DISCLAIMER: Women's Murder Club and its characters are the property of James Patterson, 20th Century Fox Television and ABC. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks you's go to grumpybear1031 for the lovely banner, and Lyn for the beta! Just one more KMN resolution story, written during the writer's strike (= between episodes 10 and 11).
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Through The Heart
"Not only I have finally let go... I also moved on. For all the world to see."
Sneaking my arm around Cindy's shoulders, I pulled her close for a brief explanatory kiss that made her blush nonetheless. She wasn't all that shy anymore once we turned off the lights - but I could sympathize, here we were, out in the open now; of course it was different.
"Congratulations," Jill said, smiling a little wistfully. "Finally some good news."
The last bit of tension I hadn't known was there until now was gone. Shared memories even from long ago are easily brought up when you stay close together. I smiled back at her, relieved in the knowledge that our friendship was indeed strong enough to handle the changes in our little club.
Claire raised her glass, giving me a meaningful look. "I'm so glad you came to your senses. You two are beyond cute."
"I keep telling her," I said with a grin in Cindy's direction who blushed a little more.
"Okay, now we all know, can we please talk about something else?" she pleaded.
"Oh, I don't know about that." Jill's expression was just a tiny bit devious. "A few more details wouldn't hurt."
Cindy groaned, leaning forward to put her head in her hands. "I plead the Fifth," she mumbled, while I reached over to stroke her back.
"Poor baby. But you wanted to be in the club. Remember what we said about sharing secrets?"
We were ordering a bottle of champagne to celebrate the news, and a free Sunday morning. Of course, all this talk about moving on would be really making sense the moment Kiss-Me-Not was apprehended. Time had passed, Agent Ashe was still around, but the killer hadn't struck again. Even on a day like today, feeling slighty goofy and carefree and *happy*, neither of them was completely gone from my mind.
There would come a day, though, when it would be that way.
And I would be here, like now, celebrating with my girls. Like now, holding hands with Cindy Thomas who had finally chased the emptiness from my life.
The man in the booth across the aisle smiled over his reading. He didn't have to concentrate hard, as he knew the words by heart; his attention was on the four women talking to each other, teasing, laughing, generally having a good time.
His smile deepened. They were unaware, of course, not knowing that he was their shared nightmare of five years, for three of them, anyway. He'd get acquainted to the fourth, the little reporter who talked too much, the one Lindsay was sleeping with.
And she had found out about the fairy tales, but she hadn't made the right connections.
She didn't know that he killed because of her, that the women had died for her sins. Lindsay had never told anyone, but Kiss-Me-Not - he grinned at the silly name the Medical Examiner had given him - knew about her extramarital affair early in her marriage. Sarah Rice paid for it. Then the baby. They might have explained it to themselves as an accident, but he knew better. She wasn't a good mother, hadn't been careful enough, and that was why she had lost it.
For that, Kiss-Me-Not had laid Melissa Paquin's body at her feet, and she still hadn't got it.
Divorce, another sin, for which Elaine Lewis had to die.
//When will you ever learn, Lindsay?//
The man ordered another coffee, and when the waitress brought it, he stole a glance at his newest 'project'. This time, he would not be mistaken.
Eagerly, he anticipated the execution of the plan he'd been working on for the past few weeks, ever since he'd seen the look that had passed between them when he stood among the bystanders at the house where Elaine's body had been found.
He knew immediately.
Curiosity could kill. It certainly would, in this case.
In his mind, the Sleeping Beauty scenery was perfect; white sheets, the princess' auburn hair spilled on the pillow, her eyes closed as she paid for her curiosity with her sleep of a hundred years - only this time, no prince in the world would ever be able to wake her up. She would never tell her story, as her lips would be sewn shut --
That too talkative woman, finally shut up.
Lindsay Boxer would understand, eventually. And it would destroy her.
Smiling, the man kept on reading, looking up as other patrons entered Papa Joe's. When he saw what was bulging from one of the men's coats, he froze.
I wished to God I was mistaken, but I wasn't, and from now on, every minute counted.
"Take out your cell phone," I told Jill. "Don't put it on the table; just lean forward as if you're searching for something in your purse. "Call for back-up."
The two men who were wearing long coats, even on this warm spring Sunday, would have been suspicious enough, even if I hadn't recognized Karl Granger whom I'd busted two years ago for killing a bank teller during a robbery. He'd shot the 22-year-old man point blank. What the hell was he doing here? There was no way he could legally be out yet.
I felt a drop of sweat snake down my spine. If he recognized me, too... It didn't matter though, within minutes, Papa Joe's would be surrounded by the SWAT team - they wouldn't get away. Now my only concern was how to get the other patrons out of here alive - my friends, my lover, the man in the booth across the aisle who was just getting up to leave, the elderly couple, the group of teenagers, the mom in the corner who was having a latte while her baby slept.
Jill was pale, but she made the call, leaving the cell phone open in her purse.
I didn't have to explain to her or Claire what was going on. And when I saw the fear in Cindy's eyes, I knew that she had also realized what was going on. I squeezed her hand briefly, resisting the urge to tell her that everything was going to be okay. I didn't want to make empty promises.
"I love you," I said instead, slowly getting up, my hand on my service weapon.
Granger was standing at the counter, saying something to Rosie, the waitress, and then he gripped her hair, yanking hard. His hostage.
His companion shot at the ceiling, bringing one of the halogen lamps down, and chaos erupted, screams, leading to more shots.
"Get down!" I shouted, pushing down the man who had been about to leave and was standing frozen, a perfect target; then I faced the gunman, my own weapon drawn. I could see that he knew who I was even before I identified myself.
Granger laughed madly at that, as if I'd made a joke. "Yes, you'd better.What a lovely Sunday morning, Inspector." He had his gun pointed at Rosie's head. Her eyes were wide, the panicked look of a person thinking they're going to die.
I'd do whatever was in my power not to make it happen.
"Karl. What is this all about? Not much money here on a Sunday. Why don't you tell me what you want, and I'll see what I can do about it?"
He laughed even harder, his finger tightening on the trigger. Rosie whimpered.
"How about the boring things. A car, a good head start. Not very original, I know, Inspector, but if you give them to me, I'll disappear without a bloodbath. Maybe."
There were sirens in the distance. Granger could hear them, too. "That's a bad idea. How many do you think I can shoot before the snipers get to me?"
"This is not TV, Karl. They're going to negotiate. Chances are, you can even get what you want - but your chances are a whole lot better if you let these people go."
He shook his head. "You think you can fool me? Think again, Inspector. Here's my parting present to you."
I'd sensed his intent a split second before. When he pulled the trigger, so did I.
His accomplice started shooting, but by then the SWAT team was coming in, and all I could think was to get to the girls.
I made my way back to our booth, brushing past cops and medical personnel that swarmed the place, feeling like I was going through molasses. Time had lost its meaning, hard to say how much of it had passed from the moment I had recognized Granger to - now.
I had cut myself on some shards, but didn' feel any pain, just the oddly comforting sensation of the warm blood trailing down my arm.
When I shot him, Granger's own shot had gone wild, hitting the mirror wall of the bar. The accomplice had fired at Rosie, hitting her in the back, then directing his weapon at me, but by that time, the SWAT team was in.
Jill was deathly pale, still clutching her purse in a white-knuckled grip. They had taken shelter under the table; tiny splinters of glass glinting in her hair. Beside her, Claire, cradling Cindy in her arms, was calling out for a medic.
Then she saw me, and the look in her eyes made me freeze.
Claire's blouse was stained with blood that I knew wasn't her own. I dropped to my knees beside them, unable to speak or even reach out, as my hands, which were steady when I shot at Granger, were trembling badly now.
"No. Please tell me that this isn't--"
"Lindsay. Lindsay, do you hear me? I've got a pulse. She'll live."
I wanted to check for myself, I needed to in order to believe, but then the paramedics were there, taking her away.
"She'll make it," Claire said again, wanting to convince herself, all of us, but I pulled back from the comforting touch of her hand on my shoulder. I couldn't take a moment longer of looking at the blood on her clothing.
There was a crime scene that needed to be wrapped up, but for the moment, I couldn't have cared less. I needed to go to the hospital.
When the young paramedic called after me, "Miss, wait a minute. You're bleeding!" I settled for ignoring him.
Sunday noon, I wished I could wake up in my bed to find all of this had been a nightmare.
The man was currently sitting on a bed in his cubicle, waiting for the doctor.
He felt exhilarated.
Usually, he liked to plan ahead, and you could never plan things like this, but where had it taken him! He could still feel the warmth of her body as she pushed him out of the way. Saving his life. If only she'd known.
She was strong, his favorite Inspector. A hunter, like him. But that was not enough, because he knew her, knew her ultimate weakness. He knew how to break her.
Speaking of which - the princess was in the same hospital; he planned to go and check on her. Auburn hair on a white pillow; it would almost be like in his own scene. He was high on the endorphins in his system; he hardly felt the pain of the flesh wound one of the gunmen's shots had caused him.
He'd been lucky - they all had been.
