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Mary Stone - Last Hour (Emma Last FBI Mystery Series Book 8)

A Taste of… Last Hour

Chapter One

Charlie “Rux” Rucker bopped his way down the sidewalk outside the Night Trips Strip Club, earning him laughs and jeers from the ladies at the door. They did their own little dances to get people interested in sampling the wares inside, and he threw them a wave.

Rux rolled his eyes when he saw Jax still hanging around the entrance.

He don’t stop flirting, the kid’s gonna get hurt. They don’t want nothing to do with his young ass.

Jax was just about legal drinking age, but not quite. Didn’t stop the liquor flowing when Rux was with him. They ran with the Drivers, and Trips was a Drivers bar.

But they’d had their fun. It was damn near two in the morning, and it was time to get going. Rux had work in the morning, finishing up laying the tile in his mom’s new bathroom. He just had that to do, then put the toilet back down, and he’d be done. They could finally sell that place and buy her something nicer.

Shit, with the money we’re earning from selling, I’m buying two houses next time.

“Hey, Jax! Let’s go.”

The kid didn’t budge, just kept flirting.

“Jax. Did I say time to go? I think I did.”

He came over and joined Rux, finally. Soon as Jax had his head turned, the girl he’d been flirting with started waving at some dude across the street.

Rux put his arm around his baby brother’s shoulders and pulled him away so he wouldn’t get his heart stomped on. “You gotta learn when they mean business, and when they are business. Girls at Trips are always the second kind.”

Jax kicked at a bottle as he ducked out from under Rux’s arm. “I almost had Amber’s number, man. You couldn’t give me another five minutes?”

Here he goes again.

Rux moved down the sidewalk and let the kid ramble on about all the things he was gonna do with Amber someday. But something nagged at Rux’s mind, like he should’ve remembered it before leaving the club.

Mighta stopped at three drinks instead of four. Or was it five? Shit.

It hit him. Their driver, Snake, was supposed to meet them out front. Snake knew the deal, being the NKOTB. Sure, he’d been running since they came down from Baltimore, but he was still one of the youngest and didn’t do much more than paint a few pictures on the wall.

Not like Rux and Jax, working corner crews, keeping track of all the product.

Rux tapped out a text to Snake.

Your ass better not be where I think it is.

Nothing came back, and Rux tried again. After five more texts and five more minutes, he gave up.

“Jax, c’mon. We’re walking.”

“Walk? Why the fu—?”

“Because Snake’s busy dipping his slithery tail where it doesn’t belong. Now let’s go.”

He led them down an alley that ran along the back of Night Trips. It would take them to the next neighborhood over, and from there, they could get home easy enough. At least to Jax’s little dump of a duplex.

Rux kept a better place across town, near his mom’s, but no way was he walking that far in the dark, especially after drinking. And since Rails, the leader of the Drivers, had forbidden them from using rideshare, his only choice was to crash at Jax’s.

Rails thinks we leave footprints using those apps, even though we all got burners at the ready. But the man said don’t, so we don’t, because “that’s what Snake is for.”

After this, Rux’d have to talk with Rails. Tell him Snake didn’t get the memo.

“Rux, you serious? We walking all the way to your place?”

“No. We’re walking all the way to yours.”

Rux pulled up short when he heard Jax’s footsteps stop behind him. He turned around but continued walking backward. “What’re you doing? C’mon, now.”

They made it to the end of the alley, with Rux and Jax trading jabs. Rux was about to step onto the sidewalk when Jax tapped his arm.

“What’s up with Snake making us walk like this? Something’s going on, right?”

Rux sure as hell wasn’t gonna mention Snake’s new girlfriend. She was a Powders girl, and that news did not need spreading around. Bad enough one of the Trips dancers knew about it, but Celine knew better than to run her mouth.

Least, she better. She doesn’t want to find out what happens if she flaps her lips.

“Snake’s busy, like I said.”

“Yeah, dipping it where he shouldn’t.”

Rux rounded on him, backing him up a step.

“Jax, I told you, leave it the fuck be. Snake’s got a new girl, okay? If he likes her enough to lay off the clubs, more power to him. He’s a punk for making us walk, though, and bet I’m bringing this up to Rails first chance I get. Now let’s move.”

