In Pursuit of Justice
Everything hurt. Her jawed throbbed where he had struck her; her wrists chafed beneath the rough nylon cord that bound them tightly behind her back; and her breasts, exposed in the chill damp air, ached. The cavernous room was alive with shifting shadows, turning her fear to horror. His hands were rough on her body, holding her down, invading her, violating her. Helpless, she screamed silently, casting into the dark for salvation.
Please, please help me.
And then a voice--strong and certain and sure--calling her name. A woman, blazing with strength and purpose, stepped from a darkness deeper than night to light the corners of her terror.
She's here. I prayed for her, and she heard me. She came.
With the cold circle of death pressed to her temple, she realized her mistake. Dread followed quickly on the heels of relief. Desperately, she shouted a warning that made no sound. She begged not for her own life, but for that of the woman she had summoned.
No, no! I didn't mean it. Don't come here. He'll kill you. I'm sorry. Oh god, don't do this.
A thundering explosion, deafening her. A searing trail of fire dazzling her vision, blinding her. A thick red wash against her cheek; all that remained of her tormentor was his blood on her face and the hole in her heart.
Not my heart, her heart--oh, my heart, don't leave me like this.
Stumbling, falling, her breath tearing from her chest in slivers of pain, she forced herself to look upon her own soul dying. There on the floor in the flickering candlelight, all her hopes dissolved in a river of crimson, flowing past her hands with inexorable force. Relentless, pitiless, victorious death. The stakes had been set; the trade had been made-one life for another. She had been spared, and in the sparing, had lost everything. She would live, empty and forsaken. Guilt did not do justice to the agony of remorse she suffered for having called this one woman to her destruction.
On her knees, her neck arched as if pleading to be sacrificed, to be taken instead, to be freed from the torment, she screamed.
Cold, she was so cold. Drowning under the agony of loss and self-recrimination. So dark, no air ... "No ... "
"Catherine, it's all right."
"Oh my God." Dr. Catherine Rawlings shot upright in bed-gasping, sweat soaked, and disoriented. Frantically, she turned to the woman beside her, her hands roaming over the naked figure, feeling the solid heat of her. Alive, she's alive. Finding her voice, she whispered hoarsely, "I'm sorry."
"No." Rebecca Frye pulled the trembling woman into her arms, stroking the damp wisps of auburn hair back from her cheek. "Don't apologize. Let me comfort you, just this once."
"Not often enough."
"Having you next to me is all the comfort I need."
"Well, let me believe I'm slaying your dragons. It makes me feel important."
"Oh, you are that." Catherine shivered, the image of Rebecca lying in a pool of blood chiseled indelibly on the tablets of her memory. She didn't need to be asleep to revisit that moment. Every time she looked at the tall, blond detective, she saw her seconds from death, having willingly sacrificed herself for Catherine. Those first few weeks after the shooting, she had shrugged off the swift rise of terror and dread that so often took her unawares-sometimes when she was awake, more often when she slept-and left her shaking. With Rebecca in the hospital, she'd had enough to occupy her thoughts that she managed to ignore her own sleepless nights and anxious days. But Rebecca had been out of the hospital for two weeks, and the episodes were getting more frequent, and more terrifying. Smoothing her hand down Rebecca's chest, lingering for a heartbeat on the thick scar tissue above her left breast, she murmured, "You're very important. Without you I'd never get that great table at DeCarlo's."
"We'll go tomorrow then."
"It'll be fine. It's just dinner. Besides, I'm ready for a night out," Rebecca murmured, running her hand along the curve of Catherine's side until she cradled her breast in her palm. "I'm going stir crazy-for a lot of reasons."
"I know, but it's too ... oh ... " She caught her breath at the sharp point of pleasure that sparked from her nipple through her stomach as fingers closed hard on her breast. "Don't."
"Why not?" Rebecca whispered, her mouth on Catherine's neck, tasting the salt, reveling in the pulse of blood beneath her lips. "I've missed you this way."
"You're still recovering," Catherine gasped. You're not healed. You're still too thin; you're still so pale. Oh my god, don't do that. I want you so much. I was so afraid.
Catherine's hips lifted beneath her fingers, and Rebecca Frye smiled. "I'll be very still-just let me touch you. It won't hurt me." Shifting lower, she found a nipple with her teeth. Biting lightly, she slid her hand between Catherine's thighs, hovering a whisper above her, her palm warmed by her heat. "But I want you so much. Please."
"Yes. Oh yes." Catherine relented, because she needed so desperately to feel Rebecca, to know in her bones that she was safe, to extinguish the fear that consumed her with the flames of passion, of life. "Touch me, Rebecca, make me ... "
She choked, unable to speak, as Rebecca's fingers danced lightly over her straining flesh, stroking her fleetingly, dipping into the shimmering depths of her desire to spreading liquid fire over her painfully engorged tissues. Turning her cheek to her lover's chest, she closed her eyes, struggling to contain the roar of release that thundered demandingly through her blood. Trembling, she filled her hands with Rebecca's body, fingers digging into her arms, needing to be connected to her-everywhere. Only the tiny fragment of her mind still functioning kept her from pushing her hand between her lover's thighs to claim her, too. But she resisted with the last fiber of her strength, rocking against the fingers that tormented her. Too soon ... toosoon ... ohI'mcomingtoosoon...
"Yess ... " Rebecca held back as long as she could, listening to the cadence of Catherine's breathing, feeling her heart hammering against her own chest, sensing the tightening of muscles deep inside. When the woman in her arms went rigid, a strangled cry escaping her throat, Rebecca slid into her, filling her completely in one swift sure motion. Muscles clenched, then spasmed and Catherine arched, shouting in surprise, before finally convulsing in sweet, sweet surrender. Rebecca Frye closed her eyes and, secure in her lover's embrace, rode the crest of passion like a conquering hero. Never, never had she felt more alive.
"What time is it?"
Rebecca rolled over and peered at the digital clock. "Almost six-thirty."
"Ugh," Catherine groaned, pushing back the covers to get up. "Thank god it's Friday. Ohh ... I can't believe I just said that."
"Wait a minute," Rebecca said quietly, pulling her back down. When Catherine moved against her with a sigh, she settled onto her back with her arms around the still drowsy woman. "So. Tell me about the nightmare."
"It was nothing. Just a dream."
"The third one this week?"
Catherine traced her fingers along Rebecca's ribs, down her abdomen, remembering what it was like to make those muscles flicker with urgency when they made love. What if they never ... She came back to herself with a start. "It's a bit of stress. Nothing to worry about."
"Because of me?" Rebecca insisted, tightening her hold. "Something I did?"
"No," Catherine assured her quickly. It was hardly your fault ...
"Is it Blake?"
Catherine's stomach turned over. She should have realized that Rebecca was much too astute not to make the connection, although she doubted the detective realized exactly what about that night tormented her. For Rebecca, the idea of sacrificing herself in the line of duty was a simple reality of her life. "It scared me, almost losing you." At least that part was true. So terribly, terribly true.
"Listen, I know you've had to take care of me the last couple of weeks, but I'm fine now. Everything is back to normal-at least it will be as soon as I pass the physical, qualify with my weapon again, and jump through hoops for the shrink ... uh ... Sorry. But you know what I mean."
"Yes," Catherine laughed finally, loving the certainty in her voice. "I know what you mean. And you should remember that I am a psychiatrist. So believe me when I tell you there's nothing to worry about."
Rebecca pushed up against the pillows until she was sitting and looked into her lover's eyes. "I'm still going to worry until those circles under your eyes go away."
"Well, then, just concentrate on getting well."
"That's exactly what I intend to do. Starting today."
"Thank you for seeing me on such short notice."
"When you call me for a session, I know it's important," Hazel Holcomb replied, indicating the two overstuffed chairs flanking a low coffee table. The furniture was arranged upon a thick oriental in front of a stone fireplace; the walls on either side were lined with floor to ceiling bookcases and a large antique mahogany desk sat before bay windows that looked out on a well-tended flower garden. It was a functional but decidedly comfortable space. "Sit down. Do you want coffee or ... let me see, I think I have some soda."
"No, I'm fine. I've been drinking coffee all day."
"You look tired, Catherine," the chief of psychiatry said kindly, thinking to herself that the woman across from her looked more than tired. She'd lost weight, there were new stress lines around her green eyes, and a few more wisps of early gray in her hair. "Even considering the fact that it is Friday night, and with your clinical load, you have every right to be weary."
"I am. That's why I'm here, in part."
"From the beginning, then," Hazel urged, settling back and looking for all the world as if she had nothing better to do than to listen to her younger colleague indefinitely.
"I'm not sleeping." They were in Hazel's private home office, and the warm comfortable atmosphere was a welcome relief from the too bright, too impersonal spaces of the university clinic. Still, Catherine found it difficult to relax as she leaned forward, her clasped hands on her knees, her fingers intertwined to hide the faint tremor. "I think I have post-"
"Let's wait before we worry about the diagnosis, shall we? Just tell me what's happening."
"Of course." Catherine smiled ruefully and ran a hand through her collar-length auburn hair, then regarded her friend and mentor apologetically. At sixty Hazel was fit and vigorous, her quick blue eyes catching every nuance of expression, and allowing nothing of consequence to pass without comment. "Is there anything worse than a physician as a patient?"
"Not many I can think of right off hand."
"This is hard ... "
"Being a psychiatrist doesn't make it any easier. That's for television programs. Maybe I can help. This isn't about work, I take it? You would have come to the cafeteria for that."
Catherine smiled. When she needed a curbside consult, or just assurance that she was following the right clinical course in a difficult case, she sought out Hazel's advice during her chief's morning ritual of coffee and danish in the hospital cafeteria. "No. It's not work. It's the shooting."
"What about the shooting?"
"My ... part in it."
Hazel regarded her steadily. "What part was that?"
"I insisted on going to meet him," Catherine said slowly, looking beyond Hazel's face into the past. "Rebecca didn't want me to go, practically begged me not to get involved. But I wanted to. I wanted to. I thought I could stop him." She brought tormented eyes to meet Hazel's. "My arrogance almost got her killed."
"Why aren't you sleeping?" Hazel asked, choosing not to comment but to let her talk. She had known Catherine since the younger psychiatrist was a resident, and she considered them friends as well as colleagues. What Catherine needed was for her to listen, not to point out the obvious fallacy in her reasoning. Reason carried very little weight where the emotions were concerned.
"I dream," Catherine replied, her voice choked. "I ... feel him. He's hurting me, and I want her to come. I want her to make him stop. I want her to kill him."
"She comes for me, and I'm so glad. And then he shoots, and she's bleeding, there's so much blood ... oh god, there's so much blood ... "
Catherine pushed back in her chair, as if pushing away the images, breathing rapidly, struggling to erase the vivid memories. "It was my fault."
"No, Catherine," Hazel said firmly. "It was the fault of the man who pulled the trigger, and I suspect you know that. I'll wager that's not much help, though, is it?"
"Not at the moment, no."
"I know. We're going to need more time than we have tonight to talk about why you feel that you're to blame. What I'm more interested in right now is a quick fix so you can get some rest."
Catherine smiled. "Such heresy."
"Fortunately, no one will ever know," she replied with a grin. "How do you feel about medication?"
"I'd rather hold off for now," Catherine responded. "I was hoping it would be better when she was better. But it isn't. It's worse."
"How is she?"
"Recovering well. Chomping at the bit to get back to work."
"She intends to resume active duty?" Hazel asked noncommittally, watching Catherine carefully.
"Yes. The minute she's able."
"And there's no possibility she would change her mind ... if you asked?"
"No, and I couldn't ask her. She loves being a cop. It's more than a job; it's who she is."
"So, she'll be on the streets again soon."
"And how do you feel about that?"
Catherine stared at her. Finally she admitted, "It terrifies me."
"I should think it would. I don't need to tell you about the fear that every partner of someone in a life-threatening occupation lives with on a daily basis. And you have not only that general anxiety to contend with, you have the actual experience of witnessing her almost die in the course of doing her job." She shrugged. "You need to give yourself a break."
"That's it? That's your medical opinion?" Despite herself, she was smiling.
"In a nutshell, yes. That and the fact that you need to see me on a regular schedule for the time being. If your detective intends to go back to work, I suspect there'll be some things you need to sort out."
"I know," Catherine said quietly. If she and Rebecca were to have any future together, she would have to accept the fact that every time Rebecca walked out the door, it might be for the last time. She would have to learn to say goodbye, and she wasn't at all sure that she could.
Catherine watched Rebecca pack with a sense of loss. It had taken her by surprise when after breakfast that morning Rebecca had announced that it was time for her to move back to her own apartment, before "the super rents it out from under me." That excuse was so thin Catherine could practically see it hanging in the air between them like a curtain of smoke. The news shouldn't have been unanticipated, because in the last week the detective had improved dramatically; nevertheless, Catherine's first response had been one of disappointment. It was an occupational hazard to ask herself why, especially when she was elated to see her recovering so quickly, and as she leaned against the dresser watching Rebecca carefully fold jeans and T-shirts into a duffle, she struggled for perspective.
Too many conflicting emotions, that's all it is. Things will settle down in a week or two. As soon as I get used to the fact that she's all right, I won't feel as if my world is teetering on the brink of disaster. She jumped as the sound of the bag's zipper rasping closed cut sharply through the silence, a knife severing ties with heartless finality. "I'll miss you."
Surprised, Rebecca looked up, a crease between her brows. "I'm not planning on going anywhere. But I can't stay here any longer."
Why not? But Catherine knew why not. Her heart might not, but her head did. Too soon. We've spent most of our time together in crisis mode, and that kind of intensity can push things too quickly. We need time to know one another better. There are far too many secrets still to tell.
"I don't want us to end up practically living together by accident," Rebecca continued, placing her bag by the bedroom door. You might discover you've made a mistake. You might decide I'm not relationship material, just like the others did when they spent enough time with me. She slipped on a dark gray blended silk blazer and automatically reached under the left side to adjust her shoulder holster. Of course it wasn't there, and wouldn't be until she was no longer on medical leave and had re-qualified on the range. Some rule from the City Council about preventing impaired police officers from having access to service weapons. Impaired. Its absence was a constant reminder that she was not herself. At least they hadn't taken her shield. The weight of the slim leather case in the inner pocket was some comfort; small comfort perhaps, but a reassurance that she would be whole again. And soon. Today I start getting my life back. "Especially not because you were taking care of me."
"I was hardly taking care of you. You barely tolerated me cooking dinner every night without trying to do the dishes before you could even stand upright. I don't consider grocery shopping and a few loads of laundry a hardship. Skilled nursing it was not." Smiling to herself, Catherine thought about the two weeks she had taken off to spend with Rebecca after her discharge form the hospital and realized that they were two of the most relaxing weeks she'd had in months. Vacations had become a rarity for her between trying to juggle private practice with her university teaching responsibilities. They'd watched a dozen movies on DVD, discovered that they shared a passion for screwball comedies, and managed to actually complete the Sunday Times crossword puzzle together-a first time for them both. Solitary and private by nature, she had never shared that much of her life with anyone before, other than her parents, and that had been far in the past. It had been surprisingly easy. "Besides, I liked it."
"So did I," Rebecca said softly, quickly crossing the bedroom to her side. She lifted Catherine's chin in her palm, searching her eyes. "I like a whole lot of things about being with you-having dinner with you, unwinding with you, and especially being there when you wake up." She blew out a breath, searching for the words to explain that she didn't want to build a relationship on the foundation of her own weakness. Finally she said, "When things are back to normal, I'll feel like I deserve you."
"What makes you think you don't already?" Catherine asked, knowing even as she spoke the words that Rebecca would only feel worthwhile if she were also a cop. "There isn't some test you have to pass with me, Rebecca. You don't have to qualify at anything to be cared about."
"I'm no good to anyone like this," Rebecca said in frustration. "I can barely carry my own suitcase!" Unconsciously, she'd taken a step back, putting distance between them. You've only seen me when I was hurting, or hurt. First Jeff's death and then this. I need to be able to give you something. I want to feel like I deserve you, whether you think it matters or not.
"It hasn't even been six weeks. You just need a little more time."
"Yeah, well," she said as she reached for her duffle, "it's time for me to get back to doing what I should be doing."
"Meaning what, Rebecca?" Catherine asked, her voice rising sharply. "Putting yourself in the line of fire before you're even healed from the last gunshot wound?"
"What?" Rebecca stopped dead, staring at her, completely perplexed. "You don't think what happened is normal, do you? It's a one in a million thing. Most police officers never even have to draw their weapons in the line of duty their entire careers."
"I don't care if it's one in a million when it's you," Catherine replied softly, unable to keep the tears from her voice. "You're the only one I care about."
Rebecca's frustration at her own sense of helplessness disappeared in the face of Catherine's clear distress. "Hey," she said gently, walking quickly to her side and slipping her arms around her waist. "Are we fighting?"
"No," Catherine sighed, leaning her cheek against Rebecca's chest. "We're obsessing."
"Uh-uh ... cops don't obsess. We just act." There was a playful tone in her voice, but on some very basic level she meant it. What she did, she did by instinct and reflex. Part of it was training and part of it was just her. When you stopped to think, you got yourself-or someone else--killed. Unfortunately, it probably wasn't the best approach to relationships, but it had never mattered so much before. "Cops don't go in too much for self-analysis. Nothing worse than second guessing yourself out on the street."
Catherine snorted. "Don't think I haven't heard that before-from every cop I've ever talked to."
"Well then, see? It must be true."
"Shut up." And then Catherine kissed her, forgetting for the moment that her detective was still healing, and forgetting that she was worried about her safety, and even forgetting that she was angry, so angry, at her for risking her life with no thought to how Catherine would survive the loss. She kissed her hard, enjoying the feel of those familiar arms tightening around her, thighs pressing close, hands claiming flesh. She kissed her until her own breath fled and her trembling legs threatened to desert her. "Much better," she finally murmured.
"Yeah. I'll pick you up at seven for dinner," Rebecca said, her voice low and throaty. Another minute of that and she could forget the gym, because she wouldn't be able to walk.
As the door closed behind her, Catherine listened to her footsteps fade to silence. A silence so deep she thought she might drown in it.
"Well, well, well-will you just look at what's arrived to brighten the mornin'," a voice bearing a hint of Ireland crooned in her ear. "And lookin' mighty fine as ever."
Rebecca finished the upward motion of her arms, deposited the barbell on the cleats, and turned her head on the slant board to eye the redhead kneeling by her side. Sparkling sea foam eyes, faintly frizzy shoulder-length hair pulled back in a haphazard pony-tail, a dusting of freckles across pale skin. And a smile to light the darkest night. "Flanagan know you're loose?"
"Oh, no," Maggie Collins, the senior crime scene technician whispered conspiratorially. "The general is mighty busy combing through a raccoon coat with a magnifying glass lookin' for dandruff and what not. She didn't see me sneakin' away on my lunch break."
"She gives you a lunch break now?" Rebecca asked, sitting up on the end of the weight bench and toweling off. Her navy blue T-shirt with the police logo on the left chest was soaked through as were her sweatpants, and she'd only been working out for fifteen minutes.
"Aye. Something about human rights requirements in the workplace."
"Huh. Amazing. What's she trying to find-DNA from the shed scalp skin?"
"That or from a hair follicle that isn't too desiccated to type." Maggie offered the detective her unopened plastic bottle of water. Frye was shaking, and she looked like she'd dropped twenty pounds off a frame that had always been lean. Her blue eyes were still the same, though-sparkling chips of ice, hard and penetrating. If anything she looked more austerely handsome than before her injury, but Maggie sensed she was hurting. "Here-it won't be doin' you any good to get dehydrated before you've had a decent workout."
"Thanks." Rebecca took a long pull before asking, "What's new in the Body Shop?" She was referring to the Crime Scene Investigations unit, or CSI, which was headed by Dee Flanagan, Maggie's lover. It was actually more than just the morgue, which, strictly speaking, was the purview of the medical examiner, but rather an extensive evidence analysis lab that examined all physical material collected from a crime scene and the bodies involved. What Flanagan and her techs turned up was often instrumental in pointing the detectives in the right direction to solve a crime and virtually essential for proving a case in court.
"Oh, every day it's a surprise. People keep inventin' new and different ways to kill themselves and others. We've been missin' your company, though."
"Oh, I'll bet." Rebecca laughed. Dee Flanagan made it no secret that she didn't like cops in her lab-"bothering her techs and messing with evidence," so she scathingly remarked, and she suffered their presence with very little patience.
"No," Maggie said softly, smiling a fond smile that Rebecca had seen before when Dee was the topic of conversation. "You she's been missin'."
"I'll stop down in a day or two. As soon as I get back to work."
"You're comin' back soon, then?" Maggie tried to hide her surprise. Many officers injured a lot less severely than Rebecca took advantage of the disability premiums for as long as possible. But then she should have known that Frye wouldn't be one to sit at home. Goin' crazy, probably.
"I'm seeing Captain Henry first thing Monday morning."
"Well then, you'd best get back to pumpin' that iron. You need a spot?"
"No. I'm not pushing. Just easing back in." In truth, she'd been about to quit when Maggie'd come along. Her chest was on fire and even though she'd reduced her usual weights by half, she'd been struggling. What worried her the most, though, was how short of breath she got after ten minutes on the treadmill. Although the doctor's had assured her that her lung, collapsed by the bullet that had entered between her third and fourth ribs an inch above her heart, had not sustained any permanent damage, it felt like something wasn't working right. If she couldn't run, she couldn't work. "I'm doing okay."
"Right," Maggie agreed. "Good to see you back, Rebecca."
Yes. It will be good to get back. All the way back. When she went into the locker room to shower, despite the pain and the fatigue, she felt more like herself than she had since the moment she'd come to in a sea of agony to find Catherine bending over her, terror in her eyes. All she needed now was to convince everyone else that she was fit for duty. She had a lot of unfinished business to attend to, and she couldn't begin to take care of it until she had reclaimed her place in the world.
"Is something wrong?" Rebecca asked quietly. They were seated at a small candlelit table in the nook formed by floor to ceiling bay windows in DeCarlo's, a very exclusive restaurant that occupied the ground floor of a century old mansion. A bottle of imported champagne sat chilling in a silver ice bucket beside them and the appetizers-grilled figs and sweet sausages-had just been placed in the center of the linen draped table. Despite the elegant dÈcor and the intimate atmosphere, she had a feeling that her dinner companion was absorbed in something other than the fine meal and her own stellar company.
"Hmm? Oh, no." Catherine reached for her hand, smiling apologetically. "I'm sorry. I drifted away there for a minute. Work."
"I know the feeling. Even been guilty of it a few times myself. Anything you can talk about?"
"No, not really."
Rebecca shrugged. "If there's something you can say, I'm here."
"Thanks." Fortunately, Rebecca had appreciated from the first that Catherine's work was something that she could only allude to in the most general of terms, for obvious reasons of patient confidentiality. It had been just that conflict that had brought them so explosively together just a few short months before. It was one thing, however, to have the barrier exist professionally and quite another to have it crop up in their personal dealings. Because she'd never had a relationship that had been so central to her life before, Catherine had never had to contend with the fact that she couldn't discuss some of the ramifications of her work with the person closest to her. She was still learning how to navigate those murky waters, and, fortunately, Rebecca, who was used to compartmentalizing her life, didn't push. It helped diffuse the awkwardness, but there were times, like tonight, when Catherine wished she could talk.
"Let's get the paperwork out of the way first, okay?"
"No significant medical, surgical or psychiatric conditions in the past?"
"Never been hospitalized for any reason?"
She'd wait to ask about the obvious bruise under the left eye and what looked like finger marks on the neck. "No drug allergies or current medications?"
"Recreational drug use?"
"I drink now and then. Nothing else."
"Do you smoke?"
"When I drink." Faint laughter.
Catherine smiled. She had found that with new patients it was best to start with something basic and unthreatening such as reviewing the data the patient provided on a standard medical questionnaire. It established a bit of rapport, although the young woman in her office didn't seem particularly nervous. Upright posture, no apparent tics or nervous habits. Her button-down collar pale blue cotton shirt and dark tan chinos were pressed, her oxfords polished and shined, her thick wavy hair cut short, no make-up. If anything, the clear-eyed brunette with the sharp blue gaze was watching her with just a hint of suspicion-or was it something else? Intense curiosity? Not unusual from patients, but it usually developed later in the course of treatment-that need to know the therapist as a person and not as someone who merely existed for fifty minutes once or twice a week and to whom you exposed your most intimate secrets. But about whom you knew almost nothing.
"My secretary Joyce made a notation we'll be billing insurance," Catherine remarked, checking the intake form. It was Saturday, and she didn't usually see patients, but after Rebecca had left, the apartment had seemed so empty-almost lifeless-that when she'd picked up her messages and found one about a request for a semi-urgent appointment, she'd decided she might as well work. "I see you have a good plan that doesn't cap the number of visits, so that will be simple."
"I don't think I'll be coming long enough for that to be an issue."
Her tone level and matter-of-fact, no hint of aggression or combativeness. Just a statement.
"And that brings me to the next question," Catherine responded just as evenly. "It says your reasons for coming are work-related. Can you tell me about that?"
"I've been ordered to see a therapist and to obtain a written statement that I am fit for duty."
"Ordered? I'm sorry," Catherine said, glancing down at the form, confused. Joyce had left a message that a new patient had called asking for an appointment as soon as possible, but there had been no indication that it had been any kind of official consultation. She often performed evaluations of city employees-mostly work-related disability claims, and occasionally confirmatory profiles on detainees, but someone from the appropriate city department usually called ahead to set up the meeting. "What do you-"
"I'm a police officer."
"I see." Catherine pushed the folder aside, leaned back in her chair, and met the young woman's eyes. Now it was time for them to talk. "I didn't get any referral papers. Usually someone sends me a summary of the incident."
"It's probably in transit-I'll call them on Monday."
"No need-we'll take care of it. How did you get to me? Isn't there an in-house psychologist who signs off on an officer's duty status?"
"There is, but the department has to provide alternate choices for reasons of impartiality. You're on the short list."
The lesser of two evils? Actually, she hadn't even realized she was on any kind of list, and the only reason she minded was that had she known, she would have asked Joyce to screen new patient calls differently and to prioritize calls from police officers. Her already busy private patient schedule could only accommodate so many therapy sessions per week, but she always made time for emergencies.
"Is there some reason that you didn't want to see ... is it still Rand Whitaker doing the psych evals for the department?"
She shrugged, a move that reminded Catherine of Rebecca's dismissive gesture when she considered something unworthy of her attention. Lord, do they stamp them out of some mold somewhere, these silent women with suspicious eyes?
"I'm asking why you went outside channels because I need to know if there was a conflict or problem within the department that will affect how you and I communicate, or that we need to discuss."
"No problem. I just want my private business to stay private. And ... "
For the first time she looked the slightest bit uncertain.
"And ... ? Catherine asked gently.
"And I wanted to talk to a woman."
"Fair enough. Let me tell you a little bit about how I do this, so that we're on the same page. It helps to avoid confusion if you have an idea of how long this might take."
A curt nod, an attentive expression despite a faint frown line between dark brows. Catherine sensed her ambivalence--she had come because she had been ordered to, but she was also cooperating. Perhaps, on some level, she wants to be here.
"As I said, the department will send a summary of why you're being referred, but I want you to tell me in your own words. Then I'd like to spend some time getting to know you. General background kinds of things. When I feel that I can make some determination about this event within the context of your professional life, I'll file my report."
"How much of what we talk about will be in it?"
Two references in less than five minutes to issues of privacy and confidentiality. She's worried about keeping something in her personal life a secret.
"You may see my report. I will not discuss your case with anyone without informing you and obtaining your consent. You understand that I will need to include some details of our meetings to substantiate my findings, and that this will become part of your personnel record?"
A bit of anger there. She feels violated. Betrayed by her superiors, by the system that sent her here?
"Do you want to proceed? You could still see Rand Whitaker."
"No. How long will this take?"
"I don't know. Have you been suspended?"
"No. But they've got me riding a desk."
Stiff shoulders, condescending tone of voice, one quick, frustrated fist clench. She's chafing at the restrictions.
"More than a few sessions, most likely.I'll see you on an accelerated schedule, but that's as definite as I can be."
Several beats of silence.
"So.Tell me what happened."
"I was daydreaming about something that happened in a session today--something that brought up more than I realized, apparently. Rather like a waking version of what Freud said about dreams. He called them day residue, things we are still trying to process that we didn't finish before sleep."
"He said a lot more than that about dreams, didn't he?" Rebecca commented dryly.
Laughing, Catherine nodded agreement. "Yes, quite a bit of which I take issue with." Linking her fingers through Rebecca's, she continued, "Nevertheless, even if I could talk about it, I certainly wouldn't want to take up our time together tonight with business. After all, this is a date, right?"
They'd made love, spoken of love, but they'd never had the time to fall in love. As much as she missed Rebecca's subtle presence in her apartment-the extra clothes in the closet, two coffee cups in the sink, her keys and wallet on the dresser, she liked this new distance. It was a distance heavy with promise and hope, a kind of charged separation she'd never experienced before. It was the very opposite of lonely, because Rebecca was with her.
"Well," Rebecca mused, feigning thought, her thumb playing over Catherine's palm, "I got all spruced up in my best suit and I washed the Vette. I'm trying to impress you with the dinner and the wine."
She'd missed her that afternoon when she'd opened the door of her apartment to be greeted by the musty scent of abandonment. Out of years of habit, she'd dropped the duffle inside the door and walked directly across the rugless living room to the single window, pushed it up, and leaned out to breathe the aroma of car exhaust and Saturday dinners. Home. As familiar as a favorite bar, and as lonely as the tail end of the night with only a bottle for company. She leaned closer across the table, her gaze claiming Catherine with the intensity of a caress. When she was with her, the places inside that always ached stopped hurting. "I was hoping that you chose that dark green blouse with me in mind, because it reflects in your eyes-like shadows in a forest, calling my ... "
"Rebecca," Catherine murmured, her heart hammering, "we're in a restaurant."
Undeterred, she continued in a low, husky tone, "And I've been thinking all afternoon about the way my skin burns when ... "
"We are going to sit here and consume this very fine food, or Anthony will be so offended he'll never recover." Her voice cracked and she had to swallow. She had never been the focus of such undiminished attention in her life. It was a heady feeling and she suddenly understood how people made fools of themselves for love. "Is this how you seduce women?"
Reluctantly, they sat back in their seats, breathing a little erratically, fingertips just barely touching on the fine linen. The first time they'd been to DeCarlo's they'd just met. They'd been strangers, uncertain, wary, but drawn to one another nevertheless. In the weeks since, they'd shared fear and passion and near death, but, in so many ways, they were strangers still.
"There is something wrong with the appetizers?" Anthony DeCarlo asked anxiously from beside them.
"No," Catherine answered, smiling quickly at him before glancing back at Rebecca, whose eyes had never left her face. "They're perfect."
Rebecca rolled over and opened her eyes. She smiled when she found Catherine, arms wrapped around her pillow, lying close beside her and watching her with a tender expression in her soft green eyes.
"I fell asleep last night, didn't I?" Rebecca asked.
"Uh huh. Actually, you fell asleep several times last night." Catherine ran her fingers through Rebecca's thick, tousled blond hair, finally resting her fingers in the curve of her neck. "Let's see. First you fell asleep in the car. I was very glad that I didn't drink more of Anthony's wonderful champagne, because I wouldn't have been able to drive us home, and you were literally out on your feet by the time we got to the Vette."
"I'm sorry," Rebecca said, completely chagrined. She'd had very different plans for the Saturday evening, none of which had included falling asleep at nine o'clock.
"Don't be. You obviously needed to rest, and I am very fond of sleeping next to you."
"Well, I'd like you to be fond of a few other things before the sleeping part," Rebecca murmured, shifting closer until their bodies touched along their entire length. Instinctively, effortlessly, their limbs entwined and they pressed even nearer until their lips were only a breath apart. "It was supposed to be a hot date, remember?"
"Oh, I remember that very well." She didn't seem to have any control over what happened to her body when Rebecca was against her like this. The feel of Rebecca's skin hot against her own, a heat so much more consuming than any fever, set her blood on fire. It was hard to think, it was hard to remember that she meant to go slowly and carefully this first time. She hadn't made love to Rebecca in almost two months and her hands were already shaking with the need to touch her. Valiantly, she tried to distract herself with conversation, because she was a heartbeat away from forgetting her good intentions.
"When we got home," Catherine continued, "you managed to make it up the stairs with just a little help from me, but by the time I had my shoes off, you were asleep again." She ran her fingers down the center of Rebecca's chest, pausing to brush her fingertips over a taut pink nipple. The swift intake of breath and automatic surge of Rebecca's hips were exactly the reward she had been seeking. Moving her lips along the edge of Rebecca's jaw, she finally reached her ear and whispered, "I had a really good time taking your clothes off, though."
Rebecca couldn't help but laugh. "I am thoroughly humiliated. What a putz."
"Oh, you are so far from that," Catherine replied, laughing, too.
"Well, I've had smoother moments. I guess the workout tired me out a little more than I realized."
"How are you feeling?" Catherine asked, suddenly serious, her hand stilling on Rebecca's skin. She'd seen Rebecca work for days at a time with no sleep, but she'd never seen her as physically depleted as she'd been the previous night. Even knowing that it was a perfectly natural occurrence at this stage in her recovery didn't eliminate the quick rush of fear.
"I'm feeling way better than fine," Rebecca replied soundly, claiming Catherine's mouth for a kiss.
"Ah ... " she sighed when she could find her voice, "I can tell."
Rebecca kissed her again, and it was the warmth of her tongue that was Catherine's undoing, or perhaps it was the way Rebecca pressed her fingers into the shallow depression at the base of her spine, or the way she-
"Rebecca," she gasped, "I can't possibly wait another minute."
Rebecca shifted her weight until they were reclining, Catherine beneath her. Bracing her arms on either side of Catherine's shoulders, she fit her hips between Catherine's thighs and rocked into her, the rhythmic pressure making them both hard in a matter of seconds.
Sighing, Catherine ran her hands up and down Rebecca's back, cupping her buttocks, squeezing the tight muscles as she thrust, forcing them together even harder. Watching Rebecca through eyes dim with need, she found the reflection of her desire mirrored in Rebecca's intense expression. Even as she felt Rebecca's strong shoulders and arms beneath her fingers and the insistent pressure of her hips working between her own thighs, she couldn't help but see the irregular, bright red scars on her chest.
"How do you ... feel?" she asked, her words punctuated by short gasps as she found it increasingly harder to catch her breath.
"I'm ... perfect," Rebecca assured her, but all she could really feel was the growing heaviness in her stomach and the slowly rising tension between her legs. Her arms were trembling with the effort of supporting her upper body, but she didn't care. It had been so long, too long, and she needed this more than she needed air to breathe.
"This is torture," Catherine gasped, linking her fingers behind Rebecca's neck and pulling her head down, bruising her mouth with a kiss. Their tongues trysted with the same seeking need as their hips thrust, until the tempo of blood pounding and muscles clenching and lips searching echoed the pulsing beat deep inside. "I need to taste you. It's been so long. I feel like I'm starving".
"I won't last if you do," Rebecca groaned. It had been a very long time for her too, and she was already crazy to come.
"I don't care." Gently but insistently, Catherine placed her palms on Rebecca's chest and pressed until she relented and rolled over onto her back. Following in one smooth motion, Catherine settled between the taller woman's thighs, her breasts resting for a moment in the moist heat between Rebecca's legs. Then she caught the rim of skin edging Rebecca's navel and tugged it between her teeth, drawing a deep groan from Rebecca that made her head swim. Following the insistent pressure of Rebecca's palms against her face, she inched lower until her lips brushed the fine hair between Rebecca's legs. The scent and heat of her was like being welcomed home, and with a grateful sigh, she rested her cheek against the soft smooth skin of her lover's inner thigh and slowly, reveling in the first sweet taste, took her between her lips. She had intended to go slowly, had meant to savor every sensation, but Rebecca's sharp cry at the first touch of her mouth and the tightening of the muscles in Rebecca's thighs told her how very she close was. Suddenly, all Catherine wanted to do was lose herself in Rebecca's pleasure.
"Oh no," Rebecca moaned, her voice tight and choked. "You're going to make me come right away."
It was enough to make Catherine's heart shatter. She loved having her like this, feeling the two disparate elements of Rebecca's being fuse at the moment of final release-strength and surrender, power and need, wariness and trust-all of her trembling, quivering on the edge of dissolving. So, so unbelievably beautiful.
"It's not enough," Rebecca whispered hoarsely when her body finally stopped shuddering. "I want you somewhere ... somewhere inside ... "
The first time had been fast, furious--a wild, frantic reclaiming of body and soul after the threat of separation far greater than time or distance. The next time, and the next, followed on a swell of arousal that was no more possible to quell then it would have been to stop the revolutions of the earth. It was a force beyond volition and just as natural. They'd met in the midst of crisis, and during those few hectic weeks, they'd made love in moments of need, and in moments of gratitude, and in moments of nearly desperate passion. But they'd had very little time for happiness, let alone elation. On this particular Sunday morning in early September, with sunlight painting their skin in shades of gold, they made love for the sheer joy of being alive--and being together.
"Pizza or Chinese?"
"Chinese," Catherine answered drowsily, trailing her fingers along the crest of Rebecca's hip. "More green vegetables."
"Oh yeah. I guess I need to preserve my strength if we're going to keep this up." Rebecca shifted, moving the arm which she just realized was numb. In fact, now that she thought about it, a lot of her seemed to be pleasantly enervated. "We are going to keep it up, right?"
"Tell me you still need more."
"Well, not right this very minute," Rebecca conceded, wondering if she'd ever walk again, "but soon."
Catherine leaned up on an elbow, pushing strands of damp hair back from her face, and stared at her. "Are you serious?"
Rebecca grinned. "Okay, maybe not until the morning."
"Thank god, because I am exhausted." She settled back in the crook of Rebecca's arm and drew one leg up over her lover's thigh. The room was dim, afternoon somehow having slipped into dusk, and the day held that timeless quality that only late Sundays in waning summer could. It reminded her of the naïve innocence of childhood when life seemed to be nothing more than an endless stretch of warm, lazy afternoons. Bicycles and baseball and a favorite book under the shade of a tree--no conception of disappointment or loss. Even then, and certainly never as an adult, could she ever remember having been so satisfied or so completely content. She couldn't think of a single thing to worry about. Somewhere in the back of her pheromone-saturated mind that fact rang danger bells, but she couldn't bear to break the spell by probing for the source. "I'd rather be here with you like this than do anything else in the world."
For a second, Rebecca's heart stopped, and she could hear the blood stilling in her veins. The idea of being that important to this one incredible, remarkable woman was terrifying and exhilarating and like nothing she'd ever experienced. Nothing in her life had ever struck her with the power of that single sentence, not even getting her shield. Not even the bullet. "Why?" Why me, of all the women you could chose?
"You remind me of what's important."
Rebecca turned on her side so she could see Catherine's eyes. "What things are those?"
"That's the funny thing about love," Catherine mused, tracing the side of Rebecca's neck with the fingers of one hand. "They're different things for all of us, but being in love makes us feel them just the same."
"You know what's really scary?" Rebecca said quietly, wondering if she'd ever be able to take a full breath again. Her chest was so tight, and it had nothing to do with getting shot.
"I know what you're talking about."
"Yes," Catherine whispered, her voice thick with so many feelings, and her skin still raw with the aftermath of passion, "I know that you do."
"How hungry are you?" Rebecca asked, gathering Catherine's breast into her palm, rolling the nipple under her thumb.
"Starving," Catherine replied, tilting her head to catch a full lower lip between her teeth. And I never even knew it.
"Are you going to eat that?"
Catherine studied the last shrimp in szechuan sauce. It looked inviting. "I want it, but I think I'm full."
"I've heard that before," Rebecca commented as she quickly captured it with her chopsticks. "There's no time to waste then."
They were sitting naked on the bed, the Times stacked at the foot and open containers of food, paper plates and napkins between them. It was dark outside Catherine's bedroom windows, and they'd turned on the shaded bedside reading lamp.
Catherine watched Rebecca deftly manipulating the slim slivers of wood, remembering the way those fingers had felt on her skin. "You're going in tomorrow, aren't you?"
"Does your Captain know you're coming?"
"Not yet." Rebecca's smile was thin. "He'd probably refuse to see me until after I did the thing with Whitaker."
"The department psychologist."
"But you are going to, right?"
"No choice. There's been a lot of bad press the last few years-reports of excessive use of force, vigilantism, escalating suicide rates among the ranks, and a million other things. So now, anything involving an officer, whether it's a complaint or an officer-involved shooting or even sometimes just drawing your weapon, can land you in counseling."
"But with you there's reason," Catherine offered gently, knowing that no officer wanted to be reminded of their vulnerability or of the fact that emotions were one thing outside their control.
"Maybe." The silence grew heavy between them, and finally Rebecca asked, "What is it?"
"I'm worried about you," Catherine confessed.
"Don't be. I feel fine. I'll be fine."
"Good." Her fears would make little sense to Rebecca, for whom life was so much more black and white. Cops like her did not fear possibilities, because only the facts mattered. Reality for her detective was defined by events, not eventualities. "Just-be careful."
What an inadequate request. Don't get hurt. Don't get killed. Don't leave me now, not after touching me like this.
"I'll do everything by the book. I promise." She'd seen the uncertainty in Catherine's eyes, and it killed her to know she'd put it there. She'd keep her word, too. As much as she could, and still do what she had to do.
It had been more than two months since Catherine had last watched Rebecca's transformation from the woman she had held through the night into the cop. Oh, the cop was always there, whether on duty or not-surfacing for an instant in the sharp appraisal of a stranger who approached on the street or evident in the fleeting shadows that marred her clear gaze when some memory momentarily escaped her ironclad control-but never so much as when Detective Sergeant Rebecca Frye began the morning routine of pulling on a crisp, starched shirt and creased tailored trousers, shrugged into the fitted leather shoulder holster, and slid the case that held the gold shield into the breast pocket of her blazer. As she assembled the symbols of her identity, Rebecca's expression became more remote, her carriage more guarded, and her eyes more distant. It was a frightening thing to witness when what you needed most were the things she hid away.
"You're awfully quiet," Rebecca remarked, watching Catherine gather her briefcase, beeper, and cell phone from the small table just inside the front foyer. They'd showered separately, and when she'd joined Catherine in the kitchen, they'd barely had time for a cup of coffee and toast. Nevertheless, there was a discomfiture in Catherine's face that wasn't usually there.
"Am I?" Catherine smiled, realizing that she had indeed been preoccupied. "I suppose I am. You would make a good psychiatrist, Detective."
"And you're doing that shrink thing again-avoid and divert. Ask a question, change the subject." Her tone was teasing, but she watched the woman in the understatedly elegant jade suit assiduously. "That's a cop's trick."
They were only two feet apart, but the air between them was thick enough to walk on. It was a distance that if left unbreached would grow, and Rebecca had reached out. Catherine dropped her briefcase and stepped across the gulf, sliding her arms around the tall blond's waist.
"I'm trying to get used to the fact that things will be different now."
Rebecca put her hands on Catherine's hips, under the edge of her jacket, and kissed her softly. A moment later, she said firmly, "No. They won't."
"Call me later?"
"Count on it."
At 7:10 she walked into the squad room and sensed the ever-present knot of uncertainty and unease in her stomach begin to loosen. Everything looked, and smelled, the same. Same shabby mismatched desks fronting each other in randomly placed pairs, same sickly institutional green paint on the walls, same worn gray tiles on the floor. The odor of stale smoke, old coffee grounds, and honest sweat permeated the air. She couldn't help but feel a wave of relief when she saw that her desk was exactly as she had left it. Her mug was there in the middle of a stained blotter, a pile of dog-eared file folders balanced precariously in one corner, and the phone was angled precisely the way she always placed it when she was working. Even the rumpled hulk of a man seated at the desk opposite hers looked exactly the same. Fiftyish, gray haired and balding, forty pounds over his fighting weight-stereotypical flat foot right out of Ed McBain.
"Is that your only suit, Watts?" she asked as she shed her jacket to the back of her chair.
William Watts looked up at the sound of the deep, cutting voice, his expression impassive but his eyes quick and sharp as they took her in. Thin, still pale, and edgy. Not too bad, considering. He smiled, but it didn't show on his face. Not much did. "What, did I miss the memo about the dress code?"
"Yeah, the one that recommends the laundry every few months."
He grunted, watching her slide open the bottom left hand drawer of her desk and place the empty holster carefully inside. She didn't look right without it, but she still looked damn good to him. He was relieved to find that he could look at her and not see the river of blood spreading over her chest. For a few weeks he'd been afraid he'd never stop seeing it. "How come the Cap didn't say anything about you coming back?"
"Because he doesn't know it yet."
Her smile was thin and there was a new hardness in her eyes. He'd thought her tough before; now she was stone. Maybe that's what it took to come back after what she'd been through. He didn't really want to know. "Well, if it will get me off these goddamned cold cases, I'll go in with you."
She studied him, a big part of her wanting to dislike him still. Mostly because he was sitting in Jeff's chair, and Jeff was dead. He had just offered to back her up. He'd done that once before, when it really counted. When it had been the only thing that mattered more to her than the job. When it had been Catherine. "I can handle it."
"Right," he replied, reaching for another file on another old case that hadn't been solved and never would be.
When he glanced up in surprise, all he got was her back, but he smiled anyhow.
Captain John Henry looked up from the stack of departmental reports he'd been perusing as the door to his small office closed and he registered the identity of the unmistakable voice he hadn't heard for several months. "Frye."
They eyed one another for a moment, taking stock. They'd worked together for six years, they respected one another, and they took nothing for granted. She stood in front of his desk as relaxed as she ever got, which was to say, hands loose at her sides but muscles coiled and set to spring. He leaned back in the leather chair, his one concession to comfort, with his summer-weight blended gabardine jacket on, tie tightly knotted beneath a snowy white collar, his handsome mahogany features inscrutable. He placed his pen on the desktop.
