous grin before opening the bathroom door.

He finished his cigarette, tossing it into the toilet before taking out the kit, laying it on the sink and removed a baggie of white powder, there was another of brown resinous looking material.

"When's the last time you got fixed up?" Queen asked, flicking the small bag of heroin with his fingers.

Jay’s eyes gleamed like a magpie’s at every movement of Queen’s, his eyes locked on the baggies he was working with. It couldn’t have been more pitiful if he was licking his lips and sweating, “I used to do it all the time when I was a small-timer. B-and-E’s, drug deals, whatever.” Jay said, an almost feverish tone in his voice, “You gonna help me? Been a bit.”

Queen nodded, casting a sidelong look at Jay, "Yeah, no problem. I'll let you go first, I'm a gentleman."

He set to work, heroin wasn't something he liked to fuck with but he'd tried it once or twice when undercover when it would have drawn suspicion not to. Queen took a strip of rubber tubing and snapped it tight before leaning in to help tie off Jay's arm above his elbow.

Queen stepped back and started up the cooking process. He added a little water from the tap to the spoon and mixed in a healthy dose of powder. Striking the high flame on his lighter, he put it under the small bowl and watched intently as it began to bubble.

His gaze cut over to Jay, watching the expression on the man's face. It never really left a person, that craving, that need for the warm embrace that the opiate would give. That rush that felt like the best orgasm of his life times a hundred.

Jay’s eyes kept an intent watch on Queen, almost hypnotized by the ritual of heroin. If Queen looked close enough, he could see the reflection of the tiny flame in Jay’s eyes. Any closer and he might see into his soul. A thousand little needles of doubt and regret stung at him, but it only made him hungrier for the embrace of the drug’s high. “I don’t want her to find out.” Jay said, face slack as he watched Queen, “Amber. That’s her name. The girl with me on my phone.”

“My sister would never let me see her again.” Jay mumbled the words, and his brows moving to come together was the only sign of his regret. “I don’t care what happens to me, but she’s the best thing in the world.”

As Queen drew out the plunger, filling the syringe with the China White that he had failed to mention was cut heavily with fentanyl. The dose was larger than even a seasoned junkie would dare shoot up, taken from a seizure near Tallahassee that had been responsible for a number of deaths.

"Well," Queen said, flicking the syringe and turning towards Jay. "We always hope kids will be better than us, right?"

He leaned over where Jay sat on the toilet lid and looked him over. Redneck trash. Not unlike himself in the eyes of most of this world. He made a quick gesture and waited for the man to hold out his arm.

The vein was there, popped bluish against Jay's pale skin unmarked by tattoos. Jay held his arm out, looking away from Queen and waiting for the sharpness of the needle. He felt the sting, and after a moment the rubber strap was snapped off his arm. He felt the tingle in his head and the droop in his eyes. He didn’t even realize he’d slumped down the toilet as he sighed.

Before long, he was starting to nod, a satisfied smile on his face as he’d lazily raise his bobbing head periodically. His breathing came slow, and slower, as time went on. Soon enough, his head stopped bobbing until all of him sagged. The last thing he had the energy to do was softly wretch before a thin stream of acidic vomit dribbled down his chin. Another wretch rolled his body off the side of the toilet and onto his back, his chest fighting for air as vomit pooled in his gurgling mouth for several minutes. His heel uselessly scraped against the floor, dreaming maybe, or futile animal throes. And then it stopped.

Queen watched him, reaching for another cigarette and lit up as Jay faded. When it was done, Queen checked for a pulse and found none. He sniffed and took a long drag, speaking to the dead man.

"So worried she'll find out you're a piece of shit, huh? Better worry little Amber doesn't pay for the sins of the uncle," he muttered, wiping down the sink and other places he had touched. He thought about the girl they found, malnourished and traumatized then glanced at Jay's still form. "Sleep well, asshole. They always figure it out anyway."

Queen stepped out of the bathroom and looked at Ghost and nodded, the loose end had been tied.

Ghost gave him his typical grunt, showing no more concern than if Queen had told him the weather forecast.

"Get packed," he said. He was already putting neat grunt-rolls into his bag. "Tex wants us. Clean up the cards, leave the gear. With his record they won't dig any deeper. Another scumbag who had an OD coming for years."




>CIA HEADQUARTERS
>SHOOTHOUSES, THE FARM
>LANGLEY, VIRGINIA
>14AUG2019
>1000...///

The weapons handling was tight, entries were getting quicker and more crisp. Target acquisition was better than a couple days ago. Spending time at the range and putting in work at the shoothouses had done Dave some good, it seemed. Likewise, the years hadn’t slowed Maui and Poker down a bit. They were every bit the operators they were when he’d first got to THUNDER. He wanted to join Dave this run, but he instead opted to join Ghost up in the catwalks, watching how the stress shoots and dry runs had benefited the mountain man.

Donnelley had his arms crossed as he watched Dave take point on a door. He’d look down at the thickness of his arms and broadness of his shoulders every once in a while. A couple weeks wasn’t much in terms of training, but two-a-days and supplements had helped along and gotten those hard-earned inches on his arms. The steadily growing operator beard made him look almost too different now. Maybe Ghost was rubbing off on him. He spoke to Ghost but kept watching, “How do you think he’s doin’ now?”

"Better," Ghost growled. He was back in Instructor Mode, his Oakleys glued to his face and his usual Gray Man attire supplemented by a blaze-orange plate carrier and whistle. "Smoother. Like he might actually get something done before he catches a sucking chest wound. You said he's stacked bodies with an injury? One to the shoulder?"

Donnelley nodded, watching intently as they entered the room and Maui put a quick triplet into a target, “Right through. Didn’t even notice until after it was over. Plate caught the other one.” Donnelley scratched at his chin, “Think we got three or four dudes before they decided we were too much trouble.”

Donnelley didn’t let how proud he was that UMBRA was making a better impression this time around now. It still had to be said that a shoothouse and a firefight were two very different things. All the same, train and train again made for a more successful fight. “Foster’s going to want to brief us soon. We should wrap it up.”

The big Operator nodded thoughtfully. Confirmation that Dave had fought on through an injury moved him up another couple of respect points. Ghost had seen men cave because of wounds; supposed hard-dick Delta killers who'd gone their whole career without a scratch could turn into crybabies the minute a round clipped their forearm and made shit too real for them.

Ghost himself had caught two in the guts on his first op, fought through the pain, and finished the mission providing overwatch. He'd died once in the bird and twice on the table, and still gotten his dick slapped for trying to train with a shit-bag strapped to his thigh.

He raised his whistle, blew three sharp blasts. "END-EX, END-EX, END-EX! CEASE FIRE, UNLOAD, SHOW CLEAR!" His gravelly roar cut the air as cleanly as the whistle had.

"I'll clear them out," he said, heading for the catwalk stairs.




>BRIEFING ROOM
>1100...///

Donnelley sat in his chair, UMBRA sitting across from THUNDER. Anyone who knew what was what knew that UMBRA was taking the lead, and THUNDER would do what they did best, hit pipes and squeeze triggers. Even sharing a room with them made Donnelley wistful for the days when life was so simple. No mysteries to solve, just heads to pop open with .300 Blackout, but as he looked to his people in UMBRA there was no doubt that he was in another stage of his life. Perhaps sorely needed.

The door opened and Foster entered with another face that would be familiar to Ghost and Queen as well. The Gray Man hung back behind Foster, not giving the rest in the room the time of day to even share glances as Foster set up the projector and his laptop. Donnelley felt his muscles tense as his killer’s eyes bore into the Gray Man. The knowledge he had, Donnelley had never understood. And what Donnelley didn’t understand never sat well with him.

“Nice to see you again.” Donnelley’s voice was hard and loud in the silence.

The Gray Man finally acknowledged Donnelley’s existence with a bored gaze and pursed lips. “Likewise.”

And that was all before he went back to pretending he and Foster were the only ones here. Finally, Foster stepped back as the projector splashed an aerial image of Blackriver County.

“Familiar place.” Foster said, folding his arms and nodding at the screen, “We’re taking Dulane back to the mines that he collapsed. I have a feeling those mines are where everything originated from here in Blackriver, long before Maria Vasquez and Gorochev.”

“Make no mistake, Maria Vasquez was a tragedy like every other girl lost there. But we’re the Program. We don’t deal with the symptoms, we deal with the cancer itself.” Foster leaned on his knuckles on the table, “And when we go in there, there’s going to be a lot of people who want to stop us from doing just that. We have NPS, Sheriff Department, Bratva, Aryan Brotherhood all gunning for us.”

“When we get out from Beckley and hit the border into Blackriver, expect every eye to be on us. We’re going to be making a lot of noise with this Dulane deal, somebody wanted him locked up forever and we’re dramatically fucking up everything they wanted.” Foster pointed to THUNDER, “THUNDER is going to be posing as US Marshal Service SOG charged with protecting Dulane in transit. The rest of us are FBI, same as always. State Police is kind enough to offer an escort up to, but not past, the border.”

“We’ll be on our own in Blackriver. UMBRA’s dress code for the day will be casual, pack armor and weapons. Two days’ rations, just in case.” Foster folded his arms, “No air support, no QRF. We pack light, probe deep, strike hard. Same shit, different day, ladies and gentlemen. Any questions?”

"Rules of engagement?"

It was Ghost, just like always. The big man liked parameters, especially when it came to who he was allowed to shoot. It helped prevent misunderstandings that might end with him having to endure an ass-chewing.

“Only fire unless fired upon. We don’t need to end up on the news.” Foster responded. “That said, high probability that we will face trained and experienced opposition from Gorochev. Any shooters not wearing a badge are to be neutralized with extreme prejudice.”

Ava watched the proceedings with bright eyes, her glasses gone from her face as shortly after they were released from custody; she had switched to contacts. It was strange to not feel the slight weight on her nose and tucked behind her ears. It took getting used to putting the contact lenses in, but once she did she found them surprisingly comfortable to wear.

The past few weeks also saw her getting some better sleep, some solid practice down at the shooting range with Dave or Donnelley when they could spare the time. It also saw the interesting development of Dave crashing on her couch, at her own suggestion. After her sleepwalking episode she was afraid to sleep alone and having Dave in the front room was a reassuring safety net that likely helped her sleep a little sounder. Though unexpectedly, it had led to a change in their relationship...

She tried not to stare too much at the new faces at the table, she had heard a little about them but hadn’t been formally introduced yet; the familiar anxiety of meeting new people making her hesitate to introduce herself.

She raised her hand slightly. “I have my drones, aerial and terran,” She said, lowering her hand back down to her lap. “Should I bring them?”

“High likelihood that we’ll need both. Go ahead.” Foster nodded.

Dave sat beside Ava, as dressed up as he ever got with his flannel tucked in and the sleeves neatly rolled. When Queen had entered he’d pulled his eyes away from the young redhead and given the man a cautious nod, working to keep his distaste from his face. His feelings about the man hadn’t changed, but he understood the basic concepts of professionalism, and now wasn’t the time to start talking shit. Instead he raised his hand.

“What about...That Hound or whatever? Do we have…” He trailed off, searching for the words, trying to find a way to say it without sounding foolish. Finally he sighed. “We got any magic, or voodoo, or whatever that fuckin’ Russian guy was doin’? Or a missile launcher, maybe? I know bullets just piss it off.”

At the question, Foster only quirked a brow and pushed off the table. He folded his arms and looked to the Gray Man, leaning against the wall in much the same posture. As he always did, he took his moment as if he enjoyed being the center of attention, and then spoke simply, “Me.” He left the single word out for everyone to understand or puzzle over, and then spoke again in case anyone took too long, “I specialize in… these types of things. Magic, or voodoo, or as you put it whatever that fucking Russian guy was doing.

“My name is Doctor Overman. I’m an adviser on matters such as this.” He finished, looking back at Foster.

Foster looked back to UMBRA and THUNDER in turn, “Anything else?”

Ava had several after a statement like that, but she didn’t get the sense they would be readily answered so she remained quiet to get on with the meeting. However, she eyed Overman with a mixture of shock, suspicion and a little curiosity. He didn’t look like much, like he would just blend into a crowd and vanish into the sea of obscurity, but given what he just said about his specialty...It leant an unsettling air to his demeanor.

Laine studied Overman but he was a picture of banality, his expression revealed little other than a certain smugness when he spoke, subtle but there. She raised her hand slightly, tugging back the sleeve of her fine black sweater. Laine peered at him over the black frame glasses, the ones she wore when she wanted to be taken more seriously. “Dr Laine, FBI. I do have a couple questions. Just what is the Hound and how do the Russians control it?”

“It’s something, ah, from the other side.” Overman piped up. “Not heaven, or hell. Inventions to keep primitive man in line and away from each other’s throats.”

Overman’s gaze didn’t falter from Laine’s, “It isn’t any more evil than a lion is to the zebra.” He shrugged, “And just like a lion, you can’t truly control it. Just lift the gate and let it run loose at the first scent you give to it. The Sinaloa, Renko. Tom.”

“But to lift that gate… to turn it back and make it retreat into that cage,” Overman’s brows rose, “You need someone like me. We’ll need to find who sent it and kill him.”

It was somehow reassuring that the Hound was not evil in the classical sense but a predator, something the Russians could not exactly control despite their knowledge on how to open it's cage and set it on prey. The way Overman had said it, an invention to control humans made her more curious.

"The other side, an invention to keep us in place," Laine repeated, making mental notes. She kept her gaze on the Gray Man, taking this rare chance to ask the questions that gnawed at her, "Just what or who invented it, this predator outside our reality? And how did you learn to open the cage?"

Overman had a look that wasn’t condescension or blank for the first time, a little smirk for someone to be asking the real questions, and eyes that told her that he didn’t have the answers for her, “No one knows.” He admitted, “No one knows anything about this world. Not really.”

Laine stayed quiet a moment, thinking over the admission. They were groping in the dark with a small tool kit, not unlike psychology sometimes but this wasn't just the mind it was a physical creation. But how it was manifested, how it became, troubled her. "It's real though, an actual creature, has anyone ever been able to take a sample? How was the ceremony to banish learned?"

She paused, there was a thought she wanted to express but it was something she thought rediculous and yet it seemed to fit the situation. "Dr Overman, have you considered this thing a creation of man, a tulpa? I know that sounds silly but what I read about them, I could see similarities."

Her fair skin blushed slightly and she could not look at anyone else, her green eyes now showing hesitation after saying it out loud.

Overman’s frown only deepened, “We, ah, humanity and the fair few of us graced with the knowledge of it… we know nothing of its nature. No one has seen its DNA, pinned some evolutionary standpoint.” He said, “A long time ago, the Al-Azif was written. And suppressed. Magic, some call it. Like the curious monkeys we are, we toy with it. And as Foster and Donnelley, and everyone in the Program can attest, you are the consequences for when that happens.”

“Humanity has barely mapped its own oceans. We can barely slip our bonds from earth to set foot on our own moon, and you’re asking me to teach a class on what lay beyond it, and even further beyond that.” Overman shook his head, “No one should have to know that, Miss Laine.”

Laine leaned back, partially relieved that her brief foray into paranormal mental powers was fruitless. The human mind was powerful in itself and to think it might be able to have actual physical power had led to a few sleepless nights after reading certain books. "Doctor," she said, whether correcting him or addressing him, it was unclear.

"The Al-Azif, this is where Renko and you got those magic words? The scarf found on Maria was said to have 'squiggly' writing on it, perhaps it was Arabic script. What if it was one of those things called to her?" Laine said, then closed her eyes briefly. It had been a work of man, to blame it on something else was reckless and yet, that black shard had been buried deep inside her.

“It wasn’t. She wouldn’t have been so… clean.” Overman said, having seen the damage the thing could do once. And once was enough. “Consolation, maybe.”

Laine nodded, then glanced down at her hands. For a moment she had hoped it was still people, even people with supernatural abilities that would be frightening if true. People she could figure out but this otherness bothered her. They were flying blind against a deadly intelligence with only a sort of expert with knowledge equivalent to flashing a light off and on in a deep cavern and catching glimpses of what lurked in the shadows. She took a deep breath, done with her questions and settled back to allow anyone else a crack at it.

“What’s our rides?” Donnelley asked after a moment of silence.

“The usual Not-a-Fed chariots,” Foster nodded, “GMC Yukons, black. Tinted. Armored.”

He pursed his lips and looked around once more, not hearing anything else from the crowd. “We’ll depart here at Zero Hour for Beckley. Make sure everything’s squared away before then, you’ve got plenty of time. I’m not grounding the mission because somebody forgot their phone.” Foster said, “Until then, consider this mission started as soon as you leave this room. Anyone outside of it is a potential leak. Working Group UMBRA and THUNDER answer only to me, we’re going dark. Don’t talk to anyone but the people in this room, that means even making calls to the misses and mom and dad.”

Foster tightened his folded arms and nodded at them all, “Good luck. Dismissed.”




>PROGRAM SAFEHOUSE
>UNDISCLOSED, VIRGINIA
>14AUG2019
>2300...///

Green Boxes. The secret safehouses and storage areas used by the Program to store anything a Working Group might need, often hidden in plain sight. It ranged from anything the size of a lockbox in a bank to a house in the middle of the woods. This one was more the latter, a tiny office in a warehouse rented out permanently by the black budget of the Program. It was around sundown that they’d set off from their respective places to converge when they got the text.

The night was black when the last of them arrived, and wordlessly they set to work prepping themselves in whatever way they felt was right. As usual, Donnelley was in a corner of the room that was designed as a meeting hall, the open space housing only white walls, grey carpet, and a long table on which plate carriers, duffel bags, rucksacks, magazines, and guns were splayed out like the world’s most armed board of directors were holding a meeting. He brass checked his Badger and FN handgun to the beat of Sodom’s Napalm in the Morning blaring in his headset, hardly paying attention to the others in the room.

Once he holstered his handgun in the thigh holster, he slipped the headphones off his ears and the sound of brass checks and buckles graced his ear. Music just as good. He hooked his thumbs into his plate carrier, Badger dangling from its single-point sling, “Everyone got everythin’ on the packin’ list? NODs, provisions, ammo, badges, smiles, good attitudes?”

There was the soft sound of a small whirring motor as a boxy drone, painted with a geometric camo pattern and sitting on four comically large heavily treaded tires, crawled around the room. Ava had taken the prep time to check the cameras and systems for both of her drones, more out of having something to do than out of actual necessity.

Returning to Blackriver was becoming all too familiar, including the feelings of constant dread, anxiety and cold sweat inducing terror. Maybe someday she would get used to it all.

For now, she destracted herself by driving her drone, affectionately named WALL-E, around the room like an RC car. She was also checking the tires through the sensors built in to them and playing around with the camera on her tablet, but mostly she was just amusing herself while still looking productive.

She grinned slightly as she drove the drone up to Donnelley, bumping his boot and looking up at him with the drone’s built in camera. “Smile, you’re on candid camera.” She joked.

Dave watched Ava with a grin as he went over his gear. In addition to his usual weapons, the table before him also contained a pack with several lumps of C-4 and the required accoutrements. A venture like this required more than Tannerite, diesel fuel, and fertilizer. He had swapped his flannel and jeans for something a little more official, drab clothing from the 5.11 Tactical line, but his “hat hat” was still firmly planted on his head, and the ring of a Copenhagen can was visible in his back pocket.

On the other side of the room, Ghost was meticulously checking his own gear. He’d joined up with the other members of THUNDER the moment they’d arrived, eagerly separating himself from the new meat of UMBRA. He was glad to be back among his own, with hardened killers he knew he could count on in a pinch, even if he had to play dress-up. His Here For The Violence patch had been replaced with a US MARSHALS tab, his usual hoodie and tactical pants traded in for a suit of Multicam. He’d drawn the line at standardizing his weapons, though; his .300BLK sat on the table in front of him, and he’d rather give up his left hand than the customized Glock 19 that had seen him through shit-holes on six of the world’s seven continents.

“Hey, Ma.” Donnelley waved at the camera and smiled before turning away from it, “Alright, we got an hour ‘fore we move out from here. Everyone check and re-check everythin’, anythin’ you’re fuzzy on, ask it now.”

“Jesus Christ,” Poker spat, “Gotta piss. I’ll be back.”

Maui chuckled that deep thunder from his chest he had and went back to loading his magazines. THUNDER had long ago caved to the pressure and decided it was too much trouble arguing with Ghost over cartridges. Queen still kept his uzi, but Poker and Maui had switched to .300BLK when they’d ran into an issue in Bangladesh concerning ammunition and an exceptionally exciting firefight. Tex and Ghost were the only ones who could keep firing at the thing.

“Still doin’ that?” Donnelley muttered to the gigantic Hawaiian that was Maui.

“Uh Huh. Hasn’t gotten worse, but it’s never been good, you know?” Maui smiled, before speaking more low, “Your guys. They ain’t shooters.”

“That’s not what we do, Maui. Got some solid dudes, though.” Donnelley patted Maui’s slab-like shoulder. “Contrary to popular belief, not everythin’ can be solved with a bullet.”

Donnelley stepped up to Dave, watching him work for a second before he spoke, “Locked n’ loaded, partner?”

"All ready, man." Dave gave him a smile that didn't quite hide his nerves. His gaze darted to the death-dealers in the corner, where Ghost was growling something about never having met a problem he couldn't shoot to death.

"I uh… I got them explosives," he gestured to his pack. "An' all my other shit. Guns and...stuff…" He trailed off, looking down at his gear again.

Donnelley laid a hand on Dave’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze when he noticed the mountain man was quieter than usual. “We’ll be out there together. We watched each other’s backs back at the cabin, we’ll do it again.” Donnelley inclined his head and rose his brows at Dave, a consoling little smile on his lips, “So. You got mine?”

“Always, man,” Dave nodded. “I’m with ya.”

Laine dressed in snug black tactical slacks and a dark blue Bureau polo over which she wore her vest and the FBI windbreaker laid beside her. Her fingers still ached from the times she fired her service weapon while using the Program’s facilities, trying to sharpen her skill. Twice she had to fire in a combat situation and was not as effective as she had liked to have been. The truth was Laine never enjoyed the tactical courses and her job rarely put her into a position to use her weapon now that she was an analyst. But she wasn’t just a profiler now and skill was needed, despite all the swinging dicks with guns around them, the enemy did not wait until they were well guarded. Renko proved that well enough. She still was not sure what to think of the mysterious Russian but trust was dear in this game.

Her thoughts turned to Dulane and the prickle on the back of her neck made her shiver. When they had interviewed him he was trying to tell them something but the man must live in constant fear, not just of the demons he saw but of those real men that would kill him to silence him. Let the world think he was a loon, she thought, but there was something other than madness there.

Laine glanced up at the others getting ready and asked, “So who is going to be my partner this time?”

“I’ll be your Mulder.” Donnelley smiled at Laine.

She smiled slightly back at him, "Alright, Spooky."

Laine laced up her boots and stood, feeling the tightness in her thighs and rear end, those squats had almost crippled her for a week. Her gun was in a holster at her waist now, the training at the courses with Donnelley and his old team had honed her small arm skills. She felt more confident drawing and firing, her target papers now shot through the center mass rather than scattered.

With the absence of questions, Donnelley placed his hands on his hips and surveyed the room. The last one he needed to check in on was Queen, his old friend. He sided up with him and watched him go over his uzi and his other gear.

“You up for this shit, mi cumpa?” He said with a smile that betrayed that younger man Tex was, in it for the adrenaline and nothing else.

Queen watched the UMBRA members with an expression of interest, moreso in how certain pants fit than their state of readiness. He dragged his gaze away from Laine's backside when he caught Tex approaching. Queen fiddled with the strap on his Uzi, returning the smile he recognized.

"When am I not up for action with you?" Queen grinned, resting his hand against the compact weapon. "You playing a Feeb should be fun to watch."

“Any last-minute tips, amigo?” Donnelley quirked a brow.

Queen sniffed and shrugged, then met Tex's gaze, "Keep it professional, polite, and above the locals. They expect it, big bad FBI comes swaggering in and they might resent it but they'd be disappointed if you were just another good ole boy. The prison boys got their expectations. As for Dulane, follow your gut with him. I don't know but what I've read in the files but he's a wild card and possibly a very useful one. Don't fake it with him."

“When have I not been professional and polite?” Donnelley smirked and turned to address the rest of the teams, Poker having gotten back from the bathroom.

Donnelley nodded at him, “Yall ready?”

“Roger.” Poker nodded back. “We’ll follow your lead, This is your guys’ show. We’ll be here if you need us.”

“Alright, let’s mount up now, ladies and gentlemen. The custody transfer is goin’ to take a bit and I want to get into Blackriver by early mornin’.” Donnelley rose his voice above the hubbub, “Let’s get to it.”




>BECKWITH PRISON, WV
>15AUG2019
>0100...///

The prison hadn’t changed since last time they’d been here. Still an old rundown piece of shit chock full of repeat offenders and potheads that got caught with one gram too many. They’d almost charged through the halls getting everything set to take Dulane out of the prison for his little field trip.

Laine waited with Donnelley, their FBI credentials clipped to their jackets. Despite the summer, it would not do for agents to arrive in just short sleeved polos. They were dressed for field work and the other members of their team had US Marshals badges visible. An impressive layout for the small town guards, a few who kept making eyes at the alphabet windbreakers and baseball caps. Dulane was suddenly an important commodity.

Donnelley looked around the Warden’s Office as they sat at his desk. He scanned the sparse walls and got the sense that the Warden wanted to be here as much as the inmates. Last time he was here the Warden seemed the type to relish the job like a tyrant over his little slice of the country. The pictures of the Warden with his family and shaking hands with the Mayor were all taken off the walls. No knickknacks on the desk. They were all piled into a cardboard box that had once been used to transport a mass amount of potato buds.

Donnelley slyly looked at it and he couldn’t resist. He pulled one picture out to look at, then another, and another. The last picture stopped him in his tracks. The Warden was shaking hands with an old Blackriver Sheriff while two others stood next to the two, dressed in a fitted suit and a State Police uniform. They all looked well-to-do, and it didn’t look like any type of photo op he’d heard of. Usually it was palm trees and Hawaiian shirts, but behind them, heavy machinery could be seen, mud beneath their fine leather dress shoes. Donnelley took his phone out of his pocket and snapped a quick picture before replacing the photo.

He showed his phone’s screen to Laine, “Where you think that is?” He asked, “You recognize those two uniforms?”

Laine watched Donnelley snoop, glancing now and then at the door. When he offered his phone she examined the image. "A state police officer, interesting. This is the first time I've seen evidence of them being cozy with Blackriver but I guess we shouldn't be surprised. I wonder if they're at a mine, with that heavy machinery. The old sheriff, a state officer, the warden and this mystery man."

She glanced at Donnelley, "We could ask Detective Roy, maybe she'll know the state officer and maybe even the suit if we're lucky."

“Maybe Joe Dawant has some answers about that. Haven’t heard from him in a bit, startin’ to get worried.” Donnelley said, replacing his phone in his pocket.

"We should contact them," Laine said, following his train of thought. "We owe them some sort of safety. If that's possible."

She glanced at Donnelley, her deep green eyes on his scarred face. "I'm ready to face those mines, whatever we find."

Her heart jumped at the thought but after the conversation with her father she had renewed faith in this war against the dangerous unknown. Laine reached up absently and touched the fine silver chain that disappeared under her polo.

Donnelley looked to her and nodded, “Me too.”

Laine looked back around the office, "I wonder if the Warden is retiring?"

The door opened and cut any conversation off. Donnelley stood and offered his hand out to the first person he saw, which were two. The Warden and the State Trooper in the picture. Donnelley hoped his eyes hadn’t lingered too long on the other man as he felt the recognition set in, and only smiled at the Warden, “Mister McKenna, how’ve you been?”

“Well, as ever, Davidson. I’m sure you noticed the change in decor.” Warden McKenna smiled and nodded to the walls around them, “I’m leavin’ this ol’ office soon. Retirement, gonna kick my feet up and sip mojitos by the water in Florida. Not before I hand your man off to you, though.”

“Well, I appreciate that.” Donnelley smiled, gesturing to Laine, “This is my partner, Doctor Laine, BAU. She’s had an interest in Dulane.”

“How do you do, Doctor?” McKenna stuck his hand out.

Laine stood as well, recognizing the older man as the warden. She smiled politely and congratulated him on his retirement. She shook his hand, her gaze never leaving his face until he pulled away. She looked aside at the West Virginia state cop and noted his badge and name tag, "McCune". He was the same uniform from the picture and she made a quick once over for rank insignia. Sergeant. Not too high but not a scrub. Interesting that a sergeant was rubbing elbows with the Warden and the mystery suit in the photo.

"We appreciate your help. Dulane is an interesting case study of the psychology of a mass murderer and valuable to my research," Laine said, the professional courtesy in her voice. "The cooperation you've shown us will be noted, Warden McKenna...Sergeant."

Her gaze flicked to the sergeant once more but held off on introduction, leaving it as unimportant as long as the Warden did not bother. She rubbed her hands together once then looked at Donnelley.

“Of course, of course.” McKenna smiled at the both of them, “Anyway, this is Sergeant McCune, State PD. He and Roy have been active on this case since Davidson and Forrest came over here. How is Forrest?”

“He’s good. Waitin’ for this case to get closed like the rest of us.” Davidson nodded. “Mind if we kick it into gear, Mister McKenna, we’re on a crunch.”

“Certainly not, let me find that folder.” The Warden opened a drawer on his desk and set down a Manila folder and a hefty external hard drive, “Like you asked. Phone calls, visitations, security footage. Everything we got on Dulane.”

“Appreciate that.” Donnelley smirked.

The Warden opened the Manila folder and scribbled his signature on the document that signified Dulane’s formal transfer into UMBRA’s custody. Once he was finished, McKenna spun the paper around to face Donnelley and Laine. Donnelley penned down the name John Davidson like he’d been signing with it for years, then slid it to Laine.

“After we get that stamped, y’all are free to take Dulane.” McKenna nodded.

“Detective Roy should be meeting your men outside.” McCune spoke up for the first time, “State PD is retrieving Dulane right about now. We’ll give you a full escort to Blackriver, but for the safety of my officers, we won’t be crossing that line with all y’all.”

Laine signed the paper, the flourish in the L distinctive of her signature. She turned to McCune, studying him a moment. She took the file and flipped through it, then tucked it against her chest. It would be interesting reading on the ride out to the mines.

"We appreciate what you're able to do for us," Laine said, "It's unfortunate that you can't make it into Blackriver."

“Really is.” McCune nodded.

Donnelley clucked his tongue and didn’t bother with that. He didn’t expect the PD to deviate on the plan heard in the briefing as laid out by Foster. It was UMBRA and THUNDER on their lonesome out in the hills, but that wasn’t anything new for Donnelley and the Program as a whole. “Well, McKenna, good luck with your retirement and all that.”

“Good luck, ladies and gentlemen.” McKenna smiled as he set himself down in his seat.




Donnelley and Laine had met back with the others, the convoy of Yukons making quite the impression on the guards. Even moreso was the MRAP complete with mounted M2 painted black and emblazoned with ‘WV State Police’ and ‘SWAT’ in block lettering. Roy was bedecked in her typical business attire and a black plate carrier, UMBRA, THUNDER, and the PD SWAT all looked ready for war. All for one man. Roy waved at them and stepped up to the both of them, “Howdy, hope y’all find it a successful jaunt into Blackriver. Whatever the hell it is you’re doing.”

Donnelley’s hand slapped into Roy’s, “By the looks of it, we’ll be startin’ a war in them hills.” Donnelley chuckled, “Thanks, Roy.”

“My pleasure, only regret is not going up there with you. Chief doesn’t like the idea and Chief gets what Chief wants, huh?”

“Ain’t that the truth.” Donnelley nodded.

The klaxon bell of the prison gate sounded out the warning of its opening. Flanked by SWAT officers with masks and the boys of THUNDER, Dulane walked of his own volition, chained by the ankles and wrists like an animal. His face was that of a man who just got everything he wanted, like this all was a great triumph for him. All according to plan. Dulane looked to Laine with a sickening baring of teeth as a smile, and mouthed the words, ‘I made a promise.’

Laine watched Dulane approach, gone was the hunted, haunted look of the man she remembered from the previous interview. When he smiled she felt a clutching in her stomach and for a moment there was a writhing of his shadow that stretched on the ground. The elongated man shape transformed into a mass of tentacles slithering across the asphalt.

She gasped a breath and blinked, and it was gone. Laine stared at the shadow but it bobbed along the ground just like the ones cast by the guards. A prickle ran across her scalp and down her neck as she gazed at Dulane and dread knotted in her stomach.

Laine turned to seek Donnelley but he was with Roy and she didn't want to make a scene. It could have just been a trick of the shadows and pavement but the primal warning in her gut spoke otherwise. Her face was paler than usual as she approached the truck Dulane would ride in with the disguised THUNDER and UMBRA members.

Donnelley watched Laine walk past him, some kind of trouble hanging around her, shoulders pinned back and head down. He quirked a brow at that and flicked his eyes toward Dulane before he spoke to Roy, “I wanted to ask you something.”

“Go ‘head.”

“What’s McCune’s relationship with the Warden, McKenna?” Donnelley asked, “Seemed like they were familiar back in the office.”

Roy shrugged, “His family and the Warden’s been around here for awhile, far as I know. Went to school together, but so did mostly everyone our age around here wearin’ a badge.”

“Okay. Makes sense.” Donnelley accepted the answer, not completely trusting anything around here ever since the stories about old-blood families and the clannishness of the hills. “You trust him?”

“As much as I trust any of my people. What’s up?” Roy frowned, the seasoned detective catching on something Donnelley was working too hard to keep under wraps.

“You know how I might feel about families that’ve been ‘round here for a while. MacOnies and O’Dhoules, everythin’ like that.” Donnelley pursed his lips.

“Relax, we ain’t all hillbillies just like you ain’t all cowboys and outlaws.” Roy winked.

“You don’t know what I get up to.” Donnelley chuckled as he stepped away from her, “Thank you for the escort, Detective.”

“Our pleasure.” She tapped her brow in a salute as Donnelley rejoined his compatriots in UMBRA and THUNDER.

He caught back up with Laine in short order, “Everythin’ okay?”

Laine jerked her head up when Donnelley spoke and she turned to meet his eyes. Before she could change her mind she whispered in a rush, "Dulane isn't alone. There's something..."

She took a sharp breath, darting her gaze aside then back at him, "I thought I saw something...in his shadow."

Laine blushed slightly at the words but she still felt the primal fear that had shot through her at the glimpse of the writhing mass. She laid her hand against the door of the truck and forced herself to meet Donnelley's eyes.

He nodded slow, looking to Dulane just before he disappeared behind the SWAT MRAP and saw Overman staring at Dulane too. “Well, we’ve got that fuckin’ sorceror with us.” He looked back to Laine, hopefully easing her as much as he could, “We’ll be alright. We got a magician and a lot of bullets.”

Laine swallowed hard then nodded, they were as prepared as they could be. Yet that inhuman smile, the changing shadow, it all made her shiver despite the August heat.

"You're right, of course," she said, licking her lips slightly. "It's just... unnerving. I'll be alright, though."

She took a deep breath and centered her thoughts, Dulane or whatever was in him, would not throw her off her game. It was a scare tactic, Laine told herself and she would not be so easily frightened off.

Reaching out she gave Donnelley's wrist a brief squeeze before letting go. "I'm fine," she said, her voice more normal. "Let's get this show on the road."

Ava watched Dulane carefully as he was escorted out, the hair on the back of her neck prickling to attention as her eyes fell on him. Her palms started to sweat and as her heart began to beat a little faster. She leaned back against the car they would be taking, crossing her arms over her chest and trying to hide the quiet panic attack building inside of her chest the longer she watched Dulane from behind her sunglasses.

She dusted lightly at her arms as it felt like wisps of spider webbing drifted over her skin. “He’s creepy.” She whispered over to Dave, finally tearing her eyes away from Dulane to look up at him.

Dave’s eyes were locked on Dulane, on the sick, squirming thing he could’ve sworn he saw in the man’s shadow. He took a breath, steadied himself, his hand resting on the butt of his Sig. He tried to make the motion look casual, but the touch of the gun made him feel a little better, reminded him he was still in whatever fight might pop off. A quick glance at the heavily-armed men surrounding Dulane also helped put him a little at ease; Ghost was a spooky son of a bitch, and his “friends” from THUNDER weren’t much better, but knowing they were on his side helped.

“Yeah,” he said, swallowing hard and moving a little closer to Ava. “He’s creepy, alright.”
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>OUTSIDE BOSTON LOGAN INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
>15 MILES FROM BRAINTREE
>23JUL2019
>0045...///

Clouds drifted in the midnight sky leaving pools of inky blackness, looming and heavy shapes in the velvet. Breezes sent chills down spines in a night lit only by streetlights, washing out the streets in bleak orange. A bus squealed to a stop and hissed its doors open, a procession of sagging shoulders and shuffling feet lumbering inside. A lone car passed, bass thumping behind black windows. Donnelley watched it pass, sighing a breath of pale steam into the cold, still air. He’d opted to find himself on his lonesome, one of the first to exit the plane and grab his luggage.

He wondered why he did this to himself, fretting on what was to come. Knowing in every bit of himself and still trying to fool his mind into being surprised by what he’d see come the following hours. He sighed a curse into the air and took another drag off his cigarette as the bus passed, leaving a breeze that made him quiver again under his hoodie. He slipped the hood over his Thrasher cap and coughed into a fist, letting his head hang. He’d wait for the sunrise.

Not that this one would bring any joy. The slight heaviness in his limbs from the drinks he’d had on the plane and the overpriced airport bar did nothing to lessen the darkness of his mood. The only sound accompanying his reverie was the sounds of passing cars on the road and a far off siren lending its echoing call to the atmosphere.

Laine stood away from Dave and Ava, checking her messages from work and family. It seemed almost a lifetime since she had been at the office let alone talk to her parents. She looked at her mother's messages and started to reply then shoved the phone back into her pocket. Instead she took out her Djarums and headed outside, leaving the crowd of the airport.

