A Lamentation Of Swans


farah_icon.gif nick_icon.gif sylvester_icon.gif

Scene Title A Lamentation Of Swans
Synopsis Nick's past returns to haunt him.
Date October 26, 2018

A light, drizzling rain turns a lowpart of the Street into a garbage-strewn soup. Paper cups float alongside eviscerated trash bags spilling with day-old pasta like carbohydrate entrails. Napkins and chicken bones clog up the storm drain and a pair of dangerously skinny dogs fight over what they've torn free from the bags. Chain-link fence divides the street here, topped with concertina wire and long-ago burned out floodlights. Faded signage streaked with rust exclaims SOUTHWARK EVO FREE ZONE and below it in red block print, No Evolved Past This Point.

An Italian leather shoe disturbs a puddle reflecting this old sign. The well-dressed and chalk-haired man it belongs to walks with a slow and deliberate pace down the sidewalk, heedless of the snarling dogs across the street, shielding himself from the rain with an unfurled, black umbrella that matches his heavy wool coat. The row houses here packed tightly just one street off the Thames should be condemned. Many have missing windows and many more show signs of fire damage from riots that tore through the neighborhood nearly a decade ago.

Several paces behind the well-dressed man under his umbrella, a broad-shouldered Pakistani man in a toque hat follows diligently. He is more alert of threats, the hounds, the distant sirens, the general sense of malaise that hangs over this poor neighborhood. When his employer stops at the stoop of one of the derelict flats, he stops a few paces away and leans against a disused mailbox.

Coming up the steps, the white-haired old man keeps his umbrella angled against the rain, then stops to knock with a leather-gloved hand against the apartment door. He is not expected.

The woman who answers the door doesn’t look like a nurse. Or rather: She doesn’t look how most people imagine a nurse should. Her shape is all hard angles draped in turquoise scrubs and a tatty bathrobe pulled over top for warmth. She can get away with it because this is her home, not the hospital where she works. She’s also off-duty, which is a good thing because she’s probably the sort of person whose bedside manner leaves something to be desired.

She looks her visitor up and down with a look of contempt that transforms into something darker when her eyes eventually come to settle on his face.

There’s recognition in them.

Fear, too.

The woman attempts to disguise it with a forced smile that looks more like a sneer, lips curling back over teeth gone crooked and sallow. The tips of her fingers are similarly stained, and maybe this is because of the lit cigarette she pinches between them.

“You here for a refund, then?” she asks the stranger, who is not a stranger.

He smiles, practiced and measured in the way polite society demands. “No,” he says plainly, rising up onto the next step and filling the doorway with his tall silhouette.

“This isn't about money.”

One Month Later

CIA Headquarters

1301 Main Street

Kansas City, MO

October 26th

10:12 am local time

What was once the H&R Block World Headquarters in Kansas City is a far cry from Langley. These days, that part of Virginia is little more than miles of decimated concrete rubble interspersed with construction sites and cemeteries. The tile floor and cream-colored walls of the new CIA Headquarters feels as temporary as it looks, even though it's been home to the mortally wounded remnants of the United States international intelligence apparatus for going on half a decade now.

Before noon the halls are bustling with activity, and past every closed office door phones are ringing. The United States may be struggling in its recovery but the world hasn't stopped moving, nor has America’s interest in the world’s movements slowed down at all. What makes this day particularly unusual is that it isn't often that Nick Ruskin is asked to come out to Kansas City. The 2-hour direct flight from Floyd Bennet Airfield was at least mercifully quick, if not at too early of an hour when he has pressing concerns on his mind.

And he's been asked to meet with Deputy Director of HUMINT, Farah Nazan. His boss.

The short notice flight means Nick had little time to try to remedy or camouflage the all-too-visible symptoms of too many nights without proper sleep. That Englishman’s skin is wan; the circles beneath his eyes made all the darker in contrast. Five o’clock shadow amplifies the pallor as well as the too-thin contours of his face. He’s lean, wiry, and a few pounds lost to stress or restlessness show all too easily, regardless of a thick sweater or peacoat covering most of his body.

He makes his way, nodding to those he passes in the halls, though most of them he doesn’t know. Eventually he makes his way to Nazan’s office, waiting patiently to be shown the way in. He glances at his cell phone, thumbing over the screen to make the use of the wireless that works, sending a message to the few who know where he is that he’s arrived safely.

The door to Farah’s office is hanging open when Nick reaches the end of the hall. He can see her standing by the narrow windows, dark hair spilled down the back of a tan blazer, coffee in one hand and stare directed out to the city beyond. A vibration and chirp from a text response distracts Nick just as he reaches the doorway.

A. Epstein: love you too schnookums play nice with your little friends

Even here.

Inside Farah’s office it never really looks like she ever fully moved in. Metal filing cabinets line one wall, her desk is without adornments or personal effects save for a single photograph of a tanned man with short, dark hair seated on a horse and smiling. Farah’s laptop is open, a few documents set out.

Sylvester Sandoval is here, Nick suddenly notices the SESA agent in the chair just to the left of the doorway. Farah turns, watching Nick over the brim of her coffee mug. “Close the door and take a seat, Nick.”

