Six caskets of mahogany dressed with the American flag sat patiently in a remote warehouse outside of Quantico, Virginia, the silence deafening as Special Agent Vance Deveraux stood with his eyes closed and pain in every feature.
“Don’t you get it, Vance?” Director Jones darkly asked, his suit as firmly pressed as his tone. “Seven men go in, six come out in body bags. A threat to national security, and you to the opposite of your single job. We gave your team everything you needed to stop that bomb from going off in D.C. with plenty of time to cover your bases and get the hell out of there.”
“No, you don’t get to speak,” Jones interrupted. “You get to listen. You get to listen to their families and their loved ones. You get that guilt, forever. In life, people make mistakes, but not in the way you did. If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought you did it on purpose. That bomb didn’t need to blow. You weren’t ambushed, you weren’t set back. In fact, your team was ahead of schedule. Yet you still lost the mission and they lost their lives.”
Vance felt like he could barely breath, his face grim as his green eyes held back tears.
Director Malcolm Jones, as aged as his view on life, walked a distance from Vance, resting a hand on the coffin containing what was known to be left of his own son. His shallow grey eyes soon found the lone survivor once more, rage burrowing deep inside his heart. “You’re lucky we’re not pending further investigation. I could have you out of the FBI in seconds for this, I hope you know that.”
“I know, sir, and I’m very thankful to keep my job.” Vance kept his facade as best as he could, trying not to let his self hate show too boldly through the ensemble of chiseled features that composed his face.
“A job within the FBI, yes, but you’re no longer with counter-terrorism unit.” The Director dismissed eye contact with the dark haired agent, looking along the caskets that were waiting to be buried. “You’ll be transferred to the Los Angeles Field Office with criminal investigation, working cold cases. You’ll keep your special agent status, but hopefully you won’t be able to do any harm from behind a desk. I’ve already set everything with Dorian, the office head there, and you’ll be under strict watch.”
Vance’s lips parted, surprise taking over his expression. “But, sir-”
“You are in no place to argue,” Jones quickly retorted. “You have a flight booked to LAX in two hours, all of your belongings have been packed and sent on their way.” Removing a boarding pass from his gray suit jacket, he held it out to the agent he once treated like a son. “Take it and get out of my sight.”
The agent hesitantly took the slip from Director Jones’ grasp, eyes wary as he searched for any way to make amends. “Is there anything I can say, sir?”
“Yes,” he replied. “You can say goodbye.”
Briefly closing his eyes, Vance did just that.
Jones’ face held no expression, his own thoughts lost to any who looked upon him. “Not to me. To them.”
The Director’s fingers lightly touched his forehead, blessing the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit before leaving the side of his son’s coffin and walking past Deveraux without a word. His phone buzzed idly, Malcolm immediately putting the device to his ear. “Jo, are the two of you here?”
Vance jumped as the warehouse door slammed behind him, left alone with those he’d killed. His heart throbbed with sorrow, still gripping to ticket to California as his eyes flickered across the caskets that held only pieces of great men. His men, his brothers.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered before turning towards the door and only stopping to look one last time before he’d leave Virginia, shunned by the head of the FBI.
The stuffy aroma of the Reagan National Airport swelled around Vance Deveraux as he made his way through the extensive terminals, less than twenty minutes until he had to board his flight across the country. He carried only his briefcase, all that was left for him to take after everything else had been cleared out and shipped to California.
Vance checked the watch face on the inside of his wrist, looking like a secret agent whether he meant to or not. He turned his head, catching a glimpse of a well stocked bookstore. “Thank God,” he lowly expressed as he moved his way through a thicket of travelers, desperate for literature beyond taxi ad pamphlets. When they packed everything, it included his books.
Although blocking only a slight trace of the bustling airport terminal, inside the plethora of books, it was mildly calmer. Various passengers paced through, the coffee scented premise hoping to drown their extensive layovers in words.
