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Episode 8 – After They’re Gone

June 9, 2013

 

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Basic edit – Mar 3 2015

DISCLAIMERS:

**PLEASE READ THE WARNING! THANK YOU**

This romantic thriller is an original story and all characters are created by me. All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

WARNING

** This story contains a serial killer who targets children and includes some description of the condition of the victims. If you are offended by, or are sensitive to, this sort of content, PLEASE DO NOT READ ON. These stories portray what can – and does – happen in this world, and the events included here can be an unfortunate part of any law enforcer’s life. This is the type of fiction I choose to write. Please choose carefully when deciding to read it or not. Thank you. **

The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained. This story depicts a loving, sexual relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.

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This is the eighth full-length installment in my series ‘After Montana’ which can be found at http://marshallcarson.wordpress.com. To get the most out of this episode and understand who everyone is, it would be best to start at the beginning 😉

Once again, I cannot thank my beta-reader, Norsebard, enough. You continue to be very much appreciated. And thank you for giving me permission to use Stella Starr and Regina Harrison. If you haven’t met Stella and Regina yet, what are you waiting for? You can find them here… http://www.academyofbards.org/fanfic/n/norsebard_harrisonstardetectiveagency.html I also want to thank my readers. Your feedback and support are most welcome. Any comments can be left at http://marshallcarson.wordpress.com or sent to stagefreakmusic@hotmail.com.

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Chapter 1

“I can’t believe you talked me into this.” CJ Carson looked out of the car window as the black Mercedes pulled up in front of the Krikorian Theater in Monrovia, where a charity event was to take place this evening. The guest of honor was her wife who sat beside her with a cocky grin on her face.

Kate Carson – although she would be Hollywood actress Kate Marshall for this public event – bit her bottom lip and slipped her hand onto CJ’s thigh. “Honey, you know it’s for a great cause, and I promise it won’t be as bad as the Emmys. Look, there’s hardly a photographer in sight,” she said, gesturing out of the darkened privacy glass.

Their driver, Tony Wilkinson, glanced in the rearview mirror at his employers. “Just think CJ, you get to auction off your wife. How many people can say that?”

CJ narrowed her eyes playfully at him and heard said wife chuckling quietly by her side. “Uh-huh,” she mumbled before turning to Kate who had just squeezed her leg. “What’s the charity again?”

“It’s called Helping Out Our Kids, or HOOK to those in the know. It’s for children and teens who are having any kind of problems coping with their sexual orientation. They deal with worries relating to Body Dysmorphic Disorder too. So amazing. When I went down to their center in Long Beach last week I met a ten year old girl who already knew she wanted to be a boy. Her mom and dad were there, and they couldn’t stop raving about the HOOK staff. They give these kids and their families support and refer them to the best counselors if that’s what they need. It’s really incredible. They don’t turn away any child who asks for help, so it’s not just for sexual health problems, although that’s what they specialize in. It’s for all kids,” Kate said, enthusiastically nodding her head.

CJ’s eyebrows were lifted high once Kate had finished her speech. “Wow, you seem so passionate about it. All right. Let’s go raise a ton of money, and uh, get you auctioned off.”

“Aww, you only need to give me up for one dinner, CJ. I’m sure you’ll survive.”

“Yeah, yeah…just let me know if you want a chaperone.”

“I will want a chaperone, and you, my darling, shall be that chaperone. A lot of these people will be fans because the information about tonight was put out there on my main fan page on the Internet, and I don’t think going out to dinner without you in the vicinity would be a good idea. Maybe you could go undercover…”

CJ looked at her and saw the mischievous sparkle behind Kate’s green eyes. “Undercover, huh?”

“Um, Kate? I think they’ve figured out who’s in this car,” Tony interrupted, pointing to the cameras that were suddenly hovering around the Mercedes.

“Right. Let’s do this.” Kate kissed CJ and grabbed the bag with their outfits inside. They had decided to wear matching navy-blue apparel since the charity logo was navy and yellow. They would get their yellow HOOK badges when they got inside.

CJ took the bag from her excited wife and flashed a winning smile. “I’ll carry that, my little superstar.”

Kate didn’t get a chance to answer since she had stepped outside the car already and was bombarded by the three photographers who had suddenly morphed into twelve over-exuberant journalists and interviewers. CJ took a deep breath and followed Kate who was already trying to respond to a hundred quick-fire questions at once.

* * * * * *

A stark hour later, the time had come for Kate to go up onto the stage. The excited chatter and murmuring in the audience exploded into raucous applause and a screaming chorus when the Deadline actress appeared from behind the curtain. CJ listened and watched from stage left. She was still surprised when Kate appeared at a public event. Her stardom seemed to be growing exponentially, and it startled CJ every time she witnessed it. Kate looked a little overwhelmed too as she smiled widely at her fans and swiped up a white rose that landed on the wooden boards at her feet. She waved it in the air and smiled her Kate Marshall smile.

After a thank you to the crowds, Kate began the little speech she had prepared, explaining about the charity and how she supported them fully. Then she introduced the chairman – Mr. Mack McGhee – who conveyed how the auction would work and thanked the audience in advance for their generous contributions.

Nobody knew at this point that there was a quirky, blond private investigator in one of the back rows – practically exploding with excitement – in the form of Stella Starr, Kate’s very own energetic doppelganger. Stella’s partner, former model Regina ‘Reggie’ Harrison, stood beside her rolling her eyes under the dark shades she’d decided to wear because they would hide the fact that she was the spitting image of Kate Marshall’s wife. The appearance of the duo would probably freak the entire theater out. She was slightly shocked that nobody had stopped Stella yet, and asked her if she was Kate Marshall’s twin sister.

Regina’s eyes opened wide when CJ Carson walked out onto the stage. When Stella had shown Reggie the picture of Kate’s wife in the newspaper – when CJ had accompanied Kate to the Emmy’s – she had noticed a vague resemblance to herself, but seeing this statuesque woman in the flesh was a different thing entirely. She could see CJ was her mirror image. Oh my God! She looks just like me…and if that’s the case, I definitely still got it! Reggie silently exclaimed with a little self-assuring hip-wiggle.

“Hey, everyone,” CJ’s deep but feminine voice said into the microphone her partner had gleefully handed her. “I’ve been talked into auctioning my wife for this great cause.” That earned her a roar of laughter from the crowd, and she raised her hand to try to quiet them. “Wait, wait…it’s just a dinner with my wife! So without any further procrastinating on my part,” she added with her signature eyebrow curl, “let’s start the bidding at two hundred dollars.”

No less than ten numbered paddles went up in the air, and Mack McGhee started shouting and pointing in his best impersonation of an auctioneer. Stella Starr jumped up and down with her paddle lifted high, but then the paddle suddenly disappeared from view when she tripped on the leg of her chair and fell into Reggie’s firm grasp.

“Whoa! Good catch, Reggie!”

Reggie looked affectionately at her clumsy girlfriend. “Gimme the paddle, Stell.”

“Thanks, Miss I-Don’t-Need-A-Step-Ladder. Great idea!” Stella squeaked, pushing her glasses up her nose and running her hand through her chopped, dirty-blond locks.

When the bidding got to fifteen hundred dollars, Reggie looked worriedly at her fidgeting partner, but Stella just nudged her with her hips and pushed on her elbow, shooting the paddle right back up in the air. Thankfully, at two thousand, one hundred dollars, Stella won the auction. Reggie breathed a sigh of relief since she knew her mad-Kate-Marshall-fan of a lover would have kept going until she had to remortgage her apartment.

As Kate waved goodbye to the crowd, CJ was unaware of who had bought the dinner date with her wife, but Kate had spotted Stella and Reggie and covered her resulting laugh with her hand. Oh, this is gonna be fun. Kate turned and whispered to Mack McGhee that the winning bidder and the woman accompanying her should be brought backstage since they were friends of hers.

The chairman was only too happy to oblige and ordered a security guard to collect the winners before he gleefully moved on to the next auction item…a fully autographed Deadline script.

* * * * * *

CJ finished packing various little HOOK gratuities and promo material into their bag as Kate hovered at the door of the dressing room waiting for Stella and Reggie to appear in the corridor. When she saw the private detectives approaching, she turned to CJ.

“CJ…the winner is here.”

CJ turned just as the two visiting women walked through the door, and her jaw dropped at the sight of Stella. A ripple of disbelief passed through her when her eyes landed on Regina Harrison too. She moved her mouth to try to say hello but no sound came out. Then she looked to Kate who was hugging Stella who was virtually identical to Kate in her facial features, only those features were partially obscured by the woman’s glasses. It was a very weird sight.

Kate turned to see CJ’s expression, and after saying hello to Reggie she approached her speechless partner. “Are you OK?” At CJ’s silent nod, Kate smiled. “You see now why I screamed when I first met Stella?” Her only response was another nod. “CJ, can you speak?”

CJ suddenly snapped out of her gaping idiot look. “Oh…sorry. Hi, I’m CJ Carson,” she said as she approached her duplicate. Reggie’s hair was longer than CJ’s, and it was a dark, dark brown, not quite black. Her facial features seemed identical if only a tiny bit narrower, but she had the same bright-blue eyes, and CJ thought it quite possible they had been separated at birth.

Reggie was also taken aback as she stretched out her hand toward CJ’s. “I’m Regina Harrison. I have to say…uh, wow.”

CJ nodded and flipped her dark ponytail over her shoulder. “Yeah, that about covers it.”

Reggie turned to see Stella shifting from foot to foot. She realized Stella hadn’t met CJ in the flesh yet either. “This is my partner, Stella.”

CJ had calmed herself and took a step toward Stella who – with a new hairstyle, no glasses, and perhaps if she lost the uncoordinated outfit she had on – could pass quite easily for Kate. “Hi, Stella. Kate told me all about you. It’s nice to finally meet you.”

“Oh…well…it’s so great to meet you too. And I’m so happy I won the auction. You did a great job up there…really swell.” Stella retracted her pumping hand before she took CJ’s arm off, and clenched her fists, feeling how sweaty her palms were. Oh, cripes…did I just saturate her hand with my sweat?

Before she had a chance to panic about that, Kate had found a few of her headshots in the bag – having brought them in case a fan won the auction – and was searching now for something else. “CJ, where is that Sharpie we brought with us?”

CJ shuffled over to her side. “In that pocket there,” she said, pointing to the appropriate zipper.

“Thanks, honey. Would you like these, Stella?”

A wide-eyed Stella nodded profusely. “Yes, please, Kate. I won the Deadline script too!”

“Great! Want me to sign it to you personally?”

“Oh…oh that would be…yes!”

While Kate and Stella began the very important task of discussing what should be written on each item, Reggie took the opportunity to chat to CJ about her job. She was intrigued as she watched CJ enthuse about the FBI. They both seemed to be studying each other’s faces as they spoke, not quite believing the incredible similarities, and for some reason unbeknownst to any of them, the weirdness disappeared and all four eventually gathered into a huddle in the middle of the room talking about this and that and planning when the dinner would take place. Since Reggie and Stella had to go home in a few days, they decided on the day after tomorrow at Kate’s favorite restaurant. They’d be able to get a private booth in the back since the eatery regularly dealt with celebrities who wanted a little seclusion. And Kate needn’t have worried about not having CJ with her because Stella wouldn’t have it any other way.

* * * * * *

When the Carsons arrived home, Shannon and Lucy were already in bed. A very sleepy Tony and Cyn were curled up on the couch watching TV…watching Kate on TV.

“Hey, Kate,” Cyn slurred around a yawn. “We were just watching your first movie. It’s pretty darn good.”

Kate chuckled as she propped herself on the arm of the couch. “Thank you, Cyn. Did you have any trouble with the girls tonight?”

“Never,” Tony replied. “Those two are angels.”

“I think they just love you guys. They’re not angels all the time,” Kate said, stifling a yawn of her own.

“Well, we’ll head home…give you some peace.”

“You’re both welcome to stay if you want.”

“Thank you, Kate, but Cyn has an early start, and we didn’t bring anything for overnight anyway. Oh, how did the auction go?”

“It went great. I’ll tell you all about it when we’re more awake.”

Cyn yawned again, smacking her lips before she spoke. “Are you in tomorrow, Kate?”

“I sure am. I’ll see you around ten.”

“Oh, you’re lucky. I’m in at seven. Ugh!” Cyn hugged Kate, and on her way out she hugged CJ just as she came through the door.

“Night, all,” Tony added as he followed his girlfriend out.

“Night,” CJ and Kate retorted in unison.

“Thanks again,” CJ shouted.

With the house to themselves, Kate fell into CJ’s arms. “I’m exhausted, baby. Let’s check on the kids and go to bed, huh?”

“Yeah, sounds good.” CJ had been a little bewildered-looking since her first encounter with their look-a-likes. “That was a weird night,” she mumbled as she walked.

“I know. I told you those two were so similar to us, didn’t I?”

“Yes, but it has to be seen to be believed. Maybe Monrovia is the door to another dimension.”

Kate giggled. “Poor Stella has to do something with that hair though…”

CJ laughed and squeezed her beautiful partner. “C’mon. I’m taking you to bed.”

“Lead the way, my darling.”

Since Kate felt a sudden need to pee, CJ checked on their daughters. On entering the first room, she found Shannon lying in a strange, serpent-like position which caused a light snore to emanate from her nostrils. CJ shifted her sleepy body a little until the snore disappeared. Pulling the powder-blue sheet back up, she leaned over and kissed her child on the forehead before padding her way out into the hall. She had to hold back her giggle when walked into Lucy’s room. The energetic three-year-old had somehow migrated to the foot of her bed and was now sleeping soundly with Barney the bear in a tight, little ball. CJ turned to Kamali who was sprawled in his usual guarding position outside Lucy’s door. He wagged his tail lazily when his human looked at him, and then plopped his head back down on the soft carpet. CJ sighed and debated whether or not to move Lucy since she was a much lighter sleeper that Shannon. Lucy looked mighty comfortable, so CJ just put one of the pillows in the space behind her back just in case she rolled off the bed in the middle of the night. Since Lucy was sleeping on top of the linens, CJ snagged a bright-yellow Finding Nemo sheet from the nearby closet and covered her tiny form, tucking the material around her to create a lightweight cocoon. Smiling contentedly, she kissed Lucy and left.

On her way back out of the room, she bid the dog goodnight and yawned as she trundled toward the master bedroom. Hearing the soft sounds of the shower in their master bathroom, CJ’s eyes sparkled and she inhaled deeply at the thought of Kate’s nude body. “Hmm…” she moaned quietly as she closed the bedroom door behind her. “I suddenly feel a lot more awake.” She curled her body around the doorframe and watched Kate washing herself in the shower.

Kate’s hand slowly slid down over her abdomen as she rinsed away the fruit-scented, soapy lather that clung to her skin. CJ’s eyes were visibly darkening as Kate – who now sensed CJ watching her – made a play of holding the shower head in front of her intimate mound and using her other hand to make sure that she had gotten every bit of shower gel from between her legs.

CJ swallowed the sudden torrent of saliva that invaded her mouth and licked her lips at the thought of what Kate was touching. Not realizing Kate knew she was there, CJ dropped her right hand to her breast as Kate’s buttocks pressed against the partially-misted glass partition when she pretended to lose her balance. She then turned around and pressed both breasts against the shower screen, smiling seductively when she saw CJ’s hand playing voraciously with her hard nipple.

Grinning at being caught in the act, CJ began a stealth-like approach toward her very eager prey, but Kate decided that her amorous spouse would be driven insane this night and held up her hand to halt CJ’s progress.

“Don’t come any closer,” Kate purred. She got out of the shower and toweled herself off deliberately slowly and sensuously as CJ stood, mouth gaping and blue eyes following her every move. Kate then dropped the towel and headed into their bedroom, making sure her hips swayed perfectly as she went.

CJ turned to continue her arousing surveillance of her wife who now sat at the edge of the bed with her hand slowly massaging her left breast. CJ made a move toward Kate, but again Kate stopped her, this time when she was about two strides away. CJ was fixated as Kate’s hand tickled a lazy trail across her skin making two pinkish nipples stand to attention along with a plethora of goose bumps. Kate’s hair was damp from the shower and her body still glistened here and there as it reflected the low light on the nightstand. CJ’s breathing deepened as she watched Kate bring a finger up to her mouth and poke her tongue out to lubricate the digit. CJ could only imagine where that finger would go now.

“Oh…Katie.” CJ was incredibly wet and beyond aroused. She decided she couldn’t wait any longer and just had to touch her wife.

“No. You only get to watch tonight. Kneel down on the floor,” Kate instructed.

CJ’s mouth opened to protest, but after Kate took her hand from where it now was on her center and returned it to her slightly open mouth, she decided she could watch this for a while longer and bit her lips in an effort to calm herself. Kneeling down right in front of the display, CJ watched as Kate sucked the juices from her own fingers and lowered them to graze against her clit once more.

“Oh, yeah,” Kate gasped. “Take your clothes off, Ciara…”

CJ couldn’t remember a time when she had ever moved so fast. Each item of clothing was thrown aside at lightning speed, and she resumed her front-and-center viewing position in seconds. She could smell Kate, that enticing combination of the shower gel and her lover’s arousal was driving her to the brink. “Baby, please, I-“

Kate was still trailing an appreciative eye over CJ’s nude body. Her neck and upper chest were flushed and her nipples stood painfully erect which made Kate lick her lips. “Touch yourself. I want to watch you…come with me.”

“Oh…” CJ adjusted her position so that they both had a clear view of each other. She leaned back, supporting her body with her left hand, and let her legs fall open. She ran her right hand down to her aching clit. Feeling the amount of lubrication there, she knew she had almost climaxed simply from watching her teasing spouse.

Kate’s body surged forward when CJ touched herself. Her green eyes concentrated on the movement of CJ’s hand, and she quickened her pace, her fingers now vigorously rubbing up and down her swollen sex. Using her other hand, she reached down and slowly entered herself with two fingers. CJ squeaked at the sight. Her nostrils flared in an effort to suck in more oxygen, and she held her breath as she began to crash over the edge.

Kate knew it was time. “Yes. Now…”

CJ did not need to be told. Her orgasm had built to its pinnacle, and when the heat burst forth from her center and swallowed every nerve ending in her tall, lithe body, she locked eyes with Kate as she let out a quiet scream. Kate climaxed, trapping her hand inside herself while she gentled the strokes with the other. CJ’s left arm suddenly gave way and she fell back onto the floor with a slight thud. Kate who had felt sated for all of five seconds, removed her hand from her body and dropped slowly to her knees on the carpet. She straddled CJ as she came back from wherever she had gone during her peak.

“Hey, beautiful, did you hurt yourself?” Kate whispered as she kissed CJ lovingly on the lips.

Feeling the warm body covering her and the softest lips in the universe kissing her, CJ opened her eyes. “N-no…but please, please, please let me touch you now?”

“Oh, yeah. Lots of touching…”

“Thank you. I almost didn’t survive that. You’re such a tease sometimes,” CJ murmured as she went in for another blissful kiss.

“You love it really,” Kate said once they’d parted.

“Hmm, I dunno. There’s nothing better in this world than touching you.”

Kate slipped her hand under CJ’s neck as her hips pushed their bodies together. “So touch me then…with your mouth.”

Darkened, blue eyes bore into hazy green as CJ rose up from the floor. In a show of her physical strength and obvious eagerness to fulfill that request, she carried Kate to their bed and began the rather wonderful task of tasting everything she could lay her lips and tongue on. Kate was more than happy to return the favor, and much later they both fell into a deep, sated slumber wrapped around one another as always.

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Chapter 2

As Kate strolled through the Olympian Studio lot the next morning, she breathed in the warm and suddenly sweet-scented air. She glanced at her watch. “Ooh, only nine fifteen…” The smell of fresh-baked cinnamon bread was proving too much to resist, and she made a brief diversion to the cafeteria before heading to her trailer. Inside the large eatery, she waited in line like everyone else, but in her head she was really reaching out a very impatient hand to the pile of delicious-looking baked goods she could see only a few paces ahead of her. The rich coffee scent was doing nothing to quell her stomach gurgles either. I should’a had a bigger breakfast. Ah, who am I kidding…that smell gets me every time Sylvia bakes those treasures.

To distract herself for a few seconds, she scanned around her and spotted Jack Bannerman sitting at a corner table with his head hung low nursing what looked like coffee but could easily have passed for liquid tar. Scrunching her nose with distaste, she continued her scan and saw a few faces she vaguely knew. Her eyes stopped again when they landed on Tina, her floor manager, at the far side of the cafeteria. The sturdy woman caught her glance and threw a salute to Kate in acknowledgement. Kate chuckled and waved before she turned around when someone at the counter said something. “Sorry, what?”

“Would you like something to eat, Miss Marshall?”

“Oh, heck yes, Sylvia,” Kate cheerfully retorted to the silver-haired woman who was always a kind face in a sea of grumps. “I’ll have a piece of your magnificent cinnamon bread, please!”

“Well I did bake cinnamon bread, but there’s also something new…”

Kate raised her eyebrow in what was quite a passable CJ impression. “Tell me more?”

Sylvia let out a hearty belly-laugh. “I swear, Miss Marshall, I don’t know where you put all that food you pile in there, but it’s nice to see an actress who actually eats on occasion.”

Kate had to grin. Sylvia always spoke her mind, and she appreciated her honesty. “Well I do have to work out pretty hard to keep up with my love of all things tasty,” she said with a smile.

“Uh-huh. This new thing I tried last night…cinnamon and banana bagels…might not sound good to some, but they turned out a treat, so I made a tray this morning when I got in.”

“Ooh, I’d happily be one of your guinea pigs, Sylvia. Lemme try one with my coffee.”

With another laugh, Sylvia moved away, and a scant moment later Kate’s usual coffee was set down on the counter. Sylvia then presented a plate with one cinnamon-banana bagel on it. “There ya go. Still warm. Just add the butter…let it melt a little.”

“Thanks. I’ll update you later with my results.” After Kate winked and paid for her order, she walked away hearing Sylvia’s throaty chuckle ringing out behind her. She knew she had spent too much time stopping for this little luxury so she quickly crossed the lot and entered her trailer to find a toe-tapping makeup artist waiting for her.

“What time do you call this?” Cyn said with her arms crossed over her chest.

“Um…late?” Kate replied with a smirk.

“Hell yes. Sit your cute butt down in this chair and…holy crap, what is that smell?”

Kate put her coffee down and suddenly got protective when Cyn spotted her bagel. “You can have one bite if you forgive my lateness,” she said while covering the food with her free hand.

“Actually, I’d kill for a gulp of your coffee. I’ve been non-stop since I got in this morning.”

“Go for it…and I’m only kidding about the bagel. You can have two bites, but make ‘em small,” Kate said with what she hoped was a stern voice.

Cyn – who now sported two eyebrow piercings on the same eyebrow – pointed to the chair in front of her. “Sit. Butt. Down…”

“Yes, ma’am!”

Cyn lifted the cup of sweet-smelling nectar and took off the lid. Inhaling deeply, she rolled her eyes closed and took a sip…then another…then one more for good measure. “Oh, better, better, better. Thanks, Kate.”

“You’re…welcome,” Kate replied around her food after she’d taken another bite of her treat. She made yummy moaning sounds as she rolled the baked treasure around in her mouth.

“Please tell me that’s not the sound you make in bed,” Cyn teased. The evil eye Kate shot at her was not sincere, and Cyn knew it so she stuck out her tongue, and after another sip of the coffee she started applying Kate’s makeup. It was quite a challenging task considering Kate was chewing rather large chunks of bagel. “I do like a challenge,” she muttered, shrugging to herself.

* * * * * *

About an hour after Kate had left for work with Tony and Shannon in tow, CJ and Lucy headed out for a walk with Kamali. CJ planned to spend some quality time with her youngest daughter since she never seemed to have the chance in recent weeks. Lucy had started out riding her tricycle but soon tired of it, and they had left it on the trail behind them. CJ loved that they had their own land and could just collect random items on their way back to the house later. She watched Lucy skipping along in front of her with her brown, curly hair bouncing against her chubby cheeks as she threw Kamali’s ball for him. As he came lopping back toward Lucy’s small frame, CJ knew he would respectfully stop and drop his favorite catch-toy in front of her. He had never bowled her over by accident or been too boisterous with her, however the same could not be said the other way around. Lucy was quite rough with the dog sometimes, and CJ had tried to teach her that she must respect his space too. Even though Kamali was the perfect dog, he could still suddenly feel threatened or afraid and bite any member of his family. Lucy had taken heed of the teachings so far which had reduced CJ’s stress level considerably, but she and Kate were still ever-vigilant when both children were in Kamali’s presence.

“Mommy, look!” Lucy shouted.

Two long strides took CJ to the spot where Lucy was crouched down near the scrub at the side of the trail. “What ya got there, Little One?”

“It’s…it’s a cat!?”

CJ raised her eyebrows in surprise as she shifted behind Lucy to see what she was referring to. “No, sweetie, that’s a squirrel.”

The small animal was foraging under a nearby bush and was surprisingly bold, only occasionally freezing in his tracks to observe the strange beings watching him. Lucy furrowed her brow and put a fingertip to her lips in thought.

“Scurl?” she tried.

“Close enough, Luce. It’s a hard word to say. Isn’t he cute, though?”

“Yeah. He has a big tail!” Lucy squeaked.

CJ chuckled. “He sure does. C’mon. Let’s leave him to his snack before Kamali decides to chase him.” She reached out her hand, and Lucy took it to pull herself upright once more.

“Bye, scurl.”

CJ waved at the little, gray animal and swooped Lucy’s tiny body up into her arms, keeping an eye on the dog as he happily pranced on the trail with his ball in his mouth. Thankfully, he hadn’t noticed the squirrel. “Let’s go, boy.”

Holding Lucy in one arm and taking the dog’s tennis ball between two fingers, she threw the drool-covered item far down the track. Kamali galloped after it with his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. When he came back, she noticed the dust clinging to his black coat. “Bath for you tonight, Kamali…”

Lucy curled her arm tightly around CJ’s neck as she lifted her head to look up at the sky from under her very own FBI ball cap. “Mommy…plane.”

“Wow, yeah. It’s way up high in the sky.” As CJ scanned the blue above her, she took a deep breath and savored this peaceful time with her daughter. It was a rare moment, and CJ decided that the whole family needed to spend more relaxing in the nature that surrounded them. Maybe we could camp out one night, she thought as she placed Lucy back down on her feet. “Wanna race, Luce?” After Lucy chuckled and started running, CJ shook her head and laughed. “Ah, well, she can have a head start.”

The dog bounced between them as if to tell CJ to get a move on. With a loud “I’m gonna getcha,” she took off after Lucy, and the three of them raced back towards home leaving a plume of dust in their wake.

* * * * * *

At a quarter to one in the afternoon, Kate yawned as she walked out of an unexpected, two-hour script meeting with the cast and crew. She had asked for a rewrite of three of her lines a couple of days ago which in turn had held her back to debate her request with the writers, the director, and two of the producers. Being one of the last to leave the building, she turned the corner in the lonely, windowless hallway and groaned internally when she saw Jack Bannerman standing blocking her exit. He had his usual I’m-so-special grin on his face, but Kate sensed something different too. She couldn’t pin it down and approached him while throwing a polite smile his way. He hadn’t been at the meeting, and she fleetingly wondered why. The answer was more evident when he spoke.

“He’Kate…d’I miss the party?” he drawled, blowing out a breath that smelled like the inside of a brewery.

With a tightening of her mouth – a result of having to endure the stench – she stopped a mere foot in front of him. “I’m afraid so, Jack, but I’m sure someone will fill you in.”

“Oh, and I’d like that someone to be you,” Bannerman slurred as he moved to counter Kate’s sidestep. “What’s the rush? Don’t you have a minute to share with ole Jack?”

As he leaned in toward her, Kate felt her body tense at his close proximity. She stopped trying to get by him and backed up a pace. “Actually, I don’t have time. The meeting ran over, and now I need to get back to the studio so if you’ll excuse me…”

Jack leaned his large frame closer and laid a hand on Kate’s shoulder. “Bu’ wait…I thought you were gonna fill me in? O‘course, I think it would be much more enjoyable ‘f I filled you in.”

Kate was quietly fuming now. The mere thought of his innuendo was making her sick. “If you don’t let me past, I’ll have to let the bosses know about this-”

“The bosses? Oh, well…I thought we could keep this just between us, but if you wan’ them t’join in, I’ll try anything once. Kinda like a ménage-a-twenty, huh?” He was having some trouble keeping his eyelids open at this point and was using the wall for support.

I can’t believe he’s drunk, and it’s only lunch time, Kate griped internally. After a deep breath to try to calm her nerves, she once again moved out of his clumsy embrace. “That would be a ménage-a-vingt, Jack, and no, I’m not interested.”

“What? You wanna do it in a van?”

Kate impatiently narrowed her eyes. “Back off, Bannerman. I need to go.”

“Aww, c’mon now, Katie-“

Kate was furious at his presumptuous familiarity. “Don’t you ever call me that again…and I said back off, Jack!”

“No, no…I believe what you said was back off, Bannerman…tha’s different.” As he leaned in again, he batted his dark eyelashes at her as if his current actions were so irresistible she couldn’t fail to be impressed.

Kate clenched and unclenched the fist that hung at her side and ground her teeth together. She lifted the other hand to rest it on Jack’s well-built chest. With a slight push, she moved her body away from the wall and grasped his cashmere sweater. She could feel the frustration building up inside her and tried to contain it. In normal circumstances, Jack irritated the hell out of her, but right now, with the pungent alcohol breath that accompanied his smart-assed remarks, she was ready to punch him right between the eyes…or the legs, whichever would have the most effect. “You listen to me and listen good. I will never be interested in a ménage-a-anything with you! Not now, not ever! Do you understand me?”

Kate was pretty close to his face now, and she could see from the glazed look in his eyes that her words weren’t really penetrating the fog. She stepped back and to the side, escaping the circle of his groping arms yet again. “I need to go.” When Jack moved to touch her, she stiffened again, and her words took on a menacing tone. “Don’t. Touch me. Jack.” It must have held more of a warning than even she had anticipated because Jack frowned and stuck his bottom lip out in a pout, letting her leave without another word.

He shrugged and rubbed his hand through his black goatee, wondering why it pissed him off so much that Kate didn’t want him. He seemed to have conveniently forgotten about the fact that she was happily married to a woman. “I’ll convince her,” he muttered under his breath. “She’ll surrender to my charms…soon.”

* * * * * *

“What’s dis one?” Lucy asked, pointing to part of her lunch.

CJ swallowed the bite of peach she had been chewing on. “That’s a grape.”

“And dis one?”

“Banana…”

“And dis one?” Lucy said gleefully.

“Strawberry, Luce,” CJ said, stifling her grin.

“And dis?”

“That’s a baseball.”

Lucy stopped her automatic questioning and looked up. “No…orange, Mommy.”

“Well, whadya know. So it is! Silly me.” CJ chuckled, giving Lucy a knowing sideways glance. It was a game they had played before, but it never failed to amuse the girl so CJ was happy to participate. She held up her fork with a raspberry on the end of it. “And what’s this then?”

Lucy’s little nose crinkled – something she had picked up from Kate – as she thought really hard about it. “Raz’bry.”

“Clever girl!” CJ praised right before popping the juicy fruit into her mouth.

Lucy let out a hefty chuckle before continuing with her dessert bowl of fresh fruits. When CJ’s phone rang, she finished chewing and fished it out of her hoodie pocket. The number on the display made her smile immediately.

“Hey, beautiful…”

“Hey. Is this a bad time?” Kate’s voice sounded a little desolate.

“Never a bad time for you, my love. We’re just eating lunch.”

“Who’s we?”

“Lucy and I. Are you OK, Katie?”

“Oh, yeah. God, I forgot you were off today. I’m not quite with it. We had a long meeting this morning. I guess I’m not keeping track very well…and I had a little run-in with Jack too.”

CJ straightened up at that. “What do you mean, run-in?”

“Oh, he was just being an ass, you know? The usual crap…but I could smell drink on him too. Don’t worry about it. It was just weird, that’s all. Anyway, I just wanted to hear your sweet voice.”

“Aww. Well I’m glad you called. I miss you and your voice every minute.”

Lucy’s eye lit up as she realized who was on the phone. “Mama?”

CJ nodded. “Katie, Lucy wants to say hi…”

“OK.”

Lucy took the phone and started yapping to her mama, and CJ rubbed her chin while she wondered what was going on with Jack Bannerman. He was never in Kate’s good books, but she didn’t mention him often either. Hmmm…if he starts pissing her off, I’ll kick his ass.

When CJ heard Lucy making kissing noises down the phone, she looked up to see her passing the handset back. “Thanks, Luce.” When Lucy’s attention went back to her bowl, CJ pursed her lips. “Katie?”

“Hey…”

“Honey, do you need me to…um, talk to Jack?”

“No, CJ. I deal with him every day. Honestly, it’s fine. I’m gonna go get some work done then I can get home to my gorgeous family, OK?”

“OK. I love you, Mrs. Carson.”

“I love you too. Bye.”

“Bye.” CJ hung up the call and looked at the child sitting adjacent to her. Lucy had decided that it would be fun to smash her fruits together with the back of her fork, and now the contents of her bowl – and part of the tabletop – resembled a berry crime scene. CJ grinned, and with a sigh she stood up to get the cleaning cloth. Ah, who am I kidding? I love bein’ a mom.

* * * * * *

Assistant Director Mark Mulroney paused outside his agents’ office. He could hear them chatting inside, and with a guilty look on his face he checked the corridor to see if anyone could catch him loitering with intent. With a mischievous grin, he leaned his shoulder against the wall and listened to the lighthearted conversation coming from his three on-duty employees. Inside the room, the banter continued.

“…And not everyone loves a muffin,” Jamie Green snorted.

Mikey Ryan tapped away on his computer. “OK, I’ll give you that, Jamie, but really…what’s not to love?”

A round of barely-contained laughter met Mark’s ears, and he kind of wished he had been in on the joke. Missing the beginnings of the conversation had clearly meant he hadn’t the opportunity to fully appreciate the punch-line, but he could only imagine what they were talking about. He chuckled to himself before re-focusing on the chatter when he heard Mikey mention a new federal prosecutor.

“Where did you hear that, Mikey?” Ethan Matthews probed.

“I, uh, got it from an inter-office memo.”

When no other information was forthcoming, Jamie’s eyes narrowed. “What inter-office memo? I didn’t get it.”

“Um, it wasn’t sent to us, but the subject line was so ambiguous that I had to check what it was about.” Mikey was sinking deeper into his chair with every word.

“Oh, Agent Ryan…please don’t tell me you’ve been hacking into the system again. I mean, without the boss’s authorization?”

“Well…yeah. Aw shit, don’t tell him. I actually did it because the memo was about our unit and wasn’t being sent to Mulroney. That’s what made me curious. The only person receiving it was the DD.”

Jamie twisted her mouth while she thought about that. “One of these days your techy skills are gonna get you into trouble, young man.” She grinned and paused to scratch her forehead. “I wonder who’s been assigned to us…”

“Apparently his name’s Paul Mitchell, and he worked in Washington DC and New York years ago. He moved here in 2005. Seems he has quite an impressive track record, and he’s now our permanent attorney, but he’ll be covering a few other departments here at the LA field office too. Shit, I hope they give him a second chair. This place gets real busy at times,” Ryan said, not realizing there was a potential connection to Deputy Director Julius Mitchell.

Jamie sighed. “I’ll tell the boss when I see him. No fair that he was left out of the loop.”

A tall figure appeared in the doorway. “No need, Jamie.”