How tragic it would have been to die at the hands of some stupid robber - no, it was *him* who'd determine when it was the right time to be together in death.
The doctor came in, and Kiss-Me-Not smiled at him. "I guess you're going to stitch me up now?"
I made the mistake of talking to Tom briefly, who then all but bodily forced me to stay and have my hand bandaged. I snarled at him, but he wasn't impressed. "I know you want to go, but bleeding all over her is not going to help your friend. On the contrary."
I opened my mouth to say something, only to be interrupted by Claire. "He's right, Linds. Cindy is in good care now. Let them look at your hand, and then I'll drive you."
She wasn't wearing the bloody blouse any longer; Jill had gotten a clean shirt from her car to give to her, which was a relief. I glared at her. "I can drive."
I was walking a fine line and I knew it. What I really wanted to say was, thank you for being close to her when I couldn't. I wanted to turn back time so we could go back and decide to have our breakfast elsewhere. Celebrating good news with friends.
Taking a look around, I took in all the destruction while the paramedic told me to hold still.
Rosie had still been alive when she had been loaded into the ambulance, but it didn't take a doctor to tell it was touch and go. Several people had been shot, but no one fatally. Yet.
A parting gift, Granger had said. He'd wanted for people to die, making it personal.
He'd almost killed Cindy.
And somewhere in the city, Kiss-Me-Not would read or hear about the news, waiting for the final stand-off.
Somehow, all that was too much on a Sunday that was supposed to be a day off.
I fished for the keys in my jeans pocket and gave them to Claire. "Not a word."
She shrugged. "I'm not sayin' anything...let's go see your girl now."
Bless her for always knowing the right words to say.
"Your friend was very lucky," the doctor said, and I sank into the chair, leaning forward for an instant. Jill laid a hand on the small of my back, and the warmth of the touch made the lightheadedness go away, chasing away the chill that had gripped my body, when... I couldn't really remember when.
"The bullet went through and through, missed all of the vital organs." I tuned out Dr. Vermont's explanation after that, my thoughts drifting. I knew him; he was a friend of Luke's actually, so he obviously saw nothing wrong with giving us the information and very likely violating hospital procedure. We couldn't expect to always be so lucky. Cindy and I really needed to make arrangements. As soon as she was home.
"When can I see her?"
He smiled warmly. "Give us some time to get her settled in her room; I'll have someone notify you."
True to his word, he sent a nurse later to give us the room number. "You can't stay long," she obviously felt the necessity to tell us. "Ms. Thomas needs her rest now."
Claire shot me a warning glance, and I shook my head. I wouldn't take the risk of being banned from the room, no way.
Once inside, I pulled myself up a chair, reaching for her hand. I stood up again, nervous all of a sudden. Cindy, being quiet like this, *silenced*, freaked me out beyond reason. She wasn't always talking, mind you. She did talk a lot, no denying that, but the past few nights, lying in my arms, I'd seen her calm, in a way I suspected not many people got to see her. Ever.
This was a whole lot different. I realized my hand was shaking again, when I reached out to brush a strand of hair from her face. She looked so young. I wanted to lean down and kiss her and make her wake just from that.
There was something nagging at the back of my mind, but I couldn't reach it... Instead I forcibly directed my thoughts back to happier moments, like last night when we decided that today was supposed to be the day to come out literally and tell Jill and Claire.
"I wasn't sure you'd want that," she had said, her face lighting up with happy surprise.
"Why wouldn't I? I mean, I'm very okay with keeping you all to myself." I'd run my hand down her side, resting it on her hip, making her shiver. "But hey, they are our friends. And they're observant, intelligent women. Chances are, they already know."
She'd leaned close, and we kissed. "You're not worried what everybody will think? You're in a much more conservative work environment than I am. You were married. With everyone else but Jill and Claire, we better be careful."
Taking her hand now, I brushed my lips across the knuckles. "I don't care what anyone thinks," I told her, even though she couldn't hear me, my voice cracking on the last word.
Jill silently put her arm around my shoulders --
-- and then the ring of my cell phone interrupted the silence.
"Jacobi, you know where I am, don't you think this could have waited?"
"I don't think so," he said dryly.
"I'm in the hospital, and a nurse is going to chase me out of Cindy's room any minute. So what is this about?"
His voice softened some when he asked, "She's going to be okay, right?"
I took a deep breath. "Yes, she is. Now spill it already."
"We're going through this place right now," he explained. "People have left things behind, some who were injured, some who just freaked and ran. Guess what the guy in the booth across from you gals was reading?"
"I guess you're going to tell me." I was slightly irritated already, and of course my partner knew.
He sighed. "You're not going to like this. What he left behind was a book of Grimm's fairy tales. The guy was reading Sleeping Beauty a few feet away from you."
I swore loudly enough to make Claire jump. "Okay, you meet me here. I'm going to get a doctor and go with them through everyone admitted after the shooting."
Cindy woke in an unfamiliar room, confused and in pain. She couldn't shake the feeling of being watched, though, and when she finally managed to open her eyes and turn her head a fraction, she saw the man standing by the bed.
His arm was bandaged, and he smiled at her.
That moment, she longed for Lindsay to be there so hard, it was almost a physical pain in addition to the other. Did she know him?
"You might not remember me," he said. "I was at Papa Joe's today. You got shot. Well, obviously, I was, too."
Frankly, Cindy didn't remember much about today, except they were going to tell Jill and Claire... She wanted to ask about Lindsay, even though it wasn't likely that this guy knew, and the fear kept building in her mind.
The man took a step closer. "You probably think it's weird, but I felt like I had to check on you. Like, we've both been in this dangerous situation. Kindred spirits, somehow."
Probably she should cut him some slack, as he seemed to be as shaken by the day's events as anyone. Needing to make a connection.
For Cindy, however, there was only one person she wanted to be connected with, and that person wasn't there. She thought of maybe asking him to get a doctor, but her voice wouldn't work enough for that, and all that came out was a pained moan.
"I saw how it happened," he explained. "The bullet richoted - you were supposed to be safe under that table. But I guess no one's ever completely safe, are we? Nice to meet you, Cindy Thomas."
He stroked her cheek, then stepped back and waved before he left the room.
The nurse didn't quite understand the urgency. It was infuriating.
"You know," she said, shuffling her papers, "I need to check; there were several doctors involved in treating victims of the shooting. Quite a few people got injured."
"I know. I was there."
She didn't comment on that, but then had the information ready for me pretty quickly. "Dr. Mason came in last today; we called him to assist on the less severe cases. I can try and page him for you."
Jacobi arrived soon after that, Agent Ashe in tow. I was rolling my eyes at Jill, who hid a grin behind her hand. I'd been very okay with not having him around all the time.
The only male person that surgery had been performed on was fifteen years old, definitely not our perp. Damn, why hadn't I even noticed the man who had sat across from us? And then later, when I pushed him out of the line of fire, my focus had been on Granger.
I didn't think he'd been injured badly, so my best bet was probably Dr. Mason, who had spent his supposedly free afternoon stitching gunshot wounds. If we were really lucky, he'd kept that patient overnight...
The nurse came running after me as I hurried to Mason's office. "I can't reach him," she said.. "He should be in his office by now. I really don't understand--"
I had a bad feeling about this. "Where could he be?"
"The last patient should be long gone. I can't imagine what he would still be doing in the treatment room..."
"Miss, please go back to your desk now, okay?"
I entered with my weapon drawn, pushing aside each curtain. Most cubicles were empty, as the frantic activity from earlier had toned down to the normal business of a hospital. In one of them, a doctor stared at me in disbelief while the patient grumbled, "No fucking rest even in this place." I showed them my badge, putting my finger to my lips.
I had reached the last cubicle, the one where Dr. Mason had been supposed to be working last. My heart was hammering as I drew the curtain aside.
I lowered my weapon, feeling like the ground was giving way under my feet, the cold creeping up my body. I had found Dr. Mason - his scrubs and the bed he was lying on drenched in blood. The last patient had slit his throat.
Cindy was still here.
Then I was running; whatever needed to be done now, I couldn't do anything before I had reassured myself that she was okay.
He straightened up, giving his reflection in the bathroom mirror a satisfied grin. His formerly dirty blond hair was now a dark brown; contacts would round up the image. So far, no one had known what he looked like, but even with the commotion at the café, somebody was bound to remember; he couldn't take the risk.
Not that he didn't like a risk, on the contrary.
It had been quite risky to leave the fairy tale book behind, but he simply couldn't resist.
Now he'd have to take precautions. The shoes with the special soles that made him look larger would have to go. He'd opt for a different choice of clothes.
Again, he took in his appearance approvingly. Chameleons could learn from him. Then again, most people could learn from him.
By now, they should have found everything else he had left for them...
He thought of the doctor with a shrug. What bad luck for the guy to be called back to work on a day like this, even doing a good job with the stitches. Needle and thread.
He shuddered with a familiar anticipation.
"Will you check on her now?"