"I take you have something to say?"
"Yes, sir. I'm ready to work."
He sighed. "Sit down, Sergeant."
She did, crossing one calf over the opposite knee, her hands motionless on the armrest. The last time she'd sat in this room, she'd come perilously close to insubordination and had nearly torpedoed her career. Catherine had been sitting beside her, and Henry had asked the psychiatrist to put her own life in danger. Rebecca had disagreed-vocally and repeatedly. She still didn't know why he hadn't slapped her down that day, but had put her in charge of the operation instead. The one time she'd seen him since had been in the hospital, when she'd awakened to find him sitting nearby. She vaguely remembered him saying that she'd done the department proud.
"I don't suppose you remember that there are protocols for this situation." Frye was his best detective, but she didn't always play by the rules, at least not the bureaucratic ones. Most effective cops didn't. But there were some rules he couldn't bend.
"I know that," she replied. "I was just hoping to speed up the process." She waited a beat, then added, "And I wanted to check out the lay of the land."
"Spit it out, Sergeant. I've got a busy day."
"My desk is still out there. I want to make sure my job is, too."
Henry got up and walked to a small side table where a Mr. Coffee machine that wasn't even made any longer stood warming a half-filled pot. He poured a mug full and answered with his back turned, "If things hadn't turned out the way they did, you could have been suspended for ignoring any number of basic rules of procedure. You didn't call for back up; you endangered yourself and a fellow officer, not to even mention putting a civilian at risk. Jesus-what a field day the press could have had with that if she'd been hurt. You were lucky."
The scar on her chest picked that moment to start itching. When it did that, she wanted to tear through the hard red flesh until it bled. Calmly, she said, "Yes, sir."
"No one cares about that, now. You're a hero." He settled a hip against the counter and sipped the coffee. His wife bought the blend for him. He was grateful she'd consented to marry him for more reasons than he could count, and every time he poured a cup, he remembered it. Smart woman. "You'll have to ride a desk until I have every piece of paper authorizing your return signed and in my hands."
"I'm going to the range this morning. There's nothing wrong with my shooting arm. I'll qualify and get my weapon back, so I should be okay for street duty after that."
"Nice try, Frye. Not until the shrink signs off, and you know how slow they are." He held up a hand when he saw the fire jump in her eyes. "But, we can work around it." He walked back behind his desk, took a thick blue folder off a pile by his right hand, and opened it in front of him. "This just came in. The brass want us to be part of a task force the feds are setting up-"
"Uh-uh. No way. Not a combined jurisdictional deal. That's a dead-end job. Making nice with assho-"
She clamped her jaws closed so hard she was certain Henry could hear them snap. She'd expected some kind of repercussions after what had happened with Blake. The press might have made her out to be a hero, but that didn't make it true. Henry had every right to be pissed off about the way she'd skirted the chain of command, but she didn't figure he'd bury her in some back room pushing paper with the feds. "Captain, please ... "
"Hear me out, Frye." His tone was surprisingly conciliatory. Continuing to scan the memo, he read, "Justice, Customs and the Philadelphia PD are to set up a multi-level task force aimed at identifying and apprehending those individuals and organizations responsible for the production and distribution of child pornography, including the procurement of subjects."
Rebecca blinked. "What does that mean? Some kind of sting operation?"
"I'm not entirely sure," Henry admitted. "The thing is in the formative stages from what I can see. But it's been blue-lined-top priority. Since Special Crimes has the best working knowledge of the street side of things--child prostitution, kiddie porn, the whole ugly mess-we've been fingered to provide the local manpower."
"For how long?" Rebecca asked suspiciously. It might be an entrÈe back to the streets, at least she could parlay it into one, but she didn't want to be stuck in bureaucratic limbo indefinitely. There might be another important perk involved, too. If she worked the kiddie porn angle, she'd eventually get up close and personal with the mob guys running the street side of all of it, and one of them, she was certain, had contracted to kill two cops. Bad mistake. "Weeks, months?"
"Don't know." He shrugged. "I can't imagine it will move all that quickly, but who knows. For the time being, it's the closest thing to street duty you're going to see."
He closed the folder and fixed her with a steady stare. "You've got a few choices, Sergeant. The Commissioner would love to promote you-they like good press. Accept the Lieutenant's bars, make the department look good, and you could probably transfer to some nice administrative position."
"Behind a desk."
"Or?" Rebecca queried, although she already knew the answer.
"Go through channels and get your psych clearance, take this assignment, and when I think you're ready, we'll move you back to catching active cases."
There wasn't much to think about. She stood, her expression nearly blank. "Who do I liaise with?"
He opened the folder, jotted down a name and number, and handed it to her. "Avery Clark, US Department of Justice. That's the local number. You can have one of our people for legwork and we'll pull a uniform to handle the paperwork from our end. Organized Crime has at least one detective undercover working the prostitution angle. You'll have to figure out how to make contact there. I don't have to tell you that whenever we've got people in that position, any move that might expose them can be risky."
She thought about Jimmy Hogan and Jeff Cruz. Two dead cops, one of them a partner she had lost. "No, sir. You don't."
"And this is an administrative position, Frye. You need street intel, you get someone else to get it. Am I clear?"
At 7:35 a.m. Catherine opened the door that separated her office from the patient waiting area. Joyce had not arrived yet, but her first patient had. This morning, she was in uniform. Creased navy blue trousers, pale blue shirt with placket pockets over each breast, a narrow black tie, small bits of silver on collar and cuffs shined to a high polish. She was standing, her hat beneath her arm, her blue eyes nearly gray. Thunderclouds, hiding a storm of feelings.
"Come in, please, Officer."
"Thanks for seeing me so early."
"That's all right. It works out better this way for my schedule, too." Catherine gestured to the leather chairs in front of her desk as she walked behind it. "I take it you're on your way to work?"
"If you can call it that," the young woman said with a grimace as she sat down and planted her feet squarely on the floor in front of her, her back not even touching the chair. "I'm supposed to find out from the duty Sergeant this morning exactly what my assignment is going to be while we get this all sorted out."
"Desk duty, you said?"
A scowl and a curt nod was all she got in response.
"What's your regular assignment?"
"Most of the time I'm walking a beat. Sometimes I patrol in a cruiser."
The young cop hesitated briefly. "I'm usually by myself, yes."
"Is that normal? Don't officers usually have a--partner?" Catherine couldn't help but notice her patient's reluctance to confide specific details about her job. That was obviously going to pose a problem, since it was a job-related issue that had brought the officer to her. Nevertheless, she was content to let the young woman tell her story at her own pace. She was just as interested in what she wasn't saying.
"Some cops work in pairs. It depends on how the assignments shake out."
"I see," although she didn't really. She knew that Rebecca usually worked with a partner, but perhaps it was different for uniform officers. It was a point she would have to come back to in the future. "I still don't have your paperwork, so I need you to tell me the details of why you're here--in your own words. Assume I know nothing." She smiled. "In this case, it's true."
"I've been taken off street duty because a complaint of excessive force was lodged against me."
The delivery was flat and unemotional. Catherine's tone remained conversational. "Is that the same thing as being suspended?"
"Not exactly--I still get paid, and it doesn't go down in my file as a disciplinary action--yet. But, for all intents and purposes..."
"It's still a black mark. It's going to hurt me. I wanted to make detective, but now..."
Her voice was bitter, and it wasn't difficult for Catherine to imagine how devastating something like this could be for someone who was so obviously committed to her job. "What happened?"
"In the process of apprehending a suspect, I used bodily force to subdue him. His attorney is claiming police brutality."
"Is this the same altercation which led to those contusions on your face and neck?" Catherine asked quietly. She rarely took notes during a session. In this instance, she wouldn't need to because the look in the young woman's eyes was unforgettable. Although the information was delivered in a detached, clinical tone and cloaked in the dry vocabulary so typical of police jargon, the officer's eyes betrayed her. Whatever had happened had left its mark on her, and it was something far more indelible than the bruises that still marred her fresh clear features. "Did he do that?"
"He got--physical. Yes."
"And you protected yourself?"
"I hit him with the butt of my revolver. Twice."
"Can you tell me all of it, from the very beginning, just as it happened?" This was the moment. The trust would come now, or never. Some leap of faith, some need to believe that someone was listening-if they were to have any connection that would make a difference, it would begin here.
"It will be in the report."
"I know. But will you tell me?"
"It was five nights ago. Just after midnight. I was working the night shift like usual, in the tenderloin--that's my regular sector." She stopped without realizing it, thinking back to that night. It had been raining and it was a cold miserable rain. She was wearing a slicker and her cap was covered with a protective plastic case. Her hands were cold. She wasn't wearing gloves. Every minute seemed like an hour. She been over it so many times in her mind...what she should've done, what she did, what she wanted to do.
"Officer?" Catherine's voice was calm and gentle. The woman seated across from her gave a small start of surprise and then smiled in embarrassment.
"No. That's all right."
"I had just come out of the diner. I'd stopped for coffee. It was so damn cold. I heard noises coming from an alley, one of the blind ones with nothing but dumpsters and derelicts in them. The streetlights were all broken and it was dark. I couldn't see a damn thing. I started down it as quietly as I could. I didn't want to turn on my mag light, because I was afraid that would make me a target. I wasn't even certain that I'd heard anything at all. I remember thinking it was probably going to be a big rat. I'd almost convinced myself that it was my imagination when I heard someone scream--or what I thought was a scream. It was just a short sharp sound and then it was quiet again."
She looked at Catherine, and her eyes were bleak. "The facts are in the report."
"Yes, I know." Catherine leaned forward, her hands in front of her on the desk, her fingers loosely clasped, never taking her eyes off the young woman's face. "It sounds very frightening."
"I didn't feel it then."
Catherine shivered, although she knew it didn't show. It was a finger of ice trailing down her spine. She acknowledged it; then ignored it. This wasn't about her, and in this room for these fifty minutes, her feelings didn't matter. But unlike the young officer who struggled so valiantly to separate her feelings from her experience, Catherine's work required that she let the emotion in, even if it stirred her own pain. She knew what it was to remember fear. It was a subtle enemy; it returned in the dark of night or when one was weary, to remind one of one's weakness and vulnerability. Focusing, listening to the words beneath the silence, she asked, "But you kept going? You walked down the alley?"
"Yes." Her voice was stronger now. "I could hear sounds of a struggle more clearly by then. I radioed for backup, and I drew my weapon. I was in the narrow space between two apartment buildings, and there was light from one of the windows high up. The fourth floor I think. Enough so I could see a little. I could make out a man and a smaller figure, a woman, I thought. He was holding her against the side of the buildings, and she was fighting him."
"I didn't know. It could have been anything--a domestic dispute, a robbery, a rape."
It was hard to imagine anyone, man or woman, facing such uncertainty and danger on a daily basis. No amount of training or experience could possibly prepare one for that. What did it take, and what did it cost, to face that everyday? "You were still alone?"
Again, the hesitation, and this time she averted her gaze. "Yes. I hadn't heard any response to my call for backup, so I assumed that no one was coming."
"Is that usual?"
Her hands were fisted tightly around the ends of the leather chair arms. Her pupils were dilated, but she maintained her rigid posture. "It can happen. On a busy night, there might not be anyone in the immediate vicinity. Depending on the nature of the call, something like that might be low down on the list of priorities."
Might be? Catherine knew there had to be more to it, but this was not the time to explore that. Right now, this was about one young woman alone in the dark. "I see. So you confronted him by yourself?"
"Yes. By myself."
"You back in the saddle?" Watts asked, looking over Rebecca's shoulder as she poured a cup of coffee at the long narrow table in the rear of the squad room. "Sarge?"
"What are you doing, Watts?"
"What. You mean now?"
"Shuffling folders. Why?"
She sipped the coffee. Terrible. Bitter, thick, and suspiciously filmy. She sighed contentedly as another piece of her life slipped back into place. "Let's go to the range."
"And shoot?" His surprise showed in the sudden rise of his voice.
"Yes, Watts. To shoot. Jesus."
As usual, she didn't wait, and he found himself hurrying to keep up. Just like old times.
"What did the Cap say?" he ventured to ask as he lowered his butt into the contoured front seat of the Vette. Man, he'd missed that car. She was silent for so long, he risked a sidelong glance in her direction. "What did-"
"I heard you." She spun the wheel, pressed hard on the peddle, and rocketed onto the on-ramp of the expressway that ran through the center of the city. The firing range was at the police training academy, which was now housed at One Police Plaza, a newly built complex of administrative offices and classrooms. Although it was inconvenient for working cops to drive there for their semi-annual qualification exercises, no one complained. It was worth the twenty minutes to have the brass tucked away in some out of the way place where they couldn't interfere too much with the real work of policing. "He assigned me to a task force the feds are setting up to chase down kiddie porn peddlers and chicken hawks."
"Huh." Watts shifted in his seat and tried to find someplace to stick his knees. He didn't see how the Sarge managed to fit behind the wheel, her being so tall. "What's that mean?"
"What about me?"
Slowly, she turned her head and looked at him.
He stared back. "Us being partners and all."
"We're not ... " She stopped herself, remembering that something in the man, something that rarely showed but that she sensed nonetheless, had made her trust Catherine's life to him. He would never be Jeff, and it would never be the same. But then, what was? "I'm supposed to be the desk jockey. I'll need legs."
"Yeah sure. I can think of worse things than driving around talking to whores and pimps and perverts." He fumbled in the inside pocket of his shapeless sport jacket for his cigarettes, then caught himself. She wouldn't let him smoke in her ride. Shit.
"Look-I can get a uniform. I wouldn't want you to actually have to work-"
"No way. I'm getting a hard-on just thinking about it."
Rebecca's hands tightened on the wheel, as she suddenly recalled all the reasons she couldn't stand him. "Just forget it."
"Hey," Watts said quickly. "Joke. That was a joke. It takes a lot more than that to give-"
"I don't need to know about that, Watts," she assured him as she pulled into the lot behind One Police Plaza. "I'll fill you in when I've met with the suits from DC. If there's something I can use you on, I'll let you know."
"Good enough." He sat back, glad to be out of the squad room, happy to contemplate some real work. Even if it was with a bunch of bureaucratic assholes who didn't know dick about police work. The Sarge could handle them. He'd give her a week before she was back on the street. Frye a desk jockey. Sure. And I've got a ten-inch pecker.
Staring straight ahead through the windshield, she added, "I never thanked you for that night we nailed Blake. I counted on you to save Catherine's life. You came through for me. I owe you."
"Nah, you don't. We both hit him." He shrugged. "Besides, I couldn't let him waste the doc. Guess I got a soft spot for dames. But you know, Sarge, you can't let yourself take 'em too seriously. You're finished if you do."
Rebecca smiled to herself, deciding not to be offended. "Catherine is special."
"Oh, man," Watts moaned, shaking his head in mock sadness. "You're already a goner." He cleared his throat. "But I wouldn't mind if you didn't make yourself a target like that too often. The investigation after that went down really busted my balls."
She turned her head and regarded him unblinkingly. "You're breaking my heart, Watts."
Then she ignored him for the rest of the trip as she piloted the sleek car through the streets. He just sat grinning happily to himself. Frye was back. Things were looking up.
Rebecca sat with the Vette idling at the curb, surveying the address that the anonymous female voice had given her when she'd called the office of Avery Clark, US Department of Justice, Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section. CCIPS.
Alphabet soup--Initials and Acronyms. Frigging feds just love them.
The four story, brick fronted warehouse looked nothing like a government building. Rebecca was certain it wasn't. What she wasn't sure of was what it was, and why the task force was going to be run out of there instead of One Police Plaza or the Federal Building at 6th and Walnut. This looked private. But that couldn't be. There just wasn't any precedent for a public/private coalition on an active investigation, and certainly not when the feds were involved.
She shut off the engine. She wouldn't find out what was going on in there by sitting in the street waiting for a clue. Besides, as bad as this was going to be, there was the possibility that it could lead her places. Places she wasn't going to have easy access to any other way.
The wide reinforced door to the first floor was locked and she pushed the bell next to an intercom. A disembodied genderless voice requested, "ID."
Slowly, she opened the fold-over leather case displaying her badge on one side and a police photo ID opposite and held it up to a small camera mounted in the corner of a narrow recess above the entrance. The door lock clicked open and she pushed through into a surprisingly well-lit garage that occupied the entire first floor. A sleek black Porsche Carrera convertible sat in the center of the large room. At the rear, she could make out a freight elevator with yet another intercom and no visible controls. Probably remote controlled.
"Third floor," a voice instructed as she approached the lift, and several more cameras swiveled to follow her progress across the room. The whole set up made her skin itch, but she never even twitched. She did, however, unbutton her blazer as she stepped into the doublewide elevator car to give her access to her weapon. That at least was something that had gone well. An hour on the range with Watts to get her groove back, and then she'd nailed every one of the recertification targets. She had her badge and her gun. She was back.
The elevator moved soundlessly upwards and opened onto another huge space, this one lit by sunlight from the floor to ceiling windows on the wall opposite her as well as rows of overhead tracks. Through the windows she had an unimpeded view of the waterfront and the river beyond. Prime Old City real estate. Definitely not city property.
Rebecca took her time getting her bearings. Lots of computers, lots of assorted electronic paraphernalia, and lots of communication equipment. It looked like a government operation from the scope and probable cost of the hardware. The government always went big on the technical stuff and skimped on the manpower.
"Detective Sergeant Frye?"
Rebecca turned slightly to her left and surveyed the woman who approached across the highly polished wood floor. Five-ten, one forty, muscular build. Black hair, eyes deep-violet, about thirty. White T-shirt, leather blazer, jeans. Heavy platinum band on the left hand ring finger.
"That's right," Rebecca replied, taking the outstretched hand. The grip was cool and firm but not over-powering. Confident, like the stance and the voice.
"J.T. Sloan." She indicated a slender blond man who looked like he might have been a Ralph Lauren model seated at one of the computer consoles. "My associate, Jason McBride."
Nodding to him, Rebecca said, "I was supposed to meet Clark from Justice."
"He called," Sloan said, her expression carefully neutral. "Said he'd been detained at the Federal building. There's a meeting set for seven-thirty tomorrow here."
Rebecca frowned. It was starting already. The inevitable meetings and lousy communications that usually ended up wasting more time than anything else. "With who?"
"Him, someone from Customs, you, and us."
"What department are you with?" Rebecca asked, feeling the beginnings of an enormous headache gathering behind her eyes. She was tired, and that added to her annoyance. Christ, she'd only been on her feet half a day. She shouldn't be tired.
The words came as a surprise, although they shouldn't have. Rebecca looked around the state of the art room and thought about Jeff the last morning she'd seen him alive, two-finger typing out a report on an ancient Smith Corona. It was too elaborate for the police department, and somehow too sleekly efficient for the feds. "Your place?"
Sloan nodded, watching the detective who had slipped both hands into the pockets of her trousers, hands which Sloan was pretty certain were clenched into fists. This is one unhappy cop. Wonder whose shit list she got on to pull this assignment.
"There's supposed to be a uniform assigned here," Rebecca remarked, trying to decide whether she should ask about the operation or wait for the guy from Justice. She had no idea what these two were doing on the task force, and she didn't want to advertise her own ignorance of the situation. "Our department's paper chaser."
"Haven't seen anyone," Sloan observed noncommittally.
Jason had turned on his swivel chair and was watching the two of them, his head moving imperceptibly back and forth with the stops and starts of the staccato conversation. The two women regarded each other steadily in the loud silence--Sloan, darkly good-looking and unconcernedly casual, Frye starkly handsome and tautly reserved. Lots of room for fireworks here.
Sloan considered the upcoming operation and assessed the complexity of alliances and allegiances likely to be a factor. The past was much further from her mind than it had been a year ago, but some memories never fade completely, despite apologies and retractions and concessions. Avery Clark had never been an enemy, but neither was he a friend. He'd called her because he needed her, and she didn't owe him anything except her expertise. She owed this detective, who was most likely going to end up with the dirty part of the job, even less. "Why don't we grab some coffee and I'll fill you in on what I know."
Rebecca glanced at her wristwatch, a functional unadorned timepiece with a broad leather band and solid gold face. She wore it every day, just as her father had until the day he'd died. Four fifty-nine. She stretched her long frame in the uncomfortable straight-backed chair in the small, windowless room and thought about the spacious waiting room outside Catherine's office. Thick Oriental rug, shaded floor lamps, a coffee table with up to date magazines. Professional, but human. Warm and welcoming. Like Catherine. She remembered that first night-her own impatience, the pressure of a horrendous case, Catherine's calm, firm resistance to being questioned. A stalemate that had eventually led to something far different. Just a few months ago, two very dissimilar women finding ...
"Sergeant?" a male voice asked as the door across the tiny anteroom opened with a creak. The plain entrance to the inner office carried no identifying label or occupant name.
"Yes." She stood, her face carefully blank.
A middle-aged man with thick unruly brown hair and a linebacker's build dressed in a plain white shirt and dark trousers, sleeves rolled to mid-forearm, extended his hand and stepped toward her. "Rand Whitaker."
She shook his hand and followed him into another bland room crammed with an institutional appearing desk, a wall of mismatched bookcases, and two generic arm chairs as he said, "Come on in." Fluorescent lights in a drop ceiling and wall-to-wall dark gray carpet completed the impersonal space.
"Have you done this before?" he asked as he settled behind the desk in a swivel chair that squeaked in protest.
"No." She eyed the plain manila folder that sat closed in front of him. The label was obscured, but she knew what it was. Her jacket. Everything the department had accumulated on her in her twelve years of service. There were no reprimands, no inquiries, no investigative reports in that file-at least not to her knowledge. There were two citations.
"You understand this is routine after an officer involved shooting or a serious injury to an officer in the line of duty. In your case ... " He regarded her intently, then continued, "It's both."
I understand I won't be able to get back to work until you say I can. I understand that you're supposed to be here to help the rank and file, but you're not one of us. And I understand that cops aren't allowed to have problems, at least not the kind of problems that you deal with. She met his gaze directly. "Yes, I understand."
"Okay. Good." He leaned back in his chair, seemingly undisturbed by the ominous sounds that any movement produced. "You're Special Crimes, right?"
"It's my job."
He smiled. "Have you ever been shot at before, Sergeant?"
"Yes, once." She knew it must be in the file-it had been a domestic dispute, like the one that her father had been killed in. Like him, she'd responded to a call from a concerned neighbor who had heard screams from the apartment next door, and as with him, when she and her partner had announced themselves as police officers, the husband had opened fire. Unlike her father, she had been lucky.
"You weren't hit that first time, were you?"
"Did it frighten you?"
"Not really," Rebecca replied, wondering where he was going. "It happened quickly, and then it was over. We fired over his head, he threw out the gun, and we were on him in a second. There was nothing to be afraid of."
"Did you think about it later? Dream about it?"
"What about this time?"
It had been different the second time. She'd known it was coming. She'd been prepared for it from the second that she'd stepped into the dark, cavernous room. She'd been looking right at Raymond Blake while he held a gun to Catherine's temple. He'd been twitchy, raving, and she knew there wasn't much time. She wanted him to focus on her; he had to be angry at her; he had to move the weapon from Catherine's head and put it on her. She knew exactly what would happen as she goaded and taunted him into turning the automatic on her.
"What do you remember about it?"
"Not much," she answered, sitting relaxed in the chair, one ankle crossed over the opposite knee. "It was only a minute or two."
He opened the file, shuffled a few papers, glanced down for a few seconds as if reading, then regarded her neutrally. "The report from Detective Watts says that you and the suspect-Blake-exchanged words, but your partner stated that he couldn't hear what you said."
Rebecca waited. He hadn't asked a question.
"What did the two of you talk about?"
"I identified myself as a police office and ordered him to drop the weapon."
"There wasn't time for anything else."
"You were alone at the time?"
"No," Rebecca replied evenly. "Detective Watts was behind me."
"Outside the building."
"Yes-with a clear sight line to the subject."
The psychologist was silent for another few seconds. "I'm not IAD."
She waited again. He might not be Internal Affairs, but she didn't doubt that her confidential psych eval would be available to them for the asking.
"I'm not inquiring because I'm faulting your procedures, Detective," he continued. "I'm wondering why a seasoned detective would walk into a situation where the risk was so high."
"I felt that the hostage was in immediate danger of execution."
"Yes." Catherine. The bastard had struck her, torn her blouse open, bound her hands. He hadn't had enough time yet to do anything else to her, but I knew what he intended to do. I remembered his voice on the tape, describing it in detail, and I wanted to kill him then. I can still hear his voice. Sitting there, recalling his smooth, intimate tone as he'd talked about fucking her lover, she had to concentrate not to clench her fists.
"Detective," Rand Whitaker asked softly, "did you walk into that room intending to trade yourself for the hostage?"
Rebecca met his eyes, her cool blue eyes unwavering. Very clearly she replied, "No."
At nine-forty, Catherine stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of a building that had once been a gracious four story Victorian before it had had been purchased by the University and converted to offices. It was dark, the night was cool; summer was dying. A shadow moved from beneath a tree nearby, and she stiffened.
"It's me. I'm sorry."
"Rebecca," Catherine said with a soft sigh. She held out her hand. "How long have you been here?"
"Not long-fifteen minutes, maybe. Joyce said that you had an eight-thirty so I figured you'd be done about now." She linked the fingers of her left hand through Catherine's. She was right-handed and needed to keep her gun hand free on the street.
"You could have waited inside."
"I didn't want to run into a patient. Besides, it's nice out here." They began to walk. "Drive you home?"
"Mmm, yes. My car's in the parking garage. I can leave it if you bring me in tomorrow. Can you stay tonight?" It was hard needing to ask, but this was new territory for both of them. She didn't want to make assumptions.
"I'll need to go early. There's a meeting in the morning."
"Ah-you've seen your Captain." She'd known it would be soon, but did it have to be this fast? Of course, there were some things that the police always did quickly. They worked non-stop when a case was new and the blood was still fresh; they interrogated people before the tears had dried and they were emotionally the most vulnerable; they buried their dead and moved on before the ground was cold. At least they tried to, until something inside them broke or turned to stone. She thought about her new patient, the young officer who was trying so hard not to acknowledge the pain and terror and abandonment she must have felt walking down that dark alley with no one at her back. Her heart twisted, but her voice was even. "You're working again?"
Rebecca leaned down to unlock the Vette. "Not quite. He put me on a desk. Have you eaten?"
"Uh-lunch." She was relieved at the idea of a desk assignment and then reminded herself that the reprieve was temporary at best. "Doing what?"
"Feel like Thai?" Rebecca pulled away from the curb and reached for her cell phone at Catherine's affirming nod. "There's a menu in the door. Just call out what you want," she added, punching in numbers from memory. She relayed the order, then drove in silence a few blocks, watching the traffic, the people on the sidewalks, the city teeming with life. Finally, she said grimly, her jaw tight, "I'm not entirely sure what I'm supposed to be doing. I'll find out in the morning. It's a task force to ferret out the important players in an interstate porn ring. Maybe even an international one, apparently. I don't have the details yet. It's need to know bullshit, which means that probably no one knows anything."
"Why a task force?"
Rebecca shrugged. "To make the job twice as complicated and three times slower. The feds are involved, but they can't really operate effectively on a local level. They're bureaucrats--they don't have any street contacts."
"But you do," Catherine said slowly. No wonder she's not more upset.
"Yes." Rebecca smiled for the first time. "I do."
"How come I get the feeling that this isn't such a desk job after all?"
Rebecca pulled to the curb and turned on the seat, stretching her arm behind Catherine's shoulders, her fingertips resting on the bare skin at the base of her neck. "It's the fastest way for me to get back to work. I don't have much choice. And I do know this territory. Four months ago, Jeff and I busted two prostitution houses that were dealing children. We bagged a handful of low-level organized crime members, but we knew at the time it was just the tip of the iceberg. We were never able to figure a way inside the network, and then the Blake thing sidetracked us. Maybe this internet angle will give us a break."
Catherine listened to her talk about her partner Jeff Cruz as if he were still alive. Of course, he had only been dead a few days before Rebecca herself had been shot, and the two intervening months had an aura of unreality about them. Time and events had been suspended while the detective struggled to survive and then heal. It was no wonder that Rebecca hadn't really assimilated the hard truth of his death. What in god's name was the police psychologist thinking to let her work? "What internet angle?" Catherine asked, trying unsuccessfully to quell her anger. She couldn't believe that Rebecca's superiors didn't know that this was a tacit approval for her to go back to street duty.
"The feds brought a couple of civilian computer hotshots on board, at least that's what I think they are. They're going to try to contact some of these characters on the Internet."
"Why civilians? That seems unusual."
"It would be if it were any other kind of case, but we sure don't have anyone with the technical know how." She thought about the conversation she'd had with the computer consultant, Sloan, earlier that afternoon. It had shed a little light on the situation, but she knew damn well there was more that the woman hadn't told her. "Apparently there are so many problems on the national level with corporate and even military break-ins by hackers that the feds are stretched thin enough to see through. They're recruiting college kids to fill in the gaps."
Rebecca pushed open the car door and caught her breath as a sharp twinge knifed down her left arm. "Let me run in and get dinner." Carefully, she slid the rest of the way out and straightened up. The pain was gone.
Catherine watched her cross the sidewalk, wondering if the detective really thought she hadn't noticed her quickly suppressed grimace of pain. When Rebecca returned, by unspoken agreement they avoided further talk of her new assignment, letting casual conversation and easy silences dissipate the vestiges of tension.
"I'll get plates," Catherine said as she dropped her briefcase by the door, and Rebecca carried the take out toward the coffee table in front of the sofa. Walking into the kitchen she called, "Want soda?"
"Just water is fine," Rebecca answered, settling wearily on the couch. She glanced at her watch, amazed to see that it was only ten-twenty. Leaning back, she closed her eyes and absently rubbed the ache in her chest.
A minute later Catherine returned, balancing plates, silverware and napkins. She stopped a few feet from the sofa and quietly set the items on the table. Carefully, she lifted a light throw she kept on the back of the nearby chair and spread it out over the slumbering woman. She could wake her, but Rebecca was already deeply asleep. If she awakened before dawn, she would come to the bed. If she didn't, Catherine would sleep well knowing that for tonight at least, she was safe. That thought comforted her, but there was a dull ache of loneliness in her heart as turned off the light and made her way by the dim moonlight through the quiet apartment toward the bedroom.
JT Sloan leaned against the window's edge in the large darkened loft, staring into a night only faintly illuminated by the glow from ships moving slowly on the wide expanse of river a few hundred yards below. Off to the left, the huge steel bridge arced over the water, its towering arches outlined with rows of small blue lights. She'd stood in the same spot countless times before, but the melancholy that had been her companion then was gone. The muted sounds of the elevator ascending in the background brought a smile to her lips. She walked to the long bar-like counter that separated the loft living space from a sleek, efficient modern kitchen, turned on a few recessed track lights, and poured from a bottle of Merlot she had opened earlier to allow it to breathe. On her way to the door, she set the wine glasses and a cutting board with crackers and cheese on the low stone coffee table that fronted a leather sofa in the sitting area. She slid the heavy double door back on soundless tracks just as the blond in the hallway outside approached.
"Hello," Michael said, her full mouth curving into a soft smile.
"Hey." Stepping forward, Sloan slid her arm around the slender woman's waist and pulled her close to kiss her. She'd only intended to say hello, but the touch of her, the faint hint of her perfume, settled the lingering uneasiness in her stomach that had been plaguing her all afternoon, and she brought her other hand under the hair at the back of Michael's neck, caressing the smooth skin while she explored her mouth. Finally she lifted her lips a whisper and murmured, "Welcome home."
"Yes," Michael said softly. "It certainly is." She leaned back in Sloan's arms and studied her intently. "Are you all right?"
Sloan smiled ruefully. "Just missing you."
"Uh huh. And as smooth as ever." Michael reached for her hand and gave it a tug. "Come on, let's take this inside."
Sloan grabbed one of the suitcases and followed. Inside the door, Michael kicked off her heels, shed her suit jacket to the back of a chrome and leather Breuer chair, and pulled her silk blouse from the waistband of her skirt.
"Tired?" Sloan asked, resting her palm against the small of Michael's back, under the fabric, on her skin. It was always like this when she'd been gone. She had to keep touching her, just to be sure. That she was back, that she wasn't a dream.
"Yes," Michel replied. She found Sloan's hand again and drew her around to the sofa. When they were settled, she reached for the wine. "This is wonderful. Just one of the many reasons that I love you."
"How was Detroit?"
Michael groaned. "Hot and smoky. Four days felt like a month."
"And the meetings?"
"They went well." Michael sipped the full-bodied red wine and sighed. "A decade ago, the catch word was image. Image was everything. Now, thank god, innovation is everything. Daimler-Chrysler has a new team of design consultants and I have a lot of work to do."
Michael smiled. "Thanks."
"Are you going to have to go back?" Sloan tried to keep her tone casual, but she hated it when Michael traveled, which as head of her own company, Innova Design Consultants, she did frequently. She just plain old missed her. Nothing felt quite right, no matter how busy her days might be, when at the end of the night Michael wasn't beside her in bed.
"Not often," Michael answered, glancing at Sloan quickly. She lifted a hand, ran her fingers lightly along the edge of her jaw. "Danny will do that. He likes to travel. I don't." Michael hooked her fingers under the collar of Sloan's T-shirt and pulled until the other woman was leaning toward her, then kissed her. "I don't like being away from you either."
"I know that. Sorry."
Then, patting her lap with her free hand, Michael said, "Stretch out, put your head down here, and tell me what's going on."
Sloan considered protesting, but she knew it would do no good. Michael read her too well. Besides, she wanted to talk. She just hadn't quite gotten used to doing it, even after a year of never being disappointed. With a grateful sigh, she turned and laid her head in Michael's lap and closed her eyes.
"So," Michael asked, running strands of thick dark hair through her fingers, "talk. You're edgy and something is not right."
"I took that job with Justice."
Michael stiffened, her hand stilling on Sloan's cheek. "When?"
"Two days ago." Sloan opened her eyes, reached into the back pocket of her jeans, and removed a thin black leather case. She held it up, allowing it to fall open. "I'm an official civilian consultant, ID badge and all."
"What about Jason?"
Michael considered the night she'd sat on this couch for the first time, a little over a year before, and listened to Sloan's tale of Justice and the injustices done in the name of patriotism and honor and national security. She remembered every anguished word, and every tremor of pain in Sloan's body, and now her own anger at the memory threatened to make her voice harsh. Tenderly, still stroking her lover's face, she took a deep breath and asked quietly, "What about everything that happened before?"
"They made nice; all is forgiven." She said it lightly, but her shoulders were tight against Michael's thigh.
"I don't care about them. I care about you. Are you all right to work with them again?"
Sloan turned her face and pressed her cheek against Michael's breast, brushing her lips over the swell of flesh beneath the sheer fabric. "I'm okay with it. Clark is a straight shooter, and I don't have any history with him. It feels a little weird right now, but it's just another job."
"Is it dangerous?"
"No." Sloan laughed. "I'll just be doing some net trolling, looking for sites that are clearing houses for the hard core porn sites and trying to find any that are actually making the stuff. Especially the videos. Jason is going to play net bait and see if he can make contact with anyone that way. The police will be doing the search and seizure part of it-if we ever get that far."
"You're sure?" Michael leaned over, kissed her again, and this time her kiss was hungry. "I don't want you hurt."
Raising one hand and encircling Michael's neck, Sloan pulled her down, shifting on the couch until they were lying side by side. As she slid her hand beneath the edge of Michael's skirt, finding warm soft skin awaiting her, she whispered huskily, "Don't worry. I'm a cybersleuth. Safest job in the world."
Michael worked a hand between them, deftly opening the buttons on the denim fly. Moving her hand inside, swiftly rewarded by Sloan's soft groan and the subtle lift of her hips, she brought her lips to Sloan's ear. "It had better be. Your services are required right here at home, and I need you all in one piece."
Sloan meant to answer with something clever, but Michael's fingers found her and she was lost. It was nearly dawn before she caught her breath again.
At 7:24 a.m., Rebecca held up her identification to the impersonal eye of the video surveillance camera again and motioned to Watts to do the same.
"What is this, Mission Impossible?" he grumbled. Looking over his shoulder, he added, "Uh oh. Looks like we have a babysitting assignment on top of everything else."
"That's not we," Rebecca reminded him, turning her back to the camera as she followed his gaze. Lowering her voice to avoid being overheard by the audio she felt sure was connected to the camera, she whispered, "You're just here as an invited guest, remember? Try not to say anything when we get upstairs. If I know the feds, it will all be taped."
"Hey!" He tried to look offended, but he was aware that Frye was stepping outside of channels to bring him in on this, and he was grateful. He wasn't foolish enough to think it was because she felt any special friendship for him, but just the fact that she let him ride along was enough for him.
A young uniformed officer approached, her smooth unlined face set in a determined expression. She looked as if she were about to salute when she came to a smart stop in front of them. "Detective Sergeant Frye?" At Rebecca's nod, she continued, "I'm Dellon Mitchell from the one eight. The duty Sergeant told me I was to report to you here."
"Did he say why?" Rebecca asked, trying not to allow her annoyance to show. She absolutely did not have time to keep an eye out for a rookie, even though the uniform looked a little older than the usual recent academy graduate. In fact, something about the younger woman looked familiar.
"He just said..." Mitchell hesitated, looking uncomfortable for the first time. Then she squared her shoulders and continued, "He said you would need a clerk, ma'am."
"Ouch-sounds like you've been sat down," Watts observed with a chuckle. "What did you do, kid? Forget to shine your shoes?"
"No, sir. I -"
"Never mind that, Mitchell," Rebecca interrupted curtly. "If this is where you've been assigned, that's good enough for now."
She turned back to the video camera and said in a firm tone, "Philadelphia PD. Three to come up."
Without the slightest hint of crackle or electronic interference, a male voice said from the invisible speaker, "Good morning, Sergeant. Please come ahead, and welcome aboard."
They were silent on the ride up, although Watts snorted derisively at the elaborate security measures throughout the building, muttering colorfully about spy games and cop wanna-bes as he peered about. When they exited the elevator directly into a brightly lit, wide-open room that was sectioned off by partial walls of glass and steel and filled with surveillance equipment and computers, he said, "What the hell is this place?"
From their left a man said, "This is the tech center for Sloan Security Services." Nodding to the group, and giving no sign that he was perplexed by the unexpected presence of Watts, he stretched out a hand toward Rebecca. "Avery Clark. Justice."
"Rebecca Frye," she replied, assessing him quickly. Standard government issue-somewhere between thirty-five and forty, brown hair, dark steel-framed glasses, conservative hair cut, well-tailored but conventional suit, dark tie, white shirt. Wedding ring, hip holster, sharp eyes. And he'd been briefed. He didn't make the mistake of thinking that Watts was in charge, but had addressed himself to Rebecca. She gestured to the others with her. "Detective Watts and Officer Mitchell."
"Detective, Officer," he added as he shook both their hands, then turned, saying, "The briefing's down the hall. Coffee and such there, too."
"Very fancy," Watts observed dryly.
Rebecca said nothing. It was Clark's show.
The conference room was in the corner of the third floor, walled on two sides in floor to ceiling glass and outfitted with sleek Bauhaus furniture. The occupants who awaited them looked right at home in the high-tech, urban surroundings. Rebecca nodded to the civilians she'd met the day before. As previously, Sloan appeared deceptively casual at first glance, in jeans again, this time with a white oxford shirt, sleeves rolled up, and ankle-high leather boots. But her eyes were lasers, scanning everything, on high alert. The amazingly handsome man at her side gave off a lazy aura of insouciance, but Rebecca had no doubt that he was just as sharp. Interesting pair. Watts gave them both a suspicious nod when introduced, and then they all filed past a counter in the corner for drinks and food and eventually migrated to seats around the granite-topped table.
Clark walked to the head of the table and set a cup of coffee on the smooth surface. Smiling, he looked at the group. "Everybody get coffee, something to eat?"
There were a few grunts and one clear, Yes, sir. Watts gave Mitchell a look that suggested she needn't be so polite.
"So." He sipped his coffee. Suddenly his smile disappeared. "This is what we know. Six weeks ago an international web-monitoring group called the Action Coalition Against the Exploitation of Children, whose members surf the Internet looking for child pornography activity of any kind, alerted us to a number of references concerning a real-time child sex ring operating, and apparently broadcasting, from this area."
"How'd the watch-dog group pick up on it?" Sloan asked.
"Chat rooms. Unfortunately, nothing too specific-just enough for them to realize there was a live feed somewhere in the Northeast. As you may know, most of the organized distribution of sex material on the internet occurs through private bulletin boards, and they're all carefully screened, password controlled, and often encrypted. If you aren't a member, you don't have access."
"Whoa-" Watts interrupted, ignoring the swift look from Rebecca implying that he shut up. "You want to translate that? I still can't figure out how to put the paper in the fax machine."
Clark regarded him expressionlessly. He'd had plenty of experience dealing with local law enforcement, and he was used to the obstacles, resistance and outright obstructionism that was almost ritual. This guy had the look of old-school hard ass written all over him. "There are two kinds of internet pornography activity. The most wide spread is the kind of stuff that anyone can find easily-chat rooms, mostly. People meet there, try to connect for sex, and even try to set up f-to-f-"
"Huh?" Watts asked, looking dazed. This time it wasn't an act.
"Face to face," Jason remarked quietly. "In person."
"Right-sorry," Clark added. "Real life assignations-dates for sex. Nothing wrong with that, unless it happens to be an adult looking to hook up with a minor. That's where we come in." He glanced at the expressions of the individuals seated around the table. Everyone was alert, watching him, waiting with more than a hint of reservation. He was used to being viewed with suspicion by the locals--hell, not even the locals always--sometimes by other federal agents. Unperturbed, he continued, "At any rate, those kinds of open channels usually prevent file trading, so guys who want pics, and most serious pedophiles do, usually trade privately after they initially connect in a chat room. Until the last ten years, kiddie porn was pretty much limited to still pics and homemade videos. Distribution was via the good old US Mail, and it was geographically restricted to interstate distribution as opposed to internationally. Getting tapes through Customs is tricky, although a lot easier in Europe than here."
"I thought we were expecting someone from Customs," Rebecca asked quietly when he paused. The young officer, Mitchell, who was sitting to her right, was taking notes on one of a stack of pads that had been scattered over the wide stone surface. Sloan and McBride looked quietly intent, but she had a feeling that none of this was news to them. It shouldn't be, if the Internet was their street and they were any good at what they did.
"I told them we'd keep them informed if it looked like we were going to move into their territory," Clark replied casually. "They've got their hands full with the terrorists."
Politics, Rebecca thought, but she merely nodded.
"Anyhow," the Justice agent went on, "with new digital technology, the game has changed. High quality images can be uploaded and transmitted anywhere almost instantaneously. That's the venue of the other form of trafficking in child pornography-image production and procurement. It's a much more covert, highly organized, and sophisticated operation. There are bulletin boards that screen members, authenticate identities--or at least aliases, which most subjects use--and limit access to those with passwords or electronic keys. This is where most of the image exchange occurs. And this is where we'll find a way to break into this network. The Internet is a superhighway running directly right from one bedroom to the next." He looked pointedly at Sloan. "Internet law enforcement is way behind the perps in terms of expertise. The private sector has a head start on us in terms of the ability to find and infiltrate these sites, but if anyone repeats that, I'll deny I ever said it."
Sloan, Rebecca noticed, smiled, but her blue eyes were dark with something unrequited. Old scores, still unsettled? Rebecca'd run a check on both the security consultant and her associate, McBride, the previous afternoon because she was certain that the Justice department hadn't hired them without cause. Interestingly, she'd drawn blanks on most of her inquiries. Not blanks, exactly. Gaps. Erasures. Missing data. Sloan Security Consultants had filed taxes for the last four years; Sloan and McBride were registered to vote; their credit records were clean; their driver's licenses unbesmirched; and their pasts a complete cipher. They might have been born four years ago. That had the smell of ex-Agency all over it. If she had to guess, she'd guess Justice. Because both of them looked like the kind of whiz kids the government hired right out of college to do the kinds of things the old guard wasn't equipped to do. Just like what they were doing now. Rebecca was curious--because she was a cop, because she would be working with them, and because she needed to know who she could trust. Sloan had given her some intel the day before, and she hadn't had to. That was a point for her, but it was too soon to tell how far that cooperation would extend. Traditionally, local and federal officers didn't mesh well. And now Sloan was technically neither. Rebecca flicked her gaze back to Clark.
"Why involve us at this stage?" she asked. "It could take months before you get a solid lead." Unless there's something you're not telling us. And there always is.
Clark nodded. "Because we want to cover every contingency. I don't need to tell you that child prostitution and child pornography go hand in hand. Once someone has access to kids for sale, they usually take the next step toward photographing the sex and selling that, too. You busted up a couple of kiddie rackets not long ago, didn't you?"
"Small time houses-no big connections. At least none that we could find then."
"We're betting that they're there. It's another place to look. With those cases and the info from the watch dog groups that I'll be giving to Sloan and McBride, we've already narrowed the search and cut out weeks of web trawling. If you dig around in the background of the guys you busted; talk to your contacts-" he stopped, grinned disarmingly. "Sorry. You know what to do without me spelling it out."
"Sure," Rebecca replied dryly while across from her Watts huffed. She shot him another look.
"Let me wrap this up then," Clark added smoothly, ignoring Watts. "A few big busts have been made in the last five years. Two international clubs-the Wonderland Club and the Orchid Club-each with network members in the United States, Australia, Canada and Europe, were infiltrated by members of various police agencies. There were several hundred arrests and thousands of images and videos confiscated. The problem with this approach is that it's hit or miss, and even when you make an arrest, it's only hitting the bottom of the food chain. Pedophiles watching porn in the safety of their own homes. If it weren't for the fact that the material featured kids, it probably wouldn't even be illegal." His expression became starkly predatory, and for the first time, his charming mask slipped. "We're not after the guy looking at dirty pictures in his bathroom. We're after the businessmen who are sitting around a boardroom just like this one right now planning on how to make even more money off the sale of children. What want to know who's behind it, how they're getting the kids, and where they're broadcasting their real time images from."