As the three seated agents froze in place,  Jamie’s eyes lifted slowly to take in Mark’s stern expression. “Oh Sir, we…uh…well you see-”

Mark held up a hand to quiet his stuttering agent. He silently took a step forward and closed the door behind him. Now all three stared at him expectantly and waited to get chowed out for their gossiping, but he simply walked over to CJ’s empty desk and pulled her chair out. Once he was sitting comfortably, he placed his hands on the desktop, pyramiding his fingers in the usual steeple pose. “So, I’ll overlook the unauthorized hacking, Mikey, if you tell me exactly what was in the email.”

Mikey finally let out the breath he was holding and tapped on his keyboard. “Uh, yes, Sir. It says that due to the Specialist Serial Homicide Unit becoming a valid, non-experimental section of the FBI…and having a now-proven and impressive ninety-seven percent success rate to date, we are to receive a dedicated team of experts. They’ve assigned us a new federal prosecutor by the name of Paul Mitchell.”

“Hmm. Impressive, huh?” Mark mumbled as he leaned back in CJ’s chair. “I heard his name from your earlier discussion…oh, and by the way, if you guys are going to do that again, please close the door first…but I had no idea we were getting a team of experts all to ourselves. I wonder who else is being assigned. When was this email sent, Mikey?”

“About three hours ago, Sir.”

Jamie sensed that Mark wasn’t angry with them after all since he’d called Mikey by his first name. That was usually a give-away. “Sir…do you think maybe the DD hasn’t told you about it yet because of the name of the attorney? I mean, it’s kinda coincidental that he’s a Mitchell.”

“It’s a common name, Jamie, but I will be asking some questions soon if I-“ Mark’s beeper interrupted him, and he pulled it roughly from his belt. “Well lookie here. Mitchell wants to see me.” A smirk fleetingly crossed his features as he stood up and left without another word.

When the door closed behind him, Ethan bit his lips. “He seemed to take that well. Thank god we weren’t mouthing off about him or anything.”

“Have we ever done that, Ethan?” Jamie asked with her eyes narrowed playfully.

“Actually, no. Good point. We’ve never needed to,” Ethan said, giving her a wink.

After a snorted laugh from Jamie, they all decided to look out any non-urgent paperwork that needed attention. Mark may not have been angry with tem, but they figured it could help to keep him in his good mood. There was nothing else to do anyway. It had been such a quiet week…so far.

* * * * * *

Mark grumped to himself as he took long strides along the corridors of the FBI field office. Am I pissed? Yeah, a little bit. Am I gonna tell him that? Hmm…better find out what the situ is first…and who this Mitchell guy is. He turned to stand in front of the silver, elevator doors, brushing down his suit jacket and straightening his tie. When the doors opened he stepped inside and spun on his heels, waiting the few short seconds until the contraption took him two floors up. Why can’t he be on our floor if he’s our deputy? Bet he wants to make sure we know our place in the world…down in the dungeons below him. Mark forced his inner voice to shut up for a while and cleared his throat as he stopped outside Julius Mitchell’s office.

After hearing a shout from the other side of the closed door, he entered the room to find the tall, dark form of the deputy director standing looking out the window. “Afternoon, Sir.”

Julius turned around and smiled at him. “Afternoon, Mulroney. Pull up a chair.” When they were both seated at opposite sides of the large, oak desk, he flipped through some papers. “I’m very satisfied with the work you and your team are doing, Mark, and I made that clear to the director when I met with him last week. I requested a few things, and they’ve started to filter through to my desk now.”

“Thank you, Sir. I’m very satisfied with my agents too.”

“Oh, don’t thank me yet. I’ve only managed to acquire a few people so far, but I feel the SSHU needs a dedicated group of trusted professionals. Let’s see if we can build that…and let’s see if that ninety-seven percent success rate of yours can to go up to a hundred.”

Mark kept his illegally-gained knowledge of the situation to himself. “Ninety-seven? I hadn’t been given an up-to-date figure.”

“Well it’s one of the highest in the Bureau, and I want it at least maintained. Not that I think your team won’t keep it up because I know they will, but having to wait for a forensics expert, a medical examiner, prosecutors, and everybody else we have to share just isn’t making your job any easier. So I requested a team solely for your unit.”

“I have to say, Sir, that’s quite a trick considering we’re in our infancy.”

“But worth the ask I feel,” Julius said with a nod.

“Oh, absolutely! I’m grateful for your efforts, Sir.”

“Mark, we seem to have a decent working relationship. Call me Julius when we’re not in front of the troops.”

Mark quirked his eyebrow. “OK, Julius. That, I can do.”

“Good. Now I’m going to send you the email I got today. Our first newbie is a top federal prosecutor. His name is Paul Mitchell…no relation.” Julius grinned. “He came in from the East a few years ago, and has been gaining quite a rep since he got here. We’ll still be sharing him with a couple of other units, but I plan on changing that as soon as I can.”

“Sounds fine. When’s he coming in? I mean, I assume he’ll want to meet the team?”

“I think we’ll wait until tomorrow…when Agent Carson’s here. We can do all the introductions at once.”

“Good deal. If you send him to me, I’ll take him to their office,” Mark said with satisfaction. He was quite happy with Julius’s explanation of the situation.

“I’ll bring him down myself. I’ll let you know when we’re on our way. It’s been a quiet week so far, so I’d like to visit the team anyway.”

“Thanks, Julius,” Mark said, rising from his chair. “I’ll make sure they’re informed.” As he left Julius’s office with the prosecutor’s file in hand, he rolled his eyes at that final sentence. “Why did he have to say the Q-word? Damn it.”

* * * * * *

Kate Carson entered her trailer and stretched out her compact body, her fingertips reaching the low ceiling as she thought about her little, peaceful haven. She looked around and realized she was pretty unusual among her co-stars. She loved using her trailer, even when they weren’t on location. The fact that she had bought it herself so she’d always have her own space, didn’t really put her in the diva category in her opinion. “I just like some peace and privacy. It’s not much to ask,” she reasoned.

It was the only luxury she wanted here at work, and it felt like a little piece of home with a few pictures of her loved ones around the place and a Native American throw on the couch that CJ had bought her for those little naps in her some down time between shoots. With a heave of her weary shoulders, she picked up her bag just as someone knocked on her door.

“Kate? It’s Tony. I’m ready when you are. No rush.”

Kate smiled and opened the door to her devoted driver and friend. “Hey, you. I’ll be right out.”

“Hi. I just wasn’t sure if you saw me waving when you left the studio. There’s no hurry…”

“Sorry, Tony. I guess my mind is a little distracted. I’m ready now.”

As they approached the black Mercedes, Tony opened the passenger door and invited his boss to enter the car with a dramatic bow and arm gesture.

Kate chuckled before she curtsied and sat in the plush, leather seat. “Why thank you, kind sir.”

Tony grinned and was pleased to see her smile. “Have you home in a flash, ma’am.”

Kate turned around to see a sleepy Shannon smiling widely. She knew Shannon had been at her after school group today, and Tony would have taken her for something to eat before coming to pick Kate up.

“Hey, Shan. How was school?”

“It was good, but it was such a long day, and I’m tired now,” Shannon said dramatically.

“Oh, me too! I can’t wait to get home.”

Tony buckled his seatbelt. “Home it is then, ladies.”

That made Kate snort out a laugh, and as they set off she thanked Tony for distracting her from her unwelcome thoughts. In truth, she couldn’t stop thinking about Jack Bannerman. His behavior had been more disturbing than normal, although she’d never use the word “normal” when it came to Jack. She shook her head and tried to forget about it, but as Tony drove the car over to the studio gates, Jack’s sports car was in line in front of them waiting to pull out into the traffic on Warner Boulevard. The bright-red Ferrari F430 let out a satisfying roar as Jack revved the engine while he waited not-so-patiently. When he finally found a gap in the constant stream of vehicles, he roughly shifted the stick and hit the gas pedal, swerving out into both lanes and causing a tirade of horns to sound as other drivers slammed on their brakes to avoid him. Kate’s look of concern was mirrored on Tony’s face, and she wondered if her driver had noticed Jack’s inebriation earlier in the day. She knew Jack had been hung over quite a lot recently and couldn’t help but think his behavior was only going to get worse.

* * * * * *

As CJ walked from the crèche into the kitchen, she heard the sound of a car engine in front of the house. With the window open, the echo of two doors slamming followed. Once she heard the three voices – one male, one female, and one seven-year-old who seemed to be singing quite loudly – she knew the other half of her family was home. Just like every other day, CJ’s belly flopped at the thought of seeing her beloved Kate, and she turned only to laugh at Kamali who had his two front paws on the sill and was wiggling profusely in his desperation to welcome the newly-arrived humans. CJ went in search of Lucy, but she needn’t have bothered since Lucy came bounding into the room at full speed.

“Mama’s home! An’ Shan too!”

“They sure are, Little One. Let’s go get ‘em,” CJ said with a smile as she was pulled along by Lucy’s strong mini-hand.

Kamali pranced ahead of them and practically bowled Shannon over when she came in the door. He shook himself off – having run into her by mistake when they both crossed the threshold at the same time – and nuzzled her hand as she patted him on the head.

“Good boy, Kamali.”

Kate appeared behind her daughter, and after a brief smile to CJ she crouched down to catch a fast-approaching Lucy. “Hey, Luce. Did you and Mommy have a good day?”

“Yes. We saw a scurl!”

“You did? Wow, that’s cool.” When Kate let Lucy go, the little ball of energy skipped merrily through the house following her big sister as she headed upstairs.

“Shan? Leave your bag down here and we’ll do your homework before dinner,” CJ shouted.

“OK, Mommy!”

CJ turned to Kate and opened her arms. “Hello, my love.”

“Hey. I missed you today,” Kate murmured as she walked happily into the strong embrace. “Oh, that’s wonderful.”

“It really is.” As they stood in the middle of the hallway, CJ basked in the feel of holding Kate. Only the distant voices of their children and the deep breathing coming from the woman in her arms broke the silence. It was bliss, and for the millionth time since she’d met Kate she thanked her lucky stars. She nuzzled Kate’s hair and sighed. “You know holding you is when I feel most at peace.”

Kate pulled back only slightly. She searched the deep-blue eyes of her mate. “Me too. It’s an amazing feeling.”

“Yeah… ” CJ bent down and captured the softest lips she would ever know, making Kate forget any concerns she had about her day at work. Little did they know their peace would soon be shattered.

* * * * * *

Late that night, a very tired-looking Elizabeth Marshall-Emerson disembarked at LAX and headed for baggage claim. Since her last encounter with her daughter, Elizabeth had been doing a lot of thinking…or was it planning? Whatever one would call it, she had made a decision. Her mind was now focused on one thing and one thing only – getting her daughter back. There must be a way to make Katherine see sense. Maybe my current condition will make her more open to my way of thinking, the woman said to herself as she dragged her expensive suitcase from the moving belt.

She stretched out her strained shoulders and reminded herself to bring a personal bell-boy next time she traveled. Someone of her delicate build should not be hefting weighty baggage around on her own. Seeing a desk for limousine hire, Elizabeth’s eyes sparked back to life, and she promptly regained her superior gait to stride purposefully toward the unsuspecting attendant.

.

Chapter 3

CJ and Kate sat in the private restaurant booth with their guests for the evening, finishing up what had been a very pleasant meal. CJ’s mouth was slowly masticating her last piece of tuna steak accompanied by some creamed, herb potatoes, and her eyes were wide at the ever-increasing speed of Stella Starr’s yapping mouth. The private investigator never seemed to relent, and CJ was amazed that she had even managed to finish her meal. Stella’s partner, Reggie, was obviously very used to the million-words-per-minute monologue and sat beside her mate in a contented but regal pose that could only come from years of catwalk training. CJ sipped from her glass of water as she studied Reggie’s relaxed face and twinkling blue eyes.

CJ had never understood why anyone would be attracted to her – especially Kate – but looking at this other person who was indeed her mirror image, she actually thought she must be quite good-looking. It was a thought that startled CJ out of her musings. What? Now I think I look OK? Sheesh. I’m pretty sure I gave myself another compliment at Christmas. What is the world coming to?

She decided to quit talking to herself after a quick side glance from Kate. She waited for a gap in the conversation, and since Stella was taking a gulp of her wine that gap was now. She started with a work-related question aimed at Reggie, and soon all four of them were engaged in one of their weirdly comfortable discussions.

Just under thirty minutes later, CJ’s cell phone began to ring, momentarily disrupting the natural flow of their evening. “Excuse me,” she said and stood up from the table. Recognizing her field office number, she answered the call accordingly. “Agent Carson.”

“CJ, its Mark. I’m sorry to disturb. I know you’re out tonight, but we have a case and it won’t wait. I need you here as soon as…”

CJ could hear the sense of impending doom in her boss’s tone. “I’ll be right there, Sir.” When the call was disconnected, she turned back to the ridiculously weird sight of Kate sitting across the table from a Kate-double…and a CJ-double. She shook her head to snap out of the Twilight Zone once again and looked at the three. “That was work,” she said with regret.

Kate saw the look in CJ’s eyes. “It’s OK, honey. I’ll be safe enough in the company of these two private investigators.” She stood up and hugged her briefly. “I can see you need to go. Be careful please.”

“I love you,” CJ whispered into Kate’s ear. Letting her go, she tilted her head at their dinner guests. “Apologies, but the FBI calls. Thank you for your company tonight. It was great to meet you both. Weird but great.”

Ever-ready Stella piped up. “No worries, CJ. It was great to meet you too! I’ll guard her with my life,” she said, nodding toward Kate.

“Uh-huh. I’m pretty sure she can take care of herself. She’s a Taekwando master, you know…but thanks for the reassurance, Stella.”

Regina and Kate waved at CJ as Stella’s eyes lit up at the new conversation fodder she had just received. When CJ turned to go, Kate rolled her eyes and prepared herself for yet more questions from the adorable, insistent chatterbox that was Stella Starr.

* * * * * *

CJ draped her jacket over her shoulders as she tried to hail a cab. After the third attempt, she contemplated calling Jamie to come pick her up since she didn’t live too far away. Nah…she’ll be asleep or something… Her thoughts were rudely interrupted by an argument across the street.

Stepping back into a puddle – a result of the briefest of rain showers earlier in the evening – was Jack Bannerman. He awkwardly staggered toward a bright-red sports car, and his drinking buddy was trying to stop him from driving the high-powered vehicle. CJ watched as Bannerman pushed his friend away and stormed off down the street with a young slip of a girl who looked like she had hit puberty quite recently and who probably hadn’t eaten anything in at least twenty-four hours. Jack’s buddy strolled off in the other direction triumphantly swinging the car keys around his finger. Someone somewhere was going crazy with a camera, the bright flashes blinding some passers-by as they tried to avoid bumping into Jack. The pictures would probably end up in some trashy magazine or newspaper article the next day.

CJ grumbled to herself as she turned away to continue her search for a cab. She had a vision of her drawing the gun she had hidden in her ankle holster to commandeer a vehicle, but thankfully a cab came around the corner and let its passengers out right at the eatery she had just left negating the need for any unwanted drama. She jumped into the cab, and as it moved off she glanced at Jack who was walking down the sidewalk doing his best to identify the obstacles in his way. She wondered why she detested him so much. She also wondered what would snap him out of his seemingly destructive lifestyle…and when.

* * * * * *

Back inside the restaurant just as the three women were preparing to leave, Kate heard a faint tune coming from her bag. She fished out her phone and checked the caller ID. It displayed private number, and she frowned as she answered the call.

“Hello?”

“Katherine?”

Kate knew who it was immediately and her heart sank. Only her mother called her Katherine. “Yes. Why are you calling, Elizabeth?”

“Katherine, please don’t take that tone with me.”

“What do you want? You disowned me, remember?”

“You don’t have to remind me. But I…I need to see you. Can’t I have a chance to explain myself?”

Kate felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end in a clear warning, but she also felt her unending compassion asserting itself. “Do you think you deserve a chance to explain?” Kate was not prepared for the reply she got.

“No. No, I don’t. But I must see you, Katherine, while there’s still time,” Elizabeth said.

Kate frowned. “Why wouldn’t there be time?”

“Please, darling. I need to see you. Please?”

Kate couldn’t believe her ears. Her mother was begging to see her and calling her darling? Something was definitely going on here, and Kate’s curiosity got the better of her. “I’ll give you ten minutes, Elizabeth. I’ll call you back when I can get away from work tomorrow.”

“Thank you, dear. Until tomorrow then…”

“OK, bye.” Kate was very suspicious when she hung up the call but was willing to give her estranged parent the opportunity to explain things when she saw her. As much as it was nice to hear some positive words from her mother, she was wary of any kindness coming from such a bitter woman, and she didn’t trust any of it. Hmm. Why would the leopard change her spots now?

After a quick walk to the truck, Kate graciously said goodnight to her private investigator escorts, but Stella still seemed a little fired up.

“I’ve had a great time, and thank you so much for being so kind and accommodating…really, truly was a night to remember for me…can’t tell you how much I loved meeting you…and CJ. It was so cool and-”

Regina put a calming hand on her partner’s shoulder. “I think she gets the idea, Stell.”

“Hmm? Oh, yeah…sorry, Kate.”

Kate grinned. “No need for apologies, Stella. I had a wonderful time, as did CJ.”

“Tell her we really enjoyed meeting her. She’s amazing. Keep in touch?” Stella said hopefully, wiggling her hand next to her ear.

“Of course I will. Send me a text message once you’re both home safe, OK?”

“OK. Bye, Kate.” Stella waited for her idol to open her arms in invitation. When Kate did so, she accepted eagerly.

Regina waited her turn, and when they’d parted Kate bid them goodnight once more and got into the blue Dodge Ram. Regina put her arm around Stella’s shoulders as they waved. She recalled their pleasant evening and her conversation with CJ about their differing taste in cars. CJ loved her truck, and Regina loved her low-slung sports car.

Aww…CJ must have driven, and she left the truck for Kate. She looked at Stella who was snuggled into her side. Heck of course she’d leave the truck. I’d rather walk a thousand miles than leave Stell stranded. And with that, Regina Harrison strolled the few blocks to their parking spot arm-in-arm with her partner, Stella Starr…who was still chattering excitedly about their impromptu and most enjoyable trip to Los Angeles.

* * * * * *

As she lay in bed that night, Kate’s mind was buzzing with the day’s events. “What a strange but fun day. But I need to find out why Elizabeth’s here…” she muttered as she tapped her fingers on her belly. She lifted her cell phone to see if there had been any contact from CJ. There was no message, and she turned on her side until her nose touched CJ’s pillow. She rubbed her hand over the smooth, cotton surface before giving it a light scratch. “I’ll never get to sleep.”

* * * * * *

Just before midnight, CJ strolled briskly along the corridor toward Mark’s office as her mind constantly tried to prepare itself for the certainty of a horror case. When she walked through the door she saw the AD behind his desk and a short but rather commanding man pacing the floor. She also saw Mark eyeing her evening attire which included navy-blue dress pants, a sky-blue sleeveless blouse with a plunging neckline, and a sparkling, silver necklace with a stone pendant. Not exactly FBI issue, but he had called her away from a night out so what did he expect?

The commanding man walked over to CJ and stretched out his hand. “Agent Carson? I’m Captain Stevens, LAPD Homicide. Take a seat.”

CJ shook the man’s hand and glanced questioningly at Mark who nodded his ascent. Captain Stevens did not miss the signal and apologized for his commands.

“I’m too accustomed to ordering my cops around. I forgot where I was.”

“No problem,” CJ replied amicably.

After a brief and humorless smile, Captain Stevens took a deep breath. “I’m here to hand a case over to your unit. As I told the Assistant Director here, it’s an unusual state of affairs, but I wanted to bring this one to you personally. One of the worst serial killer cases I’ve seen…hoped you could take it off our hands. We just don’t have the manpower right now, and we know you guys have a lot of experience with this sort of thing. Started with homeless kids…we got three John Doe’s, one Jane. Two of them were minors who helped out at a drop-in center. When they didn’t come in at their usual times, the supervisor thought it strange and called the cops. He gave us first names and approximate ages of his helpers who might not have revealed their true identities. Three other bodies have now been found…not street kids. These ones were reported missing by their families. Nadine Bareski, Jordan Ford, and Denise Bryant were all dumped with the same injuries. Seems our killer likes them under fifteen…and he takes trophies,” he finished with a heave of his shoulders.

“Why is it only coming to us now, Captain? I mean, after so many bodies,” CJ asked then looked up at the silence that ensued. “Uh, I didn’t mean that to sound…”

Mark held his hand up. “I didn’t take it that way. Captain Stevens, my agent wasn’t inferring anything negative with regards to your department.”

“I actually thought it was a good question…and I hadn’t taken offense.” Stevens sighed again. “It’s only coming to you now because the three latest killings…Bareski, Ford, and Bryant…were all found in the space of two days in Los Angeles County. The MO was matched to the previous deaths which only came to light in the week prior to these murders. They’re horrendous. This killer is very messy about…well, I’ll let you look at them, agent. From what we can gather, the trophies he takes are significant. I guess he doesn’t want his victims to see him.”

CJ took the bundle of files from the captain’s offering hand and started flicking the pages of the top one – Denise Bryant, twelve years old. She stifled her grimace at the photos of the young girl’s body and the extent of the seemingly frenzied attack on her limbs. When she saw the close-up photo of the child’s head, she ground her jaw and closed the file. Maintaining her professional poker face – which coolly covered up the twisting feeling in her gut – she looked between the two men. “Yes. I see what you mean. He could be a spree killer…seems a little manic. What’s the age range so far?”

“Difficult to tell due to the John Doe’s, but our ME puts the youngest one at roughly eight years old.”

With a nod of her head, CJ began mentally preparing herself for a horrendous few days, weeks…however long it took to catch this killer. Her quick glance at one file was enough to make her feel quite sick. She wondered how the hell she was going to continually look through the rest of them, never mind work the case to its conclusion.

* * * * * *

When CJ got back to her office she dropped the bundle of case files on her desk and sparked the coffee machine to life to let it warm up. She switched on the desktop spotlight that shone on the photo frame containing her favorite picture of Kate, Shannon, and Lucy, and threw her jacket over the back of her chair.

While the coffee machine entered its gurgling stage, she sent a quick message to Kate whom she knew would understand the short phrase. It was one they had used before and would no doubt use many times in the future – “See you when I see you xx”. When Kate sent back “Stay safe xx”, CJ knew she had received the message loud and clear.

Now she could drown in her work for a few hours, completely undistracted since it was now after midnight. With a yawn she rose to get her coffee, and when she sat back in the chair she opened the first file with a sigh and a frown. It was not going to be a pleasant night.

* * * * * *

By four o’clock in the morning, CJ had looked thoroughly at each file and had made a dent in the profile for this killer who she had to admit might be her most gut-wrenching case to date. She finished looking at the crime scene photos of the last three victims: one found in suburbia in a park, and two found in built-up city locations. Denise Bryant was the victim found in the park. From the information in the pictures, the location could have been a wilderness instead of a park in the middle of a densely populated area. The body had been haphazardly wrapped in a tarp and dumped behind some bushes. The deep lacerations to the girl’s leg and the ruptured eye sockets made CJ close her eyes and grasp at her temples with thumb and forefinger. With her other hand, she closed the file then added a few more notes to the profile. She got up a short while later and pinned the copies of the pictures to the board.

As much as the mutilation to these precious children was all post mortem, it still offered CJ a glimpse into this murderer’s mind, and she did not like what she saw. It made her sick, and she put her weary head down on the desk for a few moments of reprieve. That ended up being a huge mistake. She dozed off and slipped into a dream that was influenced by her current, disturbing thoughts.

Shannon stood motionless on the soft forest floor. The rugged path carved a channel through the surrounding trees. The tall trunks were lined up military style, as if setting a fake scene for what was to come and saluting in their knowledge. There was an eerie stillness: no birds, no wind, and no sound. A mist hung heavily in the dusky air. Shadows threatened with hints of evil. The girl moved toward CJ, but she wasn’t walking, just gliding like a weary apparition. The rigidity of Shannon’s body and the feeling of a dark presence was enough to bring tears to CJ’s eyes. She was scared, terrified…of what, she didn’t know. But she did know. It just wasn’t obvious yet.

She searched the darkness for answers and, not finding any, she turned back to her daughter’s face now streaked in blood, her eyes too dark for CJ to see what was wrong with this picture. As the Shannon figure moved closer, CJ screamed. The child had no eyes. Suddenly from the empty sockets, a bright-white light shone vividly. But it wasn’t a light of hope or wonder. It only increased CJ’s fear that she had lost her daughter. Her heart was beating way too fast, and she broke out in a cold sweat. Shannon lifted one arm and then the other, reaching out to her mother and showing her that he had sliced through the fragile limb. More blood poured from the wound, and CJ tried to reach forward to save her beloved Shannon, but she found she was paralyzed and helpless. She tried to lean forward. She tried to grab at Shannon, but her entire body would not follow her mind’s command. The image of Shannon disappeared. She had lost her. He had killed her.

* * * * * *

Jamie arrived at work just as the first glimpse of sunlight broke the darkened skies. She had received a call from Mark who had told her to get to the office as soon as she could to assist CJ in the investigation. Rubbing her eyes and yawning, she dragged herself through the office door and found CJ slumped over her desk, seemingly asleep but whimpering quietly. As Jamie got closer she saw CJ’s labored breathing and the beads of sweat on her forehead, and realized CJ was having a nightmare. She wasn’t sure how to wake her colleague without getting a beating for her trouble. She moved carefully around CJ to stand behind her chair and reached down to brush her hand through CJ’s raven locks.

“Hey, Dangermouse…wake up. You’re having a nightmare,” Jamie said gently, getting no response except a shudder from CJ’s body and an increased frown on her face. “CJ, wake up. C’mon, honey.” She shook her gently.

CJ bolted upright and roughly grabbed the arm that shook her. “No! You can’t take-” CJ shouted before she got her bearings and glanced at Jamie who now stood in a defensive position at her side. “Oh…sorry, Penfold. I must have dozed off.”

“You sure did. Are you OK?”

“Uh, yeah. Did Mark call you in?” CJ asked, hoping it would distract Jamie while she wiped the sweat from her brow.

“Yes. Hey, are you sure you’re all right?” Jamie could see something in CJ’s eyes. Was it fear?

“I’m OK, Penfold,” CJ lied. “But this case…it’s…well I…I’m not sure…” She stumbled over her words and paused to try to collect her thoughts. “I need to go see Mark.”

As CJ left the office, Jamie sat at her desk since the files were spread all over the surface, and began the unwelcome task of catching herself up. She was worried about CJ already, but when she saw the crime scene photos she understood why the usually-unflappable agent looked so stressed out.

* * * * * *

CJ stared at her reflection in the restroom mirror. Noting the crease between her eyebrows and the faraway look in her dull eyes, she felt a sense of panic wash over her. “I’m disappearing so fast. I won’t do this to Kate again.” She sat on the bench next to the lockers for a short while, regurgitating her all-too-vivid nightmare and trying to calm her nerves. She gasped out a single sob and caught herself before it took hold of her completely. Shannon’s OK. She’s at home with Katie, sleeping in her bed. Damn this fucking case…it’s barely started and look at the state of me!

As she splashed her face with cold water in an effort to wake herself up a little more, she saw the shadow consuming her. That shadow was a tell-tale sign that she was about to go down the proverbial rabbit-hole. She was determined she wouldn’t do it this time and ground her jaws together as she left the room.

It was something o’clock in the early morning when CJ strutted along the corridor. She got to Mark’s office, and the door was ajar enabling her to see that Mark wasn’t there. She turned to go just as she heard the water running in his private washroom. She loitered outside until she heard him dropping into his creaky chair and coughing. She then poked her head around the door frame.

“Uh, Sir?”

“Come in.”

CJ sat in the chair opposite her boss with her back straight and rigid and her face the picture of discomfort. “Sir, I can’t…I can’t work this case.”

Mark’s head snapped up with a fleeting look of surprise. “CJ, I have no choice but to demand you work this case. The SSHU have been entrusted with ending this…this nightmare. We need to catch him as fast as possible.”

CJ sighed, her jaws clenching in her agitation. “I thought you might say that…was worth a try though. Mark, I’m not sure how I’m gonna deal with this one. I’ll need to talk to the team, let them know what to expect.”

“Which is…?”

CJ threw her hands up in the air. “Anything? Everything? Who the hell knows?”

Mark could already see her fading into the background as she went into her profiler mode. He prepared himself for at least a few days of unpredictable CJ. “I’ll give you as much support as I can, CJ, but I know you’ll work through this somehow. That’s why you’re the lead agent in this unit, and the quicker you resolve it, the better…for everyone.”

“Yes, yes, I know that. It’s just so damn ugly. They’re…kids, you know? I mean, the mess he made of Denise’s body. She was just a little girl…”

“I know. And I know that you’ll have difficulty with this, even more so now that you have children of your own. But CJ, you’re supposed to identify with the killer, not the victim. Get rid of those feelings right now,” Mark said firmly.

“With all due respect, Sir, I need to work this case the way I see fit.” CJ stood up and looked at her watch. “I’ll have the finished profile on your desk by nine o’clock.” And without a dismissal, she turned and left the office under a veil of darkness.

Mark sighed and looked at the empty doorway. “I hope Kate’s ready for this one.”

* * * * * *

After handing in the first draft of her report to Mark a couple of hours later, CJ jumped in the truck and pulled out of the parking garage earlier than she’d anticipated. As she drove home for a wash and change of clothes, she considered how she would interact with Kate this time. Having the presence of mind to think about how she handled this case was a big step for CJ. She would normally just get on with it without considering how it would affect anyone around her. But she had a family now, and she remembered what Kate had to cope with during the Davenport case. It had been very tough for them, and CJ would be damned if she would let her go through this one the same way. She just wasn’t sure how to make it easier for her.

By the time she got home, Shannon and Lucy – and possibly Kate – would be in bed since it was still incredibly early in the morning. CJ was crawling out of her skin and knew she only had a couple of hours to get back to work. This investigation would not slow down now until the killer was caught. She was just glad of the short amount of time to refresh while Jamie did the initial investigations and background checks at the office. While she had been driving, CJ’s mind was already forming an image of the killer based on what she had read so far. She had dealt with a few child victims before but she’d never dealt with a serial killer who exclusively murdered children.

As she opened the front door of the house, she shook her head in response to her thoughts and tried to clear her mind of what had happened to Shannon in her dream. With a convulsive gulp, she failed to erase that haunting image and the thought of each young victim’s demise. This was going to be such a grueling case.

Once CJ was inside, Kate stood in the doorway to the living room watching her troubled spouse trying to process what Kate knew were dark thoughts. She hadn’t been able to sleep and had dozed on the couch for most of the night. When she heard CJ come in, she immediately got up to greet her. A vast array of emotions washed over CJ’s graceful features, and Kate remained quiet until CJ’s face tensed and she swallowed repeatedly, almost like she was ready to empty her stomach.

“Honey, are you OK?” Kate asked cautiously.

CJ looked up and stared blankly for a few seconds until she regained her focus. “Hold me…” she whispered.

Kate crossed the space promptly and wrapped herself around CJ, concerned when she felt her trembling slightly in her embrace, no doubt due to a combination of the early morning chill and the thought of what was to come. As CJ’s arms slid around her shoulders and a hand cradled the back of her head, Kate lowered her brows with concern.

“Tighter,” CJ requested.

Kate squeezed the larger body and inhaled deeply, hoping that CJ would match her slow, relaxing breaths. When she felt her trying to emulate her technique, she rubbed CJ’s back and spoke softly. “Please tell me what happened at work.”

CJ leaned her mouth on Kate’s shoulder. “Not this time. I have to catch a child killer, Katie. I’m not sharing this case with you.” She lifted her head and moved back. When Kate’s green eyes met hers, she continued. “No details, no MO’s, and no crime scene photos. I’ll be on this case now until it’s done. Just know that when I need you, I’ll come to you. You can be certain of that. But I can’t discuss this one. Please tell me that’s gonna be OK.”

Kate searched deep into her wife’s eyes. “Do you…do you want me to leave you alone?” she said worriedly.

“Never. I just can’t discuss it. If I discuss it, I’ll get emotional…and I can’t do that right now. I have to identify with the killer, not the victims as Mark so pointedly reminded me.”

Kate nodded mournfully. “Then it’s gonna be OK. Just catch the bastard and come home to me. I’ll deal with the aftermath… But, CJ?”

“What?” CJ said quietly, holding Kate’s stare with a complete love she had no idea her solemn face was showing.

“I need to keep in touch with you,” Kate said, holding her hand to CJ’s heart to show her what she meant. “Even if you can’t answer the phone or don’t have time to see me, will you make sure to contact me any moment you can?”

“Of course I will. We learned a lot from the Davenport case…I learned a lot. I won’t shut you out. All I’m asking is that you don’t make me discuss the details this time…not until it’s over…and maybe not even then.”

Kate raised her hand and gently brushed a strand of raven hair behind CJ’s ear. “OK. As long as you know you can discuss it if you need to. OK.”

CJ wrapped her body around Kate again and savored the feeling since she knew she wouldn’t get much chance in the coming days. Kate returned the gesture, wondering how she was going to cope with everything. And there was no way she would tell CJ about Elizabeth showing up in LA or her increasing problems with Jack either. It was Kate’s job to keep CJ’s stress levels as low as she could while she worked this type of case. She didn’t realize that she was doing the same protective thing she had always asked CJ not to.

They ascended the stairs together. Kate wanted to be there while CJ got washed and changed, but before they went to their room CJ shuffled over to Shannon’s door. She peeked inside and watched her daughter sleep. From this distance, she couldn’t see the child breathing so she entered quietly and approached the bed. Kate stayed at the door. She was worried about CJ. She seemed almost fearful in her movements, and when she knelt down next to Shannon and leaned over to kiss her on the forehead, Kate heard a small cry and made a move toward her wife.

CJ quickly stood up and turned to her, showing her tear-filled eyes. “I’m OK…just a little overwhelmed.”

Kate grasped her hand and silently led her to their master suite where she closed the door and sat with CJ on the edge of the bed. “Tell me…”

“I just wanted to see her.”

“Why? What’s going on in there?” Kate asked, tapping gently on CJ’s temple.

CJ took the hand and held it to her lips, kissing the knuckles before answering. “I dozed off at work…for a few minutes, I think. It was enough for me to have a nightmare.”

Kate paused for a beat to think before speaking. “About Shannon?” When CJ nodded and winced, she grazed her thumb over the hand she was holding. “This case…you told me it was a child killer. I’m guessing you merged the two in your nightmare.”

“You guessed right.” CJ looked at her. “You know me too well.”

“Never too well…but I do know you. You’ll try and keep this case from me because you think it’ll affect me the same way it affects you. Can I remind you again that I’m tough?” The expression on Kate’s face was compassionate and sincere, but it also held a hint of dark humor.

CJ quirked her mouth in a fleeting half-smile. “I love you, and I already told you I’ll come to you when I need you…”

“Yes, but you also said you won’t talk about the case and…” Kate held a finger to CJ’s lips to forestall her obvious response. “I know you can’t in order to handle this one without falling apart, but I don’t want you heading to that place where you end up drinking for the wrong reasons or carrying so much darkness alone that you end up drowning in it. Remember you’re only human, much as you hate to admit it.” She kissed CJ tenderly. “I’m here. You’re allowed to let it all out in front of me…and I can handle it.”

CJ was completely in love all over again. Even though Kate knew she had to work the case her way – which meant a dark, disturbed, and moody CJ – she had just given the agent her ultimate support. “I know you can. I promise if it gets that bad, I will talk about it.”

“Good.” Kate kissed her softly once more and went to the closet to grab some fresh towels. “Come on.” She held out her hand, and when CJ took it Kate led her into the bathroom for some TLC before she had to leave again.

.

