Masen and Swan: Good Times in the Big Easy
AN: (Gleena) Well, it's been four months, but we've finally finished another Masen and Swan episode. If this is your first, this story can stand alone, but we highly recommend reading "The FBI's Most Unwanted" and "In the Windy City" first. We didn't quite make it to Phoenix in this episode, but I think you'll like the other places we went. What do you think, ebhg?
AN: (ebhg) I certainly had fun with this one- I'd say it's worth the wait! I think it's my favorite episode yet;) We'll be seeing Phoenix eventually, but I don't think Swan is quite ready for the Valley of the Sun yet.
On another note- Gleena, Justine Lark, and I are hosting an anniversary contest- there are links on all of our profiles to the challenge info. We're now accepting contest entries, until November 30. We'd love to have your Twilight-anniversary-themed one-shot!
Disclaimer. Stephenie Meyer is the owner of Twilight characters; Chris Carter is the creator of the X-files. We own nothing related to either, and we make no profit from the work here (quite the opposite, in fact).
Masen walked slowly through the crowded club. He was actively looking for someone, but that completely fit his cover. He wore a black short-sleeved button down in an awful fabric that had a shine to it, and dark wash jeans. He had not been permitted to pick out his own clothes.
"You can look like you're having a good time," said a tinny voice in his ear. He obediently started smirking. The bleached-blonde he was facing when he started smiling returned the expression with a very predatory yet hopeful look on her face. He swiveled his head quickly, hoping she would realize she was not his target. He had already politely declined two offers to get a drink and, less politely, a third to go someplace quieter.
The bass pounding was shaking the whole club, and Masen hoped he wouldn't end up with a splitting headache before the end of the night. Even in college, the club scene was not his favorite, and now, at the ripe old age of 28, he felt ridiculously out of place. The women – girls, really, as far as he was concerned – in the club didn't seem to agree. Unfortunately for them, he had a specific goal.
"She doesn't appear to be in the bar area. You're going to have to go through the dance floor." He wanted to sigh, but instead headed out to the crowded floor. Just as he approached, the DJ announced it was time for the midnight eighties hour, and the lights started going crazy. The opening song was the B-52's "Underneath the Strobe Light," and the lights began strobing, giving him an eerie view of the approaching dancers.
"There's a redhead about 12 feet forward and 8 feet to the left," said the voice in his ear.
A different voice broke in. "Be careful, Masen." Swan was in the surveillance van, probably biting her lip. His smirk changed briefly to a crooked smile, and then he saw her.
"That's it, you've spotted her!"
The redhead turned in his direction and smiled back at him. A shiver went down his back at the coldness in her blue eyes, but he let her have his best smirk. The redhead approached him slowly, the strobe effect making her appear and disappear, then reappear a step or two closer. She was wearing a red leather top that kept her midriff bare and jeans that were painted on. She also wore knee-length black stiletto boots. She was the epitome of the girl his mother warned him about.
"Dance?" he asked when they were close enough.
"Definitely," she purred back. This was going well; his job was to find her and then get her to take him to her place. They needed to find where she was living.
"Nice job Masen, keep her diverted. Remember, you're exactly her type."
Masen focused on the redhead's eyes, trying to convey a seductiveness he did not feel. Her hand snaked out to his chest.
"Mm. Perfect," she pronounced.
Masen felt arms grab him from both sides and then a caught sweetish smell. He had enough time to think "Not again," and then "Hmm. Halothane." Everything went black.
Five days previously, Washington, D.C.
"Masen, you didn't even consider it!"
"That's because it's out of the question. I am not in any way, shape or form going to Phoenix, unless it is at the special request of the Federal Bureau of Investigation!" Masen didn't add that he'd had a week to consider this; he'd been expecting this maneuver since Swan had opened the envelope.
"This note obviously came from someone who knows something- I can't just let go of a potential lead like that," Swan said earnestly.
"Swan, you have nothing to go on! It's just an anonymous typed note. Anyone could have sent it to you, and I'm not following you across the country on another imaginary case!"
"This is hardly imaginary," Swan said defensively. Masen realized his blunder too late.
"I apologize Swan, that was an uncouth thing for me to say," he admitted. He was tempted to pull her into his arms and comfort her with his touch instead of his words. A knock at the door pulled him from his musings just as he made a move to envelop her in his arms. He turned to the door instead and saw the same intern from the previous week that had delivered the letter which had sparked his argument with Swan.
"Agents? Assistant Director Dermis would like to see you…he's waiting for you in his office," she said, her eyes darting between Masen and Swan. Masen turned to his partner, once again startled by how very close they were standing. When had they gotten so close together? He asked himself. The intern observing them must think them to be extremely inappropriate as partners. Chagrined, Masen looked over to the interrupting woman once more, only to find that her eyes quickly darted upwards to meet his own. He felt his face redden as he realized where her eyes had been a moment before. He turned back to Swan in time to see her raising her eyebrow in a scowl at the woman before Swan carefully rearranged her expression and cleared her throat.
"Thanks…" Swan trailed off, waiting for the woman to supply her name.
"Thank you, Holly, we'll be right there," Swan finished in a clear dismissal. Masen watched Swan's face turn expressionless once more before she turned to him and he realized that he was smirking at her.
"What?" she asked.
"Nothing, Swan, nothing at all…" Masen said with a small chuckle.
Ten minutes later, Masen and Swan found themselves sitting across the desk from their direct superior. Masen tried not to think about the last time he and Swan had been in this exact position. His ears still rang at the recollection of that particular meeting.
Dermis looked imposing even behind his desk; his toned physique and impressive height were obvious even while seated. His round glasses reflected his computer screen, though Swan could just make out his steely eyes. He gave a disapproving look at Masen's hair; its unruliness was the only point of conflict between Dermis and the usually conformist Masen. Swan wasn't certain if it was because Dermis believed Masen's hair to be unfitting for an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or if he was indignant that Masen still had hair to speak of, while Dermis's head was nearly bald.
At first meeting, Swan had thought that Masen wore his hair in the style he did as a form of subtle rebellion. After seeing more than one childhood photo of Masen while in Chicago, Swan had come to the conclusion that unruly was the only style Masen's hair was capable of. Even Masen's attempt at a close-cropped style had seemed an utter failure. Who knew one person could have so many cowlicks...Swan mentally shook herself from her ponderings and forced herself back into the moment.
"Agents…" AD Dermis began. He sat behind his desk, eyeing the pair of them with a shrewd eye. "I take it that your leave was well spent?" he asked. Masen shifted in his seat, unsure of how to explain exactly how and why he and Swan had become involved in the Chicago case. Imaginary case, he reminded himself. Though the knot on the back of his head had been very real.
"Yes, sir…" Swan replied. "Chicago was very nice. I had a very well received lecture series there." Swan refrained from adding the detail that the success was hardly related to the subject matter of the lecture. Dr. Cleavage's grimace at the end of the final lecture had been worth the whole trip though.
"Masen…you were in Chicago too, were you not?"
"Yes, sir…my mother and father live there," he quickly explained.
"I trust that the two of you stayed out of trouble?" AD Dermis asked.
"Yes, sir," Masen and Swan immediately chorused together. Dermis scowled at the instant response that his agents had so readily given. Swan never could stay out of trouble, Dermis thought.
"I trust that you're both ready for an official case then? No ex-boyfriends or family-owned property involved."
Masen and Swan both gaped at AD Dermis.
"Two off-duty FBI agents reporting a body under suspicious circumstances doesn't exactly stay under the radar," he said pointedly.
"I hope that you two can take this case and actually stay out of trouble this time?" Dermis pushed a brown file folder across the desk to them. Masen and Swan both reached for it at the same time, but Masen's reach was longer, and he reached it first.
"New Orleans, Sir?" Masen asked at the same time Swan asked, "Voodoo?"
"I believe it was called murder the last time I was in the field, of course you two may have a different take on that," Dermis said. "Don't disappoint me, agents," he said in clear dismissal. Masen and Swan wasted no time returning to their office to plan for their travel.
Four days previously, New Orleans.
Masen and Swan deplaned and were immediately hit with a wall of hot, humid air. Swan's hair poufed out instantly; Masen felt perspiration bead up on his temples.
"Where to first?" asked Masen politely as they headed to baggage claim following the obligatory trip to the restrooms.
"I think I need to freshen up," said Swan. She was used to wet -- no one could live in Forks, Washington, without developing some duck-like qualities -- but the heat was making her wilt. "Maybe check-in and then a visit to the locals?"
"Fine by me," responded Masen agreeably. He thought that it might be the longest they had ever spoken without a disagreement.
As they approached baggage claim, two tall men headed in their direction. Masen immediately took a protective stance by Swan as they continued forward. The blond walking towards them smiled in a friendly way, pulling a badge from his front pocket. "Relax, agents, we're the welcome wagon. Detective Devereaux." Devereaux spoke with what Swan hoped was an exaggerated Cajun accent, although a teeny part of her was reminded of Dennis Quaid in "The Big Easy" and the way he danced with Ellen Barkin.
"I'm Detective Marquette," added in the second man, putting a hand out for Swan to shake. Swan was slightly taken aback as he gave her a mesmerizing look and a charming smile while holding her hand firmly. Marquette was tall, lean, and a beautiful shade of chocolate brown. His eyes, though, were a startling blue-grey.
"Special Agent Edward Masen," said Masen curtly.
"Special Agent Isabella Swan," said Swan. "Is it always this hot here?" She began fanning herself with the hand Marquette had finally released.
"You get used to it," laughed Marquette. "Let me help you with your baggage, Agent Swan."
"I've got it," Masen interrupted. The heat was making him a little cranky, and he resolved to try to relax. Or at least not be rude.
A few moments later, the detectives ushered the agents into an unmarked car, explaining there was urgent business related to the case and the rental car would be picked up for them by staff.
"Why the personal service, detectives?" Swan had waited until they were in the privacy of the car to ask for details.
"Another body was found this morning," answered Devereaux with his lazy drawl. "We suspected you'd want to see the scene before it was released."
"Yes," agreed Marquette with a nod. "It had nothing to do with orders from our superiors whatsoever." Swan giggled at his friendly sarcasm, and Masen gave her a shocked look. He wasn't sure he'd ever heard Swan giggle.
"We read over the case file. Apparently your department requested a team with profiling experience, forensic skills and familiarity with unconventional situations," summarized Masen.
"I was assigned to a similar case involving Santeria down in Miami. I wasn't a lead agent, but I was heavily involved in interviewing the suspects," said Swan.
"Which one of you is a doctor?" asked Devereaux.
"I am," they both answered simultaneously. "She/He is, too," they continued in chorus. Swan and Masen eyed each other warily, and he motioned for her to speak first.
"Masen's a trained pathologist, but we both have Ph.D.'s as well," Swan finished.
"Lordy," said Marquette, turning in the front passenger seat to face Swan. "Beautiful, smart, and she carries a weapon. Just my type." He winked at Swan.
"Don't listen to him, Agent Swan. Marquette here is known as a player. I wouldn't want you in any trouble. If he bothers you, just come on over with Beau Devereaux." Detective Devereaux flashed her a smile in the rearview mirror. Masen tried to release his death grip on the door handle and unclench his jaw.
"Isabella and Beau. You two can't get together – you'll sound like a bad romance novel." Marquette smirked back at his partner.
Masen wondered when Swan was going to kick their butts for their unprofessional behavior. He cleared his throat. "Do you have any details about the scene?"
Detective Devereaux glanced up into the rear-view mirror at Masen with an appraising look.
"The body that was found this morning is the sixth in a series of murders that have been committed ever since February. As you saw in the case notes, every victim has been male, mid to late twenties, Caucasian with red hair. They have also been above average in the looks department."
"Shoot, Devereaux- for someone that didn't want to involve the Feds, you sure know how to cozy up! Of course, we don't usually get such lovely federal agents, Dr. Swan," Marquette said, turning in his seat once more to give Swan an eager smile. Masen ground his teeth and looked out the window.