Business men. A nice word for organized crime, Rebecca thought. So why am I here and not someone from the OC division? This doesn't add up. She knew, however, that that was not the kind of question you asked. Like a lawyer who was taught never to ask a question they didn't know the answer to, a cop knew never to let on that there was something they didn't know.
"Technically any information which leads to an arrest needs to be documented and a chain of evidence recorded. The detectives should make out contact reports recording any intel from informants, per usual. Officer Mitchell can take care of organizing that. In addition, a log of all internet activity, any leads generated by that route, and any street follow-up instituted needs to be charted."
Jason spoke up. "That's not really possible." And definitely not even desirable. "Some avenues of investigation are too...uh...fluid to document."
Sloan smiled. Fluid. Only Jason could come up with that term to describe the fact that in a few hours they'd be hacking their brains out, breaking into anything and everything they could, including government databases and private systems.
"I'm sure you'll give her the salient details," Clark concluded easily.
Sure, Sloan thought. And we'll take the heat for anything construed later as illegal. Which explains why Justice isn't using their own people, even if they do have someone who could do the job. Surprise. So nice to know the Age nice to know the Agency hasn't changed. Disavow all knowledge ... and on and on and on.
"Since this is a joint venture with the Philadelphia PD and our department, I'll leave the day to day decisions up to Detective Sergeant Frye. Keep me informed of any major developments. We'll brief every few days. More often if things start rolling." He glanced at his watch. "I've got another appointment. Any questions?"
"Yeah," Watts replied. "I missed what you said about what you'll be doing in this operation."
"If the trail leads across state lines it becomes federal, so it seemed prudent for us to be in on the investigation from the start."
Rebecca met Watts' gaze for the first time. His expression was blank but his eyes spoke for him. He knew as well as she did that Clark knew much more than he was saying.
The five of them left at the table when Clark walked out remained in silence for a moment. Clark had implied that Rebecca was in charge of the nuts and bolts aspects of the operation, yet there they all sat in the middle of Sloan's territory. Rebecca and Sloan looked at one another across the expanse of smooth black stone. Watts and Jason watched them. Officer Mitchell stared straight ahead, her eyes fixed somewhere over the Delaware River.
"What's your plan?" Rebecca asked finally. There was no point in drawing lines in the sand over false issues. She and Watts couldn't do what Sloan and McBride could. Chances were they'd never even get to the point of arresting anyone. Clark was after something with this fishing expedition, she had no doubt of that, but there was more smoke in the room now than before the briefing.
"This kind of Internet surveillance op isn't new," Sloan said with a shrug. "And like Clark said, it usually involves a huge number of man hours for something that often produces short-lived results."
"Like busting hookers," Watts remarked. "No percentage in it."
"So why hasn't he given you a dozen people to sit here and surf the internet-flood the system and maximize his returns?" Rebecca persisted.
"Can't say. It's costly, there aren't that many computer savvy agents readily available, or..." she considered her words carefully, because she didn't know the blond cop at all. She was bothered by that fact as well, had been since the first phone call had come from Washington asking her to head up the computer side of the investigation. "He wants to limit the number of people exposed to the operation."
Rebecca nodded. That played with her sense that there was a hidden agenda beneath the stated objectives of the investigation. And there was nothing to do but do the job and keep her eyes open. "Did he give you anything specific to work with?"
"Actually, yes," Sloan affirmed. "There are probably 100,000 sites that supply child sex images world wide. Many of them link to credit-card transaction and on-line billing sites that take Visa, MasterCard, and AmEx. When you trace them through their domain registry, they turn out to be in the Balkans or Bali or some other even more remote locale."
"Untouchable," Jason commented.
"Right," Sloan agreed. "A more profitable place to search is the web-hosting companies. Most porn sites are explicit about their content when they register with a server-you know, clever names like underagenymphos.net and lolitaland.com. Justice's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section has given us a prescreened list of potential US-based companies that specialize in porn sites. I'll start there, looking for intersecting references to anything in the Northeast corridor as points of origin. If there is a big supplier, particularly a live feed line somewhere local, we'll get a whiff of it eventually."
"Sounds simple," Watts commented dryly. "What's the catch?"
"There's an international network of Web resellers who buy and sell space on hosting frames. They can cloak the site content so it's not so conspicuous to broad searches."
"And that's what we're looking for, right?" Rebecca asked. "A central clearing house."
Sloan nodded, an appreciative glint in her eye at Rebecca's quick assessment. "Yes. That's very high up on our list of desirable intel. While I do the broad sweeps, Jason will try for individual contacts."
Watts regarded the only other man in the room sympathetically, feeling an instant kinship with him based on that fact alone. "Jeez, you're gonna pretend to be a perv?" he asked.
"Sometimes," Jason replied flatly. "The rest of the time I'm going to pretend to be a girl."
"We're going to go at this from every angle we can," Sloan affirmed, shooting Jason a bemused smile that no one else noticed.
Rebecca stood. "Is there someplace here where Mitchell can set up shop for us?" She didn't add that she wanted a place where she could discuss the street side of things with Watts privately, but she didn't imagine she needed to. Sloan was too sharp not to know that no one shares everything, ever.
"I'll show you," Jason offered. "There's another meeting room you can have at the other end of the floor. It's small, but the coffee machine works."
"It'll be fine," Rebecca acknowledged. "Thanks." She glanced at Sloan. "The first time you get a hint of anything that even vaguely connects to here, let me know."
When Jason left them in a conference room that made anything at the one-eight look like a slum, Rebecca said, "Mitchell, take ten. We'll discuss your assignment when you get back."
"Yes ma'am. I'll be back in ten. Bring you anything?"
"No thanks. How many open cases do you have?" Rebecca asked Watts when the uniform left. "Because officially, you aren't even on this case."
"Nothing pressing. A few follow-up interviews, two coming to trial, and those cold files I've been slugging through." He hiked a hip up unto the corner of another sleek tabletop, the fabric of his shiny brown suit stretching over his ample middle. "I thought we...uh...you were just supposed to be the contact person when these eggheads find something. If they find something."
"That's what Henry said," Rebecca agreed. "I think we're all going fishing for Avery Clark, and I don't like that too much. Let's poke around and see if we can find out what he really wants us to catch."
"You think it's Zamora?" Watts asked flatly, watching her carefully. Nicholas Zamora was the head of the local organized crime syndicate, and he had been amazingly successful at avoiding prosecution. So successful that most cops believed he had friends in high places.
"I don't think anything," Rebecca replied steadily.
"Wouldn't it be a bite in the ass if Zamora goes down for selling dirty pictures after all the times we've tried to nail him for drugs and racketeering. Justice is a funny thing sometimes." His expression was one of happy expectation.
"Don't jump to conclusions, and don't talk this up at the squad," she warned sharply. I don't want another...partner...winding up dead.
"Wouldn't think of it," he replied. "Especially if chasing around for you keeps me from hunting down weenie waggers in the park. Can you get me some slack with the Cap?"
She considered her options, and they were slim. Officially this was a desk job for her. Talking to the feds, coordinating with the computer cops, and sitting on her ass until something happened. Which might be never. "I could probably justify some time for you on this by telling him I need you to run down the guys Jeff and I put away in that kiddie prostitution bust last spring. Find out if any of them are out of jail yet. Shake them down for some names. Go through the paperwork-you might even dig something up that would give us a lead."
"Good enough for me," Watts said. "I don't suppose whatever we're going to be doing is going into the rookie's log book."
She just looked at him.
"Right. I'm ready," he said more seriously. "Just give me the word."
"Go ahead and start on it," she said as a discreet cough from the doorway to the conference room announced the uniform's return. "I'll call you later."
"What're you gonna be doing?" he asked as he ambled toward the door.
She didn't answer. He hadn't expected her to. It would be a long time-maybe never-before she confided in him. Some cops never accepted another partner after one was killed. Didn't want to take the risk of losing another, or as in her case, most likely, they could only form that kind of attachment once in a lifetime. He put his hands in his pockets, walked to the elevator, and tried not to be bothered by her secrets.
"Come in, Mitchell," Rebecca said as she slid open a drawer under the counter that held an automatic coffee machine and discovered prepackaged coffee packets of a better than average brand. She didn't speak again until she had poured water into the coffee pot from the cooler in the corner of the room. Then she turned to face the officer who was standing just inside the room, shoulders back, hands straight down at her sides. It was a posture most young officers assumed when dealing with superiors, but on her it looked a lot more natural.
"What did you do before you were a cop?" Rebecca asked, walking to the windows and glancing at the view. Breathtaking. For an instant she thought of Catherine, and wondered what she was doing at that moment. She looked away from the pristine sky and glistening water.
"I was in the Army, ma'am."
"No, ma'am. First Lieutenant."
A tightening of the muscles along her jaw which might have gone unnoticed, but Rebecca was looking for it. "No, ma'am. Just over a year."
Rebecca studied her, noting the faint bruise on her left cheek that was more obvious in the sunlight coming through the windows than it had been previously.
"How long have you been on the force?"
Allowing for her time in the academy, she was probably in her mid-twenties, which was about how old she looked. Rebecca poured herself a cup of coffee. "Have some coffee, Mitchell."
Mitchell glanced at her, surprised. "Thank you, ma-"
"And you can relax. Save the sirs and all for the brass. They like it. The rest of us are just cops, okay?"
"So. Want to tell me what your situation is?" She could find out, and eventually she'd take a look at the kid's file, but she wanted to hear it from her. You could tell a lot about a person by the way they explained their problems.
"I've been taken off street duty while the review board investigates a complaint against me," Mitchell answered immediately.
Which probably means someone in the department is covering their ass instead of supporting one of our own. If Mitchell has done anything even remotely prosecutable, they'd have suspended her, not just reassigned her. "Justifiable?"
"I subdued a suspect with force. He's complaining."
Well, that explains the bruise. Very smart answer, too. She isn't excusing herself, and she isn't admitting guilt. If she survives this inquiry, she's got a future in the department. Rebecca sipped her coffee. "Okay. This assignment will probably be deadly boring, but it's what you've drawn. For the moment, you'll be based here. If Sloan or McBride need you to do anything for them, go ahead. You can run backgrounds for them at the one-eight if there's something they can't find out for themselves."
"I doubt they'll need that," Mitchell remarked. "They're hackers."
"Yeah, that's what I figured, too. But just the same, if they need something that could later be construed as chain of evidence, try to make it look official. Go through channels and keep some kind of log so we know what the hell we have to work with if we ever need to get a warrant."
"I'll be in and out. Page me if something comes up."
"Yes, ma'am" For the first time Mitchell looked uneasy. "I have to report for my psych eval three times a week until I'm cleared. I'll advise you of-"
"Just go, Mitchell," Rebecca said brusquely. I know all about it. With any luck we won't run into each other in Whitaker's waiting room.
Mitchell stiffened at the change in the detective's tone. "Yes, ma'am. Understood."
"Hopefully, we'll all be off this duty in a week or so. Be here at seven-thirty tomorrow." She tossed her cup in the trash and walked out, leaving Mitchell to stare after her. She had three hours to kill before her appointment with the psychologist. It was too early in the day to find the people she wanted to talk to, and she admitted to herself as she rode swiftly down on the silent elevator that the only person she really wanted to see at the moment had nothing to do with the investigation.
Catherine Rawlings stepped away from the group of residents and looked at the readout on her pager, then walked to a wall phone and dialed the number.
"This is Doctor Rawlings."
"Any chance you're free for lunch?"
Smiling, she turned her back to the hallway and lowered her voice. "Where are you?"
"In the lobby."
She was aware of her heart beating faster and a faint stirring within, and the fact that the mere sound of Rebecca's voice could do that to her was astounding. And a little frightening, too. The newness of anyone affecting her quite so much would take some getting used to. "Damn. I can't. I scheduled an extra patient session right before I have to go to the outpatient clinic. I'm sorry."
"That's okay. I was just in the neighborhood," Rebecca replied quickly. She glanced around the lobby and rolled her shoulders, trying to shake out some of the tension. The frustration she'd felt upon awakening that morning on Catherine's couch just as dawn had begun to cast the room in a gray pall lingered still. She'd opened her eyes, struggled to remember where she was and how she'd gotten there, and finally realized that yet again she had fallen asleep, leaving Catherine hanging. By the time she'd stumbled, still stiff and groggy to the bedroom, Catherine's alarm was going off and they'd barely had time to say good morning before rushing to shower, dress and head off to work. She missed her, and worse, she had the uneasy feeling she was letting down her end of...things. Again. Fuck.
"Dinner?" Catherine asked into the silence. She wanted to ask her if she was working, and what she was doing, and how she was feeling, but she resisted, not wanting to burden this spontaneous moment with her own uncertainty and unease.
"Sure. Page me when you're finished tonight."
"I have patients, and then an appointment. Is nine too late?"
"It's fine." The detective hesitated, then added, "About last night-I won't make a habit of crashing before the appetizers-"
"No, really," Catherine interjected, glancing at her watch. "It's all right. Hell, I have to go-"
"Right. I'll see you later then."
Five floors apart, they each stood still for a moment, holding a phone with only a dial tone, considering the things they had left unsaid.
CSI Chief Dee Flanagan didn't look up at the sound of footsteps approaching across the tile floor of her lab. Carefully, she pipetted an aliquot of fluid containing an emulsion of the material scraped off the bottom of a murder suspect's shoe into a centrifuge tube. If she were right, there'd be trace amounts of a very specific high-grade motor oil in the supernatant that would match the composition of the brand in the victim's Ferrari. Because the murderer stepped in the oil puddle when he'd crossed the garage on his way to crushing in the back of the victim's skull with a tire iron. Not a very inventive means of dispatching his neighbor--a fellow who was apparently spending the afternoons in bed with his wife--but then murder was so rarely clever. The gas chromatography analysis would confirm the match, placing the suspect at the scene. Not enough for an arrest in and of itself, but another link in the chain. Another piece in the puzzle fit neatly into place. Dropping the tube into the centrifuge cradle, still without turning toward the intruder, she said into the quiet room, "I don't have anything for you yet, and I won't for another two hours. If you keep bugging me, it's going to be tomorrow. And don't touch anything."
"I haven't been gone that long," Rebecca remarked dryly, standing as she always did when in Flanagan's lab-with her hands safely in her pockets. "I know the drill."
Flanagan, the forty-year old forensic chief, small and wiry and a head shorter than Rebecca, known to be notoriously short-tempered, turned toward her visitor with undisguised delight. "I'll be damned. Frye." She held out her hand. "Maggie said she saw you at the gym. You back in the saddle?"
Rebecca took her hand, grinning. "Looks like."
"Good. Maybe those monkeys in your division will get some cases solved for a change."
Flanagan gestured toward a small cubicle adjoing the sparkling, equipment-filled room. "Come on into the office-I know you didn't drop by just to be sociable."
Rebecca followed her. "I need to catch up on a few things. I figured you'd be the one to ask."
Flanagan gave her a wary glance as she settled behind her surprisingly messy desk. In sharp contrast to the rest of her domain, which was obsessively organized, her private office was apparent chaos. However, she knew precisely where every piece of paper, dental model and crime scene mock-up resided, and woe to the unwary cleaning person who dared move anything a micrometer. "You're going to start poking around in things again, aren't you?"
"Just getting up to speed," Rebecca replied neutrally, eying the one chair piled with copies of the Journal of Forensic Pathology and concluding it would be safest to remain standing.
"In the two months you've been gone, Frye, I haven't gotten senile. And the only open case I can think of that you might be interested in is a double homicide that someone would like to see forgotten."
"Two dead cops," Rebecca said softly, her expression darkening. "Jimmy Hogan and Jeff Cruz. I have to ask myself, why hasn't the department been turning the city upside down to find out who killed them? Every day while I lay up there in that hospital bed I waited for someone to come and talk to me about it. One of the Homicide dicks to question me, to fill me in, or to ask me about Jeff's cases. Nothing."
Flanagan nodded as she leaned back in her chair and regarded the tall cop steadily. "I know that Cruz was your partner, but maybe you didn't know him as well as you think."
"Don't play games with me, Flanagan. If you've got something to say, spit it out," Rebecca said, her tone lethally cold. She respected the CSI chief, and over the years had grown to like her, but Jeff Cruz had been her partner. No one came before him in her allegiance; no one except Catherine.
"I'm not the enemy here, Frye," Flanagan pointed out in what was for her a reasonable tone. "You may not realize it, but those homicides are open cases on my books, too. Even if they weren't cops, I'd want to find the perp." When Rebecca didn't reply, but merely regarded her with a flat opaque gaze, she exhaled slowly and continued. "There's been some not so quiet speculation that Jimmy Hogan was dirty. He'd been working underground in the Zamora organization a long time. He had no family, no real friends, and even his bosses didn't always know what he was doing. His files are so thin you can see through them."
"Yeah. He was a perfect undercover agent. For that he gets this from us in return?" Rebecca commented bitterly, expecting no reply. Where is the famous solidarity of the Thin Blue Line now? Bastards.
"But he did call Jeff Cruz. More than once."
"They were training partners when they got out of the academy. Then Jimmy went to Narco and Jeff to Vice. But they had history."
"That may be it, Frye. I'm just telling you what I've heard."
"So what's the theory?" Rebecca asked tiredly. "That Jimmy went bad, enticed Jeff with-what? Money? Jeff and Shelly lived in a starter home, for Christ's sake. He drove a ten year old Mustang."
"Did you get anything solid from Hogan's intel?" Flanagan asked, ignoring the questions no one could answer.
"Not much," Rebecca admitted. "Supposedly, he had gotten on to something involving the chicken trade. He was going to feed us some names. He never got the chance."
"Or there wasn't anything there to report, and Jeff's meetings with him were a front."
"If that were the case, why would Jeff have even bothered to tell me he was meeting Hogan?" Rebecca countered. "He could have done it all under the table."
"Maybe Jeff was hedging his bets and covering all the bases. Maybe he figured if things went south with Hogan, he could always claim he was working Hogan for information, and just pretended to be rolling over."
"Yeah. I agree with you." Flanagan had the uneasy feeling that Frye was about to fold. Her face was unusually pale, even considering her normally light Nordic coloring, there were faint beads of sweat on her forehead, and her breathing was a bit jerky. In fact, she looked like hell. The criminalist got up and moved around to the front of her desk where she might have a prayer of catching the detective if she dropped. Suggesting that the cop sit down wasn't an option. You didn't tell Frye to take it easy. "Look, Frye. All I'm saying is that's there's a lot going on around their deaths that none of us understand. As far as I can tell, Homicide has backed way off it, and the brass aren't going to be real happy about anyone stirring it up. So-be careful who you talk to, and don't trust anyone."
Rebecca leaned a shoulder against the doorframe, wondering if it had suddenly gotten warmer in the small space. A river of sweat ran between her shoulder blades and she had to blink several times to clear her vision. "I want to see the autopsy reports and your crime scene files."
"I can't give them to you."
"Damn it, Dee." She pushed away from the wall so quickly, Flanagan actually held out a hand to ward off a blow.
"Jesus," Flanagan breathed when Rebecca halted a few inches from here. "I don't have them. The whole file was pulled."
"Who has it?"
Flanagan shrugged. "It says Homicide. I suspect it's IAD. You know they'd be looking into any officer related death. That's SOP."
"You gave them your file?" Her tone was incredulous. No one got a hand on Flanagan's files. Impatiently, she swiped moisture from her forehead and considered taking off her jacket. She moved back a step, putting distance between them, searching for some air.
"Fuck, no," Flanagan said, her composure cracking at last. "The bastards raided my files. I don't know how, but the data are gone."
"Don't you-keep copies, or something?"
"My reports are all computerized, Frye. Supposedly the system backs up automatically. Except it didn't, or someone is lying to me. All I know is that I can't find them, and the idiots who are supposed to know something about this can't tell me jack shit."
Rebecca looked around the office. Motioning with her head toward a computer nearly buried by stacks of folders and reports, she asked, "Is that where you input all your final data?"
"There and substations in the various lab divisions. Serology, Toxicology, Prints-they all enter their findings under the case file number and it gets stored that way."
"But one way or another, it's all generated down here in your section?"
"Yes." Flanagan could see the wheels turning. "Why? You any good with this kind of thing? I tried but nothing worked."
"Not me." Rebecca said with a short mirthless laugh. "But I might know someone. I'll let you know."
"There wasn't much in the file anyhow. There was precious little evidence from the scene. I've got a few of my hand written notes from the first walk through. You're welcome to see them, and I'll tell you anything I can."
"Why get involved?" Rebecca asked, her tone not critical, merely curious.
"Because it's my job."
Their eyes met in a moment of perfect understanding, and for the first time Rebecca smiled. "Thanks, Flanagan."
"Don't mention it. Oh, and Frye?"
Rebecca raised an eyebrow. "Yeah?"
"Watch your back."
"Yeah. I'll do that."
Catherine unlocked the door that opened into her office from a hallway off the main corridor and crossed the room to her desk. Normally, her patients exited through this door so that they did not have to go out through the main waiting room and running to other patients who were waiting. It also allowed her to come and go without seeing her patients before or after the session. She glanced at the clock on the opposite wall and saw that it was 5:28 pm. Sighing tiredly, she settled into the high backed leather chair behind her desk and picked up the phone. Dialing the extension for her secretary , she closed her eyes briefly.
"Yes?" Joyce asked.
"Is my 5:30 here yet?"
"Yes," Joyce answered. Right on time and looking like she's about to face a firing squad. She smiled faintly at the serious-faced young woman sitting across from her and was rewarded by a brief lift of her surprisingly full lips in return.
"Good. Give me a minute, and then tell her to come in."
"Anything I can get you? I put fresh coffee on."
"No, thanks. I'll grab a cup between this one and the last one."
A moment later, Catherine's door from her waiting room opened and her 5:30 appointment walked in. "Good evening, Officer."
"Hi." Mitchell settled into her customary spot, the right hand leather chair of the pair that faced the psychiatrist's desk. As she sat, she plucked at the thighs of her sharply creased trousers to minimize the wrinkling. Her back did not touch the upright portion of the chair.
"I see you're in uniform, so you are still working, I take it?"
"More or less," Mitchell acknowledged. "I'm getting paid. No street duty though. It's a desk job, more or less. "
"And I assume you find that frustrating?"
"Well, until this morning I would have said so, yes."
Catherine raised a surprised eyebrow. "Really? I got the impression you considered anything other than a street assignment almost a disciplinary action."
Mitchell smiled. "Most cops like to think of themselves as street cops. After all, that's where the action is. That's where you make your stripes. The only ones who don't want street duty are the ones who come to law enforcement with the intent to be administrators. They're the MBAs who want to be commissioner someday and the lawyers who can't find jobs, and hope that a year or two of police were will give them a step up into the prosecutor's office. They only put in enough street time to fulfill their basic requirements before angling for something that will get them an administrative position."
"So most officers would find your present duty undesirable?"
"Well..." she still wasn't entirely certain how much you should reveal to the psychiatrist. She felt a lot safer talking to her then she would have to the departmental shrink, but there was no telling how much of what they discussed would make its way back to her division commander or into her personal file. Still, it felt good to be able to talk to someone. Carefully, she continued. "The duty Sergeant gave me an assignment that I'm sure he thought would just take me off the streets and put me somewhere where everyone could forget about me. Usually when they want to bury someone they move them to the property room, which is an assignment that most people get when they've been disciplined but can't be fired or older uniformed officers who are approaching retirement and want something easy to do. He probably figured if he did that it would have been a little obvious. Then if I complained to my union rep it would have made things touchy. So he posted me to what he thought would be a dead-end duty, but I think he figured wrong."
Catherine laughed. "You're going to have to do some translating for me here, Officer. The intricacies of police politics escape me."
Laughing, Mitchell relaxed enough to lean back in her seat. "Me too, although I'm learning quickly. He put me on this new task force that's just getting underway, probably figuring it would be nothing but a bureaucratic nightmare and all I would be doing is filing paperwork. Probably all I will be doing is filing paperwork, but I'm working with someone who almost anyone in uniform would give an arm or a leg to work with."
"I think I see," Catherine remarked. "So you think that might be an advantage to this assignment that no one appreciated, is that it?"
"Maybe. First of all, it's an interesting assignment. Plus, several federal agencies are involved, so there's a chance it could turn into something really big. If I can contribute something, maybe I can show that I'm not a screw up."
Catherine didn't reply, and her face did not show her consternation. There couldn't possibly be two task forces like this at one time. Rebecca's assignment. Attempting to redirect the conversation away from the specifics in hopes of avoiding any discussion of her lover, she asked, "So you're not displeased with your current work situation?"
"No, not at all. The fastest way for someone to get promoted out of the ranks into the detective division is by assisting a detective with their case. And the detective in charge of the PD end of things is Rebecca Frye. You know her, of course, because you were involved with her during the Harker thing. If I can manage to make any kind of impression on her, it could actually end up helping my career."
"Yes. Of course." Catherine had known that her involvement in the serial murderer/rape case might come up with any of her patients. Unfortunately, it had been heavily publicized, and the dramatic ending had also been covered by the news and print media. Despite her attempts to downplay her involvement, her photograph had been displayed on television and in local newspapers and magazines. Nevertheless, anticipating that it would come up in session and actually having it presented to her were two different things. Still careful to keep her expression neutral, she continued, "I'm glad this new assignment hasn't turned out to be a punishment."
"Are you kidding? As soon as I get a better idea of how she's going to run the street end of things, I'm hoping I can make myself useful. I've been working the Tenderloin for more than half a year. It could be I know some people who might give us some leads. But no matter how it turns out, any uniformed officer would pay money to work with her."
I don't doubt it. Except this is supposed to be desk duty for her. But I can't very well bring that up, can I? Mentally turning that thought aside, the psychiatrist concentrated on her new patient. Mitchell's entire demeanor had changed from one of quiet resignation to enthusiasm. It was clear how important her work was to her emotional state. And it was time to get back to that. "Our last session ended before you were able to tell me what happened in the alley that night. We need to go through it, and talk about what happened after, before I can sign off on my evaluation."
"I know." Mitchell's expression became serious as she met Catherine's eyes. She was ready to get it over with. Perfunctorily, she stated flatly, "There isn't very much more to tell. I went down the alley-"
"Wait," Catherine interrupted softly. She didn't want a recitation; she wanted the remembrances. "It was dark, and you were alone, and your backup hadn't arrived. There were sounds of a struggle, and you went to investigate, correct?"
Mitchell's eyes darkened as Catherine's quiet voice brought her back to the moment that was still as clear in her memory as the instant it had happened.
"I had my weapon out and my heart was beating so fast it was like a drum beating in my ears. I pressed my back flat against the brick wall and I could feel the uneven surface of the stones catching on the back of my shirt as I eased my way down the alley. I didn't want him to know I was coming until I was close enough to subdue him, because I didn't know if he had a weapon. It's impossible to subdue a suspect hand to hand if you're not within arm's reach. If he has a gun and you can't physically reach him, you're dead. It was hard not to stumble over bits of trash and broken glass and rocks. I was certain I was announcing my presence with every step I took. The gun barrel was angled up--I was holding it beside my face in a two-handed grip, and I was looking past it towards the shapes that were just shadows moving in the little bit of light that filtered down from the windows high up above me. As I got closer I could hear him grunting, and she was..." Mitchell swallowed, trying not to remember the sound of a skull being slammed hard against a stone wall and the soft moan of pain.
"She had been screaming before, shouting, I think, for him to stop. Now she was...whimpering. I was afraid he was going to kill her."
Without realizing it, she had clutched the arms of the chair, her hands white-knuckled with the force of her grip. "I could see them more clearly now. He was big--linebacker kind of big. He had one hand around her throat and the other under her skirt. Her thighs were bare, pale, ghostly in the moonlight. I saw her face for the first time then. There was blood on her face..."
From across the desk, Catherine could see the sweat bead on the young woman's forehead and knew that although her eyes were open, she wasn't seeing anything except those moments replaying as real as if they were happening now. She didn't have to imagine the feeling. She knew the feeling. "Go on," she said very gently.
Mitchell jerked slightly at the sound of the voice that seemed to be coming from very far away. "I announced myself...I think I yelled 'Police! Put your hands up where I can see them.' God, he was fast. It was almost as if he knew I was coming, or at least he wasn't surprised to find me there. He let her go and she slumped to the ground. My eyes followed her for just a second, but it was enough time for him to swing around with his hands locked together and catch me in the side of face. Stupid move on my part. I went down on my knees and he followed up the punch with a kick. At least I saw it coming and managed to roll away from most of that. His foot connected with my hip but it wasn't that bad. I was still between him and the street and the alley wasn't that wide. I knew I had I had to get up or he would just jump over me and be gone. As I got to my feet, he grabbed my shirt and punched me low, below the bottom of my vest. And that's when I hit him with the butt of my service revolver."
"He hurt you." It was a statement, because the facts spoke for themselves. "Do you remember hitting him?"
Mitchell blinked as if awakening from a dream. She could still smell his sweat, and the coppery odor of blood, and the acrid stench of her own fear. She felt the ache between her thighs where his fist had landed, and she saw with perfect clarity the battered face of the woman lying on the ground.
She stared at Catherine for so long that Catherine began to wonder if she would answer. Finally, the psychiatrist asked, "Officer, do you remember striking him?"
Mitchell wasn't certain what she should say. She didn't know how her words would be used against her. She met the warm green eyes that held such tenderness, an acceptance that eased some part of the terrible pain, and she answered hoarsely, "No."
"Sorry I'm late. Traffic."
"That's all right. How are you? I haven't seen you at all the last few days except at conferences." Hazel Holcomb settled into her chair and regarded her young colleague with a speculative expression.
Catherine shrugged wearily as she dropped her briefcase by the sofa, then smiled deprecatingly. "I could plead workload, but...I think I've been avoiding you."
"Ah ha." Hazel sipped her coffee and pulled an ottoman over in front of her chair with her toe. Propping both feet up, she raised her cup slightly. "Coffee?"
"Tonight, I think I'll take you up on it." Catherine walked to the antique credenza against one wall in Hazel's home office/study and poured the aromatic brew into a delicate china cup. "I'm surprised that you even use these except for special occasions," she remarked absently as she sat down across from Hazel. "They're so beautiful."
"Too lovely to keep behind glass. Now, let's get back to that therapeutically laden statement about avoiding me."
"You said I should see you regularly, and I didn't want you to remind me about that."
"Probably because there's something I don't want to talk about."
"Only one thing?" Hazel asked in mock seriousness. "How fortunate. We should be able to clear that up tonight then."
Catherine laughed. "All right. Several things."
"And yet you called me for the appointment this afternoon."
"Yes," Catherine admitted. "I know enough to recognize avoidance, and I know that's not the answer. So, here I am."
"How are you sleeping?"
"And the dreams?"
Catherine shook her head. "Not for the last couple of nights."
"Good." She didn't need to add that it might be temporary. The younger psychiatrist knew that, of course. "Then what's troubling you?"
"I suddenly realized that I don't know very much about being in a relationship."
"Interesting, isn't it, how we never appreciate that until we're actually faced with it," the older woman mused. "What's happened to make you think that now?"
"Rebecca has gone back to work, and I don't know how to...react to it."
Hazel emptied her cup and leaned over to place it on the end table next to her chair. "Reactions aren't something you think about, they're something you feel. How do you feel, Catherine?"
"A little insecure. I'm not certain where I fit in her life any more." She hesitated, then added, "Or where she fits in mine."
"Do you love her?"
"Yes." That was something she didn't even need to think about.
"And her? Does she love you?"
"Ah," Catherine said softly. "How do you do that?"
"What?" Hazel asked quietly.
"Ask the right question?"
"Part of it is practice, as you very well know. And part of it is knowing you. And part of it is knowing what we all fear-that our love will not be returned. So...why are you insecure?"
"She's so damn self-sufficient," Catherine replied, surprised at the anger she heard in her own voice.
"And?" Hazel prompted.
"I'm afraid that all she really needs is her work."
"Some people would say that about me. Or you."
"Yes," Catherine countered, her tone still sharp. "But my work won't get me killed..."
"And hers might," Hazel finished softly.
Catherine leaned back into the cushions and closed her eyes. Finally she said, "I'm supposed to meet her for dinner after this." She opened her eyes and sat forward. "Would you mind very much if we cut this session short? I just need to see her."
"It's your time, Catherine. I'm certain you know how best to use it. Go see her and let her remind you of what it was that first touched you about her."
"And Catherine," Hazel added as her colleague gathered her things to leave. "Give yourself a little time. She wasn't the only one struck by that bullet."
Catherine waited until she reached the expressway before calling Rebecca. She drove with one eye on the traffic, preparing herself for disappointment as she half expected that the detective would not be home. When the phone was answered on the second ring, she realized she'd been holding her breath. Hurriedly, she said, "Hi. I'm done early and I was wondering-"
"Terrific. Would you like to go out or-"
"No," Catherine said quickly, "let's stay in. We can watch a movie. I can cook-"
"I'll take care of that," Rebecca said swiftly, then broke into laughter. "Maybe if we stop interrupting each other, we'll be able to figure out what we're doing. Is thirty minutes all right?"
"Anytime," Catherine said, her voice suddenly husky. God, she'd never thought she could miss someone so much after just a day.
"I'll be right there," Rebecca replied in a tone filled with promise.
In fact, by the time Catherine found a parking place and walked the half block to her brownstone, Rebecca had arrived and was waiting for her on her front steps.
"Have you been waiting long?" the psychiatrist asked as she hurried up the stairs, searching in her briefcase with one hand for her keys.
"Only a minute."
The four marble stairs bracketed by wrought iron railings that led to Catherine's front door were not very wide, and as she reached past the taller woman to fit her key into the lock, their bodies brushed lightly together. Absurdly, her hands began to shake. It was moments like this that made her wonder how she had ever believed that she understood anything about life, or human relationships-when she had never experienced anything like this before. Of course, there was no understanding it because it made absolutely no sense that the mere presence of this woman could reduce her to nothing more than raw nerve endings and mindless desire.
"Are you all right?" Rebecca murmured.
"No," Catherine said as she pushed the door open and entered.
Rebecca followed with a paper bag filled with groceries tucked under her right arm. She set it down on the telephone table just inside the door and stood still, regarding Catherine as she dropped her briefcase. "What's wrong? Has something happened?"
"No. Everything is fine." She hesitated, wondering how much to say and then, at a loss for logic, simply said, "It's just that...these last few weeks, I was so used to coming home and you would be here. We'd have dinner; we'd talk; we'd sleep together. I miss you."
For an instant, Rebecca was stunned. She still wasn't used to the fact that someone like Catherine, someone so accomplished and intelligent and...so damn wonderful, could even want to spend any time with her, let alone miss her when they were apart. It was fantastic and terrifying and she expected at any moment for it all to disappear. But there Catherine stood, three feet away, looking at her with something close to sadness in her eyes, and the thought of Catherine hurting in any way tore through Rebecca more sharply than any bullet ever could. She crossed the distance between them and pulled the other woman close, whispering fervently, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry about last night. I wanted to be with you."
Threading her arms around Rebecca's neck, Catherine pressed tightly against her, content for the moment to forego words and simply feel. Besides, there were no words to describe the sensation of everything suddenly being made right by a simple embrace. She didn't understand it, but the veracity of it was undeniable. Rebecca's hands moving softly over her back felt more essential to her being then the air she was breathing. "I love you."
Rebecca closed her eyes and pressed her cheek against the silky softness of Catherine's hair. "I love you."
"Is there food in that bag?" Catherine asked after her breathing had steadied, leaning back slightly in the circle of Rebecca's arms and letting her eyes play over the blond's face.
"There is," Rebecca replied, but it wasn't food that she hungered for. Deftly, she lifted the blouse from beneath the band of Catherine's slacks and slid her hand onto the warm skin at the base of Catherine's spine. Circling her fingers over the hollows just above her lover's hips, she pressed her own hips forward, drawing a gasp from the woman in her arms. "But it will keep."
Their lips met, and for a time they merely swayed together in the midst of the gathering darkness, hands claiming flesh and lips making promises with kisses that grew more abandoned with each passing second. Catherine finally pulled back when she thought she was in danger of falling, her legs shook so badly. Gasping, she asked, "Does this go away? This feeling of never being able to get close enough?"
"I don't know," Rebecca answered desperately, her chest heaving. "I've never felt it before."
"It doesn't really matter," Catherine murmured almost to herself as she began to work the buttons free on Rebecca's shirt, pulling it from her trousers as she did. She pushed the constraining fabric aside and slid her palms over firm muscles, capturing the soft swell of breasts in her palms. "It's beyond my control."
"Good...don't stop then..." Rebecca groaned, her knees nearly buckling as pinpoints of pleasure streaked from beneath Catherine's fingers. Arching her back, she closed her eyes and tried to steady herself with her hands on Catherine's shoulders. She'd never had a woman take her this way, and she'd never even known before how much she'd wanted it. But she did. The feeling of surrendering to Catherine's passion was more freeing that anything she had ever experienced.
"Can't," Catherine moaned, her head throbbing and her vision nearly gone. Some small working part of her mind reminded her that they were standing in the middle of her living room, and she grasped Rebecca's hand and pulled her urgently toward the sofa. "Sit down," she commanded as she yanked down the zipper on Rebecca's trousers.
The backs of Rebecca's knees hit the edge of the sofa and she had no choice but to comply, feeling the clothes stripped from her body as she went down. She found herself nearly naked, Catherine in her lap, their mouths dancing over one another's skin again. When fingers slid between her thighs, all she could do was drop her head against the back of the couch and moan. It had been like this that first night, her need rising so fast she'd never had a chance to contain it, but this time she didn't resist. She welcomed the fire that burned through her blood, purging the wounds far deeper than flesh. "Please," she begged.
Catherine slipped to her knees between Rebecca's legs, and then leaned forward to take her with tender hands and demanding lips. No thought, no insecurity now. This--this splendor, this wonder, this indescribable beauty-this was hers for the taking, and take her she did. With certainty of touch and surety of heart, she lifted her lover on the wings of her own breathless desire to a place beyond knowing.
Rebecca sifted strands of thick auburn hair through her nearly lifeless fingers, unable to muster enough strength to lift her head from the cushions of the couch. Her thighs still trembled, and her stomach rippled with aftershocks. "Catherine?" she asked hoarsely.
"If you help me up, we can probably make it into the bedroom. You must be uncomfortable." With effort, she slipped her palm beneath Catherine's chin, raising her lover's head from where it rested against her own inner thigh, and managed to focus on the deep green eyes. "If you give me a few minutes, I might be able to reciprocate, too."
"I'm fine." Catherine smiled. "Making love to you seems to set me off."
"Still, I have plans for you." She was tired, and her chest ached, and the lassitude that lingered after her release had nearly lulled her into sleep, but she needed Catherine to know how much she wanted her. She needed to show her, and there wasn't much time.
"Hold that thought," Catherine said warmly as she pushed herself upright and extended one hand to Rebecca. "Let's have dinner first. We both need to eat."
"All right. Food first, but don't think I'm forgetting."
"Oh, believe me, I won't let you forget."
As it turned out, time slipped away and it was close to midnight by the time Rebecca had stir fried the vegetables and noodles she'd picked up earlier in the evening, and even later by the time they'd finished eating and piled the dishes into the dishwasher.
"Come on," Catherine announced, grasping Rebecca's shirttail and tugging her away from the sink. "Bed. I'm fading and..."
"I need to go out later."
Catherine stopped moving abruptly, letting the material fall from her fingers. "What?"
Rebecca turned and rested her hips against the counter. She didn't want to see what was in Catherine's eyes-she was afraid it would be that combination of hurt and resentment that had so often been in Jill's-but she forced herself to meet the other woman's gaze. There were questions in the depths of those green eyes, and confusion, but they hadn't grown cold. Not yet. Drawing a deep breath, she steeled herself for the pain that was sure to come when Catherine turned from her in anger. "I've been away from the job a long time. I need to get a leg up on this new case, and there are some people I need to see."
Catherine stared at her, struggling to absorb the words and place them into some context she could deal with. There wasn't any. "Tonight? In the middle of the night-alone?"
It was Rebecca's turn to be confused. "Catherine, I'm a cop."
"Of course, I know that, Rebecca," Catherine snapped, rubbing the bridge of her nose and pacing the length of the kitchen. "I thought this was desk duty. A paper chase."
"It is-well, it is and it isn't. It's a real investigation, and a lot of it will be done through computer searches and whatever the hell else it is that those eggheads are going to do, but there's real police work to be done, too."
"What about Watts? I thought he was going to do the street work?" She forced herself to slow down. Screaming would not help, and the very fact that she wanted to scream was upsetting enough.
"He is," Rebecca affirmed. She took a chance and walked the few feet to her, tentatively taking her hand. The slight contact eased some of the tension in her stomach, although Catherine's response was guarded. "But he can't talk to my contacts. It took me years to cultivate them, and they don't talk to just anyone. I'll just be talking. I swear."
Catherine took a step away, but she kept her hand in the detective's. "Why didn't you tell me this earlier? When you got here--or on the phone when I called you from the car?"
The cop was silent.
"I was..." she ran a hand through her hair, shrugged her tight shoulders. "I thought you'd be angry. I thought you wouldn't want to see me."
"Angry," Catherine said softly. "Did you think that I might be worried? That I might be concerned that you've barely been out of bed a week and you're already working fifteen hour days? God, Rebecca-"
She walked over and sat down at the small kitchen table, motioning to the adjoining chair with one hand. "Sit down. You look tired."
Rebecca sat. "I meant to tell you, but when we got here-"
"I didn't give you much chance to talk then, did I?" Catherine filled in, a faint smile relaxing her troubled expression.
"I wanted you, too. Badly." Rebecca took her hand again, and this time Catherine's fingers laced comfortingly between hers. "When you touch me, everything just...falls into place. Everything makes sense."
"I know." She brushed her fingers over the detective's cheek. "For me, too. Our non-verbal skills are just fine. Outstanding, as a matter of fact. But we need to do a little better on the verbal parts."
"I'm bad at it," Rebecca said honestly. "Around my house, the job came first. My father never explained; my mother never complained. But I know there were a lot of nights he never came home. And then-well, then he never came home."
Catherine's heart thudded painfully, but she just nodded. Rebecca's expression was distant, and she doubted that the detective really saw her.
"I grew up with silence. That's the way most cops are." The blue eyes she lifted to Catherine's swirled with anguish. "I've never even said these things out loud before."
"And that's exactly why I love you," Catherine whispered. "Because you're saying them now."
In the hours after midnight, the streets in Catherine's sedate neighborhood were eerily quiet, but as Rebecca approached the Tenderloin in the heart of the downtown area, foot and vehicular activity picked up. Here on the neon-lit sidewalks and in innumerable rundown bars, strip joints, and cheap hotels, life teemed with restless energy. She pulled to the curb not far from an all night diner that was a local hangout for the area's denizens-mostly prostitutes taking a break between johns, panhandlers who had been lucky enough to scrounge the price of a cup of coffee, and bar goers who hadn't been lucky enough to find company for the late lonely hours. Stepping from the Vette into the night for the first time in nearly two months, Rebecca felt another piece of her life slip back into place. On these streets, she knew exactly who she was, and exactly what was expected of her. A strange comfort, but a familiar one. Her blood hummed with the faint stirring of anticipation that being out here, hunting, always produced. She wasn't hunting a person, not tonight, but the information she gathered--the odd comment, the offhand observation, the bit of gossip bandied about-might someday lead her to her prey. She'd almost reached the brightly lit spot on the sidewalk in front of the diner when she caught sight of a familiar figure push through the revolving door on the way out. Quickly, she stepped into the darkened overhang of a boarded up video store and waited for the person to pass. She only had a fleeting glimpse of the leather jacketed, blue-jeaned form as the woman strode quickly by, but the sharp, clear features beneath midnight black hair were impossible to mistake. Dellon Mitchell was out very late in a very dicey part of town.
Rebecca decided to wait a few minutes before checking out the diner. The minute she walked in, she'd be obvious to everyone. Those who didn't know her would still be able to tell she was a cop. Even in jeans and a tee-shirt, a light windbreaker covering her holster, her eyes screamed cop. Usually, she didn't mind. Visibility could be a form of power, especially if it intimidated informants into to telling her what she needed to know quickly with a minimum of pressure. But she didn't know who might be inside, and Mitchell's presence here, for no reason that Rebecca could imagine, worried her. Maybe it was coincidence, but any cop could tell you that there was no such thing. Ignoring the smell of urine and rotting wood, she leaned against the moldy wall of the tiny dank alcove and watched the diner.
She didn't have to wait long. Less than five minutes later, three young women came out and headed her way, walking close together as they laughed and talked. It didn't require a detective's skills to determine their occupation. Their too-short skirts and body-hugging, scooped neck tops, along with too much make-up and cheap accessories, spelled hooker. Rebecca fell into step next to a thin blond with spiked hair who might have been anywhere from twelve to twenty.
"Hiya, Sandy," she said quietly.
"Christ!" the young woman exclaimed. Glancing quickly at her companions, who were staring at her curiously, she grabbed Rebecca's arm and pulled her into the shadows under an awning. "Go ahead, you guys. I'll catch up." When they'd moved away, she hissed, "Goddamn it, Frye. When are you going to leave me alone?"
"I did. Two whole months."
"Well, it seems like yesterday. What do you want?"
"Let's go somewhere we can talk," Rebecca offered. She knew that being seen with her could be a problem for the young prostitute, although she didn't care if she ruined her business for the night. She did care if she put her in physical danger. Anyone in that part of town appearing too friendly with the police could make enemies quickly. "I want to catch up on old times. Have you eaten? I'll buy you breakfast."