Chapter 4

Dressed in her finest dark-green pant suit, Elizabeth Emerson sat in the rear section of her luxurious limousine. The long, shiny, silver vehicle pulled up outside the Olympian Studios around nine forty-five in the morning. The uniformed driver got out and opened the door as instructed, and Elizabeth adjusted her wide-brimmed hat to make sure her face was sheltered from the sun as she approached the guard at the booth.

“Good morning. I’d like to see Kate Marshall.”

The guard smiled politely. “I’d need to see if Miss Marshall’s available, ma’am. Do you have an appointment?”

“No, but I am her mother. My name’s Elizabeth Marshall-Emerson,” Elizabeth replied while she pushed a twenty dollar bill into the man’s hand.

He looked at the note and calmly handed it back. “Sorry, ma’am. I still need to check if Miss Marshall’s available. Security’s pretty tight at our studios these days. Problems in the past, you see.”

“This is preposterous. She’s my daughter. Let me through these gates this instant!”

“Please wait here for a moment. I’ll be right back.” The guard entered the booth and began looking for the correct number. He watched Elizabeth through the window as she stormed back to her car.

Elizabeth huffed and grumbled to herself as she searched for her cell phone. She would call Kate herself and get this sorted out. As she placed her handbag on the trunk of the limousine she was startled by a loud, roaring engine coming to rest beside her.

Jack Bannerman’s red Ferrari made its presence known with a few thousand revs and a squeal of its brakes. Jack got out of his prized sports car when he saw the attractive, albeit older woman whose limo was causing a mini traffic jam at the studio gates. He ran his fingers over his dark goatee and quickly cupped his hand over his mouth to check his breath.

With his most charming smile plastered on his face, he moved to stand next to the obviously-rich woman. “Hi. Need a little help?”

“Excuse me? Who are you?”

“Well it’s a shame you have to ask. I’m none other than Hollywood actor, Jack Bannerman.”

“Oh. Well yes, I’ve actually heard of you.” Elizabeth looked him up and down and thought maybe he could help her get inside the studio. “Tell me, do you know Kate Marshall?”

“Why, yes. Kate and I are thick as thieves,” Jack replied while nudging Elizabeth’s shoulder.

“Really? I’m her mother…and silly me…I seem to have forgotten to make an appointment with my lovely daughter. This gentleman here won’t let me in.”

“An appointment to see your own daughter…? Oh, that’s ridiculous. I tell you, since that nonsense last year, security here is tighter than the Pentagon.” Jack laughed a fake but hearty laugh.

“What happened last year?”

“Just some insane woman wanting to hurt-” Bannerman realized he shouldn’t be discussing it since Kate had almost been killed, and her mother didn’t seem to know about it. Hell, he didn’t even know Kate had a mother. “You know how it can be with us actors…people go crazy for us. Heh.”

“Ah. So you’re thick as thieves with my daughter. Are you two, you know, an item?”

“That would be very nice, but she seems to fight me all the way. Shame really…we’d have such cute kids, don’t you think?”

At that information, Elizabeth’s mind was whirling. Her Katherine settled down with a nice man and some children? It sounded perfect to her. “Absolutely, Mr. Bannerman.”

“Please, call me Jack. And you are…?”

“Elizabeth,” she announced, holding out her hand so the devilishly handsome actor could kiss it.

When Jack stood upright again he puffed out his chest and threw Elizabeth a dazzling smile before they were interrupted by the guard returning.

“Mr. Bannerman, apologies for the wait.” He turned to Elizabeth. “Ma’am, your daughter will be right down. Please ask your driver to pull the car in just over there.” He added as he pointed to a parking bay immediately inside the studio gates.

Elizabeth nodded and knocked on the limousine window making her driver get out hurriedly to open the door for her. “Thank you for chatting, Jack. It was very nice to meet you…very nice indeed. Seems we have some ideals in common. Maybe we could chat more while I’m in town. Here’s my number.”

“Pleasure was all mine, Elizabeth,” Jack drawled, taking the small card from her hand. “I’ll text you later. That way you’ll have my number too.” Jack liked the thought of having an ally in his quest to get to Kate. This could be a way to make her see sense. Impress the mother, manipulate the daughter. It’s worth a try.

As Jack strolled back to his car, Elizabeth conveniently forgot about CJ and envisioned her daughter on the arm of a handsome, rich actor like Jack. I must talk to Kate about this wonderful man. Surely she can see how perfect he would be for her.

* * * * * *

Samantha Morris crossed the parking lot with a cup of coffee in her left hand and a clipboard clamped to her body under her right elbow. Her auburn hair shimmered in the late morning sun and the smile on her face was most likely at the memory of a romantic night with a certain blond special agent. She greeted the various colleagues and acquaintances as she passed them, but her smile faltered when she saw a very distracted-looking Kate Carson heading her way. Sam took a few seconds to appreciate Kate who was dressed in form-fitting, black jeans and a feminine, cream-colored cotton shirt with over-sized collar and cuffs. She wore her hair in a loose ponytail and looked beautiful, but the lack of her usual vibrant smile made Sam worry.

“Kate!”

On hearing the familiar voice, Kate paused in her stride before smiling and continuing toward her friend. “Hey, Sam. What’s up?”

“Not much. You look a little down. Anything I can help with?”

Kate sighed. “Not really, hon. There’s someone here to see me, and I’m not really looking forward to talking with her, that’s all.”

“Who?”

“Elizabeth.” At Sam’s confused look, Kate relented. “My mother.”

“Oh. I guess, in your case, that would ruin your morning. Want me to come with you?” Sam knew about the incident outside the Carson’s house with the infamous Elizabeth, and even though she had never met the woman she had formed a rather negative opinion of her already.

“Thanks for the offer, but I’ll deal with it. See you later?”

“Sure thing. I’ll come find you. Call me if you need me.”

“I will. Bye, Sam.”

“Bye.” Sam watched as Kate purposefully strode toward the studio gates, and at first she wondered where on earth Kate was going. Then she noticed the limousine parked in the visitor’s bay and put two and two together. “Cruela DeVille,” she muttered before wandering off.

* * * * * *

Elizabeth Emerson sat powdering her face in the back of the limo and jumped out of her skin when Kate tapped on the darkened window. She opened the door and invited her daughter inside. “Katherine! Come sit with me for a moment.”

“Elizabeth. I’m afraid I don’t have time right now. I said I’d call you when I had a break in filming.”

“Oh well, I thought I’d surprise you. I really want to have a nice chat with my daughter.”

Kate shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “It wasn’t so long ago you were calling me and my partner all sorts of names and disowning me, Elizabeth. Do you expect me to want to have a nice chat now?”

“Please, darling, we should talk. I’d like to explain my behavior and spend some quality time with you while I can,” Elizabeth said as she patted the seat beside her.

Kate looked around her before glancing at her watch. For some insane reason she would feel guilty if she walked away and she entered the vehicle against her better judgment. “Two minutes. That’s all I have.”

“Thank you, dear.”

“Why are you being so civil? And why do you keep saying while there’s still time?”

“Do we have to get straight into that? I want to know how you’ve been. I met that nice actor you work with a few moments ago. He’s charming and wonderful…” Elizabeth raved.

“Which actor?”

“That lovely Jack Bannerman. What a handsome devil he is, don’t you think?”

Kate sighed and chose not to answer that one. “Why are you here? I really need to get back to work, so if you could tell me now…?”

“OK, sweetheart, I’m sorry. I…I’m sick and…well, I just wanted to make amends…”

“Sick?”

“Yes, dear, and there’s no cure. Please can we meet so we can really talk? I could come to the house…?” Elizabeth tried.

Kate frowned and shook her head. “No. No, that wouldn’t work.” There was no way she wanted her mother anywhere near her family. “But I don’t understand. When were you diagnosed and what were you diagnosed with?”

“It’s the cancer. Doctor Selman told me last week,” Elizabeth replied solemnly.

Kate had no clue who Doctor Selman was, but it didn’t seem to matter right now. She could at least give Elizabeth some of her time, and she wanted a chance to find out more about the illness. “We could meet for dinner tomorrow night. I know a little restaurant. What hotel are you staying at? I’ll come pick you up.”

“Oh, thank you, darling. That sounds wonderful. I’m at the Beverly Wilshire.”

“Of course you are.” Kate hoped that didn’t sound too sarcastic. “I can be there around seven. I’ll call you when I get to the reception desk.”

“All right. I’ll let you get back to your work. I hope the show is going OK…”

“Yes, it’s going fine,” Kate lied. “See you tomorrow then.”

As Kate stepped out of the limo, Elizabeth leaned forward to wave. “Tomorrow then. Thank you, Katherine.”

“Bye, Elizabeth.”

Kate walked away from the car with her mind in tatters. She wondered why she didn’t feel much after getting the news that her mother was ill and didn’t have much time left. Oh God. Do I hate her that much? She crinkled her lip in disgust and tried to get her mind back on her job, but it would be a tough task. Tomorrow night would go some way to helping her make sense of it all.

* * * * * *

Special Agent Jamie Green sat in the passenger side of the Bureau sedan. She was out in Orange County doing some leg work with CJ, following up on information they had received from a possible witness. They had been told of a suspicious male who was seen in the vicinity of one of the murders near the relevant time, and as much as he could fit CJ’s profile, it didn’t seem to be leading them anywhere.

CJ had mapped out a possible scenario for the murders, and in her gut she felt the perpetrator had started with easy targets he saw on a regular basis. Going by the victim’s medical reports, the homeless children were those easy targets. The Jane and John Doe victims had all been found within a fifteen mile radius of a Help the Homeless shelter, and it now turned out that the staff at the shelter had noticed two of the street kids had stopped coming in for food, which they had done routinely up until a couple of weeks ago. It seemed the killer had headed into Los Angeles County when his need escalated or when he ran out of victims he could access on the streets…or both.

Jamie’s cell phone began to ring, and she fished it out of her jacket pocket. “Agent Green…”

“Jamie, its Mark. We have another one. Stand by for the address. I want you and CJ to go there immediately.”

“Another vic?”

“Yes…” Mark paused as the printer beside him reeled off its ugly news. “OK…body found in a dumpster in the parking lot off Harlem Place. A young male, same MO. Cops are holding the scene, and Belzano’s on his way. I want you and CJ there now.”

“Yes, Sir. We’re on our way.” Jamie disconnected the call and checked her email when the cell phone binged again. Mark had sent her the details.

CJ glanced across to her colleague, and the expression on Jamie’s face said it all. “Where…?”

“The parking lot off Harlem Lane.”

“What? That’s Downtown…and damn close to the LAPD buildings. Fuck.” CJ spun the car in a perfect handbrake turn and sped off in the direction of Downtown LA. She was trying to decide whether or not to get on the freeway when her cell vibrated and bleeped.

Jamie reached over and dug around in CJ’s pocket – as was their agreed routine when the driver was…well, driving – and read the display. “It’s a text from Kate. Want me to respond?”

“No. I’ll get it when I have a minute.”

“Roger that.”

* * * * * *

As the black sedan crawled into Harlem Lane, Jamie flashed her badge out the open window. The officer nodded at her and lifted the cordon tape, allowing the Bureau vehicle access. The sun was beating down on the concrete parking lot and a few irate people were arguing with the cops because they couldn’t get their cars out. CJ grumbled under her breath at how inconsiderate the human race could be. Someone had been murdered – a child, no less – and all they could think about were themselves.

Both women headed toward the blue dumpster and swallowed the gagging caused by the heat-intensified stench. As CJ looked inside, she saw the hideous sight of a contorted blond-haired body wrapped in plastic sheeting. The boy couldn’t have been more than thirteen years old and was lying amongst trash bags and other stinking garbage. CJ’s heart was breaking, and yet at the same time her anger was rising rapidly at this killer’s atrocities. Pain and rage waged a fiery war inside her, but on the outside she was her usual cool, professional self. Deep gashes on the boy’s ankle confirmed to CJ that this was definitely their perp. She snapped on a latex glove to double check. Leaning into the dumpster with one arm, she gently pushed the bloodied eyelid open.

“It’s him,” she said quietly.

Jamie knew exactly who she was referring to. “I’ll talk to the first cop on the scene while we wait for Belzano.”

CJ nodded and turned away from the gory sight. She visually searched the surrounding ground for any signs of a blood trail or perhaps items belonging to the killer or the victim that had been dropped. There was nothing, so she figured the killer had performed his horrifying deeds elsewhere and decided on a midnight body dump. She would confirm time of death when the medical examiner arrived. She pulled the camera from its bag and started taking photos to add to her pin board back at the office. Once she’d got enough pictures of the body and the dumpster, she moved to take pictures of other areas of interest.

“Agent Carson.”

CJ jumped when she heard the voice right behind her. “Oh…hey, Belzano.”

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you,” Victor said. He was dressed in his usual one-piece forensics suit and carried his medical bag. A full head of dark hair was slicked back and away from his deeply tanned face.

“No worries, Victor.”

“Which dumpster?” he asked, pointing to the wall lined with various commercial trash receptacles.

CJ began walking beside the ME. “That blue one right there. It’s definitely our guy. No one’s touched the body except me and the first cop on the scene. He searched for a pulse, and I had a glove on…just wanted to check the eyes.”

Victor gave her a single nod. “I’ll do what I can here. Gimme a couple of minutes.”

CJ spoke to the officers who guarded the dumpster and told them it was now OK to lift the body – still in its wrapping – and place it carefully on the ground for Victor to examine. Seeing Jamie a short distance away, she went to her to catch herself up on the cop’s story. As she read from the page, she looked at her watch. “Found an hour ago by Sadie…a cleaner from The Smell?”

“Yeah, it’s a club…right over there,” Jamie said as she pointed to the opposite end of the lot.

“Ah. Where’s Sadie now?”

“Waiting inside with a couple of cops.”

CJ sighed. “OK, good. Once Belzano’s done his stuff, we’ll go speak with her.”

After taking notes on the surrounding buildings, snapping shots of any civilians watching the scene, and asking the local cops if they had spoken to each observer, the two agents met up again near their sedan to compare notes.

Victor waved them over a few minutes later. “Time of death was around midnight, but I’ll be more certain when I get him back to the office. The heat inside the dumpster could’ve altered the body temp. It looks like your killer all right…exact same damage to the body. At first glance, I’d say the wounds were consistent with the type of knife used in the other murders. This kid…I’d say someone’s missing him. He has good body condition and weight, is well groomed and has pretty expensive clothes on. Seems your guy’s moved on from the homeless ones, huh?”

“Seems like it,” CJ replied tightly. “Anything else?”

“Cause of death is difficult to ascertain right now. I’d guess at suffocation since everything else this guy’s doing is the same, but don’t quote me on that yet.”

Jamie got out the mobile fingerprint scanner. “Can you get me a print?”

“Sure.” Victor handed the small machine back to her, and a few seconds later she shook her head.

“No match, but I bet he’s been reported missing. We’ll need DNA for sure.”

Victor agreed. “I’ll call you as soon as I’m done with the autopsy.”

“Thanks, Belzano,” CJ said, giving him a small salute. She spun around and pointed at a surveillance camera on a faraway wall across the parking lot. “Let’s see where that thing was pointing last night…and then talk to Sadie.”

“Had that in my notebook, Agent Carson,” Jamie said, tapping her pencil on the paper.

“I didn’t doubt it for a second, Agent Green.”

* * * * * *

Kate was stressed out. There was no denying it. The filming schedule was taking a severe beating today, and they were way behind. Her shoulders ached from the tension – mostly caused by Jack Bannerman’s behavior and her mother turning up – and she had just called Alice to let her know she would be home late. Kate knew she was indebted to her child-minder.

Alice Matthews had set up the crèche wonderfully and was always happy to stay late when she was needed, even though that meant her own two young children staying late with her. The Carsons had managed to maintain a great working relationship with the woman. Still, these long days worried Kate, and she had sent Tony back to the house to help. And to top off her stressful day, CJ hadn’t replied to the message she sent five hours ago.

I have to quit worrying. She’ll get back to me when she can.

“Three minutes!” came the call from somewhere behind the cameras.

“Kate, come sit,” Cyn instructed, patting the fold-away chair with her hands. “Touch up required.”

“Huh?”

As Kate sat down, Cyn leaned down until her face was on her shoulder. “You need a touch up. You look like you’ve been crying.”

Lifting a finger to her face and feeling the dampness on her cheek, Kate frowned. “Oh. I’m…I’m just a little stressed and tired. It’s nothing, really.”

“If you say so.” Cyn came around to crouch in front of Kate and raised her eyebrow which raised her two piercings with it. “You know I’m here if you need me, right?”

“I know.”

“I mean it.”

“I know,” Kate repeated.

“OK. Let’s get you fixed up.”

As the make-up was applied, Kate glanced past Cyn’s head and saw Jack watching her with a strange expression on his face. He looked like he had sobered up a little and was trying to remember what the hell he had done whilst drunk. Feeling uncomfortable under his scrutiny, Kate was relieved when Cyn conveniently moved to block his view. With a heave of her shoulders, she tried to refocus on her job…a job that was starting to feel more like a dismal chore.

* * * * * *

It was the end of a very, very long day. CJ and Mikey sat in the office, Ethan had only just gone downstairs to run an errand, and Jamie was in the morgue talking to Victor while she collected the report on today’s victim. It would be emailed to them all, but CJ still liked original hard copy – another of her quirks when working a case like this.

Mikey glanced up a few times to try to judge CJ’s mood. Since she looked surprisingly approachable, he ventured a simple question. “Want some coffee, CJ?”

“Hmm? Oh sure, Mikey. The good stuff?”

The younger agent pulled his jacket from the coat stand. “Yep, I’ll be right back. It’s on me.”

“Thanks, man.”

Once he left, CJ got her head down to process more information and alter the profile a little. It was ever-evolving, much like the killer. She estimated he was a Caucasian male, 20-30 years old, had suffered some form of extreme physical or mental abuse as a child, could have been homeless and possibly still is, and must have access to a vehicle. The fact that he was repeating very similar injuries on each body – the attempted amputations of a limb and the removal of their eyes – indicated to her that he had witnessed something in his past, and he seemed to be reliving it over and over. Whatever his motivation, she knew his need was changing. She had gone down to the morgue during the autopsy, and Victor had told her the cuts to the body were much more deliberate and precise, and yet the killer still hadn’t achieved what seemed to be his goal: to sever the limb. That part was confusing CJ a little, but she promised herself she would figure it out sooner rather than later.

* * * * * *

Assistant Director Mark Mulroney walked along the corridor followed by a tall brunette, her eyes, dark pools of anticipation. But Mark didn’t notice. He had no idea that medical examiner Dr. Chris Wilder had a brief fling with CJ Carson many years ago. During her days at the Academy, CJ dated Chris for a few months, and Chris sure lived up to her name. The woman was definitely wild back then, especially in the bedroom. But she had been a predator and had used CJ much like she used her other conquests.

As they stepped into the agent’s office, Mark introduced Chris before CJ had even looked up from her work. When CJ heard the name her mind filled with dread, and she raised her eyes slowly to see her old flame standing directly in front of her desk.

Mark’s voice began to drift back into CJ’s ears. “…she was interested in our current case and just dropped by for a visit before heading back to San Diego.”

“Oh.” CJ stood up belatedly and rubbed her hands on her pant legs. “Nice to meet you, Dr. Wilder.”

Chris stepped forward, her nostrils flaring slightly at how incredibly hot CJ looked with her dark hair hanging wavy and loose, her stormy, blue eyes that held exhaustion and determination, and her crisp, white shirt clamped to her body by her gun holster. “The feeling is entirely mutual, Agent Carson,” she drawled as she held onto CJ’s hand a little longer than necessary. “I was in town for a conference and heard from another California medical examiner about your unit…and this case you’re working on. I was intrigued and thought I’d stop by to check you out.”

CJ caught the double-entendre and chose to ignore it. She eyed the woman suspiciously. “Which examiner told you about our confidential case?”

Mark flinched a little at his agent’s tone, but Chris just shrugged.

“Richard Masters. He autopsied one of the first bodies in Orange County. He’s a friend of mine and thought I would like to talk with you. Was he wrong to tell me about it?”

CJ glanced at Mark whose eyebrows were lowered in a frown. He gave her a look that ensured she knew she had to be nice to San Diego’s most glamorous ME. She tried not to groan out loud. “Not at all, but I am very busy. Perhaps the Assistant Director could talk to you about the basics?”

At that moment, Mark got distracted when Ethan came into the room with some information he had asked him to get. As he wandered off, Chris took a step closer to CJ who was stunned at the change in her demeanor.

“You look better than ever, CJ,” Chris drawled, licking her lips.

“I’m more married than ever, Dr. Wilder,” CJ responded quietly.

“Wow. I’d never have believed it,” Chris looked at the ring finger on CJ’s left hand. “Who finally hooked you?” she added, playing with her hair and stepping closer than she should.

“My wife finally hooked me…the wife I love more than life itself,” CJ growled, taking a corresponding step backward. She was in a stinking mood and this little game wasn’t helping.

Chris put her hands up in surrender. “I just thought the memories of our time together would persuade you to give me another shot.”

“I’m in the middle of a nightmare case and you’re trying it on? I remember you, Chris. I remember you certainly lived up to your name, but I also remember that you’re a bitch. You used me.”

“I see. Well I recall you didn’t seem to mind at the time…if the moans of ecstasy were anything to go by. Maybe you’ll change your mind someday, and I can use you again…“

CJ clamped her jaws together. “I won’t-“

She was interrupted by Mark coming back across the room with Ethan at his heels. “Right…Ethan and I are going out to follow up on a possible lead. CJ, I’ll call you if we get anything.” He nodded an acknowledgement to his top agent and decided to let her get on with her work. “Dr. Wilder, could you walk down with us? I can fill you in on our way out…”

Knowing Mark’s question wasn’t really a question, CJ sighed with relief. As Chris left the room she turned around quickly and threw CJ a look that would’ve sparked a damp campfire to life.

“Shit,” CJ muttered. “I used to go for that? Thank God I grew up.” She turned and went to her desk just as her colleague arrived back from the morgue.

“Who the hell was that?” Jamie asked as she threw her thumb over her shoulder.

“Ugh! That…was Dr. Chris Wilder who wanted to stick her nose in where it’s not wanted…in more ways than one,” CJ said with a snort.

“Ah. She was hot for ya, huh?”

“Uh…we were involved years ago. She seems to think the wedding band on my finger means squat to me.”

“Oh, well she obviously doesn’t know you at all now.”

“She never did. She just used me for sex…” CJ trailed off, making an apologetic face to her friend.

Jamie snickered. “It’s OK, DM. I know I was a bitch like that. Thankfully, we’ve both gotten older.”

“Speak for yourself, Penfold.” CJ chuckled. “Hey, thanks for making me laugh in the middle of all this shit.”

“You’re welcome. Now, do you want Belzano’s report?” Jamie asked as she waved the file in the air and brought them straight back to business.

CJ blew out a breath. “Yeah. Let’s go over it now.” As she slapped the folder down on her desk, she shifted uncomfortably in her seat. The look Chris had given her meant trouble. That woman always got what she wanted in the past, and it seemed she wanted CJ now. The thought made her groan internally. Jeez, I hope I’m wrong. She knows where I work now, but I just don’t have the energy for her games. Her head still spun a little as she opened the report. Reading over the trace evidence distracted her, and she skimmed over the details one more time before speaking. “Rope fiber?”

Jamie nodded as she typed on her keyboard. “Still need to narrow down the search. They’re running more tests on it. It really was a trace…only a couple of millimeters long.”

“Hmm. Still, it could definitely help.”

“Definitely.”

* * * * * *

A couple of hours later, Ethan came back into Mark’s office with a pile of files. They had been brainstorming for a while now, and Ethan had singled out some potential suspects from his searches earlier in the day. He picked a file off the top of the bundle and handed it to Mark.

“Gregor Sparks…24 years old. He has all the markers in CJ’s profile, and he’s an escalating recidivist. His rap sheet’s a mile long and has just about every type of crime on it. Grand theft auto, vandalism, assault, robbery, menacing in the first degree, criminal solicitation…it goes on and on. Believe it or not, he got out of prison a month ago. Could be our guy,” Ethan said.

“No,” CJ replied wearily, “that’s just it. Our guy…he’s a spree killer. I don’t have him down as having any priors. These murders are too…God, what’s the word…tentative? He kills them by smothering them, like he wants them to sleep peacefully. There’s no physical abuse to the body prior to death. Then he removes their eyes and seems to butcher them in his attempts to remove a limb. Anyone who’d been violent in the past and who wanted to cut off someone’s foot would just get an axe or something and do it. This guy makes many attempts with a small cutting tool or knife. As much as it pains me to say it, it’s not that difficult to remove a foot or an arm. But this guy…it’s like…like it hurts him to cut into the body, and yet he seems compelled to do it. He doesn’t want to cut off the limb and he doesn’t want them to see him try…or succeed in doing it. I think he’s so fucked up by something in his past he doesn’t even know why he does what he does,” she finished, blowing out a breath to cover up her gut heave.

“Do you think he witnessed something heinous in his past? Is he re-living it?” Mark posed, leaning his elbows on his desk.

“It’s definitely something that crossed my mind, Sir, and I think that’s why he cuts out their eyes. He saw something. And it could be something from his childhood, hence the child victims. I have him down as an only child but maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he became an only child.” CJ’s mind was ticking over, rewriting the profile even as she spoke. “He does feel the need to expel some violent tendencies of his own…but he seems to hate what he’s been doing and I believe he’s playing out someone else’s violence. It’s affected him that badly. I could be wrong, though.”

“With your track record, CJ, I doubt it,” Mark said before pursing his lips in thought.

“I might be wrong one day, Sir. This is my gut I’m going by.”

“Your gut is just fine with me, Agent. And it’s an educated gut. Do you have anything else?”

Ethan watched CJ as she thought about it some more. He was always curious as to how her mind worked at times like these. He inhaled gustily in sync with CJ as she took a deep, cleansing breath.

“Well,” she began, “the only other thing I thought about was that this killer might try to take his anger or emotional rage out in legal ways. Like I said, he seems disturbed by the violence and the fact that he is committing terrible crimes…and yet he still does it. It’s like he’s two people.”

“Legal ways? Like sport…karate or boxing?” Mark suggested.

CJ looked up from her musings and stared at him. “Yes.” She turned to Ethan. “Can you go look out the files from the ME and forensics? I think there’s something we need to re-check.”

“Sure, CJ,” Ethan said, getting up from his seat.

“Thanks. I’ll be right there.” CJ turned back to Mark when Ethan left. “The fiber the doc found on the last body…that type of material is used in the production of ropes commonly bought by sports centers for climbing walls and other purposes, but they could be from the ropes at a boxing ring.”

“Look into it. Keep me updated, CJ,” Mark said as he sent her off with a nod.

Getting her second wind, CJ jumped up from her chair and left the office. Before she knew it, she was back at her own desk looking at the report on the fibers. After a quick call to the forensics lab and a whole lot of research, she tracked down the company that produced the ropes and initiated a search for all facilities in the Los Angeles area that used the company. A couple of hours and a host of calls later, she had narrowed it down to seven sporting facilities, only three of which had boxing rings. That’s where they would start.

* * * * * *

Finally, at eleven PM Kate stumbled through the door of her beloved home. It felt like her legs were about to give way under her, and she willed them to carry her just a little longer. Dropping her bag in the living room, she went in search of Alice, but only found Tony perched on the stool at the island unit in the kitchen. “Tony?”

“Hey, Kate. Long day, huh?”

“Yes, too long. Where’s Alice?”

“Oh…I hope it’s OK with you but I sent her home a couple of hours ago. The twins were real cranky, and since you told me to stay here, I thought you’d take a cab home.” At her blank look, he began to worry. “I…I should’ve called you…I’m sorry-“

“Heck no, Tony. You did great. Thank you so much.”

“Uh, you’re welcome. Would you like some peach tea?”

He was being so incredibly sweet and supportive that Kate felt like crying. “I’d love some. I’ll just go check on the girls and settle myself in. Be back in a few minutes.”

A very weary Kate made her way upstairs and looked in on both her daughters. They slept soundly, and she knew they would have had a fun night with her driver. Once again, Kate counted her blessings at having such an amazing employee and friend.

She slipped into her bedroom, switched on the lamp on the nightstand, and found some comfy sweats. On her way back to the kitchen, she checked her cell phone for the hundredth time and was saddened that there were no messages from her wife. She was just about to send another one to CJ when she heard a key in the front door.

* * * * * *

Coming along the upper hall at a speed she’d thought herself incapable, Kate spotted the very welcome form of her tall wife stretching up to lock away her weapon in the gun cabinet behind the front door. Once the Glock 23 was safely put away, CJ stood static facing the wall for a moment, and Kate realized she would have a difficult time communicating with her tonight. But she was about to be surprised by her strong partner.

As Kate descended the staircase, she called out gently. “Hey, honey.”

CJ jumped a little and turned on her heels. “Hi, Katie.” She watched as Kate gave her a small, hesitant smile as she approached in her old sweats and CJ’s T-shirt. “Now there’s a sight for sore eyes.”

“Are you OK? You seemed to be staring into space,” Kate said, slipping her arms around CJ’s waist.

CJ returned the embrace eagerly. “I was actually thinking how I just don’t like my Glock. Weird, huh?”

“Well they won’t let you carry your forty-five at work, so I guess you’ll have to put up with it,” Kate retorted as she tweaked the end of CJ’s nose with her finger.

“Ah, the voice of reason…”

“Always.” Kate paused and searched CJ’s face. “Are you…you know, OK?”

With the subject change, CJ’s blue orbs clouded over. “I’m…trying to be.”

Kate nodded knowingly. “I understand. So how come you’re home? I wasn’t expecting you, but I’m very glad you’re here.”

“I needed,” CJ signaled between them with her hand. “…to connect.”

“Me too. You didn’t reply to my message, so I guessed your day was pretty bad,” Kate said, kissing CJ’s knuckles since the hand still lingered in the air.

“I’m sorry, Katie. I…I got swamped by-”

“I know, and it’s OK. C’mon. Tony’s made some peach tea. I only just got home myself.”

CJ frowned and held Kate to her. “How come you worked so late?”

“A really crappy day of filming…seems to be a recurring theme for me right now. I’ll tell you about it when we can relax…after your case is done.” Kate led CJ into the living room, and after ten minutes of polite conversation, Tony graciously bid them goodnight.

The two women drank their remaining tea in a comfortable silence with only a few words passing between them as they sat close to one another at the island unit. When the mugs were empty, CJ gazed blindly at the counter surface while Kate loaded the evening’s crockery and utensils into the dishwasher. When she was done with her task she turned to see the faraway expression on CJ’s face and decided some loving distraction would be required. Not necessarily making love, but some sort of relaxation to divert CJ from her overactive mind.

Kate wrapped her arms around CJ’s neck from behind and kissed her cheek. “Earth to CJ…”

“Sorry, Katie.”

“No apologies. Will you do something for me?”

“You know I’d do anything for you.”

“Will you come upstairs with me, no questions asked, and let me take care of you?”

“I…yes.”

“You do have time, right?” Kate asked, nuzzling her wife’s dark hair.

“Yeah. Mark ordered me to take a few hours. I think he’s trying to stop me going down into my dark, little dungeon, plus he wants Jamie to get more involved in this one. It gives me a little down time.”

“I think I’ll have to make dinner for Mark again to thank him for that. Let’s go.”

They went up the stairs slowly, hand in hand, and as they passed the children’s bedrooms, Kate stopped.

“Do you want to check on them?”

“Not tonight. I’ll call them tomorrow after school,” CJ whispered, nudging Kate down the hall toward the master bedroom.

Once inside, Kate went to the dresser and pulled out a huge, fluffy towel and a dark bottle of massage oil. “Strip…and lay your beautiful body across the middle of the bed, face down,” she said while straightening out the towel for her wife to lie on.

CJ did as asked without a sound, but Kate failed to contain her chuckle when CJ lay down with her feet hanging off one side of the mattress and her head barely on the other, even though it was a very large, custom-made bed.

“What you laughin’ at?” CJ slurred against the sheet.

“Your tallness…”

“Well quit it, Shorty…and rub me.”

Kate was incredibly pleased that CJ felt able to joke with her. It seemed she really was trying to stay connected this time.

“Yes, dear.” She adjusted her sweat pants and straddled the back of CJ’s thighs. Pouring a few drops from the bottle and letting the friction between her palms warm the oil, she moved both hands slowly over CJ’s tense shoulder blades. She felt and heard her exhale gustily, and she decided to try something else.

“Close your eyes…try to clear your mind,” Kate said softly as she watched CJ’s eyelids drop. “No thoughts, just feel. Feel my hands. Feel my weight on you. Feel my love.” Kate’s hands gently rubbed up and down CJ’s back, massaging smoothly down her spine, her fingers feeling into each little bump under the skin. “Release every muscle. Let me mold them. They’re mine now. Let them go.”

CJ couldn’t stop the moan that escaped her lips when Kate leaned over to kiss her shoulder. Kate saw the tears that streamed unbidden down her partner’s face and she knew those tears were just another form of release for CJ. She could only imagine the stress her wife had been under today and what she would continue to endure until the case was concluded, so she was happy to see her technique was working and continued her massage.

“Try to remove all thought. Concentrate on what I’m doing…and remember a moment where you felt complete peace. Go there now.”

Kate’s quiet, affectionate voice was hypnotic, and CJ couldn’t have moved or spoken if she’d wanted to. Her place of peace was right here in the hands of her soul mate. The anxiety was draining out of her body with every stroke of Kate’s magical fingers.

Kate worked around the base of her spine and seemed to know where to ease the pressure and where to dig deep. It felt amazing. CJ focused on the feeling as the hands moved onto her buttocks. A shudder vibrated through her body, but she didn’t think it was arousal. She always felt too guilty about wanting to feel good during any sort of nasty case, and this one was no exception. But what Kate was doing felt so good, and she knew her body was reacting to her feelings, not her thoughts. She made another effort to stop her mind from running in circles and succeeded to a degree, blocking just about everything except Kate.

Kate shifted to sit beside CJ. She took CJ’s limp left arm and draped it across her own thigh. As Kate tried to massage the arm, CJ’s hand curled to grasp her sweatpants. She squeezed the underlying leg softly. CJ felt an urgent need to hear her wife in the throes of passion. That sound connected to her very soul and grounded her in a way nothing else could. When she heard Kate’s breathing hitch, she willed her heavy eyes to open, and her long, slender hand moved to Kate’s hip before slithering up to her waist under the tight Foo Fighters T-shirt.

“This is…supposed to be for you,” Kate breathed out.

CJ rose up in front of her, exposing her toned, feminine body to an appreciative gaze. Kate moved to touch her, but she caught the hand. “Not me. Only you. I need…let me make love to you tonight, Katie.”

As always, Kate read her wife’s mind. “You’re allowed to…to feel good too, you know,” she stammered.

Concentrating was getting a little difficult due to the proximity of CJ’s body and the roaming hands that now removed her clothing piece by piece. She had not expected this tonight, but she was helpless to stop CJ either. Kate needed to connect too. It was the ultimate joining.

“I do know, but this is what I want.” CJ lowered Kate down onto the bed causing her blond hair to sprawl over the pillow and reflect in the light from the nightstand. CJ’s gaze trailed slowly over the beautiful form below her. She looked deeply into Kate’s eyes and felt like she had been drugged. She brushed her lips against Kate’s, feeling certain that there was nothing else like it in the world. Their tongues began a slow dance, one sliding around the other in a lazy fight for control. When Kate’s hand came up to grasp CJ’s hair, she pulled away ever so slightly.

With her mouth still very much over Kate’s, she whispered. “Put your hands above your head…and keep them there. I’m going to love you.”

