The doorbell ringing above the entrance to the diner breaks my drowning in the middle of a sea of sorrow with despair my only companion. I see Ruby rush into the diner out of the cold and instant panic and fear rise up in me as I glance down at the journal still opened between the magazine pages. She dashes past me urgently pausing only to eyebrow me curiously as she sees the title of the magazine I was pretending to read. Ruby keeps running straight to the bathroom and with lightning speed I place the journal along with the mints and lip gloss on a shelf underneath the countertop and dart back to my booth.
I glance down at the plate of cold dinner off to the side and the magazine that now lays face up on the table. Cosmo? I ask myself internally. Great. Ruby emerges from the bathroom and searches urgently through her bag and coat pockets as though she’s lost something. She reaches the countertop where she was earlier and looks around desperately then seems relieved when she ducks her head behind the counter and pulls out her journal.
My gut twists with guilt but I laugh out loud as I see the clock above the door, eight pm. The date lasted barely more than an hour. Ruby glares at me as she sees me laughing to myself.
“What happened to your date?” I ask her trying to distract myself from my guilt.
“It was a disaster,” she sighs as she collapses opposite me in the booth.
“I’m sure it wasn’t that bad,” I offer still trying to maintain my composure.
“He told me he was ready to be a father to my child, fifteen minutes into the date. We barely finished talking about where he grew up then all of a sudden he’s ready to be a dad.” She says clearly still horrified by the idea and I can no longer keep it in as I duck my head and start chuckling into my chest.
“I’m sorry,” I try to say through a burst of laughter but I can’t stop it. It’s feels like I have church giggles, like the thing I’m laughing at really isn’t that funny and the timing is terrible but I just can’t stop it.
I hear Ruby start to laugh as well and I look up to make eye contact with her. A few onlookers are also trying not to laugh as they watch my uncontrollable fit. I’m still trying to find the will to stop laughing when she reaches over and playfully slaps my arm.
“It’s not funny.” She tries to sound stern through her own laughter and it just makes me laugh even more.
I just keep apologizing in between snorts of laughter over and over again. I look at Ruby’s face trying hard to calm myself down but as I look at her I see the television screen in the corner of the roof behind flash with an image that turns my blood to ice. All traces of amusement rush out of my body like air from a burst balloon. That’s exactly what I feel like just happened to mine and Ruby’s bubble of happiness—someone just walked up and burst it.
“I have to go,” I announce in an urgent tone and I get up and leave before Ruby has a chance to question what just happened. I’m flying along the highway in my truck trying to shake the image of the black and white mug shot on the screen with the flashing words ’escaped prisoner’ displayed beneath it.
I turn over the files in my room—like a madman—until I find the contact information for the FBI. I start dialling furiously as I pace around my house, until I’m finally connected with someone who knows about the case.
“Agent Greenberg,” says the voice on the end of the line and I recognise the name.
“Greenberg, this is Agent Harris.” I say introductorily. I allow him a moment to put the name to a face and I hear the short gasp of recognition.
“How long has he been loose?” I ask urgently.
“Agent Harris, you’re listed as on extended leave pending early retirement. I’m not at liberty to discuss an ongoing investigation with you.” He states formally.
“Agent,” I pause trying to remain calm, “I’m responsible for bringing him down, I can help with this matter, and I know how he operates.”
“I know Harris, but there isn’t much you can do now. We have a joint operation working with the U.S. Marshalls to recapture him.” He says exasperated.
“So you have no leads yet?” I ask still trying to probe and I can hear the resolve in his voice fading.
“All right look, he broke from a prison transfer early yesterday morning. It was well organized and they had to have access to information that only our agency had, so now there is an internal investigation into the Bureau.” He says angrily. An inside job I think disgusted.
“So if I’m caught giving you this information I’m in the firing line,” He tells me and I sigh. “However,” he adds, “I’m not about to let an agent with your reputation be left out in the cold when his life may be in danger.”
“What do you mean?” I ask seriously.
“He escaped a little over twenty-four hours ago in a well-organized and informed operation. We waited until the last minute to inform the press, which I believe to be a mistake. There is a nation-wide manhunt going on but, I think he left the country.” He tells me before continuing, “Harris you have to know that Viktor Nolikov is dangerous and bent on revenge. He’s not said a word to help his case at all, the only thing he has said since he was taken into custody is that he will destroy those who destroyed his family.”
