The meeting Dustin Blake had been asked to attend was being held at the General Bixby Tavern, just off the I-95 South exit in northern Virginia.
Dustin knew it well. He'd often stopped there when he was a kid and his parents had taken him to D.C.a place they'd both loved. Being historians, they would have lived at the Smithsonian if they could. At the time, he'd thought that the tavern's owners had hired an actor to portray General Bixby. Bixby had been kind to him and full of information.
Dustin remembered being humiliated and hurt, as only a kid could be, when he'd discovered that there was no actor and his parents were concerned about his invention of imaginary friends. Then, of course, he'd disturbed them both by knowing things only the generalor a much older person, and an expert on the Civil Warwould know.
That had led to a number of sessions with a psychiatrist.
Dustin had then made the sage decision to agree that General Bixby was an imaginary friend. That had brought about deep thought on the part of his parentsand it had also brought about his sister. His extremely academic parents had worried that an only child might be given to such flights of fancy because he was lonely. So they'd set forth to add to their family.
That was all right. He loved his sister.
He pulled off the interstate and took an exit that led nowhere except Old Tavern Road. Soon he pulled his black SUV into the lot at the tavern and parked. For a moment, he sat and stared at the building.
What was now the General Bixby Tavern had actually been built during the American Revolution and been called the Wayfarer's Inn. During the Civil War, it had been renamed for the gallant Union generalthe kind "imaginary friend" who had, while he was alive, braved heavy artillery to save both Union and Confederate soldiers. This was when a fire had broken out in the nearby forest. While many a leader might have sat atop his horse far from the carnage, Bixby had ridden right into the inferno. Wounded after dragging at least twenty injured men from the disaster, he'd been brought to the tavern where he'd died, pleading that the nation settle its differences and find peace.
He really was a fine old gentleman. Dustin knew that well.
He exited the car and headed up the old wooden steps to the broad porch that wrapped around the tavern. This many years later, the tavern was still basically in the wildernessthe closest town being Fredericksburg. Winter was approaching and there was a little coolness in the air, heightened by the thickness of the woods around them. Only its historic importance, and the plethora of "ghost hunters," kept it from falling into ruin.
When Dustin stepped inside the dim tavern, he blinked at the change of light. He wondered instantly if the meeting had been planned so he'd have a few seconds of disorientationa time during which he might be observed and not observe in return.
As his eyes adjusted, he saw General Bixby seated at the bar. The general nodded gravely at Dustin, indicating a group across the room.
Dustin nodded in return, then moved toward the others. He saw David Caswell stand; he'd been sitting at a corner booth. Caswell wasn't alone. There were two other men with him. One was dark-haired with Native American ancestry apparent in a strong face. The other was light-skinned and light-haired. When they, too, stood to meet him, he saw that they were both tall and fit. And both were wearing casual suits. Not the usual fedsif that was what they were.
"Dustin!" David Caswell said. The pleasure of his greeting seemed sincere.
"Good to see you," Dustin greeted David, shaking his hand. He glanced at the other two men and waited.
"I'd like you to meet Jackson Crow and Malachi Gordon," David turned. "Jackson, Malachi, Special Agent Dustin Blake. When I first started with the police force in Savannah, Dustin and I were partners. He's the bestand rare in his abilities."
"Thank you for coming," Jackson said.
The men took their seats again. They studied him, and he returned their stare.
So the dark-haired man was the famousor infamousJackson Crow.
"How do you like being with the feds, Mr. Blake?" Crow asked him.
"How do I like it? Just fine," Dustin said. And it
was fine. He wasn't sure what he felt about being there today, however. There'd been a time when he'd wanted nothing more than to be assigned to one of Crow's "special" units. Now
he wasn't so sure.
In all honestyand he didn't know if it was simply self-assurance or something less commendablehe'd expected to receive a good assignment when he'd graduated from the academy. Whatever that might be. And he'd gotten a good assignment. He worked with a group of four consultants sent on diverse cases when violent crime crossed state lines.