Kate complied and let herself be taken. That was what CJ wanted this night, and she understood that CJ didn’t need the extra stimulation of her touch. The tenderness CJ was showing made her heart thump harder in her chest. How could someone love another so much? Kate didn’t think this depth of love was possible before she met CJ, and now she couldn’t imagine life without it. As soft lips teased her neck and an inquisitive tongue tasted the hollow of her throat, she closed her eyes and focused on the sensation.

CJ reached out with her right hand and, without pausing in her movements, switched off the lamp. Now it was all but dark and there was nothing but the feel and scent of Kate, the sound of her breath, and the pulse of her beating heart. Perfect.

Kate’s body was experiencing a state of bliss. CJ was worshipping her, savoring every piece of skin, moving slowly so as not to miss anything. It was such a powerful connection that there was nothing else in her world at that moment. CJ’s heart seemed to surround her, love her and protect her. That’s what CJ did to her. It was an extraordinary gift to receive, and Kate was profoundly grateful. She was aware of what her wife was going through right now, and tears traveled down her cheekbones at the thought of the torment. But their interaction seemed to help CJ, and Kate was very willing to give her what she needed and wanted. This moment was for them. CJ lingered for an eternity at her wife’s firm bosom. Feeling the velvety points harden under her touch was both delicious and satisfying, but Kate was being unusually quiet tonight, and CJ knew why.

CJ just wasn’t in a place where she wanted to receive physical pleasure, and Kate was holding back because she didn’t want her cries of passion to frustrate her taciturn spouse. A wave of guilt momentarily covered CJ and she lifted her head to send out her plea. “Don’t hold back, Katie. I want to hear you.”

“I…I can’t…”

“Yes, you can.” CJ’s hand found its way between Kate’s legs and delicately parted the soft skin she found there. “Let go…for me.”

Kate’s moan filled CJ’s ears which made her mouth twitch in a fleeting smile. She returned that mouth to Kate’s breast before her tongue took a trip south to join her warm hand. CJ slid her body down onto the mattress and positioned herself between Kate’s strong thighs, hearing her breaths quicken in response.

CJ licked her lips and instinctually found the moist clit with the tip of her tongue resulting in a muffled cry of passion coming from her aroused wife. Using her fingers to spread Kate wide open, she slowly lapped at the salt-sweet flesh and couldn’t stop the moan that vibrated against Kate’s sex. She circled around the swollen skin and heard Kate’s fingernails scrape against the wood at the head of the bed. CJ knew she was looking for something to hold onto and realized Kate was about to climax already.

“Ciara…I…oh.”

CJ stopped all movement for a few seconds, her lips resting on Kate’s center as she inhaled the scent of her mate. She heard what could only be described as a growl coming from Kate and decided she shouldn’t make her wait after telling her to let go. She began a slow stroking, much to the relief of her spouse whose hips now thrust in time with CJ’s tongue.

“Oh, yes. N-now…”

CJ continued to feed on her sensuous lover as the pressure built to its climax and shook Kate’s compact body causing her to push onto the mouth that bathed her. CJ suckled gently and swirled her tongue around the warm opening now heavy with nectar. She felt her own breathing slow as Kate came back to herself and had to admit she had certainly been aroused to a degree. It was impossible not to be. She kissed Kate’s tender clit before slithering over the recovering body, enveloping Kate with her larger frame.

“Thank you,” CJ whispered.

Kate’s lips covered hers in a kiss that left them both breathless. “Thank you.” She pushed CJ’s dark hair back and cupped her cheek with a shaky hand. “I love you.”

CJ swallowed back her teary emotion. “I love you more.”

“It’s not possible.”

“I beg to differ.”

“Shall we agree to disagree?” Kate asked in their well-loved exchange.

“I believe we shall.”

Kate stole another kiss. “Are you sure you don’t want anything?”

“Positive. I’m gonna try to get some shuteye for a couple of hours. I’ll try not to wake you when I get up,” CJ said as she reached over to set the alarm.

“It doesn’t matter if you wake me.”

“Yeah, I know but still…” CJ scooted up close to Kate. “Turn around and I’ll spoon you.”

Once Kate got comfortable, she grabbed CJ’s hand and placed it on her belly. “Night, CJ.”

“Night, Katie.”

.

Chapter 5

A mere five hours later, CJ pulled into the parking lot under the field office. She had managed to leave Kate sleeping soundly, having awoken before her alarm went off and canceling its infernal bleeping before it disturbed her slumbering partner. Her dark thoughts had come back, and sleep had eluded her for most of the night. Just as well, as it would probably have led to another nightmare anyway. She decided she’d be better off working, and now here she was walking into a dull elevator at five AM.

The thought of the bitter, office-machine coffee created a grumpy lip-curl on the otherwise blank face. She would get the good stuff later when the bistro opened. Walking along the corridor with a very distracted mind, she was partially unaware of her surroundings until she stepped into the office and was surprised to find her colleague sitting at his desk.

“Mornin’, Mikey.”

Mikey appeared a little drowsy when he belatedly looked up. “Oh, hey, CJ. What you doing here so early?”

“I could ask you the same thing, man.”

“Yeah, I know. I tried to get a few hours of shuteye in the crib,” he replied, waving his hand at the storage room containing two fold-away beds. “Didn’t work, so I came back in here.”

“I couldn’t sleep either. Did Mark ask you to pull an all-nighter?” CJ asked as she sat down.

“Nah. I wanted to take a good look at your profile…and anyway, my apartment’s being fumigated.”

CJ smirked at him. “I won’t ask.”

“Let’s just say I need to move. It’s a crappy building.” Mikey shuffled some papers around on his desk. “Here. You might want this. Belzano sent an addendum to his report. They found a second DNA sample on the last body,” he said, getting up to put the papers on CJ’s desk.

“Really? Thanks.”

“He identified the boy too. Jamie and Ethan went late last night to tell the parents. So sad…”

“Tony McGill, twelve years old. Did Jamie find out where he was taken from?”

“The parents were devastated. The boy had a silly argument with his father and ran away only eighteen hours before he was found. He musta been somewhere on the street.”

CJ lowered the report to her desk and glanced at Mikey. “Eighteen hours? So he wasn’t even reported missing yet?”

“Apparently not. His father called the police, but of course they couldn’t take the report due to the time frame,” Mikey said, shaking his head. “This killer must have either known him or just came across a boy wandering around completely by accident.”

CJ nodded in response. “Possibly. We’ll need to go round the boxing clubs again with this kid’s picture. Maybe he went there when he ran away…could be a member. Or he could just have stopped for a nap, maybe on a stoop or something, and it was just wrong place, wrong time for him.” They both sighed in unison before CJ returned to her study of the report. “They found a match for the second DNA sample?”

“Yeah, but they couldn’t say for sure because the older sample will have to be retested. There were two brothers reported missing in 2005, and one of them could be our guy,” Mikey said as he carried two paper cups of coffee over to CJ’s desk.

“Where are the missing person files?”

“Here…they both disappeared from a house in Torrance eight years ago.”

When he passed her the information, she read out loud. “Jonathan Hess, aged 6 years…and Eric Hess, age 9. That would make Eric seventeen or eighteen now. Hmm, maybe our killer’s even younger than I thought. Wait…Jonathan went missing a few days after his brother?”

“Reportedly, yeah…”

“A trip to Torrance is our next port of call then.” CJ yawned widely while running her hands through her hair and scratching her scalp. As she read a little further, she noted that an uncle – Samuel Hess – had reported the boys missing on each occasion. She also noted that their father was the sole parent after the mother died in 2003, and he had also vanished. When the home address was searched in 2005, DNA was collected from hairbrushes and toothbrushes. It seemed the SSHU were getting closer to identifying their murderer, but they had also come across a family mystery.

* * * * * *

It had been a long, long day. All four agents had their heads in paperwork. Last thing CJ remembered it was morning, and they had just gone to the former Hess household. Now darkness was fast approaching, and they didn’t seem to be much further ahead. A new family now lived at the house in Torrance, and there was no valuable evidence to be collected. However, they did talk to a long-time resident and neighbor to the property. Mrs. McKinley had some useful information to share, although what was gossip and what was fact was quite hard to differentiate. Mrs. McKinley liked to speculate, but some of what she had told them needed to be investigated and all of it was noted in her statement.

“Hey, Mikey…?”

“Yeah, CJ,” Mikey responded with his head stuck in a filing cabinet.

“What did you think of McKinley’s story?”

The young agent stood up straight. “She talked about the uncle coming to visit a couple of times. She also said she saw Eric running away from the house one night. Then the next day, Mr. Hess and Jonathan were nowhere to be found. It seems to fit and sounds plausible to me.”

“Hmmm…”

Ethan waved his hand. “I checked those other homeless organizations and shelters in the area. Nobody recognized Eric from the description…although it is an eight-year-old description. As soon as I get my hands on his picture, I’ll go back.”

With a distracted nod, CJ pursed her lips and decided it was time to connect with her wife. Kate had sent her a text message about ten hours ago and she hadn’t returned it yet. She looked at her watch, noting the time was now seven fifteen, and hoped Kate would be home. “Shit! The girls are home.”

“What?” Jamie said.

“Oh, nothing…I just forgot I said I’d call the kids today.”

“Missing ‘em, huh?”

“Hell yes.” CJ dialed her home number from the phone on her desk.

“Mommy!”

At the sound of the familiar child’s voice, CJ frowned. “Shannon?”

A chuckle was heard on the other end of the line. “Yes! Mama said you’d call!”

“Well, she was right. How are you, Squirt?” CJ asked, seeing Jamie smile at the nickname.

“I got a gold star at school today,” Shannon squeaked excitedly.

“Wow. That’s fantastic. Well done! What was your star for?”

“My pictures. I did a picture of you at work and a picture of Mama at work.”

CJ’s heart was aching with love. “Tell me about the pictures. What was in Mama’s picture?”

“She was standing in front of a big camera. She had blond hair and green eyes!”

“Amazing. And what about mine?”

“You…you were running, and you had your gun…and dark hair and blue eyes,” Shannon finished.

CJ wondered briefly why she was a little disturbed that her daughter had drawn her with a gun, but she supposed it was a fair likeness, and it would be what Shannon would think an officer of the law might do. “Very good, Shan. Hey, did Mama tell you to answer the phone?”

“Yes. She’s here with me an’ Luce. I’m going to finish my dessert now. I love you, Mommy. Bye!”

“Love you too. Bye.” When she heard clicks and giggles on the other end of the line, she smiled. She wanted to be at home with her family.

“Hey, you.”

“Hi, Katie. Thanks for that…made my day,” CJ said.

“You’re welcome. I was going to put Lucy on, but she’s running around the coffee table in the living room. So, how’s your day going, CJ?”

“Slow. We’ve made some progress, but it’s all about following leads today.” She brought her voice down to a whisper. Only Jamie would hear her, if that. “We got some DNA and a suspect, so at least that’s something.”

“It sure is. I hope you catch him soon. It’s such an awful case.”

“I know. I’m doing my best. I’m sorry it took me so long to get back to you. Damn…I’ll need call you back as soon as I can,” CJ said, noticing Mark coming in the door. “Gotta go…”

“OK. Bye.”

“Bye.” CJ hung up and listened to what Mark was saying. He wanted an update, and one by one they told him what they had so far. When he had left to report to the deputy director, CJ remained totally distracted and forgot she had been mid-phone call. With a crinkled forehead and a determined look, she restarted her search into the current whereabouts of Samuel Hess.

* * * * * *

The doorbell rang just as Kate put down the phone, and she entered the hallway to see Cyn squishing her nose against the glass. “Get in here. I’m gonna have to wash that window now,” she teased.

“Ha! I’m not that dirty,” Cyn retorted with a wink.

Kate rolled her eyes and invited her friend into the living room. “Want anything to drink? Tea, coffee?”

“Mmm, coffee please.”

“I’ll go get it. Tony won’t be long. He’s taking a shower in the guest room. Poor guy hasn’t had a chance to get home today.” Kate paused on her way to the kitchen. “I’m sorry I’ve asked you guys to babysit again…”

“Kate, I told you it’s no big deal. Tony and I love your kids, and we love you. Now go get my coffee before you go out” Cyn gave her a grin to soften her demanding tone.

“OK. Love you too.”

Kate left the room and was lucky to avoid two speeding children as they ran to the couch and piled on top of Cyn.  A roar came from the living room as the full force of Cyn’s load became evident. Kate could still hear the ruckus when she was in the kitchen and wondered if the girls would ever get to sleep tonight. A short while later she was in her car on her way to the Beverly Wilshire. Her stomach was unsettled, and her mind, distracted. Before she knew it she had pulled the Mercedes into the parking lot in front of the plush hotel.

An attendant came over and leaned down to her open window. “Good evening, ma’am. Let me get the door for you.”

“Oh, it’s OK. I’m just picking someone up,” Kate responded with her best smile.

“You can park just over there for up to twenty minutes if you wish,” he said politely, directing her to a nearby bay.

“Thank you.”

Once inside the lobby, she asked the woman at the reception desk to call Elizabeth down to meet her and waited on a rather sumptuous couch. Kate wondered if she was doing the right thing. She didn’t want to be here, not one bit, but her mother was dying. She should at least hear the woman out, right? That sick feeling returned to her stomach when Elizabeth came gliding across the shiny floor.

“Darling. Thank you for coming.”

Kate wanted to throw up. “Shall we go?”

“I thought since this place is so wonderful, we could stay here in the lounge area.”

“Oh. Well I have to go move the car then-”

“Nonsense.” Elizabeth approached the desk, her expression as superior as ever. “Please make sure they don’t move my daughter’s car. We’re going into the lounge for a while.” She turned to Kate. “What kind of car?”

“It’s a black Mercedes…in the bay outside the front door.”

Elizabeth turned back around and put a fifty dollar bill on the counter. “Black Mercedes.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the receptionist said. “Thank you.”

Seems money can buy just about anything, Kate thought to herself. They ventured into the lounge and found a corner booth. Elizabeth ordered a vodka martini for herself and a lemon-water for Kate. It didn’t surprise her that she wasn’t even asked what she wanted to drink. But now was not the time to fight over that.

“So tell me, how is your job going?” Elizabeth asked while holding her glass delicately with her pinkie sticking out.

Once Kate had gotten over her repulsion at the condescending tone, she blinked and finally spoke. “My job is fine, Elizabeth. I’m here to talk about your illness. I need to know why you contacted me?”

“Well if I’m going to die, I need to get my affairs in order. I need to decide who will inherit my estate.”

That’s why you’re here?”

“That, and to persuade you to give me grandchildren before I go.”

“I…how do you propose I do that?”

“Well there’s that lovely Jack Bannerman. Oh I’m sure you have many handsome men in your life, but he’s rich too,” Elizabeth said, taking another sip from her glass.

“So let me get this straight. You’re here to tell me that you’re dying, and that I have to marry a rich, handsome man so that I can have grandchildren for you.”

“That would make me so happy, dear.”

Kate looked down at the woman’s hand as it patted hers on top of the table. She was stunned silent. It took a moment to gather her thoughts, but she eventually pulled her hand away. “Elizabeth…I’m sorry you’ve got this illness, but you know very well that I am already happily married.”

“Oh, Katherine, that’s not a marriage. A marriage is between a man and a woman, just as God intended.”

“I can’t listen to this anymore. I have to go,” Kate said, getting to her feet.

“Don’t be silly. You haven’t even touched your drink. Please, sit.” Elizabeth held Kate’s wrist. “We can talk about something else.”

Kate felt all the guilt and shame she used to feel as a child seeping back through her and reluctantly sat down. “Tell me when you were diagnosed, and how long you think you have left.”

“A few weeks back, Dr. Selman told me there was a problem. He thinks I have no more than a year. They can’t do anything for me.”

“And it’s cancer?”

“Yes. Isn’t it terrible? I never thought I’d be struck down so young…”

Kate watched Elizabeth as she spoke and noticed she didn’t seem upset or worried about the fact that she was dying. Something didn’t sit right with Kate, but she supposed people deal with these things in different ways. “I’m not really sure what to say. Maybe you should spend as much time with loved ones as possible?”

“I’d like to. That’s why I dream of seeing you settled with a lovely family…with grandchildren I can leave some of my vast fortune to.”

Kate felt they were getting off topic again and took a gulp of her water. She was feeling emotional and wasn’t sure why. Elizabeth had done awful things to her all her life, and Kate always felt so small around her – a result of years of mental abuse. Now that her tormentor was dying, she wasn’t sure how to react. “I really need to go now. I…I could maybe meet with you again before you leave.” She got to her feet, knowing that tears were threatening to burst from her eyes. “I can’t do this right now. I’ll call you. I need to go.”

“Oh, all right, dear. If you feel you must.” When her daughter left, Elizabeth stared coldly ahead for a few moments before a slight smile crossed her face. She lifted her glass and finished her drink in one smooth movement.

Kate shot out the door and got into her car. A suppressed groan escaped from her lips as she tried to stop the onslaught of tears. “Damn it. I should be stronger than this!” After slamming her hand on the steering wheel, she wiped the stray droplets from her face, started the car, and headed for home.

* * * * * *

The dark sky over the city twinkled with a million stars. CJ and Jamie were driving north on the 405 after visiting half the boxing clubs on their list, and CJ was taking a rare moment to appreciate the beauty of the natural lights above them. They had shown an old picture of their suspect to the owners. The agents found it hard to connect the young boy in the picture with the serial killer who mutilated so many innocents, but there was no denying he was their prime suspect. No one had recognized the boy so far, but CJ wasn’t ready for giving up. They had three more places to check out, and one of them was of particular interest. They were in route to a sports facility for homeless kids and teens that specialized in boxing.

“Sports in the Community…I have a hunch about this place,” CJ said as she scribbled notes on her computer print-out.

“Me too.”

“I hope they’re still open.”

“Some of them have late night matches. Let’s chance it and see,” Jamie suggested.

“I’m all for that. If somebody here recognizes Hess, they might know where he hangs out.”

Jamie noted the agitated way CJ spoke. It wasn’t directed at her at all, but she could feel her colleague’s unrest. “This case is getting to you, isn’t it, DM?”

CJ glanced at her before averting her eyes out the window. “Yes. It doesn’t help that the guys from Behavioral Analysis Units three and four are scrutinizing everything about my profile and breathing down Mark’s neck.”

“Why would they do that?”

“They don’t like the fact that we’re a specialist unit doing the job they do. Yes, they have a much farther reach and cover a wider range of crimes, but we’re still stepping on toes, Penfold. I guess it’ll take time to prove ourselves as an asset to them.”

“Well, when you put it like that…” Jamie knew CJ had neatly diverted her away from the true meaning of her original question, but she wasn’t going to push it. A few quiet moments later, she turned the sedan into a dark street bordered by warehouse-type buildings. One of them had a huge sign above the front door that boldly stated, Sam’s Hang Out – A Sports in the Community project. Jamie eyed her colleague. “We couldn’t be that lucky, could we?”

“You think it’s Samuel Hess’s place? Nah, it’s never that easy for us. Come on.”

Since the light was on inside the front office, CJ and Jamie approached the door and stepped inside. The interior smelled of sweat and stale cigarette smoke, and the echoes coming from the large space beyond the confined room signaled that someone was closing up for the night.

“Hello?” CJ called out.

“Yeah?”

A disembodied voice came from somewhere inside, so they both stepped into what they now identified as the spectators hall. Rows of blue plastic seats lined the walls, but the area immediately around the large boxing ring was for standing room only.

“I’m Special Agent Carson. We’d like to speak with the owner?”

“Oh,” A bald-headed man came around the side of a brightly-colored ticket booth. “Feds?”

“Yes. I’m Special Agent Carson, and this is Special Agent Green. We were lookin’ for Jim Claron?” CJ said, showing her badge.

“You found him.”

“You own Sam’s Hang Out?” CJ replied, not giving any clue as to why they were here.

“I certainly do. How can I help you ladies?”

“We just have a few questions about the work you do here and the kids who come in,” CJ said with a smile. “Tell me, why is it called Sam’s Hang Out?”

“Previous owner was a good friend o’mine. Sammy Hess…he got the funding and started this place up.”

“We’d like to speak with him. Do you know where he lives now?”

“Well I’d like to help you agents, but Sam passed away two years ago. The drinkin’ finally got ‘im,” Jim said, dabbing his brow with a towel.

Jamie was noting the information down in her notebook and paused as she waited for the next question.

CJ looked around the large space. “It’s a good thing you’re doing here, Jim. I hear a lot of kids need this place. Helps them stay clean while they’re living on the streets, huh?”

“Oh, you’re right there. Uh, what was your name?”

“Agent Carson, but you can call me CJ,” she answered in an attempt to make him more agreeable to talking.

“Well, CJ, the kids that come in here are mostly a good bunch. They love having a purpose, ya know? It’s all about self-esteem and taking control of their lives. Some of these kids have been livin’ rough for a while.”

“I’ll bet. Did you know Sam’s nephews?”

Jim nodded then shook his head sadly. “Those kids had a hard life. When they disappeared, Sam thought somethin’ was afoot.”

CJ showed the photo to Claron. “Did he tell you anything about their disappearance?”

“Oh, that’s Eric. Yeah, Sammy didn’t say much, but he thought maybe his brother was beatin’ them kids.”

CJ gave him a nod. “What do you think happened to them?”

“In all honesty, Miss, I truly don’t know. There is a boy, though…” Jim stopped talking, and CJ waited patiently.

When he didn’t say anything more, she prompted him. “A boy…?”

“You know, there’s this kid who comes in here now and then for a fight. See, the kids who participate get pocket money from the takings…the rest goes into runnin’ the place. Anyway, this boy comes in on occasion…reminds me of the older Hess boy. He’s got this birthmark at the bottom of his neck? I remember little Eric havin’ one too. He stopped coming in about a month ago, though. No idea where he’s livin’.”

CJ remembered the descriptors on the missing person report. The birthmark was mentioned, and the fact that the boy stopped coming in a month ago followed the timeline of the murders. “Maybe it is him. He ran away back in oh-five, right?”

“Oh, is that why you’re here? You lookin’ into that case?”

“Sort of, yeah. We need to speak with him in connection to something else too.” CJ thought carefully about how to continue. He seemed to want to help, but she didn’t want to reveal that Eric was a suspect in a whole stream of murders. “Can you remember Sam talking about the two boys at the time they went missing?”

“Heck, yes. He was worried sick. When Eric ran off, he went to Sammy’s house first…looked completely terrified. Then when Sammy told him he was gonna call the boy’s father to try an’ work things out, Eric took off again. That was the last time he saw him. Poor Sammy talked about it all the time. I think he felt guilty he couldn’t do more. When the little ‘un was nowhere to be found too, the stories came thick an’ fast.”

“Stories?” CJ probed, seeing Jamie writing frantically from the side of her eye.

“Well, you know the father disappeared too, right?” When both agents nodded, Jim went on. “People said Mr. Hess…his name was Frank…was hurtin’ the little ‘un and that’s why Eric ran. Both those kids had regular bruises, sometimes broken bones.”

“You’ve been a great help, Jim. Is there anything else you can tell us?”

“I can’t think o’much more, but if you leave me a number I’ll call you if I see that boy again. We try to do right by all the kids, and I think he could use some help.”

CJ wanted to hug the man. He had filled in so many gaps in the case that she truly hoped the information checked out. “This is my card. If you think of anything else, or you see the boy, please call. It would be better if you didn’t tell him though. Don’t want to frighten him off.”

“Don’t you worry, CJ. Oh, there is one more thing,” Jim said, stepping closer between CJ and Jamie. He lowered his voice even though there was nobody else there to hear it. “The boy I was talkin’ about? Calls himself Ricki. I think he’s got some issues, ya know, mentally?”

“How could you tell?”

“Kid has a hard time fittin’ in. Only time he looks someone in the eye is when he’s fightin’.” Jim scratched his bald head and popped a piece of chewing tobacco in his mouth. “If there’s a fight between the other kids, ya know, outside the ring…he’s always shoutin’ at the top of his lungs, “It wasn’t me. I didn’t see it”. Sometimes he just blurts it out. I don’t even ask him a damn question!”

Another huge piece of the puzzle slotted in to place for CJ. It was starting to make sense to her now. “You’ve been a great help. Hope to hear from you soon, Jim.”

They both thanked the man again and bid him goodnight. Once in the Bureau sedan, CJ was busting to talk with Jamie, but since they were both highly suspicious – as FBI agents tend to be – they waited until they drove out of the area. CJ had no idea why, but it gave her time to think so she went with it.

It was close to midnight when Jamie pulled into a drive-thru for two coffees. Once they were safely parked up in a dead-end street, they sipped gratefully on the hot, sweetened liquid for a few seconds.

CJ stole the notebook from Jamie’s lap. “I think I figured out the cold case…you know, the whole family disappearing?”

“I thought you might.”

“I think this Ricki kid is our guy, and I think I know how he ended up this way too.”

“Go on,” Jamie said, keeping her eyes on CJ while she sipped some more coffee.

“From what Jim said, it follows…at least to me…that Eric ran away that night because he saw his brother being hurt or worse. It seems Jonathan Hess and the father went missing the day after, according to Mrs. McKinley, which makes me think that the father was the one who’s responsible for the disappearance of Jonathan. If Eric is our killer, he’s probably reliving what he saw. Jim just told us he says I didn’t see it when something violent happens outside the ring. I think Eric witnessed Frank Hess murdering Jonathan. According to the files, Jonathan was never found, and the father has fallen off the radar completely.”

“You must be rubbing off on me, CJ, because that’s what I thought too. It all fits.”

“So now we need to catch him…hopefully before he finds his next victim. Let’s set up surveillance. There was a derelict building across the street from Sam’s Hangout. That should be perfect.”

“Did you see the opening hours on the office wall? Six ‘til midnight, Wednesday thru Saturday. Mikey and I can take first shift.”

CJ swallowed her gulp of coffee. “Good, but we’ll pull in a few more troops to share the stakeout. Let’s get back and find out who owns that building.”

.

Chapter 6

The next morning, Kate walked off set after a disastrous bunch of retakes. She was frustrated with herself because she knew she was distracted. As she was leaving stage twelve, Phil Romaine caught up with her.

“Kate! Do you have a minute?” he said, walking in front of her to make her stop.

It wasn’t really a question, so Kate prepared an apology. “Yes, Phil. Listen, I’m sorry about that-”

“About what?”

“The retakes…”

“Oh. I was just gonna ask you if you’re OK? I mean, I know Mischa didn’t have much to smile about in that scene, but you seem, I dunno, sad?”

Kate sighed. “I have a lot on my mind, Phil. I’m dealing with some personal stuff right now, but once I go for my break, I promise I’ll be back on my game.”

“OK. You know where I am if you need to talk. Enjoy your coffee.”

Phil walked away, and Kate knew that brief conversation had been a gentle way of telling her he had noticed her mood and she needed to buck up. With a heave of her shoulders, she headed to the cafeteria to meet Sam. She needed someone to talk to, and she hadn’t seen her wife for two days. CJ had managed to get home for about three hours last night, but Kate had already been asleep. So far, a text message today was her only contact with her stressed-out spouse.

Once she had purchased her coffee, she spotted Sam coming into through the cafeteria doors. She intercepted her and asked if it would be OK to take their drinks back to her trailer. Sam agreed readily, and it wasn’t long before they were both settled on the compact couch a few moments later.

Kate sighed as she turned to her friend. “Sam, can I talk to you about something?”

“Yes. And whatever it is, it better be the something that’s making you look so melancholy.”

“Is it that obvious?” Kate asked worriedly.

“Not to others, but to me, yes. CJ got a tough case. I know that much. But what’s going on with you? It’s your mother, isn’t it?”

“She’s part of it, yes…a big part.”

“What did she want the other day?”

“She wanted to tell me she has a terminal illness.”

Sam gasped. “Oh, Kate, I’m so sorry.”

“I don’t know how to feel about it really. It doesn’t feel real, and to be honest I’m kind of numb. Her dying wish is also upsetting me,” Kate said as she tried to stop her lip from curling in disgust.

“I dread to think…”

“She wants me to settle down with a nice man and give her some grandchildren.”

Sam’s jaw dropped. “She still won’t even acknowledge you have a wife and kids…and that you’re happy?”

“No. But she doesn’t know we have the girls. I haven’t told her.”

“Oh…” Sam pursed her lips. “Maybe you should tell her. Maybe then she’ll back off or realize that she has grandchildren already if only she would accept your lifestyle.”

“I wish it were that simple. She’ll never accept CJ, and I’ll never leave CJ. My mother’s done so much to me over the years…so much…so why am I giving her this chance now?” Tears sprung to Kate’s eyes, and she couldn’t stop the sob that escaped her lips.

Sam took her into her arms. “Because you are one of the most loving, compassionate, forgiving people I know, Kate. I just don’t think she deserves you or your family.”

Kate just sobbed more and squeezed Sam to thank her for the words. She soon had her emotions under control, and she sat back into the couch. “Thank you. I think I just needed to hear someone else say it. Still, I’ll meet with her one more time before she goes back home. I kinda ran out on her the last time.” Kate got up and walked the few steps to the bathroom to grab a tissue.

“So what else has been bearing down on that precious heart of yours?”

“You’re gonna have to stop being so nice to me or I’ll start bawling again.”

Sam chuckled. “We can’t have that. Cyn will kill me if I wreck your make-up any more than that,” she said, pointing to the black streak on Kate’s left cheek.

“I’ll fix it in a minute. The other thing is Jack.”

Sam’s eyebrow curled. “What’s he been up to?”

“You know how he always used to try to rub up against me and make contact any time he could, especially on-set?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Well it’s been worse recently. And he’s drinking too.” Kate sniffed, still not fully over her emotional release.

“Touching you off-set?”

“Trying to…very much trying to. It was sexual harassment before, Sam, and I put up with it because of my job, but now it’s bordering on sexual assault. The fact that he’s drinking too… it scares me a little.”

“It sounds horrendous, Kate. Report him!”

“It’s my word against his, but if it happens again I’m gonna talk to the studio bosses. It’s getting to the point where I don’t care if I lose my job,” Kate said dejectedly.

“Shit. He should be the one to lose his damn job.”

“I can’t see that happening. He’s the big Hollywood star who came to work on an up-and-coming TV show. I told you what they were like when he came onboard. He could’ve pissed on the table, and they’d probably just smile and nod.”

Sam bit her lips in an effort to stop her response. Kate was stressed out, and all she could do was laugh. When Kate looked up and saw her strained expression, she smiled, and Sam could no longer hold it in.

“I’m…I’m so sorry, Kate. I…hah…I just got the mental image of Jack pissing on the table during the morning meeting.”

“Eww.” Kate let out a chuckle of her own. “Hey, thanks. You made me laugh.”

“You deserve to laugh every day, Kate.”

“And I do…at home. I just haven’t been too happy here recently, and I haven’t been home as much either. That has to stop.”

“Time to rethink a few things?”

“Hmm. No, not yet. I have a little more staying power than that.” Kate looked at her watch. “Crap. I have to get back.”

“Me too. Walk with me to the trash can?”

“Sure thing.”

They both left the trailer and went their separate ways at the bright-red trash can near the parking bays. It was one of their meeting spots and it was also half way between their studios. Kate took a few deep breaths before walking through the door. She scanned the space for Cyn and found her touching up the make-up for one of the other actresses. On her way toward her, Kate looked around the set: the cameras, the boom operators, the noise of the overhead rigs being moved into place, and the other crew members running around or chattering with one another. It just didn’t feel the same to her anymore.

It must be this stuff with Jack. I’ll get past that soon, then it’ll be better again, right? She hadn’t convinced herself at all, but when she got to Cyn the vibrancy of the young artist made her smile, and she put on her game face to get back to work.

* * * * * *

It was now Friday. The surveillance had turned up nothing so far, and CJ hadn’t seen her wife and kids in way too long. She was pretty cranky and exhausted, and she and Ethan had just met back at the office to guzzle down a quick dinner after an entire day of legwork and investigation. CJ knew Kate would have the weekend off. She also knew she wouldn’t be so lucky and hadn’t really spoken properly with her for forty-eight hours. She could feel the effects of that gnawing away at her patience…and her mood.

As much as the case was taking little steps forward and no more victims had been reported in two days, CJ still wanted to find Hess as soon as she could. They were gathering pieces of information together and had the retested DNA evidence. It absolutely confirmed that Eric Hess was their only suspect, but they really needed a break in this case, something to help them locate him. It seemed he was living on the streets or in a car, and it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Mikey had called in from the stakeout in the abandoned building, but there had been zero sightings of Hess, and CJ thought he might not go back to the place she suspected he had met his first victims.

About an hour later, she had only just sat back at her desk after a quick meeting to update the deputy director when Mark entered the office. Both she and Ethan saw the familiar expression on his face and braced themselves for the inevitable.

“Another body found. They’re preserving the scene for us. Let’s go.”

Ethan holstered his gun, grabbed the camera, and searched for the keys to the new Dodge Charger. CJ turned around once she’d donned her suit jacket and extracted her Glock from her desk drawer. Sliding the piece into her own holster, she walked towards the door, dangling the keys from her finger.

“I already got ‘em, Ethan.”

On the way to the crime scene in Trancas Canyon, Mark filled them in on the little information he had. A young girl had been found by two women who were hiking in a pretty remote area which made CJ think the killer had taken a leap forward in some way. He was planning the body dumps more carefully now, and it seemed he definitely had a vehicle. Before, he was leaving them in built-up areas which lead CJ to believe he must have had temporary accommodation close to each location and used the cover of night to get rid of the remains. What he was doing required privacy, not necessarily remote privacy since the children had been suffocated before he took them, but privacy nonetheless.

CJ’s mind was swarming with possibilities. Was this body out here in the open space because he had achieved something with this kill? Had he needed even more privacy for this one? And if so, why? Was his motivation changing? She didn’t have the answers yet, but she wished she could give all the victims their lives back. At least catching the killer would go some way to getting justice for them.

* * * * * *

As they approached the location, CJ realized just how remote it was and wondered how this victim had been discovered at all. Once they had walked up from the hiker’s parking lot, she spotted local law enforcement scattered around the outside of the crime scene. She found it hard not to notice the beauty of the forest, but it was marred by the eeriness of the situation and the heavy mist in the air. Dusk was also fast approaching, and CJ’s gut heaved as she remembered her nightmare. It felt identical to this and it all came flooding back to her.

Shannon’s bloody face flashed into her mind, and she closed her eyes for a few seconds in an effort to erase the image. With a shiver running coldly down her spine, she showed her badge to a cop and ducked under the cordon tape in a well-practiced ritual. Mark spoke with various officials as CJ pulled two latex gloves from her pocket. Walking carefully over the ground, mindful that her boots could destroy critical evidence, she made her way slowly to the victim. She paused and turned around to see Ethan following in her exact footsteps. As they proceeded through a row of very tall trees, CJ looked beyond the shrubs and spotted the only person who was allowed into her crime scene.

Victor Belzano had somehow gotten there first. He was a seasoned professional, having been on the job for almost twenty-two years, so she knew he would not have compromised the location.

CJ nodded to Ethan. “Just up ahead,” she said, pointing to the dirty tarp that Victor was hunched over. Nothing could prepare her for seeing this young girl. Her nightmare was replaying over and over in her head, and she made a last attempt to shut it out. She ignored the lurch in her heart and focused on Victor in full agent mode. “Hey, Belzano. Is it him?”

Victor looked over his shoulder. It took him a moment to realize what she meant. “I think so. Same hack job on the leg…eyes gone too, but this time he succeeded in removing an arm. He didn’t take it with him, though,” he added, moving the wrapping the girl had been partially buried in.

CJ crouched down next to him. She noted the amputation just below the elbow and the grayish hue in the dark-haired girl’s still features. “Time of death?”