She scanned the well lit walkway, faces of strangers passing by, blissfully unaware of Russian hellhounds and undead wives. As she moved passed the taxi stand, carrying her bag and laptop case over one shoulder, the people fell away until Laine spotted a lone figure.

From his stance she knew him, Donnelley's frame was already familiar in her mind. Laine waited, watching him brood in the dark as she lit a clove cigarette. Not wanting to intrude but unable to leave him, she walked slow and took a long drag as she studied the dim stars beyond the clouds and light pollution.

Getting over herself she approached Donnelley, looking over his hooded profile and she asked, "Sex Pistols or the Damned?"

“Crass.” Donnelley said, “Ain’t for revolution, it’s just for cash.”

He huffed a chuckle through his nose and ashed his cigarette, quoting that line. It might have been about the Clash being too poppy, and not the Pistols but he wanted to hear what Laine would make of that, “You think that young punk from Dalhart would hate me if he saw me now?”

Laine gave a little smile, his answer not conforming to the choices. "I don't believe you're all about the cash," she said, moving closer, her shoulder brushing his. "You're not a sell out, no matter who is signing your checks."

She tapped the black cigarette, the embers flickering and vanishing. "I don't know, maybe. But young punks never believe they'll grow up."

“Ain’t that the truth of it.” Donnelley chuckled, taking another long drag off his cigarette and sighing into the night. He looked around, the first time he’d been to Massachusetts and the circumstances were not promising. His mind drifted to a hundred other places besides there and he worked at quieting it all down so he could focus on what mattered.

His team.

“How’re you feeling?” He asked, switching out of his drawl to better fit this northeastern coast, “Feels like it’s been a month since we’ve had any time to wind down.”

Laine shrugged, raising the clove cigarette to her lips. She wore only the Siouxie and the Banshees t-shirt and black skinny jeans, her Converse sneakers finishing the unassuming look. "I feel like time has warped and those days were actually a month. I'm also very concerned about Ava and Avery, about the girl we failed to retrieve from the hospital. I feel like every smidge of victory has been kicked like an empty can across a road of defeat. But that's the nature of tough cases."

She blew out a stream of fragrant smoke and glanced over at him, Donnelley's eyes shadowed by the brim of his cap. "We might not win every battle but we keep fighting. Even when it seems futile."

Laine crossed one arm over her stomach, tucking her hand under the other arm. "I'm fighting my own doubts, questioning my sanity at getting into this mess but here I am. With you, with UMBRA."

After the little speech she glanced aside, then asked, "What should I expect from this meeting?"

“Expect them to ask you about a lot of things that don’t even pertain to the case we’re working on right now,” Donnelley said, “They’ll hook you up to a polygraph and grill you. It’s important that you tell the truth about everything and stick with it.”

Donnelley cleared his throat and took his last drag, flicking the smoldering butt into the street, “The Agency, and the Program even more, takes these things seriously. A nuke or a dirty bomb. Stolen files, that’s one thing, but,” he shrugged, “You know what we deal with. You need a radicalized chemist or a foreign agent to get on the Agency’s radar. The Program has to be pinged every time a crackpot says something weird.”

"So help me, God," she quipped after he had laid out the inquiry they faced. Laine looked over at him, hugging herself. "What about you?"

Donnelley shrugged, “I’m fine.” He said, tugging another cigarette from his pack and clucking his tongue that he was getting low, “Fine as I ever am. Foster secured some rooms at the Envision hotel in Boston, single night. We won’t be here for long, I’m not even going to unpack.”

“Hopefully the hotel’s bar is cheaper.” Donnelley snorted.

"I don't think I'd like to face the Inquisition hungover," Laine replied. "What do you think about the outcome? With our case?"

“We’ll get them. No doubt.” Donnelley shook his head with some resolve.




Ava felt numb. She wondered if maybe she was feeling some kind of shock after the rapid change in location. She had scarcely had a chance to deal with her midnight walkabout in the comforting security of her team when they were quickly shuffled out of the hospital, speed packed their belongings at the hotel and then grabbing the first plane to Massachusetts.

They were just a few hours drive to her home state, Rhode Island. Just a few freeway exits and she could be knocking on her parent’s door; go up to her childhood room and...Well she wasn’t sure what, but it was an idea that was very appealing to her right about then.

But, she couldn’t. Aside from the fact that the Program would tan her hide for abandoning an assignment, she didn’t want to risk bringing the attention of the Russians or their pet from the bowels of Hell to her family.

So, she stayed, standing with Dave as they waited for... something. A ride maybe? She didn’t know. Her mind felt blank and she was currently staring over at the line at the Cinnabon in the food court. A warm pastry sounded good.

Dave eyed Ava subtly, trying to gauge her emotional state. Her sleep-walking session seemed to have taken a toll on her. While he'd never experienced it first hand, he was feeling some distress himself at their sudden shift in focus and relocation. He couldn't imagine how she was feeling.

She'd been silent most of their flight; that was odd. Recently she was more talkative, at least with him. He tracked her gaze and gave her a gentle elbow.

"You look like you're wantin' somethin'," he grinned. "Hungry?"

Ava started a bit from the nudge, glancing up at him and trying to must a ghost of a smile. “A little.” She said with a small shrug of her shoulders. “Plus, it’s Cinnabon.”

"Well let's get Cinnabon," he said. He put his hand briefly on the small of her back, guiding her towards the restaurant. "Got a feeling we ain't gonna have time for snacks for a bit."

As they walked he kept his gaze moving. He was unarmed, and hated it. His pistol was checked on the plane, the other gear left with the two goons from THUNDER. He felt naked.

Ava followed Dave’s guiding touch, the warm hand on her back bringing a small spark of comfort with the contact. “Yeah, probably. We should get some stuff to go, in case the others need a little pick-me-up.” She said, eyes roaming over the approaching menu, but she already had an idea what she wanted.

"I've got cash," he said. "Never been here before though, so tell me what I want. I trust ya."

“It’s a little messy, because cinnamon buns.” Ava said as they joined the short line. “I’m getting the Center of the Roll, which comes in a bowl and makes eating a little easier. Because bowl.” She said, a bit of a smile appearing on her face. “Center of the Roll in a bowl.”

"Sounds good to me." He returned the smile as he dug out his wallet, glad to see a spark of happiness out of her. "So should we just get a buncha cinnamon bums for the others?"

“They have like little donut holes we can get that are easy to eat or we can get the bite sized cinnamon buns.” She said, looking over the menu to see what they had. “Maybe some hot chocolate?”

"I don't know anybody who don't like hot chocolate and donut holes," Dave said seriously. When their turn arrived he approached the counter, exchanging pleasantries with the skinny, tattooed hipster running the register before giving their order. He paid with cash, as he had always preferred, then led Ava off to the side to wait on the food somewhere he could put his back to a wall.

"So," he said quietly. "How you holdin' up, sugar?"

“...” Ava looked down at the ground, fiddling with the soft peach colored sleeve of her sweater. “It’s...a lot.” She finally answered him after the seconds of tense silence ticked by.

Dave watched her, sympathy in his steel-blue eyes. He nodded; things were rough for him, too. He wasn't surprised she was having trouble.

"Yeah, it is." He rested his hand on her shoulder, gave it a short squeeze. "But I'm here for ya. The whole team is. We all got each other's backs."

“I know, thank you.” She said, looking at the hand and then looking up at him, tears brimming in her eyes. “I just...I don’t know what’s going on with me.” She said, dropping her voice to a whisper.

"I know," he said. His voice was gentle, and he leaned down to put their faces level. "But we're gonna figure it out, alright?" He gave her his most confident smile. "We got this, and we got each other."

She sniffed and nodded, pushing up her glasses to dab at her eyes with her sleeve. “I know.” She said, lowering her glasses back down and turning to wrap her arms around his neck and shoulders. “Thank you Dave.”

Dave gave her a firm squeeze, holding her for a few moments. "'Course, sugar." On impulse he leaned down and planted a quick kiss on her forehead. "You're a tough lil' lady, you know that?"

Ava blinked in surprise at the kiss, feeling her skin grow warm in response and her heart giving a little flutter. “It’s the pastels and cartoons, isn’t it?” She asked with a half smile, trying to perk herself back up.

"Definitely," he nodded. "Anybody who'll wear cartoon pun shirts ain't to be messed with," he said. "It's a sign of strength. That's why I love my hat." He touched the brim of his ball cap and winked.

She smiled a little wider and chuckled. “You are definitely a strong man.” She said, reaching up to tap the brim of the hat.

He laughed. "Yeah, I try," he said. He leaned back against the wall, a small smile on his face and his hand resting on Ava's shoulder. He stayed that way until their order was called.

"Alright, snack time," he said. "This was a good idea, junk foods always bring the mood up."

“It does.” She agreed, picking up her hot chocolate and her Center of the Roll in a bowl, which were just chunks and pieces of warm cinnamon roll covered in icing. “Should we go find Donnelley and Laine? Or eat our bowls first?”

"Eat first," Dave said emphatically. The moment he'd gotten his food his stomach had started snarling. "They got our numbers, they need us they'll call. Won't take us long anyway. I'm starvin'."

“Cinnabon has that effect.” Ava nodded sagely, picking up the bag of donut holes and leaving the box of mini cinnamon rolls for Dave to grab. She led them over to a nearby table and sank into the hard plastic with a sigh. “Maybe we should have gotten actual food.” She noted when Dave joined her.

Dave gave her a blank look as he sat down across from her.

"I don't understand," he said. "Anybody who says cinnamon rolls an' donuts ain't food sounds a bit like a communist to me."

Ava smiled, a startled giggle bubbling out from her chest. “Well, I do have red hair…” She said, trailing off while looking at him pointedly.

"Oh hell, you're right," he said, his eyes widening. "I shoulda seen the signs!"

Ava grinned, poking at her cinnamon roll innards with her fork before picking up a piece to eat. There was a comforting feeling to eating a warm bit of pastry, though who she had for company could have also played a role in the sense of ease she felt.

“How long have we been on assignment?” She asked Dave with a curious frown. “It feels like weeks.”

"Um… Like, three, four days?" He frowned, pausing in his chewing. "I dunno, honestly. I don't think it's been a week yet."

“Jesus.” Ava muttered, frowning down at the bowl of baked goods in front of her. “The cookout feels like forever ago.”

Dave flashed back briefly to the cookout, the sense of comradery and general ease they'd felt.

"Yeah, no kidding," he sighed. "Shit feels like it's comin' faster and faster, don't it?"

She nodded, staring at her bowl for a moment longer before looking back up at him with guilt in her eyes. “I’m sorry about scaring you all. I really am. I don’t know why it happened.”

"Hey, it's alright sugar," he said. He smiled. "Shit happens. We're just glad you're alright, ya know?"

“Yeah.” She tried to return his smile and took a bite of her pastry, trying to ignore the guilt still clawing at her insides. “I guess lucky for us Renko was close by, apparently.” She said, a thoughtful crease appearing between her eyebrows. “In a weird way, I did find him again.”

"Yeah, that is… Kinda weird, really," Dave frowned and shook his head. "Guy is helpful, but shit man… I dunno. I'm just…" He shrugged and poked at his cinnamon roll. "He just keeps comin' outta nowhere."

Ava nodded, frowning down at the table as she mulled it over. “I guess he was paying us back for helping him. I wish he would have just brought me back to you all, but he probably wanted to avoid joining Jay in the bathroom.” She tapped her fork against the rim of the bowl. “Tony, the nurse at the hospital, said it seemed like he cared.”

"Well, I'll hafta thank him when he pops up again," Dave grinned. "Unless he brings that thing along. Then I'ma punch him."

“I’ll punch him too.” Ava shuddered visibly, setting down her fork to take off her glasses and rub her hands over her face; slumping back into her chair and almost curling in on herself.

Dave reached across the table and took her shoulder for a moment, giving it a squeeze.

"We'll get through this," he said confidently. "Have some faith. In God, or just in the team. We're gonna be alright."

“It’s not that.” She said, her voice small and her hands trembling against her face. “I’m just...remembering the nightmare I had when I was sleepwalking.”

"You wanna talk about it?" He put his fork down and leaned forward. “We can do that in a bit, if you wanna. Away from… You know." He gestured at the crowd around them.

She started to shake her head, then paused for a moment before she slowly nodded. “Yeah.” She said, taking in a deep breath and lowering her hands down. “Later, but, yes, I want to talk about this.”

"Alright," Dave nodded. He ate the last of his cinnamon roll and sighed, leaning back in his chair with satisfaction. "That was a good idea."

Ava mustered up a smile for him, her bowl relatively untouched in front of her. “I’m glad you liked it, Cinnabon is always a good idea.” She looked down at her food, her stomach flipping but she forced herself to take a bite. “Better hurry and eat this before we have to go.”

"Yeah, I don't think it'll keep," he said. He checked his watch, then his phone. "They ain't callin' for us yet so we got a minute."

She nodded, swallowing what she had been chewing before reaching over to touch Dave’s hand. “Thanks again Dave, for everything.”

He took her hand and gave it a squeeze. "'Course," he said lightly. "Ain't no trouble at all, sugar."




When the team scrambled out of West Virginia Jason was quick to follow. They had paraded out of the makeshift base with quick sense of purpose he hadn’t seen since his Air Force basic training days, though what they were heading into Donnelley kept close to the chest. He didn’t like that, but he trusted the team lead otherwise—either by choice or necessity he had to. While they waited to board one text had been enough to cancel Jason’s flight just minutes before taking off to Boston. He had mouthed something quick and vague to Donnelley at the boarding gate before they parted, and there was a business-like glare in his eyes hinting it was something important. It would be hours after UMBRA landed when he’d finally arrive in Boston, but it would be worth it. His DIA team linguist, Dan Treston, had finally come through with a follow-up on the ghostly phone data coming out of Syria.

Jason couldn’t remember the last time he had talked to Dan, but when he had Dan had promised intelligence over the phantom signal. The promise had been a tentative and unspoken one, both men knowing the fine line they’d have to follow chasing the lead, and that meant weeks, perhaps months, before either of them could communicate safely. The text came on his burner phone, Dan being the only person outside of the Program to have the number.

Dead account: 174_NoxiA_tim.burrough2427@Euhost.net, standard pw, NO PGP! Email has encryption script, the text said.

Jason was no tech analyst but even he knew PGP encryption would be out of the question. Lettered agencies loved it when the bad guys used PGP. It would light up their presence like a gas station on a desert night, and although the messages would still be encrypted, the meta-data was free for the taking. Jason and his team had caught too many terrorists using this method. The irony was the same encryption his targets used was the same the CIA had engineered and feigned as a Mujahadeen secure network. Anytime a terrorist would use messaging systems like Mujahideen Secrets or whatever half-assed encryption program their tech guy cooked up their meta-data immediately framed them as potential terrorists.

It seemed to Jason there was little anyone could do to hide from the all seeing eye of technology these days, and that made him nervous opening whatever Dan had sent him. He had to download and install the several executable files in the dead email account, the actual data an encrypted jumble floating somewhere unknown in the unindexed void of the dark web. Jason didn’t dare read anything until he was in the air and physically disconnected from any network, the data downloaded moments before boarding.

What Dan had uncovered produced more questions than answers. The original anomaly was a series of encrypted messages from an asset cellphone in Syria, a series of messages from a dead man. Anis al-Shamard, Jason’s late asset, had been the previous owner. He was beheaded around the time Jason was recruited by the Program, right when a firesale’s worth of agency spies turned up dead or missing. Jason had watched the execution video himself, Anis’s dripping head flashing in his mind’s eye as he sat in the back rows of the small, commercial two-engine plane. Any other time it would have prompted Jason to take anything to numb his trauma-shelled mind, but he was fixated on the intel.

After Anis’s death his phone, written off as lost equipment, began sending the series of messages. Dan had mentioned before the phone was deactivated, meaning it wouldn’t be able to access the DIA towers even if it was recovered, but somehow the messages came through. What Dan discovered was even more puzzling. The phone pinged from only one cellphone tower, a tower no American agency knew of, deep in a Syrian town called Ar Rastan in the Idlib province. The province had been notoriously difficult to operate in due to heavy fighting, even more so since Russian military intervention. That’s who Jason thought of as the culprit initially, but Dan seemed to have ruled out the Russian’s as well. He had checked all cell tower data in the country, which didn’t show the phantom tower at all, and all Russian equipment squawking any electronic signal had been accounted for. And still the messages came through.

Dan had compiled and sent the logs, yet as Jason began reading an incredible drowsiness came over him. Just moments before he had been wired awake, his mind racing with potentials and theories, but now a heaviness pulled at his eyelids and rolled his head forward. He fought a losing battle against it. Perhaps it had been the week of restless sleep, deep and dreamless yet no more satisfying than if he had tossed and turned all night. Perhaps it was the girl, who they couldn’t recover, or the man he had killed, or Ava’s disappearance. And then he read it halfway through the logs of garbled nonsense.

Y76….$..4;r6
Gqalshamard20&3602…<+[-Mathieu%adf
, (./ Stewart
WEissman
T heLong 7 sleep,dreaming6^.*..@34
come@1.j.,aNd see /syt9dufk4

(Note: One of the few texts with words “al Shamard Mathieu Stewart Weissman the long sleep dreaming come and see” failed encryption wouldn’t do this)


Jason woke up to the jostling of the plane as it settled on its landing gear. The unknowable hours of his sleep spread like a panic, but his mind was immediately focused on the last message he had read. The message that had been sent weeks before Laurie, Gwen, and Tom had died.




>ENVISION HOTEL, BOSTON, MA
>0200...///

Goddamnit, Donnelley thought. No hotel bar. Nothing to speak of in the mini fridge, either. He couldn’t even bring his flask along on the trip. He’d have to find a bar before going to sleep or he just fucking never would. Either that, or… Donnelley looked at himself in the mirror, shirtless and in nothing but his boxer briefs. There were bags forming under his eyes the closer he looked. He brushed the gnarled scar on his thigh from whatever that thing was in the forest, eyed the old burn. The longer he looked, the less he liked everything he saw, so he turned away.

He needed a drink. Whiskey and cocaine. The dreams would feel less real that way. Like a mad hallucination, hazy and disjointed. He pulled on his jeans and slipped the first shirt he found on himself, a plain black thing, and threw some shoes on before walking to the door. He placed his hand on the knob before remembering to get his gun, shoving it holster and all into his waistband.

He eased his room’s door open and stepped out into the hallway, small footsteps that felt laughable to be attributed to the bold and brash J. Donnelley carrying him to his destination, like a squirrel along the forest floor instead of the proud bull tramping down weeds in his pasture. As much as Laine’s presence filled him with a sense of comfort and some sense of nervousness he hadn’t felt since he was a scrawny teen, he wanted something else. So he rapped his knuckles over Dave’s door. Something about the steady and stalwart Dave made Donnelley comfortable. Reminded him of the days when the soldier on his left and on his right were the only things in the world he had to worry about, and he didn’t have to worry about them at all. “It’s Donnelley, man.” He said.

There was the rustle of fabric and a few moments passed, then Dave pulled open the door. He wore a white beater and jeans, his Sig tucked into the front in what his bastard father had always called Mexican carry. He eyed Donnelley, his initial welcoming smile becoming a frown.

"Hey, man, you alright?" He stepped aside, waving Donnelley in without a moment's thought. "You ain't lookin' great."

Donnelley returned the smile, mirrored as best it could be through the filter of his stress. He stepped inside and the smile faltered. “Ain’t been sleepin’.” He said, slipping back into his drawl as he always did when Dave was around, “Just can’t some nights.”

He plopped himself down in a seat and settled into it. “I don’t want to be a mood killer, man, but Foster didn’t call us to Massachusetts for tea.” He frowned, “He sounded stressed. That makes me stressed. The fact the Russians and us got each other on our radars, the fact that Tom lives here near Boston… it don’t look good.”

Dave listened attentively, nodding along as Donnelley spoke. The only interruption was the snap of his dip can. After he'd packed a lip he offered his friend the can.

"Well…" He poked and prodded his dip into place with his tongue, his cold-steel gaze far away. "It sure ain't good, I'll give ya that. Russians… That's some shit I never thought I'd be mixed up in." Dave paused, concern once again creasing his features. "You think there's something with Tom?"

Donnelley took the can and tucked some of the tobacco in his lip. He’d never been a fan of the stuff, even when some of his buddies in Batt would go so far as to pack a dip and run with it in. He liked the feeling though. A distraction. “I really don’t know, man.” He said, offering the can back and settled back in his seat. “Listen, I’m not one to spread scuttlebutt and shit, but I’m just tellin’ you, because if what I think happened did happen.”

He shook his head, “It’s a real fuckin’ situation. Any chance you get, get whoever you got back home waitin’ for you squared away.” He said, “There’s another thing I need to let you know about.”

Dave's eyes grew hard, his genuine concern replaced with a deep-seated fury that came on all at once.

"You think someone might be comin' after my boy?" His calloused hands curled into rock-hard fists. "You tell me the truth now."

“The Russians. I don’t know what they know about. I need to tell my wife…” Donnelley cleared his throat, “My ex-wife to make sure she’s safe out there. I got a little girl too, man, I’m pissed as you.”

“But whether or not the Russians have their sights on our families, we gotta answer to the Program about Renko.” Donnelley said, “You worried?”

Dave shrugged a shoulder, prodding at his dip. It was a nervous habit he'd never been able to break; it had driven Kahlia nuts.

"I been fucked with by feds most my life," he said finally. "I ain't lookin' forwards to it, but I figured I'd hafta talk to suits eventually...They uh...We gettin' black-bagged if they don't like what we say?"

Donnelley shrugged, a macabre smirk on his face, “Never been on the other side of the recorder.” He chuckled, “Expect a polygraph. Expect ‘em to bring up your ol’ Pa. You only talk about what happened with Renko and that’s it. Tell the truth about everything and stick to it. They’ll try to fluster you, but don’t take the bait.”

“We’ll come out of these fuck-fuck games and get back to the case in no time.” Donnelley nodded. “But they got your file, Dave. Don’t let ‘em use it against you, you’re with the good guys doin’ the real work while they’re stapled to a fuckin’ desk. We’re their entertainment.”

“Besides, the cells there are nicer than this fuckin’ room. Beds are pretty comfortable.” Donnelley smiled.

Dave grinned, his good humor back in an instant. "Probably better than the racks at Boone County, huh?"

He laughed and shook his head before trailing off, his gaze settling on the far wall. "I been questioned before. ATF. The Old Man, you know? Didn't snitch, I ain't that kind even if the Old Man does deserve a bullet, but…" He sighed. "This kinda seems… I'unno. More serious."

“You’d be right.” Donnelley nodded, a little more gravity weighing his smirk down, “That black bag you mentioned earlier? I don’t think any of us have anythin’ to worry about. Renko made contact with us, not the other way around.”

“I know you’re new to this spy shit, but you’re doin’ pretty alright so far. Since we’re goin’ to Langley, maybe I’ll put y’all through some courses at The Farm.” Donnelley shrugged and chuckled, “Shoothouses and everythin’, CQB. Show you how the pros kick doors. Higher clearance, better perks.”

Dave perked up, his eyes alight at the prospect of gunplay in professional facilities.

"I like shoothouses," he said, grinning as he thought it over. "Ain't been in one in a minute, but I like 'em."

“You’ll like those ones.” Donnelley nodded.

“I need to know, man,” Donnelley said, “What happened that night?”

Dave paused as he considered the words. He'd told the story before, they all had.

"I really ain't sure," he said finally. His gaze grew distant and he stared at the far wall, digging deep for details he'd been trying to forget. "We were fine. Hangin' out. Then that Renko guy came bangin' on the door. We started smellin'... Burned wires. Like when you got an electrical short. Or maybe we smelled it, and then Renko showed up. Or it mighta happened all at once man, I dunno."

He shivered, sighed, looked down at his hands. "Then there was guns out and everyone was yellin', but nobody was doin' nothin'. So I did. I told him to drop his gun and he did, so we got in that circle. Then that...thing came. We said a prayer or somethin' and it went away… Ava, she was in bad shape. Said she saw it before it got there. Like in her head."

Dave fell silent, staring at the wall and messing with the dip in his lip. Finally he looked up at Donnelley. "If I fucked up I'm sorry, man. Don't let 'em take it out on the others. But somebody had to make a decision, an' I figured it was gonna hafta be me. I just wanted to keep everyone safe."

Donnelley nodded along as Dave’s eyes grew distant and looked far back to that place. His story was consistent with Laine’s, for sure. He’d better keep it that way, he thought firmly, but when Dave’s eyes came back to the present and he’d said what he did. Well, Donnelley knew he’d made the right decision leaving him in charge that night. “You did everything same as I would, man, don’t you worry ‘bout that.” Donnelley nodded, “I’m glad I chose you. Ain’t any better you could’ve done.”

Dave gave him a grateful smile, pleased with the praise. "Thanks, bud. I appreciate it. Way I figure it, we got too many enemies right now to be questionin' friends. I ain't sayin' we should trust Renko, really, but… If he's helpin' he's helpin'. If the mob is after him too, least we can do is wait to start shootin' at each other 'til they're handled. An' he seems like an alright guy. Helped Ava out right?" ”

“It’s what they’re sayin’. Least he could’ve done was leave a note,” Donnelley snorted, “This ain’t gonna be the last time we see Renko. We’ll find out if he’s a friend soon enough.”

Donnelley prodded the wad of tobacco in his lip and clucked his tongue, nodding in the silence, “So, you alright, still?” Donnelley asked, “We been through some shit.”

"I'm okay, I guess." Dave looked at the wall, then at his hands. He shook his head. "I dunno. I'm scared, man. I'm seein' shit I didn't even used to believe in. I'm killin' people. Shootin' 'em down." He gave a bitter, sad laugh. "Just like the Old Man taught me, right? His li'l soldier."

Donnelley nodded, eyes going over the whole of Dave’s face. Some people took to it, killing. Those were the ones he worried about, but Dave was too solid for that. He couldn’t see the well-meaning mountain boy getting addicted to pulling triggers. A little part of Donnelley wondered if he was the same as Dave, or if he was just a little bit like Ghost.

“I get it.” He said, “I’d say this is what you volunteered for, but… I know I didn’t know what the hell I’d be doin’.”

“For what it’s worth,” Donnelley thought about what he was about to say and found himself wanting, “You ain’t doin’ it for whatever bullshit reason your old man told you to. My door’s always open, man.”

"Thanks, hoss," Dave's smile grew a little brighter. "What about you? You holdin' up okay?"

Donnelley nodded, gave him a smirk, “Every day. Waitin’ around for that sunrise, man.”

Donnelley felt the need to keep up the image of the cool and calm leader. His team didn’t need to see the side of him with doubts and fears, but that side of him reared its head more as the years went on. He sighed, “Twenty-eight fuckin’ years, man.” The slow shake of his head might have clued Dave in to how Donnelley felt about those years, “I’m good at what I do. I just done it for so long I got bad at everythin’ else. You got a boy and a woman waitin’ for you. I lost that privilege way back, man. This case is the first time I been stateside for more than a week. My daughter don’t even know me.”

He rolled his jaw, “Just don’t get so caught up in savin’ your boy that you forget a father is more important to that kid than some dude runnin’ and gunnin’ doin’ shit he’s never goin’ to know about in a place he’s never heard of.” Donnelley gave Dave a beaten down smile, “Copy?”

"Yeah man, I copy," Dave said. He reached over and patted Donnelley on the shoulder. "You hit me up if you need to, though, alright? We'll have us a few beers."

“You wanna run to a gas station right now, partner?” Donnelley chuckled, only half-joking.

Dave nodded. "I can do beer, as long as the government's buyin'." He grabbed his pistol and tucked it in his pants. "Let's do it."




>ENVISION HOTEL, BOSTON, MA
>0200...///

Laine stared into the darkness of the hotel room, up at the ceiling that had a spot of faint glow from the alarm clock. Sleep evaded her as her thoughts raced through recent memories, trying to solve the puzzle with so many pieces missing. She rolled over onto her side, alone in the bed since Pari had insisted on getting her own room which allowed Ava her own bed.

The idea of Ava sleepwalking again also kept Laine awake, since she had failed to notice last night even though they had shared a bed. No sounds of sleep could be heard and Laine was certain Ava was awake despite the hour. Sleep was no longer a refuge.

Laine sat up and asked in the darkness, "Are you up?"

“...Yeah.” Ava answered back, her voice weary as after a moment and the rustling of sheets, she sat up in the bed. “I don’t want a...repeat of last night. I’m seriously considering handcuffing myself to the bed frame.”

Laine turned over on her side, peering at Ava in the other bed. "We could bar the door or maybe some kind of alarm. I don't want you getting out either but tying you down seems drastic."

She glanced at the door, then stood up and went over to a wood frame chair and jammed it under the door handle. "That might slow you down," Laine said as she turned to face Ava, dressed in an old band shirt to sleep in.

Laine went over to her and sat at the edge of Ava's bed, "You said something that's been bothering me, about your dream. You mentioned 'Tom', was it our Tom? The FBI agent that left us just after you arrived."

“I-I don’t know.” Ava answered, her voice quaking in the dark. She shifted on the bed until she could reach the nightstand and turn on the lamp that rested there. Her expression was disturbed as she turned her dark ringed eyes to Laine. “I couldn’t see past the...blood and fear.”

Laine watched her as she spoke, then replied, "If it's hard to talk about, you might try writing it down. It's a dream, a very powerful dream but a dream. It can't hurt you."

“It can’t-That thing came for us!” Ava shouted, her voice raising higher than she had ever spoken with it before. Something behind her eyes seemed to visibly snap as she got up out of bed, standing with her hands shaking and clenched into fists at her sides. “It came after us and it would have torn us apart just like it did in my dream or whatever it was! Because I’m starting to think it’s not ‘just a dream’!”

She shook her head, tears gathering in her eyes but her face was still twisted with anger. She brought her hands up to her head and ran her shaking hands over her hair. “It could come for us again and you’re going to sit there and tell me it can’t hurt me!? I watched that fucking thing slaughter two innocent people and it felt like it was happening to me! So don’t tell me it can’t hurt me! Because clearly it can, even when I’m sleeping!”

Her voice cracked near the end, her breathing heavy from both the volume of her yelling and the effort it took to not break down completely.

Laine's expression remained calm as Ava let go of what she had been holding in, the torrent of horror spilling out. It needed to be exposed, the shine the light of conscious day onto the writhing dark mass of nightmares.

"It came for Renko," Laine said, softening her expression, "But it doesn't mean it won't get sent after us. Did you recognize the people? I know it's hard, I'm sorry. But if this thing somehow made a connection or is somehow projecting into your mind then we need to know. We have to figure it out to find out if we can stop it."

Ava sniffed, her anger lessening in the face of Laine’s calm and leveled reaction. “They...They just looked like normal people.” She said, shaking her head as she deflated and sat back down on the edge of the bed, her shoulders slumping. “Upper middle class, middle aged married couple from what I could tell, but...There was so much happening I didn’t get a good look. I,” She swallowed past the tightening of her throat. “I think I was seeing it through the eyes of the wife, I could feel her terror as she watched the Hound…” Her voice broke and she shook her head. “I don’t think they survived.”

"That is a horrible thing to witness, even in a dream," Laine's said,"And if it's real, then there's a possibility you have some sort of...well, psychic connection."

As soon as the words left her lips she blinked then sighed, slumping against the bed, resting against her palms.

Ava turned and blinked at her, her face blank for a moment as Laine said out loud what she herself had been quietly trying to avoid saying. But as the words drifted into the air, she felt her lips start to twitch.

Then a giggle started to bubble up in her chest. She startled herself as a grin began to form on her lips and she snorted. “I’m sorry,” She said as she felt strangely amused by the whole thing, even though she suspected it might be true. “Just, hearing it out loud...It sounds so fucking stupid.” She managed to say as the laughter finally came tumbling out as though Laine had just told her the funniest joke in the world.

“Psychic!” Ava laughed, the grin now wide on her freckled features as she tried to contain her sudden onset of jocularity. “I’m the Rhode Island Medium!”

Laine looked up at her and then smiled ruefully, shaking her head. "That's how I felt when they called Mrs Baughman a zombie. Unreal, except...well, it fucking is real."

Ava laughed more, leaning forward as the full absurdity of the situation descended on her. She knew it was strange to laugh about it, but she couldn’t help it. The stress, confusion and anger of the whole thing came out in the form of what she was sure was manic sounding laughter.

She pitched over sideways on the bed, her laughter eventually dying down to a fit of sporadic giggles. “We’re in an episode of Supernatural.” She said around her chuckling. “We even had to stand in the middle of a salt circle to keep out the demon!”




>BRAINTREE, MASSACHUSETTS
>24JUL2019
>0900...///

The sunrise had come just like it always did. Donnelley missed it as it hid behind the blinds of his hotel room while he showered and got ready for the day. He dressed professionally- blazer, tie, gun. When they caught their ride out to Braintree, which were two very fitting blacked out Chevy Tahoe’s, they cut the image of the men in black from the stories. The duo of cars raced down the highways towards their destination and only slowed when they got a few blocks from where Foster had told them to meet up.

A police cordon had been set up on the street, CSI in white jumpsuits and men in sunglasses and black suits were the order of all in attendance as Donnelley looked out the window and watched the happenings of the day. It was like a slice of El Paso dropped haphazardly into a sleepy Massachusetts suburb. Red and blue lights, uniformed cops farther down the streets giving the suits space. Foster turned and waved at the two cars from his place in the driveway.

“Your stop.” Said the bald man in the driver’s seat, and Donnelley dismounted, smoothing down his shirt and fixing his tie.

Foster stepped away from the crime scene and up to Donnelley, pressing his hand into Donnelley’s own, “I’m sorry you had to find out like this.”

“Mm.” Donnelley nodded, feeling a numbness set its hands over his shoulders. “So, I was right.”

Foster looked Donnelley up and down, his eyes squinted in scrutiny as Donnelley stared at the house, “Yeah.”

“What happened?” Donnelley asked, jaw set in the stoney calm of his face.

“Tom was working a case against Russians, don’t know if you remember.” Foster shook his head and shrugged, sliding his hands into his pockets, “Caught up with him like it caught up with us… with you. He wasn’t as prepared.”

“We were fucking lucky.”

“Whatever.” Foster sighed, “These are all Program folks, if you were worried. The cops down there don’t need to know shit, so they don’t.”

“That’s good.” Donnelley’s frown grew a bit more.

“I think you’ll want to see every-“

“No.” Donnelley shook his head, finally breaking his gaze from Tom’s house, “No, I don’t. I’ve seen enough, I know enough.”

Foster returned Donnelley’s frown, looked at Donnelley and finally nodded in understanding. These things might be common in the Program, but Donnelley never liked it. Liked it even less when it was his people. He swore under his breath as he watched two of the crime scene workers step out of the house with two body bags. “She was pregnant…”

“Yeah.” Foster nodded. “I’m sorry.”

Donnelley folded his arms tight against his chest, “Tell that to Tom.”

“Two nights ago.” Foster said, nodding at everything around them, “I already visited the FBI office today and notified that Tom’s death and the circumstances surrounding it warranted people of a… higher clearance investigating.”

“Investigating what? We know how and who, it was textbook. They were going to do this to Carlisle if me and Ghost didn’t get to him first.” Donnelley spoke pointedly, turning to face Foster, “You let me off the leash and recall the rest of THUNDER, I’ll wipe this whole fucking thing away.”

“You know I can’t do that.” Foster shook his head, looking at Donnelley like he was a misguided kid offering simple solutions to a problem that had none. Maybe he was. “Office of Security wants you. They get what they want.”

Donnelley’s lip curled in contempt as he turned away and stalked off for a cigarette. Everything was becoming a fuck-up and unlike Chechnya, it wasn’t kalashnikovs in the bushes. It was a threat that wanted them all to know just how easily they could be touched.

Ava stepped down from the car, dressed in the blazer she purchased at the start of the case, a mint green blouse and a pair of dark jeans. Not strictly professional but it was the best way to carry her gun and she was reluctant to be without it after everything.

She looked toward the nice, quiet and tasteful house at the center of the crime scene. A shudder ran through her body as she felt a crawling prickling sensation tickle her scalp. She didn’t know if it was from general unease or, God forbid, it had something to do with...whatever was happening to her.

She watched Donnelley stalk away from the familiar form of Foster. She tightened down on a surge of nerves and anger, tried to keep her emotions in check and marched over to him, her hands clenched at her sides. If anyone could tell her what was going on with her, it would be the man that had her recruited into the Program in the first place.

“I need to speak with you.” She said when she walked up to him, trying to keep the glare off her face as she looked up at his features.

Foster looked away from Donnelley and nodded to Ava, eyes noticing the small nuances of her stance. If it put him off, it didn’t show, “Yes?”

Ava glanced around for a moment to make sure no one was close to over hear them, because what she was about to say would make her sound crazy. “I’m having dreams and visions and I’m sleepwalking again.” She said, looking up at him and waving her hand to the house. “I saw this last night, through the eyes of Tom’s poor wife. Something is happening to me and I need to know what because I can’t make sense of it.”

“I’m sorry.” Foster said, frowning at Ava, “I can’t tell you what’s happening. Not in the sense that… you know, but I really can’t.”

He shook his head and sighed, “If you have time, I need to show you something. It might shed some light on some things for you.” He said, “You have to promise me that this stays in our Group.”

Ava felt her frustration drop out from under her, followed quickly by a sense of disappointment and then dread. “What is it?” She asked nervously, her head turning slightly to try and catch sight of Dave or Laine or Donnelley from the corner of her eye.

“Come with me.” Foster said, turning for his car parked along the curb, a grey Chevy Malibu. He opened his driver door and beckoned for Ava to follow him inside. Once she’d closed her door, Foster reached into the back seat to get his laptop. On the screen was a website, it’s layout in a grey and red color scheme. A forum, the name ‘Dream Syndicate’ boldly emblazoned at the top of the page.

He let Ava watch his screen as he scrolled through the site, clicking on a board called ‘Dream Meanings and Analyzing’, and then clicked on the newest post- “HELP ME FIND OUT WHAT IT MEANS!!”

