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Our Mother the Mountains…

Part I, Walk these hills lightly...

18th of Sun’s Height
Druadach Mountains…


He couldn’t tell for how long he’d been walking. Only that he’d felt weaker and weaker as he went on. He didn’t bother counting the hours, but another rumble from his belly and the cramps almost brought him to his knees, like a fist twisting in his guts. He didn’t deserve food, he thought. Only punishment, with no hope of atoning. Such concepts were not for Finnen Pale-Feather, the boy that had forswore his own tribe and now had hurt his only family left in the world.

After he’d realized what he’d done, Sevari’s rifle barrel yawning open in his face and ready to take him from this world, after he’d wandered alone for however long he was, he wondered if he should’ve just let the man squeeze the trigger. Perhaps that was what he deserved. But he chose a lonely escape to the trees and hills and rocks of the Reach. A poetic thing. Born here, alone. He would now die here, alone. He crouched down on the game trail and hung his head low, hands covering his face as if there was anyone else around to hide his sobs from.

Choking cries that shook him from shoulders to haunches, wet hiccups to no one. He stayed like that until it was over, heaving in one breath and letting it out ragged on the mountain air. He looked around himself, as if expecting someone to be staring yet only heard birdsong and the wind rustling the trees. No one. He sniffled, wiping a forearm over his eyes. He pressed one nostril closed with a thumb and blew the snot out the other, shaking his head as if the sorrow was only tangled in his hair to be shook away, and not twisted around his heart like thorny vines.

He looked back from where he’d come, looked in the direction of where he was going and saw no difference. Sighing, he continued on, deeper into the mountains. A lonely path, a lonely man. His careful footsteps did not disturb anything in the forest. Birdsong and wind accompanied his thoughts like an undercurrent, tickling through his long raven hair. He stopped for a bit, rested his back against a young tree and his eyes scanned the trees. Finding nothing, they went to his hands and forearms. The thin cuts of Sora’s claws, deep and open. The blood was still smeared in places and only recently dried. A lone crow’s caw took his eyes from himself and back to the trees, grating and nasally like a crone’s cough.

A lone crow perched itself on a branch, and its gaze did not leave his own. Not once. Finnen remembered what his mother had taught him of the Crow-Wife traditions of crow counting as omens. A lone crow was an omen of bad luck. An understatement, Finnen thought. “You’re late.” Finnen chuckled ruefully. He remembered that crows too were not only omens, but the eyes of the first Witch-Mother of the Crow-Wives. Watching and waiting, for reasons unknown. “Keep your watch then, Crone.”

The crow did not answer. They stood staring at each other until his smirk faded back to nothing. He was the first to break the stare and walk on...




He walked on until the path took him to a break in the trees, a sheer cliff at his toes. The valleys were laid out before him like a painting, or more like something to be painted. His eyes scanned the low river valleys and the high peaks. A hawk circled down below and a flock of birds took flight from their perches in the trees. He took another step towards the edge. He could hear the ground shift as pebbles bounced down the cliff, their percussive fall like children’s laughter beckoning to come follow.

He swallowed, closed his eyes. His ears perked up, hearing the keening winds buffet the treetops and the sound of a far off river feeding into or trickling away from the Great River Karth. He was starting to lose balance, swaying with the winds and the pebbles fell again. He lifted the weight from one foot to step on the air and nothingness in front of him before he heard the sharp call of the crow again.

He faltered, stumbled. His foot came down, heel knocking into the loose dirt at the edge of the cliff and his breath caught as he plunged downwards. He found a strong root that his fingers clutched onto and immediately his grip tightened, the strength in them the strength to live. He dangled by one arm and looked down, the ground below nowhere near a safe distance to drop. That was the point, but not anymore. Not anymore, he thought, his mind racing with all the reasons not to.

He swung his other arm onto the root and hauled himself up, clamoring and smacking at the dirt, desperate clawing back to safety. He lay there, breath heaving and arms burning. The crow called again and he opened his eyes to it. Two crows.

A death omen.

Something in Finnen made him smile. Then chuckle, and suddenly he was laughing. He laughed at them, “Wrong.” He giggled, the victory of living, “Wrong, wrong!”

The laughing turned darker, and each laugh bit deep in him and tore at the things he’d done for death. The victory of living while others were left with the opposite. “Wrong!” He screamed, and the laughs turned to sobs as he got to his knees. He’d almost killed Sora. He’d done a lot of horrible things, taken lives aplenty with zeal and pleasure, but Sora’s? Was he truly just a killer, made only for making dead men like his father had made him for?

Maybe. Maybe… “Wrong!” The crows did not leave him be, cawing at him now that his laughs were no more, cawing like they were the ones with reason to laugh. “Wrong!”

He grabbed up a fallen branch and tossed it like a javelin at the crows. It sailed just past them but yet they did not leave. Only stood in silence now as if they felt disrespect. Finnen stood before them, chest and shoulders rising and falling with his haggard breath. “Wrong.” He whimpered.

He turned away from them and walked on…
>ROAD TO CHARLESTON
>6 MILES TO MOTEL 6
>1200HRS...///

“Nobody impedes our progress.” Donnelley’s Texan was running through his speech like a bronco as he push-checked his .40 cal and placed it in his lap, “Jason, you stay put. Just survey the scene and let us know if anybody seems off.”

“Laine, we’ll go in there, grab him. We’re out and away quick as we can make it. We only interview him at the Safehouse.” Donnelley nudged her as she drove, giving a smile at Jason through the rear view, “Gettin’ fun now, ain’t it?”

Laine pulled out of the tavern parking lot, glancing at Donnelley as she turned onto the street. "He said he thought someone might be watching him, and I wouldn't doubt it."

She caught his smile and felt a reluctant grin tug at the corners of her mouth, "You're enjoying this too much."

Donnelley’s eyes tracked a lone billboard as it passed, a weatherworn and rusty-cornered thing, ‘Remember God Loves You.’

“Just a good feelin’ gettin’ out the office. Couple friends, some guns, some danger.” He flashed a wicked grin and shoved a cigarette into it, lighting up to savor the moment, “This life’s good sometimes.”

“Sure thing, boss.” Jason returned Donnelley’s smirk from the backseat. The sound of his handgun’s slide being racked and the business in his eyes told Donnelley the man was ready for anything.

The Explorer rolled out towards the edge of town, passing the weathered birdshit streaked sign that marked the end of Whitetree and entering Blackriver County. They headed south along the highway, passing the occasional peeling billboard set against the rolling green mountains advertising the next Dairy Queen or Chevron gas stations. They passed a lone billboard, Motel 8 exit 63 in five miles. Laine glanced at it, sixty bucks a night on a lumpy suspicious mattress and a free breakfast of cereal cups and stale croissants. She had stayed at enough during her consulting trips to know the one down the road was the same as any. Same mediocre art prints, same TV bolted to the wall, the same Bible in the drawer. The safehouse was a nice change.

In quick order and quiet driving, the three of them came up on the hotel. It was a dingy little thing, a courtyard parking lot with the hotels attached to the front office, their front doors all opening out straight to the parking lot. Two levels, and Donnelley estimated probably forty rooms. He took note of the cars, however few there were, in the parking lot. Most of them were tired SUVs and sedans from the dawn of the 2000s that hadn’t looked to be washed in a good while. Their brakes squeaked into one of the many empty parking spaces, Donnelley’s eyes scanning their surroundings. “Alright, all business from here. Jason, I’ll keep you on my phone. Laine, let’s go.”

Donnelley pushes open his door and shoved his handgun inside his IWB holster, taking another scan of the parking lot. He retrieved his phone, ringing up Jason and nodding at the man through his window before he and Laine made their way from the car towards Frank’s room. “Which room was he in?” He asked Laine, keeping his eyes on the hotel windows and the quiet parking lot.

Laine parked the SUV and got out, adjusting her Glock on the shoulder holster beneath her blazer. She scanned the parking lot, checking to see if any of the vehicles had people waiting and watching.

"204, second floor," she replied, knowing the layout of cheap motels rarely varied. "This way."

Laine walked quickly to the first flight of outdoor stairs, creaking steel steps showing flakes of rust around the bolts.

“Okay,” Donnelley nodded at Laine’s back as he followed her up the stairs. A few steps until they got to the door marked 204 and Laine rapped her knuckles on the door. Seconds passed by in agony as Donnelley turned away from Laine, watching her 6 o’clock.

The door opened after a bit and Frank sheepishly chuckled at the sight of Laine, relief apparent in the soft huffs, “You’re here!” He exclaimed.

Laine gave him an assured smile, "I told you we would be. Now grab your stuff, the car is waiting."

She glanced back at Donnelley, "Everything good?"

“Ye- Wait…” Donnelley’s eyes narrowed to slits as they tracked a Dodge Charger rumble into the parking lot, coming to a stop in the middle of it. “Jason…”

“I’m tracking him.” Jason’s voice came from his phone.

The passenger side door of the Charger opened up and a man in a black t-shirt stepped out, blonde hair under a gray baseball cap, folding his thick arms as he looked up at the two of them at Frank’s door. “Y’all some friends of Frank’s?”

Donnelley glanced back at Laine and noted Frank busy with packing his things. Why he hadn’t done it before they got there had him cursing everything about this. He turned back to the man in the Charger, “Sure am!” He smiled, a baring of fangs in his mouth, “Who’re you?”

“Just some friends of Frank’s too.” The man smiled and nodded, “You look scared, partner.”

Donnelley’s smirk hadn’t left him as he sucked his teeth and took a step towards the handrail of the balcony. He took a moment to scan the road for more cars and then snorted something into his face and hocked it out in the Charger’s direction. “Nah.”

The man in the Charger nodded a few times, slow, his smile fading more with each dip of his head. “Alright. I’ll be seein’ ya ‘round now!”

“Lookin’ forward to it, hoss.” Donnelley waved as the man retreated back into the Charger. The car didn’t move an inch, and neither did Donnelley’s eyes away from it.

He turned his head slightly towards Laine, “Tell Frank to hurry the fuck up.” He brought his phone closer to his mouth, “Jason, they even look at you wrong, I want you to light them the fuck up.”

“Uh huh.” Came Jason’s stern acknowledgment. The beating of his heart apparent in Donnelley’s ears as he made himself look as steady as he could for Laine and Frank.

Laine heard the stranger's voice and cursed internally. No luck in a clandestine operation, there was certainly eyes on them. She stepped inside, "Frank, seriously. We need to move. Anything you don't have in that bag can be replaced, come on."

She stepped back out, glancing at Donnelley then at the Dodge Charger. Without a word she met his eyes and held them, her hand brushing the lapel of her blazer in a gesture that let the Glock peek out. As Frank was exiting the room she asked in a low voice, "Do you think that dude will give us trouble between here and the truck? Maybe I should flash my badge."

Donnelley shook his head, placing his hands on his hips in easy reach of his holstered pistol, “Somethin’ tells me he doesn’t give a shit about badges.” He clucked his tongue, “He’s goin’ to wait until it’s them and us and no one else. It’s what I’d do. He’s just tryin’ to spook us by showin’ up like this.”

“Which means,” Donnelley rose his voice, “that we should probably hurry the fuck up, Frank.”

“Okay, okay!” Frank hopped to attention and stood at the doorway. It took everything Donnelley had to not grab Frank by the collar and haul him to the Suburban.

“Let’s go.” Donnelley said, turning for the stairs.

They made the walk to the Suburban and loaded Frank into the back with Jason, every limping step Donnelley took he expected a bullet, lightning bolts of fear coursing through him and bidding him to run. The firefight never happened. Donnelley counted that as a plus as he climbed into the passenger seat after loading Frank next to Jason, Donnelley wincing and hissing as he gingerly lifted his injured leg into the passenger seat, slamming the door. “Just drive. We’re not going to the Safehouse. We go to Charleston, rent a different car and then go to the Safehouse at night.” Donnelley tore his gaze from the Charger to Laine, “Understood?”

Laine put the truck in gear and backed out of the parking spot, looking over her shoulder. She nodded, "Got it."

Her voice was tense, the mood translated in the tight shoulders and the stark line of tendon along her neck. She had to trust Donnelley now, it was his experience that would get them out of this. As she tore out of the parking lot, Laine gripped the steering wheel, forcing herself not to floor it down the highway. The last thing they needed was some Blackriver deputy pulling them over.

"Is he following?" She asked, glancing up at the rear view mirror. Laine looked back over at Donnelley, the fine worry line forming between her brows, "How's your leg holding up?"

Jason thrust his thumb over his shoulder, from which Donnelley could see that the Charger was still behind them, though following from a good distance. Donnelley nodded to Laine and then answered as he put his attention back on where they were headed down the road, “Jason, be ready to put some rounds down-range if you need to. It’s all country from here to Charleston,” Donnelley rolled his jaw and muttered, “Prime opportunity to get rid of us.”

He rubbed at his leg, chuckling nervously, “Fuckin’ throbbin’ after those stairs.” He glanced at Laine, “Just drive. We’ll make it okay.”

“Frank, how you doin’?” Donnelley asked, eyes still on the road ahead.

“I’m, uh, I’m alright.” Frank said between glances at the Charger.

“Keep your head down. This thing’s armored, no rounds are getting through that glass.” He said, a half-lie. He knew the vehicles Foster had procured for the team were armored, but they wouldn’t stand much of a chance against explosives or large calibers.

“O-okay.” The young Forest Ranger nodded, shimmying lower into his seat.

An hour of steady driving brought them the gift of seeing the sign telling them they’d entered Charleston. In time, they saw the buildings, people, cars. Modern life and people living it, blissfully unaware the two cars that had just entered their sleepy existences were itching to pull over and have a good old fashioned shootout or a high speed chase. To Laine’s credit, she guided them true through the city, following Donnelley’s directions to take them through crowded streets and making turns that often doubled back on where they had just been a few street signs before.



>CHARLESTON
>GOLDSTAR MOTEL
>ZERO HOUR...///

After a tense block of time that Donnelley couldn’t gauge, they’d shaken their tail, bored or looking to watch for another opportunity to intercept them. They checked into the first cheap motel they found, exchanging one cheap safe haven for another. They’d gotten a smoking room, Jason and Frank in the room adjacent, connected by a door between. Donnelley took his fingers from between the blinds and sat back down in the chair he’d made as his roost. His cigarette smoldered in the ash tray and the smell of tobacco mingled with clove. The lights were off, the only source being the residual glow of the streetlights.

The intensity of the morning had wound down and with it, the conversation. He guessed not being faced with death was an easy opportunity for shoulders to grow cold once more. He rolled his eyes, not about to prod at that fire. He glanced at Laine again before deciding his efforts were best spent on finishing his cigarette.

Laine rubbed her tired eyes, the smoke from her cigarette drifting up from the ashtray on the nightstand. She had kicked her shoes off and sat up on the bed, pillows propping her against the headboard. She watched Donnelley as he kept an eye on the parking lot but it seemed like they had lost their tail for now.

Her thoughts drifted to the night before and the morning, to the hostility and jealousy he had displayed. Laine sighed, picking up her black Djarum and took a long drag before tapping it back into the heavy glass ashtray. She shifted against the headboard, feeling the restrictive band of her bra which would have been off by now on any normal night. Laine glanced at Donnelley who was smoking with a concentration then shook her head. The fuck if she would sit here uncomfortable because of his presence.

She reached behind under her shirt and unhooked her bra then pulled her arm through each sleeve and the straps, pulling it out from the bottom of her sweater. Laine sighed deeply with relief, dropping the black satin lingerie beside her on the bed.

Freedom.

Now more comfortable, she leaned back and picked up her cigarette. The air was thick with unspoken tension that had nothing to do with Frank or whoever was after him.

"So," Laine said, the soft raspy quality of her voice seemed more noticeable. "Are we going to talk or stare at the walls avoiding each other?"

A flick of ash and she crossed her feet at her ankles, her long legs stretched out. "I wanted to apologize for last night, you didn't need me butting in."

He blew out his smoke lazily in a sigh, hanging his head for a moment and nodding. He glanced at the bra she left on the bed and the shared hotel room. Normalcy, comfortability. It was as alluring as diamonds to him. He looked at Laine, “Yeah.” He nodded, “You didn’t… need me being an asshole about things.”

He held her gaze, searching them for the same things he saw when she was looking at Jason. He shook himself from that fool’s errand, he had to stay professional, especially now. Keeping everyone at arm’s length was a good way to avoid shit like the diner. There wasn’t any place for those things on a mission. “I’m sorry though. You were concerned, and I’d say the same thing if it was you with a hole in your leg looking for liquor.” He recalled the night watching the tape, gingerly holding her injured foot, the moment of tension wanting to be released.

And how it wasn’t, “How’s your foot?”

“We both said shit we didn’t mean,” she agreed, recalling the bottle remark. It had been apt but rude. She met his gaze and held it, “Stress will do that.

His question caught her off guard and she glanced down at her bare feet. Wiggling her toes she turned up the one that had been cut by the broken glass, looking at the healing scratch. It seemed so long ago, the haunting film and the strangeness that had enveloped all of them, invading their conscious to use their memories against them. Laine put her foot back down and gave him a half smile, shifting herself to sit up.

“It’s healing,” she said, her green eyes flickering with recollection of his care and the unspoken moment that had passed unfulfilled between them.

“You did a good job. Speaking of injuries in the line of duty, if your leg is still hurting, I have some Tylenol. I know it’s not the same as a couple of shots of Jack but you’re welcome to it," Laine added quickly, her teasing tone more gentle this time.

“Oh, thank y’kindly, miss’m.” He snorted, rolling his eyes at Laine’s teasing. His smile remained as he held Laine’s gaze, fading a bit as he made himself look somewhere else. “Be appreciated if you spared me some.”

Laine slid off the bed and went into the bathroom where she had left her purse and dug out the small bottle of painkillers. She shook out four pills, then filled a paper cup with water before returning to the bedroom.

As she moved, the grey sweater clung to her natural shape which bounced slightly with each step. Laine approached him, her gaze on his face watching his expression as much as where his eyes might wander. A mischievous hint of a smile touched her lips as she handed him the cup and Tylenol.

"Here," she said, her hands now settling on her hips. After a few seconds she moved to sit on the end of the bed, facing Donnelley in his chair. Her thoughts hovered between wanting to enjoy the tentative peace as the warmth returned slowly and the need to confront him about the diner.

She clasped her hands then unclasped them, settling her palms against her thighs. "At the diner, what was that about?"

Laine knew or assumed she knew why, just as he had reacted to Bakker. But she wanted to hear it from him, hoping that maybe she was wrong. She did not do well with controlling, possessive behavior, a natural part of her would always rebel against it.

Whatever friendliness was back on his face had evaporated as quickly as it had come with her question. He knew the apology was going to have to be sometime, but he wanted it to be on his terms. Having it here and now, against his will, it made him feel trapped. Cornered. He never did well when pushed, he tended to push back. Rebel against it.

“Just a thing, you know.” His tight smile returned but as Laine looked at him with no amusement in her eye he knew he had to continue without the smile, “Again, I know. I am an asshole. I just…”

What was he even going to say? Maybe everything between them was imagined, or not as strong as he thought. A few looks here and there, a held hand, a hurt foot. It’s not like they’d made anything official, ever. He shook his head, looked away from her with a face like he’d chewed over something bitter, “What do you want me to say, Laine?” He shrugged, “What… You can’t…”

A part of him felt the telltale clenching of his chest, a rising anger boiling to the surface and a pure animal aggression snapping his body to action. But this was Laine, this wasn’t some security guard at his daughter’s school. He rubbed his face, “I’m sorry.” He couldn’t hold his tongue before it flapped something stupid out, “I guess Jason’s safer.”

Laine watched silently as he struggled to hold his temper, to keep himself in control. To his credit, he did, for the most part. She could almost taste the bitterness when he mentioned Jason. She turned her face now, breaking eye contact as she rolled over his accusation.

Maybe Jason was safer. Maybe he was just a handsome troubled man that would be a distraction and nothing more. A fuck buddy. That's what she had retreated to after the spectacular failure of her longest relationship. Maybe he was safer because despite the physical attraction she had not felt that same spark as she had with the man sitting in front of her. And he was a colleague, a coworker, not her team leader.

Her jaw tensed and she swept her hand through her dark hair. "Yeah, maybe."

Laine turned back to face him, her eyes finding his gaze. She stood up, unable to keep still and put her hands on her hips, pacing a few feet before turning back to Donnelley. She held her breath for a moment, a rush of conflicting emotions rising within, knotting her stomach.

"You..." She started then took a deep breath. "You are an asshole for doing that. I will not be treated like a thing, something to be possessed. We haven't even started..."

Laine stopped, then ran both hands through her hair, raising her arms up that turned into a back arching stretch as she looked up at the ceiling. She was acknowledging it, the unspoken feelings that had happened. The smoldering of sparks that occurred over the months.

She dropped her arms and looked at him, a sardonic grin trying to appear on her lips but she fought it back and it became more a feline curling of her lips, "You are fucking bold, Donnelley."

Donnelley slowly raised his shoulders and his hands rose barely an inch from the arms of his chair, “Yeah,” he rolled his jaw and nodded at her, eyes still suspended on her own, “Maybe.”

He stood too, puffing on the dying ember of his cigarette to put life back into it, all the while their gazes never left each other, “I didn’t mean it that way, though.” He said quietly, “You’re not a thing. You’re a person who can make their own choices.

Part of him wanted to keep digging his fingers deeper into the wound, some kind of sick need to push Laine away and give a childish ultimatum between him and the man in the other room. Another part of him wanted to turn that aggression into something else more passionate, but that was reserved for the people he could give a shit about waking up next to the following morning. “So, there. Sorry.” He shook his head, “I am sorry.”

His apology sounded like he had a tooth pulled but she nodded her acceptance. Laine bit her lower lip slightly in thought, then said, "Alright."

She looked at him and her gaze lingered on his extensive scar then moved to his eyes. Part of her wanted to ask how many times he had said sorry until his wife got tired of hearing it but it was petty and mean. Though she felt it was a sincere apology, it was still words and there was still his underlying insistence of her making a choice. That irked her still and she turned away, rocking on her heels.

"Well, I guess I'll go next door, I hope Frank's a heavy sleeper," Laine said lightly, looking over to the door that connected the rooms.

His expression didn’t shift away from annoyance as he stared at her, watched her face. He figured she was joking but now of all times to do it, he huffed a cloud of smoke through his nose and turned away from her, grasping up his flask in his coat pocket, “You think you’re so fuckin’ funny, don’t you.”

She looked back at him, the teasing grin forming on her lips turning to one of chagrin. She bit her lip and raised an eyebrow, unable to keep sarcasm out of her voice, "Yeah, sometimes."

Laine sighed when she saw him draw out the flask, her expression softening. He had been insecure about whatever he thought she might feel for Jason, that was certain, and here she was rubbing salt into the wound. She tried to meet his eyes, it had been petty, and Laine felt a rush of remorse for the snark.

"Bad timing," she admitted, rubbing her hand against the back of her neck, "I apologize for that. Look, if I really wanted a different roommate I would have said so."

Laine waited a beat, her gaze flicking over to the flask and the thought of drinking while on the job not being a good idea passed over her mind. It was gone as quickly as it formed, there was no way she was going to point that out and wondered briefly if he was testing her reaction as she had just done with him. Or more likely it was habit to soothe frayed nerves, part of which she was responsible for tonight.

"I could use a shot," Laine said, glancing back up to his eyes. "If you don't mind."

He sighed, looking at her and pursing his lips. She knew how to dig deep into him just as well as he could to her, though it remained to be said that he made it all too easy this time. He always figured her to be a sharp one, but never imagined the possibility that he’d feel her edge. There was still a camaraderie there between them, still a connection. And as he once again took the opportunity to glance her over in the glory of her curves and all, there was still that need put into him by years of marriage to mend bridges by breaking beds. He settled for offering out the flask, dangling it in front of himself by thumb and forefinger, “I thought you’d never ask.” He said, a twitch of a smirk at the corners of his lips as he jerked the flask away from her reaching hand, but nothing more, “Drinkin’ on duty. Been hangin’ around me too long.”

He placed the flask in her hand and sat back down, grinding the smoldering cherry of the cigarette into the ashtray.

She reached for the flask only to have it jerked away, dangling in temptation before her until he relented. Laine took it, eyeing him with the hint of a coy smile on her lips. "You're a bad influence," she said, sipping from the flask.

The path of his gaze had not escaped her and she knew what it meant, the idea spiking in her was as dangerous and tempting as the whiskey. Even more so because it was in the darkest part of the night in a strange motel room and death lurked like a persistent shadow.

He sunk lower into his seat and undid his tie, the ends hanging down either side of his chest and framing the two undone buttons on his shirt. A grin slowly grew across his lips and just like that night in Charleston he felt a fire in him. Lonely motels, alcohol, a woman and risk were a combination that always led Donnelley into trouble. “Always have been.” He spoke as he undid his cuffs and rolled his sleeves to the elbow, muscles writhing in his forearms as his fingers worked and he put his hand out, “Please?”

Laine let her own gaze travel over his lean body, lingering on his forearms now exposed. There was probably something Freudian about her admiration of a man's arms, especially those like his. Hard muscles won from labor, the line that flexed amid the dusting of fine ginger hairs held her gaze until he spoke again. She took another sip, the whiskey firing a path through her torso and stoking the warmth already building deep below.

She snapped her gaze back up to his eyes, feeling the heat of the whiskey and her awareness of their mutual interest flush her pale cheeks. "I bet," she said, handing him the flask. "Making kissy faces at rednecks and Taliban."

Laine grinned, her eyes were tired but now sparked green in their depths. She sank back on the foot of the twin bed she had claimed, looking at him still in the chair.

He took her own roaming eyes as cue to let his do the same. Roaming over the sensual curves and linger on the soft rise and fall of her chest. He met her eyes as he took a quick pull from his flask and capped it. He sighed appreciatively at her and set his flask on the table next to him. “There’s the chance we’ll have to sleep here.” Donnelley clucked his tongue and made a show of looking out the window, “Or we could leave now.”

Without turning his head his eyes settled on Laine, “If we really got to.”

Laine could still feel the tingling from the whiskey, and from his direct blue gaze. She turned her head when he looked away and ran her hand over her face. She was not thinking clearly because there was a strong urge to straddle his lap, wounded thigh or not and that would certainly lead to other things that could not be undone in the light of day.

"Well," she shifted herself on the end of the bed, finally looking back over at him. "It's so late, if I fall asleep I'm not waking up with the sun. It might be better to stay awake for awhile or just leave, but I'll leave that up to you, boss. Tactical decision time."

Donnelley nodded, something playing across his brow. The task at hand seemed to filter back in to the forefront of his mind and he sighed, “We’ll mount up, haul ass back home.” He looked at her fully, turning his body in his chair to face her and wore his urges plain for a few moments, biting his lip and chuckling as he stood, “Goddamn.

He snatched up the keys, tossing them in the air and catching them in his waiting palm again, “I'll wake up Jason and Frank. I’m drivin’.”

Laine nodded, it was the right decision, there was much more at stake than their personal desires. A knowing grin formed at his remark, her brows ticking up slightly as if to agree with the sentiment.

Laine pushed the preoccupying thoughts aside and stood up to fetch her shoes. "I'll make a pit stop while you do that."

She went into the restroom and shut the door, turning on the cold water Laine cupped her hands in it to splash her face. Half the reason was to help wake her up, the other half would probably need a whole cold shower to settle but distraction would have to do the trick. Riding back to the safehouse would hopefully be uneventful, they had lost the Dodge Challenger on their way here.

Laine dried her face and neck, then stepped back out into the room and put on her holster and blazer, then slung her bag over her shoulder. She glanced towards the connector door that stood ajar, calling out, "I'm ready when you are."

Jason emerged from the door first with a hand at Frank’s back. The two of them looked groggy, though Frank was worse for wear. Donnelley followed them out of the connector door and watched them as they went. As the sound of doors opening and shutting on the Explorer sounded, Donnelley looked from the open door to Laine. He spun the keys on his finger and offered her a little smile. It seemed responsibility and risky careers kept getting in the way of their little moments. He looked away for a moment and huffed a chuckle, appreciating her in the dim light of the motel room’s lamp. He settled on her eyes and smirked. The fact he wanted so badly to jump from his chair and hold her down by the wrists on that damn bed, and then did not get to, simmered just below the surface. He shook his head and chuckled as he turned for the door, “Goddamn.

Laine stuffed her bra into her purse as she stepped out of the room. She had her blazer back on, covering her holster and the telltale bounce of her unfettered chest. Meeting Donnelley's eyes she recognized the desire and matched his smirk with her own little half smile and shrugged her shoulders.

With a sigh, she passed him on her way out and said, "Well, back to work."

The faint scent of her perfume might be noticed, a sensual light musk that drifted after she had stepped past him. Laine headed towards the truck as the others climbed into the back and she opened the passenger door, pausing to glance around at the motel lot. It seemed as quiet as a parking lot might be at the darkest hour of the night.

Laine climbed into the Explorer and buckled in, glancing behind at the two tired faces then have Frank an encouraging smile. "We're heading home, you'll be safe there."

“Don’t call it a Safehouse for nothin’.” Donnelley’s grin shone white in the shadows of the night as he opened the door and grunted himself into the driver’s seat. He looked around for any reaction to his dumb joke, but Jason was still rubbing sleep from his eyes and Frank was understandably not in a joking mood. The only one who showed anything was Laine and her shaking head and a small smirk.

The engine revved to life, “Alright.” Donnelley said, “Let’s go.”
Not Anymore…


A product of our choices, always will be…

...Always have been.


Night, 17th of Sun’s Height, 4e208

Lightning bugs and campfires. Stars in the sky and lonely clouds drifting on the currents of lazy winds, leaving their mark on those on the ground in the rustling of trees and the chills of backbones. The fire warmed Sevari’s palms and the juxtaposition of the cold Skyrim winds and the heat of the fire made him shiver. It was a lonely night. He hadn’t spoken to anyone after Ivy, and Finnen was gone. He hadn’t even spoken to Jaraleet for a while.

The flask of whiskey he kept was getting more and more appealing as the seconds ticked by. For some reason, he was trying to cut back. But now seemed right for a drink. He reached into his pack and fished out the flask, uncorking it and drinking deeply, grimacing and growling with the large gulp. It burned all the way down, but it didn’t mask any of the footsteps behind him. “You aren’t quiet enough.” He sniffed at the air, smelling the tell-tale scent of an Argonian. “Jaraleet. Share my fire, friend.”

“Hmmm, I must be getting rusty. Or too comfortable, if not both.” The Argonian replied, nodding in acceptance to the Khajiit’s offer. He took a seat next to Sevari, his eyes going to the flask of whiskey in his hands. “I do hope that you are planning to share, my friend. It is quite rude to drink alone, or so I’ve heard.” Jaraleet said, letting out a sigh as his eyes darted towards the fire. “It has been a while since we last talked not since….Gilane, I think. The two of us, I mean. I suppose it doesn’t matter when exactly we last talked, but it has been a while.” He said somberly, shaking his head. “How are you holding up Sevari? Falkreath might be a breath of fresh air, a moment of respite, but men like us must always be ready for when those kind of moments pass away...not to mention there’s what happened with Latro…”

Sevari shook his head, “If anyone remembers the most it’s me… or Sora.” He let go a growl of a sigh, “I put my gun in his face. I didn’t know what I’d have to do.”

He lifted his eyes from the dirt and the stones arranged around his firepit to Jaraleet’s own, “What of you? How do you fare in all this?”

Jaraleet was silent as he processed what Sevari had told him, there was only one reason he could think about why the Khajiit would point his gun at the Reachman. “He hurt Sora, didn't he?” He said, his voice barely rising above a whisper.

He reached for the flask of whiskey in Sevari’s hand and took it from the Khajiit’s hand, taking a large gulp of the strong alcohol. “He made me promise to kill him if he ever hurt Sora, that's how I fare in all this.”

“Fucking Gods…” Sevari sat ramrod straight at that and did not protest when Jaraleet snatched his flask, instead grabbing it back when Jaraleet was done and taking a pull himself. “He told me nothing about that. When was it? The promise?”

He kicked his heel uselessly at the dirt, “Damn it!” Sevari ran a hand through his hair and growled, steadying himself. “What’s to do then?”

“After our little impromptu trial towards Gregor, back in the Alik’r.” He replied, his eyes drifting to the ground. He was silent for a moment, unsure of how to respond to Sevari’s question.

“I don't want to kill him Sevari.” Jaraleet said finally, shaking his head. “You, him, you are one of the scarce few in this group who…” He paused for a second, unsure of how to continue. “Understand me, I suppose. Who truly understand me, I mean.” He finished, reaching for the flask once again and taking another drink of the whiskey. “The three of us, we come from the same world after all.”

He fell silent again, handing Sevari his flask back once more, as he weighed his options. The minutes seemed to stretch by and, despite the warmth emanating from the fire, Jaraleet felt a chill run down his spine. “We should go out, search for him.” The assassin finally said, looking at Sevari in the eyes. “We find him, and we bring him back. Who knows what he might do, what might happen to him, if we don't find him in time.”

“We’d be leaving everyone when they need us most.” Sevari sighed, shaking his head as he thought everything over. Had Finnen truly fallen far enough that he was unable to be saved? What if this, their little group here, fell apart in their absence? Sevari stirred his fire and spoke, “You know there is a possibility we may have no choice. He knows everyone, he could describe us down to our damned eyelashes…” he looked sidelong at his Argonian companion, “Or scales.”

“He could be some raving fucking lunatic. You made a promise to Finnen that if he forswore what made him Finnen that you would put down what he became.” Sevari turned to his comrade, “We might have to go all that distance just to look him in the eye and chop his throat out.”

Jaraleet let out a sigh and shook his head; he knew that what Sevari was saying was reasonable, and more than likely possible, but that knowledge didn’t make it any easier to hear them. “I know all of this.” He said finally, his voice somber. “If it has truly come to all of this, if Finnen truly is completely gone, then I will carry out my promise.”

“Either way, I think we have to go and track him down. If he has become a threat to our group, then we must neutralize it as quickly as possible and the two of us are the best suited for the task, I feel.” The Argonian said. “And if not, then we can try and convince him to return with us.” He paused for a second, thinking of what he was going to say next. “I know it’s not easy to leave the group behind but, if it’s just the two of us we can move faster than if we all leave Falkreath.”

Sevari took in a breath, and as he blew it out, all of the things that Meg saw in him were gone. All of the notions of a good man vanished. Anything other than what he was, one of the Emperor’s sharpest knives in the dark, evaporated. He nodded once, almost relieved.

And then guilty.

But, he buried it well. Like he always did. Anything else could be saved for after the mission. “We have our task.” He nodded, “We set out in the morning.”




Morning, 18th of Sun’s Height, 4E208
Falkreath Campsite


After the strange encounter with Mazrah and the newcomer, Ivy, Gregor had taken a few minutes to decompress before he made his way to his second patient of the day. Maulakanth’s riverside attack had left a trail of broken bodies in its wake. One of them was already gone, of course, and Gregor felt a pang of sympathy for Daro’Vasora -- and Finnen. Gregor knew very well what trauma could do to a man. That said, his absence left only one more victim under his care.

Gregor stopped a little ways away from Sevari’s tent. The two had barely exchanged any words after their attempt at reconciliation had been brutally cut short by Sevari being shot by the Dwemer Centurions in the ambush. Gregor had been preoccupied by -- don’t think about it, don’t think about it, don’t think about it -- and Sevari had been busy with getting enough rest. Until last night, of course. Gregor wasn’t even sure if he would find the Khajiit in his own tent.

“Sevari?” he called out. “Are you there?”

Out of the mouth of Sevari’s tent a travel pack tumbled out onto the grass, bloated with supplies. As the man himself emerged, bedecked in the same bloodied clothes he’d been wearing and sometimes washing since Gilane, it was clear to see where his money went when they got to town. He stood opposite the other man. Or opposite the lich, anyway. No matter the moment they shared before he’d died there was no getting used to looking a dead man in the face.

And so his own did not pretend any mirth at his arrival, but nor did it twist itself in contempt. Sevari rolled his jaw, looking away as he drew in a ragged breath and coughed something from his lung. What he spat to the side before retrieving his pack was dark and thick. “Gregor,” Sevari said, hefting his pack on his shoulder, “How do you fare?”

The lich ignored the question and watched with bemused curiosity as Sevari appeared to prepare for departure. “I wouldn’t go anywhere with that lung, if I were you,” Gregor said cautiously and took a step closer to Sevari. “In fact, I’m here to check up on your progress… and that, I’m afraid,” he continued and looked pointedly towards the wad of dark phlegm that Sevari had just spat out, “does not look healthy to me. Please, sit.”

“I’m not going to be doted upon by-“ Sevari cut his vitriol short, almost sheepishly he stood before he drew in a breath. In a way, he was guilty for almost having said what he was going to, by a lich. The man before him seemed worlds apart from the one he’d aimed his gun at in the Prison. He lifted a fist to his lips and gave a gravelly cough, trying to make it sound not quite as bad as it was, but still wincing from the grinding, sharp pains that were still accompanying. “By a man I hardly know.” He finished lamely.

Even so, he shrugged his pack off his shoulder and sat on it, legs crossed and elbows propped on knees, “I’m fine. I’ve lived through worse. Many have tried to kill me and none have done it yet.” He let out a cough and made to spit, but swallowed the metallic tasting mucus instead, “Fucking centurion isn’t going to be the one.”

Gregor smiled at that and knelt down at Sevari’s side. “While I admire your tenacity, mere willpower cannot make it so.” He thought about his own fight with Zaveed and the consequences that followed. “You need a healer too,” Gregor added softly, with Raelynn’s tear-streaked face looking down on him in his mind’s eye. He pushed the memory aside and placed a glowing hand on Sevari’s back, using Restoration magic to sense the injuries inside his lungs. He hummed while he worked and thought.

“A terrorist, a weaver of dark magicks, a lich. Now you’re my bed nurse.” Sevari snorted, shaking his head, “Where the hells did they find you?”

“They’re all related,” Gregor said absent-mindedly, his eyes closed. Raelynn would have found the source of Sevari’s internal bleeding within seconds, he was sure, but Gregor wasn’t nearly as skilled or experienced and he had to search every inch of Sevari’s lungs meticulously. “Restoration is a very useful skill for any man traversing the deepest, darkest places of the world in search of dark knowledge -- knowledge that was never parted with willingly, and that was needed for self-preservation and the preservation of my loved ones. The Dwemer are an existential threat to my family and their way of life. So there you have it. Terrorist, lich, necromancer, healer. All one and the same person.”

He opened his eyes and mouthed a quiet ‘aha.’ The golden glow that clung to his fingers intensified and radiated warmth as Gregor did his best to mend the tear that he’d found in the membrane of Sevari’s right lung.

Sevari noticeably loosened as he felt the light euphoria that accompanied healing magic. He nodded, “I never was any good with it. Opening people, rather than closing them.” He frowned slightly, looking at his hands for a good moment before he spoke up again, “Men don’t find themselves in wars and seek out lichdom as a first option.”

Sevari looked back at Gregor, almost surprised to realize he’d show his back to the man, “Then again, men don’t lose their families and resort to state-sanctioned murder as a method of grieving.” He coughed into the crook of his elbow and spat to the side away from Gregor, still dark, “I guess I’ve not a lot of room to judge. Why, Gregor?”

He paused for a moment, tracing the visible tattoos peeking out from beneath Sevari’s clothes with his gaze. The only sound around them was the wind and the distant clamoring of a town coming to life in the morning. When Gregor spoke, his voice was low, weak almost, and barely more than a whisper. “You must understand that I was driven to desperation. My father tried everything, to no avail… there was only one option that remained, and it was left to me.” His armor clinked as he shifted and moved a little further behind Sevari, moving out of the man’s peripheral vision, pressing his hands more accurately on the place where Sevari’s skin and clothes hid his injury.

“My lineage is… cursed, afflicted, whatever you might call it. My father and his father and his father’s father and all of their children were all killed by an illness of some kind. Not too young, mind you, but…” Gregor bit his lip. “Middle age is no time to grow old and perish. I watched my father die. There was nothing of him left in the end. His last words were ‘you have to do it’. I had no idea what he meant until I went through his library and found the journals that described his attempts to cure himself… to cure us all. Nothing worked. Magic, alchemy, not even prayer.” His tone took a turn towards darkness. “There was only one thing left. One thing my father hadn’t tried.”

The wind carried a gust of needles that danced in front of them for a few seconds before moving on to toy with something else. Gregor watched the needles go in silence.

“I thought it would work. I mean, it did, but… I thought it’d be a real solution. People died, but that was a sacrifice I was willing to make,” the lich whispered afterwards. He looked at Sevari, at the back of his head. “What’s a few lives to set things right? To defy fate?” Gregor laughed mirthlessly. “I was desperate. And I was afraid. That’s why.”

Sevari nodded along, finding too many things in the tale Gregor had woven that tugged at his regrets in the same way his own memories and dreams did. He busied himself with picking at a callous on his palm, “A few lives to set things right…” he mused, a bitter little smirk played across his lips, “Yeah.”

“The man you almost killed, that almost killed you. I’ve known him most of my life, on and off,” though on and off was to put the estrangement lightly, “He was a good child, a shy little boy who had trouble speaking louder than a mumble. His sister and I were the fighters, the brash ones, rough and dirty and spiteful.”

“Now look at him.” Sevari shook his head, slow and almost mournful, “First time I met him in years I hardly recognized him. The way he’ll tell you is that I came to him asking for a favor to smuggle me somewhere.”

“The truth of it is that I needed to know if the rumors were true. I could’ve asked any smuggler anywhere. I wanted to know if the reports were correct. That dread-captain Greywake was a little boy from Senchal who’d lost his family and waded through blood to find an answer to why.” Sevari shrugged his broad shoulders, “Imagine how I felt seeing the man who’d taken more than a few lives to make things feel right. Like I wasn’t looking at Zaveed. Like I was looking in a damn mirror.”

“I think that’s why I didn’t hand Latro over to the Dwemer or kill that fucking Argonian you and I keep around.” Sevari tried craning his neck to look at Gregor, but without success he just returned to looking at the trees and their swaying branches, “Why I didn’t just stab you in the throat when I met you in the Haunted Tide.”

“What’s a few lives, Gregor. What’s too many?” Sevari frowned, “It’s why I’m packed and ready. I was never fond of losing friends or making enemies out of them. Less so nowadays. I’m going to find him, Finnen. Gods know if hurting the ones you love and hold dear sentenced you to death, I’d be dead twenty times over. Meg told me I’m a good man. Hate to make her wrong.”

Gregor dropped his hands to his side and straightened up to his full height. He'd done what he could, but he wasn't sure if it was enough. He also knew he couldn't stop Sevari. Part of him thought it was irresponsible to leave like this, but another part of him wanted him to find Finnen and bring him back.

"If Megana said that, it must be true," Gregor said and stepped back into Sevari's view. He offered him a hand to pull him to his feet.

“What does she say about you?” Sevari quirked a brow his way. Honest curiosity, but the history between the two of them would have Sevari understand if the man thought it was a jab at him and certain life choices. He took the hand and his inquisitive gaze remained on Gregor as he was hauled up.

The lich bowed his head. "She was in favour of letting me stay, but she fears me. It was plain as day on her face. Now… I don't know. I don't wish to frighten her any more so I've left her be."

Sevari nodded, “Yeah, I’d do that too. She thought I hated her for a while. I cleared the air, but,” he looked Gregor up and down, knowing he’d be able to fill in the rest, “She’s not a killer. She’s not… like us. She couldn’t understand me if she wanted to, she couldn’t know the things I’ve done with her view of a good man intact.”

“It’s one thing to poke a man with a sword in battle. To stalk him for days, know his every move as well as he does, smile on his face and then strangle him to death in an alleyway after getting him drunk is…” Sevari sighed, shaking his head, “That’s a whole hell of another.”

Gregor nodded as well. That was evil. Was it as evil as cutting down one’s erstwhile ally in the pursuit of power, sacrificing his soul in the process? Probably not. But it was evil. “We both have to believe that our past actions don’t have to define the person we can become,” he said and placed a gauntleted hand on Sevari’s shoulder. “Megana doesn’t have to know. The past can stay in the past. Find Finnen and bring him back. Let your actions now speak for themselves. This war… it can be our salvation,” Gregor continued, his voice now full of pathos. “If we see this through to the end, if Daro’Vasora’s plan works, we’ll be…”

He trailed off and laughed softly. “We’ll have been in the company of heroes. That has to count for something.”

Sevari looked Gregor up and down, shrugging and nodding, slapping Gregor on the pauldron in what was the first friendly gesture the two had shared since their meeting, “I'll give you one thing. At least you didn’t tell me the same damn shit everybody tells me.” Sevari smirked, “I’m a product of my choices, I always will be and have been. Us both. It’s time to make better choices.”

“Agreed,” Gregor said and took a step back, giving Sevari one last appraising look. “I’ve done all I can. Don’t get shot again.” He made to turn and walk away but stopped himself in his tracks and turned back to face the Ohmes-raht.

“Should I go look for her?” the lich asked. While his helmet betrayed nothing of his emotions, his voice was as soft as a lover’s gentle touch and he radiated vulnerability. “She… wrote me a letter. She said that she’d be back.”

Gregor balled his fists and looked down at the ground. “Do you believe her?”

Sevari’s brows rose for a moment at Gregor’s sudden vulnerability. The truth of it all was that he barely knew Raelynn more than he knew Gregor. He knew that’s who he spoke of. He couldn’t tell him for sure, because he didn’t know what sure was. But he had led men before, had good Inspectors and trained rebels whose will to fight on hinged on his words. “She’s never lied to you before.” He said with a measure of surety, “She’s going to come back. The way she looks at you,” he said, recalling the way his wife would look into him and see his very soul through his eyes, “It tells me every time she looks away she makes a promise to herself it won’t be long until she looks again.”

“You don’t leave the ones you love and promise to come back to just… not.” He lied, looking away from Gregor and remembering promises and vows to people long gone, “She’ll come back.”

He could still see her lying there, her raven hair spilled out over the pillow, her back to him, while the first rays of dawn began to spill in through the window. “I’m sorry,” Gregor could hear himself whisper, barely more than a breath, with naught more than a note on the nightstand to explain.

The tattoo on his forearm burned. Gregor shook his head. He had seen how Sevari looked away. “That’s exactly what we did,” he said. “Isn’t it?”

Sevari reached down and hefted the pack on his shoulder again, knowing it was nearing the time to meet Jaraleet so they could set out soon. He frowned, looking off at a hundred faces he’d lied to in service to everything from the Empire to his own greed. He’d recruited Finnen and though he had left so many just like him to the wolves, Finnen had become something more than just an asset. He met Gregor’s eyes once more, “Not anymore.”

Gregor could only hope that the same was true for Raelynn. He unclenched his fists and squared his shoulders, and the momentary window of vulnerability closed shut. The lich’s emotions shrouded themselves in inscrutable chainmail, steel and black cloth once more, torn and ripped and filled with holes as it was. He gave Sevari a wave and turned around to go back the way he came with the same slow, plodding footsteps that were now distinctively his.

“Not anymore,” he repeated quietly to himself.
>ROAD TO CHARLESTON
>1100HRS...///

Ava tapped her fingers on the steering wheel as she drove her rental car down the modestly busy highway, taking the three of them to Charleston to meet with the CID.

The drive from the Safehouse had been relatively quiet. The radio was set on a local country music station with the occasional bout of static as they drove through areas with spotty reception, offering white background noise to fill the silence between bouts of small talk between Dave and Agent Bhaat.

Ava didn't speak much as she focused on driving, using it to distract from her nerves. She was anxious, impersonating an FBI agent was hardly in her wheelhouse. She could make convincing FBI Agent fake identities, but pretending to be one...At least she had Agent Bhatt to coach her and Dave was in the same boat as her, which also helped.

“Um,” She finally spoke up as she glanced over her shoulder to merge into the next lane to head for the upcoming off ramp. They were getting pretty close, it seemed like a good time to offer up an idea she had been mulling over. “So, I thought I could research hospitals and clinics in the area? Find which ones would look the least secure and the easiest to steal from? Or which ones have a history of keeping spotty inventory? Maybe a lot of malpractice lawsuits?” She suggested, shooting a questioning look over to Agent Bhatt from the corner of her eye.

“Smart place to start,” replied Pari cooly as she set her gaze upon the scene outside of the window. “Anything that you’re able to do, discreetly, helps. Trust your instincts on it.” Her head turned to catch Ava - she didn’t want to encourage the girl to take her eyes off the road, but she offered her a smile of reassurance.

A few quiet moments passed, until Pari broke the silence again - addressing the elephant in the room, so to speak. “You’re both not FBI, and this is all of our first day - we don’t want anything to go wrong. Simply follow my lead and we’ll be alright, if you have any specific questions then now is the time.” She took a glance in the rear view mirror at Dave in the backseat, and offered him a smile too. “Before we get to the appointment, we’re to make a stop at the mall in Charleston. First step to being an FBI agent is to look like one…” her voice trailed off, and her smile grew in the rear view to show her teeth. She hoped that Dave would be amused too, and not offended.

Dave quirked an eyebrow, lips twitching in a good natured smirk. "We about to play makeover?" He asked. "Ya'll are gonna have to help me with the eyeliner, I can never get it right."