“Between midnight and 2am yesterday morning,” Victor replied, finishing off his initial examination of the body.

CJ took notes in her book. “That’s almost the same time of day as the last one. Any obvious trace evidence…?”

“I know I’m good, Carson, but gimme some time. I need her taken back to the office still inside this tarp. There’s nothing obvious here at the scene. I’ll send everything to the lab as soon as I find it.”

“Cause of death?”

“All the wounds were delivered postmortem, but only just, I’d say. She wasn’t killed here, and he’s wrapped her quite carefully this time. Staining on the body confirms that she’s been moved at least twice since her time of death. I wish I could look at the eyes and I’d give you a definitive answer, but since he took those, I’d only be offering an educated guess that she was suffocated the same as the others. I’ll know more after the autopsy. The only difference I can see is that her death was not as peaceful.”

“How do you know that?” CJ asked, looking more closely at the small body and making sure she maintained her professional exterior.

“See these marks here on the neck? He manually strangled this one. That’s something new for this guy.”

“It’s possible he’s been attacking them in their sleep which would ensure the others didn’t struggle, but if she was awake, his need is definitely escalating. And she could’ve fought back…” CJ turned to Ethan who was snapping pictures at her back. “Agent Matthews…make sure to get some pictures of her neck and both hands for me, will you? The left arm is over there.”

Ethan turned to where his colleague was pointing. “Sure.”

CJ stood up, very aware of the fact her gut was trying to rebel. “This is the first time he’s succeeded in severing the limb. I think it means something significant to him, and I’m truly hoping to catch the bastard this time. I need every inch of her body checked for fibers and fluids, especially around the severed arm. Believe it or not, this could have been an emotional moment for this guy. Anyway, I’ll see you back at the office, Victor. Thanks,” CJ said with one of those quick, professional nods.

“I’ll finish up here and take her in before it gets any darker, CJ. I’ll call you as soon as I’m done,” he said with a hint of melancholy.

CJ nodded once more and turned to leave, trying not to notice the chill that devoured her body. She distracted herself by analyzing Victor for a moment. He was a straight-up, get-on-with-the-job kind of guy who was always respectful towards the deceased and was very good at his job. She also knew this case was affecting them all, and when she looked back at Victor’s face, she knew that included the usually-upbeat medical examiner too. On her way out of the crime scene, she gave the nod to the rest of the CSU to let them know they could get on with their jobs before she headed back to the car to update her boss.

* * * * * *

While he hid beside the fitted closet inside Kate’s trailer, Jack Bannerman’s mind was whirring as he tried to come up with a smooth enough line to hook Kate and drag her around to his way of thinking. Hmm. What a nice surprise it’ll be for her when she finds me here. Who wouldn’t want to be swept off her feet by a handsome hunk like me? he foolishly thought.

Due to his inebriation, Jack hadn’t realized he had sabotaged his romancing-Kate plan before it had even started. As he pumped his fist in the air at his falsely foolproof ideas, he banged his elbow on the wooden cabinetry that caged him in. Grumbling under his breath, he set his jaw and tried to stand as still as possible, letting out a rather loud belch that sent a cloud of bourbon-riddled air out into the trailer…the trailer that Kate had forgotten to lock when she went to the vending machine for a bottle of water.

Kate came in the door and pulled it closed behind her. She put the bottle on the nearby table and was about to unbutton her shirt – which was covered in fake blood – when she spotted movement at the side of her eye. She was about the kick the crap out of whoever was there when Jack suddenly put his hands up in surrender.

“Whoa, whoa! It’s me!”

“Jack! What the hell are you trying to do to me?!”

“Aww, baby…c’mere.” Jack leaned in toward Kate and pinned her to the door. In the space of a couple of seconds he forced a kiss, slobbering his tongue across Kate’s cheek and lips before roughly entering her mouth.

Kate’s mind suddenly caught up to what was happening and she managed to bring her elbow up to crack him across the jaw.  “Get your stinking hands off me!” she yelled.

“Whoa. Hey…what gives?” the drunken hulk grumbled while rubbing his sore cheek.

“What part of leave me alone, Jack, do you not understand?” Kate blurted, preparing herself for another fumbled assault.

“You don’t mean it. You need a man. Th’wife don’t got what I got,” he slurred, manhandling his crotch.

“Get the fuck out, Jack! You come near me again, and I will go to the bosses…and the police. No more messing around. I don’t care what the consequences will be. Do you hear what I’m saying?”

“Jeez, Kate, what the hell…? We ain’t s’posed to be actin’ right now, ya big drama queen.”

When Jack drunkenly staggered over to her couch, she knew he was getting ready to collapse. She hurriedly pushed his back and ushered him to the door with all her might. As he muttered incoherently, she shoved him outside and closed and locked her trailer from the inside. Breathing deeply and slowly to try to calm her nerves, she called security and asked for Kevin. That particular guard owed her a favor after she caught him smoking weed in one of the studio offices.

Kate watched through a gap in the window blinds as Kevin led a swaying Jack Bannerman to a waiting cab and sent him home. She sat on the couch and closed her eyes for a second. This was getting out of control now, and tonight had scared her a little. She couldn’t call CJ.

She has enough to deal with right now. I can’t burden her with all this crap. She felt herself get very tired very quickly and decided she had to get home. I’m not working another day like this again. I’ll quit first, she thought as she noted the time was quarter past eleven. After almost fifteen hours at work, Kate finally left Olympian Studios in a cab of her own. She had a lot of hours to make up to Tony, and she hoped he had managed to look after the girls without too many problems.

* * * * * *

It was late Saturday morning when CJ sat glaring at her desk which was covered in the files of every victim to date. She couldn’t believe what she had just discovered and cursed herself for not noticing it sooner. “Hey, Penfold?”

“Yep?”

“I’ve been looking through every damn word of every damn file…”

“And you found?” Jamie knew CJ had just advanced the case, simply by the look on her friend’s face and the huge sigh that had preempted her statement.

“Yes, I found. I found that every single victim we have here has been on the streets at some point.”

“All of ‘em?” Jamie got up and perched on the edge of CJ’s desk.

“All of ‘em. Obviously the homeless ones lived on the streets, but the others…they had all run away from home at one time or another. And it says in the statements and various other reports that they had intervention from an outside source to reunite the kids with the parent or parents.” CJ looked up. “What’s the name of that project? You know, the one the retired LAPD cop started for the homeless?”

“Oh! The Nicholson Project?”

“That’s the very one. I’ll let Mark know we’re goin’ out,” CJ said, picking up the phone. “Can you find the address, and we’ll go now?”

“I have to switch places with Ethan at the stakeout in half an hour. Come with me, and he could go with you before he goes home for a break?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

* * * * * *

It turned out that Ethan wasn’t going to be signing off until much later that day. A top priority Be-on-the-Look-Out – or BOLO – alert was reactivated for one of the suspects on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. A report had been received that the man had been spotted in the Downtown area of Los Angeles, and all available agents had to be dispatched which included CJ and Jamie.

After a five hour search of the area and investigation by a host of agents, including a team from the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, it was found to be a hoax call, and the two SSHU agents returned dejectedly to the office. The last thing they needed was to be pulled out of their investigation. Six very important hours had been lost even though Mark had tried to get their unit excused due to their current case.

Mark now paced the floor in their office. “I spoke with Mitchell. He’s going to put forward my request that if the SSHU is in the middle of a high-priority case, we shouldn’t be dragged out to anything else. That was a waste of your time. They had fifty-six other agents out there, and we have a killer to catch.”

“Sir, we’ll catch him. Still, I hope your request is granted,” CJ ventured.

“I know you’ll catch him, CJ, but you’re all working twenty-four seven on this. Don’t think I didn’t notice. The last thing you need is to drop everything and go searching the streets of Los Angeles on the whim of some idiot who is so pathetic he places a hoax call to the FBI.”

CJ could feel his tension increasing and got up to stand in front of him, stopping him in his tracks. She was the only one who had the gall to do it. “You’ve been here constantly too, Sir. I’m gonna push my luck here and suggest you go get a coffee, and we’ll get back on the case?” She hoped that didn’t sound too much like an order and waited for Mark’s response.

After what felt like forever, he broke his stare at her. “What’s next for you then?”

“I’m gonna sit with Jamie for five minutes and file the paperwork for today’s charade…and then we’ll go rescue Ethan from the stakeout.”

“Oh God. He’s still out there. OK…I’ll grab that coffee and check up on Mikey. He’s down in the dungeons somewhere.” Mark rubbed his hand through his hair. “Good luck, agents.”

Once he left, CJ let out a breath. “Well, he coulda had my head for that.”

Jamie snorted. “Nah. He knew you were just tryin’ to be helpful. Plus, he likes you,” she added with a wink.

“Uh-huh. Let’s get this done, smart-ass.”

* * * * * *

A long eighty minutes later, Ethan tugged on his seatbelt and clicked it into place. “So, where we going?”

CJ pursed her lips. “You heard of The Nicholson Project?”

“Nope.”

“It was started by a retired cop…Bill Nicholson. He wanted to help the kids he saw living on the street during his time with the force. He started the project with some of his retirement money. Even though it was set up for street kids, they ended up welcoming runaways and introduced a mediation service to bring the families together again.”

Ethan was impressed and nodded. “Do you think they’ll have any info for us?”

“They should do. Every victim we have in this case has been either homeless or a runaway. I only put it together today. This could be the place they all have in common,” CJ said, signaling right for the freeway on-ramp. “Hey, I could take you back to the office so you can get home. I can do this by myself.”

“I’ll come with you, CJ. Alice is already pissed at me. Another hour won’t make any difference.”

“Oh, shit. Sorry, man. I hope Katie’s not in the mood to kick my ass. I haven’t spoken to her in…God, it feels like forever.”

Ethan’s only response was a chuckle, most likely brought on by his exhaustion and the mental image of CJ getting her butt kicked. They had all been running on determination and caffeine, and he absently wondered how much longer they could go without real food…or sleep.

* * * * * *

In stark contrast to Sam’s Hangout, the Nicholson project was in a well-maintained office building and occupied the entire first floor. Inside, the walls were painted in mute colors and there were framed pictures lining the corridors. Each picture was held in bold paint and had what was obviously a child’s signature in the bottom corner. As they walked further, more picture frames adorned both walls, and Ethan stopped in front of one of them.

“Hey, look.”

CJ turned to find him pointing at one of the large group photos. She had been looking at a similar picture on the opposite wall. “What?”

“Isn’t that one of our vics…right there?” he said, pressing his finger against the glass.

CJ looked closely. “It sure looks like it. There are a few in that one over there too.”

“Damn. It looks like you were right, CJ.”

“Let’s not count our chickens just yet.”

When they turned the next corner the corridor finally came to an end, and Ethan’s tired eyes focused on the sign above the double doors.

The Nicholson Project. All Welcome.

Since it was now pretty late at night, the doors were locked so Ethan pressed the buzzer which was answered by a disembodied male voice crackling through the intercom.

“Hi. How can I help you both?”

CJ raised her eyebrow and realized they must be on camera. Glancing around and finding it, she held her badge up in full view of the lens. “Hi. Special Agents Carson and Matthews…FBI. We’d like a word?”

“I’ll be right with you.” A few moments later, the door opened and a middle-aged man with a full mustache appeared. “Hello again. Could I please see your badges?” When both agents did as requested, he smiled. “Thank you.”

“Sorry about the late hour,” CJ said as they entered the reception space.

“Oh, no problem. We’re here twenty-four seven but we don’t usually get visitors like you at night.” The man gestured for them to follow him over to a large desk. “I’m George Harper. What can I do for you?”

“We’re looking for a young man, and we think he might work here? Or perhaps be someone you’d recognize?”

“Oh. Is he in trouble?”

“We just need to speak with him. This is an old picture.” CJ took the photograph from inside her file. “And we think he might go by the name Ricki?”

George looked at the crinkled picture then tilted his head and looked again. “He looks…familiar.”

“Does he come in here at all?”

“I just can’t place him. Do you have anything else that could help? A newer photo maybe?”

CJ shook her head. “No, but I do have a list of names I’d like you to take a look at.”

George took the sheet of paper that was handed to him and scanned the list. His frown increased as he got further down the page. CJ and Ethan both looked at one another and then back at George when he raised his head.

“These names…what happened to these kids?”

“How do you know they’re kids?” Ethan asked.

“Out of the first five, I know three used to come in here. If I checked our computer, I bet I’d find more. Most of them ring a bell.”

CJ nodded. “Could you check this list against your records?”

“Yes, but a lot of our homeless kids…which I know some of these are…” George said, shaking the paper, “didn’t give their real names. I can look up some of the group photos. We kept track of who was in each one.”

“That would help a lot, George,” CJ said with a wan smile.

As George typed all the names from the list, he offered the agents the adjacent chairs. Ethan preferred to stand, but CJ took the seat nearest to George so that she could see the screen.

“Are you able to tell me why you have that list?” George asked as he moved the mouse over the desktop.

CJ decided to let him know the truth. “I’m afraid they’re all dead.”

George looked up and shook his head sadly. “I think I knew you were going to say that.”

“Why?”

“Gut feeling maybe. The ones I do know from your list…I haven’t seen them in months. That wouldn’t be unusual for the children who had parents, but it is unusual for the homeless kids. When they come here, they’ve gotten to the point where they really want help and they don’t usually drop off our radar without telling us. Damn, that’s so sad.” He sat back when the computer finished its search. “Every one of them has been through our doors at some point. There are three names that don’t quite match up, but I’ll bet they’re the same people. Do you have any Does?”

CJ looked at George curiously. “Yes, only one now, though. We’ve identified the others. Tell me, what did you do before you came to work here?”

“I think you already know the answer to that, Agent Carson. Bill Nicholson and I worked together…LAPD. When I was injured in the line of duty, I retired and came here to help him out.”

“You seem to do some amazing work here, George. Do you have a lot of staff?”

“Not a lot, no…we’re volunteers and do the best we can with about ten of us in total.”

CJ nodded. “Do you take on any casual helpers?”

“Actually, yes. They usually come in to wash up in the kitchen…we have a cafeteria. They do other cleaning and general handyman kinda work too. Why?”

“Well, the kid I showed you…this picture,” CJ said, producing the photo of Eric Hess again, “I was wondering if-”

George raised his hand, cutting her off. “That’s where I know his face from!”

“Where?”

“This kid here…he reminds me of a boy who worked in the kitchen a while back. Hell, yes, his name was Ricki. That’s what you said, right?”

“Yes. He worked here?”

George nodded. “Did cleaning work and helped serve up the food in the cafeteria.”

“Does he still come in?” CJ asked hopefully.

“Not for a while now.” George rubbed his forehead as he paused for a moment. “I might have a number for him. Let me check.”

As he typed away on the keyboard again, CJ chanced a glance at her colleague. Ethan looked as apprehensive and hopeful as she did. If they could get a contact number for Eric and he still had the phone, they could just have gotten a huge break in their case.

George suddenly stood up. “No luck, but don’t lose heart yet. Filing cabinet…” He stormed into a back room like he was on a mission.

CJ suspected he missed the job. She knew she would if she was forced into retirement.

When George came back through the doorway he had a sheet of paper in his hand. “Got it. This is a copy so you can keep it. He had a cell phone number. Want me to call it?”

CJ stood up. “Not right now. I want to check it out first.” She gratefully accepted the information. “Are you working tomorrow?”

“Not after nightshift, no. Bill is on tomorrow.”

“Would you be able to come by the FBI field office at some point?”

“Sure. What time?” George answered eagerly. It felt like the old days again. He wanted to help the agents…with what, he didn’t know, but if it increased their chances of finding out what happened to those children, he’d do it.

“How about four o’clock tomorrow?”

“Great. I’ll be there. It’s on Wilshire, right?”

CJ smiled. “Yeah. You know it?”

“Oh, I went there on a few occasions during my time in homicide,” George said with a reflective nod.

“Homicide, huh?”

“Yep. I was workin’ there when I got shot. That’s what retired me.”

“Sorry, man. Tough break,” CJ sympathized.

“Hey, it’s the job, right? Anyway, I get to do all this now so I guess it was meant to be.”

“I like your attitude, Harper. See you tomorrow,” CJ said, giving him a little salute.

Ethan almost laughed at CJ’s ability to read this guy like a book. She used his last name in a squad room kind of way and gave him a military-style salute as a goodbye. It immediately had the desired effect since George’s face lit up like a Christmas tree when he saluted right back. Ethan was always learning from CJ’s many skills, and today was no different.

George eagerly shook both agents by the hand. “Tomorrow, Carson…Matthews.”

As she left the building, CJ was ever hopeful that the cell phone number would lead them to Eric. She wanted to run it by Mikey to see what he could find out. Tracing cell phones was his department, but if they couldn’t trace it by tomorrow she would ask George to call Eric and offer him some work at the project. It might just give them a way to bring him in.

“I loved what you did in there,” Ethan said, breaking her from her thoughts.

“What?”

“The way you spoke to George like he was one of us, workin’ the case like a cop…but you didn’t tell him anything confidential while you did it.”

“Well I just know how I would feel if I couldn’t do the job anymore. He seemed to miss it a lot.”

“But still,” Ethan went on, knowing she was avoiding the praise as usual. “I didn’t see that. You did.”

“Quit it, will ya?” CJ was on the verge of blushing, but she quickly stuck the key into the ignition to distract Ethan from the fact her cheeks were becoming rather rosy.

.

Chapter 7

After her last meeting with her mother, Kate had spent a lot of time thinking about how Elizabeth saw the world. Her bigotry and ignorance seemed to warp the woman’s every view. She had also researched various types of cancer and thought about how Elizabeth might be afraid of her illness. Kate felt her compassionate side assert itself, but she wasn’t ready to forgive her mother – she didn’t think that would ever fully happen – but she was willing to talk with her to try to at least keep in touch for the remainder of her estranged parent’s life. When she felt tears sting the back of her eyes, she shook her head vigorously to stifle her emotions…emotions she didn’t think Elizabeth deserved.

This morning, Kate had found herself at work again, but only for a half day to catch up on what didn’t get done on the disaster that was Friday. She had called Elizabeth to ask her to come and have coffee in her trailer while she was on a lunch break. She figured having work as her way out was a good idea and didn’t tell Elizabeth that she had a half day. So the time had come, and Kate now sat across from her mother at the small, fitted table inside her private space.

“I need to talk to you more about your illness,” Kate began. “You said you had cancer. What kind of cancer is it?”

“Why do you ask, dear?” Elizabeth said calmly while sipping her peppermint tea.

“I ask because some stages of cancer are treatable. Are you sure there’s nothing that can be done for you?”

“Oh, no, it is terminal, Katherine. My doctor is the best money can buy.”

Kate scrutinized her mother, but her face remained impassive. “Why did you really come here? I’m just curious because you don’t seem to want to tell me anything more.”

“Oh, darling, I told you it would do my heart good to see you settled down with a nice man and with some wonderful children. I’d love grandchildren. You know that’s why I’m here.”

Kate was close to her tolerance limit where her mother was concerned so she tried to remain open and calm, but she knew where this conversation was heading. “Elizabeth, CJ and I-“

Elizabeth’s hand halted the mug that was on its way to her mouth and interrupted her. “I don’t want to hear mention of that awful woman again, Katherine!”

All the suppressed hurt and anger came rushing back, and Kate failed in her attempt to hold it together. She got to her feet slowly. “She is not awful! She is the most incredible, beautiful soul I have ever known! You just can’t see through your envy, hatred, and bias.”

“Envy? I’m envious? Of what? Of your unholy lifestyle? Of your disgusting perversion?” Elizabeth blurted. She quickly realized what she had said and forcefully settled her hands on the table surface. “Oh, I’m so sorry, dear. Please forgive my outburst. I’m just so upset.”

Kate eyed her suspiciously now. She was just the same old Elizabeth deep down. Kate sat back down, giving her mother yet another chance to accept her life choices or even try to build something of a relationship before it was too late. “The only reason CJ has reacted badly to you is because she won’t tolerate anyone hurting me.”

“Let’s not talk about that now. I know you’d like a nice man to settle down with. I mean, you liked that nice boy, Jason…”

Kate raised her hand sharply. “Remember when I was abducted a few years ago?” When Elizabeth averted her eyes and nodded, she continued. “That nice boy Jason was the one who did it. He was on drugs and was mentally ill. He hurt me…very badly.”

“I didn’t know that,” Elizabeth said rather coldly. “You should’ve told me. Well what about Jack Bannerman? He’s handsome, rich, and very polite.”

Kate felt her blood pressure rising. “He has slept with every woman he could get his slimy hands on and spends most of his time these days in a drunken haze. And he’s been borderline sexually assaulting me lately, so no, he is not nice either. Are we done with that?”

“You must have provoked him. Probably because you need a man in your life and you just haven’t realized it yet.” Elizabeth looked up from her mug and saw the green in her daughter’s eyes turn to fire.

Kate was back on her feet in a flash – followed by her mother – and her face gradually reddened with barely suppressed rage. She concentrated on her deep breathing and tried not to explode, but her voice was laced with a self-defensive hatred. “Elizabeth, I don’t want to fight with you!”

“Then don’t, dear. Just do as I say, and life will be much better for everyone.”

“Do as you say? I’ll do what I feel is right for me. I’m living my life, not yours. And I think you’d realize that’s the best thing for me.”

“Oh, I see. And what about me? Don’t I count?”

Kate was about to lose it. Her mother was using that tone…the same one she used when Kate was a child. And the woman’s bitterness was clearly not something she was going to let go of at any cost. “Like I said, I don’t want to fight with you, and I’d think you wouldn’t want that either considering your illness!”

“What illness?” Elizabeth retorted a bit too sharply.

“What…the terminal cancer you just told me about!”

“Oh, that.” Elizabeth sat back down. While her heart missed the occasional beat, she hoped to change the subject quickly enough and thought furiously about what to say next to cover her faux pas.

But she was too late to take it back, and Kate was already figuring things out. “You…you lied to me, didn’t you?”

“I did not! I am appalled you’d even think that, Katherine!”

“Then come with me to see my doctor. I think you should have a second opinion. Maybe it was misdiagnosed?”

Elizabeth felt she was losing control of the situation and her plan to get Kate settled down with anyone who wasn’t CJ…or a woman. “I will not. Doctor Selman is first rate.

Kate saw it. She saw it clear as day: the loving, remorseful mother routine, the lack of any real information about her terminal illness, and the constant talking-up of Jack Bannerman. “This was all just an attempt to get me away from CJ, wasn’t it? To try and make me normal again?” She made sure to exaggerate the air quotes around normal.

“How dare you accuse me? I’m dying, and you tell me I’m making it up? I am shocked, Katherine! All I want is to see you get through this silly phase, find a husband, and have some children…a nice family!”

“I have a nice family! How dare you dismiss CJ like she doesn’t exist! And if you must know, we already have two beautiful children. CJ and I are not breaking up for you or anyone else. I’ve had it, Elizabeth. I tried to show you compassion…I really did, but you will never accept the person I am or the people I love. I think you need to go.”

“You have children?” Elizabeth was more than disgusted. “Whose children? You haven’t given birth, Katherine, even I know that. Did that…that woman have a child?!”

“No. Dear lord, you are so far removed from reality. We adopted two amazing girls…two girls you will never meet. I will not have this much negativity around them. Just go home. I don’t want to spend another moment with you…sick or not sick! Do you really think I care? I try not to hate you, I really do. But this is never gonna work!” Kate was ready to fall down in tears. Her heart was in shreds yet again, and she knew she was lashing out because of it. And as much as she felt sorry for saying these awful things, she wanted the truth before Elizabeth left and felt playing her mother at her own game was the way to get it.

In the heat of their argument, Elizabeth allowed herself to be baited by Kate’s words. “Well I think you just confirmed that disowning you was the right course of action after all, but I will make sure you get rid of that woman. She has poisoned you so much you can’t even help your own mother when she tells you she’s ill!”

“You’re not ill. You lied!”

“How…” Elizabeth was just about to deny it again when she cunningly decided to change her tactics. “Yes, I lied. You pushed me to it. I tried to make you see sense and to make you something I could be proud of, but you are worth nothing, Katherine, and I will prove that. I will make sure you and your…your dyke know that. You will never inherit a penny from me, but I will have my grandchildren. I will. You will not deny me that.” And with that ominous threat lingering in the air, the vile, evil woman grabbed her handbag from the couch and left the trailer. Her limousine pulled out of the lot a scant moment later.

Kate was still sitting totally stunned, totally gutted by the cutting words and hateful actions. As she stared blankly ahead – still at the space where Elizabeth had been – she felt her stomach rebel and her eyes fill with tears. She jumped from her chair and threw herself into the tiny bathroom. Her lunch was violently expelled as she cried painfully into the toilet bowl.

* * * * * *

The hours were ticking by at a ridiculously slow rate. CJ had opted to stay in the office waiting for yet another coroner’s report from yet another body found earlier in the day. That news had made her totally depressed, and she felt the darkness consume her once again. She was getting too tired to fight it off. She had thought the killer would’ve stopped after severing the arm on the girl found in Trancas Canyon, but this victim was in the same condition: successfully severed limb and an exact match to the other postmortem inflictions.

CJ’s colleagues were all out doing various case-related tasks and inquiries. As soon as Jamie got back, they would go to Sam’s Hangout to pick up samples of the actual ropes used in their ring. Jim had not been too pleased with their court order to extract part of his boxing ring, but every angle had to be covered.

Looking into her FBI Female Body Inspector mug – which Kate had thought was hilarious – CJ grimaced at the cold liquid she hadn’t gotten around to drinking and rose from her seat. A quick look at the clock told her it was rapidly passing nine PM, and she swore she’d lost a day somewhere along the line. As she headed to the coffee machine for what seemed like the fiftieth time that day, her phone rang causing her shoulders to fall and her head to droop as she slammed her hands on the counter. While her bitter drink was haphazardly sputtering from the nozzle, she shuffled back to her desk.

“Agent Carson.”

“Hi, CJ. Are you OK?”

As usual, Kate’s voice released something inside CJ although she didn’t know what, and her tired, blue eyes closed as she slumped into the chair. “Hey…I’m OK. How are you?”

“I’m fine. How’s your case coming along?”

“Yeah, we’re making some progress,” CJ said while rubbing her eyes with her free hand.

“Do you want to tell me about it?” Kate probed gently, wanting to hear her wife’s voice and needing a distraction from her anxiety-ridden thoughts.

Looking round quickly, CJ checked the office door was closed and thought about what she could tell Kate without going into detail. “Sure. We lifted fibers from one of the victims. They’re a match to fibers found in ropes used on boxing rings. It seems like they could’ve transferred from the ropes to the suspect to the victim. We’ve narrowed down the search and put surveillance on the place we’re interested in. Nothing’s turned up yet though…”

“Locard’s Theory? That’s great, CJ,” Kate responded. She could only imagine CJ’s mouth hanging open until she spoke again. She knew exactly what caused the prolonged silence. “Honey, I play a forensics expert, remember?”

“Oh…yeah, Locard’s Theory. Anyway, it’s a good piece of evidence, and I’ve got a few more strong leads to go on now.”

“That sounds positive. How are you coping today?”

“Fine, Katie. I can manage, you know?” CJ snapped.

Kate sighed miserably. “I know that. Sorry…I wasn’t trying to be pushy or anything.”

“No, I’m sorry. God, I need to stop doing that. I’m really trying to be better at this.”

“It’s fine. Don’t beat yourself up. Maybe just try to get home for a few minutes tonight. I just want to see you and check in with you in person?”

“I’ll try. It’s been about what, a zillion hours now. I could use some you-time,” CJ said dejectedly.

“I know the feeling.”

So what did you do today? Did you have to work?”

“Just this morning. My afternoon seemed to disappear.”

I hear that. Katie, are you sure you’re OK?” CJ asked. Something didn’t feel right to her.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. I love you, CJ.”

“I love you too.”

“Talk to you later. Bye.”

“Uh, OK. Night, hon.” When CJ hung up the call, she frowned at the abrupt ending to their conversation. Kate seemed stressed, and she couldn’t even go home to her. She was worried about it and was missing her wife like crazy, but she couldn’t leave work. They were too close to finding their killer now, and CJ did not want another call about another victim. There had been way too many already.

“Damn it.”

Back at the house at the exact same time, Kate knew CJ wouldn’t be home. She had just told her goodnight, not goodbye. Kate supposed she could understand that. They had some good leads in the case, and she really wanted them to catch the killer, but she also really wanted and needed her partner. When she had left work earlier she’d asked Tony to drop her at the beach for a while, and she wandered aimlessly along the surf before going home. She felt lost and had cried again when she had climbed into bed only a half hour after the girls had gone to sleep. If CJ had been there to hold her – just hold her – she would have felt a little better.

“Damn it.”

* * * * * *

Mikey Ryan had thought he’d done it. He had just spent hours with his techy friend, Agent Colin Ridley, tracking down information on the cell phone number they had been given. They were keeping tabs on it, and when the suspect suddenly switched on the phone, Mikey and Ethan had immediately called the Nicholson Project and stayed on another line with George Harper while he called the boy he knew as Ricki.

They gave George a brief script to stick to – which he had done admirably – but Eric was not playing ball. He told George he was out of town and didn’t want any work at the project. He seemed quite adamant about it, and George couldn’t tempt him at all. They had managed to confirm one thing, though. Eric still had the phone. It was now turned off again which made the agents think that maybe the call had rattled Eric a little.

After spending another hour with Colin trying to track the location of the phone – even though Eric hadn’t stayed on the line long enough for a full trace – Mikey now dragged his feet along the corridor to meet up with his own team.  As he opened the door, he heard Victor Belzano’s melodious tones inside the room.

“…Thought I’d stretch my legs and hand-deliver this info to you.”

“Much appreciated, Victor,” CJ replied. “Hey, Mikey…any luck?”

Mikey sat down with a thump. “Nothing yet…he switched the phone back off. Colin’s keeping on it.”

“OK. Sorry, Victor, go on…”

“Well I found traces of skin and blood under today’s victim’s fingernails on the right hand. I think he got a piece of our killer,” Victor announced as he handed the file to CJ.

She flicked through the pages as she spoke. “You think the boy marked him?”

“Yes. Most likely to his face or forearm. Going by the differing layers of epidermis, it’ll be three pretty deep gashes,” Victor said with a nod.

CJ scanned the analysis sheet in front of her. “DNA?”

“Oh yes. Basically, the rapid turnover of ocular surface epithelium and microbial colonization of the eyelids are continual sources of DNA in tears, so I was able-” Victor enthused.

“In English…?” CJ interrupted with her signature eyebrow quirk.

“Your killer cried over the victim. He might have done it before but this time his tears landed on the body, and I was able to get a sample.”

CJ ran her tongue around her teeth. “Like I said before, I think the severing of the limb is significant. What he’s doing is totally horrific, but it’s also emotional for him. Damn it, we need to catch him. He’s never gonna stop.”

“You bring him in, and the lab can match his DNA. You know where I am if you need me,” Victor said as he turned to leave.

“Thanks.” CJ was feeling the exhaustion bearing down on her. She felt like they were standing still: one step forward, one step back. She rubbed her weary eyes and looked around the office. Another night without Kate was going to be impossible to stomach, so when Jamie walked in the door, CJ knew exactly what she had to do.

* * * * * *

A very emotional, very tired Kate Carson sat at the top of the staircase in her pajamas. She couldn’t sleep, and every minute that passed felt like an hour. Her heart was aching at what Elizabeth had done. How could a mother tell her daughter she was dying just to manipulate an outcome for her own selfish benefit? Kate would never understand those thought processes, and tears stung the back of her eyes as she relived their last meeting.

The long hours at work were also taking their toll. She had barely seen the girls in the past few days, and it was having an effect on her well-being. She wanted more time at home, but the end of season filming schedule was demanding on everyone.

I wanted to be an actress, so I can’t complain…can I?

Kate needed to talk it over with someone. Actually, she wanted to talk it over with her wife, but she knew that was just not possible right now. Maybe she could call her father. Craning her neck and narrowing her eyes in the low light, she managed to read the clock in the lower hallway before she sighed and shook her head. Dad would be asleep. It was the middle of the night in New York.

While scratching through her blond hair, she stood up and headed to the kitchen for a glass of milk. For the first time in years, she felt truly alone. She knew it was partially her own doing because she wouldn’t burden CJ with what was going on, and that fact only added to her heavy heart. The feelings had barely settled in the pit of her soul when she thought she heard someone in front of the house. A ripple of fear washed over her. Had Elizabeth already put her threats into motion? Would she really do something to hurt their family?

Kate quickly got to her feet and approached the window with caution. God, I’m such an idiot, she told herself. CJ’s truck was visible out in front of the house.

Kate entered the hallway just as CJ locked the door behind her. “Hey…”

“Hi, Katie. What are you doing up?”

“I…I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t expecting to see you.”

CJ approached her in the semi-darkness and pulled her into a hug. “How come you couldn’t sleep? Anything I can help with?”

Kate basked in the long arms around her and wondered if CJ was psychic in some way. This was just what she needed to make it through another day. She wound herself as tightly around the taller woman as possible. “You’re already helping. I love you.”

“I love you too. Tell me what’s wrong,” CJ said, kissing the head that was pressed against her cheek.

“Not now. How’s the case?”

“Not now? Honey, you shut down our phone conversation earlier, and now you won’t tell me what’s bothering you?”

“I will tell you, CJ, just let me process it for a while. Please? And anyway, I want to know how you are.”

“Hmm…I feel like you’re trying to divert my attention. I’m fine, and the case is going slowly.” She pushed back to see the badly-hidden sadness on Kate’s face. She pushed some hair back off Kate’s forehead as she continued to speak. “We thought we had our suspect tonight…tracked his cell phone…and we tried to set a trap for him, but he wasn’t interested. Then he switched the damn thing back off which was really frustrating.”

“Sorry, honey. I know how hard you’re all working to catch him,” Kate said, bringing her hand up to CJ’s cheek and caressing it. “I’m so glad you made it home for a bit. I assume you’re about to leave again, though?”

“Why would you assume that?”

“You didn’t lock your gun away.”

“You‘re right, Detective Carson, I do have to go soon, but I told you I’d come to you when I needed to, right? Well, tonight, I wanted to come home. I wanted and needed to hold you, and I’m glad I didn’t have to wake you to do it. But I’m still worried about you. Long day at work again?”

Kate stifled her sigh. “Not so much, but it was longer than it should’ve been. And I shouldn’t have been there at all this weekend. I’ll be OK…honest.”

CJ eyed her skeptically. She wanted to delve deeper but didn’t have long enough to do it. She would just have to trust Kate to tell her if it was urgent. “Hmm. Come on, I’ll make you my famous warm milk with a hint of cardamom.”

“Famous? I believe you’ve only made it for me once before so it can’t be that famous,” Kate jested. Just seeing CJ had cheered her up immensely. It was magical.

“Hmm, we’ll have to remedy that right now. I think I have time for a mug myself…and maybe a kiss from my beautiful wife before I go.” CJ led Kate into the kitchen, her arm fitted snugly around her shoulder as they walked.

CJ’s face was cloudy and dark, but the grin that was plastered over the top of all the anguish made Kate realize how much her wife was fighting to remain close to her. She had to grin in response. She watched the conflicted emotions play across CJ’s eyes as she set the mugs on the island counter. Even in the midst of her nightmare, she was somehow managing to stay connected, but Kate could see the effort it took. She knew everything was bubbling just beneath the surface and decided that when this case was over, her strong spouse would be talking about what had happened whether she liked it or not.

She knew CJ would avoid going to the Bureau shrink at all costs so it was up to her to persuade her to open up and deal with it. She also knew the same would be true for her. CJ was already seeing through her thinly-veiled façade and would no doubt force her to unload her troubles too, but she could live with that…after the case was closed.