"Agent Swan; she prefers Agent," Masen interjected. Swan cleared her throat indignantly. Masen looked at her incredulously. Both of them ended up looking out their windows.
"Is there anything else that ties these victims together, other than their general appearance?" Swan asked after a few silent minutes.
"Yes, actually," Marquette said, relived at the return of the conversation. "Every victim has had a stamp on their hand from a local club. It said BT, with one of those "at" symbols from the internet…"
"Do you know what club it belongs to?" Masen asked, giving up his perusal of the passing scenery.
"I've got it here. Took us a bit to figure out it was from a club. We thought it was a batting cage or a gym for a while. Since it looked like b-a-t. It was Bayou something," Marquette mused as he pulled out and flipped through his case notebook.
"Bayou at Twilight," Devereaux interjected. "Small-time kind of scene; not as popular as the ones closer to Bourbon Street."
"That's it. Good memory Dev." Marquette slipped his notepad away again.
"We'll have to warn you agents- this crime scene is pretty rough. ME's estimated time of death to have been about twelve hours ago, and they suspect the body has been in the woods for the majority of that time."
"We've seen worse; we can handle it," Swan said matter-of-factly. Masen snorted under his breath; he knew Swan had no stomach for the more gruesome investigations. She had refused to observe him performing an autopsy more than once. A sharp jab to his ribs reminded him that Swan didn't appreciate his finding humor in the situation.
"I am a pathologist; I'll be fine," he added, rubbing his ribs.
Devereaux gave the both of them a measuring glance before he gave a small nod and pulled off the road and into a more wooded area. The undergrowth between the trees was thick here; a combination of tall grass and small bushes wrapped with ivy vines rather than the ferns that so readily grew in the forests around Forks. The trees were hung with the grey, curly Spanish moss which formed a veil reaching down to touch the undergrowth.
After another quarter-mile, the trees and vines were so thick that they couldn't go any further. Devereaux pulled to a stop beside a Coroner's van and several other four-wheel-drive police vehicles. Marquette turned around in the passenger seat with a friendly smile and a nod before he stepped out of the car with a mirthful chuckle. "Hope you've got some good walking shoes, agents," he said.
Masen looked at Swan before they both looked down at their shoes. Swan grimaced as she took in her business casual leather flats; Masen wore his leather dress shoe typical of his FBI uniform of a suit and tie. Both of them stepped out of the car and instantly sank into the moist, squashy ground. Swan met Masen's eye over the roof of the car and they both wordlessly shrugged out of their suit coats, leaving their side-arms visible in their shoulder holsters.
Sloshing and slogging through the swampy forest after Marquette and Devereaux, Masen had to catch Swan more than once. Cypress knees poked up randomly under the cover of knee-high grass. The buzz of insects provided a droning auditory backdrop to their slow progress. Swan nearly lost a shoe in one particularly boggy area, but Masen leaned down and grasped her by the ankle and helped her pry her foot loose before he reached in with his other hand and pulled out her shoe.
It was then that he realized how small Swan's ankles were, and how smooth her skin was. It wasn't until he heard her clear her throat that he realized that he had been rubbing her ankle bone with his thumb.
"Ah, well, your ankle seems sound. Shall we?"
"Sure, sure, Masen."
A moment later, a small clearing came into view. Bright yellow crime scene tape marked off an area where the local police were congregated. Devereaux was deep in conversation already with a woman who was clearly in charge. Marquette looked over towards them with a smirk at their shoes and mud-splattered pants before waving them over.
"Chief Vicks, this is Special Agent Swan, and Special Agent Masen, from the FBI," Marquette introduced them.
"You're my profilers? I hope you're good because I am not going to listen to any more mumbo-jumbo. I want cold, hard facts."
Masen smiled at Chief Vicks, grateful for her straightforward nature.
"Pardon, Chief Vicks, but I was under the impression that my partner and I had been requested for our experience with the unusual?" Swan asked.
"Well, come take a look agents," she said, turning back around. "It doesn't get much stranger than this."
Masen and Swan raised their eyebrows at the chief's assumption. They had seen plenty of odd things. But this, Masen thought, was strange, very strange. The body was surrounded by a large circle of a white granulated substance. Swan bent to get a closer look before the ME noticed and grunted, "It's salt."
The medical examiner nodded at them as they approached the sheet-covered body; then he lifted the upper most corner nearest him. Swan immediately turned green and took a few steps back, covering her nose. Masen pulled a pair of latex gloves from his pocket and gloved up before squatting down and grasping the upper corner of the sheet on his side of the body.
Instantly he was intrigued. Not because of the condition of the body, that was to be expected after twelve hours in the swampy woodlands. White paint of some sort of chalky yet greasy material inscribed lines and seemingly nonsensical words over the man's bare torso. He still wore a pair of jeans, but the strangest thing of all was the mask placed over his face. It was bright green and yellow with large plumes of feathers concealing the upper portion of his head.
"May I?" Masen questioned the medical examiner while he gestured towards the mask. The ME shrugged and said, "Sure."
Masen reached down and grasped the top edge of the mask and slowly pulled upwards on it. The only thing Masen saw was a shock of bright red hair; then he released the mask and stood up when Chief Vick's voice broke the relative silence of the clearing.
"Yesterday you didn't want any Federal involvement, now you're suggesting this?"
"I've changed my mind. I think this is our best bet," Detective Devereaux said confidently. Marquette looked at his partner with a confused expression. Swan knew already that Devereaux was not the type to accept outside help; his partner's confusion wasn't unusual.
"What do you mean? What's our best bet?" Swan interjected only slightly restrained in her suspicion.
"Merely that we think we've found our point-man for our stakeout," Vicks said, not backing down in the face of potential Federal interference.
"Meaning?" Masen asked.
"You, Agent Masen," Vicks stated.
"Absolutely not!" Swan burst out. Everyone's eyes were on her in an instant. "We came to offer our expertise in unusual situations and forensic profiling. We didn't come to be bait!"
"There was no 'we' there Swan," Masen argued. He had been wary of the prospect at first; it had been some time since he last went undercover. But Swan's sudden and uncharacteristic desire to stay in the box had him curious.
"Masen- you're still on psych review from the last time you were abducted! I don't think the board will approve of your doing this!"
Masen raised both eyebrows to his hairline. When did Swan object on behalf of the psych panel? Suddenly, Masen felt bold, and ready to prove himself.
"I'll do it," he agreed, ignoring Swan's open-mouthed expression of shock.
As Masen assisted the medical examiner in bagging the body, Swan called the rental agency to have a car delivered to them at the scene so that Marquette and Devereaux could get back to the station. By the time they left the crime scene, the sun was setting. Masen had arranged to attend the autopsy, and Swan was heading to NOPD headquarters to review the collected evidence from previous scenes. Unfortunately, neither of them had eaten since breakfast, a fact which relieved Masen to no end. Swan without food at a crime scene was cranky. Swan with food at a murder scene was...queasy at best.
"Just stop at a McDonald's or something," begged Swan. She was sweaty, dirty, tired, itchy from bug bites, and hungry. She was having fantasies about being in a dirty public restroom and running cold water over her face. Cold, delightful, wet water.
"We could check into the hotel and grab a quick bite at the bar or something," suggested Masen. "You could freshen up a little."
"What are you implying?" she snapped. Swan popped the sunshade down and looked in the mirror. Her makeup was completely gone. Her hair was…there were just no words for what her hair was doing. Her eyes cut over to Masen who was silent and pursing his lips as though holding back a retort. She wondered if she could surreptitiously sniff herself – she knew she couldn't smell good at this point. Masen's hair was damp at his temples and wildly disarranged, but he looked much less wilted. And the hair made him look sexier rather than just rumpled, she noted objectively. It was part of her job to be dispassionately observant. Masen had also loosened his tie, and that was saying a lot for him. Still, she was annoyed that he looked as unruffled as he did.
After a few tense moments, Masen decided to try again. "So, is that a 'no' to the hotel?" What was up with her today? She had practically bitten his head off over the undercover situation, but what could possibly be the emotional content of checking in to their hotel? He simply wanted her to be comfortable.
"Let's just stop at a restaurant," Swan answered, trying to sound less cranky and failing miserably. "The sooner we finish all this the sooner we can be in bed. I mean in beds, plural. You know what I mean."
When Masen pulled into a McDonald's, Swan almost cried when she realized she'd have to put her jacket back on over her weapon – she was so moist and sticky that she didn't think she could stand an extra layer. She rushed straight for the restroom and turned the cold water on full blast and came as close as she dared to bathing in the scummy sink. For once, heaven had smiled upon her and there were real paper towels to use instead of the inefficient hot air blower device. She whipped out her hair brush and coaxed her hair into something resembling a bun, then applied lipstick. The rest was a wash, but she figured she looked less like a drowned rat and more like Special Agent Isabella Swan again.
A cheeseburger later, she felt more like Special Agent Isabella Swan. Masen watched in amusement as she sighed around a French fry.
"Hungry?" he asked.
"You have no idea," she gushed. "This tastes better than anything I've eaten in weeks."
Feeling less cranky after their meal, Masen dropped Swan off at the modern-looking headquarters fronted by oak trees and headed for the morgue. The unusual condition of the body suggested that answers weren't going to be easy to find.
When Swan entered police headquarters, she waited at the front for Marquette or Devereaux to escort her back to Homicide. The receptionist gave her a pass to clip on her jacket, and Marquette appeared shortly. He looked impeccable in fresh clothes.
"How'd you get changed?" Swan asked with a little bite to her words.
"Oh, we've got showers here, of course. All you had to do was ask," he smirked. What was it with male coworkers and the smirking? Marquette brought her to a conference room with several boxes down the center of the table and a stack of files.
"This is the murder room we've set up," he said unnecessarily. There were crime scene photos of six men pinned to one wall, each next to a photograph of the young man in life. A timeline was set on the wall underneath. Swan was used to having this type of information on a computer screen, but didn't comment. There was something visceral about having the actual paper pinned to the wall.
"Will Detective Devereaux be joining us?" she asked absently.
"No, he had some prior commitments, apparently. I'm hurt – is my company not good enough for you, Agent Swan?" Marquette's smile indicated he was teasing.
"There was a question I wanted to ask him, something at the back of my mind. I can't think of it exactly yet, but I thought if he was here it would come to me." Swan was rambling a little as she stood at the wall of photographs. Something was developing in her subconscious, but she couldn't put her finger on it yet. Perhaps a rigorous review of the evidence would help her thoughts gel. It was going to be a long night.
Masen swore softly to himself as he drove back to headquarters. He had been made to wait for hours while the medical examiner bestirred himself from whatever he had been doing and finally got to work. He also suspected that he had been the butt of some sort of joke since he kept getting gloves sized far too small. Now it was after one in the morning, and Swan hadn't answered his cell phone calls. He assumed she was still working, lost in her own musings about the case. He ran up the front steps into the Police Headquarters and had Swan paged from the front desk. A few minutes later she emerged from a hallway, laughing uproariously with Detective Marquette. Masen fumed, but couldn't say exactly what was annoying him so badly. Swan caught sight of him and sobered a little.
"Rough night?" she asked.
"It wasn't the best," he said, trying to concentrate on the case. "Cause of death was the same as for the other victims; cardiac arrest due to injection of a mixture of digitalis and some other unidentified alkaloid. The toxicology was the same profile as in the other cases. The lab here hasn't been able to identify the compound."
"So they're definitely the work of the same individual," commented Marquette. "There's always the possibility of a copycat until we hit that unknown compound. A copycat couldn't copy something which hasn't been identified. I'll see you both tomorrow. We'll have a strategy session at nine sharp."
Masen felt compelled to steer Swan out of the building with one hand on her back. She glanced at him, but didn't comment. When they were headed for the hotel, she yawned widely, cracking her jaw. "I really need a good night's sleep," she said. "There was so much to take in – I feel like something's swirling around in my head, but I'm too tired to make sense of it."