He shifted his weight around, grimacing. His carry pistol, the little p320 Compact, was still in his bag up in the mountains. All he'd had on him when he'd been picked up was his 226, complete with tactical light. Unfortunately, that had ridden on a thigh rig, which was not at all suited for interacting with the public. Now he was perched on the edge of his seat, a full-size duty pistol jammed down the back of his pants and two spare magazines loose in his cargo pocket. Things were far from comfortable.

"Hey, y'all think they got a huntin' store, or a gun store at this mall? Cuz I've got a pound-and-change of German steel stuck between a couple of vertebrae."

“There's probably a Wal-Mart.” Ava suggested, glancing back at Dave in the rear view mirror. “If not, well, we are in West Virginia. There's probably no shortage of hunting stores or ammo stores.” She grimaced as she guided them onto the off ramp. “I need a shoulder holster anyway, if I'm getting a blazer I can finally wear one discreetly.”

For what it was worth, the feeling of being a fish out of water was not unusual for Pari. She’d spent much of her life forcing herself into the shoes of an all-American girl, and for a while they had fit - and she’d been happy. But now, she wondered if she wasn’t just happier in Mumbai after all. She glanced to Ava and Dave both, and in that moment she couldn’t have felt like she had less in common with either of them. She kept those thoughts quiet, and didn’t let them leak out onto her expression however. First day jitters, that was all.

“You might make a nice woman, but it’ll take us a lot more than a slick of eyeliner - why don’t we just stick to the suit for now?” She smirked back at him, over her shoulder this time - not through the reflection of the mirror. “Hunting store? I don’t know - let’s not be taking too many diversions all at once. Eyes on the prize, yes?”

Dave grinned at her, his steel-blue eyes bright among the dark bruises around his eyes. He'd never had a problem talking to strangers; he may not always know what was going on, but he was friendly enough to get by in most situations.

"I think I can manage stayin' focused," he said, leaning back and putting his hands behind his head.

Pari chuckled before turning back to the front, “alright then Mr. MacCready.”

"You can just call me Dave," he said. "The 'mister' makes me sound old."

“How long have you been with the FBI Agent Bhaat?” Ava asked the woman curiously as she slowed to navigate the city streets, glancing around for a sign pointing them toward a mall or shopping center.

“That’s a good question… I started as an analyst when I was around 26 or so, did a job. I had a… sabbatical of sorts.” Pari sighed, a finger tapped over her thigh, she saw no reason to hide the truth, but maybe she could brush over it for now. “Not long, really. I’m… more of an academic, truthfully. What is your background Ms. Moore?” She asked, keen to move on.

“Mostly computers and information, some mechanical engineering.” Ava answered with a stiff, embarrassed shrug. “I've been a contractor for Booz-Allen for almost a decade. The past two years I've been working for The Program.” She glanced back over to Agent Bhaat. “What field of academics do you work in?” She looked back at the road and perked up noticing a sign advertising a mall. “Should we try our luck there?” She asked, nodding her head in the direction of the shopping outlet.

"Fine by me," Dave said. "I'm just along for the ride. I think Donnelley mostly sent me as muscle, since I'm not exactly a scholar." He scratched the back of his head and felt a brief spark of irritation at his missing hat. His eyes ran over the outlet, checking for threats out of habit. Locals milled about doing local things, but nobody stood out as a possible danger. He certainly didn't see anybody in dark robes wielding sacrificial knives.

"I think this spot's okay," he said. "If they even got a suit store."

“I’m sure you’re more than muscle, Dave, you might just be able to spot something we can’t,” Pari said as the car rounded a corner. “This mall should be fine too, we don’t need to make too much of a thing of it,” she added with a shrug of her own, crossing one leg over the other and placing her hands into her lap. “As for your question, I study religious iconography in crime, I’ve written a lot of papers - give lectures at my alma mater, in between my work with the Bureau, of course…”

“You think the murder might have been religiously motivated?” Ava asked curiously, steering the car over to the mall parking lot. She found an empty space easy enough and parked, picking up her small tan purse that contained her two phones, her wallet, fake FBI badge as well as her handgun and multipurpose tool.

"Not much other reason to cut people open on an altar," Dave said. "Least that's what they were doin' in my Ozarks."

He opened the car door eagerly, taking a moment to stretch before adjusting the gun jammed through his waistband. His eyes combed the parking lot again.

"Alright, let's try to make this painless," he grinned. "And no ties, that ain't negotiable. I hate the damn things, and I don't wanna get strangled because I had to put a ribbon around my neck."

“I think that Foster thinks so,” Pari said, “enough that he called me in to take a look over it all. From my conversation with Dr. Laine earlier, I’d say yes, but to what extent? I’m not yet sure.” She sounded thoughtful in her words, and once the car came to its stop she picked up her purse, checking for the third time that she had placed the wrapped bills in there. They were present. Pari also took her sunglasses out to wear. The large frames complimented her, and covered her eyes. She wanted to inconspicuous, and this way she could at least pass it off as a stylish choice. “Okay then, one hour or less for this - then we should be on our way.”

Ava nodded in agreement as she locked the car and tucked the keys away. “Wouldn’t want to keep this Detective waiting.” She said, the lenses of her glasses having darkened into sunglasses once the light of the sun hit them. She looked at Agent Bhaat, poised and professionally dressed as though she was about to step into a courtroom, and then to Dave, in rumbled flannel and worn jeans with a giant bruise taking up half his face. They weren’t the most subtle trio but hopefully people were too consumed with their own business to pay them much mind.

This promised to be an interesting shopping trip if nothing else.

"In and out," Dave nodded. "Course, might be fun pissin' off a cop and gettin' away with it for once."

He laughed at the thought. His dislike of police officers went back a long way, and he'd developed a bit of a history back in Arkansas. Nothing too serious, but he'd spent a night or two in the drunk tank, and had taken a few lumps. The county deputies in his homeland were a baton-happy sort.

"So what am I lookin' for, anyway? Black? Grey? I feel like black is gonna make it look like I'm dressed for a funeral. Blue might go well with my bruises, though."

“If you piss off a cop then it might well be your funeral…” Pari said only half-admonishingly, raising an eyebrow at Dave. He was joking, of course, and Pari was too - but still, she wanted to shoot down any notion of rebelliousness. “As for the colour, I’m feeling a navy blue too. Matches your eyes,” she smiled and turned on her heel to begin on her way in. “Is there anything that you need besides the blazer, Ava?” she asked, glancing to the colleague at her right.

“I don’t think so.” Ava answered, looking down at herself with a frown. “I need a shoulder holster but I guess that can wait since I have my purse.” She said while adjusting the straps on her shoulder. “Dr. Laine said a blazer would be enough to help me look more official.” Though she had always thought she dressed very professionally, it turned out there was a difference between IT professional and Alphabet Agent professional. This is why I have trouble with fashion.She thought with a slight frustrated crease between her eyebrows.

She looked around to make sure no one would overhear them then look up at Agent Bhaat from beneath her tinted glasses. “Have you...worked on cases like this before?” She asked.

Dave edged a little closer. "I been wonderin' that, too. I ain't got a clue how to go about interrogatin' somebody. I mean I figure we won't be using car batteries, so you're gonna have to feed me some lines, unless you want me to stand there and look pretty."

“You’re putting me on edge with all this talk, Dave,” Pari said sharply. Glancing to Ava for some assistance in reining him in perhaps. She followed it with a chuckle. “Stand and look as pretty as you can, and maybe take in the details of the room. How does that sound?” There was a confidence in her tone that she could sense the other two had been looking for, and suddenly she felt less out of place all of a sudden - she was the voice of authority here, to them, at least. She had the answers, she liked the feeling - it put her at ease and she felt decidedly less useless.

“Yes, I’ve worked cases like this - not… Not exactly like this, but I know the standard procedures and how to follow them, and so soon, will you both.” the Agent added with as reassuring of a smile as she could manage.

Ava glanced down when Agent Bhaat took a sharp tone with Dave, awkwardness and worry of an argument bubbling in her chest. She tapped her finger on her necklace and only looked back up at the mention of the case.

“Okay.” She agreed with a slight nod before glancing over at Dave to see his reaction to the instructions.

Dave laughed at the sharp reprimand, the sound carrying with it good natured humor rather than mockery.

“Alright, sorry,” he said, raising a hand. “I’m a nervous talker. Kinda outta my element. Didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Don’t apologise,” Pari replied, mirroring him by raising a hand of her own, “we’re all nervous - and you have more reason to be than Ava and myself to begin with, so… just be nervous with us,” she clarified, offering him a smile. “Shall we?” She said at last, turning on her heel to make her way inside.




It was a wonder they had been able to find a tailor at all, it had taken some trial and error on their part - stepping into regular clothing stores hoping for formalwear, but it was in the inbuilt department store that they’d seemed to find a winner. The place was clean and bright with a heavily polished floor, there were women in the aisles offering samples of perfumes, and even more women coaxing customers into seats to try age-defying serums and other magical products for just about every worry a woman could ever have.

Pari stood with Ava by the fitting room, the customer attendant over by the till also waiting anxiously it seemed. It was probably the first time she could say she’d been visited at her store by a bruised up gentleman, his Indian colleague, and quite possibly the shortest woman in Charleston. There had been raised eyebrows, and an attitude that would have made Vivian Ward’s toes curl. It wasn’t until she was shown cold hard cash that she understood the trio were serious.

Some twenty minutes later, after some further trial and error, and quite a collected pile of unsuitable shirts, Pari called out to the navy blue velvet curtain. “Are you ready Dave?” She then glanced down at Ava at her side with a smile.

Dave studied himself in the mirror, fussing with his collar. The stiff dress shirt was already chafing at him figuratively; he figured the literal chafing would start after a couple of hours. He bit back a bit of grumbling profanity.

“Yeah, I’m ready,” he called. After cracking his knuckles and giving the mirror a final glare he opened the curtain, pasting on a bright smile. “Well?”

The suit itself was a simple charcoal number, conservative and boring enough, in Dave’s eyes, to fit the image of a Federal agent. He’d left the jacket just a bit large to accommodate his pistol, but otherwise it fit well, accentuating his broad, fit build. His feet were jammed into a pair of leather dress shoes that made him sorely miss his hiking boots.

“Not bad, huh?” He spread his arms and turned in a circle.

Ava returned Pari’s smile then looked at the curtain as Dave walked out, cocking her eyebrows up. She supposed she shouldn’t be surprised Dave cut such a nice figure in a suit, he was a fit man after all. Even the glaring bruise on his noggin didn’t detract much from his appearance, though it did make her think of an action star that had just gotten into a fight.

She smiled at him. “You look very handsome.” She said and she meant it. “Can you give us a little Blue Steel?” She asked in a gentle teasing tone.

Pari immediately pinched at the arm of her sunglasses, pushing them down her nose so she could peer over the top of the frames. She leaned forward slightly to look at him, in just about as much surprise as Ava was, “holy cabooses,” she muttered, her mouth opened slightly, and she blinked several times as if doing so would break the mirage. “I’m sorry, I thought asked for Dave - not Clark Gable…” she joked with a sigh of amused disbelief. Where was the harm in making him feel good about himself, after all?

He grinned and made a show of brushing off his shoulders, clearly pleased with the positive reactions.

“Alright then,” he said. “Step one accomplished. Glad y’all were here, or I’d still be starin’ at the racks. Or just wearing the same shit I was.” He picked up his old clothes, bundling them into a careless ball. He had already transferred the contents of his pockets to his suit trousers; the spare magazines he’d had to palm off to Ava to stash in her bag until he could get a holder for them.

“Really though, thanks for the input,” he said as he joined them.

“You’re welcome.” Ava said, adjusting her purse from one shoulder to the other, fusing with it to make sure that her new blazer didn’t wrinkle. It was a light cloud grey, a perfect complement of her skirt, shirt and her pale skin tone. “So, I guess all that’s left to do is go see the Detective?” She asked, looking between Agent Bhaat and Dave. She eyed his bruise again and wondered if they shouldn’t make a quick stop at the make-up counter.

“That’s quite alright,” Pari said, handing over the payment to the assistant, she waited for the woman to count the cash and provide the receipt, as requested by Laine. Once that had been done, she folded it and placed it in a safe pocket inside her purse. A structured navy blue tote, faux leather with two compartments, and a pocket in the front which housed her phone. She turned from the counter and gave another smile at her colleagues, looping the accessory over her left shoulder. The woman turned her wrist too, and looked at the hands on her watch - an eyebrow shot up and she bit down on her lip, exhaling from her nose. “Yes, we should leave about now. I don’t want to keep people waiting… I know you wanted to go to another store, Dave, maybe we can do that afterwards -- the three of us could even have lunch? For the purpose of work, of course” she suggested, eyes darting behind the dark lenses from Ava to Dave and back again.

Ava bit her lip, thinking about the virus she needed to work on as well as the new identity for the witness. On the other hand, it would give them a chance to go over whatever they learned with the Detective. Maybe give her a better idea of where to start digging around for their drug dealer. “I wouldn’t mind that.” She said after taking a brief moment to think it over.

Pari could sense a feeling of apprehension from Ava, and so to help level her confidence she raised a finger to the air as she had done earlier in the safehouse; “the agenda then, our meeting. We can then touch base with the cabin,” she added, leaving names out of the equation for now - they were in public afterall, “we’ll finish up in town for shopping-” her gaze moved to Dave, and the casual manner in which she spoke suggested that she was simply referring to a grocery run. “If there is time after that, we’ll find somewhere to eat together to decompress. Then head back to the cabin shortly after.”

Dave fiddled with his shirt cuffs as the women planned. Ava seemed sharp as a whip, and Pari clearly knew what she was doing. He was content to let them handle the schedule. This was mostly their gig, anyway; Foster had put him on the tactical team, which made the best use of his skills. As far as he was concerned, he was a bodyguard for the day.

“That sounds good,” he said. He gave Ava a friendly nudge, and then caught Pari’s eye. “My shoppin’ list can wait, none of it’s that important. I think makin’ time for a bite to eat sounds better.”

Ava looked up at Dave with a small smile at the nudge and then back to Agent Bhaat. “Okay, I like the sound of that.” She fiddled with the collar of her blazer. “We don’t...need to tell anyone we had to get this from the Junior Miss section, right?” She asked, her cheeks turning pink with embarrassment.

“I won’t say anything about it,” Pari said with a shrug as they moved through the store towards the exit. “At least not to the team, I can’t promise I won’t say something to you though,” she added with a measure of innocuous humour to her tone, laughing softly at herself.

“Aw, don’t listen to her,” Dave said. He patted her on the shoulder. “I think the jacket looks great. Now what time did we have to have you home by?”

It was they way that Dave executed his joke that cracked through the professional veneer that Pari tried her best to maintain, and she brought a hand to her mouth and laughed into it, stopping in her tracks to try to brush it off. She reached her free hand around Ava's back and gave him a light slap across the arm.

Ava blushed brighter but still had a slight smile on her lips from the gentle teasing. “Before the street lights come on.” She told him, trying to inject a grave note into her tone and not entirely succeeding.

“Well, we better get a move on then. Daylight’s burnin’,” he said. He glanced over at Pari, quirking an eyebrow. “Unless you want to make it dinner instead of lunch?”

“Oh, I’m sure the others would worry if we were out for that long, Dave.” Pari answered, once again able to find her level of composure. She began forwards, moving past the joke now - there was only so much she was willing to press Ava.

“I also have work waiting for me at the cabin when we finish with the Detective.” Ava reminded Dave gently as she followed along behind Agent Bhaat. “I don’t want to put it off for too long.”




>CHARLESTON, WV
>STATE POLICE STATION, SOUTH CHARLESTON
>1220HRS...///

When the door opened, the State Trooper manning the desk lifted her eyes at the three oddballs. Glimpses of them offered between the passing officers and detectives bustling around. Ever since the Blackriver Case activity in the place had ticked up to an unlikable degree for some, and a satisfying fast pace for others. Another suit had come in before these three to see Detective Roy and the arrival of even more was not a good sign. Either for the arrival of them like the four horsemen of the apocalypse signaled something big in West Virginia, or just the very mundane and normalized eye-rolling of having Feds swing their dicks around in your neck of the woods.

They approached the desk and State Trooper Morales rose, not even bothering with a greeting, “Detective Roy, yeah? This way.”

In a few moments time, they were at the detective’s door. As if she could sense their presence, Roy answered, opening the door wide for the three of them. A slight hint of confusion on her face that it was not Laine or Davidson at the door. She waved them in anyway, closing the door after them. She sat at her desk and there was another suited gentleman seated at the other end of the room, adjacent to her. An older man, age apparent in the wrinkles and crow’s feet on his dark skin, tight curls of gray atop his head. He nodded at them, Manila folder on his lap.

Roy piped up, hurried tone but friendly smile, “Sit, there’s a lot to go over.” She gestured to the two seats on the opposite side of her desk before gesturing to the man that had preceded them, “This is Joe Dawant, a former Detective for the Washington State Police working with us on this case.”

“Hello.” Joe smiled and nodded again as the three investigators took their seats, “I’m here on behalf of the CMC, Center for the Missing Child. We are a non-profit organization that helps law enforcement in cases of violence and exploitation of young children and teens. This case has some… far-reaching roots. It crosses state lines, that is. A lot of them.”

He coughed into a fist, gravelly barks from years of smoking, “I don’t believe I’ve caught your names.”

“Good afternoon Detective Roy, Detective Dawant, I’m Agent Parinaaz Bhatt, these are my colleagues, Agents Taylor and Miller.” Pari said with a levelled confidence as she stood forwards, glad that they had gotten Dave in a suit, and Ava into a blazer. She hadn’t been expecting another presence in the meeting, and it just reaffirmed to her that anything less than perfect simply would not do. “I’ve liaised with the Washington State Police more than once. They run a tight ship.” she added, in as diplomatic a fashion as she could, her eyes bright and inquisitive in the room.

What he had followed with interested her - she knew of the existence of the CMC, to hear that he had a case in Charleston set something ringing in her mind. She glanced to Ava, as if to check the woman was alright and gave her a confident smile. “I’ve also heard of the CMC, Detective Dawant, I’m curious as to how the case has brought you all the way from Seattle…”

Ava responded to Agent Bhaat’s smile with a polite nod, opening her purse to pull out a hardcover black notebook. She had picked it up when they were shopping for her blazer. A small cache of school supplies had been set out in anticipation for the end of summer and it gave her the idea to take notes during the meeting. It gave her something to do, made them appear more professional and she could note down anything said that might be of interest to the case that wasn't in the files.

She looked up at Detective Roy and former Detective Dawant with a raised eyebrow. “I hope it's okay if I jot down notes?” She asked, trying not to stare specifically at Joe. To hear that this case may have multiple victims across state lines, especially children, made her stomach curl.

“Of course,” Joe nodded, “So, as Detective Roy would be able to tell you, the dental records came back on your Jane Doe. It matched with a cold case in Seattle, Pacific Highway area.”

He frowned a bit deeper, shaking his head, “I’m sure most of you know that with the airport nearby it makes Pacific Highway a place ripe for abductions and sex trafficking. Rapes and drugs are prevalent in the area. Meth, coke, black tar, you name it.” He placed his folder on the table and opened it to reveal pictures of a twelve year old girl, Hispanic, smiling at a birthday party with her parents and a few friends. Her first day getting ready for school in the US, playing in the park, hugging her mother. “This is your Jane Doe. Maria Vasquez has been missing for years. Five. And in those five years, CMC has been trying to track her down with everything we had at our disposal. Contacts in the FBI, US Marshals, ICE, because State Police is overworked as it is and Seatac Police?”

He snorted, “I don’t fucking trust any of them. If they’re not harassing people and ripping off drug dealers, they’re fucking hookers.” His eyes darkened as his head downturned, “I know this. But this,” his finger tapped one of the photos of Maria, “This is the first real break in this case we’ve had. And she’s not the only girl missing.”

“International Parental Abductions is what we’re looking at. Children with foreign born parents are taken from their mothers and fathers and shipped off someplace else. Cartels do it all the time in the southern states and as their meth and heroin travel north, they bring girls south.” He crossed his arms and nodded at the picture in the folder, “Maria Vasquez. Taken when she was twelve. I’ve been trying to bring her parents peace for five years, because everyone else but me and the CMC gave up.”

“We’ve been able to prosecute two perps working for the Sinaloa cartel around the Port of Tacoma and the Seattle area, five more in Los Angeles and San Francisco in relation to cases connected to Maria Vazquez’s abduction from Seatac and a fucking slew of other minors. We have reason to believe that Sinaloa and/or Tamaulipas cartel are operating in and around West Virginia.” He stepped back to his chair, “It could explain… the, uh, state… of Maria Vasquez. Cartels are ruthless and brutal to rivals and those they associate with. She could have been used as an example to what happens to drug mules or sex workers that belong to the other side. As the capitol city in West Virginia, Charleston has the population to support a drug and sex trade operation.”

Pari took hold of the picture of the girl, of Maria Vasquez, and she made sure to examine every detail of her in that picture. Her smile and the way that the photograph had captured happiness in a single frame. The look in her eyes of a future - that she had probably been too young to consider, because twelve years old is still about school and playing children's games. Her hairstyle - probably with her mother's assistance. She never reached the age of fighting back against her mother, rebelling just a little bit. Learning about herself. She stopped being twelve when she was taken, and that stung Pari but it was exactly that reason that made it so important to place Maria Vasquez in her memory, so she would be more than the girl stripped bare. More than Jane Doe, more than flesh. These photos were her soul, and Pari would honour that.

She drew her eyes back from Maria, and then to Dawant and Roy in turns, the very same veneer that Dave had cracked earlier was mended, there were no signs of even a hairline on it now, just an inscrutable severity. She looked at Maria, and in a way she saw herself. Born of immigrant parents, it was status and circumstance that stopped them from being one and the same. She thought of Rohan too, but it had to be compartmentalised for now. So she placed the photograph down, glancing to Ava - she was doing well with her notes. Good. She'd pick up the exact language and phrasing, Pari was digging beyond that, and they needed both pieces to create a whole picture. Three pieces in fact, and her gaze shifted to meet Dave's eyes.

"You said there are other missing children," Pari said finally, cutting through the tension at last, "I'm guessing you have the information on them with you? Are there any links between these missing children? Communities, shared schools?" She didn't think that cartels were behind her murder - at least not leaving her body in such a state - but her theories were for Team UMBRA only, they were for Dr. Laine to filter through with her psychology expertise and find the truth of it, but cartels were a damned obvious place to start anyway. She squinted slightly, vexed that she hadn't thought of that herself. "And the information on the cartels, the perpetrators you've already put through - I might find those profiles useful within our investigation, too."

“Yes, of course,” Joe nodded, “I'll have to go through the channels, you know, but I can get them to you in reasonable time.”

He shrugged then, frowning slightly, “But I’m afraid profiles on the perps, their connections, everything like that, I don’t have on me currently. Detective Roy called CMC and CMC called me. Rapid Response, I can get you that information in time, but I’m also here to advise as well. First and foremost, really.”

"Please," Pari said softly, this had really hurt the man. Spending that long in a case. "Take your time, it just helps us to see the bigger picture, and we will, together."

“I’m mainly here to tell you about Maria, a background on potential leads. Now that that’s done, well.” He left the rest unsaid, conveying it in his looks at Roy and the rest, “Feel free to keep the folder. It’s all copies from our database anyway. If you need me, just ring. Or Roy will.”

He handed over a business card, “Anything else?” He asked, “Parents’ number? They’ll want to speak to the people who found their girl. Thank all of you. I’m going to arrange for Maria to be brought back to Washington for a proper burial.” He had a smile that was heavy at the corners, “If any of you have the time, I’m sure I or CMC could tell you where the grave is.”

She held the business card in her hand, and placed it into her purse. Pari could feel the strain, that this was painful and personal for him, and she gave him a nod of her head. "I would appreciate that, Detective Dawant. If there is anything at all, we have your details." There was nothing much else that could be said on that matter, and as she had done already, she took a look at both Ava and Dave - it was heavy subject matter, and she wondered if they would want to talk about it once they left - to be emotional, in whichever way that manifested for them.

Ava kept her head down as she jotted down notes, she may not be an investigator but she knew how to take detailed notes. It also helped keep her mind off the tragedy that befell Maria and her family. Five years. What had her life been like those horrible five years? And why kill her now?

She glanced up feeling eyes on her and she met Agent Bhaat’s sympathetic brown eyes. She gave a ghost of a smile to show she was okay and then it was gone as she looked at the Detectives.

Part of her wanted to spare Detective Joe anymore of the gruesome details. He didn't need to know what kind of torture that little girl went through before she died. She could already see how much the case had weighed on him and for it to end like this…

She went back to taking notes.

Dave, true to his word, had sat quietly throughout the interview. Pari seemed to have things well in hand, and while the questions were more common-sense than he’d expected, he didn’t feel a need to interject. Everything was running smoothly, which made him feel much more confident in his role as Agent Miller, FBI.

While Pari asked the questions and Ava took notes, he occupied himself by simply sitting back and listening. As the story progressed he had to make a conscious effort to keep his mouth shut and his face impassive. A twelve-year-old girl, kidnapped...It made his blood boil. He clenched his jaw tightly when he saw the picture, quickly finding something else to look at. Dave didn’t consider himself a violent man. He had always preferred talking to fighting, and despite his childhood (or perhaps because of it) his few bar fights had always developed after deescalation had failed. But this...It made him killing mad. It reaffirmed, in his eyes, that the people behind this had righteous judgement coming, and he was willing, perhaps even eager, to be God’s vengeful hand in this matter. Killing these men wouldn’t burden his conscience in the least.

As the talk wound down a thought occurred to him, and he raised a hand to draw the attention of those present.

“The drugs,” he said. “We found some...Uncommon drugs in the victim’s system. Stuff you wouldn’t find over the counter. You think y’all could give us a list of...You know… Local dealers, ones with a history of dealin’ hard-to-find stuff? Maybe some doctors who’ve been known to make some side money with their prescription pads?”

Roy frowned, “Uh, define ‘hard-to-find.’”

“Well, the drugs we found were sedatives,” Dave said. “The kind that paralyze you, but don’t really knock you out. They wouldn’t be somethin’ you’d get from a cook out in the boonies. So...Anybody with a history of dealin’ stuff you’d need access to a doctor for. Pills, things you can’t synthesize on your own, that you’d need to have a contact to get?”

“Oh, uh, yeah.” Roy nodded, “There’s a few people we’ve put away I can put you in contact with. It’ll take some time to schedule visits, but you can talk to them.”

“I can get you a list and send it to Special Agent Forrest or Davidson.” Roy said, “That good?”

Ava noted that down and looked back up, pushing her large round glasses up her nose after they slid down. “That would be perfect, thank you Detective.” She said with a small nod of her head. If she could get their names, there was little she wouldn't be able to dig up on them.

Pari gave a thankful nod to both Ava and Dave, before turning back to Dawant; “I’d like us to stay in touch on this, I’m a Seattle native myself - when I’m back there we should touch base. I understand this has been tough and drawn out for you,” the woman said, a softness in her tone now, and a warmth in her posture as she relaxed into the chair. “We’re going to do all that we can for Miss Vasquez and her family,” she added, confidently with a nod of her head. “We’ll dig deeper into those drugs and their source, the information on the cartel will be of great importance - and those missing children’s files will help our psychologist in profiling. Thank you, Detective Dawant.”

“Oh, uh,” Dawant pulled his phone free from inside his coat, smiling at the three of them, “We could exchange contact information. I’d probably have a better chance at getting things to you more timely if it didn’t have to come down from Forrest or Davidson.”

“Plus,” The older man winked at Pari, giving her a grin, “Us Seattleites gotta stick together out here, huh?”

"Of course, I have your details on your card," Pari said with a smile, tapping the front of her purse, "but here - take one of mine too," she added - reaching in to take one of her own from inside. A plain white cardstock with fine font, standard for FBI agents - generic in detail. Pari took a breath in through her nose as she held it out, currently unsure on Dawant, but a contact was a contact. She made a mental note to tell Foster about the encounter, that the Detective seemed friendly, and they'd found a commonality. Something as simple as being from the same place was enough to make a useful bond in someone. It might yield more information for the investigation, she shook his hand.

The woman turned back to Roy, offering a polite nod and her hand. "We look forward to hearing from you soon," she finished, glancing to Ava and Dave, they might have had their own parting words.

Dave stood and adjusted his jacket. Pari’s willingness not only to use her real name but to hand over her contact information had surprised him, but he figured it wasn’t his business. She knew what she was doing.

“‘Preciate the help,” he said. “We’ll keep y’all in the loop.”

Ava nodded as she shut her notebook and tucked it back into her purse. “Yes, thank you.” She said with a smile as she stood. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you both.” Hopefully they would get those drug dealer’s names soon and then they could really get to work tracking this mad man down.




The ride back was waves of asphalt and blurred trees. Ava volunteered to drive again, it was her vehicle, and Dave was sat in the back as he had been earlier too - which left Pari in the passenger seat. After a moment, the woman broke from her silence, turning in the seat so that she could see them both; “you both did well in there.” Pari’s tone was, as usual, somewhat clipped but there was a warmth to it now. The pressure of the task was off, and she even found herself slouching slightly in the chair.

“I understand this was thrust on you both, it’s not something in the parameters of your regular roles. That said,” her head tilted, eyes catching the scene beyond the windows, a soft focus through movement of green, grey, and what little blue peeped from between heavy clouds. “You both did well, we got what we needed and more than that too. Thank you both,” Pari added sincerely, placing a closed fist on her chest.

Dave grinned at the description. Not in the parameters… That was a hell of an understatement.

“Hey, thanks,” he said, straightening in his chair with just a hint of pride. “But you did most of the work. You kinda carried the team on this one. I think you deserve the thanks.” He thumped the back of Ava’s chair. “You too. You did good in there, I’m sure you were even more nervous than me.”

“Oh,” Ava jumped at the thump on her chair, her mind snapping out of the train of thought she had been locked in. She looked into the rearview mirror back at Dave with a small smile. “Thank you, I hope my notes will be useful for the others. And thank you for bringing up the drugs, they almost slipped my mind because of, well...” She trailed off and looked back to the road, thinking back to the little girl in the picture they saw and then the skinned corpse that was left of her.

Ava looked over at Pari, trying to push the thoughts from her mind as she gave her a grateful expression with a ghost of a smile. “Thank you for taking the lead, I learned a lot just listening to you talk with the Detectives.”

“Thank you, but, no carrying by anyone - we’re a team. But thank you,” Pari smiled, chuckling softly too before turning back to face the front again. She found that she couldn’t sit still, however. There was something still clawing at her - and while it was most likely the elephant in the car, it still had to be addressed. “I know that it can be quite difficult to deal with some of the subject matter - if either of you wish to talk about it, then please…” she said, as tactfully as she could without directly having to say it all again. Maria Vasquez’s life. “It’s good to talk about these things, so please don’t feel like you can’t, and that you need to keep it all inside.”

Dave’s mind was cast back to the photographs; the young girl, then the skinned, abused corpse she’d become. He felt the rage return and he clenched a fist, taking a breath to master himself.

“I just think...That we need to find these guys,” he said finally. His voice was calm, collected. Dangerously so. “We need to find ‘em, and then...We can make sure they stop doin’ this. We’ll take care of ‘em.”

Ava nodded in agreement. “If we can get those names of the drug dealers and even just get their electronics, I’ll be able to find whoever they sold those drugs too. I’ll work on the hospital list too, just to cover our bases.” Ava said with a frown, trying not to dwell on the five year gap between when Maria disappeared and when she was found again.

And yet… “Why wait five years?” She found herself asking out loud with a furrow to her freckle speckled brow. “Is there some kind of...occult significance to the number 17?” She asked, looking over to Pari curiously.

“I mean there are many if you turn over enough stones,” Pari began curiously, her eyes narrowing as her mind got to work in formulating words and theories. “I’m less concerned about the age and more about her background…” Her voice trailed off and her eyes closed. “Women have been used in occult rituals since they began - we all know the cliches - throw a virgin into a volcano, right? Witch hunting and burning,” She sighed, bringing her forefinger to her lips. “Her manner of death is curious, she was flayed. There are so many threads to this that we could clutch at. Ava, there is an occult significance to just about everything that has happened to her.”

Pari sighed again, gnawing over a particular thread that she’d pressed already with Laine. “Have you heard the story of Andromeda?” she asked them both.

“Oh! I love that story!” Ava said, her eyes suddenly brightening. “With the Greek Hero Perseus right?” Her mother had read her many classical myths and stories for bedtime, it was one of her favorite childhood memories. Her mind drifted back to that time, vividly recalling being bundled up in bed in her Batman pajamas, watching in wrapt awe as her mother excitedly told her stories of ancient heroes and demigods. Looking back on it, her mother really cleaned up a lot of the more...mature themes, but the heroics and excitement still got across.

The excited light in her eyes quickly dimmed and grew wide as she realized where Agent Bhaat was going with this. “Oh.” She said, her voice dropping down to a quieter note.

Dave looked from one woman to the other, his confusion plain. Greek mythology had never factored heavily into his childhood, and his “schooling” hadn’t instilled much of a love of the written word. He read slowly, when he read at all, and that usually wasn’t unless it was directly related to something he was working on.

“So uh...Let’s say, for a minute, that somebody didn’t know who Andromeda was,” he said. “You know, hypothetically. What would y’all tell him?”

“Well,” Pari began, turning in her chair to face Dave. She paused again before speaking, thinking of how best to explain it, as simply as she could; “The King and Queen of… Ancient Greece, and they had a beautiful daughter, Andromeda.” She explained, her eyes were bright as she both thought and told of the myth, and a smile played at the corners of her mouth. “The Queen bragged so heavily of the beauty of Andromeda, claiming that she was more beautiful than the… Sea Nymphs! This of course angered Poseidon, and so he took Andromeda and chained her to a rock, so that a sea monster, could ravage her and satisfy his hunger.”

Pari paused and glanced at Ava, she had watched the girl shrink following the realisation of the comparison. “Of course, in this tale Andromeda is saved by the great hero Perseus - there are several iterations and ways to tell the muth, but it is simply one of many stories of sacrifice, punishment, and ritual.”

“So...These guys are, what...Givin’ the girls to the monster, you think?” Dave’s frown deepened as tried to wrap his head around the parallels between the myth and their case. “Is that what you’re sayin’?”

Pari shrugged in response, pursing her lips slightly. She wasn’t sure how much to say, how many theories to pull from her mind and make real by vocalising them. “I’m saying that I don’t believe it was simply cartel violence.”

“The Program wouldn’t be involved if it was just the Cartels anyway.” Ava voiced, as she spotted the familiar bright orange and white signage of a Home Depot approaching them. She thought it over as she tried to make her way over to the home improvement store. Her mind flashed back to the pictures of the crime scene, her photographic memory unfortunately recalling every vivid detail from the quick glimpse of the body.

She sniffed and blinked her eyes, her chest feeling tighter as she steered the car over in the direction of the large box store.

“If it was just a Cartel thing I wouldn’t have spent two days in the mountains tryin’ not to get eaten by a giant-ass monster,” Dave added. He fought a shudder of his own, remembering the heavy footsteps, the unearthly roars, and Bear being ripped through a window like he was a rag doll. “Whatever the hell that thing was, it’s connected to all of this shit. Gotta be.”

That gave Pari pause for thought, she’d been avoiding the other elephant in the room. As the car pulled towards the store, she glanced down, bringing a finger to her lips again. “Dave, if it’s not too strange a request - I’d like to speak to you privately about that… About what happened. If you’d like to, if you’re comfortable with that.” She blinked, suddenly hoping that Ava would not find offense in the request. She recalled Donnelley’s comment about sharing everything. It was not that she wanted to leave anyone out, more that - she wanted to make something of the conversation that travelled outside of words. “Could we do that later? I would of course find it beneficial to my research to speak to the others too,” she added as a formality, sweeping her bangs back again.

“Yeah, we can talk,” he said. “Might be good to talk about it a little. I’m gonna need a beer or two, though. That was some…” He shook his head, trying to find the words. “It was some messed up shit.”

Ava grimaced and looked back at Dave in the rearview mirror with sympathetic eyes. She didn’t fully understand what had happened to him in those mountains, but she wished she had some way to help him. It sounded like Agent Bhaat did though, that was good.

“Hey, found a Home Depot.” She spoke up quietly with a slightly unsure smile, hoping that might pick his spirits back up as she pulled the car into the parking lot.

“I’ll give you a knock later then,” Pari said in his direction, before looking forward again to the building, she could sense that Ava felt a little off - but that she was trying. Quickly, a smirk grew on Pari’s lips, turning her mouth up at the corners, almost deviously. “We should hurry Dave,” she looked back over her shoulder again, her countenance inviting, tone not serious in the least, “we don’t want to keep young Ava here out too late now, do we?”

Dave’s own grin was back in a moment, his blue eyes sparkling. “Yeah, she won’t be allowed to come play with us anymore,” he drawled. He drummed on the back of Ava’s seat, then opened his door. “C’mon, I got a list of stuff I need. I figure we get inside, split up, get the different stuff on the list. Makes it a little less suspicious than us all wearin’ suits, walkin’ out of a hardware store with fertilizer, metal pipes, and electrical kits.” He paused. “You think Foster’s got any of them pre-paid phones layin’ around? Cuz I can use those too. Ah well, we’ll figure that out.”

He heaved himself up out of the car, taking a moment to adjust his gun. “C’mon, Cinderella, daylight’s burnin’.”

Ava sighed, but smiled, happy with the lightening of the mood; especially for Dave. She grabbed her purse and opened her door to step out. “I hope my car doesn’t turn into a pumpkin. I don’t remember reading that in the rental agreement.” She said with a small grin as she shut the door.

A slight crawling sensation tickled the back of her neck and up to her hairline, making her reach up and rub it. She looked around the parking lot with a curious if slightly nervous frown. Nothing stood out to her as being out of the ordinary.

It must have just been residual nerves and anxiety brought on by the meeting. She tried to push it to the back of her mind as she wait for Agent Bhaat to join them and she could lock the car.

If Ava had felt something, then Pari did too. A lingering sensation that something wasn’t quite right. A disturbing energy that washed in on the breeze and threatened her leveled confidence as she pushed the door closed, feeling it click. Her hand did not move from the handle, and she looked over her shoulder at her two colleagues. Eyes narrowed, and she gripped her purse tighter.

“Well… between the three of us, my list is all candles, bowls, trinkets of sorts. I think we’ll get away with it,” her words were spoken with a tapering cadence, and her smile was an uncomfortable one. “Just home improvements...”

“Sounds like a plan to me.” Dave looked at the women with a frown, then played his eyes over the parking lot. The hairs on his arms and the back of his neck stood briefly on end, but he shrugged it off, gave his Sig a comforting pat, and then jerked his head towards the Home Depot. “C’mon. Let’s buy some terrorist shit.”
>GRU-UMBRA SAFEHOUSE
>JULY.5.2019
>1000HRS...///

Laine opened the door to the woman’s bunk room quietly, resisting the urge to be petulant and slam it. He was not the only one under stress, she thought then shook her head. It sounded like her mother, everything about her, her suffering was always worse. Her mother never put aside her own hurt and she hated when she saw that in herself acting in that manner.

Laine breathed out loudly and then noticed the small lump in the bunk opposite of her bed. Wild curls of red sprouted out of the blanket like some delicate moss and Laine closed the door. She sat down on her own bunk and put her face in her hands, rubbing her eyes then sat up and said, “Ava? Ms Moore, it’s time to wake up.”

At least now she had an excuse to hide from the embarrassment she felt at her sharp critical comment tossed at Donnelley. “They might have eaten all your donuts.”

“Mm,” Ava grumbled under her blanket and one hand emerged to slap around for her phone. She found it resting next to her head on the bed and moved the blanket aside to speak into the phone. “Alfred, is coffee ready?” She asked it, her voice croaking with grogginess.

Her sleep fogged eyes blinked as her mind sluggishly took in her blurred surroundings. “Oh, right.” She dropped her phone back on the thin mattress and rubbed her eyes.

Laine gave her a bemused smile, “Alfred? Are you expecting your butler, Batman?”

“There’s a Keurig in the kitchen,” she added, then stretched her long legs out, crossing her arms under her chest.

Ava groaned and covered her face with her hands, from both waking up and embarrassment. “Sorry, Alfred is my home assistant.” She said, taking a moment to stretch before sitting herself upright. Her hair fluffed up around her head like a cloud, wild corkscrew curls and waves of red and copper colored strands sticking up in odd directions. “Good morning.” She said around a yawn, her hand reaching back to pick up her glasses also beside her pillow.

She afixed the glasses to her face so she could see and turned bleary eyes to her roommate. “Dr. Laine, right?” She asked and moving the blanket aside to plop her feet over the edge of the bed, revealing the pink plaid sweat pants she wore as well as an overly large white t-shirt with the NASA logo over a pink, lilac and periwinkle nebula.

“Yes,” she replied, watching her then reached for her blazer that hung on the chair, taking out a black pack of cloves, shifting her hips up to stuff them in the pocket of her tight jeans but kept the lighter in her hand. She was still casually dressed, her black ink tattoos bold on her pale skin and she knew she probably did not look much like a Bureau agent. “Heather Laine, Feeb. I’m a psychologist with the BAU. Which, by the way, I’m sorry about leaving those crime scene photos out, I was preoccupied. I know they’re graphic.”

Laine clicked the lid of the cheap metallic lighter back and forth, the imitation zippo somehow had lasted more than a month. She watched Ava, noting the dried drool on her chin. She slept hard.

“Oh,” Ava grimaced and pushed her glasses up to grind the heel of her palm into her eye as the images of the skinned corpse flashed through her mind. It technically wasn’t her first time seeing a flayed body, but it didn’t make it any less stomach lurching. “It’s alright, it looked like you were working so I didn’t want to disturb you.”

Feeling the dried drool cracking on her chin as she spoke, she turned her head slightly to try and rub it away.

“It’s not alright, you’re here to do computers not dig into that,” Laine replied, then stood up, clicking the lighter again. “We’ll probably have a briefing soon, then figure out what we’ll do. Listen, I’m expecting a call but my previous plans fell...”

Her thoughts flashed to Laurie, dead Laurie. Dead cocky Laurie with his damn Rubick’s cube. She felt unexpected tears prick her eyes and she glanced at Gwen’s blue duffel bag on the footlocker. They were gone and not coming back but Frank Wilkins still needed her help.

“Do you know how to make fake IDs? False identity, disappear a man’s virtual trail and build him another?” She asked, palming the lighter to keep from fidgeting with it.

Ava put her glasses back on her face and gave her a curious look. “I do, it was part of what I did for The Program back at the CIA headquarters.” She looked at Laine closely and bit her lip for a moment before asking, “Are you...okay? Things seemed a little chaotic last night…” She let the sentence trail off as she realized ‘a little chaotic’ was a bit of an understatement.

Laine huffed a laugh and flicked her lighter’s cap again, slapping it down hard, “I’ll be alright, I am just trying to get back to understanding what the hell is going on. I thought I might then last night happened. I’m not sure what it was but something was in the woods with the men, something that killed Ranger Mathieu and Airman Weissman. I don’t know how much you know, Ava but something is really rotten in Blackriver County. We’re here to clean it up but we hardly know which way is up, now.”

She glanced at the folder on the small table beside her bunk, “But when you’re lost, the best thing is to figure out where you went off the path, go back to familiar ground. Right? I don’t know, I never was much of a hiker, but it sounds good to me.”

Ava stared at her with wide eyes as she processed the new information and fit it into the context of last night. No wonder everyone was so jumpy, if someone or something attacked them and killed two of their own, she couldn’t blame them.

“I’m sorry you lost two teammates.” She said, her eyes sympathetic. “And I'm afraid I don’t know much of anything.” She admitted with a wincing squint of her eyes. “I was told to come here and Foster said my job was to assist UMBRA however I can. He didn’t delve into any other specifics just ‘get to work’.” She shrugged and then motioned to Laine’s bed. “But, given your credentials and the pictures, I’m guessing you’re investigating a homicide?”

Laine nodded, tucking a lock of short black hair behind her ear, the silver skull earring winking in the overhead light, “We did, it was something I don't know could have been avoided but tragic nonetheless. And yes, a body was discovered, also in the mountains of the State Park. She was skinned, mutilated and has yet to be identified. I have sent dental and DNA to the lab and we’re waiting to see who our Jane Doe is, in the meantime, the man who found her. Who...well, he said someone showed him, he didn’t see him but heard the voice. Anyway, he found the body and now he’s shit scared and wants to get out of town.”

She gestured to the manila folder under her arm, “He’s afraid, things are very closed off around here. Even more than one might expect in a small town and he isn’t a local dude. We need to get Wilkins moved, I promised I would try and the plan we had with Park Ranger Mathieu died with him. We need to wipe his existence, there never was a Frank Wilkins, you know?”

Ava nodded, her brows knitting together with thought as she mentally went over what to do to help this witness. “I think I can pull that off.” She said with another small nod. “I can’t really say I blame him for wanting to leave after experiencing...that. How scrubbed clean do you need this to be? Just this town and this county level? Or State or even Federal level?” She asked, her tone taking on a faint note of steady confidence as they shifted to talking about her work. “Does he have any family he could go to? Outside of Blackriver since you mentioned he’s not a local. There’s also the issue of transportation...He could take my rental car to get out of town, I should be able to change the names around easy enough.”

“I don’t know too much yet,” Laine admitted, “He’s supposed to call me, he saved some important information about a hiker killed a few years back, I suppose in exchange for us coming through with what I promised. I would like to get that information, it could be important. I think he’d like to get as far away as possible, but we’ll talk to him see what he wants. Hopefully he’s calmed down, he was ready to jump out of his skin when I talked to him.”

Laine stopped, curling her lips in a grimace, “Sorry, bad choice of words.”

Her attention went back to Ava, still sitting on her bunk in her pajamas. “Look, I’m throwing this all on your lap before you’ve even got out of bed. Why don’t you go shower and get ready, we can continue our discussion. I need to smoke anyway.”

“Oh,” Ava glanced down at herself and the confident, professional expression slipped away to be replaced with one of mild embarrassment and she flashed a sheepish smile. “Right, that’s probably a good idea.”

Laine noticed her reaction of embarrassment and recalled her anxiety as she tried to both help and be out of the way last night. And the way she had been greeted by the team, at gunpoint, it was no wonder she had been a bundle of nerves. Laine gave her an encouraging smile, “Totally my fault. I’ll leave you a fresh towel in the bathroom, better get a shower before Dave. He’ll probably leave it full of dirt, poor guy. ”

She added quickly lest Ava think she was somehow usurping the shower privilege, “He’s eating and talking with Donnelley, that’ll take him some time.”

“Okay, thank you.” She nodded with a smile, pushing herself up to her feet and looking up at Laine. “Donnelley is the man that was wounded in the leg, right?” She asked, wincing at the memory of Jason stitching the man up on the coffee table. “Is he going to be okay? There’s that artery in the leg and something tells me hospitals aren’t really an option for us.”

At her question, Laine nodded, the flush rising in her face from shame at how she had snapped at him. He had been wounded and she remembered the strain of worry as she drove those dark roads that he might be dead by the time she got to the cabin. What would they do without his guidance here, without the familiar chain smoking leader guiding them into the unknown. And what would she have felt if he had been lost, what could have been lost that was only a fragile ghost of a spark right now. Not wanting to dwell on that, she shook her head slightly and looked back at Ava, “If it had hit the femoral artery he probably wouldn’t have made it, even with a tourniquet and Jason’s help. And you’re right, we can’t trust anyone that’s not under this roof out here in Blackriver. I’m learning this so you might as well get a head start.”

She took out the black package of Djarums and packed them, absently smacking the box against her hand. Donnelley and his bad leg, he would not be able to lead the tactical team. It would probably fall to Tom, even though he had been wounded she had seen the blood on his cheek but had no idea how bad as he had gone to bed without a word. It was not something she should worry about, she reminded herself. You’re not the babysitter of UMBRA.

“Right, I’m gonna grab a smoke, enjoy your shower,” Laine said, turning to head to the door.

“Thank you-oh!” Ava perked up and held up her hand slightly. “This might be weird, but I think you mentioned everyone eating the donuts I brought? Could you set one of the maple bar donuts aside for me? In case both boxes get eaten?”

Laine huffed a soft laugh, “Sure, and it’s not weird to want to save yourself your favorite donut. I’ll put one aside if there’s any left. Want me to save you some bacon and eggs?”

Ava nodded with a small smile. “Yeah, that’d be great, thank you Dr. Laine.”

“No problem,” Laine said, heading out the door and though she had hoped to bypass the kitchen she had the donut promise to fulfill.

Ava watched her leave, her mind buzzing with questions she wanted to ask the FBI psychologist. Questions that Foster had sparked after what he told her about Laine and Seattle.

She kept them to herself though, for now. She may not be very socially savvy but she knew you didn't ask such prying and personal questions after just meeting a person. No matter much she wanted to know.

Letting out a breath she started gathering up her clothes and toiletries.




[SIT DOWN WITH FOSTER: DONNELLEY, DAVE, PARI]




Once the team had assembled, Foster and Donnelley took their places at the front of the room. Dressed in a suit for Foster and business casual for Donnelley. A salmon dress shirt and gray slacks, brown leather belt and oxfords. He scanned the faces from behind his ray ban style sunglasses, like before. Some, he’d grown to know, others not yet. And some were missing. He sighed, crossing his arms tighter and trying his best to slip back into that stoney leadership role. Foster stood and he opened the briefing once everybody looked settled, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.” He nodded, “We have a couple new faces here, make them feel like part of the team, but make no mistake. We’re hitting the ground running on this case today.”

