DISCLAIMER: Uh…Nikki and Nora aren't mine they have a cameo in two parts and are briefly mentioned here and there. The rest of the whack jobs in the piece are all my own doing. You can't have them, but I don't mind sharing. I passed kindergarten.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Okay a few things…There was a throw away comment a bit ago from a reader about doing a spin-off featuring Ann, Jill, John and the rest of the her people in Virginia. I took that throw away comment and ran with it. My sister, in her all her insanity, challenged me to participate in Nanowrimo this year. I thought about it…I write fanfic. I know I have it in me to complete 50K words, my longest story to date is around 89K, but the challenge was was I able to complete in a month. Most of the readership knows that I've got a A Thousand Oceans going and I'm working on a Buffy story, Let the Dominoes Fall what you probably don't is that I'm a glorified number cruncher and work upwards of 60 hours, then there's family stuff and I wanted to finish off my Masters (classes started the end of October). November was effing crazy. On the upside…The challenge is finished. I polished it off on Friday morning. So, while I'm trying to catch up with my other two stories, I offer you this as an interim installment on the A.U. that I've built with Nikki & Nora. It's a spinoff. I hope it worked. Also, yes, I know this is a ghastly long author's note, but…this story hasn't been reviewed by my beta. I wasn't going to torture him with it seeing as how he'd have needed to accomplish the piece by the end of the month. And he's quite capable, it just seemed mean. So all mistakes are really and truly my own. I hope everyone reads and enjoys.
FEEDBACK: To whedonistic.tendencies[at]gmail.com
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Putting the Damage On
By Whedonist


Ch. 1 – All the World Is a Stage

She stands in front of the bathroom mirror letting the few people she could tolerate, fuss over the last few touch ups to her person before we leave. One thought persists as I stand off to the side of the entry way to the bathroom.

She's beautiful and she's mine.

That thought is my mantra. I gaze down at the simple white gold band gracing my left ring finger. My mantra manifested. As I look up at her, she's shooing the stylist and the make-up artist away from her coiffed hair and perfectly done make up. Finally, tiring of their fussing.

Said make-up artists turns to me and jabs his finger in my direction, "You, no kissing. Her lipstick is perfect." He says this in a heavy Latino accent, trilling 'r's and all. My smirk forms of its own accord.


Like I'm going to not kiss my wife when she's all coiffed and gorgeous.

I shake my head and push back my jacket far enough for the butt of my service weapon peaks out. He eeps and scampers away. My eyes trail after him rounding the corner out of the hotel suite's bathroom until a not so subtle cough brings my attention back to the woman of the evening. She's grinning at me.

Her clear, golden brown eyes showing her level of amusement just as much as the grin she's wearing. I step forward and grab her left hand, pulling her to me. My arms fit snuggly around her hips, lock behind her and rest in the small of her back.

She pushes a lock of my hair behind my ear and leans in ready to kiss me. I pull back and shake my head. A pout forms on her full lips. "No, no pout, babe." I shake my head firmly. "You're Latin, make-up person said no kissing."

"He," she says as she grips the back of my neck and pulls us together so that our lips just barely touch, "can kiss my ass." She smirks, pressing forward sealing our lips together in an all too brief kiss. When she pulls back, she swipes my bottom lip taking away some of the transferred lipstick. "But did you really need to show him your gun? That freaks people out."

I only nod before being interrupted, "Are you two ready?" Lee Sherman asks from the doorway. I take in the suit on my high school friend and smile at him. He's pretty handsome with his shaggy, dirty, blonde hair and impish smile. He still looks pretty much the same since the first day of high school when we met. It's kind of weird.

"Tell your friend here to quit kissing me and I think we can leave," I say letting my wife go.

"Ann," she groans, "It's not my fault you are all delicious in that tailored Ann Klein." She smacks her lips, adding, "The lip gloss is yummy too."

"You really should go shopping with us more," Nikki Beaumont's voice fills in from my right. I smile over at Nikki in her little black dress and heels. To her left sandwiched between her and Lee is her partner, Nora Delaney, decked out in a green strapless dress with her hair half up and half down. Her bright green eyes twinkle as she sends her own smirk our way. They all look damn good. I give myself a pat on the back for having good taste in friends.

"Uh, no," I say stepping away from Jill and motion the trio to move out of the doorway so we can leave the hotel. "You and Jill do enough damage without me or Nora being present."

The four laugh and all agree. We file out and to the elevator, light conversation marking our decent to the lobby where a limo is waiting on us. Jill's hand slips into mine as we settle in for the short drive over to Mann's Chinese Theatre and Hollywood Boulevard. My wife's first movie premier's tonight and I know she's nervous.

Hell, I'm nervous and it has absolutely nothing to do with me.

As the limo comes to a stop, the five of us exchange glances and by unspoken agreement, Lee goes first followed by Nikki and Nora. The three leave us inside the private quarters of the limo. Jill squeezes my hand and I smile at her.

"You ready?" I ask.

She nods and sighs. "Are you?" Her question full of meaning, of late night conversations about where her career may be headed.

My response is a nod as I lean in and kiss her cheek. I pull back and offer the only thing I can, "I love you."

She smiles at me, head slightly tilted. "Then let's do this. I've got all I need right here." She holds our linked hands up and I step from the limo first.

The flashing lights and noise assault my senses. Calling up years old techniques from the academy, I school my features and assist my wife in her emergence from the back of the limo. Her appearance sends a slew of photographers into a frenzy; the flashing lights and calls increase tenfold. I feel her tense briefly before her mask falls into place.

An easy smile graces her beautiful face and she pulls me closer, her arm snaking around my waist in a familiar embrace. Nikki, Nora and Lee stand off to the side and allow us to go first, providing the silent support both of us desperately need. It's in this moment I'm thankful my wife insisted our closest friends be here with us.

I don't need to look to know that they are on our heels as we make our way through the horde of reporters and camera men. We move stiltly up the entrance to the theatre. Jill stops and answers questions along the way, making us pause and stand still for photo opportunities along the way. I smile at the right times. I back off and let her stand alone when the need arises, but she never lets me go for long. In all too long a time, we finally make it to the front of the theatre where we're pulled off to the side so that Jill can do a brief interview before heading inside.

I try to step aside, but her grip around my hips tightens when the woman grins at us. "Donna, from Entertainment Weekly," Jill whispers in my ear before giving the reporter her full attention.

"Jill," the woman practically squeals, "It's so good to see you!"

My wife smiles, I think she has the smile screwed onto her face by now and answers, "It's good to see you to. How have you been?"

"Great," the reporter cheeses. The cameraman moves to the side, getting a shot of the three of us standing together as Donna makes the introductions, "This is Donna Rodriguez with Entertainment Weekly, here with the star of East End Girl, Quentin Tarantino's new movie and…" It's then that she finally notices me and her brow furrows slightly before her training kicks in, "Jill, why don't you introduce us to your beautiful guest."

"This is my wife, Ann," Jill beams and then catching our group off guard, she proudly points out the rest, "and these are my friends, this is Lee, Nikki and Nora." The three of them offer a small greeting before the camera zooms back in on Jill, Donna and I.

"This is The Ann?" Donna's face brightens.

Truthfully, I'm a little scared.

"The last interview Jill and I did together, she wouldn't shut up about you!" Donna exclaims.

I decide then this woman talks in exclamations.

"Guilty," I laugh with them.

"Well, we'll," she points between Jill and I, "will catch up off camera later. " Her face sobers again and she turns to the camera, nodding her readiness to the cameraman. "Donna Rodriguez with Entertainment Weekly, here with the star of East End Girl, Quentin Tarantino's new movie, model turned actress Jillian Ness and her partner, Ann." She turns to Jill fully and thrusts the microphone between the three of us. "Jill so good to see you again. Why don't you tell us a little about this movie that pulled you from the pages of our favorite fashion magazines and onto the silver screen?"

"Good to see you again too, Donna. Well, the story is primarily focused around Jennifer Crush and the twists her life takes on one very fateful night."

Donna bobs her head and hmms. "Can't tell us anymore?"

"I would but," Jill shrugs and amends, "It's the whole purpose of the movie. It's this reckless, wild child turning a corner of her life on this one night. Don't want to give too much of it away."