"It's four a.m."
Sandy snorted in disgust. "Fine. Chen's. Come on."
They moved quickly through back streets that were so narrow they might have been alleys except for the historic townhouses lining them. The residents of Society Hill, as the area was called, issued constant complaints to City Hall regarding the Tenderloin and its undesirable activity. Unfortunately, the seedy par of town bordered some of the most expensive real estate in Center City. Every six months the police swept the area nightly for a week or two trying to reduce the nightlife, but it always returned.
Rebecca kept a careful eye out for anyone following them or lurking in the shadows as they hurriedly along. Ten minutes later they emerged on South Street, another pocket of late night activity, although here the crowd was younger and the excitement centered more on alcohol and drugs than sex. Chen's House of Jade was a hole in the wall restaurant that looked like a Board of Health citation waiting to be served, but the food was good and the proprietor discreet.
Rebecca and Sandy took a booth in the back beneath flickering fluorescents, and a smiling waitress materialized with a pot of steaming tea and a bowl of crisp noodles before their butts had hit the cracked vinyl seats. She began to hand them menus, but Rebecca shook her head and Sandy said, "Moo shu pork with extra pancakes. And a Tsing Tao."
Then they were alone, staring at each other across the stained Formica surface. Automatically, Rebecca took inventory, her eyes flickering over the blond's face and then down to her bare arms. The pretty young woman's eyes were clear and her arms bore no track marks. The detective was glad. She liked the spunky kid.
"What happened to your head?" Rebecca asked.
Sandy shrugged and lightly traced the fresh red scar on her forehead. The suture marks still showed along the edges of the cut. "I fell."
"Did someone help you fall?" Rebecca asked casually, plucky a twisted, crispy fried noodle from the bowl. There were a dozen reasons why a woman in Sandy's position could end up dead-turf issues from veteran prostitutes who didn't want her moving in on their corners; angry pimps who didn't think the nightly returns were high enough; a trick gone bad. But Sandy was Rebecca's informant, and the cop protected her own. It was one reason why Sandy helped her, although unwillingly sometimes, with street intel.
"I already said. Accident." She studied the cop, noting the shadows under her eyes. Her normal leanness bordered on gaunt. "I didn't think you'd be back."
Rebecca was silent.
"I heard-well, everyone heard, about what happened to you the day after Anna Marie got-killed." The last time Sandy and the tall cop had seen one another, Sandy'd been crying on Frye's shoulder and her best friend had been lying upstairs in a rat-hole hotel dead. She could still feel the safe, solid feel of the cop's arms around her. Shaking her head to dispel the memory, she added, "I'm glad you blew that fucker away."
"So am I."
Sandy looked at her in surprise, her skin prickling at the cold hard flatness of the cop's voice. She was starting to wonder if she hadn't been wrong about a lot of things about cops. Frye wasn't like those prick bastards who hassled her and her friends for sex in exchange for not running them in on prostitution charges that they all knew wouldn't stick past night court. Frye was different; she cared, just like- The waitress interrupted her musings as she deposited an enormous platter of steaming moo shu on the table between them along with pancakes and sauce.
"More beer?" the waitress asked Sandy, who shook her head no. Looking at Rebecca, she asked, "How about you?" The word detective hung in the air.
As Rebecca watched her companion pile food on her plate, she remarked, "I'm looking for somebody selling young stuff."
"Everybody sells young stuff. That's what sells. Or haven't you noticed?"
"I'm talking about the real thing, not the eighteen year olds pretending to be thirteen."
"Don't know anything about it." Sandy rolled another pancake and sipped her beer, keeping her eyes on her plate.
"This is probably a big, well-run operation, not some pimp selling chickens out of an apartment in the slums," Rebecca continued unperturbed. "Maybe a well-organized operation."
Sandy raised her gaze to Rebecca's. Their blue eyes met, but try as she might, she knew that she couldn't match the hard stillness of the cop's cold stare. Sandy blinked, then said softly, "Are you fucking nuts? I don't know anything about that, and I don't want to know anything about it. If this is organized, then asking about it gets you dead. Look at what happened to your cop friends last spring."
Rebecca's expression became granite. "What did you hear?"
"Just that they were poking around where they shouldn't have been poking--in somebody important's business. And that somebody shut them up."
"You get this important person's name?"
Sandy shook her head. "Uh uh."
"Who did you hear this from?"
"Are you looking to get offed, too?" Sandy hissed, leaning forward across the small tabletop. "What is it with you?"
For some reason, Rebecca answered. "One of them was my partner."
"Well, now he's dead. End of story."
"No," Rebecca said quietly as she pulled her wallet from her back pocket. "Not yet." She laid four twenties on the table. "Ask around. Be careful, though."
"Yeah, right. Thanks." Her tone was not grateful. "Listen," she said quickly as Rebecca slid across the seat and stood up.
"A friend of mine is in a jam. An undercover guy busted her tonight-not before she finished the hand job I might add, although of course he denies that--and I know she doesn't have the bail. She's been picked up before. She could go away for this."
"What's her name?" Rebecca asked, glancing at her watch. "If the paperwork's not processed yet, I'll see what I can do."
"Rita. Rita Balducci."
"I'll see you soon."
"Can't wait," Sandy grumbled, watching the cop walk quickly through the narrow aisle between the rickety tables and out into the night. Some part of her felt better knowing Frye was back on the streets.
"Oh God, I need a shower. I need two showers." Jason McBride pushed away from the computer terminal and rubbed his face with both hands. "I always heard it, but I never really knew how many sickos there were out there."
Sloan swiveled in her chair and faced him from the console where she had been working. The clock on the far wall said 4:42 a.m. The last time she could remember seeing the time it had been eight-thirty the previous evening. Jason's hair was uncharacteristically disheveled, and his shirt actually appeared to have been untucked. Intentionally. That was highly unusual for her fastidious friend. It was the hollow-eyed expression on his face that caught her attention, though. It wasn't fatigue-they'd worked forty hours or more without stopping when they'd had major system failures to repair or massive viral infestations to cleanse. This was something else. "I guess you've been successful?"
He winced. "If you can call almost having sex with a dozen perverts successful, then yes-wildly so."
"Who are you tonight?"
"QtGrl13. She was a big hit."
"Where have you been trolling?"
"The Hot4U message boards. As soon as I showed up and announced that I was a new girl in town, I had three offers to move off to a private room to get acquainted. I was in an out of the chat rooms all night after that."
"Anything look promising?"
He shrugged, then sighed. "Too soon to tell. The patter is pretty sophisticated for the most part--except for the high school boys who are the same the world over whether it's cyber space or the junior prom. They just want to get laid and they're not too subtle about it. But I have a feeling that the real pedophiles are being very careful not to expose themselves. They're probably pretending to be kids until they feel safe enough in a relationship to cop to their real age. There were one or two who sounded like they might be angling for more than a quickie, but I'll have to go back on again a few more times to see. If I move too fast it will spook them."
"All right. As soon as you have a possible, let me know and we'll start a back door trace. And we need to narrow down geographic locations. There are literally thousands of people using these boards, and we have to search for a local hit."
"Try to bring the conversations around to pics, especially current ones or anything with videos."
"I'm doing that when I go on as BigMac10-that's where I've just been. Swimming with the scum who are looking to trade files. I'm posing as a guy who's interested in 12 or 13-year-old girls. But I haven't been real specific yet. These guys aren't stupid, and the people we're looking for are going to be very savvy. I can't just ask to see some guy's etchings." He sighed and stood. "I'm going home. Sarah got in from that alternative medicine conference in Sante Fe tonight. Last night-whatever. Somehow, being with her always makes me feel normal."
"Yeah, she has that effect on me, to."
"That's a stretch," he said good-naturedly.
Sloan just laughed. "Say hi for me-and tell her she owes me a workout."
"Will do. You should quit for the night, too. Michael home?"
She glanced at the screen, considering the credit card clearing houses she still needed to trace, then thought of the woman upstairs asleep. The case was already getting ugly, and it was likely to go on for a long time, and get even uglier. She stood and stretched. "Excellent advice. I'm gone."
She locked the office doors as Jason descended in the silent elevator, then walked the length of the dimly lit hall to the rear stairwell and climbed the one flight to her fourth floor loft apartment. As quietly as possible, she fitted her key into the lock and slid the large double doors apart, closing and bolting them behind her. Making her way through the darkened space by memory, she shed her clothes along the way and crossed to the bathroom on the far side of the partitioned sleeping area. She left the light off so as not to awaken Michael, but as she reached into the shower to turn the water on, she heard a soft sound behind her. Turning, she was startled as a warm body pressed into her arms.
Nuzzling Sloan's neck, Michael murmured sleepily, "Is it morning?"
"Not yet." She kissed her gently, then added, "Go back to bed. I'll be in as soon as I shower."
"Mmm. Want company?"
"Now that is by far the best offer I've had all night."
"Oh?" Michael asked, sounding much more awake. "And have you had many offers this evening?"
"None worth mentioning," Sloan said reassuringly. Unfortunately, she had a feeling that was a circumstance that was about to change, given their current undertaking. Pushing aside thoughts of predators and innocent victims, she drew her lover into the shower and let the warm water and Michael's embrace wash the unwelcome images from her mind.
When the alarm went off, Michael made a quick grab for it in an attempt to silence the insistent buzzing before it awakened Sloan.
"What time is it?" came a husky whisper from the darkness.
"Do you have a meeting this morning?" Sloan asked, clearing her throat and trying to dispel the cobwebs from her brain.
"Yes. Development and Marketing are meeting to discuss agendas."
Sloan rolled over as Michael sat up in bed, appreciating the way the sheets cascaded down her lover's body, leaving her breasts bare. Suddenly, she forgot the fact that she'd only had an hour and a half of sleep. They hadn't been able to have dinner together the evening before, because by the time Michael had gotten back from a late business meeting, Sloan and Jason had been deep into another night on the job. Internet traffic was high between four and two a.m. when kids were home from school. That's when adults looking for a contact would be trolling. With effort, she pushed aside those thoughts. Running a hand down Michael's bare arm, she said, "I missed you last night."
"Me, too." Michael sighed. "I'd better go. I want to be there to referee. You know those two groups can never agree as to whose timetable should take priority. And of course both division directors are total hotheads, and usually one or the other or both of them threatens to quit after every meeting. I figured I'd save myself some time by being there to put out any fires."
"They'll play nice if you're there. And you could always threaten to can them before they have a chance to quit."
"Maybe." Michael laughed and leaned down to kiss her. "Go back to sleep."
"Mmm. I will," Sloan murmured languorously, her arms encircling Michael's waist. Pulling the other woman down into her arms, she added, "In just a few minutes."
Surprised, Michael emitted a short peel of laughter that turned to a muffled moan as her body met Sloan's, and her skin began to hum with the familiar pulse of desire. Her body called the next shot, and before she knew it, she was straddling Sloan's thigh and devouring her lover's mouth, suddenly ravenous for the taste of her. While she was lost in the kiss, Sloan lifted her hips, rolling Michael over, and then settled possessively upon her. The hum became a roar.
Unwillingly, Michael pulled her mouth away from the kiss, gasping, "No time."
"I'll be quick," Sloan growled, her lips against Michael's neck, her hand brushing the length of Michael's side to her hips.
"Liar. You're never quick." But she wasn't moving away.
Sloan pushed herself up and in one quick motion slid down the bed until her breasts nestled between Michael's thighs and her cheek was pressed to Michael's stomach. Nipping at the sensitive skin around Michael's navel, she trailed her fingers lightly up the inside of her lover's left thigh, dancing back and forth over the tender places between her legs.
"Tease me like that for very long and it will be quick," Michael warned, arching her hips under Sloan's clever fingers.
Still, Sloan took her time, drawing her fingertips along the warm sensitive folds, dipping into welcoming heat, then pressing the length of Michael's clitoris only to move away quickly, eliciting sighs and faint cries from her lover. Only when Michael's long delicate fingers fluttered over her cheek in mute appeal did she lower her head and take her gently between her lips. At Michael's sharp cry, she pulled her in more deeply, her tongue stroking counterpoint to the pulse that hammered through swollen tissues. Careful not to increase the pressure enough to snap the threads of Michael's control, she kept her quivering on the edge for long moments. Only when Michael began to thrust erratically against her, impossibly hard now and clearly on the verge of exploding, did she relent and increase the rhythm of her strokes.
Instantly, she was rewarded by a rigid stillness in Michael's legs followed by a wrenching gasp, then a quiet sob of surrender. Sloan closed her eyes and savored every tremor that spiraled beneath her lips and moved outward through her lover's body. Then she lay quietly, one hand extended, her fingers intertwined with Michael's, completely satisfied.
Sloan was almost asleep again as Michael whispered in her ear, "I've set the alarm. Be careful today. I love you."
Catherine turned off the alarm twenty minutes before it was set to ring. She'd been awake for a long time, listening to the silence in the still house punctuated occasionally by the distant sound of a car door opening, an engine starting, and someone leaving for an early day. And it had taken her a long time to fall asleep after Rebecca had left the night before, too. It was impossible not to wonder where she was going, who she would be talking to, and with whom she would be spending the last dark hours of the night. She had hoped that Rebecca would return when her work was done, to come quietly through the door to rest at her side. Once she had even awakened, her heart beating fast with anxious anticipation, only to realize it had been the wind blowing branches against her window that had called to her.
Wearily, she swung her legs from beneath the covers and stood, reaching for her robe as she straightened. She was tired, not from lack of sleep, although that had certainly been fitful, but from something deeper that tugged at her heart. As if standing at a distance, dispassionately watching a scene played out on stage, she studied the feeling, finally recognizing it as a combination of loneliness and fear. The loneliness did not surprise her. She missed Rebecca, which was only natural. The fear would take some time to understand, but part of it was simple enough. She was afraid because her love made her vulnerable--vulnerable not only to her own fate, but to Rebecca's now as well. Their paths had crossed, their lives had intersected, and now their futures were entwined. It was entirely possible that the road ahead would be paved with disappointment and sorrow. How many times she had counseled others that there were no guarantees in life, and that only by living it could we ever hope to be fulfilled. She smiled to herself as she made her way toward the shower, thinking how easy it was to give advice and how hard sometimes to heed it.
Rebecca parked illegally in a bus stop and left her flashers on. She jogged up the block, glancing at her watch and searching for Catherine's car. She didn't see it, but Catherine had returned late the previous night and she probably hadn't been able to find a place on this block. Her breath was a little tight and she was aware of a faint stabbing pain deep in her chest that pulsed with each footfall. Chalking it up to scar tissue that hadn't yet matured, she ignored it. Nevertheless, as she pressed Catherine's doorbell, she had to work to suppress the sound of her own breath wheezing in and out. What she didn't need was to give Catherine something else to worry about. After a minute, she pressed the doorbell again, but she knew that she had missed her. When they'd parted the previous evening, they had been careful with one another, trying not to ignite the fires of anger that still smoldered dangerously. She hadn't thought to ask Catherine what her morning schedule was. Turning away, she walked more slowly now down the marble stairs to the sidewalk and toward her car. There was a place inside of her that still hurt, and it had nothing to do with her injuries. It was just the part of her that always felt empty when they were apart, and now she knew it was going to ache all day. Cursing softly, she slid into her Vette, gunned the ignition, and roared away into the morning.
Her temper hadn't improved any by the time she reached the station house, and it wasn't soothed by the thought of her 7:30 appointment. Rand Whitaker opened the door to his office precisely on time.
"Come on in, Sergeant," he said with a welcoming smile.
Rebecca followed him, carrying a cardboard cup of coffee she had picked up from the vending room on her way to his office. She settled into the straight-backed chair and balanced the cup on her knee.
"So you've been back on the job a few days now, isn't that right?" he asked, jotting the date and time on a yellow legal pad as he sipped from his own mug of coffee.
"Not precisely," Rebecca corrected in an even tone. The one place you didn't want to appear disgruntled was in this room. "My normal assignment is working active special crimes cases--detective work. For the time being, I've been assigned as an intermediary between the Police Department and a government agency that's running a multijurisdictional task force."
"That sounds like a desk job."
"More or less," she conceded, not seeing the necessity of offering anything further. The less he knew, the less he could report to someone else.
"You okay with that?"
"It's not what I'm trained to do, and it wouldn't be my choice of assignments. I'm assuming it will be temporary and as soon as you sign off on my evaluation, I expect my captain to pull me off it and put me back on regular duty." Hopefully, he'd get the hint and do what everyone knew he was going to do anyhow, which was certify her fit for duty. Christ, I'm the one who got shot. You'd think that would earn me some slack.
He eased back in his chair, nodding as if he agreed with what she was thinking. "I'm curious, Sergeant. Why didn't you wait for backup that night with Blake? Wouldn't that have been standard operating procedure?"
"As I told you before, I felt that the hostage was in imminent danger and that any delay would put her at risk."
"Your partner stated in his report that she had not been harmed up to that point. What made you think the situation was so serious?"
"Detective Watts stated in his report that Dr. Rawlings had apparently not been sexually assaulted up to that point, but he confirmed that she was physically restrained and in immediate peril." Jesus, doesn't he know that I would have read Watts' report by now? He is clearly not a detective.
"The reason I'm asking is that if someone were to look at this from the outside, your actions could be construed as taking the law into your own hands. You not only saved the hostage, you executed the perpetrator."
Rebecca almost smiled. Now he was trying to provoke her into saying more than she intended to reveal. Another interrogation technique that he wasn't employing very well. "Dr. Whitaker, I did not execute the suspect. I used appropriate force to subdue a violent criminal who gave every indication that he was about to inflict severe bodily harm on a civilian and who gave verbal confirmation that he intended to kill her as well as me."
"Let's cut to the chase, Detective Sergeant."
"That would be nice."
"Given the same situation, would you do the same thing again?"
"Yes," Rebecca answered without hesitation. Her eyes met his, and whatever he saw in her steel gaze made him blink.
"Would you risk your life for any hostage, or only one you were personally involved with?" he asked softly.
She leaned forward, never taking her eyes from his, and her voice was flint. "Meaning what?"
"You knew the hostage personally, didn't you?"
"I met her during the course of the investigation, yes."
He gave no sign that she hadn't precisely answered his question, but merely continued. "Did the fact that you...knew her...influence your reaction to the situation?"
"No." She didn't see any need to tell him that she'd been almost out of her mind with fear and anger only a short time before she'd finally found Blake and Catherine. Because her mind had been crystal clear when she'd stepped into the room with them. She'd been in perfect control.
"So," he said with soft finality. "What you're saying is that you would risk your life...no, forfeit your life...for anyone in the same situation."
"I'm a cop, Whitaker," Rebecca remarked sharply, finally allowing her impatience to show. "In case you haven't noticed, that's what we do. I'm not a loose cannon; I'm not a danger to society. I'm not a risk to anyone."
Standing, she asked quietly, "Are we done here?"
"For today, yes. I'd like to see you one more time, which is my standard operating procedure." As she turned to leave, he added, "You might consider, Sergeant, that you would be much more effective if you valued yourself as much as those you were sworn to protect."
She didn't answer, but closed the door gently behind her.
When Rebecca walked out into the hallway after leaving Whitaker's office, she turned right and almost walked into Watts, who was leaning against the wall smoking a cigarette under a big bright red No Smoking sign. She stared at him. "What are you doing here?"
"I saw you pull into the parking lot this morning."
"And what?" she asked tersely. "You didn't have anything better to do than hang around out here?"
Well," he said unhurriedly, taking the last drag on his cigarette and dropping it on to the stained tile floor and crushing it beneath his scuffed wingtips. "Now that you mention it, I do have something better to do, and I thought you might like something better to do, too."
"What have you got?" she asked, curious despite her irritation at finding him outside the psychologist's office. It wasn't exactly a secret what she was doing there, but she still didn't like being reminded that her colleagues were aware of the fact that she was undergoing evaluation. Even though she was not under any kind of suspicion, it still made her feel as if she were not on firm ground within her own province. As much as she understood intellectually the need for police officers, with their steady diet of stressful and dangerous situations, to have the access to and support of psychologists who understood the pressures of the job, it was still something of a stigma. Before he could speak, she snapped, "Let's get out of here."
The two of them began to walk toward the exit sign above the stairwell at the end of the hallway, and Watts replied, "I've tracked down a guest of the state, located right here at our own correctional institution, who might be willing to give us some information for something in return. You know the drill-these cons will roll on their own mothers for extra privileges or a shot at an earlier parole hearing."
"Who is he?" Rebecca asked, her pulse quickening at the thought of any kind of hard lead. It wasn't in her nature to sit by and wait for other departments, or in this case, federal agents to point her in the right direction on a case. If Sloan and McBride turned up something with their Internet searches, all the better, but she wasn't holding her breath.
"A guy by the name of Alonso Richards. He's doing six to ten for possession with the intent to sell."
"Huh," Rebecca said disappointedly. "Drugs. What makes you think he can help us?"
"Because when they raided the house where he was holed up with his stash of crack cocaine, they also found some very interesting videotapes. Tapes with a whole bunch of teenage girls and a couple of ... uh ... mature men frolicking in the nude in a variety of combinations. And they weren't commercial tapes--these were home movies."
"Do you have the tapes?"
Watts shook his head disgustedly. "Nope. I checked with the evidence room last night. Mysteriously, the tapes have disappeared."
"So we don't know who was on them?"
"No such luck. There was no mention as to whether the men were ever ID'd or not."
Rebecca stopped at the bottom of the stairwell and stared at Watts. "How did you find this? And how come we're just hearing about it now?"
Watts shrugged, but his expression was wary. "Something doesn't smell right, but I can't figure out where the smell is coming from. Since we're Vice, someone from Narco should have tipped us off about it. But it was buried in the arrest report, and the only reason I found it at all is because I pulled the files on the busts you and Cruz made when you closed down that chicken coop last spring. I was trying to find some connection with the guys running that deal, hoping we'd find someone still working the streets, so I cross-referenced the names of the guys you sent away for known associates. Then I ran the names of those guys looking for recent activity and out popped this Richards."
They pushed through the exit door into the parking lot, where Watts promptly lit another cigarette. Police vans, cruisers, and unmarked vehicles were interspersed with civilian cars, and as the two of them wove between the haphazardly parked automobiles towards Rebecca's Corvette, she asked, "You must have spent a lot of time humping that computer. Nice job."
He didn't reply but a smile flickered across his face and was just as quickly gone. "I think we need to hunt down the narc dicks who made the bust and find out why we never heard about the pornography tie-in. I've called and left messages, but no callbacks. Anything to do with prostitution and kids should have automatically been kicked over to someone in our division, and I couldn't find a record of it."
As Rebecca opened the door and slid into the seat, she grumbled, "There seems to be a lot of things that we should have been informed of that we haven't been. Come to think of it, Cruz and I were lucky to have made that initial arrest. We were tipped off to the place by a junkie we were questioning about something entirely unrelated, and he gave up the location hoping we'd leave him alone. Now I wonder if we hadn't moved on it so quickly whether there would have been anyone there at all when we showed up." When Watts had settled in beside her, she swiveled in her seat and said to him, "How come you didn't tell me about the rumors that Jeff Cruz was dirty?"
Watts merely regarded her with his bland, laid-back to the point of stupor expression and said, "Because it's bullshit. And if I had any idea who started that talk, I'd wait for them out here in the parking lot some night after dark and kick the crap out of them. Cruz was a cop who died in the line of duty, and you don't tarnish their badge until you see it carved in stone."
Rebecca started the engine and pulled out of the parking lot. There wasn't any reason to comment. For once, she and Watts were in perfect agreement.
Three hours later, Rebecca dropped Watts off in front of the 18th. "I need to stop around to Sloan's office and put in an appearance," she said. "You want to write this up and run those names through the computer?"
Sure," Watts said, considering it wise not to mention that she was supposed to be on desk duty and he was supposed to be the leg man. Whoever thought they could put Frye behind a desk didn't know her very well, or knew her well enough to know that it would be a sit down job in name only. "Hey Sarge," he added as if in afterthought, "if you're going to be poking around in other departments, you might not want to spread around why."
Rebecca studied him thoughtfully. Not counting the period of her recovery, she and Watts had really only worked together a few weeks. She had absolutely no reason to trust him, but she finally had to admit to herself that she did. "What are you saying, Watts?"
"I'm not saying anything," he said innocently. He looked like he was about to scratch his balls, and then thought better of it, putting his hand in his pocket instead. "I just think it pays to be careful until we know what happened to Hogan and Cruz."
"You think we have a mole?"
"Don't you?" His expression didn't change, but his eyes grew hard.
She looked away for a second, thinking of all the inconsistencies that had surfaced in just a few days. Homicide had apparently dropped the investigation of two dead detectives; files were missing from the crime scene lab concerning the deaths of the same two cops; arrest reports containing information that might have pointed towards a local child pornography network had been buried; and, finally, she had been quietly assigned to an investigation that was being run from outside the department but which seemed to have connections to local organized crime figures. She was beginning to wonder exactly who Avery Clark was investigating. "Yeah, Watts, I do. So you watch your back, too, okay?"
"You don't have to worry about me, Sarge. I don't intend to make waves." Whistling, he turned and walked away.
She watched him for a minute, wondering how many people he had fooled with his nonchalant facade. Watts was a good cop, and that was one department secret she was happy to have uncovered. Just as she was about to pull away, her beeper went off and she recognized the University Hospital's number. She fished her cell phone from her pocket and punched in the number even as she headed across town toward University City.
"This is Frye," she said when the call was picked up.
"It's Catherine, Rebecca."
Rebecca's heart skipped a beat. "Hey. I'm just on my way over. Can I see you?"
"I'm in my office."
"Is everything okay?" There was an odd formality to Catherine's tone that made Rebecca uneasy.
"Everything's fine. I just wanted to talk to you for a minute."
"Okay," Rebecca replied suspiciously. It hadn't been her experience that when a woman wanted to talk to her that it was something minor. Especially not when she and that woman had parted on less than perfect terms the night before.
Catherine laughed, picking up on Rebecca's uncertainty. "And I wanted to tell you that I miss you."
"I miss you, too."
"Good. Drive carefully."
An instant after Rebecca knocked, Catherine answered the door.
"Hi," Rebecca said, feeling uncertain.
"Hi." Catherine took her hand and pulled her into the waiting room that adjoined her office. She closed the door behind Rebecca. "Joyce is at lunch, and I don't have a session for an hour. What about you?"
"My schedule is my own. I'm still on light-duty, remember."
"Yes, I know that's what it's called," Catherine said dryly. "Come on back to my office."
Catherine locked her inner office door and motioned Rebecca to the couch, then settled beside her. Before she could speak, Rebecca slipped an arm around her waist and kissed her. It was more than a simple hello kiss. There was an edge to it, an underlying pulse of hunger that immediately aroused her. She kissed her back, for longer than she should have, but she liked knowing that she stirred this desire in her lover. Finally, she broke away, her palm against Rebecca's chest. "I'm working," she gasped. "I have to see patients in less than an hour. I can't sit here all afternoon in a state of sexual frustration."
"I could fix that in just a few minutes."
Catherine laughed. "I have no doubt that you could. But I think I'd rather anticipate now and be satisfied later at a slightly more leisurely pace."
"Then that's what you shall have," Rebecca to promised, lifting Catherine's hand from her chest and kissing her palm. Serious now she asked, "What did you need to see me about?"
Catherine appeared uncharacteristically hesitant as she glanced away, and then met Rebecca's gaze squarely. Taking a deep breath, she said quietly, "I was contacted by Agent Avery Clark this morning. He requested my services as a consultant to a task force he's running."
Rebecca stiffened and her eyes grew cold. "Son of a bitch," she said softly. "How did he get your name?"
"I'm on the list of departmental consultants," Catherine said. "He also mentioned Captain Henry."
Rebecca got up and quickly crossed the room to the window that fronted the street. She'd stood there once before, the first night she'd met Catherine, but it had been dark then. She watched University students come and go, carefree and confident. It was a beautiful early September day. Without turning, she said, "What did you say?"
"I said I would get back to him. This is your task force, isn't it?"
"No," Rebecca said sharply, her back still to the room. "It's Clark's task force."
"You know what I mean."
There was no anger or accusation in Catherine's voice, and Rebecca realized that Catherine had not instigated the situation. Turning to face her, she tried to figure out why she felt like punching something. "I'm sorry. You caught me off guard. Yes, it's the task force I'm involved with -- the pornography prostitution investigation."
"I work with the police fairly frequently, Rebecca. It's likely that you and I will come into professional contact from time to time."
"I know. Why didn't you give Clark your answer earlier?" She tried and failed to keep the anger from her voice.
"Because this is the first time it's come up for us," Catherine said gently. "I wanted to see how you felt about it."
"The last time you and I worked together it ended badly."
"This isn't the same thing, though, is it?" When Rebecca was silent, Catherine rose and crossed to her. "Is it, Rebecca? You said this was more or less an administrative assignment for you. That it wasn't dangerous. Is there more to it than that?"
"No," Rebecca said, deciding that there was no point in bringing up her suspicions and speculations about something going on behind the scenes in the department. She didn't really have any facts, and there was no point in worrying her for nothing. Still, she didn't like the idea of Catherine being anywhere near the investigation. "I wonder why he isn't bringing in his own people. If there's one thing the feds have plenty of, it's profilers."
"I asked him the same thing," Catherine said. "Clark pointed out that we're not profiling an individual, but just a general pathologic type, and that I probably have as much experience with it as anyone. He also suggested that it would be helpful to have someone local so that... he mentioned two people, Sloan and... McBride... so they would have someone immediately available if they got a hit."
"That makes sense," Rebecca agreed reluctantly.
"Rebecca," Catherine said, taking her hand. "This is what I do, and it's something I love to do. If it's going to be a problem working this closely with me --"
"No," Rebecca interrupted swiftly, finally getting her emotions under control. "It's not. When you first mentioned it, I thought about Blake. That's all."
Catherine moved closer, gently threading her arms around Rebecca's waist. "It's not the same thing. I will never do anything like that again. I would never put you in danger."
Rebecca stared at her. "What are you talking about? That wasn't your fault."
"Yes, it was." There were tears in her voice, although her face was calm.
"Jesus, Catherine. Is that what you think? You blame yourself?" She pulled her tightly into her arms, resting her cheek against Catherine's hair. "Is that what the dreams are about?" When Catherine didn't answer, she leaned back, cupping Catherine's chin in her palm. Looking into her deep green eyes, she could see the pain swimming close to the surface. "No. It wasn't your fault. It was my decision. I thought of Blake just now because I don't want you anywhere near an investigation that might be dangerous. I can't stand the thought of anything happening to you. I can still see him, with that fucking gun against your head."
Suddenly, they were both trembling, both of them remembering the moment, each fearing for the other. Finally, Catherine said quietly, "I love you."
Rebecca pressed her lips to the Catherine's temple, her fingers curved possessively on the back of her neck. "I love you." Sighing, she asked, "When are you briefing with us?"
"Tomorrow at 7." Her cheek still nestled against Rebecca's shoulder, she added, "Will you come to me tonight?"
"It might be late," Rebecca answered reluctantly.
"I don't care."
"I want to. I miss you so much."
Eyes closed, listening to Rebecca's heartbeat, Catherine said softly, "Then don't stay away."
Rebecca knew that what she should do was go home and catch some sleep, but she was too restless for that. Watts was following up on the scant help they'd gotten from Alonso Richards, the inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford, in exchange for a promise to get him moved to another cell block far away from a particular prisoner who wanted to kill him for reasons Richards couldn't imagine. He'd reluctantly given them a couple of names of some of his old running buddies who'd might know somebody who possibly knew somebody who maybe had once helped make some sex movies. But he swore he didn't know who or where or for whom-all he knew was that it was someplace in the city and the chicks were young. Maybe Watts would pull another rabbit out of his hat, but she'd pretty much resigned herself to the fact that unless Sloan came up with something, or an informant gave her a lead, for the moment she had nothing to chase. But Jeff's murder was still open and she wanted to be able to tell Shelly Cruz that justice had been done when she went to see her. She'd been putting off visiting Jeff's widow because she was embarrassed that the department-that she-had nothing substantial to offer the young widow in terms of consolation.
Taking a shot in the dark, she drove back to the station house and took the elevator to the fourth floor where the Homicide division was housed. She usually walked up, but she was beat. A couple of detectives she knew nodded hello, one of them remarking as she passed, "Good to see you back, Frye."
She muttered her thanks, but didn't stop to talk. She found the person she was looking for in the coffee room, jacket off, feet propped on a wastepaper basket, multi-tasking with an open murder book propped next to her brown bag lunch.
"Sorry to bother you," Rebecca said to the woman in the dark blue suit as she closed the door to the small stuffy space behind her. There was a window with a view of the river, but it was grimy and looked to be nailed shut. "Got a minute?"
Trish Marks glanced up from the case file she was reviewing, startled but too experienced to show it. "Frye. How are you doing?"
"I'm not bad. You?"
"Different day, same old shit. Crime might be down, but murder still has a way of happening."
Rebecca nodded. "I know what you mean. Sex still sells, too."
Trish closed the thick file and pushed it aside, draining her coke can and tossing it into a nearby wastebasket. Leaning back in her chair, she fixed Frye with a steady look. "What's on your mind?"
"Jeff Cruz and Jimmy Hogan."
"Why aren't I surprised," Marks said to herself, and it wasn't meant to be a question. She got up and stretched, then walked to the coffee machine and poured a cup. She glanced inquiringly at Rebecca, who shook her head no. When she had added two sugars and enough fake cream to give herself brain cancer, she walked back to the table and sat down again. "What have you heard?"
Rebecca wondered how much to reveal. Trish Marks had a rep as a solid cop, and every time Rebecca had interacted with her in the past, everything she'd seen had seemed to confirm that. On the other hand, Marks was one of the detectives who was responsible for solving Jeff's murder, and she hadn't done that. Rebecca had to wonder why she'd dropped the ball. For a moment, the two women simply assessed one another in the silence. At first glance they didn't seem all that similar, even though Marks was about Rebecca's age. She was dark where Rebecca was light, short where Rebecca was tall, mildly curvaceous where Rebecca was lean--but the look in their eyes was a matched set--tough, competent, and wary.
Rebecca could almost see it when Marks reached a decision, and she just waited, giving the Homicide detective a chance to gather her thoughts. There were allegiances to be considered, and cops were loath to give out information on their cases, even to other cops. Finally, Marks began to speak.
"We didn't get anything from the crime scene, which is about what you'd expect. Flanagan worked it hard but there just wasn't anything to find."
"Contract hit, right?"
Trish nodded. "Despite how fucked up this case got, I still think that's the truth. There was absently nothing at the scene to go on. And no rumors on the street to say differently-no talk of personal beefs, nothing to suggest it was a drug buy gone bad. Everything about it spelled hit." She stopped, wondering without much hope if Frye would let it go at that.
"What about Jimmy Hogan's files? What about his supervisors? Somebody somewhere knew what he was into. The last time I spoke with you and your partner, you hadn't had a chance to go through Jimmy's cases. What did you turn up there?"
Marks' eyes narrowed. "Nothing."
"Now, see, that's where I start to get confused," Rebecca said tonelessly, her eyes boring into the woman across from her. "What did his Captain say? What about his contact man in Narco? He must have been reporting to someone."
"Yeah, maybe he was." Marks shrugged. "But I've got a feeling it wasn't anybody in narcotics." She watched Frye stiffen in surprise, the first sign of any unguarded emotion the blond detective had shown since she'd walked into the room, and Marks hastened to add, "and that stays in this room."
"Are you telling me you don't think Hogan was undercover for narcotics?" Unconsciously, Rebecca reached under the left side of her jacket and rubbed her chest, trying to work the tightness out of the scar. When she realized what she was doing, she placed her palms flat on her thighs. Never let on you're tired; never let on you're hurt; never let on you're scared. Where'd she learn that-the academy, or home? She concentrated on Trish Marks, and forgot about the pain.
"What I'm saying is, no one in narcotics is willing to cop to being Jimmy's contact. No one admits to having received any significant intel from him in months. And the more I asked about it, the bigger the wall got. Finally, I couldn't get anybody over there to talk to me at all."
"You think they were shut down by someone higher up?"
"Probably, but I can't get a line on who that somebody might be."
Rebecca's mind was racing furiously. There was a strange sort of logic to what Marks had told her. If Jimmy Hogan was undercover, he could be gathering information on anything-for anyone--not necessarily simply on drug traffic for the Narco division. The problem was, if he wasn't narcotics, then who was he? Or more importantly, what was he? She was beginning to see how people thought Hogan might have turned bad, and that kind of suspicion naturally tainted anyone who was associated with him, including her partner.
"Has anyone specific told you to back off the case?" she asked Marks.
For the first time, Marks looked like she was contemplating an evasion. "Look, Frye, I don't think that this homicide is solvable. You know as well as I do that finding a contract killer is almost impossible. Someone hires an out-of-towner who is only here for an afternoon and there's absolutely no way to trace him. He flies in; he rents a car, along with a thousand other businessmen at the airport; he drives to a location that someone else has already set up; he identifies Hogan-probably from a faxed photo and, unfortunately, Cruz is with him. He needs to take Hogan out and anybody with him that could identify him. Bang Bang, two dead cops. He turns around, he drives back to the airport, and he goes back to where ever he lives. End of story."
"You know, Marks, when you're talking to another cop, it's pretty obvious when there's something you don't want to say. I can tell when you're trying to blow me off." Rebecca waited.
"Fuck." Marks strafed her short thick dark hair in frustration. "All I know is one morning a few days after you got taken down during that Blake thing, the Chief of Detectives was in a closed door meeting with your captain and my captain. An hour later, Horton and I got the word to back off the case. They gave us some bullshit about IAD following up on it." She snorted derisively. "Like that was supposed to make us happy."
It was Rebecca's turned to look startled. "Captain Henry was in on this?"
""Yeah, he was there," Marks admitted, nodding uncomfortably. "Look, I didn't hear the conversation, Frye. Give me a break. But I got the distinct feeling that if I ever wanted to make detective one, I'd better toe the line. And that's what I did. Sorry, Frye, but he wasn't my partner."
Rebecca stood and extended her hand. "Thanks, Marks. I know you didn't have to give me anything. And as far as I'm concerned, if anybody asks, you didn't."
Her first impulse had been to the storm into Captain John Henry's office and demand to know what the fuck was going on. Fortunately, it was one floor down and an entire city block away and by the time she was halfway there, she realized that if she were going to confront anyone about the situation, she needed to have a little bit more than just a hunch under her belt. What she needed to do was dig a little bit more into Jimmy Hogan's background, and for that she was going to need to talk to some people at the Academy as well as the narcotics detectives he'd worked with. There were things she could get from a computer search, too, but she didn't want to do that in the middle of the squadroom in the middle of the afternoon. She believed Marks' story that someone high up in the chain of command had shut down the homicide investigation, and that could mean any number of things. It could mean there were things that the bureaucrats who really ran the Police Department did not want made public, like the fact that Jimmy Hogan was dirty. That was certainly one explanation. It could also mean that the people in charge who were supposed to know what was happening didn't have a clue as to what was really happening, and the best way to protect your own ass was to limit the flow of information. She could almost believe that IAD had taken over the investigation, which as far as she was concerned was about equivalent to flushing it down the toilet. IAD had never solved anything that she was aware of, but they did answer directly to the Chief and the Commissioner, so they would be the logical choices to take over the investigation if the brass wanted the findings kept quiet. That would fit with what Flanagan said about IAD raiding her files. And then there was the possibility that Jimmy Hogan was exactly what he appeared to be--an undercover narcotics detective who had done his job so well that someone in the Zamora organization had seen him as competition, and simply had him eliminated. Jeff was there by mistake, and just got caught in the crossfire. She probably would have believed that, if so many roadblocks hadn't been thrown up around the case.
By the time she pulled up in front of Sloan's building, her headache was raging and her temper was ready to snap. Maybe concentrating on the investigation was the best thing she could do for the moment. As she stepped from her car, she thought fleetingly to the few moments she had spent with Catherine earlier that afternoon. It occurred to her that the best thing she could really do would be to meet Catherine after work, take her somewhere for dinner, forget about prostitution and pornography and dead partners, and simply enjoy the company of a beautiful, intelligent woman who loved her. Why was it, she wondered, that she wasn't going to do just that?
Mitchell jumped to her feet when Rebecca walked unexpectedly into the room. A muscle twitched at the corner of Rebecca's mouth, but she managed not to smile.
"Status report, Mitchell?" She could see that Mitchell had been working at a computer terminal next to those occupied by Sloan and McBride. It looked like she was updating some kind of data sheet. Clearly, the young officer was a good choice for the post, even though Rebecca doubted that that had been the intention of the Duty Sergeant when he had assigned Mitchell to the task force. Women didn't get accepted to West Point unless they were tough, sharp and dedicated. Mitchell must have once been among the brightest of the bright, and now some idiot at the 18th was trying to bury her. Nothing of Rebecca's disgust at that thought showed in her face. "Bring me up to speed."
"I've been logging in potential online suspects as Mr. McBride has initiated contact, ma'am. It's too early to tell you the specifics such as location or level of activity, but I should be able to begin cross-referencing within a day or two and generate possible lines of follow-up from that."
Rebecca glanced at Sloan, her eyebrow elevating slightly in question. That hadn't been part of Mitchell's job description. The kid had initiative as well as brains, apparently.
Sloan nodded, as if reading her thoughts. "Officer Mitchell has been making herself very useful. She's freed me up to focus on large scale web-hosting sites that seem to have concentrated activities in this area. Anyone receiving live-video feeds will need high-speed access and they're going to be paying hefty user fees. I'm trying to get in the back door by starting with the customer data bases and looking for common user time frames."
"How about grabbing a cup of coffee, Sloan," Rebecca replied, choosing not to comment on Sloan's information until they were alone. You didn't discuss strategy in front of the ranks.
"Sure," Sloan replied. The two of them walked in silence to the conference room where they had first been briefed by Clark, helped themselves to coffee, and settled across from one another at the conference table.
"How close are you to narrowing this search down to real people and not just internet aliases?" Rebecca asked.
"Closer than anyone would have expected a week ago. We caught a break--the FBI has been running a national sting operation over the last eighteen months called Operation Avalanche. They've already identified and collated a tremendous number of potential Internet sites marketing porn, and they've prescreened hundreds of e-mail accounts of users frequenting porn chat rooms aimed at those with a taste for kids. A lot of those names have already been traced and filed geographically."
"Did Clark get you that information from the FBI?"
"Nope," Sloan answered immediately.
"Are you going to tell him you have it?"
Rebecca sipped her coffee, considering Sloan's openness in answering questions, her seeming lack of concern about the repercussions of her hacking into Federal law enforcement data bases, and her obvious skill. The woman had all the earmarks of a rogue agent, but Rebecca didn't think she was. Sloan wasn't rogue, because rogue agents were always wary and suspicious and afraid of being caught. She was just untouchable. And you only got that way if you'd already had everything done to hurt you that could be done. "What about Mitchell? She's just a rookie, and I don't want her getting in the middle of anything."
"Mitchell may be young, but she's savvy. I'll give her the info when we have some local leads to chase electronically. Everything she touches will be clean and accountable." Sloan eased back in her chair, watching the blond detective astutely. "If you want, I can just give you the bottom line and leave out how we got there, too."
"I don't need your protection, Sloan," Rebecca replied, her tone oddly mild. "But I appreciate the thought. I prefer to have as much information as possible during an investigation. What I'm curious about is why you are so willing to share."
"I'm willing to share with you, because when the time comes, I figure you're going to be the one standing in front of the door, not Avery Clark. Maybe I'm wrong to trust you, but, then, I don't work for Agent Clark."
"No, you don't. Not anymore."
Sloan's eyes narrowed and her fingers tensed on the coffee cup. "I never worked for Clark."
"But you did work for the Justice Department, didn't you?" Rebecca knew she'd struck gold when the dark haired woman across from her grew tight and still. A second later, she could see Sloan consciously relax each tense muscle in her formidably powerful shoulders. Incredible control. "Does Clark have something on you and McBride?"
"Not a thing," Sloan said amiably. "Believe it or not, I took this job because I thought it was a job worth doing. Believe me, Detective, I don't take any job unless I want to. Not even for the Department of Justice."
"Fair enough," Rebecca said with a nod. "It's been my experience that people who are blackmailed into an assignment aren't very trustworthy. And I like to know if I can trust the people I'm working with."
"I could tell you I'm trustworthy," Sloan said, unveiling her megawatt, devil-may-care grin, "but I don't think that would impress you."
Despite herself, Rebecca grinned back. "I don't impress very easily, Sloan. But if you can come up with someone for me to investigate, I'll be appropriately impressed, I promise. What about McBride? Do you vouch for him, too?"
"Jason is his own man, and if you have any doubts, talk to him yourself."
"But he's your associate."
"And my friend."
Rebecca could easily imagine JT Sloan standing up to the Justice Department, and she had a feeling that Sloan probably had. The computer expert had obviously been valuable to them once, or they wouldn't have come back to her when they needed her services. Rebecca had a feeling that they had come back with apologies in one hand while waving the flag in the other. "I'm working on a few things from my end, but at this point I don't have dick."
Sloan looked surprised at the honest admission, then said good-naturedly, "I'll never tell."
"Thanks," Rebecca said dryly, but she finally smiled. On impulse she added, "Question--if someone pilfered files--stole them--from someone's system, could you figure out who did it?"
"Probably." Sloan's deep violet eyes sparkled with interest. "Unless they were awfully good at concealing themselves, and most hackers aren't that good."
"Compared to you, you mean."
"Yes, that's exactly what I mean."
"What would you need to do to find them?"
"I'd need the hard drive. Preferably, I'd like to have it here, but I could work on the system in place if I had to."
Rebecca stood and rolled her shoulders, "It would be unofficial, and it would be for free. If you did it, I'd owe you."
"No, you wouldn't. I do it because it's fun."
"If I can't find out any other way, I'll let you know."