"You enjoy working with your team?" Crow asked. Was it just a polite question?
"Yeah, I do. My coworkers are good, savvy, personable and experienced. I work with one guy, Grant Shelby, who's six foot seven, nearly three hundred pounds of lean, mean muscle, with almost computer-powered intelligence. He's pretty good to have around in a hostile situation. And Cindy Greenstreet had the highest test scores in the past decade. I also work with Jerry Gunteryou might have heard the name. He used to be a mixed-martial-arts champ before entering the academy. He's pretty good to have around in a pinch, as well. If you've called me here, I'm sure you've read up on me, so you know that when I joined the bureau, I didn't start out as a kid but came in with a lot of experience, both in combat and law enforcement."
Crow nodded and Dustin realized that he'd known all this. Dustin's FBI unit was smart and toughthey'd been put together to get in and get the job done.
"Good assignment," Crow said with a nod.
"Yeah." As he'd told them, Dustin hadn't come into the academy as a fresh-faced twenty-something grad.
Before he'd gone to college, he'd participated as a witness in a case involving a duo of oddly matched serial killers. From there, he'd gone into the military, and after the marines he'd gone into police work. He hadn't exactly entered the department immediately; there'd been a year when he'd been in total denial about himself and his "unusual" abilitiesand about the heinous things men seemed willing to do to their fellows. He'd more or less walked into the wilderness. Actually, it hadn't been that dramatic. He'd taken a job as a forest ranger in the Evergladesexcept that he'd been led to bodies in giant oilcans and he'd realized it was time to move his efforts in the best possible direction. There were certain things a man couldn't escapeand his own nature was one of them.
So he'd decided to apply to the academy.
"You know all about me," Dustin said. "Why are we meeting?"
David looked at Jackson Crow and shrugged.
"What do you know about the Krewes?" This time, it was Malachi Gordon who spoke. Dustin knew his name; he was a recent graduate of the academy. He'd come into the bureau after working a case in Savannah.
Dustin leaned back. "I've read about what happened in Savannah," he told Malachi. "You know I worked with David so, of course, the beautiful city of Savannah is near and dear to my heart. In fact, I was somewhat surprised that my unit wasn't assigned to that case, but apparently, things were already being taken care of. And, to the best of my knowledge, that case has been cleared, the paperwork wrapped up and the feds are long gone from Savannah. Having worked there, I thought I might be of some help, but
He paused and grinned sheepishly at David. "It seems like you all did just fine without me."
"I'm sure you would've been an asset," Malachi murmured.
Dustin looked curiously at the other man. "Thanks, but as I saidseems like you had it covered."
"That was thenand we did have it covered. However, although the Krewes are growing, there are never enough of us, and we're always looking for the right people," Crow told him. "Would you be interested in seeing how you work out with one of our units?"
Dustin smiled. That was straightforward. "I initially asked about applying to one of your units. They told me there was no application process. You formed your own units."
"That's true," Crow said. "And I wish I'd known about you earlier. David was talking to Malachi about you, and then Malachi talked to me. So, yes, I looked you up and pulled strings to get all the information I could on you. Thus far, each recruit has worked out. We're
careful in the people we approach. We have to be."
"Because you all have special talents, I take it?" Dustin asked. "And, of course, because all the other agents like to call the units ghost hunters and rib you all about it. But really, they're all envious of your record."
"Detective Caswell has told us that working with you was like"
"Like working with me," Malachi Gordon cut in. "David and I were together in New Orleans," he explained.
"I see," Dustin said.
"Are you a candidate, Mr. Blake?" Crow asked him.
Dustin lowered his head, hiding a smile. He looked back at Crow. "Well, let me put it this wayif you haven't met him yet, I'd be glad to introduce you to General Bixby. He's sitting at the bar right now, next to the man in the jeans and Alice Cooper T-shirt."
That brought a grin to Crow's face. Dustin hadn't been sure the man was really capable of a smile.