Sylvester doesn’t look much better off than the Englishman. His suit — at least — is pressed, and his dress shirt immaculate. Dark eyes track Nick as he moves across the room, a little lethargic but no less predatory than usual.

He slouches in the chair with his long legs stretched out in front of him, feet crossed at the ankle. Hands with interlaced fingers rest across his stomach.

To his credit, he waits until the door behind Nick has clicked shut to ask, “When was the last time you called your mom, Ruskin?”

Nick’s blue eyes alight on Farah at the window before darting to Sylvester; he hasn’t met the man but knows his type, that predatory look one he knows all too well. Before Sandoval even speaks, Nick’s brow knits together, something pinging that something is off. That this is not a place he wants to be. The line of his jaw shifts as he clenches his teeth, though otherwise he looks mostly stoic — a little unhappy to be here, but otherwise hard to read.

When the SESA agent speaks, that changes.

Sophia Ruskin’s a sensitive subject for her sensitive son, after all, and he tips his head, eyes flashing as he narrows them on Sandoval. They look up. They look down.

He looks back to Farah. “I’m sorry, who the fuck is this?”

It’s probably not the best way to talk to his boss. The London accent is thicker than usual, the mention of Sophia Ruskin making the adult Ruskin regress in dialect and self control.

Pinching the bridge of her nose, Farah is quiet for a moment, then looks up to level a stare at Sylvester. “This,” she turns her attention to Nick, “is Agent Sylvester Sandoval from SESA. He's here because our case overlaps with an ongoing investigation regarding the murder of a SESA agent named Michael Lowell.”

But Nick isn't here because of Lowell, he's here because of our case which he didn’t, last he knew, have any ongoing. “I'm sorry, Nick.” It isn't like Farah to apologize, or take the tone she is. That gentle, gloved touch stands in stark contrast to her usual taciturn abrasiveness. “I'll be frank. About a month ago Sophia Ruskin was abducted from her flat in Southwark. We only found out about it a few days ago, what with international relations being what they are. A source within British Intelligence fielded us everything he could.”

Farah opens the folder on her desk, showing a grainy still frame from CCTV camera footage in a run-down neighborhood of London. A white-haired man in a white overcoat is moving down a street. Another camera caught his face well in a second photograph, and a third shows him entering a flat with a dark-haired woman who is unmistakably Sophia at the door.

He never comes out.

“That man is Charles Sharrow, otherwise known by his callsign of Njord. He was the financial manager of the Vanguard and allegedly died in 2010 according to intelligence given to us by the mole the CIA had planted in the Vanguard during Operation Apollo.” Farah settles down into her seat and flips out the photograph of a corpse: White male, late twenties/early thirties, sandy blonde hair, face splattered in blood.

Michael Lowell.

“Lowell was murdered earlier this year,” Sylvester says, picking up where Farah left off, “by an old Ferry associate of yours. Avi Epstein.” He rolls the name around in his mouth and rakes his tongue across the front of his teeth. “Stabbed, three times in the throat. The first blow severed his carotid artery, so he probably didn’t even register the other two.”

The SESA agent sits up a little straighter in his set, shoulders squared. The hands across his stomach drop between his legs and hang suspended there in the gap created by his knees. “My partner bled out in seconds.”

His partner.

The gentling tone finds Nick’s blue eyes flashing at her in that wary look so often seen in children whose lives have been far too hard. Sympathy from the outside is something that can’t be trusted. The look’s a fleeting one, blinked away with a more properly fitting stoic mask, and there’s naught but a slow blink at the mention of his mother. Abducted.

His expression is grim as he looks at the image. There’s no obvious worry for his mother, just hard eyes that matches the hard line of his mouth until the next name is mentioned. A brow lifts and he glances back up at Vanguard.

Nick’s gaze slides back over to Sandoval, expression flat. Unsympathetic. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he utters. “Epstein confessed. Whether you agree with his length of stay in jail or not, that’s not something I can control.”

He looks back to Farah and tips his head curiously. “What exactly do you want from me? I don’t know Sharrow and haven’t spoken to my mother in over ten years.”

“Well,” Farah says with a brief look to Sylvester, then back to Nick, “I'd much like you to do your job.” The expression on her face plainly says unless that's too much to ask.

Moving her chair back, Farah takes a seat at her desk and then scoots in. “The point of the matter is that something deeply unsettling is going on and directly involves your immediate family, which has raised enough red flags to me that I wanted to call you in to this meeting before you found out otherwise.” She closes the file on Lowell. “Michael Lowell was a deep-cover CIA operative that infiltrated the European Vanguard ahead of Operation: Apollo. Most of our intel on the Russian work came from his intelligence gathering.”

A file showing a much clearer and closer picture of Sharrow is laid out in front of Nick. “Charles Sharrow was in charge of the Vanguard’s finances. Interpol estimates they had secured more than five billion dollars in material assets around the world, with several hundred million in liquid assets that were lost in 2009 thanks to the intervention of Hana Gitelman.” Farah flips to some reconnaissance photos of Sharrow.

