When Taub answered the phone, he sounded confused.
"Deputy? Something I can help you with?" he said.
Shit, Johnny thought. Poor guy hasn't even made it home yet. He could hear from background noise that Taub was in his car. Johnny hated to call him, but had to. Nathaniel and Captain Willis, Ellie's boss, had reiterated that the case was to be kept quiet -- that meant no new lab techs on the scene.
"Hey, man. I hate to ask you this, but I need you to assemble the team and meet me at a crime scene ASAP. We've got another homicide."
Johnny was impressed by Taub's calm -- if it had been him, he would have bitched and complained. Taub didn't.
"OK. Give me 20 minutes. What's the address?"
"Same one you gave us for Tariq al Waziri," Johnny said.
"Oh. Well, shit. That's not good, is it?"
"No. No, it is not," Johnny sighed.
"Twenty minutes, Deputy. We're on the way."
And, true to his word, Taub had his team there in 20 minutes. The four sleepy-looking lab techs tumbled out of the crime scene van in Waziri's driveway, loaded down with bags of forensic equipment.
"How many bodies we got?" Bill Ewing asked, still shrugging into his coveralls.
"Four that we saw," Johnny told him. "MO looks the same. All shot in the head, no casings that we could see."
"Oh, well. At least we're getting overtime," Ewing said with a tired smile.
Even on zero sleep, Taub orchestrated his team like a pro, throwing out assignments as he led them into the house. Johnny nodded in respect. He was glad Ellie had suggested Taub run the team --while a young guy, he seemed to know what he was doing. The door closed behind the team.
Johnny walked over to the curb where Ellie's unmarked and Rawlins' cruiser sat. Ellie was smoking a cigarette -- Johnny lit one of his.
"Our body count's up from six to ten," Ellie said. "That's not what I'd call progress."
"We've still got a lead," Johnny said.
"Right. The Ghost Ukranian who may or may not be in town. You think your boy will be able to come through for us?" Ellie asked.
"Indeed. If Eric says he can find the guy, then he'll find him. You don't much care for him, do you?"
Johnny expected a vague answer from Ellie. He expected her to begin with something like "It's not that I don't like him. . ."
He was wrong.
"Nope. I sure don't," Ellie said.
Johnny blinked. He respected her blunt honesty, though, even if it did catch him by surprise.
"Did he say something to offend you? He does that sometimes. The guy has almost no social filter," Johnny said.
"Nope. I don't like him because he's a criminal," she said. "Was a criminal," Johnny corrected her.
"Whatever," she scoffed. "You've seen the same statistics I have, Johnny. Seen the same guys. You've been a cop in this town for about five years, right?"
"How many times have you arrested the same people?"
"I see where you're going. Repeat offenders. Revolving-door prisons. A criminal is a criminal, arrest and incarceration be damned, right?"
"Speaking from experience, yes. And look at the guy. He dresses like a punk, talks like an offender. I don't see why you trust him."
"Eric's aces. He's on our side."
"For the moment. But I can't say I feel comfortable turning my back on him."
Frank walked up at that moment, and Johnny was glad to have an excuse to end the conversation.
"Team's doing their thing," Frank said. "They'll be at it a while. Two, three hours at least. I talked to your Deputy -- he's fine to stay and babysit them."
"Good," Ellie said. "I need coffee, and the three of us need to figure out our next move."
"I'll call Gary and have him put some diesel on," Frank said.
Johnny's BlackBerry chirped -- his caller I'd showed Eric's cell number.
"Speak of the devil," Ellie said, looking over Johnny's shoulder.
Johnny toggled the speakerphone, willing Eric on the other end: Please have something good for me, bro. I just went to bat for you. Don't make me look like an idiot.
"Hey, Eric. You're on speaker with Frank and Ellie. What've you got?" Johnny said.
"Oh, hey, guys. Good news," Eric's voice came out of the speaker. "Vassily's in town. I've got eyes on him now. Y'all want to meet me downtown for coffee?"
Johnny forced himself not to smile -- his boy had come through in record time. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ellie shake her head.
"Right on, Eric. Where?"
"Sixteenth and Farnam."
"We're on the way."
Johnny hung up and turned to his fellow officers.
"Yeah, yeah. Don't gloat -- your boy did OK, but we still don't know if this thing with the Ukranian will really go anywhere," Ellie said. Her tone was flat and even, but Johnny saw traces of a smile forming at the corners of her mouth.
* * *
"Your diesel, folks," Eric said. He gestured to the table in front of him, where four steaming mugs of black coffee were waiting.
"Doesn't seem like your kinda place. A little hippie-ish," Frank said, looking around the interior of Walker's Fair Trade Coffee and Tea Company.
"Oh, it's not," Eric said. "The corporate mass-produced down-home indie atmosphere creeps me the fuck out. But you sure can't beat the view.”
He nodded out the huge bay window in front of the table to the downtown Doubletree Suites hotel across the street. A cold rain had started.
"Might I direct your attention to that poor bastard in the suit smoking a cigarette outside in the freezing rain?" Eric said, smiling.
Johnny saw the man Eric had indicated -- tall, pale, mid 40s, with short, dark hair. He looked miserable.
"What about him?" Ellie said.
"Former Russian Army. Spetsnaz, my guess," Eric said.
"How can you tell?" Frank asked.
"His boots. His cigarettes. Few other hints. He's part of Vassily's crew. We can expect to find five, six more just like him inside, and at least one guarding the car," Eric told them.
"So what's the plan? Just walk in there, show our credentials, and start asking questions?" Frank asked.