"We haven't met formally, no, but we've been aware of his presence."
"I wasn't sure if I was being tested or not." Dustin leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table as he looked at Jackson Crow, then Dustin and finally the third man, Malachi Gordon.
"Why now?" he asked.
It was Gordon who answered him. "You're from Nashville," he said.
Dustin thought quickly. He was privy to lawenforcement reports daily. He hadn't heard anything about a kidnapping or murder in the city of Nashville.
"I am from Nashville," he said, frowning. "But I've been gone for a long time."
"You go back often enough, don't you?"
He did, except that he hadn't been there in a while. His academic parents were living in London. His little sister, Rayna, had grown up to be a country music singer. But she'd been on tour for the past year. He'd caught up with herand his folksfor a few days in London earlier in the summer.
"Yes, but I haven't been back in about a year," he said.
"That's not too long," David said. "Have you ever heard of a man named Marcus Danby?" Malachi Gordon asked him.
"Marcus Danby." Dustin repeated slowly. The name was familiar. "Of course. Yes," he said. "He founded a therapy center. He brings in clientspatientsto work with horses. Or dogs, sometimes. He was the black sheep of a very elite family, wound up addicted to everything known to man. He did time, but he was the last living member of his family and inherited property. He also changed his ways. The Horse Farm is extremely well-respected."
"Danby is dead," Gordon said abruptly.
"I'm sorry to hear that. How did he die?"
"Fell into a ravine," Gordon told him. "He was buried two days ago but the autopsy report was just released. He had drugs in his system."
"That's a pity. The man must've been clean for at least twenty years," Dustin said. "What does this"
"Some people close to him don't believe what they're hearing. We'd like you to investigate," Jackson Crow broke in.
"You don't believe it was a fallor you don't believe he was on drugs?"
"Neither," Malachi replied.
"Are the police suspicious?" Dustin asked.
"No." Crow shook his head.
"Then I don't really understand"
"Special Agent Blake, we often find ourselves slipping in when local law enforcement doesn't see an immediate problem," Crow said.
Malachi Gordon told him, "We'd like you to go in as a patient."
"As a patient. You want me to go in as a patient and investigate an accident brought on by substance abuse when no one believes it might have been anything other than it appeared?"
"We have more than a suspicion that he was murdered," Malachi said bluntly.
Dustin stared at him. "How? Why? I'm in the bureau. I know how it works. We're usually called in when there's a suspicion that a serial killer is at large or when a killer is crossing state lines."
"Agent Blake," Jackson Crow began. "We move in on cases when we're afraid the truth may never be known because of unusual circumstances. We don't go barging in as a unit. We send one or two people and they assess the situation for us."
Dustin was surprised and, he had to admit, disappointed. This didn't sound like a case that was worthy of the Krewe.
The units had handled many truly unique cases. The sad demise of a man, even a black sheep who'd changed his own life and created a lifesaving enterprisejust didn't sound like the kind of puzzle that desperately needed to be solved.
He shook his head, baffled. "I need more than you're giving me. Yes, I'm interested in working with a unit. As you're well aware, a man can grow weary of finding excuses for knowing what he shouldn't because he's managed to have a conversation with someone who's dead. And can I go in easily? Yes. The Horse Farm is about twenty miles outside the city, but I'd have to go in as myself because I do have friends in the area. But, God knows, that could be easy. Enough people in law enforcement crackthat's a plausible reason. But I don't understand how this even came to your attention."
"My cousin called me, Blake," Malachi Gordon said. "She works at the Horse Farm and she's convinced that Marcus Danby was murdered."
Great. Someone's relative was upset.
It was an invitation to get a foot in the door with Jackson Crow and one of his Krewe units.
But if he was stepping in just because someone's relative couldn't accept the harsh fact that even the strongest person sometimes failed
That wouldn't bode so well.
"Why?" he asked Malachi. "Why is your cousin convinced that Marcus Danby met with foul play?"
"Because, Special Agent Blake, Marcus Danby told her that he was murdered."