There was a detailed post going through the events that seemed to eerily mirror what had happened two nights ago, the post made at the early hours of the morning. The poster seemed frenzied, barely formatting their writing in an attempt to get everything they’d seen onto the page. Ava may have recognized it more and more as she read. Below the original post were others that said they’d had the same dream, every detail matching the others’ experiences to a tee. “We could never find out why you were like you were or who your real parents were. I ran background checks and everything.” Foster said, “We hadn’t seen anything like you from the files I could get access to. But the Program has tracked this website for a while now ever since the Malaysia Airlines jet went missing.”

He passed the computer to Ava to scroll through the website herself, “These people are like you. Some of these dreams, we traced them and pinned them to real happenings.” He shook his head and sat back, “Some of them match case files from our own lockers.”

Ava sat quietly, scrolling through the website with the faint blue light of the computer reflected in her glasses. “Did you look into the people posting these?” She asked, looking up at him with furrowed brows. “Is there...some kind of connection between them? Us? A pattern?”

“None of the IPs belong to anybody that should have access to anything nearly as secret as what they’re talking about.” He said, looking between Ava and the computer, “They’re all kids. Some of them as young as twelve. Most have CPS files, but not all. Most of the posts come from Stateside. Most of them are only-children, no siblings.”

Foster shrugged, “I don’t know, but if anything,” Foster sighed, “You’re not the only one out here dealing with it.”

“Look up the term ‘Marlene’ in the site’s search function.” He said, “Tell me what you find.”

Ava’s frown deepened, but turned back to the computer to type in the name ‘Marlene’. She read quietly for a few moments, a chill running down her spine. “These...They’re talking about the thing back at Baughman’s cabin. The thing that nearly killed Laine.” She said softly, leaning back into her seat, her expression stunned as she stared at the screen. “They’re talking about the exact events that happened when UMBRA got there.”

She shook her head, running a hand over her hair. “Where did these kids come from?” She shook her head again, still processing the information. “There has to be some kind of connection...What is the Program going to do with this?”

“Office of Intelligence and Security monitors it for anything that might be useful. It’s how I got to Tom’s house so quick.” Foster frowned, “I wanted you to see it. When I recruited you, I knew the Program would need an actual asset with the same ability. Turns out, UMBRA does. You might be a tinkerer, a hacker, but there’s so much more.”

“For what it’s worth…” Foster looked at Ava, “I’m sorry it has to be you here.”

Ava stared back at the computer screen, her childhood and adolescence bouts of nightmares and night terrors rushing back to her. “I don’t see how it’ll be helpful.” She said, looking up to the house with an expression of sorrow mingled with exhaustion. “It didn’t help them.” She took in a deep breath and tried to pull together some amount of strength.

“It’d be nice if I could throw things around with my mind or shoot Force lightning, but I guess we’re stuck with dreams we don’t understand.” She said, turning to him with a forced smile, making the joke mostly for her own sake than his. “Is it safe to say that I’m the oldest of these kids?” She asked, shifting her eyes back to the computer.

Foster nodded, “We think so.” Foster said, “Anything else?”

“Yeah,” She nodded. “Do you know where I was abandoned?”

“West Virginia.” Foster shrugged, “Anything other than that is a mystery. All we know is that someone found you. Wouldn’t be having this conversation otherwise.”

She passed his laptop back to him. “It’s a start at least.”




Donnelley flicked the last of his cigarette far off past the borders of the crime scene and withdrew another from his pack. He only had his lucky one left and he sucked his teeth at that, shoving it back in his coat’s inside pocket. He spotted the man he was looking for standing away from everyone else, looking even more the sore thumb than he might’ve hoped in his flannel and jeans… and the sizeable lump in his lip.

Donnelley stepped up to him and lit his cigarette, looking Dave up and down through his Ray Ban style shades. Finally, his lip turned up just a hair, “I thought I said dress for the occasion, Bunyan.”

Dave glanced at Donnelley, gave him a sheepish grin. "I forgot my suit," he shrugged. "Well, I didn't forget it forget it, but it's in my bag and kinda… You know. Squashed. So I figured this was better than showin' up lookin' like a bag of smashed assholes, you know?"

“Fair ‘nuff.” Donnelley nodded, looking back at the house and feeling another wave of hot anger, “I’m gonna kill ‘em. All of ‘em.”

"I'll help," Dave said seriously. He didn't know Tom, not well, but he was still one of their own. An attack on him showed that none of them were safe. "You gimme that call, man, an' I'll be there."

Donnelley exhaled smoke and nodded, “Keep the phone close.” He said, looking about the scene and shaking his head, “I seen enough. Let’s go.”




>ENVISION HOTEL
>BOSTON, MA
>1030...///

“Remember to be on your best behavior.” Foster squeezed Donnelley’s shoulder and was promptly shrugged off.

“Fuck off.”

“If you’re nervous, just remember I’m there.” Foster was trying to lighten the mood, Donnelley could tell, but there wasn’t any lifting of his spirits just then. Evidenced by the glare, “I’m sorry.”

“Did they hire you because you’re an asshole, or did they teach you at The Farm?” Donnelley frowned. Foster just pursed his lips and shrugged.

“They’re not going to find anything,” Foster inclined his head towards Donnelley as he packed his suit back into his bag, “Right?”

“Foster, are you insinuating that I’m feeding intel to Russian GRU?” Donnelley narrowed his eyes, “Fuck. You.”

“All I needed to know.” Foster nodded, “Now, remember to answer them just like that. See you there.”

Donnelley shook his head and growled, busying his hands with folding his clothes and stuffing them into his luggage. How Foster could go from grieving Case Officer to an impish little prick circling his head, he could never know. Perhaps it was payment for all the times Donnelley was an asshole. Whatever it was, a break would be welcome, but he knew Foster was right about what he’d said earlier.

Office of Security wanted them. Office of Security got what they wanted.




>LANGLEY, VIRGINIA
>CIA HQ, UNDERGROUND PARKING
>24JUL2019
>1700...///

“Listen,” Donnelley’s voice hard and serious in the back of the sprinter van they were all stuffed into at the airport. Even Avery had joined them. They were cargo, roughly handled by suited assholes belonging to the Program. The Inquisition, Donnelley thought bitterly, “I’ll say this one more time. We all know what happened that night. Stick to it. Tell the truth about everythin’, we’re fuckin’ innocent.”

He looked around at the faces of his team, all of them here awaiting to be thrown deep into the belly of the beast. “Anybody got anything they wanna say?”

Before anyone could answer, the back doors of the van were thrown open, their driver and his partner stepping back and nodding, “It’s time. Follow us.”

The walk was brisk, the pace of their inquisitors that of busy men with a dearth of time to spend on formalities such as saying anything or smiling. At least Donnelley and the others were spared being paraded through the Agency HQ in handcuffs. Those of them that didn’t have badges provided to them by the Agency or one of its contractors like Donnelley or Ava were scanned in and told that badges would be made for them.

The last part about the badges only being made if they weren’t found to be guilty of treason or espionage, or whatever charges could be drummed up, was politely left unsaid. The walk finally took them far deeper into the underbelly of Langley, a place seldom few ever got to see. Past a guarded gate they had to scan through, and a walkway that led into a bland, windowless, concrete citadel of an office complex. After a brief foray into the offices with hushed conversations interrupted by their passing, trilling ringtones, and the sounds of a small and secretive government agency at work, they were dumped off into a glass meeting room.

A long table adorned with still steaming coffee mugs apparently poured out for them prior to their arrival was at the center. They were expected to take a seat, and so Donnelley did, taking up his roost at the head of the table. “This is gonna be so fun.” He droned, “Just one last time, before the vultures of the Office of Security peck us to death… y’all ain’t double agents, right?”

Dave made a sound of nervous amusement. Unlike Donnelley he was standing, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed and sweat on his brow.

"Hell, I ain't barely a regular agent, let alone a double one," he said with an uneasy grin. Still, beneath his nervous demeanor he was angry. In fact he was mad as hell.

Being manhandled by federal goons had pissed him off good. Only his trust in Donnelley's leadership had kept him from manhandling them right back; that, and the knowledge that they undoubtedly knew about his boy, and he didn't trust them not to play dirty.

Ava turned her chair around to smile at Dave, picking the one closest to him without much thought. She left her coffee where it was sitting, she was already anxious enough, she didn’t need to make it worse with caffeine.

She didn’t know how they would react to her visions and she hoped that they didn’t know about the hospital incident. It wouldn’t exactly help their case, or at least not her’s.

“I think I’d notice if I was.” She said, forcing a bit of good humor into her voice. “The only thing Red about me is my hair.”

Laine sat in a chair adjacent to Donnelley’s head of the table position. She had been silent nearly the entire trip, her face a mask of calm professionalism in a predictably black suit blazer and skirt combination. She forced herself to go over the events, making sure nothing was overlooked or switched around. Forcing herself not to think of the little girl they were never able to rescue because of plans going awry, Laine watched the door, waiting for the call.

Across the table from Laine was a quickly silent Jason, a wrinkled blue dress shirt snug against his bulky form and lined with messy creases. He avoided eye contact, letting his eyes skate across the table’s surface, Adam’s apple bulged against his collar as he swallowed. His mouth was on the verge of a sticky dryness and he chanced the bitter coffee to wet his throat.

“Always hated this building,” Jason croaked, slurping another scalding splash of coffee. “Reminds me of Houston. You sweat inside the fuckin’ buildings.”

He had been wholly absent in Boston, confined to his room pouring over Karen Barr’s Sky Devil and a plethora of John Keel kindle books. Even now his eyes seemed distant, checked out. He felt it too, feeling almost hypnagogic. Waking but not awake, not sleeping but dreaming. All he had to do was tell it straight and get back to what mattered. Today was just another song and dance, it had to be. A faint shean of moisture settled on his forehead, and another sip of coffee kept his body temperature uncomfortably high.

“Better than Seattle.” Donnelley sighed.

Laine shifted her gaze looking at Jason starting the sweat. The room was stuffy and growing more warm with all their bodies in the closed space. She sat up and unbuttoned her blazer, slipping it off and hanging it on the back of the chair. The snug gray blouse was light weight and she immediately felt better.

"This is estuary country, marsh," she said, after a long silence through the ride. "Neither land or water, something else entirely. A border between worlds."

Her thoughts had not been on the ecology of the DC area but of the Hound and his handlers, where it came from and how it traveled. There must be something, a portal or path, a border. But it was a subject out of her depth and she would have to change it, force herself to embrace that strange reality.

“Mud,” Donnelley frowned, looking around at the cubicles and offices situated a small distance away from this glass box. They were locked away like animals in a zoo, “And secrets.”

Jason leaned back in his chair and gave each of them a darting glance. He wish he had more coffee, something to do with his hands. Secrets. After some of his hotel aesthetic reading it had an entirely different context.

“Back in 73 the CIA had this program, psychics used like spy planes,” Jason said, tone and pitch airy as if amused with myself for telling the story. “This guy Ingo Swann is putting on a show for some spooks and they only give him some coordinates, longitude, latitude. Ingo starts describing this place, first the hills and trees, the driveway, the cabin.

“He goes inside,” he quotes with his fingers, “offers to look inside a black filing cabinet. Reads this codename on a document and gives a sketch. Problem is one of the spooks gave coordinates to his summer cabin and it’s the wrong building. No one knew nearby there was a NSA code breaking facility. Codename even confirmed it. When they asked how he got it wrong, he just said ‘the more you hide something, the more it shines like a beacon.’”

Donnelley quirked his brow at Jason before he locked his eyes on a pair of suited men quickly closing in on their holding cell. One of them held a dossier and the other was Foster, whose face looked like he was holding nothing but nervousness. His brow was knit firmly together as he and the other man opened the door. The man next to Foster spoke first, “My name is Booker, Office of Security with Internal Affairs.”

“Your Case Officer Steven Foster has signed you over to us for the minimum duration of two days to get everything sorted out.” Booker looked around at Working Group UMBRA, his eyes boring into each of theirs with the most subtle hint of what a cat must feel with a mouse in its sights, “But we are fully prepared to extend this if we find any discrepancies.”

He smiled tightly as his eyes ran over the assembled agents in reverse order, fangs peeking out from behind thin lips, “We have two rooms dedicated to this investigation. You,” He nodded to Laine, then looked at Jason, “And you.”

Laine glanced at Donnelley, a moment of seeking reassurance before the cool expression settled into place and she stood up, swinging her jacket over her shoulder. She turned her gaze to the man who held their freedom in his hand, he had a weasel smile and a slick look that showed he enjoyed their discomfort. Her attention pulled away and Laine waited for Jason, keeping her eyes on him.

Jason smirked, sighing as he rocked to his feet. He wondered how this place would look to Ingo Swann, lit up like a sad parking lot carnival he could walk through like a ghost. Damn, he didn’t want to be here. A waste of everyone’s time. He passed Ava and looked down at the top of her head, his smirk fading. Jason wanted to hide her from them, from the whole agency. Whatever was happening to her wasn’t meant for I.A. or oversight committees to see. They’d only determine her a risk and pin her to a table like a butterfly. They’d peel her wings off, alright. If the team had time they could figure it out, what it meant. And they could keep her safe, despite recent events. It was a comforting lie.

Ava tore her eyes away from Agent Booker after a few moments studying him, finding it hard to not glare at the man for seemingly enjoying the delicate position they were in. Like he assumed they were already guilty of something and he couldn’t wait to needle it out of them.

She felt her nerves grow and was glad she hadn’t touched her coffee. She was beginning to doubt telling them what she had gone through before the Hound appeared.

She glanced over her shoulder as Jason passed, then looked up at him; offering up as encouraging a smile as she could when she saw the expression on his face. She didn’t envy him having to go first.




>LAINE
>INTERVIEW ROOM 1
>1710...///

“Please, stay put.” Booker droned as he pulled the metal chair whining across the concrete floor and offering it to Laine.

It was a drab place, of the same menace as Beckley Prison. Four sterile white walls looming over the two of them, and a mirrored window stretching across one. No doubt, a team of Counterintel and IA agents were clustered around it to watch the show. Foster might be behind it, and he was the only friendly face any of them had here. “Your interviewer will be here shortly.”

The last thing Laine heard before the room grew silent with only her breath was the shutting of the door. Moments passed by at the speed of a glacier, seeming almost an hour in this stagnant and dusty lonesome. The sound of the door opening heralded Laine’s interviewer, the tall, dusky man coming into view and plopping himself down in the seat across from her. His curly black hair pulled back into a bun and he pushed his glasses up his nose as he set a Manila folder on the table.

“Hello,” he smiled, seeming almost friendly in comparison to Booker’s wolf’s grin, “My name is Feroz. I am your interviewer. Please state your name, date, and place of birth.”

Laine waited out the time recounting details, not just of the events but of her team. Each person held a place now in her heart and her life, even Tom, poor dead naive Tom. And Laury and Gwen, they had been killed by the thing that hunted Renko. It could be anyone of them next, UMBRA picked apart one by one until they were gone. It meant at least they were getting close, the more dangerous it became.

The door opened and interrupted her thoughts, the man did not look like a CIA spook but that meant little, he was still there to try and pick her story apart.

"Hello Feroz," Laine responded in the same polite professional tone. She was giving him information he most likely already had, control questions. "My name is Dr Heather Laine, born January 30th, 1985 in Van Nuys, California."

“California,” Feroz chuckled, “Some ways from home.”

Feroz kept his smile as he reached into his bag and pulled out a recorder, a pad, and a pen. He began scribbling down notes and pressed record, reciting the names of both of them and then looking back at Laine, “So, I would like to know something. Did all the members of Working Group UMBRA witness the unnatural incursion vector- this Hound- and were you all there when the GRU Officer made contact?”

Laine gave him a tight smile and a slight shrug, "You go where the work is."

"All the members that were present," she replied, "Myself, Dave, Ava, and Avery not a member of UMBRA but he was there as Safehouse security. And we were all there when the man calling himself Renko showed up on the doorstep."

Feroz nodded, “Okay. And the rest of the team?”

"You mean Mr Donnelley? He was out with two other Program members to apprehend a local drug runner working for the Russian mob in this area, the Tadjbegskye Bratva," Laine said, looking directly at Feroz, clasping her hands loosely as they rested on the table.

“At about what time was their return with this target?” Feroz asked, “Just trying to get a timeline between their leaving and Renko’s arrival.”

Laine shrugged slightly, “It was very late or early rather, in the dark of the morning. I don’t recall checking the time, things were very tense. I just know it was at least after 2 AM and before sunrise.”

She could not remember, even after recalling and going over the events for hours. That night time seemed elastic to stretch into long minutes that lasted a lifetime and snapped forward flying towards the reckoning.

“I see,” Feroz scribbled more notes, “And your Team Lead was not present for Renko’s arrival? Can you recount everything you can remember? Please, do try to be detailed, Dr. Laine.”

"No, he was out on a ... mission, I guess you might call it. We were resting at the Safehouse, going over the case when there was a knock on the door. Dave and Avery held guns on the door. There was nothing at the door, Avery saw nothing but you could feel it. Like the tension before the storm breaks."

Laine took a sip of the cold coffee and glanced at the interviewer. "There was a smell, like burning wires. Then more knocking but Avery kept saying he couldn't see anyone until we heard the voice. The man appeared. Just like that, from what I understand. He didn't walk up the sidewalk.
He was telling us he needed our help, that something was coming through. That we needed to help him. There was a moment of uncertainty, we had our guns out and this guy, who he later identified himself as Renko, held his own gun to his head. It was very tense but...well, he said he could stop what was coming, turn it away but we had to help."

Laine paused, reaching up to rub her forehead then brush her thick dark hair back. "Then he drew a circle on the carpet in salt, and when we were all inside it gave us these papers to read. A phrase in a language I didn't understand."

Her eyes flicked away from Feroz for a moment before meeting his gaze again, "Then the Hound came."

Feroz nodded slow, keeping his gaze on Laine’s, taking his moment before he spoke, “So, Renko made contact, asking for your help, and then instructed you on how to turn away this Hound?” Feroz nodded again, looking down finally to scribble more while speaking, “Interesting. Thank you, Dr. Laine. We can follow up on this for the duration of your stay here at Langley if needed.”

Feroz stood and offered his hand, “You are helping a lot with this.” He smiled, “We take things like this very seriously.”

Laine nodded, giving a slight lift of her shoulders, "That's fine."

She stood once he did and shook his hand, "I would assume you would. And are you going to need me around the entire time? I live not too far in Stafford County and I'd like to check up on my place."

“We’ll have some of our people take care of that for you during your stay here.” Feroz smiled politely. Something to put her at ease coming from anyone else, but a veiled show of just how much the Program knew about her already without her giving it to them. How deep that rabbit hole went was anyone’s guess. “Have a good day, Dr. Laine.”

Laine bit her tongue, then just smiled slightly before leaving the room. A reminder they were basically prisoners until they were cleared. She walked with a quick, purposeful stride out to the waiting room.




>JASON
>INTERVIEW ROOM 2
>1710...///

There were no formalities for Jason. Booker had split the pair of Jason and Laine, leading Laine down the corridor and disappearing behind a metal door. Another set of footsteps were coming up the hallway, belonging to a stocky gentleman that Jason could see was a few inches shy of himself. If this bothered the man, he didn’t show it. He smelled of cigarettes and too much body spray, his frown nestled in a rug of beard and brows that seemed permanently knit together.

He held his hand out for Jason, a friendly gesture from a man who looked anything but, “What’s up, big man?”

“Oh, just waiting for the foreplay,” Jason said, taking the hand and reciprocating a firm, respectful squeeze and shake. He beamed a playful smile, thinking good humor could defuse the muggy tension. He tried to keep his mind clear, blank. Tuned out.

“Mm.” His face hadn’t even twitched into anything different than what it started off as. “First time here? You’re one of Foster’s, yeah?”

“This floor? Nah,” Jason said, looking around at nothing in particular. “Been around for interagency training, consultation. You know how it goes.”

Jason didn’t smoke but the thought of working a cigarette from table to lips and back again was appealing. He wanted to do something with his hands, and smoking looked more calm than idly tearing up paper or fingernails. The interrogator hadn’t given his name but Jason hardly thought it mattered. He turned his gaze to his questioner and sank into whatever chair he was ushered into.

There were questions, but Jason thought it best to respond, not give any leading curiosity. It hadn’t been internal affairs but he had been on the other side of the desk before. Any leading comment, answers too quickly given, fake events corroborated out of fear—anything he said now was evidence.

“You point, I march, Agent,” Jason said, almost surprised at his own confidence. “Just tell me where we need to go.”

“Alright,” The other man smiled, “First things first, name’s John. Figure that’s enough for my introduction. I take it you know that I already know your name, so let’s take it back a bit.”

John rested back in his seat, demeanor as if this was a chat at a bar and not an official interview. “What did you talk about when you went back to Florida after your debut with Donnelley and Foster?”

“Department head wanted a chat, well—he wanted to chew someone’s ass. At the time we had a major Ops fiasco and my recruitment was timed during the windfall. I guess I turned into the fall guy.”

“Ain’t that some shit.” John shook his head, “I understand they shoved you into Embassy duty riding a desk somewhere. Can’t have been fun.”

John smirked and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the stainless steel table between him and his subject. “Where’d they put you again? And how long until you made it CONUS?”

“Amman,” Jason said, watching John move with a canine-like like focus. His eyes were practically glinting with thought. “I can’t remember how many weeks it was until I was back home. Mostly I was approving daily reports for embassy staff, sometimes answered questions for the ambassador’s risk assessment team.”

The embassy wasn’t fun the way detention wasn’t a thrill for a teenager. Monotony was its own torture. If Jason could have done it again he would have read more, would have scrounged any material that related to high strangeness, anything to make sense of the Program. He still hadn’t found an intersection between what was happening to the team and the growing gamut of paranormal accounts in the modern world, but it was a wide world, growing wider by the day. Who knows what Syrian town where the residents dream together could be linked to a strange being stalking livestock in Puerto Rico, or a section of an Australian refuge known for its ‘time slips.’ There was so, so much happening around the world. They were just interested in the boogeymen.

Jason spread his elbows on the table and leaned in, thinking over John’s questions. “But you know all that John. Report no later than dates, agency accountability, flight itineraries. This isn’t about where I was.”

John seemed to warm as Jason showed his teeth so early from the start. Like the master meeting a peer, a twinkle of interest shone in his eye. “Nope.” John put it bluntly, “We both know Russians are active in Syria. After Ukraine gave up their nukes, they handed Russia their balls too.”

“And they’ve been getting braver ever since.” John’s smile widened, “Everybody here at the Agency heard about the little asset who knocked over so much. I wonder how that happened.”

“I’m not here to prod at scabs, Jason. I know the DIA is already doing that enough. I’m just wanting to know how a single asset royally fucked US interests in Syria just around the time British Intelligence loses track of a big ass American there, Daesh comes out of the shadows in Iraq and starts skinning people, and Russians kill three of our own agents with demons in Massachusetts and bumfuck West Virginia- agents you knew- a stone’s throw from Quantico and Langley.” John’s eyes took a hardened edge, voice like rasps over a whetstone, “A single asset with a single handler. You been busy lately, Jason?”

John sat back, laying his hands over his lap, as he regained his Devil-may-care smirk, “Just asking.”

Jason’s lips tensed in a closed lip smile, his eyes on the table. He was nodding as he listened to this ‘agent John,’ could see the narrative he had put together. It was all conjecture as far as Jason was concerned, how he inferred Jason’s place in all of this. He could see the ways he could pick it apart, and he was getting lost in its mental sinkhole.

“That big American in Lebanon, the ones British intelligence lost track of, that’s a crock of shit,” Jason said. He crossed his arms and leaned against the back of his chair, eyes now glowering at John. He didn’t mean to bite back but he couldn’t help the outburst.

“And think about that asset,” he went on, “A fucking nineteen year old looking for an amnesty ticket to the states. Low level running boy. And he orchestrates this shitshow? He, it—they’re symptoms, not causes. What is this, fuckin’ pin the tail on the commie?”

“That’s fair.” John shrugged, “I just hope you understand when I say that I’m still fucking suspicious about all of this.”

Aren’t we all, Johnny boy.

“Even if I give Foster and that asshole Donnelley the benefit of the doubt that they weren’t too busy pulling cowboy shit to remember the Program’s SOPs,” John leaned forward again, elbows on the table, “A foreign intel officer from a hostile agency locking a Working Group in without being flagged themselves by Program CI, much less those Fucking Big Idiots in Quantico…”

John frowned, shrugging his shoulders as he stood and sighed, “I don’t want to believe that some of our people are being clocked. I don’t want what happened in the Middle East to happen here, Jason.

John locked Jason into a long stare, eyes searching for something. Emeralds glinting in his aged face, dissing out anything they could in the tiniest movements of Jason’s own dark eyes. He sighed long and hard, pushing off the table and he didn’t even say goodbye as the door shut on Jason, leaving him alone in the room.




>DAVE
>INTERVIEW ROOM 1
>1740...///

The door shutting heralded Dave’s false solitude. Behind the two-way mirror were probably faceless inquisitors waiting for the Mountain Man to make one fatal slip of the tongue so they could swoop down, slap the cuffs on him, and lock him away for espionage. Or maybe not. Who knew? In short time, the door opened again, and from around Dave’s peripheral, a gruff looking man with a scruffy beard stepped into view and set himself down in the chair across from Dave.

He smelled of tobacco, and something about him could’ve been likened to Donnelley. The smirk, the thick black beard that crawled up to his cheekbones and reached down past his neck, the heavy eyes that seemed to be taking Dave apart in his head. It stopped there, his hair was obscured by a gray Carhartt cap that fit with the neutral tones of his gray 5.11 pants, olive drab shirt and brown bomber jacket. He had maybe twenty pounds in burly heft and gut on Donnelley. The accent was close though, “How’s it, man?” The man asked, “Let’s start with names, mine’s John.”

"Dave." He hated him. His stupid smirk, his stupid operator beard, his dumbass bomber jacket. Dave even hated his hat. "Dave MacCready."

The mountain man eyed his interrogator, the Fed who'd been sent to pick holes in his story and try to find a reason to black-bag him off to some CIA gulag in Alaska or something. He bit back a growl and reached into his pocket, taking out his Cope and snapping the can a few times before digging out a respectable wad and jamming it in his lip. He'd seen half a dozen 'tobacco free' signs as they were led in. Fuck 'em.

"Guess we might as well get started," Dave grunted, prodding his dip into place with the tip of his tongue. "I don't figure my constitutional rights are terribly important here, so just ask your questions."

John’s smirk only widened as he nodded, his eyes narrowing ever so slightly. So, it was like this, then. He’d be a little less pleasant than the big ass Mexican. “Still talk to your Pa, Dave?”

"Not since I put a gun in his face for darin' to show up when my boy was born," Dave said, a touch of anger showing that was brought on not by the question, but by the memories they conjured. "I ain't on speakin' terms with them. They ain't my kin."

“Huh.” John seemed unimpressed, that infuriating and self-assured smirk still playing across his face. “Look, man, I’m not here to play who’s the biggest asshole in the room. I’m saving that for Donnelley.”

John leaned back in his chair and placed his hands in his coat pockets, bringing them out with a pack of Marlboros and a Zippo with the 101st Airborne insignia engraved into it. He put a cigarette between his lips and lit up, “I’m just here to ask all y’all just how in the heck a Russian spy pranced right up to your front door and wrecked a fucking Safehouse.” John shrugged, “Because, as I have it, everybody else has some firm ties to LEAs and the CIA. What do you think I see when I read your file, Dave MacCready? Not pointing fingers, of course.”

“Aren’t you the only one left out of Working Group BLACKBEARD?” John frowned, cocking his brow, “They were killed the same way as a shitload of Sinaloa, killed the same way as Tom.”

John held his hands out, “What a heck of a coincidence, man.” John sighed, “And you haven’t even called Bob Kopelmann to tell him all about your adventures with UMBRA. Who have you called when Donnelley dropped you off back home and fucked off to drink and fuck somewhere?"

"But you ain't here to play 'who's the biggest asshole', right?" Dave snorted, thoroughly unamused. "You serious? I don't even trust our fuckin' government, and you think I'd trust Ivan? And lemme guess, I'm some sorta super-assassin, runnin' around skinnin' folks like the goddamn Predator."

"First off, I ain't called Bob 'cuz I don't fuckin' know how. He never gave me a number, an' when I talked to Foster 'bout it he just said not to worry, he'd handle it," Dave began counting off on his fingers. "Second, BLACKBEARD got killed by some big-ass goddamn monster that chased me halfway to Hell, and put a hole in Donnelley's leg when we was tryin'a get away from it. I ain't talked to nobody about what I'm doin' cuz I ain't got nobody to talk to 'cept my boy and his mom, an' my grampa, an' I ain't talked to them 'cuz they don't need to be mixed up in none of this shit."

He shook his head, lowering his hand to the table. "An' as for the Russian, I dunno how the fuck he found us. He just came bangin' on the door with a gun to his own head, hollerin' about monsters. An' then one fuckin' appeared, man. Now I ain't a spy, an' I ain't a soldier. I'm just a dumb-ass shitkicker from Arkansas who's handy with a rifle an' a bag of fertilizer. How about you tell me what the fuck's goin' on?"

“I don’t know, ask your Team Lead.” John shrugged, taking another drag and blowing it toward the ceiling, “I’m just trying to piece together this fucking shit-show of an Op y’all are running, and so far, you’re the only one I can even think of pointing a finger at.”

“Colorful history. Tough childhood, whatever. I been there. Just I didn’t get put to sleep getting read the Unabomber’s manifesto and eating MREs for breakfast before marksmanship practice.”

"We read Mein Kampf. The Old Man thought Ted was a government plant. An' Donnelley don't know what's goin' on either, or he'd tell us," Dave grunted, bristling slightly at the implied slur against his friend. "Look, if you know my history like ya say, then you'll understand why I think this whole deal is fuckin' stupid. I got guns an' some Tannerite, an' a record that's mostly bar fights an' drivin' without a license. I ain't ever been to prison, an' more than half the dudes I've roughed up at the bar had Confederate flag truck stickers an' swastika tattoos. I ain't a choir boy, but I sure as shit ain't no Russian spy, neither."

“Then tell me about Renko.” John offered, “We have polygraphs if y’all want us to break them out, or you could just make it real easy on me.”

"They ain't admissible in court, too unreliable," Dave said, almost by reflex. "But fine. Donnelley, Ghost, an' that other fuckin' clown were off doin' some operator shit, an' left me with Avery an' the ladies."

He recounted the tale step by step, from his decision to sit up in the living room after the attack on their previous safehouse, up through Renko's arrival and departure. Everything, the sounds, the smells, the way the words he chanted burned his throat and made his gums bleed. The only things he neglected to mention were Ava's visions; Foster had made that seem like a secret, and it wasn't any of this jackboot's fucking business anyway.

"He's a weird dude," Dave finished, sitting back in his chair. "Some kinda… Witch or somethin', I dunno. Whatever he did, it made that demon or Hound or whatever-the-fuck go away, an' it seemed like it went away pissed. Maybe hurt."

“So, some fucking warlock threatens to kill himself and expels a demon.” The humor was not lost on John, as he chuckled a bit before nodding, “Okay. So, after he does his magic trick, he tells you about a suspect in Charleston, leaves you some vodka and skips away.”

John let out a good laugh and slapped the table, leaving his hand there and pushing himself up from his chair. He ground the end of his cigarette on the table and left it, pausing at the door. “Oh, and Dave?” John said, “I think I won that game, by the way. Dismissed, get back to the box.”

The last sound in the room was the shutting of the door.




>AVA
>INTERVIEW ROOM 2
>1745...///

The hum of the overhead fan had gone on so long that Ava hardly noticed it now. Everything about the room was almost hospital sterile. The floor was concrete, the furniture was shiny metal, white walls, and a mirrored window across one wall. Her lonesome had gone on for a long time, perhaps seeing how she acted. They were expecting nervousness, of course. Who wouldn’t be? Whoever was behind the glass seemed faceless monsters, licking at their chops. Or silent judges.

Finally, the door opened, the loud sound echoing through the interview room suddenly enough to be startling. A tall woman with pale skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes took her place across from Ava. She smiled pleasantly, offering her hand over the table, “My name is Angeline, with Internal Affairs. I’m sorry I took so long, how are you?”

Ava blinked at the woman, standing up so she could reach over and shake her hand. When thinking of the appearance of her interrogator, Ava had not been picturing someone like Angeline.

In some ways that made her more nervous. “I’m alright, all things considered.” She answered

“Good,” Angeline settled back in her seat, knitting her fingers together, “I think you know why you’re all here, I’ll spare you anything about that.”

Angeline reached down to her leather bag and withdrew a dossier, gently placing it unopened on the table, “Please, can you recount what happened the night Renko made contact?”

Ava took in a deep breath, recounting the events of the night with relative ease thanks to her ability to vividly recall memories that she was cursing right about then.

When it came time to get to the detail of her vision of The Hound before it arrived; she hesitated. The silence stretched on for a moment too long and Angeline pursed her lips, “Is that all, Miss Moore? Nothing particular stood out about that night?” Angeline smiled sheepishly, a little consoling, “Besides the, um, Hound.”

“There was this smell in the air, like burning wires or kind of like how you smell ozone before a lightning strike.” Ava resumed slowly. “I was the first to smell it, I remarked on it and then Agent Laine left Agent Pari and I in the room. Then... I felt this,” She frowned as she tried to put to words what she felt before her visions came. “Shift, like I was struck with vertigo all of a sudden.”

“Interesting.” Angeline nodded, “So, the others didn’t notice it at first or… was there anything different between your perception of events versus your team’s?”

Ava pursed her lips in thought for a moment then gave a self deprecating smile. “You’ll think I’m crazy.”

Angeline took the smile and ran with it, a textbook showing of trust in some amount between the two. Angeline smiled back, a small chuckle, “Miss Moore,” she began, leaning forward almost conspiratorially, “You and I both know who we work for. If anybody outside this building knew what we deal with, they’d call us all crazy.”

Angeline leaned back again, gentle smile still on her lips, “Please, I won’t think you’re crazy. Go on.”

Ava sighed, there was no turning back now. “I saw the Hound before it...I guess materialized is the best word for it. I saw it looking at me and even when I closed my eyes, I still saw it.” She frowned, staring down at the table. “I don’t really...remember much between that and it disappearing. I remember Dave grabbing me and running, but my mind was filled with the image of that thing.” She shuddered and shook her head. “Hard to forget something like that.”

“I can imagine.” Angeline nodded along, a frown to mirror Ava’s on her own face. She cleared her throat after studying the other woman, carrying on with the interview, “And have there been any incidents of this same nature before or after this happening?”

“When I was originally recruited to the Program.” Ava answered, her stomach curling as the hospital incident flashed back to her. “And I had an episode of sleepwalking after the Hound.” She sighed again and pushed her glasses up to pinch the bridge of her nose. “I’m never going to get to sleep again and I already didn’t sleep much being IT.”

Angeline’s eyes flicked to the two-way mirror on the wall before she continued in stride, “Please, tell me more about the sleepwalking after the Hound.”

Ava straightened herself up enough to notice the glance towards the mirror and realized that they were drifting away from the original topic set at hand. “With all due respect.” Ava said carefully. “That has nothing to do with the incident involving Renko, which is what this interview is about.” She smiled apologetically. “Please, let’s not get off topic. I’d like to get back to our case.”

Angeline’s smile grew a bit as she nodded, “Of course.” She said, “Another role of this interview is making sure that members of the Program are fit for duty. Another thing IA does, is all.”

“You wouldn’t be having any… thoughts or feelings about your readiness to resume the Blackriver case, would you?” Angeline asked, tone every bit the concerned colleague. “This is a pretty extenuating occurrence that the Program takes seriously. Witnessing an unnatural incursion firsthand can be… traumatic. Both to physical and mental health.”

Starting to see her game now, Ava brought her guard back up and shrugged. “As far as I’m concerned? I’m ready to get back to work as soon as I leave this room.” She said with genuine conviction and determination in her eyes. “We have some madmen to stop and we aren’t getting anywhere by being here.”

Angeline nodded slowly, “I understand.”

Angeline leaned back in her chair, eyes going up and down Ava before she continued, “I’m not trying to hinder your case, Miss Moore. I’m trying to make sure we have all the pieces, and someone of your… disposition… paired with the details we have of Renko’s appearance is a little concerning.”

She nodded to the mirror, “Their words, not mine.” She smiled, “So, we want to know if Renko is playing a dangerous game with US interests or not, whether or not Renko is who he says he is. The quicker Working Group UMBRA gives their statements, the quicker you can catch your madmen.”

“Who is to say Renko isn’t one of them?” Angeline rose a brow, “Now, Miss Moore… tell me about the circumstances surrounding your sleepwalking incident post-incursion.”

“I fail to see what that has to do with your investigation. Whatever triggered my sleepwalking had nothing to do with Renko.” Ava said, frown deepening. “If you want my honest opinion on why Renko showed himself when he did? I think he needed help getting rid of it, whatever that entailed.” Ava arched her own brow. “Now would you like to hear what happened afterwards, as you claim, because I remember that part quite vividly.”

She smiled, the expression surprisingly chilly. “Because I’m sure I can find some kind of form to file against you for overstepping the parameters of your investigation.” She adjusted her glasses. “I’m quite good at that kind of thing.”

“So I’m told.” Angeline smirked, leaning forward again and knitting her fingers together on the table in front of her. “I’d like to hear about what happened afterwards, then, if you remember it vividly.

“Gladly.” Ava smiled, resisting the urge to crack her knuckles as she took in a breath and launched into a detailed explanation of what happened after the Hound disappeared. An extremely detailed explanation, from time to time she would intentionally veer off in her retelling in order to describe minute details that added absolutely nothing of interest.