“Two days ago, we made decent headway on the Jane Doe found in the woods. Potential leads and a good direction to take for the rest of the case. Thanks to Doctor Laine and her resources,” Foster gestured to the woman, “We have a way forward in ID’ing the Jane Doe and a lead from the toxicology reports consisting of very niche drugs in her system. Evidence found on… on the Jane Doe as well have convinced me to treat this as part of a bigger case some of you may be familiar with. Black Slabs.”

“Because of this, I have called in Parinaaz Bhatt of the FBI to consult for her expertise and experience. Likewise, a new transfer brought us Avaline Moore of Booz-Allen Hamilton to handle our technology, and…” Foster pursed his lips at Dave, “Uh, David MacCready. He will supplement the tactical team, his skills will be important and needed, knowing how these things sometimes go. I’ve put in a request to transfer you from BLACKBEARD to UMBRA.”

He addressed the man personally, then turned his attention back to the bigger picture, “In the meantime, valuable intelligence has been gained and is yet to be gained. Laine has an asset in the NPS willing and ready to give us information on the state of Blackriver and its authorities. David Dulane is a potential source of information and we’ll set up a visit to the facility he’s being kept at.” Foster looked to Donnelley, “We also have valuable equipment to recover. Donnelley will be handling that in the meanwhile. Due to concerns about security, Tom and Justin will be holding the fort here with me.”

“As for today, Jason, Laine, and Donnelley will be awaiting the call from Ranger Frank Wilkins and meeting with David Dulane. David, Ava, Pari,” he nodded at the three, “I’d like you to meet with Detective Maryanne Roy of the State CID over in Charleston. See if we can get information on local dealers and suppliers in the Charleston area.”

He gestured to Jason and Donnelley, “When you two get a chance, I’d like to speak to you as well. That’s for later. For now, everybody, focus on those objectives given for the day.” Foster brushed aside the bottom of his suit jacket to place his hands on his hips, “Any questions?”

“Yeah,” Jason said from the back. Sometime late in the morning he had roused himself from a dreamless sleep and without much banter went straight into the meeting after guzzling down some coffee. Foster’s mention of him did a lot more than the coffee was currently doing in waking him up. “You mentioned rare substances in Jane’s system. What was it and would local dealers be able to get their hands on it?”

“It’s pretty damn niche.” Foster nodded, “What was it?”

“Midazolam… and Propofol. Conscious sedation. Ain’t heard of anybody asking for those to have fun.” Donnelley frowned. “The killer didn’t want her to move. Didn’t give a shit if she could feel it though. Whoever supplies that is gonna be few and far between. Whoever asks for that in Blackriver? Even fewer.”

Dave raised his hand. He’d finally gotten a shower, and had washed his jeans and flannel shirt. “Why don’t we just start askin’ around at pharmacies? Or doctors’ offices? If it’s that hard to get ahold of, then your average hillbilly meth cook probably ain’t gonna have it on hand. Somebody would’ve had to fill a prescription or whatever, right? Unless the guy’s a doctor himself.”

“It could have also been stolen?” Ava suggested from where she was sitting on the end of the couch, her hair pulled back into a french braid and dressed in a crisp blue blouse as well as a grey plaid tweed skirt over a pair of black stockings. There was a thoughtful frown on her face as she tried to focus on the origin of the strange drugs and not the agony that poor woman must have suffered; her fingers idly playing with her necklace. “Midazolam is a controlled substance, if someone wanted it bad enough, they could have stolen it from a hospital or pharmacy.”

Donnelley nodded, looking at Laine for a moment, “We took the Jane Doe to a local doc. She might have the drugs on hand. I’ll have my team swing by and ask around, not like she had the best security at her… facility. Make it easy for anybody to get in and snatch it.” Donnelley smirked at the memory of the mossy Quonset hut. “Anythin’ else?”

Dr Laine had also dressed for the day, dressed neatly in the snug charcoal gray turtleneck and black slacks, power heels on her feet. There was a little discomfort on the cut foot so she had made a mental note to grab her sneakers on the way out. As she listened, she also snuck surreptitious looks at the team. Dave's face was mottled with bruises but he looked clear eyed and attentive. Ava seemed much more pulled together as well.

When Donnelley glanced at her she met his eyes briefly before looking away. Not wanting to contradict him or argue, she held her breath for a moment until Foster asked for any other questions.

"The doctor might but it's probably not common among family doctors though she could get it legally. It's worth checking into, anyway," Laine observed.

Jason, arms crossed and wide chest hidden behind the wrinkles of a faded black shirt, was working out the substance mystery with his eyes darting around the floor. Physically thinking was what someone had told him that was once. He had been dead for years now. "No, that sort of drug wouldn't be floating around a local practice or a CVS. If we start asking around for it too overtly we could tip off our perp—or out him. We convince local police to compile hospital pharmacy records we could see any weird orders or inventory changes." Jason looked up from the ground to Ava, adding, "Or thefts. Could rule out some suspects."

He looked around the team, not for assurance of the idea, but if he had stepped on someone's toes. It was hard not being a team lead anymore, and it was just as hard to figure out what his role here was.

Laine nodded, "That's a good idea, better to be quiet about this. Especially after seeing how nervous Wilkins was and the reception at the sheriff's office."

She looked over at Ava, leaning back as she did, "We're going to find out if the sheriff has gone digital, maybe you could sneak in the virtual back door and look into their records."

Someone has to install one first. Someone needs to get in there, slip a usb into the right slot.” Donnelley shrugged. “Ain’t gonna be easy. If the Sheriff is fuckin’ us, we’re operating under Moscow Rules here, boys and girls. They’re opposition.”

“Wait, why?” Ava asked, eyes widening slightly in surprise. “What has the Sheriff done?”

Laine crossed her legs and shifted in her chair, slightly uncomfortable at the thought of one of them breaking into the office full of armed deputies, "He's been on 'vacation' for awhile. Indefinitely we were told."

“On top of that, there was evidence found on the body besides the black shard. A piece of fabric, something cryptic. It was there when Frank called in the Sheriff,” Foster looked around the room at the sets of eyes on him, “And nowhere to be found when State Police arrived. It’s something the Program would like to have, potentially. Anybody going into the Sheriff’s will have to recover that.”

Donnelley spoke up, “I wanna get my hands on the Sheriff. Figure out where and why he’s hiding.”

Pari sat quietly towards the back. Straight backed, one leg crossed over the other, her arms crossed and a finger resting on her lips - statuesque. Her eyes were closed as she listened along. It was not out of a lack of paying attention, in fact quite the opposite. The conversation had of course rolled on, but soon she removed the finger from her lips and placed it in the air in front of her as her eyes shot open. “I’d like to see those scene photographs,” she said with a level of dissonance in her voice. “If that would be alright, before we leave to our activities of the day.”

It’s not right, she thought, an eyebrow quirked upon her face that shifted her countenance. She had a theory, but it was based on the facts banded over the table, not gleaned from the tangible evidence.

Dave himself remained silent throughout the discussion, leaning his chair back with his arms behind his head. They'd shot his idea down, but he wasn't bothered by it. He'd made peace with his limited skillset the day he'd met the members of BLACKBEARD. He blew stuff up; that was enough for him.

The thought of BLACKBEARD did bring a twist to his gut though. He hadn't known the men long, but they'd pulled some serious shit in Arkansas. There had still been a bond. That brought a thought to mind, and he raised his hand again.

"Hey, so...if it ain't too off topic, can I look over our ordinance? I need to know what I've got to work with before I need to work with it." He grinned. "Though if there's a Home Depot in town I can probably come up with somethin' to hold us over."

Laine perked up at Pari's request, "I have the photos and the autopsy report, you're welcome to look them over. We should be getting lab results anytime, hopefully today or tomorrow. We're still waiting on an identification on Jane Doe and the scene samples. I can brief you after this briefing."

Her gaze shifted to Dave, his suggestion reminded her of why the MacCready name seemed familiar. Arkansas, home grown anti-government terrorists, white supremacists. Laine stiffened in her chair, recalling a course taught be a friend of hers at Quantico about domestic terrorism. They had put their heads together in building a profile of the suspect in a mass shooting at a black church in Georgia. And this man, Dave MacCready, was one of the family notorious in the sovereign citizens movement.

Laine studied his handsome bruised face and thought over the small pieces she had gleaned from him. Now she was definitely curious to know how he ended up here.

Ava also gave Dave a curious look at the mention of making home explosives from a hardware store. She didn’t recall catching what branch of the government or military he worked for, though she wondered why Foster just didn’t say…

Oh. Realization clicked behind her eyes and she glanced away from the man. Another civilian hire like herself it seemed. She switched her thinking back to the Sheriff and frowned as she mulled over the sketchy behavior described and Agent Donnelley’s word that they were ‘opposition’ now.

It was unpleasant to think that a Sheriff would be dirty and possibly connected to the killing, but if that was the case then they’d need any information they could get.

She slowly rose up her hand. “Um, did the Sheriff station look like it had a camera system?” She asked with a thoughtful crease between her eyebrows. “I could design the backdoor virus to give us remote access to the security cameras as well and we can monitor the station for suspicious activity ourselves. Or I could use it to manipulate the feeds if we have to break in.”

“Shit,” Donnelley shook his head, not even bothering to look at Laine. He wanted to leave the details of that scene in the past, but, “I can’t even remember. I might have to show my face around there again, or someone is. Case the place.”

Donnelley nodded to Dave, “Everythin’s in the garage. We ain’t ready for a shootin’ war with the county, but we got some things.” Donnelley shrugged, “Whatever you brought when we hauled ass out the forest is what we got in the way of explosives.”

Pari nodded with a smile in Laine's direction. "I'd appreciate it. There's context to be obtained by looking at them here." The woman's arms unfolded, and she held them out, palms down. After a slight pause, she brought them to her lap, and glanced over to Dave - who wasn't looking too unlike the Phantom of the Opera with the mottled bruising that crept around his face.

"I actually wouldn't be averse to the Home Depot myself, and well, if it makes you feel more at ease I'm sure there is time to be found." Pari added, drumming her fingers over her thighs.

Dave nodded at Pari. "Well, we'll be makin' the trip then, 'cuz I used everything I had on whatever the hell attacked us in those woods. Claymores, C4, and a handful of frag grenades, didn't even slow it down."

He glanced around. "Er… Not that I brought those from home. That'd be illegal."

“Hoss, you knew the shit I done for the Program, a few hand grenades ain’t shit.” Donnelley chuckled. “No ATF here.”

Laine said, "Anything I have on the case is yours to peruse, I would like another set of eyes on it."

Her gaze shifted to Jason, meeting his eyes briefly and she made a subtle motion, a slight tilting of her head to indicate she would want to speak after.

Once again Ava found herself staring at Dave with wide eyes at the mention of heavy explosives not even affecting whatever was in the woods they were talking about. Did they run from a T-Rex? What the hell was out there? Ava made a mental note to never go near the forest at night, especially alone.

Jason's attention drifted to each team member as they spoke, his passivity gleaning any details he hadn't been privy to. Legwork, he always loved legwork. It was like making something with your hands, like the most complicated of puzzles. The stakes were at their highest and it gave him an almost boyish thrill. Finally, he could dive into something of true substance.

As for the new team members, Dave was interesting in the way watching an animal hunt was interesting. There was something dangerous and eerily familiar about his matter-of-fact, casual demeanor. Jason wouldn't question who the Program picked or why. He was here and that was that. The other new member, Pari, was analytically minded in a way he couldn't help but appreciate either. And Ava? Finally showing her skillset as well. She'll be invaluable for sure. A good team, Jason thought. Way too fucking attractive too.

When he met Laine's gaze he caught her non-verbal and replied with the slightest of nods. Seemed he was popular today. Good, he liked being popular. It was better than being treated like the smelly kid in Amman. It felt strange not having talked with her since arriving, not after their conversation over the phone. He felt like something was owed, especially with how they both were to each other last night.

Jason then turned his attention on Donnelley and cocked his head Foster's way. Whatever this is let's get it out of the fucking way.

“Do we have a security system?” Ava asked, thinking back to what Foster said about security concerns and the tidbit of information Dave dropped making her nervous about what was lurking among the trees. “Cameras? Perimeter sensors?”

Foster looked to Donnelley, who looked at him and then to Ava. He mimicked pulling a trigger. “We’re not at Langley anymore. Whoever we’re badgerin’ isn’t supposed to find us. We don’t exist here at this very moment. If they have probable cause to come and no-knock us, we fucked up. Our tradecraft wasn’t up to par. We’re disavowed and left to the wolves.” Donnelley shrugged, “Officially, we are all employed as an FBI team descendin’ on Blackriver to catch this homicidal fuck.”

Donnelley crossed his arms, eyes growing darker and brow furrowing, “Unofficially? Realistically? Those who haven’t caught on by now, we aren’t gathering evidence to prosecute. We don’t. We make problems like this disappear.” Donnelley frowned, “In vats of acid and shallow graves sometimes.”

Laine glanced up at Donnelley at his last comment, her mouth pressing into a line. She had heard it before from him but in front of the team it made her realize the seriousness. No one they caught for this murder would last long. She took a deep breath and held her tongue, clasping her hands over her knee to keep still.

Tom stood silently at the back of the room, listening to the briefing. His arms were folded. He had looked at all the new members and was confident in their abilities, reasoning they belonged in this group. He took in what Donnelly had just said with seriousness. It was a difficult pill to swallow. He sort of assumed that was the case here, but since he was truly an agent with the federal bureau of investigations, he felt uneasy about this. As long as Mister Joseph Donnelly can make the perpetrators disappear into his mysterious vat of acid that won’t leave a trace to any of these people assembled here, he was OK with this. He never wanted to place himself in a position where it would jeopardize his family back home in New England.

Ava looked down at her necklace as she ran her thumb over the image pressed into the metal as well as the Latin words carved along the edges. She had known about that aspect of The Program for some time and had always felt unsteady about the validity of just killing targets rather than putting them through the due process of prosecution. However...After seeing the pictures of the skinned woman, learning about the unimaginable pain and suffering this madman put her through; she wouldn’t feel any sympathy for him when The Program caught up with him.

"Great pep talk, Donnelley," Jason chuckled out.

"Long as they have it comin'," Dave said firmly. His eyes were cold chips of ice set into the bruised mess of his face. "I heard rumors. From the boys in BLACKBEARD. 'Bout witnesses, people who talk outta turn… Just want it known I won't be part of that."

Donnelley nodded, a knowing glance at Dave’s words. A very real truth to the rumors and Donnelley wasn’t going to divulge how in-depth his knowledge and experiences of that was, “Different breed.” Donnelley frowned, “Hopefully we won’t have to call folk like them. Just want it known, if we do, another sign we fucked up.”

"Long as we know where I stand," Dave grunted.

"Since we're all supposed to be Bureau agents here, if you have any questions about how to act or what to say, please ask Agent Stewart, Agent Bhaat, or myself," Laine offered, not mentioning the sideshow that Weissman had made in the Park Ranger office. She glanced towards Dave, at his comments and gave a little nod. "Hopefully we keep appearances up enough for it to look like a routine FBI investigation and we'll not need those breed."

“She gets it.” Donnelley said, examining his nails and waiting to head out. “Any more questions or clarifications?”

Ava silently shook her head, her mind already drifting to how she would put together the backdoor virus, especially if there was a camera system to gain access too. If they were really lucky, maybe there’d be a few webcams and microphones in the computers she could tap into as well. Given the backwater status of the town however, she wasn’t getting her hopes up.

Laine stood up as a signal she was ready, fetching up her bag to retrieve the manilla folder of crime scene photos and set it on the kitchen table, waiting for Pari since Jason would still be occupied.

“Alright then, dismissed.” Foster nodded, then pointed at Donnelley and Jason, “You two. Quickly, before you go.”

Donnelley nodded, glancing at Jason before following Foster to the garage. Before Jason followed in he gave Laine another glance, a I’ll be right back look, and disappeared with Donnelley in the garage.




Foster and Donnelley sat in silence. Donnelley crossed his arms while Foster gestured for the seat opposite them. Already, Donnelley was wondering just what this was about. He wasn’t going to answer to Foster like a parent. The two of them knew where they stood with each other, so he knew this wasn’t about the drinking and drugs last night. Two things that could easily be explained away by the grief of two lost agents.

The seating arrangements, Foster’s look that Donnelley knew well. Were they going to do this now? Here? “Foster?”

But Foster didn’t even so much as hold a hand up to quiet Donnelley. He reached into his coat pocket and placed a small recorder on his lap. Donnelley’s brow quirked as Foster pressed the recording button, “Jason Jimenez. DIA put you in Jordan, is this correct?”

Jason couldn't hide his concern as the recorder came out, and gave Donnelley, not Foster, a questioning look. "Uhhh," he verbally paused. Finally he made eye contact with Foster.

"Um, yeah," Jason said after a moment, pushing his hesitation away with a shake of his head. "Amman but we frequently hit the Syrian border and...beyond it."

“Mm.” Foster nodded. The entire time, Donnelley was wondering why he had to be here, but he guessed it was because he was the middle man between team and Case Officer. Team Lead. The first with a grimace when the shit rolled downhill. “Tell me, at any point were you called back home? Stateside? And for what reason?”

"Yeah, after Baughman I was called to CENTCOM HQ," Jason replied. This was what the meeting is about. He hadn't imagined either operative played the bureaucrat game. Jason was confident of it, in fact. Then what? "My deputy director tried to get details about the Program. Worked me hard, actually, under the guise of internal affairs. Sidelined me because I won't talk."

“Good.” Foster gave a smile that did not shine or glow with warmth. A cold accountant’s gaze set on Jason for a few moments. Each breath heard in the silence the whooshing of a great metronome.

Foster slowly lifted a fist to his mouth and cleared his throat, all the while his eyes remained on Jason’s, “At any point during your time at the CENTCOM HQ, anywhere else Stateside, or in Jordan did anybody claiming to be Program, or operating under the pretense of Delta Green personnel attempt to make contact with you or at any point did you get the impression that you were being put under surveillance?”

Jason’s brow contorted as he thought about the question. How would he answer this? “What if I told you something I thought would be in the purview of the Program happened to me?”

Foster even broke his cold exterior to glance at Donnelley, who leaned forward in his chair. Both were curious expressions that begged him to go on.

The image of Dan’s limp body, his slack mouth oozing vomit, violated Jason’s thoughts. The scene crashed into his mind’s eye, inescapable and demanding all of his focus that moment. The Arabic shouting that had rang out from a floor below, and the violence that erupted before the men had stormed upstairs for them both. For Jason. Not even the DIA knew about that incident. Or had they sent them?

“The linguist on my team was tracking a ghost in the system. A dead asset pinging us from a phone that shouldn’t exist anymore. There’s more intel I’m waiting on but—”

He paused. Dan had been rigid in his chair in the bottomless depth of a K-hole, but Jason had heard it. The chanting from the hallway, its hypnotic repetition like the ravings of a monk possessed with zeal. Tueal washahid, Tueal washahid. The man with empty sockets and the writing on the walls. The names, some a mystery, but most painfully known. The team from Ghazni. SOUTHCOM assets lost to counter-narco ops. And then some names that were an impossibility; Donnelley, Laine, Stewart, Clark, Mathieu, Weissman, Moore, MacCready, Bhatt, Foster, Jimenez. His name over and over again, smeared into the wall with something not quite blood. But it had all be the trip, he thought. It had to have been the ketamine. All before the scene turned to shit. At least Dan was still alive.

“—but it’s slow going. We’re waiting until it’s safe for it to be sent.” He didn’t know why, but Jason withheld mention of the attack. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Foster, as much as he could trust anyone anymore. He didn’t even question it internally. Subconsciously Jason simply didn’t say. “I wanted to study it before I brought it up to the team, see if I actually had something. Maybe it’s just the agency playing me, I don’t know.”

Foster’s frown grew again. He inclined his head towards Jason. There was a tangible cloud of tension in the room. Donnelley could feel it and he suspected Jason did too. Foster spoke, “Is that all? Jason, we need full disclosure. Is that everything?” Foster asked, “Holding out information is a grave decision. It would be like letting someone through an airport gate with a dirty bomb. Only worse. That’s what the Program deals with, Jason.”

Donnelley leaned back and he finally chimed in, seeing as the questions branched away from just Jason himself and the suspicions of the Program versus the DIA. Petty interagency pissing contests. Something like this piqued his interest though, “Is there an ETA? What are you waiting for the intelligence to be safe from? DIA?”

Jason responded to Donnelley first, “Bingo. Linguist is making sure he isn’t caught sending classified over the pond. I’m expecting something from the darkweb, PGP at least. And, huh—” Another pause. Do I tell him the vision or the attack, he wondered. What’s telling me not to tell him?

“We were attacked. In a hostel in Amman. I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be an abduction, but if it was they were sloppy as shit. There wasn’t a plan, just trying to rush us. Maybe they just wanted to off us then, but uh...it didn’t feel right. I couldn’t report it either.”

Because you were shooting ketamine, you druggy fuck. You can’t even tell Foster. Jason shot Donnelley a grim stare. He wasn’t asking for a lifeline, nor his sympathy. It was the front he always had to embrace. The lie he kept at the surface. No one could know, no one that didn’t partake the way he did, that didn’t understand.

“So, they weren’t professionals then.” Foster nodded.

“Maybe just to flush him out. See where he’d… you’d go,” Donnelley tactfully switched language. He wasn’t going to talk about the man like he wasn’t right there, “So these were, what? Thugs? Daesh militants? They found you somehow…”

Donnelley sighed and scratched at his black and red beard. It was a puzzle they didn’t need right now, but he very much wanted to revisit it when he could. He reminded himself that Viktor Ozan was in CIA custody and he too was waiting for word back from Kingsley and Smitty, and INIS. What if Daesh had somehow gotten word of Ozan and Bekzhaev getting hunted down and mistook the operation for Jason’s DIA? Trying to get back on the offensive?

“You said you went beyond the border? Did your HUMINT ever extend into Turkey?” Donnelley shrugged, “Chechens? Daesh funnels fighters through there, drugs and people too. Foster and I are privy to another ongoing string of incidents in Iraq that’s in connection.”

Jason shook his head, thick arms crossing over his chest. “Turkey? Never. I didn’t go past Deir al-Zour physically but I worked with some assets that went as far north as Aleppo. As far as foreign fighters not too many. Your typical smattering of central Asian and Chechen fighters. We ran into a few African recruits coming up from Yemen. As far as Iraq? All the time. But they outted me it was because I was a Westerner, not because of my ops. I’m fuckin’ positive of that.”

“Alright.” Donnelley nodded, clucking his tongue, “Anyway, you keep us posted. None of this leaves this house, it comes to me and Foster first. We both have mutual interest in this, man. You show me yours, I’ll share what I’ve got.” Donnelley frowned, “Deal?”

“We can read the intel together once I get it,” Jason replied. “Maybe more eyes can help me make sense of it.” He looked at Foster, grim sincerity flashing in the amber-brown of his eyes. “This is the team I bat for, sir. I don’t give a shit about DoD and the closet they’re pushing me into. This means something.”

“It should.” Foster said as he and Donnelley stood, Foster making for the door while Donnelley lit a cigarette, Foster called back over his shoulder, “We make sure there’s still a world to fight for.”




Taking a small breath, Pari rose from her seat - her height impressive in the heels, rounding out at a nice 5’10 in the patent pumps. It would most likely be the last time she would be wearing them, she thought momentarily as she glanced down at the reflective shine on their surface, and then her eyes took note of a scuff too. Her fingers twitched at it, and Pari took in a sharp breath through her teeth. Just a scuff. Most likely gravel from the driveway, possibly touched dirty slats on the steps. Only needs a quick wipe.

A smile returned, and she moved to Laine’s side in graceful strides that maintained her balletic posture with each step. She did not open the folder, instead turning to face her new colleague with a somewhat serious expression. “Dr. Laine, you were at the scene, yes?” She asked in a softer tone, her accent more prominent when she was softer - relaxed. “Before I look - is there anything you can remember about the scene that could not have been captured by the camera? Smells, sounds… feelings.?”

Laine stood looking at the first picture, one she had taken herself of a wide view of the entire scene. Trees in summer leaf casting shadows, dappling the ground with light and dark and among them was the young woman skinned like a deer, left on the ground. She was laid out neatly, not bundled or dropped in a callous manner but her arms and legs straight, her face tilted up to watch the sky with sightless dark sockets where eyes once were. Around her there was police tape, bright yellow against the green foliage and the raw black and rusty red of the body.

She turned to Pari, meeting the woman’s dark gaze and took a deep breath, “I prefer not to tell you any of my thoughts before you look this over. Whatever I say might make an impression, you know, unintentionally of course. But as for the sounds and smells? It was normal. Nothing to out of the ordinary, not that I noticed but I’m not exactly a woman of the woods. It smelled like earth, leaves, and death. Temperature was in the mid fifties I think, something ordinary for the mountains in the summer. No rain in the last couple of days, so the samples the state CSI took should be good for trace evidence.”

Laine touched the folder and pushed it across the table towards a chair so Pari could sit and look through it. “Once you’re done, tell me your thoughts and I’ll tell you mine.”

As Pari looked at the images, she remained unflinching at the sights, instead focussing on the information provided by Laine. She tried as best as she could to imagine the scent, to feel the sticky balm of the heat. Her eyes closed, and she placed a splayed hand beside the series of photographs - letting her thoughts ruminate. She stayed like this for some time, it must have been at least a couple of minutes - taking a series of deep breaths in and out until at last she opened her eyes and took her seat.

Pari cleared her throat, lifting a particularly grizzly photograph up in a pinch of her fingers closer to her face. She found herself focusing on Jane Doe’s genitals - for obvious reasons. The lack of eyes was alarming, but not something that Pari found unusual. Was she younger woman, her lack of emotional response might have worried her. It was a skill she had developed, a necessary one. Still, the violence to her most private parts was just enough to tap at her. There was always something personal about violence to women, wasn’t there?

She placed the image down and reclined in the chair. “Dr. Laine, as a psychologist, and well educated woman, I will make the assumption that you know of Ockham’s Razor, yes?” she asked, glancing to the side to meet the eyes of the woman beside her.

Laine took a seat on the opposite side of the table, folding her hands and waited. She watched Pari, her cool green gaze unwavering until the other woman spoke.

“Keep it simple, stupid,” she replied without batting an eyelash.

“Yes, precisely,” Pari replied, her breath was almost a laugh. “The principle being that the simplest theory, or speculation is usually correct.” Her head lowered as she collected the photographs back together, fingers tracing the edges so they were exact on the pile. So that no photograph was lying at any angle other than the correct one. “A doctor, a licensed medical professional would have had access to the drugs found in our Jane Doe’s system. They would have also had the knowledge of the absolute correct dosage to administer.” Pari paused again, placing the photographs back into the folder, she pressed a finger to the cover and slid it back across the table to Laine.

“The mutilations of her body took a great deal of precision and expertise, a strong stomach also.” Her eyes flickered to the corner of the room and they narrowed as her thoughts continued. “That would be my theory thus far, from what I’ve seen,” Pari’s gaze snapped back to Laine. “I’m not a psychologist like yourself, I can’t profile this kind of person. But, if you would listen to my advice, I’d look to local doctors and surgeons as suspects.”

Laine nodded, tapping her manicured nails on the table, “There was certainly precision in what he did, this was not his first, even if we had not found other bones you could see he’s had a lot of practice, he has a method. This also seems to be his comfort zone. You’ll see with most organized killers, they will start in their area and then branch out as they continue to develop the fantasy and their skill, their confidence. But this man, he’s drawn back to that spot. At least we have not found others that match this MO in particular.”

Leaning forward, she looked at the picture of Jane Doe, “As for a doctor or surgeon, I had not thought too much on that as you can see we’re in a rural undereducated area, poor and closed off, not exactly a hotbed of professionals. Unless he has a vacation cabin around here. I was thinking he might be local, a hunter or amateur taxidermist. I’m sure we can find more of those than surgeons around these parts. But it’s something to consider, we can’t weed out anything yet. The prescription drugs he used is very niche, it’s not something regular people would go out to buy, you can’t get stoned but honestly it’s a lot easier to learn to administer a drug with practice than skinning a large body so complete and without cuts or tears in the muscles. I think we need to look at both local hunters, anyone in the area that might have gone to medical school at least and anyone renting cabins in the area. Which is going to be a long list. I would cut it down to men in their late 20s to early 40s, it’s a wide gap until we learn more. But he’s had experience killing and he’s still strong enough to carry a body out into the woods. No tire marks were found. ”

She took a breath and pushed up the sleeves of her soft grey sweater, her lower arms bare of any hint of the tattoos that were just a few inches above. “Once we get the tests and ID back, we’ll be able to start narrowing that list.”

“My expertise, Dr. Laine, is in religion and crime. Cults and the like,” Pari offered with a wave of her hand. “I’m afraid I can’t be of any assistance in the getting into the mind of our killer. I can only offer you suggestions on the knowledge and experience I have. This all feels…. Familiar to me. You’re right that this isn’t the first - and she sadly will not be the last…” Pari sighed, her posture almost deflated but with a slow blink she pulled herself back together. “I’d guess that the next victim will be more theatrical, bolder.”

She ran a finger over her lower lip again, meeting Laine’s eyes, offering her a reassuring smile of sorts - it was heavy subject material for this time of the morning, truthfully though, their jobs didn’t run on a clock. There was no such thing a ‘bad time’. “This all reminds me of ritual killing. This is why I was brought here, I suppose.” Pari heaved a sigh and for the first time, leaned forward, she uncrossed her legs and placed an elbow on each thigh. “This is about power. Possibly a gift - sacrifice, for some higher purpose. Did he keep the eyes and tongue?” She asked, looking up at Laine, lines appeared across her forehead.

Laine shifted in her chair, reaching up to tuck her short dark hair behind her ears, “I need you for that, for looking into the things I don’t see. What might be in my eyes an odd cut might mean something more to someone with your skill, but from what I see right now is an organized killer. He is trying to recreate his fantasy, it is rage, lust and control. We found no semen but nearly every serial killer is motivated partly by sex. The penetration wounds obviously speaks to that, it was a lot of anger. Cutting out her ability to see and speak? It could tie into shame about sex, perhaps he couldn’t rape her because he was impotent when she could see him and mock him? Who knows just yet. Skinning her...he takes away her beauty, her humanity yet he displays her, so perhaps more akin to a hunting trophy. He wanted us to see her. Look at his work.”

Out of habit she reached for her pocket, hunting for the cigarettes still in her blazer that hung on a coat hook on the wall. Giving up, she looked at Pari, “Perhaps he did, maybe he ate them? We haven’t found them so it could be in a jar in his refrigerator. You know, Ed Kemper threw his mother’s larynx into the garbage disposal, a sort of poetic justice for him I suppose. She was very verbally and emotionally abusive and he actually turned himself in after killing and mutilating her. Of course, that was the end of a reign of terror in which he killed several young women. No, this guy here isn’t done. He’s perfecting.”

“I’d be inclined to believe he ate them. If this was a ritual killing, then what he took with him he would have consumed. It’s spiritual-” Pari’s back straightened again, and an eyebrow quirked as she rolled her wrists while emphasising her thoughts. “To consume is to become the victim in spirit. Not to mention that in that there are certain supernatural connotations…” The conversation between herself and Laine had reached a point of interest she hadn’t expected it too. There was one thing she could be sure of, it was that Laine was switched on. Not that Pari had reason to doubt that, but she felt assured to know that this was a woman with whom she could discuss her theories and not have them brushed to the side. Talking supernatural often got her funny looks, whispers behind her back.

“Wendigo.” She stated, narrowing her eyes. The rogue strand of hair that was her side swept fringe had moved from behind her ear, and mirroring Laine she too tucked it away again. “An individual whose entire equilibrium is shattered. Often outcasts of the community, so they seek to bring destruction and shake the balance of their environment around them in turn…” Pari closed her eyes, and placed a palm flat on the surface of the table.

“Spiritual beings, humans corrupted by greed - that extends to the greed for flesh. Perhaps he ate the skin too.” Her tone was cold, serious. She knew what she was talking about, to most, would sound crazy. But this was as Laine had said, a small town, and myths like that of Wendigos become rampant and real in small towns. It was an area for her to research into, at the very least. Her almond eyes shot open again, and warmth returned to her demeanour before she drummed her fingers three times over the table. “But that’s me getting ahead of myself, I apologise.”

Laine listened, watching the woman think and slowly nodded, “Well, that’s an angle I did not consider. But you’re right, there are many myths and legends that persist in places like this. In fact, I have a stack of library books that we need to go through, some with very interesting Blackriver history in it along with Shawnee tales. They’re the most recent of tribes to have lived here before being shoved off to Oklahoma, poor bastards.”

She tapped her nail, “Now, in the Behavioral Analysis Unit, we established that cannibalism when connected to serial murder is usually not the work of a true psychopath, someone who gets off on the pain he inflicts. It’s more about inferiority and possessing that person, they were only a means to a corpse. Now, Ted Bundy, now that was a psychopath. He reveled in the pain he caused and I think this guy does too. Why else give them a drug that immobilizes them and yet allows them to feel everything? But, I won’t discount what you’re saying, we could very well be onto something new here. Someone that is not going to fall into categories neatly. But again, all of this is just spitballing until we know if he did with the pieces missing. He could have tossed in the garbage disposal for all we know. We just need more information.”

Laine glanced at the living room, the people still waiting for Donnelley and Jason to emerge, “We did not get a good chance to meet properly because of...well this morning, but welcome to the team, Agent Bhatt. I was up here the last time UMBRA came out, I’ll tell you about that one day if I can, there was some interesting things found in the cabin we cleared out.”

“After the activities of the day, I’d very much like to look at those books. Cross reference anything with my own studies and writings - those of my peers,” Pari offered, shelving the books to the back of her mind for later. “Yes, just spitballing for now. I’ll be interested to see the results of the later testing of the body, and her ID.”

She took a look over her shoulder too, glancing at Dave and Ava who were both still in the room. This morning she would be heading off with both of them, and like her, they were also green to the team. There was comfort in that, but it also stoked a fire inside of her that they needed to work hard to impress, there would be absolutely no room for missteps. Not on the first day. With that in mind, she stood from her seat too and gave a smile to Laine. “It was good to have this conversation, I’m glad we’ve established a page to write on, at the very least. I’m glad to be on the team, I can only hope to prove myself useful in as many capacities as I can.”

Her eyes fell to the scuff on her pump again, and her lip twitched this time. “If it’s alright with you Dr Laine, while we wait for the others, I'd like to take my belongings to my room, freshen up some, it was a long drive.”

“This is your home,” Laine said, making a gesture towards the living room and the hallway beyond. “Though, I hope you don’t mind but..”

She gave a sly amused look towards Ava then back at Pari, “Bottom bunks have been claimed.”

Amusing as the words probably were, all of a sudden - Dave’s couch was looking pretty comfortable by comparison. “Perfect,” Pari replied with a half smile. Her head tilted in the direction of her suitcase, still by the door - gravel and dirt stuck in the wheels. She always packed light, at least. Only that which was necessary - anything else could be bought.

"You could pick up a step ladder at Home Depot, to make it easier," Laine suggested.

Pari cocked her head back to Laine, “Well, now we definitely have to make it a priority to get there.”




The briefing done, Ava stood up and went to the women’s bunk room to fetch her laptop. She returned shortly after with it in hand, a hard cover resembling light blue marble with veins of gold encasing the device. She flashed a small smile at Dave, still sitting in his chair as she sat back down on the couch, smoothing the back of her skirt forward so it didn’t wrinkle, setting her laptop on the coffee table to get started on the virus.

As it powered on, she looked back over to Dave and fought the urge to wince in sympathy at the dark bruising that covered the top half of his face. “How’s your head feeling?” She asked him with a concerned frown, hoping that his head just looked worse than the damage actually was.

"It's fine, a little sore but that's just the bruise, I figure." He grinned and gingerly poked at the knot on his forehead. It had shrunk, but was still visible from the right angle. "Look like a damn unicorn."

He was leaned back in his chair, watching the room, learning his new team. He knew he wouldn't have much to contribute to the investigative process; he was a physical problem solver, not a mental one. Mechanical force, explosive yield, those came easily to him. Abstract thinking made his head hurt. He needed things to be grounded, acting on each other, not floating.

"So uh… What ya workin' on there?" He scooted his chair a little closer, using the motion to take a peek at Ava before taking a peek at her computer. "This is that virus, right? Supposed to fuck up their computers?"

“Yes it is and it won’t really mess up their system.” Ava said, smiling over at him as she opened a program on her laptop and started typing away. “It’s basically going to give me remote, admin access to their computers. It’ll let me poke around in their systems, let me see through any cameras they have and copy and download files to my laptop here. That’s why it’s called a Backdoor.” She looked back over at him, her fingers still typing without looking at the screen. “The tricky part is it has to be downloaded onto one of their computers first.”

Ava hadn’t really had a chance to study Dave past his head injury since it was so eye drawing. Now that they were sitting there in a calm environment and talking, she was surprised to note how handsome he was. Even with the bruising it didn’t really detract from his appearance.

Huh. She thought and then turned her eyes back to her screen.

Dave nodded along as she spoke, quickly finding himself over his head as far as the raw details were concerned. He could use the internet, he had a teenage son, after all. But his mechanical business was handled via a landline, and for the actual work he relied on hard-copy books, personal experience, and technical manuals. The same was true of his less legal hobbies.

"So we're gonna have to do some spy shit then?" He grinned, his blue eyes sparkling with amusement. "Go James Bond and sneak inside?"

Ava smiled at that and a soft giggle bubbled up from her chest. “Or Mission Impossible.” She said, mirth clear in her quiet voice. “If the Sheriff’s station has a skylight.”

"I can always make a skylight, if y'all ask me real nice." He glanced over at Laine and Pari, watching them speak for a moment. Both seemed heavily invested in their conversation, and from what he could glean it probably wasn't something he wanted to be involved in. He was of the opinion that evil was real. Evil people didn't need to be understood, and they didn't deserve understanding. All that was needed was a tall tree, a short rope, and a few beers for a job well done. Or a few bullets and a shot of whiskey if you had shit to do that day.

"So this virus," he said, turning his attention back to Ava. "You do that sorta thing a lot?"

“Kind of, I have a pretty diverse portfolio.” Ava answered with a slight shrug of her petite shoulders, looking over at him again. “My job before I was transferred here had me working across different departments. I mainly sifted through raw data, but I also helped with coding programs, testing new security software by making viruses,” She nodded her head to her laptop to indicate that was how she developed her virus skills. “I even did a little hardware and mechanical engineering.”

She studied him for a moment, her eyebrows arching curiously. “So, what is it that you do?” She asked him. “What’s your specialty?”

"Explosives, mostly," Dave said. "I've got kind of...a background with them, I guess. And survival stuff. I'm from the Ozarks, grew up doing hardcore survival training. I still spend a lot of time out in my mountains."

“Wow.” Ava said, her tone and expression taking on an impressed note. “That’s amazing. So did you use to do artillery for a mercenary company?” She asked, her blue eyes bright with interest and curiosity about the other civilian’s background.

"Er...More demolitions, I guess?" He rubbed the back of his neck nervously; any talk about his family tended to make him antsy, particularly surrounded by so many Feds. "Anyway, it's kind of a story. What about you? What got you all into computers and spy stuff?"

“Oh, um,” Ava looked back at her computer, suddenly bashful at the question of her past. “I’m a little...weird?” She started, glancing at him from the corner of her eye nervously, hoping he didn’t think she was bragging about herself.

“I was basically one of those kids who understood complex math right away? I went to MIT when I was about 10 and that’s where I really got into computer science and engineering. I got my doctorate in computer science when I was 18 and I guess Booz-Allen Hamilton had like...connections there because they offered me a job shortly after. It was well paying and it was work I loved so I accepted.” She shrugged again, her focus turning back to her laptop. “And I’ve been doing it ever since, I’m basically an outside contractor with a security clearance so my contract has been shuffled around a few times between agencies.”

"Huh," Dave said. "That's pretty cool. I don't understand complex math now." He was quiet for a moment, watching her type away. "Honestly, I don't know how useful I'm gonna be, goin' out with you and the Agent there. I'm mostly a one trick pony. Though I guess if we have to blow up a bridge or get lost in the mountains I'll have somethin' to do."

“I’m unsure about it myself.” She admitted to him with a smile, happy to change the subject. It was also relieving to hear someone else was unsure about doing investigative work like she was. “Unless the drug dealer we’re looking for left an obvious digital trail, I probably won’t be much use.” She looked over to where Pari and Laine sat, both professional FBI women engrossed in their conversation. It sounded like they were using their combined expertise to put together theories on who the murder suspect was.

Laine seemed nice and friendly from their brief conversation in the bunkroom before the briefing. It truthfully amazed her how the woman with such different credentials from the rest of UMBRA was able to form a cohesive working dynamic with them. She was so poised and confident, even when there were guns and injured people about.

She hadn’t a chance to even say hello to Agent Bhaat yet, but from how she spoke during the briefing and the sound of her now; she was confident and calm with a sharp mind that clearly understood what she spoke of. She was also a seasoned FBI agent, which was a comforting thought as she and Dave would be stepping into uncharted territory with police work.

Ava nodded her head to the table. “I think we should follow Agent Bhaat’s lead and we’ll be okay. Maybe we’ll be able to help by offering outside the box thinking?” She suggested, turning her eyes back to Dave and the bruise on the top half of his head. “Um, should maybe make up a story for that though.” She said, pointing to the bump and bruising on his head.

"Huh? Oh, the Halloween mask," he grinned. He had noticed it in the mirror after his shower and had gotten a chuckle out of it. "Yeah, it looks kinda ridiculous. If I had a suit I could be the tough guy. The Bad Cop, you know?"

He looked down at his red flannel shirt. He'd washed his clothes the night before, but they still had a bit of a rumpled look to them.

"Right now I just look like a clumsy lumberjack or somethin'."

“At least you’re okay.” She said with a slight grin as she turned back to her laptop. “Maybe one of the other guys here has a suit you can borrow?”

"Maybe," he said. "I'm bigger'n Donnelley and smaller'n the big guy. Jason. I'll probably be fine. Just tell 'em I'm your undercover jackboot. It ain't too far off."

She nodded, continuing to type away on her keyboard. “That could work, I’m sure Agent Bhaat or Dr. Laine will have an idea for a cover for you.” She liked this, socializing wasn’t so bad when she had work to help keep her from obsessing over saying the wrong thing. Or maybe Dave was just easy to talk to. Despite their first meeting, there was an easy laid back energy to him, the way he held himself and the relaxed manner he spoke, in that rolling drawl of his, was infectious in it’s soothing tones.

She typed a few more lines of code and then leaned back from the coffee table, stretching her arms up above her. “Okay, I’ve got the basic framework for the virus done.”

"Cool," Dave said. He meant it; high technology baffled him, but it was still interesting. He gave Ava another surreptitious glance as she stretched. "So uh… From there you just kinda tweak it? Make it do whatever for a specific system?"

“That’s right.” She nodded, reaching back forward to save her work and close the program; leaving her desktop wallpaper in view. A picture of her cat Thor sitting in the front basket of her bicycle, which looked just barely big enough for him to sit in. “But that’s pretty detailed work that’ll take me longer than I think we have.” She said, starting to shut down her laptop. “Agent Foster and Agent Donnelley made it seem like we’re supposed to hit the ground running on this.”

"Yeah, seems like they're in a hurry. Which makes sense, I guess." His eyes grew cold for a moment. "Got some asshole out here killin' innocent women, doin' God knows what. Sooner he's in the ground, the better."

Then it was gone, his easy mirth back in an instant. "But 'til then, guess we gotta play our part of the game and catch his ass, right?"

“Yes,” She frowned and reached up to touch her pendant as her mind flashed to the pictures she saw of the Jane Doe. “I’ll do what I can, hopefully we catch him before he does something like that again.”

"We'll get him," Dave said. There was confidence in his voice, a firm conviction. Good always won, in Dave's world. Even when it did it at gunpoint. "We'll get him and all his buddies. Let God figure out the rest."

In the kitchen, Laine was observing Dave with Ava as the young woman worked on her computer. He looked like the mountain man he was and she looked like an Ivy League student cramming for finals. Not FBI agents. She glanced at Pari and then reached for her bag, counting out several twenty dollar bills and winced inwardly at her dwindling funds.

"While you're in Charleston, do you mind taking Mountain MacCready shopping for a decent suit so he'll look like a Bureau man. And I'll see if Ava has a blazer, if not have her pick one up," Laine suggested, then folded the money in a piece of paper. "Tell Dave it's on the Program and bring me the receipts if you would."

Pari discreetly took the notes, and nodded. She could have made a quip about the task, but elected to keep such thoughts to herself for now. “Of course,” was her response, and with that said she made her way back to her own purse on the counter.




The sky was blue again. Donnelley’s smoke clouds mimicked the slow current of the wispy clouds. Again, the smell of diesel and the echoes of blasting charges making their way to his senses from miles away. It was meditative, almost. A little reminder that life went on despite everything, a bittersweet reality check. No one but who had been with him knew that two young people died on his command last night. He felt like he killed them himself, and like a remorseful murderer, he was waiting for justice to come.

He shook his head, shooing those thoughts away like flies as he took another drag. “Fuck…” he breathed.

The front door to the Safe House creaked open and there was the slightest scuff and creak of footfalls on wood as the door gently shut again. “Um,” Ava’s soft voice called out as she approached the burn scarred man, staring off into the distance with a cigarette perched between his lips. “Hello, Agent Donnelley.” She greeted, with a slight but polite smile. “Is this a good time?”

“Just Donnelley.” The man said, looking down at Ava. Just like he feared, he recognized something in her. Maybe it was the eyes, the hair was too easy an assumption. He could’ve just seen her around the Program HQ. He shrugged, offered his hand out, “Good a time as any. What’s up?”

She reached out and shook his hand, noting how rough and calloused it was. A life of hard work? Or a life from running and gunning? “I just thought I should officially meet you. It’s been a little...hectic.” She said, letting go of his hand and glancing over to the driveway where their first, unfortunate meeting took place.

“And, offer my condolences, for the two people you lost.” She added, her bright blue eyes looking back up at him from behind her glasses. He was a rough looking man, the scar aside, she could see that the years of stress of whatever events he had survived etched into the hard lines of his face. Yet, he didn’t give off a very intimidating presence to her, even after that briefing he had just given them.

He could feel the hard edge of regret play across his brows at that. If it had been anybody else he would’ve firmly asked them to shut their hole. Death, you could get used to. Sending someone to die… “Yeah.” Donnelley nodded, sucking in another drag and offering Ava a sheepish grin, “I’m sorry about last night. We were on edge. I hope you find this place good enough to lay your head at night, at least. Lotta guns, lotta dudes to shoot ‘em. Makes me feel safe.” He chuckled.

“Thank you for the donuts, by the way. I like a good maple bar.” He nodded.

“It was surprising, but I’m okay now.” She assured him. Her anxiety medication helped a great deal and having some work to focus on also didn’t hurt, but he didn’t need to know that. Or she didn’t need to say it, if he had access to her file than he likely knew already.

She smiled at the mention of the donuts and she rubbed the back of her neck. “You’re welcome, I’m glad everyone liked them. I like the maple bars too, I bought three for myself when I got the rest.” She said, shaking her head at herself.

Ava found herself glancing down at his leg, vividly remembering the sight of Jason sewing the bleeding wound shut. “So,” She felt her voice growing soft as her curiosity got the best of her and she raised her eyes back up to him. “What...happened? If I can ask? Dr. Laine said something attacked you? And Dave mentioned...well...” She let the unspoken statement of explosives doing nothing to whatever it was, hang in the air.

“Yeah,” Donnelley’s expression soured a bit, suppressing a shiver at the memory of the roar and the footsteps, “Something. You do tech? Ever been in the field?”

Ava noticed the change in his expression and latched onto the change in subject. “I do, I was a data analysis and technician for The Program and before that, the CIA.” She winced at the mention of field work. “I’ve never done field work before, this is my first experience with it.”

Donnelley took a long drag, clucking his tongue before speaking, “Have to start somewhere. Don’t worry, you probably ain’t gonna be tramping around the woods with me.” He looked down at his leg, “Not that I’m gonna be any time soon. Best get ready now, we’re rollin’ out soon.”

“Right,” She nodded and flashed another small but polite smile. “I’ll get to work finishing that backdoor virus as soon as I can. It was nice officially meeting you.” She said while taking a small step back to turn and head back inside.

She paused for a moment, glancing back at him and the questions about his experience with the Black Slabs surfacing once again to her mind, just like when she had spoken with Dr. Laine. And just like then she bit her tongue and looked away to go back inside, afraid of prying too deep too soon.




>WHITETREE
>ANNIE’S DINER
>1100HRS...///

The jukebox that sat at the back of the tavern clicked a CD into place, filling the tavern with Dwight Yoakum as the early lunch crowd shuffled in to shovel mashed potatoes and cheap chopped steak that swam in greasy gravy into their mouths. Men that worked in the mines splurging on something that wasn't bologna and white bread, enjoying both their own company and the warm reception of Annie herself. The Christmas lights and flyspecked overhead lamps lit the dining area dimly and the booths were empty near the back.