“Can I help you find anything, sir?” A petite woman in red at the counter noticed Vance’s arrival, curious to why he looked so unprepared to be flying.
“No, no thank you. Just looking for something to read,” Vance quickly dismissed with a wave of his hand, his hamartia to push people away to avoid as many questions as possible.
Carol, however, took books quite seriously.
Stepping from around her post at the tell, she joined Vance with a warm smile. “You never want to get stuck with a bad book when you’re 14,000 feet up, now do you?”
Vance offered a fairly faked laugh, scratching his brow as he spoke. “I guess not, no.”
“What kind of novels interest you, handsome?” Carol instead gave him no time to answer, “Oh I bet I can guess! Murder mysteries?”
Although hesitating, he assumed it was the world making fun of him for his new position in criminal investigation instead of his well loved counter-terrorism unit. “Right on the nose,” he lied. “You got me.” He had always been more of a Fitzgerald man himself.
“More like who done it,” she joked with a little wiggle of her shoulders, one every aunt in the world did on impulse. “Follow me, we just received a new shipment of her latest.”
“Whose latest?” Vance’s eyebrows knitted together momentarily, following the small figure of Carol over to a colorful display.
“If you like murder mysteries, then you have to know who Stella St. Laurens is.”
Vance softly shook his head with a light lift of his shoulder, “I guess I’m not as invested.”
“Trust me, you’ll love her.” Carol picked up a copy of Where The Willow Waits before glancing back to Vance. “How long is your flight, dear?”
“About six hours,” the special agent replied coolly, it the most civilian interaction he’d come across in nearly five months. “Maybe less if I’m lucky.”
“Perfect, then you can treat yourself to two of her novels.” Carol snagged Mummy Dearest of the shelf next to the St. Laurens display, “This one’s my favorite. You’ll be captured by every word, I promise.”
Vance couldn’t argue, tight on time and going out on a whim to trust her. “Alright, sounds good to me.”
“Is there anything else I can help you with, gorgeous?” Carol brightly asked as they wandered back to the register, not even bothering to hand the chosen books to Vance before ringing them up.
Fishing for his wallet from the pocket of his dark slacks, he began to shake his head before sliding a bag of gummy worms onto the counter.
Carol laughed, agreeing with the choice as she scanned them. “Do you need a bag?”
Vance declined as he held out his credit card to her, “I can put them in my briefcase, I’m fine.”
“Enjoy your flight,” she warmly said, finalizing the sale and returning his card. “And more importantly, enjoy those books.”
Thanking her on his way out of the bookstore, Vance merged back into the crowd once he’d secured the books and candy in his brown leather briefcase. He didn’t blend with the loosely dressed travelers, his suit sticking out like a sore thumb and the click of his designer oxfords louder than those of worn out sneakers.
“Now boarding flight 2365 to Los Angeles, all groups welcome to board.”
Vance picked up his pace slightly, only a few gates down as the message came over the terminal speakers. Sliding into the massive line of people, he soon found himself admitted into the business cabin of the jumbo jet. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d been on a commercial plane. His life had been choppers and private jets under fire since he stepped out of the Academy.
The special agent shimmied out of his jacket, making an effort to look as least disheveled as possible as he loosened his tie enough just to relax. He ran a hand through dark hair that laid as it wanted to, reaching for the brand new print of Where The Willow Waits before settling back into his seat. Sighing to himself as he tried to ignore the guilt in his heart, he flipped the paperback over in his hands to read the simple synopsis that Carol had failed to share with him before pressuring him to buy it.
In an attempt to make a name for herself in Hollywood, Bridget Wilson comes across a job that might do her more harm than good. Backed by an agent who pushes for any acting gigs at all, young Wilson steps on set that’s more sinister than it seems…
Vance’s eyes traced down below the synopsis, momentarily questioning why there was no image of the author to join the vague description of Stella St. Laurens.
If Bridget was so intent on seeking fame, then why wasn’t Stella?