Disclaimer: See Part 1
“She offered you a job?!”
Maureen had invited the kids over, along with Vicky and Rita, to enjoy one last barbeque before Brian flew back to Japan, and stories of the recent arrest were being shared.
Shannon stood up and put her hands on her hips. “What? You don't believe I could get a date?”
“I can't believe she had three houses and was pulling in two-hundred and forty thousand dollars of unreported income each year,” Morgan said. Redirecting the conversation. The thought of that skag being anywhere near Shannon made her gut twist with anger.
“Me either,” Jim added. “And that was after she had paid the rent and utilities at all three brothels, the mortgage on her own home, made payments on the vehicle used to transport the prostitutes. Jim took a breath before finishing the long list. “Pay the sex workers and brothel managers, purchase supplies for her prostitution businesses, and get this. She was in the process of trying to open a business in Florida.”
“There is that much money to be made in prostitution?” Rita asked.
“When it's as organized as this Delmar broad was, you better believe it,” Jim said with authority.
“How much time do you think she will get?” Brian wondered.
Morgan snorted with derision. “From our meeting the other day. The director expects no more than a couple of years of jail time, three or four years of supervised probation and probably some sort of tax lien.”
Vicky couldn't believe what she was hearing. “That's it? That's all. She has changed these girls lives forever, and all she gets is a couple of years of inconvenience?”
“Sucks doesn't it?” Morgan said.
“But why?” Vicky wanted to know.
“Because her hands were only soiled, not fully dirty. None of the girls ever saw her do anything. And it doesn't hurt that she isn't some penny ante street hooker. She was making a lot of money, and because of that some agencies feel like there is a way they can get into her pockets and wet their beaks.”
“Hence, the tax liens,” Brian said.
“That's a damn shame,” Vicky mumbled under her breath. “Those poor girls.
This sobered Shannon. After the arrests she had worked closely with Kathy and Ginny, setting them up with proper counseling and programs, so she knew how traumatic their captivity had been.
“That Kathy is a pistol,” she said in a thoughtful voice.
Morgan found the change in subject odd, but picked up the thread anyway.
“I told you, the kid doesn't pull any punches…and she's the most honest teenager I've ever met,” Morgan informed the room.
“That's the impression I got too,” Jim added. “That little girl jumped up into that big truck and just laid it on the line.”
“She saved herself and her friend, didn't she?” Maureen asked.
“That she did,” Morgan said with a measure of respect.
“You know, Morgan I don't think I was ever her age,” Shannon said in a pensive tone.
“Of course you were,” Morgan stated offhandedly. “we all were. I was seventeen, you were seventeen,” she smirked and tilted her head in Brian's direction. “Even he was seventeen once.”
Brain stuck his tongue out at his tormenter, but didn't stop chewing his burger.
“I know that,” Shannon took her time, trying to say what she meant. “Yes, we were all seventeen at one time in our lives, but Kathy is an old seventeen. She has been through so much in her short years, it has aged her…you know what I mean?”
They all understood. The things that Kathy had experienced could make the young quickly become ancient.
“But, Ginny,” Shannon said with wonder. “It amazes me how after everything she's been through she is still kind of…kind of…”
Morgan heard Kathy's voice in her head and smiled. “Spoiled,” she finished for her spouse.
“Yes.” Shannon looked a little embarrassed by the admission.
“Maybe that's a good thing,” Maureen volunteered. “Maybe her being spoiled will help her get passed what she's been through.”
“You have a point there,” Shannon agreed.
Jim cleared his throat, wanting to move on. The time he had spent working on that case with Morgan had left him ashamed of his male brethren and heartbroken for the lost and abused girls that he had encountered.
“Morgan, have you talked to your dad since the bust?”
Okay, another subject change. I'm getting mental whiplash. “No, I think he has crawled back into his hole.”
“You've spoken to your father?” Rita asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
The woman's question made Maureen's eye twitch, and her ears filled with the sound of the ocean. She was slowly becoming a nervous wreck, and was wondering why she had ever let herself get involved with this thing with Rita.
She had been feeling panicky ever since Morgan and Shannon had arrived. Rita and Vicky were already there. And although things were a little awkward at first between the McCray couple and Rita, after a few quiet apologies, and friendly words, Morgan, Shannon and Rita fell into a comfortable pattern with one another. But the more they interacted the more light-headed Rita became. She was terrified that Rita's secret, along with her compliance, would be exposed.
Her ears opened back up when she heard Morgan answer the question.
“Yeah, he called and invited me over,” Morgan said.
“You don't seem very pleased about it. Him inviting you over was a good thing…wasn't it?” Rita inquired further.
She knew she was treading lightly with the dark woman, and she didn't want a repeat of their last interaction, but she had to know why Michael wanted to see the girl.
“Not,” Morgan said with sarcasm. “The only thing I got from that meeting was a lower opinion of the man. Especially when he told me he had paid off the Major so that I would be accepted into the academy.”
“I'm really sorry to hear that, Morgan,” Rita offered.
The tall woman just shrugged it off. “The man will never change.”
Shannon noticed the slight shift in Rita's gray eyes as she spoke. It was almost as if she was experiencing Morgan's pain for her. She must be a very empathetic person, Shannon thought.
Jim shook his head. “That one threw me for a loop. I had no clue that old-man Daniels could be bought.”
“Who knows, Jim? Maybe under normal circumstances he couldn't be, but Michael McCray has ways of convincing people that he knows what is in their best interest,” Morgan said as a way of defending the retired Major.
It took every ounce of Rita's willpower not to look in Maureen's direction. She knew the woman would be looking back at her, and with two law enforcement officers at the table she couldn't risk their odd exchange being noticed.
“You don't think that visit could be the beginning of you getting your father back in your life?” Rita wanted know.
“I don't want a relationship with him,” Morgan said with venom. His threat to Shannon was still too fresh in her mind.
“Oh, okay,” Maureen said with hesitation.
Morgan banked the fires in her gut and cooled herself down. “Sorry, I didn't mean to sound so aggressive. It's just that he said some things when I say him that rubbed me the wrong way.”
“I see. I only asked because you said you don't have your mother so…”
Morgan held her hand up. “You don't need to go any further. For the most part the mother void in my life has been filled,” she looked to her hostess. “Maureen is the closes thing I've had to a mother since I was four years-old, and that's enough for me.”
Maureen saw the other woman wince and gave her a sympathetic glance.
“Don't you ever wonder about her?” Rita knew she really pushing it now, but this was something she needed to know. She only hoped the young woman's patience would last a little longer.
Morgan didn't hesitate with her answer. “No. If she doesn't care enough to wonder about me, I don't care enough to wonder about her,” was said with a bit of adolescent petulance.
Rita took her time here. She really wanted Morgan to think about what was being said. “Suppose she does wonder about you, but she can't get in touch with you?”
Rita's heart was pounding. She was speaking very close to the truth, and was running the risk of being scrutinized. Maureen, on the other hand, was feeling apoplectic and about to stroke-out. What was wrong with the woman?! She is practically saying, hey, by the way, just in case you were getting curious, I'm your mother.
Morgan looked like the question was ridiculous. “If she wanted to get in touch with me she could. Especially now with my name in the paper. As far as I'm concerned she doesn't have a good enough reason or excuse for her lack of participation.
“Morgan,” Rita held the woman's eyes steady. “Didn't you just say your former Major may have been convinced,” on this word she held her fingers up in quotations. “to accept your father's offer? If you can see that possibility for him couldn't you offer your mother that same reprieve? Can't you let your imagination stretch to include her in that scenario?” Then, to cover for the near confession, Rita shrugged her shoulders as if Morgan's answer wouldn't affect her one way or the other. “I'm just saying.”
Morgan's mouth moved like a fish, but no words were coming out. Then they snapped shut and her brow furrowed, making it obvious that she was deep in thought. I never once considered that he might have threatened her, Morgan reflected.
Shannon was also thinking about the new playing field that had just been laid out before them. Suppose he did force her to stay away? Then what? She looked at her spouse. Better yet…now what?
The other occupants in the room watched in wonder as Morgan began her mental process. Rita with the most interest. Even as a child Morgan had the capability to concentrate on a task until she understood it. The woman remembered watching her dark-haired toddler work on picking up her round cereal off of the high-chair tray until she could do it, if not on the first try, definitely by the second. It was just a part of her meticulous nature. She was going to work on this until she could see the logic of it from all sides.
Rita smiled to herself. The seed had been planted. She could leave it alone for a while and give it time to grow. Maybe, if given enough time her daughter would be open to hear more possibilities. Until then…she would wait.
Shannon had the room in stitches. She was retelling how she had first met Vicky, and although most of the people had already heard the story it was always good for a laugh. Especially when there was someone new to hear it for the first time.
“Here I am running across campus, late for class, and this stranger sidles up next to me wanting to carry on a conversation, mid run…”
“I'm late for my psych class,” the blue-eyed redhead said, out of breath.
Shannon looked around thinking the stranger had to be talking to someone else. But when she realized that they were alone she responded, just to be polite.
“That's where I'm headed,” the little blonde panted. She didn't want to be rude, but there was no way she was slowing down.
“What's your name?” the redhead asked.
Shannon glanced at the girl. Is she really going to try and talk to me now?
“Shannon,” was forced out between breaths.
“I'm Vicky. Pleased to meet you.”
The girl stuck out her hand and waited for Shannon to shake it. The blonde adjusted the weight of her backpack and moved it to her opposite hand before quickly extended her hand in return. Now that the introductions were over she hoped the other girl would remain quiet.
“I just transfer here from the community college…”
The words were abruptly cut-off when the annoying redhead tripped over a root and fell face first into the fall leaves, Shannon thought about stopping to help, but the need to be on time pushed her forward.
Everyone was laughing, except Vicky. Vicky was pouting.
“You could have stopped to help me up,” she accused.
“Don't be like that, Vic. I told you I was sorry when I saw you again. I even gave you my notes from that day's class.”
Rita was wiping her eyes. “Why did you have to give her your notes?”
Morgan burst out laughing, waiting for Shannon to tell this part. Shannon looked sheepishly at her good friend, but chose to ignore the plea in her eyes. She had to tell it.
“She ended up in the infirmary,” Shannon told the woman.
“Oh, my,” Rita gasped. “That's not funny at all.”
Brian howled. This was always the funniest part to him. “It's the reason why she was there that is funny, Rita. Go on, Shannon. Tell her.
“Well…she um…she did a face-plant into a pile of dog poop and…”
That was as far as she got before deafening gales of laughter cut her off. She looked to her friend and mouthed, “sorry”, but Vicky didn't look like she was in the mood to accept it.
“She took the saying “shit-faced”, literally,” Morgan teased. Sending everyone into another round of gut-busting laughter.
Vicky stood hastily and excused herself to the bathroom. “I don't need to sit and listen to this,” she huffed. “I've been laughed at by better than you bunch of yahoos.”