“He shot his own father in the back of the head Agent Greenberg, and I am well aware of the threat he poses.” I confirm.
“He’s lost his mind, he has no rational thought in his head, only revenge.” He says and a face appears in my mind, and image of a battered and broken Ruby.
“What about the asset in witness protection?” I demand.
“The Marshalls on her detail were notified to be on the lookout, but they’ve assured us that she is well protected.” He says with the dissention dripping from his voice at his apparent lack of respect for the U.S. Marshalls. My mind falls instantly into its old programming as I start to put pieces of the puzzle together.
“Has Agent Denton been notified, he is on a deep cover mission?” I ask all business now as I start to think of my priorities.
“His handler has left word for him to check in, but we haven’t heard back from him yet.”
My heart almost stops when I remember the doctor in New Orleans, he knows where Ruby and I are. He may have believed that we would’ve moved on by now but if Viktor gets to that spineless bastard before I do? I have to think how to word this,
“You should put someone on Dr Nikolai Dureski of Tulane University Hospital in New Orleans, he always helped the Nolikov family off the books. If Viktor is in need of medical attention he may seek him out. Put men you trust personally on to it.” I need to buy time until I can reach the doctor and decide if he is a threat to Ruby’s safety or not.
Viktor will be deterred by the detail on the doctor or in the best case scenario, apprehended by them.
“That’s good information, I’ll set it up.” Greenberg assures me.
“Please understand that I’m unofficially joining the manhunt,” I tell him firmly.
“I’m just updating your status now to ‘specialist operation’ with me as your supervising contact. If you find him you call me directly, not the Bureau or the police. We need him recaptured without the potential for his contacts to help him escape again.”
“Thank you,” I tell him gratefully.
“Stay safe Harris.” I hear before I hang up the phone and start dialling another number.
“Yes I need a seat on your next flight to New Orleans.” I say urgently.
“Yes of course sir,” I hear the helpful reply, “now I don’t have anything direct but I do have a connection going through JFK, from Madison Wisconsin, to New Orleans Louisiana.”
“That’s fine, I’m also going to need to charter a flight from Ashland to Madison can you organize that within the next hour?” I ask demandingly.
“Of course sir, but a last minute charter in this weather will incur a fee of……”
“I don’t care about the fee, just have the plane ready to go on the tarmac in Ashland within the hour.” I say cutting her off. I start throwing a bag of things together and securing delicate information in case I don’t return as promptly as I plan to. After shooting a quick secure email to Joshua warning him of the threat, I throw my bag into the truck and head for the highway, I stop into the diner to explain myself to Ruby.
“I’m sorry,” I say in a rush, “something urgent has come up and I have to leave town for a day or so.”
“Are you alright, can I do anything to help?” She asks still concerned and confused at my expression of ice coldness. I need to be in the right frame of mind for this hunt and I can’t let my overwhelming feelings for her put her in danger. As I stand here looking at her worried face I soften my expression and gently caress her face trying to memorize it, I muster the most reassuring smile I can for her, then leave.
I reach Ashland in less than a half hour and I’m pleased to find my plane waiting for me as the ground crew are trying to clear the snow from the tarmac around the plane. We get underway urgently and make good time to Madison despite the head wind. I make my plane and before I know it I’m at JFK. I hurry through to find my connection ignoring the usual glares from people at my face.
On the plane to New Orleans I marvel at the comparison to my first flight there more than a year ago. My nervous energy about starting another undercover assignment, having no idea what I was getting myself into. After meeting Ruby and the way she changed my life I now know that I will do whatever it takes to protect her, even if that means eliminating the good doctor I’m on my way to see.
I hope that I will be able to convince him into a protective custodial sentence until Viktor Nolikov is recaptured, but I have a feeling my convincing will have to be the brutal kind. I land at Louis Armstrong airport and hail a cab to take me directly to the hospital. As I walk through the emergency room doors, I find the place chaotic enough to slip pass the intake nurse.
As I search the familiar halls looking for Dr Dureski I bump into someone else.
“Hey darlin’,” she says with a beaming smile, “what are you doing here? I thought Ruby moved away.” I take Georgia firmly by the arms and stare at her intently.
“Georgia have you seen the news?” I ask a little too harshly.