Donna laughs and follows up with, "Tell us a little bit about why you decided to take this role? From the industry buzz, you read over a few scripts before taking this one. Why the wait to transition and why this movie?"

"Well, it's a big step and I didn't want it to be for just any movie. Jennifer's character, her story and the rest of the characters were just…" Jill presses her lips together, deciding on her word choice, "Rich. They were fully realized in what I read and besides, Tarantino? He's hard to say no to."

We share a brief laugh and Donna finishes, "Alright, last one before I let you go, what are you wearing tonight?"

Jill shakes her head, giggling. "De La Renta. I just couldn't say no to this dress." She motions downward and the camera pans down the length of my wife's body clad in a royal blue gown. Her and Donna exchange pleasantries again before we move along.

We pass the entry way and into the lobby, the atmosphere much more subdued in here among the low buzz of chatter. I stand proud with the woman I love as she works the room until we have to take our seats.

Oddly enough, seeing her like this, happy and proud of the work she's done, I've never been happier.

Tying the sash on the thick cotton robe the hotel provides, I let the hotel worker come in, wheeling in the tray of coffee and breakfast food I'd ordered. John Malone, my boss and partner, chats amiably in my ear as I sign the receipt to bill this morning's breakfast to the room. I see him out and go back to the conversation, "So that puts us at two pendings and we go to trial on the Delong case next week. You think I need to call the A.U.S.A. before I get back?"

"Nah," John answers as I hear some clicks in the background as he types. The phone muffles a bit and I hear, "Will I see you later?"

"John, I don't…call me later and we'll see," the woman answers and I recognize the voice of his wife. I suppress the sigh and feel for him. Together nearly twenty years and last year…something broke. He usually stops my questions with a 'We chose different things' before getting silent and broody.

Her being with him this morning, I look at my watch and note that it's only eight-thirty in Virginia, tells me that they spent the night together or she dropped by earlier.

"Okay, Bec. Talk to you later," he tells her, the voice more than a little robotic.

Now the question is, do I push or not?

Screw it.

"She spend the night?" I ask, pouring myself a generous cup of coffee and adding a little sugar and cream.

"Yeah," he sighs. "I…I think we're trying to fix things."

Sitting on one of the stiff chairs in the sitting area of the suite, I sip the hot, strong coffee before asking, "Is that what you want?"

"What kind of fucking question is that Ann?" he snaps.

I choose to let the outburst go. I also decide it's a good thing we aren't having this conversation face to face, I press, "It's a damn good one. Look, partner, I get it. I know you better than nearly everyone else. Hell, John, I'd bet I know you better than your wife right now. So do me a favor and cut the bullshit for five and fucking talk to me."

I wait, rigidly sitting in my chair. The silence stretches for what feels like a small eternity before he answers, "I want it. I just don't know what she wants. I don't even know if she knows what she wants."

I nod and relax a little. "Well, in the interest of myself and your staff, I think you two should take a holiday. Go away for a week or two and figure out." I amend after a second of thought, "Without the distractions."

"Go off the grid?" he snorts. "Yeah, right. That's not gonna happen."

Setting my coffee down on the end table, I mop my face with my hand and smooth the fly away hairs back off my forehead. "You could," I encourage. "Look, we've two pending cases right?" I don't wait on the answer. "I know we may have a dozen files sitting on our desks collectively that need to be reviewed and summaries written for submission to get back to the departments requesting our assistance. With one trial looming, I think now is the perfect time. It's as slow as we're going to get."

"What if something comes up?" he grinds out.

I smile. His hero complex shining through and getting in the way of my trying to help.

"Luce, Travis and I can handle it." I tease him, "You know we're quite capable. Hell, I'm even allowed to dress myself most mornings now."

"Ann, that's not…you're a bitch sometimes, ya know?" he gives as good as he gets.

"Yeah, you love me anyhow Malone." I sober and get back on track, "Seriously though, take a week or hell be a rebel and take two. You being persona non grata in D.C. has freed you up a little so…"

He huffs two-thousand miles away and I don't need to see him to know the vein in his forehead is pulsing just a little harder, knowing that I've won this round.

"So when I get back in three days, I expect to see you to say hello and then I want you out of my sight for at least a week. Take the pain in the ass you call a wife and try to get laid on a more regular basis." He growls at that and I can't help it, "You not getting any is painful for us all."

"Shut up," he snips, but his annoyance is nothing more than show. We've worked together too long for me not to know him as well as I know myself. We're a lot alike.

We've yet to figure out if two pig-headed, egotistical, hero-complex having agents are the best fit for the Special Investigation Division for the F.B.I., but I guess the real question is if either of us gives a shit.

That answer is a big fat no.

"Alright. I'll talk to Becca tonight and see. Maybe this will be good," he finally concedes

"She will," I confirm. 'Cause I'm going to call her as soon as I hang up with him and get myself into a world of trouble.

"How's things out there by the way?" He shifts and deflects the conversation with ease.

I shrug. "Honestly, a little overwhelming. This isn't my thing, but…" I trail off.

"It's Jill's and she's the best thing you got going for you Flemming. Well, besides me," John ribs.

"Damn skippy. So, it's what it is and I'll be where ever she needs for as long as she needs." I think I take the wind out of his teasing sails.

His voice gets a little more serious as he says, "That's the way it should be."

"Well, I like to think I'm quicker on the uptake than most. Besides, I have a great example of how not to do things." My words intending to tease not hurt. I look up as one of the double doors to the bedroom open up and Jill comes out, glasses on, hair rumpled and looking too damn sexy in her robe.

"Yeah well, I may just start picking up a few things from you." I hear papers begin to rustle in the background and a 'good morning'.

Travis must have stopped by his house.

"Travis says hey," John confirms.

I watch my wife shuffle over and plop herself in my lap. She kisses my cheek and then snatches the coffee. Rolling my eyes, I say, "Tell Travis, hey."

"If that's who I think that is," Jill mumbles, laying her head against my shoulder, "Tell him I said good morning and to get the fuck off the phone with my wife. He doesn't need to be flirting with you while you're on vacation."

John laughs in my ear as a rumble of my laughter shakes the two of us in the chair. Knowing what's coming, I pull my BlackBerry from my ear and hit the speaker phone option. "You hear that, John?"

"Yeah. Good morning, Jill," he says.

"G'mornin'." My wife, never one to miss a damn thing asks, "There a reason why you have me up at such an ungodly hour?"

"Just trying to keep that thing you call your partner on her toes. Can't have her getting lazy while she's sunning it up in the land of fruits and nuts."

My lips purse and I pout, "Hey, you two, I'm still right here."

Jill sends me a smirk, but John says, "Unfortunately."

"It's too damn early for this type of abuse. I'll read over the file from Louisville and send you my report later today," I try to end the call before Jill really wakes up and they get meaner.

"Sounds good. Don't bother with the assistant U.S. attorney. He can wait until you get back. Travis is giving me the evil eye which means we're going to be late for a meeting. Take care you two and I'll see you both soon." Before disconnecting he says, "We're proud of you, Jill. Knock those Hollywood fuckers on their collective, liposuctioned asses."

Jill can only giggle and beam at his statement. She knows just as well as I do that's the best anyone will ever get in the way of support and an 'I love you' from the guy.

"Bye, John," I say and end the call.

I set the hunk of plastic and silicone on the end table, taking the coffee cup from my wife. Finally wrapping my arms around her, she burrows into me and I plant a kiss on top of her messy head.

"You gonna come back to bed now?" she yawns.

"Depends," I purr nipping playfully at the tip of her nose.

She looks up at me and scowls. "We have to be at Miramax at ten. Don't tease me, it's too early," she whines. My Jill is and was never much a morning person.

I hate it when she whines.

I cave. I cave like a piece of cheap, wet cardboard. She knows this and it's completely unfair.

"Alright Princess. Let's get you back to bed." I debate on whether or not to try and carry her. Deciding to not ruin my back, I let her get off me as I stand and stretch.

"You're losing the robe right?" she asks as a finger hooks in the opening of the front and she peers down. God she can be such a perv sometimes.

I shake my head and lead her back to our bed, secretly happy that she is a perv.