When the duo entered, the murmured conversation came to an abrupt halt, suspicious eyes wandering over the man in a suit and a tall woman in high heels. The silence hung around them and Laine felt the tension not unlike what had been in the car the whole drive up. The crooning twangy voice cut through, the mournful guitar filling the tavern.

You've got your little ways to hurt me
They're not too big but they're real tough
Just one cold look from you can knock me down


It wasn't until Annie greeted the feds with a smile and invited them to sit wherever that the hard faced men went back to eating, discussing bum transmissions and politicians.

Laine turned to make her way to the back not waiting to see if Jason followed. Eyes marked her progress, watching the sway of hips as she strolled across the diner. An empty booth waited and she slid into one of the benches, setting her phone onto the menu and clasped her hands over it.

Jason met the hostile gazes with a disarming smile that deflated into a silent nod and a mouthed hello. He expected the stares, the air vacating the room in big wooshes of unwelcome moods. The smile worked better on women, but he wanted to come off as harmless as possible. Better to be the jackass pretty boy than the big lug to sucker punch and gloat over. He was thankful Laine took most of their attention, and he couldn’t help but appreciate her walk to the back of the diner as he followed. She knew she could turn heads, Jason concluded. It was a good tool, a good tool until admirers became too courageous. That’s where her intellect would come in. All rosy from a distance, but thorny if you didn’t keep it. He was quick to pull his gaze away from her hips as she shuffled into the booth, and without a pause he took the seat opposite of her.

Since their first meeting Jason had been avoiding any prolonged looks or obvious gawking, but now he let his restraint go. Though his demeanor was stoic, perhaps a tad stern, his eyes glowed with an admiration that was graduating from friendly towards something lascivious. He told himself it was harmless as long as he kept his eyes from dipping below her neck. Besides, she was off limits. She had to be.

“About last night—” Jason began, but then Annie came from a patron at the bar top to their booth.

“You two lookin’ too creased to be havin’ anything other than coffee,” Annie said, her bright but tired eyes rimmed with heavy makeup and her yellow tooth smile genuine.

Jason flashed his best handsome smile at her. “Oh don’t write me off just yet. I’m a big boy, I need to eat,” he said, giving her a wink.

“Ain’t that the truth,” Annie giggled out. She turned to Laine, “and I could peel you right off the front cover of a magazine. What’ll you two be havin’ to start?”

“You were right about the coffee,” Jason answered. “Make it at least two, we have a third comin’.”

“And you, hun?” Annie asked Laine.

Laine watched Jason squeeze into the booth, he seemed to fill the space with his broad chest and shoulders. She glanced up to his face, at the youthful sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of his nose that had caught her eye before. They seemed to contradict the hard stare he had given her the last night, when his eyes had been cold and flat in his boyishly handsome face.

When she met his eyes this time, it was different. No anger but something else just as strong and easy to understand. Laine glanced away, feeling unexpected warmth start to rise to her face and was grateful when the owner of the diner walked up. She remembered her from the previous visit with Donnelley, Foster and Detective Roy, she had been the same, the well practiced small town sunshine of customer service.

Laine smiled in return, close mouthed and conservative then replied, "Just coffee for now, please, black."

Once she had left Laine looked back at Jason, now better prepared to face him and what she needed to discuss before Donnelley returned. She studied the dark phone for a moment, expecting it to light up any moment with Frank Wilkins wanting his ticket out of Dodge.

Folding her arms, sleeves tugged up to her elbows, she leaned forward which pushed her chest against the snug sweater. Meeting his eyes once more, she let the moment rest before asking, "Yes, about last night?"

She would let him finish his thoughts before expressing her own, curious to see where his mind was, especially since they had not spoken since the phone call months ago. The night before had been fraught with tension and danger, fear and confusion. And worse. Laine felt both the guilt at her meddling and righteous anger of being so dismissed but mostly she wanted to clear the air.

The reciprocal union of their gaze quickly became uncomfortable for Jason. Partly because he had always felt his prolonged stare was aggressive, invasive. It came with the territory of someone his stature, and a face prone to an idle glare made it no better. But there was also her intensity, the depth of a cool gaze as fluid as water and as unyielding as the mind behind it. He broke it up with occasional glances at the menu.

“I wanted to apologize. I was a bit rude and that was probably the last thing you needed then. Just felt like you were intruding on my job at the time,” he said. He wanted to say he wouldn’t do that to her were she to use her skillset, if she were to engage in any psychological discourse. Does she even do therapy, he wondered. It was worth a future question. In any case, saying so would only stain his apology. The last thing he wanted was for Laine to be cutting. Something about her confidence exuded the capacity to be venomous, at least he assumed as much.

“But you weren’t,” he went on, as if to stymy his own thoughts. “You were concerned for Donnelley. I get that. What did you want to talk about?”

Annie came back with her steaming industrial coffee pot and two dishwasher warm mugs. She slapped down a shallow bowl filled with creamer packets, Sweet’n Low, and sugar, then filled their mugs. She asked for their order, to which Jason politely responded they weren’t ready, and began to study Laine again.

Laine waited until Annie left, picking up her cup of coffee and blowing gently across the steaming dark liquid, inhaling the scent. She held the cup there, both elbows on the table and gazed at him over the mug.

"I also wanted to apologize for stepping on your toes with my concern," Laine said, "Obviously you're well trained and he's a grown man. If he wanted to suck down whiskey after losing so much blood, who am I to interfere?"

She took a tentative sip, the heat still too much so she set the mug down, a dark red lipstick stain on the rim of the industrial white porcelain. Clasping her hands against the warmth, Laine looked back up at Jason, gauging his expression. " I wanted to ask you about Donnelley's wound, before you closed it, did you notice details? Was it ragged or a smooth puncture? Any splinters of material perhaps embedded? I should have taken pictures to compare to...well, just in case. It would be wise to record anything related to what's going on in those woods."

Jason’s gaze narrowed in a focused study. There was a reason beyond the statement, and she was gleaning details for something..Of what, he had to know. Ever since Amman he’d been wary of questions; Brunser, Foster, and now Laine. The dinner suddenly felt constricting, cage-like. There was a roiling of his tongue behind pursed lips, his eyes focused on the excessive creamer and sugar he was adding to his coffee.

“Wasn’t a fuckin’ bullet wound,” he said. He looked over his shoulder at the patrons, and feeling sufficiently isolated from any prying ears he added, “Reminded me of a time I had to pull rebar out of an Afghan’s leg. IED sent it right through his thigh. This was...larger, no metal residue or fragments. Like a stingray wound but way larger. Little tearing around the edge of both the entry and exit point so not likely to be serrated. Your guess is as good as mine. I was going to ask Donnelley what he saw, but all he could give me last night was that it was big.”

He swirled his sugar addled coffee with a spoon before slurping it between his lips. “You said you wanted to compare it to something then you stopped. Compare it to what?” he asked.

Laine made a mental note of his description and then leaned forward again, “It’s just a hunch, probably nothing. This is a case like no other so I’m not going to discount any ideas before I explore them. I’m waiting until we can get some tests back before delving further into this one. You see, the victim was found with a shard of that black stone, for lack of a better term, embedded in her heart. I would like to know what it is, if it’s a mineral then where is it from. But it did not get sent to the lab, Donnelley took it and I haven’t seen it since.”

With a sigh, she sipped her coffee again, the idea nagging at her but she did not want to voice it just yet. There was some sort of connection between the thing in the woods and the dead girl, there had to be. Laine was not a big believer in coincidence.

“Well, I suppose that’ll be something we can both ask Donnelley once he’s done outside,” she said, setting the mug down. Her green gaze flickered over Jason’s face and then touched his eyes, a hint of a smile now on her lips. “How have you been, by the way. Since we last spoke.”

“Like shit,”Jason said, and took a big gulp of his coffee. He wanted to leave it at that, but it was hard not to respond to her smile. He felt like she wasn’t allowed the true answer. Not yet. “The shard. Was forensics able to determine if its placement was deliberate or—”

“Alright, you two,” Annie said, sashaying their way, “figured out what to order?”

Jason’s gaze never left Laine’s as he answered, “Chicken fried steak, eggs over easy ma’am.”

“Toast?”

“Hashbrowns.”

Annie clicked her pen and took it down. “And you, sweetie?” she asked Laine.

When Annie approached Laine stopped talking, her jaw clicking shut and the veil of polite courtesy fell over her features. “I guess I should eat while I have a chance,” she said, it would be a long drive to talk to Dulane. Laine glanced at the menu and remembered Bakker’s judgement of the meatloaf. “I’ll have a BLT on toast, with fries. And an ice water.”

Laine added, “We’ll have someone joining us shortly, if you could bring another coffee cup with the food.”

Annie nodded and wrote it down, “Be back shortly.”

“Sorry to hear that,” she said, sincerity in the answer to how he had been doing. Laine resisted prying once he turned back to the case and she sat up in the booth, “A friend of mine from Quantico did the autopsy, he was certain it was what killed her despite all the other damage.”

Laine folded the menu back up and glanced at her phone, no missed calls. She checked to see if the ringer was on, as she had a habit of leaving it on silent. It was on full volume, not to miss Wilkins call. Her attention was brought back to Jason when he spoke again.

“Did someone put that shard there or was it broken off in her heart?” he asked. There was an emptiness in the question, a void of emotionality. Jason might as well have been talking about what paint to use in the kitchen, or what groceries he’d need to pick up. The apathy’s cause was apparent; desensitization. It came with the job, least the job swallow you whole.

Laine nodded, her own tone neutral, “Both. The autopsy report shows that it was inserted vag...”

She lowered her voice in case the word caused ears to perk up, “Vaginally, lacerated her through the cervix and punctured into the uterus to penetrate through her body, nicked the liver and lung before stopping in the heart, lodging in the aorta. A terrible amount force had to be used to do something like that, Jason. The best estimate Dr Bakker had was maybe the shard had been a sort of spear head, something like that. Honestly, I don’t have a better guess than that. Except...”

Laine tilted her head, the pink of her tongue brushing her lips as she thought, “Nothing shows any sort of wood splinter or bruising from a shaft of any sort, at least that we can tell. With lividity and her lack of skin, it is almost impossible. It’s probably the strangest murder I’ve come across. And that’s just the internal damage.”

She shifted again in the booth, crossing her feet at the ankles to push them back against the bench and leaned on her elbows. “I can get you the report if you’d like to go over it, I’m having Agent Bhaat looking over it today. Maybe you’ve seen something similar...over there, you know.”

Her eyes flashed with curiosity then she smiled a bit, her eyebrows ticking up, “If you want, it’s not exactly light reading. But I would like your insight, I have a feeling you're here for more than just bandaids and muscle."

Her gaze unconsciously dropped briefly to his shoulders and flicked back up, meeting his eyes.

Jason’s boyish warmth returned at her quip, his head bobbing as he choked down a chuckle. “I’m no detective, but I’d be more than happy to look it over. Call it professional curiosity,” he said. He took another sip of his coffee, his eyes following hers, what they were studying.That was it, that’s what he was looking for. He couldn’t stand to admit it until it was glaring him in the eyes, tracing itself along the contours of his shoulders.

Bandaids. How apt a word, how metaphorical it all was. Wasn’t most things just that, he thought, bandaids to patchwork what we wouldn’t accept, what we couldn’t. How much of a distraction would he be for her, or her for him, he wondered. There was a solace in their wandering eyes, or at least what he thought was a conscious wandering. He wouldn’t lie to himself and say it wasn’t just that. There was a danger in that recognition, but all the same he took a moment to study the sculpted arch of her eyebrows and the intensity flashing in her olive eyes.

“I haven’t seen anything that fits the bill,” he went on. “Do you have any other victims? Is it just women or have you seen males this way?”

"I haven't seen another in this condition," Laine admitted, "The Olympia National Park case was different, she was not killed the same way. In fact comparing the two, Childress' killer seems more of an amateur or at least one still content with simply slitting throats. Granted, I never got to see the autopsy report but observed her neck opened up ear to ear."

She started to speak again, brushing a lock of dark hair back as she leaned into the conversation. It was something she needed, even if it was not his specialty, Jason knew and understood death and maiming, his observations would be valuable. It didn't hurt that he was handsome and built like a brick house, but he himself intrigued her, ever since their phone conversation.

The long years spent as an Intelligence Sergeant in the Green Berets and compounded upon as a CIA Ground Branch Operator had drilled it into Donnelley that the eyes were the windows to the soul. Less poetically put, lingering eyes usually meant two things- they want to fight you or fuck you. And from his place standing some ways away at the front of Annie’s Diner, he got a feeling Laine wasn’t wanting to challenge Jason to a duel.

“Have a seat anywhere, Hon’, nice to see you again.” Annie greeted him warmly. She obviously remembered the man with the scar. He made a mental note of covering it up with makeup or a longer beard again.

“Thanks, Annie.” Donnelley smiled back.

The few steps towards the booth that Laine and Jason were in seemed a mile, of a sudden. He knew the reason, but he just didn’t want to bark up that tree. Yet. Donnelley stepped up to the table the two were seated at, wearing his face plain. The face Holly knew meant he didn’t like what was going on, but just waiting for the exact moment to spring whatever vitriol he had. He clucked his tongue and his lips turned up in a smile. A cold thing. The alternative was a piercing glare, but professionalism forbade something so overt. “Y’all gettin’ along well,” Donnelley huffed a chuckle through his nostrils, looking at Jason and Laine, and back again. Every word out of his mouth jacketed with a sprinkle of enmity, “Good, glad to see the team gettin’ closer.”

He squeezed in next to Jason, the bigger man. Even so, past the difference, both their builds contained in that little booth didn’t leave much seat left. There’s the moment between two big dogs with one bowl, the moment that there was no prospect of sharing. He gave Laine a tight-lipped smile that reached his eyes, but not in the right way. He knew, he just didn’t bother faking anything more than he needed to, “What y’all havin’ for brunch? You two look kinda hungry.” Frank Wilkins’ testimony hinged on whether his three guardian angels could play nice. This one was trying very hard to give a shit about Frank Wilkins at the moment. He sighed and clucked his tongue, “You think they got Pendleton?”

Laine glanced down at her cup, the coffee more than half gone then she met Jason's warm eyes. There was something else there, behind the golden brown and in the depths that made her want to challenge him, to see how deep his shadows lay.

Laine reached for her cup, a small half smile forming on her lips as she caught sight of Donnelley moving towards them. It died when she met his eyes, the cold tight smile and forced chuckled. He was still angry from this morning she guessed but there was something else. Something more in how he bulled his way into the booth with Jason and how he glanced between them, as if catching them doing something shady.

She said nothing at his thinly veiled insinuation, but her green eyes narrowed and Laine set her cup down without taking a drink. Tilting her head slightly, like a bird of prey spotting movement, Laine responded, "We're discussing the case, you know, like two agents would do."

Laine refilled her cup of coffee and then slid it over to him, saying flatly, "I ordered a BLT. But if you're so thirsty , please help yourself to some coffee."

Jason felt that animal aggression throb in his chest, spurred on by Donnelley’s rigidness and feigned smile. He couldn’t help but feel the human equivalent of heckles stand on end, a pressure tightening his back. He met Donnelley’s gaze with an expressionless stare, the muscles of his jaw flexing as his teeth pressed together. It wasn’t the intrusion, nor any perceived notion of foul play. It was simply the hostility Donnelley was exuding. I’ll break that fucking femur through your wound if you keep looking at me like that, said a voice in Jason’s head. He stifled its venom immediately and hoped his eyes didn’t belie his thoughts.

Jason took a long sip of his coffee as Donnelley sat next to him, and then answered, “Chicken fried steak.” He wanted to be an ass, to mouth of ‘oh Laine don’t be coy, we were talking about how to fuck each other without getting you jealous,’ but he swallowed that down with another gulp of coffee and then he smirked. And here I thought him and I were getting along. Some things never change.

“Was asking details about her case,” Jason said, his words coming out like he had something bitter in his mouth. “Well, she was asking if I had ever encountered anything like it. Do the powers that be have anything on it?”

Donnelley shrugged, “Compartmentalized. You know how it goes. Ask and you shall receive,” he shook his head, “Just gotta know when and what to ask.”

With a dismissive finger he pushed Laine’s cup back towards her. He didn’t even look at her as he uttered something innocuous but knowing the two of them would get the meaning of it, “I don’t like sharing.”

Laine took a deep breath and counted backwards as her cup slid back towards her. She could feel the rush of heat to her face, hating that it would be so apparent as her fair skin flushed.

I don't like sharing.

Her eyes gleamed hard as she stared at Donnelley, her own teeth clenched. She knew his meaning and the fact he would reduce her and spark they had shared to the equivalent of a bottle of whiskey made a hard burning knot in her chest.

Laine took a drink of the hot coffee, ignoring the pain as it burned her tongue. Licking her lips slightly, she felt herself start feel the calm spread as she mentally counted.

"Compartmentalized," Laine repeated with another curious tilt of her head, her eyes on Donnelley. "Putting something of interest into a little box and locking it away. Until you deem it fit to be let it out."

An almost feline snarl of a smile crossed her plush mouth then vanished almost as quickly as it has appeared and she leaned back in the booth. She lay a cool green gaze on Donnelley, "Well, boss, we were just discussing if there had been similar cases found. I'll definitely be running ours through VICAP, see if anyone has been arrested for or victim of a murder of this nature."

As if siphoned from his own vehemence, Jason felt the tension of something unsaid settle over the table like a fog. Something unsaid between Donnelley and Laine. Coffee cup suspended in the air before meeting his lips, Jason peered at Donnelley and then across the table at Laine. Oh shit. No.... He couldn’t stop his eyebrows arching in exclaim, and he turned to stare out the diner window to hide it. Had Laine and Donnelley already went down that route? Would that make him the interloper? Jason was ashamed to admit that if what he felt from Laine was true he liked it. It showed a promiscuousness he couldn’t help but be attracted to, a caustic honey pulling him into the depth of its flower.

“Call it conjecture, “Jason said, hiding his face from them as he watched the lull of a truck grumbling down the road, “but the placement of the stone seems ritualistic. But that also implies a consistent M.O. One I’m guessing you haven’t quite seen yet.”

“Killin’.” Donnelley shrugged, “Olympic Peninsula. Fuckin’ Arkansas. Pakistan. Maybe there’s more somewhere, I don’t know. I know how I took care of the one in Pakistan.”

Donnelley smirked, one that wasn’t hiding any pithy little remark about the situation at hand, “Big fuckin’ bomb.” He looked out the diner window with Jason, “Or the CIA spook they sent to take us Green Berets out for a field trip did, anyway. Worked a charm, far as I know.”

“How deep into that rabbit hole did you go ‘fore they took it?” Donnelley’s eyes went to Laine, genuine curiosity instead of a scathing gaze this time.

Laine caught the raise of eyebrows from Jason before he turned away, as if he had realized something, a piece snapping into place for him. She watched him a moment but as he stayed focused out the window Laine turned back to Donnelley.

"Not that deep," she admitted, "Preliminary examining of the body at the site, the autopsy report never made it to my desk. I have my own photos but none of the official CSI or lab results. But I know her, the victim, Sofie Childress. I was up there working her kidnapping before it became a homicide. I had a couple leads...in fact that day I called you. I spoke with a man I'd be interested in probing into a little more."

She had gestured slightly to indicate Donnelley as the one she had called that rainy day in Seattle. Laine sighed, then picked up her coffee, "She was involved in more than met the eye, I think. While she cultivated a very good college girl image, one of her professors mentioned her quality of work slipping, her being late or distracted. Mid semester overload probably but it could have been something else. She had bruising that might have been lividity or not But I guess it doesn't matter, it's not my case anymore."

Laine drank her coffee, it tasted bitter and appropriate. She ignored the urge to take her frustration out on Donnelley, his snide comment still burning in her mind. He didn't share. Apparently no one in the Program was good at sharing. She wasn't allowed back near the Childress case and she still had lingering doubt about Special Agent Chan's suicide.

She finished the coffee and slid out of the booth. "I'm going to the ladies room."

Laine took her purse and strolled away, heels clicking on the cheap linoleum. She did not bother to check which eyes might follow her progress, if they both watched her or neither.

Donnelley watched her go. Now that the table was without the linchpin that held all the tension together, Donnelley felt at once relief and sheepishness. As if he’d just slipped from the grip of hysteria, or some such other foolish notion. Without turning to Jason he spoke, still watching her until she disappeared, “She’s somethin’...” He looked back down at the table, studying the grain and making like what he was about to say was what he meant, “Hell of a detective.”

He cleared his throat, soft coughs into his fist, “I’m sorry. I didn’t think Foster was gonna put the nails to you. ‘Specially right before we left.”

As Laine rounded a corner into the bathroom Jason felt his own anxiety creep up, snagging his ribs like climbing the rungs of a ladder. He gulped down some bothersome saliva and like Donnelley his eyes panned over the table. If he was going mend this he had to do it quickly.

“He man,” he said, voice low and sincere, “Not trying to step on anyone’s toes. I didn’t know.”

Either Donnelley would confirm what he implied or it would be telling in another way. Anything lingering from the brief moment with Laine, if one could even call that a moment, dissipated. Now his mind was racked with the fallout of the previous aggression spike and the mental image of Sofie Childress, her body cold, pale, and exposed in a Northwestern dampness. He had so many questions about her condition, the minutiae of details any one of which could bridge the gap to understanding.

Donnelley let go a nervous, humorless chuckle, something that dissipated and left a small smirk on him as he shook his head, “I don’t think she wants anyone to know. Not that I’m thinking on how to propose soon or anything.” He sighed, “It’s, uh… sensitive. As long as this stays between the three of us and absolutely never gets to Foster.”

Jason grunted his affirmation as he bobbed his head, his stare becoming longer by the moment. There was an easy fix to all of this, and he thought he could find it one of these nights waiting for him in a run down honky tonk. Small towns had a way of producing a desperate loneliness he was more than happy to oblige. He would have to soon before he did something stupid.

“I’m not trying to save my ass, Foster already knows I’m an asshole an iota away from… fucking something up.” He shrugged, “Mostly for the Working Group’s sake. We’ve got a real good team here, best feeling I’ve had in a bit about the team I’m in. I want to keep everyone in.”

“And I want to stay here,” Jason replied. “So if Foster has my back when it comes to DIA I’m not worried about him prying. He’s probably my lifeline anyway. “

He sighed, gulped down the rest of his coffee, and turned his attention back to the stillness outside the diner. The depth of the seemingly endless trees, the asphalt chipping away by the moment. God damn, he thought, I just want to get into some shit now. He pictured a black slab, something jagged and reflective like obsidian. And then Sofie Childress, a blank stare into an evergreen canopy.

“You’re right,” Jason said after a moment. “She’s good. Can see through bullshit and I kinda can’t stand it.” He exhaled a laugh and shot Donnelley a smile. Maybe not a disaster after all.

“Fuckin’ right,” Donnelley chuckled out, “Shoulda been there at Baughman’s apartment. Didn’t even know me a day and already tryin’ to pick me the hell apart.”

Inside the restroom, Laine stood at the sink, washing her hands and checking her makeup. Her lipstick had been left on the cup so she touched it up, taking her time to give the men a moment without her disturbing presence. She frowned, her brows drawing closer together, leaving a delicate vertical line furrowed between them.

She would have to talk to Donnelley soon, in private before anything worse happened. Like his reaction to Bakker, the same hostility towards Jason was inappropriate. They had to all work together and disruptions of a personal nature could be disastrous for team chemistry. Laine took a deep breath, hunting for her resolve before finally exiting the ladies room.

As she approached, Laine looked at the men, almost amused that they had stayed sitting together in the same bench. The previous tension seemed to have dispersed, both men more relaxed than she had left them.

Laine slid into the booth, putting her purse beside her. Folding her hands, she looked at both of them but said nothing about what happened before.

"So, while we eat, we should come up with a game plan for Dulane," she suggested, glancing up at both of them. "I've interviewed people in prison, some are eager to talk and others not so much, especially if they are worried about a snitch rep after talking to feds."

“Seems like a him problem if he gets a snitch rep.” Donnelley shrugged, “Put him on watch if what he has to say seems important, but past that, I don’t owe this guy and I don’t know him. If he can tell me anything that seems fishy about Blackriver I’ll make sure he’s set up good.”

“As for Frank Wilkins? I’m treating this like we’re extractin’ a friendly HVT. He’s seen some shit, and for them to keep him right where they can have an eye on him at all times?” Donnelley chuckled and shook his head, “I could give a shit if Mary and Joseph themselves come up to me and tell me to hand him over. He’s ours, only ours.”

He leaned in closer to his two partners in the booth, “I’m not saying we turn this into a shooting war with Blackriver Sheriff’s or NPS, but they seem a little too zealous in keeping Wilkins from us…” he clucked his tongue and shrugged. “Any problems with that?”

Laine looked across at Donnelley as he spoke, her face had remaining closed off. She nodded slowly, but when the subject turned to Wilkins she looked sharply at him.

Her eyes sparked as she leaned forward, speaking in a low but firm voice, the slight raspy quality of it noticable. "And if we get in a goddamn firefight with the locals we can kiss this crime scene goodbye. So try to keep the cowboying to a minimum. I'm sure we can find a way to sneak him out if we must."

Laine sighed then swept her hand up to tuck a dark lock of hair behind her ear then leaned back against the booth seat. She resisted the urge to cross her arms under her chest, instead pressing her palms against the table and added, "I trust you both to know your business in that area. And obviously you know the stakes more than we do, Mr Donnelley."

“Obviously,” Donnelley’s lip curled in contempt for the slightest moment before he calmed himself, “Know how long I’ve been doin’ this shit, Miss Laine.”

“You want me on countersurveillance with Wilkins’ extraction or you?” Donnelley turned an eye to Jason.

"Doctor Laine," she corrected him quickly, meeting his blue eyes and felt the temper returning rapidly. He certainly had a way of pushing her buttons and she reminded herself to stop responding. She turned away, first picking up her phone but no call or text from Wilkins and when he addressed Jason she looked over towards the kitchen, to watch in case Annie might walk up on them.

Jason was reserved through Laine’s return, closed off and stern as he observed their interaction. He watched Laine’s body language, read the disdain. She wasn’t used to strongarming the “same team,” but some notion of collusion was teasing his gut feeling on the matter. Someone somewhere in this town didn’t want the same things they did, and he had the feeling they might have to push back. Or shoot back.

“You’ve already established rapport,” he said to Donnelley. “I can countersurveil for Wilkins. And Dulane?”

He returned Donnelley’s gaze and then whipped it over to Laine. “Fuck him. We tell him what he wants and that’s that. We deliver or we don’t, but I’m not going to lose sleep over it. Same thing with the sheriff. Crime scene or not we have to get progress, even if it means playing dirty.”

Jason knew the route Laine wanted to go, insisted on it even. That was the trouble with a room full of smart professionals; they always had the only answer to the situation. He had to remind himself she wasn’t used to the viper’s kiss that was so common overseas. Cordialness bred tightrope bureaucracy here, parameters he assumed the sheriff expected.

“Alright, Laine’s the lead with Wilkins since she interviewed him.” Donnelley nodded, “I’ll go with her just in case, dependin’ on where he wants to meet us, you’ll have an easy job.” He said to Jason.

He looked back to Laine, “The dice are loaded in the Blackriver Sheriff’s favor. The Park Rangers around here might be in his pocket and in case you forgot, we’re not…” He looked around the diner, righting his next words before they could potentially wrong them sometime down the road, “We’re not on good terms. I said we’re playin’ under Moscow Rules, so I’m not goin’ to harass the opposition. But they’re still opposition. They ain’t gonna keep me from finding the sick fuck skinnin’ people ‘round here.”

“They want to keep us from gettin’ Frank? I’m goin’ to show them how bad I want him from them.” Donnelley sucked his teeth and shrugged, “Sometimes it gets like that. Ain’t sayin’ I’m pushin’ for it.”

Laine heard them out, they were right about the sheriff not wanting them there but the subtle denial of assistance was not the same as open hostility. That was the facade and up until now she was content to keep it that way, especially when it came to Frank Wilkins.

"That's fair," she said simply, then glanced between both of the men, her hands b "I just want assurance we'll try a nonviolent approach until it proves impossible. And if you say you're not pushing for it...I believe you."

Her gaze met Donnelley's briefly, then flicked away, moving to Jason. "Alright then, Dulane we'll just have to figure out what he wants and say what we need to get what we want. I don't like it but I understand the situation time is ticking and this is not an academic study. Who is going to question him by the way?"

“Me and Jason can get at him. I’m not tryin’ to take this case off your hands or play cowboy, but if there’s one thing they taught me at The Farm it’s how to cultivate assets.” Donnelley jerked a thumb Jason’s way, “This guy knows it too. If Dulane’s a fuckin’ nut like Roy says he is then he’s hopeless. But if he’s not? He’s damn ripe to cut a deal for table scraps at this point. He don’t want to be there, or he’s used to it, but that little voice in his head is going to be begging for the outside world.”

Donnelley looked at Jason, “We’ll give it to him.” And then went back to Laine, “If we got to, we’ll arrange to take him for a walk to the place it all happened, jog his memory and have him tell us why he did what he did. You’re right, he should’ve been put in a mental ward. Somebody wanted him shut up somewhere he couldn’t talk. We’re goin’ to be his two guardian angels out of there.”

Donnelley frowned, “For a price. Good intel.”

Laine frowned slightly, mulling over what he told her, "Then where do you want me during the Dulane meeting? If he is mentally unstable, you might need my advice...not that I doubt either of your capabilities of handling this. Look, he's probably suffering from untreated PTSD and other side effects of trauma, though I'm inclined to believe the crazy label might have just been assigned to him because of what he said he saw."

Her eyebrows quirked up and a ghost of a smile touched her lips, "As I'm sure it would if I talked about the problem in that septic tank to anyone other than plumbers."

She caught herself, glancing over as Annie approached with a tray. Annie smiled a greeting and slid the oversized chicken fried steak hanging off the plate in front of Jason and the BLT and a glass of water before Laine then peered down at Donnelley, pulling the order pad from her apron, "And you, hon? What can I get you?"

“Coffee and, uh,” He rolled his jaw in thought, “Omelette.”

“Sure thing, hon’.” Annie smiled and hurried off.

“You and Jason then. I want him out of there, givin’ him some time outside the prison might make him more receptive to talk. I wouldn’t trust police if they were the ones who put me in Beckwith.” Donnelley folded his arms, his corded forearms across his chest, “We’ll need to get it okayed and have Marshals with us, but it’s better’n nothin’. Hell, promise anythin’ you need to squeeze him dry.”

“I’d tell him I believed him if he sticks to his mine devils story. Ain’t a far stretch with the shit… we deal with.” Donnelley didn’t want to utter the name of The Program out loud in public.

Laine took a sip of water, watching Donnelley her gaze drifting to his folded arms then back to his face. She set her glass down, nodding slightly. As she had when she questioned Wilkins she would try to make Dulane comfortable and hopefully he would tell everything they needed. If not, there was Jason and whatever DIA tricks he might have up his sleeve.

"Right," she said, "We can handle it, I wanted to get a look at the mines myself anyway."

Laine paused, then picked up a piece of the sandwich, examining it before taking a bite. Once she swallowed, she looked at Donnelley, the memory of the tavern in Charleston came rushing back. But so did the sting of his comment earlier.

"If you want some fries while you wait, I'm not going to be able to finish them all," Laine said, shrugging slightly, her eyes searching his.

He looked up from the table to find her looking at him in that way she always did. Like conversation was chess, picking people apart was one-part hobby, one-part habit. He nodded a few times, slow, as he reached over to her plate. He stopped just short, “Thank you.”

He plucked one from her plate and sunk his teeth into the thick steak fry, ripping half of it from itself and chewing. His gaze didn’t leave hers until he flicked it away to the window, watching a bird on a powerline before they went back to the grain of the table. He finished off the last morsel, wanting to say something to Laine. An apology, as the good night he’d had in Charleston with her came back to him with the taste of it. But he wanted it to be private. Admitting that he was wrong, that he was an asshole for no good reason was not something easily pulled from behind his teeth. Especially if it was to someone he liked, “Good fries.”

“So, Frank Wilkins. Wherever he has us meet him, we get in, get him, get out. Any interviews we save for when we get to the Safehouse. Anyone not at this table is a potential hostile.” He said, infinitely more comfortable speaking on the case than trying to pick up pieces from his entrance. Shit, he thought, was he going to have to apologize to Jason too? Maybe not. There was an understanding between them.

Yet, he felt guilty for even insinuating that Laine was his. They’d known each other personally for what? A couple days, past a phone call and three months of passively knowing what she looked like and a name to her face. With Laine, there was no us, yet. Yet? “We’re kicking the hornet’s nest as it is by taking Frank Wilkins. It’s one thing taking a bad guy off the street and… liquidating him.” His eyes flicked from Jason to Laine and back to the table, “I’d rather not shoot anyone in the face if I don’t have to.”

As soon as his plate of food was handed over Jason took to the steak with his fork and knife, an animal replied spreading from its warmth settling in his empty stomach. He'd have to work off the gravy, but figured he'd be burning lots of calories throughout the days. He had shoveled two heaping cuts of steak and hashbrowns before Annie had walked away, nodding in response to both Laine and Donnelley.

"I hope we don't either," he said, pushing the food in his mouth to one side as he spoke. "If it comes to that we know where they stand, what they'd be willing to do. Getting Dulane out of the prison is going to be hard. We sweet talk the warden already? What's our angle?"

“US Marshals are going to have to be a part of it, that’s a done deal. We can tweak things if I can talk to Foster before the outing is scheduled, if it even gets approved.” Donnelley said, eyeing the two plates at Laine and Jason’s busy hands. He felt hunger pangs in his gut which meant potential distractions and even complications with low blood sugar if and when things went awry.

He sighed, “Anyways, if our people can intercept a request to the local Marshal’s field office, we can have one of our own teams pose as Marshals SOG for security during transport.” He looked at Jason, “Like anybody else, I’m sure the Warden would be receptive to large amounts of money to approve it and keep his lips tight.”

“If that happens, then I can’t be exposed to anyone in Beckwith, not even a gate guard. It wouldn’t do if people were scratching their heads at Special Agent John Davidson also being a US Marshal. You two need to be the only ones handling Dulane. I can pose as the Lead Marshal when the time comes.” Donnelley reached over and plucked another fry from Laine’s plate and made it disappear in two quick bites, chewing over the plan, “We only tell everybody what we absolutely need to. Dulane’s testimony is part of an ongoing case, nothing more or less.”

Laine finished half her sandwich as Donnelley spoke, the reality of the situation of getting Dulane out to the mines sinking in. Bribery of all things, hopefully she could convince the warden before getting to that point and she had an idea. Before she could speak, her phone lit up urgent piercing chirps and she snatched it up, answering.

"This is Agent Laine," she identified herself then jerked her head up, looking at Donnelley. Giving a push to her plate towards him, she slid out of the booth and said, "Just hold a moment, its noisy here."

As she stood up, she silently mouthed, "Wilkins."

Laine strode away, making a beeline to the restroom, it was a one stall affair and would afford her the most privacy.

After she locked the door, she said, "Frank, it's good to hear from you. Talk to me."

“Hey, um,” Frank paused, sounding somewhat more calm than the last time they’d spoke. There was still an edge there, though, “I packed my shit that night you came to talk to me and got out of there. They can’t keep me there, I won’t let them.”

“I took the bus to Charleston and I’m at a Motel 6 along the way. I don’t know, but I think someone’s watching me.” He said, a whisper this time.

"Good, that's good," she said, leaning against the sink. It was worrisome but not surprising that he was being watched. Loose lips sink ships.

"Frank, you probably are being watched but I want you to stay calm and don't leave your room," she said, her voice even and confident, even as her stomach knotted. "We're coming for you. What's your room number?"

“I’m in room 204.” He swallowed, not exactly relieved that his conjecture was probably confirmed by Laine. “Just get here quick. It’s the Motel 6 on the main road to Charleston.”

"We'll be there as soon as possible, call me if anything changes," Laine said, reaching to unlock to door.

Once he disconnected Laine left the restroom, walking quickly back to the booth. She reached over to grab her purse, pulling her wallet out to leave a tip and glanced around for Annie before addressing the men. "Looks like we'll be needing to-go boxes, that was our boy."

Donnelley simply nodded, looking to Jason, “Let’s git.”
>GRU-UMBRA SAFEHOUSE
>BLACKRIVER, WEST VIRGINIA
>DAY OF FOREST EXPEDITION
>2150HRS...///

Ava had the window rolled down of her rented sedan, the cool air hitting her face as she navigated the dark mountain roads. The crisp smell the pines and the mustiness of the Earth was nice and while it didn't necessarily help her nerves it didn't make them worse, so she kept the window down.

She had been driving 8 almost 9 hours straight after leaving her home at roughly 1 pm; after her meeting with Agent Stark. It had taken her awhile to get her affairs in order, making sure her projects were in good hands, informing teams she'd been working with she was leaving unexpectedly. Turning down the invite to the Stranger Things party had been surprisingly disappointing. She would have preferred it to being transferred to Operations.

She informed no one of the transfer, of course. She didn't want to talk about it or deal with the looks of pity. She kept it appropriately vague which wasn't unusual for her line of work. People understood different levels of secrecy were needed and if someone was being intentionally vague then you didn't press them for answers.

Petty? Probably, but Ava had a hard enough time keeping herself together. She had tried calling Agent Foster or the Team Lead Joseph Donnelley but they hadn’t answered, which didn’t help her anxiety. She got the location of the Safe House through other means and just packed up some clothes, her laptop, a few basic repair tools, and a pair of drones after she learned she’d be out in the middle of nowhere. Stark had said she was needed ASAP so she took that as gospel and left as soon as she could. She didn’t know what she was needed for so she came as prepared as she could.

Which included bringing her Glock...That sat in it’s holster in her center console, within easy reach and if she was pulled over, it wasn’t sitting in the glove compartment with the car’s paperwork.

Mrs. Greir had thankfully been understanding about her needing to leave town unexpectedly and would look after Thor for her. She had also, blessedly, not asked why Ava had to leave suddenly for work nor why Ava couldn't tell her when she'd be back. Just told her to drive safe and gave her a few road snacks and drinks for the drive. Ava thought it had something to do with her late husband’s work before he retired, maybe she was used to being kept in the dark?

All the same, Ava wished she could have talked to her friend about it. Get some of the nervous energy twisting her gut in knots out and have Mrs. Greir tell her it’d all be okay.

She did take one piece of advice she learned from Mrs. Greir and it made her a little optimistic about meeting her new team. If you wanted to break the ice, nothing worked better than bringing a food that everyone generally enjoyed. That and it was just polite to bring something to someone’s home if you were invited. While technically this wasn’t someone’s home she was invited to, she thought the same principles applied.

Besides, from what she heard about Operations, especially their field agents...She wanted to be on these people’s good side. So when she had been driving through Charleston, she made a small stop before she left the city.

Ava took in a deep breath and straightened up as she rounded a bend and a squat, two story cabin in the middle of a clearing came into view; right where the coordinates said it would be. There weren’t any lights on in the windows down stairs, but there were a few cars parked in the gravel driveway so maybe everyone was asleep. Great, she’d have to wake someone up to let her in, at least she had the donuts as offerings. Not the best way to say hello. She thought with a grimace as she pulled up close to the porch and turned off the car.

She reached over to the passenger seat and picked up the two bright pink boxes of donuts that had been sitting there since she left Charleston. She opened the car door and stepped out onto the gravel, cradling the boxes in her hands she shut the door hard with her sneaker covered foot. “Okay, just knock, apologize and offer up the donuts.” She muttered to herself as she started slowly walking toward the porch.

Flying had always been soothing for Jason. Even before the Air Force he felt comfort in the thrum of the engines, the vibration of their mechanical lullaby a womb-like white noise. He had no qualms about its regressive allure. It seemed like everyone needed a womb to curl up in, a moment like a place to slough off their existential skin. All of the song and dance of self medication were but fleeting attempts to feel that animal comfort again, and there were too few people to accept it all as it truly was. For the briefest of moments Jason didn’t have to be anything but a human body soothed into rest by the violence of its mechanical making. The great illusion comforting us all.

Without substances it was hard to sink into that deep sleep he was seeking, but the buzz of aircraft was enough to ease him into a shallow slumber. He was under the surface of its haze and a turbulence free ride into West Virginia kept him from bobbing up into wakefulness. If there were any dreams they had slipped into the void of unconscious forgetfulness, and despite Dan’s close call in Amman Jason’s subconscious wasn’t acting up. And then it did.

Come and see…

Nothing but voice and darkness and the pressure of anxiety throbbing against his ribcage.

Come and see…

Dan’s heart had stopped. He hadn’t yet vomited into his mouth and back down his throat. Not yet. Don’t you fucking die you amateur piece of shit, he thought.

Come and see…Come and see…Come an-

“Bailey! Come and see these mountains, aren’t they something else?” a portly woman rang out in a southern twang. Jason came to staring at the back page of a in-flight catalogue tucked in the seat in front of him. To his right across the aisle the woman was shuffling her overworked ankles so her gut could rest against the arm of the chair. “Come on!” she howled out, mindless of the passengers around her. An adolescent version of the woman waddled up the aisle and smushed her face against the glass adjacent from Jason. Asinine novelty at its finest. Good ole US of A.

The landing was thankfully uneventful and Jason was quick to repeat his in-country routine. Activate his burner debit card and phone. Withdraw cash, sign anything as Mike Salem. Check the carry-on outside the airport. Everything he had left substance wise was secure. Mostly adderall, some pain pills, and a cleverly disguised bottle with the infamous ketamine that almost killed Dan. Then it was a taxi to a second rate car rental joint, something local. Nondescript car, no flashy colors. A Ford Taurus was his chariot for this outing.

Instead of heading straight to the fieldhouse Jason felt oddly social and whipped into the nearby Walmart for beer, brisket, and a bottle of Pendleton Rye he thought Donnelley would appreciate. The beer was light and there were many, nothing snooty. Nothing that would make Laurie scoff and turn his nose up or Dr. Laine playfully criticize. Tom and Justin would drink anything, he’d wager. After his stop he slinked off into the mountains riding an anxious wave of excitement. Not even the memory of the Baughman’s could shake his newfound extroversion. He embraced that positive energy, clung to it like a drifting piece of wood in a roiling sea of Appalachian trees. It felt right, as if the universe was aligning and the dilapidated road was his cosmic byway. All aligning for him. Once it was rural enough he reached for the beers and cracked one open, rolling down the window and bathing in the cool mountain air. Was this camaraderie? Could he finally feel at home? Did it take a morbid, fucked up tragedy and the scarred cleaning crew Donnelley had assembled? That’s just life, he thought, but this was in full color. The roof of the cabin crested the rising asphalt and swaying canopy. Jason was coming back.

Scraping rocks protested underneath the roll of the Taurus’ tires as Jason eased the vehicle into park. The cars around the house were somewhat different but it didn’t give Jason pause; they were coming from all over and just like his rental theirs would inevitably be different. He hooked the bags of groceries into his hands and made way towards the porch, seeing a figure that slowly became the visage of someone he hadn’t met before. A woman, petite and with a milky pale complexion. Jason tried his best to not let his frown sour their impromptu meeting, and tried just as hard to not let his eyes wander. It wasn’t that he couldn’t help himself, but perhaps it was exactly that. His appetite made working with women hard, and he was ashamed to even recognize that within himself. But what was most important was making sure she was where she was supposed to be. He made a mental check of the .45 at his waist and gave a warm but fabricated smile.

“Hey there,” he said, approaching the porch behind her. “New, I’m guessing? Crowder must of recruited you.” It was a false name, an easy front to expose an imposter. He hoped he wouldn’t have to smash the liquor on the ground to shoot her, either. The close encounter in Amman had him predatory. Bad luck on her part.

Ava was staring at the door, after having knocked quite loudly to wait for someone to let her in. Instead of the door opening however, she heard a deep, rumbling voice speak up from behind her. She jumped and quickly turned around, keeping a hand on the top box to make sure the donuts didn’t fall from her grasp.

“Oh, um, hello.” She said, swallowing nervously as she eyed the silhouette of a man walking to the porch. She couldn’t make out his features well in the darkness, but she could more than see the broad width of his shoulders and the noticeable bulging biceps of his arms. Her heart felt like it was beating so fast it’d burst out of her chest. She tried to shift away and her shoulder bumped against the door, blocking her retreat that way.

Her mind started racing through a number of nightmare scenarios and she wished she had thought to even grab her pepper spray. “Yeah, I’m new, I’m Avaline Moore?” She said slowly, clearing her throat. “I don’t know who Crowder is, I’m looking for a man named Foster? Or Donnelley? Am I in the right place?” She asked, glancing around the porch of the cabin. There was no way she had the wrong location, maybe Crowder was one of the other people of UMBRA? She didn’t know all their names, just the Agents she needed to report too.

Jason chuckled at himself when she mentioned Donnelley and Foster, amused he was contemplating shooting her so easily. I guess I’m being a little jumpy now aren’t I, he thought. He closed the distance between them, wearing a boyish grin and shaking his head as he stepped past her and to the door. Each footfall pounded deep against the weathered wood below him, his full stature looming over her.

“Right place, but we seem to be early,” he said, dropping the groceries and handling his keys to unlock the door. “Jason Jimenez. They picked me up from the DIA.” He opened the door, grabbed the groceries, and slid his foot forward to hold the door open for her. “After you, Ms. Moore.”

Ava shrunk away from the door to let him open it, his size right next to her even more intimidating as she got a true sense of his scale. She was used to people being taller than her, but she wasn’t used to being around men that looked like they could lift the back end of a car. She returned his grin with a small, anxious smile. “Thank you.” She said and scooted past him and into the dark interior of the house.

“The DIA?” She repeated to make polite conversation as she looked around for a light switch. “I was from the CIA.” She found a lamp and set the donuts down on the coffee table so she could turn it on, letting out soft light to chase away some of the shadows. “I got called this morning and told to report here immediately.” She explained, turning around and picking up the donut boxes.

She looked over at him in the light provided by the lamp now and relaxed a little now that she could see his face. It was a face that complimented the bulkiness of his frame, but the grin softened his features and made him seem more friendly. “I’m, um, IT, basically.” She looked down at the boxes in her arms. “I brought donuts.” She added, a little awkwardly.

He followed behind her, striding to the kitchen and producing a flood of light that ran for the corners of the cabin. The air was cool inside but stuffy with dust and dragged in dirt. He began to unpack the groceries, looking up from the kitchen island to study Ava every few moments. Foster and Donnelley always know how to pick them, he thought. Focus on cooking, you twat. She doesn’t want any this.

“Good to see another spook in the mix,” he said, the crisp exhale of two open beer cans announcing his collected walk towards her. He extended the beer her way, his can already rounding the edges of his lips. After a hearty gulp and hand off he continued, “Lots of DOJ with us, a profiler and an investigator, I believe. SWAT leader too. At least you have a partner in Donnelley, he’s Central as well.”

He returned to the kitchen and began to look around for spices, clicking his tongue against the side of his mouth at the disappointing assortment. At least he had bought a dry rub and some sauce. “Usually Donnelley would be here glaring into the sunset and sucking down cigarettes. He might be out on something official. Least I can do is make a hot meal for ‘em when they get back. And you brought the dessert.” He gave a playful wink at that, nodding at the donuts.

“Where you from, Ms. Moore?”

Ava accepted the beer after setting the donuts down on a free space on the kitchen counter. She looked down at the can in her hand, her lips were smiling but her stomach was curling as the heavy scent of the beverage wafted into her nose. When he turned away she glared down at the beer and tried to think of a way to ditch it without offending one of the people she would be working with. Where was a potted plant when you needed one…

When he turned back to her and she quickly brought the beer to her lips to take a tentative sip, since it seemed like the polite thing to do.

It tasted as bad as it smelled. She fought the urge to grimace, her straight, button nose wrinkling slightly as she lowered the can back down, rubbing her hand over her mouth to try to hide her expression; her pale cheeks burning underneath her own smattering of freckles.

“Oh, I’m from Rhode Island.” She answered, giving him another friendly smile, hoping he didn’t notice her reaction to the beer. “I was actually, probably born here in West Virginia?” She said, the end of the statement turning into a question as she was still fuzzy on that detail herself. “But I grew up near Providence.” She added quickly to clarify. “Um, how about you Mr Jimenez? Where are you from?” She asked with a small, if slightly crooked smile. “And, you can call me Ava, if you want. I don’t mind.”

After cleaning his hands Jason put the hearty slab of brisket on a foil lined pan and began to work the dry rub over its fleshy surface. There was something soothing in the process that reminded him of home, and when Ava asked where that was he said, ”Texas. Houston to be exact.”

The meat and mention of home bubbled something up like a summoned image to the calm surface of his mind. The drunk-heavy eyes of his mother’s friend and the sour fumes of his breath. Let me tell you the first rule about cooking, he had slurred. No matter what if it tastes good then do it. No one gives a shit about a recipe. It ain’t furniture instructions. Jason hadn’t cared he was drunk, which had always made him uncomfortably alert, and was happy someone was teaching him anything. He had imagined it was one of those vital lessons that a father was supposed to teach his son, an inkling he was offered but was otherwise not meant for him. And in all those years it finally came back up. A bittersweet smile teased itself out from his lips.