“I’m at the tail end of a thirty hour shift,” She explains drearily. Poor Georgia, she was only a nurse doing her job with Dr Dureski and she helped Ruby and I last year and I will be eternally grateful.
“You need to get out of New Orleans,” I instruct her carefully. “Viktor Nolikov broke out of prison and he could be on his way here.” Her face floods with fear, she can remember the condition Viktor repeatedly put Ruby in, not to mention anyone else who ever went up against him.
“I’ll go now, to my Aunt in Atlanta.” She says making a snap decision.
“Tell no one else where you’re going, Do you have any family in the city?”
“No, it’s just me and my cat Louis,” She explains. I let her go and she turns back to me,
“Thank you for warning me.” She smiles weakly.
“Go,” I tell her. She’s half turned when she pauses thoughtfully.
“Wait, I haven’t seen the doctor all day.” Georgia informs me and I know which doctor she means. I send her away with a reassuring nod and continue my search for him.
I find him in his office swimming in a bottle of whisky, I shake my head at him in disgust.
“So you’re the one they sent to kill me,” Dr Dureski stammers. I fix him with a dark glare and swipe the bottle off the desk and it shatters against the wall, the amber liquid cascading down to the floor.
“I’m not here to kill you,” I snarl at him though clearly my tone suggests that notion is flexible. “You’re a danger to be left out in the open.” I tell him darkly.
“I swear I haven’t told the authorities anything,” he blubbers starting to cry. I do nothing to ease his terror, I need him afraid.
“Well you’re about to,” I tell him wickedly, “I’m taking you into protective custody until the recapture of Viktor Nolikov.”
“You’re not a fed,” he spits defiantly, “I’ve seen you with those monsters, you’re not fooling me.”
“Regardless of your beliefs doctor, I am here to make sure nothing happens to you. You are privy to sensitive information that Viktor can’t have.”
“You mean where his girl is hiding?” He asks knowingly and he seems to be gathering some reserve of bravery. “I can tell you where she is if you spare me.” He offers boldly.
“That kind of talk will make me change my mind about killing you,” I hiss threateningly as I grab him by his throat pulling him up from his chair. I grab the back of his shirt and march him forcefully from his office, leading him to the stairs that access the roof top. His begging and blubbering forces me to consider ending his life, he would talk give half a chance and then she’d be in danger.
We’re along on the roof and he drops to his knees by the ledge still pleading for me to spare his miserable life. In another life I wouldn’t even hesitate removing a threat to my mission objective, but now I would have to live with the consequences of telling Ruby her safety was bought with the blood of this man. While I could live with the guilt she could never, and I refuse to lie to her.
I pull him up to his feet and stare him down. “You are going into protective custody doctor, and if you so much as breath a word about this little chat or Ruby’s whereabouts, no amount of protection will save you from me bringing you back here and throwing you over.” I tell him with a menacing resolution soaking my words.
As I let him cry his terror out some more on his knees I see in indistinct black sedan arrive in the emergency driveway of the hospital and two guys in suits jump from the car and enter the building. Right on time I think of the two feds sent to guard the doctor. I grab the doctor by the scruff of the neck and lead him back into the building. We meet the feds in the hallway just outside his office and they draw their weapons towards me.
“I’m Agent Harris,” I declare flashing my badge towards them and they lower their weapons.
People are scattering away from us screaming as they see the guns. Which I don’t understand, if I’m going to be shot, I would definitely prefer to be in a hospital when it happens.
“Good news gentlemen,” I start explaining, “Dr Dureski here has just agreed to protective custody, he’s all yours.” I let go of him pushing him towards the two agents and they take a hold of him securely. He looks back at me confused and I shoot him a foreboding glare.
“Wait?” The Doctor says as they try to lead him away, “you really are a fed?”
I just look at him without answering his question. “He’s going to kill you,” he says warningly to me and I just shrug. The agents lead him away and I set about searching his office for any information that could lead to Ruby’s whereabouts. After a lengthy search I’m satisfied that he did send me the only hard copy of her medical file and he didn’t keep a record of my address anywhere.
Then I find the fax log printed next to the machine in his office and I see the Wisconsin area code dated at the end of November. It’s a long shot for that to lead him to her but I destroy it anyway. I won’t leave any risk, after wiping his computer hard drives completely I leave the office. I decide hire a car to take a quick swing by ‘The Red Fox’ and a few other place Viktor may be hiding in the city, just in case.