Eric shook his head.
"I wouldn't go near there without SWAT, and even then, you're looking at a bloodbath. These guys don't play -- they're armed to the teeth." He nodded again at the man standing outside in the rain. "He's probably got at least an MP5 under that jacket with armor-piercing rounds. You can bet he's wearing body armor, too. Remember, this guy can get any weapons you can think of."
"So his own guys are fully tooled up. Makes sense. So how do we get to him?" Ellie asked.
"He'll probably take a meeting with me," Eric said. "We used to do business years ago. At the very least, I can see what I can get out of him on this mysterious client Stahl mentioned."
"Does Vassily know you've flipped? Gone over to our side?" Johnny asked.
"I doubt it. He was a vendor, and Julian didn't like to discuss internal matters with vendors. Plus, he hightailed it out of Florida when Julian got arrested. I was still dead at the time."
"What do you mean, dead?" Ellie asked.
"Oh, my boss cut me up, bled me out, and left me to die. You know, office politics," Eric said, winking.
"I don't like it," Ellie said.
"Neither did I," Eric said.
"Not that. Your plan. You're not a cop, and I don't like you going in there without one of us," she said.
"Fine. I'll take Johnny with me. I can sell him as muscle."
"Nope. I'm going with you," Ellie said flatly. She sipped her coffee. Even as she drank, her eyes were locked on Eric's.
"No offense, Detective Jarvis -- how would I sell you?" Eric said after a long moment. "You don't look like a criminal. I mean, neither does Johnny, but at least he's big as fuck. Vassily will buy him as a hired thug, but you?"
Johnny could see that Ellie wanted to argue, if for no other reason than her mistrust of Eric, but she couldn't -- his logic made sense. He decided his best course of action would be to say nothing -- judging by the silence at the table, Eric and Frank thought the same thing.
"Fine," Ellie finally sighed. "I trust Johnny. But Frank and I are going to be close by, monitoring."
"Yeah, about that? No wires. Vassily's sure to check us for them. I'll try to leave a cell line open, though," Eric said. "Good enough?"
"Suppose it'll have to be. How are you going to get a meeting with him?" Frank said.
"The old-school way -- I'm going to have his guards bring us to him," Eric said.
"Sounds dangerous," Frank said.
"Nah. I know some of his guys. We go back. I'm sure it'll be fine."
Johnny sipped his coffee.
"Right. What time do we go?"
"I figure around eight tonight. Vassily's schedule is like clockwork -- he'll be having a drink then."
"Well, it's not a great plan, but it's the best we've got," Ellie said. "All right, Tattoo Boy. You're on."
* * *
"Lobby, brown suit. Elevator, black polo shirt," Eric muttered to Johnny as the two of them drove Eric's BMW past the Doubletree Lobby's glass doors.
"Roger. Plus the guy out front, that's three. You getting this, Ellie?"
"Yep," Ellie said over Johnny's Bluetooth headset. "Got 'em marked."
"Black peacoat next to the pretentious Mercedes Ambassador. Vassily's ride, obviously," Eric said as they rolled into underground parking.
"Four. Any more in the underground lot?" Ellie's voice buzzed in Johnny's ear.
"Eric? Any more down here?"
"Doesn't look like it. Probably one on Vassily's door, two more in the room with him. That'll make seven. Johnny, cut your cell. We're about to make contact."
"Yeah, I heard. Call again if you can -- I'll have you on mute."
"Good luck in there."
Johnny hung up. He pulled the Bluetooth from his ear and stashed it in the pocket of his leather jacket as Eric parked the BMW a few spaces from the Merc. The two of them got out of the car, and Eric made a beeline for the guy in the peacoat. Johnny kept on his heels.
"Tovarisch!" Eric said. "Call up and tell Vassily that Eric Austen is here to see him."
The guy in the peacoat put his hand inside his jacket.
"I wouldn't. Vassily wouldn't like it if you shot me," Eric chided, moving like lightning as he spoke. Before he finished talking, he had the guy pinned. The man in the peacoat struggled, smashed between the Mercedes and Eric, but Eric put him down with a quick, brutal head-butt to the nose.
Eric grabbed the unconscious man's legs and dragged him to the BMW. He unlocked the trunk and dumped the man in.
"Hold this," he said. Eric handed Johnny an MP5 that he'd snatched out of the man's coat.
"Oh, and this. Don't want him fucking up my upholstery with it."
He pulled a knife out of the man's boot. Johnny stashed the weapons behind a trash can.
"Right. Let's see if anyone else is more helpful." Eric and Johnny took the stairs to the lobby, and Eric headed for the guy at the elevator.
"Pavel!" Eric said. "How the hell are you?"
"I would recognize those tattoos anywhere!" the man smiled. "Eric, where the fuck have you been, man?"
Pavel and Eric hugged.
"Been around, man. Tampa went south -- went to Europe for a while. Setting up a business out here now, so I came to see The Man. He in?"
"He's done with business for the day, but I'll call up. Who's the muscle?"
"This's Johnny. Fastest hands you've ever seen, shit you not."
"Johnny. I am Pavel. A friend of Eric Austen is also my friend," Pavel said, sticking out his hand and smiling.
Johnny shook it. Pavel looked rail-thin, but his grip was crushing.
Pavel put his hand to his ear and spoke in quick Russian. After a second, he smiled.
"Good news, my friend. He'd love to have you up for a drink," Pavel said, pressing the elevator call button. "Follow me."
Johnny followed the two of them onto the elevator, idly wondering how long it would take someone to find the guy in the trunk.