Sloan stood with her, and as they walked back towards the work area, she said softly, "Usually people who hack computers aren't very dangerous, but you never know, Frye. You should be careful."
"I'm a cop, Sloan. I don't scare easily."
"I used to be a cop, too. I didn't carry a gun, and maybe I should have."
Rebecca watched her walk away, surprised to discover how much she liked her.
Sandy opened the door and immediately considered slamming it. "I'm working. Go away."
"No, you're not. I've been watching your building for two hours, and I know you don't have anyone up here unless they've paid for the whole night."
"If you keep hanging around me, I'm going to starve to death."
Rebecca lifted the brown paper bag in her hand. "No, you won't. I brought dinner."
Sandy rested her forehead on the edge of the door and cursed colorfully. "Whatever it is you think you do for me, Frye, it is so not enough to make up for all the trouble you could cause me."
"I know," Rebecca replied seriously. "Can I come in?"
"What did you bring?"
"Yeah, I suppose."
Rebecca had never been in Sandy's apartment before, although she had known for months where she lived. She knew almost everything about the people in her territory who were important to her-friends, suspects, and enemies alike. She wouldn't have come to Sandy's if she'd had any other choice, but she had checked all of the normal places for her and had finally given up and staked out her apartment. When the light had come on in the front windows, she'd waited until she was certain that Sandy wasn't with a john, and then she'd come up. She took in the small efficiency in one practiced glance. It was neat, tidy, and tastefully, although economically, decorated. "Nice place," she said, meaning it.
"Thanks," Sandy replied, eying the tall cop suspiciously. "Hey, Frye, has anyone told you lately that you look like crap?"
Rebecca didn't reply, just settled herself on the sofa without being invited and put the bag of carry out on the low, plain pine coffee table in front of her. "Go ahead and eat while we talk."
"You want something?" Sandy asked as she walked into the small, adjoining galley kitchen. "A beer?"
"Water would be fine." Her throat was scratchy and dry, and, briefly, she considered taking off her jacket, then thought better of it. Even though it was warm in the apartment, and she was sweating, she didn't make a habit of flashing her weapon if she could help it.
Sandy returned and set a pile of paper plates, silverware, a bottle of beer, and a glass of water on the table. She opened the bags, checked out the contents of the cardboard cartons, and dished out a generous amount for herself. Gesturing to Rebecca with one of the containers, she asked, "Want some?"
"No, I'm fine."
"Uh huh. Sure," Sandy replied, not bothering to repeat that the cop looked even paler and more drawn then she had the night before. "Rita called me and said you sprung her last night. Thanks."
"You should tell her to be more careful who she pitches her lines to."
"Hey!" Sandy said indignantly. "She swore she never mentioned money to that cop. The guy was cute and he told Rita he'd make it worth her while if she got him off. Doesn't that sound like entrapment to you?"
"It's just her word, Sandy," Rebecca pointed out quietly. The undercover vice cop had reported that the prostitute had solicited him, but Rebecca was inclined to believe Sandy. Nevertheless, a prostitute's word against that of a cop would never hold up in court. She shook her head, not quite certain how she had allowed the topic to stray from what had brought her there. Probably the damn headache that was back again in force. "So, what have you got for me?"
"Not a thing."
"I don't have anywhere to be tonight."
"God, you think because you buy me dinner a couple nights in a row that you own me?"
Rebecca smiled. "Trust me, Sandy. Owning you is the furthest thing from my mind."
Sandy took a pull on her Corona and shifted on the couch until her knees brushed Rebecca's and their eyes met. "I've heard that a couple of the girls have been making extra cash doing films."
"Films?" Rebecca asked with interest.
"Tell me everything you know. Names, dates, places-what do you have?"
"Nothing yet," Sandy said defensively. "Only talk. But I think I can probably find out if you give me a little room here."
"Good," Rebecca said, reaching for the water as she coughed dryly.
"Who knows, maybe I'll get into a new line of work. Do you think I would make it as a porno queen?" She frowned. "Probably my tits are too small...but then I'd fit right in if they're looking for girls."
"Don't even think about it," Rebecca said sharply, ignoring the pain that had started in her chest on the heels of the cough. "All I want is for you to get some information. Do not agree to anything else."
"Well, I could probably get a lot more information if I hired on to do one of the movies," Sandy said musingly. "The talk is they're paying mucho bucks."
"Just call me if you hear anything," Rebecca ordered as she stood, suddenly feeling like she needed some fresh air. "Don't go playing games."
"You know, you are a real pain in... Frye?... Hey!"
Rebecca was aware of Sandy's voice, but she couldn't make out the words over the roaring in her head. She could just barely hear someone saying fuck...it might have been her...she thought she was speaking. Mostly all she wanted to do was get one clean, deep breath and she'd be fine. Man, it hurt to breathe, and it kept on hurting until finally, she just closed her eyes and stopped struggling.
Catherine knocked sharply on the door to apartment 3 B. Although socioeconomically the residential area immediately surrounding University City where she lived in a historically renovated Victorian was light years away from the apartments bordering the Tenderloin, they were separated in distance only by the river that bisected the city and twenty city blocks. It had taken her less than six minutes to arrive after she had gotten the phone call. The door opened and a young Annie Lennox look-alike in a tight, midriff baring T-shirt and hip hugger jeans slung so low they barely covered the essentials greeted her with a distinct disregard for social amenities.
"Are you Catherine? Fuck, you better be."
Catherine merely nodded and stepped hurriedly inside. "Where is she?"
"Over there. Goddamned stubborn cop moron."
Sandy jerked her head in the direction of the couch, but she needn't have bothered. Catherine could hear the labored breathing from across the small apartment. Two steps further into the room and she saw Rebecca lying on the sofa, her shoulders propped against the arm with a pillow behind her head. The top three buttons on her shirt were open and her chest heaved spasmodically with each struggling attempt to get air. Sweat poured from her face, and her skin had a faint bluish tint. Catherine's heart seized with fear. God, what was this? Hemorrhage? Embolus? It looked terrifyingly like an MI.
"No," Rebecca gasped, opening her eyes.
When she turned to Catherine, her eyes were swimming with pain and something else, something Catherine didn't think she had ever seen in them before. Fear.
"See what I mean?" Sandy muttered. "You think I didn't want to? She threatened to shoot the phone if I did. I'm lucky she gave me your number. Fucking rock head."
Catherine knelt by the sofa, noting the remains of a takeout meal and Rebecca's jacket thrown over a nearby chair. Anger was an excellent antidote to fear, but she had time for neither, so she pushed the quick surge of jealousy and confused disappointment aside. Pulling open a worn satchel that she hadn't used in more than a decade, she extracted a stethoscope, which she swung around her neck with one hand while reaching for a blood pressure cuff with the other. As she wrapped the cuff around Rebecca's arm, she said steadily, "I need to get you to a hospital."
"I... know." Rebecca made an effort to sit up, but any exertion made her lightheaded. "I'll go. Just not...in an...ambulance."
Catherine tried not to think about what might be going inside Rebecca's body as she concentrated on the physical facts. Although her pressure was low, it wasn't critical yet. Slipping her hand under Rebecca's shirt, Catherine moved the stethoscope back and forth over her chest. Frowning, she listened for a few seconds to the right and then the left, then she glanced quickly at the distended veins in Rebecca's neck. "Your left lung is collapsed. We need to get you out of here." Looking over her shoulder, she said again, forcefully, "Call 911."
"Uh, it will probably take them a few minutes to get here. This area doesn't get the fastest service. Maybe it would be quicker if you drove her?" Sandy stood close behind Catherine's shoulder, watching Rebecca's face. "She didn't look this bad when I called you."
Listening to Rebecca fight for air, Catherine had to agree. "Can you stand?" she asked, pulling the blood pressure monitor from the detective's arm and stuffing it into her bag. "We'll help you."
Sandy and Catherine steadied Rebecca from either side with an arm around her waist and half-carried her down the three flights of stairs to Catherine's car, which she had left in front of a hydrant a few doors down from the once elegant brownstone that now had been subdivided into apartments. By the time they got her into the front seat, and Catherine had fumbled the seat belt around her, she was barely conscious and her stridor had worsened.
"Rebecca," Catherine said sharply, grasping her chin, turning her lover's face up toward her. "Rebecca, don't struggle. Breathe as slowly as you can. Do you understand?"
She couldn't get enough air to speak, but she nodded.
Sandy bent down and whispered something to Rebecca that Catherine couldn't hear as she ran around the front of the car to the driver's side. She had the key in the ignition before she was completely settled behind the wheel, and she careened away from the curb without even a backward glance at the young woman who stood on the sidewalk watching the taillights disappear into the dark.
Thankfully, at that time of night there was almost no traffic in University City. Within a matter of minutes, she was screeching to a halt outside the emergency room at University Hospital. She ran through the double doors into the harshly lit admitting area and shouted, "I'm Dr. Catherine Rawlings. I have a critically ill patient in my car. Someone bring a gurney."
Catherine glanced at the clock in the small doctor's lounge adjacent to the emergency room. Midnight. The waiting created a painful sense of dÈjà vu, and as the minutes dragged on, it was harder and harder for her not to think about the night that Raymond Blake had taken her and nearly taken Rebecca's life. Forcing her thoughts from that horror, she reminded herself that Rebecca was not dying, not tonight. But being separated from her, not knowing precisely what was happening, frayed the last remnants of her nerves, and she was losing the battle to stay calm. She had too many recollections, some of them too terrifying to erase even from her dreams. Now she had another unwelcome memory--the image of Rebecca suffering, struggling in agony for each insufficient breath. It was tearing her apart.
She spun around, grateful for the sound of another human voice to distract her from her pain.
"Jim! How is she?"
"Where is she? Can I see her? What--"
The emergency room physician smiled, raising a hand to stem the flow of words. "In a minute. She's on her way back from CAT scan."
"How serious is it?" Catherine managed to ask in a more controlled fashion. The panic that had simmered just beneath the surface of her soul was beginning to abate.
"Well," the treating physician replied, motioning to a chair beside him as he sank heavily into a seat at the small table. "If you were looking for a new job, I'm fairly certain we can find you one down here. Your exam on the scene saved us a lot of time, and her a lot of pain. She had a pneumothorax, just as you suspected. Probably an area of scar tissue had adhered to the inner surface of one of her ribs, and it tore lose tonight, collapsing her lung."
"Are they going to need to operate?" These things happened; she knew that as well as anyone. Then why did she feel like screaming?
"A little too soon to tell." He gave her a satisfied smile. "I put a needle in, aspirated the air, and the lung came back up. The CAT scan looks good right now. We'll have to see if the lung stays up or not."
"Thank you, Jim."
"Don't mention it. She should be back by now. Cubicle seven."
She murmured her thanks once again and hurried away. To her great relief, when she opened the door to the small private treatment room, she found Rebecca sitting up on a stretcher, looking drawn but breathing easily. The relief was so intense, for a second she feared she might cry.
"How do you feel?" Catherine managed, struggling to keep her voice from quivering. Something of her fragile emotional state must have shown in her face, because Rebecca's welcoming smile immediately turned to a look of concern.
"I'm okay." Reaching out a hand, the one that was not tethered to an intravenous line, she drew Catherine closer. "If I understood what he was telling me, it was a fluke--a little bit of scar tissue acting up. Not a big deal."
Catherine was tired. Tired and still reeling from worry and her own terrifying memories. If she hadn't been so shaken, she probably would have been more circumspect, but she just didn't have enough strength to control her response. "Rebecca, you could have died. If you weren't as physically fit as you are, you probably would have. It could happen again--in fact it often does. This was a warning, and you were lucky that your young friend was quick-witted enough to realize how ill you were."
"She's not a friend. She's a source."
"What she may be to you, I don't know," she said more sharply than she intended. "But she's fond of you, I'll tell you that."
Rebecca had never seen Catherine quite like this before. When she had first walked into the room, it'd looked like she was going to break down. That in itself was frightening, because during all the long weeks of Rebecca's convalescence, Catherine had been nothing but upbeat and positive. If she had cried, she had done it alone. And then tonight, anger had followed so closely on the heels of her concern that Rebecca was stunned. The problem was, she wasn't quite certain what Catherine was angry about. It seemed as if Sandy was part of it, but that didn't make any sense--Catherine didn't know anything about Sandy.
"Sandy is an informant," Rebecca began carefully. "I was working-"
"You're not required to explain," Catherine interrupted, angry at herself for even bringing the girl up. She had no idea why she had. Except there had been something strangely intimate about the entire setting-the small cozy apartment, the takeout dinner, and the way the young woman had berated Rebecca with unmistakable tenderness in her voice. You have another life that I know nothing about. A life that might mean more to you than anything we could share.
"I'm sorry that you had to go through this," Rebecca said, lifting Catherine's hand and placing a kiss against the fingers she cradled in her own. "I'm sorry I had to drag you into it at all, but I didn't want an official report--any kind of record--tying Sandy to me."
She hesitated only a second. "Because officially Sandy and I don't have a relationship. It's safer for her that way."
"I'm surprised you didn't call Watts instead of me," Catherine said, and there was pain in that knowledge. "Would you have called me if I hadn't been a doctor?"
She hesitated longer this time. "I don't know."
"Would you even have told me?"
The silence between them grew so loud that Catherine slipped your fingers out of Rebecca's hand and moved a little away from the stretcher. "Rebecca?"
"I don't know. I would have told you--something. Maybe not all of it."
"Why not?" Her anger was gone, replaced by an honest desire to know, and by incredible sadness. How could they feel so much, and share so little?
"Because I don't want you to worry. I don't want you to hate what I do," she admitted. The foot of space between them felt like a hundred miles, and it hurt so much more now than she had hurt an hour ago. She was doing this all wrong, but she couldn't think of the right way to do it. Desperately, she whispered, "Because I don't know what else to do."
"Jim says your CAT scan looked good," Catherine said quietly. "It might be a while before they move you upstairs to a bed--you should try to rest. I'll come by tomorrow to see how you're doing."
"Okay." She swallowed, a sinking feeling in her stomach. It was all coming apart.
Catherine turned to leave, then looked back over her shoulder. "Is there anyone you want me to call? Watts?"
"No. I'll call him."
"Get some sleep," she said softly as she closed the door behind her.
"What do you mean you don't have any record of her?" Catherine asked in the general direction of the hands-free microphone that was clipped to the visor above the steering wheel while she attempted to maneuver through early rush-hour traffic. "She should have been admitted last night--sometime after midnight. Are you spelling the last name right? That's Frye-with an e on the end."
She listened for a few seconds, eyes searching the street for a parking place on the block with the address she had been given. Pulling to the curb, she said with uncharacteristic irritation, "Never mind. I don't have time to wait. I'll call back later."
She clicked off the cell phone, cut the ignition, and sat for a few seconds behind the wheel, waiting for the last remnants of frustration to ebb. I should have stayed at the hospital last night. It was ridiculous to think I could do this now, not knowing how she is. If I were a patient, I'd say this is a very good example of self-delusion resulting from lousy conflict management and unresolved anger.
"Well, thank you. That's helpful," she said out loud in disgust. Glancing at her watch, she saw that she had five minutes to find the building. "And now you can just do what you came here to do."
She locked the car and started north on Front Street, checking the building numbers as she walked. Fortunately, she had guessed right and had started searching in the appropriate direction. In less than a minute she was standing on the steps of a four story warehouse fumbling in her briefcase for her wallet and a photo ID. After the disembodied voice instructed her to enter and an electronic lock clicked open, she stepped through into the cavernous ground floor and proceeded toward the elevator as she had been directed. As curious as she was about the place, her mind was only half on her surroundings. She had spent another restless night, finding it difficult to fall asleep after the adrenaline surge of emotions that had started when she had first gotten the call from Sandy and which hadn't begun to abate until she had seen that Rebecca was stable. It had been excruciatingly hard to leave her, but the evening had brought up so many conflicting feelings that she doubted either of them were equipped to deal with the aftermath in the middle of the night. Nevertheless, when she had finally slid naked beneath the sheets, she had ached for her, body and soul.
The elevator stopped smoothly and opened with no more than a whisper, whereupon she found herself looking out into an enormous room filled with electronic equipment. It was time to set her personal life aside, and do her job. Stepping out into the hall that ran along one side of the building opposite the warren of computer stations, she glanced right and left looking for someone who might know where the meeting was. Almost immediately, she saw a woman in jeans and an open-collared navy shirt approaching. At first glance, the startlingly attractive woman didn't strike Catherine as being a law-enforcement officer of any type. Even discounting her decidedly informal appearance, she moved with a kind of casual confidence that suggested she rarely worried about protocol. There was none of the tight focus that Rebecca displayed when she was working or the self-important attitude of the typical bureaucrat. If she were asked to guess, Catherine would say this was the private consultant.
"Good morning," Catherine said as the woman drew near. "I'm Doctor Catherine Rawlings."
"J. T. Sloan, Doctor." Sloan extended her hand to the elegant, auburn-haired woman and added, "We were just gathering in the conference room. I'll take you down."
As they walked, Sloan explained, "Unfortunately, the full team isn't here at the moment, but I know your schedule is very tight so we'll go with what we have and I'll fill in the others later."
Much later, Catherine thought to herself, but she merely nodded. She wondered, not for the first time that morning, if Rebecca would be pulled from the case. At this point it should be evident to everyone at police headquarters that she wasn't ready to go back to work. In some ways, it was fortunate that the episode had occurred when it did. If it had happened when Rebecca was in the middle of an altercation, or even if she had just been out on the street alone, the outcome could have been disastrous. At any rate, she was out of danger for the moment and Catherine gratefully cleared her mind to focus on the job at hand. As she followed Sloan into a glass enclosed conference room, several people stood and turned in her direction. One of them she already knew.
"Doctor Rawlings," Sloan began, "this is my associate Jason McBride, Agent Clark--there at the end of the table, and Officer Mitchell, who is with the Philadelphia Police Department."
Catherine shook each individual's hand in turn, saying merely, "Officer Mitchell," in a neutral tone when she got to her. It wasn't uncommon for her to run into patients in social or professional settings, and although she tried to anticipate when that might happen and discuss with the patient their feelings about it, it wasn't always possible to do that. She had known Mitchell was involved in a task force that might have been this one, but she hadn't really expected her to be at the briefing. As was usual when something like this happened, it was something they would have to deal with later.
"Thank you for coming on such short notice, Doctor," Clark said with an appreciative smile. Looking pointedly at Sloan, he added, "Our investigation is moving a little faster than we had anticipated. Since I know that time is short, and I expect that what Sloan and McBride have to discuss will be of most use to you, let me say a few brief words and then turn it over to them."
Catherine listened while he gave her a capsule summary of the task force's purpose and some background on the results of similar operations across the nation, but she was watching the people at the table, trying to get a sense of how the individuals fit into the team. Clark, the federal representative, alone at one end of the table and the first to speak, was the titular head, but she had the feeling that Sloan, an arm draped over the back of her chair in an utterly relaxed pose, was the real leader. The woman projected an incredible sense of self-assurance and as she toyed with a pencil, her eyes fixed on a spot in the center of the table, she reminded Catherine of a great, sleek predator fixing on its prey. Her associate, the remarkably handsome man by her side, was completely expressionless, but his eyes glinted with intelligence. Mitchell sat stiffly to her right, and Catherine wasn't certain if that was due to her presence or just the young officer's natural intensity. Were Rebecca present, Catherine knew, she'd be sitting across from Sloan, the two of them perfectly matched in skill and drive. Rebecca, relentlessly single-minded when in pursuit of a suspect, was every bit the hunter Sloan appeared to be. The thought of Rebecca brought a swift surge of longing, and Catherine brought her complete attention back to Clark.
He was saying, "We have some information pertaining to perpetrator profiles that have been generated by other investigations. What we need, Doctor-actually, what Sloan and McBride need-is a way to flag the contacts with the most potential to lead us into a real life meeting. Any guidance you can provide would be welcome."
"Before we get into specifics," Catherine said, turning her attention to Sloan and her colleague, "I had planned to review a few broad characteristics of the subjects. That may be redundant, however, if you are all familiar with them."
"It wouldn't be for me, ma'am," Mitchell said from beside Catherine, meeting her gaze unwaveringly when Catherine glanced at her.
"I agree, Doctor," Sloan added, wanting to hear what the psychiatrist had to say. She'd had enough experience with Bureau profilers to know that they were often too rigid with their composites to be of any real use in dealing with individuals. In all fairness, that probably resulted from the necessity of using probability models, but maybe a clinician who had real life experience would have a different take. From the brief rundown Clark had given her, this woman was supposed to be an excellent forensic consultant, even though it wasn't her primary specialty.
"Let me tell you where we stand. Thus far Jason has focused on establishing an Internet presence by adapting various persona that might be attractive to someone who is interested in preteens or adolescents. I've has been trying to localize areas of concentrated activity by targeting intersecting or overlapping patterns of transmission, site traffic, and financial expenditures. The theory being that eventually these two lists can be cross-referenced using additional identifiers to produce a manageable number of individuals for actual investigation. Jason and I are close to narrowing down the search, and while we started with a broad net, we've found ourselves with more potential avenues of pursuit than we could possibly explore. Very shortly, we're going to be in one-on-one situations and there's a real likelihood of scaring these guys away if we go about it incorrectly."
Smiling, Catherine replied, "All right then. I'll hit the highlights and then you tell me what else you need from me."
"Excellent," Sloan replied, liking the psychiatrist's composed, noncompetitive attitude. There was no evidence of the turf struggles she'd been used to within the agency when different departments collaborated. And there was a sincerity in the woman's calm, ocean green eyes that instilled trust. Sloan caught herself short and almost grinned at her uncharacteristic reaction. She bet Catherine Rawlings was one hell of a psychiatrist. "Fire away, Doctor."
"What we're talking about here is typology," Catherine began, "profiling if you will. Despite popular conceptions, I'm sure all of you realize that this is not hard science. We can make general assumptions, but there are always exceptions, and it pays to be flexible when assessing prospective perpetrators."
Mitchell, Catherine noticed, was taking notes. "Pedophiles are almost always men, and may be heterosexual or homosexual. It's difficult to determine the percentages, because so many instances are never reported. I assume this will have some bearing on how you focus your Internet search, and since I don't know your starting point, my best advice would be to know the victims and begin there."
"As far as we can ascertain," Sloan said carefully, "the video productions we're interested in tracking are primarily adult men depicted with adolescent girls. We have Jason trying to make contact both as a young girl and as an adult male."
"Sounds reasonable," Catherine responded. "The Internet provides a sense of anonymity, thus making many individuals more comfortable in revealing socially unacceptable preferences that they might otherwise keep hidden for fear of exposure and reprisal. On the other hand, that may make it easier for you to pick up on the truly serious pedophiles because they will have a false sense of security-believing that the Internet provides a blind behind which they can hide."
"I'm sorry?" Mitchell asked abruptly. "Serious pedophiles as opposed to what?"
"Sorry. Poor choice of words. What we know is that a large percentage of individuals are content with graphic material and have no interest in instituting true sexual contact. They will most likely never act on their fantasies."
"Collectors," Jason clarified. "The bulletin boards and newsgroups are filled with people who just want to trade image files. They look but don't tough. Then there are the chatters, the ones who probably never take their interest behind the keyboard."
"Precisely," Catherine agreed. "These men rarely show any interest in exchanging files, but do spend hours online engaging in cybersex and occasionally escalating to phone sex. Both groups are on the bottom rung of the probability ladder in terms of likelihood of sexual contact. Because the problem is so widespread, both geographically and in terms of numbers, it makes sense to focus on the theoretically more dangerous class of perpetrators. These would be the travelers-men who manipulate online relationships with children in an attempt to institute real-life contact. They often set up meetings, paying for bus fare or plane tickets or hotel rooms in advance, and then coaxing kids into joining them."
"How do we sort them out-or get them to expose themselves," Sloan asked, ignoring Jason's pointed groan at her unintended pun.
"If you were to ask me how to target an individual type--men you could actually track down and ultimately arrest," Catherine said by way of summary, "I'd say you need to bond with them, instill trust. And the fastest way to do that is to express the behaviors that you expect them to display. Instead of trying to make direct contact, which might seem suspicious, let them see you doing what they do-talk about the same kind of lust object, vocalize a desire for obtaining images, or boast about a fabricated conquest. They'll come to you eventually, because they are seeking validation through others like themselves."
"Perfect," Sloan said, giving Catherine an appreciative glance. Yeah, she's good all right. "Jason? Any thoughts?"
He looked pensive. "I can focus more on my interactions in the chat rooms and try to attract some attention."
"Mitchell?" Sloan added. "We can use one of the computer models to screen the chat transcripts for identifiers."
Mitchell's face lit up. "Absolutely."
Catherine turned to Avery Clark. "It seems to me that your team already has the plan well in hand. I'm not certain how I can help you."
"I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on that, too," a voice said from the doorway.
Everyone in the room turned as Rebecca and Watts walked in.
"Sorry we're late," Rebecca said, carefully avoiding Catherine's eyes. "Traffic." She and Watts took seats at the table while everyone murmured greetings.
Clark said, "Dr. Rawlings, this is Detective Sergeant..."
"We've met, thank you." Catherine stared at Rebecca, her initial disbelief having given way to something between incredulity and outrage. The detective was wearing the same clothes that Catherine had last seen her in, and it was obvious that she had come directly from the hospital. From the nearly translucent pallor of her skin and the hollow shadows beneath her eyes, it looked like that's precisely where she still should be-in a hospital bed.
Sloan watched the two of them curiously, aware that the temperature in the room had plummeted to below freezing, but she wasn't quite certain the cause. Frye had taken a seat across from her to the left of Rawlings, and after a brief nod to the psychiatrist, the detective stared pointedly ahead. Still, Sloan could have sworn the air between them vibrated, rather like the tremor in the tracks when a freight train approached. Something very volatile going on there-professional differences, maybe?Cops rarely take to theoreticians.
Then, Sloan smiled inwardly, thinking of her own theoretician and how very quickly and inextricably she had taken to her. Thinking about Michael in the middle of a meeting was a bad idea, because Michael, in body or spirit, was the only thing she had ever encountered that could distract her. And she couldn't afford to be distracted--not with Clark already hinting that he'd picked up on how quickly she and Jason had developed a working list of suspects. She wanted to end the briefing as quickly as possible, before Clark could push her for the specifics of their investigation or ask just how they had managed to assemble a preliminary list of potentials in record time. Clearing her throat, she said into the obvious silence, "We have transcripts of dozens of online chats between Jason and personalities who thought he was a 13-year-old girl. We also have a number of hits from men in a private bulletin board who have made overt or veiled allusions to movie distribution. It would be great to nail them-all of them-but what we really want are the manufacturers. Those are the guys who have set up their computers as FTP servers and are broadcasting to a select group of subscribers. With a videocam hook up, they can produce live feeds of child sex. And they have the kids."
"Locations?" Rebecca asked sharply. She needed a lead to chase, a case to work--something to take her mind off the hollow feeling in her chest that hurt every time she breathed. The pain had built all night in that empty place where Catherine had once dwelled, until finally she hadn't been able to stand it any longer and she'd called Watts. Catherine sat next to her now, and she felt like they were strangers. The loneliness had been so much easier to bear before. Before she had known what it was to be touched. "Anything solid?" she asked, hoping she didn't sound as desperate as she felt.
"Nothing specific, not yet," Sloan admitted. "But we're pretty sure they're regional, if not local." She glanced at Catherine. "It would be very helpful if you could go through these with us, and give us your take on the most likely possibles, and perhaps lend some insight as to how Jason can more effectively manipulate them into committing themselves."
"And then?" Catherine asked with genuine interest, even as she listened with relief to the sound of Rebecca breathing beside her. Respirations steady, unlabored. Stable. For now.
Sloan grinned, a happy, hungry grin. "As soon as we narrow it down to a manageable number, I can launch digger programs which will follow the sender back to his ISP address, among other things. Then we'll cross-reference to the credit card clearing houses, track the business sources. Get us some names."
"Yeah, and once you get us a name, we can start knocking on doors," Watts said with evident satisfaction. "Real police work."
Sloan managed not to snarl.
"Anything from your street sources, Detective?" Clark asked, looking at Rebecca.
"Not yet." She had no intention of sharing anything with Clark at this point, and she certainly didn't want to discuss the details of the case with Catherine in the room. Jesus, everyone was acting like Catherine was an official part of the team.
"My schedule is pretty full," Catherine stated, "but I should be able to spare an hour or two in the evenings--or even during the day if you absolutely need me."
Avery Clark stood, signaling the end of the meeting. "We'll try to give you as much advance notice as we can, Doctor. Any time you can spare would be greatly appreciated. I'll leave the details to you and Sloan to work out."
"Certainly," Catherine replied, standing as well and gathering her things.
"Sloan, may I see you outside?" Clark murmured softly as he passed behind her.
"Sure." Sloan responded, rising and following.
Jason and Mitchell left as well, leaving Catherine staring at Rebecca while Watts fidgeted in the doorway, looking as if he wasn't certain whether to go or stay.
"What in God's name are you doing here?" Catherine demanded.
"I knew the meeting wouldn't be long. I wanted to make it."
"How did you get discharged so quickly?"
Rebecca held Catherine's gaze. "I was never admitted."
"Jim would never have released you, not in the shape you were in last night. You signed out AMA, didn't you?" she accused furiously. She wanted to touch her. It felt like days since she had. But she was so angry, the last thing she wanted was contact. Her mind was reeling from the barrage of dissident emotions.
"Not exactly against medical advice. We made a deal." She said it reasonably, trying to sound confident, but Catherine's fury was so potent it was like a blow. Her hands trembled and she stuffed them in her pockets.
"Doctors don't make deals," the psychiatrist snapped.
"All right," Rebecca admitted. "But I agreed to go back for a chest xRay this morning."
"And if your lung drops right now?"
"He left a catheter in my chest. In an emergency, he said I'd be able to aspirate the air out. That I'd have plenty of time to get back to the emergency room."
Catherine slammed both palms down on the tabletop and leaned forward, her eyes blazing. "What is the matter with you? Don't you know you almost died last night? What could be so important about this meeting?"
"It's not the meeting," Rebecca said quietly, but the fear was thundering through her now. She had to stay calm. If she explained it clearly, Catherine would have to understand. "If I let them admit me, if I didn't show up here--if I can't work--they won't just take me off the case. They'll put me on medical disability. I won't even have light-duty."
"You shouldn't have any kind of duty! You should be home or in the hospital." Catherine whirled in Watts' direction so quickly that he jumped. "Did you have a hand in this? After all the nights we sat by her bedside, waiting for her to live or die? After that, you could help her do this?" She ran a hand over her eyes and then slowly turned from one to the other. In a voice that was deadly calm, she said, "I do not understand what is important to you. All I know is that whatever it is, it's more important to you than your life. And I can't live with knowing that."
For a moment, it seemed as if no one even breathed. Then, Catherine quietly lifted her briefcase and walked from the room.
Rebecca stood rigidly, the fingertips of her right hand pressed against the granite table top, white to the bone. She hadn't realized that her eyes were closed until they snapped open at the sound of Watts' voice. She blinked in the bright sunlight coming through the windows.
"I want to talk to Mitchell and you-alone. We need to assess where we are in this case. Five minutes, in our conference room."
"She's just steamed, Sarge. She'll get over it."
No, she won't. Christ, what do I do now?
"You just gotta give her ti-"
"Let it go, Watts."
"Goddamn it," she shouted, her fist connecting with stone as she pounded her hand onto the table. "Go find Mitchell and shut the-"
She started to cough and he thought his heart would stop. "Oh, fuck. Are you-"
"I'm fine," she snapped, waving a hand as she caught her breath. "Just do it."
"Right. Just do me a fucking favor and go sit down until we get there." He didn't wait for an answer, but went to find the rookie. They couldn't get back to the hospital soon enough to suit him.
Sloan looked up as Watts charged by and then caught sight of Frye still in the conference room. She walked back in, poured a cup of coffee, and leaned against the counter, observing the detective, who seemed a little unsteady on her feet.
"You all right?"
Rebecca stared at her. "Yeah."
Sloan sipped her coffee. "We're making progress."
"Good," the detective sighed, giving in and sitting down. She rubbed her eyes, then blew out a breath. Just work the case, Frye. That's what you do. That's what you know. "Because I'm not. We had a couple of names from the previous kiddie prostitution bust, but we haven't been able to turn up anything. I've got a few feelers out, but so far, nada. There's a rumor of somebody making movies, but so far that's weak. If I get lucky, someone will point us toward that."
"It's early, on a case like this," Sloan observed mildly, wondering how out of line it would be to ask Frye what the hell was going on. The cop didn't exactly make it easy to get friendly, but she looked like she was hurting. And not just physically.
"Is Clark on to your FBI hack?" Rebecca asked suddenly.
"You're sharp, Frye," Sloan said with an appreciative laugh. "You were here, what? Five minutes? And you picked up on a certain tension between us?"
"I've met the type." Rebecca shrugged and grinned weakly. "When someone says outside the way Clark said it, it usually implies they have a burr up their ass."
"He suspects we might have used unorthodox methods to acquire some of our information, but he didn't want specifics."
"They never do," Rebecca observed wearily. "Too accountable then."
"Yeah. Mostly he wanted to be certain that I understood that I was on my own."
"Why are you doing this, Sloan? You could be making a lot more money doing something with a lot less potential to fuck you over."
Sloan walked to the sink and poured out the last of her coffee, surprised at the question. When she turned around, she said quietly, all hint of her usual cockiness gone. "Maybe I wanted them to see what they lost."
Rebecca rose, more surprised at herself for asking than she was by Sloan's answer. "That's a fairly fucked up reason."
"Yeah," Sloan admitted, feeling an odd sense of relief.
"But I understand," Rebecca added as she headed out the door. "Keep me up to speed, Sloan."
"Right," Sloan called after her. She hesitated for a second, then walked to the wall phone and dialed a number. After a second, she smiled and said, "Hey. Any chance you could meet me for lunch?...No special reason. I just love you."
Hazel Holcomb reached for the phone, pushing aside a pile of administrative bulletins as she did. "Yes?"
"Catherine Rawlings is on line two," her secretary informed her.
"I'll take it." She pressed the other line and said, "Catherine? What can I do for you?"
"Can you see me this morning?"
"Just a minute," Hazel replied, instantly alert to the flat tone of her friend's voice. She rummaged under a stack of file folders and found her weekly schedule. "I have forty-five minutes open now. If it's urgent, I could cancel a meeting later this morning."
"No-I'll come right over. I have clinic in an hour, too. That's perfect. Thank you."
Hazel buzzed her secretary and instructed, "Send Doctor Rawlings in when she arrives, and then hold my calls."
Five minutes later, a knock on the door heralded Catherine's arrival.
"I'm sorry to barge in like this," Catherine began as she took one of the upholstered chairs in front of Hazel's desk.
"It's fine," the Chief of Psychiatry assured her colleague as she moved around to join her in the other chair. "What's happened?"
"Is it that obvious?" Catherine asked ruefully, folding her hands in her lap to hide the trembling. "God, I'm embarrassed."
"Catherine, nothing is obvious unless one knows you. You wouldn't have called if it weren't important, and you wouldn't have that very wounded expression in your eyes if it weren't personal. So-something has happened."
"I think Rebecca and I just-I don't even know what to call it. Broke up?"
"Well," Hazel said gently, a small smile on her face. "We can start with that. What prompted this-event?"
"I'm not sure," Catherine admitted. "That's why I'm here."
"Ah, I see. Good point-spoken like a true psychiatrist. Let's hear the details, then we'll plumb for all the deeper, hidden meanings."
Catherine managed a faint laugh. "Do you talk to all your patients like this? It's very irreverent. Freud is cringing somewhere in another dimension."
"You're not a patient. You're a friend," Hazel replied softly, placing her hand briefly on Catherine's arm. "So, tell me."
Catherine closed her eyes for a few seconds, then opened them and said, "I got a call from a woman last night whom I'd never met, telling me that Rebecca had collapsed in her apartment and that she needed my help."
Hazel listened, her expression intent, as Catherine described the previous night and morning's events. When her friend fell silent, she remarked, "I'm afraid I have to ask-how do you feel right now?"
"Terribly angry at her, and just-empty." Catherine met Hazel's eyes, tears swimming behind her lashes. "It's tearing me apart that she would risk her life like this, and that she doesn't realize what that does to me."
"Yes, I can see how much it hurts. I'm sorry."
"I thought about calling her Captain, telling him what happened."
"Why didn't you?"
"Because," Catherine replied with a sigh, "it would be divulging patient confidences-"
"You're not her doctor," Hazel pointed out.
"No, but I have privileged knowledge that I wouldn't otherwise have had."
Hazel made a dismissive gesture. "A technicality at best."
"All right," Catherine conceded. "Because she'd never forgive me."
"She's hurt you." Hazel's tone suggested that turn-about was fair play.
"She's hurt me because she's stubborn and careless with herself, but this would be such a betrayal."
"And what she's done--isn't that a betrayal? Of the connection between you? Of your love for one another?"
Catherine regarded her sharply. "It's only a betrayal if you know what you're doing--if it's a conscious act. She didn't intend to hurt me, she's just doing what's she's always done."
"But things are not the same any longer-for either of you," Hazel pointed out reasonably.
"No," Catherine said quietly. "Everything is different." She looked at Hazel in frustration. "What a mess. I keep thinking that I should be better at this."
Hazel laughed. "Why? Love is messy. Relationships are horrible, unpredictable things." Suddenly serious, she asked, "What do you intend to do?"
"I don't know. I can't be with her like this; I can't watch her kill herself."
"You know, Catherine, I don't know this detective of yours, although I'd certainly like to. She sounds fascinating, especially if you don't happen to be in love with her. But I know that she almost died two months ago. That's a terrifying occurrence. For someone like her, the best defense against that fear is to-"
"Deny it ever happened." Catherine sighed. "Yes, I know. Like the business executive who has an MI, and insists on taking phone calls in the cardiac care unit. I know. It doesn't help." She rubbed her eyes, glanced at her watch. "I have to work, and so do you."
"Don't make any decisions today, or even tomorrow. It's already too late to break up. You love her, remember."
"Yes, I do," Catherine said, wondering if that would be enough.
Catherine contemplated canceling her last patient of the day. It was almost eight; she was tired. Beyond tired. Bone weary and just plain-sad.
"It's going to be a tough session and you want to avoid it. Because she's going to walk in here, all spit and polish, and very possibly pissed off. And she reminds you of Rebecca." She rubbed her temples. "And you've started talking to yourself, which can't be good."
Joyce knocked on the door and stuck her head in. "You've got five minutes. Want anything?"
"Yes," Catherine replied, "when she gets here, tell her I need to resche--"
"Nothing. A coke if you're getting one."
A few minutes later, the door opened again to admit Dellon Mitchell.
"Hi," Catherine said as Mitchell settled into the chair. She wasn't in uniform, but she wore her chinos and shirt as if it were one. Neat, tidy, precise.
Catherine waited a beat, and when nothing else appeared to be forthcoming, she said, "Let's talk about this morning."
"All right," Mitchell replied neutrally, but her eyes were wary.
"Sometimes it can be awkward or uncomfortable when you run into your therapist unexpectedly. Was it a problem-my being there?"
Mitchell regarded her steadily. "What we talk about in here-it's confidential, right?"
"Usually, yes," Catherine answered. Mitchell stiffened, and she added quickly, "Officer, you were referred for an official evaluation. I still have to do that. I don't include information that isn't relevant to my opinions, and I very rarely include specific details of what we've discussed."
"But you wouldn't..." She searched for words. "You're going to be working with the people I work with. There are things...private things...I don't want anyone to know."
"They won't learn them from me," Catherine said quietly. "First of all, it's my business to keep confidences. Secondly, I'll be there for professional purposes, and on a fairly limited basis. There is absolutely no reason anyone should know that you and I have a professional relationship."
"Good." The officer crossed one ankle over her knee, and sat back a little into her chair, a pose Catherine was coming to recognize as relaxed. For Mitchell. "Now, let's talk about the incident in the alley."
"I knew her."
Catherine had many years of therapeutic experience, and she was glad of that now. Because she wanted to blurt out, What? Slowly, carefully, she asked, "The young woman who was being attacked?"
"When did you realize that you knew her?"
"When he let her go. She fell...I saw her face in the light from the window."
There was sweat on her forehead that Catherine was certain that she didn't know was there. Her right hand trembled where it rested on the chair arm.
"What happened when you recognized her?"
She was quiet a long time. Then, her voice hoarse, she replied, "I hesitated. I thought maybe I had imagined it. That's when he hit me, knocked me down." She looked at Catherine, stricken. "There was so much blood on her face, I was frozen...I thought she...Jesus, there was so much blood."
Catherine's stomach lurched. So much blood. She took a long, slow breath. "How well do you know her?"
"She's just someone I met...on the job."
"More than a passing acquaintance?" Catherine probed softly. "A friend?"
Another pause. "Yes."
"You told me you don't remember hitting him with your gun."
"I don't." For the first time, the young woman looked scared.
"What do you remember?"
Mitchell ran a hand through her hair. "I remember...I remember her face. I was so fucking angry. The bastard had his hands up her...and then I was on the ground...and she was screaming at him. Screaming not to hurt me..." She stopped and stared at Catherine. "Oh, fuck. I was on the ground, and he kicked me. My head...my side...it hurt. And I could hear her screaming at him...he hit her again, I think. I was afraid he'd kill her."
"Do you remember striking him with your gun?"
"I don't," Mitchell shouted. She covered her face with both hands, shoulders heaving. "I don't."
"It's okay," Catherine said gently. "It's okay."
She finally looked up, her face streaked with tears. "It isn't really, is it?"
"Oh, yes, it is," Catherine replied firmly, sitting forward, hands clasped on the desk. "You were alone, in a dangerous situation. There was the threat of deadly injury to yourself or a civilian. Suddenly, unexpectedly, the situation is personalized-this is someone you know, care about. And you were both in peril. You had a gun, Officer Mitchell...and you were facing a bigger, stronger opponent who had already hurt you. You protected yourself, instinctively, but you didn't shoot him." Catherine paused, making certain that Mitchell was listening. "You didn't shoot him. And you could have. You did well, Officer."
Mitchell grinned weakly, brushing impatiently at the moisture on her cheeks. "Would you mind putting that in your report?"
"I most definitely will," Catherine replied, smiling. "In my opinion you acted appropriately under the given circumstances."
"There's a problem."
"The part about me knowing her? It's not in my report."
"Because that's nobody's business. It doesn't have any bearing on the events. I reported it exactly as it occurred."
Catherine considered the information. "I can't see that it affects the legalities involved, but," she continued as she saw Mitchell give a sigh of relief, "it is germane to the effect this has had on you."
"Yes, in all probability you are," Catherine answered wearily, suddenly aware of her own fatigue. "I'll take care of the report to your precinct, Officer."
Mitchell was quiet for a long moment. "Would you mind-uh, holding off for a little while. You said it might take five or six visits, right?"
"Do you mind telling me what brought about this sudden change of heart?"
"I don't want to get pulled off the task force."
The task force. And here I thought it was my stellar therapy techniques. "I think the situation reasonably warrants another visit or two. But then I'll have to file the report."
"Fair enough. Thank you." Mitchell stood, a smile to match the one she'd had when Sloan included her in the plans that morning. "Thanks a lot."
As the door shut behind the young officer, Catherine leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes.
Rebecca rolled over and opened her eyes. She lifted her wrist and squinted at the dim dial of her watch. Nine p.m. She'd been asleep for eleven hours. She was wearing loose cotton workout shorts and nothing else. Her body was covered with a thin film of sweat, and when she brushed her palm over her chest and down her abdomen, her hand came away wet.
Nine p.m. Plenty of time to get some work done. She got up from the bed, stiff muscles protesting, and made her way into the bathroom to shower.
Catherine answered the door and stared wordlessly at the woman on her porch. Finally she said, "Hi."
"Hi." Rebecca lifted the pizza box with two video tapes resting on its top. "Dinner and a movie?"
"We have a lot to talk about, you know," Catherine answered, leaning with a shoulder against the partially open door. Behind her the soft strains of jazz played in the dimly lit living room.
"I know. Would you rather I..." she stopped, looked uncertain. "What do you want me to do?"
"Are you working tonight? Is this just a drive-by visit?"
Rebecca winced. "No. I was going to. I intended to, when I got up. But...no."
"I'm too tired for this, Rebecca. I really am," Catherine said with a sigh.
The look in her eyes, the sound of her voice. Sadness, disappointment, loss. It was a knife in Rebecca's heart. She lifted a hand toward her lover's face, then stopped herself. "Okay. I'll call you. Can I call you?"
"No," Catherine said with a shake of her head, and Rebecca's world tilted, then began to crumble.
"I really can't talk now." She reached out, took Rebecca's hand, pulled her gently forward. "Just come inside for tonight. Just...be here."
"Hey," a quiet, husky voice said from the shadows.
Sandy jumped at the sound, then peered into the dim overhang of a video store closed for the night. "Jesus, Dell. Will you not do that? Some night I'm going to shoot you."
Mitchell laughed. "You don't have a gun."
"I'll get one if you keep this up."
"Can we talk?" She stepped onto the sidewalk beside the young blond, wiping the light rain that had been falling since midnight from her eyes.
"Yeah, okay. Let's go to the diner."
"How about Chen's? It's quieter."
Sandy regarded her curiously. "Sure."
Ten minutes later they were seated at a back booth, the only customers in the place. Sandy ordered her usual and Mitchell opted for steamed dumplings and a beer.
"So," Sandy asked, regarding the dark-haired young woman in the black jeans and T-shirt. "What's up? Gonna bag out on the Quivers this weekend?"
"No," Mitchell said hastily, looking surprised. "Hey, I said I wanted to go."