“Charles Sharrow is reported to have two children, Gregory and Judith, both of whom we have no photographic record of.” Farah leans back in her chair and folds her hands on her lap. “Lowell informed us that Charles Sharrow was assassinated in 2010, under Lowell’s authorization, along with his children. Photographs of their remains,” Farah flips out a photograph of corpses burned in a blackened car, “were given along with dental records for Charles.”

Exhaling a deep sigh, Farah scrubs a hand over her mouth. “We'd put the Sharrow case to bed almost a decade ago, so when he popped up at your mother’s house we went the logical routes first: an impersonator, Expressive ability, the basics. We have reason to believe this is the real Charles Sharrow and that he's operating a heretofore undiscovered Vanguard cell.”

Farah looks at Sylvester, then back to Nick. “When Lowell came back to the States, he was assigned to work with Agent Sandoval. The circumstances leading up to Lowell’s death have always say unwell with me, but the DoJ has closed investigation into criminal liability for Epstein, and that came down from the top.” She closes the Sharrow file and pushes it to Nick.

“Eight weeks ago, surveillance camera in Peniche, Portugal picked up this image at a port.” Farah clicks a few keys at her keyboard and turns one of her monitors to both agents, showing a darkly dressed Sharrow boarding a small boat flanked by armed guards, walking side by side with Sophia Ruskin. “Our liaisons at Interpol speculate that Sharrow’s been in hiding for nearly ten years and is now suddenly active. They believe he boarded a ship that rendezvoused with a vessel bound for the States.”

Farrah's brows slowly raise. “The last time a Vanguard leader boarded a ship with a Ruskin for the United States we almost had an apocalyptic viral outbreak. Needless to say the upper brass are very eager to dig into this.” Farah leans back in her chair again. “We need to know what's happening, how, where, and why. That's going to start with revisiting Epstein’s testimony.”


“I personally pulled for you to do that, given your history with Mr. Epstein. SESA insisted that they place an agent on the case, and given his connections to Lowell recommended Agent Sandoval to partner with you for this.” Farah spreads her hands. “We can't criminally investigate Epstein as his case has been closed, so whatever we get from him will require his full cooperation. I think maybe now it's clear why I asked for you?”

Sylvester is quiet. No snark, no sigh blown through his nose or pressed past his lips. Instead, he studies Nick’s face while Farah speaks, assessing his reaction to her words stacked neatly atop one another until the explanation stands so tall it’s in danger of tipping over.

His body is still, lest he be the one to disturb and topple it.

The only movements he makes are the rhythmic rise and fall of his shoulders and the very tips of his fingers drumming against the inside of his thigh.

He waits. Patient.

Whatever reaction Sandoval is hoping for, Nick doesn’t give him much. There’s no new dramatic outburst. No hurries to defend any of the people named that have a connection to him — no matter how estranged. He studies the images and listens, eyes flicking from monitor to Farah.
“My job,” he finally says, and there’s a sardonic turn upward at the corner of his mouth. “You don’t find this to be a colossal conflict of interest?” He glances at Sylvester through the corners of his eyes, then back to Farah.

“I have no idea what Ruskin,” Sophia, “is doing with Sharrow, if you have any suspicions on that. My sister became involved with Vanguard after running away, so whatever this connection is — I cannot help you there. I haven’t seen Sophia Ruskin since I was 17 years old.”

Nick rakes his hand through his perpetually-unkempt dark hair, the nervous tic finally showing up. He glances at Sylvester again, a little more appraisingly, then hones his attention back on Farah. “If I go to Epstein, it’s gotta be out on the table. I can’t lie to him,” he swallows, then corrects, “I won’t lie to him. No hidden mics, nothing covert. He’ll be willing to help cut off any new Vanguard heads, but it’s not going to be because I tricked him into something over a pint.”

“It is,” a conflict of interest, Farah agrees implicitly. “But I would like to remind you that we lost thousands of federal personnel over the last seven years. The agency’s pool of talent is shallow.” But, realizing how that sounds, Farah spreads her hands. “You are talented, and this is a HUMINT affair. You're the most qualified person we have for this assignment, you have the most intimate knowledge of the Vanguard’s operations, and you have contacts we need to be able to leverage that simply won't talk to anyone else.” That being Epstein, at the least.

“Sylvester’s here to help keep this above board. I've asked he be reassigned from his current work to assist you on this and SESA has been remarkably cordial. Nobody wants this to turn into a fucking incident.” Reaching for the file on her desk, Farah looks at Sylvester and then Nick, then slides it across the desk to come to rest between them. They might need that.

“You're free to run this investigation however you'd like, Ruskin.” Farah concedes. “This is your area of expertise, these will be your contacts we’re leveraging, this will be your home turf you're rooting around in. If the agency can assist, we will. If SESA can assist,” she motions to Sylvester, “they will.”

Spreading her hands again, Farah makes it abundantly clear what her stance on the matter is. “For the record, I don't think your mother’s involved with the Vanguard. But I do think that this might be an attempt to get at you.” Period. End of sentence.

It suddenly becomes clear to Nick: Yamagato Industries didn't share its information. The CIA doesn't know about Eileen.

It may be either the best or worst news he's had all day, depending.

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