I, myself, have been accused of having the mindset of a fifteen year old boy. I think it's a good fit. I move to shut the door and see my phone. Quickly, I walk back to it and dial a familiar number.

Stepping into the bedroom as the phone rings, Jill looks at me with a raised brow. I hold a finger up asking for a moment more of patience as Rebecca Malone picks up, "Doctor Malone."

"Becca, it's Ann," I reply.

"Good morning Ann," she huffs. Becca is usually terse on the phone. I quit taking it personally years ago.

"Hey, I need a favor…" I shut the bedroom door and pray that she'll see reason.

My friends flank me sitting on a couch on a soundstage at Miramax studios. A few feet away Jill sits in a chair that's usually found on a movie set and a reporter, his name forgotten before it was mentioned, sits across from her. They've been discussing the movie for about twenty minutes. My girl handles herself well, but I tune into the conversation when the subject shifts, he asks, "Jill, do you think being an out celebrity figure has impacted your career?"

I bristle. I shouldn't, but our relationship was an issue for the first few years of her career. I'm not looking to go through that round of bullshit again.

For her part, Jill smiles, shaking her head gently. With a slight edge, she asks in return, "Does being heterosexual impact other women in my position?"

Lee, Nikki and Nora all perk up at the way the conversation has shifted.

"I think I'd have to ask heterosexual women in your position to really get a good response," he laughs, but goes right back to the line of questioning, "Being out though has had to impact you. Even when you first started your career as a model in the early Nineties and then you came out in Ninety-Four with your partner. It wasn't as acceptable then as it is now, did you struggle?"

Jill's lips form a thin line as her brow furrows. Her face lets me know how she's trying to handle the question. "I've addressed most of this in previous interviews so I'm hesitant to do that here, but I'll say this, it's never been about being 'out' or 'in' with me. I'd like to move past a dialogue of gay or straight. It's dichotic and counterproductive to the struggle for equality." Her hands clasp across her top knee and she continues, "Was it a struggle in the industry, sometimes, but that was hardly the most challenging aspect. My marriage is also something that I'd never hide. Like my wife has said, I respect her and the bond that we share too much to deny its existence for a bigger bank account." She sends me a smile then, her eyes locking onto mine. "It will never be a choice. So in those terms, it's a no brainer and not even a contest."

The interviewer takes it on the chin well and follows up, "Admirable. So then, given that young women see you in magazines and billboards and now the theatre, do you think your personal relationship with," he looks down briefly at a note card in his hand, "Ann, influences others to live openly?"

Again I bristle and skirt my eyes to Nora and then to Nikki. This subject an area of contention in their relationship. For their part, Nora's face is a mask and Nikki's mouth's quirked up in a tiny smirk.

"I never set out to be the Lesbian Poster Model, but I think that seeing other people like yourself when you feel like an outsider…sometimes, well…I hope it gives a certain amount of strength to allow anyone to be free and live as they like. If they get that from me, great; if not, then I hope they find the strength elsewhere."

The man nods and finishes up, "Well stated. I think we're good." Both stand and stretch, Jill seeking me out. I stand, walk over to them and Jill's arms snakes around my waist as she kisses my temple. I grin at her and stick my hand out in greeting, "Ann Flemming."

"Mike," the man with the hipster haircut and clothes takes my hand giving it a few quick pumps.

I can't help the initial, gut reaction that takes over and the word 'tool' flashes across the billboard in my mind. Jill must see it, because the hand that's gripping my hip tightens.

She never lets me have any fun.

"It's good to meet you, Ann," Mike says. "I've seen pictures of you two together and you make a hot couple."

My jaw clenches, Nora and Lee both shoot me glances, but it's my wife that rescues me, "Well, she's more than just a pretty face. Although, the eye candy doesn't hurt." I swivel a playful glare in her direction and she winks.

Rolling my eyes, I'm about to respond when my hip vibrates.


I pull the phone from my left hip pocket and answer, "Flemming," I break away from my wife and go off to the side.

"Ann," John's voice comes through the speaker, "How's the day?"

"Jill's just finishing up an interview and then we're dropping her off at another hotel downtown for a roundtable with the cast. What's up?" My free hand gets tucked under the arm that's holding the cell phone. I shoot an apologetic glance over to my friends and wife.

"Well, uh, Luce was running the weekly search through ViCAP and something pinged in L.A." he explains. "I was hoping that you could swing by their headquarters, a Hundred West First and pick the file up?"

I roll my eyes. Things ping on Luce's search all the time. It's why the F.B.I. put together the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, otherwise known as ViCAP. "Why the rush?" I ask because usually the locals just FedEx the reports to us so we that we can review and offer opinion. Sometimes those opinions are enough to help local departments make an arrest and sometimes they aren't.

"Truth?" he asks, knowing damn well that it's a stupid question.

"Uh-huh," I answer. Of course, I want the truth.

"There was a similar case that popped a few months back. We flagged it, but nothing's ever come of it. This is the first time I've seen a similar report from any other department."

I should have been clearer and told him to give me an answer that I was going to like. See this is the thing about my job. We're a vague unit inside the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Special Investigations handles hard to solve murders, kidnappings and serial killings. I started work as a profiler for this unit in Ninety-Five, twelve years ago. My boss and partner, Director John Malone, also allows his team, me, Special Agents Lucy Walker and Travis Washington, the ability to assist on other units and agencies investigations, while handling our own case loads.

For the most part this works. On occasion, when John gets a bug up his ass or when something hits him the wrong way, he focuses all of his attention on one case or most of the time a set of cases. The tone I hear now tells me that that's where this is headed, so I goad, "And the terms 'vacation' and 'no work type stuff' mean nothing to you?"

He sighs. "Just swing by and pick up the file."

"Why are you doing this?" I ask; my free hand now on my hips as my foot beats rapidly on the floor.

"Ann," he tries to soften his tone, "when you get the file, you'll see. Please?"

I pull the phone away from my ear. He never 'pleases' me. In fact in the entire time that we've been working together, I can count on one hand the number of times he's asked that of me. I bring the phone back to my ear and say, "Okay. Who am I asking for?"

Sometimes with John it's all about picking your battles. This isn't one I'm going to fight. If he thinks it's that important, I'm done questioning.

"Commander Manuel Castillo," he answers. "Should you put Jill on the phone now or later?"

I smile. I can't help it. "Don't worry about her. I'll take care of the woman, but if I get hurt, you're paying the hospital bills."

"Deal," he agrees too readily and then says, "I need to, uh Becca agreed to go away, but with this new case…"

"No," I shake my head, "you aren't doing this. Look," I sigh and run a hand through my hair, "I've got Nik and Nor here. What about you get me that other file that flagged tonight. Have it waiting at the hotel for me around seven p.m. and I'll review with the girls. Call me tomorrow and we'll give you an honest opinion. If it's serious, we'll discuss you not taking time, but if it's something the team and I can handle, you go and leave the house unattended."

"I…Ann," he stammers. I get it. I mean sort of. He and Rebecca were so solid and then it just crumbled and he really hasn't been the same since. The fact that he's spent more time in our spare bedroom then I care to admit is a telling sign. He needs this and fuck, if I'm being honest with myself, I need this. I need my partner back.

"Seriously, this isn't up for a discussion. John, I let you have your way when I think that I'm not right or when I figure it's not worth the fight, but dammit, don't make me dig my heels in here."

"Okay," he lets it go and I release the breath that I was holding.

"Good, now I'm going to go and make good with my wife; call your wife and finalize the plans." I shoot a look over at the woman in discussion and she looks only slightly annoyed with a side of amused.

I can work with that.

"Deal. Tell Jill I owe her one." He doesn't wait for me to say anything else as the line goes dead.

I pull the phone away and scowl at the blinking screen. I swear that's one of his most annoying qualities. He can't even wait for me to say goodbye.

I huff as I stuff my phone back in my pocket. Plastering on a cheesy grin, I approach my wife, palms held up in a look of surrender. Her eyebrow cocks and the three supposed friends of mine snicker.

I'm so screwed

"And people on set questioned where I got my dark sense of humor," Jill grumps from her seat on the couch in the hotel suite.

I'd retort, but I've nothing to really add to that. I can't deny that my work is hard to look at, nor can I deny that it has trickled into my home life. With our schedules, if I'm out of town, Jill will actually travel with me if her schedule permits. So needless to say, she's seen some fairly disturbing shit.