She described the placement of the furniture after the Hound was banished, then went to explain how the furniture USED to be set up in the living room. She took minutes describing not only how many holes were knocked into the walls but also the relative size and shapes of the holes. Anything trivial she could think of from the scene that wasn’t important, she made sure to describe, in vivid detail, to Angeline and the people in the glass window behind her.

Not only that, but she decided to call up every bad public speaking habit she could think of and threw those in for a little flavor and make it extra excruciating to listen too. If she had a stick of gum, she’d be chewing it and snapping it as loudly as possible.

Angeline’s smile had disappeared long ago, replaced with a look that could kill that was only barely masked. Whatever vestiges of a smile she had left had been twisted into a crooked smirk. To her credit, she slowly rose, grabbed her things and looked back at Ava. “Thank you.”

The words seemed almost to cut her tongue on the way out and she took a seat on the table, leaning closer to Ava, “If Renko is responsible for the death of Tom, the death of one of our own agents,” Angeline’s lip curled up as her eyes narrowed, “There isn’t a fucking form in existence you could look up if the Program gears up to overstep all over your asses.”

She held Ava’s own glare, “Foster, Donnelley, the goddamn President. No one is stopping my investigation.” Angeline gave Ava one last look over, “Dismissed.”

Angeline stood and the haughty clack-clacking of her high heels only ended with the door slamming shut.

Ava sat there for a few moments before glancing over to the mirror, seeing her pale, freckled face looking back at her with dark bags forming beneath her eyes. She forced a smile back on her face, a crooked little grin she had picked up from another red head. “I think that went well.”




>DONNELLEY
>INTERVIEW ROOM 1
>1810...///

It had been a long, long time since Donnelley was in one of these rooms. An even longer time since he was on the other end of the recorder. The air inside was stagnant, lukewarm. He sat in his uncomfortable metal chair with his arms crossed, chanced a look at the two-way mirror set in the wall and only found himself looking back. Was Foster behind the glass? Who was? He sighed, deciding that train of thought wasn’t worth indulging in.

The door opened behind him and the sound of footsteps brought a familiar face to sit in front of him. Donnelley gave a tight smile, feeling his arms tighten around himself. John smiled back, “Hello, Joe.”

“John.” Donnelley almost growled the name. He immediately knew how this would go. Some years ago, the man in front of him was grilling him about different things. Baseless accusations, trying to get a rise out of him using every stupid shaky line of evidence and possibility there was under the sun.

“How’s the leg?” John asked, “Dave told me about your boo-boo.”

“Dave tell you to go fuck yourself?” Donnelley smirked, “Because if he didn’t, I can.”

“More or less, yeah. It’s in the eyes, you know?” John shrugged, taking his pack of cigarettes out and lighting one, “Want one?”

“Sure, fuck it.” Donnelley took the Marlboro red offered to him and lit it with John’s lighter. He set it back down on the table and spoke before John had a chance, “You gonna ask me if I pointed Renko at my own team, because I think we both know where I stand with Russians.”

“I was.” John admitted, blowing his smoke through his nostrils, “I was going to ask you about Dave and Jason.”

Donnelley laughed, a loud bark full of spite that sounded like a gunshot in the echoey interrogation room. Donnelley had expected that much when Dave had come back to the holding cell with fire in his eyes, “You don’t change much, do you?” Donnelley spat, “I found Dave shiverin’ in the fuckin’ woods and I trust Jason. They were vetted and brought in. That’s all I need to know.”

“You’re not worried Dave’s people are gunning for you out here? They have ties. Maybe not Dave himself, but I understand he pissed off more than a few people from his old life-“

“Oh, shut the fuck up, man.” Donnelley rolled his eyes in exasperation, “You think I’m new to this? All you care about is shuttin’ whatever case file you have on UMBRA while you got us benched here and goin’ back to knockin’ back brews at the bar with the rest of the cocksuckers in IA and CI.”

“Tell a few war stories ‘bout this so y’all can feel like real agents.” Donnelley mocked, his lip curled up in contempt.

John took it in stride, his smirk not drooping an inch while receiving the fiery tirade, “You redheads are feisty.” John chuckled, “So, what were you doing in West Virginia, more cowboy shit? I understand you so love keeping up your image.”

“I’ll let you know it ain’t fucking cute.” John was dead serious at the drop of a dime, “Just because you made it out of Chechnya alive and half-assed an Op by yourself instead of aborting, crawling your sorry ass to safety and trying again with a new Group, it doesn’t make you fucking James Bond.

“Two Program vets were killed because of your shitty decisions, and I have half a mind to recommend that you get taken off of UMBRA before you do the same to these guys.” John growled. “So you better pull some reasons out of your ass, or I’ll PNG you to some embassy and blacklist your ass from any Program work.”

Donnelley’s eyes darkened at that, his head tilting towards John, “Whatever y’all’s game is here, it ain’t gonna be fun for you. You take us off this case and it’s gonna blow the fuck up in your fat fuckin’ face, John.”

“You try to take the easy way out of this and take one of mine to the gallows, I’ll personally fuck your world sideways, boy.” Donnelley’s fists were balled on the table, the filter of the cigarette flattened between two fingers. He let go a sigh and took a draw.

“Two fucking safehouses. You got clocked by Russian GRU in America, dumbfuck.” John jabbed his finger into the table to accentuate his points, frowning something deep, “If anybody sees any of you talking to this dude and the conversation doesn’t end with a lead slug to his forehead, I’m putting you away where no one’s going to find you.”

“I got two ways to work this out, either you’re a fuck-up and getting sloppy with your tradecraft,” John held up a finger and then added another, “Or somebody is giving the Russians your location. Someone close. Could be any of you.”

“Fuck you.” Donnelley growled. “Nobody wanted what happened to happen. Tom was my guy, I’m not a fuckin’ turncoat, you fuckin’ prick.”

“Uh Huh.” John shrugged, “Laine says you were away when Renko showed up. Care to elaborate?”

“Me and the boys in THUNDER hopped over to McMecken’s Run to nab an HVT. He’s a good source so far.” Donnelley said, ashing his cigarette. “Anything else?”

“Yeah.” John smiled, “Do you usually blow up an entire house when you’re trying to be covert?”

“Plausible deniability.” Donnelley smiled back ruefully.

“How many people got killed that night?” John asked.

“Enough of ‘em.” Donnelley answered.

“And the night the Blackriver Safehouse was compromised, how many then?” John asked.

“Enough of ‘em.” Donnelley answered, again.

John chuckled ruefully and shook his head, drawing off his cigarette and looking at Donnelley the same way a school principal might a troublesome child. “I’m telling you, Donnelley, you keep playing fast and loose and you’ll learn life isn’t a fucking movie.” John said, leaning forward across the table, “The hero dies sometimes.”

Donnelley touched his chest and pushed his bottom lip out, trying to muster up some wetness in his eyes to complete the performance, “Did you just… call me a hero?”

John’s eyes narrowed to sharp slits, “I’m starting to think I care about the lives of your team more than you do.”

Donnelley snorted, “Oh, shut the fuck up, you’re the one trying to black bag Dave for the sins of his father, Pontius.” Donnelley held his hands out, “Whatever Laine or Foster or anybody else said happened is the truth. None of us fuckin’ know Renko, none of us are double agents. We’re just a poor ol’ Working Group tryin’ to solve the deaths of some girls, man.”

John got up from his seat and shook his head. He ground his cigarette into the table and stalked off, “Dismissed. This isn’t the last conversation we’ll be having.”

“Yep, nice seeing you again, John.” Donnelley waved back at the man.

“I still don’t believe you did Chechnya by yourself. I find out you got friendly with any Russians over there and just forgot to tell us…” The sound of John smacking a fist into his own palm made Donnelley grin as he stood.

“I’ll tell you like I told IA back then.” Donnelley threw his arms out to the side helplessly, “I don’t remember all of it. You wanna lock me up for forgetting something, go ahead. Agency General Counsel is gonna make you bite the pillow, John.

John lost his usual good humor in the face of the only man who was as much of an antagonistic asshole as he was. Donnelley nodded slow, “And it’s gonna be me behind you.”

The door slammed loud as a gunshot as John left, leaving Donnelley alone in the room. He knew they’d have trouble putting him away for something he didn’t remember huge chunks of. Chechnya was a very non-permissive environment, and on a lot of days, he didn’t really believe he finished the Op all by himself. Anything he didn’t remember was worth as much as a lie to John and IA, especially CI. The bluster seemed to deep out of his chest as he wrung his hands and sighed, looking back at his reflection in the two-way mirror.

He scowled then, giving the people behind it his finger and walked out after, flames in his eyes.




>MEETING ROOM
>1810...///

You could have heard a pin drop inside the glass meeting room. If they had any illusions of comfort in the Program’s hospitality in the form of coffee mugs and a place to sit, they were all gone now. Each one of them were perturbed in some way as they sat in the silence, waiting for Donnelley to get back to the meeting room, now feeling like a zoo enclosure. Two steely-eyed big men in black multicam Crye outfits had taken their place flanking the only door into the meeting room, backs turned. Pistols were holstered at their hips, magazines and cuffs hung at the ready.

The familiar face of Foster stopped in front of them and exchanged a couple words, nodding before he opened the door and stepped inside. He took a seat at the head of the table and sighed, looking at all of them. “I’m sorry.” He said, voice lame in the silence, “About all of this. I don’t know what they’re trying, but this is… it’s something.”

Ava lifted up her head from her arms when the door opened, blinking tired eyes over at Foster. She glanced over to the men outside the door while picking up her glasses. “It certainly seems like they’re interested in more than just what happened with Renko.” She said, leaning back in her chair with a frown. “Unless that was just my interview.” She added, glancing around at the others with a mixture of curiosity and worry.

"Course they are," Dave grumbled from his place against the wall. His blue eyes were stormy, his arms folded, and a fresh dip in. He'd been going steady since they got there.

"They're Feds. Buncha nosey fucks, just tryin'a pick us apart for dirt." He glared at the door, still furious at his interviewer's insinuations that he might secretly be a Russian spy or, worse, in league with his Old Man. "They're all so shifty they can't believe some folk might genuinely wanna help. Gotta think everybody's got an agenda."

"Because they often do," Laine said, glancing at Dave. "It's always a hunt for a bigger fish and the deals you have to make to find him."

Ava frowned and sighed, leaning back in her chair. “This is why I stick with computers, they’re a lot simpler.”

Dave grunted. He didn't know computers, but he was missing his mountain, his dog, and more than anything his son. He sniffed hard at that thought, pushed it away.

"I'm sorry, y'all," he said. "About the Fed thing. I don't mean present company, just these fuckers. Y'all are alright in my book."

Ava turned her chair to smile over at him. “It’s alright, after all this, I’m inclined to agree with your sentiment.”

Dave returned her smile. "Yeah, well, we'll get through this sugar. Be back on the trail before ya know, and stompin' Russian ass any day now."

Laine smiled slightly at his statement, then glanced towards the door. They were still missing some of their team and though she tried not to show it the longer Donnelley was away the more worried she became. They were interested in him, Feroz didn't seem to care what she had done but it was Donnelley her instincts told her that was their interest.

From down the hallway a man stalked out, steps with purpose and shoulders pinned back, fists clenching and darkness in his eyes. He stopped just short of the two guards and spoke a few words. The moment grew tense, the three of them seeming to freeze in time. One finally reached over and opened the door, the sounds of the offices outside the meeting room blaring in for a moment as Donnelley stepped inside, and just as soon the door closed, cutting off the outside.

“This is a fuckin’ show.” Donnelley growled, standing where he was for a moment before he reached up and rubbed at his face. “Dog and pony. Fuckin’ circus.”

“What did they ask-“

“The fuck you think?” Donnelley cut Foster off. “They’re not tryin’ to protect us, they’re just lookin’ for someone to point the finger at.”

Donnelley went to the table and took a seat, shaking his head, “It’s all political. You know how embarrassing for the Program it would be to tell the Director an op was compromised by a foreign agent in our own backyard? It’d be different if this was some East Europe shithole, but…” Donnelley pursed his lips and showed his hands. “Well, how’d everyone else like it?”

"I don't like it, I want my money back," Laine replied dryly, looking over at him. She wanted to ask how it went but the stormy look on his scarred face said enough for now. "When do you expect them to let us go?"

Donnelley shrugged, “Could be tomorrow, like they say. Could be they extend our stay.” He shook his head, “I was tellin’ Dave, ‘least the beds are comfortable here.”

Ava deflated slightly hearing that, she had been hoping she could go home. Her house was only twenty minutes away and it would be nice to have at least one night in her own bed. “Do they provide room service?” She asked, trying to inject a note of light sarcasm into her voice.

"Holdin' us without charges," Dave grumbled, toeing the floor with his boot. "Tramplin' our constitutional goddamn…"

The mountain man prodded his dip with his tongue, then glared first at the door, then at Donnelley. "And fuck John. And Foster, why the hell didn't you get 'hold of Bob, man? They were grillin' me about that. I thought it was all good or I'da reminded you or somethin'." By this point Dave didn't look angry, just frustrated. He'd long ago moved past his anger at Foster, particularly after the man had, in his eyes, straightened up his act as a leader.

Foster pursed his lips, “I did. It’s either Bob being territorial or John being an asshole.” He said, “I called him when I said I would, submitted the paperwork for a transfer.”

“Oh, shit.” Donnelley stood erect in his chair, peering past the two guards to see someone who might be familiar to one of them.

He strode with a purpose towards the meeting room and the guards opened the door for him without question. Bob Kopelmann, the forgettable ISA man stood in front of them. The look in his eye was hard to read past the small grin on his lips, looking at all the assembled faces and finally settling on Dave. “What’s up, Dave?” Bob grinned, “Was using a phone with one number programmed into it not part of your pops’ curriculum?”

He looked to Foster next, “And you. You fucking poacher.” The smile was still there, but there was an abrasiveness in his tone, “Going above my head to get one of mine transferred to your teams. You’re the epitome of CIA, Steve.”

“Howdy, Bob.” Donnelley smiled.

Bob fixed him with a stare, and the smile still hadn’t left, “I’m not here for you.” He pointed at Dave, “I’m here for him.”

Bob pointed with his chin at Ava as he put his hands on his hips, “Stark was looking for you.”

"Here for me? Fuck you, man," Dave said. The anger was back, his blue eyes flashing. "I ain't heard shit outta you since my whole goddamn team got killed, and now you wanna come in here and run your mouth? You ain't earned the right to talk shit to me like that."

“Well, I’m here now, aren’t I?” Bob held his arms out wide, “From the bottom of my heart, David MacCready, I apologize for making you feel as though I don’t care about an entire fucking team of mine biting the dust.”

“Except they aren’t. One’s right here and he’s a little angry at me. I’m sorry, I should’ve opened with ‘Oh, David, I’m so glad you’re safe, may I throat you in front of everybody now, or later?’” His smile had vanished completely, “Fuck me? Fuck you. Stark and I are your only chance of getting back out there.”

Bob pursed his lips at Foster, “And you, I guess.” Bob shrugged, “I started writing my letter of recommendation, if only to make sure I can go a few more weeks without seeing these two pricks.”

Donnelley held up his middle finger and Foster folded his arms and turned away from Bob.

Whatever relief Ava felt to hear Stark’s name, quickly evaporated as she listened to the infamous ‘Bob’ speak to her friends and teammates. She narrowed her eyes into a glare at him, her hands clenched into fists on the table. “We’re having a bad enough day as it is, do you really need to come in here and make it worse?” She snapped at him.

Laine observed the dick swinging in silence, watching the interaction of the team leaders. She then leaned over towards Ava and whispered aloud in a passable English accent, "Now observe the change in posture and volume of vocalizations. The rut has begun between the rival males of each clan to vie for supremacy of the choicest members. See how the newest arrival tests his strength against both the seasoned pack leader and the young upstart."

Donnelley leaned towards Laine and quirked a brow, “If I’m the young, handsome upstart, then who’s the seasoned pack leader?”

Laine raised a brow back at him, a hint of a teasing smile on her lips before continuing in the hushed accent beside Ava, "Our cameras have been spotted and the younger male comes to preen, to show his vigour before the older males. He had better be careful, the older males are wily and dangerous, displaying their armament of paperwork and backdoor connections."

Bob rolled his eyes and crossed his arms, shaking his head at the evident maturity of these people. He took a last look at Dave, “I’ll finish the letter. Clearly, you’re in good company.”

Despite her exhaustion and her frustration in general with the way things were going; Ava felt herself start to crack a grin. “Thanks Miss Attenborough.” Ava chuckled at Laine.

Dave grunted at Bob’s words, not trusting himself to speak. He was keyed up, and he knew that. When he got stressed he ran off at the mouth, and sometimes his temper got the better of him. Scarred knuckles and his Drunk and Disorderly charges were proof enough of that.

Instead, he settled for leaning back against the wall, unballing his fists, and giving the man a nod of begrudging thanks.

As Bob stepped out, it seemed the attention they were getting was not yet over. Booker had appeared from around the corner and the guards opened the door, flanking him as he stood opposite UMBRA. He regarded them with that same look of predatory amusement, as if the interrogations had actually been useful. Donnelley held his stare and snorted. Booker turned his nose up at him, “These two fine gentlemen will be escorting you to your rooms tonight. One to a room.”

...///

Just as Donnelley had told Dave, the rooms here at Langley were nice. Better than most hotels, a miniature fridge stocked with water, a bed, television, the essentials. It hardly even felt like a cell with cameras positioned to watch every movement short of showering. Not like they’d find anything from Donnelley other than the 50th Navy SEAL burpee, and the ones that followed. He needed to work off the nervous energy, and without his flask then drinking about it wasn’t an option. His smoker’s lungs thankfully hadn’t gotten the best of his aerobic capacity, so that was something.

After the 100th, he flopped himself onto the bed drenched in sweat and flipped off the first barely-hidden camera he eyed. He’d never been to prison, but he figured this was just the tiniest taste of it. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about keeping a grip on his soap. The interview with John kept replaying in his head. As much as he’d liked Dave and even as keen as he was to defend him, he wondered if John didn’t have a point. Dave’s people did have connections. If anything, what if Jay’s people had a line of communication to put Dave’s family in danger?

What if they had a line of communication to put any of them in danger? He shook his head, of course they did. Whatever dark force the Bratva could conjure up…

He growled, sitting up on the edge of the bed. He was starting to think like John, run wild with any shred of evidence and never look back. The truth of it was the only reason Tom got killed was he was meddling in Bratva affairs even in his extracurricular activities. It had to be. Maybe. Fuck, he hardly knew how the Bratva aimed their fire-and-forget demon. That was something they needed to figure out. That was valuable intel to UMBRA, and the Program beyond that.

Perhaps that trip to the BLACKBOX would be sooner than later. He almost flinched as a knock came at his door. He stood, resting his hand on the handle and lamenting the lack of a peephole. Agency’s rules, we can see you, you can’t see us. Something he’d used against terrorists and enemy agents now used against him. He opened the door and saw Foster standing on the other side. Almost immediately his blood began to boil, “Where the fuck they keepin’ you?” He asked, “We’re dumped in here and you get to rub elbows with them?”

“Calm down.” Foster rose his hands in peace, “I wanted to talk to you about something.”

Donnelley’s eyes narrowed. After the interviews he’d had enough of talking about things with people who thought they were above him. “What.”

“Iraq.” Foster said. The word made Donnelley quirk a brow. “Let’s talk somewhere else, come on. No cameras.”

“They let you-“

“Fuck them. Let’s go.” Donnelley smirked a bit, he liked it when Foster seemed to be on his side. He nodded, maybe this would be worthwhile. He threw on his shirt and followed Foster out of his room.

“So, what about Iraq?” Donnelley asked as they walked.

“Not here. Your office.” Foster replied over his shoulder.

They didn’t speak another word as they took the labyrinthine route through the Program’s underground sprawl back up to Langley proper, and finally into the offices of the Special Activities Center. Donnelley closed the door of his office behind him and crossed his arms, “Okay?”

“Program doesn’t have permission to plant surveillance devices in Agency property. I wanted to wait until we were out of there before I told you this.” Foster spoke low, as if what he said wasn’t even true. The aged Operations Officer wasn’t quick to break habit though. “Your team in Iraq, you told them to meddle, didn’t you?”

Donnelley looked away from Foster for a moment before nodding, “Yes.”

“Well, they meddled. They found what you wanted. I was going through your emails,” Donnelley stepped towards Foster, but Foster again held his hands up in peace, “We need to share every piece of intel with IA and CI we can. I didn’t share this though, it’s all your business.”

Donnelley softened a bit, but not a lot. “Just fuckin’ tell me.”

“They meddled. They did what you told them and they smuggled a body back to Baghdad. Perfectly skinned, but they don’t have an autopsy yet.” Foster pursed his lips, “They’re waiting for you.”

Donnelley rolled his jaw and nodded slow. “How long are they goin’ to have to wait?”

“Not long. Everything everyone on UMBRA has, IA and CI have too. They see they’re full of shit and we’re only here to do our jobs.” Foster held Donnelley’s gaze, “Which means those letters Bob and Stark are handing up the chain are only icing on the cake. We’ll get out of here soon.”

How soon?” Donnelley pressed, his voice raising with his impatience.

“Right after the two days they have us here. Until then, do whatever you can. IA and CI are obviously pissed, but any surveillance they have on us is passive at the worst.” Foster shrugged, “Why do you think we’re able to be here?”

“We got full use of Langley?” Donnelley asked.

“The fullest. Shoothouses, ranges, the Farm. Take your boys and girls out, have them learn a few things.” Foster nodded, “It’ll do them some good. Better than being cooped up. We still have Dulane to take out on a hike and I expect Blackriver to still be hostile. Whatever they can learn here will be useful.”

Donnelley nodded, watching Foster walk to the door and stop to lay a hand on his shoulder and give it a gentle squeeze, “I was always on your side, Joseph. We’ve been at this together too long to be on anyone else’s.”

Donnelley patted Foster’s shoulder in turn and the other man closed the door behind him, leaving Donnelley in his office alone. He pulled his office chair out from his desk and plopped himself down in it, rearing to get eyes on those emails.

...///

Ava knocked lightly on the door of the office Foster had directed her toward. “Donnelley?” She called out through the door with a frown. “Are you still in there?”

Donnelley’s eyes shot toward the door at the knock. No matter what Foster said, he still felt like he’d broke some rule for sitting in his office outside of his cell. When he recognized the voice as Ava’s, he calmed a bit. He took one last look at the emails and minimized the window, pushing up from his chair and making his way toward the door. He opened it, looking at Ava and finding her appearance relieving. Too much time spent in hostility and defensiveness had him bearing his teeth at everything.

“Come in,” he opened the door wider for her to step through, “I was just lookin’ at some work emails.”

He went to his chair and set himself back into it, gesturing to the seat on the other side for Ava, “What’s up?”

Ava gave him a small smile when he opened the door, following him inside and shutting the door firmly behind her. She glanced around the office as she stepped in further, her arms folded over her chest and expression pensive. “Is it...safe to talk in here?” She asked him, sitting down in the chair with a frown. “There’s no cameras or anything?”

Donnelley nodded, “Program doesn’t have permission. Even the Agency doesn’t trust us.” He winked, “We’re safe.”

She smiled. “Good.” The smile fell away and she wrung her hands together. “I think I messed up my interview. I told them about my visions of the Hound and I mentioned my sleepwalking episode after. I didn’t tell them anything beyond that!” She added quickly. “Just that it happened, I didn’t say anything about walking out of the hotel or who found me or what I saw during my sleepwalking, but...they were really interested in knowing more about it.”

Donnelley’s brow furrowed as he leaned back in his chair, looking away from Ava. John had seemed to focus so much on Dave and Jason, even focused on his own past in Chechnya. He hadn’t even mentioned Ava and her dreams. “Who interviewed you?”

“Some woman named Angelina.” Ava answered, her frown deepening. “She was...really good at playing nice until she started focusing on my sleepwalking and I didn’t answer her questions.” She colored slightly and cleared her throat. “But then, I stopped playing nice after that so that could have also played into it.”

Donnelley snorted, almost seeming a bit proud, “You? Tell me, what’d you do?”

“Um,” She rubbed the back of her neck. “Well, I told her that my sleepwalking had nothing to do with her investigation, and threatened to file a report against her. Then I said I remembered the Renko incident vividly and she told me to describe it vividly sooo I did.” She cleared her throat. “I told her every single little detail I remembered.” She looked at him with a sheepish smile. “And I mean every little detail.”

Donnelley smiled and huffed a chuckle, scratching at his forehead. He shook his head and felt an urge to shake his finger at her, if only because he reminded himself of his own antics. The more he was around Ava, the more he saw his influence rubbing off on her. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing, he did know that it was damn amusing.

“I’m a little proud.” Donnelley smiled back at her, “I probably wouldn’t make that standard procedure, but that’s some funny shit.”

He leaned back in his chair and set his feet on the desk, smile shrinking a bit as he dug back to the roots of the conversation, “They focused on your dreams and that stuff?”

She smiled back sheepishly before the conversation shifted back and she frowned with a nod. “Yes, it was very strange. She used some really flimsy argument about why it mattered to the investigation and she also looked at the mirror when it was mentioned.” Ava folded her arms and leaned back into the chair. “It was like she was waiting for it.”

She tightened her arms around herself. “Now I’m worried they’re going to dig into it, find out about the hospital and who brought me there and use that to turn me into some kind of scapegoat.”

“I wouldn’t let it happen.” Donnelley said almost immediately, folding his arms and holding Ava in a stern and serious expression. “Not to you, not to Dave, not to any of you.”

“Trust me, I know how they work. If they had everythin’ their way, I would’ve been non-operational forever and y’all wouldn’t have met me and my wickedly good looks.” He smiled at her, hopefully lighting up the conversation a bit, “Foster says we’ll be out of their custody after tomorrow. We’re free to do whatever we want after. It’ll be worthwhile to train up on somethin’ while we’re here for a few weeks. Or just take some pressure off.”

Ava smiled, her shoulders relaxing as she took some measure of comfort from his assurances. “Thanks Donnelley.” She furrowed her eyebrows. “A few weeks? What about the case?” She asked with a light frown. “Didn’t you leave Jay with Queen and Ghost?”

“He’ll be fine.” Donnelley nodded, “The case can wait. We’re goin’ back to Blackriver and I’ll be damned if our tactical skills aren’t brushed up on. How’s your shootin’?”

“I know not to point the shooty end at myself.” She answered with a self deprecating smile. “I was thinking about practicing my shooting anyway, before all of this happened.”

Donnelley chuckled, “Come to the range with me and Dave, we’ll show you what’s what. You’ll be a sharpshooter before long.”

“I’m going to be talking with a Southern drawl in no time.” She chuckled, her hand reaching up to adjust her glasses. She took them off to look at them with a thoughtful frown. “I guess I should bite the bullet and switch to contacts.” She said with a sigh, putting her glasses back on. “I don’t want to be like Velma when she loses her glasses. Especially if people are shooting at me.”
Hidden 27 days ago Post by KuroTenshi
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KuroTenshi

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Dave and Ava Homescene


“So, this is it.” Ava said, opening the door to her house and breathing a sigh of relief as the familiarity of her home settled around her like a security blanket. She opened the door wider for Dave as she walked in, leading Thor in by his leash and harness.

“Thanks for taking my bag.” Ava smiled, stepping to the side to make room for the mountain man; Thor rubbing up against her leg and purring as loud as a lawn mower.

“‘Course,” Dave said, following her in and nudging the door closed with his hip. Ava had insisted he stay with her, after he’d admitted a certain fear of going home. He missed his people, especially his boy Mal, but given the current climate he didn’t want to risk being around them. “Thanks for lettin’ me stay here. Beats a hotel, right?”

“I hope so.” She said, reaching over to firmly throw the lock on the knob and the deadbolt above it. “It’s not exactly...masculine in here.” She said with a chuckle, looking over the theme of pastels, flowers and general softness of her home decor. “But it’s cozy, or I like to think it is.” She bent down and undid Thor’s harness, the cat bolting off to survey his territory with a jingle of his collar.

Ava stood back up and fiddled nervously with the leash for a few moments. “So, um, are you hungry?”

“I’m alright,” Dave said. He gave her an encouraging smile as he set his bag down by the couch. “Take some water though? If ya don’t mind?”

“Sure!” She hung up Thor’s leash and speed walked to the kitchen, quickly returning with a glass of water in her hand. “Here you go.” She smiled, a nervous tilt to the expression. “I’ve got soda or liquor if you’d want that too. I can’t drink it but I always keep some in stock for my guests.”

“This is just fine, for now, thanks,” Dave took the water gratefully and cocked his head. “You uh...You alright?”

“Oh, yeah.” She said, pressing her hands together and looking around her house. “I’m just glad to be home, finally, but I guess I’ve still got some nervous energy to burn off.” She said with a shrug and a chuckle. She hoped that was it, she didn’t know why having Dave in her house was causing her to feel such...flutters of nerves in her gut. She let Donnelley stay the night and hardly felt anxious about it at all.

“Yeah, I bet,” Dave nodded, walking over and sitting on the couch that was to be his bed for the next while. “I needa call my gramps at some point...Have him pick up my dog…” He sighed. He wanted to go home. “Ah well.”

He grinned up at Ava, putting on a smile for her sake. “Guess we oughta get settled in, huh?”

“Yeah,” She agreed, glancing toward the hallway as the heavy patter of feet announced the arrival of Thor. “You can use my phone if you want, it’s pretty secure. Unless you’d rather get another burner.” She continued as the large Norwegian cat jumped up onto the back of the couch, staring at Dave for a few moments before meowing at him. Ava rolled her eyes.

Dave reached absentmindedly for the cat, stroking his fur on automatic and smiling as he did so. “I’ll probably get a burner,” he said. “Need that...Ya know. Separation? I dunno, I ain’t a spy.”

“That’s probably for the best.” Ava nodded, huffing as Thor flopped down on the back cushion to accept his pets. She stood awkwardly for a moment, rubbing the back of her neck. “So, uh, are you hungry?”

He eyed her for a moment, amusement in his steel eyes.

“Sure,” he said, fighting a grin. “Let’s get somethin’ to eat. Wanna order delivery? My treat, since you’re lettin’ me stay?”

“Okay.” She smiled, sitting herself down on the love seat and pulling out her phone. “What are you in the mood for?”

“Anything you want,” he said. He leaned over a little, scooping Thor up and depositing the large cat in his lap to make petting him easier. “I ain’t picky.”

“Well, there’s a pizza place that’s pretty good.” She said, tapping at her phone for a few moments, then she got up from the love seat to sit down next to him. “Here, you can take a look through their menu.” She smiled at him. “I’d suggest BBQ, but I’m not sure if that’s a taboo for a country boy.”

Dave made a show of considering it. “I dunno… Barbecue pizza sounds kinda blasphemous….” He gave her a suspicious look. “But I think I can allow it, since it’s chicken. If it was ribs or somethin’ I’d hafta veto. You can’t order ribs delivery an’ expect them to be any good.”

“Rib meat on a pizza sounds good though.” She chuckled, turning her phone back toward her. “I like the pesto and goat cheese pizza myself.”

“That sounds a step or two too fancy for my roots,” Dave grinned. “But whatever you want, sugar. Like I said, I ain’t picky, an’ it’s my treat.”

“Then how about we go simple and get a meat lovers?” She said, pulling up the pizza in question and showing him. “Eeeh? That’s suitably manly right?”

“I ain’t worried about manly, I’m worried about it tastin’ good,” Dave snorted. “But meat lover is a safe bet.”

“Meat lovers it is.” She beamed. “You pay for the pizza, I’ll pay for some sides and a dessert.”

“Sounds like a plan to me.”




Ava grinned up at Dave as the two of them walked out of the civilian shooting range they had spent the afternoon at. Her hands were tingling from shooting her handgun so many times and her heart hadn’t quite settled down from the rush of adrenaline she felt when shooting.

“How was I?” She asked Dave as they stepped out into the late afternoon, the sun starting to dip low to the horizon and casting long shadows across the parking lot. “I hit the target a couple of times and I almost got the bullseye that one time! Pretty good for being a novice right? Am I talking loudly? I feel like I’m talking loudly.” She asked, pausing her stream of chatter to rub at her ears. “I think I got too used to wearing those headphones.”

Dave grinned at her excitement. Her initial marksmanship abilities had best been described as limited. But, a couple of hours of basic instruction on grip, sight picture, and trigger control had her groups tightening up appreciably. While she was by no means a combat shooter, if she kept cool under pressure he felt like she could definitely defend herself against your average mugger. Or Russian.

"You did great, sugar," he said, reaching out to give her shoulder an encouraging squeeze. "Gettin' some real improvement."

She beamed, the touch of his strong hand on her shoulder making her heart flutter a different way. “Thanks.” She said, brushing a stray curl that escaped her braid behind her ear. “You’re a really good teacher, thank you for being so patient with me.”

"'Course," Dave said lightly. "I uh...I had different sorts of trainin' when I was a kid. Found that bein' nice makes for more improvement than...Ya know. Not bein' nice."

He glanced down at her, leaving his hand where it was for a moment more. "So… I been thinkin'. You wanna have dinner?"

Ava looked up at him, tilting her head to the side. “Yeah, we can find some place to stop by before we go home.” She said with a slight shrug.

"No, I uh… I mean do you wanna have dinner. Like…" Dave groped for the words, suddenly unsure of himself. "Like uh...with me. Like a date."

Ava’s eyes widened behind her sunglasses. “Oh! Dinner, dinner!” She said, her cheeks flushing as an unexpected surge of butterflies taking flight in her gut. “You...really want to go on a date?” She asked, her voice hesitant but there was a hint of a smile starting to appear on her lips. “With me?”

"Well… Yeah," Dave said, surprised at her evident confusion. "You're smart, an' you're pretty. Fun to be around… I'd like to take ya out."

She smiled wider as her cheeks started to flush pink beneath her freckles. “Wow, um, thank you. I think you’re fun too.” She said.

She glanced around the parking lot and pointed over to where her car was parked. “Let’s...get in my car, I think there’s something you should know...about me.”

Dave grinned, then frowned, suddenly nervous. His mind turned her words over as they went to her car, and he was suddenly certain he was about to be turned down; maybe she wasn't interested, or was gay, or had a secret boyfriend she hadn't told them about.

"Yeah sure, no problem," he said, accompanying her to her car and steeling himself for rejection.

Ava unlocked the car for them, taking in deep breaths as she prepared to explain to Dave a very complicated and intimate part of her identity. She slid into the driver’s seat and waited for Dave to join her, cracking the windows so the interior of the car wasn’t so stuffy.

“So,” She said, clearing her throat as she rested her hands on the steering wheel. “Um, do you...Have you heard of…” She trailed off and took in a deep breath. “Do you know what Asexuality is?” She asked, letting the words flow out of her as quickly as possible.

Dave blinked, looking at her for a moment. "...No?" He said, suddenly looking more nervous than he had.

Ava nodded, clearing her throat again. “It is a...sexual orientation that is characterized by a...lack of sexual or romantic attraction towards others.” She said, looking toward him to see his reaction. “Though Asexual is more of an umbrella term, there are other...sub-sexualities that fall underneath it.”

Dave worked to mask his disappointment as she explained. "So...does that mean no date?" He asked.

She smiled at him. “Dave, I’d love to go on a date with you.” She said with a nervous chuckle.

"Oh." Dave lit up, then looked thoughtful. "But if you're not… You know… Romantically attracted… I mean the sexual part, ya know, that's a different thing, but the romantic part is kind of the whole point…"

“I’m sorry, I’m not good at explaining this to people.” She said with a grimace. “I’m a Demisexual Asexual, which means that I feel romantic attraction, but really only feel sexual attraction when I have a deep, emotional connection to someone.” She shrugged, her expression turning embarrassed. “Like I said, Asexual is an umbrella term. Is this making sense?”

"Oh, yeah," Dave nodded slowly. "I think I get it. So ya think we're romantically… Ya know…" He raised a hand, grasping for the word. "Compatible, I guess. But don't know about the sexual part yet."

“Yes, exactly.” She said with a nod of her head and a relieved smile. “I’ve never been in a relationship before, but I know that sex is a big part of it so I just wanted to be honest with you right off the bat.”

"Well, alright," he said, then smiled. "Thanks. And… Hell, let's get dinner then, and figure it out from there."

“Really?” She asked, perking up with a wide smile. “You don’t mind?”

Dave shrugged. "Ain't gonna know unless we try," he said. "Not like I'm tryin' for a one-night-stand."

“I guess that’s true.” She chuckled again.

She paused for a moment before reaching out to touch Dave’s hand. “Seriously, thank you for being so understanding.” She said, the flush returning to her cheeks even as she smiled. “You have no idea how much it means to me to be able to be honest about this.”

Dave returned her smile and took her hand in his, giving it a soft squeeze. "Any time, sugar. Any time."




The beach sand was soft beneath Dave's battered hiking boots, the evening sun warm on his face. This was the third actual date he'd taken Ava on, an afternoon movie that had segued into this trip along the waterfront. He glanced over at her as they walked, grinned, and reached out to take her hand, hiding his nerves at the impulsive act of intimacy.

"It's pretty out here," he said, interlacing their fingers.

“It is.” She agreed, flushing as she happily took his hand with a smile on her lips. She carried her ballet flats in her other hand, letting her toes dig into the warm sand as the wind tugged at the hem of her soft blue cold shoulder sundress.

“So, how has training been going?” She asked, looking up at him from behind her sunglasses.

"Good," he said confidently. "Ghost gives me shit for likin' commie guns, but Donnelley said I'm doin' good, an' even Ghost has stopped yellin' quite so much. I think he's almost impressed." He paused. "Almost."

Dave gave her hand a squeeze. "How about you? Them robots comin' along okay?" He knew she'd been working on the drones, but also knew it was futile for him to try and help. Instead he'd settled for sitting in the room with her, providing company and occasionally tea.

“They are.” She nodded, taking a step closer to him to lean her head on his arm. “I’ve updated their cameras and WALL-E and EVE are getting fancy new paint jobs tomorrow.” She said, looking up at him with a smile. “I thought maybe you could help me with that, if you want.”

