I barely even notice the other cars as they pass me on the highway anymore. After three months of endless driving and searching for Ruby, her real name is Alyson, but I only ever knew her as Ruby. I don’t understand why she hasn’t called me, or reached out from wherever witness protection placed her in a new identity. I know protocol dictates that you’re not to contact anyone from your old life after being relocated, but it’s not like protocol was ever really high on our list of priorities.
It was against protocol for me to fall in love with her, to risk my undercover identity in order to protect her— after meeting her— I had no choice in the matter. The night we were separated was the worst night of my life. After almost a year of deep undercover investigating and observing the Russian Mafia family, the Nolikovs, it all came to a brutal—and for some fatal—end. The Nolikovs who owned and ran ‘The Red Fox’ bar on the outskirts of New Orleans were deep into the illegal trafficking of arms and drugs. The bar was a front of course, and their illegal activities were stopped in a joint task force take down of the entire operation. My memory is flooded with flashes from that night like the force of a hurricane reaching every part of my mind. The tear gas, the ringing of gunshots in my ears, the yelling and the sweat stinging my eyes beneath the heavy gas mask. The Kevlar vest weighed heavy on my chest, but not as heavy as the desperate need to find her among the carnage I was trying to make my way through. Ruby was working in the bar that night, and unbeknownst to her employers she was helping me with my investigation. The fear was seizing every vein in my body as though it was flowing with ice water instead of warm blood. My pulse so loud in my ears I could hardly hear the responses from my team. When the inside of the bar was finally cleared I ordered my team to advance through to the back dock area of the bar. We took heavy fire from the just inside the back exit and that resulted in the scar on my upper thigh from where the bullet passed through my leg. I remember the pain from being shot in a pale light compared to the alarming and aching desperation to find Ruby and wrap her safely in my arms. Communications from the task force outside on the Mississippi confirmed my worst fears. Ruby was being used as a human shield against on forces on the back dock by Viktor Nolikov.
Just the memory of his name and my entire body fills with pure boiling rage. When my team came upon the scene he looked like a wild animal snarling and whipping about frantically. He had secured Ruby’s back to his chest with a strong arm around her neck while the other held the barrel of a gun flush with her temple. Her face was streaked with blood, smoke residue and tears that had cleared trails from her eyes to her jawline. Viktor held her there and continued whipping and hissing like a snake, he was calling me out. He kept calling the name of the identity I had assumed for the operation, to this day I don’t know how exactly he knew, but at the time it hardly mattered.
I stepped forward, taking control of the situation on the dock. Ruby’s eyes were filled with terror as they found mine and she began to shake her head at me in warning. I stepped closer towards them my gun still aimed perfectly at Viktor’s head. I clearly separated myself from the many law enforcement agents behind me and Viktor’s eyes filled with pure malice as they saw me. He turned sharply placing Ruby directly in my line of sight. He had to know I would never risk the shot and have him move at that split second and put Ruby in my line of fire.
Viktor’s only support was a henchman named Julian that I had —until that point—suspected was the other undercover FBI agent who was working on this case. I was never told the identity of the other agent in play to reduce the risk of exposure, the other agent had been in play for two years already and I was there to gather anything useful to the investigation and report back. I kept my gun aimed towards Viktor and a vicious smile seemed to crawl up his face, then all hell broke loose.
Someone from our side fired a shot and the henchman and Viktor returned fire and ducked behind fuel drums on the dock for cover. I shouted for a ceasefire from our side until my voice was hoarse. I hadn’t taken cover but I could no longer see Ruby or Viktor from where I stood. The men on my side were still firing despite my commands, I didn’t know if they were ignoring them or if they couldn’t hear me over the noise and adrenaline coursing through their veins. I walked across the dock to put myself directly into their line of fire continuing to call for a ceasefire with my arms raised towards them. An eerie silence blanketed the dock for a few long moments and the confusion on everyone’s face at my action was clear.