I hate that. I hate that she's exposed to this. I don't even think I should be, but it's the job. The crazy thing is, is that I love my job. John just says it's 'cause I'm nuts. I say it's because I'm a masochist. Jill says it's six of one and half dozen of another so why argue a moot point.

She's smart that wife of mine.

It's Nora that responds to Jill's comment, "It's a defense mechanism, Jill. If we don't laugh, we'll cry or we'll go ape shit crazy. Laughing's usually the best."

She's smart too, that best friend of mine.

Instead of actually participating in the conversation, I go back to the responding officer's police report. The file that we picked up from Commander Castillo was not so much a file, but a banker's box. He also kindly informed me that the body is still on ice, but set to be released, pending any major breaks in the case, to the family tomorrow. We just got to the file in under the wire.

Usually, we get files where we don't have a body to work with. I hate that. Our department has their own medical examiner and she's highly underutilized. This time, if we move forward, I think we'll have something to work with; so I go back to the file, chewing on my lower lip.

The responding officer's report is typical, very standard. A call came in at twenty-two-oh-eight on Tuesday, September Thirty at 767549 West Via Paloma. The caller identified himself as the husband, Alfred Sheridan, of Maria Sheridan. The officer, Kyle Bustamante, came to the scene with E.M.T.'s. Kyle secured the scene, talked the husband down a little and handed the man to one of the E.M.T.'s to treat for shock.

The body was found in the master bedroom, laying face up in the bed. Kyle's report gets more robotic from there. I glance over at the crime scene photos to actually take in the scene for myself. And this is where Jill's comment from earlier comes in. I've seen a lot in my time with the Bureau. The worst is always kids, but thankfully, those cases are few and far between. I can count the handful of times we've had to deal with kids, but then again, what I'm looking at isn't much better.

The body of the vic is laying face up on the bed. If you were just coming into the room and glanced at the body, you'd think they had a towel over their face, but that's not so. The close up of the corpse in the initial stages of decomp are still very recognizable. Except for one minor detail. The skin on the woman's face has been cleanly excised. What you actually see in the photo, is the tissue underneath. Clean lines of muscle tissue and tendons glare back at the lens. With no lips, the victim's teeth are clearly exposed. The eyelids, a piece of anatomy used to respect the dead, are missing. Usually closed eyelids hide the lifeless eyes from our sight. With her's, you can't. The woman's ocular cavities are clearly visible, the orbs protruding from the face. You can see where the skin was removed around the hairline, down in front of the ears and under the jaw. The flesh of the neck is still intact.

The forensic photographer did well in capturing the position of the body. Supine, with her hands clasped serenely over her waist. Her left hand placed atop the right. Nothing else out of place, not even her hair, which had been combed back into a ponytail. The report states that the husband was able to identify the wife by a small palm tree tattoo on the top of her foot.

My lips purse and I finish off Officer Bustamante's report. The responding Detective's, Adrian Ting, is very similar. The investigation really didn't go anywhere. Alfred Sheridan had a rock solid alibi; he was upstate in San Francisco for work. He returned that evening from a flight into L.A. and found his wife like that. No signs of forced entry. No signs of an altercation. Mr. Sheridan said everything was as it should have been…except for his wife dead with her face missing on their bed.

I snort, see this is where the inappropriate humor comes in, 'cause it's not funny but…

It's damn absurd.

I mean to put myself in that position to come home and find Jill…I shudder. No, we will not go down that road. The occasional nightmare I have is good for me. I don't need my wife's face on the body of the victims any more than my nightmares allow.

Nikki looks up at me, at my half snort half growl. I shrug at her and she holds up the file that John had delivered. The first case that flagged for him. Nikki and Nora agreed that they would look over that and then we'd convene to give our assessment.

Thank God, they're here. Having two other detectives here with me is a Godsend. I watch them with their heads together reading over the same report. Nikki pointing to one thing then Nora pointing at something else. The ease that they share is visible and even a little admirable. John and I don't work that well together and we've been partners for twelve years. Of course, the little snarky voice in my head snickers and reminds me that John and I don't live together and do not have sex. They do.

With them as work partners for the New Orleans Police Department, I can kinda see why Nora's stayed in the closet for as long as she has, but…what they've gotten into together, it's near career suicide. Not because they're gay, although in NOLA I'm not sure how well that would go over, but more because they're partners.

Although as taboo as it is, thing are different, way different now than they were ten years ago. It also doesn't hurt my ex-girlfriend turned best friend, Nora, that her old partner turned boss knows about the two of them. Dan's an all right guy. He's letting them operate under their own private version of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' which I suppose is fair enough. They could all be in some serious hot water with I.A.B. if it ever came out. Not to mention it would call into question the majority of their cases.

It would be pure bullshit and a witch-hunt, but their careers would suffer. Both women are too good at what they do and they care too much for that to happen. It shouldn't.

Doesn't mean it won't.

"You done?" I hear Nora ask.

I shake my head and blink. I must have been staring. I stick my tongue out at her and glance around the room. Lee and Jill are pointedly ignoring the images around them and watching something…I stare at the T.V. a moment before I recognize a rerun of Buffy on the screen. Rolling my eyes, I look back over at the two detectives.

"Yeah, I was waiting on you two," I answer blandly, dropping the paper from my hands and looking at the photographs we have tacked up on a wall. The outline from the mirror that was hanging in that spot clearly visible due to the discolored wallpaper that surrounded it.

"Well?" Nikki asks.

"Well?" I reply.

We all roll our eyes and Nora goes first. "The victim from this case, Margaret Talbert, from Duluth, Minnesota. Blonde hair, brown eyes, thirty years old. Was reported missing by her family on Saturday, June Eighth, of this year. Nothing came of the missing persons report. Her body was discovered a short time later at the beginning of July…" She looks down at the file and flips a few pages over. "Report says body was discovered by a father and son on Seven-oh-two. That's a little less than a month in hot, humid weather." Her nose crinkles and mouth pinches.

"It may not have been that bad. Hopefully," I say. I mean that long out, exposed in the woods over some of the hottest months. "Scavengers?"

Nikki nods. "Report indicates a few; her body for the most part was intact." Nikki looks pointedly at the photos we have up and amends, "Well, as intact as a body can be without the face. She was identified by an old sports break on her left femur."

"Why was the face gone?" I ask. Not really wanting an answer, but…I feel obligated.

"M.E. concluded that facial skin was removed prior to death. The scavengers got to the eyes and the remaining soft tissue," Nora answers.

"Fuck." It's all I really have.

Well there's more, but I think that sums it all up.

"Is this enough to cry serial, Ann?" Nikki asks, chewing on her lower lip. I'd smile at the habit, considering she picked it up from Nora, but I'm out of smiles for the next twenty minutes at least.

My mouth screws to the side as I stand. Planting my feet in front of the wall holding the photos I take in each scene. The photographer in Duluth wasn't as thorough, but considering…I really shouldn't expect it.

There are large discrepancies, placement of the victim, eye color, hair color, location of the body, but the link, namely the missing face, well that's big. I mop my face with my right hand and rub my eyes. I need to work through this. "Okay, let's run down a list of commonalities, age and race are both a match. What was the cause of death for the first victim?"

"Inconclusive," Nikki calls out.

"Alright, cause of death on the second was heart failure. Both of their faces were removed, both M.E.'s were confident enough in their findings to say that that was done while they were alive."

"Pleasant," Nora snarks.

"Sugga," Nikki starts.

"The differences," I cut in, turning to face them, "are…?"

"Location is huge," Nikki fills in.

"Hair and eye color are another," Nora supplies.

"Also," Nikki picks up right after Nora's words die out, "From the little bit of training at the F.B.I. field office, serial killers don't move around like this. Not usually. S.O.P.'s usually profile them with sticking to a safety zone. An area that they feel most comfortable in. We've got one body in Minnesota and one in California. Last map I checked put them in different parts of the country."

"There's that," I agree with her, resting my hands on my hips, my right fingers patting out a random rhythm on my hip. "But, it really does depend on how nomadic the killer is. Which," I pause, loath to actually voice my professional opinion, "If these cases were to land on my desk from the same office, I'd attach the word 'serial' to the killings."