I had torn Cindy from what had seemed a restful sleep. Still groggy, but seemingly fine, though that wasn't enough for me; I wanted the doctor to confirm it, even taking into consideration that he was in shock about his colleague having been murdered.
And I didn't give a damn about Ashe watching me from the doorway, while Jacobi said, "Lindsay. They will if you give them a moment."
" 'm okay. Sleep," she mumbled, and I had to smile despite myself. I had to make room for the two physicians that had accompanied Jacobi and Ashe here, so I stood to the side, my heart rate slowly returning to normal as she turned out to be unharmed.
They were taking a blood sample to be sure. I kept waiting, just wanting a moment with her until I had to go back to work.
I watched her very closely, hoping to keep my mind from flashing on the murdered doctor just a few corridors away, feeling just as grateful as guilty. We'd been spared. Which could only mean he was preparing for a bigger game.
Kiss-Me-Not had no qualms about killing whoever was in his way, but he'd go back to his ritual eventually.
The sting of something sharp in my finger made me start. Mesmerized, I stared at the drop of blood. There was a rose under Cindy's pillow.
Not much of a question who had left it here.
The argument was brief and conclusive. "I need a guard in front of her door, 24/7, until she can go home with me."
If he'd noticed my slip of the tongue, Tom didn't let it show. I didn't care. Either way, the truth would come out eventually. "He didn't send the FBI an image of her with XXX's drawn over her mouth."
"He sent them Cindy's article."
Tom sighed. "Lindsay, he's taunting you. It's not like we can take a risk here, so okay, you'll get your guard. I just wish you cared as much about yourself."
I would have said something to that if it wasn't for the agent who was hanging around, watching us curiously. If only my break from him could have lasted a little while longer.
Tom assigned a guard to Cindy's room, and then there was no putting it off any longer; Agent Ashe and I went back to the scene of the murder.
I had thought about this long and hard, and by the time Cindy was allowed to leave the hospital, I had come to a few conclusions. I couldn't deny it any longer - they had all been right, Tom, Agent Ashe. Kiss-Me-Not was making it personal; I was the one he was really after.
In the meantime, he'd just kill at the drop of a hat, taunting me, getting closer, daring me to catch him. It had to end, one way or another. I had to face him. Literally.
The night before the day Cindy was going to be released, Jacobi and I went for a beer, and I told him about my plans. He told me his opinion about them. Bluntly.
"You're nuts, Boxer. Jesus, this guy has really messed with your mind."
I scowled at him. "I thought you'd appreciate me telling you a little more."
"You being alive is what I appreciate most. And this sounds suicidal. It's not something people usually do when they just fell in love."
He laughed at what must have been a panicked look on my face. " 'Some women lose all sense of reality in the face of cuteness'. Didn't take me that long to figure out you weren't talking about Cindy. You were talking about yourself."
I had stood on my desk in the middle of the bullpen to assure everybody that hey, my private life wasn't that exciting enough for anybody to be concerned about it. Obviously, it hadn't helped much.
"It is actually a good thing," Jacobi assured me. "Your idea to bait out Kiss-Me-Not is definitely not."
"You were right with what you said about partners. That's why I told you. I need someone to back me up in this. It's our only chance to get him."
I looked up at him, warmed at the concern in his eyes, but not backing down.
"Are we in this together?"
He didn't answer right away. I knew he hated what I'd come up with; except he knew there was no other way. So far, the killer's cover had been perfect. We needed to blow it.
I gave Jacobi another questioning look, and he said, "Hell, yes. We are."
I would have to come clean with the club eventually, and they would try to talk me out of it, so that would come last, when everything was set up. I'd have to go alone... he'd been close these past few weeks, so he'd know, and it would a chance too good to miss. If he really wanted me, he wouldn't be able to resist.
First of all, though, I brought Cindy home. We hadn't talked about shared quarters before, after all, 'us' was pretty new still, but there was no discussion whether or not she'd be with me until she'd have fully recovered. Until I had mustered enough courage to face off the monster that had been lurking in my nightmares for too long.
It wasn't so hard to push those thoughts away for a while, when Cindy was sitting beside me, telling me how glad she was to come home with me. Just listening to her and stealing sideways glances at a red light made me smile.
"... and I really could have done with a little less drama for our coming out. Why would anybody rob the place on a Sunday morning? I really--" She hid a big yawn behind her hand. "Before I can address all these questions though, I could sleep for years."
This time, I almost missed the light turning red, and I hit the brakes so hard, the car lurched. "What did you just say?"
"Um, I didn't mean it literally..."
"Sleeping Beauty," I said wearily. "The bastard's giving us clues about what his next crime scene will look like."
I saw the spark of curiosity in her eyes, which reminded me uncomfortably of all the things I hadn't told her yet. Not tonight.
For tonight, I just wanted a quiet evening, dinner, time with Cindy that could be cut short at any minute. The truth was, I didn't really know how much remained once I'd made my move. I didn't plan on sacrificing myself. I didn't matter at all, if only I could stop him.
"I understand," she said softly, laying her hand on my arm. "Nothing about the job tonight."
It felt good to have somebody know you that well - and somehow, just a little scary.
"I've missed this so much," Cindy sighed, and I smiled, kissing her neck. I had, too. I loved holding her like this; spooned up beside her, her body warm and relaxed in my arms - it gave me a sense of peace that I wasn't accustomed to. It was a nice way to start over again.
She turned her head to kiss me, then asked mischievously, "You sure sleeping was all you had on your mind?"
"As long as you're still doped up on pain meds, yes, I'm sure."
"There are other ways to up those endorphin levels," she mumbled, and I chuckled.
"Bring it on. As long as you're grumpy, I know you really must be a lot better." It was true; I hadn't even realized how much anxiety had built up inside of me those past few days. It was slipping away finally, bringing in its wake a new determination, and the confidence, that with the support I had, I could do almost anything.
Even catch Kiss-Me-Not.
He was nothing, if not efficient. The hospital staff was still so worked up about the good doctor's death that they'd need a while to notice the drugs that were missing -- and by that time, he would have already used them, but neither Cindy Thomas nor Lindsay Boxer would be around to make the connection.
He rubbed his palms together in anticipation. He was a bit disappointed to see nothing going on but some cuddling under the covers tonight, but he assumed that would change in the next few days. Grinning, he thought that he'd give them that long; it was for his enjoyment, too, after all.
Next came the punishment.
"Sleeping Beauty indeed," he whispered. "Soon."
The overwhelming feeling of dread is almost a physical presence. It's surrounding me, nearly touching me. I give the front door a little push... and it swings open. A cold breeze makes me shiver, like a warning, but I go further into the house.
Why isn't Martha greeting me as usual?
I walk on, apprehension slowing my step. There's the sound of something clattering to the floor upstairs. I'm reaching for my weapon automatically, starting when it isn't there. I'm trying to switch on the light, but nothing happens.
In the darkness, I almost fall over something solid, a wet sound under the sole of my shoe... And then I see her, lying in a pool of blood, just like Jacobi has predicted, her throat slit. I press my hand against my mouth, holding in the scream, because, God, he is still in the house...
I want to run, but I can't; I'm drawn to the stairs like by some invisible force, nearly running, to what is waiting for me in the bedroom, my own safety not an issue. It's because it doesn't matter anymore, as when I all but stumble into the room, I already know I'm too late.
There are roses strewn all over the bed, and she's lying in the midst of it, blood soaking the sheets, her mouth... sewn shut.
That's when I scream for real, torturous moments until I finally manage to wake myself from the nightmare.
"Lindsay, what is going on?"
Cindy's eyes were wide with concern, but for now, I needed all my concentration to keep on breathing, that, and softly touching her face, her lips, to reassure myself that she was indeed alive and whole.
Kiss-Me-Not had given me a few nightmares, but nothing had ever been this bad. It was time to end this.
"I'm okay," I said, my voice sounding almost normal. Proud of myself. Inside - was another story.
Cindy was rolling her eyes at me, not pleased with my answer.
"Really. I just need a moment, okay?"
"Lindsay. Please." She ran her hand down my back, tenderly, but it was more than I could handle at the moment. I shrugged out of the touch, got up and out of bed.
"Be back in a few."
I didn't need to turn around to see the irritation in her expression; I knew it was there.
My tenious grip on control was slipping; I had to put some distance between us, barely managing to get out of the door into the living room where I just stood there with my back against the door, for almost a full minute, shaking.
The images were still too vivid, but there was no way I'd share them with Cindy. Not now. Not ever. She'd get an idea anyway, with the way I had to brush my trembling fingers over her mouth, over and over again, the long moments it took me to be able to speak.
I angrily wiped my face with my hand, a weakness I couldn't bear, couldn't allow. Martha, blessedly alive, sensed my desolate state. She came trotting to me, pressing against my legs, seeking the closeness. I crouched beside her and put my arms around her, tears I couldn't acknowledge seeping into her soft fur. How sad was this anyway, when I could be more open with my dog than with my lover?
Sad, and stupid; Jacobi's words rang on my mind. There was an uncomfortable truth in there.
And still, I had a job to do.