She left the idiots to laugh themselves silly. Deciding she would come back after it had died down. Once she was out of sight she had to laugh herself. Getting that smell out of my nose had taken days, she thought, letting some of the humor seep into her scowl.
“Ah…the good old days,” she said under her breath.
When the door closed behind the last guest, Maureen leaned her back against the cool wood and wanted to sink to the floor.
I can't handle all of this pressure by myself.
She walked into the dining room and started clearing the table of bottles, cans and plates.
I've got to tell Jim. If for no other reason, then to keep my sanity. Because if I have to spend one more day with Morgan and Rita in the same room I'm going to have a mental breakdown.
She began rinsing off and stacking dishes into the dishwasher.
Why did I even agree to keep this secret? I know I don't have the nerves it takes to pull-off a deception this big.
She filled the tiny drawer with a detergent pack, and after making sure all the dishes were in, she closed the door.
If I didn't know any better I would think that Rita wants Morgan to figure out who she is anyway. So, what would it hurt for me to tell Jim?
She checked the settings and turned the washer on.
Oh, well. It can't be helped. It just can't be helped. I have got to get this off of my chest, she thought, as a way to give herself permission.
She grabbed two V-8 juices from the refrigerator, turned off the lights, and headed for the bedroom.
“Jim, there's something I need to tell you.”
“Are you sure you packed everything?”
Shannon was surveying Brian's room checking the closet and empty drawers to make sure the young soldier wasn't forgetting anything.
“Yes, Shannon. Everything is packed and ready to go,” he answered like her was speaking to an overprotective grandmother.
“You don't have to be a brat about,” she said, backhanding him in the midsection.
Brian made an “oof” sound, pretending like it hurt. Then her turned and faced his sister.
The siblings stood in silence, inches apart, just staring at one another. They had shared something very healing during this visit. Something that had changed them both for the better. Brian looked down into his sister's watery green eyes, and knew that his own tears were not far behind.
“I'm gonna miss you,” she practically sobbed.
She threw herself at him and rocked him back on his heels with the force of her embrace, but he held on tight, returning the emotion with just as much intensity as he was receiving.
“I'm gonna miss you too, Shannon…so much.”
“When will you be home again?” she asked, her face pressed into his uniform.
“It's going to be a while. I used up all of my leave on this trip, so it will be at least a year,” came the quiet answer.
Her sobs became harder. In the past Shannon had gone for long stretches of time without seeing Brian, but this time felt different. This time it wasn't just her baby brother leaving. It was her friend, her peer. He was now her equal, and she was heartbroken that she wasn't going to have the opportunity to cultivate their new relationship.
She pulled back and gave him an order. “You e-mail or text me everyday.”
“Yes, ma'am,” he said with a salute in his voice. “But you'll have to settle for e-mails. You know they don't allow texting on the base,” was said with a twinkle in loving brown eyes.
Shannon leaned in for another long hug. “I don't care how you do it, just do it.”
They stood holding each other in a loving silence, until the mood was broken by a mocking voice.
“Oh, please. Stop with the mush fest, you two. You're making me sick to my stomach with all of this syrupy sweetness,” Morgan teased from the doorway.
The siblings stepped apart, but still maintained contact by Shannon placing her hand on the young man's forearm.
“What's the matter jealous?” Brian teased.
“Why would I be jealous of you? I see her everyday.”
Brian moved so quick, Morgan couldn't avoid him when he embraced her in a bear hug.
“Not jealous of me, you big idiot. Jealous of her.”
When Morgan realized that Brian was insinuating that she wanted to be the one hugging him instead of Shannon, she started struggling to get loose, thinking the embrace was part of some payback plan on Brian's part. She continued to struggle until Brian whispered in her ear.
“I love you, Morgan, and I'm going to miss you as much as I'm going to miss Shannon.”
The tall woman relaxed and stopped trying to get free, choosing instead to tightened her arms around the shorter man, because that's what he was now. Not just in age, but in actions. This trip had brought changes to the young lieutenant. Changes that had been long in coming, but they were finally here, and Morgan's chest swelled with the knowledge that he would no longer carry around the guilt and shame that had always lurked in the shadows of his mind. He had faced down his demons and taken away their power.
“I love you too,” she intoned. Then she paused. “You, little shit.”
Brian released her and rolled his eyes. “It's just like you to go and ruin a perfectly good hallmark moment. You will always be a wise-ass.”
Morgan leaned down and kissed the unsuspecting man on the cheek.
“You wouldn't have me any other way.”
The biggest smile she ever seen began to spread across Brian's handsome face. “No, I wouldn't.”
Shannon knew she needed to break up the emotions in the room or the two pranksters would begin to feel uncomfortable, so she hooked her arms through both of the taller people's elbows, and walked them out to the living room.
“Now who's having a mush fest, you big weenies?” she teased. “Let's get going before you two ladies start crying all over each other.”
They could only walk him as far as the main gate. After that Brian would catch a shuttle to the airfield, and be on his way.
Shannon stood with her head down, shifting from one foot to the other. Afraid to speak, because she knew all that was left to be said was goodbye, and she wasn't ready to say it, or hear it.
Brian cleared his throat when the shuttle pulled up on the other side of the gate. “It's time, Shannon.”
Morgan stood back, wanting the siblings to spend their last few moments alone.
“Don't forget what I said,” Shannon mumbled without looking up.
“I won't,” Brian promised. “I'll send off an e-mail as soon as I get settled in,” he said, crossing his heart. But Shannon missed the motion because she was still looking at the ground.
Brian reached out and lifted her chin up so that he could see her eyes. The pain he saw there made his heart squeeze tight in his chest.
“Come on, Shannon, don't do this. If you cry I'm gonna cry, and if I cry those guys,” he pointed over his shoulder at the military police guards. “are gonna laugh their asses off.”
Shannon pulled in a deep breath and steeled her nerves. She wouldn't embarrass the young officer in front of the enlisted men.
“Okay. I'm okay,” she said with conviction.
“Good. Now give me a hug, and get you butt to work.” He looked at his watch. “You're already an hour late.”
Shannon moved forward and hugged her brother tight. “They know where I am. I'll get there when I get there.”
The shuttle driver blew the horn, and the siblings knew that their time was up. Last hugs were shared by the three of them before the two women watched the air force officer load his gear on the transport then take a seat on the miniature bus. As the vehicle pulled away waves were given until the shuttle was out of sight.
When loud sobs were heard coming from outside of the gate, the MP's didn't stare or acknowledge the two women's presence. Witnessing family member's grief when their loved ones were sent off wasn't something that they wanted to see. Military life was hard enough without being reminded of the pain they caused their families when they left them behind.
Morgan walked her emotional spouse to the car, heading back home to retrieve Shannon's car so that she could drive to work. Now that some wrongs had been set right, it was time to get back to their lives.
Brian was probably somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, Shannon had driven herself to work, and Morgan was back, fulltime at Barracks Q, in College Park, going over a few cold case files that she had set aside while she worked on her task force sting. It had been a couple of weeks since the big bust and now that things had settled down she was back on regular duty.
But she couldn't seem to keep her mind on track. Her thoughts continued to wonder down a winding path. A path that always led to the task force committee, and everything that the members were doing in the fight against human trafficking. She still wasn't thrilled about making deals, but she had a better understanding as to why, in some cases, it needed to be done.
“Hmm,” she hummed into the empty room. I Wonder what the next meeting will be about, or what new files the director has for me.
With the unexpected success of her truck stop assignment Morgan had gained the director's respect. So much so, that the man was now actively seeking her out, asking her opinion on some of the more interesting cases that came across his desk.
That's what was on Morgan's mind when a knock sounded at her office door.
“Come in,” Morgan yelled.
A fair head entered before a long body followed. The tall woman walked in and took a seat without being offered one.
Morgan raised a brow and looked the woman over before saying anything. She was quite attractive. She had sun-tanned skin that was blemish free. Her dusty-blonde hair was stylishly cut and feathered around her face, and her eyes were a light gray, that immediately started to take in every inch of the room.
But from the over application of makeup, short skirt, and tight fitting top with a plunging neckline, it wasn't hard to figure out that she worked in the sex industry. Morgan didn't know if it was stripping, hooking, or exotic dancing, but she knew it was one of them…she just had that air about her.
“What can I do for you?”
“You the cop that took down those whore houses, right?”
The question was asked without any introductions being made or any build up to a conversation. Morgan was going to rectify that.
“I'm detective McCray, and it you are talking about that raid on a brothel a couple of weeks ago, yes, I was in charge of that.”
“Okay. So I'm in the right place then.”
“What can I do for you, Miss…?”
“Brandi. You can call me Brandi…with an I,” she added as an afterthought.
“Okay, Miss Brandi, what can I do for you?”
“Since you're the cop that was in charge of that raid I got some information for you.”
“That case is over, Miss Brandi.”
“This ain't about that case. This is about something different.”
Morgan pushed her paperwork aside and gave her visitor her full attention.
“What's on your mind?”
That lying-ass Nathan promised that I would be his bottom girl if I turned a few more tricks. But that bastard never came through. I mean, come on, all the girls want the chance to run the stable instead of working it.”
Morgan didn't know where this odd, long, drawn-out speech was leading, but she was willing go along for the ride and find out.
“So, I guess you're here because Nathan reneged on the deal.?”
Gray eyes became stern, and Brandi was ready to fire off on the detective. “Why you gotta be using fancy-ass words and shit? Can't you just talk in plain English?”
Morgan was surprised and unsure of how to react. Did she really just say fancy-ass words and plain English? She held up here hand in sublimation, hoping the woman would calm down.
“I apologize, Miss Brandi. What I meant to say was, did he go back on his promise?”
“Oh, yeah, yeah, that's what he did. Damn, why didn't you just say that?”
Morgan ignored the last part of the statement. “And him going back on his promise? That made you angry?”
“Hell, yeah. It pissed me off. A girl gets tired of making her money on her knees and back everyday. I was looking forward to the change.”
“So, what are you here to tell me?”
“There's a house up in Glen Burnie. They front as a halfway house for addicts, but really they're holding pens where girls are trained and kept like prisoners until they find somebody to buy them.”
Morgan thought about the brothel they had rescued Ginny from, and couldn't believe there might be a place worse than that. She needed more information, because this didn't smell right.
“Brandi, is Nathan the one in charge?”
“You mean in charge of the house?”
“No, in charge of the whole operation.”
“Hell no, that dumb-ass don't have enough sense to run nothing that large. That's why he should have made me the bottom girl, but that's okay, I'll fix his ass.”
“If Nathan isn't in charge, do you know who is?”
“Nah, I never met him, I would have though, if that bitch-ass Nathan had made me the bottom girl.”
Morgan mentally rolled her eyes. This woman is real serious about that bottom girl position. The detective didn't think she was going to get any useful information from Brandi. In fact she had a suspicion that Brandi might be fabricating this story to get Nathan arrested, so she decided to end the interview.