"So, now what?" Nora looks at me, already knowing the answer.

I shrug. "Call my partner and go from there."

I hear Jill groan from the living area. Lee gives her a pat sympathetic grunt while the other two just shrug right along with me.

It's a hazard of the job.


Ch. 2 – It's All Fun

The white board to the left of my desk at the F.B.I. headquarters in Quantico, glares back at me accusingly. As the end of the first quarter of Two-Thousand-Nine comes to an end, our case load is no lighter. There are still stacks of open cases to be reviewed sitting on my desk and the four open cases that are actually assigned to me have gone absolutely nowhere. We won't count the fact that each of the four open cases are multiple homicides and that more people are probably dying because I can't crack the code…

Well, to say I'm in a damn shitty mood is putting it mildly.

So I glare right back at my white board and toss my pen on top of my notebook. I've been through three reviews today and John's been running around here like his hair's on fire. Lucy and Travis are both in the field on special assignment with the U.S. Marines and I've no urge to know what the hell they're getting up to. What I do know is that for the past few months, after Jill and I came home from L.A. and I was pretty much stonewalled on the missing face cases, everything sorta spiraled.

"While watching you give our case board a death glare is at least entertaining, it's not doing anything to close any of them up there?" John teases.

His voice is an easy, deep timbre and it shakes me from my brooding. I blink and look at him. His dark brown hair is styled like it always is, short, squared around the back and ear and parted off to the right so that the front sort of flips over and rests over his forehead. His blue jeans, black v-neck t-shirt and boots are a casual look for him today, but I don't question it. His arms are folded across his broad chest, highlighting his large arms, but his bright brown eyes twinkle down at me.

"Yeah well…" I trail off. He doesn't really deserve my meanness today so I let it go. "Things good on your end today?"

He shrugs. "We're trying to secure a bit more funding for the department and you and me, kiddo, we've got our hands full with everything else."

"Yeah, I know," I say, tipping back in my chair and placing my loafered foot on the edge of my desk. Lacing my fingers behind my head, I tip back and relax my stiff back.

"What we need to do is clear some of these files from your desk." His face breaks out into the trade mark 'John Malone's trying to make Ann feel better' grin. "I don't want it to break in half and have it fall on you. Replacing you'd be a pain in the ass. Who has time for all those damn interviews?"

I swat at his arm and he evades the blow. "Yeah, well," I look over at his desk, letting his eyes follow mine, "Yours isn't in any better shape partner."

"I'm the boss, I'm supposed to have a desk that looks like that," he jokes and nudges the base of my chair with his left foot. "Really though, run me down the current list. Let's put these consults to bed and then we can go back to beating our heads off a brick wall for our four actives."

"Pull up a chair, old timer," I tease moving him out of the way to start the process of clearing my desk. He pulls up one of the free chairs and sits off to my left. I pull the first open case and begin, "Came in three days ago, Boston P.D. wanted our thoughts on the killer's profile. Female vic, found by her sister, bludgeoned and raped. Only open case like this so far, but the D's working it are getting heat so Tami kicked them our info, hoping to get a lead."

His hand stretches out and takes the file from my grasp. I watch as he scans the documents that were sent over. He sniffs and not looking up from the reports, asks, "Thoughts?"

"Off the cuff, the killer not only knew the vic, but was intimate. She's had a couple of boyfriends in and out of her life over the past two years. My thoughts are to point the D's in their direction. I pulled the info on the two most recent. I'd put one on it being the second lover. He's clean, but for one little incident as a juvi."

He looks up at that and cocks an eyebrow. "You pull the minor records?"

"I had a peek." I wink at him and he shakes his head. "The case as a juvi was dismissed, but the kid took a skateboard to a classmate."

Both his eyebrows rise at that and he asks, "Why?"

"The other kid asked his girlfriend for help on a school project," I say, my tone just this side of sarcastic.

"Write it up with the usual. How are you going to point them in that direction without telling them that you accessed sealed records?" he wonders and tosses the file to his right on the edge of my desk.

"I'll throw in some big words and psychological terminology. A.D.A.'s love it in court." I shrug and hand him the next file. "This is actually a little more cut and dry. Mechanicsville, Wyoming Sherriff sent this over to take a look at. Teenager dumped off the side of the highway. Beaten to death. They arrested the mother forty-eight hours after the body was found."

"So we have the case because?" he asks opening the file and taking a perfunctory glance at the contents, flipping up the DVD that's attached.

"They want a more formal assessment of the mother. I was thinking you hand that off to someone from the field office in the state. They can go down and interview the mom. Hmmm and uhmm in the right spots and then offer the professional assessment that the mom's bat shit crazy when they're done."

He snorts. "Reports indicate a full confession. She say why?"

I nod and feel the need to have a little fun. "Take a guess?"

He frowns at this, but decides to play along. "Uh, the T.V. told me to?"

I shake my head.


I frown at him. "Can you be any less original?"

He scratches at his smooth rounded jaw line. His tongue gets clamped between his teeth letting the tip poke out between his full lips. "The will of God?" he tried.

I roll my eyes.

"I'm stumped. Out with it Flemming!" He laughs and hands the file back to me.

"The woman claims that he's been asking her to," I sing song.

"Eh? Assisted suicide?" His face pinches at the thought and he shakes his head.

"Yes, she claims that for the past three years, he begs her to kill him in her dreams." I pick the file back up and flip to the verbatim interview, and read off:

I set the file down and smile, a sad sort of resigned smile. John's mouth hangs open just a little.

"So," I finally say, letting the transcript sink in before continuing, "You want to send this over to someone in the field office?"

He mops his face with his hands, blowing a half raspberry. "Yeah." He takes the file and sits it next to the other one. "Alright what else?"

I point to a small stack and say, "Just a few others that are actually done. I need to ship them out and a small group that I'm taking home tonight. What have you got over there?" I jut my chin in the direction of his desk, it sits facing mine with the two front ends shoved together.

"Nothing that I can't finish tonight if I knuckle down." He shrugs of the inquiry.

This causes my face to sour. "John, seriously, you have just as much crap on your desk as I do mine."

"I know, but some of it's just waiting for me to sign off on and the other last bit is all related to our open docket. I have a couple of motions to write for our A.U.S.A. and then we're golden." He looks down at his watch and sighs. "But, it's pushing five. I promised Becca I'd be home in time for dinner and isn't Lee supposed to be coming over for dinner with you two tonight?"

I nod. "Yeah, Jill's going to attempt to cook."

I smirk as his lips press together. "You think that's such a good idea."

I shake my head remembering the last time she tried to make a meal. Three months ago, she wanted to do something special after a particularly nasty case had ended. She tried making an Italian soup, Pasta Fasule. It cost us nearly five grand 'cause she set the stove and back wall on fire.

"She promised nothing elaborate. I think she's using the crock-pot. I hope that it's chili. She can make that." I gather the folders that I'm going to take home and dump them in my backpack, causing the seams to stretch just a tad. Most professionals get briefcases or an attaché, but me, I get a Timberland camping backpack.

"We'll hope for the best. If I hear a call for the FD come over the scanner, you want me to pop over?" he deadpans standing up to begin packing his own take home work.

"Nah, I think I'll just let the place burn and move in next to you," I retort.

"Flemming, don't joke. That kind of shit is serious. I'm forty-one years old, been shot more times than I can count and have lived to tell the tale. Don't put me in an early grave by shacking up next to me." I watch him pocket the keys to his Wrangler and look at me expectantly. "You ready?"

I nod and sling my backpack over one shoulder, pick up keys to my baby, Apollo. He's a black Audi A5 Coupe with all the sexy trim on the outside and all the functionality I could ever want on the inside. Usually, I'm frugal. I'm cheap and I hate spending money on myself. I will however spend whatever I damn well please on Jill and on the occasion Nora if she lets me, but that's rare. A year and a half ago, I was driving my car, a dependable, but inexpensive Ninety-Two, two-door Acura Integra, his name was J.D., when I hit a patch of black ice and crashed. It was our second accident together, but J.D. was toast. So, having more money than I did when I first purchased J.D., along with Jill knowing how much I had fallen for the model of the vehicle insisted that I splurge for once on something for me. So I did and I'm happy to say I no longer drool all over myself when I see one 'cause I've got one of my very own.