Sandy hadn't really expected the rookie to go through with it after Sandy'd teasingly dared her to join her at a club to hear a band down from New York City. She didn't even know why she'd asked the cop to come with her. They'd just been talking on the corner one night, only passing time, the way they had now and then since they'd met. Since that night Anne Marie'd died.
"You don't have to take me home. I know where I live."
"Sorry, ma'am. The detective in charge requested I see you home."
"Ma'am?" Sandy stopped dead on the sidewalk, impatiently brushing the last tears from her face. "You're kidding, right?"
Mitchell regarded her steadily. "My patrol car is right this way. If you'd follow me, please."
"Look, rookie-give it a rest. The night is young and I've got a living to earn. So, beat it."
"I really think you should go home. You look-upset."
Sandy snorted. "You mean I look like hell? The johns don't care how you look in the dark." She turned and walked away.
"It's probably best if we don't discuss that," Mitchell remarked, falling into step beside her.
"What?" Sandy snapped.
"Your line of work."
"Why, you don't approve?"
"It's ... unlawful."
"Now there's a news flash." Sandy stopped once more, turning so quickly her breasts grazed the young cop's arm again. "I don't happen to be so crazy about your job either, you know."
"So we won't talk shop," Mitchell said quietly as they began to walk on beneath flickering streetlamps, stepping through pools of red and yellow, reflections from blinking neon signs. "You knew her, the dead woman?"
"Yeah, I knew her," Sandy said softly.
Sandy hadn't said anything more, but she'd let the rookie walk her home. And after that, when she'd see the young cop walking her beat, she'd acknowledge her with a tilt of her chin as they passed. And then after a week or two, a word of hello, until, unexpectedly one night, Sandy'd been eating alone in Chen's and Mitchell, off duty and in street clothes, had slipped into the seat across from her, and they'd talked. And now, it happened a lot-Dell would show up and they'd have breakfast, and talk about anything-except the life.
"So," Sandy said, dabbing a pancake with plum sauce and rolling the moo shu inside, "you gonna tell me?"
Mitchell hesitated, looking for the right words.
"Dell?" Sandy asked, watching uncertainty play across the rookie's good-looking face. "It's not about what happened, is it? Are you in trouble?"
"No," Mitchell said quickly. "Everything's okay with that."
"Then how come I haven't seen you down here playing super cop since then."
"I'm off the streets for a bit-just routine." At Sandy's quick expression of concern, she added hastily, "It's okay. Really."
"You're fucking lying, Dell," Sandy said angrily, tossing her chopsticks down and rising. "I don't need that from you. And I didn't ask you to come down the goddamned alley and get in the middle of something that wasn't any of your business."
"I was doing my job, Sandy," Mitchell protested, reaching out and grabbing her wrist.
"So was I," Sandy snapped, jerking her arm away.
"No, you weren't," Mitchell growled, sliding from the booth and blocking Sandy's path. "He was raping you."
Sandy stared, astonished by the anger in the young cop's voice. Like it mattered to her. "You know what I do."
"Yes, I know," Mitchell said flatly, trying not to think about the sound of flesh striking flesh, Sandy's head meeting stone. "But that wasn't what was happening with him, was it?"
"No." Sandy sat back down. Mitchell followed. After a minute she said quietly, "We agreed not to talk shop."
"I guess we'll have to reconsider."
Sandy looked away. She hadn't counted on this. She hadn't expected things to get so far, to the point where she cared. "Are you in trouble?"
"A little," Mitchell admitted. "But it will work out."
"Then what did you want to talk to me about?"
"Never heard of her."
"Now who's lying?" Mitchell leaned across the small chipped formica table top. "Maybe this will help you remember her--tall blond detective. The one who had her arms around you? The one who was holding you while you cried on her shoulder?"
Sandy studied her, saw the hard penetrating look in her eyes. Cop's eyes. Jesus, just like Frye's. Oh, man, she so did not need this. "What? You want in on this, too? Is that why you've been coming around? Do you need a snitch, Dell?"
"Oh, for fuck's sake," Mitchell cursed. "No. Goddamn it."
"I wanted to tell you..." God, what had she wanted to do? All she knew was that she'd felt a little sick in the meeting that morning when Frye had mentioned how one of her street sources was trying to track down the porno makers. That maybe they'd get a break in the case from her.
"How good is the source?" Watts asked.
"Very good," Rebecca replied. "She's a hooker, knows every one in the Tenderloin, and she's smart."
"She got any kind of body to go with the brain?" Watts inquired, apparently not noticing Mitchell stiffen beside him.
"What do you care, Watts? I don't think she's looking for a date."
"Cause whoever's making the kiddie flicks is probably making other skin movies, too. Maybe she could hire out for a walk on part." He laughed. "Well, she probably wouldn't need to do any walking-kneeling'd be more like it. They gotta be using local talent, and you know it's always runaways or whores. It'd be good if we could get somebody inside. You can't ask an undercover cop to do it, cause she'd have to fuck somebody, most likely. But a hooker wouldn't care."
Mitchell sat very still, her fist white around the pen in her hand.
"She suggested it and I said no," Rebecca replied in a tone that said it wasn't negotiable. "It's dangerous and she's not trained for it."
"What's it take to lie on her back and spread her legs?"
"We're done discussing this, Watts," Rebecca said, and this time there was a hint of danger in her tone. "She's not some junkie skel like you're used to bracing in an alley. I'm not putting her at risk."
And that's when she'd realized who it must be. Because Sandy and Frye had a history.
"I know you're her source," Mitchell said.
"Don't know what you're talking about."
"Look," Mitchell said, trying to sound calm and reasonable. "Passing on what you hear on the street is one thing. Asking around, that's something else. People notice when you ask questions."
Sandy actually grinned. "Frye will kick your ass if she finds out you're messing with her sources."
"She could try," Mitchell responded sharply. Sandy laughed out loud. "Okay, yeah, probably."
"Listen, rookie. You're the newbie here. I know my way around." Her expression softened for an instant, and she added quietly, "But thanks."
Without thinking, Mitchell reached out and traced the healing wound on Sandy's forehead with her fingers. "Just be careful, okay? One scar's enough."
"I thought it looked kinda sexy," Sandy said, her voice oddly thick.
Catherine lay with her head on Rebecca's right shoulder, tracing her fingertips in a circle around the newest wound on Rebecca's chest. Two stitches closed the puncture site where the catheter had been inserted between her third and fourth ribs to reinflate her collapsed lung.
Rebecca reached up and covered Catherine's hand with her own, stilling it. "The chest Xray was normal this morning."
"I know. I called the ER and asked about it."
"I said I'd go back tomorrow for a repeat, just to be sure," Rebecca continued. They were in bed, naked under a light cover, their bodies touching but distance between them still. It made her insides ache to have Catherine in her arms and feel her slipping away.
"Catherine, I'm sor-"
"Shh," Catherine said softly, her fingers pressed to Rebecca's mouth. "Don't talk. I just want to feel you."
Rebecca pulled her closer, ran her palm down her back, over her hips. Pressing her lips to Catherine's temple, she whispered, "Please don't leave me."
Catherine Rawlings closed her eyes and listened to the steady heartbeat beneath her cheek, the most precious sound she'd ever heard.
Five days later, Michael Lassiter lay with her head on Sloan's shoulder, waiting for the alarm to go off. She was surprised when she felt soft warm lips against her brow. "Good morning," she murmured quietly.
"You know," Sloan whispered in the rapidly graying dawn, "this is the first time we've been together and awake in four days. I've missed you."
"I was just thinking the same thing," Michael said with a sigh, turning her head to kiss the faint hollow just below Sloan's collarbone. "When I get home from work, you're already behind closed doors downstairs. When you come upstairs -- if you come upstairs -- to get some sleep, I've already left for work."
"What's today-Friday?" Sloan asked, trying to dispel the cobwebs from her still fuzzy brain. "You've got that managers' meeting this morning at eleven, then the 4:20 flight to Boston, right?"
"How do you manage to keep my schedule in your head?" Michael asked, still astonished that Sloan always seemed to know where she was and what she was doing, despite whatever case she herself was absorbed in.
"I like to remember the important things," Sloan replied, kissing her again. This time it was a bit more than a good morning kiss.
"I could move the meeting back an hour," Michael suggested, the kiss tingling all the way down her spine. "Except you should probably get some sleep. Do you think you'll be working all night again tonight?"
"Probably," Sloan admitted regretfully, caressing the smooth muscles in Michael's back. "I'm sorry. We've been pushing pretty hard on this case, because believe it or not, I think something's going to break soon. It's just a question of finding the right combination of factors and narrowing down our list of possibilities."
"None of you are going to be able to keep going at this pace for much longer," Michael pointed out quietly. She'd seen Jason and Sloan work nonstop for days, including during her own business crisis when she and Sloan had first met. It happened sometimes, she knew that-there were times when she was working against deadline that she didn't get home for a day or two either. Still, knowing it was part of the job never stopped her from being concerned about the toll it took on her lover. It wasn't her intent to change the way Sloan worked, as if that were even possible. All she wanted to do was interject a tiny voice of reason. "After all," she chided gently, "you wouldn't want to miss something because you were too tired to think straight. It might ruin your superstar reputation."
"Heaven forbid," Sloan laughed. Sighing, she shifted, settling Michael more firmly in her arms. It was good--no, better than good--to be close to her like this. It was this connection to Michael that restored her and gave her the perspective she needed, a perspective which was critical now. "Not much longer, I hope. At least for this stage."
"Are you really close to getting names?"
"We've been making a lot of headway in that direction. Catherine has been here every night for the last week reviewing transcripts with Jason and discussing indexing parameters with Mitchell. That's given me enough free time to narrow down locations of subscribers to the two or three Web credit card clearinghouses that the F.... that other sources provided."
Michael slid her right thigh across Sloan's hips and sat up, straddling the supine woman. Leaning forward slightly, she began to circle her palms over Sloan's shoulders and chest. "Believe me, I'm glad it's going well. I just want to make sure you're still functional when it's over." She lowered herself until she could find Sloan's mouth with hers, kissing her as she slowly rocked her pelvis back and forth over Sloan's stomach.
"Don't worry," Sloan murmured when Michael finally released her. "I promise to be at least one hundred percent anytime it's required." As she spoke, she lifted her hands until she cradled the undersurface of Michael's breasts, rubbing her thumbs deliberately back and forth across the peaks of her hardened nipples.
Michael drew a sharp breath, catching her lower lip between her teeth. She arched her back, pressing her breasts harder into her lover's palms. "I think your services might be needed soon."
"Really? How soon?"
"I'll let you know." Lids fluttering closed, Michael ran her hand slowly down her own torso until her fingers rested between her legs. Already hard and wet.
"Don't hurry," Sloan managed through a throat tight with desire. "You know how much I love to watch."
"I know," Michael whispered back, eyes still closed, listening to Sloan's breathing quicken, feeling the muscles in Sloan's abdomen ripple between her thighs, sensing Sloan's hot gaze upon her. Very carefully, not wanting to lose control, she teased her lover as she teased herself.
Sloan continued to work her nipples, eyes fixed on the slow indolent motion of Michael's hand, loving the exquisite torture of watching Michael's passion rise. "God, you're so beautiful."
Michael's eyes opened, their blue depths virtually eclipsed by the dark shadows of desire. She watched Sloan watch her, nearly slipping over the edge when she saw the hunger in her gaze. "Do you want me to stop?" she asked haltingly, her hips rocking into her hand of their own volition.
"Not yet," Sloan ordered, thrusting upward, forcing Michael's fingers to stroke them both. "Just don't... come."
Michael laughed shakily, her stomach muscles rippling with the first warning contractions. "I should stop then." She thought she could, barely, if she stopped soon.
"No," Sloan growled, her voice a savage groan. Knowing how close Michael was, knowing how much she must want to let go, was making her crazy. Michael was leaning hard into her hands now, her nipples rock hard against her palms, her entire body shuddering. "Hold on," she urged, lifting her own hips so that the back of Michael's fingers pressed into her clitoris. Watching Michael nearing orgasm, feeling her hand circling faster as she pleasured herself, was almost enough to get her there. The intermittent brush of Michael's fingers over her clitoris was all she needed. Desperately close, she became the one struggling to wait.
"Sloan," Michael gasped helplessly. "I'm coming."
Sloan fought not to go off with her, watching the pleasure flow through Michael's body, her own nerves melting as she began to burn from the inside out. Her arms trembled, supporting Michael's weight as she convulsed, and her legs twisted as orgasm thundered through her. Her shouts were lost in Michael's cries as they held to one another while pleasure raged.
Moments, eons, later, Sloan managed, "What do you think?"
"A hundred and ten percent," Michael gasped, still trembling.
"Hmm," Sloan grumbled. "Maybe I am slipping."
Michael laughed. "You know, I can cancel this overnight to Boston. I don't want to be away if something breaks on your case."
"No-go ahead," Sloan said, brushing her cheek against the fine hair at Michael's temple. "We're not that close. I'll pick you up at the airport tomorrow night like we planned."
"If something happens, will you call me? I'll come right back." Michael brushed her hand along Sloan's side, feeling her stiffen. "I know you, Sloan. You'll want to be in the middle of it. And I want to be here."
"Just go sew up your deal," Sloan insisted. "You'll be back in plenty of time. Promise."
"Mmm," Michael said, curling into Sloan's body and closing her eyes. "I'll hold you to that."
Eighteen hours later, Catherine looked up as the door to the conference room opened. As it never failed to do, her heart rate skyrocketed at the sight of the handsome blond in the pale blue button-down collar shirt and faded jeans. It was unusual to see Rebecca working in anything other than a well tailored suit, but it was, after all, eleven p.m. on a Friday night. She supposed that when Rebecca worked the streets well into the early morning hours, she did it in jeans and a leather jacket. The memory of just how good Rebecca looked when dressed that way was followed quickly by an image of Sandy's small cozy apartment and the remains of the takeout meal. Impatiently, she set that thought aside. There was work to be done, and musing about Rebecca's secret life was not going to help.
"You're working late," Rebecca remarked, surveying the pile of computer printouts on the table. Other than several phone calls and one hurried lunch together in the hospital cafeteria, they hadn't really had much contact the entire week. It was the longest they had been separated since Rebecca moved back to her own apartment. With each passing day, Rebecca felt more at sea. She had a feeling that Catherine was waiting for her to say something, or do something, but she wasn't certain what that was.
"I can't believe how much traffic there is on these sites," Catherine said, indicating the stacks of on-line chat transcripts. "And these are just the ones that Jason thought were interesting."
"This is the fifth night into a row that you've been at it. You look tired. You do still have a day job, remember."
Catherine studied her, aware of the reservation in her tone. The concern was genuine; she could see it in her eyes. But Rebecca hadn't touched her when she'd walked into the room, and although she sat within arm's length now, the emotional distance between them seemed unbridgeable. Not for the first time, she wondered where Rebecca had been spending her nights. "I'm okay. Reading through these is a lot easier than doing an hour or two of therapy."
Rebecca smiled wryly. "I can only imagine. How's it going?"
"Surprisingly," Catherine said, pushing back in the chair with a sigh, "not too bad. It occurred to me this morning while I was making rounds that we aren't the only people profiling."
Rebecca edged a hip onto the corner of the table, her expression interested. "What do you mean?"
"Well, thus far, Sloan and Jason have been concentrating on finding individuals who fit a certain profile. I'm sure that the computer wizards in the other room will be able to manipulate this information and eventually come up with something concrete. Still, they've amassed a tremendous amount of information which could take a long time to analyze."
"Right," Rebecca grimaced. "If I think about it too hard, it gives me a headache."
"Actually, me too. I think I might be able to add another piece to the puzzle and speed up the process."
"How?" Rebecca asked, crossing the room and testing the heat of the coffeepot with her palm. It was warm and the coffee smelled fresh. She lifted the pot and gestured in Catherine's direction. "Want some?"
"Thanks, no," Catherine replied with a shake of her head. "Anyhow, it occurred to me that if someone is making money, presumably a lot of money, producing and selling pornographic movies--as well as broadcasting live videos of child prostitution--they have to have an audience."
"Well, that's the point, isn't it?" Rebecca said, moving back to Catherine side with her coffee in hand. "All of these dirt balls that Jason's been communicating with are the audience members."
"I'm not arguing that they are all purveyors of child pornography in one form or another. But only a select few -- probably very few -- would actually be in the position to subscribe to this live broadcast that Sloan's so anxious to get a lead on."
"Wait a minute," Rebecca said, an edge of excitement in her voice. "It's just like any television program -- a target audience always has a particular profile. A particular demographic make-up. Is that what you mean?"
"Precisely," Catherine stated emphatically. "That's exactly what I mean. Obviously, the viewers are going to be men, probably between the ages of twenty-five and fifty. Secondly, they need expensive equipment and high-speed Internet access--that requires a certain income level."
"Probably single, or at least someone who has a large chunk of private time," Rebecca interjected, a note of enthusiasm in her voice.
"So my theory," Catherine continued, "is that there are probably a number of middlemen recruiting potential subscribers for this-broadcasting service--for want of a better word. And we should be able to identify them by the questions they're asking."
"So you're looking for someone who is trying to find out if Jason--well, the Jason persona--is a single adult male with expendable income who might be interested in something more than still pics or cybersex."
"You've got it. I'm looking for someone who appears to be profiling. What I've done is give Mitchell a list of hypothetical questions that these recruiters might ask so she can screen for them. Then we'll pull the transcripts of anyone who hits fifty percent and, with luck, I can string all of that individual's chats together and see if the whole picture fits."
"I don't know why Clark didn't get you in on this from the beginning," Rebecca said with a shake of her head.
A voice from the door responded, "Because we didn't know what the hell we were doing. And if you repeat that, I'll deny all knowledge." Grinning, Sloan nodded to Rebecca as she made her way to the coffeepot. "How are you doing?"
"Fine." Rebecca glanced at the woman who entered behind Sloan. "Officer Mitchell. Putting in a little overtime?"
"No, ma'am. I'm here on my own time."
Rebecca raised an eyebrow. "Any particular reason?"
"Since Dr. Rawlings is here, I thought I could help out with logging identifiers and running probabilities. Seemed like the best use of resources."
"It's your dime, Mitchell." But she made note of it. The kid was quality.
"Any luck with street intel, Frye?" Sloan inquired.
"Maybe. I'll know better in a couple of hours," Rebecca responded as she glanced in Sloan's direction, not noticing Mitchell's body stiffen or her expression darken.
"Here's something," Catherine said almost to herself. Every eye in the room turned to her.
"What?" Sloan asked immediately.
Catherine pushed a sheet of paper into the center of the table. "Look at these. It's segments of five chats with the same person over the course of the last ten days."
All conversation stopped as they crowded around to read the annotated transcript.
"Sloan?" Rebecca queried, glancing at the pages. "What's the background here?"
"Let me see." She read the notations from the log Mitchell had generated with her indexing program that were printed across the top of each sheet. "These are segments of conversations that took place in a private chat room reached by way of an open bulletin board. The main site is trafficked by kids and adults-no real way to tell anyone's age because even when they say, it might not be true. Many pedophiles pretend to be teenagers until they have established a relationship with a kid, and even then, may never reveal their true age. At any rate, this site is known for lots of chat and a lot of invitations to go private for sex. The room where these transcripts are from is frequented exclusively by men who have a taste for young girls-eleven to fourteen mostly. Invite only. You have to be sponsored."
"How did Jason get in then?"
Sloan grinned, a predatory grin without a hint of humor. "We hacked in. Easy. Jason's persona is BigMac10."
"Creative," Rebecca said wryly.
"These guys aren't subtle."
Transcript One - Excerpt
BigMac10: Hey, man. Saw you with KewlChic12 over on the main board. Did you score
LongJohnXXX: Oh, yeah. Sweet
BigMac10: Wish I coulda been there
LongJohnXXX : Where were you? Watching?
BigMac10: LOL. Yeah - until you went private
LongJohnXXX: You get off on that?
BigMac10: Every chance I get
Transcript Two - Excerpt
LongJohnXXX: Back again, huh, buddy
BigMac10: Can't stay away. Such fine company
LongJohnXXX: Still watching?
BigMac10: Whenever I can
LongJohnXXX: Got flash to trade?
BigMac10: Stills don't do it for me
LongJohnXXX: Know what you mean. I like 'em moving You?
BigMac10: Moving and screaming. Oh yeah
"Jesus," Rebecca murmured. "He is good."
"Yeah," Sloan said quietly. "And it doesn't come easy."
Rebecca glanced at her, but said nothing. She understood standing up for your partner. She returned to reading.
Transcript three - Excerpt
LongJohnXXX: Hey, BM10 - any action on the boards?
BigMac10: Just talk out there
LongJohnXXX: Kids stuff
LongJohnXXX: How long you been lurking?
BigMac10: Few weeks here Been around HotRods before that
LongJohnXXX: You sharing the line?
BigMac10: No - all mine. Home alone
Transcript Four - Excerpt
LongJohnXXX: Evening watchman
BigMac10: Not much to see here tonight
LongJohnXXX: Second hand pickings, huh
BigMac10: Insufficient for a man of quality
LongJohnXXX: Quality costs
BigMac10: Not an object - for the right merchandise
LongJohnXXX: You looking to buy
BigMac10: Maybe if the stuff is prime
"And then this from last night-early this morning, I should say,"" Catherine remarked, pointing to the last entry.
Transcript Five - Excerpt
LongJohnXXX: Yo-BM10. You lurking?
LongJohnXXX: How'd you do?
BigMac10: How so?
LongJohnXXX: Don't be a cock tease. HotChic13
BigMac10: <g> Now who's watching
LongJohnXXX: yeah - so give
BigMac10: she blew me off
LongJohnXXX: Whoa - for real?
BigMac10: No, man - she went private then backed out. Left me high and hard
LongJohnXXX: Bummer. No sure thing in cyberspace
BigMac10: yeah - not like RL
LongJohnXXX: The real thing is sweet
BigMac10: But hard to come by
LongJohnXXX: depends on who you know
BigMac10: yeah - I'm available<g>
"This guy has potential," Sloan agreed. "He sounds like he's getting ready to offer Jas- uh, BigMac something."
"And he's mentioned watching a half dozen times," Mitchell pointed out. "Could be he's brokering the real time feeds."
"There's a problem," Rebecca remarked with a frown.
"What?" Catherine asked in surprise. "Surely it can't be entrapment?"
"No--trouble for Jason."
"You want to spell that out?" Sloan asked, her voice suddenly edged with flint.
Rebecca regarded Mitchell for a moment. Mitchell squared her shoulders, set her jaw, and stared back. Clearly, she was not going to leave until ordered.
"How many of Jason's chats do we have recorded, Mitchell? Logged in somewhere."
"All of them," the young officer relied immediately. That had been part of her assignment, and she was very thorough.
"That's what I figured." Rebecca rolled her shoulders, then faced Sloan, whose eyes had grown hard. "Jason could be in trouble if he's been soliciting sex from minors on the internet, even in the course of an investigation. And these transcripts need to go into anything I take to the DA for a warrant."
"Soliciting sex?" Sloan said, her surprise evident.
"The interaction mentioned here with HotChic13," Rebecca clarified, waving the last page. "Is that recorded somewhere also?"
"Yep." Sloan's grin reappeared. "Every red hot word."
"Except," Sloan added, "I'm HotChic13,"
Mitchell coughed. "Uh, and I'm PhillyFilly11. BigMac10's other cybersex partner."
Catherine laughed. Rebecca fixed Mitchell with a hard stare. "Redefining your assignment, Officer?"
"No, ma'am. Just-expanding it."
Sloan looked for a moment as if she were going to come to Mitchell's defense, then though better of it. You didn't get between a superior officer and an underling. Not and keep the superior officer as an ally, or a friend.
"Just remember you're a cop, Mitchell. Accountability is part of the job."
Sloan smothered a smile. She was willing to bet there were a dozen things a day that Frye never reported and would deny any knowledge of. But she appreciated her keeping her rookie on the straight path. "We'll desist using her, Sergeant, if you think it's a problem."
"No," Rebecca responded. "Go ahead as you've been. But she doesn't make contact with anyone else."
"Roger," Sloan said with a half-smile. "So," she continued, turning to Catherine. "You think this LongJohn guy's our best bet so far?"
"It certainly looks as if he's pumping Jason for the right kinds of information."
"Should we be a little more aggressive with him then?" Sloan asked. "Lead him a little?"
Catherine nodded thoughtfully. "Try to run into him tonight. I'd think it would be understandable if Ja...BigMac were curious after their last exchange and asked about real life opportunities."
"Can you stay for a while and monitor the chats in case we get a hit?" Sloan inquired of the psychiatrist.
"Good. I'll advise Jason of the plan so he can start trolling that board."
Sloan left with Mitchell close behind. Catherine regarded Rebecca with a soft smile.
"You like Mitchell, don't you?"
"Why do you say that," Rebecca replied, an eyebrow arched in surprise.
"You're hard on people you like."
Rebecca winced. "On you, too?"
"No," Catherine moved closer and rested her hand on Rebecca's arm. "I didn't mean it that way."
"I've missed you," Rebecca confessed, feeling her entire body sway toward Catherine like a flower to sunlight. "Can I take you home later?" At Catherine's look of hesitation, she added quickly, "I'll just drive you home. I won't stay or--"
"Oh, Rebecca," Catherine said quietly, a too familiar note of sadness in her voice. "Don't you know how much I've missed you, too? Do you think I don't want you?"
"I just didn't want you to think I meant...that all I wanted..." Rebecca swore sharply, then leaned the last few inches and kissed her gently. After a very long minute, she lifted her mouth away and murmured, "It's not just about sex. That's all I meant."
"Are you going out tonight?" Catherine asked, stepping back so she could think clearly.
"I'll be back in a few hours."
"I'll be here."
Rebecca waited across the street from the all night Gateway Diner on the corner of 13th and Locust. The early September night was chilly, and she hunched her shoulders inside her worn leather jacket. Secluded in the shadows beneath the awning of a shoe repair store, she watched the parade going in and out through the revolving doors. Some were bar patrons who had left the neighborhood watering holes in search of something to eat before wending their way home; some were prostitutes of both genders taking a break from working the streets or just socializing with friends, and some were merely lonely people with nowhere else to be and no one waiting for them to be there. At 1:15, as Sandy's message had said, the young blond approached walking north on 13th and, a moment later, she joined Rebecca in the shadows.
"Hey," Sandy said. Dressed in a short black leather skirt, open-toed high heeled sandals, a pale scoop neck top that outlined her high firm breasts, and a thin jacket that clearly wasn't providing any warmth, she shivered visibly and wrapped her arms around herself as if to ward off the night.
"You're gonna have to start covering up if you don't want to freeze your assets off," Rebecca remarked.
"If they can't see it, they don't buy it," Sandy rejoined.
Rebecca glanced out into the street, knowing that the occupants of the cars slowly crawling by were cruising the sidewalks for hookers or hustlers, looking for a few minutes of company. "Did you ever think of getting into another line of work?"
"Yeah. Except no one seems to be hiring nuclear physicists at the moment. You know, space travel ain't what it used to be."
"There are programs available," Rebecca said quietly. "Places you could get job training or--"
"Frye, if you keep on with this social work talk you're really gonna scare me. Now do you want the information I've got for you, or not?" Sandy had no intention of discussing her choices with the tall blond cop. For one thing, it was none of her business. For another, the quiet concern in Frye's voice bothered her and she didn't want to think about exactly why. When people cared about you, they ended up owning a little piece of you. She didn't want anyone to have even the smallest hold on her. Because then she was vulnerable.
Rebecca blew out a breath and rolled her shoulders, wondering what the hell she was trying to do. Sandy had probably been a runaway, most likely running from abuse, like the majority of young kids on the streets. Not all of them, she reminded herself, thinking of Anthony DeCarlo's teenage daughter who had left home to punish her parents--an act of adolescent rebellion that had almost cost her life. But most of them arrived on buses or made their way into the city by hitchhiking, only to end up sleeping ten to a room and selling themselves in one way or another for a meal, or drugs, or merely some human connection. Sandy had made a choice for survival, and she had used her wits and whatever else she had to make that happen. As far as Rebecca knew, the young woman wasn't using drugs and she wasn't selling herself at truck stops or under bridges in the underbelly of the city. She had a decent apartment and it looked like she was eating well and taking care of herself. If she was using her body to make a life for herself, there were worse things she could've done. And no matter what she was doing, Sandy was a source of information and that was all. Rebecca finally replied, "Yeah, tell me what you've got."
"Let's go somewhere and get a drink. I'm freezing out here."
A few minutes later they were seated at a back table in the Two Four Club, an after hours place that catered to a mixed clientele whose only common bond was that they didn't want to go home until they had no other choice. Rebecca walked to the bar and asked for a cup of coffee for herself and a beer for Sandy. The bartender grimaced at her request, but poured lethal looking liquid into a styrofoam cup and passed it to her across the bar. She carried the cup and Sandy's bottled beer back to the table, then fished four folded twenties out of her jeans and put them underneath Sandy's beer bottle.
"I know a girl who made some movies." Sandy deftly extracted the bills and slid them into a pocket under the waistband of her skirt.
"Name. When and where. Details. "
Sandy shook her head. "First of all, who she is isn't going to help you and I'm not telling you. I know what she knows. Take it or leave it."
"Give me what you got." Pressing wouldn't help. Sandy was unyielding about protecting her friends.
"She says she and two other girls had sex with three or four guys."
"And that's news?"
"Well, it is when somebody's filming it for some kind of live TV."
"What do you mean by live?" Rebecca's pulse quickened.
"She says one guy told them that everything they said and did was going to be viewed just like prime time television right when it was happening, so to be careful not to use their own names." Sandy sipped her beer, then continued with an expression of loathing on her face. "And to make sure they, you know, spoke up."
"Why?" Rebecca asked.
"He gave them a...what do you call it...script to look over before they started filming. But apparently it wasn't much, just a list of things to say, you now...the usual..."
"Give me a for instance."
"The things guys like to hear. Oh baby, you're so big. It feels so good. Don't hurt me. Hurt me. Don't come in my mouth. Come all over me." Sandy looked past Rebecca at some vision only she could see. "That kind of thing."
"Did your friend say who they were, describe the men in any way to you?"
Sandy shook her head again. "No names. She went along as a substitute for some chick who usually did it but couldn't make it because her boyfriend'd put her in the hospital. Says she didn't even know the other girls she was with very well."
"How old were they?" Rebecca asked quietly. Under the table, her hands were balled into fists and she ignored the desire to break something.
"13, 15 and 16. But they all look about 12, especially if they dress for the part."
Sandy watched something very close to fury flicker across the starkly handsome planes of Frye's face. There it was again, that undercurrent of concern that touched something in Sandy that she didn't want to be awakened. It happened when she was with Dell, too. Even just being around Dell made it happen. Made her feel connected. "What?" she asked, realizing that Frye was speaking.
"Did she tell you where this was?" Rebecca repeated.
"Two different places--and apparently the girls don't know where it's going to be until that night. Someone picks them up and takes them there and it's all very, you know, Mission Impossible. Darkened windows in the van, that kind of thing. A warehouse is all she told me." She finished her beer and pushed the bottle aside. "I'm pretty sure it's in the city though, because she said it wasn't more than half an hour and it seemed like they were driving in circles for quite a while."
Rebecca felt the familiar thrill of the hunt. This was a real lead. "She give you anything else?"
"Uh uh. Just that she did two of them--one was about six months ago and the other three weeks ago."
"How often do these live films get made?"
"She's not sure." Sandy began gathering her things. "Look, I can probably find out more. I just thought you'd want to know about this operation."
"You did plenty," Rebecca said seriously. "I'll take it from here." She'd have Watts get with someone from juvie and pull the files on all the girls under 17 known to be turning tricks and still on the streets. One of them would know someone who'd been in on one of these shoots. The community was too close for this to be a secret. Eventually a location or a name or a description would pop up.
"I could pass, Frye," Sandy said quietly. "I do it all the time."
"What?" Rebecca asked sharply, her attention suddenly completely focused.
"For 14 or 15. If I send out the word that I want in-"
She should do it. She should use her. It was probably a better avenue to whoever was behind the whole operation than waiting for Sloan and Jason to sift through hundreds of pedophiles in hopes of finding one who could open a door for them.
"No. You're done with this." She stood, shrugging into her jacket. "Thanks."
"Hey, Frye?" Sandy asked casually. "Who's Catherine anyway?"
Rebecca regarded her expressionlessly for a long moment, then smiled. A brief, quicksilver smile. "Anybody ever tell you you ask too many questions?"
Than she was gone, leaving Sandy grinning at her back.
When Rebecca returned to Sloan Security, she found Jason, Sloan, and Catherine crowded around the large central work station while messages scrolled on three of the four computer monitors simultaneously. Glancing over Jason's shoulder, she asked, "Any progress?"
"Lots of action," Sloan responded as Jason continued to chat electronically with someone by the name of Everhard1040. "No sign of LongJohnXXX yet."
"Mitchell go home?"
"Under duress," Sloan said with a laugh. "She's been here since eight yesterday morning, so I told her to take off."
It was 1:30 in the morning, and Rebecca felt the dull edge of fatigue beginning to cloud her brain. She shook herself mentally, annoyed that she still didn't seem able to function at full speed. "How long are you going to keep at it?"
"A while longer," Jason muttered. "He might still show up."
"Catherine, I think you can probably call it a night," Sloan said with a sigh. "We'll keep an eye on things here a while longer."
"If you get anything that looks promising," Rebecca said, "call me. As soon as we have something solid, I want to take this to my Captain and start discussing what we'll need for a warrant."
"You might as well start the wheels moving-you know how long the DA's office takes to make a decision. At the very least, we're going to need to confiscate any computer equipment we find so I can work on it back here," Sloan advised with an optimism Rebecca did not share. "Once I have just one CPU that's been receiving these live feeds, I can start tracing where the broadcasts are coming from."
"We'll probably need your crime scene techs on the scene to log everything we find and remove also," Jason remarked, his eyes still fixed on the constantly changing messages and occasionally typing a message himself.
"Fine. I was planning on giving my Captain an update tomorrow. I'll call you in the morning before I meet with him if I don't hear from you first."
"Good enough," Sloan agreed.
Bending down, Rebecca murmured to Catherine, "Are you ready to leave?"
"Yes." She was used to dealing with people-emotions--in the intimate confines of therapy, one on one, face to face. Watching the disembodied phrases stream across the screen, knowing that somewhere there was a person attached to them, but having no sense of who that person truly was, disturbed and disoriented her. It left her with a compelling need to feel connected, to see and be seen. "More than ready."
"Is your car here?" Rebecca asked as they stepped out onto the deserted street. Sloan's building faced the river one block west of Front Street, the busy thoroughfare which ran along the waterfront, but at this hour, no one was about.
"Yes, I'm parked just down the block," Catherine informed her, "but I'll probably come back to review more transcripts some time tomorrow, so I don't mind leaving it here overnight."
"Fine. I can swing by and pick you up at your place in the morning before I go in to see the boss." Rebecca unlocked the passenger door of the Corvette and held it open for Catherine. After walking around to the driver's side, she slid in behind the wheel and reached to put the keys in the ignition. Catherine's soft touch on her wrist stilled her motion. Turning to face her passenger, she said quietly, "What is it?"
"Let's go to your apartment."
"My apartment?" Rebecca said, startled.
"Yes. It occurred to me over the last few days that all of our time together has been spent at my place. I don't know where you go when you leave me."
Rebecca was still for a long moment, then she said in a low voice heavy with feeling, "When I'm not with you, Catherine, I'm either working or waiting to be with you again."
Catherine smiled fondly, struck by how Rebecca's simple words stirred her so much. Insistently, she said, "I want to see where you sleep. I want to be able to imagine you there when I'm in bed alone." She didn't add out loud, I want to be able to imagine you somewhere other than Sandy's apartment--or a hospital bed.
"Okay. I have to warn you, though, it's the maid's week off."
Catherine laughed and settled back into the bucket seat. "I promise not to look under the bed."
From Sloan's, Rebecca drove south on Third Street into Queen Village, a pocket of small row houses and restaurants sandwiched between the newly trendy South Street business district and South Philadelphia, the historically working-class Irish and Italian area. Ten minutes later they were climbing the stairs to Rebecca's second floor apartment above a mom-and-pop grocery store which had been owned by the same family for over fifty years. Rebecca tried frantically to remember exactly what condition she had left her apartment in, but she drew a blank. She so very rarely paid attention to her surroundings when she was home. It was a place to sleep and make coffee and shower before going back to her real home, the city streets. After unlocking the door, she pushed it open and said, "Come on in."
Catherine stepped through and waited for Rebecca, who pulled the door closed, bolted it, and flicked on a wall switch to her right. After her eyes adjusted to the light, Catherine looked around, smiling to herself when she found that the apartment was very close to the way she had envisioned it. One large living room with a door to the left that opened into a small kitchen and another on the right that most likely led to the bedroom and bath. A utilitarian sofa with the requisite coffee table in front of it, a very nice stereo set with a layer of dust coating it that suggested that it rarely saw any use, and a high-end television comprised the furnishings. An end table supported a haphazard stack of paperbacks and a gym bag lay open on the floor to her left, apparently having been abandoned there after Rebecca removed her soiled work out clothes. It looked like a bachelor apartment which, of course, was what it was.
"As I said," Rebecca began in an apologetic tone, "it's not much to look at --"
"No," Catherine said. "It seems very much like you. Utilitarian, and a little bit..." she quirked an eyebrow, grinning at Rebecca, "Spartan."
"Spartan, huh?" Rebecca laughed, too, and began to relax. "Can I get you something? I've got soda, I think, and..." her voice trailed off as she followed Catherine's gaze.
"Is that yours?" Catherine asked quietly, her tone carefully neutral. Her heart was pounding furiously, but she knew that her voice sounded calm. That was the benefit of years of training.
Rebecca stared at the half empty bottle of Johnnie Walker Black on her coffee table. "Yes."
"Are you drinking?" It terrified her more than she would have ever dreamed to think of Rebecca in any kind of trouble, physically or emotionally. If she were drinking again, then something was very wrong. To find that something that serious could be happening to someone she loved and that she wouldn't even know, wouldn't even suspect, made her wonder what exactly had happened to the two of them. How could they have drifted so far part? "Rebecca?" Catherine asked again into the silence.
Rebecca took a deep breath. "No, I'm not."
"But you bought it?"
"Yes. I did. Four nights ago." She shrugged out of her jacket and released the clasp on her shoulder holster, removing it and stowing it in its customary spot on top of the bookcase next to the door to her bedroom. Turning, she asked, "Can I take your jacket?"
Catherine simply nodded and slipped it from her shoulders. Approaching Rebecca, she held it out in one hand. Rebecca took it and carefully placed it on a hanger in the small closet next to the front door. She walked to the sofa, lifted the bottle of scotch in one hand, and carried it into the kitchen. She returned empty-handed and sat on the sofa. Catherine sat down beside her.
"Why?" Catherine asked, leaning toward her but not yet touching her.
"I've asked myself that every day for the last four days," Rebecca said at length. "I can't tell you exactly why, but I was lonely, and I was angry, and I was tired. I can usually deal with one or two of those things at one time, but when they all come together, I mostly just want to forget."
The words and her expression shredded Catherine's soul. "Is it me?"
"No," Rebecca said, her voice a whisper. "It's me."
"Who is it?" Sandy called irritably.
She opened the door and regarded her unexpected visitor. "You okay?"
Neither of them moved; each leaned against the doorjamb on opposite sides of the threshold, regarding one another as if uncertain what to say next. Finally, Sandy said, "It's three o'clock in the morning, Dell. What's going on?"
"Did you talk to Frye tonight?"
Sandy's eyes sparked with sudden anger. "We're not going there."
"Just tell me you're not doing something crazy for her."
"What I do for her or anyone else isn't any of your business," Sandy said, starting to close the door.
Mitchell straight armed the door before it could close completely, but she made no move to enter the room. "You met her tonight, didn't you? I don't want you to tell me what you told her. Just tell me if you're doing anything except passing on information."
"Go home, Dell," Sandy said, but her voice was softer now.
"Please, Sandy," Mitchell said with a note of quiet desperation. "I can't sleep. I keep thinking... these guys..."
"There's a reason we can't be friends," Sandy said, her eyes impossible to read but her tone bitter. "And this is it. For a little while, you can forget what I do, who I am. But not all the time, right, Dell? And this is what happens."
"You're wrong," Dell whispered. "The only thing I can't forget is the way you looked lying in that alley with blood on your face."
Sandy blinked. The torment in Dell's deep blue eyes was impossible to ignore. She wasn't certain what brought the tears to her own eyes -- the fact that Dell was hurting or the fact that the young cop could feel something like that for her. All she knew for certain was that no one had made her cry in a very long time, and she had sworn that no one ever would again. In a voice she didn't recognize, she asked, "Are you coming in?"
"No," Mitchell said hoarsely, her entire body trembling.
Because I want to so bad.
Breathless, Catherine rolled over and pushed Rebecca away. "I have yet to determine how it is that every time I intend to have a serious conversation with you I end up in bed with you instead."
"Sorry," Rebecca gasped. "I think I started that."
"Well," Catherine murmured, linking her fingers with Rebecca's as she stared at the ceiling in the semi darkness, "you had help finishing it."
Rebecca waited for Catherine to continue, wondering what she was going to ask or what she hoped to hear. When the silence between them expanded to fill the room, Rebecca spoke out of a desperate need to break through the barriers between them. "Every night I poured a glass of scotch and sat staring at it... I don't know for how long. Then I'd get up and pour it down the sink."
Catherine turned on her side to study Rebecca's profile in the moonlight. "Does anyone know?"
Startled, Rebecca replied, "Who would know?"
I should know. But this wasn't the time for that. "Watts... or Whitaker?"
"No," Rebecca replied abruptly. Then, aware of her defensive tone, she added more softly, "I can't talk to Whitaker about this, Catherine. I'm still waiting for him to sign off on my incident evaluation. The last thing I can tell him is that I feel like getting drunk."
"I understand, believe me. I see people every week who don't want their employers to know. Still, it would probably help if you talked to...someone about this," Catherine said carefully. "A friend or...me." Gently, she stroked the length of Rebecca's arm. "But keeping it inside is going to make it harder not to drink."
"I know. I think I'm past it now. I emptied the bottle down the drain tonight."
Catherine felt a small swell of relief, but she knew it was never that easy. "And the next time?"
After a pause, Rebecca answered quietly, "Next time... I'll tell you."
"Thank you," Catherine whispered. "What you did, not drinking, was incredibly difficult, Rebecca. I'm proud of you."
Rebecca turned on her side to face Catherine, her palm resting on the crest of Catherine's hip, their bodies only inches apart. "I want to make things right between us. And I don't know how."
"What we're doing right now will make things right between us," Catherine said, her voice tight with emotion. "I need to know you, Rebecca. Not just all the strong, brave, wonderful parts of you, but the parts that are uncertain or lonely or ... frightened."
"I need practice at this."
"So do I," Catherine admitted. "I haven't cared about anyone like this before, Rebecca. You bring up feelings in me I didn't even know I was capable of having. Before you, my life was ordered and settled and comfortable."
"Doesn't sound too bad," Rebecca said with a hint of laughter.
Catherine laughed, too. "No, it wasn't. It wasn't bad at all; it was just not remarkable. Being with you is quite remarkable."
"Captain Henry told me that I could be promoted to Lieutenant if I wanted it," Rebecca said in a low voice. "I could tell him yes."
"Do you want that?"
"I wouldn't be on the street as much. I'd have more regular hours."
Catherine leaned closer and kissed the point of Rebecca's shoulder. "And you'd do that for me?"
"No," Rebecca said, her eyes meeting Catherine's. "I'd do that for us."
"Maybe someday," Catherine said softly, stroking the edge of Rebecca's jaw with her fingertips, feeling the muscles bunched tightly beneath her fingers. "Right now, I'd rather you just share your life with me, not change it for me."
"I don't think I've ever done that with anyone, but I'll try. I swear to God, I'll try."
"Good. You can start in the morning." Catherine slipped her fingers into the hair at the base of Rebecca's neck and guided the other woman down on top of her. "But right now, I'd rather not talk."
Rebecca slid her thigh between Catherine's legs and leaned on her elbows, staring down into Catherine's face. "I feel like part of me is missing when I'm not with you."
Maybe it was her words, maybe it was the pressure of warm firm muscle against her nerve centers, but a surge of desire so powerful it caused every muscle in her body to tense wrenched a sharp cry from Catherine's throat. She wrapped her calves around Rebecca's leg and thrust hard into her, forcing the blood to pound faster through her already swollen flesh. Pressing her lips to Rebecca's ear she whispered raggedly, "I don't want to... think. Make it so I can't."
First, Rebecca kissed her until she couldn't speak. Then she found her nipples, and teased them, tormented them, until she couldn't breathe. Then, she touched her, stroked her, and finally filled her... until she couldn't do anything except feel.
The phone rang at 6:40 a.m. Rebecca groped for the receiver and fumbled it to her ear. "Frye."
"You up yet?" Sloan asked, her never ending, nearly irrepressible energy practically palpable over the line.
"No. You been to bed yet?"
"Nope. But I've got something for you."
Rebecca sat up in bed, and Catherine rolled over to rest her head against Rebecca's stomach, wrapping one arm around her waist. Rebecca threaded the fingers of her free hand through the thick tresses at the base of Catherine's neck. "Tell me."
"LongJohn finally showed up last night, and he's dangling bait in front of BigMac's...nose. You'll have to see the transcript, but basically, he's offered BigMac a show. A live show."
"Excellent," Rebecca rejoined, her mind already prioritizing her day's work. "I need as many details as you can give me. I'll be over in an hour."
"I'll put the coffee on."
Rebecca leaned toward the night stand to hang up the phone.
"What is it?" Catherine asked sleepily.
"Sloan's got something for us."
"I take it that means we're getting up?"
Rebecca slid down into bed and settled Catherine into her arms. "We've got a few minutes. You can sleep a little longer."