He stepped out of the alley and was about to cross the street when he spotted a girl from Night Trips walking down the block. “Hey, ain’t that Celine?”

Jax had a hand up and was shouting at her before Rux could stop him. The girl startled and looked their way. But then she shook her head and sped up.

Slapping Jax on the arm, Rux followed Celine. “C’mon, let’s see what she’s doing. Maybe get another dance from her, off the clock.”

The kid’s footsteps slapped the pavement as he kept pace with Rux.

“Hey, Celine,” he called, “you got time for another dance?”

Jax hollered his own invitation her way, but all she did was flip them the finger and turn around the next corner.

Rux shrugged, moving faster now, and Jax was right there at his shoulder.

They followed her another block, calling her name, offering a good tip for a bit of her time. They didn’t usually hassle the girls at the club because Rails told them not to. But Rux was having fun with it, and he could tell Jax was too.

They had to be on the lookout, make sure the place didn’t get a bad reputation, because that could bring the cops around.

But out here on the streets? Nah, this’s our territory. Ain’t no reason we can’t have a little fun.

“Celine. Hey, I’m talking to you, girl. C’mon.”

She kept moving, walking faster, almost running now. Rux and Jax started jogging.

They were getting close to her, nearing the next corner, but Rux froze in his tracks when he heard a scraping sound like metal on concrete. He drew his gun and turned, scanning the street, the darkened doors, the fire escapes, and the shadows under the moonlight.

Celine was out of sight now.

Nothing moved.

Rux held his breath, listening. The world was quiet, but the tiny hairs on the back of Rux’s neck rose, telling him they weren’t alone.

“C’mon, Jax. Get ready in case shit goes down.”

The kid had his gun in hand and shifted his weight side to side. He followed fast when Rux moved down to the next block.

The scraping sound followed them, and Rux kept looking up at every fire escape they passed, expecting somebody to come jumping down on them at any minute.

At the next street, he took them into an alley that turned away from where he’d been heading.

Somebody’s fucking with us. All right, then—let’s fuck around.

The alley ended at a major street, two blocks ahead. He could already see the crowds up there, spilling out of another club and staggering toward cars lined up along the curb. Music played loudly, beats rattling windows and echoing down the alley.

Rux was ready to keep going but froze when he saw the blue-and-white bubble of the Powders gang marking the nearest wall.

Shit. Shit, shit, shit.

He stuffed his gun back in his pants and slapped Jax’s arm, telling him to do the same, but the kid didn’t budge.

“Isn’t that a Powders tag? We’re going down there without guns in our hands? You serious?”

“Deadass. Like Rails said the other day. Nobody starts nothing. Just keep your head up and be cool. We’ll be off their streets before—”

A whoosh of air put Rux back a step.

He went for his gun as a figure wearing all black flashed by him, grabbing Jax along the way and slamming him into the alley wall.

The kid let out a high-pitched wail of pain that turned guttural.

Rux spun away, firing blindly behind himself as he ran back the way he’d come. He dodged behind a dumpster and checked the alley, hoping the attacker’s body was all sprawled out.

What he saw was his baby brother, the kid Rails told him to watch out for, sliding down the brick wall. Jax slumped sideways before falling face-first into a slimy puddle.

Run! Jax is dead. You always thought that peace treaty was bullshit, and now you got proof. Just get back to Rails and tell him.

Stumbling to his feet, Rux hit the alley wall hard before taking a lunging step toward freedom. He spun to flee, but the muscular, lightning-fast fighter leaped and landed on his back, tackling him to the ground and stealing the breath out of his lungs.

His gun went flying. Rux twisted sideways and rolled, trying to force his attacker off his back. Metal scratched and sparked against the asphalt, right next to his face.

Rux squirmed and thrashed, heaving under his attacker’s weight. He was on his back now and brought one arm up to cover his face while he struck out with his other fist. The impact was brutal. He’d struck some kind of body armor or something, and it felt like he’d broken every knuckle. The dude on him batted his bloody hand aside and secured his knees around Rux’s ribs.