A year later and Apollo and I are very close. John even had the interior outfitted to function as a mobile office, complete with GPS, satellite uplinks to our systems for work and a killer sound system. Following the man that gave me one of the best presents on the planet out of our office, I squinted against the setting sun. As we walk to our cars, the wind picks up and I curse the fact that I left my jacket hanging off my chair.

"See you tomorrow, Ann." He winks and says, "Give that wife a big kiss for me."

"Same to Becca," I shoot back and slip into the cab of my car. I turn my other baby over and drive off, John following me out to the service road and to the highway. He turns off three exists before me and we go our separate ways.

I take my time getting home, enjoying the drive through the foothills of the Appalachians. Heading south on I-95, I let the classic rock station play in the background. It's a forty minute drive from my house to my office and it's usually the only time I have to settle down before going home. My commute used to be longer, two hours and some change, but a few years ago after a nasty little accident, the first one J.D. and I were in, Jill insisted that we move out of Richmond and closer to my work.

It didn't hurt that getting out of Richmond put more distance between me and the little bit of family that I have left. I'd rather not have anything to do with them, but they still call from time to time. Cousins or an errant uncle or aunt needing help. The bad part about the move is that it took us farther from our friends and Jill's family, who are awesome.

Fredericksburg isn't the biggest, but it suits our needs fine. I mean for Jill, who never really had that urge to leave her hometown to begin with, it's perfect. For me, it's where she is so…

I'm happy.

I grin as I pull into our driveway. Her Honda sits in its spot and the lights blaze from our front window. Sometimes, I have to stop and appreciate the things I have. I usually find that I do it with the oddest reminders that this is my life. If you had asked me when I got out of high school if this is where I thought I'd be, I would have called you crazy.

Jill and I had virtually stopped talking during college, shortly after I had my little revelation. God that was…Jill, Lee and I had been inseparable since our first day of high school when we met. At the beginning of our sophomore year, Lee and Jill started dating. Midway through that same year, they broke up. Being the best friend to each, I was left to pick up the pieces.

Somewhere along the way, I realized a few things, the first, I was hopelessly and irrevocably in love with my best girlfriend and the second was that I was queerer than a three dollar bill. Lee, after much cajoling, convinced me that I needed to talk to Jill because in his expert opinion, she loved me like I loved her. So I told her, in a letter while we all attended the U of Richmond.

Very cliché and as I got out into the gay community, I realized not all that uncommon. At least I wasn't alone when Jill pretty much stopped talking to me for three years. We had had the occasional conversation and the go between messages with Lee, but…

In that time, I moved out of Richmond, down to New Orleans, got my B.S. and joined the police force while falling for a green eyed blonde. It was at our graduation party from the Academy that Jill and I were reunited.

Nora in her infinite wisdom and her love for me wanted to make sure that I had friends there for the celebration. In walk Lee and Jill. And my Jill…well she decided to turn my world upside down. Nora and I broke up, Jill moved to NOLA and we've been together ever since.

From what I know, not all lesbian-falls-for-best friend coming out clichés end up as well as mine. All I can say is I feel for those that don't get the girl. Jill and I are coming up on our fifteenth anniversary. I need to plan something big. I let out a contented sigh, park the car, gather my things and trudge up the walkway that's stained from the salt used during the worst of the winter months. Pushing open the unlocked front door, I call out, "Babe?"

"Kitchen," she hollers back.

I dump my stuff on the dining room table that is only used for holidays and make my way into the kitchen. I grin from ear to ear as she dances in front of the stove. Her iPod is docked off to my right. I check the display and see the band, Tool, rolling across its face. My girl has interesting tastes in music, I've caught her listening to what she calls "street punk" to Elton John and everything in between.

I wrap my arms around her waist, reveling in the feel of her taller form relaxing into me. Moving her shoulder length, brunette hair to the side, I kiss the nape of her neck and feel her shudder. Yeah, it's good to be home.

"How was your day?" she mumbles.

I shrug. "It was a day. I've got some files to go through, but if you give me two hours or less tonight I'm all yours," I bargain with her.

She spins around and plants a kiss on my lips, bringing her arms around my neck. Pulling back, she counters, "How about I give you an hour while we wait on Lee and his hooker of the month to get here?"

I quirk an eyebrow. "Hooker of the month?"

Her lips form a pout and she whines, "He has the most horrible taste in women! I mean how am I supposed to feel after I was the last decent girl he's dated?"

I chuckle and step back to hop up on the center island. "You don't like anyone he brings over," I remind her.

Her eyebrows shoot up as her arms cross over her chest. "You give them the third degree," she reminds me and wags a finger in my direction, "I'm not the only one that thinks they're subpar for our oldest friend."

I hold my hands up and concede. She's right. I mean I'm sure they're perfectly nice women, but they're all wrong for our Lee. He's a jerk, don't get me wrong, but he's a loyal, loveable jerk. He deserves someone just as jerky and loveable.

"Alright, so I'm going to grab some stuff and work in here?" I ask. Sometimes she likes to rock out alone and tonight, I can't tell what kind of mood she's in.

"Sure," she says, turning back to the stove to stir something in a pot. It smells good, whatever it is, but I'm withholding judgment. I hop off our counter and go grab my pack. I shuffle back in and she's sitting at the island reading over a script.

"Same one?" I ask, bumping her shoulder.

She nods. "Yeah, I'm just trying to line up a work schedule over the next few months. I've got two movie offers and Ado called about several shoots."

My brow furrows as I listen to her. Shortly after the premier of East End Girl, which got great reviews and even got a few awards, my girl's been less than enthusiastic about work. Which I don't get. She's always loved her job. So I ask, "Do you want to talk about this now or shelve it until after dinner?"

She runs a hand through her hair and pouts.

"Babe?" I question, pulling her off her stool and into my lap.

She draws her legs up and I wrap my arms around her folded legs and back, securing her position. With her forehead nestled against my neck, she starts, "I dunno. The movie was fun. I still like the modeling thing, but…"

She stops and I think this is one of those times where I'm just supposed to know. I guess I'll take a stab at it. "You didn't like all the attention after the premier, did you?"

She shakes her head. "I just want to do my work. Do we really need people following me into a grocery store or God, when they were outside the hospital when I took mom for her tests? Annie that's not me. I never wanted that. I know we talked about this happening or some it happening. Just not at the level we saw."

I feel a hot tear leak down my neck and I hold her tighter. I kiss the top of her head and say, "Whatever you decide, baby, we got your back." Calling up a bit of music that I know she loves, not really my thing but that's beside the point. I croon softly in a very bad cockney accent, "Give me your hopes, give me your dreams, give me your conscience and your fears. I'll keep them safe, I'll hold them dear, And I'll believe in you. When you're blind, I'll be your…"

She cuts me off with a giggle. "Please stop. I can't take you ruining one of my favorite songs."

"Hey," I try for hurt, "I can sing my ass off."

"No baby," she says looking up at me, "You really can't, but you're my tone deaf singer so…"

"You have to love me?" I try.

She nods and pecks me on the cheek. Taking that as a signal to let her go, her feet drop to the floor and she begins finishing up dinner. I begin working through the stack of folders I pulled from my pack. Every now and again, she'll offer commentary, but for the most part she focuses on the meal and softly sings along to whatever the mighty iPod selects.

Sooner than I thought, she moves away and begins setting the kitchen table. Glancing up from my screen, I ask, "You want help?"

"Nah, if you continue to work on that, maybe you can do the dishes after dinner?" She looks hopeful.

Smiling, I nod. Like I was going to say no. The good thing is is that I'm almost finished. I quickly finish off the recommendations for my last file and save my work. As I pack away my laptop, I hear the front door open and Lee's voice call out. Before going to greet our oldest friend, I make a mental note to finish up our conversation.

Whatever she wants, that's what we'll do.

Jill tries to roll off me, but I keep my legs firmly locked around her waist, pulling her flush against me. I should actually finish getting ready for work, but when your wife accosts you as you get out of the shower, sometimes it's better to just go with the flow.

"You're going to be late," she reflects my thoughts back at me.

I squeeze a little more and mumble, "Totally worth it."