"I can't program, but I ain't bad with a paintbrush," he laughed. He ran his thumb gently along her hand as they walked, a sense of giddiness filling him as she leaned her head on his arm. "Be happy to help with that. You wanna do 'em camo?"

“Yeah, help them blend in a little better with the forest.” She said, her heart fluttering from their contact.

She grew silent for a moment, glancing around them to make sure no one was around. Seeing no one within earshot, she leaned her head back on his arm. “I don’t want this to end.” She whispered to him. “And go back to work in that...place.”

"I know," he said softly. He looked down at her and turned, placing his fingers beneath her chin and tilting her head up to look at him. "We're almost done, though. Closin' in on the goal. We got this."

He held her gaze for a moment, then leaned down and gave her a soft kiss.

Ava’s heart felt like it was trying to beat out of her chest as she watched Dave lean down and felt their lips press together. She felt a spark tingle across her lips and she closed her eyes, finding herself leaning into the kiss as she continued to hold Dave’s hand.

A few moments later Dave reluctantly broke the kiss. He wanted more, wanted to pull her into his arms for a proper kiss, but he settled for another gentle peck before straightening with a smile. He still wasn't sure where things stood on that front, and he didn't want to shoot things down by being overly intimate.

Ava opened her eyes and smiled wide, unconsciously stepping up closer to him. “That was very nice.”

"It was," he grinned. He gave her hand a squeeze, then dared to lean down for a third kiss, holding this one just a breath longer.

"That was nice," he said when he'd straightened again.

Ava grinned, a girlish giggle bubbling out of her as she leaned herself against Dave’s chest.

He released her hand and put his arms around her, holding her slender body to his. He trailed his fingers down her spine, feeling the shape of her through her dress, but sensibly stopped at the small of her back.

Ava shut her eyes as she melted into Dave’s arms, his heart beat in her ear and the smell of his cologne surrounding her. She felt her worry and nerves start to fade, comfort and a sense of security welling in her chest.

It would be a nice moment to hold onto and think of when they had to return to the nightmare of what waited in Blackriver.

She gave him a hug and then pulled back to look up at him. “So, want to go get something to eat?”

“I always wanna get somethin’ to eat,” Dave grinned. “You want...I dunno, burgers? One of them burger stands?”

“Sure! That sounds good.” She grinned, taking his hand again. On impulse, she leaned up and pecked him on the cheek with a blush and a smile. “Let’s go.”

He took her hand happily, following along beside her.




Dave took the kettle from the stove just as it started to whistle. He killed the burner and poured a measure into the mug waiting on the counter, adding in the bits and pieces he’d learned Ava liked with her tea. That done he crossed to the breakfast nook and set the mug down within easy reach.

“Whatcha doin’?” He asked, glancing down at her laptop. “Work stuff?”

“Hmm?” Ava glanced over to him, her glasses absent from her face after her contacts had finally arrived. “Oh, no, I’m just...browsing this forum Foster showed me.” She said, scooting further into the booth so there was room for him to sit.

The gentle sound of rain pattering on the bay windows started to reach her ears and she looked outside to the grey clouds hanging over the neighborhood. “There’s that rain.”

“Been waitin’ on it all day,” Dave said as he sat beside her. “So what sorta forum? I ain’t seen you wrench on a truck lately, so I figure it ain’t one of them.”

She turned back to him with a smile. “No, it’s a forum of...people like me.” She said, motioning to the laptop. “Foster showed me when we went to Massachusetts.”

“People like you?” He scooted closer so he could see the screen. “Like uh...Psychics, I guess? Or...Who have visions?” He put his arm around her, absently brushing at her hair with his fingers.

“Yeah,” She said, leaning against him and reaching over to pick up her tea. “It’s crazy, some of them have had dr-visions of things that happened to us or of cases the Program have had in the past.”

She frowned at the laptop as she took a sip of her lavender tea. “They’re all just kids, most of them aren’t even out of high school yet.” She whispered into her mug. “I’m the eldest...psychic that I know of.”

“Hm.” Dave shifted so she could lean against him more comfortably. “So you talk to ‘em on here? Or do you just hang out an’ read? Have they...Been talkin’ ‘bout Virginia?”

“I just read, the Program is monitoring this website.” She answered, cradling her mug in her hands and letting the warmth spread to her fingers. “It worries me how interested they are in my...whatever it is. If they find out I’m regularly having these visions...I don’t know, I just don’t trust them when I don’t understand what’s happening to me.”

“Shouldn’t trust ‘em at all,” Dave said, almost reflexively. “I ain’t told ‘em anything about you or the… Visions. I ain’t said a word, and I won’t.”

“I wish I could say the same.” She said, giving him a grim smile. “I told them about the Hound and I had a sleepwalking episode after, but I didn’t say how far I went or who found me.” She rubbed the side of the mug with her thumb. “I talked to Donnelley about it and he seems to think I’m not in any danger, and he and Foster have my back. But I still worry I said too much...They were so fixated on my sleepwalking.” She shuddered and huddled closer to him.

Dave bit down a growl, and several suggestions as to what the Program could do to itself in a dark room with a fireplace poker.

“Well, you ain’t been sleepwalkin’ since I been here,” he said, forcing some levity into his voice. “Aaand I’m a pretty light sleeper, so you ain’t creepin’ past me to the front door even if ya do. Maybe you’ll get some gardenin’ done in the middle of the night, but that’s it.” He gave her a squeeze and looked down at her, smiling reassuringly.

She smiled up at him and rested her head on his shoulder with a chuckle. “Thanks Dave.” She said, taking another sip of her tea.

Her eyes landed back on the computer. “I wish I could help these kids more, it feels like it should be my job you know? I’m the oldest, I might be the first and some of them...Some of them have the same background as me.”

Dave nodded as she spoke, his fingers still playing through her hair. “Tell me ‘bout that,” he said. “I don’t know much there. Your background, I mean.”

“Oh,” She sighed softly. “I was adopted by my parents because, when I was about two years old... I was abandoned on the side of some back country road in West Virginia.”

“Just two…” Dave sighed. He leaned down and kissed her forehead. “I’m sorry, sugar.”

“Thank you.” She said, blinking back the water that stung at the back of her eyes. “Anyway, some of these kids are in the foster system or are also only children and...I don’t know, it just seems like there might be a pattern here. Maybe if we figure it out, we can understand what this is.”

“Maybe,” he nodded. “I think… I think it’s good you wanna help them. Shows you’ve got a good heart.” He held her silently for a moment. “I ain’t much of an investigator, you know that, but if there’s some way I can help, you just lemme know, okay?” Dave grinned suddenly. “That’s kinda what boyfriends are for, right?”

She flushed and smiled up at him. “Boyfriend huh?” She asked in a soft murmur. “You making it official?”

“I will if you will,” he said, leaning close. “Ain’t anybody else I been kissin’ on.” He punctuated the point, finding her lips with his.

She returned the kiss, melting further against him with a soft, happy sigh escaping her lips. After a few moments she broke the kiss to rest her head on his chest. “Alright.” She said with a smile. “We can make it official.”

Dave grinned, resting his chin on top of her head.

“Let’s go sit outside,” he said. “It’s nice out. Got that porch swing, sit there an’ listen to the rain?”

“I’d like that.” She beamed, kissing his cheek. “Let’s take a blanket too, it’s pretty cold out there.”

Dave grinned and stood.

“Alright,” he said. “I’ll grab a blanket, and meet ya out there.” Then he headed for the living room, for the large microfleece blanket that Ava kept folded on the couch.

Ava shut down her laptop and picked it up with her tea and carried it off to her office. After putting it away, she passed through the back hallway, past the mud room and joined Dave out on the back porch.

She smiled at him as she looked out at her backyard, the bright greens and colors of her garden slightly muted by the clouds and rain. She took in a deep lungful of the rain freshened air. “It really is a nice day.”

“It is,” he said. He waited until she’d sat, then pulled the blanket over the both of them. He snuggled her close, pulling her into his lap, his arms around her. “It’s pretty out here. I do this in Arkansas sometimes, out on my mountain. Sittin’ on the porch, watchin’ the rain.”

“Me too.” She smiled up at him, as she settled in against him, her mug cradled in her hands and wafting the sweet smell of lavender and honey into the air.

Dave shifted in the swing until they were both comfortable, leaning his head back and enjoying the sound of the rain and the small, warm body against his. It was cool, but not cold; the rain was a warm one, a steady pour but not quite a storm. It cooled the breeze, and brought out the smell of the plants in the garden. The smell mingled with that of Ava’s tea, and Dave let himself relax while he drank in the various sensations.

Ava sighed, letting her body relax and her eyes fall partially closed as she sipped her tea and enjoyed the sound of the rain and the closeness of Dave’s embrace.

Soon she finished her tea and set the empty mug down on the porch. “This is nice.” She said, snuggling back into the warmth of the blanket with her head resting on Dave’s shoulder.

“It’s nice,” he agreed. Once she’s settled in he laid his cheek on top of her head for a few moments. The rain continued, and in the stillness he grew more conscious of her body in his arms. Dave turned and kissed her forehead, smiled, then leaned closer, pressing a kiss to her lips. He kissed her again, then again, shifting so he could more easily reach.

Ava smiled against the kisses, returning them easily as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders as she turned in his lap slightly.

The motion spurred Dave on, and as he went for another kiss he held, his lips parting as he deepened it. The tip of his tongue brushed her soft lips, slipped between them, seeking hers, and his hand slid to her firm abdomen. He slipped it beneath her sweatshirt, found the hot flesh of her muscular stomach beneath his hand, and he paused, hesitating.

“Is...Is this okay?” He asked, his voice husky.

Ava blinked her eyes open, looking up into his cool blue and smiled. Warmth and arousal was curling to life in the pit of her stomach, her body alight with excitement and pleasure from that simple deep kiss. “Yes.” She answered and kissed him again.

Dave had a brief moment to grin, then was moaning softly into her kiss.
Hidden 26 days ago Post by Leidenschaft
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Leidenschaft Relax, only half-dead

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>DAYS INN
>CLARKSBURG, WV
>24JUL2019
>1800...///

“Y’all got any smokes?”

Jay’s voice broke the silence of the card game, the only sound was the soft rhythms of the music being played at an almost imperceptible volume. Sounded like Motley Crüe, maybe, shit his dad listened to. His two roommates, or captors, had been in concentration over their hands. They took their gambling seriously, it seemed. Over the past day or so… had it been that long? He couldn’t remember. This room at this hotel had been his new reality for he didn’t know how long. At least they’d stopped beating him, as he’d learned being forward with information helped the punching stop. At least they’d taken off the cuffs since he’d learned not to try anything with Ghost’s watchful eye on him.

“Guys?” He tried again to get their attention.

Queen looked from his cards and thumbed over them, glancing over at Jay, "Whatcha do for one?"

A lazy feline grin crossed his face as he reached up to snatch the cigarette behind his ear and twirl it in his fingers. He put it between his own lips before reaching to snag the pack Kools from his vest pocket.

Jay sighed long and hard, breath moaning in his throat as he hid his face behind his hands. He muttered a swear and let his hands fall to the table, defeated. “I’ll tell you ‘bout them Rangers in the Forest.” He paused and after not receiving any reward he continued, “And that other Ranger, Billy, got killed in Charleston.”

Ghost perked up, pulling his eyes away from a decidedly mediocre hand and fixing that crocodile stare on Jay. The card game wasn't going in his favor, and it had been his idea in the first place; boredom was a virus. He had to keep his mind occupied, and even he could only work out so much before he got antsy.

"Keep talking," he said, his tone lazy. "Earn that smoke."

“Jesus,” Jay protested, sagging back in his chair and scowling, “Y’all wanna know my fuckin’ blood type and shit too? Favorite animal?”

Their eyes were still on him as they waited. After not getting any response, he shook his head, “Fine.” He whined, “Billy got killed after he made a call to somebody. You folks, maybe, I dunno. Next thing anyone knew, he’s dead. Wasn’t my people, Russians.”

“Nikolai’s guys. You know the ones, Bratva. They caught some other dude in Boston, don’t know how, but I heard the rumors.” He sniffled, rubbing at his nose, "Billy got killed because he talked too much. We tried to get Frank because he wanted to talk too much.”

“Your guy got killed in Boston because he knew too much.” Jay frowned, “You know, bein’ honest, I never wanted this. Momma said I should be a chemist.”

Ghost grunted. Bratva bored him. Back in the '90s they'd been bad motherfuckers, all former Spetznaz with nothing to do but kill for mob bosses if they wanted a real paycheck. Now all the Spetznaz had jumped on the contractor train, making their rubles in Syria and Chechnya, and the Bratva were left with untrained thugs with gold plated AK's and heroin addictions.

"Tell me about the forest," he said, looking back down at his cards. "What happened there?"

“What, with the girl? Fuck if I know, man.” Jay shrugged, “She was inherited by me and mine from the Sinaloa when they got kicked into the ditches. We handed her to Nikolai and she ain’t been seen since. ‘Cept for, you know. That time.”

“But yeah, man, Bratva been doin’ some weird shit. Talkin’ ‘bout London and Afghanistan. Callin’ each other comrade. It’s like, who the fuck you foolin’ with that commie shit?” Jay chuckled, “They say Nikolai is way older than he looks. Fought in Afghanistan for the Soviets, but he looks like he could be my older brother. Probably too much of that crocodile they’re smokin’ or whatever over there.”

Jay got a curious look on his face at that, tapping his finger on the table and staring hard at nothing in particular, “I think one’s got a tattoo- I mean they all do- but one’s got some kinda army tattoo. My buddy, Sly, he’s into that history and stuff and he pointed it out after we heard the rumors about Nikolai.” Jay sucked his teeth, “Buncha grown ass men playin’ pretend.”

He perked up, “I get a cigarette or what?”

Queen tapped out a cigarette and held out the green package for him to take. After he did, Queen flicked his bright colored Bic and lit his own cigarette before leaning over to offer the flame to Jay.

"Good boy," Queen cooed in an overly sweet tone. "You get a cookie. By the way, what's that tattoo look like before we get back to this hand?"

He sank back into the chair, dragging on the menthol and watching Jay from the smoke he blew out his nose.

“Got that, uh,” Jay took a long drag and savored it with closed eyes, and spoke while letting go of the smoke, “Got that hammer and sickle, the star, you know? And a parachute. VDV? Don’t know what it stands for, Sly might. You could talk to one of those dudes like you talked to me.”

Jay chuckled, but it pattered out as his humor hadn’t struck with the others, “Uh, yeah. You know, some got Marx, some got Stalin. Like I said, playin’ pretend. From what I seen, they’re trained. Better shooters than I got, and half of us got outta the Marines or the Army and came back here to shoot better.” He chuckled, “I mean, shit, Sly’s a Ranger.”

The mention of Soviet Airborne tattoos and trained shooters drew Ghost's attention, and he felt a flutter of excitement. Still, that would come. This was intel time.

"Tell me about Sly," Ghost said evenly. "Maybe you'll get another treat."

“Oh, fuck, man. He’s a friend, though…” Jay winced, then spoke again after a moment, “What do I get?”

Ghost gave him a level stare. "Queen. Is the pharmacy open?"

Queen stretched luxuriously, popping his spine and exposing the flat inked panes of his stomach as he reached his arms up. "You know I'm 24/7," he said around his cigarette, then dropped his arms turning his pale gaze to Jay. "What's your poison, honey?"

He dug into his pocket, dropping a plastic bag with other small Ziploc bags inside. He picked up one with a thick little chunk of meth and another with powder. "Or maybe you got script taste," he said, dropping those and picking up a bag of colorful pills and tabs. He rummaged through and took a couple of distinct orange Percocet and tossed them in his mouth, chasing them with a swallow of Cherry Coke.

“I like the real shit- er, no offense.” Jay smiled sheepishly at Queen, “China White?”

Queen's eyebrows arched and he leaned back, "Well, sheee-it. We got us Iggy fucking Pop right here."

He sniffed then a playful smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, "I might have something. Whatcha got for me?'

Jay puffed his cheeks out as he reached into his pocket and produced his phone. He set it on the table, slid it towards Queen and tapped the screen to life, the phone lighting up with a picture of Jay holding a little girl, both beaming at the camera, “Sly’s address is in there. His brother’s address, anyways. Dude’s homeless, floats from the clubhouse to his brother’s couch and anybody who’ll take his ass for a night or two.” Jay said, “He’s our muscle. Top gun, cool head in a shootout. Mean left.”

Queen glanced at the phone, then grinned, "Cute kid. I wonder if Maria's dad still has a picture like this on his phone or maybe whoever the fuck is looking for that girl we found at your place."

He looked at the phone and scrolled through it, clicking his teeth when he found the information. "Shame those girls got caught up with the likes of the Russians, yeah?"

Queen copied the information down and slid the phone back to Jay, meeting his gaze. Without looking over, he passed the paper they had been writing debts on to Ghost, Sly's information scrawled across the page.

Some of the life drained out of Jay’s face at that. He tried not to think about things like that, don’t bring the stress from work home, don’t be an absent father, don’t tell his little girl that he was a piece of shit. “Yeah.” He nodded, his eyes so heavy of a sudden, filled with shame, “Damn shame. You know, and I know this don’t mean shit, but I’m glad I’m helpin’ y’all.”

He looked at the two of them, letting his eyes fall back to the table, “But I know it don’t mean nothin’.”

Ghost looked over the paper, then stood.

"Wait on that treat," he said, looking at Queen, then at Jay. "I'm going to make a call. This checks out, you get your biscuit."

He left the room without another word, stepping into the hallway. A moment later he was on his pre-pay, the most recent number he'd memorized for Tex keyed in and ringing.

The other line picked up, Donnelley clearing his throat, “Jeff?”

Ghost grunted. "About that friend of ours. He gave me the contact info for his coworker. Says he can help us out. Guy's a little higher up the chain with their company."

“Oh, supervisor’s gonna be happy about that,” Donnelley’s telltale Texan was absent, and his voice was pitched down a tad, “I think it’s best we cut out the middle man and go straight for this higher-up. Let him off easy. Pressure’s on back at the Office, we’re under a crunch now. Do what you have to ASAP, the company wants you back soon.”

"Sounds good. I'll book a flight as soon as I wrap up this meeting." Ghost killed the call and pulled out an all-weather pen, scribbling a quick note across the top of the paper with Sly's info on it. Then he walked back into the room.

"It checks out," he said as he slipped back into his chair. He passed the note to Queen, the word HOTSHOT penciled neatly at the top. "Give him his cookie, we've got our new muster orders."

Queen glanced at it and then folded it, tucking it into his back pocket. He beckoned Jay with a tilt of his head, "That shit I don't carry in my pocket. I got some gear in my overnight bag."

He walked to the bed, rummaging in it and brought out a folded canvas pouch, the kind that used to hold wrenches and screwdrivers. Inside there was a tight wrapped bag of capped hypodermic needles and a scorch marked spoon.

Queen looked over at Ghost then at Jay.

"Let's get some privacy, I might wanna taste, too," he said, flashing a mischievous grin before opening the bathroom door.

He finished his cigarette, tossing it into the toilet before taking out the kit, laying it on the sink and removed a baggie of white powder, there was another of brown resinous looking material.

"When's the last time you got fixed up?" Queen asked, flicking the small bag of heroin with his fingers.

Jay’s eyes gleamed like a magpie’s at every movement of Queen’s, his eyes locked on the baggies he was working with. It couldn’t have been more pitiful if he was licking his lips and sweating, “I used to do it all the time when I was a small-timer. B-and-E’s, drug deals, whatever.” Jay said, an almost feverish tone in his voice, “You gonna help me? Been a bit.”

Queen nodded, casting a sidelong look at Jay, "Yeah, no problem. I'll let you go first, I'm a gentleman."

He set to work, heroin wasn't something he liked to fuck with but he'd tried it once or twice when undercover when it would have drawn suspicion not to. Queen took a strip of rubber tubing and snapped it tight before leaning in to help tie off Jay's arm above his elbow.

Queen stepped back and started up the cooking process. He added a little water from the tap to the spoon and mixed in a healthy dose of powder. Striking the high flame on his lighter, he put it under the small bowl and watched intently as it began to bubble.

His gaze cut over to Jay, watching the expression on the man's face. It never really left a person, that craving, that need for the warm embrace that the opiate would give. That rush that felt like the best orgasm of his life times a hundred.

Jay’s eyes kept an intent watch on Queen, almost hypnotized by the ritual of heroin. If Queen looked close enough, he could see the reflection of the tiny flame in Jay’s eyes. Any closer and he might see into his soul. A thousand little needles of doubt and regret stung at him, but it only made him hungrier for the embrace of the drug’s high. “I don’t want her to find out.” Jay said, face slack as he watched Queen, “Amber. That’s her name. The girl with me on my phone.”

“My sister would never let me see her again.” Jay mumbled the words, and his brows moving to come together was the only sign of his regret. “I don’t care what happens to me, but she’s the best thing in the world.”

As Queen drew out the plunger, filling the syringe with the China White that he had failed to mention was cut heavily with fentanyl. The dose was larger than even a seasoned junkie would dare shoot up, taken from a seizure near Tallahassee that had been responsible for a number of deaths.

"Well," Queen said, flicking the syringe and turning towards Jay. "We always hope kids will be better than us, right?"

He leaned over where Jay sat on the toilet lid and looked him over. Redneck trash. Not unlike himself in the eyes of most of this world. He made a quick gesture and waited for the man to hold out his arm.

The vein was there, popped bluish against Jay's pale skin unmarked by tattoos. Jay held his arm out, looking away from Queen and waiting for the sharpness of the needle. He felt the sting, and after a moment the rubber strap was snapped off his arm. He felt the tingle in his head and the droop in his eyes. He didn’t even realize he’d slumped down the toilet as he sighed.

Before long, he was starting to nod, a satisfied smile on his face as he’d lazily raise his bobbing head periodically. His breathing came slow, and slower, as time went on. Soon enough, his head stopped bobbing until all of him sagged. The last thing he had the energy to do was softly wretch before a thin stream of acidic vomit dribbled down his chin. Another wretch rolled his body off the side of the toilet and onto his back, his chest fighting for air as vomit pooled in his gurgling mouth for several minutes. His heel uselessly scraped against the floor, dreaming maybe, or futile animal throes. And then it stopped.

Queen watched him, reaching for another cigarette and lit up as Jay faded. When it was done, Queen checked for a pulse and found none. He sniffed and took a long drag, speaking to the dead man.

"So worried she'll find out you're a piece of shit, huh? Better worry little Amber doesn't pay for the sins of the uncle," he muttered, wiping down the sink and other places he had touched. He thought about the girl they found, malnourished and traumatized then glanced at Jay's still form. "Sleep well, asshole. They always figure it out anyway."

Queen stepped out of the bathroom and looked at Ghost and nodded, the loose end had been tied.

Ghost gave him his typical grunt, showing no more concern than if Queen had told him the weather forecast.

"Get packed," he said. He was already putting neat grunt-rolls into his bag. "Tex wants us. Clean up the cards, leave the gear. With his record they won't dig any deeper. Another scumbag who had an OD coming for years."




>CIA HEADQUARTERS
>SHOOTHOUSES, THE FARM
>LANGLEY, VIRGINIA
>14AUG2019
>1000...///

The weapons handling was tight, entries were getting quicker and more crisp. Target acquisition was better than a couple days ago. Spending time at the range and putting in work at the shoothouses had done Dave some good, it seemed. Likewise, the years hadn’t slowed Maui and Poker down a bit. They were every bit the operators they were when he’d first got to THUNDER. He wanted to join Dave this run, but he instead opted to join Ghost up in the catwalks, watching how the stress shoots and dry runs had benefited the mountain man.

Donnelley had his arms crossed as he watched Dave take point on a door. He’d look down at the thickness of his arms and broadness of his shoulders every once in a while. A couple weeks wasn’t much in terms of training, but two-a-days and supplements had helped along and gotten those hard-earned inches on his arms. The steadily growing operator beard made him look almost too different now. Maybe Ghost was rubbing off on him. He spoke to Ghost but kept watching, “How do you think he’s doin’ now?”

"Better," Ghost growled. He was back in Instructor Mode, his Oakleys glued to his face and his usual Gray Man attire supplemented by a blaze-orange plate carrier and whistle. "Smoother. Like he might actually get something done before he catches a sucking chest wound. You said he's stacked bodies with an injury? One to the shoulder?"

Donnelley nodded, watching intently as they entered the room and Maui put a quick triplet into a target, “Right through. Didn’t even notice until after it was over. Plate caught the other one.” Donnelley scratched at his chin, “Think we got three or four dudes before they decided we were too much trouble.”

Donnelley didn’t let how proud he was that UMBRA was making a better impression this time around now. It still had to be said that a shoothouse and a firefight were two very different things. All the same, train and train again made for a more successful fight. “Foster’s going to want to brief us soon. We should wrap it up.”

The big Operator nodded thoughtfully. Confirmation that Dave had fought on through an injury moved him up another couple of respect points. Ghost had seen men cave because of wounds; supposed hard-dick Delta killers who'd gone their whole career without a scratch could turn into crybabies the minute a round clipped their forearm and made shit too real for them.

Ghost himself had caught two in the guts on his first op, fought through the pain, and finished the mission providing overwatch. He'd died once in the bird and twice on the table, and still gotten his dick slapped for trying to train with a shit-bag strapped to his thigh.

He raised his whistle, blew three sharp blasts. "END-EX, END-EX, END-EX! CEASE FIRE, UNLOAD, SHOW CLEAR!" His gravelly roar cut the air as cleanly as the whistle had.

"I'll clear them out," he said, heading for the catwalk stairs.




>BRIEFING ROOM
>1100...///

Donnelley sat in his chair, UMBRA sitting across from THUNDER. Anyone who knew what was what knew that UMBRA was taking the lead, and THUNDER would do what they did best, hit pipes and squeeze triggers. Even sharing a room with them made Donnelley wistful for the days when life was so simple. No mysteries to solve, just heads to pop open with .300 Blackout, but as he looked to his people in UMBRA there was no doubt that he was in another stage of his life. Perhaps sorely needed.

The door opened and Foster entered with another face that would be familiar to Ghost and Queen as well. The Gray Man hung back behind Foster, not giving the rest in the room the time of day to even share glances as Foster set up the projector and his laptop. Donnelley felt his muscles tense as his killer’s eyes bore into the Gray Man. The knowledge he had, Donnelley had never understood. And what Donnelley didn’t understand never sat well with him.

“Nice to see you again.” Donnelley’s voice was hard and loud in the silence.

The Gray Man finally acknowledged Donnelley’s existence with a bored gaze and pursed lips. “Likewise.”

And that was all before he went back to pretending he and Foster were the only ones here. Finally, Foster stepped back as the projector splashed an aerial image of Blackriver County.

“Familiar place.” Foster said, folding his arms and nodding at the screen, “We’re taking Dulane back to the mines that he collapsed. I have a feeling those mines are where everything originated from here in Blackriver, long before Maria Vasquez and Gorochev.”

“Make no mistake, Maria Vasquez was a tragedy like every other girl lost there. But we’re the Program. We don’t deal with the symptoms, we deal with the cancer itself.” Foster leaned on his knuckles on the table, “And when we go in there, there’s going to be a lot of people who want to stop us from doing just that. We have NPS, Sheriff Department, Bratva, Aryan Brotherhood all gunning for us.”

“When we get out from Beckley and hit the border into Blackriver, expect every eye to be on us. We’re going to be making a lot of noise with this Dulane deal, somebody wanted him locked up forever and we’re dramatically fucking up everything they wanted.” Foster pointed to THUNDER, “THUNDER is going to be posing as US Marshal Service SOG charged with protecting Dulane in transit. The rest of us are FBI, same as always. State Police is kind enough to offer an escort up to, but not past, the border.”

“We’ll be on our own in Blackriver. UMBRA’s dress code for the day will be casual, pack armor and weapons. Two days’ rations, just in case.” Foster folded his arms, “No air support, no QRF. We pack light, probe deep, strike hard. Same shit, different day, ladies and gentlemen. Any questions?”

"Rules of engagement?"

It was Ghost, just like always. The big man liked parameters, especially when it came to who he was allowed to shoot. It helped prevent misunderstandings that might end with him having to endure an ass-chewing.

“Only fire unless fired upon. We don’t need to end up on the news.” Foster responded. “That said, high probability that we will face trained and experienced opposition from Gorochev. Any shooters not wearing a badge are to be neutralized with extreme prejudice.”

Ava watched the proceedings with bright eyes, her glasses gone from her face as shortly after they were released from custody; she had switched to contacts. It was strange to not feel the slight weight on her nose and tucked behind her ears. It took getting used to putting the contact lenses in, but once she did she found them surprisingly comfortable to wear.

The past few weeks also saw her getting some better sleep, some solid practice down at the shooting range with Dave or Donnelley when they could spare the time. It also saw the interesting development of Dave crashing on her couch, at her own suggestion. After her sleepwalking episode she was afraid to sleep alone and having Dave in the front room was a reassuring safety net that likely helped her sleep a little sounder. Though unexpectedly, it had led to a change in their relationship...

She tried not to stare too much at the new faces at the table, she had heard a little about them but hadn’t been formally introduced yet; the familiar anxiety of meeting new people making her hesitate to introduce herself.

She raised her hand slightly. “I have my drones, aerial and terran,” She said, lowering her hand back down to her lap. “Should I bring them?”

“High likelihood that we’ll need both. Go ahead.” Foster nodded.

Dave sat beside Ava, as dressed up as he ever got with his flannel tucked in and the sleeves neatly rolled. When Queen had entered he’d pulled his eyes away from the young redhead and given the man a cautious nod, working to keep his distaste from his face. His feelings about the man hadn’t changed, but he understood the basic concepts of professionalism, and now wasn’t the time to start talking shit. Instead he raised his hand.

“What about...That Hound or whatever? Do we have…” He trailed off, searching for the words, trying to find a way to say it without sounding foolish. Finally he sighed. “We got any magic, or voodoo, or whatever that fuckin’ Russian guy was doin’? Or a missile launcher, maybe? I know bullets just piss it off.”

At the question, Foster only quirked a brow and pushed off the table. He folded his arms and looked to the Gray Man, leaning against the wall in much the same posture. As he always did, he took his moment as if he enjoyed being the center of attention, and then spoke simply, “Me.” He left the single word out for everyone to understand or puzzle over, and then spoke again in case anyone took too long, “I specialize in… these types of things. Magic, or voodoo, or as you put it whatever that fucking Russian guy was doing.

“My name is Doctor Overman. I’m an adviser on matters such as this.” He finished, looking back at Foster.

Foster looked back to UMBRA and THUNDER in turn, “Anything else?”

Ava had several after a statement like that, but she didn’t get the sense they would be readily answered so she remained quiet to get on with the meeting. However, she eyed Overman with a mixture of shock, suspicion and a little curiosity. He didn’t look like much, like he would just blend into a crowd and vanish into the sea of obscurity, but given what he just said about his specialty...It leant an unsettling air to his demeanor.

Laine studied Overman but he was a picture of banality, his expression revealed little other than a certain smugness when he spoke, subtle but there. She raised her hand slightly, tugging back the sleeve of her fine black sweater. Laine peered at him over the black frame glasses, the ones she wore when she wanted to be taken more seriously. “Dr Laine, FBI. I do have a couple questions. Just what is the Hound and how do the Russians control it?”

“It’s something, ah, from the other side.” Overman piped up. “Not heaven, or hell. Inventions to keep primitive man in line and away from each other’s throats.”

Overman’s gaze didn’t falter from Laine’s, “It isn’t any more evil than a lion is to the zebra.” He shrugged, “And just like a lion, you can’t truly control it. Just lift the gate and let it run loose at the first scent you give to it. The Sinaloa, Renko. Tom.”

“But to lift that gate… to turn it back and make it retreat into that cage,” Overman’s brows rose, “You need someone like me. We’ll need to find who sent it and kill him.”

It was somehow reassuring that the Hound was not evil in the classical sense but a predator, something the Russians could not exactly control despite their knowledge on how to open it's cage and set it on prey. The way Overman had said it, an invention to control humans made her more curious.

"The other side, an invention to keep us in place," Laine repeated, making mental notes. She kept her gaze on the Gray Man, taking this rare chance to ask the questions that gnawed at her, "Just what or who invented it, this predator outside our reality? And how did you learn to open the cage?"

Overman had a look that wasn’t condescension or blank for the first time, a little smirk for someone to be asking the real questions, and eyes that told her that he didn’t have the answers for her, “No one knows.” He admitted, “No one knows anything about this world. Not really.”

Laine stayed quiet a moment, thinking over the admission. They were groping in the dark with a small tool kit, not unlike psychology sometimes but this wasn't just the mind it was a physical creation. But how it was manifested, how it became, troubled her. "It's real though, an actual creature, has anyone ever been able to take a sample? How was the ceremony to banish learned?"

She paused, there was a thought she wanted to express but it was something she thought rediculous and yet it seemed to fit the situation. "Dr Overman, have you considered this thing a creation of man, a tulpa? I know that sounds silly but what I read about them, I could see similarities."

Her fair skin blushed slightly and she could not look at anyone else, her green eyes now showing hesitation after saying it out loud.

Overman’s frown only deepened, “We, ah, humanity and the fair few of us graced with the knowledge of it… we know nothing of its nature. No one has seen its DNA, pinned some evolutionary standpoint.” He said, “A long time ago, the Al-Azif was written. And suppressed. Magic, some call it. Like the curious monkeys we are, we toy with it. And as Foster and Donnelley, and everyone in the Program can attest, you are the consequences for when that happens.”

“Humanity has barely mapped its own oceans. We can barely slip our bonds from earth to set foot on our own moon, and you’re asking me to teach a class on what lay beyond it, and even further beyond that.” Overman shook his head, “No one should have to know that, Miss Laine.”

Laine leaned back, partially relieved that her brief foray into paranormal mental powers was fruitless. The human mind was powerful in itself and to think it might be able to have actual physical power had led to a few sleepless nights after reading certain books. "Doctor," she said, whether correcting him or addressing him, it was unclear.

"The Al-Azif, this is where Renko and you got those magic words? The scarf found on Maria was said to have 'squiggly' writing on it, perhaps it was Arabic script. What if it was one of those things called to her?" Laine said, then closed her eyes briefly. It had been a work of man, to blame it on something else was reckless and yet, that black shard had been buried deep inside her.

“It wasn’t. She wouldn’t have been so… clean.” Overman said, having seen the damage the thing could do once. And once was enough. “Consolation, maybe.”

Laine nodded, then glanced down at her hands. For a moment she had hoped it was still people, even people with supernatural abilities that would be frightening if true. People she could figure out but this otherness bothered her. They were flying blind against a deadly intelligence with only a sort of expert with knowledge equivalent to flashing a light off and on in a deep cavern and catching glimpses of what lurked in the shadows. She took a deep breath, done with her questions and settled back to allow anyone else a crack at it.

“What’s our rides?” Donnelley asked after a moment of silence.

“The usual Not-a-Fed chariots,” Foster nodded, “GMC Yukons, black. Tinted. Armored.”

He pursed his lips and looked around once more, not hearing anything else from the crowd. “We’ll depart here at Zero Hour for Beckley. Make sure everything’s squared away before then, you’ve got plenty of time. I’m not grounding the mission because somebody forgot their phone.” Foster said, “Until then, consider this mission started as soon as you leave this room. Anyone outside of it is a potential leak. Working Group UMBRA and THUNDER answer only to me, we’re going dark. Don’t talk to anyone but the people in this room, that means even making calls to the misses and mom and dad.”

Foster tightened his folded arms and nodded at them all, “Good luck. Dismissed.”




>PROGRAM SAFEHOUSE
>UNDISCLOSED, VIRGINIA
>14AUG2019
>2300...///

Green Boxes. The secret safehouses and storage areas used by the Program to store anything a Working Group might need, often hidden in plain sight. It ranged from anything the size of a lockbox in a bank to a house in the middle of the woods. This one was more the latter, a tiny office in a warehouse rented out permanently by the black budget of the Program. It was around sundown that they’d set off from their respective places to converge when they got the text.

The night was black when the last of them arrived, and wordlessly they set to work prepping themselves in whatever way they felt was right. As usual, Donnelley was in a corner of the room that was designed as a meeting hall, the open space housing only white walls, grey carpet, and a long table on which plate carriers, duffel bags, rucksacks, magazines, and guns were splayed out like the world’s most armed board of directors were holding a meeting. He brass checked his Badger and FN handgun to the beat of Sodom’s Napalm in the Morning blaring in his headset, hardly paying attention to the others in the room.

Once he holstered his handgun in the thigh holster, he slipped the headphones off his ears and the sound of brass checks and buckles graced his ear. Music just as good. He hooked his thumbs into his plate carrier, Badger dangling from its single-point sling, “Everyone got everythin’ on the packin’ list? NODs, provisions, ammo, badges, smiles, good attitudes?”

There was the soft sound of a small whirring motor as a boxy drone, painted with a geometric camo pattern and sitting on four comically large heavily treaded tires, crawled around the room. Ava had taken the prep time to check the cameras and systems for both of her drones, more out of having something to do than out of actual necessity.

Returning to Blackriver was becoming all too familiar, including the feelings of constant dread, anxiety and cold sweat inducing terror. Maybe someday she would get used to it all.

For now, she destracted herself by driving her drone, affectionately named WALL-E, around the room like an RC car. She was also checking the tires through the sensors built in to them and playing around with the camera on her tablet, but mostly she was just amusing herself while still looking productive.

She grinned slightly as she drove the drone up to Donnelley, bumping his boot and looking up at him with the drone’s built in camera. “Smile, you’re on candid camera.” She joked.

Dave watched Ava with a grin as he went over his gear. In addition to his usual weapons, the table before him also contained a pack with several lumps of C-4 and the required accoutrements. A venture like this required more than Tannerite, diesel fuel, and fertilizer. He had swapped his flannel and jeans for something a little more official, drab clothing from the 5.11 Tactical line, but his “hat hat” was still firmly planted on his head, and the ring of a Copenhagen can was visible in his back pocket.