Masen parked in the valet area and let the bellboy unload their luggage. There was little-to-no street parking, so he was happy to let the valet deal with the situation. He was desperately looking forward to being in a flat position between cool sheets, and the AC cranked down low.
When he joined Swan at the front desk she was glaring at the cheery-faced clerk. "Are you kidding me? We asked for a guaranteed late check-in!"
"Yes, Miss Swan, but that only guarantees until midnight. We had to let one of the rooms go after that. The whole city is full; there's a big convention going on for the next four days." The little brunette clerk was almost bouncy, giving her bad news with a smile.
"What's happening?" asked Masen in alarm.
"There's only one room," said Swan in defeat. "And she says there's probably not another room for miles. Big convention of chemists or something."
"Is it a double?" asked Masen with some hope.
"It's a room with a king size," chirped the clerk. She was eyeing Masen appreciatively.
"Is there a couch?" asked Masen with a little less hope.
"There's a recliner," she answered happily, as if it was the answer he'd been hoping for.
"Fine, we'll just have to endure it," said Masen. It was approaching two in the morning, and he didn't think either of them would make it even fifteen more minutes.
"Well, this is awkward," said Swan as the elevator started up.
"We'll be fine. We're both professionals. This will not be a problem," said Masen. "They'll probably have another room open up tomorrow." He wondered who he was trying to convince.
Masen keyed them into the room, dragging their rolling luggage behind him.
They both looked at the bed at the same time. "At least it's really big," said Swan dubiously.
"Do you prefer a side?" asked Masen with some discomfort.
"I usually sleep on the right side. At home, I mean. I mean, my bed is pretty big, so I sleep on right side." Swan shut her mouth before she drowned in her own word vomit.
Masen had developed his classic smirk. "I guess it's a good thing I prefer the left side, then."
"Do you want to shower first?" asked Swan, ignoring his comment and hoping he'd say "no."
"I showered at the morgue," he said sheepishly. "I had to change out of the scrubs anyway, and I was pretty disgusting."
Swan fumed as she grabbed her things and headed for the bathroom. When she emerged twenty minutes later, cleaner and better-smelling than she had been for half a day, Masen was wearing his white tank top and plaid lounge pants. He was curled up on the closer side of the bed, snoring softly. He looked so peaceful; she had an urge to tuck him in a little better, but left him. She turned off his lamp, and slipped into the covers on the far side of the bed. She lay awake for a bit, thinking about the evidence she had reviewed, when Masen started to groan and thrash restlessly. At one point, he cried out "not her!" Swan flipped her lamp back on and moved over toward him.
"Shh. Masen. It's over. You're safe." She put a hand on his bicep, and he seemed to calm. Swan waited a few minutes, and then returned to her side of the bed.
Three days previously, New Orleans.
A tinkling cell phone alarm woke Swan promptly at 7 a.m. the next morning. She tried blindly to reach for her phone, but found herself immobilized. Opening her eyes in shock, she looked down to find her arms held tightly to her sides by one of Masen's arms, her legs caught underneath one of his, and he was really heavy! She could feel his breath on the back of her neck and the length of his body pressed tightly against her back. She tried to wriggle out of his embrace, but he murmured in his sleep and pulled her in tighter. She tried to ignore his clean scent which seemed to be surrounding her. She tried one more time to slip out from under his arm, but he pulled her back in again. She was going to have to wake him.
"Masen?" Swan said tentatively.
"Masen?" she repeated, a little louder as she pushed up on his arm.
"Hmm? Is it morning already?" he responded sleepily, talking into her hair. She felt him take a deep breath and then freeze.
"Oh, Swan, crap!" Masen practically leaped out of bed in horror. "I'm so sorry, really." He was the picture of embarrassment, standing halfway across the room, eyes wide.
Swan propped herself up on her elbows and smirked back at him. "I guess I can't blame you for your unconscious actions, Masen." He stared at her in disbelief, but at the same time couldn't stop thinking about how her sleep-tousled hair had smelled of freshness and strawberries.
"I'll just go get ready," he said abruptly, grabbing his bag and heading for the bathroom.
It was half an hour before Masen was able to meet Swan's eye again as he opened the door to their room and allowed her to pass him. Twenty minutes later, they were in the murder room of the New Orleans PD; Swan was standing over at the antiquated display of photos and crime scene details. Masen sat at the conference table looking over the toxicology reports from all six victims.
"You find anything?" Swan asked, her back still to him.
"Nothing really jumps out at me, although the nitrogen content suggests a plant alkaloid. The HPLC-MS libraries don't have any matches for the compound, so analyzing its structure will require additional tests at a better-equipped lab. I'm having samples sent to the center at Quantico. It's just that it seems like I've seen this before, but I'm having a hard time putting my finger on it."
"I've had the same thought…I mean that there's something just out of reach on the edge of my mind," Swan clarified. "I keep thinking I just need to speak with Detective Devereaux, and it'll come to me, but I just haven't put my thumb on it yet."
Masen looked up at his partner, raising his eyebrow at her back. He blushed, remembering the way it had felt to be pressed against her back that morning. Thankful that her back was turned, Masen hastily turned back to his reports.
"I think it must be this city…it's put me on edge. I'm not sure if it's the heat and humidity or if it's this case," Swan mused. Masen held his tongue. He wasn't sure if he could speak normally after he noticed that Swan had distractedly yanked the elastic from her low ponytail while studying the photos, causing her mahogany tresses to cascade freely down her back. Masen watched all agog as she pulled the whole mass of hair over her shoulder and absentmindedly braided it before she twisted it back into a bun and secured it with a pencil. Swan turned back to face Masen and he quickly looked down at the files in front of him, hoping his face wasn't still red. It had to be the city, he concluded.
"I think I remember having a conversation with Dr. Cullen while we were in Forks; he'd given me an old issue of Lancet to keep me occupied while I was recovering…" Masen trailed off, not wanting to mention the incident that he was still being evaluated for.
"Masen, that's exactly why you shouldn't be doing this," Swan said suddenly.
"I'm not following," he hedged.
"You can't even say it!" Swan replied.
"Say what, exactly?" he replied, a little more heat in his voice.
"Recovering…" Swan let it hang as Masen had, though her tone suggested that he should finish the sentence.
"Recovering from the incident with Mr. Mitchell," Masen ground out.
"So clinical, Masen," Swan said softly, frustrated with her partner, but not wanting to hurt him. She remembered the way he had thrashed in his sleep the night before.
"Would you rather I broke down and spilled my guts over tea and cookies?" Masen snarked. At Swan's raised eyebrow, he continued, "All right, I was abducted; I'm fine. Now, Dr. Cullen had this issue of Lancet that he contributed to while he was with Doctors Without Borders. There was this village in Haiti that used a certain plant to homeopathically treat tachycardia. In small doses, it would effectively lower the heart rate; too large a dose would be fatal. It would stop the heart altogether."
Swan couldn't help but admit that Masen was on to something, though she still didn't agree with his insistence on being used as a lure. Something about it just didn't set right with her, but she couldn't say what.
"Agents! How are things going this morning?" Marquette asked as he and Devereaux came in.
"Masen thinks he may have a lead on our mystery toxin," Swan said. Marquette's eyes widened.
"Really?" he asked, eying Masen with new-found respect. Devereaux looked skeptical.
"No one has been able to identify that in all the time I've been on this case. How can you be sure?"
"Dev, just because you don't like feds, doesn't mean they can't have some fine agents somewhere in their ranks," Marquette drawled with a wink in Swan's direction.
"Devereaux, Marquette, Agents," Chief Vicks greeted as she strode into the room, instantly commanding respect. "I wanted to speak with you, Agent Masen."
"Yes, Chief Vicks?" Masen asked, standing.
"Your partner raised some valid concerns yesterday, Agent. I cannot in good conscience let you do something that you would be uncomfortable with, regardless of how perfect you would be for the part," Vicks said.
"I assure you, I'm fine," Masen remonstrated, looking pointedly at Swan as he said the last word. Swan gritted her teeth; she couldn't dictate his actions anymore than he could hers.
"Well then, Agent, we'll get you prepared. We have to be ready at a moment's notice; we have a good fly on the wall at the club, but we aren't sure when the killer will strike next. It could be any day now, if she sticks to her pattern. Devereaux? Get him prepped," Vicks said before she strode from the room as quickly as she came in.
"She? Would that be the Victoria Bontemps that was mentioned in the case file?" Swan asked, perturbed.
"Yes, she would be our prime suspect," Marquette said.
"Except that we haven't got anything concrete on her. Every time we get close, she slips away. It's almost like she's got an uncanny ability to know we're on her trail. It's like grasping at smoke," Devereaux finished in a gruff voice. Masen raised his eyebrow at the sudden downturn in detective's attitude.
"She has been rather elusive," Marquette added. His expression seemed just as curious as Masen's. Devereaux abruptly stood and left the room without further comment. Marquette looked at the agents apologetically before he too left after his partner.
Three days previously, Forks, Washington.
Jasper Whitlock sat in a comfortable chair in the shop he owned with his wife. At the thought of the exuberant woman with whom he was infatuated, he looked over the top of the heavy book that he was perusing and watched as she flitted through the room. She seemed to dance as she straightened things after a few customers had wandered through the store. Feeling his eyes on her, she executed a neat pirouette in order to lovingly return his gaze.
Suddenly, Alice's eyes glazed over and her smile faded. Jasper knew instantly what was happening and rushed to her side, ignoring the damage to the heavy tome as it tumbled from his lap to the floor when he bolted from the chair. Just as he reached her, she crumpled into his arms with a terrified look on her face. Just before she passed out from the force of the vision, she uttered, "Agent Masen…when will you understand?"
Jasper instantly moved to close the shop, Alice cradled in his arms. As soon as the front door was locked, he easily carried his petite wife up the narrow stairs to their modest apartment above the store.
"Alice, love," Jasper murmured as he laid her on the couch and moved to get the smelling salts.
Ten minutes later, Alice was sitting up sipping a cup of tea while Jasper dialed the phone number on the business card in his hands.
"Special Agent Swan? This is Jasper Whitlock, in Forks, Washington…Alice just had a vision, and she insisted that I call you. Here she is."
Alice stood and took the phone from her husband with a gentle smile.
"Alice?" Swan's voice carried through the room as Alice put the phone on speaker.
"Yes, it's me, Agent Swan," Alice confirmed. "I had a very disturbing vision, one that I'm not sure of the timing, but I feel that it will be soon."
"What was it? Is it something to do with my work?" Swan questioned.
"Yes, your partner, in fact. I saw a few flashes of him in danger," Alice said.
"Danger? I knew this bait tactic wasn't going to go well…" Swan muttered. Alice's eyes grew wide as she met her husband's curious gaze.
"Bait?" Jasper asked.
"We're on assignment in New Orleans; a series of strange murders. Every victim has fit Masen's basic physical description, tall, handso-… red-haired men in their mid to late twenties. The department that we're consulting with has decided that Masen is the best candidate they have for an undercover lure. And, he's agreed."
"Agent Swan, he can't do it. I saw him, bound in a dark room, surrounded by a white circle, shirtless and with some sort of ceremonial markings all over his chest and arms. There is a presence looming over him, though I only saw a glimpse of wild, flaming-red hair behind a mask. I hear a rattling noise, in the background; it sounds ominous. Then the vision ended."
Silence prevailed on the phone line.
"Agent Swan?" Jasper asked, worried that they had somehow been disconnected.
"You've just described every crime scene from each of the victims," Swan said shakily. Alice looked to Jasper then they reached a silent agreement.
"New Orleans, you said? We'll book a flight right away," replied Jasper.
Two days previously, New Orleans.
The following morning, Swan slowly became aware of a shrill ring. She was still rather groggy, as she hadn't slept well. After receiving Jasper and Alice's call the previous evening, she had been on edge. Swan wasn't eager, however to tell Masen about the call. She hoped to tell him this morning after she had slept on it and, she had hoped, had some inspiration as to how to broach the subject.