“Ava, a word of advice,” he said after a silent moment. He looked up from the brisket, eyes dark and his face a stormy sternness. “If you’re going to stick around for this I’d suggest you make peace with what used to be.” He grabbed his beer with a spice and blood grimed hand and gulped it down as if it was water. “Donnelley didn’t want to tell us upfront and I don’t think I can either. And talk to Dr. Laine. When things get hard she’ll help.”

Ava blinked in surprise at the shift in his tone and expression and felt the hair stand up on end on the back of her neck as he gave his ominous advice. She wished she had a taste for the beer in her hand, the alcohol would have been nice to sooth the surging sense of panic in her chest. ‘Make peace with what used to be’ made her think of the things she would have to confront that she had been desperately trying to bury for the past two years.

The memories of her nightmares started bubbling forth and she reached up with her free hand to pull her St Michael pendant out from under her soft jersey t-shirt. She pressed her thumb against it and took in a deep breath, trying to bring herself back to center and not have a melt down in front of this complete stranger.

“I...should go get my stuff out of the car.” She said, setting the beer on the kitchen counter. Not the most subtle of escapes, but she needed something to do with this sudden surge of adrenaline. “I’ll be back.” She added, giving him a forced smile and not quite meeting his eyes as she walked out of the kitchen.

Headlights washed over the front of the cabin, relief then surprise exploding in her chest as Laine hit the brakes, skidding in the gravel as the momentum of the big truck tried to stop on a dime. The small car parked there had been unexpected and she almost slammed into it. There was something else in the headlamps, a pale lithe figure. A child. What the everloving fuck was going on?

Laine shoved the truck into park and when she looked again she realized it was a small woman, not a child and then on the porch was a glow of fire in the pit. Another car in the driveway

“People are here,” she said unbuckling her seatbelt, reaching up to knock the loose helmet off her head.

The click-clack of Donnelley’s Honey Badger came from the back as he threw open the big door, “Jesus Christ…” He limped out of the Suburban, coming around the back to spot a little girl. After the day he just had, he wasn’t sure if she was real or could be trusted. Mysterious children in odd places were never a good thing, “Y’all seein’ her?”

"Yeah, I'm trackin' her." Dave was out of the SUV and moving, his SLR raised to a low-ready. His head throbbed; the semi-comfortable fuzziness had faded, replaced by an impact-induced headache that pulsed along with his heartbeat. The lights were still too bright, his footsteps unsteady, but he socked his rifle into his shoulder and moved the opposite direction from his new friend, covering the angles the other man couldn't and staying out of his line of fire.

"Take it this'n ain't yours?" He called. "Hey, miss, you might oughta put your hands up. Real easy, okay?"

Everything happened very quickly for Ava. One moment she was pulling her duffle bag out of the trunk of the car and the next there was a roaring of an angry engine and bright lights. She yelped and stumbled out of the way of the oncoming car, nearly losing her footing from the loose gravel while clutching her bag.

She looked up with wide eyes as two men exited the car, dressed in tactical gear and weapons drawn. One of them was spattered with blood and the other looked like he was drunk the way he swayed on his feet. And he was holding the biggest gun.

Ava dropped her mint green duffle bag, covered in pink roses and her hands shot up in the air. “Please don’t shoot me! I-I’m Avaline Moore and Agent Foster sent for me!” She squeaked out, her hands shaking in the air, tears welling up in her eyes and her heart felt like it was trying to jump out of her chest to run for safety.

Inside Jason was washing off his hands when the telltale crunch of gravel preceded Ava’s panicked shout. He bound from the kitchen to the livingroom, seeing the beaming glare of the headlights coming through the window. Instead of the front door Jason raced towards the back, bounding up to his room as quickly as he could. He through around his gear until he uncovered his KSG, turned it upside down to check if each barrel magazine was loaded, and racked it on his way towards the back door.

His chest was pounding as he kicked the back door open and pied the corner around towards the cars. His weight betrayed his approach as the gravel gave way with each heavy step, and as he approached them from the side he had his shotgun trained on the figure pointing his weapon at who he assumed was Ava. Then he saw Donnelley.

“Friendly at your three!” he shouted, lowering his KSG and trying to make sense of everything.

Everything unraveled at once, the car doors opening and guns drawn on the woman and even Laine drew her service weapon, the Glock in her hand before she could think who this person might be. The last time she tried to approach a stranger unarmed was not pleasant to think about. She pointed it low, then stepped forward slowly, the poor thing looked scared to death, “Foster is that true?”

Before he could answer she heard a shout, a familiar voice she recalled the over the phone last time she had heard it. “Jason!?”

Her focus shifted off the girl and she called out, “Jimenez, we have wounded.”

“Everybody lower your goddamn fucking weapons, Jesus!” Foster holstered his own, which had entered his hand in all the excitement. He entered the center of the scene with both his hands out, looking at everyone, “I know her! I requested her! She’s Ava, she’s a contractor from Booz-Allen!”

“Fuck me.” Donnelley growled, dropping his weapon to sway from its single point sling and turned to the new guy, “Stand down, man. Mexican standoff’s over.”

He didn’t bother with introductions, just began his limp towards Jason, grunting at him as he passed, “Medic.”

Dave nodded and lowered his weapon, the safety snapping over with the loud clak so common to Kalashnikov style rifles. He pulled it off to the side and watched Donnelley walk away, leaning against the SUV for support. As he had so many times in the last few weeks, he took a moment to wonder just what the fuck he'd gotten himself into.

"So," he said. He looked over at the woman who'd driven and the man who had ordered them all to stand down. "You uh… You guys know Bob? Cuz he's gonna want to know where the fuck BLACKBEARD went, so…" He trailed off, then shrugged.

Ava swallowed back a sob of relief as everyone put their weapons away and she tentatively lowered her hands. She took the large glasses off her face to rub at her eyes and slowly sat down on the ground, taking deep, measured breaths to calm herself down.

She had a few ideas of what meeting the Working Group would be like and despite the rumors she had heard; she did not think she’d have guns pointed at her.

Laine holstered her gun, then turned to the stranger that had come along with the men. “I don’t know any Bob.”

She stepped closer, the headlights silhouetting her dark clad figure for a moment before she was beside him. Her gaze drawn from his face to the lump on his head, “You’re hurt, come on.”

Laine glanced at Ava, “Can you help him inside? Sorry about the greeting. It’s been a night.”

"I ain't that bad off, it's just a concussion." He waved a hand but allowed himself to be led to the door. He looked down at the small redhead and smiled sheepishly. "Hey, yeah, sorry 'bout all the guns."

He offered a hand to help her up. "You did good, keepin' your cool like that."

Ava let out one more long breath and jumped as one of the men stopped next to her. She quickly rubbed at her eyes before looking up at him while putting on her glasses so she could actually see his features. Her eyes went right to the giant bump on his head that was already turning a lovely shade of blood red from blunt force trauma.

So he hadn’t been drunk, but concussed. She didn’t know if she should feel bad for misjudging him or more concerned he had previously had a gun on her. She gently took his hand and stood up, dusting off her jeans and shuffling her feet on the gravel. “Thank you.” She said softly, her voice and hands still a little shaky as the adrenaline hadn’t quite subsided yet. “I’m sorry for...startling you all.” She said, rubbing her hands together to try and hide their shaking and looking back up at the man’s face.

Ava grimaced as she got an even better look at the bump. “You look like you need some ice.” She said and pointed to the door. “I just got here, but I can help you find some?”

"Yeah, okay." Dave nodded and followed the small woman inside.

Laine watched Donnelley and Jason go inside, followed by the two strangers. She went to Tom and Justin, noting their more minor injuries and suggested they head inside as well. Once they had gone, she turned off the truck and shut the driver’s door then leaned against it. The sound, the sound that had accompanied the running men. Maybe she had imagined it, just like the laugh under the dark pier. Laine rubbed her head, brushing her fingers back through short dark hair and rested on the back of her neck. Tension made the tendons there taut and she massaged them for a moment, closing her eyes.

It had to have been, nothing could make that sound. Nothing outside Hollywood, she told herself. Her glasses rested in her pocket, she had taken them off at some point in the long wait and out of habit she put them on, the barrier between her face and the world once more back in place. Looking in the dark reflection of the glass, she straightened her hair and took a few deep breaths, bringing herself down and forcing her face back into the calm cool expression of the FBI profiler.

She turned and went back towards the cabin, glancing at Foster, “Are you coming? He’s hurt pretty bad.”

Once inside, Laine paused in the kitchen, noting the cooking materials left out and then looked at Ava and Dave. “I’m Special Agent Dr. Heather Laine, FBI. Welcome to Blackriver.”

She looked over at Dave, recalling the accent when he had spoken then narrowed her eyes slightly, “Unless you’re from here?”

"Huh?" Dave eyed Laine for a moment. He held a bag of frozen vegetables to his forehead. "Nah, I'm from Arkansas. Different kinda hillbilly. I'm Dave. MacCready. Er...Just Dave, no titles. I'm not a Fed."

“Right, sorry,” she replied, then took a bottle of water from the refrigerator, offering him one. “You mentioned something about Bob and Blackbeard. I’m sure Foster or Donnelley would know...”

She trailed off, looking towards the other room then shook her head, the concern in her green eyes flashing behind her black framed glasses. Laine nodded, “So, Dave of no titles, you were with another group and things went bad.”

Laine stopped herself for a moment, noticing Ava, the small young woman that Foster said was IT. Already replaced Gwen she thought grimly, despite her dislike of the Air Force tech she did not want her dead. And since neither she nor Laurie arrived with them and Donnelley being Donnelley, Laine presumed they were dead.

Ava wasn’t quite sure what to do with herself, part of her mind was still processing the sudden arrival of the rest of the team while also trying to remember how to treat someone with a concussion. She got him something frozen at least to nurse the bump and was looking around in the cabinets for...something. A first aid kit maybe? Were you supposed to give aspirin for a head injury? Or was giving a person with a concussion drugs a bad idea?

She overheard the conversation between ‘Dave’ and ‘Dr. Heather Laine’ and stopped in her looking to give them both a confused look. Another team? Things went bad? What kind of things? Was that why she couldn’t get in touch with Foster earlier?

Her eyes met with the Special Agent when the older woman looked at her and she froze. “Um, hi.” She said softly. “I’m Ava,” She already knows that, say something else. “I got here forty minutes ago.” Brilliant. She thought sarcastically.

Laine nodded, eyeing the redhead and her expression, “Quite the introduction, then. Are you alright?”

No. Ava thought immediately but forced herself to nod. “Just...Surprised.” She said, turning back to the cabinet she had been looking in and shut the doors when she didn’t find a first aid kit. She spotted the pink boxes she brought and picked one up, moving it over to Dave and Dr. Laine. “I brought donuts? You can have as many as you want.” She set them down on the island in the middle of the kitchen and then went back to looking through cabinets.

Partially for a first aid kit and partially to give herself something to do so she wasn’t standing idle. “Um, so, something happened?” She asked tentatively, opening a cabinet, realized she had already looked through it and then shutting it again.

"Yeah." Dave sighed and leaned back against the refrigerator. His head was aching, and the exertions of the last 24 hours were starting to catch up to him. Or was it 36 now? 48? He hadn't been sleeping well anyway. He stifled a groan, part exhaustion and part frustration, with perhaps a little grief mixed in for the men who'd been lost. He hadn't known them well, but still…

"Yeah, somethin' happened," he said. "I'll probably hafta give your boss the story soon, but… There's somethin' in them woods. Killed my team, all but me and fuckin' Bob, wherever the hell he is. Killed a couple others too. Damn near killed me."

Laine took the donuts to the table, opening it and gestured for Dave to join. She reached into her back pocket and took out a black notebook then she hunted up a pen from the drawer. Clicking it, she sat down and looked up at Dave, “I can help with that. Mind talking about it while it’s fresh? I know you’re tired and hurting but I don’t think it’s a good idea that you go to sleep right now. We have coffee, a Keurig machine, so any flavor you want.”

Jason had taken Donnelley and the other wounded into the living room, using the coffee table as a makeshift examining table. Unless he needed help, it was best they gave him room to work.

When Dave started to move to make himself coffee, Ava put a tentative hand on his arm to stop him. “I can do that.” She offered him with a small smile, eager to do something that wasn’t mindlessly searching through the kitchen. “What kind of coffee do you like?”

"Ah hell, I don't care, sweetheart, make what you want." He eyed Laine's notebook warily for a minute. "Look, I'm not good at this spook shit. So if it's all the same to you, I'm gonna wait and tell y'all's boss the story. Once I figure out for sure that I'm where I need to be, you know? Nothin' personal, I just thought me and my boys were the only armed nutjobs in these mountains, aside from the locals."

He gave her an apologetic smile coupled with an iron-hard stare. "Like I said. Nothin' personal."

Laine set the pen down and dipped her chin slightly. The man was still carrying his weapon so she gave him a polite, tight smile, “That’s fine, no pressure, Mr MacCready. I’m sure he will want to hear it. As we all do.”

She took a donut and bit into it delicately, careful not to smear her lipstick. “But you’re still not going to sleep, not with that chingaso on your forehead.”

Jason swung Donnelley’s weight on the coffee table, walking brisking to his gear, saying “Hope you don’t care about those pants, boss.” A multicam pack was amongst the equipment that had come with him and by the time he came back he had surgical scissors in his other hand. Without engaging Donnelley he pushed him from his back to sitting and studied his legs for a second. Both seemed about the same length. Most likely no femur break, he thought; good. From the bottom of the pants leg he sliced upward on Donnelly’s pants short of the tourniquet. Jason looked around the cabin, noticing a few of their own were missing. “How long has this tourniquet be on?”

“Long enough to get from the forests to here. Maybe… uh, forty-five.” Donnelley answered, his eyes were heavy and his voice slurred. It felt like he had to will his own body to cooperate with him as he lifted his leg slightly to let Jason cut up his pants, he offered Jason a cheeky smile and a chuckle, “You know, I usually don’t let boys do this on the first date. How bad‘s it lookin’, friendo?”

"Aww don't feel bad, I have that effect on first dates," Jason replied, flashing the same cheeky smile. He grabbed a fentanyl lollipop and offered it to Donnelley, his other hand fumbling to turn on his phone's flashlight app. He checked his pupils with the glaring light, saying, "You've had one of those lollipop before, take it before I see what we've got. If you don’t want to care about the pain I have some K we can use. Sounds like you've misplaced some blood."

“Jason, you been holdin’ out on me, shoo’.” Donnelley chuckled, scratching at his neck. In truth, he was very much not looking forward to having his leg in full view. It always made it hurt more, looking at a wound. He felt his chest tighten knowing the tourniquet was going to come off and let the pain flow freely with the blood. “Shit, yeah. I’mma need me some K.”

His gear had plasma bags but he was worried they were spoiled; it was still worth the try. It seemed like he had taken a bullet through the thigh by the looks of it. He worked quickly, requisitioning a tall lamp from the livingroom and tying a plasma bag to hang above Joseph. In an instant the IV was in his arm with a practiced ease.

"Before you get loopy tell me what happened. Good news is the bullet didn't break your femur and you'd be passed out if it that main artery."

Jason had all his gear ready to take off the tourniquet, and with a roiling thrill rising in his chest he took it off and cut away the rest of his pant leg as the blood began to flow.

Donnelley bit down on his lower lip and grunted while Jason worked on his leg, releasing the tourniquet. It wasn’t so much the pain, but as long as he could see his wound it made it no better. “Yeah, I figured that… thing in them woods didn’t hit my femoral or break my femur. Then again, I’m a tough sumbitch so,” he chuckled at his own cheesy boast to help steady his nerve when the blood flowed again and brought a rhythmic throbbing pain into his leg, “Took you a bit to answer the Bat Signal, guy. I wonder what that’s about.”

Jason pulled on some gloves, retrieved a needle and vial of Ketamine, and put it in Donnelley's lap. For the briefest of moments he made eye contact with Donnelley, glanced down at the needle, and back up to Donnelley again. The message was clear. You know what to do, his eyes said.

He nodded, getting to work and making distracting small-talk as he eased the needle into himself. He pushed the plunger down with even pressure as he winked and smirked at Jason, “Trust me, I understand if it’s a pretty Top Secret. I’m only lucky my Station Chief is a fuckwit or I wouldn’t be able to disappear for these lovely campin’ trips with y’all.”

"My chain has been hounding me over this, a little butt hurt I won't play ball," he said, beginning to wash out the wound with saline. Watered down blood dripped all over the living room and the metallic aroma of it sent Jason's memory into a vague recollection. "We also had an asset fire sale. I still can't make sense of it, contacts getting whacked across our AOR."

Now he had to stuff the wound and he gave Donnelley his best sarcastic smile to mask what would happen next. "I had some other things happen too, something I might run by you," he said, his finger sinking into Donnelley's leg. He'd notice it but hoped the fentanyl was kicking in. "You said a 'thing?' Something like Baughman? And where's the rest of our team?"

Donnelley’s brows rose and his eyes grew in surprise as he caught a glimpse of what Jason was doing to the hole in his leg. His hand lifted up to grab the man by the collar in a dulled, but very real sense of fight or flight. He instead put a quivering finger in Jason’s face, his quivering but stern voice, “Boy, you did not buy me dinner.”

There was a foreign pressure building up in the wound as Jason packed it, his smile becoming boyish, replying, “Hell, I was covering the brisket in a dry rub before you guys stumbled home. Even got us some rye. I’ll stitch you up and we can polish it off.”

He leaned back at the mention of the team, coming to lay as comfortably on the hardwood table his plate carrier would let him, “Yeah, Jason. Something like the Baughman cabin, but worse.” He came back up just a bit to lean on his elbow, “Laurie and… this girl. They- I sent…”

Again, he felt the somber nature of losing yet more people to the endless war against things he didn’t even understand. He rubbed his face, taking a deep breath before shoving another cigarette between his lips, “Well, they ain’t here, are they.” It wasn’t a question, and he looked away from Jason.

All the banter and wit drained from Jason’s face, but he couldn’t quite tell if Donnelley meant they didn’t come back or won’t be coming back. He focused on the entry point of the wound prepping the suture as he mouthed, “Could I have done something?” He almost regretted asking it, to have Donnelley drugged up and having to focus on whatever it was that kept the squirrelly park ranger from being with them. Jason had to know.

“Jason…” Donnelley said quietly, casting an eye at the new man in the group over at the dining table and back over to his leg. Sympathy in his eyes for what he knew Jason the medic would see as a failed opportunity. Hell, Donnelley wouldn’t be able to calm his thoughts of all the different decisions he could’ve made for Laurie and Gwen, “You seen what I did out there, ain’t nothin’ to be done. You finish up that leg, I’ll finish up this here smoke. We can polish off that rye and talk about anythin’ you want.”

"Fuck, man..." was all Jason could mutter as he finished stitching up the front side of the wound. "If you can stand I have to stitch the back side of your leg." He glanced at the amber fluid slowly dripping into Donnelley's arm. "You're gonna have to carry that lamp around for a bit."

Jason wouldn't let himself dwell on it when he had to finish patching up Donnelley. There was a depth in his eyes, a bottomlessness that warned about asking anything more about who was missing and why. They were like candles snuffed out in a cold, vacant dark. How many had been taken that way, he wondered. There'd always be untold numbers plunging into the long night, but how many had been dragged into it by the unknown. How far does their staircase into hell go? He stood and offered Donnelley his arm. No words this time, no jokes.

After making Dave a cup of coffee, Ava found herself back in the kitchen and staring at the walls for a few moments; her mind flat lining as to what to do now. Dwelling on her first impression of the UMBRA team and the vague, ominous words of Dave didn’t seem like a productive use of her time, no matter how hard her anxiety wanted to play it over and over again. Distraction, nothing wrong with a little distraction…

Her eyes landed on the raw brisket sitting on the kitchen counter still and she grimaced. That was one option, she couldn’t let the meat continue to sit out like that. She tucked a loose curl of red hair behind her ear and tentatively left the kitchen to find Jason Jimenez.

She did not have to go far to find the large DIA man and she immediately wanted to turn around and go back into the kitchen. He was currently in the process of stitching closed a wound in the back thigh of one of the men that had piled out of the car; Donnelley? Maybe? There was blood on Jason’s hands, all over the coffee table and was dripping down onto the floor beneath. It looked painful, she had no idea how her possibly Team Leader was able to stand the amount of pain he must have been in.

Her eyes went wide beneath her glasses and what little color was in her face naturally, drained away and left her as white as a sheet. “Uuh,” She croaked out and cleared her throat, forcing herself to tear her eyes away from the impromptu surgery happening in the living room. “Brisket.” She said, pointing back in the direction of the kitchen. “Do...what?”

Donnelley hopped on one leg to look at the source of the small voice. An equally small woman, the same one they’d gotten all in a knot over, standing in the doorway to the kitchen. He opened his mouth to speak, but seeing her in the full light…

Maybe it was just the drugs, he tried to tell himself as a creeping sense of recognition niggled at his mind. He looked at Jason and back to her, using his tongue to shift the lollipop to the other cheek, “Just…” He blinked, shaking his head and looking away from her, “Cover it up, for now. Be done in a second.”

He flashed a sheepish little smile at Jason working on his leg, “Shit, sorry for jostlin’.”

Jason didn't look up from Donnelley's thigh as he worked to close the wound, and only at the frayed edge of his focus could he recognize the voice as Ava's. It was best to say nothing instead of barking at her for talking about food when he was closing a hole in someone's leg. Probably something Laurie would have done, he thought. That goofy fuck. Give the woman some slack, too.

"Hey Ava," he said, still not looking up from his work. "Cover it in foil, but there's enough salt on it to keep the meat from spoiling for a bit. Do me a favor. I need a towel for this blood. More importantly I need that bottle of rye whiskey and three shot glasses."

“Hell yeah, we do.” Donnelley muttered and chuckled, “Stat.”

Jason leaned around Donnelley, adding, “You heard the boss.”

Ava nodded and quickly ducked back into the kitchen, thankful for a moment to catch a breath before she went about doing what Jason asked. She covered up the brisket and found the shot glasses easily enough, her search for a first aid kit earlier hadn’t been completely fruitless in that regard. With the whiskey in hand, she also grabbed a few kitchen towels to help soak up the blood. It didn’t seem like enough to soak up all the blood she saw dripping onto the floor, but they’d do until she could find a bigger towel.

"What are you doing?" Laine asked when Ava took the whiskey and glasses. "A bleeding man shouldn't be drinking booze."

Ava jumped, making the glass in her arms rattle as she looked up at Laine. “But...He said…” She trailed off and shrugged her small shoulders stiffly, her expression lost. “I thought...It’d help the pain? Or it can disinfect the wound?”

Laine rolled her eyes and shook her head, "This isn't 1865, he's got plenty of painkillers from Jason. He just wants his bottle."

She stood up and took the whiskey from her overloaded arms, and looked at the label. Her eyes met Ava's and she said, "Donnelley tell you to bring this?"

Donnelley’s face screwed up in a knee-jerk anger he hadn’t felt in a long, long time. It was a burning flame that did not build in intensity but instead just manifested and wanting to burn whoever put it there, “Yes, I did, Laine. It’s one,” he held up his index finger and shook it for good measure, “One drink. I’m not gonna fuckin’ croak. That thing didn’t kill me, some fuckin’ liquid goddamn won’t.”

Laine looked over the redhead at Donnelley, at his makeshift IV pole and the vulnerable state of his pants cut away. "Try to keep it to one or two, for your own good," she said, putting the bottle back in Ava's overloaded arms without looking down. Her gaze shifted to Jason holding his eyes as long as he would look at her. "Right, Doc, take care of him."

Jason’s expression was stern if anything, an expressionless stare that said more than a glare or verbal response would. The longer she held it the more prominent the barbs of anger began to poke inside of him. He stood and walked to Ava, grabbed the bottle from her hands, and with his bloody hand he unscrewed it and took a swig. He didn’t break his gaze from Laine until he walked back to Donnelley and thrust the bottle his way. Jason snatched up the used needle and remaining ketamine before anyone started questioning that as well, pocketing the vial and beginning to clean up.

Donnelley rose the bottle to Laine and took a deep, deep swig, wiping his mouth off on his sleeve. He turned away from her to Jason, “Let’s git. Meet me in the garage, I’mma change and head there so we can talk.” He began his hobbling in the direction of his room, grunting with each stiff-legged step and the thunk, thunk of his makeshift IV pole accompanying, “In peace.”

Before he disappeared into the hallway, he turned back and looked at Ava again. The recognition, the familiarity was still there, but so were the drugs. If it was there in the morning, he’d worry… for some reason. He shook his head and continued on.

Laine sighed then glanced back at Dave, still sitting with his gun and back at Ava. "I think I'll go have a shower, please make sure he doesn't go to sleep. He's likely got a bad concussion."

She walked away, making a berth around the coffee table and glanced at Jason then kept on her way to the women's bunk room.

Ava stood for a heart beat in the doorway, the shot glasses and kitchen towels still cradled in her arms. She had tried to remain as quiet and still as possible during the whole argument, trying not to make it worse and feeling somehow responsible for it happening in the first place.

She looked at Dave worriedly when Laine mentioned making sure he didn’t fall asleep. Good thing he had coffee, that should help...Hopefully. She turned her bright blue eyes back to Jason, cleaning up his makeshift operating table.

She set down the shot glasses, since they didn’t seem to be needed anymore, and approached the medic with the towels. “Here,” She said quietly, holding one out to him. “Is there...anything I can help do?” She asked while glancing down at the red stains that were slowly drying on the wood of the table and floor then back at him.

Jason took the towels, their eyes meeting for a second he made linger. What was she doing here, he wondered. It couldn’t be that she was unqualified, but her reaction to the evening had him feeling suspect. It wasn’t that she belonged either, but if she wasn’t prepared for their operations tempo or the trauma associated with it she’d crash hard. He hoped she wouldn’t, or that she could at least manage. Could he?

“No, Ava,” he said, his voice taking a turn for sympathetic. “You helped a lot, thank you. You haven’t had a gun pointed your way often, I take it. These guys are pretty hardcore, so you’ll be in good hands. You’ll be a jaded, stone cold fuck in no time. Get some rest if you can, I have a feeling we’re going to be worked hard come daylight.”

He stood with a large lump of blood soaked towels and disappeared out the front door, returning a moment later with free hands. It was time to chat with Donnelley, and sweet aftertaste of rye whiskey had him wanting more. He had a spare joint tucked away in his gear but he had a feeling Donnelley would want a drag. That would be too much for a conversation, so Jason would have to stick to the rye. Oh well.

“Welcome to the team,” Jason said to Ava, and disappeared on his way to the garage.

Ava watched Jason leave while her fingers played with the pendant of her necklace. Welcome to the team indeed.

Resting sounded like a good idea, maybe she'd feel better about this if she slept on it, with the help of her little sleep aides. She looked around for her bag briefly and then remembered she had left her duffle bag outside in the driveway during all the chaos. She checked that Dave was still awake and then headed outside to get her bag.

She was fairly certain another car wouldn't be ripping into the driveway at high speeds, filled with armed men. All the same, she kept an eye out and her ears alert as she grabbed her duffle bag from the dirt. She also grabbed her laptop bag and her Glock from the center console; so she didn't have to come back outside.

She was carefully tucking her gun into her laptop bag when over the ambient sounds of night; she heard a voice. Ava froze for a moment and listened intently, trying to pin point the location and the owner.

It sounded like it was coming from the back of the cabin. It wasn't a big building and the trees around them seemed to cause noises to echo and bounce around. It took her a moment to recognize the voice as belonging to Agent Foster. So that's where he went after all the chaos inside.

She frowned and made her way around to the back. She still hadn't officially reported to him, she needed to do that. That and she wanted to know what she had personally done to offend him to bring her out to the backwoods of West Virginia.

She took in a deep breath before rounding the corner to the back of the cabin, finding Agent Foster on the phone. She paused, not sure what to do. Should she approach and get his attention? Or wait to find him later when he wasn't on the phone? What if he thought she was eavesdropping? Spooks tended to not like that.

She shuffled her feet in the dirt and gravel in her indecisiveness.

A sigh and then more footsteps, growing closer. Foster came around the corner and flinched, “Jesus!”

He stepped back, one hand going for his pistol before he realized it was only Ava. And then a wave of guilt for almost pointing yet another weapon at the woman in the span of an hour. He gave her an annoyed look as he smoothed his tie and dress shirt, clearing his throat as he regained his composure, “Yes?”

Ava jumped and took a step back, holding up her hands when she realized she had startled the Agent.

“Sorry!” She said immediately, her face grimacing with guilt as she lowered her hands to grip one of the straps across her chest. “I heard you back here and realized I hadn't officially reported to you yet.” Ava explained, rubbing her thumb back and forth over the strap of her bag. “And, um, I'd like to know,” Why am I here? “What my job is now...exactly?”

Foster nodded as he crossed his arms over his chest. His eyes went over Ava and seemed to pry at her, almost boring a peephole into her thoughts. “Why else?” He shrugged, “I wanted you here. Your job is to support the investigation by any means available to you and necessary for the solving of this case. Anything related to technology and media. You’re highly recommended.”

It was a lie. Or a half-truth. Foster had read everybody’s files and chosen Donnelley to head the team because of the common thread of black slabs in their pasts. And when he’d heard of little Ava Moore from Booz-Allen Hamilton and her dreams… “Nothing more, nothing less. Why?”

Ava felt a bubble of frustration rise in her chest and wanted to snap at him what should be obvious. She clamped down on the anger however and took in a calming breath through her nose. “I just don't believe I'm qualified for field work, sir. I'm a contract hire, not a trained Operator like the others here.”

“Do you think me or Laine even pretend we can do what Donnelley and the others do?” Foster narrowed his eyes at her. Usually he was cool, calm. But the privacy of the Safehouse and the fact he was talking to his own subordinate made for little reason to hide anything, “I wanted you here, I got you here. You’re highly recommended in the things Booz-Allen hires you out to do. You’re a contractor, Ava. Grin, nod your head, and get to work.”

Ava looked away at the narrowed eyed look and found a spot of dirt to look at on her bag. As he spoke, maybe it was the anxiety and fear that she had been stewing in all day or the stress of having guns pointed at her for the first time in her life; but the nerves in her stomach curdled with anger at his non explanation, explanation.

Which pushed her to say, in a quiet but tight voice, “It's because of the dreams, isn't it?”

“Case Officers’ Working Groups are on this case of black slabs. I rotated Donnelley from his previous Working Group to this one because of the Slab he saw in Afghanistan, same as Tom. Same as Laine in Seattle.” Foster frowned, “Everyone has a reason to be here. Everyone has a reason to be in the Program. So, yes, you’re in the Program because of the dreams.”

Foster took a step forward, “Because two years ago I told them to recruit you. You’re in Working Group UMBRA because you’re good at what you do.” He looked down his nose at her, “That’s your job. So do it.”

Ava took a reflexive shuffling step back, her grip loosening on the strap she was clutching as she processed the information; the anger and frustration in her chest fading away. She was surprised to learn that there was a connecting thread between the people of UMBRA. And that it was kind of similar to what she had experienced. Did they have dreams like hers too, before they saw the Black Slab?

Despite the fact that Agent Foster was acting so cold with the delivery of the information, she felt...oddly a little more secure. She had something in common with these people and maybe she wasn’t alone in whatever her dreams meant.

She took in a breath and nodded. “Yes sir.” She answered, looking back up at him.

“Good.” Foster said, unfolding his arms and brushing past her.

Ava stepped to the side to let him walk by, looking back at him as he walked away. She hoped her proper introduction with Agent Donnelley would go better. She sighed and went the opposite direction to go back into the cabin. Succumbing to unconsciousness for a few hours sounded good right about then.




The garage door closed gently, Donnelley’s shuffling steps brought him over to the chair opposite Jason’s and he sat under the dim light of the garage’s lamp, using his IV pole as support. Dust floated freely here, and a breeze washed over Donnelley from under the garage door that sent a chill down him. He looked at the boxes of ammunition, Foster’s computer, the weapons. He took the bottle as it was offered silently to him and took another swig, remembering Laine’s one-or-two rule. It was his second swig of the night, but he shrugged and took another pull and let a growl through his bared teeth. He offered it back, the cigarette jumping with each word, “I take it wherever you’re stationed went to shit.”

Jason sighed, his large stature slumping into the chair opposite of Donnelley after taking the bottle. He let the fiery liquid flow into his mouth and replied with a sharp exhale of his own. “I had an asset IDed by a mid-level Daish commander. You know how that goes. After the execution a lot of our humint assets started going dark. The official story is my asset turned and gave them info. Problem is I handled him exclusively and there’s absolutely no way he had access to that info. That isn’t even the spooky part.”

He handed the bottle back to Donnelley and studied his clarity. Getting fucked up was good and all, but he wanted to keep his team lead lucid enough to talk. He knew where Joseph was at, bobbing in the choppy, euphoric waters of a drug cocktail. At least he could see the man’s tolerance now. He almost forgot people had died today.

“That commander? Supposedly was responsible for the fire sale but he died in an air strike a week before the killings. I don’t know what the fuck that means but something weird is happening.”

Donnelley watched Jason talk, every so often having to hold his own head back up while he did. He reached up and rubbed at his face. He hadn’t been this fucked up since Seattle. When Jason handed the bottle back to him he had to think about it, weigh the pros and cons, analyze how fucked up he was and assess how fucked up he was going to be if he took another sip.

He took another.

He offered out the bottle, nodding at his wounded leg, “Yeah, you’re tellin’ me ‘bout weird shit.”

He sniffled, sighing, again wondering if there was anything else he could’ve done for Laurie and Gwen. ‘Not send them.’ He hung his head, wanting to immediately switch his mind from that to something else, “If only you knew what I know about Daesh commanders.”

Jason went swig for swig with him, a dry chuckle coming out at the statement. He couldn't see Donnelley wrestling demons and the ketamine drew a veil over any revealing expression.“I might have an idea. We need the G-O to start making glass parking lots. I'm tired of the chaos.”

He let that sit on the air, not knowing and maybe not caring if he was supposed to let that slip to anyone outside of his small team in the CIA. He snorted at Jason’s quip. “I’m not gonna pretend our AOs are worlds apart. You know who I work for, I know who you work for. Your fire sale is a piece of the puzzle in the MidEast I have interest in. I don’t know what they’re plannin’.”

“What exactly does a Daesh commander have to gain by goin’ out every night and killin’ all the Yezidi men he can find?” Donnelley flicked his lighter on and sucked in a thick cloud, letting it out in a sigh, “And why is somebody in West Virginia killin’ people the exact same way this Daesh guy is? Maybe it’s a coincidence. But either way, you should see how we get dicked around here by local authorities.”

Donnelley sucked down more smoke, “It’s fuckin’ unfortunate as fuck. Somebody doesn’t like us bein’ here.”

Jason sat there for a moment studying the cracks branch away on the concrete floor. The implications of what Donnelley said were immense. How are they connected, he wondered. How could they be? His index finger was tapping the neck of the bottle hanging precariously in his wide hand.

“As it pertains to West Virginia--my guess is no one likes the government snooping in their neck of the woods. Doesn’t matter if we’re Feds or not, it’s all the same; strangers in their strange land. Hell, you’ve encountered that all over the world.” Jason sighed and ran his free hand through his hair, this time giving Donnelley a prolonged study. The Ketamine had frozen his face in a vague grimace, but his eyes had a hazy medicated look that belied the gruff expression.

“As far as CENTCOM goes I have no fucking idea, but you make it sound like something spooky is going on. Shit like what’s happening here.”

Jason sighed again, hanging his head and staring at the rye in his hand. Did Donnelley really want to talk shop with two KIA tonight, possibly an entire team as well. He didn’t like the fact that they were operating nearby with not so much as a hello. Would everything be so compartmentalized? The Pararescueman in him thought about the bodies. They’d have to be recovered. Sealed up in a box and tagged with a bullshit story. They died in service to something they didn’t even understand, sorry mom and dad.

“It doesn’t get easier, does it?” he mouthed. “Not this, not the action movie shit and the dead. That never gets easier. You just get more numb. But not being able to think or talk about anything else. It’s like I just learned Santa isn’t real and it’s Christmas eve every day. It’s all I could think about these last few months.”

Donnelley idly swigged at the bottle, listening to Jason talk. There was a moment of silence in which thought played over Jason’s face from one subject to the next. He almost sympathized with that. Maybe eight years in the CIA, and five years in The Program, had neutered his ability to make small talk about anything but work. Or maybe it was like a defense mechanism. You get a cold and your body gives itself a fever. You give the order that gets two fucking kids killed and suddenly you need to talk about everything else in the world.

“I don’t know, man.” Donnelley held the bottle out from himself and appreciated it in the dim light of the garage, “Fuck, I even tried therapy once and found out I couldn’t talk about shit. It’s not like she had the clearance. Ain’t like I had the want neither.”

The way Jason looked at him pierced even the heavy veil of drugs over his eyes. Jason had seen things. Combat, yes, because what trigger puller here hadn’t, but other things too. The things the Program wanted gone. Donnelley handed over the bottle, “What happened, man? Over there?”

"Most of my job was hunting down meth labs in the desert. Daish go pills for their shock troops," Jason said. "Most those chemists usually work on their chem weapons ideas so they're HVTs off the bat."

The job's details clung on him like a weighted cape. Not even 24 hours and he'd sutured a wound, pulled out his shotgun, and was yearning for more action. It made him feel sick, to cling to the adrenaline and purpose while standing on the bones of Laurie, whoever had died with him, and whoever else was left out there for the flies and the crows.

"If I'm being honest," he said, his gaze becoming closer and closer to a thousand yard length, "I was going nowhere with the mission. Maybe a distant station chief or mid-level leadership after a few years--but anything that was worth it? Hmmm."

He took a swig, thrust it forward, then grimaced and pulled it back. "Uh, I wouldn't normally do this, boss, but maybe we don't ride that lightning tonight. Looks like you're swimming in the clouds already."

Donnelley scowled for just the shortest moment when Jason pulled the bottle away from his hand. Then he remembered there was a whole fucking job to do and it wouldn’t do to wallow in self-pity when there were two people who were dead. “Yeah, yeah. Right.” He nodded, taking a breath to steady himself, “Maybe that’s just it. Maybe given enough time it just starts feel droll. Wish we could’ve just smoked that brisket and knocked back a few beers, but...” Donnelley shrugged.

“Shit, what time is it?” Jason asked. “I could start it tonight. Was thinking of staying up for a watch, anyway.”

He looked over the bottle smirking at himself for the good choice. Donnelley seemed to like it, but Jason could have also handed him a bottle of chilled piss and he might still down it in his current state.

“If you can keep me here,” Jason said, not taking his eyes from the Pendleton, “I’ll be sure you won't have to limp around with any wounds. Maybe even save a life or two. I’m not bad with intel, either.”

“A brotherhood of spooks.” Donnelley chuckled at himself, “As much as I just love workin’ with FBI and shit, it’s good to know there’s at least somebody in the team that understands the shit I do.”

“If I can keep you here? Be honest, man, there’s a reason we did and still do high speed shit. Stick around, you’ll love me for it.” Donnelley smirked and puffed away at his cigarette, “Thanks for volunteerin’ though, for watch. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Jason rocked himself up to standing and offered a hand to Donnelley, “It feels good to know that too. Here, let me help you up. You also sucked through your saline, I’ll hook you up with another.”




The steam rose around her as Laine pressed her forehead against the tile, taking a deep breath to clear her mind. Sitting all day in the Suburban, having to squat in the bushes to pee with Foster in ear shot. Then the call, Donnelley's voice in the darkness. The call and the darkness and the fear. And the noise in the forest, strange and full of guttural rage. At least it seemed that way.

Laine rinsed her hair, rubbing her face vigorously as the panic tried to rise, the feeling she had the entire drive back along the dark country road with Donnelley bleeding in the back and the rest silent, Gwen and Laurie not among them. Things were changing faster than her mind could wrap around it, the crime scene and victim still unknown now two missing team members. And whatever killed them.

Her chest heaved and she felt the burning in her throat, the want to cry with frustration and fear that this situation was spiraling out of control. Hot tears mingled with the warm shower as Laine let go until she was spent. The water was starting to cool and she turned it off, stepping out onto the braided rug.

In the women's bedroom she dressed, putting on boyshort panties and the long Depeche Mode t-shirt to sleep in. She went to the bunk opposite her own, looking down at the disarray of clothes that Gwen had left behind. Laine started by putting the sweatshirt laying across the bed into the duffel bag. Laine packed the blue USAF duffel bag and set it on the footlocker. Despite their rocky short relationship Gwen Weissman was a human being, someone dragged out into this mess and thrown into the middle of danger like the rest of them and she had a family somewhere that would get a folded American flag and a lie.

Laine went to her own bag and took out her laptop and portable printer, setting them up on the bed then loaded the crime scene photos from the email sent to her by the state CSI team and the ones from her camera. The printer blinked then slowly started up, humming as the pictures of forest and bones and the raw body of Jane Doe. She sat on the bed, one leg hanging off as she started typing up her notes from Ranger Wilkins into a comprehensive report.

Once the photos were printed out, Laine lay them across the carpet and studied them, picking them up one at a time, comparing them to the testimony and autopsy, making notes. Burying herself in the work, it took her away from Donnelley, knowing he would probably finish off the bottle with or without help from Jason. Laine had seen him drink, she knew about the flask, and Foster’s term ‘semi alcoholic’. She set down a photo and rubbed the bridge of her nose.

I’m not a fucking babysitter, she told herself. He’s grown ass man, whatever he does it’s his business.

Laine leaned back and picked up a photo of Jane Doe, the wounds raw and ugly, the tearing of her private areas in full view. She was here to find a killer, not patch up the psychological wounds. The scene, the victim, that was what needed her attention.

On her notebook, she wrote out her thoughts. Organized, prepared, experienced at killing. Obviously. She looked at the photos of the bones from the shallow graves. Why did you show us? Why now?

Male, white, mid thirties to forties. Likely local, experienced hunter and skinner, maybe an amateur taxidermist. He used display ritual, killed in another location and moved, left out in a place she could be found. He made sure she was found.

Sexual rage, need to dominate, severe damage to reproductive organs. Hate for women, need to humiliate and dehumanize her with severe destruction of internal organs, no external wounds other than the skinning. Need to control victim immobilized her with drugs not bound, an unusual method. Cutting out her ability to talk or call for help, silencing the victim, controlling her voice. He needed control, he had to have CONTROL.

She wrote it boldly and shook her head, running her hand through her dark hair. Of course it was about control. Laine tossed the notebook aside and stood up. “Think,” she said out loud, “Focus.”

“Shit,” she sighed, then got up and found her pack of Djarums in the pocket of her blazer still hanging on the chair. The t-shirt hung past her ass but the strangers were out there so she tugged on a pair of leggings before walking outside, lighting up a clove cigarette even before she exited the front door.

Laine leaned against the railing, noting the light still on on the garage and turned away from it. She looked out instead over the deep shadows past the circle of illumination made by the light of the lamp over the driveway. The first time Laine was here seemed like a lifetime ago, supposedly there to clean out a cabin. Then she met Mrs. Baughman.

She shivered in the balmy summer night, recalling the dead eyes and flat voice calling out for her husband. Laine touched her neck, but that thing that had been a woman once had real strength. Dead but alive. Horror movie stuff she would have thought bullshit if it had not tried to strangle her. And the roar she heard tonight, deep and resonant from the woods that the tactical team had run from.

The cloves crackled as she sucked on the cigarette, her cheeks hollowing. It made her head swim with uncertainty Laine had not felt since she stepped into her first real crime scene. She had stared at the result of human brutality, evil some called it but she was always more scientific with her view. Even if it was an aberration, deviant behavior there was psychological maybe even biological reasons for it. Whatever happened to Mrs Baughman and what was in the woods was something else.

The scent of cloves mingled with the scent of smoldering wood chips and Laine remembered the meat on the counter and the strangers left inside. Putting out her cigarette, she went back inside.

She eyed Dave with his bruise and cradling the AK 47. The last thing they needed was some guy with a head injury and automatic weapon roaming around the cabin at night.

"Hey, uh, Dave? You said you're from Arkansas, you wouldn't know anything about what to do with this brisket?" Laine asked, looking at the meat then at Dave, watching how he might answer and listening for slur or confusing. She had heard enough of Bakker's war hospital stories to know something about trauma.

"Not that won't take a few hours," he said. He was leaning against the refrigerator, his arms crossed and resting on the stock of his rifle, the muzzle pointed at the ground. He felt a little steadier; his head still ached like a bastard, but he didn't feel like badgering his new acquaintances for a tylenol when people were bleeding.

"Besides," he said, giving her a grave look. "Grillin' is a sacred trust. Don't wanna intrude on a man's cooking."

Laine patted the foil covered brisket, "In other words, we'll let Jason handle his own meat."

She opened the fridge and began to arrange things to make room, talking over her shoulder, "It's been a hell of a night."

Once it was in there, she glanced over at Dave and asked, "Want me to make you a sandwich or something? I haven't eaten much and I was going to make something."

Laine felt the normalcy trying to trickle back in, the tension and explosive fear of the day left her tired but the man before her looked exhausted. Paranoia slipped away and she felt slightly ashamed of how he had been introduced. "How's your head feeling?"

"Head feels like I fell down a hill an' bounced it off a truck." He gave her a rueful grin. "But I'll manage. I could eat I guess."

Laine furrowed her brow with a wince. That's what that first thump against the truck had been.

She made a few sandwiches, wrapping some with saran wrap in case one of the others got hungry. Placing a plate with a couple of turkey sandwiches in front of Dave she gave him a cold beer, whatever Jason had picked up before they came back.

"I think I have some Advil, if that's alright? Anything stronger you'd have to ask Jason...uh, Jason Jimenez, he used to be a medic of sorts in the Air Force," Laine said, looking through a drawer. "I'm sorry you had to see that display earlier."

She found the small bottle of painkillers and handed to him before sitting across from him at the table.

"Happens. Been a rough night, can't expect everyone to be relaxed." He took the pills and then tore into the sandwich. It had been...shit, eighteen hours since he'd eaten? More? He wasn't even sure what time it was. "Thanks for the food. I figure I'm crashin' on the couch, y'all probably don't want a stranger bunking with you."

“The men’s room is upstairs, but that would be up to Justin and Tom, I guess,” she said, watching him eat. “But wherever you’d be more comfortable anyway, sleeping around a bunch of strangers and feds at that.”

Her sharp green eyes glanced at his rifle, certainly not US military issued hardware, and then back up at him, studying his bruised face. He wore civilian clothes under the armor and the wariness in his eyes that was not all about what he had run from in the woods. There was certainly a story there but not for tonight. Laine took her own beer and chugged about half before settling to eat her sandwich.

Dave snorted, relaxing a little. Laine seemed laid back, for a Fed, more relaxed than the ones he'd met since joining up with the Program. She was easy on the eyes, too, which helped.

"Yeah, never thought I'd be workin' with the uh…" Jackboots. "You know. The government." He adjusted the strap on his rifle, for want of anything else to do. His fingers drummed nervously on the stock of the weapon, and after a moment of awkward silence he picked up his beer and finished it off.

"So you're a doctor, you said?"

“Hm, yes,” she replied, setting down the sandwich. “I’m a profiler with the FBI so unless you’re kidnapping people and cutting off their heads, I don’t really care what you do.”

Laine smiled briefly, then raised her eyebrows, “I’m a psychologist, I specialize in violent crime, in particular serial murder. What about you, Dave? Since you’re not a jackboot, how’d you get mixed up with this.”

"Somebody was leavin' dead bodies on my mountain," he said. His eyes grew angry for a moment. "Anyway, I found one of them, told the cops like a damn fool, and then helped blow one up like a bigger damn fool."

He sighed and shook his head. "I guess I'm here because I'm… You know. Deniable. Ain't attached to the government, and ain't a lot of people gonna come lookin' for a hillbilly who gets himself ate on some top secret mission. Plus I can… Well, I'm kind of a bomb guy. Figured they'd have me on some watch list, probably better to help than tell 'em to fuck off away from my mountain."

That was a partial truth. He'd joined to protect Mal. But they didn't need to know that yet.

"So here I am."

Laine watched him as he spoke, her chin resting on her fist as she felt the sudden tiredness the day had wrought. At least he was easy on the eyes. "And so here we are. I get the feeling you're not the only one who they could easily dispose of, not to feed your fears. We're all replaceable in some form or another."

She shrugged slightly, but went on, "So the bodies you found. I am guessing they were probably laid out some black slab. Otherwise one of my colleagues in the Bureau would have responded not..."

Laine lifted her head then gestured around the cabin then met his eyes. They were a steely shade of blue and seemed suited to his hard stares he had thrown her way earlier. "A bomb guy who isn't military, now you have me very curious, Mountain Man."

She brushed her empty plate aside and glanced at the knot on his head, it seemed a little better after the ice. "Did you need anything else?"

"Maybe I'll tell ya the story sometime." He grinned at her. "I think I'm all set, I'll probably get some sleep. Gonna have a hell of a shiner in the mornin'."

Laine gave a concerned glance at the knot on his forehead, then nodded, “If you need anything, I’ll be in the woman’s bunkroom. It’s across the bathroom, first door on the left. There’s extra bedding in the linen closet.”