Martha claimed her usual spot on the couch beside me, as I spread notes and pictures on the coffee table. The faces of the dead women. The hints Kiss-Me-Not had left at the crime scenes. Over and over again. No DNA, no evidence.
At Papa Joe's, he'd been so close. He hadn't even left a hair, and how the hell he'd ever managed this, we didn't know, but there were no fingerprints on the fairy tale book.
As always, getting lost in the mystery made me lose track of time. At some point, feeling like I was going to topple over with exhaustion, I got up to make myself some coffee. I had just started the coffeemaker when Cindy had gathered enough courage, or was just pissed off enough with me to confront me.
"I had hoped that when I got out of the hospital, my days of sleeping alone would be over."
There was no accusation in her words, just the statement. It helped. I was not coming back with something defensive, as I normally would have, simply said, "I'm sorry."
She shook her head when she realized what I was doing. "Coffee? At 3 a.m.? You're nuts."
"Somebody already told me that."
Cindy stood behind me, stepping real close, her arms sneaking around me. "I hope they didn't do this, too." And her hands slid higher, inside my robe, to gently cup my breasts. I gasped, a short-circuit response of pleasure zinging through my body, sharp and sweet at the same time.
"Jacobi? I don't think so."
She laughed against my back, a beautfiful sound; I couldn't help but laugh along with her. If only for a moment. The reason why Jacobi thought I had lost it was something that Cindy didn't know yet, but definitely deserved to.
We remained entwined like that for a while longer, until I could feel the pressure lifting.
Just a nightmare. She was all right. Martha was. And I would make sure that it'd stay that way.
"Whatever it is," Cindy went on, "the crucial clue that is in there somewhere, you're not going to find it tonight. Why don't you put this stuff away, because I think you've already traumatized Martha with it - and I'm going to make you something that's better than coffee. How does that sound?"
She held on tighter, not fazed by my dead-pan retort. Being that close felt... good. Dangerous.
Lois Lane seemed to be reading my thoughts. "It's not that bad, Lindsay. You don't have to worry this time, because *I* am not going to hurt you. You can let me in. For real."
I stepped out of her embrace then, turning to face her. "I thought I already had."
Cindy didn't comment on that, but I knew the answer anyway. And for the first time, I wondered if we'd headed into this a little too quickly. I didn't think I was capable of any real commitment before Kiss-Me-Not was found. I had learned that lesson already.
"Then tell me what's going on. I deserve to know... if I mean something to you."
Oh, well, she was asking for it. I wanted to be honest, just as long as she could deal with all the implications. "Kiss-Me-Not. He's playing us. It's time we made the rules and gave him an incentive to act. So - I'll go away for a few days. Alone. Make it very obvious, easy to follow. He won't be able to resist."
Cindy paled, and her eyes went wide even before she found her voice again - "That sounds like it's pretty much decided already. So I don't get to have a say in this?"
"Why should you--" I broke off the sentence when she spun around.
"Damn it, Lindsay!"
I turned her to me again, cupping her face in my hands. She was clearly upset, but didn't resist.
"You still don't get it. You are always making decisions like this without thinking of the people who care for you. Oh, it's worse, you're even surprised that someone actually does. Well, I do. I love you, and I'm so damn scared that--"
"Shh." I put a finger to her lips, not wanting to establish that image in her mind. Or mine. "That won't happen. Please understand. He took too much from me already. I want to be, I want *us* to be free."
It was the truth, that, and when he came close again, I wanted her to be as far away as possible, but that, I didn't say.
It wouldn't be long now. He had it figured out where to get enough roses; he had white silk sheets, the dress and his usual tools. He had a place, remote enough so no one would hear any screams - sometimes he liked them screaming, and it was important not to be disturbed.
While his script was ready, he found his thoughts wandering to the final fantasy he had created for Lindsay. He imagined her in a glass coffin, Snow White, her dark hair contrasted against chilled, bloodless, lifeless skin... there was a lot of blood in a human body. He'd discard most of it and use just a few drops to paint her lips, a slash of crimson.
The image was so vivid in his mind, it made him shudder. It would have to wait, though. He would have to be patient.
His next move would be devastating enough for her to come to him - and finally put her out of her misery.
He drew the curtains shut when it became clear that the two women would do nothing more tonight than talk.
Cindy moved around my kitchen with an ease that looked like she'd always lived here. It was comforting. I wanted her to stay once all those obstacles were out of the way; but we weren't there yet.
"Hot milk with honey?" I asked incredulously.
She turned from where she stood at the stove, smiling. "My Grandma used to say it chases away the nightmares."
"That would be the same Grandma who used to philosophize about doors opening and closing?"
"All right." I held up my hands in defeat. "Who am I to argue against the wisdom of grandmothers?"
"You'd better not." She turned off the stove, then brought me the mug with the steaming content. I made a face at the sweet taste, but drank obediently. All of a sudden, I was overcome with a guilty conscience about accepting all this pampering in the dead of night because of a freaking nightmare. I had not been in the hospital the past week.
Maybe I was also just freaking scared to let my guard down for a minute.
She sat down beside me, grabbed a pillow and put it on her lap. "Just stay here with me for a while, okay?"
"You should be the one lying down."
Cindy gave me an exasperated look. "Come on, I've been lying down for the better part of last week, and I'm really not at all tired. You, however, are exhausted, and that's no way to tackle those plans you've made." There was that. We hadn't had a shouting match or anything, because at one point, she'd simply said, "I understand." I owed her.
So I catered to her wish, lying down with my head in her lap, and closing my eyes. Her fingers danced over my face, caressing, lightly massaging. And I finally managed to let go, her careful, tender touch making my whole body relax to the point where the need for sleep actually overcame my guilt.
I felt her lips on my forehead, and then I was out like a light.
I woke like, two or three hours later, feeling more rested than I had in days, and we finally made it back to bed. Holding each other close in the semi-darkness of not yet dawn, we were talking, whispering to each other as if somebody was listening in on us. What I had to do - I knew it scared Cindy. It didn't scare me much, since I was that resigned or just delusional. No. When the moment came, I'd be expecting him. I knew it was the only way to go.
It was such a relief to have her back me up. Other than with her and Jacobi, I'd only come come clean with Jill and Claire. That was it. I didn't trust Ashe. Tom would be mad with me, but it couldn't be helped. I had to create a situation that'd make Kiss-Me-Not think he could get to me.
When he tried, I'd be ready, all implications included.
And then I had Cindy clinging to me, feverishly, her hands roaming over my body, her kisses hard and demanding; I couldn't help myself, I couldn't reject her now.
She was probably right, I had a hard time letting people in, but it didn't apply to her at all, because she got right under my skin long before we'd slept together. She knew what I needed, sometimes. scarily, even better than I did.
Her fingers were warm and familiar, I craved the touch of them, the long slow slide of them into my body, making me shake, squirm, wanting more. Cindy wasn't teasing at all.
"I can't lose you."
I was going to promise her that she wouldn't, but all I could manage was a desperate moan, all my attention focused on that welcome invasion, tension exploding as my orgasm washed over me.
Cindy held me close through all of it, whispering to me, caressing me, but when it was over, it was her who was crying. The truth was, I couldn't promise her anything. No one could. But I'd be damned if I didn't make the most of the time I had left with her.
I tried to slip into Tom's office unnoticed, but it was a rather futile venture, as everyone else was already seated, and he looked up at that very moment.
"Good morning, Lindsay," he said. "Nice of you to join us."
I gave him a quick grin and took my seat, purposefully avoiding Agent Ashe's gaze as I fumbled with the scarf I was wearing. Oh, such a great idea to draw more attention to myself.
"So. He's getting close, but still not making a mistake. I'm guessing he left the book on purpose, would have done it anyway even if Granger hadn't chosen that day to shoot up the place." I couldn't suppress a shiver at the memory. Cindy had been lucky. There were people who had been more severely injured, like Rosie, the waitress, who was still in the hospital.
"He's also getting more bold, giving us hints as to the next scene. Your scene, actually." Ashe obviously couldn't help but remind me.
I laughed a bit uneasily at that. "Not much of a Sleeping Beauty, but then again, he's got a depraved mind. I'm sure he's got his script ready. Well, I have, too."
The conference dragged on, going over every single detail again, the murder of the doctor, how close Kiss-Me-Not actually had been, and the fact we had essentially nothing. It told me all the more that my decision had been the right one.
Around lunchtime, I stole away to drop by Jill's office. She was very much okay with a distraction, and we had a coffee together while I told her I'd have something important to share tonight.
"All right with me. Just... would it be all right if we did it somewhere else than Papa Joe's?"
I gave her a closer look, aware of how occupied I'd been all the time with Cindy, and Kiss-Me-Not's appearance. But we had all been in there, a lovely Sunday morning, breakfast and bullets.
"How are you doing?"
Jill smiled tiredly. "Okay. It all happened very fast... and you saved the day, as usual."
"Just lucky to have been in the company of smart women who reacted quickly."
She got up to come around her desk and leaned against it. I looked up at her.
"How's Cindy doing?" she asked.