“Well, I'd say this is a wrap, Miss Brandi. You can go.”
When Morgan stood up and pushed her chair under the desk, Brandi got a little wild-eyed. “Wait. Where are you going? That's it? You ain't gonna arrest him?”
Morgan shrugged her shoulders. “I need more information. I mean, if Nathan is as stupid as you say he is there is no way someone would trust him to keep watch over a holding pen.”
“You think I'm making this shit up?!”
Morgan shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe.”
Brandi started smacking the back of one hand into the palm of the other. She knew she had to make the detective believe her.
Morgan looked on fascinated, thinking that the pap, pap, pap noise was helping the woman think.
“Okay, how about this,” Brandi finally said. “Nathan just started working for a new guy. Sometimes he works local, sometimes he goes out of state, but he brings girls back to the house. Then after they've been trained he puts them on a boat in the harbor.”
This immediately caught Morgan's attention. She remembered Peggy telling her something about girls being taken off of the streets and shipped out of the harbor. Maybe this woman was legitimate.
“How often does Nathan go out?”
“He goes up to Rockville one Friday a month. I think that's when he meets the man, because when he comes back he has instructions about where to go and look for girls to grab.”
“When is Nathan's next meeting?”
“Do you know where the meeting is going to take place?”
“Usually he goes to the chicken drive-in.”
Morgan's stomach dropped. “Charlie's drive-in?” she asked with her fingers crossed.
“Hell no, they serve fried rat at that place. Nathan meets his contact at M & M's drive-in.”
Oh, god, Morgan privately thought. Please let this just be a coincidence. Dad said he wasn't involved with this. “Are you sure you don't know the guy's name that Nathan meets?”
Brandi thought for a minute. “Nope, he never said.”
“Do have a description of the man? Maybe some initials? A nickname?”
The hand papping started again as the woman searched her memory. “I don't know if this means anything, but Nathan sometimes talks about the boys. Now, I don't know if he's talking about his contact, or a gang, or a group of his friends, but there you have it.”
This made Morgan feel a little better. “If this thing involved a group of boys that was a good sign. He father was definitely no boy.”
“That's good, Miss Brandi. This will be a good place to start.”
The woman's voice became animated. “So, you're gonna arrest his ass?”
Morgan held up her hand. “Calm down. I can't just walk up to him and slap the cuffs on. I have to get a little evidence first.”
“Oh. Okay, I guess I can wait.”
This is information I can do something with. She mentally rubbed her hands together. Then her thoughts turned to Brandi…with an I. A woman scorned. She chewed it over for a second. I guess the saying is right. Hell hath no fury like one of them scorned.
“Now, tell me what Nathan looks like.”
Morgan had just finished telling Shannon about Brandi's unexpected visit, and the potentially helpful information she had passed on. Now she was waiting for a response from her mate, and judging from the playful energy that surrounded them it was going to be something unexpected.
Shannon tilted her head in a curious manner. “Honey, ever since you ventured out of the cold case unit you have encountered some of the oddest women.”
Morgan held her arms out to the side, feeling just as bewildered by the unusual assortment of ladies that had been in and out of her office over the last couple of months. “I know. Right?”
“And they have the most peculiar priorities.”
“Well, babe. I've learned that it takes all kinds of people to make the world go round.”
“That's true, and at least this one didn't try and get a date.”
“No, she didn't. The one and only thing on her mind was making Nathan pay for going back on his word. A mistake that he is soon going to regret.”
That was the part of the story that had grabbed Shannon's attention the most. Brandi was only focused on getting even with Nathan for what she perceived as disrespecting her skills and abilities. That made Shannon think that the position must be something very special in the world that Brandi lived in. Thinking about what Morgan had said about different people making the world go round, she took on the persona of a bottom girl that understood Brandi's plight.
“He should regret it,” Shannon changed her voice to sound more street. “Who wouldn't be pissed-off after being strung along like that? He was treating her like she was unskilled labor.” Shannon put her hands on her hips and started strutting around the room. “You can't just make any old female a bottom girl,” she informed with brashness. “That ain't a skill that can be taught. That shit has got to be bred.”
Morgan doubled-over laughing at her spouse as the small woman pranced and preened around the room with a badass attitude.
“That's right. Laugh now, Morgan,” Shannon said, still in character. “But it won't be so funny when I pick one of the other girls as your replacement.”
Morgan stopped laughing. Oh, the game continues, she thought. She allowed a suggestive air to surround her as she began a slow stalk toward her mate, taking on a persona to equal Shannon's. “Oh, so you think there's someone better than me?” she asked with a predatory smile.
Uh, oh, Shannon thought. That's her I'm gonna change your mind voice. But she continued with the game.
“I've got a couple of girls on standby.”
“And why is that?” Morgan purred.
Shannon ignored the shiver that went down her spin, she had to stay in charge. “‘Cause you never know when one of you girls might get too comfortable, you know, thinking you're the one or something. I gotta keep you on your toes.”
Morgan came closer, and Shannon took a step backwards. “Is there anything I can do to um…keep my position?” was asked in a lower register. “‘Cause I reeeally want to be the one.”
Shannon felt a bead of sweat roll down her back. How did we get here? She looked up into passion-filled eyes and swallowed past the lump in her throat. And when did this turn into a seduction?
“Yeah, there's something you can do,” she said. But the weight of her desire caused a slight tremor in her voice.
Morgan heard it, and moved in closer. “Tell me. I'll do anything,” she promised as she ran her finger down Shannon's warm cheek.
That's it, Shannon thought. I'm gonna have her, and I'm gonna have her my way. The small woman reached up and pulled her spouse by the collar of her shirt, forcing the taller woman to bend at the waist so she could kiss her hard before releasing her.
“Follow me,” she said as she hooked her fingers in her wife's belt loops, leading the willing participant to the bedroom. “I'm gonna need you on your knees.”
Morgan happily followed behind, clapping her hands together and bouncing on her toes. “Oooo, Morgan likey,” she practically sang.
Rita sat quietly, waiting for Jim to say something, to say anything. From the moment that Maureen had warned her that the trooper knew her secret she knew that her most sensible course of action would be to invite herself over to their home and have a sit-down with the couple, prepared to answer any questions that Jim wanted to ask.
“I really don't know what to say, Rita, um Sharon ah…” Jim fumbled his words.
The gray-eyed woman held up her hand. “Rita is fine. I've answered to it for more than twenty years.”
“You've kinda put us in pickle,” Jim continued.
“I understand that, Jim, and I'm sorry.”
He ran his hand through his hair. “Yeah, boy. This is a hell of a pickle. It's been real hard to be with Morgan and not tell her about you…” Rita opened her mouth, but Jim stopped her. “Don't worry, I wouldn't do that to her. Besides, it's not my place to tell her,” he held the woman with his eyes. “It's yours.”
Rita dropped her head. “I know that, Jim, but there are extenuating circumstances that prevent me from exercising that option.”
“I understand that part too, Rita. And believe me my heart goes out to you. I understand this thing all the way around. It's…it's,” He ran his hand through his hair again. “It's just a hell of a pickle.”
Maureen had prepared a pitcher of martinis and was passing out the drinks she had poured. “Since it's just the three of us I though I would serve adult drinks tonight.”
Rita accepted hers and pulled the olive off of the stick, chewing it before tasting her cocktail. “Thank you.” She returned her attention back to Jim. “You have no idea how much I want to tell her who I am, but Michael would find out, and…and it wouldn't be pretty.”
“After all of these years you think he would still try and hurt you?” Jim wanted to know.
“Yes. Yes I do, Jim. Especially now.”
“Why especially now?”
“Because Morgan is an officer of the law, and her father probably thinks if she found out that he has kept me away from her for all of these years she might turn on him and start to investigate his dealings.”
Jim didn't have to think about that. He knew Morgan, she would most definitely turn on her father for separating her from her mother.
“You got that right, Rita. Morgan would make him pay. Jim looked worried again, thinking about the form Morgan's retribution would take, but he didn't say anything more.
Rita, seeing the man's quiet contemplation began to feel guilty for putting this burden on the shoulders of these good people and started to apologize.
“I'm truly sorry for the trouble I've brought to your door. I know it hasn't been easy, but I want to thank the two of you for letting me into your home…into your lives. It's been,” here she became choked up. “It's been more than two decades since I've been this close to my child, and it's been just as long since I've been able to sit in truth with the people I've associated with, and as selfish as it sounds it all feels really good to me.”
Jim reached over and patted the woman on the shoulder, trying to offer her comfort, but instead of conveying the support that was intended, the move nearly caused her glass to dislodge from her hand, resulting in a wave of liquid spilling over the rim into her lap.
“Oh, geeze, Rita. Sorry about that. Sometimes I forget how big I am.”
Having seen the mishap, Maureen was returning to the room with a hand towel. “You have to excuse Lennie. He forgets his own strength,” Maureen apologized.
Rita accepted the towel and began blotting her skirt. “Does that make you George?” she asked with humor.
Maureen refilled the woman's glass and laughed, enjoying the fact that her guest had gotten the “of mice and men” reference.
“No, I'm always Maureen, but I do have to stop him from squeezing the rabbits too hard sometimes.”
When Rita looked at Jim and saw him wiggle his brows, she understood the suggestion and burst out laughing. The thought of those huge hands caressing anything on Maureen's much smaller body was hilarious.
Rita sipped her fresh drink and realized that she was feeling good. It seemed like Jim and Maureen were going to put her past behind them, and move forward with building a friendship. And because of that generous reprieve, for the first time in a long time she was beginning to feel like Sharon again.
Jim looked to his left and rolled his eyes at the woman sitting in the driver's seat. “I can't believe I let you talk me into this. You would think I have better things to do than to spend a perfectly good Friday night sitting in a car with you watching the strange mating rituals of young people.”
Morgan laughed and tapped the steering wheel, but continued to watch the drive-in patron's comings and goings. “You could have said no, Jim, but you didn't. Why don't you just admit it? You love being back in the game,” she said without turning her head.
Jim shrugged his shoulders. “You could be right. It's been a hell of a couple of months with you,” he said before taking a bite of the fried chicken breast that had come with his combo meal.
So far, Morgan had been able to remain quiet about their location. She had promised herself that she wouldn't make any comments about where they were parked, but when Jim followed up his taste of chicken with a fluffy biscuit, then a spoonful of coleslaw, Morgan turned up her nose. “How can you eat that?”
Jim licked his fingers, then wiped them dry with a napkin. “Because it's good. You should try it, Morgan.”
The detective held up her hand. “Never. Not one penny of my hard-earned money will ever go into my father's crooked pockets.”
“Crooked or not, the man knows how to fry chicken,” he said before taking another bite.”
Morgan laughed a little. “Now, you sound like Vicky.”
Jim held out a leg for her to sample. “Here, take a bite.”