After searching his usual haunts and scouring through the deserted bar wreckage for any clues, I’m satisfied that Viktor isn’t in the city. I take a detour past my old house on the way back to the airport and find it just as secure as when I left it. The cold night air casts a haunted look over the old house and the wind makes the porch swing creek eerily. I make my way into the house to collect some of Ruby’s more personal items, photos and the like. I still have her suitcase that she packed the night of the take down, it travelled halfway around the country with me and now it’s waiting for her in my home back in Wisconsin.
Perhaps these may help her memory of her life, even though it isn’t much I think she’ll be happy to have her personal belongings back again. I pack the bag carefully and rearm the house alarms as I leave. I get back to the airport and book passage back to Madison. My flight is going to connect through Atlanta this time and I’m anxious to get back to Ruby after being apart from her again. I regret leaving her alone even for a moment and it’s now approaching almost twenty- four hours as I wait for my delayed connection in Atlanta airport.
After a few hours delay an announcement comes over informing us that all flights into Madison Wisconsin are cancelled due to a snow storm there. My head rolls back on my neck heavy with regret. I wait at the counter with the other angry travellers trying to re-organize their travel plans, but my heart is thumping so loudly in my chest that I can hardly hear the angry exchanges.
“Please,” I beg desperately with the sound of ringing echoing in my ears, “I need to get back to her.” I’m sweating profusely regardless of the cold temperature and I feel almost faint with a worrying sickness twisting in my gut.
“I’m sorry sir but Madison airport will be closed for at least the next twenty-four hours, this is a bad snow storm.” A polite regret filled young girl tells me. My mind can barely function through the thickness of a worried fog filling it. “But perhaps we can get you close and you can take another transport from there,” she offers and my faith is people’s inherent goodness is renewed with these words.
She starts typing furiously on her keyboard and looks dismayed by the first few results then she seems to be figuring something out.
“Okay,” she tells me, “We’re out of luck with anything in Minnesota or Michigan, but I have a flight that is leaving for Chicago, Illinois in twenty-five minutes from gate twenty-nine.”
“I’ll take it,” I say grasping at the life preserver she’s throwing to me.
“Great, now do you have any checked luggage I need to redirect for you?” She asks politely and I shake my head at her. She smiles as she prints out my new boarding pass. I run my hand over my face trying to physically remove to worry and stress from it.
“Thank you very much,” I tell her gratefully as I take the boarding pass from her. She points me in the direction of the gate and I take off at run.
I reach the gate in a few minutes so I dial for a rental car place at the Chicago airport. I know the driving time is not ideal but it’s better than waiting for another flight into Madison then another five hour drive from there to Bayfield, at least the forward momentum will make me feel better. Before I shut my phone off on the plane I check the voicemail, I hear Ruby’s sweet concerned voice on the line.
“Hi Mason, I just wanted to check that you’re really alright. You’ve been such a good friend in taking care of me, so please know I’m here for you if you need anything at all. Okay that’s all I really wanted to say apart from take care. I’ll see you soon.”
I shut my phone off after a stern look from a flight attendant and I settle in my seat comforted by Ruby’s voicemail message. After my flight and driving straight through the night and well into the day I finally reach the beautiful sight of Bayfield. The rental car screams to a halt in the diner car park and I burst into the diner. Leon sees me and tells me,
“She’s not here, she has another date tonight. But she has the dinner shift tomorrow.”
“Thanks,” I say as I leave the diner and head for her house. I just need to see her. I pull up in the driveway and admire the sunset colours painting the sky over Lake Superior. Kida bounds from the back of the house and towards my truck at high speed and I grab her in a hug as the force of her knocks me on my butt.
Ruby’s laughter floats down to us from the back porch as she tries to call Kida off me. I smile as I see her,
“Hi.” Is all I say and my happiness is indescribable as she reaches down to help me off the ground. As I get to my feet I announce, “I’m back.”
“Obviously,” she laughs and wraps her arms around the back of my neck and pulls my into a warm embrace. I hold on for too long but I don’t care I’m just so happy to be in her arms.
I let go and step back towards my truck before I crumble in her grip.
“Don’t you want some coffee or something?” She asks me curiously amused.
“No, I just wanted to let you know I was back, and now I have.” I tell her smiling like a fool as I jump into the driver’s seat. “Have a good night,” I call as I back out of the driveway.