Realizing that she wasn't still dreaming and the shrill ring was the hotel phone, Swan made a move to sit up and answer it. Her efforts were in vain; in her attempt to sit up, she realized once again that she was being held down. Blearily, she opened her eyes and saw nothing but Masen's strong chin, covered in stubble.
The pillow barrier that Swan had so meticulously placed between them the night before was no match for Masen's night-time wanderings. He had simply rolled right over them, pulling Swan to his chest and holding her there. He had draped an arm and a leg over her small frame; the sleep-induced dead-weight of his limbs held Swan securely. Every movement she made only caused him to pull her in tighter. Finally, once the phone had stopped ringing, Swan realized that there would be no escape from the embarrassment that they had felt the previous morning; they were doomed to repeat it.
Swan decided to make light of the situation. She pulled herself as close to his ear as she could and said, "Watch those roving hands, Masen."
Just as she suspected, Masen's eyes shot open, meeting her gaze in wide-eyed alarm. It was only then that she realized that by moving closer to his ear, she placed her lips only inches from Masen's, and their bodies pressed together from shoulders to toes. They were both frozen in shock, unable to move until the phone began ringing incessantly again. Startled from his frozen state, Masen was up and in the bathroom before Swan answered the phone.
"Agent Swan! I hope I didn't wake you." The voice was Marquette's.
"No, I was just getting up," she lied, clearing her throat. The pillows smelled like Masen, and she could still feel the warmth of his body in the sheets. She shook her head a little, trying to clear it.
"I thought that, since your expertise is in the unusual, that you might want to interview someone familiar with the local occult scene." Marquette sounded unusually hesitant. Swan's intuition kicked in.
"I take it you know someone involved in Voodoo?"
Marquette coughed. "Well, my auntie has a friend from the islands. She has some knowledge of these things. Devereaux has never been interested in meeting her, but I thought…"
"Oh, absolutely. In fact, I was going to ask you about finding someone today."
Swan's obvious sincerity would have won Marquette over, if her husky just-woke-up voice hadn't already done so. "Well, I'll meet you and your partner at 9:30 in the lobby of your hotel."
"Thanks, Marquette." Swan hit the end button.
Two hours later, the agents had showered and breakfasted, and were dressed in conservative suits and sunglasses. They stood on one side of the lobby, for once discussing a case and not fighting like heavyweights in Las Vegas.
"The lack of evidence against this Bontemps woman is discouraging," said Masen.
"If she is a practitioner of the occult, she could have resources we know nothing about," interjected Swan. Her statement lacked the force she sometimes used when challenging Masen's conventional beliefs.
"If she is a practitioner of the occult, she may have other people under her influence," countered Masen, but he was gently polite. "We may need to look at the employees of this bar, Bayou at Twilight. They have surveillance cameras, right? Someone could be tampering with them."
"Yes, there are cameras, and she has been present at the bar on the evenings when a victim has disappeared, but she isn't on tape leaving with any of them and she's a regular at the bar."
"What convinced the detectives that Bontemps was involved?" wondered Masen. He resisted the urge to tuck a loose lock of hair behind Swan's ear.
"I think it's the connection with Voodoo or the occult," answered Swan. "She has a shop of sorts. They've put surveillance on her shop, but there's been no unusual or suspicious activity." Swan had plans of her own regarding the shop, but she didn't plan to share them with her by-the-book partner.
"There's Detective Marquette," pointed out Masen.
Half an hour later, the three pulled up in front of a Laundromat on a tiny, potholed street. Masen exited the car and looked dubiously at the rundown building. "What is this?" he asked.
"It's a Laundromat, Masen. It's where plebes like me wash their clothes," sniped Swan, but she was grinning at him.
"I know what a coin laundry is," he muttered. "I was in college, once, too. No, what I meant was, why are we here?"
Marquette opened the door, and motioned the agents into the building. Swan was immediately overwhelmed by the blistering heat; a score of high-heat industrial dryers were all running while various women (and one older man in the back) sat motionless in plastic chairs. She wondered if being mesmerized by a spinning dryer counted as being part of the occult. The noise level was high since there were also rows and rows of operating washing machines.
"Not everything mystical is encased in mystery," laughed Marquette. "Come on, Mama Balu has an apartment in the back."
Masen followed the others through the door at the back of the stifling coin laundry and found himself in a small, chilled, fifties-style apartment. There were plastic-cushioned chairs around a laminate table with metal trim, green cupboards in the kitchen to the left, and an old-fashioned tv with a built-in fake-wood stand. A large wooden fork and spoon set hung on the wall above the dinette set, just behind the elderly woman who sat at the table. She was playing solitaire and drinking tea. Her hair was white and pulled back, and she wore a shapeless dress in a shocking yellow print.
"Little Marky! Your Auntie Rae said you would come see me today." Her voice was creaky with age and flowed with the rhythm of the Caribbean islands.
"Mama B, I brought the FBI to come see you," Marquette answered with a roll of his eyes.
Mama B regarded Swan first, then Masen. "Little Marky, I have known you since before you were born, back when Big Marky was just Marky. Let me tell you now, this one is not for you." The elderly woman held one finger out to Swan, who blushed in embarrassment. Masen couldn't help a little surge of satisfaction.
"Mama B—" protested Marquette.
"You know I have to say it, or your Auntie Rae will have my hide. There's one waiting for you; you just have to stop your wicked ways and settle down."
Marquette cleared his throat. "Mama B, I brought them for a reason."
"Oh, I know. Come, child, sit down." Mama Balu motioned Swan over to the chair across from her own at the dinette set.
"There's so much to tell you." Mama Balu took Swan's hand in her own fragile one. "You must wait a little longer to find what you're looking for, but I promise you, the journey will end. Remember what the phoenix represents: rebirth from the ashes."
"I didn't realize the phoenix was part of Santeria," breathed Swan, her eyes large and liquid.
"I can read books, child," laughed the older woman. "Now, where are those photos you wanted me to see?"
Swan looked up at Marquette in surprise, but he shrugged. He was used to Mama Balu's apparent prescience. Swan pulled out a folder of photos. "These are quite graphic, but they have the markings we wanted you to tell us about," she warned.
Mama B pursed her lips as she studied the photos. "These were done by a true believer, but not one with power. She was careful – see how these lines don't cross? She didn't complete the symbol. She fears the power."
"How do you know it was a woman?" asked Masen, speaking for the first time.
Mama B looked at Masen appraisingly. "How do you know I am a woman?"
Masen spluttered for a moment and looked helplessly at Swan.
"How you know what you know is not always so easy to explain," Mama B said gently to the flustered agent. "What I know is not exact, more like psychology than mathematics. Do you do criminal profiling?"
"How do you know that?" asked Swan, mystified.
"Oh, I just like that show Criminal Minds," she laughed. "Agent Morgan is a fox. Now, your turn," she said, looking at Agent Masen.
Masen warily sat at the dinette next to Swan.
"You are pursued by fire, young man. The fire burns for other reasons, but you will get burned nonetheless. You must survive the flames." Mama B stopped for a moment, taking the time to grasp his hand as well as Agent Swan's. "Let her be your strength one more time, or you won't be there when she needs you. The time comes soon when your strength is called upon to save her."
"I don't understand," said Masen.
"This is for you," said Mama B, ignoring his comment. She pulled a necklace from the folds of her dress. "You need to wear it until the flame is gone." She pressed it into Masen's hand.
The necklace was made of a leather cord with a small cross pendant. Masen fingered the cross delicately. "What is it made of?" he asked with some concern.
"Bone. Of course." Mama B turned from him in dismissal, and addressed Swan. "He may not understand much, but he's very pretty." She patted Swan's hand. "You can forgive a lot from the pretty ones. Of course you know that, how many times have you been paired with him in all your lives? Too many for even Mama B to know."
A few minutes later, Detective Marquette was speeding back to NOPD headquarters. "I think I speak for us all when I say that was all kinds of awkward," commented Marquette.
"I rather enjoyed it," responded Swan. She was busily jotting notes in her pocket notebook.
"Don't tell me you believed all that," said Masen. "Everything was just vague enough to be interpreted in a thousand different ways. That information had every mark of the cold reading."
"Yes, that's how she knew I'd brought photos," retorted Swan. "And she brought up Phoenix."
"No, she brought up a phoenix. Maybe she knows you're a big Harry Potter fan," quipped Masen. "And am I supposed to be burned by a fire? Is it the same fire as your phoenix?"
Marquette was following the argument with raised eyebrows. "Hey, timeout agents."
"Sorry," they both responded simultaneously.
"So, um, you know Devereaux isn't interested in what Mama B has to say," Marquette said hesitantly.
"No problem," said Swan. "We won't bring it up, little Marky."
Once they arrived at the station, Marquette immediately led them to the murder room. Devereaux was already there, poring over a few notes. At the sound of the door closing, he looked up at Marquette and then his eyes moved to take in Masen and Swan. He pursed his lips momentarily, then closed the folder containing the case notes he was working on.
"Marquette, Agents…early morning?" he asked with a raised eyebrow.
Marquette looked at the agents sheepishly then cleared his throat. "Well, Dev, I was just showing Agents Masen and Swan the way around the city," he explained.
"Well, we're burning daylight now, let's get cracking," Devereaux said noncommittally. Masen immediately moved to sit down at the table to look over the toxicology reports while Marquette and Swan moved to the time-line pinned to the wall to brainstorm. Masen was studying the chemical breakdown of the toxin when he felt the uneasy feeling of being watched. Determined not to fidget and give his nerves away, he stared down at the papers spread out before him. He thought he was at least half-way convincing until Devereaux gave a sardonic chuckle.
"Are you sure you can handle this, Masen?" Devereaux sneered at him, stressing his name to emphasize Swan and Masen's habit of addressing each other by surname alone. Masen had been taken aback by it when Swan first addressed him as such, insisting that he do the same with her; he was accustomed to agent or doctor prefacing his name. Now, it was something that he enjoyed from Swan, so much so that it had been vaguely unsettling to go home and be addressed as "Edward" again. Coming from Detective Devereaux, though, it was more mockery than camaraderie.
"I'm perfectly fine with our plan, Detective." Masen refused to use the same invective; he was still his mother's son, after all was said and done, despite being Swan's partner.
"You look like you can't take a pair of eyes trained on you, agent. That's the first thing Vicky here will do," Devereaux taunted, gesturing to a surveillance photo of Victoria Bontemps. "She'll eye you from across the room, and she'll be hidden in the shadows. She'll ask you to dance, and you'll probably even feel a little high and mighty that such a beautiful woman has singled you out. Then she strikes, just like the black widow that she is…"
Devereaux quickly gathered his things and muttered, "I need a coffee." Then he moved swiftly for the door. "Oh…if you are going to be our pretty boy, you'll need what's in that bag there." Devereaux gestured with a nod to a paper shopping bag labeled with the name of a local boutique. Masen met Swan's eyes across the room, the both of them asking a myriad of questions with a single look.
"I'm sorry, Agents; you'll have to excuse my partner. He's been after this woman for so long. He was assigned to this case and to be my partner because he's been trying to pin her down for identity theft and illegal imports for a few years now. We've been in, out, over, under and through every file we've ever associated with Ms. Bontemps. If anyone knows her M.O. it's Dev. I think it's made us all a bit anxious to finally get a lid on this case."
"Understandable," Swan said tensely. Masen glared down at the toxicology report on the table in front of him, not entirely comfortable yet. "Let's see these special threads you've got here, Masen," Swan said to ease the tension still thick in the room.
"Our tech-guys have got a whole rig here for you, too Agent Masen," Marquette interjected, pulling a black zippered bag out of a cabinet against the wall. Rummaging through the bag, he pulled out a small black pin that resembled a college fraternity symbol. "This will be our eyes and ears in the surveillance van. It's wireless; transmits both audio and visual feeds, so try not to put in the wash, please." Next, Marquette pulled out a fairly large black and steel watch. "This has been retrofitted with a GPS device similar to that of a cell phone, so once you are with her, we can track you anywhere she takes you."