Viktor’s voice broke the silence with a threat of what I was about to endure. Then the most blood curdling scream pierced the night air and was silenced by the thunderous clap of the gunshot. Ruby, no! Then I heard a splash of her body falling into Mississippi beneath the dock, I started at a run towards the fuel barrels as Viktor and his henchman stood up with their weapons turned up and hands raised in surrender. I aimed my gun at Viktor’s head and prepared to pull the trigger until the familiar voice of the other bartender who worked with Ruby stopped me.
Matt, was behind me with a gun also trained on Viktor. I had less than a second to process all of this as I lowered my weapon and ran towards the edge to the dock past Viktor. I felt the pain of hot steel shooting through my shoulder as I leapt off the side of the dock into the muddy waters of the Mississippi. I searched desperately for her, completely ignoring the newer bullet hole in my body. After a desperate search I found her and called up to the dock for help. The EMT’s were already on sight, but she wasn’t breathing, it was the longest thirty seconds of my life waiting for the love of my life to be revived there laying on that cold dock as the flashing blue and red lights lit up everything around us.
She started to splutter and it was the most incredible sound I’ve ever heard in my life. She was unconscious when they took her away and I wanted to stay by her side, but I was reminded of protocol by Matt— the other agent— and we headed back to Washington D.C. Matt had managed to persuade me by telling me that she would probably be unconscious for a while and I would make it back before she woke. If only he had known how wrong he was.
While we were in the Washington headquarters we were both informed that Ruby was being transferred from the hospital into witness protection. An agreement she had made with the FBI while she was angry with me, she signed the document after just learning of my real intentions and identity and she would have felt betrayed, not that I can blame her. I’m still furious with the FBI for not waiting until she regained consciousness to ascertain her current wishes before they transferred her.
I got back to New Orleans too late to stop the transfer, and with all the strict protocols in place I’ve had no luck tracking down her location as of yet. Before I left New Orleans I discovered that Ruby is pregnant, I cursed myself for not knowing it sooner. All I could think was that the love of my life was going to wake up alone, and pregnant in a hospital in a new town with a new identity. That is of course if she survived the gunshot wound, no, I’ve come too far to let that thought come to the surface now.
Agent Joshua Denton —Matt— and I have remained in close contact since that fateful night. I would even venture that we have become good friends. He has been using his contacts to try and find her location as well. I have taken an extended leave of absence from the Bureau pending early retirement, I just can’t go back there, not after meeting her. It is a strange feeling having a reason to live again.
Since my assignment in the middle-east eight years ago, resulting in serious burn scars to the right side of my face and upper torso, I had just been going through the motions of life. I was a gifted undercover agent for the FBI, with no connections to anyone and nothing to lose, but that’s all changed now. Ruby reignited a passion for life and love that I thought I had completely lost, she saw past the scars to the soul of the man and she fell for me. An angel like that falling in love with a gargoyle like me, it is more than I ever deserved or even hoped for.
Being apart from her makes me feel like I slipping back into that dark, shell of a life I knew before her. She lit up my dark little life like a firefly, small and warm light at first which then exploded like a sun consuming every bit of darkness around me. Her light filled my heart and claimed it as her own and I surrendered heart and soul to this magnificent creature. I need to find her out of a desperate need to hold on to that light.
Joshua has been a good friend, not something I really expected from him. When I chose to leave the Bureau he supported my decision against the higher ups, and he has been good about keeping in contact since. He is about to go back deep undercover on another assignment so he has requested for some time off for a week, when he intends to join me on my endless drive around the country looking for her.
He has promised to learn as much as he can before I reach Washington D.C. I don’t hold out much hope but he still has a lot of contacts and people like him, and why shouldn’t they? He’s a pleasant guy, friendly and loyal, he has a slender athletic frame, handsome features with sun streaked surfer blonde hair. He is a friend to Ruby, and he misses her almost as much as I do, they grew very close to each other while he was undercover for two years. He was posing as the boyfriend of the bar manager Vladimir, who was only just released from hospital last month after suffering severe injuries on the take down night.