"Much better." The memory of this morning made my face flush, and I took a moment to study my shoes. "I'm sorry. I should have told you."
"No, it's all right." She laid a hand on my shoulder and let it rest there for a moment. "Really. I'm happy for you. She's good for you in a way I--"
"Hey, stop it." I got up to find myself close up with her, the moment sparking a whole lot different memories. "You were -- you are good for me. You and Claire have been my best friends, like, forever. Nothing's gonna take that away."
Jill took a deep breath. Her eyes were a little bright when she said, "How about a little warning before blindsiding me with an emotional speech like this?"
I rolled my eyes at her, then hugged her, and she held on close for a moment.
"Lindsay. About what you're going to tell us tonight; you're not going to do some dangerous, lone-fighter thing, right?"
"You know me too well. See you tonight." I kissed her cheek, then stepped back and left her office.
"You can't be serious!" Claire said, loud enough for people from neighboring tables to look at us. Jill just shook her head incredulously.
"I hate the thought, too, but I think she's right." Cindy took my side, and I smiled at her.
"That's because you're blinded by love, that doesn't count."
"He wants me alone, that's what he's going to get. It's the only way to stop him."
"It's suicidal." Claire was clearly not ready to back down. She turned to Jill. "How about a little assistance, here?"
Jill sighed. "I know when to rest my case. Yes, it's dangerous, and I wish there was any other way. But it's been five years. With all we gave, all that Lindsay gave, we came up with nothing, and last week the creep sat a few feet away from us, preparing the kill. Linds, I meant what I said earlier. I am with you."
Claire moaned. "Lord, please tell me this is a nightmare. All right. How are you going to play this?"
I told them.
Cindy couldn't believe that Lindsay had already left. Martha was with her usual dog sitter; Lindsay had told Tom that she needed a few days off, and God knew what she had told Agent Ashe, and then she was gone, hoping - *hoping*, the thought made Cindy shudder - that Kiss Me Not would follow her.
Sitting around alone in Lindsay's house, she was bored. She was scared out of her wits.
Just the right timing when her cell phone rang, an unfamiliar voice talking to her rapidly.
"Ms. Thomas?... Oh God, please don't hang up." The woman sounded young, frantic. "I know you're a crime reporter. I'm too scared to go to the police, he'd follow me."
"Please calm down." Cindy told her. "Tell me who and where you are. I can bring someone--"
"No!" There was the sound of panicked breathing. "I've seen something. After the shooting; a friend of mine was in the hospital, too, and a doctor was murdered there. I saw him!"
That was when Cindy needed a moment to calm *herself* - she could meet this woman who was probably one of the teen group who had been at Papa Joe's that Sunday, and she could possibly describe Kiss-Me-Not. If Cindy managed to get her to the police department, this whole nightmare could be over before he got to Lindsay.
"Okay," she breathed. "Just the two of us. Tell me where to meet you."
His breathing sounded loud in his own ears, his hands trembling just a little when he picked up the needle. He scolded himself wordlessly; he just couldn't let his enthusiasm get the better of him, because there was so much to do tonight. She didn't try to turn her head away as he pushed the needle through skin just above her upper lip - that was because she couldn't. As always, the marks made by the contraption he'd made would be hidden under long hair, and even if Claire Washburn saw them, it wouldn't help her much.
By the time she'd have this girl on her table, she would be stricken with grief.
Halfway done, Kiss-Me-Not paused and grinned at the girl, patting her tear-streaked cheek.
"You did such a great job. Maybe I should keep you alive."
It didn't take me long to recognize the car that was seemingly unobtrusively following me. I should have known. I pulled up along the side and simply waited; no need to draw this out any longer than necessary.
If I wanted Kiss-Me-Not to make a move, I had to get rid of *him* first.
Ashe parked behind me and walked over to my car, unhurried, as it seemed. Right, as if we had all the time in the world. Kiss-Me-Not thought so, too. I rolled down the window. "I guess they didn't make you an agent for nothing."
"That's what I hope."
I wasn't in the mood for a joke, though. "Look, I asked Tom for a few days off. I'm leaving the city. I didn't ask you to come along."
He made an annoyed face. "Sometimes, Inspector Boxer, I'm wondering if you're kidding me, or if your are really just that incompetent - or suicidal."
"Oh, shut up."
On top of hating him, I was seriously getting sick and tired of being called 'suicidal'. "I don't have to report to you, Agent."
"No." He smirked. "You're just going to sit around and wait for Kiss-Me-Not to drop by?"
"You tell me. You were so sure that he wanted to get to me. And he got pretty close already."
Ashe sighed, then he walked around the car and waited for me to open the door. When I did, he sat in the passenger seat. "There is something about those fairy tales you don't know."
I stared at him incredulously. "And you're telling me just now?"
His face betrayed no emotion. "I had to check on a few things," he said mysteriously. "I couldn't be sure before, but now I am. You're not the only one who has a reason to hunt him down."
"Then why have you kicked this back to me?"
Ashe didn't answer right away, like he was considering this for a moment, while I... I didn't know what to think. I didn't need any more complications.
"I got an impression of how you work," he said finally. "You're impulsive and maybe prone to making mistakes that way," he held up a hand as I started to protest, "but you're determined. That's what I can use right now."
I leaned back against my seat, mentally counting to ten, willing Ashe to just disappear. He didn't.
"Tell me the story."
Cindy was rather relieved to find out that the address the girl had given her wasn't an abandoned building, but one that housed students' apartments and generally small units in a homely environent. She rang the bell of Alina Sloane's apartment, and the buzzer sounded immediately.
In the hallway, she passed a woman with two small children, one in a stroller. Nothing Lindsay could be mad about... It seemed rather safe here.
Thinking of Lindsay again, she sighed. It was hard to endure the separation, even harder with the way they had parted. Knowing their fight had merely been staged for Kiss-Me-Not, to give Lindsay a plausible reason to leave town, didn't make it any better.
As much as she feared what would happen if the killer reacted exactly in the way Lindsay had planned it, Cindy was ready for this to be over. For the two of them to get another chance at starting over.
With a little more resolve than just minutes ago, she hastened up the last few steps and knocked on the door.
"It's open," a female voice called, and Cindy entered the apartment.
He was proud of his foresight. His Sleeping Beauty might have been a little naive at times, but she would have been wary if a man's voice had answered; good he hadn't sewn the girl's mouth shut completely. So what if she sounded pained and scared; that was to be expected if you were the only witness of a brutal murder.
He listened to the tentative footsteps, patting Alina's cheek and smiling at her. She was the lucky one. He didn't have as much time with her as he had with the other ones; so he'd just put her out of her misery once she had served her purpose.
Agent Ashe showed me a picture; a printout of a computer-generated photo. "Look familiar?"
"He could be the guy at Papa Joe's. It was my day off, I didn't really pay attention. Where did you get this?"
"I'll get to that. See, I grew up in an orphanage near L.A."
"I'm sorry," I said, not quite getting where he was heading with this, and it irritated me. Hell, he kept irritating me for interfering with my plan. Still, he had to have been coming after me for a reason, so I waited for him to continue.
He shrugged. "I didn't really think of this much, until you came up with the fairy tale connection. Back then, there was a couple who ran the place. Very neat, serving the community on the outside. Both of them were abusive - and with the younger kids, they used to justify whatever they did with fairy tales. They had a big library collection, Grimm, Andersen, whatever you can think of. Going to the library was not a pleasant experience back then."
Ashe told me this in a matter-of-fact tone, obviously not wanting to generate sympathy. I couldn't help think that this was a strange moment to come up with it. It had been days since we had been going through the books at Claire's. Why now?
And how had he known I was going away?
"You're thinking one of those kids grew up to become a killer?"
I couldn't help thinking, he'd been living there, too. And this connection came up very suddenly.
"I'm thinking of someone in particular," Ashe said. "He was my roommate - and I've spent the last few days trying to trace his steps from those days until now."
Cindy had made a quick call and also texted Jill before she went inside - she might be ready to take a risk, but she wasn't stupid. That one time when she had walked into the apartment of Theresa Woo's stalker, practically stumbling over his body, had been enough.
These days, she was willing to risk a false alarm.
The first room was a living room, couch and armchair mismatched, a coffee table that had seen better days. Large bookshelves filled to overflow.
"Alina?" Cindy called. This wasn't really a teenager's home; she had to be sharing with someone... or... She'd been so excited when the call came in that she hadn't realized it before, but now her mind connected image and sound. Alina was the young mother who had been at Papa Joe's with her baby that morning.
She walked further inside, taking in the cheap, but lovingly chosen furniture and decoration, and the clutter of baby things. It was eerily silent in here. She'd said something about a friend being in the hospital.
"Alina, where are you?"
Cindy cautiously opened a door, but the kitchen was empty, the smell of fresh coffee seeming out of place.
Who was that friend? The young mother had been sitting at the table alone.
The bedroom was last, and the moment Cindy was inside, her knees went weak.
Behind Alina, her baby slept in a crib. The woman was tied to a chair in the middle of the room, but what was even more terrifying was the fact that her lips were half sewn together with surgical thread. Could she have even spoken?