On the other side of the room, Ghost was meticulously checking his own gear. He’d joined up with the other members of THUNDER the moment they’d arrived, eagerly separating himself from the new meat of UMBRA. He was glad to be back among his own, with hardened killers he knew he could count on in a pinch, even if he had to play dress-up. His Here For The Violence patch had been replaced with a US MARSHALS tab, his usual hoodie and tactical pants traded in for a suit of Multicam. He’d drawn the line at standardizing his weapons, though; his .300BLK sat on the table in front of him, and he’d rather give up his left hand than the customized Glock 19 that had seen him through shit-holes on six of the world’s seven continents.

“Hey, Ma.” Donnelley waved at the camera and smiled before turning away from it, “Alright, we got an hour ‘fore we move out from here. Everyone check and re-check everythin’, anythin’ you’re fuzzy on, ask it now.”

“Jesus Christ,” Poker spat, “Gotta piss. I’ll be back.”

Maui chuckled that deep thunder from his chest he had and went back to loading his magazines. THUNDER had long ago caved to the pressure and decided it was too much trouble arguing with Ghost over cartridges. Queen still kept his uzi, but Poker and Maui had switched to .300BLK when they’d ran into an issue in Bangladesh concerning ammunition and an exceptionally exciting firefight. Tex and Ghost were the only ones who could keep firing at the thing.

“Still doin’ that?” Donnelley muttered to the gigantic Hawaiian that was Maui.

“Uh Huh. Hasn’t gotten worse, but it’s never been good, you know?” Maui smiled, before speaking more low, “Your guys. They ain’t shooters.”

“That’s not what we do, Maui. Got some solid dudes, though.” Donnelley patted Maui’s slab-like shoulder. “Contrary to popular belief, not everythin’ can be solved with a bullet.”

Donnelley stepped up to Dave, watching him work for a second before he spoke, “Locked n’ loaded, partner?”

"All ready, man." Dave gave him a smile that didn't quite hide his nerves. His gaze darted to the death-dealers in the corner, where Ghost was growling something about never having met a problem he couldn't shoot to death.

"I uh… I got them explosives," he gestured to his pack. "An' all my other shit. Guns and...stuff…" He trailed off, looking down at his gear again.

Donnelley laid a hand on Dave’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze when he noticed the mountain man was quieter than usual. “We’ll be out there together. We watched each other’s backs back at the cabin, we’ll do it again.” Donnelley inclined his head and rose his brows at Dave, a consoling little smile on his lips, “So. You got mine?”

“Always, man,” Dave nodded. “I’m with ya.”

Laine dressed in snug black tactical slacks and a dark blue Bureau polo over which she wore her vest and the FBI windbreaker laid beside her. Her fingers still ached from the times she fired her service weapon while using the Program’s facilities, trying to sharpen her skill. Twice she had to fire in a combat situation and was not as effective as she had liked to have been. The truth was Laine never enjoyed the tactical courses and her job rarely put her into a position to use her weapon now that she was an analyst. But she wasn’t just a profiler now and skill was needed, despite all the swinging dicks with guns around them, the enemy did not wait until they were well guarded. Renko proved that well enough. She still was not sure what to think of the mysterious Russian but trust was dear in this game.

Her thoughts turned to Dulane and the prickle on the back of her neck made her shiver. When they had interviewed him he was trying to tell them something but the man must live in constant fear, not just of the demons he saw but of those real men that would kill him to silence him. Let the world think he was a loon, she thought, but there was something other than madness there.

Laine glanced up at the others getting ready and asked, “So who is going to be my partner this time?”

“I’ll be your Mulder.” Donnelley smiled at Laine.

She smiled slightly back at him, "Alright, Spooky."

Laine laced up her boots and stood, feeling the tightness in her thighs and rear end, those squats had almost crippled her for a week. Her gun was in a holster at her waist now, the training at the courses with Donnelley and his old team had honed her small arm skills. She felt more confident drawing and firing, her target papers now shot through the center mass rather than scattered.

With the absence of questions, Donnelley placed his hands on his hips and surveyed the room. The last one he needed to check in on was Queen, his old friend. He sided up with him and watched him go over his uzi and his other gear.

“You up for this shit, mi cumpa?” He said with a smile that betrayed that younger man Tex was, in it for the adrenaline and nothing else.

Queen watched the UMBRA members with an expression of interest, moreso in how certain pants fit than their state of readiness. He dragged his gaze away from Laine's backside when he caught Tex approaching. Queen fiddled with the strap on his Uzi, returning the smile he recognized.

"When am I not up for action with you?" Queen grinned, resting his hand against the compact weapon. "You playing a Feeb should be fun to watch."

“Any last-minute tips, amigo?” Donnelley quirked a brow.

Queen sniffed and shrugged, then met Tex's gaze, "Keep it professional, polite, and above the locals. They expect it, big bad FBI comes swaggering in and they might resent it but they'd be disappointed if you were just another good ole boy. The prison boys got their expectations. As for Dulane, follow your gut with him. I don't know but what I've read in the files but he's a wild card and possibly a very useful one. Don't fake it with him."

“When have I not been professional and polite?” Donnelley smirked and turned to address the rest of the teams, Poker having gotten back from the bathroom.

Donnelley nodded at him, “Yall ready?”

“Roger.” Poker nodded back. “We’ll follow your lead, This is your guys’ show. We’ll be here if you need us.”

“Alright, let’s mount up now, ladies and gentlemen. The custody transfer is goin’ to take a bit and I want to get into Blackriver by early mornin’.” Donnelley rose his voice above the hubbub, “Let’s get to it.”




>BECKWITH PRISON, WV
>15AUG2019
>0100...///

The prison hadn’t changed since last time they’d been here. Still an old rundown piece of shit chock full of repeat offenders and potheads that got caught with one gram too many. They’d almost charged through the halls getting everything set to take Dulane out of the prison for his little field trip.

Laine waited with Donnelley, their FBI credentials clipped to their jackets. Despite the summer, it would not do for agents to arrive in just short sleeved polos. They were dressed for field work and the other members of their team had US Marshals badges visible. An impressive layout for the small town guards, a few who kept making eyes at the alphabet windbreakers and baseball caps. Dulane was suddenly an important commodity.

Donnelley looked around the Warden’s Office as they sat at his desk. He scanned the sparse walls and got the sense that the Warden wanted to be here as much as the inmates. Last time he was here the Warden seemed the type to relish the job like a tyrant over his little slice of the country. The pictures of the Warden with his family and shaking hands with the Mayor were all taken off the walls. No knickknacks on the desk. They were all piled into a cardboard box that had once been used to transport a mass amount of potato buds.

Donnelley slyly looked at it and he couldn’t resist. He pulled one picture out to look at, then another, and another. The last picture stopped him in his tracks. The Warden was shaking hands with an old Blackriver Sheriff while two others stood next to the two, dressed in a fitted suit and a State Police uniform. They all looked well-to-do, and it didn’t look like any type of photo op he’d heard of. Usually it was palm trees and Hawaiian shirts, but behind them, heavy machinery could be seen, mud beneath their fine leather dress shoes. Donnelley took his phone out of his pocket and snapped a quick picture before replacing the photo.

He showed his phone’s screen to Laine, “Where you think that is?” He asked, “You recognize those two uniforms?”

Laine watched Donnelley snoop, glancing now and then at the door. When he offered his phone she examined the image. "A state police officer, interesting. This is the first time I've seen evidence of them being cozy with Blackriver but I guess we shouldn't be surprised. I wonder if they're at a mine, with that heavy machinery. The old sheriff, a state officer, the warden and this mystery man."

She glanced at Donnelley, "We could ask Detective Roy, maybe she'll know the state officer and maybe even the suit if we're lucky."

“Maybe Joe Dawant has some answers about that. Haven’t heard from him in a bit, startin’ to get worried.” Donnelley said, replacing his phone in his pocket.

"We should contact them," Laine said, following his train of thought. "We owe them some sort of safety. If that's possible."

She glanced at Donnelley, her deep green eyes on his scarred face. "I'm ready to face those mines, whatever we find."

Her heart jumped at the thought but after the conversation with her father she had renewed faith in this war against the dangerous unknown. Laine reached up absently and touched the fine silver chain that disappeared under her polo.

Donnelley looked to her and nodded, “Me too.”

Laine looked back around the office, "I wonder if the Warden is retiring?"

The door opened and cut any conversation off. Donnelley stood and offered his hand out to the first person he saw, which were two. The Warden and the State Trooper in the picture. Donnelley hoped his eyes hadn’t lingered too long on the other man as he felt the recognition set in, and only smiled at the Warden, “Mister McKenna, how’ve you been?”

“Well, as ever, Davidson. I’m sure you noticed the change in decor.” Warden McKenna smiled and nodded to the walls around them, “I’m leavin’ this ol’ office soon. Retirement, gonna kick my feet up and sip mojitos by the water in Florida. Not before I hand your man off to you, though.”

“Well, I appreciate that.” Donnelley smiled, gesturing to Laine, “This is my partner, Doctor Laine, BAU. She’s had an interest in Dulane.”

“How do you do, Doctor?” McKenna stuck his hand out.

Laine stood as well, recognizing the older man as the warden. She smiled politely and congratulated him on his retirement. She shook his hand, her gaze never leaving his face until he pulled away. She looked aside at the West Virginia state cop and noted his badge and name tag, "McCune". He was the same uniform from the picture and she made a quick once over for rank insignia. Sergeant. Not too high but not a scrub. Interesting that a sergeant was rubbing elbows with the Warden and the mystery suit in the photo.

"We appreciate your help. Dulane is an interesting case study of the psychology of a mass murderer and valuable to my research," Laine said, the professional courtesy in her voice. "The cooperation you've shown us will be noted, Warden McKenna...Sergeant."

Her gaze flicked to the sergeant once more but held off on introduction, leaving it as unimportant as long as the Warden did not bother. She rubbed her hands together once then looked at Donnelley.

“Of course, of course.” McKenna smiled at the both of them, “Anyway, this is Sergeant McCune, State PD. He and Roy have been active on this case since Davidson and Forrest came over here. How is Forrest?”

“He’s good. Waitin’ for this case to get closed like the rest of us.” Davidson nodded. “Mind if we kick it into gear, Mister McKenna, we’re on a crunch.”

“Certainly not, let me find that folder.” The Warden opened a drawer on his desk and set down a Manila folder and a hefty external hard drive, “Like you asked. Phone calls, visitations, security footage. Everything we got on Dulane.”

“Appreciate that.” Donnelley smirked.

The Warden opened the Manila folder and scribbled his signature on the document that signified Dulane’s formal transfer into UMBRA’s custody. Once he was finished, McKenna spun the paper around to face Donnelley and Laine. Donnelley penned down the name John Davidson like he’d been signing with it for years, then slid it to Laine.

“After we get that stamped, y’all are free to take Dulane.” McKenna nodded.

“Detective Roy should be meeting your men outside.” McCune spoke up for the first time, “State PD is retrieving Dulane right about now. We’ll give you a full escort to Blackriver, but for the safety of my officers, we won’t be crossing that line with all y’all.”

Laine signed the paper, the flourish in the L distinctive of her signature. She turned to McCune, studying him a moment. She took the file and flipped through it, then tucked it against her chest. It would be interesting reading on the ride out to the mines.

"We appreciate what you're able to do for us," Laine said, "It's unfortunate that you can't make it into Blackriver."

“Really is.” McCune nodded.

Donnelley clucked his tongue and didn’t bother with that. He didn’t expect the PD to deviate on the plan heard in the briefing as laid out by Foster. It was UMBRA and THUNDER on their lonesome out in the hills, but that wasn’t anything new for Donnelley and the Program as a whole. “Well, McKenna, good luck with your retirement and all that.”

“Good luck, ladies and gentlemen.” McKenna smiled as he set himself down in his seat.




Donnelley and Laine had met back with the others, the convoy of Yukons making quite the impression on the guards. Even moreso was the MRAP complete with mounted M2 painted black and emblazoned with ‘WV State Police’ and ‘SWAT’ in block lettering. Roy was bedecked in her typical business attire and a black plate carrier, UMBRA, THUNDER, and the PD SWAT all looked ready for war. All for one man. Roy waved at them and stepped up to the both of them, “Howdy, hope y’all find it a successful jaunt into Blackriver. Whatever the hell it is you’re doing.”

Donnelley’s hand slapped into Roy’s, “By the looks of it, we’ll be startin’ a war in them hills.” Donnelley chuckled, “Thanks, Roy.”

“My pleasure, only regret is not going up there with you. Chief doesn’t like the idea and Chief gets what Chief wants, huh?”

“Ain’t that the truth.” Donnelley nodded.

The klaxon bell of the prison gate sounded out the warning of its opening. Flanked by SWAT officers with masks and the boys of THUNDER, Dulane walked of his own volition, chained by the ankles and wrists like an animal. His face was that of a man who just got everything he wanted, like this all was a great triumph for him. All according to plan. Dulane looked to Laine with a sickening baring of teeth as a smile, and mouthed the words, ‘I made a promise.’

Laine watched Dulane approach, gone was the hunted, haunted look of the man she remembered from the previous interview. When he smiled she felt a clutching in her stomach and for a moment there was a writhing of his shadow that stretched on the ground. The elongated man shape transformed into a mass of tentacles slithering across the asphalt.

She gasped a breath and blinked, and it was gone. Laine stared at the shadow but it bobbed along the ground just like the ones cast by the guards. A prickle ran across her scalp and down her neck as she gazed at Dulane and dread knotted in her stomach.

Laine turned to seek Donnelley but he was with Roy and she didn't want to make a scene. It could have just been a trick of the shadows and pavement but the primal warning in her gut spoke otherwise. Her face was paler than usual as she approached the truck Dulane would ride in with the disguised THUNDER and UMBRA members.

Donnelley watched Laine walk past him, some kind of trouble hanging around her, shoulders pinned back and head down. He quirked a brow at that and flicked his eyes toward Dulane before he spoke to Roy, “I wanted to ask you something.”

“Go ‘head.”

“What’s McCune’s relationship with the Warden, McKenna?” Donnelley asked, “Seemed like they were familiar back in the office.”

Roy shrugged, “His family and the Warden’s been around here for awhile, far as I know. Went to school together, but so did mostly everyone our age around here wearin’ a badge.”

“Okay. Makes sense.” Donnelley accepted the answer, not completely trusting anything around here ever since the stories about old-blood families and the clannishness of the hills. “You trust him?”

“As much as I trust any of my people. What’s up?” Roy frowned, the seasoned detective catching on something Donnelley was working too hard to keep under wraps.

“You know how I might feel about families that’ve been ‘round here for a while. MacOnies and O’Dhoules, everythin’ like that.” Donnelley pursed his lips.

“Relax, we ain’t all hillbillies just like you ain’t all cowboys and outlaws.” Roy winked.

“You don’t know what I get up to.” Donnelley chuckled as he stepped away from her, “Thank you for the escort, Detective.”

“Our pleasure.” She tapped her brow in a salute as Donnelley rejoined his compatriots in UMBRA and THUNDER.

He caught back up with Laine in short order, “Everythin’ okay?”

Laine jerked her head up when Donnelley spoke and she turned to meet his eyes. Before she could change her mind she whispered in a rush, "Dulane isn't alone. There's something..."

She took a sharp breath, darting her gaze aside then back at him, "I thought I saw something...in his shadow."

Laine blushed slightly at the words but she still felt the primal fear that had shot through her at the glimpse of the writhing mass. She laid her hand against the door of the truck and forced herself to meet Donnelley's eyes.

He nodded slow, looking to Dulane just before he disappeared behind the SWAT MRAP and saw Overman staring at Dulane too. “Well, we’ve got that fuckin’ sorceror with us.” He looked back to Laine, hopefully easing her as much as he could, “We’ll be alright. We got a magician and a lot of bullets.”

Laine swallowed hard then nodded, they were as prepared as they could be. Yet that inhuman smile, the changing shadow, it all made her shiver despite the August heat.

"You're right, of course," she said, licking her lips slightly. "It's just... unnerving. I'll be alright, though."

She took a deep breath and centered her thoughts, Dulane or whatever was in him, would not throw her off her game. It was a scare tactic, Laine told herself and she would not be so easily frightened off.

Reaching out she gave Donnelley's wrist a brief squeeze before letting go. "I'm fine," she said, her voice more normal. "Let's get this show on the road."

Ava watched Dulane carefully as he was escorted out, the hair on the back of her neck prickling to attention as her eyes fell on him. Her palms started to sweat and as her heart began to beat a little faster. She leaned back against the car they would be taking, crossing her arms over her chest and trying to hide the quiet panic attack building inside of her chest the longer she watched Dulane from behind her sunglasses.

She dusted lightly at her arms as it felt like wisps of spider webbing drifted over her skin. “He’s creepy.” She whispered over to Dave, finally tearing her eyes away from Dulane to look up at him.

Dave’s eyes were locked on Dulane, on the sick, squirming thing he could’ve sworn he saw in the man’s shadow. He took a breath, steadied himself, his hand resting on the butt of his Sig. He tried to make the motion look casual, but the touch of the gun made him feel a little better, reminded him he was still in whatever fight might pop off. A quick glance at the heavily-armed men surrounding Dulane also helped put him a little at ease; Ghost was a spooky son of a bitch, and his “friends” from THUNDER weren’t much better, but knowing they were on his side helped.

“Yeah,” he said, swallowing hard and moving a little closer to Ava. “He’s creepy, alright.”
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>JENNINGS RANDOLPH HIGHWAY
>TOWARDS WHITE TREE
>JUST OUTSIDE BLACKRIVER COUNTY
>15AUG2019
>0300...///

The sun still hadn’t come up, not that the mountains would’ve let Donnelley see it. They’d been driving a couple hours now, a silent convoy on empty mountain highways. As Donnelley looked past the darkened windows into the blackness of the passing hills, the words Foster had said echoed in him. No air support, no QRF. They were all alone with a madman in these hills, and with what Laine said she’d seen, Donnelley didn’t much take to the idea that he’d be sharing a vehicle with Dulane. At least it was dark enough that no one could cast a shadow. Donnelley chanced a look at Dulane, the man still sitting cuffed next to him with a bag over his head. Donnelley wouldn’t be surprised if he had that same content smile on his face.

And he wanted to knock it off of him. He was sure Foster wouldn’t like that, so Donnelley went back to staring out the window, hand gripping his Badger’s pistol grip.

“ETA one hour.” Foster turned his head and said, the steering wheel having not turned for a long damn while.

Donnelley nodded and spoke into his comms headset, “Hounddog 1-1 to all, ETA one hour.”

“Hounddog 2-1 copies.” Came the rasp of Poker’s voice through the earpiece.

They continued driving in the shadows of the mountains, the road stretching on in a strip of darkness past the headlights. “Stars are nice out here.” Foster said to no one in particular, probably trying to keep himself awake. “Better in Nevada.”

“Never liked them.” Overman spoke the first words since the briefing and Donnelley didn’t know whether or not he liked that it made the wizard seem human.

Having a man made of stone against the things with salivating mouths just beyond the darkness was reassuring in a way. He’d seen what it did to men made of any other thing. Donnelley pulled his eyes away from Overman and back to the road.

“He’s satisfied.” Donnelley heard Dulane’s voice from under the hood, “Excited.”

Donnelley looked at Foster in the rearview, and Foster’s eyes couldn’t have been more troubled as he looked at Dulane in the backseat. Foster looked how Donnelley felt. Overman said nothing though, not even a nervous shuffle or cough out of him. There’s that man of stone, Donnelley thought. Overman replied, his voice betraying his curiosity, “The Sleeper?”

“Mhmm.” Dulane nodded, “I made a promise.”

“Yeah, we heard.” Donnelley grumbled, shifting his body to face more in Dulane’s direction and noting where he had his pistol holstered.

“He been watchin’ y’all since you came here.” Donnelley could hear the smile in Dulane’s voice. Giddy, almost childish, “Been watchin’ you, Joey Boy. Since you was a soldier in Afghanistan and blew up his mountains. Good thing he’s got other ones.”

Dulane chuckled, “We’re in ‘em.”

“You shut the fuck up or I’ll blow your brains into your lap.” Donnelley growled. His mother had called him Joey Boy. An easy nickname that anyone could’ve made up, but it still set a chill in the man’s bones to hear.

“Oh, he’d like that.” Dulane said, as if that was a pretty good suggestion Donnelley had made.

“Who is this Sleeper?” Overman asked, tone still just curious, like they were all having tea and Donnelley wasn’t getting ready to kill the man.

“Oh, he’s time. He sees it, everythin’, that which has been. Could have been.” Dulane whistled, “Will be. Death wakes the sleeper, but he’s patient. He’s watchin’ us now, could see the color of your shirt. Watchin’ and waitin’ on all of us.”

“Since Joey Boy and Steve were in Afghanistan. Since the first time Overman Came and Saw.” Dulane chuckled, “And he been watching little ol’ Ava for a long, long time.”

Donnelley frowned something dark and scooted an inch or two away from Dulane, shaking his head and looking back out the window. “He's goin’ to be so happy I kept my promise.” Dulane said, “I always have.”

Donnelley sighed, talking into his earpiece, “Hounddog 1-1 to all, everybody doin’ alright?” He said, “Stretch your legs, take a piss, switch vehicles with me?”

“I think I’m car sick.” Ava’s voice mumbled over the comms, she sounded tired but managed to insert a note of humor into her words. “Probably don’t want to ride with me right now.”

Laine watched out the window as the morning chased them through the mountains. The momentary glimpse into darkness she witnessed made her skin crawl, the slithering shadows and the unnatural grin on Dulane's face. Every human instinct told her to get away from him, to hide but her professional duty pushed her to speak over the comm after Ava.

"I can switch with you, Hounddog 1-1. I would like..." Laine felt the muscles of her neck and shoulders tighten but she continued, "I should probably spend some time with Whitetail before we arrive. If you need a break."

“Roger,” Donnelley said, casting a glance Dulane’s way, where he sat patiently with that bag over his head. He didn't like not being able to see his face, expecting it to be squirming in whatever madness he’d seen in those mines, “We can do a switch when we get into Blackriver.”

"Sounds good," Laine said, lacking enthusiasm. She sat back, clenching her hands together but remained silent.

Queen drove the UMBRA team, checking the rear view mirror he could see Ava's pale face, "If you're feeling sick you can ride up front after Dr Laine switches trucks. Might make you feel better."

“That might help, thanks.” Ava smiled as best she could, resting her head against the cool glass of her window. She rubbed her sleeve over the clammy sweat that had broken out on her forehead. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I don’t get car sick easily.”

He grinned briefly then nodded at the countryside slowly revealing itself as the sun rose. His expression changed to a flicker of a compassionate frown that furrowed his brow. "Nerves probably, Blackriver ain't been hospitable. Closer we get, the more nervous you'll probably feel. It's nothing to be embarrassed about, not after what you've experienced there."

He drove on, following the lead SUV then glanced at Ava through the mirror, "But this time you got THUNDER with you, you'll be alright, Angel."

“Thanks Queen.” She said, a smile tugging back at the corner of her lips before she shut her eyes and pressed her head against the cool window again. She rested there for a few moments before opening her eyes again to look over to Dave sitting with her in the back. She smiled at him and held up her hand slightly to give him a wave.

Dave eyed the rearview mirror until he caught Queen's gaze, and gave the man a small nod. He still didn't like him, had little interest in being his friend, but he did appreciate the THUNDER agent being kind to Ava. He adjusted the hang of his weapon and returned Ava's smile, reaching over to quietly take her hand.

In the back of the MRAP, Ghost monitored the radio traffic in silence. He'd taken one of the seats closest to the rear personnel door, positioning himself to be first on the ground if things got hairy and they had to drop dismounts, and since they'd set off he had fallen into his usual joint-ops routine, fixing a blank Oakley stare on the SWAT officers and ignoring attempts at conversation unless they were pertinent to the mission. Let the others build rapport; Ghost was there for the Game, and a bunch of non-rate SWAT "operators" would only get in the way.

It didn’t stop them from trying though. A young man who looked like he’d seen a lot eyed Ghost. He could smell the DD214s on most of them since the prison. Some talked about the guy with a scar on his face, but most were fixated on Ghost. They’d seen a lot like him in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those that hadn’t were apt to spread stories about Delta Operators and Snake Eaters up in the mountains.

The young man, whose patch read Willard, nodded at Ghost’s Oakleys, and tugged up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo of the 3rd Ranger Battalion’s insignia. “Afghanistan?”

Ghost eyed the youngster for a few moments, failing to hide a sigh of irritation. He looked at the tattoo, considered, then nodded.

"Afghanistan," he growled. "Bosnia, before that. North Africa. Iraq."

The countries weren't in any particular order, and not all of them were with Delta. He'd made a decent living before Blackwater had lost their contracts and reputation.

The youngster nodded, reaching an easy understanding and appreciation.

Poker was sat next to Ghost and nudged him in his side-plate, a small smirk on his face, “Keep it up, they’ll ask for autographs.”

Ghost grunted, unable to resist a feeling of satisfaction at the impression he'd made. He didn't like amateurs, but he did like hero worship. He leaned forward a little.

"I worked with Rangers a few times. Not bad. They get the job done." It was true; he wouldn't choose a dozen Rangers over THUNDER, but they'd been professional enough. Their TACP had impressed him the most, though. The only Airman he'd met who could hang.

Down the road the convoy went, the only light around them for miles on I-79 was the moon and their headlights. The last time Donnelley felt as uneasy among mountains was 2008 in Afghanistan, but whatever lurked in the shadowy pines here was more sinister than any masked Taliban farmer with a rusty Mosin. All along the road, his eyes scanned the nothingness for anything, and nothingness was all they found. After a long while of silence Foster spoke up, “We’re about to pass the border.”

“Hounddog 1-1 to all, we have arrived at Objective A. Halt vehicles.” Donnelley’s voice came over the comms.

The convoy slowed to a halt at the side of the road and the MRAPs made their slow and clunky turnarounds after THUNDER dismounted. After the lights of the MRAPs faded in the distance the Program Agents were cleared to shed their disguises. Anybody who knew their faces wouldn’t be fooled by patches and windbreakers. Donnelley was in full battle rattle, woodland tiger stripe and multicam backwards cap, his mask around his neck waiting to be pulled up to obscure his identity. They reviewed the maps and made sure everyone knew the plans before they mounted up and continued their drive towards White Tree.

Cresting a hill, they saw the veins of light of the tiny mining town, the sky still dark, but the horizon gaining a light blue tint from the waking sun. The hills were still filled with shadows nonetheless. “Hounddog 1-1 to all, we’re about to hit Objective B, Whitetail’s old working mine is past it a ways.” Donnelley’s voice over the comms again, “Heads on a swivel, ladies and gentlemen, eyes on your sectors. Remember ROE.”

Passing the first buildings of the town with their wheels crunching on the pock-marked, potholed, cracked roads of White Tree was like entering another world. One of still air and streets washed out in the sad light of street lamps, the neon light of open signs on the rundown storefronts and Annie’s Diner buzzing in the silence of the empty night. Donnelley felt a buzzing in his skin the deeper into Blackriver they went, and the screaming nerves only got worse when they made it into town. His hands gripped his Badger as he scanned windows and alleyways, rooftops and sidewalks, eyes narrowed to knife’s edges.

He calmly spoke into his mic, “Hounddog 1-1 to Hounddog 2-1.”

“Hounddog 2-1, go ahead, Hounddog 1-1.”

“How’s your bladder about now?” Donnelley asked.

“Fuck you.” Poker spat, but the smirk was in his voice, “Anybody see movement?”

“Negative, 2-1.” Donnelley frowned. He didn’t like how uneventful this all was. Didn’t trust it. “Watch your sectors. It’s quiet.”

“Almost too quiet.” Maui’s smiling, deep voice over the frequency.

Ava shivered and shuddered in her seat. Her skin was an unhealthy pale shade that glistened with a cold sweat. She had fallen quiet shortly after they entered Blackriver, her arms wrapped around herself and huddled as much as she could in her seat; either seeking to warm up or ease the pain of the aches that were starting to settle in.

She heard the radio chatter in her ear, but didn’t have the energy or will to answer to any of it. She was having a hard time following what they were even saying, her head felt stuffed with cotton.

Laine turned in her seat once they came to a halt, checking on the pair back there. She was struck by Ava's appearance and leaned over, reaching for her. "Hey, you look like you're getting sick, like you have a flu."

She glanced at Dave, "Check her forehead, see if she's feverish."

Her concern for Ava's distress now pushed the thoughts of Dulane back, maybe it was a convenient distraction but the young woman needed help.

"Hounddog 1-1, this is Hounddog 1-2," she said, feeling awkward with the call signs, "1-5 might need some help."

She frowned at not being sure what to say over the comms then looked around, the view that would have been a sleepy small town if not for the malice she felt or imagined. Laine's scalp prickled at the shadows in the alleys between the rundown buildings, the darkened windows. Something watched, something ancient and evil. Laine shivered, reaching for the pendant that rested under her FBI polo shirt. Before she would have scolded herself for being superstitious and jumpy but not now, not after the Hound and whatever showed itself in Dulane's shadow.

Dave was already on it, placing his hands on her forehead and neck, his brow creased with concern. He didn't feel a fever, but her state bothered him considerably. If it was up to him they'd already be getting her off the mountain.

"Maybe you need to lay down in the car, sugar," he said, his voice pitched low. "Ain't no need to put yourself through Hell."

Ava blinked her eyes open when his hand touched her forehead, blinking at him with glazed and confused eyes. “Huh?” She asked, leaning into his hand. “I think I need to lay down.” She muttered, unbuckling her seat belt and shifting across the seat to lean against Dave.

Dave put his arm around her, holding her close. He kissed the side of her head, but returned his eyes to the trees outside the vehicle, his grip tight on his weapon.

“What’s wrong?” Donnelley’s voice came over the frequency, voice tinged with concern, “Do we need to abort?”

Laine glanced back at Ava now curled on the seat, "I don't know, she just seems sick. Like she got hit with the flu but I don't think she's got a fever."

Queen glanced at the rearview mirror and caught the intimate gesture from Dave. He smirked slightly, then snorted with a shake of his head. He focused on driving then asked, "I need to make a detour to a doctor?"

“Fuck.” Donnelley hissed, looking at Foster through his mirror. The other man’s eyes were on him too, and they shared a moment of understanding. Donnelley wasn’t going to endanger one of his team needlessly.

“We need to keep going.” Overman said, not looking at them.

Donnelley frowned at the back of his head and looked over at Dulane. They couldn’t just drop him off and come back for him later. “Hounddog 1-1 to all, we’re stopping once we get out of the town.”

“Donnelley.” He heard Foster speak up from the front seat and he immediately saw what Foster was looking at. Blocking off the road was a SWAT truck, Blackriver Sheriff Dept emblazoned on the sign. Red road flares lit the roadblock up and Donnelley counted ten of them.

They were dressed and outfitted like they’d stepped out from the 90s. Vintage M16s and MP5s, soft armor vests, but they had enough guns to level the playing field. They had home turf advantage as well. Donnelley growled as the words echoed again, no air support, no QRF. Foster eased the Yukon to a halt in front of the block. One of the officers lifted a radio to his lips and his voice came from a loudspeaker, “Blackriver Sheriff Department. Any law enforcement operation goin’ on here comes through us.” He said, “We can give you an escort through Blackriver.”

Donnelley gripped his Badger’s grip, Foster tightened his fists around the steering wheel. Overman and Dulane were quiet. “What’s the plan, 1-1?” Poker’s voice over the comms.

The loudspeaker came again, “If you do not answer in a timely fashion, you must turn back. Either way, you’re gettin’ an escort.”

“What’s our play, Foster.” Donnelley spoke, eyes steady on the roadblock in front of them. “I don’t see them givin’ us any other option.”

Foster rolled down his window and showed his hand, waving at the deputies. The one holding the mic waved at another, sending him over to cross the line and greet them. No bullets yet, Donnelley thought, that was good. “How’re y’all, where you headed?”

“I’m Special Agent in Charge Shaun Forrester, FBI. We’re transporting a subject to a scene related to an ongoing investigation.” Foster said, showing his FBI badge.

“We ain’t heard nothin’.” The deputy snorted, “We’ll let y’all pass through Blackriver or turn back. We ain’t got any official notification ‘bout none of this, so you either follow us back to 79 and get your asses back to the city or turn back where y’all came from.”

“Foster…” Donnelley growled from the back, “What’re we doin’, man?”

Donnelley didn’t wait for Foster to respond, whispering into his mic, “1-1 to all, y’all keep yourselves ready.”

Dave listened to the radio chatter and tightened his grip on his rifle, gritting his teeth. "Stay low, sugar," he said quietly.

In the passenger seat of the Yukon, Ghost rolled his neck and shook out his shoulders, then did a brass-check on his rifle. A hint of a smile crept across his face, then vanished behind the skull-embroidered neck gaiter that he pulled up over his nose.

"2-2 copies," he said, his voice a low growl as he readied himself for action.

Foster sighed, offering the backwoods deputy a smile, “Look, it’s gotta be a misunderstanding, if you want to put a call in to the Clarksburg office-“

“We ain’t doin’ that shit,” The deputy stood back and leveled his rifle at Foster’s face, “Get out of the goddamn vehicle and on the ground!”

“You just need to put in a call-“

“On the fuckin’ ground!” The Deputy shouted again, jabbing the barrel of his M-16 at Foster, “Get out and put your hands behind your head!”

Laine watched the scene deteriorating before them, the roadblock and now the occupants of the lead vehicle having guns pulled on them. She felt a chill. They could not get their hands on Dulane.

"What do we do?" She asked Queen who now had one hand on his Uzi.

"Nothin' yet," he said then got on the comms, "Hounddog 2-1, we got a situation. Locals big dicking it with the lead vehicle, dunno if you can see what's going on. Looks like they're trying to force people out of the truck. Guns are out. Over."

“We see it, 2-4. Waiting on go ahead.” Poker’s voice rose a tad at the last bit, hopefully rousing Donnelley from whatever stupor that asshole was in.

Back in the lead vehicle, Donnelley eyed the Deputy next to their Yukon and the line of cops in front of them. They were stopped at a bottleneck in the road, right in front of a four-way stop. An alley was at their right, but it could hardly fit the big Yukon’s. “Got any tricks, Hounddog 3?”

“I’d prefer not to show the card up our sleeve until it matters.” Overman grumbled.

“Oh, sorry, this probably just counts as a minor inconvenience.” Donnelley narrowed his eyes at Overman, “Asshole.”

Overman sighed, glancing at Donnelley, “I’m doing this for the mission.”

“Doing what?” Donnelley hissed, until he watched Overman lean towards Foster’s window and start to speak something that drained the sound out of the world around them. Foster held his hands over his ears in confusion and Donnelley heard a pulsing ring overtake his hearing.

The Deputy lowered his M-16, moving as if someone had their hands around his wrists, unholstering his service pistol and jabbing it under his chin with his own shaking hands, “What the f-f-f-“

The Deputy’s eyes bulged through his sockets as the weapon discharged into his skull, dropping lifelessly to the ground like a marionette. A hail of gunfire shattered the tense moment, the windshield catching the small arms fire from the roadblock, cracking and bulging with the impacts.

“Fuck!” Foster yelled and tried to curl into himself, as if his arms would protect him if the mangled armor of the windshield wouldn’t, bullets punching the bulletproof glass and making it bulge inward.

Poker decided that was as much of a go ahead as any to engage, stomping his foot into the gas of the Yukon and jumping position to the front of the convoy. He turned and made the side of the Yukon a shield for Foster and Donnelley’s vehicle, “2-1, dismount, we got you covered!” Poker called out, “2-4, move up, get Whitetail a seat!”

The sudden suicide was more shocking than the gunfire that followed, Laine watched the exchange from the second Yukon and turned to Queen.

"We need Dulane, we can't let them take him," she said, ducking down instinctively as shots rang out.

Queen put the truck in drive and said over the comms, "Hounddoggies, we need us a Whitetail. Gimme some cover."

Donnelley was the first out, a fistful of Dulane’s prison jumpsuit as he hauled him out of his seat. They both kept low as Donnelley yanked the cargo door of the Yukon open and shoved Dulane inside, “Get through that fuckin’ alleyway and find your way out of town towards the objective! We’ll catch up!”

Donnelley slammed the cargo door closed and bounded for Poker’s vehicle, Foster and Overman already taking cover behind.

"Yeah buddy," Queen muttered and as soon as the door slammed shut he shoved the truck in reverse, pulling back until he was lined up with the narrow alley to make a sharp right turn then drove forward.

"Make sure your arms are inside and mirrors pulled tight," he said, the big side mirrors a hair's breadth from scraping the walls.

"Hey, Davey boy, make sure our guest is secure and comfy," Queen said, glancing at the rear view mirror and then saw Ava slumped on the seat. "Dr Laine, might check on her."

Laine pulled off her seat belt and turned back, looking for any blood but Ava was untouched, just ill and weak. The truck weaved as it burst from the alleyway and Laine almost fell into Queen but forced herself back in her seat and drew her service weapon and sat tense as he drove down the street away from the gunfire.

Ava stirred slightly from her half asleep stupor as she was flung against the side of the Yukon from the force of Queen’s driving. “What’s happening?” She asked in dazed confusion.

Laine looked over her shoulder, "Stay down, we have the attention of the Blackriver deputies. Maybe get on the floor if you can."

She glanced up at the hooded figure on the cargo space and decided against mentioning Dulane.

Dave snatched Dulane as he was pushed into the vehicle, maneuvering him into the cargo space. His heart was pounding, but curiously he found that aside from worrying about Ava, he was more excited than afraid. As the vehicle peeled off he checked his rifle and settled in, ready for order.




As hell broke loose on the convoy, Ghost broke into a wide grin beneath his mask. Then it vanished, his eyes going cold as the monster came to the fore.

"THUNDER dismount," he snapped. "Frag, suppress, then smoke, Yukon is mobile cover."