He struggled to take in a full breath and punched upward again with his other hand, then brought both arms together in a cross to block the knife in his attacker’s grip.

He caught it just as it came down toward his chest. All he could see was a mass of darkness above him.

The attacker pressed down, trying to push the blade straight into Rux’s heart.

Rux grunted, fighting back as he struggled to keep air in his lungs. He pushed with all his might and got a clearer view of the weapon. And what he saw about made his heart stop.

It was no knife. But there were multiple blades, emerging from the attacker’s hand like long, sharp, curved talons.

And they were dripping in Jax’s blood.

The figure hissed at him, straight up hissed, and leaned closer, putting all his weight into bringing those blades closer to Rux’s eyes now.

“Driver. You think you can walk these streets and mess with my family? Just like a slimy snake you know?”

The attacker’s rasp almost made the words run together. Rux heaved in a breath, desperate to get the dude off him.

“Who you talking about? What family?”

“Celine’s my family, like all the Powders.”

“She’s…” Rux fought to take in enough air to get the words out. “She ain’t no Powder. She dances at Night Trips.”

“Uh-huh. And that’s where she saw you with that slimy little snake, slithering around. Now two more Drivers going six feet underground.”

Rux realigned his grip on the guy’s arm, pushing him up and away, but the attacker swung his other hand straight into Rux’s solar plexus, landing a punch that stole his strength.

He opened his mouth to inhale much needed air, but blades drove through his neck, cutting it off. Rux spasmed as his throat filled with lightning-sharp pain. Blood fountained from his throat as the blades pulled free. Hot and wet, blood gushed over his chin, cheeks, hands, shoulder, chest as he fought to stop his life from rushing away in a torrent.

The killer shifted, pressed on his chest for leverage, and stood up and away from the bubbling gore pouring from Rux’s body. “Where’s your snaky friend tonight, Driver? Huh?” The words seemed to come from afar, echoing with a cruel irony that Rux couldn’t grasp.

Sirens screamed into the night, somewhere far away, like a sound Rux remembered from childhood as the last of his life spilled from his throat, making another puddle in the alleyway.

Memories flickered like old film, snippets of laughter, faces of loved ones, fragments of dreams unfulfilled. The time when he was seven, and his mom took him away from the lights of the city so he could see the stars shining in the sky for the first time.

The cold of the alleyway seeped through him, yet it was the chill of his own ebbing life that froze him to the core.

So many regrets. So many mistakes.

Lying there, the world receding, Rux’s thoughts drifted to the absurdity of it all, how life’s end could be so mundane, so unceremonious. As darkness encroached, his last conscious thought was a whisper, a wish to have seen the stars with his mom one last time. To have one last hour. One last minute…

Chapter Two

Special Agent Emma Last stretched into child’s pose, imagining Oren’s rumbly voice encouraging her, his lower hand hovering above her back. He would remind her to breathe evenly, filling her lungs from the bottom to the top. Then emptying herself with a steady, complete exhale.

Oren wasn’t there—the air hadn’t chilled with any sign of the Other—but she felt like he could be, and that was what mattered.

Around her, the city park was a green expanse of calm. Trees rustled in the early morning breeze, and birds chittered about, searching for their breakfast. Other city dwellers had picked out their own spots to exercise or were walking and jogging along the park’s paths—but the simple calm that came with morning time offered a solitary peace she’d been craving.

Cherry blossoms scented the air with a sweetness that meant spring had arrived, and a couple of squirrels squeaked at her from nearby, more interested than concerned. Emma was as far from death and the Other and the FBI as ever.

She inched her arms farther up the mat, imagining Oren’s hand settling onto her lower back, gently pressing, as she stretched her warmed-up muscles. The grass beneath her mat made for a soft, comforting surface. Feeling it beneath her, and the life in the park all around, she only wished she and Oren had gotten a chance to do yoga here together.

He’d have enjoyed this. He’d enjoy seeing me here, too, like this. Calm and at ease, with his help.

She’d woken up early for yoga in the park and found herself pleasantly surprised to see other lone yoga practitioners sprinkled around the green lawns. Even the couples exercising together hadn’t gotten her down.