She rose from the table, picking up his empty plate as well as her own, smiling slightly at Dave, “Sweet dreams.”

"First door on the left." He nodded and his grin grew a little wider. "Well I'll keep that in mind. See you in the mornin'."

>THE SAFEHOUSE
>0800...///

An intrusive earworm was caught between the ears of Parinaaz Bhatt as she exited the car. She couldn’t quite place the melody – and only an obscure bar or two of it repeated. A shrill trumpet and snare in the tempo of a quickstep. The woman shook her head as if to allow it to fall out. Her ponytail swished with the motion - thick brown curls styled immaculately save for the edges she’d had to slick down with a wax around her hairline. Such was her genetic makeup. Fresh faced she took a deep breath of the country air, expecting it to be refreshing, with the biting chill of the mountains that she’d experienced in the past. This air was thick, and heavy enough to have caught in her throat had she not been careful enough. Strange, it was. It was that same feeling of rot in the atmosphere she’d felt during the drive. Probably nerves, anticipation. Pari shrugged.

The agent leaned into the trunk upon exiting the car to grab her belongings. She had barely gotten it closed with a click and moved out of the way when the driver unceremoniously took off – back over the path and away. It had been a long drive and the fellow hadn’t even offered her a goodbye. There was no leaving now, that was for sure. She struggled in her heels with the case behind her, wheeled suitcases were not intended for anything other than a smooth surface – and perhaps if the car hadn’t been enough then the dragging of it over the gravel would alert her colleagues to her presence.

She was alerted too, there was something decidedly off about this place. As if the energy of something terrible had left a stain over the driveway and it had started with the car that had been parked. There was a certain frantic way in which it had skidded through, that was clear in the tracks left behind. It hadn’t slowly and carefully been brought to a halt. It had slammed and slammed again. A rush job. Not to mention that there were droplets of blood that led to the door. Easy enough for an untrained eye to have missed but Pari had the eyes of a hawk when it came to such things. A forensics thing, surely. That and just an insatiable curiosity and heightened intuition.

A well-groomed and thick eyebrow raised as she took off her sunglasses, placing the end of the arm against her lower lip as she continued to analyse the scene before she chastised herself for it. It made no sense to hover in the driveway when she could just go and ask. It wasn’t quite as fun though, was it? As fun and thrilling as slotting the pieces of the puzzle together so that she could be right in her theory. The current one being that a mission had gone awry and that at least one person was injured in the cabin.

She didn’t feel that anyone had died, and the fact that whomsoever had arrived in a hurry had not left since was promising.

Still, the air got thicker

A drum crashed, and one, two, three – the beat picked up. The earworm that returned with a vengeance. What the fuck was it again? A manicured finger tapped at her temple as she approached the steps to the cabin, the case got heavier the more that the wheels dug into the unsuitable terrain. “Gosh darn, zavadya” she cursed under her breath with a groan.
”Going like Elsie…” whispered through the back of her mind and it ran an eerie chill up her spine to the nape of her neck but it was soon disturbed by the ringing, familiar sound of metal on ceramic. A distinct morning sound – a spoon in a mug. So they were alright then, she mused as she approached the cabin. ”Alright as can be…” The suitcase thunked on each step and she winced as it did. She was hardly in stealth mode, that was a real nice impression to give them. She wasn’t the strongest woman around, that was to be sure. She quietly cleared her throat, tucking the loose, sweeping strands of fringe behind a jewelled ear. Her hands smoothed over her crisp white shirt, fiddling with the collar to lay it flat again. Pari let the sunglasses drop into the ‘v’ before finally knocking at the door, it was time to find out what had happened... Whatever it was, she was surely in for a story.

Bacon once again sizzled in the pan as Laine made breakfast, waking up early despite her own weariness as the rest of the team had a decidedly worse night. She was in a white tank top and black jeans, wearing her Converse sneakers that occasionally squeaked on the polished floorboards. Earbuds in place, she had the music loud to hear over the blender as she dumped sliced bananas and frozen berries into it.

He was there, Donnelley, wobbling in to make his coffee. She could see him in her peripheral vision but this time purposefully ignored him. Leave him in peace, as he wanted. Instead she moved to grab the milk from the refrigerator, glancing at his back once it was turned away from her. Even from here he looked miserable. Hungover, the leg pain and the sobering memories of whatever had happened, she left him alone.

Donnelley looked up from cradling his head in his hands to Laine when the knock came. The errant thought of her not only ignoring him, but everything else too brought little humor. Knocks at the door were his business as of late, so he stood shakily, grabbing up his handgun and thumbing the safety off as he turned for the door. He put it behind his back as he turned the knob, opening the door a crack and squinting at the light that stabbed through at his eyes. Beyond it, there was a shape.

A woman, and he focused on her face, “You the one Greg sent?”

It was a trick question, of course, and a wrong answer would prove deadly. Since Foster loved bringing people into the fold and not telling him, he could clean up this one’s brains from the porch if it turned out she wasn’t meant to be here.

Eyes the colour chocolate met Donnelley's, and they narrowed. He was playing it incredibly safe, she could hear now more noise in the background. A blender. He wasn't alone. "Steve Foster requested me here," she answered frankly with a slow nod, holding her gaze steady. "I'm FBI, forensics," she added. "Parinaaz Bhatt." Pari went to place her hand out to shake, knowing that there was not enough space in the slight crack of the door, and so she tilted her head instead. "Rough night?"

Donnelley opened the door all the way as she introduced herself, making no effort to hide the fact he was stuffing the handgun in the front of his jeans. He made sure the safety was off so this stranger’s first day with the team wasn’t spent driving him and his dick to the hospital. He offered a slight smile at Pari’s very correct, and very understated assessment of the past night, his Texas drawl rolling out of him in the morning, “Parinaaz, you’ve no fuckin’ clue.” He offered his hand out to shake, “Joseph Donnelley, I’m the Team Lead. Welcome to Workin’ Group UMBRA’s Safehouse, and your home for the foreseeable future. Come on in, gettin’ breakfast ready.”

He waved her inside and closed the door behind her, shuffling to the kitchen with an uneven gait on behalf of the stab wound in his leg. It still twitched with pain and gave him a dull ache even when he wasn’t moving around on it. He called from the kitchen, “You like coffee, Special Agent Bhatt?” Donnelley’s eyes were pulled to two boxes he did not remember last night. He reached over and peeked inside one. Thankfully, it wasn’t a bomb or anthrax, but donuts. “Oh, fuck me, donuts. You like donuts too, Agent Bhatt?

Pari let him take three steps ahead after shaking his hand before she followed him inside, observing the way that he moved - that his leg was hurt. "It's nice to meet you Donnelley - I take it you were the bleeder," she said, motioning behind her. She took steady steps, leaving her cases at the door for now - bringing only her handbag with her through to the kitchen. "Coffee sounds great, too," she replied, eyes taking in the details of the safehouse. "I'll pass on donuts though. I don't have a sweet tooth…" her voice tapered off as she saw the woman by the blender. Truthfully, she did like sweet things - but donuts were likely to create crumbs, splashes of jelly, and it was a known fact that probability rolled on the side of making someone look a fool on the first day. She was going to avoid all kinds of temptation that might just tar her first impression. Like spilling jelly down her front.

Dave still lay on the couch, curled around his rifle and watching the goings-on through lidded eyes. He wasn’t really trying to be subtle. He just didn’t want to move. Everything ached, from his hair to his toenails. The shot to the head, the sprinting through the trees, huddling in one position all day and all night waiting to be eaten...They’d taken their toll. He hurt like hell.

Finally he groaned and pushed himself up, taking stock of his surroundings. He hadn’t showered in a few days, and he knew that if he could smell himself, so could everybody else. His clothes were filthy, his head hurt, things were just generally unpleasant. Fuck the government.

With another groan Dave heaved himself to his feet, reaching out a hand for balance as one of his knees popped and briefly threatened to buckle. He moved slowly, loosening up the kinks from sleeping on a couch not quite big enough for him, then shifted his rifle off to his side, keeping it in place with his left arm.

“Hey,” he called, waving a hand. “Can uh… Can I have one of them donuts? An’ some coffee?”

“What’s your flavor, stranger? We got, uh,” Donnelley looked at all the variety, just a big box of French roast, “French roast… and just French roast.”

Donnelley had his and Pari’s coffee mugs hooked in the fingers of one hand while the other held the boxes of donuts. He placed Pari’s coffee down next to the donuts and flipped open the lid on the pastries. He picked himself out a maple bar and nodded at Pari, “I am the bleeder. Sharp eye, blood’s had to dry on the gravel. Then again, for all I know I was leaking like a faucet.”

“Like a stuck pig,” Dave said, his voice muffled by the chocolate donut he’d unceremoniously shoved into his mouth. He grabbed a second donut for good luck and then advanced on the coffee. It smelled like heaven; his body was screaming for caffeine, and he held his cup beneath his nose and took a long pull, savoring it.

“So. It’s lookin’ like I ain’t gonna have to shoot anybody,” he said after he’d taken a sip and ridden out the near-orgasmic bliss that it brought. “Any chance I can get a shower and some clothes before we play the Name Game? Cuz all I’ve met so far is Ava an’ Dr. Laine over there.” He jerked his head at the aforementioned Dr. Laine. “And I know I’m kinda harpin’ on this, but...I really do need to talk to Bob.”

Donnelley sipped his coffee and turned to Dave with a nice enough demeanor, ripping a chunk of maple bar and speaking around it, “How’s this for a recipe. I talk to Foster, Foster calls up whoever the fuck Bob is, and then you tell us just what the fuck you and your buddies were doing in my goddamn AO.

Donnelley smiled, tight lipped and hammed up, “‘Til Foster wakes the fuck up, I guess I’m your next best choice.” Donnelley touched his thumb to his chest, “I’m Joseph Donnelley, I’m the Team Lead. My favorite color’s black, and I like calling in hellfire missiles on terrorists. And you are?”

Dave nodded his way through Donnelley’s speech, his smile growing colder and his eyes growing harder. His last team had pulled the same tough-guy bullshit; maybe it was a Fed thing. He waited until Donnelley had finished and then nodded.

“More of this,” he said. “Alright then, hoss. I’m Dave MacCready. I blow shit up. My daddy’s a terrorist, but if you wanna kill him, you gotta get in line, cuz I’ve got first dibs. My favorite thing is not havin’ dicks waved in my face like I’m some sorta challenger every time I walk in a goddamn room.”

He walked a few paces away, putting some distance between himself and Donnelley. He wanted to butt-stroke the man, but it was counter-productive. “Look, I heard you say Workin’ Group UMBRA? I’m what’s left of Workin’ Group BLACKBEARD. I’m a civilian, a useful asset, Bob said. So what am I doin’ in your AO? Fuck, I don’t know, man. I go where they tell me and I do what I’m told. What I do know is that my whole goddamn team got killed last night by somethin’ a Ma-Deuce and a handful of frags wouldn’t drop, so how about you put your dick away an’ help me figure out where I’m supposed to be, instead of actin’ like I’m tryin’ to take your job?”

Donnelley offered another tight lipped smile, raising his cup of coffee to Dave, “Thank you.” He sipped at his cup and nodded, “And now, since I’m a man of my word and not a fucking asshole, sometimes, I can go talk to my boss, who will talk to your boss about things.”

Donnelley cleared his throat, “Still leaves the question why you were here. Ain’t a fuckin’ person who been fully vetted and tested that’s only theirs to do or die for this bullshit. Bob told you to do something here, what was it?”

Laine had her back to the growing crowd, the music blasting at dangerous levels in her ears until it changed and she heard the voices. Turning and genuinely surprised at the sight of another person, a dark haired woman nicely dressed and Dave and finally introducing themselves to each other. She popped the earbuds out, tempted to interrupt but held her tongue, instead she went back to draining the bacon grease and wiping the cast iron pan.

“There was a cult out in Arkansas, in the Ozarks,” Dave said. “Killin’ folks on those Black Slabs, skinnin’ bodies...Bad shit. Anyway, we heard there was the same sorta shit goin’ on out here, so Bob sent us to see what was up.” He shrugged, eyed the donuts, and then took a third. Fuck this guy. “So he stuck us up in that cabin, had us huntin’ around for hillbillies with stone daggers and shit.”

Pari had done nothing but listen to the rapid fire of the conversation, and it occurred to her she would require an extra shot or two in her coffee just to keep up with them. Her eyes flitted between the bruised Dave and the rough looking Donnelley as she put the pieces together internally.

"Holy cabooses!" She remarked finally, holding her hands out in front of her. "Things move fast here! I'd like to talk to Foster too - when that's alright, Donnelley" Pari said politely, her eyes finishing on Dave, more specifically on his face - that was an injury and a half.

Laine turned silently and moved with a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon, setting it on the table, pushing the half empty box of donuts out of the way. “Maybe we can all talk after eating something other than pure sugar. Foster needs his beauty rest after all.”

She glanced at Dave, giving him a once over, “There should be some clean towels in the same place you got the bedding.”

In her mind she turned of the information he had spat at Donnelley and the name MacCready tugged at the recesses of her memory she just was not sure why. Laine nodded at Pari and pushed herself up on the counter, picking up the smoothie she had made. Beside her was a stack of plates for the team. She sipped her blackberry banana smoothie and watched the show.

Donnelley glanced at Laine, looking back at Dave. “No shit? A cult over in Arkansas?” Donnelley gestured with his cup over to Laine, “There’s a Working Group in Washington probin’ around for that shit. So, Bob has a hunch about West Virginia.”

He patted his leg gently, “Can’t really blame him now. Was there a big fuckin’ monster in Arkansas too, or are we special?”

He turned to Pari, looking her over, “Anything you can say to Foster, think you can say to me too. We all know how keeping secrets don’t make friends.” He nodded his head at Dave, “We almost dusted each other over one last night. Good thing we’re patchin’ up that bridge now, ain’t we?”

A playful smirk rose across her lips at Donnelley's request, and her fingers knitted together as she waited for him to finish speaking, before adding; "well then, I just wanted to say thank you Foster for allowing me to consult on this case, it's so nice to finally meet you in person, properly. I'll look forward to spending more time with you." Pari rounded off with several quick blinks, and with a sip from the coffee. This is going well, she thought to herself, smiling at Donnelley as she let the flavour savour in her mouth before swallowing it down.

“You know,” Donnelley sipped at his coffee and shook his head at Pari before offering an appreciative grin at her sarcasm, he would riposte, “Bein’ a sarcastic prick is only fun when I’m the only one doin’ it. So, you’re consultin’? On?”

Laine piped up from her gallery seat, “Oh, probably the murder. You know, remember that?”

“Jesus fuck.” Donnelley held his hands up, not looking at either woman and knowing he would not have a shield at his back with Dave, “Maybe I’ll just keep my fuckin’ mouth shut and eat my donut and drink my coffee outside.”

He pointed at the women’s bunk room, “I got some girl come in last night we almost shot,” He pointed at Pari, “Some woman comes in saying she’s a consultant, and this guy over here is saying another Case Officer is playin’ in my damn yard without me even knowin’ ‘til I get stabbed in my fuckin’ leg.”

Donnelley produced his trusty pack of escape plans and shoved one of them between his lips, “On top of that, I got two KIA up in them goddamn fuckin’ dogshit mountains and some equipment I gotta put a call in to recover somehow.” He lit up the cigarette without asking if anybody would mind. He didn’t give a shit, “Excuse me for my prickishness, I forgot to not be stressed.”

Laine held her hands up, her eyes flickered with sympathy and chagrin but she said nothing. Bouncing off the counter, she looked at Donnelley for a long moment then nodded slightly, stepping around him to head back to the women’s bunk room.

"That was brilliantly done," Pari added after a pregnant pause, not meaning to stick a knife in further, only to reign in the heat. She took another sip, eyebrows raised as she looked at nothing in particular and away from both of the men she was left with.

Dave eyed Pari, then Donnelley, then the retreating Laine for a moment. Without a word he walked to the breakfast she’d cooked, filled a plate, and began eating. He ate in silence for a few moments.

“So uh...This is fun. Good team dynamic. Y’all want some breakfast?”

“I could eat.” Donnelley shrugged, placing his cigarette on the table and going about making himself a plate. He sat down next to Dave, forking some eggs into his mouth and sighing. “So, MacCready, of the Arkansas MacCreadys. Those fuckin’ preppers up in the Ozarks.”

“Guess if that’s what you wanna call ‘em.” Dave gave Donnelley a sideways glance. “Ain’t had anything to do with ‘em in almost 20 years though so...You know. Just sayin’.”

“Ain’t gonna summarily execute you, hoss.” Donnelley snorted, “Sensitive subject?”

“Guess if that’s what you wanna call it.” Dave drained his coffee mug and then sighed. “Look man, they ain’t good people. I try to be. So I don’t consider myself part of them anymore. I just...You know. I happen to remember how to do some shit that’s apparently useful.”

He frowned. “In more circumstances than I thought, honestly.”

Pari simply let the gentlemen talk, taking the opportunity to place her bag upon the counter. There was something to the rant that Donnelley had engaged in, sarcasm and humour aside. Two agents killed in action? That there was another girl here besides the one who had excused herself after being sprayed with the verbal tirade. She thought to follow after her, but having not been formally introduced might make that something of an even more awkward affair.

MacCready was apparently as green to the team as she was, and completely unexpected, and that made Pari feel slightly more at ease. She remained silent for the time being, standing still in her spot, coffee in both hands, held at chest level.

Donnelley set his fork down and looked at Dave, “You know, you’ve got some valuable intelligence up in there I’d like to know.” He rapped his temple with a finger, “It’d help save a lot of time. We already know these guys don’t like Feds in their county, but that doesn’t change the fact that somebody got killed in the hills and they ain’t keen on sharin’ their case files with us.”

“These folk got somethin’ to hide. We been operating under the assumption that it’s one guy out here doin’ this shit. But you dealt with a whole cult up in Arkansas, yeah?” Donnelley’s brow perked up, waiting for an answer.

"There was a few of 'em, yeah." Dave flashed back to an overpowered breaching charge and a messy tangle on the other side of the wall that might've been two men a few moments before. He looked a little green for a moment, then it passed.

"Wasn't a Jim Jones Sunday Revival or anything…" he trailed off, then gave Donnelley a look of confusion. "Hey, how come y'all don't know this? Shouldn't y'all be talking, if there are teams chasin' the same thing?

Donnelley snorted, “You would think,” after all his years in the military, and then as an intelligence officer, he’d learned that the hydra of government often tangled its own necks and rendered itself inert and convoluted at times, “Case Officers are like mountain lions, man. Wolf packs, we carve out some territory and get pissy when another pushes in. Damn shame.”

“Damn irritatin’, more like,” Dave grumbled. “Really I’ll have to get in contact with Bob to get y’all much more than a man-on-the-ground’s perspective. He didn’t tell me much. I’m the explosive mushroom, ya know? Kept in the dark, fed bullshit, all that jazz. But I know we were lookin’ into how the shit out here tied into what was fuckin’ up my Ozarks.”

“Okay, okay.” Donnelley nodded, “After the morning briefing, you and me and…” He looked at Pari, “Our consultant over there, we can all have a sit down with Foster. Get everything straight. Sound good?”

“Cults,” Pari sighed and placed her mug on the counter top, letting a finger rest gently on the handle, the other on the rim. “There’s not a great deal I can’t tell you about cults,” she added, tearing her eyes from the ceramic and onto Donnelley, and then to Dave. She thought to add more, but the mood was sitting weird enough as it was. “A sit down would be good.” She finished with a smile, letting go of the mug, the handle sitting perfectly parallel to the edge of the counter.

"A sit-down would at least tell me what the hell I'm supposed to be doin'," Dave grumbled. "Any way we can just nuke West Virginia and go home? Ain't like we can't buy moonshine at the liquor store these days."
Spy thriller.

I didn’t find any that really piqued my interest so I kinda just made my own. My heart yearns for an Espionage RP with believable tradecraft and premises that is realistic in procedure while still having that exciting edge to it. Think John Le Carré novels or Body of Lies, less Mission impossible or James Bond.
>???, CHECHNYA, RUSSIA
>0500HRS...///

Four wheels struggled for purchase on the mountain road, suspension creaking in the early morning darkness. The halo of morning was starting to peek through the horizon as Donnelley grunted in frustration at the mud being thrown up by the Ural’s tires, their toughest enemy yet and the one that managed to slow their advance to the objective.

“You sure you don’t want me to drive?” Peake turned his head to Donnelley, his face still stuck in that slit-eyed frown he’d had since Somalia. Donnelley wondered if his face had ever known a smile or grin.

Probably not, Donnelley sucked his teeth, cigarette clenched between them, “I’m fine, I’ve got this.”

“We could ditch this piece of shit, ruck the rest of the way to the rally point.” Peake grumbled, turning away from Donnelley, but Donnelley had never been the one to take the easy way. He wasn’t going to start. “That’s what I’d do.”

“Oh, I’m sure. Thank you for telling me the tale of what Peake would do with this stolen Ural in Chechnya.” Donnelley frowned sidelong at Peake, glowering from the passenger seat. “I liked the last one too, what Peake would do if FSB caught wind of a Marine Raider, a CIA Officer and an ISA Operator illegally crossing into Russia.”

Donnelley heard Guzman sigh from the backseat, his AKM laid across his thighs as he looked out his window pretending not to hear yet another contest of Who’s-A-Better-Asshole. Donnelley’s eyes narrowed as Guzman’s did the same, leaning closer to his driver’s side rear window. Guzman’s wary voice came from behind Donnelley, “You seen that?”

“What?” Peake barked, his head whipping to the direction Guzman was looking like a bird of prey. “Oh, sh-“


“Fuck!” Donnelley fell from his rocking chair and scrambled across the wooden deck, a terrified flailing that left him with an aching knee and elbow when he came to lay in the gravel just at the foot of the porch’s steps to the front door of the Safehouse.

His chest rose and fell as he lay there, staring up at the dark-blue morning sky. He stayed there, his mind busying itself like a dog barking away intruders, pushing away the memories of Chechnya. “Fuck.”

He reached up to his face and felt his right cheek, fingers gliding down the long burn scar from cheekbone to clavicle. Still there. He lifted his shirt and eyed the two bullet wounds under his ribs. Still there. Guzman. Still gone.

“Fuck.” His breath quivered in his throat as he buried his eyes in the crook of his elbow, heaving one long breath and growled it out between clenched teeth. Finally, he sighed, grunting as he got to his feet and walked back to his rocking chair, bending over to pick up the pack of American Spirits on the floor.

He shoved one between his teeth and found the bottle of Jameson that Tom had spilled last night, only dregs left but Donnelley swigged at it anyway. He bared his clenching teeth and shook his head, the liquor fighting all the way down. As he dropped his ass back in his rocking chair, he let himself sway back and forward. The creak added to the birdsong of the early morning, darkness still hanging over the open air such that the porch lights were still useful. He tipped his head back after lighting his cigarette and sighed the first drag out into the morning, enjoying his moment of silence.

Laine lay in the bottom bunk, alone in the women’s bedroom and she listened to the birds singing outside. She had not slept well, nightmares plagued her, most she did not remember now that dawn was creeping in. With a grunt, she rolled over and slipped out of bed, wincing as she put her weight on her cut foot. She had forgotten about that. The night came back, charging forward with the film and the strange phenomena that had occurred to the four that had watched it. She rubbed her eyes, smearing more old mascara around as she had passed out without washing her face.

“Gross,” she muttered, feeling the oiliness of her skin. Laine puttered around, picking out black jeans and underwear then went to the new shirts, picking one up then the other. Nothing she actually would buy if she had not been pressed for time. It reminded her of when she went shopping for Alex back when they were together. He loved the name brands. She took the black t-shirt, a fitted little thing that had a queen of spades in a distressed print on the chest. It was still better than the designer labels splashed across like a damn walking billboard.

After a shower that was not long or hot enough Laine dressed, putting on her Converse sneakers to keep her foot comfortable and went outside to smoke. Her mind was still clouded and she felt the shadow of last night still hovering over her. She stepped out onto the porch, inhaling the mountain air and despite the tinge of distant coal smoke it was nice. Better than than the smog of LA or the humidity of Virgina. She lit up, the cloves crackling with comforting familiarity.

The creaking caught her attention and she turned, spotting Donnelley in the chair and she felt her chest tighten. Guilt over leaving him alone, over her own reaction to his closeness made her hesitate, but if she said nothing or too much then it might get weird. She was already making it weird. Laine sighed and blowing out a stream of smoke, she turned again, looking at him and said, “Good morning.”

“Hm?” Donnelley leaned forward and set his eyes on Laine. He paused, remembering the moment they shared on the very porch they stood on now. And how it didn’t come out to anything. He smiled anyway, a soft curve of lips, “Hey.”

He would ask how she was doing but he feared the worst to come from that topic. His mind stretched for something to say to her, something to fill the air between them. He didn’t know why but the empty space left there felt wrong. “It’s a nice morning.”

Laine shifted so her hip leaned against the railing, she glanced east at the sun breaking over the trees. “Another sunrise.”

Her eyes met his and she smiled slightly, recalling what he had told her before. Now that she was living dangerously, that’s what she had to look for, another sunrise. Laine glanced away, flicking her cigarette absently, “How’d you sleep?”

Donnelley looked at her and then out at the rising sun at her words. It was another sunrise, but… Oh, he thought. He cracked a grin at that, remembering the time they had at Baughman’s cabin. To her question, his grin faltered and then regressed to a tight-lipped smile in his bearded face, red roots now really shining through in his hair and beard, especially in the growing early morning light. “Slept alright.” He cleared his throat and took another drag, “I hope you did too.”

He chuckled softly, trying at a little bit of humor, “I need a goddamn vacation.”

“I slept as well as you probably did,” Laine said, a small smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. She brushed a hand over her damp tousled hair, smoothing the dark strands down. She had put on makeup to cover the dark circles under her eyes, the sleeplessness as she woke again and again.

“You mean away from all this,” Laine waved a hand, her cigarette now between her plush lips. “A cabin in the woods, rustic American living.”

She huffed a close mouthed laugh, then shrugged a shoulder. “This place could have been real nice, but...well it’s not.”

Laine blew out smoke and tapped the ashes, letting her hand rest against the railing. “So, where would you go if you could go anywhere for vacation?”

Donnelley pursed his lips at the question. He hadn’t even thought on where he’d go, just that he wanted to sometimes. “Huh…” He grunted, taking a drag from his cigarette and flicking ash away, “Mexico. Beer on the beach.”

“That sounds nice, some white sand on the Sea of Cortez,” Laine said, tossing her hair back and looked out at the forest as if it might change to the crystal blue waters. “Have you a nice senorita on your arm?”

She met his eyes then glanced away, ducking her head down to examine her cigarette, watching the glow against the black paper.

Donnelley’s smile grew a little more the longer Laine described the details of his imaginary vacation. He was envisioning the beach, the stars, a bonfire. A señorita on his arm. He huffed a chuckle as she looked away from him, turning his eyes onto the sunrise after he said, “Maybe I do.” A little smile on him before he continued, “Modelos, Corona, tequila. Street tacos… marlin.”

He chuckled warmly, “Shoo’, makin’ me wanna run for the border.”

At his expanded description, Laine smiled and added, “With fresh mango salsa and lime juice...muy bueno.

She looked up and hobbled a step towards his chair, the conversation had started to flow more naturally as it had before, the tension she felt somewhat easing. Laine gestured to her sneaker clad foot, “I’d go with you but I’m not running anywhere today. Bring me back a sombrero, the kind with the little pom poms.”

“Only the best for you.” He smiled at her as he leaned back in his chair. The events of the night before grabbed and clawed at his attention but he made an effort to push them back, reaching for better, “Where would you go? Anywhere.”

Laine tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, then grinned, “I had thought Fiji but Mexico sounds so good now. I think I’d like to visit somewhere different, maybe colder. Finland..maybe, my dad’s family is Finnish. But I don’t think pickled herring or whatever they eat could beat fish tacos.”

She laughed, glancing over at him, “I don’t know really, maybe France. Visit Paris to say I went there then be disgusted by all the tourists and light out for some small unknown village and drink local wine and travel around the French countryside in early summer. Rent a bike and take a picnic, stay in a chateau.”

Her green eyes twinkled at the idea, lavender filled fields and ancient stone houses. And no weird shit. “I guess that’s probably pretty basic, but it sounds nice.”

Donnelley watched her as she stared out at the sunrise, or beyond it to those green fields of France where he could see her smiling as she walked the streets of Paris, tasting wine, and lounging in a field of grass where no signs of man would spring up for miles. Didn’t he say he wished he could have ridden his motorcycle across Europe a time ago? He took his eyes off of her and looked out where her gaze was, the hills not seeming too sinister for a time. “I’d like that.” He near whispered, before he caught himself and continued, “It’d be a nice break. Maybe sometime soon we’ll have what we want.”

His hushed tone caught her attention and she looked at him, not quite catching what he said before he continued. Laine nodded, “It would be nice. Maybe hop over to Switzerland or the Netherlands. Just somewhere far away from here. Soon...”

Unwillingly her thoughts turned to the murder, the film and the mystery of Blackriver. Laine moved over to Donnelley, standing within reaching distance and looked at him, “‘We have miles to go before we sleep.’ I just remembered that line, you know I loved poetry and literature in school, if it wasn’t for...well...”

She noticed her cigarette had burned down, the length of ashes hanging precariously and she flicked them, taking the last drag. “If it wasn’t for the path set for me, I might have majored in that.”

Laine grinned, then crushed the butt of the Djarum under her sneaker, “Then I’d not be here and I wouldn’t have met you and all of our team. Nor had an actual career.”

She stooped with a swift movement to pick it up, palming the filter to toss it away inside. “I’m sorry,” she said suddenly, then shook her head. “It was nice...you know, dreaming for a little while.”

“Ain’t it?” He said, smile fading a tick before a thought crossed his mind and pulled him back to the waking world. He hadn’t gotten the check-in from Laurie and Gwen. “Oh, fuck.”

He stood with some purpose and frantically checked his pockets for his phone, finding it wasn’t there. He rushed inside, leaving the front door open and he snatched his phone up. No messages. Nothing. Maybe those two assholes had just forgotten or…

He dialed the number to the sat-phone, having to erase a wrong digit a couple times for his rushed fingers struggling to keep up with his panicked mind. Finally, he got it right and pressed it to his ear. It picked up. When he heard nothing for a few seconds he hesitated to speak. “Laurie?” He ventured, nothing. “Gwen? Can you hear me?”

Maybe they weren’t in a spot where the reception was good. Mountains blocking the signal. Something. He opened his mouth to try calling out at them again but a voice like a chorus of whispers came through underneath static, “Come and see…”

The line went dead.

He looked at his phone, pressed the home button and it only showed him that it had died. It was at least at half battery last night and there was no way it would’ve drained so quickly. He set his phone down and stepped back, his hand on his forehead, his eyes vacant at the floor.

Laine followed him, not quite sure what was making him worry until she heard him ask for Laurie. The Drone team that had gone into the woods, cocksure and packed with PB&J sandwiches. She stared at his expression as the phone call ended, feeling a prickle crawl across her scalp. “What happened?”

“Donnelley?” she asked again, stepping closer to him when he did not respond. “What the hell happened?”

Laine touched his cheek, trying to look him in the eyes, her fingers light against his two toned beard. “It’s bad. Fuck...”

Turning away, she felt the cold grip of panic trying to seize her up as she called out, “Tom! Justin!”

Tom woke up thinking about the events of the night before. He was thinking about his sister. The Boston PD and Mass State CPAC never did find who kidnapped Meghan. It was one of those things that has haunted him since he was 12 years old. It was one of the main reasons he became a police officer. On the anniversary of her death, or the anniversary of when Boston Police found her corpse, he pulls out her cold case file and read it cover to cover. He hasn’t given up, but there is very little evidence or leads to go on.

He rubbed his eyes, dispelling the sleepy seeds from the corner of his eyes. He dragged his legs off the edge of the bed and felt a throbbing headache on both sides of his head. It took some effort, but he dragged himself to a standing position and stumbled to the bathroom to relieve himself and take some Tylenol. He returned to the room and began the process of getting dressed. He pulled on the same green tactical trousers he wore yesterday, but opted for the grey T-shirt.

Justin shocked awake in a cold sweat. He came out of whatever hell he was in with his heart pounding. He shot up in bed in an instant, his mind racing. Mortars? Where was the goddamn shelter, it was-

His eyes traced the features of the room, his brain struggling to catch up and remember just where he was.

“Good morning, Sleepy head,” Tom chided Mr. Clark as he tied his boots.

“Gh-” Justin tried to speak, to respond. His mouth was bone dry, his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. A moment of contemplation, and he finally mustered a response in a dry, scraggled voice. “Ffffuck.”

“You need some water?” Tom asked. “I have a bottle of whiskey if you’d prefer that?”

“No.. I’m- ah- I’m good.” Justin swung his legs out over the side of the bed slowly. “Did- did I dream someone calling me? Or was it real?” He inquired as he went for a pair of jeans folded semi-neatly nearby the bed.

“I heard nothing, but then I had a pretty deep sedative last night,” Tom admitted. “It may have been a dream.

“Right.” Justin stood as he wriggled into the pair of jeans. No sooner had he done that than an unmarked maroon t-shirt was thrown over his head. Socks, check. He slipped on his favorite ATAC boots right after.

“Well, I’m going to head downstairs. I don’t smell eggs and bacon like yesterday, but maybe I can cook us up something to eat,” Tom added. He headed for the door. Once in the doorway he heard someone yell. “That sounds like Dr. Laine,” Tom spoke at Justin. “It sounds like she just yelled for the both of us. Hurry up!” Tom headed for the stairs and marched downstairs quickly. He found Donnelley near the counter at the kitchen.

When he entered the room after descending the staircase, he asked, “What’s up?” Tom was curious why the doctor called.

Justin was right behind, signs of his bedtime distress still plastered on his face as he appeared in the room.

“Laurie and Gwen missed their check-in. No SITREP, nothing.” Donnelley didn’t even turn to them as he spoke, just stood there, one arm wrapped around his waist and the other rubbing his forehead, ‘Come and see’ echoing again and again in his mind, “Fuck. Something’s wrong.”

He pushed off the counter and nodded at the two men, “Full gear, get outside ASAP. We’re going for a hike.”

“Roger that, boss,” Tom responded and moved back up the stairs. He grabbed his Assault vest, still set up as it was yesterday. He pulled the M4 sling over his head, checking to insure the weapon was on Safe. The SIG was back in its right thigh holster and he put the tactical helmet on his head before grabbing a few more cigars sliding them in a pocket. He was ready for a hike, heading toward the front door as instructed by Mr. Donnelley.

Justin similarly rushed up the stairs, his instinct kicking in as he pulled pieces of gear from his duffel under his bed. He traded the t-shirt for a UBAC but otherwise kept the jeans. He fastened his JPC vest hastily, thumping a fist against the hard plates. He hooked the straps of his helmet around one of the PALS loops, letting it hang as he affixed a multicam baseball cap on his head. Then onto the guns. The Mk. 18 was a beast of a weapon, an M4 frame updated with all the best parts that money could buy outside the Army itself. Slamming home a magazine, he didn’t bother chambering a round as he threaded the sling around his torso. Sliding his SIG into a holster and collecting both his knives, he stuffed magazines into accessory pouches; his go-bag became a patrol ruck. As he descended the stairs, he’d went from washed-up hillbilly to elite operator.

Laine watched them roll into motion, practiced and smooth, not like her own jerking heart. She glanced at Donnelley, his face still drawn and pale. He looked suddenly older, the carelines etched deeper and she waited until the men as vanished up the stairs.

"You know what you'll find," she said quietly, putting a gentle hand on his arm and despite her gut fear of what she suspected might be waiting she said, "I'm coming with you."

They might have the guns but she knew crime scenes, she understood men that killed like this. At least she hoped she did.

Donnelley folded his arms and hung his head, nodding in agreement. He already knew what happened, or the gist. It wouldn’t hit him until he saw it. And he needed to. Leaving anything open to wonder at years down the line wasn’t something Donnelley did. In a profession that made him witness the unreal and the unknown, Donnelley dealt in reality and absolutes. “I gotta get ready.”

He went for the stairs, leaving Laine’s gentle hand behind him as he gathered his tools of the trade.

Laine watched Tom and Justin, now grim faced and armed to the teeth. She closed her eyes for a moment and hoped to whatever might be out there that this was Gwen and Laurie's idea of a prank.

"Wait, you guys haven't eaten," Laine said, looking for something to do as they readied.

“You have any more of those PB&Js?” Tom asked.

"I can make some real quick, and there's protein bars," she moved quickly, ignoring the twinge of discomfort in her foot. Cabinets slammed open and closed as she whipped together half a dozen PB&Js, spreading lumps of peanut butter and spilling some strawberry jam in the process. Her mind focused she was able to put aside speculation of what waited.

Tom grabbed a few sandwiches and protein bars, stuffing these into his butt pack. “Thanks, Heather.” He took one of the sandwiches and began eating it as he resumed heading to the door.

Donnelley took a deep breath at the top of the stairs, fully kitted with his Honey Badger dangling from its single point sling. A pull from his flask had steadied his hands as he got ready, and as he descended the stairs it seemed the stress was seeping deep under his skin to be hidden away in some compartment at the back of his brain. He donned a grin as he sauntered into the kitchen, one hand clutched the rim of his tactical helmet, NODs fixed to the front of it. The other stuffed a cigarette between his grinning lips. “Hot damn, look’it these badasses.” He rapped his knuckles on Justin’s backplate, “I’m feelin’ dangerous now.”

He stepped back, heading for the door, but paused at the open door. He looked to Laine, his face grim for a second until he cracked his smirk, “I trust mine are cut in triangles.”

"Only the best," she said, flipping the knife to make a quick cross cut.

Laine smiled at Tom and Justin, the hint of worry in her green eyes unable to be completely hidden. "You guys are armored up, I'd better drive to test the durability."




>BLACKRIVER FORESTS
>0600...///

Donnelley had made sure to wake up Foster before they set out in the Chevy Suburban, stuffing their gear in the back before the three men stowed themselves in the back seat, squeezed in amongst each other. The closer they got to Laurie and Gwen’s infil point the less and less idle chit chat or small talk came up. By the time the Suburban lurched to a stop in the logging roads to the mountains, they all sat grim faced and ready.

They exited the Suburban and as they donned their rucks, Donnelley spoke in a voice unlike his previous cheeky banter, “I’m sure I don’t have to tell either of you this, but we’re goin’ to treat this forest like hostile territory. Light and sound discipline, no smokin’, we communicate by whisper or by hand and arm signals. Make sure you bring your NODs, I’m not leavin’ ‘til we find Laurie and Gwen or the sun fucks off.” Donnelley patted his Honey Badger, “We don’t know what is in this forest with us, but if it was quiet enough to get Laurie and Gwen before they could call then it’s quiet and it’s good. This ain’t no Tora Bora, so your signal to shoot is when I shoot. If you see somethin’ I don’t, you signal for a halt and tell me about it so we’re all on the same page where to put our rounds down range.”

“That means anythin’ and anyone. I’m comin’ out of this forest. We make sure whatever’s in that forest don’t.” Donnelley checked over his weapons and laid eyes on his men, “Justin, you’re takin’ point, I’m bringin’ up the rear. Heads on a swivel, boys. Good copy?”

"Aye." Justin nodded, fitting his olive green OpsCore over his head. He flipped down the monocular NOD on the RHINO mount, giving it a quick test as he secured the battery. He ran a gloved hand down the taped-down wire which ran from his headset to his radio. Pulling his Mk. 18 up by its single-point sling, he pressed the stock into his shoulder and pulled back the charging handle, guiding the bolt back forward with a satisfying 'click-clack'! A test of the laser-light and he was ready to go.

As Donnelley was heard and understood, he came around to the passenger side window, tapping a knuckle on it for Foster to roll it down. Once it was down halfway, he smirked at the other man, “Don’t suppose we can request a Predator drone overhead? Maybe get Coral Nomad teams as QRF?”

Foster just shrugged, miming tied hands, “I’m not planning for it to get bad enough we have to convince someone to drop a JDAM on Whitetree.”

“Could we?” Donnelley rose a brow. Foster shooed him and Donnelley caught eyes with Laine. “I’ll be back pretty soon. Just goin’ for a walk with some friends, s’all.”

Laine leaned forward to look around Foster, she was stuffed into borrowed Kevlar and her Glock on her hip, tactical helmet in her lap. Just in case. "You be careful, stay out of that poison oak," she said, playing along but her gaze was intent and worried.

“Yes, dear, I shall.” Donnelley smirked before he looked back at Foster, “Night time. I’ll call you. We don’t come back by zero-hour, you hightail it out of here and get CORAL NOMAD on the phone. Have the president authorize a nuke to get dropped on Blackriver.”

“Yes, Sarn’t.” Foster saluted.

“Don’t salute in the field, dick.” Donnelley gave a smug grin and patted the car door before he walked back to the others and nodded, all business. “Are we ready, gentlemen?”

"Ready." Justin nodded, having returned his Mk. 18 to sit diagonally across his chest via it's single-point sling. A single-hole olive green balaclava obscured his face, only his two green eyes visible, which were soon also covered with a pair of Oakley combat glasses. A microphone stalk stretched from one side of his integral headset, which was earpro and comms all in one.

Tom put his assault vest and thigh holster back on with the Sig in the holster and all his equipment in the butt pack or attached to the vest. He put his low tactical helmet which looked similar to Mr Clark’s olive green Ops Core Helmet. He checked his NODs to make sure they were working properly. The M4 sling went over his head to the left shoulder so the weapon slung down on his right side. Tom pulled the magazine out of the well and pulled the charging handle back, locking it to the rear. He inspected the chamber, which was clear and then reinserted the magazine. Next, he unlocked the bolt, which slid forward, placing a round in the chamber. The weapon remained on safe until needed.

Major Tom Stewart, USMC intended to follow Ranger Clark along their path up the mountain. He would remain roughly ten meters behind his point man; closer if the foliage became congested. “Roger that Mr. Donnelley. I’ll watch Mr. Clark’s back and keep an eye on you too.” Tom did not smile. He would be as serious as a mother fucking heart attack here on in.

Donnelley nodded and motioned for the two men to follow him. From then on, the only sound they would share between each other were their boots crunching against the packed dirt and gravel of the mountain trail. Three men willing, waiting, and ready to pull Laurie and Gwen out of a bad situation. And failing that, eager to visit violence upon their enemy. Like Donnelley had said, they packed light, probed deep, and when the time came - Struck goddamn hard.

Their first destination was the hide point that Laurie most likely would have pointed out. It came to them after a half hour as a high ridge resting above the trails, standing rocky, jagged vigil over the trees. From here, Laurie and Gwen would have had a commanding view of the forests in Blackriver. There were the tell-tale signs that Laurie and Gwen were here. The makings of a campfire had been propped up, but as Donnelley looked closer at it there was no ash or ember. He looked around the rest of the hide, noting the disheveled look of the place. The tents were toppled and there were fresh-turned scrapes in the dirt hinting a scuffle.

His eyes narrowed at the camouflage netting over the laser microphone. It remained upright on its tripod, turning in another direction, the drone still sat underneath its netting. The laptop was still there, as well as all the other pieces of hardware the two-person Drone Team had taken with them. Donnelley stepped over and opened up the laptop. No recordings of flights had been made. The drone had not even left the hide.

Around one of their tents, the boot prints became more erratic. Scrapes in the earth and bounding steps. Ten meters away, three spent 7.62 casing rested on top of the dirt. As expected, they were not warm, cold to the touch Donnelley found as he removed a hard-knuckle glove to pluck one of the casings up. He dropped it back, replacing his glove. Laurie was shooting at someone. Returning fire, maybe, but as he looked back to where Laurie had been standing he could see no visible bullet holes coming back at him. A few meters forward, one of his rounds had punched through a young tree, another pile of casings between its roots there, boot prints heading from the first pile to this tree. He was advancing on someone. He motioned for Tom and Justin, speaking as low as he could while still trying to let them hear what he had to say, “Search around the camp, look for Gwen’s 5.56 casings. Laurie was advancing on somebody deeper in the forest.”

The farther Donnelley tracked the casings and bootprints, the more the picture came together. He looked up and took in the rest of the scene, his head staying down so far. Trees were splintered in the distance, bending in the places they were broken. He walked further, his eyes scanning the spaces between the trees, looking for movement. Bending down to look at a dip in the ground, big as his upper body, he swore under his breath. Whatever they were shooting at wasn’t going to be bothered by Laurie and Gwen’s bullets but it had been retreating deeper into the forest.

Pulling them away from camp. Exhausting their ability to get a sense of their surroundings and regroup, getting rid of the possibility of calling for help. This thing was huge. And intelligent. He lifted his eyes to scan the trees again, suddenly not feeling like the hunter anymore. Tom and Justin regrouped with him and he nodded. They would continue on and follow the tracks and broken trees.

Their slow and methodical advance took them through a long stretch of hard country they tackled with soft swears and hard steps. They were assured and also burdened by the fact the size of what they were tracking would be heard coming, at least. It was easy to track. But it was not easy to kill. They pressed on through overgrown game trails and forest roads until the sun began to set, even. Their NODs lit their way from the time the long shadows of the mountains swallowed them.

Then they came to a place where Donnelley knew they would come. But it had to be seen. Had to. He knew it was them from the weapons and tatters of clothing. Gwen’s Air Force uniform, or rags of it, and Laurie’s weapon. Laurie’s legs were a meter away from him, his chest split open with what looked like an axe, but Donnelley knew was something more brutal.

Farther afield it looked like something had blown the trees apart. More huge tracks, a set heading away and then a set heading back. Somebody had set explosives to catch the thing, but he knew neither Laurie or Gwen would’ve had the time to set a trap like that in the midst of a firefight. Donnelley picked up a piece of cord, found the blackened timber of the trees self-evident that somebody else had entered the picture. There were bootprints around as well, two more sets. Heading towards the scene and leading away into the underbrush. “We’ve got some unaccounted for guests.”

As Joe conducted his investigative surveillance of the scene where a fight occurred involving Laure and Gwen, Tom scanned the horizon and peered through the underbrush for any signs someone might be watching them. He pulled security while their team leader did his job. He viewed the surrounding terrain in various hues of green looking for an unanticipated heat signature that would show up as a bright green spot.

It was easy to track where the two people were headed. They had somehow earned the ire of this great beast and it had chased them long into the hills. The shine of casings told the men it was a fighting retreat, but a frenzied one. Before long, the trail cut south and led them to what looked like a cabin, or what may have been one at some point before nature set its teeth into it, the forest intent on swallowing it whole. From Donnelley’s NODs, he could see no movement, but the bootprints and splintered trees were enough to tell him that the fight had stopped here. Donnelley surveyed the area with his NODs, “Lotta broken trees and shit.” He pointed to an area where a huge crater had been blown into the earth, as well as toppled a couple trees, “They had some decent firepower, looks like. Let’s move. Stick close. Tom, watch those windows on the left side of the cabin from the treeline, Justin and I can stack up on the front door.”

Tom used the crook of a tree to steady his aiming point and scanned the windows providing overwatch for Joe and Justin as they advanced toward the door. He could see nothing inside the window; just the blackness of night.

With that, they moved in unison to their spots like a well-oiled machine. Justin and Donnelley bounded across the thirty meters from treeline to front door, their steps quick and quiet as the breezes. Donnelley took one side of the door while Justin took the opposite. Donnelley held up three fingers… two fingers… one finger…




>THE NIGHT BEFORE
>BLACKRIVER FORESTS
>WORKING GROUP BLACKBEARD SAFEHOUSE
>2300HRS...///

“I’m picking up some weird signals.” Mark said. He was a SIGINT collector in the Army’s ISA working in Somalia before The Program picked him up. The short, bearded Korean man wiped his brow and sighed, “Baby Boy’s going batshit over this stretch of country.”

Baby Boy was one of two hand-launched drones Mark procured from the Army and upgraded with all manner of Hollywood spy shit by The Program’s Office of Logistics. The other, named Baby Girl, was without node for picking up radio, cellphone, radiation and a menagerie of other detectable signals. A small expense compared to some of the other things The Program would manage to get indefinitely loaned out to them for the vague purpose of supplying ‘counterterrorism task forces.’ Clif Boone, the team’s Designated Marksman and former sniper for the FBI’s HRT, and a Green Beret before that, removed the two-setting NVG/IR monocular from his eye as he looked out over the cliff their little cabin Safehouse was perched on. The sharpshooter piped up from around a mouthful of Ranger bar from his recently devoured MRE, “You like naming your shit weird.”

“GPS still works though,” Mark said, unperturbed by Clif’s comment, “I’m penning the coordinates down so you and David can check it out. We need eyes on this place.”

“Are you asking, or is Bob?” Clif sighed.

“Bob.” Mark tossed the notebook with the coordinates to Clif, “Asshole.”

“I’ll take Rambo with me.” Clif nodded over to David, Rambo being his nickname for David, knowing of his recent recruitment and the cowboy nature of the man in question, “You good with that, Rambo?”

"Yeah, I'm good with it." Dave picked himself up off the ground where he'd sat cross-legged, pouring over 101 Medicinal and Edible Plants. The sub-title marked it as the Appalachian edition; Dave had a copy of the Ozark edition at home, and had given another to Mal. He tucked the book into his pack and slung it over his shoulders, tightening up the straps before slinging his rifle. The weapon was one from his own armory, an AK platform in a NATO caliber.