I still suspect that Joshua was the inflictor of those injuries but I would never report him. For one thing Vlad definitely deserved every injury and more so, secondly he has never said a word about Ruby and I to the Bureau. The consequences of forming a relationship were not only against protocol but that fact could’ve jeopardised the entire case. Joshua has always been a straight arrow according to his service record and I’m deeply touched that he would risk so much in the service of a friend.
I refuse to admit this out loud but I am actually looking forward to spending the week with him. I’ve been making my way up the East Coast of the States for the past two months, twenty-eight days and sixteen hours. Since leaving New Orleans, I ruled out Louisiana as a possible location being it was the same state. However once I’ve searched every other state, if I come up empty, I’ll revisit that theory.
I’ve scoured through Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. I’ve been to every city and small town I could find showing her picture around and seeing the lack of recognition on so many different faces is starting to make me an expert in it. I’m currently in South Carolina heading up towards North Carolina. I will stop at as many places as I can on the way to Washington to pick up Joshua in a week’s time. I’ve been taking my time up until now, being very thorough, searching every inch of the states I’ve been to.
As I continue driving along the interstates I let my gaze go to other drivers of passing cars, passengers on buses, even hitchhikers on the side of the roads. I’m still trying to reason why she hasn’t contacted me, I don’t know where she is but she knows my cell number, and the number at the house in New Orleans I had diverted to my phone. I start to panic that maybe she went back to New Orleans looking for me while I travel all over looking for her. No that can’t be it, if she got back to the house and saw I wasn’t there she would’ve called me to find out where I am.
I’m constantly debating with myself internally about all the possibilities for the reason we are still apart and I need to be able to discuss them with a rational person. The sun almost seems to hiccup into the morning sky over the eastern horizon, and my train of thoughts are interrupted by my growling stomach. I try to remember the last time I ate something, last night? Or the day before? I can’t remember for sure, actions like eating and sleeping have taken a backseat in the priority car.
I pull into a truck stop on the side of the highway, I park my truck and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror before I get out of the truck cab. Holy shit! I look even scarier than usual, my skin seems paler, and my eyes are sunken in dark circles on my scarred face. If I saw me and was asked to help find the beautiful girl in this photo I would lie and say I’d never seen her to protect her from this gruesome guy. My FBI badge has definitely been more helpful than my face in this search. No one needs to know that it isn’t valid while I’m on extended leave.
I hit the shower at the rest stop, after I realize that the smell followed me out of the truck. All clean and still starving I order some breakfast over the counter and a vat of coffee. I take a seat and pull out my map to cross off a couple more towns and plot my next course of direction. My planning in interrupted by my phone ringing, and as many times as I’ve tried not to let my heart skip a beat at the sound, I still haven’t mastered it.
“Hello?” I ask expectantly.
“Sorry, just me.” Joshua’s voice apologises through the line.
“No, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound disappointed every time you call.” I reply
“Don’t worry, I don’t take it personally anymore.” He tells me and I can hear the smile in his voice.
“Actually I was just thinking about you before…..” I start.
“I bet you were, you dirty bastard. Don’t start to think you can settle for me if we can’t find Ruby.” He laughs at me and I can’t help but smile at my end of the phone.
“I only meant I was thinking about how nice it will be to be able to bounce my theories off another person. I think I’m developing a split personality after being alone with myself in the truck for so long, and this personality is a negative asshole.” I tell him. I can hear his laughing at the other end.
“Well, I’ve got a few minutes, why don’t you run a couple past me now, before your psycho other half comes back.” He laughs at me. I laugh in response, it’s good to talk to him, hell it’s good just to talk to another human being. I rattle off a few new theories about why she hasn’t contacted me and he loses all composure after I spit out the alien abduction theory. I hold the phone away from my ear until the side splitting laughter dies down in the speaker.
“Are you done?” I ask impatiently.