Then he was out and the Game began. A frag slipped into his hand before he'd even forced the door closed with his hip, and he pulled the pin, flipped the spoon, and after a two-count flung it past the windshield and into the foe. There was a hard bang, a shockwave he felt in his chest, and he popped over the hood and hammered a suppressive burst, watching the rounds strike home.

As he pulled back into the cover of the Yukon he let his rifle hang and primed a smoke grenade, then stepped back to toss it low, where it skipped across the ground and came to a rest between the vehicle and the enemy position. It popped, then hissed, and thick green smoke filled the air.

Surrounded by familiar faces as the rest of his team shoved off to find safety, Donnelley felt a weight off his shoulders. Like responsibility had left to be replaced with a single purpose- close with and kill the enemy. He trusted Queen to get his people out of there, and he trusted the men around him to do what they’d done best for years together. When the frag slipped Ghost’s hands and made a plume of dust and shrapnel, the police barricade scattered, some crawling bloodied.

Tex and Foster rose to take advantage of the panicked deputies breaking cover, but a lucky shot pitched Foster onto his back. Tex paid it no mind, Maui was the one assigned medic duty for THUNDER, and he could hear Foster cursing. Tex’s disciplined burst cut a deadly path towards the deputies and he watched one catch his lead, tripping and stumbling onto his hands and knees before dropping entirely.

Tex pounded on the passenger side window with a gloved fist, “Poker, move us up!”

The other man gave him a thumbs-up and rolled towards the blockade at an easy pace. Pops and whizzes of passing incoming fire, the concrete near them chipping and shattering with the incoming rounds. Tex kept behind the Yukon, Foster back on his feet with Maui.

“Frag out.” Tex’s voice rose in the comms as he chucked a grenade towards the general direction of the blockade. He heard the detonation, but it’s effects were unknown. Hopefully they at least kept some heads down. “We’re goin’ to need to get off the streets, into one of these shops.”

“If I can get rooftop access, I can give you overwatch.” Maui spoke up.

"Go," Ghost snapped. "Take Foster, get to high-ground. Tex, covering fire."

He put action to his words and fired a quick burst through the plate glass of the nearest storefront. He was reluctant to use another grenade on a pack of amateurs. Instead he sighted on a target towards the edge of the blockade, where the smoke was doing less to conceal them. The cop was in the open, standing still, his antique M16 raised in a 90s chicken-wing stance.

A gentle caress of the heavily customized trigger saw the man drop, the heavy .300BLK round crashing through the bridge of his nose and filling his helmet with his brains. Ghost felt a brief moment of satisfaction before putting a pair of covering bursts through the smokescreen.

"This isn't a fight," he grumbled.

As much as Tex appreciated a good old fashioned gunfight, he was glad it was disappointing Ghost. It meant that it would be over quick, if they were lucky. He leaned out from the Yukon, offering just the slightest sliver of himself from behind cover and let loose a controlled triplet at the first unlucky cop he saw, a blob of movement through the haze of smoke. The shape ducked down, but Tex had to flinch back behind cover when rounds sent splinters of glass off the Yukon in his face. “Fuck!”

The heavy incoming fire cut a swathe across the street as Foster and Maui sprinted for the storefront to their right, the pops and whizzes adding urgency to their pace. Maui stumbled and rolled as Foster went crashing through the plate glass window. The big Hawaiian operator got back to his feet and followed Foster through, his voice coming over the comms, “I’m fucking hit, bro!” He said, more angry than panicked, “I can still move, we’re looking for a ladder, keep moving up.”

"God dammit, will you idiots stop getting shot!" Ghost roared into the comms, firing another burst around the Yukon. The bolt snapped back, and he exchanged the empty magazine for a full one without conscious thought. "These are barely more than rednecks with deer rifles, and we've got shit to do after this!"




Queen turned down the street that ran parallel to the road they were just on and he could hear the exchange over the comms. He glanced at Dave in the rearview mirror, his first thought was to go around behind those cops and flank but then his gaze fell to Ava's huddled form.

"Fuck," he muttered, his responsibility was to get UMBRA out of danger and he would have to leave his own team to their fate. He stomped on the gas to keep from changing his mind, rushing towards the outskirts of town.

Laine gripped the oh shit bar as the Yukon made the sharp turn, she too could hear the voices over the comms and held her gun in her lap. If they ran into Blackriver deputies, she might have to use it.

"You know where you're going?" She asked Queen as he raced down the road.

"Taking y'all away from the action," Queen said, not looking away from the road. "I think we can find a spot outside town, just gotta make it through. THUNDER has their boys occupied. We should be fine."

Laine kept her grip on her gun, watching the still sleeping town rush by as they hauled ass away from the blockade.

Queen glanced again at Dave, it would fall to them if anyone tried to stop them, maybe the FBI doc might pull the trigger but then again she might have some fucking moral quandary. Dave, despite Queen's personal feelings, had proven himself in the intense training at Langley and Tex had attested to the Ozark boy's toughness. Queen trusted Tex so in extension trusted Dave to be able to do his job.

"How you holding up, Dave?" He asked without his usual mocking tone.

"I'm ready." Dave's drawl was easy, relaxed, his nerves masked for Ava and Laine's sake. Inside his heart was pounding, and his hands were sweaty inside his Mechanix gloves, but he schooled his features into a cool, composed expression.

He looked down at Ava, bundled onto the floorboard, and leaned down to stroke her hair for a moment. "Gonna be alright, sugar. Queen can drive an' I can shoot, an' Laine is smarter than me an' him."




“Alright, I’m in position,” Maui’s voice came over the comms. Already, he had taken up his vantage point and Tex could hear the cracks of Maui’s rifle raining down pinpoint death. “Scratch one. They’re falling back to their armored truck.”

“Poker, keep us movin’.” Tex said, keeping his head low on their steady advance as he seated his new mag. “We’ll keep advancing until they fall back. They’ll be heading in Queen’s direction, we’ll limp our trucks to rendezvous.”

Ghost peeked around the Yukon. They were losing their smoke, the wind beginning to disperse the dense green cloud. Several of the cops were down, others were clustered near one of their vehicles, seeking what cover they could.

He was loathe to use another grenade; frags were a precious commodity. Still, a chance like this was too good to pass up, and he consoled himself with the knowledge that at least it would help wrap things up before any more of his loyal morons got themselves shot by the rabble.

The big operator did another corner-peek, then stuck the barrel of his shortened rifle around the truck and fired four blind shots. The purpose wasn't to kill, but to distract, and hopefully keep that group in cover.

He quickly palmed a grenade and yanked the pin, then flipped the spoon.

One...Two…

Ghost leaned, aimed, and tossed the grenade in a heartbeat, flipping the weapon over the enemy's cover with an almost nonchalant underhand throw.

“Holy sh-“ Tex heard the scream and the loud boom of the frag grenade. Scratch another one, he thought. He peeked around the corner and saw them scattering like roaches, sighting up on one and squeezing off a burst. The deputy stumbled, his rifle clattering and skidding away from him as he landed on the ground.

“Fuck! I’m hit, I’m hit!” The deputy bleated. A shot rang out and the Deputy went limp and lifeless.

“One down.” Maui’s voice over the comms. “They’re booking it, we gonna chase them?”

Ghost popped a couple of ineffectual rounds at the two remaining deputies as they fled.

"Probably should," he grumbled. "See if you can put them down from your angle. Poker, we want to go after them if he can't?"

“Yeah, I’ll take you closer.” Poker said.

Tex watched the remaining two deputies run for their lives, now regretting accosting a convoy full of top secret killers. As he sighted up on the pair, he thought to himself, how had they known they were coming? He squeezed off a few rounds to no effect, cursing under his breath as the deputies turned down an alleyway and disappeared. “Everybody get to the truck, we don’t have time for this. 2-4 is waiting for us to get to Objective C.”

Following his own words, Tex yanked the passenger door open and climbed in, Poker nodded at him, “I saw you miss.”

“Fuck yourself.” Tex shook his head.

“Help me deal with this mess of a windshield, man.” Poker nodded at the screen of cracks and bulges, almost completely unable to be seen through.

Poker and Tex went to work punching out the windshield of the Yukon, the sheet of strong glass sliding off the hood and scuffing on the streets. The rest of the team made their way back to the Yukon and they fled the scene hastily. Almost miraculously, the wheels of the Yukon had gone unscathed by the fire of the untrained deputies. Maui and the others sat in the back, the big Hawaiian patching up his own wound, a bullet wound that had been shallow. If it was any worse, they wouldn’t have heard the end of it. “1-1 to 2-4, we’re en route to your position.”

It didn’t take long for them to find the other Yukon. The sleek black SUV like a sore thumb in the ragged streets. Poker pulled up alongside the idling vehicle on the side of the road some ways outside of town. Tex tried rolling down his window but found that it had been broken off its track a few inches down, showing only his eyes. He nodded at Queen in the driver’s seat of the other Yukon, “Oralé, mi hermano.”

Queen breathed out a sigh and grinned as the beat up Yukon rolled up. He put down the window, leaning in his elbow as Tex peaked out.

"¡Acere, qué bolá!" He said, flashing a smile, "Just waiting on y'all having all the fun."

He eyed the bullet marked truck then raised his brows. Queen moved back suddenly, Laine pushing herself into his space, "Donnelley, are you alright? Is anyone hurt?"

Queen leaned back but did not look too upset with the FBI agent across his lap and made a lascivious expression that flashed quickly across his face before he caught himself.

“Maui’s hit, but he’s alright. How’s Ava?” Donnelley asked, “Didn’t encounter much resistance out here?”

Laine shook her head, "Nothing, no one bothered us and Ava's not feeling well, she's weak and looks like a flu, maybe. Dave's taking care of her."

The flu. Laine hardly believed that but what other explanation for her sudden onset of fatigue and nausea and instinctively she glanced back at the cargo space where Dulane sat silent in the hood.

“We need to get to Objective C, Queen. We’ll take the lead.” Donnelley rolled his window back up, their Yukon resuming the trek out to the hills past White Tree towards Dulane’s former working mine. “Hope this shit don’t make it into the news.”

Laine buckled her seatbelt and glanced over at the backseat, unable to see Ava except for her red curls.

Queen waited for the shot up truck to take the lead, pulling behind them and following at a couple car lengths to leave enough room to maneuver but close enough not to get strung out and allow another vehicle to get between them.

His Uzi sat on the cup holders and the adrenaline melted away, unspent as their flight had been fairly easy. He felt the itch, the desire for the cocaine in his pocket becoming stronger but the occupants of the truck were a deterrent. Instead, Queen took a cigarette from the green box tucked into one of the tactical pockets and lit up.

Those in the lead vehicle drove in silence, Poker had his mask up to shield himself from the wind and Donnelley followed suit. There was something that plagued his mind the more he thought about it, “How the fuck did they know we were comin’?” He thought aloud, “How the fuck did they know our route?”

Foster narrowed his eyes and looked around, eyes settling on Donnelley. He was likely mulling over the same thing. The Operation was insulated, UMBRA and THUNDER were the only ones who knew. Overman was silent for a long while, stuffed in the cargo space to his chagrin, “You’ve got a mole.”

“No shit, genius. We’ve known that since Carlisle.” Donnelley retorted, “Who’d know though?”




No one had an answer. He couldn’t picture anyone putting a mission like this in jeopardy. To Donnelley, there was no personal gain from impeding the investigation into dead girls in the dark heart of Appalachia. He understood that not everyone was like him though. All the evidence he needed for that claim was gotten long ago, far before the Program, far before his stint in Special Forces. When he kicked in a door or two and found little girls and boys with too much age in their eyes and not enough food. Doped up sometimes, dead behind the eyes most times.

Needles in the bathroom sink, meth pipes on the dinner table. White Tree wasn’t special. But whatever was in these hills was. The passing trees and slowly brightening sky surrounded them as they stopped their vehicles at a closed off road that turned off from the main one. This was their stop, moment of truth. He gathered his people around him and trusted they were up for the task still. Ava still looked like death, but there was a mission to be done. They’d all gone this far, and Donnelley didn’t mourn UMBRA’s dead just to turn back. “We’re goin’ on foot from here. Only way through these roads is hikin’.” He said, “Forgive me if I don’t trust Dulane here to be a faithful guide, but him and the maps we got are the only things we do.”

He looked around at his team. Laine, Dave, Jason, Ava, Foster. THUNDER too. “Any of you wanna turn back, go ahead. But you call up Dawant and tell him to take you to Maria’s grave and apologize to her parents that you just couldn’t find it to bring the people behind it all to justice.” No one moved. Donnelley nodded, “Let’s go.”

As the others prepped their gear, double-checking everything, Donnelley found Ava and brought her to the side with him. They were out of earshot of the others, but he could speak plainly even if they weren’t. He watched her swaying in place, paler than usual, and offered her a concerned expression, “You don’t need to push yourself for this. I mean it.” He said, “I can have someone stay with you.”

Ava blinked her eyes, trying to focus on Donnelley’s face and wondering if her contacts had slipped out of place as the edges of everything seemed to have a gaussian blur to them. Her head was foggy to the point that the dull ache she felt behind her eyes didn’t really bother her. “Am I a liability?” She asked after taking an extra moment to process what he said and formulate a response.

Donnelley almost cringed at her choice of words, punching him almost as hard as it did her. No matter the fondness for his team, he had to be honest. If anything, it was in their best interest. As he saw it, a long ruck wasn’t in Ava’s, “I can’t have you traipsin’ in these woods like you are.” Donnelley pursed his lips, “No shame. How far’s the range on them drones?”

She frowned, staring down at the dirt as she tried to remember the range of the drones. “EVE can fly...20-ish miles. WALL-E doesn’t go as far, you can probably take him though. Use him for the mines.” She ran a hand over her forehead, the fingers holding a faint tremor in the digits. “I’m sorry, I don’t...Don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“You’ll be alright, okay?” Donnelley laid a hand on Ava’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze, “After we get this done, we can figure it out. I promise.”

Donnelley nodded to the trucks, “For now, just rest. Who do you want stayin’ with you?”

“I can.” Overman’s voice over Donnelley’s shoulder, “I have a, uh, feeling about what’s going on with her.”

Donnelley narrowed his eyes, turning from Ava and looking Overman over. To Donnelley, the man was an outsider, and him treading so close to a private conversation was enough for Donnelley to feel a little bitter, “Yeah?” He hissed.

“Yes,” Overman nodded, his expression not changing with Donnelley’s defensiveness, “I’m under a spell too. Not in, ah, that way. I’ve felt this way before.”

Donnelley looked at Ava, inclining his head for her to voice her decision. It was hers to make. “I can get Queen or…” he shrugged.

Ava blinked over at Overman, trying to fully register that he was there. She stared for a moment, processing the information before turning her head to call out as best she could, “Dave!” Once she saw him perk up to the call of his name she turned back to Overman. “You know what’s wrong with me?” She asked, fighting to keep her body from swaying too much the longer she stood. She wanted to sit down. “Can you make it stop?”

“It’s simple.” Overman nodded, he looked from Dave back to Ava, and stepped just a bit closer, “But we can’t do anything about it now. Not yet.”

Overman turned to Donnelley, “If you want her to get better, we need to start moving now. The quicker we get this done and get out of here, the quicker she’ll feel better. And me.”

Donnelley sighed, a low growl in the silent moment. He looked at Ava and considered her condition, and looked back to Overman, “Fine.” Donnelley looked to Ava with some resolve, “We’ll get this done. Hold us to it.”

She nodded before leaning herself against Dave. “Can Dave stay with me too?” She asked.

“I’m okay with that,” he said, almost instantly. He slipped his free hand around her waist, kept his other on his AK, and gave Overman a quick look. “I mean, we probably need some sorta gun here, right?”

Donnelley didn’t like the prospect of losing one of his shooters, no matter how newly-minted the title was for Dave. Not only that, but the damned warlock was electing to stay behind. Having Dulane around and finding whatever they would in these hills without someone who knew how to level the playing field wasn’t something Donnelley was keen on. He opened his mouth to speak, finding his eyes gravitate to where Dave’s hand had found a perch. He looked to where Laine was, checking her gear, knowing he’d do the same for her. He’d vowed it after almost watching her die that first day on the job.

Or maybe he was projecting. Either way, he looked back to the three of them that were staying back and nodded, “Okay.” He tried his best smile on, a little small for his liking, but it’d do to cover up his disappointment with the circumstances, “No joy rides.”

Dave nodded, trying to keep his relief from showing. Ava suddenly falling ill was bothering him in ways he couldn’t quite put into words; he wasn’t afraid to go on a gunfight, but the idea of leaving her behind with some witch stuck in his craw.

“No joyrides, gotcha,” he said, forcing a small smile of his own. “Hear that, sugar? You gotta behave.”

Ava nodded, resting her head on his chest, grateful to have his solid weight to keep her standing upright. “No surprise Taco Bell runs.” She mumbled, giving Donnelley a thumbs up.

Donnelley sucked his teeth, hoping to stoke the smoldering humor Ava was trying to drudge up. They all needed it. “You know if you leave now, you might have it waitin’ for us when we get back.” He said, “Bean burrito for me.”

She smiled dimly and chuckled. “Maybe a bunch of greasy fast food would take away this headache.” She lightly bumped her head against Dave. “Is there anything else?”

“Keep safe.” Donnelley nodded, “We’ll be checkin’ in every half-hour or so. We miss one of the check-ins…”

He turned deadly serious and looked at Dave, “Don’t come lookin’.”

Dave grimaced. “Yeah, that’s probably fair,” he said. “And uh, likewise. Chances are if somethin’ takes us all out at once, it ain’t nothin’ the group coulda helped with, right?”

Donnelley shrugged, his smile turning sheepish, “I liked talkin’ ‘bout burritos better.” He said, and nodded to Overman, “‘Sides, you got Dumbledore here.”




Donnelley expected to be chuffing lung about now, but those hours in the gym had helped. His breathing was steady and he was almost tempted to check his pulse as if this was a leisurely hike. For a moment, as he looked at Laine keeping up with him, him and his dumb little smile could almost swear it was. And then from the back of the pack, he heard Dulane giggle like a schoolboy and mutter something about promises or the Sleeper just before Poker told him to shut the fuck up.

“How you holdin’ up?” Donnelley asked Laine, “Ain’t this a nice walk?”

Laine walked along, the squats Ghost had pushed her through during the time at Langley paying off as she could feel herself passing the usual threshold of endurance. Her short dark hair was damp at her temples from exertion but her breathing was even.

She glanced at Donnelley in his tiger striped camouflage gear, feeling strangely out of place in the dark FBI polo and tactical pants. Laine caught his expression and smiled slightly despite her worry.

"I'm doing alright, at least with the hike," she said, "I thought about talking to Dulane but...I don't think he's in condition for a conversation. Leaving Overman behind, too. I don't know."

She shrugged, feeling that crawling discomfort up her spine, the memory of the squirming tendrils in the shadow of the man made her glance over her shoulder.

Laine looked back at Donnelley, searching his face and his eyes, "How are you doing?"

“Well,” Donnelley looked over his shoulder at the line behind them, Maui and Poker were talking. Queen was talking at Ghost and the big operator was ignoring him. Dulane was being Dulane, “Kinda hit the nail on the head. I don’t like Overman not bein’ here. Feel like I don’t have a gun.”

Donnelley sighed, shaking his head, “And we’re down one shooter.” He said, “Ava’s sick with I don’t know what. Overman’s the only one who knows about it and Dave won’t leave her alone with him.”

He shrugged, “Guess I can’t blame him.”

"That's the feeling, a vulnerability without our expert," Laine agreed, watching a bird flap frantically from the bushes ahead of them. It disappeared into the branches overhead and the sky beyond.

"It's strange, but I've seen flu hit hard and fast, yet," she paused, stepping over a root pushing up from the earth. "I don't think it's a virus, I think it's this place or maybe it's Dulane and whatever is..."

Laine gave Donnelley a look, a moment of doubt before the professional expression returned, "Whatever he brought with him."

The mention of Dave made Laine smile a little and she said, "Of course he wouldn't leave her, he's got it bad for our techie."

Donnelley let out a loud chuckle, catching himself and looking behind him to see if anyone was paying attention, “I’m glad I ain’t the only one to notice. He doesn’t even try to hide it.” He smiled, looking at a squirrel scurrying up a tree, “I’m his fuckin’ supervisor and he got handsy right in front of me.”

“At least I keep my extracurricular activities under wraps.” He smirked and glanced at Laine, “I miss the hell out of those activities right about now. Saving the world gets stressful.”

"Staking his claim in front of another male, even if you are friends," Laine said, glancing at him. "Well, he's not a professional, he’s probably not thinking about HR."

Laine grinned at his comment, looking down at the ground for a moment, "You're not alone in feeling that way."

She looked back up at him, a little twinkle in her green eyes, a brief distraction from the looming conclusion of their hike.

Laine lowered her voice, leaning in a little towards him, "Ever do it in a haunted mine?"

Donnelley’s smirk grew a bit wider, “First time for everythin’. Think we can ditch these squares back there?”

She laughed, covering her mouth to quiet herself, flashing a crooked smile at Donnelley. "I'm pretty sure, there's lots of tunnels. We just need one."

Donnelley chuckled, “This might be the wrong time to bring it up, but assumin’ we do what we always do and come out the other side of this,” he shrugged, trying to find words that weren’t so blatant, “You ever wanted to, uh, use the other one. You know, just try.”

Laine bit her lower lip, smothering a sputter of laughter. She took a deep breath, sobering her expression as best she could. She turned to him, her mouth trembling as it fought back an amused smile. "Did you really just... did you just ask for the key to the backdoor?"

She felt another giggle bubble up and covered her mouth, giving Donnelley a mischievous glance. After a moment she got control of herself and said, "Well, you'll just have to survive to find out."

Donnelley let out a sigh of contentment, smiling with closed eyes, “Finally, a cause worth fightin’ for.”

“Hey, what the fuck!?” Donnelley turned to see what Poker was yelling about to see Dulane barrel into him and send him sprawling onto his back. Donnelley swore and rolled over onto his stomach, sighting up on Dulane just in time to see him disappear down another trail, running as if the hood didn’t even bother him. His ankle shackles and cuffs were long gone.

“Hold your fire!” Foster yelled, putting his hands out to keep everyone from squeezing triggers, “Get the hell after him and get him detained!”

Laine's smile vanished as Dulane shoved by her, knocking Donnelley down and rushing by. It took a moment to register he was no longer shackled.

"How the hell...?" She did not finish the thought before she was running after him, they needed Dulane.

The trail was wide enough but overgrown branches still managed to slap at her as she charged after the escaping con.

"Stop! FBI, get on the ground!" she shouted, the old agent training kicking in even when it made no sense. This was more than a prison break, there was a wild urgency in the air.

Queen’s mouth was running again, something about Cabo and hookers and blowing off post-mission steam. Ghost wasn’t sure if he was reminiscing, or making suggestions for after this gig. He’d lost the thread of the conversation soon after it had started, and had never bothered to pick it back up. Instead he played Oakley-shielded eyes over the underbrush around them, tuning out the background chatter with the ease of years of experience.

It was the movement more than anything that caught Ghost’s eyes. The sudden flurry of motion drew him like a breaking deer draws a wolf, and after taking a half second to process, a half second longer than he’d have needed five years ago, he was moving too, pelting into the woods with his rifle tucked into the crook of his arm. His knees hadn’t started to protest yet, but they would soon, and he was already silently reminding himself to pull the rabbit punch he intended to punish Dulane with, lest he break the bastard’s neck for making him run.

Donnelley was hot on Ghost’s heels, finding it almost impossible that the bigger man was keeping up with them just as well. His blood was still running hot after getting bowled over by that insane fuck, and he had his teeth bared for Dulane’s neck as he pumped his legs on the trail, boots pounding on the packed dirt.

“I’m gonna shoot you, you motherfucker!” He roared as made his sprint, but Dulane seemed almost tireless, always keeping a few meters in front of them.

Every time they gained on him, it seemed he just started running faster. Donnelley’s legs and lungs started burning, but he pushed through the pain. The whole way, they only managed to pace him until they slowly started to fall back. As he watched Dulane, he wondered if he was letting them follow him. Where was he leading them? Did he even know?

Without warning, Dulane jumped into the underbrush, wading through the thick of it towards what looked like an old trapper’s cabin hidden deep in the trees. Dulane collided with the door, but it didn’t budge, shaking in place. The deranged inmate banging on the wood and screaming to be let in. He dropped to his knees in the dirt and began ripping up clods of it, blubbering sobs erupting from his throat.

The human body is surprisingly resilient. Typically, it can sustain an impressive amount of damage before anything becomes truly serious. This was all Dulane had going for him as over 315 pounds of pissed off Operator slammed into him at maximum sprint. Ghost had seen the threat, categorized it, and decided that maximum impact was the best way to bring the chase to a close before his knees really started to protest the strain they were under.

Ghost met Dulane chest-first, his rifle snug against his side beneath his right arm. The moment he struck the raving man he wrapped his left tightly around him and simply allowed his momentum to bring them to the ground, where his full bulk landed squarely on the shrieking convict. Ghost kept him clenched against him as they tumbled, and then as they came to a stop he took the mount, ignoring his own breathlessness in favor of thrusting his forearm beneath Dulane’s chin, ready to snap his neck at the first sign of resistance.

Donnelley crashed out of the treeline and skidded to a halt behind Ghost, sliding on his knees to help restrain the convict. He trusted Laine to cover the cabin’s doors and windows, whatever might be inside this dilapidated shack. He cranked Dulane’s arms behind his back so Ghost could get to work cuffing the man, “I’ll give it to you, Dulane,” Donnelley said between breaths, “You’re a fast sumbitch.”

"Not fast enough," Ghost growled. He pulled the police-issue cuffs from his belt, slapping them on and cranking them down perhaps a notch or two tighter than was appropriate, doing his best to conceal his heavy breathing for the sake of his pride. Fuck him for making me run.

That done he stood and grabbed Dulane by his collar, hauling him upright and taking control of him with his left hand, his right automatically going to the grip of his rifle and angling the weapon towards the nearest window.

"Fuck is this?" Ghost said, nodding at the cabin. "Something in there worth getting your arms broken over, freak?" He gave Dulane a shake, like an unruly child, to indicate that he was being spoken to.

Dulane was still letting loose his grating sobs, shaking his entire body with it. Donnelley was starting to get real tired of Dulane’s shit and he wrapped his fist in Dulane’s hood and yanked it off of his head. To his surprise, what he thought were sobs was laughter, a jubilant expression on Dulane’s face. A manic happiness only the insane owned.

“The fuck’s your deal, Dulane.” Donnelley stepped back and muttered, unsettled by the change of mood.

“Joey boy,” Dulane chuckled, his laughter dying down a bit as he fixed Donnelley’s eyes with a gross stare, “Come and see. Come and See, come and see, come and see, come and see!”

Donnelley wrapped his hand around Dulane’s mouth and held a finger in his face, “If you don’t keep your fuckin’ teeth together, boy, I’ll knock ‘em out of your face.”

A few giggles escaped from between Donnelley’s fingers. He fixed Dulane with a death glare and let him go roughly, “What the fuck is in this cabin?”

“You shouldn’t have left them Joey Boy. You shouldn’t have let them go into these hills alone.” Dulane slowly shook his head, a mechanical turning from left to right, eyes fixed on Donnelley.

“Who?” Donnelley swallowed, “Who?”

“You know who, Joey Boy,” Dulane smiled, “Death wakes the Sleeper. Every each one makes him stir a bit. Laurie, Weissman-“

Donnelley didn’t let another word out of that loose fucking mouth of Dulane’s, cutting him off with a right hook. He clamped his hands on his shoulders and took up fistfuls of his jumpsuit, driving his helmet into Dulane’s nose hard enough to hear the sharp crack of a breaking nose. “You don’t say their fuckin’ names!”

“Help!” Dulane yelped in his new nasally voice, “Don’t let him hurt me no more… Jake.

He looked to Ghost with that same thousand-yard, piercing stare.

Ghost's reaction was instantaneous. He grabbed Dulane by the head with both hands and flung him to the ground, following him down. A hard, punishing right crashed into his jaw and then Ghost rocked back, jammed the barrel of his rifle into his mouth, and clicked off the safety. All Dulane did was smile around the flash hider and feverishly nod his head.

“Ghost.” Donnelley said, his own rifle shouldered, but his forward hand held out in trying to keep Ghost from putting a new hole in Dulane.

Laine did as Donnelley expected, panting hard after the run and burst of adrenaline, she managed to hold her Glock steady. She kept it trained on the door, moving closer with slow, measured steps.

The commotion Dulane made was enough to alert anything in a mile radius let alone the cabin. She could hear him ranting in the high pitched manic voice, calling them names from the past.

She paused at his address to Ghost, calling him "Jake" and the instant violent reaction.

Laine called out, keeping her distance to cover them, "Don't listen to him, he's trying to get in your heads. Ghost, please don't kill him! We need him."

Ghost’s hand was white-knuckle tight around the pistol grip, his finger a hair’s breath from sending a burst of rounds through the back of Dulane’s skull. He mastered himself with a visible effort, his rage plain in his gritted teeth and tense jaw. Finally he snapped the rifle’s safety back on and stood, planting his heavy boot on Dulane’s gut as he levered himself upright.

“I’ll kill you when we’re done,” he promised, looking down at Dulane. “You’ll die slow.”

Laine glanced at Ghost finally pulling away from Dulane and breathed out, "Thank you."

His threat set her back on edge, it was spoken without rage, in a clear and matter of fact tone that the torture and death could have been a promise to drop Dulane at the bus station. Laine felt a chill but said nothing, it was not the time nor was Ghost one to argue with. She would address it later.

Laine stepped away, turning her focus back on the cabin, her gun still out as she moved forward, trying to look through any window from her vantage point.

Donnelley hadn’t heard the crashing of feet from the treeline in all the excitement, and Maui’s voice almost made him flinch, “Goddamn, y’all are mean, bro.”

He eyed Maui standing with the others and spat to the side, “Fucker started it.”

He turned back to look at the old cabin and something quickly came to realization for him. The door looked too new. He sighted up on the door and spoke for Ghost and Laine to hear, “I wanna figure out what’s in this shack.”

As they formed up on the door, Donnelley ran his hands along the edges of the frame. Feeling nothing out of the ordinary, he stepped back and retrieved his shotgun from his back. He jammed the breaching muzzle into the door at an angle and squeezed the trigger, a loud bang and the lock was shredded by the breaching shot, another loud bang and the knob was gone. Donnelley replaced his shotgun and flicked on the light of his Badger, scanning the ground for any tripwires. The last time they went into a cabin in Blackriver, Laine had almost gotten her ankles blown off.

The only thing they’d need now was a septic tank. He stepped through the threshold tentatively, not keen on something reaching out to grab him or any other thing his colorful imagination could conjure up. The words echoed in his head as he saw what lay inside. Laurie, Weissman…

“Oh my god…” The words tumbled from Donnelley’s lips in a reedy whisper. From outside, and a mile away, he heard Dulane start to laugh again. He could only stare at what he saw inside the cabin, gawping at the sight. Donnelley listened to Dulane’s laughing only getting higher and higher, and more manic by the second.

Ghost followed Tex in, steering the giggling Dulane along with a powerful hand on the back of his neck. He cleared the doorway quickly, bringing the smaller man with him; to the well-trained eye, it was clear that while his rifle was up and ready to go into action, Dulane was suspiciously between the Operator and any potential threat. He played his gaze over the contents of the cabin for a moment.

“Gross,” he grunted.

Laine started to follow Donnelley, her heart thumping in her chest as if she was still sprinting through the woods. Her hands trembled as she held her gun, the tightening in her gut increasing with each step. Dulane's laughter was unnerving and she was rapidly losing her cool.

"Shut him up," she muttered, closing her eyes briefly to try to focus herself but in the brief darkness she saw the dead eyes and gray face, the hands of slick rotting flesh reaching out to her.

Laine's eyes flew open, her breathing fast as she examined the doorway despite the two men already entering and she stepped inside, her eyes adjusting to the dim light.

They hung like coats but with arms and legs, hollow eyed faces that flopped forward onto sagging chests. Two female, one male it registered in Laine's mind. It was his work, her thoughts flashed before she looked at Dulane, his jibbering laughter and felt a chill. It was the deaths that awakened the Sleeper.

Laine felt herself sway, suddenly recognizing a tattoo still visible on the arm of the male. Laurie had that tattoo, she was certain, though recalling it seemed like reaching back through the fog of years.

She took a step back, unable to look away from Dulane, he knew something. Laine demanded, "Who did this?"

"Who fucking did this? WHO, Dulane, you fucking know who did it!"

Her voice raised to a pitch that was near cracking.

“Someone who made a promise,” Dulane said, locking his eerie gaze and wolf’s grin on Laine, “Just like me. The Sleeper’s been here since before you, or me, or any of us. He wanted you to come and see this, and know our faces are not our own! Our flesh and our skin are fickle things, blankets wrapping us until we shed them!”

“Death is beautiful. Like a deep lake or a river,” Dulane laughed, looking at all of them in the cabin and speaking like he was addressing a congregation listening to his sermons, “We float on the surface, but there’s so much more underneath it we can’t see.”

He looked at Donnelley, “Death isn’t the end of us. Our skin can be like a serpent’s. All you need is faith.”

Dulane sprang away from Ghost laughing, his cuffs having fallen away again. Donnelley shouldered his rifle before arterial spray sprinkled across the room like a warm, light rain. Dulane stumbled to his left and crashed into a table, grinning with bloody pink teeth before collapsing to the floor.

“Shit!” Donnelley rushed forward and clamped a hand over Dulane’s spurting gash across his neck, “Maui, Jason!”

“Oh fuck!” Maui exclaimed as he and the other man barged into the cabin. The two stepped up to kneel with Donnelley, but all of them knew by the glassy eyes and slack face that it was a lost cause.

Donnelley fell back on his ass, resting his arms on his knees and frowned at Dulane’s corpse. Jason unwrapped the dead man’s hand and held up a razor blade, “Found his weapon.”

Laine screamed, covering her face as the blood sprayed. "No!"

She stumbled back, rubbing her eyes and turned away, being shoved aside as Maui and Jason rushed in. Laine pressed herself against the wall, watching the scene unfold.

They lost him, Dulane was dead and the skin suits hung there like accusations. She had been so close, he knew. Dulane had to have known and now he was a bloody heap on the floor and his knowledge of Maria's killer gone with him.

Laine felt a helpless fury and pushed off the wall, rushing past Donnelley to Dulane's corpse and gave it a hard kick. "You fucking asshole! You knew!"

Ghost had examined the hanging skins dispassionately, but when Dulane slipped his cuffs and darted away he swore. His rifle came up but he hesitated, not wanting to blow the man’s head off before they had the information they needed. When he saw the razor flash and the blood spray he lowered his weapon; he had cut enough throats to know that they weren’t saving him.

“Shit,” he grunted. He keyed his mic. “Hounddog Actual, Hounddog 2-2, Whitetail is down.”




Overman hung his head, eyes screwed shut and tapping his finger along to the pulsing of his headache. It seemed to have reached a crescendo a few minutes ago and he was surprised he wasn’t spitting blood with how hard he was clenching his teeth. If he was having trouble dealing with this, he could only imagine how Ava was doing in the other Yukon. He felt for her, he did, but he didn’t dare work his tricks on her while Dave was present.

The mountain man struck him as the old time religious type, superstitious and prone to flinching at the bumps in the night. He was like him once, until Afghanistan. He’d never forget. The stars would never look the same to him, make him feel the same. He felt in these mountains was the same rot and vileness older than time. Tethered together somehow, and he was tracing the lines so closely here that his body rebelled against him with the pain of it. Like holding his hand too close to fire.

---

Ava shuddered, her body curled in on itself as much as she possibly could to try and ease the horrid sensation prickling along her skin and twisting her gut with nausea. The pounding in her head grew worse and worse with each beat of her heart. She gripped her fingers tightly into her hair, not sure if the wetness on her cheeks was sweat or tears; probably both.

The throbbing kept getting worse, it felt as though her head was about to split open as it became harder and harder to breathe.

She didn’t know how much time had passed, she couldn’t even remember where she was as the illness wracking her body seemed to grow more intense.

Her eyes shut so tight she could see blotches of colors and sparks dancing across the darkness. Then the amorphous darkness ceased. Before her eyes she saw a winding tunnel of a cavern, the stone black like obsidian.
The tunnel rushed past her until with almost jarring clarity, she was looking at a deep lake among the trees and mountains. The landscape was beautiful, but for some reason it felt...alien. Like something wasn’t quite right about the towering pines and the deep blue waters.

The sky above the lake began to darken, fading to black with the exception of the bright yellow sun which for some reason stayed present in the center of her vision. To her numb horror, she watched the sun bulge and shift like a snake was beneath the surface. The sun broke apart into six yellow orbs, like a cell dividing.

As the hallucinatory sun broke into six separate stars, a sound began to penetrate the heavy thudding of her heart and the shakiness of her breathing. A loud bestial howl, twisted with pain and madness began to resonate in her ears.

Just as it felt the howl would deafen her forever, the six yellow lights turned into six yellow eyes.

Then, abruptly, the vision was gone. The pain in her head cleared and suddenly she could breathe normally again. Her eyes snapped open as she gasped, pushing herself upright on the back seat of the Yukon.

---

He opened his eyes as his headache vanished, the pain and pressure evaporating like someone had snapped their fingers and made it all go away. Something must have happened. He looked around at the forests surrounding him, everything was so quiet. It was as if the whole of the world had stopped and stood at attention. Frozen in place, no wind, no birds. He carefully opened his door and took a gentle step out, the dirt meeting his boots as he went to the other Yukon and knocked on the window. When it rolled down, he said, “Ava, are you okay? How are you feeling?”

The window rolled down, revealing Ava sitting up in the back seat, her skin still sickly pale and shining with sweat; but her eyes were bright and alert. “I’m...okay now.” She answered with a frown. “Still a little shaky but, it doesn’t feel like I’m dying from the plague anymore.” She said, shaking her head. “What happened?”