Swan was starting to feel nauseous at the thought of this Bontemps woman taking Masen anywhere. In order to distract herself, she pulled the boutique bag towards her and started to look at what was inside.
Masen's head jerked up at Swan's sudden exclamation. He wasn't impressed by the hint of laughter in her voice. Neither by the look of the shirt that Swan pulls out of the shopping bag. It looked as though it were imitating designer, and doing poorly at it. The short-sleeved button down promised to be itchy. The fabric was surely an acrylic posing as silk. It had a tacky, nearly luminescent quality that was completely out of place on a black-colored fabric. Masen pondered if shirts could be measured in wattage. The pants that came out of the bag next weren't much better; dark wash jeans had never been a favorite style of Masen's. Transferred indigo dyes were extremely difficult to remove from silk boxers, and going without was out of the question.
Swan finally lost her composure and snorted. "Masen…against my better judgment, you're determined to do this. I have one piece of advice." She continued at Masen's questioning glance. "Don't stand directly under the disco ball at the club…we don't want any glare-outs on the surveillance footage."
Swan and Masen arrived at the hotel after 10 p.m. following a long strategy session about the undercover operation. For the third night in a row, they were informed that all the rooms were booked.
"Oh, and there's a FedEx package for a 'Special Agent' Swan?" said the front desk clerk, clearly confused.
"That's me," said Swan, taking the box from the clerk. Masen raised an eyebrow, but didn't comment.
Once they were alone in the elevator, he gave her a pointed look. "It's a surprise," she muttered, with none of her usual confidence. He assumed the package was case-related since it was addressed to "Special Agent Swan," but why wouldn't she have it sent to the PD where they had worked all day?
Once in the room, she set the package on the desk.
"Spill it, Swan. You're killing me with the suspense."
Swan turned and looked up at him with her large brown eyes, and for a moment he was breathless. The intensity of her gaze was searing. "I'm worried, Masen."
"I'm not unaware of the dangers," he responded softly. Swan wondered if he knew how expressive his eyes were.
"It's not just the situation, though," she continued hesitantly, but not breaking their eye contact. "I have a feeling that something more sinister is going on. This…ability…of Bontemps to escape could be a result of inside information. I can't trust the NOPD to take care of you properly."
"What do you suggest?" he asked.
"First, I'd like to have a personal safe word with you. The NOPD word is 'final,' so perhaps something different if you feel like something is a little fishy. We can use 'Twilight,' and either one of us can alert the other."
"That's a little close to the name of the bar," Masen objected.
"Exactly. We won't alert the NOPD team."
"Okay," he agreed. "So, what's in the box?"
Swan's lips turned up, and Masen suddenly had a sinking feeling. "What?" he said, a little sharply.
"It's a subdermal GPS tracker."
"I'm going to have a tracker in that wristwatch contraption."
"Yes, but Bontemps may know about that. I need you to have this, Masen." Swan's face had transformed into "The Look." Her eyes were wide and pleading, her brow slightly furrowed. Resistance was futile. He hoped she didn't have any bridges for sale.
"Do you really think a GPS tracker is going to help me if Bontemps has supernatural escape powers?" He tried appealing to her sense of unreason.
"No, but you have Mama Balu's necklace for that aspect," she responded with irrefutable illogic.
"All right. Let's see it."
The contents of the FedEx box included nearly a hundred pages of documentation, a receiver (which looked disturbingly like a gameboy), and a truly frightening injection device, preloaded with the tracker.
"I think I could probably put it into my left bicep without too much trouble," he commented while holding the injection gun.
"This documentation says the hip is the best spot," said Swan, reading from the user's manual. "Look, there's even a diagram." Masen leaned over her shoulder to see, finding himself staring at the line diagram of someone's naked behind being injected. He swallowed, hardly even distracted by the scent of her hair.
"Um, I don't think I can manage that."
"Yeah," said Swan, also sounding a little strangled. She really didn't like needles or injections or blood, even after visits to innumerable crime scenes. "I guess I'll have to ass-ist," she added with a nervous giggle.
"Shut it, Swan. This isn't funny. I'm going to have to ask Miss I-Faint-At-Blood 2005 to give me a minor surgical procedure." Masen did not have problems with needles, but he found he was developing an issue with thinking about Swan holding a needle, and aiming said needle at his hind end. He wasn't sure if the issue was with her tendency to become faint when needles appeared, his concerns about her aim, or with her proximity to his naked backside.
"Hey, I'm nowhere like I used to be," she protested. "It says we should sterilize the injection site." Swan kept her eyes on the diagram and accompanying text. The bottom in the diagram was most definitely unclothed.
"I can't believe this," muttered Masen. He went to his bag and pulled out alcohol, swabs, and a pair of gloves. "Here. This should be safe enough."
"Trust you to keep all the necessary protection," smirked Swan. "So, um, I guess you'll need to undress." She pulled the gloves on and took the cap off the alcohol.
Masen sighed. He wasn't sure how they ended up in these situations. Frequently. He stood and toed off his shoes, unbuckled his belt, and unbuttoned and unzipped his slacks. He could feel his face heating up as he removed his pants. Well? It was embarrassing! Swan had the cotton swab ready to go, so he turned slightly and slid the side of his boxers down. He figured he would monitor the procedure (it's a procedure!) in the mirror. He saw in the mirror that Swan's eyes had gone a little wide, and she was now the one blushing. Glancing down, he saw she was fixated on his tattoo. That brought back a flood of memory from their time in Chicago.
"I guess you did see something you liked," he purred. Swan shook her head a little.
"It's bigger than I thought," she replied, and then blushed even redder. "The tattoo! Not, I mean, I wasn't...just turn a little more," she said. She lined up the injection device to match the diagram in the book, swiveling her head repeatedly from the diagram to how she was aiming the injection gun.
"Wait," said Masen suddenly. "Just a little higher."
"I don't think you can tell from your angle," argued Swan. She licked her lips from…nervousness. She wasn't used to injecting…bare men.
"I think I'm the one with the medical degree," he protested. "Just a nudge higher. And be careful."
Swan decided they were done with adjusting and hit the button. Masen grimaced from the sharp sting, but it wasn't too painful. He didn't even have his boxers back up before Swan was heading out the door.
"I'm getting you some ice," she informed him over her shoulder. The door clicked shut behind her, and she leaned against it for a moment in the empty hallway. What was wrong with her? She closed her eyes, but the only thing she saw was an image of his tattoo in its reds, greens, and golds, and the curve of his backside. Ugh. She had a job to do, and Masen was her partner. There was no way either one of them would ever jeopardize their working relationship or their positions at the Bureau. She reminded herself that she had her own tattoo and an all-consuming goal she had yet to fulfill.
When she returned to the room a few minutes later, composure regained, the shower was running. She set the bucket on the dresser, and waited for her turn in the bathroom. Masen came out of the shower, and settled on his side of the bed. He flicked on the tv to ESPN and she went quietly into the bathroom. When she came out, he had an ice pack pressed to his backside.
"Is it bad?" she asked.
"No, I just thought I'd prevent it from swelling."
"Just let me know if I need to kiss it and make it better," she responded. It was much easier to joke around with him than to be serious. Neither of them could afford serious.
"You'll be the first on my list, Swan. I'll just remind you that you offered to kiss my—"
"All right!" she shushed him with a glare. But the balance was back, she realized with relief. "Okay, tonight you stay on top of the covers, Mr. Morning Cuddle." Masen turned red.
"Look, Swan, I'm really sorry." Well, he was sorry for embarrassing her. Otherwise…
"No problem. Just stay over there." She slipped under the covers and drifted off to sleep.
A few minutes later, Masen turned off the tv. He hadn't been paying much attention, anyway. He wondered if Swan was right about inside information. He'd been with her for too long to ignore her intuition. Then again, he wasn't listening to her about this undercover operation being too soon since the Forks incident. He listened to her deep, even breathing, and realized it was very soothing. They had barely been apart for days, and he had enjoyed every moment, even when they were in the midst of one of their many heated arguments. His thoughts were interrupted by Swan calling his name.
"Masen," she groaned in a sleep-blurred voice. He realized she was talking in her sleep.
"No, not Masen. Let him go," she pleaded. She sighed and stirred, but was quiet.
Masen lay awake for the rest of the night, goaded constantly into sleeplessness by his thoughts about Swan and the undercover operation.
One day previously…
Masen made sure that he was in the bathroom when Swan got up the next morning. He didn't think that he'd be able to look her in the eye without grabbing her and kissing her senseless, and he didn't think that would be very productive. For the case, anyways. Wishing that he hadn't already taken a shower the night before, Masen settled for splashing cold water on his face and dressed for the day.
While Swan was getting herself ready, Masen went down to the hotel restaurant to gather their complimentary breakfast. He hoped that he could spend enough time out of the room to allow Swan time to get fully dressed. The thought of her murmuring his name in her sleep-deepened voice threatened to drive him insane, and listening to her moving around in the bathroom in whatever state of dress or undress she was in wasn't helping. Partners… he reminded himself with a sardonic chuckle. Associate, collaborator, colleague, chum, buddy … recalling the way Swan had described their relationship to Kate Daniels wasn't helping, either. That only caused him to remember the glint in her eye when she had gotten feisty with the other woman. Shaking his head of the thoughts, Masen wandered back to their room. Swan sat at the small table in the corner, all the case files in chronological order before her.
"One blueberry muffin, warmed twelve seconds before buttering," Masen said as he put the food down in front of her. Swan looked up at him, surprised.
"I am an FBI agent," he replied. "I would hope that I had developed some sort of observational skills in all my time at Quantico…"
Swan laughed and shook her head. "Thanks, Masen. How about putting your sharp observation skills to work here?" she teased. "Tell me you brought coffee, too." Masen took a close look at her, certain that she had never looked quite so weary.
"Didn't you sleep well?" he asked her, knowing from his sleepless night that she had tossed, turned, and talked for most of the night.
"I could ask you the same thing, Masen," Swan replied, taking in the dark circles beneath his eyes.
"I'm fine, Swan," he answered in a tone that demanded no argument.
Swan opened her mouth to begin another argument for the ages, but the buzzing of her phone in her pocket interrupted her. "Sorry, I should take this," she muttered, stepping out into the hallway. One problem with sharing a room was the utter lack of privacy when she wanted to go behind his back.
"Bella! We're here! When do we meet?"
"I'm going to be free around one when they start working on the surveillance details at the bar. Let's meet in front of the Krystals on Bourbon Street near Canal." Swan picked it because it was really easy to find.
"Gotcha. See you then!"
Swan stepped back into the room.
"Who was that?" asked Masen nonchalantly as he watched the Today show. If his lips were making a tighter line than normal, that could be chalked up to sleeplessness and anxiety over the undercover operation.
"Oh, friends from Forks," she replied. She was examining a file, and didn't see Masen's eyes narrow. He wanted to ask "which friend," but he wasn't sure if he could handle hearing that it was Alice, the meddling psychic pixie, or if he could stand knowing that Jacob felt free to call her early in the morning.
"I think we should head in," he said finally, his tones clipped.
Swan was able to get away from headquarters at lunch, citing a need to work alone. The surveillance setup did not require her supervision, but Masen needed to be available for tests of the equipment. She took the rental car, promising to pick him up if he found himself without a ride back to the hotel. Swan ended up returning to the hotel and dropping the car back with the valet service so that she could change clothes and walk to Bourbon Street. It was only a few blocks down Canal from the hotel.
As she turned the corner from Canal onto Bourbon, she caught sight of Alice and Jasper standing in front of the fast food restaurant. They both wore dark sunglasses and looked like the tourists they were. Alice screamed as soon as she saw Swan come around the corner.
"ALLLICE!" shouted back Swan, getting into the spirit. She had never been good at making friends, but in their short times together, she had made a connection with the black-haired free spirit.
As she approached the couple, she watched as Alice began to frown.
"You're conflicted, Bella." Alice reached out and took Bella's hand, then her eyes unfocused as if she were examining objects far away.