As they sat close together on the sumptuous couch, they talked quietly for half an hour about this and that. Nothing serious came up as they both seemed determined to talk about anything but themselves. Both were aware they were doing it, but in each woman’s mind they were in some way protecting the other. It turned out to be the best half hour they had experienced in what felt like forever, but all too soon it was over, and CJ left after a deep and loving kiss to her soul mate.

Kate returned to bed and was soon unable to resist falling asleep. Just before she drifted into the land of nod, one thought floated through her mind: that her wife was magical indeed.

* * * * * *

Upon her return to the office, CJ found her entire team there, which included Mark who sat with Jamie going through the evidence and reports with a fresh eye while Ethan took off his jacket having just arrived ahead of her. Mikey was grabbing forty winks on the cot in the storage room since two other agents had been drafted in for the stakeout, but CJ suspected it would be called off if no sighting of Eric Hess was reported soon. They were all working hard on this case, and she had faith they would bring it to a conclusion. She just wished it was now.

As soon as that thought passed through her mind, Mikey’s cell phone rang. A thud was heard as he jumped up from his sleep and banged his head on the top bunk.

“Oww, shit! Hello…? Oh, Colin, gimme good news, man.”

The entire office went silent in order to hear what Mikey was saying. The anticipation was killing CJ, and her gut was screaming, “This is it!”

Mikey came rushing out of the storage room with his spikey, brown hair in disarray, and his eyes barely open. “Thanks, Colin.” He clumsily hung up the call. “We need to go. Hess turned on his cell again, but he’s out in the boondocks…and he’s on the move.”

“In the middle of the night? Boondocks, where…?” CJ asked as everyone grabbed their guns and jackets.

“Heading north on the Zuma Ridge Motor-”

“Shit!” CJ spat, silencing the younger agent. She knew the girl found in Trancas Canyon had been significant to the killer, and he had used a nearby area to dump their last victim too. If her suspicions were correct, he was going there again now. “We’ll never get there in time.”

Mark spoke while he threw a set of car keys at CJ who caught them without batting an eye. “We’ll take two cars…come at him front and back if we have to. Mikey, got your tracking whatsit?”

“Right here, Sir. Colin hooked me up. Tracking now.”

“Let’s go.”

As the two cars screeched out of the field office parking garage, CJ’s heart was racing. She wanted to bring him in before he took another life. They had to get him. There was no bringing back the ones they’d lost already, but she prayed they could save the one she was sure he had with him right now.

* * * * * *

A few restless hours later, Kate noted an unusual feeling in her gut as she arrived at the Olympian studios…and it wasn’t the Monday morning blues. It dawned on her that she didn’t want to be there today. The recent events had blighted her workplace, and she wanted to tell Tony to turn around and head for home. She kissed Shannon and Lucy goodbye, and after a loving smile to her daughters she got out of the car and threw her trusted driver an uncharacteristic half-wave. Tony waved back and drove off, heading for Shannon’s school then the Carson home. He was on child-minding duties today.

Walking with purpose towards the offices, Kate decided now was as good a time as any to have a word with her casting director. She knocked and entered Derek Trent’s room, noticing one of the writers was also present. PerfectMaybe he can write me into the background for a while.

Derek waved her in as he hung up the call he had been on. “Kate…how can I help?”

“I need to back away from the show for a while, Derek,” she said adamantly.

“Back away?”

“Yes. I have a few problems and I need to do less hours. Is there anything you think they could do to accommodate that?”

“Kate, the show is about the ME’s office and you are their chief forensic scientist. You can’t back away. You’re one of the stars,” Derek said emphatically.

“There must be something that can be done. Isn’t Jack the big movie star? He can take the lead for a while, can’t he?”

Derek pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. “You alone bring in over forty percent of our viewers, Kate. We can’t just have a part-time forensics expert. Phil and the producers wouldn’t allow it…and it doesn’t work in this show. It’s all or nothing.”

“I see,” Kate replied solemnly, noting that Jim the writer hadn’t said a word.

“Can you sit down and tell me why you want away from here so bad?” Derek asked.

“No. It was just a thought. Thanks anyway,” she said and walked out the door.

Derek looked concerned and slightly puzzled by the interaction. “Any idea what that was about, Jim?”

“Not a clue. She’s always been one of the happy ones around here…never had a problem with her.”

“Me neither.” Derek drew his brows together and rubbed his cheek as he processed the apparent sudden change in Kate. He would speak with a few of his colleagues discreetly to try to find out what was going on around the studios.

* * * * * *

Meanwhile, as the sun broke over the mountains two FBI sedans sped in formation toward their moving target. Mikey was in the lead vehicle with Ethan and Mark while Jamie sat in the passenger seat of CJ’s car. Jamie was trying to distract herself from what might happen next by going over a conversation she’d had with Sam yesterday. She turned to look at CJ to see if she looked open to talking. It was hard to read her current expression, but Jamie went ahead anyway. “You OK there, DM?”

“Yeah. You?”

“I’m fine. Did Kate sort out the issue with her mother?”

“What?”

“You know…her mother being in town an’ all?”

“Elizabeth’s here? Why?” CJ was taken aback by the news. She detested that woman.

“Ah, you don’t know. Forget I said anything.”

“How the hell do you know and I don’t?”

Jamie shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “Uh, Sam said-“

“Sam? Damn it, I knew there was something going on with Kate. Why didn’t she talk to me?”

“CJ, she does have other people she can talk to, you know…and you were busy with the case an’ all so-“

The look in CJ’s eyes was enough to stop Jamie in her tracks, but before any angry retort came bursting forth, Mark’s voice sounded in their earpieces and saved her.

“The cell phone is still switched on. We might get lucky, and we’re almost on him. Keep your eyes open and wait for my signal!”

“Roger that,” Jamie responded. This was potentially the climax of their case, and she had upset CJ at a critical time. Jeez. Will I ever learn to keep my big mouth shut? 

As she glanced covertly at her colleague once more, she noted CJ’s fixed and lowered eyebrows and her blue orbs scanning their surroundings as she drove. An image of the Terminator came to mind, and Jamie would never be able to liken this machine-like agent to the friend who called her honey or laughed and joked with her on so many occasions. She knew this was what CJ did to enable herself to work these cases in a professional manner, and she admired her for that. It was just very weird to witness the two different sides of her best friend.

Jamie shook her head as she blinked away the thoughts and focused back on the job at hand. After all, they had a killer to find.

* * * * * *

Kate left her trailer feeling the weight of her worries bearing down on her. She tried to appreciate the early morning sunshine, but nothing could dissipate the cloud that hung over her head. That cloud got noticeably darker when she spotted Jack Bannerman – looking slightly more fresh-faced than usual – coming towards her with a bounce in his step.

“Hey Kate, how goes it?”

“I’m not in the mood, Jack.”

“For what? Talking to a co-worker? Aww, come on. Hey, I meant to say to you…I loved your Mom. What a great lady.” It seemed Jack had completely forgotten his previous drunken behavior.

“Excuse me?”

“Yeah, she has a good head on her shoulders. And what nice shoulders they are. She sure warmed to me, I tell ya.”

“Really?” Kate had never trusted Jack, and now was no different. “How do you know anything about her?”

“Oh, well we spent some time together after we met at the studio gates. I think you should listen to her. It’s about time you came to your senses and married me instead of that cop…hot as she is,” he added with a chuckle.

Kate couldn’t believe her ears. Her mother had been discussing her life with Jack? She was furious. “If that woman ever comes back here, you just stay away from her. Do you hear me?”

“Why would I want to do that? Your mother’s a lovely woman. You know, she agreed we should be together. Me and you, Kate…our babies would be gorgeous,” Jack said, wiggling a self-assured eyebrow.

“You don’t get it, do you, Jack?”

“Get what?”

“Exactly! Just leave me the hell alone and don’t come near my family again! I didn’t need you to give me kids…” Kate said without thinking.

“You already have kids?” Jack blurted. “When…?”

Kate had turned away from him but stopped in her tracks and closed her eyes. They had managed to shield the children from the media, and she didn’t want him knowing anything more about her private life either. She turned around and approached him again. “Like I said, don’t come near me again. If you thought CJ was scary, just try hurting our family and see what happens. Two mothers protecting their young…they’d kill the predator, Jack. Don’t you ever watch those nature documentaries?” Kate snarled, her green eyes piercing into the man so much he had to take a step back.

Jack knew she was restraining her rage, and an image of a highly-provoked and angry CJ standing next to her popped into his mind making his mouth form a hesitant O. “I didn’t know…I mean, I’m sorry about…”

Kate took another step toward him. “Sorry about what, Jack?”

The confidence and power he foolishly perceived to be all his had shifted, and he felt unbalanced and confused. “Uh, well I-”

“What else have you done that you’re sorry about, hmm?”

Jack now felt like she had punched him in the gut, her glare was that intense. “Shit…uh, I’m just sorry for anything, everything. I gotta go.” And with that, he made a hasty exit.

Kate stared after him for a few seconds, her eyes narrowing dangerously. She knew he had been involved in some way. He was always lurking in the background when problems arose. She wanted to interrogate the man…better yet, let her wife interrogate him. She curled her lip in another snarl and spun around to head for her trailer.

.

Chapter 8

As Mark pulled the car onto the side of the road, Mikey blinked and double-checked the screen in front of him. “We should be right on top of him,” he said to his boss and the whole team via his hidden microphone.

“Damn it,” Mark muttered. He couldn’t see anyone out there. They were in a pretty remote area. The last stopping place was about ten miles back, and that had only been an unmanned restroom. “The speed he was moving at five minutes ago, he should be in a car or at least we should see one parked up.”

“Uh, Sir…” CJ said in his ear.

“Go ahead…”

“There’s something in the forest…ten o’clock…about fifty yards ahead other side of the road. It looks like the tail end of a vehicle.”

Mark scanned the tree line and couldn’t see anything. “Are you sure, CJ?”

“Yes, Sir. It’s a dark green color, but I just saw it glisten in the sun…definitely metallic.” She paused for a second. “Sir, Jamie just checked the plate. It’s stolen.”

“How did she manage that? I can’t even see the damn thing.”

“Uh, we’ve got binoculars, Sir.”

“That’s good enough for me. Let’s go. Scorpion formation…”

Both sedans instantly reversed and parked in a hidden location off road. Mark didn’t need to say anything else. Scorpion was the approach method they would use. Two agents came at the suspect or vehicle from either side in a pincer movement, but the main body of agents – the remaining three – would bring up the rear like the sting in the scorpion’s tail. If the suspect was there, he would be watching the two who’d approached first, hopefully giving the other’s the element of surprise. The SSHU agents had decided Scorpion was the name they’d give it.

So now, without further instruction, CJ and Ethan stealthily approached on foot, drawing their guns as they moved along the side of the road. CJ guessed Eric Hess wouldn’t be in the car. He was most likely out amongst the trees doing…something. The problem was, if Eric stuck to his previous pattern, that something would already be dead. It was times like these CJ hated being right.

Once she was sure everyone had seen the vehicle, they ventured further into the woods. CJ signaled with one hand to Ethan that she would go past the dirty, green Mazda pickup truck to the far side. When she was in place, Ethan moved quickly in sync with her until they were level with the doors. Just as CJ suspected, there was nobody in the driver’s cab.

With another hand signal – and a shiver at the thought of what might have happened inside this vehicle – Ethan suggested checking the rear space under the hard top. They did so while noting that Mark, Mikey and Jamie were closing in from behind the truck. CJ pulled at the handle on the back door with no luck. It was locked like the rest of them making her think he had stolen the car using the key. She peered through a gap in the ripped reflective covering that was supposed to block the view into the rear cab. There was no one inside, but she did spot plastic sheeting similar to the type the other bodies had been wrapped in. She also saw a phone.

“Damn it…he left the cell inside.”

The tracking device was now useless, and as soon as Mikey had pocketed the gadget, a snapping sound in the forest made him raise his Glock and point it into the trees. As five agents scanned the area, guns aimed and ready, a branch that had broken off fell naturally from above and thumped to the ground.

“Jeez…” Jamie breathed.

CJ surveyed the area and figured out which direction Eric had gone in. “Sir, I think I can track his movements. All this ground is undisturbed.” She pointed to the surrounding area. “But this part here…someone’s walked over it recently. Look at the foliage. Freshly broken stems…”

Mark shook his head slowly. “Is there anything you can’t do, Agent Carson?”

“Just remembering old stories my mother told me about her grandfather, Sir,” CJ replied as she led her team forward.

Ethan moved with her, his gun poised at his shoulder. Mark and Jamie revived the Scorpion and fell in behind, fanning out as they followed at a distance. Mikey remained near the vehicle concealed in the scrub at the side of the road. He listened carefully for any movement coming his way and also for any voices in his earpiece that would signify signs of trouble for his colleagues. Only then would he break his cover.

* * * * * *

Samantha Morris threw her bag over her shoulder and made a bee line for Kate’s trailer. Kate had been covering her stress and sadness quite well in public, but Sam wanted to check that her strong friend was coping behind the scenes as well.

After she knocked on the door, Sam stood and looked around the studio lot, closing her eyes for a second in the warm afternoon sun. There was no response to her knock, and she wondered if Phil Romaine had given her the wrong information about Kate taking a late lunch. “Kate?”

“Yes?”

Sam jumped out of her skin when the voice came from behind her. “Jeez, you scared me.”

“Sorry, Sam…want to come in?” Kate said as she opened the door.

“Sure I do. How are you, hon?”

Kate blew out a breath as she sat down. “Truthfully…?”

“Damn straight. We FBI widows need to stick together.”

“Oh, Sam, don’t say widows.”

“Sorry. So tell me…”

“I…I’m coping fine. I just have a lot to think through.”

“About work or family or life?”

“Yeah,” Kate answered, taking a sip of her coffee.

“All of them?”

“Yes. Work is feeling so off right now. My family? I miss them like crazy. I know its end of season but the filming schedule is really ridiculous, and I’ve barely seen the girls for two weeks. That wouldn’t be as bad if CJ was home…but she’s not.”

“That can’t be helping either…you and CJ not getting time together. I know it’s frustrating Jamie and I too.”

“I know. Sorry, Sam. I’m going on and on,” Kate said with a sympathetic smile.

“Not at all…and I know you have Jack to deal with on a daily basis. That has to drag you down too.”

“I guess I just have to rethink what it is I really want.”

Sam looked into Kate’s eyes. “I know that you know what’s important. My advice…? Take all the time you need to think things through.” Sam stood up to go back to work. “But today, tell them you have to leave, Kate, and go home to your daughters.”

Kate got up to hug her. “Thanks, Sam. I love you.”

“Love you too, kiddo. See you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow.” Kate closed the door and went to finish her drink. She hadn’t eaten anything today and knew it was her nerves that were upsetting her stomach. She sat for a moment, tapping her fingers on the table surface. “Some serious decisions need to be made during my few weeks off. It’s time.”

* * * * * *

As they walked along what CJ had deemed the path of the killer, Ethan did a sweep of the tree branches. They didn’t take it for granted that Eric would be on the ground if he had managed to spot them first. A second later, CJ stopped in front of him raising her hand in a halt signal. She sidestepped into the unbroken foliage to let her colleague see the fresh footprint in the muddy patch ahead, but as she did that her left boot sunk into another soft spot.

“Shit.”

Ethan saw the brownish goo that covered CJ’s footwear and scrunched his nose as he whispered, “Nah, it’s only mud.”

CJ would have laughed out loud had they not been tracking a serial killer. Instead, she smirked as she looked back down at the footprint she’d found. “What d’ya think? Some kind of combat boot…size eleven?”

“Close enough,” Ethan replied quietly.

Mark and Jamie were not far away in the back-up position when they all heard a noise in the distance. Moving forward slowly in formation, they took absolute care not to make a sound. CJ’s sharp hearing picked up a low voice. It seemed to be repeating the same words over and over, barely deviating from a monotone murmur.

“Hold,” she whispered into her mic. When the other agents stood still, she moved steadily and listened again. The voice continued as she tried to make out the words. Her stomach dropped when she figured it out.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t see it…I didn’t. Sorry…so sorry. I didn’t see it…”

Mark watched his lead agent before whispering into his mic. “Report, Agent Carson.”

Since she was closer to where she thought Eric was situated, she turned briefly and signaled once again with her hand, telling them where she was going. She also told Mark and Jamie to wait. Ethan knew he should go with her and sidestepped over some moss-covered ground making sure to avoid the twigs strewn over their path. He glanced at CJ when they both spotted a dark head of short hair behind a crop of ferns.

Eric Hess was kneeling – CJ suspected, over a body – and he was still repeating his chant.

They approached about ten feet apart from behind each of the suspect’s shoulders with their guns trained on him. CJ had thought he hadn’t heard them, but his mantra changed a moment later.

“Just kill me. I didn’t…I didn’t see it. Kill me.”

“FBI. Put your hands on top of your head,” CJ said loudly.

Upon hearing her words, Mark and Jamie came up behind them, and back at the vehicle Mikey listened carefully, poised and ready for any command.

“Kill me!” Eric shouted.

“I’m not gonna shoot you in the back. Now stand up and put your hands on your head…”

“No. I didn’t see it. Shoot me! It has to stop. I can’t…it has to stop!” Eric stood and turned to face the agents.

As his body moved, CJ saw the tarpaulin on the forest floor and the bloodied hair that protruded from it. She also saw the tear-stained face of Eric Hess and the red staining on his own clothing. She grimaced and knew her suspicions were correct. He had killed again.

When she noticed Jamie moving swiftly and stealthily in the trees and approaching Eric from behind, she knew she should keep him talking. “Eric…” She deliberately called him by his given name, and it had the desired effect.

He looked up sharply at her, but in the next second his eyes darkened, his expression tightened, and he decided it was time to pull his knife from his pocket.

Cj’s hand tightened on her gun. “Eric, put down the knife.”

“No. It has to end. Just shoot!”

He lunged forward and held the knife high. He was going to attack CJ to force her into pulling the trigger, but he wasn’t as fast as Jamie who was right behind him. She firmly grabbed both his elbows and wrestled him to the ground. As he lay on his front still screaming for them to end his life, all four agents pounced on him and pinned him down. His knife-wielding arm was immobilized, and Mikey, who had suddenly appeared from nowhere, quickly removed the weapon from Eric’s iron grip. The blood all the way up to the hilt made it obvious that this weapon had been used to cut his victims.

CJ read Eric his rights and informed him that he was now under arrest for ten counts of murder in the first degree before Mikey and Ethan led their suddenly-subdued killer away in cuffs. CJ frowned at the differences she had seen in Eric in the space of a couple of minutes and realized this case was even more complicated that she’d thought.

She turned to the body of his final child victim and brushed her hand over her forehead to remove the unruly bangs that had fallen forward in the scuffle. She had lost her earpiece so Mark came up behind her and touched her shoulder.

“Ryan called in the CSU. They should be here within the hour.”

CJ nodded and bent down to check the body for a pulse. She had to be sure, even though it was obvious he was dead. “I just wish we’d been able to save him,” she said, crouching over the boy on the ground.

“I know, but you caught the killer. You did your job.”

“Not soon enough.”

“It’s never soon enough, Agent Carson. Don’t torture yourself. That’s an order.” When no response was forthcoming, Mark shook his head and walked back through the forest towards the car.

CJ pulled on a pair of latex gloves and moved the light-blue tarp. Eric had removed the victim’s right arm and placed it inside the plastic this time. The eyelids were closed, but CJ knew what lay behind them. The body was wrapped very carefully as if Eric had taken more time with the victim after his kill, and she wondered if he had started to enjoy what he was doing. He had seemed so disturbed by it at first, and the tears they’d found seemed to confirm that. She knew the interview would give her a better understanding of his psychosis, and as much as she didn’t want to venture into Eric’s mind, she did want to gain better knowledge of this type of insanity. He was clearly traumatized to the point of madness, but in her mind it would never excuse his actions. Nothing could.

She stood and looked toward the sky. She had seen enough dead bodies to be able to cope with this but still, she would never get used to seeing dead children. It was almost too much to bear.

Jamie, who was now placing numbered markers at each evidential point at the scene, carefully walked over to her. “Hey. Can you…?”

CJ took the camera from the bag on Jamie’s shoulder and noticed the glint of moisture in her eyes. She realized she wasn’t the only one upset by the sights they had witnessed during this case. “Sure. Let’s get this done before Victor gets here. There’s a breeze getting up. He’ll want to get him back before we lose any evidence.”

Jamie gave a somber nod and continued with her work. CJ sighed, and after she said a silent ‘sorry’ to the boy she began cataloging the tragic event.

* * * * * *

As the evening sky settled over the Carson farmhouse, Shannon and Lucy played in the backyard with Kamali. Shannon had done her homework, Lucy had swept the floor – strangely, one of her favorite pastimes – and they’d both eaten dinner by the time Kate walked in the front door. She was thankful that she was at least home before they went to bed and quickly dropped her bag on the couch. She was about to search for her beloved daughters when she ran into Alice Matthews and one of her three-year-old twins. “Hey, Alice,” Kate said before she blew a raspberry into Melissa’s little hand. “Hi, beautiful girl…”

The child chuckled merrily at the funny sound making Alice smile warmly.

“Kate…you’re home.”

“Yes. I escaped early today, so you’re free to go anytime, Alice.”

“Great. I’ll collect up my other tyke and leave you guys to it.”

“Thank you.”

A scant five minutes later, the Matthews family had left. Kate knew Alice would be just as glad as she was to have an evening to spend with her own children, although Kate suspected Ethan would be working late just like CJ. That thought led her to wonder what her wife might be doing right now, and she could only imagine the thundery storm inside CJ’s mind as she tracked the killer. She attempted to put those disturbing thoughts aside and focus on the girls. She really needed some quality time with her daughters.

It wasn’t long before Lucy was sprawled on top of her, and Shannon was sitting at the other end of the couch rubbing Kamali’s head as she stared at the fireplace.

Kate was listening to Lucy’s contented noises – a result of Kate’s nails gently scratching her small back – as she watched her older daughter with concern. Shannon had greeted her with a hug, but there was something bothering the girl.

“Shannon? Come here, sweetheart.”

The dark head turned, but Shannon didn’t move from her spot. “When’s Mommy coming home?”

“I’m not sure, Squirt. She has to work a lot this week.”

“She always has to work.”

“Sometimes she does, yes.”

“Well Daddy always had to work too, and look what happened.”

Kate’s heart lurched. “Shan, Mommy will be home. And remember, she took you out on Nevada last week? Sometimes she gets really busy, but sometimes she spends all day with you. Please come give us a hug while we talk about it?”

Shannon slid along the couch and crawled up inside Kate’s spare arm. “I miss her.”

Kate almost cried. “I miss her too, Shan. Do you remember when I told you about Mommy’s job?”

“Yes. You said that when people do the wrong things…bad things to hurt other people…Mommy works hard to catch them.”

“That’s right. And that’s what she’s doing right now. She told me she misses us all so much, and she’ll get home as soon as she can.”

A small murmur sounded from Lucy but she was drifting off in a blissful haze. Having her back scratched was one of the best things ever.

“Will she come home by Friday, when school stops?”

“Oh, honey, of course. I’ll make sure she has dinner with us at least one night. And remember, the week after school stops for the summer, I finish work for a while.”

“Promise?”

“Promise…” Kate squeezed her shoulders.

“I love you, Mama,” Shannon said as she buried herself deeper into Kate’s embrace.

“I love you too.”

Lucy stirred very slightly. “Me too.”

“You too, Luce,” Kate whispered, kissing the child’s head.

* * * * * *

It had been a silent journey back to the LA field office. All five agents had worn their mics and earpieces during the trip, but Eric had not said a single word to anyone. Once he had been placed in interrogation, Mark, CJ, and Ethan gathered in the dark observation room behind the two-way mirror. Eric sat at the table facing them, and his condition hadn’t changed.

“What was he like in the car?” Mark asked.

CJ sighed heavily. “He sat absolutely still…didn’t say a word. It looked like he was staring at a single stitch in the leather seat, and he barely blinked his eyes. I think we need the doc to assess him, but I’ll try to speak with him first.” She was talking about forensic psychologist Dr. Liam Martin who was on his way in. “I’d recommend suicide watch. I think he went into some kind of stupor when we wouldn’t shoot him. I doubt he’ll say a word.”

“Give it a try, CJ. We’ll be right here. Make sure and repeat on tape that he’s entitled to an attorney. I don’t want this case going to shit because of a technicality. I want it one hundred percent by the book.”

“As always, Sir,” she replied as she turned to Ethan. “Can you get an ETA on Martin?”

“Sure.” Ethan used the phone on the desk next to them and called up to Jamie. Sixty seconds later, he hung up. “The doc’s about five minutes out.”

“OK. I’ll go in now…see if Eric feels like cooperating.”

Both Mark and Ethan nodded, and she headed into the corridor, flipping through her notes and taking a deep breath before opening the next door.

Eric didn’t even register her arrival when she walked into the interrogation room. She took the seat opposite him, and he shifted in his chair so that he wasn’t directly facing her. His shoulders were tensed and his hands were hidden between his knees. He wouldn’t look anywhere but the floor and resembled a lost child.

CJ tried to avoid feeling sorry for him. Opening the file and seeing the photographs of the bodies he had dumped, erased any feelings of sympathy she might have had. She looked up to the camera in the corner of the ceiling and saw the red light was shining bright, signifying that they were being recorded.

“Eric…?”

No response except more tension in his shoulders.

“Eric, I’m Special Agent CJ Carson. I need to remind you that you are under arrest, and that you don’t have to say anything. Do you remember when we told you that in the forest?”

The tiniest nod came from Eric, but still not a word.

“I have to ask you again if you want an attorney. Do you understand that you are entitled to have one here?”

Still staring at the floor, Eric nodded again.

“Do you want an attorney?”

“No. I want to die.”

His voice was monotone and his eyes didn’t deviate from whatever they were focused on. It was chilling, and CJ could see how damaged he was. She was sure her profile was pretty much spot on and wanted to know what had happened to Eric when he was younger. She figured it was as good a place to start as any. “Eric, what happened to Jonathan?”

The mere mention of his brother changed his entire demeanor. He escaped his chair and scampered into the corner of the room. Curled in a ball on the floor, he began the chanting he was repeating when they’d found him. “It wasn’t me. I’m so sorry…I’m sorry…”

CJ got to her feet slowly. “Eric…”

“Don’t call me that.”

“What should I call you?”

“Ricki.”

“Ricki, I want to understand,” she said calmly as she approached him. “I want to understand what happened to Jonathan.”

“No. It wasn’t me. It was him. I’m sorry, Jonathan.” Eric rocked back and forth with his arms still curled around the knees that he held to his chest.

CJ crouched down – still keeping enough space between her and the killer in case he lashed out – and changed her tactic a little. “Ricki…we want to find Jonathan and help him. Can you tell me where he might be?”

The rocking stopped and the change in Eric’s face shocked CJ, though she hid it well. It was like he had just regressed ten years. Wide, tear-filled eyes looked up at her and a hopeful smile creased his mouth.

“You could find him? I play with him in the back yard. Maybe he’s there?”

CJ was now remembering what she had witnessed in the forest, and it confirmed to her that Eric had multiple personalities. He got up off the floor and went back to the table. CJ turned to see him place both hands neatly on the surface and bring his knees tightly together as he sat down. She returned to her seat and closed the file, not wanting the photos to ruin her chances at getting some sort of answers from the young man.

“What’s on your mind, Ricki?”

“Who’s Ricki? My name’s Eric,” the eighteen-year-old said shyly.

“OK, Eric…”

“There was a barrel out back at our house. One day, Jonathan knocked it over and all the rain water spilled onto the yard. It smelled real bad.” He scrunched his nose at the memory. “Dad was angry and took Jonathan inside. I went in too, and I don’t remember what happened next but I do remember Dad saying that Jonathan should be put in the barrel, and then he would learn his lesson when he got all smelly too. We thought it might be fun but…but…”

CJ watched in muted astonishment as the face across from her changed again. Hess the Killer came to the fore, and she knew she had to be careful. “Did Jonathan go inside the barrel?”

“Just leave him alone! Don’t hurt the boy. He doesn’t deserve it!”

“Which boy?”

“Little Eric…just leave him alone.”

“I don’t want to hurt Eric. I just want to talk to him,” CJ said cautiously. “Can you let me speak with Eric now?”

“I…he’s…no!”

“What is your name?”

“Frankie. You leave him alone, ya hear?” He got to his feet quickly, and CJ went into full alert. His stance was angry and threatening, and he leaned over the table to try to provoke his interrogator. CJ got to her feet and was poised to tackle him when she heard the door handle clicking.

At that moment, Mark entered the room. He had learned so much from CJ – even though he was her superior – and decided that if a father figure came into the room, the boy might change out of the Frankie personality. He was right. Eric dropped down and cowered in his chair as Mark sat down next to CJ.

He looked Eric in the eye. “We have a doctor here to see you. His name is Liam, and he’ll talk to you soon. We want to find Jonathan. I need you to tell us where to look. Can you do that?”

“Yessir. No problem, Sir.”

CJ looked at Mark and then back at Eric. The accent had changed. “What is your name?”

“I’m Charles, Ma’am. How can I help?”

“We’re trying to find out where Jonathan Hess is. Where should we look, Charles?”

“At that ol’ house in Torrance. They tore it down about three years ago, but the stench is still there.”

“Stench…?” CJ probed.

“He killed Jonathan. Eric saw it. We try to help Eric, y’see…to show him why his brother was killed so maybe he could make some damn sense of it all. That’s why Frankie put those kids down…to show Eric why it had to happen to his kid brother. Eric has to understand why.”

Mark sat back quietly – his presence being the only thing required of him at this point – and let his top agent do her job. He may have looked relaxed as he slouched a little in his chair, but it was all for Eric’s benefit. The best chance of getting Eric to cooperate was to keep him calm, but Mark was ready to pounce at a moment’s notice.

CJ shifted in her chair before she proceeded with caution. “Do you know who murdered Jonathan Hess?”

“Eric saw it, so I saw it too.”

CJ nodded. “Who was it, Charles?”

“Frank Hess. He was always beatin’ those kids. Eric tried to stand up to him once and got a cracked jaw for his trouble. One night, Frank was drinkin’ real hard…he did that a lot…and he took to beatin’ Jonathan. They boy was out cold and…and Frank started hacking at him with a knife. Maybe he thought the boy was already dead or somethin’. He sure was a few minutes later. Eric saw that, but Frank didn’t see him watchin’. That scared kid saw his father choppin’ his brother in pieces and baggin’ him up. The man was in a mighty rage. I think he buried the boy in the yard. Like I said, the stench is still there.” The Charles personality pushed his sleeves up then crossed his arms over his chest.

That’s when CJ saw the white bandage with three, small bloody marks seeping through it. “What happened to your arm?”

Eric tugged the sleeves back down and didn’t answer, but he didn’t need to. CJ could see the tail ends of the gashes peeking out from under the wrappings. She sighed internally and didn’t want to push her luck at this point. He was talking, and she wanted to keep it that way for as long as possible.

“We went to the house a week ago, Ric…Charles. There’s a new family living there now.”

“I’m sure, but I’m talkin’ about the house they moved to while their roof was gettin’ replaced. They moved three doors down for more than a month. Frank had a friend who was outta town so they stayed there free of charge. They never did get rid of the stench at that house…probably why they pulled it down eventually. That’s where you’ll find it.”

“What will I find?”

“The boy. He’s there…”

“Charles, what happened to the eyes of the other children?”

“Oh, you ain’t findin’ them…”

CJ observed him closely and noticed the Charles personality was fading. “Charles, stay with me for a minute.”

“Not a chance, lady. You’re asking the wrong questions. He won’t be telling you shit!” Frankie was back, and both CJ and Mark knew it immediately.

“Calm down, Frankie. We’ve heard enough for now.”

“You’re damn right you have. Oh, and the eyes are gone. Those kids never have to see the evil in this fucking world again.”

CJ stood, and Mark followed, but when he did the killer shied away from the table. Just the action of the assistant director rising to leave brought the scared and seemingly helpless Ricki personality to the fore again.

“Leave me alone. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t see it.”

CJ held up her hand. “It’s over for now, Ricki?” When he nodded, she sighed. “The doctor will come talk to you soon. Sit tight.”

As they walked out the door, another agent came in to stand with Eric. When the went into the observation room to meet with Liam Martin, they saw that Eric was rocking back and forth once more. He was a very disturbed young man, and CJ worried that he might not be fit to stand trial.

.

Chapter 9

Kate had enjoyed a relaxed evening with her children, and now that they slept peacefully in their beds she headed to the kitchen to make herself a treat.

“Hmm, a latte with cream on top, I think.”

Kamali seemed to agree, and she patted his big, black head as she walked through the living room. She had become highly sensitive to any unusual noises in the house and suspected it was because of her mother’s parting, and hopefully, empty threat. She was so glad to have the dog there. Kamali would hear any suspicious noises before she would, and the dog knew exactly when CJ was coming in and when someone else was outside the house. He was a great and loyal companion.

Her mind drifted to thoughts of CJ as she powered up the coffee machine. She hadn’t heard from her wife since last night and was trying to teach herself not to worry every time CJ had a killer to catch. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop worrying about her,” she mumbled as she collected her mug from the dishwasher. When she put it on the counter, her cell phone rang somewhere in the living room and she rushed through the double doors to find it. Seeing CJ’s office number on the display made her mouth curl into a small smile. It grew until she realized she hadn’t smiled so widely in days.

She pressed the answer button and tried to contain her exuberance. “Hey, you!”

“Hi, Katie. May I beg your forgiveness?”

“What for, honey?”

“We haven’t spoken since yesterday.”

“I know, but you don’t need to beg for anything, CJ. I know you’re up to your ears in work right now.”

“I miss you.”

CJ sounded so melancholy that Kate felt her heart expand in her need to comfort her wife. “I miss you too. The girls can’t wait to see you.”

“I don’t feel like a very good mom right now…or partner, for that matter.”

“CJ, stop this. You are the most amazing spouse and mother, and you work damn hard too. Remember how I told you to stop beating yourself up?”

“Yeah, yeah. So how are you, Katie?”

“I’m OK. Things have been weird this past week, but I’m doing fine. Just get home to us as soon as you can. I need to hold you.”

“I will. It should be soon since we caught the killer today.”

Kate’s eyebrows curled. “You caught him already?”

“Yeah. He’s in with the shrink right now. He’s really screwed up.”

“He would have to be to do what he was doing, honey.”

“True, true. Anyway, I’m gonna get the rest of this paperwork done and go meet the doc when he gets out. I should have a few days off soon, so I’ll see you when I see you?”

“Yes. CJ, I’m…I’m really proud of you. You guys do good work.” Kate knew CJ would be berating herself for not catching the killer quicker.

“Thanks, Katie. Talk soon. I love you.”

“Love you too. Bye, CJ.”

“Bye.”

Kate sighed when she hung up the call. She could only imagine the torture CJ was putting herself through. CJ may be hard on the criminals she dealt with, but she was hardest on herself, and Kate resolved to make sure her wife knew how amazing she was just as soon as they had some time to spend together.

* * * * * *

It was almost ten o’clock when CJ had the presence of mind to stop and wonder where the day had gone. As she sat at her desk typing updates onto her case file, the time she’d spent with Eric kept running around in her mind. She could only imagine what went on inside his head. It would be bad enough with one voice convincing him to kill, never mind at least four. She wondered how many other personalities Liam Martin would find. She had given him the video of her interview with Eric so that he could go in there with as much information as possible. Now she waited for his report. She didn’t have to wait long as he walked in the door a couple of minutes later with Mark.