She giggles and I smile. We rest in our bedroom, the sounds of our breathing the only thing that can be heard. The visit with Lee and his girlfriend, Tina, went well. Out of everyone that he's brought around, Jill and I agreed after they left we liked her best. What we didn't do was finish our conversation from earlier. "Jill, you know," I start out, what I'm about to say could start an argument, but I go for it anyhow, "if you wanted, you don't have to do anything, right?"

"What?" Her head snaps up from its resting place on my chest. Her eyebrows are knitted together and there's a frown on her lips. All telling signs.

"Well," I back pedal, "If you don't…I mean going back to movies or modeling…Babe, you can do anything you want. No one ever said that this has to be it."

"Oh," she lets out, her face relaxing as I let her roll off me. She moves so that she's lying on her side facing me. "I thought…we're going back to our talk from last night?"

I nod and bring our entwined hands between us, kissing the tips of her fingers.

"What would I do?" She worries her lower lip at the question and I reach out and tuck a strand of her hair behind her ears.

"Whatever. I mean, financially we don't have that worry." I smile then and add, "Thank you for that by the way. But. I mean you could do whatever, seriously. Like there are all these projects around the house that are laying half-finished and I know how much you like to wear that tool belt John got you and play at being Bob Villa. There's always painting. I know you can and I know you like to."

Her face scrunches and she squints at me with this little smirk. "I look damn hot in that tool belt, but my home improvement projects will only last for so long. And what exactly would I do with my paintings?"

"Sell them? Donate them? We could open up an art gallery and showcase your work. Oh, I know," I grin wide and tease, "We could get you a T.V. show and you can be like the hotter version of Bob Ross and teach people to paint happy trees."

She pulls her left hand free and smacks my bare bicep.

"What?" I feign hurt. "You could!"

"You're fucking crazy," she informs me as she rolls away from my grabby hands and says over her shoulder, "You need to finish getting ready and I'll think about it." With that she, flounces into the bathroom leaving me to admire her bare backside before the door shuts.

I roll the opposite direction and land on my feet. Stretching, I feel and hear my back pop back into place. I quickly dress, donning the usual, unspoken uniform of slacks and some blouse with a belt and sensible shoes. I strap my firearm to my side and badge to the front of my hip before wandering into the kitchen to start the coffee. I'm a bitch without it and Jill, bless her, must have made a pot when I was in the shower.

Pulling two mugs from the cupboard, I fix our cups just in time for her to shuffle in dressed in her lounging wear, a faded t-shirt of Nora's and plaid pajama bottoms with socks. I shake my head and mumble, "Press wouldn't call her a lipstick lesbian if they knew what I know."

She kicks out and connects with my bottom for the comment and I laugh. "It's true babe. Admit it. You like to be butch in your down time."

"I like being comfy and if comfy is butch well…I won't cut my hair, but you could definitely talk me into the flannel." She wiggles her eyebrows at me and I shake my head.

"You already have the flannel," I bark out laughing at the look of indignation that crosses her features.

"Ann! Jill!" John's voice booms from the front of the house causing both of our eyebrows to rise collectively.

"Kitchen," I holler back and set my cup down already moving towards our front door.

John doesn't make a habit of popping in unannounced, but when he does…

I round the corner into the front room as he was walking towards me. He's dressed for the weather in a black V-neck sweater and black slacks. He has a file tucked under his arm and in his hands is a tray from Starbucks.

My eyes narrow.

He smiles sheepishly and says, "I tried calling but the house line's down and you didn't answer either of your cells." At my look confusion he explains, "As I was coming in, I saw some moron in a Good Ole Boy Ford took out a telephone poll. Emergency crews are working on it."

"Oh," I say and take the drinks from his hand. "Come on, I was just getting ready to leave."

"Glad I caught you then," he says following behind me.

Jill's face brightens as she sees my partner, then looks at the cups in my hand, and lets out a squeal. "You do love me!" she exclaims and gives John a peck on the cheek.

He blushes a little, which I can't help but find endearing. Those two have a soft spot for each other and it's nice to see.

"Good morning," he greets her and then slaps the folder down on the kitchen counter.

I look at it and then at him. "I take it that I'm not going to like whatever's in that," I wager while pointing at the file.

He shrugs. "It's interesting to say the least." He then turns his attention to my wife and they begin an easy conversation, which is drowned out as I flip the manila folder open and begin reading.

The file contains a printout from our system about a body that was discovered two days ago in St. Clairsville, Ohio. Young woman, Jennifer Denbow, age thirty-one, blonde hair, blue eyes, found dead in her apartment. Cause of death to be determined, but she was found without her face.

My lips form a thin line as I read over the rest of the detail provided, which isn't much. Responding officer, names of witnesses and personal information on the victim.

"I thought we could take Bamby with us and have her to do the post. I made a call up there already and they assured me that the crime scene hasn't been released and the body hasn't been touched. It's still in a cooler at the local hospital," John's voice sounds from behind me.

My jaw clenches at this new piece of information while I silently curse myself and the veritable brick wall that was hit in L.A. a few months ago.

"When do we leave?" I manage as I try to measure my breathing.

"Now, that's why I'm here. Bamby's going to meet us at the airport and I have a chopper on stand-by at the hospital to take us into D.C. for the flight."

"I'll go grab my gear." I stomp out of my kitchen and into my bedroom. For times like this, I've made it a habit of keeping a pre-packed roll-away. It contains a few pairs of generic shirts, pants, socks, underwear, spare toiletries and small arsenal.

I'm about ready to head back out when Jill comes rushing in, stripping along the way. It stops me dead in my tracks and inappropriate or not, I take a moment to ogle as she slips her p.j.'s down her hips and lets them pool on the floor.

"Babe?" I ask.

"I'm coming with," she answers and reaches for a pair of jeans. She slips them on and runs her hand through her hair. "Can you grab me my shoes in the living room while I throw together a bag?"

"Uh, yeah, sure." I spin out of the room and find John sitting in the kitchen.

The look I give him prompts his response, "She's home and I don't know how long we're going to be gone. I invited her. She keeps you together when you're about ready to go postal."

I glare. "I wasn't ready to go postal."

He just shakes his head. "Look, you're pissed. I know you are and you know you are. That's body number three that we know of." He gets up from his seat and lays two hands on my slim shoulders. "L.A. isn't your fault. There was nothing else to go on."

"So more people die because we aren't good enough," I spit quietly.

He nods. "It's the nature of the beast." He smiles at me then, the kind of smile that usually sets me at ease. "We'll get the fucker, Annie," he says with the type of conviction that's lead armies to fight and kill.

I nod and spin away from him to find my wife's shoes.

My week just got a whole helluva lot more interesting, that's for damn sure.

Somewhere in John's gene pool is a recessive trait for dwarfism, or midget being, or whatever the hell the politically correct term for being a small ass person is. This isn't a new thought, in fact it's a recurring one every time I see Doctor Bamby Malone. She is currently uploading images from the autopsy to our system and chatting with Jill about her new guitar.

The thing with Bamby is that she comes as a set. Her fraternal twin, Doctor Spencer Malone, splits her time between M.I.T. in the physics department and in D.C. with her sister. They are both, five-foot-two-inches tall, on a good day, long chestnut colored hair and bright blue eyes. They have their mothers build, athletic, their fathers personality, charming but assertive, and the height thing is an anomaly 'cause John and Becca both are above average in height.

Besides their vertically challenged stature, the other thing I've not been able to figure out is the names. I have no idea why one was named Bamby and the other Spencer. I'm not sure John will ever tell me or if really he even knows. His wife, Rebecca, returned home in November of Nineteen Ninety with three things, a Congressional Medal of Honor and John's daughters. Becca, like John, served in the U.S. Army under the Special Forces moniker. I don't really know if the Special Forces allow women nor do I care to find out.

Sometimes with my boss and his family, not knowing is better than knowing and the adage that ignorance is bliss is a tried and true statement.

Regardless, Becca returned with two babies and the medal to pin on her chest. As the girls got older another startlingly obvious development occurred, the two were smart, talking in full sentences before the age of two and reading at a second grade level before the age of three. They both went to a special school in England for gifted children that allowed them to graduate high school by the age of fourteen and both obtained their bachelors in their respective fields of study by sixteen. Doctorates followed soon after.