"About the case?" It was Bella's turn to frown. She was certainly worried about Masen's safety.
"You're conflicted about being here; you want to be in the blazing heat instead of this tropical place." Alice frowned further. "It isn't time for you to go into the blaze, Bella. You need to wait." Bella was struck by the similarity to Mama Balu's advice.
Alice's eyes refocused suddenly, and her frown of worry changed to a grimace of distaste. "Bella, I know you changed clothes, but you still look every inch the narc. You cannot walk into the shop looking like this and expect anyone to believe you're a tourist," Alice reprimanded her. "I saw just the thing in a shop a block away."
Thirty minutes later, Swan was dressed, in her opinion, as Alice's older, less graceful sister. Jasper patiently carried her other clothes in a bag as he followed them through the narrow (and rather smelly) streets of the French Quarter. Alice danced in front of Bella and Jasper, snapping photos of architectural elements. They stood on a street corner which still showed centuries-old bricks.
"Can you feel it, Bella? The history, the spirits that have passed this corner?" Alice stood with her hands out to the sides, face turned up as though absorbing the atmosphere.
"I can't feel it, but I'm glad I'm here to see you experience it," Swan told her. "Now, do you feel comfortable with this plan?"
"No problem, Bella. We're totally good to go!" Alice beamed at her friend.
Jasper politely held the door and the three of them stepped into Victoria's shop "Lunar Blaze: Celestial Body Art for True Believers." The logo on the front window showed a snarling crescent moon with a fiery halo. Swan began browsing quietly; the plan was for Alice to do most of the talking. There was no need to interrogate – Swan just wanted to see what reading Alice would get from the suspect.
"Welcome to Lunar Blaze, can I help you?" Victoria had appeared, her hair a giant red mane and her blue eyes glinting at the "customers." She wore a gown in pale green which somehow reminded Swan of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Mama Balu's warning that Masen was pursued by fire came back to her as Victoria's hair caught the lights. A shiver went down Swan's back.
"I hope so! I've been considering a tattoo, but I can't find what I'm looking for. I'm very in tune with the earth and the changing seasons, and I just haven't found the right look." Alice's exuberance was met with a sly smile.
"I think I have just the thing for you. Let me go in the back and find the album."
"Oh, can I go back to see?" Alice insinuated herself at Victoria's elbow, and the two women went into the back.
"Do you think she'll be all right?" Swan asked Jasper worriedly.
"I'll know if anything is wrong," he assured her.
Swan noted the front area included sample designs ranging from skulls and moons to butterflies and kittens. A middle area with shelving had plastic touristy gifts with an occult theme; Swan supposed it was very New Orleans. There were also the requisite piles of Mardi Gras beads.
The cash register was seated on a glass case which had a selection of dusty books on the occult.
A man with black, lank hair and a variety of facial piercings came out of the back and asked if Jasper and Swan were being helped.
"Yes, my wife went into the back with a red-haired woman?" said Jasper pleasantly.
The dark-haired man nodded curtly and disappeared again.
A few minutes later, when Swan was beginning to rethink the entire idea, Alice and Victoria emerged. Alice was solemn, and Victoria had an unreadable expression.
"I'll know it when I see it," said Alice calmly.
"Very well. Return if you change your mind," Victoria said, her eyes switching from Alice to Jasper, and then to Swan. Her smile returned again.
"Thank you," said Alice, leading the other two out of the store. She was uncharacteristically silent as they walked back toward the Bourbon and Canal intersection.
"Wait," said Swan suddenly. She realized that there would be no discussing what they saw of the shop if they returned to the hotel or the station. Masen would surely have something to say about Alice and Jasper's arrival. "Let's drop in here for a drink." They were just passing one of the multitudes of small bars with live music. The three stepped in and miraculously found a clean and empty bar table. The music was loud, but conversation wasn't impossible. It was still early. Once they had their drinks, they discussed what Alice had seen.
"So what's the story, Ali?" asked Jasper.
"I don't like her," said Ali, still very serious. "There is an aura to her, a sense of something very wrong."
"What about the shop? Did you see anything in the back?" asked Swan.
"If she does anything resembling dark rituals, it isn't at the shop. I would say it's a front, and one she doesn't allow to be tainted with her true work," said Alice thoughtfully. Jasper reached out and touched her hand.
"You're really cold, darling," he commented, taking Alice's hands between his own.
Swan pondered these revelations. She never doubted Alice's sixth sense, especially after Chicago, but the fact that it confirmed items in the NOPD file was comforting
Masen had endured hours of sound checks and snide comments from several of the NOPD specialists. To top it off, Det. Devereaux had watched a lot of it, an amused smile on his face. The Cajun detective really, really didn't like feds, but Masen was beginning to think it was more personal. "Dev" was certainly pleasant enough to Swan, at least as far as he could see. Masen called Swan's cell phone for a ride back to the hotel.
"Hello?" Her voice was nearly drowned by other sounds.
"Swan? Can you hear me?"
"Masen! Is that you?" asked Swan with a giggle.
"Hi Eddie!" called another female voice.
"I'm calling for that ride home," he said dubiously. He heard whispers from the other side.
"We'll be there in a minute!"
Twenty minutes later, a cab pulled up in front of NOPD headquarters, and Masen was about to flag it, when it stopped anyway. The back door flew open.
Masen's jaw dropped as an oddly dressed Swan, clearly intoxicated, lurched out of the cab with Alice Brandon.
"We're taking you out to dinner!" Swan announced brightly.
She stood in the shadows mixing with the crowd outside the restaurant. It was a converted warehouse, so the wide-open doors were enormous. The light and loud music spilling out the gigantic doors gave the outside sidewalks a party atmosphere, a feeling only enhanced by the lack of an open container law. She was careful to move around in the rambunctious crowd, but kept her eye on the table of four near the door. She had gotten a bad feeling around the black-haired midget, and that feeling was now confirmed as she watched her and the others from the shop laughing with the red-haired man. He was stiff and formal compared to his inebriated companions; he frequently gave the brown-haired woman long, frustrated looks. He was perfect, and she would have him. She savored the feeling of power. He would be made to understand. No one could make her do anything she didn't want to do. Anyone who tried would pay.
The red-haired man seemed uncomfortable; his eyes began to sweep the room as though he could feel her magnetic gaze. Smirking at his nervousness, she slipped deeper into the shadows, performing her best trick. Disappearing.
Present day, New Orleans.
Swan started to sit up, suddenly grabbing her head and groaning.
"I guess those Hurricanes sneak up on you, eh Swan?"
"No smirking before coffee," protested Swan, shocked at how hoarse her voice was. "What time is it?"
"Actually, it's just time for you to get up. I put some water and some Tylenol on the night stand. Why don't you take a shower, and I'll get you the caffeine."
Swan heard the door open and close, and then she cracked an eyelid. She followed Masen's advice, and when she emerged from the bathroom feeling much more like herself, her partner blessedly had a steaming cup of coffee and her habitual muffin. Clearly Masen had A+ observation skills. After a few sips of the brown salvation and a bite of the precisely-halved and perfectly-buttered muffin, Masen started in.
"So, Swan. Do you want to tell me why the Ghost Whisperer of Forks decided to take a vacation in New Orleans at the exact time we were here on a case?"
"Maybe she heard about the rampant spirits in the French Quarter," Swan said, her mouth full of her delectable breakfast. Why did greasy food always taste so good after a hangover? Why had she insisted on going to the bar again?
"Something tells me that bottled spirits are the only kind you three found yesterday," Masen said dryly.
"No, really, Alice said that there were lots of spirits and history on a particular corner in the Quarter," Swan said, realizing that she didn't want to give much more away. Her visit to Bontemps' shop was exactly the off-the-book sort of thing that Masen frowned upon.
Damn observation skills. Deciding to change the subject, Swan dove in. "Something about the case timeline was bothering me. The first murder occurred back in February, on the ninth. Something about that date stuck in my mind, but I couldn't quite place it. Any brilliant brainwaves?"
"The eclipse!" he said quickly.
"Eclipse?" Swan questioned.
"February ninth- there was a total lunar eclipse that night. Just at moonset…"
"Really?" Swan made a show of pulling aside Masen's suit jacket and looking at his shirt underneath.
"What?" he asked.
"Just looking for the pocket-protector…" Swan said mischievously. Masen's jaw dropped in indignation.
"Following Discovery Channel online does not make one a nerd," Masen argued, thinking back on the Casa de la Audiovisual club. Swan merely smirked and got back to her summation.
"The next three murders had occurred later in the month, on the twenty-third, twenty-fourth, and twenty-fifth, then there was nothing until March 11, then again, March 26, just three days ago. I was just looking for a common thread or a pattern in the dates of the murders. It seems random at first glance, but I've got a hunch that there is a reason for the timing."
"It's the lunar phases," Masen said, suddenly having an epiphany. "February ninth wasn't just an eclipse, it was a full moon. The fourth, fifth, and sixth deaths coincide with either the new or full moon. I'm not sure how the second and third deaths tie in though."
"Santeria and voodoo are heavily influenced by the lunar cycle," Swan said, picking up on Masen's train of thought, and allowing her brain to connect the dots of the case to what she knew from her previous experience. Swan went to her phone, scrolling through to her calendar, then to an online almanac. "That's it…" she trailed off.
"What?" Masen asked.
"February twenty-third and twenty-fourth, there was no moon out at night; the moon rose and set with the sun on those days," Swan held up her phone to show Masen the almanac table of moon rise and set times. "Just like Mama Balu said… she fears the power…she's not exactly following all the rules laid out in Santeria or Voodoo."
"Well, that explains how you figured her out," Masen snarked. "Come on…let's go fill in Marquette and Devereaux."
Twenty minutes later, Masen and Swan were presenting their conclusions to Chief Vicks, Devereaux and Marquette.
"We've got to strike tonight," Devereaux insisted.
"It doesn't fit the pattern," Swan argued.
"You said yourself that she broke her own pattern with numbers two and three. I say we force her hand, and strike while the iron is hot!"
"The moon won't set until nearly eleven tonight, Detective," Masen replied. "We believe that was what prompted those killings, in addition to the proximity to the new moon on the twenty-fifth."
"Agents, Detectives," Vicks broke in. Everyone turned to her. "Devereaux, you're the lead on this case; you tell us when and we'll do it."
"Tonight. We are doing this tonight."
Swan could hardly swallow the lump that was in her throat at Devereaux words as she looked at her partner. Her gut was rarely wrong, but this was one time that she sincerely hoped it was.
Swan sat hunched in the surveillance van, torn between the feelings of anger at Devereaux for being a jerk, Masen for being pig-headedly stubborn, and herself for her ever-growing anxiety. Intellectually, she knew Masen had the training for this. He had two sets of tracking devices, a hidden miniature video camera, and his two-way radio. He was also wearing a necklace with a bone cross on it (underneath his atrocious shirt), courtesy of Mama Balu. Why was she panicking? She watched the grainy video as Masen walked slowly through the crowded club. The camera angle kept changing, making her a little queasy as he trawled through the club. His face came up on one of the club's surveillance cameras, his brow furrowed as he scanned the faces around him. Devereaux clicked his tongue in annoyance, and pressed the "talk" button on the radio.
"You can look like you're having a good time," commented Devereaux through the radio.
Masen's scowl morphed into his trademark smirk, and Swan's stomach lurched a little as he disappeared off camera. His mini cam was picking up a blonde who was giving him a sultry look. Swan's fingers curled into a fist before she noticed and smoothed her fingers out onto her thigh. The blonde disappeared suddenly as Masen turned in a different direction.
"That's the third one in twenty minutes," commented Marquette with some respect. "He's definitely got a look the ladies appreciate."
"He's not all that," said Devereaux, not taking his eyes off the cameras. "Has he ever heard of a hairbrush? He's got the look our secretive Victoria likes, though.
Swan made no comment, although privately she had to admit she thought Masen was one of the best looking men she had ever seen. And he smelled divine. And he had the hottest tattoo hiding under his boxers. Yes, she now knew the answer, and the answer was "boxers."