Since Jamie and Mikey were out checking into the location of the house the Charles personality had spoken of, and Ethan had been sent home to his family, it was only the three of them left to go over the evaluation. Mark sat at Ethan’s desk, and offered Liam one of the other chairs which he declined. Instead, Liam perched on the corner of Jamie’s desk to avoid having his back to anyone. CJ and Mark waited for him to speak first.

“I’m glad you caught this guy,” Liam began.

CJ bit her lips. “That bad, huh?”

“He has the most complex Dissociative Identity Disorder I’ve seen in someone so young. I believe you witnessed four of the personalities?” When CJ and Mark both nodded, he continued. “During my session with him, I saw at least six. The Ricki personality seems to be the one that’s dominant, and he uses it to function on a daily basis. The Eric personality is the victim, and is closest to his true self which is why he’ll identify with his real name. He’s the victim of the abuse from his father, and the victim who witnessed the atrocity of his little brother being murdered. Ricki and Eric seem to merge into one another frequently.” Liam flicked through his papers. “Frankie…he seems to appear as a protector, but he’s also very violent which could explain why he has the father’s name…and it’s quite common for a yearning child victim to identify their abuser as a protector…”

“A type of Stockholm Syndrome?” CJ asked.

“Yes. In most cases, people suffering from Stockholm Syndrome come to identify with and even care for their captors in a desperate and usually unconscious act of self-preservation. It occurs in the most psychologically traumatic situations…kidnappings, extreme abuse, hostage situations…you must have dealt with this, Agent Carson?”

“I have, but most of the hostage situations I dealt with were pretty instantaneous. I didn’t come across any long-term hostages in my time as a negotiator.”

“Right, but still you’ll know that the effects of Stockholm Syndrome don’t end when the crisis ends. In most classic cases, victims continue to defend and even care about their captors. What I see with Eric is a variation on this, and his personalities make it a much more complicated case. Some of them seem to defend his father and some try to protect Eric from what he witnessed. There’s no doubt both those boys were severely beaten on a regular basis, and I absolutely believe Eric saw his father brutally murdering his little brother and possibly disposing of disemboweled remains. That type of incident is horrific for any child, or adult for that matter. Throw in a personality disorder and extreme physical and mental abuse, and you’ve got yourself a nightmare…a ticking time bomb.”

“Did you manage to pin down which of the personalities was dominant during the killing? I mean, it seems that Ricki was the one who was crying over the children, and perhaps both he and Eric were the ones I heard about at the boxing ring.”

Liam nodded at her. She had a decent grasp on what was going on inside Eric’s mind. “I got that too. After watching the recording of your session with him, I hoped the Charles personality would come out for me. He seems to want to explain why the others do what they do. He did suggest that there was a dark force in their midst. I wanted to find out who that dark force was so I pushed him…and Frankie appeared. He seemed to be sticking around this time. I wasn’t able to bring anyone else back out. That’s when I had to terminate the session and let the two agents posted outside take over. Eric was restrained and is now in lock-up under constant observation.”

“Did Frankie get violent?”

“He started to…threw the table across the room while screaming and shouting that he was going to do to me what he did to the children. I’ll be putting in my official report that he is the one who kills.”

Mark leaned forward and laid his arms on the desk. “What will happen to him now, Liam?”

“Well he’ll need further evaluation, but with the evidence in your case and the information I’ll be putting in my report, he’ll never be a free man again. He’s far too dangerous. I do believe he’ll be incarcerated in a secured medical facility, though. He shouldn’t be in a regular prison and certainly not in general population. He’s an extreme threat to himself and to everyone else. I’ll let you know when he’s fit to stand trial. As soon as I know, you’ll know.” Liam stood up to leave.

“Thank you, Liam,” CJ said, extending her hand.

“Thank you, CJ. Thank you all…for ending this, and for the way you handled Eric in your interview,” Liam replied while shaking the hand firmly.

Mark escorted him out, and CJ gazed at the pinboard as she processed all that she had heard. She only broke out of her thoughts when Jamie and Mikey dragged themselves back into the office a short while later.

“Hey, how did it go?”

Jamie slumped into her chair and kicked off her shoes. “The lot is still vacant, and lucky for us it’s locked up good. Six-foot fence and a chain on the gate…its private property under lock and key, so I requested a patrol car be posted on it tonight, and I’ve called for a priority warrant.”

“You requested a patrol car?” CJ asked with her signature eyebrow curl.

“Yeah. I got some friends in the LAPD too, ya know.”

“Uh-huh.” CJ was satisfied that she could go home for the night, and once she finished up today’s report she did just that.

* * * * * *

By the time CJ finally managed to leave the office, it was almost midnight. An hour later, she arrived home and locked away her Glock before checking the living room for Kate. She was nowhere to be found, and CJ grumbled to herself on her way upstairs. She found Kamali in his usual spot in between Shannon and Lucy’s bedrooms. She quietly looked in on her daughters before heading to the master suite. As she entered, she could smell the familiar aroma of Kate’s strawberry bubble bath and knew her spouse was soaking in the tub. She exhaled gustily at the normality of the situation – something she had been missing for the past couple of weeks – and uttered a gentle “Katie?” to alert her to her presence.

“In here, CJ.”

“I know. I just didn’t want to scare the crap out of you,” CJ said as she came around the door jamb.

“I heard you coming in, honey,” Kate smiled when she saw her bedraggled wife.

“Good ears…” CJ responded distractedly.

Kate grinned at the way CJ was looking at everything but her ears. “Do you want to join me or something?”

CJ continued to stare at her wife’s body and didn’t hear the question at first. She was mesmerized by Kate’s swollen breasts. “Hmm?”

“If you don’t stop that, you’ll drool into my bath. I said, do you want to join me?”

“Oh…yeah. Um, what happened to your…? I mean, they’ve gotten…”

“Jeez, CJ. I’m premenstrual, OK? Way to make a woman feel self-conscious.”

“No, no, I love it. I love you all the time and you know it. Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen you in so damn long.”

CJ shrugged, and Kate knew she was feeling the effects of their enforced separation. There was always a carnal hunger after they’d been apart for a while, and now was no different. She was just glad CJ was allowing herself to feel. It would be a primitive rejoining. Kate had always loved these times, and as much as she was stressed out by other people in her life – and she knew CJ was too – she also knew they would have quite a night. The thought of that raised her temperature a few degrees and the blood rushed to all sorts of places in response. She hadn’t touched herself in her wife’s absence, and she knew CJ wouldn’t have either. By the looks of the dark eyebrows that now crawled up CJ’s forehead, the hardening of Kate’s nipples was rather obvious.

Kate inhaled slowly to exaggerate the effects to her entranced spouse. “Get in here,” she purred.

CJ instantly noted the deepening of Kate’s voice and locked eyes with her soul mate. Without a word, she undressed, feeling the green orbs watching her every move. As she swayed slowly toward the tub, her breaths shortened and her pupils dilated but then her expression changed, and Kate looked at her with concern.

“What’s wrong?”

CJ pouted. “I need to pee.”

She didn’t expect Kate to howl with laughter. As Kate slid under the water as she lost control, she watched the bubbles explode through the white, strawberry froth as her wife continued to laugh. She had to smile herself. It was pretty funny, and she realized they had both needed this: not just to connect but to make one another laugh, to release the tension they each felt.

As Kate resurfaced, CJ put her hands on her hips. “Are you quite finished?”

“Pah! Yes!” Kate wiped her face down to remove the bubbles. “You always do that just before you come into the bath and usually when you’re in the middle of your sexy swagger approach…” She started laughing again as CJ headed to the toilet.

“Yeah, well, me and my bladder…we like to keep you amused.”

“I love you, CJ…even when you’re peeing.”

CJ had to chuckle as she sat down. “Uh-huh. I love you too.”

* * * * * *

CJ was now in one of her favorite places, molded in behind her beloved in a warm bath with her arms tightly wound around Kate’s body. Kate ran her fingertips softly up and down CJ’s arm, and both seemed to know that few words needed to be said tonight. They were both quiet. There was too much to talk about, and now was not the time. CJ didn’t dare move the arm being caressed, but the other hand was hovering over Kate’s full breast, the fingers teasingly circling the nipple. Kate knew the next few hours would be filled with soothing touches, sensual looks, soulful love-making, and plenty of satisfaction. Her body was on high alert, and the simplest of contact was driving her insane.

As if reading Kate’s mind, CJ decided it was time to get out of the tub. Every move she made was intensified by their highly sensitive bodies. Kate rose with her, and they washed one another sensually. With her hand slowly massaging CJ’s intimate mound, Kate breathed close to her chin, taking the skin into her mouth when CJ gasped out her pleasure. Kate slipped her hand lower and made sure to wash between the soft folds carefully…and thoroughly. CJ couldn’t wait another second. She climaxed, curling her body over Kate’s and biting into the convenient, creamy shoulder still damp with warm water. Kate gulped and sunk her teeth into CJ’s neck in response.

CJ whimpered and tried to regain her control. “Damn it…you barely touched me.”

Kate smiled seductively. “If you don’t wash me soon, I may come before you touch me.”

CJ didn’t even look for the soap. She had much better way of washing her wife. “I’ll get started on that…with my tongue.”

“Mmm…”

Since the water in the tub had almost drained away, CJ decided this would be a quick but irresistible orgasm for Kate, just to take the edge off. Once they headed to bed, she wasn’t letting Kate sleep for at least an hour. She crouched down and slipped her tongue into a very cute belly button. Her teeth nipped at the surrounding skin while her hand pushed Kate’s leg upward. Kate took the hint and rested her foot on the side of the bathtub, opening up to give CJ great access. The mere action sent Kate’s aroused flesh into a frenzy, and when CJ sunk the tip of her tongue under her clit and gently pulled it upward, the cry from Kate came straight from her soul.

She held onto CJ’s head as she manipulated the supple ridge in perfect synchronicity with Kate’s body movement. Kate couldn’t help the thrusting of her hips, and as she tilted the exposed flesh toward CJ and moved her leg back further, it opened her up even more. CJ curled her tongue and plunged it inside her wife, and as she did so she brought her hands up to manipulate the soft buttocks and hold Kate in place. She continued to thrust even as she felt the velvety walls tighten around her muscle and made sure her nose grazed over the moist, swelling clit at the same time. She opened her eyes as Kate gripped at the dark head in her hands and pressed CJ’s face into her. CJ loved this. She loved Kate in the throes of her orgasm. There was nothing but the two of them, so vulnerable yet so protected by one another.

As Kate recovered, she absently scratched through CJ’s hair. “Oh. You can…ah…stop now.”

“I non’ wandoo…”

Kate grinned as her breathing slowed to normal. “I know you don’t want to, but…I have plans for you in bed.”

CJ disengaged her mouth and stood up making sure to keep their bodies connected as she did so. Her breasts slowly trailed over Kate’s and came to rest just above them. “Then let’s get into bed…”

The husky voice made Kate’s eyes widen, and a smile quirked at the side of her mouth. About four minutes later, they were in bed in that same position, only horizontally. Kate ducked her head slightly to place a soft kiss on the swell of CJ’s breast, and CJ pressed her lips onto Kate’s head at the same time. Within both of them was the desire to make love, but they knew it would happen without thought, without expectation, when it was supposed to. The anticipation itself increased their heart rates.

A few long, lazy moments later, Kate elevated herself on her elbow. She looked at CJ who smiled lovingly at her. She straddled CJ’s thighs and began to stroke the lithe body beneath her. CJ closed her eyes and concentrated on the skilled hands as they touched her in all the right places. Her skin was aflame, and her body buzzed. She could feel the soft yet wiry hair at Kate’s center as it moved with her body…a body that was now heading toward CJ’s face.

Blue eyes opened and looked down. The low light behind Kate shone through the tiny gap between them and highlighted Kate’s engorged clit as it tickled over CJ’s skin.

“Oh, yeah…” CJ was suddenly short of breath.

Kate was caressing her with her sex, and when the salt-sweet flesh came to rest on CJ’s breast she thought she might have a heart attack as a slow rocking movement began.

Kate looked over her prey and felt the area between her legs burn fiercely. CJ had that look in her eyes, and her mouth was open in an attempt to draw more air into her lungs. Kate sensually moved so that the tip of her clit was only just touching her lover’s nipple, resulting in a gasp from both of them. CJ’s raised her arms above her head to give Kate complete access to her body.

“Do it…” CJ husked.

Kate licked her lips and began to thrust back and forth over the eager flesh. The bud hardened, and there was no holding back the moans of pleasure from both pf them. Kate threw her head back as the sensations shot through her, but CJ watched with sheer unadulterated joy as the delicious clit rode her breast right in front of her face.

“Oh, God, yes…” CJ felt a flood of wetness between her legs and would never tire of the way Kate could arouse her to a point of utter madness.

Kate was thrusting harder now, and when she shuffled her knees up onto the pillow and held onto the head of the bed, CJ’s mouth filled with saliva. “Ciara…I…your mouth.”

CJ glanced down and decided she more than wanted to grant the request. A pink, wet, alluring, hypnotic, and highly addictive part of her wife’s body was a mere inch from her face. It was impossible to resist, and she wrapped her lips around Kate and suckled…gently at first, but after the third “Yes!” from the feisty blonde she suckled harder, bringing her tongue into play and rubbing the tip vigorously over Kate’s clit. CJ raised her hands higher and covered Kate’s. Kate released her grip and took CJ’s hands, interlacing their fingers together. CJ watched in a trance as the body above her swayed and gyrated, riding her with wild abandon. She knew she was going to climax soon and wondered if she would get there before Kate did. That thought was fleeting as Kate tried to stifle a scream, and her body stiffened as her climax took hold.

“Oh. Y-yes!”

CJ drank it in. The nectar flowing from Kate ran straight into her mouth. She extended her tongue just to make sure she didn’t miss any and teased the warm entrance as she did so. Kate’s body reacted and another spasm flowed through her. The feelings passing between them were so overwhelming that CJ shed a tear of gratitude. Kate’s second orgasm came to an end, and she finally collapsed in her exhaustion, but not before slithering down CJ’s body to rest her head on her upper chest. CJ’s long arms wrapped her up securely as she shook in the aftermath.

Kate nibbled on the soft skin on CJ’s collarbone as she swallowed repeatedly to try to produce some of the saliva she’d lost from breathing so hard and fast. “That…wow.”

CJ snickered. “Yes. Yes it was.”

“I…I need to make you come like that.”

“You already do, Katie.”

“And I will again,” Kate said as she rose up once more. “What do…?”

CJ chuckled at her inability to finish her sentence. “What would I like?” She watched as Kate nodded while she kissed the nipple she had been using earlier. CJ shivered at the memory. “I want you inside me. The rest is your choice.” The lips on CJ’s body were fueling her desire, and she was already on the brink of climax after watching Kate’s erotic display.

Kate nudged CJ’s legs apart and wrapped her thighs around one of CJ’s. Now with a slight shift, she could join her most intimate area with her lover’s and still have her hand free to grant her request. As she pushed herself against CJ she found her opening and let two fingers sink inside the wetness.

“More…” CJ panted.

Adding another two fingers, Kate began moving her clit across CJ’s in a gentle stroking movement. She was feeling insatiable and wanted them to come together this time. Her four fingers barely had to move as their bodies nudged the hand, doing all the hard work for them. CJ could feel her excitement building already and grabbed Kate’s curvaceous derriere, squeezing it between her strong fingers. Kate was amazed to find she was becoming aroused already.

“Ciara…”

CJ sensed Kate wanted something, but she wasn’t any condition to give it to her right now. She pawed at her even more, her fingertips gently traversing the space between Kate’s buttocks. The resulting squeak was definitely a sound of acceptance, and she did it again, sinking her hand further to find the base of Kate’s clit. She could feel them moving against one another, and it sent her over the edge. As her climax exploded through her, she entered Kate and pumped her fingers in time with the thrusts inside her own body. The unexpected internal and the most delicious external stimuli brought Kate to orgasm just after her.

Kate’s four fingers were trapped in the grip of strong, warm muscles, and the pulsations she felt mirrored her own. She managed a smile at the thought they even did that at the same time. CJ’s fingers moved slower and eventually stilled. Kate looked at her, and they both withdrew at the same moment. Sweat covered both bodies, making it easy to slide together in a binding bear hug. Kate ended up on top of her tall wife, and they rested together in the afterglow, their hearts beating as one, their breaths the only sound, and both of them knowing the night was far from over.

.

Chapter 10

At six thirty the next morning, CJ left for work after kissing a very sleepy Kate on the forehead. Kate had a lie in for another hour, but CJ wasn’t so lucky. She had to finalize the Hess report and go out to the site in Torrance. She really hoped the warrant came through early and swore to herself she would close the cold case and find Jonathan Hess.

As she drove to the office, thoughts of the night before entered her mind. She smiled as her body remembered the sensations and gave a little shudder. She had missed Kate more than she had realized and couldn’t wait for time off to spend with her family. She knew there were still some discussions to be had. Kate would force her to talk about the case. That woman was better at drawing her out than any therapist CJ had ever known. Then there was the stuff going on in Kate’s life that she hadn’t shared…well, it seemed she had shared it with Sam, but CJ wanted to know everything. She wasn’t sure why it pissed her off that Kate couldn’t come to her.

“Am I really so selfish? I’m not the only person in her life. Jamie was right, but still, I want to be there for Kate…in everything.”

She quit talking to no one, and as she waited at a stop light something colorful in the door pocket caught her eye. She reached down to feel the item and pulled out one of Lucy’s toys. It was a fluffy Nemo, and just remembering Lucy stiffing it down there made CJ smile. When the light changed, her face fell as she realized she hadn’t had any time with the girls since last week.

“OK. Get today done, go see Mark, and get the hell outta there as early as possible.”

When she reached her office Jamie was already in, and just as CJ sat down she waved a piece of paper at her.

“Nuh-uh. No rest for you. I’ve got the warrant, and I’ve been waiting for a partner, so let’s go. The CSU are on their way, and the ground-penetrating radar should be at the site in about…” She looked at the clock high up on the wall. “Forty-five minutes.”

“I don’t have time for coffee?” CJ scowled.

“I’ll get you one on the way…the good stuff.”

That did the trick. Once on her feet, CJ snagged the camera and noticed that Jamie already had their crime scene bag of tricks just in case they needed it. She yawned and smacked her lips as she approached Jamie. “Do we need anything else?”

“Just your good self, DM. Let’s go.”

As they drove to the scene – after stopping for the really good coffees – CJ decided to check up on how Jamie had coped with this case. “How’ve you been, Penfold?”

Jamie knew what she was referring to. “I’m OK…had a few dubious moments at home and cried it out a few times, but Sam helped me through it.”

CJ sighed. “I’ve barely been home to let Kate help me through it. And you were right the other day. She does have other people in her life. I’m glad she has Sam.”

“She does, and what you have to do is let it out. The difference between me and you is that I’ll go to Sam or chat on the phone and let out a stream of curses or just grumble my head off while crying at her. She just puts up with me and listens.”

“But even if I could do that…and I’m not saying I could during a case…Kate has a ton of stuff on her mind right now, and I don’t want to add to that.”

“Well you have a point, but DM, let her reach out to others. You don’t have to carry everyone.”

“I just have to learn not to be a possessive pain in the ass.”

“But then you wouldn’t be you…” Jamie chanced.

“Aww, I’m not that bad, am I?”

“Of course you’re not. CJ, you’re not possessive, you’re protective. There’s a difference.”

“So you’re the relationship guru now?”

“Hah!” Jamie almost snorted her coffee down her nostril. “Definitely not. I just know you.”

“Hmm. OK, we’re here…” CJ slowed the car to a halt at the padlocked gates and looked around the vacant lot. With that eerie feeling hovering around her again, she got out of the car and wished once again that they could put this case to rest, but if they found Jonathan’s remains here, the manhunt would be on for Frank Hess.

They couldn’t find any trace of the man’s existence for the last four years, his last known address being the house only a few yards from where they stood now. He had vanished, and CJ hoped he hadn’t felt the sweet release of death. She wanted to stand face to face with the animal who could murder his own son. If that had indeed happened, she was going to find irrefutable proof and make sure he got what he deserved.

* * * * * *

Tony finished drying off the Mercedes. He had gotten to the Carson house early and figured the car could use a quick hose down. As he bent over to buff the chrome around the headlight, he heard a familiar voice behind him and turned to see one of his best friends coming down the steps from the front porch.

“Tony!”

“Hey, Shannon. How’s your hand today?”

Shannon knew he was referring to the palm she had grazed in the school yard yesterday, and she had to look at it just to check it was still there. “It’s better. I can’t even feel it anymore. Mama put some special lotion on it after my bath last night.”

“Great.” Tony lifted Shannon onto the hood of the car. “I’m just gonna finish cleaning this light, so you sit here and wait for…oh, there she is.”

Kate shouted goodbye to Alice and closed the front door behind her. “Are you guys ready to go?”

“Yes, Mama, look. Tony cleaned the car!”

“Wow. So he did.” Kate helped her back onto her feet. “Thanks, Tony. It looks great.”

“I had a few spare minutes. Good morning, Kate.”

“Morning. The usual run today, but remember Shannon finishes at two this afternoon for summer break.”

“I’ll remember.” Tony opened both car doors and laughed as Kate rolled her eyes at him.

Shannon got in the back, and Tony reached in to help her buckle up. Once their journey was underway, Shannon began a singing contest which she inevitably won since Tony was too busy driving and Kate wasn’t the best at holding a tune.

After Shannon was safely in school, Kate thought it necessary to speak with Tony about recent events. “I wanted to tell you about Elizabeth’s visit…”

“OK.”

“You already know how she is. You saw it before, but this time she threatened us. It may have been an empty threat, but I want you to keep an extra sharp eye on the girls, especially Shannon since she has to go back and forth to school.”

“You really think your mothe-I mean, Elizabeth would harm them?”

“Probably not, but I know she would harm me…and CJ. If she thinks she can do that by going through them, she might try it. I wouldn’t put anything past her and her money,” Kate said with a sneer.

“What exactly happened this time?”

“Well…”

“Sorry, Kate. You don’t have to tell me,” Tony said regrettably.

“No. You should know about this. You’re one of the few people I trust, Tony.”

“I won’t betray that trust, Kate.”

“I know,” she sighed. “Elizabeth told me she was dying, but it was a lie to try to make me conform to her ideals.”

“Wow. No way…”

“Yes way. I’ll never understand her hatred, and that’s why I want you to be extra careful. I hope that’s not asking too much.”

“Oh, goodness no. I love your family, Kate. I’ll watch over them like a hawk,” Tony said, keeping his eyes firmly on the road.

“Thank you. We love you too.” Kate turned to see a bashful smile on Tony’s face and couldn’t help but grin at how sweet the man was. She was so lucky to have found him all those years ago, but her grin was soon wiped off her face when they arrived at the studio gates. She felt her jaws grind together before she even got inside the damn place.

* * * * * *

The team was halfway through the underground search in the vacant lot. CJ watched the radar as it moved across the dirt at a snail’s pace. Jamie was standing next to her cataloging potential evidence they had bagged from the area, and CJ nudged her gently with her elbow.

“This place feels creepy.”

“You think?”

“Yeah. I think we’re gonna find Jonathan.”

Jamie looked up from her task. “Gut feeling…?”

CJ nodded and turned around to pick up another sealed evidence bag from the tailgate of their black SUV. She started to fill out the description on the front when someone shouted “We’ve got something!” Once they’d locked up the car, both agents headed over to look at the view screen. CJ saw the rough outline of a human torso and head, but her stomach reeled when no other parts were revealed. She turned to Sid, the experienced ground-penetrating radar operator.

“Is that what I think it is?”

“Looks like a small, partial body,” Sid said morosely.

The rest of CJ’s crime scene agents had gathered close by, and she instructed them to start excavating the area. Jamie marked the perimeter with numbered flags, and Sid continued his search.  CJ knew they wouldn’t be stopping now until they had scanned the entire lot. It seemed they had missing limbs to locate.

* * * * * *

CJ was torn. She was anticipating a conclusion to the Jonathan Hess case, but at the same time she wanted to cry her heart out. Watching her team meticulously excavating the earth in what had turned out to be a rather shallow grave was tormenting her. With a blank, emotionless stare – a look born of years of attending many gruesome incidents – she identified the curved struts and metal bands of a wooden barrel. The interview with Eric replayed in her mind, and she knew the body inside was going to be that of six-year-old Jonathan Hess.

Her deliberations were interrupted by a voice in another corner of the lot. She turned to see Jamie heading toward the small group of agents who’d gathered there. When she got close to Jamie, she tapped her on the shoulder.

“Agent Green, what do we have?”

“Two, uh, limbs,” Jamie answered with a pained look on her face.

“Arms or legs?”

“One of each…”

CJ frowned. “How the hell did they get all the way over here?”

Jamie signaled her away from the others. Once both women had a little privacy, Jamie leaned her shoulder against CJ’s and whispered. “They appear to have been gnawed at.”

“Please tell me they’re animal teeth marks?”

“Looks like it. Explains why they’re some distance from the body…”

“Jesus.” Just when CJ thought it couldn’t get any worse, Agent Gilmour waved her over to the initial location. “Stay here and oversee this one, will ya?”

“No problem, Agent Carson.”

As CJ took long strides over the rough ground, her cell phone rang in her pocket. “Carson.”

“CJ, it’s Mark. Any news?”

“Sir, I’ll have more info for you in about three minutes. We’ve found remains, but I’m about to get an update from Special Agent Gilmour. Can I call you back?”

“Sure thing, CJ. I’ll let the DD know.”

Once she hung up the call, she stood next to Gilmour whose brow had been permanently knitted together since he’d arrived at the scene. What you got?”

“I’ve managed to look inside the barrel, but they’re still digging it out. There’s a child’s body in there, tied inside a black, partially-ripped garbage bag. At first glance, it seems like the limbs have been severed in order to fit the remains inside the bag, and the cuts are messy. Looks like the neck is broken too…”

CJ wanted to throw up. “I can’t believe this monster got away with this all these years. Why did nobody look into the disappearances further?”

“I…well, I…”

“Sorry, Gilmour. I’m just thinkin’ out loud.” CJ walked away when she saw the medical examiner entering the lot. “Belzano!”

“Agent Carson. I was told you found a body Where do you need me?”

“To be honest, we need to get the remains back to the morgue. We’ll need a ton of tests to identify them. So far, we have the head and torso, and two severed limbs. If the information we have is correct, this kid was killed by his own father. It’s so…”

When she didn’t say anything more, Victor nodded. “It does sound incredibly brutal. I’ll go and see what I can do here, and then order the remains moved to my office as soon as possible.”

“Thanks, Belzano. They almost have the barrel freed now,” CJ said, rubbing her forehead.

“Barrel?”

“Yes. Go see for yourself.”

As Victor walked away, CJ hoped this was the end of the horrifying massacre this case had become. I need to sleep for a week…without nightmares. She shook her head at that thought. She knew it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.

* * * * * *

Tony got out of the car and waited at the gates in front of Shannon’s school. When he saw her skipping out the door, he waved. The smile he got in response was all the reward he would ever need for doing his job. “Hi, Tony.”

“Hey, Shannon. How was school?”

“It was good. My friend, Sian, and I did a project together,” she replied while taking his hand.

“Was it an art project?”

“No. It was a sciii…science project.”

“Wow. Science, huh? What did you have to do?”

Shannon climbed into the car when Tony opened the door for her and waited while he helped her with her seatbelt. “Well…we were all doing stuff with water.” She paused while Tony got into the car and secured the door locks. “And some kids were putting water in a beaker, and then they put a piece of cardboard on the top and turned the beaker upside down and let the cardboard go. Guess what happened?”

Tony knew what would happen, but he loved that Shannon was always so excited to tell him stuff after school. “Um, the water spilled all over the place?”

“No!” Shannon said with a chuckle. “The piece of cardboard stuck ‘cause the water held it in like magic!”

“Wow! So what experiment did you do with Sian?” As Tony drove off he scanned the area for anything suspicious and found nothing out of the ordinary.

“Experiment?”

“Yes. The projects you were doing today are called experiments.”

“Oh, that’s right. The teacher said that. We were trying to make an egg float in water.”

“But isn’t the egg too heavy for that?” Tony said knowingly as he signaled for the freeway.

“Yes! But we did it. We added lots of salt to a beaker that was half full of water. Then we added normal water really slowly and filled the beaker right up!”

“And…?”

“And then the teacher told us to put the egg in the water very carefully.” Shannon paused to take a sip from her carton of fruit juice. “And we did, and the egg didn’t fall right to the bottom. It went half way down and just stayed in the middle. It floated!”

“Amazing. Well done, Shan.”

Shannon continued to chatter excitedly for the rest of their journey. She didn’t even notice they were headed to the studios to pick Kate up from work. Kate had called Tony to tell him she was finishing early, and she had sounded pretty darn happy about it too.

* * * * * *

As soon as CJ parked up the SUV, Jamie got out and headed straight to the morgue. CJ grabbed their gear and trundled into the elevator. She dumped the bags in her office and grunted a hello to a few agents as she walked the corridors, her feet finally landing at Mark’s door.

“Come in.” He shouted after her knock. When she entered and sat in the chair across from him, he finished signing whatever he was signing and looked up with a crooked, sympathetic smile. “You look like shit, CJ.”

“Thanks, Mark.”

“What’s that in your hair?”

CJ reached up to where he pointed and found a tiny twig with a leaf on the end. “I’ve been on that stinking lot all day. Some of it had serious undergrowth. I’d have thought very Special Agent Green wouldn’t let me drive all the way back with this sticking outta my head though.”

Mark held back his grin at her tone. Even after a grueling day in the field, her love for her colleague shone through in her teasing words. He knew that was one of the things that kept them all going: they cared about one another. “So, what do we have?”

CJ took her notebook from her pocket and placed it on the desk. “You can find it in there. I can’t talk about it anymore today. Please don’t make me.”

Mark didn’t make her describe what they’d found, but he didn’t let her leave either. He read from the book, occasionally squinting at the scribbled handwriting and grimacing at the descriptive details of the remains. “Is Belzano back?”

“Yeah. Jamie went down to see him. I hope he can ID the body. Maybe we can finally lay the poor boy to rest.”

“The information we got from Eric suggests this is his brother. That personality…Frankie, was it?” When CJ nodded, Mark could see the distance in her eyes. “He seemed to know exactly where to look. Is it possible that he put him there?”

“Eric Hess has pretty much lived up to the profile I created, Mark. Everything fits that the father killed this one. Eric and his personalities are a result of that event…in my opinion.”

“And in Liam Martin’s opinion too. He concurs with your findings. What do we know about Frank Hess?”

“Not a lot. Cops are still canvassing the area surrounding the lot. According to Mikey, Frank Hess disappeared off the face of the earth four years ago…no record of his death either.”

“So he’s on the run?”

CJ gave a nod. “Or hiding in plain sight. He might just have changed his name or stolen someone’s identity. I’d like to keep on it when other things don’t take priority.”

“I don’t see that being a problem. I know it’s not exactly our remit but it’s connected to your case, and to be quite honest, nobody else seems to be looking for him. Keep that file open. I’ll clear it with the director.”

“Thank you, Mark.”

“Write up your report for today and go home, CJ. Even I can see you need to sleep.”

CJ’s shoulders slouched at the thought. “Sounds good. What time do you want me in tomorrow?”

“Well, I have Liam Martin’s full report. If you can finish yours today and liaise with Belzano, I don’t see why you can’t have a few days off,” Mark said, handing her notebook back to her.

“Not sure that’s fair, Mark. The others have worked just as hard. We all took shift twenty-four seven during this.”

“I know that, but Jamie and Mikey already approached me about letting you and Ethan go home to your families first. This isn’t some huge department where nobody cares about you, CJ. We take care of each other here. Now go finish your work and go home.”

CJ’s eyebrows crept upward. If she hadn’t felt so numb because of the case and everything they’d seen today, she might have cried. In all her time in the FBI she’d never had a team like this, and as much as the cases they faced were some of the most heinous she had ever come across, she knew they could continue to cope with them if they worked together like they did right now. “Thanks,” she whispered as she stood to leave.

“And CJ?”

“Yes?”

“Well done. You did good. Try not to beat yourself up about how long it took. Without your profile and hard work, I’m sure it would’ve taken longer.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Mark knew that last part fell on deaf ears. She would beat herself up no matter what he said. He had seen how this investigation had affected all of his agents, and he didn’t want any of them to suffer. This case had been particularly devastating, and he thought he may have to make a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing mandatory for all four of them. He noted in his diary to ask Liam for his professional opinion tomorrow.

* * * * * *

When CJ got back to her office, she found Ethan with his head down on the desktop. When she saw his eyes shut, she realized he was just as tired as she felt. She approached and nudged his elbow gently. “Ethan?”

“Shit, yeah?”

“Calm down, man. Why don’t you go home?”

Ethan rubbed his eyes. “What time is it?”

“Almost five thirty. Call up to Mark. He says we can all go once we finish up the reports for today, but just confirm it with him.”

“Thanks, CJ.”

“No worries. Hey, did Jamie come in here?”

“Don’t think so…haven’t seen her since this morning.”

“OK.” CJ left the office once more and headed to the morgue. There, she found her friend leaning against the wall talking with Victor as he finished up his examination on the arm they found earlier. Thankfully, the torso was covered up. “Hey, guys.”

“Hi, CJ. I was just waiting ‘til Victor was finished. He’s almost done,” Jamie said sadly.

“Agent Carson. How you holding up?” Victor said from behind his white mask.

“I’m fine, Victor. Any news?”

“Well as I told your esteemed colleague here, I took a DNA sample from the boy and sent it to the lab. They’ll compare it to the sample from Eric Hess. Maybe we’ll get a familial match. Then once I get hold of the dental records for Jonathan Hess, I can give you a definitive answer. I can give you a COD right now though.”

“Blunt force trauma to the head?” CJ said.

Victor looked up at her. “Are you psychic?”

“Just a lucky guess…”

“And your guess would be right. Blunt force trauma caused by a severe blow to the head, resulting in this poor boy bleeding into his brain. The amputations were postmortem…made with some haste and very little skill.”

“What about his neck?”

“Also postmortem.”

CJ heaved a sigh. “Could you send your completed report to Jamie once you’re done? I need to go home for a while.”

“No problem. I’ll send it to you as soon as I have the DNA results, Jamie,” Victor said as he waved them out.

“Thanks, Victor,” CJ shouted as the door closed.

In the elevator, both women were silent as the recent events caught up with them. Their minds were trying to slow down but it would take a little longer than an elevator ride, and it would also take some care and attention from two strong, loving partners.

Back at their office, CJ sat at her desk and stared at her computer screen for a while. She forgot what she was meant to be doing. “What a day,” she whispered to herself.

“Go home,” said a voice from her side.

CJ turned to see Jamie leaning down at her shoulder. “Not yet, Penfold. I need to type up this report.”

Jamie squeezed her arm. “All right…but then I’m throwing you out.”

“You won’t have to. I’ll be running out the door.” CJ smiled at her before she began to write up the days findings. She didn’t want to have to go over this again until it went to court. Her mind could only take so much horror at one time…and it was getting close to its limit now.

* * * * * *

As her blue Dodge Ram slipped effortlessly onto the freeway, CJ switched on the radio and listened to the ridiculously upbeat tones of the DJ. “And…for all you rock fans out there, here’s some Avenged Sevenfold. I tell ya, it’s a favorite of mine. It’s Seize the Day!”

As the song began to play, CJ’s eyebrow curled before her lip did. The frown gradually grew on her face as she listened to the lyrics.

“Seize the day, or die regretting the time you lost, it’s empty and cold without you here, too many people to ache over…”

CJ was unaware of her eyes beginning to mist up. “Avenged who?” she mumbled.