Despite the gruesome image, Cindy rushed closer to her, trying to reassure her. "Don't be afraid. I'll get you to the hospital, and I called the police already, I'm sorry, they know how to handle these things best, and--"
She broke off when Alina's eyes grew impossibly wide.
Something stirred the air behind her.
"Avery Barnes once tried to set the library on fire," Agent Ashe told me. "He was singled out after that, and I remember we didn't see him for ten days."
"Have you found the couple who ran the home? Are they still alive?"
He shook his head. "Both died in a car accident in 2003. Avery moved to San Franscisco six weeks ago. He went missing ten days after that... but I'm on the way to somebody who might tell us something about his whereabouts."
"Don't tell me coming after me was on the way."
Ashe smiled to himself, and I had a hard time not rolling my eyes at him - again. This guy bugged the hell out of me. It was because I couldn't figure him out. In the beginning, I thought he was simply arrogant, but I couldn't help the feeling that this was only the surface. I was still wondering why he ever pulled me back into the case, other than for my *determination*.
"No, it wasn't. I figured you'd want to be there when I talk to Barnes' brother."
Wonders never ceased to happen... "Why, yes. Thanks."
Ashe related what information he'd found on Barnes' family, the son, a half-brother of Barnes, the only one still alive. He agreed that it was suspicious, with both of his biological and foster parents having died early. More and more, I found myself believing that Avery Barnes could be our man. I wanted him to be. Once there was a face to the man, he wouldn't elude us much longer. I thought of the picture Ashe had shown Elaine Lewis' parents, when he spoke again.
"You don't sound too happy. Are you really so keen on going up against him all alone?"
So much for the niceties. "The sooner we get him, the sooner I can get rid of you. That's very motivating to me right now."
Getting rid of the lingering shadows, starting over. He would never know how much I was looking forward to that.
Avery's brother had grown up in a better environment and hadn't known until recently that he had an older brother who could very well be a psychopathic murderer. Of course, they had nothing in common but their parents - probably.
Cindy woke with a start; unsettling images and sensations of a recent nightmare following her into reality. She had a pounding headache and wondered what she had done to cause herself such a bad hangover. Turning around, Cindy hoped that Lindsay hadn't gone to work yet, and that she'd be up for a little cuddling, when the thought came to mind that Lindsay wouldn't be there.
At the same moment, she became aware of something scraping her cheek... something hindering her movement painfully. Instinctively trying to bolt upright, she let out a yelp of pain when she was stopped short by the material restraining her, sharp points digging into her skin - barbed wire.
Other sensations made themselves known, the discomfort of scratchy fabric against her skin. Scratchy fabric against *naked* skin. He had undressed her and then put this robe on her.
//Focus, damn it!//
It was hard to do in her current state, still battling whatever drug he had given her, still shaking with fear. She became aware of her surroundings slowly, the room which had nothing in it but the bed she was lying on, walls and floor covered in tranparent plastic. It had a sterile feel to it, but of course, it wouldn't be much longer.
For long moments, Cindy just forced herself to breathe in and out slowly, trying desperately to ban all thoughts of how Kiss-Me-Not had prepared this scene of his.
Sleeping Beauty on a bed of roses, wearing that beautfiful dress and nothing else.
And lots of plastic, because this was going to be messy. But he wasn't here now. She had to get a grip and consider her options - not that there were many. Getting out of the restraints was not one of them either, because every one of her sluggish attempts made the barbs dig deeper into her skin. She'd keep trying.
She couldn't give up.
The police was bound to be at Alina's place already; Jacobi would call Lindsay, and then... they would find this place. For sure. She just couldn't have room for any doubt in her mind.
When he was here, she would do what she did best. Tell a story; keep him talking. Keep death at bay.
In her mind, Cindy held on to a vision of Lindsay that day at Papa Joe's diner, the determination in her gaze before she went to face off another sadistic killer on her own. She had reason to trust.
"She's still not answering. Damn it." Claire slammed the phone shut with vigor. She saw the shared worry in Jacobi's eyes, yet it wasn't Lindsay they were most worried about at the moment.
Her eyes strayed over the body of the woman Cindy was going to visit. Kiss-Me-Not hadn't finished his ritual with her; a gunshot had killed her. The neighbor who hadn't been there at the time the murder took place, had called the police because the baby wouldn't stop crying.
It wasn't a coincidence that he'd left the baby alive. It was his way of showing them that he held all the cards and could play this however he wanted to.
At least, Cindy had taken precautions this time. There had to be something in here to make them find the killer in time.
Claire bent to take a look at the necklace Alina was wearing, and froze. She'd seen the small silver heart a couple of weeks ago, wondering... it didn't belong to the victim. It was Cindy's.
The message... unmistakable.
A closer look revealed a small, barely visible stain on the silver chain's clasp. Blood. Chances were, it did not belong to Alina, given the direction of the shot.
They could be, for the first time, looking at DNA of the Kiss-Me-Not killer.
His breath caught in his throat when he entered the room. His vision had finally come to life, the one that would bring Lindsay to him.
This princess would die for the sins of the woman who loved her. At that thought, he felt that familiar tingle spreading all over his body. It was going to be even better than those before her. He'd always loved an audience.
He walked closer, checking the restraints, his smile widening at the trickle of blood on her wrists and ankles. How tragic it was, to die like this, innocent, merely a tool of his punishment.
"Your prince has come to kiss you deadly," he said.
"That's not how I remember this story," Cindy Thomas answered with way too much defiance. "But maybe you could tell me your version, so I can make sense of it?"
Tough girl, he had to give her that. She was tied down and still had a sense of irony. Not for much longer, he suspected - but he had to have patience.
"I will," he promised, caressing her cheek, smiling when she cringed at the touch. "We've got to wait a little while longer. I want you to meet my brother."
We didn't talk much on the final part of the drive, except for Ashe giving me directions. I kept trying to imagine the environment he'd told me about growing up in so casually; the same that had contributed to shaping a killer who liked to silence women.
I had checked on Ashe early after he'd appeared on my door step, thanks to a friend at the Bureau. His track record rivaled mine. They had both become hunters - on different sides of the law.
I still felt like this was supposed to be telling me something I hadn't yet fully understood, and it was driving me crazy. The truth was, I'd be glad if we never had to work together, ever again, but if we caught Kiss-Me-Not that way, it would all be worth it.
As I parked in front of the apartment building where Cole Raynor, Barnes' brother was living, Ashe had a call coming in. He listened for a moment, then simply said, "I'll call you back."
I'd unbuckled my seat belt and was about to open the door, when he held me back. "Wait."
His face was pretty much unreadable. I sighed. "What?"
"There's a new development you should know of before we go in there. It seems like Kiss-Me-Not has killed again. He left something with the body. Do you recognize this?"
I took a look at the photo the caller had sent him, and felt the color drain from my face instantly. "Cindy," I whispered.
"The woman he murdered had a three-months-old baby, but he left the kid alone. Used his signature on her, and left the necklace. Obviously, Cindy Thomas was there, too."
"Then why didn't anybody call *me*?"
He shrugged. "I guess they did, but couldn't reach you. Let's go. This is more important than ever."
I checked my cell phone to see three messages from Claire. How could that have happened? "I should be there."
"*We* should be doing everything possible to catch this killer. So let us do our job."
He was right; I knew that. If Raynor could give us any hint as to Barnes' whereabouts - assuming that Avery Barnes really was the killer. I prayed that this was the case, because otherwise... I forced the fear back to a farther corner of my mind, together with the images of what Kiss-Me-Not had done to the other women; taunting me, getting off on his power.
If he had the slightest idea of what was between Cindy and me --
Ashe gave me a questioning look, and I nodded. We went to see the man who was supposedly Kiss-Me-Not's brother.
"Mr. Raynor, when did you last hear from your brother?"
Ashe let me take the lead, but I knew he was watching me carefully. Which wasn't necessary; I knew how to do this without sounding as desperate as I was.
Raynor didn't seem to quite understand the urgency yet. He took his time thinking, while I had a hard time resisting the urge to tap my fingers on the coffee table.
"I think the day before yesterday... yes, exactly. We were making plans to meet for dinner tonight. Can I ask you why this is suddenly so important? What exactly do you think has Avery done?"
I sent Ashe an incredulous look. He hadn't told Raynor...?
"For now," I told him, "it's extremely important that we speak to Mr. Barnes. So if you have any idea where he could be now--"
He shrugged. "I can't really say. We've only talked on the phone before; tonight would have been the first time we would have met in person... look, why don't you just tell me what's wrong?"
"Your brother was reported missing by his girlfriend a month ago." Ashe finally joined the conversation. "He might be able to help us with an ongoing investigation."
At that, Raynor paled. "The FBI and Homicide department want to talk to my brother... you don't think he has killed anyone?"