“Okay crazy man,” she calls back laughing and shaking her head.
Back in my cottage I’m overcome with a sense of joy. The way she looked at me before is as familiar to me as the look she has when she’s hiding something. Ruby is starting to fall for me again. My ringing phone breaks my revelry and I recognise the number of Agent Greenberg, he must be calling to thank me for the tip about the Doctor.
“Hello,” I answer.
“Harris its Greenberg.” I hear the solemn voice on the other end of the line. Maybe he called to lecture me, I may have over stepped my boundaries with the doctor. I silent wait for my scolding.
“I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news,” he says. Now I’m curious, I saw Ruby only an hour ago so I know she’s safe. What could possibly constitute bad news for me, maybe the Bureau is angry at my involvement with the manhunt. “I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this,” he chokes on the words and a solid lump forms in the pit of my stomach.
“Agent Joshua Denton was found dead, not far from his assignment location earlier today.” The words feel like a sledge hammer coming down on my heart as I try to remember to breathe.
“Was he compromised? Did the Columbians find him out?” I ask making no attempt to hide that fact I knew more about his assignment than I should.
“No, it looks like it was a Russian Mafia style hit.” Greenberg says without questioning my knowledge of things I shouldn’t know. I nearly drop the phone,
“Viktor,” I say the name like it’s a curse word. “How did he find him?” I demand coldly already knowing the answer.
“We believe that the same leak who helped with the prisoner transfer information allowing his escape also found out Agent Denton’s assignment location.” He confesses and starts cursing at the unknown leak. I remain silent as I listen to the rest of the information.
“I swear I’m going to find this leak and destroy them,” he swears. “I shouldn’t tell you this but he was tortured before he was killed, Viktor may have gotten your location out of him.” He informs me.
“Not a chance,” I snap viciously. Joshua would’ve known he was never going to walk away from an encounter with Viktor Nolikov and there is no possible way he would let his last action on this earth be the betrayal of me or Ruby.
“Just be alert Harris, Nolikov made it to Columbia in record time judging by the coroner’s estimation of time of death. Just tell me if you’d prefer a protective detail.”
“No,” I tell him sternly now knowing that if Viktor is fool enough to come for me or Ruby, I’m going to kill him. “What about the Marshalls on the witness?” I ask urgently.
“We’ve been told to handle our own business and they’ll handle theirs, but they have been fully updated.” He spits repulsively. I can’t believe they would let inter-department rivalry put someone’s life in danger. I swallow back the disgust. “Agent Denton’s body is being shipped home to his family in Colorado for burial, I’ll email you the details. Know that we will have full force out for the funeral in case it’s a trap.” Greenberg says.
I won’t leave Ruby again, but nor do I want my friend to be buried in the cemetery of the family who cast him out. He was more family to me than them in just the short time we knew each other. “I have to go,” is all I say as I hang up the phone. I can’t sit here and discuss a military honours style funeral service with someone.
I turn on the front porch light and grab my axe and load up as much wood as I can into the truck and drive to Ruby’s in a blind fury. She’s not home and I recall that she’s out on another date. I start splitting the wood repeatedly trying to chop away the pain and rage brewing inside my chest. It’s starting to snow but I hardly notice, I can hear Kida scratching at the inside of the cabin door desperate to get out.
The cold night air is twisting and binding around my body and I can barely chop straight with the trembling of my entire body. I don’t know how long I’ve been out here when the headlights of Ruby’s car illuminate me. What a sight I must be— something straight out of Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’— but I don’t stop or even slow down. I hear her footsteps come slowly towards me crunching in the snow as she walks.
“Mason,” she says softly, “what are you doing?” I drop the axe at her words not wanting to startle her, but the action frightens her I can see it on her face. My brave Ruby, she doesn’t back away or turn away from me. I look into her eyes and let the agony in mine reach out to her. Her eyes well with tears as she looks at me, “please tell me what to do?” She pleads as she steps closer to me.
I drop to my knees as she approaches me and I wrap my arms around her waist when she’s within reach. I grasp her tightly and bury my face into the top of her baby bump. This is the closest I’ve been to my baby since I found out about it but my grief won’t let me enjoy the moment. Ruby’s arms wrap tightly around the top of my shoulders and around the back of my head as she leans down and kisses me lightly on the top of my head. And I just let it all out.