Catherine ran her palm along Rebecca's ribs and down to the base of her abdomen, her fingers settling lightly in the cleft between Rebecca's thighs. "I wasn't thinking of sleeping. The last thing I remember from last night is feeling like my entire body had disintegrated. It was wonderful, but at about the point where my arms and legs disassembled, I think I lost consciousness." She laughed softly, edging her fingers lower as she spoke.
Rebecca's body had come to attention, and she murmured huskily, "Like I said, we've got a few minutes."
Catherine pressed closer, her mouth against Rebecca's neck. Teasingly, she murmured, "I might need a little longer than that."
"Uhh," Rebecca gasped as fingers closed around her length, "take all the time you want."
If Sloan was surprised to see Catherine arrive with Rebecca, she didn't show it. Hair wet from the shower, in a tight black T-shirt and black jeans, she met them at the elevator with a handful of printouts in her fist. Her eyes alight with excitement and the thrill of the hunt, she said, "Come on down to the conference room."
Jason was there waiting, looking immaculate in a crisp white shirt and blended silk trousers. Grinning at them, showing not the slightest hint of fatigue, he said, "Looks like I might have a date this weekend."
They all helped themselves to coffee and then sat down with copies of the most recent chat transcript.
Transcript Six - Excerpt
LongJohnXXX: Hey big man, wondered where you were
BigMac10: Looked for you earlier, but you were nowhere
LongJohnXXX: Busy arranging entertainment for some friends
BigMac10: entertainment? anything hot?
BigMac10: live action?
LongJohnXXX: Next best thing--live on screen
BigMac10: oh man, how sweet
LongJohnXXX: turn you on?
BigMac10: you know it. Room for one more?
LongJohnXXX: could be- -not exactly an open house, you know
BigMac10: I understand, but I've got the green. No matter the price
LongJohnXXX: You know liberty place?
BigMac10: like my own backyard
LongJohnXXX: Cybercafe at 17th and market, Log on Sunday 7 pm
BigMac10: and then?
LongJohnXXX: then we'll see-come prepared to party
"What does this mean?" Catherine asked. "Why does he want you to go to this cybercafe?"
"It's a test," Jason explained. "One, to see if I'm serious, and two, to make sure I'm not trying to trace him from my computer. I suspect he's been logging on somewhere other than his house just to protect his equipment."
"He'll probably be there--in the cafe," Sloan added. "Trying to get a look at Jason and see if he looks legit or like a cop."
Jason smiled. "What do you think?"
"You don't look like a cop--more like a choir boy," Rebecca said seriously. Only the slight quirk at the corner of her mouth suggested she was teasing. "This looks good," she added as she leaned back in her chair. "I'll take copies of these and the CI reports to my captain this morning. We'll have the necessary support and paperwork if we get to the point where we can move on this guy."
"It's far from a lock," Sloan warned in an unusual show of reservation. "This guy is very smart. We're not talking about amateur hacks making videos in their basement. The fact that he wants Jason to contact him from a commercial machine means that he's aware that he can be traced. That shows a fair amount of sophistication."
Jason nodded in agreement. "He's been very careful so far not to spell anything out. Not once has he mentioned kids or ages or any details of what he's offering."
"We'll have to talk about putting someone inside that cafÈ with you, Jason," Rebecca said thoughtfully. "At the very least, we'll need to be able to follow you so we can set up outside his house once you get there." Glancing at Sloan, she asked, "How do we play this once Jason's inside? Is there any chance we can put an undercover cop in his place? I can probably find someone who is computer literate enough."
"I wouldn't recommend it," Catherine interjected. "Not at this point. Jason and this man have a relationship. There's a certain style of speech, a certain way of responding to verbal cues, that Jason has established with him. No one else is going to have that flow."
"I agree," Jason said. "Besides, we have no reason to think this guy's dangerous."
Rebecca didn't necessarily agree. If this was an operation being run by the local organized crime syndicate, then anyone involved was capable of violence. The hierarchy within organized crime dictated that everyone, at every level, protect the integrity of the organization at all cost. "What about once he's inside this guy's place? How will we get the signal to go in?"
"Ideally, we'll want to wait until they're receiving the live feed," Sloan explained. "I want as much information in that CPU as possible before we confiscate. Plus, it will preserve Jason's cover if you bring him in with this guy, just in case we need to use him again where he'll be visible."
Rebecca regarded Sloan sharply. The cybersleuth had been a cop, all right, because she still thought like one.
Again, Jason nodded, the same predatory glint in his eyes as Sloan's. "You can bet this guy is going to be wired for everything. You can count on it. Anyone receiving this kind of feed will be recording and probably uploading to their own server. He'll have a sophisticated wireless system that Sloan should be able to hack into from outside the building. She ought to be able to see what we're seeing."
"This is loose," Rebecca insisted steadily. She knew she didn't have to tell Sloan, or Jason for that matter, what she meant. There were a dozen ways something could go wrong.
"It won't be by the time we get ready to roll," Sloan said just as steadily.
"We'll need to inform Clark," Rebecca added with a sigh.
"Let's tighten it up first," Sloan suggested.
"Right," Rebecca said brusquely, slapping her hand on the tabletop. "Okay then. I'll take it to my boss."
Catherine rode down with her in the elevator and walked her to her car. "I'm going to stay here for a few minutes, then I have few patients to see."
Rebecca nodded, tossing the file folder with the transcript copies onto the front seat. "Okay." She started to turn away, then as an afterthought added, "Uh, I'll be at the stationhouse most of the day doing this paperwork and making phone calls. See you tonight?"
"Yes," Catherine replied, smiling at Rebecca's effort to explain her day. She tried, even when it was foreign to her, and it made Catherine feel more cherished than any other gift possibly could. "That would be just perfect."
When Rebecca walked into the squad room later that morning, Watts was seated at his desk, his chair turned toward the door. The minute he saw her, he got to his feet and walked quickly to her. "Man, am I glad you finally called me. If I had to chase down one more flasher at the mall, I was going to have to start taking drugs. Have you got something? Because I've been working the computers every chance I get, and I still can't spring any names. It seems like every time I get close, I run into another dead end. It's uncanny. In fact, if I didn't know better, I'd say someone had been erasing files."
Rebecca regarded him closely, because she had learned that Watts rarely said anything that he didn't mean. Only people who didn't know him very well thought he was all empty talk. "There are still some things you and I need to look into along those lines, but not right now. I've got something to take to the Captain, and I need you assigned officially from here on out."
Watts beamed and then, looking around the squad room as if to make sure that no one had seen him, added, "Anything I need to know before we go in there?"
"No surprises," she assured him. "Just try for once to follow my lead, and keep quiet--if you can."
He just grinned as she turned and walked away. Five minutes later they sat facing Captain John Henry across the expanse of his desk, waiting for him to finish a phone call. When he put down the receiver, he immediately said, "It's Saturday morning. What have you got that can't wait?"
Rebecca began unhurriedly to explain. "The task force you assigned me to has turned up a lead here in the city on a kiddie porn ring. We're going to need to stake out a suspect who we believe is receiving live child pornography over the Internet, marketing it to people he meets in chat rooms, and possibly broadcasting it as well. We think that he may have an indirect connection to the people making the videos, and they're the ones who are using kids for sex."
Henry regarded Rebecca quietly for a moment. "This task force, it's being run by Justice, right?"
"Officially, yes. Most of the work has actually been done by the private computer consultants that Justice brought on board. The feds have pretty much taken a backseat up until now. I'd like to keep it that way. Any arrests should be ours, and if there's a connection to anything local, I want to know about it first. You know what Justice is like--they'll snatch up a couple of these guys and offer them immunity to turn State's evidence on somebody higher up the food chain, and we'll never bring anybody to trial."
"The civilians--who are they? You trust them?"
"I do," Rebecca informed him. "It's an outfit by name of Sloan Security, and the two main people, Sloan and McBride, are experienced and highly skilled. In fact, Sloan could probably get this new electronic investigation division that the commissioner has been harping about off the ground. I don't think we've got anybody in-house who can actually do it."
Henry merely grunted, then glanced at Watts. "And Detective Watts figures in this, how?"
"We're going to need manpower for stakeouts, plus I have information from a confidential informant that some of the younger prostitutes may be involved in making these films. I don't have any names yet, and I'd like Watts to work with Harris in Juvie to track down some of the younger girls and question them. We really need to work through the juvenile unit because they've got all the records, and most likely they can find these kids a lot faster than we can. Plus, Harris is a good detective. I'm willing to bet she has relationships with some of these kids and can help us get the information we need."
"So what's the rush to go to the DA? You know they're going to be running with a skeleton staff, and finding a judge to sign off on a warrant is always tricky on a weekend. Plus, it usually pisses off the judge to get paged during a golf game and that doesn't help matters."
"It's possible that we're going to have contact tonight or tomorrow night with one of these Internet guys dealing with the live video broadcasts. We're going to need to bring him in for questioning, go through his place looking for a verification of child porn, and confiscate all of his electronic equipment. I'd like to have a warrant to cover that."
"Which means we're gonna need the crime scene techs, too," Watts added. "That's a lot of over time and it will help to have the DA on board to back us up with that."
"Thank you, Detective," Henry said dryly. "I'm well aware how the fiscal distribution of my division works."
Rebecca squelched a smile, but she knew that Watts had made a good point. Administrators like Henry, even the ones who had once been good cops like he had been, were highly motivated by the bottom line, which was usually financial. The more paperwork he had to back up his allocation of funds and manpower, the better it would be.
He pushed back in his chair and sighed. "Okay, put the paperwork on my desk and I'll make some calls."
"Thank you, sir," Rebecca said, beginning to rise.
"You stay, Frye."
Watts hesitated for a second, glancing quickly from Frye to Captain Henry, and then left the room when it became apparent that no one was going to say anything until he did.
When Watts had closed the door behind him, Henry said, "How actively are you involved in this investigation?"
"Just gathering the information as it comes in."
"I still haven't seen anything on you from Whitaker."
"I'll see that he gets it to you."
"See that you do, Sergeant."
Once outside his office, she glanced at her watch and decided that Whitaker probably wasn't available on a Saturday afternoon. Monday would be in plenty of time.
"What are you thinking about?"
"Hmm? Oh," Rebecca exclaimed with a wry smile. "I was thinking how nice it was not to be thinking about anything."
They were walking hand-in-hand through the narrow streets of Old City on First Saturday, a monthly event where artisans of all persuasions displayed their wares on the sidewalks for passersby to peruse, musicians played in alcoves and on street corners, and the many bistros and cafes served drinks or cappuccino at tiny tables lining the walkways. It had a certain Mardi Gras flavor with the historical charm that made Philadelphia famous. They'd had dinner at a small, intimate restaurant and then had taken to the streets along with scores of others to luxuriate in the still warm September evening.
"You might have been thinking that five minutes ago," Catherine said with a faint laugh, "but now you have that look of complete and utter detachment that spells cop mode."
Rebecca blushed, an occurrence so rare for her that it was nearly reportable. It was true, she had been thinking about the case, and she had no idea that it showed so plainly. All she'd wanted when the evening had begun was to somehow let Catherine know how crazy in love with her she was, and now, not three hours later, here she was obsessing about the job again. Jesus. "I'm sorry," she said quickly, "I was just--"
"Don't apologize. I have to admit that I've been wondering myself what was happening with Sloan and Jason. This waiting for something to break can get very wearing."
"Really?" Rebecca was pleasantly surprised. It hadn't occurred to her that Catherine could become as absorbed in a case as she, although she certainly should have realized that after their experience with Raymond Blake. Then, Catherine had been as persistent as any obsessive detective in bringing him to justice. "You know, we're just around the corner--"
"I was just thinking the same thing." Catherine stopped walking and regarded Rebecca with an eager glint in her eyes, then glanced at her watch. "It is after nine on a Saturday night. Think anyone is still around?"
"Can't hurt to see."
Ten minutes later, Jason's now familiar voice said from the speaker above the door, "Come on up. Might as well have a party."
When they had ascended the elevator and disembarked on the third floor, they discovered Jason and Mitchell in their now familiar poses, hunched over the monitors and murmuring conspiratorially.
Rebecca regarded Mitchell impassively when the young officer turned at the sound of footsteps. Mitchell gazed back, a faint hint of challenge in her eyes. It was the first time Rebecca had ever seen her anything but appropriately respectful. "Mitchell," she said with a perfunctory nod.
"Detective," Mitchell said stiffly.
Turning to Jason, Rebecca asked, "Anything?"
"The usual. Saturday night seems to bring out all the perverts. LongJohn hasn't shown up though. I'm not entirely certain that he will, since we already have a specified meeting time tomorrow night. On the other hand, I want to be here if he does log on."
Catherine nodded in agreement. "He may very well want to be sure that you're still interested, and I wouldn't be surprised if he sends a few more verbal tests in your direction--to verify your authenticity. He's got to be suspicious that you-BigMac, I should say--might be law enforcement. I would suggest you appear enthusiastic, but don't probe too overtly for more information."
"Gotcha." Jason reached to his right and thumbed through an inch high pile of computer printouts. "These are from the last couple of days, and there might be some other possibles in here." Glancing at Catherine he said apologetically, "Have you got a few minutes?"
Catherine hesitated, looking at Rebecca, who shrugged infinitesimally. By unspoken agreement, they had thus far kept their personal involvement private from the others in the group, for no other reason than that they both preferred to separate their professional and personal lives whenever possible. "Sure," Catherine said. "I'll just take them back to the conference room and go through them."
As she lifted the pile and turned to leave, Rebecca looked pointedly at Mitchell and said, "Officer, let's take a walk."
"Yes ma'am," Mitchell said and rose instantly.
The two of them headed in the opposite direction from the conference room toward the far end of the vast loft space, finally stopping beneath an expanse of windows that afforded them a view all the way into southern New Jersey. Between them and the industrial center of Camden ran the Delaware River, illuminated by the lights of oil barges and other ships. "Captain Rodriguez called me this afternoon," Rebecca began without preamble, referring to one of the uniform commanders and Mitchell's superior. "He told me that all they need is your paperwork cleared up and you'll be reassigned to street patrol."
"I don't want to be reassigned," she said immediately.
"Is there some problem in house?"
Mitchell glanced at her sideways, surprised by the question. It was rare for detectives to take any interest in uniform officers, and rarer still for them to question the workings of other divisions. Frye was essentially asking her if she had a problem with her superiors or her fellow officers, which was to her knowledge, unheard of. "No ma'am. No problems."
"Okay." Rebecca expected no other answer from Mitchell. The young officer was clearly a by-the-book cop, and if she were having problems, she'd keep it to herself like any good cop and try to handle it on her own. Rebecca didn't intend to push her on it, not now. They had other issues to get clear on. "Then why don't you want to go back to your regular duty?"
Mitchell squared her shoulders and said directly, "Because I want to stay on this assignment. I like working with Sloan and McBride... and I like working with you."
Rebecca turned her head and regarded Mitchell steadily. "Every uniform wants the gold shield, at least any uniform worth anything at all."
"You've got a long ways to go before that, Mitchell."
"But you've made a good start." Rebecca slid her hands into her pockets and rocked slightly on the balls of her feet as she watched the night slide by on the river below. "I'll see what I can do about keeping you around."
"Thank you very much," Mitchell said, trying not to sound as relieved as she felt. Frye was not the type you kissed up to.
"One more thing."
Mitchell looked at her questioningly. "Yes, ma'am?"
"You want to tell me about you and Sandy Sullivan?"
Mitchell's heart began to race. Suddenly, for the first time since the day she had stood on the parade ground at West Point as a new cadet, she felt her knees shaking. In a clear voice that she willed not to waver, she answered, "No, ma'am, I do not."
"If you get between me and this investigation, or any other investigation, I'll have your badge."
"Good," Rebecca said. "We'll meet here tomorrow afternoon at 4 p.m. to review the details of the operation."
"Yes, ma'am," Mitchell said, hoping that the shock didn't show in her voice. Frye had just invited her along on a high level tactical maneuver. It was more than a dream come true, it was a career making opportunity. And that after asking her about Sandy. How in hell had she known?
"And Mitchell," Rebecca added as if in afterthought, "never turn your back on the night. You never know who might be watching."
Catherine reappeared an hour and a half later. Rebecca sat with her feet up on the counter, leaning back in a swivel chair, watching a computer monitor. Jason and Mitchell were busy inputting data into one of their seemingly endless analysis programs.
"I've pulled three that I think have promise. Officer Mitchell," Catherine said, "I've circled the identifiers that I'd like you to cross-reference."
"I'll get on it right away."
"Tomorrow will surely be soon enough," Catherine said with a smile. Glancing at her watch, she said, "It's nearly 11:30. I don't know about the rest of you, but I need a break. Where's Sloan, by the way? She seems to be the only one of us with any common sense."
Jason laughed. "Don't you believe it. She went to the airport to pick up Michael. If it hadn't been for that, you can bet she'd be right here."
"Michael?" Catherine said, trying to remember if she had forgotten someone on the team.
"Oh," Catherine said, somewhat surprised. She would have thought Sloan was a lesbian, but perhaps that was just because she found her attractive. Smiling inwardly, she reminded herself that appearances were most often deceiving. "Well then, I'll say goodnight."
"I'll walk you out," Rebecca said, getting to her feet. "Jason--call me if anything comes up. Mitchell--go home."
Both of them nodded, but they were already engrossed in some bit of electronic information, their heads bent close together over a print out. Neither of them said goodnight.
Michael Lassiter glanced at her passenger. "I could have taken the train from the airport, you know."
Sloan reclined in the passenger seat, her left hand resting loosely in Michael's right, their fingers intertwined. Smiling, she replied without opening her eyes, "I know that. I just wanted to be there when you came home."
"I'm glad you were," Michael said softly, her voice thick with a panoply of emotions--wonder, gratitude, desire. In all the years of her marriage to Jeremy, she had never felt this kind of welcome or the peaceful sense of well-being that came from knowing precisely where you belonged in the universe. "I love you."
"Good thing," Sloan said drowsily. "Because I'm mad about you."
Michael had rarely seen Sloan exhausted, but she had known when she'd left for Boston that it was unlikely that her lover would sleep at all in her absence. From everything she had gathered, things were moving so quickly on the new investigation that even had she been in town, Sloan would probably have been working nearly twenty-four hours a day. It was only her quiet insistence that her lover get an occasional hour or two of sleep that ever brought her upstairs during this kind of intensive assignment. Turning off the four lane highway that ran along the river onto the narrow streets of Old City, she stated emphatically, "When we get home, you're going straight to bed."
"Promise?" Sloan rejoined, turning her head on the seat and finally opening her eyes. Grinning, life clearly returning to her features, she added, "I think you're exactly what I need to jump start my engines."
"Well, you can just motor down, hotrod," Michael said with a laugh. "Maybe in the morning I'll take you for a ride."
"I'll pencil you in to my schedule then."
Michael was about to launch a comeback as she turned onto their block. Slowing, peering at the unexpected obstacle in her path, she muttered in frustration, "For God's sake, who would leave that right in front of the driveway."
Had Sloan been less tired, perhaps she would have been faster to make a connection. As Michael downshifted into park and opened the driver's door to get out, Sloan glanced idly out her window toward her building. A shopping cart, turned over on its side, lay on the sidewalk in front of the wide garage doors leading into their garage. Odd, she thought to herself, as she dimly registered the sound of an engine starting nearby. Suddenly some long-ingrained distrust pulsed through her brain, and she turned just as Michael stepped from the car. "Michael, no..."
The words were lost in the sound of squealing tires, a muffled scream, and the rending of metal as the driver's door of the Porsche was torn off and catapulted down the street. By the time Sloan extricated herself from the car, which had been pushed into a parked minivan, the vehicle which had struck her lover was gone.
Ten feet away, Michael lay motionless on the street, a dark pool spreading on the pavement beneath her head.
"My god, did you hear that?" Catherine exclaimed as she and Rebecca stepped from the elevator.
"Sounds like a hell of a fender bender," Rebecca muttered, instantly alert, "and it was awfully close."
Suddenly, the sounds of frantic shouting were audible from just outside and Rebecca hurriedly pushed through the door to the street. Directly in front of her at the foot of the steps leading to the entrance, Sloan's Porsche was canted onto the sidewalk with the engine still running. She glanced inside through a spider web of shattered safety glass. Empty. From the far side, she could hear strangled cries. "Catherine, stay here for a minute."
"Rebecca, someone's hurt. I'm a doctor," Catherine said urgently from just behind her. "I need to attend to the victims."
"I know that," Rebecca said sharply, not used to having her authority questioned at a scene. "But you'll have to wait. I don't know what happened here. It might not have been an accident and I don't want another victim." Especially not you.
There was no time for discussion, and the detective didn't wait for a reply. Instead, she climbed over the rear bumper of the parked minivan which now housed a portion of the front of Sloan's abandoned vehicle, her cell phone in one hand and her automatic in the other. Even as she assessed the activity in the street, visually searching for possible assailants, she called for an ambulance and back-up in clipped, commanding tones. From the corner of her eye, she checked the figures in the street. Sloan, blood streaking her face and arms, was on her knees above the prone body of an unconscious blond woman Rebecca did not recognize. She couldn't tell how badly either was injured and she couldn't allow her concern to divert her mind from more important tasks. Like insuring that there were no further threats remaining in the immediate area and preserving any evidence of the crime.
Catherine clambered over the wreck after her and Rebecca cursed. "Keep down at least," the detective barked, blocking the three women as best she could from the street with her body, scouring the windows in the buildings on both sides of them, searching for any kind of movement behind the many darkened windows. She could see nothing suspicious, but it was impossible for her to tell if any of the people in the densely packed buildings might represent a danger. Curious onlookers were approaching from down the block, but fortunately there were no vehicles to be diverted yet. She glanced down once more and saw a widening pool of blood beneath the blond's head. "Catherine, keep them right there until back-up arrives."
"No one is moving her without a backboard," Catherine said grimly after one quick look.
Mitchell and Jason burst from the building. "Oh god," Jason gasped, stopping in his tracks and staring in horror.
Rebecca, turning at the sound, ordered, "Mitchell, secure the scene. Backup is on the way. I'll call for a crime scene unit and find out where the fuck the ambulances are. This was a hit and run at best."
"Right," Mitchell responded crisply, her face tight with shock but her voice strong as she clipped her badge to the waist band of her jeans. Glancing once at the badly smashed car, she asked in a quiet voice only Rebecca could hear, "Intentional?"
"We have to assume so, until proven otherwise," Rebecca affirmed, noting approvingly the officer's quick, intelligent assessment. "Keep your eyes open. Just because this was a vehicle hit doesn't mean there won't be someone in the crowd or on a rooftop with a gun. I'll call Watts down to canvas with you."
"I'm on it," the officer replied, heading off in the direction of a group of civilians who were rapidly approaching.
"Jason," Rebecca added brusquely, "you get back inside."
Unsurprisingly, he ignored her and made his way to Sloan.
"Fuck," Rebecca muttered in surrender and phoned Watts.
Sloan, still on her knees, curled protectively over Michael's motionless form, her hand gripping her lover's limp one, a world of anguish on her face. "Call an ambulance..." she implored to no one in particular, her eyes fixed on Michael's pale face. "Oh, Jesus, please... Michael."
"Sloan," Catherine said gently, carefully placing her hand on the dark-haired woman's shoulder. "I need to be where you are so I can evaluate her." The injured woman lay nearly under a parked car and Catherine couldn't get room to assess her status.
"No." The sound was choked, agonized. Looking up into Catherine's face, eyes unfocused, Sloan insisted desperately, "No. I'm not leaving her."
"No, of course you're not," Catherine said quietly. "Just let me close enough to help her."
Jason moved forward and knelt next to his friend. "Sloan--let Catherine help Michael. Just move back a little bit. You don't have to leave her."
Sloan looked at him as if she didn't recognize him, and then she blinked and her eyes seemed to clear. "It was supposed to have been me, Jason. It's my car. She was driving..."
"It's okay. We'll worry about it later." His voice trembled on the words.
Mutely, Sloan shifted a fraction, tenaciously gripping Michael's right hand. Catherine gently displaced her further until she could lean down and place her fingers on the woman's neck, searching for a pulse. Automatically, as often happened when examining a patient no matter whether physically or psychologically, she observed many things at once, assimilating impressions almost unconsciously. While her fingers registered the faint, thready beat of blood through the artery she probed, her mind noted how achingly beautiful the injured woman was. The perfect unmarred features fit for an artist's canvas, incongruously free of any sign of pain, as if she were only peacefully slumbering. The left hand lying gently between her breasts, a heavy platinum band glinting in the halo of light from the streetlights overhead. The lover bending to her, devotion etched in every line of her hauntingly handsome face. Only the maroon circle of blood rapidly darkening to black cast a nightmare pall over the ethereal tableau.
Catherine wrenched her gaze from Michael's face. Quietly, she murmured to Sloan, whose shallow, tortured breathing spoke of unbearable grief. "Listen to me. She's alive. That's all that matters. We'll have her in the hospital in a few minutes where she can be taken care of. Do you hear me?"
Sloan coughed and tried to catch her breath. She couldn't think; she couldn't feel. She wasn't even certain her heart was beating. All she could sense was terror. A helpless terror that made her want to pound her fists against the stone. "Please. Please don't let her die." She looked at Catherine, her eyes fathomless pools of anguish. In a voice beyond torment she repeated, "Please."
Catherine couldn't offer her the one promise she begged for, so she said nothing. She placed the fingers of one hand beneath Michael's chin, keeping her airway open, and carefully slipped a folded handkerchief which Jason had supplied behind her head to staunch the flow of blood from a large open wound. Rebecca paced back and forth in front of them, one eye on the street, the other on them, snapping orders into her cell phone. Mitchell, amazingly, had found crime scene tape somewhere and was cordoning off the street while instructing gawkers to stay back.
In the distance, sirens approached.
An hour later, Rebecca walked into the brightly lit trauma unit waiting room where an anxious group waited. Catherine approached, her green eyes darkened to nearly black with concern.
"Any word?" Rebecca asked in a low voice, running one hand down Catherine's arm in lieu of a kiss.
Catherine shook her head slightly, but some of the tension left her chest at the sight of her lover. The waiting room, the waiting, Sloan's torment-all of it brought back too many images still too fresh. Not long ago it had been Rebecca. Rebecca lying so still, so pale, bleeding, so much bloo...
"Hey," Rebecca said softly, alarmed by the faint trembling she felt beneath her fingertips. "You okay?"
"Yes," Catherine said hoarsely, forcing the memories back behind barriers still too fragile to contain them. "No word yet. I've been doing what I can to get updates, but it's Saturday night, and it's a mad house in there. All I know is that she's still being evaluated."
Rebecca nodded, looking past the psychiatrist to the other occupants of the cramped windowless space that might have been any of a dozen such hospital rooms she'd waited in during the course of her career. She concentrated on deflecting the pain that filled the air, needing to keep her distance so she could work. "Who's the redhead?" she asked, remarking on the woman in the blue print shirt and chinos sitting with one arm wrapped protectively around Sloan's waist.
"Sarah Martin," Catherine replied, following her gaze. "Jason's partner-and Sloan's best friend apparently."
"Huh," Rebecca remarked with interest. Now I'll bet that's a story.
"What's happening back at Sloan's?" Catherine asked, needing to think about something, anything, other than this nightmare.
"I finally got Watts out of bed, and he and Mitchell are running the scene. They're canvassing the neighborhood, interviewing anyone who was around. Or anyone who will admit to being around. There's a tavern on the corner and they'll need to talk to everyone they can chase down who was there. That'll most likely take all night and a good part of tomorrow. Flanagan's team showed up -- they're getting the crime scene photos, analyzing the impact patterns, looking for identifying tire treads. The usual. Flanagan's fast, but it will still be at least a day or so before she has anything concrete. This kind of crime leaves a ton of physical evidence to sort through."
Neither of them laughed at the irony of that statement.
"Was it intentional?" Catherine asked quietly, because she had to know. She had to know how close death had come this time.
Rebecca hesitated, then exhaled raggedly. "Looks like it, yeah. Someone was expecting Sloan to come back and had set it up so she'd have to get out of the car. Obviously, it didn't go down the way they planned."
"Why Sloan?" Catherine asked carefully, fighting to ignore the churning in her stomach. "Why not...you?"
Rebecca's eyes shot to Catherine's, instantly concerned. "It wasn't me. It's not going to be me."
They both knew there was no way to guarantee that, but it wasn't the time to discuss something they couldn't change. "Still, why Sloan?"
"More importantly," Rebecca said darkly, "why now?" Although she hated to do it, she needed to find out. "I have to interview her."
"Oh, Rebecca," Catherine murmured. "She's so vulnerable right now. Can't it wait?"
Rebecca heard the censure in her lover's tone, and it hurt, but nothing showed in her face. "This was attempted murder. No, it can't wait."
Catherine watched her walk away, wishing she could take back the words. She of all people should know what it cost Rebecca to do the job she did. If the image of Sloan's agony hadn't been so fresh in her memory, she would have remembered that.
Rebecca set a cup of weak vending room coffee in front of Sloan, then walked around the small table and sat down across from her. They were alone in a consulting room down the hall from the trauma unit waiting area. "How you doing?"
The other woman shuddered as if with a sudden chill, then met Rebecca's gaze with eyes that were surprisingly clear. "I'm okay. If I could just see her..."
"Catherine's working on that right now. She'll come and get us if there's any word."
"No one knew I was going to the airport," Sloan began as if anticipating Rebecca's questions. "Well, Jason knew of course. But he was the only one."
Rebecca said nothing, preferring to let Sloan tell it in her own way. The security consultant wasn't a suspect to be interrogated, but a witness, and a traumatized one at that. Her recollection of the event would be distorted by grief and fear and the mind's natural desire to block out the things too terrible to contemplate, but fortunately, she was also a trained investigator. She would know what they needed to do, and the things that Rebecca needed to know.
"Obviously," Sloan continued in a weary voice, "someone set it up so I'd have to get out of the car to move the cart, and they were waiting for me. I can't tell you exactly what happened next, because I didn't see anything. It was over in a few seconds and for most of that time the Porsche was moving from the impact. I was getting tossed around pretty well." As she spoke, she unconsciously twisted the band on her ring finger, something Rebecca had never seen her do before. Rivulets of sweat ran down her face, despite the fact that the room was cool.
"What about after you got out of the car?" Rebecca asked quietly. "Did you see anything then?"
Again, Sloan shivered. Her voice was harsh as she said, "All I was thinking about was Michael. By the time I got out of the car and into the street, all I could see was Michael...she was lying on the pavement..." Her voice trailed off and she closed her eyes. "Sorry," she whispered.
Rebecca waited. She knew very well that Sloan was reliving those few terrifying seconds, seeing and feeling it all over again. After a minute, as kindly as she could, the detective probed, "Did you see the taillights of the vehicle? Did you see anyone on the street--someone who might have been watching the building?"
"No," Sloan replied hoarsely. "Nothing."
For now, that would have to be enough. Tomorrow, Rebecca would ask her again. Right now, her mind was numbed by shock and fear. When the horror had receded just a bit, she might remember more.
"It was supposed to have been me," Sloan said dully.
"That's my read on it, too," Rebecca said, knowing that only the truth would help ease Sloan's guilt. "The timing is too damned coincidental for this to be anything else. Who knows about the operation tomorrow night besides you and Jason?"
Sloan's face hardened, and anger began to drive out the mind-numbing dread. "No one. Michael...Michael left town before the whole thing came down, and I didn't tell her when I spoke to her on the phone. Jason may have told Sarah; we can ask him. But Sarah's ex-State. She'd never say anything to anyone."
"I'll double check with him just to be sure," Rebecca commented, but she was inclined to agree that the leak hadn't come from the three of them.
Suddenly, Sloan stiffened. "Clark. Clark called this morning--uh, Saturday--yesterday morning--and I told him we had something. That we expected an operation to go off before the end of the weekend."
Rebecca was silent, considering Sloan's information. Clearly, their plans had been revealed to someone who felt that Sloan, as the person most likely to uncover someone via the computer traces, was the biggest threat. The choices for the source of the leak were limited. Besides Sloan and Jason, Mitchell and Catherine knew of the upcoming meet. Neither of them had the right kind of contacts, even if they had slipped and mentioned the plans, which she doubted. She herself had told Captain Henry when she briefed him about the warrant. Recalling Trish Mark's observation that after Captain Henry and the Chief of Detectives had met with her boss, the investigation into Jeff Cruz and Jimmy Hogan's assassinations had been dropped, Rebecca considered that it might have been him. It was hard for her to believe that John Henry was on the payroll of the organized crime syndicate, but it wasn't beyond the realm of possibility. Then there was Avery Clark, who had come out of nowhere and put together an elite but highly unusual team. The team resembled the black ops units that worked undercover, often employing less than sanctioned avenues of investigation. Like Sloan had been doing. And if something went wrong, the government would be largely unaccountable. Clark remained a cipher, as did his true motives, and that made him a very good suspect.
"I'll get to the bottom of this, Sloan. You have my word," Rebecca said stonily. "For now, we have to assume that no one is above suspicion."
Ali Torveau slid the CAT scan onto the view box and pointed. "Linear nondisplaced skull fracture, right here in the occipital area. Big scalp laceration over it. Brain looks okay, although I'm sure there's a significant contusion."
Catherine studied the scan, nodding. "What about systemic injuries?"
"In addition to the head injury? Bilateral pulmonary effusions, fractured left renal pelvis, and a hemarthrosis of the left knee. Basically, she got bounced around pretty good, but most of the major organ systems were spared long-term damage."
"What about the kidney injury? Is it going to require surgery?"
"Probably not," the trauma surgeon said. "We'll repeat the CAT scan in six hours and follow her hemoglobins, but the perirenal space is so tight, hemorrhage usually stops on its own. Fortunately, her pulmonary status is stable right now and I took out the endotracheal tube. There's always a possibility that she could develop acute respiratory distress syndrome, but we'll cross that road when we come to it."
"What about the intracranial injury?" Catherine inquired. "Any idea what to expect in terms of her regaining consciousness?"
Again, Torveau shrugged. "She'll wake up when her neurons recover from being shaken all to hell. I can ask neurology to come and see her, but you know damn well they're going to say they can't tell us anything."
Catherine smiled. She was well aware that surgeons had little regard for medical specialists who generally were unable to give a hard and fast prognosis. "If you're confident that there's no surgical problem, I'm sure her family will be, too. Can I see her before I talk to them?"
"Sure," Torveau said, "She's in trauma bay one. Bring them in whenever you want. I've got to go--there's a spleen that wants to be liberated waiting for me upstairs in the OR. They can catch me later if they have questions."
"Go ahead, and thanks for letting me take up your time."
"No problem." And then she pushed through the double doors and was gone.
Catherine walked through the brightly lit treatment area to one of the cubicles where stabilized patients awaited transfer to a regular hospital room. Nodding to a nurse who was busy charting the events of the resuscitation, Catherine approached the bed where Michael lay. On the far side of the small room, a rack of monitors gave continuous readouts of her status while IV poles hung with resuscitation fluids stood silent sentinel.
"Michael," Catherine said softly, bending down close to her. It was impossible to tell what an unconscious person heard, or stored in their memory to be recalled weeks, months, or even years later. She always assumed they were listening, and she always spoke to them as if they would remember. "My name is Catherine Rawlings. I'm a friend of Sloan's."
To her surprise, Michael's eyelids fluttered and her left hand twitched. Reaching for her hand, Catherine cradled the slender fingers in hers. "Michael?"
Michael opened her eyes, her pupils wide and unfocused. "Sloan?"
"She's just fine. I'll bring her right in."
Catherine thought she saw a flicker of a smile before the other woman drifted away again. "And she'll be much, much better now," she whispered, gently releasing Michael's hand.
Rebecca and Sloan walked out of the consultation room and the first person they saw was Avery Clark. Rebecca wasn't even aware of Sloan moving, but in the next instant the security expert had the federal agent up against the wall with her hands fisted in the folds of his jacket.
"It's about time you told us what the fuck is going on," Sloan snarled, inches from his face. "Justice is famous for keeping secrets, and one of your secrets almost got my lover killed." She punctuated each word with a shove that bounced him against the wall.
For an instant, Clark looked stunned, and then Rebecca saw his hand move under his jacket toward his weapon. In all likelihood, it was an automatic response to Sloan's unexpected attack, but Rebecca wasn't about to let weapons come out. "Sloan," she barked, "let him go."
Sloan appeared not to hear and pushed Clark's body hard against the wall again. Rebecca moved to separate them, grasping Sloan's left shoulder with her right hand and wedging herself between them. "Back off, Sloan."
This time, Sloan might have heard, because she appeared to loosen her grip on Clark's jacket. Apparently, that had been the opening he was waiting for, because he brought both arms forcefully up between Sloan's, breaking her grip and pushing her back at the same time. The force of his blow deflected off Sloan's arms as she let go, and his swinging fists caught Rebecca in the chest with the force of a sledgehammer. Rebecca rocked back on her heels, pain exploding in her chest.
By that time, they had drawn a crowd. Jason was between Clark and Sloan and the two men were shouting. Sarah was at Sloan's side, gently but firmly pushing her away. Rebecca sagged against the wall, one hand pressed to her chest, struggling to get her breath.
"For God's sake," Catherine exclaimed, having seen the last of the altercation as she approached down the hall. "Have you all lost your minds? Sarah, take Sloan back to the waiting room. I'll be there in a minute." She kept walking until she reached Rebecca, her heart in her throat. Pain was carved into every line of the detective's body, and for one terrifying second, Catherine saw her as she had been the night in Sandy's apartment-- gasping for breath, one lung down, on the brink of full arrest. Oh no, not again.
Rebecca forced herself to focus and took a slow, shallow breath. "I'm okay," she managed, reading the panic in Catherine's face. Taking another shaky breath, she repeated, "I'm okay. He just...surprised ... me, that's all."
"You need to sit down," Catherine said in a voice which she hoped sounded calmer than she felt.
"Okay, right. Just... give me a minute," Rebecca said, uncertain that she could actually make it across the room. She looked around, putting together the events of the last few furious minutes. "Where's Sloan?"
"Sarah has her. Rebecca, please," Catherine said, slipping her arm around Rebecca's waist.
"What about Clark?" Rebecca said through gritted teeth. God, her chest hurt.
"With Jason, I think." Catherine gave up trying to keep her quiet and simply guided her slowly across the room to the row of orange plastic molded seats. "Sit. I mean it."
Rebecca sank down willingly and leaned her head back against the institutional tan wall. "What a fuck up."
"I'll be right back," Catherine murmured, returning a second later with a stethoscope borrowed from one of the trauma nurses. Unbuttoning Rebecca's shirt, she slipped the bell under the material and murmured, "Breathe."
Rebecca took a breath, and then another. It hurt, but she was getting air. "I'm...oka..."
"Shh," Catherine admonished, moving the stethoscope over both sides of Rebecca's chest. Finally satisfied, she sat back and slipped the instrument from around her neck. "You sound okay. We should probably get a chest x-ray just to be sure."
For a moment, Rebecca looked as if she might protest, then she nodded. "Can it wait until I get everybody settled down here?"
Catherine didn't want to negotiate where Rebecca's well-being was concerned, but she recognized the attempt at compromise. Inwardly, she was still trembling, but Rebecca was trying to meet her half way, and she needed to try, also. "All right, that's a deal. But not more than an hour."
"Good enough," Rebecca said, getting just a bit shakily to her feet.
Rebecca brushed the wisps of hair back from Catherine's temple gently. There had been too much fear for one evening. For one lifetime. And she couldn't swear it wouldn't happen again. But this she could do. "Yes. I promise."
Less than an hour later, Sloan, Rebecca, and Avery Clark gathered in yet another unmemorable conference room at University Hospital. They had to meet there, because Sloan wouldn't leave until Michael's repeat Cat scans were done and Torveau decided if surgery was needed on her fractured kidney. Rebecca watched warily as Clark and Sloan eyed each other across the ten foot space, ready to dive between them yet again if the tension in the air became physical.
"If I've got some reason to apologize," Sloan said flatly, watching Clark's face, "I will. But I'm not convinced that I do. You find out in the morning that I'm close to nailing someone and that evening a car tries to run me down. That seems just a little too neat."
Clark looked from Sloan to Rebecca, judging the battle lines and allegiances. Shrugging as if to acknowledge that he was outnumbered, he sat down and gestured with a hand for them to do the same. "Look," he began resignedly, "I can tell you what I know, but I don't have the answers you're looking for."
"Any answers would be a start," Rebecca interjected sharply. "There are holes in this investigation big enough to drive a truck through. What's the real purpose behind what you've got us doing?"
"This is a legitimate attempt to expose the child pornography ring that we believe is operating in this area," he insisted. "We don't know yet how deep or how far this kind of Internet crime extends, but it's much broader and already more technologically sophisticated than we ever dreamed--and the dispersion of the actual pornography is just one small piece of it. It ties closely to child prostitution, and that ties strongly to organized crime. Because of that, it's a priority with any number of federal agencies as well as your own department. We're the advance team, in a sense."
The two women waited in silence. There was more; there had always been more.
"The situation in this city is slightly more complicated." He glanced at Rebecca and hesitated. "We've suspected for a long time that organized crime had compromised local law enforcement at the highest levels. It's a legacy that goes back forty years or more. It's less overt now, but it's still there."
"Every city has that kind of corruption to some extent," Rebecca remarked impatiently. "It's a fact of life. What's that got to do with us?"
"Every time we get close to the syndicate in this region, our eyewitnesses disappear, our evidence gets lost, or some jurisdictional oversight results in the case being thrown out before we ever get to court."
"So you've got a leak," Sloan said through gritted teeth, frustrated with the typical circumspect vagaries she thought she'd left behind when she'd left Justice. "Or else you're the problem."
"It's not our leak." Clark sagged slightly, looking suddenly drained. "We were close to getting names a few months ago. We had a good pipeline to inside information--an undercover agent who was putting together the links we needed to go right to the top." His expression darkened. "And then someone took him out."
"Someone was cleaning house," Rebecca said grimly. "We lost cops then, too. My partner was one of them."
"That's something we have in common, Detective," Clark said with a frustrated sighed. "Jimmy Hogan was one of mine."
"What?" Rebecca said sharply, body tensing. "Hogan was an undercover narcotics agent for the Philadelphia PD."
"He was also a United States Justice Department investigator."
For a moment, the room was silent, and then Rebecca said quietly, "So Hogan was doing double duty, and he was going to help you make a federal case against the Zamora crime family. That was his ultimate agenda, and the narcotics angle was just a cover. Did you know he was going to give us the intel on the kiddie prostitution ring?"
"It was important for his cover that he function as a cop as well, and it seemed fair to feed you some information on that. We were only interested in the guys at the top."
"But someone found out about it," Rebecca said. "And took him down. My partner just happened to be with him."
"That's how we read it," Clark acknowledged. "When we set up this task force, I wanted to keep it small so that something like what happened to Jimmy wouldn't happen again. The fewer people who know what we're doing, the safer I figured we'd be."
"Any ideas who the leak is?" Sloan asked grimly, her attention on Rebecca now. Apparently Clark had convinced her of his veracity.
"Theories, nothing more at this point," the detective replied with a shrug. First and foremost, she was a cop. She didn't indict other cops without evidence, and she had none. Avery Clark might be telling the truth; in fact she thought that he probably was. But that didn't mean he was telling all the truth, and it didn't mean he could be trusted. Until she had something concrete, and maybe not even then, she didn't intend to share what she knew. Or even what she suspected.
"It looks like we'll need to shelve tonight's operation," Clark said.
Sloan's head snapped around to him. "Why?"
"We're compromised," he pointed out. "Someone clearly felt threatened--and they know your name."
"I don't think that means the operation is blown," Rebecca disagreed. "If the leak is inside the department somewhere, they don't know the details of the meet or who it's with, just the general plan. Since they only know we're getting close to someone, they'd go after the individual who was the greatest threat to exposing the Internet connection, which would eventually lead right up the ladder to the procurers and distributors--and finally to the money men. And right now that person is Sloan."
"I say we keep going," Sloan said, a cold hard rage filling her chest. "It's my lover they put in the hospital. I want them."
"I agree," Rebecca added. "If we don't move now, eventually they'll get word to all their people to lay low, including these internet entry men. We'll never have a better shot at it than tonight."
"They may be waiting for you," Clark pointed out. "They missed Sloan. They might try again at the meet. With McBride inside you'll have a potential hostage situation."
Rebecca's face was unreadable. "That was always a possibility. We'll be prepared for that."
"You're running the ground show, Frye. It's your call."
"Then I say we go."
"I'll want my people on board for the arrest," Clark stated.
"They can ride back up," Rebecca countered flatly. "We have to go in fast to protect Jason and secure the computers before this guy has a chance to destroy the evidence. That means a small strike force. I'll run it with my people." People I can trust at my back.
"You should bring in the TAC squad and a hostage negotiator, then. Just in case it goes bad."
"You know those guys would bring in two dozen men and a half dozen armored vans and we'd lose the element of surprise. We go small and quiet."
He looked for a moment like he would argue, then, seeming to relent, he replied, "Then at least bring your team shrink. You'll have a negotiator present."
Rebecca's jaw clenched. "No."
Sloan regarded her steadily, suspecting that she knew the reason for Frye's resistance. When Catherine was in the room, something softened in the detective's hard eyes. She said quietly, "Jason could be at risk."
Rebecca hesitated a heartbeat, then blew out a breath. "Okay. But she rides back-up with you, Clark."
"Fine," he said, rising. "I'll see you tonight then."
"We'll brief at four-thirty at Sloan's," Rebecca said tightly as he made for the door. When he'd closed it behind him, she turned to Sloan. "How's Michael?"
"In and out. She..." Sloan faltered, her voice breaking. "Ah, fuck..." After a minute, she continued, "She opens her eyes for a second every now and then, but she doesn't seem to recognize me."