Bamby was brought on board when she turned eighteen to become our department's resident medical examiner and forensics analyst. The girl is a marvel and works with every type of forensic science there is. She's also a lot of fun to be with.

For the past four days in a town close to the West Virginia boarder in Ohio, I've been reminded of this and also slightly shocked at how alike she is to her father. If I thought having one around was a pain in the ass, having two has been an exercise in patience.

When we first arrived, John, Bamby and I were able to actually process the scene in our own way. We were also able to get Bamby in to do the autopsy and she's also been the one to process any labs that needed done.

Today, I sit on a steel stool with John watching Bamby and my wife talk nonstop about music while she gets ready to show us the results of her findings.

Leaning in, John whispers, "You worried?"

I look at him out of the corner of my eye and ask, "About?"

He smirks at me and waggles a finger between his daughter and my wife.

I scoff and role my eyes. "Uh, no. Jill wouldn't and while I can't be too sure of that daughter of yours. Your daughter's girlfriend would totally kick some ass."

John scratches the three day old stubble on his chin and rubs at the dark circles under his eyes. He looks like I feel and I know I probably don't look too much better. "You're right," he concedes and cracks a grin. "Why is it I'm surrounded by a bunch of lesbians? I mean is that normal? Is it only me? There's you and Jill and Bamby and Spencer."

I raise an eyebrow at the question and ask my own, "Does it bother you?"

His mouth screws to the side and then a full blown, cheesy grin makes its way on to his face. "Nope. I just think that maybe I've got a sign on my back, like "friends with gays" or somethin'."

I shake my head at the joke and pat him soothingly on the back. "Well at least you have others to check out girls with."

"Please, you're no fun to go drinking with, uh, no way in hell with either of my daughters, I'd have to kill someone and besides, you know how Becca gets, she's not the jealous type, but…"

I bob my head. "She'd use your nuts as a change purse?"

"Exactly," he agrees.

"Are you two done?" Bamby asks as she looks up from the monitor. "And F.Y.I. that conversation you two were having…never, ever have it around me again."

"Sweetheart," John tries.

"No, dad, seriously. Now let's focus on the details of the three cases, since this is the first time I've had a chance to actually dig in and not only have body, but a crime scene to work with." She waits for the projector to boot up before she begins.

The first image on the screen is a three-way view of the three victims' faces. The images aren't that great and since they are being displayed on an off white wall in the basement of a hospital, it makes it just that much worse.

"All right, so the third victim's injuries are consistent with the previous two victims. There are disparities, but I'm confident enough to say that the person that made the cuts on the first victim is the same in the second and the third." She directs our attention with a laser pointer and continues, "The first vic's face was too far gone for me to be able to really determine much of anything, but the M.E. that conducted the post wasn't a total waste. Not as thorough as I'd have liked but, that's neither here nor there. What I want to direct your attention to are the markings along the hairline. There were several start and stop points, as you can see here."

My eyes skirt to where's she's pointing and I can see several of the cuts she's talking about.

"Now, in the second victim, this is a lot cleaner, except for here right in front of the left ear. I can give conjecture as to why there's another starting point, but there is. In this new victim, There's nothing indicating any hesitation." She sniffs and brings up another set of photos that look to be magnifications of the wounds. "This was also interesting, the skin, I can say with confidence in victims two and three, of the face was removed in pieces. Strips were taken off."

I'm sorry, eh? "Come again," is what I say. I glance at Jill. She has her nose buried in that script and her iPod's on. I can thank her later for not wanting to hear this.

"Wait, I want you two to listen and then ask when I'm finished." Bamby goes back to her slide show and carries on, "Since I wasn't able to really look at the first two victims, I can't be one-hundred percent certain, but I do know that our victim here was kept alive during the entire process. Between the blood loss, the way the face was beginning to heal starting in a left to right fashion. All of the wound patterns indicate that she was alive as your unsub removed everything from the hypodermis and above."

John and I look at each other and are about to ask a question, but Bamby holds up her finger.

"There's more. Since the victim was alive, I needed to run some tox screenings. I really don't care who you are, if you're alive while someone's flaying the skin off your face, it's going to be an issue. So, not only were they alive, but the unsub had them awake. The lab results indicate that at least vic three was potentially awake for a minimum of three days."

She hits the keyboard a few times and several labs pop up. "If you look here and here, there are two things you need to be aware of; one is the near absent levels of electrolytes and then the staggering amount of epinephrine in the blood post mortem. The decrease in electrolytes, such as sodium levels, potassium, hydrogen carbonate and hydrogen phosphate, is one thing associated with sleep deprivation. It's common, but with epinephrine the normal resting concentrations in the blood are around ten nano-grams per liter. That will change due to activity. In sports, they've seen that number raise to more than fifty times the amount and in certain medical conditions it can go as high as ten thousand to a hundred thousand nano-grams per liter."

She points to the graph and says, "Vic three was pushing two-point-oh-seven grams per liter. That's lethal or near lethal." She lets that sink in before dropping the last bomb, "The one thing that we can be thankful of or well, okay, so it's so totally a subjective view, but the unsub did partially anesthetize the victim with benzoylmethylecgonine."

John and I look again at each other and ask at the same time, "They are using cocaine to curb the pain?"

Bamby nods and swallows. "I've still got a bit of work to do and I'm waiting on the labs in L.A. to get back to me, but I'd bet we could find a similar pattern."

"So," John hops up off his seat and begins his pace, "Let me get this straight. Our Unidentified Subject takes the victim, keeps them alive for a few days doped up on coke and adrenaline, deprives them of sleep and then takes off their face, strip by strip?"

His daughter bobs her head, causing both John and I to slide our hands down our face and groan.

"Is there anything else?" John asks, pushing back the jacket he has on to expose the gun at his hip.

"Not really, I'm waiting on few things from the other two cities, but I can back pretty much everything else up with just this one case," Bamby answers and begins to shut the projector off.

His lips are a thin line of frustration as he turns to me. "Ann, what can you tell me?"

I scratch and rub my earlobe before deciding on an answer. "I don't know."

"Bullshit. Tell me what you're thinking," he snaps and Bamby shoots her father a look.

Swallowing, I stand and mirror his posture. "We both know this doesn't fit with our standardized list of profiles. If we assume that all three bodies are the work of the same unsub then we know this, they're nomadic, they're highly skilled with a blade and women between the ages of twenty-eight and thirty-five strike the fuckers fancy."

"Alright," he steps up into my personal space. Our noses nearly touch as he jabs me on the temple with his index finger. "That's your head, Ann. Fuck your head right now. I need to know what your gut's telling you about them. I'd trust your instincts to keep me and my family alive any day of the week."

"Male, more than likely white, an educated guess pits them with some type of medical background," I spit and step back. I spin around and reach for the stack of glossies in my bag. "The killer's not only controlled, but meticulous, organized. He's not crazy, at least in the clinical sense. He's patient. That much we know. He blends with people easily. Ten to one, he's not only cased the vics, but the vics knew him, probably trusted him on some level. Given the second killing, with no signs of a struggle, I'd either suspect that he got in easily and in to a position to subdue the vic without her putting up a fight. Also, these aren't their firsts. This is the killer finding his groove. There are more bodies out there. We need to broaden our searches, see if we can find his first kill." I pull the photos free and spread them out, observing them with a new eye.

"What else?" John presses.

I hesitate before answering, "Him taking the face means a lot. Obviously. Why keep them alive like that, but I don't think the face is the end goal. It's a message of some sort. The cocaine is also something that we need to look at. Travel patterns are another. The Midwest to California to Ohio. The way that he places the bodies after he's done with them, it's respectful. He's saying something there too." My mind's eye searches frantically over the crime scenes searching for details I could have missed. Details that seem insignificant when looking at a body, but later on could make or break a case.

I shake my head coming up with nothing.

John nods and says, "Okay, that's a start. Lucy and Travis will be back with us on Saturday. They finished their assignment on Tuesday, but I needed to give them a few days to decompress. We have a choice. We can stay here and try to work the case or we take what we have and go back to Quantico."

The three of us look each other over and make a decision. I'd rather be at home going through everything any way.

Part 3

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