I was close to shaking him. "Please, think. Have you talked about any places, somewhere he might have gone? A woman is missing, and there's a chance that if we find him in time, we'll also find her alive." If it wasn't already too late, but I couldn't bring myself to think that. I had a hard time enough fighting back those images from the nightmare - and Jacobi had been right all along; I'd been so focused on proving that I could stand up against the killer; I hadn't taken into consideration that he might not target me directly.
After what seemed an eternity, Raynor said, "I might have talked about the other house I own, which is currently a construction site... you don't think...?"
"Mr. Raynor," I said, "We'd be very grateful if you'd show us."
We were almost outside of the apartment, when something caught my eye, some kind of decoration around a candleholder.
He had left her alone for a while, not mercifully giving her a break, but probably making enough time so reality would sink in again; so she would have no refuge in her mind. Cindy had heard the door shut, but she couldn't know if he'd be away for minutes or hours, whatever time it would take until the mysterious brother would arrive... and she was pretty sure she didn't want to meet him.
She was determined to make this time count - so she kept working at the wire holding her down, beyond pain, beyond feeling sick at the warm trails of blood drying on her arms and legs until there were new ones. She didn't think about how he had to have touched her in order to undress and put this strange garment on her.
Her focus was on survivial. Her left hand came free the moment she heard footsteps down the hall.
I didn't know if Ashe had noticed the silver leaves, and now there was no opportunity to ask him, but the mere possibilities made my mind race. This couldn't be a coincidence.
The house Raynor showed us was seemingly undergoing complete remodeling. I couldn't help thinking it was a perfect scene. We just had to be in the right place. Everything else was... unthinkable.
"Be careful on the upper floor," he cautioned. "As you can see, it'll take some time until it's going to be livable again."
Ashe and I exchanged a look, and he nodded. "You stay with him," I said. "I'm going to take a look around."
When I had almost reached the top of the stairs, several things happened at once. I heard the sound, like something scraping, and downstairs, Raynor said, quietly, but not quietly enough, "John, I have been waiting for you." I also noticed that something was stuck under the heel of my shoe; and one quick look told me it was a rose petal.
I did the math, but not soon enough, as the gunshot reverberated in the empty building.
I wanted to go and check the upper rooms, but I also needed to know what had just happened downstairs. Silver leaves... rose petals. Cole Raynor might be the mysterious Avery Barnes himself.
I came to find Ashe standing over Raynor's prone body, weapon still directed at him. He straightened up to face me. "He had a gun."
"Just great. Now he can't even tell us--"
I broke off when there was that sound again. "Call for backup," I told him. And ran.
Chances were, we got it all wrong, and there was yet another upstairs with Cindy. Kiss Me Not.
There were five doors upstairs. Lots of plastic foil in the bathroom, but otherwise it was empty. Two rooms that faced the street, both of them - nothing. I listened hard, but couldn't hear anything but the sound of my own breathing.
Opening the door to the fourth room, I walked right into the scene of my nightmare....nearly running, to what is waiting for me in the bedroom, my own safety not an issue... roses strewn all over the bed...
I forced myself to breathe, to *think*. There was blood on the sheets, but not enough to indicate a homicide. I held on to that. The scene was set for the creepiest version of Sleeping Beauty ever staged, with the barbed wire around the bedposts, and the table with the tools that had blood on them.
More plastic foil. He'd wanted to do it in here. Which meant the dead guy downstairs was our man?
There was the last room left, the kitchen.
It was half furnished, still, with a sink and some cabinets, a lonely chair sitting in one corner. Lots of dust. It seemed like no one had been here in quite some time, unlike the other rooms, so I was prepared to turn around when there was another sound.
It came from under the sink, something like metal on metal.
Carefully, I edged closer, the slideshow on my mind a disturbing mix of the lingering nightmare images and the moment I found little Isela hiding in the attic. My hand on the handle of the door of the cabinet underneath that sink, I steeled myself.
At my first look at her, I slid into a totally inappropriate, potentially fatal carelessness. She was shaking so hard which made the barbed wire scrape against the pump, and dig deeper into her skin. Her arms and legs were covered with thin rivulets of blood, rose petals and thorns in her hair which evoqued a disturbing metaphor other than a Grimm fairy tale. In her bloodshot eyes, the terror that came to you when, in a heartbeat, there was nothing else left but survival. But alive, she was.
"Cindy." It was only a whisper, but made her flinch nonetheless. We needed to get her out of there to get those wounds treated. It didn't look like the blood loss was life-threatening, but it still might come to that.
I was sure she hadn't even recognized me, but her quiet words told me otherwise. "You came."
There were footsteps behind us, and she cringed. "Shh. That's Agent Ashe. The bastard's gone; he shot him." If Raynor wasn't, in fact, Kiss-Me-Not, she didn't need to know that now. I wanted her to know that she'd be safe. This time.
I helped her crawl out from her hiding place, which was painful even to me, as with the returning awareness, her body became aware of the various pains. Then something changed in her eyes, and I had only a split-second to realize it was a new fear.
"Did you hear me? He's dead. That's only Ashe, and--"
I turned around for confirmation, and indeed, he was there, gazing down at us with that undefinable look.
"You call for backup and an ambulance?"
He smiled. "Not yet. My brother made such an effort to get it all right. We don't want to disappoint him, right?"
"I've been waiting for you, John."
He'd been anticipating that moment, too, for a long time. He'd been going over shots of the crime scenes with Boxer, challenging her, even insulting her, but getting away with it all. It wasn't enough, though. He'd known that Avery was behind the murders even before the first email arrived. He knew all about Inspector Lindsay Boxer, and the sins she had committed. His brother's plans to punish her for them, and exactly how he'd do it.
He had known about the surveillance equipment Avery had set up in the attic of the old woman who lived across the street from Lindsay, and he knew that she slept with the reporter.
John Ashe wasn't interested in anybody's sins or punishment. He wanted to know what it felt like to silence them, just like they had talked about over and over again when they'd been boys in that hellhouse of an orphanage.
He didn't want to share this time.
He wouldn't have to wait any longer.
I'd always thought that when Kiss-Me-Not was gone, the nightmare would finally be over. I hadn't counted in the crazy copycat wanna-be that his brother was.
"Now, give me the gun. Your backup .38, too. Please."
"If I do it, will you let her go? This is between you and me."
He chuckled. "That's where you're just plain wrong. It maybe was with you and Avery, but I just happen to like this setting. Oh, and no conditions. You do as I say, or I shoot her right now."
I could see in his eyes that he was serious, and I did as he'd told me. "No .38, though. You can frisk me if you want."
Ashe looked at me intently, and I stared back at him. He grinned. "Later, maybe."
There had to be other ways. It was kind of strange how I wasn't even much surprised of what he'd turned out to be. It was disconcerting how calm I was. Cindy had made it this far; all else literally didn't matter. I'd make sure she got out of this alive.
Claire paced nervously in the lab. The DNA sample could be their lucky break in the Kiss-Me-Not case, but it was yet unclear if that would help Cindy - they wouldn't have any results within minutes, yet, every minute counted at the moment.
And Lindsay - Claire was beginning to get very worried about her. She'd spoken to Jacobi, and he had decided to talk to Tom about an APB on her car.
The waiting was about to make her crazy.
Just to keep her mind off the disturbing possibilities, she went over the evidence again; remembering the morning at Papa Joe's that should have been a carefree time spent with friends, a celebration.
She skimmed through the fairy tale book again, pondering the irony of Kiss Me Not having been close enough to almost look over their shoulders. He'd seen them laugh together, seen Lindsay and Cindy...
At first, she thought she had accidentally torn a page, when she realized that in fact, two pages had been stuck together. The paper was thin enough so it hadn't been noticed - and everybody's attention had been on Sleeping Beauty anyway. The book had been dusted for prints, nothing found. There had been no loose slip of paper inside.
But between those two pages stuck together, there was one.
It had a series of numbers on it.
A phone number.
Tom Hogan paled when Claire showed him the number. She held her breath, as did Jill and Jacobi.
"I know that number," Tom finally said. "It's Agent Ashe's cell phone."
I moved in front of Cindy to shield her. "I don't even think Avery had a gun, right? You just didn't want him to be around to testify."
If I got close enough, I could maybe kick it out of his hand.
"You're quite competent after all, Inspector."
We stood in front of each other, sizing each other up.
Moved at the same time.
Within seconds, he had gone from a dubious ally to adversary, and I knew, there'd be no playing around, it was life or death for one of us. It couldn't be me. For Cindy's sake, it couldn't be me.
At some point, they had moved out of her line of vision, so when Cindy heard the sounds of glass shattering and something else possibly breaking, she couldn't be sure. She cowered in the corner, cursing herself, but that didn't make her any more able to get up and move.
The footsteps came closer, cold creeping up her body inside and out when she realized that the sound wasn't that of Lindsay's heels. That, together with a blinding rage that drowned out the fear. Would they arrest her, if she... It didn't matter. She just didn't care anymore.
He walked closer, casually, wearing that small, arrogant smile of his. Cindy had feared his brother, Kiss-Me-Not, but this man, she hated. With everything that she had.
"I see you're not wearing anything under your princess attire. How - convenient."