Nearly a week had passed since she’d seen Oren’s ghost at his studio, but true to his word, she’d felt watched over since then. As if she weren’t quite alone, even when she was.

Almost like a normal person feeling watched out for by their loved one. What a miracle that was compared to her normal life.

Yet, of all the ghosts who might’ve appeared to her, Emma’s mother remained conspicuously absent.

Pulling herself to kneeling, Emma took deep breath after deep breath. Eyes closed, she let her body rest before coming back to the realm of the city and the life at the Bureau that awaited her. When she stood up and collected her mat, she felt both the buzz and the peace sweep over her from her yogic practice.

Oren would’ve been proud. He’d encouraged her, so often, to prioritize inner harmony to help her stay grounded when the realities of her life and her work threatened to overwhelm.

And they so often did. Whether it was a literal axe murderer hell-bent on vengeance or a twisted killer targeting impoverished children, Emma’s professional life put her in touch with the worst of humanity on an almost daily basis.

Yoga, and her memories of Oren’s teaching, helped her stay connected to the immediate moment. And she was better for it.

But now it’s time to get started with your Monday, Emma girl.

The trip back to her place wasn’t a long one. Within minutes of leaving the park, Emma was jogging in place at the intersection near her apartment complex, a stitch in her side begging her to stop.

The bakery across the street backed up that sentiment with a solid display case of fresh croissants and honey-toasted pastries, but Emma ignored both. She was finally back on track to a healthy routine, and she’d be damned before she’d let the demons on her shoulder win the morning.

I won’t turn down a doughnut if Leo brings them in again, though. I’ve earned one, dammit.

The walk light signaled go, and she jogged forward, relishing the warmth in her muscles against the chilly morning air. She’d missed this. And at just after sunrise in late March D.C., her run was nearly perfect.

At the door to her complex, she adjusted her yoga mat under her arm as she swiped her key card, then pushed herself to keep up a jogging pace as she went down the hall and up the stairs. Her cooldown would come while she fixed herself breakfast since, miracle of miracles, she’d actually gone to the store and stocked her kitchen with healthy options to add to what Neil Forrester, her old boss, had ordered for her when he visited the previous week.

Inside her apartment, Mrs. Kellerly’s familiar ghost hovered near Emma’s Keurig, her frizzy white hair as puffy as ever. “There you are. And with a healthy glow to you too!”

“Morning, Mrs. Kellerly.” Emma settled her yoga mat in the little alcove behind her front door, working to catch her breath. “You should be outside watching the city wake up. It’s a beautiful morning.”

She stretched her arms above her head, turning to see the ghost smiling. Her white eyes no longer bothered Emma, nor did the little chill to the air that came whenever the Other pushed its way into her corner of existence.

Mrs. Kellerly was practically family at this point.

“This is your third morning in a row, getting up to exercise.” The ghost shuffled around the counter, eyeing Emma with a hint of approval in her voice. Oddly, it made Emma all the warmer. “It’s good to see you like this.”

“I like getting up before the sun, so I can watch it rise and call the city back to life.” Emma pulled low-fat strawberry cream cheese, eggs, and a container of fresh mixed berries from the fridge, taking the haul to the counter. “Seeing other folks exercising, out enjoying the morning. This is the best time of year here. The cherry blossoms in the park smell heavenly.”

With eggs on the stove and a whole-grain bagel toasting, Emma separated out some raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries to wash.

Mrs. Kellerly nodded her approval, wishing out loud that she could smell the breakfast.

Emma tossed her a smile just as her bagel beeped, then began preparing her plate. By the time she’d spread out the cream cheese and berries, her eggs and coffee were done.

At the island, she took a deep breath before digging in. Oren had always told her to treasure every moment. Every bite of every meal. Every sunrise and cloudy day. Every friendship. The office might be waiting for her, it was true, but for right now, she was just a young woman with a good breakfast—and much of her life—spread out before her.

Oren would want her to appreciate that, and Emma pictured his dancing blue eyes as she took a bite of her bagel, relishing the delicious cream cheese and the blueberries she’d sprinkled on top.