Morgan pressed her lips tight together. “No.”
“Oh, stop being a baby. Take a bite. It's not like you paid for it.”
Morgan glared at her former training officer before she leaned forward and sniffed the offering.
Jim watched with twinkling eyes. When he saw her nose flare he knew he had her. “Go ahead,” he encouraged.”
Morgan opened her mouth and took a tentative bite. She chewed it slowly, but before she could say anything, Jim shoved a spoon of coleslaw in her face and forced her to add that flavor to what was already swimming around her taste buds.
“Mmm, that's pretty good,” she admitted.
“See, I told you.”
Morgan was still chewing. “Too bad Shannon can't taste this.”
“Why can't she?”
“Because, I'm not going to…”
Jim held a hand up. “I know, I know. Give your crooked father…blah, blah, blah.”
“I'm serious, Jim” she said with a mischievous smile.
“I know you are. I can tell by the frown on your face.”
He leaned over Morgan and pressed the order button. When a voice came over the speaker he order another combo for Morgan to take home.
“There, now the little woman can share the experience without your precious money being tainted.”
When a server came out with their order Jim waved her over to his side of the car. After paying the bill he offered Morgan the drink.
“You might as well take this. It's gonna be nothing but melted ice water by the time you get home.”
As they sat in silence, Jim finishing his meal, and Morgan sucking down her lemonade, they heard someone call out a name.
“Hey, Nate! Yo, Nate. Come here.”
“Keep your eyes open. This could be the guy,” Morgan said with anticipation.
When Nate came into view Morgan's mouth dropped open. Brandi had described the man to her but she thought that the woman had to have been exaggerating. There was no way someone could be as tall, skinny and goofy looking as she had said, but there he was in all his cartoon character glory. The acne-covered redhead didn't look like he could maintain his balance in a strong wind, let alone being capable of controlling a holding pen of kidnapped girls. The lanky young man had gotten out of a car that had been parked along the curb, not too far from the slot Morgan had pulled into, and was now walking toward the person that had called him.
“That's what has Brandi so pissed off?” she said in amazement. “He looks about as threatening as a rain-soaked mutt.”
Jim tucked his trash away in the bag the food came in and sat up straight. “Don't let his looks fool you, Morgan. That boy is probably as ruthless as they come. Haven't you ever read a Stephen King novel? It's always the ones that look like society has done nothing but kick them around that are looking for the worst kind of revenge.”
They stopped speaking and watched as the man that had called him over, talked to Nathan for several long minutes before handing him a piece of a paper. Nathan looked at the white slip for a beat, then stuffed it into his pocket, turning away without another word.
“When are you gonna tell someone about this meeting?” Jim asked a totally engrossed Morgan.
“When there's something to tell. Right now I'm just checking things out, making sure Brandi was being truthful.”
As the skinny man walked away his contact yelled out. “Don't forget, Nate. Next Saturday at the harbor. Be on time. Don't make me come looking for your ass!”
Nathan waved his hand in the air, indicating that he had heard the man, but continued to walk toward his car without looking back.
Jim looked at Morgan, and before she could say anything he said what he already knew. “Let me guess. I'm gonna be busy next Saturday?”
Morgan gave a cheeky grin and held up the bag she was taking home to Shannon. “If you do I'll bring dinner.”
Jim's face lit up. “Form M & M's?”
“Nope. From my kitchen.”
Jim mumbled. “I don't want your kitchen fried chicken.”
“Too bad. It's that or nothing.”
“Fine,” the big man pouted. “But, that's not fair,” he said as he pulled a pad and pencil out of Morgan's glove box.
Morgan started the truck and backed out of the slot, watching through the rearview mirror as another car pulled into her vacated space.
“Sometimes life's not fair, Jim. You just gotta suck it up. Now hurry up and copy down his license plate number before he leaves.”
“When did you become so bossy?”
“When did you become such a whiner?”
Jim hastily wrote down the number and put the note pad back where he had gotten it from. “This isn't how you treat a person when you're looking for a favor.”
Morgan started batting her eyes. “Are you telling me you're gonna send me out there alone?” she asked with a pout.
Jim just shook his head. “You are such a brat.
Shannon was sitting beside Morgan on the sofa, eating the food that her mate had brought home for her to try, and she was thoroughly enjoying the experience.
“Judging from the grease that is smeared all over your face I'm going to assume you like the chicken,” Morgan said to her spouse, as the woman practically inhaled the meal that was given to her.
“What can I say? The man fries a…”
“Please don't say it.”
Shannon laughed. “Okay, baby. I won't become another passenger on the Michael McCray chicken train.”
Morgan gave a heartfelt, “Thank you.”
Shannon leaned in and gave her spouse a gentle kiss that ended with a chunk of chicken and a piece of biscuit being shoved into her mouth. Morgan accepted the offering, without hesitation, chewing and savoring the flavors for what they were.
“Do you think your father knows what is going on in the parking lot of his drive-in?” Shannon asked.
Morgan thought for a moment before she answered. “I really can't say. What I do know, is that the drive-in is his only legitimate business. I don't think he launders any dirty money through it.”
“So, you think it is just a coincidence that those guys picked his place to setup their meetings?”
“No, I don't think that's the case. I think every crook in town knows who my dad is and what he's into, so they probably feel safe meeting at the drive-in, thinking that the cops won't be called on them for loitering.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” Shannon said around another forkful of food. “So, you and Jim are gonna hang out at the docks next weekend?”
Morgan snorted. “You make it sound so…so…”
“By the waterfront?” Shannon helped.
A dark brow rose. “What?”
“You know? That old Marlon Brando movie?”
“The one where he is calling for, STELLA?”
Morgan shrugged her shoulders. “I gotta be honest with you, babe. If it's not Marlon Brando in the godfather movie, I'm gonna be clueless.”
“It's not important. So, back to my question…You. Jim. The docks. Next weekend?”
“Yes. Yes. Yes, and yes.”
“Is it going to be an all day thing?”
“I'm thinking it will be, since I have no idea when Nathan is going to show up.”
“Okay, I'll make plans with Vicky. Maybe we'll go see a movie.”
Morgan stretched out on the sofa and rested her head in Shannon's lap. “That sounds good.” Then she looked up at her spouse. “As long as it's not that new action movie. I want to see that with you.”
Shannon smiled with affection and wiped a breadcrumb from the corner of her lover's mouth. “Not a problem. She's been hinting around about some romantic-comedy that has caught her interest, so I'm guessing it will be two hours of boy meets girl, boy and girl stumble around each other without a clue, boy and girl fall in love. The end.”
Morgan rolled her eyes. “I just don't have the patience to watch those things. Give me gunfights, alien invasions, or end of the world disasters any day.”
Shannon patted Morgan on the cheek. “How very butch of you, sweetheart.”
“You know this has nothing to do with that. I loved Steel Magnolias, and Fried Green Tomatoes, and Beaches. Who among us didn't shed a tear when we watched Beaches? I thoroughly enjoy stories about love and emotions. But paying good money to sit in a dark theater watching people work through ridiculous misunderstandings, and suffer through the pains of unrequited love until the end? I can't do it. I just can't stand the silliness of it. They are not for me.”
Shannon raised an eyebrow at the mini outburst. “Well, all righty then. I guess you needed to get that off of your chest.”
Morgan looked sheepish. “A little too much, huh?”
“No. No. Not too much…but close. And by the way, thumbs up. Couldn't you think of a movie you liked that was from this decade?”
“Sorry,” Morgan bowed her head, but the corner of her mouth twitched a little at the nickname. Thumbs up?
“There's no need to apologize.” Shannon leaned down and kissed Morgan soundly on the lips. “But I want to make sure I'm understanding things correctly. I couldn't get you to take me to see a romantic-comedy if I bought a large bucket of popcorn, cut a hole in the bottom, say big enough for the tip of my finger to slip through, and…” she whispered the rest in her wife's rapidly reddening ear.
Morgan felt the heat rise from the soles of her feet to the top of her head, and sweat began to pool in the creases of her neck. “I think I could be talked into going to see that movie,” was said in a shallow pant.
“That's good to hear,” Shannon said with a knowing smile. “I'll check the listings.”
It was six o'clock on a Saturday morning, and Morgan was wondering if she was missing a few brain cells. “Why am I up this early?” she mumbled as she threw her legs over the side of the bed.
“To hunt down the bad guys,” Shannon reminded her as she entered the room with a steaming hot cup of coffee.
“Oh, yeah. That's it,” Morgan grumbled before taking a sip of the sweet liquid. “Mmm, just the way I like it.”
Shannon stood there sipping from her own cup, taking in the adorably rumpled woman that she had married nearly a decade before. The picture compelled her to move forward and reach out to smooth down some of the wild dark hair.
“You want me to make you a couple of breakfast sandwiches?”
Morgan exhaled a long breath. “Yes, thank you.”
Shannon turned to leave the bedroom, heading for the kitchen. “They'll be ready when you get out of the shower.”
Morgan was pulling off her pajamas, on her way to the bathroom. “I should skip the shower and just get dressed and leave,” she groused.
“That's one option, and I'm sure Jim would find a way to appreciate your morning fragrance as much as I do, but I am putting in a personal request that you save that brand of perfume for my nose only,” Shannon teased.
“Fine,” Morgan complained as she entered the bathroom. “But I'm not putting on clean socks.”
Shannon just shook her head. I wonder why she is so grumpy this morning? Then she snorted through her nose. And why is her defiance taking the form of hygiene rebellion? She laughed.
It was noon, and Jim and Morgan had been sitting at their observation post near the docks for four hours.
“I guess these guys don't conduct any business before lunchtime,” Jim wearily announced.
“So it seems,” Morgan responded in a voice just as worn out.
The breakfast Maureen had cooked for Jim had worn off an hour ago, and his hunger was beginning to rear it's head. As he watched Morgan from the corner of his eye he remembered something. “I thought you were going to bring us lunch.”
Morgan turned in the big man's direction with a wicked smile on her face. “As I recall, you said that you didn't want any of my kitchen fried chicken.”
Jim patted his belly. “Right about now a piece of your overcooked, tough to chew bird would hit the spot.”
Morgan rolled her eyes. “With such a glowing description of my cooking, I say…suffer.”
“Brat,” Jim said under his breath.
They continued to sit in silence, watching the activities of harbor life. The water taxi that was moving back and forth across the bay, the ships that were being loaded and leaving the docks, and the dockworkers going about their duties. It was almost serene. Maybe the calm atmosphere was what inspired Morgan to say out loud what had been on her mind all morning.
“Um, Jim, I've been thinking.”
“About what Rita said.”
Uh, oh, the man thought. This is out of left field. “What did she say?”
“That thing about my dad keeping my mom away. Do you think that could have happened?”
Jim was in a quandary. This was the perfect opportunity to tell Morgan what he knew, she seemed open to hear the information, but it wasn't his place to do it, so, instead he engaged her in conversation.