Dave gave Ava’s shoulder a squeeze, his brow creased with concern. He’d had his hand on her back throughout her episode, and had been moments from calling it in on the radio, mission be damned. Now, with her sudden recovery, he somehow felt more worried.

“What was that, sugar?” He asked, leaning down to look at her closely. He put his hand on her neck, then her cheek, checking for a fever, examining her eyes.

Ava looked away from Overman to Dave, her hand reaching up to touch the back of his. “I-I don’t know.” She answered with a frown and a worried crease in her brow. “I...I saw things.”

“Saw things?” Overman asked, his brow quirking with curiosity, “What things?”

“Um,” Ava shook her head again, trying to clear away the cobwebs as she glanced over to Overman. “I saw winding tunnels of dark stone, a lake in the mountains and six yellow eyes.” She leaned herself against Dave, not caring that someone else was present. “I also heard this-this howling. This mad and tortured screeching. It felt like my ears were going to burst.”

Overman’s eyes widened for a moment, breaking the air of stoicism and arrogance he had become known for before he turned around as if ashamed of it. He took a breath and turned back around, nodding at Ava, “Can you walk?”

“Um,” Ava looked to Dave in concern before looking back at Overman’s tense back. “Yeah, I think I can walk. Why?”

Overman didn’t answer, instead speaking into his mic, “Hounddog 3 to all. Standby for rendezvous, ETA one hour.”




Laine kicked Dulane's corpse once more before backing off, her eyes darting around the room. She gazed at the hanging skin suits then back at the blood spray and broken table under the dead man.

"Shit. Shit, shit," she hissed, "Get out, goddamn this is a crime scene and we've contaminated the shit out of it."

Laine reached to grab Donnelley, snatching at his sleeve with a trembling hand. She turned to Maui and Ghost, her face flushed with near panic, "Get out, don't touch anything!"

Ghost's eyebrow quirked behind his Oakleys.

"No, it's not," he grunted. "This isn't something for civilian law enforcement. This is a Program scene. If anybody outside the Program ever sees it, it'll be because they stumbled across charred ruins on a hiking trip ten years from now."

Donnelley looked to Ghost and knew that he was right. Hell, Donnelley was about to suggest they torch the place and leave it like Baughman’s cabin. But he also knew Laine wasn’t in her right mind. He laid a hand on hers and nodded outside to the others, “Laine’s right. We should get outta here,” Donnelley said, “Can’t burn this shit down with us in it.”

He started for the entrance, lightly pulling for Laine to follow, “Come on. Have a smoke or something.”

"No," Laine pulled away, "We have to take them with us at least, they..."

She was looking at the skins, at what was left of Weissman, Laurie, and the smaller dark haired remains that she was certain was Maria. Her throat tightened and she hated the tears that threatened. She was angry not sad, her fists tight at her side, the emotions betraying her.

"This is evidence, these were people. That bastard..." she said, her voice trembling and she pressed her lips tight together. The killer had been here, he must have stayed here and took his time. Maybe even killed here and it was going to be destroyed.

"Fuck this," she whispered harshly, "This isn't how...why am I even here?"

She turned to the men, looking over their tactical gear and weapons. At Donnelley in his tiger cammo, his war gear, "Why the fuck do you need me, if this is how it is? Just destroy everything and learn nothing."

“We’ll search the damn place first.” Donnelley retorted, “I’m not leavin’ here until the remains of my goddamn people are given a burial.”

Donnelley pursed his lips, “And this is how things are. This is how we do things, Laine, we don’t exist right now.” He said, pointing to the hanging skins, “This shit is goin’ to keep happenin’ if we play by the goddamn rules. I spent two years in Dalhart seein’ the same junkies and whores beat their kids and their wives a few months after I put them away.”

“We’re makin’ a difference. And it matters. If you don’t want to help search and scuttle,” Donnelley quieted his voice again, “Get out. Have a fuckin’ smoke outside with the others and pretend you never saw us burn this fuckin’ place to the ground.”

He regarded Laine for a moment, his own fire burning deep in his eyes before he turned away from her to Ghost, “Let’s try to find somethin’ and then torch this shit.”

Laine felt her teeth grind then she snapped, "Fuck you and your smoke. I'll handle the goddamn search. I don't need your thugs destroying shit before I can look at it."

Her face flushed and she dug into her pocket for the latex gloves she kept out of habit. Her heart was pounding and her head felt light, the loss of her temper was rare enough and she almost never showed it to work associates. Laine began to take down the skins, gently with trembling hands.

"I need something to put them in," she said, not turning around.

"Watch your fucking mouth." There was an edge to Ghost's voice. He pointed a gloved finger at her. "We're professionals. Thugs wouldn't have kept your ass alive this long, girl."

He turned and stalked from the cabin, glaring at Tex from behind his shades as he passed. "This is why I don't work with amateurs."

Donnelley watched Ghost leave, eyes tracking his back as it disappeared past the walls of the cabin. He looked at Laine, struggling with the skins and silently cursed to himself.

“Hounddog 3 to all, standby for rendezvous. ETA one hour.” Overman’s voice came over the team channel.

Donnelley rolled his eyes. A bit late for the magician to come back. He followed Ghost outside and found Foster talking with Poker, butting into their conversation and fixing Foster with a hard stare. “CORAL NOMAD.” Donnelley said, “We’re searchin’ through the cabin for further evidence and you’re callin’ in CORAL NOMAD to take them to Langley or some other fuckin’ Blacksite to go over.”

Foster pursed his lips, quirking an eyebrow at Donnelley before he shrugged, “Fine.”

Donnelley stuck a finger in Poker’s face, “You get your fuckin’ team to help clean this mess up before we leave this place smolderin’.” Donnelley said, raising his voice so Ghost could hear too, “And I don’t give a goddamn shit what anyone thinks about it. This is a Program scene and we need to sanitize it.”

Queen had been smoking, his gaze scanning the woods around the cabin with his hand resting on the Uzi. The words CORAL NOMAD caught his attention and he tossed the half smoked Kool onto the ground and crushed it out with the heel of his boot.

With the weight of reluctance, Queen went towards the cabin to assist. Whatever was in there with Dulane's corpse he was not eager to find out.

The skins caught his attention once he entered, even the sight of Laine's backside as she reached to bring them down was not enough distraction.

"Christ," he muttered, his hand going to his pocket and he rolled the vial of coke in the plastic bag around against his fingers. The hard shape of pills could be felt and his craving to vanish into that fog grabbed at him.

Laine turned to look over her shoulder, she had already laid out what was left of Laurie on the couch. To Queen's eyes it looked like the man had just melted into the sofa, like some dark Dali painting.

"I need body bags or something, I'm not folding them up to put in a shoe box," she snapped as she went back to untangling the blond hair of the dead Airman from the wire the dried skin was hung on.

"Yeah, sure...I'm here to help," Queen assured her as he looked around, the blood spray from Dulane already tacky and congealing. Anything to keep from having to look at the skins.

Donnelley stood in the doorway and watched them work, fingers dug under his plate carrier as he let his rifle hang off its sling. The cabin was bare, only the essentials needed to carry out whatever backwoods serial killing that needed doing. He glanced at the skins and swallowed audibly before tearing his eyes away from them and to the other things in the room. What interested him the most was the stainless steel work table. It was clean, no blood anywhere he could see.

He thought about investigating further, but the longer he stayed in the cabin the more he wanted to break something in it. He reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose and rub his forehead, stepping out to have his own smoke. He lit up, back turned to the cabin and eyes passively scanning through the woods. They’d have to burn the place, they’d have to deal with the skins, with Dulane. They hadn’t even touched the mines, and why did Dulane even come here?

“The fuck’s your deal, man?” He muttered to himself, pondering how and why Dulane knew this place.

Queen made a search for something, anything, to put the skins in to transport them. Maui had no body bags such was his confidence in his team. He went back into the cabin, into the bedroom. He looked over the cot, the blanket on it and hesitated, the ingrained habit not to disturb a crime scene hard to break.

The killer had slept here, probably jerked off onto this blanket Queen thought then he turned away, looking for something less personal and less full of DNA to transport the dead remains. He looked under the rickety nightstand and found a half empty box of Glad trash bags. Asshole couldn't even buy Hefty for this job.

Queen paused in front of the wardrobe but left it alone, first thing was to take care of the dead and they were ill prepared. He took another look around, his hand finding its way to his pocket. After a little fumbling he found a few tabs of Xanax and dry swallowed one.

When he returned to the main room he saw Laine standing still beside the surgical table, the skin suit with blonde hair still in her hands. His own skin crawled at the sight but he kept his upbeat tone.

"Found something you can use, it ain't the best but it's something to get them covered," Queen announced, setting the box of garbage bags on the surgical table.

Laine jerked her head, looking at Queen as if he had spoken another language. Then she blinked, shaking her head slightly, "I'll make do. Can you find some scissors and tape?"

"Right, Maui probably has that," he announced, then turned on his heel to saunter out of the cabin, already feeling some of the headiness of the pills.

Laine gently laid the remains of the young woman on the table. There had been no love lost between them when Weissman was alive but Laine felt a deep sadness for her loss, especially to become a victim of that monster.

As she waited Laine began to examine the table, the box of small latex gloves surprised her. She had assumed him to be at least average size if not larger to have the strength to subdue but if drugs were used then there was no need for brute strength. She turned the box over and looked at it. A small man or maybe even a woman.

Laine set it down and continued looking around, now feeling herself settle into investigation mode. The stainless steel table was clean, not just clean but wiped down and no trace of fingerprints or even a smudge was left. Nor blood, even old dried blood could be seen.

She wished for some Luminol to expose what she could not see with her eyes but Laine might as well wish for a whole CSI team. She was on her own and with limited time. No visible blood present in such a wound as flaying a person would make, they were likely drained of blood somewhere else.

Exsanguination. The word always sounded so medieval to her. And the idea of flaying a person was just as barbaric, something pagan and primeval. Something to...awaken the Sleeper.

Laine shook her head to rid herself of Dulane's voice cackling in her memories. Focus. She touched the chain around her neck, where it vanished below the collar of her shirt.

The table was very clean and there had to be cleaners around but she saw nothing by the table. The tools left out were spotless and sharp, very sharp. A surgeon's set of tools with different sized scalpels, forceps, and delicate scissors.

Laine glanced at the box of small latex gloves, the chances are the suspect wore them through the whole process but there was a chance. She thought about the trash bags and there had to be cleaners, the chance the suspect used them without gloves was slim.

She stepped away from the table when Queen entered the room again. He had a roll of duct tape and a pair of scissors from a first aid kit. He started opening trash bags, cutting and taping them together to make what looked like poor man's garment bags.

"Where did you find those garbage bags?"

He looked up from his work, then shrugged, "Bedroom, by the nightstand."

She turned and entered the bedroom, pausing at the doorway to just observe. Laine doubted the cleaners would be in here but there was a draw to the space, it's where the suspect took his private moments. He slept in that very bed, it would have hairs no doubt and maybe finger prints on whatever he touched. She would need to go over this room closely before the cabin was torched.

Again she swore to herself at the absence of a CSI team or even just a kit to collect samples. Laine took out her phone and snapped a few photos, then came out and did the same of the table and the last skin to be removed. Maria, she thought, though DNA would have to confirm it. Samples needed to be taken of all of them, more kits she did not have.

"Hey, Queen," Laine said, "Take your time with those. I don't want them ripping while we transport them."

As the others went about the task of bagging the skins and sucking up their feelings, Ghost prowled the cabin. For the most part it was thoroughly uninteresting; evidence, motive, these were things investigators looked for. Ghost wasn’t an investigator. He was a killer. With nothing to kill, he was getting bored.

A tall wardrobe in the corner of the room caught his eye and he closed on it, footsteps slowing, adopting that heel-to-toe walk used to suppress noise while an Operator got into position. Everything on his gear that could click, clank, or rattle had already been taped down; the footwork was all that was left.

He reached the wardrobe and stepped to one side, raising his rifle and bracing it tight against his shoulder one-handed. Then he ripped open the door, simultaneously flipping the selector to auto.

With his nerves on edge, Ghost very nearly put a neat burst through a set of surgical scrubs that hung within the wardrobe.

“At least the guy was hygiene conscious,” he grunted, prodding at the outfit with his rifle as though expecting an attack. Trashbags and a cardboard box at the bottom drew his attention and he gave the box a kick. “Hey! I found some shit!” He bellowed, looking towards the door before backing off.

Donnelley could hear Ghost’s growl of a yell from outside, turning around to look at the cabin and letting streams of smoke from his nostrils. He and Poker looked at each other, flicked their cigarettes away and found their way inside to where Ghost was standing in front of a wardrobe.

“Clothes.” Poker said, unimpressed.

“Surgery scrubs.” Donnelley muttered, glancing at Poker’s layman’s terms. “Steel table outside and surgical tools. Whoever has me-time here has experience. This ain’t no hunter, it’s a fuckin’ doctor.”

“What’s that?” Poker said, tapping the toe of his boot against the cardboard box at the bottom of the wardrobe, next to a garbage bag.

"Well I haven't opened it, so I know as much as you do," Ghost growled, his tone surly. He was getting bored. "Could be a bomb. Or jack-off pictures of his victims. You wanna open it, be my guest. I'm going outside first."

He turned and headed for the door, not terribly eager to be in the blast radius if it was, in fact, a trap. Poker watched him go, Then looked at Donnelley. They both shrugged, Donnelley going for the box and checking for trip-wires or anything of the like. The Cartel House in Juarez flashed in his mind and he remembered how long it took him to get another man’s gut fluids out of his damn uniform. Sicarios were almost as bad as the fucking Taliban.

Probably would take a little longer to get his own fluids out of his clothes, he thought, smirking to himself in a macabre fashion. Feeling none, he carefully teased the box out of its place and onto the floor of the cabin.

Laine stepped into the room, her attention focused on the wardrobe. The mention of scrubs and the bag.

"I need to see what's in that box," she said, taking a picture of the scrubs. As Ghost left, she stayed and watched Donnelley for a moment. The memory of the other cabin and the shotgun, the other hidden box. Laine wanted to see it, exactly how it looked before it got disturbed and shuffled around.

The cabin was old and spare but there was a neatness to it, orderly and clean. Nothing extraneous, nothing not needed for the job of removing the skin from a body. At least they had been dead when it happened, that was something.

The scrubs and the tools and the air of professional clinical cleanliness and order made her reevaluate her first thought that he might be a hunter and now she could narrow the scope to suspects within the medical field.

“Explains the drugs,” Donnelley looked over to Laine, “Propofol and Midazolam. One thing to drug them up with roofies or Xanax, but…”

Donnelley shook his head, placing his fingers around the lid of the box, “Step back.”

When they did, Donnelley lifted the lid of the box to reveal something less explosive. Arranged in Manila folders and accordion binders were some documents. There was also a leather bound notebook and another book, thick and worn. “Baughman all over again.” Donnelley muttered.

He took a Manila folder from the box, slowly lifting it out to reveal it to be stamped with a red Official Eyes Only. That was never a good sign. The strangeness just got deeper as he stared at the words and the folder. He wondered if he should peek at it, the curiosity digging its nails into his hands. He flipped the folder open and the first page had an official header.

TS//SCI//CIA//MJ12//NOFORN

He slapped it shut before he could read any further and rubbed at his eyes, “Fuck me.” He said, “This is official. I don’t know what’s going on with this goddamn cabin.”

"Yes, the rare pharmacy he kept," she agreed, stepping back until just behind the door frame. When she saw him pull only folders out, Laine came forward. She reached for it like a fat kid going for birthday cake.

"Let me see, what kind of official? Like... program official?" Laine looked with naked curiosity at the folder in his hand.

She took the leather bound notebook out of the box, then looked at the spine of the book, reading the title. The Gospel of Leng.

Laine opened it, flipping past the title page and looked at the strange script it was printed in though the scribbled notes in the margins were in English. "Jesus walked East, seeking wisdom and the..." She paused, the handwriting smeared and hard to read.

Closing the book she tucked it back into the box, "We'll need a translator for that. What was in the folder?"

“Some pretty official documents. They’re classified.” Donnelley glanced at Laine, “And we ain’t got the clearance.”

Donnelley replaced the lid and hefted the box up in his arms, surprisingly heavy for a bunch of papers. Some analyst back at Program HQ would have fun with these, that’s for sure. Maybe even their own Ava if they were allowed the clearance to view these. Part of him didn’t even want to ask. The tug of curiosity, the hunger for the truth about this case wanted him to keep his teeth together about those files. “I’m goin’ to take these outside. Check what’s in that bag.”

“Roger.” Poker nodded.

“Laine, you want to help me outside?” He asked, raising his brows and glancing down at the box, hoping she got the message he wanted to be a nosy little shit and break the law by reading whatever files these were.

Laine caught his eye for a moment and glanced down at the notebook still unopened in her arms. She nodded, casually placing it on top of the box he carried.

"Yeah, I need a smoke anyway," she replied in a tired voice, reaching into her pocket for the Djarums as she followed Donnelley out. The excitement coursed through her, she wanted to read everything she could in that box. The fact this person had classified files made her think of Baughman, his attempt to bring back his wife that ended in a zombie trapped in a septic tank.

Donnelley went through the cabin and out the front without meeting anyone’s eyes. He set down the box at the side of the cabin away from the rest of his team and lifted the lid, taking the file he’d read and flipping it open. His eyes flitted across the page. His brows knitted together tighter as he read on. How had the killer gotten their hands on these?

The more he read, the less he could believe. This was a report on experiments during the 50’s and 60’s conducted by the CIA and another government organization named Majestic 12. MK-Ultra, psychics, telekinesis, remote viewing. It kept making mentions of Subject Virginia, how she had been their most successful subject. He swallowed and shut the manila folder. These were unredacted original case files. There was absolutely no way anyone without top level clearance could get these.

He handed the folder over to Laine and stood, retrieving a cigarette from his pack in one of his pouches and lighting up. He pulled his flask from another pouch and took a couple swigs, “That’s top level classified information, Laine.” He said, “This is… this goes deeper than just a backwoods murderer.”

Laine smoked as she read, the subjects often only familiar to her from Youtube videos about some conspiracy. Things she had mostly waived off as wild imagination, paranoid thoughts of the mentally ill. And yet, here it was in her hand. There it had been in the septic tank and in the questions in the depths of Langley. It was there, in black and white.

"No way these are fakes?" She asked, the devil's advocate. "Maybe he made them up for some reason... paranoid sch..."

Laine did not finish the word, it was ridiculous and she knew it. No scattered schizophrenic brain would produce such reports, they were written by professionals. Her mind grasped for reason and there was one. Like Baughman, who had been with the program for decades. Like some who fought monsters too long.

She looked at Donnelley, "Maybe he's with the Program or had been?"

Laine held her hand out for the flask. He handed it over, “Should we tell Foster?” He asked, feeling sheepish. He was supposed to be the one making decisions, the Team Lead, “I think we should hold onto these. Nobody who has these works outside our sphere.”

He said it outright, “I don’t trust anyone outside UMBRA with this. He’s rogue, this fuckin’ dude.”

Laine put the flask to her lips, holding it there for a beat before taking a sip. "No," she said, then looked at him. "I don't think we should tell him. Not yet."

She handed back his flask, the spicy flavor of cloves blending with the whiskey taste still on her tongue as she took a drag.

"Maybe I'm out of line," Laine said, "But you know we have a leak. I'm not accusing anyone and I'm sure you have every reason to trust him but personally, I think that we play this hand very close."

Donnelley tipped the flask to his lips, then nodded, capping it up, “Agreed.”




Overman set foot into the clearing the cabin was situated in and scanned the area around him with narrowed eyes. They couldn’t find the cabin fast enough, since his symptoms had vanished unexplainably, he needed to know what was happening at the cabin. Foster sided up with him, “What’s the problem?”

“Where is he?” Overman said, still looking around the area.

Foster gestured towards the body on the ground, draped over with garbage bags. Overman nodded and wasted no time in going towards the body and kneeling next to it. “Damn it.” He muttered.

Donnelley waved down Dave and Ava, giving the woman a smile when he saw her, “How’re you? Better?”

Ava was staring over at the shape beneath the plastic bags, her mind reeling for a moment as she processed what she was seeing. After a moment, some part of her realized Donnelley had just spoken to her and she snapped out the trance she’d been in. “Oh, hi, I’m feeling much better.” She answered with a confused frown, focusing on Donnelley so she didn’t stare at the dead body that was 20 feet from her.

“Is everyone alright?” She asked, a crease of concern forming on her brow. “I saw the other Yukon and Dave told me what happened plus…” She trailed off and glanced back over to Dulane’s body.

Dave stepped closer to Ava, his rifle at an easy ready. He knew it was her first time seeing a body, and he put a hand on her shoulder and gave it a quick squeeze.

“So what happened with him?” He jerked his head at Dulane’s carcass, lip curling a moment. He found it hard to feel any sort of sympathy for him. Enough so that he hadn’t bothered, honestly. Dave spotted the skull-masked Ghost haunting the shadow of the cabin, caught his eye, and gave him a nod of acknowledgement, then shrugged internally when the Operator simply gave him a stare in return. He’d thought he had made headway at Langley, but apparently until he had racked up a bodycount the big man simply considered him a potential burden.

“Suicide.” Donnelley said, simply, “Rest of us are still kickin’.”

He clucked his tongue and thrust his thumb over his shoulder to the cabin, looking at Dave, “Made it in time for the bonfire. You bring fireworks?”

Queen came out of the cabin, holding what looked like a stack of cheap garment bags in his arms. He spotted Ava's bright hair and grinned, the Xanax holding him in a haze. Overman and Dave were there, the latter hovering over the petite woman.

"Howdy, bout time y'all made it," Queen drawled, "Whattya think of this nice little place?"

With a sly grin he turned to Dave, "Remind you of home?"

“Oh sure,” Dave said, turning up his own drawl and eyeing the corpses. “Jus’ like home. Now if only we had a trailer or two, right?”

Queen just smiled then shifted the bags he held, looking over the man, "Might be an improvement."

He stepped away, going over to the covered corpse of Dulane and lay the flat makeshift bags beside it. Standing over the dead, he fished out a cigarette and lit up, waiting for the next move Foster would order.

Donnelley stepped up next to him just as he lit his own. It seemed chainsmoking was the order of the day. Speaking of reasons to chain smoke, Foster stepped up to the two of them, but his eyes glued to Donnelley made it known that he only came for the one. “CORAL NOMAD came through. They’re parked at Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport in the 167th Airlift Wing’s section.” Foster said, “They only want the assets, no agents allowed onboard.”

“Fair ‘nough, ETA?” Donnelley asked.

“They asked me the same, they’re probably already waiting. Clock’s ticking.” Foster about-faced and stalked off.

“What about the remains?” Donnelley called after him.

“Evidence.” Foster said back. “And we’re leaving none here when we leave. Hurry up.”

Donnelley hissed a swear under his breath and took a long drag off his freshly lit cigarette before ashed it out and tucked the butt behind his ear. He whistled loudly to get everyone’s attention, speaking loud and clear as they turned their eyes to him, “Alright, people, here’s the situation. Double-time on everything, snatch everything we can and we’re out of here in the next hour.”

Laine emerged once more from the cabin, holding the garbage bag in front of her body, not letting it touch her. The box of files had been stashed by Donnelley, the remains of the bodies stored albeit a haphazard way and she collected what she could. Laine wrapped the blanket in another garbage bag, labeling it with white medical tape and a pen. Another trash bag held the tools and scrubs, labeled as well. But the bag she held was from the wardrobe and she had not opened it yet.

She set it on the ground, away from the bodies and in a patch of sunlight. Laine carefully opened the bag with the first aid scissors and peeled it open, the glimpse of blue fabric and dark stains caught her breath.

With gloved hands, Laine gently began to pull the fabric apart. The clothing was clearly used scrubs, balled up and wrinkled with what looked like possible dried blood. As she crouched working on untangling the wadded up clothing and laying them on the grass with an internal wince. But they all had to make do, and it was still a cleaner crime scene than the sloppy LAPD work she had been subjected to during her time as a field agent.

One shirt and pants laid out and she worked on what appeared to be another set. For all the killer's neatness this was out of the ordinary, to stash dirty clothing rather than wash or dispose of it immediately. Maybe he saved them for a reason, maybe to burn or...

Her thoughts stopped as she held up the other scrub shirt. It was much smaller and the box of size small latex gloves flashed through her mind. Laine rolled the implications around in her mind, she had been wrong on a few different things in her original profile, important details like the possible sex and number of suspects and the possible occupation.

She sank back on her heels, sighing heavily at the discovery and looked down at the small scrub top. Laine would need to scrap the original profile and start again based on the new evidence. It was not the first time but it had been awhile since she had been so wrong.

Ava wandered away from the edge of the clearing, her eyes darting to where Overman was standing with Foster and Donnelley, over the body of Dulane. She wanted to go over and ask the mysterious man what her sickness had been, but for some reason she couldn’t make herself go near the deceased man.

He had been a murdering madman, but he had been living and breathing the last time she saw him. Now he just lay still beneath a mishmash of garbage bags. She shivered and decided to catch Overman when he wasn’t standing over Dulane’s body.

Her attention fell on Laine, spreading items of clothing out on the ground. Curious and glad to see the woman alright she headed over to her. As she studied her she frowned, noticing the line of tension in her shoulders and the cords of the back of her neck were tight. She supposed she couldn’t blame her, their lead witness had killed himself and taken whatever secrets he might have held to his grave.

Or maybe not if they had been able to find this cabin, it might hold some information. Her eyes flickered over the shack when a large shape lurking in the shadow caught her eye. She jumped, her hand twitching toward her gun holstered at her hip as she registered a large man in a skeletal mask standing and watching them.

A moment later she recognized the build, the gear and the Oakleys and she relaxed, realizing that it was only Ghost. She pressed a hand to her chest to calm herself down, gave the quiet operator a friendly wave and joined Laine’s side. “Hey.” She greeted, putting on her best friendly smile. “Look, I’m not car sick anymore.” She said, holding out her arms slightly and inflecting a light tone to help relieve some of Laine’s stress.

Laine glanced up at the sudden shadow thrown by Ava as she approached. It was normal at least, not like whatever had been in Dulane's. There was a sudden prickling along the back of her neck when a little voice asked in her mind, where was that thing now?

She shook it away when Ava spoke, raising her brows and failed at a smile, "That's wonderful, it must have been misery."

Laine looked back at the stained crumpled top and then held it up, standing as she did. Holding it out towards Ava in a gesture reminiscent of two women clothes shopping and judging what might look best on them.

"Very small figure, had to be a woman," Laine muttered, then shook her head again, looking at the petite redhead. "Well...looks like we have a two for one deal."

Ava furrowed her eyebrows in confusion, eyeing the shirt and then looking to Laine. “What is that?” She asked with a frown.

Laine breathed out heavily, "Ah, you know it's the latest from Armature, what a find right?"

She folded over the scrubs shirt and set on the rest, then gave Ava an apologetic smile, "Sorry. It's evidence is what it is. Blood stained scrubs, two sets in different sizes. I was completely fucking wrong about who the suspect might be."

Ava perked up and then paled a moment later. “Oh, those are the killers?” She asked, her eyes landing on the cabin. “This...this is their cabin?”

Laine gave her a concerned but critical look then nodded, "They were here, this was their work space, so to speak. We found evidence enough of what they were doing."

She gestured at the building with gloved hands, "Dulane led us up here, he ran and somehow kept getting out of his cuffs that slippery little... anyway, he was desperate to get in and once he did he cut his own throat."

Laine pulled her gaze from the cabin and looked at Ava, "I don't understand what he was or what had a hold of him but I think something didn't want him to talk or maybe he feared spilling information. I don't know, he was raving the whole time."

Ava frowned, brushing a hand through her hair and playing with one of the curls. “I wonder...I got better seemingly at random, but…” She looked over to Dulane and then her eyes landed on Overman. “It might be weird but, maybe if we know the times...Is it possible that Dulane dying is what made me feel better? Like he was affecting me somehow?”

Laine knelt to repack the dirty scrubs in a new garbage bag when Ava mentioned feeling better all of a sudden. She glanced up then over at the still form of the makeshift body bag. "I didn't check the time but..."

She shifted her gaze, her expression suddenly uncomfortable. Without looking at Ava she said, "I saw something weird when they brought him out. Dulane."

Laine taped a label across the bag, a date and set of numbers and letters on it that would match the other bags.

"His shadow...was strange," she said after a weighted pause, her voice low as if
embarrassed she might be overheard.

Ava blinked and her frown deepened with concern. “Strange as in how?” She asked.

Laine gripped the bag and glanced aside then at her, "I saw things squirming in the shadow, like tentacles or something. It was just a moment but I know I saw it, in the lights of the parking lot otherwise it would have been too dark to throw any shadows."

“I believe you.” Ava said without hesitation. She smiled reassuringly. “I don’t know what it could be, but I believe you.”

"Whatever it was, it wasn't good," Laine said, "Maybe it had something to do with him going suicidal, like some parasite controlling him. I don't know, but I think we need to talk to Overman. He's holding back."

Ava glanced over to the mysterious man and frowned at him. “Yeah, I have my own questions I’d like answered.”

Queen watched the pair of women over the last bag, the stained clothing brought out. The trip to the mountains had been a disaster before they even reached the mine. He took a long lazy drag from the Kool then turned to Donnelley, "So, you alright?"

“I’m goin’ to need a drink or seven after we get out of here.” Donnelley sucked in a drag off his cigarette and blew it out slowly, “Ask me after that. What’re you doin’ after this?”

Queen considered the question for a long moment, then replied, "Miami, check in at the office. See what's shakin' but first prolly Vegas or something, get laid and waste some money. You should come with me, unless you ain't about hanging with THUNDER no more."

He gave Donnelley a wink, making a point to look back at the women now walking away. His gaze lingered on their asses then he looked back up, "Daddy Donnelley got his little chicks to watch after."

Donnelley snorted, shrugging, “They're adults,” he took a drag off his cigarette and blew it out, “They’ll be fine without me for a bit. I’m sure they won’t miss me when I’m in Vegas with you and that stone-faced weirdo over there.”

“‘Least I can get drunk and high then.” He chuckled, “I took a nip in front of Laurie even once he’d probably roll his eyes at me. Fuckin’ Weissman was as big a dick as me. Wouldn’t stop callin’ me old man and shit.”

The smile faded a tad, more and more as the silence dragged on. You never got used to it. You could get used to all kinds of pain, but knowing you’ll never talk to someone ever again, or see them hanging around. That’s a special kind. “Fuck, man.” Donnelley rubbed a hand over his face and took a few long drags off his cigarette, “Fuck. Fuckin’ shit.”

Queen put a hand on Donnelley's shoulder, cigarette smoldering between his fingers as he gave him a firm squeeze. He would have pulled him into an embrace but far too many eyes were around so the quick companionable gesture would have to do. He leaned in towards him, lowering his voice, "It is fucking shit."

He shook his head, “We’ll drink to them in Vegas. And to each other.” He smiled at Queen, “The trio rides again, I guess.”

He chuckled at the cheesy line, “Or will be. Dependin’ on Foster givin’ us some time off soon.”




“We just lost our only living link to Blackriver.” Foster shook his head and rubbed at his face as he stood.

Overman was still staring down at Dulane’s body, but he spoke to Foster, “He died in your custody. That isn’t going to look good.”

The two of them stood in silence. Foster wasn’t oblivious to that. This case was not going well for UMBRA, and the Program’s patience wasn’t known for being the thickest. The interviews were evidence of that. Foster shoved his hands in his pockets and sighed, turning away from Dulane, “Any magic tricks? Should we hold a seance?” Foster asked.

“Bringing back the dead is trickier than that. What I do isn’t exactly a science.” Overman pursed his lips at Foster.

Laine approached the men with the last bag of evidence in her arms. She caught the last part of what Overman said and shot a hard, curious look at him.

"You know about that?" She asked, interrupting their conversation about bringing people back from the dead. "I wouldn't advise it. Seems messy."

She set the bag down, her hands now resting in her hips as she kept her gaze on Overman. "I need to know something about what happened with Dulane. Something I saw when they brought him out of the prison."

Laine tried to keep her tough FBI exterior but the hesitation flickered across her features. "It seems like your realm of expertise. It was only a moment under the parking lot lights. Might have just been a trick of those lights but I saw something in his shadow, like separate yet part of him. Squirming...like snakes or tentacles."

She felt her face start to heat up, any FBI agent would have laughed and made an X Files joke and part of her expected it even from these men.

“So did I.” Overman said simply, “It happened.”

He gestured to the body, “Now he’s dead.”

Laine stayed silent for a few breathed, looking at Dulane's bagged corpse. "Do you think it did it?"

She glanced back at Overman with sharp green eyes, the gun fight coming to mind. The first shot fired. "Do you think he did this or something else made him kill himself? He escaped his cuffs a couple times, he ran with a damn hood over his head without hitting a tree and went right to the cabin. What the hell is going on?"

“Something bigger than just a backwoods killer. But we knew that when Deputies started shooting at us, didn’t we?” Overman pursed his lips, shrugged, “The motive of this Sleeper is to have people Come and See, isn’t it? It wouldn’t be much to have its conduit in this plane silence itself. Or perhaps it was mocking, a taunt.”

He held his chin, looking pensively at Dulane, “Either way, he was troubled by what he saw in those mines. I think he just couldn’t take sharing his head anymore.” He quirked a brow and looked to Laine, “Would you have?”

Laine shook her head slightly, then glanced away as Ava approached. She stepped back, giving her teammate room to speak with Overman. She stayed close, curious if anything the young woman experienced tied into Dulane

Ava kept her eyes on Laine and Overman, fighting to not stare at the body at their feet and ignore the turning in her stomach. With Dave at her side, a source of unwavering comfort and support, she felt a little firmer in approaching the mysterious Gray Man.

She caught the tail end of the conversation and swallowed past the lump forming in her throat. She nodded to Laine and stopped a few feet from Overman, trying to ignore the tangy metallic scent of blood coming from the body bag. It unnerved her that it was starting to become a familiar smell.

“Sorry to interrupt, but I had some questions.” She said to Overman, motioning her hand to Dulane. “Possibly related to...whatever happened to him.”

“Yes.” Overman looked at Ava, standing at his full height and slid his hands into his pockets, “That is my answer. You’re not the only one, Miss Moore. It is very possibly related to whatever happened to him.”

He looked at her, his face not changing a hair towards anything other than boredom, “Unless you had something on your mind, now that it’s clear?”

For some reason, his tone and expression made a small spark of frustration flare in her chest. She clamped down on it and said, “What were the visions I had? The ones I told you about after I felt better?” She waved her hand slightly. “I heard a tortured, shrieking howl, like a dying animal. Was it Dulane dying? And why would I feel better after he died? What was he doing to cause an unexplained sickness?”

Overman looked to Foster, who locked eyes with Overman and then turned to Ava, “Well, he didn’t die screaming.” Foster said, “At least not like that.”

Overman shrugged, “I just don’t know. I know it wasn’t Dulane. From his file, everything I’d heard, he wasn’t the type.” Overman pursed his lips and nodded at Laine, “It was most likely his shadow. Or what was in it. Dulane made a promise.”

Overman nodded, narrowing his eyes at the cabin, “He kept it.”




The weight of the classified files was perhaps the heaviest to Donnelley, nestled in his assault pack among the loose ammo and rations. He did his best to keep himself composed and not feel like at any moment Foster or someone else would catch him on their hours long trip to the airport. They’d cut about 30 minutes off the trip by speeding along as best they could, turning more than a few heads with the bullet-riddled Yukon. At one point, they’d been pulled over, but after the State Trooper was made aware of Special Agents Davidson and Forrest they gave them an escort straight to the airport.

The 167th wasn’t hard to find, and the two Yukons were beside the runway now, UMBRA and THUNDER patiently waiting as Donnelley and Foster secured the asset recovery with the CORAL NOMAD team’s OIC. They hardly looked out of place here, but even so, the exchange was quick. The skins and Dulane’s body would be handled by CORAL NOMAD’s research team assigned to this flight. Donnelley and Foster followed them back to the Yukons, opening the back of one to reveal the trash bags for the skins, and Dulane under them. “Is that him?” One of the researchers asked.

“Sure is.” Donnelley nodded, “You need to verify ID?”

“Uh Huh.” The researcher said, pulling out a camera from his pack, “Go ahead.”

Donnelley grabbed the trash bags concealing Dulane’s body and pulled a section down that was covering his face. The researcher snapped a quick photo, “Thank…” the masked scientist stopped dead, rubbed his eyes, and then squinted back at the camera’s screen, “You.”

Donnelley furrowed his brows at the researcher, but the man only hurried off to get one of his teammates to help him load Dulane in the Blackhawk the CORAL NOMAD team was using. When everything was loaded in the helicopter, it whirred to life, throwing a whirlwind in Donnelley and his team’s faces. Before long, it took off from the ground and off it went. Donnelley and Foster watched it go as they stood with each other.

“CORAL NOMAD assets are going to scan that area of Blackriver we were in. We still never got to those mines.” Foster pursed his lips, “Hopefully in a week, we’ll get word back that they found something for us to go after.”

Donnelley nodded, watching the Blackhawk steadily shrink in the distance, “Hopefully.” Donnelley turned to Foster, “Any word about the BLACKBOX?”

“Invitation still stands.” Foster said. “But you should go sooner than later. It’s not going to be open forever.”

“I’ll tell my guys.” Donnelley wasted no time in turning away and walking towards UMBRA. They looked worse for wear even though they’d only been out a single night. He knew they barely had any time to sleep before the outing, and the weight of his own eyelids told him sleep would be a must. “Alright, people, everythin’s taken care of seems like. It’ll be a week before we’re out in Virginia again to follow the mine lead. Let’s bunk somewhere, get some rest.”

He yawned, punctuating his own words, “I still want to put some work in and follow what leads we got. Which means we’re going to the BLACKBOX soon.” Donnelley put his hands on his hips, “But for now, we’ll lay low, get some shut-eye.”
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