She had her arms wrapped around her. Gauging the distance. She hadn't been trained to do this, so she had only one chance. Her fingers tightened around the cold object in her hand.
When he reached for her, she pointed the weapon, Lindsay's backup .38 at him, and pulled the trigger.
"It's okay now. We've got him. Lindsay, you hear me?"
Jacobi's surprisingly gentle voice broke through the haze, and I lowered my weapon very slowly, as the paramedics swarmed in, hastening to tend to Cindy who'd simply slumped after she'd taken the shot. I felt like doing the same - I'd only been out for a few seconds, but at the moment, I wasn't able to name a part of my body that didn't hurt.
"I'm going to have to teach her to aim better," I said rather absent-mindedly with regard to the fact that Ashe was alive and well enough to be cuffed, then I all but stumbled forward, to her side.
I needed a moment to touch, to reassure.
And then started at the sight of red spots on the fabric. The warm sensation on the side of my face registered next, and I realized it wasn't her blood at all.
As I sat once again next to her hospital bed, I felt empty, utterly drained. I couldn't bring myself yet to allow relief, other than that we had both made it out alive.
Which was a big thing, considering.
Still, I couldn't grasp what it would mean that the FBI profiler on Kiss-Me-Not's case was the man's brother, and obviously more than ready to follow the example. Or maybe it was the other way round? I couldn't make my mind stop. Which man had been the more dangerous, the late Cole Raynor a.k.a. Avery Barnes, or John Ashe, who had shot him before we ever had a chance to hear Raynor's side of the story?
There was a soft knock on the door, preceding Dr. Vermont and Jill, who had come to bring fresh clothes for Cindy. She'd come into the hospital in that garish rose-colored dress and nothing else.
The doctor sighed, looking from me to Cindy, and back again, then he said, "All right, Inspector, here's the deal. You don't want to spend the night in a soft, warm hospital bed, you don't get to spend it in this chair. We'll call you as soon as Ms. Thomas wakes up, which won't be for a while, since we're keeping her under sedation to give her body a break." He had to have noticed the panic flashing in my eyes, because his voice softened, when he continued. "It's because she would be in a lot of pain otherwise." And, after a pause, even softer: "There were no signs of sexual assault."
I saw Jill's eyes growing bright, and for a moment, had to avoid both their gazes.
"Which is good news," I said, when I was sure again that my voice wouldn't shake. The understatement of the year. It hadn't been Kiss-Me-Not's M.O., but still - you couldn't count on a man who found ways to torture a victim for almost a day before killing them. No one did this until they were filled with hate and nothing else, and in that state, nothing was impossible.
"Still, he undressed her and put this creepy dress on her, so I wouldn't say it was nothing."
I did realize that raising my voice might not be appropriate, but I just couldn't stop it.
"I agree," Dr. Vermont said. "Which doesn't change the fact that you should be resting now, too. I know it's kind of obvious, but will you go if I tell you she's going to need you when she wakes up?"
"You come home with me," Jill declared, and all of a sudden, I felt too exhausted to protest any longer.
I had agreed to lie down for a moment, but already knew I'd be much too wired to get anywhere near sleep; so I sat on the bed in Jill's guest room, going once again over the events of this day, trying not to fall apart.
Of course, Dr. Vermont was right. I had to keep it together; after all, wrestling with an insane killer was part of my day job. Cindy was the one who got caught in the middle.
And I should have seen that sooner; should have realized it the moment he left that rose under her pillow after the shoot-out at Papa Joe's. The realization was... suffocating.
Jill came in to sit beside me. For a moment, it was silence, heavy with memories, images, a hint of regret. "It wasn't your fault," she said quietly, but firmly enough, and her arms came around me.
It wasn't entirely true, but I just wanted to stay here, and for a moment, believe her, draw enough strength so I'd be able to face reality again.
Officially still on sick leave, I watched Tom and Jacobi interrogate Ashe again, while Cindy wrote, very literally, the story of her life. Such was life when you threw together two workaholics; and this was personal like never before.
So far, Ashe couldn't be charged with anything but assaulting a police officer. His brother, Kiss-Me-Not, had had a knife with him. He even claimed that Cindy had misinterpreted his intention, that he just wanted to look after her.
"I see you're not wearing anything under your princess attire. How - convenient."; I'd read those words in the statement she'd given, and at that point, I wanted to barge into the room and punch him.
He'd wanted to complete the Sleeping Beauty Scene that Kiss-Me-Not had laid out, and add his own touches. And he'd never confess to that.
Sometimes, cases were like relationships, effectively never over... we'd have to dig deeply into his past. If we didn't manage to put him away for good, he'd try again. That was something I'd learned in those five years with Kiss-Me-Not - there couldn't really be a happy ending until the monster was truly slain.
The shadows were finally retreating from the corners of our lives.
Too long had we huddled together like frightened children at night, haunted by what had been, and what could have been. Tonight, I didn't want the memory to hold any power.
When Cindy came from the bathroom, she didn't change from her robe into a shirt, just let it fall to the floor and crawled into bed, the feel of her naked skin against mine a shock of pleasure.
"You're overdressed," she whispered, tugging at my shirt, and I obediently raised my arms to let her pull it over my head.
"Better?" I couldn't not reach up and touch her face without thinking how close I'd come to losing her. How damn lucky I was. I let my fingers trail over her arm, down to her wrist that still bore the traces of crudely administered restraints, barbed wire.
"Lindsay, he's gone." She leaned down to kiss me softly. "I don't think we'll ever forget, but let's keep the bastard out of our bed, okay?"
Which one, I almost asked, but I didn't, promised her I'd try instead.
Martha gave me an accusatory look as I stepped outside the room; she still wasn't used to having to stay outside the bedroom at times, and surely couldn't understand it. "I'm sorry," I told her, though when I reached out to pet her, she gave me the cold shoulder instead, because, obviously, she could tell that I wasn't sorry enough.
My body felt too alive with the sense memory of making love to Cindy, the feel and taste of her skin, the sound of her voice when she said my name *that* way...
I smiled to myself as I walked into the office room, telling myself that I was doing the right thing not telling her. No point in tainting something so beautfiful.
Waiting for the computer to connect to the internet, I already knew what I would find in my email inbox. It didn't matter. He didn't matter.
Tom had told me that they'd found the email exchange between Avery Barnes and Ashe on Barnes' computer. It had taken the techs a while, but they had cracked the code eventually. Barnes had described his plans to his brother in detail, and the response had been just as enthusiastic. It had been enough to show his involvement.
So whatever little stunts he tried to pull from prison, it didn't matter to me.
I opened the email to find what looked like a page scanned out of a book. I recognized the print immediately, the princess within the hedge of roses, doomed to a sleep of a hundred years. Somebody had colored almost the whole page red with a thick felt pen. Very subtle, Mr. Brother of Kiss-Me-Not. A few days ago, it had been a picture of a mandrel.
I always deleted them.
What they'd both had craved was the attention, but I wouldn't give that to him. As accessory to Kiss-Me-Not's murders, he wouldn't get out again, and that was all I needed to know.
I turned the computer off and went back into the bedroom without turning on the light, slipped back into bed on my side.
Of course, I had counted on Cindy being fast asleep as she'd been when I left. She wasn't.
"You're done?" she asked quietly, and I jumped.
"Why, thanks. Give me a heart attack, why don't you?"
She snuggled against me, and I could hear the smile in her voice when she said, "Don't exaggerate. You're not that easily startled. In fact, I think it takes a lot to scare you."
It was almost an opening, I thought, pulling her into my arms. So close -- I could have told her. I let the moment pass.
"You know the only thing that scares me. Don't ever leave me,okay?"
Her hand sneaked around my waist, but it seemed to take an awful long moment before she said, "I won't." There was just the slightest hint of hesitation, and she knew I had noticed it.
"He won't get out again, right?"
"Then it's okay," she said somewhat cryptically, making me wonder how long she'd been awake actually, and how much she suspected.
Snow White had been Kiss-Me-Not's final fantasy. I'd never been afraid of him, and I wouldn't be afraid of a dead man's shadow.
Ashe... I had to delete him from my mind, like I deleted his emails.
As always, the thought of him and those moments at Raynor's house created a cold I could bodily feel, and I tightened my arms around Cindy. It wasn't okay... but someday soon, it would be.
And hopefully that day, I'll feel like I'm worth your love.
I know you don't like it, he wrote, but you and I are a lot alike. We enjoy a good story. We live for the suspense. And we need to hear all of it, to have closure, to keep it from haunting us in our nightmares. You think you know the story of Kiss-Me-Not. Maybe you do. And maybe you only know the beginning of it.
You understand that the stories were metaphors. Sleeping Beauty couldn't escape her fate. Neither of us can.
Lindsay, are you ready to hear the rest of the story?
As always, he used the phone the warden had brought into his cell to send the email. He wondered if the inspector would ignore it, like all the others, but he didn't think she would.
She'd want to hear about the others.
The connection she'd had with his brother, and now, with him, wasn't simply one of criminal and police officer, too much had been invested on either side.
It went through the heart.
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