“Sure, Morgan. You know your dad and what he's capable of. Didn't he just threaten Shannon?”
“Yeah, he did,” she said deep in thought.
Jim let her sit and mull this thing over uninterrupted. That was all he could offer her, because he didn't want to betray Rita's trust, but more than that, he didn't want to be the one to hurt Morgan with the truth.
“I…I think I might start looking for her again,” she shrugged her shoulder. “It couldn't hurt anything.”
Jim smiled at the young woman. “It sounds like a good idea, Morgan. If you need any help just say the word.”
“I appreciate that, but over the last couple of months I've taken up enough of your time. I mean, look at you now, sitting here, off the clock on a Saturday afternoon when you could be at home relaxing.”
Before Jim could respond Morgan elbowed him in the side and pointed. “Look,” she said directing his attention out of the front windshield.
There was Nathan, looking just as gangly and unthreatening as he had the week before, but this time he wasn't alone. Walking behind him, with an uneven gait, was four girls. There was also a man that they didn't recognize, who was obviously helping him to keep the girls corralled so that they wouldn't stumble off of the dock into the harbor.
“They must be drugged,” Morgan stated.
“That's a safe bet. Otherwise they would be running,” Jim added.
They sat watching the odd group make their way to the far end of the waterfront. Occasionally their view would be blocked by a slow moving forklift rolling by with a massive crate held out in front, or a cargo net filled with wears being swung off of a ship onto the wharf, but once their vision was cleared it wasn't hard to find Nathan and continue to track his progress. Watching the dockworkers go about their duties, it occurred to them that none of the laborers seemed to take notice of the obviously impaired girls.
“It's as if they can't see them,” Morgan said, amazed.
“They don't want to see them,” Jim added.
“Yeah, I guess not. If they saw them they might have to do something about it.”
“I don't think it's indifference that's stopping them, Morgan. I think it's fear.”
She opened up her mouth to protest, but stopped herself. Putting yourself in the middle of a crime organization's dealings wasn't something that that the average Joe was willing to do.
When the ragtag party of six reached their destination, the man from the drive-in greeted Nathan, and it didn't appear like he was going to waste any time with greetings, instead he walked down the line of unbalanced girls and began looking them over like they were livestock.
Nathan began to nervously move his hands around, talking as he pointed to a specific part of the girl that was being inspected. The man from the drive-in glared at Nathan before taking a menacing step forward, speaking to him through gritted teeth.
Morgan was getting fidgety and needed to voice her frustration. “I wish we could hear what they were saying.”
“I know the feeling,” Jim said in a low voice.
When the man squeezed one of the girl's bottom and nodded his head in approval Morgan was ready to jump out of the car and go to their rescue.
“Simmer down,” Jim warned. “We have to do this slow and easy. You can't just put on your cape and go swooping in to save the day.”
The man from the drive-in looked like he was about to turn and walk away, so Morgan and Jim moved to exit the car so that they could move close enough to make the arrests before anyone could escape. But instead of leaving the area the man raised his arm in the air and waved someone over. The two state troopers stopped cold when out of the shadows walk Philip and Kevin.
“No. No. No,” Morgan repeated in a strangled whisper. “Not this. Oh, god, no. Please, not this.”
Jim was just as stunned as Morgan was to see the McCray brothers walk into the open, but he had the presence of mind to latch on to Morgan's arm, holding the shell-shocked woman in place just incase she decided to rush onto the scene. Damn, the man thought. This kid can't catch a break with her family.
“Come on, Morgan. Get it together. You can do this,” he said in a harsh whisper, using his field trainer persona, trying to breakthrough to the law enforcement side of the young woman's mind. He hoped that his commanding voice would pull her away from the calling that he knew was rushing through her veins. A calling that demanded the shielding of the bloodline. It was primal and familiar and her instincts to protect would flood her mind before any other options had a chance to present themselves.
But now was not the time to lose focus. Emotions had to be overcome, and familiar connections had to be set aside. There was work to be done, and the McCray brothers would have to be treated just like any other suspect.
Morgan sat paralyzed. This can't be happening, she thought. My family cannot be involved in this. What the hell am I going to do? Maybe I should drive away. Maybe I should blow the horn and make our presence known. Maybe I…her thoughts were cut short when Jim's voice broke through her panicked ramblings, and she realized what he was saying.
Get it together. You can do this, Jim was telling her, and he was right. She could do this. She had to do this. There was really no choice. The people in front of her were criminals, and she knew what she had to do. She was going to have to arrest her brothers.
“You know we can't let them put those girls on that boat,” Jim pointed out in an effort to steer Morgan's mind toward the victims and their needs.
“Of course I do,” she answered. With her resolve firmly in place, Morgan pulled out a cell phone.
“What are you doing?”
“We can't do this alone, Jim. This surveillance is over. It's time to call in the cavalry.”
Morgan was getting frustrated. She had been sitting in her office for the last three hours wondering what was going on. Although she had been the one to discover the activity at the harbor, because her brothers were involved, she wasn't allowed to be a part of the interrogations that were being conducted.
She had talked to Shannon, and when she told the social worker what was going on the emotional blonde wanted to come to barracks to give her spouse support, but Morgan told her that it wasn't necessary. That there was nothing that she could do. A warm smile pulled at Morgan's lips when she thought about her wife's response.
“I can share the pain, my love.”
Morgan was about to pickup the phone and call home again, when she heard a knock at her door. She released a heavy breath. “Finally,” she whispered. “Come in,” she said louder.
The First Sergeant walked in and sat heavily in the visitor's chair across from Morgan. He had been called in for the second time in as many months to run the interrogations because of the unusual circumstances of Barracks Q's First Sergeant, Jim, once again being involved with the surveillance of an important arrest. When the man didn't immediately say anything Morgan's heart started to beat faster.
Finally, Morgan couldn't take it anymore. “With all do respect, sir. What the hell is going on?”
“First, let me say this,” the sergeant started.
Morgan's stomach dropped. Oh, shit.
“You are a fine detective and an asset to the troopers, and we hope that you will choose to spend your career working out of Barracks Q. With that said I have disturbing news.
Uh, oh. She held her breath.
“We couldn't get a thing out of your brothers. Those boys are hardcore.”
“I'm not surprised, sir. They learned their lessons well.”
“Which leads me to this next bit of information. Your brothers wouldn't talk, but after promising young Nathan a long stretch of time in prison with a dance card that would be filled nightly, the boy cracked.
“What did he say?” Morgan asked. Although her gut was telling her that she already knew the answer.
“He told us that the reason they met at the chicken drive-in was because the boss owned the place.”
“I…I don't understand what that means. Of course the boss of the chicken drive-in owns the place.”
“I think you do understand what I'm saying, detective, and I'm sorry.”
Morgan didn't know whether to laugh or cry. She knew that her father was capable of many things, but she never in a million years would have thought that he would stoop so low as to rob young girls of their freedom and innocence.
“When are you going to arrest him?” she asked.
Neither trooper needed to explain who “him” was.
A car is on it's way over to his residence as we speak.”
“After he has been booked I want to talk to him.”
“You got it.”
Morgan was sitting in the visitors area of the county jail finding it hard to believe that she was waiting to talk to her father about his involvement in human trafficking.
When Michael was finally escorted into the room, he took a seat across from his daughter and gave her a little lopsided grin.
“Well, I'd be lyin' if I said I wasn't surprised to see you. You are most definitely the last person on this earth I expected to come and see me.”
Morgan didn't waste her time with questions about whether or not her father was guilty or innocent. She felt like she already knew the truth. What she wanted to know was why.
“You lied to me, dad. You stood in the middle of your living room and lied to me. Why?”
“Come on, kid. What was I gonna do, tell you what was really going on?”
Michael couldn't help but laugh. In that moment Morgan reminded him of that defiant sixteen year-old girl from so long ago.
“You are one for the books, Morgan.”
“How could you do this, dad?”
“How could I do this? It's not like I go and knock on doors, and snatch people out of their homes. These girls are trash. They are hanging out in the streets begging for trouble. I just gave it to them.”
“You don't know what's going on with these girl's home life. For some of them the street is safer than being with their parents. Sometimes they don't feel like they have any other choice than to hang with the wrong crowd. But what ever the reason is for them to be out there you don't have the right to take away their freedom.”
This sparked Michael's temper. “Their home life, or lack of one is not my problem, Morgan. If they can't stand mommy, or daddy drinks too much, then go to the library, hang out at the youth center, find something constructive to do with your time. But, decent girls don't put themselves in a position to be taken. They aren't out late at night, hanging around with the wrong crowd, or flaunting their bodies, walking around half-naked. Hell, we all know what kind of world we live in, if those fools don't take the danger seriously, then that's on them.”
Morgan was amazed by the passion that was exhibited in defense of an act that was so wrong. “So you accept no responsibility for the lives you have ruined?”
“Why should I? Everybody makes choices, Morgan. Take you for instance. You could have used your home life as an excuse to do the wrong thing, hell, I practically insisted on it, but you didn't. And you had a better excuse than most. You didn't have to sneak around, I was willing to teach you the ins and outs of things. But you refused to give in. You chose to become a stand up, law-abiding citizen. These girls could have done the same thing. What I'm saying is they chose their path.” He turned his face away from his daughter. “They are just as responsible for their fate as the men that took them.”
Morgan was thrown off balance for a moment. She couldn't believe what she was hearing. Was her father giving her a sideways compliment, while at the same time justifying kidnapping girls and forcing them to be sex slaves? She pushed that thought aside for later contemplation, and decided it was time to change gears because it was obvious that Michael was not accepting any blame.
“Dad, that chicken place was the only honest thing in your sorry-ass life. Why did you have to shit on it by working your dirty deals there.”
Michael looked deep into his daughter's eyes. He wanted to make sure she understood what he was saying to her. “No, Morgan. You're wrong. It wasn't the only honest thing in my life.”
There it was again. That small door into his heart. But she wasn't going to walk through it. She wasn't going to let him manipulate her.
“You're not going to get to me, dad. I know this is a part of your game.”
The man shrugged his shoulders. “This whole thing is a game, Morgan. Life is a game. So, don't hate the player, hate the game.”
Morgan's eyes were bulging. “What the hell does that even mean?!”
“You have got to be kidding! That saying is almost as old as you are. It means, don't hate me because I participate in less than honest ways to make a living. Hate who ever it is that require my less than honest ways to keep them in a constant supply of the goods I offer. It's their game, Morgan. Not mine. I'm just another piece on the board.”
She almost let herself understand what he was saying. Of course the unsavory things that went on in the world couldn't exist without the depraved individuals that fueled the need, but she refused to allow him to use “the powers that be” as a scapegoat.
“That's not going to fly with me, dad. You didn't have to play the game at all.”
Michael knew that this was the opening that he had been waiting for. If he was going to get out of this he would need Morgan's help. So he put on his most sincere face and implored the young woman with his deep blue eyes.