Devereaux clicked his radio again. "She doesn't appear to be in the bar area. You're going to have to go through the dance floor." Masen's camera swiveled away from the bar, and headed towards the dance area. Suddenly, the lights started going crazy, causing all the cameras to flash. The brightness of the strobes going off was oversaturating the mini cam, and it didn't have time to recover before the next flash.
"Dammit! We've lost our eyes!"
Swan began to panic, grabbing at the headset she hadn't put on.
"There he is on the club surveillance," said Marquette, breaking the tension.
"And there's our target," exclaimed Devereaux with glee, flicking on the radio again.
"There's a redhead about 12 feet forward and 8 feet to the left," he told Masen.
Swan flicked on her radio. "Be careful, Masen." She wasn't ready to safe word yet, but the loss of the camera was scaring her.
"That's it, you've spotted her!"
"How can you tell, Dev? I can't tell anything on that crap minicam." Marquette sounded as concerned as she was.
Over the headset, Swan heard Masen's voice. "Dance?"
"Where is he?" demanded Marquette. "They're off camera. Let's get those strobes turned off. I'm calling the club manager." He pulled off his headset in disgust and grabbed a phone.
Swan heard a low woman's voice answer Masen's proposition. "Definitely."
"Nice job Masen, keep her diverted. Remember, you're exactly her type." Swan was ready to punch Devereaux, who sounded like he had won the lottery.
"Mm. Perfect." Victoria appeared to agree with Devereaux about her type.
Swan heard Marquette hissing through the phone at someone about strobe lights.
All at once, the lights began strobing in double time ruining the remaining video feeds, and there was a hideous shriek through the headsets, causing both Devereaux and her to pull them off in shock. Swan grabbed the headset back and started to bark into the microphone "Masen! Where are you in the bar? Are you still in Bayou at Twilight? Masen!"
"Dev, we've got to go in," said Marquette urgently. He was waiting for Dev to give the word since he was in command of the scene. Swan was about to go rogue; she was under his command only by respect. He couldn't really stop her from going in. Just as she was about to go in alone, Detective Devereaux gave the order.
"We're going in," he said, motioning to Marquette and Swan. He barked orders into his headset to the backup units, and the three of them headed into the bar. It didn't take long to ascertain that Masen and Bontemps were gone; one waitress thought she saw them headed for the restrooms.
"There's a back way out, isn't there," Swan asked the unflappable woman levelly.
"Sure, hon, right between the restrooms and the kitchen." The gum-cracking waitress went on her way with her tray of drinks.
Devereaux, Marquette, and Swan headed out the back entrance in a rush, Swan in the lead. She hurriedly looked both ways, but the alley was dark and now seemed sinister in its emptiness.
"Look," called Marquette; he was about twenty feet from where Swan stood. There was a pile of broken plastic parts on the ground at his feet.
"It's his headset, camera, and that GPS watch thing," said Swan with dismay. Only with great effort did she keep her voice from cracking. "She's taking him and we have no way to track them." Emphasis on the "we." She had to get away from the NOPD people and look at the tracking receiver in her purse, but she was going to need help.
Devereaux was talking rapidly over his headset while Marquette bagged the plastic parts.
"They've spotted one of Bontemps' known vehicles heading out on 90 toward Luling, we need to get on it," Devereaux shouted. "We've really got her this time, Marquette. Let's go. Swan? Are you coming?" Detective Devereaux gave her a hard look.
"I think I should follow some other leads. Me being in the vehicle isn't going to make it go faster. Go on. Don't lose her."
"It's your partner, Swan. Are you saying you don't want to get him back?" Devereaux looked shocked and angry.
"I'm not going to add anything to this car chase. Get going!" In the outside chance that the NOPD did have Bontemps spotted, she didn't want Dev and Little Marky to lose Masen.
"Suit yourself." Devereaux gave her one last annoyed glance and hurried back to the van. Swan was certain she heard something about "women" muttered by Devereaux, but she couldn't waste time getting into an argument with the gruff detective now. She hurried to her own car, parked further up the street. As soon as she knew she was alone, Swan pulled out the tracking unit. She was getting Masen's signal clearly, and he most definitely was not headed west on 90. So much for inter-agency cooperation. She pulled out her phone and called the only people she could trust in the Big Easy.
Fifteen minutes later, Swan pulled up next to an old warehouse on the waterfront. According to the GPS tracker, she was about half a block from Masen, or at least from his hip. Swan bit her lip in anxiety. Even her memory of Masen's hip couldn't ease her tension. A second car rolled up behind her, headlights off. Alice and Jasper emerged, both dressed all in black. Swan wanted to smack herself in the forehead. This was what she got for calling on civilians.
"Thanks for coming. I don't want either of you involved, but I can't trust the NOPD at the moment," she whispered.
"Where is he?" asked Jasper. His unruffled demeanor helped Swan refocus herself.
"The GPS suggests he's in the warehouse on the left," she said, pointing up and across the street.
"We've got you covered, Bella," Alice whispered.
"Don't tell me you have weapons!" Swan said in alarm.
"No, just our cell phones," said Jasper, putting a hand on Alice's vibrating shoulder.
"Follow me. Do not under any circumstances enter a place I haven't cleared. Keep your cell phones ready, and be ready to run when I say," said Swan. "This is going to be hard enough to explain to my superiors without having to report your untimely deaths."
The three of them ghosted their way up the street. The warehouse in question was dark, with several windows out. The entire block was still in a pre-renovation stage from the hurricane damage. Some of the other buildings were boarded up, but the warehouse in question appeared to have been left to decay.
"This is it. I can feel the darkness," murmured Alice.
Swan entered the warehouse first. She heard nothing but silence inside the huge, empty structure. She flicked on her flashlight and saw nothing in her beam. The GPS unit insisted he was right here, but there was nothing but the dirt and leaves which had blown through the broken windows. She went back to the door, now feeling panic.
"It's clear. There's nothing here." There was despair in her voice, and both Jasper and Alice tried to reassure her.
"He is here, I know it," said Alice. "You're going to save him, Swan. I think it will be close, but you will save him."
"Let me see your GPS unit," requested Jasper, his hand out.
"He's really good with electronics," confided Alice.
"It appears to be working properly. I can't be sure since I've never seen a unit quite like this one," Jasper concluded dubiously.
"If he's here, and we can't see him, there must be another floor. A basement or something," insisted Alice.
"There're no stairwells to access a lower floor, Lis. Though some warehouse owners in port cities like this built secret smuggler's rooms in early part of the last century. Prohibition and all. That would mean there's an access in the floor- and that would leave a mark," mused Jasper. He took out his own flashlight and scanned the floor as he moved in ever widening circles. "This way, I think," he called excitedly a minute later. Some of the dust is disturbed over here, underneath the storm debris. Here it is! There's a door outline under the leaves!"
Swan felt woozy from the relief. He could be here. She could still save him. The capture of Victoria Bontemps was completely irrelevant to her at this point.
"Neither of you are to follow me down this hatch," she hissed at both of them. "I am trained and armed. The only thing I want you to do at this point is keep your cell phones ready. Oh, and keep the GPS unit. If there's another way out and she drags Masen out, I need you to be able to follow him and alert the FBI in case I am incapacitated. Keep out of sight."
Jasper helped Swan pull the large trap-door open. It had to been in regular use since it opened easily and noiselessly. A ladder led down into darkness. Swan was actually relieved. If Bontemps was in a room directly below the hatch, she could have killed Masen as soon as she realized she had unexpected guests.
Swan descended the ladder carefully, relieved when she felt solid earth beneath her feet. She flicked on her flashlight and found herself in a short hallway. There were three doors, but light was visible around the outline of only one of them. She flicked her light back off and tucked it her pocket. She wanted her weapon out, and she needed another hand to open the door. The concern that there was a hostage involved eliminated the need to announce herself before entering. Swan also hoped that there was no surveillance or booby traps on the entrance to the lit room. She slid up right next to the door and put her ear to it. There was a voice, muffled to just a murmur through the closed door. The pitch sounded female. Masen's voice was much lower and smoother.
Swan hated to just break her way in, gun blazing, but she was afraid that Masen's time was limited. She didn't know how many might be in the room or whether any of them were armed. She let Alice's words give her courage, and she decided to try stealth rather than attack. Swan turned the doorknob as slowly as she could, and rejoiced quietly when it actually turned. She pushed the door open a crack. Unfortunately, it only gave her a view of the left side of the room. Apparently, everything of interest lay to the right of the door. But now she could hear.
"Don't…you don't have to…"
Swan almost wept in relief. Masen was still alive, although he sounded groggy.
"Shh. Everything is going to be fine. First, I'll take your soul like you took mine. And then, I'll set your body free. You'll be free, and then I'll be free, too."
Victoria didn't sound like the confident woman from the shop. Her voice had taken on a childlike quality, and Swan was worried she had made a psychotic break. If Victoria couldn't be reasoned with, this situation could easily get out of control.
"That's good. The mask looks good on you. Now, we'll just take off your shirt."
This was it. If Victoria's hands were busy with a shirt, it might be possible to take her by surprise. Swan pushed the door open silently, seeing Victoria crouched over Masen. His eyes were partly open, but mostly obscured by the Mardi Gras mask that had been placed over his face. He was trying to struggle, but he was tied down to four eye hole-bolts in the floor, within a circle of white powder. A gun lay on the floor next to Victoria, and next to that was a syringe of liquid. Lit candles surrounded the white circle.
Swan's advance was startled when Victoria shrieked.
"How dare you! No!" Victoria stood and backed up rapidly, wielding the syringe high above her head in her hand. Swan had just a moment to see that Masen's open shirt had exposed the necklace from Mama Balu. Victoria was without her gun and clear of Masen.
"Hands up! Federal agent!" Swan raised her weapon, pointing it directly at Victoria's chest. Victoria spun to look at her, and Swan gasped. Victoria's face was painted in black and white, resembling a skull. But the most disturbing aspect of Victoria was her eyes, which were totally mad.
With a mindless shrieking, Victoria threw herself toward Masen. Swan didn't hesitate, and for the second time in a year, found herself shooting a suspect in the act of threatening her partner. Swan kicked the syringe out of Victoria's limp hand and it skidded across the room. She checked for a pulse, but found none.
Swan hurriedly pulled out her cell and called Alice's number to reassure her and have them leave the premises. Then she contacted NOPD to report the scene. Procedure satisfied, Swan walked over to Masen and crouched beside him, pulling off the mask.
"Swan." He smiled lopsidedly at her, still groggy. "Really thirsty."
"Help is on the way, Masen." Swan picked at the knot of rope holding his left arm in place, and realized she'd need a knife to cut him free. Looking around, Swan couldn't see any sort of knife or tool in the mostly-bare room.
"I knew you would come," he said, still smiling. "Sleepy, too."
"It's okay, you can sleep. I think you're just drugged." Swan brushed the hair out of Masen's eyes. His pupils were dilated in the low light, making him look younger and vulnerable.
"I'm cold," he murmured, his smile taking on its usual crookedness. Swan noticed goosebumps erupting on his arms as he began to shiver and took off her jacket to lay it over his chest.
"I can't cut you free – there's nothing down here to cut with."
"Where's your boy-scout knife?" Masen asked groggily, his eyes sliding closed.
"Must have left it in my boy-scout pants," Swan responded dryly. She was surprised by the uncharacteristic snort that came from her partner.
"You are not a boy, Swan. You're the prettiest girl I know. Trust me, definitely not a...boy...." he slurred just before he passed out.
"Bella?" Alice's voice came through the door.
"Oh, damn. Alice, I told you not to come down here! Do NOT come through this door."
"I thought you would need this," said Alice, sounding apologetic.
"What is it?" asked Swan.
"It's Jasper's pocketknife."