"We goin' out just us?" He asked, brass-checking the weapon before letting it hang and digging out a can of Long Cut from a cargo pocket.

“Gotta leave somebody to watch over my favorite Korean.” Clif shrugged, growling to his feet and stretching his arms up, his back rattling off a series of pops. “Holy shit.”

Clif grunted, slipping his plate carrier over his head and plopping his helmet on, slapping it a couple times. “Let’s git.”

Clif waved David along with him as he stepped through the rickety door of their cabin and out onto the porch. Bear came around the corner, just finished with zipping up his pants. The huge SEAL bent down and hefted up his FN LMG, “Where y’all headed?” He said, turning his head and letting loose a thick stream of chew spit.

“Out. Stay with Mark.” Clif pointed back at the cabin without breaking stride. The long hike was silent to the coordinates that Mark had penned down. Rough country and overgrown game trails traced their jagged path through the mountains. Clif was no slouch when it came to rucking through the backwoods and to David’s credit he kept up almost effortlessly. It was an hour before Clif held up a hand for them to stop on the trail they’d been hiking for a while.

“You hear that?” Clif whispered silently enough it was almost lost to the night air. There were no animals. None. Which made it easier to pick out the soft sound of gunfire somewhere in the hills. With how far away it sounded, it would be nigh impossible for Clif and David to orient themselves the true direction it was coming from. Vaguely east, Clif pulling out his compass and listening closely.

"Well that probably ain't a good sign," Dave said dryly. He swallowed hard. The first time he tried dip, he and his brother had snuck off into the woods. They'd brought a few beers they stole from their father's liquor cabinet, intent on a little youthful rebellion. Big Joe tracked them by the spit trail, and gave them both a thrashing to reinforce the lesson. Now he gutted his dip.

"So I guess we're headed East," he said. "Unless you think we should head back and grab the boys. Go into it with some numbers."

Clif frowned deep, looking from the east to where the cabin would be and back again. He took his moment, “I’ll update them. Tell them to catch the fuck up, we’ll get eyes on.”

Clif got Mark and Bear on the horn, told them what they heard and to double-time it to their position. By the time they were close enough to hear the pops on the air and the flashes from muzzles the two of them were panting as they lay prone in the bushes. Their distance from the gunfight let them have a wide view of the field. What was off about it was that there were no muzzle flashes opposite the other two. The pattern of the flashes and the report of gunfire told Clif these were professionals. The longer they lay there, Clif and David felt the soft vibrations of something. Paired with the trees splintering and looking like they were being shoved out of the way by something told Clif it was footsteps. Big ones. The ones with the guns were advancing in bounding overwatch, but why did they feel the need to cover their partner from?

Almost as if whatever it was answered him, there was a roar on the wind. Something like cattle being slaughtered before there were screams, more human. No more gunfire. Just the footsteps, and a low thrum of a growl. The trees made way for it and they listened until it was gone. Clif turned to David, “Fuck me.” He whispered incredulously, “I almost don’t even want to fuck with this. Your call, we go or wait for the others?”

Dave shot him a look. "You fuckin' with me right now?" He asked. "I left my RPG back in Arkansas. That thing sounds huge, and it just wrecked shop on a pack of shooters. My country ass votes we get back-up." He held his breath for a moment, then muttered a curse. "After we check casualties, I can't just fuckin' leave 'em."

“I don’t even know who the fuck them is.” Clif said. It was silence between them for a few moments, “Fuck, alright, Rambo. Let’s go do this.”

Clif rummaged around in a pocket and his hand returned with his monocular. The IR setting painted the trees in greys and, lo and behold, two splotches of white. There was a spray of white along a tree as well. They were dead. Bad kind of dead. The prints of whatever attacked them were big, its prints standing out as huge dips in the earth, each the size of a man’s torso. “Jesus fuck.” He said, passing over the monocular, “Take a look.”

"Christ in heaven," Dave murmured. He dropped to a knee, eyeing the prints. They were sunk deep into the loamy earth of the forest floor, pressed firmly enough he could see the ridges of the toes. He gave Clif a wide-eyed look.

"This thing… we're talking ten, fifteen thousand pounds. Feet this wide, weight's spread out. This thing is fucking massive, man." He passed the monocular back; his AK suddenly felt nigh impotent. "I don't have the kind of ordinance to reliably kill something like this, even in my pack."

He looked in the direction the thing had gone.

"Let's go, we need to move. You want me to set a toe-popper for him?"

“I’ll check out the bodies. You do that, maybe it comes back this way and we can hear about it. We’re gonna need some high-vis shit on this low-vis op to put this thing down. This place is more fucked than the Ozarks.” Clif looked to the huge tracks and shook his head, “Which I have no goddamn clue if they’re even going to approve that Hollywood bullshit after what we pulled in your stomping grounds.” Clif shook his head at the growing amount of bullshit they’d have to deal with now, “Seven fucking tons.”

Clif turned to go check out the bodies, muttering, “Get a goddamn C-130 gunship in the air for this sonofabitch.”

"If they don't we're fucked, unless I can rig something up." Dave dug into his pack, coming up a moment later with a roll of electrical tape and a spool of snare wire. He eyed the creature's path, found two likely trees, and went to work.

Animals, especially big ones, preferred walking ground they'd already covered. It made for less resistance, and almost universally animals chose the path of least resistance unless they were on the run or on the attack. He took every frag grenade he had, four of them, and began strapping them together with the tape. He added a flashbang for good measure and then taped the entire contraption to a tree at hip-height, securing it to a thick branch with the rest of the tape.

"You really think we might get airpower?" He asked as he ran the snare wire through the pins on the grenades. He'd placed the explosives so that all of the spoons were free, and ran the wire in a quick weave through the pin rings. The other end he spooled out and attached firmly to a tree across the monster's trail.

"Done. Let's scat."

“Hold a moment,” Clif called to David, waving him over, “The hell you make of this shit?”

In front of Clif were the two bodies, one smaller than the other. Their weapons were NATO, an M14 next to one and an M4 next to the other. And as David looked them over, he could clearly see what Clif did.

They had absolutely no skin. One was missing an arm, the other had its legs amputated from the knees and his chest split open. Clif hoped to God they’d died instantly. “I’ve seen some shit, but this is a special type of shit.”

Dave looked over the bodies critically. "Ain't seen nothing like that before," he said. He sniffed, shook his head, and shouldered his pack.

"Look, we need to scoot, hoss," Dave said. He looked nervously down the path the beast had taken. "Ain't any guarantee the frags are gonna stop whatever that thing is. Shit's more of a spicy early warning system. I don't want to be standin' anywhere nearby when that thing gets an ankle full of shrapnel."

“Right, yeah.” Clif turned away from the bodies and followed David back the way they came. They didn’t get twenty steps into the underbrush when they heard it again. Or felt it, more like. “Holy shit.” Clif pushed David ahead of him, “Get to the others and tell them we’ve got a big one paying us a visit. Go!”

Even by the few moments Clif spent talking the footsteps and crashing trees were loud enough to be heard in their peripherals now. Clif and David made their retreat, Clif turning back every now and then just to see if he could see what was chasing them. And hopefully he could distract the big sonofabitch long enough for David to slip away quick.

Dave released an impressive stream of creative backwoods profanity. Then he spun on his heel, tucked his dip tight into his cheek, and ran.

He moved as fast as he dared, high-stepping to keep his feet free of entangling obstacles, his rifle tucked tight to his body with his left arm. His heart was hammering, but he kept his gaze solidly ahead, wishing like hell he'd saved one of those goddamn frags.

From behind him he could hear Clif curse, the easy sound of reports of gunfire from his rifle. Three bursts of automatic fire and Clif was gone, taking the thing with him as the huge steps seemed to fade in the distance with yet more angry pops of Clif’s M4...///

>FIFTEEN MINUTES LATER...///

Bear and Mark had been taking a knee at the position Clif had pegged him and David would be at. He and Bear were chatting, the bigger man’s words coming from around a protein bar. His eyes screwed up when he saw something come crashing through the trees and brush, raising his LMG while Mark had his M4 up in a flash. They seemed to relax when they saw who it was. Bear spoke first, “Where’s Clif?” He asked, “What happened? We got here and we’ve been pinging Clif since, dude hasn’t responded.”

Dave ducked his head as he crashed into view, slaloming around a tree. He tried to slow down, couldn't, and settled for dropping into a slide, skidding to a stop baseball-style with a twinge of the knees and another burst of profanity.

"Fucking contact!" He roared, rolling to a painful kneeling position. His safety clacked off and he scanned the treeline, his barrel bobbing slightly as he worked to catch his breath. "Contact, big, Clif is gone, killed a couple others, dunno who. It's fucking big."

“Wait, what the fuck?” Mark asked, eyes going from David to the treeline. Despite his confusion, if David was spooked, he kept his M4 up at the ready. “Alright, let’s get back to the cabin. Tell us what happened, and we can see if I can find Clif with my drone.”

“We need to go-“

“We need to make sure we can get Clif without risking our own asses floundering around the damn dark.” Mark held up his hand, interrupting Bear. “Come on. Unless you want to risk it there, David.”

Dave thought for a moment while he caught his breath. "We gotta fall back," he said finally. "We're talking seven tons of somethin' angry. It killed two shooters, tore 'em apart. Ain't no way Clif made it. He's either hidin' and we'll find him later, or he's dead. This thing don't leave walking wounded."

He stood, wincing as his knees cracked. That sprint through the forest with gear on his back was going to take its toll later, he could already tell.

"Come on. Move quick, fucker wasn't far behind me. We get back in time I might be able to set somethin' for it, but we gotta roll."

>...///

They made it to the Safehouse in good time, moving as quick as they could through the trees and underbrush until they spotted their little home in the forest. “Fucking shit, man,” Bear growled, “Bob doesn’t have to stay in this fucking forest, but we do?”

“He had to report to Headquarters.” Mark shook his head. “Get the fuck inside, Bear. Where’s the M2?”

“I’ve got it, it’s in the living room.” Bear bounded inside the house to retrieve it so they could set some kind of perimeter up.

“Set it at one of the windows!” Mark called after him. “David, what do you got? Please tell me you have something in your bag of tricks to fuck this thing up.”

Dave grabbed a heavy black duffel bag, hiking it up onto his shoulder.

"Keep me covered," he said. "I'm gonna plan a Fourth of July party." He paused in the doorway. "Hey...I ain't kidding when I say this thing is bad. If I start screamin'... Just hit it with that fifty. Don't worry about watching your fire. Rather take a bullet than deal with this bastard up close. Alright?"

He jogged to the treeline, to the area they'd exited from. He hadn't bothered trying to hide their trail; it wouldn't have been possible anyway. And he didn't want to. He wanted that trail, wanted that monster to just stroll along after them. It made his job easier.

Dave dropped the bag and dug into its contents, laying out a few bricks of C4, their detonators, and other accoutrements. Beside that he added three Claymore antipersonnel mines and two red-star-parachute flares.

His heart pounded, but he forced himself to work calmly. The flares he rigged to two tripwires, a simple setup to let them know the bastard had arrived. The Claymores he rigged at three levels; one at the ground, one set into the crotch of a tree at waist level, and one propped at head height, all pointed to roughly cover the "X" of the flares.

Time was wasting, so the C4 he simply slapped on the ground, armed, and then covered with leaves. While it was a sloppy job that wouldn't trick even an amateur soldier, he hoped it was enough to deceive a mindless killing beast. If that's what it was.

The last step of the trap was bait; human or animal, the bait had to be something the target wanted. With people that was usually something intangible, something goal-oriented. People wanted to get into something, go somewhere, or find cover; the bait was a door, a hallway, a culvert or rock wall. With an animal, especially a predator, things were simpler.

Dave took his knife, gritted his teeth, and then jerked the blade across the flesh of his left forearm. The blood welled and he slung his hand about, spattering blood on the ground and trees nearest his trap. Then he jogged back to the cabin, slamming the door shut behind him.

"Trap's set," he said, tossing his empty bag aside. He moved to the window and set his detonators nearby, within reach. "When the flares pop, hit the deck. Don't wanna be by a window when this party starts."

“Don’t wanna be by a window,” Bear put some oomph behind his arm, working the bolt and chambering the first of the huge .50 BMG rounds into the M2- which was situated at a window, “Goddamn it.”

Mark let go a rueful laugh at that, a growl in the silence, one eye closed and M4 pointing at window of the east side of the cabin. Bear and his M2 could light up whatever came from the west and he trusted David to watch the approach to his trap from the south. Just as everybody’s hearts were pounding the loudest, it turned quiet. The moments ticked by at a snail’s pace. Mark could only hear his breathing and his labored heart pumping adrenaline, his jaw set and hands ready. “How big?” Mark asked, his question drifting on the winds to David, “You get a look at it?”

"Not even once," Dave said. "Got footprints is all. From the depth, when you compare how broad the feet are? Lookin' at no shit like… Ten, fifteen thousand pounds at the top end. And the way it tore apart the bodies…"

He shuddered, blocking out the memory of both the corpses and the roar of whatever it was. "I know the guys it killed were putting a lot of rounds out. And we know Clif at least was a pro. So…" He shook his head, realizing he was drifting, letting his nerves get the best of him. "So no. I don't know what it looks like, or how big it really is. But I put three Claymores and four pounds of C4 out there, so if it can walk that off we might as well shoot ourselves."

A lonely breeze only added to the rising anxiety in Mark’s bones. David’s talk didn’t help, but he couldn’t blame the man. He heard Bear swallow hard even from how far they were apart, other ends of the cabin, “Downer.”

“Everyone shut the fuck up.” Mark shot back, giving a thick swallow himself and rolling his shoulders, “Get your NODs on.”

Mark pulled his down as he spoke, lighting up the perimeter in shades of staticky green. The minutes ticked by silently. These binocular goggles didn’t give him the field of view of the quad-NODs the Army gave him in Somalia, but neither did the window. He leaned at the waist, slicing the pie on his field of view from the window and still saw nothing. Fucking nothing. He whispered into his comms headset, “Anybody got visual on anything?

“Negative.” Bear’s rumble came over from his right ear.

More silence. No sounds from the trees. Not even an owl or a bat. The rustle of the trees made him shiver in turn. They were alone out here, and White Tree was the closest civilization, if that shit place could even be called such. “David? Movement?”

"Nothin'," Dave said. His eyes were glued to the trail, straining for detail through the green tint of the NVG's. His rifle lay across his lap, the explosive triggers on the floor within easy reach, his hands on his weapon where they wouldn't set off the bombs with an accidental fidget. He was breathing slowly, rhythmically, keeping cool, staying calm, just slow breathing -

"Wait," he said. He saw it again, a subtle but definite movement, low to the ground on the trail. It was small, not some rampaging beast. He leaned forward, hands drifting towards his detonators. Then the image resolved itself and he swore.

"Son of a bitch, it's Clif! And he's headin' right for the goddamn bombs!"

Mark snapped his attention to David at the mention of Clif. His eyes went to the window to David and back again, “Can you fucking stop him?” Mark asked. This threw a goddamn wrench in everything. He wasn’t going to leave Clif out there for that thing. “Try to stop him! Don’t break the fucking perimeter, tell him to-to come another direction. Fuck.

“Help!” Clif’s ragged voice came, “Come on! I need a fucking medic! Bear!”

“Fuck, I gotta-“

“No, you don’t…” Mark cut himself off. He couldn’t break his watch on the eastern approach and neither could anyone else risk going outside to retrieve Clif. What if… “It wants us to get him. Don’t fucking go outside.”

“Please, fuck!” Clif’s cries for help came again. “My fucking leg! I’ll crawl to you, just get me half way there, man!”

“Fuck!” Mark growled, uselessly slamming the toe of his boot against a wall. “Just…”

But he had no ideas. There was nothing any of them could do for Clif save putting a massive hole in their perimeter they’d just set up. Bear was getting antsy, the SEAL medic in him needing to tear across the thirty meters of open ground from the front door to Clif. A deadly thirty meters. “Come on, I can make it, Mark. You know it.”

“That thing… it’s out there, it’s testing us. You think Clif could reach us this quick with a bum leg?” Mark said through gritted teeth, trying to give Bear reason as much as he was trying to give the rest of them.

The entire time he realized he wasn’t watching his side of the perimeter. He turned back to the window and something was off about the picture his NODs were giving him. He lifted them and looked with his own eyes. Had that tree been there be-

Bear heard the window on the east side crash open and something heavy thud to the ground. He took his eyes off of his window to catch a glimpse of Mark’s body and a growing pool of black around his head. There was no gunfire…

As if the sun had suddenly risen red, the entirety of the immediate area around the cabin was bathed in a bright light from David’s flares. They could clearly see Clif become frenzied and crawl frantically for the cabin. The explosion that followed and thumped in David and Bear’s chests told them Clif was now gone with Mark. And David’s entire payload.

The massive trap David had set had been wasted on one of their own. Bear swore under his breath, maybe Mark was right. This thing was smarter than they thought. “Fuck, David. Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Bear screamed impotently.

This was all going to shit. The crash of trees ripped Bear back to the present and like a man watching an Orca through the depths and the wake it left, the towering old growth trees simply cracked and jostled at the beast’s advance, skirting their perimeter and hidden in the trees, a huge black mass. Bear had found his target, “Fuck you!”

The M2 let loose its furious rounds in a cone of fire and drowned the cabin in its loud rhythmic bang. Brass flew everywhere as Bear tracked the movement of the beast through the forest, not even bothering with leading it at this distance. He wasn’t sure if he hit it or not as the beast careened past his cone of vision through the wide window. He stopped firing, standing to heft up the M2 and change position but his window crashed open and he looked down at the numbness in his body.

Out from his solar plexus, a long, thick black chitinous spike had punched straight through the Level III plates in his carrier. He looked up at his comrade, vision growing blurry through his NODs. He let go a gurgling, breathless whimper, “Dave-“

And whatever had grabbed him pulled him through the window, shattering the rest of it as he flew through the glass. A few beats passed as David could hear Bear’s helpless scream, so unlike the burly, bearded DEVGRU Operator. Something flew through the window, a huge mass that hit the wall with a wet thud hard enough to send dust from the rafters as it dropped and rested against the wall. It was Bear, skinned completely with only tatters of his clothing left. A single eye still set in his wet, grinning skull, glassy and lifeless.

A low growl, deep enough for David to feel in his chest resounded through the forest around him. The snapping of twigs of its careful movement and the low growl the only menacing evidence that it was still there. Still waiting to see any more of them.

As the chaos raged Dave did the only thing that made sense - he hit the ground, and lay still. He wasn't a coward. He was a pragmatist. His father instilled in him an insurgent's practical mindset; fight when you can win, run when you can't. You can always come back with more friends and a bigger gun.

Dave knew a losing battle when he saw one. That thing had shrugged off gunfire from half a dozen different men, one of them armed with a fucking deuce. If a .50 wasn't killing it then nothing that Dave had access to was going to. Not with his proverbial load blown out the south treeline.

He rolled onto his back and began to scoot away from the window, his rifle in his hands, ready to lay down enough fire to let him rabbit if something stuck its head in at him.

Nothing came. Nothing else but the thrumming growl and the sounds of its steps in the underbrush, creaking of trees as it weaseled it’s wide berth otherwise carefully through the tight forest. It might have been minutes, maybe hours. It left at some point in the night, the big steps and complaints of trees heralding its retreat, leaving David the sole survivor. But not for any notion of mercy, nor as cruel and human as sending a message.

He listened to it disappear into the trees, resisting the urge to try and sneak a look. Instead he used the reprieve to crawl to the bag full of their extra gear. He helped himself to a few frag grenades, slipping them into his empty pouches, before making his way to the kitchen. There was only one window there, a more defensible position. He lay back down, quietly turned off the safety on his rifle, and settled in to wait for daylight…///




>WORKING GROUP UMBRA
>PRESENT NIGHT
>2100HRS...///

As soon as his three-finger countdown closed in a fist, Donnelley stepped back, unsheathing his super shorty and stabbing the barrel into the door, right next to the knob. With a loud bang, the knob came apart and Donnelley spun to put his back against the wall again. A good kick sent the door swinging in hard enough to hit the wall on the inside of the cabin, thudding against the wood and shaking as Justin took point with Donnelley close behind.

They kept their rifles trained to their front and moved in unison, right for Donnelley and left for Justin. “Two bodies.” Donnelley called out, knowing Justin saw them too. “Door, front. Moving up.”

Donnelley stepped over one of the bodies, the fact it was completely skinless sticking in his mind. The other one lay in a black pool of blood from a wound in his head, the thirsty and dry wood of the floor stained with what blood it had drank. Brass covered the floor, big spent casings from the M2 sitting destitute in the middle of the living room.

The door looked to be the last room to clear, probably the kitchen at the back of the cabin. Again, Justin and Donnelley took their sides on the door. Donnelley reached out, turned the knob slowly and quietly and threw the door wide open with a good shove. He took a knee and leaned left, offering whoever was on the other side just the smallest picture of him. A sliver of himself, and a gun barrel to meet eyes with.

Tom remained in the woodline watching the exterior of the building. He lowered himself into the prone position and scanned the terrain around him, in front, to the sides and naturally to the front; the cabin Joe and Justin were searching. The temperature outside felt comfortable, maybe low 70s or upper 60s. The soil had that musty smell he often appreciated when being one with the ground.

Dave heard the door breach, the hard, flat bang of a shotgun unmistakable, especially in close quarters. He scooted to the pantry, pulled the door open, and put himself behind it, muzzle towards the door. The hollow-core door wouldn't even slow a bullet down, but concealment was better than nothing.

He heard the rattle of the ķnob, took a breath, and then took a chance.

"Hold fire!" He called leaning into his rifle and putting his own finger on the trigger. "Hold fire! Rather not get shot after all that shit last night."

“We got a live one!” Donnelley spoke from behind his own concealment. He assumed the both of them knew that what they were hiding behind would stop none of the lead they could potentially sling at each other. “Who are you? What do you mean ‘all that shit?’”

Dave paused as he thought things through. He had never been the shiniest apple in the barrel, he knew that. This spy shit was beyond him, and likely always would be. Instead he sighted down his barrel, aiming roughly where he'd heard the voice, and checked that his SLR was set to auto.

"I'm out here on a special…Project," he said. He put a little emphasis on the word and winced at how forced it sounded, even to his amateur ear. "I'd love to tell you all about it, hoss, but I don't know that I can. Don't want to upset Bob, you understand? Unless you might be working on the same kind of Project?"

Donnelley’s eyes went to Justin, mouthing to himself, ‘What?’ He put his eye back on his front sight, leveled right at the other man. “Project?” He asked, the confusion in his voice barely shrouded, “What… you mean a fucking Program? Some kind of Group. That Works together?”

Donnelley grunted, rolling his eyes, “Do the words Working Group mean anything to you, guy?”

"Only if the name BLACKBEARD means somethin' to you." Dave paused and gave a heavy sigh. "Look man, I think it's pretty clear we're all a buncha bad-ass killers or whatever, but I'm gonna level with you - I don't wanna kill you, and I damn sure don't want you to kill me. So can we just share a black helicopter ride outta here before that thing comes back? Cuz I'm all out of ordnance and this thing shakes off grenades and fifties."

“The thing that fucking vivisected my guys?” He thought about the bodies he’d stepped over, “And yours?” Donnelley already knew the answer. If what this guy was saying was true, then he didn’t want to be anywhere near it. Maybe they would have to bring in CORAL NOMAD teams after all. “You can walk?”

"Shit, I can run," Dave said. He peeked around the door, showed his hands, and then stood, stepping into the open.

He'd been through Hell, and looked like it. Even as surefooted as he was, that sprint through the woods had taken a toll. His face was covered when small scratches, and his eyes were shadowed by deep, dark circles. His left hand was a bloody mess where the cut he'd given himself to bait his trap had bled freely, crusting his forearm and knuckles. He moved stiffly, sore from having sat in one spot all night, but he was on his feet and mobile enough for one more hike.

"Whatever that thing is, it's big and it's smart. Real smart, man. It saw right through the trap I set, then picked us off." He shook his head. "We need to move."

Donnelley stood, sidestepping out into the open himself and tentatively lowered his weapon. He frowned at the guy’s warning, “Jesus fucking Christ. Alright.” Into his headset’s mic, he spoke, “Tom, three coming out. We’ve got a friendly. Double-time it to the truck.”

“Roger that,” Tom stood up and joined the group at the cabin. They would walk together to the vehicle for extraction. Tom wasn’t going to be left in these woods alone after what he saw.

“Stay where I can see you. No offense.” Donnelley shrugged, and they were off. The entire way from the cabin they made a steady and shuffling jog through the underbrush and old growth trees to a main trail. A thick lifeline straight to the general area Donnelley had remembered coming in from. They wasted no time with introductions or small talk, everyone knew where they stood and what needed to be done.

They passed the huge tracks, Laurie and Gwen’s bodies. When they broke out into the main trail, Donnelley felt it first. A thump, thump, thump in the earth. “Oh, fuck.” They all shared a glance and were off at a dead sprint and whatever it was roared something fierce and chilling.

Donnelley didn’t dare look back but they could all feel it in the ground, hear it in the crashing trees and the underbrush trampled underneath it’s huge breadth…

[EVERYONE ROLL STAMINA AND DEX]




>BLACKRIVER FORESTS
>LAINE AND FOSTER...///

“They’ve been out there for a while…” Foster said more to himself than Laine. He knew Donnelley was a good Agent, always was. Give him a task and he’ll get it done. But this was different, it was almost starting to play out like Chechnya. Foster push checked his 9mm Glock, “They said they were going to come back when it’s night, right?”

Laine sat in the car, watching the trees that rose with the land as it arched back and away from the clearing. Into the dense woods and uphill, not ideal at all; an environment made for concealment, a man could walk right by a hidden danger and not know it. She shifted in her seat, leaning her elbow on the door frame where the window was down. It was quiet, not even the whirr of summer insects or birds and it made her nervous. It was a noticeable silence, one that seemed to be heavy in her ears.

Foster spoke and she turned to look at him. “By dark he said, he would call.”

Her gaze settled on the case officer, studying him for a moment, “You’ve worked with Donnelley before, you know his habits. What’s making you nervous?”

Foster shook his head, eyes slowly sweeping the treeline. He wasn’t used to being in the field, more suited to watching over everything from a Drone’s feed or monitoring the team on his computer. This was different. “Just… Donnelley. Being Donnelley. I’ve worked with him since 2014 and he’s the man I’ve kept in my rotation because of how he is.” Foster turned to Laine, “A stubborn prick. I’m betting we’ll go back to the Safehouse and he’ll just be getting there when we wake up.”

Foster sighed, “That is to say, he’s going to comb every inch of these woods for Gwen and Laurie. If he doesn’t find them, he’s going to find the person that got them and… well, do what Donnelley does. What time is it, speaking of?”

Laine kept her eyes on him, watching his expression then met his gaze when he looked her way. “Not in the business of making arrests,” she made a soft sound between a sigh and a snort, turning away to watch the trees again. “But he’s good at what he does, right? He’s made it this long. He’ll get them back, all of them.”

At his question she took out her phone, “It’s almost nine, uh, twenty one hundred. Sun’s going down.”

The last part was needless, the sun was dropping below the treeline, the slanted light of the late afternoon had fell to dusk, a reddish glow over the tops of the oaks and pine now vanishing as the shadows crept in. Laine sat up, leaning forward slightly over the steering wheel of Suburban, it was getting harder to see as the light faded.

Foster nodded at her confirmation of the time, “None of the military boys are here, you can use civilian time.” Foster chuckled before it guttered out as he watched Laine lean forward as if to look at something. He brought his handgun up to his chest at low-ready, eyes narrowing as he too looked out at the trees, “What is it?”

Laine felt her heart jump, the tall shadow loomed among the tree trunks and even from where she was she felt the menace, or perhaps it was her own fear. She blinked and it was gone, but it left the small hairs on the back of her neck standing.

“I don’t know, something in the trees...maybe it was just a trick of the light,” she said, sinking back in her seat and realized her right hand was on the butt of her Glock.

“Goddamnit, I hate fieldwork.” Foster sighed, eyes a little more nervous in their searching of the treeline. “Fuck, Donnelley, just call and say you’re heading back.”

Foster slowly lowered his handgun back to his lap. He felt naked out here, just sitting in the metal box of the Suburban in a dress shirt, slacks, and a black plate carrier. “So, you’re the Doctor. Psychiatrist, profiler. You like Donnelley as Team Lead?” Foster asked, trying to change the subject but his eyes didn’t stray from the trees.

“I am,” Laine said, keeping her eyes on the forest, watching to see if that shadow would appear again. “Donnelley is...interesting. I think he makes a good team lead. He’s flexible, leads by example and he’s not a typical government type, rigid and by the book. I think that helps when he has to pull together a group coming from different agencies. He’s able to adjust to the personalities and find what drives his people. And he cares. I get that from him, he cares about us and the job. That’s what I’ve gathered anyway, whatever weaknesses he might have I don’t think have taken away from him being an effective leader.”

She glanced at Foster, “I think he’s a good man.”

“I didn’t ask you about that.” Foster snorted at the last bit, but in the end he nodded. “All the years I’ve known Donnelley, he’s been a real goddamn wiseass. But I did put him in charge of this team for a reason.”

“I know he likes you.” Foster rose a brow, looking at Laine for a few beats, “He thinks you’re a good investigator. Told me you tried to pick his brain within the first day of knowing him.”

Foster chuckled, “But that’s the kind of shit he likes. People who play things loose and don’t catch shit for it, don’t end up being idiots. Or worse for everybody, dead idiots.”

“What about the rest of the team?” He asked, “What do you think? Donnelley tolerates some, but he definitely has a preference. I can tell.”

Laine smiled slightly, glancing down at her hands as she recalled that conversation with Donnelley. It was the first but not the last time she would try to pry under that sardonic layer that was presented, not that it was part of her job. He interested her and that was enough reason. At Foster’s next question, Laine breathed out a sigh and thought for a moment, “I haven’t been able to work with all of them equally, but I’ll tell you what I think so far. This is just my current opinion, not a formal analysis. For the record.”

She watched the growing dusk, absent of fireflies that would normally be flickering in the long grass before the treeline. “Tom Stewart, very professional and skilled, he’s been used more for his combat training so far but I’ve talked to him about an outside case and he has a quick mind for procedure, investigation, and evidence. I haven’t had much personal time with him but he’s certainly an asset to this team. Justin Clarke, even less time spent with him but he’s a quiet, polite, professional soldier. He seems confident but not cocky, he knows his business. Definitely a keeper for the team. Mathieu Laurence...well, I think he might be in over his head, to be honest. There’s a certain detachment he’s maintained and when I spoke directly to him to get his help and broke through it he nearly melted down. I fear what might have happened out there.”

Laine gestured with her chin towards the trees, “If he was confronted with something his detachment would not protect him against. If he’s still alive, send him home. He’s not fit for this duty.”

Thumbing the box of Djarums that she left unsmoked, Laine continued, “Serena Gomez, I think is capable but I don’t think she wants this anymore. She’s not checked in and after my contact with her after the last case, she was seeking therapy outside the LAPD. I think she’s struggling and perhaps should be quietly let go and allowed to resume her life as best she can after seeing what she has. Jason Jimenez, another that has not arrived but considering his day job, it’s not a surprise. I think he’s a very capable mind and he’s obviously skilled in combat. But mostly he’s seen things, I’m sure you know more than I about those things he saw and I believe his experience, like Donnelley’s, might be vital to our mission. Those killings...”

She tugged up a black cigarette between her fingers but left it unlit, “Anyway, last and certainly least, Gwen Weissman. Why?”

Laine looked at Foster, “Why the hell was she ever sent anywhere to interact with human beings and a sensitive investigation? If she’s not dead, send her somewhere, anywhere but here. I’ve never met someone so unprofessional.”

“I think we might not have a choice in the matter. I’m not familiar with the Case Officer that brought her in, but whatever he saw in her, I have no idea. She was foisted on me, truth be told.” Foster frowned, “I put in a call before we left for a replacement. I know someone who knows someone, who knows someone that I want for this team.”

Foster sighed, nodding, “And it’s not Gwen. I hope she’s alive. Her and Laurie.” He shook his head, “But I hope I can shove her somewhere else. So, you want Stewart put on more investigative stuff with you? He’s got the combat experience too, so him going with you should give you someone good for watching your back.”

“Donnelley’s a good guy, but… you know. He’s an intelligence officer, not a detective. He can put the screws to some guy in a blacksite. I’m sure Donnelley will be happier pulling triggers.” Foster shrugged, “Your call.”

“It’s not my call,” she countered, “I’m not the team lead. Besides, Tom is versatile, he’ll fit where he’s needed most. Whether with me to read case files and talk to witnesses or...or up in that forest.”

Laine glanced at Foster, tilting her head slightly as she peered over her glasses, “I think, despite the fact you’ve worked with Donnelley so much, you underestimate him.”

Foster rose a brow at Laine, curiosity tickling at him, “You think?”

She pushed her glasses up and looked out the window, “Yes. But like I said, these are my current opinions, we worked together earlier and I would say he’s perceptive and can read people, obviously. He might have upset the deputy but now we know those assholes aren’t going to play nice no matter how we go at them directly. I think he...”

Laine trailed off and looked at Foster then clamped her mouth closed, feeling a flush suddenly warming her face. She looked down, digging in her pocket for a lighter then put her hand on the door handle, “I’m gonna smoke, is that alright?”

“Keep in the car, please. I don’t want anybody else missing.” Foster nodded to Laine. After a spell of silence, he looked out at the night sky and the trees around. There was a growing sense of wrongness about the forest that he couldn’t block out with conversation.

But he’d try, “Your opinions are more valuable than you think. A Working Group is only as good as the members can make it. One wrong piece that doesn’t fit in the puzzle… two pieces that snag together… and it comes apart when it’s needed most.”

Foster turned to Laine, eyes on her own, “I’m sure you know that. Despite your competence, there’s a certain Doctor in the Bureau with telling words.” Foster paused before he looked back out the window, “I think Donnelley works better when he’s not burdened by a needless care for something or other. As sad as it was, the recently divorced and burgeoning alcoholic state we found him in back in 2010 might have helped him say yes to us. He cares a lot about a lot.”

“You think we can’t find a reason why Laurie and Gwen disappeared and continue with this investigation? It’s sad, but between friends and duty, there’s only one choice.” He pointed out to the expanse of woods, “And Donnelley made his. And we’re out here risking an entire Working Group to find out what we already know.”

Laine held the lighter, looking at the rubbed logo of the Crimson Ghost, the cheap Misfits lighter her brother Roy had bought her at some gas station. She sighed, huffing a breath between her lips and nodded, “While it might be seen as risky, it’s what makes him a good team leader. We know we won’t be left behind and even if we are replaceable to the unknown suits there’s one that will look out for us.”

Her thoughts turned to Olympia and how Donnelley had at least given her a piece of mind to know Sofie Childress was not going to just be forgotten once she was out of her hands. “It’s dark now,” she said quietly, then looked towards Foster.

Foster nodded, his face made of silent stone until he spoke, “It is.”

A trilling ringtone sliced through the tension and Foster’s hand shot out to pick up his phone. He didn’t have time to ask Donnelley what he found as he heard the man yelling over what sounded like… gunfire?

“Turn that fucking car on and point it in the direction we came!” Donnelley’s voice was loud enough that Laine could hear it. No need for speaker phone, “We’re coming in fucking hot, Foster, don’t fuck me now!”

“O-Okay.” He nodded to Laine to do just what Donnelley had said, “Turn the car around, unlock the doors.”

She slapped the helmet on her head, just to get it out of her lap and cranked the key over, the engine roaring to life. Laine put the Suburban into reverse, backing up to give herself room to make the U turn and face the direction away from the trees. “Time to flip a bitch,” she muttered as she glanced over her shoulder.

The doors were unlocked, waiting as the engine idled, Laine was gripping the wheel ready to make a hasty escape as soon as the team was in the truck.
Up until Tom heard the rustling of something large chasing them, he was skeptical about the possibility there was some supernatural creature in these woods. Even when he viewed the skinless corpse on the metal table in the morgue and held the black shard in his hand, he refrained from admitting there were supernatural efforts in motion. But with the enormity of the beast thundering after them. The sound, thrashing of trees as though they were. He told himself to not turn. ‘Keep your head forward. Focus on the bottom of the hill, the road, the truck.’ If he wasn’t fast enough to outrun the thing, these would be his last few breaths. No need turning to look. Just run. Run like your life depended on it, which is certainly did. He didn’t know who this fourth guy running with them was, but he was apparently one of them now. ‘Welcome to the outfit stranger!’
Tom could see the suburban driven by Heather Laine at the bottom of the hill. The doors were open. He was nearing the bottom of the hill and he must have hit a slippery patch. His conditioning was good, his breathing was heavy, more from the fear of what was behind them than the running. He ran almost every day. But the urgency to get away from something he did not dare to look at overwhelmed him. Fortunately, he was traveling light. But traveling light was irrelevant tonight.
The world changed attitude, slipping on a fern or patch of mud. Whatever it was, no one will know. His right leg fell out from underneath him. He fell headfirst into the roadway, striking his right cheek on a rock. Skinning both his hands as they slid across the path. The rock tore a three-inch cut across his cheek causing the blood to flow quickly. The impact to his head snapped his head back sharply putting strain on his neck. He would definitely feel that in the morning.
Remembering why they were running; he quickly clambered to his feet and ran around to the other side of the vehicle throwing himself inside. “Get out of here now!” He yelled with blood flowing down over his jaw collecting on his assault vest and gray T-shirt.
Dave was running, his head down, lungs heaving, one arm holding his rifle tight to his side while the other pumped furiously for momentum. He could hear the shouts of the other men coming to him over the furious rush of his breathing, could feel the ground trembling as the beast behind them gained step by step. He pushed harder, feeling the fatigue of the previous night’s exertions as his muscles strained.
The SUV drew nearer and Dave shot a look over his shoulder. His foot came down on a rock and he cursed as he felt the ankle twist, the rock tumbling and his foot shooting off to one side. He came down hard and pulled his arms in, rolling with the fall, trying to use his momentum to get back to his feet with some of his speed left. He managed it, coming upright only to realize that in his tumble he had gained on the Suburban more rapidly than he’d expected. There was a confused moment in which all he could see was the rear bumper. Then his head met it with a solid thud and the world turned white, a harsh ringing drowning out all other sound.
A few seconds passed that felt like hours. He rolled, trying to right himself, his foot kicking listlessly at the ground for a moment as he struggled to regain his feet. He managed it in a kind of stumbling crawl, leaning against the Suburban as he wobbled his way around it to the open door. With an incoherent muttering he collapsed inside, his body working on automatic while his mind drifted in a confusion of stars and distant, muffled voices.
Run.
That was Donnelley’s only thought, over and over again. With each footfall he made, the beast’s own made the earth under his soles tremble. He bared his teeth, lungs sucking air desperately and for a few moments he wondered why he’d chosen to smoke so many cigarettes. He could feel the beast practically looming over him, but he did not turn back to see if it was true or only his fear. He could see the treeline coming up on them. He saw Tom and the new guy pass him quick before they each took a tumble. Justin was to his right, but before he could ready himself for the slope the others forgot about, pain lanced through his left leg.
It made his right buckle and he pitched face first into the dirt, the ballistic helmet taking the brunt of the force but his cheek still ground itself into the rocky soil, sending white flashing across his vision.
“Gurgh!” The entire right side of his face was a burning mess and his teeth ached. He could feel himself getting dragged back and he looked down to see it, a tendril blacker than night had impaled the meat of his thigh and the pain seared into him. “Fuck! Justin!”
Frantically, he ripped his knife out of its scabbard and grabbed hold of the tendril, furiously chopping at it in an effort to get away. “Justin, help!”
Whatever the tendril was made out of, it was hard. Blacker than anything he’d seen, save one. The more he chopped, the more he chipped away at it until the meat of it was bare. When he saw the gray of its flesh, he struck and made purchase. His blade bit deep and the the tendril tore itself wriggling from his leg with a spurt of blood and a sickening squelch, back into the trees. Donnelley cried out in pain and scrambled to his shaky legs, but he could not stand.
Foster saw movement in his side window, four… four? Four men crashing out from the darkness in the trees. He felt the Suburban rock sideways before Tom threw the stranger into the backseat and clambered in after him. He saw Donnelley at the top of the ridge limp and tumble down, leaving a scarp in his wake.

With three of them piled into the back of the truck, Donnelley threw open the large back door and threw himself inside. His panting was furious, growling, white knuckles underneath his glove grabbing the oh-shit handle above Tom’s head, “Go!” As if to punctuate his order, the forest erupted into an ear-splitting roar.
Laine glanced at the rear view mirror, the doors slamming shut, they were inside. At Donnelley's order she shoved the Suburban into drive, her foot hitting the gas when she heard it.
"What the fuck," She said to no one in particular, gripping the steering wheel as the back tires slid on the hard packed road. The truck fish tailed slightly then corrected, slamming down the logging trail, rocking through the dips and bumps.
"What the fuck was that noise?" Laine called out, flooring it as fast as big Suburban would go on the dirt road. "Are you guys alright?"
Donnelley was still peering out of the back window as Laine spoke, not registering her question as his mind still raced at what was in the forest with them. “I’m…” Donnelley looked down and pressed his palms against the gaping hole of his leg, the pant leg almost soaked through and black with dark blood, “I’m… oh, shit.”
His hands weakly slapped at his plate carrier in search of his first aid pouch. When he finally found it, he pulled free a tourniquet and cinched it around his thigh, just above the wound, hoping that would at least do something. He forced himself to relax, letting his head droop back and forth with the rough bumps of the road, the back of his helmet tapping against the window behind his head. The adrenaline from moments before now a thing of the past. While his head bobbed, he slurred out, “Just go, just go.”
Dave looked blearily at the man beside him, watching with distant interest as he tied his leg off. His forehead was swelling, already carrying a sizeable goose-egg, and the lights of the car’s console seemed uncomfortably bright.
“Toldja it’s fuckin’ big,” he grumbled. He reached up and tentatively prodded at his forehead, then paused. “...I lost my fuckin’ hat.”
“Oh, shit,” Donnelley muttered, his eyes weak as he shook them from the hole in his leg and looked around for something to wipe his hands on, settling for his other pant leg and smearing that too with his own blood. He reached into a pouch on his carrier and pulled free his pack of cigarettes, “Not the hat.
Laine could hear them but her focus was on the road, keeping the speed up as fast as she dared on the unpaved surface. She could see the scattered trees and brush rush past caught in brief illumination of the bouncing headlights. The road had to be close, she tried to remember but they had driven slower that morning. Not by much though.
Suddenly the strip of asphalt was there and she asked Foster while glancing briefly in the rear view at the men illuminated only by the dim console light They looked pale and one man she did not recognize was with them but Gwen and Laurie were not.
"What's going on, straight back home?"
Foster looked back at the others, “Hospital is out of the question. Back home.”
She hung a sharp left onto the paved road that would get them back to the cabin. Laine forced herself not to put the gas all the way down, what good would it do to escape only to flip the truck on some tight curve. The white line glowed in the headlights, marking the darkness, absolute country darkness she thought uncomfortably.
The mention of hospital finally trickled into her conscious and she realized she could smell the faint slightly metallic tang of blood and gunpowder. "Anyone hurt bad?"
Donnelley flicked his lighter on and puffed his cigarette, offering his pack out to the other men, his Texan twang evident, “Just a ‘lil poke, s’all.”
"Poke? Better not be bullshitting me, dude," Laine said, slipping into the SoCal accent. "How bad?"

“He’ll be alright,” Dave said. His thoughts were clearing, though things still felt fuzzy. He waved off the offered cigarette. “You uh...Want me to give that tourniquet another yank, man?”

Donnelley took a drag of his cigarette, keeping it clenched in his teeth as he growled and lifted up his leg, “Thank ya kindly.” As Dave roughly drew the tourniquet tighter, he growled again and gave a thumbs-up, “Feels great. Couple bandaids, some whiskey...”

He drifted off, staring out at the forest passing them by, taking another drag and hanging his head, “Fuckin’...” Donnelley sighed, rubbing his face and carelessly smearing blood over his forehead, remembering the bodies and sobered by the memory, “They… they ain’t here.”

"Goddamn it, a tourniquet?" Laine hissed and said to Foster, "He needs a doctor, now. We can make it to that doctor near Whitetree."

Donnelley perked up at that with a quickness, pointing at Laine’s general direction with his cigarette still smoldering between his outstretched fingers, “Fuck that. Do not bring me to Whitetree, fuck Whitetree. Go to the Safehouse, Foster can work his fuckin’ magic and conjure me up a doctor.”

"I'll only do that if you promise not to fucking bleed out," she glanced at him through the mirror, her brow creasing with concern.

Yes, mother.” Donnelley shook his head and huffed out smoke, silently hoping he could keep that promise.




>THE SAFEHOUSE
>1100HRS...///

After giving the sandwiches to Gwen, Laine stepped out of the kitchen, spotting Laurie rousing from his nap. "If you're hungry, you might have to fight her for a sandwich, I just packed lunches for your hike."

She removed her shoulder holster, hanging it with the Glock still strapped in on a coat peg. Laine put her hands on her hips, looking over the young park ranger. "You've been quiet, how're you doing?"

"Fuck, it's alright. I'll eat but momma always taught me to grab some last if I can. The last bits of chivalry and all." Laurie rubbed his temple with a hand, pulling out his phone with the other to check the time.

"I'm alright. I rode here after midnight and thought I'd be all badass pushing it through on no sleep but I guess I'm not as cool as I thought. Still pretty darned cool though. And yourself?"

“It’s been a busy morning,” Laine replied, perching at the end of the couch, her seat near the edge. “You slept through the debriefing but I’m sure you’ll get caught up on your hike or what is it that Donnelley called it, a ruck? I’m fine, just...well actually now that I have you here I’d like to talk to you about Ranger Frank Wilkins, he’s the park ranger that found the victim.”

Laine crossed her legs, laying her clasped hands on her knee. “So, I’m pretty sure coming from where you come from you understand small town solidarity, how no matter how long a man lives there he’ll always be an outsider if he wasn’t born to it.”

She looked at him, his sleep creased cheek and tousled hair then continued, “Well, it’s like that multiplied here in Blackriver apparently. He’s afraid of retribution for talking to the feds. He gave us a lot of useful information and he wants a transfer in return. His higher ups are stonewalling him, not responding to his requests. I was wondering if you had any contacts in the National Park Service that might be able to help.”

The Ranger raised both eyebrows as Laine promptly got to what was in her mind, and then his eyes widened. It was a pretty sobering thing she asked, bringing him to his senses faster than a coffee or cold shower could.

"Doc I… I'm a nobody," he said, his chin trembling a little. He likewise ultimately had no goodwill to the feds, and if all the black stone shit he had heard of trickling into his ears was right then this fellow really did have some shit to be scared of from his neighbours.

"I don't got any pull, I joined up because I like nature and animals and it helps with- well, it's nice and different from the shit I was expected to do." he said, deciding to not elaborate on his condition even if he felt it acting up at the very moment. His fingers curled and uncurled cyclically while his right foot shook restlessly. What could he do for this dude? He really didn't know. But the idea of leaving a brother behind soured his stomach more than the undead or mutilated dead ever could. He didn't want to be at the gates to heaven and have Saint Peter ask him why he let a man die and this had a quite quick effect on him.

He stood up, pacing a bit with his fingers instinctually going to his pockets to fetch his Rubik's cube. "I-I hope you didn't make any promises to him Doctor, this could be real damn bad." Laurie stuttered. He looked down at his cube, finding a blue square amongst the otherwise perfect yellow. The man threw the thing, plastic pieces breaking off as it struck a wall and then bounced to the floor. Laurie sat on a chair opposite Heather, running a hand down his face to wipe his forehead in some vain attempt to also wipe his consciousness. "Alright. Alright. Here's what I can do." he started quite tentatively, biting a nail as he stared at the ceiling. "I don't know anybody who could make his higher ups move their asses and transfer him. But, we can arrange a little something else. My bosses were all hardasses or old guys but they know the struggle. If this fella is ready to move to Louisiana or maybe even New England or Utah then we can work something out. He can quit. If they don't take his resignation then tell him to move right away and wait for no pay to come his way then it's all real easy to do. Once he's out of here, I can hook him up with my old bosses and buddies, and he can get rehired for the same or basically the same position. It's the best I can do Doc but it's got to count right?" he asked, both of himself and his counterpart.

Laine watched him fidget and pace, the ubiquitous Rubik's cube finally losing its battle against his stress. She stayed quiet as he worked through both moral and logistical dilemna she had set before him. “I promised him I would try my best,” she said, “That’s why I’m coming to you and Donnelley for help. I don’t know but few rangers and not very well, just men and women I’ve crossed paths with during work. But I know this place is hiding something dark, something terrible. Too many secrets and what Frank Wilkes saw, not just the body. He saw something else. He needs a chance to get the hell out of those hills. If you can swing this, that would probably work. I’d like to run it by Donnelley, he had the idea of reaching out to the witness protection program. I am just concerned how do we prove the threat? A gut feeling? That might not be enough.”