“Don't you see that's not true, Morgan. I did have to play the game. I was out there all alone with only myself to depend on. Everything I know I learned the hard way.
When he saw a slight shift in Morgan's body language he pressed forward and tried to make his efforts more personal.
“I've only ever wanted what was best for my kids, Morgan.”
“It's true. You know I never had any education. Everything I have, I have because I scraped and struggled for it. Now, don't get me wrong. I know I didn't go about it in the most legal of ways.”
“Come on, Morgan. Don't be like that. Don't treat me bad because of what I do out in the streets. Did I ever hit you? Did you ever go hungry?” Here he paused for effect. “Did you ever have to wonder if I loved you? No. You didn't. But what did I get for doing the best that I could?” He didn't wait for an answer. “A daughter that left home when she was eighteen and never came back. I didn't deserve that, Morgan.”
Morgan was a little off balance. Her father had so skillfully steered her away from the problem at hand that she didn't realize that they were no longer talking about his crime.
It's true, she thought. Michael McCray had never been an abusive father, just a crooked one. And he was never one to be lacking in the number of kisses and hugs for her, as a matter of fact, she was the only one he ever said the words “I love you” to.
When she came back to herself her father was still talking. “Was there anything that you ever needed, hell, anything that you ever wanted that I didn't provide for you?”
“No,” was the quiet answer.
“And why do you think that is, Morgan?”
The detective shrugged her shoulders like a teenager. “I don't know,” she mumbled.
Michael put on his most charming smile. “Yes you do. Tell me why, Morgan.”
The tall woman looked at her father with misty blue eyes. “B…because you love me?”
“That's right, kid.” He tilted his head at a sympathetic angle. “You know after my folks died I never had nobody. So, I used to always tell myself, if I ever have kids of my own I would make sure they would never have to go through the shit I did. That I would teach them how to survive.”
“You tried to make us crooks, dad. That's not how you raise kids,” she said, making it almost sound like a plea of understanding.
“It was all I knew, Morgan. Life can be bitch. I just wanted my kids to know how to kick it's ass. Nice guys finish last, Morgan. That ain't just some shit somebody made up. I learned that lesson real quick. When I was fifteen I worked my ass off, hauling shit, painting shit, cleaning shit. And what did I get for it?” he snorted in disgust. “Ten dollars if the people were feeling particularly generous that day.”
“Dad, I know how you grew up, but that doesn't…”
“I know you know the story, Morgan. All I'm saying is ain't nobody a saint. Even those people that hired me to do that backbreaking work when I was a kid had a scam going.”
Morgan raised a brow in doubt.
“This ain't no bullshit. Those people that hired a poor street kid to do some work around their houses did it to make themselves feel good. You know what mean? That, look at me I'm so liberal I'm helping the underprivileged, kinda crap. But when it came time for payment they were the most conservative bastards on the block.”
Morgan just sat looking at him. Terrified that she was starting to understand her father and the way he lived his life. When he first set out on his own the man had been an orphaned, uneducated, thirteen year-old kid that had to learn the hard way that nothing in life was free or easy. These realizations were sending tiny fissures of uncertainty through her mind, and Morgan was beginning to feel dizzy.
“The most honest people I ever worked with was crooks,” Michael was saying. “At least with them I got my fair share of the take.”
“I…I'm confused, dad. I…I don't know what you want from me,” she said, rubbing her temple.
She looked so vulnerable to him, and Michael knew he had her exactly where he wanted her. “You know I'm not a bad guy, not really, not where it counts, Morgan.” He put his hands over his heart. “In here.”
He heard his son's voice in his head, and realized that, once again, he was probably spreading it on too thick, so he dialed the sappiness back a little.
“Help your dad out, just this one time, Morgan. Help me out of this…please.”
He could already see it happening. The wheels were turning in her head. She was looking for an out for him, and if anybody could figure an angle around this, it was Morgan. She was smart. Ten times smarter than her brothers. She… His thoughts stopped mid sentence, and he was hit with a truth so profound that he felt short of breath.
God, help me. I'm about to corrupt the most innocent thing in my life. Ethics, he thought. Ethics had never been an issue with him, but it was the very foundation on which his daughter stood. And he was about to crush it into powder, leaving her with nothing to hold her up, all so he could avoid paying for a crime that he was guilty of.
With that reality hitting him square in the face, Michael McCray, for the second time in his existence, made an instantaneous life altering decision because of his daughter. He was about to confess something that would all at once set Morgan free of him, and allow her to gain something very precious to her.
He cleared his throat. “But…before you do something for me,” he interrupted her thoughts. “I'm gonna do something for you.”
Morgan rubbed her temples again, she was getting a headache. It felt like her father was pulling her in several different directions at once, and just when she felt like she was about to regain her balance, he would tug her in another direction.
“What is it, dad?” she asked wearily.
He opened his mouth to speak the words he never thought he would say out loud to her. “I need to tell you about your mother.”
He sat with her and quietly confessed to forcing the woman to leave her children, her home, and her life behind. He told the shocked detective how he had made her mother change her name so that she couldn't be found, and finally, he told her the reason why it had all been done.
“She was interfering with the way I wanted to raise my kids, and I couldn't stand for that.”
“She was our mother, she had that right,” Morgan said with disbelief.
“The only one that had rights in my house was me,” the man countered.
Morgan dropped her head. “Did you ever love her, dad?” she asked with misery.
“Of course I did. I loved her more than any woman I had ever been with. I never even cheated on her or nothin'. Hell, I was still in love with her the day I made her leave. In some ways I'm still in love with her now.”
Morgan wanted to pull her hair out by the roots. “You loved her, but you would have killed her? I don't get the way you think, dad. I swear I don't.”
Michael's voice became stern, and his eyes became hard chips. “Then let me explain myself to you, Morgan. The only things that were ever truly mine in this world was my life and my kids. And I was not gonna allow your mother to take away my freedom or my family from me.”
Morgan felt a small tear open in her heart for her father, or at least for the little boy he used to be. As dysfunctional as his thinking was the man was holding on to the only family that he had, but it came at the expense of making his children lose the only family they had ever had.
“Where is she?” Morgan wanted to know.
“She's never been that far away. Always lurking and creeping around, but she knew better than to cross me by contacting you.”
“What about Kevin and Philip? Do they know about her?”
“Hell yeah, but those boys ain't never had much affection for weak women, and that's what they considered a woman that could be bullied into leaving her kids.”
Morgan's anger flared. “But, you would have killed her!”
“Damn right I would have, but your brothers think it would have been an honorable death.”
“An honorable death?! They're as sick as you are. Who do they think you are? King Arthur? And they are the Knights of the Roundtable? There is nothing honorable or noble about anything that the three of you are involved in.”
“Well, they don't see it that way,” Michael said with pride.
Morgan felt like her brain was melting, like her reality was tilting off of it's scales. She knew she needed to focus, to find some stability, something to keep her anchored. And as always she knew where to run, it was the safest place in her world. Her one true thing.
She remained quiet, letting her mind float in the warm golden glow of her lifeline until she felt like she could swim on her own again. Once she was centered again she opened her eyes, and looked at her father through new eyes.
The man was, who he was…without apology. Her Father was never sorry for anything he did, because whatever he did, he did with the full knowledge of the consequences, so him telling her about her mother was as close to making amends and saying he was sorry as he would ever get. Viewing him in this light, she no longer felt the need to lash out, instead, she wanted to seek out answers. But there was still a chill in her voice.
“Why now? Why are you telling me this now?” she asked in a glacial tone.
“Because, me and your brothers are going away for a long time. And a kid needs a parent out there somewhere that can watch over them.”
“How paternal of you.”
Ignoring the sarcasm, Michael told Morgan the other things she would need to know.
“There is a lockbox in the attic. It's hidden under a floorboard located underneath a trunk full of your old stuff. When you pull up the box look inside, and you will find old pictures and documents and shit that should help you find Sharon.”
Hearing her father speak her mother's name after so many years made her stomach clench with emotion, but before she could ask him anymore questions their time was up.
Morgan watched in silence as her father was being led away. Then, suddenly he stopped walking and looked at his daughter. “When you find her tell her what I told you. Tell her that I know she found a way to sneak looks at you over years.” He gave her an understanding smile. “Tell her it was okay.”
They stood staring at each other, and he saw it in her eyes. He had lost her. Not in that, you're a pain in the ass, and I can barely tolerate your presence kind of losing her. This was final. This was the nail in the coffin. This was the I'm never going to speak your name again, kinda losing her…and it hurt more than he thought it could, or ever would. So, in those last few moments he spoke his heart.
“I love you, kid. Always have. Always will. You take care of yourself and that little blonde of yours.”
And with that, he was gone.
Morgan was snuggled up with her wife, her head resting on the blonde woman's breast as Shannon ran calming fingers through slightly damp hair. The distraught detective had come home splintered, and when Shannon saw the worn-out look to her wife's features, she didn't waste any time moving into action. She stripped her, bathed her, and forced a few sips of warm tea down her throat before putting her to bed. Now they were stretched out together as Shannon worked on soothing her body, hoping to keep the negative emotions at bay.
“I am so sorry, love. I know this has been a difficult day for you.”
Morgan gave a slight squeeze to the slim waist her arm was wrapped around. “That's an understatement.”
“I wish I could fix this for you.”
“Are you kidding? You have me so relaxed that I feel like I've had a spa day. I can't believe it was only this morning that Jim and I were out at the harbor shooting the shit.”
“The day has seemed extremely long.”
“I'm sorry you missed the movie with Vicky,” Morgan apologized.
“You can't be serious. There is no where on this earth that I would rather be than right here with you.”
“Even now? With all of my chickens coming home to roost?”
“Are we talking about your dad's food again? Because the last time I checked you didn't own any chickens.” Shannon teased.
Morgan laughed out loud. “I didn't even recognize the correlation between that saying and my dad‘s business.”
They remained quiet for a while. Morgan running her fingers along Shannon‘s stomach, and Shannon massaging Morgan‘s scalp and placing soft kisses on top of her head.
“What do you think will happen to your father and brothers?”
“I know them. They won't talk. So the judge will probably throw the book at them, charging them with everything from violating the prohibition against slavery, and transporting a minor across state lines to engage in prostitution, to sex trafficking.”
“How much time do you think they will get.”
Morgan shrugged her shoulders. “I can't really say, but if I were to take a guess I'd say that my dad will probably get ten years for interstate transport for prostitution, and Kevin and Philip will most likely be given four years each for conspiracy charges.”
“That doesn't seem like much for what they've done.”
“It's not, and with good time they probably get out sooner, but that's what the lawmakers have decided is appropriate.”
“That just sucks.”
They were quiet again, letting the previous conversation settle around them.
“Shannon?” Morgan whispered.
“You interested in going on treasure hunt in the attic of my childhood home?”
Morgan felt the firm belly under her hand quiver with laughter.