It was afternoon when an exhausted Swan finally opened their hotel room door for a tired Masen. Swan had had to fill out piles of paperwork and give her statement of what happened to four different officers and Chief Vicks before she could sit in the tiny emergency room cubicle where Masen was sleeping off the affects of the anesthetic. Luckily, Victoria Bontemps's inhaled delivery was more readily processed than James Mitchell's injected delivery. Masen was alert enough after just a few hours rest to give his statements as well.
"Swan, I am going to hit the shower; do you need anything from the bathroom before I get…uh…in the shower?" He had almost said 'before I get undressed' but he saved himself the embarrassment of mentioning Swan and nudity in the same sentence. He couldn't stop the blush though.
"No, no. You go right ahead. I'll just get things arranged with the airline so we can leave in the morning."
"Good. Uh…I'll just shower, then."
Masen stood under the hot water longer than his usual seven minutes. This entire case had been amazingly stressful, and not just because of the undercover situation. Sharing a room with Swan hadn't been as bad as he originally thought. But he was ready for a good night's rest that didn't end with red-faced stammering and the necessity of an apology.
Shutting off the water, Masen stepped onto the mat and wrapped a towel tightly around his waist. Remembering the way Swan had been fascinated with his tattoo, Masen smirked before he began shaving the stubble from his face.
A moment later, Masen scowled as he heard Swan open the door and Detective Devereaux' voice rang through the room.
"I'm sorry it had to end this way," Devereaux was saying. Masen grimaced; it sounded as though the detective were trying to break up with Swan. Badly, no less.
"There really wasn't any other way, Detective. Once we stepped foot into Bayou at Twilight it was bound to end this way."
"I can't let this continue…" Devereaux said in a pained voice. Masen wondered if they were pulling one over on him, with the terrible lines they were trading back and forth.
"It could never work, Dev, we'll be out of here by TWILIGHT."
Masen was confused- hadn't Swan said she would arrange for their return to be in the morning? What did she mean, they would be gone by…twilight…
Their safe word; because Swan didn't fully trust the NOPD. She had used it twice now. Without another thought, Masen grabbed his sidearm and removed the safety in one smooth, practiced motion. Less than a second later, he burst through the bathroom door, weapon level, scanning for threats.
Instantly his eyes fell on Swan, standing at the table in the opposite corner, with the case files in hand. Her sidearm was on the nightstand to Masen's left; the bed stood between her and the weapon. Devereaux stood just inside the entry alcove to Masen's right. He held his service revolver trained on Swan, but he startled perceptibly when Masen rushed into the room.
"Is that the real reason you killed Bontemps?" Detective Devereaux scoffed. "I told Marquette you two were more than partners! Vicky didn't just target your partner, but your lover too! Hell hath no fury Agent Swan?"
"Put it down, Detective," Masen ordered in a steely voice; his heart was hammering. Devereaux was the insider. "There are other options," Masen continued. He wasn't eager to trade shots with Devereaux, not in a full-to-capacity hotel.
"You two know too much. I could see the distrust in your eyes last night, Agent Swan," Devereaux spat. "Don't think I didn't notice you going to Marquette for everything! You knew it was me!"
"Put it down," Masen ordered again more firmly. "If you shoot her, I will shoot you. I have my weapon trained on you detective. You can't take the both of us out. Don't add attempted murder of a federal agent to your laundry list, Detective."
"I guess you're first then," Devereaux said while simultaneously turning and firing towards Masen.
"MASEN!" Swan yelled; but he had already dodged low, re-aiming as the detective swung wildly towards Swan. Masen didn't hesitate; he returned fire and Devereaux dropped instantly to the ground.
"AGENTS!?!" a voice shouted from the hall, followed by the door flying open beneath Marquette's kick. Chief Vicks and Detective Marquette came in with weapons drawn, only to stand down at the sight of Devereaux on the floor and Masen with his gun drawn…in his towel.
"You two ok?" Vicks asked breathlessly.
"We will be," Swan said at the same time Masen said, "We're fine."
"Marquette? Call an ambulance." Vicks said it purely as a formality; Devereaux was clearly dead. "One of Bontemps employees at her shop, Riley Newman, was picked up by a DUI dragnet early this morning; he was driving the getaway vehicle. He implied that Detective Devereaux had been on Bontemp's payroll for a few years now. I guess this confirms it."
Swan shifted her weight from her left foot to her right foot. She was wearing her power suit with heels for an extra boost of confidence, but it had backfired a little and her feet were beginning to ache. She had been standing in front of AD Dermis' desk for 15 minutes now as he read their preliminary report with Masen standing just as uncomfortably (for different reasons) to her right. This was actually worse than the meeting after the Forks incident; at least then she had been the only one to discharge a weapon with lethal consequences. Swan was used to being the maverick who got told off every other case. Masen was not cut out for official reprimands, and she was beginning to worry about how he was holding up under the strain.
"Let me get this straight, agents," began Dermis, referring to the folder in his hands. "There were no extra hotel rooms in the greater New Orleans area, so you were forced to share a room with one bed. The suspect kidnapped Masen and you, Swan, killed her in retaliation." Swan's mouth opened and then snapped shut when she realized she was not expected to speak. Dermis was still looking at the folder. "Then a detective comes to your hotel room and threatens Swan and you, Masen, charge out of the bathroom essentially naked and take him out with lethal force. How do I justify any of this to anyone? I have agents sharing rooms and killing off potential threats to each other."
"Sir, that's not exactly fair—" began Masen, whose face had turned a becoming shade of pink.
"NOPD cleared us of any wrongdoing," chimed in Swan, whose temper was beginning to build momentum. "They confirmed that the hotel had no spare rooms during our entire stay."
Dermis gave both of his agents a glare. He had assumed that pairing Masen up with Swan would put a few brakes on Swan's occasionally out-of-control behavior, even if the assignment hadn't been his idea. Apparently, all it had done was drag Masen into Swan's insanity. The only saving grace in the whole catastrophe was that Swan rarely missed her target. Bontemps and Devereaux were undeniably responsible for serial murders and various other petty crimes over a period of years.
"I have the NOPD preliminary report in front of me, Agent Swan. Chief Vicks even entered commendations for the two of you, although that may have had more to do with the fact that you let them take all the credit for the case. Wise move, by the way. I don't think we needed the media to interview Masen in his towel."
Masen's face had turned from pink to red.
"Both of you are lucky that NOPD cleared you both immediately, or I would have to put you on leave until our investigation was complete. Now, is there anything you have that doesn't show up in the preliminary report?" asked Assistant Director Dermis.
"Sir. I was able to trace Ms. Bontemps back to her family in Baton Rouge. It looks like her first victim was an older uncle." Masen cleared his throat. "It is possible he was abusing her. His death was when she was sixteen, and coincides with her running away from home. He was a redhead in his late twenties. With green eyes."
"So that explains her obsession with men following that profile," mused AD Dermis.
"Detective Marquette updated me earlier, sir," broke in Swan. "He says a search of Devereaux' apartment showed that he and Bontemps were longtime lovers. Apparently, he did anything for her, including destroying evidence, doctoring surveillance tapes, and informing her about raids."
"Anything else, agents?" Dermis appeared to have something in mind. Masen and Swan glanced at each other in confusion. "I understand there was an altercation at the airport?"
If possible, Masen turned redder. "I set off the metal detector, and there was some difficulty showing the TSA workers what was triggering the detector." He didn't feel like explaining how the female TSA workers had spent a good deal of time discussing the need for a strip search.
"Don't you both have travel permits for your weapons?" AD Dermis was taken aback.
"Sir, I injected a subdermal GPS device in Agent Masen when I became concerned about the NOPD operation. Apparently, the prototypes have an unexpected interaction with the airport detection systems." Swan was very stiff and formal in her delivery, trying and failing to ignore the memories of Masen with his pants down and his hip exposed.
AD Dermis stared at Swan. Every time he thought she could never surprise him again, she found something even more bizarre to report. He cleared his throat. "I'm releasing you both for active duty. Agent Masen, I will ask that on your next case you avoid being kidnapped and drugged such that Swan is forced to use lethal force. Again. Dismissed."
On the elevator back to their sub-basement office, Swan began to giggle hysterically. "I guess he told you, Special Agent."
"Look, my career included no kidnappings or druggings before I met you." Masen crossed his arms and frowned. Swan heard him mumble something that sounded like "danger magnet."
"I, um, I wanted to thank you for saving me from Devereaux. I can't believe I was separated from my weapon like that. Rookie mistake, really." Swan looked at the floor.
"Yeah. I'm really glad you decided to tag me with the GPS. I'd be dead if you hadn't." Masen relaxed a little. "I have to admit, I'm glad you're my partner, partner."
Swan couldn't help but smile. "There isn't anyone else I'd rather defend with deadly force, Masen."
Masen snorted just as the elevator ground to a halt, and the orange emergency lights flickered on.
"What the?" Swan growled.
"Did you push the right button?" Masen instantly knew he said the wrong thing, judging by the look on Swan's face. She stormed over to the control panel and picked up the phone after jamming a few different buttons without result.
"This is Special Agent Swan-yes, hello, Bernie in building security- my partner and I are stuck on an elevator...the sub-basement service one...no there was no sign...We've been in the field! How am I supposed to get a memo when I can't get to my desk, in the sub-basement?! When can we...hours?! I'd appreciate that. Thank you."
"What did he say?" Masen asked warily once Swan hung up the phone.
"We may be here a while," Swan groused.
"Damn. I had a doctor's appointment this afternoon."
"If you must know, I have a certain something that requires removal." Masen gestured vaguely towards his hip as he sat down to wait.
"But I like your tattoo..." Swan blurted, shifting her weight from side to side. She was really starting to regret her shoe choice, though she was grateful for the orange tinge to the low lighting. It hid her red face quite effectively. It did not, however, conceal Masen's smug expression.
"I meant the tracker, Swan."
"Oh! Of course; I knew that. You don't have to remove it, you know. Just get an explanatory doctor's note and keep it with you whenever you travel."
"Looking to keep an eye on me, Swan?" Masen said silkily. He realized he was really starting to enjoy riling her up. Swan huffed and began pacing the dimly lit elevator. Masen had to hide his smirk.
"Yes! No! I mean, that's what I got it for in the first place. It's not like I plan on pulling out the receiver after work and monitoring where you go," she defended herself. Masen's quirked eyebrow made it quite plain that she wasn't succeeding. She rolled her eyes and threw her arms up in defeat. "I'm just going to-"
Swan's heel caught a raised edge of the cheap vinyl tilescovering the floor of the elevator just as she tried to spin around to march away from Masen. He pushed himself up quickly in order to catch her before she concussed herself on the floor.
They collided half-way, and went down in a heap. Masen let out a big "oof!" as Swan's elbows caught him straight in the gut when they tumbled to the ground. Masen lay there for a moment, trying to catch his breath while trying not to think of the woman now sprawled over him in a dark elevator. Masen was suddenly pulled from his thoughts when a strip of light slowly spread wider over the ceiling.
"Agents." Masen turned his head to find his gaze level with AD Dermis' steel-colored eyes. The elevator floor was only slightly below the ceiling of the sub-basement, stuck only a few more feet from its intended destination. Masen and Swan both scrambled to their feet; though Swan kneed Masen in the stomach in her haste. He was grateful it wasn't her heel slightly further south.
"Assistant Director Dermis!" Swan exclaimed, though she had to crouch to meet his eye. "I stumbled, and Masen caught me."
"I see. I came down to give you this..." He reached up and slid another file through the slight crack in the partially opened doors. "At least I don't have to worry about you two sharing a room for this one. You'll be stuck here in DC." Dermis shook his head, though Masen thought he might have seen a slight quirk to the usually stoic man's lip.
AN2: (Gleena) If Mama Balu is to be believed, it's now Masen's turn to be strong for Swan. Although I rather liked situations where Masen loses his shirt and gets tied up.
AN2: (ebhg) Well, I personally thought the towel bit was golden...But it is Masen's turn to step up and stop being the knight in distress so he can save his damsel. I thought he did pretty good in this episode. You know, while in his towel;) Now what could possibly be in that file?
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