"That's to be expected at this point, I guess." She couldn't think of a single thing to say that would help. Had it been Catherine--even contemplating it made her stomach roll with dread. "Jesus, I'm sorry, Sloan."
Sloan looked away, swallowed once, then found her voice. "Thanks."
"Is there anyone you can call in to help Jason tonight? I'll need Mitchell for the strike force, and I don't know if she's computer savvy enough to handle your job anyhow."
"I'll be there," Sloan said sharply.
"Look, Sloan," Rebecca said evenly. "Things have changed. This operation is hot now, and we don't know what we're walking into tonight. You're in no shape--"
"Like hell you are."
"They tried to kill me. They nearly killed Michael instead," Sloan seethed. "I'm owed, Frye."
"I need to be able to count on you. You've got..." she glanced at her watch. It was ten minutes to four Sunday morning. "You've got fifteen hours until this goes down. If you don't sleep most of it, you'll be a danger to all of us."
Sloan rubbed her face with both hands and sighed. "I'll sleep here. You have my word."
"I need you sharp tonight, Sloan.
"I know what I need to do. I'll do it."
Rebecca took a chance, and took her at her word.
"I just reviewed your chest X-ray with the radiology resident. It's normal," Catherine informed her after Rebecca emerged from the conference room, the relief in her voice clear.
"Good," Rebecca replied. "How do you feel? You look beat."
"I feel about how I look," Catherine said with a wry smile. "How's Sloan?"
"Ragged, but calmed down a bit."
Catherine sensed an uneasiness in Rebecca's voice. "What is it?"
"Clark thinks it would be a good idea if you came along on the operation tonight. A precautionary thing." Just saying the words made her chest tighten with anxiety.
"What do you think?" Catherine asked carefully.
"I think he's right, and it's exactly what I did not want to have happen," Rebecca said sharply. A glimpse of Blake, the gun to Catherine's head flashed through her mind. "Goddamn it."
"It will be fine, Rebecca. It's nothing like the last time." When her lover merely nodded curtly, she asked gently, "We're both tired. Let's talk about it later." Again Rebecca nodded silently, and Catherine continued, "What are you going to do now?"
"Drive back to Old City and check in with Watts and Mitchell." As if anticipating Catherine's next words, Rebecca added quietly, "Just for a few minutes. Then I'm sending Mitchell home and leaving the follow-up to Watts for the time being. I'll meet you at your place in less than an hour."
"All right," Catherine said. She understood that Rebecca couldn't rest until she had taken care of these last details. She understood it, and she tried hard to accept it. It wasn't easy, seeing the deep shadows under her eyes and remembering the pain on her face just hours before. Then again, she doubted that any of them looked fit for public consumption at the moment. "I'm going to be leaving in just a few minutes, too. I just want to check on Michael one more time."
Rebecca grasped her hand and drew her around the corner into the deserted alcove in front the elevators. Then she pulled her into her arms and kissed her, hard. Finally releasing her, she said fervently, "You were incredible tonight. None of us would've gotten through this without you."
"If things keep up this way," Catherine said with a shaky laugh, "I'm going to have to take an emergency room medicine residency."
"It's not always like this," Rebecca assured her swiftly.
"So you say," Catherine said softly, laying her head against Rebecca's chest, just enjoying the solid comfort of her. "Come home soon. I want to hold you."
Kissing her forehead, Rebecca held her tightly, refusing to think about anything beyond the moment when they could be together. "Sounds like just what I need."
She wondered if Catherine had any idea how very true those words were.
Sarah Martin quietly pushed open the door to room 614 and stepped inside. The vertical blinds over the one window had been closed and the room was suffused in the pale yellow light of late afternoon. A steady beep from the monitor above the bed and the faint rasp of breathing were the only sounds. Walking to the figure who slumped in a chair by the bedside, she whispered softly, "Sloan." When she got no response, she leaned down and gently shook the other woman's shoulder.
Sloan's eyes flew open and she straightened with a start. Immediately, she looked toward the bed and then sagged slightly in disappointment. Michael had not regained consciousness since the one brief moment with Catherine nearly twelve hours before. Turning to her companion, she rubbed her face with both hands and said, "What time is it?"
"Three-thirty. Jason is on his way to the office for the briefing."
"Right," Sloan rejoined wearily, rising slowly. "Show time."
Sarah stilled her friend's motion with a hand on her arm. Quietly, she whispered, "Maybe you should call it off, Sloan."
"No, we might not get another chance." Sloan moved to the bedside and ran her fingers lightly over Michael's cheek. Leaning down, she threaded the fingers of her left hand through her lover's and murmured close to her ear, "I won't be long. I love you." She kissed her fingers, then, gently, her lips.
Then she walked out of the room without looking back. Outside in the hall, she turned to Sarah. "If Jason doesn't make contact with this guy tonight, he'll get spooked and suspect we're on to him. We don't know how closely he's in contact with other members of this organization. He might not know anything; he might be a central player. We can't afford to tip them off at this point."
"Jason said the same thing," Sarah said with a sigh, remembering their strained conversation only an hour before. "Look, go home and take a shower. If Jason's going through with it, I'll feel better if you're there with him. I'll stay with Michael."
"If she wakes up..." Sloan swallowed hard and continued, "When she wakes up, if I'm not here, tell her I'll be back soon. Tell her I lo..."
Smiling faintly, Sarah took Sloan's hand. "Sloan, believe me, Michael knows that. Go get this thing done and come back."
Sloan nodded, a hard glint in her eyes. "Jason and I will see you in a few hours."
Catherine and Rebecca dressed silently on opposite sides of Catherine's bedroom. Catherine pulled on navy cotton chinos and a short-sleeved polo shirt, topping it off with a blue blazer. Rebecca slipped into jeans and a button-down collar shirt, strapped on her shoulder harness, and covered it with a dark blazer of her own. They had slept most of the day and had said very little after rising and showering together.
"Be sure you stay with Clark," Rebecca said quietly, her back to Catherine. From her gym bag on the floor she pulled two extra magazines for her automatic and slipped one into each of the front pockets of her jacket. "We'll all be miked, and you should be able to hear everything that's going on. Even if things get...chaotic...stay in the car. Don't come forward until I personally call for you."
"How likely is this to turn into some kind of standoff?" Catherine asked, registering Rebecca's anxiety for her but considering it unfounded. Of much greater concern to her was the possibility that Rebecca would be in the middle of a firefight. "I know you don't want to hear this, but you're in no condition--"
"We have no reason to believe that this guy will resort to violence," Rebecca said immediately, facing her now. "I just want to be prepared for any contingency. On the off chance something does heat up, I don't want you at risk."
"If someone has to go through a door," Catherine said persistently, "let it be Watts. Not you. Not this time."
Rebecca looked past Catherine out the bedroom window, struggling to find some balance between who she knew herself to be and who she would need to be if she were to keep Catherine in her life. "If we need to go through the door, I'll let Watts go through first today, but I can't promise you that I won't be right behind him." She met Catherine's eyes. "That's the best I can do."
Rebecca's piercing gaze intensified. "And what about you? Am I going to have to worry about you while I'm trying to control the scene?"
"I'll stay with Clark until I'm needed. I promise."
They both moved at once and met each other in the middle of the room. Simultaneously, each slipped her arms around the other's waist, pressing together for a fierce kiss. A minute became two until finally each drew back a fraction with a regretful smile.
"Time to roll," Rebecca said softly, gently releasing her.
Mitchell ran through her mental checklist. Automatic loaded. Back-up .32 in her right ankle holster. Extra ammo in the right front pocket of her jeans. Badge in the opposite front pocket. Cuffs in her left rear pocket where she could reach them while holding her gun on a suspect with her dominant right hand. She stopped by the front door of her apartment and snagged her black leather jacket off the clothes tree. She was in jeans, sneakers, and a short-sleeved football jersey. She couldn't think of anything else she needed--or needed to do. Fleetingly, she thought about making a phone call, but then thought better of it. It seemed like there should be someone, but there never really had been. Her family had never understood her reasons for wanting West Point, and had understood even less her reasons for leaving. Of course, it hadn't helped that she couldn't tell them why she resigned, because she would have been betraying secrets that were not hers to reveal. Now she was a cop, something else that no one in her family of business executives and investment brokers could fathom. The only person she could think of, in fact the only person she really wanted to call, was someone who considered the police her enemy. In the end, as it had always been, she was alone. She stepped through her door and went down the two flights of stairs out onto the sidewalk. A car was idling at the curb and she slid into the front seat.
"You all set, kid?" Watts asked.
"Yeah, I'm ready."
When Rebecca and Catherine arrived at Sloan's shortly before four p.m., they found Sloan, Jason, and Mitchell waiting for them in the conference room. Avery Clark, along with two men who were apparently DOJ agents, joined them soon thereafter. Once they had all gathered around the table, Sloan and Jason flanking Rebecca at one end and Clark at the opposite end, the detective and the federal agent regarded each other expressionlessly, as if a silent debate were taking place as to who would speak first. Finally, Clark said, "Why don't you go ahead and lay it out for us, Detective Sergeant."
"Mr. McBride is to make contact with the subject at the Upstairs Connection, a cybercafe at 17th and Market at seven p.m. tonight." As she spoke, none of her surprise at the fact that Clark had allowed her to take control of the operation so easily showed in her face. It wasn't her experience that federal agents ever relinquished the lead to local law enforcement. It might simply indicate that Clark was the straightforward agent he represented himself to be, one whose only interest was in breaking the case. Only time would tell.
Then she continued speaking, letting every thought except those of the upcoming engagement fade from her mind. "As instructed, he will log on as BigMac10, his internet persona, in the usual chat room and wait for contact. Presumably, he will be given further instructions at that point. Sloan will be monitoring from a wireless unit in the lead trace car, both there and at the final destination. At this point, we have no reason to assume that the subject, LongJohnXXX, suspects Mr. McBride to be anything other than someone interested in viewing live sex with minors and a potential customer for future live broadcasts. Therefore, we don't expect resistance. Nevertheless, the exact location on this subject within the hierarchy of the organization is unknown, and he's considered a potential threat risk."
"Are you going to wire him?" one of Clark's agents interrupted, indicating Jason dismissively and drawing a quick flicker of disapproval from Clark.
"No," Rebecca answered calmly. "We considered it, but that's the one thing we think that the subject might check for, given even a normal level of suspicion. We don't want to blow McBride's cover before he gets inside the subject's house and we have access to the most recent downloads."
As Rebecca continued to outline the upcoming maneuver, Catherine watched her and the others at the table. She loved to watch Rebecca work. When Rebecca was in charge of an operation, every ounce of her considerable personal presence emerged--her strength and confidence and skill were undeniable. There was something both comforting and exciting in the unshakable certainty she exuded as she enumerated each detail--the order and positioning of the stakeout vehicles, each team's role in the apprehension of the subject, and the contingency plans if the subject deviated from the scenario they predicted him to follow. It was fascinating and terrifying to listen to the individuals seated around the table discuss an upcoming maneuver which could potentially result in injury or death to any one of them. All in a day's work, it seemed. To be able to confront that reality and ignore it required tremendous powers of both denial and self-assuredness. It also required a tremendous amount of trust. She began to understand the bond between police officers in a completely different way. It was more than just the connection that grew between two people who worked together. When you relied on someone for your very life day in and day out, the allegiance and commitment formed a bond that very little could break. She wondered what it would be like to have to work within that tight community and not have the support of one's fellows. For an instant, she thought of Mitchell and her experience that night in a dark alley when she had called for backup and no one had come. She glanced at the young officer and saw dedication and determination etched in each intense line of her face. Then her lover's voice penetrated her consciousness again and she saw only her.
"So," Rebecca said, her tone shifting as she wrapped things up. "Once we have the subject in custody, the crime scene team will be standing by to oversee evidence documentation." She looked around the room, assessing each individual. Clark seemed calm; his two agents fidgeted slightly as if impatient to get on with things. Jason had listened intently, but she had a feeling that he and Sloan had already had their own briefing. They appeared far less interested in the tactical maneuverings of the police than they probably were in their own plans for information assessment and transmission during the operation. Watts slouched next to Jason, looking bored as usual. Mitchell, next to him, had never moved her eyes from Rebecca's face during the entire briefing, as if she were memorizing each word. To her left, Sloan had not moved during the entire time either, and Rebecca detected a faint tremor in her hand where it rested on the table. On the far side of the security consultant, Catherine sat composed as always, quietly watching, absorbing, and evaluating.
"Sloan?" Rebecca asked, "Anything to add?"
Sloan cleared her throat and straightened slightly in her seat. "The success of the operation depends upon us hitting fast with absolutely no warning. Anyone with something to hide who knows anything about computers might program a destruct sequence which can be initiated with a keystroke or two. Depending upon this guy's level of knowledge and his degree of suspicion, he may very well have something like that in his system. We are going to have almost no time between entry and immobilization if we're going to preserve the critical evidence on his hard drive." She glanced to Jason once, an unreadable glance passing between the two of them, and then added, "The most important thing is that LongJohn has absolutely no reason to believe this is anything other than a meeting with a prospective client and fellow connoisseur."
"What about arming McBride?" Clark suggested. "He would be the logical one to subdue the subject if it seems as if he's about to destroy critical evidence."
Rebecca shook her head. "Not advisable. The subject is very likely to search him for evidence of weapons or a wire. We'll have a front and rear entry team, assuming there are two entrances, or a tandem front strike force. We'll be moving very quickly. Hopefully the element of surprise will be all that's necessary. In addition, I don't want McBride exposed as one of us. I intend to arrest him along with LongJohn and take him in to preserve his cover. Tonight is just the beginning of this sweep."
Clark nodded, and every law enforcement officer at the table knew that the individual at most risk in the entire operation was Jason, who would be unprotected and unarmed in the middle of a potentially violent situation.
Jason looked relaxed and calm, perfectly at ease. "Once we start receiving the live download, Sloan will be able to pick it up. I'll be expecting you, and he won't." He shrugged as if that settled things.
"All right," Rebecca said, standing. "We need the surveillance teams to move into position at 1800 hours. Assume that LongJohn is smart enough to check the area before he enters the cafe, so keep an eye out for anyone looking into parked vehicles."
Everyone rose, then began to separate into separate groups. Rebecca motioned to Catherine with a faint tip of her chin and the two of them stepped out into the corridor.
"If we're lucky, we won't need you," the detective said quietly.
"I think that I should ride with you and Sloan," Catherine said just as quietly. "Sloan's going to be monitoring the actual conversations that Jason and Long John are having, isn't she?"
"That's the plan," Rebecca said, beginning to see where Catherine was going and searching for an argument to counter it.
"In that case, I need to know what is being said between them as well. That's the only way I can judge the tenor of the situation, and it will give me a much better idea of LongJohn's state of mind. If I can be of any help at all, it's going to be in evaluating the threat risk. And to do that, I need to know what's being said."
"She's right," Sloan said from a foot away, having approached without their notice. "I was about to suggest the same thing, but I didn't want to do it in there."
Rebecca whirled to face Sloan, her blue eyes sharp as lasers, an acid retort on her lips. Fortunately, she managed to contain her temper, because the professional part of her knew that what Sloan and Catherine said made sense, and had she been thinking more like a cop and less like a lover, she would have suggested the same thing herself. "You're right," Rebecca admitted with a sigh.
Sloan, in black jeans and T-shirt, looked worn beyond exhaustion. Her normally vibrant eyes were dull with pain. Directing her next words to Catherine with just a hint of her old charm, she asked, "I assume that you can be trusted to stay in the vehicle if things get crazy?"
"Word of honor," Catherine agreed, her eyes on Rebecca.
Rebecca rubbed the bridge of her nose with one hand, rapidly making mental readjustments. "Okay, Catherine, you'll ride with us. I'll advise Clark and meet you two downstairs." She turned and walked away, leaving Catherine and Sloan alone.
"How are you doing?" Catherine asked gently.
"Okay," Sloan lied.
Sloan shook her head. "She hasn't regained consciousness yet." Her eyes searched Catherine's face. "Are you sure she woke up earlier when..."
Catherine placed her hand on Sloan's arm and squeezed gently. "I'm absolutely positive, Sloan. She's just healing, and when her body has restored itself enough, she'll wake up. It's going to be all right."
"Thanks." Sloan sighed, accepting Catherine's comfort gratefully.
"You don't need to thank me. Just take care of yourself. Michael will need you strong when she wakes up."
Sloan nodded again, then squared her shoulders, her eyes clearing and determination hardening in her face. "We have a long way to go before we get to the people behind this. Tonight's just the opening move."
"Well, then," Catherine replied as they moved down the hall toward the elevators, "let's be sure to win this round."
Content Warning: Chapter 34 contains graphic references to sexual situations containing children. I have limited them to only those which I believe are intrinsic to the story and have tried to limit the explicit content as well.
Rebecca, Sloan, and Catherine sat in a nondescript beige Ford sedan half a block down and diagonal to the Upstairs Connection. Rebecca continuously scanned the street, watching for anyone who appeared to be watching for them. They had arrived an hour before Jason's appointed rendezvous time. At 1845 they had seen him come down the street from the direction of the 15th and Market Street Subway Surface Car stop which he had taken to get there. At 1850 hours he had gone through the street level door that led to the second floor cybercafe and disappeared from their view.
Sloan worked silently, monitoring the connection she had established to the Internet using a sniffer software program that allowed her to hack into a local wireless network. She was completely unaware of anyone else's presence in the vehicle. Right now, Jason's safety and apprehending the suspect were her primary objective. As long as she focused on the screen, and the multiple programs she had running, she didn't think about Michael for at least a few minutes at a time. While she worked, she could almost ignore the constant ache in her chest.
In the back seat, Catherine waited patiently, having learned the ability to separate herself from the anxiety and distractions of others during her hours of therapy sessions. She had also learned to dissociate herself from her own internal issues and concerns. Doing that in the presence of her lover, whose health and wellbeing were of paramount concern to her, was more difficult than she had anticipated, however. She found if she concentrated on trying to understand just what Sloan was doing, it helped. Thus far, from what she could glean from the occasional update that Sloan provided Rebecca, she knew that Sloan was now monitoring the chat room where Jason was to meet LongJohn.
"Anything?" Rebecca asked calmly. She sat behind the wheel of the sedan, as relaxed as she usually got during a stakeout. The long hours of waiting could lull an unsuspecting, inexperienced officer into a state of lassitude which could result in dulled reflexes and impaired powers of perception. That meant you could be taken by surprise, and that could get you killed. She had learned long ago to maintain her level of alertness despite the boredom of inactivity. She constantly surveyed her surroundings, looking for anything out of the ordinary. It wasn't beyond the realm of possibility that LongJohn might have brought along an accomplice who would be watching for them just as they were watching for LongJohn and Jason. She needed to be certain that they were not followed when they followed their quarry.
Sloan shrugged and muttered, "I'm in the chat room. Jason just logged on. No contact yet from LongJohn."
"Is it possible that he won't actually come to this location?" Catherine asked. "Physically, I mean?"
"Possible," Rebecca answered. "He may just have wanted Jason on an unfamiliar machine where he couldn't use exactly the kind of programs that Sloan's using now to trace him. I'm still betting that he'll show here though. He's going to want to get a look at Jason."
"I agree," Sloan offered. "Otherwise, I think he would have simply given Jason instructions for the meeting privately, in any of a million rooms they could have gone to. If he's gotten this far, he trusts that Jason is who he says he is."
"Either way, if we follow Jason when he leaves here," Rebecca added, "we'll get to LongJo--"
"LongJohnXXX just logged on," Sloan advised, her voice sharp and her attention riveted to her laptop.
"Read out the conversation," Rebecca ordered.
LongJohnXXX: You there, Big Ten?
BigMac10: You know it. Primed and ready.
LongJohnXXX: What are you wearing?
BigMac10: LOL. Changing horses on me now?
LongJohnXXX: No way, buddy. You know me -- young and pretty and female. But hey, to each his own.
BigMac10: Olive green Dockers and a tan shirt. Pass inspection?
LongJohnXXX: Can't be too careful
BigMac10: You know it. What next?
LongJohnXXX: You about ready to take care of business?
BigMac10: Can't be too soon. I'm hurtin for something to ease my strain
LongJohnXXX: Give me 15, then wait outside. Your chariot approaches.
BigMac10: The service is appreciated. I'll be there.
Rebecca keyed her mike to the frequency Clark and his people were using as well as the radio in Watt's and Mitchell's unmarked. "Anticipated contact, fifteen minutes. No make or model on subject vehicle."
A chorus of Rogers floated through the air and then silence.
"Everything seems aboveboard," Sloan said. Glancing over her shoulder, she looked to Catherine. "Impressions?"
"He wants to be sure that Jason understands he is heterosexual. He seems business-like and professional, but not particularly suspicious. I agree that he wanted to see Jason. Now he has, and apparently he feels comfortable proceeding. I don't see anything amiss at this point."
Rebecca set her watch to fourteen minutes and continued her silent vigil.
Jason logged off and checked his watch. He and Sloan had previously discussed communicating via aliases online after LongJohn had contacted him, but had decided against it. There was no telling if LongJohn had associates who might be monitoring the chat room after LongJohn logged off. It was possible that LongJohn was still on-line himself under yet a different alias, checking to see if there was any unusual activity after their conversation. It seemed safer at this point to follow instructions until they were closer to LongJohn in the flesh.
He looked around the room, which was one large space with a dozen small tables equipped with Internet terminals. At the far end of the room was a small bar where you could get coffee and a limited selection of junk food. Almost every table was occupied, and no one looked particularly suspicious. Of course, what did your typical pedophile look like? At any rate, no one seemed to be paying special attention to him.
He wasn't particularly nervous. Playing roles for him was something that came naturally. The threat of physical danger didn't particularly worry him either. He wasn't a kickboxer like Sloan or a Kung Fu master like his lover, but he could handle himself in an altercation if he needed to. If things played out the way he and Sloan had theorized, when the time for the bust came, he doubted that LongJohn was going to pose much of a threat.
He glanced at his watch and smiled to himself. Five minutes till showtime.
Mitchell stared at the detective in surprise. "It's your car, Detective."
"Yeah, but the Sarge always busts my balls about it."
"Well, I guess she can."
"Yeah." He fumbled through the pocket of his jacket until he found the crumpled pack of Camels and fingered one free. Cracking the window a couple of inches, he made an attempt to direct the smoke in that direction. "You ever been on a No Knock bust before?"
"I'll go through the door first, and I want to feel your balls--uh, your--whatever, right up against my back the whole way. You stick to me like we're two dogs who just finished screwing."
"I can handle that," Mitchell said expressionlessly. She wondered if Watts had any idea what cadet training was like at West Point. She could crawl through ditches under live fire without flinching. Had done it, leading a platoon of cadets.
"Good. I don't want you getting separated and ending up shooting me."
"You don't have to worry about that, Detective."
He glanced at her, assessing her tone and expression. She looked perfectly steady and certain. "You scared, kid?"
"Good." He settled his butt a little more comfortably on the seat and continued to smoke in silence. Until he had gotten hooked up with Rebecca Frye, he'd never worked with a woman before. Not one on one. Now he couldn't get away from them. It sure was a different world.
Precisely 14 minutes later, Jason McBride exited through the doors of the Upstairs Connection and walked to the intersection of 17th and Market. A blue Mercedes SUV driving south on 17th pulled up next to him and the driver's window descended electrically. Rebecca saw Jason lean down, nod once, and walked around the front of the vehicle to slide into the front seat through the passenger door. She keyed her mike and started her engine. "We have contact." She gave a verbal description of the vehicle, knowing that Mitchell and Watts would run it through VI, Vehicle Identification, as they drove. She pulled into traffic allowing several cars and a minivan to move between her and the SUV. They drove just below the speed limit through the city to the on-ramp to Interstate 95. A minute or two later, Mitchell's voice came over the radio.
"No identification on the vehicle," Mitchell reported. "The plates are not registered."
"Forged, probably," Rebecca muttered. "Roger that."
After another minute, she dropped back and the black Buick driven by Watts pulled out from several cars behind her and passed to take over the lead position. They would alternate like this as long as needed until Jason's vehicle stopped. Somewhere behind them, Clark followed as well. If the SUV began to take evasive maneuvers, suggesting that the tail had been spotted, the third car would split off to triangulate an interception point. For now, whoever was driving the dark Mercedes ahead of them did not appear to be aware of their presence.
"Do you think that's LongJohn driving?" Sloan asked at one point.
"Most likely," Rebecca said, eyes fixed on the traffic ahead of her. "I can't see him inviting someone else to the party at this point. Any potential customer might get spooked meeting someone they hadn't anticipated. These guys are pretty suspicious as a group."
"I wonder what the hell they're talking about?" Sloan mused.
Rebecca shook her head. "I've got a feeling it's not the weather or sports."
"Well, whatever it is," Catherine interjected, "Jason is fast on his feet, and he and LongJohn have a relationship. That's why no one other than Jason could have done this at this point. He'll be okay."
He better be, Sloan thought. Because I can't take one more person I care about getting hurt.
Twenty minutes later they had circled nearly the entire city on expressways and arterials. They were approaching an area less than a mile north of Sloan's loft which still retained the flavor of a working-class neighborhood. The neighborhood, called Fishtown, consisted of row houses and singles interspersed along narrow streets where a few trees still managed to grow.
"Here we go," Rebecca said as the Mercedes signaled and pulled right towards an exit ramp. Once again, she opened the frequencies to the other members of the team. "Subject vehicle has turned right into a driveway on the corner of Girard and 4th. Single, two-story, white frame house--no number visible. Detached garage, front and rear entries likely. I am preceding around the block and will approach from the north."
She deployed the other two vehicles where the officers and federal agents could easily approach the house from opposite directions. She and Sloan needed to be as close as possible so that Sloan could hack in and monitor the live download. Two minutes later, they were parked between several vehicles on the adjoining street where they had a clear sightline to the house. Lights were visible in a rear room on the first floor.
"We might be lucky," Rebecca said. "The doors should be fairly easy to breach, and if they're in that room, we should be inside and have containment in less than 10 seconds."
Sloan didn't reply, feverishly running through programs attempting to establish a strong enough signal to trace the activity from LongJohn's computer. Finally, after what seemed like an interminable wait, an image flickered and then stabilized on her screen.
Three pairs of eyes focused on the 15 inch color monitor. For a moment, the images were indistinct, and then the focus cleared and they were able to see two young girls walking naked into a room furnished with a large bed and not much else.
"Got you, you son of a bitch," Sloan whispered.
"Should we go in?" Rebecca asked Sloan, an edge in her voice. She hated having a man out of sight and hearing, particularly inside a building with a perp of unknown violence potential. Especially while she sat in a car hatching the radio.
From the backseat, Catherine placed a hand lightly on her shoulder and urged, "Wait a few minutes if you can." She had been sitting quietly, watching the figures on Sloan's screen. A man had entered the room, joining the two young girls. He wore a nondescript uniform, apparently supposed to represent a delivery person of some kind. The two naked girls feigned surprise and awkward shyness, all of it clearly staged but not nearly as artificial as she might have expected. There was a sense of cinema veritÈ that was all too professional and deeply disturbing given the subject matter. "I'd give--this--a while to run, because I think LongJohn is more likely to be preoccupied the longer this goes on."
Turning in the front seat to face her, Rebecca glanced sharply at her, aware of the hollow note in her voice. Stakeout operations like these were never easy, not when pent up, adrenalized excitement and the fear of something going wrong invariably combined to make you crazy. This time it was even harder, because she was certain that Catherine must be feeling tremendous sympathy for the young girls who were being degraded and victimized while they watched.
"No matter what we do here," Rebecca reminded her gently, "it won't make any difference to them. Not tonight, at least."
"I know," Catherine replied tonelessly, not looking directly at Rebecca. "Ten minutes. That should be about right."
Rebecca keyed her mike and instructed the other teams, "We'll go in ten. Team one, you have the front; team two, the rear. Move into position and wait for my signal." After terminating the transmission, Rebecca glanced at Sloan. "Are you getting what you need?"
"Looks like it," Sloan said without glancing up, still rapidly sequencing through programs and downloading as much information as she could.
"Okay, good," Rebecca said. "You two stay here until the all clear." She handed Sloan a handy talkie. "I'll contact you on this as soon as we have secured the location. Then you can get a look at his system."
"Good enough," Sloan said. For the first time in the last hour she lifted her gaze from the computer monitor. "Look out for Jason, will you?"
"Absolutely," Rebecca said. As she lifted the handle, swung open the door, and put one leg out, she glanced briefly again into the rear seat. Catherine was watching her. "I'll see you in a few minutes."
"Yes," Catherine responded softly, her eyes on Rebecca's face. Memorizing it, as if it hadn't already been indelibly carved on her heart.
As Rebecca slipped away into the darkness, Catherine wondered once again what it was that made someone do that. What was it that allowed an individual to place herself in imminent peril to right some wrong or correct some injustice. She continued to stare at the house, barely able to make out a flicker in the shadows which she imagined would be Watts and Mitchell and perhaps the Justice agents. She tried to imagine what they were thinking, and finally decided that there was no way she could, not without having experienced it. Suddenly, she understood some of why it was that police officers rarely had friendships outside the force. She also understood why they had such a high rate of divorce. How could anyone who did not do this on a daily basis possibly understand what it was to go out day after day and face the unknown. An unknown which could very well kill you.
"She'll be fine," Sloan said as if reading her mind.
Without taking her eyes off the front of the building, where she could just see the door but could not see the figures whom she knew must be crouching in the shadows, she said once more, softly, "Yes."
"Did I tell you or did I tell you?" LongJohn said with a note of both excitement and pride in his voice. "This is the real thing. Primo, man."
The two men were seated in front of a twenty-one inch flat screen computer monitor in small comfortable easy chairs with a TV table between them. Two open bottles of beer sat on the table flanking a bowl of peanuts. On the screen, the now naked 30-year-old man, a big beefy guy who looked like a college football player gone to fat, stood by the side of the bed while one of the preteen girls performed fellatio on him. Kneeling on the floor next to them, the other girl fondled him. His large hand roamed over her barely perceptible breasts.
"Oh, yeah, it's everything you said," Jason said, facing the screen and fixing his gaze on a point two inches above it. He had watched enough to know that this was what they had been waiting for. He didn't want to see the details. "Worth every penny, guy. And more so. I wouldn't mind getting this on a regular basis."
"Like I said, that can be arranged," LongJohn said, his eyes riveted to the screen. "All you need is a little green and the right connections. We'll pipe this straight to your bedroom."
"Just tell me where to sign," Jason replied. The live download had been running for almost ten minutes and he wasn't certain how long it would last. More importantly, he estimated that the strike force would make their move soon. Now was the time for a little diversion.
"You know, I've been waiting all weekend for this," Jason said, purposefully lowering his voice and hesitating as if he were having trouble catching his breath. "I'm afraid I might pop in my pants if I don't do something about it pretty soon."
"Go ahead, man. Feel free. I'm in need of a little relief myself," his companion answered.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jason could see LongJohn rhythmically squeezing the crotch of his jeans as he stared fixedly at the monitor. Jason made a show of unbuttoning his chinos and lowering his fly. He wasn't worried that LongJohn would watch him, because LongJohn wasn't interested in what Jason had between his legs. He was interested in watching the children performing sex acts on the man on the screen. Jason slipped his hand inside his trousers and faked a moaned. He wasn't hard, but LongJohn would never know that. He spread his legs wider and murmured, "Oh yeah, that's better."
Next to him, he heard the sound of a zipper sliding down followed by a grunt as LongJohn reached inside his jeans. The sounds from the speakers were mostly moans and strangled grunts and fragmented bits of dialogue that combined with Jason's intentionally audible breathing and LongJohn's escalating groans. Jason hoped the noise would help mask the sounds of the police entry and add to the general confusion when the strike force descended on them. His only concern now was that LongJohn would be quicker to the finish line then he had anticipated. The guy had freed himself from the confines of his pants, and from the sound of his breathing and the rapid creaking of the chair as the other man rocked his hips in an ever increasing crescendo, Jason feared that his diversion would be shot before Frye and friends arrived.
And he hadn't planned a second act.
"On three," Rebecca whispered into her mike. "Three, two, one... GO."
Watts hit the door with his considerable bulk and it broke loose from the frame, crashing inward with a splinter of wood and popping screws. Rebecca was surprised at the speed with which the big man moved. In an instant he had disappeared into the darkened room, Mitchell close behind. Distantly, she heard an echoing crash from somewhere in the depths of the house. Clark's team.
Rebecca moved low through the doorway, stepping up quickly next to Mitchell. They turned their backs to one another, guns extended in two-handed grips, each of them scanning opposite sides of the room. Watts was out in front, beside the door on the wall opposite the entry, peering around the corner into the next room.
"Clear," Mitchell shouted.
"Go," Rebecca ordered, and they all surged forward. Within a matter of seconds they were in a large recreation room filled with computers, video machines, and graphics equipment. On a large monitor on an elevated shelf the sexual scene they had observed from the car continued to run. Moans and cries and hoarse oh yeahs provided a backdrop to the general confusion.
Watts yanked the suspect, a youngish white male in a T-shirt and jeans, from the chair and pushed him spread-eagled onto the floor. Kneeling with one meaty leg in the center of the stunned man's back, Watts glanced up at Rebecca with a satisfied smile. "What do you think, huh, Sarge? Caught the scumbags with their dicks in their hand."
"Just read him the card," Rebecca said, referring to the Miranda warning. Mitchell had Jason, who was loudly protesting for all to hear that he'd no idea LongJohn planned to show a sex video, in the same position on the floor and was snapping cuffs onto him as she recited his rights in a flat monotone. She lifted her radio and said, "Sloan, come on ahead." Then, switching frequencies, "Dispatch, this is Detective Sergeant Frye. I need the crime scene team at..."
"That won't be necessary, Detective," Avery Clark said as he and the two agents converged on the scene from the rear of the house. "We'll be taking the equipment into custody."
"The hell you will," Rebecca snapped, ignoring the faint sound of the dispatcher calling her name over her radio. "This is my crime scene and I'll log the evidence."
Clark shook his head. "Sorry, Detective. We have jurisdictional priority here." He turned to one of the two federal agents with him and said, "Go ahead, Reynolds. Start packing this stuff up. Call and get the rest of the team to give your hand."
Sloan caught his last statements as she entered the room. "You lying son of a bitch," she seethed, stalking towards Clark from across the room. "Is this what you call a joint investigation? We lead you to the suspect and then you take all the evidence?"
Rebecca edged forward as she noted all three of the Justice agents stiffen, ready to intervene if Sloan put hands on him. She had no doubt that this time Clark or one of his men would get physical.
"If we find anything that we can pass along to you in the way of other guys like this," Clark said, nodding toward LongJohn, who slumped in Watts' grasp, staring dumbly at the strangers who were beginning to dismantle his equipment, "I will. We're after the big fish here, not the pervs sitting around getting off on this garbage."
"What about what happened to Michael?" Sloan demanded angrily, raising her voice above the cacophony and attracting further attention from Clark's two underlings, both of whom edged closer. "We need to follow the trail from here to find out who's behind that."
Clark met her hot gaze impassively. "You'll get info on a need to know basis."
"I'll get the fucking info right fucking now," she grated, heading toward the CPU the bigger of the two Justice agents was standing guard over. Clark stepped to intercept her, but before he could, Rebecca grasped her arm and stopped her in mid-stride.
"Hold up, Sloan," Rebecca cautioned. Leaning close she whispered harshly, "You touch one of them and you'll end up spending the night in a cell down at the Federal Building."
For a fraction of a second, something dark passed through Sloan's eyes. It was a mixture of fury and pain. "Son of a bitch," she whispered hoarsely.
"Yeah," Rebecca muttered through clenched jaws, just as frustrated and angry. But it hadn't been the first time, and it most likely wouldn't be the last time time that when it came time to reap the benefits of a joint operation, the local authorities were left with nothing. A hand still on Sloan's arm, she ordered, "Watts, get those two down to headquarters."
"You can have him," Clark said amiably, nodding toward Jason. "I want first crack at this guy," he said, indicating LongJohn with his head.
Rebecca stepped very close to him, her chest nearly touching his. She was an inch taller, and for an instant his smile faltered. "To do what? Offer him a deal?"
"We just want to talk to him. Then you can have him."
"You're all heart, Clark," she snarled. Walking to where Watts and Mitchell waited, Sloan following reluctantly, she said, "Come on, let's get out of here."
"What's happening?" Catherine asked as Sloan and Rebecca flung themselves into the sedan and slammed the doors. "Is Jason all right?"
"He's fine," Sloan replied, suddenly weary beyond belief. The only thing she wanted was to get back to Michael.
"Did you get LongJohn?"
"Yeah, and we've been screwed," Rebecca seethed as she ignitioned the car and pulled away from the curb in one rapid motion. "Clark's taking first crack at the suspect and the evidence."
"Which means," Sloan added darkly, "we'll never get anything out of any of it."
Catherine stared from one to the other of the women in the front seat of the careening vehicle. The level of fury and frustration was incendiary. "What about the task force-the investigation?"
Rebecca laughed bitterly. "My guess is it will be tabled while the feds play games trying to get this guy-LongJohn-whoever he turns out to be, to name names or lead them to the next guy who will. With a real live perp, and one who is connected enough to be brokering sales of these sex videos, Clark probably figures he's got a hotter lead than anything we can turn up from the internet. At least for now," Rebecca clarified, trying to keep her anger at bay while she considered her options. Clark might have stonewalled her for the time being, but the investigation wasn't dead. There was still a porn ring to break, and a leak somewhere to plug. And Jeff's killer to find.
"And the children?" Catherine asked quietly. "Where do they fit into this plan?"
There was an uncomfortable silence, then Rebecca answered, "Eventually, the pornography ring will be exposed-either during the Fed's sweep if they ever make a case-or by one of us at the local level. Someone will get to them."
"That could take months, couldn't it?" Catherine was struggling to understand how the politics of this jurisdictional battle could be allowed to affect the welfare of these innocent victims, but she knew in her heart that there would never be any sense to it.
"Clark's agenda is to bring down the organized crime syndicate that controls drugs, racketeering, prostitution, protection-you name it," Sloan said resignedly. "In one way or another it affects thousands, and the federal government isn't particularly interested in saving the few."
"But then, what about the pornographers?" Catherine insisted. "Are they going to get away with this?"
"No," Rebecca responded firmly. "Special Crimes has always been after the guys who were marketing kids. This internet search was one way to get to them, but it's not the only way. We know more about how the ring works now-we'll just have to go back to the streets and do it the way we always have."
She was thinking of what Sandy had told her about the young prostitutes who had been involved in making sex films. She and Watts needed to track them down. She remembered too Sandy's offer to sign on for one of the films. I can pass, Frye. I've done it before. Rebecca blew out a frustrated breath. "I've still got some leads."
"You've got more than that," Sloan responded with a hint of her usual fire.
Rebecca glanced at her sharply. "What do you mean?"
"I've got the download of tonight's video," Sloan said, lifting her laptop. "All of it. There's information I can get from that. I might not be able to tell you a street address, but given enough time, I can probably give you a sector location. It'll be a place to start."
"You're likely to be unemployed by tomorrow, Sloan," Rebecca reminded her. "If Clark gets anything out of this guy, he'll probably work that angle in preference to anything else we might get from the Internet."
"I told you," Sloan replied evenly, "I don't work for Clark. Someone behind this pornography operation, or someone working with whoever's running it, tried to have me killed. They put my lover in the hospital. I'm not done with this yet."
"No," Rebecca added, thinking that this someone was probably the same person who had her previous partner killed, "neither am I."
"What a fuckarow," Watts grumbled. "Although we should have seen it coming. You can never trust the Feds."
Jason rubbed his wrists, trying to erase the slight indentations the cuffs had made. He was also trying to erase the images he still held of the scene on the monitor.
"You okay?" Mitchell asked with concern, looking over the back of the front seat at him. "I didn't mean to ratchet it them so tight. Habit."
"No," he said quickly, "I'm fine. Just pissed off. I know that guy knows how this whole part of the operation works. Did you see the setup he had in that room? He's a relay station. I'll bet he remasters those feeds and makes high quality wholesale products. He's probably got customer lists, for Christ sake."
"Well, if he does," Watts grunted, "the Feds will find it in about a year. You know damn well if they had anyone who could actually do the kind of voodoo you and Sloan have been doing, they'd have used them to begin with instead of coming to you."
"Maybe." Jason smiled wryly at Watts' veiled compliment. "Then why cut us out now, when we've finally got something to work with."
"Because they don't want to spend time and resources on the streetside of the operation," Mitchell said cynically. "All they wanted was a key-someone they could twist who would lead them inside the organization. They'll probably turn this guy and send him right back out to work. He could be back in the kiddie smut business in a day or two. Except this time he'll be feeding the Feds information while he peddles skin to other guys like BigMac10. That's how Federal cases get made. Inside informants. Rats in the garbage dump."
Watts looked at the young woman beside him sharply. Smart kid and good in the crunch, too.
Jason sighed. "I know, believe me. I've seen the wheels of Justice turn, and most of the time it's in reverse. What a colossal waste."
"Yeah, maybe," Watts muttered almost to himself. "Maybe not. We know some things we didn't know before."
And knowing Frye, we're not about to let this go.
"Has she said anything?" Sloan asked quietly, moving carefully through the dimly lit room to the bedside where Sarah waited.
"No," Sarah replied gently, rising. "She's just been sleeping."
Sloan brushed her fingers lightly over Michael's hand where it lay motionless on the sheets, lingering for a moment on the wedding band she had placed there. "Jason's fine," she added, her eyes moving to her lover's still face.
"I know," Sarah answered. "He called me from the office. Said you were probably on your way here. I'm going to go pick him up now and take him home."
"Good," Sloan said wearily, settling into the chair by the bed. "He's okay, Sarah, but the whole thing was ugly. To say nothing of pointless."
"He sounded drained," Sarah agreed. "And you look it. I don't suppose you'd consider going home for a few hours?"
Sloan shook her head, a faint smile on her face. "No."
"Okay, then." Sarah brushed her fingers through her friend's dark hair, letting her fingers rest on her cheek. "Try not to worry."
When the door had closed, Sloan leaned forward and took Michael's hand. "Hey," she murmured softly. "I love you. I'll be here."
Rebecca leaned against the shower wall and let the steaming water pound over her body, hoping it would drive some of the tension from her body and the disillusionment from her consciousness. The door slid open and Catherine stepped inside.
"Nothing I'd like better," Rebecca answered, reaching for the shampoo. "Turn around. I'll wash your hair."
Catherine turned her back, resting her hips against Rebecca's thighs, and tilted her head back so that her lover could work the lather through her hair. As strong fingers massaged her scalp, she groaned, "God, that's criminally good."
"You look criminally good," Rebecca murmured, leaning forward until her breasts pressed into Catherine's back and her pelvis moved against Catherine's rear. For the first time in hours, she realized that she wasn't thinking about anything at all-anything beyond how the faint brush of her nipples over Catherine's skin started a pulse thudding between her legs. She moved her soapy hands from her lover's hair and slid her palms over the tops of Catherine's shoulders, then down her arms. "I love you."
Catherine closed her eyes, aware of the tingling wherever Rebecca had touched. Reaching for those clever hands, she drew them to her breasts, gasping as willing fingers closed over her nipples. "Oh, God."
Rebecca braced her back against the wall, cradling Catherine in her arms, still back to front--working her nipples, massaging her breasts, brushing her fingers lightly down her belly and then back up again. "You make me so hot," she whispered, her lips close to Catherine's ear. "You make me wet just thinking about touching you."
"Don't just ... think," Catherine replied, her legs shaking. "Touch." Reaching behind herself with one hand, she insinuated it between their bodies, working her palm down Rebecca's abdomen, feeling muscles tighten under her caress. When she reached the space between her lover's thighs, she slid a finger on either side of her clitoris, squeezing steadily until Rebecca groaned against her neck. "Cause I'm way past hot already."
"Careful ... you'll make me come," Rebecca warned, her voice low and tight. Catherine seemed not to hear and continue to milk her length until she jerked against Catherine's hand, a fist of pleasure threatening to burst inside. "Oh fuck ... "
"Uh huh," Catherine gasped, her free hand on Rebecca's wrist, guiding her hand between her own legs. Moaning at the first press of Rebecca's fingers, she turned her head, her teeth catching skin at the base of Rebecca's throat.
As Catherine worked her relentlessly toward orgasm, Rebecca pushed deeper between Catherine's thighs until she was inside her, enclosed by the smooth grip of firm muscles. Then she took her with quick, hard, driving strokes that echoed the blood pounding fiercely through her depths--the fury of her thrusts propelled by Catherine's sharp cries of encouragement. Shuddering, barely breathing, she locked her knees as she came to keep from falling, supporting her lover's body as Catherine stiffened, then convulsed in her arms.
Eventually they managed to finish the shower, both of them quiet. When they stood together naked, toweling off, Catherine said, "What the hell was that?" At Rebecca's quizzical glance, she added, "The last thing I was thinking about when I joined you in there was sex. I wasn't certain after watching that awful video when I would think about it again. Then, I'm practically ready to come the second you touch me."
"Adrenalin," Rebecca replied, reaching for an old pair of gym shorts. Pulling them on, she continued, "It happens after that kind of operation-the fear and the stress come out like that sometimes."
"What did you do when you were unattached?"
"When I was still drinking, I drank. After I quit, I went to the gym. Once in while," she shrugged, grinning sheepishly, "I'd find company."
"Hmm," Catherine mused, slipping into her robe. "See that you come directly here should the occasion arise in the future."
"That was my plan," Rebecca responded, pulling her close.
"What else are you planning ... about ... all of this?" Catherine asked, threading her arms around her waist.
"I'll be back on regular duty in a day or so. I'll have other cases, Clark will pull the plug on this task force ... and I'll keep doing what I'm trained to do until we make this right-for Jeff, for Michael, for those young kids."
"Yes," Catherine murmured, "until justice is done--for all of them."
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