That bakery across the street can suck it. Nothing beats fresh berries after a morning run.

“Well, you enjoy your breakfast, Emma dear.” Mrs. Kellerly passed by her, floating a little straighter than she had some weeks back, when Emma had mostly ignored her. “And I’ll see you tomorrow. Focus on the living. I’ve got plenty to occupy me, don’t you worry.”

Emma gave the ghostly neighbor a wave as she sipped her coffee, smiling at the woman’s back. She hadn’t been as gossipy lately, as if she only needed to check in and see that Emma’s optimism had returned. Just long enough to offer a, “How are you, dear?” and make sure she was eating.

And it was almost nice having the old woman greet her after a run. Not normal…but nice.

Maybe that’s a sign you’re ready to really deal with this Other business, Emma girl.

Taking an extra big bite of her bagel to chew on while she tackled her next chore, Emma grabbed her cell phone off the island. She scrolled down to Marigold’s name and dashed off a quick text to the psychic.

Any chance you’re free to meet this evening? I’ll spring for dinner if you’re willing to chat about the Other.

She put her phone down and picked her fork back up, and she could almost hear Oren’s voice echoing around her as she did. He’d told her she was incredible, and that what she had to do would be incredible, too, if she’d only stop pushing her talents away.

It was damn well time to listen to the man.

And now that she was back to feeling good, running and yoga-posing her body back into shape, she’d become more eager than ever to figure out the identities of those women in the photo she’d found in her father’s storage unit, tucked away in his old desk with a collection of pictures from Emma’s childhood.

The very fact that she’d found it among her dad’s things suggested there was some importance to the relationships it commemorated. Those women had been hugging up on her mom like they were all sisters, but Emma had never seen them before. Wouldn’t women who’d been that close have stuck around to check in on her, like aunts or godmothers?

And beyond that, more importantly, she’d realized as she began coming out of her grieving stupor that her damn fingers turned to icicles when she touched the picture.

It was time to figure out this whole Other part of her life.

Emma took the final bite of her eggs just as her phone buzzed with a message from Marigold.

Absolutely! I’ll come to your place. We can head out from there. Just text me once you know what time you’ll be off work.

“Perfect.” Emma plucked up the last fresh berries from her plate and popped them into her mouth. After putting her dish in the sink, she sat down at the island to enjoy her coffee. Gazing around the apartment, she decided it looked brighter than it had in days.

It was cleaner than she’d been keeping it while wallowing in grief, definitely, but either the spring air or her own new outlook seemed to change everything. The cream-colored walls were more welcoming, her couch and chairs cozier, the wood grains of the entryway flooring a touch more luxurious and natural.

I don’t know if Oren’s watching me, but if he is, he’s proud of the progress he inspired. At least, he better be. No other ghost could’ve turned me around like this.

Emma nearly snorted coffee out her nose at that thought but recovered and went back to smiling like a lunatic as she enjoyed her space. She’d come a long way in the last week, and she could understand if Oren’s ghost wanted to keep his distance and let her continue on her own for a bit, proving she could, as that was kind of the point.

The switch had flipped for her, and she could continue on her own. Her friends and her team were backing her up, but she was standing up again. Facing the world.

Facing both worlds. On her own.

Her phone buzzed. Stopping the coffee cup halfway to her mouth, she glanced down to read a message from Jacinda.

Powders and Drivers are making moves. Our unit’s assisting the Bureau’s Safe Streets Task Force. Meeting this morning. Be on time.

Jacinda might not have elaborated, but if D.C.’s two most prominent gangs were finally getting into it, there’d be no rest on the horizon for the wicked or the good.

The first cut is the deadliest.

Special Agent Emma Last is finally ready to confront the ‘Other’ side of her life—the part filled with ghosts that only she can see. However, her supernatural abilities must take a back seat as a real-world crisis demands her urgent attention.

Ghosts or not, the clock is ticking.

The D.C. Violent Crimes Unit joins forces with the Bureau’s Safe Streets Task Force to investigate a perplexing double homicide in the gritty underworld of gang territories. Read More