“You couldn't keep me away. Just say the word and I'm there.”
“How about tomorrow, after lunch?”
“It's a date, love.”
Standing in the middle of the large attic, Morgan realized that it hadn't changed much since she was a teenager. There were still boxes, and trunks, and old toys everywhere. Shannon had made her way over to a red tricycle that had streamers hanging from the handles and a little blue license plate with the name “Morgan” stamped on it.
“Oh, I can't believe how cute this is,” she squealed. She began pushing it around, making a few dust mites float into the air.
Morgan rolled her eyes. “Are you going to act like this every time you see one of my old toys?”
Shannon left the tricycle, and looked for something else to investigate. “I can't make you any promises, baby. When you said we were going on a treasure hunt I thought that you were joking.”
“I was,” Morgan deadpanned.
As Shannon went in search of more trinkets from her wife's past, Morgan sought out the old trunk that her father had told her about.
Her eye caught sight of a white sheet draped over something that was shaped like a trunk and made her way over to it. When she pulled the cloth off, a beautiful brown trunk was revealed. Morgan ran her hand across the top and let her fingers caress the buttery softness of the brown leather. “I've never seen this before. He must have brought this up here after I left,” she said out loud.
This got Shannon's attention, so she made her way to her lover's side. “Are you going to open it?”
Morgan shrugged her shoulders, but didn't say a word, or make a move.
Shannon rubbed her back. “Sweetheart? Are you okay?”
“I…I'm a little nervous.”
“Why?” Shannon asked in a soothing voice.
“I don't know.”
“Do you want me open it?”
“Yes,” was whispered.
Shannon knelt down, and pulled her lover down beside her. When both women were in place, Shannon reached out and flipped the latches that were holding the top closed. She slowly lifted the lid and revealed nothing more mysterious than a bunch of folded clothes. Morgan tilted her head in a curious manner and reached to pick up one of the shirts that was on top.
“I wonder why he has this up here?”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Shannon said as she pulled out a pair of jeans. “Um, Morgan?”
Blue eyes looked in her direction. “Uh?”
“These are women's clothes.”
Morgan held up the shirt she was holding and realized that it was a blouse. She turned and looked at Shannon. “Do you think my dad is a cross dresser?”
Shannon laughed at her mate‘s silliness. “There is something seriously wrong with you. And if your father is a cross dresser he does it in clothes from the seventies.” She held up the jeans that were still in her hands. “Look at these, they are bell bottoms. She dug further into the trunk and pulled out another blouse. “And look at this,” she said pointing out the color. “When was the last time you saw a lime green this hideous? Certainly not in this millennium.”
Morgan took a closer look, then went completely still. “I…I think they belonged to my mother.”
Shannon dropped the clothes like the material had suddenly become hot. “What?!”
“Yeah, I think they belonged to my mom. He must have packed them up and stored them in this trunk.”
“But why would he keep these out of date clothes?”
Morgan let her fingertips brush over the old clothing. “It's probably all that was left after he threw her out. I guess she didn't have need of clothes from the seventies when she was going out into an eighties world.”
“That explains why she left them, but it doesn't explain why he kept them. And not just keep them, but lovingly preserved them,” Shannon said in curious voice.
“I guess what he told me at the jail is true. On some level he is, and always has been in love with her.”
Morgan felt a little loony when the thought of her father still loving her mother made her feel warm and fuzzy inside. She closed the trunk and put the sheet back over it.
“Back to the search,” she said.
While Morgan moved heavy trunks out of the way, searching for the loose floorboard. Shannon was going through every cardboard box that was marked “Morgan”. The little tricycle was now parked beside a box that she had dumped out, and was now using to fill with items she was going to take home with them.
There were certificates of achievement, physical fitness awards, and the tassel from her graduation cap. She found a stuffed Ziggy doll, and smiled, wondering if the newspapers still ran that cartoon, when she tossed Ziggy into the take-home box she saw a fat brown bear that was hidden underneath.
“Hey, what's this?” she asked, holding up her find.
Morgan stopped her searching, and smiled with child-like glee when she saw what Shannon had in her hand.
“That's Chubby Bear. I haven't seen him since…” here her voice dropped off and an astonished whisper filled the space. “Since my mom disappeared.”
“Do you think she gave it to you?”
Morgan took the offered toy and held it in front of her, then she brought if close and hugged it. Suddenly, she was filled with memories. Not picture memories, but memories of feelings, emotions, and smells. She inhaled deeply, and she could have sworn that she smelled a hint of a long forgotten perfume.
“I'm positive she gave it to me.”
Morgan gave the bear back to Shannon and went back to her searching.
“Then he's definitely coming home with us,” she said as Chubby Bear joined Ziggy in the box.
Morgan flipped up the lid on a trunk that was filled with her old sweats and athletic shoes from her days as a member of the basketball, volleyball, and track teams.
“I think this is the one,” she announced.
Shannon had just found another toy, but dropped the Barbie with the missing head back where she had pulled it from, deciding to ask her spouse about the decapitation later.
“What did you find?”
“This,” Morgan pointed to the trunk of sports clothes. “It's the only trunk that I've seen with my junk in it.”
Shannon reached in and pulled out a pair of worn-down running spikes, and turned up her nose. “When was the last time you wore these stinky looking things?”
“Hey, I'll have you know that these are the spikes that I had on when I ran the second leg of our state champion four-hundred meter relay team.”
Shannon ran her hands over Morgan's chest, and spoke in a husky whisper. “Oooo, tell me more. I just looove jocks,” she teased.
Morgan laughed from her gut. “You are a nut.”
“But you love me anyway.”
“Damn right,” Morgan reassured.
The blonde sobered and looked her mate in the eyes. “Are you ready for this?”
Morgan reached out and squeezed Shannon's hands before bringing them up to her mouth and kissing the knuckles.
“As ready as I'll ever be.”
“Then let's do this,” Shannon encouraged.
Morgan bent over and started to push the large trunk away from it's resting place. Once it was well out of the way she stood and looked down at the empty space that was left behind.
“Well, here goes,” she said as she dropped to her knees.
She felt around, running her large hands across the floor until her slender fingers felt a slight rise in one of the floorboards. When she hooked the tip of her index finger into the ridge, she was able to pull a piece of the floor away.
“Damn,” she whispered. “He wasn't lying.”
After she had pulled away four boards a square object covered by a piece of dark cloth came into view.
“Come on, Morgan. You can do this, it's now or never,” she said, trying to pump herself up.
Shannon reached out and covered her partner's trembling hands with her own. “It's okay, love. I'm right here with you.”
Morgan kissed her wife softly on the lips. “I love you, Shannon.”
“And I you…forever.”
Taking a deep breath, Morgan removed the cloth off of the box and pulled it out of it's hiding place. She tried the latch, but it was locked, so turned the object over and over looking for a key. When she discovered the small metal key taped to the bottom she pulled it loose and inserted it into the lock, turning it to the right until she felt the tumblers spin. When the mechanism released the loud click that it made seemed to echo across the entire space of the attic.
At first Shannon thought that the lid was rising on it's own until she noticed Morgan's fingers resting along the edges, gently lifting it opened.
Morgan's eyes grew wide when she saw the contents. She wasn't sure what she was expecting to see, but a lone manila envelop wasn't it. She squeezed the tiny little metal arms together that held the envelop closed, and lifted the flap. Reaching in, she pulled out a thick document, ignoring for now the other items that were sitting in the bottom of the package. Once the papers were fully out, both she and Shannon began to read.
Blue and Green eyes scanned the first several sheets until they reached the section they were looking for. When Morgan shook the papers to remove a wrinkle that had formed across the middle, something fell out from the bottom, so Shannon stopped reading to pick it up. When she realized that it was a picture she began to study it. And just as she realized whose face was looking back at her, Morgan was reading her mother's new name. They looked at one another with their eyes wide and their mouths hanging open.
“Oh, my god,” they said in unison. “It's Rita.”
Rita had straightened up things around the house. Having spent a lazy Sunday afternoon doing nothing more exciting than changing the sheets on the bed, and cleaning the dust from the wood, she was ready for a few hours of mindless entertainment, so she turned on the television. But just as she had kicked off her shoes and put her feet up on the sofa the doorbell rang.
“Who could that be?” she asked the room as she slipped her shoes back on and headed for the door.
When she pulled the curtain back from the side window and peeked out, her heart skipped a beat at the sight of Morgan and Shannon standing on her doorstep.
“What on earth?” she questioned as she took a few deep breaths to calm her nerves before opening the door.
When the door swung open Morgan just stood there. She hadn't thought about what she was going to say, or what she as going to do. The only thing that had been on her mind from the moment that she had read the name on the document that she had found was to drive over to Rita Shaw's house and have a talk with the woman.
“Well, hello. What brings the two of you over here on such a nice day?” she asked the silent couple.
Morgan just stood there, appearing unable to speak. So, Rita turned to Shannon, hoping that the social worker would answer her question, but the blonde seemed to be just as speechless as her spouse.
“Is everything okay?” Rita asked, getting a little worried.
Then an uncomfortable feeling started to settle over her, and she turned to find intense blue eyes boring into her. Eyes that had always been the mirror imagine of the girl's father. Eyes that were looking at her as if they were trying to find something…anything that was vaguely familiar to them. Then the women made eye contact with one another and Rita's knees became so weak she almost fell to floor.
“Gods have mercy,” she whispered. “You know.”
Morgan didn't say anything right away, she just continued to stare. “I…I don't remember you,” was said in a bewildered voice.
Rita nearly choked on a sob. “Why would you? You were only four years-old. You were a baby.”
“No, I remember some things from being four, but I can't remember you. I mean, I can't remember what you looked like.”
“That's okay, Morgan. It was a long time ago, and I was a lot younger,” Rita said, nervously moving her hands through the air.
Morgan tilted her head in observance. “You were my age.”
“Yes. Yes, I was.” Rita stepped back and invited the couple in. “Please, come in. We have a lot to talk about.”
“Yes, we do,” Morgan said as she crossed over the threshold. But she stopped walking once she had entered the house, and stood in the foyer looking at the shorter woman. “I have thought about you for so long. What you would look like, what you would sound like,” Morgan laughed a little. “But I never got it right.”
“I hope what's in front of you isn't too disappointing,” Rita said a little self-conscious.
“No, not at all. You aren't what I imagined, but for some reason you are exactly what I expected.”
The words touched Rita deeply, and she reached out, as if to touch the young woman, but she pulled back at the last moment, afraid that she was crossing an invisible line.
“It's…it's okay,” Morgan said.
Rita tentatively reached out again and laid a gently hand on the tall woman's arm.
Seeing how timid the women were with one another, Shannon pushed for a little more contact. “Why don't you give her a hug, Rita?”
Rita looked up at the quiet woman. “Can…can I hug you?” The fear of rejection could clearly be heard in her voice, but she really wanted the opportunity to hold her baby in her arms again.