The rock star’s gravelly voice continued. “I see my vision burn, I feel my memories fade with time, but I’m too young to worry…”

CJ hurriedly wiped her eyes and concentrated on the road. The song was making her think of the children that were lost, and how once they were gone she could never bring them back. She tried to ignore the words that seemed to invoke her tears. It hadn’t occurred to her yet that she could just switch the radio off. Her mind drifted, and she began to see the images of the lifeless, innocent faces of the children in the morgue. The nightmarish image of Shannon flashed through her mind again, and her tears fell faster.

“Newborn life replacing all of us, changing this fable we live in. No longer needed here so where do we go? Will you take a journey tonight? Follow me past the walls of death, but girl, what if there is no eternal life?”

CJ snapped out of her thoughts and angrily turned the music off. “I’m so not in the mood for that!”

By the time she stopped in front of the ranch house, a deep frown was etched on her beautiful face. She slammed the truck door, and on her way up the porch steps she belatedly realized she was actually home. CJ was a little startled by how distracted she was, and before she walked through the door she made sure she didn’t look angry or irritated. The last thing she wanted to do was scare or upset the girls. Hidden from view, her mind was in turmoil. It felt like a thunderstorm inside her skull, and she knew a painkiller wouldn’t help.

“Hey, I’m home.” There was no response as she locked up her weapon and placed her jacket and holster on the hall table.

Moments later, Kate came through the open double doors. “Hi, hon. I thought I heard something.” She approached CJ and slid her arms around her waist. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Me too.” CJ’s eyes filled with tears again, and she held Kate close until turbulent emotions passed. She was feeling unsettled since she wanted to smile and be happy she was home, to laugh with her loved ones like a normal human being. But on the inside, she wanted to hide away from the world until the images and thoughts about the case vanished. She knew that would never happen, but she wasn’t sure how to push these ones into the background like she had done in the past. She felt she should be able to leave work behind immediately and was rather annoyed with herself that she couldn’t do it this time.

Kate could feel that something was wrong, and she squeezed CJ gently before she spoke. “What do you need, honey?”

“I just need you, Shannon, and Lucy. I just need to be home. Where are they anyway?” CJ asked to divert the attention away from the fact she was sniffing away her tears.

“They’re upstairs.”

“I’ll go say hello then come back down for a drink. I guess you guys had dinner, huh?”

“We did. I got home early today,” Kate said, stroking her wife’s cheek.

“Good. I’ll be right back.” CJ moved away abruptly, and Kate was concerned.

They had done so well this time to try to stay connected, but Kate worried that all the stress would catch up with CJ this time. Every case CJ dealt with was a horror, but this one seemed especially brutal, and Kate knew it would take some time to overcome…and it wasn’t really over yet. Cj had told her about Frank Hess. He was still out there somewhere.

She wandered into the kitchen and chose some peach tea from the cabinet. While she waited for the water to boil, she leaned her hip against the counter and bit her lips as she drifted away in her own troubled thoughts. She just didn’t know how to help CJ this time.

* * * * * *

CJ got to the top of the stairs and was expecting two pint-sized bear hugs from her daughters. She followed the vroom-vroom noises and found the girls in Lucy’s room playing on the floor with toy cars. “Hey, you two,” she said, making sure to smile as she entered.

“Mommy!” Lucy exclaimed and jumped up from the floor. Her dark curls bounced as she pranced across the room. “You home!”

“I sure am, Little One. I missed you guys.” CJ lifted her daughter and hugged her but didn’t fail to notice the lack of welcome from Shannon. “Shan?”

“Yes?” Shannon mumbled quietly while continuing to move the cars across the carpet.

“I’d really like a hug.” CJ put Lucy down and sat cross-legged beside Shannon. When Lucy lost her balance a little in her attempt to copy her parent, CJ assisted her with a steadying hand. “Well, can I have a hug, Shan?”

Shannon shook her head and her face was the picture of unhappiness…and a little stubbornness too. She almost looked up into her mommy’s eyes, but she forced her chin back down before she got that far.

CJ sighed. “I know I haven’t been around lately, but I had to work real hard. It was important, Shan. Please try to understand that.”

“Mama said you had to work hard, but you didn’t even come home to see us. When Daddy worked hard, he was home sometimes in his office.”

Those words stung, and CJ hid her pain since she knew Shannon wasn’t deliberate in her harshness. She took her daughter’s small chin in her hand and tilted her head to see tears in Shannon’s eyes. It broke her heart. “Come here, sweetie. I’m sorry we haven’t seen each other, but I did come home and I did look in on you. Thing is…you and Lucy were asleep because I came home so late,” she explained as Shannon begrudgingly allowed herself to be cradled in long arms. “But every time I was home I came into your room and kissed you goodnight.”

Shannon thought about it for a moment. “Why didn’t you wake me so I could kiss you back?”

“I would have loved that, but I thought it was better to let you get some rest. You girls are growing up so fast. It takes a lot of energy for your bodies to do that, and you need to sleep so you can end up as tall as me.”

“As tall as you?” Lucy squeaked while running a toy car up and down CJ’s thigh.

“You might just be…so sleep and good food and lots of love from me and Mama…you need all of those things.”

Shannon continued to ponder those words as she unconsciously surrendered to her mother’s embrace and snuggled deeper into CJ’s chest. “OK.”

“OK? Am I forgiven?” CJ asked as she pulled Shannon to her.

“Yes. I’m glad you’re home, Mommy.”

“Aw, Squirt, so am I.”

Nothing else was said between them. CJ and Shannon just sat there and watched Lucy as the energetic child explained what all the car’s names were and where they had to park. CJ tried to keep her mind focused on her daughters, but she wasn’t winning the fight. It scared her that she was so trapped in work this time. She couldn’t just file it away like the reports she did every day, and that just made her more frustrated. She felt she had to flee, but in the same micro-second she wanted to be with her family.

Space…I just need some space to think. What she didn’t realize is that was the last thing she needed.

* * * * * *

Forty hours had now passed since CJ had come home. A very distant FBI agent had gone to bed that night, and she had remained there ever since. When Kate came into the room CJ would either pretend to sleep or barely say a word. She only got up for necessary bathroom breaks or the occasional drink. Kate knew she hadn’t slept or eaten anything since yesterday morning.

CJ was wallowing in her work, and as much as she wanted to leave every memory of that case behind, she just didn’t seem able to focus yet. It was hurting her, it was hurting her family, and it was time to move on…but how?

God, I miss them, she mused, her thought reminding her how much her family had to put up with.

Just as she thought of Kate, she was sure she heard someone coming in the front door downstairs, and she suddenly realized just how much they would be missing her too. The world was moving on around her, and it was time to rejoin the land of the living.

Kate got home after another half day at work and greeted Alice and the children before heading toward the master suite. She found CJ in the same position as yesterday, and she recognized that the past couple of weeks had come crashing down on her taciturn spouse. CJ now had time to think about what had happened, and having that time seemed to be killing her.

Kate crouched down into her line of vision. When CJ’s bloodshot eyes met with hers, she tried to hold back her emotion. “Is it really worth it?” she asked quietly.

CJ nodded minutely. “Yes. I can suffer for two weeks if it means I can stop a killer.”

“But it’s not just two weeks, CJ. This will stay with you forever. I don’t want to see you completely destroyed one day because it all got to be too much.” Kate couldn’t stop the tears that stung her eyes.

“I promise I can cope,” CJ croaked. She couldn’t stand to see Kate cry so she opened her arms to her. “I feel better today. I just need to reconnect…to really connect with you and our daughters. I’m so sorry, Katie. I’ve never been like this before.”

“Don’t be sorry. I’m just worried about you.”

CJ sighed and held her precious partner in her arms. “I needed some time to process everything. Thank you for giving me that time. I know it musta been hard to see me like that.”

“It’s hard seeing you in any kind of pain. I really want you to share everything that happened…to share it with me.” Kate sniffed and wiped her eyes on CJ’s T-shirt.

CJ craned her neck to look at her. “I don’t know that I’ll be able to share absolutely everything with you, but I do know this zombie stage is over. I hate it and I miss you so much. That’s what I was just thinking when you came in. I miss you all. I know I’ve been home these past two days, but I don’t feel like I’ve been with you. My head’s been so fucked up, but that’s going to change as of right now.”

It was the most CJ had spoken since she had solved the case and come home, and Kate sat upright to gaze into the eyes she knew so well. “You’re so strong.”

“Only because I have you, Katie.” CJ leaned forward and kissed her tenderly. “Let’s get back to life, huh?”

Kate was so glad to see CJ like this. It was a definite improvement, but she would still have to figure out how to get her tough special agent wife to share what she was holding back. Kate wanted to support her in everything, including how she coped with the atrocities of her job with the Bureau. She knew it would take a little more time but they would talk about it. They had to.

* * * * * *

Lucy stood on top of two stacked bales of hay since it was the only way she could brush down Idaho’s back. Kate was right beside her tugging at a few knots in the horse’s mane. Shannon sat a few feet away in the middle of a pile of saddles and bridles. Her soaked sponge dripped over her bare knee as she brought it from the bucket to the leather.

“Oh, it’s cold!”

Kate chuckled at the rather surprised expression on her daughter’s face. “Make sure you squeeze it out a little more, Shan, then maybe you won’t soak yourself.”

A scuffle at the other end of the barn indicated that Kamali was having way too much fun playing a game of Tug O’War with a huge rope that hung from the hayloft. The occasional growl was heard, and his humans laughed when he became a little too exuberant and jumped up to a higher point on the rope to swing in mid-air suspended by strong, doggy teeth.

Unbeknownst to any of them, CJ was watching her family from the side of the large, wooden doors. The agent’s heart was pounding with love, and she felt a pang of guilt go through her at the thought of her recent abandonment. I’ll just have to make it up to them, she thought.

Nevada gave her away by whinnying and snorting at her. The big, golden mare was standing in her stall and was another member of the family who hadn’t seen CJ in a while. She smirked as she stepped inside. “Hey, everyone. Seems somebody’s missed me, huh?” she said, tipping her head toward the horse.

“We all did,” Kate replied with a hint of melancholy.

“Mommy! Look at Kamali. He’s stuck!”

CJ glanced at the dog who was still swinging in the breeze. “He’s not stuck, Shan. He’s just having fun.” Just as she said it, Kamali dropped to the ground and came bounding up to her. He stopped abruptly and sat down to wait for his greeting.

“Smart and handsome,” CJ praised as she scratched behind his ears. “So what’s my beautiful family up to? Oh, lots of cleaning…”

“We sure are,” Kate replied. “Want to help us?”  CJ sent her a look of such intense love that it made Kate want to reach out and grab her.

“I sure do. But where should I start?” CJ winked at Kate as two little voices came up with all kinds of suggestions, and at that moment she knew she would be just fine. She would always be fine with these three wonderful people in her life.

.

Chapter 11

It was CJ’s last day off, and she was happy she could spend it with her whole family. Kate only had a couple of days to work before she stopped filming for this season, and Shannon was off school now for the next few weeks.

CJ stretched and yawned widely. She had slept pretty well, considering. Kate had simply held her close which had probably helped in creating a more restful night.

Now, CJ looked to her right to find the most beautiful woman in her world breathing heavily in her slumber. She watched Kate for a few moments and appreciated everything about the view. But deeper than the glorious womanly body was this incredible soul whom she couldn’t live without. “How can I ever explain to you what it feels like to love you?” she whispered.

Kate whimpered in her sleep, and CJ smiled until a sudden warning from her bladder forced her to get up and rush into the bathroom. When she was done, she smirked at Kate’s change of position. She was now flat on her back with a very easy-to-remove sheet covering half her body. CJ peeked at the clock and saw it was only six thirty. She walked to the door and leaned her ear against it. All was quiet in the house, and it had been a very long time since she had given her wife a wake-up call.

The thought sent a jolt through her tall, slim body, and she crawled carefully onto the bed. She took in the way Kate’s hair curled around her neck and the delicate hand that sprawled against the pillow. CJ would always be in love with this woman, and it never ceased to thrill and amaze her. Cautiously pulling the sheet down, she inhaled deeply the scent of her beloved. Her heart skipped a beat when Kate whimpered again and moved her legs apart.

CJ froze. Was Kate already awake? Her question was answered when a moan and a gasp came from Kate’s parted lips, and CJ realized she was dreaming.

“Ciara…”

CJ responded even though she knew Kate was asleep. “I’m here, baby.”

“Mmm.”

CJ lowered her head and kissed Kate’s bare thigh. She knew Kate was already partially aroused due to the heady scent that greeted her nostrils. It lured her to soft, dark-blond curls, and she explored the tender flesh beneath. Finding Kate’s clit was easy, and CJ began to manipulate it slowly with the tip of her tongue. Kate gasped again, still caught up in her dream, and as she opened her legs further, CJ flattened her tongue and drew it from the base of her labia to the head of her clit, returning downward again in the same motion.

After a few of those blissful strokes, Kate opened her eyes. She was sure she was still in her dream because everything felt exactly as it should, except the early morning sun. It had been night in her dream. CJ’s mouth was really on her and she immediately felt her desire escalate.

“Oh, Ciara…”

CJ looked up and saw Kate now gazing back at her. She smiled but didn’t stop her most pleasurable of tasks. She circled her tongue around Kate’s delicious sex and noticed her breathing becoming shallower as she experienced the desire with her wife. She broke the contact for the tiniest of seconds. “I love you…”

“Oh…love…you too. Don’t stop.”

CJ delved deeper and entered Kate just a little. Kate dropped her head back onto the pillow and grasped at the sheets beneath her. Feeling the pulsing begin, CJ began batting her tongue up and down over the tip of the sensitive clit. She would stop every few motions and slide the muscle inside Kate before resuming the stimulation. It had the desired effect, and Kate’s orgasm took hold.

CJ curled her arms around Kate’s thighs to hold her in place as she bucked off the mattress and tried to writhe around as the intense feelings overwhelmed her senses. Once the orgasm abated, Kate relaxed onto the bed and breathed deeply. CJ kissed and gently licked at the Kate’s sex which made Kate react by closing her legs around her face. CJ giggled as Kate tightened her hold.

“I don’t…want you to stop,” Kate panted, releasing the very happy woman between her knees. “But you’re gonna have to. That was too much for my little clit to cope with.”

CJ grinned and crawled up to kiss her. “I don’t know about the little. It was pretty big just a minute ago.” She received a slap on the ass for that comment, but at least she made Kate laugh.

Kate was just glad to see the twinkle start to reappear in those cobalt eyes. “That was all your doing.”

“Mmm, I know. I love it.”

“I know the feeling.” Kate winked at her. “So what do I get to do next?”

“Not a damn thing. I’m going to go get you breakfast in bed…then I’ll get our wonderful daughters up and feed them.”

“And what about you?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll eat.” When Kate looked slyly at her, CJ rolled her eyes. “I meant food!” she added. She snagged her robe and left the room with Kate’s laughter ringing in her ears.

* * * * * *

They’d had a good afternoon. It had been spent out on their land, and for the most part, CJ had managed to push her work aside and concentrate on having some fun. At one point about an hour ago, Lucy had wandered off in search of squirrels with Kamali, and Kate had lost sight of her for a few seconds. Kate had definitely overreacted since CJ could still see Lucy over the top of the foliage. CJ had noticed Kate was a little jittery when they were out in the open space and wondered what was running through her wife’s mind.

They were all indoors by dinner time and had eaten the meal together for the first time in weeks. Two grubby children had been bathed, and at eight thirty they were put to bed with a story and a loving kiss from both parents. CJ and Kate found themselves back in the kitchen clearing up the aftermath of their feast. It was unusually quiet since both women had various things to think about, but CJ wanted to talk and broke the silence as she dried the mugs.

“So what’s been going on with you, Katie?”

Kate sighed and continued to collect up the plates as she thought about what to say. “Oh, this and that. Work isn’t great, but I’m not going to go on about it considering what you’ve just been through.”

“It doesn’t matter what my week has been like. I still want to hear what you’ve been doing…if that’s OK, I mean.”

Kate looked at her strangely. “Of course it’s OK.”

“So why didn’t you tell me Elizabeth was in town?” CJ suddenly probed.

There was no malice in the tone, but Kate wasn’t expecting the question and stumbled through her answer. “I didn’t…she’s…how did you know that?”

“Katie, you told Sam. Surely you knew she would be worried and tell Jamie which would mean it would eventually get to me?”

“No, I didn’t actually. I trusted Sam to shut up about it. I didn’t want to stress you out any more than you already were.”

“I think we need to do the sharing thing now. I need to know what’s been happening and what your mother did while she was here.”

“She’s not my-“

“OK,” CJ said, holding her hands up. “What did Elizabeth want, and what did she do while she was here?”

“I…she just came to see me. I didn’t want to tell you at the time because I could see what you were going through. She said…she…look, I just didn’t want to add to your stress!”

Kate’s voice was getting louder and more desperate, and CJ could see the trauma her wife had endured in those normally bright-green eyes. She quickly crossed the room before this turned into some sort of argument. That was the last thing she wanted. She took Kate by the shoulders and looked directly into the troubled face.

“Katie, nothing in this world can stress me out so much that you couldn’t come to me and tell me what’s hurting you. Don’t ever feel like you have to do it all on your own. I mean, look how I’ve just come to you when I needed you during this case. We support one another, and you shouldn’t ever feel like I can’t be there for you. I’ve failed you if that’s what you think.”

“Oh, CJ, don’t you ever say that. You have not and could never fail me. It was my fault for trying to keep it all to myself. I wanted to deal with it without adding to the huge amount of shit you were already drowning in. I’m…I’m sorry.”

CJ pulled her close. “Don’t apologize for trying to help me. Just don’t shut me out, no matter what. Come to my office and drag me to the restrooms if you need to, OK?”

Kate pushed back a little to meet CJ’s blue eyes. With a deep sigh, she nodded. “OK.”

“Good. Now let’s head up to bed early, and you can tell me everything,” CJ suggested.

“All right, but that means I want to know all about your case…even the stuff you think you can’t tell me.”

“But I don’t think-“

“Ah-ah-ah,” Kate interrupted, wagging her finger at CJ. “This works both ways. I tell you everything then you tell me everything. It’ll be better for both of us if we just get it out. Problems shared. Deal?”

CJ took in the sincere and now-brighter eyes, and the outstretched hand waiting to be shaken. She pursed her lips together, rolled her eyes, and grabbed the hand. “Deal.”

They switched on the dishwasher, let the dog out for a few minutes, then locked up the house and walked hand-in-hand up the stairs. Once they’d looked in on the girls and gave them an extra kiss goodnight, they went to their room and closed the door. CJ pulled on her tank top and a pair of soft boxer shorts, and Kate donned an old, oversized T-shirt belonging to CJ. They crawled under the sheets, plumped the pillows, and sat in bed leaning against one another to unload the strain of the past couple of weeks.

CJ turned to kiss the blond hair that was pressed against her cheek. “Tell me.”

“Oh…where to start?” Kate was a little worried about unburdening her load, especially the news about what Jack had been up to. She thought CJ might actually kill the guy. “Jack…Jack has been drunk a lot at work. He’s been coming on to me.” At the tension in the body next to her, Kate put a calming hand on CJ’s belly. “Let me finish. I have it under control now…I think…but he got very hands on, and I’ve told him if he comes near me again, I’ll report him. I don’t care if I lose my job.”

“Hands on?” CJ said, trying to reign in the anger in her voice.

“Yes. Basically, he assaulted me…not violently.” Kate cringed a little. She didn’t want to say that it bordered on sexual assault because she knew that would enrage CJ further, and she could already feel her tension. She also knew there was nothing they could do about it right now. She wished someone had seen it happen as that would have helped her decide what to do about it. “He forced a kiss, but I’ve handled it. Can you trust me on that?”

CJ glared at her for a second. “I…no…yes, I trust you. I’ll take your word for it this time, but you won’t be able to stop me if he touches you again.”

“I can live with that. And I promise I’ll come to you right away.”

“He didn’t hurt you, did he?”

“No, honey.”

CJ tried to relax her shoulders. She was ready to beat the crap out of Jack. “OK, I want to know more about that later. What happened with you mother? Strike that…with Elizabeth?”

Kate sighed heavily. “She told me she had terminal cancer-”

“Oh, Katie…” CJ gasped.

“No, wait. There’s more. She lied to me, CJ. It took me a few days to realize it was some sort of perverted attempt to get me to leave you and settle down with a…what was it? A nice man…and have some children.” Kate shifted her body to face CJ whose features were cast in a look of utter disbelief. She also seemed to be struck dumb. Kate continued while she soothingly rubbed her thumb over CJ’s knuckles. “I hope you’re not pissed at me, but I told her we already have children and that I don’t want any man. I already have the perfect life partner.”

CJ finally found her voice. “Pissed? I would never be pissed at you. No way…nu-uh. I’m still stuck on the fact that she lied about a terminal illness. I mean, of all the sick things to do…”

“I know. I was really hurt by everything. Then I got mad because she managed to fool me.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you were going through all this?”

“CJ, you know why! Your case was horrendous. I couldn’t be something that added to your burden. I just couldn’t-”

“Whoa,” CJ interrupted. “If there’s one thing you’ll never be to me, it’s a burden. You can share anything with me…anything!”

“I felt like I couldn’t. Maybe it was partly me trying to help you by not adding to your stress, but it was also the fact that we never saw one another. And before you say anything, it’s not your fault. It’s just the way our jobs and our lives work sometimes…thankfully, not often.”

“Ya got that right. Sheesh…” CJ was feeling incredibly protective towards Kate because of Elizabeth’s actions. She was also feeling possessive because of Jack…unnecessarily so, but it didn’t stop the feeling. The guilt also crept back because she hadn’t been there for Kate when she needed her. “Katie, can I just say again if you are ever going through something like that, even if I’m on a case, will you just come to my office and drag me away? I need you to tell me if you’re having problems or I won’t realize you need me.”

“OK. So did you not need me these past two weeks?”

“Of course I did.”

“Same works for you, CJ. I know you came to me a couple of times, but I also know how hard this case was on you. Yes, you have your colleagues, but I would guess you only speak to them about the case, not about how you are feeling or coping?” Kate said, raising a questioning eyebrow.

CJ quirked her eyebrow in response and bit her lips in thought. She had to admit Kate was right. “Well, yeah…”

“See? It’s a two-way street, my love.” Kate crossed her arms over her chest in triumph for a second before relenting. “But in all seriousness, I want you to tell me everything, including how it made you feel, and I want to know what happened in that nightmare you had. Like I said, a problem shared.”

“I can’t argue with that, can I?”

“No. No, you can’t. You know better.” Kate sat for a moment until she remembered Elizabeth’s parting words and thought she should tell her wife whether it was an empty threat or not. “CJ…Elizabeth said something that has me feeling uneasy.”

“Something else, you mean?”

“Yeah, something else. Just before she stormed out of my trailer, she said she would have her grandchildren no matter what. I’m not sure if she meant the girls or…” Kate’s voice trailed off and she couldn’t finish her sentence.

“If she threatened our family, I need to pay her a visit.” CJ detested Elizabeth Emerson more and more with each passing moment. “Are you worried she’ll really do something?”

“I’d like to think she was just angry and said it in the heat of the moment. Surely she doesn’t think she can do something like that.”

CJ thought for a moment. “Tell you what, just leave it to me. I know what to do.”

“CJ, don’t-“

“I won’t kick the crap out of her, Katie…although I’d like to.”

“So what’re you gonna do then?”

“I’ll just keep tabs on her for a while. Shouldn’t be too difficult. I know some people in the Bureau who owe me a favor or twelve. I worked on the East Coast, remember?” CJ moved in to kiss her reassuringly. “Don’t you worry about it anymore, OK?”

Kate studied her for a moment. “Tabs, huh? OK. I’ll trust you not to have her killed.”

“Thank you,” CJ replied sarcastically.

“Oh, and one more thing?”

“Yes?”

“I was pretty worried. I guess I maybe blew it out of proportion, but I gave Tony a scaled-down version of what I just told you, and he knows to be more vigilant around the girls,” Kate said tentatively.

“OK, If you think that’s necessary…”

“It will give me a little peace of mind, that’s all.”

“I guess I can understand that.” CJ sighed.

Kate snuggled down on the pillow on her side. “So, it’s time for you to talk now.”

CJ mirrored the pose, and with their noses mere inches apart she unloaded most of her ordeal throughout the Eric Hess case. She told Kate what condition the bodies were found in but left out the finer details – which Kate agreed upon – and she explained the killer’s motive, his multiple personalities, and everything she had felt during and after his capture. And it did feel good to finally share it with her one true soul mate. It felt very good. She really needed to learn and remember that lesson.

After working through all the pent up feelings – and using a half roll of toilet paper on their tears – they fell into a much less fitful sleep than previous nights, wrapped tightly together in a safe and comforting huddle.

* * * * * *

About four AM, CJ awoke with a vague recollection of a bad dream. A few seconds later, she couldn’t remember a damn thing about it, and she was thankful for that. As she lay there looking at the ceiling, her thoughts turned to her slumbering spouse and their discussions last night. She knew they still had more to talk about, but at least the bulk of it was out in the open. They were both working today, and that thought forced CJ’s bottom lip outward. She turned to face Kate and noticed the space just under her raised arm looked very inviting so she scooted over a few inches and snuggled her face into the soft skin of Kate’s bosom. The arm subconsciously coiled around her, and she drifted contentedly back into the land of nod for a few more hours.

* * * * * *

As CJ left the house, she saw Tony leaning against the black Mercedes and elected to speak with him about a thought she’d had when she’d woke up earlier. “Hey, Tony.”

“CJ…hi. How are you?”

“I’m slowly feeling better, thanks. I wanted to talk to you about the situation with Elizabeth. You know, what Kate asked of you?”

“Sure…”

“I should have some downtime soon. How about I teach you a few tricks? Maybe do some advanced driving techniques?”

“Holy sh-I mean, that would be so great, CJ.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re on board,” CJ said, grinning slightly at his barely-contained enthusiasm.

“I’ve been a lot more vigilant recently, but anything you could teach me would be much appreciated.”

“We don’t need to go overboard. I really don’t think it’ll come to anything, but it can’t hurt to have you trained up a little, huh?”

“I agree.”

“Cool. See you later, Tony.”

“Later, CJ.” Tony’s mind was buzzing at the thought of CJ giving him some FBI training. He knew her early years with the Bureau had been spent at Quantico, and a fair bulk of her job back then was to physically train cadets and other agents. He also knew she’d been invited into the naval base to train some of their people in firearms, surveillance, and hostage recovery techniques. He felt quite honored to have her show him a few moves. “And it’ll help me to protect the children too,” he whispered to himself. In his mind, that was the most important thing.

* * * * * *

CJ arrived in her office and took a deep, cleansing breath before walking through the door. She found Ethan with his feet up on his desk and a newspaper in his hands.

“Morning, Ethan. Is the coffee on?”

He looked up from his paper. “Morning, CJ. Sure is. How were your days off?”

“They went some way to helping me recover. How about you?”

“Well, once I begged Alice’s forgiveness for being MIA, it went OK. I couldn’t believe how exhausted I was, and how much the case had affected me. I kept looking at my kids and feeling so…relieved that they were safe.”

CJ had never heard Ethan speak of how he felt before. “You know, something Kate said to me has stuck in my head. She told me that I probably talked with my colleagues about the criminal aspects of the case and stuff, but never how it affected me or how I was coping. It’s like we always have to stay tough and not show weakness while we’re out there, right?”

Ethan nodded. “That’s the way it is.”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t really have to be like that inside this office, Ethan. I think we all trust one another enough to know that if we’re struggling, we can tell each other why.”

Ethan tilted his head while he thought about that for a minute. “You know…that sounds kinda cool. Maybe we could try that in the future.”

“I agree. Now, did Jamie leave us any messages?” CJ asked as she got up to go to the coffee machine.

“No, because she’s here. She went to the restrooms about fifteen minutes ago. Actually, you should go find her.”

“Is she OK?”

“Not sure. I think we all crashed and burned a little after this one, but she hasn’t had a day off yet so…”

“She’s supposed to be off today.”

“Yeah, I know, but she was here when I got in.”

“I’ll go find her.”

When CJ got to the restroom, she didn’t have to look far to find Jamie who was sitting on the wooden bench near the lockers with her head in her hands. “Hey, Penfold. What you doing here?”

When Jamie looked up, her dried-up tears were hard to miss. “Hey…”

“Why you crying, hon?”

“I came in this morning to get the final lab reports. Belzano hadn’t completed them because he was called out of state yesterday, and I wanted to make sure we received them in full this morning.”

“So…again, why are you crying?” CJ asked, sitting next to her friend and rubbing her back soothingly.

“This poor boy, DM. There’s evidence he was repeatedly beaten over a period of years. He was only six when he died!”

“I knew that might be the case…”

“But you didn’t know that there’s evidence of ongoing sexual abuse too. What kind of a monster does this to a child? And if it was Frank Hess, he did this to his own child? It’s horrendous. I guess it’s all just catching up with me now,” Jamie said, sniffing away her lingering tears.

“I hear ya. It’s impossible not to let it get to us. I had a rough few days, and I just spoke with Ethan about us sharing this stuff and supporting one another when we’re here in the office.”

“That sounds nice. I mean, I have Sam, but we’re the only ones who actually see what we see every day,” Jamie said, flipping her hand between them.

“Yeah, I know. Listen, you need to go home and sleep for a day or so…see Sam as much as you can, and let her help you through it.”

“Did you let Kate…?”

“Eventually, yeah. This was a tough case, Penfold, even for us oldies.” CJ grinned and squeezed Jamie in a hug.

“Hah. Speak for yourself. I’m not that old.”

“You have almost as much service as I do.., so yeah, you qualify as an oldie.”

“Nuff said.” Jamie picked up the file that lay at her feet. “Here. I’ll leave this with you and go tell Mark I’m outta here. He already threatened to have security escort me from the building.”

“Uh-huh. See you later. I’ll call you.”

“Roger that, DM. Love you.”

“Love you too.”

When Jamie left the room, CJ looked through the report. The injuries that were identifiable on the small, decomposing body were more than horrendous. CJ felt the anger she thought she had buried rising at an astonishing rate. She turned on her heels and lashed out at the lockers, kicking the doors until she realized she’d damaged two of them.

“Fucking bastard!” she shouted. As she continued to pace the room, a burst of unspent rage pushed its way out, and she kicked out once more at the trash can, sending it careening across the floor.

Breathing heavily through her mouth, she threw the report onto the nearby bench and began clearing up her mess. She knew now she had to sit down with Kate and tell her everything, including what she had just done. She realized she hadn’t exercised in the gym for a while, and not expending her physical energy could have resulted in it building up to this, but she wasn’t going to let it happen again.

“Not good enough,” she muttered as she stood the trash can back up. She wondered what would happen if she ever came face to face with Frank Hess. Right now, she wanted to beat him to a pulp and let him slowly bleed to death, but as much as the man deserved it, it just wasn’t in her heart to kill someone in cold blood.

“I will find him,” she promised. She was talking to herself, but she was also letting Jonathan know she would never forget.

.

Epilogue

Around one week later, CJ walked through the front door of her haven feeling indescribably exhausted. Her body felt like it could easily sink to the floor and remain there like a large blob of FBI Jell-o. It had probably hit her so hard because she knew she now had at least four days of nothing but her family. She locked her gun away and unloaded her jacket, holster, and car keys on the chair in the hallway.

Hearing the quiet voices of her loved ones sparked a little life inside her, and her legs began making their way into the living room. She was elated that they could all spend some time together and had their home to themselves. Pausing at the door, she saw the three people that she could not live without sitting in a little circle on the floor. Kate had a laptop in front of her, and the two children were fixated on their mama as she spoke.

“The language is very difficult for other people to understand, Shannon,” Kate said softly. “It’s amazing, and it would take us a long time to even begin to speak it, but let’s try a few of these words, huh?”

“OK. What’s the word for Kamali?” Shannon asked exuberantly.

“Well, Kamali means spirit guide, but it’s not Navajo. Mommy and I picked it because it meant something special to us and because it sounded nice.”

“What does it mean to you?”

“That’s very complicated to explain, sweetie. How about we learn a few other words.” Kate checked the laptop again. “Ooh. I have the word for dog. Ready?”

“Yes!” both girls responded together.

“It says here the Navajo word for dog is lééchaa’í…”

Shannon frowned a little before she copied the sound. “Lee-cha-ee.”

“Very good, Shannon.”

“Chaaaeee…” Lucy exclaimed loudly.

“Yes, Luce,” Kate praised as she clapped her hands and smiled.

CJ was entranced by her family and leaned against the doorframe since she didn’t want to disturb them yet. Her body was telling her to lie down on the couch and crash out, but she was enjoying this little lesson and forced her legs to hold her up. She was bursting with love for these three females and the fact that they were trying to learn her great-grandfather’s spoken language.

“Amá,” Lucy repeated the word for mother.

“Adeezhi,” Shannon said, craning her neck to see the screen and pointing to Lucy.

Kate was impressed. “Yes. That means younger sister. Well done, Shan.”

CJ felt a sneeze coming on. She couldn’t stop it, and a few seconds later it announced her presence.

Shannon turned around. “Bless you, Mommy.”

“Thank you. Hello, family.”

Kate smiled widely, and CJ could see a huge difference in her face. They had done a lot of talking the past week, and CJ had reassured Kate that some of her connections in the Bureau would know if Elizabeth Emerson did anything out of the ordinary. Kate hadn’t wanted to know what that meant exactly, but it had definitely released a whole bunch of her stresses. She trusted CJ to protect her, and as she looked lovingly into CJ’s eyes, she seemed more radiant than ever.

“Hey, honey. Are you home for a few days?”

CJ paused halfway across the room due to the added weight of a more-than-welcoming Lucy attached to her leg. “Yes. I’m all yours for five whole days.” When Shannon and Kate both made surprised faces at one another, it resulted in a chuckle escaping from CJ’s mouth. “Could someone help me get this strange monster off my leg?”

Lucy freed her captive parent. “Not a monster. It’s me!”

CJ feigned relief. “Oh, thank goodness. I was scared there for a minute.”

“You don’t get scared, Mommy.”

CJ knew that was not true, but she never wanted her tiny daughter to know that. “Not of you, Little One,” she said, lifting the precious bundle into her arms. She lowered them both onto the floor beside Kate and Shannon. “Can I learn some words too?”

“Yes, Ama,” Shannon replied with a cheesy grin.

“Let’s get started then…Mai.”

“What does that mean?”

“Let’s find out,” CJ said, pointing at the screen. “It’s a nickname my mom used to call me sometimes.”

That started a whole new batch of research, and Kate smiled knowingly at CJ. As Shannon leaned her elbow on Kate’s outstretched leg, Lucy rested her head on her mommy’s belly. CJ turned to kiss Kate, and the look that passed between them said more than any words ever could.

It was a look they’d both seen before, a look of love, commitment, security, passion…and the knowledge that they had overcome another difficult time in the journey of their lives. They knew that together, they would be stronger than any darkness that was to fall on their path. Always.

.

The End…

©2016 StageFreak Productions

2 comments

  1. Wow, this is most definitely the darkest story in the series to date. It is very well written and very plot heavy. I’ve loved all the stories in this series and this one is no exception, although it is not my favorite. Not because of the darkness (of the crime and resulting emotions) but because Katie felt a lot like an afterthought throughout the story. Regardless, it was an exciting read and I look forward to the next installment!


    • Hmm, this was definitely a CJ episode but Kate is never an afterthought when I write. She had a whole lot more going on in this one than say, Aftermath… but her story is ongoing and sets the scene for episode 9 where it is the main thread. Glad you kind of enjoyed it tho… thanks for your feedback 🙂



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