She fell silent, looking across at Laurie. He was nervous but like Wilkes he would not turn away. Laine glanced at her hands, the dark plum polish gleaming against her pale skin then she glanced back up, meeting his eyes,. “It counts, Laurie. Anything we can do to help him, it counts.”

Laurie swallowed nothing, face reddening but then slowly returning to its usual peach shade through Lane's speech. He was grateful the Doctor tried to assuage his fears, nodding in affirmation. "That's good. We're not cops, Doctor." he said, rubbing stubble near his neck. "We're not cowards, most of us anyway, but we just deal with bears and alligators and wolves and maybe drunks that couldn't hit the broad side of Mount Rushmore. We're in it 'cause we're nice dudes that liked helping little limping birds as kids. God gave me balls of steel if I say so myself but not to this guy and I can't imagine what it must be like to be alone as a stranger in a strange land that to top it off wants to kill you. Like I said, I can't do much but what I can I will."

Donneley watched the exchange from afar, going unnoticed as he leaned against the kitchen sink, arms folded. He silently looked away for a moment when Laurie threw his cube and he listened to the talk. As much as he didn’t want to bring back Guzman and Chechnya, he knew there was only so much they could do to help Frank Wilkes. You could try to save the whole world, but in the end, it was only [i]a try.[i] “Might work.” Donnelley opened, “Getting rehired, after moving.”

“Maybe under a different name?” Laine suggested, looking up at Donnelley, giving him a brief smile. “A new identity to start fresh.”

"If he gets enough ID yeah that should work." Laurie chimed in. "To be real though, probably not even necessary. He can crash at the Ranger stations if he needs and folks there usually have guns on them. Besides I doubt local hicks will follow him across state lines for a little payback, but if they do he's in fairly safe hands with the boys." he said, referring to past and present coworkers as a collective.

“But if he walks off the job here, it’ll be in the system that he quit and might not be listed as rehirable, unless,” Laine said, then thought for a moment, glancing towards the kitchen. “Unless...if we can’t get him an ID change then maybe Weissman could do a little touching up to his record."

If she's the hacker she claimed to be, Laine thought wryly. Donnelley shrugged, “Maybe ask her when she gets back.” Donnelley posited, pushing off the counter and going for a window, sliding it open before pulling out a cigarette and lighting up. “The Drone Team gets back the day Wilkes is supposed to call Laine. He gets us the names of those hikers and I’ll push these fucking mountains out of his way so he can stroll out.”

"Could work, definitely." Laurie said. "Might not even be necessary, depends if he's a seasonal worker and a few other things."

She clapped her hands together once then smiled at the men, "Sounds like a decent plan. I knew we'd find a way to help."




>CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA
>STATE PD STATION
>1800HRS...///

Donnelley cut the engine of the Suburban, and stepped out. The State PD’s visitor parking lot was mostly empty and he chose the far corner away from the other vehicles so they’d have some privacy. As Laine was busy with parking the Explorer, Donnelley busied himself with making sure the cigarette he just lit would get smoked. As the pair got out of the Explorer, Donnelley waved them over. “Any questions or concerns before we get started?” Donnelley raised his eyebrows and his eyes went between the three of them before he spoke again, “For Justin’s information, Detective Roy is our only friendly on this case so far. I want to get a hold of David Dulane’s case files and get a visit with him authorized in Beckley. If his story checks out, we can maybe get him out to the mines.”

His eyes turned dark, “I’ve got a feeling Blackriver has a history we should know about. If Whitetree is a mining town then somebody at the mines knows the killer because he’s been pulling his bullshit for a while.”

Tom had no questions for agent Davidson. He left the OD green tactical trousers on and black marine T-shirt. He didn’t change back into the suit and tie he had on earlier. His more recent mission was canceled at the last moment and he jumped in with Donnelley, Laine and Clark.

Laine was still dressed in the monochromatic black she had worn to the park ranger’s office, the blazer in place to mask her gun. She nodded then said, “It might be a family owned business, you know how the hills and small towns are. We can look into it, maybe the library or state records. I wouldn’t trust some wiki article for that information.”

Donnelley nodded, “Let’s do that. If they’ve been mining since the Civil War there has to be some books about the operations and superstitions. At some point, I want Dulane.”

“He will be our priority, if we can get in and talk to him,” she agreed, “I could probably get in to interview him, just tell them it’s for some training manual I’m building for the Bureau. But to actually get him outside those walls, that’ll be some spook magic.”

Laine grinned briefly at Donnelley then glanced up at the late slanted light over the buildings in Charleston. “We should probably get going, where are we meeting Roy?”

“Her office. Let’s go.” He nodded inside, flicking his cigarette out into the sidewalk next to the parking lot. He made the walk and held the door open for Laine and Justin.

It was almost like last time, though the lobby looked more modern and the State PD receptionist at the front desk looked up from his book to stare at their approach to his desk. “Yes.” He said, looking at the assembled and official looking retinue, before he settled on Laine, the least overtly threatening looking. “Ma’am.”

Laine smiled politely, “We’re here to see Detective Roy, she’s expecting us. I’m Dr Heather Laine, FBI.”

She opened her credentials, a brief flash of the bold three letters and a stoic ID photo of herself without glasses. “These are my associates, Special Agent Davidson and my student, Cadet Christianson.”

“Okay.” The Cop got up from his desk and waved them along with him. They made their way deeper into the station until they reached an office door with a nameplate, ‘Det. Roy, Maryanne.’

The Cop flashed them a brief and tight-lipped smile before brushing past them. Donnelley knocked on the door and heard Roy on the other side, “Yes?”

“Davidson and Laine.” Donnelley rose his voice.

“Oh, come on in.” Donnelley opened the door to Roy’s office. It was clean from ceiling to floor, everything organized and pictures of her graduation ceremony from the academy and the college she went to were proudly displayed in frames on the wall. “Welcome in, guys.”

She got up to shut the door and shook hands with the team before sitting back down at her desk, Donnelley following suit. “How’s the case? Jane Doe still Jane Doe?”

Laine smiled a greeting and shook hands and took a seat in front of the desk. At the mention of the victim, her smile faded, “Yes, until we hear back from CJIS. It’s dental records and DNA, I’m hoping we get an ID tomorrow. I spoke with Frank Wilkins earlier today, you spoke to him at the scene? How did he seem to you?”

“Real damn shook.” Roy frowned and nodded, “But he’s a Ranger, not a cop… per se. He’s not used to this, I could tell. You interviewed him?”

“Yes, he was certainly shaken up by the body but I know seasoned agents that would have been, I’ve been at quite a few murder scenes and this was the worst,” Laine said, “And I specialize in serial murder, so...yes, he was disturbed by it all but he’s also scared. He basically told us what you did about Blackriver. About the sheriff being on ‘vacation’ when the Park Rangers tried to report lost hikers. About the superstitions and rumors about the mines, about David Dulane. Are you familiar with him?”

Roy nodded slow. Donnelley wasn’t surprised Roy would know about Dulane. It was a pretty big case for Blackriver. Maybe the only one that ever made it out. Roy sighed, “Yeah.” She responded to Laine, “Dulane was the weirdest case. He’s a nut. What about him though?”

Laine crossed her legs, resting her hand on her knee, “Wilkins mentioned him, what’s he in prison for?”

“The murder of eighteen men using blasting charges to collapse a mine tunnel on top of them. He also endangered a lot more because the payload he used could’ve collapsed a few more.” Roy shook her head, “He confessed. He swore until the end he wasn’t crazy while at the same time spouting some bullshit about the devil. You visited the mines yet?”

She asked, before continuing, “The big mining companies moved in right before 2010 but they still employ the locals. Their breathing equipment is shit.” She shrugged, “Thin air. Makes a guy go crazy. He freaks out, blows a tunnel up. Mine security handed him over to the Sheriff’s boys and we pulled him out of Blackriver. Beckley ever since.”

“He sounds like he should be in a mental care facility,” Laine commented dryly then sighed, “I don’t suppose that was ever an option. We haven’t visited the mines yet, but we are interested in them. Do you know who used to own it before the big companies bought it out?”

“MacOnies. Old money around Appalachia. Vera Corp moves in and gives them a shitload of new money.” Roy said. “Back in Dulane’s mining days, the Sheriff? Guess what his last name is.”

“MacOnie. I remember, odd name to my ears. So this family, did they just sell the mineral rights to the mines or all the land? Do they have any residences near the park?” Laine took out her trusty notepad, clicking the pen to make a note.

“All of it, except for the land they owned personally for the family. They owned a big manor up in the hills but they’re reclused up there. They opened up the town way back when they opened up the mines, real old family.” Roy shrugged, “Nowadays the MacOnies have moved away to the four corners of the States and left Whitetree and Blackriver. The old Sheriff MacOnie is pretty much the only one left in Blackriver.”

"Is he? Because it seems like he's vacationing when anyone outside the county needs to speak with him," Laine commented then glanced at Donnelley before looking back at Detective Roy. "So old money, old power. Has there been any conflict with the Vera Corp employees and locals?"

“Mines have a history of conflict. 1800s, the O’dhoules moved in and tried to muscle in on the minerals and set up moonshine distilleries to boot.” Roy narrowed her eyes, shifting to a corner in the ceiling, “Things were more cutthroat back then, you know? O’dhoules were pushed out when their homestead was burned down and their patriarch got kidnapped. Never found him, is the story. Ever since then, Whitetree’s been locals only.”

“In the sixties, the MacOnies tried to expand their operations so they could open some mines in Kentucky. They hired some out of town people to be brought into Blackriver. Big riot. Some miners died and took security with them.” Roy sighed, shaking her head as she returned her eyes to Laine, “Nothing about Vera Corp, though. They keep a tight operation in their mines and they’re always on time when the ecological reports to the Governor are due. I can put you in touch with the Vera Corp suit they have organizing everything in Blackriver.”

“It’s almost the end of my shift. I gotta get home to my mister and the kids, so…” Roy shrugged apologetically, “I’ll set some time away for you folks, but don’t hesitate to call me if you need anything, alright?”

“Sure thing, Detective.” Donnelley smiled, getting up as Roy did and shaking her hand again. “When can we see you again?”

“Next couple days, I’ll call you.” Roy smiled before checking her watch. “Anything last minute? Questions?”

Laine noted the names and dates, then looked at Roy, "You've been looking into that place, we appreciate the information and I'll probably have another dozen questions next time. But just one thing, is there anything you've come across in your time about...I don't know like Indian superstition, ghosts or bad spirits stories. Maybe witchcraft. Something like that."

Laine stood up, her hand resting on the back of the chair, "I know it seems silly but sometimes those old stories mask uncomfortable truths."

Roy smiled a bit, “Looking to set up dream catchers on the roads? Put out an APB on females on flying broomsticks?”

Roy shook her head, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’ve heard a few things about Blackriver, but I don’t put too much stock in that.” Roy grabbed her coat from her rack, slipping it on and adjusting it on her shoulders, “Check out the library. Oh, shit! Forrest said you’d want some of our case files when you came around.”

She bent down and dropped a stack of Manila envelopes on her desk. “I was reading them myself when I got them, passing time. I grabbed anything interesting about Blackriver, whatever little we have,” she glanced knowingly at Donnelley and Laine, “Feds came through in the sixties and went to Mercy, Whitetree’s sister town. Pretty tight-lipped about everything they were doing up there. Weird folk too, IRS guy named Clyde Baughman was the lead. Him and his guys came in all rush and hush, left the same way. All we got out of it back then was reports of gunfire in the woods from the Sheriff department and nothing else.”

“Anyways, I’ll be seeing y’all ‘round.” She brushed past them and left the three in her office. Donnelley stood and his eyes wouldn’t leave the stack of Manila folders.

“Baughman.” He said, quiet. He grasped up the stack of folders, tucked it under his arm and left for the car.

"The case files, of course," Laine said, mentally face palming herself getting wrapped up in ghost stories. "Thank you Detective Roy, we appreciate your help.”

She paused at the name, Baughman, the sudden memory of his undead wife and her iron grip hit her. Laine swallowed hard then cleared her throat, coughing a little into her fist. “Excuse me.”




>CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA
>PUBLIC LIBRARY...///

The three of them again stood around the Suburban, idly smoking. Donnelley had been quiet for the duration of the short jaunt to the library. He hadn’t opened the case files yet, but his mind was busy wondering just what Baughman had been doing in Mercy with his team. The sixties were a bad time for Delta Green, and it must have been bad for them to be activated Stateside under the eye of the government.

“Baughman.” He thought out loud as he raised his hand to take a drag from his cigarette. “That fucking name.”

Laine was watching street lights coming on in the gloaming, the sky starting to change from blue to indigo in the slow summer style of stretching out the evening. Her face was turned from Donnelley, her hand tucked into the blazer pockets and she felt the hard edge of the box of Djarums. It was half full and she figured at this rate she’d smoke them down before the team was back from the hills. Giving in, she pulled one out and lit it, still staying quiet.

The black cigarette balanced between two slender pale fingers, burning fragrant smoke as Laine smoked silently before finally she turned her eyes to Donnelley, “Baughman. Now I’m very curious as to why he kept a cabin in this area and what he learned..to you know.”

Laine made a motion to her throat, not wanting to speak out loud the horror of the septic tank that had been Mrs Baughman, not out loud in the peaceful summer evening in a public parking lot. She pursed her lips, the cloves smoldering as she sucked on it, drawing the numbing smoke down her throat and into her lungs. “We should probably go through his things a little more, knowing what we know now.”

“Probably.” Donnelley nodded. He flicked ash from the top of his cigarette, bringing it to his lips again, “Gunfire from the forests. Tom’s out there with the others now.”

His eyes lingered on the growing darkness of the sky. Whatever was in those hills, maybe Clyde Baughman and his team didn’t finish the job. The hills in the distance seemed to loom. The longer he stared, he almost saw the tops of them slowly writhe like heat ripples until he rubbed at his eyes. Looking back at them, they stood still. Like they were supposed to. “Let’s go inside.”

“He’s a Marine and an agent, they should be fine,” Laine said, sounding more positive than she felt. Her gaze fell on Justin, maybe he should have gone with them, he was a Ranger and not the Smokey the Bear kind like Laurie. “But we should contact Tom and let him know about what went on there in the Sixties. Probably locals with shotguns sitting on their porches but...”

Wilkins terrified face and his description of the voice that lead him to the body Come and see.

“We don’t want to take chances,” she finished and snuffed out her cigarette in the concrete ashtray to the side of the steps. Laine pushed up her glasses, “Let’s do this.”

“Mrh.” Justin grunted. “Shoulda’ fuckin’ gone with ‘em.” Justin mused, his own Pall Mall cigarette between two fingers. He was a door kicker, a fucking skull-cracker. But all the security helped, he figured. He idly brushed a hand over his SIG in its in-waistband concealed holster. He wasn’t used to it, never needed a CCW in the Army.

Donnelley watched Laine go, a cloud of cigarette smoke idly drifting out of his open mouth before he blew it all out. He turned to Justin, “Trust me, I wanted myself out there too. After that fool in the car watchin’ us the first time we came to Charleston? Remember?” Donnelley took another drag, “Ain’t takin’ chances.”

Donnelley decided to switch subjects. The prospect of sending the three of them in the forest out to their deaths was not a nice one for him, “How’s the Ranger Batts these days?”

“Got us working our asses off with the whole ‘rapid-deployment’ shit. Runnin’ us like dogs and then we’re expected to be wheels up within 18 hours of a shot bein’ fired.” Justin spat. “Plus, mentioned the whole buttfuckery with my chain of command earlier.”

Donnelley huffed a chuckle, blowing smoke out with it, “That, Staff Sarn’t, is an omnipresent source of bitchin’. Did my fair share of it everywhere I went in the Army. Whether it was Infantry, the Batts, the ODAs.” He shook his head, “My Captain in my ODA was a gloryhound fuckhead. When that Spook from Langley came around blowin’ smoke that he was Army Intelligence, Captain America basically HAHO jumped on his dick and told ‘em we’d follow where he went.”

“And, boy, did we ever. Illegally crossin’ into Pakistan and dropping the wrath of God onto a little village in the FATA. Twice.” Donnelley chuckled ruefully, “We couldn’t tell if the mission was successful or a bust. We got back, weren’t even debriefed and Langley shook Captain America’s hand before hoppin’ on the first helo home.”

“Afghanistan was fuckin’ weird.” Donnelley took another drag.

“God-damn.” Justin enunciated. “As much as I respect and adore the Berets, no fuckin’ way I’d get into that shit. Throw me into five compound raids a night, fine. But the second they pull that shit, no chance.”

“Army Intel never bothered with us. Langley only once, and we were stateside. Figure you already read about that, whether it was the version with black ink or not, I ‘unno. Got me into a whole bunch of permanent contracts to never talk if I wanted to keep my stripes. Figure if I did talk, my only view would be the inside of Leavenworth.”

“Langley didn’t even bother with the contract. Nobody’d believe our crazy asses anyways, what bullshit we saw.” Donnelley’s smile was present, though his eyes grew distant and the smile vacant before he shook his head and took another drag, “I can’t take personal responsibility for that shit you’re talkin’ ‘bout now. Guess I couldn’t if I was, anyways.” He winked.

“Stateside Operations.” Donnelley shook his head, “This’n’s my first. West Virginia’s starting to get about as weird as Afghanistan.”

He clucked his tongue, taking another drag, “Guess they both got mountains in ‘em.”

“Found a lotta’ goddamn similarities over there. Eerie as fuck, those Pashtuns are the fuckin’ extreme but they’re pretty fuckin’ close to these people. Can’t say I saw a squad of SEALs exsanguinated in the hills of West Virginia, though. N’ definitely none a’ those ‘slabs’, or whatever it was you n’ Tom were goin’ on about last time.” Justin explained.

“Count yourself real fuckin’ lucky, son. Not that what you saw made you just peachy. Shit out there’s coming over here. You hear it from Laine yet?” He asked, grimacing with the knowledge, “Fuckin’ slab out in Olympic National Park. Now we got some sick sum’bitch out here skinnin’ folk like it’s people season.”

“Well, guess it’s our fuckin’ job to sort this shit out now.” Justin tossed the burnt out cigarette butt to the ground, treading on it with his boot.

“Livin’ the dream, brother.” Donnelley flicked his burnt end somewhere beyond sight in the growing darkness of Charleston.




The library was small compared to the one she had been used to visit as a kid in LA and at the university, even at Quantico but it had an extensive section of local West Virginia history and folklore. Laine made herself comfortable between two stacks of potential books, based on their description in the digital card catalogue. She thumbed through the indexes, looking for certain keywords. Blackriver. Mines. Native. Devils. Murder. Disappearances.

She put a book about the mine riots aside and another on Shawnee myths, the tribe that was one local in the area of Blackriver as far back as the 17th century and beyond. Laine thumbed through another, Ghost Stories and Campfire Myths of West Virginia, it was less than scholarly but expanded on one of the legends mentioned about evil wind spirits. A fringe group of Shawnee, a cult most likely and she recalled from her anthropology classes that those were not uncommon among native tribes. The most famous being the Ghost Dancers, the last stand of resistance from the plains tribes.

This particular one seemed a bit more sinister than desperate, mentioning a darker version of the Shawnee Cyclone Man, a nature spirit or god. She put the book into the pile, then picked up a tattered old book with frayed cloth wrapped hard back. The smell of the yellowed pages and the crackle told her it had been wedged in the shelves for awhile. Backwoods Witchcraft of Appalachia. It was no Wiccan how to bless this mess or find a job, it was old and written by some local scholar in the 1930s and had only been published once.

The first chapter was headed by a plate illustration of a woodcut, a black ink crude image of a goat on two legs and trees around it. A typical depiction of Satan, Baphomet maybe, but it was not quite the classic image. Laine flipped the page until she came across another plate titled Lord of the Woods and she continued to another chapter, about Skin Walkers. She was familiar with those from the Navajo myths but apparently it was not localized.

Dr Laine lost track of time, skimming the old book until she turned to a later chapter, this about a chief grieving his wife and trying to call her spirit back. Her blood ran cold and she felt the prickling goosebumps rising on her arms. Laine shut the book and got up, gathering the books together to check out.

Donnelley turned his head at the sound of the doors opening and the click-clacks of Laine’s heels. He had busied himself with smoking and staring out at the hills before Laine was with him and Justin. “Found some good stuff?”

Her arms were full of books, the top one the old frayed covered book and she met his gaze, “I am now the proud owner of a Charleston City Public Library card. And yes, there’s some stuff I need to show you, we should get back, the sooner the better. Was there anything else you needed to do here?”

“I’d say drink, but,” He frowned, hands longing for his flask left in the Suburban, “I’ve got my own back at the house.”

“I know you must have a stash, so you’ll probably need to break it out. Just don’t overindulge when we have Tom and the kids out camping,” Laine said, then glanced down at the books. “I know I’ll need a shot or two. We can divide these up and read, I’ll make dinner.”

“Those reel to reel tapes, I want to try to find a way to view them tonight.”

Laine suddenly pushed the books into Donnelley’s arms, “Hold on, I might be able to solve that.”

Even in the four inch heels she ran up the stairs and walked quickly back into the library. When she came back, about ten minutes later, she was cradling a large box with a latched lid. The librarian was helping her with the cord and explaining how to set it up.

“Are you sure you’ll have it back soon, Special Agent Laine? It isn’t really in the policy to lend this machine out,” the librarian, an older woman dressed in a long dress, stick thin with gray streaked hair pulled back in a braid spoke with concern. “We need it for our weekend showing of old local student films. Apparently it’s very popular among the young people, especially those with nice boys with the funny curly mustaches. They always bring the best coffee. Oh, don’t forget to change the reel before it runs out, it stresses the tape if it gets pulled taut. And you said you’d bring it back after the holiday, yes?”

“Yes, thanks Mrs Clark, I promise I’ll have it back and you have the gratitude of the Bureau,” Laine assured her and nodded at the pair of men waiting. “They’re with me, they can take it from here.”

She gestured at Justin to grab the heavy box that contained the reel to reel projector from her hands.

Mrs Clark looked at both men, her gaze lingering on the burn scar on Donnelley’s face and his cigarette then she smiled tightly, “Well, as long as it is to help our country, right? It’s the patriotic time of year after all. Enjoy.”

Reluctantly the woman relinquished the cords to them and went back into the library.

Laine gave Donnelley a triumphant grin before unlocking the Explorer.




>ROAD TO THE SAFEHOUSE
>BLACKRIVER COUNTY...///

BANTER TIME

Laine drove the Ford Explorer with Justin next to her, no doubt for security but she liked his quiet thoughtful presence. Unsure of his music taste, she set her phone in the holder and pulled up Donnelley’s contact information. They had just passed the city limits and she lead the way, letting Donnelley protect the rear. It felt strange, she certainly was not used to having to look over her shoulder despite the particular nature of the people she studied. The information from Roy and the books in the back that waited to be read and pieced with the mystery of what Wilkins had told her and Jane Doe, in her own way, had told them. It was dark and strange but fascinating, and she dwelled on what might be on those old reels of film from Baughman’s cabin. She gripped the steering wheel and wanted to get her mind off the racing ideas in her mind so she hit the call button, then the speaker.

“Hey, when are we going to race?” she asked when he answered, trying to keep her voice light and fight back the darkness. “Next quarter mile, I’ll take you.”

“Oh, don’t you tempt me now.” Donnelley chuckled after Laine’s call cut off Black Flag’s Rise Above. “Last thing we need’s a fuckin’ Deputy of all stupid fucks pullin’ us over.

She laughed, “Just flash our badges, it’s a federal emergency that I beat the pants off Agent Davidson.”

Glancing at Justin, she raised her eyebrows and gave him a sly grin, “What’s the fun in being a cop if we can’t get out of speeding tickets.”

“Joking, of course,” she called out, before the temptation became too great and her foot pressed the pedal, speeding up just a little, staying about five miles over the limit.

Justin grinned, slouching back in the passenger seat beside Laine, munching on a Hershey bar, considering he didn’t have breakfast, and who says that chocolate isn’t a good substitute for a well-balanced meal?

“Better slow down,” Donnelley chuckled as the Explorer shrunk farther ahead of him for just a moment, “You might scare our Ranger. Can we make a deal?”

He asked, before speaking out again, “No talk about the case at dinner? I don’t want to have my whiskey soured by this shit.” He frowned and nodded appreciatively, “Huh. Whiskey sours. We should pick some ingredients up next time we’re in town.”

Justin retorted. “Takes a fuckin’ lot to throw me off.” He chuckled. “Try bein’ in the turret of a humvee goin’ sixty-plus down some shitty Afghani road. Surprised I fuckin’ survived that shit.” He mused.

He turned to Laine. “You know those fuckin’ humvees are death traps? There’s like a fuckton of soldiers die every year when those things roll over.” He transitioned topics faster than a crack-addict. “N’ I second that, no case talk at dinner.”

“Well I’m cooking so I’ll agree, I don’t want you put off because of case talk,” Laine said, then laughed at the image of Justin bouncing around behind a machine gun like a ragdoll. “Good thing we’re not in a humvee and you have me driving. And that sounds good, I like a whiskey sour. Next time, to celebrate the return of our campers, we’ll load up.”

She steered around a slow moving pick up truck, changing lanes with quickly and glanced back in the rear view mirror, “Don’t fall behind, Donnelley. I know you probably learned to drive in a hay baling truck.”

“‘Least the- holy shit-“ He swerved past the truck and swerved back into his own lane, the truck’s horn blaring at him as he laughed maniacally. He’d be lying if he didn’t take a couple pulls from his flask, “Least the first car I ever owned wasn’t a pink electric Barbie Jeep, valley girl. And for your information, first thing I ever rode in was the saddle on my uncle’s farm with the reins in my fist. Genuine cowboy.”

“Excuse me, Barbie Jeep? It was the Ferrari, thank you very much,” Laine scoffed and glanced at Justin, raising her brow in a silent request, a wicked twinkle in her green eyes. Then said quietly, “Hold on.”

She floored it, the Explorer roaring past seventy then eighty and the Suburban dropped back as she took the sharp mountain road turn, letting the rear wheel drive truck drift around it. Laine tensed, feeling the weight shift in the SUV and then corrected before it could decide to tip and roll, a squeal and smoke from the tires as she tore down the straight away. “Catch this valley girl, cowboy!”

“Christ almighty!” Justin called out, grinning as he held onto one of the cab handles, clutching the half-eaten candy bar in the other hand.

Donnelley shook his head as he watched the Ford Explorer careen down the road, taking the turn sharp and throwing up a trail of smoke. His shit-eating grin would go unnoticed by them, but they could hear it in his voice when he spoke, “Goddamn, Valley Girl.”

His Suburban was never going to make that turn at a high speed. He didn’t even bother chancing it, so while they tore down the road, he ambled back to the Safehouse in comparison. All in all, they made good time, cutting the hour long drive down to forty or so minutes.

“Wow! Heather, are you trying to be the next Richard Petty?” Tom was a bit shaken by her driving, but he’d done worse, so it wasn’t that bad.

Laine laughed, getting out of the Explorer, "Who is that? The singer?"

She grinned at Tom with a little raise of her brow in mock ignorance, remembering his classic rock tastes then said, "I was establishing dominance, no one calls me valley girl. Besides it's the only way to beat traffic."

“OK, you got here safe,” Tom smiled. “Well done.”




Donnelley, Tom, Laine, and Justin set themselves to lounging for a bit in the Safehouse. Foster was undoubtedly in the garage on his computer and it was otherwise quiet in the house until Laine set herself to cooking. Donnelley was already on his first two fingers of Jim Beam as he smoked outside, rocking back and forth in his chair. The night was quiet, warm enough to not need a blanket or any other such covering. Nights like this reminded him of West Texas, and in some sort of commemoration he opted to feel the night air on his shirtless skin, his faded tattoos gotten in garages standing out on his slender torso. West Texas.

Except a little more trees. Somewhere off in the tree line an owl hooted every so often, heard above the soft breezes through the branches. In all the quiet, his thoughts meandered from the Drone Team and to that scared kid named Frank Wilkins, to Clyde Baughman. Whatever Baughman’s team found in the woods near Mercy, he wondered if it still plagued the hills here. A quiet evil that stalked between the trees and preyed on men. He wondered if whatever Clyde Baughman had come to put down had gotten that Jane Doe. If the Devil in the mines was roused again from its prison.

Movement? No. Something in the shadows that stood still through the swaying of leaves and branches. Something tall. From the porch, it could’ve been the trunk of a tree with how it put a hole in the shadows like a tear in reality’s fabric. Like a sliver of the nothingness between stars. He gripped his handgun and stood, walked to the edge of the porch with his cigarette between his teeth. He leaned forward. What was it? He blinked and stared harder. Only a tree. Only a tree, only a tree, only a tree. He rubbed at his face and spat off the porch, swearing under his breath and with a need to be back inside. He threw open the door, flicked his cigarette off the porch and strolled inside. “What’s for dinner?” He asked, the shirt in his fist before he placed his handgun on the island table in the kitchen and slipped it back on.

The triumph of her race to the cabin kept Laine buoyant as she took raised her hand in victory watching Donnelley pull in then went into the cabin to change. Her feet ached from her stilettos and she called back to Justin, "Do you mind unloading the stuff from the library? And I hope you're hungry, you missed the breakfast I made."

Once she changed out of the business suit she was dressed casually in a dark charcoal pair of yoga pants and a white tank top, a pair of fuzzy socks on her feet that let her slide across the polished wood floor. Her own black ink tattoos covered her upper arms, beautiful shaded art work of macabre skulls and spiders intertwined with roses and leafy vines on one shoulder and the moon and ocean landscape on the other. One her back was an esoteric geometric abstract design that peeked out from the tank top.

She slid playfully over to the refrigerator, taking out the two pounds of lean ground meat and placed it in the counter then gathered vegetables from the crisper. Onions, zucchini, garlic, red bell peppers, tomatoes went onto the cutting board. When the door opened, she glanced over then paused catching herself staring at Donnelley. She looked from his lean torso as he pulled his shirt on then flickered to the gun. His face, however, was hard to read but stress was there and of course it was with half his people up some haunted mountain.

Laine stood by the large pot of water starting to boil. "Spaghetti Bolognese, I figured everyone likes spaghetti so it's a safe bet plus I can make a ton and leftovers are great."

She padded over a few steps, eyeing him then the gun, "Nice ink. Everything alright?"

“Clyde Baughman brought guns into Blackriver,” Donnelley smirked, “I’m keeping mine close. But, no, everything’s fine. You spend your life in warzones and you develop some habits.”

He shrugged, “Chainsmoking, carrying, and cussing.”

Laine nodded, there was no argument there. "Right, well I'm not going to cook strapped. Besides, if I run into trouble..."

She picked up the large chef's knife, honed and bright from being new and slammed the blade through a red onion, halving it. "Trouble better beware," she said, keeping her tone light. No case talk during the preparation of dinner either.

"Those tattoos, they look pretty ancient," Laine commented, glancing his way as she started slicing zucchini, "I mean...I just caught a glimpse, you know. Some DIY?"

Laine turned away, suddenly feeling self conscious and stirred the browning ground beef the scent of onions and garlic along with it. Mushrooms would need to go in soon and the peppers, she made a mental note.

A lot DIY.” Donnelley chuckled, “Bought my own tattoo needles and some ink way back when I was younger. Too bad I couldn’t buy artistic talent, but I think I did pretty well after some practice.”

He gestured to Laine, “You got some too.”

She looked over at him, shaking her head with a crooked grin, "I hope you didn't write anything backwards from looking in the mirror and yes, hundreds of dollars of paid for ink and talent. I figured if it's permanent I want it to be some art worthy of making a lampshade out of after I'm gone."

Laine offered her free arm for him to inspect, the moon tattooed in great detail above a beach, surrounded by swirling clouds. "Several sessions each, my back is the most recent. Something different, I was going for more stark contrast rather than nuanced shading."

She glanced at him, a smile quirking her lips, "I've got more, they're just hidden."

Laine went back to cooking and tossed in sliced mushrooms to what would be the meat sauce. Donnelley returned her coy smile with one of his own. There was a silence that grew between them and the sizzling of the cooking. “What about you, Justin? Got some ink ‘sides your arm?”

When the group returned to the safehouse, Tom went upstairs to get the parachute. He figured he could rig it outside in the field. He laid the thing out end to end insuring none of the parachute cords were crossed. He paid special attention to insure the chute itself were as straight as possible. Someone’s life, possibly his own would depend on packing this accurately. He also insured no foreign debris was mixed into the chute or the strings. He hadn’t rigged a chute with brake lines before, but made sure they were on top. He made sure the drag lines were straight. Wouldn’t want any twists in them as well. In order to straighten out all the lines, he had to fold the chute over itself a few times passing it between the lines each time. Once all the lines were straight, no longer twisted, he then pulled all the slack out and put them over his right shoulder facing the parachute. He worked all the lines to the outside leaving the tail against his body. He took great care to make sure there were no twists in the silk. The chute was divided into nine cells. He separated them all so they were not mixed with the others. He tucked cell one behind the left side of his body. Then wrapped each cell one by one around the side until all nine cells were wrapped around the left side of his body. These nine cells were then tucked between his legs. He grabbed the other side of the chute. He then separated the lines and slowly worked the parachute back to the pack. He finished the job and packed the parachute. Once the parachute was packed in the bag, he then systematically stowed the lines back and forth so they could spill our in the proper manner when the next person used the parachute. With the parachute packed, he returned to the house and stored it in the closet in this room.

Before leaving the room, he grabbed a few more cigars and a bottle of Jameson’s whiskey. He grabbed a glass from the kitchen where Donnelley and Laine were having a discussion about something. He didn’t listen. He was lost in thought, thinking about his wife back home. He would pour a glass of whiskey, grab a cigar and head outside to smoke and drink. He would then pull out his phone and give her a call.




“How the fuck did I end up doing this again?” Donnelley had his hands on his hips as he surveyed the recently empty sink and the cleaned dishes he’d done for the second time today. He reached over and grabbed up his glass of cheap wine, taking a gulp of it and appreciating his work.

He turned around to see Justin and Tom setting up the projector while Laine watched, sipping away at her wine. He sided up with her, “Wine was a good choice. What is this, Merlot?” He made a show of swirling the wine and sticking his nose in the glass to sniff at it, “Great vintage.”

“Jill enjoys a warm glass of merlot,” Tom added. “I prefer Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio; bitter or pale, rather than sweet. I’ve seen too many that have a sweet flavor to them. Can’t stand that.”

“Donnelley, I can do those dishes if you like? You don’t have to do them every meal,” Tom volunteered for the job. “Or do you just like to complain about it?” Tom added with a smile.

“It’s a sense of normalcy thing. Some people fantasize about traveling the world, some people fantasize about doing dishes and going to bed late.” Donnelley shrugged, giving Tom his own smirk, “And I like to complain about it.”

"It's Cabernet Sauvignon actually, I'm not a fan of Merlot, too dry mostly," Laine replied then grinned, "Yeah it's a 2008 vintage. Thanks for washing up, again."

“It’s not bad. I’ll drink it.” Tom responded to Dr. Laine. He looked at Justin, “Hey Clark, how’s that projector coming?”

“I was told I’d be a good House Husband.” Donnelley rose his glass to Laine, “One of my many talents.”

She raised her glass in return, "To your second career one day. May you find the perfect vacuum cleaner."

Laine chuckled and drank some of the cheap but tasty wine. She felt the growing anxiousness at watching the reels they had found at Baughman's cabin, part of her hoping it was old family movies rather than another clue to the horror unfolding in the hills. But the FBI agent in her wanted to see, the deep need to witness what he had left for someone to one day view. Not just anyone but them, a working group for Delta Green.

She sat in the middle of the couch, her glass between her knees and centered on the white sheet pinned on the wall as a makeshift screen..

Finally, Justin had installed the earliest dated reel into the projector. Donnelley closed his eyes and sighed, downing the rest of his Cabernet and tucking the cigarette he’d had behind his ear between his lips. “I’m not going to lie. There’s a reason he hid these and we’re going to find out what that is. It might not be good dinner conversation.”

He walked over to the projector, placing his hand on it in order to start it but pausing before he did, “Any objections to seeing this?” He asked, when no one spoke up, he nodded. “Good.”

The projector was flipped on and he lit his cigarette, looking back up after. It was soundless, of course, but on the screen there was something normal going on. Men and women dressed normally, standing around and shaking hands, making conversation with drinks in their hands. It continued on for the next few minutes, showing the socialization of what could’ve been an average yacht club in some empty ballroom. Donnelley leaned in closer and his brow furrowed.

The screen went black, darkening the entirety of the house for a few moments before the screen showed more after the transition. The people they’d been watching socialize like normal suburb families were now dressed in felt robes of black. The camera panned while they passed a dagger around the congregation. Donnelley stood, but the old camera the filmmaker had been using didn’t have the best resolution. The dagger appeared to be of the same material as the black shard, but he just couldn’t tell for sure. Something in him told him it was. Something in him hoped like hell it wasn’t. As the dagger was passed around, each man or woman tenderly laid their lips on it in a kiss before passing it on.

Finally, the dagger changed hands over to a man with a mask fashioned to look almost like a nest of serpents. He rose the dagger and the people in robes exploded in ecstasy, screaming and writhing, their hands held up to the ceiling in a maddening dance. Donnelley couldn’t hear their screaming and wailing, but the sounds of Pakistan filtered back to his ears anew and he breathed, “Fuck.”

Stepping to the back of the room, rubbing his face and looking back to the makeshift screen. They were dancing and screaming still. The man in the serpent mask walked to the other end of the room, the camera panning with him to reveal a small bundle of sheets topped with what looked to be a real black goat’s head. What looked like drips on the white bundle of sheets told the team that it was not taxidermied. The man in the serpent mask grasped one of the horns of the goat head and lifted it away from the sheets to reveal a girl staring out with sunken eyes. He recognized them, his little Tilly. The masked man raised the black dagger and Donnelley rushed to shut off the tape, the projector turning off.

He stepped away from the projector, his steps stumbling as he turned away and slammed the front door behind him.

Laine watched, sitting forward, her teeth clenched but determined not to look away as the flickering silent images became more disturbing. This was important, she had to see. To witness.

Come and see

The dagger held her attention, the deep black so dark it looked like a hole in the film except it wasn't, it was real and deadly and the child. Laine gasped, her wine tipping and crashing to the floor, splinters of glass and red fluid slid across the wood. It was Colin, her nephew, the older of her brother's children. He stared back at her, huge dark eyes full of fear and she gasped a strangled scream just as Donnelley shut the projector off.

"No...fuck no," she murmured and curled in on herself, pulling her knees to her chest. "How the hell..."

It wasn't real, it was a trick. A trick of her mind, putting someone she loved in place of the blurred image of a child. She saw Donnelley take off and she jumped up, ignoring the sharp pain of a piece of glass embedding itself through her fuzzy socks and into her foot.

Laine limped after him, leaving small blood smears to mark her progress to the door and out onto the deck, the door slamming behind her.

Tom stared at the white sheet. He looked into the girls’ eyes and saw someone he knew. She was the spitting image of his mother. Her curly black hair and blue eyes were unmistaken. Meghan was his playmate for ten years of his life. He loved Meghan. She was his sister and his best friend. His eyes welled up with tears upon recognizing Meghan. ‘This was made in the 1960s. It couldn’t be her. She died in 1996. “What sort of sorcery is this horse shit!?”

Justin sat there on the couch, likely one of the only ones left in the room. He was dead silent as his two dull green eyes stared at the screen, pupils dilated to fill the entire socket it seemed. Sunken eyes, skin of a slight brown, marred by scars and bruises. Afghani for sure. Of all the faces he saw over there, it was the one he’d never forget. There was no way. She was dead, her house in ruins by a midnight raid. She couldn’t have been six. She was an innocent, she got caught up in it all, left dead amongst rubble and a cache of AKs.

[i]Two-one, light it up![i]

That order pounded through his head and his heart pounded back. It was his fault. He was on the gun, had peppered the entire compound with the M134 on his Humvee. She was dead because of him. But how was she here, in this film? His sins coming back to haunt him? Was he truly damned?

He continued to stare blankly into the screen, a hand clasped over his mouth.




Donnelley sat slumped over in his chair, one hand limp with the cigarette still smoldering and the other over his face. He rose and wiped a forearm across his eyes and took another drag, sniffling before he blew it out. It was silent between the two of them on the porch. He tore his eyes away from the darkness around the cabin and caught the trail of bloody footprints that followed Laine. She looked to be in a bad way too. “You’re hurt…”

He sighed, his head hanging again and he rubbed at his face, taking another drag and looked back at her, his lips parting to say something but he closed them again. He looked away from her, speaking a single word out on the air quiet enough almost to be mistaken for a breeze, “Tilly.”

Laine limped over to him, trying to keep on her toes of her left foot to avoid putting weight where the glass had punctured in her arch. Her face was pallid, the dark makeup around her eyes more exaggerated as she had smeared it with the back of her hand.

She moved next to him, leaning against the deck railing and put her hand gently on his shoulder, observing his expression and tried to push her own horror aside. "So are you," Laine said gently, "It wasn't her, it ..."

Without another word she moved closer, rubbing his back in a comforting gesture, desperately grasping at reality. "It couldn't have been him."

His hands hesitantly placed his cigarette to rest on the railing of the porch. He sighed, tentatively moving his hands to hers and coming away from her, the two of them closer than they’d allowed themselves to be. He held her eyes on his own reddened ones and offered her a consoling look before he offered her his seat. He didn’t want the image of Tilly in that bundle of sheets again. He needed to busy himself with something. The image of Tilly and the insinuation he would ever fail to protect her plagued him. When Laine sat, he gingerly took her injured foot in his hands. “Gonna need to come out.” He looked into her eyes, watching them and wondering what she had seen in that film reel. He’d already failed her once in Baughman’s cabin. Almost another failure in the long cracks of the road his life had paved thus far. He could help her now, with something, at least. His voice was careful, as coaxing as he could make it and as gentle. “Him? Who?”

She met his eyes, the pain in them struck her. A pain that went past any she had seen when he had told her about Afghanistan. Laine nodded slightly, not trusting herself to speak and sat down, crossing her left leg over her right, her injured foot in his hand. The sock had a blood stain, and once it was off the shard of glass was visible.

"I saw," she took a deep breath, "My nephew, Colin. He's seven...he...shit, Donnelley. Obviously it's not real but it felt so..."

She looked at him intently, "Do you think we all saw someone different?"

While she talked, he swiftly plucked the shard from her foot, she continued without noticing and he allowed himself a small smile at the deftness. He pressed his thumb against the now opened wound, bringing her foot closer to his chest for a bit more leverage and returned his eyes to her. He’d been listening, and he shrugged, “Apparently. I don’t know why.” He shook his head, “I know Clyde didn’t get all of them. Didn’t, or wouldn’t… for some reason…”

Marlene flashed before him, her smiles growing more hollow in the glimpses of history between her and Clyde the pictures offered. Clyde bringing her back to life, the sting of his failures and grief at her passing ripping at him as if it had been his doing. The toying with forces ancient and unnatural for just one more chance to get things right. And failing. He swallowed, looking away from Laine before he came back to her, “I’m sorry.” He said to her. Sorry for bringing her into this. All of it. “What do you need? Make tonight not so shitty. Anything.”

He offered her a lopsided smile, weighed down by his own troubles. He already knew sleep wasn’t an option for him tonight. No matter how drunk he got. Maybe he could at least help her.

She hardly felt the glass being pulled out but felt him apply pressure, holding her foot against himself. Laine felt tears threaten again and she blinked rapidly, "I don't know," she admitted, hanging her head so her short dark hair fell forward. "I just...I need to check on them. I know it's silly, I know that right now Colin and Sophie are probably just fine. My brother and his wife probably trying to get them bathed and ready for bed. Or...shit time zones. I don't know, Donnelley. I feel...off. I want to get drunk but I can't there is too much work to do. "

Her eyes met his and her need flickered there then she turned away, pulling back, her arms hugging herself, "We have a lot of work, to catch this guy. Thank you, for taking the glass out."

Her foot came away from his hands and he was left there on his knee before her. There was an ache left in him, like the part of her in his hands was plugging it up. He looked at her, his eyes lingered on her as she looked away from him. He nodded once, stiff, before he regained himself. He folded the fingers of both his hands together and looked away from her for a moment. The words had to work at parting his lips, but he spoke, “Yeah.” He hesitated, still looking at her face, “Of course.”

He pushed himself up to his feet, reaching over and grabbing his cigarette to relight it. He stood with his hands leaning on the railing, his back to her as he hung his head, blowing a long, slow stream of smoke from his lips to drift up towards the overhang of the porch’s ceiling, writhing in the deck light’s glow and mingling with the dancing bugs near the bulb. Once again, he felt alone with the cricket song and owl hoots, the treetops making jagged shadows in front of the night sky. Stars and moon shone down, but no comfort from the soft, pale light.

It hurt her to leave him there but if she did not step away, the weakness she felt would cause her to seek solace in a place she knew she could not go. Laine stood up, looking over Donnelley's tense shoulders and the smoke drifting up into the darkness. Biting her lower lip to stay her urge to speak she limped back inside.

Once inside her breath hitched and she tried to stifle a sob, pressing her hand against her mouth to try and keep the other men from hearing her cry. She considered hiding out in her room but she wasn't entirely wanting to be alone. Laine went into the kitchen, opening the last bottle of wine and drank from it, sitting in a wooden chair and she rested her arms on the table, leaning forward.




Tom stood, grabbed the opened bottle of Jameson’s and followed Donnelley onto the porch. He took a chair at the other end of the porch, uncapped the bottle and downed about eight ounces in one pull. Then he bit the end off one of the Cubans and lit it up. “What the fuck did we get ourselves into, Joe?” The words were spoken softly, Undoubtedly Joe Donnelley did not hear him. He was busy in a conversation with Dr. Laine.

Tom was lost in his own thoughts away from Laine and Donnelley. The effects of downing eight ounces of Whiskey were starting to take effect as Laine went inside. Tom barely noticed her departure and heard none of their conversation. Tom took another swig of the whiskey, feeling a bit light headed. ’How could that have been Meghan? She died twenty-three years ago and that film is over fifty years old. I don’t get it.’ Tom took another swig of whiskey. ’This idea of me seeing my dead sister only begs to ask the question, what did Laine, Donnelley and Justin see? They couldn’t have seen my sister. By the looks on their faces, it had to be something traumatic.’

Tom was lost in thought when he fell asleep. The porch chair wasn’t really very comfortable but the sedative he gave himself was enough to knock him out. Within several minutes, he was snoring.

“Tommy!” a child’s voice called through the haze. “Tommy!” Tom focused on the voice. It sounded familiar. “Tommy!” The little girl voice giggled.

“Meghan!” he yelled.

“Tommy! Come here you silly,” she giggled, but Tom could not see her. It was dark.

“Meghan, I hear you, but can’t find you.” Tom felt desperate trying to find his sister. He wanted to find her, to hold her to look upon her face. But his movement was impeded. He felt as though he was stumbling over something, falling down, struggling to get back to his feet. All the while Meghan’s voice was laughing at him. It was the children on a playground laughing, rather than anything else. Something seemed to be holding him down, He felt immobilized.

Meghan’s voice started to sing, ”Ring-a-ring-a-rosies, A pocket full of posies, A tissue, a tissue
We all fall down!”
Meghan laughed harder now. She sounded like she was running.

“Meghan! Where are you!?” Tom yelled out.

She continued to sing the song, ”The king has sent his daughter, To fetch a pail of water, A tissue, a tissue, We all fall down!” She laughed loudly.

“Tommy, I know a secret,” Meghan uttered coyly at her brother and giggled some more. “Tommy, want to hear my secret?”

“Meghan, where are you?” Tom called out.

“Come find me and I will tell you the secret,” Meghan giggled at her brother. “Come and find me.”

But Tom could not move. He struggled to get to her. Frustration and anxiety took over pushing him towards consciousness…

“I’m going to have a nephew,” she whispered in the darkness just as he woke up. Tom was sweating. He kicked just at the moment of consciousness freeing him from whatever held him down. Then he was awake looking around regaining awareness of his surroundings. The bottle of whiskey fell to the floor and whatever contents remained spilled onto the porch and soil below.

’I’m going to have a nephew,’ Tom whispered to himself. ’wow, I need to go to bed.’ Tom went back inside, climbing the steps and crawling into bed.




Dr Laine was in the bathroom, she had left the half empty bottle of wine on the table and was now sitting on the toilet lid and bandaging her foot. She heard someone come inside and she peeked out, watching Tom struggle up the stairs to the bunkroom shared by the men on the team. He looked pale and exhausted, like the rest of them. What had he seen? It was obviously personal for each of them and as she had calmed down and the wine took effect she thought over the possibilities. Some sort of hypnotic effect from the action in the film was a possibility.

The stone was there, that sliver of black void and Laine shivered, glancing down at her foot. It had just been a shard of glass, that was all but her thoughts returned to Jane Doe and her gruesome suffering before death. Everything she had been holding back from the day had been let loose after the vision of her nephew being murdered, whether it was an act of imagination or a trick of the film, she was still shaken. Her defenses now in tatters, she needed to regroup and get herself together. Grabbing some toilet paper she wiped her eyes now watering again.

Get your shit together, Heather. she scolded herself, hating that she had fallen apart when people needed her. Tossing the paper into the bin, she hobbled back out into the living room area, looking to see if anyone was around and went to clean up the broken glass.
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