Morgan didn't respond immediately. There were too many emotions flooding her senses. The child in her screamed for the contact, but the adult was cautious, not trusting the hurt that this woman could bring. So, she looked to her wife for the answer, and when she saw the support and encouragement in moist green eyes she turned back to her mother and took a hesitant step forward.
When Rita saw that Morgan was moving toward her she quickly moved to cover the rest of the distance. Now that she had permission she didn't want to waste anymore time doing something that she had been longing to do for over twenty years…she hugged her daughter.
When Morgan leaned over and was enveloped in Rita's essence, her entire being was instantly surrounded by a familiar scent, something that tickled at the edges of her memory. But it wasn't until she felt the gentle hand at the back of her head, pulling her closer, that the long lost memory of this woman's last day with her came rushing back to her with incredible force…
“Mommy is going to go away for a while, Morgan. You will have to be a big girl now, okay?”
The little dark-haired girl dropped the fat bear she was holding and hugged her mother tight around the neck, smelling the pretty flower garden that her mother always made her think of. “Okay, mommy. I can do that. When will you come back?”
The innocent question caused a torrent of anguished tears to flow down Sharon's cheeks, but she couldn't stop them. “Not for a long time, sweet girl.”
Morgan pulled back and wiped her mother's face. “Don't cry, mommy it will be okay. I can be a big girl until you come back…I promise.”
“I know you will, baby.”
Sharon pulled her little girl to her, and rested her hand on the back of her head, holding her close and feeling the baby-soft hair under her fingers as she inhaled the scent of her youth. She knew that these last precious moments with her daughter was going to have to live in her memories for an eternity, so she branded every scent, sound and touch into her mind.
“I love you,” she whispered to the little girl. “Never forget that, Morgan.”
“I won't, mommy. I love you too.”
“I love you.” Morgan was hearing those words again, and feeling that hand at the back of her head once more, and smelling that flower garden scent again, and it all came together, hitting her in the chest like a sledgehammer.
“Oh, god,” she moaned as if in a dream. “Mommy,” she whispered, as if she were in pain.
Rita almost collapsed from the emotion that she felt coming off of her youngest child, and was grateful when she felt Shannon come up behind her and hold her steady.
“I have missed you so much,” Morgan sobbed into the older woman's hair.
“I've missed you too, sweet girl. So very, very much.” she sobbed with just as much emotion.
“I'm sorry I forgot. I promised you wouldn't, but I did.”
Rita was shushing the tall child. “It's okay, Morgan. You did good. You were my big girl. Don't worry,” she soothed her daughter as if she were that four year-old again and needed to be told she didn't do anything wrong.
“He…he wouldn't let me talk about you. He…he wouldn't show me a picture of you. He…” The distraught woman was hiccupping and crying at the same time.
Again, Rita soothed her. “It's okay, Morgan. I know what your father did. It's okay. Now calm down or you're going to make yourself sick.”
This seemed to make Morgan cry even harder. Being mothered in this way was something she had missed her entire life. It didn't matter that she was thirty years-old, married and a police detective. Right here. Right now. She was a little girl being comforted by the mother she had missed for most of her life.
Shannon was standing behind Rita with her hand s on the woman's waist, holding her steady, crying right along with the two women, feeling her lover's emotions as if they were her own. Shannon was thrilled for her mate, happy that this void in her life could finally be filled.
“Why don't you two take a seat before you fall over,” Shannon suggested.
Rita pulled away from her daughter and led the woman to the sofa. Once they were seated, Rita on one side of Morgan, Shannon on the other. Morgan reached over, pulled her mother's hands into her lap, and just started firing off questions.
“Where have you been? What have you been doing? How…”
Rita pulled one of her hands away and stopped the young woman from talking with the raise of a gentle finger. “Slow down, Morgan. One question at a time, but let me ask one first.”
Morgan nodded her head.
“Did Maureen and Jim tell you about me?”
Two sets of mouths dropped open, and Rita realized her error. “Jim and Maureen know who you are?” asked a shocked Shannon.
Oh, my. I've got to fix this. “Well, yes. You see it was becoming very difficult for me to keep this secret with you being so close. So, I selfishly shared my troubles with them and swore them to silence. So you see, Morgan there is no need to be angry with them. This…all of this is my fault.”
Morgan had to admit there was a small amount of anger brewing in her belly. She had known Jim and Maureen for years, their loyalty should lie with her not with some stranger that they… Then it stopped. The anger was gone, and she was filled with gratitude. Her mother had needed someone to lean on, and the kind couple had been there for her, just as they had been there for Shannon and Brian so many years before. And if she were to be honest with herself, she had to admit that in all of this, her mother was as much of a victim to Michael's cruelty as she was, probably more. The person she should be angry with was the person that had set all of this in motion.
“Don't worry,” she finally said. “I'm not mad. I'm actually happy that you had someone to talk to, but no, it wasn't Jim or Maureen that told me…it was dad.”
Gray eyes grew wide with shock. “Michael told you?! What on earth would prompt him to do that?”
“Yeah, he, um. He's about to go away for a long time, and he felt like it was time to come clean.”
Rita couldn't believe what she was hearing. Michael McCray had gotten caught with his hand in the cookie jar? Unbelievable. But that piece of news would have to be put away for later contemplation. Right now the most important thing was making sure that she was free to see her daughter without risking her life.
“Since it was your father who told you about me I'm hoping that means that I can have contact with you and not have to worry about getting a visit from his goon squad.” Once the words had left her mouth she realized how they must have sound, and quickly apologized. “I'm sorry, Morgan. I shouldn't have let that slip out, and I certainly shouldn't have said it in that way.”
“No, it's okay. I know about his threat. He told me everything about how, and why he made you leave.”
This was another shock. Maybe putting off talking about Michael's troubles wasn't the best course of action at the moment.
“What exactly is going on with your father, Morgan? It must be something very serious for him to have, not only told you about me, but helped you find me.”
Morgan went on to tell her mother about the McCray men's involvement with the sex trade, and how she had been the one to accidentally bring them down.
Rita reached up and cupped Morgan's cheek in the palm on her hand. “Oh, my poor baby,” she sympathized. “That must have been horrible for you.”
Without thought, Morgan leaned into the hand that was caressing face, and looked into the knowing eyes of her mother.
“It was,” she forced out. “If it hadn't been for Shannon I would have fallen apart.”
Rita turned to the green-eyed woman and softened her gaze. “Since the day I met you I have wanted to tell you how much I appreciate the way you love and care for my daughter, but of course I couldn't do that without revealing who I really was. So let me do that now. Shannon, thank you for being there for her, for keeping her whole, for loving her unconditionally, and especially for filling in those gaps that my absence had to have left in her spirit. You make me feel like I'm not just getting back one daughter, but two.”
Now it was Shannon that was being held and soothed in strong arms. “Thank you for saying that,” was said in a teary voice. Rita's words had hit a chord so deep inside of her that she had broken down from the emotions that had welled up. And Morgan was right there to shield her, because more than anyone else, she knew how much those words meant to her spouse, who had so recently turned the final page on her own parents.
Observing the two women, and the way they fit together made Rita smile. “It seems that the two of you have kept one another's spirits alive. It is a rare thing to find the yin to one's yang. Your souls are truly blessed,” she informed the couple.
Morgan reached down and lovingly wiped Shannon's tears away with the pads of her fingers, taking care not to press too hard against the soft skin under her wife's eyes.
The tender scene that was unfolding in front of her filled Rita's heart with a melancholy ache. She had missed so much. That realization filled her with guilt, and before she could stop herself she blurted out her self-recrimination.
“I should have tried harder to stay with you, Morgan. I should have just taken the risk of him killing me, because these years of living without my family, and watching helplessly from the sidelines have been like a slow death anyway,” she said with anguish.
Morgan's head snapped up, and fear flooded her eyes. “No, don't say that. What you did back then, gave us this chance now. If you had given up your life you would only be a memory. And for what? When I talked to dad he made it plain that his word was law in his house, so we would have turned out the way we have anyway. At least with the way things played out there is a chance for us to start over.”
“Is that what you want, Morgan? You want us to start over?”
“Yes, I do.”
“So do I.”
The three women sat in silence, not knowing what to do next. Finally Rita slapped her thighs and stood up from the sofa. “You girls look hungry. Come on in the kitchen and let me cook you something,” was said as she headed out of the room, fully expecting the young women to follow her.
“Let the mothering begin,” Shannon whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
“Yeah,” Morgan agreed as she followed behind her long missing parent. “Let it.”
They knew things were not going to be fixed right away. They knew it was going to take time, but they were willing to do what ever it took to get back as much as they could of what had been lost for so long. And it would all start with a Sunday dinner for three.
The visit with Rita had been emotionally draining on both women, so when Morgan announced that she wasn't ready to go home Shannon was up for what ever came next.
“What do you have in mind, sweetheart?”
“I want to be outside in the open for a little while.”
Shannon looked up into the night sky and watched the stars as they twinkled in the dark velvet expanse above them.
“How about taking a ride? Maybe out to the beach?”
Shannon reached over and squeezed her spouse's hand. “Will you hold my hand, and walk with me down the shore?”
“Anything you want, gorgeous.”
They were relaxed and content as they sat on a blanket that they kept in the trunk of the car. The moonlight was illuminating the area, bathing everything around them in a soft glow, and the sound of the waves rolling in and lapping at the shore was the perfect background sound to their mood. Everything around them was silent and unmoving. Only the ocean and the moon was sharing this moment with them.
“You know, when we were kids I told Brian that there was no such thing as a magic beach, but now I'm not so sure,” Shannon announced into the silence.
Morgan gently ran her fingers through the soft hair at her lover's temple. “Why is that sweetheart?”
“Because it was on this very beach that all of my dreams came true.”
Morgan laughed. “Oh, really? It I recall correctly, it was on this very beach that I had you face down in the sand.”
“This is true.”
“So unless you are into some kinky stuff that I don't know about I don't see how sucking up wet grit is a dream come true.”
“Stop being silly,” Shannon said, making sure there was humor in her voice. “You know what I mean.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean, but you gotta know my dreams came true too.”
“Ha! You dreamed of an instant family?”
Morgan teased Shannon's ear with her teeth. “Now who's being silly?”
“Mmm…you'd better stop that or else.”
“Or else what?” Morgan asked as she began nibbling an earlobe.”
“Or I'm gonna wish for a house full of kids.”
“You gotta do better than that, baby. That's not a threat. ”
Shannon stared into her wife's face for several minutes. Then it hit her like a bolt of lightning. “I want a house full of blue-eyed babies,” she whispered.
A bright smile bloomed on Morgan's face. “With blonde hair,” she whispered back.
The moon and the stars had bore witness to their heart's desire. The wish had been made. Now it would only be a matter of time before one day, they would bring their children here to play in the sands, where their lives had been forever changed.
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