“Are you?” He snorts trying to muffle his laughter. “Mason, you’ve lost it. But have no fear, soon I will rescue you from yourself.” We resume our conversation about some leads he’s following and sources he’s waiting to hear back from, but I tune out a little, this is the same thing he’s been saying for almost three months now.
“Ow,” he says and it snaps my attention.
“Are you okay? What happened?” I ask concerned.
“Oh nothing, it’s just my face hurts. I haven’t laughed like that in months, thanks Mason I needed that today.”
“Why what’s so important about today?” I ask hesitantly hoping he didn’t already explain it while I was zoned out.
“The arraignment.” Those two words are all the explanation I need. The Nolikovs and their known associates— the ones who didn’t flip to turn states evidence— are being arraigned today, that must be why he called in the first place. He needed a friend who understood to talk to about it and I sit here selfishly wrapped up in myself and my search for Ruby.
“I’m sorry Joshua, are you okay with everything?” I ask him gently. I wait for a few seconds before I hear a deep breath and then,
“Yeah, I’m just not usually called upon to testify. I don’t like being involved in this part of the justice, the investigation, being knee deep in the shit I can handle, but this is different.” He sighs and I understand completely.
Joshua had blown his undercover identity on the night of the take down. He should have gotten out and pretended to be just another civilian until it was all over, but he had come back for me and Ruby. Now he’s the star witness for the state. He stopped me from shooting Viktor square between the eyes —an action I bet he regrets right now— without Viktor there would be no trial. The other members of the Nolikov family were killed that night, except for Vladimir who is now well enough to stand trial with Viktor.
“When I get to Washington D.C. we are going to drink until I can’t remember what I’m looking for anymore, and until you can’t remember the word Nolikov.” I instruct him.
“Sounds good Mason. Before I go I have a couple of more rational theories for you to chew on.” He says.
“Please don’t, I can’t have any more of them fighting for attention in my head.” I plead.
“Okay, just two then. Perhaps she’s still in a coma from that night, she was injured pretty badly and if she hasn’t woken then she couldn’t contact you, right?” He tells me and I’m actually annoyed at myself that I thought of aliens before I thought of that. “Or maybe she’s just scared about how you’ll be with her now? She woke up in witness protection before she could see you, she didn’t know what had happened to you that night, maybe she thinks the worst happened and is trying to make the best of a bad situation.” Joshua explains gently.
“That’s crazy, why would she think I’m dead?”
“Because she knows you would move heaven and earth to be with her, and if she woke up alone she may have just assumed you would be with her if you could.” Joshua seems to understand our relationship as well as I do.
“I have to find her, if she thinks I’m dead, it’ll be killing her. The same way it did when I thought she was.” I tell him urgently. My heart aches with a stabbing pain as I let that memory burn back through my mind like a brushfire of hopelessness and heartache put out only by a rain of desolation and despair. During the assignment Ruby was taken by the FBI and recruited to be an asset for the investigation, between being undercover and the circumstances surrounding her disappearance I believed she was dead for nearly three whole days and it was the cruellest torture I’ve ever endured, and I’ve been tortured before.
“Mason, it’s okay, we’re going to find her. Hopefully before I go undercover again, because I’d really like to throw my arms around her and her baby belly.” He says confidently. The baby. What if the baby isn’t mine and that’s what she’s afraid to tell me.
“And she is in for a stern talking to when I get a hold of her.” Joshua says angrily, but I know his anger at her would melt at the sight of her, she has that power. We’re both angry, but only at being apart from her, neither of us can see the reasoning behind, despite the many theories between us, that’s all they’ll be until we find her.
“I have to go,” he says sadly, “why do I feel like I’m the one on trial?”
“That’s the justice system for you, every comfort for the criminal and no regard for the victims.” I tell him. “I’ll see you in a week.”
“Bye Mason, and tell that other persona of yours to knock it off with the negative crap. We’ve had enough of that for a lifetime.”
“I will, take care. Say hi to Viktor for me.” I smirk at the thought of him in chains and that hideous orange jumpsuit from the penitentiary.